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Cold Mountain – Review

3 Sep

Civil War movies fascinate me because I’ve always seemed to gravitate towards World War II films so I feel like I’ve missed out a little bit. It’s a really intriguing era with a lot of potential for some exceptional production design with how America looked and functioned in this mid 19th century time. In 1997, a novel called Cold Mountain was released having been written by Charles Frazier. It went on to win the National Book Award, but I don’t really hear too much more about it. In 2003, it was adapted for the big screen by acclaimed film maker Anthony Minghella, who before this won the Academy Award for his directing of The English Patient. I had some reservations going into Cold Mountain, but it actually surprised me. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a solid Civil War epic that deserves some attention.

With the South talking of seceding from the North, tensions in the small North Carolina town of Cold Mountain are high. Many people want the war to happen, but the new town preacher, Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland), and his daughter, Ada (Nicole Kidman) are staunchly against it. Amongst these talks of war, Ada finds peace with a local man she meets named WP Inman (Jude Law), and the two quickly fall for each other. Before anything can be done with their feelings, North Carolina secedes from the Union and most of the men of the town enlist to the Confederate Army, including Inman. As the years of the war drag on and hope for the South seems bleak, Ada struggles to survive in the town and only gets by with the help of a local woman (Kathy Baker) and her new tough talking friend, Ruby (Renée Zelwegger). Meanwhile, Inman is injured in a battle and after receiving a letter from Ada decides to desert and make the long journey home to Cold Mountain. Along the way, Inman sees all sorts of kinds which gives him a perspective of what he’s been fighting for and how the war has torn apart so many lives.

That was a pretty tough summary to write because there’s so much that happens in Cold Mountain. It’s a long movie that clocks over two and a half hours, which was actually one of my main worries. I’m all about watching a long movie that has a grand scope, but I’ve seen some recently that don’t really know what to do with a story of that magnitude. Luckily, this isn’t Minghella’s first rodeo and he knows just how to handle a story like this. I left out a lot of characters and subplots, because there’s no way I’d be able to fit it all in to one paragraph. This is truly an epic film and it’s one that works. Inman’s travels through the different regions is extremely entertaining because he sees so many different kinds of people. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a reverend who gets banished from his town for getting a slave woman pregnant, Giovanni Ribisi plays a man who is using the war to his advantage in treacherous ways, and Natalie Portman is a woman who’s lost nearly everything. It’s a journey that has layers and is at times heartbreaking, touching, and hilarious. This may sound cheesy, but it really felt like an adventure.

While this adventure through the crumbling South, Ada’s own personal adventure in Cold Mountain is just as interesting. It’s a town in utter despair with the casualties of war posted on a board in the middle of town. The town seems to be dying just like the men that went off to fight, and watching it happen can prove for some rough viewing. The Civil War has always been seen as a war where Americans killed their fellow men, and that macrocosmic idea is taken to just one town where the violence of the war bleeds into this area that hasn’t seen any actual battle. It’s a different kind of struggle for survival and even though it isn’t as epic a journey as Inman, it never bored me. This is another surprising thing about this movie. It’s nearly 3 hours but I was never bored.

This is a huge cast so forgive me if I can’t get to everyone. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman both do very good work in this movie and their chemistry is believable even though the amount of screen time they share compared to how long the movie is is very small. A lot of the minor characters really steal the show however. Both Hoffman and Portman are two that really stand out, but I also have to give credit to Brendan Gleeson and Jack White, of all people. The real stand out performance, however, is Renée Zelwegger, who won the Academy Award for her performance, and rightfully so. The only thing that doesn’t always work for me in this movie is the writing. It gets a little too theatrical in moments that require some down to earth dialogue. It’s a very melodramatic movie at times and sometimes it works, but sometimes I found myself cringing.

Cold Mountain was a surprisingly affective movie that I don’t hear too much about. It has an incredible cast that are part of a really entertaining, but sometimes difficult story about how war can tear a nation to shreds. The only thing that didn’t sit well with me was some of the melodramatic writing that just felt forced and was probably only necessary so they’d have a clip for the Oscars. Still, that is a minor issue that doesn’t hurt the movie to bad. It’s an epic adventure that has all the ingredients for a memorable film.

Final Grade: A-

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – Review

15 May

Guy Ritchie is one of my favorite film makers of all time, and more often than not I envy the skill that he has when it comes to crafting an entertaining film. Snatch is quite possibly my favorite movie, but there’s so much else to love in his filmography. His newest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is not somewhere that I expected his career to go, but I learned he was making this movie close to a year and a half ago, and I’ve been excited ever since. That puts a lot of pressure on this movie with all that time to build up my expectations, and when I do that, it hurts all the more when they come crashing down. Well, I really can’t say I’m disappointed at all. This movie is no masterpiece, nor is it Ritchie’s crowning achievement. What it is, however, is a classic myth seen through the eyes of Guy Ritchie, which means there’s plenty of action, frenetic camera work and editing, and a tongue in cheek bad attitude that makes for some fun beginning of the summer blockbuster season entertainment.

After defeating the evil warlock Mordred from invading Camelot, King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is betrayed by his brother, Vortigen (Jude Law), who starts a rebellion and soon wins the throne. The only Pendragon survivor is a young Arthur who grows up on the streets of Londinium unaware of his true lineage. When Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) has grown, the mysterious sword in the stone, Excalibur, is reappears which causes alarm to Vortigen, since whoever removes the sword is the true king. Vortigen soon weeds out Arthur, but Arthur is quickly saved from execution by Sir Bedivere (Djimon Honsou), Goosefat (Aiden Gillen), and a Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey). Together with these disgraced knights and servants of Uther, Arthur joins the rebellion against Vortigen, but must also learn how to wield the power of Excalibur to even come close to standing a chance against the magically corrupted evil king and his army.

It seems that Guy Ritchie has comfortably taken on the task of being the film maker that takes classic stories and reworks them into modern, brawling stories filled with action and absurd moments of cinematic trickery. He did it with Sherlock Holmes and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and now he’s done it with Arthurian legends. This isn’t the classic King Arthur you’ve come to know through the various stories and movies and television shows. This Arthur is a streetwise brawler with a strong sense of morality, and not so much a regal leader riding into battle with his knights in shining armor. I can’t proclaim to know much about Arthurian legend, but I’m comfortable saying this is a very different retelling. I, personally, love this direction and would love to see more of these legends brought to life by Ritchie.

Part of why I love Ritchie’s work so much is the high energy he always brings to his movies, and that’s where King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is unfortunately lacking. While his other movies show crazy displays of editing and directing in many different ways, this one felt a little bit tamer. The montage of Arthur growing up set the stage very well and the few scenes after that kept the energy going, but as the world building set in, so did the slow down in the energy. The only time it really picked up again, other than a few noteworthy shots, is whenever Arthur successfully wielded Excalibur. Now, when those scenes happen, I was floored. It’s cinematic wizardry that can be explained through computer generated effects, but what’s impressive is Ritchie’s eye for movement and how he choreographed and laid out these scenes. I just wish more of the action could have had the same visual flair as those Excalibur scenes. There also wasn’t the energy in the writing either. There were funny quips and rough and tough attitude, but there weren’t any lines that really stand out as being memorable and a lot of the dialogue was pretty run of the mill.

I never thought I’d say this, but Charlie Hunnam was a perfect choice to play Arthur. I love imagining scenarios where certain things are turned into movies, and who I would cast in it, and I never would have thought of Hunnam for Arthur. Fortunately, I was wrong. Now, I will say I’m not sure how well he’d work in a more classic representation of the character, but for this tough talking Arthur, he was spot on. I also have to give props to Jude Law as Vortigen. He has this way of portraying scumbag villains really well, with a shining example being his role in Road to Perdition. In this film, however, he becomes worse as the movie continues, and while humanity can be seen in him at times, he truly is an evil bastard in this movie, and it’s so much fun to hate his guts. The rest of the cast is good, with Honsou also standing out as Bedivere, but the real memorable performances are by Hunnam and Law.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not a perfect movie, and it’s flaws become very clear as the movie goes on. It has some lackluster dialogue and doesn’t quite match the energy of Ritchie’s other films. That being said, when it does decide to pick up, it nearly explodes off the screen. This take of King Arthur is admittedly different from the classic legends, but the differences make it feel fresh. This may not be a movie that should be analyzed or thought about too heavily, but it is a really great way to spend a couple of hours and stands strong as an entertaining summer blockbuster.

Final Grade: B

The Aviator – Review

5 Jan

Making a movie about the life of Howard Hughes, one of the most eccentric and brilliant figures in American history, wouldn’t be an easy task because of how much he actually did. Leave it to Martin Scorsese to, not only attempt, but succeed and bringing this larger than life figure to silver screen with The Aviator. Combining a story about film and aviation history and mental disease, this is an epic and hugely impressive biopic that captures the essence of film almost perfectly.

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As the sole heir to the Hughes Tool Company, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a lot of extra cash to throw around, and ends up using it to create on of the first truly epic films, Hell’s Angels, after years of production. While living a life in Hollywood and beginning a relationship with the likes of Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Hughes isn’t one to forget his true passion: aviation. Soon, Hughes becomes involved with government plans to build many different types of aircraft that will become essential in World War II. Meanwhile, Hughes has his own plan to create the Hercules (aka the Spruce Goose), the largest plane ever created, but only after he can control his deepening paranoia and OCD.

The Aviator begins with what can only be described as a film buff’s dream come true. The first part of the movie shows Howard Hughes almost killing himself and going bankrupt in order to complete Hell’s Angels. Along the way, though, we get to see him interact with some major stars of the time. We get to see Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, and later on Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner. This isn’t my favorite part of the movie, but it’s easy to see how much fun Martin Scorsese is having with the material, the likes of which he would prove his loyalty to in Hugo some years later. It was a wild time in Hollywood and it’s done so well in this movie. Cate Blanchett especially is note perfect as Katharine Hepburn.

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After the story moves past Hughes’ work in Hollywood, it moves onto his career in engineering airplanes for the military. While this is still a very interesting part, it begins to get a little confusing. One of the big problems is that there’s a point in the movie where it doesn’t say what year it is. This is all happening during the days of World War II, so depending on what year it is is important to what Howard the government are doing. Since I didn’t know what year it was, it got a little tricky to follow along at some points. Still, I had an understanding of what he was doing and it was still awesome to see the genius at work, building up an empire, even while his world seemed to be crumbling all around him.

The most interesting part of The Aviator to me was the depiction of mental illness. Mental illnesses and genius together is a huge interest of mine, seeing how one affects the other, so it was really interesting seeing a depiction of Hughes’ paranoia and obsessive compulsive disorder take a toll on his life. This is OCD in a way that I’ve never seen depicted before, a dangerous, life altering OCD. It’s almost hard to watch scenes when Hughes forces himself to say certain sentences over and over again or even struggle to get out of a bathroom in the most germ free way he can. It puts that entire disorder in perspective and how damaging it can really be.

It’s not surprising that The Aviator turned out as great as it did. With Scorsese and his cast of actors along with an amazing human being as the subject, it has all of the ingredients for an interesting and entertaining movie, even clocking in at 3 hours. There’s a lot of history in this movie, and it may not be told in the most coherent of ways at times, but most of this ride is really something memorable. It celebrates history, achievement, and Howard Hughes himself.

Road to Perdition – Review

22 Dec

When I say that I’ve been wanting to watch this movie for about ten years, I really have been wanting to watch this movie for ten years. It’s not like anything really stood in my way, more so that I just never got around to actually watching  it. But no more! After Sam Mendes took home the Academy Award for his debut film, American Beauty, he was approached with a script based off a graphic novel by Michael Allan Collins. The result is Road to Perdition, a wonderfully acted, designed, and all around fantastic movie that may never be a classic, but still should be recognized as something great.

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Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) is a 12 year old boy who looks up to has father, but isn’t really sure of what he does. In reality his father is a notorious mob enforcer, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), who works for Irish mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman). When Michael sees his father unwillingly help in a murder committed by John’s son Connor (Daniel Craig), the older Michael has to take him on the run after his wife and other son are killed to keep the secret from getting out. As the two Sullivans begin robbing banks to support themselves, John Rooney hires hitman and photographer Harlen Maguire (Jude Law)to hunt them down and silence them once and for all.

Having wanted to see this movie for years, there was a lot of pressure because if I didn’t like it than, shit, that would’ve been a waste of lots of excitement and anticipation. After finally seeing Road to Perdition, there is nothing I need to complain about. It was a really great movie, but there’s something about it that really stops it from achieving a status as a classic. My theory is that it isn’t quite as large or sweeping as The GodfatherScarface, or even Boardwalk Empire. People, including me, love huge movies and Road to Perdition is the quiet, smart kid who sits in the back of the room and only gets attention from people who know what he’s capable of.

 

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What Sam Mendes succeeds at doing is creating a uniquely small, yet hard hitting story about the relationship between a father and son. There’s plenty of gunplay and mobster violence to be had in this movie, but a lot of it occurs offscreen because that isn’t the focus of the movie. Instead, much of what we see is through the eyes of a 12 year old. The older Sullivan is seen as a mysterious figure, always shot from afar, but he soon becomes much clearer and human and is shot with more close ups. Small things like this make the story much more potent and is also just a sign of the talents that Mendes and the late, great cinematographer Conrad L. Hall have and had. Hall especially makes great use of light, lighting every scene as if it were an Edward Hopper painting.

Finally, the cast of actors are all top notch. Hanks carries his role and is pretty much the actor to play these types of roles. Newman gives one of his last great performances as the tragic “villain” while Jude Law hams it up perfectly as the rat like photographer/hitman. Credit also has to be given to Tyler Hoechlin who gives a fine performance, despite his age. This is not an easy role for a kid to take on, but he handles it with the maturity and sincerity of a professional.

Road to Perdition is one of the most underrated movies that has come out within the last 10 to 20 years. It has a superbly quiet, yet startlingly violent story to tell about a strained relationship between a father and son. Paul Newman and Conrad Hall both do fine jobs in this film being so late in their careers, while Hanks, Law, and Hoechlin carry their own weight on the screen as well. This may not be as epic as other mobster films or shows, but it has a story that packs one hell of a dramatic punch and also works as a brilliant form of artistic expression. This is a great film, and highly underappreciated.

Hugo – Review

6 Jun

Martin Scorsese has become one of the key names of American film making, and throughout his career which has spanned over 40 years, he has created some of the most well loved films in modern film history. Of course, most of these films’ content are not too appropriate for people under a certain age or with weak hearts, so it came as a surprise that he would be directing Hugo, a film based off of Brian Selznick’s kid’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Well it turns out that my surprise was completely unfounded as the film went on to receive 11 Academy Award nominations and win 5. I’ve finally gotten around to seeing this movie and it has not only reminded me why I love movies so much in the first place, it touched me to the core with a story that went a lot deeper than I ever expected.

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Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy who lives in the walls and clock tower of the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris. Before this, he was a clockmaker with his father (Jude Law), but tragedy takes his father away and forces him to work with his uncle (Ray Winstone) at the train station. His uncle soon disappears leaving him alone to collect different tools and gears to finish fixing an automaton that his father found soon before he was killed. Hugo is caught stealing pieces from a bitter toy maker named Georges (Ben Kingsley) who threatens to turn him over to the station inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen), who prides himself in rounding up stray kids and sending them to the orphanage. Hugo enlists the help of Georges’ god daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and the two kids not only discover the secrets of the mysterious automaton, but also uncover the past of Georges, a past he tried to bury and forget.

It’s hard to give the plot synopsis of Hugo because I’m just so excited about it, but I don’t want to ruin anything for people who haven’t seen it yet. What I can say is that this was not what I expected from this movie. I knew that I was going to really like it and give it a good review, but I wasn’t expecting on completely falling in love with it. This movie could never have worked the way it did if it had any other name attached to it besides Martin Scorsese, and if you really think about it, this makes perfect sense. Martin Scorsese has made it his life’s work to not only make great movies, but also to restore and save movies that have been lost or damaged. This is a man who loves cinema, and Hugo is a movie about his personal love and admiration for the cinematic art and magic.

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Out of the 11 Academy Awards this film was nominated for, it took away 5. While I feel like it could’ve won any of the awards it was nominated for, the ones it did win were for it’s sound, art direction, and cinematography. The visual and auditory aesthetics of this movie are out of this world. The first scene alone which starts in the Parisian sky then travels through the train station took an entire year to design, animate, and render all of the thousands of frames just in that opening seconds of the film. Particles of dust wander throughout the frames and light shines through the windows of the train station making it all seem like a wonderful dream you never want to wake up from. This is a beautiful movie to look at and listen to.

Why this movie is so special to me, however, is because it is an ode to films that helped lay the foundation for films that would lay the foundation for movies we see today. There are clips of Harold Lloyd hanging high above the crowded city streets in Safety Last!, haunting images of the silent horror masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and constant references to a science fiction film that seemed way ahead of its time in 1902, A Trip to the Moon. Even Sacha Baron Cohen’s character is a tribute to the slapstick comedy of Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton. There is so much a film buff can find in this movie and wonder at.

Hugo very well may be Martin Scorsese’s most personal film to date, but also a film that many years from now will be regarded as a classic. There’s so much to love about this movie, from the references to old movies to the relationships formed between all of the characters. You don’t have to be a complete cinephile (like me) to enjoy and appreciate this movie, although if you are you may get a little something extra out of it. To summarize exactly how I feel about this movie, Hugo is a film about the magic of cinema and the feelings you experience when you are completely lost in one. It is a reminder that movies aren’t just cheap entertainment, but to some very lucky people, a way to immerse yourself in a world unknown and experience imagination that you may never find in normal life. Hugo is that magic.

Gattaca – Review

12 Mar

Science is evolving at an alarming rate leaving humanity and our moral standings in the dust. Science doesn’t care about right and wrong, but people do, and that means developments that could be made aren’t. The ethical questions around cloning and stem cell research are interesting and have plausible arguments on both sides. As a science fiction movie, Gattaca shows a world that very well may exist in our not too distant future, and it’s up to you to decide if it’s utopian or dystopian.

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In the future, humanity has figured out a way to genetically modify children before they are even physically conceived. This has created a world full of superior humans who can easily climb their way to the top of any organization or lead any sort of life that they desire. This isn’t true for Vincent (Ethan Hawke), who was born before this scientific discovery with heart problems and the possible growth of mental disorders. Although he is brilliant, these health issues render him inferior in society and completely destroy his goal of traveling to space. He illegally “borrows” the genes of failed swimmer Jerome Morrow (Jude Law). Under the guise of Morrow’s genes, Vincent is finally able to enter the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation and is eventually chosen to travel to the moon of Titan. When a murder is committed at Gattaca, Vincent’s cover risks being blown leaving him dodging the police and obsessively covering his tracks.

This film plays out like an old science fiction novel or short story. The science is never overwhelming or extravagant, but instead feels like it could really happen. There’s plenty to think about after watching Gattaca, especially with the knowledge that we are probably very close to this. Unlike most science fiction films, this feels like more of a drama than anything else. Sure, there is a murder investigation which causes some thrilling and suspenseful scenes, but it’s never really the main point of the story. This leaves the movie feeling uneven at times, especially since the murder investigation takes some interesting twists that aren’t really played up enough. I felt like Andrew Niccol, the writer and director, didn’t know if he wanted to make a thriller or a drama, which creates this weird hybrid.

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I feel like the main idea behind the whole plot is to force the viewers to stop and examine where technology is taking us. The movie needs a story, and it is certainly there, but I was a lot more interested in the setting than anything else. The way this film handles the idea of advancements in technology is a lot different than many science fiction films. I feel like the point of science fiction is to warn us about what we are creating for ourselves. Gattaca can be compared to the film Moon, in my opinion. Like in MoonGattaca doesn’t try to bombard the viewer with awesome special effects and cool looking technology, but paints a picture of how humanity has ultimately failed.

Getting away from the thematic area, I should mention some of the more concrete aspects of the film. Jude Law and Alan Arkin give great performances, with Law proving again how deep he is willing to fall into a character. Uma Thurman is ok, and I was really unimpressed by Ethan Hawke, especially his voice overs which sounded like he was reading right from the script rather than his character directly explaining the story to us. What’s really nice is the production design. The sets all look really nice and very appropriate for the “not too distant” future that is being presented. Niccol and his crew knew the limitations of the technology and never tried to bite more than they could chew with the special effects. It’s a very nice looking movie.

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There is this one awesome scene where Jude Law’s crippled character, Jerome, has to quickly climb this large spiral staircase. This staircase looks a lot like a double helix of DNA, which Jerome has to conquer. That, in a nutshell, is the point of this movie. Humanity should set it’s own goals and not rely on what they are told they can and can not do. This is also a warning. Technology is great, but there are consequences to everything we create or discover. Gattaca isn’t a fantastic movie, but it is quite good. By the end, I was ready for it to be over, but I did enjoy the glimpse into a possible future.

Side Effects – Review

18 Feb

Steven Soderbergh is one of those film makers that seems to have the ability to dabble in any genre imaginable. His filmography is extensive and seems to be painted in broad strokes. His latest film, and supposedly his last film he will be releasing for theaters, is Side Effects. As a theatrical swan song, I don’t think there is a movie that could be more appropriate to best represent his diverse skills.

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When Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara) husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison after serving four years for insider trading, it is assumed that life will go on for the couple as it did before his incarceration. Not so. Emily finds herself depressed to the point of attempting suicide on multiple occasions. She meets with psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who after consulting her past therapist, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), prescribes Emily with a new experimental drug, Ablixa. The drug appears to be working until its side effects tear Emily’s life to shreds. Blame is soon put on Jonathan, who suspects there is more going on with Emily than meets the eye.

About 2/3’s of the reviews that I have read for Side Effects, good or bad, have split the movie up into two separate parts. The first part involves Emily’s struggle with her depression and the prescribing of different drugs until the Ablixa drug is brought to light. This is a very interesting look into the debilitating effects of depression and a filmic debate over the necessity and morality behind prescription drugs. The second half is Jude Law’s show. During this time we see the fall of his character and his attempts to climb out of the mire. The theme of prescription drugs stays strong for this half, but the concrete finger pointing of the companies behind them make this half engaging.

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While four people are shown on the poster, the two main players are Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Both give two of their finest performances. Jude Law, who has recently become one of my favorite actors, gives a very convincing performance that has its moments of subtlety and explosive anger. Mara has proved herself in her career making role as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but shows once again why she should be one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood. Zeta-Jones’ character is unfortunately wasted and has only one or two brief scenes that stand out. Finally, Channing Tatum is considered to be a joke of an actor to many, but I give him credit. Give him the right director and the right script, Tatum is actually a pretty good actor. He’s not great, but talent is definitely evident. He just needs to start going after more mature movies.

This film screams Soderbergh. The screenplay written by Scott Z. Burns, who has collaborated with Soderbergh for The Informant! and Contagion, brings a great layer of drama, crime, and corporate thrills that would make Hitchcock proud. Visually, Side Effects looks great. The use of low angles and depth of field tricks definitely visualizes the mental state of depression. I’ve heard aesthetic comparisons of this film to that of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the most obvious being the very opening shot, which I consider to be a direct homage.

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I really hope that this isn’t Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical release. The film world would be losing a powerhouse film maker that it can’t really afford to go without. He has provided many smart films with different societal messages that can be taken seriously or darkly comic. If this is his last, Side Effects is a great film to go out on. It’s condemnation of big companies, suspicion against legality of drugs, and the interest in different states of mind define his career and proves this film to be one of his bests.