Talking Movies

March 7, 2013

Side Effects

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Steven Soderbergh reunites with Channing Tatum for a more serious film than Magic Mike, as Rooney Mara takes an  experimental drug for depression and unravels…

Emily (Mara) is depressed. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is coming to  the end of his 5 year sentence for insider trading, and she’s very nervous about  him coming home to a small apartment in Manhattan that is a substantial step  down in the world from the privileged Connecticut life they once led. After she  deliberately drives her car into a wall Martin insists that she seek therapy  from English psychiatrist Dr Banks (Jude Law). But little seems to help until an  office co-worker suggests she take a new experimental drug. Banks reluctantly  prescribes it but soon Emily’s behaviour becomes wildly erratic, leading to a  tragic accident. As her previous psychiatrist Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones)  shifts all blame for Emily’s actions onto Banks, he finds himself trapped in a  Kafkaesuqe legal nightmare alongside Emily as the justice system looks for  scapegoats.

Soderbergh’s regular screenwriter Scott Z  Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) grounds this nightmarish drama  in well researched reality. Some of the most chilling scenes involve not Emily’s  hallucinations but the insidious cosy relationship between doctors and Big  Pharma, and the subsequent shafting of Banks by all his colleagues once Emily’s  case makes the tabloids lest it endanger their own lucrative practices. The  obvious comparison for a story like this you’d think is Douglas Sirk’s Bigger than Life but in fact it’s impossible  to guess where Burns’ script will go next, one moment it feels like The Crucible as the legal net catches the  blameless Dr Banks, and the next it feels closer to a Henri Georges Clouzot  suspense thriller. If you’re not conscious then you can’t have intent – but can  you be programmed by others? This question makes Banks increasingly  paranoid.

Law, following an unexpectedly revelatory  turn in Anna Karenina, is very  sympathetic as the good man caught inside an inexorably tightening legal vice  and being abandoned by his friends and his shrill wife (Vinessa Shaw) as he  tries to prove his innocence. Tatum oddly seems to be wearing Magic Mike outfits at times, and is involved  in dodgy deals in the South again, but he makes Martin a very caring  white-collar criminal. Zeta-Jones fares less well, looking positively sepulchral  in a cold role, while Thomas Newman, composing well outside his comfort zone, is  equally unimpressive. But this film belongs to the sensational Rooney Mara. She  is utterly compelling thru all plot twists and medicated character changes, and  remains an utter chameleon: she can resemble physically and persona-wise Tom  Hiddleston or Sam Rockwell depending on what the scene needs from her.

Side Effects tackles serious matters  of depression, medication culture, and legal chicanery, and does so with  compelling tension; yes, there are quibbles, but this is Soderbergh near his  best.

3.5/5

Parker

Parker

Jason Statham stretches his acting muscles again, but unlike last year’s  underwhelming Safe, Parker comes with a writer and director of  pretty high calibre attached.

Statham is (you’ve guessed it) Parker, who we first meet disguised as a  priest to execute a heist at the Ohio State Fair. The disguise, amusingly  enough, isn’t entirely outrageous – as Parker reveals his inviolable ethical  code: “I only steal from those who can afford it, and I only hurt people who  deserve it.” Unfortunately his father-in-law Hurley (Nick Nolte) has lumbered  him with some unethical thieves (Michael Chiklis, Clifford Collins Jr, Wendell  Pierce) who leave Parker for dead on a roadside. Parker survives and tracks them  to Florida, where he uses struggling realtor Leslie (Jennifer Lopez) to pinpoint  their location, and, in an unlikely alliance, identify their next heist. But can  Parker focus on stealing the haul and killing his betrayers when Chicago mob  boss Danziger has unleashed an assassin to eliminate both Parker and his wife  (Emma Booth)?

This is based on the Parker novel Flash Fire by Richard Stark aka Donald  Westlake, which makes you wonder (given Point  Blank) if he only had one plot:  Parker, left for dead, survives, seeks revenge. It’s a good plot, and Black Swan and Carnivale scribe John McLaughlin renders it  the kind of entertaining crime popcorn Hollywood’s fallen out of doing. Unlike  the last Stark flick Payback the  plentiful violence here isn’t sadistic; indeed the scene you’ll wincingly  remember is stunningly masochistic. The State is notably endearing as he beats  people up, is nice to dogs, and delivers the immortal threat of an agonising  death by crushing a man’s trachea with a chair with the kicker – “Plus there’s  the posthumous humiliation of having been killed by a chair.” Indeed, like Ocean’s 11, when J-Lo makes her belated  entrance it’s slightly unnecessary.

Not to imply that J-Lo’s role,  comic relief with realistic tragic undertones, is redundant; but by that point  it is extra icing on the cake director Taylor Hackford has made. Hackford uses  Palm Beach locations wonderfully as Parker realises crime cannot flourish on an  island with drawbridges, and he stages a recriminating conversation between  Parker and Hurley as dramatically as the beach argument in Rampart. The many fights are brutal enough to  keep State fans happy, and the increasing paranoia of Chiklis’ gang-leader  Melander is well justified as Parker infiltrates his preparations for a massive  diamond heist. The ice is to be fenced by Danziger’s moronic nephew Hardwicke  (Micah Hauptman, who memorably cameoed as ‘Kripke’ in Ben Edlund’s meta-madness Supernatural episode), which is why a  terrifying assassin (Matrix Reloaded  Agent Daniel Bernhardt) is hunting Parker with brutally violent grim  efficiency.

Is Parker an avenging Angel of the Lord as suggested? He certainly seems  indestructible, albeit far from invulnerable, and Parker is another fun Statham franchise that  deserves further outings.

3/5

Robot and Frank

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Frank Langella and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard as his personal robot make  for a most unlikely criminal duo in this compact caper movie set in the quite  near future.

Frank Langella plays Frank (how that naming decision must have taxed the  makers), a retired cat-burglar shambling forgetfully around a small town in  upstate New York. Concerned that Frank’s visits to a long closed restaurant for  his meals are getting too frequent his son Hunter (James Marsden) foists upon  him a personal robot (Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to attend to his healthcare  needs. Robot will cook Frank proper meals at regular intervals, harass him into  taking his medicines when he should, and force him to start gardening to sharpen  his memory skills. Frank pleads with his technophobic daughter Madison (Liv  Tyler) to get rid of the android, until he realises that Robot can be cajoled  into breaking locks. And his beloved local library just happens to have  something worth stealing for librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) before the  books are shipped out…

Robot and Frank is a deeply odd  movie. It is at heart a caper flick. And like all capers there’s a lot of fun to  be had in preparing for the heist, plotting it out, dealing with the unforeseen  disasters that occur, and playing bluff with the long arm of the law. Jeremy  Strong is sensationally obnoxious as the patronising yuppie Jake, intent on  replacing the library with a hipster hangout because printed material is  obsolete. Jeremy Sisto is also good value as the sheriff who half suspects Frank  is up to his old tricks, but mostly is just harassing him to placate the rich  Jake. Peter Sarsgaard is obviously enjoying himself as the robot given to  ineffectually shouting “Warning –do not molest me!” at strangers who poke at  him, but this movie is really all about Langella’s disquieting lead.

Can you address a topic as serious as dementia in the middle of an amusing  crime caper? I don’t think so. Frank’s memory noticeably improves as he plots  his heist with Robot, but that feels a bit off. This is a future with technology  not too far advanced from ours, bar the (child in a space-suit) titular robot,  but the sci-fi leaves little trace on your memory compared to how a casual line  of dialogue turns out to have a devastating relevance later. As the children  dealing with their ailing father Marsden is thoroughly underused and made  needlessly unsympathetic, while Tyler is given more screen-time but her  character’s motivations are not probed as searchingly they cried out to be.  Sarandon brings far more charm to this role than last week’s Arbitrage, but this part is even more of a  cipher.

Robot and Frank is amusing, but it  feels like a film about dementia had a sci-fi heist written around it to secure  it financing.

3/5

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