Synopsis: From January to December 2013, hundreds of movies opened on our screens. We saw everything from American Hustle to Zero Charisma, from the ridiculous — 30 Nights of Paranormal Activity with the Devil Inside the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — to the sublime — 12 Years a Slave. The Reel Guys watched a lot of bad movies this year so you don’t have to and saw many great ones to recommend. But some of the good flicks slipped by without finding an audience. This week they revisit some movies you may have missed but should take a look at.
Richard: Mark, Pain and Gain seemed to me like it couldn’t lose. Starring Dwayne Johnson, who was recently named 2013’s biggest money-making star, Mark Wahlberg and directed by Michael “big bucks” Bay, it was the funny-but-true story about a trio of greedy dumb criminals who kidnap a rich guy. It plays like an episode of CSI: Miami performed by the Three Stooges and should have done boffo box office, but for some reason it didn’t. What did you like that slipped through the cracks?
Mark: I loved Pain and Gain, and if anyone told me one of the best movies of the year would be directed by schlockmeister Michael Bay, I would take it as a sign of the upcoming apocalypse. Another overlooked gem to me was Trance, Danny Boyle’s genre buster. Is it about an art heist? Mind control? Sexual obsession? Revenge? Best to ask James McAvoy and Rosario Dawson, both in fine form, and in the case of Dawson, I do mean — ahem — fine form.
RC: Also in fine form were the giant robots and sea monsters in Pacific Rim. I know they always say about Hollywood that “nobody knows anything,” that you never know what will be a hit, but I thought the combo of Guillermo Del Toro, colossal sea beasts with an appetite for destruction and humungous rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots was a winner. It’s a supersize geek freak out that transports you back in time to wherever you were when you were lucky enough to see your first Godzilla movie.
MB: Sorry, Richard, to me, actual rock-em, sock-em robots are more interesting, and are better actors. Another undiscovered gem for me was Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’s Hitchcockian mindbender from early winter. Starting off as a condemnation of the pharmaceutical industry, it turns a lot of corners and becomes a thrilling cerebral murder mystery. And Jude Law, no longer acting with his looks, is magnificent.
RC: Warm Bodies was essentially one joke — the zombie as a metaphor for awkward teenage love — but it’s a pretty good one and well performed. Too bad more people didn’t see it. The movie doesn’t exactly make sense, particularly if you’re a zombie fan of either the Romero or Walking Dead schools, but no matter how fast and loose it plays with the established mythology of the undead it’s still a new twist on an old form.
MB: Warm Bodies reminded me of Ricky Gervais’ Ghost Town in mood and had the same limitations of premise. A foreign film I thought was brilliant was China’s A Touch Of Sin, which interwove four stories Pulp-Fiction style about the new economy in China and its victims, often ending in sad violent episodes. Brilliant Richard.
Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar winning director of “Traffic” and nominee for “Erin Brockovich” is one of the most versatile filmmakers working today. From the art house pleasures of “Che: Parts 1 & 2” to the blockbuster business he did with “Ocean’s 11, 12 & 13” to the introspection of “The Girlfriend Experience,” he’s a master of all genres.
Add to that list “Side Effects,” a new pharmaceutical thriller starring Rooney Mara and Jude Law, which brings the immaculate filmmaking of the above mentioned titles to a potboiler plot that feels like its been sitting on Soderbergh’s to-do list since 1985.
When we first meet Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) it’s just days before her husband (Channing Tatum) is to be released from a four-year-prison stint for insider trading. Their life is about to go back to normal, but it soon becomes clear that Emily is troubled. A suicide attempt brings her to the attention of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). She tells him of her lifelong struggle with depression—“a poisonous fog bank that rolls over her mind”—and he prescribes a new drug to help her find equilibrium.
“It doesn’t make you anything you aren’t,” he tells her. “It just makes it easier to be yourself.”
The side effects of the drug, however, include nausea and vomiting, allergic reactions, drowsiness, sleepwalking and criminal behavior. Emily’s erratic conduct while on the drug not only turns her life upside down, but Dr. Banks’s as well.
Saying any more than that would take some of the pleasure away from letting the plot unfold. Besides, detailing the ins-and-outs of the twisty-turny script by Scott Z. Burns would take up the rest of the space I have allotted for this review. You can’t accuse Soderbergh of scrimping on dramatic plot developments, but is it too much?
It all feels very much like the thrillers that used to pack ‘em in at the local bijou in the mid-eighties. Movies like “Jagged Edge” that featured unpredictable plots and elaborate confession montages.
So while it is true that Soderbergh can’t be faulted for not including enough texture in the story, it must also be noted that layers for the sake of layers isn’t always a good thing. The story, which could have been an interesting comment on a broken medical system, or professional misconduct, instead becomes unnecessarily cluttered.
The performances, howevre, are uniformly great. Quick! Somebody buy Mara some Gatorade because she sheds a river of tears—no, make that an ocean—in a performance that is understated but chillingly effective.
Law is terrific as a man whose life is almost torn apart. Luckily he’s left the horrible fake teeth of “Contagion,” his last outing with Soderbergh, at home, replacing them with serious chops playing a man racked with paranoia and anger.
“Side Effects” is a confounding movie because it is beautifully made. Soderbergh strings us along so well in the first hour only to allow the melodrama to win out in the last reel.