Tag Archives: B+

SIDE EFFECTS

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B+

It begins as a sort of cable-ready message movie about the dangers of modern drug-based medicine, but morphs into a clever thriller with so many twists that you’ll probably stop counting. That’s why Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” is so hard to review but so easy to recommend.

After a brief shot of a scene of domestic disorder, Scott Z. Burns’s script flashes back to the release of Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) from prison after serving a four-year term for insider-stock trading. He’s met by his mother (Ann Dowd) and wife Emily (Rooney Mara), both of whom greet him warmly. But of course his return to a normal life isn’t easy. Martin has trouble finding a position in his old financial stomping grounds, and to make matters worse, Emily suffers from bouts of depression, and during one episode she crashes her car into a parking-garage wall.

Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a sympathetic emergency-room physician, who suspects that she was trying to commit suicide and puts her on a series of antidepressants, including some that are part of a test program he’s getting paid to conduct on his patients. The side effects of the medication are considerable, however, and one of them takes a violent turn that even the most hardened viewer will find a visceral shock.

It wouldn’t be fair to spoil the picture by following the plot any further than this. Suffice it to say that what happens brings Banks under a cloud of suspicion of malpractice and leads him to track down Emily’s former therapist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who like him is involved in drug-testing trials. It’s his investigation of Emily’s past that leads to a series of revelations that take the narrative into increasingly dark directions. Twist follows twist, right up to a satisfying one at the close.

Soderbergh and Burns—who previously teamed up on both “The Informant!” and “Contagion”—manage to juggle the many strands of the labyrinthine plot with a mastery that actually recalls Hitchcock. To be sure, there are elements that you might wonder about in retrospect—why did Emily act as she does at the pivotal moment, for example, given what we know about her state of mind at the time when the denouement rolls around? But thrillers of this sort are bound to have a loose end or two, and what’s important is that it works beautifully as you’re watching it. Just be happy to be hooked for the duration and leave the nitpicking for later.

That injunction is easy to follow because Soderbergh, as usual acting as his own cameraman under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, proves so sneakily effective at sly misdirection. Innumerable directors have tried to pull of this sort of thing and failed, making his success all the more impressive. Soderbergh’s been reported as saying this will be his last film—at least for a while—and if that unhappily turns out to be the case, at least he’s going out on a high note.

The director’s intention to take a break may also explain his decision to cast several actors he’s worked with before, but whether or not that’s the case, the choices work. Tatum brings the same agreeably studly heft that served him so well in “Magic Mike” to this film as well, while Law manages to walk a fine balance between coming off as officious and self-absorbed on the one hand and, potentially, a hapless victim on the other; and Zeta-Jones gives Siebert the perfect air of arrogant confidence. Mara, a newcomer to the Soderbergh ranks, matches them with a turn that reflects both Emily’s fragility and her intensity, while Dowd brings genuine emotional heft to the role of a grief-stricken mother. All the lesser roles are handled with similar care, the production design (by Howard Cummings) is unobtrusively on target, Mary Ann Bernard’s editing keeps matters moving crisply while allowing for ample atmosphere, and Thomas Newman’s score is quietly supportive.

There’s a crafty, machine-like structure to “Side Effects” that recalls a picture like Harold Becker’s underrated “Malice” (1993)—which also involved the medical establishment–but Soderbergh’s take is far less glossy and snarky. It’s both grim and enjoyable—two things that might not seem to go together but in this case absolutely do.

WARM BODIES

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B+

At first blush the idea of a zombie version of “Romeo and Juliet” might sound like a terrible idea—okay, does sound like a terrible idea. But Jonathan Levine pulls it off with considerable agility and even sweetness in “Warm Bodies,” aided in no small measure by a winning cast.

Adapting Isaac Marion’s young adult novel, Levine (“The Wackness,” “50/50”) finds precisely the right way to treat the premise, avoiding a point-by-point, slavish translation of Shakespeare into genre-movie terms but retaining enough of the source (the heroine’s name—Julie—though the zombie hero can remember only that his starts with an R, along with a balcony scene) to make its indebtedness cheerily obvious. And the tone he adopts, despite some serious undercurrents (like the character of Julie’s father General Grigio, who’s constructed a non-zombie oasis in the middle of the city and is determined to defend it at all costs), is overall surprisingly light and whimsical. That’s a blissful contrast to the deadly earnestness of the inter-species romance of “Twilight” and its ilk.

Of course, Levine couldn’t sustain the picture’s conceit for long were it not for a cast who can carry it. Nicholas Hoult, a child actor who won plaudits for his work in “About a Boy” (2002) and more recently showed he was making the transition to adult roles well with an excellent supporting turn in “A Single Man,” is extraordinary as R. He’s helped by the amusingly deadpan narration Levine has provided for the character, which Hoult delivers in wry voice-over. But he’s also a nimble physical presence, nailing the zombie gait but, more importantly, sensitively capturing the subtle changes the fellow experiences after meeting Julie (spunky Teresa Palmer).

That happens when the girl leaves her father’s walled compound along with a small band, including her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco), to collect needed medical supplies from the devastated areas occupied by those they call the “Corpses”—both zombie-like types like grunting R and his best buddy M (Rob Corddry), who will eat the brains of the living to enjoy experiencing their memories, and even more downgraded specimens, the skeletal Bonies, who will devour anything with the slightest glimmer of life remaining. When the explorers fall prey to the Corpses, R saves Julie from being eaten after he’s consumed Perry’s brain and takes her to the relative safety of his idiosyncratic abode in a junked airplane that he’s filled with items he’s collected and hoards—like old LPs that he plays for his houseguest (with the songs providing amusing counterpoint to the action).

That includes R’s increasing recovery of his humanity in light of the feeling he has for Julie—which includes a growing ability to speak again, though haltingly—and her gradual warming to him. Soon they’re off on a journey back to her father’s compound, and though they’re separated on the way, he follows her there despite the danger after he learns—from Corddry and the other Corpses who are undergoing transformation to more human status, too—that the Bonies are planning a massed assault. Despite the misgivings of Julie’s father—whose actions allow for something akin to Shakespeare’s tragic finale, though with the happy twist Levine’s take on the story demands—the humans and the increasingly humanized Corpses find they have a good deal in common.

Visually the film creates a convincingly dystopian world for this tale to take place in. The production design by Martin Whist is aces, especially in view of what must have been a comparatively modest budget, with many witty details on the edges of the frame, and it’s complemented by Javier Aguirresarobe’s widescreen cinematography, which uses a bleached-out look to the images while allowing nice touches of color, like R’s tattered red hoodie.

In the movement to put new spins on old horror-movie conventions, makers of zombie pictures have been among the most inventive. With “Zombieland” Ruben Fleischer turned the genre toward screwball action comedy, and now Levine pushes it in a surprisingly charming and funny direction. “Warm Bodies,” like Hoult’s R, occasionally stumbles along the way, but for the most part it’s a jaunty, even touching journey.