Haven't posted a full film review in a while (I've been experimenting with shorter reaction pieces recently), but I've been seeing a lot of recent releases over the past few weeks, and I've written reviews (albeit short ones, but nothing wrong with conciseness sometimes) of two of them.
I'd love to hear feedback on what I've been doing with my film coverage recently. I'm curious to know if you prefer the somewhat more analytical approach of the reaction pieces (such as the Before Midnight one), and would like to see that sort of thing continue (possibly into some longer pieces, depending on how much time I have and how much I have to say). Or would you prefer more reviews (including some lengthier ones), as I've generally done in the past? Not saying I'll completely abandon either approach, but I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.
Okay, back to the topic at hand: Side Effects and This Is the End. Reviews (spoiler-free in both cases, although I do discuss a few specific jokes in the latter) after the jump:
Let's begin with Side Effects, which is as marvelously plotted a thriller as one is likely to see. Steven Soderbergh directed movies are always remarkable visually (both from a cinematographic and production design standpoint), but it's when the script matches their stylishness—which is often—that true cinematic brilliance is unleashed. Scott Z. Burns's screenplay, though perhaps not quite as sharp in the dialogue department as that written by Reid Carolin for last year's Magic Mike, certainly fits the bill. The film's early sections are more drama (and compelling drama it is) than suspense, following a young woman named Emily (Rooney Mara) dealing with depression. Burns lets his story unfold meticulously as she visits psychiatrist Jon Banks (Jude Law) and gets prescribed a series of medications (none of which seem to be effective), while a series of beautifully polished compositions and Mara's superb performance serve to hold us rapt.
He then proceeds to throw a series of surprises at us (starting with perhaps the most shocking cinematic moment since Michael Haneke's Caché), every one of which is stunningly unpredictable and yet completely logical. The initial premise that leads to everything else that transpires might strike some as a tad preposterous, and it may well be. But if you buy into it (I did), then the consistently clever twists in the narrative—all a result of smart people trying to outmaneuver other smart people, which is the best kind of thriller storytelling—will likely make for one of the most enjoyable times to be had at the movies this year. The plot is so good, and packed so many well-earned surprises and shocks, that it even makes it possible to not be bothered much by the fairly limited characterizations. (If there's a flaw in Side Effects, the lack of depth given to these characters beyond the initial motivations for their actions is it.) And all of it is of course accompanied by plenty of visual flair (though admittedly nothing quite on par with the lengthy tracking shots of characters walking on the beach in Magic Mike or the beautifully filmed hotel room brawl in Haywire). Tremendous cinema on every level.
More chaotic and cluttered than Soderbergh's film (but almost as satisfying) is This Is the End, which is kept from the highest echelon of cinematic comedy for two reasons: its beginning and its end, both of which are largely devoid of laughs. In between, however, is some of the funniest stuff I've seen in a film in ages: so consistently inspired and inventive that I would go so far as to say it rivals the best of the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks. (Well, maybe not Duck Soup. But then, nothing rivals Duck Soup.) Playing fictional versions of themselves, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and a number of guest stars are forced to contend with the apocalypse in predictably raunchy and profane fashion, while at the same time learning some lessons about the value of friendship and sacrifice. (The film works much better on an emotional level than you'd expect from a story that involves a bunch of guys trying to avoid touching a severed head and Baruchel performing an exorcism with a cross made of kitchen tools.)
What makes This Is the End work so well is that—in addition to being paced extremely quickly—the comedy is so varied. There are the requisite gross-out gags and masturbation jokes (plenty of them), but other times the humor stems from a debate over who gets to eat a candy bar, the pure and simple slapstick of characters getting rope burn when trying to hold onto a rope connected to Robinson, or clever jokes about the actors' various personas. Nothing is ever allowed to get stale, although (as mentioned above) the comedy eventually runs out of steam during the final few minutes. Fortunately, this is the kind of movie that can't be ruined by a lousy ending, or by the fact that everything prior to the apocalypse is pretty dull. (Watching a bunch of rich and famous people party just isn't all that interesting. Who knew?) If it falls shy of being a comic masterpiece, it's still likely to end up being by far the funniest movie of the year.