Mike at the Movies

“Side Effects” (R) ****

I will admit I’m a sucker for involved, clever plots with multi-dimensional characters. So this film is already in my Top 10 list except for one character, who predictably fails to do anything but be his wooden self.

Fortunately, however, Channing Tatum is in the film for a limited time. The rest of the cast is top-notch, led by Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor, a very disturbed wife of Tatum. Jude Law, as Dr. John Banks, picks her up as a patient after she rams her car into a brick wall, clearly intentionally. Emily is described later as “a victim of circumstance and biology,” but we gradually learn there may be more to her than that.

The complications begin with Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who had Emily as a patient before Banks did. She prescribed some pills, Banks scratches out some more, and soon Emily is in what we have come to believe by popular portrayals of drug use is a typical chemical fog. She tries a new drug, and the results are promising. Oops, there is this slight problem with sleepwalking. …

Various strands of the plot begin to intertwine and unravel, and many surprising, even shocking turns start to occur, all of them putting Banks in worse positions, including losing his practice and his family. Director Steven Soderbergh keeps things moving; Mara explodes into a multi-dimensional character with only slight hints of the “Girl With the Dragoon Tattoo” character, Lisbet, the role that made her famous. Zeta-Jones is chillingly effective, and Law is properly confused as he tries to sort out the inconsistencies and twists and turns of what is happening to him.

There’s some nude sexual work and some same-sex kissy-face that probably caused the “R” rating, and the plotting is so complex that younger audiences would find it too confusing anyway. Adults who love complexity should flock to this film. It’s a doozy.

“Amour” (PG-13) ****

This is not a film for those with short attention spans or limited empathy for elders. It is a film, basically, about the terrible burden placed upon caregivers, even in the generally paternalistic health care system of France. Georges (Jean-Louis Tritignant) and Anne ( Emmanuelle Riva) are in their 80s, retired piano teachers and surviving nicely in their elegant apartment in Paris. One day, during lunch, Anne suddenly goes into a fugue state for a time, and Georges wonders what’s up.

We have a distinct impression of what’s up by the way the movie opens: firemen and police discovering Anne in a sealed bedroom, surrounded by flowers, dead for some time, The rest of the film is a solemn flashback of how she came to be this way. Is the film “too slow” as some have charged? Only by comparison with the mindless quick-cut laser-paced film world it is surrounded by.

This is storytelling of a most exquisite depth, allowing time for us to absorb the swirling emotions we see and experience. When Anne admits she’d just as soon die, is that an expression of relief on Georges’ face? Anticipation? Or is it grudging acceptance of what is clearly her fate and his as she descends into dementia and he into psychological and physical exhaustion?

Through it all, director Michael Haneke, with a fixed camera, no soundtrack and some of the longest takes in the history of modern film, lets the characters tell their story with their bodies and their faces — Anne soon loses the ability to speak clearly. Caregiving experts will cringe at the poor technique Georges uses to move his paralyzed wife from wheelchair to bed and back — no wonder he soon exhausts himself — and we all despair as their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert) agonizes over her mother’s care. Scenes of caregiving are filmed in brutal real time — it takes a long time to get a paralyzed patient out of bed, to feed them and to bathe them — and it is painful to watch.

But the title of the film is “Amour” after all. This is a story infused with love. It is for adults only because kids will not be able to imagine caring this much or suffering this much just because they get old. Many of us, to whom it is happening and who have seen it with loved ones, will squirm from the memories and fear of what’s likely to come for most of us. A major, powerful film.

“Beautiful Creatures” (PG-13) ***

Fantasy spook movies are fun because they always have to explain the ground rules. “The curse only works on alternate Thursdays during a waning moon when the dew is gone after nine in the morning provided you don’t see your cousin first,” etc. This film does it more efficiently than most, but that doesn’t mean the ground rules are easy to remember.

Lena is a “caster” — we would call her a witch — but she’s not a full-fledged caster. She makes her choice as to whether to go dark caster or light caster on her 16th birthday, when there is a clear moon, of course. Her Uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons who, in his first appearance in white and gold, looks disturbingly like the Borgia pope he plays on HBO) wants her to choose the light, even though he is a dark caster, and her mother, a ravishing slim and youthful-looking Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lincolm/Serafina, is banking on a dark ally. Emmy Rossum as Lena’s sensual cousin, Ridley, gums up the works.

Meanwhile, poor human Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is besotted with Lena (“You’re a miracle. Why would you ever want to be normal?”), but should she love him, she is doomed and he is in jeopardy. (Another of the rules of engagement.) Naturally, the tension rises as the moon nears its conjunction with Lena’s birthday, and poor Ethan gets beaten, confused, manipulated and abused but stays loyal and somewhat funny.

Yes, there is no caster rule against some humor and that saves this film from mediocrity. Irons is deliciously evil and good at the same time (his slapdown of Mrs. Lincoln, the town Prude, is magnificent; Thompson as Lincoln looks and acts sensational; and the youngsters don’t have to do too much acting so it’s not an unpleasant couple of hours. Just keep your hands on the rulebook.

“Escape from Planet Earth” (PG) ***

Purely for the kids, especially since most of the attempts at humor for Mom and Dad fall flat or are too obvious to pay attention to. A monumental cast of actors reads the parts, led by Brendan Fraser as Scorch, Rob Corddry as Gary Supernove (brothers), and other superstars Sarah Jessica Parker, Sophia Vergara, Jessica Alba, Steve Zahn, George Lucas, Chris Parnell and the Captain of all recent voice-overs, Jane Lynch.

Does the plot really matter? Not for the intended audience for this film — aged 5 – 11. It’s in 3-D with all the obvious scenes — rollicking train rides, things that shoot out at you and other effects that are unnecessary except to raise the ticket price. Not at all offensive for the tyke set.

“A Good Day to Die Hard” (R) **

OK, so they can blow stuff up and do so at every opportunity. We know that. Should it be so hard to make you care about who’s getting blown up or the fact that the staged explosions are so far beyond reality that they become parody? Maybe I’ve seen too many of these high-decibel blow-up jobs to make me anything but jaded, but this one goes over the top in too many ways. All you’re left with is grudging admiration for the imagination it takes to blow up buildings and crash cars so many different ways.

But we all know Bruce Willis will survive until the next sequel in the franchise; we know the villains will die hard. So there is no real suspense when the hero and his son, Jack, go careening off a super highway (even one in Moscow) or the baddies open up with automatic fire and hit only walls and superstructure or the heroes are lashed with handcuffs, break free and have automatic weapons leap into their hands, magically.

There are two plots in this movie: The surface plot is the CIA’s attempt to get a file back that will, of course, save the world from nuclear destruction. The second is a father-son bonding movie between John McClane and his CIA son, Jack (Jai Courtenay, yet another Australian actor). Guess which plots succeed?

There are, as I mentioned, spectacular chase scenes and imaginative special effects and buildings, cars and people are scattered randomly across Moscow as their car insurance rates skyrocket, but we have seen it all before and with more wry humor from John. The humor is more often than not forced in the extreme in this episode. Maybe they’ll find it again in the next two or three entries in the series when they blow even more stuff up.

“Safe Haven” (PG-13) *

I do not like Nicholas Sparks films at all, and this one made me almost lose my popcorn. Tolerable for two thirds of its length, Sparks could not contain himself any more and let the plot go completely off the rails in the last 10 minutes to such a preposterous degree that the couple in front of me laughed and shook their heads while I conquered my restless stomach.

The plot up to the ending includes Julianne Hough (Katie/Erin), who looks 19, and Sparks’ usual stranger, Josh Duhamel as Alex, the widower with two darling moppets. Kate comes to Southport, N.C., immediately gets a job in the local general store (they even sell paint) and covers up her background. Strangely enough, she was married to a cop but had to flee, we are told, because she was charged with first-degree murder. The fact that she didn’t kill anybody never registers on Sparks’ script checkers, but the husband is a serial abuser, so when she stabs him in the arm, what’s the difference? The difference is a key clue — a flyer with Katie’s picture on it that tips Alex off to the fact that she’s a wanted felon. But she has neither arrest nor conviction! Idiotic.

And it gets much worse! The mistakes and illogic in the script have been mounting since the beginning: “The largest celebration on the East Coast” draws about 300 scattered folks to the parade; an assault goes on in the middle of this big celebration and nobody notices; Katie’s cop-ex staggers into town, abuses citizens and reels about the crowd, sweaty and drunk and nobody accosts him; a crime scene has a crucial piece of evidence left on the floor, and nobody finds it until the cop comes back and steps on it.

Oh, but the ending! I am spoiling to give you a spoiler alert but won’t because as much as I detest Sparks, I won’t take it out on you. It is so preposterous, so unreal, so totally manipulative (it sets up a soppy, maudlin, entirely hokey ending monologue that is meant to draw tears but only drew throw-up into my mouth) that you finally know for sure that this is a Sparks film.

Okay, so you read the book. Do yourself a favor and live with that. Going to this version of it can only bring you shame.

Enjoy more of Mike’s movie reviews at www.towncourier.com.

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