“O the mind, mind has mountains,” wrote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Yes indeed; and valleys and caverns and canyons; and probably switchback railways and ski resorts. Everything a director needs to make a spectacular film without scenery. Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’s last movie before his announced retirement (though perhaps that too will prove a landmark of the mind), is a mischievously enthralling trip round the psyche of Emily (Rooney Mara). This pretty, unstable young woman commits a kitchen-knife murder, while apparently sleepwalking, soon after her husband (Channing Tatum) has returned from a jail term for insider trading.
The screen fills up with familiar faces as if at a party. Ooh look, it’s Jude Law, wearing his English accent, as the psychiatrist Emily has been seeing since an earlier suicide attempt. Look, there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones, wearing her American accent, as another, spookier shrink. Everyone wears something in this movie, where camouflage is a way of life. (Even film reviewers, anxious not to lead readers to a reveal, might be tempted to catch the habit.) If the heroine’s bipolarity is the story’s core truth, then her dodgy antidepressants, some still on clinical trial, must be the cause of … Then again, if it isn’t and they aren’t … Either way, the early villain here is the great demon Pharma, cashing in on mental misfortune where it can, saving cash on safety where it also can (speedy drug trials, casual guinea-pig recruitment). For human sufferers, there is no delusionalism that cannot be made worse by fears about the cure.
How cinema loves paranoia. Film itself trades in photorealism, the art of the unimpeachably truthful camouflaging the unfathomably perfidious. Everyone calls such thrillers “Hitchcockian”, because he did it best. But Soderbergh, even doing it differently (plain but probing close-ups, abrupt, surreal or gnomic scene transitions), can do it consummately. I loved one cuckoo establishing shot of Emily’s apartment building: not just a penny-plain, here-we-are exterior but a violent, vertiginously low-angle up-gaze, as if it is the resident, not the residence, that we are “establishing”. Soderbergh as always is his own cinematographer, under the sobriquet of Peter Andrews. More camouflage. The motto of moviedom, as sacred and immutable as that on a dollar bill, should be “In untrustworthiness we trust”.
Frank Langella forms an engaging double act with a piece of moulded metal alloy in Robot & Frank. Neat, white, shiny, human-sized, Robot is a live-in helper gifted to the old man by his son (James Marsden) sometime “in the near future”. In that epoch, imagine director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher Ford, a child can avoid having to nurse an aged P by hiring a social-services R2-D2. He/it cooks, cleans, cares; then is coaxed by Langella, a retired cat burglar, into teaming with him for one last perfect crime.
It is almost a romance. Here are the Romeo and Juliet, or Harold and Maude, of Scrapyard, USA (human-social and recyclable-cyborgian). Man and machine become interdependent after early connubial-style spats. They even divorce briefly, at one point, in a mutual adieu owing something to the HAL scene in 2001. More overt is the characters’ debt – note the leather-bound Cervantes copy Langella nicks from the library run by Susan Sarandon – to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Myths move with changing time. Movies move with them, and sometimes even help them do the moving.
If you can’t equal a screen classic, prequel it. A homage to The Wizard of Oz, Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful tells how the endearing charlatan who ruled Emerald City in the 1939 film from Frank L. Baum’s novel, managing his gizmos behind a conjuror’s curtain, first got the job. The young Wizard is played by James Franco, now so polymorphous a Hollywood star that I can barely keep up. (One moment he’s a bisexual avant-gardist of the arts, the next a squeaky-clean lead for MouseCo.) Franco’s gleaming teeth, flashing features and pretty hair will melt every mother’s heart, as his fleeing fairground illusionist crashes in a hot-air balloon (unfortunate story timing) in the land of colour and fantasy beyond the Midwestern tornadoes.
After that it is flying monkeys, good and wicked witches (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz), yellow brick roads, another hot air balloon bursting into flames (oh dear), songs, fireworks and all you need for two hours with the 3D glasses and the kids. Sets and effects impress. The script is as good as it needs to be.
The Guilt Trip is Barbra Streisand’s screen comeback for this decade. Each time the star returns, she seems younger and her material older. In this comedy she’s a doting Jewish mom saying “Yes!” to offspring and product inventor Seth Rogen’s proposal of a trans-US road trip together. She can re-bond with him; offer business counsel; meet his old flames; feed him lunches – and homilies – and eligible girlfriends! …
Jewish mothers: we’ve had them for 2,000 years now and the gags don’t get any fresher. Streisand herself takes credibility to rupture point as a suburban housewife-matron with wanderlust. “I’ve got to touch up my roots!” she panics before the trip, speaking of auburn locks that look freshly worked on by a hundred Hollywood hairdressers. Rogen is his roly-poly, lovable self. It is almost cheating to put this man in a film, like herding an old English sheepdog in front of the camera. Suddenly we all feel smiley and go ooh-aah. Guilt trip? For this and other transgressions it is the makers who should feel guilty.
The British social drama Broken, set in a suburban cul-de-sac, is a dead-end movie in more ways than one. How many dysfunctional lives can you pour into one plot before the audience shouts “When!”? The mentally challenged young man; the girl who cries rape; the semi-psychotic father who throws a punch at anything that moves … Stars Tim Roth and Cillian Murphy bravely try to bring good acting to the story. But no one else seems to recognise that commodity, least of all stage-to-screen director Rufus Norris. Blind to the fact that enough is already too much, he adds tricksy cutting, overbearing music and close-ups that doomily dwell on young actors who cannot take the strain.
Parker has Jason Statham, Britain’s homemade macho man, running round Palm Beach, Florida, as if he owns it. Which, if a master robbery succeeds, he almost will. Jennifer Lopez flaps prettily as the realtor reluctantly enmeshed in the heist. It’s an overlong, arduous caper, drawn from the work of thriller writer Donald E. Westlake much as a patient’s tooth might be extracted with much banter and minimal anaesthesia.