First things first: the San Francisco Independent Film Festival kicked off last night and runs through Feb. 21 at various venues (mostly the Roxie). Check out my interviews with local shorts directors here, and some top picks throughout the festival here.
Also this week: cult director Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End (my chat with Mr. Bubba Ho-Tep here), Amy Berg's West Memphis Three doc, West of Memphis (check out Nicole Gluckstern's review here), and the Vortex Room's love-ly new series (Dennis Harvey's take here).
What's more, 1986 action classic Top Gun gets the 3D IMAX re-release treatment (because any list of things that are better when they're bigger, louder, and more in-yo-face include Soviet MiGs, Tom Cruise's teeth, and Kenny Loggins jams). Reviews of comedies Identity Thief and Shanghai Calling, plus Steven Soderbergh's maybe-swan song Side Effects, below the jump.
Identity Thief America is made up of asshole winners and nice guy losers — or at least that’s the thesis of Identity Thief, a comedy about a crying-clown credit card bandit (Melissa McCarthy) and the sweet sucker (Jason Bateman) she lures into her web of chaos. Bateman plays Sandy, a typical middle-class dude with a wife, two kids, and a third on the way. He’s always struggling to break even and just when it seems like his ship’s come in, Diana (McCarthy) jacks his identity — a crime that requires just five minutes in a dark room with Sandy’s social security number. Suddenly, his good name is contaminated with her prior arrests, drug-dealer entanglements, and mounting debt; it’s like the capitalist version of VD. But as the “kind of person who has no friends,” Diana is as tragic as she is comic, providing McCarthy an acting opportunity no one saw coming when she was dispensing romantic advice on Gilmore Girls. Director Seth Gordon (2011's Horrible Bosses) treats this comedy like an action movie — as breakneck as slapstick gets — and he relies so heavily on discomfort humor that the film doesn’t just prompt laughs, it pokes you in the ribs until you laugh, man, LAUGH! While Identity Thief has a few complex moments about how defeating “sticking it to the man” can be (mostly because only middle men get hurt), it’s mostly as subtle as a pratfall and just as (un-)rewarding. (1:25) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)
Shanghai Calling Hotshot lawyer Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) is his NYC firm's top choice to be their man in Shanghai — much to his chagrin, since he puts the American in Chinese American. But off to the bustling, rapidly-expanding city he goes, knowing exactly only one word of Chinese ("fart"), and a classic fish-out-of-water comedy follows. His first day on the job, he bungles a billion-dollar deal, and spends the rest of the movie trying to set things right for his prickly client (Alan Ruck) — with the help of his ambitious assistant (Zhu Zhu), a perky relocation expert (Eliza Coupe), a fried-chicken mogul who runs an American-style bar (Bill Paxton), and a reporter who goes by the improbable moniker of "Awesome Wang" (Geng Le). Along the way, of course, he does some personal soul-searching, realizing there's more to life than fancy-restaurant reservations and a high-stakes career. Writer-director Daniel Hsia's Shanghai Calling doesn't break any new ground, but it's an undeniably entertaining tale of culture clash, backed up by an appealing cast to boot. (1:40) (Cheryl Eddy)
Side Effects Though on the surface Channing Tatum appears to be his current muse, Steven Soderbergh seems to have gotten his smart, topical groove back, the one that spurred him to kick off his feature filmmaking career with the on-point Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and went missing with the fun, featherweight Ocean’s franchise. (Alas, he's been making claims that Side Effects will be his last feature film.) Here, trendy designer antidepressants are the draw — mixed with the heady intoxicants of a murder mystery with a nice hard twist that would have intrigued either Hitchcock or Chabrol. As Side Effects opens, the waifish Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), whose inside-trading hubby (Tatum) has just been released from prison, looks like a big-eyed little basket of nerves ready to combust — internally, it seems, when she drives her car into a wall. Therapist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins to treat her after her hospital stay, seems to care about her, but nevertheless reflexively prescribes the latest anti-anxiety med of the day, on the advice of her former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Where does his responsibility for Emily’s subsequent actions begin and end? Soderbergh and his very able cast fill out the issues admirably, with the urgency that was missing from the more clinical Contagion (2011) and the, ahem, meaty intelligence that was lacking in all but the more ingenious strip scenes of last year's Magic Mike. (1:30) (Kimberly Chun)