A Simple Favor: Darkly Comedic Thriller Has Energetic Performances, Great Twists

3.5 out of 5 stars (Above Average)

A Simple Favor Poster
Image from https://www.imdb.com/

A Simple Favor may well be the most ambitious and outrageous film so far this year.  Director Paul Feig (Spy, The Heat) has outdone himself here, crafting a darkly comedic and endlessly twisty thriller with wonderful performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, the latter of which has never been this unhinged before.  A Simple Favor combines the chick flick, pitch-black comedy, and mystery-thriller with surprising finesse, making for one of the most entertaining movies of the year.  I have decided not to place the trailer here so you can go in as cold as possible, as I did.  Trust me, it’s worth it.

Straight-laced single mom Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick once again showing great range) has two things going for her in life: her devotion to her son, and a cooking vlog.  Despite the snickers of the other parents, Stephanie is cool as a cucumber with her routine life, without a desire to change.  Kendrick is absolutely wonderful at playing this lovably mousy and pathetic character, making her endearing to us rather than irritating.

Stephanie’s life is thrown for a loop when she meets the profane and erratic Emily Nelson (a fantastic Lively).  They become fast friends, sharing afternoon martinis and their deepest secrets until Emily disappears one day.  Now, Stephanie and Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) must piece together what happened to her, taking them both down a rabbit hole of outrageousness I won’t dare spoil here.

A Simple Favor is one of the most memorable films I’ve seen all year.  Kendrick and Lively have great chemistry together, making it easy to buy their fast friendship as well as Stephanie’s determination to find her friend.  You’ve never seen Lively this, well, lively, before, and she is having a devil of a time playing this character.  Kendrick also impresses, taking a character that could have been extremely unlikable or annoying and making you feel sympathy towards her while still laughing at her on occasion.  Golding is good as the husband, but doesn’t leave as large of an impression.  While no one will win Oscars for their work here, these are currently my favorite performances in a Paul Feig film to date.

Feig’s direction and Jessica Sharzer’s script are well-matched for each other, balancing the comedic and thriller aspects surprisingly well and providing something for everyone: A little bit of a chick flick, a little bit of dark comedy, and a little bit of a twisty mystery.  Trust me when I say that you will have no idea where this film is going based on its opening minutes, and if you do, you’ll enjoy how the twists are executed.  I went in knowing very little about the film’s plot besides it being a mystery of some kind, and I suggest you see this with as little knowledge as possible.  Trust me, you don’t want anything spoiled.

A Simple Favor balances its tones and genres easily, shifting from chick flick to darkly comic thriller with surprising sharpness.  Paul Feig’s direction perfectly complements Jessica Sharzer’s script, and the leads are absolute dynamite.  If you want a twisty thriller and don’t mind a bit of profane or raunchy humor, this is one Simple Favor you’ll definitely want to accept.

Rated R for Sexual Content and Language Throughout, Some Graphic Nude Images, Drug Use, and Violence

Pitch Perfect 3: Third Installment an Aca-tastrophe Worth Seeing

2 out of 5 stars (has some good moments, but is overall bad)

Pitch Perfect 3 Poster
Image from https://www.themoviedb.org/

Pitch Perfect 3 is the third installment in the musical comedy series about  a cappella and  the bonds of sisterhood.  If you enjoyed the other two and want one last hurrah with the Bellas, then you should embrace your inner completionist and seek this out.  And, even if you’ve never cared for this series, I would still recommend it purely to watch the film morph from a generic comedy into a ridiculous action film.  No I’m not kidding.

This film sees the Bellas reunite post-graduation to take part in an international USO tour and encountering rival groups Evermoist (yes you read that right) and other unimportant bands, who all use actual instruments!  The goal: to  to impress and open for DJ Khaled (playing himself).  However, things get complicated with the intro of Fat Amy’s (Rebel Wilson) criminal father (John Lithgow sporting a horrid Aussie accent), who essentially forces the movie into a bizarre (yet still enjoyable) direction.  John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks also appear as the sexist announcers, this time following the Bellas around for a documentary.  Because of course they are.

This is a bad movie.  Most of the musical numbers feel forced and aren’t memorable like previous entries.  The comedy is self-mocking, almost as if the film was originally supposed to satirize the formula before being overhauled, and the final 3rd becomes a Rebel Wilson Action Movie.  I don’t know who made this decision, but I would like to personally thank them for doing so.

Pitch Perfect 3 is both a beautiful aca-tastrophe and a passable swan song to fans of the franchise.  The musical sequences should get the toes tapping, but the plot and characters are hilariously thin and the final act was clearly rewritten to get more buts in seats.  It’s time to close the aca-curtains on this series, while it still has a shred of dignity left.

Rated PG-13 for Crude And Sexual Content, Language, And Some Action

“The Accountant”: Ben Affleck Drama Provides Realistic Portrayal of Autism, Has Great Action

5 out of 5 stars (One of my favorites)

The Accountant poster
Image from https://www.imdb.com

I walked into The Accountant expecting a violent action flick with a conveniently autistic main character.  The film has been marketed as a potboiler character drama/action thriller with a star-studded cast and a director with one popular movie to his name, an advertising tactic used by countless films every year to make them seem “adult” in nature.  The Accountant utilized this very well, making one of the best trailers of 2016 (and maybe of the 2010s).  My skepticism stemmed from how the filmmakers would portray autism, as I am on the spectrum myself and don’t especially like when Hollywood botches it.

It didn’t help that reviews I had seen were criticizing the film for making autistics come off as emotionless killers, or that Ben Affleck’s last film was Batman V. $uperman: Dawn of Ju$tice (in which I hated his portrayal of the Caped Crusader.)  In short, all the cards were stacked against me liking this film.  However, after some convincing from my mother, examination of the gifted cast, and the heavy desire to escape my college campus for a few hours, I went to see Ben “Aspie-fleck.”

And he totally nailed it.  The Accountant should be held as the primary representation of high-functioning autistics in cinema.  My parent’s generation had Rain Man, my generation will have The Accountant, a beautifully filmed, superbly acted, and memorably well-written drama that has action, humor, and twists that will knock your socks off.

The film follows Christian Wolff (Affleck giving an Oscar-worthy performance), an accountant with high-functioning autism who handles the books for some of the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations.  If you need somebody to come in, do the books quickly, and leave without asking questions, then you hire this guy.  He won’t be the life of the party, but he’ll look over seven years of taxes in about seven hours.

Christian’s newest client is Living Robotics, a more legitimate business run by Lemar Black (John Lithgow).  They need someone to make sure their books are on the up-and-up, and Chris is the hot commodity.  Provided an assistant in the spunky Dana Cummings (A thankfully non-singing Anna Kendrick), Christian goes to work, discovering that the company may have some insidious purposes behind closed doors.  Elsewhere, a dedicated analyst (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) and the head of the Treasury (J.K. Simmons) are tracking Chris’s past exploits, igniting a chain of events that will leave everyone changed forever.

As previously stated, I have autism myself.  I had never seen a modern Hollywood film attempt to explore this, so I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy when I found out that it would be in the plot.  Would the filmmakers do their research?  Would they understand the numerous, complex intricacies of the autistic mind?  Would Ben Affleck, normally a charming and energetic presence, be able to portray the physical, psychological, and emotional complexities of a high-functioning autistic?  The answer to each and every one of those questions is, unexpectedly, yes.  I’ve seen Ben Affleck give good, bad, and laughably ugly performances in his career, and I presumed that this would be nothing but a forced Oscarbaiting opportunity that only understood the broad strokes of the disability.  No one can fathom the amount of joy I had watching him nail every single aspect of the autistic personality: His speech patterns, ritualistic behaviors, and black-and-white thinking pattern were all perfect mirrors of how I would have responded in the situations he was in (If my area of specificity was math and I balanced books for terrorists, that is).  In short, Affleck completely disappears into his character, never letting the persona drop throughout the entire film.

You might be saying to yourself: “Okay, he’s good, but what about the rest of the movie?”  My answer to that is: Exquisite.  The supporting actors do a very fine job, even if some of them don’t get as much screen time as I presumed (Kendrick and Simmons disappear for a brief span of time, but they return and make up for it.)  If I had one complaint in the acting department, it would probably be Jeffrey Tambor, who seemed like more of an important cameo than anything else.  Not to say that he isn’t important, but I wish I could have had more with him.  Kendrick gets to show a full range of acting abilities, both serious and comedic, and the dynamic between Simmons and Robinson leads to unexpected depth.  Simmons is smart in picking projects, and this is no different.  All the characters are flawed, grounded people; there is not a real “hero” or “villain” here, a refreshing change of pace for an action film.

Speaking of that, the action in this film is extremely well-done.  While violence is prevalent throughout (mostly seen in flashbacks), there are only three legitimate “action sequences” in the film.  While I expected a few more sequences involving Chris actually killing people, the ones I got were tense, fun, and very well-shot, avoiding the dreaded shakeycam (besides the first scene, but the technique works in its favor there).  Director Gavin O’Connor (known for Warrior and the notorious flop Jane Got A Gun) is masterful with his camera, allowing every shot to be clear and visible to the audience.  The action is bloody, but never overstays its welcome; even the climax is perfectly timed to give you the thrills without being so long that you forget why it was happening in the first place.

If Affleck doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, then the cinematography should.  Every shot is important to the story, either to advance the narrative or provide a detail about the characters.  In short, O’Connor seems to understand that film is a visual medium; I never felt like characters were spewing exposition because the screenwriter couldn’t figure out how to show things visually.  I wish more directors and screenwriters would wrap their minds around this so films wouldn’t have to stop and explain things I already know.  We are shown Chris’s meticulous routines, his quirky mannerisms, and gift for mathematics in a Beautiful Mind-esque sequence where he calculates 15 years of tax information overnight.  I had great pleasure watching a movie where my brain had to process information instead of it being spoon-fed to me, and hope that more films will do the same.

The Accountant is a wonderful examination of high-functioning autism that provides a disarmingly realistic portrayal of the disability while still qualifying its action film pedigree.  While I wouldn’t have minded another scene with Affleck killing someone, it would have taken away from the beautifully rendered story about a man with autism adapting to new and unexpected dangers.  The film will likely have more meaning if you or someone you know has autism, but if you don’t, there is a great scene in which Chris lays out what autism is in just a few sentences.  In short, this is one Accountant you should actually want to see.

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language Throughout