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

Deadpool 2: Silly Sequel is Surprisingly Dark, Relentlessly Juvenile

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

Deadpool 2 poster
Image from http://collider.com/

Deadpool 2 is the first disappointment of 2018.  With a genius marketing campaign, hilarious trailers, and the prospect of seeing our favorite foul-mouthed antihero again, I was ready to dive head-on into this Pool.  Sadly, Deadpool 2 is a needlessly darker and sophomoric outing that emphasizes violent action over clever wit, making for a film that will satisfy action junkies, but leave those who enjoyed the cleverness of its predecessor yearning for more.

The mess of a plot involves Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) mourning over the death of his girlfriend (Morena Baccarin), joining the X-Men, and attempting to save an annoying teenager (Julian Dennison) from, brace yourself, a cyborg from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin).  Wade will sort of go on a journey to discover his inner hero and learn to move on from the death of his loved one, while still cracking jokes to the camera.

Deadpool 2 could have been a savage satire on how sequels always darken, but falls into that trap instead.  While still charismatic, Ryan Reynolds isn’t as likable here, overdoing Wade’s depression in the opening act and attempting to make out-of-place statements on sexism, racism, and other topics Deadpool should not discuss. Brolin acts like he’s in a completely different movie, but has good chemistry with Reynolds when onscreen with him.  The plentiful action sequences are well-done yet sadly unmemorable, and Dennison alternates between unlikable and annoying rather than menacing.  Lastly, the supposed emotional punch of an ending rings hollow.  I came here to laugh hysterically, not think about character drama.  It’s a sad state of affairs that should hopefully be remedied with the upcoming 3rd installment.

Deadpool 2 has more than enough action, but the plot and tone meander without much logic, the characters aren’t as endearing, and the writing is surprisingly juvenile rather than clever or witty.  While it certainly isn’t the worst X-Men film, Deadpool 2 is only slightly above X-Men Origins:Wolverine in terms of quality enjoyment.  I am sad to report that, of the three films I’ve seen this week, Book Club was the funniest one, not this.

Rated R for Strong Violence And Language Throughout, Sexual References, And Brief Drug Material.  Sorry, DP, but X is not gonna give this one to ya.

Deadpool: Dark Romance/Action/Comedy Slices Superhero Tropes in Half

4.5 out of 5 stars (Nearly Perfect)

Deadpool poster
Image from https://www.amazon.com/

You are either going to love or hate Deadpool.  After years and years of being stuck in development hell (that place films go when they will likely never get made), the “Merc with a Mouth” (extreme emphasis on the “Mouth” part) is currently taking the world by storm for its pitch black humor, brutally gory action sequences, and a career-best performance by Ryan ReynoldsDeadpool is a comic book movie for people who are sick and tired of comic book movies and those simply searching for a bloody fun time.  My expectations were extremely high for this film, and it completely delivered, with nonstop wit, glorious action, and a surprising romance element that has nearly been left out of the marketing (which, in this case, was a good thing).  This movie will likely be regarded as a classic in the coming years for its unique take on the superhero movie.  That said, if you don’t have a stomach for bloody violence and endless profanity (however witty it is), then skip this film and go see Zoolander 2.  Not because it’s any good, but because it needs the money.

The story follows ex-special forces man Wade Wilson (Reynolds completely disappearing into the role within his first frame), a dude with a brutal sense of humor and a no-nonsense attitude. Wade spends his days doing one of two things: being a gun for hire, or making sweet love to prostitute girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin providing great work).  They are two crazy people in love with each other, and life couldn’t be better.

That life comes to a screeching halt when Wade discovers he has terminal cancer.  Though Vanessa remains optimistic, and his friend Weasel (T.J. Miller) constantly offer support, Wade is concerned with the effect his death will have on Vanessa.  However, luck seemingly knocks when a mysterious man offers Wade a cure for his cancer, as well as new superhuman abilities.  He accepts, only to discover that the man behind the operation, Ajax (Ed Skrein providing a memorable villain) uses the patients as lab rats to see if they have mutant genes.  After a great deal of torture, Wade escapes within an inch of his life, blowing the place up in the process.  Despite his face now making Fred Kruger look attractive as a result of the torture, he declares vengeance on Ajax, as well as finding Vanessa again.

I cannot tell you more of the plot without spoiling it, but there are many unexpected turns here. Ryan Reynolds has never been better, utilizing every bit of his charm and likable demeanor to make us laugh when he’s splitting bad guys in half with his swords.  He also nails the more dramatic scenes (yes, there is a bit of drama here), showing layers I never knew he had.  Reynolds makes you feel Wade’s pain over his disease and understand his eventual decision to undergo treatment.  The film is a dark comedy overall, but the dramatic scenes give the movie unexpected weight and significance.  I want Wade and Vanessa to be together, and route for Wade to make that happen.

From an action standpoint, Deadpool is an absolute blast. Director Tim Miller uses the relatively small budget ($58 million) to the fullest, providing exquisite sequences that are perfectly timed, extremely well-shot, and very memorable.  The opening action sequence is one of the best I’ve seen in a comic book film, and the climax is very entertaining, with a refreshingly spare use of CGI.  I don’t know how many practical effects are here,, but almost all the action looks like it’s really happening right in front of you, not some cheap CG trick.  Also, Deadpool talks to the audience (known as breaking the fourth wall), but Wade Wilson does not.  This was a welcome surprise for me, because I didn’t want someone talking to me during the entire movie, I wanted to watch a fun movie.  If I wanted someone to talk to me, I would go to a restaurant, not a movie theater.  The fourth-wall breaks work because they unexpectedly and never go on too long.  It’s an interesting technique that I look forward to seeing again in the sequel (and yes, a sequel has been greenlit).

The villain in this movie is very intimidating. Ed Skrein is perfectly cast, providing a memorable villain who you love to hate, but still see his point of view.  While Marvel villains in the Avenger’s movies have mostly been one-note, this one is scary, soulless, and downright evil.  He is a perfect foil to Wade because he is as serious as Wade is snarky.

The writing in this film is amazingly witty, sometimes reminiscent of a Buffy episode, but with a ton of F-bombs.  The film’s balance of raunchy comedy and character drama is perfect, keeping a suitably darkly comedic tone throughout the proceedings.  The actors are also completely devoted to their characters, making me feel like I’m watching real people (in an exaggerated sense).  This is more than a darkly comic action film.  It has real drama, palpable romance, and relatable characters that you actively care about.  That is very rare for an action film nowadays, and I was very happy to see it here.

The romance in this movie is extremely well-done.  As I said above, I want Wade and Vanessa to be together and feel Wade’s sadness and fear of rejection after his face is altered.  All men want to be loved by someone, and their biggest fear afterwards is losing it.  This is the best romance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie thus far, beating out the relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts.

Deadpool is violent, extremely profane, and will not please everyone. If you don’t like the F-word or over-the-top violence then go elsewhere (help support the financially floundering Zoolander 2, maybe).  If you want a well-written, witty raunch-fest with bloody good action and a sweet romance plot, then Deadpool will be the perfect sword to slice with.

(Rightly) Rated R for Strong Violence and Language Throughout, Sexual Content, and (very) Graphic Nudity (I hope you think Ryan Reynolds is attractive, because you see him in full at various points throughout the film. I guess I can cross that off my cinematic bucket list).

Unexpectedly. Nuanced. Caper. Leads to. Entertainment

3 out of 5 stars (average)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E Poster
Image from http://www.impawards.com/

The Man From U.N.C.L.E had a lot going against it for me. It was an August action-comedy with two actors with mixed resumes and a trailer that looked like it could be either a funny romp or a generic bore that a studio released because they could.  However, my biggest worry was that the film was based on a TV show from the 60’s that I hadn’t heard of until I discovered the movie’s existence.  TV show adaptations often lead to very mixed results (See the Charlie’s Angels movies for proof) that feel like studio cash-grabs on an old property with current stars in the main roles.  Knowing this, I sat down in my theater, saw the title credits roll, and was greeted to a very fun, funny action romp that, while nowhere near a classic, will satisfy those looking for well-shot action and understated humor.

The plot is simple: In the 1960’s American spy Napoleon Solo (Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill having a jolly good time) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer pulling off a great accent) must work together to find and destroy a nuclear warhead.  They will do this with the help of the intelligent Gaby (Alicia Vikander of Ex Machina providing what may be the summer’s best leading lady performance).  However, the trio (or at least the guys in it) must contend with the villainess Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) on their mission to prevent nuclear disaster, as well as letting their own prejudices kill each other.

I was surprised by this film. Director Guy Ritchie (most famous for the Sherlock Holmes flicks and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) crafts well-shot action sequences that are fun to watch and never go on too long.  Ritchie has a knack for action, using slow-motion effectively so that you can see everything, but knowing when to pull back and let everything go crazy at appropriate times.

However, the action isn’t the main attraction here. That honor goes to shockingly good character chemistry and understated comedy.  I thought that the pairing of Cavill and Hammer was an odd one, as neither had proven their might as comedic leads yet.  Imagine my glee as the two worked off of each other in the same way that pinballs bounced in a pinball machine.  Their delivery is nearly perfect, and their verbal fights are fun to the ears.  I would like to see these two work together again, as they are an unexpectedly well-matched duo.

Alicia Vikander also pulls a hat trick, being the most useful and intelligent female lead I’ve seen this year. She is not there for the male demographic to stare at (but they can anyway).  Vikander has a presence onscreen that will hopefully give her a long career.

I was quite sad to see that our theater consisted mainly of middle-aged individuals. I’m not trying to ageist, but I find it odd that a movie starring heartthrob Henry Cavill and hottie Alicia Vikander would have an audience completely free of hormonally-charged teenagers.  I’m not saying that the middle-aged are hormonally dead, but I think the casting of these individuals was a ploy to get members of my generation to come into the theater, not theirs.  Hopefully, this will not be like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a Chris Pine vehicle based on a famous literary character from the 90’s in which 50-year-olds made up half of its opening weekend.  This movie will please my generation: it has humor, action, and hot guys.  What more could you want at 20?

The last item of mention is the comedy. This film could go into a few different genres: Buddy film, Spy action, and Comedy.  The movie immediately has a light tone that lets you know that it’s going to be a fun ride.  The humor ranges from innuendo to flat-out wit, made all the funnier by the actor’s chemistry mentioned above.  The bottom line is this: If you want to laugh, then this flick should satisfy your needs.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a fun, suave spy caper with great chemistry, humor, and memorable action. It’s a great film for those who want to kick back, relax, and see Henry Cavill prove he can do something other than brood in the Supes costume.

Rated PG-13 for Action Violence, Suggestive Content, and Partial Nudity

Crawl with “Ant”icipation To Marvel’s Newest Adventure

3.5 out of 5 stars (above average)

Ant Man poster
Image from https://www.amazon.com/

On paper, Ant-Man sounds like a terrible idea for a movie.  It’s about a guy who can shrink down to ant size to stop evil and communicate with the little insects to help him.  Stan Lee tried to get an Ant Man movie made back in the late 80’s, but to no avail: it sounded too similar to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.  Also, comic book films were not nearly as popular as they are now, and the ones that did come out were not very good.

Thankfully, technology has advanced enough so that an Ant-Man movie is possible, and I must say I was surprised that it was any good.  Could anyone else see funnyman Paul Rudd as a superhero before the trailers came out?  I sure didn’t.  However, my worries were immediately dashed when, to my surprise, the film was light, fast, and surprisingly comedic.  This wasn’t going to be a serious film, it was a fun movie with cool action, good humor, and a great cast.

The film follows recently released con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd earning his stripes in the superhero genre), a man who wants nothing more than to see his daughter Cassie (newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson) and stay on the straight and narrow path. Unfortunately, his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her cop fiancé (Bobby Connavale finally giving a good performance) don’t want him anywhere near Cassie.  He’s so down and out that he can’t even keep a job at Baskin Robbins.  That is the saddest state of affairs in the world if you can’t keep a job there.

When Scott’s friend Luis (Michael Pena) informs him that millionaire Hank Pym (Michael Douglas having a lot of fun) is out for the weekend and that his place is up for grabs, he initially rejects it, but agrees only to get money for childcare payments. Upon breaking in, Scott finds only an odd suit in Pym’s safe.  He discovers the suit gives him the ability to shrink down to the size of an ant and even communicate with them.  Hank and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) soon contact Scott and train him on how to use the suit so that he can steal a piece of technology from Pym’s old company, and prevent it from being used by Hank’s old protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll from Netflix’s House of Cards) for nefarious purposes.

I really liked Ant-Man.  Unlike many other movies in the Avengerverse, this is not a by-the-numbers origin story.  I enjoy all the Marvel films, but they needed something new, something fresh. Ant-Man is a heist movie, along the lines of The Italian Job, but with superhero elements.  I liked the different feel to this film than other Marvel films, something that I must thank the screenwriters and director Peyton Reed for.  This is definitely one of the more memorable post-Avengers movies, and I will definitely be buying it.

This movie is lighter and funnier than Marvel’s recent entries. The banter between characters is well-written, and the entire cast has great chemistry with each other.  For example, when Cross and Hank are in a scene together, I get the sense that they were once mentor and mentee, that there is history there.  I do not feel like I’m watching Michael Douglas and Corey Stoll read lines to each other, something that I am thankful for.  All the leads disappear into their characters, something that only great performers can do.

The action in this movie is also quite unique. When Scott shrinks, the world around him becomes a dangerous one: everything from showers to sinks goes from an afterthought to a perilous situation, allowing the filmmakers to be very creative with their locations.  My two favorite fights are both in the climax because they are the most original places for a fight (and no, I won’t spoil them here).  The visual effects department has done an extremely good job here with the action scenes.  I also felt the pacing was deliberate, as if the film wanted to take its time letting us get to know the main players before they met up, something I respect very much.

I also most comment on the director, Peyton Reed. Reed’s filmography does not tend well to action, with him mostly directing comedies (Bring it On, The Break-Up, and Yes Man are his most well-known).  These films are good, but not amazing.  I certainly never would have chosen Reed based on them.  However, he serves as the perfect director, striking a fun, easygoing tone while also subtlety building suspense for the final act.  Nothing feels rushed here; all the characters are likable (yes, even the villain) and we understand their motivations.  It’s a true accomplishment to have every main character in your movie be an interesting one, and I give credit to Reed and the four screenwriters for crafting it.

My only gripe is with one fight sequence in the middle of the film. It isn’t bad, it’s just there to link this movie to the others in the Avengerverse.  It also ends with a good joke, which makes up for it.  Also, the film gets right back on track after it, so it isn’t a big issue.

All in All, Ant-Man is a hilarious, fun, and thrilling ride that should leave the whole family (yes, the whole family) entertained.

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence (there are a couple of “s” words and some milder language, but nothing too bad)