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

3.5 out of 5 stars (Above Average)

A Simple Favor Poster
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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

The Nun: Horror film is Predictable, but Fun

2.5 out of 5 stars (Decent)

The Nun poster
Image from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5814060/

The Nun is the newest installment in the popular Conjuring film series, though you don’t need to have seen the other films to get it.  While it certainly isn’t as good as The Conjuring 1 and 2, the film is a suitably fun Haunted House Movie (or, Haunted Abbey Movie in this case), and should satisfy people who enjoy easy, predictable jump scares with friends.  Unfortunately, anyone expecting a character-driven story like the first two Conjurings will be sorely disappointed.

Father Burke (Demian Bichir) has been sent to an Abbey by the Vatican to investigate a nun’s suicide.  He is joined by unavowed novice Irene (Taissa Farmiga, TV’s American Horror Story) and comedic relief guide Frenchie (an enjoyable Jonas Bloquet), and the trio sets off to the abbey unaware of the sinister and supernatural evil that calls it home, namely a ghostly Nun (An effective Bonnie Aarons).

I understand why most critics are being harsh on this film.  This is a horror series that has stood out from the crowd by providing engaging stories and interesting characters along with effective scares, and this one is more focused on the scares.  The characters are not as interesting as they could be, but the performances are good enough to get you through if you like this kind of thing.  I’ll likely forget most of the details of this film after writing this review, but I enjoyed watching it with my cousin alone in the dark theater.  This should have been a Halloween release, not a Summer one.  The dark, gothic design of the Abbey and candle-lit hallways make it perfect for home viewing parties with friends, and there are unexpected bits of humor to lighten the mood (something other films did not have), to good effect.

The Nun’s biggest failure is its reliance on predictable jump scares over an engaging story or characters.  The camera movement repeats in every scary scene to prepare you for the ghouls to pop out: Shot of the room from the ceiling, then a close-up shot of the character’s face, then the camera slowly turns to reveal the ghost behind them.  It’s fun, but seriously predictable and feels longer than its 96-minute runtime.  Despite that, I would still recommend renting the film, as there are enough good effects and some good humor to make it a fun ride. Rent it.

Rated R for Terror, Violence, And Disturbing/Bloody Images

Show Dogs: Overly Edgy Kid Flick Has Little for Adults

1.5 out of 5 stars (one of the worst films I’ve seen this year)

Show Dogs poster
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Show Dogs is one of the strangest kid films I’ve ever seen.  Not since Kangaroo Jack has a movie been so confused about who its audience is, containing jokes about inbreeding, disassociation, and other things you don’t want to explain to your child.  Add a terrible script with an awkwardly miscast Will Arnett as the human lead, and you have a recipe for a film that will go down as one of the most bizarrely mishandled talking dog movies in history.

The paper-thin plot follows somehow ownerless New York cop canine Max (voiced by a dedicated Ludacris) who is partnered with FBI Agent Frank (An embarrassed-looking Arnett) to help find a panda smuggler at a dog show.  Unfortunately, Max couldn’t give a lick about dog shows, and must enlist the help of an ex-best-in-show dog Philippe (voiced by an unrecognizable Stanley Tucci). Hilarity supposedly ensues as Max tries to hunt down the smugglers and learn to respect the dog show life, while Frank somewhat hits it off with another dog handler (Natasha Lyonne).

This should not be in a theater.  It stinks of multiple writers who had no idea who it was aimed at. One scene in particular has invoked parental disdain in which Max enters a dissociative dream after being told to go to his “zen place” when the judges inspect his private parts for the competition.  Luckily, the backlash is seeing the scene removed from theatrical release this weekend, but I think there are other out-of-place jokes here given the type of film it is.

Show Dogs is an awkward mess whose needless adult jokes make it inappropriate for the small children who will otherwise enjoy it.  I hope everyone was paid well for this; I only paid with my time.

Rated PG For Suggestive And Rude Humor (A ton of it), Language (Damn and BS are used once), And Some Action (A brief scuffle at the end).  Leave this dog in timeout.

2.5 out of 5 stars (decent)

Jennifer's Body poster
Poster from https://www.movieposter.com

In 2009, the screenwriter for Juno (Diablo Cody) wrote another teen film, this being the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body.  Again, I was too young to see it, but I loved the idea.  The ads wanted you to know that this was from the writer of Juno, a fact that I ignored because it didn’t matter to me at that time.  Jennifer’s Body is a decent teen flick, but doesn’t fully succeed because it’s too afraid to go all out on its gleefully dark/comic premise.

The story follows Needy (Amanda Seyfried), a nerdy mousy teen who has been BFF’s with Jennifer (Megan Fox) since childhood (“Sandbox love never dies”, as she puts it). Despite Jennifer being the equivalent of Kim Kardashian, she and Needy’s friendship powers on, much to the questioning of Needy’s boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons).  He tells her that Jennifer controls her life, but Needy doesn’t really see it that way.  Oh, the naivety of blonde girls in movies will never cease.

Jen coaxes Needy to skip a date with Chip so they can go to a rock concert for new indie band Low Shoulder.  Needy notices they’re creeps, but Jen seems very fascinated with them.  Before Needy can persuade her friend that these guys give her the heebee jeebees, the bar at which they’re playing burns down, killing several people.  The girls, along with the band, escape the blaze, but a shocked Jennifer gets in the unmarked, suspicious-looking van with the band members, who then drive off.  If that weren’t suspicious enough, the next time Needy sees her friend, Jen vomits black CGI ooze on the carpet before just walking away.  The next day, Jennifer appears at school as if nothing happened, thus disturbing Needy.  Needy must discover what’s wrong with her friend, who seems to have developed a more literal “taste” for men, before it’s too late.

This movie does a few things right. First, it seems like a realistic enough high school, with kids who look 18 or 19 instead of 30, something that is exceedingly common in movies about “teenagers”.  Second, the dialogue is fun and snappy most of the time, save for a few Juno-esque moments (where the characters suddenly give small soliloquys out of nowhere) that took me out of the movie for brief moments.  Fox and Seyfried work well off of each other, creating a believable friendship despite the script rushing through that aspect in the opening minutes.  This movie proves that good chemistry between actors can overcome a medium-level script.  I also cared about the other characters, a reaction that I can’t get from many modern horror flicks.  The special effects are also decent, though they are starting to show their age.  Finally, though not all of the comedy works, the stuff that does hit is funny.

Unfortunately, the horror element doesn’t work very well here. This movie should have been an absolute gorefest, but instead cuts away from the scary actions happening, only allowing us to see the bloody aftermath of the attacks.  This is a problem because the scary scenes have good buildup, but cut away right when the good stuff is about to happen (Think Godzilla 2014).  The difference is that Godzilla was more of a human movie, but this is supposed to be a supernatural horror film.  Supernatural horror films need gore, and this just doesn’t deliver enough.  The other issue I have is the rock soundtrack.  I like rock, but most of the songs chosen seem out of place, save for the awesome instrumental during the climax scene.  It would be like if Radioactive played in a scene from Ratatouille: It’s a good song, but it wouldn’t go with the film.  Musically, the instrumentals work wonders, something that many modern horror films get right.

I think the filmmakers were too afraid to go all out on this movie: It could have been something like Scream, a film which combines scares and dark comedy expertly.  I really wish this movie could be better than it is.  Watching it, I was thinking what I would have done to improve the movie.  I would have chosen different songs and increased the gore a little bit.  I mentioned that some of the comedy doesn’t work, mainly the soliloquys.  I swear, more than once, the girls will go from talking like regular teenagers to randomly spewing out dialogue that sounds like something Juno would have said.  Very few people can make teenagers consistently witty and make seem normal, and Cody isn’t one of them.  I suggest that she watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the new Doctor Who series.  Those were able to consistently blend smart and witty dialogue with horror elements very well, one of many reasons why I love them both.

Rated R for Sexuality, Bloody Violence, Language, and Brief Drug Use

“Krampus”: Holiday Horror Flick Deftly Mixes Scares with Humor

3.5 out of 5 stars (above average)

Krampus poster
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Good modern Christmas films are hard to find. Sure, we rewatch Home Alone and The Santa Clause each year, along with the Rankin-Bass collection, but there’s a depressingly small selection of modern Christmas flicks.  2008’s Four Christmases is funny if you like old Vince Vaughn, and one can always find their Elf DVD to watch for the umpteenth time, but the 2010s had yet to bring us a memorable Christmas film (Seth Rogen’s The Night Before could have filled this void were it not for its overdependence on raunchiness, but that’s another article).

Then, like that gift you never know you wanted, Krampus came down under my cinematic tree. On paper, Krampus sounds like yet another film where we watch good actors get killed until there’s one left and then we can go home, having gained nothing, but lost two hours of our lives.  However, with perfectly-cast actors, a surprisingly tense script, and taught direction, Krampus is a holiday movie that will make you believe in the Christmas spirit, or else.

The film opens with Max(newcomer Emjay Anthony) having another bad Christmas. The reason?  His middle-class parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) are at the throats of their redneck siblings (David Koechner, Allison Tolman, and Conchata Ferrell).  Max is sick and tired of these repeated family feuds at Christmastime, finding solace in the arms of his grandmother (Krista Stadler) amongst all the chaos.

The last straw comes when one of Max’s cousins chastises him for still believing in Santa Claus, causing the boy to rip up and discard his letter to him. Little does Max know that this act will bring a supernatural demon upon his family that will force them to put aside their differences and work together to survive.

I did not know about this film until a friend recommended it. He told me that the film’s comedic side was kept out of the advertisements, leading to people being somewhat disappointed with the final product.  I personally enjoyed the film’s clever mixture of horror and laughs throughout most of the proceedings.  I say most because the movie decides to drop the humor in the third act, a decision that doesn’t ruin the movie, but definitely makes it strange when you think about where the movie began.

The cast here is perfect. Adam Scott fits well into the lead role, and Toni Collette is a force to be reckoned with, as always.  Emjay Anthony is appropriately sympathetic as Max, never becoming annoying like many kid actors do these days.  However, David Koechner totally steals the movie.  I believe this is his best role since the Anchorman movies, as it allows him to be absolutely hilarious as well as do some decent dramatic work.  Koechner’s character would have been annoying had it been played by another actor, so I am happy that he was chosen.  The rest of the family also holds their own, each becoming more likable as the film progresses.

I also must compliment the writing of this movie. The first 20 minutes cheat you into believing that the film will be another holiday dysfunctional family comedy a la Nothing like the Holidays or Christmas Vacation.  I generally detest dysfunctional family “comedies”, as watching people argue for two hours is not my idea of entertainment. Arrested Development is excluded from this, as it does it right.  However, the difference between this and Nothing like the Holidays is that the dialogue here is darkly comedic rather than outright hurtful, allowing for laughter to come.  However, the horror comes in at the start of act 2, seeing a majority of the comedy come in witty bits between the horror elements.  This works because, for the most part, one element doesn’t hurt the other.  The film maintains its dark and intimidating tone despite having funny bits.  Combining horror and humor is a very hard task, and I applaud the writers for being able to accomplish that throughout most of the film.

Unfortunately, that delicate balance drifts over to the horror side in the third act. I personally had no problem with this, but it may surprise people who were under the impression that the film was a comedy with horror elements in it.  The tone is at its darkest in act three, and the funny lines become few and far between.  There’s one sequence that is somewhat darkly comic, but it is played up more for serious horror than dark humor, which, given that the sequence involves (I’m not kidding here) demonic gingerbread men, I’m surprised they pulled off.  That is the genius of this film.  It gives you scenarios that you think will fail epically, but makes them work to the film’s advantage.

If you like horror films with a dash of humor, then this will be for you. If you like lighter horror comedy fair, I suggest Fright Night from 2011.  It’s not Christmas-themed, but it is entertaining.

All in all, Krampus is a well-written, perfectly cast horror film with a comedic edge that manages to both scare you silly and make you laugh.  See it.

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Horror Violence/Terror, Language, and some Drug Material