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

Marshall: Unpretentious Legal Drama Has Great Performances, Timely Message

4 out of 5 stars (one of the best of the year)

Marshall Poster
Image from imdb.com

I’ll be completely honest here: The primary reason I saw Marshall was because Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t at my local theater.  The trailer for Marshall made it look like an overly serious legal drama that would likely drown in its own self-importance (not that I’m downplaying the importance of this case, but Hollywood has a tendency to over-dramatize these “based on real events” stories to the point of hilarity).  I entered expecting a film that would get on its soap box about race issues in an attempt to be relevant in these racially divided times.  Thankfully, it avoids that nauseating trope and instead does something that far more biopics should do: Marshall is a solidly entertaining legal drama that humanizes its subject without placing him on a “higher than thou” pedestal.

The story follows Thurgood Marshall (A charming Chadwick Boseman, soon to appear as Marvel’s Black Panther), an African-American lawyer for the NAACP.  Marshall is the best at what he does, travelling around the country fighting for innocent black men to receive fair treatment under the law rather than be unjustly trampled by it.  He’s like Gandhi with a suit and a legal degree, spreading justice wherever he goes.

Marshall’s newest assignment is Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of NBC’s This is Us) a black man on trial for the rape and attempted murder of white upper-class socialite Eleanor Strubbing (a decent Kate Hudson).  However, as the judge (James Cromwell) isn’t particularly fond of out-of-towners who aren’t licensed to practice locally, Marshall is partnered with white insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (A surprisingly good Josh Gad), and forbidden to speak during the trial.  Add one sniveling poster child for upper crust aristocratic entitlement (You know, the kind that Americans despise), in opposing council Loren Willis (a delightfully hateable Dan Stevens), and Marshall is in for the case of his life, facing doubt, racism, and finding a surprising ally in Friedman along the way.

Marshall is a great movie.  It’s not as brutal as, say, 12 Years a Slave, but it still gives you an understanding of the hardships faced by African-Americans in this time period.  Much of this is due to Chadwick Boseman’s wonderful performance, imbuing Marshall with sincerity, humor, and, most importantly, a palpable belief in positive change that makes him easy to root for.  Josh Gad also turns in a great performance, believably turning from an inexperienced yet well-meaning lawyer to a man who understands the importance of what he’s fighting for in this case.  Their chemistry is one of the film’s best aspects and makes the two-hour runtime fly by.  Hudson and Brown are good if a bit unmemorable, and Stevens relishes playing the most unsubtley biased lawyer this side of Alabama.

All that said, the most surprising element of this film is its sense of humor.  It would have been all too easy to make Marshall a depressing “message of the week” film whose only purpose for existence was to tell us how awful race relations used to be.  To my immense joy, the film was able to address the subject while possessing well-placed humor to liven up the proceedings and balance out the legal drama.  It’s not a comedy by any means, but the filmmakers understand that real people are not stoic beings: they can have more emotions than angry, sad, or impassioned. Hopefully more films will follow this trend of, well, making human beings act like actual human beings instead of overly serious robots who perpetually gaze off into the distance (I’m looking right at, well, most summer movies of 2017).

My only complaint is minimal, but worth noting.  I understand the film is in a different time period, but the music sometimes makes it feel like a TV movie rather than a theatrical release.  The biggest example is in the flashback when Eleanor recounts her rape to the court.  While the acting was all well and good, the music made me think I was watching the opening to an episode of the original CSI.

Marshall is an engaging, well-acted, and empowering film that allows you to see the humanity in its subject.  Chadwick Boseman is on the track to stardom, and Josh Gad shows unexpected screen presence.  The script balances courtroom drama with occasional bits of humor, the message is clear without banging you over the head, and the story is fascinating.  See Marshall at your local theater, or on streaming when it comes.  We need more movies that inform and entertain in equal measure, and this could be that trailblazer.

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Content, Sexuality, Violence, And Some Strong Language

This title is available on Amazon here

12 Years a Slave is available on Amazon here

Thor: Ragnarok is available on Amazon here

This is Us is available on Amazon here

Season 2 available here

 

The Circle: Techno-Thriller Spins its Wheels into Unintentional Comedy

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

The Commuter Poster
Image from https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com

Watching The Circle is like listening to someone who believes they are extremely knowledgeable about a certain subject, but in reality are spouting arguments that are as obvious as the sun.  They think you’ve never heard their points before, and you will thus be blown away by their statements.  You listen as a courtesy, deep down just wanting to see how insane the discussion can get.  The Circle is the living embodiment of that person, a film with several fascinating ideas that has no idea of how to cohesively explore them.  Add in some laughable dialogue, a sprinkling of less-then-stellar acting, and an ending that completely undermines what little story was there to begin with, and you have what is in my opinion the best comedy of 2017 (if unintentionally).

What little narrative we have follows Mae (a continuously accent-swapping Emma Watson), a woman searching for a job with better health benefits so that she may pay for her father’s MS medical bills (Bill Paxton in his final role).  When she’s not working at what I assume is an accounting firm, she either hangs out with her childhood friend Mercer (a knee-slappingly bad Ellar Coltrane) or goes kayaking.  And I hope you find those traits endearing, because that’s all the “development” we get on Mae before the plot starts.  Joy.

Mae’s luck changes when her workaholic friend Annie (Karen Gillian just biding her time until a better movie offer comes her way) suggests she apply for “The Circle”, a Facebookesque company run by the charismatic Bailey (Tom Hanks doing his best Steve Jobs impression).  Mae lands the job, but is soon unsettled by the odd (and frankly intrusive) behavior of her coworkers.  This includes: asking why she didn’t post about going kayaking last weekend, the company somehow knowing about her father’s medical problems without her telling them, and Bailey somehow being allowed to post several cameras at random locations around the state so the company can remain “connected” to everyone.  Only Ty Lafitte (a miscast John Boyega) seems to realize how bad this company is, and warns Mae of its (thinly veiled) nefarious intentions.  However, Mae is being tempted by Bailey and others around her, forcing to choose between compromising her moral compass or going along with the pack.

This movie is an absolute riot.  Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, and Karen Gillian do what they can with the material, but simply cannot make it work.  As well, characters come in and out of the film randomly, making it impossible to tell who we’re supposed to be invested in.  I won’t care about your characters if I don’t get to know them.  In writing this review, I honestly had to Google most of the character’s names due to how forgettable they were.

I could forgive the scant characterization if the plot was any good, but it feels like vital parts of the movie have been cut out, leading to nonsensical developments and a laughably on-the-nose message about the dangers of technology.  There are four or five TEDTalk-like scenes where Tom Hanks informs an audience of “innovations” that would have him arrested if this film existed in anything resembling the real world.  I understand it’s meant to be a warning to us, but the film is only preaching to the choir.  Now more than ever we are aware of how intrusive technology is, and this movie could have said something new to make us really think about whether or not we want that intrusiveness.  However, it chooses to simply make points we already know in ways that make after school specials look deep or intelligent.

The Circle is a well-intentioned, but horrendously executed film that becomes the funniest unintentional comedy since The Room.  Its points are painfully obvious, its acting stale, and its dialogue flat-out hilarious in its pretentiousness.  However, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good laugh with some friends.  Trust me, it’s worth it.

Rated PG-13 for a Sexual Situation, Brief Strong Language and some Thematic Elements including Drug Use

This title is available on Amazon here

 

“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

 

Wade into “The Shallows” For a Bloody Good Time

3.5 out of 5 stars (above average)

The Shallows poster
Image from https://www.amazon.com/

I walked into The Shallows thinking it would be a borderline exploitative examination of star Blake Lively in a beautiful bikini, that just so happened to involve a shark. To my astonishment, the film provided a strong female character, gritty realism, and a career-best performance from Ms. Lively.  The Shallows is Jaws for a new generation.  It is a bloody and thrilling ride from start to finish that will make you think twice about going in the water.

Lively plays Nancy Adams, a medical student and surfer coming to terms with the death of her mother some time ago. She has decided to visit her mom’s favorite hidden beach in order to gain some closure, while her father and sister only wish for her to come home.

When the day comes, Nancy ends up going out by herself (a big mistake for anyone) and ends up wiping out and crawling on a rock about 200 yards from shore. The problem?  No one knows she’s out there, and there’s a giant, bloodthirsty shark circling her position.  Now, Nancy must use her wits to escape the shark, all while nursing dangerous injuries and rapidly depleting strength.

The Shallows is a rare kind of PG-13 movie in that we actually see blood. Most films with this rating are toothless when it comes to showing aftermaths of violent attacks, but The Shallows sticks to its guns and isn’t afraid to show us the realistically gory results of the shark attacks.  It isn’t over-the-top in any way, just gritty and intense.  This is NOT a film to take your young kids to, as they will be scared by the shark and other environmental hazards Nancy must face in her journey for survival.  I don’t scare easily, but many of these sequences had me glued to my seat hoping that she would not die.  I was thoroughly invested in this character, something that few modern movies are able to do, and felt every hit she took.

That solid investment is due to the gritty performance by Blake Lively. Previously, I saw Lively as an actress who took on relatively safe roles, either because she didn’t have the range or couldn’t get any meaty parts.  I was proven wrong with this, watching with awe as Lively delivered an A-game performance that makes me excited for her next project.  This isn’t academy-award winning here, but based on what I had seen her do before (Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series and Green Lantern), I never would have pegged her for this kind of role.  I guess it just goes to show that some actors just get some bad luck starting out, but secretly have it in them to deliver a great and memorable performance when given the chance.

The camerawork is also well-done, allowing intensity to build throughout and even make some effective jump scares. The shark scenes are jerky without using too much shakeycam, meaning you can actually see the shark when its onscreen.  I don’t know about you, but I personally like to be able to see the thing that might haunt my nightmares in a movie.  Lastly, the filmmakers want you to admire Lively’s beauty, but not in a pervy way.  They show you close-ups of her bikini, but not exploitatively.  However, if  you just want to come and look at Blake Lively, you’ll get your money’s worth.

The Shallows is a well-acted, gritty, and unexpectedly scary thriller that proves that there may still be a reason to be afraid of the water. Enter them if you dare.

Rated PG-13 for Bloody Images, Intense Sequences of Peril, and Brief Strong Language