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

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

Crazy Rich Asians: Romantic Dramedy Promotes Positive Representation, Despite Flaws

3.5 out of 5 stars (Above Average)

Crazy Rich Asians Poster
Image from IMP Awards

Crazy Rich Asians is a pretty big deal.  Not only is it a mainstream film promoting positive representation of Asian culture, but it is also a funny, sweet, and sometimes thought-provoking look at the bonds of family.  Anyone expecting this to be a turn-your-brain-off yuk fest will surely be disappointed, but for people who go in with an open mind, Crazy Rich Asians should be a mostly satisfying experience.

Economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and her boyfriend Nick Young (Newcomer Henry Golding) seemingly have the perfect relationship.  Rachel is a hard-working middle-class Chinese-American, and Nick is secretly an ultrarich guy who chooses to live frugally rather than embrace his family’s lifestyle.  This secret is blown when Nick is named best man at a friends’ wedding, choosing this function to introduce Rachel to his family.  Now, Rachel must learn to mingle with the disapproving Youngs, especially, Nick’s tightly traditional mother (Michelle Yeoh), with supportive best friend Goh Peik Lin (A sometimes annoying Awkwafina) in tow.

Crazy Rich Asians mostly works.  Many of the characters come off as flawed and relatable human beings rather than easy stereotypes for us to laugh at.  Constance Wu and Henry Golding have great romantic chemistry, and Michelle Yeoh provides Nick’s mother with more depth than initially expected.  I understand where she’s coming from in her dislike of Rachel and can sympathize with it while still disliking her, a tricky feat to balance.  The soundtrack is also solid and some stylish visuals kept my engagement when present without overstaying their welcome.

On the negative side, Goh Peik Lin feels more like a borderline ghetto caricature than a regular person, along with a flamboyantly gay cousin Oliver (Nico Santos).  The actors do well, but I don’t understand why a movie that is so good at representing Asians as regular people would stoop to those stereotypes for comedy’s sake.  Goh Peik’s brother also takes pictures of Rachel creepily in an uncomfortable running gag given the current political climate (which I would love to stop thinking about at the movies).  However, these issues did not detract too much from my enjoyment of the film as a funny and occasionally resonant romantic dramedy.

All in all, Crazy Rich Asians is an enjoyable romantic dramedy with mostly solid performances, a respect for Asian culture, and a great step forward for proper representation of minorities onscreen.  Jon M. Chu’s stylish direction helps the slower moments, the soundtrack is toe-tapping, and the characters have unexpected layers.  However, Awkwafina and the gay character’s stereotypical portrayals do not fit in this movie, and, while not film-breaking, keep it from being one of the best of the year.  Despite these problems, I still recommend this film.  See it.

Rated PG-13 For Some Suggestive Content and Language

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom: Dino Sequel Darker, Scarier, and More Thrilling

3.5 out of 5 stars (above average)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Poster
Image from http://www.impawards.com/

I am baffled by the critical reception to Jurassic World: Fallen KingdomSitting at an unbelievable 51% critics rating on Rottentomatoes.com, reviewers are claiming this entry is stale, unimaginative, and lacking the magic of its predecessors.  I completely disagree with those criticisms and believe the film actually improves the series by being darker, scarier, and providing all the expected dino-action without sacrificing the heart and character of this franchise.  Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom should leave moviegoers totally satisfied with action, thrills, and a scarily plausible plot in today’s world.

The film picks up 3 years after the events of Jurassic World.  Now that the raptor’s out of the bag, the world is debating over the creature’s rights, with an active volcano threatening to sink Isla Nublar.  Scientist Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, sans high heels) and dino trainer Owen (the eternally awesome Chris Pratt) are called into action by elderly Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), who promises to relocate the creatures to a sanctuary safe from pesky humans.  Little do they know this expedition will lead to a conspiracy that will change human life forever.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom absolutely delivers as a summer blockbuster.  The story feels realistic, the characters have developed a bit, and the action is some of the best you’ll see this summer.  The effects are still astonishing and mix flawlessly with the dedicated human actors, who continue to sell the outlandishness.  Newcomer Isabella Sermon is also great as Lockwood’s young daughter.  She’s cute, likable, and believably terrified when called upon, all the more impressive when you realize it’s her first acting role.  Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard continue to have wonderful chemistry, and the climax is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The film has a few problems that hold it back from being one of the greats.  Rafe Spall’s human villain simply lacks a threatening screen presence and is one of the weakest baddies this year.  The writing for his character isn’t amazing, but I was more taken in by Wayne Knight with his goofy shaving cream can in the original than by this guy.  Knight was enticing in his greed, but this guy is so milquetoast that he comes off more like one of those 90’s villains who wants to close the rec center than a manipulative businessman.  Worse still, Toby Jones appears as a secondary bad guy, and is much more engaging.  I either would have made Jones the main villain or recast Spall with David Cross (Tobias from Arrested Development).  There’s also some mediocre aging make-up and weak explanation for Sermon’s accent, but my complaints end there.

These problems are minor in the grand scheme of things.  We come to these movies for the dinosaurs and characters, and we get great results with both.  While it doesn’t match the original classic, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a surprisingly solid sequel with great action, good characters, and the possibility for future adventures.  Also look out for Jeff Goldblum in the beginning and end returning as Dr. Ian Malcolm, and BD Wong as Dr. Wu.  This is one attraction you need to see up close.

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Science Fiction Violence and Peril

Infinity War: Mega Marvel Team-Up Should Thrill Fans, Confuse All Others

4 out of 5 stars (one of the best in its series)

Avengers Infinity War Poster
image from https://www.amazon.com/

Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of the past 10 years of superhero movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Fans of the franchise will laugh and cry as their favorite heroes go up against the toughest foe they’ve ever encountered, while non-fans will wonder what all the fuss is about.  Essentially, this is a movie for the devotees of this billion-dollar series.  If you are not on the Marvel train yet, either engage in a massive binge session to get caught up, or wait until The Incredibles 2 next month for your superhero fix.

The story sees several members of the Avengers team (who are too numerous to mention) battle the malevolent alien Thanos (an intimidating Josh Brolin).  Everyone will put their egos aside in order to stop Thanos from getting the magical Infinity Stones and annihilating half of Earth’s population.

Avengers: Infinity War will thrill and emotionally devastate series fans, but the uninitiated will be lost.  Despite the downbeat tone, the film contains unexpected humor from the character interactions and some of the best action in the franchise.  The performances are uniformly strong, and Brolin steals the show as one of the series’ best villains.  Lastly, the emotionally charged ending is nothing short of heartbreaking for fans, changing the rules for both this universe and superhero films as we know them.

Avengers: Infinity War is a thrilling, fun, and emotional climax to the past 10 years of Marvel’s reign over the multiplex.  May future installments continue to entertain as much as this.

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence And Action Throughout, Language, And Some Crude References

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.