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

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

“Civil War”: The Ultimate Marvel Movie

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

Captain America Civil War poster
Image from https://www.imdb.com/

Captain America: Civil War is the definition of an event film. All of your favorite Marvel heroes (sans Thor and Hulk) choose sides in a battle of ideologies as well as personal demons.  The action is great, the writing is mature, and the performances are highly memorable (especially from Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, once again showcasing their dramatic chops).  Everything from Tony Stark’s captivity to the battle with Ultron has lead up to this.  Sides will be chosen, friends will become enemies, and nothing will ever be the same.  And if you aren’t on the Marvel train by now, then don’t expect this to clear anything up, because you will not understand half of what is going on.

I won’t spoil anything for those who have not seen it, but here’s the gist: The government is tired of the destruction the Avengers leave behind after their epic battles, so they have imposed a law that would require all “enhanced beings” to be at the beck-and-call of a committee that would determine where they go, where they go, and how often they go to save the world, eliminating the choice each one has to use their abilities or not.  Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans totally disappearing into the character) doesn’t like this idea, so he is firmly against it.  However, Iron Man/Tony Stark (An angry, powerful Robert Downey Jr.) believes that the heroes should be put on a leash to prevent the deaths of innocents.  This difference of opinion will tear the Avengers apart, some siding with Cap, others with Tony, all while a vengeful man (Daniel Bruhl) watches with nefarious intentions

I cannot go into plot details without spoiling this event. The actors have really grown into their characters over the years, and they are directed to near-perfection by the Russos (those guys who brought you Community and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)  They know the seriousness of the story here, having the characters act like the adults they are instead of  having misplaced wit after dramatic moments.  This is the least humorous film in the Marvel cannon thus far, and it needed to be.  There is humor here, but it is only for comedic relief in what is otherwise a very dark offering.

Spider-Man is in the movie. Yes, they are rebooting him AGAIN.  While Tobey Maguire will always be My Spider-Man, this version fits the character well, injecting the snarky humor he is known for in the comics.  I wore my Spider-Man T-shirt to the film, eagerly awaiting the new wallcrawler.  His Peter Parker comes off as a regular 16-year-old should (and yes, the actor is actually 16 this time, no more attractive 30-somethings in teen roles).  Though I have seen two film series of the character in the last 10 years, I am eager to see this version expanded upon in his own solo movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, out in 2017

Overall, this is the Marvel movie for people who think these films are afraid to tackle mature issues. It is gritty, serious, and surprisingly realistic in its treatment of the subject matter, which was necessitated in order for this to work.  I don’t know if this will be a billion-dollar phenomenon, but I can say that this is exactly what Age Of Ultron should have been, and what DC’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice so desperately wanted to be.

Rated PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Violence, Action, and Mayhem

Terminator Genisys: Retcon of Classic Franchise Works, Thanks to Ahnuld, Great Action

2.5 out of 5 stars (decent)

Terminator: Genisys Poster
Image from http://www.impawards.com/

The Terminator is one of my favorite sci-fi movies. It tells the story of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), an average Jane waitress who discovers she is the mother of the leader in a war against the machines.  Trouble is, there is an evil robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger in his iconic breakout role) sent from the future to assassinate her before the child can be created.  It’s a thrilling ride that fills me with suspense every time I watch it.

Six years later, Terminator 2: Judgement Day hit screens, continuing the story and taking its characters in unexpected directions while also stopping the machines from ever being able to rise, providing what should have been a great end to the franchise.

Unfortunately, Hollywood loves $, so they pumped out two terrible, unmentionable sequels, the latter of which is totally reviled by Terminator fans such as myself. I did not want another movie from this well-milked franchise, but someone upstairs did, so we got Terminator Genisys (yes, the Y in the title is stupid), a film that erases the events of the previous films, allowing for new events to shape the future.  Surprisingly, the film is a decently acted romp is fun, funny, and action-packed.  It is not the best in the series by any means, but it gives me hope for the new franchise.

John Connor (this time played by Jason Clarke of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) wants to stop Skynet, an evil A.I. and cause of the war, from launching.  That A.I., sensing its destruction, sent by a Terminator to kill John’s mother Sarah before John can be born, leading John to send one of his best men, Kyle Reese (this time played by Jai Courtney is his first good performance), to save her.

When Kyle gets back to 1984, he discovers that Sarah (Emilia Clarke, not sure if her and Jason are related) does not need help, in fact, she has been raised by a Terminator she affectionately calls “Pops” (Arnold Schwarzenegger, still awesome at 67 years old). The trio discovers that Skynet will launch in the year 2017, so they time-travel there to stop it from happening.

This film went far and beyond my expectations. The action is fun to watch and very thrilling, giving us a sense that director Alan Taylor (the man behind Thor: The Dark World and a few episodes of Game of Thrones) knows what he’s doing here.  Taylor was a perfect director for the material, giving it the perfect tone for our times (fun, with humor, but we still are engaged in the proceedings).  I hope he stays on for the sequel this film sets up (this is supposed to be the first in a trilogy, how many times have I typed THAT in the past year?)

Most of the actors are good. I was very nervous when I saw Jai Courtney was cast as Kyle Reese because I normally don’t like him as an actor.  Courtney does very well here, providing us with a decent characterization and giving him a personality.  Emilia Clarke sadly doesn’t have much to do other than be a “strong” woman, leading us not to care about Sarah Connor as much as we once did.  Clarke is attempting to channel Hamilton in T2, but it doesn’t have the same effect because we’ve already seen Hamilton do it before.  We don’t know this Sarah Connor, and the movie doesn’t really give us enough characterization to let us.  Hopefully that will be fixed in the sequel.  As for Jason Clarke, he is a much better John Connor than Christian Bale was back in the pile of vomit that was Terminator Salvation.  He has a good and surprisingly commanding screen presence that was totally absent in Apes.  I’d follow him in a battle against the machines any day.

Now for the big guy, the reason this franchise has lasted since 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold looks just fine at the ripe young age of 67, still kicking butt and taking names with a great finesse.  He cracks a lot of jokes in the movie, and a large majority of them are right on the money.  He was the one reason I was excited to see this movie, and he delivered the goods.  I don’t really buy the father-daughter relationship he’s supposed to have with Sarah, but that’s a problem of the script, not the big A.  Schwarzenegger is having a ball playing this character, giving one of his best performances for the 2000s (his best performance to me will be the T-800 from the original).  If you come for anything, come to see Arnold.  He said he’d be back, he and he kept his promise.

As with a growing number of action movies these days, the story is why the film loses some points. Early on, the film makes numerous references to the events in the first two movies, as if this takes place in the same continuity.  However, the movie then asks us to believe that THIS story takes place in an alternate timeline because of an event that makes absolutely no sense in context with anything we’ve seen in this series before.  It’s a big logic jump, and I can see why many people are not going along with it.  Nothing feels rushed, but some elements don’t feel fully realized.  It’s so sad to me that a big budget seems to mean a decent story in the summer months.  Just once, I’d like to have a summer movie where the people making it completely thought out the story Before they started shooting it.

Overall, Terminator Genisys is a good time at the movies that has enough action and funny one-liners to make up for its somewhat perplexing plot.  See it.

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action Violence and Gunplay Throughout, Partial Nudity (as it goes with the franchise) and Brief Language