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

“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

“Concussion”: Will Smith’s Football/Medical Drama Can’t Score The Winning Goal

2.8 out of 5 stars (decent)

Concussion movie poster
Image from http://www.joblo.com/

Concussion is one of those movies that has a good cast and a very important message, but has too many flaws to win an Oscar or be slated as a classic.  The cast members are giving it their all, but are let down by the material in front of them.  The director of this film has one other project under his belt, and it’s painfully easy to see that, with odd camera shots, not-so-subtle writing, and misplaced comedy that deflates the dramatic tension.  Thank God for Will Smith and Alec Baldwin being good enough actors to make the material work.  Had they not been cast, this film likely would have disappeared into the vacuum of forgotten sports dramas.

The film follows Dr. Bennett Omalu (Smith putting on an extremely convincing Nigerian accent), a coroner who discovered and named CTE, a disease afflicting retired football players as a result of multiple hits to the head over the course of their careers. To make matters worse, the NFL knew of this problem and put it under the rug.  No one believed Omalu besides ex-Steelers doctor Julian Bales (Baldwin having trouble deciding on whether or not to do a southern accent).  However, with the support of his boss (comedic relief Albert Brooks) and girlfriend (Gugu-Mbatha Raw), Omalu would stop at nothing.to expose the League and spread the truth to prevent further injury.

This movie caused mixed feelings for me. On one hand, Will Smith is dedicated to his character, keeping the accent up throughout, imbuing Omalu with likability and sympathy that immediately gets us on his side.  Alec Baldwin gives a fine performance as well, despite switching between his normal voice and an overdone southern accent (one scene in a hotel room near the film’s end is unintentionally hilarious due to this problem).  Newcomer Gugu-Mbatha Raw has good chemistry with Smith in their scenes together.  However, the scenes of players being affected by CTE are extremely tense, well-shot, and convincingly acted, brutally showing the pain these players went through, making them, in my opinion, the best scenes in the film.

Unfortunately, Concussion has several problems that keep it from being a complete pass.  The first and most glaring of these problems is the film’s pacing.  The first 20 minutes of this movie are glacially slow, making it impossible to tell what the main plot will be.  At first, it seems the film will be about Omalu’s relationship to his girlfriend, which left me feeling confused.  At the 30-minute mark, we see Omalu examine the first body (Mike Webster), and I remembered what I paid for.  The pacing picks up a bit after this point, but it still is a slow movie.

The second problem I have lies with the cinematography. This past semester (Fall of 2015), I took a video editing class where I learned the importance of camera shots, lighting, and other editing tricks.  The director of this film needed to take this class before he shot this movie.  Most scenes are fine, but there are others that are hilariously blurry, making it hard for me to know what to focus on.  There is also a sequence in a dance club that could have been deleted without hurting the movie at all.  These and other minor mistakes in the movie make it frustrating to watch at times, especially since the film’s message about the corruption of the NFL and its disregard for its players safety is one that everyone should see.

The final problem I have with the film is a more personal one. I didn’t grow up watching football and following player’s careers, so I don’t understand people’s obsession with it.  I do not hate the game itself, but the amount of love people have for it.  This movie was shot in Pittsburgh, where the events took place, and some of the dead players were Pittsburgh icons (Mike Webster was a “favorite son” of the area).  The movie seems to think that everyone going into this film will know about the players who died from CTE, and doesn’t make an effort to explain them to outsiders.  I did not grow up in Pittsburgh, nor had I ever heard of any of these players before seeing the film.  It is horrible that they died due to negligence of the NFL, but I could not feel as sad as the film wanted me to because of my lack of knowledge.

That being said, there are two reasons to see this film: The message about the corruption of the NFL, and Will Smith. Had I never seen Smith in a movie before, I would think he sounded like this character in real life.  While not Oscar-worthy, Smith’s dedicated performance deserves attention.  He carries the film on his shoulders, and his performance should not be missed.  Luckily, he was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, as well as other minor awards, but the Academy failed to recognize him, furthering the #Oscarssowhite controversy of this year.

All in all, Concussion is a decent movie with a very important message. It’s weighed down by odd directing, some badly-placed humor, and a horrid pace, but I still recommend the film so that people will know the truth about the game they love so much.

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material Including Disturbing Images and Language

“Dawn” of the Missed Opportunity

2.5 out 5 stars (decent)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Poster
Image from http://www.impawards.com.

Note: I enjoyed “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” far more the second time I saw it.  This movie is more about exploring complex ideas than it is about action sequences, and I thought I would get more of the latter.  While this isn’t my personal favorite in the series, I would give it at least 3.5 out of 5 stars (above average) now.  Please enjoy my review from 2014 below:

Sequels can be a mixed bag.  Occasionally, a sequel can rise above its predecessor (“The Godfather Part Two” and “The Dark Knight” are examples of this), but most of the time, sequels do not meet the expectations set by their predecessors, sometimes to glaringly disappointing effect.  I am extremely sad to report that “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” falls in the latter category.

For every well-executed action scene, there is a boringly-written conversation.  For every quiet scene with the apes, there is a scene of humans screaming at each other when everyone needs to take a breather.  If this sounds like a lot of action sequels, then I’m sorry to say that it is.

The story picks up ten years after the events of the first film, and life has radically changed for both humans and apes.

The apes, led by Caesar (A brilliant motion capture performance by Andy Serkis) have developed a mostly peaceful society in the Redwoods near San Francisco, believing that all humans have been wiped out by a human-bred virus released a decade earlier.  Unbeknownst to them, there is a small number of humans still living in the ruins of San Francisco. They are led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman giving quite possibly the least engaging performance of his career), a man who attempts to inspire the people, but is running on empty. In short, Annie’s hard-knock life would look great to these people.

To make matters worse, the humans are rapidly running out of power.

They know the location of a power source, but it’s in the apes’ territory. Desperate, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) decides to head in the area and talk to Caesar about activating the power source to ensure the humans’ survival. He takes along his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a doctor who used to work for the CDC (An extremely underdeveloped Keri Russell) with him.

At first, things don’t go well, but Malcolm convinces Caesar that his merry band mean no harm. Caesar lets them work, inciting unrest in his ape colony, unintentionally starting a fuse that will ignite the battle between ape and human.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes” ended up on my “Best of the Year” list three years ago because it combined human emotion with exhilarating action.

I was able to feel compassion for both Caesar and the good human characters. Here, the human characters are underdeveloped and boring, causing the audience to feel very little sympathy (if any) for them.  On the other hand, the apes are very interesting characters that I wanted to spend screen time with.

Whenever the apes were onscreen, I was engaged.  Whenever the focus shifted to the human side, I couldn’t care less.  It amazes me how the same writers who wrote “Rise” also penned this film.  There was a third person involved in writing this film that wasn’t on the last installment, but, as much as I’d like to say that this individual is responsible for the faults of this movie, I can’t.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of this film comes at the very end.  The last film ended cut and dry, where the filmmakers had the choice to make a sequel or not.  This film ends on a terrible cliffhanger.  I’m not against cliffhangers (some of my favorite films and TV shows use them), but this cliffhanger absolutely requires Fox to make a sequel.

Thankfully, one is already in the works, but if it wasn’t, this movie would end what began as a great series.

Some good qualities exist within this film.  The action sequences are quite glorious.  Though I adored the “less-is-more” approach to action in the last film, these sequences feel bigger than in their predecessor, making for some exciting action scenes.  As in the last film, the special effects are top-notch, creating realistic-looking creatures with dynamite facial expressions.  The quiet moments (where the apes are talking to each other via sign language) are the best ones.  The conversations in these scenes are very interesting, making this one of the few times where I actually wanted to read the subtitles.  Caesar speaks more in this one (as expected), but he does so confidently like a true leader, someone who could inspire all who listened to him.  It pains me to say this, but see this film for the action and Serkis’s performance.  Other than that, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a huge missed opportunity.

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and Brief Strong Language

“Days of Future Past” is X-hilarating

4.5 out of 5 stars (nearly a classic)

X-Men: Days of Future Past Poster
Image from https://www.amazon.com/

X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the best films of the long-running X-Men franchise.  It combines everything I love about the franchise: Interesting characters, good humor, and engaging action sequences, once again under the direction of Bryan Singer, the man who arguably started the public’s fascination with comic book films.  If you have not seen or have a general dislike of the X-Men films, then this will only confuse you.  If you love the films, this one will entertain you.

Logan (Hugh Jackman once again proving he’s the only man for the role) has joined forces with Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his once-foe Magneto (Ian McKellen) along with a rag-tag band of mutants who are fighting against the Sentinels, giant mutant-hunting robots created by Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage displaying that his small stature does not hinder his ability to intimidate).

The situation has escalated to the point that the mutant’s only option is to send someone back to 1973 and stop the Sentinels from being created in the first place.  A mutant with the ability to project people’s brains back in time does so to Logan so that he can get a younger Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to assist him with this.  Once there, he discovers that it was Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence once again displaying her amazing acting talents) who unintentionally caused the present problems.  Unfortunately, Charles is in a mental funk at this point, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is still up to his old tricks.  Time is of the essence, however, so Logan must accomplish his mission or risk the annihilation of the mutant population.

I cannot begin to describe how much this movie surprised me.  The trailers made it look as if it would be one of two things: absolutely amazing, or just okay.  Thankfully, it was absolutely amazing.  The plot moves quickly, the characters are as engaging as ever, and all of the humor hits the mark.  The story was written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (Vaughn directed X-Men: First Class, which breathed new life into the series), and the two of them have that rare ability to balance humor and seriousness without there being tonal whiplash.

Dinklage is the perfect man to play Trask, being so intimidating that you forget his dwarfish size.  He is one of the best villains I’ve seen in this series, the second being William Stryker in X2.  The viewer can hate and understand his goals at the same time, another rarity in an action film.  The real standout performance is Jennifer Lawrence, who commands the attention of the audience whenever she’s onscreen.  Provided she doesn’t pull any Lindsay Lohans on us, Lawrence should have a long and prosperous career.  McAvoy also succeeds at playing a broken man while not making his character depressing.  My only complaint is that some of the actors don’t get a lot to do.  Halle Berry shows up as Storm in the climax, but that’s about it.  Hopefully, she will get more to do in the next film.

All in all, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a fantastic movie, mixing the five star rating by a grain of salt.  It’s funny, action-packed, and absolutely amazing.

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Some Suggestive Material, Nudity (one humorous scene) and Language (not all that much)