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

Game Night: Clever Comedy Mixes Twisty Thrills with Dark Humor

3.5 out of 5 stars (Above Average)

Game Night Poster
Photo from https://i0.wp.com/teaser-trailer.com

In my opinion, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are two of the most likable actors working today.  Both are approachable, charismatic, and make mostly solid career choices.  (Excluding Bateman’s The Change-Up, a study in how not to make a raunchy comedy, and McAdams’ less-than-Oscar-worthy turns in those Sherlock Holmes movies).  Game Night brings the two together as a couple who get way in over their heads with one such night: dodging guns, crooks, and other crazy things that all 40-year-old couples deal with on a Friday night, or at least in this movie they do.  Game Night is a clever black comedy/thriller with solid laughs, some crazy antics, and a standout performance from Rachel McAdams.  May this be her comeback vehicle, because she is its biggest asset.

Bateman and McAdams star as Max and Annie, a competitive couple who engage in weekly game nights with their other couple friends: Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), and the womanizing Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who is currently dating the blonde British Sarah (Sharon Horgan).  The only hitch: Their creepy next-door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons, Breaking Bad), who just so happens to be the ex-husband of Annie’s sister.  He’s the kind of guy who carries his little white dog to the mailbox and has a dead-eyed stare that wouldn’t look out of place on a Criminal Minds episode, something that Plemons has made a career out of.

Max gets a punch to the ego with the arrival of his more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).  Not only does Brooks drive the car Max has always wanted, invested in Panera Bread, and looks like, well, Kyle Chandler, but he also steals game night away from Max and suggests the next one take place at his house, to which everyone agrees.  Once there, Brooks presents them with a murder-mystery game in which the winner will get Brooks’ car.  However, things soon spiral out of control as the couples embark on a night that none of them were ready for.

Game Night is surprisingly dark and bloody for a Jason Bateman movie.  Not that he hasn’t dabbled in dark humor before (see Horrible Bosses), but this film is as much a thriller as it is a dark comedy, and as such is quite gory in places (and hilarious as a result).  I watched in disbelief as the film was able to balance being an unpredictable thriller and a wild comedy while maintaining a consistent tone throughout, all due to an enjoyably menacing musical score.  I haven’t seen a legitimately dark comedy in a long time, and this film was truly a breath of fresh, messed-up air.

The performances are all solid, with Bateman doing his normal neurotic shtick and Chandler being charmingly swarmy.  However, they are both blown out of the water by Rachel McAdams, who delivers one of the most energetic performances so far this year, with Plemons not far behind.  I hope she returns to comedy more often, as she is clearly having the most fun out of the entire cast.  The other couples are quite funny, but it had more to do with the script than the actors themselves.  I was thankful that improvisation was kept to a minimum, proving my theory that, gasp, a good comedy comes from a good script, not funny people excessively mugging to the camera.  The same goes for the camerawork, with a standout sequence in which the camera follows the characters tossing an egg back and forth to keep it out of harm’s way.  It won’t win any Oscars, but it’s rare to see a comedy with this much effort released so early in the year.

Game Night is dark, funny, and unpredictable, relying on a solid script rather than excessive improvisation, and has a great comic cast.  Though I occasionally tired of Bateman’s angst, there are far more jokes that hit it out of the park than those that meet dead air.  This is a must-see for fans of dark comedies, Rachel McAdams, and anyone who wants a darker flavor of humor.  See it.

Rated R for Language, Sexual References, And Some Violence

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

Cruise’s New Thriller Will Have You on the “Edge” of Your Seat

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

 

In 1988, Bill Murray starred in a romantic comedy called “Groundhog Day”, a film where he was forced to repeat the same day repeatedly until his conflict was resolved. I do not remember how “Groundhog Day” ended because I was not a fan of it.  I felt extremely annoyed seeing the same thing over again with minor modifications.  I know it’s a fantasy, but I simply cannot wrap my head around two people falling in love with each other if they do not remember the connection they shared the previous day.

I bring this up because Tom Cruise’s new sci-fi thriller “Edge of Tomorrow” was described as “Groundhog Day” with a sci-fi twist a few months ago, to which I groaned. The past few Cruise movies I saw (“Jack Reacher” and “Oblivion”) were not as good as they could have been, so I was crossing my fingers that “Edge of Tomorrow” would not be annoying like “Groundhog Day”.  One can imagine my glee as I enjoyed this movie, with its great cast, sensational special effects, and engrossing story.  In my opinion, this is Cruise’s apology to the world for his past two films.

He plays Major Cage, a military talking head forced into a war with Mimics, aliens who wish to take over Earth. Despite Cage’s lack of fighting experience, he is shipped off to serve under the command of Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton) a day before Farrell’s squad is to engage the enemy on a beach.  Unfortunately, the squad is ambushed by Mimics (in one of the coolest action sequences this year), causing their ship to crash-land.  Cage is quickly killed.

Much to his surprise, Cage wakes up at the beginning of the previous day. The beach trip is repeated, but this time he meets the renowned super-fighter, Rita (Emily Blunt), who tells him to find her when he dies again.  When he does, and the whole day is repeated again, Cage finds Rita and informs her of their previous meeting.  It turns out that she had this ability to travel back in time at one point, and thus trains him to be a better fighter so he can win the beach over and end the cycle, and the war.

I came into this movie knowing that it had a sci-fi premise, great reviews, and Tom Cruise. I saw one or two ads, but nothing else, and knew that “The Fault in Our Stars” was beating it financially this weekend.  I have not yet seen “Stars,” but I think Cruise needed an “Edge” to regain popularity.  This film is funny, action packed, and entertaining to watch.  Cruise is back in top form here, proving to us that he still has some fight left in him, and Emily Blunt possesses the perfect balance of attractiveness and acting ability that so many rising stars may never reach.  Cruise and Blunt will not win academy awards for their performances, but they are definitely noticeable in a genre that, of late, relies far too heavily on special effects instead of characters.

The other bright spot of the film is its use of 3D. Those who read my reviews know I am very split on the use of 3D: I’m not against it, but studios should only use it if it will benefit the movie, not as an easy way to wrangle hard-earned money out of the gullible consumer.  I’ve been waiting for 3D like this ever since I saw “Sharkboy And Lavagirl” all those years ago: things were flying at my head, but not to the point of migraine induction.  If you can, see the movie in 3D.  I promise it is worth the money.

“Edge of Tomorrow” is not for everyone. The plot gets a bit complicated, and moves like a rocket, making it hard to play catchup if you have to refill your popcorn or use the facilities.  For those who enjoy fun, smart sci-fi with a story over the “Transformers” of the genre, see “Edge of Tomorrow.”

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-fi Action and Violence, Language, and Brief Suggestive Material