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

Happytime Murders: Mismarketed Puppet Film a Decent Crime Drama, With Raunch

3 out of 5 stars (Average)

Happytime Murders poster
Image from http://www.impawards.com/

The Hapytime Murders is by far the most heavily mismarketed film of 2018.  Advertised as a wild and raunchy comedy, the film is actually a decent crime drama with raunchy humor that showcases that puppets can do far more in movies than sing to your kids.  However, people who want a unique (if flawed) crime drama with some ribald humor will likely be impressed at the immaculate puppetry on display here, along with a solid human cast that plays surprisingly well off of their stuffed cast members.  The Happytime Murders is a good step in legitimizing puppetry as adult entertainment, despite a few bad jokes and some questionable script decisions.  It’s not as good as it could be, but my God if it couldn’t be a lot worse.

We follow ex-cop-turned-private-eye Phil Phillips (controlled and voiced by Bill Barretta), a puppet living in a world where humans coexist with the furry creatures, albeit with intense racial prejudice against them.  Phil witnesses the murder of a puppet cast member of The Happytime Gang, a Bear-in-the-Big-Blue-House-esque TV show, and is called to work with human ex-partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy largely playing it straight) to catch the killer.  However, when more members of the show appear stuffy side up, they must figure out who wants them all dead before it’s too late.

The Happytime Murders is a flawed movie more for its marketing than the actual film.  Why the studio decided to showcase nearly all the raunchy stuff (including the film’s best comedic set piece), rather than show its true colors is beyond me.  Had I not been warned by a good friend it wasn’t a wild comedy, this would be a very different review.  Luckily, I did, and was treated to one of the more entertaining (if very niche) cop pictures I’ve seen recently.  I like seeing McCarthy play second fiddle to someone in a more restrained role, and she works decently off of the creature.  To that end, the puppeteers have outdone themselves, creating some enjoyably violent sequences and showing their creations do things you never thought you’d see a puppet do (or want to see, for some).

Therein lies the problem: The Happytime Murders is only going to satisfy a very niche audience: those who enjoy crime dramas, raunchy humor, and puppetry, but don’t mind the furry guys showing their raunchy side.  My theater consisted of myself and two older couples, and they laughed about 4 times.  I laughed at most of the humor, but some of it just didn’t land.  Melissa McCarthy fans may also feel she is underused comedically (once again, the marketing has wrongfully placed her in the spotlight), and I understand that.  The film also tries to have a commentary on racism with the mistreatment of the puppets, but we aren’t told how the world got here and so it just comes off as well-intentioned, yet ineffective.

The Happytime Murders is a solid crime drama with bursts of raunchy humor that will have trouble finding an audience due to abhorrent mismarketing and expectations of puppetry.  The human cast (also featuring Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks, and a very funny Maya Rudolph) are game for the material, which treats itself just seriously enough to be taken as legitimate crime drama, but not so much that the raunchy humor feels misplaced.  Would I recommend it to everyone?  Definitely not.  There are things I will never be able to unsee here.  However, if you want a unique puppet film that doesn’t give a fluff about young kids, then I recommend The Happytime Murders.  See it.

Rated R for Strong Crude And Sexual Content And Language Throughout, And Some Drug Material

These “Angry Birds” Should Have Flown Straight to DVD

1 out of 5 stars (one of the worst of the year)

Angry Birds movie poster
Image from https://ia.media-imdb.com/

The Angry Birds Movie is what happens when a studio takes an outdated property, finds some half-decent actors, and inserts unnecessary adult humor into a premise devoid of any cinematic potential.  The film is loud, overlong, and dull, with voice actors who alternate between trying way too hard and not trying at all.  That’s not to say that young kids won’t enjoy it: the film is extremely colorful and the characters are always moving around, but the dialogue is immature and overly childish.  Again, I understand this is a movie targeted at young children, but in a postInside Out landscape, animated films like this are insulting to children’s intelligence as well as their parents’ tolerance.  In short, The Angry Birds Movie is the worst animated film I’ve seen this year, its single star gained out of the 5 honest laughs in its 97-minute runtime.

It concerns Red (Voiced by a wholly unlikable Jason Sudeikis), an angry bird on an island where every other inhabitant is a happy one. While people like you and me might see the glass as half-full, Red doesn’t see any water in the glass at all.  His latest angry outburst lands him in anger management class with some other angry birds: Bomb (Voiced by Danny McBride), who literally explodes when he gets angry, and Chuck (voiced by an extremely irritating Josh Gad), who possesses a pathological need for lawbreaking.  This class is taught by the eternally perky Matilda (voiced by an energetic Maya Rudolph), the only character I liked in the film.  This is Red’s worst nightmare, but for us, it’s only the beginning.

The feathers really hit the fan when green pigs, led by Leonard (Voiced by a boring Bill Hader) arrive unexpectedly. While the rest of the island is taken by these mysterious invaders, Red senses something is amiss and, after some investigation, discovers the pigs are imperialists who will take the island resources and leave it for dead.  This causes him, Chuck, and Bomb to set out on a quest for the legendary Mighty Eagle (Voiced by a paycheck-seeking Peter Dinklage) to help save their home.

This film annoyed me. Some critics have praised the animation for its detail on the bird feathers.  I don’t think the birds were much to look at, but some of the backgrounds were relatively pretty (in some cases they were more involving than the events transpiring with the characters).  However, the pig characters were ugly to me and seemed creepy when they moved around (which they do a great deal).  As well, I found the main characters to be unoriginal, unlikable, and somewhat grating.  I was never invested in these characters or cared about their adventure.  I honestly considered walking out at a couple of points (something I never do).  However, I thought it might improve in the end or have a message about the danger of imperialism. Unfortunately, what I got for my hard-earned-time was an anticlimactic 20 minutes of angry birds being flown at a pig castle via convenient slingshot (as in the mobile app, as far as I know).

The Angry Birds Movie is loud, obnoxious, and irritating to no end. Fans of the app may enjoy it, but for everyone else, I would suggest seeing Zootopia again.

Rated PG for Rude Humor and Action

Read my review for Zootopia Here

Read my review for Inside Out Here

Tron: Legacy: Sequel to Disney Cult Classic has Great Visuals, But Generic Plot

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

Tron Legacy Poster
Image from https://www.amazon.com/

In 1986, Disney released Tron, a film about a computer programmer (Jeff Bridges) getting zapped inside of a computer game and his quest to escape it.  Though the story and characters were criticized for their generic nature, the visuals pushed the boundaries for what could be done with a computer at that time, earning critical acclaim as well as a devoted cult fan base that waited hungrily for a sequel.  Their wish was granted in 2010 with Tron: Legacy, a film that suffers from the exact same problems as the original.  The visuals were top-notch in 2010 (and look fine to this day), but the story is ho-hum and the characters are forgettable. Tron: Legacy should entertain fans of the previous film, but will likely confuse or bore anyone else.

The film follows adrenaline junkie Sam Flynn (an emotionless Garrett Hedlund), son of legendary video game developer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges reprising his role). Sam spends his days parachuting off of buildings and being angsty about dad  disappearing on him 20 years ago.  Because I’m sure that the 10 year-old boys this movie appeals to will totally identify with a 20-something with daddy issues.  Anyway, Sam receives an unexpected visit from stand-in father figure Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner also returning) who informs him that a call was placed from his dad’s old office.  Because this number has been disconnected for 20 years, Sam decides to check the office out and see what’s going on.

Once there, he discovers the old Tron console along with the laser that blasted dad into the game all those years ago.  After putting 2 and 2 together, Sam blasts himself into the game and starts on a quest to find Kevin and bring him home.  Along the way, Sam befriends a program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde doing the best that she can) and discovers another named Clu (also Jeff Bridges), who has nefarious plans for the game world.

The best thing about this movie is its visual style. The visuals in the game are immediately eye-catching and unique.  I can admire the work that went into creating the world of Tron, as it likely took thousands of man hours to make everything look as cool as it does.  The action sequences are decently exciting, especially the motorcycle race frequently teased in the trailers.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t have much else going for it. Jeff Bridges is having fun revisiting his character as well as playing a villain, easily standing out among the cast.  Unfortunately, the movie falls on newcomer Hedlund, who is unable to properly emote any of his lines.  I believe his extreme sports obsession, but could not buy him as a computer hacker in the slightest.  Also, Sam doesn’t seem very happy upon finding his dad, the supposed emotional moment of the film.  The two of them have a fun conversation, but I never get the sense that the character is excited to see his father again.  Hedlund has gone on to star in other films (his most recent being Pan, a financial embarrassment), but it is hard to tell if he or the script is to blame for his characterization.  Wilde does okay in her role, but this is her least engaging performance.

Though Hedlund isn’t exactly the next James Dean, the script he is given doesn’t give him a lot to work with. After a decently tense opening act, the movie drops the potential “thriller” aspect in exchange for a predictable sci-fi narrative. It’s as if the filmmakers put 95% of their time and effort into the world of Tron, and the other 5% into creating an interesting story within it.  Sam’s character arc is generic and predictable, and the religious metaphors near the end of the film are insultingly obvious.  I like the idea of a world within a computer, but this movie simply doesn’t do anything unique with it.

Disney seriously needs to revamp its live-action division, as many of their recent efforts (Maleficent, Into the Woods) have had fascinating ideas and great marketing, but fallen short of their potential.  A third film in this series was planned due to surprising box office success, but was cancelled after the financial embarrassment known as Tomorrowland (a film whose biggest detriment was its overly mysterious marketing campaign).  It was no classic, but it was a fun family action movie with a great message and cast (George Clooney, Hugh Laurie)

All in all, Tron: Legacy is a visually appealing, yet thematically dead movie that fails to meet its complete potential.  Rent it if you want some decent action, skip it otherwise.

Rated PG for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action Violence and Brief Mild Language