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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 14, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 37
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Inventive Simple Favor an elegantly vulgar comedic mystery
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

A SIMPLE FAVOR
Now playing


Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) has disappeared. The stylish and opinionated wife and mother asked her friend Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) to pick up her son Nicky (Ian Ho) from school five days ago only to never be seen again. Emily's husband Sean (Henry Golding), in London at the time of her disappearance, is understandably worried, and while his wife has vanished in the past, she's never done so quite like this. As she considers Emily to be her best friend, and because her son Miles (Joshua Satine) has become a close buddy of Nicky's, Stephanie is determined to find out what happened, and in the process uncovers a surrealistic mystery of false identities, familial tragedy and outright psychological manipulation that's unfathomable in its cryptically ambiguous enormity.

Based on the best-selling novel by Darcey Bell and featuring a crackerjack script by Jessica Sharzer (Nerve) and exquisitely dexterous direction by Paul Fieg (Ghostbusters, Bridesmaids), A Simple Favor is unquestionably one of 2018's most adventurously inventive surprises. A combination of a fiercely dark comedy, a labyrinthine psychological thriller and marvelously feminine character study analyzing friendship, parenthood, romance, sibling rivalries and heartrending grief in the wake of profound tragedy, this movie is a pure joy first frame to last. More importantly, it features a pair of performances from Kendrick and Lively that are both outstanding, the former in particular delivering an award-worthy turn of mesmerizing eloquence that had me wanting to give her a standing ovation as soon as the film came to an end.

Even though Fieg is a vaunted comedy director, it's still surprising just how consistently funny this effort ends up proving to be. This is like some Agatha Christie mystery crossed with 'Leave It to Beaver,' Gone Girl, Leave Her to Heaven, The Trouble with Harry and an old school Billy Wilder comedy like The Apartment or Some Like It Hot. It's both vulgar and innocent at the same time, Stephanie's plucky goody-two-shoes demeanor and Emily's acerbic, foul-mouthed feminism cooking up a spicy gazpacho that's as icy cold as it is agreeably tasty.

The jokes come fast and furious but almost all of them still feel organic to the material, to the characters and to the world they all inhabit. Fieg juggles things with a determined rambunctiousness that's one part 'Scooby-Doo,' one part 'Murder She Wrote' and one additional part Laura, the director bringing an elegant old Hollywood gravitas to the proceedings while never undercutting the more playfully juvenile elements that make the film so much fun. Along with Game Night, this is one of the more anachronistic, imaginative and wholly original comedies to come down the pike in ages, watching it a merrily vulgar breath of fresh air I absolutely adored.

Lively is in full Gene Tierney mode and she's wonderful. Filling costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus' (Hidden Figures) heavenly collection of pantsuits, leisurewear and other assorted designs to perfection, the actress paints a portrait of stylishly snobbish contempt that's intoxicating. And yet, Lively takes things even further, her jolly wide-eyed astonishment as Emily warms to Stephanie's quirky charms coming to life with an electric vibrancy that held me happily spellbound. It's arguably the best performance of The Shallows and The Age of Adaline actress' career, her feisty femme fatale a worthy addition to the film noir canon.

But as terrific as she is, and Lively is magnificent, the real star of the show is Kendrick. Sitting alongside Charlize Theron in Tully, Matilda Lutz in Revenge and Chloë Grace Moretz in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, her performance as Stephanie is one of my favorites of 2018. Kendrick hides a marvelous sea of hurt and intelligence behind her beatific bubbly façade, the pain of past regrets and years of blaming herself for unimaginable heartbreak coming to the surface with sublime naturalistic refinement. Her unique physicality, the way she commits herself to Stephanie's transformative journey, her gonzo gusto as she does the unthinkable and finds a variety of ways to solve a myriad of mysteries while also healing her own fractured psyche, it's all glorious. Kendrick excels in ways that boggled my mind, and whether chatting about making friendship bracelets on her character's vlog or gently coercing a boozing alcoholic to reveal long-held family secrets in order to bring a semblance of light into a world smothered in darkness the actress does no wrong.

There are times when the overt silliness and pithy one-liners grow tiresome, and if not for the fact Fieg and Sharzer pay off their running gags involving a trio of snootily judgmental parents with a dazzling climactic joke I'm pretty certain I could have done without their observational Greek Chorus nonsense. Also, as charismatic as he might be, Crazy Rich Asians heartthrob Golding never gets the chance to develop his character as fully as his costars do, Sean not all that much more than a pretty face sporting an undeniably sexy accent.

But who am I kidding? I'm absolutely head over heels for this little gem of a motion picture. Great mystery. Interesting characters. Sidesplitting comedy. If I could program this movie as a double bill with the equally entertaining Game Night I'd do so right this very second. More than that, I just hope people don't let the ambiguous and purposefully sparse marketing for A Simple Favor dissuade them from giving it a look. Fieg's film is one of the most thrillingly unique comedic undertakings of this or any other year, and as such I plan to head back to the theatre to watch it again for a second time relatively soon.


Black's The Predator a violently comedic disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE PREDATOR
Now playing


Over 30 years ago a dense Central American forest was visited by a new kind of interstellar hunter, this creature tearing apart an elite mercenary unit and a hardened CIA operative as if they were butter until their leader, the lone survivor of the assault, beat this killer at its own game. Not too long afterwards, another one of these alien sportsmen came calling, this time heading to a gang-ridden Los Angeles in order to stalk members of a vaunted LAPD assault team, their determined commander ending this being's hunt before it could collect its final two trophies.

In Mexico, decorated sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) has a run-in with one of these alien visitors, absconding with its headgear and one of its gauntlets as he tries to make his way back to the United States. Mailing these items to his wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) and autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) before being taken into custody, it turns out this particular Predator isn't visiting Earth to hunt, those stolen artifacts having surprising value to the creature. With a clandestine government operative (Sterling K. Brown) looking to shut him up permanently, McKenna teams up with evolutionary biologist Dr. Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) and a ragtag group of psychologically unbalanced military prisoners (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera) all suffering from PTSD and affectionately dubbed 'The Loonies' in order to protect his son, never imagining that by doing so the fate of the entire planet might be falling into their lethal hands in the process.

Picking up after the events of 1987's Predator, 1990's Predator 2 and 2010's Predators, director and co-writer Shane Black's (who starred in the original as the ill-fated communications officer Hawkins) The Predator is a perplexing misfire. Funny, well cast, featuring a couple of strong, imaginative moments that are suitably thrilling, this sequel is nonetheless a convoluted, haphazardly plotted mess that grows more tiresome and visually chaotic as it moves towards its frenetic and rushed conclusion. Black and co-writer Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) put so much emphasis on the comedy and so little on the actual story it is almost as if the pair made their narrative up as shooting progressed. This last third is particularly frustrating, and as good as the likes of Holbrook, Tremblay, Brown, Munn, Rhodes, Key and Jane might be, to say I could have cared less if any of them lived or died wouldn't be too far from the truth.

If that sounds harsh that's by design. Casting controversies aside, which I'm not going to go into detail here (which are admittedly still head-scratching in their stupidity considering this film's plot; kudos to Munn for standing up and saying what needed to be said and forcing the studio to do the right thing), but this sequel's problems are legion. As good as a lot of the jokes Black and Dekker have dreamt up, and as terrific as the cast might be at delivering most of them, the central crux driving the plot forward is, to put it bluntly, stupid. The reasons the Predators have been coming to Earth to hunt, what they have planned for our planet, it's just silly, and once the truth is revealed it's possible I audibly sighed in flabbergasted disappointment.

Then there are the action sequences. Where Black has shown himself to be a consummate craftsman in the past with his handling of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys, here things are edited so frenetically keeping visual track of what is happening, especially during the climactic home stretch, is impossible. It's chaos apparently for the sake of chaos. Characters go this way and that. A massive Predator transforms into an interstellar cross of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, John Rambo, the Black Panther and that preacher werewolf hunting country redneck rubes in the fog in 1985's Silver Bullet. One of the film's principals is dispatched with such careless indifference it likely would have had more of a visceral impact had Black just staged the moment off-screen and been done with it. The ending is a nonsensical jumble that makes jokes out of its heroes and a buffoon out of its supposedly unstoppable titular character. As for the risible epilogue featuring CGI visual effects straight out of a video game circa 1995, the less said about that misbegotten moment the better.

Black's film is funny, there's no denying that. This cast of irregular regulars is having an obvious blast as they learn to work together to battle this supposedly unstoppable force while also rediscovering their heroic tendencies that made them great soldiers before calamity sent them all spiraling into psychological despair. The relationship between Jane and Key is particularly affecting, and their final moment together, one that should have been nothing short of terrible considering the way in which it is showcased and staged, still has an undeniable emotional component that took me by surprise. The two actors craft a purely human moment inside all of this violently comic mayhem that's extraordinary, and if the film had done a better job of balancing its humor, action and horror in the same manner this scene does then it's likely I'd have responded to it with a bit more positivity.

Sadly, this isn't the case. While John McTiernan's original Predator remains one of the great action-horror hybrids of the 1980s (and maybe of all-time), Black's The Predator proves to be a facile and misguided continuation that can't help but pale in comparison. Heck, even if the comedy component is rather nice I must admit I actually enjoy Stephen Hopkins' Predator 2 more than I do this tired bit of unfocused pandemonium, and other than Danny Glover and a kick-butt climax I don't really like that first sequel all that much. (In the spirit of full transparency, I do enjoy Nimród Antal's Predators quite a bit, and feel it has only gotten better over time.) I'm really not sure what Black was trying to do here, where he and Dekker imagined things were going to go next. All I do know is that this sequel might be one of the more stupefying and frustrating disappointments of 2018, and a big part of me kind of wishes I hadn't watched it in the first place.








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AN OPEN LETTER TO POPE FRANCIS
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Inventive Simple Favor an elegantly vulgar comedic mystery
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Black's The Predator a violently comedic disappointment
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