A Simple Favour movie review

A SIMPLE FAVOUR

Director : Paul Feig
Cast : Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Andrew Rannells, Bashir Salahuddin
Genre : Drama/Mystery/Comedy
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens : 13 September 2018
Rating : M18

Big secrets hide in a small town in this mystery thriller. Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a single mum who lives in the suburb of Warfield, Connecticut with her son Miles (Joshua Satine). She produces a mum-centric vlog, giving tutorials on cooking and craft projects. Her uncomplicated existence is upended when she befriends Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), whose son Nicky (Ian Ho) goes to school with Miles.

It seems like Emily has it all: a high-flying job as a PR executive for fashion mogul Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), an adorable son, and a dashing husband in the form of writer and lecturer Sean Townsend (Henry Golding). Emily asks a simple favour from Stephanie: to pick Nicky up after school and look after him. Two days go by without Stephanie hearing anything from Emily. Questions surrounding her disappearance begin to pile up, as Sean grows attracted to Emily and Emily is drawn into a web of sordid secrets and lies. What’s a regular mum vlogger to do?

A Simple Favour is based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell and is billed as a “stylish post-modern film noir”. The film rights to the book were snapped up even before its publishing. The film has been described as Gone Girl-esque, but there are many instances when it’s not quite clear what director Paul Feig was going for. Feig has helmed comedies like Bridesmaids, Spy and Ghostbusters (2016), so it’s natural to worry that his comedic instincts might intrude on the mystery thriller elements of the story. They do, and as a result, A Simple Favour is tonally quite weird.

The film’s weirdness does make it interesting – this reviewer spent most of the movie puzzling over how much of said weirdness was intentional, and how much was accidental. There are moments when the film obviously wants to be dark and dramatic, but it also comes dangerously close to a parody of the domestic mystery thriller subgenre. Theodore Shapiro’s score plays a big part in this: someone will utter a revelation, then there’ll be obvious low trembling strings to go with it.

To Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer’s credit, the mystery is engaging, but we want to keep watching to find out what happens the same way clickbait works – “I shouldn’t click on this, but I do want to find out why Hollywood stop casting Brendan Fraser”. By the time we’re invested, the story goes all-out, full-on ridiculous, trucking out the most melodramatic of ‘deep dark family secret’ plot twists. It’s hard to say if this would’ve worked any better played dead straight.

Both Kendrick and Lively play exactly to type. Kendrick is endearing and silly as an over-eager, over-earnest mum who finds herself way in over her head. The character is renamed ‘Stephanie Smothers’ when her surname was ‘Ward’ in the book – Stephanie Smothers sounds so much sillier, so much more on-the-nose, conjuring up an image of cloying sweetness. It’s mainly a comedic performance, and that seems to lead where the rest of the film goes tonally. She brings much of her signature ‘adorkable-ness’ to bear, and it seems like it is by design that the character is out of place in a dark, lurid mystery thriller.

Lively’s Emily is an aggressive, confident, icy go-getter, decked out in ensembles that might make even Serena van der Woodsen envious. The dynamic between Emily and Stephanie, with the former completely dominating the latter, is what the plot turns on. Emily and her husband seem like the picture-perfect couple, but of course there’s trouble in paradise. There are times when like Kendrick’s performance, Lively’s veers too close to caricature.

Henry Golding’s casting in this is a pretty big deal – the film went into production before the release of Crazy Rich Asians, meaning there was buzz about him in Hollywood before that film became the hot-button movie it is now. In movies like this, the husband character in movies like this is either in on it, or just really stupid. This might only be Golding’s second movie, but it seems he already has a type he’ll be cast in – namely, handsome, charming and a little bit aloof. He’s not entirely convincing in some of the more dramatic scenes, but he does fit alongside the attractive leads.

The supporting characters all feel like they walked out of a comedy – Andrew Rannells plays one of the ‘mums’ who makes catty comments at Stephanie from the side-lines, while Rupert Friend plays Emily’s boss, a flamboyant style maven. Linda Cardellini shows up as a goth-punk artist who wears a Slayer t-shirt as she wields and paints knives.

A Simple Favour might not work on the level it was intended to, but while its extremely uneasy mix of comedy and sex-and-secrets-soaked mystery thriller results in it being silly, it also prevents the movie from being bland. Perhaps this would’ve worked better in the hands of someone who’s sensibilities were a bit more British, who could have brought more wicked brand of acid-dipped wit to the proceedings. As it stands, A Simple Favour is a curiousity that audiences might not love but should find interesting.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Accountant

F*** Magazine

THE ACCOUNTANT

Director : Gavin O’Connor
Cast : Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, Cynthia Addai-Robinson
Genre : Action/Drama
Run Time : 2h 8min
Opens : 13 October 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

the-accountant-posterWhen accountants pop up in movies, they’re generally meek nebbishes: think Gene Wilder and later Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom in The Producers. Not here. Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff, a certified public accountant with high-functioning autism. The mathematical genius covertly uncooks the books for the world’s most powerful criminal masterminds, and is also a highly trained marksman and hand-to-hand combatant. Treasury Department investigator Ray King (Simmons) has made it a priority to hunt down the mysterious underworld figure known only as ‘The Accountant’, putting analyst Marybeth Medina (Addai-Robinson) on the case. Christian is hired by Lamar Black (Lithgow), the founder of high-tech prosthetics manufacturer Living Robotics. Dana Cummings (Kendrick), a junior accountant at Living Robotics, has uncovered an anomaly in the financial records that puts her life at risk. In the meantime, Christian is pursued by Brax (Bernthal), a rival assassin with a link to his distant past.

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The Accountant is an odd duck, a mashup of the ‘misunderstood genius’ drama and action thriller subgenres. Bill Dubuque’s screenplay was featured on 2011’s Black List of the most-liked unproduced scripts making the rounds in Hollywood. While there are combinations of story elements in The Accountant which one would be hard-pressed to find in any other movie, there also are beats that seem quite familiar. There are stretches of awkward exposition, and the Medina character is introduced by way of having her superior reel off her résumé so the audience can know that she’s both brilliant and has a dark side. As expected, there is a lot of mathematics in the plot. Instead of a training or lock ‘n’ load montage, this movie has an accounting montage. It might be helpful to view all the bookkeeping talk in the same vein as Star Trek techno-babble, but a good amount of effort is required from the viewer to follow the progression of the story.

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Any time an able-bodied actor portrays a differently-abled character, there’s bound to be a little controversy. On the one hand, it’s a role that could have gone to an actor who actually has the condition being depicted, but on the other, the studio needs a big name. Affleck’s performance won’t be mentioned in the same breath as Dustin Hoffman’s turn in Rain Man or Daniel Day-Lewis’ role in My Left Foot, but it gets the job done. Affleck is mostly robotic, but also puts the effort into capturing the little tics Christian possesses. He is harder to buy as a maths whiz than his buddy and Good Will Hunting co-star/writer Matt Damon, since Affleck has always been perceived as the more lunkheaded of the pair. The intensity and focus with which Affleck performs the action sequences is riveting enough, though.

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There is an impressive supporting cast here, but strangely enough, they aren’t given all that much to do. Kendrick’s character is a loveable blend of ‘adorkable’ and intelligent – one almost suspects that “an Anna Kendrick type” was scribbled in the margin of the casting notes. The dynamic that develops between Christian and Dana isn’t what one might expect of a typical action movie, which is surprising in its own right.

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Bernthal plays a garrulous faux-friendly assassin who seems to have wandered in from a Tarantino flick, calmly and affably chatting to his would-be victims, explaining how he’ll kill them. Alas, the final showdown between Bernthal and Affleck isn’t nearly as exciting as the phrase “Batman vs. the Punisher” might suggest. Simmons has a lot of range as a performer, and while Ray King isn’t a caricatured ‘police chief’, he’s still pretty non-descript. The back-story given to Addai-Robinson’s character is more interesting than her actual performance, but the procedural element in which Marybeth does the detective work to identify and track Christian down does have a satisfying logic to it. Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor, both reliable veteran actors, get very little screen time.

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There are little textural elements to The Accountant that give it a much-needed injection of fun. For example, Christian is paid in rare art and collectibles including original Renoir and Pollock paintings, a Star Wars lightsaber prop with a plaque signed by George Lucas, and Action Comics #1, the valuable comic book in which Superman first appeared. Prepare to hear the comic collectors in the audience wince when Christian tosses the issue (sans acrylic slab) nonchalantly into a duffel bag.

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The Accountant’s mystery is more convoluted than it is gripping, with a succession of reveals at its conclusion wrapping things up a little too neatly. It’s not your, well, by-the-numbers spy/hitman flick, but at the same time, its individual components feel like odd bedfellows, and these books end up somewhat imbalanced.

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Summary: The things that make The Accountant unique also make it challenging to get wrapped up in. It’s a weird one, but maybe that’s what you’re looking for if the standard action thriller bores you.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Hollars

For F*** Magazine

THE HOLLARS

Director : John Krasinski
Cast : Sharlto Copley, John Krasinski, Richard Jenkins, Margo Martindale, Anna Kendrick, Charlie Day, Randall Park, Ashley Dyke, Josh Groban, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 105 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

the-hollars-posterThere are many wonderful things that can unite a family – then there are brain tumours. When struggling artist John Hollar (Krasinski) learns that his mother Sally (Martindale) is diagnosed with a brain tumour, he hurries home from New York to the small middle American town in which he grew up. Dr. Fong (Park) informs the family that the tumour has been growing for 10-15 years, but John’s father Don (Jenkins) has been dismissing and misattributing the symptoms. John’s brother Ron (Copley) and their dad aren’t getting along especially well, with Ron still reeling from his divorce with Stacey (Dyke). Stacey has moved on and is married to youth pastor Dan (Groban), much to the ire of Ron. Jason (Day), the nurse tending to Sally, panics on seeing John return, since John and Jason’s wife Gwen (Winstead) were high school sweethearts. Sensing that the family’s trials are wearing on him, John’s pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Kendrick) arrives in town to keep him company. Will the Hollars sort out their issues and more importantly, will Sally pull through?

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The Hollars is Krasinski’s second time in the director’s chair, following 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Krasinski directs from a screenplay by James Strouse, who wrote 2005’s Lonesome Jim, also about a struggling New York creative type temporarily moving back into his parents’ house. The Hollars seems tailor-made for Sundance and film festivals of its ilk, right down to the guitar-led score by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. While there is a warmth and sincerity to it, The Hollars contains too many sitcom-style jokes that are often cringe-worthy in their obviousness. This is a cast that is studded with interesting, talented performers, but they’re often over-acting. The soap opera melodrama that runs through the plot is too mundane to be dramatic, yet too engineered to feel organic. Standard ‘family drama’ ingredients (terminal illness! Divorce! Pregnancy! Financial troubles!) are tossed into the pot, which is given just a quick stir when it needs to simmer.

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This is an ensemble cast that one can’t help but feel bad for, not because the material is embarrassing per se, but because their respective abilities just don’t get the chance to shine through. Copley is more closely identified with the action and sci-fi genres, and while it’s fun to see him stretching outside his wheelhouse, Ron is too much of a caricature to actually connect to. The character is brittle and confrontational, a tragicomic figure whom the audience is meant to laugh at but also sympathise with. It just doesn’t work, but it’s fitfully amusing to listen to Copley wrestle his South African accent to the ground.

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Jenkins is a fine actor capable of understated turns, but his hysterical performance here makes him seem like a pretty bad actor. Yes, it’s perfectly alright for someone to be emotional when their wife of several decades is at death’s door, but a subtler, more measured portrayal would have made Don’s struggles easier to identify with. As Don’s wife Sally, Martindale is eminently loveable, a gentle, sweet matriarch who’s trying desperately to hold the family together even as she’s fighting for her life. The trouble is, because of all the subplots unspooling simultaneously, one occasionally forgets that Sally is in the hospital with a brain tumour awaiting surgery. Losing sight of the story’s primary dramatic impetus isn’t usually a good sign.

As the harried, down-on-his-luck nice guy, Krasinski certainly isn’t playing against type, and he’s able to display a fair amount of the aww shucks charm he’s known for. Kendrick never fails to light up the screen, even though there’s not very much more to Rebecca than “pregnant significant other”. Park is a decent straight man, but it goes without saying that he’s more fun to watch when he’s given more room to be funny.

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Day is one of those actors who can very easily hop over that line between ‘funny’ and ‘annoying’, staying firmly in the latter camp as the shrill Jason. Winstead is entertaining in her brief appearance – alas, she doesn’t get to spend any screen time with fellow Scott Pilgrim alum Kendrick. Groban is quietly amiable as Rev. Dan, but his range as an actor is demonstrably limited and while he’s displayed a surprising knack for comedy in skits for Jimmy Kimmel Live, he’s stuck playing a straight man here.

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The family dysfunction depicted in The Hollars can be quite relatable, but the need to fall back on hackneyed humour (the opening scene features a character urinating into a pitcher in the kitchen) undercuts its potential to be genuinely moving. While several of the performances are enjoyable, others are evidence of miscalculated choices on the part of the actors and director. Above all, it’s covering well-trodden indie comedy-drama territory, and not covering it particularly well.

Summary: Watching The Hollars is like attending a family reunion with well-meaning but awkward and sometimes irritating relatives – but the cooking’s nice, so you grin and bear it.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Mr. Right

For F*** Magazine

MR. RIGHT

Director : Paco Cabezas
Cast : Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Tim Roth, RZA, James Ransone, Anson Mount, Michael Eklund, Katie Nehra
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 95 mins
Opens : 21 April 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language And Violence)

From Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Gigli to Killers and Please Kill Mr. Know-It-All, ‘hitman screwball comedies’ could be a subgenre unto its own, albeit one that hasn’t exactly yielded works of outstanding quality. The latest entry in this quirky bunch is Mr. Right, starring Sam Rockwell as the title character. Mr. Right is a loopy but scarily efficient contract killer, who, abiding by a twisted morality, has decided to turn the tables on those who hire him by killing them instead of the intended targets. He runs into Martha (Kendrick), a young woman still hurting after a bad breakup with her cheating boyfriend. The duo develop a fondness for each other and Mr. Right is ready to give up his unsavoury career to be with her. Unfortunately, his mentor-turned-nemesis Hopper (Roth) is on his tail, and Mr. Right also finds himself embroiled in a gang power struggle between brothers Richie (Mount) and Von (Ransone). Martha must ask herself this: “is it a deal-breaker if people are constantly shooting at my boyfriend, and that he’s shooting back?”
            Mr. Right is directed by Paco Cabezas, from a screenplay by Max Landis. Landis has quickly become one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood, with his scripts for Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein getting produced in quick succession with several more high-profile projects to follow. More jaded industry watchers (i.e. most of them) will attribute Landis’ success to the fact that his father is director John Landis. The younger Landis has displayed a markedly unlikeable attitude in interviews and social media interactions, so it’s no surprise that Mr. Right is glib and smug the whole way through. The action-romantic-comedy is aiming to be edgy and subversive, but is bogged down by clichés from both the action and the rom-com genres from the get-go: we counted at least three pop songs in the opening 10 minutes. There’s a nervous energy and some of the jokes do land, but the complete lack of sincerity makes it hard to connect to.

 

            Both Rockwell and Kendrick are immensely watchable actors and on the surface, it would seem Mr. Right plays to both their respective strengths and yet, it isn’t the best use of their talents. The set-up of a relatively normal gal falling for an enigmatic, dangerous assassin doesn’t take hold because both Martha and Mr. Right come off as over-the-top caricatures. Kendrick turns the adorkable hyperactive cutie thing up to 11, which is overwhelming rather than endearing. Rockwell has the unique ability to be simultaneously slimy and charming, but at the end of the day, we’re supposed to root for the couple to be together, instead of merely cocking our heads at their off-kilter chemistry. The aim is apparently for a less abusive Joker-and-Harley-Quinn-esque relationship to blossom, and while it’s obvious that the filmmakers want to steer clear of a standard rom-com progression, Martha and Mr. Right’s romance still unfolds in a predictable general pattern.
            As the main antagonist, Roth is pretty entertaining, putting on a goofy Alabama accent when his character is in disguise as an FBI agent. There’s meant to be an extensive personal history between Hopper and Mr. Right and to the film’s credit, there isn’t a lengthy exposition scene where said history is spelled out to the audience. However, their contentious relationship over the years doesn’t get satisfactorily fleshed out; their big confrontation nowhere near as explosive as it should be. The mobsters, with their Jersey drawls, slicked-back hair and patent leather jackets, are generally too goofy to be truly threatening. The big surprise here is RZA as beleaguered hitman Steve, who finds himself stuck with a rickety old shotgun while the other guys get automatic weapons. RZA is one of those rappers who also fancies himself an actor, the results thus far ranging from dull to laughable. He actually has considerable charisma here.
            Mr. Right has its moments when the cynical humour and slick action click into place, but for the most part, it is stuck feeling firmly like the work of people who are way too pleased with themselves for their own good. Because of its undercurrent of flippancy, which often mutates into an overcurrent, there’s not very much to grab onto. The in-your-face silliness might be viewed as some to an antidote for the po-faced action thrillers that are the norm now, but Mr. Right doesn’t earn our suspension of disbelief. Those in search of a satisfying, sure-footed action-comedy won’t find their match in Mr. Right.
Summary: Despite its quirky, charming leads, Mr. Right’s indulgent, misplaced sense of nihilistic irony quickly becomes unbearable.
RATING: 2out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong