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 Shallows

For F*** Magazine

THE SHALLOWS

Director : Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Angelo José Lozano Corzo, José Manuel Trujillo Salas
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 26 mins
Opens : 11 August 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Some Intense Sequences)

The Shallows posterBlake Lively has to keep from becoming shark bait (Ooh ha ha!) in this survival thriller. Lively plays medical student Nancy Adams, who has travelled to Mexico in search of a secluded beach where her mother once surfed years ago. She hitches a ride from local resident Carlos (Jaenada), heading into the water to catch the waves. Nancy meets two other surfers (Corzo and Salas) and is enjoying herself, but the fun is cut short when she’s attacked by a great white shark. Nancy is able to swim to the relative safety of an isolated rocky outcrop, but with the tide coming in, Nancy has to signal for help or swim back to the beach, all while the shark ominously encircles her.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s last three films, Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night, starred Liam Neeson, who will also be in his next film The Commuter. It’s a bit of a shame he didn’t continue that run by having Neeson voice the shark. Serra works from a screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski – originally entitled ‘In The Deep’, it was a hot script that sparked a bidding war. As far as X meets Y elevator pitches go, “Jaws meets 127 Hours with a dash of Gravity” is pretty exciting. The result is a self-contained thriller in which the protagonist is paradoxically trapped in an open space, braving a variety of obstacles that are flung her way. It runs a brisk 86 minutes and Collet-Serra’s direction enables the audience to share in Nancy’s desperation. Most viewers might start out chiding Nancy for going out into the water alone, but soon enough, we’re right in her corner.

The Shallows Blake Lively 1

Lively’s husband Ryan Reynolds spent the majority of the film Buried trapped in a wooden coffin, and it was this role that inspired Lively to take on a project in a similar vein. She makes for a pretty convincing surfer girl and conveys gut-wrenching panic when required. The character gets wounded early on, with Nancy’s expertise as a medical student coming in handy when she has to McGyver some first aid. A few laughs ease the tension, most of which come courtesy of Nancy’s interaction with a wounded seagull stuck on the rock alongside her.

Sure, there are plenty of lingering shots of Lively’s bikini-clad physique, but Collet-Serra displays enough taste such that it doesn’t end up being uncomfortably leery. By the time the climactic confrontation rolls around, this reviewer was primed and ready to see Lively in full-on badass mode, and the final showdown is a rip-roaring, white knuckle sequence – if a little overblown and silly compared to what’s come before. Serra has revealed in interviews that the shark is female, because female great whites tend to be larger and thus more visually intimidating, making this faintly reminiscent of Ripley going up against the Alien Queen in Aliens.

The Shallows Blake Lively and seagull

While the central premise of woman vs. shark is rock solid, the attempts to give Nancy some characterisation through her back-story ring false. There’s been a death in the family and Nancy’s relationship with her father (Cullen) is somewhat strained. These elements come off as unnecessary and undercut the purity of the visceral, stripped-down “mission: survive” narrative that powers the film.

The Shallows Blake Lively 2

Strong production values make this relatively small film feel grander, with the photogenic Lord Howe Island in New South Wales, Australia doubling for the story’s unspecified Mexican beach. The visual effects work, supervised by Scott E. Anderson, is top-notch. If the shark looks phony, nobody’s going to be on the edge of their seat cheering for Nancy to triumph against the apex predator. Thankfully, the digitally-created great white is entirely convincing, coming off as a living, breathing beast.

The Shallows Blake Lively 3

Apart from the occasional Open Water or The Reef, most modern shark movies are intentionally goofy: nobody’s going to be genuinely terrified when watching Sharknado, Sharktopus or Ghost Shark. As such, it’s pretty gratifying to see a frighteningly plausible natural horror thriller that plays on the common fear of what lurks within the open ocean.

Summary: Feeling fatigued from overblown summer blockbusters? Come frolic in The Shallows.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong