(Video On-Demand, December 2019) Given Hollywood’s latest addiction to superhero fantasy, sequels, remake, prequels, reboots and rip-offs, please excuse me for a moment if I’m far too excited about an honest-to-goodness thriller with a black comedy attitude. Those aren’t rare, of course, but they’re far better than, say, a middling gender-swapped remake of a familiar franchise. So, in other news, here we have director Paul Feig trying his hand at a strongly plotted thriller after finding fame with R-rated comedies and the Ghostbusters reboot. It’s not a complete shift, as A Simple Favor has strong (perhaps too strong) comedy moments … but it’s a shift in tone closer to The Girl on the Train than to The Heat. Here, we have a perfectly-cast Anna Kendrick as a mommy vlogger, befriending a fellow but temperamentally opposed take-no-prisoners Mom with a corporate career played by Blake Lively. But that’s just the spark, as the plot gets going when the other moms disappear and our heroine goes sleuthing to reconcile a few details that don’t make sense. It gets far, far more complicated after that, but it’s good to keep some secrets. Suffice to say that there are twists and turns (at some point, a character screams, “Are you trying to Diabolique me?”, which was particularly funny given that I had watched that film only a few days earlier) and even if you can guess the crux of the third act’s twist, there’s enough plot left after that to keep things interesting. There’s an intriguingly modern edge to the vlogging angle, but otherwise this is a classic thriller, well handled although not immune to a few indulgent leaps into dark comedy. Feig may be falling back on too-familiar comfort material when he lets comedy leap to the forefront, especially late during the movie when we should be getting down to the action rather than the jokes. A Simple Favor is a fun and absorbing thriller—Kendrick and Lively have a good rapport, and both seem well suited to their character. The French songs that pepper the soundtrack are well-chosen (it helps if you understand the lyrics), the editing is taut and Feig seems to be having fun along the way. It all amounts to a very respectable domestic thriller, the kind of which we should see more often.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) The self-described Pitches are back for a third and perhaps redundant outing in Pitch Perfect 3, and from the action-packed first moments we’re clearly in a familiar kind of sequel template: Our protagonists thrown in international intrigue, far from home and their element. Fortunately, as the story flashes back to how we got here, there’s a little bit more to it: The post-college years have been inconsistently kind of the acapella signers of the series, and some of them are clearly pining for another go at past glory. An opportunity comes along in the form of a USO tour, landing them in picturesque surroundings even as the series strings along familiar hits and even more familiar plot devices. The result is fine for fans of the series, but even they may admit that there isn’t essential about this third movie, and that Pitch Perfect 3 should remain the final entry in the series. Anna Kendrick once again provides the dramatic lead, while Rebel Wilson is now dangerously close to over-exposure as her supporting character has now attained leading status. The blend of comedy with action is generally amusing, and while the result is filled with the overwhelming joy of the first instalment, there’s still quite a bit of fun in seeing the Bellas musically battle against Ruby Rose and friends, include John Lithgow (and DJ Khaled) in the universe of the series, and escape from certain death. Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins once again offer commentary, meaning that the film has made a good-faith effort to include everything funny about the previous movies in this one, even when it doesn’t quite make sense. The direction is fast-paced enough to skate over the most puzzling moments. Pitch Perfect 3 isn’t dishonourable, but if anyone has any sense it should stop there before a fourth instalment definitely damages the series. The fat lady has sung—it’s over now.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) It’s bad form for a reviewer to suggest that a film doesn’t live up to a wholly imagined alternative, but watching the first half of Table 19, I was struck at how the film seemed to work as a single-setting story. As various strangers gather around Table 19 of a lavish wedding’s reception, they gradually come to reveal their secrets and figure out the link between them. They all have backstories, quirks, aspirations and unfinished business—could all of this be resolved around a single table? For a while, Table 19 almost gets it as a stylistic exercise, as characters join or leave the table and their backstories are exposed. Then the film seems to lose interest in a potentially intriguing premise, and the action dissolves in far more conventional scenery-hopping. The second half of the film is far more conventional than the first, and even the combined charm and comedy of actors such as Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, Lisa Kudrow, June Squibb, Stephen Merchant and Wyatt Russell can’t quite rescue the film from dull mediocrity. Table 19 sadly leaves table 19 behind, going elsewhere in order to deliver a rather happy conclusion. It doesn’t help that some of the characters are too irritating to live—Merchant’s character, in particular, is annoying beyond belief and sabotages much of the film’s otherwise intriguing first half. Reviewers shouldn’t tell filmmakers how to make their movies, but this being said—I’s like to see a version of Table 19 in which the camera remains within a ten-meter radius of the titular table. Make it like a theatre piece, and the film may keep some of the intensity that it promised in its first half.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) The latest resurgence in R-rated comedies has led to good, bad and indifferent results, with Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates ranking near the middle of the pack. The premise certainly seems optimized for comedy, what with two fratboy-type protagonists openly advertising for dates in order to attend their sister’s Hawaiian wedding. Things get even funnier when they’re targeted by opportunistic bad girls looking for an easy holiday. Copious swearing, risqué situations, some comic violence (but no graphic nudity, given the profile of the stars) ensue, with plenty of hair-raising moments before the suitably sweet conclusion. It’s all adequate without being impressive, although there are some highlights along the way. While Zac Efron and Adam DeVine are fine as the male anchors, it’s Anna Kendrick and especially Aubrey Plaza who get the most interesting roles as bad girls trying to look like angels. Kendrick is her usual cute self even when cursing up a storm, but Plaza succeeds by doubling down on the character she played in Bad Grandpa and so scores one of her best roles to date. The rest is scenery, with the Hawaii location used effectively—you’d be able to pair this film with Forgetting Sarah Marshall without too much dissonance. This being said, the actors and sets are better than the film itself, which lasts just as long as it takes to entertain but no longer.
(Video On-Demand, January 2017) “Jason Bourne meets Rain Man” is just about the laziest way to describe The Accountant, but it sort-of-works at explaining the high concept at the heart of the movie—an autistic man officially working as a top-notch accountant who happens to be unusually skilled at assassination. Cue the complications. Ben Affleck is surprisingly effective as the titular character—it takes a lot of charisma to make an affectless character sympathetic, and it works for him. Anna Kendrick is cute enough in a generic role, but the film sort of loses interest in her character after a while, leaving her more or less out of the third act and never making her a love interest. There is a quirkiness to The Accountant that’s not to be dismissed—after all, how many movies manage to make forensics accounting seem thrilling? But as an action thriller, it’s more or less forgettable once we’re back to the action classics of guys shooting at each other. The distinctiveness of the film is found in their quieter moments, even though the treatment of autism is old-hat by now. There are a few plausibility problems in how a wandering assassin (ready to move away at a moment’s notice) could sustain a living in a profession such as accounting, but never mind—from the premise on, it’s obvious that The Accountant isn’t meant to take place in reality. It does offer a new (ish) kind of hero, though, and that’s already more than most other big-budget thrillers these days.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) The original Pitch Perfect was an all-too-rare surprise: A crackling good movie disguised under less-than-promising clothing. It not only featured a number of great performances (notably a career-best role for Anna Kendrick and a breakout turn by Rebel Wilson), but managed to hit, at least three times, a quasi-magical state of pure joy. All of this to say that it set almost ridiculous expectations for its rapidly inevitable sequel. To its credit, Pitch Perfect 2 does try to replicate much of its predecessor’s highlights. We get the signing performances, the banter between the characters, a joyous song battle, an underdog competition and some hilariously inappropriate colour commentary. Elizabeth Banks does well at the helm, and the vast majority of the first film’s cast is back for more of the same. It succeeds at being a breezy comedy, toning down some of the original’s weaknesses (there aren’t that many vomit jokes, for one thing, and the romance is far funnier here) and maintaining much of the charm. It even throws in some fan-service homoeroticism for good measure. Pitch Perfect 2 is not, however, quite as surprising nor quite as successful as the original—something that should be considered inevitable rather than disappointing. Those who liked the first movie should at least keep this in mind: the sequel is a decent follow-up and it should flow well in a back-to-back viewing.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) I honestly thought I’d enjoy Into the Woods a lot more than I did. Having a pre-schooler running around the house means watching a lot of Disney films, so the thought of a musical parodying classic fairy-tales has a certain appeal to it if only as a change of pace. To be fair, Into the Woods does have its good moments. Princes dueling for attention while signing dramatically; Anna Kendrick with a singing role; Meryl Streep playing a demented witch; clever twists and turns of plot –especially in the first section of the film. But then comes the second section of the film, which seems determined to frustrate even viewers hungry for parody – the tone turns far darker, the musical number get less interesting, heroes are revealed to be villains and the film sort of degenerates into a mush of unsatisfying endings. Cue my flagging appreciation. And that’s not mentioning the various missteps along the way, not the least of them being Johnny Depp showing up as a lecherous big bad wolf. But much of the so-called flaws of the film are intentional, and so is its intention to frustrate those looking for more conventional fare. The bigger surprise here is to realize that Into the Woods is a Disney production tweaking the nose of fairy tales closely associate with Disney itself. I suppose that, given Disney’s recent willingness to remake even its animated classics into live-action films, that an affectionate tweak on those same classics wouldn’t be out of place.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) Once in a while, a truly good teen comedy pops up and makes us forget about the mediocre rest. While Pitch Perfect stars college-aged young women rather that high-schoolers, it’s sufficiently close in tone to Bring it On and Mean Girls to warrant comparison… even though it may not quite be as completely successful as those two earlier films. Taking place in the world of college a capella groups (mining Mickey Rapkin’s non-fiction book for background, but not plot) Pitch Perfect is a contagiously enjoyable blend of comedy and music that presents a number of musical numbers and at least two showcase acting performances by young actresses. This is Anna Kendrick’s signature piece to date, as the lead role allows her to use both the sweet and sour side of her we’ve seen on-screen so far: she’s just wonderful, and she gets to sing/play along (witness her solo performance of “Cups / When I’m Gone”, burning up the charts as I write this.) Still, even a good performance gets overshadowed by a great one, and Pitch Perfect’s breakout star is Rebel Wilson, who transforms a potentially difficult role as an extrovert overweight girl into a scene-stealing blend of braggadocio, hilarity and inappropriate behavior. Coupled with a better-than-average script with a good density of one-liners, near-perfect editing, staggeringly enjoyable song/dance numbers and a tone that is heavy on pure joy (there are at least three moments of pure wide-smiled bliss in the film, and it’s hard to get even one in a single film these days), Pitch Perfect claims a strong place as one of the best comedies of the year. It’s not perfect, mind you: the graphic emphasis on vomiting is off-putting, the lead romance feels bland at best (there’s more chemistry between the protagonist and another female character), and the end of the film isn’t particularly good at tightening up all of the plot threads. Still, Pitch Perfect is distinctly better than a lot of other teenage comedies and remains surprisingly entertaining even for older viewers.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) Cancer is usually the domain of the made-for-TV sentimental tear-jerker aimed at women, not the kind of quasi-comedies aimed at young men. But 50/50 takes the bet that it has something to say about cancer and friendship between young men and the result is far more impressive than you’d think. Joseph Gordon Lewitt stars as a young radio producer who discovers that he’s got a rare and potentially fatal form of cancer. Seth Rogen brings most of the laughs as his crude friend trying to cheer him up. (The film squarely earns one of its most emotional moments when the protagonist discovers the highlighted best intentions behind his best friend’s cheerful facade.) Meanwhile, Anna Kendrick gets a thankless role as a grief therapist who, against nearly all imaginable ethical guidelines, falls for her patient. As a refreshingly younger and brasher take on the familiar cancer narrative, 50/50 ends up reaching a new audience in an honest way, and the result is both hilarious and affecting.
(In theaters, December 2009) Hollywood is so often geared to kids, teens and family that film made for an adult audience are now rare enough to be remarkable. So it is that this tale of a professional downsizer confronting professional distress and personal attachment is perhaps more enjoyable for its change of pace than for what it actually delivers. George Clooney is splendid as a protagonist who comes to reconsider a lifetime of non-attachment, and he has the good fortune of playing against two actresses, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, who do just as well in their own roles: The best scene of the film is a simple three-way conversation in a hotel lobby. The script itself (which bears only a passing similarity to Walter Kirn’s original novel) seems to be exactly in tune with the times, in-between massive layoffs and widespread hatred of commercial airlines. Many of the film’s individual moments are oddly amusing, the peek at the life on an ultra-frequent-traveler is interesting and there are clear echoes of Juno in the off-kilter structure of writer/director Jason Reitman’s script. (Not to mention much of Thank you for Smoking in its cynical premise.) But there also seems to be an upper limit to Up in the Air’s effectiveness, and the lacklustre third act has something to do with it: After a lengthy detour in Wisconsin, the script more or less goes back to business but studiously avoids wrapping up its threads. Writer/director Jason Reitman would rather drag things on long enough to diffuse the impact of a more definitive ending, then ends up apparently one of two scenes too early. Sure, the point is informed character non-growth –which is gutsy enough at a time where “protagonist learns a lesson” is ingrained in Screenwriting 101. But the ending also deflates some of the film’s prevailing charm… leaving viewers, well, up in the air. Sometimes, even achieving one’s objective is criticism enough.