Thursday, September 13, 2018

A homebody's best friend disappears

Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively play a snappy duet in A Simple Favor, a thriller with as much comedy as mystery.
In A Simple Favor, Anna Kendrick plays a woman who's determined to be an ideal mother. Kendrick’s Stephanie Smothers is a widow who immerses herself in her son's pre-school activities and in a cooking vlog that she begins with a trademark greeting that defines her vision of an audience. "Hi, Moms,' she chirps.

Stephanie is the kind of mother who brings out the resentments of parents who aren’t quite so gung-ho about pre-school. She drives less conscientious crazy.

Stephanie gives Kendrick an opportunity to go for laughs while keeping us guessing about whether there might be something less controlled under Stephanie's ultra-organized surface.

At first, I thought Kendrick might be overdoing Stephanie's diffidence, offering a near parodic version of a kid-and-kitchen obsessed suburban mom, but her performance grew on me.

Kendrick finds an able comic accomplice in Blake Lively, who plays Emily a woman whose confidence contrasts mightily with Stephanie's timidity. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) makes it clear from the outset that Emily qualifies as a career-obsessed woman who brings a take-no-prisoners attitude to everything she does. When it comes to being a mom, Emily is ... well ... indifferent to the point of neglect.

The movie opens with Stephanie telling her video blog followers that best-friend Emily has disappeared. Emily left her young son with Stephanie, who picked the kid up from pre-school along with her own son. Emily's husband is tending to his sick mother in London.

Once Emily goes missing, A Simple Favor turns into a jaunty, comic mystery built around events that unfold after Emily vanishes.

Enter Sean (Henry Golding), Emily's husband, a novelist who hasn't published anything for a decade but who lives with Emily in a sleekly modern home that evidently is supported by Emily's work as a high-power PR woman for a fashion firm and by ample amounts of debt. Fresh from Crazy Rich Asians, Golding once again is called upon to be handsome, emotionally vulnerable, charming and, in this case, perhaps a bit devious.

I wish the movie had made more time for Rupert Friend, who plays Dennis Nylon (great name), the taste-arbiter who runs the fashion firm at which Emily ruthlessly plies her PR trade.

In this case, though, it's the women -- Kendrick and Lively -- who give the movie its spark as Stephanie turns into an amateur sleuth. She searches for Emily, gradually learning that her friend might not be all that she seemed. Then again, Stephanie isn't all that she seems, either.

As a mystery, A Simple Favor doesn't always work. Feig offers a big reveal too early and an over-stuffed wrap-up threatens to tie the movie in knots.

But Feig keeps A Simple Favor marching to a snappy cadence. He also includes enough satirical garnish to heighten interest without cutting deep enough to draw blood. That's not a criticism. Feig points the movie in the right direction. Simple Favor never extinguishes its sparkle. It's a good-natured helping of venom.

Drugs and despair in the streets of Detroit

Director Yann Demange grounds White Boy Rick in grim realism.
Illegal gun sales, drugs, gangs, corruption, and injustice.

You can tell from this list, and I've abbreviated it, that the new movie White Boy Rick spends little time traversing feel-good turf. Based on a true story, White Boy Rick plunges into Detroit's economic decay during the free-wheeling 1980s.

White Boy Rick focuses on three tumultuous years in the life of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) as he moves from a being a wayward 14-year-old with a father (Matthew McConaughey) who traffics in illegal guns to a cocaine peddler to an FBI informant and, finally, to his inevitable identity: prisoner.

In telling Rick's story, director Yann Demange pushes McConaughey into more of a supporting role than you might expect. This time, McConaughey plays a dirtbag hustler with a difference. Richard Wershe Sr. lacks the charm of some of the rogues McConaughey previously has played.

Aware of his mammoth failures as a father, Richard knows he has nothing to give his son, but the tricks of an illegal trade. McConaughey's performance hints at a sad self-awareness that borders on the tragic.

As Demange tells Rick's story, the movie evokes the ragged, jittery style of the '70s, chopping its way through lives that would be utterly empty if not for trouble.

Early on, Ricky falls in with a group of black drug dealers led by Johnny Curry (a quietly scary Jonathan Majors). Johnny's younger brother Boo (RJ Cyler), Ricky's only real friend, brings Ricky into a gang in which he's the only white guy.

For a time, it's all fun and games as Ricky finds friends and family-like ties among a group of black men who have connections to City Hall. Finally, Rick belongs to something -- or thinks he does.

Meanwhile -- and White Boy Rick is a movie of many "meanwhiles" -- Rick's sister Dawn (Bel Powley) wallows in a drug-addicted life that brings her to the edge of physical ruin. Ravaged by crack, her face seems to be rotting right along with Detroit's declining industrial landscape.

Ricky also draws the attention of two FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) who want Ricky to help them bring Johnny down. Ricky's given an impossible choice: Either he informs for the FBI or the FBI will shut down his father's illegal gun business. Family ties win out.

Some of the movie's scenes are given a humorous twist -- few greater than the movie's prologue which finds father and son arriving home from a successful buy at a gun show trying to convince the drug-addicted Dawn to accompany them for frozen custard, a ludicrous and inevitably futile stab at familial normalcy.

But harsh realities overshadow humor, even when it comes from Ricky's grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie). Grandma keeps a pistol in her oven.

Merritt, who has no previous acting experience, gives a raw, natural performance as a kid who never entirely sells out his innocence. When Rick begs his father to join him in the drug business, he's not so much acting the thug as pleading for the life of his family and the ability to sustain it the only way he knows.

White Boy Rick isn't a perfect movie, perhaps because it never entirely convinces us that there's anything major to be gained from watching these characters fall prey to their devastated environment. Still, there's something to be said for movies that insist on shining realistic light on society's margins.

White Boy Rick makes a last-minute attempt to criticize the justice system that ultimately betrays Ricky, but the feeling one draws from the movie has less to do with rage at judicial inequity than with the bone-deep despair that stems from watching so many lives swirl desperately before going down the drain.

Nicolas Cage and a warrior's revenge

Horror, comedy and blood mix in Mandy, a movie designed to unhinge.
Mandy is the kind of movie that has enlivened the cinematic fringe for years, a repulsive, funny, deadpan helping of horror and revenge that pushes Nicolas Cage -- already a master of violent action -- into terrain so soaked in blood it could support a thousand transfusions.

Director Panos Cosmatos's penchant for extremism matches Cage's and the result is a movie that's likely to amuse, unhinge and terrify those willing to take its nightmarish journey.

A sporadic use of animation and dream sequences thwart any sense of realism as the movie feeds off Cage's ability to turn minimal bits of dialogue into grim jokes. I'm guessing that Cosmatos wants us to see his movie as a grisly fable, as well as an in-joke for those with enough movie savvy to know the ground rules of this sort of febrile expression.

Set in the 1980s, the movie begins by introducing a couple living in isolation in the northwestern woods. Cage's wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) seems to have adjusted to life off the grid. But the couple's crazy quilt of a home suggests an inherent lack of stability.

Sure enough, Mandy soon is abducted by the followers of Jeremiah, a wacko cult leader (Linus Roach) who thinks he's touch with a divine voice; the voice tells him that the world is his, which means he has license to kidnap women and turn them into sexual partners. Jeremiah's thinks his lust is holy.

Drugged but unsubmissive, Riseborough's Mandy quickly falls victim to terror. She's stuffed into a burlap sack that's hung from a tree and set on fire. Cage's Red -- strung up, as well -- is forced to watch. Red, however, is left alive.

At this point, the movie uncorks a potent bottle of revenge that features a fearsome looking ax that Red forges like a blacksmith called to battle characters who have embraced their madness.

Energized by currents of unbearable pain, Red turns into a warrior who emerges from a roll in the muck with humanity's darkest impulses. Red moves along a near-mythic trajectory, facing one demonic character after another until he reaches the movie's dark center.

Imagery saturated in red (everything in this world seems blood-soaked) abets the stroboscopic forward motion Costmatos creates as does Cage's performance; as a man fired and numbed by grief, Red comes across as both comic and tragic, a goof that just might not be a joke. When Red stares at the camera, his eyes glow like dark coals. Is he looking evil straight in the eye or catching a glimpse of his own damaged soul?

I hope I've already made the point clear, but just in case: Mandy is not for the squeamish or for those who have no taste for exaggerated, graphically depicted horror. I also wondered whether Cosmatos had decided to name his movie Mandy to shred any memories of the Barry Manilow song with the same title, a bit of pop culture that derives from a whole other universe.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

'Peppermint': a kickless revenge saga

Jennifer Garner plays a character out for revenge, but a female star can't mask Peppermint's shamefully derivative approach.
Jennifer Garner's performance proves impressively convincing as a woman with a sparkling sense of humor and an obvious concern for the welfare of her audience, a pleasant variation of the girl-next-door image that seems to have taken over the actress's career.

Unfortunately, I'm not talking about the new movie Peppermint, a revenge saga in which the actress has been cast in the kind of role that's usually slotted for men. I'm referring instead to Garner's work in a series of Capital One Venture commercials in which Garner wonders what card might be in our wallets.

In Peppermint, Garner might still be playing the girl next door, but she's the kind of girl next door who happens to have acquired the stealthy prowess of a ninja, the lethality of a serial killer and the determination of Liam Neeson when he's in full Taken mode. No surprise there because in this lurid outing, Garner is being directed by Pierre Morel, who also directed Taken.

Gratuitously violent and ultimately serving as an irresponsible endorsement of vigilantism, Peppermint can't duck criticism by claiming that its formulaic approach should be accepted as a necessary helping of female empowerment. Man or woman at pulling the trigger, it's the same old movie.

Early on, Peppermint puts its bloody cards on the table: Garner's Riley North, her husband, and her daughter are gunned down -- on her daughter's tenth birthday and at a Christmas festival no less. Talk about piling on.

Riley's husband had become the target of a drug cartel, members of which mistakenly thought he was involved in a plot to steal some of their money.

After the legal system fails Riley, the only surviving member of her family, she disappears for five years, a time on which I'm not sure the movie devotes five minutes. Riley re-emerges as a warrior who somehow has acquired the skills necessary to avenge her family's horrible demise.

Garner gives her all to a movie in which her character tortures and blows up a judge (corrupt, of course), wields a mean knife and subscribes to a theory that that raises the ante on the old saw about an eye-for-an-eye. In Riley's case, one eye seems to be worth a hundred eyes. She piles up a war-like body count.

Most of Riley's victims seem to be fierce-looking Hispanic men with enough tattoos to cover a wall. I won't say which wall, but did so many Latino people need to be blown away?

There are two ways in which a movie such as Peppermint could have succeeded. First, it could have made us complicit in Riley's hunger for revenge; i.e., it could have induced us to share the satisfaction that accrues from seeing obvious miscreants brought to justice. Peppermint doesn't offer even this pleasure, guilt-ridden as it might be.

A surer road to success has to do with style. When the wave of Hong Kong movies from masters such as John Woo (Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled) were making their international bones in the 1980s and early '90s, they brought wild creativity to the choreography of violence. American descendants include such recent movies as John Wick.

Morel brings little by way of twisted panache to the movie's ample violence, which is presented without much by way of directorial innovation.

The supporting cast includes John Ortiz as an LA cop, John Gallagher Jr. as another detective and Juan Pablo Raba as head of the drug cartel. Each of these characters has his own reason for wanting to corral Riley, an avenging angel who has been lionized by Los Angeles' homeless and on social media.

This isn't a case in which there's reason to fault any performance. Blame the movie's shamelessly derivative plot, its joyless overkill and a blatant end-of-picture suggestion that sequels may loom.

Perhaps naively, we expect an uplift from summer movie fatigue come September. Labor Day may have passed, but with Peppermint, the dog days continue. Peppermint, an ice cream flavor for which Riley's daughter fleetingly expresses fondness, may add flavor to desserts and chewing gum; it doesn't do much for this movie.

A portrait of man who took portraits

Socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt, is credited with having uttered the now famous line, "If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me." Longworth probably would have loved sitting next to photographer Cecil Beaton, the subject of Love, Cecil, a documentary by director Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Beaton, who died in 1980 at the age of 76, led a life that brought him into contact with the successful, the famous and the beautiful; he loved and loathed the people in his life with equal passion. Openly gay and in possession of a stunning gift for portraiture, Beaton eventually went to work for Conde Nast. He was a star at Vogue until an anti-Semitic reference appeared in one of his drawings (yes, he drew, as well). He eventually righted the foundering ship of his career, which included activities as various as becoming a war photographer during World War II and later serving as art director for movies such Gigi and My Fair Lady. Rupert Everett delivers a narration in the form of some of Beaton's writings, taking us inside the mind of a man whose name may not be well-known to many, thus allowing the movie to make an inadvertent comment on the fleeting nature of fame: Beaton, by the way, won four Tonys and three Oscars. Those who enjoy caustic wit will relish Beaton's trashing of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as his withering remarks about Katharine Hepburn. But he loved Greta Garbo and may have had a sexual relationship with her. Juicy gossip aside (and there's plenty in Love, Cecil), Vreeland's documentary introduces us to the work of a man who wrote, took pictures, designed and drew -- and did all of these with skill and a well-honed aesthetic.

She's the afterthought in his life

Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close play husband and wife in The Wife.
The complicated relationship between a husband and wife moves to the forefront of The Wife, Swedish director Bjorn Runge's adaptation of a 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer. The movie centers on the Castlemans, a couple brought to convincing life by Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close.

When the movie begins, Pryce's Joe Castleman is awaiting word on whether he has won the Nobel Prize for literature. He does and the movie then shifts to Oslo, Norway where Joe, his wife and his grown son (Max Irons) have gone to celebrate Joe's success.

Of course, that's not the end of the story, but only the beginning of a slow revelation of the secret behind Joe's literary triumph. For those unfamiliar with the story, I'll say no more except to note that Close's Joan Castleman seems to have taken responsibility for every mundane aspect of Joe's exalted life, tasks she carries out despite Joe's penchant for philandering.

As events in Oslo unfold, Runge shows us flashbacks to various stages of the couple's relationship, which began when Joe, married to someone else at the time, taught writing at the college level. Joan (played as a young woman by Close's real-life daughter Anne Starke) was one of his prize students. At the time -- the 1950s -- prospects for emerging female writers seemed dim and Joan sacrificed her talent on the altar of Joe's ego.

Importantly, the movie shows us that Joan, though definitely exploited, was complicit in her fate. For reasons of her own, she loyally subordinated herself to Joe's ambitions. No one can do such a thing without paying a price, and Joan's resentments ripple through Close's finely tuned performance.

For his part, Pryce conveys the egotism and occasional cruelty of a famous Jewish-American writer. His relationship with his son, an aspiring author, reeks of authoritarianism and neglect. Joe isn't kind when talking about his son's writing, disguising his lack of compassion as an insistence on high standards.

Strong hints of threatening disclosures run throughout the movie. Christian Slater plays a wily journalist who has been trying for years to write Joe's biography. He wants Joan to help him topple Joe from his throne, a lofty perch built on the pile of critically acclaimed books the author has published.

Despite building toward an inevitable showdown between Joe and Joan, The Wife never quite feels revelatory. But Pryce and Close add undeniable polish to this peek into literary lives -- both fulfilled and wasted.