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Review: A Simple Favor

A Simple Favor is a tough one to process and define.  It’s a quirky crime drama that goes quite dark, but in a relatively light way. As weird as it is, it somehow works, because it pairs Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Mr. Right, Up in the Air) plays a goody-two-shoes single mommy vlogger named Stephanie who becomes besties with a sly and stylish PR executive named Emily (Lively, The Age of Adeline, “Gossip Girl”, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). The two have very little in common, except they both have young sons who attend the same school and clamor for a playdate. Whip up a few afternoon martinis, engage in some gal-pal chat about deepest, darkest secrets, and throw in a cute husband (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians), and you’ve got the makings of a stylish, twisty thriller moored in Emily’s sudden and mysterious disappearance.

Review: Peppermint

Peppermint is essentially Death Wish with a chick. Fortunately, that chick is Jennifer Garner. Otherwise, this movie would be a total bust (unless you’re an uberfan of violent revenge movies). I have a soft spot for Garner, ever since her breakout days as kick-ass spy Sydney Bristow in the TV series Alias (2001-2006). So if nothing else, it was kinda cool to see a hint of Syd’s “particular skills” reveal themselves in her role as Riley North, a young mother who goes to great lengths to avenge the brutal murders of her husband and ten-year-old daughter.

Review: Puzzle

Directed by Marc Turtletaub, who produced Sundance faves Little Miss Sunshine and Sunshine Cleaning, Puzzle is the story of Agnes, a woman in her 40s who has yet to push the limits of her proscribed identity of wife and mother. Her life consists of taking care of her husband and two college-age sons and taking part in her local Catholic church. But when she receives a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday, it leads her to begin venturing out and finding that life has a lot more to offer. Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men, Boardwalk Empire ) is simply perfect as the awakening protagonist, putting together the pieces of her new life and realizing her own worth. It’s not a big film, but it is satisfying.

Quickie Reviews: The Wife; The Happytime Murders; Skate Kitchen; Support the Girls

The Wife is a slow-burn drama with a mystery twist that explores the relationship between Joan and Joe Castleman (Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce), a long-married couple who travel to Sweden to collect his newly-awarded Nobel Prize for Literature. The two seem to complement each other in style and temperament, with Joan playing the doting, charming, graceful and diplomatic wife and mother while Joe oozes vanity, selfishness and a philandering spirit. There does appear to be true love at the core of the relationship, but there’s a simmering resentment that threatens to boil over in Joan as the award ceremony approaches. We learn why through a series of flashbacks to Joan and Joe’s courtship and from their present-day interactions with a writer (Christian Slater) who is trying to convince the Castlemans to let him write Joe’s definitive biography.

Review: Juliet, Naked

Ah, what a breath of fresh air! Juliet, Naked is a charming and funny romantic drama that is pure and simple in its development of characters and story. In lesser hands, it might have felt like a Hallmark or Lifetime ‘second chance’ romance. But Juliet, Naked benefits from the talent and affability of its three lead actors – Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd and Ethan Hawke. The screenplay is adapted from a novel by Nick Hornby (Brooklyn, About a Boy, Fever Pitch, High Fidelity) whose writing style lends itself well to the genre. There aren’t any real villains here; just humans wrestling with past regrets and coming to terms with who they are and who they want to be.

Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Cue up the sequel. I suspect Hollywood will see enough green from Crazy Rich Asians to justify a speedy greenlight for a second (and third) film based on the popular trilogy by Kevin Kwan. I haven’t read the book(s) but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the movie, which is basically a conventional romantic dramedy that happens to feature a majority Asian cast playing a variety of well-drawn characters, several of whom are crazy rich. It’s all very Dynasty-esque, tackling love, romance, pettiness, sabotage, scorn, humor, fashion, palatial digs and a lot of fantastic-looking food. The story revolves around Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, TV’s Fresh Off the Boat), a bright, attractive and very down-to-earth Asian-American Economics Professor who agrees to accompany her bright and charming boyfriend Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. En route she discovers that her longtime beau comes from money – lots and lots of money.

Review: Leave No Trace

Eight years ago writer/director Debra Granik introduced us all to Jennifer Lawrence in the amazing Winter’s Bone. She’s finally made another movie after way too long, introducing us to the next young actress we should probably keep an eye on, Thomasin McKenzie, who plays 13-year-old Tom in this gem of a film. Like Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace is not about people living conventional lives with ordinary choices to make. Tom and her dad Will (Ben Foster, Hell or High Water) have chosen to live out in the woods in an Oregon park, taking care of themselves, and living a fairly isolated but full life together. But when they’re discovered by rangers and social services gets involved, the question of what is home and what is normal is pushed to the fore.

Review: BlackkKlansman

Spike Lee’s latest joint is about as far fetched as you could imagine. Set in the early 70s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes Colorado Springs, Colorado’s first African-American cop. While still a rookie, he infiltrates the KKK and fools Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) into welcoming him into the fold. But it’s a true story and one that resonates all the more loudly in our current political world with David Duke and his minions then as now proclaiming “America First.” It’s a deadly serious, yet at times hilarious story, and it’s scary how much has not changed in the intervening years.

Review: Custody (Jusqu’à la garde)

Custody begins as a separated couple, Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Miriam (Léa Drucker), sit before a magistrate who will decide the fate of their children. Their daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is nearly grown, so their 11-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria) is really the bone of contention. And he doesn’t want to see his abusive father. But the court grants the father weekend visits anyway. And it is immediately apparent that the court made a huge mistake. What follows is like watching the fuse on a bomb slowing burning down. You’re wait for the explosion, but hoping that someone comes along to defuse it, even though you know that is unlikely. It’s harrowing!

Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Director Gus Van Sant has brought us some very powerful films in the past — Milk, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, to name just a few — and he frequently pushed the envelope in the way he tells a tale — To Die For, My Own Private Idaho — but his latest is a pretty straight forward bio of alcoholic cartoonist John Callahan. Played by chameleon Joaquin Phoenix, the arc of the tale is Callahan’s coming to terms with himself after a life-changing accident while getting sober at the same time. There are some funny moments for sure, and an odd romance, and also some insightful AA bits. And it is a pleasant entertainment, though not terribly memorable.