Monthly Archives: September 2018

Moms, Martinis & a Missing Person

‘Gossip Girl,’ ‘Pitch Perfect’ Stars Plunge into Fun, Twisty Tale

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A Simple Favor
Starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively
Directed by Paul Feig
R

Something small and seemingly insignificant turns into something huge, tangled and terrifically complicated in this tale of a missing person…who may not be so missing at all.

Oh, sure, that sounds familiar. But you’ve never seen it played out quite like this—with a former Gossip Girl (Blake Lively) and the perky Pitch Perfect darling (Anna Kendrick) plunging deep into the murky, steamy noir.

Kendrick plays Stephanie, an over-achieving, work-from-home mommy blogger who develops an unlikely friendship with Emily (Lively), a glamorous, mysterious PR exec for a Manhattan designer.

Their young sons go to the same school, but they’re on totally opposite sides of the mommy spectrum; Emily wears stilettos to the playground, Stephanie shops for bargain socks by the bundle at Target. But they bond nonetheless over stiff martinis, French songs swirling on the stereo, saucy girl talk and spilled secrets in Emily’s bedazzling mansion.

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When Emily calls Stephanie one day and asks her for a “simple favor,” to pick up her son after school and keep him for the afternoon, it’s no big deal. But when Emily doesn’t come home that day, or the next, or even the next, Stephanie starts to worry that something may be wrong…

And boy, is she right!

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Henry Golding

Emily and Stephanie’s hunky writer-turned-professor husband, Sean (Henry Golding, hot off his other hit movie, Crazy Rich Asians), bond in their search for answers. But can she trust him—or resist his charms—especially after she catches him cozying up with one of his female students?

“Are you trying to Diabolique me?” Stephanie asks Sean at one point, a reference to the classic 1955 French film about a wife, a mistress and a murder—and a perfect alibi.

Stephanie puts on her Nancy Drew sleuthing hat and goes on the hunt, and one clue leads to another—a $4 million insurance policy, a crazy woman (Jean Smart), a wrist tattoo, a dead body in a lake, a massive nude painting, a struggling artist (Linda Cardellini), an old T-shirt, an heirloom ring, a burning house, a fatal car crash.

And especially in a movie like this, things aren’t always as they seem and the truth can be a slippery subject. There are certainly shadings of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train and other films where a woman has “disappeared” and the story is presented to the audience by an “unreliable narrator” who doesn’t have all the information. Like those movies, this one is also based on a best-selling novel, in this case by Darcey Bell.

ASF_D02_PI_00245.CR2Those kind of movies are typically pretty heavy and dark, but this one is definitely not—thanks to the spark, sizzle and snap of Kendrick and Lively, and to director Paul Feig, who brushes everything with brisk, confident comedic stokes honed from his previous work on Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, The Heat and Spy. There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments, particularly when Kendrick is given room to romp—like scenes when she encounters a robotic office receptionist, gets “stuck” in one of Emily’s slinky dresses, or rocks out to a rap song in her car. She’s the feisty firecracker that makes this film pop with wit as well as wile.

A SIMPLE FAVORLively has appeared in several movies (The Deep, The Age of Adeline, All I See is You, Café Society) after Gossip Girl went off the air in 2012, but this role is her juiciest yet. Emily is beguiling, manipulative, dangerous, damaged, sexy, sad and seductive—and Lively seems to relish every moment she gets to explore each luscious, plum angle of her character’s personality.

Andrew Rannells (Elijah on TV’s Girls) has a campy part as a dad in Emily’s school moms group, and Bashir Salahuddin (referee Keith Bang on GLOW) plays a detective who pops into a couple of scenes. “I’m just following breadcrumbs wherever they lead,” he says.

Follow these breadcrumbs to your local theater and see A Simple Favor—a deliciously, deliriously twisty tale of moms, martinis and a far-out gone girl that’s way more fun than you’d likely ever expect.

In theaters Sept. 14, 2018

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Hard Candy

Jennifer Garner Delivers Mixed Messages in Pulpy Revenge Drama

PEPPERMINTPeppermint
Starring Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz
Directed by Pierre Morel
R

“What’s in your wallet?” That’s what Jennifer Garner wants to know in TV commercials for a popular credit card.

In her latest movie, she’s wants something else, and raises some much harder questions.

The title may suggest a sugar-sweet, candy-coated treat. But this flick is a violent, hardcore action revenge fantasy about a woman who takes the law into her own hands when her husband and daughter are killed in a drive-by shooting by members of a Mexican drug cartel.

Her daughter was eating a cone of peppermint ice cream when she died.

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Juan Pablo Raba plays a ruthless cartel boss.

The cartel members, affiliated with a powerful drug czar (Juan Pablo Raba) with connections everywhere—including the LAPD and the courts—are rounded up and arrested, but walk free from the courtroom.

Garner plays Riley North, who is also seriously injured in the shooting, and ordered to a psychiatric hospital to recover. But she escapes and disappears, reemerging five years later to find the men who killed her family and become their judge, jury and executioner.

And while she’s taking out the trash, so to speak, she does the same to a lot of other guys, too.

“What do you want?” one of her victims-to-be asks her. “I want justice,” Riley answers.

PEPPERMINTWe know when we see her, in the back of her beat-up van, closing up a gaping wound with a staple gun and duct tape, she means business. A couple of LAPD detectives (John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz) are always one step behind her.

This theme—of the citizen vigilante—has certainly been explored in movies before. Most famously, Charles Bronson launched the whole Death Wish franchise back in the 1970s, and the Taken series made Liam Neeson an action star. (French director Pierre Morel, who directed the first Taken, is also the director of Peppermint.)

The twist here is that it’s a woman—not Bronson, not Neeson, and not Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood, Jamie Foxx, Keanu Reeves, or any one from a long list of other macho male Hollywood stars—doling out the deadly damage. But Garner isn’t exactly an out-of-nowhere choice. Remember she was a lethal weapon in the action-packed TV espionage series Alias from 2001 to 2006, playing double agent Sydney Bristow, a globe-trotting killing machine?

And she certainly hasn’t lost any of her, ahem, skills. I lost count of just how many guys are dispatched in Peppermint, but it’s certainly upward of 40. How many places can a guy be shot? Well, as Riley demonstrates, with an arsenal of weaponry that looks like a PSA for the NRA, there’s the face, the foot, the leg, the chest. They can also be stabbed, especially in the throat. Or crushed by a falling desk. Or blown to smithereens (with “explosive cord”).

PEPPERMINTIt’s not just the body count that might make you wince. The sight of a white woman laying waste to just about every Hispanic and Latino character she encounters doesn’t exactly align with what a lot people might think of as racial sensitivity, especially at a moment in time when tensions are heightened about issues of immigration and cultural assimilation.

Early in the movie, in a flashback, Riley tells her young daughter that it’s not OK to be a bully, because “then you’re just as bad as they are.” The movie can’t keep its messages straight; when Riley goes on her wholesale slaughter spree of cartel members, and everyone associated with them, doesn’t it make her “as bad” as they are?

Director Morel doesn’t do anything terribly original here; he’s working from a paint-by-numbers script and using stock characters that look and sound like they came straight from central casting. But he doesn’t have to do much; this is a red-meat movie for people who are fed up, like Riley. She’s lost her family, but a lot of other people are just fed up, and pent up, period, about, well…whatever. And maybe this will be like a big stress valve, a relief and release, like a vicarious shooting gallery. Watch Riley mess up the bad guys—bam, bam, bang, bang, stab, stab—and maybe you’ll feel a little better.

Or maybe not.

Peppermint won’t be for everybody. It’s pulpy, gritty, trashy and down-low, and its racial overtones are difficult to dismiss. But Jennifer Garner is a dead-serious “avenging angel,” action-flick fans will likely lap it up, and it’s a welcome, you-go-girl gender-twist on the format.

So…what’s in your wallet?

In theaters Sept. 7, 2018