A Simple Favour

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Female gazing.

* * * (out of five)

Anna Kendrick commits with all she’s got to a perfect role for Anna Kendrick, now that Anna Kendrick is old enough to play a “mom”, in Paul Feig’s incredibly sunny, bright and colourful A Simple Favour, which gender-riffs on Double Indemnity but with naught but the brightest blue skies. This is neo-noir with chardonnay on bright Tuesday afternoons, James M. Cain crossed with Marian Keyes.

Blake Lively plays Barbara Stanwyck to Kendrick’s Fred MacMurray, and while the metaphor doesn’t reflect the plot, it certainly applies to the awe with which Kendrick’s Stephanie gazes on Lively’s Emily, a daytime-tuxedoed PR firefighter who works in the city – the main action takes place in Connecticut – for one of the world’s great designers. Everything about Emily makes Stephanie look commonplace, and Lively, whose delivery is preternaturally naturalistic, makes Kendrick – who, lest we forget, has played Cinderella in Into The Woods and at the Oscars – look like a strangely-featured, cartoonish imp. Only the insanely beautiful can make the incredibly beautiful look close to ordinary.

Kendrick’s all-in acting style and Lively’s laid-back naturalism could clash, but instead they blend beautifully – these are meant to be wildly different people, even though they’re living in the same one percent – and the first act scenes of the two of them together are the best in the film by a Connecticut mile. Sadly, the second act is haphazard and draggy, and the climax is clunky and unsatisfying. The newly minted hunk of Hollywood, Henry Golding, so terrible in Crazy Rich Asians, is once again terrible here. This guy is gorgeous and supremely well spoken; he really should take two years out to go to a fine acting training program (any would have him) and re-emerge with some chops. He can’t go on as he’s going on, because at the moment, there ain’t nothing going on.

In the end, Kendrick, Lively, Feig’s direction, and the sunny Connecticut exteriors and stunning tasteful rich interiors are diverting enough and perhaps worth a matinee ticket. But the script only has a single good act, and after about the forty minute mark, diminishes with every scene. This is the kind of idea the Coen Brothers make small masterpieces out of, but they would have put this script down at page thirty-seven and never picked it up again.

Mr. Right

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*** (out of five)

Anna Kendrick is just too adorable, and Sam Rockwell just too cute, in this very uneven but ultimately passable RomCom guns-and-guts mash-up. Kendrick plays a bit of a hopeless case who may be a bit nuts; on the rebound from being dumped, she falls fast for a nice dude and the feeling is mutual. Pity he’s an international hit man trying not to be killed by others cut from the same cloth. Or maybe it’s not a pity. Maybe some serious action is just what she needs.

The supporting characters are all sub-par Tarantino wannabe, but Kendrick and Rockwell (despite a pretty huge age difference) have palpable chemistry, and the final moments of the film work so well that they kind of make the whole thing vaguely wonderful in retrospect. It’s shot colourfully in New Orleans which contributes to the fun, as our übercute little couple stumble around in silly shirts, dodging bullets and drinking fluffy cocktails.

Into The Woods

Into-the-Woods-banner***1/2 (out of five)

For many, many musical theatre aficionados, Into The Woods is a master work, one of the best pieces by the best maestro, being Stephen Sondheim, the anti-populist, intellectual, “difficult” composer and lyricist. Into The Woods is one of his biggies, featuring excellent music and songs, strong characters, and a clever storyline that subverts a bunch of fairytales. Huge in scale – there’s a witch, a giant, a castle or two, a cow, magic beans, a wolf and an awful lot of woods – it’s long been ripe for cinematic treatment.

Rob Marshall’s adaptation is straightforward and respectful. Since the material itself is slyly subversive, there’s no need to subvert it in the transition from stage to screen; all that is necessary is to flesh it out, fill the screen with it, and Marshall’s done that. Thus The Witch (Meryl Streep) can get up to all manner of creepy manoeuvres, the beans can burst skyward as a thundering, towering beanstalk, the giant can look like a giant and her footsteps can cause the shattering of a castle tower.

There is one shrieking element of total theatricality: The Wolf (Johnny Depp) doesn’t look like a wolf, he looks like Johnny Depp with some whiskers. It’s an odd choice and clashes with Steep’s effective witchiness, the giant’s giantism, and the cow, which is mainly played by a real cow. Depp comes and goes early and is pretty much forgotten by the end, which is just as well; his episode is the film’s least compelling.

The best character is Cinderella, and Anna Kendrick is sublime. She’s got a terrific song on the castle steps that is full of humour and nuance. Kendrick is bagging all the great singing-on-screen roles, from her franchise (Pitch Perfect) to her upcoming two-hander The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s excellent musical. She deserves to. She sings beautifully and you believe her singing; even as she sings along to her own recordings (as they did on this one, as opposed to the “live” singing of Les Miserables) you can see her lower lip trembling in vibrato. She’s a perfect Cinderella.

Also terrific is Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife. She outshines The Baker, James Cordon, and fans will be bummed to see one of his big numbers cut. Mostly, though, the songs are all there, unlike the recent Annie, which bombed the Dresden out of its own source material. Meryl’s fine – in that Meryl Streep way of “fine” meaning typically excellent – but my Musical Theatre Expert, who accompanied me to the screening I saw, said that she didn’t own the role – and the singing – as it has been owned by Bernadette Peters on stage and in a famous PBS filmed stage recording. My Musical Theatre Expert did single out young Daniel Huttlestone, as Jack (as in, “…and the beanstalk”) and even applauded after one of his big numbers.

Everything is very competent and it’s all good fun. It doesn’t seem to have any raison d’être except that, perhaps, someone finally got the money together to make it. It doesn’t comment on our age, doesn’t offer a bold new perspective, and doesn’t feature any particular “star” performance. But if it only exists for Sondheim fans, it exists well for them. Supposedly the man himself is happy with it, and so he should be. It treats his work with complete reverence, respect, and love.