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.

The Shallows

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***1/2 (out of five)

If you’re an admirer of Blake Lively (Savages, The Age of Adaline), see The Shallows, for it’s a fair bet that no movie ever again will devote to her so much adoring screen time. Essentially (though not literally) a one-man show á la Castaway, this surf-and-shark tale, a cunning little B-movie from Spanish genre whiz Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax, Orphan, Run All Night) revels in Lively’s Californian limbs and freckles, her sun-blanched healthy wholesomeness. It cannot get enough of her.

She plays Nancy, a med student on a pilgrimage to a “secret beach” in Mexico that her surfer mother told her about before succumbing to cancer. While surfing there she accidentally infringes on a shark’s dinnertime, and the shark comes after her. Survival ensues.

If Jaws is the best shark movie, and Open Water is the creepiest shark movie, The Shallows is the most sensual shark movie. Between Lively’s exquisite features (and limbs – we really get to know this actress’s gams) and the stunning bay (the film was actually shot in Queensland, Australia) it’s a deeply beautiful film, gorgeously and inventively shot by Flavio Martínez Labiano. The shark is almost incidental, which is what keeps the movie from achieving some sort of genre greatness.

It may not be great, but it is bloody good. It’s crazy tight, extremely well thought-out (as another critic noted, by halfway through we the audience are totally in command of the bay’s logistics) and Lively, mostly in close-up and mostly in peril, is excellent; indeed, perfect. It’s hard to imagine her being nominated for serious awards for this role, but it must be said that Meryl Streep herself couldn’t do it better. It’s a fully believable and utterly absorbing genre performance. I will await her next movie eagerly, although I suspect that The Shallows is going to remain her signature role for quite a while. And she has every reason to be proud of that.