A Simple Favor (2018, Directed by Paul Feig) English 6

Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Andrew Rannells

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(6-Good Movie)

Twisty. Sly. Lurid.

Gone Girl came and shocked a lot of people. Amy Dunne, portrayed by Rosamund Pike, is an unforgettable character. Like every huge Hollywood hit, Gone Girl has a host of imitators. What separates A Simple Favor from the cheap imitations is its playful take on the sensationalized material; director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and writer, Jessica Sharzer pace the twisty plot with the occasional riff that feels like a wink at the camera. They know this is derivative of Gone Girl and its rip-offs, so that A Simple Favor works both as a comedy-a spoof of sorts- and a thriller-the plot is absorbing and surprising. Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, the perfect stay-at-home mom who befriends Emily (Lively). They both have grade school age sons, but that’s where the similarities would seem to end, until Emily disappears and it comes out that both women have secrets. Lively plays her role straight and plays it well, creating an enigmatic character that you know is trouble but can’t help but be drawn towards. Anna Kendrick gives the material its gently satirical edge; a fish out of water at first glance, but with the ability to surprise you. Like most of these stylish, over-cooked thrillers, A Simple Favor is incredibly entertaining, well-plotted, and effective, but loses something upon further viewings.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

 

Burn After Reading (2008, Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen) English 6

Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, J.K Simmons, Tilda Swinton, David Rasche, Olek Krupa, Elizabeth Marvel

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(6-Good Movie)

Ponderous. Interesting. Dry.

The Coen brothers have quite possibly the most eclectic filmography of any film-makers. They’ll give you a genre classic like No Country for Old Men, and then follow it up with this baffling espionage comedy. As far as comedies go, Burn After Reading is dry as hell, and occasionally, memorably violent. Do we like any of these bumbling idiots, as they create a tangled mess over worthless CIA secrets? Does it matter? The plot is thick but inconsequential, the characters are rich but unrelatable, and, in the end, the CIA head summarizes our feelings, when he asks, “what did we learn?” On the one hand, the film is funny, an absurdist comedy wherein the Coen brothers make a movie doing what most script gurus explicitly tell you not to do: push the plot forward with character’s stupidity. On the other hand, for a film to be loved, something has to matter, and a good portion of Burn After Reading’s laughs could be described just as easily as viewed. Plus the supporting cast in this ensemble outshine the headliners. Malkovich is hilarious as the fired CIA agent on a profane rampage to get his stolen memoirs, Richard Jenkins infuses the story with at least some pathos when he’s on screen as the victim of non-requited love, and J.K Simmons, as the aforementioned CIA head, is called on to deliver what I would say is the punchline, with the film being one very long joke. He delivers it admirably.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

 

L.A Confidential (1997, Directed by Curtis Hanson) English 10

Starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Danny Devito, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn, James Cromwell

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(10-Masterpiece)

Potent. Dazzling. Masterful.

Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film, based on James Ellroy’s novel, has many elements usually found in a bad adaptation: bastardized plot, watered-down themes (especially the racist qualities of the protagonists), and a cast that veers rather strongly from their original character descriptions , including an Australian and a New Zealander playing American cops in key roles. It’s a credit to the filmmakers, or truly everyone involved- the writers, the cinematographer, the stars, composer Jerry Goldsmith, who did the terrific score-that instead of feeling like a hack adaptation, L.A Confidential feels like a perfect movie; perfectly paced, perfectly performed, and perfectly filmed. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce play three disparate cops, at odds mostly, who all get swept up from different angles into a massive crime plot involving prostitution, police corruption, heroin, and Mickey Cohen. Kim Basinger merges two Hollywood clichés (hooker with the heart of gold with the classic femme fatale) in her role as Lynn Bracken, but makes the part vital, and reminds us why we like the clichés.  The plot, as it is, seems as complex and mystifying as any ever portrayed on screen, and remembering that it’s working with maybe a third of the book begs the question of how I ever seemed to understand the book. In any case, those tough choices, the decision to go for Ellroy’s spirit rather than exact faithfullness, were judicious, and the resulting film is a major triumph.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Charade (1963, Directed by Stanley Donen) English 10

Starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Walter Matthau

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Two of classic Hollywood’s greatest stars pair, with Audrey Hepburn playing Regina Lampert,  the widow of a man who stole a fortune during the war. Her husband’s old partners in crime come calling, betrayed and left out of their cut, to follow Regina, believing that she knows where the money is hidden. Cary Grant plays the mysterious and charming Peter Joshua. Regina quickly falls in love with the man, but can she trust him? Excellent script, full of snappy lines, and romantic patter. Also an excellent whodunnit, an excellent romantic comedy, and an excellent thriller. Charade works tremendously on all levels. Enchanting. Sparkling. Suave.

Windows (1980, Directed by Gordon Willis) English 4

Starring Talia Shire, Joseph Cortese, Elizabeth Ashley, Kay Medford, Michael Lipton, Russell Horton

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Shy, passive Emily Hollander (Shire) is the subject of an unhealthy obsession: her neighbor, Andrea (Ashley), watches her nightly from a telescope situated across the street. Andrea hires a taxi driver to rape Emily and record the act for Andrea’s voyeuristic enjoyment. Yes, it is as obscene and unpleasant as it sounds. Inspired by a love of Hitchcock and Rear Window, I’m sure, this film captures none of the old master’s skill for telling a gripping story. Directed by legendary cinematographer, Gordon Willis, this is a great looking, very atmospheric film. The problem is the script begins with an offensive premise, proceeds with no mystery or suspense, and ends with a ridiculously hollow climax. Bad. Misguided. Superficial.

BlackKklansmen (2018, Directed by Spike Lee) English 6

Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen, Corey Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Ryan Eggold

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Trailblazing within the Colorado Springs Police Department, black cop, Ron Stallworth (Washington), leads an undercover investigation into the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, with the help of his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Driver). Subtle? No. Nor is BlackKklansmen as deep or thoughtful as some of the real life figures it glorifies (there’s a stirring scene involving Kwame Ture early in the picture). However, Spike Lee hasn’t lost his ability to provoke,  and hasn’t lost his trademark panache, and he’s working with a story people want to hear. He packs the film with footage from recent white lives matter rallies, Trump speeches, a clip from Gone With the Wind, and an erratic but humorous opening featuring  Alec Baldwin flubbing through a eugenics video. Some of the extracurricular material works better than others, and Stallworth’s penultimate scenes feel too pat to be real, before concluding with a sobering cross-burning that should have been the end. What sticks is Stallworth’s story, both funny and incredible. Exuberant. Outrageous. Provocative.

The Narrow Margin (1952, Directed by Richard Fleischer) English 8

Starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Queenie Leonard, Paul Maxey

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Hard-boiled Detective Seargeant Walter Brown (McGraw) has to escort a mobster’s widow (Windsor) from Chicago to Los Angeles by train where she’s set to speak before a grand jury. Powerful underworld figures are willing to do anything to make sure that doesn’t happen. Brown, whose partner was already murdered protecting the big-mouthed dame, has his work cut out for him, standing alone against a team of crooks and murderers. They even try bribing him. Meanwhile he meets a married woman, Ann (White), on the train, and quickly grows attached to her. Fast, tightly plotted tale with strong performances and a surprising finale. Very suspenseful. Prime B-movie.