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-

 

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-

Boogie Nights (1997, Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) English 8

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, John C. Reilly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, Nicole Ari Parker, Thomas Jane, William H. Macy, Don Cheadle, Phillip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina

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Sweeping view of the late ’70s porno scene, and Eddie Adams, A.K.A Dirk Diggler’s (Wahlberg) career ups and downs rising from busboy to star before hitting rock bottom in the early ’80s. There are at least a dozen indelible characters in Boogie Nights, from director and self-fashioned auteur, Jack Horner (Reynolds) all the way to the lovesick Scotty (Seymour Hoffman), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s prodigious skill is constantly on display. Many consider Boogie Nights his first masterpiece, but it falls just short, in my book, of the likes of his later films like Magnolia, The Master, or There Will Be Blood. Certain aspects feel derivative of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and at times the overtly comedic tone which makes the film a blast to watch, hold it back from ever being truly moving. Dazzling. Hysterical. Riveting.

North and South (2004, Directed by Brian Percival) English 8

Starring Richard Armitage, Daniela Denby-Ashe, Sinéad Cusack, Tim Pigott-Smith, Lesley Manville

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Margaret Hale (Denby-Ashe) is a spirited, opinionated girl who moves with her parents to the wildly different, industrial town of Milton. There, she catches the eye of hardened factory boss, John Thornton, whom she mostly despises, and befriends a family of aggrieved workers. Adapted from the classic Elizabeth Gaskell novel, this television serial captures her work splendidly, with a standout performance from Armitage as John Thornton. Something of a working class Pride and Prejudice with top-notch production quality and performances. Outstanding. Faithful. Substantial.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018, Directed by Mike Newell) English 6

Starring Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Glen Powell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew Goode, Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton

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Just after World War II, a writer based in London, Juliet Ashton (James) starts a correspondence with Dawsey Adams (Huisman), from Guernsey, who tells her of his unique and peculiar book club. The club began during German occupation which intrigues Juliet, and she soon goes to visit. Arriving on the island, she grows fond of the members of the club as she learns of their remarkable story. A very familiar romance plot mixes with a different perspective of the war to fine results. I had no idea that Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis, and that lesson alone makes the film more than its typical story book romance. Though its sadder elements failed to strike a chord, and you know exactly where the story’s going, sometimes you want what you expect, and this is a well done movie. Picturesque. Engaging. Well-crafted.

 

Through a Glass Darkly (1961, Directed by Ingmar Bergman) Swedish 5

Starring Harriet Andersson, Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Lars Passgård

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One long, revealing day on a remote island unfolds for Karin (Andersson), suffering from schizophrenia, her father, David (Björnstrand), sexually frustrated brother, Minus (Passgård), and embattled husband, Martin (Von Sydow). Dense with themes of God’s existence, incest, family turmoil, and mental illness, this chamber play grows bloated with symbolism and opaque dialogue. It’s a style many value as Bergman is renowned, but I can’t stand it. The acting is strong, the visuals are striking, but I have no heart for Through a Glass Darkly, and it doesn’t appeal to me thematically. Talkative. Leaden. Dreary.

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.