A SIMPLE FAVOR: 3 STARS
The name Paul Feig is closely associated with comedy but with "A Simple Favor" he takes a step away from the laughs to present a story of intrigue and suspense that begins with a friend asking for a little help.
The labyrinthine plot begins with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), the plucky single mom of a young son. She's a keener, a food vlogger who is always the first to volunteer for everything at her son's school. When she meets Emily (Blake Lively), the blunt talking mother of her son's schoolmate, she is smitten. Stephanie is lonely, a widow who pours herself into work and her son's life. With Emily she discovers the pleasures of pouring a martini in the afternoon as a "reset" for the day. The pair bond almost immediately despite Emily's warning, "You do not want to be friends with me, trust me."
When Emily asks Stephanie for the "simple favour," of picking her son up after school, the eager mom agrees. Trouble is, Emily disappears into the great wide open, leaving Stephanie stuck with a child and grieving husband (Henry Golding). As she struggles to find closure and poke around in the corners of Emily's life she discovers her friend wasn't quite the person she thought she was. "Secrets are like margarine," Steph says, "easy to spread but bad for the heart."
From here the film deep dives into a twisty-turny story of intrigue, misplaced love and insurance scams.
Midway through, Stephanie asks, "Are you trying to Diabolique me?" It's a call back to a 1955 psychological thriller that saw terrible people plan a murder while maintaining a perfect alibi. There are missing bodies and other comparisons to "A Simple Favor" but the similarities end there. Feig gets great performances from Kendrick and Lively but is a bit too leisurely in getting into the meat of the matter.
The opening scenes of the friendship building between the two women sparkle. Kendrick is wide eyed and naive, with just a hint of the darkness that may lie beneath her perfectly manicured soccer mom exterior. By comparison Lively is an exotic beast, decked out in designer clothes and perfectly tousled mane of blonde hair. Her candor puts Stephanie and the audience off balance. She loves her son Nikki, but money woes occupy her mind. Despite living in a grand home with all the amenities she's on the verge of bankruptcy. "The nicest thing I could do for Nikki," she says, "is blow my brains out." Their friendship always seemed unconventional but Emily's frankness hints at what is to come.
That's the good stuff. From there "A Simple Favor" becomes a maze of good and bad intentions, fake outs, incest and gaslighting. Motivations shift and the twists pile up as the plot takes a darker tone. Trouble is, it takes too long to get where it is going. The interplay between the characters remains enjoyable but as they become increasingly unreliable narrators the story feels convoluted and stretched.
WHITE BOY RICK: 2 ½ STARS
In real life, Richard Wershe Jr. lived twenty lives all before the time he could legally have a drink. As a teenage FBI informant he lived the high life before it all came crashing down. A new film, "White Boy Rick," details his rise and terrible tumble.
14-year-old Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) a.k.a. White Boy Rick, lives with his father Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey),and older sister Dawn (Bel Powley) across the street from his grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) in 1980s Detroit. Despite the newly launched "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign, crack is everywhere, seducing many in his neighbourhood.
Sr. is a small time dealer in illegal guns with aspirations of one day opening up a legit business. Before he can do that, however, Jr. is convinced to become an undercover agent for the FBI. If he snitches on local drug dealers, they say, the feds will leave his father's operation alone. The teenager takes the deal and soon is dealing cocaine and rolling in cash. His run comes to a sudden end when he becomes a victim of the war on drugs. Arrested for drug possession of an enormous amount of cocaine, the feds drop him like a hot potato and he is sentenced to thirty years behind bars.
There's a lot going on in "White Boy Rick." The main thrust of the story, Jr.'s rise and fall, is muddied by the addition of side characters. They're often entertaining - particularly in the case of the grandparents - or unexpectedly touching - Powley nicely portrays Dawn's fragility and descent into addiction - but feel like after thoughts in an already busy movie.
Newcomer Merrit and McConaughey have great chemistry. Merrit, found at a Detroit casting call, isn't quite up to the emotional heights necessary for us to care about him but fares better when he's required to swagger around the screen.
While overstuffed, "White Boy Rick" does give McConaughey a chance to act as anchor, deftly portraying his desperation for the American Dream while keeping his family together in the only way he knows how.
"White Boy Rick" nicely captures the grit of 1980s Detroit and makes a powerful statement of the failure of the war on drugs but despite the multi-pronged story and dramatic turns in Jr.'s life it never completely grabs our attention.
MANDY: 3 STARS FOR AUDACITY
Years from now, when we look back at Nicolas Cage's career, we'll divide his films into categories. The retrospective may look something like this: The Early, Eager Era exemplified by movies like "Wild at Heart" and "Vampire's Kiss," the Prestige Years of "Leaving Las Vegas," the Blockbuster Age that gave us "National Treasure" and then there's Everything Else.
The Oscar-winner has always made off-kilter choices, even at the peak of his fame, but his recent output has been, in a word, uneven. The pleasures of the violent "Mom and Dad" do not make up for the eye-peelingly bad "Pay the Ghost."
But, whatever the film, his fearlessness is undeniable. I get it. Nicolas Cage is not like us. Unbound by the rules of his Hollywood peers he chooses extreme movies that defy the audience to recall when he was a multi-plex ready movie star.
Watching his latest film "Mandy" hammered that home. The experimental revenge flick is the kind of unhinged revenge movie the word phantasmagorical was created to describe. Watching it made me think it must be freeing to be Cage. To not care one whit what people think; to fully immerse oneself to the whims of the imagination, to be a full-blown peacock in a world of pigeons.
"Mandy" is a story about Red Miller (Cage), a backwoods logger and artist wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Solitude is their thing but when that peace and quiet is invaded by a murderous cult leader (Linus Roach), Red seeks bloody revenge. "I'm going hunting," he tells a friend.
Your enjoyment - if that is the word I should use - of "Mandy" will be directly linked to your liking of psycho bike gangs, strange hallucinogenic visuals and chainsaw battles. The first hour is all menace and foreboding; the second hour is a big fat slab of Cage Rage. High and seemingly unstoppable Red shouts "I am your god now!" as he unleashes holy hell on the folks who did him wrong.
"Mandy" is a deeply weird movie, tailored for a very specific grindhouse type of audience, and brought to life by Cage's cock-a-doodle performance.