Hulu review: Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor” (2018)

Can you keep a secret?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (2018) is available to stream on Hulu. The black comedy mystery thriller stars Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. It is based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Darcey Bell.

Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick) is a widowed single mother who vlogs.

She befriends Emily Nelson (Lively), a fashion PR director as well as wife to English professor Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), after a playdate between their sons, Miles Smothers (Joshua Satine) and Nicky Townsend (Ian Ho).

When Emily disappears, Stephanie tries to solve the mystery.

All fictional genres are governed by their respective rules of writing, especially in film, which is edited according to an assembly-line formula as cutting as journalism, but the beats of suspense are arguably the most rhythmically drummed.

Jessica Sharzer’s script marches along its tightrope of tension with nary a misstep, a whole as much greater than the sum of its parts as a jigsaw puzzle. This female-led noir, written by two different women, feminizes a stereotypically misogynistic tradition of storytelling.

And leading the charge is Lively, the femme fatale herself. Even with a male filmmaker behind the camera, she is not objectified under the male gaze – in fact, her costumery, though sexy, is borderline androgynous, stylizing her sex appeal without exploiting it.

Through a look on her face, Lively can charge even just a line of dialogue into a livewire.

Kendrick dynamizes, too, as the unreliable narrator with secrets of her own. She chases her candy-coated vlogger persona with an ominous subtext which unsettles every foundation she lays for this closet where she hides her skeletons.

Stephanie is as psychologically complex as any noir antihero, but in a way that doesn’t masculinize her.

Now, for all the movie’s generic pleasures, its comedy dulls its sharp edges. The climactic fart joke is anticlimactic, and, as with many age-diverse casts, the child actors try too hard (which is not to judge them, but the adults who write and direct their characters).

This isn’t to say humor and crime are mutually exclusive, but, where, say, David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) satirizes the “missing white woman” media narrative ingeniously, A Simple Favor is apolitically set in white, upper-middle-class suburbia.

Still, no picture is above reproach, and while A Simple Favor isn’t perfect, like Stephanie and Emily, it’s picture perfect.

One critic’s take on the politicization of film criticism

The Guardian contributor Jessa Crispin writes that 2019 was a mediocre year for film, even though police departments issued warnings about mass shootings at premieres for Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) because critics participated in an online moral panic over incel violence. According to Crispin, this overestimation of a movie’s sway over the course of real-world events has led to an overappraisal of releases such as Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019), with reviewers accusing filmgoers like Crispin of misogyny because she found it oversentimental. Crispin says shaming viewers into seeing certain titles for political reasons, even if the titles in question are poorly made, further divides audiences from the critic’s authority over the cinematic arts, and shifts the blame for nondiverse storytelling from the producers, where it belongs.

The advent of “extreme film criticism”

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Review aggregate sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have also degraded long-form analysis. (Image Courtesy: The Los Angeles Review of Books).

With the rise of home video, film criticism (as per the French New Wave filmmakers behind the Parisian Cahiers du cinema in the 1950s) democratized, and to compete against the amateurs, professionals resort to “extreme film criticism,” according to the Los Angeles Review of Books. When AMC theaters screened all twelve Marvel movies leading up to the release of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) that April, IndieWire reviewer David Ehrlich as well as The New York Times critic John Bailey subjected themselves to the thirty-one-hour marathon. Even this practice harkens back to François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Éric Rohmer, who would spend entire days at the Cinémathèque Française bingeing the American masterpieces over and over again.

Film scholar Thomas Elsaesser dies at seventy-six

Seventy-six-year-old German-born film essayist Thomas Elsaesser died of cardiac arrest December 4 at a hospital in Beijing, after he failed to show up for an appearance as part of his Chinese lecture tour and was found in his hotel room, according to The New York Times. Survived by his wife, Silvia Vega-Llona, Elsaesser was born June 22, 1943, in Berlin, discovering the Hollywood melodramas for which he was so fond through his Burt Lancaster fan of a maternal grandmother, as well as European art films through his parents. New York University professor of cinema studies Dana Polan says Elsaesser was there when the modern understanding of film studies was becoming what we know it as today, writing more than two hundred essays since the mid-1970s.

Critics at “The Hollywood Reporter” pick their ten worst films of the year

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Included on this list are an X-Men installment, two John Travolta outings, as well as a widely panned musical. (Image Courtesy: The Hollywood Reporter).

The critics at The Hollywood Reporter have cast their votes for the ten worst films of the year. They range from reboots, remakes, and sequels, to cheap horror movies, to animated pictures only interested in selling toys, to pretentious arthouse releases. In alphabetical order, they are: Aaron Woodley’s Arctic Dogs (2019); Tom Hooper’s Cats (2019); Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix (2019); Brian De Palma’s Domino (2019); Fred Durst’s The Fanatic (2019); Daniel Farrands’s The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019); Sam Taylor-Johnson’s A Million Little Pieces (2018); Adrian Grunberg’s Rambo: Last Blood (2019); Steven Knight’s Serenity (2019); and Karzan Kader’s Trading Paint (2019).

Netflix review: A&E’s “Bates Motel” (2013-2017)

Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is the perfect film. When Gus Van Sant remade it in 1998, it was shot for shot because the only way to make the myth of Norman Bates is the Master of Suspense’s way.

Showrunners Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano opened this lightning in a bottle when they adapted a contemporary prequel for Hitchcock’s classic slasher to television.

But, then again, Hitch risked everything, too, when he produced Psycho.

If you don’t know what to watch next, A&E’s Bates Motel (2013-2017) is available to stream on Netflix. The psychological horror drama was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards. One of them was for Vera Farmiga, starring as Mother herself, Norma Bates.

After the death of his father, a teenaged Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) moves from Arizona to the fictitious White Pine Bay, Oregon, to run a motel with his overbearing mother, as well as sickly classmate Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke).

Shortly thereafter, Norman’s half-brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), arrives unannounced to make a name for himself in the local drug trade.

With all the danger and dysfunction surrounding him, Norman grows more and more unstable, until the final season loosely interprets the narrative of Psycho.

Bates Motel is better than it has any right to be. Norman, the shy, awkward mama’s boy, could lazily be mischaracterized as the quirky, misunderstood boy next door you knew back from high school.

He isn’t.

The series is an unsexy character study of a voyeuristic serial killer with an Oedipus complex.

Conceivably, Norman is cast as the deuteragonist to Norma’s protagonist, the drama revolving around a mother’s (tragically futile) desperation to save her son from himself, and protect the people around him, too.

One could submit Norma is an antihero for much of the show.

She enables Norman’s obsession with her, fails Dylan as a parent, and lies and manipulates her way through the violent, criminal underbelly of White Pine Bay.

This would be a myopic assessment, because, ultimately, she redeems herself.

She institutionalizes Norman even though she’s no less codependent on him than he is on her, she ends up in a healthier relationship with Dylan despite her favoritism toward Norman, and, if the police can’t be trusted, then what choice does she have but to play the game for her family?

Norma is not always likable, but she is always sympathetic. She suffers from many symptoms of borderline personality disorder, and she’s an abuse survivor without constructive coping mechanisms, but her matriarchy is dynamic and adaptable enough to evolve.

Psycho is composed with unspoken undertones that Norman is the true victim, and his mother is to blame for his murders for the crime of being too domineering. Bates Motel lays the culpability where it belongs, squarely at Norman’s feet.

Farmiga’s sensitive tour-de-force is the justice her character deserves, which is why Bates Motel is one of the most ethically written antihero’s journeys in the Golden Age of TV, even going so far as to downplay the incestuous subtext.

The production is as masterful as the drama. John S. Bartley was up for the Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series, and Chris Bacon, Outstanding Music Composition for a Series. Bates Motel does Hitchcock’s iconic aesthetic proud.

Additionally, the meta-writing subverts modern audience expectations the same way Psycho did for contemporaneous viewers in a world where we all know about the shower setpiece (whether we’ve seen it or not).

Bates Motel finds a new way to shock us, and modernize the misogynistic spectacle for feminist consumption.

It deserves more than its network. Sometimes, the dialogue cries out for a curse word. But that’s only a minor complaint.

Bates Motel, even for a Psycho purist such as this critic, is well worth the stay.