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.

Hulu review: Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

In response to the moral panic surrounding the youth counterculture of the Cold War, with Communism threatening to indoctrinate pro-Kennedy children against their pro-Eisenhower parents, a cycle of “demonic child” films were released in the 1960s and 1970s.

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) constructed a zeitgeist around Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the last New Hollywood masterpiece.

But Carrie isn’t Satanic, and the three productions that are, are said to be cursed – indeed, the year after Rosemary’s Baby came out, the director’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult of… well… Devil-worshipping hippies.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Rosemary’s Baby is available to stream on Hulu. The psychological supernatural horror picture is the auteur’s own Academy Award-nominated  adaptation of the same-titled 1967 novel by Ira Levin.

Ruth Gordon won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of creepy neighbor Minnie Castevet.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (independent filmmaking pioneer John Cassavetes) move into an apartment in New York City.

A struggling actor, Guy befriends the elderly Minnie and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) right before he tells Rosemary he wants a baby.

Rosemary experiences a lucid nightmare about an incubus raping her in front of the Castevets and Guy the night they try to conceive, and that’s only the beginning of the the paranoid, conspiratorial dread Rosemary lives during her pregnancy.

Polanski honed the craftsmanship behind his atmospheric tension with his Nóz w wodzie (1962), one of the most impressive debuts ever put to film, a feature much like Rosemary’s Baby where the Hitchcockian terror lies not in the bang, but in the anticipation of it.

In Polanski’s and the Master of Suspense’s hands alike, the most familiar moments throughout the everyman’s day become fodder for the most cinematic anxiety (which makes it all the more real).

They are inherently European artists, learning how to do more with less on the postwar continent without all the American isolationism and atomic imperialism shielding Hollywood from such ruination.

Perhaps Polanski’s Generation X Antichrist was born from being next-door neighbors to the far-left Soviet Union.

And the both of them reached their fullest potential when they came West.

Rosemary’s Baby paved the way for Francis Ford Coppola’s Hollywood Renaissance masterwork, The Conversation (1974), the most significant sound film since Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), with its cloak-and-dagger mystery.

Carrie, too, owes its iconic twist ending to this Levin interpretation, the novelist also having written The Stepford Wives in 1972 as well as Sliver in 1991.

What keeps Polanski obsessing over these neurotic themes, notably in Repulsion (1965, which would go on to inspire Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010)) and Chinatown (1974), is his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, as expressed through The Pianist (2002).

Rosemary’s Baby is the drama of a gaslit woman who suspects she’s the target of evil incarnate and turns out to be right about the people organizing against her.

The darkness tantalizes everyone around her via their most destructive characteristics, until Rosemary herself succumbs, too.

But Polanski himself is an abusive man.

In 1977, the filmmaker was arrested and charged for drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl in Los Angeles, ultimately fleeing to France in 1978 before he could be sentenced and avoiding all countries likely to extradite him to the United States.

Whether one can support a creative’s work without condoning their behavior, is up for debate, but whichever side you land on may color your interaction with the movie.

But how horrifying it is that a Polish Jew’s family was killed by white supremacists the year after he shot Rosemary’s Baby. It makes this tale of Lucifer’s bride all the more personal for its director.

And that much more powerful for its audiences.

Hulu review: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s “Pocahontas” (1995)

Beginning with Ron Clements and John Musker’s The Little Mermaid (1989) and ending with Kevin Lima and Chris Buck’s Tarzan (1999), the Disney Renaissance is to Disney what the Hollywood Renaissance is to Golden Age Hollywood.

Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) may be the first animated film ever eligible for the Best Picture Academy Award, but Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s The Lion King (1994) is the studio’s masterstroke.

With Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s Pocahontas (1995), the overpowered media conglomerate attempts to recapture the prestige of Beauty and the Beast as well as the success of its predecessor, The Lion King, the top-grossing traditionally animated movie of all time.

Ambition paints every frame with all the colors of the wind, but ambition can also dance perilously close to pretension, and one misstep can spell disaster.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Pocahontas is available to stream on Hulu.

The animated musical romantic drama won Best Original Song for “Colors of the Wind,” and composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz were honored a second time that year with the Oscar for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score.

The eponymous hero would go on to become the first Native American Disney Princess and the first woman of color to lead a cast of Disney characters.

Set in 1607, Captain John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) sails with the Virginia Company to the New World in search of adventure.

Once landing in Tsenacommacah, he meets and falls in love with Pocahontas (Irene Bedard, with Judy Kuhn as the singing voice), the free-spirited daughter of Chief Powhatan (Russell Means, with vocals from Jim Cummings).

But the greedy, genocidal Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) is obsessed with pillaging the Powhatan tribe’s land for gold, and his conquest threatens to make a tragedy out of the star-crossed lovers’ forbidden romance.

Artistic liberties are taken in almost all works of historical fiction – to quote Sir Alfred Hitchcock, “Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out” – but the sanitization and whitewashing found in Pocahontas have aged the text poorly.

The real Pocahontas was not a “magical minority,” but, rather, a child bride, and the colonizers didn’t make peace with her people after she learned how to speak English by “listening with her heart.”

As for John Smith, his “exploration” was more correctly an “invasion,” an “imperialization,” and it shouldn’t have taken a “noble savage” like Pocahontas to humanize First Nation people in his eyes (through her sexuality, no less).

This problematic, post-Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) white savior narrative of exotification crystallizes at its most egregious in the musical number, “Savages.”

The back-and-forth parallelism of the song conflates the white supremacy of the European settlers alongside the self-defensive resistance from the indigenous groups, drawing a false equivalency between the two that the First Americans were as intolerant as the British Empire.

Intentionalism is a critical fallacy, and Disney’s white liberal, apologistic intentions here are irrelevant.

If the true story of Pocahontas is too upsetting for their key demographic to understand without reducing the Powhatan culture to something that existed only for white men to appropriate it, then it’s a story that never should be told to children.

But, for what it is within the context of the Disney canon, Pocahontas is an epic entertainment. The soundtrack raises goosebumps, and the animation is as colorful as the signature song.

Apolitically, the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas is one of the most mature and affecting in the Disney universe, and, hey, if nothing else, Ratcliffe is shown to be more villainous than Powhatan.

If your child is too young to learn the real history behind Pocahontas, then at least take care to teach them what reel history means. The insultingly oversimplified themes of the picture will be digestible enough to entertain them, but the more harmlessly so, the better.

And as far as Disney fare goes, its family-friendliness is just as accessible for adults looking to enjoy a more grownup tale of intercultural (though largely fictionalized) romance, as it is for kids looking to sing along to some catchy tunes.

Hulu review: Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” (2007)

Not only did this abortion of a movie kill Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, it also spawned Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) reboot, a franchise which lasted all of two films.

Yes, it really is as bad as the reputation that precedes it.

If you don’t know what not to watch next, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007) is available to stream on Hulu. The filmmaker is also part-responsible for Ivan Raimi and Grant Curtis’s script.

That sixty-three percent of positive reviews aggregated via Rotten Tomatoes is a passing grade for a failure of a superhero film.

One year after Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004), the time is right for an uncharacteristically vain Peter Parker (Maguire) to propose to the struggling (not to mention jealous and selfish) Broadway actress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), whose star flickers as Spider-Man’s rises.

Harry Osborn (James Franco), Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), and their sisters all do battle with Spider-Man.

Ad interim, an extraterrestrial parasite falls to Earth on a meteorite and bonds itself to Peter, teasing out the dark side of his powers, jeopardizing his humanity, and whispering disastrous hairstyling advice into his ear.

To be fair, Spider-Man 2 was the all-time greatest of its genre until the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), so any sequel was all but destined to fall short (much like Nolan’s own The Dark Knight Rises (2012), as a matter of fact).

And Spider-Man 3 comes its closest to working in the first act, with the conflict between Peter and the New Goblin mounting to a critical pitch throughout the course of the (accidental) trilogy.

Once Harry succumbs to amnesia (yes, seriously), the soap operatic melodrama drowns the drama in so much curdled cheese, and the tightly wound tension wets its pants in a flaccid anticlimax.

Even the laughably miscast Grace as Venom could have seduced Peter into killing Harry under Raimi’s horror auteurship (which distinguishes the hospital setpiece in Spider-Man 2), but, instead, we get a superfluous Sandman, and an underused Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Consequently, the character arcs are oversimplified into the most thoughtlessly digestible versions of themselves.

That’s why this critic strained to synopsize this overcrowded picture.

It’s an opportunity missed – Peter could’ve lost MJ after murdering Harry, and then Raimi could’ve directed a sequel about Gwen, with the splendidly computer-animated Sandman as the antagonist – and it’s an opportunity sorely missed, because Maguire is Spider-Man.

His boyish screen persona satisfies the comic book wish fulfillment of a nerd becoming a superhero, as opposed to the hipster supermodel that is Andrew Garfield; Tom Holland is the best of both worlds, and he may not be what Sony deserves, but he is what they need right now.

Hulu review: ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” (2004-2012)

When the First Lady of the United States references your series for a White House Correspondents’ Dinner joke, you know you’ve got an instant classic on your hands.

If you don’t know what to watch next, ABC’s Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) is available to stream on Hulu. Marc Cherry’s mystery comedy-drama was a ratings juggernaut over the course of its run. It is the longest-running hourlong television show with all-female leads.

Set on Wisteria Lane, the primetime soap opera is narrated by Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) after she commits suicide.

The ensemble cast are Mary Alice’s friends and neighbors: the recently divorced girl next door, Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher); the overwhelmed mother, Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman); the WASP-y Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross); and the adulterous Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria).

Each season turns along a central mystery at its axis (the inaugural season being the circumstances which led up to Mary Alice’s death) as these four titular housewives come to grips with love, motherhood, and friendship.

Like Showtime’s Dexter (2006-2013) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Desperate Housewives should’ve ended after its fifth season, but went on for eight instead. The first five mysteries are the most bingeworthy.

After the infamous time jump between the fourth and fifth seasons, it holds itself to be self-evident that Cherry could only develop these characters so much.

Visiting them five years into their future is a gimmick which sticks the landing for a staff of writers whose reputation precedes them for setpieces and cliffhangers, but it’s one that cannot be outdone.

Susan, Lynette, Bree, and Gaby become not who we know them to be when we initially befriend them, which is organic to their dramatic trajectories, but they begin to feel like strangers in the final three seasons.

These last seasons fail not because they’re bad, but because they’re forgettable, which a soap never should be. The sixth-season “witness protection program” twist is yawningly predictable, and this reviewer can’t recall what even happens in the seventh and eighth seasons.

Not every program can be AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), quitting while they’re still ahead, and Desperate Housewives is in the business of generating viewership, not crafting high art, which it does well, even if it’s what’s keeping it on life support past its expiration date.

If true genius in entertainment is to be found in knowing one’s limitations, then a visit to the campy, twisty, addictive fun of Wisteria Lane won’t overstay its welcome as long as you don’t plan on moving in there.

Hulu review: CBS and NBC’s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-1965)

“Good evening…”

If you don’t know what to watch next, CBS and NBC’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965) is available to stream on Hulu.

It aired on CBS from 1955 to 1960, NBC from 1960 to 1962 (when it was retitled The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and its runtime extended from twenty-five to fifty minutes), CBS again from 1962 to 1964, and NBC once more in 1965.

The Writers Guild of America named the anthology series on their list of best-written television shows, and Time ranked it as one of the greatest series ever.

Each episode is a short story adaptation, some of which Sir Alfred Hitchcock himself directed. The genres encompass everything from thriller to drama to mystery to horror to crime. A constellation of guest stars appears, and the Master of Suspense hosts every installment.

As showrunner and executive producer, Hitchcock’s economical genius for cultivating talented collaborators immortalizes the anthology’s classic legacy (overextended writer-director-producer-actors like M. Night Shyamalan would do well to limit themselves).

James B. Allardice wrote Hitch’s monologues for him, shading in the Master’s iconic profile with black comedy as sharp as a knife’s edge.

In many ways, the series constructs the more signature characteristics of Hitchcock’s pop cultural persona, which allowed him to market himself as a dependable brand that audiences could count on for transcendent entertainment.

One can’t help but feel, however, that Hitchcock was constrained by the puritanical broadcasting standards of the day.

Most episodes end with the criminal seemingly getting away with it, until Hitchcock fades in to tell us how they get caught – if he wanted that to be the way the short films end, wouldn’t that be the way they’re written?

Be that as it may, Hitchcock’s dark fantasies are at their least exploitative when such restrictions are in place, and thus at their most artful; this is a flawed filmmaking ego whose cinematic violence is an aestheticized wish fulfillment for his own abusive, impotent megalomania.

When his bad guys get what they deserve, he does, too.

Hulu review: John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” (2018)

First, Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) popularized talkies. Then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) distorted a single recorded word of dialogue just enough to influence the remainder of the narrative.

Next, A Quiet Place omitted spoken lines altogether for a mainstream, feature-length release, and the findings of this experiment are some of the most radical in the renaissance following the release of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014).

If you don’t know what to watch next, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) is available to stream on Hulu. The postapocalyptic science fiction horror thriller was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing.

Krasinski also co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in the production.

Lee Abbott (Krasinski) and his pregnant wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), along with their children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), are living in a world where almost all life has been hunted into extinction by alien creatures attacking anything which makes noise.

Fortunately for them, Regan is deaf, so the family knows American Sign Language and can communicate with each other in silence.

When one of the monsters kills the Abbotts’ youngest child, Beau (Cade Woodward), the rest of the family resolves to fight for themselves and one another.

Krasinski and Blunt are married with children off-screen, and so the filmmaker directs out of himself as well as his leading lady thoroughly personal performances, characterizing a husband, wife, father, and mother desperate to protect their home.

Simmonds is also deaf in real life, marking a sensitive casting choice for the disabled community. Rather than functioning as a handicap to overcome, Regan’s disability empowers her to survive.

What’s more, Krasinski’s directorial debut is a masterwork of its genre. Post-James Wan’s Saw (2004), jump scares have proven themselves to be most powerful when the sudden sound is paired with a horrifying image, instead of something cheaper and more mundane.

The hushed diegesis lends itself to effective jump scares like a dream (or a nightmare).

As progressive as the picture is with its positive, diverse (though not altogether intersectional) representation, and as much as it gets right about the scary movie formula, it is problematically regressive with what many critics interpret to be pro-life, pro-gun, conservative themes.

Some have even gone so far as to dismiss it as the antithesis to Jordan Peele’s social horror masterpiece, Get Out (2017).

Indeed, Evelyn still decides to give birth in spite of the mortal danger it poses to herself, and, by extension, her children.

While Lee’s altruistic parenting is good parenting, intentionalism is a critical fallacy, and it is irrelevant that Krasinski cites Get Out as a source of inspiration.

Art belongs not to the creator, but to the consumer, and one hopes Krasinski will learn throughout his promising career to handle his sociopolitical subtext with greater care.

A Quiet Place is important, effectual, “pure” cinema (according to the Hitchcockian school of thought), speaking to us with no words at all.