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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: A Simple Favor

“The House with a Clock In Its Walls,” “Venom,” and “The Predator” are also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

“A Simple Favor” is a tale of two opposites. On one side, there is Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a lonely doormat of a woman who signs up for multiple jobs to help her son Miles’s (Joshua Satine) first grade class. On the other side is Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a tough, no nonsense woman who doesn’t volunteer, doesn’t bake, swears constantly, and is a long way from winning mother of the year to her son Nicky (Ian Ho), or wife of the year to her husband Sean (Henry Golding). She does, however, make a mean martini at two o’clock in the afternoon.

The two Connecticut moms meet after school one day as their two sons are talking. Stephanie takes an instant liking to Emily and within mere minutes is regarding her as her best friend, showing how hungry she is for companionship. Emily, who has a stressful job doing public relations work in New York City for a high profile fashion designer (Rupert Friend), just wants someone to blow off some steam with in the afternoon.



It’s interesting that the two women first meet outside of the school during a sun shower. It may look odd and fake to see the rain coming down while the sun is brightly shining, but as a resident of Connecticut, I can attest that these do occur here. Not often, but I have seen a fair few. The centuries old saying about this occurrence is that when this happens, the devil is beating his wife (or grandmother in some cases). Horrible, I know—but we are talking about the devil here. It’s a great visual metaphor. Symbolically speaking, not everything between the two moms is as sunny as it seems on the surface. There is rain on these proceedings.

We get shades of darkness about Emily when Stephanie snaps a photo of her for the yearbook. Emily is incensed, and goes so far as to threaten a legal injunction against the yearbook unless the photo is erased. For anyone else, red flags would go up left and right after such an extreme reaction. But for Stephanie, who is attention starved and in desperate need of a friend, she feels so guilty and worried about what she did that she doesn’t even notice the oddness of Emily’s behavior.

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In spite of some harsh tongue lashings doled about by Emily to Stephanie, the two women bond over martinis and get along quite well. The two opposites play off of each other with an easy going familiarity. This is in no small part due to the fact that Kendrick and Lively have such an amazing rapport. Their relationship is built with care and attention, and it’s easy to believe that they are close friends.

Then comes the day when Emily asks Stephanie to watch Nicky for an afternoon, then disappears. All hell breaks loose after that. Director Paul Feig, working from a script by Jessica Sharzer, which is based on a novel by Darcey Bell, keeps the pace up and delivers the suspense and tension a movie like “A Simple Favor” needs in order to succeed. The story is propelled by Stephanie, whose dogged determination in finding out what happened to her friend is indefatigable. Turns out that volunteering and baking is not all she is good at. Buy it.

Also New This Week

The House With A Clock In Its Walls

As a fan of the Italian giallo movie genre, director Eli Roth must love the title, “The House with a Clock In Its Walls.” After all, it sounds like a giallo, since a characteristic of the genre is long titles (“Seven Blood Stained Orchids,” The Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” and “The House with Laughing Windows” are three examples off of the top of my head--but there are many, many more).

But a giallo this movie is not. Rather, it’s a children’s fantasy about an orphaned young boy named Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) who goes to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). The twist is that his uncle is a warlock, the house is full of magic (including stained glass windows that change to express the house’s feelings and a talking chair that reminded me of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse”), and next door neighbor/Jonathan’s best friend Florence (Cate Blanchett) is a witch.

With “The House with a Clock In Its Walls,” Roth sets aside his usual gore and gruesomeness for a more Chris Columbus style of directing. This movie did remind me of the first two “Harry Potter” movies in many ways. Though there is some gross out humor involving a winged lion topiary that the movie could do without. That said, the set decoration is fantastic and the effects really do serve the story and help create an immersive experience into this movie’s world of spells and incantations.

The real find in this movie is Owen Vaccaro. He is a tremendous young actor, capable of playing both terrified and sad with an amazing authenticity. Vaccaro has a lot of raw talent and could someday mold himself into a terrific actor, should he choose that path.

If there is a flaw with “The House with a Clock In Its Walls,” it’s at the end, which falls apart and feels a bit rushed. It’s not like I was looking for an explanation that makes sense in a children’s movie with attacking jack o’ lanterns and spells to raise the dead, but I would have appreciated some kind of effort be made. Rent it.

Venom

The title character in the movie “Venom” is a good anti-superhero. He may be the protagonist of the story, but he’s not all wholesomeness and purity. Far from it, he’s a goo-like alien substance that inhabits a host and bonds with that host in both mind and body. Don’t call Venom a parasite though—he prefers symbiote.

Once he finally bonds with crusading journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an alter-ego is created in which Venom’s “kill everyone destructive impulses” are tempered by Brock’s insistence that there are good people in the world and they should only harm the bad ones. The baddest of the bad is Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the ruthless CEO of a San Francisco based biological research facility. Drake is studying ways to stabilize the bonds between symbiotes and humans, and he doesn’t care how many humans (mostly homeless off of the street) get sacrificed in the process. The scariest thing about him might just be that he is a very charming and persuasive villain when he’s not busy killing people to achieve his goals.

While I do appreciate the character building, symbiote fight, and car chase (no place better than the hills of San Francisco for a car chase), I wish the movie kicked into gear a lot quicker. It takes a while for Brock to finally come into contact with the Venom. I couldn’t help but compare this to 2002’s “Spider-Man,” in which Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker got bit by a spider within the first few scenes. It takes about half an hour for Brock and Venom to become one. From then on, the movie kicks into gear and becomes much more entertaining, but my patience wore thin getting there. At least in the mid-credit sequence we get a not so subtle tease for a Venom versus Carnage movie. Of the two, I always thought Carnage was much nastier and way more interesting, so if that sequel gets made I will see it. Stream it.

The Predator

What I liked about “The Predator”: Director and co-writer (with Fred Dekker) puts some pretty funny wisecracks in the mouths of his heroes, a rag tag squad of military misfits and outcasts. What I didn’t like about “The Predator”: Everything else.

All of the good will the movie garnered by making me laugh so hard in the beginning was gone by the end as this disjointed, tonally incoherent mishmash unfolds. Most insultingly, Black employs the lazy hack story device of plot armor. This is where the main hero, in this case Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), gets special treatment by the villain because of his significance to the story. Here we have a movie where the Predator kills everyone in sight without so much as a second thought, yet when McKenna confronts him, the Predator merely grabs him by the throat and picks him up--twice. Why not rip his throat out? Or tear his head off? Any other of the cannon fodder supporting players in black uniforms would have gotten that treatment--what makes McKenna so special, from a story point of view? The answer is that there is no story reason for the Predator to not kill McKenna swiftly right then and there, so we have plot armor, and plot armor is as stupid and irritating as it is lazy.

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Not that story is the strong suit for “The Predator.” A bit of a SPOILER WARNING for anyone who still wants to watch this trash, but the reason the Predator comes to Earth is to give humanity a weapon with which to fight even more advanced Predators that are headed our way. After this gift-giving Predator awakens from sedation in a room full of unarmed scientists, does he seek to communicate and share his technology? Nope. He just starts killing left and right. If his goal is to save humanity, he has a very peculiar way of showing it. END SPOILER.

“The Predator” is an unsightly mess of a movie. With the exception of some laughs in the beginning, it is unpleasant to look at it and emotionally jarring with erratic tonal shifts. I’m also pretty sure that anyone who tries to unravel the plot to make sense out of it will lose some IQ points and become dumber for having tried. Best to not subject yourself to this one at all. Skip it.

More New Releases: “Deep Throat,” the adults only 1972 erotic comedy that was so popular it lent its name to the secret informant of the Nixon/Watergate investigation; “Fahrenheit 11/9,” propagandist Michael Moore’s (this man does not make documentaries anymore) bloated hit piece on President Trump; and “Monster Party,” in which three teenage thieves infiltrate a mansion dinner party secretly hosted by a serial killer cult for the social elite.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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