Good Beat, You Can Dance To It

The Rhythm Section

by George Wolf

The sexy assassin. The beautiful killing machine.

The Rhythm Section plays a tune that’s lately been as popular as Taylor Swift at the high school talent show. But hey, there’s still a ways to go before it catches up to the macho men, so have at it ladies, the right arrangement can always find some swing in the mustiest of standards.

Blake Lively is Stephanie, a top student at Oxford who falls hard after losing her family to an airplane bomber. How hard? She’s an addict and a prostitute, but her destructive spiral finds a new avenue when an investigative reporter seeks her out.

He’s on the trail of the terrorist responsible for the bombing, and Stephanie’s cooperation sets a chain of events in motion that quickly lead to an ex MI-6 operative (Jude Law) training her to be a killer.

And why would he do that, exactly?

Keep that question at bay and you’ll find a serviceable thriller that hits plenty of familiar beats, but is always kept watchable through Lively’s committed performance.

Screenwriter Mark Burnell adapts his own novel as a globe-trotting exercise in exorcising your demons. And while multiple character motivations can get murky, the relationship between Stephanie and her mysterious mentor is always engaging.

Director Reed Morano (I Think We’re Alone Now, TV projects such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Halt and Catch Fire) can stage a nifty fight scene and breathless car chase, but she too often seems desperately in search of a definitive style that never finds a groove.

While soundtrack choices and soft focus flashbacks feel forced, Morano’s detached treatment of Lively’s physical appearance may be the most original pillar in the film. Though her role is plenty physical and Lively never shrinks from it, even the obligatory “red sparrow” sequence offers an overdue counterpoint to the usual leering camera served up by Morano’s male counterparts.

Expect the usual questions of “who can I trust” and the usual fine performance from Sterling K. Brown (that guy’s busy), who shows up as an ex-CIA agent with valuable contacts.

But most of all, expect Lively to keep The Rhythm Section humming, even when it’s set on repeat.

Gaslight Anthem

A Simple Favor

by George Wolf

Stephanie is a suburban single mom who keeps an “oopsie” jar for swearing and volunteers for everything at her son’s elementary school.

Emily is passionately married, drops frequent f-bombs and has a painting of her vajayjay hanging in the living room.

But a play date for their sons leads to an unlikely friendship in A Simple Favor, a crazy fun mystery with plenty of surprises up its sassy sleeveless number.

The first may be seeing the director is Paul Feig, who made his name with blockbuster comedies such as Bridesmaids and Spy.

So, he’s doing dark thrillers, now? Nope, he’s doing a satirical comedy with strong women, nice diversity and a pretty sharp bite.

Perky Stephanie (Anna Kendrick – perfect) and glamorous Emily (Blake Lively – ditto) share martinis and secrets until Emily turns up missing. Steph provides case updates on her Mommy vlog (“cookies and origami” help to ease the strain!) while spending more and more time watching Emily’s son and “comforting” her husband (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians).

You’ll guess some of what comes next, but there’s plenty you won’t, unless you read Darcey Bell’s source novel. Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (Nerve) shapes it for the big screen as a Gone Girl for the gaslight age, where ridiculousness is a default setting, all information is equally true/false and irony is a security blanket never far out of reach.

There are plenty of black comedic laughs to be found here, as well as clever plot twists and knowing nods to the expectations that come with roles of “wife,” “mother,” “career woman” and “friend.”

The running time starts to feel bloated by the third act, and the film flirts with joining the mundane fray it had been so giddily rising above. But it rallies for the win with a satisfying finale of comeuppance and LOL updates on how some characters have moved on.

A Simple Favor is not what the trailer makes you think it is – which turns out to be the perfect setup for a film with plenty of head fakes that lead to a mischievous good time.





Shark Sandwich

The Shallows

by Hope Madden

Is The Shallows – Blake Lively’s new flick about a surfer trying to survive a shark attack – simply a girl power exercise wrapped in a sandy bikini?

Yes.

Still, it gets as much right as it does wrong.

Lively plays Nancy, a med student alone on a secluded, secret beach in Mexico. She’s here to be alone, to mourn, to surf. As the local drops her off on the beach and refuses her offer of cash, he asks how she plans to get back to town.

Excellent question.

There’s a great deal of convenient idiocy in this screenplay, but director Jaume Collet-Serra – who is no comrade of subtlety – actually handles most of these items deftly. After a few middling horror efforts, Collet-Serra made his name with a string of Liam Neeson films, so he knows a little something about a solitary figure fighting deadly odds.

Lively does a fine job in what is essentially a one-surfer-show. Nancy is smart. Not smart enough to avoid surfing alone in an isolated area of a foreign land, but a different kind of smart. MacGyver smart. And it’s with a balance of delicacy and grit that she just about makes you believe the ludicrous.

The Shallows is gorgeously filmed – and not just Lively. Yes, the camera hugs her form more closely than a wet suit, but Collet-Serra treats the surf, sky and sand with as much ardor. A generous reviewer might even say he’s creating a parallel – something about breathtaking beauty that belies serious ferocity. I am not generous enough to buy that theory, but I am generous enough to throw it out there.

For stretches, The Shallows will have you believing you’re watching a tense, thoughtful survival drama. Eventually the shark becomes a vengeful-mythical-beast-warrior-machine-monster, and any hint of credibility is lost at sea. This is the age of Sharknado – maybe Collet-Serra didn’t think he could keep his audience’s attention until the shark tried to scale something with his teeth?

Whatever the case, it’s a wild mashup of efforts: equal parts empowerment and ogling, survival thriller and Sharkasaurus Rex.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





29 and Holding

The Age of Adaline

by Hope Madden

An impeccably dressed Nicholas Sparks rip off, The Age of Adaline follows a woman trapped forever at the age of 29. Vampire? If only!

No, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is victim of cosmic forces and bad driving, rendering her ageless – as explained to us by the Twilight Zone-style voiceover.

Voiceover narration is the single laziest storytelling crutch in screenwriting, by the way.

Then the world changes around Adaline, but the classy lady leads a mostly solitary life, always afraid to let someone in on her secret. Or is she just a commitment phobe?

Lively impressed in her turn in Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010), but hasn’t shown a glimmer of that ability since. Here she’s suitably proper, timelessly classy. You might even mistake this for a strong performance until she shares the screen with the great Ellen Burstyn, playing Adaline’s aging daughter Flemming. Performing together, it’s clear one of these people is acting while the other is posing.

Give her credit, Lively poses well and director Lee Toland Krieger knows how to frame her while she does it. His whole film is as pretty as Adaline, and also like her, it’s surprisingly restrained. Though it certainly splashes the same emotional manipulation onscreen you’d expect from a romantic drama of the Sparks ilk, it doesn’t wallow.

The crisis Adaline faces is true love. Of course it is. Can she tell new unabashedly perfect beau Ellis (Michiel Huisman) of her unusual ailment? What about those shadowy, lurking government types who want to test her or take samples or something?

Thank God for Harrison Ford, who jumps in with an admirable attempt to salvage the star crossed lovers’ drama. He struggles with this dialog, and when was the last time you saw a well-rounded male character in a Sparks-esque romance? Still, he does what he can and is a very welcome presence.

The film is co-written by J. Mills Goodloe, co-scriptor of Sparks’s organ transplant love affair The Best of Me. This is better than that, so congratulations Mr. Goodloe.

The film will find an audience. It’s pretty, and capably made for emotionally manipulative romance. But you should see Ex Machina instead.