A Simple Favour

(15, 117 mins)****

A SINGLE mother and food blogger turns amateur sleuth to unravel the mystery of her best friend's disappearance in the sinfully entertaining comedy thriller, A Simple Favour.

Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy, blends a fruity cocktail of Hitchcockian whodunnit and gnarly black comedy, garnished with generous twists of spite and betrayal.

Think Gone Girl with killer one-liners and perfectly shaken martinis and you'll be close to the lip-smacking delights of a battle of the sexes in small town suburbia, adapted for the screen by Jessica Sharzer from Darcey Bell's novel.

Pitch Perfect powerhouse Anna Kendrick captures the tics and tenacity of her socially awkward homebody, whose well-ordered routine is thrown into disarray when the most glamorous woman in town vanishes without trace.

She contrasts sharply with Blake Lively's lost matriarch, who makes her entrance in lustrous slow motion, strutting elegantly beneath an umbrella during a torrential downpour dressed in a pinstripe trouser suit.

Sharzer's script is pleasingly self-aware as it references classic thrillers to keep us guessing as to the spouse's whereabouts.

"Are you trying to Diabolique me?" Kendrick's heroine asks the missing best friend's husband, referring to Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 thriller in which a scheming wife and mistress conspire to kill a cheating husband.

Thirtysomething widow Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick) is devoted to her young son Miles (Joshua Satine) and she enthusiastically volunteers for every after-school activity.

One day, Miles pleads with his mother to invite best friend Nicky (Ian Ho) over for dinner.

Nicky's mother turns out to be impossibly glamorous PR director Emily Nelson (Lively), who masterminds global campaigns for self-absorbed fashion designer, Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend).

Emily takes a radically different approach to parenting and she shocks Stephanie by telling Nicky that it isn't convenient to spend the afternoon with Miles because, "mummy already has a playdate with a symphony of anti-depressants".

Unexpectedly, Stephanie befriends glamour puss Emily and she meets the PR doyenne's husband, Sean (Henry Golding), who refers to his high-flying wife as "a beautiful ghost".

When Emily calls one afternoon and asks Stephanie to pick up Nicky from school while she deals with an emergency, Stephanie gladly obliges.

The publicist never returns to collect her son and Stephanie alerts the police.

A Simple Favour ricochets merrily between dark personal confessions and energetic verbal sparring as Stephanie discovers she didn't know her best buddy at all.

Feig shows a deft touch behind the camera and he elicits winning performances from the female leads.

Golding, recently seen in Crazy Rich Asians, is dreamy in underwritten support and Andrew Rannells is a hoot as one of the other parents, who observes Stephanie's boundless energy with disdain and jealousy.

The House With A Clock In Its Walls

(12A, 105 mins)***

MANKIND unknowingly teeters on the brink of destruction and a 10-year-old boy holds the key to our salvation in the family-friendly adventure The House With A Clock In Its Walls.

Adapted from John Bellairs' novel, director Eli Roth's fantastical foray into a wondrous world of witches and warlocks is far removed from the glistening gore and entrails of his gruesome horrors Cabin Fever, Hostel and Knock Knock.

Admittedly, there are some scary moments here involving an army of snarling pumpkin heads and a reanimated corpse, which might have very young audiences seeking the soothing protection of a parent.

However, Eric Kripke's script predominantly spooks rather than scares and a modicum of suspense is dissipated with childish humour courtesy of a topiary winged lion that stands guard over a back garden and has a habit of loudly evacuating its leafy bowels.

Poop jokes evidently never go out of fashion.

A tattered armchair, which bounds around like an excitable puppy, adds to the cuteness and Jack Black and Cate Blanchett spark a delightful on-screen partnership as two members of a secret magical order, whose relationship is founded on affectionate insults.

Youngster Owen Vaccaro wrings out copious tears on cue and has us rooting for his Harry Potter-esque orphan from the nostalgia-drenched opening frames.

He plays scaredy-cat Lewis Barnavelt, who travels by bus to the sleepy 1950s community of Zebedee in Michigan to live with his estranged uncle Jonathan (Black).

The boy's quixotic relative wears a kimono and lives in a creepy house full of ticking clocks.

"You'll see it's quite different here," Jonathan cryptically informs his nephew.

It transpires that the building used to belong to a deranged couple called Isaac and Selena Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, Renee Elise Goldsberry), who concealed a Doomsday clock within the walls.

Jonathan, a warlock, and his sharp-tongued neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett), a kindly witch, hope to locate the demonic timepiece before the end of days.

Lewis excitedly joins the noble quest in the hope that he might shake his tag as the "creepy little runt" at school and impress one of the popular boys, Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic).

The battle between good and evil unfolds under the nose of snooping next-door neighbour Mrs Hanchett (Colleen Camp).

The House With A Clock In Its Walls is an entertaining and outlandish yarn, which delights until a freaky final 15 minutes when madness takes hold and Roth flings digital trickery at the screen in the hope something will stick.

While the resolution disappoints, Black and Blanchett are consistently amusing.

She lovingly draws attention to his "freakishly oversized head", he retorts by dismissing her as a "withered purple skeleton", bantering back and forth with visible relish.

The excellent ensemble cast are the aces up Roth's sleeve and he deals them wisely.

Mile 22

(18, 94 mins)***

THE bromance of director Peter Berg and muscular leading man Mark Wahlberg has been going strong since 2013, when the two men ventured into war-torn Afghanistan for the explosive true story of Lone Survivor.

The Stars and Stripes fluttered proudly in two further tales of gung-ho, real-life heroism, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, which demonstrated Berg's ability to deliver exhilarating, pyrotechnic-laden action sequences.

Mile 22 cranks up the on-screen violence, running gun battles and crunching car chases to an exhausting crescendo, stripping away plot and characterisation to cram as many slam-bang thrills as possible into 94 adrenaline-fuelled minutes.

Pulses undeniably quicken each time Berg orchestrates bruising fisticuffs between a team of elite US operatives and merciless gun-toting enemies, including a deadly game of hide and seek in a smoke-filled apartment complex.

The director is aided here by Indonesian actor and martial artist Iko Uwais, star of The Raid, who is a marvel of athleticism and gravity-defying acrobatics in hand-to-hand fights, including one punishing showdown while he is handcuffed to a hospital bed.

Screenwriter Lea Carpenter provides us with few protagonists to care about, least of all Wahlberg's mentally unstable sharp shooter, who barks rudely at figures of authority and is revered by his team because the only things he cares about are "actionable intelligence... and pain".

He plays James Silva, who leads a team of black ops soldiers code-named Overwatch, who undertake secret missions for the US government under the command of handler James Bishop (John Malkovich) aka Mother.

The squad tracks a stolen shipment of caesium to a Russian safe house on American soil.

"You're making a mistake," an injured 18-year-old suspect snarls at Silva.

"I've made a lot of them," coldly replies the US agent before he clinically dispenses a bullet into the teenager's head.

Sixteen months later in Indocarr City, police officer Li Noor (Iko Uwais) arrives unannounced at the US embassy, claiming to know the location of the caesium.

He promises to share this vital intelligence as soon as he is safely on a plane to America.

Silva assembles his team including Alice (Lauren Cohan), Douglas (Carlo Alban) and Sam (Ronda Rousey) to escort Li Noor along the 22-mile route from the US embassy to the airfield.

Within a minute of speeding along city streets, Overwatch comes under attack from gun-toting motorcyclists and the fight for survival begins.

Mile 22 vaunts brawn over brains.

Carpenter's script engineers a few twists in her undernourished narrative but it's easy to predict each double-cross.

Wahlberg's brute is deeply unsympathetic and apart from Cohan's mother, who is embroiled in an acrimonious custody battle, co-stars barely have enough screen time to tell us their characters' names let alone dispense a credible back story.

When the cacophony of explosions abates, Berg's film evaporates instantly from memory.

Damon Smith