Skip to main content

How am I supposed to put my hands in the air with my head on the floor?

Game Night
(2018)

(SPOILERS) I was mildly enthused by the trailer for Game Night, as it had the look of a somewhat irresponsible, slightly anarchic Hollywood black comedy, one less reliant on gross out (naturally, there’s some of that) than twisted plotting and unapologetic displays of amorality in its characters. In fact, it toes the line much more than it doesn’t, right down to delivering pat life lessons, but John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s movie is still a cut above for such fare.


Surprisingly, Jason Bateman hasn’t essayed one of these leads in a few years, but his brand is so patented – deadpan stoicism in the face of excruciating embarrassment – that Game Night fits right in (the duo also penned Bateman starrer Horrible Bosses 2, and half of them the first Horrible Bosses; here, they rewrote Mark Perez’ screenplay, he of Herbie Fully Loaded fame). Which may be a disadvantage, as for all its relative bravado and flourish, the picture frequently reminds you of other fare treading similar ground, and you don’t really want a long trail of déjà vu following you. Originality is hard to come by in any genre, of course, but even the title begs comparison with David Fincher’s (weakest?) picture The Game, in which a wayward brother purchases his uptight sibling a real-life, real-stakes reality show adventure where (the idea is) the audience isn’t sure what is real and what’s fake. That picture fizzled on the basis of a premise so loaded and unlikely, even the usually unflappable Fincher couldn’t imbue it with conviction (despite many excellent sequences). That and its entirely obnoxious denouement.


So there’s some of that. There’s also a strong whiff of underrated late-stage Bill Murray comedy – back when he was still content to make crowd-pleasing Hollywood comedies, rather than being a full-time indie darling - The Man Who Knew Too Little. It was, in fact, his final movie of that ilk. Here, Murray’s character is convinced by his brother – oh look, that conceit again – to sign up to an improv theatre group’s interactive crime drama. Murray, of course, becomes involved in an actual plot, the key to his success being his obliviousness to the danger he’s in. There’s quite a bit of that in Game Night, as Daley and Goldstein alternate between the game participants light-heartedly believing everything is a big ruse and becoming convinced they really are in danger.


Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) host weekly game nights, of which they’re habitually the proud, simpatico winners; routinely joining them are dense stud Ryan (Billy Magnussen, offering a note-perfect depiction of a complete idiot) and whichever bimbo he’s brought along, and childhood sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). Not invited is next door neighbour Gary (Jesse Plemons, possibly the standout turn and all knife-edge, placid imperiousness – his The Green Mile Pictionary is the best movie use of the game since “Baby Fish Mouth” in When Harry Met Sally), an overly serious cop obsessing over his ex. The only thorns in Max and Annie’s perfect set up are their trying for a baby (unsuccessfully, and likely Max’s problem, as Camille Chen’s Dr Chin indelicately stresses) and Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), the more successful, handsomer, just plain better-liked sibling who constantly belittles and demeans his brother whenever he visits. As he does here. Brooks is an arse, and also the instigator of the movie’s game night-with-a-difference.


Daley and Goldstein are largely successful in navigating the various shifts in tone and emphasis, even if the B-plot character arcs are strictly pedestrian; Max must overcome his reluctance to have children, Ryan admit to his interest in a woman of intelligence – Sharon Horgan’s Sarah – and Kevin sort out his jealousy over Michelle’s fling when they were separated that one time before they married. In particular, Michelle can’t help looking like a complete moron when it’s revealed the guy she slept with, who she believed was Denzel Washington, patently was not. There’s also a problem that Brooks isn’t remotely likeable despite himself – Chandler fails to pull that off, alas – so rather than finding it amusing that the wily rogue makes a mint from selling the witness protection programme list, we rather wish he’d received his comeuppance.


Nevertheless, the set pieces are first rate and show a versatility from the comedy directors (who previously helmed Vacation) that bodes well for their upcoming – until they exit, like so many have before them – DC’s Flashpoint (WB likely has their own version of the success of the Russo brothers with Marvel in mind, since they also came from a comedy background). The initial establishing of the game, courtesy of a cameo from Jeffrey Wright, as the group obliviously eat cheese while Brooks is (kind of) genuinely beaten up, is a tour de force. As is the search for a Fabergé egg in criminal Danny Huston’s house, while “Eyes Wide Fight Club” proceeds in the basement, during which Magnussen steals the best moments as he blithely decides to lift the prized object from an open safe. Other highlights include Max bleeding all over Gary’s dog and only making matters worse when he tries to clean the mess up, and a particularly grim bullet extraction – using Chardonnay to clean the wound –  only to discover it passed straight through Max’s arm. And a running glass table gag.


The chemistry between the cast – particularly Bateman and McAdams – sells much of the unlikeliness of the proceedings, and there are enough twists in the plot – the reveal regarding Gary, only to refocus that reveal – that you’re kept on your toes (the idea that the whole thing might be a ruse is never completely banished, even given a trailer that spoiled a late-in-the-day pulverisation by jet engine (after all, The Game tried to explain away even more incredulous occurrences). Cinematographer Barry Peterson has carved himself a niche in the comedy game but relishes the opportunity to provide a more noirish sheen this time, and includes the occasional curious affectation, such as establishing shots that manage to make the locations look like toy towns or model villages.


I’ll admit I was hoping for something a little less cosy in the final analysis, as Game Night is really only playing at being edgy – Shane Black-lite, if you will – but Daley and Goldstein have put some solid effort in that explains the more generous than usual critical reception. The principal poster of choice sucks, though (not the ones here).



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting (1973)
(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish (2018)
(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions …

You had to grab every single dollar you could get your hands on, didn't you?

Triple Frontier (2019)
(SPOILERS) Triple Frontier must have seemed like a no-brainer for Netflix, even by their standards of indiscriminately greenlighting projects whenever anyone who can’t get a job at a proper studio asks. It had, after all, been a hot property – nearly a decade ago now – with Kathryn Bigelow attached as director (she retains a producing credit) and subsequently JC Chandor, who has seen it through to completion. Netflix may not have attracted quite the same level of prospective stars – Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were all involved at various points – but as ever, they haven’t stinted on the production. To what end, though? Well, Bigelow’s involvement is a reliable indicator; this is a movie about very male men doing very masculine things and suffering stoically for it.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
Cheeseburger Film Sandwich. Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon. Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie. Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie, arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate terms, it only sporadically fulfils…

Trouble’s part of the circus. They said Barnum was in trouble when he lost Tom Thumb.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
(SPOILERS) Anyone of a mind that it’s a recent development for the Oscars to cynically crown underserving recipients should take a good look at this Best Picture winner from the 25thAcademy Awards. In this case, it’s generally reckoned that the Academy felt it was about time to honour Hollywood behemoth Cecil B DeMille, by that point into his seventies and unlikely to be jostling for garlands much longer, before it was too late. Of course, he then only went and made a bona fide best picture contender, The Ten Commandments, and only then pegged it. Because no, The Greatest Show on Earth really isn’t very good.

Poor A. A. Milne. What a ghastly business.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
The absolutely true story of how P. L. Travers came to allow Walt Disney to adapt Mary Poppins, after 20 years’ persistent begging on the latter’s part. Except, of course, it isn’t true at all. Walt has worked his magic from beyond the grave over a fairly unremarkable tale of mutual disagreement. Which doesn’t really matter if the result is a decent movie that does something interesting or though-provoking by changing the facts… Which I’m not sure it does. But Saving Mr. Banks at least a half-decent movie, and one considerably buoyed by the performances of its lead actors.

Actually, Mr. Banks is buoyed by the performances of its entire cast. It’s the script that frequently lets the side down, laying it on thick when a lighter touch is needed, repeating its message to the point of nausea. And bloating it out not so neatly to the two-hour mark when the story could have been wrapped up quite nicely in a third less time. The title itself could perhaps be seen as rubbi…