Friday, February 23, 2018

Games People Play: GAME NIGHT

Game Night is comedy played fast and tight, an action thriller paced like a farce and overflowing with choice one-liners and witty banter. It’s a hoot. My favorite running joke involves various characters over the course of one-crazy-night falling into surprisingly sturdy glass tables. There’s such a satisfyingly goofy thunk as a body goes bouncing off where every other movie would give us a pleasing shattering smash. The action around this funny thread – just one of many, and besides the movie is so fast-paced all the jokes could count as running jokes – involves a group of friends whose weekly get-together goes very, very wrong. A competitive husband and wife (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) find their game night (pals played by Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury) invited to a murder mystery night by his rich, arrogant brother (Kyle Chandler). But, on the night in question, before the man can even explain all the rules past the ominous “it will look real,” actual criminals barge in, beat him up, and kidnap him. Now the group jets off on what they think is a scavenger hunt to find where a group of actors have taken him, but are instead pulled deeper and deeper into a black market conspiracy where the guns, blood, cops, criminals, car chases, and stolen goods are all-too real. 

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (helming a superior project to their Vacation) take seriously the goofy script by Mark Perez (The Country Bears, improbably enough). Watch with the sound off and you might convince yourself you’re watching a Fincher knockoff. The shots are crisp, the violence bruises, and the lighting is dramatic shadows and rain-slick streets. But then there is the rapid-fire patter of bickering friends, treating it with all the tension and drama that’d be a little exaggerated were it a game of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit, but is dramatically underplayed given the life-and-death situation of which they’re barely aware. Gradually, as they realize how in-over-their-heads they really are, the comedy is in the sudden scared flailing they have to keep in check in order to survive the night. That they’re also still so competitive that they can’t help but continue sniping little digs at one another is a fine touch. Beyond the high-energy excitement and the high-spirited joke-a-minute dialogue shot through with visual wit and whimsy – game board tilt-shift establishing shots; composited one-take mad-dash chases – the movie finds itself smartly rooted in the genuine affection of its participants. No matter how harried and dangerous the proceedings become, Bateman and McAdams are allowed to keep the suspense entirely out of their relationship. They’re a close-knit pair, clearly in love, adorably competitive with one another in a way that shows them to be enjoying playing the games because they actually like each other. The same extends to the friend group itself, which might get at each other’s throats, but never more than any gathering around the Sorry board. Even when a thug gets bloodily killed, there’s a nod to the stakes without skipping a laugh. This is big, broad, studio comedy-making operating at a consistently entertaining high.

Friday, February 16, 2018


Black Panther is easily one of the best entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at this point a sprawling, occasionally mind-numbing constant in modern multiplexes. This one succeeds for the same reasons the other good ones do. It’s loaded with a ridiculously charismatic and overqualified cast delivering good-enough quips, and built out of splashy comic book action that barely overstays its welcome. But the movie leaves a slightly bigger than average impression because it is allowed a bit more personality. Offering control over to Ryan Coogler, the promising young writer-director of Fruitvale Station and Creed, the story of the princely superhero ruler of fictional pan-African paradise Wakanda is given a genuine charge of retro-Afro-futurism. Here is a gleaming modern city hidden away behind a force-field in the heart of Africa, the capitol of Wakanda, a country both a towering symbol of sci-fi technical might – the most advanced in the world – and rich in tribal tradition. Untouched by colonialism and slavery, Wakanda is strong and isolated. This becomes both its greatest asset and a potential weakness, as characters debate the long-held seclusion of their people. What do they owe the greater world? Heavy is the head that wears the Black Panther crown. There’s slightly more charge – in politics, character dynamics, and world-building – than is the norm in this type of thing.

Played with paradoxically shy bravado, a soft-spoken Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa, ruler and protector of Wakanda, and the hero of the title. We last saw him introduced in the worst MCU film, the interminably boring Captain America: Civil War, where his father was killed in a terrorist bombing. Now, his people look to him to lead. His mother (Angela Bassett), tech-genius sister (Letitia Wright), advisors (Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya), spy (Lupita Nyong’o), rival (Winston Duke), and military leader (Danai Gurira) have competing and overlapping interests. Some wish them to be more proactive, sharing their technology – flying cars, miracle medicine, hover trains – with the world’s underprivileged. Others wish to protect their secrecy at all costs. Enter the villains – a scene-chewing thief (Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, last seen getting his arm chopped by Ultron in Avengers 2) and a rabble-rousing zealot (Michael B. Jordan) – who are hellbent on breaking into Wakanda and zooming out with high-powered weapons to send hither and yon to the oppressed everywhere. A new world order is what they’re after, and though deep down they ideologically align with the Wakandan ideals of freedom, their process is suspect. Yes, Wakanda may be prepared to fight off baddies with violence – they have an army and battle-rhinos, after all – but at least they aren’t indiscriminately murdering their way through a plot for world domination. There is real political heat to this conflict, and it is rooted inextricably in character. Jordan, especially, brings great simmering rage and expressive, pointed attack that’s more vivid and personal than the typical superhero villain.

So Coogler does more than the usual MCU picture gets up to, while managing to draw several immediately lovable new characters and relationships. It’s an entire cast of scene-stealers, fun on the surface. But, beyond the pleasure of charming performances, that it’s an all-black cast makes it powerful representation – a swaggering thrill of diversity in an otherwise very white franchise. It’s not even explicitly addressed in the film itself; best is how it takes this state as natural and right and moves on to business as usual. Here the cast goes zipping through light banter and fun action. There’s a car chase through Korea that’d be the best action sequence in any other MCU film, and its almost a letdown following a fantastic brawl in an underground casino – sets up a space that looks like a Bond lair and sings with a Kendrick Lamar song before sliding through a digitally-composited long take that slides up and down a multi-level set. It has exquisite design, clothing its characters in colorful patterns and an assortment of accessories drawing equally from African fashion through the ages and vintage Marvel looks from the groovy to the modern. That it has all this vibrancy of personality and ideas makes it all the more depressing that it must culminate in one of those endless CGI slugfests that – though still slightly more fun than the deadening conclusions to, say, the otherwise semi-charming Guardians of the Galaxy – will clearly call out for a fast-forward button in any at-home rewatch. Still, it effortlessly and entertainingly opens up a fascinating new corner in a franchise that risked falling into dull repetition. It may fall into the same routine eventually, but at least it gives us something relatively fresh to admire on the way there.

Friday, February 9, 2018


It was inevitable. The series was always heading this direction. The problem, I suppose, is that the trash book series on which the Fifty Shades trilogy is based thinks that the best ending would be to find Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele happily married. Unfortunately, the movie series is best when finding the unsustainable tension between these two, because when Dakota Johnson’s sparkling, funny, loose, and sweetly sensual performance is placed next to the wooden block that is Jamie Dornan’s, it’s impossible for me to root for them to get together. That’s what made the other two movies work, the first with a genuine spark of sexual curiosity between them that sours in a bracing goodbye, the second with gleaming tableau of wealth and camp melodrama that finds them alternately attracted and repelled. Now, Fifty Shades Freed needs to bring it all home, nestling the two together in wedded bliss while throwing them through an entirely incongruous thriller subplot in which the most boring supporting character returns as a stalker and the actually entertaining bit parts (for the likes of Marcia Gay Harden and Kim Bassinger, no less) all but disappear. It’s the sort of movie you’ll only enjoy if you’ve already decided you’re going to like it no matter what. The whole project seems cramped and undercooked, a soft whimper when it should be finding a strong climax, resolving precious few plot threads in favor of dryly stumbling through its boring paces.

If you ask me, the happiest conclusion to this whole story would clearly find Grey dead and Steele with his fortune happily ever after. Alas, it simply limps to a flaccid conclusion. Will these two crazy kids make it work? Only if the screenplay (from the author EL James’ husband, dutifully directed by James Foley, who seems to have lost all taste for the material after capably helming the last one) wedges the plot points together, forcing them to fit into a preordained finale situation where the performances and tone of all that came before scream the opposite. My fundamental disagreement with the material aside – although, I must say, why called it Freed if you won’t, you know, actually free Anastasia? – the movie itself is so dutiful and dull, I wonder how people who like the source would feel. It’s hardly satisfying even on its own terms to see the spark of camp and sex drained out. The production of this final chapter is rote; the characters don’t appear so much as actors turn up on set to fulfill their contracts. This series has gone from finding a goofy dangerous charge in nothing more than lightly-handled high-seriousness and crackling charm to overexerting thriller mechanics – one essentially character-less supporting role even gets kidnapped for a spell – that return even less suspense than, say, the negotiation over a conference table in the first film. It features multiple boring car chases shot like local luxury dealerships' ads. It features extraneous side characters' miscommunication dilemmas. How does this spell romance? Perhaps it takes the marriage-as-romance-killer cliché all too literally. Everyone involved looks tired. If you can’t make a Fifty Shades movie even enjoy mild coy kink in fancy places (a scene with an unconventional use for ice cream aside, it's all been-there-done-that) why even bother?