Film Review: Game Night (dir by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein)


In this time of division and conflict, can we all agree that Game Night is a damn funny movie?

The film tells the story of three couples who regularly get together for, as the title suggests, a game night.  Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) are quirky and a little bit daffy.  Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and his wife, Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) are generally dependable and Michelle has a really interesting story about the time that she met a man who may have been Denzel Washington but probably wasn’t.  Meanwhile, Annie (Rachel McAdams) and Max (Jason Bateman) are an ultracompetitive married couple, frustrated in their attempts to conceive a child but always confident in their ability to win any game that they play.  At one time, Gary (Jesse Plemons) and his wife used to be a part of the group but, after they got divorced, Max and Annie stopped inviting him.  You really can’t blame them.  Gary’s seriously creepy.

And then there’s Brooks Davis (Kyle Chandler).

Brooks is Max’s brother and, at first glance, he would appear to be everything that Max isn’t.  Brooks appears to have a lot of money.  He claims to have a successful career, even if no one’s quite sure what he does for a living.  He drives a nice car.  When he comes to town to visit his brother, he rents out a mansion.  Brooks is the type of older sibling who always has an embarrassing story or two to share about his younger brother.  In fact, Max feels so inadequate when compared to Brooks that it’s even interfering with Max and Annie’s efforts to have a child.  When Brooks invites everyone to come to his house for a very special game night, Annie and Max are determined to beat Brooks at whatever game he’s planning on having them play.

It turns out that Brooks has hired a company to put on an interactive role-playing game.  While listening to a fake FBI agent (Geoffrey Wright) explain the background of the mystery that they’re about to solve, the couples are shocked when several masked men burst into the house.  Everyone’s impressed as the men beat the fake FBI agent unconscious.  When the men start beating up Brooks, everyone praises Brooks for the realism of his game.  After Brooks is dragged out of the house, the couples set out to solve the mystery of who is behind this kidnapping.  As for the fake FBI agent, he lies on the floor motionless.  Even when Ryan kicks his body, the agent doesn’t move.  Everyone agrees that the agent is a really good and committed actor.

Of course, the joke is that Brooks really has been kidnapped but nobody realizes it.  It’s a good joke but, to the film’s credit, it’s not the only joke.  In fact, Game Night actually get funnier after everyone eventually realizes that they’re no longer playing a game.  Ever after they realize that Brooks actually has been kidnapped, Annie and Max are so competitive that they still keep trying to outdo everyone else.

Annie and Max also discover that they have no choice but to involve their creepy neighbor and former friend, Gary.  Jesse Plemons doesn’t have a lot of screentime but he gives a performance that is so exquisitely strange and awkward that he ends up stealing the entire movie.  Watching Plemons, you both feel sorry for Gary and understand why no one wants to play with him.  His desperation to be apart of the group is both exasperating and somewhat touching.

In fact, the entire cast does a good job, bringing their often clueless characters to life.  Max and Annie are a likable couple and Bateman and McAdams have a natural chemistry that makes them a lot of fun to watch.  There’s a great scene where Max and Annie, still thinking that they’re just playing a game, subdue a group of criminals in a bar.  Max and Annie’s clueless joy is intoxicating.  They’re having fun playing at being tough and we’re having fun watching them.  Of course, it eventually turns out that the gun that Annie thought was a toy is real and loaded and … well, things get a little bit messy.  While the scene where Annie and Max try to figure out how to dig a bullet out of a man’s arm may have made me cringe a little, it also made me laugh.  That’s a credit to both Bateman and McAdams, who made the scene both real and funny at the same time.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Game Night.  Clocking in at 100 minutes, it’s a briskly paced and good-natured comedy that never makes the mistake of lingering for too long over its own cleverness.  Director Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley both redeem themselves for 2015’s Vacation.  If, earlier this year, you missed this one when it was in theaters, see it now and have a good time.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: Ingrid Goes West (dir by Matt Spicer)


We start with a wedding.  The bride is beautiful.  The groom is handsome.  Everything looks so perfect that you’re almost relieved when Aubrey Plaza suddenly shows up.

Seriously, why wouldn’t you be?  We all know Aubrey Plaza from her role as the apathetic and sarcastic April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation.  If anyone’s going to bring this potentially bland wedding to life, it’s going to be Aubrey Plaza!

Aubrey Plaza walks up to the bride and starts screaming at her … wait a minute, that’s not typical Aubrey Plaza behavior … where’s the deadpan snarker that we were all expecting…

Suddenly, Aubrey is pulling out mace and spraying the bride in the face.  The bride is writing in pain while Aubrey screams at her…

So begins Ingrid Goes West.

Aubrey Plaza, of course, plays the title character.  Ingrid spends some time in a mental hospital after crashing that wedding.  She explains to both her doctors and the bride that she was just acting out because she was upset over her mother’s recent death.  Ingrid seems to feel that she and the bride were good friends but, as we quickly learn, they actually barely knew each other.  The bride just made the mistake of commenting on one of Ingrid’s social media posts, leading to Ingrid deciding that they were actually best friends.

Using the money that she inherited from her mother, Ingrid heads out to Los Angeles.  She has a new obsession, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen).  Taylor is a paid social media influencer, famous for being famous.  Ingrid left a comment on one of Taylor’s pictures and Taylor left an innocuous reply.  It’s the type of thing that happens every day on social media but to Ingrid, it means that she and Taylor are destined to be BFFs.

And, amazingly, it all seems to work at first.  Online, Taylor shares just enough about her life to allow Ingrid to come up with a plan to meet her.  Ingrid not only gets to know Taylor and her husband, a painter named Ezra (Wyatt Russell), but she is briefly allowed to enter into Taylor’s world.  Of course, Ingrid fails to notice that no one in that world seems to be very interested in her.  To Ingrid, everything is perfect.  Or, at least it is until Taylor’s obnoxious, junkie brother (Billy Magnussen) shows up and starts to call Ingrid out…

Ingrid Goes West really didn’t get as much attention as it deserved when it was released earlier this year.  Unfortunately, it was advertised as being some sort of wacky comedy when, in fact, it’s a deeply unsettling and, at times, rather disturbing movie.  Yes, there is humor but very little of it is of the “laugh out loud” kind.  Instead, it’s the type of humor that makes you pause the movie so you can make sure all of the doors and windows are locked.  Ingrid Goes West eventually goes to a very dark place.  In some ways, it’s a Taxi Driver for the social media age.

Holding the film together is Aubrey Plaza, giving a performance that is both bracingly vulnerable and frighteningly angry.  Plaza makes Ingrid both sympathetic and annoying at the same time.  Your heart cries for her but you still wouldn’t necessarily want her to live next door.  Ingrid Goes West is not a perfect film.  At times, it’s hard to believe that Taylor wouldn’t know better than to invite a complete stranger into her life and some of the scenes with her brother are a bit too over the top.  But Aubrey Plaza’s brilliant lead performance makes up for all of those flaws.

Definitely see Ingrid Goes West.  Just expect to be paranoid for a week afterward.

Musical Sequence of the Day: Agony from Into the Woods (dir by Rob Marshall)


(If you’re looking for the usual music video of the day, fear not!  Val is currently having some internet issues but, as soon as their resolved, both she and the music videos should be back!  Until then, I’m filling with some of my favorite cinematic musical sequences!)

For today’s musical sequence of the day, we have “Agony” from the 2014 film, Into The Woods.

Into the Woods got some notably mixed reviews when it was first released.  At the time it was released, I wrote that, while I liked it “I never loved Into the Woods like I thought I would.”  In retrospect, I think the film may have been the victim of a combination of my own high expectations and my tendency to be a snob when it comes to cinematic adaptations of Broadway musicals.  I recently rewatched Into The Woods and it actually holds up remarkably well.

Definitely one of the highlights of the film was Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s duet on “Agony.”  Both Pine and Magnussen were perfectly cast as fairy tale princes and “Agony” is a beautiful satire of melodramatic excess.  When I first saw the film at the Alamo Drafthouse, “Agony” was the one number that inspired people in the audience to applaud.

For your pleasure, here is “Agony!”

Enjoy!

 

Film Review: Bridge of Spies (dir by Steven Spielberg)


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I saw Bridge of Spies last weekend and I’m a little bit surprised that I haven’t gotten around to writing a review until now.  After all, this is not only the latest film from Steven Spielberg but it also stars the universally beloved Tom Hanks and it’s currently being touted as a possible best picture nominee.  (Mark Rylance, who plays an imprisoned spy in this film, is also emerging as a front runner for best supporting actor.)  The screenplay was written by the Coen Brothers.  (Oddly enough, films scripted by the Coens — like Unbroken, for instance — tend to be far more conventional and far less snarky than films actually directed by the Coens.)  Even beyond its impressive pedigree, Bridge of Spies is a historical drama and by now, everyone should know how much I love historical dramas.

And the thing is, I enjoyed Bridge of Spies.  I thought it was a well-made film.  I thought that Tom Hanks was well-cast as an idealistic lawyer who stands up for truth, justice, and the Constitution.  I agreed with the pundits who thought Mark Rylance was award-worthy.  It’s become a bit of a cliché for Amy Ryan to show up as an understanding wife but it’s a role she plays well and she made the most of her scenes with Tom Hanks.  Steven Spielberg knows how to put a good film together.  This really should have been a film about which I rushed home to rave.

And yet, at the same time, I just could not work up that much enthusiasm for Bridge of Spies.  It’s a good film but there’s nothing unexpected about it.  There’s nothing surprising about the film.  Steven Spielberg is one of the most commercially successful directors in history and the American film establishment pretty much orbits around him.  He’s good at what he does and he deserves his success.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a subversive bone in his body.  Bridge of Spies is a lot like his previous Oscar contender, Lincoln.  It’s very well-made.  It’s the epitome of competence.  But there’s not a truly surprising or unexpected moment to be found in the film.

And I have to admit that, even as I enjoyed Bridge of Spies, I still found myself frustrated by just how risk-adverse a film it truly was.  After all, we’re living in the age of Ex Machina, Upstream Color, and Sicario.  Bridge of Spies is a good movie and, in many ways, it provides a very valuable history lesson.  (The film’s best moments were the one that contrasted the U.S. with the cold desolation of communist-controlled East Germany.)  But, overall, it just didn’t make a huge impression on me.  It was just a a little bit too safe in its approach.

Film Review: Into the Woods (dir by Rob Marshall)


I had such a mixed reaction to Into the Woods, the latest Rob Marshall-directed musical adaptation, that it’s hard to really know how to start my review, let alone how to conclude it.

So, I’ll start by answering the most important question that you probably have about this film.  I think sometimes that film snobs like me tend to forget that, for most people, it’s just a question of whether or not the film is worth the time, effort, and money that it will take to sit through it.  In other words, having seen Into the Woods, do I recommend it?

Yes, I do.  Well, kind of anyway.  As I said before, it’s complicated.  But, for the most part, I enjoyed Into the Woods.  The audience that I saw it with (and the theater was absolutely packed) seemed to really love the film and there was even a smattering of applause at the end of it.  Into the Woods is a crowd-pleaser.  It’s a well-made film.  It’s perfectly cast.  It’s full of funny moments.  The costumes are absolutely to die for.  (I’m totally in love with the gown that Anna Kendrick gets to wear to the ball.)  Meryl Streep will probably get an Oscar nomination.  Chris Pine deserves to be given a lot more awards consideration than he’s received.  It’s such a good film and yet…

And yet, I never loved Into the Woods like I thought I would.  I watched it and I kept thinking about how much I, of all people, should have loved this film.  I love musicals.  I love spectacle.  I love fairy tales.  I love revisionism.  I love satire.  I love handsome, charming men, like the one played by Chris Pine.  In a perfect world, Anna Kendrick would be my best friend and we’d spend all of our time going to wine tastings and watching Lifetime movies.  Into the Woods was full of everything that I should have loved and the final song actually brought tears to my mismatched eyes but I never quite came to love the film.  Something was just off.

Before I go any further, I should admit that my reaction may have been influenced by outside factors.  On the one hand, all of the Bowman girls are together right now for the holidays and I loved the fact that, as I watched Into the Woods, I was watching it with my sisters and all four of us were sharing in the experience.  Really, that’s the ideal way to watch something like Into The Woods.  This is the type of movie that was specifically made to be watched and appreciated by large groups, preferably made up of people who understand and appreciate the conventions of musical theater.

On the other hand, we had the most obnoxious woman ever sitting directly behind us.  She laughed through the entire film, regardless of whether anything funny was happening on screen or not.  (The film features a lot of comedy but it grows progressively darker with each passing minute.)  It wasn’t just that she wouldn’t stop laughing as much as it was that her laugh was so insincere.  You could tell that she was laughing because she wanted everyone to be impressed with the fact that she “got” the film.  But ultimately, all she did was get on everyone’s nerves with her inability to understand that we weren’t there to listen to her dry heave of a laugh.  We were there because we wanted to see Into the Woods.  The experience was not meant to be about her.  It was about the movie.

As for what the film is about, it’s an adaptation of the famous Stephen Sondheim musical in which the Baker (James Corben) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) attempt to break the spell of a not-quite-evil-but-definitely-bad-tempered witch (Meryl Streep).  By bringing the witch several things (the majority of which can be found in the woods that sit right outside their village), they can lift the curse that has made it impossible for the Baker’s Wife to get pregnant.  Along the way, they run into everyone from the witch’s daughter, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) to Jack the Giant Slayer (Daniel Huttlestone) to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) to the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Deep, playing up the sexual subtext of the story of Little Red Riding Hood) to not one but two charming princes (played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen)!  Into the Woods starts by poking gentle fun at the fairy tales of old and then gets darker and darker until, by the end of the film, only a few characters are left alive.

It’s a great idea and it’s gorgeously executed but yet the film itself never quite makes the transition from being good to being great.  Towards the end of the musical, the surviving characters sing about missing their loved ones and it brought tears to my eyes but that was one of the few moments when the film itself actually made an emotional connection.  Otherwise, I spent a lot of time feeling curiously detached from what was happening on screen.

Thinking about Into The Woods, it’s hard not to compare it to 2012’s version of Les Miserables.  In Les Miserables, all of the songs were recorded live on set.  And, for all the unfair criticism that Russell Crowe received for his singing, this brought a definite raw power and immediacy to the entire production.  What some of the actors may have lacked in conventional singing ability, they made up for with the sheer power of their performances.  In Into The Woods, the majority of the songs were pre-recorded.  Everyone sounds almost too perfect.  There’s none of the vitality or danger that came with Les Miserables or even Rob Marshall’s previous musical, Nine.

(As far as casting, direction, and almost everything else is concerned, Into The Woods is a hundred times better than Nine but it still never manages to produce a moment as vibrantly silly and memorable as Kate Hudson’s performance of Cinema Italiano.)

Into the Woods does have a uniformly excellent cast.  Everyone — even the much-criticized Johnny Depp — does a wonderful job with their role.  Meryl Streep has been getting all of the awards-consideration, largely because she’s Meryl Streep and, if she could get a nomination for giving that performance in August: Osage County, then she can probably get a nomination for anything.  (And don’t get me wrong — Meryl’s great and all but there’s still a part of me that would have loved to have seen what a less self-enamored performer — like Marion Cotillard or Helen Mirren — could have done with the role of the Witch.)  But, to me, the film’s best two performances really came from Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine.  Whether pausing to strike a heroic pose or casually trying to seduce a woman who he meets in the woods or explaining that he’s been raised to be charming and not sincere, Chris Pine is never less than outstanding.

So, to get back to the only question that really matters, did I like Into The Woods?  I did but I did not love it, which is unfortunate because I really wanted to love it.

However, overall, I recommend Into The Woods.

Just don’t watch it alone.

Or with anyone who has an annoying laugh.

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