Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ready Player Gun: The Twisted “Game Night” is a Winning Dark Comedy

It has been way too long since I’ve seen a truly fun, dark comedy. “Game Night” thankfully fills that void. Genuinely great comedies are so rare nowadays, so it feels like a miracle when a good one sticks the landing. Taking a cue from the recent boom in table top gaming, “Game Night” follows a group of friends who get caught up in a violent mystery during one of their traditional game nights. Of course these friends aren’t exactly hardcore gaming nerds, we’re talking Charades and Scrabble which is why the movie works so well. It’s about non overly intelligent people getting caught up in a ridiculous situation that goes from bad to worse. And it’s completely hilarious to watch them so close to serious injury or death and untangle themselves from the clutches of mortal danger. It also helps that the sometimes clever direction and witty script is pretty observant about human behavior and relationships which imbues the film with a surprising legitimacy. Also, it’s funny as hell.

“Game Night” follows a married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachael McAdams who should be in more films together) who original met during trivia night. The extremely competitive pair continue weekly game nights with friends and are also having trouble conceiving a child. Max’s more successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up and offers to host his own game night in which he’s initiated a “realistic” mystery game in which the prize will be his fancy new car. There for the game are Max and Annie’s friends another married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and then there’s hunky but dimwitted Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who has brought along his date Sarah (Sharon Horgan). An actor playing an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) shows up to begin the game and coincidentally two armed robbers break in and attack him and Brooks. The group assume it’s part of the game and that’s when things really start getting good.

“Game Night” mostly works for three reasons. And these are reasons why most successful comedies work. The script by Mark Perez is fresh and funny and offers plenty of fun twists and turns. Even if in the third act things get utterly preposterous. You could tell it’s one of those fun scripts producers were dying to get made. The film also works because of the chemistry of the actors. Bateman and McAdams are delightful together. And it’s been a disturbingly long time since McAdams has been in an outright comedy. The former Oscar nominee and Mean Girls breakout needs to read more comedy scripts. Bunbury and Morris’ running joke about Michelle having slept with a celebrity is milked for all its worth. Magnussen, who plays dumb brilliantly, and Horgan as his older, Irish boss work wonders in their scenes including fun bit with the owner of the game company Brooks used, cleverly called Murder We Wrote.

And lastly, and this is something rarely brought up when it comes to comedy films, is the direction. The guys (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein) who wrote the equally clever “Horrible Bosses” and previously directed the underrated “Vacation” redo work their comedy magic here. The film’s introduction is well done, the second unit shots featuring cinematography that makes the scenery look like fake game boards, and an extremely impressive and well-choreographed tracking shot later in the film are some of the fun highlights to be found here.

“Game Night” is certainly a welcome surprise. It’s fun, dark, and has guaranteed laugh. Raunchy and clever in equal doses with some really surprising twists make this one to remember. All of this and I haven’t even had time to mention the scene-stealing performance from Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons as Max and Annie’s creepy, police officer neighbor. The whole thing is pretty ridiculous in the best possible way, in other words, it’s a winner.  GRADE: B+

Friday, February 23, 2018

Love & Breadth: “This is That Night” is a Short and Sweet Rom-Com

So it turns out “This is That Night” is that movie Woody Allen would have made early in his career. Most Hollywood films can’t establish well-drawn characters in 2 hours let alone thirteen but writer and star Jonathan Marballi is certainly up to the task in his cute rom-com short that is seeing a digital platform release after a successful film festival run.

The simple film observes a man (Marballi playing Jon) and woman (Kris Wiener playing Kris) as they embark on the fourth date of their relationship. Things are going well as the couple appear to be hitting it off, joke around, and chit chat in Kris’ city apartment. Shots of empty plates, wine glasses, and candles burning signify the passing evening as the couple eventually realize that this is the date where they stay up all night talking; and then they hit a rough patch. At that point I’m pretty sure I would of just turned on the TV in a desperate attempt to cut through the awkwardness but the couple is determined to overcome their abrupt conversation block.

Shot in contrasty black and white and filled with old timey music on the soundtrack, this funny and observant short is artistically realized by director Matt Braunsdorf. He directs his actors well; they give perfectly naturalistic performances. It’s obvious Braunsdorf and his actors come from a background in improv (Upright Citizens Brigade to be specific); you feel like you’re just hanging out with friends who enjoy talking in silly voices and having awkward conversations about Christopher Columbus, abortion, and Chinese food. The humorous, dialogue driven film feels inspired by the relationship comedies Woody Allen has wowed film nerds with for decades.

The film captures the clumsiness of new relationships in a way many feature length films barely attempt to do. For what is essentially a short film about two people talking in an apartment “This is That Night” really gets human behavior right. It helps that the performers have a natural chemistry and even if the funny film isn't any sort of visual masterpiece Braunsdorf knows how to make a single location feel like its own character. I really wanted to know where these people ended up. I’m anxiously awaiting “This is That Morning." GRADE: B+

This is That Night (trailer) from Jonny Marbles Films on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Out of Africa: The Thrilling “Black Panther” is Just the Movie We Need Right Now

I tend to be a bit hesitant when it comes to some of the lesser known Marvel characters. But in reality these lower tiered folks turn out to be just what audiences deserve. A slight break from the routine. And “Black Panther” is just that film. A blockbuster in every sense of the word, this fantastical action adventure pushes the boundary of big budget movie making in really fun and creative ways. And the fact a film that pushes for diversity and representation is coming out now shows that even if Hollywood is sometimes behind on the times its good to know they’re at least taking the right steps. “Black Panther” shows Marvel at the full height of creative prowess by giving us a diverse cast of fascinating characters with real motivations and superior production quality from a director in full creative command. A fun conglomerate of various genres from Shakespeare melodrama to spy thriller to fantasy, the film works on multiple levels and hardly requires any previous knowledge of the seventeen (!) other Marvel films that have come before it. In other words, even after ten years of Marvel Studios films, these people still know how to make a darned good piece of popular entertainment.

Ryan Coogler. How does a filmmaker go from such small, indie roots as “Fruitvale Station” which first got both him and breakout star Michael B. Jordan noticed, to the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It’s because the studio is willing to take a chance. But don’t forget that Coogler proved he could play with a bigger budget with the tremendously well-received “Rocky” spin-off “Creed.” His impressive cinematic eye was impossible to ignore. The director brings a much-needed fresh perspective to the MCU as the big budget comic book films are dying for a little bit of diversity. And diversity is just what audiences crave. Just look at last year’s fantastic female-driven “Wonder Woman.” It’s step in the right direction that is sure to attract new talent and a new audience as well. Sure “Black Panther” is diverse, with a predominately Black cast of well-known and little-known actors. And they are all glorious.

We were first introduced to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in “Captain America: Civil War” where we see his father fall victim to a terror attack. T’Challa becomes the king of the fictional African country Wakanda. Wakanda is a special place; it posses as a third world country but is actually the home to powerful, advanced technology in form of “vibranium.” T’Challa is not only king but possessed the power of the “Black Panther;” a guardian for Wakanda. Of course it isn’t so simple. Enter some complicated family dynamics and you’ve got yourself a fantastical African-set Shakespearean drama that is truly absorbing. Meanwhile there are car chases, fight scenes, and flying ships that will likely make “Star Wars” fans salivate on cue.

What’s so particularly special about “Black Panther” is how well the film balances a handful of different genres and how smoothly it transitions from comedy to serious drama. And it works as an all-too familiar reflection of our troubled times. T’Challa insists on protecting the people of Wakanda from outside forces but in so doing he’s leaving other decedents of the African continent to live in poverty stricken communities. Coogler’s protege Jordan plays N’Jadaka a former US soldier who seeks to use vibranium in a malicious way and is intent on overthrowing T’Challa and make Wakanda his kingdom. Notes of “The Lion King” don’t exactly go unnoticed, but let’s not forget that that animated classic is really just a retelling of “Hamlet.” The dynamic between T’Challa and N’Jadaka are not unlike historic real life civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X who each had radically different ideologies for essentially same cause. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole’s script is well aware of the time and place this film is existing in. The fact that Cole also wrote for Emmy-winning miniseries “The People vs. OJ Simpson” is not coincidental.

Sure it’s a super hero film with a message. But it’s also wildly engaging and supremely entertaining. T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright in a scene-stealing performance) is essentially the Q of Wakanda with all her fascinating vibranium-forged gadgets. The film features an awesome car chase that rivals anything seen in a James Bond film. The costume design and set design is exquisite and colorful. And the music score from Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson is simply beautiful with its African-inspired cues. The performances are truly great from an impressive ensemble cast (with Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya, 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o, The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, Andy Serkis, and Martin Freeman all in memorable roles), the direction is suburb, and it truly feels like none of the other 17 MCU movies that have come before it. “Black Panther” is ground-breaking art disguised as popcorn entertainment and it is certain to push the boundaries of the comic book genre forward in exciting new ways.  GRADE: A