Game Night (2018)

2018 #111
John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein | 100 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Game Night

Despite what the poster suggests, the cute dog is not in fact one of the three leads.

1 out of 5

Okay, okay — let’s put the Westie-based bait-and-switch advertising aside and give the film a fair hearing, because it’s actually surprisingly brilliant.

The other poster stars, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, play hyper-competitive couple Max and Annie, who love nothing more than the weekly game night they host with their best friends, from which they exclude their odd next-door neighbour, Westie-loving cop Gary (Jesse Plemons). One week, Max’s super-successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) unexpectedly shows up and gatecrashes game night, then offers to host an even better one. For that he arranges a real-life mystery game, where he gets kidnapped and the others have to track him down… except then he gets kidnapped for real, and they only have the rest of the night to rescue him.

If you’ve ever wondered “what if someone reimagined David Fincher’s The Game as a comedy?”, Game Night is probably the answer. Personally, I’ve never wondered that, but I’m up for it. That said, I was all prepared to let it wait until it popped up on Netflix or something, until the film’s home release in the US a couple of months back prompted a wave of praise from critics I follow on Twitter. Now I’m adding my small voice to those urging you to check this movie out.

Wanna play a game?

It’s the kind of film where I don’t want to say much more than I already have, because obviously the joy lies in the jokes (and jokes are a lot less funny if you spoil them) and the plot developments. At the risk of just reeling off a list of superlatives, I’ll say that what unfolds is fast, inventive, clever (after you’ve seen the film, check out this spoilersome bit of trivia. I mean, that’s superb!), and, above all, hilariously funny. There are more laughs in its opening montage than many modern comedies manage in a whole film. Jesse Plemons transcends the “budget Matt Damon” jibes (but, c’mon, he really looks like an own-brand Matt Damon) to all but steal the film with his hysterical straight-faced supporting role. I only say “all but” because everyone else is firing on all cylinders too: it’s a cast full of likeable, well-performed characters, not least Max and Annie. McAdams, in particular, gets to give a line delivery that’s an all-timer. If there’s a criticism in this regard it’s that, with so many characters competing for screen time, I’m not sure how well their individual arcs really work, but that’s a minor distraction.

One other thing I will criticise — which is nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, but bugged me enough that here’s a whole paragraph about it — is the scarcity of extras on the Blu-ray, which total just ten minutes. Seriously? Put some effort in! All the praise from American Twitter led me to acquire the film via Alternative Means, but, being the good honest film consumer I am, I was going to rent it when it came out here as retrospective payment. But then I loved it so much I thought I’d just go ahead and buy the disc. But a full-price new release of a film I’ve already seen with a grand total of ten minutes of special features? You’re having a laugh. Were there no deleted scenes? Could they not stump up for a commentary? Surely they filmed longer interviews than that just for the EPK? But no, all we get is a 6½-minute gag reel and a 3½-minute “featurette” (I’m being kind — at that length it can’t be much more than a trailer). I’m going to buy it eventually, in a sale, because I enjoyed the film enough to add it to my collection, but you cost yourself a day-one purchase there, Warners. I don’t know how much the general film-viewing populace still care about special features, but us aficionados do, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way about this particular title. Anyway, rant over.

Who's stealing the film now, eh?

For pure enjoyment, I came very close to giving Game Night the full five stars — when it works, it absolutely sings — but there are just a few bits, here and there, that fell a little short. Nonetheless, it’s certainly the kind of film I loved in spite of its flaws. If only the adorable dog had been in it more, maybe this’d be a five anyway…

4 out of 5

Game Night is available to own digitally in the UK from today, and on that disappointing DVD & Blu-ray from next week.

It placed 15th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

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Zootropolis (2016)

aka Zootopia

2016 #116
Byron Howard & Rich Moore | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

ZootropolisDisney’s 55th Animated Classic is their second highest-grossing ever, the 25th film to take over $1 billion at the worldwide box office, which makes it a hit of Frozen-sized proportions (at least financially — parents must be glad there’s no Let It Go-esque earworm involved). That said, I’d perhaps argue it’s a Disney movie aimed as much (perhaps even more) at the studio’s adult fans as its child ones. But I’ll come to that in a bit.

Set in a world of anthropomorphised animals, Zootropolis introduces us to Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a small-town bunny who joins the police force in the titular big city,* the first rabbit to do so. Despite there being a spate of mysterious disappearances across the city, Judy gets lumped with traffic duty, where she soon encounters small-time con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). That association comes in handy when she manages to get assigned one of the missing person animal cases and notices that Nick may have been a witness to the abduction. Soon, the mismatched pair begin to uncover an aggressive conspiracy…

Disney animations may be best known as musicals based on fairytales, but they certainly don’t make up 100% of their Classics line, especially in recent years. I think Zootropolis may be the first time they’ve attempted a neo-noir crime thriller, though. And I bet no one ever thought they’d see a Disney film with a sequence set at a nudist resort. Or in a drugs lab, for that matter. Or one with a substantial parody of The Godfather and clear references to Breaking Bad. And you thought Inside Out was clever for having one line from Chinatown

Once you factor in the many references to discussions that currently dominate social discourse — there are abundant riffs on the language of real-life concerns about race, gender, and sexuality — you begin to see how Zootropolis could be seen as a Disney film that’s primarily aimed at adults. Those concerns ultimately become thematic points so large that they cross the line from being subtextual “one for the adults” asides into being textual “vital to the plot” tenets of the film. So given the genre trappings, nudist resorts, drugs labs, parodies of 18-rated media, and very grown-up thematic points, you do have to wonder if Zootropolis functions better for adults who like Disney films than it does for kids who like Disney films. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s only one to an extent, because the kind of adult this notion supposes the film is aimed at is… well, me.

However, that’s not to say kids can’t get enjoyment out of it: there are plenty of colourful characters and locations, relatable situations, cross generational humour, and a moral lesson young’uns will understand. There’s the DMV sequence, for instance, which is grounded in an adult experience but so funny it must cross over. Considering all the praise I’ve heard for that one scene, it’s also a feat it lives up to the hype. It’s gorgeously animated throughout, bolstered by a world that has been magnificently realised, with all the different themed districts of the city. (After all the Disney movies that have had contrived TV series spin-offs, this is a film that actually feels like it deserves one. The setup is obvious — a police procedural — and the world the film suggests is big enough to warrant it. Heck, it practically demands it — there’s so much more of this world, you want to see it explored.) Michael Giacchino’s score is different too: memorable and fun, in part thanks to using a cornucopia of unusual instruments to provide a ‘world music’ sound that’s in-keeping with the movie.

If I had any problem it’d be that the story takes a little while to warm up, really coming alive (at least for me) once it gets stuck into the main investigation. That’s not to say the first act is without its merits (there are both amusing and awe-inspiring sequences there, plus some moments that are nicely paid off later), but the film’s need/desire to establish the familiar “you can be whatever you dream if you just try” moral message makes it take a little longer than might be ideal. Adults will probably guess whodunnit well before the reveal, too, but that doesn’t mean the journey getting there is any less fun.

There’s a quote on the cover of Zootropolis’ US Blu-ray that calls it the best Disney movie in 20 years. As much as I liked Bolt and Tangled,** and Mulan and The Princess and the Frog, and, yes, even Frozen, I think Zootropolis is at the very least a contender for that crown.

4 out of 5

Zootropolis is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 15th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

* I watched a US copy of the film, so I have a question for anyone who watched it in the UK: we all know they changed the title from Zootopia to Zootropolis, but did they actually change the name of the city in the film too? That’s a lot of redubbing if they did… ^

** Both co-directed by Zootropolis’ Byron Howard. Developing a pretty good track record, that man. ^

Hancock: Extended Version (2008)

2015 #12
Peter Berg | 98 mins | DVD | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15*

HancockWill Smith is the eponymous drunken vagrant, who also has the powers of Superman, in this under-appreciated superhero comedy-drama. Hated by the public for the destruction he causes while ‘helping’, and wanted by the authorities for the same — though they can’t catch him because, you know, superpowers — he gets an image makeover when he saves wannabe entrepreneur Jason Bateman. Bateman’s wife, Charlize Theron, is less sure of Hancock’s merits.

If you’ve only seen the humour-focused trailers, seeing Hancock described as a comedy-drama might come as a surprise. There’s a whole behind-the-scenes story here, it would seem, hinted at in various interviews and articles one can find scattered around. To boil it down, it seems as if screenwriters Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (yes, him of Breaking Bad) and, in particular, director Peter Berg thought they were making a character drama superhero movie, while studio executives were more interested in it being a superhero action-comedy. Only natural when you hire Will “Men in Black” Smith, I guess. While the marketing went all-out on the comedy angle, the film itself is torn between these two pillars, leaving viewers with mismanaged expectations — resulting in “under-appreciated”.

Tonally, it’s mixed throughout. For instance, it’s been shot with handheld close-up ShakyCam veracity, which works when it’s playing on “what if this were real?” emotional story beats, but feels at odds on the occasions it descends into comedic vulgarity. Some criticise Berg’s style fullstop, saying he’s taken a black comedy/satire and played it straight. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think that’s wholly fair. There’s a lot of stuff here that works as a serious-minded drama, suggesting Berg was on the right track, Comedybut it rubs against comedy stuff that feels like it’s from a Comedy. The extended cut includes an early sex/ejaculation joke/sequence that wasn’t in the theatrical cut because Berg thought it wasn’t funny and test audiences agreed. Goodness knows why it got put back, other than because of length — it accounts for over half of the extensions (more details here).

Essentially, I think the critics are damning Berg and co for not making the movie the critics think they should be making, and not giving them credit for making the movie they were trying to make. The marketing men are at fault here, or the audience for wanting a superhero comedy when they’ve sat down to a superhero drama. Unfortunately, it’s harder to defend when Berg’s work was indeed compromised, though by studio interference rather than by misunderstanding his own mind. Also by the fact his other films include crap like Battleship, so of course you might think he’s rubbish.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a controversial twist/change of direction halfway through. Fundamentally there’s nothing wrong with twists, but this engenders a bumpy transition, which initially seems not to work — the tone and meaning shift abruptly. However, if you go with it, the film settles back down and it pays off during the finale. A lot of viewers aren’t very good about trusting a movie and going with it these days, though. Again, however, occasional poor decisions make it trickier to defend. For instance (spoilers!), when Mary goes to visit Hancock after it’s revealed she has powers too, she’s dressed up like a supervillain, a complete change of style from her normal casual-suburban-mom look. Why the change? Mary - quite contraryWhy indeed, because a) she’s not a supervillain, and b) even if she were, why get changed?! It’s a kind of bait-and-switch: she’s made to look like a villain because we think that’s what she’s about to be revealed as, and a big hero-vs-villain fight follows too… but she isn’t. It’s not quite up there with the magically-changing Batsuits of Batman & Robin, but it’s the next level down.

While I’m bashing the film, let’s note that the CGI is appallingly weak. It’s hard to know how much that’s time passing and how much it was always weak, but considering it’s from the same year as Iron Man, I err to the latter. This may again be the result of behind-the-scenes travails, though: apparently it was supposed to contain 300 VFX shots, but actually has 525. Did anything go right on this film’s production?

On the bright side, Will Smith’s performance has garnered lots of praise, deservedly so. He could have been his usual charming self, making Hancock a funny goofball character. Instead, he plays the reality of this guy being a damaged loner. It might not make the film as consistently comedic as some would have liked, but it’s a more engaging and rewarding performance on the whole.

VagrantThe film would work a lot better on the whole if the tone had been settled on as definitively as Smith’s performance, rather than trying to have its cake and eat it by mining both the “what if this were real?” and “haha, an unlikeable drunk superhero!” versions concurrently. For my money, however, if you treat Hancock as a fairly seriously-intended movie that was forced to contain more (half-arsed) action and (misjudged) comedy for the sake of box office, it’s not a bad experience at all.

4 out of 5

Hancock is on 5* tonight at 9pm.

* The extended version is officially Unrated in the US. Many a time an “unrated” cut would mirror the theatrical version’s certificate, if only they’d bothered. However, theatrically Hancock was a PG-13, but only after it had been submitted twice before and received an R — which is probably what this version would be, then. ^

Juno (2007)

2010 #25
Jason Reitman | 92 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

This review contains minor spoilers.

Juno followed in the footsteps of films like Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine to be the token Little Indie That Could among 2008’s Best Picture nominees. It was also the highest-grossing film on the list, no doubt thanks to America’s abundant Christians thinking it was all about an anti-abortion message. I’m sure these conflicting facts (the indie-ness and top-grosser, not the Christian thing) say more about the Oscars’ nominating form in the past decade than they do about Juno.

Fortunately, there’s enough to Juno to allow it stand up for itself. The most discussed aspect is Diablo Cody’s screenplay, with its idiosyncratic slang-laden dialogue and accusations that every character speaks the same. The first is true, the latter is rubbish, and one has to wonder if whoever thinks it watched beyond the first ten minutes. Most of the film’s teenage characters speak similarly… in that they use the same bits of slang, have similar speech patterns, employ a similar sense of humour — you know, like groups of teenagers tend to. Their related adults speak broadly similarly, but also differently; the higher-class couple Juno chooses to adopt her baby to speak differently again — but none are pathetically “I am trying to sound different”-different like you can find in weak writing. It’s just natural. I struggle to see how anyone can honestly say that all the characters “speak the same” in a way that isn’t true to life. Perhaps Cody has generously made Juno and her fellow teens wittier and quicker than the real-life majority, but this is a scripted drama and that’s what happens to your hero characters.

Cody’s dialogue, and what the cast do with it, are the film’s standout aspects. It’s quite a wordy screenplay, so it’s good that it’s a joy to listen to. The realistic overuse of slang by some characters occasionally greats, but the plentiful laugh-out-loud beats more than make up for it. The “I wish I’d say that” quality in some of Juno’s responses to familiar situations quickly make her an identifiable, memorable and loveable character, expertly played by Ellen Page — lead roles like this and Hard Candy show she’s one to watch, and add another mark against X-Men 3 for wasting her talents on such an insignificant (in the film) part.

Every supporting part is equally pitch-perfect: J.K. Simmons’ endlessly supportive father; Allison Janney’s stepmom, granted a gift of a rant at an ultrasound operator; Jennifer Garner’s earnest, desperate wannabe-mother; Olivia Thirlby’s teacher-loving best friend. Jason Bateman redeems himself in my eyes from his not-Marc-Warren turn in State of Play, while my pre-judgement of Michael Cera (Superbad? Year One? They sound dreadful) is half erased by being good as an appropriate-but-still-niggling character (Mr MacGuff and Leah summarise it best: “I didn’t think he had it in him.” “I know, right?”)

The film’s success in America is slightly baffling, which is why I merrily attribute it to Juno considering an abortion and then turning away. There’s underage sex, swearing, numerous displays of teen independence, divorce, love of rock music and horror films… All that’s missing from a Middle American Mom’s worst nightmare is drugs (there’s no violence either, but we know them there yankees love a bit of that). The whole thing worries the boundaries of its 12 certificate, I’m sure (being a recent film, the BBFC explain/justify), not that such things affect its quality as a film.

The backlash against Cody’s screenplay had me all prepared to find Juno a samey, wannabe-cool and lacking experience, but it isn’t. It’s consistently funny, occasionally moving, and only infrequently irritating (usually when it comes across as stereotypically indie). As the comedy-indie entry in the Academy’s 2008 choices, its worthy of its predecessors, and I consider that praise indeed.

4 out of 5