The Game (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #34

Players Wanted

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 12th September 1997 (USA)
UK Release: 10th October 1997
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Stars
Michael Douglas (Wall Street, Basic Instinct)
Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Milk)
Deborah Kara Unger (Crash, Stander)

Director
David Fincher (Panic Room, Gone Girl)

Screenwriters
John Brancato (The Net, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)
Michael Ferris (Terminator Salvation, Surrogates)

The Story
What do you buy the man who has everything? After high-flying businessman Nicholas Van Orton is enrolled in a mysterious alternate reality game by his estranged brother, it’s no surprise that unusual things start to happen. But as those happenings begin to take on a sinister edge, it may be Nicholas has been targeted by something more serious, and potentially life-threatening.

Our Hero
Nicholas Van Orton is an immensely successful financier, but so low on friends that he even spends his birthday completely alone. He could do with fun in his life, or so believes his brother… or does he?

Our Villains
The game is run by a company called Consumer Recreation Services, or CRS. But they just run games… or do they?

Best Supporting Character
Early on in his experience, Nicholas runs into waitress Christine, who has also been affected by the game… or is she actually a part of it? Just who can he trust?!

Memorable Quote
“You know, I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again. Here’s to new experiences.” — Ted

Memorable Scene
On the run and tired, Nicholas hops in a cab. He doesn’t notice the doors lock, until the maniacal cab driver begins to speed down the hill. As Nicholas desperately tries to escape, the driver leaps out — and the cab soars into the river, with Nicholas trapped inside…

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)

What the Critics Said
“Crafted with a commanding, aloof precision by David Fincher in his first outing since hitting the jackpot with Seven, this unusual dive into the ambiguous world of an undefined pastime without apparent rules generates a chilly intellectual intrigue that will arouse buffs, trendies and techies more than it will mainstream [audiences. It] projects the same sense of suffocating enclosure and mounting despair in a style that will inevitably be compared to that of Stanley Kubrick in its steely technical mastery and remote, disenchanted worldview, all in the service of a story that resembles a highbrow puzzle as much as it does an involving narrative.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety

Score: 72%

What the Public Say
“just when we’ve finally come to a part of the story we can accept and trust, it turns out that we’ve once again been led astray. In this cinematic game, Fincher’s directorial ability wins out; his ability to pace his films; to completely draw the audience’s attention in whichever direction he requires, as well as keeping them emotionally attached to the protagonists is a balancing act which Fincher has mastered time and again over his career, and The Game is no exception.” — jyapp8715, Through the 4th Wall

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed The Game as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, saying it “is by far at its best on your first viewing, when you don’t know how it will end and it’s stuffed with mysteries and twists. That’s not to say it doesn’t bear repeat viewings — as with most twist-ending-ed films, there’s naturally some interest in seeing it again knowing what’s going on — but a lot of the film’s enjoyment comes from being played with, the back-and-forth of what the truth is.”

Verdict

In fairness, The Game probably comes near the bottom of my top 100, because I remain a little dubious about its re-watch value — not because it’s poorly made (far from it), but because the twists and reveals are such a big part of its appeal, and once you know them, you know them. Also, arguments continue between its fans and its haters about whether the plot makes sense or not, and how much that actually matters — personally, I think it makes enough sense (maybe for some parts you have to switch on your “it’s a movie” filter, however). The reason it makes my list nonetheless is the quality of a first viewing, especially if you do buy into its conceit and just go with it. Few other films have kept me guessing from the start up to the very closing moments, and consequently on the edge of my seat throughout. That experience may be unrepeatable, but as one-time deals go, it was immeasurably memorable and effective.

#35 will be… the hands that built America.

Ant-Man (2015)

2015 #181
Peyton Reed | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The final film in ‘Phase Two’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most fun Marvel movie since Iron Man kicked off the whole shebang seven years ago.

It’s the story of a burglar, Scott Lang (Paul “he’ll always be Mike from Friends to me” Rudd), who is enlisted by ageing genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to pilfer something from Pym’s old company, now controlled by his former protégé and villain-in-waiting Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym discovered/created something called the Pym Particle, which changes the distance between atoms and allows objects and people to shrink or increase in size. He hid his dangerous technology from the world, but now Cross has developed his own version and is seeking to sell a weaponised version to the highest bidder — which naturally includes some very nefarious characters.

Marvel are currently fond of mixing “superhero” with “another genre” to produce their movies — which makes sense, given the standard two-or-three superhero narratives were already becoming played out by the time Iron Man came along, never mind in the raft of movies Marvel Studios have released since. Here, “superhero” is mixed with “heist movie”; more specifically, “heist comedy”. It’s superheroes by way of Ocean’s Eleven, basically. In the key position, you’ve got Lang in the Ant-Man suit, able to shrink, infiltrate places, and control ants to help him; but then he’s got a whole support team: Pym planning and overseeing; Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the inside woman; and a gaggle of Lang’s criminal friends (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris), brought in to help them hack security ‘n’ that.

Nonetheless, some have criticised the film for not being especially original. I mean, originality’s good ‘n’ all, but c’mon, what do you expect when you sit down to a superhero movie from the primary purveyor of superhero movies? Ant-Man may blend elements from a few other genres into the superhero mix, but, yeah, it’s a superhero movie that, at times, plays like a superhero movie — just like everything else Marvel Studios has produced (with the possible exception of Guardians of the Galaxy). If that’s not your thing, fine, but there’s nothing so spectacularly rote or generic about Ant-Man when compared to the rest of Marvel’s output that it deserves to be singled out. In fact, if anything, it has a higher dose of originality than its peers. And it doesn’t climax with a giant flying thing crashing to Earth, the first Marvel movie you can say that about for years.

Where the film really succeeds, however, is in being — as noted — fun. Sometimes the structure is a little wonky, sometimes the dialogue is a little off, sometimes it’s a little heavy on the exposition, sometimes this and sometimes that, but it never stops moving at a decent clip, is never too far away from a good laugh, and offers some strong action sequences too. The very nature of the titular heroes’ powers offers us something new. Okay, there have been plenty of shrinking movies before, but not like his. Macro photography and CGI have been used to great effect to bring us into his world, and the fact he can shrink and grow at will adds a real kick to fight scenes.

It remains tough to talk about Ant-Man without referencing The Edgar Wright Situation. I mean, you could ignore it, but then it becomes the elephant in the room. If you somehow missed it: writer-director Edgar Wright pitched Ant-Man to Marvel as a movie before Marvel Studios even existed, back in 2003, and had been developing it on and off ever since. The ideas he brought to the table — an action-adventure-comedy style, being a special effects extravaganza but with a lighthearted tone — influenced how the studio approached Iron Man and, consequently, the whole MCU. Nonetheless, Ant-Man wound up positioned as the 12th film in the studio’s slate, finally going into production after a decade of prep. Wright had a script almost finalised, he’d cast the film, a release date was set… and then he left due to “creative differences”. And the internet was on his side because Edgar Wright has made Spaced and Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Marvel are a studio and studios are always wrong.

The full extent of what these creative differences were hasn’t emerged yet, because it wasn’t that long ago (inevitably, they will one day), but it must’ve been pretty major to walk away from a project you’d been working on for so long and were so close to finally realising. Some reports say Wright wanted the film to be completely standalone, with absolutely no ties to the wider Marvel universe. I kind of hope there’s more to it than that, because while the final version of Ant-Man isn’t completely standalone, it’s one of Marvel’s less connected efforts. Okay, it references S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and the Avengers, and there are cameo appearances by characters from other parts of the universe (including Lang having to fight an Avenger), but its story doesn’t feed directly from a previous MCU film, nor does it make setting up another one an inherent part of the plot. In short, it’s nicely connected — it’s definitely part of the universe — but you don’t need to know a great deal to enjoy it on its own.

After Wright left, the screenplay was rewritten by a host of scribes (far more than the two extra writers ultimately credited). Other things they’re responsible for include bulking up the supporting characters, especially Hope, which works pretty well, and Lang’s friend Luis (Michael Peña), which we should all be thankful for: Peña’s Luis is one of the best things in the movie, an enthusiastic motormouth who’s consistently entertaining whenever he’s on screen. He’s the standout from an ensemble that is generally strong, with Rudd proving a likeable lead and Douglas committing to the material in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect an older actor to with ‘just a comic book movie’.

Would Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man have been better than Peyton Reed’s? We’ll never know. Well, one day we’ll have a good guess, because one day what changed will all come out. Wright still has a story and co-writer credit, so obviously a lot of his material survived. Nonetheless, the movie we’ve ended up with doesn’t feel like a compromised, homogenised, studio-controlled disaster. Chances are Wright could’ve brought greater visual and storytelling flair to proceedings, but Reed doesn’t do a bad job, especially when it comes to sequences in miniature. The final fight takes place on a children’s playset, doesn’t involve giant things falling epically out of the sky (is it the only Phase Two film to avoid that trope?), and is one of the best climaxes in the entire Marvel canon. Sometimes less really is more. Especially when “less” includes Thomas the Tank Engine. Whoever thought you’d see Thomas the Tank Engine in a Marvel movie?

I hope Ant-Man will be an important touchstone in what Marvel Studios do going forward. It proves smaller-scale adventures can work — not in the sense that it’s about a hero who shrinks to a few centimetres tall, but in that it’s a story focused on a couple of characters trying to steal something from a building and defeat one guy, not about saving an entire city or an entire planet. That doesn’t mean it’s a story that doesn’t have stakes, they’re just different stakes. It’s a refreshing change of pace at this point. It’s also pretty much standalone, with nice nods to the shared universe but without being dependent on other films (either before or to come) for its story. Guardians of the Galaxy did that too, but how many other recent Marvel movies is it true of? Even the highly-praised Winter Soldier is a long, long way from being immune to that fault.

Still, I doubt many people are going to call Ant-Man their favourite Marvel movie, although I think it might be the most pure fun I’ve had watching an MCU film since… well, ever. And I like fun.

4 out of 5

Ant-Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now, and in the US from next week.

It placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

2015 #68
Steven Soderbergh | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15

Behind the CandelabraSteven Soderbergh’s supposed last-ever film (or, if you’re American, Steven Soderbergh’s first project after he supposedly quit film) is the story of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young bisexual man in the ’70s who encounters famed flamboyant pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and ends up becoming his lover, which is just the start of a strange, tempestuous relationship.

Leading us into the uniquely bizarre world of the outrageous musician, Soderbergh keeps a sure grasp on the resultant drama/humour balance. If anything, the entertaining and well-received trailer makes the film look more outrageous than it is, distilling most of the best laughs into a two-minute burst. Indeed, some of the jokes play better in that form, rendered funnier by the focus and even tighter editing. Seen in full, the film is definitely more of a drama, just one about people so beyond the realm of ‘normal’ that it sometimes becomes laughable… and sometimes, tragic.

The cast are excellent. It’s a transformative performance by Michael Douglas, a committed turn with surprising layers, which is nothing short of absolutely brilliant. Matt Damon is no slouch either. His is a less showy performance, but Scott is a character that really develops as the film goes along, and not necessarily in ways that keep him the likeable ‘hero’. Among the rest of the cast, Rob Lowe is ultra-memorable as the creepily frozen-faced plastic surgeon.

LiberaceIt looks great, too. The film, that is, not Rob Lowe’s face. The design teams have realised an excellent recreation of the period, which is then lensed with spot-on glossy cinematography by DP ‘Peter Andrews’. Occasionally the film moves outside that heightened, shiny world into places odder and grubbier, with one shot of Liberace peering over the door of a porn shop private video booth (really) that’s particularly striking.

Even if it isn’t quite as amusing as the trailer promised, Behind the Candelabra has a lot else to offer as a drama about unusual people leading unusual lives.

4 out of 5

The Game (1997)

2011 #15a
David Fincher | 123 mins | DVD | 15 / R

The Game

“I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again. Here’s to new experiences.”

So says a fellow member of Nicholas Van Orton’s club when asked about what ‘the game’ is. He could be talking about the film.

Having seen it a few times over the years (it may well have been the first Fincher film I saw, though it would’ve been unknowingly), I’ve come to the conclusion that The Game is by far at its best on your first viewing, when you don’t know how it will end and it’s stuffed with mysteries and twists. That’s not to say it doesn’t bear repeat viewings — as with most twist-ending-ed films, there’s naturally some interest in seeing it again knowing what’s going on — but a lot of the film’s enjoyment comes from being played with, the back-and-forth of what the truth is.

It remains an enthralling, well-made thriller. Information on characters and plot are carefully metered out to the viewer, as it wisely follows Michael Douglas’ Nicholas Van Orton exclusively — the viewer is placed on the ride with him, which is part of why it works and part of why it’s not as good when you know where it’s going. (Obviously we have some superior knowledge even the first time, because unlike Nicholas we know it won’t end after only 20 minutes, or 90 minutes, or…) Aside from the more visceral thrills of a thriller, the film does offer some thematic points about Nicholas’ life — what’s missing from it, from him as a person, etc. — but these are more of a nice undertone than a major factor. Arguably Fincher would explore similar ground more thoroughly, though focused on a younger generation, in his next film.

I also think The Game stands out in Fincher’s filmography as not being particularly Fincher-y. He’s made equally as mainstream-friendly fare since — Panic Room, Benjamin Button, The Social Network — so the fact The Game doesn’t have as shocking a kick as Alien³, Se7en or Fight Club is not that unusual. More so, it’s not as stylishly directed or shot as any of his other films. It’s not badly done at all, but the cinematography is unremarkable and the direction is good without being any more. Many other competent directors could have been responsible — there’s no sign of his unique touch, probably his only film (that I’ve seen anyway) not to display that. To sum up: well-made, just not distinctive.

I’d very much intended for this review to be a defence of The Game — I’ve always really liked it, but it tends to get lost amongst Fincher’s more provocative and, yes, better films. Watching it again, though, I couldn’t help but realise I used to like The Game more than I do now. After a couple of watches it becomes like a holiday photo album: a nice record and reminder of good times had, rather than ones experienced anew.

If you’ve not seen it, I envy you — I wish I could go back and see it for the first time all over again.

4 out of 5

The Game is on ITV4 tonight, Sunday 28th September 2014, at 9pm.

I watched The Game as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.