Friday, February 23, 2018

GAME NIGHT: A Fairly Funny Film For February

Opening today at a multiplex near as all:

GAME NIGHT 
(Dir. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, 2018)


I didn’t have very big expectations for this film, John Francis Daley and Joanthan Goldstein’s follow-up to their directorial debut, 2015’s VACATION reboot, as often February has often been a dumping ground for lame comedies like FIST FIGHT, HALL PASS, IDENTITY THIEF, and lame comedy sequels like ZOOLANDER 2, and HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2.

But GAME NIGHT is a fairly funny farce, that puts its talented cast through the manic motions of a murder mystery party that gets out of hand, and results in a considerable amount of big laughs.

It begins with the meet cute a young couple, Max (Jason Bateman), and Annie (Rachel McAdams) at a bar’s trivia night, and a following montage shows us how their shared competitiveness thrives in game after game over the years.

In the present day, Max and Annie meet up with their friends Kevin (Lamorne Morris), his wife Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who always brings a different dumb blonde, for game nights in the suburbs (the film was shot in Marietta, Georgia, but I don’t think they ever mention where it’s set). Max and Annie don’t invite their creepy police officer neighbor (Jesse Plemmons), who used to come to the get togethers with his wife, but their divorce has made the group hold their games in secret from him.

But then Max’s more successful businessman brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), shows up in a 1976 Corvette Stingray, which happens to be Max’s boyhood dream car, and blows their cover. Brooks announces that he wants to host the next game night at a mansion he’s rented, and promises that it’ll take the tradition “up a notch.”

Max, Annie, Kevin, Ryan, and his date Sarah (Sharon Horgan) show up to Brooks’ to find that he’s planned an elaborate staged mystery for them to solve, and the winner gets the Stingray.

Jeffrey Wright comes in as a FBI agent distributing files full of clues to the players, but gets interrupted by two armed thugs who burst in and knock him unconscious, and have a violent brawl with Brooks, which the group of friends think is part of the game.

Brooks gets abducted, and the crew, split into their respective couples, set out to investigate the clues and find him. Max and Annie track him down to a sleazy dive bar where they think the patrons are phony criminals with fake guns. Amid real gunfire, they rescue Brooks and in a high speed car chase he tells them that he’s not really an entrepreneur; he’s a smuggler who’s being hunted down for a stolen Fabergé egg, the film’s McGuffin.

While they’re running around through all the zany, and sometimes bloody twists and turns, each couple has their own premise: Max and Annie’s is that they are trying to have a baby but Max has been stressed out by his brother; Kevin and Michelle’s is that it’s revealed that she had a fling with a celebrity before they were married and Kevin obsesses over figuring out who it was; and Ryan’s dilemma is that he usually dates air-heads, but Sarah is a lot smarter than he is.

Some of this stuff is sitcom-ish, and the film has many familiar scenes – the dive bar where Max and Annie are oblivious to being in over their heads is pretty generic feeling, and a climatic race to stop a plane from taking off is one of several overdone elements, as well as one of several fake-out endings, but the sheer amount of hilarious one-liners and gags that land doesn’t let such clichés and convolutions get in the way of the fun.

Like in one clever stand-out set-piece has the cast throwing the Fabergé egg back and forth to one another in an unbroken shot through the hallways, and balconies of a mansion belonging to a mobster (Danny Huston).

Working from a screenplay written by Mark Perez (THE COUNTRY BEARS, ACCEPTED), Daley and Goldstein keep the pace popping with laughs interchanged with genuine thrills while the narrative keeps one guessing what’s real and what’s fake.

GAME NIGHT mostly works as a take-off of the manipulations and expected tropes of many straight-laced-folks-get-caught-up-in-the-dangerous-underworld scenarios, like when in a brutal fight somebody is thrown and lands on top of a glass table but it doesn’t break like in every other movie (Kevin: “Glass tables are acting weird tonight”).

On the scale of NIGHT movies, GAME NIGHT is a lot better than last summer's ROUGH NIGHT, but around the same quality of 2010's DATE NIGHT.

The movie shows that Daley and Goldstein, who co-wrote the HORRIBLE BOSSES movies, and had their hands in the screenplay for SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING (along with four other writers) are getting better at what they do, which is getting a terrific cast to play off each other in the service of a funny storyline. Well, funny enough for February that is.

More later...

The 2018 Oscar® Nominated Short Films: Animated


Death, fairy tales, bullying, a player’s love of his game, and frogs are the subjects of this year’s group of Oscar-nominated animated shorts which are playing at various theaters near me alongside programs of the likewise nominated Live Action and Documentary shorts.

The 90th Academy Awards® will be broadcast live on March 4th, so there’s plenty of time to catch up with these short films, and good reason too as they’re a pretty pleasing batch.

The first animated short, Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant’s DEAR BASKETBALL, is Bryant’s love letter to his sport, based on a letter he wrote to The Players’ Tribune in 2015 announcing his retirement.


Bryant is depicted in sketchy hand-drawn animation from when he was a child shooting imaginary game-winning shots with rolled-up tube socks in his bedroom, to imagery of him making his famous moves that won five NBA championships with the Lakers as an adult.

It’s a swift and fluid five minute film, but it feels like a commercial or beginning of a feature length documentary. It’s no doubt a sincere, and well-intentioned ode, but it still struck me as self-promotion and I wasn’t moved by it that like I bet somebody who’s a fan or into basketball would be.

Anyway, onto a very differently toned short, 
GARDEN PARTY which was written and directed by Victor Caire, Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Théophile Dufresne, Lucas Navarro and Gabriel Grapperon.


That’s right, it was made by six French 3D artists, who dub themselves Illogic Collective, during their studies at MoPA, animation school in France.

The seven minute movie concerns a group of amphibians exploring the immaculately detailed grounds and interiors of a mysteriously abandoned mansion. The frogs and toads swim in the pool, feast on rotten food, and inadvertently turn on the house’s lights, stereo system, and outside sprinklers by jumping on the buttons of a control panel. The photo realism is stunning, so much so that the visuals border on the grotesque especially when we find out what happened to the estate’s former resident.

These students’ production definitely deserves to win, but I’m thinking that because of its dark undertone it’ll probably be passed over.

Every year, Pixar has a short in competition and Dave Mullins and Dana Murray’s LOU, about a schoolyard bully being taught a lesson by the contents of a lost and found box, is their entry this time around. 


In a colorful animation style that should be well familiar to anyone who’s seen any of the Disney subsidiary’s movies, the film tells the story of a mean kid who steals his classmates belongings – such as a red hoodie, a couple of baseballs, a football, a piggy doll, a pitcher’s mitt, an orange and white scarf, a slinky, a toy truck, a jump rope, a book, a shoe, a lunch box, a hat and a tennis racket.

I listed all of those items because they come together to form an anthropomorphic character with the baseballs as its eyes. After a hilarious scuffle, the bully is punished by having to return all the things he stole, and is redeemed just as you thought he would be. LOU, which originally ran before showings of CARS 3, is a predictably pleasing six-minute piece of fast paced Pixar fun, but since they won last year with the charming PIPER, I doubt this is their year.

The following short, Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata’s NEGATIVE SPACE also concerns the assorted contents of a box, but this time it’s a suitcase and it’s about a father teaching his son how to properly pack it for a trip. 


The French film is an adaptation of a poem by Ron Koertge via a neat-looking stop motion world of models and miniatures. It’s a charmer with a touchingly witty conclusion, and, funnily enough, it’s the second short of the bunch that animates the rolling up of socks (DEAR BASKETBALL is the other). I can totally see this one winning.

At 28 minutes in length, Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s REVOLTING RHYMES is the longest of the animated shorts. It is an adaptation of a 1982 Roald Dahl book of poems satirizing six famous fairy tales that’s narrated by The Wire’s Dominic West as the big, bad Wolf.


The Wolf tells his story to a kindly woman in a café about Red Riding Hood and a blonde Snow White meeting at the funeral for Snow White’s mother. We learn that Red Riding Hood keeps her money in a bank made out of many piggy banks run by one of the three little pigs, and that Snow White’s father, the King (voiced by Rob Brydon of those TRIP movies with Steve Coogan) marries a crude woman, Miss Maclahose, who has a magic talking mirror for the “who’s the fairest” bit. The seven dwarfs appear as ex-horse race jockeys, who ask the mirror which horse to bet on as Snow White pines for her Prince, and so on.

Dahl’s dark spin on these familiar stories is illustrated by computer animation that at times resembles the work of Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit) despite not involving clay. The rhymes aren’t really revolting, but there are some grim fates for some of the characters. As the film feels a bit stiff, it may be my least favorite of the animated shorts, but the British-German production just may tickle enough Academy voters to get it the gold.

Since four of the five films run around five to seven minutes, there are three bonus shorts to pad out the Animated Shorts package to feature length: Kevin Hudson’s WEEDS, Daniel Agdag’s LOST PROPERTY OFFICE, and Lucas Boutrot, Élise Carret, Maoris Creantor, Pierre Hubert, Camille Lacroix, and Charlotte Perroux’s ACHOO! I ‘m not going to go into any detail about these “commended” shorts, but I will say that ACHOO! about a sneezing Chinese dragon who invents fireworks is my favorite of them.

Coming soon: Coverage of the 2018 Oscar® Nominated Documentary Short Films.

If you haven’t already check out my reviews of the Oscar® Nominated Live Action Shorts.

More later…

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The 2018 Oscar® Nominated Short Films: Live Action


T
he 90th Academy Awards® ceremony is in less than two weeks so it’s a good time to catch up with the nominated Short Films that are playing at various theaters near me in separate programs of the Live Action, Animated, and Documentary nominees.

The five Live Action Short Films are a fairly dark lot, with one comical exception, but even that one has a dark edge to it. The first short in the program, Reed Van Dyk’s DEKALB ELEMENTARY, concerns a school shooting so it’s impossible to not think about the Parkland, Florida school shooting last week. 



Writer/director Van Dyk, based the film on a recording of a 911 phone call from 2013 that was placed during a school shooting incident in Atlanta, Georgia.

Bo Mitchell plays the young gunman who takes a front-office administrator (Cassandra Rice) hostage in the school’s front office, but she calmly handles and diffuses the situation. The 20 minute film is full of unpleasant tension and can be hard to watch, so much so that there have been reported walk-outs at showings.

But if you can make it through, the acting by Mitchell and especially Rice is effective, and the spare scene feels chillingly real. Maybe the timing is bad for this short, but when would be a good time for this subject? I really can’t decide if its timeliness will work for or against it when it comes to Academy voters.

Onto the aforementioned comical short of the batch, Derin Seale’s THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK. This 13-minute Australian film concerns a therapy session between a psychiatrist and a patient who thinks he’s a psychiatrist. 


Josh Lawson, who wrote and produced, stars with Damon Herriman as the two men who get into a verbal then a bit violent battle over who’s the patient and who’s the doctor that echoes Monty Python (that’s because it’s based on a sketch from the heavily Python-influenced BBC series A Bit of Fry & Laurie).

It’s an amusing 13 minute trifle, but it has an ending that most people won’t be surprised by, so I really wouldn’t bet on it to win this category.

After that light diversion, we’re back into the darkness with Kevin Wilson Jr.’s MY NEPHEW EMMETT, which dramatizes the last night in the life of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. 


Director Wilson Jr., who also wrote the short, shoots the incident from the perspective of Till’s uncle, Mose Wright (L.B. Williams), who has to stand by with his wife (Jasmine Guy) in the middle of the night when two white men (Dane Rhodes and Ethan Leavertonwith guns abduct Till from their home, and take him off to be murdered.

As one of the racist abductors, Rhodes is intensely sinister as he threateningly spouts the n-word and drops f-bombs at Williams’ Mose making this another short that’s hard to watch at times, and also feels sadly timely.

The nearly 20 minute historical drama will definitely get some voters sympathy, but I doubt it’ll get the gold.

Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton’s THE SILENT CHILD doesn’t involve murder or guns, but it has a dark undertone. It concerns a deaf six-year old named Libby (Maisie Sly), who is taught sign language by Joanne, a caring social worker (Shenton). 


Libby and Joanne develop an affecting bond, but Libby’s dreadful mother (Rachel Fielding) says she’s worried about her daughter “learning this language that I don’t know and no one in her school will know,” and cancels Libby’s sessions with Joanne.

Despite it ending like a Public Service Announcement for deaf awareness, Overton and Shenton’s 20 minute short is a poignant, and heartbreakingly sad drama that makes a strong case for its subject. I’m not feeling a win for it on Oscar night, but I won’t be unsatisfied if it does.

Finally, the most cinematic of this roster of the Live Action Shorts, Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen’s WATU WOTE (Swahili for ALL OF US), which takes place in the border region between Kenya and Somalia where, as the opening titles tell us, “the atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust between Muslims and Christians is growing.”


Based on the true story of the Mandera bus attack by Al Shabaab terrorists in December 2015, the 22-minute film * stars Adelyne Wairimu as a young woman named Jua, a Kenyan Christian who has to contend with a bus full of Muslims on a trip to visit her sick mother.

When the bus is ambushed by the terrorists, Jua and the other passengers are commanded at gunpoint by their leader (Faysal Ahmed) to point out the Christians, who they call infidels. This results in a jarring, but powerful moment, which got to me more than anything in the other competing films.

I may feel differently closer to the Oscars® (I’m posting my predictions a few days before the broadcast), but right now I’m thinking this beautifully-shot short about people of different beliefs protecting one another is the one to beat.

* All of the Live Action Shorts this year are around 20 minutes in length, except, unsurprisingly, the lone comic one, THE ELEVEN OCLOCK.

Be sure to catch my reviews of the candidates for Best Animated Shorts, and the Best Documentary Shorts as upcoming posts here at Film Babble Blog.

More later…