All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

GAME NIGHT

Producer: John Davis, John Fox, Jason Bateman and James Garavente
Director: John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Writer: Mark Perez
Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Jeffrey Wright, Michael C. Hall, Chelsea Peretti, Camille Chen and Michael Cyril Creighton
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

C

Games are supposed to be fun, as is “Game Night”—but the new comedy from the team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein is more likely to elicit a grimace than a grin. Based on a script by Mark Perez, their second directorial effort is an improvement on the first, the wretched remake of “Vacation” that they wrote themselves—but only just.

Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as Max and Annie, a couple who are devoted to playing competitive games—and to winning them. They host a weekly game night with their friends, married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and goofy single would-be stud Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who brings a new date with him each week.

Max and Annie, we quickly learn, are also trying to get pregnant—so you can guess how the story is destined to end—but their efforts are being hampered, we are further informed in an embarrassing session with their doctor (Camille Chen), by Max’s stress, most likely caused by the imminent arrival of his older, cooler, and fabulously successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who has always bested him. Brooks, in town for business, is coming to the next game night, at which Ryan’s date is the usual bimbo as clueless as he is.

Bateman, using his patented deadpan delivery, gets some chuckles out of that meeting with the doctor, as well as his fumbling performance on game night, but things deteriorate comedically as he and Annie vow to humble arrogant Brooks the following week in a session at his rented mansion. Brooks has a surprise for the group (now including Sharon Horgan as Ryan’s ultra-smart plus-one), though—not the usual games but a play-acted kidnapping sketch, with a prize for the team that locates the supposed victim first—a sports car that has always been Max’s dream vehicle.

Soon an actor (Jeffrey Wright) appears playing an FBI agent to initiate the game. But suddenly two intruders break in, roughing him up and carrying off Brooks after a fight scene that’s too protracted for its own good. It’s soon suggested, though, that the abduction might have been genuine—or maybe not. While the two subordinate couples are mired in other matters (Kevin and Michelle, for example, spend most of their time arguing over a one-night stand she supposedly once had with a celebrity—a gag that, apart from a pretty good imitation of Denzel Washington, is way overextended), Max and Annie track Brooks down, with consequences that further muddy the waters.

The result is that all the “players” get involved in looking for a couple of nefarious international criminals—a fellow named Anderton (Danny Huston) who hosts illegal fights in his mansion basement for profit, and an even more shadowy figure called The Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall), who’s looking for the script’s MacGuffin, a Fabergé egg. Also drawn into the action is Max and Annie’s next-door neighbor Gary, a dour divorced cop who’s hopeful of being invited once again to the game nights he and his former wife used to participate in.

An intricate caper like this has to be constructed with consummate care in order to succeed; the various twists have to make perfect sense, and the parts joined together with a degree of elegant simplicity. (See “North by Northwest” for a shining example, or “Charade.”) “Game Night” is utterly haphazard by comparison. By the time that Gary shows up toward the close with a revelation of his own, even the most rudimentary semblance of logic is tossed out the window in search of a laugh, and then that is followed by a turn that makes even less sense, all in service of a slam-bang finish.

Amidst the rubble are a few moments that might make you smile. The reliable Bateman delivers most of them, along with Plemons, whose simmeringly subdued manner is both creepy and funny, even if a long bit between Gary’s dog and Max is less amusing than revolting. The charming McAdams is wasted in a frantically one-note role, and Magnusson’s boobish Ryan manages to become increasingly insufferable as the evening wears on, but Morris and Bunbury are likable enough; as for Chandler, at least in this outing comedy does not seem his forte. Huston and Wright do the little that’s expected of them well enough, but Hall was far more menacing as Dexter than he is here, although it’s nice to see that he’s looking fit. Technically the movie is polished enough, and Daley and Goldstein (both of whom have cameos), cinematographer Barry Peterson and editor Jamie Gross pull off one memorable farcical action sequence—a game of chase-and-catch involving that egg.

One can also praise “Game Night” for not being an entry in Hollywood’s sweepstakes of raunch and grossness; the level of comic violence isn’t always calibrated very well, but at least it doesn’t go into the usual gutter of ultra-profanity and “cutely” leering sexuality. It aims a bit higher than today’s studio run of brainlessly scummy farces, but that only makes its failure all the more dispiriting. In the end this is a wasted “Night.”

LOOKING GLASS

Producer: Braxton Pope and David M. Wulf
Director: Tim Hunter
Writer: Jerry Rapp and Matthew Wilder
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Robin Tunney, Marc Blucas, Ernie Lively, Jacque Gray, Kassia Conway, Bill Bolender, Kimmy Jimenez, Barry Jay Minoff and Pascoalina Dunham
Studio: Momentum Pictures

D+

Hotels and their roadside offspring have provided the setting for many a horror movie, with “Psycho” and “The Shining” among the most notable. Tim Hunter’s “Looking Glass,” unfortunately, is nowhere near their league.

Apparently inspired by Gay Talese’s recent account of a motel owner who spied on his guests (though, unlike Norman Bates, he never went beyond looking), the movie is about a couple—Ray (Nicolas Cage) and Maggie (Robin Tunney)—who, guilt-ridden over the recent death of their daughter, opt to buy a motel in a small desert town off Craig’s List to start a new life. They find the key under the mat and the former owner, a guy named Ben (Bill Bolender) gone, leaving no forwarding address.

The locals are none too welcoming; even the housekeeper, Ava (Pascoalina Dunham), is oddly standoffish. Ray handles most of the grunt work around the place while Maggie rests, trying to find some sort of closure. But a discovery he makes changes things. He finds a crawlspace from which he can, via a two-way mirror, watch what happens in one of the rooms. It’s the room that Tommy (Ernie Lively), a grubby truck driver, always wants for his nights with a local hooker. It’s also the room in which a dominatrix (Jacque Gray) will kill one of her clients.

Ray’s voyeurism has an effect on his own lust, which finds release in a new passion withy Maggie. But it also leads to his psychological deterioration, especially after Howard (Marc Blucas), a local deputy, begins asking questions, not only about the disappearance of the recent murder victim but a previous killing at the motel—of a young girl found in the swimming pool. It’s hardly coincidental that Ray will find a disemboweled pig floating in the same pool, though his reaction—hauling the porcine carcass out into the desert and burning it—is certainly extreme. He will also go off the rails when he tracks down the dominatrix to tell her not to return to his place, getting into a fight with her protector as a result. No wonder his new neighbors, like the owner of a nearby gas station (Barry Jay Minoff), are positively hostile to the new arrivals.

The mystery of the deaths at the motel is resolved, after a fashion, when Ben finally contacts Ray and arranges to meet, though their conversation does not go smoothly. Suffice it to say that Ray must finally face down the villain and reconnect with his wife.

But the question of murder is really secondary to Ray’s emotional arc, which covers the gamut from painful resignation to renewed passion and reinvigoration of a sort. Unfortunately, that aspect of the film is no clearer than the more prosaic mystery aspect, which is burdened by so many digressions, false leads and opacities that it’s difficult to keep track of the twists, let alone care where they might lead. That’s the fault of the script, of course, but Hunter, whose best work was done three decades ago with the truly unsettling “River’s Edge,” fails to muster much tension or suspense here.

So ultimately the only pleasure to be had from “Looking Glass”—if you can call it that—lies in watching Cage going through his paces. He has a few good moments in his early scenes with Blucas, who plays Howard with a shark-like smile, but otherwise his relatively low-key performance doesn’t bring much fizz to this gloomy entry in his seemingly endless stream of made-for-the-paycheck B-movies. The technical contributions are no more than adequate, and the throbbing music score never adds the punch it’s obviously aiming for.

In sum, this is a sadly muted thrill-free thriller, starring a disappointingly manic-deprived Cage.