Tag Archives: C

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.”

BILAL: A NEW BREED OF HERO

Producer: Ayman Jamal
Director: Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal
Writer: Alex Kronemer, Michael Wolfe, Kuram H. Alavi and Yassin Kamel
Stars: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Jaconb Latimore, Mick Wingert, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, Jon Curry, Sage Ryan, Andre Robinson, Dave B, Mitchell, Fred Tatasciore and Al Rodrigo
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

C

The first animated film from Dubai is based loosely on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of Muhammad who is regarded as the first Muezzin (the one who calls believers to prayer). In its ponderousness and clumsily didactic dialogue, it resembles the flat-footed Biblical epics that Hollywood churned out in the fifties and sixties, and though handsomely made, contains an extraordinary amount of violence for the family trade.

In this telling, Bilal is an African boy (voiced by Andre Robinson) seized by slave traders and taken to Mecca (in reality he seems to have been born a slave). There as a teen (Jacob Latimore) he is mistreated by his brutal master Umayyah (Ian McShane) and his son Safwan (Sage Ryan), but as a young man (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) becomes an early convert to the new religion of Islam that threatens the power of Umayyah and others of his greedy ilk, who profit from the pagan idolatry then dominating the Kaaba under the rule of a formidable masked priest (Fred Tatasciore). His suffering escalates at the hands of Safwan (now Mick Wingert), who takes perverted pleasure in humiliating Bilal and his beloved sister Guhfaira (China Anne McClain, then Cynthia Kaye McWilliams).

Muhammad, of course, cannot be depicted, and so Bilal’s introduction to Islam comes via others, including a wealthy merchant (Jon Curry), who purchases his freedom, and the great warrior Hamza (Dave B, Mitchell), who teaches him swordsmanship. The culmination of the film is the battle of Badr in 624, where the Islamic forces defeats the army of Meccan polytheists led by Umayyah. The battle is depicted here as a ferocious encounter, with many one-on-one standoffs, in one of which Bilal kills Umayyah.

“Bilal” follows existing Muslim sources fairly closely, though the script conflates various accounts that sometimes differ (as the Christian Gospels do). It turns the Meccans into crude caricatures of villainy –not simply Umayyah, Safwan and the high priest, but others like the fat trader Okba (Michael Gross). In fairness, however, it must be said that the Muslims are only a bit less stereotypical. They are unfailingly earnest, reciting pieties no less solemn and obvious than that intoned by the Christians in those old, unlamented Biblical epics. That doesn’t help the voice cast, who can bring little subtlety to such material.

The animation strives for realism rather than Disneyesque stylization, and is good of its kind, though the human figures still look fabricated. The visuals slow down too often for purely pictorial effect, and as edited by Patricia Heneine the picture lumbers along for nearly two hours, with individual scenes merely ending in blackouts rather than being linked through transitional devices. Also disappointing is the music, not only Atli Orvarsson’s perpetually swelling background score but the occasional song, one sung by Bilal which is like a bland modern ballad. And the film closes with another that many Westerners, given current religious tensions, may find ill-chosen.

It would have been nice if “Bilal” could have proven a successful cross-cultural event. As it is, however, it basically preaches to the choir, probably destined to appeal almost exclusively to Muslim audiences. And even they may find it too doggedly heavy-handed. A pity, since a great deal of energy and expense obviously went into making it.