REVIEW: “Game Night”


“Game Night” is a weird thing and watching it uncurl to reveal some semblance of an identity is one part fascinating and equal part frustrating. On one hand it’s a comedy with several hits and a handful of misses. But as its story unfolds a weirdly off-balanced action element surfaces that adds more blood and bullets but doesn’t always help the humor.

The creative duo of John Francis Daily and Jonathan Goldstein direct “Game Night” which is from a script by Mark Perez. The premise goes something like this: Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a perfect couple. They first met over a game of Trivial Pursuit and have held their own weekly game night since. Their usual guests include fellow married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle Kylie (Bunbury), along with air-head Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his fresh date-of-the-week.


Max’s good-looking and wildly successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) bulls into town and takes over game night for a week. Always looking to one-up his brother, Brooks stages an elaborate mystery game complete with role-playing, paid actors, and clues scattered across town. The first couple to solve the mystery gets the keys to his Corvette Sting Ray (which happens to be Max’s dream car).

Things get crazy when Brooks’ shady private life crosses paths with the game. Real thugs cross paths with fake ones and our not-so-bright players are caught in the middle. This obviously opens the door for the aforementioned action component which does tee the ball up for a couple of the film’s best scenes. A hysterical bullet removal sequence between McAdams and Bateman is a prime example. But the action, sometimes quite bloody, also clashes with the tone of other scenes.


Several other positives stood out. Jesse Plemons is the one consistently funny piece. He plays a stone-faced police officer and neighbor to Max and Annie. He’s found himself uninvited to the game nights due to his overtly weird and creepy personality. Plemons steals every scene he is in. I also can’t say enough about the comic timing of both Bateman and McAdams. Both work at just the right pitch and hold everything together even as things begin to unravel in the third act.

So “Game Night” has its moments. It’s only in the instances where Daily and Goldstein resort to their “Vacation” and “Horrible Bosses 2” days that the humor sours. But enough jokes land and its solid cast is committed enough to make this a fairly easy sell. Especially when compared to much of what passes as modern day comedy.



REVIEW: “Geostorm”


Let’s be honest, movie trailers aren’t always reliable. We’ve all seen trailers that excited us for movies which would eventually let us down. We’ve also watched trailers that didn’t impress only to find the movie to be a pleasant surprise. Neither is true for “Geostorm”. The trailer advertised something dreadful and the movie delivered it. At least they didn’t mislead us.

It’s the distant future of 2019 and the United States has developed an elaborate satellite system as a response to a series of devastating weather disasters. The climate-controlling space contraption is affectionately known as Dutch Boy. The mastermind behind it is none other than Gerard Butler. I guess it makes sense. I mean who else would you call to face hurricanes and typhoons head-on?


Butler plays Jake Lawson, the mastermind behind Dutch Boy until being dismissed due to his problems with authority (reminiscent of every Gerry Butler action movie character). Since then three years have passed and his estranged brother Max (Jim Sturgess) now oversees Dutch Boy. Under his watch a series of deadly weather anomalies occur including a frozen village in Afghanistan and tornadoes of flames in a sweltering Hong Kong. Fearing worst disasters, Max convinces Gerry, errr Jake, to come back and sort out why Dutch Boy didn’t catch the anomalies.

The government launches Jake into orbit where he boards the International Climate Space Station (yep, that’s what it’s called). There he meets his pointedly diverse team of techs to figure out what’s wrong with his baby. Both Jake and Max uncover clues which point to tampering, political corruption, environmental terrorism, blah, blah, blah. And if our brave brothers can’t root out the culprit and fix Dutch Boy in time, a global weather disaster known as a (you guessed it) Geostorm will decimate the planet. Good thing Gerry is on our side.

All of that silliness sets up Gerry’s race against-the-clock space station adventure. Director and co-writer Dean Devlin leans heavily into Butler’s stale action-movie persona not even daring to offer anything new. He’s a tough guy, an anti-authority type, with a good physique and plenty of teeth-grinding one-liners.


It’s not much better on earth. Max follows a trail of information that could implicate someone in the president’s cabinet whether it be the Secretary of State (a seemingly bored Ed Harris) or even the Commander-in-Chief himself (an equally disinterested Andy Garcia). Thankfully Max has the help of his Secret Service girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) and her ridiculously deep security access.

While “Geostorm” doesn’t offer an ounce of intrigue (not even accidently), it does give us plenty of big city CGI destruction, corny dialogue, bland stock characters and unintentionally hilarious plot turns. It plods along failing to muster even the slightest bit of energy. That’s usually the death knell for this type of movie. Turns out it’s one of many crippling flaws that contribute to this being a $120 million disaster. At least Gerry’s consistent.



BlindSpot Review: “Grave of the Fireflies”


In the final months of World War II American planes began a bombing campaign across the mainland of Japan. Incendiary bombs were dropped on over 60 cities and estimates are as high as 500,000 civilian deaths. This provides the setting for the powerful 1988 animated war drama “Grave of the Fireflies”, a movie I shamefully hadn’t seen until recently.

The film comes from the acclaimed Japanese animation team Studio Ghibli. It was written and directed by one of the studio’s founders Isao Takahata and based on a Akiyuki Nosaka autobiographical short story. Numerous offers were made to Nosaka to adapt his story to a live-action movie, but he felt none could do justice to the deeply personal story. Takahata approached Nosaka with storyboards and a fresh idea – make an animated adaptation. Nosaka was surprised and convinced by the concepts and Studio Ghibli was given the rights.


The opening scene immediately sets the tone for the film and identifies it as something significantly different than more traditional animated features. It’s a moving bit of foreshadowing which shapes our mental and emotional approach to what’s to come. I’ll leave it there because it truly is something you should take in for yourself (for those who haven’t seen it).

From there the story is told in flashback form. It focuses on a fourteenish boy named Seita and his 4 year-old sister Setsuko. It’s 1945 and the two live in Kobe, Japan with their mother while their father is away fighting the war with the Imperial Navy. One morning the sounds of air raid sirens pierce the sky. Seita sends his ailing mother to the bomb shelter and straps Setsuko to his back. After grabbing some belongings Seita runs outside to see incendiary bombs falling from the sky, almost beautiful in their decent. But on impact they ignite the entire neighborhood – houses, schools, stores, and many residents are incinerated.

Seita and Setsuko manage to survive but their mother is fatally burned. In one of the film’s many crushing scenes Seita finds his mother in a makeshift hospital and makes the decision not to tell Setsuko. It’s such a well constructed scene that doesn’t exploit the emotions of the moment. It lets them play out as naturally as anything you would see in a live-action rendition. The entire film handles the material with this type of reverence and sincerity.

With nowhere to go Seita and Setsuko’s story ultimately becomes one of survival. Without a home or parents they stay for time with their cruel and exploitative aunt. But soon they are driven away and once again find themselves on their own. Seita takes on the responsibility of caring for Setsuko himself. They essentially create their own little world and sustain it the best they can. Despite the harsh reality they face we also get scenes of them having fun as children do. Seita’s heartwarming compassion and sacrifice for his sister shows in the actions he takes. Setsuko’s love for her big brother comes through in every word or expression she shares with him. And as their circumstances grow more grim, they never lose their shared bond.


Takahata doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the bombings or the aftermath, but he doesn’t dwell on them either. Sobering glimpses jar us back to the reality these children face and we are never allowed to forget it. But every image is meaningful and effective. There is also practically no context given to the war, the two sides or their ideologies. Takahata isn’t interested in that even though the framework of the story may lead you to believe he is. His vision for the story is far more intimate and personal.

“Grave of the Fireflies” packs quite the emotional wallop. Writing on the conscientious yet more conventional animated films, Roger Ebert observed “they inspire tears, but not grief”. There is a lot of truth to that and it gets at what makes “Grave of the Fireflies” so special. It does more than ‘tug at your heartstrings’. It evokes deeper and more complex emotions. It does indeed give grief a powerful cinematic form. And even if (like me) you struggle with the animation style, the pure potency of the story and the care with which it is presented on screen trumps any hesitation you may have. The movie will not only move you, it will effect you, and that is one of the best compliments it can receive.



REVIEW: “Get Out”


Comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut “Get Out” has certainly reeled in a ton of high praise. The former Comedy Central sketch series star also wrote the screenplay for this wild mish-mash of genres, influences, and ideas. Peele clearly aims to make a movie that can be several different things at once, but I’m not sure any of the film’s multiple identities are all that strong.

Many have called “Get Out” a horror-comedy and that seems fitting enough. Problem is I had to strain hard to find it either funny or scary. The humor ranges from conventional to glaringly satirical. It leans especially hard into its biting social/racial satire much of which is either too silly or too on-the-nose. Then you have the horror element which teases but never fully delivers. I feel Peele is making a subconscious play intended to make us fear what the film is implying more than what it is showing. I like that idea but even it is subverted by the shaky attempts at humor and the sheer absurdity of it all.

The film starts with promise – a startling opening sequence showing a young black man walking through a (presumably) white upper-class neighborhood. It’s late at night and the young man is searching for an address. A car creeps up behind him causing him to nervously change course. The inevitable interaction that follows makes a strong statement as well as launches the story in a compelling direction.


There is a very “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” meets “The Stepford Wives” vibe from there. It starts by introducing us to a young photographer named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) who agrees to meet the rich parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). As they pack for their weekend visit Chris asks “They know I’m black, right?” Rose reassures him even tossing out that her parents would have voted Obama in for a third term. If that’s the case clearly nothing could go wrong, right?

The two travel to the secluded countryside estate of Rose’s parents (shrewdly played by Bradley Whitfield and Catherine Keener). Their visit coincides with an annual house party her parents throw for their posh, powerful (and white) acquaintances. As the collection of stiff, suit-and-gown bluebloods meet Chris they seem impervious to their racial insensitivities (we get several goofy lines about liking Tiger Woods and black being “in fashion”).

On one hand Peele is doing something crafty underneath these peculiar interactions. They actually have purpose. On the other hand it’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t see through all the weirdness and (as the title says) get out of there. This is stressed even more by the groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and the housekeeper Georgina (keenly played by Betty Gabriel). Both are African-Americans who exist in a freaky trance-like state. Again, how anyone would stick around is beyond me. But to be fair horror movies often ask you to simply go with things like this.


Aside from a handful of intriguing bits, things finally begin to simmer in the final act right up until its wonky blood-soaked ending. The finale features a crazy tonal shift which is sure to satisfy crowds but felt jarring and out of sync with the rest of the film. Peele flirts with going in a more gonzo direction which would have been a lot of fun. Instead he chooses a more traditional horror route that could be taken a number of ways from ridiculous all the way to borderline offensive.

There are several other issues that hold the film back. One is Daniel Kaluuya’s performance. Yes, I know he has been universally praised, but for me he gives two very different performances. The first half of the film features a flat, low-key Kaluuya who relies on the same puzzled expression over and over again. The second half sees him open up and his performance moves from bland to really good. Other problems tie into Peele’s script. There are numerous gaping holes in the logic and some laughable conveniences. There is also a key moment where Peele completely tips his hand too early and ends up seriously undercutting the tension in what could have been one of the film’s best scenes.

It would be dishonest not to admit to being surprised at the profound adulation for “Get Out”. I do understand why people like it. It explores some meaty themes and there are some truly interesting narrative angles. I think that’s why I found myself so frustrated at its uneven execution. I can see the ingredients for a better film sprinkled all through this one. Ultimately it’s a perplexing first feature for Peele – one that shows him to be a promising young filmmaker with big ideas, but one who needs to work on his handling of them.



REVIEW: “The Girl with All the Gifts” (2017)


It seems that every year or so we get a zombie movie that attempts to bend the crowded genre in a new direction. I’m talking about movies like “Zombieland”, “Train to Busan”, and even Schwarzenegger’s “Maggie”. This year’s entry is “The Girl with All the Gifts”, a wickedly crafty zombie flick that twists the genre’s rules and packs more brains than you may think (and no, that’s not an attempt at zombie humor).

The tone is set in the opening scenes. The setting is an underground military base just outside of London. Director Colm McCarthy’s camera leads us down a dreary hallway lined with cells, one belonging to a young girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua). A blaring alarm pierces the halls and we watch Melanie walk over and sit in a wheelchair. Armed soldiers open her cell and fasten the multiple restraints. They wheel her down the hall to a ‘classroom’ with other constrained children. It’s an eerie, uncomfortable opening that lays the groundwork for us.


You see, these kids are unique – a new breed if you will. I’ll let you find out how, but they are of special interest to the military facility. Melanie is the brightest among the ‘students’ and maintains a sweet demeanor regardless of the interaction. Some treat her well, such as her kind and caring teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton). Others are cold and indifferent. Take Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close in her creepiest role in years) who basically sees the kids as lab rats. Offering a third perspective is Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine), the military leader who is constantly leary of the threat these kids may pose.

These four are forced together when zombies (affectionately called “hungries”) penetrate the facility. They escape the base and head for London but (as you can guess) finding refuge is easier said than done. You could be tempted to say this becomes a standard zombie survival story at this point. Those elements are certainly there, but the movie has much more in mind.

McCarthy along with writer M.R. Carey play with the zombie movie model and employ many of its tactics. But at the same time they seem more interested in creating moral tension between the characters by forcing them to face complicated dilemmas that don’t have the easiest answers. We too are asked to wrestle with these things and come to our own tough, murky conclusions.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than with Melanie herself. The film walks a clever tightrope in its presentation of her. On one side is the genuinely innocent, lovely young girl who we have immense sympathy for. On the other side is something dangerous, ferocious, and potentially deadly. We fear her and are charmed by her at the same time. We hear her tender, sweet voice coming from her horrifying blood-stained mouth. It’s an unsettling tension the film creates and maintains throughout. Young Sennia Nanua is a key ingredient. Her tough, committed performance is vital both to the character and the movie.

Even with its tiny budget of around $5 million, “The Girl with All the Gifts” offers up an experience that should please both those who love zombie flicks and those who want more to chew on (figuratively of course). There is enough originality to make it feel fresh and it’s plenty creepy enough to make you squirm. That’s what I’m looking for in a “zombie movie”.



REVIEW: “The Glass Castle”


While walking out of my screening of “The Glass Castle” I immediately pulled out my phone and began perusing opinions on a certain red vegetable movie review aggregate (or fruit depending on your culinary or botanical lean). I had avoided reading reviews but knew reactions were all over the spectrum. Sure enough some have heralded it as “one of the best films of the year” while others have called it “unpleasant”, “lumbering”, “tiresome”, and so on.

So where do I land on “The Glass Castle”, a film based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir about her nomadic childhood and the family dysfunction she endured. I never found it lumbering, tiresome, or even unpleasant outside of when it was meant to be. At the same time its inconsistencies and messiness keeps me from embracing it as one of the year’s best.


The movie is co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton whose previous film was the intimate and tightly-made “Short Term 12”. “The Glass Castle” is much more wide-open in its attempt at covering a lot of ground. It hops back-and-forth in time stopping at significant points in Walls’ childhood and mixing them in with her  story as a young adult out on her own.

Brie Larson plays the twenty-something Jeannette living in 1989 New York City. Her determined quest for independence took her away from her harsh family situation and she now writes for a newspaper and has a fiancé (Max Greenfield). But despite her new life, she can’t completely escape the scars from her past and the internal connection to her family inspires a longing for the idyllic life she dreamed of as a child.

Woody Harrelson plays her father Rex and through every time hop we see the same complex and deeply flawed man. Harrelson is given the bigger, louder role and his performance is spot-on. But it’s the movie’s depiction of Rex that’s problematic. There’s an effort to sell him as both a charming free spirit and a despicable father. The problem is most attempts at a positive reflection simply don’t work. In fact many of the tender moments are found in scenes where Rex is feeding his children’s imagination in order to hide their poverty and/or lawbreaking – situations he is responsible for.


To go further, the negative reflections of Rex are profoundly more prevalent and overpowering. I found it difficult to see him as anything other than a violent, abusive alcoholic and a generally repugnant human being. Naomi Watts plays the Jeanette’s mother Rose Mary and she just seems along for the ride. She does nothing to curb Rex’s behavior and at times is just as abusive and negligent as her husband. There are moments where Cretton creates some genuine sympathy for these two characters, but I found myself too repulsed by their actions to be sympathetic. They are appalling individuals.

Here’s the thing, I’m fine with the movie presenting them this way especially if it’s key to the story being told. But the ending undercuts the rest of the film and it asks too much of the audience. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s here that the film’s earlier attempts at creating a compassionate side of Rex simply don’t hold weight. If more time had been given to his complexity over his repugnance it could have worked. Instead we have an element of the story that feels short changed and a final act that needed much more attention to be effective.


There is also a general problem with tone. At times it’s wildly inconsistent. Make no mistake, there are some very disturbing and effective scenes that deal with abuse. But there are also these jolts of humor, mostly involving the Rex character, that are hard to figure out. It works when portraying him as an eccentric, but not so much when the humor crosses over into the abusive scenes. At my screening I’m not sure the audience knew when to laugh. There were several instances where some people were laughing and others groaning in disgust all during the same scene.

“The Glass Castle” is a tough experience to define. It’s depiction of the dark side of Janet Walls’ painful childhood is clear-eyed, visceral and hard to watch. But it badly undersells a significant part of this profoundly penetrating true story. Larson and Harrelson are excellent and the movie’s boldness in tackling the subject matter is commendable. Despite the tonal shifts I was onboard for most of the way. But reconciling the bulk of the film with the tidy ending is something I still haven’t been able to do. I can’t help but believe the book offers up a better, more emotionally satisfying balance.