Game Night (2018)

Along with horror & sci-fi, comedy is one of the few genres where I’m intensely skeptical of initial critical consensus. In the recent Indiewire piece on which largely-derided films will likely become future cult-classics, critic Richard Brody made the strongest case for the Jared & Jerusha Hess film Gentlemen Broncos, which was instantly dismissed by the larger critical community upon its initial release in 2009 but I personally loved so much that a defense of it was my first-ever stab at film criticism and, thus, partially the reason we started this blog. There have been plenty of other well-written, cult-worthy comedies released since Broncos that we’ve raved about here while they’ve been just as readily dismissed by the pro critic community at large: The Bronze, The To Do List, The Little Hours, Ghostbusters, Tammy, Keanu, and so on. That’s why it’s a little hard to stomach the consensus that the recent release Game Night is somehow an almighty savior to the modern mainstream comedy. Now that the improv-heavy, Judd Apatow era of major studio comedies has overstayed its welcome, it’s understandable that critics are hungry for a return to tightly-written, stylistically distinct comedic pieces and Game Night admittedly delivers on both of those fronts. For all of its slick direction style, attention to detail in score & characterization, and avoidance of improvisational looseness, though, the laughs just aren’t big or unique enough to fully earn its reputation as “the comedy knockout we’ve been waiting for.” It’s a fun, technically-accomplished movie that’s afforded enough money to stage a convincingly stylish & distinct aesthetic, but ultimately applies that attention to filmmaking craft to the same kind of pop culture references & physical humor we’re already used to seeing in major studio releases (in the Judd Apatow & Adam McKay era especially). That can make for a good time, but it’s far short of revolutionary for the medium.

Jason Bateman & Rachel McAdams stat as an overly competitive married couple who had their meet-cute at a college trivia night and, now that they’re middle-aged dweebs, host regular “game night” get-togethers with fellow couples. Rounds of Monopoly, charades, Pictionary, and so on are treated with life & death seriousness, but eventually lose their allure after years of repetition. This pattern is disrupted when Bateman’s equally competitive older brother decides to take the games to another level by hiring a company called Murder We Wrote to stage a kidnapping mystery for the couples to solve. This, of course, is complicated by a real kidnapping that upstages the fake one, calling the artifice of the game into question. Middle-age couples looking for a safe thrill are suddenly mixing with real life gangsters, chipperly wielding very real guns, and unkowingly risking death for the sake of being declared the victor. Directors John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein smartly take the crime thriller end of this ever-escalating premise seriously, essentially morphing Game Night into a David Fincher pastiche. The film’s obvious resemblance to Fincher’s The Game is backed up by several extensive references to Fight Club. Violence is abrupt & grotesque. A delicately synthy Cliff Martinez score feels like outtakes from the composer’s work on Drive. Better yet, the film finds its own unique visual language by framing its exterior sets as miniatures, making the city its characters chaotically run around resemble a giant board game. A character announces upfront that “you’re not going to know what’s real and what’s fake” and the movie stays true to that dynamic through several thriller-worthy twists, making its plot a kind of puzzle game for the audience to crack themselves. The way its form matches its subject does for board agames what Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World did for video games long enough ago that its then-young audience might now be old enough to relate these jaded, thrill-seeking adults.

There are two comedic performances that almost elevate Game Night to deserving its “mainstream comedy savior” status. Billy Magnussen (of Ingrid Goes West, speaking of comedies that take their thriller beats seriously) stands out as a buffoonish, Ryan Lochte-style “sex idiot,” earning most of the film’s outright laughs. It’s Jessie Plemmins’s performance as a bitterly lonely creep/cop that really elevates the material, though, suggesting a better film where the jokes are actually natural to the thriller plot around them, instead of constantly relying on external pop culture references to earn a laugh. Game Night at least sets up a reason for the pop culture references to be a part of the characters’ daily language, given their trivia nerd pedigree, but the humor derived from that conceit is still well-worn, familiar territory for the modern studio comedy. I’ve gotten much bigger, stranger laughs out of films conspicuously lacking Game Night’s attention to filmmaking craft, recent examples including Girls Trip & Dirty Grandpa, so I have to question if this mainstream thriller pastiche is actually a better comedy just because it’s technically better made. Game Night’s tightly scripted, visually stylish approach might be a breath of fresh air within the modern studio comedy paradigm, but I can’t help but wish that it pushed the uniqueness of its humor as hard as it pushed the technical achievements of its craft. By taking the wind out of the sails of its rapturous critical reception, I’m risking sounding like I did not enjoy the film, which is untrue. I had a lot of fun with Game Night (especially whenever the attention was focused on Magnussen or Plemmins). I just think its praise as the only shining light in a dim comedic wasteland is indicative of how many other well-written, cult-worthy comedies the pro critic community collectively overlooks & undervalues.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Gates (2016)

Do you remember VHS board games? What if you found one that was haunted; or worse, possessed? What if completing the game was the only way to save your father’s soul?

Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson) Hardesty are archetypically, even stereotypically, different brothers. Gordon is a buttoned-down salaryman with a dependable girlfriend (Margot, played by Brea Grant of Heroes), a mortgage, and skeletons in his closet that have driven him far from his home town. John, in contrast, is a scruffy layabout with frequent run-ins with the law. Their troubled father, the proprietor of a VHS rental outlet, has been missing for seven months, and the two come together to close down his store, sell off the merchandise, and part ways, presumably forever. Following some strange dreams and bizarre nighttime occurrences, the two brothers are finally able to enter their father’s office, where they find Beyond the Gates, an 80s-style VHS board game that contains the last tape their father watched.

Upon playing the tape, the brothers first experience lost time, but when Margot convinces them to play the game, a strange woman (Barbara Crampton, of Chopping Mall and Re-Animator) appears on screen and explains that they must play through the game and go in order to save their father and themselves. The tape is obviously interacting with them directly, not playing straight through, and even attempts to enlist the authorities in the form of their cop friend Derek (Matt Mercer) fail, as he can see nothing on the screen but static. Gradually, the trio comes to accept that they’re stuck in a Jumanji situation, and there’s no way out but to beat the game and go . . . beyond the gates.

This film is a bit of a surprise, as it doesn’t get off to a strong start. Gordon is ostensibly the lead, but Skipper is the weakest actor of the main trio, and his performance comes across as broad and unrefined. Williamson’s John is supposed to be a deadbeat, but other than his perpetual five o’clock shadow, his appearance is pretty well-maintained, and there’s no real menace to his presence. The film is also awfully cheap-looking, so much so that even visually dynamic shots, like the slow pan across seemingly endless shelves of VHS tapes, look more like they were shot for a daytime soap than a feature. Once we’re out of the starting gate, however, the ride gets weirder and gorier until you’re lost in the moment. My roommate even compared the film to those of David Lynch (although I wouldn’t personally go that far), citing that he often evokes the facade of normalcy before tearing down the curtain to show the evil that lies beneath. Here, we start with a fairly basic story about brothers in conflict that gets more cinematically complex as the narrative progresses, until you’re suddenly captivated and carried away by the film than anticipated.

The game itself has a board that’s prettily designed, even if the mechanics are unclear (and ultimately kind of irrelevant), and the gore is both hilarious in its overkill and surprisingly effective in the way that it suddenly appears in the film as a complete surprise after a long period of mostly-psychological horror. There’s also a great attempt to give the characters an interesting backstory, as we learn that Gordon and Margot are working out some relationship issues that arose from his overindulgence, and John’s elaboration of how he was the son who stayed when Gordon went out to find a new life belies the cliches that this genre convention usually relies upon. My favorite part of the film may be the scene in which the brothers visit the shop where the game was purchased and have a conversation with the creepy owner (Jesse Merlin) who’s so delightfully transparent in his evil that his name may as well be “Mr. Needful.”

It takes a little patience to get into Beyond the Gates, but it’s pretty rewarding if given half a chance. There’s a lot of love for the VHS era of horror in the movie’s DNA, but unlike other throwbacks, it’s not beholden to that aesthetic or the trappings thereof. The film is currently streaming on Netflix, and is a delightful way to keep Halloween in your heart on a hot summer night.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond