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

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

ghost

threehalfstar

campstamp

Between Battleship, Clue, and now Ouija: Origin of Evil, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a movie based off a board game that I did not enjoy. It’s a strange feeling, considering how many awful movies based on action figures, video games, and comic books have been released over the years. My best guess as to why the board game movie has a fairly high success rate, besides not having a large number of chances to shit the bed, is that there’s a playfulness inherent to the sub-subgenre that calls for a kind of in-on-the-joke campiness that deflects a lot of potential criticism with a casual wave of the hand. The trailers for Ouija: Origin of Evil signaled to me, “Hey, we’re just having fun here. No pressure,” and the film itself followed through on that cavalier attitude. I’m not saying that Origin of Evil was the kind of lazy, winking affair you’d find in a Sharknado or a Lavalantula, but it did have a playful smirk in the way it chose to deliver its genre thrills, one that undercut any of its generic formula and made me wonder if I might be a fan of the board game movie as an artistic medium.

If there’s anything unfortunate about the ad campaign that hooked me into watching Origin of Evil, it’s that it revealed a little too much. Not only was every potential scare up until the last half hour thoroughly spoiled in the trailers, but the film’s few major narrative reveals were also spelled out in the campaign. Since we know ahead of time that a family of scam artist “psychics” who fake communication with the dead will be taught a harsh lesson by actually communicating with the dead through the titular haunted board game, there’s not much room left for the film to surprise in terms of unexpected story beats. Worse yet, the ads revealed that the youngest, most adorable member of the family would suffer a Linda Blair-style demonic possession that causes her to do & say all the freaky Creepy Kid Horror things we’ve been seeing on film since all the way back to Village of the Damned (if not earlier): spooky voices, inhuman contortions, ice cold precociousness, etc. Where Origin of Evil makes these already-expected tropes worthwhile, then, is in how willing it is to have fun with the very familiar space it carves out for itself.

Like with a lot of recent horror films, Origin of Evil sets its haunted house/board game horrors decades in the past, this time opting for the 1960s instead of the well-worn temporal setting of the 70s (like in The Conjuring & We Are Still Here). This not only makes room for beautiful sets & costuming in its production design and removes pesky horror-prevention inventions like cellphones & Google from the scenario; it also harkens back to a time when the ouija board was new & sacred. The religious adherence to rules like “Don’t play by yourself” & “Never play in a graveyard,” makes it all the more significant when they’re inevitably broken and violators are punished accordingly. Visually, the film also has a lot of fun with the detail allowed by the setting, digitally recreating “cigarette burn” reel changes & indulging in the most split diopter shots I’ve seen since Blow Out. There’s some fun touches in the dialogue that are specific to the era as well, like when a teen boy mansplains to a group of girls why we could never land on the moon & in the general Brady Bunch precociousness of the evil little girl at the film’s center as she gleefully channels the restless spirits of the dead. If set in 2016, Ouija: Origin of Evil might have been a generic, by the books blur (which, by all accounts, its 2014 predecessor Ouija was), but something about a rock ‘n roll 60s familial melodrama being invaded by an evil board game allowed a lot of room for camp horror efficiency & the film had a lot of fun playing around in that space.

It’s difficult to say exactly what I’m looking for when I go see a modern generic horror at the theater, but Ouija: Origin of Evil delivers it with ease. It’s got exactly what I felt was missing from other 2016 titles like The Darkness, The Forest, and (the worst of the bunch) Lights Out, bested only by The Boy in putting a smile on my face while supplying what I want from Modern Big Studio Horror, whatever it is. Director Mike Flanagan, who also helmed Hush & Oculus, has a great track record with making gold out of standard horror fare so far, so surely he should be given some significant credit for crafting an enjoyable prequel to a film I never plan to see here, but I also think there’s something to the board game movie as a novelty subgenre that made his playfulness possible. Using the ouija board as a centerpiece opened up a goofy-spooky playground for Flanagan to let loose in and it’s fun watching him gleefully run in circles with his camera within that environment.

-Brandon Ledet