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

Schizopolis (1996) Brought Soderbergh Back to Home Base Only to Burn It to the Ground

One of the most exciting aspects of September’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, is in trying to figure out exactly who it’s for. As a filmmaker, Soderbergh has consistently maintained a one-for-me-one-for-them creative pattern, balancing out crowd-pleasers like the Oceans & Magic Mike series with head-scratchers like Solaris & The Girlfriend Experience. Few creative enterprises have ever felt as self-satisfying as the deliberately impenetrable Schizopolis, however, which was seemingly made for Steven Soderbergh and Steven Soderbergh alone, an audience of one. What’s interesting is that as insular & self-indulgent as Schizopolis can feel to anyone who isn’t Steven Soderbergh, it also closely resembles the debut crowd-pleaser that jumpstarted his career, a feature that made him a name before he had even fully found his voice. In a way, Schizopolis documents Soderbergh’s return to his creative home base, his professional launching pad, only so he could set fire to the good will it generated and move on with his life. Soderbergh may have built his career on a one-for-me-one-for-them ethos, but Schizopolis is a rare case of the director returning to one of his one-for-them successes with an anarchic intent to explode his own legacy.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a Big Deal in 1989. At 26 years old, Soderbergh was the then-youngest director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this debut feature, which then went on to earn great financial success that made a name for the Sundance Film Fest and was a major player in kick-starting the 90s indie cinema boom. That success also weighed heavily on Soderbergh’s shoulders. A film famously written on a legal pad during a week’s worth of travel and filmed in just a month’s time in Soderbergh’s makeshift home city of Baton Rouge, Sex, Lies, and Videotape quickly built the young director up for a massive professional fall, a danger he immediately succumbed to. His three immediate follow-ups– Kafka, King of the Hill, and The Underneath— bombed critically & financially, leaving him dangerously close to becoming an indie cinema one hit wonder. To shake himself out of this professional slump, Soderbergh returned to Baton Rouge as a prodigal son to film another hastily-written, dirt cheap reflection on domesticity & suburban ennui. Where he had formerly crafted a poignant, darkly funny drama that struck a chord with everyone within earshot, he now seemed determined to cut loose with a nonsensical comedy designed to strike a chord with no one. Schizopolis was the inverse, anti-matter version of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a kind of self-targeting professional blasphemy that set Soderbergh free from the expectations set by his initial success.

Much like Schizopolis, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is about a long-married Baton Rouge couple struggling to maintain intimacy & honest communication as their domestic life loses its initial spark of romance. Andie MacDowell stars as a bored suburban housewife who doesn’t believe women enjoy sex as much they report to while her eternally horny husband cheats on her with her equally oversexed sister. Although she’s never experienced an orgasm and is embarrassed to discuss masturbation even with her therapist, her sexual appetite is seemingly awakened by the arrival of her husband’s old college buddy, a drastically gloomy James Spader. Spader’s lovelorn drifter is an impotent fetishist who can only get off by interviewing women about their sexual past on the titular videotapes, which he watches in isolation. McDowell’s lack of a sexual appetite & Spader’s social impotency amounts to a kind of sexual miscommunication that builds nicely with the ambient tension of Sex, Lies, and Videotape‘s Cliff Martinez score. The film’s payoff is in watching two emotionally wounded animals eventually get on the same page to fulfill their obvious desire for one another, despite the communication breakdown of their sexual language. Paradoxically, Schizopolis would later make this exact kind of romantic miscommunication more literal and more abstract.

Schizopolis may return to the themes & settings of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but it also feels hostile to the commercial elements that make Soderbergh’s debut a universal success. Themes of romantic miscommunication are made irreverently literal as a husband & wife’s dialogue are overdubbed in two incompatible languages or converted to generic, nonsensical placeholder phrases. Where Sex, Lies, and Videotape was hastily written, Schizopolis is almost wholly improvised, making its spontaneity even more abrasive. In his debut, Soderbergh made sure to keep his Baton Rouge setting mostly confined to interiors, where MacDowell’s thick Southern accent is the only identifying element at play that makes it feel unlike Anywhere, America. By contrast, Schizopolis makes a point to document as many Baton Rouge-specific exteriors as possible, to the point where half our initial conversation on the film was distracted by its tourism of a city where most of us had lived at one time or another in the 2000s. He made the film even less universal by casting himself & his ex-wife (Betsy Bentley) as the film’s romantic doppelgängers; not to mention the lack of commercial appeal inherent to an irreverent film about romantic doppelgängers in the first place. It’s a film that covers the same adulterous, dispirited, emotionally dysfunctional territory as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but with none of the universal appeal that made that landmark erotic thriller a critical & financial hit, deliberately so. It even forsakes the immediate appeal of its predecessor’s instantly intriguing title.

As disparate as the approaches in Soderbergh’s Baton Rouge-set domestic dramas seem aesthetically, there’s actually a fair amount of Schizopolis’s DNA detectable in Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Besides the obvious overlap in themes & setting, one of the more striking aspects of Sex, Lies, and Videotape is the dissociative disconnect between the movie’s imagery & its soundtrack. From the opening sequence where Andie MacDowell rambles to her therapist about waste disposal while the audience watches James Spader travel to Baton Rouge as a prodigal son to later scenes where her confessions of sexual appetite deficiency overlap with images of her husband’s infidelity, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is playful with the ways the sights & sounds of cinema can manipulate audience perception when out of sync. Schizopolis pushes this dissociative effect to a comedic extreme, jarring its audience out of sync at every possible turn with the irreverence of a feature length Monty Python sketch gone rogue. By returning to his earliest success in filmmaking experimentation, Soderbergh rediscovered the tools & effects that initially excited him in the first place, then decided to push them as far as the medium (and perhaps past where his audience) would allow. He picked apart & set aflame the basic components of his first feature in an eccentrically personal work that seemed to violently shake him out of a five year sophomore slump and led directly to the most successful stretch of his career to date.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how its romantic doppelgänger crisis compares to the themes of Anomalisa (2015).

-Brandon Ledet

The Neon Demon (2016)

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The drastic reds, blues, and purples of The Neon Demon‘s opening title card scream “Suspiria!” before the film’s lush synth score & vague witchcraft horrors can even beat you over the head with that influence. The film’s colorless voids & glacial pace whisper “Under the Skin” just faintly enough to give you goosebumps. You can feel Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion lurking in the film’s gleefully predatory sex & violence, as well as its deliberate moral provocations (and, oddly enough, its wallpaper patterns). There’s a touch of Black Swan lurking in its abstraction of female competition & psychological break. There’s more than a hint of Mulholland Drive in its stubbornly auteurist nightmare logic. Blood & Black Lace is woven into the fabric of its fashion world style-over-substance aesthetic. Lesser, trashier works also lodge themselves in the film’s DNA, as cherry-picked elements of It Follows, Lost River, Maps to the Stars, #horror, and, you guessed it (no you didn’t) Tron: Legacy are strategically repurposed for entirely new, entirely terrifying effect. The Neon Demon is unlike anything I’ve seen before in that it’s the best of everything I’ve seen before, just masterfully reshaped & distorted into an exquisitely beautiful work of art with a deeply ugly, predatory soul. I’m at once disgusted by and in total awe of what Nicolas Winding Refn has accomplished here and I revel in the unease of that conflict.

The closest Refn will likely ever come to directing a crowdpleaser was 2011’s Drive, a sleek Ryan Gosling vehicle that explored the seedy world of Los Angeles stunt men & mafia types (as well as the hypnotic spell of body language flirtation). His followup, Only God Forgives, seemed to intentionally push his newfound audience away, presenting an all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go art house take on the revenge thriller by surgically removing all the genre thrills that exploitation formula promises in favor of well-crafted emptiness. The Neon Demon seems intent to split the difference between those two extremes. It is at once Refn’s most beautiful work to date and his most deliberately off-putting (though the silent masculinity of Valhalla Rising makes it a close call on that latter point). His eye returns to the neon-lit, synth-soaked Los Angeles of Drive, but brings the violently ugly, corrupted soul of Only God Forgives along for the ride. It’s tempting to reduce The Neon Demon to descriptions like “the fashion world Suspiria” or “the day-glo Black Swan,” but the truth is that the work is 100% pure, uncut Refn. For better or for worse, this will be the title that solidifies him as an auteur provocateur, likening him to other technically-skilled button pushers like De Palma, Friedkin, Verhoeven, Von Trier, Ken Russell, and, why not, Russ Meyer. Like all the madmen provocation artists that have come before him, Refn stumbles while handling any semblance of nuance in the proudly taboo subjects he gleefully rattles like a curious toddler, but he makes the exercise so beautiful & so callously funny that it’s difficult to sour on the experience as a whole. Instead, you mull over provocations like The Neon Demon for days, months, years on end, wrestling with your own thoughts on what you’ve seen and how, exactly, you’re supposed to feel.

In this particular provocation Elle Fanning plays a sixteen year old model cashing in on her natural beauty in the repugnant, predatory L.A. fashion scene. As soon as she arrives, the sharks start circling the chum in the water, the pythons start sizing up their next meal, the L.A. vampires (both literal & figurative) start sharpening their fangs. She has the kind of beauty described by one character as “a diamond in a sea of glass,” making her stand out both as an opportunity for profit & as a target for violence. Sleazebag photographers & fashion designers turn their heads with unmistakable hunger in their eyes the second she enters a room. Other models shoot daggers as she gleefully eats up the attention. Dastardly villainous make-up artists (Jena Malone) & motel slumlords (Keanu Reeves) jockey to be the first wolf to devour the lamb, drooling to indulge in her inevitable demise. There is a constant, oppressive threat of sexual violence that permeates every scene of The Neon Demon, but Refn thankfully never indulges in its depiction the same way you’d see in old exploitation pics like The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave. Instead, the threat of rape is abstracted into the shape of a vibe, a glance, an isolated image of violence in a dream, and at one particularly brutal moment, a sound. It’s up to the audience to decipher the balance between representation & complicity here. While it’s true that Refn is consciously condemning the pervasive rape culture aspect of fashion modeling at every turn, it’ also true that he’s indulging in the very same ogling-at-young-beauty impulses that allow that culture to thrive in the first place. Any pointed satire he presents on the matter is also severely undercut by the idea that female-on-female competition is just as much of an ugly threat, especially once the film makes a turn towards a more conventional witchcraft horror pic in the final act. Again, I don’t think Refn handles the hot button topics he’s interested in with any nuanced delicacy, but he does find a way to soften their blow through art house abstraction & you’re not likely to see a more gorgeous work on the big screen all year, morally muddled or not. The result is admittedly uncomfortable, but also deeply fascinating.

The smartest thing Refn does to maintain this high wire balancing act is surround himself with female collaborators. There’s only a small handful of male characters of any consequence in the film and their threat is far outshined by the downright supernatural (and shockingly vicious) power exuded by the women that envelop them, a likely influence of Refn’s two credited female co-writers, Polly Stenham & Mary Laws. He also abstracts the impact of the male gaze by employing a female cinematographer, Natasha Braier, who deserves every accolade you could possibly throw at her for her work here. As the movie puts it, “Beauty is the highest form of currency we have […] Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Although that line is meant to jab at the superficiality of a particularly chauvinistic prick within the fashion world, it also stands a sort of an ethos for what Braier brings to the screen. Every ugly, nightmarish scene in The Neon Demon is made to be strikingly beautiful by the otherworldly wizardry of her lens. Her literal smoke & mirrors dreamscape makes every moment disorienting in a Kubrickian sort of way, a comparison I wouldn’t use lightly. Braier’s work combines with the masterful score by Cliff Martinez and the surreal inclusion of unexpected visual prompts like mountain lions, eyeballs, diving boards, and a triforce to set an aggressively artificial stage for the screenplay’s warped fashion world satire. I don’t know if a team of female collaborators has assembled to construct such a confusingly caustic take on toxic masculinity since Mary Haron & Guinevere Turner adapted American Psycho for the big screen in 2000. By the time Refn dedicates the film to his wife in the end credits the whole movie plays like a terrifying, exquisitely crafted prank.

The Neon Demon is consistently uncomfortable, but also intensely beautiful & surprisingly humorous. Days later my eyeballs are still bleeding from its stark cinematography & my brain is still tearing itself in half trying to find somewhere to land on its thematic minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power. This film is going to make a lot of people very angry and I’m certain that’s exactly the reaction Refn is searching for, the cruel bastard. At the same time it’s my favorite thing I’ve seen all year. I’m caught transfixed by its wicked spell & its bottomless wealth of surface pleasures, even as I wrestle with their implications. This is where the stylized form of high art meets the juvenile id of low trash and that exact intersection is why I go to the movies in the first place. The Neon Demon may not be great social commentary, but it’s certainly great cinema.

-Brandon Ledet