For a review of “Game Night,”
There’s no question the undisputed winner in the new comedy “Game Night” is the generally dependable Rachel McAdams. The infectious energetic and unfiltered exuberance she brings to the role of the super competitive Annie — one of a group of best friends who get together on a regular basis to play parlor and board games— turns what was little more than an extended episode of a television comedy series into more of a winning effort.
Annie and her husband, Max ( Jason Bateman), have had a monopoly on the weekly game night battles that range from charades to Scrabble. The other regulars include Ryan ( Billy Magnussen), the single member of the group who picks his game partners based on the ease he thinks he can bed them and not their knowledge of Stratego. That changes when he’s joined by the very smart and savvy Sarah ( Sharon Horgan). Rounding out the group are the fun- loving Kevin ( Lamorne Morris) and Michelle ( Kylie Bunbury).
The biggest challenge for Annie and Max is to keep the game night secret from their creepy cop neighbor, Gary ( Jesse Plemons). He comes across as the kind of guywho would turn a simple game like Chutes and Ladders into Shoots and Ladders.
Creating the biggest disruption is Max’s more successful, better- looking, richer, smarter and more popular brother, Brooks ( Kyle Chandler). The pair have been competitive since they were young, with Brooks way ahead in the scoring. On a rare visit to town, Brooks takes advantage of the control he has over his brother to get game night shifted to his house, where he changes all the rules. Brooks has put in play a kidnapping mystery where the first one to find him will win a fabulous prize.
There’s just one catch. Before the fake kidnapping can get started, Brooks is grabbed by real thugs, and the only way to save him is for the players to break multiple laws and risk their lives. And they have to do it all by midnight.
The first part of “Game Night” has some fun moments, especially because of McAdams. There’ s no doubt Annie is the kind of person who doesn’t take losing lightly and when she’s forced into real life criminal acts, she gets a rush from the excitement. That’s a good balance for Bateman, as he’s always tends to play the guy who quietly calculates the odds before doing anything. She’s a person of action, while he’s more inclined toward reaction.
The four other players are not developed other than to be additional pawns in the game. Screenwriter Mark Perez — whose credits include the wreck “Herbie Fully Loaded”— throws in a few twists, but he could have used several more especially with the supporting players. Their storylines stay far too linear to give the film the additional layers that make a mystery more interesting.
The biggest blunder by Perez is going with the same kind of thinking that has been used in countless TV shows and films where average people are suddenly forced to do extraordinary things — and they do it. A complete rejection of even the most basic of logical thinking must be done or the film falls apart in the first act. To work, this has to be a world where average people can go against trained crooks and sinister criminal bosses and beat them at every move.
Perez should have done more to incorporate the skills the friends have cultivated in all of their game nights. There’s a touch of charades, but there needed to be far more inclusion of the tactics of playing the board and parlor games used to solve the real crime.
This is light comedy, but it’s possible for average people to do great things if it all happens by chance and not as if they were trained CIA operatives just waiting for a game night to go badly. A sitcom has a better chance of making that work because there is less time to fill.
“Game Night” is like playing Monopoly where the only properties are the four railroads. The players can go through the motions, but without more elements the overall result is good but far from as great as it could have been.
“Game Night,” a Warner Bros. Entertainment release, is rated R for action scenes, sexual references, language. Running time: 100 minutes. ★★ ½
Sometimes cinematic adaptations are conversations with source material rather than direct representations. No recent film more exemplifies this idea than Alex Garland’s bold, metaphysical and just plain weird “Annihilation,” adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book, the first in his “Southern Reach” trilogy.
The result is a deeply challenging, big budget, femaledriven sci- fi film, which begs a question— howdid this get made? Films as singularly adventurous as this don’t come around often.
Vander Meer’s book is obtuse, meditative, mysterious and transfixing. It suggests and hints at possibilities that are far greater and wilder than the characters encounter in the plot, requiring the reader to make those connections, to fill in the gaps. Garland, who adapted the screenplay, takes the premise, characters and larger ideas of Vander Meer’s book, and interprets them in his own story to bring an almost unfilmable novel to the big screen as a sci- fi epic.
“Annihilation” follows a group of female scientists who set out on what is essentially a suicide mission to a top- secret location known as Area X, where a shimmering energetic border has appeared, cordoning off an amorphous portion of wilderness, changing its landscape. There is no communication in or out, and in three years, no missions have returned. Having tried groups of military men, they’re trying out women scientists.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist, professor and former soldier. Her husband, Kane ( Oscar Isaac), went missing in Area X for a year before he returned, changed, subdued and falls violently ill. She joins the latest mission hoping to search for whatever might have changed him, for the traces of him he left behind. She’s part of a group including medic Anya ( Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie ( Tessa Thompson), geothermal scientist Cass ( Tuva Novotny) and a taciturn psychologist, Dr. Ventress ( Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re going to enter “The Shimmer,” go to the lighthouse, collect data and return ( although that seems unlikely, based on the track record).
What happens in The Shimmer is where Garland diverges from Vander Meer’s tale. Time and space tilts once they enter. It is stunningly beautiful, a vibrant, dripping rainforest swamp overflowing with bright flowers and fungi. Hazy light pierces, signaling always the presence of the lighthouse. But it seems to alter time, too. They lose whole days of memory, and the wildlife is increasingly intoxicating, dangerous and threatening. The group finds remnants of old missions and harrowing video tapes. Always the question remains: Did something kill them, or did they go crazy and kill each other?
This is a basic question that returns again and again, and it lays the foundation for the themes of existential paranoia that Garland dives into during the last act of “Annihilation.” The title refers to total destruction, but what’s happening isn’t destruction but transformation, mutation. Does a sense of self survive a mutation? Does your soul?
Garland plays these big ideas brazenly, grounding them in Portman’s performance as grieving widow, curious scientist and fierce warrior. She must confront the memory of her husband again and again as she traces his journey through steps that have fragmented, rooted and rot. She dig sand delves inside to find an answer, and discovers the only way through is within. That larger message is what Garland eventually unearths, giving a distinctly spiritual slant to this science- fiction story.
“Annihilation,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality. Running time: 120 minutes. ★★★
“Annihilation” stars, from left, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez.