For a re­view of “Game Night,”

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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.

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