Very funny and surprisingly satisfying, Game Night is a comedy thriller that further cements my appreciation for the comedic prowess of writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Horrible Bosses). The premise about a group of couples on a wild “game night” they don’t know is real seems like it could go wrong in so many different ways, chiefly being unable to sustain its premise. Fortunately, the film is filled with strong characters who are each given a moment to shine. Jason Bateman and a loose Rachel McAdams are fun as our lead couple, and they’re even better when they’re bouncing off one another, but the real star of the movie is a hilarious Jesse Plemons (Hostiles) as a creepily intense neighbor. Plemons will hold onto certain jokes, taking something that was funny and pushing it into an even funnier, more awkward place. The comic set pieces are well developed and clever, set up earlier and allowed to go in unexpected directions to better complicate matters. While the movie is clearly a riff on David Fincher’s The Game, with some sly visual nods to Fincher’s signature style, the jokes don’t get lost when the action heats up. A good action-comedy makes sure that the action or suspense sequences are still constructed through the prism of comedy. I was laughing often and surprisingly hard throughout the whole movie. Game Night is a wickedly fun movie that has plenty of rewards and enjoyable surprises.
Nate’s Grade: B+
After eight years and over a dozen movies, the unstoppable box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems like it could successfully sell the public on any concept, no matter how undeniably bizarre. This is the same studio that made us weep over the death of a tree that said three words. At this point, I think I can argue that the MCU has a higher film-to-film consistent quality of excellence than Pixar, the other most trusted brand in cinema (Pixar’s creative/emotional highs are certainly higher but they’ve had their share of misses). Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt. The common complaint is that their movies feel too formulaic and insubstantial. I would definitely argue against the latter and the former needs no real defense. Marvel has built an empire on a system that works because it delivers crowd-pleasing and character-oriented blockbusters that are packed with payoffs for fans and newcomers. The alternative, chiefly the dour bombast of the fledgling DC film universe, isn’t much more appealing, but then again I have been labeled a “Marvel shill” by those infuriated from my inconceivable pan of the very conceivably terrible Suicide Squad, so take my word with some skepticism. For any other brand, Doctor Strange could be too weird. With the MCU, it’s another comforting sign they really know what they’re doing.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant New York neurosurgeon who loses full control over his hands after a horrible car accident. He travels to Nepal to seek out holistic remedies to aid his recovery and instead finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic. She takes a liking to Strange and invites him into their temple to train as a pupil of powerful sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong). Former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone rogue and believes the only way to survive the oncoming cosmic giant Dormammu is to join him. Doctor Strange must summon all the skills of multiple dimensions in order to save the day.
Doctor Strange is at its core an origin tale and one that feels somewhat familiar at least for its first half. It’s likely not an accident that Stephen Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel’s other egotistical, arrogant charmer, Mr. Tony Stark. He’s a man who has to be humbled and learn the error of his ways and his outsized hubris, which makes for an effective character arc to structure an introductory movie around. It also makes fine work of Cumberbatch’s otherworldly sense of haughty superiority (I can’t wait to watch future Strange and Stark banter). The first half is essentially Training Montage: The Movie. Strange learns about the ancient mystic arts and, more importantly, super powers. The movie doesn’t follow Thor’s lead and argue that magic is another form of science. It declares magic as its own thing. Strange learns how to open portals, how to shift reality, how to astral project, and even how to stop time. Each new power is given proper attention and the learning curve adjusts as needed, allowing an audience to process the various rules and dramatic stakes. It’s a structurally smart assembly of mini-goals to keep an audience secure in what otherwise could be overwhelming for its New Age mumbo jumbo.
After the origin heavy lifting is taken care of that’s when Doctor Strange becomes everything I could hope for, namely a highly imaginative action movie with a breakneck pace and a boundless sense of imagination. This movie feels kinetically alive and unpredictable in ways that few Marvel movies even approach. Once Strange and Kaecilius meet at the halfway mark it becomes a gallop to the finish line with one highly entertaining action set piece after another, and even better they are wildly different. We don’t have battles about running and firing weapons or just punching bad guys extra hard; instead, it’s reality itself that bends to the will of the fighters. Characters walk on walls, shift the state of architecture, create teleportation portals to hop in and out of, shift the entire gravity of the world to force people away from said portals, and turn New York City into a kaleidoscopic playground. There’s an extended chase scene that literally feels like a series of M. C. Escher paintings come to starling life. The sequence is eye-popping in the best way and, shocking enough, it’s not even the climax of the movie. There are so many fun possibilities for crazy action sequences. There are other sequences that stand out, such as an out-of-body fight between two warring astral projection foes. The real climax of the movie is something I’ve never seen before, a battle that takes place as time resets. The smoldering ruins of a cataclysm are put together brick-by-brick and characters dodge the debris as it rapidly reforms. It’s visually thrilling to watch but it’s also a clever sequence because there are continuous opportunities for danger and in many ways that your brain cannot naturally suspect, like when a wall reforms and traps someone within. Whatever your feeling on the general MCU and its blockbuster formula calibrations, Doctor Strange is a great leap into something different, momentously exhilarating, and inventive.
Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) was an intriguing choice considering his background in supernatural horror, but, as should be obvious, the MCU overlords score again with their foresight and risk-taking. Derrickson’s visual influences hew much closer to Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Siblings than the greatest hits of the MCU, and that’s exactly what this world needed to stand out on its own. I cannot overstate just how enjoyable the last hour of the movie can be, though this isn’t meant as a backhanded slight against that first half. The action-packed hour only works because of the setup from before and laying a careful foundation for the characters, their dynamics, and the rules of this trippy universe that bends conventional physics. All the careful world-building and training montages set up the sprint through a fireworks factory of fun, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time, eagerly anticipating the next detour into crazy.
I’m even going to impart you, dear reader, with some advice I haven’t given since 2013: if possible, see this movie in 3D. The hypnotic visuals and elusively shifting reality demand to be seen with the added help of the third dimension. The movie will still obviously work in a non-3D format but why deny yourself the full impact of these incredible visual experiences? New York City contorting is worth the extra few bucks alone.
The acting is another highlight for such an enjoyable movie. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) easily makes for a terrific lead actor, someone who can bring a sense of gravitas or dry sarcasm when called upon. His sense of comedy is underrated and this Sorcery Supreme gets his fair share of punctuating the weird and wild with a perfectly delivered joke. A bit with a sentient cape allows for great physical comedy. His American accent is also much improved from earlier far spottier efforts in 2013’s August: Osage County and 2015’s Black Mass, which featured perhaps the worst “Baustun” accent in recent memory. Cumberbatch is the charming smartass, the know-it-all who realizes how much he still has yet to learn, and his final showdown with the Big Bad Evil sheds large-scale disaster for something much more personal (no giant portal in the sky or faceless army of monsters/aliens, hooray!). His character arc of learning that it’s not about himself culminates in a brilliantly conceived sequence that satisfies. The other standout is Swinton (Snowpiercer) who once again melds with her character, who happens to be a mysterious Celtic mystic who may not even be human. The early half is instantly elevated when Swinton is on screen. She presents a matter-of-fact sense of the preposterous that is downright serene. It’s also a role that is more than just a requisite mentor as The Ancient One has some secrets that will be revealed. I was also genuinely pleased with how much screen time Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Rogue One) gets for his villain, who has a wicked deadpan. I pity Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who plays the underwritten love interest role we’ve seen similar to Natalie Portman prior performances. She at least gets a few good scenes before being forgotten.
With each additional entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fan in me gets to reexamine and realign the pecking order of quality. In my own subjective rankings I would say that Doctor Strange is just below the top tier of the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, Iron Man) and on par with Winter Soldier. This is a highly enjoyable and highly imaginative action movie teeming with eye-popping visuals. Many of the visual set pieces are stunning and demand to be witnessed on the largest screen possible. The movie never loses its sense of fun and wonder while still respecting the dramatic stakes of the cataclysmic events, and when it goes big it makes it matter. I have no previous attachment to this character and Doctor Strange was just about everything I wanted the film to be and then some. It’s another sign that Marvel can take any property and find the formula to make it a satisfying smash. I enjoyed Doctor Strange enough that I want to see it again, and this time even bigger to better soak up the strange.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Spotlight is the true-story behind the 2002 expose into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse and it is unflinching in its focus and animated by its outrage, which is the best and worst part of this awards-caliber movie. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) is a splendid curator of unlikely movie families, and with Spotlight he follows the titular investigative team (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James) at the Boston Globe as they go about their jobs. That’s really about it. Over the course of two tightly packed hours, we watch as the Spotlight team chases down leads, goes through archives, interview subjects and know when to push harder and when to fall back, and day-by-day build their case to expose the massive corruption within the Church. It’s invigorating material and worthy of the careful and sincere reverence that McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer have afforded, though the flurry of names can be difficult to keep track of. However, that’s about the extent of the movie. We don’t really get to know any of the journalists on much of a personal level or as a character; they are defined by their tenacity and competence. We don’t get much time for reflection or contemplation on the subject, especially its psychological impact on a majority Catholic city/staff, and the culpability of those within systems of power that chose to ignore rather than accept the monstrous truth. I don’t need more “movie moments” or emotionally manipulative flashbacks, per se. With its nose to the grindstone, Spotlight is an affecting and absorbing news article given life but it feels less like a fully formed movie of its own. It’s confidently directed, written, acted, and executed to perfection, and I feel like a cad even grumbling, but the ceiling for this movie could have been set higher had the filmmakers widened its focus.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Richard Curtis is something equivalent to royalty in romantic comedy circles. The man wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the screenplay for Bridget Jones’ Diary, and he wrote and directed Love, Actually. If you are a fan of those movies, then About Time is already at the top of your to-do list. Reportedly Curtis’ last movie he will direct (he’s only done three), this time-travel romance looks to be a break from a genre burdened by convention. If you like your British rom-coms to be mildly cheeky, hopelessly dewy-eyed romantic, filled with beautiful people, and loaded with hugs, then About Time with suffice. If you were expecting something grander from the premise you’ll walk away shaking your head at all the squandered potential.
Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) is a normal upper class British student when his father (Bill Nighy) sits him down to have… The Talk. This one isn’t about birds and bees so much as it is the space-time continuum. It seems that the men in their family have the unique ability to travel through time, though only during their lifetimes. All Tim need do is find a somewhat secluded, dark corner, clench his fists, and think his way back to a particular memory. Tim is able to blink out embarrassing incidents and use his foreknowledge. He meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) and sets his sights on making her fall in love with him. He corrects their courtship until he gets everything “right.”
While eminently pleasant and suitably funny and emotional, About Time is a tale of wasted potential. I’m unsure why Curtis even brought in such an unconventional element like time travel if he was just going to play it safe. The standard, feel-good rom-com route feels the safe way through, and while it’s well done in that regard, I almost wish the film had pushed further with its concept. To begin with, the time travel restrictions are arbitrarily applied and will later be broken altogether as the film continues. When time travel is used it’s played out like Groundhog Day, with Tim immediately going back to fine-tune his actions, particularly his courting of Mary. That works, as we get used to the inertia of the edits, but that seems to be the lone focus. Once he gets the girl, Tim rarely uses his amazing gift. He’s content and so time travel is an afterthought when, as I suspect for any of us, it would be all we could think about. Tim lacks suitable ambition. I think the film would have been weightier had its lead been less idealistic. He’s a nice guy but imagine a Lothario having the power to travel back in time. He could physically cheat on his wife, go back and make sure it never happened, and live his life, having his cake and eating it too, except for the guilt. Is it cheating if it happened in an alternate timeline? Or what if he was a stockbroker committing insider trading with his past self. In fact, what if he just interacted with his older, more morally wanton self? There’s also the fact that Mary never finds out about any of this. At no point does Tim reveal his family’s incredible ability and have to atone for his actions. I’m fairly certain Mary would feel like her marital bliss could be the end product to manipulation. Alas, we’re stuck with our cute, acceptable, but mostly square rom-com.
While likeable, I didn’t think the characters themselves were sketched out well; I like McAdams and Gleeson, but I couldn’t really say much about them as people. He’s a lawyer. She works as a reader for a publisher. His family is kind of rich. And that’s about it. Even through their interactions we don’t learn much about Tim or Mary. They fall in love, and it’s nice, but the lack of characterization, besides the fact that they are cute together, kept me from fully investing in their love story. I doubt the target audience will have this same issue. I found them cute and their scenes are cute together but I need more about my main characters than a collection of cute scenes. Another nagging aspect of their courtship is that it seems too easy. Tim has the amazing power of time travel so he can fix any problem presented, but that shouldn’t stop the appearance of problems. Tim and Mary are nice people that seem to have no discernible differences, besides Tim’s leftover feelings for a first love. An audience may say they want a couple to be sweet together always. They don’t. It’s boring. We need conflict. With About Time, there just isn’t enough of it and Tim and Mary are too underdeveloped for me to pine for them.
There are loads of dangling storylines that feel like they are leftovers from past drafts. You would think wrapping up a peachy marriage early would lead to some sort of personal crossroads and sacrifice. Everything was coming far too easily for Tim, so I kept waiting for another shoe to drop late in the film, to give him the chance to undo his own personal happiness and marriage to, say, save a beloved family member. I kept waiting for some kind of greater personal stakes, but it never came. Then the movie has all sorts of dangling storylines that do not seem conceptualized. The doddy uncle who seems to be experiencing the ravaged effects of too much time travel? Not much there. They never explain him and so he is just the standard Brit com-com kooky family member to say weird things offhand. Seems like a waste of greater pathos. Tim’s troubled sister? She’s fixed in a pinch and of course it all has to do with the men she’s dating.
Then there are the rules, which in time travel need to be adhered to closely or else the butterfly effect ripples cascade. We’re told at first that Tim can only go backwards in time. This gives the impression that he has to live out all that extra time. So, say, if Tim traveled back two years, he’d have to live out all two years to get back to the presumed moment he began his journey backwards (writing about time travel does wonderful things with sentence tenses). So every jump back requires reliving your life. But then all of a sudden Tim can jump forward in time as well. No one comments about this. If the men in the family are reliving days and possibly years of time, then shouldn’t they be preternaturally aging, looking 70 at 50 and so on? Then there’s the fact that Tim introduces the ability to travel back in time WITH another person. This is never dealt with again, sadly, and it’s a big deal. You can bring other people with you through time. This is an amazing opportunity but it’s wasted like so many others.
However, with all that said, the movie won me over more as it transitioned into a greater emphasis on the father/son relationship, enough so that it feels like Curtis trying to get the sense of closure we so rarely get in life. I though a late trip backwards, as a young son skipping stones with his dad before he may never see him again, was quite beautiful. It got me wishing the film had given more time to explore the dynamics of father/son time travelers, a rich dramatic possibility that only reminds you how much more interesting About Time could have been.
About Time will be catnip to its target audience, namely female rom-com fans. I found it a fairly pleasant movie and its stars wholly likeable. I laughed at spots and even got teary-eyed a bit toward the end as the film’s emphasis shifted from a guy-gets-girl narrative to more of a father-son examination. The funny Brit characters do their thing, the lovely scenery remains lovely, and the declarations of love get a spit-shine. It is an effective romantic comedy that will charm and please and get its audience to swoon, but I was left feeling that its potential went untapped as it settled on a safer, more conventional story despite all the unconventional possibility. Why introduce time travel if you’re just going to take the safest route possible with your storytelling, never pitting Tim in a difficult decision he has to make, or jeopardizing his carefully manipulated happiness? There are so many possibilities Curtis had with a premise that opens up alternative histories, but it seems like he settled for another dash of more-of-the-same.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Delivering pretty much more of the same, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t exactly an improvement over the classic detective’s first foray into out-and-out Hollywood action cinema. The real treat of the budding franchise is the comic interplay between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). Their harried banter makes for the best moments. Once again the plot is overwrought, the side characters underdeveloped (poor original dragon tattooed girl, Noomi Rapace, given absolutely nothing to do but run in a gypsy skirt), mysteries that you give up and just wait for Holmes to explain, and a villain that proves to be lackluster. For Moriarty (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) to be the nemesis, the intellectual equal of Holmes I’m going to need to see much more than this. There is a fine sequence at the very end where Holmes mentally envisions the steps of his attack and then Moriarty joins in: “You think you’re the only one who can do that?” They hold an entire duel fought step-by-step in the imagination. I wanted more experiences like this, but director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) falls back on his signature stylized action sequences of fast whooshing and quick spinning. The action is a step up from the first Holmes, and that will be enough for most ticket-buyers. I’ll admit there is a certain meta-literary charm at watching Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature detective fighting his way through an armed body of baddies. Whatever your feelings were for the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, I’m fairly certain you’ll revisit them in their entirety with Game of Shadows. I know I did.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Woody Allen hasn’t been this light-footed in a long time. Midnight in Paris is an effervescently charming film that flirts with overt sentimentality. But before you think Allen goes all gooey, the fatalist in him pulls back for some wisdom about the folly of nostalgia. Allen’s nebbish stand-in this time is Owen Wilson, assuredly better looking but on the same neurotic wavelength of his director. Wilson is a disgruntled Hollywood screenwriter visiting the City of Lights with his shrewish fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her upper-class parents. One night a mysterious taxicab picks him up shortly after midnight. Wilson is transported back in time to his favorite era, 1920s Paris. He gets to rub elbows with literary and artistic giants, like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and others. He even falls for a lovely lady (Marion Cotillard) from that time period who served as a muse for several artists. Midnight in Paris is a far more enjoyable experience if you have a modicum of education in the humanities. Identifying the artists of old, albeit exaggerated cartoon versions of themselves, is part of the fun, fantasizing about interacting with the greats. But Allen is also playful with his storytelling, and for a while Midnight in Paris becomes a highly refined cross-time romance (think The Lake House written by Tom Stoppard). Midnight in Paris has been catching on with audiences, becoming Allen’s biggest hit in 25 years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s whimsical while being literate and romantic without being corny.
Nate’s Grade: B+