February 2018

gamenightJason Bateman. He’s come a long way since Teen Wolf Too. Well, in a sense he’s come a long way. He’s an older man now, proof if ever we needed it that the laws of entropy and decay apply to Jason Bateman as much as they apply to mere mortal non-Jason-Batemans such as ourselves. He’s earned something of a reputation, in my mind anyway, of being a one trick pony, which is probably deserved. But you know what? I like him. I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen him in so I went into Game Night pretty sure I was going to like what I saw. I did.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a well-matched competitive couple who host regular game nights for their friends where they, em, play board games. Look, just go with it, okay? Some people probably do this in 2018. Not anyone I know, right enough, but these people surely exist. Max’s estranged brother, Brooks, because if people play board games with friends then it’s absolutely certain that people are sometimes named after multiple small rivers, turns up to one. Brooks is really successful, much to Max’s chagrin, and seems to enjoy embarrassing his sibling at every opportunity. He invites everyone round to his gaff the next week where he, instead, will host Game Night. Outrageous! Well, Max and Annie think so, and because they’re so competitive and stuff, decide that they MUST win Brooks’ Game Night.

But Brooks has something up his sleeve. This isn’t going to be another night of Charades, Jenga, and Scrabble (thank God). Instead, it’s going to be a murder mystery style affair where one of the party is going to be kidnapped and then everyone else must work to find the clues and the hostage before the end of the night. So when two masked men with guns burst into the house and drag Brooks away in a van, everyone is amusingly nonplussed. Max even graciously tells the goons to drive safely. It’s just a game, after all. Or is it? And doesn’t this sound an awful lot like The Game?

For the next while, the fun of the movie comes from these suburban couples becoming increasingly and unwittingly immersed in a seedy underworld of kidnap and black market dealings that may or may not be fictitious. And it is fun. Bateman and McAdams have a great chemistry together and bounce off each other well, and the supporting cast are all engaging. Writer Mark Perez has a great ear for dialogue, directors John Francis Daly and Jonathon Goldstein keep things moving at a brisk pace for the most part, probably because there’s two of them. There’s even a neat little device where most of the establishing shots are animated models of towns and roads, like toys and games.

Where it fails is in the continuity of the ideas and the bluffs and the duplicity and confusion of who knows what and when. With each new twist and turn, the plot makes less and less sense and by the end, nothing of what you’ve seen adds up to anything remotely in the vicinity of coherent and plausible activity.

It’s almost forgivable, though, because it’s great fun and it’s laugh out loud funny in lots of places, with humor that’s mined mostly from people reacting calmly to outrageously dangerous situations. Jason Bateman has seldom been so Jason Bateman. He’s the same character as he was in the Horrible Boss movies. They may even have the same name. I’d have to look it up.

It’s not going to win any awards. Beyond the first 24 hours after viewing, all memories of it will end up filed away in a folder in the brain marked, Things That Happened in Jason Bateman Movies, which will no doubt come back to haunt me at a Trivia Night in the not too distant future. At some point, I’ll question if I’ve ever seen it. But for now, I did, and I’m pretty happy about that.

winchesterOh, Gran! What are you doing? Getting up there at karaoke and doing a profane, if accurate, rendition of Ice T’s back catalogue? And then downing half-a-dozen Jägerbombs and discarding items of your outer clothing to the winds whilst gyrating on a table to Funky Cold Medina?

That’s pretty much how I felt watching Winchester. Oh, Helen Mirren! What are you doing?

Inspired by true events from the early 1900s — cough, cough — this is the story of Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, and her propensity for building a really big haunted house with ghosts and EVERYTHING. It seems hardly a day goes by without a new extension being added on to an already pretty big house. Construction goes on day and night. Worried that this is a sign of Dame Winchester losing her marbles — which it clearly is — the board of the Winchester company send the troubled Doctor Eric Price, played by a troubled Jason Clarke, to assess her before ousting her out on her backside. And wouldn’t you know it, but the good doctor has some demons of his own.

From the opening few frames, with the title and copyright card appearing like an old Hammer House of Horror, right through to the clumsy close there is nothing much new in this world and unfortunately it has been written and directed by people who literally have no idea how to scare an audience beyond a jump-scare. What about atmosphere? What about building a sense of dread? What about having characters we actually care about? Nope, jump-scares it is. Now, I don’t really mind the occasional jump-scare but there are no points in this movie where you expect a jump-scare and a jump-scare doesn’t happen. And that doesn’t make for a scary movie. It makes for a stupid waste of everyone’s time.

There’s got to be a decent movie somewhere in this mess. It’s America’s Most Haunted Mansion, after all, or so the end credits would have us believe. It’s a house that has hundreds of rooms and, according to a lovely bit of heavy-handed exposition from Sarah Snook as Winchester’s loving niece, it’s really easy to get lost within its maze-like corridors. And yet, no one gets lost. The Doctor is instantly familiar with its layout and can wander to his heart’s content and is always able to find his way back to his room.

But as disappointing as the story is, it’s nowhere near the level of disappointment I feel in having to witness Dame Helen Mirren going through the motions or listen to her saying utter dogs of lines of dialogue. “I feel the house is out of balance,” she says with a straight face moments after half of the house falls off. Ya think?

I mean, I expect this from Jason Clarke. But Dame Helen — gran, if I may — what were you thinking?

billboardIf the multiverse theory is to be believed then it must stand to reason that somewhere, there’s a universe that exists where Frances McDormand can’t act her way out of a soggy paper bag, where she might appear in a commercial for bagels and fail to convince the audience, and potential new consumers of bagels, that she’s a woman who enjoys bagels. Meanwhile, in this universe, she can absolutely do no wrong and she isn’t about to start here. Now where are the bagels?

McDormand plays Mildred, a mother still grieving for her daughter who was abducted, raped, and killed in the months before the movie starts. The crime remains unsolved and, suspecting that the local police force could be doing more if only they could stop beating up black people for five minutes, she rents out three forgotten and dilapidated billboards on a quiet road on the outskirts of town and uses them to display a set of messages that grab the attention of Chief Willoughby (admirably played by Woody Harrelson) and his underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the latter of which in particular doesn’t take too kindly to these developments.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, you kinda know what you’re going to get before the lights have dimmed. The characters and their development are just as important as the arc of the storyline, the script is going to be crisp and pin-point and jut ooze with black humor, and there’s going to be enough buckets of swearing to make Malcolm Tucker, and possibly even Chris Tucker, blush.

As good as the script is, as gorgeous as the scenery is (filmed in California rather than Missouri, fact fans), and as magnificent as the performances from Harrelson and Rockwell are, it’s Frances McDormand’s movie. Every little flinch, each throwaway motion of picking a nail with her teeth, every reaction to another letdown or attempt to reach out to her teenaged son, well, she’s simply perfect. The emotion she carries through the couple of hours running time has such heft and thickness and is never overdone. Tellingly, she makes it look easy.

The movie as a whole does suffer somewhat from a strained — and perhaps even ill-judged — redemption arc for Rockwell’s detestable racist cop, an oddly-phrased section from a news reporter who seemed to be channeling Alicia Silverstone from Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, an Australian accent that couldn’t stand out more supposing it was falling out of Quentin Tarentino’s mouth, and an act of outrageous violence that somehow manages to avoid sufficient consequences. There’s so much good stuff going on, though, that these crimes are (just about) forgivable.

2017 had movies I enjoyed more — The Shape of Water, for starters, and I genuinely don’t think I saw anything better than Paddington 2 in the last twelve months, but in this universe right here, there’s more than enough in Three Billboards to enjoy and some performances that in years to come will still be genuinely savored.