Monthly Archives: February 2018

Game On

Subversively sly, well-cast crime caper is comedically well-played 

GN Poster (72)Game Night
Starring Jason Bateman & Rachel McAdams
Directed by John Frances Dailey & Jonathan Goldstein

Some people take their games seriously.

Like Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), a couple who met at bar trivia night, got married and now convene regularly with friends for highly competitive weekend evenings of charades, Pictionary, Jenga and other parlor classics.


Kyle Chandler

It’s all fun and games until Max’s rich, older, cooler brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler) roars up in his bright red Stingray hot rod and gets an idea to take the next game night to an “epic” new level at his suburban palace across town.

For Brooks’ game night, he ups the ante considerably with a faux kidnapping, “bad guys” who’ve been hired to fake-abscond with one of the players, and a manhunt. The other players will have to figure out where the abductee has been taken, and the winner will get a big prize: the Stingray.

But something goes terribly wrong—the bad guys who show up really are bad guys, they really do kidnap someone (Brooks), and game night gets really, really serious.

And really, really funny.

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have honed their comedy craft considerably since their previous collaborative effort, Vacation (2015), a lamely misfired relaunch of the National Lampoon franchise property—although they did provide the snappy script for last year’s zippy Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Game Night is a subversively sly, hot-wired action-suspense comedy caper with a screwball scaffolding of Rube Goldberg-ish surprises—for the characters, as well as the audience—until the very end. Screenwriter Mark Perez’s clever, zinger-filled script is full of smart, sharp, rat-a-tat pop-cultural riffs and the kind of connective-tissue dialogue that makes characters feel like real people instead of merely props. And the ensemble cast is first-rate.

GN-FP-0069Max and Annie’s game night regulars include Kevin (Lamorne Morris, from TV’s New Girl) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury, who starred on the TV series Pitch), a fellow married couple with an escalating mini-tiff about what celebrity she might have slept with when their relationship was in its formative stages. (Could it have been Denzel Washington?) Billy Magnussen (from TV’s Get Shorty) is a dim-bulb charmer as the gleefully imbecilic Ryan, who always brings a different bimbo to game night—only this time, he’s met his match with his brainy British coworker, Sarah (Sharon Horgan, from TV’s Catastrophe).


Jesse Plemons

And Jesse Plemons (who appeared in a Black Mirror episode alongside Magnussen in December, and costarred with Chandler in TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a show-stealer as Max and Annie’s next-door-neighbor, Gary, a super-uptight state trooper who would do anything to be a part of their game nights.

Bateman is as dependable as always, an even-keeled Everyman plunged into wildly unreasonable circumstances. McAdams shows formidable gung-ho comedic chops. They’re a terrific team, and the movie interweaves a subplot about their uphill struggle to get pregnant and have kids, and how Max’s stress (very likely brought on by his constant inferiority complex around his brother, Brooks) could be a factor.

GN-FP-0027Game Night manages the tricky mix of broad comedy with shoot-outs and rollicking action sequences that—as even the characters admit—would fit easily into a Liam Neeson flick. There are many hilarious bits throughout, including a high-stakes “keep-away” toss match with a highly prized Febergé egg that spans several rooms and levels of a mansion; a little, fluffy white dog making a big, bloody mess; and Annie improvising as a back-alley medic for Max with a bottle of cheap wine, a squeak toy, her iPhone and a sewing kit.

The characters start out as competitors, but as the game becomes something more than a game, their competition turns to cooperation. That’s the message of Game Night when it’s all over and everyone comes out a winner—despite the bullet holes, knife wounds and slightly higher body count than you’d find in a typical round of Never Have I Ever.

Well played, everyone!

In theaters Friday, Feb. 23, 2018











Cool Cat

Sensational Black Panther is right-on, right now & at just the right time

BlackPanther5a5e4a1e21acb (72)

Chadwick Boseman with Lupita Nyong’o (left) and Letitia Wright

Black Panther
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Michael B. Jordan, Martin Freeman & Danai Gurira
Directed by Ryan Coogler

Chadwick Boseman has made history come alive in the movies by playing trailblazing black soul singer James Brown, pioneering black baseball legend Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

He makes history in another way now as Black Panther, the first major black superhero.

In director Ryan Coogler’s sensational new, sure-to-be-blockbuster origin story for the Marvel character first introduced in the comics in 1966, and appearing briefly onscreen in Captain America: Civil War, Boseman stars as T’Challa, the ruler of the fictional, isolated African nation of Wakanda, a little country with a big secret: The rest of the world thinks it’s a dirt-poor Third World scrap of nothing, but it’s actually the most technologically advanced spot on the planet.

Thanks to the extremely rare meteoric ore vibranium, found only in Wakanda, T’Challa’s nation has bullet-proof armor, hi-tech weaponry, flying vehicles and space-age science and medicine. (Vibranium is also the stuff that was used to make Captain America’s shield, FYI.) And, no surprise, there are certain people on the outside who’ll do anything to get inside to get what they’ve got.

Crowned king after the death of his father, T’Challa prefers Wakanda’s low profile and wants to keep his country and its mega-mineral under wraps; he has sworn to protect his people and his nation’s potent resource. Others around him, like his friend and ally W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, who starred in Get Out), disagree: Why not share the wealth—and use Wakanda’s knowledge and power to help and endow the rest of the world?


Danai Gurira (right) plays the fierce—and fiercely loyal—leader of Wakanda’s all-female legion of palace guards.

The ensemble cast is outstanding, and the screenplay (by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) gives everyone a spotlight. Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a Wakandian “war dog” spy who mixes revolution with romance as she tugs on T’Challa’s heartstrings. Okoye (Danai Gurira from The Walking Dead) is the fierce general of the palace’s all-female special-forces squad. Angela Bassett plays Romonda, T’Challa’s mother, who reminds the king of the tradition and ritual that anchor their nation’s advances in science and technology.


Letitia Wright

Newcomer Letitia Wright nearly steals the show as T’Challa’s sassy little sister, Shuri, a tech-savvy gadget guru in charge making Black Panther’s amazing body-armor sheath, plus virtual-reality cars, Wakanda’s sonic-powered air trains and just about everything else. The scene in which she shows her big brother the new gizmos she’s crafted for his upcoming dangerous assignment abroad is a hoot that recalls gadget master Q schooling James Bond—and even makes a wry, wink-wink reference to those classic spy flicks.

Andy Serkis (best-known as the motion-capture actor who played Caesar in the Planet of the Apes franchise and Gollum in Lord of the Rings) is a ruthless international arms dealer who threatens to blow Wakanda’s cover. Michael B. Jordan (who worked with director Conger in Creed and Fruitville Station) plays a mercenary fighter who becomes a challenger to T’Challa’s throne—and a link to secrets in the royal family’s past.

The Wakanda family tree has another couple of branches with T’Challa’s uncles, Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and N’Jobu (This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown, who costarred with Boseman in Marshall). Martin Freeman provides humor as a CIA agent who suddenly finds himself in a whole new world, in more ways than one, when he’s transported to Wakanda.

nullWith a—mostly—all-black cast and a black superhero surrounded by black, super-empowered, kick-ass women, Black Panther is a right-on movie at the right time. It gets down with super-timely real-world issues—global politics, refugees, wealth distribution, white colonization, black subjugation, the ethical obligations of powerful nations—and makes the impossible-to-miss point that “Third World” places deemed (by a head of state or anyone else) under-developed, undesirable or worse  may actually hold unfathomable treasures.

It’s got action—a knockout fight scene in a Hong Kong casino, hand-to-hand battles on the precipice of a massive waterfall, and a sprawling, CGI brawl on a Wakanda plain, with crashing airships, clashing armies and charging, armor-plated rhinos. It’s got a smashing design, full of color and spectacle, a mix of vibrant African culture and mythos intermeshed with brainy, comic-book sci-fi—like Tarzan meets Star Trek. And it’s fully engaged with the Marvel universe, ready to plug-and-play. Boseman’s Black Panther will appear next, along with Captain America, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Thor and characters from Guardians of the Galaxy, in Avengers: Infinity War, in May.

But for now, sit back, soak it up and watch it shine: In the red, white and blue hue-niverse of American superhero colors, black is the new beautiful.

In theaters Feb. 16, 2018

He Says, She Says

Brainy rom-com finds the funny in battle of the sexes


Toby Kebbell, left, and Whitney Cummings explore the differences between how men and women think in ‘The Female Brain.’

The Female Brain
Starring Whitney Cummings, Toby Kebbell, Sofia Vergara, Cecily Strong & James Marsden
Directed by Whitney Cummings
Not Rated
In theaters Feb. 9, 2018

What goes on in your head?

Everything, according to science—and according to this new movie comedy from the actress and comedian who created, executive produced and wrote for the hit TV sitcom 2 Broke Girls.

Whitney Cummings, making her directorial debut, stars as no-nonsense neurologist Julia Brizendine, researching the biochemistry and behavior of women. Her character is based on real-life scientist and neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, whose 2010 books The Female Brain and The Male Brain examined hormonal-based differences between men and women.

Julia’s research, she tells an audience at a presentation, seeks to understand the way ancient, hardwired chemical and electrical processes in the brain “affect—and sometimes sabotage—our relationships.”

The large ensemble cast illustrates many of the book’s heady ideas in humorous ways, like how testosterone makes men feel aggressive and territorial, or how a rush of pheromones can cause women to make regrettable choices on a date, or in choosing a mate.


Cecily Strong

Sofia Vergara (of TV’s Modern Family) and Deon Cole (Black-ish and Angie Tribeca) portray a married couple who’ve lost their romantic spark. Can they get their love life back on track? Zoe (Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong) is trying to get her marketing career off the ground at an ad agency headed by a real heel (the movie’s co-writer, Neal Brennan); she’s married to superstar athlete Greg (real-life Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin), temporarily sidelined by injury and now a bit unmoored, unsteady and unsure of how to use his downtime.


James Marsden

All-American Adam (James Marsden, Westworld) and his British girlfriend, Lexi (Judy Punch), can’t quite overcome their cultural divide; she never gets any of his references to junk TV or fast-food TV commercials, and he can’t adjust to how—or understand why—she keeps trying to change him.

And then there’s Dr. Julia (Cummings), who meets all her emotional needs by keeping the right synapses firing and regulating her chemicals through diet and rigorous attention to romance-free routine. At least that’s what she tells her assistant, Abby (Beanie Feldstein, also in Lady Bird and recently on Broadway opposite Bette Midler in Hello Dolly—and FYI, she’s actor Jonah Hill’s sister). But Julia’s brain gets an unexpected buzz when she meets a handsome new study participant, the unreconstructed handyman Kevin (Toby Kebbell, who played the villainous Messala in the 2016 Biblical epic Ben-Hur).

There are cameo appearances, as well, by Marlo Thomas, Jane Seymour, Will Sasso and Ben Platt, who won a 2017 Tony Award for starring on Broadway in Dear Evan Hanson.

As director, co-writer and lead actor, Cummings juggles everything with confidence and craft, jazzing up the traditional movie-comedy format with some fresh, clever touches. She freeze-frames characters’ faces to “map” graphics of their brains and highlight regions being stimulated in given situations, and uses montages of old film clips to whimsically show concepts like fight or fight, social bonding and epigenetic imprinting—the scientific term for “turning into your mother.”

TFB_WC+04+-+Approved (2) (72)An early shot of wrinkled, crinkled cerebral lobes dissolves into crumpled bedsheets while Dr. Julia’s narration explains that evolution shaped brain activity to accommodate the change from galloping sexual pursuit to long-haul, settled-down commitment. Later, Julia and Kevin have a Very Important Conversation in a very cool bookstore, where Kevin is working stringing delicate, decorative lights. The scene and the setting suggest that knowledge, books and science—and circuitry—can get you so far, but at some point, men and women just need to be honest with each other and talk it out.

“I know how the brain works,” Julia says. Cummings, who also executive produced, wrote and starred in her own CBS sitcom, Whitney, from 2011 to 2013, knows how comedy works, too. This brainy, battle-of-the-sexes rom-com works to make you laugh—and perhaps understand a bit more about why we think, act, communicate and behave the way we do.


Bank Busters


Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman & Alan Arkin star in the new remake of Going in Style.

Freeman, Caine & Arkin are geriatric heist-ers in ‘Going in Style’ 

Going in Style
Starring Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine & Alan Arkin
Directed by Zach Braff
In theaters April 7, 2017

When the tide of fortune turns against three lifelong retirees, leaving them in desperate financial straits, they hatch a plan to rob the bank that screwed them.

In Hollywood, that’s what called a “high concept” movie, a film with a premise that can be easily, neatly described in just a few words. Hollywood loves high concepts; they’re easy to market and audiences “get” them right away. And if this one sounds familiar, it’s because it was a movie already, in 1979, with George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasburg.

This time around, it’s Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin as Willie, Joe and Albert, the trio of Brooklyn geriatrics who are spurred into action when they find out the steel mill for which they used to work is being shut down and financially reconfigured in a corporate spasm of layoffs, mergers and offshore outsourcing.

To add to the insult and injury, the company’s pension fund has been dissolved and their monthly payments frozen and used to pay off debt—and managed by their local bank, which has also put the hard squeeze on Joe, threatening to foreclose on his house.

untitled-01881.dngTimes are tough, the wolf is at the door and Willie, Joe and Albert are down to pinching pennies—and foregoing their usual daily indulgence of dessert at the local diner. But the saucy waitress (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) brings them a serving anyway. “Always have your pie,” she tells them. “Life is short.”

When they decide to get back their pension pie, they seek out and enlist the aid of a “lowlife” (John Ortiz), who agrees to school them in how to plan and plot the robbery. That introduces a snazzy segment in the movie that’s kind of like Grumpy Old Men meets Oceans 11.

Everything about Going in Style is geared for comedy, but it’s impossible to miss the serious, timely theme on which it’s built: greedy companies and institutions that don’t care about customers or employees—or old people. “Banks practically destroyed this country,” says Joe, who was misled with a promotional “teaser rate” by his bank’s loan officer (Josh Pais) and then saw his mortgage payments triple. “They crushed a lot of people’s dreams.”

Director Zach Braff, who starred as Dr. Dorian on TV’s Scrubs and previously directed Garden State and Wish I Was Here, keeps things light and lively and gets fine performances from his three leading men—Oscar winners all around, who share 11 nominations between them—and also from his game supporting cast.


Keenan Thompson

Ann-Margaret plays a sex-kitten grandma with the hots for Albert. Saturday Night Live’s Keenan Thompson makes the most of every moment as a grocery store manager where the three senior citizens go to rehearse their heist. Matt Dillion is a befuddled police detective who’s always one step behind the old-timers. Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd is a crazy neighborhood coot.


Joey King plays the granddaughter of Joe (Michael Caine).

And kids almost steal the show. Joey King, who starred on the previous season of Fargo and in last year’s Independence Day, has a significant role as Joe’s adoring teenage granddaughter, Brooklyn. Willie has a cute granddaughter, too—played by young Ashley Aufderheide, whose face on his wristwatch becomes an integral part of the plotline. And Jeremy Schinder gets a chuckle—or two—as a young musician with a yearning to ditch his sax and spread his wings in dance, like Beyoncé.

Braff, working from a screenplay by Theodore Melfi (who directed last year’s Hidden Figures) uses broad, something-for-everybody strokes, even though the movie’s default audience will probably age-shift toward the demo of its three main actors (i.e., older). There’s slapstick, witty banter, quippy one-liners and a cross-generational tone to the humor that never gets smutty or crass. The soundtrack includes tunes by Dean Martin, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke alongside A Tribe Called Quest and Mark Ronson & Mystikal. And there’s one strategically placed F-bomb.

Alongside the funny business, there’s also plenty of sweetness and affection, as when Willie plants a warm kiss on his computer screen on the image of his granddaughter, and Joe dutifully meets Brooklyn every day to walk her home after school.

Early in the movie, Joe floats the stick-up idea to Willie and Al, who give him instant push-back. Younger robbers often fail—or get caught and go to jail, says Willie. What makes Joe think they could pull it off?

“We’ve got skills, experience, knowledge…” Joe points out.

“Arthritis… shingles… gout…” counters Willie.

Going in Style has the ingredients of a warm, welcome night out for moviegoers who don’t want superheroes, bombastic special effects, space aliens, raunchy jokes or 3-D cartoons.

And everybody gets a piece of pie.