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Strange Expectations

Game Night, Mute and Annihilation

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GAME NIGHT. We live in a time of lowered expectations, especially when it comes to the movies. And yet, somehow I often find just enough optimism, somewhere, within this long thought dry well, to fall for the marketing or the pedigree or the fleeting hopeful mood of an afternoon and give a movie the benefit of the doubt. It's been years since this extension of good will has been met with much beyond disappointment, particularly when applied to comedies. The struggle continues, though, because this is something of a golden age for comedy everywhere but at the movies. Stand-up specials appear too thick and fast to count, and podcasts have introduced improvisation and sketch to a wider audience than perhaps they deserve. Even TV, in its convalescence, is rife with ever more scripted comedy. And some of this stuff is actually funny; the question of why so little of it makes it to the theater merits a fuller discussion. For our purposes, we'll just agree that mainstream movie comedies are a pretty consistent bummer.

That doesn't stop me from getting my hopes up, though, and so the ridiculous little Sisyphean game continues apace.

At first blush, Game Night seems promising: Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make for unlikely co-leads but they each have a distinct, often captivating screen presence, their own brand of weirdness and strong comic timing. Jesse Plemons, even in a supporting role, can only help things. And (see above) I'm always willing to reward the risks of R-rated comedy with my goodwill, even after these long, cold years. Despite some surprisingly inventive stylistic choices by directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, Game Night is little more than more of the same.

Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams), a well-matched couple drawn together by their competitiveness and obsession with parlor games, are struggling to get pregnant. Max's sperm have apparently been immobilized by stress, attributable in large part to his fear-worship of his charismatic and occasionally cruel older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). Annie seems to be present only to support and react to Max, which is another longer conversation. They host game nights at their home, accompanied by Kevin and Michelle, another married couple with their own conflict to address (an under-utilized Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), an attractive, generally clueless serial dater of vapid Instagram "models." Gary (Plemons), their socially awkward police officer neighbor, unwittingly forfeited his invitation in his recent divorce. Their punishingly standard suburban routine is ruptured when Brooks breezes back into town, shaming Max, charming the rest of the group and promising to host his own evening of amusements. This, of course, sets the stage for a night long struggle for survival that's supposed to be shocking, I guess, but at least funny. It has its moments but they are relatively sparse and owe more to smart casting than anything else. R. 100m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

MUTE. Director Duncan Jones has been quietly establishing himself as one of the more distinct voices in contemporary cinematic science fiction for roughly a decade, starting with Moon (2009) and then Source Code (2011), both of which use a genre often given to grandiosity as mechanism to explore deeply human, nuanced themes. Each is worth the time. I haven't seen Warcraft (2016) and I don't know anyone who has. It was apparently quite successful internationally. Whatever it is/was, we can set it aside for now because I am reasonably confident that Mute shares more with the director's preceding work.

In Berlin, some decades from now, a bartender named Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), rendered speechless in a childhood accident, has fallen in love with a blue haired girl named Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). The city where they live is a complex and dangerous one, though, and they inhabit an especially treacherous part of it. When Naadirah disappears, Leo must navigate an underworld of sex traffickers, Russian mobsters and a couple of ex-military surgeons with dubious motives (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux).

Probably because I watched this in my living room, outside the shabbily sanctified atmosphere of the theater, it somehow seemed smaller than it should, less immersive and affecting. My reaction to it seems more likely attributable to the venue than to the acting (uniformly excellent) or the production design (vivid and distinctive), though the plot eventually ambles into pretty familiar territory. NETFLIX.

ANNIHILATION. With this, his second feature as director, veteran writer Alex Garland (here adapting the novel by Jeff VanderMeer) expands the paranoid, gorgeous, imagined world of Ex Machina (2014), while drilling down even more intensely into ideas of who we are, how we process the world in which we find ourselves and to what extent we create and manipulate that world. It's a tough, finely crafted movie very much its own, and one that defies description.

After the advent of an environmental anomaly, maybe somewhere in the American South, maybe in the near future, teams of soldiers, scientists and assorted volunteer guinea pigs venture into the affected zone to attempt to understand what has happened. Only one person has returned alive from these missions, an Army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac). He came back changed, though, and fell desperately ill shortly thereafter. Lena (Natalie Portman), an academic biologist and a veteran who is married to Kane, volunteers to join the next team going in. As their mission progresses, time loses its meaning and notions of immutability, of reality as formerly perceived, become subject to sudden and dramatic revision.

Annihilation will be dismissed by some as a genre picture, and by others for its moments of shocking violence, but it is probably the first great movie of the year and a marvel of set decoration, production design and, more vitally, of the imagination. R. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

—John J. Bennett

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.

Previews

THE ANIMATION SHOW OF SHOWS. More than a dozen animated shorts from around the world. 92m. MINIPLEX.

THE GODFATHER (1972). Leave the gun. Take the cannoli. R. 175m. BROADWAY.

DEATH WISH. Bruce Willis takes up the vigilante mantle in reboot of the Charles Bronson franchise that nobody was waiting for. With Vincent d'Onofrio and soon-to-be-fridged Elisabeth Shue. R. 108m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

FACES PLACES. A road documentary in which director Agnes Varda and photographer and muralist JR bond as they schlepp a photo booth in a truck around France. PG. 89m. MINIPLEX.

RED SPARROW. Spy thriller about a Russian dancer (Jennifer Lawrence) forced into espionage training — which seems excessive when you think how easy it is to get lunch with a Trump son — and sent after a CIA operative (Joel Edgerton). R. 139m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

Continuing

BLACK PANTHER. One of the more interesting characters in the Marvel movie-verse in a big, exhilarating movie from director Ryan Coogler with a fine villainous turn by Michael B. Jordan, though some of its fascinating, nuanced story is lost in requisite superhero noise. PG13. 134m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. This meticulously crafted adaptation about a romance between the roguish Oliver (Armie Hammer) and precocious, 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is charged with excitement, secrecy and the shame of new discovery. R. 132m. MINOR.

DARKEST HOUR. Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill as a new prime minister of an England with little appetite for conflict on the cusp of war with Germany. With Kristin Scott Thomas. PG13. 125m. MINOR.

EARLY MAN. The creators of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run return with a Claymation soccer battle between cave people and Bronze Age bullies. With Tom Hiddleston and Maisie Williams. PG. 89m. MILL CREEK.

FIFTY SHADES FREED. On-brand sex scenes strung together with a script, story and acting bad enough to make you blush. Starring a creepily infantilized Dakota Johnson and a cardboard cutout of Jamie Dornan. R. 101m. BROADWAY.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. Hugh Jackman sings and dances as P.T. Barnum because a sucker's born every minute. With Michelle Williams and Zac Efron. PG. 105m. BROADWAY.

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE. A remake of the 1995 board game adventure starring Dwayne Johnson. PG-13. 119m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE. The last of the video game-inspired action series with a boy band of rebels, fighting lame adults who are sacrificing teens to find a cure for a disease. Starring Dylan O'Brien and Rosa Salazar. PG13. 142m. BROADWAY.

PETER RABBIT. A clever and ultimately kind live-action/animated comedy barely based on Beatrix Potter's books. With James Corden voicing Peter, Domhnall Gleeson as Mr. McGregor's control-freak nephew and Rose Byrne as a rabbit-sympathizing artist. PG. 93m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

THE SHAPE OF WATER. Guillermo del Toro's exquisite love story/fable/tribute to monster movies of yesteryear showcases its stellar cast, including Sally Hawkins as a mute woman who falls in love with an amphibian (Doug Jones) and Michael Shannon as an evil scientist. R. 123m. BROADWAY.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. A sterling cast (Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and Peter Dinklage) in a drama about a small-town murder but the film unravels in the last act. R. 115m. BROADWAY.

WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT. Guns don't kill; ghosts do. Haunted house scares with Helen Mirren in head-to-toe black lace as the heir to the Winchester rifle empire. With Jason Clarke. PG13. 99m. BROADWAY.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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