FilmSpace: Game Night; You Were Never Really Here; Annihilation

15/03/2018
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CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the films of the moment

THE OSCARS ARE OVER, THE GLASGOW FILM FESTIVAL IS DONE for another year, so we’re back to business as usual. Successful comedies, a Scottish filmmaker at the height of her powers, and an unrivalled sci-fi epic make up this week’s FilmSpace.

Game Night – ★★★☆☆

In post-Oscars March, it’s easy to forget not every film has to be depressing, thematically weighty, and in a foreign language. After the deluge of films we’ve been told for months we must like, we need to reacclimatise, to remember that some films aren’t out to change the world, but just want to entertain.

Enter Game Night. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play a married couple who regularly host game nights, and their competitive streak was what first brought them together at a pub quiz. Bateman’s Max is nervous about having a child, and his anxiety is ramped up by the arrival of his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), a more attractive, more successful version of himself. True to character, Brooks wants to throw his own game night, promising bigger and better things than Max could ever deliver.

Its real success is in how uncynical it is: it really does just want to make you laugh.

It all goes off the rails as a murder-mystery evening turns into a real crime scene: Brooks is kidnapped by masked thugs, but given his penchant for not doing anything by half, the rest of the gang are swept up in the spectacle, surely orchestrated by Max’s brother.

Its set-up is silly, and so is the film, but it has such pure intentions. It doesn’t rely on shock humour, it isn’t offensive, and one scene that comes close to gross-out humour is funny because of its awkwardness more than how graphic it is. What it is is a sharply timed, witty ride. There are plenty of gags dedicated to cinephiles and game nighters alike (the Operation scene is particularly great), but even without these knowing-nods, it’s consistently hilarious throughout.

Its real success is in how uncynical it is: it really does just want to make you laugh. The funniest films often aren’t comedies, but have moments of humour in them (like Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical winner at the Golden Globes, The Martian), because modern comedies come in the shape of the atrocious Daddy’s Home 2 and Dirty Grandpa. In Game Night, we have a genuinely funny, unpatronising film that does the genre proud. It should never be taken for granted that feeling of walking out the cinema having laughed for the last 100 minutes, and so Game Night is a roaring success.

You Were Never Really Here – ★★★★☆

It’s easy to see Scotland’s own Lynne Ramsay’s new film You Were Never Really Here as an arthouse Taken, but it’s a bit of a different beast. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a hitman who is tasked with saving the young daughter of a politician from a brothel. It’s a familiar set up of an action film, but when the credits roll, it’s not the hammers to the face or the bust ups in alleyways that linger.

At the centre of the action is this character of Joe. He’s an intimidating figure, but not an unbelievable one. He could beat you up, but he’s got a belly on him, and his unshaven appearance makes him look a bit shabby (a consequence of Joaquin Phoenix playing Jesus in another film at the time). He has a vague history we see through flashes, and these flashes physically torture him. He has severe PTSD from a past life, so what You Were Never Really Here is more interested in is how Joe got here, to be in this place and making a living in this kind of work.

To call it beautiful is to undersell just how not-beautiful it is, but it’s the most fragile film to ever involve smashing people in the face with a hammer.

At only 90 minutes long, it’s edited within an inch of its life. Only the bare bones of information is on offer, with the viewer left to fill in the gaps. Yet, there’s enough here to see that the story being told extends past the film’s short runtime: we know more about Joe than what’s in the film through Ramsay’s masterfully crafted storytelling. He has come from somewhere, and that is just as important as the time we spend with him.

Jonny Greenwood’s score, as in Phantom Thread, is front and centre. It’s loud and jarring and dissonant, soundtracking Joe’s mental anguish and not the film’s plot. It’s been noted for its violence, yet there’s always something in the way to remove you from its brutality, either happening just off-screen or reflected in a mirror. Joe’s acts of violence towards himself are front and centre.

To call it beautiful is to undersell just how not-beautiful it is, but it’s the most fragile film to ever involve smashing people in the face with a hammer. It’s not about what is or isn’t happening, but about how Joe feels as he lives, and these flashes of a past life long to be forgotten but can’t be ignored. The aggression is in a futile fight with the past. Lynne Ramsay could orchestrate cinema with her eyes closed, and You Were Never Really Here finds emotion in a story fuelled by the lack of it, but more than that, it is brutally, unforgivingly precise.

Annihilation – ★★★★☆

Annhiliation comes with a backstory. Director Alex Garland has a hell of a CV, having been a novelist (The Beach) and written screenplays (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) before moving into directing (his debut Ex Machina is one of the best sci-fi films of the decade). After the success of Ex Machina, Paramount gave him $40m for his next feature (compared to his debut’s $15m) and he went off to adapt Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation.

Ex Machina’s three-hander was a character-driven study of AI, gender, and power struggles. It made $37m at the box office, a hearty success for a film made for less than half of that. Annihilation had a bigger target to reach, and Paramount bottled it – at the end of last year the decision was made to release it cinematically in only a few countries, before handing distribution over to Netflix. That means to see it on the big screen you will need to live in the US or China, while the rest of us have to make-do with a home release.

Poor test screenings meant producers became worried the film is “too intellectual” and “too complicated.” On top of this, it’s a film where all of the main protagonists are women, and nothing is made of the fact. Additionally, no punches are pulled when it comes to its vision, to the point where Garland rejected requests to change the ending.

Poor test screenings meant producers became worried the film is “too intellectual” and “too complicated.”

So this is an uncompromising, female-fronted, piece of visionary cinema. It’s what audiences have been calling for, yet what studios fear no one will show up to (a direct impact of poor box office for mother!?). It’s a once-a-year spectacle that those who seek it out will speak about for years to come, but for the first time, such an event has been denied a cinema roll-out.

What a shame too. Annihilation is incomparable to the point people need to dig out the go-to list of incomparable films, acknowledging influences from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stalker, and Under the Skin – all landmark achievements, all good company.

After a meteor crashes into a lighthouse, an umbrella of iridescence shrouds the crash site. Worryingly, it is growing in size, and any attempts to investigate what is within the area end with no one returning. Labelled The Shimmer, it is observed by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr Ventress, who leads a scientific expedition (the rest have been military) to try and understand what is going on.

We follow Natalie Portman’s Lena, an ex-military-now-professor cellular biologist, whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared a year ago in an unspecified mission. He returns, only to be a shadow of his former self, and quickly begins to violently cough up blood. Both Lena and her husband are whisked away to a secret facility which oversees The Shimmer. She volunteers to follow Dr Ventress, seeking her own understanding of what happened to Kane.

It’s not a jump-scare horror film, but it’s horrifying in the sense it feels like we’re seeing something we’re not supposed to see.

From there it’s a sensory experience like no other. The land under The Shimmer is hyper-saturated and teeming with uncanny life (an alligator with shark’s teeth, fawns with plants growing from their antlers), yet imperfectly diseased too. Growths adorn walls and buildings like a cancer of nature, and a multitude of lifeless plants grow from the same root.

It’s not a jump-scare horror film, but it’s horrifying in the sense it feels like we’re seeing something we’re not supposed to see. The scientists explore a piece of the earth where it seems the natural order of things has failed. It’s existentially terrifying.

Why not a perfect five out of five? For me, it is, but Paramount could be right to hesitate. Its wordless final half hour is either transcendental cinema or pretentious nonsense. It’s either a sensory marvel or a gilded slog. These high concept films take some meeting half-way, and those who make the journey into The Shimmer will be highly rewarded. Other may just find it all a bit much.

The Netflix question isn’t going away any time soon, but this is the first time it feels like a cinematic casualty when a film has bypassed a wide-release. For better or worse, you will not see another film like this in 2018, or in any other year. It’s a daring piece of work that Alex Garland has compromised nothing of before releasing it into the world. Annihilation sits with Ex Machina and Arrival as one of the best sci-fi films of the decade.