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The Game: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The Game (1997) movie poster The Game

Theatrical Release: September 12, 1997 / Running Time: 129 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: David Fincher / Writers: John Brancato, Michael Ferris / Songs List

Cast: Michael Douglas (Nicholas Van Orton), Sean Penn (Conrad Van Orton), Deborah Kara Unger (Christine/Claire), James Rebhorn (Jim Feingold/Lionel Fisher), Peter Donat (Samuel Sutherland), Carroll Baker (Ilsa), Anna Katarina (Elizabeth), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Anson Baer), Charles Martinet (Nicholas' Father), Scott Hunter McGuire (Young Nicholas Van Orton), Florentine Mocanu (Nicholas' Mother), Elizabeth Dennehy (Maria), Caroline Barclay (Maggie), Daniel Schorr (Himself), Jack Kehoe (Lieutenant Sullivan), Tommy Flanagan (Solicitor/Taxi Driver D Marshall), Mark Boone Junior (Shady Private Investigator)

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After a few years of directing commercials and music videos, David Fincher transitioned to feature films with Alien 3.
Though the sci-fi franchise was respected and the job made him a successor to Ridley Scott and James Cameron, Fincher's 1992 threequel was stunted both critically and commercially. He got a chance to redeem himself three years later with Seven (or Se7en, if you insist). The dark serial killer thriller was a box office hit and announced Fincher as a young talent to watch. And yet, not enough people did watch what the filmmaker did next: the 1997 psychological thriller The Game.

Even fewer watched Fincher's fourth film, Fight Club (1999). But after underperforming in theaters, that anarchic drama caught the world's attention on home video and was quickly exalted to cult classic status. Still, an intriguing concept was probably more responsible for the success of Fincher's next film, Panic Room (2002). Five years later, Fincher won critical approval and moviegoer apathy with Zodiac, the lowest-grossing work of his career. The following year offered Fincher both rebound and reinvention with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a hit big budget effects-heavy drama that was decorated with nominations from the Academy Awards and other high-profile organizations that had repeatedly overlooked the director's work in the past.

Benjamin Button, Fincher's first PG-13 movie, would kick off a winning streak for the director that has continued with The Social Network, one of the most talked about films of this century and undoubtedly the runner-up for 2010's Best Picture Oscar, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, unlikely material for a $100 million domestic/$200 million worldwide run and one of the edgiest movies to elicit an Oscar win, even just a technical one.

Over these past few years of acclaim and conversation, the once well-kept secret of Fincher's extraordinary filmmaking talent seems to have been let out to everyone around the world. Though it seems unlikely that anyone, let alone someone with as many downs as Fincher, could long maintain his impressive current streak of strong attendance and numerous accolades on non-tentpole fare, the director seems to have reached a threshold where his every move should get noticed and his every movie considered for the industry's highest honors.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) takes a close look at the strange clown doll he brought inside his home.

That was not the case five years ago and certainly wasn't fifteen years ago when Fincher made The Game. Sure, the studio could advertise this Michael Douglas film as coming from the director of Seven. Wisely, the soon to be sold and shuttered PolyGram Filmed Entertainment did just that. It may have helped the film come close to matching its $50 M budget from domestic engagements. But The Game deserved more than theatrical unprofitability. At last, it is getting that with its long-wished-for, rumored, and awaited readmission into The Criterion Collection, who last released it on laserdisc in 1998. Just the second Fincher film to claim a spine number in that much respected line celebrating important world cinema, The Game hits Blu-ray and returns to DVD with the bonus features that until now have entirely eluded it on 5-inch discs.

The film opens on October 11th, the 48th birthday of wealthy, calloused San Francisco investment banker Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas). Remembering the occasion allows Nicholas' troubled younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) to reconnect with him for the first time in years. Conrad's present to Nicholas is a gift certificate to a business vaguely named Consumer Recreation Services. To redeem it, Nicholas has to endure hours of personality profiling, physical examination, and psychological evaluation. After all that fuss, CRS calls the businessman to inform him his application has been rejected. He will not be getting the exciting, one-of-a-kind experience tailored to fit his life that Conrad and others had promised.

Shortly thereafter, things get a little strange for Nicholas. There is a full-sized clown doll placed within the gates of his mansion in the same position where Nicholas' father landed in a suicidal jump that Nicholas witnessed in his youth and continues to be haunted by. Nicholas' ritual late night financial news television viewing turns into a creepy address to him. There is a bizarre restaurant outing, in which a waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) spills wine all over Nicholas and gets fired. The two strangers wind up on a night adventure of puzzling ambulance and elevator rides, alley chases, and dumpster dives.

Nicholas' life of comfort quickly unravels and he is gripped with paranoia. No aspect of his life, from his house to his bank accounts to his brother, appear to be off-limits to this "game" coordinated by a cryptic institution that supplies ambiguous keys but no answers.

The screening stage small talk of CRS executive Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn) goes unappreciated by glum Nicholas (Michael Douglas). Nicholas (Michael Douglas) finds himself stuck in the back seat of a runaway taxi cab bound for water.

The Game is an unlikely triumph for screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, a partnership that for years had toiled on schlocky direct-to-video action, horror, and sci-fi fare that you've probably never heard of: Watchers II, Mindwarp, Severed Ties, Interceptor. Brancato and Ferris got their break on the Sandra Bullock technology thriller The Net.
Their careers should have taken off with The Game. Instead, they followed "The Net" to television for one season on the USA Network. Their next TV series, NBC's "The Others" (2000), premiered midseason and didn't live to the following fall. Not until 2003 did Brancato and Ferris return to theaters with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and they are still living down their embarrassing subsequent effort, Halle Berry's Razzie-winning Catwoman.

It helps to have your script placed in the hands of a master like David Fincher. But the screenplay is full of creative ideas that fuel the rich paranoid, conspiratorial atmosphere. There are many twists and turns that should move The Game irreversibly into a territory of preposterousness, but the film does an exquisite job of plugging the obvious holes and not allowing us to linger on any not clearly raised. The unlikely situations Nicholas Van Orton finds himself in are all remarkably believable, as authorities are perplexed and there isn't a clear legal course of action.

Engaging, suspenseful, frightening, and taut, The Game is first-class storytelling and filmmaking. On this viewing, my first in a long time, I found The Game reminiscent of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, specifically the dark, modern, and comedic retelling Scrooged. It's easy to view this mystery as a redemption tale and one in which a rich, stingy, heartless miser has his world turned upside down and is forced to confront his past, present, and future. (I was both tickled and humbled to later find the insert claiming Fincher himself made this comparison to Dickens.)

Carrying the film on his shoulders, Michael Douglas really sells the material with his tour-de-force performance. This is a movie where you aren't supposed to notice the acting, your focus instead going to puzzling situations as they present themselves. Douglas acts accordingly, never allowing his reactions and portrayal of gradual mental breakdown to overshadow the story they are serving.

Not everyone will love the film's tidy resolution, but I find it supremely satisfying and the perfect antidote to the two hours of extreme tension that precede it.

The Game: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English Theatrical, English Near Field Remix)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available as 2-Disc DVD ($29.95 SRP); Still available as 1-Disc Universal DVD ($9.99 SRP; August 27, 2002) and on Amazon Instant Video; Previously released as Universal HD DVD (April 17, 2007) and Polygram DVD (March 31, 1998)

VIDEO and AUDIO

You're absolutely right if you expect that the combination of David Fincher, The Criterion Collection, and high definition will yield splendid results. The Game's 2.40:1 Blu-ray presentation looked just about perfect to my eyes. The film's dark, high-contrast original look is maintained, with just a hint of the greenish-yellow hues that Fincher has applied more readily to his other works. Pristine and detailed, this transfer is undoubtedly a huge improvement over the movie's original DVD, which was repackaged many times but never enhanced for 16:9 displays.

The default 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix is also terrific. The crisp dialogue and Howard Shore's enriching score are nicely presented with weight and impact. We also get some potent atmosphere on occasion, such as in the memorable diegetic blaring of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." If you're not satisfied with that theatrical reproduction, there is an alternate 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack supervised by the film's sound designer Ren Klyce. The booklet explains that this "near field" remix is suited for viewing in small rooms with modest volume levels.

Nicholas (Michael Douglas) considers a cab ride in this short alternate ending. Nicholas' arrival at Christine's house is presented in photo, storyboard, and finished forms. David Fincher directs Michael Douglas in a burning Mexican graveyard.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Long accompanied by just two trailers and cast/crew biographies and credits on DVD, The Game is at last treated to the more respectable set
it deserves as a David Fincher film. Alas, everything here dates back to Criterion's 1998 laserdisc.

Extras begin with an audio commentary recorded in 1997. It features David Fincher, Michael Douglas, writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris, director of photography Harris Savides, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug. They are recorded separately and pieced together with a moderator announcing their names at each's entrance. With Fincher leading the way, this is an informative track that reveals how the film developed and changed shape. The speakers' varied backgrounds give the track many perspectives, touching on script revisions, casting, imagery, lighting, tone, on-set atmosphere, and a film's lifeline. It is a worthwhile listen full of rewarding revelations.

On the video side, all extras are presented in high definition.

First up is a short alternate ending (1:11). It's very simple, but it might be an improvement over the very end of the film, the only part it alters.

Split-screen film-to-storyboard comparisons are offered on four major action sequences: "Dog Chase" (3:47), "The Taxi" (3:09), "Christine's House" (4:11), and "The Fall" (1:03). They are nothing revolutionary, but at least the storyboards look more like an unfinished graphic novel than the usual crude preproduction sketches. Also, "Christine's House" adds a third layer: photos, in which location scout Richard Schuler stands in for Michael Douglas.

Behind the Scenes footage is offered for the same four sequences: "Dog Chase" (4:15), "The Taxi" (11:56), "Christine's House" (4:50), and "The Fall" (7:43). A fifth clip (9:29) covers various location shoots. Interwoven with the finished scenes, the B-roll gives us looks at filming with stunt doubles, animal trainers, moving cameras, Fincher directing, the creation of storyboards, and multiple takes. The footage is accompanied by sporadic, optional audio commentary by the same people who speak from the feature commentary minus the screenwriters. As there isn't too much to hear much in the raw recordings themselves (either score or "rolling", "action", "cut", etc.), this detail-sweating talk adds value. Either way, though, it's fun to see but not exactly riveting.

The Psychological Test Film presents a montage of widely varying clips, such as this woman in a car, and words. Michael Douglas looks into your soul on The Game's Criterion Collection Blu-ray menu.

Merely excerpted in the film as something to which Nicholas is subjected to as part of his CRS sign-up, the full, silent Psychological Test Film (1:07) flashes random varied video snippets and emotional words on screen. Too bad it's not longer or loopable as it is pretty awesome in the vein of a museum video art exhibit.

Finally, Trailers serves up three short videos: a teaser (1:34) that plays audio over a computer-animated marionette, a render test of the same teaser's animation (0:59), and the standard final theatrical trailer (2:26). All three are accompanied by audio commentary (all but the second, optional): the teasers by digital animation supervisor Richard "Dr." Baily and the standard trailer by a cynical Fincher.

It's a little disappointing that nothing entirely new is presented here, as retrospection, deleted scenes, or even just some Fincher-directed music videos would have been nice.
More "Play All" buttons would have been appreciated too.

The scored menu utilizes portions of the unusual psychological test montage along with other televised-style film clips. As always, Criterion equips the disc with bookmarking and resuming capabilities.

With this and other Criterion releases, the fun continues inside the clear keepcase, where we find a 20-page booklet. This nicely illustrated companion contains the essential information: disc credits, transfer details, chapter titles, cast list. It also includes "All in the Game", a great new essay by film professor/critic David Sterritt. It tastefully exalts the film, closely reading into it while comparing it to Fincher's other films and additional works of fiction from literature to Hitchcock's thrillers.

His home vandalized by fluorescent graffiti and blaring Jefferson Airplane, Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) reaches for his gun.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Game does not get as much credit as David Fincher's other films, but I maintain that it is one of his best. This '90s thriller gets the lavish treatment it deserves in Criterion's satisfying Blu-ray Disc, which delivers a fantastic feature presentation and a good collection of supplements. I highly recommend both this fine disc and the smart, sharp suspense film it holds; both are worthy of your time and money.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by David Fincher: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Criterion Collection) Zodiac (Director's Cut)
Michael Douglas: Traffic (Criterion Blu-ray) Wall Street Solitary Man Ghosts of Girlfriends Past Napoleon and Samantha
Featuring Sean Penn: The Thin Red Line The Tree of Life | Written by Michael Ferris & John Brancato: Surrogates Primeval
Criterion Does the '90s: Being John Malkovich Shallow Grave Rushmore Ransom Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
More 1990s Thrills: The Usual Suspects Enemy of the State Grosse Pointe Blank The Rainmaker Jackie Brown The Big Lebowski The Firm
New: Titanic Arachnophobia On the 2nd Day of Christmas The Faculty The Halloween Tree Ebbie
Scrooged The Ring North by Northwest A Serious Man Chinatown

The Game Songs List: Cast - "Happy Birthday to You", Walter Afanasieff - "House of Pain", "In the Mall", Vise Grip & The Ambassadors - "Icy Blue", The Red Clay Ramblers - "Hiawatha's Lullaby", "Elevator Song", Chet Swiatkowski - "Clair De Lune", Vise Grip & The Ambassadors - "Liar's Moon", Jefferson Airplane - "White Rabbit", The New Classic Singers - "Call Me", Matthew Sweet - "Hollow", Dave Crimmen - "Take Me Baby", The Rhythm Lords - "Java Headed Woman", Willie Bobo - "Going Out of My Head", Teresa Teng Selection, Vise Grip & The Ambassadors - "Life Goes to a Party", Vise Grip & The Ambassadors - "The Best is Yet to Come"

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Reviewed September 12, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1997 Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films, and 2012 The Criterion Collection, Universal Studios, and Focus Features.
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