Streaming Spotlight: the games we play

Get on board with these contest and puzzle-focused films

by Jennie Kermode

Were this an ordinary Boxing Day in a year without a pandemic, many of us would be spending today playing games with our families – losing at ludo to four-year-olds, hustling a few coppers out of granny and grandpa at cards or enduring one of those hours-long Cluedo battles that take place before it emerges that nobody put any cards in the envelope to begin with. In the absence of such fun, we’ve turned our spotlight on games in the movies so that you can get into the seasonal spirit even if you’re far apart.

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle – Amazon Prime

We’re mostly steering away from computer games this time around – there are enough of them to deserve a spotlight of their own – but the Jumanji films began with a board game and despite the upgrade this one retains a lot of that spirit. It sees four friends transported into a game where the choices they make could have fatal consequences – or see them permanently trapped. There’s a great spirit of adventure here that will appeal to viewers of all ages, and likeable teenage characters well handled by the adult actors who play them inside the game make it easy to get on side. Entertaining action sequences are nicely balanced by jokes that everyone who enjoys games will appreciate.

The Seventh Seal
The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal – Amazon Prime

It’s said that a man facing death is entitled to challenge what fate has decreed for him. Returning from the Crusades through a land riven by the plague, Max Von Sydow’s troubled knight, Antonius Block, wants to perform one meaningful deed before it’s all over for him. He thinks his chance may have come when Death himself agrees to a game of chess. Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film reflects on the horrors of the world around them, framing it as a microcosm for the broader human condition, but it’s grim tone is balanced by sly humour, its weighty intellectual dialogue braced with with. Bengt Ekerot’s grim reaper is an unforgettable figure and this is a magnificent piece of cinema.

Puzzle
Puzzle

Puzzle - Chili

The great thing about jigsaws is that they’re fun to do whether you have company or not. Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) enjoys them so much that she starts training to play them competitively, inspired by her new friend Robert (Irrfan Khan). As director Marc Turtletaub observed when chatting to us about it, however, she fits so neatly into the background of other people’s lives that she’s failed to perceive the bigger picture of which she’s a part. It’s only when she starts to develop feelings for Robert and realises how empty her marriage has become that she realises there are other puzzles she will need to solve – and that might require separating the pieces first.

Fermat's Room
Fermat's Room

Fermat’s Room - Volta

Some games are trickier than others – and for the four mathematicians invited to a dinner party and games night in this Spanish thriller, they’re a matter of life and death. Though they are strangers to each other, they will need to play together – and use all their cunning, if they are to find a way out of the titular room before the walls close in and squash them, with their breathing space getting a little more restricted every time somebody makes a mistake. Naturally, there’s also a larger game underway as they try to work out who’s behind it all. The puzzles are clever without being inaccessible to reasonably smart viewers, the plotting is cleverer, and directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña squeeze out every last drop of tension.

Casino Royale
Casino Royale

Casino Royale – Amazon Prime, AppleTV, Google Play

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of Bond, and Daniel Craig’s first outing as the suave secret agent is an origin story of sorts, taking us back to 007’s first assignment. References to past Bond movies, some more subtle than others, are scattered throughout, creating a game for viewers to play as the spy applies himself to the card games through which he can get his man – if he plays them right. Mads Mikkelsen is the villain who has his number, sharper and less showy than most of his opponents, while Eva Green proves more than a match for him as a romantic foil. There’s some spectacular stunt work but it’s director Martin Campbell’s ability to arrest our attention at the game table that really stands out.

Pi
Pi

Pi – Amazon Prime, Chili, Google Play, AppleTV

Widely considered to be the world’s most challenging board game, and the one which saw humans hold out longest against machines (documentary AlphaGo explains how the machines eventually won, but is sadly not available to stream at present), It’s this game that gives structure to Darren Aronofsky’s breakthrough film, the tale of a mathematician who might have stumbled onto something big in his search for a secret code underlying everything, attracting the attention of religious fanatics and sinister financial interests alike. We also see the game itself played in a film that’s all about puzzles, both real and imagined – and the damage they can do to a man whose sanity is slowly giving way.

Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey
Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey

Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey – Amazon Prime, Google Play, AppleTV

Death is back, still in Ekerot guise (though played by William Sadler) but this time the challenge he faces is of a different kind. When they’re murdered by evil robot look-alikes from the future, righteous dudes Bill S Preston Esq (Alex Winter) and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan (Keanu Reeves) realise that their one chance is to beat him at a game, but chess isn’t really their thing – and Death proves a sore loser, constantly changing the terms of the agreement, when he discovers that his skills at battleships and Twister are lacking. There’s ultimately a friendlier approach to game playing going on here, however, and it is perhaps the only film in which Death himself gets a happy ending.

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