READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While there is a massive target audience for Steven Spielberg’s return to fantasy adventure filmmaking, I am most certainly not part of that esteemed group. Although I very much enjoy throwbacks and tributes, I haven’t touched a video game controller in 3 decades, and of course have not read Ernest Cline’s popular novel – the source material that inspired Mr. Spielberg to veer from his recent heavy dramas (the exception being THE BFG). Still, being a movie lover, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the project.

Seemingly a match made in Virtual Reality heaven, we get one of the premier fantasy filmmakers joining forces with a screenwriter (Zak Penn) who has had success with comic book adaptions, and a bestselling first novel from a geeky author. Fascinating to watch, the film plays like Mr. Spielberg’s $175 million personal toy box.

There is a story, though one could argue it exists solely for the purpose of pushing the visual FX envelope. A Steve Jobs-type guru named Halliday (Mark Rylance) designed a 3-part contest of skill and strategy with the grand prize being full control over OASIS – a virtual world that allows the players to be anyone or anything they desire. Since Halliday’s death, most people in this dystopian future of the year 2045 spend their waking hours immersed in OASIS. Some use it as an escape from their bleak lives, while others are attempting to solve the mysteries of the 3 keys.

Set in Columbus, Ohio, which we are informed is the fastest growing city in the world (why??), there are two factions vying for the grand prize: true gamers/gunters and megacorporation IOI being run by corporate villain Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Tye Sheridan (MUD) stars as Wade Watts, whose avatar is Parzival, one of the more thoughtful characters. Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS) plays Ar3mis, a rebel gunter (egg hunter) out more for revenge than victory. They are part of a group of misfits who label themselves ‘High-Five’, even though Parzival gets left hanging every time.

Near non-stop action and relentless pacing result in a whirlwind of lights and colors and visuals that are mixed with more 1980’s pop culture references than anyone could possibly catch in one viewing. As a primer, you should brace yourself for a key role from THE IRON GIANT (1999), as well as various appearances and nods to TRON, BACK TO THE FUTURE, Freddie Krueger, Chucky from CHILD’S PLAY, the Holy hand grenade (Monty Python), the infamous Big Foot monster truck, a speeding DeLorean, the 1960’s era Batmobile, that hideous A-Team van, Christine from CHRISTINE (1983), John Hughes, King Kong, BEETLEJUICE, and a personal favorite, Buckaroo Bonzai. It’s also a kick to see the Rubik renamed Zemeckis Cube. The most stunning sequence for this old geezer was the virtual recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), especially the focus on Room 237. It’s these kind of nostalgic injections that prevent it from coming across as an overblown CGI spectacle with VR goggles.

Others in the cast (more time as voices than real people) include Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), TJ Miller as a bounty hunter with some of the film’s best one-liners, Simon Pegg as Halliday’s former business partner, and Phillip Zhao as Sho. Surely you’ve figured out that this one isn’t about the cast. OASIS is where your imagination rules and Easter eggs are driving plot lines. Alan Silvestri takes over the music from usual Spielberg collaborator John Williams, and delivers one of my favorite references (and one of the oldest) in the film – WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski must have been exhausted by the time filming was complete, though we can’t always tell what was filmed and what was created in the lab. Spielberg is a master manipulator when it comes to nostalgia, though we can’t help but wonder if he is making a statement with this being the next evolution as our society becomes ever-more-involved with their phones and personal devices. At least maybe some kid will leave this film with a greater appreciation of research.

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THE POST (2017)

December 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first time a movie marquee has read “Spielberg-Streep-Hanks”, so expectations are sky high – and rightly so. The result is level of cinematic preciseness we don’t often see. As an added bonus, it also features both historical and contemporary relevance – the type of relevance that forces us to consider where we stand and what type of society we prefer. So for the price of a ticket, we get Hollywood star power, a history lesson, and current societal commentary … now that’s a holiday bargain!

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (Kay) Graham, the first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper, and she delivers her most nuanced performance in years … that of a conflicted woman coming to grips with her immense power at a time when many men believed she lacked the capacity for making such far-reaching and weighty decisions. Tom Hanks slides into the loafers of Ben Bradlee, the hard-charging editor of Ms. Graham’s newspaper, The Washington Post. The role fits Hanks like a glove, and he even brandishes Bradlee’s trademark growling speech pattern. Bradlee is laser-focused on what he believes is the right thing to do, and steadfast in his commitment to the cause.

Of course, the dilemma faced by these two involved the Pentagon Papers scandal of 1971. The film kicks off with a quick timeline of the political maneuverings that led to, and escalated, the Vietnam War. When Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked documents from the Defense Department’s study on decision-making during the Vietnam War, and the New York Times published some of the pages, the ramifications were numerous and the fallout was ugly. The complicated web of deceit and bad decisions spanned 5 Presidential administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). It became obvious that those in power continued a war they knew we couldn’t win. The cover-up was widespread and the string of lies were delivered by many. The government lost the people’s faith, and then tried to crush the free press that had exposed its dirty secrets.

It’s only been a couple of years since SPOTLIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture, and now that film’s Oscar winning writer Josh Singer teams with Liz Hannah on a script that is elevated by an extraordinary cast and crew. We get the real feel of the organized chaos of a newsroom, and it’s a thing of beauty. The clacking of typewriters, exuberant phone conversations, and a cloud of cigarette smoke all blend to create the fabric of an institution designed and intended to deliver the truth. As with all things, it’s never quite so simple. We learn of the historical collusion between press and politics, as reporters and editors commingled with politicians, only to draw the line when deemed necessary. Both sides have flaws, yet as citizens, we simply can’t tolerate the government manipulating and even quashing the free press – a free press designed to protect the governed, not those that govern (per the Supreme Court decision).

Steven Spielberg has delivered a master class of ethics vs legalities vs political power, touching on not just the responsibilities of all parties, but most crucially on the conflicting objectives of a free press (making money) and the government system (getting elected) it is charged with holding accountable. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (two time Oscar winner, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER’S LIST) captures the authenticity of the newsroom, the intimacy of private discussions, and the fascinating look back at typesetting machines and a newspaper delivery system that silently forces us to recognize the power of today’s internet.

As you would expect, the supporting cast is remarkable and deep. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood (as Robert McNamara), Alison Brie (Kay’s daughter), Carrie Coon (reporter/editor Meg Greenfield), Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife), Jesse Plemons (attorney Roger Clark), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as NY Times publisher Abe Rosenthal) all bring realism to their roles. Two particular standouts are Tracy Letts (Ms. Coon’s real life husband) as Kay Graham’s trusted advisor Fritz Beebe, and Bob Odenkirk as The Post reporter Ben Bagdikian who meets with Ellsberg.

Gender inequality of the era is front and center for many scenes – sometimes even a bit too showy or distracting. The prime example is the scene where Ms. Graham is leaving the Supreme Court through a sea of silently admiring women – an unbelievably disproportionate crowd make-up. The gender point is made clearly through the position of Kay Graham and her actions, and no further proverbial slaps upside the head were required for the audience to “get it”. A rare Hindenburg joke is tossed in, and Bradlee is referred to as a pirate … two attempts to lighten the mood on a story that deserves serious attention. Composer John Williams’ score is never over the top, and perfectly complements the various conversations throughout. The film is quite clearly meant to impress how history repeats itself = those in power believing they are above all, while the free press tries to expose the abuses. It also makes the point that we as citizens must remain vigilant in our pursuit of the truth, as all sides have an agenda … sometimes it’s as complicated as covering up bad decisions, while other times it’s as simple as driving up the stock price. With its cliffhanger ending, Spielberg’s film could be viewed as a prequel to the fantastic 1976 film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and that’s pretty lofty company.

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WAR HORSE

December 28, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg provided us with one of the most horrific and terrifyingly realistic and violent examples of war ever shown on screen. Here, he takes a much different approach. Though the bulk of the movie takes place during World War I, Spielberg manages to withhold the brutal atrocities, while never once losing the impact and fear experienced by the soldiers. And while it’s uncertain whether this approach makes for a better film, it is obviously a more accessible and uplifting story because of it.

 Based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and of course on the hugely successful stage runs in both London and New York, this movie is really the story of an unbreakable bond between a sincere farm boy named Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) and a majestic horse named Joey. We witness the early bonding and training sessions between the two, which allows us to swallow some of the more improbable coincidences that occur later in the story. When the war breaks out, Albert’s dad (Peter Mullan) sells the horse to the cavalry so that he can save the farm by paying the landlord (David Thewlis). Fortunately, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) agrees to keep Joey as his personal horse and return him to Albert after the war.

 War is unpredictable, and Joey gets passed from the British to the Germans to a French farmer’s daughter, back to the Germans and back to the British. Along the way, we witness what a remarkable creature the horse is. Were he a man, he would be a most decorated officer. Instead, we witness how little value the military places on animals … even the beautiful ones. There are numerous scenes that make will make you uncomfortable with the cruelty shown, but just as many that will make you smile with joy. The already famous scene that features Joey’s unfortunate conflict with barbed wire and fence posts will have you squirming in your seat, while also scratching your head in wonderment.

 Though many of the events and sequences are a bit of a stretch to believe (the time-out in No Man’s Land), the one thing you will never doubt is the beauty of the film. It’s epic nature recalls Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia (though not at the overall level of either of those films), and the photography reminds me of John Ford‘s best work. Off the top of my head, I would say it is the most beautifully photographed movie since Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven in 1978. Spielberg’s long time DP Janusz Kaminski is at his best here and will surely be recognized by the Academy for his cinematography.

 Many of the British actors are recognizable (Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan, David Kross), but it’s key that Spielberg cast no “movie stars”, only quality actors. The stars of the film and the story are the horse and the visuals. It should also be noted that the great John Williams delivers another perfect score … one that would run away with the Oscar in many years.

No need to be frightened off because the story is based during World War I. It’s not for the youngest of kids, but this is an uplifting, sentimental and emotional movie for most everyone. It is peak Spielberg working with sentiments and subject matter with which he so excels.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy being swept away by the emotions and grand scale of an epic film OR you would like a primer to war films that goes a bit easy on the gore.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting similar war reality to Saving Private Ryan OR you have a hard time suspending disbelief for some rather remarkable coincidences

watch the trailer: