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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DUNKIRK (2017)

July 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even for us frequent movie-goers, a truly great film is a rare and emotional experience. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, one of the finest film makers working today, to deliver a World War II masterpiece centered on a remarkable and historic evacuation, rather than one of the epic battles that more directly led to an Allied victory. The result is a spectacular, stunning and relentlessly intense assault on our eyes, ears and emotions … it’s a horrific thing of artistic beauty.

Mr. Nolan chooses a triptych approach to tell the May/June 1940 Dunkirk story from three distinctly different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole (term for protective sea walls) is the “by land” segment, and it shows nearly 400,000 soldiers lined up on the beach – nervously waiting to be either rescued or massacred. The Sea puts us not on the deck of the Navy destroyers, but rather alongside the citizen volunteers who answered the call to ferry men off the beach with own pleasure vessels. The Air plops us inside the Spitfire cockpits of two Royal Air Force pilots battling low fuel as they attempt to protect their fellow soldiers below. This 3-part film harmony expertly captures the disorientation of war by shuffling between the three segments, and varying the timelines and sequence of each.

This all happened pretty early in the war, as Winston Churchill had only become Prime Minister a few weeks prior. It should be noted that Mr. Nolan purposefully avoids the usual war room blustery (we see neither Churchill nor Hitler, and there is little mention of the infamous Halt Order) and allows the action to tell the story. Instead, his focus on the (very) young men being sent to battle makes a clear political statement on the absurdity of war. One of “The Sea” volunteers (an excellent Mark Rylance) delivers the message when he states it’s the old men running the war, so he can’t be expected to just sit back as young sons are sent to fight and die.

Despite the epic look, feel and sound of the film and the massive scale of the event, this film is surprisingly at its best in the small moments of heroism and the dogged determination of individuals to survive. Minimal dialogue allows the horrors of war to take center screen. Danger and death are at every turn – bombings, torpedoes, drowning, gunfire, and most any imaginable peril is ever-present. We witness PTSD (shell-shock) in the form of Cillian Murphy’s shivering rescued soldier, and are reminded that every young man present will be either dead or scarred for life. No one escapes war unscathed.

The opening sequence finds young Fionn Whitehead and his squad being targeted with gunfire as German leaflets fall from the sky. The leaflets are maps outlining the hopelessness as German forces have them surrounded. The film is meticulously researched and historically based, though the few characters we get to know are fictionalized accounts. The practical effects throughout are breath-taking and much of it was filmed on location at the Dunkirk beach. There will likely be some complaints regarding the scarcity of female characters and those of color, but the technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach – although the French might have preferred their military receive a bit more attention. Hans Zimmer’s score is unique and searing as it perfectly captures the intensity of the film. His use of a ticking watch only perpetuates the constant feeling of running out of time. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith prove why they are among the best at their profession.

Given the spectacle of the action (if possible, see it in IMAX or 70mm), it’s remarkable how we still manage to get to know some of the characters. From The Mole segment, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles represent the young soldiers, while Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play officers. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are piloting the Spitfires, while Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Cillian Murphy are aboard the rescue yacht. Nolan regular and good luck charm Michael Caine can be recognized as the voice on Air Force radio. There is a 1958 film with the same title, and it stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough. The connection (other than the Dunkirk title) is Sir Attenborough’s grandson Will appears in this current film.

The horrors and impact of World War II continue to be an abundant garden – ripe for the picking when it comes to movies. Over the past 70 years there have been numerous approaches to telling part of the story that redefined the world: Judgment at Nuremberg (legal aftermath), Casablanca (romance), I Was a Male War Bride (comedy), Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity (Pearl Harbor), Shoah (documentary), Schindler’s List and Son of Saul (holocaust), Downfall (Hitler), The Great Escape (entertainment), Patton (bio), The Pianist (personal), Saving Private Ryan (Normandy), Das Boot (U-boat), The Thin Red Line (Guadalcanal), and Letter From Iwo Jima (two opposing perspectives). Each of these, and many others, have their place in War movie history, and now Christopher Nolan’s film belongs among the best.

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BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

October 16, 2015

bridge of spies Greetings again from the darkness. For a director, true power in the movie industry means you can obtain the financing and assemble the cast and crew you need to make the films that have meaning to you. With his 40 year career of unmatched combined box office and critical success, Steven Spielberg is the epitome of film power and the master of bringing us dramatized versions of historical characters and events. In his fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, Spielberg tells the story of James B Donovan.

You say you aren’t familiar with Mr. Donovan? In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the CIA (Allen Dulles was director at the time) persuaded James Donovan to provide a bit of Cold War legal service. Mr. Donovan was by trade an Insurance attorney, but after others in his profession passed on the “opportunity”, his commitment to justice and human rights drove him to accept the challenge of defending suspected Russian spy named Rudolph Abel. In the face of an angry populace and government, Donovan took the case all the way to the Supreme Court – and his exact words are spoken in the movie by Hanks.

Not long after, Francis Powers (played by Austin Stowell) was piloting a CIA U-2 spy plane when he was shot down over Russia and taken captive. This sequence in the film is breathtaking to watch. Enter James Donovan again … this time to negotiate an exchange of prisoners: Rudolph Abel for Francis Powers. It’s these negotiations that provide the element of suspense in the story. Mr. Donovan was a family man, but he was also very confident in his ability to negotiate on the biggest stage and under the brightest spotlight (or darkest backroom).

The movie is exactly what you would expect from a master filmmaker. Spielberg slickly re-creates the era through sets, locations, and costumes. He utilizes his remarkable eye behind the camera, an interesting use of lighting, and the score from Thomas Newman. Nope, that’s not a misprint. It’s the first Spielberg movie in 30 years not scored by John Williams (who was unable to work on the project). Of course, the cast is stellar and it all starts with Tom Hanks. He just makes everything look so darn easy! Whether he is talking to his wife (Amy Ryan), his kids (including Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), his law partner (Alan Alda), or agents from the U.S. or Russia … Hanks manages to make each scene real and believable.

It’s the scenes between Donovan and Rudolph Abel that are the most fascinating to watch. Mark Rylance plays Abel, and to see these two men grow to respect each other for “doing their job” is a true acting and screenwriting clinic. We find ourselves anxious for the next Rudolph Abel scene during an extended span where the focus is on Donovan’s negotiations. When the two finally reunite, it’s a quietly affecting moment where much is said with few words.

Spielberg utilized many of the locations where the actual events took place, and this includes Berlin and the Glienicke Bridge where the real exchange took place in 1962. While missing the labyrinth of twists and turns of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s knowing that these are real people in real situations that make this historic drama so thrilling and riveting to watch.  Film lovers will also get a kick out of the fact that the script was co-written by the Coen Brothers, and history lovers will enjoy seeing some of the details provided by the written words of those involved, as well as their surviving family members. It’s an era that seems so long ago, yet the topics are so pertinent to what’s happening in the world today.  Beyond all of that, it’s a story of a man standing up for what’s right at a time when that was not the easy or popular way.

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THE GUNMAN (2015)

March 20, 2015

gunman Greetings again from the darkness. Sean Penn becomes the latest addition to the AARP action hero club … a very crowded club these days. Unfortunately for Mr. Penn, he lacks the smirky charm of Bruce Wills, the uber-cool of Denzel Washington, and he fails to generate the empathy of Liam Neeson. He simply doesn’t come across as a very likable guy, and certainly not someone we can root for.

Based on the novel of Jean-Patrick Manchette, the movie starts out in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Penn is a mercenary disguised as part of a mining security detail. The first 20 minutes are convoluted and introduce numerous characters and sub-plots that leave us wondering if there are any good guys here … other than Penn’s idealistic doctor girlfriend played by Jasmine Trinca. A sure sign of a weak script is a film that is bookended by “newscasts” to explain both what is going to happen as well as what just happened.

Pierre Morel directed the first Taken movie, and his cast is stellar: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, and Mark Rylance. Somehow that combination delivers a hokey, over-acted, cheesy dialogue mess featuring absurd shoot-outs and action sequences that try to convince us Penn is some kind of quasi-superhero. His transformation from geopolitical hit-man to humanitarian is tough to buy, and it’s downright chuckle-inducing to see the times he manages to show off his sculpted torso. We can only assume his personal trainer received a bonus for each shirtless scene.

The story bounces from Africa to London to Barcelona to Gibraltar and back to Barcelona. It does include the best use of a live bull so far this year, though the actual bullfighting is somehow one of the least gruesome segments of the entire film. The film isn’t as sneaky as it thinks it is in making a statement about multinational corporations raiding Third World resources. Evidently, the message is that former assassins can be forgiven if they are re-born as committed to humanitarian causes, but capitalistic companies cannot possibly justify their work in impoverished areas.

All of the above could be shrugged off if so many wasted opportunities didn’t consistently frustrate. Penn has scenes with all of the other actors mentioned above, but there is almost no interaction between the others. Why no confrontations between Idris and Javier? How about one sequence with Penn, Javier and Winstone squaring off? So many fun actors, but so little cross-over. Frustration may be the best overall description for this one, and it encompasses everything from script to dialogue to camera work.

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