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.

watch the trailer:

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THOROUGHBREDS (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Each year provides us with (at least) a few hidden gems sprinkled amongst the superheroes and newfangled special effects displays, and although this feature film debut from filmmaker Cory Finley is only now hitting theatres, it seems safe to say it likely won’t draw the size audience it deserves. If you enjoy dark, twisted, and devilishly clever films, you owe it to yourself to track down this one.

Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARLY AND THE DYING GIRL) stars as Amanda, someone who walks a miniscule line between neurotic and psychopath. The startling and quite ominous opening features Amanda, a horse, and a large knife. Next, and some time later, we see Amanda re-connecting with her childhood friend and boarding school brainiac Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, SPLIT and THE WITCH) in what appears to be a tutoring session being held in the palatial estate where Lily lives with her mother and “evil” stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks).

What follows is the mind-bending, winding-road of us attempting to fit either or both of these characters into some “normal” category of human behavior. Instead, what lies beneath is slowly unsheathed. As Amanda and Lily interact, we especially come to realize that Amanda is drawing out what’s behind the proper front that Lily wears on a daily basis. A plot to murder the stepdad is developed, and caught in the wicked web is Anton Yelchin as Tim, a dreamer and schemer who quickly realizes the trouble these two bring. This was one of the last roles Yelchin filmed before his tragic death. His brief time on screen here reminds us of his immense talent.

An atmosphere of dread and pending doom hovers over most every scene, yet somehow it’s simultaneously funny and disturbing. We find ourselves asking if it’s OK to laugh at some of the exchanges. As Amanda explains she’s “not a bad person”, the line makes us chuckle, while also making us realize she actually believes it and we shouldn’t! As she teaches her tutor Lily “the technique”, we become convinced the line has been crossed into psychopathy.

Suburban Connecticut and its corresponding privileged life has rarely generated more queasy feelings, and with our hope for humanity in the balance, we watch Amanda and Lily bounce from plotting to problem solving and from conspiring to collaborating. The absence of empathy goes beyond disconcerting and into a feeling of resolved fear. The lack of emotions and empathy can be more frightening than vampires or fictional monsters.

Cinematographer Lyle Vincent does nice work displaying this world, and he will always deserve a mention after his sterling work on 2014’s A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. The dark, twisted work is well accompanied by the abrupt and jarring music, and filmmaker Finley deserves recognition for crafting this creepy corner of a universe none of us want to join. His film is in the vein of something Yorgos Lanthimos (THE LOBSTER) might deliver, and that’s quite high praise for oddity … in fact, Odin Impetus Lowe even gets a screen credit, and he’s the opening scene horse!


DIFF 2017: Day Six

April 8, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 31 – April 9, 2017

 It’s hump day Wednesday and I’m feeling a bit refreshed after only two movies yesterday. Flashing the wisdom that should accompany my age, I have followed up two-for-Tuesday with another two movie day today. Both films are narratives, so my documentary addiction is on hold until tomorrow. Below is a recap of the two films I watched on Wednesday April 5, 2017:

 

BUSTER’S MAL HEART

A film festival wouldn’t be complete without at least one mind-blowing avant-garde cinematic experience. I’m not the kind that needs every ending neatly bow-wrapped, and I often enjoy having conventional story structure challenged and even dissolved. Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith seems to thrive in such an environment in this twisty psychological thriller covering three timelines (one of which may be a dream) … or a split personality … or two/three men from one … or some combination … or something else entirely that I might have missed. (I’m not too proud to admit this distinct possibility).

When a filmmaker bravely dives into the bizarre, casting becomes crucial. Ms. Smith nails it with Rami Malek, DJ Qualls and Kate Lyn Sheil. Thanks to the popularity of TV’s “Mr. Robot”, Malek is now a leading man – albeit a tad unconventional. Here he plays Jonah, a struggling family man with a wife (Ms. Sheil) and young child. Working as a night Concierge at a hotel, Jonah tries to make the best of the lack of sleep and minimal contact with his family. In addition to Jonah, Malek plays Buster, a slippery and hirsute mountain man who negotiates his way through the Montana mountains by hanging out in the multi-million dollar vacation homes vacated by their owners for the snowy winter months.

The film bounces between 3 periods for Jonah/Buster: the elusive mountain man running from the law, the bleak nights of the family man, and a dream-like sequence where he is adrift at sea in a row boat. Throughout the film, references to “sphincter” and multiple proclamations that “The Inversion is coming” lead us to believe there could be a sci-fi connection or an apocalyptic ending headed our way. Instead, it’s “the belly of the whale” that might unlock the mystery or mysteries serenaded by the thunderous techno-bass bass. It’s a head-scratcher for sure, but one that manages to keep us engaged despite our whirlwind of theories and uncertainly.

 

KATIE SAYS GOODBYE

The latest exciting new filmmaker to burst on the scene is writer/director Wayne Roberts, whose wonderful indie is my favorite narrative of the festival so far. Of course there will be those who decry yet another film exploitation of women as a victim of society. However, there is definitely another way to view the story of Katie, the good-hearted dreamer played beautifully by Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”).

Initially, Katie’s unflappable optimism seems unlikely, if not impossible. She walks miles to work along a dusty highway. She lives in a trailer park with her deadbeat mother (Mireille Enos), whom she supports both financially and emotionally. She works double-shifts as a waitress at a truck stop, where she’s known to toss in a couple extra bucks when a particularly frugal customer stiffs the other waitress. She also works a side job as a prostitute for locals and a regular trucker named Bear (Jim Belushi). Despite a life filled with *stuff*, Katie doggedly pursues her dream of saving enough money to move to San Francisco and become a hair stylist. Of course, she has to save enough money for her trip AND for her mother to live on. Her dream seems lofty, yet almost achievable.

When Katie falls for Bruno (Christopher Abbott), the new guy in town, she tries her best to fall in love and pull him into her dreams for a better life. It doesn’t take long before Bruno is made aware of Katie’s side job, and her fantasy world begins to crumble. On a daily basis, Katie happily (of course) drinks up the truck stop wisdom of diner owner Maybelle (Mary Steenburgen), who spouts such gems as “A man with a smile will hurt you”. Good intentions abound here, but we realize … even if Katie doesn’t … that the reality of people’s self-interest is the immovable object that so often tears down the dreamers of the world.

As with much of life, one’s enjoyment of the film is likely contingent upon the perspective you bring. A caustic, cynical view will have you waving off Katie’s lot in life as exploitive movie-making; while those who can share even a spoonful of Katie’s spirit, will find themselves rooting exuberantly for her dreams to come true … or at least to sustain her refreshing outlook on life and people.