This Is a Movie Review: ‘Life Itself’ Has a Few Too Many Twists and Way Too Many Tragedies

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CREDIT: Jose Haro/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Oscar Issac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Jean Smart, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Lorenza Izzo, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Dan Fogelman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Violent Accidents and Millennial Hipster Profanity

Release Date: September 21, 2018

Thanks to Crazy, Stupid, Love. (which he scripted) and This Is Us (which he created), Life Itself writer/director Dan Fogelman is now as synonymous with the game-changing twist as M. Night Shyamalan. He’s due for a backlash, and Life Itself is the perfect specimen to engender that anger. The film itself is not so much about the twist itself so much as it is about the entire concept of twists. Fogelman withholds essential information that prevents us from knowing until he wants us to know how various generations of people are related by coincidence or even closer connections. But he constantly shows his hand, or at least part of his hand, to let us know that a reveal is coming. In fact, this is all kind of a deconstruction about how we tell stories and save twists for maximum impact. I actually believe that such a theory-heavy idea could work, but the product we have here is filled with characters and events that are just exhausting.

The action is split by time and the Atlantic Ocean. In New York City, we’ve got Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), a mostly happy couple who might have some insidious relationship issues lurking. Meanwhile, over in Spain, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) works the field and romances the waitress Isabel (Laia Costa). Along the way, we meet some of their parents, children, and employers. We immediately know how some of them are connected, while we then watch the other puzzle pieces come together in non-linear fashion to discover the rest of the connections. There could be a satisfying thrill to how the final twist weaves everyone together, but instead it is just exhausting, as all the misfortunes that these characters endure and the bad decisions that they make make for an excess of tragedy that is too much for any audience to bear.

Still, the ultimate lesson that Fogelman wants to convey is worth listening to and following: no matter what our history, no matter how much life has brought us to our knees, there is still a future worth pursuing. Life Itself does not need to be as excruciating as it is to make that point, but it is a valuable point nonetheless. And despite my misgivings, I still found this film oddly compelling, although that could just be because I like keeping track of how people are related to each other. Ultimately, I wish Fogelman had done more with the concept of playing around with the unreliable narrator, which he is clearly enamored with but ultimately a little tepid in how he examines it. It actually starts off promisingly, as the initial narrator shows up in person as himself to basically say, “Hey look, I’m really here!” But afterwards it’s pretty straightforward, but if that adventurous spirit had hung around, Life Itself coulda been something.

Life Itself is Recommended If You Like: This Is Us at its most emotionally manipulative

Grade: 2 out of 5 Unreliable Narrators

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ready Player One’ Wrings Some Beauty and Profundity Out of Empty Calorie Storytelling

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Explosions (Both VR and Real Life), Threats of Gun Violence, Partial Referential Nudity, and PG-13’s One Free F-Bomb

Release Date: March 29, 2018

The premise of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One is basically nerd wish fulfillment writ large: in a dystopian future, a gamer completes a series of puzzles based on pop culture touchstones in a massive virtual reality simulation for the prize of a billionaire’s inheritance. As it plays out, though, (in both the book and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation) it is more of a Robin Hood fantasy, with the winnings serving as the golden ticket to end income inequality. The improbability and the wish fulfillment are all well and good, but they do mean that everything wraps up a little too perfectly, so satisfaction must be found in the details and the execution. Spielberg has remained a proficient craftsman his entire career, so even though Ready Player One’s separation between right and wrong might be a little too stark, it still pulls off some genuine wonder.

The film keeps the same basic outline at the novel, save for switching out some of the homages, both because Spielberg wanted to limit references to his own past work and presumably because of rights issues. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends most of his time as his avatar Parzival in the VR world known as the OASIS, partly because his real life is situated in a ugly heap of metal, literally, as his home, like many in 2045, exists within one of many trailers stacked on top of each other. He hangs out with his crew of fellow gamers, whom he only knows virtually, which frankly isn’t all that different than how it is for some folks already in 2018. Wade of course falls in love with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a bit of a legend in the OASIS, who feels like she is specifically engineered to be the perfect girl for him, which is a bit of a pain, but at least Sheridan and Cooke keep it charming.

This crew’s quest finds them at odds with Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the brazenly stereotypical asshole CEO of a global conglomerate who employs an army of corporate drones to win the inheritance because he wants to turn the second biggest company in the world into the biggest company in the world, and he’s not averse to killing to get his way. He is plenty scary, but RPO could have benefited greatly from actually exploring what makes him tick.

It is appreciated that Wade is not a chosen one archetype so typical of the genre. The reason he succeeds is because he puts in the relentless work to understand the parameters and intricacies of the journey. That we get to see his process makes his racing a DeLorean around King Kong actually thrilling instead of just a prompt for ticking boxes off the reference checklist.

It is well worth noting that while the references draw from decades of pop culture, they are primarily based around the touchstones of the 1980s. That decade was partly defined by Spielberg, and it consisted of Cline’s formative years, but they are very much not the formative years of RPO’s main characters, nor much of the target audience. But within the narrative, they are the formative years for James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS co-creator who designed the game and bequeathed his fortune. Thus, the hours of study that Wade and his crew put in resonate in the way of culture being a way in to understand one’s fellow human beings.

With wizardly blond locks and profound diffidence, Rylance plays Halliday a lot like Garth Algar, but if Dana Carvey had envisioned the Aurora metalhead as the greatest tragic figure of all time. Ready Player One works best as an exploration into this one man’s psyche. His social awkwardness goes beyond any simple diagnosis, and Rylance does not shy away from the discomfort. Creating an all-encompassing VR world may be a bit of an overcorrection to his loneliness, but it is heartwarming that Halliday finds a way to make a genuine connection with the world, though it is more than a tad bittersweet how he accomplishes it.

Bottom line: with so much of Ready Player One rendered as virtual reality, it is frequently an off-putting eyesore. But it has moments of beauty, like Parzival and Art3mis’ free-floating dance; as well as strokes of demented remix genius, as when zombies overrun a rendering of Kubrick’s The Shining. Weirdly enough, the references actually end up having more soul and thoughtfulness than the characters (with the exception of Halliday).

Ready Player One is Recommended If You Like: Heavy referentiality whether justified or shameless, Mark Rylance getting deep into character work, The dance scene from WALL·E

Grade: 3 out of 5 Omnidirectional Treadmills

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Thoroughbreds’ is a Psychopathic Murder Scheme with Primary Color Flourishes

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CREDIT: Claire Folger/Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift

Director: Cory Finley

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for a Psychopathic, Clinical Approach to Blood and a Little Bit of Language and Upper Middle Class Drug Use

Release Date: March 9, 2018 (Limited)

As as I became acquainted with the premise of Thoroughbreds – Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) team up to kill the former’s stepfather (Paul Sparks) – I of course had to ask: what is it that drives Lily all the way to murder? But alas, that is not really a question this film cares to answer. It is not exactly ignored, but you would expect a grave decision like this to be given more consideration than Lily gives it. If he were abusing her in some way, you could understand why she would go to such an extreme. But the conflict basically boils down to: he wants her to stop freeloading and she thinks he’s a jerk. It is totally understandable why they have such a chilly relationship, but it hardly justifies murder.

It should be noted, though, that that shallow decision-making and outsize retribution is kind of the point. This is a bloody satire in the vein of Heathers. But the whole affair is so underplayed that you never feel the over-the-top nature of the premise. There is a matter-of-fact presentation that makes it hard to peg what writer/director Cory Finley wants us to conclude about Lily and Amanda’s motives and machinations. Since one or both of them is in essentially every scene, we are immersed in their perspective to the point that what they are scheming seems like so much less of a big deal than it obviously is.

Thoroughbreds works best as a showcase for its two leads. Amanda is some sort of sociopathic or psychopathic, unable to intuit the meanings of facial expressions, but practiced at faking emotions. Cooke nails a combination of off-putting but somehow friendly. Lily is the apparently more “normal” of the two, but that description really only fits insofar as how she is more adept at displaying and interpreting typically genuine emotions. She is prone to moral slipperiness that reads as inherent to her nature. The title basically refers to how these two have been groomed by nature to be the perfect criminals. Anton Yelchin (in one of his last roles) shows up as a drug dealer to privileged kids who Lily and Amanda hire to help them carry out the deed. He puts his own spin on the “you’re all blind sheep” shtick, but mostly he just serves a plot convenience.

These off-kilter individuals get their very appropriate soundtrack in the form of Erik Friedlander’s weird percussive score. It is so lacking in melody or any aspect of musical structure that I wonder if what I’m recognizing is actually just part of the sound mixing. Either way, it is an appropriate fit. It is a cold and clinical soundscape that is fit for me to love, while that same approach with the narrative has more modest results.

Thoroughbreds is Recommended If You Like: Heathers, The Loved Ones, American Psycho, Avant-garde percussive scores

Grade: 3 out of 5 Practice Smiles

This Is a Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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me-earl-dying-girl-popsicle

Greg Gaines (the titular “me”) is reminiscent of Community‘s Jeff Winger. In the beginning of his story, he puts a great deal of effort into proving that he does not care, only for his ending to underscore the lengths to which he does care.

Greg defines himself by how detached he is from the high school clique system. He affects a dispassionate disposition, but he puts so much effort into being on amicable terms with every group. He goes so far as to devise a taxonomy that is thorough enough to include “Boring Jewish Senior Girls, Subgroup 2A.”

Every other major character is presented through Greg’s limited perspective, and accordingly they register as if they are all in their own distinct movies. Nick Offerman and Connie Britton play slightly against type/slightly extending from their types as Greg’s parents, making for a pretentious art flick and a slightly overbearing dramedy. Molly Shannon is right in her wheelhouse in the overbearing comedy portion as the mother of the girl with cancer. Jon Bernthal is Greg’s history teacher in the slightly dangerous bildungsroman. And Katherine C. Hughes, as Madison, the hot girl who means well but makes Greg feel terrible by virtue of being a hot girl, prompts the animated fantasy sequences.

Fuller portraits of Earl and Rachel (the titular girl) manage to shine through, thanks to their significant screen time. Greg refers to Earl, his filmmaking partner, as his “co-worker,” but Earl is quick to point out that they are in fact friends. There is a bit of a magical Negro vibe at play, which could have been unfortunate save for RJ Cyler making Earl so strong-willed and the narrative presenting plenty of personal background.

Rachel could have very well been the embodiment of cancer-related epiphanies or just one half of a typical teenage weepie romance. Indeed, Greg often suggests that the story seems to be going in that direction, only to immediately rebuke that idea. Instead, Olivia Cooke keeps Rachel appropriately grounded, as she comes across as just a person dealing with her illness on her own terms. As far as Greg and Rachel’s relationship goes, they develop a true friendship as a result of spending a lot of time with each other. Potential interpretations of the exact nature of their friendship are left wide open.

Madison represents an intriguingly unique story tack. She emerges as another love interest for Greg, which – for a character with only a handful of scenes in a movie with a more expected potential romance – is disconcerting, but also resonant. Greg assumes that Madison’s attention towards him is just pity, but there are enough subtle tells to suggest that her interest is genuine. What emerges is a film accomplished in its thorough commitment to taking on the subjective perspective of a protagonist so insecure that he cannot imagine that anyone would actually think highly of him. As Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is stuck in Greg’s head for so long, it is cathartic when he is finally able to get out of it.

A few words must also be devoted to Greg and Earl’s parody films (with dumbly brilliant pun titles like “Eyes Wide Butt,” “My Dinner with Andre the Giant,” and “Pittsburghasqatsi”). Because Greg is so unassuming regarding their quality, they come off as more charming than annoying. And based on what footage is actually shown, there appears to be decent composition and editing. It helps that Earl’s committed performances consistently shine through. Much of the story is leading up to the premiere of the film that the duo are making for Rachel, which could have ended up as so many clichés, but instead emerges as an idiosyncratic vision (regardless of quality level) and hardly what anyone could have possibly expected.