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

Leave a comment

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: The Defense of Journalism Mounted by ‘The Post’ is Admirable and Often Rousing, But Almost Quaint

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, David Cross, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons, Carrie Coon, Zach Woods

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Deadline-Related Light Profanity

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide January 12, 2018

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees some fundamental freedoms, but certain limits on those freedoms are understood. Hate speech is not protected by free speech, for example, and human sacrifice is not protected by freedom of religion. But there is not quite the same shorthand for limits on a free press. Publishing anything demonstrably libelous is certainly unacceptable, but when is it inappropriate to print what is in fact true and has hitherto been hidden? This question is at the heart of so many present-day media matters, so in comes Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which examines a time when this conflict was a momentous occasion and not an everyday one.

In 1971, The Washington Post finds itself in possession of the Pentagon Papers, a trove of documents detailing the United States’ involvement in Vietnam over the past few decades. Executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his team of journalists think the public deserves to know this information. The federal government says it would be a felony to print it. There is no mistaking where The Post (both the paper and the film) comes down on this conflict. This is not new information and thus serves no imminent threat to American troops in Vietnam. The only harm it can cause is embarrassment for former presidents. The actual conflict that The Post grapples is the attempted reconciliation between ethical and business concerns.

The constant struggle of press outlets, even institutions as big as The Washington Post, is figuring out how to make money by delivering the truth. That struggle is writ large when making a public offering, which is what we’ve got here. Do you make a stronger case to your investors by laying low or by making a ruckus in the course of standing up for your principals? As publisher Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep is all contorted faces and knotted anxiety as she takes the lead to make the decision of printing the Papers or not. The drama is wrung in screwball fashion, with Bradlee appealing to her over the phone at the last a minute, as a gaggle of other interested parties hop on the line.

For as grand as The Post’s ambitions are, it is strange to consider that most of it takes place over the course of just one day. It all then feels almost inconsequential, but of course, certain individual moments can change the course of everything. When that is the case, there has probably been months, or even years, of work behind the scenes setting up those moments, as conveyed by an early scene of Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) gathering and absconding with the Papers. Also delivering the dynamic agita is Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, an old buddy of Ellsberg’s who tracks down the delivery. Odenkirk’s comedic background is an asset – he moves about with a paranoid shuffle that is somewhere between absolutely necessary and hilariously unnecessary. Also rousing is a typesetting montage following the decision to publish the Papers. This mechanical peek at how things are done is a valuable reminder of underlying structure in much the same way that Michael Mann’s Blackhat spent so much visual space on the wires that undergird the Internet.

Ultimately, while The Post’s advocacy for journalism is timeless, its story feels small-scale, a prelude to the much bigger fallout of Watergate and all the modern-day scandals that use -gate in their nomenclature. The Richard Nixon of The Post is only ever seen from behind and through a window. His fight against the press was fought in the shadows, but today his same tactics are being employed right out in the open. The Post’s lessons are ones I hope everyone takes to heart, but I wonder (despair?) how useful they are when the sorts of secrets exposed by the Pentagon Papers are now nonchalantly tweeted every day.

The Post is Recommended If You Like: All the President’s Men, Spotlight, a Free Press

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sealed Documents

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 40th Anniversary Thoughts

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Columbia

I saw the 40th anniversary remastered edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind last night. I am not sure if I had ever previously seen it straight through. If I had, it must have been at least 25 years ago. I certainly didn’t remember the parts in the beginning in the desert or with Dreyfuss chasing the lights around.

Anyway, I was struck by how expressionistic it was and how mysterious it remains to the end. It is never exactly clear what the aliens are up to, but everyone appears fairly confident that they will be friendly. Also, Jillian seems oddly certain that Barry will return soon enough. It’s almost like she’s read the script or something. And of course the age-old question: what’s the deal with the tall, skinny alien? Where’d he go?!

This is all to say, the whole thing adds up to a sense of uncanny wonder.

This Is a (Quickie) Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

1 Comment

Bridge-of-Spies

Bridge of Spies sneaks up on you. The 20th century conflict between the Americans and the Soviets was not just cold, it was also dry. Accordingly, Bridge of Spies is mostly procedural. Discussions of due process are elucidated, and negotiations are often portrayed as merely functional. This approach is boosted with impassioned integrity and deadpan existentialism (the best running gag is Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel asking “Would it help?” when told he never worries). Then, the movie brings out its finishing move, throwing down with the scale of all that negotiator James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) achieves, through the power of patience and keeping the faith.