We got a Spielberg film just last December (although for most it was just a couple of months ago in January), but “The Post” despite clearly being made by Spielberg, doesn’t need to be a Spielberg film. “ready Player One” on the other hand, seems to demand the hand of the master on the controller. This is a meta exercise in nostalgia, both for the period of time and for the kinds of films that Spielberg used to make. Lucky for us, it mostly works and the reason is Spielberg himself.
The book that the film is based on is a pastiche of ideas and images and memories from a million minds of gamers. It was primarily a tool for reliving the joy that comes from mastering a new game and solving a puzzle. Since the gaming industry was born and thrived in the 1980s, it also is rich in the music and films of the times. The conceit is simple, this movie is a race between lonely souls who have moved out of the real world and a mega corporation that wants to control the environment that they have all moved to. The competitions are laden with the kinds of pop references this generation of geeks will appreciate.
Ernest Cline’s novel is much darker than this popcorn fueled entertainment. A pop culture geek himself (he wrote the movie”Fanboys”), Cline saw the limitations on social interactions that living in virtual reality held. The specter of a new form of debtors prison, hovers over an environment where fantasy role playing has replaced real intimacy. The villain in the book is much less cartoonish than the ultimately feckless Ben Mendelsohn of the film. The problems faced by the competitors were often mundane and repetitive, as many of the games being saluted were. It takes someone with a lot of patience and time to master some of the ideas that hardly seem worth mastering in the first place. Spielberg with the help of co-screenwriter Zak Penn, has refocused the story to celebrate the pop culture more than the dark under current in the story.
In the first chase in the story, we are introduced to the three main characters as they dash madly through a race that looks like a combination of Mario Kart and Grand Theft Auto. The motorcycle from “Akira” and the DeLoren from “Back to the Future” are driven by the future romantic couple and each has their own way of challenging the game. The chase though is typical Spielberg, it is frenetic but still comprehensible. As usual, there is always one more piece of dramatic business to stretch out the tension of a scene. The events are so meta that he even lampoons himself with a reference to Jurassic Park as well as a few films he had a hand in as producer.
How could it not be a Spielberg film when the cinematography was done by the artist that Spielberg has worked with 18! times over the last thirty years. Janusz Kaminski is responsible for the look of so many Spielberg films that he might just be his shadow. The one thing that is missing that would put the nail in the coffin is a John Williams score. We get a vigorous but clearly 80s style theme from Alan Silvestri, veteran of “Back to the Future”, “Amazing Stories” and a couple of upcoming films in the MCU. Oh, he also scored the “Super Mario Bros. Movie”.
The changes lead to a more audience friendly experience. There are more movie references than video game Easter Eggs (although there are plenty of those). A 70s guy like me appreciated the music selection for the nightclub scene and if you like “The Shining” it replaces “War Games” as the main film sequence with a completely different take on the process. Also, there are fewer deaths of heroes in the movie. It is a cinematic stew of epic proportions.
Characterization and subtext are mostly lost with this film interpretation but it makes up for those points by always being visually stimulating. It does not have the resonance of an Indiana Jones or E.T., but it will entertain you for two plus hours and that time goes by quickly. The presence of Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance as secondary figures also adds to the depth of the film, but if deep is what you are looking for, go back and watch “Lincoln”. Until the next Indiana Jones film, this is as close to classic Spielberg as you are likely to get, and that is pretty darn close.
OK, it’s only the end of March but I think I can safely say this will be on my year end list of favorite films. I dig stop motion animation, I have enjoyed more than my fair share of Wes Anderson films, and I love dogs. Going in it should be a no brainer but I had a few doubts because of the supposed allegorical references to modern issues of immigration and xenophobia. It turns out that anyone who wants to find a tenative tie to some modern political issue in a film, does not have to work that hard. People, if you are reading that much into this story, you need to cut down on your caffeine.
The Wes Anderson style is all over this film. You can hear it in the clipped remarks that the dogs make to one another. It is also full of the color palates that he so lavishly uses in all of his movies (or at least the ones I have seen). Much of the interaction has a dynamic and undercurrent to it that makes it feel as if we are hearing two conversations at once, a surface level interface and then a deeper more satirical intercourse. There are also several visual gags that are gruesome and hysterical at the same time. No one could mistake this for a movie made by someone else.
The fact that only Anderson could have produced this film is one of the reasons that I can’t take any of the charges of cultural appropriation seriously. While the truth is that he is a westerner telling a story set in Japan, it only matters that it is Japanese for some historical context. The idea that a group of people could be mislead by a nefarious political leader is not uniquely Japanese. The notion of parts of a culture being banished is not Japanese either. I’m willing to give him credit for letting the human characters speak in Japanese without making it seem like subtitles are necessary for every utterance. As I have said numerous times in my classes, “you can find something to argue about in just about anything. That doesn’t mean that it is problematic to most people.”
The aesthetic of the film is definitely weird. The flu that the dogs have seems to be an odd contrivance but it works for the story. The notion of “Trash Island”, is not all that different than the planet that Thor ends up on in Thor Ragnorock. The fact that Jeff Goldblum is featured in both pictures must be coincidental. The island is a nicely realized habitat that our pack has to navigate to reach an objective. There are complex backgrounds but even more intricate machinery and architecture than one would imagine in a dump.
Everything else though is backdrop for the charming story of a boy separated from his dog, and the bonds that humans and animals really do need to be complete. As a dog owner, I have frequently put words in my dogs mouths. Wes Anderson does this for the whole movie and the words are both profound and amusing. My guess is that everyone here will have a favorite dog that he/she will relate to and love. “Chief”, “Duke” and “Spots” are my favorites, but ultimately all the dogs are like most dogs, lovable once you get to know them.
I can’t imagine the time and talent it took to create the intricate puppets that get used for the stop motion action in the film. I know computer work must also have played a part but even then, something has to be designed first and the art direction and characters in this movie are astonishing. The actors all feel as if they are carefully matched to their characters. Bryan Cranston as Chief manages to be gruff but also winsome in spots. Goldblum’s Duke is a never ending fountain of understatement and set up lines, with just the right sonorous tone to make it sound somewhat intellectual. The music combines traditional Japanese flavored drums with more tuneful passages to also add to the environment that everyone in the film is occupying.
Everyone else may have noticed this, it’s not a haiku but it is a homophone:
I went back to look at my review of the original “Pacific Rim” and it is relatively positive. There is an acknowledgement that the premise is silly and the characters are thin, but otherwise the movie was fun. So consider this as a sequel to that review. My comments here will probably mirror the film in the same way that the original review mirrored the first movie. The depth will be less, the characters less interesting and story will be more incomprehensible. Five years ago I found the energy to make the review a little entertaining, today I don’t have the same creativity or motivation.
There have been so many films that have trashed the cities of the Earth in the last ten years, they all start to run together. For a brief moment, it felt as if this film was going to forgo that routine and do something more creative. For ten minutes we get an alternative world, where people are living as scavengers in the ruins of the cities that were destroyed in the last film. Two characters are quickly introduced and there is a homemade “Jaeger” to entice us. When one giant robot fights another, I had hopes that this would be something a bit different. Unfortunately, the two new characters that are introduced are immediately placed in the world that existed in the first film. We get a weak reboot of the training/drafting process and a potential threat from a technological improvement in the weapons is abandoned almost immediately for a development that makes almost no sense. We do get some robot on robot action but it isn’t long before that morphs into the same thing with a different cast.
Sydney, Australia and Tokyo, Japan are the two cites that get busted up in this go round. There is a tasteful decision to convince us that thousands of people are not dying with every punch being throw and every monster waving it’s tail. The four second visual reference and one line of dialogue are meant to assuage our guilt about watching these cities be torn up. The more comic book aspects of the movie also help diminish the significance of the destruction. It finally is a little hard to worry that CGI building being collapsed means anything. It’s a bit like the destruction of Alderlan, we know what it means but it carries only symbolic weight, no real emotional consequence.
There are a few characters carried over from the first film, but to be honest, since I’ve only seen it the one time, five years ago, I forgot the role they played for the most part. John Boyega is supposed to be the son of Idris Elba’s character in the first film. I don’t think there was ever a reference to him in that movie, only to the adopted daughter who is his sister. Rinko Kikuchi is that sister and she does not get much to do. The other carry over characters are more important to the story but they make almost as little sense as the previously unknown brother. Scott Eastwood is fine as a rival character, he gets to be the butt of one good joke line, but mostly he is stoic and ready for action. Boyega has to try to match the spirit of the speech from his dad in the first film, and he just sounds like a cheerleader.
“Pacific Rim Uprising” is not interested in any social ramifications of the war against the Kaiju. There are a couple of places where some political and philosophical issues could be made a part of the story, but they are jettisoned immediately. The film does this repeatedly. It asks a question or raises a subject and then does nothing with it. The emotional loss of the movie characters is nil. Even the one character who announces that he will be dying by making a foreshadowing statement early in the story, gets denied the payoff that was set up in that earlier scene. The technology is never explained as it was sometimes in the first movie. Jerry-rigged solutions to complications that come up get done in time regardless of how much time might be needed to make any of it logically work. I can believe I just used a criteria of “logic” to judge this movie, because there is no consistent rationale for what happens, it just does.
The robots fighting each other and then fighting giant monsters is fun for a while, but it does get repetitive. There were no real human elements to offset the repetitive nature of these continuous battle, so the movie feels a little long and redundant. The end result is that this film will help you kill a couple of hours but not help you anticipate another time killer two years from now which is clearly the plan. That giant white gorilla movie coming in a couple of weeks, suddenly looks a lot more entertaining by comparison.
OK, tell me that getting Spielberg’s Biggest Blockbuster of the 1970s AND his Biggest Blockbuster of the 1980s isn’t going to help me win this draft. Plus I have the sequel to his biggest Blockbuster of the 1990s to go along with it. This should be in the bag, but only if you do your part and vote for my slate in the Draft.
There are plenty of posts on this site for this film. Here is a list:
For some reason I was very reluctant to see this film. I’m not a gamer so the franchise doesn’t mean much to me. The two versions starring Angelina Jolie are distant menories after one viewing when the came out, and the trailer made the movie look like a single long chase through the jungle and I saw that last Christmas with “Jumanji“. So imagine my surprise that this turned out to be pretty good.
Alicia Vikander has been on my radar since I first saw her in a ridiculous film “Seventh Son“, from three years ago. Since then she starred in my favorite movie of that year and won an Academy Award. None of that really suggests that she could be an action star, but this film manages to make her pretty believable in that role. One of the things the script manages to do is show that she is frequently lucky rather than invincible. The opening two scenes show her being defeated in a battle in the ring and getting creamed in a bicycle chase. She has her moments but she is also clearly not always going to come out on top. She is also an amateur in this film version. As a nascent treasurer hunter, she is really in pursuit of her father not the contents of a tomb.
I don’t mean to suggest that the story is complex or that there are not a lot of chase scenes. In fact, the plot does seem like a series of action sequences strung together. The most noticeable of which are three chase sequences that take up the first half of the film. The bicycle chase at the beginning is very clever and nicely shot and completely superfluous to the plot. A pursuit across a series of boats in the harbor of Hong Kong, does little to advance the story either. The big chase is the action scene that is so prominently featured in the trailers, and it is that jungle chase that I mentioned earlier. It has some of those Spielberg touches, that add just one more complication as you think the end is within reach. Those play out like a bit of a cliche but they still manage to work.
My main reason for wanting to see this is that it features Walton Goggins as the bad guy. We are fans of his work ever since we first came across him in “Justified”. I know that he had some success before that but we know him as Boyd Crowder. Here he is Maithias Vogel, the minion of some vast conspiracy that is attempting to control the world. I’m sure that “Trinity” will feature prominently in any successive films but her it is barely a shadow. Vogel is the villain and as a man trapped on an island, searching for what he thinks is a treasure, surrounded by slaves that he dispatches like swatting a fly, he is appropriately mad-eyed. Goggins has a good voice and speaks in an interesting rhythm when given a chance. Unfortunately here, there is rarely an opportunity. The screenwriters just stick a gun in his hand and move on to another sequence.
The National Treasure/Raiders of the Lost Ark/Mummy vibe is pretty strong. When they finally do enter the Tomb, it was sufficiently booby trapped to make the last section pretty effective. We don’t really get any sense of how Lara Croft figures out the puzzles that she solves. This was especially true of the combination that unlocked the chamber in the first place. I would think that gamers, used to having to solve these sorts of elements to make their games work, would want to have that as part of the process, but the film makers are in a hurry to get to the next piece of exposition or action.
“Tomb Raider” is a brisk two hours with enough story to make the action work, but only barely. Whether or not we get further adventures that the story clearly is setting up is a mystery that could only be discovered by Lara herself. Stay Tuned.
You can listen to the episode here. Tomorrow I will post my draft choices and share a link to where you can vote for them. We had a very fun time talking all things Spielberg so you should take advantage and spend a couple of hours debating our positions.
In the world of Science Fiction, most readers of novels, viewers of television and movies will always remember a strong ending to a story. The “Twilight Zone” was famous for the twist sucker punch finale of most of the episodes. In the popular culture, when an image or a quote becomes a meme understood by all, it is clear that the work has tapped into something important to the times, politics or people. Charlton Heston is the star of many a movie meme. Moses standing at the Red Sea parting the waves, Ben Hur, either chained to the oars of the Roman Battle cruiser or with rein in hand on a Chariot. His most famous image however is as a dismayed misanthrope pounding sand on a beach in front of the ruins of one of the most recognizable symbols in the world at the end of “Planet of the Apes”. Heston has at least one other great moment of Science Fiction history in his vita, the denouncement at the end of the movie “Soylent Green”. It is another moment parodied and understood by masses of people, most of whom have never seen the movie. I don’t want his refrain to be the only thing people know about the film so this week “Soylent Green” is the movie I want everyone to see.
“Soylent Green” is one of those great 1970s Science Fiction movies that is more about ideas than about special effects. Before the juggernaut that is “Star Wars” came along, most Science Fiction lived in the imagination more than the vision of a story. There were occasional exceptions like “Forbidden Planet” and “2001”, but for each of those visually rich movies, there were a dozen other films that made do with small budgets, limited effects and big ideas. Films like “Seconds”, “A Boy and His Dog”, “Damnation Alley” or “The Omega Man” drew in audience mostly with interesting concepts. Sometimes like with “Planet of the Apes” there was spectacular art direction and set design, but even in that film the visual factor relies on our willingness to accept the story in order to then accept the vision. Most of these films are cautionary tales that try to speak to the worries of the times in which they were made, and “Soylent Green” was one of the finest examples of playing on those contemporary fears.
Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich published a book called “The Population Bomb” that predicted a coming world of Malthusian Nightmares. It spawned a whole industry of doomsayers and environmental prophets who suggested that the Earth was over populated and over polluted. The theme of “Soylent Green” is derived from this stream of fearful environmentalism of the early 1970s. This dystopian world is not threatened by nuclear annihilation but starvation and overcrowding. Of course there has also been a substantial amount of global warming to screw up the planet’s food supplies as well. Most of this is brilliantly summarized by the title sequence which uses a combination of photos, pacing and music to show us what has happened and is coming.
It was simple and to the point. It was also forty years ago, so perhaps it is a little premature to send us all to a living hell but once the premise is set up the story follows it quite well. William Simonson, a director of the Soylent Corporation is murdered and although there are hundreds of murders a day in the overcrowded world, one detective is unwilling to accept that it is a random burglary. Simonson lives in a luxurious apartment that comes equipped with special security, a bodyguard and living furniture that he can enjoy to his hearts content. It just seems too convenient that the bodyguard was out shopping for groceries with the furniture at the moment this important man was killed in his building. A building where the security system is on the fritz when the apartment is broken into.
Heston plays the determined cop who engages in the kind of casual corruption that seems to be as prevalent in the future as it was in the 1970s with Al Pacino’s “Serpico”. Detective Thorn is not a bad guy, but he appears to be a vulture at the scene of the crime, scooping up whatever luxury item is likely to go unmissed. Everybody gets a little taste, from his boss to the grunts that remove the body. Thorn takes some vegetables and meat which are incredibly rare commodities in the future. Most people have to survive on manufactured nutrition wafers of different composition, including the recently introduced “Soylent Green”. He also acquires a couple of rare technical books that he will not be able to make sense out of but which ought to please his partner Sol Roth, an elderly man who serves as the equivalent of Wikipedia for the future police force.
Most of you know an old timer or two who provides a link to the past. They share stories of the good old days and relate how the world was a better place in their youth (much like your current narrator). For the most part we can dismiss those stories as the nostalgia of an older generation (you know, they walked five miles up hill to school in the snow and then five miles uphill home at the end of the day). This movie posits that the memories of the older generation are not rambling condemnations of change but accurate histories of things that have in fact been lost. The collective of older “books” is known as the Exchange and Sol takes the information from the two Oceanographic Reports that Thorn brought him to the Exchange for evaluation.
The film is a police procedural about a conspiratorial secret which the powers that be are determined to keep a secret. Most of this was pretty standard stuff, but several aspects of the setting make the story so much more compelling. The way in which the citizens have to live, on rationed water, limited food supplies, sleeping on staircases shows how the environment has decayed. The world of the dead man stands in stark contrast to the rest of the population. A rich man with a sex partner who comes with the apartment and access to items that are incredibly out of reach to the rest of the population may seem an unsympathetic victim. We have seen however that there was a sense of guilt in his death, we are aware that there is a conspiracy and we watch Thorn as he picks at each link and follows his instincts to arrive at the truth. In the process the future world is revealed to us bit by bit.
The term “bromance” has cropped up in the last few years to describe stories that are about the friendship between two men. Buddy pictures have been around since the days of silent film, and up through the point this was released so was Edward G. Robinson. The partnership between Sol and Thorn is the real relationship in the movie. Heston’s character does get involved with the “furniture” of the dead man, but all of the really emotional moments of the film involve him and the old man. From some of the earliest of sound films, Robinson played gangsters, doctors and bureaucrats. He was the definitive gangster for the first decade of sound movies as “Little Cesar”. “Soylent Green” gave him the opportunity to go out on a high note. This was his last film and he played it for all that was on the page. The scene where Sol prepares the purloined food for a meal for Heston is a good example. Sol, enjoys it with relish and equally enjoys watching Thorn, who has never had anything like this enjoy as well. Robinson waves his plastic utensils as if they were a baton and he was conducting an orchestra. The crescendo of the piece is the belch Heston gives at the end of the most satisfying meal of his life. Apparently this scene was not in the script and was improvised by the two actors with the prompting of the director. It was a special touch to show their relationship and the world of the time. At one point Heston’s boss suggests he might need a new “book” but the detective demurs and continues to have faith in his room mate/partner/father figure.
The other great sequence featuring Robinson, and one that is sadly ironic, is Sol’s decision to end his own story. When advocates of euthanasia speak of giving patients back their dignity and providing comfort at the end, they must surely envision a scene like the one that takes place at the end of the second act. Older people desiring to die, troop into a modernistic building, fill out a form and then have some final comforts attended to. Robinson was dying of cancer when the movie was made and he was almost completely deaf. We would all hope that his passing would be as beautiful as was depicted here in the processing center referred to as “home” by those seeking an end to their time on Earth. Thorn gets the final proof for the motive of the executive’s murder by following his friend through his passage home. As you watch what is really a simple sequence of wonderful pastoral scenes and listen to the comforting and thrilling classical score, you realize how devastating the loss of the world as it was would be to those able to remember it.
The themes and characters have been shared with you a bit, now let’s talk about the production. In today’s world, this would be a movie crammed with futuristic CGI vistas and sets that were created in a computer. The costumes and equipment would be imagined in fantastic ways to make us feel as if we were in the future. The science fiction films of the seventies were often done on modest budgets and almost always had to make due with creative use of location and existing props. A luxury apartment of the future comes equipped with the latest video game (here it is an early version of Pong). Food riots need to be staged on a New York City back lot, but to make it more futuristic, garbage trucks are modified to remove people rather than trash. The euthanasia center is the googie architectural structure of the L.A. Sports arena and it’s futuristic clean style lobby. The focus stays on the ideas rather than the “wow” factor of the look. Even the two books that Thorn confiscates, they are not digital readouts on an i-pad style device, they are simply over-sized volumes given slick covers to convey an advanced type of publishing, nothing fancy but slightly noticeable.
The horrible secret of “Soylent Green” has probably been used as a punchline by thousands of people who never even saw the movie. The fact that the last line has reached into and grabbed the public consciousness is evidence of the effectiveness of the idea behind the film. We are on an environmental brink that may change the relationship of human beings to one another in catastrophic ways. The immorality of a choice might be mitigated by the exigencies of the moment. The movie is an action based detective conspiracy story, but the thought it contains is provocative and the story highlights that issue rather than pushing it aside for action. Just five years after he stands in for the sucker punched audience in front of the Statue of Liberty, Heston finishes another iconic Science fiction thought with his dire warning and outstretched hand. Another entertaining science fiction movie is capped off with a thought that is frightening and thought provoking.
This is the first of my series on Fogs Movie Reviews [Now, Movies I Want Everyone to See] to cover a film I wrote about on my original Movie A Day Project from 2010. If you are interested in a comparison of the posts click here, I did not refer to this earlier post when writing this so you will see some differences in voice and view but probably not too many in attitude or style. Enjoy.
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.