Ready Player One

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.

 

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Isle of Dogs

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 Love Dogs  “

Pacific Rim Uprising

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.

My Slate of Films from the Spielberg Draft on the Lambcast

 

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.

Jaws

There are plenty of posts on this site for this film. Here is a list:

40th Anniversary Jaws Week Posts

My Original Post on the 70s Summer Movie Project

Book Signing with Carl Gottlieb

Last Years Great Screening in a Great Theater

Others:

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Spielberg Blogathon Entry

While I don’t want to support Heather’s Team of films, I do have a link to my vigorous defense of

Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Vote at this link.

When you look at the choices, you’ll know the right thing to do.

 

UPDATE! Victory!

 

Draft Update

Thanks to everyone who voted.

Tomb Raider (2018)

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.