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  “