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READY PLAYER ONE: Fun Spielberg Is Back!

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everybody:

READY PLAYER ONE (Dir. Steven Spielberg. 2018) 

In a recent New York Times piece about maybe the most famous living filmmaker there is, Steven Spielberg, Brook Barnes wrote about how it’s been a while since the popular director’s movies have had the magic of his early work.

Barnes confronted Spielberg with the idea that the directors later day output has lacked the fun of films like E.T., JURASSIC PARK, and the original Indiana Jones trilogy in the ‘80s. Spielberg countered Barnes’ thesis by saying he was “always moving really fast, and I don’t look back a lot.” 

But, by way of his adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 young adult novel, READY PLAYER ONE, Spielberg looks back quite a bit to the era in which his movies were mega grossing must sees while video games became a big thing, synthetic pop music was the norm, and the possibilities of globally networked virtual reality were just gleams in the eyes of tech nerds. 



You see, this movie is set in the future, but nearly all of its reference points are from three decades ago as that’s when one such tech nerd came of age.

Thats the Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak mash-up that is James Halliday, played by a frizzy hair wigged Mark Rylance (now a Spielberg regular as he was in BRIDGE OF SPIES and THE BFG) who created the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a virtual reality world that most of the earth’s impoverished population in 2045 uses to escape their doomed existences.

When Halliday died, five years previous, he left a video message saying that he created a an “Easter egg” that he’s hidden inside his elaborate creation, and the first person to find it will inherit half a trillion dollars, and ownership of the OASIS itself.

So the movie’s protagonist is gunter (a combination of egg and hunter) Wade Watts (MUDD’s Tye Sheridan), going by the name Parzival in the game, who, by studying Halliday’s ‘80s obsessions figures out the first challenge involving a New York car race in which Wade’s vehicle of choice is the Delorean from BACK TO THE FUTURE.

In the overwhelmingly eye-popping sequence, Parzival has to outmaneuver a Tyrannosaurus Rex (ostensibly from JURASSIC PARK) and King Kong (looking like the 2005 Peter Jackson version), and in the process meets the girl of his dreams, another gunter named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).

Mind you, neither Parzival nor Art3mis knows what either looks like in the real world because they’re represented by self chosen avatars in the OASIS, but there’s immediately a cute connection between them and they team up with Wade’s longtime friend Aech (Lena Waithe), and two other fellow gunters, brothers Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki), to take on the next challenge which lands them into a dead on recreation of the Overlook Hotel from THE SHINING (it was WAR GAMES in the book, but Stanley Kubrick’s classic has a much cooler production design).

Of course, there’s an evil corporation, the IOI (Innovative Online Industries), competing with them headed by CEO Nolan Sorrento (a scenery chewing Ben Mendelsohn doing a convincing American accent), who had once worked as an underling to Halliday and his then business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg, also doing an American accent).

READY PLAYER ONE gets a bit bogged down in CGI-cluttered spectacle in its third act, but it’s such a swiftly paced, wild ride that so consistently pops through each of its shiny setpieces that that doesn’t mar it too much. Sheridan and Cooke’s budding romance gets a bit cheesy at times (a disco dance set to “Stayin’ Alive” I could’ve done without), but they still work as characters that audiences will want to root for.

Many cynics will no doubt decry this film as pop culture pandering, but if you don’t think about it too deeply, it’s a highly entertaining sci-fi fantasy pic that’s somehow post modern, and old fashioned feeling at the same time.

Sure, it’s a geekgasm-inducing orgy of Easter eggs like the appearances of Chucky, Batman, Robocop, Buckaroo Banzai, Sonic the Hedgehog, the Alien chestburster, and even Monty Python’s Holy Hand Grenade, but, by embracing how the kids of today look back at the once tacky, but now endearingly surreal aesthetics of the ‘80s, the 71-year old Spielberg successfully reminds us (and himself) of his fun side.

Since I, like many of my age (late 40s) grew up on the filmmaker’s crowd-pleasing, high grossing work when we were kids first learning what movie magic is, it’s great to have fun Spielberg back.


More later…

Notes On DUNKIRK (Three Weeks Into Its Run)

It’s been three weeks since I first saw Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic DUNKIRK, but I wasn’t in a good headspace then. My wife and I were having some major work done on our house involving installing hardwood floors so I was exhausted from moving tons of books, CDs, DVDs, records, etc.

I had mixed feelings about the movie, but I recognized some greatness there so I decided to see it a second time. But this time was in the way Nolan intended it to be seen – in IMAX 70 mm. The visuals were indeed impressive and the story threads came together better than my previous viewing, but I still felt a disconnect.

The film, which Nolan wrote and co-produced in addition to directing, follows three narratives – “The Mole,” about the thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach of Dunkirk, France over the course of a week waiting for rescue boats over the course of a week; “The Sea,” concerning a civilian (Mark Rylance) sailing his boat with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his friend (Barry Keoghan) to help with the rescue effort over the course of a day; and “The Air,” which involves three Spitfires piloted by members of the Royal Air Force engaged in dogfights over the course of an hour.

Nolan’s attention to detail in recreating the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 is immaculate via the usage of restored boats and planes from the actual event, practical effects, and a minimum of CGI.

I’ve heard many folks complain that in the “The Mole” storyline the characters are hard to tell apart. Fionn Whitehead as a private named Tommy, who is pretty much the protagonist of the thread, and a fellow soldier played by pop singer Harry Styles do blend in with the masses on the docks, but perhaps that’s the point.

“The Air” narrative which has Tom Hardy, and Jack Lowden on a mission to take down German dive bombers over the infinite ocean may be the most exciting of the three intertwined scenarios, but several times Nolan cuts away right as the scenes are getting the most compelling. Lowden almost drowning because he can’t get his cockpit open after crash landing in the sea deserves to be seen in full, but Nolan can’t help but dive back into another thread, and the momentum gets lost.

The most emotionally grounded storyline is “The Sea” as a stoic Rylance holds steady to his goal to save as many men as possible, even when a shell-shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy that his boat picks up violently tries to get him to turn his boat around. Murphy, a veteran of a few Nolan films (BATMAN BEGINS, INCEPTION), is only credited as “shivering soldier,” and that about sums up his role.

Kenneth Branagh, as a British Naval Commander, brings a touch of dignified gravitas to his part, but mainly just stands around on the pier watching what’s happening around him.

So basically, don’t go in expecting fully fleshed out characters. There may be precious little dialogue, but there’s plenty of genuine suspense, gripping action, and incredibly vivid cinematography (thanks to Hoyte van Hoytema’s 54-Pound IMAX Camera) to make up for it, and to make up for the failings of Nolan’s previous film, INTERSTELLAR.

DUNKIRK is engaging to a considerable degree, but not as immersive an experience as it could’ve been as its fractured narratives bog it down. Hans Zimmer’s intense score, which at times beautifully blends with the scary sound of attacking dive bombers, does a lot to tie together the three strands, but they still clash in ways that was at times frustrating.

I still would recommend Nolan’s work here because there is a lot of power in the imagery and the depiction of touching humanity, which, as I said before, is most present in Rylance’s storyline.


It may fall short of being a masterpiece, but it comes close – especially when seeing it a second time in IMAX 70 mm. Maybe the third time will be the charm?

More later…

BRIDGE OF SPIES: Spielberg & Hanks Serve Up Splendid Cold War Spy Stuff

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


BRIDGE OF SPIES (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2015)

You know we’re really getting into the season of Oscar-baiting when a prestige picture with such pedigree as this one comes along. I mean, it’s a Steven Spielberg film, starring Tom Hanks, concerning historical events, with a screenplay co-written by the Coen brothers – can you get any more Oscar baity than that?

But BRIDGE OF SPIES, the 29th movie by the most famous and successful filmmaker of our times, is a worthy, noble piece of entertainment that ranks with Spielberg’s best work, and it’s my favorite of his four collaborations with Hanks, of course, one of the most famous and successful leading men ever.

Set in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, the film posits Hanks as James Donovan, a Brooklyn-based insurance lawyer who was recruited by the CIA to his initial chagrin to defend an accused Soviet spy.

The assignment makes Hanks’ Donovan very unpopular with the public – he gets nasty looks from folks on the subway looking up from their newspapers – and draws ire from his wife, played by Amy Ryan, elevating the role of the typical concerned wife-on-the-side, who asks: “Do you know how people will look at us, the family of the man trying to free a traitor?” (sure, it’s an easy, obvious role for Ryan, but if you have to have that part played – who better?).

Donovan consults with his client, Rudolf Abel (played with nonchalance by Mark Rylance) and explains that if convicted he could be facing the death penalty. “You don’t seem alarmed,” Donovan observes to which Abel says “would it help?” This line becomes a running joke of sorts.

As expected, Donavan loses the case but argues that Abel should be kept alive in case the situation arises in which the Soviets have captured an American then a trade could possibly be arranged.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to a group of U.S. fighter pilots who are sent on a secret intelligence gathering mission involving the Airforce’s new fangled high altitude, camera-equipped U-2 spy planes. One of the pilots, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured by the Russians.

Representing the CIA, Donovan travels to East Berlin to negotiate the trade of Abel for Powers, and another American, a Yale student named Frederic L. Pryor (Will Rogers), who was arrested and is being held without charge by the East German police.

Maneuvering through the negotiation process between East Germany and the U.S.S.R. is tricky for Donovan as has to work out the conditions of the deal with such prickly bureaucrats as Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), a German lawyer; and German Stasi agent Harald Ott (Burghart Klaußner).

Between meetings on the street of Berlin, Donovan is accosted by a group of young German toughs, who steal his overcoat. Afterwards, one of his colleagues asks “How did you lose your coat?” Hanks shrugs and replies: “You know, spy stuff.”

Spielberg and Hanks serve up splendid, you know, spy stuff here in this sturdy, grey-toned drama that beautifully builds to the tense prisoner exchange climax at Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin, where Powers’ fighter pilot friend Joe Murphy (Jesse Plemons) is brought over to confirm his identity.


This stand-out sequence is where Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński captures the film’s most stunning imagery with the glare of lights on the snowbound bridge juxtaposed with the pitch black of the night effectively surrounding these little men just doing their jobs, as one character puts it.

The film’s post script shines with Spielberg’s brand of sentimentality which many may find to be cheesy – i.e. such shots as a woman on the subway looks up from her paper to give our modest hero Hanks a smile of approval in obvious contrast to that earlier aforementioned scene – but it felt earned to me.

Hanks and Spielberg are among the only ones these days who can really sell such a Capra-esque vision of an all-American family man – an honest lawyer, mind you – who works to do the right thing to make the world a better place. Donovan’s role in the trial and the trade deserves such a treatise, enhanced by the timely commentary on how the Cold War of yesteryear echoes through the War on Terror of today.

It’s also a pleasure to have Hanks handling the sharply scripted dialogue by Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote with Mark Charman, that’s so much better than what the Coen brothers gave him in one their rare misfires, 2004’s THE LADYKILLERS. Still, Hanks, as solid and dependable as his performance is, will doubtfully get any Oscar action for this (the Academy has been there done that), but I’m betting that Rylance, who quietly steals the movie as the amusingly jaded Abel, will get a nomination.


BRIDGE OF SPIES may be another case of the “Greatest Generation” saluting itself again, but it’s grand, old fashioned entertainment made by one of our most trusted storytellers, and one of our most trusted actors that does stately justice to its subject. So go ahead and label it Oscar bait, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth swallowing hook, line, and sinker.

More later…