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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…

A Bit Of Babble ‘Bout BRIGSBY BEAR

I missed Dave McClary’s BRIGSBY BEAR in its limited theatrical run last year (I’m not even sure if it came to my area), but just caught up with it on Blu ray and I’m glad I did because it’s a real delight. If you haven’t watched Saturday Night Live lately you might not know the films star, Kyle Mooney, but he’s a current cast member since 2013 who has made a bunch of weird, awkward but highly amusing digital shorts (inheriting the brand from Andy Samberg) like this one, and this one.

Here Mooney and director McClary, who both made over 70 of those shorts, have, with the help of co-writer Kevin Costello, successfully translated their silly small screen shenanigans to the big screen with this tale of a scruffy 30-year old named James who discovers that the people he thought were his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) are actually a couple who abducted him when he was a baby, and that there’s a real world outside the underground bunker he’s been living in for all his life.

What’s even crazier is that he grew up watching and obsessing over a children’s television show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” but it’s a program that only he has ever seen as his faux father fabricated it – writing, starring, and directing decades of episodes – at an outside studio with props, costumes, brightly colored sets, and even a young woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) he hired to play two roles who Hamills Ted told the show was for Canadian cable access.

So when the bunker is raided by the FBI, and his parents are taken away, James is re-united with his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), but has trouble adjusting with his family, and sets out to make a movie that concludes the Brigsby Bear series.

You have to suspend some disbelief as it’s unlikely that the cops would really let James to use all the props including the original bear costume that were confiscated, but the film earns its ending, which has touching similarities to the climax of James Franco’s THE DISASTER ARTIST

The endearingly meek Mooney sweetly carries the movie with help from a well chosen cast including Greg Kinnear as a sympathetic police detective, Claire Danes as a family therapist, Ryan Simpkins as James’ sister, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as a friend who helps with shooting the Brigsby Bear movie, and SNL alums Andy Samberg and Beck Bennett in brief but effective cameos.

I didn’t expect that I’d like it as much as I did, but I found BRIGSBY BEAR to be a goofy yet sometimes sad charmer with a big heart. I love how it celebrates the idea that one’s obsession with something imaginary can be channeled into creating something real that’s personal yet can be shared with many others.


You may be able to get a glimpse of its immense likability in the film’s trailer:

More later…

THE DEATH OF STALIN: History Repeats The Old Conceits

Opening today at a indie art house near me:

THE DEATH OF STALIN

(Dir. Armando Iannucci, 2017) 

Acidic political satire is what Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci (IN THE LOOP, Veep) does, and in his third feature, in which he takes on the absurdity of Stalinism, he nails it to the wall.

It’s a pretty ridiculous premise to have a cast of British and American actors playing historical Russian figures – i.e. Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev – with none of them making any attempt at Russian accents, farcically fretting over how to handle the unexpected death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 Moscow, but somehow Iannucci pulls it all off with deliciously wicked abandon.

The film’s opening titles tell us that “For 20 years, Stalin’s NKVD Security Forces have imposed the great terror,” and “those on Stalin’s lists of ‘enemy’ names are arrested, exiled, or shot,” which are, to say the least, unusual statements for which to set up a comedy.

However, they well define the stakes at play that plague the Central Committee which includes Minister of Agriculture Khrushchev (the aforementioned Buscemi sporting a bald head), Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor wearing a not so great toupee), First Deputy Premier Beria (Simon Russell Beale), NKVD Secret Police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Monty Python’s Michael Palin in his first proper film role since 1997’s FIERCE CREATURES).

While each of these men has feared being put on Stalin’s list before his passing, now they have to figure who will take his place through much bickering, some of which takes place while the body of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin, who has some lively moments in the first 15 minutes before he has a stroke) lies dying on the floor beneath them.

They are torn about getting a doctor because all of the best physicians are in the Gulag or dead because under suspicion of trying to poison Stalin, so they assemble a team of young and old doctors, who the dictator’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) says “look like mental patients.” Beria, the most evil and power hungry of all the fairly despicable characters (or caricatures) here, takes over making the lists, while he grooms the meek vain Malenkov to be Stalin’s sucessor, while Khrushchev is elected to take charge of Stalin’s funeral.

Also muddling up the worried water is Stalin’s drunken son Vasily (Rupert Friend), who bursts in on the autopsy wielding a firearm (Khrushchev to Svetlana: “You father is dead, your brother is shooting a gun – it’s not fine, you’re right.”); and the arrogant appearance of Red Army Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who declares “What’s a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?” upon his brash entrance.

Buscemi puts in one of his funniest performances, and I’m glad they didn’t replace Tambor (he’s been accused of sexual harassment, and was dropped from the show Transcendence) because he’s “on” too. I also love seeing Palin on the big screen again as the proceedings often recall the silly-smartness of Python parodies, and he has some priceless moments here.

Iannucci, who I was surprised to hear based this film on a graphic novel (Fabian Nury and Thierry Robin’s “The Death of Stalin,” 2017), very much carries this with a vibe that will be familiar to fans of his HBO show Veep, and his similarly toned BBC series The Thick of It (plus its resulting movie IN THE LOOP). His thing is to skewer the twisted ideology under which these selfishly foolish folks clamoring for power operate, and in scene after scene here he hilariously hits his targets.

“This is just f***ing wordplay!” Buscemi’s Khrushchev exasperatedly exclaims at one point, but THE DEATH OF STALIN is a lot more than just that. It’s timely because it deals with the Trumpean subjects of dictatorships, and the spreading of false narratives, but what really hits home is how this film wants us to laugh at how dark and scary things can get.

I’m reminded of that famous quote, attributed to George Santayana, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Iannucci seems to be suggesting that when if history does repeat, we are doomed if we don’t laugh at it.


More later…

A FANTASTIC WOMAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an indie art theatre near me:

A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Dir. Sebastián Lelio, 2017) 


Sebastián Lelio’s (GLORIA) fifth feature starts out pleasantly enough with a night between two lovers. 


Orlando Onetto (Francisco Reyes), a successful printing company owner in his late 50s, has a romantic evening with his girlfriend Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), who is a transgender woman. 


They are celebrating her birthday, and he surprises her with plans for them to go to Iguazu Falls in South America. Orlando and Marina have a night of passion at his posh apartment in Santiago, but the tone takes a turn when he wakes up in pain in the middle of the night, and Marina takes Orlando to the hospital.


Orlando in the night dies from a brain aneurysum, and a shaken Marina leaves the hospital, and calls Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) to tell him. She is picked up on the street by the police and questioned back at the hospital. Everyone appears to hold her under suspicion, and she undergoes a demeaning interrogation where she has to strip down in front of the investigators. 

Things get worse when she deals with Orlando’s angry, disapproving ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), who Marina has to give his car back to, and Gabo who forces her to move out of Orlando’s apartment telling her cruely, “I don’t know what you are!” Worse still, Sonia tells Marina not to come to the funeral.

Through this series of indignities, Marina, who moonlights as a nightclub singer, has sessions with her vocal coach (Néstor Cantillana), works as a waitress, and tries to get on with her life despite being haunted by images of Orlando. 


A FANTASTIC WOMEN gets surreal at times with visuals like Marina walking against wind so strong it puts her at an almost impossible angle, and a stunning fantasy of a glittery dance set piece that thrusts her upwards into a confident close-up.

It can be a sad, hard-to-endure experience at times, but Lelio’s film, which he co-wrote with Gonzalo Maza, is ultimately uplifting, and it made a strong emotional impression on me. This has a lot to do with Vega, who puts in a fearlessly convincing performance. 

This moving movie opens today in my area, and my fear is that audience may be resistant to seeing a Spanish language film about a trans woman’s grief, but there’s a reason this won the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars earlier this week – its depiction of the resilience and perseverance of Vega’s Marina in the face of such prejudice is simply fantastic.


More later…

FACES PLACES & THE INSULT: They Lost At The Oscars But Shouldn’t Lose Their Audiences

These two films, now playing at a indie art house near me, lost their respective categories at the Oscars last Sunday, but that doesnt mean they aren’t worth your time:


FACES PLACES
(Dirs. Agnès Varda & JR, ) 



This lovely film, which is nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar this year, could have been titled FACES ON PLACES as it concerns a couple of artists pasting large pictures of faces on buildings. The artists, Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda and French street artist JR, don’t only do faces as they paste huge pictures of fish on a water tank at one point, but it’s mostly the faces of local villagers, farmers, and other various folks they meet on their journey that they photograph, reproduce in large prints and affix to the side of what they deem appropriate structures.

Agnès Varda and JR are shown traveling across the French country side to brighten up farms, ruins of old houses, and most stunningly a concrete German blockhouse from World War II, on the Normandy coast, in Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer. 



Varda and JR’s film is loose and rambling at times, but never boring as its filled with such vivid eye candy. Throughout their pasting adventures, Varda tries in vain to get JR to take off his sunglasses. His refusal to not be seen without them reminds her of her old New Wave filmmaking friend Jean-Luc Godard, whose house they make their way to at the movie’s conclusion.

The warmth the unlikely duo of Varda and JR exude is felt in every frame, though it’s easy to see why FACES PLACES didn’t get enough votes to win last Sunday as it could be seen as fluffy compared to its more serious competition. Its lightness shouldnt be mistaken for insubstantiality though as it carries a lot of weight, as well as considerable charm, but, most importantly, its a visual treat through and through.



THE INSULT (Dir. Ziad Doueiri, 2017) 


There’s no way this film, the sixth feature by Lebanese-born filmmaker Zias Doueiri (THE ATTACK), had much of a chance up against the power of Sebastián Lelio’s A FANTASTIC WOMAN for the prize of Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, but it still is well worth moviegoers’ attention.


The film concerns a crude incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee that escalates into a national threat. It begins with a Beirut street scene in which construction crew worker Yasser (Kamel El Basha) asks Tony (Adel Karam) a tenant of a building they’re working on, if they can fix the drainpipe illegally sticking out of his apartment balcony. When the Palestinians-hating Tony refuses Yasser and his men’s entry into his place, they fix the pipe anyway but Tony smashes it and a heated exchange results.


Yasser’s boss tries to arrange a truce between the men, but it becomes violent when Tony says “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out!” and Yassar loses it and punches him in the guts, breaking Tony’s ribs. Before long they are fighting in court over the argument, with the extra added twist of their opposing lawyers (Diamond Bou Abboud and Camille Salameh) being father and daughter.


If that engrossing courtroom drama narrative isn’t enough, there’s Tony’s pregnant wife (Christine Choueiri), and both men’s dark back stories involving the roots of the Christian/Palestinian conflicts. Doueiri, whose worked on several of Quentin Tarantio’s films, sheds light on the humanity of both sides of its argument, and gives us a fair, unbiased look at how deep seeded hatred can wreck all kinds of havoc if triggered.


A FANTASTIC WOMAN definitely deserved the Oscar, but THE INSULT definitely deserves a big audience too.

More later…

Oscars® 2018 Recap: My Best Score Since 2015

For those who say we’re all out-of-touch Hollywood elites – Ill have you know that each of the 45 million Swarovski crystals on this stage tonight represents humility. 

I spent last night at the Rialto Theatre in Raleigh watching the 90th Academy Awards broadcast and enjoyed the show a lot more than the last several years. 

It felt like there was more of a purpose to the proceedings this time largely via moments like Frances McDormand’s impassioned speech, Emma Stone saying that four males and Greta Gerwig were up for Best Director, Daniela Vega being the first openly trans actress, Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph joking about #oscarsowhite controversy from a few years back, and rapper Common calling out President Trump: A president that chose with hate/He don’t control our fate/Because god is great/ When they go low we stay in the heights/I stand for peace, love and women’s rights.

Jimmy Kimmel did a good job as host touching on some of the same topics, and I liked his bit about giving away a jet ski to the Osacr winner who makes the shortest speech (see Helen Mirren showing it off above). 

Anyway, I had my best score in years as I bested the last two Oscars (at least by one) with a tally of 17 out of 24. Here’s the ones I got wrong:

BEST
PICTURE: 
My prediction: GET
OUT / What won: THE SHAPE OF WATER


While I got wrong that Jordan Peels excellent film would win the big one, I was right that hed win for Best Screenplay – another great moment as hes the first African American to do so.

BEST DOCUMENTARY:
My prediction: FACES PLACES / What won: ICARUS


BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: My prediction: EDDIE+EDITH / What won:
HEAVEN IS A TRAFFIC JAM ON THE 405

FILM EDITING: My prediction: BABY
DRIVER / What won: DUNKIRK

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS:  My prediction: WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES / What won: BLADE RUNNER 2049


I really didnt expect BLADE RUNNER 2049 to win more than one Oscar (it won for Best Visual Effects, and Best Cinematography). I predicted Roger Deakins would win for his masterful work on BR 2049, and was happy that after over a dozen nominations over the years that it finally happened.


ORIGINAL SONG
: My prediction: “This Is Me”
from THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (Justin
Paul & Benj Pasek) / What won: “Remember Me” from COCO

LIVE ACTION SHORT: My
prediction: DEKALB ELEMENTARY / What
won: THE SILENT CHILD



Lastly I was disappointed that the In Memorium segment left out John Mahoney, Robert Guillaume, Tobe Hooper, Powers Boothe, Adam West, and Tom Petty (sure Eddie Vedder covering Petty’s “A Room at the Top” worked as a tribute, but I would’ve loved seeing a clip of Petty in THE POSTMAN in the montage).


Okay! That’s it for this year. As I’ve said before, now back to watching movies for fun and not for sport.


More later…

Hey Kids! Funtime 2018 Oscar® Predictions!


T
he 90th Academy Awards® Ceremony is in two days, so it’s time for my predictions. Mind you, the last few years I got the same score: 16 out of 24, so I’m no Oscar-predicting genius here (my best score was 21 out of 24 in 2014). The only real lock this time around is that host Jimmy Kimmel will touch greatly on the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

This year is a particularly difficult roster to choose from as every other critic’s predictions are very divided especially when it comes to the big one:

1. BEST PICTURE: GET OUT

It looks like the front-runners for this category are THE SHAPE OF WATER (12 nominations), THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI (7 nominations), and GET OUT (4 nominations). Now, if it wasn’t for that big snafu last year when LA LA LAND was mistakenly announced as the winner, when it was really MOONLIGHT that got the gold, I would probably go with THE SHAPE OF WATER. LA LA LAND seemed like such a lock, but that incident has made me rethink my pick again and again.

But I’ve settled on Jordan Peele’s brilliant debut. I hesitated at first because it’s my favorite of the three, and playing favorites doesn’t always work out, but it just feels like it has the edge over its competition.

The rest of my predictions sans commentary:

2. BEST DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro for THE SHAPE OF WATER

3. BEST ACTOR: Gary Oldman for DARKEST HOUR

4. BEST ACTRESS: Frances McDormand for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

5. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Sam Rockwell for THREE BILLBOARDS

6. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Allison Janey for I, TONYA

7. PRODUCTION DESIGN: Paul D. Austerberry, Shane Vieau, and Jeffrey A. Melvin for THE SHAPE OF WATER


8. CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins for BLADE RUNNER 2049

9. COSTUME DESIGN: Mark Bridges for PHANTOM THREAD

10. DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: FACES PLACES

11. DOCUMENTARY SHORT: EDDIE+EDITH

12. FILM EDITING: Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos for BABY DRIVER


13. MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, and Lucy Sibbick for
 DARKEST HOUR

14. VISUAL EFFECTS: Joe Letteri, Daniel Barrett, Dan Lemmon, and Joel Whist for 
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

15. ORIGINAL SCORE: Alexandre Desplat for THE SHAPE OF WATER

16. ORIGINAL SONG: “This Is Me” from THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (Justin Paul & Benj Pasek)

17. ANIMATED SHORT: DEAR BASKETBALL

18. LIVE ACTION SHORT: DEKALB ELEMENTARY

19. SOUND EDITING: Richard King and Alex Gibson for DUNKIRK

20. SOUND MIXING: Gregg Landaker, Gary Rizzo, and Mark Weingarten for DUNKIRK


21. ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Jordan Peele for GET OUT

22. ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: James Ivory for CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

23. ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: COCO

24. BEST FOREIGN FILM: A FANTASTIC WOMAN


As I always say, tune in Monday to see how many I got wrong.

More later…