Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, Ready Player One, is visually amazing and narratively empty. It mostly works on its own terms, even if it barely holds up to even the barest scrutiny. Mostly, it is an excuse for over the top action scenes and references to video games, comics and other movies.

The movie stars Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts, a young man who is trying to win a contest to gain control of the OASIS, a virtual reality game that everyone plays. Its creator, James Halliday, left it to whoever could solve his riddles when he died. He is opposed by the IOI corporation and their CEO Noah Sorrento. What starts as a game quickly escalates to become deadly, while Wade gets closer to fellow player Art3mis. The contest consists of finding 3 keys hidden in various locations, with puzzles based on Halliday’s favorite bits of pop culture and his own personal history.

The plot is mostly a vehicle to deliver references, which are all over the place. Some are just recognizable characters in the background. Look, is Harley Quinn! Over there is Chun Li! They don’t add much to the movie, but they don’t detract anything either. Then there are the more in depth ones, like the second challenge taking place within a virtual version of the movie The Shining or the last challenge having to do mostly with the Atari game Adventure. Only The Shining one really engages with its subject, the others are all mostly just surface. Adventure is a fitting final challenge, but how they get there is pretty clumsy.

Clumsy is how I’d describe the movie overall. The more prominent references get problematic. Like the Iron Giant. I loved seeing that in the movie, but not when it was used in some fighting. The Iron Giant is a movie about how that robot refuses to be a weapon, it gives me no joy to seem him being a weapon. Some of the other surprise characters work a lot better, but just as often the references are as clumsily inserted as Iron Giant. It doesn’t make Ready Player One unentertaining, Spielberg still knows his business even when he is working with lesser material. It is clear, though, that he is working with lesser material here.

Ready Player One almost feels like everyone made a hellish dystopia without realizing it until the last minute. It is a movie about a terrible future, where everyone would rather play a virtual reality game instead of working to fix society’s problems. The movie is about who gets to control that game, mostly by playing the game. No one seems to care that world is shit. It could work, it’s not like Blade Runner is about how terrible that world is, it mostly a noir mystery. But Ready Player One doesn’t even seem to acknowledge the state of the world, it is an unimportant detail. That is kind of my biggest problem with the movie; it is almost always focusing on the wrong things. It is a movie about the power of imagination that almost seems to have none.

***

Overboard Review

The original Overboard succeeded despite its dodgy premise on the charm of its stars, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. That appeal would be hard, if not impossible, to replicate. Still, this new Overboard made an excellent attempt. Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez aren’t quite Russell and Hawn, but I don’t know how this movie could have done better. Overboard is a mildly enjoyable diversion; never offensive, but is also never quite funny enough.

This Overboard switches the genders of the put upon worker and rich jerk who stiffed them. Derbez’s Leonardo is a rich playboy who refuses to pay Faris’s Kate, a single mom working multiple jobs while in nursing school. When he falls off his yacht and ends up with amnesia, Kate pretends he is her husband so she can force him to work off his debt. Lessons are learned before Leonardo inevitably remembers who he is and there is a reckoning.

I am somewhat familiar with Anna Faris’s work, but it is easy to forget how great of a comic actress she is. Her timing is always perfect and her face is perfectly expressive. She gets a lot of lesser material over just on her delivery. She is great. I was not familiar with Derbez, though I intend to watch last year’s How to be a Latin Lover, which is on Hulu, after watching this. He is likewise very good, though he spends a lot of movie being vaguely confused at what is going on around him, and he has really good chemistry with Faris.

My problem with Overboard is that is just isn’t all that funny. It isn’t that it is full of bad jokes, it is just that it repeats a lot of jokes and a lot of them were only marginally funny to begin with. The other problem is that it kind of skips over Leonardo building a relationship with Kate and her kids. There are a few, mostly effective scenes, but there is more showing the start of growth and then finished growth without showing the actual growth. Like with him teaching Kate’s youngest daughter how to ride her bike. There is a scene where he realizes she can’t ride a bike and then a scene where she is riding a bike and says he taught her, but the movie never shows him teaching her. It does things like that a little too often.

That said, I mostly enjoyed Overboard. It is pleasant and manages to not to sink under the nature of its central conceit. It makes Leonardo enough of a jerk that his punishment feels earned and makes Kate desperate enough that she doesn’t appear to be completely sociopathic for engaging in the deception. It almost works. Which is how I feel about the whole movie; it almost works.

***

Pacific Rim Uprising

I loved the original Pacific Rim. It was kind of thin in places, but it was so earnest that it sold it. After seeing dreck like the Transformers movies, just having a movie about giant robots that wasn’t a big pile of shit was welcome. The sequel, which doesn’t have the advantages of timing or of being directed by Guillermo Del Toro, couldn’t have hoped to live up to it. Pacific Rim Uprising, though, manages to forge its own path, while keeping that earnestness that helped make the first one so enjoyable. It expands the mythology and creates some interesting, or at least potentially interesting, new characters and lays out a path forward for this potential franchise.

Pacific Rim Uprising is the Saturday morning cartoon version of the original. That is mostly a bad thing, but not completely. Uprising lacks the first movie’s weight and its stakes. The fight scenes are fine. They are not especially inventive, but they are coherent and enjoyable. There isn’t quite the heft that the first movie had, this is a little more cartoony. It works, though. Giant robots are an inherently goofy concept, the first movie played them as straight as possible, this movie frees things a few steps more from the bounds of reality. These robots do a lot more running and jumping that the old ones did. There is also less weight to the story. The first movie had this palpable weight to it, that the end of humanity was near. This takes place in the aftermath; humanity has won. So that oppressive weight is gone. There was also the feeling that any character could die at any time. Mostly because lots of characters died, frequently abruptly. Here, with the bulk of the cast being literal children, that seems, and proves, much less likely. There are still loses, but things are a lot less final than in the previous film.

John Boyega stars a Jake Pentecost, the son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who has left the Jaeger program and works as a smuggler and thief, salvaging old Jaeger parts and selling them on the black market, as well as things like cereal and hot sauce. Through circumstance he is teamed with Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a young girl who has built her own mini-Jaeger out of scraps, and forced to rejoin the program. There he is reteamed with his old partner, Nate (Scott Eastwood)to train newcomers and Amara is put in with the rest of trainees. Boyega does good work making Jake an interesting character; his feelings of inadequacy in trying to live up to his father work especially well in a movie that is going to have a hard time living up to its predecessor. The precocious Amara starts well, but her arc kind of gets lost in the middle before coming back near the end. Nate is a guy; he only really has one note of being by the books, with little or nothing about who he is coming through. None of the other trainees do much to distinguish themselves. The other notable new face is Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), the head of the corporation who is seeking to displace the Jaeger program with drones. She is interesting, if underutilized.

Returning characters are few and not treated especially well, though in one case it makes perfect sense. Outside of flashbacks and static images, returning characters are limited to scientists Newt Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb and former Jaeger pilot Mako Mori. The scientists are roughly as important in this movie as they were in the first. Gottlieb still works with the Jaeger program, while Geiszler has gone to work with a private firm. Gottlieb has several chances to shine as the sole scientist for the good guys, it is fine continuation of his character. Meanwhile, Geiszler has gone a little off the deep end, as he was wont to do in the first movie without Gottlieb’s restraining influence, working with the Shao Corporation. His developments, while not really positive, make perfect sense for the character. Then there is Mako, who was the heart and soul of the original movie. Bringing her back seemed like a good sign, but the movie treats her abominably. She has no role, she is only motivation for her adoptive brother Jake.

The story wisely avoids just repeating the first movie. While eventually Kaiju do come back, it doesn’t just start with a new breach. It builds to their return. In many ways, it has the bad guys using the heroes tactics from the first movie against them.

Pacific Rim Uprising is not as good as the original, but neither is it a complete failure. It stumbles occasionally and really misses the hand of Del Toro, but for the most part provides a solid outing of giant robots punching monsters.

***

Tomb Raider Movie Review

Tomb Raider clears the very low bar of being the best live action video game movie adaptation. It is very close to being really good and maybe not any good at all. I enjoyed watching it, but even as I did I could see the glaring flaws. Tomb Raider does a good job of translating the game to the screen, pulling in even more from things that influenced the game, such as Indiana Jones.

Tomb Raider starts with Lara Croft living low in London, refusing to have her father, missing for seven years, declared dead and accept her inheritance. Then she stumbles on a clue as to where he father disappeared to and she sets out to find him. She stops in Hong Kong, where she meets the son of man who disappeared with her father and together they set out for an uninhabited island near Japan. There, the adventure kicks into high gear as Lara must solve the mysteries of the island before a group of mercenaries to prevent ancient relics falling into the wrong hands.

The movie is very much Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Lara as Indy and her buddy Lu Ren as Salah/Marian and Walton Goggins playing something of a Belloq. Though it takes a little longer to get going than that movie, since this is determined to be an origin story for Lara Croft. Once Lara is adventuring, it follows a lot of similar beats to Raiders. Not exactly, and as an adventure movie it is going to be similar, but there are several bits that stand out as clearly inspired by that seminal film.

Where this Tomb Raider fails in in is characters. Not the actors; Vikander, Goggins and Daniel Wu are all solid and do good work with the material available. Vikander is especially charming as Lara. The problem is Lara aside, the movie spends a little time sketching out the characters as they are introduced, but does nothing with them from after that. Lara gets the whole first half hour to set up who she is and what her motivations are; it works. Everyone else gets maybe two minutes. The movie seems to set up characters beats to come later, but does nothing to pay them off. It is frustrating. Wu’s Lu Ren joins with some clear unsettled business with his missing father, but once they reach the island he mostly disappears as a character. Walton Goggins does the most he can with the villainous Mathias. Again, in his introduction he is set up to be a interesting inverse of Lara; she headed to the island to find her missing father, Mathias is stuck on the island, wanting nothing more than to get home to his kids. But after giving him that motivation, the movie really does nothing with him or the parallels. That is where the movie really falls apart. The plot exists to string action scenes together and the characters exist only to the extent necessary to keep things movings.

Those action scenes are largely pretty good. Sometimes they feel a little too mindful of being in a movie based on a game, but for the most part they are pretty entertaining. There is a really good, if somewhat pointless, bike chase early on that looks good and most of the the stuff on the island is pretty exhilarating. They do feel lacking somehow, like there is some cohesion that would really make them sing that isn’t there, but they are the movie’s main draw and they hold up their end of the bargain.

The biggest problem with Tomb Raider is how fixable its flaws seem. It isn’t like the movie fails in some obvious, unfixable way. It just feels like some of the stuff that ties everything together ended up on the cutting room floor. The biggest problem is that whole movie feels like it should be better than it is, even though the movie isn’t bad. If this is the start of a Tomb Raider movie franchise, it is a good start. They have laid a good foundation here. Tomb Raider is a good adaptation of a game that turns into a fun, but flawed movie.

***

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Review

I still have a little affection for the Pirates of the Caribbean series from how pleasantly surprised I was by the first movie. That, plus a general love of swashbuckling adventures, was enough to get me to go see this unnecessary seeming fifth installment of the series. It turns out there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had with these pirates, even if in the end the movie feels unsatisfying.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is something of a reset for the series after On Stranger Tides, which I haven’t yet seen. It brings back Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, but it places equal focus on newcomers Henry and Carina. Henry is on a quest to free his father from a curse and Carina, an orphan, is searching for a connection to her family. Their separate quests have them looking for the same artifact, the Trident of Poseidon, and leads them to the same place, or more specifically the same person: Jack Sparrow. Unfortunately, Sparrow is now ship-less and crewless. He is in no shape to deal with his own problem, being chased by the ghost of the Spanish pirate hunter Armando Salazar, let alone help them with theirs. From there is moves to the standard Pirates formula of ancient sea curses, supernatural monsters and constant double crosses.

Most of the movie works, and works quite well. The new characters are charming enough and Carina at least adds something new to the series’ dynamic. As they lay out their plans and set up their double crosses it all works well. Having old guns Sparrow and Barbossa there to play against the very young newcomers is a solid dynamic. Javier Bardem’s Salazar is a lot of fun. The problem is that while it has excellent build up, nearly all of the actions scenes are a letdown, especially compared to those in the earlier movies. The two best ones are early in the movie, as Jack attempts to steal a safe from a bank and ends up stealing the whole bank, Fast 5 style and then during an attempt to stop Jack from being executed. Even that second one, though, has some disappointment. There are a few very interesting shots, but the whole thing is largely played for jokes. At no point is there anything that matches any of the first movie’s sword fights or the second or third’s ship battles.

Dead Men Tell No Tales nails the banter and feel of the series, but the whole endeavor ends up feeling rather empty. It starts with some theoretically interesting themes, like playing with the idea that Jack is washed up and Barbossa’s lack of satisfaction in his success, but those don’t really come to anything once the train starts movie. It isn’t offensively bad or anything, just somewhat unsatisfying. This is a movie that is trying to rejuvenate a dying series, but it plays more like an attempt at a greatest hits. I didn’t dislike this movie, but it really felt like the adventures of Jack Sparrow have really run their course.

***

War Horse Review

To compare War Horse to a pair of other Steven Spielberg directed films, it is like E.T. meets Saving Private Ryan. It is just an awkward a combination as it sounds like. There is the heartwarming story of a boy and his horse, a story of how they overcame everything to be together again. Then there is the war movie, highlighting the dirty, brutal horrors of World War 1, as well as the bravery of the combatants. The two a mashed together into a film that while entertaining, is not as good as either of its parts.

It is all the worse because separately, both of the sides of War horse are good. The first quarter or so establishes the friendship between Albert, the boy, and Joey, the horse. It perhaps a touch too sentimental, but effective nonetheless. From there Joey is goes to war an War Horse becomes almost episodic as Joey goes through owners and wartime adventures. The tone is decidedly grim, but filtered through a PG-13 rating that doesn’t allow too much blood or on-camera deaths. This doesn’t quite allow the war scenes to have the bite that they could have. It also fails to keep it appropriate for children, leaving the whole thing feeling somewhat compromised.

In the last quarter of the film, Albert joins the army to find his horse, which leads to a few more of Spielberg’s expertly filmed battle scenes. Again, the individual ingredients used in this film are all of the highest quality, but they are combined in a less than satisfactory manner. Partly I think this is because of the episodic nature of the middle part of the film, where Joey’s temporary owners all die or have to give him up. This keeps War Horse from building any narrative momentum.

For as odd a combination as War Horse is, a heartwarming family war movie, it is probably better than it should be. But that doesn’t mean it is anything better than good. Though it certainly has its share of moments, War Horse is a good, but far from great film.

*** Stars.

One last note, I must say that, despite me being a wholly heterosexual man, Tom Hiddleston’s eyes are positively dreamy.

Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is No Mystery.

When video games become movies it is often not a good thing. Animated films seem to fare better than live action ones, but even then the crap far outweighs anything of quality. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, though it is far from perfect, falls pretty far up the quality side of the spectrum. Professor Layton is in some way the perfect game to make the jump to film, since it’s story and gameplay are wholly separate. For the most part it does work as a movie. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is, for better or worse, a film that could have easily been the plot to the next game in the series.

For those unfamiliar with Professor Layton (first you should rectify that like now) the series follow the exploits of archaeology professor and puzzle enthusiast Hershel Layton and his trusty apprentice Luke as they travel across Europe (mostly the U.K, though) solving elaborate mysteries. Every game adds new characters, all rendered in the series ugly, lumpy, utterly charming style. Recent additions are Emmy, Inspector Grosky and Descole, all of whole play large roles in the movie. While the gameplay consists entirely of puzzles, the stories are fantastical and ridiculous adventure fare. Eternal Diva ramps up the ridiculousness even more than most of the game, eliciting as many eye rolls as delighted smiles.

In the film, the titular professor receives a letter from a former student, an opera singer, who asks him to come and investigate at her next performance. This turns into a contest to win the secret of immortality learned from the Atlantis-like civilization of Ambrosia. It gets crazier from there, with organ powered robot castles and whisky barrel helicopters. It does retain the charm of the game’s core cast; from the eager Luke to the excitable Emmy to the ever calm Layton the gang is just as likable as ever.

It is not a perfect movie. It is ridiculous, even for Layton. Enough so that it makes it hard to maintain suspension of disbelief. There are also some moments that draw attention to the series video game roots.

It isn’t a great introduction to the Professor’s adventures, but Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is a decent enough adventure movie in its own right. It is a treat for longtime fans and should entertain most newcomers, though they may not leave wowed with the franchise. In all, I’d call it a success.

The Big Year Review

Ads for The Big Year seemed to position it as a comedy, which I guess isn’t strictly wrong, but anyone expecting raucous laughs will be disappointed. It is funny; Steve Martin never fails to amuse, Jack Black has a few masterful pratfalls and Owen Wilson is as glib as ever. However, The Big Year is not a film reliant on jokes, it is character driven. And bird driven. It repeatedly starts obvious comic set ups only to quickly deflate them. The Big Year purposefully avoids it comic potential to tell a more sedate, thoughtful story.

The Big Year is about three bird watchers, or birders as they apparently like to be called. Steve Martin plays Stu Preissler , a successful businessman who is eager to retire and enjoy his hobby full-time. Jack Black is a down on his luck middle class guy who wants to do something special. And Owen Wilson is the champion birder who is planning to start a family with his wife. All three end up doing a big year, which is a birder’s attempt to see as many birds as possible in a single year. As much as this movie is about these three characters, it is also about the birds. I am going to assume that the bird information is accurate, though I know little about it myself, but the film revels in the scenery and wildlife of North America. They travel to the four corners of the continent in attempts to see the most rare of birds. Each of the main characters face personal challenges to complete the big year. Real life is always trying to draw them out of their birding obsession, from business, to family to simple survival.

The competition between the trio is mostly downplayed. Black’s and Martin’s characters immediately become friends and their one spat is quickly resolved because both characters are adults. Which is why the laughs are a bit lacking in this supposed comedy. Situations arise that would normally be the fodder for jokes, but characters in The Big Year act like adults for the most part, hurting the comedy potential. Owen Wilson is sneaky, but never truly underhanded. In all it is remarkable how nice and likeable all the characters are. Wilson’s constant absence from his wife opens up the possibility of her cheating on him, but even though he is playing the villain here, he is not a bad enough guy that viewers would relish his comeuppance.

In the end, The Big Year is almost more of a tragedy than a comedy. Each character faces important decisions over the course of the year and must live with the results of those decisions. The results are not unexpected, but in at least one case it is quite sad. AS a comedy, this film lacks humor; as a drama it lacks focus.  It is a likable but forgettable movie that entertains but never truly engrosses the viewer.   The Big Year is about three men choosing what is most important to them and having to face the consequences.

Horrible Bosses Review

Horrible Bosses is not a great movie, especially not in the sense of being large. It is a small movie. There are few big moments or big scenes or big laughs. It stays on fairly even keel from most of it’s run time. That does not mean that it is not entertaining.  Horrible Bosses is entertaining throughout. While the plot is not terrific, the excellent cast keeps the movie funny and enjoyable.

Three friends, played by Charlie Day, Jason Bateman and Jason Sudeikis, decide they hate their bosses and feeling trapped in their current jobs plot to have their bosses killed. So they try to hire someone to kill their bosses for them. There isn’t much else too it. Most of the humor comes from characters, not gross out situations like many other R-rated comedies. Fortunately the characters, and especially the actors that play them carry it well.

Bateman, Sudeikis and Day are mostly known as television guys, but they are always funny and underrated. Bateman, the glue that held the best TV show of the last decade, Arrested Development, together, plays a man stymied in his climb up the corporate ladder. Sudeikis, an underrated SNL guy, is a womanizer upset with the son who took over the family business and Charlie Day, possibly the funniest guy currently on TV, is a dental assistant and registered sex offender. The three work really well together, their friendship never feels forced on screen. Just as good as our trio of heroes are, their bosses are at least as good. Kevin Spacey is hysterically evil, Colin Farrell is just about as terrible and useless as a person gets and Jennifer Aniston is great as a sexually rapacious dentist. And there is Jamie Foxx’s hilarious turn as the trio’s “murder consultant.” No one turns in a truly great performance, but everyone is funny.

This is not a movie to inspire much of a strong reaction from the viewer. The humor comes less out of the murderous set-up and more from the amusing interactions among the characters. Which is why it is important that this film has a cast full of great comedians. With a few exceptions, like an incident with an epipen, Horrible Bosses doesn’t rise much above being humorous or amusing, but the stellar cast keeps the movie from being forgettable.

Adjustment Bureau Review

The Adjustment Bureau is not quite a great movie.  It poses some interesting questions, but spends more time ignoring them than exploring them.  It takes an intriguing sci-fi concept, much like those found in The Matrix and Inception, but does not make that the true focus of the film.  Inception is an unfortunately apt comparison, because it also uses a science fiction concept to tell another type of story.  In Inception it was a heist movie, in The Adjustment Bureau it is a romance.  The comparison to Inception is unfortunate because it ties the two genres together better than the Adjustment Bureau does.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a congressman and prospective Senator whose recent flub, mooning people at his college reunion, has seemingly cost him the election.  While preparing a concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) whose more relaxed attitude rubs off on David and his speech.  The relaxed speech makes him the front-runner for the next election.  At the same time, mysterious chapeau’d men cryptically talk about all their hard work.  A mistake made by one of the men soon after allows Damon’s character to discover about the Adjustors, a Guardian Angel  like group who influence people into doing what their plans deem best.

These Adjustors show both the films strengths and it flaws.  While there may be sinister undertones, the Adjustors are simply unassuming bureaucrats.  The movie poses a question about free will, but it keeps everything so low key that it never really capitalizes on the issue.  The philosophical issues are largely ignored.  It leaves the film entertaining but ultimately forgettable.  Whether or not people have free will is not really questioned, merely how free it is.  The Adjustors claim to have no sinister motive and this is accepted.  David does not seem to be troubled by their control, except in one regard.  David loves Elise, but the plan says they are not to be together.  His struggle to have a relationship with her is the conflict of the movie.  Fortunately, the romance is entirely believable.  It seems right to the viewer that they be together.  Everything David does, as this is much more his story than hers, makes sense.   Other than believe what he is told by shadowy controllers.

The different elements of the movie, the sci-fi and the romance, each work well, but they do not tie together very effectively.  It is frustrating that the grander implications are ignored, but the movie is still entertaining.  The Adjustment Bureau is a small movie.  Well-made and thoughtful, but almost too restrained.  There is, though, a certain amount of charm in The Adjustment Bureau’s restraint.

3 1/2 Stars