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.


Go See Lincoln!

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a powerful movie. It is a riveting account of the final months of his life, of one of our greatest President’s struggles with Civil War, family tragedy and permanently ending the evil of slavery in America. While the dialogue is sometimes stilted, though I understand much of the dialogue to be taken from what we know was actually said, the emotion and import is real and vastly entertaining.

The greatest triumph of the movie is without doubt Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln. Though I am far from an expert, it is one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen. If I didn’t already know who was playing him I do not think I could have guessed it. His Lincoln is as interesting a person as he is a historical figure. He is funny and irreverent, though weighed down by hard choices and numerous tragedies. You can almost see his shoulder’s sag under the great burdens he bears. But though there are no easy choices, you see the strength and care with which Lincoln makes them. It is truly an amazing performance.

The rest of the cast is also good. Tommy Lee Jones actually makes you forget he is Tommy Lee Jones playing an abolitionist congressman. Sally Field is great as Mrs. Lincoln, a woman at the end of her rope and who we know is soon to face another great tragedy. There are many more familiar, talented faces, like Joseph-Gordon Levitt as Robert Lincoln and James Spader as a vote buyer. Like all movies attempt to do, Lincoln really takes the viewer there and that is largely on the shoulders of the great cast.

The focus of the movie is on Lincoln’s attempts to get the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives before the Civil War ends and the return of the Southern states make it impossible. Lincoln must weigh some less than upstanding methods needed to secure the two thirds majority needed with his desire to officially end the evil of slavery as well as attempts to broker a peace with the South. Should he meet with Southern leaders to end the war and stop the loss of life, or let is wind to its inevitable end while he eliminates the central cause of that war. There are no perfect options. It is both entertaining and illuminating.

Spielberg has brought countless classics to the big screen. (Countless = 10) Lincoln definitely belongs among his best. It is on the same level as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. I expected to like Lincoln, but it might be the best movie I’ve seen this year. The word that constantly comes to mind is powerful. Do not miss it.

Summer Movie Review and Indiana Jones Marathon Thoughts

While there are still some movies that I think qualify as summer movies coming in the following weeks, most notably Dredd, since I don’t really plan on going to see any of them, I decided to look over the movies I watched over the last few months. Plus, I am excited to relate my recent experience going to see the entire Indiana Jones series on IMAX yesterday. I made fewer trips to the theater this year than I did last year. There were slightly fewer films I wanted to see, but also I was just unable to see all that I wanted to. The big omissions for me were Moonrise Kingdom, which looked excellent, and the Bourne Legacy, which I thought looked interesting. So I am going to rank the movies I saw this year from worst to best.

9: Amazing Spider-Man: I really didn’t care for the new Spider-Man. It doesn’t really have anything over the previous one, and has to cart around a mediocre villain.

8: Prometheus: This film was undeniably a mess, but it was an entertaining mess. I would consider watching it again, but the only thing I would guess it has to reveal is more plot holes.

7: The Three Stooges: This was actually pretty damn entertaining. The reason it is so low on my list is that I had forgotten I had seen it until I was nearly done with this list. So it is apparently forgettable.

6: Men in Black 3: This was some light and fluffy fun. Just like the first in this series, and unlike the unwatchable mess of the second. Definitely worth seeing.

5: Expendables 2: This was a flawed movie, but it’s exuberant display of testosterone was hard to really dislike.

4: Brave: Brave is not one of Pixar’s best, but it is far from the worst. It probably falls somewhere near the middle. Still, middle of the road Pixar is still great.

3: Avengers: The Avengers was nearly the perfect culmination of the last five years or so of Marvel movies. It feels a little empty at times, but it is perfectly fun.

2: John Carter: While it may not have been a financial success, John Carter was the best science fiction movie I’ve seen in years. It gets a little muddled in the middle, but Mars felt real.

1: The Dark Knight Rises: a great conclusion to a great series of films. This movie is everything anyone could want in a superhero movie. It is really just the best.

Yeah, not only is Avengers below Batman, but it isn’t even second. It wasn’t perfect.

On to Indy. Seeing the series was a wonderful experience. I’ve of course seen the movies before, (see here1, here2, here3 and here4) but I couldn’t resist seeing them all, save Kingdom, on the big screen for the first time. An IMAX big screen. As good as the Indiana Jones movies are, they are better on the big screen. Raiders of the Lost Arc is basically the perfect adventure movie. The Last Crusade is more of a comedy, but it is just as good, and if the theater I was in is anything to go by more of a crowd pleaser. Temple of Doom is very uneven, with some genuinely great moments and as many unbearably moments of Willie Scott screaming. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has some parts that are almost painful to watch (Tarzan) but for the most part is a solid entry in the series. At the cinema, everything seems bigger. The shadows in Raiders, the bridge in Temple, etc. Also, the bad special effects look even worse. Many think I am probably referring to Kingdom’s CGI, but that actually looks fine. Much better than nearly any effects shot in the previous three movies. I think the bad special effects are part of their charm, but the flaws that exists are even more apparent on a bigger screen. Raiders and Crusade are two of my all-time favorite movies, and I am glad I got to see them in a theater. The ticket cost 25 dollars, and it was probably the best 25 dollars I’ve ever spent.

The best movie going experience of the summer was the Indy marathon, but a wide margin. And the best new movie was The Dark Knight Rises, by an equally larger margin.

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.

The Adventures of Tintin Review

Tons of movie review clichés come to mind when thinking of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. “A non-stop thrill ride” or “action packed.” For once those clichés are completely true. With Tintin, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have made the best action/adventure movie since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Based on a series of Belgian comics, The Adventures of Tintin is a truly wonderful experience. Once it hits its stride, it never slows or lets viewers catch their breath. It is easily the most fun movie of 2011.

Spielberg is the modern master of the adventure movie. There has been nothing for the last 20 years to match the Indiana Jones series. Tintin is Spielberg at the height of his powers. Every moment of this movie is just brimming with action. Fistfights, gunfights, and a marvelous pirate swordfight. It also features possibly the single best car chase I’ve ever seen on film. It is literally a thrill a minute.

Even with the constant motion of the plot, the heart of the characters comes through. There is the comically bumbling Detectives Thomson and Thompson, the drunken but stouthearted Captain Haddock, and the devious villain Saccharine. Tintin himself is somewhat bland, a solid everyman who never quits but lacks outstanding characters traits. Which is the intention, he plays the straight man to everyone else’s funny man.

The plot involves Tintin buying a model ship, only to find a piece of a map to a magnificent treasure. While he tries to unravel the mystery of the Unicorn, the name of the model ship, he ends up in a race against a monstrous criminal with only the aid of a bumbling drunken ship captain.

The only flaw of the film is its method of animation. It maybe could have been live action, or it could have been traditionally animated. But no, they used that incredibly off-putting and terrible uncanny valley monstrosity motion capture. The technique has been used to great effect in live action films, but the films that use it exclusively are uniformly bad looking. Tintin actually looks better than most, but many of the characters are more cartoon shaped, playing off the look of the comic characters, rather than trying to look like real people. Still, it is an unfortunate choice.

The other problem I had was also a viewing problem, but this coming rant is largely unrelated to Tintin. For the love of God can 3D movies die already. I can not think of a single film that has been improved by being in 3D. It makes the screen darker, the already overpriced tickets cost more and encourages bad filmmakers to show something coming out of the screen right at you! Wow! As far as I’m concerned, 3D can fuck off and go away forever. If I have a choice, I will never choose to see a movie in 3D, and have actually decided not to see films because they were only available in 3D near me.

The Adventures of Tintin, though, is really great. Any lovers of adventure owe it to themselves to see this. Spielberg and Jackson are a dynamite combination. This is just a wonderfully fun movie.

They Don’t Make’em Like This Any More.

Super 8 was certainly a pleasant surprise. Going in I had no expectations; before the release I’d barely heard of it. I had heard the name J.J. Abrams and before this I was wholly indifferent to his work. I liked Star Trek but not Cloverfield and I absolutely hated Lost. Then I read reviews of Super 8 that compared it favorable to Spielberg’s output from the 70’s and 80’s and I knew I had to go see it. Jaws, E.T, The Goonies(which I know doesn’t quite count, but close enough), those were the movies I grew up with, wearing out the VHS tapes with repeated viewings; if Super 8 could manage to evoke similar feelings then it was a must see. Super 8 did not disappoint. Though it is comparable to those movies it is more than a nostalgic throwback, it takes the themes and style from movies like E.T and Jaws, but is definitely its own story. For better or worse, Super 8 is a modern take on the themes from those classics, and while not perfect, it is eminently entertaining. Super 8 is likely the best movie of the summer. Continue reading