Ready Player One: ’80’s Gamers Nostalgia

2 ½ Stars.

If you saw Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” and were either on stimulus over-load or scratching your head thinking you must have entered the wrong theater, you are probably not alone.  This is not the Spielberg of old – and so what?

The movie takes place in Columbus, Ohio in 2045 – a city unrecognizable in its shantytown ugliness and precarious construction.  Think: trailers on stilts piled on top of each other in some sort of tenuous arrangement.  Seriously, are there no engineers left?  Well, it is after the “bandwidth riots” and reality really sucks.  So, everyone is tuned in on a headset to a virtual world known as the Oasis which was conjured up by a now-deceased genius called Halliday (Mark Rylance).

Halliday left a game – or series of games – in which the ultimate prize is command of the Oasis.  While anyone can enter the game, in seven years no one has solved the puzzle – which requires the winning of three magical keys by playing a variety of games pulled from various video games.  The ultimate win leads to a glowing egg.  Okay, it sounds really stupid.  But wait.

In this virtual world everyone has an avatar, including the deceased Halliday (okay, he is dead, so it is a hologram).   Our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), is a teen orphan living with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and a variety of her male abusers/losers.  No wonder that Wade has to hide out in a secret place under a pile of junk and assume the avatar ID of Parzival. It’s not a good idea to use your real name as Wade eventually finds out.  His love interest is a sexy girl avatar named Art3mis (sic) (Olivia Cooke).

Plotting against the couple – and everyone else in the film – is the evil Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who leads a high-tech corporation with Mafia-like tactics who has its eye on the prize so it can rule the Oasis.  Sorrento is a scary figure but he is one of those guys who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know so he is constantly over-ruling his more able assistant (Ronke Adekoluejo).

Well, we know where this is heading.  But along the way we are treated with a variety of nostalgic references created by Halliday who was taken with pop culture of the 1980’s: “Back to the Future,” “Batman,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Starwars,” “Alien”, as well as Duran Duran, Van Halen, the Bee Gees, and Michael Jackson and, yes, Tab – the old no-cal beverage.  And the list goes on and on.  There are over twenty songs in the soundtrack, and it’s kind of fun also to identify some of the lightening-fast references of old.

This film has its origins in Ernest Cline’s nerdy sci-fi novel of the same title.  If you aren’t a geeky gamer, this film may not mean much to you.  But there are whole generations out there for which this film will resonate.

Advertisements

Chappaquiddick – More Conjecture than Fact – but Worth Seeing

Chappaquiddick

3 Stars.

If you were ever enamored by the Kennedy legacy, you may not want to see this film – for the Kennedy charm stops here, and the Kennedy curse continues in a disgraceful turn of events.  Director John Curran makes the most of the script written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, who gleaned much of their story from the 763-page transcript of the Edgartown, Massachusetts inquest into the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

Lest you forget, on July 18, 1969, US Senator Edward (Ted) M. Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard.  While Kennedy survived the crash, his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, died, presumably from drowning.  For reasons still subject to conjecture, Kennedy failed to report the accident until the next day – and this movie suggests that critical hours may have passed during which Mary Jo’s life might have been saved.  Even with the voluminous transcript from the 1970 inquest into Kopechne’s death, there are many gaps in the mystery that surrounds “Chappaquiddick.”  This film proposes a scenario which explains the events as they may have unfolded.  This is plausibility, not fact.

Jason Clarke is cast in the role of Ted Kennedy, who is presented as the least and last of the Kennedy sons, the one least loved by his father, and a man of such shabby character that he is more than willing to pull anyone and everyone into his lies to save his own skin.  There is little pandering in this film as we see Kennedy nattily dressed and insanely breakfasting with friends the morning following the tragedy.  At this point, Kennedy knows Kopechne is dead because he has already enlisted his friends Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) to the scene of the crime and try to locate Kopechne.

It is to Curran’s credit that the possible sexual relationship between Kennedy and Kopechne is never exploited as it was in the tabloids at the time.  Instead, both are shown still mourning the death of Robert Kennedy.  Kopechne was a serious worker on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and this script suggests that Ted Kennedy was trying to recruit Kopechne to work on his own presidential campaign.  This was a welcome reversal from a more tawdry approach and served to lend more credibility to the postulations of the screenwriters.

Kennedy is never vindicated in this film.  In fact, he looks a fool – trying to set himself as some sort of victim by showing up at Mary Jo’s funeral wearing a neck brace.  He is at once pitiable and full of self-pity.  He is seldom rational, although his first real utterance after the tragedy is, “I’m never going to be President.”  This says volumes about where his head and heart are.  He constantly shows poor judgment and expects others to clean up the messes he creates.

What makes this film so relevant today is not so much the event itself but the political spin devised by Papa Joe Kennedy’s spinsters led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols). Today we might call it “alternative truths.”  Through manipulation and power, the spinsters and their vast entourage manage the press and public opinion and essentially save Kennedy’s political career.  It’s all about the SPIN.  Part of the devices the spinsters exert is to control those items most likely to raise red flags.  They use their influence to obtain a death certificate and arrange for a hasty embalming of Kopechne’s body before an adequate autopsy can be performed.  So perfectly did they arrange matters that post Chappaquiddick, Kennedy was elected seven more times to the Senate.  So, something must be said about the Kennedy mystique.

None of this is to say that Kennedy did not redeem himself in later years and become a powerful force in the Senate and continue the Kennedy legacy in the quest for social justice and the rule of law.  In later years Kennedy became one of the “old guard” who was able to reach across the aisle to enact over 300 pieces of legislation, many of which were bipartisan and all of which bore his signature.  He served in the Senate for more than 40 years, and, in some respects, he may have made more of an imprint on American history than his famous brothers who preceded him.

This is a film full of intrigue and mystery – most of the mystery concerns how Ted vacillates between periods of doubt and despair – moving between moral high ground and low-lying areas of deception – drifting between the roles of the wrong doer and the righteous one.   It is well worth seeing and probably the best film out during this post-Oscar dry season.

The Quiet Place is Mercifully QUIET

2½ Stars

Okay, I am going to go against the grain on this one.  As I get older and, hopefully, more discriminating, I find horror movies less and less horrifying.  And I really miss the terror of a great scary movie experience – where I am safe in a crowded theater and am fully prepared to be scared witless.    “The Quiet Place” is unique as horror movies go since there is an almost total absence of sound.  Director and star John Krasinski has a great idea going for him – an almost silent movie.

In yet another post- apocalyptic world, the latest monster is a blind “Alien-like” species with a keen sense of hearing only – he apparently has no sense of touch or heat – because he can be right on top of someone, but unless he hears something, all potential victims are safe.

Enter the Abbott family: Dad (krasinski), Mom (Emily Blunt), son (Noah Jupe) and daughters (Millicent Simmons) and (Cade Woodward).  They are living on a farm in the middle of nowhere.  They have counted three blind monsters in their vicinity.  One carts away their youngest daughter, but, undeterred, mom and dad opt for another child.  This makes things troubling for mom – who must keep the code of silence during her labor.  Not only that, they need to quiet their newborn son who has no concept of “quiet time.”

The silence in the movie is compelling – and the family must chat through sign language – but fortunately their older daughter is deaf so they have mastered the language.  Mercifully for the audience, we are given subtitles.   There is some eerie background music and we can hear the barely audible gasps of the characters and hear their soft unshod footsteps across a terrain that is full of flourishing cornfields yet is mostly white sand.  This did not compute for me, but we do not expect everything to be perfect in a horror genre.

Some critics may find these skinny and slimy creatures scary – but I found them disappointing.  We have already seen the same creatures in all of the “Alien” movies – slobber dripping from vast jaws and huge savage teeth – skinny appendages and movements Cheetah-like.  There was great chemistry between Krasinski and Blunt.  And Simmons depiction of the angry and crafty teenage daughter was exceptional.  But I found it less horrific than the original “Alien” movie or even the clown-centered “It.” But I am more afraid of clowns that live in sewers than I am of blind aliens.  I would save this for a rental or streaming as the giant screen does not add a great deal to the movie.

 

Lady Bird: Take a Flier

Lady Bird

2 ½ stars

I don’t know about you, but I am a bit tired of “coming of age” movies.   I mean, how many times must we shackled and chained to our theater seats and forced to relive those painful teenage memories?  Are three enough?  Are six too many?  Seriously, each director thinks he/she has captured the ultimate experience.  But in my estimation, it all looks the same, even if we are in a different age.  The hero has a sort of mini beard.  The heroine has red hair – or is it blonde?  Her best friend is fat – or is she ultra-thin?  Her mom is a world class bitch – or is she June Cleaver?  For me, the jury is still out.  I am always hopeful the next one will be novel.  Still, “Lady Bird” is worth watching.

First, it is refreshing to have a new woman behind the lens.  Greta Gerwig made her directorial debut with “Lady Bird” – which she also co-wrote.  In fact, there were a lot of women involved in this production – casting, sets, editing.  That fact alone is worthy of congratulations.

This is the story of the exceptionally turbulent bond between a teen and her mother.  It is a struggle of wills between Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her often cruel-tongued mom (Laurie Metcalf).  Bird has chosen a new name for herself in an attempt to escape her past and carve out a new identity.  I know I did this when I was in high school.  She wants to escape her life and become a new and different person so she can freely explore all of those unopened doors that await a teen blossoming into womanhood.  She is a senior in high school in Sacramento and making plans for college.  She is thinking East Coast while her mother is thinking local state school.  Frankly, Mom tells Bird that she simply does not have the grades or the talent to get into an east coast school.  Wow!  Quite an ego deflating blow coming from a mom.  No wonder they don’t get along.

Mom works double shifts as a nurse to keep the wolf from the door and has to double-down when dad (Tracy Letts) loses his job.  So, it is no wonder that mom is a bit snarky.  She has some softer moments, too – like when she takes Bird shopping at the thrift store for a prom dress and when they cruise the high-end stores for a gleeful day of window shopping.  But mom’s basic persona is caustic.

Cleary, critics saw far more to recommend this movie than I did.  They have heralded the town of Sacramento as some sort of sacred site – although I swear I did not really get a sense of being in Sacramento, per se.  For me, it could have been any town with two sides of the track and some reasonably mild weather.

I was delighted when Bird took her life into her hands and decided to go East to school.  The only way we learned that things were okay between mother and daughter was when Bird called home and professed her continuing love of family.

This is a good movie to stream – since the pickings following the Oscars are really thin.  The acting is good and the cast of teens seems authentic.  There are also some interesting moments that will have you reflecting on your own perilous teen years.  I know I did.  So, overall, I’d take a flier on this one.

My Oscar Picks for 2018

MY OSCAR PICKS FOR 2018

Best Picture:  Three Billboards

Leading Actress:  France McDormand (Three Billboards)

Leading Actor:  Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Supporting Actress:  Allison Janney (I, Tanya)

Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson or Sam Rockwell (3 Billb)

Directing:?  (no nominee was worthy)

Original Screenplay:  Three Billboards and/or Big Sick

Adapted Screenplay:  Mudbound or Molly’s Game ( Darkest Hours (probable)

Makeup:  Darkest Hour

Costume:  Beauty and the Beast

Editing:  Baby Driver

Original Score: Starwars

Best Song:  This is Me:  Greatest Showman

Production Design:  Beauty and Beast

Sound Editing:  Baby Driver

Sound Mixing:  Baby Driver

Cinematography: Mudbound

The Shape of Water – What’s in it for the Fish/Man?

The Shape of Water

2 ½ Stars

The sentimental favorite for the 2018 Oscars is “The Shape of Water.”  I suspect it will get Best Film.  But, frankly, I kept looking at my cell phone to check on the time – wondering when the film would end. I know many people were mesmerized by the fish/man creature (Doug Jones) who was able to communicate with a mute girl (Sally Hawkins) and the ultimate love story.  And there was a satisfactory ending – which always makes American audiences delighted.   Finally, the super villain Strickland (Michael Shannon) got his come-uppance in the end.  What more could we ask?

Well, for me, the script was aimed at an audience who needed constantly to be reminded of the difference between good and evil – the haves and the have nots – the noble and virtuous (which is us, of course) and the cruel world of cynicism, materialism and a loss of innocence.   Director del Toro’s villain Richard Strickland is way over the top.  He is more like the evil Joker in “Batman” and not as nice as the sinister Professor Moriarity, Sherlock Holmes’ foil.  He calls the fish/man which he hauled all the way from the Amazon the “Asset” yet he probes it with an electric shock stick making it bleed, and he can’t wait to dissect it.  Really?  What kind of “asset management” is that?  Finally, in case we didn’t understand the evil at the heart of Strickland, he even gets physically uglier during the film – an overt manifestation of the evil in his soul.  Got it now?

Hawkins did a great job as Elisa Esposito – the mute janitorial worker who befriends the beast.  And Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbor Giles touches a warm note as a gay man beaten by a world that has moved well past his old artistic talents.  I adore Octavia Spenser, but her role as the loyal friend and fellow janitor Zelda is so much of an African-American cliché as to be offensive to me.  She seems to be there so the evil Strickland can cast racist slurs at her.

I really hated the soundtrack.  The film was set in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, but all the music was dreadful stuff from the 40’s.  Carmen Miranda – Betty Grable?  My friend Sherry thought it was appropriate as a reflection of Giles who was seriously stuck in the past.  She may be right.

But enough of my whining.  I was lucky enough to hear an interview with the “creature” played by Doug Jones which greatly shed light on the movie experience for me.  Jones was 56 when he filmed this movie.  He has been doing creatures for years.  In fact, he played a creature in director/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy II.”

Here are some interesting facts to ponder for those who have seen the film.  It took about 5 hours for makeup to get Jones into the fish suit.  This meant that Jones was on set in the latex suit for about 10 hours each day.  Because it was a slip into costume, it took only 45 minutes to exit the suit.  Jones is a lanky 6’3” tall – but weighs only 140 pounds.  You can believe this because he looked so thin in the movie.  But once he was immersed in water, he took on an extra 40 pounds or so and needed to be assisted everywhere he went because of the limitations of the suit.  He wore webbed gloves so he wasn’t really able to eat very easily.  Imagine someone giving him water out of a squirt bottle.  Since this was his first ever romantic role and since he was told he would have to swivel and dance, he claims he got into shape for this film.  As far as I am concerned, he is the star.  But was he nominated as Leading Actor or even Best Supporting Actor? No.  Monsters just don’t get any recognition.

Mudbound Strikes a Contemporary Note

4 Stars

“Mudbound” is a highly uncomfortable film set in Mississippi in the heart of the Jim Crowe south.  Heck, the hatred and venom poured out in the film toward the freedmen of former slaves is equally timely today in our divisive political world.  I believe that is what makes this film so difficult to view.

Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is a 31-year-old virgin who marries Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) to escape the boredom and shame of spinsterhood.  Even though she is not in love with her over-bearing and often small-minded husband, she is determined to make the best of a bad situation.  After the birth of their two daughters, Henry has set his sights on moving from the comfort of Memphis life and to risk all to become a farmer on a sad bit of delta where mud is the perpetual and eternal companion of this family.  There is scarcely anything but mud.  Instead of the comfort of a tidy farmhouse, Henry drags his family to a pitiful shack with no electricity or running water.  To make matters worse, the family must share these meager accommodations with Henry’s bigoted and loathsome father – Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks).

Just down the road is another family, a black family, who get by as sharecroppers on a parcel of Henry’s land.  Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Bilge) share their shack with their several children – all of whom are hoping one day to own some land and have a better life.  But it is not just this miserable piece of muddied land that unites these families – though racist Pappy and Henry would loathe the concept that they had anything in common.  But the families are joined by the hopelessness of their meager existences and the simple truth that one group is not any better off than its neighbor.  Each struggles with land that is unwelcoming, harsh and subject to the vagaries of the weather.  Even though Henry needs Hap’s services, he will not even lend Hap a mule to assure that the cotton crop gets started after a stretch of miserable weather – he is that stingy and bigoted.

It is the beginning of World War II, and Henry’s handsome younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) has signed on as a bomber pilot.  At the same time, Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) becomes a tank commander in Patton’s army.  We are thrown into scenes of WWII skirmishes and disasters as the two struggle to stay alive and do so by mere happenstance while their brother soldiers are blown away.  Yet, while Ronsel is serving in war-torn Europe, he has found acceptance as a soldier, a friend and a lover with no apparent regard for the color of his skin.

But at war’s end, both men return to the miserable existence and bigotry of the small Mississippi mud town.  As fellow victims of the war, sufferers of PTSD and a need for alcohol to dull their senses, the two bond together in an unusual friendship that ultimately leads to tragedy.  In the deep south after the war, the KKK flourishes.  There is no tolerance for friendship between whites and blacks; and when the Klan discovers that Ronel has borne a child with a white woman in Europe, that is enough reason to hang him or castrate him.

As I said, this is a tough movie to watch.  The acting is very good, although the stalwart and generally well-kempt Laura feels slightly at odds with this mud-bound existence.  Mary J. Bilge is nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her courageous role as the Jackson family matriarch.  The film has also been nominated for Best Cinematography (Rachael Morrison) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Director Dee Rees and Virgil Williams).  It is an extraordinary film which I would have given the nod to as Best Motion Picture.  Certainly, it is a much better and more believable film than “Get Out” which has a thoroughly stupid and unlikely premise.