Ready Player One

(USA 2018)

Schmaltzking Steven Spielberg is in regular form with Ready Player One, his film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 gamer fantasy novel.

Reality bites in 2045, especially in Columbus, Ohio, where Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and her no good boyfriend (Ralph Ineson) in “the Stacks,” a favela-like slum of discarded mobile homes piled on top of each other. Things have stopped working and people have stopped fixing them, and the world has taken on a dystopian futuristic Dickensian hue curiously stuck in the 1980s.

Wade, like everyone, escapes to the OASIS, a virtual reality alternate universe where one can be…well, anything. Wade is Parzival, a sort of Speed Racer adventurer. He’s on a mission to win a contest: find the “Easter Egg” left behind by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the dearly departed creator of the OASIS, and gain total control over the OASIS. Parzival just might get by with a little help from his friends — but he’s got to stay a step ahead of one particularly troublesome competitor, corporate bad guy Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to rule the OASIS for all the bad reasons.

Ready Player One is a typical Steven Spielberg kid’s movie: pop culture, magic, and a total “feel good” ending. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that. It isn’t necessarily better than recent films like The Post (https://moviebloke.com/2018/01/26/the-post/) or Bridge of Spies (https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/25/bridge-of-spies/), but Ready Player One is a lot more interesting. Spielberg goes overboard with references to ‘80s films, some of which are his own projects — and I’m told he’s more aggressive than Cline is in the book. Still, the result is a lot of fun, and the details are wicked. A sequence dedicated to The Shining actually made me giddy. Mendelsohn looks so much like the principal from The Breakfast Club (https://moviebloke.com/2016/05/05/the-breakfast-club-2/) that I want to ask him if Barry Manilow knows he raids his wardrobe. Rylance plays Halliday with a strange mix of Christopher Lloyd, Steve Jobs, and, err, Spielberg.

I’m no fan of late or even middle period Spielberg, but I didn’t mind this one. Make no mistake, Ready Player One is a big, loud, overdone Hollywood movie, but it’s a decent one. Those who grew up watching Spielberg movies (like I did) no doubt will enjoy it even though they probably don’t need to see it a second time.

With Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen, Clare Higgins, Laurence Spellman, Perdita Weeks, Joel MacCormack, Kit Connor, Leo Heller, Antonio Mattera, Ronke Adekoluejo, William Gross, Sandra Dickinson, Lynne Wilmot, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Gavin Marshall, Jane Leaney, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Asan N’Jie, Robert Gilbert

Production: Amblin Entertainment, De Line Pictures, Dune Entertainment, Farah Films & Management, Reliance Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers, NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), SF Studios (Norway), Tanweer Alliances (Greece), Karo Premiere (Russia), Kinomania (Ukraine), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)

140 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Music Box) C+

http://readyplayeronemovie.com

I, Tonya

(USA 2017)

As crazy at it was, the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee just before the 1994 Winter Olympic Games and the resulting shit show that plagued her teammate Tonya Harding never occurred to me again after the media frenzy over it died down — like, by spring. Then one day this past autumn, I caught the trailer for I, Tonya. Oh, Lord!

I must confess, Craig Gillespie’s biopic ended the year on a high note — much higher than my expectations. Framed as a documentary with interviews interspersed throughout the story, I misjudged I, Tonya as mere fluff. It’s not. For all its lurid, sensationalist absurdity, it packs some jarring moments that hit…well, like a club.

While not a vital undertaking, I, Tonya is a very well done film. The screenplay by Steven Rogers is sharp, while Gillespie’s pace — cuts and jumps and all — moves nicely. What makes the whole thing fly, though, is the cast. Sebastian Stan as Harding’s sadistic twerp of a husband Jeff Gillooly and Allison Janney as her caustic mother LaVona Golden give performances worthy of gold medals. But the real showstopper is Margot Robbie, who makes Harding something she never was in real life: sympathetic. It’s no small feat.

I’ve heard some grumble that I, Tonya is a mean-spirited film that condescends to its subjects and gets laughs by making them look like fools. I don’t see it that way. Without absolving her, the film presents nasty circumstances that no doubt fueled Harding’s desire to win. The story and characters are culled from actual sources. Harding’s ultimate punishment was harsh. You can’t help but understand and feel for her, just a teeny tiny bit.

With Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Davin Allen Grindstaff, Daniel Thomas May, Anthony Reynolds, Ricky Russert, Miles Mussenden, Jan Harrelson, Luray Cooper, Dan Triandiflou, Kelly O’Neal, Alphie Hyorth

Production: Clubhouse Pictures, LuckyChap Entertainment

Distribution: 30West (USA), Neon (USA), VVS Films (Canada), Cinemex Films S.A. de C.V. (Mexico), California Filmes (Latin America), Mars Distribution (France), Lucky Red (Italy), DCM Film Distribution (Germany), Ascot Elite Entertainment Group (Switzerland), Nos Lusomundo Audiovisuais (Portugal), The Searchers (Belgium / Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Myndform (Iceland), Vertigo Média Kft. (Hungary), Fabula Films (Turkey), Gakhal Entertainment (India), Lots Home Entertainment (Taiwan), M Pictures (Thailand), Noori Pictures (South Korea), Shaw Organisation (Singapore), Showgate (Japan), Solar Pictures (Philippines), UA films (Hong Kong), Roadshow Films (Australia / New Zealand), Ster-Kinekor Pictures (South Africa)

120 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B

https://www.itonyamovie.com

Dunkirk

(USA / UK / France / Netherlands 2017)

I have mixed feelings about Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Dunkirk, a World War II military drama that has very little to do with battle. Told from three perspectives — land (“the mole”), sea, and air — the story here centers on an evacuation, that of British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, a fishing village in northern France at the Belgian border, over a ten-day period in late Spring 1940 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_evacuation).

I have to admit ignorance here: I knew nothing about the Dunkirk evacuation going into this film. Nolan doesn’t spend any time on background or what led to this point; instead, he just picks up with British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) fleeing German fire outside the beach. I wish I had known ahead of time because I would have done some research. I thought a better job could have been done telling the story.

The structure, jumping between the three perspectives, takes a little work to follow. What exactly is going on is unclear and confusing, and it creates a nice sense of claustrophobia and panic in many scenes — especially that boat scene. This is good. However, keeping track of the characters is a tough task not made any easier by giving all the soldiers the exact same black hair dye. I found it hard to relate to or care much about any of them because I was kept at arm’s length. I couldn’t get invested. While definitely not the same story, Dunkirk is a kind of a big budget Son of Saul — just not as good.

As a spectacle, though, Dunkirk is magnificent. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot it on 70 millimeter film, and he packs this picture with gorgeous wide shots of the beach, the sea, and throngs of desperate soldiers. He beautifully captures the hopelessness of the situation with a drab palette of only a few army colors: greens, greys, blues, and cold whites that convey a chill I could see and feel. The sound is over the top loud. If nothing else, Dunkirk is total sensory overload. It’s worth seeing for that alone.

Side note: I’m not sure which is the bigger surprise here — that 1D’s Harry Styles actually isn’t terrible, or that Tom Hardy is hidden under aviator goggles for the entire film. The latter is a bummer. He’s so hot!

With Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine

Production: Syncopy, Warner Brothers, Dombey Street Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Canal+, Ciné+, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)

106 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Music Box) C+

http://www.dunkirkmovie.com

Wonder Woman

(USA 2017)

Director Patty Jenkins aims to do for Wonder Woman what Christopher Nolan—and I suppose to a lesser degree Tim Burton—did for Batman: take an iconic comic book superhero that got campy over the years and return it to its darker roots, producing something dramatic, perhaps weightier, and far more artful. Jenkins doesn’t entirely pull it off with Wonder Woman, but she’s on the right track. I see a sequel or two in the near future, so she’s got time to get there.

To Jenkins’s credit, Wonder Woman is not what I expected. Aside from a nod or two—and that goddamned tiara—all the cut-rate kitsch of the ’70s TV series is gone. This Wonder Woman means business even if she’s still, shall we say, absurd.

Jenkins goes back to the beginning: young Diana (Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) lives on Themyscira, a hidden island inhabited by war-ready buff goddesses. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana’s mother, shields her from the strident ways of her subjects. It all has to do with an old score Ares (David Thewlis) seeks to settle—yes, that Ares, the son of Zeus and the god of war. General Antiope (Robin Wright), Hippolyta’s sister and Diana’s aunt/mentor, isn’t having it: she recognizes Diana’s potential and trains her on the sly. Diana blossoms into a beautiful woman (Gal Gadot) with serious supernatural power.

Diana stumbles upon Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a drowning American pilot whose plane crashes off the coast of Themyscira. She rescues him, unwittingly exposing the island to an invasion by German forces. Persuaded by the awesome power of Diana’s Lasso of Hestia, Steve confesses that he’s a spy in the “war to end all wars”—World War I. Spider-sensing Ares is behind it, Diana embarks with Steve on a mission filled with romance, adventure, and espionage in an effort to track down the god and stop the madness.

Wonder Woman starts out all Xena: Warrior Princess, silly and weird in a geeky softcore straight guy “lesbian porn” way that no doubt would appeal to the likes of Wayne and Garth. Thankfully, it moves in another direction once Pine shows up about 40 minutes in. I found myself enjoying Wonder Woman more as the story got to Europe—that storyline is more believable even if it too is silly. The battle scenes are decent with some Hollywood excess and humor thrown in. I love how the theme of gender equality is the star of every scene—neither subtle nor heavy-handed, it’s simply a given.

For all its perks, Wonder Woman is ultimately a typical blockbuster that emphasizes form over substance. If nothing else, it surprises, which is always a plus. Frankly, though, I could’ve kept going completely oblivious to the fact that Wonder Woman is more than Lynda Carter. She was more a lot more fun.

With Danny Huston, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Doutzen Kroes

Production: DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, Rat-Pac Dune Entertainment LLC, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia), SF Studios (Norway), Tanweer Alliances (Greece)

141 minutes
Rated PG-13

(ArcLight) C

http://wonderwomanfilm.com

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

(Australia 1994)

The “road movie” is a subgenre that I think of as an American convention. They tend to involve younger people on a quest for something, perhaps a race (The Cannonball Run), a chase (Convoy), a new life (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), a vacation (National Lampoon’s Vacation), a mission (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure), or or just getting laid (Losin’ It). They don’t usually involve gay men or drag performers or Australians for that matter, which makes The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert rather compelling for its subversiveness if nothing else.

True, the world had seen a road movie with gay characters before (My Own Private Idaho, which predates this one by three years, comes to mind) and Australians (Roadgames, Backroads). However, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is different. It’s every bit as fierce as Mad Max, but it’s fabulously fun—as though a team of drag queens tossed a bunch of glitter and disco (and CeCe Peniston) into the mix.

Anthony “Tick” Belrose a.k.a. Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving) is a drag performer in Sydney who accepts an offer to perform at a casino resort operated by his estranged wife, Marion (Sarah Chadwick), in remote Alice Springs—in the middle of the continent. He gets his buds Bernadette Bassinger (Terence Stamp), a recently widowed transgender woman, and Adam Whitely (Guy Pearce), an obnoxious younger queen whose drag name is Felicia Jollygoodfellow, to join him.

They hit the road in a huge silver tour bus that they christen “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and embark on a journey through the desert. A clan of Aboriginals is very welcoming, allowing the three to perform for them. Not everyone is nice, though, which they soon discover when some outbackass bumpkins spraypaint “AIDS Fuckers Go Home” across the side of the bus.

The three contend with the bus breaking down, a homophobic gang, what appears to be an inescapable bar brawl, and secrets—quite a few secrets. Some of the stuff that happens is predictable, but writer and director Stephan Elliott manages to keep the whole thing fresh because he infuses some great conflict and character development into the narrative. Bernadette’s subplot, a soul searching midlife “where do I go from here” kind of existential crisis, is probably the most interesting part of the movie. The acting—Weaving and Pearce (who looks like a cross between Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg) for sure, but especially Stamp—is moving for something that appears to be heading toward frivolous and campy territory. It doesn’t quite stop there. What the characters all end up with is something maybe none of us saw coming: acceptance.

What makes The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so great, still, is that it’s full of surprises.

With Rebel Russell, John Casey, June Marie Bennett, Murray Davies, Frank Cornelius, Bob Boyce, Leighton Picken, Maria Kmet, Joseph Kmet, Alan Dargin, Bill Hunter, Julia Cortez, Daniel Kellie, Hannah Corbett, Trevor Barrie, Ken Radley, Mark Holmes

Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Specific Films

Distribution: Gramercy Pictures, Roadshow Films

104 minutes
Rated R

(DVD purchase) B-