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

The Post

(USA 2017)

Even with the healthy skepticism I have for all things Steven Spielberg, I was looking forward to The Post, His Schmaltziness’s latest historical drama. The subject and the impressive cast built expectations (for me, anyway) along the lines of All the President’s Men (https://moviebloke.com/2015/11/29/all-the-presidents-men/). Turns out that’s not quite what The Post is.

Set in 1971, The Post is a dramatization of newspaper heiress Katharine Graham’s (Meryl Streep) agonizing decision to publish excerpts of the classified Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post — on the eve of the paper’s public stock offering. It was a now-or-never moment with big consequences for her, the paper, and the nation. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is determined to publish the rest of the story, president and shareholders be damned.

Recall that the Pentagon Papers detailed the shady origins and the federal government’s ongoing misleading of the American public about the efficacy of the Vietnam War. The New York Times broke the story using the same source, former government contractor Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), but was slapped with an injunction that halted its coverage.

The Post is a decent historical thriller, I’ll give it that. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay is accurate, at least as far as the events here. The narrative is timely, loaded with dramatic tension and suspence even if the ending is rushed. In typical fashion, though, Spielberg is heavyhanded and overly sentimental. That long shot of Graham walking through a crowd of women of all ages as she leaves the courthouse of the U.S. Supreme Court and her monologue to her daughter are fine examples of what I’m talking about. Gag.

As far as Streep’s performance, I didn’t consider this a standout for her. She’s always good, but I’m probably not going to remember her for this one.

I found The Post overrated. It plays to something obvious. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t impressed, either. Bridge of Spies (https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/25/bridge-of-spies/), which I didn’t love, was more interesting.

With Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, John Rue, Rick Holmes, Philip Casnoff, Jessie Mueller, Stark Sands, Michael Cyril Creighton, Will Denton, Deirdre Lovejoy, Michael Devine, Kelly Miller, Jennifer Dundas, Austyn Johnson, Brent Langdon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Deborah Green, Gary Wilmes, Christopher Innvar, Luke Slattery, Justin Swain, Robert McKay, Sasha Spielberg

Production: DreamWorks Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Amblin Entertainment, Participant Media, Pascal Pictures, Star Thrower Entertainment, River Road Entertainment

Distribution: 20th Century Fox (USA / Canada), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (International), United International Pictures (UIP) (International), Entertainment One Benelux (Netherlands), Forum Film Slovakia (Slovakia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Vertical Entertainment (Czech Republic), eOne Films Spain (Spain), Odeon (Greece), Columbia Pictures (Philippines), Toho-Towa (Japan)

116 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) C+

https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-post

It [It: Chapter One]

(USA 2017)

I’ve started a few Stephen King novels during my life, but I’ve never finished reading any of them. I have, however, seen enough movies based on his books to know what I’m getting into.

It is director Andy Muschietti’s take on King’s 1986 novel, which incidentally came out on my 16th birthday. Scary. It tells the story of a group of bullied junior high outcasts who go after a deranged clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) one summer, the Summer of 1989, after he kills stuttering Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), the fall before.

Pennywise lives in the sewer of their small town (Derry, Maine) and resurfaces every 27 years to prey on children through their worst fears.

The screenplay, written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, is only part of the book — presumably to allow for a sequel. It starts out well enough in the same sweet nostalgic way as, oh, Stand by Me. Muschietti gets deatils of the time period mostly right: the Cure and New Kids on the Block were big in ’89 (even though the former’s “Six Different Ways” was two albums and a compilation earlier), and the reference to Molly Ringwald fits. He goes full on Steven Spielberg, however, about halfway through, turning It into The Goonies with the kids’ “losers club” and all the action switching to a dark cavernous underground sewer. This is to say, It gets cheesy after awhile.

The kids are all decent actors, and they keep It moving along. Sadly, though, there aren’t any real surprises here. More creepy and icky than outright frightening, Muschietti relies greatly on special effects; they’re good and a lot of work went into them, but they get tiresome after awhile. Plus, some editing would’ve been a good idea; It is too long.

As It is, it’s not a stinker. However, I wasn’t moved by It, either. It is a big budget Hollywood movie aiming to be a blockbuster, and that’s It.

With Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Beverly Marsh, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Elizabeth Saunders, Ari Cohen, Anthony Ulc, Javier Botet, Katie Lunman, Carter Musselman, Tatum Lee

Production: New Line Cinema, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures, KatzSmith Productions

Distribution: Warner Brothers

135 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C

http://itthemovie.com

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

(USA 2016)

“Do you know how hard it is to make people laugh, to tackle big issues and get big ratings? It’s so hard that people don’t do it anymore.”

—Amy Poehler introducing Norman Lear at the PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Awards

One commentator asserts that American television consists of two periods: before Norman Lear, and after. He’s got a point. It’s easy to spot Lear’s impact: simply go to All in the Family at the dawn of the ’70s, and look backward then forward. A marked shift to socioeconomic realism is undeniable. It isn’t fair to credit him alone with that pivotal movement—James L. Brooks and Allen Burns hit the air with The Mary Tyler Moore Show four months before All in the Family—but Lear definitely ran with the idea and pushed it farther than anyone else. As the creative force behind shows like the aforementioned All in the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, even One Day at a Time and the controversial subjects they tackled, he was prime time’s Martin Scorsese to, say, Gary Marshall’s Steven Spielberg. That’s a huge accomplishment when you stop to consider that the only TV show ever to deal with abortion head-on was one of Lear’s sitcoms, and that was more than 40 years ago.

With Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady assemble a captivating picture of the man behind the curtain through clips, behind-the-scenes footage, his own readings of excerpts from his memoir Even This I Get to Experience, and an interview just for this film. Lear, who recently turned 94, is fascinatingly open and candid about the highs and lows of his personal life, his career, and what inspired him. In the film’s most touching moments, he discusses his father, what it felt like to hear an anti-Semitic speech on the radio when he was a kid, his admiration for Carroll O’Connor, and a sad incident involving his strong-willed wife. He also sings a ditty with buddies Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, which is priceless. In its most interesting moment, Good Times star Esther Rolle confronts him about his depiction of black Americans. It is, to say the least, dy-no-mite.

Comments from a number of celebrities like Jon Stewart, George Clooney, Rob Reiner, and John Amos add depth and demonstrate the reach of Lear’s work. The highlights, however, come from Lear himself. It would have been nice if the directors pushed things a little farther and did away with the dramatization of Lear as a young boy, but I can only hope I live to see the future like he does: clearly, these are the days.

91 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B

http://www.musicboxfilms.com/norman-lear–just-another-version-of-you-movies-137.php

http://www.normanlear.com

Midnight Special

(USA 2016)

Midnight Special was hyped quite a bit. The previews were promising, so naturally my expectations were high.

A take on E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and an apparent tribute to Steven Spielberg, the story is enthralling: a father (Michael Shannon) on the run with his eight-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), comes to the realization that his son is either the messiah or an alien—and perhaps both. Whatever the deal is, Alton’s best interests clearly are not aligned with those of his father and mother (Kirsten Dunst). What’s in store when Alton gets them to their destination in a few days—if they even make it there?

Midnight Special has its moments. The acting is good all around; but Adam Driver as Paul Sevier, a federal agent, adds a nice and much needed touch of goofy, earthy warmth to the mix. Screenwriter/director Jeff Nichols maintains a steady pace and builds momentum with a suspenseful intensity that lasts until about two-thirds of the way through, but then it all grinds to a halt. The film ultimately fizzles because it goes on too long to sustain what it starts. It doesn’t help that Lieberher turns up the creepy factor a notch higher than necessary.

Midnight Special falls short: at heart, it’s a sappy movie about parenting and learning to let go. OK, I guess, but…meh. Not my thing.

111 minutes
Rated PG-13

(ArcLight) C

http://www.midnightspecialmovie.com

E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (E.T.)

(USA 1982)

It’s easy to forget what a big deal E.T. was in its day. The highest grossing film of the Eighties (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/), its original theatrical run lasted longer than a year (http://www.slashfilm.com/what-is-the-longest-theatrical-run-in-the-history-of-cinema/). It was the Thriller of movies—in fact, Michael Jackson appeared with E.T. on the cover of Ebony (http://www.grayflannelsuit.net/blog/pop-culture-capsule-michael-jackson-1982-ebony-magazine-spotlight). Having seen it only once back when it was current, I approached a recent screening with curiosity and trepidation. I wondered whether it held up; after all, Steven Spielberg is pretty schmaltzy, and I was Elliott’s age in 1982.

I’m happy to report that aside from outdated special effects and other superficial giveaways—hairstyles, clothes, technology, cars—E.T. has worn quite well. The reason is obvious: the story is simple, universal, and so well told it transcends its time. An alien on a mission gathering plant samples on Earth is accidentally left behind when his ship takes off in a panic. Keeping a low profile as one would on a foreign planet, the alien stumbles upon a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who takes him in (more as a curiosity or a pet than anything) and names him “E.T.” After establishing trust—not so much with words as Reese’s Pieces—the two form a bond. Elliott ultimately helps E.T. find his way home in the midst of some serious danger brewing for both of them.

Although it involves an alien, anyone can relate to this story because it speaks directly to basic human emotions, particularly fear and love. The acting and character development are superb. The child actors—including a baby Drew Barrymore—are natural; even a line with the term “penis breath” doesn’t sound forced. Elliott and his mother (Dee Wallace) capture the dolefulness of the single parent home, a relatively uncommon occurrence then. A young and ugly C. Thomas Howell has a small role as Tyler, one of the neighborhood kids.

Some of the plot straddles the line, but overall the story is believable even if it tugs at the heartstrings. I didn’t cry this time, but seeing E.T. with adult eyes didn’t diminish its impact. I say it’s Spielberg’s best film.

In 1994, the United States Library of Congress deemed E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A

https://www.uphe.com/movies/et-the-extra-terrestrial

http://www.iloveet.com

Bridge of Spies

(USA 2015)

I watched this movie twice because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t unduly harsh on it. I really hated it the first time I saw it, but I must confess that I was drunk and really didn’t pay attention to it. Upon my second (and sober) viewing, I’ve reconsidered my position.

Let’s get this out up front right away: I can’t stand Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg hasn’t grabbed me with anything since maybe Schindler’s List. Both have done interesting things in the past, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of them put out anything interesting (they’re so soft now). For the last 20 years, their work has been exactly what deters me from most mainstream Hollywood movies: formulaic feel-good stuff with a tidy ending.

Bridge of Spies is all of that. Based on true events, it’s actually two stories in one movie. During the Cold War era, Brooklyn insurance defense attorney (egads!) James Donovan (Hanks) is asked—no, coerced—by his boss (Alan Alda) to defend a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), in a pro bono criminal case. Donovan notices defects in the warrant that led to Abel’s arrest, but no one, including the judge (Dakin Matthews), wants to hear it. All hell breaks loose when Donovan goes full throttle on his defense—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He loses. Abel goes to jail.

Donovan is then asked by the CIA to negotiate a prisoner exchange of Abel for an American spy (Austin Stowell) captured by the Soviets. While in Berlin, Donovan learns of an American student (Will Rogers) held in East Germany. He unilaterally deals for the release of both Americans—much to the dismay of the CIA agents on the case.

Bridge of Spies might not be schmaltzy, but it’s got no edge to it: it’s a straightforward (though liberal with reality), standard-issue Law and Order type drama. The film is classified as a thriller, but it’s not really; it’s neither particularly intense nor suspenseful. It has its moments, and Rylance is easily the standout performance here. However, the pace is uneven and the story gets dull at points. Donovan’s need to do the right thing in the face of adversity drives the dramatic tension. His “argument” before the Supreme Court is an eyeroll-inducing pitch for an Oscar. Whatever. The ending is typical Spielberg. I didn’t love Bridge of Spies, but I’ve seen much worse.

Side note: I’m surprised to see the Coen brothers attached to this project; it’s not their speed.

(Home via iTunes) C

http://bridgeofspies.com