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

Empire Records

(USA 1995)

“I’m the idiot, you’re the screw up, and we are all losers,” sums up Empire Records general manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) when he realizes that clerk Lucas (Rory Cochrane) blew the store’s receipts in Atlantic City the night before, which incidentally was the first time Joe let him close shop. His heart was in the right place: Lucas wanted to raise capital to buy the store before owner Mitchell (Ben Bode) sells it to a lame corporate chain called Music Town. Empire Records, you see, is more than a retail outlet: it’s a haven for floundering misfits, including a young shoplifter (Brendon Sexton) who goes by “Warren Beatty.”

Empire Records was a box office bomb (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=empirerecords.htm). Carol Heikkinen’s script is earnest in its desire to (I guess) reveal some revelation about ’90s youth, but the plot is all too predictable, coming off as a third-rate The Breakfast Club. The cast, though, is impressive; loaded with professionals (Debi Mazar and Maxwell Caulfield) and future stars like Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler, the actors collectively ooze a credible chemistry. Director Allan Moyle pulls some decent performances out of them. A playfully snarky sense of humor about American culture pervades this film, evident in such nifty devices as “Rex Manning Day” and a dream sequence involving Gwar.

Empire Records is very much a product of its time, but that’s what makes it interesting to watch now. This no doubt is why it was selected as the third screening of Chicago International Film Festival’s Totally ’90s series.

With Robin Tunney, Johnny Whitworth, James “Kimo” Wills, Ethan Embry, Coyote Shivers

Production: Monarchy Enterprises B.V., New Regency Pictures, Regency Entertainment, Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

90 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Public Chicago) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

(USA 1986)

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”

—Ferris Bueller

I caught a 30th anniversary screening of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—what a treat to see it on the big screen again! The first time I saw this was with my mother and grandmother on a school night during its original run—that says a lot about its appeal. I had no idea that John Hughes wrote the screenplay in less than a week, or that it was his “love letter to Chicago” however readily apparent that is now, or that it was one of the top ten grossing films of 1986 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferris_Bueller%27s_Day_Off). I do know that it’s one of his best films, and in my opinion his last truly great one.

Where to begin? Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is damn near perfect. An exquisite balance of Weird Science fluff and The Breakfast Club heaviness, it’s a fun escape fantasy anyone can relate to—calling in sick and hitting the city—that isn’t mindless. This film is hilarious, poignant in places, subversive, and in many ways so over the top, but it doesn’t insult your intelligence. The story’s holy trinity—mischievous Ferris (Matthew Broderick), quick-witted Sloane (Mia Sara), and high-strung jittery Cameron (Alan Ruck)—are spot on realistic. They’re downright cool—I’d hang out with them. Indeed, Ferris is enviable—admit it, you wanted to be him. I know I did.

The film is an interminable string of iconic scenes and lines: Ferris’s opening monologue, Ben Stein taking roll call (“Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?”), school secretary Grace (Edie McClurg) explaining to principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) that Ferris “is a righteous dude,” Cameron’s prank call to Rooney (“Pardon my French, but you’re an asshole”), the Ferrari, the Art Institute, “Twist and Shout,” the restaurant (“The Sausage King of Chicago?”), Wrigley Field, the singing telegram, “Save Ferris,” hateful Jeanie Bueller (Jennifer Grey), Rooney’s bus ride home, and being sent home at the end of the credits. Interspersed is weighty stuff like Ferris’s realization that he and Sloane probably won’t be together after high school ends and Cameron’s meltdown—none of it out of place or trite in the context of the film. I can watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off over and over, and never get tired of it because it’s multilayered and always brings a smile to my face.

As for Hughes’s love letter to Chicago, I must say that living here, it’s strangely satisfying to walk down the street on any given day and encounter a setting—a corner, a street, a building—that I recognize from an iconic movie that to this day I love. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking it up.

In 2014, the United States Library of Congress deemed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off “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/).

103 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Brew & View at The Vic) A

The Breakfast Club

(USA 1985)

“You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?”

—The Breakfast Club

I’ve seen The Breakfast Club too many times to track—so many times, in fact, I can practically recite every line in order. What’s most interesting to me is personal: how volatile my view of this film has been through the years. Seeing it as a teenager in its day, I found it incredibly deep. John Hughes nailed high school social politics better than anyone, and he did it with humor and panache. I was taken aback at how accurately The Breakfast Club depicted my own adolescent perceptions, attitudes, frustrations, fears, and dreams. Seeing it in my 20s and 30s, however, I found it trite—moreso the older I got. Still, I adored its juvenile but sharp and totally quotable lines. Flipping through channels on a recent school night, I noticed that AMC was airing it—in like, five minutes. I hadn’t seen it in awhile, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out what impression it would leave on me now.

The Breakfast Club is an achievement. More like a play than a movie and decidedly minimalist in plot and execution—five characters in search of an exit—it’s unlike anything else Hughes did. The plot is simple: five high school students (Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, and newcomer Judd Nelson) from different backgrounds—and more importantly, different cliques—are forced to spend a day together in close quarters for a Saturday detention. Alien and hostile toward each other, they ultimately bond over silly and not so silly stuff. Not much happens, really—there’s a hallway run that ends with Bender (Nelson) shooting hoops for a scholarsheeeeeeeeep—but that’s okay; the drama comes from the personalities of the characters and the friction and attraction between them. Unlike the plot, the statement here is anything but simple: Hughes says a boatload about stereotypes, peer pressure, conformity, rules, family, and social mores—and how we all trap others and ourselves underneath them. In a way that sort of presages Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, Hughes turns the “American Dream” on its head: all of these characters simultaneously embody and reject the ideal. Whether he’s hopeful for the future or not, he sees that these kids and this generation do not operate like those who came before it.

What makes The Breakfast Club work is its great ensemble cast. Even the shallow treatment of the adults (Paul Gleason as Principal Vernon and John Kapelos as janitor Carl) doesn’t take away from the film. It’s totally believable: after a deep exchange, I can’t help but think that everyone goes back to what they were doing before. Come Monday, maybe Bender dates Claire, maybe Andy dates Allison, and maybe everyone is nice to Brian—but I doubt it. A major theme here is that everyone is full of shit—even the good guys. The Breakfast Club is rooted in its time and culture (i.e., it’s very ’80s and very white middle class American), but it hits something universal. It’s also totally entertaining: it opens with a Bowie quote, has a classic theme song—”Don’t You (Forget about Me)” by Simple Minds—and is jam packed with snarky lines. What’s not to love?

A word about AMC: like a lot of cable stations, it censors “bad” words. I’m not a fan of that, but obviously it won’t stop me from watching something. That said, AMC could’ve done a better job editing here. The dubbing is horrible; apparently no attempt was made to find replacement words that even remotely match the characters mouths. Ditto for the voiceovers. The censoring often relies not on the word but the context. For example, AMC has an aversion to the word “dick” only when it refers to a penis—not when it refers to a jerk. It doesn’t like “asshole,” but “ass” is okay. It hates all forms of “shit,” replacing it with variations like “it’s the pits,” “eat slaw,” and “hogwash” (for “bullshit”). I recommend sticking with the uncut edition—foul language has a place here and something crucial is lost without it: realness.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Breakfast Club “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/).

97 minutes
Rated R

(AMC) A

 

Pretty in Pink

(USA 1986)

Being a full-fledged child of the Eighties—I entered the decade at 9 years old and came out of it at 19—John Hughes spoke to me. Naturally, his teen movies (before he started aiming for Millennials with drivel like Home Alone and Curly Sue) hold a special place in my heart. It seems strange then that even though I played the soundtrack so many times I had to replace it twice, I never saw Pretty in Pink from start to finish. So, when a theater near me screened it to commemorate the 30th anniversary, I thought, “fuckin’ A, why not?”

Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) is a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Her mother abandoned her and her father (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s lost in sorrow because of it. Andie attends an apparently elite high school mainly for “richies”—poor girl slang for “rich kids.” Prom is looming, and no one has asked Andie, something she laments to her boss (Annie Potts) at the record store where she works. One of the aforementioned “richies”—Blane (Andrew McCarthy)—suddenly takes an interest in Andie, sparking jealousy and resistance from Duckie (John Cryer), Andie’s buddy since childhood, and Steff (James Spader), Blane’s best friend. Things get ugly when Blane asks Andie to be his date to the prom—uglier than that homemade dress she wears to it.

Hughes went for something a little more dramatic and maybe mature than what he had done up to this point. Nice try, but no cigar: Pretty in Pink doesn’t totally suck, but it’s not one of his better movies. The acting is good, particularly the scenes with Ringwald and Potts. However, the plot—poor girl meets rich boy—was a cliché even at the time. Hughes himself explored the idea of class and social hierarchy many times before in more interesting and thoughtful ways. The writing lacks the punch of, say, Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. The characters, even Duckie, are colorful but hollow compared to other Hughes films. I found it hard to relate to any of them. Even the alternate ending—Andie ends up with Duckie—is no improvement.

Perhaps its worst flaw is that Pretty in Pink is not one bit fun—it lacks the wit that marks a John Hughes films from this period. The subject matter is heavy, and there’s too much going on that weighs down the story—the business, for example, with Andie’s missing mother and having to coach her father back into reality coupled with the hate she and Blane face from their respective friends give Pretty in Pink a dour vibe. There’s a palpable cynicism that doesn’t work because it comes off as bitter. On top of that, there’s far less comic relief from the sidelines—Potts does her job here, but Cryer is more annoying than funny. Sure, there are some nice moments and a few good lines, but that’s it. Hughes hadn’t lost his touch—Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out later the same year—but Pretty in Pink is a drag.

All that said, no movie from the Eighties is complete without a soundtrack—and Pretty in Pink was a great one. When my music vocabulary was culled from pop radio and MTV, it introduced me to stuff I otherwise would have missed. I still listen to it today; in fact, I’m going to put it on now.

(AMC River East) C-