Ready Player One

readyplayerone-tributeposter-highres-backtothefutureDirector: Steven Spielberg

Screenwriters: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg, and Mark Rylance

Ready Player One is the highly anticipated adaptation of author Ernest Cline’s best selling novel. The film opens with a shot of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a high school student living in Columbus, OH in the year 2044. We are introduced to Wade as he navigates his way down from his trailer at the stacks, a futuristic “projects” where trailers are “stacked” on top of each other to conserve space due to the widespread poverty being experienced. Energy and environmental crises have rendered the world mostly back to the stone age with petroleum-fuel a thing of the past and poverty running rampant. One advancement has managed to proliferate through the classes however, and that’s the Online virtual world known as the Oasis. The Oasis is a place where everyone can escape their reality by entering a virtual space where they can be anyone and do nearly anything. All you have to do is log on to the Oasis, invent your avatar, and you’re in!

The Oasis is mostly an entertainment device, but it does serve many practical purposes as well. With the infrastructure of the real world crumbling, the Oasis has become a place of commerce, communication, and even education (although exploration of this concept is curiously missing from the film adaptation). The Oasis is the biggest thing in the world and it has made its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a trillioniare. However, Halliday takes ill, and with no heir or even true friend to designate his estate, he releases a statement that he has hidden an Easter egg, or hidden object, deep within the Oasis. Whoever is first to find the egg will inherit everything.

Wade, under his avatar Parzival is one such egg hunter, known in the film as a “gunter,” a highly problematic term, if you ask me. Wade along with his friends whose avatars Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech, Daito, and Shoto are all attempting to seek out the hidden prize. This sets up an episodic adventure where Parzival travels through the Oasis searching for clues to lead him to various keys that help him unlock gates that will hopefully lead him to the egg. The catch is that in order to really play the game Halliday has laid out, it helps to know Halliday the man, which is to say you’d better know your 1980s pop culture, music, movies, and video games.

The antagonist of the film comes in the form of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who wants to inherit and monetize the Oasis. Sorrento hires players to search for the egg on his behalf in exchange for suiting up their avatars with the best suits, armors, weapons, credits, and access possible. These sell-out gamers come to be known as “sixers” due to the fact that all of their avatar names are actually just a series of numbers that start with sixes.

So, what’s the verdict? As it happens all too often for many a film reviewer, I am placed in the curious position of having to evaluate a film adapted from a novel that I just adored. So, while my final grade will reflect my core value’s stance of whether the film itself is worth your money as mainstream moviegoer, I must first speak to how the film measures up to the book’s greatness.

First of all, Spielberg is an appropriate choice for envisioning this book as a film. His career and impact on pop culture is precisely what Cline celebrates in his novel, and he does get a few things right here. One scene based on the concept from the book called a “flicksync” finds the characters of the film transported into a well-known film as part of their journey towards the egg. The massively meta and fabulous poster campaign had me hoping this would play a larger role however. This scene captures the spirit of the book brilliantly while also changing things up for book readers and still pleasing non book readers. Additionally, Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline himself are very successful in their treatment of envisioning IOI and especially Sorrento who is portrayed brilliantly by Ben Mendelsohn. In fact most of the casting is quite good. Rylance is a very fine choice to play Halliday, and I daresay the film treatment of Sorrento’s eventual henchman iR0k (TJ Miller) is superior to the novel’s treatment. This can also be said for Art3mis who receives a more heroic portrayal in the novel than she perhaps had in the book.

That being said, the film mostly falls flat as an adaptation. The film’s focus diminishes the journey element that was so important to the book’s majesty, and instead simplifies the video game-centric quest plotline in favor of a cliché “resistance” storyline in the real world. Furthermore, the overall structure and complexity of the Oasis itself is marginalized. The crux of the novel is our understanding of this new environment as it unfolds. Its economy, its vastness, its rules, and most disappointingly its education system are all abandoned leaving the Oasis to appear cinematically as simply a game. I almost wish Spielberg had decided to take this project to Netflix or HBO in order to give it a longer play. Simon Pegg, who plays the Oasis’s co-creator Ogden Morrow, is also wasted, as much of his purpose from the book is left out leaving him quite flat as a character.

These gripes are clearly subjective, and Spielberg knew as well as anyone that many of these things had to be cut for a feature length film. Therefore, he did do one of the most bad-ass things a director of this film could do as a consolation, and that’s layer in tons of cinematic Easter eggs. There are numerous references to the various omissions I’ve just laid out all over this movie. It’s as if Spielberg is saying, “I know you love this book, but I can only include so much, so here’s a WarGames poster in the background and some fun Back to the Future imagery. The film’s ending, however is actually quite appropriate and rather clever. Some twists are implemented that work well, and overall there’s a lot to be entertained by in the final act. [Minor Spoiler Alert] However, those looking for that brilliant final “flicksync” in the end will be sadly disappointed, which really upset me; I mean the guy’s name is Parzival, how do you not go there!? [End of Minor Spoiler Alert] So here’s my take. This is a really fun movie overall. There are some great Spielbergian moments that play the nostalgia card, hard. However, the film does have its problematic moments regardless of your familiarity with the source material. What could have been a classic, instead is just kind of a pile of visuals with a story savagely butchered and left on life support. B

Ready Player One is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 19 minutes.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

ImageAfter over a decade away from the X-Men, director Bryan Singer finally returns to the franchise that made him superbly famous. Singer helmed the first X-Men film in 2000 and its even more enjoyable sequel X2 in 2003 but then stepped down. The X-Men series would expand with four more films in Singer’s absence, the best of them Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class in 2011 and the worst of them Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. The point being that while the X-Men films have persevered in Singer’s absence, they certainly have had their ups and downs. Nonetheless, Singer’s entries have each miraculously improved on its predecessor. While I still feel X-Men: First Class is the strongest X-Men film overall, Singer’s third entry X-Men: Days of Future Past is certainly his finest of the bunch and a real crowd-pleaser at that!

At first glance, the plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past sounds like it would be fraught with confusion and dramatic subtext, but it is actually just Back to the Future with mutants. The present day X-Men are living in a world where man has defeated the mutant. With the creation of Dr. Bolivar Trask’s (Peter Dinklage) Sentinels, mutants are being hunted and executed to the point of extinction. A small army of original X-Men, lead by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have so far eluded the Sentinels, but time is running out. A final Hail Mary play involves using the telekinetic power of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 where he can hopefully sway the younger X-Men to stop the series of past events that allow Trask and his Sentinels to come to power. Great Scott!

Singer is thus tasked with the challenging undertaking of balancing the present day cast of original X-Men with that of their engaging and charming First Class counterparts. Fortunately, he is up for the challenge and succeeds by crafting a film that does not look for balance but puts the attention firmly on the new and absurdly talented First Class. Many fans will likely balk at the frame story that leaves Stewart, McKellen, and company as book ends of an otherwise straight-forward sequel to X-Men: First Class, but I feel this is precisely the direction to take these films and I am thrilled that the rest of the original cast seems to feel this way as well. Michael Fassbender in particular brings a great deal of complexity to the character of Magneto and truly commands the audience’s attention the way Jackman’s Wolverine used to in the original films. Jackman is still fantastic as Wolverine and has somehow not worn out his welcome at all. His character feels like the appropriate choice for anchoring the film’s point of view, and Jackman’s performance is nuanced enough to be tough yet endearing.  This is most evident in his scenes with James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier; these two fall into stride in an almost Butch and Sundance kind of way.

There is a lot of star power in this film; I mean, I haven’t even addressed Jennifer Lawrence yet! However, there are also a host of new mutants introduced in this film. This inundation of countless new characters was the tipping point for the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, as they say. Yet, Singer somehow manages this feat effortlessly, seemingly poking fun at the previous idiom by setting one of the film’s most enjoyable scenes starring a new character literally in a kitchen with way too many people in it!

Speaking of too many people, Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Mystique and Nicholas Hoult is back as Beast. These two blue beauties were front and center in X-Men: First Class but seem far less utilized in this film, even though Mystique is pivotal to the film’s plot. This is unfortunate since their chemistry and vivacity were so fun in the previous film.

X-Men: Days of Future Past does exactly what Fox, Marvel, and fans hoped it would. It revitalized the franchise, it spun the storyline in a new and vibrant direction, and it made lots of money. I am eager to see where Singer takes us next in X-Men: Apocalypse. A-

X-Men: Days of Future Past is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes. As always, stay through the credits for a brief but vital scene at what’s next for the X-Men.

  

Flight

Director Robert Zemeckis has given us the latest “disaster” movie. In the case of Flight however, Zemeckis’ first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away, this is less the Die Hard kind of “disaster” and more the Leaving Las Vegas type. Zemeckis is a well-known director, whose films have peppered the pop-culture lexicon for the past 35 years. He is a pioneer who took Marty McFly Back to the Future, taught Forrest to run in Forrest Gump, and broke new ground in live-action/animation film making with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol. This year, Zemeckis showcases his craft with a strong character study of a disturbed pilot in Flight.

The intensity and effectiveness of Flight rests on the shoulders of its star, Denzel Washington, and it turns out Denzel Washington has some pretty strong shoulders. Washington dives head first into the character of pilot Whip Whitaker (a classic “pilot” name). Whitaker is a closeted addict, shrouded in denial. He routinely drinks to excess and uses stimulants to even out before flights. His lifestyle has cost him virtually any relationship or contact with his wife and son and has led him down the path of womanizing and heavy substance abuse as a desperate form of distraction.

Flight sets out to tell a story of moral ambiguity. Its protagonist is one who tests the ethical boundaries of the audience where at one moment we are rooting for him and the next, we are disgusted by him. This ambiguity fuels the pace and power of the film, and makes its 138 minute running time literally “fly” by. Washington is excellent, but Zemeckis is precise in his style, editing, and (yes, Pam and Eric) in his cinematography. Washington makes us see Whitaker’s struggle, but Zemeckis makes us feel it with expert use of camera movements, showing us a static sober Whitaker and a flowing, frantic intoxicated Whitaker. The crash sequence is compelling and exceeds expectations, regardless of its assumed predictability. These nuanced touches make Flight deeply engaging and provide for some harrowingly primal audience reaction.

Furthermore, Washington’s stellar performance is complemented at every turn with a pitch perfect supporting cast including Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman (who is 2 for 2 with electric supporting roles this year with Flight and Argo). While the performances and the story are excellent, Flight does not accomplish all it is trying to do. A motif of religious purpose and providence feels crow barred in. Also, while excellent, the soundtrack is a bit heavy-handed in its relevance to what’s happening on the screen, which can be distracting. However, these are minor quibbles. Overall, Flight is an excellent narrative that explores the dangers of addiction in an impressively unique way. This is a strong film that expertly demonstrates the talent of its cast and director. A-

Looper

Every fall season a movie comes along that lacks the hype and pandering for an audience. Instead, it is released and looks to succeed by word of mouth. Last year that film was the still under-appreciated Drive; this year my top contender is Looper.

Looper begins by introducing us to Joe, a barely recognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt who performs the title task as a “Looper.” Looper is a time-travel story, but roots itself firmly in a mostly-recognizable version of the near future. The only major difference is that time travel is invented soon after the present setting of the film, which allows for a somewhat confusing, but well executed, original story. Loopers are hired guns who kill for a futuristic mob that sends their hits 30 years into the past before time travel was invented. This allows for mob enemies to simply disappear in their present time and be disposed of in an earlier time when they wouldn’t be investigated. Loopers are paid well to shoot first, ask no questions, and most of all be punctual as hits will suddenly appear in a predetermined location at an exact time. Allowing a “loop” to “run” results in some very unsavory consequences. The downside to Looping is that one day, every Looper’s loop must close, which means the future version of yourself will be sent back for immediate execution. When this happens, a Looper gets a big final pay day and 30 years to enjoy it before the inevitable.

The premise for this film is imaginative and dealt with in a surprisingly cohesive way by director Rian Johnson. As with all great time-travel films, rules must be established so that the viewer may understand exactly what the limits are within these multiple dimensions. I provided a short discussion about some classic time travel theories in a previous blog post that you can read here. In short, this particular film’s view is similar to the Back to the Future variety where you can co-exist with multiple versions of yourself and events that affect the younger version will also impact the later version. Thus, when Joe finds himself face to face with his older self, played by Bruce Willis, he inadvertently allows him to run. However, Willis’ character can not simply run since he knows the consequences against Gordon-Levitt will affect him too.

The story’s arc is much more far-reaching and complex than a cat-mouse chase between alternate versions of Joe. As we learn more about Joe’s future from Bruce Willis, our sympathies are toyed with and our moral centers are jarred endlessly. Johnson’s screenplay and direction provide powerful and conflicting motivations for both characters, making the movie deeply engaging and surprisingly fresh. Additional story lines regarding a futuristic crime boss (Jeff Daniels), a fellow Looper (Paul Dano), and farmhouse mother and her son (Emily Blunt and an Oman-esque Pierce Gagnon, respectively) all flesh out this film and give it real dimension and pragmatism, regardless of its sci-fi, time travel plot.

Looper is a tightly wound, entertaining film that has something for everyone to enjoy. There is a slight dragging feeling at the close of its second act, but this perceived lull is making way for a strong and dominant conclusion. In summary, this review only touches on the surface of what Looper accomplishes; there are multiple surprises in store for all audiences who see it, so let the word of mouth begin! A-

Time After Time: Theories of Time Travel in Films

This entry discusses several well-known time travel films and does contain “spoilers.”

Time travel is a device frequently used in movies of today and of the past.  Since there is no proven theory of time travel existing, each movie that uses time travel is free to experiment with theories of its own.  Thus, many of these theories oppose one another, and in some cases they even contradict themselves.  Films like the Terminator movies, the Back to the Future trilogy, 12 Monkeys, and The Time Machine give the three main oppositions that do occur in films.  These are: 1) when characters from the future go back to the past, 2) when characters from the present go back to the past, and 3) when characters from the present go into the future.   

First of all, the first two Terminator movies are examples of movies that use a theory of time travel where characters from the future go back into the past.  In The Terminator, John Connor is the leader of the human alliance against the evil terminator robots in the future.  He is the only person who can stop the terminators from eliminating the human race.  Therefore, the terminators send one of their own back in time to kill John Connor’s mother, Sarah, in an attempt to eliminate him.  However, John sends a human back in time to protect his mother from the evil terminator.  Eventually Sarah and the human sent to protect her fall in love and they have a child who ends up being John himself.  This also is an example of a time travel theory that contradicts itself; John sent a man back in time that ended up becoming his own father.  Also, if this is not confusing enough, in Terminator 2, the war is still going on and the evil terminators send a new terminator back in time to kill John Connor himself as a child.  The humans send back a new “good” terminator to protect him and to destroy all material that may lead up to the creation of terminators.  *Spoiler Alert* At the end, all of the vital material was destroyed and John was safe.  Thus, the war should have never occurred and John would have never sent back his father to protect his mother and create himself in the first movie.

Another opposition can occur when characters go back in time.  This is demonstrated by the movies Back to the Future and 12 Monkeys.  In Back to the Future, Marty Mcfly goes back in time in a time machine built by Emmit “Doc” Brown because Brown was gunned down while they were testing it in 1985.  Marty ends up in 1955 and while trying to find a way to save Brown, he ends up helping his parents become better people in the present time and, in turn, changes things when he returns to 1985.  12 Monkeys has a somewhat similar situation, but there are some differences.  The film begins in 2035 after a virus has killed nearly the entire human race.  The remaining humans send a man named “Cole” back in time in order to find a cure for this virus.  However, the difference between this situation and Back to the Future’s is that Cole is unable to change the fact that nearly the entire human race is killed by this virus.  They can only learn from the past in order to fix problems that are occurring in the present. 

The Time Machine and the Back to the Future II create yet another opposition of time travel theories.  This opposition being, when characters in the present go into the future.  In The Time Machine, an inventor creates a time machine where he eventually travels into the future.  When he arrives he inquires about what has happened to himself.  However, he is shocked to hear that one day he had left his lab and never returned.  The day the inventor was told that he left was the exact day that he left in the time machine.  This theory of time travel states that if one leaves the present and lands in the future, all of the time in between is not lived and, thus, he does not exist during that period of time.  The Time Machine theory says that no one’s future is already written; they must live it for themselves.  Back to the Future II begs to differ.  In Back to the Future II, Doc and Marty go into the future in order to stop a series of events that ruin the lives of Marty and his children.  They are eventually successful in creating a favorable future for themselves.  This theory of time travel states that a future is written for everyone; however, it is not written in stone.

Time travel is a fictional concept, for today anyway.  However, movies let people use their imaginations in order to imagine what it might be like to be hurled through time and space.  However, many of these films ask the viewer to accept several different theories of this concept, many of which oppose one another.  Although many of them do oppose one another, none of them can be judged incorrect or impossible.  This allows for a highly entertaining and exciting new genre of film.