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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Bridge of Spies

BridgeDirector: Steven Spielberg

Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons, and Austin Stowell

Recently Tom Hanks went on The Tonight Show and did a Kid Theater skit where he performed scripts written by elementary school kids who were told to write a scene for a movie called Bridge of Spies.  Most of them involved either a bridge made of spies or spies on a bridge.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the climax of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies and a group of spies met on a bridge.  This is no slight on the actual film’s screenplay as the scene is actually quite riveting, but more a testament to this film’s transparent nature in that what you see is what you get – quite rare for a “spy” film.

This is the fourth pairing of Steven Spielberg as director and Tom Hanks as actor.  Each film they’ve done together has been a period piece of sorts with a true story at its core.  Bridge of Spies is no exception.  In it, Hanks plays James Donovan, a partner in a successful New York insurance law firm at the height of the Cold War.  When a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI, Donovan is recruited to provide a “credible defense” in a trial designed to railroad this spy right to the electric chair.  Donovan’s duty as an American trumps his hesitation for taking a losing battle and he agrees to take the case.  From this point on, Spielberg’s film ceases to be a “did he or didn’t he” film (he did), and begins a fascinating exploration into the murkiness, hypocrisy, and complexity of espionage during one of American history’s most turbulent periods.  Abel is not depicted as an enemy but as a cautious, thoughtful man doing an important job for his country in a time of unrest.  His story is paralleled by another depicting the training and deployment of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot for the CIA who is later shot down in his spy plane over Russia.  In the wrong hands, these stories could come across as preachy or downright absurd, but thankfully the Coen brothers crafted the screenplay and tell an intelligent story about perspective rather than a heroic tale of valor.  In one early scene, Donovan is seen discussing one of his client’s responsibilities for paying a claim to a victim who wants five times the settlement because a driver ran into five motorcycle drivers.  Donovan goes on to explain that to the victim five things happened but according to the insurance policy, one thing happened.  This conversation holds new meaning when Donovan’s life as one type of lawyer leads him to act as an entirely different type of lawyer and that two sides of a seemingly black and white conflict are actually one.

Powers’s and Abel’s stories converge with a prisoner exchange plot that holds Donovan firmly in the middle.  Hanks embodies Donovan’s struggle with great appeal.  He is born to play roles like this and Spielberg knows it.  In fact, Spielberg’s cinematic voice has been diminished lately by the enormous shadow cast by his actors and screenwriters.  With Lincoln it felt like Spielberg simply had to put the camera on a tripod and let Daniel Day-Lewis have his way with Tony Kushner’s script.  The same formula is at work with Bridge of Spies.  Spielberg is certainly gifted at his attention to detail as this film drips with authenticity, and some of his transitions are enlightened and stark, but ultimately this film’s success rests on Hanks and the screenwriting of Charman and the Coens.  Also, Rylance’s subdued performance as Abel is understated but pivotal. Several times throughout the movie, he is relegated to utter the schmaltzy phrase, “would it help?” as a little inside joke between Donovan and himself, but it works every time.

Furthermore, Bridge of Spies follows some conventional storytelling arcs, but the spy genre is not one easily transformed.  The key to Bridge’s success is that its agenda is not to trick the audience but rather to let us hold all of the cards and experience the weight of each decision that is made.  That along with some brilliant set-pieces, scenery, and top notch performances from Hanks and Rylance allow Bridge of Spies to work very well.  B+

Bridge of Spies is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

Brew and View 2015 #2

redundancyA coworker said to me yesterday, “So a new Terminator movie and a Jurassic Park sequel are being released in theaters, and Clinton and Bush are running for President.  What year is it?”  That got me thinking about the redundancies that occur right under our nose, and how sometimes we don’t even notice.  This week’s Brew and View follows this same theme.  Summer movie season is upon us and next week is a big one for the movies as it leads into the Independence Day holiday.  Now some people just don’t have time to hit the movies during the holiday week.  They don’t have time to see the humans versus robots conflict in Terminator Genisys, and they don’t have time to see the living teddy bear named Ted’s quest to be deemed a real person in Ted 2.  What if I told you all of this is basically a cinematic redundancy?  That one film from 2001 offers all of this and more, and you can watch it from the comfort of your own couch with a brew in your hand?  That’s right, Steven Spielberg’s first film of his “Running Man” trilogy is that film, and it’s called A.I: Artificial Intelligence.  

Here, instead of Terminators, the robots are called Mechas, but they are still human inventions gone AIwrong.  What about that bear you say?  Well the David, the Mecha played by Haley Joel Osmment has a Mecha teddy bear named Ted.  Oh and don’t worry about that subplot from Ted 2 about something formally thought of as property looking to be called human. A.I. has got that covered too as David is on a quest to find the “Blue Fairy” in the hopes that she can change him from Mecha to a real boy, Pinocchio style!

A film like this needs a carefully paired brew.  One that while familiar, also has an air of “Never too much of a good thing.”  That’s why this week’s brew is Dogfish Head Brewery’s Herbed/Spiced beeMidasTouchr Midas Touch.  Made with ingredients found in drinking vessels over 2000 years ago, this beer fits with the redundancy premise.  It’s a pretty unique beer for having such an old foundation.  You might experience the sensation of drinking mead while drinking Midas Touch, with hints of grape and honey.  King Midas may not be here to turn this summer’s movies into gold, but enjoy the beer named in his honor by watching a better film that has all the same stuff in it!

Check out past Brew and Views on my Brew and View Page.

Oscar Predictions: Part 4 – The Big Ones

OscarsOscar Predictions: Part4 – The Big Ones

The final installment of The People’s Critic’s Oscar prediction series lists my picks for the six major film awards: Directing, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actor, Actress, and Picture.  These are the categories decided by the largest blocks of voters and, thus reveal the academy’s consensus feelings on the great films of the year.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

Best Director:

Nominated directors are Michael Haneke for Amour, Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, and David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.

The Best Director Oscar is basically the Cinematography Oscar crown jewel.  The director oversees every chosen element on set to ensure his/her vision is secure and successful.  In the Classic Hollywood Cinema days, this award was a bit easier to come by as directors like William Wyler, John Ford, and Frank Capra were nominated often and won more than any other directors in history.  Over the years, the award has become much more aloof; very few directors earn more than one Best Directing Oscar.  The award is closely associated with the Best Picture winner as well, however these awards are becoming more independent of one another now that the Best Picture field of nominees has been increased to up to ten films.  This year will be an upset year no matter which way it goes.  Not since the 1930s has it been more likely that the Best Picture will go to a film who’s director was not nominated.  Additionally, it is quite likely that the Best Director will go to a film that does not win Best Picture.  Therefore, it is critical to look at each of the nominated films for director’s merit alone. Haneke and Zeitlin turned out two emotionally charged human dramas that are deserving of immense appreciation.  In terms of directing, Zeitlin is the better choice between the two, but these small films rarely make a dent in the voting pool.  Spielberg does not deserve to be nominated for this award this year.  Russell has once again made a great film that would have won last year, but he will find himself beaten this year.  The award is between Russell and Lee.  The Peoples Critic Selection: Ang Lee for Life of Pi


Best Supporting Actor:

Nominees are Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln, Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained, Robert DeNiro for Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master, and Alan Arkin for Argo.

Best Supporting Actress:

Nominees are Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables, Helen Hunt for The Sessions, Sally Field for Lincoln, Amy Adams for The Master, and Jackie Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook.

Acting categories need the least amount of explanation.  The supporting role awards are traditionally a bit more exciting.  These Oscars have gone to some surprising upsets over the years and is more likely to go to an edgier or younger performer than the awards for Best Actor/Actress.  On the men’s side, this year’s field has two performances that are practically lead roles (Waltz and Hoffman), and this will most likely work in one of their favors.  On the ladies’ side, there is a clear winner, so I’ll simply explain why she wins.  Much has been made of the fact that Anne Hathaway is only in Les Misérables for a short period of time.  However, this award has gone to many recipients whose screen-time is limited.  The Oscar for Supporting Role is designed to recognize superior support, regardless of screen time.  What Anne Hathaway does with her segment of an otherwise dull film is give a Hugh Jackman quality performance and then leave you wanting more.  What worked for her will unfortunately not work for Jackman since his Best Actor field also has a clear winner who accomplishes a similar feat in that category.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz for Django UnchainedThe People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables.  

 

Best Actor:

Nominees are Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables, Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, and Denzel Washington for Flight.

Best Actress

Nominees are Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Naomi Watts for The Impossible, and Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Hugh Jackman picked the wrong year to turn out his best performance of his career.  What he does as Jean Val Jean in Les Misérables is raw and spectacular.  However, it will be the one-two punch of excellent writing by Kushner and flawless delivery by Day-Lewis that will allow him to make history as the first to win three Best Actor Academy Awards.  Meanwhile, the Best Actress category has already made history by nominating both the youngest and oldest nominees ever considered for the Best Actress Oscar with Riva and Wallis.  Unlike the men’s race, no clear winner exists here.  Riva has enjoyed a surge as of late given her heart wrenching performance in Amour along with the fact that Oscar night just happens to be her 86th birthday.  However, it seems that the “girl on fire” this year will come away with her first trophy, solidifying what will likely be a long and dynamic career.   The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. 


 Best Picture:

Nominated Films are Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.

Nine films were deemed worthy of Best Picture honors this year.  The jury is still out on this callback to the olden days where ten (even twelve!) films could be nominated for this award.  In 2009, the Academy expanded the limit of nominees from five to ten, but finding that there are not always ten worth-while nominees, the rule currently allows the list to vary between five and ten nominees.  This year’s collection of nominees would all have beaten last year’s winner, The Artist substantiating what an excellent year at the movies 2012 was.  As stated earlier, this award is often tied closely together with the winner for Best Director; however, no year in recent history has provided a lower likelihood of this happening than this year.  Therefore, how does one judge a film on its merits alone without necessarily taking the director’s choices into strong consideration?  How much does one weigh the writing, the cinematography, the set design, the acting, etc.?  These are tough questions.  One major element is to examine the editing.  Best Picture is more about conveying a message, entertainment, structure, and overall effect than anything else.  Editing (along with direction) is the key to all of those characteristics that make a movie great.  Therefore, if direction becomes a lowered value in the equation for determining greatness, the vacuum will be filled with editing.  The result is an upset that has only happened three times in history and not at all since 1989 – a Best Picture winner where the director was not even nominated.  The People’s Critic Selection: Argo

Lincoln

Lincoln Steven Spielberg is quite possibly America’s most recognizable director. His career spans decades and has produced some of the most memorable films and characters in American cinematic history. Nonetheless, his prominent status has caused skeptics to write him off as superficial, crowd-pleasing, overly melodramatic, and at times corny. These attacks on Spielberg are not always unwarranted, however, his body of work is mostly impeccable and, at times, avant-garde. With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 31st film as director, Spielberg focuses on the 16th president’s chaotic battle to pass the 13th amendment. While the battle to make the film was also rigorous, it seems that the final product is worthy of both battles.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again disappears into his role, playing Abraham Lincoln in such a way that it is hard to imagine anyone else capable of playing this historical figure. Day-Lewis plays the part with a quiet confidence. Lincoln’s voice is portrayed with a surprisingly warm, high registered tone. This is apparently, historically accurate and is a nice touch. Spielberg seems to know what he has here and takes a subtler approach from the technical aspect, allowing Day-Lewis and a host of other A-List actors to propel the film. Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader are particularly good as Thaddeus Stevens and W.N. Bilbo, respectively. This subtlety from the director’s chair is a good decision, and while Spielberg’s approach is subtle, the film is complex. It doesn’t hurt that Oscar nominees and winners are in dozens of supporting roles, prompting a superior ensemble experience. Writer Tony Kushner adapts Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography expertly without losing any majesty. Kushner’s dialogue is Shakespearean at times and great importance is placed on what is said, not just who is saying it.

Lincoln wisely examines the final few months of the president’s life as he begins his second term. This is not a traditional bio-pic; it separates itself from the routine of that genre and simply tells a great story about a president who happens to live his life through a series of great stories. Lincoln’s political objective is to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery through the House of Representatives before the inauguration. This plan hinges on swaying lame-duck Democrats who are about to leave office to support his position. The film is truly an allegory for contemporary politics. It is very hard to watch Lincoln and not draw some pretty steep comparisons with the pageantry and stubbornness of today’s political landscape.

Most of Lincoln works very well. Lincoln the storyteller, Lincoln the lawyer, Lincoln the husband, and Lincoln the politician are explored evenly and with merit. The only major flaw comes when the film attempts to examine Lincoln the father. It is a well-known fact that Steven Spielberg has had some father issues. He often directs films with protagonists who have a dysfunctional relationship with their fathers. In Lincoln, this element is investigated through Lincoln’s relationship with his oldest son, Bob (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Unfortunately, this story is immensely under-developed and symbolically vapid. While Lincoln’s home life is deeply important to understanding the man, the misunderstanding between Lincoln and Bob leads to one mildly interesting scene that still would have been mildly interesting even if Bob was not a part of it. Regardless of Bob’s significance, the conflict between father and son seems thrown together compared to the more pressing conflicts in the film, resulting in a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, Lincoln offers plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into, and yet the story is accessible to all audiences. Spielberg takes some narrative chances to use unknown history to make well-known history compelling and interesting, especially in the film’s final act. This is Spielberg’s finest effort in some time. All in all, we are given a portrait of a very great man, and we are reminded of what qualities make a man great. A-