Ready Player One

April 2, 2018 at 11:23 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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I find it hard to judge a movie whose book I read first. There are very few times when a movie is as good as, or better than, the book that inspired it (the LOTR series, as an example). Now, let’s be clear, “Ready Player One” is no masterwork of fiction. It’s light, easy sci-fi that can be read in a few days and likely forgotten in a few months. It probably would not even factor into this review, except that I just read the book and so, it was fresh in my mind. I was keenly aware of how much exposition was necessary, particularly in the beginning of the film, to set the stage for the audience. Yet, I was also aware of how much was being left out. That said, the two people I saw the film with, who had not read the book, did not seem to think that the story was unclear. But there was a lot left out that I thought really helped build out this world. I also could not help but be aware of all the changes that were made, some of which blunted any emotional impact the book had. What you do get is a fast-paced story that tries to balance world-building with action and stunning visuals. That makes sense. The book was very visual, describing in detail the various virtual locations the story moves through. It’s a testament to how far (and how fast) visual effects have progressed, that nobody is talking about the look of this film. We spend a lot of time looking at beautifully rendered virtual faces and they are really quite impressive. There is a scene that takes place in the hotel from “The Shining,” and it looked like a real set; with only a couple of exceptions, that hotel looked photo-real. The real reason this book has made any splash (and was even made into a movie) is that it is rife with 80s references. An action/sci-fi/virtual reality movie with 80s references just seems like it would appeal to everyone from 15-55, and Hollywood must love those numbers. So, if you’re in the mood for some nostalgia, open your mouth and waddle up to the hose. There are so many pop culture references (from the 60s through the 90s) in every single scene, you might wish you could pause the movie to catch them all. And you still won’t catch them all. One of my friends burst out laughing at one point. Apparently, the spell being used was taken verbatim from the 1981 movie “Excalibur.” Who knew? Apparently, nobody else in my audience. This film can be a fun ride but, be aware, it is all spectacle and no depth. The one “message” about the importance of living in the real world is so tacked on and saccharine that it almost feels sarcastic. If you want a goofy good time, see this film. Just don’t expect it to stick with you. Spielberg has made masterpieces that will stay with me my whole life. Five years from now, I won’t even remember what this movie was about.

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Annihilation

February 26, 2018 at 11:26 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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As I was leaving the theater, a guy in front of me turned to his friend and said, “I don’t understand it, but I think I’m glad I saw it.” Yeah, I guess that’s about right. I think I’m glad I saw it. It was at times a visually arresting film and the mystery was provocative, right up until the moment it lost me. A meteor has crashed into a lighthouse on the coast somewhere in the U.S.  A resulting bubble, called “the shimmer,” has grown for miles around the lighthouse. Various teams have been sent in and none have returned, until Kane (Oscar Issac) mysteriously does. His wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), is a biologist. She chooses to join a team of 4 other scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gena Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny). Once they enter the shimmer, crazy things start happening. The closer they get to the lighthouse, the weirder things get. In all of that weirdness, there are some really compelling, and sometimes beautiful, images. The mystery builds and I found myself getting more and more invested in the answer. Unfortunately, the final moments were vague and unsatisfactory. With 2016’s “Arrival,” one certainly got the sense that the book was clearer than the film. But, at least, I was able to piece together a cohesive explanation for what was happening. Ultimately, I was unable to do that with “Annihiliation,” and that left me unsatisfied. It’s also worth noting that the book is very significantly different from the film, on almost every level. Core elements of the book are entirely left out (including the key element of the meaning of the title) and various outcomes are completely different. Apparently, what little explanation there is in the film was created by the writer/director (Alex Garland). Given that, I wish he had been clearer. I know he is capable of writing a compelling and complex sci-fi script; he wrote the wonderful “Ex Machina.” This film had it’s fun moments and a couple of genuinely creepy ones. But, when a movie poses a mystery, I feel like it should make a good effort to resolve it. Or at least give a good reason for not doing so. This one was a group of interesting parts that didn’t really add up to a cohesive whole.

 

The Cloverfield Paradox

February 10, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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My first 2018 film happens to be another Netflix release. I might have been tempted to skip this one, except that it’s part of a series. Ten years after “Cloverfield,” we are getting the third in JJ Abrams’s series. While not as good as the excellent “10 Cloverfield Lane,” this one is on par with the first film. It’s a fast moving, often tense addition to the sci-fi/horror sub-genre. Unfortunately, all trapped-in-a-spaceship movies will forever be compared to “Alien.” If we removed that one from the evaluation, this film fairs about as well as most. Somewhere in the near future, a group of scientists aboard the space station “Cloverfield” try to solve Earth’s energy problems. Oil reserves have virtually run out, nations are fighting over limited resources, economies are collapsing. Through some entirely ill-defined means, the crew of the “Cloverfield” are on the brink of providing limitless power to Earth. Then, of course, things go terribly wrong. The team includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle,” “Concussion”), David Oyelowo (“Selma,” “Queen of Katwe”), Daniel Brühl (“Rush,” “The Alienist”), Chris O’Dowd (“The IT Crowd,” “Calvary”), and Ziyi Zhang (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”). This fantastic cast feels a little underutilized. They have all demonstrated an ability to show a complex range of emotions. Here, they are mostly required to be mad or scared, which they all do gamely enough. As the story develops and the tensions build, the details make less and less sense. They make for some interesting visuals and a few decent jumps, but they don’t add up to a consistent whole. One of the reasons “Alien” is so brilliant, is that you have one conceit (an alien on your spaceship) and everything stems beautifully from that one device. Here, it feels like more weirdness keeps getting piled on, whether it fits the “scientific” explanation or not. As a result, it gives the audience a sense that any strange this is possible. That allows for a lot of options, but also robs the film of some of its tension; the danger seems random, rather than sinister. How this film ties in to the first two movies is anyone’s guess. Perhaps this one is providing an explanation for what happened in the first two. Yet, there is not enough connection between the films to really embrace that idea. With the exception of the final seconds of this film (very reminiscent of the previous two), this feels as though it could have  been written and filmed as another movie, and then the studios decided to call it a “Cloverfield” film after the fact. That incredibly loose association of films is an interesting idea. But, ultimately, in order to be a series, it seems to me that a group of films needs to add value to each other, as though seeing them all gives you new insight into each separate film. Perhaps, with the addition of other films, the series will make sense and that sense of connectedness will occur. So far, it has not.

The Shape of Water

December 24, 2017 at 11:22 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Not since “Pan’s Labyrinth” has Guillermo del Toro created such a visual feast. From the first moments of the film to the final scene, there was never a moment when I wasn’t enrapt by what I was seeing. Del Toro creates a magical early 60s world awash in shades of green. The wallpaper, carpet, cars, clothing, candies, were all various shades of green, giving us a sense of being underwater, with the occasional shock of red to remind us of the burning emotions and potential violence that was lurking in these murky waters. The fantastic Sally Hawkins plays a mute janitor who works alongside Octavia Spencer in a secret government lab that is clearly up to no good. Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Nick Searcy all play government agents who are varying levels of evil. When a strange amphibian man is captured in South America and brought to the lab, Hawkin’s Elisa has pity for him and they form a bond. This film is part sci-fi, comedy, love story, and allegory. And it works on every one of those levels. It is very funny, though much of the humor is sly commentary. For everything there is to laud about this film, Hawkin’s acting may be the biggest thing. Without ever saying a word, she gave us access to her entire internal world and the deep emotions she was feeling. Visually and emotionally complex, this really was a fantastic, fantastic film and one of my favorites of the year.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

December 18, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Expectations are always high when it comes to “Star Wars,” and that certainly was the case here. There was a giddy eagerness in the theater the night I was there. My audience applauded the opening credits, whooped and clapped throughout. They were looking for a good time and, fortunately, they were not disappointed. This, the 9th “Star Wars” film and the 8th in the Skywalker series, is the best one in years. Darker and far more brooding than most of the films, it also shows a level of character development that the series has sorely missed until now. In Lucas’s world, there were good guys and bad guys, but little in-between. Director Rian Johnson had directed three feature-length films before this: “Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom,” and “Looper.” Anyone who has seen any of his films knows he loves complicated, morally ambivalent characters. In Lucas’s hands, a character like Luke always felt a bit one-dimensional to me. Yet, in “The Last Jedi,” we get a window into a more complex character filled with guilt, self-doubt, a bit morally simplistic and even a bit arrogant. It was great to see Hamill again, playing the only character I have ever seen him play. He has become a comfortable actor, capable of playing a far more interesting Luke than he could 35 years ago. I really liked this new version of an old character and I hope to see more of him. I also really like how the two core characters are being played. I realize one might debate that there are core characters in this rich ensemble cast. But, using the first films as a guide, it seems to me the backbone of these stories is the relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), much as it had been the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader. I find this relationship more interesting than the Luke/Vader one. It has more uncertainty in it, with Kylo Ren as a far more conflicted villain than Vader ever was. I am very interested to see his character arc. I was also really pleased with the screen time General Leia was given. This final role was a fitting tribute to Carrie Fisher. Johnson also filled the film with all the things one would expect: beautiful planets, interesting aliens, a few battles and chase scenes, all the good stuff. He also had the requisite cute/funny aliens but, mercifully, kept them tightly contained. From start to finish, this was an entertaining ride and, more than that, it intrigued me. I genuinely want to see where these characters end up and that’s something I haven’t felt in a “Star Wars” film in a long while.

Blade Runner 2049

October 9, 2017 at 10:03 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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There’s a reason Spielberg never made a sequel to “E.T.”  There is just so much at risk when you follow up a beloved film, especially as time passes and that film becomes a classic. There are so many more ways to go wrong than to go right. That is the risk Ridley Scott ran when returning to the “Blade Runner” well. Yet, with the help of the original screenwriter (Hampton Fancher), he manages to pull it off. Scott turned over the directing reigns to  Denis Villeneuve, who is skilled at making both psychologically explosive films (“Incendies,” “Prisoners”) and pensive sci-fi (“Arrival). Villeneuve managed to successfully recreate and add to Scott’s world. This film is stunning in every single scene. From the deeply crowded LA streets to the vast desert wastelands of San Diego and Vegas, everything was a joy to watch. Each detail in the background was so carefully and cleverly constructed. Of equal importance to recreating this world, was recreating the mood of the first film. Ryan Gosling was perfectly cast, matching the world-weary cynical tone that Harrison Ford’s Deckard had. The story is somber and pensive. It could be accused of being a bit slow in part, particularly for viewers who expect high doses of “The Fast & The Furious” in their modern sci fi. But this is not an action film. Deeper themes are being explore here. When are we sentient? What makes us alive? Is it our feelings? Our empathy for others? Our memories and our connection to the past? There is rich stuff getting explored in some very clever ways. We know from the start that Gosling’s K is a replicant. Just like Deckard was in love with a replicant in the first film, K is in love with a hologram, now removing the question of life one-step further out. The complexities of this question are played out beautifully when a giant 3D billboard version of that same hologram talks to him late in the film. It calls him “joe” in a generic way, calling into question the name “Joe” that his girlfriend-hologram gave him earlier. That is brilliant and heady stuff. Much has been said and debated about the various endings to the original film. This one seems to fit with several of those endings (maybe even all of them). The story could have gone in a very obvious, cliché direction. I was sure it was going to and I am so pleased that I was wrong. If there is anything I regret about this film is that there was no Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) character. There was no one nearly as menacing, nor as poetic. Jared Let0’s Niander Wallace comes close. Leto steals every scene he is in (as he does in most of his films) but there are just far too few scenes with him. I would have liked much more of him, which is admittedly difficult in a film that is already creeping towards 3 hours. But, I never felt bored. Not for one minute during that entire time did I wish I were anywhere else. And that may be the best review I can give.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

July 23, 2017 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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½

Based on a set of French comics that ran from 1967 – 2010, the film focuses on a Flash Gordon-type hero named Valerian and his partner, Laureline. They do amazing things and save the good guys from the bad guys. That’s hardly a revolutionary story line, though it doesn’t need to be. We go to films like this for a lot of reasons but being surprised isn’t typically one of them. However, we do expect to be entertained. And, in a movie so full of spectacle and action, I am sorry to say that I was bored, almost from the first scene to the last. The backbone of any good film is an engaging plot; it draws the audience in, creates the context for everything we see, and defines what’s at stake for the protagonists. But, right from the start, it’s clear that the emphasis is on surface over substance. Whole scenes are unnecessarily convoluted just as an excuse to play with more visuals and the plot as a whole makes virtually no sense. Similarly, the dialogue and character development feel frankly adolescent. Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be falling in love but the actors had no chemistry. In fact, none of them appeared to be trying particularly hard. Dane DeHaan, who played Valerian, is a terrific actor; watch him in “Kill Your Darlings.” But, here, he seemed to be channeling Keanu Reeves, as though Luc Besson thought he was making his own sort of “Matrix.” Besson, who is best known for directing “The Fifth Element,” shows all the subtlety here that he did there, though at least that film was visually arresting at times. Filmed almost entirely against a blue screen (there could not have been more than 3 or 4 actual sets in this whole film) for a whopping $180M, you would think “Valerian” would at least be fun to look at. You would be wrong. The imagery was all too much too often and without a coherent whole. Visuals were created just because they looked good and not because they served a consistent vision of this universe. The film lacked an internally compelling aesthetic. Also, because the characters all lacked depth, it did not matter that the CGI was good. None of their emotions meant anything. I kept thinking about the most recent “Planet of the Apes” and the character of Caesar. He was such a real and complex character that the CGI served to bring him to life. But CGI cannot animate the lifeless. As a tool, it can add new dimensions to film and allow the director/actors/audience to explore core truths in new and compelling ways. Or it can simply be gratuitous overload; visuals for the sake of the fact that you can create them. That’s what we have here. This film is all surface with nothing below a very thin veneer of pretty. Why bother? There are so many other better films to see. I can’t give this film a ∅. I mean, it didn’t offend me. It just felt like an 137 minute waste of time.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 15, 2017 at 9:25 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Director Matt Reeves made his name as the writer and director for the “Felicity” t.v. series. He then went on to direct “Cloverfield,” “Let Me In,” and the last “Planet of the Apes” film.  “The Batman” is next on his roster. Reeves brought a much needed depth to the previous “Apes” film. The first one had little to offer beyond the (then revolutionary) CGI. The story itself was painful. Reeves is now also the writer of “War” and has further developed the story established in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Taking place just 2 years after that film, we are in the middle of the war between humans and apes that started at the end of the “Dawn.” Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his troop have been hiding deep in the woods until they are forced to look for a new, safer home. This film is less of an action/sci fi film and really more of a psychological drama. It explores how someone deals with trauma, battle fatigue, mistrust, rage and hatred, while still trying to be a leader to his people. The CGI is now good enough that a film like this can allow for a whole range and depth of emotions to play across a character’s face and Andy Serkis is a master actor. Though Reeves has cleverly evolved Caesar’s speaking abilities with each film, he does not rely on dialogue to convey most of the emotions we see on screen. Instead, we get beautiful close ups of Caesar’s and the other ape’s faces as they wrestle with complex and sometimes heartbreaking emotions. This film works because Caesar is such a beautifully realized character. The action scenes are fine, though nothing stands out as being as impressive as the Golden Gate Bridge scene from the first film. Also, there was a welcome amount of humor in an otherwise very serious story. But those are not the reasons I am recommending this film. Rather, see it because it completes the story arc in a really satisfying way. Though I am sure there will be more in the series, this trilogy is a better character study than most. See this film because it is beautifully acted. See it because it is touching. See it because I was surprised by how moved I was by its final moments. See it because great acting is always worth watching.

Alien: Covenant

May 21, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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The genius’s curse. A filmmaker redefines the industry with a groundbreaking film. The second in the series is as good as, or better than, the first. And then it all goes down hill… And we end up with “The Godfather, Part III,” ewoks and Jar Jar Binks, and now “Prometheus” and “Covenant.” In fact, it seems that Ridley Scott has fallen into the same trap that George Lucas did– the need to over explain, and therefore over complicate. Everything was fine when the Force was just the Force and evil aliens wreaked havoc on unsuspecting crew members. But now we have midichlorians and an unbelievably complicated backstory about how humans and the aliens came into being. It is all so ponderous and complex that it cannot help but slow the story down. When this film is focused on the aliens, it works. Scott has faithfully captured HR Giger’s imagery beautifully. We spin through disorientingly similar passageways on spaceships and in dead alien cities. There are some great scary moments and several good jumps to be had, just not nearly enough of them. These scenes, which helped to make the first movies such classics, are painfully few and far between. The rest of the time, we get Michael Fassbender talking to himself about life, morality and who cares what else. Too much of this film was tedious and sometimes baffling. There was an air of weightyness that hung over the whole story, as though Scott has something important he wants to say. Unfortunately, that becomes the focus of the film. The audience would have been better served had he simply made another really good horror film. It seems that, as soon as a director understands that they have created something important, they shouldn’t be allowed to keep working on it. The line between importance and self-importance seems to be an awfully thin one that is just too easy to cross.

Sleight

May 7, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Fandango called this film a combination of “Chronicle” and “Iron Man,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. To my mind, it is more closely aligned with urban black films from 1991’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn” to 2015’s “Dope.” The young guy, simply wanting to get out of poverty and take care of his family, gets involved with drug dealers and things go awry. The tropes are all too common and well-tread. J.D. Dillard, making his full-length directing debut, certainly gives the genre a twist by adding in superhero/sci-fi elements, but this film never strays far from its genre. That’s a shame because it is as its most interesting when it is at its most fantastic. If Dillard had more fully embraced the fantasy elements, he may have made a more interesting film. That’s not to say this was a bad film, but it never felt like it lifted too far above the cliché. The story went exactly where you might expect but never got as gritty or as scary as most films in the genre and it felt like nothing real was ever at stake. In the end, that’s the film’s biggest problem; it’s just lite. Dillard made a gangsta-lite film and a sci-fi-lite film. The result is that it isn’t very satisfying in either genre. The one way that I would compare it to “Chronicle” is in its intentions. I don’t think anyone made this film believing it would make a ton of money or win any awards or make them famous. I think they hoped it would serve as a resume to Hollywood, getting their names out there, building some buzz and generating other, bigger work for them. Tiny as “Chronicle” was, it launched the careers of Josh Trank, Dean DeHaan and Micheal B. Jordan. “Sleight”‘s lead actor, Jacob Latimore, does a fine job and probably deserves more exposure. The rest of the mostly unknown cast do fine but nobody stands out as a superstar. Of course, neither did Jordan in “Chronicle,” so perhaps they just need the right material. This film just doesn’t seem to have the buzz that “Chronicle” generated, even though I actually liked it slightly better. I hope to see Latimore and Dillard in the future; they both deserve more exposure. I’m just not sure this film is going to give it to them.

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