Now Playing — Ready Player One

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Steven Spielberg is the dream director for the film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One. He’s also arguably a terrible choice for the near-future cotton candy dystopia of a puzzle quest across a virtual landscape of pop culture ephemera. Cline’s crummy book is a mash note to the mass entertainment landscape of the nineteen-eighties, much of which Spielberg shaped, either directly or as a mighty influence.

It’s been a creative lifetime since Spielberg operated as that melding of narrative mastery and brand savvy.  His own distant history is clearly what informed his decision to take on the project, and he’s taken every opportunity to explain his view of the film as a respite from the Oscar-friendly historical dramas that he’s spent the last decade presiding over from a canvas chair with “DIRECTOR” screen-printed across the back. Spielberg knows how to make Ready Player One, and he paces the film with the assurance of muscle memory. But he also lacks either a passion for the geek culture it wallows in or the stomach to pass judgment on the intellectual emptiness of sweeping bygone art up like a pile of glittering casino chips.

In the film, Tye Sheridan plays Wade Watts, a young man living in the impoverished misery of a trailer park so overpopulated that the undesirable domiciles are stacked up like drunkenly-placed Jenga blocks. Like most in the world, he finds escape within the immersive field of digital play known as the Oasis, a creation of entrepreneurial coder James Halliday (played wonderfully, of course, by Mark Rylance). Upon his death, Halliday announced a treasure hunt within the virtual world. Whoever solved the various riddles and challenges would inherit the trillion dollar platform.

Cline funneled his own obsessions into the pages of the story, and Spielberg does a remarkable job of filling the frame with familiar figures and mementos from a wide swath of films, television shows, and video games.  Not since The Lego Movie has a film offered such a compelling reason to stand up and applaud the legal teams who sorted through the tangled complexities of licensing rights. The film moves briskly and confidently enough to help avoid a devolution into mere reference spotting. There is arguably only one instance when the film plunges deeply into a singular preceding pop touchstone. The sequence avoid indulgence because it also represents Spielberg at his most obviously engaged, likely because it’s servicing his own fandom by paying tribute to a favorite director he’s already honored onscreen at least once before.

In Spielberg’s hands, Ready Player One is enjoyable, but it’s also uneven. Some of that is because the shortcomings of the source material can’t be entirely shaved away. There are problems that belong solely to the film, though, such as instances of flat humor, a lack of emotional heft, and several performances that are lacking (Sheridan, most notably, but also, I am pained to note, Lena Waithe). For the spectacle flung onto the screen, the film feels like it’s exactly what Spielberg essentially admitted it is: a diversion. He’s interested in finding out if he can still zip out a goofy fun adventure, but not all that concerned about seeing if he can still make a movie like this into something that has greatness in its frames.

Top Ten Movies of 2017 — Number Eight

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These days, The Washington Post is demonstrating no reluctance in their insistence on the primacy of a free and robust press in a healthy republic. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the motto emblazoned on their masthead in a direct rebuke to the bullying of the administration currently occupying the executive branch of U.S. government. With The Post, director Steven Spielberg offers his cinematic corroborating testimony. The film depicts the internal struggles at The Washington Post as they pursued stories about the leaked reports referred to as the Pentagon Papers at the precise moment, in 1971, The New York Times was under a very real threat of government censure for breaking the story about those very same damning documents. Leaning wisely on a stacked cast of pros (led by Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham, both excellent), Spielberg draws his drama from the simple heroism of journalists doing their job, using his nearly peerless talent for narrative storytelling to infuse reverberating tension into the act of rummaging through stacks or paper or bickering over the tug-of-war between journalistic ethics and business considerations. In a useful reminder that battles must often be waged concurrently, the film also portrays the ways in which Graham faced virulent chauvinism as she asserted her authority over the newspaper and the business she ran. That Spielberg — whose overall record with female characters is a little spotty — handles these scenes with the same level of astute, empathetic observation demonstrates the seasoned filmmaker’s admirable commitment to constantly testing himself. With The Post, Spielberg is doing wonders with the light.

Now Playing — The Post

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Even without director Steven Spielberg offering fairly unequivocal explanations of his motivation behind signing on for The Post — and working overtime to deliver a finished product as quickly as possible — it’s not difficult to ascertain the film’s sharp relevance to this current moment. For at least the past year, journalists and lawyers have been the power pieces on the misbegotten game board of U.S. politics, providing vital information and defense as a runner-up presidency does everything it can to surreptitiously demolish the very fundamentals of American government and society. And the power has seethed at those who dare to report the actions and ineptitude, tallying up an enemies list, tweeting it out with exhausting regularity. The Post is a timely reminder that the leaders can — and must — be held to account.

With a screenplay credited to Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, The Post concerns itself with the journalistic mining of a hefty tome of classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which took place in 1971. Collecting research requested by the Pentagon, the lengthy document revealed the cascading disastrous decisions of the U.S. government throughout the military involvement in Vietnam, and the corresponding efforts to cover up the mistakes by flagrantly lying to the public. It was scandalous, and the executive branch — headed by Richard Nixon — did everything it could to suppress the reporting, dragging newspapers into court in a major judicial test of the First Amendment.

Spielberg’s film essentially embeds with The Washington Post, as they first find themselves lagging behind The New York Times in reporting on the papers, and then taking over the leading role once the Gray Lady is hit with a court injunction. The prime debate about whether or not to defy an already aggrieved White House with new stories is waged between editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). The former is driven by an enduring sense of mission — that this sort of reporting is exactly what newspapers must do — and the latter is concerned because the media company she inherited is in precarious financial times, reliant on a public stock offering to stay afloat. A war with the U.S. government threatens to undo everything.

There’s not much doubt where Spielberg’s sympathies ultimately lie, but he is a shrewd enough storyteller to realize that the conflict must be even. Graham’s reticence needs to be grounded in good sense, otherwise the film merely bides time. Streep is an invaluable collaborator in this respect, quietly signaling the agonizing journey Graham must go through, weighing the cold business decision against the legacy of the newspaper. On the other side of the history, the decision is easy. Spielberg and Streep work together to offer the useful reminder that it was damned difficult in the moment, especially since Graham was being continually underestimated because she was the rare woman commanding a sizable media organization.

Streep may be the standout, but Spielberg has the clout to assemble a Murderer’s Row of great actors to fill out the cast. In addition to Hanks’s typically strong work as Bradlee, the film includes a great supporting performance by Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a Post assistant editor who is instrumental in landing the story. In general, there’s admirable commitment from everyone involved — including Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, and Bradley Whitford — investing life into their characters, no matter how brief the screen time. While other directors might have settled for useful cogs in the machine to help keep the complex plot chugging along, Spielberg makes certain these are full-fledged people moving in and out of the scenes. Largely because of this insistence on developing a world with in the film, the stakes stay high.

Of course, I mean the stakes stay high dramatically. Then, as now, the dangers to the republic couldn’t be starker. If Spielberg sometimes underlines that point a touch too forcefully, he can hardly be blamed for such a minor infraction against cinematic restraint. When ringing alarm bells, it’s not advisable to muffle the sound.

From the Archive: Munich

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Image take from the invaluable CineMaterial

I find it a little remarkable that I have no reviews of Steven Spielberg films from the time I cohosted the movie review show on college radio station WWSP-90FM. During the time our program was airing weekly, the prolific filmmaker signed his name to exactly one directorial effort: Hook, released in 1991. Given when it landed on the release calendar, it’s possible we didn’t even cover it on the show. (A December 11th release date means we could have already been off in correlation to the school’s winter break). Instead, in order to populate the “From the Archive” feature with a Spielberg film in symmetry with the release of his latest, I need to look an early stretch of my web-placed review writing, when I was still very much in the process of rediscovering my voice. 

I don’t give a damn about Steven Spielberg’s political views on Israel.

The director has spent the past several weeks seeing his name get furiously scrawled across op-ed pages in connection with his new movie Munich, which finds a starting point with the cold-blooded killing of eleven Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September at the 1972 Olympics. The bulk of the film dramatizes the efforts of a crew of Israeli operatives who conduct a clandestine mission of vengeance, hunting and assassinating those individuals connected to the “Munich massacre.” Spielberg has faced criticism from all sides as frothing pundits look into the Rorschach test of the film and come away convinced that they’ve seen whatever will anger them the most. The film is too pro-Israel, or not pro-Israel enough, or too soft to take a stand one way or another on the conflict.

The reason that I don’t care is that Spielberg’s views, whatever they might be, are beside the point. No, they’re so far removed from the point that they’re in a completely different theater in the multiplex. Perhaps enjoying themselves by watching Steve Martin pretend he can waterski. Oh, Steve Martin, you befuddled, monstrously potent middle-aged dad!

Spielberg’s new film, it seems to me, has little to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Certainly viewpoints are expressed and examined, and details of the conflict get a sufficient airing, but, in many ways, this movie could have been made about any ongoing, bloody war of wills. Spielberg is not trying to make a film that offers a detailed analysis of a particular region’s difficulties, providing judgments or solutions for the geopolitical skirmishes of the day. He is getting at something more general, and maybe more important. He uses this piece of history and this unsolvable, unending battle as a means to comment on the futility of violent acts. Spielberg’s thesis is stated repeatedly in the smart screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth: the back-and-forth retribution does not lead to any sort of ending, certainly not one with any sense of peace. Eventually, the war will no longer be about land or freedom or whatever provoked it in the first place. It will be about nothing more than punishing the other side for all the punishment that they themselves have delivered, and clinging to the myth of moral superiority to preserve some self-justification and keep the turbine of stone-cold retaliation spinning.

This is a movie, not a doctoral thesis, so there are some components distinct to the form worth considering. On that front, Spielberg is the most sure-footed he’s been since the last time he had to make space on his shelf for a shiny new Oscar. He constructs the film with watchmaker precision; comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock have been plentiful and apt. There’s real tension here, in the machinery of the assassinations and also in the moral arguments between the principle characters. It may seem a talky film to some, but hearing intelligent conversation delivered with passion is one of the reasons that I go to the movies. The entire cast is quite strong, especially Ciaran Hinds (that’s Julius Caeser to you) as a member of the Israeli crew who is clinging to his humanity through steadfastly insisting upon examining the moral quandary inherent to the task he’s taken on.

Munich may not be the best name for the film. It’s not really about the specific incident from 1972. That is just a starting point, an instigation, and a spectre that haunts the Israeli operatives, a reminder that they themselves can be transformed from assassins to targets as quickly as a trigger can be pulled. If only the film could have borrowed the title of David Cronenberg’s 2005 release. Spielberg gives us a history of violence, alright. And reminds us of the cold, hard truth that it’s a history that will not likely reach a happy endpoint.

We don’t know the meaning of fear, we play every minute by ear

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Amazingly for a director who used to routinely face a barrage of critical darts for a supposed inability to progress past the childish stuff of frothy fantasy, Steven Spielberg has become one of the most dependable cinematic chroniclers of the planet’s tumultuous history. Across the last decade, with the odd exceptions of a misguided Indiana Jones sequel and a diversion into computer animation, Spielberg has been filming in the past. That’s not an entirely newfound preoccupation, of course. Even before Munich, which I’m using as the dividing line ahead of this era of Spileberg’s filmmaking, Spielberg kept cycling back to historical material to shape his onscreen fictions. The two Best Directing Academy Awards on his shelf — and how bizarre to think his lack of Oscar attention was borderline scandalous at one point — are both for films set during World War II, after all. Increasingly, though, even as he signs on to very different projects, it seems Spielberg is at his most clearly engaged when finding some piece of the American past that can help his contextualize his misgivings about the present.

His latest, Bridge of Spies, begins with the introduction of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a fairly unassuming man in Brooklyn during the chilliest phase of the Cold War. The mundane disposition isn’t a front, but it’s helpful for Rudolf’s main occupation: spying on the United States for the Russians. When he’s captured, the concern to give the appearance of a fair trial leads to the recruitment of defense attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who’s primarily working with tax law but has some relevant, upstanding professional history working at the Nuremberg Trials. James is supposed to put on a good show, but he’s committed to seeing through his task with the full weight of honest practice of the law, despite obvious disinclination of those running to system to honor his fully grounded complaints about abuses of process. This is when the film is at its most pointed, drawing a straight line from the destructive disregards of the liberty and protections that are purported to the be the foundation needing protection and similar infraction happening today in the name of the so-called War on Terror. It helps that the flinty, understated performance of Rylance is the best attribute of Bridge of Spies.

Spielberg has basically clumped two films together, and they don’t actually cohere all that well. After the first portion of the film concerns itself with James’s defense of Rudolf, in the face of overwhelming animosity among the general populace, the second chunk is immersed in the fitful amateur diplomacy of Donovan, at the unofficial behest of the U.S. government, as he negotiates a trade of Rudolf for a pair of U.S. citizens held on the wrong side of the rapidly developing Berlin Wall. This is a film made by and for the Spielberg that evidently reads John le Carré novels on long plane flights, all enamored with the musty, minor details of flawed men playing at geopolitical intrigue. It’s adequate but not all that engaging, with Spielberg’s usual deft touch turning a little clumsy as he drags out sequences with foregone conclusions, achieving added length rather than the intended suspense. He has an especially unfortunate storytelling tic of linking scenes with ham-fisted visual signifiers, such as cutting from a courtroom command of “All rise” to schoolchildren springing to the their feet for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Bridge of Spies offers worthy contributions to the distracted discourse over the pathways currently followed by the nation. Unfortunately, it does so in a manner that is drab and even occasionally clumsy, showing markedly little evidence of Spielberg’s duly vaunted narrative command or his underappreciated creative daring, even as his compunction to add heavy punctuation to key scenes remains firmly in place. Sadly, that last quality is only accentuated by the thickly manipulative score of Thomas Newman, engaged in the perhaps impossible task of stepping in as the first person to try to replace John Williams, Spielberg’s musical collaborator for practically his entire career. It’s just one more heavy chip in the veneer of the piece that contributes to the diminishment of Bridge of Spies from shrewdly rewarding art to merely a decent movie.

From the Archive: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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With all my papers still packed up for transit, I’m still relying on my former online home for this weekly dive into the archive. And we’ll use this week’s release schedule to help narrow down what’s selected. The first portion of this review is probably one of the most personal things I’ve ever put to digital paper. Which isn’t saying much, I know. Still, that’s about as close as I come to cracking myself open. 

I thought I might feel unduly strong emotions watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The prior installments of the Steven Spielberg-directed film series loom large in my moviegoing history. It will surprise no one who clicks around this Webspace that I was a big movie fan as a kid, finding trips to the theater to be daunting and, yes, magical. Since the ever-shifting duo that represented my parents was, at best, indifferent to these desires, the task of providing my occasional cinematic excursions fell to my generous grandfather. This despite the fact that he didn’t especially care for movies. He had a generational fondness for westerns, but didn’t seek them out–in active release or the convenience of Saturday afternoon cable showings–but otherwise nothing fictional carried much appeal for the pragmatic carpenter. I can’t imagine how uninteresting the Disney fluff, Bugs Bunny compilations and Charlie Brown features he endured for me must have been to him.

I was eleven-years-old when Raiders of the Lost Ark was released and it seemed I had the first film I actively wanted to see that he may actually enjoy. Months after it first whipcracked into theaters, we saw it together and my suspicions proved correct. From then on, I fervently watched Siskel and Ebert through their various television derivations (they were still on PBS when Raiders was released), trying to glean what other new features might make for a good moviegoing trip for us. The one thing that was always certain was our attendance at the Indiana Jones sequels. Temple of Doom we saw immediately, and I made a special trip back from the city I was attending college so we could see Last Crusade together. These films, made for the masses, were ours, the one creation that the media-obsessed boy and the man who was more grounded in the world could dependably come together and enjoy in the dark of the theater.

My grandfather died fifteen years ago. Now, here finally is the fourth film and the prospect of seeing it without him at my side has been strange at, and times, unbearably sad. The first time I saw the trailer for Crystal Skull, I actually got choked up a bit. I wasn’t at all confident that I could see it without some overwhelming feelings, a constant sense of who was missing. My speculation proved unfounded. It was not a particularly emotional experience. It was just a movie. And not a very good one at that.

Nineteen years after Indiana Jones concluded an adventure by literally riding into the sunset, seemingly a perfect close for a film series wonderfully enamored with the charms of traditional Hollywood legend and thrillmaking, the remaining chief collaborators of the original trilogy have reassembled. The film takes place in 1957, allowing Dr. Jones to be an age befitting the fact that star Harrison Ford’s 65th birthday has come and gone (he’s around the age my grandfather was when we watched Last Crusade together). The plot will be plenty familiar to anyone whose seen a prior outing or any of the myriad of films in recent years that owe a debt to Indy films. There is a mysterious, legendary object that opposing forces are racing to acquire, great power promised to the possessor. There are puzzles to solve and great distances to cross in order to pinball around exotic locales enhanced by busy CGI. Granted, there’s no reason to reinvent the structure at this point, so it becomes a question of style and execution.

Steven Spielberg remains a director of consummate skill. His ability to structure shots and choreograph scenes is nearly without peer, especially in the deceptively simple sequences. The film begins with an extended scene involving hot rodding teenagers coming upon a caravan of military vehicles, a deceptively mundane sequence compared to the cliffhanger derring do that dominates the film. In Spielberg’s hands, however, it’s a tutorial in the mechanics of filmmaking. Simple establishing shots are artfully created, visually interesting without being stiff compositions, demonstrating the care that can go into every frame. Spielberg’s deftness with action sequences remains. There’s nothing here that with enter into the pantheon of great scenes, but at a time when over-edited hash is the rule, Spielberg’s clarity is notable.

The script, on the other hand, is tepid water. Supposedly the lengthy development of the film was largely the result of Spielberg, Ford and producer George Lucas’s inability to find a script they agreed was worthy. If this is truly the result of that quest of high discernment, some of the screenplays relegated to the recycling bin must have been unbearably bad. While the particulars of the central plot has its own issues, the real problem is the weakness of the characterizations. While the film brings back Karen Allen to play Marion Ravenwood, absent since Raiders, there’s no resonance to the comeback. There’s some welcome snappiness to her interplay to Ford, but the characters don’t connect in the way the story requires. To whatever degree we believe in their reunion, it’s only because of affection for the first film, not because there’s anything compelling on screen. It’s not storytelling. It’s simply an exercise in nostalgia.

That’s damaging to the old characters, devastating to the new. Ray Winstone, Shia LaBeouf and Jim Broadbent are all solid enough, but there’s nothing to their characters beyond maybe a whiff of archetype. John Hurt engages in little more than unkempt ranting, which is becoming a new specialty of his, it seems. Then there’s Cate Blanchett as a villainous Russian officer. Initially, it’s highly amusing to see the grandly gifted performer having fun with snarling lines and a moose-und-sqvirrel accent. When it becomes apparent that Spielberg’s post-Schindler’s List aversion to populating these films with cardboard Nazi bad guys hasn’t inspired him to build the Russkie bad guys out of a more multi-faceted substance, the joke wears thin quickly. Rather than enjoying Blanchett’s performance, I found myself thinking about the wasted opportunity. Why hire one of the most compelling actors around and then give her nothing to do but match an accent with her wig?

Wasted opportunities abound in this Indiana Jones. It’s not strictly a comparison with what’s come before that makes it all feel flat. If anything, those old memories bolster this film to a better standing than it deserves on its own merits.

Top Ten Movies of 2012 — Number Ten

As if Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t already deserve countless plaudits for his transformative performance as the sixteenth President of the United States in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, it seems his reluctance to take on the role–noting that reluctance to take on a role is hardly an uncommon situation when it comes to Day-Lewis–helped the director find his way to a version of the project that is somewhat unexpected for him. Rather than a conventional biopic, meticulously and tirelessly tracing the historical figure’s path to greatness, the film focuses sharply on a brief period of time as Lincoln works to win passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, officially abolishing slavery in the country, ahead of the conclusion of the Civil War. There is a tightly controlled examination of the art and ugliness of American politics in Tony Kushner’s screenplay, penned after previous attempts by well-respected writers were discarded, at least in part because they failed to convince Day-Lewis to come aboard the project. The concentrations on the mechanics of lawmaking divert Spielberg from attempts to overly mythologize Lincoln or build showy sweep into the film, resulting in a work that has historical heft and a timelessness that will endure for as long as people need to fight for their freedoms, often in the face of abject bigotry. Sadly, that probably means it will be timeless for ages to come.