Saturday, March 31, 2018

Ready Player One *** (2018)

Although Ready Player One can sometimes feel strained and self indulgent, there's enough visual artistry to induce a hypnotic (or tranquilizing) effect. The year is 2045 and the world's in a quasi-dystopia. Extreme poverty and housing shortages are offset by the Oasis, a virtual reality world where people pass the time in fantasy. The Oasis is the ultimate bliss out.

The first part of Ready Player One doesn't even feel like a Spielberg film, shot more in the style of George Lucas and the Wachowskis. Few Spielberg films have been so open about his influences. Although it gets off to a slow start, a meaning and logic builds as the film unfolds.

Tye Sheridan stars as Wade, a typical kid obsessed with the computer programmer legend Halliday (Mark Rylance) who created the Oasis, possibly based on Bill Gates, much more so in the novel. Before passing away, Halliday promised a bright future to anyone who could find the three keys hidden in his virtual world. He teams up with Samantha (Olivia Cooke) who bears a resemblance to 80s icon Lea Thompson who starred in Back to the Future. In time, others join the team in a Matrix/Wizard of Oz quest. 

Some of the set pieces work, while others drown you in CGI labyrinths. A car race plays like an homage to the work of George Lucas, more THX-1138 than Phantom Menace. A parody of The Shining is by far the most stunning set piece. As Ready Player One moves closer to the climax it starts to feel more like a Spielberg film, echoes of E.T. and the Indiana Jones, even The Sugarland Express.

Mythmaking is the central theme in Ready Player One. What do we remember? Why do we remember it? The digital world of 2045 is all about the 1980s. It was a decade ruled by Spielberg, the wunderkind director of the 1970s, rose to a position of trendsetter in the Eighties. We're now in a cultural moment that longs for the Reagan era. Was it the sense of having avoided a nuclear war? Fond memories of Reagan, a likable president? Or was it the sweet spot decade, before technology began to rule every aspect of life? Does it just look cooler now?

It's fair to say we're now in the late era of Spielberg's career (although Clint Eastwood hit a stride in his 70s) so that makes Ready Player One a movie that will be closely analyzed. There's a sense of finality to it, as if he will never revisit the special effects extravaganza terrain again. All of his usual themes are present, a rehash of a rehash, adding a hint of sadness to the whole enterprise. Just as aging Star Wars fans felt betrayed by The Last Jedi, Spielberg's telling us we'll never know the sense of wonder of his earlier work. But we can think of new possibilities in cinema.

Always in tune with changing audience tastes, Spielberg has made his most special effects heavy, unabashedly CGI intense movie. Yet there is still meaning and irony because the story's old fashioned. It's a hopeful film in the end; environments, technologies, economies all shift, but the human need for stories and narrative will never go away.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Unsane ***1/2 (2018)

Steven Soderbergh's new thriller Unsane is unsettling, suspenseful, and well acted. Claire Foy stars as a women evading a stalker who finds herself in an even more terrifying scenario. Shot on an I-Phone with a minimal crew, Unsane is a throwback to Soderbergh's earlier work, and also experiments with thriller genre conventions, proving cinema and narrative tricks never get old. 

About halfway through the film Matt Damon appears in a cameo as a security expert who helps stalker victims, the sequence packs all the paranoia of the lead character into crystal clear perspective. Soderbergh ties a story knot that begins when we meet Sawyer, a young professional going about her daily routine, grinding through her work morning, talking to her Mom on Skype during lunch, and going out at night. Sawyer meets a guy at the bar for a casual hook up, but she collapses into tears when they get back to her apartment suggesting a past trauma. The pacing and editing of these scenes are flawless.

Sawyer visits a therapist and makes an unfortunate revelation and is required to stay in a psychiatric ward for a week. We feel the terror and frustration and sense of losing freedom, as Sawyer's surrounded by mentally unstable people. She learns hospitals and insurance companies are running a scam to commit someone to an asylum under shady pretenses. She befriends a fellow inmate Nate (Jay Pharoah) who's also there against his will. In time Sawyer suspects her former stalker David (Joshus Leonard) is employed by the hospital as a nurse. In desperation, Sawyer contacts her Mom (Amy Irving) to come to her rescue.

Soderbergh makes the film thriller work on multiple levels. The cat and mouse stalker concept is terrifying enough, but there's also the fear of the health care system exploiting people. Foy and Pharoah give top notch performances and also inject humor. As is Soderbergh's trademark, the narrative unfolds in a crooked pattern to maximum effect. 

The claustrophobia of Unsane is the most unsettling aspect. There's the sense that all of us are being stalked and I suspect you'll walk out of the theater feeling paranoid. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

The 15:17 To Paris *** (2018)

Clint Eastwood's The 15:17 to Paris was released with little fanfare and generally dismissed by critics, judging by its Rotten Tomatoes Rating. As Marvel Movies reign over the Box Office, Eastwood's quiet study of heroism completes a sort of trilogy he began with American Sniper and Sully. Here he takes an experimental approach, casting non-professional actors who recreate their role in stopping a terrorist attack on a commute from Amsterdam to Paris.

Eastwood cast the three men who thrawted the terrorist attack to recreate their roles in an inspired bit of casting. The three actors Anthony Sadler, Alex Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone are all believable, slightly mechanical at times, but they do bring a layer of verisimilitude missing from many motion pictures. 

The first half of the film recounts their friendship when the three met in Middle School, all natives of Sacramento. All three attended a Christian School and grew up religious and patriotic. Eastwood never hits us over the head with their Christianity, there's one scene featuring a prayer, but things never get heavy handed. Unlike "faith based" films, Eastwood never proselytizes to his audience.

Once they grew up, two enlist in the military and one goes to college. They agree to meet in Germany for a vacation. Their tour of Europe goes fine until they head to Paris, a city they are repeatedly warned not to visit. 

Eastwood films the attack scene without fanfare or panache, the fight is brutal, yet never graphic. The three of them stopped a gunman who could've killed a number of people on the train, becoming heroes and were the toast of France for a time in the summer of 2015. 

The 15:17 To Paris is a subtle study of real life heroism with fanfare or flashy style. Mr. Eastwood goes against the grain here - reminding us any one can be brave and take action at the right moment. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

I, Tonya (2017) ***

While I, Tonya has little to say that's not already been said before on fame in America, there's enough paint thrown on the wall to make it a compelling film. Everyone who was alive in 1994 remembers the melodrama of Tonya and Nancy, one of the pop culture events of the decade. A mockery of the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mythology, I Tonya is kept afloat through its passionate performances. 

A movie in two acts; the first is 90s pop song heavy as it traces Harding's unlikely rise in the figure skating world. She grew up, in her own words, in "white trash" rural Oregon. Her mother Lavona, played by Allison Janney in an Oscar Winning performance, encourages Tonya to skate, but treats her like garbage. A graduate from the school of tough love, she makes Mommy Dearest look like Mary Poppins. Verbal and physical abuse are recurring motifs. Tanya's husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) also mistreats her in another dysfunctional relationship. There's an almost Scorsese quality to the first part of the movie, but then I, Tonya becomes more of a conventional melodrama,  a dreary tale on the fickleness of these characters and their world. 

Everyone knows about the incident when someone in Harding's camp orchestrated an attack on Nancy Kerrigan's knee. Most of the last 45 minutes examines the aftermath and suggests Tonya had no knowledge of the plot. Margot Robbie provided a humanity to Harding in her performance. The skating scenes are well shot and even exciting at times. Stan plays the ultimate skeevy guy. Paul Walter Hauser provides comic relief as her dim bodyguard Shawn, a sort of poor man's Hurley from Lost

I, Tonya succeeds at times as a satire on the American dream, but also holds back in favor of sentiment with mixed results. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Greatest Showman (2017) **

The Greatest Showman goes to absurd lengths to be a feel good movie and judging by audience reaction it's been a roaring success - despite its insincere tone. Released at the tail end of 2017, Showman started out slow but gained momentum with each weekend, an anomaly these days. Although the cast is having fun, there's an unsettling disingenuous to the whole enterprise. 

Hugh Jackman stars as self promoter P.T. Barnum, a pivotal figure in the consciousness of 19th century America. A character straight from Horatio Alger, a mythology the musical upholds to the ninth degree, an entrepreneur who captured the attention of the world with his various curiosities, wetting the public's appetite for the bizarre. The musical suggests Barnum headed a progressive community of outcasts who managed to win the hearts and minds of all they encountered. 

After a stirring opening number straight from A Chorus Line, the film becomes a series of set pieces that trace the rise and eventual global notoriety of Barnum. The songs are unremarkable and the look of the film is CGI artificial. The sequences look like they were pulled from other films, typically featuring Barnum's stable of freaks as backup singers.

While there's a few hints of Barnum's unsavory business practices, for the most part Jackman plays him as a puritanical visionary completely in sync with 21st century cultural mores. The bearded lady, the 500 lb man, General Tom Thumb, all worship Barnum as their savior and benefactor. Michelle Williams is given little to do except play the adoring wife. Zac Efron gets a nothing role as Barnum's partner Phillip Carlyle. All of it fails to ring true. More Disney commercial than movie.  

At best, The Greatest Showman will generate interest in Barnum and in the hands of a capable filmmaker there's a wealth of rich material to explore. There are some nice moments. Rebecca Ferguson as opera singer Jenny Lind who joined Barnum takes over the middle of the film, Jackman is a charming enough screen presence, and the old fashioned style is sustainable, but ultimately, disappointing.