Ready Player One
Dir. Steven Spielberg
So often I hear complaints from people: "Hollywood doesn't make original ideas anymore!" Yet, like flies to a light, these same whiners continually pack in to see the hundredth mindless Marvel, Star Wars, or Harry Potter movie. We're a culture obsessed with nostalgia and the past, and Ready Player One, based on the popular book by Ernest Cline, both celebrates and criticizes this very notion. It's both a blast from the past, a dazzling action flick filled top to bottom with pop culture references rewarding the mindless absorption of decades-worth of movies and video games, but it also argues not to lose sight of our connections in the real world.
Set in 2045, the film follows the unlikely hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who lives in Columbus, Ohio in the "stacks": a city of trailers stacked on top of each other like makeshift skyscrapers. While Wade's outside world is a poverty-stricken trash-heap, he finds his "escape" through the OASIS, a virtual reality world where you can be anyone you want to be. The OASIS was created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance), obsessed with 1980s pop culture and recreating his childhood. Before Halliday's death, he posed a contest to all the players in the OASIS: the first person to find his hidden "Easter Egg" would be granted his immense fortune. Shady companies like the IOI, run by the tyrannical, out-of-touch Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), have failed for 4 years to find it - but the unassuming Wade makes the first major discovery towards the egg, and the film is essentially his race against the establishment to find it with his ragtag group of virtual reality friends.
While the story is very simplistic and childishly "black and white," Steven Spielberg creates an amazingly detailed world, fast-paced action scenes, and fun characters to hang around. While his recent output has stuck to stuffy historical dramas like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, Spielberg goes back to his roots here of going on a whimsical, fast-paced adventure. There's a racing sequence early in the film that is probably my favorite Spielberg scene in at least a decade. The sheer amount of CGI and name-brand characters milling about can be sensory-overload at times (not unlike The LEGO Movie), but it will definitely reward multiple viewings.
I never found the "references" annoying unlike some other reviewers, instead I found they perfectly fit into this world; of course people would want to play as their favorite movie/game characters in the OASIS! I took the bait - I loved living in this insanely populated pop culture world for 2.5 hours, filled with imagery I never expected to see. There's an unbelievably awesome scene that somehow perfectly recreates a classic 80s horror movie in a virtual reality setting, and there's a 3-way battle between three "giant" monsters that is more joyous than anything in the latest Transformers or Godzilla movies.
Though I really enjoyed myself, it's not a flawless movie. My biggest complaint with the film lies with the romance at its center. In the book, both Wade and his virtual girl-crush "Artemis" (Olivia Cooke) are not described as being conventionally pretty. The idea that in the OASIS, you project who you want to be, but in doing so you lose part of the real "you," was a major theme in the novel. However, by casting Tye Sheridan as Wade and Olivia Cooke as Artemis, two relatively good-looking Hollywood actors, that theme gets muddled and loses its impact.
Although it runs through some eye-rolling 80s cliches (including casting beautiful people as "unattractive"), Ready Player One is a fun ride. It's Willy Wonka for the "VR" generation. Steven Spielberg managed to recapture the spirit of his 80s movies again for a new generation, adapting a book for the screen incredibly smoothly considering how dense the world-building in the story is. It's hard to say if someone "illiterate" in pop culture would get much enjoyment out of it, but personally, I can't wait to put another quarter into this one and play it again!
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Between Sean Baker's Tangerine and now Steven Soderbergh's Unsane, we might be at the beginning of an "iPhone-aissance." Shot entirely using an Apple iPhone, Steven Soderbergh's new thriller proves that you don't need to pull a "Christopher Nolan" to make a beautiful-looking movie.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a young businesswoman who recently moved to Pennsylvania to escape a man who's been stalking her for two years. After having a mental breakdown during a date, she seeks a support group for victims at a nearby hosptial. However, after a brief consultation, Sawyer unwittingly signs herself into committing to 24 hours inside a mental institution. Once inside, the doctors start questioning her sanity despite her pleading, and soon Sawyer starts believing one of the workers is her stalker. Is Sawyer an innocent victim in a dangerous situation, or is she really crazy?
I was afraid that Unsane would spend its entire run time asking the audience the above question, but I was happy it came to a definitive conclusion early on (spoiler: it's in the title). In addition to being a genuinely creepy horror movie, it raises a lot of concerns regarding how mental health facilities operate (sadly, I could imagine this situation happening!), and also ties in to the recent "me too" movement. It happens all too often that women are labelled "crazy" when they say they're being sexually harassed, and this movie literalizes that fear.
While certain events were a bit too conveniently coincidental, overall I really enjoyed this movie! Foy gives a great performance, and the iPhone cinematography lends itself perfectly to the "voyeuristic" atmosphere of the film (after all, a stalker would probably use an iPhone to capture his victims). Recommended!
Dir. Eli Roth
Death Wish was either released at the worst or best possible time depending on how you think about it. Just 2 weeks after the Florida school shooting, Eli Roth's movie about a hooded vigilante going around shooting criminals felt somewhat in poor taste. But maybe that's just what we need - perhaps Death Wish can be the catalyst for a conversation about gun ownership and responsibility. Eh, not really, it's just a trashy thriller.
The story follows Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), a surgeon from Chicago who often sees the consequences of violence roll into the ER. However, push comes to shove when his own wife and daughter become victims of the city's crime, and soon Kersey, obsessed with delivering violent, vigilante justice against the perpetrators, transforms into a cut-rate Punisher. While going around, killing the "bad guys," he becomes a social media sensation - to some a "guardian angel," and to others a "grim reaper."
While that moral conflict is fascinating (and the basis of most superhero films), Death Wish does almost nothing to criticize Willis's gun obsession. The closest it gets is the random intercutting of radio hosts like "Sway in the Morning" commenting on his recent exploits. Not helping matters is Bruce Willis's completely flat performance. I don't know what's happened to Bruce Willis or his career, but he is absolutely phoning it in with this one. There's one scene where he's upset over his friend dying, and had you attached a tennis ball to a stick it would have emoted more.
Although it doesn't do much new or interesting, Death Wish is a perfect "cable" movie. It's a competently-made revenge thriller and nothing more, nothing less. People are in a liberal tizzy over this movie even though it's essentially the same exact idea as the first Death Wish modernized for the "social media" generation. If you're looking for some cheap trash to put on in the background as you do household chores, you could do worse!
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Dir. Cory Finley
Originally planned as a stage play from young playwright Cory Finley, this dark "comedy" was picked up by screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendents) and instead became Finley's directorial debut. Thoroughbreds premiered at Sundance in time for Finley's 28th birthday, reaffirming how little I'm actually doing with my life. It's also notable for being the final screen appearance of Anton Yelchin, who tragically died at the age of 27 from being crushed in his driveway by his SUV. He was a major talent who had an amazing career ahead of him, and it really shows in his final performance.
The film follows two upper-class high school girls in Connecticut: the borderline-sociopathic Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and the super-preppy Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy). Both are social outcasts and come together with the same plan: to murder Lily's asshole stepfather. They decide to hire/blackmail Tim (Yelchin), a pathetic, ambitious drug dealer, to do the deed, and things get messy from there.
I really liked the performances here (between this and Ready Player One Olivia Cooke is having a great year so far) and the dark humor was laid on thick throughout. This movie satirizes the upper class in some clever ways - like at the dinner table, the stepfather has only a "protein shake" on his plate instead of a meal. Cooke is inimitably watchable as the "unstable" one, but Yelchin steals the show as the manic low-time criminal who is in way over his head. The tone of this movie is all over the place, seamlessly moving from dark comedy to pure horror, and feels like a very unique new voice in film in being established.
While the premise is very "Heathers" (which the poster mentions twice), this movie wasn't quite as sharp or insightful. It's a little unclear what exactly Finley wants to say with this movie regarding upper-class culture or the "idle" rich, but it is a strange enough journey to recommend checking it out.
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