Archive for July 2018

Ready Player One

July 29, 2018

rpoI lasted about two pages into Ernest Cline’s geek-friendly novel Ready Player One. The book’s voice was just too obnoxiously steeped in trivia, with nothing really to say about the pop-culture landmarks it referenced and/or used. I remember thinking “There are so many good or great books yet to read, and I’m going to spend my dwindling sentient time on this?,” and back to the library it went. The movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, promised to be the same only flashier and louder, yet Spielberg has performed an act of alchemy similar to the upgrade he administered to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The voice is still there, but here it just serves to help Spielberg move the story along. As with the Jaws novel, Spielberg keeps what works and circular-files what doesn’t.

The result is a juicy wad of bubblegum entertainment, visually antic and immersive without feeling assaultive, fast-paced without feeling rushed. If Spielberg is using the pace so as to deny us time to think about the flaws, he certainly does it successfully. The many pop references from the ‘80s (and some from later, like the Iron Giant) are merely part of the background fabric; you can conceivably not be familiar with any of the cameos, callbacks and in-jokes at all and still follow the basic throughline, which is that young protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) seeks to win a contest that can buy him out of his poverty and prove he’s somebody. Reading that description, you wouldn’t know that the story is set in 2045 or that much of the action takes place in a virtual-reality game world.

Ernest Cline might be high on the underarm fumes of his childhood, but he lucked into one of the basic satisfying narratives, and Spielberg zeroes in on it. Of course, Spielberg is part of the pop culture that Ready Player One and most of its characters lionize. His perhaps unavoidable acknowledgments of this fact are limited to eyeblink images. Wade, aka Parzival in the game world OASIS, must find three keys relevant to the sad past of the late game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the cocreator of OASIS and author of the contest. Rylance files yet another ace performance as a man who speaks haltingly and has complex emotions and feelings of guilt and waste. Some have read Spielberg’s friend George Lucas into Halliday. I don’t disagree.

Most of what we’re looking at in Ready Player One is computer-generated animation mapped onto greenscreened bare sets, but Spielberg manages to suggest it all exists physically and gives it heft, the sound of weight. Editor Michael Kahn (assisted, as on Spielberg’s The Post, by Sarah Broshar) gets the constantly moving images and compositions to click together into action sequences with momentum and even poetry; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drops his usual desaturated muck and helps the movie look like one of the sleeker examples of the ‘80s blockbusters it wants to be. I’m a sap, but Ready Player One won me over right out of the gate — Van Halen’s “Jump” ushered me back to the summer of 1984, to an age (thirteen passing into fourteen) at which I would most have appreciated the movie. (’84 was also the summer of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) The soundtrack is a mix of I-love-the-’80s Spotify playlist and Alan Silvestri’s sweeping score — Silvestri was around back then and knows what an ’80s fantasy should sound like.

Can nostalgia be trusted? It’s as valid an emotional response as any other, and you’re free to take or leave it. Steven Spielberg is still probably the most powerful director in Hollywood, but he’s lost a step or two — he almost couldn’t get Lincoln made. So Ready Player One is partly a trip back to the era where Spielberg was truly master of the universe. Back then, not many people questioned why the hero should be a white male and not a female (Olivia Cooke as Wade’s teammate and love interest Art3mis) or a black lesbian (Lena Waithe as Wade’s best friend Aich) or Asian (Daito and Sho). That aspect of the narrative makes the movie feel retro in annoying ways, but that’s also the cost of watching actual ‘80s movies.

Aich, Daito and Sho almost seem like Spielberg’s stab at atoning for The Color Purple (a movie he would not get to make today, and rightly so¹) and Short Round. Look at the movie long enough and close enough and you might start to imagine it’s as much about apology as celebration. The director who shot Jaws in the ocean because a studio tank would be too fake now makes movies almost entirely on a digital canvas like every other blockbuster director, and he’s partly responsible for why we’ve wound up in a place where our eyes no longer believe reality in movies. Tom Cruise risks his neck doing stunts, and we shrug now because it can just as easily be faked with CG. It’s really him, it’s not really him — who cares? This movie’s message, “Reality is real” (to be fair, a Cline-ism), comes to seem less a bromide than a plea.

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¹But in 1985 it could hardly have been made by a Cheryl Dunye or even an Ava DuVernay, so Spielberg at the height of his powers got the thing made, to the joy of some and the dismay of others, and he didn’t do all that bad of a job of it, considering he was not many readers’ first or hundredth choice to adapt it. But in 2018 there’d be no excuse not to give a new film based on the Alice Walker novel to a gay woman of color to direct.

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You Were Never Really Here

July 22, 2018

youwereneverLynne Ramsay’s filmmaking in You Were Never Really Here is gorgeously precise. We feel there isn’t a shot or an image that isn’t there for some reason, though the reason may not at first present itself. The spare narrative follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), who, after stints in the Marines and the FBI, has fallen — backwards or sideways — into being a hired gun, or hired hammer (his weapon of choice). Joe seems to specialize in rescuing trafficked girls, and oblique flashbacks tell the story of male predators abusing women and children — in Joe’s lines of work and also in his own childhood. He lives with his mother in a modest home, and sings “A, You’re Adorable” with her in the same cracked, mumbly voice in which he accepts his bloody, lonely missions.

Who is the “you” in You Were Never Really Here? The title might be Joe’s self-admonition — he’s atoning for the crucial times he wasn’t there, wasn’t able to help. But the movie exists more as a tone poem than as a psychological portrait or, heaven knows, a plot. It’s about Joe burning a photo, tossing it into a trash bin, and then extinguishing its flame by dropping a Bible on it. It’s about how Joe and an adversary pause, on their backs, and sing “I’ve Never Been to Me” along with the radio as the assailant bleeds out and reaches for Joe’s hand — and Joe accepts it. That one image says more about what Christianity should be than a lot of the Bible does. Religions, or just male-dominated systems, put out our light.

Phoenix is, as usual, committed and intense, with pockets of warmth and even humor that Joe shares with his mother (played by Judith Roberts, who was Beautiful Woman Across the Hall in David Lynch’s Eraserhead and is still, in her eighties, a striking woman). He does much to drain out the stagnant water of the Assassin’s Heart Restored by the Innocence of Children trope, which gets trotted out every so often (previous offender: Proud Mary with Taraji P. Henson). He’s credible as a broken man, bulky verging on flabby, who has some large and clear holes in his humanity. All Joe has left is a kind of chivalry, which ironically involves thinking of females young and old as frail creatures needing a guardian — baby birds protected from wolves by another wolf. I’m pretty sure Lynne Ramsay, as a woman, is critiquing this notion yet, as an artist, is entering into complicity with it the better to swim around in it, understand it, express it.

The story, adapted from a Jonathan Ames novella, involves a conspiracy reaching from the gutter to the senate; if handled another way it could play as an untold Sin City story, with Joe as yet another violent white knight turning human dragons into inky smears on tenement floors. Put another way, You Were Never Really Here is what Sin City might have been if an artist, not just an entertainer, had gotten her hands on it (not necessarily better or worse, I should add, just radically different). Both treatments of the essence of the story wind back to the bitter black heart of noir, though this film is so stripped down Joe doesn’t even have a dame — romantically, anyway — to throw it all over for; the closest thing he has is Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenager he has to rescue from the dragon.

Ramsay’s images spark the damnedest connections. A close-up of a woman’s bare soles reminded me of “If her horny feet protrude, they come/To show how cold she is, and dumb.” From there I wondered if Joe was the Emperor of Ice-Cream himself, bringer of death, master of the impermanent. Meanwhile, the emotional import of the scene — and it’s supposed to be a big one — passed me right by. You Were Never Really Here is a riff on a theme, a playpen for the mind and senses, but it likely won’t engage anyone’s heart — Nina is such a flat-affect blank there’s no rapport between her and her savior. But then that could be intentional as well, and thematically appropriate. It’s terrible that it takes artists like Lynne Ramsay so long between getting funding for projects — this is her first film since We Need to Talk About Kevin seven years ago, after leaving Jane Got a Gun in 2013 — because we could use a lot more movies like hers that tickle areas of our brains that usually aren’t touched.

Isle of Dogs

July 15, 2018

isleofdogsWes Anderson’s stop-motion fantasy Isle of Dogs supposedly unfolds in a futuristic Japan, but it really takes place in one of the many neat boxes in Anderson’s head. And yet Anderson’s characters always yearn to escape their boxes. In Isle of Dogs, the mayor of the fictitious Megasaki City commands that all dogs, supposedly infected with a species-jumping flu, be shipped off to Trash Island and mostly left to fend for themselves. The story begins when the mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), flies a rickety plane over to the island to find and rescue his “bodyguard dog” Spots (Liev Schreiber). Atari encounters a pack of dogs who agree, mostly, to help him find Spots.

Like Anderson’s maiden voyage in stop-motion, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs owes itself to a great many craftspeople besides Anderson, chief among them animation director Mark Waring, who worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox and a couple of Tim Burton’s stop-mo projects. Anderson also shares this story’s credit with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman as well as Kunichi Nomura (voice of the dog-hating mayor). Yet the movie always feels utterly Anderson. Some read his style as rigid or controlling, which it can be, but again, thematically the films are most often about breaking out of the confines of one’s situation, family, location; essentially, Anderson’s characters rebel against him.

At this point, when Anderson does stop-motion, it’s the purest expression of what he strives to do in live-action, screamingly symmetrical, not a hair out of place, etc. In stop-motion, even the hair out of place is out of place for an aesthetic reason; the use of real fur in stop-motion is usually a no-no because it won’t stay reliably still and the eye can catch it moving from frame to frame, but Anderson loves that effect, so the characters are covered in fur. Thus: chaos inside obsessive order. When the dogs in Isle of Dogs get in scraps, they kick up cartoonish dust clouds rendered in cotton. Steam coming out of the nostrils of an angry man looks like string. Using such a clunky, analog style calls attention to the creative workarounds and inventions, but here it also seems like a sly wink at the tech-obsessed entertainment of Japan.

Anderson corrals the usual large cast, though among the dogs, only Bryan Cranston’s battle-weary stray Chief and Jeff Goldblum’s gossip-loving Duke are especially individualized. Nobody in the film really pulls ahead to grab the golden ring as the dominant hero — it seems a team effort, with the American foreign exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig only one of several components in the campaign to free and restore the dogs. (As for charges of cultural appropriation leveled against the movie, I’m partial to Moeko Fujii’s New Yorker defense enumerating various details in the writing or sight gags comprehensible and enjoyable only to Japanese viewers.) The film is also, by virtue of existing in Anderson’s astringent, deadpan reality, the rare dog movie without a drop of maudlin dead-dog bathos. Our young hero buries what he thinks is his beloved dog and moves on.

Isle of Dogs started filming a month before the 2016 election (and was in pre-production long before that), so its echoes of the world in which we now find ourselves — a harmless, loyal population being expelled from a country while politicians lie about them — are coincidental. And Anderson is never much concerned with current affairs. But in his world, two packs of starving dogs at least stop to wonder whether a package of rancid food is worth fighting over, and when the mayor makes a gruff anti-dog statement, he at least gives the floor to a rebuttal. I wouldn’t mind living in a Wes Anderson film: The people there, even the dogs, seem more rational and polite than what we’ve got here. Perhaps that means all of Anderson’s films, even the ones without talking animals, qualify as fantasies.

A Quiet Place

July 8, 2018

quietplaceJohn Krasinski proves with A Quiet Place that he has the chops to direct a tense horror movie — his previous two films as director were more indie ensemble drama pieces — but please, please don’t insist that he now make nothing but horror. It’s clearly not what he’s interested in. A Quiet Place is a family-values fable and a slightly elongated Twilight Zone episode in which, as in Signs and parts of War of the Worlds, the mind-blowing and epic reality of an alien invasion of Earth is whittled down to the experiences of one family surviving out miles away from everything. The ferocious, carnivorous aliens here are blind but have hypersensitive hearing, so any humans hoping to survive have to listen hard and keep quiet. Fortunately, this family already knew American Sign Language — the eldest child and daughter is deaf (and played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds).

Krasinski rewrote a script by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, and maybe we have him to thank for the softer touches, when the family — father Lee (Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), daughter Regan, and son Marcus (Noah Jupe) — try to maintain some moments of leisure and normalcy in this post-apocalyptic world of enforced silence. The kids play Monopoly with crocheted game pieces that won’t make noise; Lee and Evelyn dance to Neil Young via shared earbuds. If you can’t play and dance and hear music every so often, the movie seems to say, what’s the point of survival? This puts it one up on grimmer dystopias whose motto might be Talking Heads’ “This ain’t no party/This ain’t no disco/This ain’t no foolin’ around.”

There certainly has been some foolin’ around, since Evelyn is pregnant and soon to deliver. How this is supposed to work in a defensively soundless world, where the usually loud exertions of childbirth and the shrilling of a newborn would spell death, is best left unpondered. Wikipedia informs me that Lee is an engineer and Evelyn a doctor, neither of which identity is pointed up very much in the movie proper, although we have to assume Evelyn has some medical knowledge and Lee knows his way around electronics. (Most of the film takes place over a year into the alien occupation, yet the family home still has electricity, thanks, we assume, to Dad the Gyro Gearloose.) A Quiet Place is a combo of a fable about a family banding together and a technical exercise that works the nerves, and it worked mine while it flickered in front of me, but it has left me with sense-memories of being jostled and worked over and not much else.

At least M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs had a subtext (loss of faith) and some juicily tormented acting by Mel Gibson. A Quiet Place is technically superb — although Krasinski doesn’t make as much use of sound design as he could have — and its storytelling as well as acting is pared way down. This is, I guess, The Family persevering against The Threat, whatever The Threat is, and The Threat can be whatever you want it to be in these bifurcated times. The movie is as apolitical, finally, as Get Out was political, which is fine, or would be fine in times that didn’t demand that people of conscience take sides. A Quiet Place just takes sides against The Alien, and when you consider to what depressing metaphorical use that could be put by some viewers in this particular atmosphere, you may sigh and conclude that Krasinski has, perhaps shrewdly, made his Threat readable emotionally as something either side of the divide fears.

Krasinski thinks A Quiet Place is “an allegory for parenthood,” and it seems to run on trust that we, collectively, have raised our children to make good decisions and to know what to do when the monsters come. Let’s all hope so. Despite the cathartic tragedy during its climax, the movie has unwavering faith that brains and bravery will win the day. Bonus points for presenting a disabled character who is not “inspirational” but complicated, unhappy, self-blaming — a typical teenage asshole in a lot of ways. That’s not nothing, but it’s not everything, and A Quiet Place has been overpraised by those who see more in it than is there. Ultimately it operates on the old homely Hollywood bromides that have been sold to us as jes’-folks values since there have been movies. Work the land. Keep to yourselves. Keep your head down. Keep quiet.

Die Hard

July 1, 2018

diehard2Die Hard, which turns thirty on July 12, is a big, beautiful, excessive action machine with a thousand moving parts. It’s a jumbo platter; it was somewhat unusual at the time for a summer action film that was relatively real-world grounded — i.e., didn’t involve spaceships or superheroes — to run north of two hours, and somewhere in the third act, when the hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) has that desolate moment in the bathroom picking shards of glass out of his bare feet, the movie begins to feel its length. For a couple of minutes, the film goes soft, as we witness that hoary exchange “Tell my wife I’m sorry”/“You can tell her yourself.” But it’s only one scene, and soon the tension ratchets up again.

Directed by the ill-starred John McTiernan (probably his peak) from a Swiss-watch script by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart, Die Hard feels loaded with high points — it’s as though the filmmakers approached each scene (aside from the aforementioned one) by asking themselves how entertaining they could make it. So many little bits of business have later payoffs (the Rolex! fists with your toes!) that the movie has inspired tons of internet theories (why does McClane pause so long on the line “These guys are mostly European judging by their clothing labels and their [eternal pause] …cigarettes”?). Almost every character with dialogue has something to add to the overall tapestry — Die Hard is full of strictly unnecessary but wholly enjoyable personality.

It helps, of course, that the movie offers Willis (in only his third movie, aside from a couple of early bit parts) at his most vulnerable, relatable, and hungry. Willis has something to prove, that he can be a credible action hero while keeping sight of McClane’s humanity. In opposition to McClane, the meat-and-potatoes cop from New York, Die Hard gives us a cosmopolitan villain — Alan Rickman in his first film, as failed terrorist turned “exceptional thief” Hans Gruber. I generally preferred Rickman when he was able to shoot other, gentler arrows in his quiver, as in Sense and Sensibility or Truly, Madly, Deeply; but there’s no denying the craft, wit, and sheer fun of this, his unofficial Bond villain, a cold-blooded reptile except for when he smiles disdainfully to himself. One of those grins, a quiet response to a bit of snark by team member Theo (Clarence Gilyard), almost seems like a tribute rendered generously by Rickman — if Theo can make this suave scorpion chuckle on the job, he must be funny.

And that’s how it is with everyone in the cast; people constantly pair off and grouse or commiserate. (For a movie with such a rep for brutal action, it derives a lot of its juice from little actor moments.) At times, Die Hard is an L.A. movie the way, say, Taking of Pelham 123 is a New York movie, in that it expresses the soul of the city — many of the supporting characters are out for themselves, capitalizing on the growing crisis at Nakatomi Plaza, where Hans and his polyglot posse invade and take hostages as a cover for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bearer bonds. The movie features not one but two iconic ‘80s assholes, William Atherton as a jackal TV reporter and Paul Gleason as a deputy police chief who stomps onto the scene and immediately gets everything wrong. In the middle of all this is the moron cokehead Ellis (the great Hart Bochner), who swaggers into a meeting with Gruber thinking he’s gonna set all this Eurotrash straight. He won’t. Essentially it’s all down to McClane, the working stiff in a dirty tank top.

The FBI are represented by two combative idiots both named Johnson. The Huey Lewis lookalike on Gruber’s team has the same bland L.A. look as the Nakatomi front desk receptionist he’s replacing. McClane’s estranged wife, Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia), is written and played as a strong woman who doesn’t scare easily (even though the ending strips her of her Rolex and reasserts her identity as wife). Die Hard has so many little throwaways it could qualify as a comedy as easily as an action bonanza or, as many fans insist, a Christmas movie. It generously writes a redemption-through-violence for desk cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), but also includes a smaller one for good ol’ limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White). I’ve used the word “generously” twice now, and that seems to sum up Die Hard as much as any word can. It’s larger than it needs to be (considering it’s practically a one-location thriller), funnier, louder (Michael Kamen’s score bites off big chunks of Beethoven), more human, and sometimes more painful. People get shot and blown up all over the place here and it’s spectacle, nothing to do with us, but we all know what a piece of glass in our flesh feels like.