Ready Player One (2018): Tosses Out the 80s Nostalgia and Focuses on the Modern Internet Landscape

“Ready Player One” wasn’t only directed by wizened whiz-director, Steven Spielberg; it also featured an organic creative process by way of the original author, Ernest Cline, who wrote the screenplay adaption of his beloved sci-fi adventure, along with veteran scribe Zak Penn. It appears that Cline was forced to make some compromises during his journey of bringing “Ready Player One” to the big screen.

The music in the film doesn’t reflect the obsessive admiration that the character of Halliday, the super-wealthy creator of the oasis, had expressed as his favorite band, specifically the group Rush. They didn’t use this important artifact or interest of Holliday’s to advance the hunt.

RPO_TRLR_0173.0

Ernest Cline may have helped buffer or subdue any fan feelings of the film being a poor adaption of the sci-fi novel. By co-writing the film with Penn, Cline takes responsibility for sculpting a script that he feels best encompasses the novel’s overall story, filled with cultural nods spanning back 50 or so years.

The mind-blowing exploration of living and speaking while acting scenes out as the host of a fictional movie character was an exciting part of the book that i would’ve liked to have been able to experience on the big screen. In particular, the book puts a lot of emphasis on Matthew Broderick’s character from the 80s classic film, WarGames, though it never ended up coming to fruition.

Whether or not it’s omission was due to technical limitations or the desire for more narrative clarity, it’s certainly a loss. It was an aspect of the book that was excitingly thought-provoking. There was some pretty high quality CGI effects  used in creating a much younger Kurt Douglass for “Ant-man”; one would imagine that the “Ready Player One” producers could’ve given it a shot.

But, alas, they stuck to a formula that works fine for mainstream audiences but yet doesn’t challenge the industry in either a technical manner or through their patterned, oft-repeated modes of storytelling. All in all, the movie is a fairly flaccid semi-analysis of the modern digital landscape.

I read an excellent analysis of “Ready Player One” that dissects the repeated attitudes regarding young internet entrepreneurs and their desire to remain perpetually innocent, despite the fact that their companies are quickly becoming massive social and economic powerhouses. Very similar to the character traits of Holliday, who Mark Rylance plays as a hesitant, socially awkward, and very isolated human being tracking back to his childhood.

images (3)

The attitude of creating something and then falling back on the nostalgia of working cheaply in compact family garages to build scrappy computers and change the world. But then once they’ve effectively altered the world forever, they fall back on their innocent intent to help the world and spread their honest, beloved creation, which, in this case, is the oasis.

It could also apply to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and many other young tech millionaires/billionaires. Simply because a tech prodigy didn’t intend to harm others with their software, apps, or other inventions, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t help create a balance and a safer environment for all of us to browse the internet without the constant fear or concern over the safety of our personal privacy and data.

The characters are well played with strong gusto and energy, particularly the young group of enthusiastic gunters. The Parzival-Art3mis relationship had an emotional impact and appeared to be molded by genuine emotion, but their will always be complaints regarding the appearance of Art3mis in particular.

We meet Parzival early on – he’s the protagonist, the tourist for the film’s ample universe. But in the novel, Art3mis had shielded her actual appearance from him in fear of not being physically attractive enough in reality.

READY PLAYER ONE

Other than a benign-looking birthmark on her face, she didn’t have any shocking or standout characteristics. It wasn’t a catfish story at all. The actress playing Art3mis, Olivia Cooke, is very, very pretty by all measures. But a blockbuster sci-fi film can’t really linger off into subversiveness and truly tackle some of the most complicated issues (?) of the modern internet world. It was just a regular old love story and I didn’t not like it.

The big bad, played by the deliciously sinister Ben Mendelsohn, who has acted the part of a scummy business man or greedy opportunist to great success in his last few films (particularly as Orson Krennic in “Rogue One”). He’s the unskilled partner out of the trio of former friends: Halliday, Morrow, and Sorrento.

Sorrento was never respected for his mental capabilities, often only serving up coffee and running errands for the busy minds behind the project – Morrow and, mostly, Holliday. He wants to reign in all of the clues and gain the fortune that his “friend” so devilishly left him out of. He maniacally chases after his goal for boundless power and fortune. It’s very entertaining to watch him chew up each scene he’s involved in.

800px-autopx-scale-to-width-down
Nolan Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn, a prototypical go-getter, a perpetually stumped and grumpy-eyed quasi villain seeking the fame and fortune of his deceased quasi mentor, James Holliday.

The final battle is thrilling and entertaining in its scope and spectacle, but it doesn’t quiet reach the frantic heights that the novel set as the standard. The cultural nods are more modern and less related to the character of Holliday and his interests. As a character, Holliday is pretty one-dimensional. A lonely kid turned into a socially-awkward programmer and inventor. His story, the story of his childhood interests and his passions – that was the story of the book. Chasing after the empty memories and gems of Holliday’s past life.

images (2)
Not exactly a culturally iconic character for Holliday, who grew up worshipping the 80s, bit-model arcades, movies, and a specific sort of rock music.

“Ready Player One” was, essentially, an entertaining and diverting adventure through the spectacularly realized world of the oasis. it’s not the same cultural artifact that the book is – it doesn’t explore or expand on any of the very original, unique remixes of past stories and games.

It takes the basic story and accepts that its limitations are one of the best qualities about it, allowing director Steven Spielberg to sculpt the narrative by his own means. The adventure is enough, even if the journey itself doesn’t hit as many clever cultural speed-bumps as a fan of the novel may have hoped for.

Ready Player One articles that I enjoyed: 

https://www.polygon.com/2018/4/3/17192508/ready-player-one-oasis-virtual-world

https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/19/17250892/ready-player-one-book-facebook-internet-dystopia

 

Advertisements

Early Seasons: The Magic and the Thunder

Victor Oladipo, selected second overall by the Orlando Magic in the 1st round – a draft class with a very slim number of future or even current NBA players.

Oladipos public perception may have been impacted, good or bad, by the inadequacy of his draft class. A precedent had been firmly set. Oladipos rookie campaign wasn’t relentlessly dissected in mainstream outlets, although Anthony Bennetts’ weaknesses were splattered in big bold letters all over the media, a failed outcome more titillating than a predictably capable young guard being predictably capable.

If you contrast Oladipo to his fellow draft prospects/peers, such as Anthony Bennett or Ben McLemore, he seems enormous in production and potential – a relative giant.

In Oladipo’s rookie year, his basic per game averages were pretty solid, putting up 13.8 points, 4.1 assists, and 1.6 steals. He played unusually heavy minutes for Orlando, clocking in at 31.1 minutes per night.

He established himself in the league in an old fashioned, almost outdated manner: through experience. If you aren’t Brandon Ingram or Ben Simmons, teams won’t give you years or even months to properly develop into a valuable professional athlete.

Oladipo wasn’t nurtured in his role in the kind of way Mario Hezonja has been for the past couple of years, (although the Magic’s guard-heavy roster and Hezonja’s poor defensive skills were a factor, too).

The Magic played him as a streaky, defensive-minded point guard – the position that one would assume him to be, officially marked as 6 3′ and 210 pounds during his first year in the league. He’s too short for a two-guard but doesn’t have the requisite vision or passing skills to be an NBA point guard.

One response to his below-average stature is to flip the negative into a positive: he might have a slight size advantage as a point guard, even if there are plenty of six foot plus guards in the NBA. Point guards rule the league, putting up both historic usage rates and insanely consistent, nearly 30-point per game scoring outputs. There are at least 10 PGs that have averaged twenty or more points during the last two seasons.

Orlando discovered soon enough that Oladipo wasn’t the next uber athletic scoring point guard like Westbrook or Damian Lillard. As a result, whether you blame it on poor coaching or inexperience, Oladipo coughed up some pretty nasty turnover numbers. He struggled to orchestrate the offense in even the most typical, fundamental actions, such as this failed outlet pass:

tolakers

He tosses the ball way too close to the opponent and doesn’t have any creativity in terms of his passing. He could have went with several variations of any of these:

  1. Lead his teammate with a snappy, quick bounce-pass low to the ground, though this pass could have been intercepted as well.
  2. Hold on to the ball and dribble past half court, feeling out the floor and responding to the spacing of the Laker defenders.
  3. Pass it off while attracting the attention of the Laker defenders, as Oladipo’s a slasher and can fairly easily attract eyes while driving into the paint.

In the following two years leading up to the OKC deal, Oladipo was squashed into a blender of roles on Magic’s consistently below .500 roster. The coaching staff struggled to find an appropriate lineup scenario to insert Oladipo, though his defense remained consistent and reliable in many situations.

In his last year with the Magic, Coach Scott Skyles moved Oladipo out of the starting lineup, using him as a sixth-man for a team that really didn’t have the luxury of a spark plug, sitting Oladipo for a significant amount of time during first quarters. Oladipo was a two-way player in his third-year and had evolved and developed enough to pop-up on opposing teams scouting reports.

The potential morale or self-esteem loss wasn’t worth it for a player who, on some nights, could start a roaring fire from the minutiae, dark residue of a ten point quarter. Oladipo would be most effective as the Magic’s two-guard, moving Evan Fournier, a 6’7′ guard/forward, to the small forward position.

Setting a good tone from the jump is important for a team that had lost the last eight games. Oladipo has the potential to space the floor and create for himself off-the-dribble, such as here, an early season game where he shot 6/7 from 3pt range:

oladipono2CLE3pts

The success of Victor Oladipo as the focal point for the Indiana Pacers, a playoff caliber team, proves just how misused he had been firstly in Orlando and then in OKC. His story expresses the importance of a player’s situation. If all of his previous coaches hadn’t been on a perpetual hot-seat, trying to keep their head afloat with any and all types of lineup rotations/adjustments, Vic may have broken out as a star much earlier in his career.

Westbrook didn’t help and he didn’t hurt. The impact and experience from playing along side such a superstar is undoubtedly valuable. It can’t be measured empirically, but it must have helped Oladipo in some way as he navigated his new role as a go-to scorer on a winning NBA team.

Justice League: Grading Character Introductions

The Avengers set a high bar when it comes to skillfully integrating a barrage of characters. They start with scenes of single characters and slowly evolve the cumulative  situations in a natural way, where it feels right for the superheroes to be meeting, as the film’s title promises.

There’s a right and a wrong way to integrate characters into a universe, or a story, or a first film. And they’re all unique and require a certain sensitive, graceful directorial touch. It can’t feel like an inspection at the airport: you’re required to do this first before we can all get together and head towards our desired destination.

The way that these intros are put together can and often does determine the quality of the rest of the film. If the director treats the short introduction as a meaningless requirement and not a vital opportunity to show off a character’s personality and style, then the rest of the film probably won’t put much attention or emphasis on such details either.

Note: all members of the Justice League are included in the grading, not only the characters who haven’t had a solo film or been in any DC films yet. Superman’s inclusion is a bit of a technicality, but I counted his late-in-the-game arrival anyways. Also I decided to add a short bit on Alfred’s introduction – so he’s in there too.

Batman/Bruce Wayne

I definitely enjoyed the isolated scene introducing Batman in Justice League. He’s usually brooding as Batman or as Bruce Wayne at some party he doesn’t want to be at. Here, we see him perched on a building top in what seems to be a simple job: grab the thief, tie him up, hand him to the police; classic but unexciting Batman. Instead, he hangs the thief off the edge of the building.

“Fear…I can smell it,” he says, which in any other context would be a very corny line. But it has a very literal purpose in this scenario. The flying creature that Batman is tracking is attracted to fear like moths to a light. He pulls the man back onto the building top and jumps onto the flying creature.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 11.49.22 PM
Great composition and shot of Batman reeling in the creature with an ultra-strength net contraption. It’s Batman at his finest: no guns or easy way out. He has to find a solution to beat his enemies in whatever manner possible. Using his surroundings, such as here, where he utilizes the net to staple the creature against the building wall.
Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 11.58.00 PM
Moments earlier….This is not Batman. Points deducted. He’s a ground fighter, a tactician, a detective who reads situations and attacks accordingly. Their are safer, smarter ways to kill a flying alien than launching your non-flying self off of a building. A hook contraption that pulls him in. A paralyzing dart. Something other than spinning through the air, tightly hugging onto this colorful creature for an extended period of time.
Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 12.10.01 AM
Such heart-pounding, adrenaline-inducing..action? A lot of hugging and now alternating close-ups…maybe even a kiss? Go for it – aliens are people, too..

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 9.52.22 PM

It gets some exposition done while also showing off Batman’s great suit and overall look, almost demon-like. It’s just enough for a character that nobody needs to get more familiar with. We’re on board with Batman: we like him, we know him – he’s cool.

Batman/Bruce Wayne introduction: B+

Alfred 

It might be a very small detail, but I really like how they bring Alfred into his first scene/moment. He doesn’t join the action with a funny quip such as, “You’re at it again, I see” or, “What a surprise, you’re out at night..”

Alfred, in the comics at least, is an essential character, not a comedic one. He’s in Batman’s ear, assisting him with information, radar, locations, etc. And that’s how Justice League introduces him. He makes a statement about the situation in a frank manner, as if he’s seen and done this a thousand times before, which he has.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 12.08.18 AM.png

Michael Caine was very good as a more fatherly version of Alfred, but Jeremy Irons’ no nonsense portrayal is just more fitting for Ben Affleck’s battle-worn, aging Batman.

Alfred introduction (albeit a short one): A

Wonder Woman/Diana Prince

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is arguably the best aspect of the DC film universe thus far. She’s magnetic yet filled with inner and outer strength. She’s opinionated and has a backstory that meshes well with interesting scenarios. And that makes it all the more disappointing that her brief introduction involves having to thwart the plans of this boring ass, hat-wearing terrorist:

bad villian
You couldn’t create a more cliched, disposable villain if you made him in a lab, which this British bloke seems to have been. Nothing about him threatens to stop Wonder Woman or succeed in his plan. You could have literally cast a red punching bag, hung it from the ceiling, and had Wonder Woman quickly punch it until it breaks off the chain. That’s all this guy represents: a regular old bad guy written solely to be wiped out within the only scene he’s involved in.

Now, I understand that we know who Wonder Woman is and they just wanted to sweep through her intro and get to the characters that we haven’t met yet. But why even have a solo scene involving her if you’re going to phone it in like this? No creativity whatsoever.

A bomb. Hostages. Slow-motion (hi Zack!). Soldier-types with assault rifles. And a couple of corny lines to cap it all off: “I don’t believe it…what are you?,“. Ha. Ha. Heh. “I’m a believer,”. So she just repeated a similar sentiment back to him, but with added confusion: Is Diana saying that she believes in herself? That’s no surprise – she’s an Amazonian superhero; there’s no reason for her to not believe in herself. Thumbs up, screenwriters…Diana and Gal deserve better.

This here lasso makes you truthful!
Here’s a tiny detail that exemplifies why it’s important to establish major characters before assembling them into a team-up film. Why does Diana have to say, “the lasso compels you to tell the truth.” Just start throwing questions at him – she doesn’t have any rights to read to him. He doesn’t need to be informed of his situation and neither does the audience. Wonder Woman has had her own solo movie, a hugely popular one, but even if she hadn’t, it’s an easy thing to pull off visually. He could suddenly stop blinking or quit nervously mumbling, speaking very clearly, etc.

Wonder Woman/Diana Prince introduction: D+

Cyborg/Victor Stone

They handled Cyborg’s introduction really poorly. All exposition and brooding. How are we supposed to get attached to this vital member of the league if his first scene is comprised solely of him complaining about his “curse”?

It isn’t a compassionate father-son relationship: Victor yells at his dad and exclaims that he’s made him into a MONSTER! Sound familiar? Nervous scientist tries to calm raging man with confusing newfound abilities? It’s been done before. And this repeat of such a scenario doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

It only detracts from Cyborg’s arc or lack of an arc. If they could have added a little bit of character interplay, like a football game featuring Victor where his father shows up or doesn’t show up, either way. Anything that brings us into their relationship on some emotional level.

Great shot of the young, exciting new DC addition: the magnificent Cyborg!

Or ignore the father, as they mostly did here anyways, and just show us what Victor is all about, walking through the city streets, going to school, etc. To just drop Victor, distraught about his “monstrous” condition, onto the audience’s lap is a shame and a bit of a disgrace to his comic book legacy.

Conflict should arrive after something good or at least authentic happens, writers. Otherwise why should we feel bad or care or feel pity for Victor? The only impression I got from his first scene is that he’s very dramatic, whiny, and pretty outwardly cruel to his father. What’s that one quote about how crisis reveals character? No revelations here..

If you didn’t know about his storyline from the comics, it would be easy to think that he was going to lash out at his father and become the villain, eventually meeting up and battling it out with the league.

One saving grace as a result of Victor being a smug, angry teenager in his introductory scene: it gives Diana the opportunity to breathe as a character and act as a sort of motherly figure. She has a sense of responsibility, the sort that’s required of her as a major leader within the league.

Cyborg/Victor Stone introduction: D

Aquaman/Arthur Curry

The problem with bringing Aquaman to the big screen has always been the fact that he’s Aquaman. He talks to fish, as Batman lightly quips in their first scene. The screenwriters desperately want to tread within that fine line of creating a serious, complex character while also somewhat acknowledging his silly origins. He doesn’t jump ten feet into the air and plunge into the water in a half-spin torpedo dive. He does this:

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 12.39.01 AM

He flops backwards and slides underwater, disappearing. It’s kind of funny, really. The writers so badly want to avoid any form of mockery about the character and his abilities that they don’t really show them off much at all to begin with, and when they do, the shot is held for a total of .5 seconds. Blink and you’ll miss the back-flop into the water.

We see these cave-like drawings on the wall earlier in the scene:

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 12.46.01 AM

The simple sketches create a mythic aura to the character. Batman doesn’t know who he is, apparently, even though he has a dossier on every other league member or future member. Curry doesn’t want to talk to or be a part of Batman’s plan.

It’s kind of meta: the character that the audience and Batman have never met is annoyed for having to explain himself, for having to give any form of exposition. They barely have a conversation before suddenly the shirt is off and he’s plunging down into the ocean. Aquaman doesn’t need to talk too much: his powers are very tranquil and highly visual in concept.

It’s not a thrilling or action-packed scene, but they don’t all have to be, especially considering the very friendly serving of it later on in the film. It’s teasing his potential, which is huge and awe-inspiring in scope. They got most of the cultural stigmas/comedic aspects of his character out of the way.

“Can you at least point me to Atlantis?,” Bruce Wayne asks, a sly, knowing look on his face.

Affleck delivers it perfectly: he’s not making fun of him, he’s just giving him a bit of a hard time. A quarter smile – he doesn’t even think it’s all that funny, just intriguing. If Bruce started laughing heartily, smiling ear-to-ear, slapping Arthur on the back in jest – then we’d have a problem. But that doesn’t happen.

Batman is the leader and organizer of the league, so logically it makes sense that he would be the one to make the trek to Arthur’s location and try to recruit him. It just happens to work out that Batman is the most well-known person in the league and in real life – he has the most movies, toys, everything – so it evens out nicely to have the comfort of the known confronting the new. The interplay between them is a give-and-take: Batman and his stoic stiffness and Aquaman with his pessimism and disinterest.

Arthur even has a slight ideological difference with Batman, creating conflict within the league, an important part of any superhero team-up movie; they can’t all get along the second that they lay eyes on each other. A solid, subtle introduction of a tricky, easy-to-fumble superhero.

Aquaman/Arthur Curry introduction: B+

The Flash/Barry Allen

Whereas Cyborg’s introduction had too little emotion, The Flash’s intro has a bit too much sappiness. It’s important to explore his past, but this scene right here shouldn’t be our first look at The Flash:

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 1.14.11 AM
Maybe I’m being too cynical, but this gesture seems like something Barry would do the first time he’s able to come and visit his father. His dad even says that he comes too much and has to stop – wouldn’t this hand-on-the-glass act get a little repetitive after so many visits?

It’s a quick way to explain a general summary of his past and catch up on where he’s currently at in his life. They decide to cut straight to the prison, to this sad sequence of pure dialogue. Billy Crudup delivers an intense, authentic plea to Barry to stop visiting him and live his life. He speaks slowly and intently, as if he’s been thinking about this for a long time, practicing the words to perform for Barry and try to get him to move on.

The introduction is brief and only memorable for Crudup’s short but impactful performance late in the scene. It’s a huge contrast to Barry’s later role as the comedic relief, although there’s not much relief: he’s extremely unfunny. Bad timing, delivery, and some pretty awful writing, to be fair. The quips just fell really flat for me.

The Flash/Barry Allen introduction: D+

Superman/Clark Kent

Superman’s resurrection is a bit convoluted and overlong. It features a bit too much slow-motion considering the fact that the main catalyst in the plot/scene is THE FLASH.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 1.30.02 AM

The fight between Superman and the rest of the league is visceral and exciting, yet entirely pointless as well as contradictory to the premise of a team of superheroes. Superman can destroy them easily; he’s more powerful than all of them combined.

So basically the film is making the assertion that the Justice League is a group of back-up heroes in the event that Superman dies and isn’t there to swiftly clean up any mess. There is a league in the comics meant for those who apply to be a part of the league and aren’t accepted. I forget what the secondary group is called, but I know it’s not “Justice League”.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 1.33.50 AM.png
“I see Flash, people…”

It’s admittedly pretty cool to see all of the heroes vulnerabilities come to light as well as all of Superman’s unlimited strengths. It’s a moment of bigness: I’m better, you know it, try to deal with it. It doesn’t add or continue any plot strain from Man of Steel or BvS: it’s an isolated, one time zombie-Superman break out.

It isn’t the worst way to introduce a major character late in a film, but it isn’t ideal for it to be unconnected to the past or the present in any meaningful way other than, “we can’t do this without him!”.

Superman/Clark Kent re-introduction: C-

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 9.55.49 PM

And that’s all, folks. I don’t have anything to say about the rest of the film, both in the positive sense and in the sense that it’s been covered and dissected in every corner of the internet already. It’s not a bad movie; it’s got many good qualities and moments. But it also unfortunately falls a part many times, unable to withstand the pressure of juggling so many comic book entities in a single film.

 

Buy online copies of professional art, such as the lion to the left. Watermark removed after purchase.

Forest Miller, a talented Michigan-based artist, creates beautiful nature-themed paintings as well as many other themes and subjects, particularly animals. Sunsets, the woods, the colorful depths of the ocean…all descriptions of real, authentic paintings that you can purchase here. Resting Warrior – a gorgeous piece featuring a lion sitting in the wild.

$40.00

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a powerful look at tragedy and activism combining into something both uniquely right and wrong. Taken from any one single characters perspective, the billboards may seem rude, cruel, gross, untrue, unjust, or completely just. In the case of Mildred, played by Frances McDormand, the billboards are justified and needed; she organized and paid for the advertisements in the first place.

three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-004_3b_05858_rgb

On the other hand, we have Chief Willoughby’s perspective, played by Woody Harrelson, whose name is plastered in big bold letters on one of the billboards, despite his good-naturedness and desire to find the victims assailant. The victim happens to be the daughter of Mildred, whose family and marriage has dissolved as a result of the horrific rape and death of her daughter. She lives with her son, Robbie, a young student in his late teens. He doesn’t understand the billboards and perpetually fights with his mother.

A curve ball is thrown into Mildred’s billboard plot when she learns that Willoughby has cancer. She’s stubborn, determined, and pretty narrow-minded, ignoring the sensitive angle of hoisting the terminally ill Chiefs name up in bold letters, slandering his name (which is a very good name to all of the local citizens), and insulting his young family.

three bill

The third major perspective comes from Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell demands your attention in every single scene, acting both loosely and intensely at the same time. Dixon has a history of beating up African-American people and just being an awful cop in general. He’s the first officer to discover the billboards, reacting dramatically and only raising the stakes in terms of his raucous behavior in every proceeding scene.

The most interesting part of the narrative is how it’s set up: the dominos are put in place and we just have to sit back and see how they fall, whether that be poorly, not at all, or completely. Morals are blurry and grey like real life. No one character is heroic or admirable. There are three billboards demanding justice for the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter and three people demanding different things from each other.

Eventually, the story of the characters and their true personalities cause the plot to naturally unravel. The film authentically depicts how small town folks might respond to a bold and extraordinary action by a single citizen. They’re not always good, not always bad, but always filled with extreme passion.

A major theme of the film is misdirected hate. Dixon attacks citizens for no particular reason, mentioning past incidents and revealing his behavior on-screen through a violent encounter with the billboard salesman. The wife could hate the sheriff for his actions. The son could hate his mother, Mildred, for the billboards or for any other negative memory he has with her. The chief could hate Mildred like Dixon. Some people can choose to not hate and some just plain refuse to.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a fantastic moral and character study about personal vendettas. Its narrative swims together organically, each character’s motivations clearly defined. Engaging and thought-provoking, Three Billboards is a dark but rewarding experience that’s jam-packed with excellent performances.

The Shape of Water (2017)

One of my earliest Guillermo del Toro films that I’d seen and loved was Cronos, a small little flick about an ancient artifact that grants eternal youth. It featured a great supporting character, the nephew of an old wealthy man, played by a young Ron Perlman. Perlman really chews up the role and the scenery, bringing a sort of omnipresent, vibrant energy to the ancient mythology within the films narrative. The Shape of Water has del Toro returning to these character-centric roots, filling the frame with well-defined, and often funny, characters.

the shape1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Set in the 1960s, del Toro uses the period as a lift to his films overall atmosphere, packing the mise en scene with mossy green highlights, narrow hallways, and plenty of gargantuan laboratory devices to house the creature in; each scene gives off a very steampunk-like vibe.

The film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaning woman working in a semi-secret government facility (how secret can it be if these cleaning ladies are flying in and out-of-doors as if they were working at a Holiday Inn?) alongside her friend, Zelda, played sympathetically by Octavia Spencer.

There may be a satirical effort being made for the reason that the two women have free range access to the labs, as if the men of the 60s felt that women were so puny and impressionable that it wouldn’t matter what they saw or heard.

the shape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Jenkins, typically a terrific but minor character actor, brings a refreshing amount of depth to his character, Giles, a proverbial ‘starving artist’ whose only friend is Elisa. Given that he’s a gay man in the 1960s, Giles struggles to express himself or create meaningful relationships, making it either ironic or just very on-point that his best friend, Elisa, is mute and can’t speak at all. But that doesn’t stop him from rambling on about Old Hollywood musicals and the like.

The creature in The Shape of Water isn’t your typical one, though he may look and move a lot like Abe Sapien, the aquatic creature who happened to appear in del Toro’s Hellboy series. There is an espionage war over the ‘asset’, as they refer to him as, with the Russians infiltrating the facility by way of Dr. Hoffstetler, though Hoffstetler’s heart is more on the side of scientific ethics than it is with the goals of his government.

Michael Shannon plays the clear-cut actual “monster” of the movie, though even his character has an added layer of complexity. Director del Toro explores the values and feelings of an everyday American family man in the 1960s, fresh with a fancy teal car, a nice home and a cold, mentally unstable interior life.

The fact that The Shape of Water is critically acclaimed and earning del Toro a series of directing awards is a fitting cap to del Toro’s fantastic filmography and career. It wouldn’t feel like a lifetime achievement award if he ended up winning best director at the Oscars. The Shape of Water is a sensitive and highly imaginative piece of film art, drawing very close to the same incredible awe and gravitas of del Toro’s undisputed masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. 

 

 

 

Lost Boy – Short Film Review


A visually stunning sci-fi short film that relies entirely on visual imagery to tell its story. The plot is rather vague and ambiguous, but there are several very clever cinematography tricks used against the backdrop of a desolate, dark landscape.

It seamlessly uses the pan across an object, swipe to a different character, pan, swipe, different character. The slow pans move in closer to the subject following each successive swipe, just like Spielberg did in Jaws as Brody watched the town folk swim in the water while he sat back and nervously watched.

In this story, the antagonist isn’t a shark, though, it’s a large android-like figure with a red band of light covering his eyes, like Cyclops from X-Men. He is chasing after a cyberpunk-looking figure, who’s often running in slow motion, the background a constant source of tension. The ‘cyclops’ weaves in and out of the frame horizontally, creating a demonic aura, though we don’t completely understand his moral position by the end of it.

Great world-building and production design, though it plays out more like a music video than an actual narrative. I couldn’t tell you the motivations of the characters if I tried, but whatever they are, they looked cool going after them. Personally, I would have liked the terminator-style chase sequence to be a bit more frantic and have a little less slow motion. The slow motion implies that we care deeply for this character’s livelihood, but we don’t. Speed it up and it becomes more energetic, intense, and engaging, instead of just simply pretty to look at.

Directed by Ash Thorp and Anthony Scott Burns

The Argument – Director’s Cut


A fantastic short film about a man and his baby…and diapers. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but “The Argument” really was a unique experience for me. It amplified my fear of the responsibility of children, something I’d like to avoid. The story is about a man whose spouse is frustrated with him (we only hear her at the beginning, never see her) and is left alone with his baby when it needs to be changed and there aren’t any clean diapers.

There’s a great tracking shot, cut up into several segments, but all following the father from behind as he carries his baby through the streets and into the grocery store. The baby is crying as he rocks him slightly. There is a distinct lack of music throughout, only the sounds of the crying and the dialogue from the various characters.

After grabbing a pack of diapers recommended by a nearby customer, presumably a mother, he gets in line to buy them. He gets a few looks from other customers; we really feel like we are peering through the eyes of a desperate father scrambling to keep his domestic life together. He ends up finding out that he doesn’t have any money on him. The clerk is stubborn and doesn’t budge despite his pleas.

The clerk says herself, “It’s not my store”, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that she then goes on to chase after him through the parking lot, almost getting run over by an oncoming vehicle. She could have simply yelled out, “thief!”, and the manager wouldn’t or at least shouldn’t have put any blame on her. Maybe there’s a sign in the employee lunch area stating the requirement to physically chase any thief by foot; I don’t know.

A great ‘day-in-the-life’ short film; simple, but powerful in its depiction of the anxieties of parenthood.

Written & Directed by Clara Aranovich

Starring Melvil Poupaud and Naomi Collier.

 

The Dig – New Short Film & Review

A new short film directed by Joseph Kosinski, the filmmaker behind Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. It’s the first footage shot on the new CineAlta VENICE Full Frame Camera and, as one would expect, it looks fantastic. It doesn’t hurt that they hired Kosinski, who has been criticized for being too focused on creating brilliant, symmetrical imagery and not enough focus on narrative and character. He’s a technical artist, not a traditional storyteller.

I saw Oblivion in IMAX and was pretty blown away by the precision behind each individual shot. He creates sequences like he’s building a high-speed bullet train, not a slower, more bumpy train with twists and turns. It can be temporarily awe-inspiring, but I’ve never had the urge to go back and re-watch Oblivion. It’s an empty shell of a story.

The plot of “The Dig” is somewhat ludicrous. It features two janitors who look like LA models dressing up like janitors. They look totally out of place and their employers should be skeptical of their motives. They look like the type of people who wouldn’t even put on a janitors uniform, let alone actually work as one. As it turns out, they are performing an inside job to steal the new Sony camera (clever!).

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 1.55.38 AM.png

It’s fun to watch, though, as it’s basically just an excuse to show off the mighty prowess of the new Sony camera. Their are plenty of gliding, omniscient aerial shots, and some typical but beautiful helicopter shots of skyscrapers at night. You could count the cop car on the side of the road as one moment of decent tension, but the film is mainly a mystery involving two suspect janitors, not a Hitchcockian slow-burner.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Cinematography by Claudio Miranda, ASC.

Starring Taylor Kitsch and Lily Collins

 

 

 

Baby Driver (2017) – Film Review

The opening to Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” feels a bit braggadocios, a bit indulgent, and a bit too similar to a recent Apple commercial. All in one take, the opening tracking shot follows our main character, Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, as he walks freely through the streets, crossing roads, passing murals, and avoiding bystanders. Each set piece he walks by correlates with the words in the song he’s listening to with his signature earbuds, always at hand and usually blaring full volume.

It’s a clever opening, though very self-referential: “Shaun of the Dead” featured one of the greatest one take tracking shots ever with Simon Pegg’s character bumbling through his town, ignorant of the blood and zombies surrounding him as he yawns his way through the vacant streets. The movie slows down a bit after the opening street dance/music video, getting into the reality of Baby’s life as a getaway driver for low-life, high-stake criminals.

baby-driver-slice-600x200

The leader of the operation is Doc, played smugly by Kevin Spacey. Jamie Foxx plays the confrontational character, even having a line in the movie commenting about the crazy position being filled already, by him. Jon Hamm plays a more sedated role as Buddy, another member of the crew; he wants to get the job done and get out of town with his girlfriend as soon as possible.

Baby drives as a result of a traumatic childhood experience involving a car wreck and the death of his mother. He has permanent ringing issues in his ears as a result of the accident, hence the constant music. The soundtrack is the lifeblood of the movie: the characters question it constantly, but when the music starts, Baby switches gears and turns into an 11th grade version of Ryan Gosling in “Drive”. He’s slick and intelligent, knowing the routes by heart, able to intuitively escape from seemingly inescapable scenarios.

Lily James plays Deborah, a young girl that works as a waitress at the diner where Baby’s mother used to wait tables. He’s a regular at the diner and soon garners her attention with a few of his songs and some friendly conversation. They have a runaway vibe throughout, though their relationship can’t be entirely filled out due to his responsibilities to Doc as the whiz-kid driver.

The movie has a lot of heart and clearly a lot of passion for the art of fast-speed driving. The coordination that had to happen to clear the roads and perform the spinning, sliding car donuts must have been exhausting. “Baby Driver” is an exhilarating chase movie made by one of the most inventive action directors of the decade.

It (2017) – Film Review

“It” wasn’t supposed to garner the biggest September box office opening of all time. “It” had been in development turmoil for awhile, swapping directors, dropping Will Coulter as the actor to play Pennywise, and generally being bogged down by a bad streak of Stephen King movies. The Dark Tower was a disaster both financially and critically. But despite all of the doubts, the team behind “It” moved past it through great casting, a distinct visual palette, and a star turn from Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

it-1280-1503700422946_400w

Finn Wolfhard, the main character from Netflix’s Stranger Things, plays the wise-cracking Richie in “It”, a change in tone from his earnest TV persona. He swears and brags about sex he’s never had. He brings a great comedic lightness to the movie, an important glue character that ties the group of troubled kids together.

Bill, played by Jaeden Lieberher, is the stuttering older brother of Georgie, the infamous victim of Pennywise’s sewer tricks. He has an emotional arc surrounding his brother that’s very intense and heartfelt. It’s made all the better by the filmmakers choosing to focus only on the characters as children, not flashing back and forth between their adult years. That will be the sequel, apparently.

Sophia Lillis plays Beverly, the tomboy girl with both an undeserved reputation at school and a hostile relationship with her heated father. She’s looking for someone to latch onto, and the losers, the main group of kids that hangout together, including Bill and Richie, a sympathetic fat boy and a home-schooled outsider, are the first she finds. She is more mature and even looks three years older than all of them. She fits in within their little squad very quickly.

Pennywise isn’t just a scary killer clown; he’s a monster capable of transporting and morphing into different entities. His mouth can shape-shift into a long, wide black hole filled with a hundred spears of teeth. But the natural physical gestures performed by Bill Skarsgard are plenty creepy enough.

An “It” producer said in a press interview that they consciously created a strategy to keep Skarsgard out of the late night circuits and press junket interviews. By doing this, the producer explained, the viewer would see Pennywise the monster first and Skarsgard the actor second. His piercing eyes and odd lip movements are huge aspects of the performance, and his real-life interviews don’t mask these intense features/expressions that landed him the role in the first place. If his face were all over magazine covers, the mystique of the Pennywise look wouldn’t be as immediate or as thrilling. Viewers would look at the clown and be able to point out the quirky gestures of the Swedish actor.

Bill Skarsgard made some sort of comment comparing his performance as Pennywise to Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. I don’t know the context of his actual statement, but if he was saying that he had taken inspiration from Ledger’s Joker, it’s very apparent within the film. He shakes his head and laughs hoarsely at the kids, mimicking their state of absolute terror in the same way Ledger laughed as he was beat down by Batman while being interrogated. The reckless, unfiltered joy in the chaos and violence. They share a lot of common qualities in their performances, though Ledger’s makeup was dried and peeling and Pennywise’s face has been intricately painted and adjusted with CGI effects.

The new Stephen King adaption is a definite success on a long checklist of big-screen failures. “It” is a classic, well-known story with a tantalizingly creepy, enduring villain. If you’re worried about “It 2: The Adults”, be reassured that Pennywise will return and be as welcome as he has been in 2017. He’s a timeless character that will always hold some sort of grasp on audience’s fears.