When does a “new wave” just become the “new normal?”  It’s a concept that’s pretty hard to define given that cinematic “new waves” are a pretty nebulous concept to begin with.  Most people agree that the movies made by people like Truffaut and Godard in the late 50s through much of the 60s were part of the “French New Wave” but almost all those directors continued to make movies for decades to come after that, when did those cease to be “new wave” films and just become films by directors formerly associated with the “new wave.”  That question is of course on my mind given the clearest example of a “new wave” that seemed to happen during my own lifetime, the “Romanian New Wave” which started somewhere in the mid-2000s and may or may not still be going on today depending on how you want to define it.  Then again maybe suggesting that this was ever some sort of fleeting trend might have been needlessly limiting as the style seems to have some real staying power.  Every time I think we can move on another wave of really solid Romanian films comes along that still feel well in tune with what came before and the New Wave seemingly lives on, though there have been some twists of late.  Most notably the Romanian filmmaker who has had the most import abroad, Cristian Mungiu, has been sort of out of commission since the release of his 2016 film Graduation, which itself was kind of considered a minor work.  He’s finally back now though with a new film called R.M.N., which feels like as much of a statement as anything he made back in the 2000s.

The film is set in an unnamed town in the Transylvania region of Romania near the Hungarian border and the town seems to be evenly divided between Romanian and Hungarian residents (IFC’s presentation of the film subtitles Romanian in white, Hungarian in yellow and other languages in pink).  At the film’s center though is a guy named Matthias (Marin Grigore) who is part of a smaller German ethnic cohort.  As the film starts Matthias had been working abroad at a German slaughterhouse when he learns that his son has been traumatized by something he saw in the woods near his home, leading Matthias to return home, possibly to the annoyance of his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu).  He also seems to have coincidentally arrived at a rather tense time for this hometown as the local industrial bakery has recently brought in a trio of Sri Lankan guest workers to keep up production, which has lit a fire of xenophobia amongst the locals who are starting up a petition to eject these foreign workers.  Matthias’ mistress Csilla (Judith State) is a manager at that bakery and is one of the leading voices championing for these men, but seems to be going up against a real tidal wave of hate that this situation has stirred up.

Cristian Mungiu’s films have had something of a temporal through line: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days was set during the Ceaușescu regime, Beyond the Hills is set in modern day but was about the legacy of the orphanages that opened as a consequence of that period’s policies, Graduation is set in the modern day but is about people who returned to Romania after the fall of Ceaușescu and their feelings about rebuilding the new country, but R.M.N. feels a lot more distinctly like a movie about modern hot button issues rather than the legacy of Ceaușescu.  This isn’t to say that the movie ignores the history that led to this moment, but it’s very much a movie taking on a very specific kind of xenophobia and white nationalism that’s occurring in modern Europe and around the world.  The central conflict is around the heated racist reaction to the legal employment of three immigrant workers of color, which certainly seems like some really over the top racism and it’s made all the more disturbing by the general shamelessness of what the know-nothing mob is putting forward.  I feel like in the United States even the most racist of mobs would at least try to employ some dog whistles when objecting to these people’s presence but the villagers here seem to make few excuses for their attitudes, which are made all the more ironic since many of them are themselves ethnic minorities within Romania and many of them have their own experiences acting as guest workers in other richer countries.  However, I feel like the dynamics of all this feel more familiar than they do foreign.  It has the same kind of lower class populists versus educated professional conflict that so often fuels these arguments around the world and the film does provide some nuances around why said educated professionals are not always in the best position to fight back in these situations.

This take on racial hatred in this town is plainly the main draw of the film and it hits a crescendo in this bravura static long take during a town hall meeting on the topic, but I think the movie is maybe a bit less successful at mixing the political with the personal via the Matthias point of view character.  He seems to have been added to act as a character who is sort of a neutral center in the debate around the guest workers: not dead set on kicking them out like some of the angry villagers but also not interested in defending them much to the annoyance of his mistress.  The toxic masculinity he brings to his relationship with his child and baby mama also emphasize that there are intersections at play here beyond the town’s racism.  However I’m not quite sure what metaphor it’s going for with its sub-plot about his kid seeing things in the woods and I don’t only the haziest of guesses as to what the film’s rather cryptic and abrupt ending is supposed to mean.  In a lot of ways I wish the movie had focused in more on that central debate than doing everything through this kind of bland character’s eyes, but all that said I think this whole movie is still another win for Mungiu.  It taps into the very real zeitgeist of contemporary debates in the same way his Romanian New Wave compatriot Radu Jude does but in a more serious and straightforward way and I was definitely interested while watching it.
**** out of Five


Red Rocket(12/25/2021)

Is Sean Baker the most important American filmmaker to emerge in the last ten years?  A credible argument could certainly be made.  There are of course other candidates like Barry Jenkins or Robert Eggers but Baker is in many ways doing something much more unique and excelling at it to levels that are both unlikely and incredibly impressive.  Of course “emerged in the last ten years” is perhaps a matter of perspective.  Baker has been making films as far back as the year 2000 and also did some television work but for the average film enthusiast he really emerged in 2015 with his film Tangerine, which looked at about twenty four hours in the lives of two transgender sex workers in West Hollywood with a great deal of energy and wit.  That however proved to mainly be an appetizer for what came next: 2017’s The Florida Project.  That film sported a larger budget and featured a supporting performance by Willem Dafoe, but remained true to his style of embedding himself into a marginal American community and building a strongly humanistic but at times wickedly funny story about what it means to get by on the fringes of society.  That was my favorite movie of 2017 and to my endless frustration it never really managed to become an award season staple that year and only managed one Academy Award nomination for Dafoe, but the fact that such an unconventionally made film even got as close as it did was impressive.  To follow that up he’s delivered another film that gives voice to the voiceless, albeit one that’s more prickly and complicated than his last two films.

Baker’s latest film is called Red Rocket and it finds him in a town called Texas City, Texas, which is a sort of coastal suburb on the periphery of Houston and frankly doesn’t look like a very pleasant place to live, or at least not the parts of it that are in this movie.  It’s in the shadow of a bunch of oil refineries and petrochemical plants and most of the people are living in these tiny houses that appear to be maybe a rung or two above trailer homes.  Our subject Mikey (Simon Rex) grew up in this town and has a history there but left and became a pornstar under the alias Mikey Saber.  He seems to have had a falling out with the industry though and at the beginning of the movie he gets off of a bus covered in bruises and with about twenty dollars to his name.  His first stop is the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), who lives with her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), and both appear to be drug users.  Desperate he agrees to pay them two hundred dollars rent a month to board with them and, lacking non-pornographic references, begins selling weed to make cash.  While doing this he finds himself in a donut shop where he spots a seventeen year old girl (Suzanna Son) working there and susses out that she has some rebellious tendencies and starts plotting to recruit her into the pornography to get back in the good graces of that industry.

Unlike Baker’s previous films, which starred non-actors in their lead roles this one does a have a professional at its center… sort of.  I hadn’t heard of Simon Rex before this movie came to light but he has been something of a figure in the entertainment industry before this.  He was apparently an MTV VJ in the 90s and during the 2000s he was in a string of fourth-rate parody films like Scary Movie 4 and Superhero Movie as well as a bunch of direct-to-DVD crap.  I have no idea where Baker got the idea of casting this guy in one of his movies but it seems to have been a stroke of brilliance because Rex is electric here.  “Mikey Saber” has this fascinating used car salesman energy where he exerts this incredible confidence in all situations and seemingly talk his way out of any jam despite basically having nothing to show for it.  That is an important skill for him because if he didn’t look the way he did and didn’t have this charismatic personality someone probably would have slit his throat by now… or maybe he would have become a better person if he didn’t have these skills to fall back on, but either way there version of him we see here is pretty much a monster… albeit a very entertaining monster to watch.

Red Rocket can legitimately be called a comedy, albeit a very dark comedy.  Mikey’s patter and general shamelessness is really funny, as are the reactions to him by the people who see through his bullshit.  In this sense the film feels a bit like a throwback to what Baker was doing in Tangerine and will perhaps make it a little harder to recommend than The Florida Project, which had a bit more melodrama and neither of Baker’s previous films focused on a character that is as repellent as Mikey proves to be over time.  Make no mistake, this guy is scum; he has seemingly no qualms whatsoever about starting a sexual relationship with a seventeen year old (when he learns she’s that age, the age of consent in Texas, he happily proclaims she’s “legal as an eagle!” with seemingly no self-awareness about how this sounds) and it’s also clear that he views this “relationship” entirely as a manipulation; he holds no delusions that this is a genuine romance but continues with it anyway.  Despite that, you as an audience member still kind of find yourself on this guy’s side to some extent; not rooting for him per se but on some level you admire the hustle and you want to see how this all plays out and that all kind of comes back to Simon Rex and his performance and how perfectly he defines this guy.

Baker shot this film on 16mm rather than the 35mm of The Florida Project or the shot-on-iPhone cinematography of Tangerine and that choice kind of emphasizes the dustiness of this Texas location and kind of evokes the look that Andrea Arnold explored with American Honey.  The film is perhaps less interested in finding sympathetic side characters here than he was in his previous films as pretty much everyone in Mikey’s orbit has some degree of criminality with the possible exception of Strawberry herself, who nonetheless has some negative sides to her as well, but the film finds endearing quirks to a lot of these characters and does build out elements to all of them so that you understand their lives.  The decision to set the film in 2016 right as the election was going on in the background felt like a bit of a misstep; it kind of suggested the film was meant to be some sort of commentary on how that election looked on the ground in a red state but it doesn’t go too far with that.  Looking back though I think I get the decision a little better as I think it’s trying to make a comparison between Trump and the Simon Rex character as both are opportunistic bullshiters who don’t have a good long term plan but even looked at in that dubious light I don’t think Mikey Saber can be described as being nearly as successful at bullshit as Trump and I don’t think it’s really a perfect metaphor.  Still, on its own terms this is one of the more successful attempts I’ve ever seen at trying to build a movie around a total shithead who you really can’t get behind and one more bold look at a marginalized America from Sean Baker.

****1/2 out of Five


It’s always been kind of amazing to me that there was a point in history where Elton John was the biggest rock star in the world.  Not because of the music, I certainly see why that would be big, but it’s amazing that for a period of time in the 1970s the picture of rock superstardom was an overweight bespectacled ginger homosexual dude who played piano ballads while wearing strange outfits.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, in fact it’s sort of a testament to his talents: this was a dude who did not skate by on his looks.  But as far as Elton’s music goes he’s never really been my favorite artist.  When I was a kid he was still sort of around and would show up at strange moments to do stuff like eulogize Princess Diana or perform random duets with Eminem but he was ultimately an oldies act that I didn’t have time for.  I didn’t really get into him when I finally did start exploring classic rock either, and I think that largely has to do with his choice of instrument.  To teenage me rock and roll was defined by one thing: guitars, preferably electric guitars, and the longer the solos were the better.  I could find time for David Bowie, but Elton John was a step too far away from what really seemed like “rock” to me, hell I still haven’t really come around on Billy Joel.  Instead Elton John was someone I only came to like pretty late in life when I really started to expand the music I was into and started putting together just how many of the catchy songs I’d been hearing over the years were by him.  I’m still not a huge fan by any means and some of his songs like “Crocodile Rock” still don’t do it for me, but I am interested enough in him to have been pretty interested in the new biopic Rocketman.

Rocketman begins with a rather surreal scene of Elton John (Taron Egerton) walking into an rehab group therapy session wearing one of his signature wacky costumes and begins to tell his life story to the group.  This acts as something of a framing story throughout and every time we cut back to it he’s stripped off part of his costume.  From there we get a more or less chronological telling of the musician’s life from his childhood struggles with his father (Steven Mackintosh) and mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to meeting his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his becoming a superstar while battling addiction and an emotionally abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden).

This film has the immense benefit of opening less than a year after the worldwide blockbuster success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  This is fortunate firstly because it shows the public is primed for a biographical account of a gay British music icon from the 70s and secondly it’s beneficial because its close proximity to that movie invites comparisons between the two and given how lackluster that movie was these comparisons are rather flattering.  Critics hate Bohemian Rhapsody because it’s a movie that flagrantly ignores several decades of advice critics have been giving filmmakers about musical biopics and just shamelessly leans into each and every biopic cliché in the clumsiest way possible (a problem that may be less apparent to the general public, who hasn’t sat through every damn one of these movies).  Rocketman, by contrast, carefully avoids at least some of the pitfalls which that leaped into.  For one thing, the film doesn’t feel sanitized like Rhapsody did.  It isn’t hesitant to show the extent of Elton John’s drug use and to make him look like kind of an asshole at certain points while also exploring what’s leading him to behave that way.  It also isn’t as squeamish about his homosexuality (even if the film’s one sex scene has a Call Me By Your Name style cutaway), and Taron Egerton also sings his own songs and gives a more well-rounded performance than Rami Malek, whose Oscar winning performance did not really impress me beyond the visual imitation of Freddie Mercury.

Of course the film’s most radical difference from Bohemian Rhapsody and musical biopics in general is that it actually takes the format of a jukebox musical rather than a straight biography with various fantasy sequences in which people (and not necessarily just Elton) “burst into song” and perform Elton John songs with thematic similarities to what’s going on.  I say these are fantasy sequences, but in many ways the film doesn’t actually treat them like that.  Director Dexter Fletcher never “snaps back to reality” so to speak after one of these performances are done, they just kind of “magic realism” their way into the movie and aren’t commented upon.  The film also makes no attempt to present any of these songs in their historical chronology.  For instance the film shows Elton John playing “Crocodile Rock” at his first American performance at the Troubadour even though that song was actually from his sixth album and more than likely wasn’t written at that point.  This kind of messing around with facts got Bohemian Rhapsody into a lot of trouble given that it presented itself as a straightforward biography but it feel more natural here given much of the movie is presented as a sort of fantastical musical and that the more salient facts seem to be accurate.

Of course the decision to make this a musical does have a couple of drawbacks.  For one thing the whole conceit seems to be based in the notion that Elton John music reflected his personal life, which would seem to be a rather dubious notion given that he didn’t write his own lyrics and generally seem rather impersonal.  At times the film does seem to be stretching a little to recontextualize some of these songs, like when “Tiny Dancer” is turned into a song about Elton’s loneliness in L.A. while Taupin is off chasing tail and the movie sort of contorts itself at one point to make “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fit a conversation.  In addition to that, the musical motif is in some ways a bit of a smokescreen.  The usual musical biopic clichés are still there under the seemingly unique wrapping.  This is after all the story of a bright eyed musician who shocks the record company with his talents and shoots to superstardom before almost losing everything to addiction and hedonism until he enters rehab and emerges victorious.  It’s kind of the same story that damn near every rock star has and to an extent cliché is inevitable, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie smooths out those edges and flows more naturally.  It actually feels like it’s put some thought behind what the rockstar life is like and isn’t just presenting the material out of some obligation to formula.

I do think that this movie is the beneficiary of lowered expectations to some extent.  It might try a couple of new things but it’s certainly not going full I’m Not There and really innovating with the form.  In fact I suspect that this kind of biopic by way of jukebox musical format is a bit more common on Broadway in shows like “Jersey Boys.”  However, the fact of the matter is that I’ve never really been as allergic to the musical biopic format as some critics and wouldn’t even have been all that mad at Bohemian Rhapsody if not for the fact that people were giving it goddamn Oscars.  So really, taking that usual format and using it in a way that has some actual thought behind it rather than half-assedly going through the motions probably is enough to sell me on a project.  If this had only been about a band or artist that means more to me this might have even been a slam dunk, but as it stands it’s a solid movie that will serve the fans of the artist well.

***1/2 out of Five


I’ve had a hard and fast rule when it comes to Netflix movies on this site: they don’t get full reviews unless they get released theatrically in my city before they start streaming.  This is largely because I believe in theatrical exhibition as being central to film culture and that theatrical windows should be preserved because of that.  Premiering movies on the small screen is contrary to my vision of what “real” movies are and frankly it annoys me that movies like the latest Coen brothers movie and the latest Paul Greengrass movie have been denied all but the most token of releases just because Netflix wants to disrupt the theatrical distribution model.  Amazon has long found ways to provide a win-win for everyone by giving their movies real theatrical releases before debuting them on their streaming platform and I see no reason that Netflix can’t do the same.  Obviously I’m not deluded enough to think that my amateurish little blog with minimal readership is going to sway industry trends at all, but there are principles at play and I’m not going to play ball with this company if I don’t have to.  Enter Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the most high profile Netflix acquisition to date and the movie that led to a widely publicized standoff between the streaming giant and the Cannes Film Festival.  I debated whether or not I’d break my rule if I had to for this movie but fortunately it came in under the wire and opened at a local theater all of seven days before its Netflix debut.  That’s far from a real release window but it’s better than the day and date nonsense they’ve been doing so I’ll play along for the time being.

The title “Roma” refers to the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, which is one of the more upscale sections of the city.  Set in 1970 and 1971, the film focuses in on a single house in this neighborhood and specifically on a woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who works in this house as a live in maid/nanny.  The lady of the house is named Sofia (Marina de Tavira), a biochemist and mother of four, who is becoming increasingly estranged from her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga).  One summer day Cleo and the house’s other maid named Adela (Nancy García) go on a double date with Adela’s boyfriend Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza) and his cousin Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).  One thing leads to another and next thing you know Cleo finds herself pregnant with Fermin’s baby.  Fermin is not terribly enthusiastic about this and it becomes clear almost immediately that he’ll be a deadbeat.  As such the film follows Cleo as she starts to navigate her role in this family in crisis and her own impending motherhood.

Roma is plainly autobiographical insomuch as Alfonso Cuarón was a child would have been a child of about ten when this is set and lived in a similar domestic situation, but film is not told from the perspective of the kids at all and really isn’t terribly interested in them.  Instead he seems to be looking back and re-considering through fiction the lives of the people who raised him, particularly his nanny, who I’m assuming is the “Libo” that the film is dedicated to at the end. The film is certainly interested in class differences but not necessarily “class warfare.”  The family at the film’s center have their blindspots and moments of insensitivity around Cleo but they almost never completely let her down and often surprise both her and the audience in being understanding about certain developments and helping her in certain ways.  The movie also isn’t terribly interested in highlighting the various societal ills that have led to the wealth inequality on display and while it does show some of the challenges that Cleo faces it isn’t a “poverty porn” movie that’s going out of its way to show street life or overt lower class misery.  Cleo’s problems are perhaps a bit more existential; she has limited options in life and is in certain ways giving up a life of her own in order to live with more or less raise someone else’s kids.

Roma was filmed on a budget of about fifteen million dollars.  Not a large amount really in the grand scheme of things but certainly a large amount for a movie about Mexican class divisions starring a bunch of non-actors and utilizing a somewhat episodic structure and without an abundance of traditional expository dialog.  As such Cuarón has opted to film this film with a certain glossy richness rather than the gritty documentary look that is often used to depict the lives of people like Cleo.  The film is shot in black and white and in widescreen and Cuarón has taken great pains to really impress with almost every composition in the movie and pulls off some really impressive shots.  He’s also taken full advantage of modern surround sound technology to capture a lot of small details that most other movies wouldn’t bother with, combined with the fact that the movie has no score really makes you feel like you’re in the same world as these characters.

So Roma is clearly a very well-crafted movie, and there is something unique about that given that these movies with non-actors are generally made in a looser fashion and the visual grammar that Cuarón has built is impressive.  I also think there are some interesting ideas behind the film and that watching Cuarón use the tools at his disposal to bring his memories to life is interesting to watch.  And yet, I still feel like there’s something missing here because I kind of ended up respecting the movie more than I really liked it.  Part of this might simply be that while the movie certainly gave me an idea of its main character’s life and aspects of her personality I never quite felt like I truly knew her on any deeper level, which is a problem given that this is essentially a character study.  I’m not exactly sure how this would have been accomplished without resorting to expository dialogue that would have clashed with the style, maybe just adding in another aspect to her life.  The other thing that might have hurt this for me a little might simply have been expectations.  Ever since it screened in Venice this thing has been so heavily praised that anything short of the second coming of Citizen Kane would have probably disappointed me a little, and indeed this small-in-spirit little movie about life in 1970s Mexico maybe doesn’t have quite the oomph of something that would really scream greatness to me.  That, I suspect, is probably going to be a problem it’s going to have more generally and there may well be a lot of people who wouldn’t normally inclined to give a black and white Spanish movie a chance who will try to watch it on Netflix and turn it off after 30 minutes when “nothing happens.”  That’s unfortunate because this is a movie that generally does reward your patience, but be ready to take it on its own terms.

**** out of Five   

The Rider(5/18/2018)

You know that big award ceremony that happens in Hollywood every year in the last weekend of award season?  No not the Oscars.  I’m talking about the Independent Spirit Awards.  If you’re not familiar it’s an award show that’s given out every year the Saturday before the Oscars (when all the celebrities are in town) since the mid-80s which were meant to be something of an anti-Oscars where the makers of plucky independent films got together in a large circus tent while wearing casual clothing.  It’s been a bit redundant now given that their definition of “independent” is pretty broad and the real Academy is more receptive to “independent” films than ever and at this point the overlap between the two shows is pretty heavy.  In fact it’s been something like ten years since the winner of the Spirit award wasn’t also an Oscar nominee and even longer since it was won by something that wasn’t pretty heavily on the Oscar radar.  Still, there does seem to be at least some sort of voting bloc at Film Independent that is, for better or worse, interested in highlighting less prominent indie films to the point where they’ve occasionally nominated movies the year before they’ve even come out in general release.  That happened about ten years ago when they gave two nominations to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker months before anyone who hadn’t been to a film festival had ever heard of it.  A similar thing happened last year as well when they gave a “Best Feature” nomination to a movie that had been well off my radar called The Rider despite the film’s general release not occurring until almost half a year later.

The Rider is set in modern rural South Dakota and focuses on a guy named Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) who has just suffered a major injury while performing in a rodeo.  Blackburn appears to be in his twenties and lives in a trailer with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) who appears to be a heavy drinker and gambler and his fifteen year old sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) who seems to have some sort of mental disability.  As the film begins Blackburn has a large gash across the side of his head under which a metal plate has been attached and as a result of this brain injury he occasionally loses control of one of his hands.  He’s been told that another rodeo injury could kill him and that he needs to avoid riding and rest in order to heal.  Frustrated, Blackburn tries to find a way to make a living outside of his one true skill and to find a way to leave behind his passion for horse riding and the thrill of rodeo performance.

The obvious reference point for this is almost certainly Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler, which also focused on the plight of a guy in a disreputable “sport” who’s told that he’s no longer physically fit participate in said sport and has trouble accepting that he needs to give it up.  Both films focus on their protagonist’s shame at their current state and have sub-plots where they are miserable while trying to get menial day jobs where people recognize them from their previous more glamourous life.  They even have similar titles.  Of course there are differences; Randy “The Ram” Robinson was depicted as someone who had been very famous in his past life and was brought down both by age and by years of wear and tear while Brady Blackburn is a guy who only appears to have had some slight regional success before having his career cut short by a sudden injury.  Now, being similar to another movie is not a deal breaker by any means and there are a number of stylistic differences that make this different in both tone and message than Aronofsky’s film.

Almost all of the characters in The Rider are played by non-actors and all the members of Blackburn’s family appear to be played by actual relatives of Brady Jandreau but the film is scripted and technically a work of fiction even if it does sort of mirror the lives of the people acting in it.  I’m not the biggest believer the use of non-actors in movies.  Every once in a while it works beautifully in something like The Florida Project but for every one of those there are a dozen indie movies made by Rossellini-wannabes that just sort of feel cheap.  I would say this one felt like a bit of a mix of the two.  Brady Jandreau was pretty impressive in the film, especially in the scenes where he’s not speaking and in the scenes where he’s doing his horse training work, which seemed pretty authentic.  I also thought Lilly Jandreau added an interesting presence to the film and felt very real for obvious reasons and it’s probably fair to say that the approach added a number of interesting faces to the movie.  However, the downside of this approach is that there are moments where the amateur nature of the performers comes through, especially in the dialogue scenes which occasionally results in some rather questionable line-readings.

Rather than harken back to the visual style of Hollywood westerns Chloé Zhao’s visual approach is minimalist and has a very straightforward digital look that emphasizes its realism.  A lot of people have been interpreting the film as a statement about “toxic masculinity” because it’s about the culture that demands that this guy keep doing something dangerous to prove his manhood, and there is a little of that in there but I’m not so sure that people would be seeing all of that had the movie not been directed by a woman.  For one thing, Brady Blackburn doesn’t strike me as a terribly agro individual so much as this thoughtful horse whisperer type and at times the character’s stubbornness clashes a bit with the more thoughtful take that Jandreau has on the character.  Instead, to me this feels like a sort of dark reversal on the kind of “chase your dreams and you can do anything” philosophy that gets espoused by movies like La La Land.  Society loves telling stories about people who overcome injuries and beat people’s expectations but it’s not so interested in telling the stories of people who try to do that and only end up digging themselves deeper into holes.  That’s worth exploring to be sure, but I’ve seen it explored more excitingly elsewhere (did I mention that this resembled The Wrestler?) and the tour through rural America is only going to do so much for me.  There is some skill here though and I can imagine Zhao’s approach working better as it evolves and finds other more original subjects.

**1/2 out of Five

Ready Player One(4/1/2018)

Ernest Cline’s book “Ready Player One” was this weird sounding science fiction book I used to hear about here and there.  I never read it, in part because I rarely have time to read fiction in general much less novelty books about video games, but the title was clever and as literature of questionable merit goes I’ve certainly heard of dumber sounding ideas and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it.  There was, however, something of a backlash to the novel with a lot of people finding it to be total pandering nonsense and I could certainly see how that could be true as well.  What I never did was pick up a copy of the book myself to judge because, well, life’s too short.  Honestly there was always something that seemed kind of weird about the backlash against the book.  Like, if you’re so above this kind of thing why are you even reading this whole nearly 400 page book?  Hatewatching sort of makes sense to me in moderation, hate reading does not.  Fortunately there is finally a way to get a taste of what Cline was up to without having to be seen lugging around his tome: they’ve adapted it into a major motion picture directed by, implausibly enough, Steven Spielberg himself.

Ready Player One is set in the year 2045 after a series of calamities society has become something of a shithole where everyone lives in bombed out slums where the only escape is into a video game like virtual reality universe called “The Oasis” where everyone can be what they want to be and engage in mass combat in order to get loot.  This world was created by a guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who was a huge geek obsessed with the pop culture of the late 20th Century.  After Halliday died it was discovered that he had devised an elaborate scavenger hunt within The Oasis involving three keys that can be found by solving riddles and the prize is that once all the keys are found the entire Oasis is put under the control of whoever finds all three first.  One of the people who has been seeking out these keys for years is a teenager named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays in the Oasis under the alias “Parzival” and has been obsessively studying the life of James Halliday and the movies and video games that he as so interested in.  His search for these “Easter eggs” is bolstered when he encounters another legendary Oasis dweller named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) but if he wants to get all the keys he’ll have to contend with a private army of “sixers” that are deployed by a CEO named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to claim the prize for his company and thus gain control of the world’s richest company and the center of world culture.

When it was announced early on that Steven Spielberg would be directing an adaptation of “Ready Player One” it certainly seemed like an odd choice to me.  Cline’s book seemed like it was very much the manifestation of a Generation X and Millennial conception of culture, of people who grew up on Spielberg’s films rather than Spielberg himself.  It’s a project that would make all the sense in the world coming from J.J. Abrams or from the creators of “Stranger Things” but from Spielberg himself?  That threw me for a bit of a loop, but it perhaps makes more sense when you remember that Spielberg’s own movies were very much a collection of references themselves.  Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, lifts all sorts of shots from the adventure serials of Spielberg’s youth and if you look closely at E.T. or War of the Worlds it becomes abundantly clear they were made by a guy raised on paranoid science fiction movies from the 50s.  The difference is that Ready Player One is even more upfront than Tarantino about exactly what it’s lifting and is making the lifts part of the story rather than bending it into a new one.  For instance, early on there’s a race of sorts in The Oasis where our hero is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Art3mis appears to be racing one of the hoverbikes from Akira, and they need to race past a T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and find some way to keep from being attacked by King Kong.  We have seen these sort of “copyright violation en masse” ideas before, perhaps most notably in Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph and the ImaginationLand episodes of “South Park,” but never this extensively or at this scale.

It takes a couple of leaps of logic to accept The Oasis as a concept.  For example it’s certainly not clear how the economy of the real world works in this future or where all these destitute people get the money to play these video games all day.  The death system in The Oasis also seems a bit off.  It’s established early on that if you “die” in The Oasis your character does re-spawn but you lose all the stuff you earned along the way, which makes sense given that there does need to be some stakes to the action scenes here, but that seems like quite the penalty.  Even the Dark Souls games aren’t that harsh when your character dies.  Are we supposed to believe that all these characters have gone for years in all these warzones and haven’t died once?  It’s also a little unclear who’s programming all of this.  The opening voiceover seems to suggest that you can be whatever you want in this world but the characters can’t exactly conjure things up at will so someone has to be actually creating all this stuff.  It’s also a bit curious that these characters are so infatuated with the pop culture of the 80s rather than anything that’s been created since and we never once see Watts step out of the Oasis to watch an actual 2D movie or TV show. There’s this big plot point which suggests that he’s an ace Atari 2600 player, which… I’m old enough to be into some pretty old school video games and even I don’t have the patience to play 2600 games and if I had access to The Oasis I sure as hell wouldn’t take time out of my day to play Pitfall.

Despite all of that, Spielberg does doe a commendable job of bringing The Oasis to life.  The inside of The Oasis appears to be entirely CGI with all the characters being represented by avatars.  This shouldn’t work and should be highly distracting and yet Spielberg somehow makes it work.  The Oasis really does kind of look like a real video game but twenty years in the future and in VR rather than something like The Matrix.  It also makes action scenes which would feel absurd in any other context sort of work.  Like, that race I was talking about earlier with the T-Rex and King Kong would seem stupid and over-the-top in a movie set in any kind of “real” world, but it fits pretty well in a movie that’s supposed to be a video-game player’s psyche writ large.  There’s also a set-piece related to a classic movie midway through the film which I won’t give away but needless to say it’s quite the sight to see and it’s not something you are likely to see much of anywhere else.  I’m not going to claim to be above geeking out at some of the parade of references here, some of them certainly caused a visceral reaction when they emerged.  It would have been nice if they’d dug even deeper with some of the namedrops but given that this is such an unabashed celebration of low culture even that kind of seems fitting.

The human side of the story is… serviceable.  If anything I feel like being “serviceable” is kind of a victory given how easily this gamer wish fulfillment fantasy could have descended into cringey territory.  The romance plotline between Watts and Art3mis is certainly kind of groan inducing, especially when Watts declares that he “loves” her based almost entirely on the fact that she’s really good at the film’s central video game.  From what I hear this element is even worse in the book but I do think the actors here do a fairly good job of salvaging this sub-plot and keeping it from dragging the film down too far.  In general the movie does a pretty good job of finding this nice tone where it doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t turn the whole thing into such a joke that you aren’t able to really get involved in the story.  At the end of the day this is a pretty shallow movie and it certainly doesn’t do nearly as much as it could have to push back on some of the fan-servicey elements of its source material.  By the end it seems to suggest that the point of all this is that you should engage in fandom with a degree of moderation and not let it get too much in the way of “real life” but I’m not so sure that the movie that proceeds this moral really supports the thesis.  This certainly isn’t a Spielberg classic and I still have trouble really thinking about it as one of his films, but for what it is and what it wants to be I think it’s pretty successful.  I certainly had a lot of fun with it anyway.

***1/2 out of Five