Film Review: Ready Player One

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke and Ben Mendelsohn
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time:
Warner Bros. Pictures

Capturing the awe and power of video games has long eluded Hollywood, whether it’s adaptation of the games themselves or bottling the culture’s essence. “Wreck-It Ralph” came close, but it’s fair to disregard its efforts because it was animated, hence it was able to replicate the visual absurdity and calm in the chaos sometimes in video games. With a book, that I’m assume is page soaked in pop-culture references over two decades, Steven Spielberg appears to have cracked the code.

Instead of feeling like you’re watching someone play a video game at the arcade, Spielberg immerses viewers in the OASIS, a worldwide massive multiplayer experience at the center of “Ready Player One” The OASIS is where anyone can be anything they want to be, with digital avatars ranging from humanoids to iconic media characters. Before people can inhabit their digital body, they have to plug into these free-hanging set-ups that look like someone plugging themselves into “The Matrix” via a full-body suit, Nintendo power gloves and a VR viewer attachment. It seems like a hassle and unnecessary expense, but the alternative, reality, is a lot less exciting.

Wade Watts (Sheridan) lives in Columbus, Ohio in 2045. He lives in the slums of Columbus, which is filled with metallic clutter like older cars and technological trash. Most of its inhabitants take up residence in dilapidated trailer park trailers stacked on top of each other like a white trash Kowloon Walled City. With no parents and no real-life friends, or even a job, Watts retreats every day to the OASIS in a makeshift gaming room he’s carved out of the surrounding scrap heap.

Inside the OASIS, he and other players, which make up his clan, are on the hunt for the ultimate Easter egg. The creator of OASIS, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has hidden several clues throughout the game that lead to three keys. If you find all the keys, you get full ownership of OASIS, as well as the money and stock attached to it. But it’s more than just a dream of riches and power; it’s a dream of escaping the rat hole that Watts perceives he lives in. Of course he’s not the only one on the hunt for these keys. An evil corporate shadow looms over the OASIS and looks to control the one thing used by billions.

Despite flirting with the risk of saturating the film with too much exposition, “Ready Player One” cleverly layers it over action sequences and visual feasts. Spielberg, who’s created some of the most iconic figures, creatures, and heroes for the silver screen, handles everything with a master stroke. Watts is immediately sympathetic and likeable; his friends and cohorts are equally the same despite their minimal screen time. The motivations of Watt and his journey rarely get muddied, but because so much of the film’s focus is on him, we lose sight of some of the great characters accompanying him.

There’s the rushed love interest, Art3mis (Cooke). She’s pigeonholed more than a few times, but the moments where her character can demonstrate personality that isn’t cliché are some of her best moments. She’s able to breathe a little, whether it’s solo or complimenting Watt’s introverted personality, but it’s certainly not enough once we realize how powerful she truly is. The movie’s villain, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is an intern that works his way up the corporate ladder looking to cash in on someone else’s idea and then abuse the power he’s obtained. He’d be more menacing if he didn’t pass off so many of his bad guys duties to lackeys and spent his time relegating the fun missions inside the OASIS to a mercenary, played by T.J. Miller.

Character flaws aside, Spielberg puts viewers in this vast digital landscape without ever making it feel overwhelmingly and at times he even makes it feel intimate. The films has a chaotic “Mad Max”-style car race that smacks viewers with dozens of pop-culture references and has a more focused homage in the form of a Stanley Kubrick playground that I dare not spoil. Both work because they not only cater to different tastes, but are easily digestible for those who might not pick up on every reference. However Spielberg neglected the real-world that the OASIS was created in.

What global crisis is happening or has happened that’s led to Columbus looking like a third world country? Why does it seem like Watts and the head of an evil corporate entity is only a couple of blocks away at all times? Why is the resistance to this evil corporate on such a micro-level as opposed to the global scale it seems to be inside the OASIS. We feel like we’re trapping inside Ohio any time we’re not zipping through the OASIS. Those thoughts sometime minimize the character’s plight and the film’s overall narrative.

Luckily you won’t have too much time to nitpick the film’s shortcomings because of how brisk it moves, even within the time span of nearly two and a half hours. For all its faults, and there’s quite a few that I have and haven’t listed, “Ready Player One” had me grinning like a child at the movies for the first time. At times I felt like I was picking up a video game controller for the first time, waking up early on a Saturday morning for cartoons or sneaking out of my room past my bedtime to watch a bad cheesy movie. For those who don’t feel that sense of nostalgia, you’ll certainly feel young again.

 

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Film Review: “The BFG”

Starring: Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG
Running time: 1 hour 57 mins
Walt Disney Films

Our Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Film Review by Mike Smith

In 1982, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison teamed up to create one of the greatest family films of all time, “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.” Both earned Oscar nominations for their work, with the film earning a nod for Best Picture and taking home the prize for John William’s amazing musical score. More than a quarter-century later, the band is back together and history just may repeat itself.

London in the early 1980s. As the city sleeps, young Sophie (Barnhill) walks about the orphanage she calls home, taking in the various sights and sounds of the night. It’s 3:00 a.m. The Witching Hour. Sophie recites the three rules: Never Get Out Of Bed; Never Look Out the Window; Never Look Behind the Curtain. Sadly she doesn’t follow them, and in doing so spots a rather tall shape making its way through the dark streets. Realizing that the “shape” has seen her she retreats to her bed. First place they look!

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, in the hands of director Spielberg, “The BFG” becomes a new masterpiece that the whole family will enjoy. And while Spielberg is obviously the captain of this amazing ship, what makes it great is the performance of Mark Rylance. Revered on the stage, Rylance had done a total of eleven films in 30 years before he rose to fame with an Academy Award winning performance in Spielberg’s Cold War-era thriller “Bridge of Spies.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this film makes him the first actor nominated for a vocal performance only.

The story follows Sophie as she ends up in Giant Country, only to learn that the BFG (which is what she calls the Big Friendly Giant) is really rather small in the neighborhood. There are nine giants must bigger than BFG and they love the taste of little children. Which surely proposes a problem for young Miss Sophie. As we follow the mismatched pair, we learn about the magic of dreams and nightmares and even spend a little time with Queen Elizabeth II. Rylance’s performance helps the film jump off the screen and Spielberg shows he is still a master behind the camera. To use the BFG’s own words, “The BFG” is “Scrumdidilyumptous!”

Win Passes to the Kansas City Premiere of a Rare “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Fan Double Feature

Fans of our “Behind the Mikes” podcast know that it’s recorded every week at our favorite place, the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City. MediaMikes has teamed up with Drafthouse Films to give one lucky reader and guest the opportunity to attend an amazing double feature celebrating the 35th Anniversary of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made” brings stars Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala to Kansas City on their Raiders: Follow Your Dreams Tour for a special advance showing of the documentary followed by a rarely-shown screening of their legendary shot-for-shot adaptation of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Eric and Chris, two of the filmmakers behind the adaptation, will be present for a Q&A during the double feature.

To enter the contest all you have to do is let us know below which actor you think should succeed Harrison Ford on screen as Indiana Jones. One random entry will be chosen on Monday, June 27 and that winner notified by email. Good luck!

When: Thursday, June 30th, 2016
Where: Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet 1400 Main Street, Kansas City, MO 64105

Initially played just for family and friends, a VHS tape of RAIDERS: THE ADAPTATION made it into the hands of director Eli Roth, who played it publicly for the first time at the Alamo Drafthouse during Harry Knowles’ Butt-Numb-A-Thon movie marathon in 2002. After a rapturous reception from the audience, the adaptation later went on to have official Austin and Los Angeles premieres and has even be seen by Steven Spielberg, who called it “an inspiration.”

The documentary RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE tracks how the film made it in front of an audience, and the filmmakers modern day struggles to complete one final elaborate and expensive sequence. It also follows the lives of the boys who created the fan film, how the rediscovery of the adaptation affected their adult lives, and their memories of fashioning a love letter to their favorite film with little money, expertise, or adult supervision.

Ticket information: Tickets to the RAIDERS! Double Feature of both the documentary and adaptation can be purchased here for $12:

RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE
Official Site
Trailer
Side-by-Side Trailer

Film Review “Bridge of Spies”

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and Alan Alda
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 2 hrs 21 mins
Touchstone Pictures

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

I was born in 1960. By the time I was old enough to understand the state of the world, President Kennedy had been assassinated and the Russians were the bad guys. I don’t think I ever had a genuine fear that one day my Cleveland neighborhood would just evaporate in a nuclear explosion but I do know that to the generation before me, the Cold War was very real.

1957. We are introduced to a man who spends the majority of his days painting. Occasionally he will journey to the local park, paints in hand, to take in the beauty of the day. He is also occasionally followed by various members of the United States government. This man is Rudolf Abel and he is a Russian spy.

The second collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, “Bridge of Spies” jumps to the top of my “Best Film of the Year” list. Three-plus decades after “Bachelor Party,” Tom Hanks continues to add classic characters and performances to his resume’. Here he plays insurance litigator James Donovan, an attorney approached by the US government to represent Abel in his upcoming espionage trial. Donovan appreciates the fact that the US wants the trial to be transparent to the world…to show that Abel’s rights are not being violated. He doesn’t appreciate that he will soon be known as the guy defending the spy. Assured that things will be handled swiftly he remarks, “Great. Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose.” Things get even more hectic when the U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Russia and Powers is declared a spy.

Hanks’ performance is complimented by a star-making performance by Rylance, who in his native England is regarded as the greatest stage actor since Laurence Olivier. He is amazing here, his gentle manners and quiet demeanor lulling the audience into caring about him. The supporting cast is equally strong, from Alan Alda as Donovan’s boss at his law firm to Amy Ryan as Donovan’s supportive wife.

Visually the film is brilliant. Director Spielberg has recreated East Berlin in the early 1960s down to the razor wire on the wall. The mood is perfectly reflected in the screenplay by Charman and the Coens. Thomas Newman’s musical score also helps convey the feelings of the time. This is Spielberg’s 28th full length feature film since 1974. With the exception of “The Color Purple,” the previous 27 had been scored by John Williams. A short illness, and composing the score for the upcoming “Star Wars” film, prevented Williams from working on “Bridge of Spies.” Newman’s score is fine accompaniment to the story but I did, on occasion, catch myself wondering how Williams would have scored certain scenes.

As fall fades into the holiday season, “Bridge of Spies” has thrown down the first gauntlet in the season’s Oscar race.