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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Steven Spielberg goes for broke but leaves viewers bleary-eyed in a bad way with Ready Player One, based on the popular Ernest Cline novel. The film is so full of pop-culture references that it doesn’t so much deliver them as visually vomit them into one’s face.

Rather than relishing the opportunity for ’80s nostalgia, Spielberg opts for whiplash pacing; he doesn’t allow any of the fun elements to really sink in. They pass by so fast that the film comes off as more of a speed-trivia exercise than an attempt at a true narrative.

The futuristic storyline involves something called the OASIS, a virtual-reality world that is not only a pastime, but a total escape from real-world poverty and pollution. Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives in a place called the Stacks—basically manufactured homes piled on top of each other, and he whiles away many hours in the OASIS as his alter ego/avatar, Parzival.

When Halliday (Mark Rylance), the inventor of the OASIS, dies—in a plot twist quite similar to that in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—he devises a way for somebody to win control of the OASIS. He plants keys throughout the virtual world, and the one who finds all of the keys first gets the whole damn thing.

As soon as Wade/Parzival puts on his VR goggles and jumps into the OASIS, the trivia Easter eggs start flying. The opening race scene, set in a shapeshifting New York, is a true winner, with Parzival trying to evade King Kong in his Back to the Future DeLorean. What follows are a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos by the likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason, Chucky, T-Rex and Batman. Scoring the film’s most prominent cameo would be the Iron Giant, which is super-cool.

In an ingenious sequence, Parzival and his virtual friends wind up in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, contending with the bloody elevator, the creepy twins and the decomposing old lady. Alas, we don’t see Jack Nicholson—just his ax.

Alas, the sequences that work are far outweighed by passages that become a blur as they race by. Making matters worse, the “real” world is populated by characters more cartoonish than the videogame avatars. The usually reliable Ben Mendelsohn seems lost as Sorrento, a former Halliday employee bent on OASIS domination. Olivia Cooke fails to distinguish herself as rebel Samantha (Art3mis in the OASIS), and Sheridan is bland.

Rylance, playing Halliday at multiple ages, comes off as a bit goofy; his casting makes little to no sense. In the early stages of production, it was rumored that Spielberg was courting the original Wonka, Gene Wilder, before he passed away. Since the movie deeply references the ’80s, casting somebody like Michael J. Fox, Henry Thomas, Tom Cruise or Kevin Bacon—true 1980s icons—could’ve been a lot of fun. Rylance seems out of place.

The film holds together OK enough for its first three-quarters, but ultimately falls apart in its final act—to an extent that is actually boring and makes little sense.

The soundtrack sounds like somebody trying to ape John Williams. For only the third time in his moviemaking career, Spielberg turns to another composer, Alan Silvestri, to score one of his films. The result lacks originality and is missing that catchy and triumphant yet somehow non-distracting vibe that Williams always seems to pull off. It plays like Williams lite.

I’ve made no secret of my love for Spielberg. Jaws is, and will probably always be, my all-time-favorite movie, and many other Spielberg films reside near the top of my list. However, Ready Player One definitely belongs in the bottom half of his massive cinematic output. Perhaps it coming to us a mere few months after his most-recent movie (the far-superior The Post) is a sign that his plate was too full to make Ready Player One a winner. It’s a visual rush job.

Ready Player One is playing at theaters across the valley, in both regular and 3-D formats.

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Perhaps the most important journalistic battle in American history gets the Spielberg treatment in The Post, featuring a stellar cast that includes Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The film explores The Washington Post’s decision to print the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam in 1971, a move that raised the ire of then-President Richard Nixon, and put the careers of people like paper owner Kay Graham (Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) in major jeopardy. Of course, Hanks isn’t the first movie star to play Bradlee: Jason Robards also played him in All the President’s Men, the classic film that covered the Watergate scandal. Bradlee, who died in 2014, was a journalism giant.

The movie starts in the mid-’60s with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a member of the State Department who is a study for then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) in South Vietnam. Embedded with American troops, Ellsberg sees all sorts of atrocities and is a firsthand witness to the growing failure of American participation in the Vietnam War. His forecast about the war’s outcome is bleak, but McNamara and President Johnson (and three presidents before him) share a rosier—and false—version with the American public.

In 1971, with Nixon in the White House, Hanks and Streep get their first scene together: They’re in a restaurant having breakfast, discussing their big controversy of the day—the White House’s meddling with their ability to cover the wedding of Nixon’s daughter. Bradlee refuses to bend to Nixon’s request to restrict a certain reporter, while Graham wonders what the big deal is. This scene is long, dialogue-rich take—and it’s basically a school in great acting.

Things progress from troubles with weddings to the war, with the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers by Ellsberg, and The New York Times printing a story about them. This move gets the Times in trouble with the Nixon administration. Bradlee and his team come into contact with Ellsberg and get the opportunity to go through thousands of pages of classified documents. They have two options: Print a deeper story on the classified documents and face potential treason charges; or bury the story to help preserve the paper, which is going through an initial public stock offering and would likely be harmed by any negative controversy.

History has told us what Graham, Bradlee and their team of reporters did—but that doesn’t make The Post any less thrilling. Spielberg not only uses The Post as an opportunity to put great actors in play; he makes The Post a grand testament to the golden age of print journalism.

It’s not just the risk-taking of editors, owners and journalists that makes The Post such an absorbing piece of history. The mechanics of producing a story for the masses in the 1970s were a little complicated by today’s standards: Journalists seeking leads with rotary phones and pay phones, and hard deadlines that had to be hit because it took a lot of time to actually publish a newspaper each day, play a big part in the storytelling. Spielberg relishes the chance to show a story getting rolled up on typed paper, shot through an internal delivery system to an editor, edited by a man with a pencil, and then placed on a costly template for publication. The sight of massive amounts of paper getting printed and then bound to be taken to the streets is one of Spielberg’s most impressive technical filmmaking feats in years.

The supporting cast includes Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the legendary TV comedians of Mr. Show. It’s a trip to see them onscreen together in a Spielberg production. Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson round out the cast.

The Post is the best Spielberg offering since Munich, bringing to an end one of the weaker stretches in his career that included the lackluster Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The BFG. It’s an impressively staged account of a pivotal moment in our history—at a time when the freedom of the press is again being actively challenged by a sitting president.

The Post is playing at theaters across the valley.

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With The BFG, the startling run of Steven Spielberg duds continues. After delivering two of the dullest movies of his career (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies), Spielberg has done the seemingly impossible: He’s made Roald Dahl completely boring.

Oscar winner Mark Rylance delivers a motion-capture CGI performance as the central character—the Big Friendly Giant—that results in more yawns than smiles. His giant captures dreams and blows them into the sleeping residents of London.

On one of his excursions, he kidnaps Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and takes her to the land of giants. Most giants are meat-eaters; luckily, BFG is a vegetarian, but he’s being bullied by a group of bad giants, led by Jemaine Clement, in what amounts to the film’s most fun motion-capture performance.

Despite a winning performance from Barnhill, a true star in the making, the film drags on and on, trying to get by on big special effects rather than a story line that engages. Everything feels a little off: A visit to the queen’s house, which should be bizarrely funny and subversive, winds up feeling awkward and uncomfortable. The whole movie seems to be playing it safe in Dahl land, with a decidedly E.T. vibe, and it throws the tone completely off. (It doesn’t help that John Williams rips off his own E.T. score.) It never clicks. Nothing really works.

Steven Spielberg is responsible for some of the greatest movies ever made. If he makes stinkers for the rest of his life, he’s still one of the most amazing men to sit in the director’s chair. That said, here’s hoping for a return to form soon—perhaps with another crack at Indiana Jones.

The BFG is most definitely one of the year’s bigger disappointments.

The BFG is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Steven Spielberg continues a mini-slump with another good-looking yet terminally boring historical drama.

After the middling Lincoln comes the sleepy Bridge of Spies. This is Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, and their first since 2004’s terrible The Terminal. It doesn’t represent a return to the glory of Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan.

This film certainly had a lot going for it. It’s Spielberg’s take on spying during the Cold War in the 1960s, which sounds like it should be exciting—and it’s a collaboration with the Coen Brothers. Joel and Ethan chipped in on the screenplay, which usually means good things are afoot.

I wish Joel and Ethan had directed it as well; perhaps then the film would’ve had more edge and been less cutesy, with its emotions a little less obvious and drippy. Also, a discernible pulse for the majority of the running time would’ve been nice.

Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a U.S. tax attorney who lands the unenviable task of representing alleged Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). While Donovan’s law firm and the courts see the whole thing as an open-and-shut case, Donovan makes it known that his intentions are to represent Abel to the full extent of the law. Cue the grouchy judge and perplexed bosses—and you know one of them is going to be played by Alan Alda.

In a parallel story, some pilots join the CIA in a new spying program with U-2 planes. One of those planes gets shot out of the sky at 70,000 feet, giving the Russians their own spy prisoner in Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). With the erection of the Berlin Wall, yet another “spy” is captured when Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student who picked a crappy time to study in Berlin, is apprehended by the East Germans.

Those captured American stories crisscross with Abel’s story as Donovan winds up overseas trying to negotiate prisoner exchanges.

Hanks is characteristically good in the central role. The film is at its best when Donovan is trudging through the streets of Berlin, trying to find the Russian embassy and evading thugs who are trying to steal his fancy coat. Hanks instills these moments with some good humor. It’s not one of his greatest performances, but it’s a solid one.

While the film bores me, but there is a sequence that pops with great intensity and displays Spielberg hitting all of his marks: When the Powers’ plane is shot down, the sequence leading up to him finally getting his parachute open is terrific. It feels like it should’ve been in another movie—perhaps one in which somebody turns a light on during the interior scenes.

Spielberg has directed only a few major bombs (1941, The Terminal, Hook), with a couple of films that were OK (Amistad, Always) and a boatload of classics. His last two movies don’t fall into any of those categories: Lincoln and Bridge of Spies are mediocre films that could’ve been great.

Spielberg needs to have fun in the fantasy sandbox again. Whether it’s the long-rumored fifth Indiana Jones, or some sort of sci-fi adventure, I want his next movie to be less about period haircuts and neckties, and more about storylines with energy. He’s getting hung up on films in which characters blather on and on in dark courtrooms and back offices. It’s tiresome and beneath him.

Many years ago, I would defend Spielberg films to people who thought he overdid it on the sentimentality. Many moments in Bridge of Spies had me remembering those arguments, because the moments dripped with sap. If somebody were to tell me today that Spielberg is overdoing it with the sentimentality, I’d raise my glass in agreement, then quietly shed a tear, because one of my favorite directors gone (temporarily, I hope) astray.

Bridge of Spies is playing at theaters across the valley.

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A few years back, word got out that Steven Spielberg and co. were looking to reboot the Jurassic Park franchise with dinosaurs controlled by the military. Internet chat rooms went berserk—and the chatter was not positive.

Then, it appeared the idea got scrapped.

Not so fast.

Jurassic World actually incorporates evil dudes wanting to use raptors in combat. Mind you, this is a fairly small part of the plot, and it winds up being a bit of a joke. Still, I really can’t believe this idea has actually made it into a movie.

I also can’t believe that a movie in which raptors are sought as military weapons is actually pretty good.

Jurassic World takes place 22 years after the original movie (the second and third films in the franchise are not acknowledged), and John Hammond’s original idea has come to fruition—albeit in a bastardized, Six Flags kind of way. Jurassic World has been up and running for years under the guidance of Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), another rich-guy owner who just wants the world to have lots of fun with dinosaurs. How naive!

Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has impossible hair and runs the place for Masrani, is dealing with some waning interest in the park. (People are getting bored with “normal” dinosaurs.) So she and the park’s techs hatch a plan for a genetically engineered, hybrid dinosaur that is bigger and smarter than the T. rex. The new monster is ready to be rolled out—and hopefully sponsored by Verizon.

Of course, the movie wouldn’t be any good if the new monster, Indominus rex, just hung out in its pen eating goats. Nope, this sucker gets loose—and lots of people and dinosaurs are in its path. Let it be said: This particular dinosaur is very nasty, and very entertaining.

Director Colin Trevorrow, who had a hand in writing the script, throws everything into this movie. This is one of those sequels that make fun of sequels, and it honestly couldn’t be much dumber. But sometimes, dumb is good when you are dealing with a big movie featuring rampaging dinosaurs.

“It boy” Chris Pratt plays the male lead, Owen, a sort of dino-whisperer who has a special relationship with a trio of raptors. He’s got them trained to the point where they won’t immediately tear his face off, and he can stand in a pen with them for a bit. Still, they look like they will eat his legs if given an honest chance.

Vincent D’Onofrio is the bad-guy military type who wants the raptors to fight terrorists. It’s all very kooky, but D’Onofrio has a talent for selling the ridiculous, and Trevorrow obviously isn’t being held back by reality. You have to be a good director to pull this sort of thing off, and Trevorrow—whose only other big-screen feature credit is the incredibly awesome Safety Not Guaranteed—was the right choice. He balances many plot threads (a couple of brothers lost in the park, evil military dudes, crazy dinosaurs) and delivers something that goes down easy on a summer movie night.

The finale, involving all-star dinosaurs kicking each other’s asses, is a real winner. Less emphasis on the people, and more dinosaurs, please! I was relieved that Sam Neill’s crotchety paleontologist was nowhere in sight.

In addition to the Indominus rex, who is a real keeper as far as psycho movie dinos are concerned, there’s a big water-faring beastie that eats great white sharks; plenty of flying dinosaur mayhem; and lots of raptor rampages. This one spares no expense when it comes to dinosaur screen time.

Of course, things are left open for a sequel—and there will be a sequel, for sure: $500 million worldwide in your first weekend usually grants one a sequel.

Jurassic World winks so much at the genre that it’s almost a comedy—a comedy in which lots of people get eaten by dinosaurs in totally insane ways.

Jurassic World is playing in multiple formats in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur fantasy is still one of the best adventure films ever made, but the new 3-D retrofit winds up muting the presentation rather than expanding it. 

While James Cameron’s Titanic looked and felt like it was meant to be shot in 3-D, the presentation here feels forced. The color is diminished, and the scope seems “squished.” It’s not awful, and I have seen worse 3-D, but it fails to enhance the film all that much.

Theaters are also offering the movie in its original 2-D presentation, and I would recommend revisiting it in that format. The combination of practical and computer effects to create the dinosaurs has easily stood the test of time; the effects continue to look amazing.

While watching the 3-D version, I noticed that Jeff Goldblum sticks his tongue out a lot when he speaks. It’s creepy.

Jurassic Park is playing in regular and 3-D formats across the valley, and in IMAX 3-D at the UltraStar Desert IMAX Theatre, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City, 760-324-7333.

Published in Reviews

It's the holidays, a time for giving people movies, because you love movies, and you want them to love movies, too.

You are bullish and pushy by nature, and this needs to stop.

This guide assembles some of the best releases from the past year. Let it assist you in the art of handing over a film to a friend to cherish and enjoy, rather than having him use it as a coaster or squirrel-decapitator.

And if you have a friend who would indeed ferociously fling a Blu-ray at a squirrel with the intent of taking the poor thing's head off ... perhaps you should reconsider this friendship.

The prices listed are for Blu-ray, unless otherwise noted. These were <Amazon.com prices at press time, and they change frequently. There are bargains all over right now, so shop carefully.

SPIELBERG!!!

Oh ... the Spielberg fans had a good Blu-ray year. Oh, yes, they did. If I have a movie-lover on my list, and that movie-lover isn't one of those lousy snobs who think Spielberg is a hack, I'll just buy him two or three of these selections, and call it a day.

Jaws (Blu-ray)

Universal, $19.96

The greatest movie of all time is on Blu-ray, and it's a winner. The transfer will bring tears to the eyes of those who were fortunate enough to see the film on the big screen in its heyday. It has some great documentaries on it, including The Shark Is Still Working.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures (Blu-ray)

Paramount, $64.96

This has all of the Indiana Jones movies on Blu-ray for the first time in one affordable package. It's a perfect gift for that friend you sort of like, but not so much that you would fork over more than $100 for them. Not recommended for Secret Santa office parties. Way too extravagant.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)

Universal, $19.96

This is the old-school version of the movie, without the damned walkie-talkies replacing the shotguns.

AMAZING DIRECTORS, AMAZING PACKAGES!

Tarantino XX 8-Film Collection (Blu-ray)

Lionsgate/Miramax, $89.98

This contains all of the films directed by Tarantino these past 20 years, plus True Romance, which he wrote. For less than $100, you can give that Tarantino fan every movie he has made, or piss off the Tarantino-hater for that same amount. You can't lose!

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Limited Edition) (Blu-ray)

Universal, $207.99

This has 15 discs loaded with 15 Hitchcock movies and special features. You get Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, North by Northwest and many others. This was my holiday present to myself.

TELEVISION: RETRO AND NEW

Steve Martin: The Television Stuff (DVD)

Shout! Factory, $34.93

This gathers many of Steve's TV specials from the early days, along with music videos and more-recent awards-show appearances. This is bliss for any Steve Martin fan. It also includes new interviews, with the man addressing each special and appearance. This is one of my favorite DVDs of the year.

Get a Life: The Complete Series (DVD)

Shout! Factory, $30.49

The great Chris Elliott TV show features him as a grown-up paperboy living in his dad's house and putting huge toy submarines in his bathtub. This show was really weird and always funny.

Louie: Season 2 (Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, $21.99

Louis C.K.'s creation is the best thing on television, and the second season was as good as the first. The third season has aired, but doesn't have a DVD or Blu-ray version yet (although you can watch it on iTunes). Give the gift of laughing so hard that socks go through one's nose.

Metalocalypse: Season 4 (Blu-ray)

Cartoon Network, $21.83

You don't have to be a fan of death metal to like this hilarious animated series (although the music is actually quite good). One of the year's greatest special features has Dethklok's lead singer reading Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors for 90 minutes or so. This continues the Metalocalypse home video tradition of Nathan sharing the Bard.

SUPERHEROES

Marvel's The Avengers (Blu-ray)

Walt Disney, $24.96

The Dark Knight Rises (Blu-ray)

Warner, $18.99

The Amazing Spider-Man (Blu-ray)

Sony, $18.96

For my money, The Avengers offered the best superhero ride this year, with The Dark Knight Rises coming in a distant but solid second. The Amazing Spider-Man was stupid, but I'm in the minority on that one, so I'm sure lots of folks would appreciate seeing it under the tree.

THE BEATLES!!!

Yellow Submarine (Blu-ray)

Capitol, $22.78

Magical Mystery Tour (Blu-ray)

Capitol, $24.99

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Blu-ray)

UMe, $17.99

Chances are, you have a Beatles-lover on your list who would find great value in the titles listed above. Chances are, you also have a Beatles-hater on your list. If, deep down, you actually hate that person, give her these discs, and enjoy her "WTF?" face. Beatles-haters suck, so make them really angry.

<h/2>SHIPS DON'T SINK

Titanic (Blu-ray)

Paramount, $21.49

A Night to Remember (Blu-ray)

Criterion, $17.81

Here are two awesome films about the same thing, coming to Blu-ray for the first time. One has Leonardo DiCaprio getting really cold in glorious color, while the other has a bunch of English actors going down with the ship. Both are pieces of incredible moviemaking, and worthy of your average stocking.

THE SINGLE COOLEST BLU-RAY THIS YEAR

Little Shop of Horrors: Director's Cut (Blu-ray)

Warner, $17.99

For the real collector, this Blu-ray has the best special feature of any disc this year: You get the original ending of this twisted musical, in color—a huge change. Instead of Rick Moranis triumphing over his evil plant, he is devoured by Audrey II, who then proceeds to eat New York City and hump the Brooklyn Bridge.

GREAT NEW MOVIES THEY PROBABLY HAVEN'T SEEN

Safety Not Guaranteed (Blu-ray)

Sony, $24.99

Ruby Sparks (Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, $11.93

These two gems didn't light up the box office, but they have the capacity of lighting up the various holiday things people put gifts under or around. Lovers of independent, intelligent cinema will see two of the year's best performances by actresses (Zoe Kazan in Ruby and Aubrey Plaza in Safety).

COMPLETE THEIR ALIEN COLLECTION

Prometheus (Blu-ray 3-D/Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, $29.49

Ridley Scott's return to his Alien universe was a stunner, and the Blu-ray is packed. Make sure to get 3-D Blu-ray, even if you don't have 3-D capacity yet. That's because there are many more bonus features on this disc, and they don't require the glasses.

A REMINDER THAT LIAM NEESON ACTUALLY MADE A GOOD MOVIE THIS YEAR

The Grey (Blu-ray)

Open Road, $26.99

This one came out early in the year, and I'm afraid the great Liam Neeson performance will get ignored come awards time. Oh well ... it does have lots of snow, which is sort of holiday-like. It also has lots of wolves eating people, which might put a damper on somebody's holiday joy. Give this one to the person who doesn't mind seeing people getting eaten by wolves while drinking his eggnog.

WES ANDERSON RULES

Moonrise Kingdom (Blu-ray)

Universal, $19.99

While the Blu-ray itself doesn't have nearly enough supplements, the movie is one of the year's best, and is currently at the top of my list. It's gift-worthy.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing