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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.

Published in Reviews

Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film about the 1940 evacuation of allied troops from Dunkirk is one of the great visual cinematic spectacles of the 21st century—and for that, he should be applauded.

Unfortunately, some of his scripting and editing decisions take away from the effectiveness of his movie. In a strange way, this is one of his least-successful films. We are talking about the guy who made Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Inception, Insomnia and Memento. All of those are great films—and better films than Dunkirk.

Still, Dunkirk is a good movie, and an occasionally astounding one if you manage to see it on an IMAX screen, either at the Regal Rancho Mirage or elsewhere. Nolan shot on film, with all scenes intended for IMAX; add in some incredible soundtrack work by Hans Zimmer, and the movie begs to be seen in theaters—even if the experience is a bit empty in some ways.

Nolan, who also wrote the sparsely worded screenplay, makes the film in three parts. One part is the events on the beach, which take place over a week. The second part is the evacuation at sea, which unfolds in a day. The third is the battle in the air, which covers an hour’s worth of events. The film jumps from one timeline to the next, often abruptly, with the stories ultimately interconnecting. Any Nolan fan knows that he loves to make his movies in complicated ways involving time (Memento being a prime example), and the director himself has called Dunkirk his most experimental yet. Nolan is out to prove that you can cut away from a harrowing ship-sinking sequence to an also-harrowing battle sequence in the air—and maintain the tension all along. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pull off the stunt every time. There are moments when he cuts away to another timeline that I found frustrating and unnecessary. It feels like a director being a little too cute.

I know, I know: Nolan is trying to show how hectic, crazy and unilaterally nuts the whole situation was, with each battle and predicament being equally terrible. That sort of thing goes without saying: Soldiers and civilians were put through all kinds of hell, with one terrible occurrence after another. But Nolan’s experimentation comes at the expense of good, clean, straightforward filmmaking. So far, his movie-puzzle games work better with fiction than they do with real life events.

Mark Rylance plays the captain of a private boat on his way to rescue men from Dunkirk, while Cillian Murphy is a shell-shocked ship-sinking survivor; they provide the main performances in the “sea” portion of the movie, and they offer up the film’s best acting. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles play soldiers on the beach—and let it be said that One Direction’s Styles is a natural onscreen. Tom Hardy, his face once again covered by a mask in a Nolan film, plays one of the fighter pilots, while Kenneth Branagh is on hand as Commander Bolton, overseeing the evacuation on land.

Zimmer’s soundtrack, which utilizes a ticking stopwatch, manages to ratchet up the tension and deliver some glorious notes. In many ways, it’s the glue that holds the whole enterprise together.

Nolan decided to use real ships, planes and sets rather than relying on CGI. In many ways, this gives Dunkirk the epic visual scope that is missing in many high definition, CGI-heavy efforts. This looks and feels like a real movie.

By all means, go see Dunkirk while it is in theaters. It’s certainly a good workout for the eyes and ears, and enough of the moments resonate to make the movie worthwhile. Just be prepared to feel slightly let down if you are thinking this is going to be Nolan’s best, or one of the year’s best films.

Dunkirk is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

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.

Published in Reviews