All About Eve Review

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Yesterday I was lucky enough to catch a Cineplex Classic Films presentation of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, and I’m still buzzing about it. It energized me in the way few movies do, and reminded me why I love cinema so much.

The film begins at a stuffy awards dinner where the titular Eve is receiving a prestigious acting award. Our narrator, an acerbic theatre critic, introduces us to the two leads: Eve Harrington, a rising star, and Margo Channing, a falling star. The film then jumps backwards nine months to Eve’s first meeting with Margo. Eve’s in a shabby coat and hat, waiting in the alleyway behind the theatre, when Margo’s best friend, Karen, takes pity on her and brings her backstage to meet her idol. This was all I knew about the movie going into it, having viewed the opening scene in a film class, and that’s all anyone should know about the plot going in. Where this film goes in nine months is too fantastic a series of surprises to spoil.

All About Eve was nominated for 14 Academy Awards in 1950 (winning six, including Best Picture), and it’s not hard to see why. It’s the only film in history to receive four acting nominations for women: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in the Best Actress category, and Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress. There are male characters, and they are very well cast, particularly George Sanders as the critic/narrator, but this is a movie about women, starring women.

Margo is played by Bette Davis, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Something I’ve always been fascinated by is how much of an actor’s reality bleeds into their performances. Watching Sean Maguire endure bottomless sorrow in Good Will Hunting is made all the more heart wrenching knowing just the how much Robin Williams was hurting in real life. In All About Eve, when Margo sits in a car with Karen and slowly reveals how awful it is being an actress in her 40s, we understand that this isn’t just Margo speaking, or even just her and Bette Davis; it’s the countless women of Hollywood and Broadway whose leading roles start disappearing far too early. This isn’t to imply that Davis’s performance isn’t a monumental feat of acting. Margo lives a life of facades, and watching Davis play the woman underneath the disguise, a woman that Margo isn’t even sure she knows, is truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on screen.

Anne Baxter plays Eve, and to say too much about her character would ruin the fun of piecing together who she is, and what her motivations are. Suffice to say, Baxter immediately steals our hearts with an achingly honest monologue detailing her tragic past. She endears herself so completely to the audience that everything she does throughout the course of the story always seems more innocent than it perhaps is. Again, it’s tough to talk too much about her character without spoilers, but I honestly can’t choose a favourite leading performance in this movie.

Celeste Holm is Karen; she’s good, but is slightly overshadowed by the other actresses in the film. Thelma Ritter gives a hilarious performance as Margo’s maid, and Marilyn Monroe appears in a small role as another aspiring actress, who is far too innocent for the cutthroat business she’s trying to get into. It’s easy to see why she became such a star – in just a handful of lines she establishes her character’s charm, wit, and vulnerability, with, as it turned out, was just as autobiographical a performance as Bette Davis’s.

The plot of the film is ambiguous in whom it sympathises with, but, as with all great screenplays, the audience sympathises with, or at least understands, everyone. There isn’t a character in All About Eve that ever feels like a construct. There is also a great deal of humour in the film, and every joke is earned. There’s a wonderful moment when Margo is forcing the pianist at a party to play the same mournful tune over and over again. Her boyfriend approaches, and says dryly, “Many of your guests have been wondering when they may be permitted to view the body. Where has it been laid out?” Margo, who is beginning to fully feel the effects of aging in show business, as well as her fifth martinee, slurs, “It hasn’t been laid out – we haven’t finished with the embalming.”

This film is often compared to Sunset Boulevard, which came out the same year and is also about an aging starlet. While I respect that film, and acknowledge that Billy Wilder is a staggeringly talented director, its version of Margo Channing, Norma Desmond, is a significantly crueler characterization. We sympathise with her, but she feels more archetypal, satirical even, compared with Margo’s heartbreaking humanity. I like Sunset Boulevard, but I adore All About Eve. It’s one of those movies that you hear is one the best ever made, watch it, and say “Well that’s one of the best movies ever made.” Films like this remind me that there is entire world of cinema beyond the confines of my lifetime. All too often I favour the new over the old, which is something Margo Channing understands better than anyone.

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Avengers: Infinity War Review

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I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think there is any way to talk about this movie without massive spoilers sooooo if you haven’t seen Infinity War yet, avert your eyes, because this article is going to SPOIL EVERYTHING.

Ok, you’ve seen Infinity War? Good. Me too.

…And holy shit, Thanos just killed half the people in the universe. This likely isn’t permanent, but for at least a year, Black Panther, 70% of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Scarlet Witch, Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, and so, so many more have been reduced to dust with the click of Thanos’s giant fingers. And this movie freakin’ earned it.

I believe the success of the film rests on the foundation of one brilliant decision – making Thanos the main character. Post-credits tease Thanos has never really interested me, so I will admit to being apprehensive going into Infinity War. How could a giant purple CGI man with a stripey chin possibly be the villain that can hold their own against every Marvel hero? Marvel has certainly listened to criticism that their villains tended to be the weakest parts of their films. Their most recent villains: Ego, Vulture, Hela, and, most notably, Killmonger, have all been significantly more fleshed out than previous big bads. It now seems that this was all leading up to Infinity War, where Thanos has the most satisfying character arc of anyone in the movie, and is brought to photo-realistic life by the amazing folks at ILM, who manage to capture every nuance of Josh Brolin’s surprisingly contained performance.

I should note at this point that I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve seen every movie at least once and find even my least favourite, Iron Man 2, to be pretty entertaining. Kevin Feige and company have brought the world of Marvel comics to life in a way I didn’t think was possible, and have created films that are, for the most part, distinct from each other, while still feeling like part of a greater whole. This interconnectedness was most felt in Avengers 1 & 2, and Captain America: Civil War, but those movies could still be watched and appreciated by a non-Marvel fan. The same cannot be said for Infinity War. For better or worse, if you haven’t seen at least most of the Marvel movies, you are going to be really, really lost watching this one. Personally, I think that’s OK. Short of a quick “Previously On” most TV series don’t bother catching you up on who everyone is either.

So let’s get back to the plot, which ends with a jaw-dropping finale that just HAS to be experienced with an audience. Like all great endings, once we get there we realize that everything we’ve seen before has been leading to it. For two and a half hours we watch Thanos best our favourite heroes, in increasingly devastating ways; it only stands to reason that he would find a way to best them one last time. It’s often been said that the most powerful way to make an argument is to present the strongest possible version of your opponent’s point, then demonstrate why it’s false. Marvel did this perfectly in Black Panther, where Killmonger’s position is completely understandable, but the film (I think, rightly) points out that he would simply be replacing one oppressor with another. In Infinity War, as I came to understand Thanos’s reasoning behind his plan, I couldn’t help but recognize the demented logic of it. He’s a monster of course, but his unwavering sense of purpose, and the resulting humanity that Brolin conveys, carries us through a film that could have so easily been a complete mess.

Our heroes play varying degrees of supporting characters to Thanos, and most are well served. The Guardians of the Galaxy are given the most to do, and their weird brand of humour somehow meshed beautifully with every hero they encountered. My favourite exchange in the entire movie goes to Captain America’s response to “I am Groot” – “I am Steve Rogers.” Zoe Saldana is an incredible actor, and her portrayal of Gamora has never been better than it is here. Her scenes with Star Lord, and with Thanos, form the emotional heart of the movie, and are a staggering culmination of her character’s arc in the Guardians films. Also, she says that she loves Star Lord more than anything and it caused me to burst into happy-tears. Spider-Man has quickly become one of my favourite Avengers, and he steals every scene he’s in. His emotional death scene was the most affecting in the movie for me. Star Lord and Thor have some great banter – the scene where they compare tragic backstories is hilarious and genuinely poignant at the same time. Okoye delivers her lines with impeccable comic timing, and Red Skull shows up for a great cameo that I never saw coming. The only character who I truly feel is short changed is Captain America.

Iron Man and Captain America’s fight at the end of Civil War ends with what I consider to be a real misstep for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rather than having all their anger come to a head in some way, they just…stop fighting, and the final scene of the film implies that they apparently aren’t that mad at each other anymore. It’s a supremely unsatisfying ending to what would otherwise be one of my favourite Marvel movies. The ramification of this choice is definitely felt in Infinity War; Captain America has almost nothing to do, so all the scenes with him and the other disavowed Avengers feel largely empty. This is the main flaw in what I would describe as a flawed masterpiece.

Having only seen the movie once, and, of course, not having the benefit of hindsight when the sequel comes out next year, it may be too early to be throwing around the word “masterpiece.” And yet this is how I feel. I think the Marvel Cinematic Universe is something very special, that I perhaps haven’t fully appreciated over the years. Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of some truly masterful long-form storytelling, on a scale never before attempted. I will certainly watch this film several more times, and my opinion may change with subsequent rewatches, but right now, four days removed, I goddamn love this movie.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit Review

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is a fascinating failure. It was originally intended to be two films directed by Guillermo del Toro, and he spent a full year and a half in Wellington working on pre-production before abruptly leaving the project. The official explanation from del Toro was that due to MGM’s shaky financials at the time, the films had no official greenlight, and he couldn’t risk spending any more time on an uncertain project. The actual explanation is likely somewhat messier, as Lindsay Ellis brilliantly breaks down in her three part autopsy of The Hobbit, which can, and should, be watched here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTRUQ-RKfUs

She theorizes that MGM, and the four other studios involved in the films, didn’t like the direction del Toro was taking – a significant departure from the Middle Earth presented in The Lord of the Rings movies. Whatever happened, the result was that Peter Jackson reluctantly agreed to direct The Hobbit, threw away everything del Toro had done, from script to character designs, and started from scratch about two months before filming started. Compare this to the three and half YEARS of pre-production that was done on Lord of the Rings, and we can start to see why the Hobbit movies aren’t masterpieces.

The Hobbit is one of my favourite books, and Lord of the Rings is my favourite film trilogy of all time, so to see everything fall apart so spectacularly hurt a lot. The first film, subtitled An Unexpected Journey, has a handful of good scenes, and I actually kind of like The Desolation of Smaug, but The Battle of the Five Armies really illustrates how messy the entire effort was. The character arcs that have been sloppily built over two movies fall completely flat, and the titular battle is a bloated CGI mess that goes on for an interminable amount of time. Compare this to Lord of the Rings, which I rewatched this week. Every aspect of that trilogy gels seamlessly together to create a one-of-a-kind epic that never once loses sight of it’s characters amidst its spectacular action setpieces. It makes me sad that even though The Hobbit reunited almost everyone that made Lord of the Rings so special, the end result just doesn’t work.

I’d heard from a few people that I really should check out J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a fan edit by Dustin Lee. It trims the trilogy’s eight hour runtime in half, and according to his website tries “to keep the spirit of the book intact by removing unnecessary subplots, characters, ridiculous action scenes, and so on.” This sounded promising. Yesterday I finally took the plunge and watched the entire four hour film, and am pleased to say, really, really liked it. Lee has done a masterful job with this edit, and anyone who likes Lord of the Rings but not The Hobbit owes it to themselves to check out the fan edit.

You may be asking, “Are fan edits legal?” Here is what Lee has to say on the subject: “According to Fanedit.org, fan edits have no right to exist and no law to really forbid them. It’s a grey zone of legality. It is not the same thing as downloading an original movie (which is just stealing). There is the “fair use” argument that allows one to be creative with copyrighted material within limits. And there is “no money involved”, which is the main reason for no criminal offenses. Fan editors do not intend to earn money or to replace the original work. BUT AT THE SAME TIME, if you download my fan edit without owning the original Hobbit films, you are technically replacing the originals without ever having paid for them, which is wrong. So that’s why I ask that you own them first! At the end of the day though, no one has ever been arrested for creating a fan edit or for having one in his or her collection.” The entire Hobbit trilogy can be purchased on iTunes for $30, and the 10GB HD download of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit can be found on Lee’s website:

http://www.maple-films.com/downloads.html

What follows is a breakdown of the changes Lee has made, and what I thought of them. Full spoilers for the entire Hobbit trilogy ahead!

Right from the get go, the lengthy prologue with Smaug attacking Dale is completely gone. One of the biggest problems with The Hobbit is that too much focus is placed on the dwarves, and not enough on Bilbo. Thorin is no Aragorn, and making him essentially the lead was an unfortunate decision that reeks of studio notes. Removing the prologue and instead opening the film the way the book opens made me very happy.

Sadly, Lee couldn’t do much about the washed out appearance of Hobbiton. This is a result of shooting the film in 48 FPS, a neat idea that backfired completely. Shooting at twice the normal frame rate gives everything a muted appearance, and nowhere is that more noticeable than in Hobbiton. What was green and lush in Lord of the Rings is now grey and sad.

And then there’s the dwarves. Their intrusion into Bilbo’s house gives me mother! level anxiety, and they genuinely seem to be going out of their way to be awful. Lee couldn’t do anything about this, but he did trim some of their antics. Lord of the Rings features some genuinely hilarious moments – Merry saying “I think I broke something,” and then pulling out a broken carrot never fails to make me laugh out loud. The Hobbit attempts humour more frequently, and occasionally succeeds, but never when the source of intended hilarity is the dwarves. Everything about them is supposed to be funny, from Ori’s bowl cut to Oin’s ear trumpet, but somehow NOTHING is. It’s kind of heartbreaking, because the actors give it their all, but Lee was very wise to remove as much of their tomfoolery as possible.

The scene where the dwarves sing has been kept intact, and it’s really great. The entire sequence feels like a direct translation of the original text: “As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”

After Bilbo chases after the dwarves and joins their company, and the scene with the trolls (with some more dwarf hijinks removed) Lee deletes a boring Orc chase, and if I hadn’t seen the original cut, I’d never know it had once been there. We get right to Rivendell (hey, it’s Bret McKenzie!), and Lee cuts out everything involving the Necromancer, Saruman, Galadriel, and Radagast. For someone like me, who didn’t mind those scenes but agreed they didn’t fit with the rest of the narrative, Lee has made a one hour film entitled Durin’s Folk and the Hill of Sorcery, that beautifully edits together this entire subplot, and is available for free on Vimeo:

https://vimeo.com/channels/hobbitfanedit/130716015

The godawful encounter with the stone giants has been removed, and we instead only see the character moments: Bilbo almost falling to his death, and Thorin’s subsequent dismissal of his usefulness to the company. We get a shortened version of the Goblintown sequence, which I hated in An Unexpected Journey, but actually really liked here. Lee’s version of the film just works, and it’s amazing how much more open to The Hobbit it made me.

Riddles in the Dark is presented in its entirety. It feels almost like a one-act play, and watching Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman play off one another is impossible not to love. Freeman is a great Bilbo, and by the time he escapes Gollum and gives his speech about the dwarves not having a home I was tearing up. Then Azog shows up. This edit removes as much of him as possible, but considering he’s the main antagonist of the film trilogy, some Azog was unavoidable. He looks atrocious, a bland CGI creation that feels neither threatening nor believable. His iron poker for a forearm is intended to be menacing, but just comes off as ridiculous. Luckily his appearance here is pretty brief and before I knew it our merry band of adventurers was flying towards safety on the backs of giant eagles.

Considering I can’t make this column any more nerdy than it already is, I will mention that, no, the eagles aren’t a plot hole in Lord of the Rings. The whole point of the story is that the ring corrupts the powerful, and the eagles are pretty much all-powerful. So no, the eagles shouldn’t have taken the ring to Mordor – take that Family Guy!

We segue nicely into Desolation of Smaug, where Lee removes the most hated aspect of The Hobbit movies – the love story. I feel terrible for Evangeline Lilly in Smaug; Tauriel is an interesting, original female character, who is given almost nothing to do except fall in love with a bizarrely human-looking dwarf. The entire subplot is a colossal misfire, and I was happy to see it go. And Evangeline Lilly is about to star in a Marvel film with her character’s name in the title, so I don’t think she’ll mind being cut out of a fanedit of The Hobbit too much. Legolas is also largely removed from the film, and gives basically an extended cameo, which works quite well.

The dwarf antics are mostly taken out of the barrel chase, and the result is a tight, fun action scene that leads into an unexpected intermission. Apparently this comes right at the moment Peter Jackson originally intended to split the two movies, before the studios realized that an extra movie would make extra money. The intermission is a delightful surprise, and makes me wish more movies had them. I refilled my coffee, and sat back to watch the second half of a film that I was enjoying far more than I’d dared hope.

We head to Laketown, where much of the political subplot has been excised. The town looks gorgeous, its theme by Howard Shore is jaunty and catchy, and Luke Evans manages to sell Bard as a three dimensional character. This leads me to the only edit I wish Lee hadn’t made, and that’s the moment where a dwarf pops his head out of Bard’s toilet and his daughter asks if he grants wishes.

Lee expertly cuts around Fili and Kili staying behind in Laketown, and instead we simply assume they are with the rest of the dwarves as they finally arrive at the Lonely Mountain. We get to enjoy the entirety of the scene between Smaug and Bilbo (Sherlock reunion!) and it’s almost as good as Riddles in the Dark. Most of the action sequence as the dwarves escape Smaug’s wrath is thankfully cut, which leads to a slightly confusing moment where Smaug bursts out of the mountain, suddenly covered in liquid gold. To Lee’s credit, the scene that transitions to him being covered in gold is truly abysmal, and Lee has digitally removed as much of the gold as possible. It’s a tradeoff, but I think he made the right call.

We now get to The Battle of the Five Armies, the worst film in The Hobbit trilogy. It starts out promising enough, with Bard defeating Smaug, but then Thorin starts to get dragon sickness and everything goes to hell. Lee was presented with a fairly serious challenge here and I’m happy to say that he makes the best of a bad situation, and resolves this confusing plot thread with as much grace as is humanly possible. He removes several of the scenes depicting Thorin’s descent into madness, and this makes the arc feel more defined. By the time Dwalin tells Thorin how disappointed he is in him, we believe that Thorin may actually be listening, because we haven’t spent so much time watching him go insane. When he emerges from the Great Hall sans crown and ready to see reason, it’s still a tad underwhelming but nowhere near as much as in the original film.

The battle itself has been trimmed to its bear essentials, and rarely drags. The special effects still don’t look very good, but it didn’t really bother me this time, as I was by now fully immersed in the world. When the final encounter with Azog rolled around I couldn’t believe we were already there. The CGI artists had an extra two years to work on him this time, and he looks much better. The battle is well staged, though we get another bit of editing confusion where Thorin’s sword suddenly changes to the one that was taken from him in Mirkwood. Thorin’s last line – “If more people valued home above gold, this world would be a merrier place” – felt completely earned thanks to Lee’s Herculean efforts to shift the focus of the story to Bilbo. Then we get that great shot of Bilbo and Gandalf sitting together after the battle is over, a wonderful added scene, from the Extended Edition, of Thorin’s funeral, and finally we’re back in Hobbiton and the film ends the way The Fellowship of the Ring begins.

All in all, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit made me realize there was a lot of magic in The Hobbit movies – it was just surrounded by a lot of junk. Lee has molded these movies into something miraculous, and his cut of the films will now be a permanent fixture of my yearly Lord of the Rings marathon. Which I’m just now realizing has ballooned to fifteen hours. Plus that hour long Durin’s Folk and the Hill of Sorcery. Oh well, still shorter than Star Wars. And speaking of Star Wars, Lee’s fun edit of Rogue One, as well as several of his own films are available on his website! Check it out!

http://www.maple-films.com

A Quiet Place Review

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Last week I talked about new and exciting filmmaking voices making themselves heard. This week I was thrilled to witness someone else announce themselves as a talent to watch, and I must confess it was not someone I expected. John Krasinski, best known as Jim Halpert from the American version of The Office, co-writes, directs, and stars in A Quiet Place, and it’s absolutely terrific.

A Quiet Place imagines a world with one very simple problem: it’s been overrun by blind monsters with really good hearing. Like reeeeeally good hearing. The script is high concept writing at its absolute best; take a neat idea, and then ask, “What would it look like if this actually happened?” The film takes place primarily about a year after the invasion, with our protagonists, a likeable family, fully adapted to this crazy version of Earth. They eat only with their hands to avoid the clinking of cutlery, have trails of sand all around their farm to muffle the sound of their footsteps, and play Monopoly with cloth game tokens to avoid the familiar click-clack of that little iron making its way around the board. A huge part of how they’ve made it this far is that they are all fluent in American Sign Language, due to their daughter, Regan, being deaf. Regan is played by Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actor, who turns in an excellent performance as an adolescent haunted by a decision she makes in the film’s shocking opening scene.

Krasinski, who is by all accounts a wonderful human being, had this to say about Simmonds casting in a January 30th interview with IGN: “I knew I needed a girl who was deaf for the role of the daughter, who is deaf in the movie. And for many reasons, I didn’t want a non-deaf actress pretending to be deaf. Most importantly though, because a deaf actress would help my knowledge and my understanding of the situations tenfold. I wanted someone who lives it and who could teach me about it on set.” A Quiet Place demonstrates that there is literally no good reason to keep hiring able bodied people to portray people with disabilities – Hollywood take note.

This film also demonstrates the power of an original story, well told. There was brief consideration given to making this a Cloverfield movie, but this idea was mercifully axed. I normally try to avoid reading about how movies are doing at the box office, as it usually just makes me sad, but 2018 seems to be an exception to that. Black Panther is deservedly doing record numbers, and A Quiet Place decimated Ready Player One this weekend, earning $50 million domestically. Again, Hollywood take note! I saw this film in a full theatre, and it was both amusing and heartwarming how hard everyone was trying to stay as silent as the characters on screen. The man next to me made the unfortunate choice of Mike and Ikes for his candy, and after a few attempts at sliding the hard sweets out of the box, he simply gave up out of respect for his fellow film goers, and the film itself.

Emily Blunt is great in everything, and this film is no exception. She plays Evelyn with warmth, resourcefulness, and humour, which only serves to make it all the more unbearable when her character is put in harm’s way. Krasinski is good as Lee, but is ever so slightly overshadowed by his real-life partner Emily Blunt’s mastery of acting. Rounding out the cast is Noah Jupe and Cade Woodward as Lee and Evelyn’s other two children. They are both entirely believable as people too young to fully understand the horror of the world around them. The editing by Christopher Tellefsen is top notch, and gives the film a sense of momentum that never lets up. The script by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and Krasinski is a masterclass in minimalism, pacing, and suspense. My only real quibble is scene halfway into the movie that is perhaps a tad heavy handed, but in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the film.

A Quiet Place is horror filmmaking at its best. The characters are smart, the monsters are unstoppable, and the setting is so well established you feel like you’re really there. Krasinski reveals here that he can do so much more than execute perfectly timed glances at the camera. This is an incredible film, and I cannot wait for what he does next.

Source:

http://ca.ign.com/articles/2018/01/30/a-quiet-place-john-krasinski-discusses-directing-silent-terror-plus-exclusive-photo-gallery-ign-first

 

Ready Player One Review

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Ready Player One is a biting indictment of toxic fandom, hero worship, and nostalgia…and it has no idea it’s doing any of this. This is the rare film that is at once fascinating and incredibly dull – a prescient yet profoundly lazy blockbuster that says so much by saying so little. This is the worst Spielberg movie I’ve ever seen, but there is so much more to unpack here than in less offensive duds like Hook or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Take for example, a scene about halfway into the movie’s excruciating 140 minute runtime, where the characters step into a very famous horror film. I won’t spoil what scary movie it is, but suffice to say, it’s one that I hold in the highest regard, and watch about once a year. Up until then Ready Player One’s endless references to pop culture had left me fairly cold, but suddenly they were referencing only one thing, and it happened to be one of my favourite horror movies of all time. For a solid two minutes I watched with my jaw agape as the film’s signature music, aesthetic, sets, and even actors were perfectly recreated before my eyes. And then it all fell apart.

The characters turn a corner and walk into a room filled with CGI zombies that look like concept art from Disney’s The Haunted Mansion movie. My heart sank. Ready Player One stole something I loved, did nothing new with it, and then threw it away in favor of the movie world’s equivalent of bacon. As the movie’s increasingly annoying leads leapt from zombie to zombie, babbling about their encyclopedic knowledge of everything entertainment, I realized that this is the inescapable nature of nostalgia. Nostalgia is trying to capture the feeling of a time gone by, with nothing but aesthetics to recreate it.

Ready Player One imagines a future where everything’s gone to hell, so the population escapes into a virtual reality world called the OASIS. The bolding is not for emphasis but because OASIS stands for *sigh* Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. The OASIS is a massively multiplayer online game where almost everything is taken directly from existing properties. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, the Delorean from Back to the Future, King Kong, Batman, and literally hundreds of other references, both obscure and obvious. We meet our protagonist, Wade Watts, a young white dude who’s obsessed with the old white dude who created the OASIS, James Halliday. This obsession is largely due to the fact that before Halliday died, he stated that whoever finds three keys hidden in the game will get total control of the world that he built, which basically means control of the real world as well, since the OASIS is so ingrained in everyone’s lives. The keys can only be found by someone who knows literally everything about Halliday’s life, including his exhaustive knowledge of nerd culture.

Ready Player One genuinely believes that Wade’s preoccupation with Halliday and all things geek is healthy. It occasionally pays lip service to the idea that there is more to life than compulsively memorizing facts, but never demonstrates this onscreen. Ready Player One imagines a world where toxic fandom is something to be applauded and gatekeepers finally get the power they’ve always craved. For evidence of why this kind of thinking is flawed, we need only look at the fan reaction to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A contingent of Star Wars fans so vehemently hated the film and what it did to THEIR franchise (their doesn’t stand for anything, it’s bolded for emphasis) that they reacted in the most vitriolic way possible. They Tweeted death threats to the director and went off on barely disguised sexist and racist rants directed at the film’s diverse cast; one fan even created a cut of the movie that removes all female characters. It didn’t matter that the The Last Jedi told an interesting story, all that mattered is that it wasn’t the story they pictured in their heads – one involving a white male protagonist they could project themselves onto, plenty of references that only they would fully understand, and a simple story they could infuse with their own meaning. These fans seem to be the target audience for Ready Player One – a movie that abandons good storytelling and compelling characters in favour of never-ending references to other things.

Fandom is really just nostalgia with different name. It begins innocently – we watch, read, play, or listen to something that resonates with us deeply. We then try to experience it again and again, gradually paying more attention to the aesthetics and less to the meaning. When we see the thing referenced in other works we feel an endorphin rush of recognition, and are briefly transported back to that wonderful first time we experienced this singular piece of art. The thing becomes immune to criticism, and that includes criticism by the creators themselves. Because the thing isn’t theirs anymore, not really – it belongs to us, the fans.

Ready Player One is this idea made flesh. Hey, there’s the Iron Giant blowing people up with his lasers! So what if the theme of that film is that the Iron Giant is “not a gun” even though he looks like one? The previously mentioned horror film is a masterpiece of restraint, but let’s add zombies because zombies are fun. So what if George A Romero originally used zombies as social commentary on xenophobia and consumerism? There’s the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python and the Holy Grail! In that film, its detonation attracts the police who arrive and shut down the film’s production in one of the most inspired comedic endings of all time. In this film…it just blows up.

The film has a myriad of other problems. Neither the real world nor the OASIS are fully fleshed out, the love story is ludicrous, and character motivations take 180 degree turns with no provocation. The CGI is good, but never quite escapes the weightless feeling that so many computer generated film creations fall prey too. The comedic moments are painfully unfunny (it’s officially time to stop casting T.J. Miller), the villain is a non-threatening caricature, and the heroes are bland and lifeless whether filmed or motion-captured. No one in the cast is given anything to do, and the usually excellent Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, and Simon Pegg turn in actively bad performances. Every song on the soundtrack is as painfully obvious as the music selections for Suicide Squad. Spielberg directs with his usual aplomb, which only serves to highlight how much he’s slumming it here.

There is a way to make this film work. Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods both celebrates and questions horror fandom. A sly reference to a particularly nasty scene in The Evil Dead is punctuated with the constant examination of why we want to see teenagers butchered in the first place. The film works as a standalone story that is only enhanced if you fully understand what the film is referencing, and how you are the target of the film’s criticism. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s The LEGO Movie is almost as jam-packed with references as Ready Player One is, but it takes the stance that creation demands dismantling existing structures, and remixing them into something new. Will Ferrell’s villain in that movie has the same mindset as the heroes in this one: pop culture is sacred, and the greatest respect we can give it is to recreate it lock, stock, and barrel.

In the world of Ready Player One, no one creates anything new – they simply consume. It’s here that the film is at its most tone deaf, serving up a completely inadvertent takedown of fandom. George Lucas was a fan of Flash Gordon; he loved it so much he wanted to remake it for modern audiences, so they could understand what made it so special to him. When he couldn’t get the rights to remake it, however, he took what he loved about Flash Gordon, infused it with the works of Akira Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell, and Howard Hughes, and created Star Wars. Steven Spielberg’s influences are less obvious but still very much on display throughout his oeuvre; Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Walt Disney, and Stanley Kubrick all helped Spielberg create some of the best films of all time. In Ready Player One he is referencing a pop culture landscape that he helped create, which may be why the film feels so indulgent and unreflective.

I’ve written 1,500 words on the bleakness that is Ready Player One, but let me reiterate that this is not the future of entertainment, the way some people fear and others celebrate. The top grossing movie of 2018 is Black Panther which is one of the most original and exciting blockbusters in recent memory. Patty Jenkins made Wonder Woman, Greta Gerwig made Ladybird, and Jordan Peele made freakin’ Get Out. The future of art will always favour new voices and original stories, despite what a vocal minority would lead us to believe. After all, isn’t that what makes us fans in the first place?

The Death of Stalin Review

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Whenever I hear about something particularly ludicrous that Trump has done, be it the fake TIME Magazine hanging at his golf clubs or him just staring directly at a solar eclipse, my reaction is usually to laugh, and then shudder. This guy has nuclear codes. That reaction was felt many, many times watching The Death of Stalin, the new film from Veep creator Armando Iannucci. It’s a comedy, and a very funny one at that, but every laugh is superseded by a mounting feeling of dread that only intensifies as the story hurtles towards its shocking, grotesque finale. Screenwriters Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows present the mostly true story, albeit with a very accelerated timeline, of the chaos that followed Stalin’s unexpected demise, and the film is entirely unafraid of depicting the atrocities committed by the Soviet government during their regime.

Consider one scene, where the remaining members of the Central Committee gather all the doctors in Moscow to try and save their dying leader. The only problem is that Stalin had previously rounded up the majority of doctors in the capital, and shipped them elsewhere to be tortured for their role in a supposed plot to assassinate Soviet leadership. Needless to say, it proves very challenging to find a good doctor, and Stalin dies of a cerebral hemorrhage. The irony here is undeniably funny, and is played for all it’s worth, as is the incompetence of the only doctors that were deemed of no threat to Stalin, and the incessant scheming of everyone on the Central Committee. The menace sets in when, after Stalin dies, every civilian witness is either forcibly taken away in trucks, or shot on the spot.

It would have been easy to simply portray the leadership as buffoons, and skirt around the terror they inflicted on the people they governed. Indeed, being unfamiliar with the works of Iannucci, and knowing only what the poster looked like, this was what I expected. And while they certainly have their buffoonish moments – a scene where Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev repeatedly uses Stalin’s lifeless feet to point the direction they should carry him is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long while – they are never portrayed as anything less than monsters. When they inevitably make a movie about the horror show that is the Trump Administration I hope this is the route they take, rather than the softball approach of, say, Oliver Stone’s W. Ideally the film would also be directed by Armando Iannucci.

The production values in The Death of Stalin are superb. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson’s Moscow is a gray wasteland, a city devoid of hope, at the mercy of voracious wolves. The score by Chris Willis ranges from bombastic (every time a new character is introduced, time slows down and the music swells) to poignant (a son turning his father over to the secret police). It is incredibly rare that a comedy looks and sounds this good. The cast is stellar, with my favourite performances being Buscemi’s wolf-in-sheep’s clothing portrayal of Nikita Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale’s truly astounding turn as Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Beale commands every scene he’s in, oscillating effortlessly between Beria’s reptilian charm, untethered ambition, and barely concealed desperation.

The Death of Stalin is not going to be for everyone. There are sequences, especially in the final fifteen minutes, when comedy takes a definite backseat to horror. As the Central Committee’s squabbling and scheming is replaced by swift and brutal action, we are reminded that yes, this actually happened, yes, this is still happening in plenty of countries, and yes, until we can find an alternative to power hungry psychopaths running the world, this will continue to happen, again, and again, and again.

Pacific Rim: Uprising Review

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There are three kinds of “bad” movies:

  1. The ones that are boring. These usually have incomprehensible plots, bland characters, and a third act dreamed up while the movie was shooting. Think The Cloverfield Paradox or anything from the DC Extended Universe that isn’t Wonder Woman
  2. The ones that are morally reprehensible. These usually feature sexist and/or racist portrayals of women and people of colour, and often just have a misguided or hateful view of humanity. Think Jurassic World or anything directed by Michael Bay
  3. The ones that entertain you and therefore aren’t bad at all. These usually feature goofy stories, cornball dialogue, and everyone involved committing 110%. Think Mission: Impossible II or Pacific Rim: Uprising

I will qualify by saying that I am an unabashed fan of Pacific Rim. I acknowledge that it has issues, and would be a much better movie if Mako was the lead, but Guillermo del Toro writes and directs with such love for genre and characters that I always have a great time watching it. The fact that it pretty effectively builds an entire world is a plus, as are the numerous scenes of giant robots fighting giant aliens.

Pacific Rim: Uprising certainly won’t win any new converts, but it does a good job presenting the logical next step in the story. It doesn’t just retread the original, but actually builds on what happened at the end of Pacific Rim. One of the strengths of the original film was its diverse cast, and message that if we all work together we can do amazing things. Uprising continues this tradition, and mercifully jettisons Charlie Hunnam in favour of John Boyega, one of the best actors working today. His protagonist elevates this movie considerably, and newcomer Cailee Spaeny holds her own against him, as a young inventor who builds her own giant robot. Jing Tian, who kicked all kinds of ass in The Great Wall is quite good here, portraying a tech billionaire with questionable motives, and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, who played their characters broad in Pacific Rim crank the dial up to 11, giving truly manic performances that I thoroughly enjoyed. Scott Eastwood is also in this movie.

Director Steven S. DeKnight, best known for the lurid TV series Spartacus, does a serviceable job staging the large scale battles that are this series’ claim to fame. He doesn’t quite make you feel the scale the way del Toro did, and most of the character scenes are basic shot reverse shots, but I could almost always follow exactly what was happening in the action sequences. The screenplay by Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, Steven S. DeKnight, and T.S. Nowlin is where the movies’ biggest problems come from. As stated before, Uprising really does tell a second chapter, rather than just rewriting the first. There are times when the story is genuinely surprising, and there is a plot twist that will make fans of the first movie squeal with delight. Unfortunately, most of the characters aren’t very well written, and the film is muddy at best when it comes to their motivations. John Boyega’s protagonist is the son of Idris Elba’s character from the first movie, and is at first presented as wanting nothing to do with the Jaeger (giant robot) Program that his father was famous for. There’s a fun sequence showing him relaxing in an abandoned mansion, trading cars for Sriracha sauce, and just generally living the good life. Then a heist goes wrong and he ends up getting arrested and forced to join the Jaeger Program, which is never a very interesting way to get a main character into Act Two. Cailee Spaeny is recruited as well and has trouble co-piloting the Jaegers…until she just…doesn’t. The villain of the movie is also only doing what they’re doing because they’re possessed – not a good plot development, unless your movie is The Exorcist. The movie’s stakes go from high to low for no reason other than the writers backed themselves in a corner and didn’t know how to get out of it.

All that said, everything moves at a brisk pace, and the film has enough humour to sand down some of the roughest edges. This is a perfect Tuesday movie, or a movie to blow some SCENE points on. I will likely never watch Pacific Rim: Uprising again, but I had a pretty great time with it. Recommended, for fans of Pacific Rim, John Boyega, or movies that don’t feature Charlie Hunnam.