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Movie Review: Deadpool 2

Deadpool is not a comic character I generally enjoy. There’s some iterations where he’s more the loose cannon with some slight humor I enjoy, for example as a member of Wolverine’s X-Force. But, the pure comedic/slapstick take in comics I just don’t find funny. What’s weird is, the humor I don’t enjoy on the page, I do enjoy on the screen. While it’s a bit less Looney Tunes when it comes to live action, the jokes work due to the excellent comedic timing of the various actors.

Deadpool 2 ups that humor to 11 but it’s at the expense of a plot. So, this sequel both succeeds and fails spectacularly at the same time.

The general plot involves time travel and a new character Cable traveling back to stop a mutant from going bad and killing a lot of folks. Deadpool thinks that kid has a chance at redemption and to stop Cable he needs to form a group. There’s really no reason he needs a group, it’s just an excuse to go bigger in the end and sets up one of the best jokes of the film.

And the setting up of jokes is what the film is about. It’s a comedic porno in that it’s goal is to set up the next scene and the money shot. That’s it really. The action is over the top. The acting is ho-hum. It’s all fan-service by introducing characters and namedropping locations and other comic Easter eggs to make the fans excited. There’s no real reason for any of these things other than fan service.

With more fourth wall breaking and meta jokes, the film feels like the jokes came first and the sequences and plot came second. As I said above, the plot is pretty thin. It’s basically a reverse Terminator (pretty sure that joke is mentioned). But, like the Looney Tunes Deadpool emulates, the film is all about the gags and for the most part, they land. There’s a lot of jokes and I found myself laughing a lot. Like cry/piss your pants level of laughing. The film is a success in that way.

And those jokes are interesting. There’s the macho/borderline homophobic jokes from the first film like a “dick in the mouth” but the film also is shockingly progressive. It’s almost self-aware about it all.

The first LGBTQ character in a live action comic adaptation (I think) is introduced with Negasonic and her girlfriend Yukio and Deadpool doesn’t care. He congratulates her. There’s an entire speech about the lack of plus-sized superheroes. There’s ongoing jokes about Cable being racist. Deadpool multiple times comments about the “Men” in X-Men and how it’s sexist. But, there’s also pedophile jokes and some other borderline ones. The film seems to cover it all in a weird way.

Generally though characters are presented as parts of jokes or to play off of. Cable is too much of a straight man and too serious. Domino is underused. The rest of X-Force… well, just see the film. Negasonic and Colossus are good foils and play off of Deadpool well in similar chemistry as the first film but again, not really needed. It’s all there to get that key shot and up the cool factor.

The best part of the film is the end credit scenes which really sum up the humor of it all. The admission is worth it for them alone and had me leave the movie with a smile.

The film isn’t bad. It’s quite funny. There’s just little plot, something that’s a big step backwards from the original. The movie delivers the humor and a surprising amount of heart and while is a distant third of Marvel film properties to see this year (so far), it’s still worth checking out. It’s just a lesson that turning things to eleven is not always the best course.

Overall Rating: 6.0

Movie Review: Life of the Party

Life of the party posterMelissa McCarthy is one of the funniest people working today. But even a cast full of some of the best comedic talent assembled for any film in 2018 can’t save this movie from wearing a little thin on its premise.

McCarthy is Deanna, who, upon dropping her daughter off for her senior year of college, is hit with an ultimatum from her husband (Matt Walsh) for a divorce. He has fallen for the local realtor with her face on all the bus benches (Julie Bowen) and they’re already in the process of selling the house. With nowhere else to go, Deanna decides to re-enroll in college to finish the last year of her archaeology degree, and not enough wackiness ensues.

Maya Rudolph tries to steal the movie as McCarthy’s best friend, as do Stephen Root, Gillian Jacobs, and Heidi Gardner. But the film’s premise ultimately wears thin — it’s a middle aged mom going back to college!! — and it relies more on uncomfortable, cringe-worthy humor of a mom embarrassing herself in front of her daughter.

What is refreshing, however, is that this is exactly the same type of movie we would’ve seen in decades past with male leads — Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield in the 80’s, Billy Madison with Adam Sandler in the 90’s, 21 Jump Street with Channing Tatutm and Jonah Hill — but this presents a female-centric story with a really sweet heart.  Unfortunately, it also falls into some of the same traps and tropes of these older films, too — if the girl just lets down her hair and stops wearing glasses and frumpy sweaters, then suddenly she’s attractive? Ugh.

In fact, it’s the character-driven, more dramatic moments of growth that really work in this movie, such as Deanna hooking up with a much younger college guy who absolutely worships her. McCarthy shows off her dramatic chops a little, which should be no surprise to anyone who knows her from Gilmore Girls or saw her opposite Bill Murray in St. Vincent. There’s also an ongoing storyline about dealing with the campus mean girls and eventually winning them over that is nice. But the film threatens to lose a lot of that goodwill when, during the third act, the girls get high and then crash and ruin a wedding.

It also feels like the film might be holding back a little bit. Obviously going for a PG-13 rating, they never really get dangerous with their comedy.  With McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone getting writing credits (Falcone also directed and shows up in a brief, but perfect, cameo), it’s fairly obvious they wanted to work with a giant group of actors famed for their improv skills.  If there are R-rated outtakes from this movie, I want to see them.

Because otherwise the film is just sort of bland. While not a failure by any means, it just doesn’t go for the comedy jugular the way some other of McCarthy’s previous comedies have. But, at least it’s not as bad as Tammy, which remains the unequivocal nadir of McCarthy/Falcone’s collaborations.

This film gets a genteleman’s C — nay, make that a gentlewoman’s C. It passes, just barely, but it feels like it just sort of showed up despite amazing talent, it could’ve achieved great things if it had applied itself a bit more.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Avengers Infinity War: A Conversational Inter-Review With A Casual Fan

Avengers Infinity WarContrary to what you might expect, my wife isn’t a huge comics fan and hasn’t seen every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But because she loved Black Panther (didn’t we all?) she wanted to see Avengers: Infinity War with me. I thought it would be interesting to see how the movie held up for somebody who doesn’t gobble up every possible aspect of the MCU within days of it being released. Can this movie be enjoyed by somebody who has only seen a handful (in no order: the first Captain America, Guardians 1 and 2, Thor 3, Ant Man and Black Panther) of the 18 previous movies? Let’s find out!

The burning question; did you enjoy it?

Yes! While I certainly went in blind, not knowing everything I felt I should about the characters and their previous story lines, I found it easy to follow along with  and quickly found myself intrigued by the storyline. I also found myself wanting to watch some of the previous films so I could get to know some of these folks better. Dr. Strange in particular caught my eye. Sorry Iron Man, but you will never get me on board. I don’t know what it is about RDJ that just doesn’t do it for me. But what I do know is that it’s hard to pick which Chris is the hottest of them all. Ok, well maybe not *that* hard… I see you there C. Hemi. But in all seriousness, I was so excited when Black Panther showed up. That was a film that truly grabbed my attention and going in I was most excited to see this character again. Avengers Infinity War certainly was action packed and a fun film that crosses so many familiar characters, that even a casual comic fan (whether I want to be or not, love ya babe) can quickly find themselves hanging of the edge of their seat. I would certainly recommend it.

Did you feel that there was enough of the characters you were unfamiliar with shown so that you got a sense of who they were? 

Yes and no. I couldn’t quite place all the new to me characters, but it didn’t take away from the other all story line. but as mentioned previously, some of the character intrigued me enough to want to get to know them more.

In comparison to the other films you have seen from the MCU, how did the movie compare? 

I think that for me I personally prefer some of the stand alone films more, such as Black Panther and Guardians because as a casual fan, it gives me more of their own stories, but I did like that I knew enough about some of the characters to be able to enjoy this film and get a good sense of how stories develop and cross over in the pages of so many comics.

Speaking of comics; did the movie encourage you to pick up a comic or two? 

Never say never, but it’s likely not my first medium of choice.  That said (as you well know) I do own a few comics of my own already :)

And finally, do you feel the need to see the next Avengers film after having seen Infinity War

Absolutely! I mean, that ending tho!!!!!

Stan Lee has said that any comic could be a person’s first, a view shared by at least one other publisher, and in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the same can also be said. Do you need to watch everything to be able to enjoy the movie? No, not at all. But some familiarity will help you.

Now excuse me so I can continue guiding my wife deeper into the MCU…

Movie Review: Marvel Studio’s Avengers: Infinity War

This is it, ten years and 18 movies and we’re finally at beginning of a sort of end point for what has been an impressive feat of cinematic world building. Everyone should know the basics of Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos, the bad guy in the shadows in all of the previous films, is gathering the Infinity Stones to wipe out half of existence. It’ll take the fractured Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy to come together an take on Thanos and his hoards.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first two Avengers films. The first was absolutely impressive in bringing so many heroes together from their own films, a first in many ways, and it was fun though thin. The second showed going bigger isn’t always better and expanded the world even greater while sowing the seeds for the next phase. Here, threads going back to the first Iron Man come together and it pays off.

Avengers: Infinity War is impressive. Really impressive. The film balances a lot and does so in a brilliant way. This isn’t one film, it’s really four threaded together in a way. At about 2.5 hours, the film is packed in and plotted in a way that keeps the viewer engaged the entire time and never feels like it’s too much or over the top.

The film begins right after the events of Thor: Ragnarok and does its best to establish the strength of Thanos and his minions, the Black Order. We’ve yet to see these individuals in a fight and directors Anthony and Joe Russo as well as screenplay writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely know they need to create the feeling these villains are bigger than life and an actual hurdle for our heroes. They do that and then some. It also establishes everyone is on the chopping block and can die. No one is safe. Expectations are set within the first fifteen minutes and then the rules are established.

Those rules are also toyed with as numerous characters at numerous times foreshadow their deaths. Normal tropes are used to subvert and toy with the audience expectations. The creative team knew what audiences were expecting in some sense and have clearly decided to play with that. Tropes can be used as weapons to play with expectations and in this case it works and works well.

The second intelligent decision of the creative team is the use of Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, in the film. Gone since Avengers: Age of Ultron, Bruce was last seen in Thor: Ragnarok and he’s unaware of events that have transpired on Earth and with the Avengers. Through Bruce, the creative team informs the audience what has happened. So, those who might not have seen previous films can be caught up. Bruce is the device to catch folks up. It works and works well. It also has some comedic nods here and there due to that.

The film itself is broken up into three main parts. Thor is on a quest for a weapon. Iron Man is on a quest to take on Thanos. Captain America is on a mission to defend Vision and his Infinity Stone in Wakanda. Three plot lines that all feel like they’re given more than enough time.

But those three plot lines also do something interesting. They allow individuals to come together in different pairings instead of bringing everyone together and overwhelming everything. We’re given doses of what we want as too much would be overwhelming.

And that coming together is fantastic. It’s exactly as it should be. When put in a room the bravado and dick measuring would be overwhelming and that’s exactly as we get. A bunch of alpha males in a room together playing off of each other. And beyond that, we also get growth too. They may make smart ass comments to each other but they eventually work together in an organic way, though still keeping the great banter.

The movie also takes us to familiar locations in a “best of” sort of way. New York is attacked. A battle in Wakanda. A trip to Knowhere. It’s all there and then some as new locations expands upon everything we’ve seen before.

The villains though stand out to me. The Marvel films have had good villains, but not great (some exceptions may apply). Here though, it truly feels like a villain and obstacle has been created that is an actual challenge. This isn’t one on one battles, this is five or six on one or four on two. And in each one, the good guys struggle. It really feels like they have to put in a massive effort and things don’t just fall into place.

Thanos and the Black Order look fantastic. The motion capture for Thanos (and really all of them) is impressive to the point Thanos’ eye twitches as he thinks about something. The detail is great and there’s moments I forgot what I was looking at and would have thought it was Josh Brolin in practical make-up. Thanos too is given an amazing motivation and story arc. We get to know him, his philosophy, the why, and at times agree with him. There’s also emotional depth that comes through. This isn’t a villain, this is a fully fleshed out character who has an arc all to himself.

Not everything is perfect. There’s some truly horrible CGI later in the film and Elizabeth Olsen’s accent doesn’t want to stay around all the time. But, each character has their moment with the focus being on Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. Though there’s a lot of characters no one really feels like they have been left out.

This is a film the audience cheered during and regularly gave a “hell yeah” to as moments just hit the mark. It’s hard not to get excited watching and that’s the biggest downside. While you cheer and laugh (and there’s a lot of laughter, great use of humor) you wind up missing some things which invites repeat viewing.

The film is a masterpiece in many ways pulling something off I never though imaginable and doing it in a way that beyond works. It also circumvents expectations in many ways. It’s clearly the first of two parts, so go in knowing that and you’ll be fine by the time things wrap up. It’s a must go and do so with as little spoilers as possible. Avengers: Infinity War is some of the most fun I’ve had in a theater in a while and will absolutely be breaking records.

Overall Rating: 9.0


Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers Infinity War[This review will be spoiler-free. However, it does contain some discussion of the plot, mostly discernible from the film’s promotional materials]

It’s impossible to be hyperbolic. There has literally never been another movie like Avengers: Infinity War. 

The culmination of a decade of serialized, connected movies, ever-teasing fans towards a giant crossover event. So, is it any good?

Absolutely, yes. It’s also one of the most challenging films in the genre, as it’s sure to leave many fans quaking with anger or curled up in a fetal position.

Leave all of your expectations at the door, because this film is chaotic and nihilistic. It is also beautifully crafted and supremely morally-centered, as all great superhero fare is.

At center is Thanos, a big baddie whose coming has been teased in a half dozen films. His goal? To unite six Infinity Stones, sources of great galactic power. Unlike most would-be conquerers, Thanos is not interested in ruling the galaxy, but, rather, destroying half of it. Channeling Malthusian theory, he believes the universe must be “balanced” by killing half of all living beings.

On the opposing end are literally almost every character in the last decade of movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Bring tissues. Thanos leaves a body count.

However, if you think you know who lives and dies, put all your expectations aside. One problem with watching this film is it is so full of feints and misdirection, you keep waiting for the next major character death. You will need to see this multiple times just so you can stop anticipating and simply enjoy the spectacle.

And boy howdy, is there ever spectacle. All of your favorite characters get their moments, and some even more than others. Front and center are Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and Thanos’s daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). On top of them, all of your favorites return, and perhaps the most impressive thing about this film is that everyone gets a moment to shine. Not only that, but they get specific callbacks to their films and backgrounds that are huge pay-offs for the fans who have been paying attention since Day 1.

Perhaps just as impressive is how expeditiously they dispatch their exposition in the first part of the film. Believe it or not, for a film that banks on its viewers having seen at least a half dozen other films in the series, it gives a nice intro for anyone who is either neophyte or needs a refresher. Stan Lee used to always spend the first few panels of every issue explaining how we got here, saying, “Every issue is someone’s first.” Avengers: Infinity War takes this in stride.

As great as our heroes are, this would fall flat without a great villain. And Thanos is a great villain– one who believes he is right, and we can empathize with as he goes on a personal journey as well. It’s not often that your antagonist is the one who enjoys the most character growth, but here we are.

A tiny complaint is that the CG that makes Thanos come to life looks a little uncanny valley-ish, but let’s be real: he’s a giant purple dude. He’s going to look cartoonish every once in a while. It’s ok, and it’s certainly nothing compared to another giant CG villain in a comic book event movie– Steppenwolf from Justice League. In every conceivable way, Thanos is a superior villain, despite these minor quibbles.

This film is just so unexpected. Who knew that such a giant spectacle could also carry so much emotion? It is also so meticulously constructed — balancing multiple storylines at different ends of the universe with beautiful, fantastical settings — that this truly deserves to be seen on an IMAX screen (or the biggest one you can find). The Russo Brothers prove themselves masters of being able to juggle this many things at once and yet make sure they all work. They’re master chefs who tell you they’re going to put 30 different ingredients into a giant burrito, and at first you’re incredulous, then skeptical, then hopeful, and as you taste it you’re surprised at just how well everything works together.

And a final exhortation: don’t spoil this movie for others. A LOT of stuff goes down. Make sure before you discuss it in public, on social media, that everyone around you has seen the movie.

But when you do see it, see it with friends, family, and others so you can cry together, and then wonder, “Where do they possibly go from here?”

The conclusion in 2019 can’t come soon enough to answer the questions left hanging.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Rampage

rampageThis movie is so dumb it makes me want to go on a rampage.

This should be a winning formula: giant monsters wreck a city. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Even for a movie based on a video game, this is not good. It makes previous work by The Rock in other middling, more pedestrian fare (San Andreas, for example, which director Brad Peyton also helmed) look downright brilliant by comparison. It’s unfortunate, because the diverse cast members, including Malin Ackerman as a villainous billionaire and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as an irascible government agent, are utterly wasted and given nothing substantive to do.

Our hero Davis Okoye (Johnson) is a primatologist who also just happens to be ex-special forces — because there’s plenty of those, right? When his best friend George, an albino gorilla he has raised since childhood when George’s family were slaughtered by poachers, is exposed to an unknown chemical agent, he starts growing and becoming incredibly aggressive. In walks Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) who developed the “Rampage” formula for evil billionaire brother and sister Claire and Brett Wyden (Ackerman and Jake Lacy) to explain the plot to both us, the audience, and everyone else, as George starts destroying things.

Oh, and there’s also a wolf and some sort of alligator/snapping turtle/dinosaur creature that got exposed, too. But essentially, there’s no reason to care about any of this. Anyway, the evil scientist siblings turn on a device on top of the Chicago skyscraper to bring the creatures to them (like ya do) to force a final urban showdown.

Again, given this film’s arcade beat-em-up mayhem and destruction, it might have been acceptable, if any of the action scenes were in the slightest bit fun. Most of the film, you’re kept waiting, hoping that maybe there’s the tiniest possibility a spectacular ending which makes the previous 90 minutes of tedium barely worthwhile, a la Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

But it just never gets any better, and in the meantime is peppered with “jokes” and dialogue that 11 year old boys might think is funny or cool. As much fun as Ackerman, Morgan, and Johnson are having with these roles, it’s just boring to watch.

The test with all movies based on video games is, simply, “Would I rather have spent my time playing the game?” As repetitive as playing 100 minutes on a Rampage arcade cabinet might be, it would surely be preferable to this film.

At least there you get some fun and satisfaction out of mayhem and destruction.

1.5 out of 5 stars




Movie Review: Blockers

blockers posterEven while being a tad predictable, Blockers manages to subvert many of the tropes of the teen sex comedy genre and provide some refreshing social commentary on the sexual politics of 2018.

Parents played by Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz stumble upon their daughters’ group text messages promising to lose their virginity on prom night and decide they have to put a stop to it. And wackiness ensues. Sounds pretty basic, right? Except director Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect, 30 Rock) brings a sardonic social commentary that sets it apart from its peers.

By focusing on characters and motivations, the film transcends its otherwise formulaic plot and gags. Both Mann and Cena have to confront their own internalized patriarchy, gender roles and sex-negative attitudes, but they’re both coming at this from very different places. Even better, both show depth as actors, not just comedic performers, and provide good ways “in” for the audience.

Mann’s overactive busybody mom is a great feminist — except when it comes to letting her own daughter make her own decisions. So, in reality, she’s a bad feminist.

Cena’s sensitive, supporting dad is a textbook example of alternative, non-toxic masculinity — until he isn’t, and wants to throw his daughter’s prom date through a wall.

In one of the best scenes of the film, Cena’s wife, played by Sarayu Blue, calls them both out for their ridiculous behavior and hypocrisy. They don’t get it, but hopefully we do.

In a surprising turn, Barinholtz provides the most interesting character arc, as his motivations for stopping his daughter are due to (spoiler alert? not exactly) the fact that he knows she is gay, even if she doesn’t yet. As the screw-up in the troika of main adult characters, it’s surprising that he is the one with the clearest and most defensible motivation.

The actual standout performance of the film, however, comes from Geraldine Viswanathan, who plays Kayla, one of the three girls. She is a star in the making, and it’s unfortunate Marvel can’t snatch her up and speed a Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel film into production.

It would also be remiss to not mention amazing appearances by Gary Cole and Gina Gershon. Spoiler alert: nudity. Lots and lots of nude Gary Cole. Good for you, Gary!

While this film has a lot of laughs, it’s also a bit longer than it needs to be. And despite its social message, it really is just a teen sex comedy. But if you’re looking for some cringeworthy laughs and lots and lots of mens’ butts, you might enjoy Blockers.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Ready Player One

We’re awash in nostalgia.

With nearly all of Hollywood’s tentpole films this year devoted to sequels, reboots, and remakes, it can begin to feel like our culture is merely remixing the past, with the internet leading the way as we meme our way into a space somewhere between South Park‘s “member berries” and Star Trek‘s “Darmok.”

That is to say our nostalgia has a currency to it, and some of it is baseless circle-jerking, (‘Member Star Wars? Oh, I ‘member!) or “member berries” for short.

And some of it passes on important meaning, emotion, and lessons that can be best expressed by a cultural metaphor or meme (Darmok and Jilad at Tinagra.) See? some of you probably teared up a little at that reference. Because it conveyed something more than just the nostalgia itself.

So, in steps Steven Spielberg — whose name is basically a meme in itself — to direct the adaptation of Ernest Cline‘s novel about a dystopian near-future where everyone has retreated from a crappy real world to the comforts of The OASIS, a massive virtual reality video game where you can be and do anything. Upon the death of the OASIS’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), he reveals he has hidden an “Easter Egg” within the game, and whoever finds it first by completing three challenges and collecting three keys, will inherit sole control over The OASIS.

Our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is an easter egg hunter, or Gunter, who has devoted his life to studying Halliday and all of the pop culture and video games he loved, especially from the 1980’s. He and his friends end up on the trail of the egg, battling along their way evil corporation IOI, their limitless virtual resources, and its ruthless CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

pooh piglet darmok

The first question is, how does it compare to the book? Throw away all of your expectations and most of the plot of the book. This is almost wholly different in terms of plot points, but somehow manages to capture the spirit of the book’s challenges better than the source material itself.

A major criticism of Cline’s prose is that it is an almost relentless onslaught of references. It also is hugely problematic in that it is essentially a male power fantasy wish fulfillment engine fueled by our collective nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s.

Nostalgia is a heady elixir, and one which we should understand if we are to put it in its proper place. The word itself comes from greek roots — “algia” meaning pain (eg, fibromyalgia, nueralgia, etc) and “nostos” meaning to return home.

We ache for a place that we wish we could get back to, but, as the saying goes, you can never go home again. The current wave of 80’s nostalgia seems almost insane to someone who was actually there — social and economic conservatism, economic torpor, the cold war, and, yeah you had cool music and movies, but only as an escape from reality.

And in the 80’s you had a revival of nostalgia for another inexplicable time period: the 1950’s. It’s worth pointing out that to many Boomers entering their cultural heyday in the 80’s would mean a longing look back at their childhoods through films like Back to the Future and Stand By Me. So, seeing our current fascination with the 80’s and 90’s as the exact same phenomenon, but now it’s Gen X and Millenials looking back, helps put it into context.

But the most important thing to remember about all of this is it is never as good as you remember it. Cline’s work was always nostalgia-forward, hoping to plaster over any plot or character problems with warm feelings about Star Wars and John Hughes. And it largely worked, but it was more member berries and less Darmok.

Spielberg, on the other hand, is able to tease out the essence of what made the book great and concoct a new cocktail of kid-friendly adventure (his specialty) and dystopian revolution where the nostalgia bomb works to propel characters and situations forward rather than miring them in cultural onanism. It’s character and theme forward rather than nostalgia forward. And the cultural references play more as Darmok, such as when Wade talks about one of Halliday’s favorite movie quotes from Richard Donner’s Superman, “Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”

The best example of this is a section in the middle of the film where our heroes have to find a key hidden in a recreation of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Whereas in the novel, Wade had to “play through” the clunky-and-not-as-good-as-you-remember-it-I-promise War Games as Matthew Broderick’s character (and later through Monty Python and the Holy Grail), the on-screen version was more about elucidating the best pieces of  The Shining, again, as a sort of cultural currency. It’s almost as if it’s Spielberg’s chance to fanboy-out over something– as though he is Halliday leading us through something he loves. The care and beauty in this sequence is unmatched anywhere else in the film as filmmaker and material almost become one.

That’s not to say the rest of the film is bad. But it does seem a little more pedestrian, but perhaps in the way Spielberg is able to use a light touch to bring the best of his back catalog to life. Because that’s ultimately what nostalgia is — a sense of missing or loss or want of something that never actually was. It’s not that Spielberg’s work as director or executive producer was always so perfect or important, but that time has imbued it with meaning. Exhibit A is a movie like Hook, which was savaged by critics and not a huge success, but which holds a special place in the heart of so many people today.

Perhaps the best departure from the book is the film’s treatment of its female protagonists. Elite (l337) video gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is shown to be just as much a hero in her own right as Wade’s “Parzival” and given much more to do in the film than the book, where she was somewhat relegated to a “digital manic pixie dream girl” and “girlfriend as reward” trope in the finale. Instead, she figures out the key that ties all of Halliday’s clues together to provide an incredibly refreshing message at the end: we should all sometimes put down our video games and spend some time outside in the real world.

And it is in the real world where real girl Samantha (nee Art3mis) saves both the film and the world. She also has a real-life grudge against megacorp IOI that helps tease out the film’s dystopian themes, hopefully making us think of current problems with net neutrality, income inequality, payday lenders, etc, etc. She grounds the film. She’s the real hero, even if we’re focusing on Wade a little too much.

And what film would work without a great villain? Mendelsohn’s Sorrento is a delight in how evil he is. And yet, like all great villains, he truly believes that what he’s doing is right. Much like another film that mashed together references and universes, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,  Nolan Sorrento is very much like Judge Doom. Doom wants his freeway full of billboards and suburban sprawl to replace the simplicity of public transportation on the redcar. Sorrento wants to replace a largely free-to-play experience with tiered service and advertising — and it’s worth noting through the film that almost any time you see an advertisement in the real world, it’s for IOI.

Ready Player One isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a lot of fun. Its technical wizardry is unsurpassed. And at its heart is a filmmaker in a perfect zen state able to balance nostalgia and fun without overplaying his hand. In thirty years, kids who were born in the 2000s will be talking about Ready Player One in the same hushed, reverential tones 80’s and 90’s kids talk about The Goonies or Jurassic Park.  And hopefully we take the film’s message to heart — of living in the real world and putting aside our escapism to try to confront real world dystopian nightmares — and make sure our actual 2045 has the fun and imagination of Halliday’s OASIS and none of the real world nightmares of Wade Watts’ existence. Just don’t fill up on member berries.

3.75 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Midnight Sun

midnight sun posterIn the subgenre of “tragic teen romances where someone has a fatal disease,” Midnight Sun sets itself apart as one of the absolute worst. It makes saccharine treacle like The Fault in Our Stars look like masterpieces by comparison. It is trite, manipulative, boring, and stupid. People who complain about movies like The Last Jedi having “plot holes” should be forced to watch Midnight Sun as punishment so they can see what actual plot holes look like.

Our girl with a disease is Katie (Bella Thorne) and her disease is XP, or Xeroderma pigmentosum, a severe reaction to UV light which prevents her from going outside in the daytime. Charlie (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is the boy next door who she has been watching through her window every day. They finally meet one night and a whirlwind romance ensues. Her protective father (Rob Riggle) chides her for not telling her new boyfriend about her XP, but she doesn’t want to be “just a disease” to him, fearing he will treat her differently.

It’s just awful, and it’s a mess. The cast is charming enough, and Rob Riggle even shows off that he can do serious roles– just not this movie. He has to swallow lines where a doctor tells him that XP affects less than one in a million people, and he says, no joke, “Well that’s appropriate, because Katie is one in a million.” Nobody could’ve played these roles well, because they’re terrible.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, it’s a musical. Katie is a guitar player and singer and songwriter, so we are frequently barraged by her songs. This wouldn’t be bad if this was Sing Street, Begin Again, or even Jem and the Holograms. Yes, this made me wistful for that trainwreck. At least the songs were decent, and the girls were actually good musicians. Bella Thorne here looks like she got exactly three guitar lessons, maybe only a half hour before shooting.

Now, I’m going to spoil the entire movie in order to explain just how awful this was. SPOILER ALERT — STOP READING HERE IF YOU CARE ABOUT SPOILERS.

So, you know her disease? So it’s supposedly so severe she can’t be exposed to any sunlight, right? (First, that’s not true– the movie is vastly overstating the effects of the disease) But we get the impression that she basically never leaves the house, even at night. First, how messed up is that? There’s being protective, and then there’s being irrational.

So she accidentally stays out all night with her new boyfriend, then realizes it’s almost sunrise, breathlessly tries to run home to escape the oncoming sunlight, and is hit with the briefest of rays!! And it ends up causing her brain to develop lesions and shrink and she’s going to die. From 2 seconds of sun at sunrise, which, technically, is some of the lowest UV light of the entire day.

Well, I guess if 2 seconds of sunrise can kill you, it makes sense how overprotective dad is, right? To not let you leave the house, like ever? And now, you’re cool with her staying out all night with her new boyfriend? Even after having a talk with them about curfew before they leave? So, you send a bunch of text messages and keep calling your daughter’s phone when she doesn’t come home, because you’re a super protective dad … and you don’t have “Find My Phone” enabled? And you live in this tiny town that is walkable in five minutes and can’t find her at the beach?

Also, let’s talk about your town. So many films work because they have such a perfect sense of their place and time. Midnight Sun? I don’t know where this town is, but it’s like straight out of Narnia or something.

The Pacific Northwest’s hottest small town is. . .  whatever the name of this town is that they never say. It has everything:
An old timey train station where Seattle is only a short ride away
A ticket booth man named Frank that everyone knows
A beach
A harbor where 18 year olds can get a summer job taking care of boats
Only one black person
A super modern hospital with doctors who just happen to specialize in the super rare disease your daughter has who make house calls to deliver bad news
A high school that lets seniors who have already graduated participate in swim meets
A bitchy cheerleader mean girl sterotype
An old timey ice cream shop managed by 18 year olds on a boardwalk with a carnival
Crying Rob Riggle
Multiple teenage parties happening every night
Every house in town probably costs at least half a million dollars
The ability to walk anywhere in the town in 5 minutes but everyone still drives anyway
Complete anonymity for people who don’t leave their houses
Amazing Chinese food delivery
No apparent jobs or sources of income for any adults

It’s truly a magical place.

And in the final ridiculous act of this film, with Katie dying from minimal sunlight exposure, she asks if she can go sailing with her boyfriend and watch the sunset with him. Apparently, we’re ok with her just committing suicide by sun, and, yeah, ok, because she’s gotta go sometime, amirite?

Then Rob Riggle gives an unforgivably bad speech after her funeral where he says he doesn’t blame the boyfriend, because all he ever wanted to do was make Katie happy, and he made her happier than she had ever been. EXCEPT HE KEPT YOUR DAUGHTER OUT ALL NIGHT AND SHE WAS KILLED BY 2 SECONDS OF SUNLIGHT EXPOSURE. But, yeah, sure, forgiveness and all that stuff. How very zen.

To believe this movie, you have to believe that Rob Riggle is simultaneously the most overprotective parent ever and also the most lackadaisical. You have to believe Katie’s XP is so serious 2 seconds of sunrise can kill her, but she should be able to watch the sunset with her boyfriend because her life isn’t really that precious anyway. You have to believe that a town like this exists anywhere but in fiction.

There’s suspending your disbelief, and then there’s Midnight Sun. 

With so many better movies out right now, including the charming Love, Simon aimed at a similar audience, there’s no reason to waste your time on this.

1/2 out of 5 stars

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