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Josh Reviews Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One, is an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s popular novel of the same name.  (Full disclosure: I have not read the novel, and so I will be judging Ready Player One fully on its strengths and weaknesses as a movie.)  The story is set in 2045, in which much of the United States has devolved into slums called the “stacks” (because cars and trailers are stacked one atop another, with people living inside).  The world stinks, and much of the population has retreated into the virtual reality world called “the Oasis,” in which they can be anything and do anything.  (Though even within the Oasis, some of what you can do remains limited by your finances.)  Following the death of the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday, almost the entire world has become caught up in a competition to attain three keys that Halliday has hidden in the Oasis.  Whoever can win the game and obtain all three keys will become the new owner of the Oasis.  Seventeen year-old Wade Watts, who calls himself Parzival inside the Oasis, is one of the millions of people searching for the keys.  Wade and his friends, who include Aech and Art3mis, are trying to beat the corporation IOI, which is throwing all of its money and employees towards the cause of capturing ownership of the Oasis.

I wasn’t that impressed by the trailers for Ready Player One, but a new Steven Spielberg film always demands my attention.  I’m glad to have seen it, but this isn’t top-tier Spielberg in my opinion.  Mr. Spielberg has assembled a talented cast and the film boasts some visually pleasing sequences.  But I wasn’t as captivated by the world (of the movie or of the Oasis) as I’d hoped to be, and over-all I found the story and the characters to be rather superficial.

I really liked all three of the main young leads.  Tye Sheriden was good but underused as Scott Summers/Cyclops in the last X-Men movie, X-Men: Apocalypse.  He’s better utilized here, and I can start to see why he’s being tapped as a leading man.  Mr. Sheriden has a good-natured, easy charisma that is endearing.  It’s easy and automatic for the audience to root for this character, even though by the time I got to the end of the film I realized that I hadn’t really gotten to know Wade at all.  He seems like a good kid, but why does he deserve to win the contest for the Oasis more than others?  Ready Player One is a sci-fi version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and while that is an idea that has potential, it’s also a fairly simplistic notion … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dunkirk

In May of 1940, German forces had trapped the British Expeditionary Force, along with French and Belgian soldiers, along the northern French coast.  The Allied troops pulled back to Dunkirk, but efforts at evacuation were at first thwarted by the German Luftwaffe.  In what came to be known as the miracle of Dunkirk, the British navy, assisted by hundreds of small civilian merchant vessels, evacuated over 300,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk back to England.  Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, follows three parallel stories: the soldiers trapped on the Dunkirk beach (the “mole”), a civilian sailor and two young boys who have set off to Dunkirk to assist the evacuation effort, and an RAF (Royal Air Force) Spitfire pilot in combat with the Luftwaffe.

Dunkirk is a powerful film, riveting in its depiction of this evacuation effort.  Dunkirk is the story of a retreat, but it is as visceral and engaging a war film as ever I have seen, filled with depictions of the best and worst of humanity, of heroism and of cowardice in the fate of terror.

There is very little dialogue in Dunkirk.  Mr. Nolan has crafted what I might call a tone poem of a film.  The power of the story is conveyed by the performances, by the extraordinary visuals, by the crafty editing, and by the score.

It’s a cold film, one that often keeps its audience at a distance.  This is the polar opposite of, say, Steven Spielberg’s approach in Saving Private Ryan.  Mr. Spielberg and John Williams are experts at tugging on the heartstrings.  Mr. Nolan (and his collaborator on the music Hans Zimmer — more on Mr. Zimmer’s work in a moment) take the exact opposite approach.  They avoid any hint of sentimentality and schmaltz.  There are many ways in which this could have failed.  There are times when the nearly-silent Dunkirk reminds me of The Thin Red Line, a film which I love in places but which, ultimately, I feel does not succeed.  But where that film stumbled, Mr. Nolan is able to pull together all of the elements of his film in a way that works beautifully, using an unusual approach to achieve a resonant thematic and emotional power.

Mr. Nolan and his frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer have, over the course of their films together, often gotten very experimental in their scores, frequently utilizing tones and sounds rather than traditional thematic elements.  Dunkirk feels to me like the culmination of these efforts.  This score uses an auditory illusion called a “Shepard tone” to develop an ever-increasing intensity.  A “Shepard tone” gives the impression of an infinitely ascending tone, thus seeming to build and build and build without ever giving the audience … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The BFG

I adored the work of Roald Dahl as a kid, and The BFG was in heavy rotation for me for many years.  The idea of a movie adaptation of that terrific book was exciting, and that it would be helmed by Steven Spielberg — probably the greatest director working today — was even more tantalizing.

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And so I was somewhat surprised that this big-screen version of The BFG left me rather underwhelmed.  This feels to me like a minor work from Mr. Spielberg.  It’s not head-poundingly frustrating like The Lost World or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  Rather, it’s just that the film feels very slight.  There are moments of greatness, but over-all I found The BFG to be somewhat boring.  I don’t think I’ve ever before felt that way about a Steven Spielberg film.

Although Mr. Spielberg has made many movies that feature children, and that are about childhood, it could be that this is the first Spielberg movie that is aimed so squarely at children in the audience.  I can imagine kids being thrilled by the film, but for me as an adult I found it very simplistic, without too much to capture my interest.  There are some lovely ideas in the film and some beautiful sequences (certainly the dream-catching sequence alone, in which the BFG takes Sophie to the underwater/underground magical realm in which one can chase and catch dreams as one would fireflies, is magnificent), but the story moves along without too much depth of character or too many surprises.  What played as a fantastical left-hand turn into craziness in Mr. Dahl’s original book — in which Sophie decides to elicit the help of the Queen of England to help her and the BFG solve their problems — plays in the movie like an amusing but almost distracting digression from the main story.

I was so excited that this adaptation of The BFG represented the final collaboration between Mr. Spielberg and the late, great Melissa Mathison (who wrote E.T.), and so I’m sad to report that I wasn’t as delighted as I’d expected to be by the film’s script.

The one time I was truly moved by the film was in the final moments.  In that bittersweet ending the film finally hit, for me, the emotions that I felt it had been striving for the whole time.  I wish there had been a little more of that emotional resonance in everything that had come before.

Ruby Barnhill, who plays young Sophie, the orphan girl who discovers and befriends the BFG, is lovely in the film.  She spends much of the film interacting with a CGI make-believe giant, and yet despite that she’s able to give a very … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part Three!

What fun this has been, revisiting a great year of movies,  Click here for the numbers twenty to sixteen, and click here for numbers fifteen to eleven.  And now, on to my top ten!

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10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens This was the hardest film to find the right place for on my list. I briefly had it in my top five, and then for a while had it all the way down at number twenty.  This is a film that has me very much of two minds.  There is so much about it that works spectacularly well.  The tone is perfect — this is a Star Wars film that is actually FUN (and funny!) again, a welcome relief after the stiff and dour prequels.  The film is wonderfully paced, carrying the audience along from one great action bit to the next.  The new cast is magnificent, with each actor perfectly chosen, creating a group of new young characters who I can’t wait to follow through additional adventures.  The film looks gorgeous, with beautiful special effects and top-notch work from every production department.  Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo and gives the best performance he’s delivered in two decades.  And yet… there are so many little things about the film that bug me, that don’t work as well as they should.  All of the coincidences and plot-holes.  The muddiness regarding what exactly the situation is with Resistance, the Republic, and the First Order.  The way Han Solo’s final scene works but not nearly as well as it should have worked (something I touched on in both of my articles about the film, and that I’ve been struggling to express to friends when talking about the film.  Thankfully, BirthMoviesDeath’s Devin Faraci absolutely nailed what was frustrating me in this terrific analysis.)  The fact that for the third time the Rebels have to blow up a Death Star-like thing.  This is a film with a lot of imperfections, and yet I do still sort of love it despite how rough around the edges it is.  J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have brought Star Wars back to life in a big, big way, and for that they have my thanks and appreciation.  (Click here for my original review, and here for my follow-up post.)

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9. Bridge of Spies When Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks work together, you know you’re in for a treat, and Bridge of Spies does not disappoint.  This quiet, intelligent film tells the story of Jim Donovan, a lawyer tasked with defending a Russian spy caught in Brooklyn in 1957 (an act that then  leads to Mr. Donovan’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies, the new film from Steven Spielberg, spans events in the Cold War from 1957-1962.  The film opens with the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in Brooklyn, NY.  Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who primarily deals with insurance, agrees to serve as Abel’s legally required defense.  Despite the wishes of many around him, Donovan attempts to give Abel the best defense he is capable of, and the two men gradually bond.  In 1960, when a U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured, Donovan finds himself playing negotiator/mediator between the United States and U.S.S.R. governments, as he attempts to arrange a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

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Bridge of Spies is not only a fascinating and compelling film, but, like The Martian (which I reviewed last week), it’s also an important one.  The Martian is set in the future in outer space, and Bridge of Spies is set decades ago during the Cold War, but both are films with important things to say about our world and our culture today.  While The Martian champions the value of science and intelligence, Bridge of Spies champions the importance of the rule of law and the rights that all men and women deserve.  In two critical scenes in the film, Tom Hanks gets to deliver powerfully written and marvelously performed speeches that spell out this message succinctly and effectively.  In the first, after being stopped in the rain by a C.I.A. agent who asserts that there is “no rule-book” in these dangerous times, Donovan counters that the Constitution and the rule of law is their rule-book, and that it is their adherence to the values and rights set out in the Constitution that unites him, a man of Irish descent, with agent Hoffman, a man of German descent, as Americans.  In the second, we hear Donovan argue Abel’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that though Abel might be their foe, that what sets America apart is our values and our adherence to those values and the rule of law, even when in conflict with an enemy.  Both scenes are powerful declarations of the principles behind which the film stands, and both, I think, are important messages for Americans to hear today.  The issues we face today are no less difficult that those faced in the fifties and sixties; our enemies around the globe no less fierce and intractable; but that is no excuse to abandon our values and our principles out of expediency or because we believe we have no other choice.

Once again, Spielberg and Hanks prove to be a winning combination.  Hank’s … [continued]