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Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ Is Poisoned by Fandom

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There are two conspicuous cultural absences from Ready Player One, the new film based on Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel. One is George Lucas — there are some small nods to Star Wars, but it doesn’t play the fundamental role one would expect in a movie to which nostalgia and fandom are so central. The other is the film’s own director, Steven Spielberg. Again, his filmography isn’t completely absent from Ready Player One — there is a great sequence involving a dinosaur from Jurassic Park, and the DeLorean from the Amblin-produced Back to the Future appears throughout. Yet Spielberg has clearly chosen to downplay his own importance to today’s nerd culture. Most of his early success laid the foundation for the culture endlessly referenced in this story; he created a template for mixing genre elements (science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and action) with sophisticated filmmaking, in the process creating some of the 20th Century’s most enduring art and culture. Almost everything referenced in Ready Player One, whether a movie, TV show, or video game, owes some debt to the work of Steven Spielberg — which is why he’s paradoxically a strange choice to direct. He understands the pull of nostalgia, having manipulated it himself for decades, but obsesses over very different things. The pop culture that animates Ready Player One holds little sway over Spielberg, but he’s enough of a craftsman to still create something that’s often engaging, and almost always visually stunning.

It’s 2045, and the major cities of Earth have turned into rapidly expanding slums. (Columbus, Ohio, is the fastest growing city on the planet, so obviously something has gone horribly wrong.) In this future world, the main economic driver and source of entertainment is the Oasis, a virtual reality domain where players can lead almost any life they wish, doing nearly anything they can imagine. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a forlorn little trailer stacked precariously on supports atop half a dozen others, but he spends most of his time logged into the Oasis, where he’s represented by an anime-style avatar known as Parzival. (For those unfamiliar with Arthurian legend or the Wagner opera, Parzival/Perceval/Percival/Parsifal was the original knight to find the Holy Grail in early texts).

Tye Sheridan & Olivia Cooke in Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One

It has been five years since the death of James Halliday (latter-day Spielberg regular Mark Rylance), the creator of the Oasis. Halliday left a cryptic video message recorded just prior to his death revealing that three keys were spread throughout the Oasis that can unlock an Easter egg granting full control of the cyberspace, as well as great fortune to the discoverer. Watts is determined to find the egg, but years have passed with little to show for it. In addition to the regular gamers hoping for fame and fortune, a massive corporation named IOI sends players in droves to search for the egg and its keys. These players —anonymous storm troopers dressed in gray and black — are known as sixers, due to the string of six numbers that identifies each one in lieu of a name. IOI and its CEO, Nolan Serrento (Ben Mendelsohn) are determined to wrest control away from Halliday’s estate in order to monetize every element of the Oasis through advertising and paid subscriptions.

I’ve resisted reading Cline’s novel since its publication in 2011, partly because its brand of referential worship to pop culture of years past can so easily turn malignant (see the racist and sexist tirades against The Last Jedi). Obsession with culture makes it difficult — sometimes even impossible — to admit when a cultural artifact’s supremacy has waned. But there’s also something troubling about this brand of fandom that hasn’t existed with other forms of art. There are plenty of people who love the novels of Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon, who have been irreversibly changed by them, yet those works haven’t consumed their lives the way Star Wars or certain video games have. Perhaps my perceptions of the novel are way off (it wouldn’t be the first time), but the culture referenced in Ready Player One too often seems like an escape, an evasion, rather than a coping mechanism.

Spielberg seems to understand that; his film is adept at throwing in cultural references and nods to fandom — and he has certainly done his homework. Yet it’s obvious that he isn’t drawn to these things for the same reason as his audience. If he has an affection for the DeLorean, it’s because it reminds him of helping launch Robert Zemeckis’ career with one of the most successful films of the 1980s. If he takes delight in a throwaway joke about the Millennium Falcon, it’s as a wink to his old friend and occasional collaborator, George Lucas. When Lucas and Spielberg created the Indiana Jones films, they were referencing their childhood love of adventure serials, but they weren’t making a faithful reproduction designed to evoke their childhood memories to the dot. They were both funneling the art and culture that shaped them into their own works of new, mature art (to varying degrees of success).

In Ready Player One, Spielberg is just going through the motions of endless cultural references. They’re fun to see, but there’s no heart behind them. No one can craft an action sequence in such an intelligent and tasteful manner as Spielberg, and he doesn’t disappoint, but films are more than compilations of cool visuals and childhood references. Spielberg’s brand of nostalgia isn’t tied to movie characters or video games — it’s tied to people, and specifically the families they’re part of. His scenes with real-life characters are nowhere near as visually spectacular as the Oasis scenes, yet they pulse with a sense of life lacking in his neon wonderland.

There is one exception, a sequence that pays tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Spielberg is on home turf here — he was friends with Stanley Kubrick, and his admiration for the horror masterpiece is evident. He places the digital characters of the Oasis directly into a live-action version of The Shining, built around Kubrick’s original footage. It’s equally silly and chilling, but you can tell Spielberg is finally showing us the art that he adores, not just the culture he thinks his audience cares about.

Mark Rylance in Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One

Aside from the bravura Shining sequence, the film’s most moving moments occur in digitized flashbacks of Halliday’s life. We see him as a lonely boy playing video games in his bedroom, then later during the turbulent years of creating his masterpiece. Rylance plays him with a Southern California drawl, but beneath the quasi-surfer exterior is a deep sadness that threatens to overwhelm. His version of Halliday is a man searching for connections he’s too afraid to forge. (Watts clumsily refers to this as his “Rosebud.”) Rylance is one of the greatest actors alive today, and he manages to be the most compelling part of Ready Player One, despite his limited screen time.

Ready Player One was always going to be a flawed property, something that played off the basest, shallowest parts of fan culture. Spielberg can’t completely fix it — he can only give it glimmers of a heart. But even a hint of his usual magic is still something worth seeing.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Crazy World’ Brings Wakaliwood to the Masses

‘Crazy World’ is the latest Wakaliwood film from Uganda to be translated and brought to the world, containing crazy action on a low budget.

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Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema.

As children are being abducted by the Tiger Mafia — led by a pint-sized leader frequently mistaken as a child himself — parents begin formulating a plot to rescue the children and get revenge on the thugs who keep destroying their village. Unfortunately for the Mafia, they’ve made the mistake of kidnapping the Waka Stars — children with can outsmart and beat up anybody when they work together. Other characters include a parent who has gone insane six months after his child was abducted (and now lives within the village dump), and of course, characters named after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for good measure.

Crazy World

As silly as the premise sounds, Crazy World is even more absurd in employing a trademark of Ugandan tradition by incorporating narration from a VJ — or “video jockey” — who describes what’s happening, why it’s happening, why it’s bad that it’s happening, and who is about to get their heads kicked in. A side note about the midnight screening for TIFF: the narration was done live, and made the whole experience all the more delirious. But even without the live narration, what’s there is simply a staple of Wakaliwood films. The narration can have to do with the film itself, or even suggest the social and political anxieties that make the scenes all the more striking.

It’s also impossible to talk about Crazy World without mentioning the utter insanity of the action. For starters, every kick and every punch lands with the loudest thud imaginable. It sounds like a boxing match is happening, but it’s actually kids beating up grown men. The fights tend to be contained to a small set where green screen is quite obviously employed (to hilarious effect), and some of the worst special effects show buildings and vehicles being blown up. This isn’t a knock; in fact, these low-budget effects work exceptionally well because the film itself feels just as DIY and cobbled together. It’s infectious how fast Crazy World moves and how well it works, simply due to well-choreographed action.

Crazy World

Crazy World is my entry point to Wakaliwood, and there will be many who have never seen a film like this. However, those that do might find a new favourite style of action filmmaking — one that leverages its set pieces against the backdrop of regional concerns in Uganda. It’s a movie that transports you not because it’s put together well, but because it’s put together so lovingly. A hilarious romp, Crazy World is one-of-a-kind cinema that sets the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Examines a Criminal’s Upbringing

Justin Kurzel’s latest film boasts a great supporting cast, and applies a gritty aesthetic to one of Australia’s most renowned criminals.

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True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s latest film — a fictionalized version of the story of Ned Kelly — takes an Australian outlaw and attempts to humanize and emphasize the importance of taking your life in your own hands. Bolstered by an exceptional supporting cast, another great score by Jed Kurzel, a gritty attitude, and fantastic final act, True History of the Kelly Gang is a movie that will best be remembered for its moments — not the narrative in between. Focused heavily on the character work, Kurzel delivers a satisfying enough period drama that demands a lot from its actors in order to provide nuance in a fairly standard biopic structure that builds to a blistering climax and somber finale.

A tale of criminals being the heroes to the oppressed, True History of the Kelly Gang takes its time warming the audience to who Ned Kelly (George MacKay) ultimately becomes, and why he was revered by others in the community. Beginning with his childhood (and literally featuring diegetic intertitles that state “Boy” and “Man” when their respective segments begin), the film explores Kelly’s upbringing from his Irish immigrant family, led by matriarch Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis in a very potent, voracious performance), and her many decisions that lead to Ned’s ultimate notoriety. More aptly, Ellen finds herself juggling father figures, as well as who she wants her son to become, while attempting to drown out any of her husband’s proclivities and vices.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Ned logs his adventures throughout and starts telling his own story for the ones he loves to read when he eventually passes. “Every man should be the author of his own story” is a mantra Kelly holds onto, and it frames the film for Kurzel into something more singular, only occasionally looking at how others may portray Kelly’s story. That being said, True History of the Kelly Gang flows in a very linear-fashion, and often feels like it’s just going through the motions in order to get to the next big moment. Even with early appearances from Russell Crowe (in a role that is a lot of fun to watch him chew on) and Charlie Hunnam, the film often feels like it knows where it wants to go, but has a runtime to pad out before it feels right to get there. The script surrounds Ned with violence and tough decisions, which work in the moment, but getting to them is sometimes a chore.

Moments are what keep True History of the Kelly Gang interesting. While the main villain (played exceptionally by Nicholas Hoult) keeps the film strung together as he chases Ned throughout Australia, the journey never transcends the crafting of individual scenes. Whether it’s Hoult’s character’s sly trickery and deceit that unfold and enrapture, a tough decision that either leads to violence or trouble (but never a more virtuous outcome), or the final gunfight where the visuals, score, and sound design all cascade into each other to form one of the most memorable scenes of the year, these moments don’t work because of the characters that were built, but instead satisfy due to an understanding of film techniques. The screenplay itself is solid, but never amounts to a whole as strong as the individual parts.

True History of the Kelly Gang

This holds True History of the Kelly Gang back, turns it into a very well-made film that never really justifies the time it spends building upon Ned Kelly’s character. The story could have opened with Kelly as a man, and audiences would likely not feel much different about his plight. This often is the case with Kurzel’s films, however; they know where they want to go, but don’t rarely justify the time they take to get there. Instead, beautiful visuals and a score that moves between raucous and dissonant distract from an otherwise standard telling of a man brought into a violent life, and his fight to be himself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Pleads for Love and Laughter Amidst Hatred

‘Jojo Rabbit’ brings Waititi’s signature humor to a coming-of-age movie about growing up as a youth in Nazi Germany.

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Jojo Rabbit

After directing Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi probably got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in Hollywood. Already signed on to do Thor: Love and Thunder, the New Zealand director decided to do something almost no other director would probably consider: making a comedy about Hitler. That would be the reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. It’s all done with that signature Waititi charm that makes the film a joyous mix of entertaining dialogue and lovable characters.

The hardest thing to get past in Jojo Rabbit is its initial premise. Set during World War II, just as Germany is on the cusp of defeat, the film follows ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he begins his training to be a part of Hitler’s army. After he is sent home from a Nazi bootcamp, he discovers a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house, and is forced to help hide her or risk his mother (Scarlett Johansson) being murdered by the Gestapo. His blind fanaticism to Hitler and his ideals puts Jojo in a precarious situation that is only further made tense by the presence of his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (played with Chaplin-esque exuberance by Waititi).

Jojo Rabbit

It would be easy to write off Jojo Rabbit as a farce if based on its initial set up. Easily reminiscent of the director’s first coming-of-age film, Boy, there’s a level of quirk that will likely aggravate audiences unwilling to give the premise the time of day. Hitler is not played off as menacing — he’s played off as a joke. The entire Nazi regiment is filled with cartoonishly evil devotees to Hitler, as well as naive children that join the army as last-ditch draftees. It’s easy to see these portrayals as mere jokes, but the screenplay doesn’t ever feel like it’s one hundred percent about showing Nazis as bad; instead, it goes even broader to show that hate itself is bad and worthless, by using Nazi Germany and Hitler as target practice.

Setting Jojo up as the main character, the film breaks down his staunch hatred of the Jewish race by forcing him to confront his beliefs and what they mean to the world around him. How his fanaticism affects his mother, or how it has suddenly forced him out of being a child, all contributes to Jojo as a character being torn down inch-by-inch by the love surrounding him. Jojo’s mother, Rosie, is worn out by the war and simply wants it to end, while Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf seems at odds with the ideals of the Hitler regime, and now acts as a high-ranking officer with a very lazy devotion to the fuhrer. 

Klezendorf and Rosie are characters that always exist within Waititi’s films. Klezendorf substitutes as a father-like figure to Jojo, as his own father continues to fight the war in Italy. He tries to provide guidance and love to the child while Rosie struggles to deal with Jojo’s blind devotion to Hitler — who also acts as a father-figure to the young boy. Jojo Rabbit explores how propaganda and hateful rhetoric can shape the youth into hateful people without the years spent open to the world around them. It’s an ambitious extension upon Waititi’s prior coming-of-age tales, which tend to show how negligence can affect a child’s upbringing.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit is also one of the funniest movies of the year — not because it makes fun of Hitler and Nazi Germany (though those jokes are also gold), but because it takes aim at every form of hatred. Waititi only has sympathy for those who have the potential to love, and so he doesn’t just make everyone the subject of ridicule, but focuses on those characters who bring it on themselves. A dedicated SS officer will be ridiculed to the high heavens because he just wants to capture and kill traitors and the Jewish people; it’s the price paid for being a jerk, and Waititi simply has no time to defend every character’s actions.

Jojo Rabbit isn’t here to simply say that a time period and a certain person was bad. Waititi is making a claim that many have already made: there is too much hate in this world, so why not be a little nicer? Opening with a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” there’s a constant nagging at the oppressors of the film to be a little nicer and maybe open up to another point of view. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s his previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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‘Nefarious’ Shows Passion For The Home Invasion Genre

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From creative horror fiend Richard Rowntree comes his newest venture, a home invasion film titled Nefarious. The Dogged director and his crew have found an angle to take on the genre to make it feel fresh and lively.

Nefarious follows a few different people in the same small town, from four roommates in trouble with a considerable debt to the wrong people, to a special needs man named Clive who has won a considerable sum of money in the lottery. The film follows multiple sides of the story as they develop, with the violent and ill-tempered Darren at the helm of the intruders. With desperation leading him and his thugs to the house of Clive and his brother, Marcus, these intruders find they’ve gotten into something so much bigger than they thought.

Nefarious kicks off with the first of many interrogation room asides that allude to the events of the film. Soon the plot gets rolling, and the story begins to be pieced together. These interrogation room scenes place characters against a pitch-black backdrop, giving off a bit of a surrealist and dreamlike vibe, and some of the most impressive shots — particularly a scene with the two detectives looking through a two-way mirror — come from this setting. The intro runs a bit long, but continues the surrealist lean, with shaky visuals ranging from violent to erotic to strange shots of different individuals.

Nefarious - Interrogation
Lou being interrogated in the dark expanse.

Whilst Nefarious is a low budget horror experience, it makes use of what it has very well. The cinematography is fantastic, with varied camera angles and creative framing, along with an attention to colour and lighting. There’s a marked step up in the lighting department from Richard Rowntree’s previous offering; Dogged did use what they had well, but with Nefarious it feels like there’s more mastery over it.

On the technical side, everything comes together nicely, not ever feeling cheap or like it’s cutting corners. In fact, the gore and action — which doesn’t really rear its head until the denouement — is quite effectively done. The one exception is a slightly stilted jab with a crowbar to end a character’s life, but it doesn’t hinder the scene at all. The sets are also incredibly well put together, feeling realistic (perhaps due to filming in real houses and locations), and one particular secret room is all the right kinds of terrifying and disturbing.

Meanwhile, the music doesn’t particularly standout on its own, but the distorted bassy beat backdropping a few scenes fits incredibly well with the tone. There’s also an off-kilter element to the soundtrack that helps keep the viewer on edge.

Nefarious - Fridge
Gross and off-putting, just how you want your frozen viscera.

The acting isn’t stellar across the board, but for the most part it’s quite impressive, with performances from Gregory A. Smith as Clive, Toby Wynn-Davies as Marcus, and Buck Braithwaite as Darren shining. Nadia Lamin also puts in a solid performance as the conflicted Lou, and there’s even a cameo from the director himself as the taxi driver.

By the time the denouement is reached, Nefarious reveals a twist more complex than one would first think. Whilst it’s foreshadowed thoroughly enough to see coming, the weight and scope still come as a surprise, and the exposed extra layers of secrecy keep us on our toes. This finale is built to fantastically, culminating in a whirlwind of brutal and sadistic action, but it does get a bit muddied by those multiple twists overlapping each other, which can make it a bit less impactful. Regardless, the great imagery, execution, and pacing through the final confrontation creates a solid finishing point for Nefarious.

Nefarious defies its budget and shows us a refreshing approach to the home invasion genre, whilst allowing itself to grow outside of it as well. There are a few hitches here and there, but nothing that takes away from an otherwise excellent and thrilling ride. The ending alone is worth the watch, though the buildup is captivating as well. Now with two full-length competent horror films under his belt, I’m looking forward to seeing what angle of the genre Richard Rowntree explores next.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is a Festival Standout

Noah Baumbach’s newest drama is a searing portrait of a marriage dissolving, and his best film to date.

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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