"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Ready Player One: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT. If you like Spielbergian action movies, see it in the theater. If you are lukewarm or want some deeper meaning, there is no reason to see this movie even for free on cable or Netflix.

Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based upon Cline's book of the same name), is the science-fiction adventure story of 17 year-old orphan Wade West, a skilled gamer living in the slums of Columbus, Ohio who takes on a powerful technology company in a virtual reality game titled The Oasis. The film stars Tye Sheridan as Wade along with Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance and TJ Miller in supporting roles. 

I admit that I was less than enthused about going to see Ready Player One because I tend to find Steven Spielberg to be insufferable as a filmmaker. Spielberg's pedophiliac addiction to recreating child like wonder always feels contrived, formulaic and frankly, a bit creepy to me. It hasn't always been thus, as I think both Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are utter masterpieces, but as the 1970's receded so did Spielberg's balls along with his artistic and aesthetic originality. 

It was in this rather negative frame of mind that I went to see Ready Player One. When the film opened with the iconic keyboard introduction to Van Halen's 1984 mega-hit "Jump" off of their aptly titled album 1984, I have to admit, it got me. You see, as a teenager in the 80's I was a huge fan of Van Halen (and to be clear I was a fan of Van Halen, NOT Van Hagar…so do NOT bring any of that weak-ass Van Hagar shit in here…DO.NOT.DO IT.), so much so that my best friend Keith would routinely play the opening notes on his keyboard, which was my cue to find the nearest chair, couch or table from which I would do my flying split jumps David Lee Roth style. While this usually happened in the midst of a Jack Daniels induced haze, foggy memories remain and they are among the fondest of my young adulthood. 

The signature sound of Eddie Van Halen's keyboards was a striking synchronicity for me that did not just recall good times though, but also something much more existentially unsettling. The darkness recalled was the fact that this month, April (April 17 to be exact), is the 21st anniversary that my "Jump" playing friend Keith was killed. And so when I heard the start of that classic Van Halen song at the opening of Ready Player One, the overwhelming feeling that surged through me wasn't the giddy pulse of nostalgia that Spielberg anticipated, but a profound melancholy and emotional fragility. 

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It is somewhat ironic that I should be triggered to recount the crippling grief of losing a loved one at the beginning of a film where life is entirely disposable and when it is over you just get a to hit a button and start over. The existential questions that boil up to the surface when attempting to contemplate the incomprehensible are ultimately unanswerable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask them. Great artists and great art exists to ask those questions, and to let the silence of the eternal void be their answer. Ready Player One mimes asking big questions, but all it really does is provide easy answers, which renders it a sort of philosophical and artistic fool's gold wrapped in the shallow glitz of pop culture.  

As "Jump" played on, Eddie Van Halen's keyboard is supplemented by David Lee Roth's Spielbergian lyric which perfectly captures the 1980's ethos and quickly becomes the perfect anthem for Wade West, the protagonist of Ready Player One,

"I get up, and nothing gets me down, you've got it tough? I've seen the toughest soul around. And I know, baby just how you feel, you've got to roll with the punches, to get to what's real"

Spielberg's camera follows Wade as he makes his way through "the stacks", a maze of mobile homes piled on top of each other to create a ghetto of makeshift apartment buildings. This opening sequence is not a particularly skilled piece of filmmaking, in fact, it is pretty standard, but it does effectively set the stage for the story, the myth and the subtext that lies ahead. 

The choice of Van Halen's "Jump" is not coincidental, and it reminded me of a quote that Joseph Campbell often used to repeat and which I have often repeated throughout my life. 

A bit of advice, given to a young Native American, at the time of his initiation: "As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think."

The story of Ready Player One is that of Wade West and his Oasis alter ego Parzifal (paging Joseph Campbell and the Holy Grail!), finding the courage to "Jump". Wade West is being initiated from boyhood into manhood and he must pass the tests presented to him…sort of like in a video game…and in the case of Ready Player One…exactly like a video game. 

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Ready Player One is also an unabashed tribute mostly to the pop culture of the 80's (although other decades get slight nods as well), hence the use of Van Halen's "Jump", which is the quintessential 80's anthem from the quintessential 80's band. The movie is populated by, and littered with, the pop cultural remnants from that shoulder padded decade that gave us such cinematic signposts as Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and a cornucopia of John Hughes movies. Ready Player One is also Steven Spielberg's tribute to himself, as he was as much a shaper and creator of the pop-culture of the 1980's and beyond as anyone living or dead. 

Of course, Spielberg sees Ready Player One as an homage, but I see it more as an indictment, or to be even darker, a cinematic eulogy. Spielberg's overall impact on popular culture has been detrimental in deeply cataclysmic ways. As Spielberg ushered in the blockbuster era of moviemaking in the 1980's, he struck a death knell for the artistic renaissance of the Easy Rider-Raging Bull era of the 60's and 70's where auteurs flourished and quality cinema thrived. 

Spielberg's corporatized moviemaking was meant to reinforce the establishment, not rebel against it, as fellow filmmakers of his generation were often trying to do. Spielberg turned from a potential 1970's revolutionary artist to an 1980's establishment Praetorian Guard who churned out pop culture meant to embolden the status quo, appease those in power, anesthetize the masses and fatten his bank account. Spielberg has been a malignant force shaping popular culture for the last forty years, and because of that he is as much to blame as anyone for the artistic, intellectual and cultural decay that is besieging the American soul and which comes to life on screen in Ready Player One. Seen through this perspective, Spielberg's Ready Player One feels like a film about lung cancer made by The Marlboro Man. 

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As evidenced by my reaction to "Jump", I found Ready Player One's 80's nostalgia to be very manipulative, but as someone who grew up in that era, I can attest that it is at times very effectively deployed. But again, it is the end to which that nostalgic means is used with which I have an issue. Much like Trump's Make America Great Again was a nostalgic clarion call for the antisepticism of the 1950's, Spielberg's Ready Player One's nostalgia yearns for a decade just as suffocatingly conformist as the 1950's but even more toxic, the 1980's. 

Ready Player One's mythology, like the mythology of Reagan, Oprah and Spielberg's Baby-Boomer Corporate America where all life is commodified solely for profit, is one that contorts the human heart and psyche in order to make avarice and narcissism virtues and not vices. The form of cheap pop culture grace found in Ready Player One is meant to obfuscate our true humanity and maintain our delusional, money and celebrity centered society. 

Interestingly, Spielberg plays Van Halen's "Jump" for its entirety throughout the film's opening, which is rather striking as he is not a filmmaker, like Scorsese, known for utilizing pop or rock music to great effect. Spielberg's use of pop and rock music in Ready Player One though is done very well, and like the recent spate of television shows mining the 80's for music that can manipulate middle aged and younger generations simultaneously, Spielberg is wise to do so. 

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As much as watching Ready Player One is like watching someone else play a video game, the cavalcade of pop culture and musical references make it a much more palatable and intriguing experience than I imagined it could be. That is not to say that there aren't downfalls to watching a video game movie, there are, such as the characters looking weird and un-relatable and the action being way over the top. 

Like all Spielberg films, there are certainly moments that are so contrived and hackneyed as to be cringe-worthy. Spielberg has always struggled dealing with grounded, genuine human emotion and interaction, and so it is in Ready Player One, but he is aided in that dilemma by two charismatic and compelling performances from his leading actors, Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke. Both Sheridan and Cooke make lemonade out of the lemon of a script they are given that in the hands of lesser actors would have been disastrous. 

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TJ Miller and Mark Rylance both give quirky and interesting performances that I thoroughly enjoyed. Miller is an acquitted taste as an actor but I confess I have acquired it. Rylance is his usual, odd, enigmatic and intriguing self as James Halliday, the creator of The Oasis, and the film is better for it. Both actors are able to elevate the rather mundane material they are given. 

On the down side, Ben Mendelsohn plays corporate bad guy Nolan Sorrento and he never quite musters the focused energy and gravitas needed to play such a pivotal villain. Lena Waithe, Phillip Zhao and Win Morisaki are all pretty underwhelming as well in supporting roles that feel terribly under written and reek of tokenism. 

Another issue I had was that there are some scenes that are "flashbacks" but they use the same actors to play themselves younger and it doesn't work at all. The actors all look like old people dressed differently and pretending to be younger. For a film that is so heavily invested in technology, the inability to perfect the age in flashbacks is embarrassing. I know it is a hard thing to do, but it isn't like Spielberg doesn't have the money to get it right, an example of getting it right being Robert Downey Jr. in the "flashback" sequence in Captain America: Civil War

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And one final issue I had with the movie was that Spielberg uses a Stanley Kubrick film as a narrative device (So as not to spoil it I won't name which one). This is not a crime in and of itself, but when Spielberg "Spielberg-izes" Kubrick's work, like he did with the irritatingly inept A.I., he always ruins it. Spielberg does the same thing to Kubrick in Ready Player One, where he takes a great idea, tinkers with it, turns it into a theme-park ride, and instead of Kubrickian filet mignon all we are left with is a very fragrant Spielbergian shit sandwich. I found this sequence to be so very frustrating because all of the pieces were in place for a stunning and extremely clever cinematic success if Spielberg hadn't screwed it all up. 

But with all that said, as someone who is generally less than enamored with Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker, to his credit, my very low expectations going in to Ready Player One were exceeded. Ready Player One is not a great movie but it held my attention and entertained me for two hours and twenty minutes, and that ain't nothing.

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In conclusion, even though I find the very deep seeded spiritual, political, psychological and mythological message that underlies this entire film (and the majority of Spielberg's work) to be equally vacuous, insidious, nefarious and mendacious, I very tentatively admit that I was mildly entertained by it all. I think if you grew up in the 80's and a vapid, nostalgia laced Spielberg action movie intrigues you, then you should go see Ready Player One in the theaters, as it should be experienced on the big screen.

But be forewarned, as I found out the hard way, a nostalgic "Jump" to the past doesn't just conjure up pleasant memories, but can open old wounds as well. Ready Player One inadvertently opened up an existential wound in me that the movie and its filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, were metaphysically incapable of comprehending, never mind healing. This is why, unlike master filmmakers like Kubrick, Malick, Scorsese, P.T. Anderson and Kurosawa, Spielberg can only ever aspire to be a creature of style over substance and a purveyor of pop culture, as he is wholly incapable of ever being a transcendent artist due to the fact that he makes movies that give easy answers, but that never dare to ask the real question. 

©2018

 

Bridge of Spies : A Review

****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!***

MY RATING : SKIP IT.

Bridge of Spies, written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Steven Spielberg, is the story of James B. Donovan, an American insurance lawyer who must defend Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy arrested in Brooklyn in 1957 at the height of the cold war. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, struggles to overcome both overt and covert legal, popular and familial hostility in order to give Abel (Mark Rylance) a worthy defense.

The first half of the film is dedicated to Donovan's defense of Abel amid a corrupt legal system. The second half of the film follows Donovan's attempts to facilitate a prisoner swap In East Germany between the Soviets, who want Abel back, and the Americans, who want infamous U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers back. This prisoner swap is made even more complicated as the negotiations are occurring as the Berlin Wall is being built, and an American college student is trapped on the wrong side of the wall.

If you asked most "normal" people, "normal" meaning people smart enough to not work in the film business, who the greatest filmmaker in the world was? Odds are, probably 90 to 95% would say Steven Spielberg. His name is synonymous with modern day filmmaking and enormously successful blockbusters. But I'll let you in on a dirty little secret, if you anonymously asked that same question to people who work in the film business, and they knew their answers would be confidential, the answers would be exactly the opposite. Spielberg would maybe get 5% of the vote. How do I know this? Because I've done it. I talk to people everyday in this business and they tell me all sorts of things you won't hear among 'the normals'.

I'll let you in on another dirty little secret…Steven Spielberg simply lacks the skill as a filmmaker to make a serious film of any notable quality. If you give Spielberg some aliens, dinosaurs or monsters, he'll knock it out of the park nine times out of ten (for instance, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are two popcorn films of unadulterated genius). But give him a true drama with real people, and he fumbles and stumbles his way through it. He can make his serious films appear to be noteworthy to the unsophisticated viewer, with soft lighting and a swelling soundtrack, but anyone with the least bit of artistic sensibility can see that these "serious" films are, like their director, completely devoid of gravitas.

I saw Bridge of Spies a few months ago and have not written about it at all because I found it to be so unremarkable. It is a tepid and flaccid film of no note whatsoever. I was so underwhelmed by it that I basically forgot I saw it and therefore forgot to review it. Then a friend, a famous director whom I will call Director X, emailed me a review of the film with a laughing emoji attached. As a practice I never read reviews prior to seeing a film and almost never after seeing a film. But I read the review my friend sent me and it made me, like the emoji accompanying it, fall out of my chair laughing. The review was glowing and spoke of Spielberg with a reverence usually reserved for saints and martyrs. The thing that made me laugh so hard was the reviewer said that Spielberg made the brilliant decision to "remove all dramatic tension from the film". Think about that sentence for a minute. "Remove all dramatic tension from the film". That is usually something you write about a film when that film is an unmitigated disaster, not when you are praising a director for his brilliance. For instance a reviewer may write, "why on earth would a director REMOVE ALL DRAMATIC TENSION FROM A FILM?" Well…whether St. Spielberg made that decision consciously or unconsciously, I can't say for sure, but he certainly succeeded in "removing all dramatic tension from the film". Spielberg should be charged with dramatic and storytelling misconduct and general directorial malpractice for having "removed all the dramatic tension from the film".

This glowing review was not alone in it's praise of Bridge of Spies, the film is currently at 91% at critic section of the website Rotten Tomatoes. This is less an endorsement of Spielberg's work and more an indictment of the reviewers, in particular, and the business of film criticism in general. Whenever a new Spielberg film comes out you can count on the overwhelming amount of reviews being inordinately positive. Spielberg's power and reach in the film industry is gargantuan, that reviewers are afraid to speak ill of him even when he churns out one of his usual sub-par "serious" films is a testament to his standing in the business and the reviewers cowardice in the face of it. It is amazing that so many reviewers are either that bad at their job and don't know garbage when they see it, or are too afraid to speak truth to the powerful in the industry. Don't believe me? Go read the glowing reviews for the dreadful Amistad, or Saving Private Ryan, which got Spielberg a Best Director Oscar, but which is little more than one great battlefield sequence surrounded by two and a half hours of below standard World War II film tropes. Want more, check out the heavy-handed Munich, or the cloying The Color Purple.

Spielberg's holocaust epic, Schindler's List, is considered to be his greatest film for it won him a Best Picture and Best Director Oscar, but Stanley Kubrick said it best when he said of the film "Think that's (Schindler's List) about the Holocaust? That film was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't. Schindler's List is about success, the Holocaust is about failure." As always, Kubrick is right. Here is a great short video of director Terry Gilliam explaining Spielberg and his success. It is well worth the two minutes it takes to watch. In the video Gilliam explains the difference between the genius of Kubrick, whose films make us question, and that of shills like Spielberg, whose films give us answers, and answers that are always soft and "stupid". Spielberg placates us, Kubrick agitates us. Spielberg tell us what we want to hear, Kubrick tells us the truth.

So it is with Bridge of Spies where Spielberg goes to great lengths to assure us that America is unquestionably the moral and ethical beacon of hope in a cold and dark world. There is the opportunity for Spielberg to leave us with a question as to whether American moral superiority is genuine or simply a facade, but he goes to great lengths to eliminate that question when he adds a dramatically misguided coda to the film. This coda is there for no other reason than to squelch any potential uneasiness or doubt within the viewer as to their own, and America's "goodness".

Prior to Bridge of Spies, Spielberg's last piece of crap "serious" film was Lincoln, and it is a perfect example of what I am talking about in terms of Critic malfeasance. I was listening to a podcast on the now defunct Grantland website where some critics were discussing Lincoln and all of them but one were tripping over themselves to praise the film. The one critic who was a bit apprehensive had to keep assuring the others and the listener, that he was, in fact, NOT A RACIST and was against slavery, but that he thought the film was slightly flawed. Good Lord, it was just the worst sort of pandering imaginable. Lincoln isn't a great film, it isn't even a good film, it is a really really really bad film. It is so structurally flawed that if it were a house it would be condemned. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a dope, a dupe, or both.

There are two things at play here…1. Everyone needs to kiss up to Spielberg and pretend he's some "serious" filmmaker in order to not lose access and get frozen out of the film business where Spielberg is very powerful and has a long memory. and 2. Critics really do not know any better and don't know what the hell they are writing about and just go with the flow of the pandering crowd.

Regardless of why it happens, there is no doubt that it does happen, and that it has happened with Bridge of Spies. Structurally, once again, the film is untenable. Spielberg, just like in Lincoln, adds an unnecessary coda to the film that does nothing more than water down the already thin narrative. 

Just like in Lincoln, in Bridge of Spies, Spielberg adds story lines that do little more than extend the running time and do nothing but muddy the dramatic and narrative cohesion of the story. Just like in Lincoln he has a cloying and candied soundtrack that tells the viewer when and how to feel. Just like in Lincoln, and all his other "serious" films, Spielberg indicates his seriousness with a specific 'soft lighting'.

Steven Spielberg is a huge collector of Norman Rockwell's paintings. This should come as no surprise as he is the Norman Rockwell of filmmaking. Most of Spielberg's 'serious' films are little more than saccharine propaganda espousing America's moral and ethical supremacy. It is sadly ironic that the man who has done so much noble work for holocaust survivors with his Shoah Foundation, has morphed into little more than a modern day American Leni Reifenstahl.

Tom Hanks reprises his role as Spielberg's partner in propaganda crime by starring in Bridge of Spies. Hanks performance is typically Hanks-ian as he does little more than play dignity that often-times veers into arrogant preeminence. Like the film, Hank's performance is of no note whatsoever. It comes and goes without the least bit of notice.

Acting styles and tastes have changed over the years, for instance, go watch Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, a film for which he won his first of back-to-back Best Actor Oscars. Hanks performance, and the film itself, are terribly shallow and vacuous. Watch any Tom Hanks film over his stretch of dominance from 1992 to 2002 and you notice something, Tom Hanks doesn't act, he performs, which is why he is such a match for Spielberg who doesn't create art, but instead makes entertainment. To the uninitiated that sounds like a distinction without a difference, but to those in the know, it is a gigantic difference. There are very rare moments in Hanks career when he stops performing and starts acting (or being), and these moments are glorious, but they are very few and far between.

The first moment of note when Hanks stops performing and starts acting is in Forest Gump when Forest realizes that Jenny has had his child, and then realizes the implications of that and asks Jenny if his child is stupid or not. It is the only real moment in the entire film from Hanks and it is spectacularly human.

Another example is in Captain Phillips, where, after spending the entire film butchering a New England accent...AGAIN (he did the same thing in Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can), Hanks pulls out a moment of genuine humanity that is staggering. The moment is near the end, when Phillips sits in an examination room after his rescue a doctor (who is spectacular in the scene) checks him out to make sure he has no injuries. Hanks says little, but his body starts to convulse uncontrollably and he weeps and wails. It is easily the greatest acting Tom Hanks has ever done on screen.

Do these moments override the previous two hours of bad accent in Captain Phillips, or the shticky performing on display in Forest Gump? For me…maybe…but it depends on what day you ask me.

Hanks is like those actors in the Pre-Brando Big Bang era, actors like Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. He is more playing himself or playing a version of himself that people identify as the "everyman". What has bubbled to the surface in Hanks "everyman" work in the latter part of his career, is that "everyman" has become "smug and contemptuous". There is a haughtiness that seeps through his pores that I find odd and frankly puzzling. A great example of this is in a scene from Saving Private Ryan where Hanks' character listens to Matt Damon's character do a monologue about he and his brothers growing up.

That same air of superiority, the "my poop don't stink but yours sure does" attitude, is on full display from Hanks in Bridge of Spies as well. How the American everyman came to be so arrogant and high and mighty I have no idea, but in the world of Spielberg and Hanks, he certainly has. 

A few final notes in terms of the acting in Bridge of Spies (which is a horrendous name for a film by the way, no doubt thought up by some marketing genius at a studio). First, Mark Rylance gives an outstanding and meticulous performance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Rylance is one of the great Shakespearean actors of our time, and he was the first artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London (1995-2005). Many, many moons ago I had the good fortune to study with him while I was in London. He is a fountain of knowledge regarding acting and Shakespeare, and is a very soft-spoken and genuinely kind person. His work in Bridge of Spies has garnered him a much deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar. I don't know if he will win, but I will certainly be rooting for him. I also hope he does more film work and a wider audience gets a chance to appreciate his brilliance.

Another actor of note is Eve Hewson, who plays Tom Hanks daughter in the film. Hewson doesn't have too many scenes in the film, but she is captivating whenever she is on screen. There is one scene where she is lying on a couch eating ice cream that in the hands of a lesser actress would have been little more than a throwaway, but Hewson makes it a vibrant sequence worthy of attention. In a strange twist, Eve Hewson is the daughter of Paul Hewson a.k.a. Bono. Bono is, of course, the lead singer of U2, which took its band name from the same plane Francis Gary Powers was flying over the Soviet Union when he was shot down. Spooky coincidence or brilliant subliminal marketing…you decide!!!

In conclusion, Bridge of Spies is another in a long line of Spielberg's uncritical and pandering "serious" films. It is just another one of the Spielberg-Hanks propaganda collaborations that is painstakingly safe and flag-wavingly dull. In fact, I have an admittedly insane theory that both Spielberg and Hanks are contract propaganda agents of the U.S. intelligence community. Obviously I don't have time to share my tinfoil hat wearing madness with you here, but just go look at both of their filmographies and notice a pattern in the themes running through the films of both of them (case in point…notice in the re-release of E.T. Spielberg edited out the government agents guns and replaced them with walkie talkies and flashlights!!). Ok…enough of my rambling, just know that in the final analysis, Bridge of Spies is a film of no consequence that you never need to watch. If it is in the theatre, save your money and skip it, if it is on cable, don't waste your time, just change the channel. 

One final note, thank you for reading, and if you could do me a favor and keep this review between just the two of us, I'd really appreciate it. I don't want Steven Spielberg getting wind of it as I'll never work in this town again if he hears I've bad mouthed one of his movies. Also, I'm pretty sure the notoriously vicious Tom Hanks might murder me with a baseball bat if he found out I said a bad word about his work. I will thank you in advance for your discretion. 

©2016