Movie Review: “Ready Player One” (Steven Spielberg, USA 2018)

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One appeared in 2011. It was an ’80s nostalgia trip dressed up in post-apocalyptic futurism and virtual reality hysteria. It was a book written for fans of ’80s culture and video games–the kind of people who prefer Space Invaders to Call of Duty and Amazing Stories to Stranger Things. When the film went into works with Steven Spielberg, the defining eye of ’80s cinema, in charge, it seemed like a near-perfect match. (Robert Zemeckis really seems like the perfect match since he has always been so good at using special effects and understanding their limitations while Spielberg has used them as a crutch. But he also never had the singularity of vision that Spielberg had.) Especially with Stranger Things having taken the public by storm with its Spielberg-by-the-numbers approach, everything seemed primed for at least something really fun even though it would likely have little to say.

Spielberg has also remained a respectable filmmaker even as his star has faded. He’s far less successful than in 1993 when a studio was willing to let him make a depressing black-and-white holocaust movie that it thought had zero chance of making its money back just to get him on the payroll for another film, but he’s remained the same decent-but-not-great filmmaker he always was. Jaws (USA 1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA 1977) set a bar too high for any director to maintain, but he’s had surprisingly strong films like Munich (France/Canada/USA 2005) late in his career and even his missteps like Bridge of Spies (USA/Germany/India 2015) haven’t been outright embarrassments. Plus, nostalgia has clouded his early record–yes he had those two great films back-to-back and several other memorable features, but he also directed bad and forgettable projects like 1941 (USA 1979) (Seriously, has anyone even seen that in the last 39 years?), Always (USA 1989) (Seriously, has anyone even seen that in the last 29 years?), Hook (USA 1991) (Robin Williams couldn’t save it.), and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (USA 1997) (I still don’t know why anyone thought there should be more than one Jurassic Park film.) mixed in with the major successes. It’s not a bad record–most directors don’t have the kind of consistent excellence that Rian Johnson, Akira Kurosawa, or Masaki Kobayashi have had–but it’s not the kind of nonstop success that nostalgia has made people think it was.

However, Ready Player One isn’t any kind of return to form. It’s a failure on some basic levels, and it isn’t even any fun. Continue reading

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The Greatest Horror Films

Today is the 76th anniversary of when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater performed War of the Worlds on CBS radio, touching off some level of panic (though likely not as much as is often reported) and providing the greatest piece of radio drama in history. I listen to it every year, and even in the digital age Welles’s radio drama remains compelling.

However, to most, this date is more importantly Hallowe’en, a day celebrated with grizzly costumes and horror films. Since the current film landscape is quite barren (for those of us who cannot yet see Birdman anyway), I thought I would do something terribly trite and write a list of the greatest horror films I have ever seen. Note that, like any list that I make, it’s going to be English-language and modern-centric, because I am after all an American under 30 and so I tend to have seen more English-language and more recent films. However, I am not intentionally so limiting the films.

To be technical, the horror genre is essentially defined as a monster movie. But that is most definitely not how it is used in common vernacular. I’m trying to be closer to the common usage, basing it on the IMDb’s classifications but not following them blindly.

11. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, USA 1968)

Zombies have become an incredibly overused monster in modern media, be it video games, films, or even novels. And part of the problem is that these newer  entries into the zombie canon never seem to realize what George Romero knew from the start: the zombies themselves are not the point. The people are the point. The zombies themselves are just a MacGuffin. Romero’s film about racial intolerance sets the stage for what zombie fiction can do when done right, which he continued to do through most of the film’s sequels. It’s just unfortunate that now the concept of zombies has overwhelmed everything he said about racism, consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), militarism (Day of the Dead), or the media (Diary of the Dead). His films stand out as a powerful outlier to a terribly disappointing genre, but his original still works far better than logic would suggest.

10. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2012)

I reviewed this one already (see the title link), but I still think it’s a brilliant spoof of horror films. It does everything you can want a satire to do.

9. Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978)

This film modernized the monster movie in a way that even Jaws had not, because this monsters was bigger, more powerful, indefatigable, and seemingly immortal. And it was a monster that wasn’t here to enforce traditional economics–it was here to enforce traditional morals. It feels trite now because of the copycatting, but there is a reason that so many films since have repeated its pattern: Carpenter’s film is nothing short of brilliant. It’s a masterclass on cinematic composition that understands how to make violence most effective: build to it.

8. Vargtimmen (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1968)

It doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have a point. But god does it have an incredible atmosphere and the absolute scariest visuals in history. If you have questioned Bergman’s status as a cinematic genius (I don’t know why anyone would, but in case), this film will show you why he has it: he did himself no favors as a writer, but this is the scariest film I’ve ever seen, because the former playwright has that great of an eye.

7. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1963)

The Birds is all about tension. Much like The War of the Worlds that I mentioned in the introduction, its best moments are often moments of quiet dread and terror. Where The War of the Worlds has “Is anybody out there?,” this film has that silent drive into oblivion as its defining moment as an ode to mankind’s greatest fear: being alone. Interestingly, it’s a far less formalistic, manipulative film than much of Hitchcock’s work. It lets the audience create its own terror, and it works.

6. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA 1975)

For some bizarre reason, when this film shows up on these lists, people try to insist it’s not a horror film. Not only is it a horror film, but Jaws is about as traditional a horror film as you can find. It gives us a monster, characters who are clear allegories for particular aspects of society (Brody is the government, Hooper is science, and Quint is the working class), and a clear (and conservative) political message. It even uses its monster in much the same way George Romero has always used his zombies: as a method to isolate the lead characters because the story is ultimately about them and not the monsters. And it does all of this very skillfully. Spielberg does very little to indulge his typical predilection for turning all of his films into allegories for divorce, and the result is a wonderful, tightly-focused film about the perceived dangers of immigration.

5. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1960)

If The Birds is about silence, Psycho is a testament to how powerful a score can be. Bernard Herrman’s incredible score has as much power and tension as just about any film, and–unpopular opinion alert–Hitchcock knows what he’s doing behind the camera. The simplicity of The Birds can be contrasted with Psycho, a film that never leaves “well enough” alone–it’s full of bizarre angles, manipulative cutting, strikingly unnatural lighting, and every other trick that could possibly be in a filmmaker’s bag. In addition, Anthony Perkins gives one of the finest performances in film history, giving a shockingly deep and sensitive portrayal of a decidedly disturbed and monstrous man. The film also stands as a monument against Robert Redford’s famous statement that the last 15 minutes are the most important of any film: the last 10-15 minutes or so really should have ended up on the cutting room floor–they’re present as a result of a pretentious writer wanting to show off his “edgy” intelligence by talking about hermaphroditism in then-current psychological language. However, the film is just so damn good before then that it just doesn’t matter.

4. Lost Highway (David Lynch, France/USA 1997)

If any film has ever been as visually terrifying as Vargtimmen, it’s Lost Highway. And Lynch actually has a story to tell. He tells it in such a bizarre, Lynchian manner that it’s difficult to tell that it is a coherent story, but Lost Highway does make sense. It’s a film essentially set entirely in the mind of an insane person as he deals with his own confusion, anger, and guilt over murdering his wife, but you could be forgiven for not being able to tell–it’s that bizarre a narrative. I have said before that the later Mulholland Dr. (France/USA 2001) was essentially “Lost Highway for dummies” and while that’s something of an exaggeration, I don’t think it’s invalid–everything that’s good about Mulholland Dr. (except for Naomi Watts, who is absolutely and utterly brilliant in the later film while no one is even good in the earlier one)—is even better in Lost Highway.

3. Barton Fink (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA 1991)

Never has a descent into hell felt so . . . hellish. It’s a film that has a lot in common in Mulholland Dr., but it keeps its focus better and isn’t quite so caught up in its own narrative cleverness. The Coens at their best are special, and this is them at their best.

2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980)

Stephen King famously complained that the atheist Kubrick couldn’t make a horror film, and this one was a failure because it was made by someone who “thought too much and felt too little.” If reading The Shining hadn’t already made me think King didn’t really know anything about his own genre, that statement would have (in spite of how great his giant bug statement is). Kubrick’s film is loaded with layer upon layer of complexity, with its intricate details working together to make a film about letting go of the past. The message of the film is appropriately simple–don’t hold on to the past too much lest you be consumed by it–and Kubrick focuses all of his energy on making that point, making his film an achievement that few have matched.

1. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France 1955)

When Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac published their novel Celle qui n’était plus in 1952, they received interest from a certain British-American filmmaker: Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately for Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, a man he would consider his greatest rival until Clouzot’s ill health forced him into only sporadic work, beat him to the punch. Supposedly, Hitchcock’s call arrived within hours of the agreement with Clouzot. Hitchcock and the authors were so enthralled with one another that they would later write D’entre les morts specially for Hitchcock, and he would use it as the basis for his film Vertigo (USA 1958).

And it’s easy to see what Hitchcock was so interested in–it’s a twisting, turning script that begins with a brooding melancholy that turns into a nightmarish tension and never lets up. That it ends with one of the great endings in the history of cinema is only a small part of the puzzle: this film is a masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions: Mulholland Dr., The Omen (Richard Donner, USA 1976), Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, Japan 1964), Ringu 2 (Hideo Nakata, Japan 1999), Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA 2007), Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA 1985), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, USA/Japan 1994), Låt den rätte komma in (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 2008)

Films that would have made it but I didn’t think they were “horror” enough but they are arguable: Gaslight (George Cukor, USA 1944), All about Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA 1950), Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/Germany 1994), Persona (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966), Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA 2011), Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA 2011), El labertino del Fauno (Guillermo del Toro, Spain/Mexico/USA 2006)

Movie Review: “Lincoln” (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012)

Abraham Lincoln has been a subject of extraordinary interest lately, for obvious political reasons. Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln appeared within the last decade, and the films Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (Richard Schenkman, USA 2012), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, USA 2012) and Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012) all came out in 2012. Lincoln was the big deal of the lot. It was the serious costume drama in opposition to the big-budget joke of Vampire Hunter and the small-budget copycat joke of Zombies. It was the film starring “serious actors” Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field as the Lincolns, as opposed to Benjamin Walker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead or Bill Oberst Jr. and Debra Crittenden. It even had a star director in Steven Spielberg instead of Richard Schenkman or Timur Bekmambetov.

However, there were always reasons to worry about Lincoln. First, it was clear Oscar bait. Two-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg had directed Best Picture nominees twice in the last seven years while two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis had been nominated for Best Actor for half of the films he had made in the previous decade. Screenwriter Tony Kushner was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for his only screenplay work before. That’s a recipe for guaranteed award consideration, but not for interesting filmmaking. Second, Spielberg had not made a truly worthwhile film in over three decades. Third, Lincoln is one of the most mythologized figures in American history, one whose flaws have disappeared in history. Hagiographies make for dull work, and it’s difficult to imagine a biography of Lincoln in the United States that does not fall into hagiography. Finally, the politically-outspoken Spielberg seemed to be making the film about a particular political battle with an eye toward making a point in favor of President Obama. Political filmmaking can still be interesting, but it often becomes a muddled mess that’s too busy praising or attacking its primary target to become anything cohesive, and Spielberg’s lack of interesting work in recent years suggested that he was not likely to avoid that trap.

Unfortunately, the warning signs ended up being accurate. Spielberg’s film is a political animal intended to make the point that moderation is sometimes required to achieve even extreme goals, but it loses its focus often and muddles its own point. Spielberg and Kushner, befitting the former’s obsession with making films about the value of family, could not resist the temptation to insert family drama surrounding the Lincolns’ oldest son that has nothing whatsoever to do with the film’s point. It also continues past the passage of the 13th Amendment to suggest that the greatest champion of racial equality (in the film’s world) was acting out of self-interest because of his own interracial romance with his housekeeper and show Lincoln’s assassination, though in typical Spielberg style the assassination itself is not present but instead the President’s young son’s reaction to it. Fully 1/2 of the film is disconnected from its point, but there is no other point that ties together a larger segment of the film. It’s really just that unfocused. The sense of a lack of focus is even increased by the film’s lack of flow–it feels like a series of scenes rather than a cohesive unit.

Visually, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski continue to show the same lack of imagination they have shown together since they began working together with Schindler’s List (USA 1993). As are all big-budget “serious” movies these days, the film is very dark, filled with low-key lighting and little bright color. Occasional scenes emphasize the  journey out of the dark, hate-filled past of race relations with darkened rooms that include bright open windows with white curtains, an obvious but still fairly effective technique that simply shows up too rarely. It’s a film that you could listen to without watching and lose little.

The acting is quite good, though frankly no one has a part that requires much. The perfect man that is President Lincoln requires nothing other than a good-humored grin and a high-pitched voice with a southern accent from Daniel Day-Lewis. He does what is required of him, and as usual mumbles through enough of his lines that he becomes difficult to understand. However, in a rare show of restraint, he doesn’t take his character over the top. That’s a decent performance, if one that any number of actors could give. James Spader gives an enjoyable performance as uncouth but excellent lobbyist that’s just reminiscent enough of Alan Shore that it’s difficult to ignore the similarity. David Strathairn, as usual, is excellent in a role that requires little. However, Sally Field stood out in a negative way. Her over-the-top caterwauling was frankly annoying–it was as if she decided to replace all of Daniel Day-Lewis’s bad habits with her own version of them, and her completely flat affect when not caterwauling turned Mary Todd Lincoln into a self-parody of insanity that could not be believed. It’s a shame, because hers is the only really weak performance, but it was terrible.

John Williams, another long-time Spielberg film-mate, also showed rare restraint, though perhaps his was not such a good idea. Much of the film lacked any score at all, and the dramatic moments that Williams would often emphasize with a powerful fanfare were instead met with simple, quiet lines that could just as easily have been gone. His score never gets in the way, but it also never works.

All told, Lincoln is a poor film. It’s a well-acted but poorly-thought-out exercise in hagiography that has no purpose and nothing of artistic interest. It’s everything that I was afraid it might be.