Virtue vs. Virtual

The 1980s was a great time for motivational posters. One said: “If you don’t like the world the way it is, change it.” Nowadays, besides passivity or advocacy, there’s a third option: ignore it. That’s what the world decides to do in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s new film based on the bestselling novel by Ernest Cline. When you can escape into virtual reality for hours on end, why try to change what’s actually happening?

Cline co-wrote the film with Zac Penn, who’s done the story for several Marvel Universe films. Half of the film’s set in a dystopian Cleveland that’s become the fastest growing city in the world. Because of lack of space, part of the city has mobile homes, RVs, and old custom vans stacked on scaffolding five or six levels high – no surprise the area’s known as The Stacks. It’s a bleak world, but almost all the residents spend their days in “The Oasis,” a virtual reality universe where you can do anything or be anyone.

In the real world, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenaged orphan living with his aunt and her current loser boyfriend in the Stacks. His father had chosen his name because it sounded like a superhero’s name, like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. That hasn’t worked out in the real world, but when Wade enters the Oasis, he becomes Parzival, a variation on Percival, the Knight in Arthurian lore who recovers the Holy Grail. There is a holy grail built into the Oasis by its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). After Halliday passed away, a recording he made revealed that there were three challenges hidden in the Oasis that would lead to the biggest Easter egg ever – control of the Oasis and Halliday’s fortune of a half-trillion dollars. The first challenge has been found – an insane road race that includes wrecking balls, a tyrannosaurus, and King Kong – but no one has yet conquered it.

Along with the regular avatars competing, there’s a large contingent in every race from IOI Corporation, another virtual reality company that wants to take over the Oasis. The head of IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), was an associate of Halliday’s early in his career and parlayed that connection to become IOI’s director. Many of the other players have formed groups, but Parzival has resisted. He does have three friends – the tech geek Aech (Lena Waithe) who can fix anything, and the brothers Daito and Shoto (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao) – and he’s drawn to another player, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), whose skills match his. But Sorrento’s set two subordinates on Parzival’s trail: in the real world, F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), head of IOI’s security, and in the Oasis, I-Rok (T.J. Miller), a bounty hunter whose chest is a huge skull.

Halliday, who grew up in the 1980s at the beginning of the electronic gaming, has filled the Oasis with 1980s cultural references, and there’s probably no better director today to bring that world to life than Spielberg. Interestingly, though, he eschewed any references to his impact on that era, so you see no bicycle flying across the moon – except at the beginning since Spielberg produced the film through Amblin’ Entertainment. The closest the references come to Spielberg is Parzival driving Doc Brown’s DeLorean from Back to the Future, a movie Spielberg executive produced. While another director might have dwelt on the nostalgia element, Spielberg keeps the focus on the story. Particularly outstanding is when Parzival and his group get to the second challenge, which is located in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It both maintains the creepy horror of that movie but blends it with the challenge.

It’s particularly fun when the real person behind the avatar within Parzival’s team is revealed later in the movie. Rylance’s performance stands out as he makes Halliday an idiot savant in his game world, yet also imbues him with a deep and abiding humanity. Between his turn as Daggett, the businessman who works with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and his performance as Orson Krennic in Rogue One, Ben Mendelsohn has become the go-to actor when you need a heavy. (He’s recently completed the new version of Robin Hood, playing the Sheriff of Nottingham.) His Sorrento is both ruthless but flawed, but dangerous all the way through. The film also features a small but important role for Simon Pegg.

Watching the trailers on a smaller screen, along with screen shots from the film, I was concerned some scenes in the Oasis wouldn’t be watchable because of the dark cinematography. However, Spielberg’s long-time director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, has created gorgeous imagery on the big screen. The computer graphics are outstanding, so you feel immersed in the Oasis. Spielberg balances this beautifully with the vision of the real world. The one complaint I have with the movie is it takes almost twenty minutes to wrap up the story, and the energy does lag at that time.

In the end, rather than the motivational phrase I noted at the beginning, Ready Player One embraces a stanza from Prince’s song Let’s Go Crazy: “If you don’t like the world you’re living in, take a look around you, at least you got friends.”

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A Light in the Darkness

Winston Spencer Churchill was a pivotal character in 20th Century Western history. He’s been the subject of many volumes of biography along with movies and TV series, and rightly so since he was involved in much of what happened in the first half of the past century. Throughout that time, though, he was also a controversial personality who often made mistakes, failed at endeavors, and was seen as a self-promoter. He flipped party affiliation twice, and by 1929 he was pushed out of the party leadership. Churchill spent a decade in what has come to be known as “The Wilderness Years.” In retrospect, those years out of power were vital. He wasn’t tainted by the appeasement policies towards Hitler pursued by England during the 1930s, and many military officers and civil servants fed him information on how woefully unprepared for war the British were at that point. His sharp questions in the House of Commons helped force the government to start those preparations. After war broke out in September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to give Churchill a place in the cabinet as the First Lord of the Admiralty, a position Churchill held in WWI. But Winston had to wait until May 10th of 1940 to take over as Prime Minister, within hours of the Blitzkrieg of Western Europe by the Germans beginning. Joe Wright’s portrait of Winston’s first weeks as PM, from his ascension to Prime Minister to his “We Shall Fight” speech following Dunkirk, shows it truly was the Darkest Hour of the war.

Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) had wanted Lord Halifax (Stephan Dillane) to replace him after he was forced to resign, but Halifax refuses. Instead Chamberlain recommends to King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) that Churchill be asked to form a government. Neither is happy about it. Chamberlain doesn’t trust Churchill, and George hasn’t forgiven Churchill’s support of his brother, Edward VIII, during the Wallis Simpson affair. But as a constitutional monarch, he has little choice but to summon Churchill.

At the time Churchill (Gary Oldman) is at Chartwell, his home outside of London. A new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) is brought in to help Churchill, but his harsh and demanding demeanor make her ready to walk out that day. Winston’s wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), takes him to task over his boorish behavior. Layton is in the driveway, ready to leave, when a motorcycle messenger arrives from Buckingham Palace. Instead she turns around and delivers the note summoning Churchill to an audience with George – and she remains with Churchill as he takes on the responsibility of Prime Minister.

The film is anchored by a tour de force performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill. Oldman looks nothing like Winston, and had to go through a couple of hours in make-up where prosthetics were applied. However, the actor submerges himself in the role, capturing his voice and mannerisms perfectly. After his recent win at the Golden Globes, Oldman is easily the front runner for best actor honors throughout this award season.

Oldman is ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially by James, Scott Thomas, and Mendelsohn. James’ character functions to give the audience an entry into Churchill’s world and the Cabinet War Rooms, and James manages to do that while still presenting a realistic characterization. (Layton, whose married name was Nel, was a real person who served as one of Churchill’s secretaries; she was the last surviving one, passing away at age 90 in 2007.) Scott Thomas embodies the refined steel of Clementine, the one person who could exercise some control over Winston. Special kudos to Mendelsohn’s version of George VI, since he goes for a more subtle performance than Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning take. The speech impediment is there if you listen, but what comes through is George’s decency and sense of duty, especially in a scene late in the movie between Mendelsohn and Oldman.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten focuses the story so that even if you’re unaware of the history of that chapter in Churchill’s life, you can still understand what’s happening. While they’re completely different in tone, Darkest Hour adds context to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Wright overall does a good job bringing the script to life, though he leans a bit too much on bomb-site visuals that are more showy than illuminative. But that’s a small quibble.

In the end Darkest Hour hangs on Oldman’s portrayal, and he delivers a truly riveting performance that rings true down to the smallest gesture. He definitely deserves Oscar gold for this role.

Prelude To Hope

In the original Star Wars – now Episode 4: A New Hope – there’s a tossed-off line when the rebels receive the Death Star plans from R2D2 to the effect that several people sacrificed themselves to get the information. Now, nearly 40 years after it was first mentioned, movie audiences get to see what happened in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It was worth the wait.

The story focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Instead of the usual introductory crawl, Rogue One begins with a sequence when Jyn was a child. Galen had left behind his job designing weapon systems for the Empire to hide away on a barren planet with his wife and Jyn. But the Empire isn’t done with Galen. When Imperial Senator Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives to force Galen back into the fold, Jyn manages to escape to a bolt hole where she’s later found by an ally of Galen, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

Years later the now-adult Jyn continues to hide under an assumed name, even as she’s a prisoner of the Imperial Forces for committing petty crimes to survive. While being transferred, rebel fighters break Jyn out. She instead tries to break away from the rebels, only to be stopped by the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0 (motion-capture performed and voiced by Alan Tudyk). The rebels need Jyn to get to Gerrera, who’s broken from the Rebel Alliance to carry out his own battles. Gerrera is in possession of a defecting transport pilot (Riz Ahmed) who’s escaped with a message from Galen. Jyn is dispatched with rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to get the pilot and the message. Along the way they pick up blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donny Yen) and his protector Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). But that mission morphs into a hero’s journey when they encounter the weapon Galen’s designed – the Death Star.

In visual style Rogue One varies from A New Hope, partially because the refinements in special effects have come so far in the past four decades. Director Gareth Edwards uses handheld cameras more than Lucas could, since computerized special effects can blend with the camera’s motion. Edwards began his career in SFX, then moved into directing, first with the low budget Monsters in 2010, then with the big budget remake of Godzilla in 2014. Rogue One’s budget was in the $200 million range, but Edwards puts it all up on the screen. The visuals are some of the best in the entire series.

But more than the images, Rogue One has an effective story that’s well-told by Edwards, and characters that you come to care about almost as deeply as Luke, Leia, and Han. The base story was developed by John Knoll (who has done special effects beginning with A New Hope and who was the visual effects supervisor on this film) along with Gary Whitta (who wrote The Book of Eli). The screenplay was then written by Chris Weitz (About a Boy, 2015’s Cinderella) along with Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series, Michael Clayton). Although the visual style’s different, the story blends seamlessly with A New Hope, so much so that the Machete order for viewing the first two trilogies should be augmented. That order is IV, V, II, III, VI and ignore Jar Jar Binks and Episode I completely, but now it has to start with Rogue One since it increases the impact of A New Hope.

Jones is perfect in the role of Jyn, blending the waif-like child searching for her father with the steel spine and dedication of a fighter. Part of the original Star Wars appeal was Carrie Fisher’s Leia, a princess who wouldn’t wait around for anyone to save her and could shoot a blaster with the best of them. For Leia, the change from princess to general in The Force Awakens was simply an acknowledgement of her power and Fisher’s embodiment of the role. The writing of Padme in Episodes I-III wasn’t as strong as Leia, but with Rey in A New Hope and now Jyn, the series has returned to the glory of fully realized, powerful women. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect as well. Luna gives strong support to Jones, while Yen and Jiang are indelible in their roles. For the movie to work, you also need a villain to match the heroes, and Mendelsohn provides a subtle but strong evil presence. You’ll also recognize several other characters that populate the story.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, and with it the rights to Star Wars, there was concern about the Mouse-ification of the series. Were the new films going to be the equivalents of the Ewoks Adventures? The Force Awakens put that concern to bed, but Rogue One doused the bed with gas and burned it to a crisp. This is what Episodes I-III should have been.

With Carrie Fisher’s passing two days ago (as I write this), Rogue One has taken on an added poignancy. If you go to see it for the first time, remember to tuck a tissue in your pocket.