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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There and Back Again

I’ve been a Trekkie since I watched the first episode on NBC when I was a kid. Maybe because of that, the original series was always closest to my heart. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out I watched it, but my reaction was they’d bleached out what I loved about the original series (even though they recycled an episode’s plot). It didn’t have the banter and emotional bond between the crew that made the original fun to watch. It also lost its humanity of exploring worlds for the benefit of all. While there were phasers and proton torpedoes in the original, the best episodes were where Kirk, Spock, et al used their intelligence rather than their weapons to overcome obstacles. While the subsequent movies (at least the even numbered ones) recaptured some of the original’s flavor, they were more action adventures and the message was lost.

With Star Trek Beyond, screenwriters Simon Pegg & Doug Jung have gotten close to the original’s perspective. They’re assisted by director Justin Lin, who took a third movie in a series with none of the original actors in major roles and turned The Fast and the Furious into a billion-dollar franchise with the three subsequent films he directed. While moving from hot rods to outer space may seem strange, the two series are surprisingly similar: a multi-ethnic crew that is like a family travels the world(s) on their mission that they accomplish because they work together in the face of huge odds.

In Beyond, that mission takes them physically beyond their known universe. The Enterprise is midway through its 5-year mission, and the long duration has caused some fraying of the bonds between the crew. Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling the stress of the mission, especially after an attempt to establish relations with a planet goes horribly – and humorously – wrong. He’s applied for the position of Vice-admiral on the Starbase Yorktown, a huge snow-globe in space whose artificial gravity has created a real-life M.C. Escher world. In his interview with the base commander (Shoreh Aghdashloo) he recommends Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his replacement as captain, unaware Spock is considering leaving the Enterprise as well.

When a lifeboat ship arrives at Yorktown, its passenger asks for help. She’s the captain of a ship that’s been disabled on a planet at the far side of an unexplored nebula. They need help to survive, so Kirk and crew, including Bones (Karl Urban), Zulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Pegg), head out to save them. But when they arrive a brutal trap is sprung by Krall (Idris Elba), the violent warlord who controls the planet. Marooned, the crew is split up – some captured by Krall, others seeking a way to rescue them. Scotty is saved by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who had escaped Krall herself and survived as a scavenger.

Boutella is an excellent addition to the Trek Universe. She’d had a memorable performance as Samuel L. Jackson’s sharp assistant in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Here her physical skills, honed as a dancer, are even more on display, though she also makes you feel for her character. Elba’s power as a performer communicates even though he’s hidden under extensive makeup and prostetics. The crew’s characters have been set between the original series and the reboot, but Pegg and Jung’s script lets each of them shine a bit brighter since they’re broken down into smaller units rather than all sharing the same space. In particular, Saldana’s Uhura plays a more pivotal role than in the past two films.

Just as with the Fast and Furious, Lin keeps the action moving at a, well, a fast and furious pace. The set pieces and special effects are awesome, but whenever they seem to teeter close to overwhelming the story, he brings it back from the edge.

The original Star Trek series had its staying power because, although the scene was set in space, the stories dealt with conflicts and problems that related to a person’s everyday life. Episodes like “The Devil in the Dark,” “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield,” and “The Savage Curtain” retain their power to this day. Beyond follows in those original footsteps with a message that works as a space story, but also talks to this world in which we live now.

Going Rogue

The Mission: Impossible film franchise is fascinating for a couple of reasons. It’s the only multi-episode series that has had a different director for each film, so each episode has had a different style. Brian De Palma’s original was a straightforward “bigger = better” version of the original series while John Woo brought the ying-yang dichotomy of Hong Kong cinema to the table – the hero and villain were opposite sides of the same coin, as in the classic Infernal Affairs, the basis for Scorsese’s The Departed. (Woo also brought his trademark kung fu and gunplay.) With J.J. Abrams the story became more personal with hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fighting both for his country and the love of his life, while Brad Bird reminded the viewer that it was always the I:M team – not just one main character – who saved the day. Bird also infused the story with surprising humor as well as stunts that took your breath away. The other reason the franchise is fascinating is it gets better each time.

Now we have Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, this time with Christopher McQuarrie in the driver’s seat as director and screenwriter, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3). McQuarrie wrote the classic screenplay for The Usual Suspects. His follow-up screenplays were less well received, though he established a relationship with Cruise by doing Valkyrie and Jack Reacher before they both had success with last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. For Rogue Nation, McQuarrie uses the template of James Bond, with a globetrotting story that has stops in Russia, Austria, Morocco, and London. He also exceeds the stunt work of Ghost Protocol and that’s not an easy thing to do.

The movie begins with the transport plane sequence featured in much of the publicity for the movie, with Ethan Hunt hanging off of the side of a plane in flight while trying to get inside with the help of computer geeks Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). (The sequence was done old school, with Cruise actually doing the stunt.) At the same time, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is trying to save the IMF from a play by the head of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), to roll the force into the Agency.

Ethan is convinced a force of former intelligence officers that he calls the Syndicate is operating in secret to destabilize the world. When he goes into a record store to receive one of the classic self-destruct mission briefings he finds himself trapped by the head of the Syndicate (Sean Harris) and then brutally interrogated. He manages to escape with the help of a female Syndicate member, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Branded a rogue agent himself by Hunley, Ethan has to track down and expose the Syndicate.

McQuarrie keeps the story from going too far over the top and fills it with plenty of twists and turns, most of which pivot on the Faust character. Rebecca Ferguson is a Swedish actress with an English mother who had impressed McQuarrie with her work as Elizabeth on the miniseries “The White Queen.” She performs an incredible balancing act as Faust so that the audience is never sure which side she’s on throughout the movie.

Pegg and Renner are now firmly established as part of the IMF, and after only a cameo appearance in Ghost Protocol Ving Rhames is back as a full part of the team. Even though the movie slips back into centering on Cruise’s character, it does overall keep the importance of the team working together to stop the Rogue Nation.

The stunt work is exceptional, in particular a chase sequence through Marrakesh with cars and motorcycles as well as the opening sequence. It’s the literate script, intricately plotted, and that lifts this film beyond a simple string of action sequences and makes it one of the more satisfying thrillers to come along this year.

It’s The End of The World as We Know It (Part II)

In the summer of 2013, I’d contrasted two “End of the World” movies that could hardly have been more different: World War Z and This Is The End. The latter movie took the apocalypse genre and played it for laughs, and did it successfully overall. It isn’t alone, though, in handling the Final Days with a laugh track. Within comedy’s broad umbrella, there are three other recent movies that have dealt with this – one with broad humor, one with a mix of pathos and outrageousness, and one that cast a jaundiced eye at what the experience would be like.

The World’s End (2013) was the final film in the “Cornetto” series – named for an addictive English ice cream treat that’s like a “Drumstick” in the US, but on steroids. All the movies were directed by Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg, and starred Pegg and Nick Frost. The first two films, Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz beautifully spoofed the horror and buddy cop genres, while World’s End takes on science fiction.

Pegg plays a ne’er-do-well who gathers his old band of mates to do an epic pub crawl. Twenty years earlier, as fresh school graduates, the group had tried and failed miserably to make it through the ten pubs in their home town. The others in the group, played by Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, are roped in by Pegg, whose time in school was his high water mark. Once back home, Pegg meets up with the love of his early life, played by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl). The group’s plans are compromised when they discover most of the town’s current inhabitants have been replaced by robots.

The film owes much to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though Wright and Pegg put their own twist on it. Overall World’s End is the weakest film of the “Cornetto” series, but that’s in part because Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz set the bar so high.

Seeking a Friend for The End of The World (2012) pairs Steve Carell and Kiera Knightly as two neighbors who are thrust together as a 70 mile wide asteroid approaches the Earth. Think Armageddon without Bruce Willis or any hope of salvation.

The movie also fits into the road trip genre. As society breaks down, Carell and Knightly leave the city where they’ve lived in pursuit of two final goals. For Carell, it’s to find a girl he’d loved and lost years earlier, while Knightly wants to somehow make it back to the British Isles to say goodbye to her family. While they travel together, what’s important to them slowly changes.

Seeking a Friend is unusual in its hopelessness, which is not something one often sees portrayed in a film – usually with good reason, since it kills the box office. Even with Carell and Knightly, the film only grossed about six million in theaters. It’s leavened, though, by several outrageous scenes, including having dinner at a chain restaurant that promotes happiness a little too forcefully.

It’s A Disaster (2012) was made for a micro-budget by writer/director Todd Berger, and had a micro box office during its brief release, but it’s now available on HBO and streaming services. You don’t usually think indie film and disaster flick at the same time, but Berger pulls it off.

Four couples come together for a “couples brunch.” Tracey (Julia Stiles), a single doctor, brings the man she’s dating, Glen (David Cross) to the home of Emma and Pete (Errin Hayes, Blaise Miller). Also there are Lexi and Buck (Rachel Boston, Kevin Brennan) who are loosely married, and Hedy and Shane (America Ferrera, Jeff Grace) who’ve been engaged for half a decade. The dinner party becomes uncomfortable quickly, but then they’re forced to stay together when a series of dirty bombs are exploded in the city and they must seal up the house to survive.

Berger presents eight modern, self-centered people who are pretty much useless in a crisis. Part of the fun is to see how most of them stay true to form even when faced with their own mortality, while some take a quick dive off the deep end. Think of the film as On the Beach played by the cast of “Seinfeld.”

If the world ever does come to an end, you might want to pass the time until the end binge-watching these films. Go out with a smile on your face.

Mission: Accomplished

The Mission: Impossible movie franchise has had different directors for each of its four installments, with so-so results.  For the 1996 original it was Brian De Palma, who’d been directing thrillers since the 1970’s and had scored big with Carrie and The Untouchables.  It took the TV series premise and raised the stakes to movie levels, but while it made money it wasn’t a critical success.  For MI:2 in 2000 the producers recruited Hong Kong legend John Woo.  He made a John Woo film, even down to the iconic Woo shot of the antagonists with guns aimed at each other’s head one arm’s length apart, and grafted some Mission: Impossible elements onto that story.  It was financially successful, making a hundred million more worldwide than the original, but the blending of styles was jarring.  (Tom Cruise, walking in on the bad guys in slow motion, surrounded by flying white doves?)  For 2006’s MI:3, they went with television director and producer extraordinaire  J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), directing his first big-screen film.  While it was an improvement on MI:2, Abrams tried to make the story more realistic, and sacrificed the fun of the gadgetry and twists that were the hallmarks of the original show.  While it grossed almost $400 million worldwide, that was the worst showing of the series.  The movie wasn’t helped by Cruise’s jumping on Oprah’s couch the year before.  (Abrams did much better when he rebooted another TV franchise from the 1960’s, Star Trek.)

When the director for the 4th installment was announced, the choice was unusual.  Brad Bird had never directed a live-action movie before.  He’d made his name in animation, first with the classically animated Iron Giant, and then two excellent Pixar computer animation films, The Incredibles and Ratatoule.  On the plus side, The Incredibles is the best superhero film made by someone who doesn’t have the last name of Nolan.  But other than the voice track, an animation director doesn’t have to work with actors.

Bird, though, took the best elements of animation – tight story line, wit humor, and surprising action – and created the best Mission:Impossible ever, going all the way back to Peter Graves, Martin Landau, and the original IMF team.

The film begins with a jolt as an operative named Hanaway (Josh Holloway, Lost) bursts from a roof access door on an Eastern European train station, pursued by bad guys.  He launches himself off the roof and shoots the bad guys as he falls, only to be saved by an IMF gadget, a man-sized air cushion.  As he walks away, though, he’s killed by the assassin Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux) who steals the file he was protecting.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is sprung from a Moscow prison by two members of the IMF, Jane (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg), who’d made it into the field after being an desk jockey analyst in MI:3. They’re given the task of breaking into the Kremlin security archives to find the identity of a terrorist named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist).  But Hendricks has already wiped the files, and the mission goes horribly wrong when that section of the Kremlin is destroyed by a huge explosion.

Hunt is captured by the Russians, but he manages to escape from the hospital where he was being treated after the explosion.  He’s picked up by a black SUV that’s carrying the famous “Secretary,” the one who would always disavow any knowledge of the IMF should they be captured or killed (an uncredited Tom Wilkinson).  In the SUV with the secretary is Brandt (Jeremy Renner), whom the secretary introduces as an analyst.  The secretary explains that the president has invoked the Ghost Protocol, wiping the IMF from the books.  The only agents left in the field are Ethan, Jane and Benji.  The secretary “suggests” that Ethan could assault him and Brandt, and then discover and stop whatever attack Hendricks is planning.  But before Ethan can do that, the SUV is ambushed.  Ethan and crew find themselves saddled with Brandt, who may know more than he’s letting on.

The movie races forward, moving through exotic locations (Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai).  Several of the set pieces harken back to the original series, such as a meeting taking place on separate floors of the world’s tallest hotel.  The team has only the technology they’ve scrounged from one IMF outpost, and not everything works properly, forcing them to improvise.

And that is a major difference with this movie.  Unlike the other Mission: Impossible movies, this is not the Tom Cruise show with a couple of supporting players.  The four are a team, and each is important.  (It’s even reflected in the movie’s poster, which features all four actors, rather than the Cruise headshots used for the other three movies.)  Paula Patton hadn’t appeared in an action film before, having mostly done dramas or dramedies like Precious and Jumping the Broom.  However, she kicks butt as good as any of the boys.  Jeremy Renner brings the dangerous edge that he displayed in The Hurt Locker and The Town, though this time there’s multiple layers to the character that are peeled back slowly.  Simon Pegg’s wisecracking humor shines, though all of the principal characters have humor as part of their character.  The support of the others allows Cruise to shine.  It’s his best performance in years.

While Michael Nyqvist’s Hendricks spends most of the film in the background, his final confrontation with Cruise is a stunning piece of choreography.  Interestingly, Nyqvist had played the journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander.  Now Nyqvist is in the #1 movie at the box office, while Rapace is in the #2 with the new Sherlock Holmes, both of them beating out the English-language version of Tattoo.

What Brad Bird et al have done is given us one of the most animated action movies ever.  It’s breathed new life into this series, and into Cruise’s career after several misfires (Lions for Lambs, Knight and Day).  It may have seemed like an impossible mission, but instead it’s a mission accomplished.