Archives for category: movies

Ready Player One seen last weekend in 3-D, but not IMAX is fine on a popcorn level, to be sure, and I walked out well entertained, but there was a lot wrong with it. The quest token format is tried and true, but (in the movie’s favour) it wasn’t too obvious. Given that the plot is about finding things in an immersive video game, the format might actually be essential. The setup, given in a voiceover from the protagonist, was such that the first ten minutes were obvious to anyone living in the time line in which the story is told. It all could have been handled within the action rather than as exposition. In 2047, this is what life is like – people live in hovels and spend most of their time in Oasis, a VR environment where everything is peachy. Sort of. My point is, if you live in the period of the story, you don’t need to hear the setup, and as we don’t live on that time line, the experienced storyteller should get us where we need to be without the it. This alone would have made the movie more satisfying.

Side note: I’ve not seen the miniseries version of The City and the City, but have just finished the novel. The writer uses a bunch of terms in unfamiliar ways in the first chapters – some of them aren’t clarified until well into the book, but author China Miéville trusts his readers to follow him and we trust the writer that eventually all will be clear. Spielberg has never trusted his audience this way, and doesn’t surprise us this time either.

The hero, who uses the handle Parzival in Oasis, and Art3mis, the one who becomes one of his partners/love interest, are both good-looking white people. There’s very much a manic pixie dream girl aspect to Art3mis that could have been played with. Instead, the movie plays out the trope in the same way it’s been played out several thousand times before. And while her self-perceived flaw, a large birthmark, is an issue to her, it could absolutely have been a non-issue. The storytellers could have taken the opportunity to work with a more serious character-building trait (not to play the issue down, but it seemed superficial to me).

Ready-Player-One-Fan-Art-03192015

Ready Player One fan art by Carlos Lerma

The next thing that got on my tits was another missed opportunity. When Aech, a friend Parzival has within Oasis but hasn’t met in the real world, tells Parzival not to trust anyone in Oasis to be anything like they are in real life, ‘She could be a 300-pound dude named Chuck living in his parents’ basement,’ our hero responds with something like ‘Trust me, she’s not.’ The correct answer is ‘Not a problem.’ The director and writers could trust that the generation born essentially now might leap that hurdle. Might. And can. A little support from blockbuster filmmakers goes a long way.

Also, can we trust the audience to get that Parzival is supposed to be a knight in shining armor without it being spelled out by the pixie dream girl in the moments after they meet? Truly, they could have just let the names be the names and let characterization do the rest of the work. That’s what it’s there for. There was so much promise just in the characters’ names and they just threw it away.

All of that said, the movie has some truly meritorious bits. The whole sequence lifted out of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was fantastically well done. (Amused to read that the sequence in question uses Blade Runner in the book, but because Blade Runner 2049 was being made at the same time, it was off limits.) Working the new characters into Kubrick’s original film, the touches that were changed (the photo on the wall with the game designer instead of Jack Torrance, for example), the name of the movie theater – all very nicely done. And the viewer could get these little Easter eggs or not, and it didn’t matter because the sequence was created in service to the story. (My darling dearest, like Aech, ‘doesn’t do scary movies,’ and found what was going on easy enough to follow.)

The concept of IOI loyalty cells, where Art3mis briefly finds herself, is very cool, from a storytelling perspective. The bad guys buy up the in-game debt of players and then consign them to play games shackled in isolation, VR helmets locked to their heads, and earn in-game money until they pay off the debt – which they are never able to do. While the concept wasn’t overdone story-wise, there was yet another missed opportunity. Art3mis’ real-world player is in real danger, and real trouble, and there was a chance for the film makers to elicit real pity and fear for the character. The setup was there. The fact that the character’s parents had died in those cells gave an opening for the audience to really feel for the character. Yes, there’s a Saturday matinée aspect to this movie which is absolutely appropriate for the genre. In the old serials, the audience knew too that the hero would save the girl. But in 90-plus years of action adventure entertainment, there’s got to be room to grow that aspect of the story. And Spielberg could have been the one to do it. He knows how this is supposed to work. Remember Marian in Raiders of the Lost Ark? She was able to show off what it was like to be in mortal danger. Spielberg let her act. Her character didn’t necessarily grow from when we meet her, and we don’t get that much background on her, but when she was in trouble, we felt for her being in trouble. This is what’s missing in Ready Player One.

In the eight-minute video Kaizo Trap (which I absolutely recommend), a young woman gives her boyfriend a video game console and he starts playing while she does other things. Some hours later she comes back to find him gone. The TV then sucks her in and she finds herself (after reading the phrase ‘No Signal’ from the other side of the screen) in a Mario Brothers sort of game. She has to master the game and with every death she suffers, she regenerates. Life after life, she gets further into the game and finally finds her boyfriend. Despite the length of the video, we somehow understand that this journey takes the character years as she has to master more and more to get to the end. (And for those who have seen Ready Player One, the goal in Kaizo Trap is to win, not just to play.)

The whole thing is very dark and has no dialogue (in that regard similar to the first 20 minutes of Pixar’s Up, another superior piece of storytelling). When they do get back to their apartment, it has fallen into total disrepair, reinforcing how long the game has taken. I bring this up to suggest that the video game genre of movie-making has large spaces for pathos and the kind of storytelling that elicits pity and fear in the audience and can provide a certain catharsis.

There should be a version of this world that Ernest Cline (the author of the novel on which the movie was based and co-writer of the screenplay) and Spielberg’s team created in which the audience is trusted a little more. When Stanley Kubrick was dying, he thought highly enough of Spielberg to hand him the keys to the movie A.I. Kubrick had wanted to tell that story for decades on film, but the effects technology was never up to the task. By the late 1990s, the technology was there, but the ever-meticulous Kubrick’s time had run out. When Spielberg made the movie, he took all the subtlety out of the story. The whole thing was very heavy-handed. The characters were cutouts and the effects (again!) overwhelmed the story.

Listen. I loved the movie, I felt for the characters, the action was first rate. All of the references I did get? Fantastic. All the ones I missed? Didn’t matter. As I say above, I was well entertained. But Spielberg had such rich source material and characters that could have been far more interesting and interestingly developed, and an not insubstantial 175 million-dollar budget, but he just missed the mark. Again.

(Note: I wrote this in 2001, within a few weeks of A.I.‘s original release. I’m posting it now to accompany a writeup of Spielberg’s latest, Ready Player One.)

I think I will be parsing out the Spielberg/Kubrick production A.I. for a long time. It is a beautiful fabulous disaster of a movie. Which might also describe this review. I don’t think I give anything away in this review, but if you are inclined to see it, do so and then read. Some of the scenes are expansive and worth seeing on a big screen. The music is ghastly. You won’t miss too much by seeing it in a theater without THX.

ai-hjo-jlDavid (a very capable Haley Joel Osment), our protagonist, is a robot boy programmed to love. His adoptive parents kick him out to fend for himself when the family’s “real” son recovers from a terminal illness. The two boys are not, um, compatible. David spends the rest of the movie in search of the Blue Fairy (of Pinocchio fame) who will make him a “real boy.”

Because it’s a Spielberg film, A.I. is far more heavy handed than it needs to be. The voiceover that sets up the last segment is truly unnecessary. Stanley Kubrick (who spent 15 years trying to make this film, while the effects he wanted were being developed) would have let the images, the dialogue, and the action speak for themselves.

Kubrick, however, is all over the movie. The sterility of the opening segment, the lack of opening credits, and the sequence in which David finds several dozen Davids in boxes ready for sale all embrace his style.

On the other hand, John Williams’ music was sappy, unoriginal, overused, distracting and manipulative. (So what else is new?) My bias is that I’m a big fan of letting scenes speak for themselves and raising the tension of a scene by working with the sounds inherent to it. Music, when it’s used to make the audience less comfortable, like the Ligeti pieces in Eyes Wide Shut, enhances a movie far more than Williams’ trite chord progressions. Willams’ score is filled with unmemorable bits that suggest music that may have evoked emotion in 19th Century melodramas. In A.I., this music is used to raise emotional responses that the text of the film can’t or won’t.

Several scenes are used to demonstrate David’s lack of place in his family and the supposed threat he is to it. The “natural” son convinces him to cut off a lock of mommy’s hair while she sleeps, so that she will love them more. The music that backs the moment he has open scissors over her restless sleeping body is that of cheap thrillers. The crescendo of the strings builds and stops short with the gasp of the mother waking with scissor points inches from her eyes. Indeed, my heart beat faster as I watched that scene, and I felt tricked and manipulated throughout.

Spielberg embellishes pieces of the story way too much. His overuse of Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, threatens to rob the poem of it’s contextual poignance in a manner not seen since Luhrman’s use of Elton John’s Your Song in Moulin Rouge. Okay, it’s not that bad, but it could have been more subtle. On the other hand, a key component of the movie is the framing of robot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) for murder. Spielberg clarifies the situation in just a couple of minutes. Would that he had the faith in his audience to maintain that economy.

There’s another masterfully handled sequence on the balcony of a half-submerged Manhattan skyscraper. David walks into the offices of Professor Hobby (William Hurt) the man who created him and converses with another David robot. No longer is David unique. He tells Hobby, “I thought I was one of a kind,” to which Hobby replies with failed encouragement, “Well, you were first of a kind.” David’s grief expands as he wanders into the room filled with boxed Davids. Continuing to the balcony, the grief becomes palpable and does not feel manipulative or forced.

As humans, we feel existential dread at being metaphorical cogs in a mechanical world, abandoned by a creator whose “long withdrawing roar” (thank you, Matthew Arnold) merely haunts us. We feel no comfort in the belief that we are unique to our creator. David, having learned about himself, is un-comfort-able. The one connection he needs isn’t just momentarily out of reach, it evaporates before his eyes.

Another problem with Spielberg films in general, and this one in particular, is that everything is laid out sequentially. At no point to the characters know more than we do or we all that much more than the characters. As I noted earlier, the last segment could have done without the voiceover. The facts that David prays until his batteries give out and that 2000 years pass before he is brought back are unnecessarily spelled out by a kindly-sounding male narrator. Ridley Scott managed to recover Blade Runner from the crime of its studio-imposed voiceover. Spielberg put his in on purpose. Perhaps Spielberg figured he was doing us the same favor Kubrick did us in Barry Lyndon. The difference is that the explanations in Lyndon spoke back to the original novel and provided an ironic distance between the viewer and the movie. And Kubrick knew what he was doing.

The dialog or scenery could have explained the passing of time. The number of years is irrelevant as we already know David’s relationship to time from an earlier scene. At the very end, we already know David’s relationship to sleep and to iterate a feeling over it is also unnecessary. The pathos of the scene was sufficient and survived the voiceover, but barely.

At the end of Eyes Wide Shut, the audience stopped breathing for a moment as the movie sunk in and started to resolve itself. It seemed that the close of A.I. evoked little more than a collective shrug.


©2001 Silber Lining Productions

A few years ago I wrote a sort of pseudo-scholarly essay that attempted to tie together Blade Runner (in its many forms, save for the most recent sequel which was still in simpsons-naked-lunchproduction at the time and which I still haven’t seen), WS Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer with some extra outside references. A friend had recommended both the essay I reference in the second paragraph and Andre Breton’s Nadja. Those two, combined with a reread of both PK Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the Gibson after many years away from them, gave me a bunch of ideas that took shape over a couple of months. After receiving a piece of fairly easy criticism from a trusted friend that I didn’t quite know what to do with, I let the thing sit on my hard drive for a while (the better part of three years). I’ve reread it, done a couple of minor edits, and added a conclusion. I welcome your thoughts.

Replicants, Replication, and the Cyborg Inside

Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, set in Victorian England, tells of an illiterate girl, raised with an Oliver Twist-like band of criminals, who is hired out as a maid to an orphaned Japanese heiress in the care of her uncle. There are some truly Dickensian plot twists including an involuntary commission to a madhouse. Central to the plot is the love that develops between the young thief (Sue) and the young lady (Maud).

Chan Wook-Park’s Handmaiden is a Korean adaptation set in World War II-era occupied Korea. While there are obviously some dynamics between the Korean and the Japanese characters that might be lost on a Western audience, there are only a few indications of the period. Japanese soldiers on a ferry, for example. A note at the beginning of the film lets us know that subtitles in white indicate Korean, while subtitles in yellow indicate Japanese. That said, the film mostly takes place on a wooded country estate. (Occasional music cues indicate a debt the filmmakers feel they owe to Downton Abbey.)

Arranged in three parts, the first details the story from the perspective of the thief (Sook-Hee). She arrives, plays her part, which is to make the heiress (Lady Hideko) fall in love with he Fagin character (Count Fujiwara – a Korean who can play a convincing Japanese aristocrat) so that he can have her committed. It concludes with the three going off to celebrate the marriage and the honeymoon. Hideko’s role is to play a somewhat head-sick ingenue.

The second part goes back earlier in the story to when Fujiwara conspires with Hideko’s uncle (Kouzuki) and guardian to take the girl away so that her inheritance will devolve back to the uncle. Kouzuki, we learn, is a collector of pornography. Lady Hideko has been trained from a young age to give dramatic readings of this material to selected guests. She’s not the naïf we thought we’d met in part one. These readings are some of the most intense scenes in film. With everyone in the room fully dressed, they’re more sensual than the actual sex that the film portrays.

In the third we learn of the double-cross planned by Hideko and Fujiwara. I don’t want to give anything away to folks who’ve neither read the novel nor seen the movie, but the film gives very little time to the madhouse sequence which was one of the more unexpectedly harrowing pieces of writing I’d ever come across. The fact that Sook-Hee is illiterate makes for some amusing moments early in the movie, but these moments are used to contrast only Hideko’s dramatic readings. The contrast is far more disturbing and used to much greater effect in the novel.

Kouzuki and Fujiwara both receive an interesting (and somewhat horrific) comeuppance.

I’ve become rather prudish in my old age and found some of the sex rather gratuitous. Beautiful, but distracting from the power of the rest of the film. I knock off a star for the combination of that and the missed opportunity of the madhouse. Otherwise, Handmaiden is beautiful, intriguing, and very well crafted.

I hadn’t seen Casablanca in several years when I started this little essay, save for the clip of the Marseillaise which I always pull up on Bastille Day (but before that horrible attack in Nice). I watched it again on a flight back from the US a few weeks ago, though, to make sure my notes made sense.

As we get to know Rick Blaine, the facts of his life come in drips. We learn that he lives by his own code which is honourable but not in the most conventional sense, that he’s carried a torch for a woman he never expected to see again, and that he’s on the run from the US for an arms-related issue. (This is tricky because what we learn from Laszlo is that he fought in Spain on the side of the Loyalists. Is that sufficient to put him on the wrong side of the US? We don’t really know the reason he’s on the run.

He’s anti-fascist on principle, and seems to thrive where there’s little in the way of order.
Having been in Paris at the time of the initial occupation, he packed up for French-administered Morocco and set up Rick’s Cafe Americain, expecting he’d be able to do business there for the duration. The Americans hadn’t taken sides and didn’t look set to do so.

The movie came out in November, 1942, so about a year after US entry into the war. But when precisely does it take place? We get one hint: in a stupor, Rick asks his friend Sam ‘If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?’ only to receive the answer, ‘My watch stopped.'(What is the nature of their relationship? They’ve been together for several years, and Sam is something more than an errand runner, pianist, and drinking buddy, but he’s those things too.)CasablancaJP

Having identified the ‘beginning of a beautiful friendship’ with the French police captain, we can guess that either the next day or the day after that, Casablanca will hear the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Rick will be back in the war.

As we near the 75th anniversary of US entry into World War II (and shortly after that, the 75th anniversary re-release of the film), we find ourselves on a similar precipice. There’s a whole lot of war going on, but we’ve not formally declared World War III. Does Brexit signify that the UK (the Untied Kingdom?) will enter hostilities with Turkey and Russia on a different side than the US and the EU? For example.

In 1991, I was oh so certain that we wouldn’t get out of the 20th century without another great war. I think I figured that by the time I turned 50 we’d be at the other side of it, not just getting ready to enter it. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere (and not originally), we’ve spent the last century fighting the ongoing skirmishes of WW1. Alliances shift, but we’re still keen to be at war. Just because we can’t picture an Anglo-Russian invasion of Iran today doesn’t mean equally strange alliances aren’t afoot. In that category of unintended consequences (you know, everything that’s going on in the Middle East that was predicted in 2002 in some form or another), the results of the Brexit referendum are just all of a piece.

Every time I skim social media, there’s a link to some new atrocity (all the places we’re bombing or the bombing of which we’re financing) or case of legislative poor judgement (today’s example is France banning the burkini – let’s alienate all the people we really don’t want to alienate, shall we?). Each one leads me to the conclusion that the war is just going to get closer even if we don’t declare it. Happily sat in relatively unharmed Nederland, I can claim my own neutrality. At what point to I have to declare which side I’m on?