Ready Player One was a best-selling book that established a future world built upon the pop-culture artifacts of the 1980s, a future that celebrates and looks back to the past, to a halcyon childhood of classic and not-so-classic video games, movies, comics, and music. It was no surprise that author Ernest Cline’s novel would become a success, as we’ve been in a full-blown 80s nostalgic renaissance for quite some time now. When living legend Steven Spielberg got aboard as director, it seemed like fate. As a non-reader, my worry was could the big-budget, Hollywood version of this movie, lead by a Hollywood master, be more than the sum of its parts, more than the nostalgia and pop-culture references? I feared the finished product would be Avatar meets VH1’s I Love the 80s (“Hey, remember that thing? We do too.”). My fears were overblown, but then so is Ready Player One a bit, an entertaining vision that glides by with little else but vigor.
In the future, most of humanity spends their days living out fantasies and dreams in the Oasis, a virtual reality hub with different worlds, games, and features, allowing players to design their own avatars and their own adventures. The Oasis was created by Halliday (Mark Rylance), a reclusive genius who also programmed a contest upon his death. Whoever finds three hidden keys would win ownership of the Oasis. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is a regular kid living in Columbus, Ohio (woot, represent!) but when he’s in the VR world he’s Parzival, a more confident and assertive player. He’s fascinated and intimidated by Artemis (Olivia Cooke), a fierce competitor who brushes aside others. Together they team up to thwart the evil corporation IOI (Innovative Online Industries) run by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). They want to own the Oasis, riddle it with ads and product placement, and restrict the freedoms to a lucrative caste system. Parzival and Artemis must find the keys, stay ahead of IOI and their team of super players, and hide their real-world identities before they can be unplugged one way or another.
Ready Player One is a first-rate action spectacle from one of cinema’s masters of spectacle. Spielberg unleashes his incredible imagination with the full-force of a pretend world where any thrill-seeking adventure can happen. You can feel his genuine sense of joy at getting a chance to play in such a big world where anything is possible. This is best encapsulated with a race that challenges all laws of physics and good sense. The obstacles are extreme and as the cars careen into one another, King Kong trounces the track, and various nasty surprises await, it becomes a propulsive, thrilling, and ridiculously entertaining set piece. The last time I can recall a Spielberg film feeling this downright fun, first and foremost, was perhaps 2011’s Tin Tin, an underrated adventure. Spielberg has a delightful comic touch when it comes to constructing creative and satisfying action set pieces, laying the foundation for future payoffs and complications. There’s an extended sequence where the players have to infiltrate the Overlook hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and it’s glorious. It’s the most sustained pop-culture reference and nostalgia point, but it actually lines up cleverly with a mission goal. The overpowering flurry of pop-culture references I was worried about never come to much more than momentary visual signifiers (“Look, he’s driving the car from Back to the Future. Look, he’s got the Holy Hand Grenade.”). You don’t need the background to enjoy the film, and the references are just a bonus for those nostalgic aficionados in-the-know. It rises above the hefty anchor of nostalgia to tell its own story on its own epic terms.
With that being said, Ready Player One is also little more than its eye-catching spectacle. There’s very little substance here to be had. The film is 140 minutes long and feels breathless, allowing nary a moment to catch contemplate, deepen the characters, or explore the outside world in greater detail. The movie is packed with expository plot beats about the inner workings of the Oasis and every time it hops to a new level it resets and we have to learn more rules and surprises. It kept me entertained, don’t get me wrong, but when you come out the other end you can look back and see little. It’s a thrill ride first and foremost but one that feels entirely ephemeral. There’s so little to hold onto that generally matters. It’s the film equivalent of fast food, a tasty jaunt but something not exactly made from the best ingredients. It even takes that’s 80s pop-culture appreciation and transforms into feeling like an 80s movie, complete with an ending where even the bad guy gets his just deserts in a comical low-stakes way. We’re watching a bunch of teenagers fight against The Man taking control of their play space and corporatizing it. That feels like the VR equivalent of, “We gotta save the rec center from those evil land developers who just don’t get the communal power of art, man.”
I didn’t really get a sense of any of the characters and it felt like the “be whoever you want to be” freedom of the Oasis could have been better employed. Take for instance Artemis, who in real life is Samantha and has a blotchy birthmark on her face. I understand that she’s self-conscious about the mark but she still looks like Olivia Cooke (a pretty girl with a birth mark still looks like a pretty girl). The romantic relationship between Parzival and Artemis feels like user projection, falling for the cool, kickass gamer girl. She rightly retorts, “You think you’re in love. You don’t know me, only what I show you.” This stand for female agency regrettably melts away and Artemis/Sam fall into that familiar dance of emotions. The side characters feel more like second or third tier team members on a spy mission, offering little variance. I didn’t really get a sense of any of the central characters from a personality standpoint except for their loving appreciation of pop-culture, which is then morphed into a pop-culture artifact itself. The larger mystery of Halliday’s past regrets is rather predictable and amounts to little more than “seize the day,” which is also a pretty 80s message if you think about it.
Another aspect hampering the impact is the dire lack of stakes. As far as I can tell, the biggest loss the players experience is their in-game credits and achievements. They may have spent months or years accumulating those, but if they were to disappear there’s no real larger harm to anyone. It’s a mere inconvenience, the same thing with dying in the game. I was waiting for another step where dying in the game would translate into the real world (“You die in the game, you die for real!”). They even introduce a fancy VR suit you can wear to literally feel the action of the game, though why anyone would want to feel the pain inflicted via a video game is beyond me (the pleasure I can understand). When we watch characters fight against incredible odds, the most that’s at stake is having to regenerate at a different location and get back into battle. It makes the struggle feel less realized and certainly less substantial. It plays into the already ephemeral spectacle. I heard from my seat neighbor, who had read Cline’s novel, that (book spoilers) one of the players is killed by the evil corporation by finding out where he lives and throwing him out a building. The movie needed a moment like that. Imagine, Sorrento being confronted by Parzival and friends, and he points to one and says, we know where you live, we’re breaking down the door now. The guy turns around, hearing the sounds coming from his real-life environment. Then Sorrento gets a radio call about breaching the room and a gun is placed against the character’s head. His scream is cut short as the sound of a gunshot echoes and his avatar disappears. Then Sorrento points to the remaining players and says we know where each of you live. That scene would have raised the stakes for the final act, not to mention be a sly nod to The Matrix. Unfortunately, even when the bad guys are trying to kill people, the stakes feel small.
I think part of the lower stakes is also because we never get a clear sense of life outside the Oasis. If just about every human being is wired into this VR world, how is all that electricity being generated to power this experience? What is the economy of this world? What do people do to subsist in their homes? Is money related to in-game achievements? These loyalty pods, which are essentially a twenty-first century debtor’s prison that profits off virtual slave labor, how are they legal? What exactly is the legal system like in this world? Also, we see people running outdoors with their VR helmets on. Won’t they run into traffic or a building or some kind of obstruction? I never understood how this world operated. Perhaps that’s the reason Spielberg spent a solid 75 percent in the Oasis, keeping our minds occupied with shiny things before we can begin to question.
Sheridan (Mud) is a handsome and likeable leading man, though he just came from another movie where he wears a visor over his eyes (X-Men: Apocalypse). He leaves enough of a favorable impression to make you wish he had more going on. The same with Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) who plays the spunky, spiky love interest and experienced gamer girl. It’s a role that Cooke performs nonchalantly, evoking the ethos of being enviably cool and thus desirable to legions of gamer boys. Cooke is capable of much more, as evidenced recently by her phenominal performance in Thoroughbreds, but I’m happy that she’s getting a big platform and from Spielberg too. The other castmates add a needed sense of diversity to this future world, though I was wondering why the pop-culture references were almost entirely American. Surely Halliday would have been the kind of guy that was entranced by the gee-whiz cool artifacts of other cultures like Japan. The best actor is Mendelsohn (Rouge One) who seems to be carving out a fine career in Hollywood movies as an officious middle-manager villain. He’s the right kind of slimy while still being weak at his core that fits so perfectly for these kinds of roles. Sorrento also employs a fierce female enforcer (Killjoy’s Hannah John-Karmen) with some sharp bangs who reminded me of Luv from Blade Runner 2049. Even more 80s-ness!
With Spielberg at the helm, it feels like he’s the perfect person to bring Ready Player One to the big screen considering he’s one of the biggest progenitors of our 80s nostalgia. It’s a loving homage to pop-culture without being suffocated by the cumulative artifacts of pop-culture. It’s a rousing, imaginative adventure with some terrific special effects and stunning action set pieces. It’s an enjoyable trifle of a movie, lacking larger substance, characterization, and sustainable stakes. It feels too light, but then maybe that’s another argument for its adherence to the feel of 80s movies, where problems could be solved with dance-offs or choice montages set to Jefferson Starship. Ready Player One should delight fans of the book and even those ignorant of all its myriad references. Whether audiences cherish this alongside those keepsakes of the past is another matter.
Nate’s Grade: B
In the opening text crawl for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it says, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Disney, in its infinite wisdom to cash in on every potential resource of its lucrative cash cow, has decided to devote a whole movie to that one sentence in that initial crawl. I can’t wait for each sentence to get its movie. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in case you’d forget) is the first film outside of any of the trilogies and much is at stake. Not just for the rebels but for Disney shareholders. If a wild success, expect future tales coming from every undiscovered corner of the Star Wars universe. And if Rogue One is any indication, that’s exactly the kind of artistic freedom needed to blossom.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has plenty to rebel against. Her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on a fiendish death machine for the Empire. Jyn’s father is responsible for designing the Death Star. Jyn is broken out of imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna) for the Rebellion. They want her to track down her father, find out whatever she can about this new fangled Death Star, and if possible, retrieve the plans on how it might be stopped. Her mission will take her to the ends of the galaxy to reunite with her father and to provide hope to the Rebellion.
Finally after many films we finally get a war movie in a franchise called Star Wars, and it’s pretty much what I wanted: a Star Wars Dirty Dozen mission. It’s thrilling to go back to the height of the resistance against the Evil Empire and see things from a ground perspective with a skeleton crew working behind the scenes. We may know the future events of those Death Star plans but we don’t know what will befall all of these new characters. Who will make it out alive? The open-and-shut nature of this side story in the Star Wars universe brings a bit more satisfaction by telling a complete story. This film will not have to wait for two eventual sequels years down the road in order for an audience to form a comprehensive opinion. I welcome more side stories like Rogue One that expand upon the fringes of the established universe and timelines, that establish colorful new characters and tell their own stories and come to their own endings, and hopefully don’t feature any more Death Stars (more on this below). It seems like it was ages ago that major studio tentpoles just attempted to tell a single, focused story rather than set up an extended universe of other titles to nudge along their respective paths. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) is less slavishly loyal to the mythos of the series than J.J. Abrams. His movie doesn’t feel like flattering imitation but its own artistic entry. The cinematography is often beautiful and the natural landscapes and sets provide so much tangible authenticity to this world. Edwards has a terrific big-screen feel for his shot compositions and achieving different moods with lighting. He knows how to make the big moments feel bigger without sacrificing the requisite popcorn thrills we desire.
Rogue One has to walk a fine line between fan service and its own needs. While it’s fun to see Darth Vader on screen again voiced by the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, it’s also a bit extraneous other than some admittedly cool fan service. We don’t need to see Vader clear out a hallway of Rebel soldiers but then again why not? It’s the same when it comes to the inclusion of cameos from the original trilogy. Some are minor and some are major, achieved through the uncanny valley of CGI reconstruction. Gene Kelly may have danced with a vacuum cleaner and Sir Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando both appeared as big floating heads after their deaths, but this feels like the next step beyond the grave. There’s a somewhat ghastly feel for watching a dead actor reanimated, so your sense of overall wonder may vary. The cameos are better integrated than the Ghosbusters ones.
There’s a great cinematic pleasure in putting together a team of rogues and rebels. The characters on board this mission have interesting aspects to them. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior and aspiring Jedi. He feels like he stepped out of a great samurai movie. He uses his connection with the Force to make up for his lack of visual awareness, and Chirrut demonstrates these abilities in several memorably fun instances. There’s a world of back-story with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a dotty wheezing warrior who is more machine than man at this point. Whitaker gives an unusual performance that reminded me of a kindlier version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The reprogrammed robot K-250 (vocal and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk) is a reliable source of catty comic relief and I looked forward to what he was going to say next. The first 40-minutes is mostly the formation of this group, and it’s after that where the movie starts to get hazy. We know how it’s all got to end but the ensuing action in Act Two feels a bit lost. This may have to due with the reportedly extensive reshoots that were done last summer to spice up the movie (much of the earliest teaser footage isn’t in the finished film). I’d be fascinated to discover what the original story was from Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and just what rewrites Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) performed so late into its life. For much of the second act, the characters feel a bit too subdued for the life-or-death stakes involved, and that translates over to the audience. We travel to different locations throughout the first two acts but I can’t tell you much about them other than some intriguing mountainous architecture. The plot is a bit too undercooked and still obtuse for far too long, requiring our team to bounce around locations to acquire this person or that piece of information. Rarely do the characters get chances to open up.
It all comes together in the final act for a 30-minute assault that makes everything matter. It’s a thrilling conclusion and the movie finds a way to keep escalating the stakes, bringing in powerful reinforcements that force our Rogue One crew to alter their plans and placement, while still clearly communicating the needs of each group and the geography as a whole of the multiple points on the battlefield. It’s what you want a climactic battle to be and feel like where each player matters. It’s also a welcome addition to the Star Wars cannon, as we’ve never seen a beach assault before. It feels like a new level that was unlocked in some video game, and that’s no detriment. The ending battle has different checkpoints and mini-goals, which allows for the audience to be involved from the get-go and for the film to jump around locations while still maintaining an effective level of suspense. Many of these characters make something of a last stand, and you feel the extent of their sacrifice. I read in another review that the reason Jyn and her rogues win is because they accept that they are replaceable, and Orson Krennic fails because he made the mistake of believing himself irreplaceable. I think that’s a nice summation about the nobility of sacrifice. I won’t get into specific spoilers but I was very pleased with the ending of the film even though it’s not exactly the happiest. It feels like a fitting ending for the darker, grittier Star Wars tale and it provides earned emotional resonance for the setup of A New Hope, which this movie literally rolls right into.
With as many fun and potentially interesting characters aboard for this suicide mission, it’s somewhat surprising that they are also the film’s weak point. Beyond simple plot machinations like Character A gets Character B here, I can’t tell you much more about these rogue yet noble folks other than their superficial differences. Take for instance the Empire turncoat, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) What personality does he have? What defines him? What is his arc? What about Cassian? He’s supposed to secretly assassinate Jyn’s father if given the chance, but do we see any struggle over this choice? Does it shape him? Does his outlook define his choice? Can you describe his personality at all whatsoever? What about the villain, Krennic? Can you tell me anything about him beyond his arrogance? What about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who carries a big gun and is close friends with our blind wannabe Jedi. Can you tell me anything about this guy beyond that? Even our fearless leader, Jyn Eros, feels lacking in significant development. She wants to find her father, get vengeance, but then changes her mind about sacrificing for the greater cause of hope. Many of the character relationships jump ahead without the needed moments to explain the growth and change. The original trilogy was defined by engaging characters. When you have a ragtag crew of six of seven rogues, you better make sure each brings something important to the movie from a narrative perspective, and not just from a pieces-on-the-board positioning for action. Look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for tips. If this was going to be a powerful and emotionally involving war movie, the characters needed to be felt deeper. All too often they get lost amidst the Star Wars debris and then they become debris themselves. Ironically enough, Rogue One has the reverse problems of The Force Awakens, a movie that benefited from engaging characters but sapped from an overly familiar and cautious story. It’s telling when my favorite character, by far, is a sassy comic relief robot.
Let’s talk about the Death Star in the room, namely the fact that over the course of eight Star Wars movies there have been Death Stars, or the construction thereof, in five of them (63% rate of Death Star sighting). We need a break. You can cal it a Star Killer Base whatever in Force Awakens but it’s still a Death Star in everything but name. I can’t even put a number to the amount of money it cost the Empire/First Order to build these things, plus the review process to try and correct design flaws that never seem to get corrected. At this point it feels like this model just isn’t cost-efficient for its killing needs. What about a more mobile set of multiple mini-Death Stars? I hope that the filmmakers for the new trilogy (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow) refrain from putting another similar planet-killing space station-type weapon into their movies as we’ve had enough. However, the use of the Death Star in Rogue One was perfectly acceptable because it already fit into the timeline of the first film. I also greatly appreciated the clever retcon as to why the Death Star had its fatal flaw. It took a bothersome plot cheat from 1977 and found a gratifying and credible excuse. Now when Luke blows up that sucker it’ll have even more resonance.
Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure that feels like its own thing, and that’s the biggest part of its success. By being a standalone story relatively unencumbered by the canonical needs of hypothetical sequels, the movie opens up smaller stories worth exploring and characters deserving a spotlight. This is an exciting and entertaining war movie, and the kind of film I want to see more of in this multi-cultural universe. It’s not a faultless production as the lackluster character development definitely hampers some audience investment. I wish more could have been done with them before they started being permanently taken off the board. While Rogue One is looking to the past of Star Wars it still makes its own independence known. I hope this is the start of a continuation into exploring more of that galaxy far far away without the required additions of every Skywalker and Solo in existence. It’s a far bigger universe and it needs its close-up.
Nate’s Grade: B
Director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) is back to work some of his Gladiator magic on another sword-and-sandals epic, the classic story of Moses, this time played by an ever-bedraggled and bearded Christian Bale. It’s been a banner year for Christianity at the movies, though most of those films have been uninspiring save for Darren Arofonsoky’s radical and ambitious Noah. That movie did not go over well with many conservative ticket-buyers. That’s the danger of adapting the biblical epics; pleasing the core audience means not straying too far from the accepted renditions of the oft-told tales, no matter if those popular renditions are themselves inerrant. Exodus: Gods and Kings is an underwhelming translation that slogs through the miraculous. It’s empty CGI wonder in place of authentic storytelling and emotional resonance.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a big-budget biblical epic that is startling in what it lacks, namely any amount of surprise or character development. The Moses story is oft told so I’m glad that Scott’s film skips ahead to when he’s already an adult. No basket in the reeds necessary. The brotherly conflict has little impact because, besides Moses, no other character is even given proper attention. Ramses (Joel Edgerton) is pretty much a thoughtless killer from the start, someone who ignores his advisers when it comes to political unrest and just slaughters his own starving people. He is by no means a dynamic villain in any shape, which is disappointing because the role has such dramatic potential. The 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt did a better job exploring the relationship between Moses and Ramses, the pharaoh. In fact, that movie did just about everything better, and it had some pretty songs too. Stuck with a one-note villain, Exodus tries to round out Moses by making him a figure of doubt, providing an arc where he finds his voice when he finds his faith in Judaism. The film even sets it up so Moses has to go on his quest so he can just return home to his family. It’s a pretty strict hero’s journey storyline. Bale is plenty good. His character just isn’t that interesting nor is anyone else. Being stuck with this crew for 150 minutes can get to be rather tedious. That’s because the real emphasis has been put on the special effects and digital landscapes. The action is acceptable but little sticks in your memory. I’m starting to become numb to CGI spectacle. I’m starting to think back to the epics from the 1950s and 60s, when there was no such thing as computer effects. Every person assembled for those epic shots of huddled masses was a real human being, and that’s becoming more impressive with each and every CGI spectacle with copy-and-paste digital figurines.
Given the predictable nature of the plot, you try and find little moments or directions that stand out, something, anything to mark this newest Moses story as different from the numerous retellings of cinema’s past. Beyond the modern-day special effects and the strength of Scott as a visual artist, here is a short list of what you have to look forward to with Exodus: Gods and Kings.
1) An attempt to ground a biblical epic with realism. If conservative audiences were upset with Aronofsky’s portrayal of the Almighty in Noah, just wait till they see what Exodus does. It’s not that God has been removed from the tale, it’s just that God has been mitigated in a way as to provide a rational throughline to follow the supernatural events of the ten plagues and so on. There’s even the possibility that Moses is just seeing things in his head. Two different characters advise Moses that being hit on the head could be the real source for his visions of God. Joshua (Aaron Paul) spies on Moses at several points arguing with God but sees no one else. The plagues are presented in a cause and effect series of misfortunes, with the Nile being turned red due to a surge of crocodiles munching on all the fish. The polluted water then causes the frogs to leave en mass, which then causes them to die and bring about waves of flies, which bring disease to sicken the livestock as well as boils for the Egyptians. Some thought went into this, however, it’s all inconsequential with the Angel of Death killing the first-born sons. There’s no real skeptical or scientific method to explain away this one, as the biblical story relates, and so the grounded approach seems misplaced. It takes away the miraculous from the miracles. And yet, even the parting of the Red Sea is given this same approach, with it resembling low tides brought about by perhaps a meteor strike. The fantastical nature of the Moses story feels handicapped by going a more realistic route. This is not the biblical epic for realism.
2) God is literally represented as a petulant child. When God does make Himself present for Moses, it’s in the form of a young child who is often mocking his servant. This is an angry often-bloodthirsty God who doesn’t appreciate being challenged. He complains how long Moses is taking with his war of attrition, and Moses says right back, “Impatient? You waited 400 years with ‘your people’ in slavery.” A fair complaint, and one that God does not answer.
3) Bad overall casting. Whitewashing isn’t exactly a new trend in Hollywood. It’s not like Charlton Heston looked particularly Middle Eastern. However, it’s rather distracting to watch a movie starring Egyptians and Middle Eastern Jews portrayed by a Welshman, an Australian, John Turturro, Sigoruney Weaver and Aaron Paul. I am a fan of each of these actors but they are just wrong for these parts. There are very little people of any color in the film despite the fact of its geographic location. Moses marries Zipporah, who several biblical scholars believe to be Ethiopian, which seems like a natural opportunity for some much-needed diversity in the cast. Just because you give Paul a bushy beard does not mean he suddenly resembles a Middle Eastern Jew. Same thing with adding eyeliner and bronzer to Edgerton. Then there’s the bizarre appearance of Scottish actor Ewen Bremner (The Rundown) as an adviser for the king. Taken as a whole, the whitewashing is a nagging distraction from a supposedly more grounded approach. To be fair, having relatively unknown (as far as the public is concerned) actors of appropriate ethnic background speaking in subtitled Hebrew and Egyptian sounds like a hard sell for a studio footing a $140 million dollar bill.
4) Lots of dead horses. This is not a friendly movie for our equine friends.
5) Moses sex. Well, sort of, because showing a husband and wife being physically intimate will still offend some of the more conservative ticket-buyers. So after Moses goes through his somewhat romantic question and answer ritual with his wife, the camera pans away from the disrobing couple and fades out. Classy. Now on to more CGI spectacle and carnage thank you very much.
I admire Noah more and more and think he successfully found a way to make a biblical epic accessible, challenging, and complex morally and psychologically without sparing the dark details. In essence he found a way to make a popular story new and interesting again. Scott’s Exodus just leaves me shrugging my shoulders. It’s by no means an appalling film. Beyond the big-budget modern-day spectacle, there isn’t enough going on in this movie to even justify all the expenses. The characters are too sketchy and given little to do, especially Ramses who pretty much just sneers and barks for 90 minutes. The costumes are fancy, the production design is lush, and all the technical elements are impeccable. It just falls woefully short on what should make you care. It feels like a product more than a film and a resonating story, and as such it’s delivered just in time for the Christmas shopping season for the masses. The film takes too long to get started and too long to conclude. It has some moments in the middle, especially when Moses is plotting his political insurrection, but as a whole Exodus is disappointingly lackluster. It ends up becoming empty and noisy CGI spectacle, with lots of yelling to compensate. It’s hard to find inspiration from the film when you’re checking your watch.
Nate’s Grade: C
Ambitious filmmaking is welcome, but usually ambition leads somewhere, which is the main problem with co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s unwieldy 140-minute multi-generational crime drama, The Place Beyond the Pines. First we watch Luke (Ryan Gosling) as a traveling motorcyclist enter a life of crime to support his infant son. Next the focus shifts to Avery (Bradley Cooper) as a cop with a conscience running into corruption on the force. Last, we jump ahead into the future and watch the dramatic irony unfold as the children of Avery and Luke interact, waiting for them to learn their paternal connection. I believe Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and his team was attempting to tell a meditative, searching drama about children paying for the sins of their fathers, the lingering fallout of bad decisions and moral compromises. Except that’s not this film. By the end of the movie, while some secrets have been laid bare, there really aren’t any significant consequences. The film does an excellent job of maintaining a sense of dread, but it doesn’t come to anything larger or thought provoking. The entire structure of this film is geared toward a tragic accumulation, but it just doesn’t materialize. That’s a shame because it’s got great acting through and through, though I have grown weary of Gosling’s taciturn antihero routine that seems like a rut now. Avery’s portion of the plot was the most interesting and anxiety-inducing, but I found the movie interesting at every turn. The characters are given pockets of nuance and ambiguity as they traverse similar paths of desperation and conciliation. The Place Beyond the Pines is a perfectly good movie, albeit disjointed, that cannot amount to the larger thematic impact it yearns for.
Nate’s Grade: B-
A funny thing happened while watching Killing Them Softly, the latest film from writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). After an hour, I noticed a couple people stand up and leave, never to return. Then another and another like permission had been communally brokered. I counted ten walkouts at my showing, which was more than I had at Cloud Atlas, a film that I can at least understand the possible exodus. But this? It also got a rare F grade from CinemaScore, joining the ranks of The Devil Inside, Wolf Creek, and The Box. Before you put that much stock in what is essentially a movie going exit poll, Alex Cross was given an A grade from audiences. But why all the venomous hate? I can only theorize that the mainstream audience feels it was sold a bill of goods, a crime thriller with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The audience did not want to go on the lengthy talky detours. They wanted people to get dead. Whatever the reason, Killing Them Softly has killed its audience, who choose not to go softly in their disapproval.
Set amidst the economic meltdown of 2008, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Frankie (Ben Mendelsohn) are two lowlife thugs hired to rob a mob-affiliated card game. The trick is that local gangster Markie (Ray Liotta) had previously paid a group of guys to rob his own card game, fleecing his own customers. In his drunken revelry, Markie admitted as such to his pals. Now the situation is ripe for exploitation. Because any future robberies will have their suspicions pinned firmly on Markie, whether he had anything to do with them or not. As a result, no one is gambling, the public has lost confidence in the markets, and the mob needs to get things back to business. Jackie (Brad Pitt) is called in to make that happen. He’s a professional killer, who prefers to kill at a distance, without all those messy emotions. He has to trace the culprits responsible and give them the reckoning they have coming.
From a plot standpoint, Killing Them Softly is pretty thin. It’s just about the ramifications of two nitwits robbing a card game. This lack of narrative depth will rankle most filmgoers, but I didn’t mind it so much because Dominik uses the crime thriller veneer to examine the sheer ugliness of a criminal lifestyle. This is a pretty character-driven crime flick, and it has to be when there’s a malnourished plot. It takes some lengthy sidesteps, notably with James Gandolfini’s (Zero Dark Thirty) character, Mickey. He’s supposed to be a professional, but the man is a complete wreck. He’s belligerent to those in service positions (waiters, prostitutes), chronically drunk, and weirdly empathetic for his struggling wife, yet seemingly powerless to change his life’s downward slide into self-medicated self-destruction. Mickey is the ghost of Christmas Future, the vision of what this lifestyle does to people who make a living out of it, who actually live into their retirement age. The two young crooks, Frankie and Russell, are idiots yes, but even when they have money their lives are so empty. Russell is so disgusting, sweating profusely, that you can practically taste his stank. Frankie is a little more cognizant of the danger he’s in, and yet the moron doesn’t leave town after his big score. I’d think that’s the first thing you do when you rip off the mob. The day-to-day anxiety of a life of crime is just not worth the effort. You constantly have to look over your shoulder, a life dominated in paranoia, where every stranger or furtive glance could have sinister meaning. Even when you make money, you’re theoretically taking money away from someone else’s profit, and these are the kind of people that don’t take kindly to friendly competition. This is no enviable, glamorous life.
I think Killing Me Softly would be a better, easily more satisfying movie had it eschewed the attempts at extra weight and commentary. It’s no surprise that the scenes that follow a more traditional crime thriller route are the best. There’s palpable tension when Frankie and Russell are in over their heads. The conflict is prevalent and the suspense is nicely stretched out, notably during the card game robbery. Being neophytes, you don’t know what they’re liable to do but you can bet it won’t be smart. This is when the movie is most alive, most engaging, and most entertaining. When it plays it straight, and explores the sliding power plays at stake in a world of cash and guns, it can be a nasty but taut little movie. I’m just sorry that Dominik took a functional crime thriller and gave it an extra sheen of Important Things to Say (”America’s not a country. It’s a business.”). The political parallels never feel more than tacked on attempts to grope for deeper meaning. Oh I get it, I understand the comparison of mob enforcers and corrupt Wall Street execs, hoodlums and crooks in different casual wear, but that doesn’t mean the parallel is that meaningful. It’s on-the-nose and a bit in your face (really, people are watching C-SPAN in dive bars?).
Given Domink’s last film, I expected there to be some visual flourishes, though I’m unsure of whether they added much to the proceedings. Dominik sure can make violence entrancing, setting a slow motion slaying in the rain with stirring beauty to ironic Motown music. But he can also make the violence feel brutal, like a beat down on Markie that uses choice sound effects and editing to make you feel the punches. Even the opening seconds feel like an artistic assault to the senses, the loud static of noise interrupted by bursts of Obama’s sound bytes. The extreme camera angles, the visual felicities, the ironic music selections, they all seem to underscore the movie’s subtext-as-text approach.
Pitt (Moneyball) doesn’t come into the movie for the first thirty minutes. You’re welcome to see him, especially since he has such a coolly threatening demeanor, but also because here’s a character that will mix things up. I found myself rooting for the guy, partially because he was an accomplished professional but also because I wanted there to be consequences for idiots doing dumb to powerful enemies. I enjoyed the slow-burn intensity of Pitt when he was turning the screws on the screw-up. Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods) is also enjoyable as a mob shill left to communicate the wishes of his higher-ups. McNairy (Argo) gives a performance that screams desperation, as he realizes the depth of trouble he finds himself into. And even Liotta (Charlie St. Cloud) does a fine job as a lout who misjudges the friends he keeps, discovering the costs of bragging.
In many ways, I feel like Killing Them Softly is akin to last year’s Drive, a more meditative crime thriller with bursts of gruesome yet beatific violence. Likewise, many filmgoers will be sore thinking they were catching straight crime thrillers and been given arty genre ruminations instead. And like my ambivalent feelings toward Drive, I can’t work up that much enthusiasm for Killing Them Softly either. It’s certainly got more ambition than most crime flicks but I’d rather it concentrate on telling a more engaging story. Dominik’s film is a bit too indulgent for its own good, given to visual flourishes and a narrative routinely sidetracked. And yet, I found it fairly interesting at just about every turn, well-acted, and intensely suspenseful and effective at different points. But it doesn’t add up to enough to recommend. The political allegory probably rubbed the walkouts the wrong way as well. The political allegory is too obvious, too pat with its “they’re all crooks” broadside. I wish the movie had abandoned the squalid, nihilistic art house ambitions and just kept things straight. When it has less on its mind, it works best. But for many, Killing Them Softly will be too tedious to see to the bloody end.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Let’s be honest, The Dark Knight Rises movie was never going to meet fan expectations after the high-water mark between superhero movie and crafty crime thriller that was the pop-art masterpiece, The Dark Knight. Whatever director/co-writer Christopher Nolan put together was fated not to match the pulpy big blockbuster alchemy that he worked so well in 2008. Minus Heath Ledger’s instantly iconic performance, a role that set the film on fire whenever he was onscreen, there is going to be a certain void to this capper to the trilogy. Now having seen the movie twice, including once in sphincter-rattling IMAX, I feel that I can truthfully state the most obvious: The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as the previous movies. While a fine finale for an ambitious series, this is definitely the weakest movie of the trilogy.
It’s been eight years since Gotham City last saw the likes of Batman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is an older man, hobbled by age, and living as a recluse in his mansion. His trusted friend and butler Alfred (Michael Caine) keeps encouraging Bruce to seek a life outside that of Batman. In those eight years, Gotham’s police have cracked down on organized crime thanks to the Dent Act, a law named after the late district attorney Harvey Dent (a fallen idol that only a handful know the real truth about). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is growing sick with the secret of Harvey Dent and looks to retire from the force. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is a businesswoman eager to restart Wayne’s clean energy project, and a woman interesting in getting Bruce back on his feet. There’s also Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a.k.a. Catwoman, a master thief who gives Bruce a new challenge. But then along comes Bane (Tom Hardy), a master terrorist and figure of brute strength. His goal is to fulfill the League of Shadows’ plan and destroy Gotham City and expose its rampant corruption. He sidelines Batman and takes over the city, unleashing criminals and hordes of the downtrodden upon the wealthy. There is no escape from Bane’s plan, his wrath, but Bruce Wayne must rise to the occasion and be ready to sacrifice the last of himself for the people of Gotham.
Firstly, Bane is no Joker. The bad guy lacks the fiendish charisma of Ledger’s Joker and he’s not as well integrated thematically into the movie. The Joker was an anarchist that wanted to tear down the pretensions of society and watch people “eat each other.” And we watched a city come unglued. We explore the notion of escalation and what the blowback would be for a man fighting crime in a costume. With Dark Knight Rises, Bane wants to take up the mantle of Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and wipe Gotham off the map. He’s got moments of being a master planner but really he’s just a big heavy. He’s the big tough guy that beats up old man Bruce Wayne, and Bane is continuously diminished in the film as it goes. A late revelation with the character completely diminishes his role and turns him into the equivalent of a mean junkyard dog. His big plan is simply to rile up the masses and wait for the inevitable. Hardy (Bronson) is a great actor prone to mesmerizing performances. This isn’t one of them. He’s super beefy but the facial mask, looking like some sea urchin, obscures half his face. It’s all physicality and eyes for his performance, along with very amped-up dialogue that you can tell was rerecorded after filming. Every time Bane speaks it’s like he has a speaker system installed in his face. And then there’s the matter of his sticky accent, which to me sounds like German mad scientist but to my friends sounded like drunken Sean Connery.
Bane keeps espousing about the corruption of Gotham but you really never get a strong sense of what that corruption has lead to. Catwoman talks about the Gotham elites living large while the rest of the city struggles; but rarely do you get a sense of this. So when Bane flips the tables, and the elite and wealthy are stripped of their decadence and put on trial by mobs, it feels improperly set up. Just because you have characters talk about wealth disparity and the city’s corrupting influence doesn’t mean it’s been established. Nolan’s Batman movies are a reflection of our modern-day anxieties in a post-9/11 world, so I wasn’t surprised to see a society rotting away from the sociopathic greed and wanton excess of the 1%. But rather than serve up a wealth disparity parable of class conflict, the movie simply turns to mob rule, a far less nuanced and interesting dissection of current events and fears. It’s like the French revolution took a trip to Gotham City (Gordon even quotes from A Tale of Two Cities). It’s a society built upon a central lie, the idol of Harvey Dent, but the movie fails to make the corruption felt. In the end, this is all pretty weak social allegory. And would it have killed Bane to be a little more brutal to stock exchange short-sellers?
Then there’s the typical Nolan origami plot with the myriad of subplots intersecting. This is the first time in the series where the plots felt poorly developed. Rewatch Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, as I recently did, and you’ll see there is not an ounce of fat in those movies, not one wasted scene or one wasted line. Sure they got secret super ninjas and Katie Holmes, but those movies were well built blockbusters. I could have done without Bane entirely and certainly would have loved more of Catwoman. Hathaway (Alice in Wonderland) is terrific in the antihero role and brings a very interesting dynamic relationship with Batman. She may be the only person who understands him. I wanted more Catwoman, the movie needed more Catwoman, but alas she is just a plot device to connect Wayne to Bane. She has a larger role in the concluding melee but essentially becomes Batman’s reluctant wingman. The whole theme of the 99% vs. the 1% could have been generously explored with this character, and her spark and charisma would certainly be enough to get Bruce Wayne out of bed again. Then there’s the regular cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doing the unheralded good deeds that so easily get overlooked. Here is an interesting character that, due to some leaps in logic, connects with Bruce Wayne on a unique level. He presents a counterbalance to all the souped-up superheroes, a recognizably regular human trying to do good. It’s then a shame that he gets entirely relegated during the third act so that the superheroes and their super toys can make some noise.
For a Batman movie there’s hardly any Batman in it. The caped crusader has been in retirement for eight years, so it takes some time before Bruce puts the suit back on. But then he’s also sidelined for a good third of the movie, stowed away in a far-off prison. The entire Indian prison sequence really could have been exorcised. It essentially becomes a Rocky training moment for Bruce Wayne to recover and a plot device to explain why there needs to be a time gap in the story. But this part of the movie just feels like it goes on forever, and we all know where it will go so we just keep waiting for the movie to get there. No one wants a Batman movie where Batman sits the middle out. The end feels relatively fitting but any fan of The Iron Giant will recognize some similar key elements.
And while I’m on the subject, let me do some estimates here. The timeline between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is about a year, as the Joker notes to a congregation of mobsters. I’ll be generous and say that the events of The Dark Knight last two months. We learn that Batman never appeared again after the death of Harvey Dent, and now we flash to eight years later with The Dark Knight Rises. So you’re telling me that we only really got a solid year of Batman being Batman? That over the course of nine years he was Batman for only one of them? That’s very little Batman-ing for a Batman franchise.
But even with these flaws in tow, The Dark Knight Rises is still an exciting, stimulating, and mostly satisfying close to a trilogy of unprecedented ambition and scope for a modern blockbuster. The action sequences in this movie are huge and exhilarating. I loved Bane turning Batman’s armada of weapons against him. The Bat fighter plane is a nice addition that gets plenty of solid screen time. The sheer scope of what Nolan produces is epic; from a plane being hijacked in mid-flight and torn apart, to a city being leveled by explosives, to a face-off between a bevy of armored Batmobiles and the Bat plane through the streets of Gotham, the movie does not disappoint when it comes to explosive, large-scale action set pieces. This is also the first Batman movie where the climax is the best part of the film. The last half hour is solid action but also a fitting sendoff for a beloved character. Some will grumble with certain hat-tipping moments at the end, but I found it entirely satisfying. It all comes back to the central thesis of Nolan’s Batman films about becoming something more than just a man, becoming a symbol, and that symbol is meant to inspire others. By the end, you feel that the inspiration has been earned as so has our conclusion.
I want to single out Caine (Harry Brown) who has very few scenes but absolutely kills them. He’s the emotional core of the movie, perhaps even the series, and has always been hoping that his charge, Bruce Wayne, would never return to Gotham. He’s the voice of reason in the movie, the man that reminds Bruce about the costs of a life spent seeking vengeance and sacrificing his body. I wish Caine was in the movie longer but his scenes are pivotal to the plot, as is his absence.
The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t rise to the level of artistic excellence of its predecessors, but it’s certainly a strong summer blockbuster that works as an agreeable finale to the premier franchise of the era. It’s not quite the knockout we were expecting from Nolan but it still delivers where it counts. I wish it had give a fuller, richer portrait of a city corrupt from the inside out, a society rotting away and ready for revolution, and plus I also wish we had plenty more Catwoman and plenty more shots of Anne Hathaway in her Catwoman cat suit (Michelle Pfeiffer still has nothing to fear), but these are the things of dreams. Nolan’s aim has always been to place Batman in a world that is recognizably our own, and with that comes the responsibility of bringing a stolid sense of realism with all the blockbuster pyrotechnics. This artistic ethos has given us some extraordinary movies, though some Batman purists would object that Nolan’s hyper-realism is not the Batman they grew up with. It’s hard to really get a sense of the accomplishments that Nolan and his team has been able to pull off over the course of three bladder-unfriendly movies and seven years. He’s taken the superhero movie and redefined it, brought it unparalleled psychological depth and philosophical analysis, and given a human quality to what normally gets dismissed as escapism. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t as revelatory as its previous entry but it sticks the landing and puts to rest what is indisputably the greatest superhero trilogy of all time.
Now get ready for the reboot in three years.
Nate’s Grade: B