Movie reviews: 'Ready Player One' is an everything-old-is-new-again hybrid
Published Thursday, March 29, 2018 5:47AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, March 30, 2018 5:47AM EDT
READY PLAYER ONE: 3 STARS
In brand crazy Hollywood “Ready Player One,” the new sci fi film from Steven Spielberg, is an everything-old-is-new-again hybrid. Based on the novel of the same name from author Ernest Cline it’s not a reboot or reimagining of a comic book or old film. It’s an original story that may appeal to folks who say the movies only recycle ideas. At the same time it’s stuffed to the gills with enough pop culture icons to warm the hearts of any nostalgic moviegoer.
It’s 2045 and the world is a mess. Cities are a hodgepodge of dystopian horrors, overcrowded, polluted and corrupt. For the people, whatever joy can be mined from the desolate, depressing life comes from immersing themselves in a virtual reality world called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation).
“Except for eating, sleeping and bathroom breaks,” says Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), “everyone does everything in the OASIS.” Based on 1980s movies, pop culture and videogames, it’s a technological escape from the all-too-real societal ills that make life miserable. "These days reality,” Wade says, “is a bummer."
When OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) died he created a way for Watts and his on-line Gunter pals—egg hunters—to find a way out of their IRL problems. The creator left behind an Easter Egg—if you don’t know that an Easter Egg is a hidden game message or image, give up now—amongst the game’s familiar pop culture characters. Whoever finds the three keys that unlock the Easter Egg will inherit the OASIS empire. Money, power, the whole nine yards.
Watts, who lives in a vertical trailer park called The Stacks in Columbus, Ohio, along with his digital team the High Five, work to navigate the game and change their lives. In a race against time, they must beat the Sixers, an army of gamers employed by evil corporation Innovative Online Industries, in a war for control of the future.
Think your kids spend too much time playing video games? Get a load of Wade, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao). This crowd are best friends, although for most of the movie they have never met on terra ferma. They spend all their time on line, forming friendships, falling in love and eventually fighting for their real life lives.
“Ready Player One” takes off like a rocket. There’s a lot of set-up and Spielberg finds a way to impart information and keep it lively. He fills the screen with an industrial view of the future, contrasting Wade’s dour real life with his vivid on line adventures, visually developing the push and pull between reality and virtual reality that fuels the film’s story. A wild car race, featuring Freddy Krueger, King Kong and the Batmobile, establishes the OASIS in a way that the minutes of exposition surrounding it never could. It also establishes the film’s love of spectacle over story.
Spielberg dives deep into the VR world, intoxicated by the endless possibilities of mixing-and-matching pop culture iconography with an adventure story. When Wade says, “The limit of reality is your own imagination,” he could very well be talking to the director. The result is a frenetic film that is fun for a while but the whimsy soon gets bogged down with feverish detail. It’s a little too long, there’s too much exposition, too many twists for a story that can be boiled down to the notion that we should spend more time in the real world.
A tribute to “The Shining” is often quite fun and there are moments of levity but it isn’t about anything other than the adventure. The commentary on our own virtual lives are never expanded upon. Of a spark of on-line love between Art3mis and Wade, who hadn’t yet met outside OASIS, Art3mis says, “You only see what I want you to see. You don’t know me.” It’s a good starting point for a conversation about what happens when avatars become real people but instead we get more exposition.
“Ready Player One” is pure escapism that begs the question, Will there ever be a video game movie that really works? The function of storytelling is vastly different between videogames and film and yet filmmakers try for a amalgam, the best of both worlds. What we usually end up with is what Steven Spielberg finds in his treatment of “Ready Player One,” a film that honours the spirit of the games at the expense of great storytelling.
MARY GOES ROUND: 3 STARS
“Mary Goes Round,” a new film starring “You’re the Worst’s” Aya Cash, has a clever tagline that pretty much sums up the story, “Blood is thicker than vodka.” The story of emotional resolution is part “Days of Wine and Roses,” part “Jersey Girl.”
Cash is the title character, a young woman and barely functioning alcoholic. A rough upbringing saw her left to her own devices after the death of her mother. She barely got to know her father (John Ralston) or teenaged half-sister Robyn (Sara Waisglass). In an only-in-the-movies twist she’s also a substance abuse counsellor who loses everything after a drunk driving charge. Put on extended leave by her job she returns to her hometown, Niagara Falls where she discovers her father is dying of cancer. With the help of an AA sponsor (Melanie Nicholls-King) and a gradual blossoming of self-awareness Mary battles her inner demons.
“Mary Goes Round” doesn’t break new ground. Sobriety dramas usually involved both spectrums of human behaviour, from the lowest points in the character’s lives to some sort of reckoning and this movie is no different. What it does well is build characters we want to root for. With some dark humour and several genuinely poignant moments director Molly McGlynn—who loosely based the story on her own life—gives Cash, Waisglass, Ralston and Nicholls-King the space to create characters all dealing with some level of shame and addiction but mostly, humanity.
The film’s expected uptick at the end feels earned, coming with the message that looking beyond one’s own borders might reveal the path to happiness. It’s a sentimental end to a story that begins with a harder edge but through strong direction and nice character work, it satisfies nonetheless.
THE CHINA HUSTLE: 4 STARS
“There are no good guys in this story,” says financial whistleblower Dan David. “Not even me.” That’s a grabby intro for a documentary that exposes greed on a level that would make Gordon Gekko blush. “The China Hustle,” from director Jed Rothstein, is a companion piece to “Inside Job” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” movies about money manipulation that should send a chill down the back of anyone with an ATM card.
The story really begins after the 2008 stock market crash. Giant losses put companies in the position of having to generate large sums of cash quickly in the global market. David, like many others, looked to China. “If you want to be a criminal,” says one talking head, “it’s best to go somewhere with no cops. That was China.”
China offered new markets, little oversight and he potential to print money. Cue a stock market feeding frenzy but because foreigners can’t invest directly in Chinese companies along came something called the reverse merger, a mix-and-match of American shell companies and foreign entities. It was a recipe for disaster, ripe with fraud and greed, kind of like investing your retirement money in lottery tickets.
Stories of financial malfeasance are so common that “The China Hustle” doesn’t seem like it will offer anything new. Regular folks put up their savings, lose everything while money managers and banks keep the fees. The story may be familiar but it is compelling. Greed and risk are compelling subjects and the kind of scam carefully detailed here is a prime example of extreme avarice. But why do people get sucked into these situations time and time again? It’s like the punch line of the old Wall Street joke says, “This time it is different.” And so it goes. The hope of easy money is irresistible.
You don’t need to be a trader to understand “The China Hustle.” It isn’t so much a lesson in economics as it is a film about due diligence and common sense. In the micro the film’s message can be boiled down to something everyone’s grandmother said, there’s no such thing as free money. The larger story is more complicated, like an economic detective story. It’s a timely one too. This isn’t a history lesson.
The events from our recent past detailed here still reverberate and now as the Trump government seeks to deregulate banks even further, it is a story of abuse and lack of oversight that could easily repeat itself.
MAKER OF MONSTERS: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF BEAU DICK: 4 STARS
Beau Dick, who passed away last year at age 61, was an artist and activist born in Kingcome Inlet, a Kwakwaka’wakw village north of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. A new documentary, “Maker Of Monsters: The Extraordinary Life Of Beau Dick,” details his life from apprentice artist, learning to carve traditional totem poles from his father and grandfather, to master craftsman who mixed elements of Japanese manga and other styles into beautiful wooden masks that sell at galleries all over the world.
“My experience is that anyone who encounters a piece of Beau’s immediately has an emotional reaction,” says Vancouver gallery owner and “Maker of Monsters” co-producer LaTiesha Fazakas, “because his work is so animated and it feels like you’re encountering a character when you encounter one of his masks.”
The same could be said for the man himself. A soft-spoken narrator, he weaves the story of his growth as an artist and First Nations activist throughout this engaging documentary, building a portrait of a person one friend called magical. “You can see it in him,” she says.
“For the longest time I couldn’t recognize Beau’s work,” says collector Hervé Curat, “and to me that was magic. Too many artists have a fantastic style but they have only one. So many times I have looked at his work and thought, ‘That has to be Beau because nobody else would dare do that.’
His work as an artist and activist—we see his 2013 public copper-cutting ceremony at the B.C. Legislature to protest the disregard of Indigenous treaty rights—are inseparable but “Maker of Monsters” makes sure to emphasize the man behind the art and social action. The result is a loving look at the legacy of a charismatic presence whose concern for his people’s culture and the environment was genuine and wide ranging. “Who is our family?” he asks near the end of the movie. “All of us.”