Ready Player One (2018)

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People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.  In 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves a video in which he promises that his immense fortune will go to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest as his avatar Parzival, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger. He finds romance and a fellow rebel in Art3mis aka Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and they enter a business war led by tyrannical Nolan Sorrentino (Ben Mendelson) who used to make Halliday’s coffee and is now prepared to do anything to protect the company … Adapted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline from Cline’s cult novel, this blend of fanboy nostalgia with VR and gaming works on a lot of levels – and I say that as a non-gamer. There are a lot of things to like once you get accustomed to the fact that the vast majority of the narrative takes place in the virtual ie animated world yet it is embedded in an Eighties vista with some awesome art production and references that will give you a real thrill:  Zemeckis and Kubrick are just two of the cinematic gods that director Steven Spielberg pays homage in a junkyard future that will remind any Three Investigators reader of Jupiter Jones, only this time the kid’s got a screen.  This being a PC-VR production it’s multi-ethnic, multi-referential and cleverer-than-thou yet somehow there’s a warmth at its kinetically-jolting artificial centre that holds it together, beyond any movie or song or toy you might happen to have foist upon you. There are some of the director’s clear favourites in the cast – the inexplicable preference for Rylance and Simon Pegg (sheesh…) but, that apart, and delicious as some of this is – it looks like it really was made 30 years ago – you do have to wonder (and I say this as a mega fan), Will the real Steven Spielberg please stand up?! This is the real Easter Egg hunt.

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Spielberg (2017)

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His strength is really his ability to tell a story in pictures instinctively. What makes Steven Spielberg tick? Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary commences with on-set filming of Bridge of Spies and then materialises into a meticulously constructed mosaic of interviews, excerpts and archive footage beginning with footage shot by the film’s subject as a child when he used home movies to escape his loneliness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage. As Martin Scorsese states, Spielberg has always been a personal filmmaker, utilising movie themes to articulate his own experiences. And perhaps the one shocking revelation here is that Spielberg didn’t speak to his own father for 15 years, mistakenly believing that he had split the family. The truth was that his mother was having an affair with his father’s best friend, whom she eventually married. His father and his older sisters spared the boy the truth. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school so he conned his way into Universal Pictures by getting off the tour bus and putting his name on the door of an office (maybe…) and impressed Sid Sheinberg enough to get him to underwrite his TV work there for 7 years, making his debut directing  movie queen Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s show Night Gallery. Getting involved with that group of fellow wannabe filmmakers who came to be christened The Movie Brats, he had a support system of guys (they were all guys!) who would eventually become the most successful directors in the business. They all talk here – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and it’s nice to hear them speaking directly rather than through the medium of the third party commentators in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The culture was converging, the older directors were on their way out, they were on their way in. Amongst that crowd Spielberg was a nerd who wasn’t into sports or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, as De Palma observes. Reworking his family difficulties into his films Spielberg created a modern point of view and an immediacy that plugged into the zeitgeist like no other filmmaker:  he knew what we wanted before we did. His one big budget failure was 1941 and it was George Lucas who got him back on track making a film that he promised him would be better than James Bond after he spent a year in a hole ruminating his misstep. So it was that after Jaws and CE3K he then entered into the world of franchises with Lucas making Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lacy is careful to permit Spielberg to critique his own failures or damp squibs even while his contemporaries and stars and co-workers are heaping praise on his energy, his techniques and the panic he manages to hide when he doesn’t know what to do next:  his reaction to the set being placed in the wrong situation on the beach for Saving Private Ryan being a case in point. It’s as though his eye bypasses his brain and goes straight to the camera. He himself states that from his earliest days he felt he was writing with the camera (he probably wasn’t what the Cahiers critics had in mind). A happy second marriage to actress Kate Capshaw and the addition of children made him confront more difficult topics after getting critically burned with The Colour Purple, a film that exercised many when the popcorn king dared take on the black experience and from a matriarchal perspective at that. He wasn’t exactly drowning in awards with the fantastic WW2 epic Empire of the Sun either and screenwriter Tom Stoppard questions his resorting to sentiment. But it was another instance of his desire to empower a child and to take control of  the story of their life. Making Schindler’s List made him confront his Jewishness. He admits he dumped his bag of tricks and utilised a handheld camera bringing an immediacy to the terror in monochrome. At the same time that he was shooting the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto on location he was editing Jurassic Park in the evenings: when everyone in the edit suite saw the astonishing leap in computerised dinosaurs created by Dennis Muren they knew it was something special. As Lucas appositely states, it was the end of one era, the beginning of a new one. Saving Private Ryan was also a war film like no other and the shock of the shooting experience is vividly conveyed by Tom Hanks.  Lacy is canny in deploying some of the best US critics to venture their reading of the director, after setting up the Pauline Kael prediction about how Spielberg’s career would pan out – not as a screen artist –  while the UK’s Dilys Powell isn’t mentioned:  Janet Maslin, J. Hoberman and AO Scott all have their say and it makes for a very thoughtful chorus of opinions given their sometime antipathy to his work (and some of the more problematic films like The Terminal or Hook are basically ignored).  Latterly his films have taken a prescient turn, from the scenes in Minority Report and War of the Worlds that vividly reference the shock of 9/11 and the surveillance society, to the Middle East issues that are tackled in Munich: any equivocation in these stories can be calibrated with the explanation that the man himself is torn about how to deal with the perpetrators of terror. So, for Hoberman,  He’s the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual. The loosely connected Amistad, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln deal with democracy and the law and the origins and problems of America itself. Despite his success, Dustin Hoffman says Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg. The director himself is quick to point out that he has worked with a large team of the same people for decades and calls editor Michael Kahn his blood brother; John Williams he says rewrites his films with music. In the end, all his films he says are father and son stories about separation and reunification – even Lincoln!  And there’s an unpredicted coda to his parents’ bitter divorce (what you might call a twist ending). This is very long at 147 minutes but there isn’t any gristle in an absorbing and fluid chronicle bringing together the many influences around the most important filmmaker of our time. It’s an authorised film but doesn’t suffer for that – he is very open about what drives him and how he works.  He declares happily that he has never had therapy:  Movies are my therapy. Hallelujah – for that we are all truly grateful.

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

Happy 70th Birthday Steven Spielberg!

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We sometimes forget the people who are always there and Steven Spielberg has always been in my life, like a comfort blanket. His command of the visual language complements an extraordinary understanding of the centre of things, the emotionality, the source of humour and compassion, thrills and action. His films have made me swoon and gasp in awe, laugh hysterically, gaze in wonder and shiver in fear. He uses new technology and collaborates with great practitioners in filmmaking crafts. He creates worlds and leads us there, by the hand, and sometimes educates us. He produces films and inspires and mentors other writers and directors and has given the world the great John Williams scores and the summer blockbuster. He is at the heart of pop culture and for Generation X he is simply our guy:  Jaws, CE3K, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET:  The Extra-Terrestrial. His sensibility may have altered somewhat as he has aged, but the audience is always crucial to his thinking:  good stories, well told and beautifully made. He is a master of all genres, pretty much and those he hasn’t directed he’s produced. Spielberg was born 18 December 1946 and we are fortunate to have him. Long may he reign.

Arrival (2016)

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At the beginning of this film I wished I had paid more attention to my linguistics lecturers at college but that still wouldn’t have made me fluent in Farsi and Mandarin like Amy Adams nor even given me a passing ‘vocabulary word’ (a la Forest Whitaker, Army Colonel) in Sanskrit. Then I wished I’d had decent science teachers in high school who didn’t just chalk questions on the board and spend double periods drinking coffee in the staff room, so that I could be a brilliant theoretical physicist, like Jeremy Renner. Science and language are the source, dude. These unhappy unmarried geniuses are drafted in by the military to translate the aliens whose craft is one of 12 that have landed on Earth. So it’s off to Montana, just like in CE3K, that masterpiece of communication, where my desire for intergalactic travel was sparked. After all, how could aliens possibly be any worse than other humans? And since I saw another UFO over a hillside near my home on Saturday, I’m kinda in the mood, you know?! Halfway through this film it dawned on me that it had nothing to do with communicating with aliens and everything to do with the abject maternal. Because Amy is in mourning for her dead daughter. Just like Sandra was in Gravity. Cos women are incomplete without children (or with them, it seems. In space no-one can hear you scream giving birth). And Jeremy is … really her husband. And this is all to do with marriage breakdown. And for some reason, time is folding in upon itself and what matters not a jot is what the aliens are doing here because it’s all, you know, personal, so their Rorschach test blots on the invisible barrier have to do with a book Amy has yet to write about Heptapod language …and the child that hasn’t died yet because she hasn’t been born because Amy and Jeremy have just met! I thought this was going to be pretty great. But it’s not about world war or invasion. The aliens have visited Earth in an extreme case of marriage counselling. Did I completely misunderstand this film? Is it me?! I give up. There is a stupendous score by the estimable Jóhann Jóhannsson. Un film de Denis Villeneuve.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

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Aka The Ghost. Robert Harris’ wickedly sly satire on the Blair Prime Ministership gets the full Polanski treatment here – replete with a changed and very shocking ending (he does this – just ask Robert Towne!). Ewan McGregor is the unvarnished wideboy London sleb journo preyed upon to become the second ghost writer of Adam Lang (a brilliantly cast Pierce Brosnan) the former PM’s memoirs after the previous one allegedly committed suicide. He arrives to his isolated  Elba-like Massachusetts retreat to find Lang is under investigation by the International Criminal Court over suspected rendition and torture for the benefit of the CIA. He begins to realise that under Lang’s suavely non-committal charm there may lie a secret that his predecessor uncovered and that he may in fact have been murdered … Harris’ own adaptation (with Polanski) is faithful to a blackly comic work with many witty characters and roleplays in particular that of Olivia Williams playing Lady Macbeth behind the throne. Brosnan is terrific as the famous charisma machine, Kim Cattrall is the cat’s pyjamas as Lang’s right hand woman (and we presume his mistress) while McGregor is perfect as the guy on the make who is pulled into something he doesn’t understand. Taut, oppressive, brilliant filmmaking with an exquisite, inventive score (his best?) by Alexandre Desplat and as for the ending … I was totally shaken by it. Stunning.

Andrzej Wajda 03/06/26-10/09/16

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The death has taken place of the great and prolific Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose films formed a constant stream of correspondence between those living behind the Iron Curtain and those of us fortunate enough not to be downtrodden (at least not by the Communists.) From Ashes and Diamonds through Man of Iron and beyond, we learned how vibrant and innovative and subversive those brave men and women from the film school at Lodz were under the cosh of the Soviet regime. Thanks for all the films. RIP.

My Week With Marilyn (2011)

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Marilyn Monroe took acting very seriously and trained with several coaches throughout her career – she was nervous as a cat about performing and terrified about getting her lines right. She was dyslexic, had Meniere’s disease and and suffered stage fright to beat the band.Her capacity to remember lines was practically non-existent. It drove co-workers crazy – the more takes she did in her quest for perfection, the better she got. And they dropped from exhaustion. She fled Hollywood to take more control of her roles and set up a production company with Look photographer Milton Greene and their first film was Bus Stop – finally Marilyn can act, the critics said. She had wound up at the Actors’ Studio inadvertently following the death of Constance Collier whom she had been training with in NYC. The association caused untold complications in her life. Then a project arose with Laurence Olivier – an Edwardian comedy of manners by Terence Rattigan, The Sleeping Prince. Olivier and Vivien Leigh had played it onstage. Leigh was too old to play the chorus girl on film and Monroe wanted to be taken seriously so it became a joint production of both of their companies with Olivier starring and directing (that was inadvertent, the result of a misunderstanding that everyone was too polite to point out). Monroe rolled up for the English shoot with new husband playwright Arthur Miller, Greene, publicist Arthur Jacobs and acting coach/sycophant Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife  …  Colin Clark was the son of Olivier’s friend Kenneth Clark and as a new unemployed graduate needed a job. He got taken on as Third Assistant Director on the film that became The Prince and the Showgirl and kept a diary which he finally published as The Prince, The Showgirl and Me in 1995. He later wrote a memoir, My Week With Marilyn, and these two volumes are combined here by Adrian Hodges with a touch of creative licence, coyness and diplomacy:  Clark’s (and Olivier’s) views of Miller (Dougray Scott here) in particular were scathing and Clark’s real-life sexual inclinations were more worldly than those exhibited in the personage of Eddie Redmayne. Michelle Williams gets the poisoned chalice role but manages at times to exquisitely portray the plight of the most famous woman in the world trying to get along in a new marriage with a man clearly using her and a cast and crew (led by Kenneth Branagh as Olivier) who appeared to despise her (they trashed her leaving gifts, not that we see that in this British production). Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) famously said that Monroe was the only one among them who knew how to act for the camera while Olivier ranted at Clark that ‘Trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger.’ Seeing her luminous performance and his own overacting in rushes nearly finished him and stopped his desire for directing (he eventually made one just more feature and a TVM!). Clark stated that Olivier was a great actor who wanted to be a film star while Monroe was a film star who wanted to be a great actress. According to his memoir he told her this in order to allay her fears in the hostile environment in which she found herself adrift. Who knows how much of this is true? It’s all rather unlikely. It makes for a good story though. Director Simon Curtis manages to get the balance of despair, humour and pathos into this on-set romance and it’s a testament to all the talents involved that it’s more insightful and touching than exploitative.

The Intern (2015)

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Nancy Meyers is a spectacular filmmaker:  she makes deftly witty social satires starring female protagonists and she’s been at it since 1980 when she co-wrote Private Benjamin for the heroic Goldie Hawn. There was a long gap between It’s Complicated (2009) and this – so long I wrote a book about her work, fearing the worst. Then she came back with another zeitgeisty comedy, starring Robert De Niro as the titular character, an active widower seeking more to do with his time and seeing an opportunity with a politically correct seniors internship programme at an e-commerce firm in his Brooklyn neighbourhood.  His boss is the driven company founder, millennial Anne Hathaway who runs this fashion seller with a sharp focus that somehow blinds her to the people around her – the wussy stay at home husband and cute daughter, the chauffeur who drinks (despite her espousing of bicycle riding in the warehouse suite), and the capacity of former businessman De Niro to assist her in the running of her firm because her financier wants to replace her as CEO. This jabs at a lot of contemporary targets – women and work, work-life balance, the generation gap, seniors in relationships (the brilliant Rene Russo is CRIMINALLY under-used as De Niro’s romantic interest) and corporate life. Even if Hathaway wasn’t originally intended to co-star (it was supposed to be Tina Fey opposite Michael Caine, then Reese Witherspoon), it has the unexpected slippage effect from her role in The Devil Wears Prada and we might see her as Andie all grown up in a dream(-ier) job where she’s the boss. De Niro is a flinty protagonist (she’s really the antagonist here) and this perhaps is where the film-story balance comes a little undone:  there are snotty, spiteful moms in the playground, her own awful mother hounding her on the phone, a dull spouse (couldn’t she do any better?! And pay a babysitter?!)  and a decided lack of interests outside of work – compare the narrative solution in Baby Boom in which Diane Keaton hit on a highly domestic answer to a business problem. This targets so many bases and is a lot of fun at times – even De Niro’s break-in caper with his dude co-workers – yet it doesn’t really say a lot about the specifics of this fashion website idea or why it’s so important to Hathaway, has remarkably conservative ideas about men and women and never feels like it truly exploits its characters:  Anne Hathaway needed to go really crazy at some point! She’s … aggressive passive. In the meantime, you can get my book about Nancy Meyers here: https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1474702335&sr=1-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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Bryce Dallas Howard ran around Jurassic World in high heels so donning the garb of forest ranger Grace should come pretty easy, dontcha think? Her stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) finds little Pete (Oakes Fegley) deep in the woods her uncle Gavin (Karl Urban) is busy upending. Pete’s folks died in a car crash 6 years earlier and he’s been living there with his best friend Elliott. Who happens to be a dragon, the kind that Grace’s dad (Robert Redford) has been telling her about for years, since her mother died when she was five. Grace’s boyfriend (Wes Bentley, welcome back) reads Pete the storybook that is his only remaining possession and Natalie has a copy – his own is the giveaway to Elliott’s cave, which Gavin quickly exploits … I don’t know about you but the last time I cried at a movie was … The Passion of Joan of Arc. And  Running On Empty. And ET, of course. (More than once but decades apart.) Amazingly, this out-Spielbergs Spielberg in Disney’s own remake of its 1977 musical which I have never been able to get through, despite – or maybe because of – Helen Reddy. This is straight drama and the casting is spot-on, the tone is perfectly managed and the overall effect is funny, smart, touching, witty, scary and magical. Absolutely wonderful. Now how often can you say that? And during the worst summer in living movie memory. There is a message of course – about conservation, family, decency, hunting … You can figure that out yourself. Get your tissues ready. Written and directed by David Lowery, with Tony Halbrooks also credited for writing, based on the original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein.