Movie Review: Ready Player One (2018)
“Ready Player One” feels like the death of entertainment to me. The old master, Steven Spielberg, creates escapist entertainment about a shitty, dystopian world (2045) in which the escapist entertainment is a virtual reality video game with the sweep of the internet called “The Oasis.” It was created by a near-autistic genius named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), in conjunction, somehow, with a dude named Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), whom he eventually pushes out in a sort of Bill Gates/Paul Allen-style putsch. Except Halliday never seems ruthless the way Gates was/is. He’s just a fucked-up gentle soul. Who passes his disease, or the Band-Aid for his disease, onto the rest of us. Thanks, nerdlinger.
Wait, it gets worse. Because the iconography of this game is based on Halliday’s youth. Which just happened to take place in the 1980s—the worst decade ever for pop culture. So we get the Zemeckis cube (after Robert), the alien from “Aliens,” the Iron Giant, etc. Also Batman, Catwoman and King Kong, and on the soundtrack, Van Halen and Twister Sister, all glommed together into one noxious stew.
Wait, it gets worse. Because Halliday died in 2040 but left behind a video message in which he said there were three “keys” in The Oasis; and the first to gather all three keys gains control over the whole thing—the whole Oasis. Which is like gaining control of the whole Internet. Which means, yes, every fucking asshole in the world is going for it. Or at least one: a corporation named IOI, run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who used to run errands for Halliday. And ... no one else? Really? No other assholes or asshole corporations? Are there other asshole corporations in 2045? Who knows? Our POV is fairly constricted here. Almost claustrophobic.
Wait, it gets worse. Because you know who else is gunning for the grand prize? Gamers. With like tats and shit. A group of them have banded together to ... Nah, kidding. It’s all loose and jangly. The corporation is greedy and pure evil, using indentured servitude to further its machinations, while the kids are pure, just doing their thing, yo, in between tries at that first key.
The world, in other words, is divided between hipster gamers and a big asshole corporation, while ’80s iconography swoops in and out. Doesn’t get closer to hell than that.
And I haven’t even gotten to Superman’s spitcurl.
In The Oasis, nobody knows you’re exactly who you are
Our focus is a kid named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan of “Mud”), whose father named him alliteratively in the manner of superhero alter-egos—like Peter Parker. The fates rewarded Dad by killing him off before the opening act—like Richard Parker. Wade lives with his white-trash aunt, who ain’t no May, in “The Stacks,” which is like make-shift trailer homes piled one on top of the other, in the most populous city in the world, Columbus, Ohio. He has nothing to do and nowhere to go. “Nowhere,” he says, “except ... The Oasis.”
I’m curious: Did Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn (“Last Action Hero,” “The Avengers”) and Ernest Cline (the 2009 doc “Fanboys”) consider putting us in the Oasis first? Before meeting Wade and hearing about Columbus? Could’ve been interesting. Or not. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, and in The Oasis it’s the same—anybody could be anybody. The sad part is anybody turns out to be exactly who you expect.
Wade, a short white kid with dark hair, chooses to be a short white avatar with blonde hair named Parzival, who looks anime, struts like Travolta, and hangs with Aitch, a big black first-person shooter/supermechanic (Lena Waithe). Parzival also has a crush on a cute, kick-ass girl named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She has friends named Sho (a ninja) and Daito (samurai), Chinese and Japanese, respectively (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki, respectively). They wind up being early leaders in the battle for the key. They’re called “the High Five.”
But who are they really?
- white male avatar = white male
- white female avatar = white female
- black male avatar = black lesbian
- Chinese dude avatar = Chinese dude (albeit 11 years old)
- Japanese dude avatar = Japanese dude
No cultural appropriation here. Not much imagination, either. I like that Aitch warns Parzival/Wade about falling for Art3mis, since she could be anybody, not at all like her cute white-girl avatar, and she turns out to be, you know, Olivia Cooke, as cute a white teenage crush as any lovestruck white teenage boy could ask for. It’s the jackpot. But ... oh no ... she has a birthmark around her eye. She feels it disfigures her. She hides it with her hair like Veronica Lake.
Right. It’s still the jackpot. The odds against him finding someone like Olivia Cooke on the other end of her avatar are greater than the odds of actually winning The Oasis.
Watching, I kept thinking, “We’re not far removed from ‘The Mod Squad,’ are we?” That hipster 1968 show gave us a white male lead, a white female sidekick, and a black male sidekick. That’s here. We’ve just added a Chinese and Japanese dude for effect. Or for international box office.
Parzival is, of course, the first to the first key, but Art3mis manages to be first to the second key. Made me hope for a second that maybe Wade/Parzival wasn’t the answer to everything. Nah. He still is. It’s still just that: one white male to unite them all.
Once they team up, it’s mainly the five against Sorrento, whose villainous avatar sports Superman’s spitcurl (I would sue, but I have no standing), and who, in real life, knows nothing of tech or pop culture—just big business. Apparently those are our options now: big business vs. pop culture. As if pop culture isn’t big business. As for real culture? Literature and art music and art? Not a whisper. Mr. Kurtz, they dead.
I like that Parzival attains the first key via research. Get to the libraries, kids. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Stand On It” blasting midway through the film. I’d forgotten all about that great B-side. I truly enjoyed the fact that the battle for the second key takes place within a virtual version of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” That was fun.
But the rest? It felt like the flotsam of the last 40 years. It felt like they regurgitated '80s crap, put it on a roller coaster, and called it a movie.
Quote of the Day
“In December, after the election, my colleagues in Washington wrote a Pulitzer-winning article about how the Russians had pulled off the perfect hack. I was on the F train on my way to the newsroom when I read it. I had no new assignment yet and still existed in a kind of postelection fog that took months to lift. I must‘ve read this line 15 times: ’Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.'
”The Bernie Bros and Mr. Trump's Twitter trolls had called me a donkey-faced whore and a Hillary shill, but nothing hurt worse than my own colleagues calling me a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence. The worst part was, they were right.“
Amy Chozik, ”‘They Were Never Going to Let Me Be President’: Covering Hillary Clinton's campaign from before it started to the very last moment," The New York Times. Worth the painful read.
The Story for Now
“The story for now is that a good judge has kept the courtroom open, and when she got pushback about the name of the third client, she allowed a representative of the press—me—to be heard. What I find heartening is that our institutions are functioning. The procedure Monday went as it should have under First Amendment jurisprudence.”
Robert Balin, a media attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine, who argued yesterday why the name of a “third client” of Michael Cohen's should be included in the public record. He prevailed, Sean Hannity's name was spoken, and there was an audible gasp in the courtroom. It was a Perry Mason moment. Balin was in court representing the interests of several news organizations, including The New York Times, AP and CNN.
We have a low bar for success in the Trump era (“our institutions are functioning”) but at least we passed it yesterday. As for the future? As Balin says, “The story for now...”
Yet Another Reason to Love French Film
This is a gangster. From a gangster movie.
The Ultimate Human Experience
“Man may penetrate the outer reaches of the universe. He may solve the very secret of eternity itself. But for me, the ultimate human experience is to witness the flawless execution of the hit and run.”
Branch Rickey, who, as general manager of the 1940s Brooklyn Dodgers, helped break the color barrier. But earlier this week, on Jackie Robinson Day, Joe Posnanski reminded us he did so much more than that.
Chinese Box Office: Bragging About a Rigged Game
A “different form of national pride”? Or “Rambo” with a Chinese face?
Wu Haiyun has a piece on the website Sixth Tone, which is for “Fresh Voices from Today's China,” and her point is as obvious as the headline:
Why Chinese Filmgoers Don't Buy Hollywood's Values Anymore: Well-worn Western tropes of individualism and liberalism fail to resonate with audiences embracing a different form of national pride
Quite the mouthful.
According to her bio, Wu is an editor at Sixth Tone, she has a Ph.D., and she was a visiting fellow at the Harvard-Yenching Institute. And her piece is misleading. It's so misleading it amounts to propaganda.
She begins by talking up China's role as the world's No. 1 movie market. To give perspective: This year, with the release of “Black Panther,” the domestic market in North America had a good February, grossing just over $1 billion, a record for that month. The domestic market in China? According to Wu, it grossed $1.6 billion, which would be a record for any month in North America. That China is now, or nearly is, the world's No. 1 movie market is not in dispute. Nor is it disputed that most of those new February movies in China were domestic releases: “Operation Red Sea,” “Detective Chinatown 2,” “Monster Hunt 2.”
Here's what's disputed. She writes:
In March, major Hollywood titles like “Black Panther,” “The Shape of Water,” “Tomb Raider,” “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” and “Ready Player One” all premiered in the country. In the absence of any major domestic releases, the monthly sales of 51.6 billion yuan were only about half of February's figure.
Right. And in the absence of Chinese New Year, too.
That's the key. Seriously, who among her readers doesn't know this? In terms of moviegoing, February in China is like summertime or Christmastime in the states. Everyone is off for a week, everyone has leisure, everyone goes to the movies. It's prime movie real estate. And it‘s not available to Hollywood movies.
During Chinese New Year, as well as the summer months, the Chinese government, for years now, has instituted what it calls “domestic film protection periods,” or what the U.S. press calls “Hollywood blackout periods.” No new foreign releases are allowed. That’s why all those Hollywood movies Wu listed above were released in March. February was off limits. You want to see a new Hollywood movie during Chinese New Year? 没有了。Go to the states.
Wu mentions this, yes, but passingly, and without specifying when such policies are in place. She brings it up to dismiss it. “These claims are overblown,” she writes. “Chinese audiences, not the Chinese government, are turning their noses up at Hollywood.”
If that's true, why have the protectionist policies in the first place? Why not allow Hollywood movies to be released during Chinese New Year, to compete with “Monster Hunt 2,” or during the summer months, to compete with “Wolf Warrior II”? Instead, China clears the field. During its most lucrative months, it runs races with just the Chinese and then brags that the Chinese won.
Wu's article is full of other misleading ideas about movies and box office. She brings up the poor Chinese performance of U.S. Oscar nominees such as “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water,” as if this is a rejection of western values (feminism, LGBT rights), and as if these movies did boffo box office in the states. They didn‘t. Oscar nominees/winners rarely do. Serious films rarely do. Not for decades now. It’s sad but it's mostly global. People go see crap.
Hell, look at the Hollywood movies that do well in China: the “Fast and Furious” franchise; “Transformers”; and the video-game adaptation “Warcraft,” which the U.S. market rejected hugely ($47 million, domestic), but which did 很棒 in China ($230 million). What does that say about Chinese values? Do we fathom a guess? Would Wu like the answer?
The truly awful thing about the article? Wu didn't have to juke the stats. Her basic premise is correct. Chinese audiences are flocking to Chinese movies more than to Hollywood movies, and I don't think it's just because of protectionism. I think it's because Chinese production values are now at such a level as to compete with Hollywood‘s. The absolutist storylines are similar, too. The difference is the faces. It’s their faces now. It's their country and language. And who wouldn't want to see their face, their country, their language, up on the screen, in well-produced wish-fulfillment fantasy, after years of seeing only the other kind?
To me it's that simple. It's so simple only a Ph.D. could miss it.
Movie Review: Molly's Game (2017)
Whenever I watch anything scripted by Aaron Sorkin I find myself channeling Eliza Doolittle:
Words Words Words
I’m so sick of words
I get words all day through
First from him, now from you
Is that all you blighters can do?
And I’m a writer.
Sorkin does love to hear himself go on, doesn’t he? It was the part I never bought about “The West Wing”: the hyper-articulateness of it all. It’s certainly refreshing to hear in a dumbed-down world but it leaves a false aftertaste. His characters all sound similar, for one. They also have all the answers. No one’s searching, they already know, so the conversations are less Socratic than Sorkinic. They simply rush headlong through their stats, data, anecdotes. Cf., that opening scene of “The Newsroom,” which so many love but which is a bit fish-in-a-barrel for me. Can a brother get a pause? My kingdom for an um.
I actually found myself laughing out loud near the end of “Molly’s Game” when our protagonist’s father, Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner), who drove his daughter to succeed and then drove her away, shows up at the 11th hour while she’s making a speed-skating ass of herself at the Central Park rink. He walks her over to a park bench for a better-late-than-never father-daughter talk, which begins this way:
I’m going to give you three years of therapy in three minutes.
So Sorkin. If it were any more Sorkin it would explode from self-importance.
As for the great lesson the great man has come to impart? It’s about how our hero, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-caliber freestyle ski champion, wound up where she wound up: on federal trial in New York for running a high-stakes poker game with as much as a $250k buy-in, and surrounded by some of the worst of the wealthy worst: Wall Street execs, Russian mobsters, etc. This was after running a similar game in LA surrounded by douchebag Hollywood celebs and skeevy hangers-on. Wasn’t she planning to go to law school? How did she wind up on trial for her freedom?
She offers up an answer, “drugs,” but he waves it off.
Larry: You didn’t start with drugs until the end. They weren’t the problem, they were the medicine. No. It was so you could control powerful men. Your addiction was having power over powerful men.
Molly: That’s really what you think?
Larry: No. I know it for sure.
Also so similar. To what her attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) does. The men in the movie are there to suss out the real her—the her she keeps hidden. She even keeps it hidden from Charlie when she’s begging him to take her case. It’s up to him to suss out why he should.
See, Molly had a debt sheet (money gamblers owed her) worth millions, and she could have sold it but didn’t. She sold other things: her clothes, her car, but not this thing worth the most. Why? Because she couldn’t be sure how the buyers might collect—whose thumbs or legs might be broken. Whose lives might be ruined. She couldn’t do that. Because she’s a good person. So he has to take the case.
Hell, she could’ve gotten a $1.5 million advance on a book deal if she’d only named the Hollywood names in her poker game, including, here, Mr. X (Michael Cera), whom everyone assumes is Tobey Maguire, and not just because he’s played by Cera. She couldn’t do that, either. She only named the names already in the public record. For which she got a $30k advance. Bit of a hit there.
Even to the feds, whose sphere she entered only because of the Russian mobsters and Wall Street execs and Ponzi schemers at her table, men who quickly gave up her name to save their own asses, she refuses to name names. “She’s got the winning lottery ticket,” Jaffey says, “and won’t cash it!” Because she has integrity. Because her name is her name. Because she’s a good person.
Except ... wouldn’t the world be better off if she had given up the Russians and Ponzi schemers? Don’t we want to see that? Them behind bars?
More, doesn’t this contradict what her father sussed out about her? Dad says she turned bad because she wants to control powerful men; Jaffey says she’s good because she won’t give up powerful men. The only way that’s not a contradiction is if she doesn’t give them up because she wants to maintain control over them; she wants to keep them in her back pocket and maintain some kind of hold over them. In which case, she’s hardly the good person Jaffey (and Sorkin) make her out to be.
“Molly’s Game” was released last fall in the midst of the #MeToo movement, and many critics thought it was indicative of that movement: a powerful woman standing up for herself amid scummy men. But it’s actually the opposite of that movement. She has the goods on bad men and lets them off. She accuses no one. For all the words Sorkin gives her, he doesn’t give her those.
Box Office: ‘Rampage’ Opens with a Quiet Win; 'A Quiet Place' Continues to Rampage
Dwayne Johnson's giant ape movie “Rampage” opened to a soft $34 million win this weekend, but what's in an opening? Last April, his “The Fate of the Furious” opened to $98 and grossed a total of $226, while last December his “Jumanji” opened to a tepid $36 (admittedly, the week before Xmas) and wound up grossing $401. That's a rarity but never underestimate The Rock's appeal. Last thing my wife wants to see is a giant ape movie. But with The Rock? She's there.
It's also the third-biggest opening for a video game adaptation ever—after the first “Lara Kroft” in 2001 ($47.7) and “Angry Birds” two years ago ($38). Those are the only VG adapts that ever grossed north of $100 mil, and “Kroft” topped out at $131. I'm pretty sure “Rampage” will beat that. We‘ll see.
Meanwhile, John Kransinski’s “A Quiet Place,” which grossed $50 mil last weekend, dropped only 35% to add $32 to its coffers, for a grand total of $99.6. It also added something equally important. For some reason, last weekend, under its genre, Box Office Mojo simply listed one. No, not “horror.” Not “thriller.” Just this: “Off-Screen Couples On Screen.” WTF, right? How can we gauge how it's doing against other horror films if it's not listed as one? This weekend, they fixed that. It now ranks 13th all-time in horror and 11th in “Off-Screen Couples On Screen.” The top three of those are “Twilight” movies.
And for the record, its opening was the third-best for a horror film—after “It” and “Paranormal Activity 3.”
In third place, another horror film, “Truth or Dare,” which earned $19. Apparently the Trump administration isn't enough for some people.
“Black Panther” earned another $5 mil, and is at $673 (third-best ever domestically) and $1.3 billion worldwide (10th-best). Even if you adjust for inflation, “BP,” a Feb. release, is 33rd all-time, just behind “The Dark Knight” and “Thunderball.”