2 1/2 (out of 4)
Though in the moment the combination of Steven Spielberg’s propulsive, intuitive directorial skills and a 175 million dollar budget equates to relatively unmatched entertainment value, Ready Player One cannot exercise many cinematic thrills without reverting to a narrative built more on referencing and borrowing from pop culture than genuine emotion or actual science fiction.
What little human elements are present – most of our time is spent in an overwhelming 3D-animated universe, the in-film virtual reality world OASIS – are pedestrian at best. Milquetoast Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, who, as his avatar Parzival, simply wants to beat the Oasis's late creator's challenges leading to control of the game and romance his online fantasy, Art3mis, or Samantha Cook in person (the gifted up-and-comer Olivia Cooke). Going into a Spielberg film I didn’t really expect much other than bright-eyed sentiment and crowd pleasing, but our lead characters aren’t barely more interesting than Ben Mendelsohn’s generic corporate villain Nolan Sorrento, a ruthless CEO seeking to exploit the OASIS for profit.
As much as I question how much involvement Spielberg and DoP Janusz Kaminski had in the digital animation process, the result is as seamless as Spielberg’s first attempt at this technology in The Adventures of Tintin. Though inferior to that film and at least half of Spielberg's filmography, it's good to know the classic director can create his worst sci-fi film by a mile and still end up with something more inspired than Avatar.
Speaking of similar movies, the film somehow emulates both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, and even with its dystopian future setting Ready Player One is in the same class of maturity as those aforementioned flicks. Despite an intriguing premise that could easily bring up bigger philosophical, social or even cinematic questions, the film's story settles for the most rudimentary of thematic content. Even the rules of the OASIS' virtual universe are never properly explained, and what is spelled out for us is a crude and unfulfilled vision of the future.
At about 30 minutes too long, Spielberg shows no restraint and is especially too keen to bait his audience with nostalgia. The worst sequence of the film is an extended homage (if you can call it that) to The Shining would make Stanley Kubrick's head throb. Just a decade or so ago Spielberg was making the likes of A.I. and Minority Report, films which would have made Kubrick proud. I can't imagine what Spielberg thinks he's doing for one of his favorite films by one of his major influences – regardless of his comfort with nine-figure-budgeted blockbusters, fun can't save the largely hollow reality at work in Ready Player One.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
With auteurist trademarks so mathematical, recognizable and unswerving, does that leave any room for Wes Anderson to grow as a filmmaker? Isle of Dogs has everything you could expect and/or enjoy from the idiosyncratic director – relentless symmetry and one point perspective, affected humor, an array of quirky and appropriately named characters and so forth – but none of the unassuming maturity that often elevates his best work above a typical smorgasbord of kitsch.
In returning to stop-motion anthropomorphic animals, reminiscent of his lovely adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, this feature is sorely missing the razor-edged wit of Noah Baumbach's writing or a story that doesn’t simply please dog-lovers and hipsters. Mr. Fox was for everyone but especially kids – every other Anderson movie has a dark edge from brief moments of harsh violence and a handful of unsavory characters, but all the adult elements can't quite gel in the thoroughly twee diversion of Isle of Dogs.
But of all the criticisms of Anderson's latest, the one thing that can't be overlooked – and won't be especially in the age of SJW-commanded social media outlets – is the film's rather Americanized view of Japan. Sure, perhaps the easy cultural staples and cheap lost-in-translation humor might be intentionally small-minded, but a plot involving the Japanese government's utmost hatred of dogs feels just a few hairs shy of pretty racist. With a filmography of innocence chased with a splash or two of graphic language, violence or sexual maturity, I would assume his appropriation for the sake of an interesting setting was purely affectionate. But who knows how testy millennials and the real Japanese audiences think about this one.
So regardless of racial subtext, Isle of Dogs tries to contrast its cute band of talking dogs with the backdrop of disease, corruption and conspiracy theories. While I understand he's not adapting a children's book this time around, the effort is about half as sophisticated in its plotting, character or dialogue as Anderson's best, even if his filmmaking craft is still commanding. The film is as visually delightful as any of his past work, and the superlative voice cast comes standard, full of talented new recruits (Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig) and familiar timbres to Wes's catalogue (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, many others).
Whereas his last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a calling card to the director's abilities and is furthermore quintessential Wes Anderson despite not being quite his best, Isle of Dogs is firmly amusing but does nothing as the director's ninth feature film other than to dilute the breadth of his creations altogether.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
If women didn’t turn out in droves to support the practically all-female Annihilation, I doubt that even a film that has its foot firmly in the ideological territory of the #metoo and #timesup movements will get the attention it deserves. Regardless of box office numbers I'm sure Steven Soderbergh – who has nearly 30 films under his belt – kept his budget exceptionally low this time around by shooting his latest film Unsane on an iPhone 7 Plus.
But apart from the filmmaking gimmick like 2014's Tangerine, the film features one early Apple plug before completely adjusting its story to the granular texture, reduced motion blur of serviceable, pocket-size digital quality, and its a general format he's committed to for the better part of the millennia. As an experiment in lo-fi, Unsane is ultimately aided by the peculiarity of its visual grain – the aesthetic is both appropriately claustrophobic and unrestrained simultaneously given the portability of the camera source.
Apart from his digital inclinations, Soderbergh's chilling new psychological horror-thriller is also much more than its feminist themes. Unsane vigorously attempts to scrub clean the idea that men, with enough effort, can get exactly what they want from female of their interest. Hollywood has a long history of often teaching men that no doesn't always mean no; in handling a paranoia/stalker premise, Unsane looks at the pain of not being believed both in terms of sanity and safety from sexual abuse and assault. All that while also serving up strong words for the health insurance sector.
Just within the current decade Soderbergh's output has been some of the strongest of his career – Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, Side Effects, and most recently Logan Lucky are all superb gems, and Unsane is no exception to the collection of taut mini-masterworks. Though another departure always seems in the midst, like we were all saying six months ago, please don't retire Steven.
2 (out of 4)
Trying to do for its own franchise what worked a decade ago in rebooting Bond and Batman, Tomb Raider attempts to give us a rousing origin story for the British-speaking, ass-kicking digital sex symbol as she's known to celluloid.
Back in the early 2000's, there was no room to grow for Angelina Jolie, whose own goddess-like stature served her personification of the practically faultless pixelated heroine well. The cartoonish antics of her portrayal in the two Tomb Raider films fell in line with the schlocky production across the board. With this revamp, injecting so much all-consuming seriousness, hamstrung emotion and a measured manner of realism doesn't take this very straightforward Tomb Raider to much further artistic reaches than its laughably entertaining predecessors. There's no punching the shark, but the writing and characterization of this by-the-books 'gritty reboot' is so one-dimensional it makes you wish the film was much, much worse.
I’ll admit Norwegian director Roar Uthaug extracts a couple moments of tension in backtracking the usually plot-armored Croft to her vulnerable and unlearned roots. The film’s second half commits to nearly constant action, and some of it actually pretty exciting, particularly in an extensive waterfall sequence.
And while the supporting cast is all but pointless to mention, recent Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander does what she can with her lack of material, doing her best to humanize and sentimentalize Croft's character. However, while Jon Voight’s role as Papa Croft was reduced to flashbacks in the original film, this version puts Dominic West's Lord Croft in a major third act role, desperately straining to make something real out of the weak father-daughter relationship. After wasting enormous effort and screen time, the film still can’t spare us flashbacks or pointless, repetitive voice-over.
Most embarrassingly of all, the film’s last moments and vague plotting serve to set up a fresh franchise only to trip over itself right out the gate at the box office. Her legend will likely begin and end here, and no one will be too forlorn at that fact.
3 (out of 4)
Cory Finley excels cautiously in first film Thoroughbreds, which debuted at last year's Sundance Film Festival and now finally is seeing a theatrical release through Focus Features. In his directorial debut Finley stirs up a rich genre mixture without ever getting overambitious. The film updates the satire of teenage nihilism that made Heathers an '80s cult touchstone while also succeeding as a sly, incredibly minimalist horror film wrapped in black comedy.
Anya Taylor-Joy, as she did for up-and-comer Robert Eggers in The Witch, proves she can sustain a fresh writer-director’s new age thrills and even elevate the results with her composed acting talents. Like Eggers' film Thoroughbreds unfortunately includes a jarring score that serves to remind you too often that you’re watching something spooky – The Witch can live with the ambiance given its obviously grim atmosphere but Finley's film could have done with a little more irony or tonal ambiguity. The film's many narrative sidesteps shouldn't be anticipated with creepy cues, but rather the music should have embraced the film's core cavalier rebelliousness more fully.
After reforming their childhood friendship Amanda (Olivia Cooke aka the dying girl in Me and Earl [a Sundance 2015 darling]) and Lily (Joy) form a pair of opposite yet similarly disassociated teens, the first brutally honest, emotionless and the other more uptight and proper. However, desperately seeking to oust her wicked stepfather via a convoluted murder scheme, Joy hopes to exploit drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin in his final, brief but excellent performance) to keep her and Amanda's hands clean in their scheme.
Giving rise to cinematic moments of sardonic humor, coy editing and clever (but never knowingly, annoyingly clever) back and forth, Thoroughbreds keeps you on your toes and entertains with ease as it plays only so loose with reality. The writing has some manner of wit, insight and thematic depth throughout all navigated by well-developed characters.
It almost feels too short, but it's not an insult to say I wish Thoroughbreds went on for another twenty minutes at least. For as much as it may lean on recognizable tropes, Finley's first is wisely sparing and fairly unconventional.
To keep it brief...