Ready Player One

March 29, 2018 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by: Steven Spielberg (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jurassic Park”)
Written by: Zak Penn (“X-Men: The Last Stand”) & Ernest Cline (“Fanboys”)

One could fairly say I’m an easy mark for what “Ready Player One” brings to the table, at least on a surface level. A quick look at how I, a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, live my day-to-day life would certainly lead you to believe I’d be all the way down for a movie with references to “Back to the Future,” the Bigfoot monster truck, Pizza Hut’s old logo, “Jurassic Park,” and even its ill-fated summer of 1993 competition “Last Action Hero,” for crying out loud.

Yes, I have inflatable “Star Wars: Episode I” promotional Pepsi cans in my living room to go with several McDonald’s Happy Meal displays, so I clearly love bathing in consumerist nostalgia. But I still like a good, fun story to go with my warm fuzzies, and thankfully Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” delivers.

Set in 2045 Columbus, Ohio after some unknown near-apocalyptic event (something called “The Corn Syrup Riots” is mentioned), the population spends its free time inside the Oasis, a virtual world that doubles as a giant online multiplayer game and sort of the next evolution of social media. One of those is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teen who goes by the name Parzival while in the Oasis, his avatar a wispy, elven humanoid who drives a modified version of Doc Brown’s Delorean time machine. He and best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), a giant, tech-savvy ogre, are “Gunters,” short for “egg hunters,” which means they’re looking for a treasure left behind in the virtual world by its late creator, James Halliday (Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Mark Rylance). Whoever find’s Halliday’s Easter Egg gets control of the Oasis, which is why Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his company IOI are eager to find it for themselves in order to infinitely monetize the user experience. It’s up to Parzival, Aech, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and their other Gunter friends to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Based on the best-selling (and highly divisive among nerds) novel by Ernest Cline (also a co-writer here), “Ready Player One” wisely broadens its horizons under Spielberg’s direction. Gone are the inside-baseball challenges that faced the characters in the book, esoterica like completing a level of “Dungeons & Dragons” or reenacting a scene from “WarGames,” instead replaced with huge race littered with recognizable vehicles from movies and video games and sequence inside a very famous haunted hotel where blood takes the elevator. Spielberg recognizes the appeal that filling the screen with pop culture artifacts brings, and even gets to play with some of the toys he first unleashed decades ago, like a ravenous T-rex that chomps at racers. But it’s far from the empty nostalgia that can make some recoil, instead a mondo-Spielbergian adventure in a future that it opines may not be as unlikely as it seems. Now, where can I get a Mayor Goldie Wilson re-election poster?

The Stanford Prison Experiment

September 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby
Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“C.O.G.”)
Written by: Tim Talbott (debut)

In 1971, psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted one of the most controversial psychological experiments in history. Bringing together a group of student volunteers to play both guards and prisoners, Zimbardo’s intentions were to simulate a prison environment and study the abusive behaviors within the prison system. What happened, however, was that everyone, including Zimbardo himself, become entrenched and absorbed into their roles and psychological degradation, humiliation, and empowerment began. Almost 45 years later, these events are brought to the big screen in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”

The cast is a veritable who’s who of young actors who have been in minor, but effective roles. Actors like Tye Sheridan, Ezra Miller and Johnny Simmons are among a few of the actors who are great in their roles as prisoners. As each of the prisoners slowly unravel under the pressure from the guards, each actor gets to add more and more nuance and dramatic ability to their performance. On the guard side of things, Michael Angarano plays the sternest guard who takes satisfaction out of antagonizing everyone. At first as a joke, Angarano’s Christopher Archer invents an accent and swagger. As things progress, he starts to become this character and Angarano’s performance starts to get over the top. It is intentional and even necessary to show how far the guards, especially Archer, took it, but Angarano ends up feeling way too cartoonish to take seriously.

There’s a sense of real tension and discomfort that flows through “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” The film is at its best showing an unflinching portrayal of normal people who knew they only in an experiment becoming influenced, swept up in their designed roles and convinced that what they were experiencing was real. Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup in the film) himself served as a consultant on the film and most of the conversations are lifted from actual transcripts from the experiment itself, which adds to the unease. One of the most effective things about “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is how Alvarez  perfectly captures how good-natured and amusing the experiment seemed at first and how it turned on a dime. As a study of human behavior, it’s fascinating to watch the turn of simulation blending into reality and the effects on the psyche of everyone involved from the guards, to the prisoners, down to the designers of the experimenters themselves.

If there’s a complaint to be had, it is that the film could have used a little bit of condensing. Redundant scenes of abusive behavior are hammered a little too hard and a little tightening up in the editing bay could have made the film feel a lot shorter. Well-shot, designed and with a keen 70’s aesthetic, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a slickly made and accurate portrait of one of the most stunning social experiments ever done and will serve as a great conversation piece for psychology students and movie-goers alike.

Joe

April 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Directed by: David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche”)
Written by: Gary Hawkins (debut)

Though plenty of independent filmmakers shake things up with studio films and projects outside of their wheelhouse, few have taken the path of director David Gordon Green. After starting out with hard hitting independent films like “Snow Angels,” Green spent three years exclusively directing broad, studio comedies. Some of his work was well received, like 2008’s “Pineapple Express” and a dozen episodes of the brash HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” while others like “The Sitter” and “Your Highness” were critically panned and box office duds. After getting back to his independent roots with last year’s “Prince Avalanche,” Green continues down the small-scale path with “Joe.”

After bouncing from town to town with his family, Gary (Tye Sheridan) lands in a small Texas town looking for work. When he stumbles across some workers in a forest, Gary gets a job with Joe (Nicholas Cage) and the two quickly form a bond with one another. But when Gary’s alcoholic and abusive father puts Gary and his family in danger, Joe must decide if he should overstep his boundaries and help.

Despite the fact that he is one of the most frequently mocked A-list actors in Hollywood today, Cage is a former Oscar-winner and “Joe” is a reminder of how brilliant he can be. In Cage’s case, less is more, and by keeping things simple and understated, he is able to bring out a well-rounded and complex character. Joe is less of a role model and more of an occasionally belligerent, heavy drinker with a host of bad habits. The fact that Joe still comes across as a warm and caring paternal figure despite these character flaws is a testament to Cage’s performance and character design. Like last year’s “Mud” in which Sheridan held his own alongside a mammoth performance from Matthew McConnaughey, Sheridan never feels out matched in his scenes with Cage. There might be some typecasting issues down the line, but Sheridan is well on his way to being a very strong actor. When put together, especially in a segment of the film where the two go on the lookout for Joe’s dog, the two show dynamic chemistry.

Part of what makes “Joe” such a successful film is the atmosphere that Green is able to capture. Green often makes use of local “non-actors” in his films, which often give his projects a hint of realism. For this film, Green gave the huge role of Gary’s father to a homeless alcoholic man named Gary Poulter. Poulter, who actually passed away shortly after filming ended, gives a performance that is hilarious, extremely frightening and unsettling. It is simply astonishing that not only Poulter was able to pull this off, but that Green was able to coax such a brilliant performance out of a homeless stranger.

Story-wise, the film takes a few dark and heavy turns and certainly doesn’t shy away from displaying violence or grave subject matter. There is nothing glamorous about the world that Green has built, but the circumstances and stakes feel real and legitimate. As previously alluded to, “Joe” completely thrives on character design. Gary, while still being a minor, is a completely perseverant worker stuck in a terrible family situation. Joe, built from the same cloth, is tortured and nowhere near a good influence for Gary. Still, the two are drawn to each other. While many reasons point to this being a troublesome friendship, it is somehow mutually beneficial.

As good as “Joe” is, there are a few issues. The main villain in the film appears sparingly with very little context and mostly only to serve as a foil. There are also a few stretches, segments, and tone shifts in the film that feel haphazardly put together. Regardless “Joe” is a true and earnest film that features a mostly strong, albeit minimalistic script, a heaping handful of very strong performances and serves as a reminder that Cage is still very capable of a powerful performance.