Monday, May 14, 2018

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY: a review of "Tully"

"TULLY"
Screenplay Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
*** (three stars)
RATED R

It is a strange thing to say but I have to admit that despite the greatness that I have seen this year with the likes of Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" and Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War," two spectacular entries from Marvel's superheroes and Wes Anderson's latest and absolutely brilliant stop-motion fantasia, "Isle Of Dogs," I am more than anxious and ready to see a film that was about...well...people.

The return of Screenwriter Diablo Cody and Director Jason Reitman, the team who has already delivered the outstanding teen pregnancy film "Juno" (2007) and the even better, decidedly darker and teeth baring "Young Adult" (2011), is exceedingly most welcome and anticipated for me and for a good stretch, "Tully," their third collaboration to date, showcases their uniquely sharp, perceptive and probing explorations into the lives and times of 21st century girls and women.

Yet, even as good as "Tully" is, the film is not quite in the same league as their previous two films together. Not in terms of content, which remains as provocative as ever, but solely in the fullness of its execution, which left me wanting considerably when it was all said and done. That being said, "Tully" is a slice of life film that just may delve a bit closer to the bone than you may realize--especially for any of  you who happen to be Mothers. In seeking films that are about people and life as it is honestly lived, any collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody would be more than worth your time and attention and "Tully" indeed fits the bill.

"Tully" stars Charlize Theron in an absolutely searing performance as Marlo, a not-so-young and severely overwhelmed Mother of two children, including her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who is clearly existing somewhere upon the Autism spectrum (yet is still undiagnosed) and prone to frequent tantrums and meltdowns, making him a strong risk for  being expelled from  his school due to the lack of resources to properly aid his needs.

Her loving yet essentially inattentive husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is barely present as he works during the day and detaches by gaming at night, therefore leaving Marlo to her own devices with the child rearing, that will soon grow to three children due to a pregnancy that may have been unplanned, and the housework, which has become a impossibility of keeping up with. 

By the arrival of the third child, and with Marlo gradually losing her grip due to sheer unending exhaustion, she and Drew are given a suggestion by her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass), a telephone number of a "night nurse," a figure who will aid Marlo with the baby and the house between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6 30 a.m., thus allowing Marlo to sleep.

While at first a tad reluctant, Marlo eventually makes the phone call and soon thereafter, in the night, at their doorstep arrives Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the very "night nurse" who will help re-structure Marlo's life.

That is indeed the basic plot line of Jason Reitman's "Tully" and I will refrain from revealing more so as to not produce spoilers regarding some surprises along the way as well as seriously upending revelations that occur during the film's final third. What I am able to convey to you is that the film strongly feels very much of a piece with both "Juno" and "Young Adult," again making the cinematic partnership of both Reitman and Diablo Cody notable, refreshing, compelling and artful.

Essentially, the first element about the film that impressed me greatly was the fact that I really do not think that I have seen Motherhood depicted in such an unglamorous, unsentimental fashion. In fact, Reitman and Cody's presentation suggests that "Tully" just may be the first film, this way of the independent cinema leanings towards the mainstream, that is delivering Motherhood at its most truthful, and they could not have possessed a better conduit than the terrific, downright fearless Charlize Theron.

For an actress of Charlize Theron's status and statuesque beauty, it is more than easy to possibly forget just how serious of an actress she actually happens to be. Just as she achieved so extraordinarily in Patty Jenkins' "Monster" (2003), Theron has again undergone a full physical transformation in order to embody the character of Marlo on the surface.

Yes, Theron has gained a significant amount of body weight to give the realistic appearance of a woman's figure after her third childbirth but even further, it is a performance which contains not a stitch of vanity as she is more than willing to appear as "unattractive" as possible. At one point, her daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) questions pointedly "What's wrong with your body?" as Marlo is seated at the family dinner table in her dirty bra, her stomach protruding, her torso sweaty and filthy, her unwashed hair and blankly cold visage suggesting something akin to catatonia.

While that line of dialogue receives a brutal laugh, it is presented at nowhere near the expense of Marlo's dilemma. Is it basically the question Marlo is asking of herself internally as she regards the person she once was in her 20s perhaps, while comparing her to the person she is at this point of her life. Deeply loving her family but questioning if she can even survive the endless responsibilities of three young children in constant states and levels of very specific needs.

What is there for her to do when Jonah unleashes an explosive letdown when presented the prospect of parking in a different lot at school? Or how is she to keep herself, including her rising fury, together when during a meeting with Jonah's school Principal (Gameela Wright), she is facing down the reality of Jonah's expulsion despite the protests pf how much their family is loved by the school community?

And then, there is the downright masterful sequence early in the film where Reitman presents a brilliant montage, which to me suggested the furiously compulsive, potentially fatal montage of Roy Scheider's punishing daily regimen as depicted in Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" (1979).   Yet unlike that film's cocaine addled tortured artist/filmmaker/choreographer, in "Tully," we witness the constant yet debilitating normalcy of Marlo's life.

Feeding and pumping and changing the diapers and repeat and repeat and repeat ad nauseum, Marlo's body essentially becoming less human and more machine, albeit a machine that is threatening to completely malfunction at any given moment. In fact, as I regarded Theron as Marlo, and especially in the film still image that adorns this posting, I could not help but to think of Marlo as being precisely the type of woman that Theron's one-armed warrior driver character of Imperator Furiosa was attempting to rescue in George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015).

The magic of Charlize Theron's performance is not simply the physical aspect, which again does convey the physical results of not simply childbirth but the mental and physical fatigue and even anguish that Marlo is drowning inside of. Theron performs Marlo from the inside out giving us a character that at all times feels tremendously lived in. Nothing ever felt to be prefabricated, hyperbolic or remotely dishonest whatsoever and truthfully, her performance is so richly layered and compulsively watchable, I sincerely hope that she is remembered next year during awards season.

For the second major element that I deeply appreciated witnessing within "Tully" was indeed the relationship that formulates between Marlo and Tully. These are two women at completely different life stages, that are refreshingly not at odds with each other but ones that feel to be powerfully supportive, understanding and non-judgmental and also remarkably in sync despite their obvious differences, Tully in her late 20's, often filled with sage like wisdom despite her lively, carefree attitude and Marlo, possibly around 40 years old and consumed by her life and dilapidated state of mind and physicality.

As with scenes presented within both "Juno" and "Young Adult" and especially in "Up In The Air" (2009), Reitman's finest film to date, we are given lovely moments of Marlo and Tully simple talking and relating to each other in a fashion that truly showcases how real, 21st century women speak, think and feel. Sadly, still such a rarity in cinema but thankfully, we do have a writer as strong as Diablo Cody who is able to have her stories realized for mass audiences. Representation matters which makes her creative presence essential.

As it stands, Jason Reitman's "Tully" is a fairly quiet film. An especially perceptive and observant experience that unfolds leisurely and due to its overall tone, it often feels quite gentle...yet deceptively so. In fact, Reitman and Cody's story is exceedingly more harrowing than it may seem and as previously stated, I do not think that I have witnessed a film portrayal of Motherhood so grueling, so unflinching in its defiant lack of romanticism. In fact, it could be argued that the film is not explicitly a film about Motherhood per se but more truthfully, a film about sleep deprivation, postpartum depression and even debilitating mental illness, a quality this film has already received some criticism based upon its depiction.

As for me, I had no issue with how this aspect was necessarily presented but how it was handled ultimately, especially once the film reaches its final third and those aforementioned plot developments of which I will not spoil for you. What bothered me, and increasingly so now that I have had ample time to ponder the film since seeing it, is the rather rapid and downright tidy way "Tully" concludes, wrapping itself up in a bow that is distressingly too clean based upon everything that has already occurred in the story.

In fact, I think that "Tully," which runs a scant 96 minutes, could have benefited from actually being longer--perhaps a full two hours--a length that would have allowed Reitman and Cody to give as much weight to the film's back end as they did with the film's beginning and middle. Granted, there was nothing that necessarily derailed the film for me. I certainly did not feel cheated. I just left the theater with a feeling of "And that's it?" A feeling of unfulfillment. A feeling that not every storytelling stone had been turned.as effectively as possible. The very stones that can change a good film into a GREAT film and all elements considered, "Tully" is a good film. 

Regardless, I do not wish to deter you from seeing a film this unique and honest, even though I felt the final sections were too pat and simplified. What Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody achieved for their third collaboration is a film experience that is most welcome, especially as films of this sort are becoming increasingly in short supply these days. As I have stated many, many times upon this site, I just do not see the point in having films about the super human exist at the expense of other films.

In fact, if "Tully" accomplished anything, it is the compassionate understanding that simply being human, especially being someone's Mother and surviving to tell the tale, is possibly the most heroic thing one can do.

Friday, May 11, 2018

AN EVENING WITH JOHN CUSACK LIVE- ORPHEUM THEATER MAY 5, 2018: A SAVAGE CINEMA EXCLUSIVE

JOHN CUSACK
LIVE CONVERSATION AND Q&A
following a screening of
"HIGH FIDELITY"
ORPHEUM THEATER
MADISON, WI
MAY 5, 2018

I believe that the Universe just somehow knew that I needed this night.

For the better part of 35 years, I have been a tremendous fan of John Cusack. In a strange way, as we both hail from the city of Chicago and are around the same age, it is almost as if we have grown up together--although we have never met. As he was a young actor making his way through the movie industry, amassing his specialized and often subversively idiosyncratic filmography and catalog of characters, there I was, like so many of you I would imagine, watching  his progression, all the while being entertained, entranced and at times, enraptured.

While I definitely noticed him in both Lewis John Carlino's "Class" (1983), as one of Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy's prep school characters' sidekicks (he performs a nifty, sneaky trick with a lit cigarette) and of course, John Hughes' "Sixteen Candles" (1984) as one of Anthony Michael Hall's geeky sidekicks (the one adorned with a Chicago WLS T-shirt), it was his first starring role in Rob Reiner's outstanding college campus set, classy romantic comedy/classic road movie hybrid "The Sure Thing" (1985) that made me a Cusack devotee for life. And afterwards, I purposefully sought out any films in which he appeared, for his style, skill, and superlative charisma, was and remains, second to none, completely unique and unparalleled.

My high school years were populated with repeated viewings of the surreal slapstick of both Savage Steve Holland's "Better Off Dead" (1985) and "One Crazy Summer" (1986), while during my college years, Cusack was my guide and conduit to a wider variety films, filmmakers, and subject matter from the gonzo record industry/music video satire of Bill Fishman's "Tapeheads" (1988), the elegiac baseball drama of John Sayles' "Eight Men Out" (1988), the nuclear bomb historical drama of Roland Joffe's "Fat Man And Little  Boy" (1989), the updated film noir of Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" (1990) and without question, the glorious climax to what I refer to as "The Golden Age Of Teen Films," Cameron Crowe's sublime, exquisite directorial debut "Say Anything..." (1989). 

Those were the formative years, both for John Cusack and myself, and I would say that we each continued to seek and search as we aged, again with me watching and experiencing as Cusack alternated between projects from auteur filmmakers such as Woody Allen's "Shadows And Fog" (1991) and "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), Clint Eastwood's "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil" (1997) and Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" (1998), high profile big budget blockbusters, most notably Simon West's "Con Air" (1997), more (and frankly, bland) romantic comedies and exceedingly more interesting, darker, intensely challenging independent fare, with Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" (1999) easily existing as one of Cusack's highest achievements.

Yet for me, and despite what may constitute as two of Cusack's career best performances, as the older, psychologically damaged Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad's extraordinary "Love & Mercy" (2014) and as the Chicago inner city activist preacher in Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" (2015), the pinnacle of John Cusack's film career feels to rest within the films that have been the most personal as they tend to be movies he has produced and at times, co-written himself, most notably George Armitage's "Grosse Point Blank" (1997) and Joshua Seftel's "War, Inc." (2008), Cusack's blistering political satire.

And on the evening of May 5, 2018, I was extremely fortunate enough to have been able to see this beloved actor/writer/producer/political activist LIVE on stage at Madison, WI's historical theater the Orpheum, located in the heart of beautiful State Street for an extended conversation and Q&A session following what just may be my favorite film in his vast filmography, the blissfully seminal ode to male arrested development and music obsession, the masterful "High Fidelity" (2000).


Adapted from the peerless Nick Hornby novel and as directed by Stephen Frears, "High Fidelity" exists as one of the very best films I saw in the decade of 2000-2009, and nearly 20 years after its initial release, its supreme hold has not loosened even one bit. Having the opportunity to see and hear John Cusack speak about the film live and in person was an imperative. Yet, unfortunately, for quite along spell after the show was first announced, it seemed as if I would have been unable to attend as the show's cost was truthfully out of my affordability due to other and more pressing life expenses.

But as I stated at the outset of this posting, I think the Universe was looking out for me, knowing that, perhaps, I was in due of a pick-me-up as I have admittedly been in a bit of a funk due to a lengthier than desired winter and furthermore, professional dissatisfaction that have made me even seriously question the trajectory of my life--a quandary that the fictional Rob Gordon, as portrayed by John Cusack, could easily relate to himself.

So, imagine my elation, the night before the show, when I received notice that I had actually won a local contest in which the prize was two tickets to see the film and the man himself!!! As my wife was uninterested in attending, my partner for the event was obvious...who else could I ask but my dear friend from college and student radio as well as fellow music obsessive and John Cusack devotee, the world famous DJ Kelly Klascus, from WLHA-FM student radio, and the annual WLHA Resurrection/Reunion weekends as broadcast upon Madison's WSUM-FM.

Returning to the idea of the Universe perhaps glancing my way for a moment, please allow me to extend and expand upon that thought. On Saturday, May 5th, it felt as if the Universe was shining a bit of extra light upon the city of Madison itself as it was an absolutely glorious day, with blissfully warm temperatures, low humidity, cool breezes and nothing but smiles and good feelings wherever I ventured throughout the day from morning to evening.

By the time I arrived at the Orpheum, picked up my tickets from Will Call and awaited Kelly's arrival, I stood outside the theater and struck up an impromptu conversation with a lovely young woman named Sierra, who had driven to Madison from Rockford, IL. (birthplace of Cheap Trick!) and was carrying a copy of the "High Fidelity" soundtrack album on double vinyl! I could not help but to remark upon her album as I had never seen a vinyl version and she happily explained that she purchased it as an exclusive Record Store Day item two years ago, an anecdote which then found her practically gushing with excitement with anticipation for this evening's event, as the ticket (plus the VIP upgrade allowing her to partake in a Meet & Greet/photo op portion with Cusack) was presented to her as an early wedding present from a friend. In addition to sharing stories about how personal the film was for each of us, she then showed me a Call Sheet/Screenplay excerpt from the film, loaned to her from a friend who was an on-set extra in "High Fidelity," an item she hoped that she could possibly get Cusack to sign and then return to her friend.

Not terribly long after our conversation, the doors opened, we went inside and our separate ways and I waited for Kelly, who arrived shortly thereafter.

Now as you can see from the picture of my tickets, there were concrete restrictions in place regarding any photographs or recordings, so because of that, I do not have any images from the even itself to share with you...aside from the next photo...
...which I captured covertly, a pre-show image displaying a series of John Cusack related trivia questions to play while passing the time.

And after finding our seats on the main floor of the theater, just one section away from the section closest to the stage, and sharing stories, popcorn and beverages, the seats filled, the house lights went down and "High Fidelity" began...

Truth be told, I was admittedly unsure as to how I would feel watching "High Fidelity" again, a film I first saw on its opening weekend and countless times afterwards at home, as the film on this evening was essentially a two hour preamble to the main event itself. I didn't fear that I would necessarily be bored, so to speak. I was just...unsure.

Yet, within the film's first few moments as John Cusack as the miserable Rob Gordon delivers his first monologue to us in the audience, as The 13th Floor Elevators wail "You're Gonna Miss Me," any uncertain feelings were washed away. As the first image of Cusack emerged upon the screen, shrieks loudly blasted through the audience, effectively and immediately lifting up the energy of the event as a whole.

From scene to scene, you could feel how invested everyone happened to be with the events that unfolded in the fractured romance of Rob and Laura (Iben Hjejile), and his day-to-day misery at his floundering record store Championship Vinyl and the hysterical yet strained friendships he shares with his employees: the meek, reserved Dick (Todd Louiso) and the explosively raunchy contrarian Barry (Jack Black in his star turn).

Compounding matters even further is Rob's quest of self-discovery, primarily regarding his relationships with women from the past (as played by Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones, Joelle Carter) and present (Lisa Bonet, Natasha Gregson Wagner), the humiliating possibility that Laura may have romantically moved onwards with the supremely unctuous Ian (Tim Robbins), facing the even greater fear of the future moving forwards while potentially leaving him behind and of course, the quandaries that arise when attempting to create the perfect mixtape. 

For a film that is this enormously entertaining, it is also a potently introspective one and I would like to think that quality was not lost on this night's audience.  Yes, there were many cheers and eruptions of laughter, but more often than not, the audible responses from the audience, including myself, felt to arrive from a distinctly knowing place, for, in many ways, we have all been where these characters happen to be throughout the film.

When I first saw the film in 2000 on its opening weekend, I was 31 years old, with the story and characters hitting me precisely where I lived, so to speak. Now, nearly 20 years later as I am knocking on the door of 50, the film still hits me precisely where I live on a variety of levels, most specifically, my music obsessiveness. Yet, this time around for me, and I would imagine for Kelly and for what I would further imagine for the greater part of this night's audience, and even for John Cusack himself, "High Fidelity" now serves as a film of reflection, seeing how we all were, seeing how we have changed and crucially, how we haven't, for better or for worse.

Like Rob, I have found that I am at my happiest when I am either writing or being a radio DJ, yet my professional life has merged the state of being in a occupational rut into one that is indeed existential. I wonder how many people in the audience might have been able to say the same...or not. Are you existing in the exact station in life that you wish to exist within? Are you content or stagnated? Easily inspired or profoundly discouraged? Those very questions do indeed rest at the heart of the film and those feeling were more than palpable to me.

For that matter, I do wonder just how John Cusack himself may be feeling about his own current professional status. Maybe he is exactly where he wishes to be at this stage of his life and career. But I would not be surprised if more cynical folks out there (you know who you are) might not have thought of an event like this as existing as a way for Cusack to continue to market himself and retain some sense of celebrity cache as his profile in Hollywood has dwindled considerably since he is not as present in high profile films nearly as much as he used to...whether by design or not, I'll never know.

Furthermore, there are the societal changes to consider as well as "High  Fidelity" in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp for some viewers could be seen as a slightly dicey affair. I do have to say that the vehement cheer that arrived after the character of Liz (Joan Cusack), mutual friend of Rob and Laura--albeit more Laura's than Rob's--blasts into Championship Vinyl after learning about four of Rob's transgressions and with the force of a sonic boom explodes, "Hi Rob...you FUCKING ASSHOLE!!!!" was palpable in its righteous anger. But then, after seeing Rob's silent reaction, some sense of rising fury quickly transformed into laughter, keeping us still attached to Rob's story...such is the magic of Nick Hornby's source material certainly. But this feeling also pertains to the magic of John Cusack unquestionably, and in doing so, I found myself losing myself inside of "High Fidelity" even more completely than I have in quite some time.

You  know, I have to admit that I enjoyed watching, and was moved by "High Fidelity" so much that I almost forgot that there was more in store for the night. Almost...

As Love's "My Little Red Book" from the film's end credit scroll pounded through auditorium speakers, the movie screen lifted upwards to reveal the simple stage set of two chairs and a table bathed in a dramatic blue hue--a set up reminiscent of Bravo's "Inside The Actor's Studio." Soon, the music faded and the evening's host and moderator, Jim Healy, Director of Programming for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque walked on stage and then introduced Mr. John Cusack to the stage, to the sight and sound of rapturous applause and in some sections, a standing ovation.

For 60 minutes, Cusack, dressed with causal sharpness in a black jacket, black shirt, blue jeans and a black baseball cap puled down low, superbly held court, engaging Healy and all of us in the audience with a conversation that centered around "High Fidelity," but often found itself weaving in and out of various films from his career, with Savage Steve Holland's "Better Off Dead' (1985) clearly receiving the the most enthusiastic applause and even various audience member cat calls of the now iconic line "I want my two dollars!!!" to even another audience member who shouted "Lane Meyer for life!!!!," referencing Cusack's character from that film.

Cusack took everything in stride throughout this portion of the evening with an attitude that felt to veer between graciousness and a modicum of aloofness yet always respectful, to the audience, to  Healy and to whatever subject matter he was discussing in the moment. With regards to "Better Off Dead," a film he has long derided, he admitted that is it wonderful when anything you did over 25 years ago is not only remembered but enjoyed and acknowledging that fact, he wouldn't step on anyone's toes. Furthermore, he conceded that the film did indeed house a certain purposeful surreal quality that just was not really executed during that time period, and especially in films designed for teenagers. And for having that specific point of view, he could appreciate the effort.

John Cusack also remained respectful yet pointed when discussing his time in Hollywood, then and now, giving praise when it was due yet never delving into trash talking and negativity when approaching subject matter that could have easily fallen into the vitriolic. With "High Fidelity," he had nothing but the highest praise for Nick Hornby's source material of course, but for also Music Supervisor Kathy Nelson, who was the key figure who was able to acquire all of the songs Cusack and his writing partners Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis hand picked for the film, co-star Jack Black, who Cusack admitted he had to truly coerce into making the film as Black, surprisingly was not feeling confident enough with his skills (plus being a tad fearful of the very British Director Stephen Frears), and also, the music if The Kinks for always getting the film itself out of any editing and pacing quandaries.

Cusack also gave us an insight into the tricks of the Hollywood trade as he divulged that he never had one conversation with filmmaker Mike Newell, who is listed as an Executive Producer of "High Fidelity," but in actuality had nothing to do with the film whatsoever, but is credited due to some Hollywood legal-ease. To that end, he conversely had nothing but top compliments for then Touchstone Pictures studio head Joe Roth, a figure who represented a markedly different time period in Hollywood when massive tentpole films could be made directly alongside smaller, more personal passion projects, like "High Fidelity" was for Cusack, and without any industry political interference. By contrast with Hollywood in 2018, Cusack expressed matter-of-factly, " 'High Fidelity' woud never get made today."

Jim Healy and John Cusack's conversation was sometimes peppered with, and at other times guided by a series of question we in the audience had the chance to write down and place into a box before showtime. I was beyond thrilled when my friend Sachi Komai, co-owner and operator of the local small business art store Anthology, also located upon beautiful State Street, had her question asked directly--QUESTION: Would he ever consider doing a sequel or a prequel to any of his films? ANSWER: He'd love to. He'd really like to do a follow up to Mikael Hafstrom's psychological thriller "1408" (2007).

Another audience question asked what his favorite concerts and his answer included, but was not limited to, the likes of The Clash, The Pogues, Public Enemy, Fishbone, and Nirvana. And one more question humorously asked if he remembered the first time he was recognized in public as well as the first time he was not recognized? His answer essentially expressed that he has been recognized and not recognized during times and periods when he is met with the opposite of his expectations. As for me? Well, I would like to think that my question was answered indirectly as it fell within the conversation itself, which was if he would ever with to team up with Cameron Crowe again. ANSWER: He'd love to but has not been asked yet.

One aspect of the conversation that I enjoyed listening to was when subjects turned towards politics and his activism, which has extended itself into the writing of various pieces for The Huffington Post, his work as a board member of the Freedom Of The Press Foundation,  and his engineering of a meeting between Author/human rights activist Arundhati Roy and Edward Snowden in Moscow, which ultimately resulted into a book Cusack co-authored with Roy entitled Things That Can And Cannot Be Said (2015). I deeply appreciated the depth of his convictions when he stated that he felt that it was his duty to take is level of being in the public eye and utilize his voice to speak out against injustice, especially right now as we have "a fascist...a Nazi" in power in the Oval Office, a figure whom Cusack strongly (and truthfully, in my opinion) feels would resort to violence if all of the legal battles do not fly in his favor.

Yet every moment was not drenched in seriousness as John Cusack also showcased his sardonic humor throughout. When lightly questioned by Jim Healy about his stage work with Tim Robbins and their respective theater companies, Cusack quipped, "Yes...I'm a proper actor." And when Healy asked if Cusack still studied acting techniques, he replied through a snort of laughter, "No!!!" eliciting a huge burst of laughter from the audience. 

Once the 60 minutes or so had been completed, John Cusack was thanked and he left the stage as the theater was quickly emptied and prepared for the audience patrons who were upgraded for the V.I.P. portion of the night, which included photos with Cusack plus autographs. Kelly and I exited the theater and headed out of the Orpehum and into the beautiful late Spring night to the sounds of a young jazz combo performing just across the street.

As we watched the band, I ruminated over the event and felt more than pleased with how everything had turned out, in addition to winning tickets as well. While I did not meet the man, John Cusack delivered all I could have wished for with a cherished, brilliant film combined with an overall presentation that enhanced and re-confirmed what I already loved about this actor and his public persona.

And oh yes...what of Sierra from Rockford, IL?

As Kelly and I were heading for our cars, Sierra found us as she was behind us, presumably heading back to her own car. She was over the moon as she had just not only met John Cusack herself, and had her soundtrack album plus her friend's call sheet autographed, she expressed  how very nice he was. Believe me, I was so, so happy for her knowing just what the film means to her and how she was not disappointed in meeting her idol face-to-face. But then, yet another surprise occurred, when there the three of us were, standing and talking just off of State Street by the parking ramp when a friend of Sierra's from 10 years prior, and unseen since, happened by coincidence to be standing just nearby. An emotional reunion ensued and after all shaking hands and making introductions, Kelly and I left the friends to themselves and began to venture to our respective homes and families.

It really was indeed that kind of a night. One the Universe graciously gifted as as, for me, it was just what I needed.

Cue the music of Stevie Wonder...

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR MAY 2018

And by Memorial Day, we shall see if the Force is with Ron Howard.

To me, it felt to be more than fitting when Ron Howard took over the directing chores for The latest self-contained and self-described "Star Wars Story," as he has indirectly been involved in the life of George Lucas' creation since the early 1970's when Howard starred in Lucas'"American Graffiti" (1973) and was told stories of Lucas' cinematic plans and schemes from the man himself. 

Even so, "Solo," the adventures of the young Han Solo, with Alden Ehrenreich taking over for the iconic Harrison Ford in the titular role set ten years before the events of the original 1977 film. Ever since Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm, this has been the film I have been the most skeptical about as I have been fearing that it exists to serve as an excuse to continue mining the original trilogy without really offering anything new, and beyond that, all in service to a character, as iconic as he is,  who is not terribly deep anyway. But you know, each trailer I have seen has gotten me more excited, so I am hoping that it will be a success.

In addition to another tale set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and after having seen Wes Anderson's latest animated fantasia and the two very best features from the Marvel Comics universe, I am more than anxious to return to Earth for more grounded stories about real world characters and events.

"Tully" marks the third collaboration between Director Jason Reitman and Writer Diablo Cody and with Charlize Theron starring in a story of 21st century Motherhood and after the greatness of both "Juno" (2007) and "Young Adult" (2011), I am ready. 

Truth be told, life is more than full these days, not leaving me with much opportunity to see terribly much right now (or to even write a full tribute to filmmaker Milos Forman, who passed away last month), so these two films just may be all I can handle right now. But maybe I'll surprise both you and myself. We'll see...

...and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

ENDGAME CHANGER: a review of "Avengers: Infinity War"

"AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR"
Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Screenplay Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely 
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13

"The Uncanny X-Men #137."

To the familiar regarding comic book lore, that specific issue of "The Uncanny X-Men" referenced above, the double issue finale of what is now regarded as "The Dark Phoenix Saga," was not simply a culmination of a storyline but also a game changer to the comic book genre itself, one so powerfully moving, seismic and possessing an air of such finality and permanence that it truly felt as if readers had experienced the end of a series rather than the next installment with another to follow in just a mere 30 days.

When that issue was released in 1980, I was 11 years old. After having read and having been obsessed with comic and superheros for so much of my then young life, The X-Men soon became my favorite series as there was a certain maturity and sophistication in the writing from Chris Claremont and the superb illustrations from John Byrne, that felt to be the next wave or at the very least, several steps up from the heroes and villains that I had long been used to from both Marvel and DC. Reading that issue in particular left me with emotions that I had never experienced reading a comic book. Feelings of sorrow, intense loss and that inexplicable hollowness that just left me sitting in silence. That was the moment when I realized that comic books could hold the same power, depth, complexity of emotions, themes and concepts as the finest literature.

And then...I read it all over again.

Dear readers, my complicated feelings concerning the sheer amount of comic book related movies over these last ten years has been more than documented upon this site as my complaints have more been geared towards the sheer amount and frequency of these types of films being released at the expense of non-superhero/big-budget related features, than concerning any sense of quality. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) now having reached its own 10th anniversary this year, I have long remarked that despite a couple of features, I have been mostly pleased as the films have carried a strong consistency in quality control, occasionally touching greatness as with my personal favorites, Joss Whedon's "Avengers" (2012), Peyton Reed's high flying surprise "Ant-Man" (2015) and of course, the MCU's greatest achievement, and already one of 2018's best films, Ryan Coogler's majestic, magnificent "Black Panther."

Now with its 19th film, "Avengers: Infinity War," from Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who have already heroically helmed "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014) and "Captain America: Civil War" (2016),  our on-going series has now reached a pinnacle so creatively and stupendously high that it would not have been a surprise whatsoever if the film itself imploded under its own immense weight. Even greater of a surprise is how deftly and confidently the Russo brothers have kept all of the pieces in place and play, like a collection of spinning plates magically held aloft, not ever threatening to fall to the ground.

I have no idea whatsoever of how the Russo brothers accomplished what had to have often felt to be an insurmountable task but man, did they do it and with a superior flair, zest, verve, storytelling heft, imagination and undeniable risk taking that blended the triumph and the apocalyptic masterfully. In fact, by film's end, and with the sounds of gasps and tears in the audience all fading into a stunned silence, I was transported back to that time when I first read that devastating X-Men comic book for the first time. With "Avengers: Infinity War," the proverbial line in the sand has not only been crossed, it has been obliterated altogether, making for a motion picture experience that more than lives up to its own hype, legacy and sources of inspiration.

So as not to produce any potential spoilers, I will keep the plot description to its basics. The intergalactic nihilist Thanos (played brilliantly by Josh Brolin), first glimpsed in "Avengers," is on the hunt for the six Infinity Stones (Mind, Time, Soul, Power, Space, and Reality) in his efforts to "re-balance" the universe...by randomly wiping half of the universe from existence.

Attempting to stop Thanos are all of the MCU heroes we have come to know and love over these past 10 years. We have the reconstituted and renegade members of the Avengers of course, from Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and yes, the man who began this entire MCU odyssey, Mr. Tony Stark otherwise known as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).

Joining them in this battle to end all battles, we also have Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), all five members of the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper) and T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the kingdom of Wakanda.

For some of our heroes, the fight against Thanos is deeply personal, especially for two members of the Guardians of the Galaxy, plus Thor and Tony Stark. Yet, for everyone, it is a fight for the fate of existence itself, a fate that grows more dire with each Infinity Stone Thanos retrieves.

Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War," like the very best films in this series, conjured up distinct and loving memories of the days when I poured over my comic books so intensely that the still frames often felt to vibrate with movement and sound. It is a film that also conjured with equal intensity the excitement I felt whenever the heroes in the comic books joined forces with each other, blending worlds and universes in ways that had previously felt to be inconceivable. The Russo brothers' have created a truly interstellar work that merges so many various comic book character  universes plus physical and meta-physical locales that, again, I am stunned they were able to keep all of the parts in place as seamlessly as they did, and the result is a film that races far beyond the kaleidoscopic.   

Thankfully, the Russo brothers understand tremendously that all of the special effects in the world (even those as beautifully rendered as they are in this film) are meaningless without the greatest special effects of story, character and performance at work. For "Avengers: Infinity War," every single performance is in lockstep with all of the previous adventures, both combined and solo, a d sometimes to even better effect than ever before.

I know this may surprise some of you that are fans, but for my money the Russo brothers have created a better "Guardians of the Galaxy" film than the two that Writer/Director James Gunn has already helmed, as the balance of  humor, pathos and character are handled much more cleanly and creatively than previously seen. And furthermore, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana each have been given opportunities to broaden, strengthen and deepen their characters in ways that have only enhanced all of their performances. Yes, some of this can be attributed to the story of this particular film, but even so, I found myself caring and being interested in them to a level at which I never connected in their solo outings.

For all of the copious, breathless action and bombast, I was also surprised at the level of humor throughout, mostly devised through the unlikely team-ups that occur through the film. Thor and Rocket the Raccoon, for instance, really made for some great moments as did the seething animosity between Tony Stark and Doctor Strange. But again, with this film serving as the simultaneous culmination of 10 years worth of cinematic storytelling with a plot that is indeed marching towards annihilation, The Russo brothers'  "Avengers: Infinity War" is unquestionably the series' darkest and most doom filled installment, all of which leads to a conclusion that is brutally effective in its rampant desolation.

Once again, NO SPOILERS here, but when it is all said and done, "Avengers: Infinity War" to me felt like a cross between Peter Jackson's "The Lord Of The Rings:The Return Of The King" (2003),  J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), HBO's "The Leftovers" (2014-2017) and even Rian Johnson's "Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi" (2017) in terms of its own sense of conceptual risk and audacity in breaking apart what had already been so meticulously built upwards.

Yes, beloved characters meet their respective fates and the reach is wide, the body count is quite high and again, filled with a level of surprise and dread with who stays and who goes. Now, we all know that the next installment has been filmed and will be released next year, and possibly some of what has occurred will be reversed somehow but regardless, the film's final image is unquestionably one of horrific solitude and disturbing calmness. Josh Brolin, who is essentially the star of this film, deserves tremendous credit for his performance, which could have drowned in a morass of villainous cliches. But, Brolin performed with a measured malevolence, a slow moving mountain of inevitability and execution, that climaxes to shattering effect, making for a villain that is as riveting as it is memorable.

So...where do we go from here? How will the MCU even continue? For that matter, I am even unsure as to how this summer's release of Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man and the Wasp" can even fight into the scheme of things after what occurs in this film. But, that, in and of itself, is the magic of great storytelling and filmmaking. To keep us on the edges of our collective seats in anticipation, excitement, awe, and wonder as to what could possibly happen next. What Anthony and Joe Russo created is a rare achievement. To be able to envision and deliver a stunning, simultaneous conclusion and cliffhanger? As the iconic Stan Lee himself might say, "EXCELSIOR!!!!"

Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War" is one of my favorite films of 2018.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

BOW WOW!!!: a review of "Isle Of Dogs"

"ISLE OF DOGS"
Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13

Four years ago when I reviewed Wes Anderson's previous feature, the extraordinary "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (2014), I remarked that for his eighth film and one that had followed the exquisitely realized worlds of an eccentric prep school in "Rushmore" (1998), the John Irving styled novel universe of "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001), the underwater fantasy of "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" (2004), the Indian dream world of "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007) and the nostalgic early adolescent campground romance of "Moonrise Kingdom" (2012), it was a creation of such unrepentant imagination and creative liberation that it felt as if Anderson was just getting himself started!

And now, we arrive with his astonishing ninth film, "Isle Of Dogs," his second stop animation film and a work that is positively bursting at the seams with such a boundless sense of invention and imagination that it makes his previous stop animation film "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009) almost look like an archaic Rankin-Bass production.

As with "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Wes Anderson has again delivered a work of art that feels as if it has captured every fantastical thought that entered his head and magically, meticulously rendered all of them upon celluloid for our viewing pleasure. It is a marvelous achievement that urgently speaks to the intense need we all have for cinematic storytellers who possess a completely original vision, especially during our current motion picture era where seemingly every film is shouldered with the pre-requisite of being attached to a pre-existing work, be it novel, comic book, toy, or the next installment in an on-going franchise. Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" is connected to absolutely nothing that has emerged before and is only beholden to the dreams  inside of  his fervently creative brain. We are all the better for it that a film like this even exists as there is absolutely not hing else like it in theaters at this time. If you wish to be swept away by something truly unique, this is the film unquestionably. 

Set in a dystopian Japanese society some 20 years in the future, Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" centers around the landscape of Megasaki City, which is run under the authoritarian leadership of the cat loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura).

As a dog flu virus has run amok throughout the canine population, the Mayor signs a decree that all dogs will be evacuated from the city and abandoned to the isolated Trash Island, despite the protests from a scientist named Professor Watanabe (voiced by Akira Ito), who proclaims that he could devise of a complete cure. Regardless, the first dog to be banished is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the dog that belongs to the Mayor's orphaned nephew and ward, the 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin). 

Determined to find his dog, Atari sets off for Trash Island and is soon in the company of a pack of mangy, sickly dogs including Rex (voiced by Edward Norton), Boss (voiced by Bill Murray), Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), King (voiced by Bob Balaban) and the mercurial, scruffy, former stray Chief (voiced beautifully by Bryan Cranston) who all eventually join forces to find Spots.

While what I have described is the film's basic plot, it is a film that grows increasingly complicated as it also includes Japanese folktales, flashbacks and non-linear narrative structures, an American exchange student freedom fighter named Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig), government conspiracies, cannibalistic dog packs led by Gondo (voiced by Harvey Keitel), a messenger black owl, kidney transplants, a wise and wonderful narration performed by Courtney B. Vance and whatever else tickled Wes Anderson's fancy and yet, it all makes blissful sense and flows richly, with the core of the love story between humans and their canine friends housed at the center.

Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" is a resounding triumph, an ocean of unfiltered creative lovingly and painstakingly created and fully realized. The visual splendor is astounding, so much so, each and every frame of the film could easily be created into still photos to be hung and framed. The level of detail, color, depth, architecture, and structure contained within both the dog and human characters is jaw dropping, making this film the precise sort of visual feast that you want to see all over again just to soak in every single element.

The film's story is one to find oneself lost inside of, again as if Anderson had written the  most engrossing, enveloping novel as this is a beautifully written film. All of the voice performances--from Wes Anderson's fleet of usual suspects to a host of Asian actors and performers--contain the trademark Anderson deadpan, droll delivery. Plot elements certainly recall the teenage adventures of "Moonrise Kingdom" plus the doomed dogs that occasionally arrive in Anderson's films, from "The Royal Tenenbaums as well as the aforementioned "Moonrise Kingdom." And yet, even with a story that simply soars on fantasy, Wes Anderson again injects a serious gravity to the proceedings that provide the film with a powerful melancholy, longing and even a sense of urgency and tragedy.

For those of you who may be curious to take your small children to this film due to its existence as being an animated feature, I would strongly advise you to give pause as "Isle Of  Dogs" is decidedly not a children's film. In fact, compared with the brighter, more playful style and tone of "Fantastic Mr. Fox,"  this new film is a profoundly darker affair, which does touch upon themes of climate change and the perils of excessive waste, and it even includes a plot thread that threatens full canine extinction.

Most of all, I really felt that the bonds between Atari, Spots and Chief plus the painful memories of the now captured and isolated dogs from their human friends to be more than palpable, especially as Trash Island is essentially an interment camp and the realities of families ripped apart do convey a powerful sadness, especially in one funny yet painful sequence as the canine quintet all discuss their favorite foods while living with their human families as they are now subjected to maggot ridden leftovers and garbage. But further and deeper, just regard the gorgeously detailed eyes of Atari and the cast of dogs as they come together and remember the loved ones lost and even though this is an animated film, I really felt it went quite a long way in acknowledging that our animal companions deliver to us everything that we give to them, making love fully and deeply reciprocated, with all areas of joy and pain ever present within this fantasia. 

As with the animals in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson utilizes the dogs to explore various stages and levels of human frailties and eccentricities, all the while allowing the philosophical and the primal to clash humorously as well as with a healthy amount of pathos. The character of Chief explicitly endures quite the considerable amount of soul searching as he reluctantly befriends the boy Atari and also builds a relationship with the purebreed Nutmeg (voiced by Scarlet Johansson), as he simultaneously desires and rejects emotional closeness because, as he often states plainly and plaintively, "I bite."

At this time I do feel necessary to address the bit of controversy the film has been receiving as of late in regards to the charges of cultural appropriation on the part of Wes Anderson. While I do feel that the topic is worthy of being discusses, explored and debated, there are times in which I do tend to feel that in our pursuit of representation, inclusion, justice and fairness as we attempt to evolve, we can go a bit overboard at times. Simply stated, "Isle Of Dogs" is a stop motion animated film starring a collective of talking dogs, so let's gather some real perspective if we're going to address the topic of perceived racism. Nevertheless, we are here at this point and here is my take.

Wes Anderson has made a full career building one cinematic universe after another that are all unapologetically artificial, especially when he wishes to travel the world. With India as presented in "The Darjeeling Limited" and Eastern Europe as depicted in "The Grand Budapest Hotel," we are certainly not being given anything approaching these locales as they exist in reality. This same tactic is executed in "Isle Of Dogs," as Anderson himself has professed in recent interviews that his film is in no way is representative of a real world Japan. His version of Japan is essentially a representation of the Japan that he has experienced within the films of Akira Kurosawa and "Isle Of Dogs" was purposefully designed to exist as an homage to Kurosawa's films. So, if  movies are dreams then "Isle Of Dogs" is essentially a cinematic dream within a cinematic dream and who can  honestly find fault with that? 

Criticism has been lobbied against the Caucasian Tracy Walker character as being sort of a "White savior" to the goings-on in the film and to that, I again disagree wholeheartedly as well, as her efforts plus those of the Japanese Atari are of a combined force for the good of the dogs and to Japan itself. Finally, it should be noted (and it is even noted within the film itself), that while all of the dogs do speak English, all of the human characters speak within their native languages, the Japanese characters often without the use of any subtitles. Again, if that is not showing a certain sensitivity or reverence, then I am not sure of what else Anderson could have done to ensure audiences that he is not being culturally inappropriate.

Frankly, dear readers, while we do need to take great care of how we represent others who are not like ourselves, I could not imagine a world where our artists are stifled so severely that they have to always remain in their respective lanes, so to speak. Should White artists only ever create stories about White characters in predominantly White populations? Going further, should male artists only ever write about men? Certainly not. If we are to learn anything from Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" regarding this issue, perhaps it is how Anderson him self was wholly inspired by another artist of another race and generation, an inspiration that eventually led him to make this film in the first place. Just imagine if aspiring filmmakers and film viewers are inspired by "Isle Of Dogs" to go and discover Kurosawa and other filmmaking points of view? Isn't that something to be encouraged and therefore, celebrated?

Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" is undeniably cause for celebration. For filmmaking, for storytelling, for being able to delve into a world of blissful creativity and pure imagination and just seeing where it takes you. And of course, for those of you with dogs--and for that matter, for any of you who count themselves fortunate to have an animal companion in their lives--it is cause to celebrate the bonds that we have each forged between the species in admiration respect and love.

Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" is easily and already one of 2018's highest achievements.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR APRIL 2018

And everything is now coming to a head in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a tad sooner...

"Avengers: Infinity War," from Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, was originally scheduled to arrive in the first week of May, but all I can gather is that the powers-that-be are either extremely happy with the results or wish to strike at those "Black Panther" dollars sooner or both because the long in the works epic is arriving in the last week of this month...and of course, I am more than ready to discover if the Russo brothers have been able to successfully pull off what has been teased as a game changer for this series.

In addition to the collective of Marvel superheroes, I have to admit that I am more than curious about...
"A Quiet Place" from actor, co-writer and director John Krasinski arrives this month and features a horror tale in which the concept of sound itself is the key that unlocks the door to the terrifying monsters out to get you. Now, as I have expressed many times on this site, I am not one to typically choose to see a horror film. Yet, with one that has as interesting a concept as this one, I just  might brave it (maybe I'll take some ear plugs for those inevitable sonic jump scares).
Don't get me started on the absolutely ridiculous release schedule for Wes Anderson's latest film "Isle Of Dogs," but I am hoping the film will arrive in my city very, very soon as I am still anxiously awaiting to experience it.

With that, I think I have a more than full cinematic plate on my hands for the month, or at least, a plate that has room for some more if possible.

So, as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!

Friday, March 30, 2018

GAME OVERKILL: a review of "Ready Player One"

"READY PLAYER ONE"
Based upon the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Screenplay Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline
Produced and Directed by Steven Spielberg
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
RATED PG 13

When it comes to the nature of homage in regards to the artifacts of the past, there is a very fine line between innovation and simple exercises in nostalgia.

Around the original release of Ernest Cline's debut novel Ready Player One, his science fiction adventure which served as a travelogue and tribute to the pop culture of the late 20th century between the 1970's and 1990's, it was a book that I had picked up and placed down in bookstores many, many times as I was unsure as to how that aforementioned fine line would be treated. Even excited recommendations for the book from treasured friends did not move me terribly much in this case as I feared that the work would essentially be an exercise in nostalgia and not much else.

By the time the novel hit paperback status, I finally picked up a copy and read. My reaction to the novel was mixed at best for while I did think the story itself was quite clever, its overall execution less so, especially with the book's dialogue, which frankly, to my sensibilities was quite awful. The novel of Ready Player One indeed felt to me to be an excuse for Cline to hang his fanboy passions upon, and while there was a certain inventiveness to his story and I did appreciate the questions of our culture's adherence to fantasy in virtual worlds vs. reality in our actual flesh and blood existence, when it was all said and done, it was fun but empty--a collection of pop culture name droppings at the service of characters that had no soul. Essentially, if the pop culture of the '70s, '80s and '90s never happened, this book would not exist.

Of course, a book like Ernest Cline's was practically screaming to be made into a big budget feature film and when it was first announced that none other than Steven Spielberg would take the helm, it felt to me more than perfect as this man was the architect of so much of the tremendous output of the past that Cline honored in his narrative. Now that the film is here, ready to be experienced, and I have now seen it for myself, I have to say that I really wanted to love it but just as with the book, it was an experience that felt to be terribly lacking in any sense of depth, soul and oddly enough, storytelling innovation.

Now don't get me wrong. This is Steven Spielberg we're talking about and there are quite a number of moments and sequences in the film that are dazzling but let's be honest, Steven Spielberg made more innovative films in the 1980's than anything presented here. Yes, dear readers, I do not wish not be a killjoy, but I have to call 'em as I see 'em, Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One," while beautifully made, is precisely an empty example of nostalgia and 21st century CGI bombast desperately in search of a purpose.

Just as with the original novel, "Ready Player One" opens in the year 2045, where much of the planet has become desolate due to over-population, climate change, corruption, pollution and all manner of societal ills. Humans have turned to the expansive virtual universe of the OASIS as refuge and as a location for education, work and endless entertainment under the guises of whatever and whichever avatar they wish to exist as.

Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, an 18-year-old based in Columbus, Ohio who lives in stacked trailer slums with his aunt yet spends every possible waking hour inside the OASIS as his avatar Parzival, getting into one adventure after another with his best (virtual) friend, the hulking, mega muscled mechanic and male avatar Aech (played by Lena Waithe and whose character's name is pronounced as "H"), the ninja styled avatars of Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Akihide Karatsu), as well as Art3mis (a terrific Olivia Cooke), the one whom our hero houses a massive crush, even though he has no idea of who she is in the real world.

All five eventually team up and name themselves the "High Five" as they, and seemingly the rest of the world are all on the hunt for a series of three virtual keys that will lead them to the Easter Egg of the OASIS as designed and planted by OASIS inventor, the now deceased technological genius and social misfit James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who has filled this virtual universe with the complete and labyrinthine amount of the late 20th century pop culture (books, movies, games, music, etc...) he adored.

Retrieval of the Easter Egg will award the winner with complete control of the OASIS, and after five years of searching, Parzival and his friends have found two of the keys, a feat which has alerted them to the conglomerate of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and the nefarious CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), whose corporate based fleet of gamers are also on the hunt with IOI's intention to control the OASIS themselves.

As real world identities of OASIS avatars are soon discovered,  the real world lives of Wade Watts and his friends are all in the balance.

As previously stated, and as with the original source material, Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One" houses an extremely clever story, essentially a mash up of say  Steven Lisberger's "Tron" (1982), The Wachowski's "The Matrix" trilogy (1999/2003) and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) with the character of James Halliday serving as this tale's Willy Wonka and everyone else in the pursuit of those Golden Tickets, so to speak.

Also, as previously stated, it is a beautifully made film in which Spielberg performed the Herculean task of creating two visually distinctive worlds to play around in, from the drab, dour impoverished environment of the real dystopian world--itself not too terribly removed from some locales witnessed in Spielberg's own "Minority Report" (2002)--and the eye popping, vibrantly hyper-kinetic universe of the OASIS, which is bursting at the seams with any and every conceivable reference from the 1980's that you could think of...that is except from Spielberg's own films as he did not wish to inadvertently create a vanity piece--although the T-Rex from Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" (1993) and the DeLorean from Robert Zemeckis' "Back To The Future" trilogy (1985/1989/1990), which Spielberg produced, make notable appearances.

Spielberg injects "Ready Player One" with an enthusiasm and exuberance that he has not been at liberty to display in recent years due to the nature of his recent films' subject matter. His obvious joy at just being able to play again is evident with his speed-of-light pacing in the film's spectacular opening OASIS car chase starring all manner of pop culture vehicles plus the arrival of King Kong himself, an absolutely brilliant tribute to Stanley Kubrick (I just can't spoil that for you), a swirling flight of fancy dance sequence set to the likes of New Order's "Blue Monday" and of course, The Bee Gee's "Staying Alive" and even more. Spielberg is having fun again, popcorn movie fun, that is and it is a sheer testament to the mastery of his powers with filmmaking craft and filmmaking genre that he has been able to arrive with this new film mere months after his previous and stylistically opposite experience with "The Post" (2017) 

The visual effects are resplendent. The music selections are often spot-on and I enjoyed the performances from Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg, who portrays James Halliday's one and only friend and former business partner Ogden Morrow. Also, as with the source material, I did appreciate the inclusion of themes pertaining to the dangers of living one's life completely on-line and to the detriment of making connections within the real world with real people. And, also without delving into spoilers, I also appreciated the film's sly critique of purely White, male fandom as pop cultural gatekeepers.

But again, I did not love this film and in fact, over the course of its two hour and twenty minute running time, I found myself growing less involved than I was at the film's outset, definitely during its strong first hour or so.

For all of the visual dynamism, and dual universe helter skelter, "Ready Player One" is a dangerously over-stuffed film that ultimately is not about terribly much of anything and does not really go anywhere significant. It doesn't help whatsoever that the film's primary heroes and villains are sadly underwritten and developed therefore making nearly all of them equally bland and characterless, with only Olivia Cooke's Art3mis, and possibly Lena Waithe's Aech to a lesser degree, making any sense of an impression.

I just find it strange and more than a little troubling that the leading character of Wade Watts is especially less than paper thin thus giving Tye Sheridan absolutely nothing to play or attempt to become other than simply being wide eyed and that is not nearly enough to even begin to base a character upon. If we are being given this story in which five years have passed in the pursuit of the three virtual keys, shouldn't we know something more about Wade's character that makes it possible for him, out of a world of gamers to be the one and only one to figure out Halliday's puzzles?  Is it just that he is "pure of heart," or something? Granted, there's not much to him in the book either but even so, I would think that it would have to be more than his nature as a fan to fuel his success. But none of whatever that could be is ever seen or experienced at any point in the film and the results were lacking considerably.

Now, if I had been at all skeptical about this film before seeing it, it was based entirely in the notion of the movie existing as much as an exercise in nostalgia as the original novel. Well...that was actually not the main problem I had with the visual/conceptual presentation. In fact, the film and special effects are, again, so overstuffed and over-crowded and the proceedings fly by so rapidly it would be impossible to catch every single reference on first viewing--itself a canny way to get audiences to plunk down more money to see the film over and again and play "Spot The Reference." But all of that is painfully superficial as far as storytelling is concerned...even when the pop culture essentially is the story.

It can be done,  however, and has been done before and to levels of cinematic brilliance and provocativeness. For instance, I still feel that Edgar Wright's superlative, spectacular yet profoundly under-appreciated "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" (2010), contained some of the most imaginative, inventive, creative special effects in years while also presenting a clean yet complex and enormously entertaining narrative that explored a young man's arrested development and fear of real world relationships, thus sparing himself real emotional pain if he just treated life as if it were a video  game.

Additionally, I was also reminded of Cameron Crowe's polarizing, challenging "Vanilla Sky" (2001), which delved into more disturbing territories centered around the dangers of virtual reality and defining one's being through the pop culture they adore and treasure, making life a veritable dream world from which there is no escape.

"Ready Player One" does touch on those concepts but they are indeed all lost in the deluge which eventually dissolves the film into a series of characters just running around, either chasing or being chased, and we ultimately don't care terribly much about any of them at any time. The film's final "storm the castle" grand battle is also deflating as it is just yet another CGI bludgeoning that signifies nothing at all other than the massive budget the film received.

But worst of all is the story itself, which elements have been changed drastically from the novel--most egregiously, having characters' real identities that were revealed at the end of the book being revealed early in the movie--thus also deflating the slim emotional connections we would have otherwise felt between these virtual and real world characters. So, with that element taken away, all that is left is to watch the pretty pictures and that is just not enough to recommend this film as far as I am concerned.       

Dear readers, at times, when I have had conversations with younger friends, young enough to not have experienced the artifacts of the past firsthand as I did, I often express the following sentiment: "I am old enough to remember a time when there was no such thing as 'Star Wars,' "Indiana Jones," or "Ghostbusters.' But then they came into the world and it was AWESOME!"

I was a child in the 1970's and a teenager in the 1980's and as I look back at those period, specifically through the lens of pop culture, I think I admire those times even more now as an adult as I did back then. For now, we are living in sadly derivative times as well as times w hen the gatekeepers are so afraid at trying anything that is not based upon something, anything that is not already part of the pop lexicon. To think, someone out there could possibly have that next whatever that can change the game forever but would we ever even see it because it is unknown? Are so-called "new" stories which only exist because of the past going to be what passes for innovation from now on?  I hope not.

Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One" is fun. It is...to a degree. But even so, and especially from a legend like Spielberg, we expect more. Something fresh, something new, something that doesn't feel like a shiny new trip through an old yearbook.