Tag Archives: Ben Mendelsohn

Ready Player One

We got to see Ready Player One with Steven Spielberg himself at SXSW – it was truly one of the most seminal moments I am likely to ever experience as a movie reviewer, and more importantly, as a movie fan. Sean wrote about it weeks ago, but I realized that I had something to add to the conversation.

I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One back in 2011 and I thought it was a tonne of fun. But it’s a highly nerdy book and I am not remotely nerdy. I do, however, know some nerds, and I eagerly pushed the book on them (it made for an EXTREMELY easy Christmas season: it knocked all the brothers-in-law off my list at once). I seem to recall Sean reading it in Mexico, and as I’d anticipated, he ate it right up. But for the many references that I just didn’t get, I still felt the energy and excitement of the book were translated to me. So while we were excited to hear that Spielberg was taking this on, we were less than thrilled to sit back and wait for three years for it to become reality. And then when were finally treated to a trailer I thought: holy moly, I don’t think I remember this book! So I reread the book a few months ago and prepared myself for its big March 29 release date – yes, we’d be busy in 2 different cities celebrating Easter, and Grandma’s 95th birthday, and my sister visiting from over 1000km away, and making the great variety of baked goods requisite for such a long weekend – but surely we’d be able to squeeze it in. But alas, no need! While in Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival, Ready Player One was revealed to be the secret screening. Both Cline and the movie’s star Tye Sheridan are hometown boys, which READY PLAYER ONEmeans 300k of the festival’s attendees were vying for just 1000 seats in the venue. Some people may be discouraged by those odds, but not Sean! He gamely spent hours lined up outside (while I watched Blindspotting, which was an incredible festival revelation) but his dedication paid off, and we got in, got some pretty fabulous seats actually, and sat among people who were just so incredibly excited to see the movie they hardly stopped cheering for a single second of the film’s 140 minute run time.

First of all, for fans of the book: the movie Ready Player One carries all of the novel’s essence but none of its spoilers. The big, showy challenge scenes are all-new for the movie, so you get to enjoy it and be surprised by, and if I may say: delighted by it. It hits exactly the right tone but it’s new and it’s exciting. And some of the new stuff IS REALLY FUCKING COOL. But Spielberg HIMSELF asked me not to spill the beans, so I won’t. And I wouldn’t want to in any case: not every movie is capable of enchanting us, and I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of that simple little thrill of pleasure.

Second, to fans of Speilberg: this is the most ‘Spielbergian’ film of the century. By which I mean, Spielberg himself has really gotten away from Spielberg-type movies. He hasn’t done blockbustery, popcorny movies in years. Lately he’s concentrated on smaller films, like The Post, and Bridge of Spies, which I have actually loved. It’s a different, more grown-up Spielberg; they’re movies that feel almost indie in nature, if not for the souped up cast. Dramatic stuff, more grounded, dark and moody, and often political. But little Stevie finds his inner child, indeed his inner fanboy, and allows himself to just express exuberant joy once again on the big screen – and even, and I do honestly believe this was hard for him, allow his own film legacy, to be paid homage in this film right alongside other iconic pop culture moments from the 1970s right through the early 90s.

Ready Player One feels like Steven Spielberg has thrown himself a parade, and he’s got every one of his time-honoured tricks riding big loud floats. It’s fantastic. I’ve heard the Internet shitting on the fact that this film is load with pop culture nostalgia and I can’t for the life of me understand that. I mean, the first time you see the film, you won’t notice half, or likely a third, of what’s hidden in there. Spielberg himself doesn’t know every single thing that’s been recreated in the film – he was surprised readyplayerone-56b7d103-d459-4ff3-89ac-e6342be40e01to find a Gremlin long after he’d already approved the scene, and he’ll continue to be surprised by Easter eggs (how fitting, for this weekend!). In subsequent viewings, you could easily play a drinking game with friends, or a Bingo game would be fun, just spotting all the cool things the brilliant art department and visual effects people slipped in there – it’s like the hoarders of movies with so many layers it’ll take forever before you reach the dead cat layer.

I still haven’t even told you what this movie’s about, but you’ve already gleaned that from elsewhere, haven’t you? It’s basically about the near future where the world has gotten so bleak that everyone prefers to live in this virtual world called the Oasis. The creator of the Oasis dies, and leaves the rights to it to whomever can win a little game that he’s rigged. Now, the Oasis is definitely worth a kabillion dollars, but it’s worth even more politically. So while our protagonists are kids, they’re up against not just adults but corporations in order to win control of this thing. And the Oasis creator (played by Mark Rylance) is a guy just enamoured with the 80s, so everything he does is basically a loving tribute to the “golden age” of gaming. But you don’t need to be able to pick up on those references in order to enjoy the story – they’re just the window dressing on a dystopian tale as old time.

The fact is, the world in Ready Player One is not so far from our own, and it feels worrying possible. The real trick, the one the movie keeps bumping up against, is to ask yourself: what are we taking from this virtual world, and how are we using it to make meaningful connections in the real world? Though this fight is online, the repercussions exist in the real world, and this creates an interesting duality between the avatar characters online and their real life counterparts. Though it looks and feels like a game, the stakes are high and the consequences dire. There’s some really flashy editing that allows us to move back and forth between worlds, and some truly exceptional visual effects mean the movement between the two feels natural but looks distinct.

And at its heart, this movie tells a story like many of Spielberg’s best: that of friendship, trust, and human connection. The film omits some of the book’s more subversive themes – race, gender, class – and given its scope and run time, it’s no wonder. There simply isn’t enough space to explore this world from corner to corner (read the book!). Instead, this movie submerses you in a world of pure imagination.

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Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour should maybe be called Darkest Month. In 1940, Winston Churchill was asked by the King to take over as Prime Minister. It was a shitty time to get the job: Hitler was marching his Nazi army across Europe, and the threat of invasion was uncomfortably close. During this particular month, Churchill’s first on the job, he’s got an impossible task. He must decide whether to negotiate a treaty with Hitler, or whether to stand firm against the Nazis but in so doing risk his country. And he had to do this without his party’s support or the public’s understanding or any help from the King.

Winston Churchill is an iconic and influential figure in British history and he’s been portrayed with varying success by some truly venerable actors:  Albert Finney, lead_960Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, and most recently by John Lithgow in The Crown. He is not a saintly figure. He was a great orator but had some problematic positions that hindsight can’t afford to be kind about. Portrayals of him often emphasize his omnipresent cigar, and his particular style of speech (his custom dentures helped cover up a lisp). Gary Oldman is the gentleman tasked with bring old Winnie to life in Darkest Hour, and though he’s seen chomping on the necessary cigars, he turns the performance into something truly remarkable.

Oldman is transformed by makeup and prosthetics; his jowls are considerable. His tics and posture help render him unrecognizable. He dissolves into character. As Churchill he delivers some of history’s most famous and familiar speeches and he is electrifying. Kristin Scott Thomas as his tell-it-like-it-is wife, Lily James as his newbie secretary, and Ben Mendelsohn as the King help round out the cast but Darkest Hour feels like a one man show and Oldman is equal to the cast. Truthfully I don’t know many others who could carry 125 minutes of infamy, but Gary Oldman deserves his frontman status in all the Oscar pools. His portrayal is vigorous and complex and maybe even a little bit compassionate.

As for the movie itself, it’s not quite as formidable. The events are told simply, without a lot of cinematic flair, and it sometimes feels sluggish. There’s not a lot of imagination on display, and perhaps that’s an unfair criticism with the burden of historical accuracy weighing heavily, but director Joe Wright is more precise than entertaining. It’s Oldman who kept me in my seat, and I’m sure it’ll be Oldman bounding out of his on Oscar night to collect his well-deserved award.

Rogue One

k-2so-in-star-wars-rogue-oneRogue One is the movie the prequels should have been. It is fresh, entertaining, and necessary. Rogue One’s humour works for adults as well as five year olds (though any self-aware Star Wars fan must acknowledge that the gap there for us is not all that wide). Rogue One links to what we’ve seen before in a way that feels natural and rewards fans who are familiar with every scene of the original trilogy, and leads into the known end point of A New Hope without any trouble whatsoever.

Rogue One is also a movie that could never have been made under George Lucas’ watch. I do not even want to imagine how he would have approached this story, but tonally Rogue One is entirely different than all the movies that have come before, and better for it. This is not a classic adventure serial, it is a war movie with high stakes, and we quickly realize that the stakes are appropriately high considering the evil dictatorship that runs the galaxy is constructing a superweapon to crush its opponents once and for all.rogue-one-cast-photo-d23-1536x864-521514304075-1

At the same time, Rogue One gives us the funniest character of any Star Wars movie. Fittingly, it’s a robot. But where R2-D2 and BB-8 were funny in a sweet, childlike way, K2-SO is funny because he is an asshole. It’s fantastic and he is absolutely one of the best parts of this movie.

Felicity Jones is great as well as the leader of the motley crew trying to save the galaxy. Her team (and the movie as a whole) is refreshingly diverse. Though this welcome injection of diversity is, on a meta-level, unintentionally remiciscent of South Park’s Operation Human Shield, since the multi-ethnic team is the one on the suicide mission while the all-white crew from A New Hope is (or soon will be) galavanting around in the fastest, most indestructible ship in the galaxy.

Rogue One has some cheesy parts that took me out of the flow a bit, but Jay rightly pointed out that I should expect nothing different from a Star Wars film. The end result is a movie that orson-krennic_4c6477e2occasionally feels like an awkward mix of serious war movie and hopeful space odyssey, but only rarely did I have that feeling. It definitely did not ruin the movie for me and that Star Wars feel is an overwhelming positive overall (especially an amazing Darth Vader scene during the climax that shows us the power we always knew he had).

My only other complaint is the use of CG to add a few familiar faces to the film. I found it distracting and yet I also thought it was kind of a nice tribute to one of the great characters from A New Hope. Maybe we’re just not quite there on the FX front but we are incredibly close.

This is a worthy addition to the Star Wars universe. If you’re at all a fan you should see it, but if you’re at all a fan you probably already have! Rogue One gets a score of eight May the Force be With Yous out of ten.

 

 

Slow West

Slow West tells the story of a young Scot named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee doing his best Jay Baruchel impression) travelling across Colorado in search of his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius).  Almost immediately, Jay is saved from bandits by Silas (Michael Fassbender) and from then on, it’s a western version of The Odd Couple, except writer/director John Maclean replaces much of the comedy with despair.  The wild west depicted in Slow West (which incidentally is New Zealand standing in for the midwestern plains) is the saddest, loneliest place imaginable.  Still, in spite of its melancholy, Slow West manages to be a very enjoyable movie, and even a surprisingly funny one at times.

Going into Slow West, I had one expectation: that the title would have some deep meaning to be revealed during the course of the movie.  I was let down in that regard but that was really the only disappointment I had coming out – I still don’t understand the title and feel like there’s something there to get.

Anyway, as far as the movie itself, Fassbender and Smit-McPhee make a very goo
d pair, and that’s fortunate because we spend a lot of time with them as they make their way to Rose.  Fassbender gives us a convincing tough guy with a heart of gold silver tin.  Smit-McPhee is well cast as the naive, good-hearted foreigner.  Ben Mendelsohn, who really impressed me in Mississippi Grind, makes a quick appearance as a scummy outlaw and looks the part.  And yes, everything in this paragraph reads like a back-handed compliment, but it’s coming from a good place, I swear.

Slow West climaxes in a shootout.  I don’t
think I have to tag that as a spoiler,  do I?  You knew it was going to happen.  The way the shootout plays out, though, is well done and is much different than I expected.   It even includes a few surreal moments that worked really well (especially one involving a jar of salt).

Overall, Slow West is a solid, though sad, tale from the wild west.  Much like the story told by an old gang member, it entertained me throughout its 85 minute run time with its unusual mix of sadness and death with a hint of offbeat comedy.  It’s definitely worth tracking down, and I give it a score of eight wanted posters out of ten.

 

Animal Kingdom

When Josh’s Mom dies beside him of a heroin overdose while they watch some crap TV, he nonchalantly calls for an ambulance, and then for his estranged grandmother, since he’s a minor and has nowhere else to go. His mother has struggled to keep him away from her family, consisting of 3 dangerous, criminal uncles, but his grandmother has no such qualms, affectionately letting them use her home as their base of operations.

Very quickly Josh is sucked into this world, and it’s brutal. He’s just a kid, he doesn’t want to be2010_animal_kingdom_0093 there, he doesn’t have any criminal aspirations, but this is a rough world with few options. For better or worse, this is his pack, and as its weakest member, he knows it’s kill or be killed.

A well-intentioned cop tells him “Everything sits in the order somewhere. Things survive because they’re strong, and everything reaches an understanding. But not everything survives because it’s strong. Some creatures are weak, but they survive because they’re being protected by the strong for one reason or another. You may think that, because of the circles you move in or whatever, that you’re one of the strong creatures, but you’re not, you’re one of the weak ones.”

I think this was meant to scare him into testifying against his family, but it definitely makes him think. Humans have evolved to live in family units for protection and survival, but Josh’s family is full of beasts. They come from a place where your worth isn’t measured in blood or bond, but in how useful you are, or how much of a threat you are. Family means nothing – anyone can be sacrificed if it means advancing your own survival.

Ben Mendelsohn is chilling as the oldest and most feared uncle. He will make your skin crawl. You animal-kingdom-movie-review_240510041859have to admire this movie for airing its dirty laundry so unflinchingly, but that’s what makes it hard to enjoy in the traditional sense. You root for the kid of course, and despair that there’s no one to take his side, and become despondent at his lack of options. Director David Michod takes the slow-burn approach, creating a taut sense of tension that’s hard to shake. Jacki Weaver is SO good in this, so good. She’s the matriarch of this family, presenting different faces to cops and to criminals, and never ever breaking.

This movie is noir but not violent. It’s all about the creep. The fantastic score is all menace. It distinguishes itself among other crime family dysfunction in the genre by being realistic and quite matter-of-fact, and it’s the lack of explosiveness that shocks you in the end. A great film that makes for great commentary, but not something I’ve easily shaken off.

The Place Beyond The Pines

This movie was primarily filmed on location in Schenectady, New York. Schenectady literally means “beyond the pine plains” in Mohawk, so now you know where writer-MV5BMTcyODUxMjIzOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjE3MzM0OQ@@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_director Derek Cianfrance got the name (it’s where his wife grew up). As for what it’s about, well, that’s another story.

It’s about a motorcycle stunt driver played by Ryan Gosling who finds out he impregnated a carnival groupie the last time he was in town, so he drops out of the circus in order to be a Baby Daddy, except the groupie (Eva Mendes) already has someone to help raise her child (Mahershala Ali), so there’s not a lot of extra room for a bum. In order to show what a good provider he can be, he and his buddy (Ben Mendelsohn) start robbing banks. And you know what? It actually works. For a little while, they’re almost a happy family. But robbing banks is a risky business that eventually catches up with him. Enter trigger happy cop guy (Bradley Cooper). Later MV5BYTczY2U4ODctMGU3Ni00MmYwLTlmMDktOGUzZDcyMTM5OGEwL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjcyNzA2MjE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_Cooper will be remembered as a hero but we’ll all know he’s dirty. And what do dirty cops do? They run for public office!

It’s an interesting movie because it’s about that place where two lives intersect, and how quickly they can change the course of each other’s lives. And it’s also about legacy, and the burden that the little carnie baby is going to carry with him for the rest of his life. The Place Beyond the Pines is a search for truth; it displays the emotional intensity that the Gosling-Cianfrance combination brought in Blue Valentine (which I love but can’t stand to watch). And it reminds us about the shades of grey in everyone: how the “bad guy” bank robber can rock his baby gently to sleep, and the “good guy” cop can be corrupt as hell.