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Ready Player One

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“When the creator of a virtual reality world called the OASIS dies, he releases a video in which he challenges all OASIS users to find his Easter Egg, which will give the finder his fortune.”

1522380538225 (6)To be totally transparent, this was my most anticipated movie of 2018. Last July I saw the teaser trailer and my mind was blown on how they squeezed so many movie and video game properties into one film and I was immediately hooked. Once I learned it was based on a book, I purchased it, and yes, I’m a slow reader so it took me four months to finish it (also I left my first copy on a plane so congrats for the free book I blessed someone with).

I convinced myself to go into this film not doing the comparison game and allowed it to stand on its on, and honestly, I’m all the better for it.

First off, lets start with the real draw; the visuals. This was a really good looking film. The V.R. world known as the OASIS was utterly spectacular. I feared that this would be the part where the film could fail, but they did a great job making this place look as realistic as possible. Another area I was concerned with was the avatar designs of the characters. In the trailers I found them to be uninteresting, but in the movie they were far more compelling. They excelled in the humanization of each character as the CGI form and were actually far more engaging then their real-life counterparts.

Olivia Cooke was the biggest standout in this film as Artemis aka Samantha. She really evoked the most emotion and energy in a cast of characters that often disappeared within each other. While Lena Waithe was a lot of fun as Aech, her human counterpart was less of a focal point throughout the film. I also liked Ben Mendelsohn as the antagonist, Sorrento. He always had a great bad guy demeanor that fit well into this movie.

So, just a quick comparison to the book; it is best, if you did read it, to think of it as two stand-alone projects. The puzzles and challenges in the book were segmented to a smaller audience. When I read it, I found myself YouTubing and Googling a lot of the albums, movies, and games that were referenced because they were so obscure, or I wasn’t aware of them. I figured that the creators of the movie were aware of that and instead completely transitioned each challenge to cultural reference the masses could relate to. This was the best option, and if I may say so, the challenge to get the Jade key was totally awesome for me, especially being a horror movie buff.

The biggest weaknesses for me were the story, dialogue, and interactions. Even though the overall movie was fun, at times it felt cheesy. As if they tried to force in elements from the book in a very PG sort of way. The dialogue sometimes felt wedged with pop-culture references and jokes that didn’t seem to connect with the audience at times. They also sped through the relationships between the characters (other than Artemis and Parzival) so quickly I didn’t feel like there was a true bond beyond their avatars.

Overall Grade: B or B+

I’m not too sure which one just yet. Even though I really enjoyed the movie, the relationships between the characters was weak and again, sometimes the dialogue and the cheesiness was right at the cusp of distracting. I do believe it deserves a second viewing for a final grade, or at least to catch the hundred of easter eggs I’m sure I missed.

Ready Player One
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Action, Adventure, Sci-fi
March 2018
Director: Steven Spielberg
Warner Bros.
2 hours 20 minutes

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‘Sorry to Bother You’ Just Might

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It’s impossible to review Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry to Bother You without giving too much away. Before I spoil the surprises, let me say there is much to like about this surrealist dark comedy even as the film tries to toss you from the roller-coaster at regular intervals.

Cassius Green, the young African-American telemarketer played by Lakeith Stanfield, learns that faking a white voice on the phone is the only way to make money when cold calling. David Cross supplies the overdubbed white voice.

The thought of unionizing with his underpaid co-workers is thrown out the window when Cassius is promoted to Power Caller. Power Callers sell a whole different product – a work/life opportunity called WorryFree that is ostensibly slave labor. This doesn’t sit well with his unionizing friends, nor his artist/activist girlfriend Detroit, played by the impure-thought-inducing Tessa Thompson. Cassius has a choice to make that becomes clearer as the plot dives into absolute absurdity.

Nothing may prepare you for the half-horse half-human workhorses that show up in the third act.

Nothing may prepare you for the half-horse half-human workhorses that show up in the third act. Their B-movie bodies (replete with certain horse-like appendages) steal any bit of nuance from the story.

Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift, CEO of WorryFree, with a keen interest in leveraging Cassius as a “Martin Luther King type” workhorse he can control from the inside. Yes, there’s something to offend anyone that doesn’t know how to digest satire – from Detroit’s Murder Murder Murder earrings, to one dimensional white villains, an orgy scene, a two worded rap, and more horse peen than you can shake a stick at.

Yet it somehow works, at least for me. Reminds me of a time in the late eighties to mid-nineties when movies could be looser, made on the cheap, and weren’t expected to gross a hundred million dollars to be successful. Sorry to Bother You cost a little over three million and has made about fifteen as of this writing.

I’m not saying Boots Riley’s debut is comparable to, say, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, but it does set the stage for his Do The Right Thing.

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Amazon Prime Hidden Gem: Brawl in Cell Block 99

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“A former boxer-turned-drug runner lands in a prison battleground after a deal gets deadly.”

Earlier this year I was watching a panel of critics list their top ten favorite movies of 2017. Of course you had ITGet Out and others that we heard many times over, but one of the critics was extremely excited about a movie called Brawl in Cell block 99.

He said it was Vince Vaughn like he’s never seen him before and he had an excitement about it that was quite unique to the other critic’s reactions. The rest of the panel brushed him off (obviously never seeing the movie), but his enthusiasm intrigued me. A month or so later I saw Amazon Prime had the film available, so I decided to watch it.

The film starts as a slow burn, really fleshing out Vaughn’s character and the circumstances rising within his life. It gives you a great introspection of the downward spiral he is going through within his career and marriage, but quickly reveals that he is a fixer. It also gives you a glimpse early into the rage this man holds inside that he has full control over. A rage you can see has gotten him in and out of a lot of situations prior to where the film started.

As he continues, you can see this isn’t Vince Vaughn from Wedding CrashersAnchorman or The Intern. This is the dramatic Vince Vaughn we haven’t seen in a long time. Actually it was a new Vaughn. One that had gotten bigger and much more intimidating. The title may fool you a bit, but this film is about a man on a sound rampage.

He goes into prison during the latter part of the movie and when this happens, the film actually shifts a few notches within a matter of scenes. Facing a predicament that threatens his family, he is forced to do some extremely brutal acts with an unforgiving nature that makes you question what you’re watching.

This isn’t Vince Vaughn from Wedding Crashers, this is a new Vince Vaughn.

The beauty of the film is how his brutal nature is so violent and aggressive, but yet so controlled and calculated. It was almost poetic how his character managed to tread this line so effortlessly and with an unflinching understanding of using his force to get exactly what he wanted.

I will say that at times this movie does get into absurd levels of violence that reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s direction in Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained. It didn’t fit the flow of the rest of the movie, and took you out of it at moments, but the violence was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Even though disjointed, I was willing to accept it because of the Director’s gall to inject that level of cartoonish antics into such brutality.

Overall Grade: B+

This film was a great watch. Vince Vaughn was definitely a beast and really took this part seriously. The dialogue and environment building is palpable and the threats are unimaginable. You actually begin to root for this brute force of nature to win as he continues to encounter further unthinkable challenges, and handles them with his three best weapons: His two hands and his mind. Watch it! It’s good!

Brawl in Cell Block 99
Crime, Drama
October 2017
Director: S. Craig Zahler
RLJE Films
2 hours 12 minutes
IMDB reference click here

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Eighth Grade is a Triumph of Bad Skin and Baby Fat

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“Thirteen-year-old Kayla endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through the last week of middle school–the end of her thus far disastrous eighth grade year before she begins high school.” 

That IMDB quote above sums up the story of Eighth Grade, but captures none of the nuances of Bo Burnham’s clever directorial debut. And that’s fine, because putting a finer point on the story might limit the audience in the same way giving the film an R rating did. Yes, this is some heady stuff, some of the sexual references may seem a bit too adult for your average thirteen year old. Still, this isn’t 1977, where your only choice for seeing naked humans might be sneaking onto the bookmobile and leafing through old copies of National Geographic. This is 2018, where all things good and bad are a thumb swipe away.

I would guess that thirteen year olds today know way more than I ever did at thirteen, and maybe more than I did at twenty. We insult them by suggesting they can’t navigate the sexual subjects Mr. Burnham handles with aplomb in Eighth Grade.

In a true breakout performance, Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, whose YouTube channel gets as many hits as she has friends… which is to say none. She’s a square peg at school who never came out of the shell she was in when she made that shoebox time capsule three years ago.

Kayla makes a few last ditch efforts to fit in before the school year ends, even if that means pretending she’s something that she isn’t. Or at least isn’t yet. Does she make all the right choices? No. Did you?

I saw the film with parents of young children and wondered if it played out like a horror movie to them. One scene in particular of a high schooler forcing a game of truth or dare on Kayla in the dark backseat of his car is appropriately creepy and expertly directed. Not to say that it’s a dark film, just a complex one. Even the trope that social media masks the truth more than reveals it is handled with a light touch. There’s a ton of laughs even if some make you uncomfortable.

Like last years Lady Bird, Eighth Grade succeeds in balancing the notion of what we are supposed to be with what we are becoming – and while most of us are not in eighth grade anymore, we are always becoming.

The cast of Eighth Grade take questions at Alamo Draft House in Brooklyn.

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