L.O.L. – ¡Loser on Line! (Hate the Player, Hate the Game)

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So I can’t figure out if it would be more ethical to lay out my problems with the concept of Ready Player One on the floor now or to keep them to myself and pretend I’m not entering the movie with any pre-existing biases and I just figure I may as well come clean so whoever wants a shining review (pun unintended) will be let down easy.

I have never read Ernest Cline’s original novel of which Zak Penn based his screenplay on, but from what I understand of it (and Cline) it sounds shallow and emblematic of everything I am unimpressed with regarding “nostalgia as token” storytelling, especially 1980s nostalgia. And to be quite honest, I feel like Penn’s screenplay and parts of director Steven Spielberg’s storytelling retains a lot of the things that make the concept abhorrent to me: the strict focus on male-centric fan culture elements, the shallow background tokenism of minorities as support to the conventionally attractive white characters being the only ones with depth afforded to them (and even then, not by much), the gatekeeping moments where the villain is coded so because he doesn’t have enough John Hughes knowledge (including the now much-mocked line of “a fanboy can always tell a hater”), the antithetical ignoring of certain properties’ core substance to use them as bald action figures bashing against each other (most notably, the famously anti-violence The Iron Giant – created by a character whose only traits that aren’t a spoiler are their love for violent shoot ’em ups and their gearhead intelligence and the character is used accordingly).

None of those things are film-damning to my mind, honestly. It just means I stepped into Ready Player One with little faith to begin with, enough to overshadow my usual faith in Spielberg delivering another great piece of zippy popcorn entertainment despite the premise being trying desperately to sell the kind of escape a person can have in pop culture and video games. Probably because the movie doesn’t know whether or not it wants to also be a doomed look into a society so dependent on escaping reality that it falls apart and that’s honestly the more compelling area of the film to me.

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That video game that society is escaping into is called the OASIS, an open-world virtual reality environment where folks have invested so very much of their time and finances to the point of nationwide (at least) dystopia. This environment is represented with two major characteristics: first, motion-captured computer-animated scenes by Industrial Light and Magic that’s understandably “poor” in the way video game graphics would be but also filled with dazzling lighting effects for an imagination playbox as opposed to the last time Spielberg played with this toolbox in the fully animated The Adventures of Tintin. Second, OASIS is filled with a nauseating amount of pop culture references beyond the frequent name-dropping that would occur in character design, set design, vehicle design, and even soundtrack – mostly with wide-eyed shallow love for the 1980s. Which… ok, I guess.

It is completely believable that an unlimited sandbox world would be quickly overpopulated with pop cultures models rather than unique designs or a desire to exude personality, in case we forget we essentially have the OASIS in existence in real as VRChat and damned if you don’t come across a million anime characters and Ugandan Knuckles in those worlds. Somehow instead of the world being bitter about the ruined economical state against the creators of the game, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), they are idolized to the point that when Halliday abruptly announces his death in a pre-recorded stream, he also announces an easter egg hidden deep within the game – the prize of finding it being his entire estate including total control of the OASIS.

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Obviously that would attract the attention of a huge amount of players, including ones commissioned by the shadowy commercial corporation Innovative Online Industries and their apparently unimaginative profit-driven CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendehlson), who is somehow able to make his choice of AI as himself except Thanos-color and -body type, desiring to turn the OASIS into a giant marketing platform that would feel like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit reference of a plot point if it wasn’t obvious this movie would telegraphing the hell out of such an intentional decision. It also grabs the attention of a ragtag group of egg hunters, including blue elf avatar Parzival and his Ohio teen player Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). Watts’ hunt leads into digging deeper into the tragic hermit life of Halliday for several clues to help him, gun-lugging orc Aech, Ninja Sho, Samurai Daito, and the mysterious and determined similarly elfen avatar except pink named Art3mis.

And for being the major draw of the movie, it just feels so… bored of its own spectacle. There’s no true investment in most of the decisions on what reference to drop in the film, no giddy excitement like we know Spielberg to shake out of us except within a certain giant battle in the climax of the film and a certain second act challenge that’s an homage to a certain famous filmmaker friend of Spielberg’s right up until they add dancing and floating zombies. Otherwise, it’s no slouch but it’s no more an impressive fully-animated video game landscape than TRON: Legacy, which had character and felt a lot more solid and sleek in a manner that’s much more interesting to watch. Meanwhile, Ready Player One feels like a kid playing with actions figures, but not in an excited joyous way. More like a kid who doesn’t want his little brother to touch them. All the more so by the reluctance Spielberg openly had for referencing his own work, something that’s certainly valiant and humble but wrong-headed when his work defined the era that Cline fetishized.

In any case, it’s still a Spielberg film and it takes a lot of work for one of those to not at least have an efficient sense of pacing (something especially impressive given the 140 minutes it has to move through) and it even manages to give that time some compelling content in the form of the live-action scenes. They’re superior to the animated Family Guy skit of a plotline in every way: Mendelsohn’s performance is so much more interesting when we’re actually watching him flopsweat about (it’s a lesser version of his work in Rogue One but better version of him than The Dark Knight Rises), the design of the dystopian Columbus, Ohio as a stack of trailers looking Babel-esque is able to work at establishing the dive in class for its inhabitants without feeling like miserablism, and most of all, we get to see more of Halliday. It’s a role which Rylance is wildly overqualified to play but something he approaches with lovable earnestness – he takes the social blocks Halliday appears to have and twists them into either vulnerable windows of his fears of social interaction or truly alienating and difficult resentment depending on what the scene asks. In Bridge of Spies, Rylance came across as the least Spielberg-ian entity, but here he is the most Spielberg-ian element of all: a Willy Wonka of sorts that was unprepared to deal with real life with a downfall the movie treats with honesty but not harshness. It is the closest thing Ready Player One comes to feeling like it has a soul and so if you hold tight to the glimpses of Halliday like I did, you might just find yourself at the end of the ride quicker than you expected.

They do have Battle Toads, though. So passing grade.

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The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room

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I honestly don’t know who missed which memo on the set of Rampage.

Whether or not director Brad Peyton and stay Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson missed the memo that a movie about dangerous animals turning giant by the abominable actions of science and turning a major metropolis into an utter ruin is not really a premise one needs to sacrifice an immense amount of entertainment and fun for. And mind you, this is hardly the first time they made this mistake or the worst perpetration of this tonal mishap. The stone-faced sobriety with which their previous collaboration San Andreas portrayed the devastating earthquakes The Rock was escaping makes Rampage look like Singin’ in the Rain. And yet you can get away with that sort of demeanor on the very real threat of a natural disaster. A gang of giants – ape, wolf, and crocodile – crushing a metropolis is inherently ridiculous. While it does well to give your film some sense of in-film logical grounding – which I assume is the reason this movie chose to have them actual animals who are exposed to a chemical rather than humans transformed into the animals as in the video game series it’s based on – it does not mean every character who isn’t played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan has to go unsmiling while the shit is hitting the fan. Plus, San Andreas has much more consistent and weighty visual effects than Rampage‘s frequently poorly composed animals and that leads to the second hypothetical memo.

Or if whoever was in charge of the major special effect in the film – the growing albino gorilla George (Jason Liles in mo-cap) whom Johnson’s primatologist character Davis Okoye cares for and raises – realized that he was bringing about an Adam Sandler character into a movie very certain on turning that character into something to fear for about 2/3 of its runtime. While the right idea is clearly in the makers’ mind, to both have some sense of levity and lean towards giving us a character that will hurt us to watch turn into a mindless monster, their execution is practically diving into Seth MacFarlane territory. With his constant usage of frat boy jokes to frequently undermine Rampage‘s sincerity (an extended usage of the middle finger, a finger-into-fist sign of inquiry), George would look right at home as the inarticulate best friend to Ted, if only Ted as a character wasn’t so well animated that he would make George look worse than he already does in direct juxtaposition. Either way, George and The Rock are clearly not starring in the same movie.

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These are not good looking giant animals y’all, living on an entirely different plane from the rest of their environments and often interacting with humans as though there is either a sheet of glass separating them or their aim is just awful when it comes to snatching them into their jaws. This is certainly covered up a whole lot better in the dusty rubble of Chicago or the sunlight cutting forestations which is probably why George’s gigantic co-stars Ralph the Wolf and Lizzie the Croc (Ralph is named, Lizzie is not – these are names I got from the games) fare significantly better in my memory than any apes in the film. Lizzie in particular is the standout, proving that the animators almost certainly saw another giant reptile film and so had a handy basis on how to make the crocodile feel dense and make the earth rumble with each step it takes. She also only really has to exist in the third act while we follow George and Ralph’s travels to Chicago instead.

Whether or not you read whatever the unholy fuck is the barely rendered… I don’t know, I think it’s a rat with movements that are unconvincing even in the context of zero-g space. How you read opening Rampage with that would be up to you: it could either be the movie just getting its worst CGI out of the way or it could be an early indication that it’s not a movie that could effectively commit to its one job of providing BIG CONVINCING monsters for its popcorn movie. I think it’s both on top of earlier elaborating what was going to be the only elements that knew what kind of dumb matinee fare was this movie’s best case scenario: an occasional indulgence in camera movement to give a little more surrounding character to the chaotic scenarios (an imploding space station in this case, a crashing cargo plane later on, and the climactic destruction of Chicago), a composer in Andrew Lockington that’s only interested in finding the most peril-rich clichés in movie music to indulge in, and a supporting cast mostly qualified to treat this as scientifically as Deep Blue Sea – in this particular scene, introducing to us in voice-only antagonist Energyne CEO Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman), who even without seeing her face can easily have temperature guessed into the below zeros.

When we do see her face, Åkerman along with Jake Lacy as Wyden’s impotent brother Brett make a punchy duo of recognizable corporate evil as Lacy gives nervy cartoon energy to Brett’s stupidity without a trace of inner logic beyond “I don’t wanna go to prison!”. Åkerman meanwhile is like what somebody’s impression of a fun Louise Fletcher character would be and her straight-faced ability to still sell on every pointedly evil thing she says and does makes it feel like the character only uses financial terms as replacement for “EVIIIIIIILLLL” spitting out of her lips as they watch and approve of their research landing on Earth and their work leading to devastated trails of carnage*.

And of course, in the meantime, Jeffrey Dean Morgan struts in as a government agent with the most unconvincing Texan drawl a man could put on, refusing to stand up even slightly straight, and treating the mid-film expositional dump he puts upon Okoye and Naomie Harris’ fired Energyne Dr. Kate Caldwell like the best chance to chew up all the possible scenery he can consume, making him a fellow valiant presence attempting to right up the ship sunk by Peyton’s sobriety to the material. Unfortunately, Morgan is not in charge of the movie nor his evildoer co-stars. Peyton and The Rock’s earnestness to the material is well-meaning but a downfall to a movie that shouldn’t need to be earnest to be entertaining and would probably do better with the low-quality of the animals, its main draw, to have the borderline silliness of a Roger Corman flick than its unironic insistence that yes… Rampage expects you to take these badly animated inserts as seriously as the Rock does.

*Also they have an arcade rack of the original game Rampage in their very professional high-rise office sticking out, implying that the game exists in this film and they were inspired by it for their Project Rampage. Which means they have wildly good aim and/or odds when they landed on the three animals of the game AND that ape would be named George AND that internet conspiracy theorists would name the wolf Ralph.

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Cured of My Will to Live

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So, here’s a thing: it’s already hard enough to get your ass up out to the theater to watch a movie you honestly don’t want to watch. Who wants to waste their time and money like that, right? It’s even more difficult when you’re in my previous position with Maze Runner: The Death Cure where I kept having to re-schedule the opportunities around my work and opportunities to see that movie do not come easily because it is 2 AND A MOTHERFUCKING HALF HOURS LONG, got damn. And yet, here I am having finally seen it and so very eager to get this franchise wrapped up that I started typing the moment I got home from the theater.

And I do have some words of praise to afford the filmmakers: first off, to actually seeing the franchise all the way to the end right at the cusp of when young adult dystopia material was reaching at its end, particularly in the wake of the Divergent series’ decision to give up. Several young adult franchises involved splitting the final book in their respective literary source series into two movies unnecessarily as has been the fad since Harry Potter‘s films and this is something Maze Runner did not choose to do, to my significant esteem. I suppose this decision may have been less spurred by narrative integrity than by the fact that as of the time Maze Runner: The Death Cure has been released, it has been a little under 2 years since The Divergent Series: Allegiant underperformed and a little over 2 years after The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 underperformed, a death knell to the type of material The Maze Runner operates in. But that circumstance is also why the tenacity of the filmmakers impresses me almost as much as the fact that they have been financially rewarded for their faith. And particularly since it’s no big secret that gap of time was prolonged by the unfortunate injury of lead actor Dylan O’Brien during filming, at which point the studio decided to hold off until he could recuperate properly because nobody needs to die while making a movie.

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OK, and now with all that young adult adaptation background that I am very ashamed to have at my disposal, I can actually praise Maze Runner: The Death Cure for something actually within the text of the film itself: not only is it better than its predecessors – a low bar to clear – it might possibly be a decent watchable movie. That claim requires many caveats: to begin with, you have to have watched the first two movies because there is no hand-holding flashback or recap opening the film and – welcome in the wake of the exposition vomit that made up the scripts of Maze Runner and Scorch Trials – most of the movie is spent in actual narrative momentum with a clear objective in mind. That objective being, after the final moments of Scorch Trials where the evil corporation WCKD who accidentally invented desert zombies (zombies that don’t really appear as much in Death Cure except within the bookends) kidnaps several friends of our hero Thomas (O’Brien), he and his team arranges to break into WCKD’s walled metropolitan safe haven to specifically save Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Specifically Minho. I mean, sure there’s other folks that they mean to rescue but they only wanna mention Minho.

OK, I’m going to admit at this point while I’m getting snarky that while I’m sure The Death Cure pays off significantly to those who have been invested in the struggles of Thomas, his right hand man Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). As I’m sure anybody who followed the last two movies could figure out, I was not at all and while I concede that the movie does very well to collect all of the threads of the story and tie them into a neat conclusion, it ain’t my jam. For one thing, the kids’ acting got worse with the way they try to escalate and intensify their responses to each situation with puppy dog attempts at gruff exclamations of “shit!” and this is shoved in our faces when Brodie-Sangster has an arbitrary development to his character that feels nothing more than mean-spirited. He does little else with it than bark at other characters often and hyperventilate because Newt – like pretty much every other ally – doesn’t really have a personality beyond “is loyal to Thomas”.

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It’s also shoved in our faces when the group’s mission is made complicated on the sudden romantic implication between Thomas and fellow Glader Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) that seems hella outta nowhere, especially considering how sex-less the first Maze Runner pointedly was about a girl living enclosed amongst boys and how little time they spent together in The Scorch Trials before Teresa was revealed to be a turncoat for WCKD. That the heroic group is apprehensive about Thomas’ desire to find some good in her again despite accepting the mid-film reveal of an easily guessable previously-thought-dead* murderous villain who apparently changed between movies from a violent psycho into a brusque senior rebel to look up to with few objections is just one of many inconsistencies that I rolled with because I wanted this movie to wrap up.

These threads are also the subject of an ending that really wants to sell you on the gravitas of the situation by suddenly taking stakes at the last minute that were barely on the ground before (though it ends on a much more hopeful note than that sounds) and add that to uncompelling performances from actors who are empty presences at worst and at best given little to do except Aidan Gillen’s evil militaristic Janson (which is essentially Gillen playing the same slimy contemptible piece of shit he built his career out of playing) and I’m just not here for the story, y’all. Power to those who are.

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But if you’re watching Maze Runner: The Death Cure for the visuals of director Wes Ball and the cinematography of Gyula Pados, well… it’s actually a pretty good-looking movie. We’re not talking Deakins here, but the setting of the majority of the film in an area of urban ruins and sleek cold reflective surfaces as in the central Last City where WCKD centers itself gives Ball and Pados a lot of room to play with light and shadow to give Death Cure a more mature chilliness than any scene of young looking late 20-year-olds with guns could possibly have. In general, the design of The Last City feels like the modern response to the city from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a desperately authoritarian and insincere industrialization of survivalism all proven by how tall and closed-off the towers are. It’s not revelatory at all since we already had a feeling the makers were getting better within the sweltering desert heat of The Scorch Trials, but it’s impressive set-building and it does tell us what was the answer to The Maze Runner‘s visuals all along: keep Ball and Pados the fuck away from trees and grass.

A much more enjoyable benefit to yours truly: the action setpieces are all not only coherent and impactful, they’re also unhinged in a manner akin to the Fast and Furious movies. The central “break in and break out” heist of The Death Cure involves several “are you crazy?” type of stunts and actions on the parts of the characters that clearly would have killed any person in real-life physics – including a crane swinging a bus full of children by its front grill over a wall – and it’s the most joyous and alive the franchise has ever felt to me. And this isn’t something The Death Cure takes its sweet-ass time getting to: it opens on a kinetic grounded train heist that makes for great enough popcorn spectacle in the early months of the year.

So… is this enough to say I like Maze Runner: The Death Cure? Not really. Given how much I unexpectedly gave T.S. Nowlin’s final screenplay for the franchise, I’m starting to feel I spoke too soon in claiming it’s a decent movie. But it does recognize the job it has in closing out a franchise and establishing a brand new environment to blow to smithereens in its climax. And it sets its mind on completing that job no matter how messy it gets and for the franchise’s perseverance, I do admit admiration growing in seeing it finally reach the end of its own maze.

*I am aware that the character in question was revealed to be alive in the third book that this movie is based on, but I am not sure that his “apparent death” was as ludicrously severe as this character’s was.

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