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Thrilling filmmaking blends a coming of age drama with adolescent relationships and more pop culture references than you can shake a registered trademark at. This is the smorgasbord of Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, an immersive and bombastically brilliant adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel, scripted by Cline himself along with Zak Penn. In 2045, the world is a dystopia future with nothing to look forward to except the OASIS, a virtual reality environment where one can do and be anything. Within the OASIS, designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has hidden three keys that enable the finder to control the entire virtual world and become incalculably wealthy. Gamers of all types, from the corporate ‘Sixers’ of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) to the enigmatic Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and our protagonist Wade Watson/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) compete in extraordinary events where literally anything can and does happen. Motor races feature Back to the Future’s Delorean roaring alongside Tron’s light cycle and the Batmobile, while a Tyrannosaurus Rex and King Kong take swipes at them. Zero gravity discos merge Saturday Night Fever with Aliens; battles to rival The Lord of the Rings sweep across distant planets, where the Iron Giant battles with Mechagodzilla and there is cause to shout ‘It’s fucking Chucky!’ In a bravura sequence, Spielberg pays homage to his mentor Stanley Kubrick with a prolonged sojourn into The Shining. In the midst of this eye-popping Nerdvana, Ready Player One tells a fairly traditional story where a young hero comes of age, learns the value of friendship and connections in the real world (including first love), while evading the nefarious machinations of corporate scumbag Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
What is especially pleasing about Ready Player One is that it demonstrates Spielberg experimenting and delivering with new technology. Previous efforts with motion capture including The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and The BFG were interesting but lacked a sense of immersion. Here, Spielberg and production designer Adam Stockhausen as well as various effects houses including Digital Domain and Industrial Light and Magic have crafted a world of virtual environments and extraordinary avatars to match and in some cases exceed, well, Avatar. Long takes propel the viewer through incredible vistas that are uncanny in the best sense – different yet also familiar. The action sequences have a visceral thrill despite their virtual nature, the viewer never forgetting that their surroundings exist in a digital framework but experiencing the rush much like the characters. That is Ready Player One’s greatest achievement: with a cinematic marketplace stuffed with familiarity, the film manages to take a plethora of archetypes and trademarks and deliver something that feels wholly fresh and thoroughly exhilarating. For this, it deserves the highest applause.
With the clacking of a typewriter, Darkest Hour echoes Atonement, Joe Wright’s earlier (and more impressive) foray into World War II drama. The bravura moment of that film was an extraordinary long take of the British troops trapped at Dunkirk, the focus of Christopher Nolan’s award botherer. Darkest Hour presents the time of Dunkirk from another perspective – that of Parliament in May 1940 as Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) takes the office of British Prime Minister while Europe collapses before the Third Reich. Winston faces multiple challenges as he tries to wrangle survival for the troops and also protect his own position. Oldman is superb, unrecognisable in remarkable makeup yet never appearing to be a man in makeup. From his voice that wanders from quavering to strident (more varied than Brian Cox’s equally powerful turn), Oldman brilliantly portrays a career politician who understands the game of Westminster and only plays it his way. As a character study the film is effective and compelling, and Wright uses some thrilling cinematic effects such as long takes that travel around the House of Commons and overhead shots that range from Winston working furiously in bed as well as beleaguered British soldiers in Calais. At other times, however, the drama feels overdetermined, such as the machinations of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as well as a sequence on the London Underground when Winston performs a mini-referendum on relations with Germany. This speaking to the people raises the interesting question of how to view the film through the lens of Brexit. There may be a temptation to adopt Darkest Hour for nationalistic propaganda, its depiction of a time when Britain stood against Europe calling for Britain to stand against the EU in these uncertain times. Equally, one can see Darkest Hour as a call for unity across borders in a time of division and mistrust, a point emphasised by Winston’s rallying of MPs even as the War Cabinet plots against him. For all its flaws, Darkest Hour still offers much food for debate, be that Parliamentary or otherwise.
2013 is almost over and, like so many a critic (which is, of course, everyone), I’m compiling my top films of the year. In the process, I realised that I neglected to post on some of the films that impressed me the most, so I’m rectifying that omission now.
Two arthouse offerings that I saw early in the year made my long list for films of 2013. The Place Beyond the Pines featured in my top five of 0.5 halfway through the year, and its remarkable power has not diminished since. Derek Cianfrance’s tale of fathers, lovers, sons and sins balanced the epic and the intimate in a touching yet mournful way, and performed a quite remarkable narrative feat. At 2 hours 15 minutes long, and starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, along with Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta, I expected intertwining stories of criminals, cops and the people around them, perhaps a blue collar version of Heat. What I got instead was a trilogy of equal length, largely self-contained stories that are only loosely connected to each other. The first 45 minutes focus on Luke Glanton (Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist who moonlights as an armed robber. The next 45 minutes were concerned with Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop who crosses paths with Luke once, and then continues his story, encountering police corruption en route to fulfilling his political ambitions. The final 45 minutes are concerned with the sons of these two men, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen), who, by a coincidence that only happens in the movies, find each other and create a whole new drama.
Based on its synopsis, The Place Beyond the Pines should not work. Three distinct stories that could easily stand by themselves? Three loosely connected stories placed in sequential order so that we effectively abandon the earlier protagonists? An epic saga of intergenerational sin shot with the claustrophobic intimacy of Cianfrance’s debut, Blue Valentine? How can this work? Commitment is the answer, as Cianfrance never wavers in his piercing glare into the hearts of his characters and, more broadly, the community in which they live. While the sequential stories are different from Michael Mann’s multi-stranded narrative, The Place Beyond the Pinesdoes feel like a blue collar Heat, replacing the freeways and concrete canyons of Los Angeles with small town upstate New York. The interconnections between the different characters are both familial and sociological, such as Luke’s criminal association with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who utters the film’s best line: ‘If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder’, as well as Romina (Mendes), the mother of his child, who lives with her current boyfriend Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). Romina and her family later encounter Avery and corrupt officers led by Peter Deluca (Liotta), prompting Avery to seek advice from his father Al (Harris Yulin) and forge an alliance with District Attorney Bill Killcullen (Bruce Greenwood). Fifteen years later, the connections between these characters continue to haunt Avery as well as his son AJ.
The epic scope of the film echoes classic crime dramas like Heat, Goodfellas, Once Upon A Time in America and, yes, even The Godfather, but unlike those films, Cianfrance and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit present something much more down to earth, largely eschewing long shots of grand vistas in favour of extreme close-ups that bring the viewer uncomfortably close to the characters. There are stylistic flourishes as well, especially the opening long take that lasts several minutes as Luke walks towards the cage where he performs his stunts, but the seemingly perpetual handheld footage gives an amateurish slant to the visuals, rather than the slick, polished look of Mann or Scorsese. This is not a criticism, however, as Cianfrance’s style suits his characters and even his genre. Down to earth, gritty and unsteady cinematography blends superbly with the different social levels explored in the film, while the scope of the narrative demonstrates that, with the right treatment, everyone’s story is epic.
A very different film style, like none other, is found in another arthouse offer from 2013: Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. I’ve been a huge fan of Malick since his metaphysical war film The Thin Red Line (1998), and found The New World (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011) to be entrancing developments of his poetic filmmaking. To The Wonder continues this conceit, as its simple story of characters musing over their relationships and lives is beautiful and beguiling, but never straightforward. Neil (Ben Affleck) is almost silent apart from his voiceover, an environmental inspector who is almost literally of the earth, trying to choose between the free-spirited Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and the more practical Jane (Rachel McAdams). Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) also muses on the weights of his mind, wrestling with the difficulties of counselling others while struggling with his own faith.
Malick’s free association approach to editing largely excludes continuous narrative, as cuts are often motivated by a word or a look from a character, the film then presenting another image with a purely conceptual link. Cuts are also motivated by purely visual matches between skylines and landscapes, or indeed contrasts between the rolling fields of Oklahoma and the dramatic coastline of Normandy. People stand both in isolation and unity within these landscapes, their lives uncertain in the film’s beguiling yet beautiful ambiguity.
Like The Place Beyond The Pines, To The Wonder brings the viewer close to the action, but is more concerned with philosophical than sociological connections. What binds people together? What are our connections to the land, the sea, the sky? Malick’s film, like all his work, is a visual monument to the wonder of creation, most explicitly in The Tree of Life, but found here as well. To The Wonder does a fine job of placing Malick’s philosophical filmmaking in the contemporary context, as Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World are all historical, while The Tree of Life encompasses the timespan of the Earth (as you do). While To The Wonder is not the easiest film to engage with and is likely to frustrate some sensibilities, for me it was a beautiful and provocative piece of work. Furthermore, it was different, distinctive and, frankly, unique amongst the films I saw this year.