Game Addict (Ready Player One, 2018)

Ready_Player_One_PosterIn the future, life is so bleak, everyone hangs out in the virtual reality of the Oasis. There, everything is focused around the 80’s pop culture that it’s creator, Halliday was obsessed with. People have video game avatars inspired by various films and they spend all their time and money in the Oasis. Upon his death, Halliday announced a competition to find an Easter Egg that grants the winner the ownership of Halliday’s fortune and the Oasis itself.

Apparently, it was so hard, only a few people are still trying.  On one side are folks like Wade (in the Oasis he goes by the name Parzival) and his friends Aech, Sho and Daito. The other involves an evil corporation run by Sorrento that wants the Oasis to exploit it. Wade pines for the mysterious and legendary Art3mis.

I am going to be honest here. I tried reading the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I could not finish it. It was absolutely awful. So, filtering it through Steven Spielberg is probably a necessary move. Because the movie is not totally terrible.

It has some really dumb stuff. I mean, Wade is obsessed with Art3mis but has only known her avatar.  In real life she is disfigured has a birth mark on her face. This is how we know how big of a guy Wade is…he doesn’t care. He still thinks she is beautiful. This is Olivia Cooke, who plays the character:
olivia_cook

So…yeah…he is a prince. The film is obsessed with filling every shot in the Oasis with pop culture references. We see King Kong, Chucky, Freddy, endless video game characters, Parcival drives the delorean from Back to the Future, Art3mis drives the motorcycle from Akira, we see the van from the A-Team and the Batmobile.  It becomes sensory overload.

The characters are very, very by the book and not terribly interesting.

I mean, the most interesting characters are Aech, Sho and Daito.  And the cast is all pretty good. I mean, you have a supporting cast that includes Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, Ben Mendelsohn and Lena Waithe.

The visuals are top notch.  I mean, the action scenes are fun to watch for the most part.

So, basically, Ready Player One is okay. Better than it’s source material, but pretty well below some of Spielberg’s strongest popcorn material.

Triple Threat (Jurassic Park III, 2001)

Jurassic_Park_III_PosterAlan Grant and his assistant Billy are hired by a rich couple to give them a tour of the island from the second film. Grant discovers that instead of just flying low over the island, his hosts plan to land on the island.

It turns out that the couple are actually there to find their son who disappeared on a trip with his mother and her boyfriend. When they are attacked by a new large dinosaur, they find themselves on the run and trying to figure out their way off the island.

This film does not really try anything new. It set the story on an island again. They take refuge in run down empty buildings. They narrowly escape dinosaurs. Somebody’s greed gets them in trouble.

Steven Spielberg did not return to direct the third Jurassic Park film, instead it was directed by Joe Johnston (the Rocketeer and Captain America). Johnston is a good director, but the film really lacks the Spielberg touch. In addition, the dinosaurs, while mostly looking find, can at times look a bit stiff. Again, the film makes heavy use of raptors. The new dinosaurs are pretty interesting visually.

The film has a good cast, but some of the rather cliched storylines simply feel tired. This is especially true of the divorced couple rekindling their love.  The adventure brings them closer together, suggesting they will recommit to each other. But this ignores the fact that Leoni’s character discovers her boyfriend was eaten by dinosaurs hours earlier.

While Jurassic Park III is passable entertainment, it is easily the weakest entry in the entire franchise (in my opinion, anyways).

Rules of Survival (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, 1997)

Jurassic_Park_Lost_World_posterThe Success of Jurassic Park made a sequel pretty inevitable, but Spielberg took time to craft a new adventure, rather than rush out something that just met the obligatory requirements of a sequel.

This film focuses on a second island…the real labs of InGen. When the park went out of business, so did site B.  And the dinosaurs thrived. Hammond fought to leave the island alone and let the dinosaurs live in piece. To help his agenda, he has sent a team to simply observe and report about life on the island.

He requests the help of Ian Malcolm, who refuses, until he finds out his girlfriend Sarah is already on the island. His hope is to bring her right back. In the meantime, his daughter Kelly is upset by Ian dumping her off with a family friend. She stows away to follow her dad to the island.

Team Ian soon discover they are not the only ones on the island. The company wants to push Hammond out and capitalize on the dinosaurs. They bring a crew to capture dinosaurs to be returned to the States for a small scale version of the Park in San Diego.

The general idea of there being no park is a somewhat interesting change. Goldblum is highly entertaining here. Pete Postlethwaite plays a variation on the first film’s Muldoon. He is a big Game hunter who is there for very mercenary reasons, but is providing professional guidance. The effects are excellent, with some exciting new dinosaurs not seen in the prior film. The primary villain is more in the vein of the original book. A Corporate raider looking to exploit, Peter Ludlow is the example of corporate hubris believing it can control what others could not.

The film’s big finish is a T-Rex chase through San Diego. It is a bit of a shame that they squander such a great notion as “dinosaurs loose in a city” in a brief twenty minute sequence. I also really found the whole “daughter” subplot more annoying. The inclusion of kids in the first film actually made sense, here it seems forced and unneeded.

But when you get down to it, Spielberg can make most anything work, and the Lost World is a lot of fun.

Parks and Wreck (Jurassic Park, 1993)

Jurassic_Park_PosterJohn Hammond has built an amazing and elaborate theme park. One like no other, and he has spared no expense.  But as they prepare to go a live, there is a deadly accident. His investors demand professionals endorse the safety of the park.

Hammond enlists Paleontologist Alan Grant and Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, while the corporate lawyer brings in the “Chaotician” Ian Malcolm. At first, they are not fully sure what their presence is required for…until they discover that Jurassic Park is no ordinary vacation place.  Hammond’s company has perfected cloning to the point that they are able to use DNA to create new dinosaurs.

While at first awed by what they see, the three scientists start to question the decision to bring dinosaurs back into our world. The lawyer, meanwhile, is seduced by visions of money (“And we can charge anything we want, $2,000 a day, $10,000 a day…and people will pay it”).

Along with his grandchildren (Hammond’s target audience), Hammond sends everyone on the tour.  The crew has left for the weekend, leaving a very small staff.  Pretty much just Hammond, Ray Arnold (who runs the control room), Dennis Nedry (His IT guy) and Muldoon. Muldoon is a groundskeeper of sorts. An experienced big game hunter, he is also security in regards to things dinosaur related.

However, as one would expect…most anything that can go wrong does and our characters find themselves trying to regroup and get off the island without getting eaten.

As you would expect from a Spielberg adventure film, Jurassic Park is an exciting film full of great performances.  Jeff Goldblum’s Malcolm is especially entertaining in his over the top personality.

The film walks the line of challenging capitalism and corporate greed, without going all out for it. The lawyer represents the villainous corporate world, not Hammond. Hammond is the kindly grandfather with grand dreams of sharing his creation with the world. This is a change from the book, where Hammond is a much darker character who has a rather gruesome fate.

The film’s effects were groundbreaking for the time…and while it is a bit clearer now to see where the dinosaurs switch from digital to practical effects, the visuals in the film are still good enough to not be all that distracting today. It is easy to get lost in the excitement and danger of Jurassic Park.

 

Careless in Suburbia (Poltergeist, 1982)

Poltergeist_PosterThe Freeling family have a good life.  Steve and Diane have three children.  One evening they are awakened by their youngest, Carol Anne, who is talking to the TV.

As days go by they notice unusual phenomena and not just Carol Anne watching static on the television.  The dog responds to something nobody can see, the son is sure the tree outside his window is alive.

After a traumatic night which results in Carol Anne being taken by the spirits she has been communicating with.  When paranormal researches come in, they are floored by what they find.  It is decided they need the help of an exorcist to try and get Carol Anne back.

There are two things people likely recall most vividly.  Cute little Carol Anne turning to the camera to say (eerily) “They’re Heeeeere” and Zelda Rubinstein as Exorcist Tangina.  Her most famous line has been quoted in many films and TV shows…”This house is clean.”

Rubinstein is memorable in both appearance and performance.  A small older woman, she brings an otherworldly vibe, and at times, her purposes almost seem at odds with the Freelings.

The effects still stand up, with only a few exceptions.  The most obvious being a sequence with a character clawing his face off and it is obviously a dummy head.  But otherwise, the ghost effects still work very well.

There is a longstanding belief that Spielberg is the director of Poltergeist, and it appears he was on set, though so was Hooper.  He was filming E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at the same time (a movie he offered to Hooper to direct).  Hooper is the only credited director, but according to at least some individuals who were there, it was primarily Spielberg. It sounds like this was not one of those situations where Hooper was being replaced, and he had some creative input.  It would appear they got along fine and Hooper was providing Spielberg cover in regards to contractual rules with E.T.

Regardless of who directed it, Poltergeist is an entertaining and somewhat unique horror film with a terrific cast.

Why Did It Have to Be Aliens? (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,2008)

Indiana_Jones_Crystal_Skull_PosterOr…Indy Gets Old. Lucas envisioned a new Indiana Jones trilogy, with one change.  Where the first three films focused on religious and supernatural artifacts, the new films would focus on science fiction themed artifacts.  Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set in the 1950’s for this reason, and instead of Nazis, the villains are Russians.

The film opens with Indy and his friend Mac as prisoners of the Russians.  They are taken to Area 51 to locate a potential weapon.  Jones mounts an escape that leads to one of those narrow escapes that got a lot of ridicule…hiding in a fridge to avoid a nuclear explosion.  I am not sure this is really any more outrageous than his other exploits in other films.  Is it crazier than jumping from a plane in an inflatable raft?  Indy returns to his college job, only to find himself pursued by the CIA and the Russians.

He runs into a kid named Mutt…Mutt wants his help to save his mom…Marion Ravenwood.  What follows is an adventure involving the Crystal Skull.  The real Crystal Skulls are carved human skulls.  People believed they were ancient creations, but all the skulls studied have revealed to have been made in the 19th century and there does not seem to be any mythology that corroborates the claims of being Mesoamerican or even Native American.

The film ignores this and posits that there is a hidden city in the Amazon jungles.  And the skull is not human, but rather an elongated alien skull.  The film indulges aliens and psychic powers.  But a lot of the action harkens back to the earlier films.

At the same time, there is little room for anything resembling an emotional resonance…this is because the film relies heavily on goofy moments.  The action is full of it.  During an overly long chase (where the Crystal Skull keeps leaping between Indy’s crew and the Russians) Mutt gets caught in a tree.  He ends up swinging Tarzan style through the trees surrounded by monkeys.

The film also never really surprises.  From the moment Mutt appears, you can see where his storyline is leading.  Mutt is also kind of annoying.  I mean, he is less annoying than Sam Witwicky in the Transformer films…but he gets irritating none the less.

On the other hand, it is really great to see Marion back on the screen.  And she gets some real good moments within the action scenes.  She is not just there to be saved, but does the saving.  And the cast is a high point.  You have Cate Blanchett as the lead Russian, John Hurt as an old mentor of Indiana Jones, and Jim Broadbent in a small role as Indy’s boss.

And John Williams provides the score.  John Williams has created many iconic themes from Star Wars to Superman.  And his soundtrack in all the Indiana Jones films is top notch.  As the main Indy theme plays in every movie, it makes you anticipate excitement.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a disappointing return for a cinematic hero.

Choose Your Adventure Wisely (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989)

Indiana_Jones_Crusade_PosterAfter the criticism of Temple of Doom, Lucas and Spielberg opted to return to Judeo Christian artifacts.  This time was far more myth, in that they search for the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper and gifted with the power of eternal life.  They brought in Jeffrey Boam, writer of two Lethal Weapon films and the Lost Boys, to provide the Screenplay.

The film opens in Indiana Jones’ teen years.  While out with his scout troop, he stumbles across treasure hunters.  He grabs an artifact and they start to chase him.  While the sequence is fun and generally exciting, it also suffers from a ridiculous amount of fan service.  For reasons I cannot fathom, they decided they needed to explain…well, everything.  Indy’s fear of snakes, how he got the scar on his chin, how he got his whip, how he got his hat.  It is just absurd.  Who really wanted to know how or when he got that scar?  He is an adventurer…he got it on an adventure. They also establish where the name “Indiana” comes from.  It is not great.

The film then jumps to 1938, where Indy has found that same artifact.  He reclaims it and returns to the college where he is employed as a Professor.  There, he is introduced to Walter Donovan, who was working with Indiana Jones’ father, a noted Grail expert.  His father has disappeared, so Jones flies to Venice with Marcus Brody and they meet up with Elsa, who was also working Indy’s father (also named Henry, so his dad keeps referring to Indy as Jr.).  They discover he is being held by Nazis…

Everyone gets divided up, Indy and his father escaping the Nazis, Marcus and a returning Sallah heading for the location of the Grail.  They do eventually meet up in an action packed finale.

And the film does entertain, but then also tries to over compensate with background…wholly unnecessary background.  Sean Connery as Indy’s dad is certainly a fun casting choice.  He is not impressed at all with Indiana’s exploits.  In one scene, they are riding a motor cycle.  After he dispatches Nazis, he looks to his father with a big smile…and his dad is just indifferent.  The look on Ford’s face as his ego is deflated is amusing.

The film really ramps up the jokes.  Where humor complimented the prior films, this one seems almost more of a comedy.  Marcus Brody and Sallah, two fairly dramatic and competent characters in the first film are played for laughs as bumbling fools.

The film does have some nice character moments for Ford and Connery where they try and reconnect after years of a strained relationship.  The twists and reveals, on the other hand, feel heavily telegraphed.

The Last Crusade is often treated as a strong return to form, but I cannot say it is any better than the Temple of Doom.  It is certainly tonally different (and admittedly, a lot of the jokes actually work, especially between Indy and Henry).  But it has its weaknesses.

The Adventure Continues (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

Indiana_Jones_Temple_PosterOf course, Indy had to return.  And Spielberg and Lucas have returned, with longtime Lucas collaborator Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz providing the script.

The film opens with a musical number and Indy meeting with Chinese Gangster Lao Che.  After a double cross, Jones makes a dramatic (and entertaining) escape with singer Willie Scott.   A plane crash detours Indy and Scott, along with sidekick Short Round (one of the weirdest choices is a kid of about thirteen or fourteen) in India.  A village reaches out for Indy’s help.  Their children and sacred stones were taken by a cult.  Indy agrees and they venture forth.  They arrive at Pankot Palace.

They discover the Thuggee Cult is alive and well, worshiping Kali in caverns below the palace.  They are using the children as slave labor and consolidating power through human sacrifice.  Probably the most infamous moment from this outing is the removal of a victim’s still beating heart before he is lowered into lava.

Temple of Doom is often seen as a darker affair.  And truthfully it is.  In part, this is due to the focus on a death cult.  The Thugees were a very real community, though they were more known to befriend travelers and kill them for their possessions.  It is debated just how much a role their religious beliefs played in their actions.  The supernatural flourishes in the film are entirely fabricated.

While the tone is darker this time around, the film also has the exciting narrow escapes and death traps that made the first film enjoyable.  In spite of a new writing team, the character of Indy is true to form.  The humor is still there, much of it derived from Indiana Jones own over confidence.  Though the inclusion of Short Round makes Indy look a tad bit too irresponsible.  Willie Scott is set up as the direct opposite of Marion Ravenwood.  Scott is kind of clueless and wants only a comfortable life.  She does not like getting her hands dirty and seems scared of everything.  Sadly, this leads to the character becoming extremely annoying at times.

The villains are not explored much at all.  Most of the bad guys are in a possessed trance and do not seem to have a lot of personality (as opposed to Belloq and Toht in Raiders).

The film is really no more gruesome than the first film (which had peoples’ faces melt off!).  And the ILM effects are still largely able to stand the test of time.  Really, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not quite Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is fun and exciting enough to entertain.

One last note…in Raiders, Indy is pretty skeptical about the supernatural powers of the Ark.  And yet, in Temple of Doom, set two years before Raiders, he witnesses some major supernatural activity.  What brought him back to skepticism?

The Adventure Begins (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)

Indiana_Jones_Raiders_Poster1981 was the meeting of two titans.  Steven Spielberg had thrilled the world with Jaws and two years later George Lucas had started to take over the world with Star Wars.The two teamed up to create the ode to pulp novels and action serials of yore.

Dr. Henry Jones, nicknamed Indiana is a professor of Archaeology and adventurer.  He is not a treasure hunter, at least not in the traditional sense.  He locates artifacts in the belief that they should be shared with the world for education and discovery.

Jones is contacted by the Government regarding the Biblical Ark of the Covenant.  Teaming up with an old flame, Marion Ravenwood, Indy must stop Nazis from getting their hands on the Ark.  What follows is a series of exciting near misses at getting the Ark.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a roller coaster ride of a film.  It has the adventure, heart, and humor that engages the viewer throughout. Indiana Jones instantly has an iconic feel.  He is rough around the edges, without being a neanderthal.  He is good at thinking on his feet (especially handy in attempts to escape sticky situations.  But he is not alone here.  Marion is the daughter of his mentor Abner, and she is every bit the adventurer.  She is smart and clever, Indy’s equal.

Of course, in a story like this, villains matter.  Indy is really dealing with two foes.  One is Belloq, who is his greedy counterpart.  Belloq is a fortune hunter and seeks the Ark for his own lust for power.  He has teamed with the Nazis, led by the creepy Major Toht.  The Nazis, of course, seek the Ark to consolidate their power.

Lucas tends to be good at ideas, but a bit goofy on execution, so giving the story to Lawrence Kasdan to write and having Spielberg direct brings all their unique skills together to create one of the best adventure films of film history.  It brings the sense of the old serials to a vibrant modern life with terrific characters fighting near impossible odds.

Up From the Depths Redux (Jaws 2, 1978)

Jaws_2_PosterWhen you beget the first summer blockbuster, the studio will want to get back to that gold mine.  Of course, Steven Spielberg did not return…reports include production conflicts as he was working on Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Others report that he thought sequels were a joke.  Close Encounters also prevented Dreyfuss from Returning.

However, much of the central cast did return.  Set a few years after the first film, Brody is still the Chief of police.  He is struggling with his teenage son Mike.  And when there are some mysterious deaths, Brody jumps to his default…a big shark. Unsurprisingly, everyone tells him he is crazy…I mean, ANOTHER shark?  Who is this guy? John McClane?!

Of course, it is a shark, another great white to be exact…and it falls on Brody to put an end to it.

Jaws 2 is not really terrible.  It can be downright suspenseful in fact.  There are moments of high drama.  But in this film, there is no Quint or Matt Hooper for Martin to play off of.  He gets support from his wife, but in the end, it is all on Brody’s shoulders to kill the shark.

The film skips the hiding of the shark as the director felt there was no way to duplicate the original film’s big reveal.  And he is correct.  But the shark in this film seems even more rubbery, especially noticeable in a scene where the shark barely misses Mike Brody and slides against the boat.

Jaws 2 is a decent attempt to follow up the original, but in the end, it more imitates it, with only limited success.

I do have one question…after the events of the first film…who the heck voted to keep Mayor Vaughn in charge of things????

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