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Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ Is Poisoned by Fandom

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There are two conspicuous cultural absences from Ready Player One, the new film based on Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel. One is George Lucas — there are some small nods to Star Wars, but it doesn’t play the fundamental role one would expect in a movie to which nostalgia and fandom are so central. The other is the film’s own director, Steven Spielberg. Again, his filmography isn’t completely absent from Ready Player One — there is a great sequence involving a dinosaur from Jurassic Park, and the DeLorean from the Amblin-produced Back to the Future appears throughout. Yet Spielberg has clearly chosen to downplay his own importance to today’s nerd culture. Most of his early success laid the foundation for the culture endlessly referenced in this story; he created a template for mixing genre elements (science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and action) with sophisticated filmmaking, in the process creating some of the 20th Century’s most enduring art and culture. Almost everything referenced in Ready Player One, whether a movie, TV show, or video game, owes some debt to the work of Steven Spielberg — which is why he’s paradoxically a strange choice to direct. He understands the pull of nostalgia, having manipulated it himself for decades, but obsesses over very different things. The pop culture that animates Ready Player One holds little sway over Spielberg, but he’s enough of a craftsman to still create something that’s often engaging, and almost always visually stunning.

It’s 2045, and the major cities of Earth have turned into rapidly expanding slums. (Columbus, Ohio, is the fastest growing city on the planet, so obviously something has gone horribly wrong.) In this future world, the main economic driver and source of entertainment is the Oasis, a virtual reality domain where players can lead almost any life they wish, doing nearly anything they can imagine. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a forlorn little trailer stacked precariously on supports atop half a dozen others, but he spends most of his time logged into the Oasis, where he’s represented by an anime-style avatar known as Parzival. (For those unfamiliar with Arthurian legend or the Wagner opera, Parzival/Perceval/Percival/Parsifal was the original knight to find the Holy Grail in early texts).

Tye Sheridan & Olivia Cooke in Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One

It has been five years since the death of James Halliday (latter-day Spielberg regular Mark Rylance), the creator of the Oasis. Halliday left a cryptic video message recorded just prior to his death revealing that three keys were spread throughout the Oasis that can unlock an Easter egg granting full control of the cyberspace, as well as great fortune to the discoverer. Watts is determined to find the egg, but years have passed with little to show for it. In addition to the regular gamers hoping for fame and fortune, a massive corporation named IOI sends players in droves to search for the egg and its keys. These players —anonymous storm troopers dressed in gray and black — are known as sixers, due to the string of six numbers that identifies each one in lieu of a name. IOI and its CEO, Nolan Serrento (Ben Mendelsohn) are determined to wrest control away from Halliday’s estate in order to monetize every element of the Oasis through advertising and paid subscriptions.

I’ve resisted reading Cline’s novel since its publication in 2011, partly because its brand of referential worship to pop culture of years past can so easily turn malignant (see the racist and sexist tirades against The Last Jedi). Obsession with culture makes it difficult — sometimes even impossible — to admit when a cultural artifact’s supremacy has waned. But there’s also something troubling about this brand of fandom that hasn’t existed with other forms of art. There are plenty of people who love the novels of Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon, who have been irreversibly changed by them, yet those works haven’t consumed their lives the way Star Wars or certain video games have. Perhaps my perceptions of the novel are way off (it wouldn’t be the first time), but the culture referenced in Ready Player One too often seems like an escape, an evasion, rather than a coping mechanism.

Spielberg seems to understand that; his film is adept at throwing in cultural references and nods to fandom — and he has certainly done his homework. Yet it’s obvious that he isn’t drawn to these things for the same reason as his audience. If he has an affection for the DeLorean, it’s because it reminds him of helping launch Robert Zemeckis’ career with one of the most successful films of the 1980s. If he takes delight in a throwaway joke about the Millennium Falcon, it’s as a wink to his old friend and occasional collaborator, George Lucas. When Lucas and Spielberg created the Indiana Jones films, they were referencing their childhood love of adventure serials, but they weren’t making a faithful reproduction designed to evoke their childhood memories to the dot. They were both funneling the art and culture that shaped them into their own works of new, mature art (to varying degrees of success).

In Ready Player One, Spielberg is just going through the motions of endless cultural references. They’re fun to see, but there’s no heart behind them. No one can craft an action sequence in such an intelligent and tasteful manner as Spielberg, and he doesn’t disappoint, but films are more than compilations of cool visuals and childhood references. Spielberg’s brand of nostalgia isn’t tied to movie characters or video games — it’s tied to people, and specifically the families they’re part of. His scenes with real-life characters are nowhere near as visually spectacular as the Oasis scenes, yet they pulse with a sense of life lacking in his neon wonderland.

There is one exception, a sequence that pays tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Spielberg is on home turf here — he was friends with Stanley Kubrick, and his admiration for the horror masterpiece is evident. He places the digital characters of the Oasis directly into a live-action version of The Shining, built around Kubrick’s original footage. It’s equally silly and chilling, but you can tell Spielberg is finally showing us the art that he adores, not just the culture he thinks his audience cares about.

Mark Rylance in Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One

Aside from the bravura Shining sequence, the film’s most moving moments occur in digitized flashbacks of Halliday’s life. We see him as a lonely boy playing video games in his bedroom, then later during the turbulent years of creating his masterpiece. Rylance plays him with a Southern California drawl, but beneath the quasi-surfer exterior is a deep sadness that threatens to overwhelm. His version of Halliday is a man searching for connections he’s too afraid to forge. (Watts clumsily refers to this as his “Rosebud.”) Rylance is one of the greatest actors alive today, and he manages to be the most compelling part of Ready Player One, despite his limited screen time.

Ready Player One was always going to be a flawed property, something that played off the basest, shallowest parts of fan culture. Spielberg can’t completely fix it — he can only give it glimmers of a heart. But even a hint of his usual magic is still something worth seeing.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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