Sunday, 1 April 2018

Ready Player One (Movie Review)



Based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One marks a much-welcome return to science fiction blockbuster fare for Steven Spielberg, a genre he'd helped bring to the public consciousness over the years with movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Jurassic Park and Minority Report. The fact that some of those works had served as inspiration for the source material only makes his choice as director here a no-brainer.

The year is 2045, and our protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio, known here as the stacks for the way its various mobile homes and trailers are stacked upon one another in true shanty town manner. Everyday life in the stacks is tough, and rather than face those challenges head on, Wade takes refuge in a virtual reality world called the OASIS, where he takes the form of his avatar, Parzival. It is a world of limitless possibilities, and one with the promise of a very special reward.

Following the death of its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a message is broadcast to all users of the OASIS, revealing an elaborate Easter Egg hunt. In order to complete the hunt, players must complete three tasks while gathering clues from Halliday's past, a past that is heavily steeped in a love of 80s and 90s pop culture. The first person that discovers the Easter Egg would not only inherit Halliday's riches, but also assume complete control of the OASIS itself. And thus began the hunt for the Easter Egg, a hunt that's been going on for 5 years when the movie opens.

Parzival is one of the many gunters (that's short for egg hunters) looking for the egg, and he is joined on this quest by best friend, Aech (Lena Waithe), love interest, Art3mis (Oliva Cooke), and fellow gunters, Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zao). They'd collective come to be known as the High Five when they manage to beat the first task after Parzival cracks the clue hidden in one of Halliday's many recordings. This puts them on the radar of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of IOI, a company that is willing to go to any lengths to gain control of the OASIS.

Much like last year's Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One is a film worth experiencing on the largest available screen. I saw it in IMAX, and looking back, I can't imagine seeing it in any other format. The film is a visual spectacle; everything from the highspeed thrills of the first task, to the breathtaking final battle that surrounded the third one manages to one-up everything that came before. Even the quieter moments of the second task remains noteworthy for its photorealistic recreation of the Overlook Hotel from the Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick horror classic, The Shining.

Ready Player One isn't merely a love letter to pop culture and video game history. It is a celebration of blockbuster filmmaking. It is Steven Spielberg proving once again that he knows how to dazzle with awe-inspiring visuals and action that put the Michael Bays of this world to shame. The fact that none of that comes at the expense of a thought-provoking narrative is icing on an already-delicious cake.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Pacific Rim: Uprising (Movie Review)



One of my favorite movies from 2013 gets a much-anticipated sequel in the form of Pacific Rim: Uprising. It's taken half a decade, due partly to the first movie's lukewarm reception at the North American box office. Thankfully, it made enough bank in China to guarantee a sequel was greenlit, but not before the project lost its director, Guillermo del Toro (who had to step down to direct the Academy Award winning The Shape of Water instead, but still serves as Producer). He was replaced by Steven S. DeKnight, and marks the Daredevil showrunner's feature-film directorial debut.

Set 10 years after the events of the first movie, Pacific Rim: Uprising explores the aftermath of mankind's survival in a future where they were almost wiped out by giant monsters known as Kaiju. In that future, war with these monsters was waged through Jaegers, giant robots that are so large that they require two pilots to operate. We are introduced to a fresh batch of Jaegar cadets, who are led by Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who you remember sacrificed himself to close "the breach" from the first movie's climatic battle.

He is helped by Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), a rival ranger and former co-pilot. They are joined by Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and doctors Newton Gieszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), who reprise their roles from the first film (though oddly enough there is no mention of Raleigh Beckett, that movie's hero, or any explanation given for his absence). The group must work together to ensure mankind's continued survival, even as the Jaeger program faces the danger of becoming obsolete in the face of a drone program championed by the villainous Liwen Shao (Jing Tian).

We've all seen giant robots beating the shit out of each other before, no doubt. But nowhere else was it as fun or exhilarating to watch as it was in Pacific Rim. The sequel does its best to ramp up on the action, as should be expected, but a change in directors also meant a change in overall tone, shedding much of the first film's dark imagery in favor of brightly lit cityscapes and colorful robots. This comes at the expense of the sense of majesty and splendor we got during the fights in the first movie.

Also, the film lacks much of the first movie's heart and otherworldliness, replacing that with a campiness that wouldn't feel out of place in your typical leave-your-brain-at-the-door blockbuster. But even at its loudest and very dumbest, the film still towers above all the recent Transformers films, which says more about the quality (or lack thereof) of the movies in that franchise than anything else.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Black Panther (Movie Review)



Leave it to the marketing powerhouses at Disney to turn another one of the lesser known superheroes in the Marvel catalogue into one of the most anticipated movies of 2018. But that is precisely what they've achieved with Black Panther, a movie that has already broken advance ticket booking records and is already poised to do more of the same when it releases worldwide this weekend.

The film opens with a history of Wakanda, a technologically advanced nation in Africa that develops from five warring factions, after its people learn how to mine a meteorite for the alien metal, Vibranium, having been united by a ruler who'd become the first of the eponymous Black Panthers. Following the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T'Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), returns home to take his rightful place as king of Wakanda. But first he needs to prove himself worthy by accepting challenges from any of the other four tribes.

His claim to the throne is solidified when he bests the rival tribe leader, M'Baku (Winston Duke), in armed combat. Soon thereafter, he learns that the arms dealer Ulysses (Andy Serkis) was trying to peddle off some stolen vibranium on the black market. He sets off to South Korea where the deal was to hold, accompanied by Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Okoye (Dania Gurira), members of the Wakandan royal guard, the Dora Milaje. And there he has his first encounter with Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a criminal with a mysterious past and an equally strong claim to the Wakandan throne.

I'll admit that I had approached the idea behind a Black Panther movie with much skepticism. This was true even after his incredible debut in Captain America: Civil War, and that skepticism only seemed to grow along with the buzz surrounding the movie. I understood that the movie was notable for being the first of its kind to feature a predominantly black cast, but was afraid it wouldn't deliver in the storytelling department. So if like me you've been harboring such fears, let me just put those concerns to rest.

Black Panther delivers on all fronts. It tells a compelling story that is populated by equally compelling characters. It boasts one of the best villains to emerge since the likes of Loki and Wilson Fisk, and that villain is brought to life beautifully by Michael B. Jordan, who I think we can finally forgive for the role he had in the hot mess that was 2015's Fantastic Four. But of all the characters to be introduced in this movie, by far my favorite one was Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's younger sister. She is smart, funny, and has a killer music and fashion sense, a woman after my very heart.

In retrospect, I guess I should've known that Black Panther would live up to the hype, given the pedigree of actors and filmmakers who were working on it, and Disney's propensity to knock such movies out of the park. There seems to be no end to their current winning streak, and with two more movies on their roster this year, the future looks brighter than ever.

Monday, 29 January 2018

My Thoughts on the 60th Grammy Awards


The 60th Grammy Awards were held last night, during which Bruno Mars basically pulled an Adele, cleaning out in all six categories in which he'd been contending. These included the three biggest awards of the evening, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year, taking home the awards for his songs, That's What I Like, 24K Magic, and his 2016 album of the same name. This of course came at the expense of Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, who were also contending for those very same awards.

But at least Kendrick managed to clean out in the rap categories, winning five awards in total, which is five more than Jay-Z received from his eight nominations. Yep. That's right, Jay-Z went home empty handed despite leading the nominations going into the awards. This is particularly disheartening for the jigga man and his fans alike when you consider how critically acclaimed his 4:44 album was, but it can be argued that it had been eclipsed by Kendrick's own critical darling, DAMN!

Elsewhere, I was admittedly disappointed that Nothing More didn't win in any of the three categories they'd been vying for. But the band is relatively young, at least compared to the likes of Foo Fighters and the late Leonard Cohen, so if they keep churning out great music in the years to come, it is only a matter of time before they receive some much-deserved recognition.

Other notable wins include The Weeknd, who won Best Urban Contemporary Album for Starboy, although it is a bit of a head-scratcher why this album didn't get any recognition outside that category. Ed Sheeran also got some love in the pop categories, winning both Best Pop Album for ÷ and Best Pop Solo Performance for Shape of You. It is also worth noting that Despacito didn't win any awards, to my great relief, but we did have to endure a performance of the song during the telecast.

Speaking of performances, there were ballads aplenty, but the performance that had everyone talking was by Ke$ha, who was joined by Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Julia Michaels, Andra Day and Bebe Rexha for a rendition of her song, Praying. All in all, it was a very safe and politically correct Grammys last night, with Bruno Mars being singled out by the voters for honor due mainly to the fact that the music he'd released during the eligibility period was the most appropriate and in tune with their sensibilities.