Mark Rylance

Ready Player One

31/03/18

If ever there was a man to qualify as ‘World’s Greatest Living Film Director,’ Steven Spielberg would surely be a strong contender for the title. Few movie makers have his longevity – his first cinematic release, Duel, was released in 1971. Even fewer can boast his extensive range. Here is a man who is happy to film pure popcorn crowd pleasers like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park, but who is equally at home helming powerful dramas of the ilk of Munich or Schindler’s List. Recently the recipient of Empire Magazine’s ‘Legend of Our Lifetime’ Award, it’s hardly surprising that few people have bothered to put up voices of dissent. He really is that accomplished. With his latest release, he takes on the world of virtual reality gaming and it would have been so easy to come a cropper here, an older man desperately trying to be ‘down with the kids.’ But, as ever, Spielberg passes his self-appointed test with flying colours.

Set in the year 2045, the story is set in a dystopian vision of America (has there ever been an optimistic cinematic view of its future, I wonder?). Most of the population is addicted to virtual gaming and, like our hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan), spend nearly all of their leisure hours in a pixellated environment called The Oasis. Wade competes there using his more handsome avatar, Parzival, and he’s not just playing to escape from the drudgery of his life, oh no. He’s in search of three special keys, hidden there by the Oasis’s late creator, Halliday (Mark Rylance). The finder of those keys will inherit his world and the billions of dollars it generates in revenue.

Whilst in the Oasis, Wade regularly interacts with the avatars of gamer friends who he has never actually met in real life. Then he meets a new one, Art3emis (Olivia Cooke), who, he soon realises, is somebody he really would like to know better. Their introduction – during a riotous vehicle chase – sets the tone for the story that follows and makes The Fast and the Furious look like a Sunday drive in the suburbs. In the midst of all the excitement, Wade is blissfully unaware that he has a major adversary in the real world. Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is a ruthless businessman, intent on securing the Oasis for himself and ready to go to any lengths to eliminate his competitors.

In terms of plot, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Suffice to say that Spielberg and his team have concocted a dazzling, fast-paced riot of sound and fury, with visual references to so many of Spielberg’s movie influences (plus several images from his own films) that you will be constantly trying to spot them all. Some are obvious, and actually contribute to the story, while others are onscreen for the briefest of glimpses. If ever a film demanded repeat viewings, this is the one – if only to allow the geeks in the audience to tick the various references off their list. If I may be allowed to single out one particular  sequence for praise, it’s the extended homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Okay, so this is definitely one to go on the ‘popcorn’ side of Spielberg’s resumé, but oh my goodness, what succulent popcorn it is! After the relatively lacklustre BFG, and the rather straight laced The Post, this puts him back where he belongs, as the foremost purveyor of cinematic wonder. Where will he go next? Well, that’s anybody’s guess, but I would venture to suggest that, close to fifty years since his low budget debut, Spielberg’s well seems a long way from running dry.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Dunkirk

22/07/17

Christopher Nolan must be one of the most eclectic directors currently working. From The Dark Knight to Inception – from The Prestige to Interstellar, he seems to favour no particular genre, preferring to go wherever his fancy takes him. But I would never have predicted he’d direct a classic war movie like Dunkirk… but then, of course, this coming from the same man who made Memento means that it’s actually nothing like Leslie Norman’s 1958 film of the same name. This version employs experimental time frames to tell three interlinking stories. Powered along by Hans Zimmer’s urgent soundtrack and decidedly spare in its use of dialogue, the film grips like a vice from the opening shot to the closing frame.

The first strand concerns a young soldier, appropriately enough named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperately making his way to Dunkirk beach in the hope of finding a boat to take him to safety. Along the way he meets up with the strangely taciturn Gibson (Damien Bonnard) and with Alex (Harry Styles – relax, it turns out he can act). The three men brave the dangers of ‘The Mole,’the perilous wooden jetty that leads out into deeper water where the larger ships can dock, but finding a safe berth is not easy and they are forced to seek alternative means of escape. The soldiers’ story plays out over one week.

Next up, we encounter Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), a quietly spoken boat-owner who answers the desperate call for help and sets off for Dunkirk from his home port in Devon, with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), a young lad desperate to prove himself to his parents. On the way they pick up ‘the shivering soldier’ (Cillian Murphy), a man so traumatised by his recent experiences that he can barely speak and who is clearly in no great hurry to return to France. This story is enacted over the course of one day.

And finally, in the deadly skies above Dunkirk, we meet Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), two spitfire pilots charged with the thankless task of taking on the might of the Luftwaffe, buying time for the fleeing army to make its escape. In what at first appears to be a perverse move, Nolan keeps Hardy’s distinctive features mostly hidden behind goggles and an oxygen mask – but then you realise that he’s doing it for a reason – to emphasise the fact that the individual pilots who took part in this conflict remain largely unknown. Their tale, dictated by the amount of fuel that a Spitfire can carry, takes only an hour.

But of course, the three strands are interwoven like an expertly braided length of rope and it’s to Nolan’s credit that the ensuing events never become confusing, even when one particular character appears to be in two places almost simultaneously. What this film does splendidly is pull you into the heart of the hurricane and hold you there in almost unbearable tension.

This is after all not a film about bloodshed – in fact we see very little of that onscreen. It’s more about the brutal realities of survival, the mental toll on the participants and the quiet heroism of those who participate in the carnage. It’s the true life story of a military miracle, pulled off against all the odds. It may not be Nolan’s finest achievement – I’d hand that accolade to The Prestige – but it’s nonetheless a superbly affecting film that justifies all the rave reviews it’s been getting.

Where will Nolan go next, I wonder? Well, I suppose he’s yet to make a teen romance. But I won’t hold my breath.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The BFG

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22/07/16

It sounded like a marriage made in heaven – Steven Spielberg takes on one of Roald Dahl’s best-loved tales, with a screenplay by ET author Melissa Mathison (who recently died of cancer and to whom this film is respectfully dedicated). And there’s surely much to admire in this handsomely mounted, big screen production. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill, who plays the role of Sophie, is leagues away from the usual cheesy Hollywood starlet and, as the titular big friendly giant, Mark Rylance is perfectly charming, his features projecting a whole range of emotions to camera. And yet… there’s something curiously inert about this film. Every image might look like something you could put in a gilt frame but the story itself is… dare I say it? A bit dull. There’s none of the peril that you’ll usually find in a Dahl story; indeed, the plot here is thin and, at times, downright illogical. And then, of course, there’s Spielberg’s inevitable proclivity for the sentimental, something that Dahl (bless him) could never have been accused of.

In 1980s London, young Sophie dwells in a peculiar sort of orphanage. In the small hours of the morning, she looks out of the window and spots a giant wandering the alleyways of the city and, because she has seen him, he grabs her and takes her away to ‘Giant Country,’ where she quickly discovers that this big friendly giant is, in fact, a bit of a runt, constantly bullied by other, bigger giants. She accompanies him to his work, where he catches dreams and stores them in bottles – it’s never really clear why.

The audience this afternoon is largely made up of youngsters but it’s quickly apparent by all the restless trips to the toilet that the film isn’t really grabbing them. An extended farting sequence at Buckingham Palace has them laughing but it’s over much too quickly,  and they’re soon back to fidgeting and chatting. I’m afraid I am in total agreement with them. Spielberg is the closest you could reasonably expect to provide  a capable set of hands at the tiller of any celluloid voyage but this particular journey soon finds itself becalmed and that’s a genuine shame.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Bridge of Spies

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29/11/15

Stephen Spielberg wears two hats. There’s the backwards baseball cap he wears when he’s directing superior popcorn entertainments like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park – and sometimes, he reaches into the back of the wardrobe and pulls out a sombre black homburg, which is his hatwear of choice when helming ‘darker’ material like Schindler’s List and Munich. Bridge of Spies is definitely a homburg movie, but in its quiet own way, its as gripping and involving as any of his other films. Spielberg has the uncanny ability to take the most complex story and tell it with effortless style, making it accessible and involving.

It’s 1957 and the ‘Cold War’ between America and Russia is at its height. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) an apparently innocuous amateur artist is arrested on a charge of spying for the USSR. He is, arguably, the most hated man in America. Veteran lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned to defend him, mainly because the law must be observed and despite the fact that even the judge on the case openly declares that Abel should be found guilty. But Donovan is a liberal, who believes implicitly in the American constitution. He fights Abel’s case (unsuccessfully) through the courts and finds himself vilified for doing so – but he does manage to prevent him from going to the electric chair, pointing out that Abel might be a useful bargaining tool in the future.

Sure enough, shortly afterwards, American pilot, Francis Gary Powers is shot down whilst carrying out a spy mission over Russian territory. He’s taken prisoner and the CIA are terrified that he might be persuaded to leak the secrets of the U2 spy plane. A possible exchange of prisoners is mooted and once again, Donovan is recruited to head out to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange…

This is a beautifully made film, that brilliantly invokes the austere look of the era and provides a fresh perspective on the business of espionage. Hanks is perfectly cast as the American everyman, a role that would have been played by James Stewart back in the day, his chunky features emanating absolute integrity. Rylance, meanwhile, as the dry, sardonic Abel gives a masterclass in acting. Together, the two actors strike sparks off each other and they are aided and abetted by a razor sharp script, created by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers.

There’s little to dislike here and plenty to admire. It’s essentially a ‘small’ movie, which tells its story with skill and precision and never puts a foot wrong. As the story moves towards its conclusion, it bills up levels of suspense that will have you twitching in your seat.

Spielberg wears both his hats with equal success but I have to say, I do prefer him in the homburg.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney