Schindler’s List

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

The Commuter

 

 

15/01/18

Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has expended much of his onscreen energy trying to sell himself as an ageing action hero. While the first film was something of a guilty pleasure, the two sequels weren’t anything like as sure-footed, but Neeson (who, I feel compelled to remind you, once starred in Schindler’s List) clearly isn’t a man to give up on an idea. In The Commuter he lends the daily trip to and from the office a whole new dimension. As the opening credits unfold, we see him taking his regular journey in all weathers and in all types of clothing. The sequence is so nicely put together, it lulls us into thinking that this will be a classier film than we’ve come to expect from Mr Neeson, of late – but, sadly, that feeling is rather short-lived.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, former cop turned insurance salesman. Happily married to Karen (Elizabeth Montgomery), he gamely takes the train to work every day, just as he has for the last ten years. But things take a turn for the worse when he arrives at work one morning to discover that the bank has decided to let him go. What is he to do? He’s sixty years old, for goodness sake! He has two mortgages and his teenage son is planning to go to a fancy college! Over a few beers he confides in his old pal, Detective Alex Murphy (Patrick White), and then hurries off to the station to catch the train home.

Once on route, he encounters the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him a very strange way out of his current predicament. Somebody on the train doesn’t belong there, she tells him. All McCauley has to do is work out who it is, stick a miniature tracker on the guilty party and receive a massive cash payout in return, enough to solve all of his worries. At first, he’s intrigued enough to start looking for this unknown person but, as the labyrinthine plot unwinds, he begins to realise it’s going to be a lot more messy than he’d anticipated…

This, I’m afraid, is the point where the film starts to go (if you’ll forgive the pun) right off the rails. The premise is so ridiculous, so downright complicated, it’s hard to hold back hoots of disbelief. Okay, so the action sequences do generate some excitement, but a whole raft of worrying questions start to prey on the viewer’s mind. How have the villains managed to contrive such an intricate plot? How is it that not one tiny element of the plan ever lets them down? More worryingly, how does a man who has spent the last ten years selling insurance contrive to be so good at beating people up, leaping on and off trains and crawling into inaccessible places? Yes, he’s a former cop, but doesn’t that consist mostly of eating doughnuts?

As the train (and the plot) thunders relentlessly on, we are treated to needlessly extended punch-ups (a scene where Neeson belabours an unfortunate man with his own electric guitar invites whoops of derision rather than the thrills it is surely aiming for) and there’s a late ‘shock’ plot reveal that will frankly surprise precisely nobody. All this is a shame, because Neeson is an accomplished actor and he deserves better material than this. Did I mention that he was in Schindler’s List? Oh yes, I did.

Okay, fans of thick-ear movies will find things to relish here. And I’m aware of the ‘so bad it’s good’ contingent who make these films bankable. But I’m unable to suspend my disbelief enough to let this one go by. Keep an eye out for some interesting faces amidst McCauley’s fellow-passengers, though. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmintraut of Breaking Bad)? And her with the pink hair and the sneer – surely that’s rising star Florence Pugh from Lady MacBeth?

Little wonder she looks dazed… she’s doubtless wishing she’d taken an earlier train.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney