Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (B-) includes several moments of such unmitigated bliss that it’s a shame the full picture has a sloppy aesthetic, a cluttered and overlong story and utterly one-dimensional characters. It’s such a pop culture bonanza that it sometimes feels more like an incidental Comic-Con documentary than an actual feature film with a plot we’re supposed to relish. The intrepid director has a recent track record of rallying in the final sequences (“Didn’t you have a great time?”) but it’s a long slog cribbing plot elements of Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, Tron and more to tell the futuristic story of a teen trying to unlock three clues in a virtual reality game to win a life-changing fortune against evil corporate raiders of their own lost arc. Tye Sheridan and Ben Mendelsohn are wasted in the roles of the central players, with only T.J. Miller and Olivia Cooke getting standout moments as a wry animated bounty hunter and a spry revolutionary, respectively. There’s a wall-to-wall sense of nostalgia that culminates in a horror movie homage that is by far the best sequence. Otherwise the CGI is ugly and overwhelming and the action hollow with an undeveloped emotional core. This film should have been a magical sensation, but its user experience needed a bit more polishing.
Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon (B) is quietly revolutionary as a first mainstream teen coming of age movie featuring a gay protagonist, but the struggle with identity extends beyond its titular character to a somewhat milquetoast story and screenplay topped with a dollop of vanilla tone. The film is largely fun and occasionally quite moving, and its buoyant charm lies primarily on the shoulders of Nick Robinson, extremely likable and in almost every frame of the film as Simon. There’s a bit of mystery about the email pen pal at the center of the plot, but mostly the story centers on Simon and his group of friends coming to grips with teen romantic entanglements. Some characters are drawn too large and others underdeveloped in a movie that wants to be John Hughes-ian but rarely yields to its inner mania. It’s all a glorious first step for Hollywood movies but could have been made more memorable in the hands of a more creative filmmaker. Much like Philadelphia received some flack for sugarcoating its story in the first mainstream trailblazer to address the AIDS crisis, Berlanti’s film stays mostly in a safe lane to showcase coming out in the modern age. Expect the film to spark some changes of heart even as it clings to a pretty by the book formula.
This mystical journey of meditation qualifies as a downward-facing dog. Despite tinges of uplift, Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (D+) is a folly from the get-go, an interminable bore of pretentious drivel wrapped in a semi-shimmery package. Featuring bland line delivery rivaling George Lucas’s intergalactic prequels, inconsistent effects that miss the mark of even sub-Krull intentions and a meandering plot overestimating the cinematic drawing power of mathematical mind tricks, this sci-fi fantasy makes Disney’s similarly askew Tomorrowland look like a real people mover. Out-of-her-depth child actress Storm Reid can take no shelter or solace in the company of her adult co-stars as she is visited by three spirit guides (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling, each vying for “most cloying”) to help rescue her astrophysicist dad (Chris Pine, stripped of his usual charm) from interplanetary exile. Only child actor Deric McCabe shows some signs of life as a strange and sometimes sassy li’l bro, and frankly a little of him goes a long way. This film is ultimately a chore of the first order, tripping over its own tesseracts and leaning into a laborious labyrinth with very few joys aside from occasional Sade music. Substituting new-age banter for action or substance, the film feels like a fever dream by Enya, and I just wanted to sail away. Bottom line: Know that you’re special, and you had the power in you all along; and you can spend two hours saving your world in a different way.
A nihilistic murder mystery posing in pretensions and occasional droll droplets of gallows humor, Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds (C-) neglects consistent character development in the service of a nifty premise. Olivia Cooke is a revelation as a young woman incapable of emotion, and she becomes the perfect partner in crime for a differently depressed rich teen (Anya Taylor-Joy, also good in her role) motivated to slay a wicked stepfather. The men in the film don’t stand a chance, especially Paul Sparks as the diabolical daddy who doesn’t get to do enough evil to justify the trouble. The late Anton Yelchin is charismatic in an underwritten role as a would-be third conspirator. The set-up is elegant, but ultimately the structure crumbles under the women’s feet while they continue to act the hell out of their parts. Like the central character, the film is not funny or absorbing enough to justify getting to know it.
Welcome to candyland for moviegoers who won’t be sorry for taking a risk on a new film that blends clue upon clue with sly takes on the game of life. Although it lingers a beat longer than it should, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night (B+) arrives on the top of the leader board for the genre of comedy mysteries. Along with clever plotting and lots of genuine laughs, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make a delightful romantic duo as a highly competitive and witty couple with overarching anxiety blocking their ability to conceive. When Bateman’s larger than life brother (a funny Kyle Chandler) crashes a weekly charades party with a real-life murder mystery, the stakes just get higher and higher. Jesse Plemons is hilarious as a mopey cop next door who keeps being left out of the festivities. Billy Magnussen and Lamorne Morris are also a riot as supporting players in the shenanigans. Except for a few off-color jokes, it’s largely good old-fashioned fun. Roll the dice and check it out.
Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation (B) is largely an incredibly absorbing sci-fi thriller about an army of women who venture behind a quarantined force field to resolve the enigma of the atmospheric abnormality going on inside. Natalie Portman is solid as the former military biology professor with a secret who discovers many of the chilling mutations and mysteries within “the shimmer.” The story is often hypnotic and the effects impressive, but the movie runs into some final act troubles. Some of the key characters are also underwritten, and there are myriad missed opportunities to more clearly articulate the film’s thesis, involving our cellular imprint toward self-destruction. The film is still smarter than your standard issue adventure, and like Christopher Nolan’s similarly ambitious Interstellar also overextends its reach.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel franchise, Black Panther (B+), is a regal rouser with a superhero who also presides as monarch of a fictional secret African nation. Chadwick Boseman is dashing as the lead in the globetrotting film set largely in his high-tech palace city, but (like Thor) he’s often upstaged by a moody, Machiavellian villain, played with swagger by Coogler muse Michael B. Jordan. A supporting cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker brings pluck to the proceedings, but the best actors in the bunch are Winston Duke as a reluctant warrior and Letitia Wright as the king’s Q-like kid sis. The film takes a while to accelerate into the throne room barn burner it becomes, but once it generates steam, there’s a deliciously delirious set of showdowns in Korean crime dens, atop waterfall cliffs, in battle meadows and aboard Tron-like light rail tunnels. It’s a vibrant adventure and a morally urgent political parable that delivers on a variety of levels.
In the case of impresario P.T. (Anderson, that is) and the greatest sew-man of posh 1950’s London, the peculiar and perversely romantic Phantom Thread (B+) raises sartorial obsession to high art and establishes an arch melodrama out of the romantic embellishments that temper a tempest. Daniel Day-Lewis is the mercurial fashion designer at the film’s center, and it’s another performance for the ages as he charms and disarms every person who dares disturb his perfectly tailored existence. Vicky Krieps is a revelation as the woman drawn in to tame the beast with her own wily techniques. She’s breathtaking in the role, as is Leslie Manville as the couturier’s equally controlling sister. It’s a slow burn of a character study before Anderson’s poison pen careens a plunging plotline into the fore, leaving everyone involved on pins and needles. The production design, including lavish gowns and lush countrysides, is hypnotizing, and Jonny Greenwood’s nourish score hauntingly gorgeous. Anderson’s film is sure to be polarizing, as its central relationship mushroom clouds into droll extremes; but for those seeking an oddball odyssey into human fixations, it’s a stunner.
The coming of age musical fantasy Saturday Church (B), written and directed by Damon Cardasis, is a balm for modern times as well as a bit of a love offering, with tender and affecting performances set to soaring music punctuating a meaningful meditation on what makes a family. Luka Kain is magnetic as the teenage protagonist exploring his sexual and gender identity against the backdrop of a home befallen by tragedy and mixed signals. Margot Bingham is superb as his absentee but well-meaning mom, and Regina Taylor plays effectively against type as a judgmental guardian aunt, but it’s the gender fluid ensemble providing their own brand of sassy youth fellowship at the real-life NYC haven of the film’s title who are acolytes for the movie’s inclusive glory. MJ Rodriguez is the film’s heart as the teen protagonist’s big-sisterly companion, and Marquis Rodriguez is a winning delight as a friend and love interest. Interior monologues become bursts into songs (it’s hard not to think of some of it as a mini-Rent without the artsy angst); and although many of the sequences overreach, the film is a minor miracle, unflinching in its depiction of runaways and discarded outcasts who cannot always live up to the “Conditions of Love” described in one of the standout songs of Nathan Larson’s score. The film felt like it was evolving into the Billy Elliot of drag, what with our hero finding new ways to express himself, but stops short of striking a penultimate pose. It’s a generous, entertaining and important film.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post (B-) is a movie about newspapers that buries the lede. After a painfully languid first 80 minutes in which the director simply fetishizes his faithful art direction of 1970s D.C., this historical drama culminates in a corker of a close that affirms faith in the free press and reveals an inspiring reluctant heroine. The rousing finish, punctuated with an obligatory back shelf John Williams score, feels somewhat unearned due to a series of lazy first and second act episodes that simply don’t zero in on the trajectory. In fact, there are three sequences so awkwardly written about characters reminiscing while sitting that I almost wondered if the master visual director had forgotten that it’s often more effective to show than tell (Oh, I get it – this is a staged reading of a movie!) In a plot that can be described as The Washington Post editorial team’s quest to publish secret government documents vital to the national interest – The Pentagon Papers – under threat of ruining its publisher’s family business or simply the pre-Watergate prequel to All the President’s Men, it’s a love letter to unfettered journalism and the rise of a strong woman. Tom Hanks as the editor gives a workmanlike performance; but as embodied in the story arch of publisher and guardian of the family business, Meryl Streep’s discovery of her courage is rather thrilling. The movie’s depiction of the printing press itself is a fun part of the ultimate action, filmed fondly like the Titanic or another vessel of a bygone era. But it seems Spielberg is too often a raider of a lost art, relying on old-fashioned and obvious tropes. The film wants above-the-fold grandeur but is relegated to Section B (minus).