“Ready Player One”: We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Set of References

To call Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One “overstuffed” wouldn’t quite do it justice. It is a movie overstuffed with overstuffedness, fueled by overstuffedness, taking place in an overstuffed world where the more overstuffed something is, the more authentic it is, and hence more valuable. It’s a movie in which overstuffedness is king, queen, and everything in between. It doesn’t even relent from its overstuffing long enough for you to notice the headache it might be giving you. It just stuffs and stuffs.

It’s also a movie at war with itself, and therein lies its most fascinating element. The film has been billed — not without some reason — as Spielberg’s attempt to recapture the magic of his earlier blockbusters, after his recent run of elegant, acclaimed historical dramas and underperforming adventure fantasies. (To wit: War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and The Post were all Best Picture nominees, while The Adventures of Tintin and The BFG were financial disappointments.)

But Spielberg is a different filmmaker than he was back in his days of youthful glory. His career turns on the fulcrum of parenthood. Until the mid-1990s, the director’s films were almost always told from a child’s perspective. Even ostensibly grown-up pictures like The Color Purple make more sense if you look at them as coming from a place of innocence and inexperience, working elemental feelings of wonder and terror and rejection. Think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which reduces Indiana Jones to the position of a humiliated child, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which glories in a Midwestern dad’s adolescent, adventure-seeking irresponsibility. (There have been acres of think pieces, of course, about Spielberg’s obsession with broken families in his early work, and about his cinematic attempts to deal with his own parents’ breakup.)

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But sometime in the 1990s, it all turned. In fact, the transformation comes pretty much halfway through the much-maligned Hook, which plays initially as a movie about a grown man trying to reconnect with his childhood but then ends as a movie about an overgrown child remembering that he has to be a father now, with real-world responsibilities. (It should come as little surprise that the film reportedly coincided with Spielberg reconciling with his own father.)

After that, Spielberg’s films are always at their best when they’re about the emotional minefields of parenting. A.I.’s most resonant moments come in the depiction of the biological human child’s rejection of the adopted robot child — and you can sense the concern of Spielberg the dad, a man whose family contains both adopted and biological kids. More than an alien invasion movie, War of the Worlds is about a single father trying to keep his family together. Sometimes the family is metaphorical: Munich turns on the gradual poisoning of the familial bond between the Israeli state and its subjects; Catch Me If You Can comes into its own when Tom Hanks becomes the father figure Leonardo DiCaprio has been seeking; and Minority Report is a sci-fi dystopia positively pullulating with dead children, lost children, and parents adrift. Hell, even Lincoln is a movie about being a dad — the struggle of the president as father to his nation, and also as father to his own kids.

And yes, I know, this is supposed to be a review of Ready Player One.

Is Spielberg genuinely trying to re-create the wide-eyed, childlike verve and wonder of his earlier work with this new film? In adapting Ernest Cline’s cult novel, which unabashedly does try to capture Spielberg’s whiz-kid period, he has certainly embraced a nostalgic referentiality, a gleefully nerdy and needy desire for acceptance and belonging. The movie follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned teenager living in Columbus, Ohio, in 2045, who spends pretty much all his time, along with everyone else in this world, inside a virtual universe called the Oasis, a massive, multiplayer reality where people’s avatars compete for prizes and points. When the guy that created the Oasis, a legendary programmer named James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies, he leaves behind an elaborate contest, filled with riddles and challenges and clues, to retrieve an Easter Egg that will give the winner complete control over the Oasis and half of Halliday’s fortune.

As Wade competes — via his slender, confident, high-cheekboned, white-haired avatar Parzival — he gets closer to Artemis (Olivia Cooke), a sleek and wise gamer, and runs afoul of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a slick, ruthless tech CEO determined to obtain the prize through every underhanded technique available to him. But winning Halliday’s game requires more than video-game dexterity; it demands an ability to get inside the late, melancholy creator’s head, to sift through his memories and regrets, to try and find the lost Rosebud that makes him tick. (They actually call it the “Rosebud” at one point, which, sigh.)

Anyway, that’s like a fraction of what’s going on here. Much of Ready Player One is taken up by Spielberg’s headlong plunge into the digital cacophony of the Oasis, a world filled with luminous, zero-g discotheques and ten-thousand-car mass chases through digital cityscapes where motorcycles and monster trucks and hot rods and Batmobiles plow into each other and careen down impossible highways while battling King Kong. He directs the action cleanly (of course he does, he’s Spielberg), which stands as an accomplishment considering all the visual and narrative noise: characters zooming in from all corners of the frame, identities transforming on a whim, in-jokes within in-jokes, movie references that open up onto other movie references. (I’d start listing the references, but for many that would probably constitute spoilers — and, besides, I have to get on with my life.)

For all the clarity and confidence of Spielberg’s vision, I kept wondering if maybe his approach wasn’t a bit too antiseptic for this material. A movie like this begs for some confusion, a sense of the uncontrollability and chaos of what’s going on. You want to feel like the director’s about to lose his mind, or has maybe even already lost it — that he or she’s gone too far in and drifted too far off, fallen too much in love with this world. To put it another way: This was the first Steven Spielberg movie where I sometimes wondered if Luc Besson might have done a better job.

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Spielberg holds the frantic virtual world of Ready Player One at a certain remove, more a problem to be solved than a passion to be indulged — that is both his failing and his strength. To some extent, the idea that the film is a throwback to Spielberg’s earlier work is incorrect; for all its ’80s references, the cluttered, glowing dystopia of Ready Player One actually recalls later sci-fi efforts like A.I. and Minority Report. But it is true that Spielberg helped make the world of self-referential make-believe what it is — a trillion dollar industry built on coddling our collective, petulant self-absorption. And that is, on some level, what Ready Player One is about. The soft-spoken but demanding digital ghost of Halliday becomes both the benevolent god who birthed the Oasis, and the disapproving father who rejects his own creation. As the characters dive further into his psychology, his mournful, quiet murmur of uncertainty stands out amid the frenzy of references and chases and face-offs and teenage avatars giddily recognizing each other’s pop-cultural obsessions. The film should have done more with this, frankly: Halliday is the most interesting character here, and it’s hard not to feel like his story is where Spielberg the father’s true interests and sympathies lie. Ready Player One is entertaining enough, and it’s certainly well-made, but what truly stands out is the filmmaker’s prevailing-present sense of bemused disgust at the way his offspring are spending their time. He can’t go home again, and he knows it.

Ready Player One
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Warner Bros.
Opens March 30


Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” Weaponizes Nostalgia

I’ll admit it. I started crying the first time I saw Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee walk through a bustling, thriving newsroom in The Post, and I’m pretty sure that’s what Steven Spielberg wanted. Countless films have shown crowded newsrooms in the past, but Spielberg makes sure that this one is extra busy and loud — that the clicking and clacking and shouting on the soundtrack, the reporters and editors working away or striding about, conjure not just a particular time and place, but a whole world that’s been lost. Today, a healthy newspaper office might as well be an Old West town out of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and the director clearly knows it.

In fact, “Once upon a time” might have been a good way to start this movie. The Post follows those heady days in 1971 when former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg (played here by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys) leaked the Pentagon Papers, a massive, top secret government study of the the United States’ disastrous, decades-long involvement in Vietnam. At the Washington Post, then still struggling for national prominence, owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor in chief Bradlee at first watched helplessly as the New York Times scooped them on the story. But then the Nixon administration got a judge to bar the Times from publishing the leaked documents, and the Post found its opening: Having just procured the Papers themselves, it could publish in the Times stead — but, given the legal complexity of the situation, it still ran the risk of Bradlee and Graham landing in prison. It also needed a small army of reporters to work round the clock wading through Ellsberg’s files — thousands of pages, unnumbered, and out of order.

It makes for a supremely gripping story — filled with government secrets, meetings in dark rooms, late-night shouting matches, and a race against the clock, all framed against a group of dogged professionals doing their job under the specter of a vindictive, power-mad president. Hanks gives Bradlee just the right dose of gruff, martial bluster; Streep’s Graham is the conflicted strategist, stuck in boardrooms with men who think only of bottom lines and profit, as she tries to argue for the importance of serious reporting.

And Spielberg connects with the derring-do at the story’s heart. Beyond being one of our greatest filmmakers, he’s also one of our most self-aware, and understands that he’s crossing the streams a little: He shoots this political drama like a long-lost Indiana Jones movie. The camera approaches the box carrying the Pentagon Papers with the kind of awe once reserved for the Ark of the Covenant. Photo copiers beam in the dark like objects of mystical power. Pocket doors in stately Washington homes slide open and closed like gateways to ancient temples. Trucks carrying morning editions of the Washington Post roll out like troop transports rumbling off to war. He even ends the whole thing on a breathlessly dramatic cliff-hanger.

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All that may sound overbaked, and the danger of such overt mythologizing is that it can drain a tale of realism or nuance. But Spielberg uses technique to add complexity, not subtract it: As we watch Katherine Graham drift in and out of rooms filled with murmuring men, we certainly get the idea of the gender imbalance, but we also understand something fundamental about her psychology, how she has had to navigate such spaces her whole life. It is both the source of her frustration — her struggles to speak up and assert herself in the film’s earlier scenes — as well as a secret strength: She understands the language of this world, and watching her slowly take command is stirring.

Spielberg also evokes Bradlee’s own inner conflict, as the editor recalls his famous friendship with John F. Kennedy. The two were neighbors back before the Massachusetts senator became president, and remained close during JFK’s presidency. As the fascinating new HBO documentary The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee makes clear, the two men shared similar backgrounds and temperaments: Their milieu was conservative and careful, their desires progressive and brash. Bradlee liked his proximity to power; he claimed not to benefit from it, but he absolutely did. (Here’s some fun synergy: One of the scoops that JFK gave him was news of the prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Soviets for downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers — which was also the topic of Spielberg and Hanks’s last historical drama, Bridge of Spies.)

For her part, Graham has to deal with her close friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Kennedy and Johnson secretary of defense who had originally commissioned the Pentagon Papers, and who had overseen some of the war’s most notorious escalations. Both Bradlee and Graham learn over the course of The Post to abandon the clubby congeniality that allowed politicians to lie to the press for so long without ever getting called on it. (It went further than that: Kennedy once sexually assaulted Bradlee’s wife, Tony, whose sister, Mary Pinchot Meyer, was one of the president’s lovers; Mary’s murder a year after JFK’s remains unsolved, and at the time Bradlee reportedly helped keep the details of the affair in her diary from getting out.)

So, The Post is a tale that weaponizes nostalgia. It depicts how this long-established system of chummy collusion between politicians and press, one at times recalled with some anxious wistfulness by both Bradlee and Graham, came to be shattered. And it shows us how a strong press was instrumental in that shattering. At the same time, the film presents us — pointedly — with another layer of nostalgia, with a vision of a vibrant world of newspapers and reporters and editors and independent owners that itself is now dying out. As a result, The Post becomes not a fond, hazy glance back, but a terrified, urgent look forward: Who will hold power to account, it asks, if there’s nobody left to do it?

The Post
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Twentieth-Century Fox
Opens December 22


HBO’s “Spielberg” Finds the World’s Most Famous Director Agreeing With His Critics

While the studios accuse critics and Rotten Tomatoes of killing the movie business, Steven Spielberg is happy to look right into the camera and say that Pauline Kael had his number. “She was right,” says the world’s most profitable director deep into Spielberg, Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary survey of his career. “I hadn’t grown up yet.”

He’s referring to Kael’s New Yorker review of Spielberg’s first full made-for-theaters feature, 1974’s Goldie Hawn–on-the-lam car-mayhem drama, The Sugarland Express. Kael lavished the director, then 27, with glittering praise for his compositional sense and facility with actors. “He could be that rarity among directors — a born entertainer,” she wrote, “perhaps a new generation’s Howard Hawks.” But Kael also cut. “If there is such a thing as a movie sense — and I think there is…Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else. There’s no sign of the emergence of a new film artist (such as Martin Scorsese) in The Sugarland Express.”

It may be hard for younger film fans to appreciate now, a few years after Lincoln entered American life as celebrated as a new wing of the Smithsonian, but the question that dogged the first half of Spielberg’s career was “Will he ever grow up?” Even today, in Lacy’s film, many of the people who know him best treat him as something of a kid. “At first, he just scared us,” says a sister, describing the pranks and horror films he would spring on them. “But through his movies he gets to scare the shit out of everyone now.” Brian De Palma notes that, over the years, Spielberg — the most successful of their coterie of Seventies dude-director movie brats — has developed a “mastery.” Francis Ford Coppola is notably cagey, telling Lacy’s cameras, “He was very fortunate that the kind of movie that he had a sense for was the kind of movie that the audience had a sense for.”

In vintage film clips and photos, we see these men, and George Lucas, reveling in their promise in Seventies Los Angeles. Lucas — who, less forgiving of critics than Spielberg, would name the villain in 1988’s Willow “Kael” — admits that at first he thought the wunderkind Spielberg was “too Hollywood-y,” not an independent-minded countercultural force like Coppola or himself. But then Lucas stepped out of a party to catch the opening of Duel, the ferociously suspenseful TV movie that Spielberg directed for ABC in 1971, and wound up dazzled for the full two hours. He certainly saw that movie sense, exactly what he’d need a decade later as producer of the Indiana Jones films, but he keeps quiet about whether he saw more.

Lucas often gets blamed for that series’ dire fourth entry, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a movie that Spielberg breezes over. (Also mostly skipped: Hook, Always, The Terminal, Twilight Zone, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, War Horse, and 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, the film that gets my vote for the best Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel.) Lacy’s doc offers some insights directly and might nudge you to others. Its narrative of maturation toward mastery, the ripening of Spielberg, suggests, for example, what actually went wrong in the Indy pictures: The dazzlingly childish Spielberg of Raiders (1981) was not the Responsible Global Citizen who made Crystal Skull (2008). In Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), he applied that movie sense — that zeal and that gift for staging and framing mayhem — to real-world horrors.

In Munich (2005), a key film whose politics gets soundly parsed in Spielberg, and War of the Worlds (also 2005), he interrogates that gift, crafting tense and exciting set piece sequences yet stripping away the heroics. In War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise, as a prickly dad, can’t possibly save the day, so he spends the film running from the aliens to save his family, a perfect inverse of what Richard Dreyfuss’s family-fleeing Roy Neary did in Close Encounters. In Munich, Spielberg worries over the very notion of violent heroism, the lie that more killing is the answer, his own apparent uncertainty that the staging of slaughter is at all edifying. Of course Indiana Jones couldn’t make the ka-powing of Russian soldiers hilarious fun in 2008 — the born entertainer directing him had lost his stomach for what pleases crowds.

Spielberg’s ambivalence toward his mastery of comic violence stands as one of many topics that Spielberg suggests but doesn’t actually examine. While well over two hours, Lacy’s film zips along, always onto the next thing, tantalizing with behind-the-scenes footage (watch him guide Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas through tricky E.T. reaction shots) and too-quick character studies. Michael Kahn, who has edited most Spielberg films since Close Encounters, doesn’t get to tell us much about their process, or even to point out the astonishing fact that the man who cut together Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach sequence also edited 130 episodes of Hogan’s Heroes.

Tom Hanks attests to Spielberg’s openness to inspiration on the set, while Liam Neeson crabs about having been made to feel like the director’s “puppet” while filming Schindler’s List. Their anecdotes — both thinly detailed — square with Spielberg’s own insistence that, while on the job, he must always look wholly confident, even though he believes he gets his best ideas when he’s uncertain, when he’s edging toward panic. (Watch Munich again to see what Spielberg is like when he’s feeling for something to say but not quite sure he’s found it.) Hanks speaks of Spielberg with the collegial reverence of a Kennedy Honors speech; Neeson does so with the respectful distaste you might have for a hard boss who was eventually proven right. Only Dustin Hoffman seems to see the Spielberg that Spielberg purports to be hiding. “Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg.”

Lacy emphasizes Spielberg’s genius for expressive motion, with moving a camera within a scene, but doesn’t delve deeply into craft. Spielberg instead finds the director acknowledging the ways that his personal life resonates in the work. “Movies are my therapy,” he admits, which is no surprise for anyone who has gone to the movies during the era of his reign. What’s most revealing, here, is his self-awareness, the way that he anticipates and acknowledges what we suspect about him just from viewing the films. For one, he’s happy to admit that he was too “timid” and “embarrassed” to film the crucial scene in The Color Purple where Shug shows Celie her clitoris.

And he acknowledges the autobiographical origins of many of his personal themes. When his parents broke up, Spielberg — just like the young boy in Close Encounters — shouted that his father was a crybaby. “My main religion was suburbia,” Spielberg says, not a surprise from the auteur of E.T. and a collector of Norman Rockwells, but still jarring from the director of Schindler’s List and the founder of the Shoah Foundation. He’s frank, in the film, about his youthful efforts to deny his heritage. When he was growing up in Phoenix, he tells us, neighborhood kids sometimes chanted in his yard, “The Spielbergs are dirty Jews!”

Then there’s the curious story of his parents, whose breakup, when he was young, inspired a host of distant/difficult fathers in his movies. As they did on 60 Minutes in 2012, the parents here gently correct the record, with Spielberg’s endorsement. It’s touching to get the behind-the-scenes truth, but you probably had guessed already that there had been a reconciliation. Just like Indiana Jones, the director has discovered that his old man wasn’t so bad after all. The thing that Spielberg eventually found to put into his work, besides that still-thrilling movie sense, is himself.

Spielberg premieres October 7 at 8 p.m. on HBO.


‘The BFG’: Not Too Big to Fail

Can Steven Spielberg do comedy? That seems like a dumb question, since nobody has done more to bring wit to the modern blockbuster; Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws boast as many laugh-out-loud moments as they do thrills.  But those gags are often incidental, of the tension-breaking kind. When the director tries for outright comedy (see also: 1941, The Terminal, much of Hook), he usually falls flat. Humor for him works as a means, not as an end.

Spielberg’s film of Roald Dahl’s creepy children’s story The BFG, adapted by the late Melissa Mathison (who also wrote E.T. and Martin Scorsese’s masterful Kundun), is not really a comedy, until, eventually, it is. It starts off in a mode that has always served Spielberg well. The director’s earlier films, even non-genre titles like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, were often informed by the language of horror — they were filled with jump-scares and suspense scenes built around characters’ limited visions. And so, too, does The BFG open with menacing undertones, as a British orphan (Ruby Barnhill) one night witnesses a terrifying giant (Mark Rylance) wandering a dark alley. The giant abducts her, and Spielberg shoots their initial meeting with both dread and whimsy. For a moment, the movie is pure magic.

That soon dissipates, however. Spielberg’s film is quite faithful to Dahl’s original: The giant whisks the girl off to a magic land, where she discovers that he’s the sole friendly member of a whole race of giants — a kind and melancholy soul at the mercy of his bigger, man-eating brethren. Those who adore Dahl’s story and are horrified at the idea of anyone changing a word of it may well enjoy this heartfelt, respectful version. And there are certainly touching moments here and there: Rylance, who was the sad and silent soul of the director’s Bridge of Spies (and won an Oscar for it), speaks the giant’s lines in a wounded murmur that can be moving — particularly during some of his soliloquies, in which he talks of hearing “the secret whisperings of the world.”

But much of the film suffers from the one thing that Spielberg films almost never suffer from: stasis. He’s made, essentially, a “hangout” movie, one in which we’re supposed to luxuriate in our time with the characters, but this isn’t a director who thrives on extended moments of just being, in the unpredictable give-and-take among people — or among people and giants.

You can sense his restlessness, too. He’s fascinated, as always, by objects — by the giant’s Rube Goldberg–like inventions and contraptions and the creaky, brightly colored ornaments and potions in his little cave of wonders, where the film spends much of its first act. But when it comes to actual interactions between girl and giant, the energy dissipates. This is also why all those scenes with the Lost Boys fall stiff in Hook: Such filmmaking demands some spontaneity, but that’s not Spielberg’s thing — though he can sometimes surprise you, as with the boat-bonding sequences in Jaws.

The film seems meant to pick up when it moves on to Buckingham Palace and to an audience with the queen, where we get some laughs — particularly in a set piece involving the giant having breakfast with the queen’s retinue, a scene punctuated by a series of massive farts (all straight out of Dahl). But Spielberg is an expert at offhand humor — throwaway lines, background slapstick, deadpan undercutting of suspense — and he’s on unsure footing with big comic sequences. He treats them like action scenes: They’re all buildup, anticipation, and climax, with little room left for unpredictability, charm, or freedom. I waited to laugh, and I did — but more because it was expected, not because any of it genuinely surprised or delighted me.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Walt Disney Pictures
Opens July 1



Housebound Is the Best New Horror Movie On Demand Right Now

In its crazy-quilt plot, Housebound features a vicious killer, a gaggle of ghosts, and all manner of madcap fools, qualities that make the movie hard to categorize — horror-comedy? mystery-thriller? — but lots of fun to watch.

For her failed attempt to rob an ATM, Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) receives a truly terrifying sentence: eight months of home detention at her mother’s New Zealand country house, which appears to be haunted. Aided by a local security guard (Glen-Paul Waru) who happens to be an amateur parapsychologist, Kylie begins trying to solve the mystery of who murdered the home’s ghostly inhabitants 20 years before.

Housebound is a tad long, and its murder mystery a bit of a muddle, but that doesn’t matter. The final third is virtuoso. In an amazingly assured debut, writer-director-editor Gerard Johnstone mixes moments of high comedy (blocking a knife thrust with a toy xylophone) with gruesome little shocks (the accident with the lawn shears), and ends with a chase sequence that’s both goofy (a cheese grater as weapon) and suspenseful.

If Steven Spielberg or James Wan (The Conjuring) see Housebound, they’re going to laugh, applaud, and immediately invite Johnstone to fly over and take a meeting.


Even After Prodding, the Art Retains its Mystery in Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

Despite its title, Drew: The Man Behind the Poster is not a documentary about movie poster artist Drew Struzan. Instead, Struzan’s poster art is the film’s real subject. Director Erik Sharkey uses testimonials from celebrities like Steven Spielberg and Michael J. Fox to lavish praise on Struzan’s output. But these famous fans gush only generally about Struzan’s iconic movie posters, including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Thing, and all of the Star Wars films—they never explain just what about the man’s work they find so resonant. Sharkey doesn’t, either. Struzan’s illustrations are, in fact, great because they have an aura of mystery about them. Actor Thomas Jane accidentally puts his finger on it when he describes Struzan’s artwork for schlocky ’80s sword-and-sorcery merchandise-seller Masters of the Universe: “I will probably never see the movie advertised in this poster,” he jokes. Struzan achieved this effect by abstracting whole films’ plots into climactic action poses and beatific facial expressions. Sharkey tries to do something similar by using hyperbolic testimonials to illuminate Struzan’s elusive genius. But the demure, self-effacing Struzan undermines Sharkey’s strategy by insisting his art is only the product of a mundane creative process. After Spielberg praises Struzan’s portrayal of Harrison Ford on his Temple of Doom poster, Struzan murmurs, “I just painted him the way he looks. He looks OK. He looks more than OK! Better than I’ll ever look.”


This Year’s Big Cannes Winner: People Who Want Great Screen Sex

You probably won’t respect me after I tell you this, but the movie that really made me want to come to Cannes was Mr. Bean’s Holiday, in which Rowan Atkinson’s monosyllabic waif wins a trip to the French Riviera and gets lost every which way en route.

There are more elegant pictures set in Cannes, like Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, with its bad-girl jewel thief Rebecca Romijn. But Mr. Bean’s haplessness, and ultimately his joy at being here–in the end, footage from his own awkward home movies accidentally finds its way into a pretentious art-house thing, vastly improving it–speak more directly to my own experience

.The place is a bit mad, really, something the finale of Mr. Bean’s Holiday captures: All of the characters–including a pompous actor-writer-producer-director played, wonderfully, by Willem Dafoe–stride toward the beach, lip-syncing to Charles Trenet’s glorious “La Mer.” This is, after all, the place where the majesty of the sea meets the splendor of the movies–although when you’re running from film to film all day and all evening, you can almost forget that the sea exists.

Sunday, May 26, was the final day of the 66th Festival de Cannes, and the day on which the prizes conferred by the jury–led by Steven Spielberg–were announced. Most of the jury’s choices didn’t raise any eyebrows: They awarded the Grand Prix to the Coen brothers’ surprisingly heartfelt Inside Llewyn Davis, for example. But a few of the group’s choices seemed surprising to the critics and journalists here, particularly the actors’ awards, which went to Bruce Dern (for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a picture that condescends to its characters, and to Middle America, in a way that’s reprehensible) and Bérénice Bejo (for Asghar Farhadi’s skillful but not particularly memorable breakup melodrama Le Passé). Both of these performances are fine, if not good. But until the Palme d’Or winner was announced, many of us wondered if one of the best-acted and best-directed pictures in the festival–and the picture that seemed to have earned the most rapturous praise, at least for a festival that didn’t offer one clear, standout favorite–might be shut out.

We needn’t have worried. The jury, as Spielberg explained to the audience gathered for the ceremony, had decided to award the top prize to three individuals: Director Abdellatif Kechiche and the two stars of his movie, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. This was the picture many of my critic friends were rooting for, and I loved it too (though I also had high hopes for James Gray’s The Immigrant, and particularly for Marion Cotillard’s delicately shaded lead performance). Blue Is the Warmest Color tells, over the course of three hours, the story of a love affair between two young women, Adèle (Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Seydoux). Adèle is the younger of the two, still a student when she and Emma meet. And although she’s immediately attracted to Emma, she doesn’t yet have a clear sense of her own sexual desires–not that anyone ever really does.

The love scenes between these two characters are beautifully staged, perhaps among the loveliest ever put on film. Sex scenes, as any director will tell you, are a nightmare to shoot: It’s extremely difficult to make good sex look good–a combination of stylized artifice and sensitivity is needed, and the perfect mix is elusive. But Kechiche (director of the 2007 critics’ favorite Secret of the Grain, as well as the much less loved 2010 Black Venus) and his actresses achieve something extraordinary: The sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color are classical without being sterile; they’re real and immediate in a way that honors the idea of terrific sex between two people who are madly in love, instead of just trying to paste a clumsy picture of it onscreen.

The picture has already drawn some criticism: There are those who believe Blue Is the Warmest Color is just an excuse for an old guy to use his camera to paw at young women’s bodies, and, accordingly, the male critics who like it simply cannot resist the allure of two hot young things in bed. Thank you, Theory of the Male Gaze, for giving us such a handy template with which to diagram the mysteries of beauty, sex, and desire!

Yet even if these sex scenes are integral to Blue Is the Warmest Color, they’re still only part of a complex whole. Kechiche and his actresses address tangled class issues, explore questions of how young people struggle to find their way in the world, and–it’s better if you know– map the contours of a romance that ends in delicate, devastating heartbreak. Seydoux, beguiling as always, is terrific as the flirtatious and self-assured Emma. But it’s Exarchopoulos, with her unmanageably lank hair and cautious smile, who sneaks off with the movie. Her Adèle is a living, breathing reminder of the romantic suffering of youth, but she’s not just about youth. Blue Is the Warmest Color is for anyone who ever fell in love only to be kicked right out of it, into a state that feels like drowning but is, in reality, just a kind of bewildered breathing. When the choice is sink or swim, most of us choose to swim. Sometimes, somehow, the movies are at one with the sea.


Tom Cruise Can Still Be Great — Why Aren’t His Movies?

Though he’s long been among the most recognizable celebrities in the world, Tom Cruise has always seemed vaguely irritating, like the popular kid at school everybody secretly dislikes. His is an odd sort of fame: globally recognized but rarely acclaimed, he remains more reliably bankable than nearly any other actor of his generation, his presence an almost guaranteed boon to a film’s bottom line despite being a magnet for bad press and, in recent years especially, mild scandal.

Part of the problem, of course, is that our gossip-saturated conception of celebrity culture privileges private controversy over professional achievement. That’s why, in the public imagination, a few years of incriminating tabloid headlines have apparently eclipsed the accomplishments of a three-decade career, effectively transforming a once-celebrated star into a spectacle of folly.

What’s strange about this perceptual shift isn’t so much that a respected actor’s reputation has been summarily tarnished—it would hardly be the first time public sentiment curdled so suddenly, as it did with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle—as it is that Cruise’s recent bout with popular opinion began during one of his career’s most prosperous periods.

In 2005, the year of his notorious couch-hopping meltdown, Cruise had just delivered back-to-back performances in two of his most compelling films: first came Michael Mann’s groundbreaking foray into digital filmmaking, Collateral, in which Cruise played a virtuoso hitman chauffeured around downtown Los Angeles by a reluctant cabbie, played by Jamie Foxx. Collateral found Cruise consciously subverting an increasingly shopworn routine, suppressing his trademark charisma and recalibrating his charm toward something decidedly understated.

Cruise starred in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds the following year. Though not particularly well-received upon release—at least by the standards of Spielberg, whose previous film with Cruise, 2002’s Minority Report, was a massive hit both critically and commercially—it seems apparent now that Worlds represented a serious effort on the part of both director and star to grapple with some of the lingering residual anxieties of the period. In many ways the film endures as one of the definitive works of post-9/11 cinema. Our cultural conversation neglected this dimension of the film in favor of vacuous rumor-mongering, which suggests the degree to which we value watercooler gossip over deep engagement.

Not that any of this was new to Cruise, mind you. He’d already sparred with the press in a years-long public relations battle more than five years before Scientology and Oprah’s couch ever entered the discussion, when aspersions cast on his sexuality eclipsed recognition of his work. This was around 1999, the actor’s artistic peak. That was the year in which Cruise starred in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the great director’s final film and arguably his richest, as well as appearing in a crucial supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely hailed Magnolia.

What these movies share—more than simply being major, somewhat difficult works by important, infamously difficult filmmakers—is that they more or less relegate Cruise to a position of weakness, simultaneously tapping into his stardom and pointedly undermining it. Eyes Wide Shut finds Cruise being shut down and emasculated at every turn; Magnolia, meanwhile, finds his exaggeratedly macho poses thoroughly deconstructed, his persona exposed as phony.

These qualities prove intriguing, but they also prove, more significantly, that Cruise was once willing to relinquish control of his image to filmmakers whose creative judgment he clearly trusted, which resulted in work of surprising intelligence and sophistication—unsurprisingly, some of the best of his career. Lately, however, Cruise has taken the opposite approach: rather than actively seek roles that challenge his iconography and legacy, he’s receded into complacency and, even worse, seemingly desperate self-mythologizing.

When he isn’t busy reprising one of his least interesting roles—Mission Impossible‘s milquetoast hero Ethan Hunt—he’s hard at work (re)building his own reputation from the ground up, furiously reasserting his masculine prowess and utter infallibility in such trifles as Jack Reacher and the antiseptic sci-fi trifle Oblivion.

It’s not that these roles or even films are bad, necessarily—though Jack Reacher is pretty lousy—but rather that they’re uninteresting, which for an actor once respected for making genuinely daring choices is disappointing. Cruise seems stuck making films for the sake of his agent rather than for his audience or the cinema. Perhaps this is simply an extended period of downtime for an actor known to occasionally phone it in, as he did in Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.

But it’s possible that maybe this is a delayed response to how often we’ve ignored Cruise’s capacity to branch out and surprise, a kind of career shrug from a guy resigned to the fact that, no matter how hard he tries, we’ll always focus on his personal life instead of his talent. Whenever Tom Cruise most obviously deserves acclaim and recognition, the cameras are directed toward something private and wholly unrelated, and the conversation shifts from praise to scrutiny to vehement rejection.


Roger Ebert: Why There Can Never Be Another

A common sentiment recurs through the abundance of eulogies and obituaries penned by film critics in the wake of his death late last week: Roger Ebert was an inspiration.

It’s easy enough to be encouraged by another’s success—to regard an esteemed elder colleague with a combination of admiration and envy—but genuine inspiration, feeling galvanized and invigorated by a person, is considerably rarer. And considerably more valuable: to compel others to pursue a dream or live and think differently simply by virtue of setting an example is to effect actual change in the world, an accomplishment by any measure. Ebert’s real legacy, perhaps more than the voluminous body of work he leaves behind, is the very field of contemporary film criticism, which his example shaped to a remarkable degree.

Now he’s gone, and the void left by his absence cannot be overstated.

For more than 45 years, his writing—clear, unpretentious, inflected with his singular personality—established a template for film writing as warmly embraced as it was widely emulated. Though the 1960s found America’s critical community divided evenly along the Andrew Sarris/Pauline Kael faultline, Ebert offered an alternative by way of compromise: Adopting neither the French-indebted intellectualism of the former nor the reactionary hectoring of the latter, Ebert’s sensibility seemed to stand apart, at once conversational and rigorous, breezy and greatly informed.

Like Sarris, Ebert appreciated burgeoning academic concepts like auteur theory, applying their methods to the relaxed tenor of his reviews. And like Kael, Ebert was quick to champion more radical films whose themes or aesthetics went largely misunderstood. He was, in many ways, the ultimate well-rounded critic: respected, down to earth, his field’s most accessible expert.

You’ll find many young critics happy to reminisce about a shared early memory: Stumbling upon a strange television show in which two men argued seriously and intelligently about movies, we learned that there was more to see than what was at the multiplex, that it was OK to demand more of our entertainment, and, most urgently, that the cinema was worth thinking about and fighting for. Though his tenure at The Chicago Sun-Times had long since proven him a formidable writer (and had won him the Pulitzer Prize some years earlier), his weekly appearances with Siskel made him a bona fide star, not only introducing his name and face to millions of Americans but also, more incredibly, introducing those Americans to a new conception of criticism and of the cinema itself. Once he hit television, it wasn’t long before Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel became the world’s most recognizable film critics, perhaps the only ones to be considered a household name.

I remain convinced that, had I not seen At the Movies as a child, I would not be writing film criticism today. I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other critics amateur and professional alike who feel the same way. That kind of influence is indelible. It also simply isn’t possible anymore: Because the Internet continues to favor increased specialization and personally tailored content, it’s relatively easy for a writer to reach many interested voices but next to impossible for that writer to reach beyond that.

It’s likely that, because there are now infinitely more opportunities for regular film-lovers to voice their opinions and be heard, we have access to more great writing than ever before; but a consequence of this changed landscape is that one voice cannot be a unifying force, making it hard to bring a niche subject to the masses. After his health declined sharply in 2006—including surgical complications that permanently obstructed his ability to speak—Ebert used the Internet to become better and more prolific, expanding his purview to include a thoughtful and politically engaged personal blog and increasing his ordinary review output week after week. He engaged with his fans through social media, authored a memoir, and brought budding writers into the fold with sidebar guest columns built into the architecture of his site. But with At the Movies he’d already laid the groundwork upon which a life’s work can be built, and that’s still the foundation of his worldwide fame and cultural significance.

What Ebert’s efforts each week did for film criticism—effectively validating the career in the eyes of an audience impressed by his authority—cannot easily be undone, and he will forever be the public face of a field defined by bylines. But neither can he easily be replaced: To put it bluntly, there can never be another Roger Ebert.

Though his affinity was always for Martin Scorsese, a better directorial analog might be Steven Spielberg, the one director known by name by everybody, everywhere. Like Spielberg, Ebert was an intellectual by trade but a populist at heart, an artist of wit and imagination and consummate professionalism. (There’s meaningful symmetry in the fact that Jaws, Spielberg’s industry-changing blockbuster, hit theaters the same year Sneak Previews made its TV debut.) And like Spielberg, Ebert endures in the popular imagination as more than merely famous—he’s iconic.


How Does Jurassic Park 3D Play When You Can’t Fast Forward?

“They do move in herds,” Sam Neill marvels, purportedly gazing at his director’s miracle dinosaurs but in reality directing his wonderment right into the camera—and right out at us, the viewers whose herdability made such smash successes of Jurassic Parks one and two. (Our failure to turn out for director Joe Johnston’s part three suggests that we at least prefer to be corralled by a master.) All money-making films are exercises in mass manipulation, of course, but only the most alarmist of critics still have it in them to be shaken by that. If you want to feel better about how Steven Spielberg can cue stirrings of fear or awe in your brain, it helps to think of him not as an artist but as an m.c.: Dude moves the crowd.

Now converted to more-impressive-than-usual-3D, the original Jurassic Park is again set to herd in an audience, this time of parents already appreciative of its uneasy mix of Spielbergian wonder and Spielbergian terror, and of kids ready to discover the perverse pleasure of watching actors in their own demo scream and weep at the gnashing of T. rexes. Schindler’s List, the other Spielberg hit of ’93, acknowledged that children in terror are actually no fun at all; perhaps that’s why that one’s shown as homework and this one’s given a multiplex re-issue.

See also: Anatomy of a Scene: Jurassic Park’s T-Rex Introduction

Jurassic Park has aged surprisingly well, save the risible computer-hacking at the climax, or the little girl (Ariana Richards) gushing over the film’s least miraculous of miracles, an “interactive CD-ROM!” [Exclamation point hers.] Despite this being the movie blamed for inaugurating the age of CGI, its dino park feels like a physical place crafted in that old-fashioned movie way of location shoots and studio sets. The actors are even allowed to make an impression before becoming dino chum, although none quite gets to play a credible person. If we’re meant to take Sam Neill seriously as a paleontologist, why, upon unearthing an ancient velociraptor, does he blow so many minutes of daylight with a lengthy speech designed only to terrify one of the random children he allows to wander onto his dig? And why does he never ask John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) just what’s in this amusement park of his?

The long, expositional opening act plays better than you might recall, especially if you savor its almost critical self-awareness: the gift shop, the wall-to-wall logos, the Universal Studio Tour actually worked into the narrative, the lawyer whose response to the first CGI sequence is “we’re gonna make a fortune.” At a San Juan café, Wayne Knight’s Nedry jokes that nobody cares who the minor character Dodson is, and he’s totally right. There’s even a hint of the audience revolt encouraged by home-video fast-forwarding and, later, fan edits: The lead scientists (us) bust out of their movie-chair restraints (the director’s vision) to skip over Hammond’s carefully prepared tour (boring scenes) and hustle instead into the dino-lab (the good stuff.)

Spielberg’s good stuff remains the best of its type. That first T. rex attack stilled the crowd at the packed preview screening I caught; one bit of business involving bloody goat parts inspired a woman to shout “Oh, shit!” at a movie that’s been playing in living rooms for 20 years. For all the still-dazzling CGI and creature puppetry, what sells that storm’s-coming wonder Spielberg hadn’t summoned so smartly since Close Encounters, this time spliced with the candied dread of Jaws.

That T. rex is worth the wait, but the wait itself is even more memorable. Its water-shaking rumble made that scene the go-to demo reel for peddlers of surround-sound home theater systems for most of the ’90s. The purchasers of such systems would in years to come enjoy the kabooming of many a blockbuster, but how often would they get a showcase like this, where the suspense is as sharp as the tech?

Also still killer: the late sequence in which a pair of velociraptors stalk the kids in the kitchen. Like a satanic parody of Lady and the Tramp‘s Siamese cats, the dinosaurs chitter at each other, rub their necks, and relish their own awesomeness. Here Spielberg’s trickiest—and most satisfying—gag involves the reflection of a young girl in tearful panic, an illusion that a charging raptor mistakes for flesh. That shot might explain why the kids sitting near me seemed rhapsodic rather than horrified: Even the screaming little girl in the movie knows that when Spielberg the humanist is in charge, images of kids in terror are just part of a delicious fake-out.

For all these high-end junk thrills, the movie still has its longueurs, usually during those passage when Spielberg the showman frets that maybe he should turn things over to Spielberg the middlebrow moralist. So we get Attenborough eating ice cream and gassing on about a flea circus and Neill chuckling—seriously, chuckling—at fifth-grade dino riddles as his hard-boiled paleontologist, who not long before was almost eaten by T. rex, discovers that maybe he wants kids after all. The novelty of this re-issue isn’t the 3D; it’s that, in a theater, you no longer have the option to skim past this stuff.