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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Mendelsohn’

“READY PLAYER ONE” My rating: B
140 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

That most films based on video games suck mightily should come as no surprise…video games are all about dishing visceral thrills, not building dramatic momentum or developing characters.

This is why Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is such a remarkable achievement. Instead of attempting to wrestle the video gaming experience into a standard dramatic format, this surprisingly entertaining entry is really just one long video game, albeit a game with so much pop-culture name dropping that geeks will spend countless hours documenting all the visual and aural references.

Think “Tron” to the nth degree.

Don’t go looking for the usual plot developments or relatable characters. The strength of  “Ready Player One” lies in its ability to create an totally plausible fantasy world that operates by its own rules.  At times the audience’s immersion in this universe is total and totally transporting.

The screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based on Cline’s novel) unfolds in the year 2045.  Economic and environmental disasters have left the working class chronically unemployed.  They live in “stacks,”  mini-high rises made of mobile homes resting on metal frameworks. In this world video games are the opiate of the masses — when they’re not eating, sleeping or taking bathroom breaks, the citizenry are experiencing virtual realities through 3-D goggles.

This is the world of Wade (Ty Sheridan of “Mud,” “Joe” and the X-Men franchise), a shy teen whose on-line avatar is the game-savvy Parzival.  Wade/Parzival is a devotee of The Oasis, a massive video game developed by the late programming guru Halliday (played by Mark Rylance in flashbacks) and so complex and challenging that in the years since its inception no player has come close to beating it. But millions log in daily in an attempt to find three hidden keys that will unlock Halliday’s fantasy world and grant the winner ownership of the unimaginably wealthy Oasis empire.

The challenge attracts not just individual gamers like Parzifal and on-line buddies like the hulking giant Aech or the samurai warrior Daito.  The IOI corporation and its Machiavellian director Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) has its own army of players who compete for the prize.   The person — or business — that solves the game’s many puzzles will in effect become one of Earth’s dominant forces.

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Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill

“DARKEST HOUR”  My rating: B

A confession.

I’ve often found Gary Oldman  a shameless scenery chewer. Villainous roles were especially problematic; you could actually see Oldman twirling his mustache, metaphorically speaking.

2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” gave us a more settled, thoughtful Goldman, who portrayed John LeCarre’s good gray spookmaster George Smiley with an admirable degree of restraint.

Now, in  “Darkest Hour,” Goldman tackles the iconic role of Winston Churchill, and it’s a match made in heaven.  Sir Winston was, after all, no slouch at scenery chewing; yet Oldman’s performance here is subtle and balanced, a deft blend of  bombast and inner activity.

It’s a performance of such insight and power — abetted by David Malinowski’s spectacularly effective makeup design — that it immediately propels Goldman into the front ranks of this year’s Oscar contenders.

Joe Wright’s film centers on one month, May of 1940, when the long-out-of-favor Churchill was elected Prime Minister after the collapse of Neville Chamberlain’s ineffectual government.

The P.M. is faced with seemingly insurmountable problems. The Nazis have taken over much of Europe and are pounding the British army at Dunkirk. If those 300,000 or so soldiers are captured or killed, it will leave Great Britain defenseless.

Voices within his own party are urging Churchill to sue Hitler for peace. It’s the only way to escape a bloodbath and an armed invasion.

Churchill doubts that Der Fuhrer is in any mood to grant concessions. If only he can save the troops waiting on the French coast, galvanize public opinion, and overnight turn his country’s prevailing ethos from dovish to hawkish. (more…)

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rogue-one-at-act“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” My rating: C+

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

After nearly 40 years of Wookies, Jedis and Imperial storm troopers, am I finally over the whole “Star Wars” thing?

The sad truth is that I was underwhelmed — sometimes flat-out bored — by “Rogue One,” the latest addition to the “SW” universe.

And here’s the thing…it’s  not a bad movie.  Certainly not bad like the three George Lucas-driven prequels were.

“Rogue One” is reasonably well acted and technically flawless. Moreover, it’s an attempt to make a more adult, racially-diverse “Star Wars” film, a stand-alone tale that is darker both thematically (it’s like an intergalactic Alamo where everyone goes down fighting) and visually.

Nevertheless, “Rogue One” is emotionally lifeless. I didn’t care.

Director Gareth Edwards and the producers and writers have worked so hard to hit familiar buttons of “Star Wars” mythology that the resulting film feels generic, as if it were directed by a committee rather than a single visionary individual.

The plot, for those who have been living in the spice mines of Kessel, follows the efforts of a team of rebel spies to steal the plans for the Death Star, an enterprise that will result in the destruction of said moon-sized weapon by Luke Skywalker in the original “Star Wars” movie.

Our heroine is Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was taken from her to develop the Death Star.  After years of crime and imprisonment, Jyn is given an opportunity by the Rebel Alliance. She will be part of a team tasked with finding Galen and getting those precious plans.

They’re a mixed bag of idealists and pragmatic warriors.

Foremost among them is Cassian (Diego Luna), the ostensible head of the team who, unbeknownst to Jyn, as been secretly ordered to assassinate her father, lest his genius bring the Death Star to completion.

Chirrut (Donnie Yen) is a blind swordsman who relies on The Force to battle enemies. A pretty obvious nod to a subgenre of samurai films, he’s got a grouchy partner (Wen Jiang) who fights with a monstrous hand cannon.

Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) is a pilot who knows his way around the Empire’s military outposts.

Best of the bunch is  K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a towering droid made by the Empire but reprogrammed to serve the Rebel Alliance.  Apparently K-2SO also was given a microchip for sarcasm and irony, which he exercises regularly at the expense of his human cohorts. (more…)

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Ben Mendelson, Ryan Reynolds

Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds

“MISSISSIPPI GRIND” My rating: B

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Ben Mendelsohn is such a terrific actor that some day he’ll be cast as an upright citizen.

For now, though, he is Hollywood’s go-to guy for grungy losers (“Animal Kingdom,” HBO’s “Bloodline,” “Killing Them Softly”). In Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “Mississippi Grind” Mendelsohn practically sweats desperation and existential angst.

You’d figure that he’d be just right as Gerry, a degenerate gambler from Dubuque, Iowa. What one might not expect is that Ryan Reynolds would match him in the demanding and fuzzy-around-the-edges role of Curtis, Gerry’s alter ego and spiritual inspiration.

Gerry is deep in in debt to…well, just about everyone he knows.  (Alfre Woodward has a brief but tasty scene as a suburban housewife whose real career is that of leg-breaking loan shark.) At a local poker night he meets Curtis (Ryan), an out of towner who tries to disrupt the game with jokes and nonstop patter. Looking at his hand, Curtis innocently asks the other players: “Aces…those are good, right?”

Somehow Gerry gets the notion that Curtis is his good luck charm.

The two men could hardly be different.  Gerry is intense, woebegone, hapless. He goes through hell with every showdown.

Curtis is cool, funny, and entertaining, a raconteur with dozens of shaggy dog stories about the gamblers and lowlifes he’s had the pleasure to know  (including the guy who reversed a losing streak in Kansas City and left the table with “enough to pay back everything he owes and still get a slab at Oklahoma Joe’s”). Curtis doesn’t seem to care if he wins or not. “It’s the journey, not the destination,” he says.

They agree to take a trip down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, hitting the casinos, horse and dog tracks and back room poker games along the way. Curtis will provide the betting money; Gerry the skill.

What could go wrong?
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