Ready Player One (2018)

As a pasty pro wrestling fan with a film blog, I’m comfortable with being identified as a nerd, but I’ve never quite felt like the right kind of nerd. Superhero comics, video games, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, anime – the staples of Nerd Culture have never been the pop media I personally obsess about. It’s not that my own nerdy obsessions are especially esoteric; I’ve just always felt like somewhat of an outsider when observing what typical nerds cosplay as or geek out over. When the pasty nerd hero of Ready Player One sneers at the business dick villain pretending to share his interests, “A fanboy knows a hater,” I had to think to myself that I likely qualify as neither. I also suspect director Steven Spielberg is an objective outsider to that distinction as well. Looking at the scruffy, near-sighted goon, it’s not too difficult to imagine that he’s seen the wrong end of a swirly or a locker-shove in his past, especially considering his life-long interest in science fiction. However, it is difficult to imagine him caring about the particular Nerd Shit on display in Ready Player One. Although there is plenty evidence to the contrary, I just can’t picture Spielberg wasting days behind the controller of a marathon session of Halo or repeatedly rewatching Akira in his Cheetos-stained pajamas. Roughly 75% of the Nerd Shit references that weren’t verbally acknowledged Ready Player One’s dialogue when over my head and I suspect a millionaire over twice my age wouldn’t have fared much better (many of the background details were reportedly included by special effects teams without his explicit request). As an outsider, I must admit I’m baffled by the consensus that Ready Player One is intended to be seen as a fun popcorn movie. To me, it’s a nightmare vision of a plausible near-future Hell that we’re helplessly barreling towards. Maybe that qualifies me as a hater. I wouldn’t know; you’d have to ask a fanboy. I do suspect, though, that the film’s director shares that same point of view somewhere beneath his King Nerd exterior.

Gatekeeping is perhaps the ultimate qualifier of true nerdom. Nerds tend to declare what pop culture is objectively Good or Bad as if their opinion is law and no interests outside their own have value. Like how 10 Cloverfield Lane exposes the creepiness of Doomsday preppers by depicting the dystopian world they secretly desire, Ready Player One envisions the logical, terrifying result of what this pop culture gatekeeping would look like if it were taken as seriously as every self-aggrandizing nerd wants it to be. A lonely trillionaire nerd (Mark Rylance) builds a virtual reality video game universe where his own pop culture obsessions (mostly white boy nerd shit from the 1980s) are canon as the greatest works of art of all time. Because of the universal popularity of his immersive gaming system, this über-Steve Jobs experiences the ultimate power fantasy all nerds crave: he’s celebrated for his superior tastes in esoteric pop culture. If he was into it, it’s fantastic & worthy of scholarly study. If he wasn’t, it essentially never existed. By the year 2045, long after his death, this celebration of one man’s pop culture tastes has driven the world into a digital Hell. Most people live impoverished in overpopulated slums (picture a game of Jenga where the building blocks are mobile homes). They escape their grim surroundings by immersing themselves in a dead trillionaire’s nerdy pop culture utopia through increasingly realistic virtual reality technology. No new art or creativity is necessary, since their preferred world’s creator isn’t around to approve it. This dystopian vision feels like a less classist version of Idiocracy in that way, where the world is driven to its lowest point by mindless 80s nostalgia instead of “bad breeding.” If a single, gatekeeping Nerd won the ultimate prize of being taken seriously as a tastemaker and had their own obsessions guide the establishment of a universal monoculture, this is exactly the world we would eventually live in. It’s a goddamn nightmare.

The catch about Ready Player One (and the internal tension that makes it interesting) is that it was written by one of those gatekeepers. Writer/stand-up comedian Ernest Cline penned both the film’s screenplay (along with several co-writers) and its source material novel. Cline takes gleeful pleasure in the material’s endless pop culture references, but that doesn’t feel at all reinforced on Spielberg’s end. Spielberg’s adventurism works in tandem with Cline’s geeked-out tone in an occasional chase sequence or flash of goofball humor, but as a whole their work feels more like a philosophical debate than a blissful collaboration. Cline constructs a story about a young nerd (Tye Sheridan) wooing another young nerd (Olivia Cooke) and saving the world by playing video games with incredible skill & displaying esoteric 80s pop trivia. It should be a joyous power fantasy for the like-minded video game obsessives in the world, but it instead looks & feels like a continuation of the grim, grimy futurism of Minority Report & A.I.: Artificial intelligence (two of the best films of Spielberg’s career, but also two of the most acidic). By all accounts, Cline’s writing style tends to dwell in long lists of nerdy pop culture ephemera, taking time to build its own gatekeeping canon of exactly what nerdy shit is worth preserving. By contrast, Spielberg’s film feels unconcerned with dwelling on its references at all, as plentiful as they are. Instead of relishing the joy of seeing disparate characters form across all of nerdom share the screen, Ready Player One essentially glosses over them in favor of fleshing out its grim dystopian future. There are plenty of extratextual characters referenced in the film, but they mostly appear so briefly in the background in moments of chaos that you hardly have time to notice them. It’s like Ernie Bushmiller’s “three rocks” principle: there are exactly just as many nostalgic references included as necessary to create the illusion that the film is overrun with them. In the few times when the film does dwell on them, their distant memory distorts the original intent of the artwork that’s supposedly being celebrated, like a copy of a copy. The Shining is now a jump-scare fest; the Iron Giant is now a ruthless killing machine; Chucky is all maniacal laughter instead of smart-ass quips; etc. Spielberg doesn’t take the same joy in referencing past works that Cline does; he practically mocks the way that thoughtless, performative celebration changes their fundamental nature. Spielberg’s not quite the same level of satirist as Paul Verhoeven, to put it lightly, but I haven’t seen a film this at odds with its own source material since Starship Troopers.

Maybe I’m giving Spielberg too much benefit of the doubt here. Maybe he does spend his lonely nerd nights creaming his Zelda pajamas while dreaming about how cool it would be if Gundam fought Mechagodzilla. Either way, Ready Player One plays much closer to the grim future-tech prophecies of his own early 2000s sci-fi than the pure-fun video game crossover indulgences of a Super Smash Bros or a Marvel vs. Capcom. Like the surveillance state speculation of Minority Report or the cruelty of artificial intelligence creation in A.I., Ready Player One taps into the potential, foreseeable darkness of a world that’s already nostalgia-obsessed, with escapist pleasures to be found in the anonymity of Internet avatars & in watching strangers make money playing video games on YouTube. If nerds win the culture war, this is a plausible vision of where we’re headed. If you look to Ready Player One as mindless popcorn fun, your enthusiasm for that vision might be determined by where you fall on the fanboy/hater divide. To me, the film is much more rewarding if you consider the ways it makes its own Nostalgia Bait fun appear grotesque & terrifying, regardless of what Spielberg’s intent may have been. Maybe the film works as a fanboy/hater Rorschach test in that way. Audiences who see a love letter to nerdy pop culture where Gremlins, Goro, and Batman can finally share the same universe can maintain their fanboy status. Others who see a deeply depressing glimpse into a near-future Hell, like I did, might just be haters after all (at least in Ernest Cline’s nomenclature). However, haters can take solace in the likelihood that Spielberg’s secretly a hater was well, considering how similar this grim vision is to his past dystopian world-building. Paradoxically, you’d have to be generous to classify Spielberg or myself as anything but nerds, even if we are the wrong kind of nerds. Let’s hope we’re aren’t found out as imposters in the virtual reality Hell that apparently awaits us.

-Brandon Ledet

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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I’ve only enjoyed 1 out of 4 of the major superhero releases that have hit theaters so far this year. Well, 2 out of 5 if the new Ninja Turtles movie counts (I am silly & weak). Either way, those are not great numbers & I’m starting to wonder if I’m the problem, not the films themselves. X-Men: Apocalypse, Batman v. Superman, and Deadpool all have their rabid defenders (especially that last one, unfortunately), but they each gave me a distinct “What am I even doing here?” anxiety while watching them in the theater, as if I had accidentally stumbled into the wrong prayer service at a funeral home. I was hoping that Apocalypse was going to be a repeat of the Days of Future Past scenario where critical consensus was  little harsh on what was mostly a decent, ambitious-but-messy superhero plot. Instead I found myself scratching my head for the entirety of its massive 147 min runtime, questioning why I left the house in the first place & silently wishing the apocalypse promised in the title would actually end this franchise for good. Of course, producers don’t think that way & Apocalypse wound up functioning as not one, but two franchise reboots for a property that’s already hit the reset button twice in the last five years.

The worst thing about that reset button is that it frames X-Men in a world without consequence. It’s fairly common for a superhero movie to have a seemingly insurmountable Big Bad threaten to End It All for vaguely hateful personal reasons that apparently call for the destruction of all life. Apocalypse‘s titular Big Bad even conforms to the recently omnipresent trope of the supervillain threatening to end humanity in order to “save the world” or whatever. As we saw at the end of Days of Future Past, though, this is a series where the slate can be wiped clean with the mere wave of a hand, so that threat is thoroughly empty. New, hip teens can be brought in to replace the aging X-Men of yesteryear with essentially no notice or pretense. If Apocalypse destroys Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters or the entire planet that hosts it, it’s no matter. A couple CGI-aided actors in leather jumpsuits can stand around in an empty field and put it all back together using only their minds & magic fingertips. So many tiny parts are interchangeable in the X-Men series that the big picture never changes at all. A character’s sibling can die in an explosion, leading to single moment of solemn reflection, but then be forgotten forever because nothing truly matters. Another character may have gotten not one, but two origin stories before in the very same franchise, but why not toss out a third for the sake of a violent comedy bit? Who gives a shit? Wipe away a memory, create an alternate universe, regress a character’s age & allegiance until they look like a Hot Topic/Disney’s Descendants knockoff of their former selves: there’s a million ways to erase history for in-the-moment convenience & X-Men: Apocalypse‘s single spark of ambition is the way it’s hellbent on exploiting them all.

Apocalypse frames its story around some Gods of Egypt-type nonsense in its early machinations, but its true gimmick/reason for existing is to make a superhero version of VH1’s I Love the 80s. How do we know it’s the 80s? In case the Cold War communism & Hot Tub Time Machine-style “Look at these goofy clothes!” visual cues aren’t enough, a character helpfully declares, “Welcome to the 80s,” a line that’s so amusingly mishandled that it recalls a moment in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins where a character anachronistically explains, “Well, this is The Old West . . .” 2011’s X-Men: First Class was an actually-refreshing mashing of the reset button, revitalizing an exhausted franchise by giving it some 60s mod spy media swank & a few fresh faces. Days of Future Past brought in some 70s political intrigue & sci-fi wankery that managed to keep the period piece angle fresh. I’m not sure what, if anything, the 80s setting brings to the table in Apocalypse: Cyclops wearing Ray-Bans? A trip to the mall? The film even missed an opportunity to include “Walk Like an Egyptian” on the soundtrack, which seems like a huge oversight considering the its dual timelines. The temporal setting plays like a vague afterthought handled mostly by the costuming department instead of directly influencing the plot or form. I’m interested to see how the 90s nostalgia is handled in the next installment’s natural progression, but Apocalypse‘s That’s So 80s stylization leaves little room for a promising future (past) there.

With the plot of Apocalypse not worth much thought or examination (a mean baddie from ancient times fails to destroy the world in the 80s & Wolverine pops in for brief contract-fulfillment), it’s probably best to discuss the film in terms of how it handles its many rebooted, retweaked characters. Honestly, though, there’s not a whole lot going on there either. Jennifer Lawrence looks downright miserable as Mystique, grimly going through the motions in the guise of a disaffected 80s punk. Newcomers Sophie Turner & Tye Sheridan are disappointingly dull in their respective roles as Jean Grey & Cyclops, especially considering the promise of their just-getting-revved-up careers, but at least that’s somewhat faithful to the charisma vacuum established by Famke Janssen & James Marsden in past entries? Wolverine is thankfully relegated to a cameo role here after getting more than his share of screen time in past entries, but since that role once again returns to his Origins it plays disappointingly like a Groundhog Day purgatory of a mutant/actor who can’t escape his past. Quicksilver’s literal show-stopping gag from the last film is repeated here as a special effects centerpiece, but I have a hard time caring about it much either, given the character’s winking-at-the-camera “Ain’t I a stinker?” PG Deadpool humor. The immensely talented Rose Byrne also returns only to be a continual butt of a joke that’s never quite funny. Only Michael Fassbender’s turn as Magneto registers as exceptional in any way, but the emotional severity of his work feels like it’s in an entirely different movie than the grey mush that surrounds him, so when he yells, “Is this what you want from me?! Is this what I am?!” at an indifferent god, it plays as overwrought & entirely out of place.

That leaves the conundrum of Oscar Isaac’s villainous performance as Apocalypse, which, while not necessarily great, stands out as the film’s sole source of entertainment value for me. Guardians of the Galaxy had a weird way of stealing Lee Pace’s sex appeal by turning him blue & covering up his luscious eyebrows. Apocalypse does one better and blues/obscures Oscar Isaac’s entire beautiful face, even accentuating his nose with a phallic cleft that recalls Dan Aykroyd’s prosthetic dick nose in the cinematic abomination Nothing But Trouble. Isaac’s performance is even stranger than his make-up, though. I swear he’s doing a dead-on, goth-bent impersonation of Tony Shalhoub throughout the film as he continually breaks the fourth wall & delivers Anonymous/Redditor-type monologues that would make Ben Kingsley’s Iron Man 3 baddie The Mandarin blush at their inanity. Isaac & Apocalypse are underutilized & more silly than threatening, but they’re easily the most entertaining aspect of a film that’s largely a pleasureless void. This may go down in history in Isaac’s worst performance in a so-far phenomenal career, but I gotta admit it was a lot of fun to watch.

I may have missed a few details here or there while periodically rolling my eyes during X-Men: Apocalypse, but I saw enough of the film’s zany 80s wardrobe, seriously questionable CGI, and wildly out-of-place body horror (don’t worry; there’s no permanent consequences for physical dismemberment here either) to get the gist. The movie sucks. Worse yet, it knows it sucks, as evidenced by Jean Grey’s admission after a screening of Return of the Jedi, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” Not only is that statement oddly anachronistic (the endless sequel cycle was not quite solid yet in 1983 outside Jaws & Star Wars), it also draws attention to the mess X-Men has made of itself at large. Is this the third entry in the franchise (starting, presumably, with First Class)? Feels more like the ninth for me, considering everything that’s branched off from Bryan Singer’s original adaptation in 2000. In the 16 years that have followed, the series has seen some highs & lows of note (those two Wolverine standalones being especially rough), but I don’t know if it’s ever felt this lifeless or devoid of purpose. What are we still doing here? What’s the point of any of this if it all can be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-A-Sketch? Why was the series’s eternally malleable gene mutation theme not put to any metaphorical use here, despite it being the one thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the superhero pack?  Without that metaphorical distinction, what reason does the audience have to show up in the first place? I don’t have the answers & it doesn’t seem that Bryan Singer does either.

At best X-Men: Apocalypse feels like it’s treading water until it can deliver a Totally 90s nostalgia trip in its upcoming sequel. And it knows that it’s delivering a mediocre product in the mean time, as evidenced by statements before & after the screening noting that the movie’s production created thousands of jobs for hardworking folks who are just doing their best, as if buying a theater ticket for yet another drab superhero disaster is somehow an act of charity & not a total waste of hard-earned money. I remain dubious to that point.

-Brandon Ledet

Entertainment (2015)

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Neil Hamburger’s comedy isn’t for everyone. Actually, that’s putting it too lightly. Neil Hamburger’s comedy is atrocious, just godawful, completely useless. Anti-comedy is a difficult trick to pull off. When it works, it’s a brilliant form of audience antagonism à la Andy Kaufman & his ilk (I defy anyone to watch Hamburger’s tirade against the Red Hot Chili Peppers without laughing at least once) but when it fails that antagonism feels like an empty exercise. Who could find a capable comedian intentionally telling shitty, unfunny jokes worthwhile if that’s the only thing they ever do? How is that entertainment? Neil Hamburger (aka Gregg Turkington) asks that question of himself in the pitch black comedy-drama Entertainment.

Entertainment follows a fictionalized version of Hamburger (billed here simply as “The Comedian”) on a stand-up comedy tour through the desolate American West. His opening act is an old-timey clown/mime (played by the immensely talented youngster Tye Sheridan). His venues are a depressing parade of prison cafeterias, hotel conference rooms, and dive bar stages. Bombing is essential to his act, which is true of the real-life Hamburger as well, but the movie takes it to a whole new low. Actual jokes from Hamburger’s routine are repeated verbatim in Entertainment, but any semblance of humor that can be found from in his work has been removed wholesale. All that is left is the antagonism. As “The Comedian” cracks monstrous jokes about rape, makes fart noises, and repeatedly pleads “Why? Why? Why?” in a piercing, nasal whine it makes all too much sense why no one in the audience is laughing. When he becomes savagely combative with them for not rewarding his efforts, you have absolutely no sympathy.

Just as director Rick Alverson disassembled Tim Heidecker’s brand of hipster anti-humor in The Comedy to make it into something unforgivably ugly & self-absorbed, he more or less repeats the trick for Neil Hamburger’s shtick here. Entertainment is about depression, addiction, and the uselessness of pursuing art for the sake of pursuing art, but it paints such an ugly portrait of the artist in question that there’s no sympathy to go around for his existential crisis (and intentionally so). You’re prompted to think “You should be depressed. Maybe you should quit comedy. Maybe life itself isn’t worth the effort for you.” There’s an excess of eerie imagery & spacial pacing in Entertainment that reaches for a Lynchian aesthetic I’m not sure that Alverson fully commands, so overall The Comedy endures as a much more confident, successful example of the anti-comedy-is-useless-cruelty genre the director is carving out for himself. Still, Entertainment stands as a brave act of self-reflection for Hamburger/Turkington & a pitch black drama/dark comedy for the art house crowd at large.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

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“Alright, scouts. Let’s kick some zombie ass.”

Man, these zombie horror comedies really do seem to write themselves. Here’s the basic premise of Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (as if you couldn’t infer it from the title alone): three teenage boy scouts try to get laid while the world (or at least their small town) crumbles around them into zombie mayhem. You can pretty much tell from there whether or not you’re on board with the movie’s grossout gore gags & sexual bro humor, which for better or for worse plays out exactly as you’d expect it to.  Imagine Superbad with extras from the “Thriller” video eating half the cast & you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. All its genre faithfulness aside, at least Scouts Guide doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of films like this: wimping out on the gore & sex jokes. It’s a very raunchy teen sex comedy & a very gory zombie flick, both elements over the top in their crassness. Fans of bro humor & disgusting splatter fests may know what they’re getting ahead of time, but are likely to leave somewhat satisfied.

Despite what you may assume from the title, Scouts Guide never provides a list of rules on how to survive the zombie apocalypse like the one Jesse Eisenberg reads off in Zombieland. The plot is much more straightforward in structure. After establishing that teenage boy scouts are unsexy nerds who can’t get laid, the film stages a 28 Days Later-type viral outbreak that shakes up their world enough to allow rites of passage like squeezing their first breasts, viewing their first strip tease, and (on a sweeter note) receiving their first kiss, all on the same night. And because they’re hormone-addled teenage boys, it just barely bothers them that these moments of intimacy are soaked in gore & viscera. Even though that gore is pretty standard in terms of zombie movie mayhem, it is at least enthusiastic enough in its details to make the effort worthwhile. If nothing else, I’m pretty sure it was the first time I had ever seen zombie cats, zombie deer, zombie scientists, zombie scout leaders, zombie cops, and zombie strippers all in the same film, And true to form, in terms of teenage boy sex humor, the movie also makes time to include zombie hand jobs, zombie rim jobs, and zombie cunnilingus while it was at it. It’s all very tasteless,  but it’s also just silly enough to work.

Even though I enjoyed Scouts Guide for what it was, I’m struggling to recall details that distinguish it from its zombie comedy peers. The reason I watched the film in the first place was that the star role was filled by the incredibly gifted Tye Sheridan. It was nice to see him have fun for a change, since most of his work to this point has been in grim dramas like Mud & Joe. Other supporting roles from familiar faces like David Koechner, Blake Anderson, and Cloris Leachman were wall pretty much on par with their previous comedy work, but nothing out of the ordinary. Only the strip club cocktail waitress played by Sarah Dumont stood out as a particularly bad performance, but what’s the point of a zombie movie if you don’t sneak at least one of those in there?

The rest of the film’s charms are a stray sly joke or two, like a strip club named Lawrence of Alabia, a zombie wearing a “YOLO” shirt, a pissant dude bro taking selfies with corpses, a grown man’s beyond-obsessive shrine to the fabulous Dolly Parton, etc. You’ve more or less seen everything else before: the chest-caving moment from The Thing, the landscaping equipment brutality of Dead Alive, you know the drill. If you can deal with a couple stray poop jokes, gratuitits nudity, and bros being bros (often with resulting punishment), Scouts Guide is an amusing, low stakes horror comedy. It also gets instant bonus points for valuing practical effects over CGI. It could’ve easily substituted details like zombie cat puppets & elastic zombie dicks with computer graphics, but instead they for the most part took the time to mimic the golden era of the genre in its gore effects, a dedication to the (admittedly trashy) craft that I truly appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet