Katy says the challenges in the book are all about solving complex puzzles, and it sounds like the whole 1980’s obsession is explained better, but we’re at the movies now, so some quick backstory narration and a killer car race will do just fine. Our dude Parzival (Tye Sheridan of Joe and Mud, young Cyclops in the last X-Men) figures out how to cheat at the racecar event and win the first of three keys in a massive contest to gain control over the virtual-reality universe that all the poor suckers on the dying planet of the future spend all their time in, meanwhile falling for Artemis, a hot red avatar his own age who turns out to be an actual hot girl his own age (Olivia Cooke of Thoroughbreds). Parzival’s badass tough-dude engineer buddy H turns out to be Lena Waithe (Master of None) and his ninja friend Sho is actually 11 years old – they’re all kinda okay kids, but I don’t know if it’s a happy ending when they’re handed the keys to the global economy at the end, and besides shuttering the evil company run by lame Ben Mendelsohn, they close the internet for a couple days per week so kids have time to make out.

Alison Willmore calls it an accidental horror movie:

A lot of the pop culture references in the adaptation have been updated, improved, added to, or made more cinematic, including a sequence in which The Shining gets turned into a survival horror experience in a way that’s both blasphemous and easily the most memorable part of the movie. But onscreen, even though familiar characters (Duke Nukem! Gundam! Chucky!) fill the frame, franchises cross, and the legal fees to clear everything must have been astronomical, Ready Player One doesn’t really feel like it’s about nostalgia. Instead, it seems more concerned with escapism, and how much its characters use pop culture as a womb to shelter them from the ugly realities they’ve accepted from the world outside. It’s not about looking back so much as looking away.

Feature film directors (and Meryl Streep) tell the tales of American feature film directors in the 1930’s and 40’s who were sent to war to make documentaries for the homefront… with one of the best motion-graphics-meets-stock-footage opening title sequences. If you’re interested in filmmakers and/or war, the whole thing’s just fascinating.

William Wyler, fresh off the inspirational Mrs. Miniver, rages against racism while Frank Capra is producing Private Snafu cartoons. Working (mostly) under Capra, John Ford and George Stevens are sent to film D-Day. John Huston makes the gritty San Pietro, using mostly reenacted fight footage but real dead bodies. And Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland proves himself a poor director. Stevens went on to film the liberation of concentration camps, while Wyler snuck a trip home and found the holocaust had killed his family and all their neighbors. In the end, Huston’s final work about emotionally wounded soldiers was censored for decades, Ford returned to make They Were Expendable, and Capra/Wyler/Stevens founded their own Liberty Studio, which immediately went broke on the flop It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’d love to watch a bunch of the original documentaries themselves, all available on netflix: Battle of Midway, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, Let There Be Light, The Negro Soldier, The Battle of Russia, Nazi Concentration Camps and Memphis Belle. But that’s six hours of WWII docs, and it’s Cannes Month now, and six movies I want to see opened in theaters this week, and a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 just came out, and it’s baseball season…

“You know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul towards justice has ossified in white men and women … White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country’s infinite abundance with Negroes.”

I’m not fully convinced that Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abe Lincoln is realistic – he seems too wise and charming, too capable and upright, too able to manipulate fellow politicians who ought to know better, too perfectly Spielbergian. But that kind of politics sure felt good to watch in the present day when leaders of the “Party of Lincoln” run our government like cartoon villains. This is actually covered in the film when TL Jones dresses down a spineless adversary: “The modern travesty of Thomas Jefferson’s political organization to which you’ve attached yourself like a barnacle has the effrontery to call itself the Democratic Party.” Even after all the acclaim I wasn’t sure it’d be that captivating a film, but every performance is on point, the story is true-ish and meaningful and inspiring, there’s drama and humor and it’s got the best lighting I’ve seen in any movie all year.

Opens unexpectedly with post-battle David Oyelowo talking to the president. Besides Lincoln and his wife Sally Field and son Joey Gordon-Levitt there’s David Strathairn as the hesitant secretary of state, James Spader and John Hawkes as the president’s lobbyists sent to change senators’ minds (via bribery if necessary), Tommy Lee Jones (with a hairpiece so ridiculous he makes a joke of it himself) as a radical leftist senator. Walt Goggins and Adam Driver pop up, and Stephen Henderson of Fences, and Jackie Earle Haley and hundreds more.

Soldiers sent to meet the confederate delegation:

Interesting and (obviously) expertly made and acted drama following U.S. lawyer Donovan hired to defend captured Russian spy Abel in American courts. He gets behind the job more than his bosses expected and is later talked into helping negotiate a trade: his client for an American spy the Russians captured, and possibly also for a student who found himself on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

I got mostly a Spielberg/Hanks flavor from it, but Sam Adams caught some good Coen Bros. screenplay moments:

Donovan’s first scene in Bridge of Spies shows him haggling with another lawyer over an insurance settlement – a strangely protracted exchange that bears the mark of the Coens’ habit of falling in love with their own dialogue. But the skirmish between them is linguistic as well as legal: Donovan’s opponent keeps referring to the driver of the car that crashed and injured five men as “your guy”, and Donovan keeps demurring: “We are talking about a guy who’s insured by my client. He’s not my guy.” The issue of whether Abel is or is not “his guy” is later raised in court, and it hangs over the rest of the movie. Is Donovan simply a lawyer doing his appointed duty, or has he actually begun to understand how the world looks from Abel’s point of view?

Now Playing: a Billy Wilder comedy set in West Berlin, the blacklist-busting Spartacus,
British horror with German director, and 1962 West German murder mystery based on British novel:

Appearances by Alan Alda and Amy Ryan. Mark Rylance won an oscar for playing the passive and unflappable captured spy, whose signature line whenever asked why he’s not worrying is “would it help?” Adam Nayman’s Cinema Scope writeup, which I’m too tired to type up here, gets to the bottom of some of my ambivalent feelings about the story and the cold war atmosphere.

So, in the straightforward ending, pre-crime dept. head Max Von Sydow murdered precog Samantha Morton’s inconvenient mother and good cop Colin Farrell, while Cruise’s ex-wife springs him from The Attic to bring justice and a happy ending. But an article Katy found says the ending is too idyllic and perhaps Cruise never awoke from The Attic, but actually dreams the last half hour Brazil-style. I love that the movie works either way.

Highlights: creepy doctor Peter Stormare and the following scene with retina-scanning spiders invading his apartment complex, Cruise escaping via auto assembly line, Morton’s freaked-out performance, the still-exciting technology and how most of it is becoming real. Katy is hung up on the mismatched architecture/design styles of all the interiors.

Futurama season 5 (2002-03)

The first season on Cartoon Network (after the four movies) feels like the show never left. Particularly excellent episodes were the first one (explaining the few years’ absence and the crew’s sorta-survival from a massive crash) and a time-travel story.

The Thick of It season 2 (2007)

A weird “season” in two hour-long chunks, showing our government goons from season one and their opposition group (“the nutters”) who think they’ll be taking power when the prime minister resigns. Fewer jokes, insults and comprehensible situations to someone as dumb about British politics as I am. Season four just aired, exciting.

Screenwipe season 5 (2008)

I can’t seem to stop watching this, even though it’s irrelevant to my life and I don’t get most of the jokes. I just like Charlie Brooker. Best was the episode on children’s programming, less good was the humor-free double-length one on TV writing. Also checked out the special Gameswipe, an unhelpful hour introducing video games to people who are afraid of them.

Patterns (Jan 12, 1955)

A workplace drama that put writer Rod Serling on the map. It was a huge hit, re-broadcast (re-performed, since it’s done live) the next month and turned into a film the following year with the same director, Fielder Cook (from Atlanta).

New executive Staples arrives at the office, gets introduced to big boss Everett Sloane (Welles’s scheming employer in The Lady From Shanghai) and nervous coworker Ed Begley. The boss intends for Staples to take Begley’s place, but has to get rid of Begley first – can’t just fire him, so he tries to force the guy out, finally succeeding when Begley has a heart attack after a ruthless attack at a board meeting. Staples protests, thinks of himself as a good man recognizing corruption in the system, but he and his wife want this position and promotion too badly so he goes along with it. Nicely mobile camera, with bigger sets than Marty.

Ghost Train, the first episode of Amazing Stories, directed by Spielberg in 1985 – which I watched when it premiered. Lukas Haas, the main kid in Mars Attacks! is the boy whose grandpa (Roberts Blossom: scary neighbor in Home Alone) awaits the train that he derailed 75 years ago, killing everyone aboard. The train coming through the family’s house is impressive – the rest is a bit too Spielbergian-lite, but an improvement on his Twilight Zone episode.

Also watched an (cr)apocalyptic double-feature of Cloverfield and The Day After Tomorrow with Rifftrax.

Not an actual movie, but an admirable simulacrum. Abrams imagines a mid-80’s Spielberg adventure, complete with teenage protagonists each with a couple sympathetic personal details, aliens and intrigue (“Do not speak of this or else you and your parents will die,” says Glynn Turman, who was also the first casualty in Spielberg-produced Gremlins), likeably honest small-towners and evil shadowy government conspiracy. That’s actually the thing I liked most about the movie, watching it the same week as the politically shady Contagion. Abrams puts his unique directorial stamp on the material (just kidding – he simply floods it with lens flares).

I found a shot of the kids without lens flare:

Glynn Turman:

Kid named Joe is helping made a zombie movie with friends, who recruit his crush Alice (Elle Fanning, tiny Cate Blanchett in The Benjamin Buttons). With names like Joe, Alice and their buddy Preston, sometimes it seems like this was written as a 1940’s movie then changed at last minute. Joe’s mom died in a factory accident caused indirectly by Alice’s dad, Joe’s dad (Kyle Chandler of Katy’s football show) is the town cop, Charles (the super-8 director) has a thing for Alice – these are our token character details, the Stand By Me half of the big-budget action movie. Seems that a vindictive alien escaped from gov’t captivity when Turman drove his pickup truck onto train tracks causing an outrageously overdone crash, which throws train cars into the air like in a Transformers flick but doesn’t kill Turman or fully destroy his truck. Shadowy gov’t agent Nelec will finish the poor guy off before being dispatched by the alien, who proceeds to loot the area of all wiring, engines and other metal bits to construct a vessel home, finally turning the town water tower into a Katamari Damacy electro-magnet.

Runaway dog map:

The kid’s sentimental locket is Katamari-bound:

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010, Jon Turteltaub)
Our brash teen hero is driving around anxiously. But elsewhere – Alfred Molina/Nicholas Cage wizard battle! That’s what I came here for. The CGI flies as dark sorceress Monica Bellucci unleashes ancient evils. Cage inhales her face, Mummy Returns-style, but gets possessed by dark powers. Then our teen hero discovers the power was within him all along. From the director of the National Treasure series and the first 3 Ninjas.

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002, Jay Roach)
Instead of the last ten minutes, I enjoyed the Tom Cruise / Gwynyth Paltrow / Kevin Spacey / Danny Devito / Steven Spielberg open and the Britney Spears / Quincy Jones credits sequence. If I hadn’t read the reviews when this came out, I’d gladly sit through the rest of this. While Myers has kept busy voicing cartoons lately, Roach made a Ben Stiller and a Steve Carell comedy, neither of which looks good.

Mercury Rising (1998, Harold Becker)
One of those generic-looking action thrillers from the late 90’s with a forgettable nonsense title. Alec Baldin is the government baddie, and after watching four seasons of 30 Rock I cannot deal with him in a straight role anymore. I thought Bruce Willis was doing pretty well in the 90’s – what would make him agree to something like this? The two stars are fighting on a greenscreen roof until Bruce saves the autistic kid who cracked some kinda government code according to the plot description, sending Alec to a gruesome death plummet. Becker also made other action thrillers with generic names like Sea of Love, Malice, City Hall and Domestic Disturbance.

Starship Troopers 3 (2008, Edward Neumeier)
Two women are praying, and a giant beastie made of dodgy CGI is arising from a volcano, until Casper Van Dien’s dodgy-CGI power suit comes and rescues them. Looks like the worst movie ever, and practically a cartoon with all the poorly-rendered graphics. Neumeier wrote the original Starship Troopers and Robocop, so he can’t be all bad, but he also wrote all their shameful sequels, so maybe he is.

The Funhouse (1981, Tobe Hooper)
Looks like our heroine (who played Mozart’s wife in Amadeus) has finally reached the breaking point into psychosis when presented with the dead body of her (husband? brother? best friend?) by a robot clown. After a long suspenseful chase sequence, a dude in a drooling latex mask catches up with her, but gets electrocuted and chewed up in some gears while she screams uselessly. Some heroine. A forgotten feature made by Tobe between Salem’s Lot and Poltergeist, from the writer of that gag 1990 Captain America movie.

Blood Creek (2009, Joel Schumacher)
The man once in charge of the Batman franchise is now making direct-to-video nazi zombie flicks? Apparently his career was destroyed not by his derided comic movies or his despicable follow-up 8mm, but by the 2004 Phantom of the Opera. Some people are running from the nazi, and some from the zombie, who has a wormie in his forehead just like Jeffrey Combs in From Beyond. Anyway, this looks no good, but at least the effects are better than the above three movies combined. From the “writer” of a whole bunch of remakes.

Stone (2010, John Curran)
Robert De Niro’s house is on fire! He rescues his wife, who gripes some religion at him. Flash forward, Rob is retiring, and is an asshole. Then he finds, and does not kill Ed Norton, who steps back into the shadows. Some stuff about redemption and god’s will, oh and here’s Milla Jehovavich finally, in a bar. The sound mixer thinks he’s all that. Was a time I wouldn’t have missed a De Niro/Norton movie, but that time was about a year before The Score came out. From director of The Painted Veil and writer of Junebug – weird combination.

War of the Worlds (2005, David Latt)
Another one of those quickie direct-to-video titles designed to confuse Blockbuster patrons looking for the Tom Cruise version. C. Thomas Howell plays substitute Tom Cruise here (he’s also sub-Jennifer Connelly in The Day The Earth Stopped and sub-Will Ferrell in The Land That Time Forgot). Some guy informs us D.C. is gone (budget filmmaker’s motto: tell, don’t show) and the rebellion is hiding out in the Blue Ridge mountains, and oh here’s Jake Busey as an authoritarian dick army man, cool. But Howell makes it to D.C., gazes at some CG backgrounds, crosses a bridge that crumbled in a totally believable way (destroyed but for a convenient walking path down the center), chats with a dying alien tripod (err, 4 or 5-pod) and is reunited with his family in the last minute. Just like the Spielberg version, except not any good. From the writer of The Da Vinci Treasure, AVH: Alien vs. Hunter and Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls.

“This means something. This is important.”

Ever since I first saw Close Encounters (must’ve been on TV before I was ten) that line has come to mind whenever I see a big pile of mashed potatoes. But I got two things wrong. Firstly, Richard Dreyfuss doesn’t say that line during the mashed potato scene, but earlier. And second, I remembered the movie being a long, slow, boring build-up to a brief, awesome alien sequence, but it’s more of a medium, slightly boring buildup to a long, quite boring alien sequence. Either way, it’s safe to say it’s not my favorite Spielberg movie.

I’ve been meaning to watch more movies from 1977, the year I was born, to figure out what people were up to back then, but it only raises more questions. How was Richard Dreyfuss allowed to be a movie star? I wonder if Spielberg and Lucas (for Star Wars) being up for the same best-director oscar was the ’70’s equivalent of when Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line were nominated for best picture, only back then Spielberg was the arthouse favorite and in ’98 his was the slam-bang commercial juggernaut to Malick’s more contemplative war movie. How did Francois Truffaut end up co-starring in a Hollywood movie, and did it help his later films get into American theaters?

F. Truffaut, and is that Bob Balaban?

Some thoughts:

Is the movie endorsing men having extra-marital affairs and abandoning their families? Dreyfuss has three kids, but when his wife doesn’t understand him he bonds with Melinda Dillon instead, then at the end he leaves not just his home but the planet.

The government is preparing some guys in Devo jumpsuits to go into space as earth ambassadors, but the only time we see them in training it’s at a last-call religious meeting. Gives the weird feeling that they’ve been selected for some kind of Christian mission to the aliens.

Jeez, but Teri Garr as Dreyfuss’s wife is shouty and has no patience at all. I mean admittedly he builds a full-on rock reconstruction of Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower in their living room, but she has already moved out by then, always having seemed more hysterical than sympathetic. Good contrast was Barbara Rush in Bigger Than Life, whose husband is losing his mind, but she never stops trying to help him. Compared to that, Garr is a one-dimensional bitch whom Dreyfuss was right to leave (though it means leaving the kids in her care, so there’s no winning this one).

Teri Garr is unhappy:

Some guy named Larry (Josef Sommer of Stepford Wives) shows up at the Devil’s Tower then falls behind and gets gassed (the visual effect of the gas shown with dazed little birds falling in front of the camera – classy). Who was he? Besides the gassing/evacuation/secrecy, the government seems surprisingly non-hostile.

Wow, Lance Henriksen looks young.

All the backgrounds look fake – even in Wyoming. They’re not fake in a latter-day CGI manner, but in an old-timey studio painted-backdrop kind of way – and the forest Dillon runs through after her son looks so carefully arranged. Strange that a movie which was probably state-of-the-art in ’77 (with the the effects guy from 2001: A Space Odyssey) seems quaint now, years more old-fashioned than its contemporary 1977 Star Wars.

Dillon under a false sky:

The first encounter with the aliens by Melinda Dillon’s young son (Cary Guffey, cast next in a couple of Italian-opportunist alien comedies) foreshadows two later Spielberg productions: Poltergeist (toys coming to life, scary tree shadows waking the kid) then E.T. (the aliens raid the fridge).

All this gentle-alien cuteness, communicating through music and sign language, abductees returned unharmed, the slow buildup to the slow conclusion – it all seems anticlimactic after you’ve watched Mars Attacks a few times.