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“Ready Player One” packs fun and replay value

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Steven Spielberg is the only director I can think of who can handle an adaptation like this. He has taken novels before with harsher characters and environments like Jaws or Jurassic Park. After having read Ready Player One, I figured he would have the opportunity to fix all the problems I had with the book’s pacing, story-line and connections to the characters. In many ways, Spielberg succeeds. However, there are times when I do feel there could be room for improvement here and there. On the whole, I’m still thankful to have a version that is far different from the source and knows when to have fun.

The story is set in the not-too distant future of 2045, were trailer parks are basically giant stacks of RVs. Everyone in the world is more invested in a virtual reality system called the OASIS, that is sort of like the Internet. The biggest difference is that it give many the ability to do what they want, even to go as far to cosplay as The Joker from Batman or drive the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

The creator of the OASIS, Jim Halliday (Mark Rylance), passes away and leaves his inheritance in the form of a giant video game. The set-up is simple. Beat the three levels, collect all three keys and the winner will get half a trillion dollars and complete control of the OASIS. Now, that is enough for everyone to jump to their VR visors and start hunting.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one of the players, who goes by the avatar name Parzival. In many ways, the Wade character is dorky, but at least identifiable. Unlike the Ernest Cline novel, where the character constantly spits out 1980s references, he at least seeks more than the prize. While his ambition is to beat the game, he’s not too selfish and knows when to help others out in need.

This comes to another character he meets named Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who is more than a girl with a badass attitude. I liked the tough approach they give her and they do hint she is much smarter than you think. Her and Wade hit it off with a romance that is a tad dorky, but cute enough to be accepted. They both have the same goal in mind to do something better for the world and both come from tragic backstories. Cliche, but they are better compared to the novel.

Also in the chase is a greedy business man named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who seeks to control the OASIS and make it an entire business affair. I found Nolan to be the right balance of cartoony for a video game character and his personality works well as a fun villain. There are times when he can get threatening near the end, but something about him lacks a certain menace like Matthew Modine’s character from Stranger Things. Yes, this guy will go as far to cheat his way, like in the novel, and they do allow extra time for us to know how big of a scum he is. While I didn’t find him threatening, at least until the last third, I still thought Mendelsohn’s performance was at least fun.

And that is the key word here, fun. Spielberg packs many scenes full of action and thrills that warrant much replay value. However, this is where the problem of this version of Ready Player One comes in. So much time is spend on these great set pieces, that we don’t get much with our characters. There are some nifty ideas like a museum in honor of Halliday that is run by a robot butler and moments like those got a good laugh out of me. But all of that is used for the sacrifice of knowing our characters more. When Wade does meet up with the real-life counterparts of his online friends, they meet, greet and move on to beat the final level. Part of me wishes that we could spend maybe a few minutes more understanding who these people are. I admit, the novel did add some interesting backstories to these kids which are somewhat missed.

Most of our time is spent going into 1980s horror movies, racing around New York and a battle, so massive, that I predict you will rent this on DVD and spend hours and hours freeze framing to see if your favorite character is there. The final moments alone are certain worth the admission price as characters from movies and video games band together to go against Sorrento and his army. But all of that at the risk of lacking development in certain things and people. There are times when they visually show the emotion and even visually show the way the world works without spelling it out. And yet, there are some lines of dialogue, or narration at the start, that exist just to set up things in this world.

But does that make Ready Player One worth skipping out? I don’t think so. Director Steven Spielberg is able to dig into elements of Cline’s novel and provide the best from the book while also adding needed improvement. Not everything is fixed, but I did except that. For all its faults, this movie still packs much that the average moviegoer can enjoy. If you liked Jaws, Jurassic Park, Gremlins, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Duel, The Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, Who Framed Roger Rabbit or The Adventures of Tintin, stop what you are doing and see this movie. After all, a little escapism from reality wouldn’t hurt….

Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: Stranger Things (Season 1)

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Stranger Things court NetflixOf all the TV shows that have debuted in recent years, nothing has compared to how much appreciation Stranger Things has gotten. Created by the Duffer Brothers, this grand throwback to everything 1980s feels more a time capsule of the decade. Coming from someone who is an easy prey for 1980s era movies, this series channels every 1980s pop culture trope/reference in existence and somehow weaves perfectly them together. One minute, it feels like Steven Spielberg is directing it, then it pulls something supernatural from a Stephen King story or includes teen drama from a John Hughes movie. For a series that offers so much, I didn’t think all these plot lines would somehow be tied together.

tumblr_inline_oac2ra1nhr1t6ym0o_1280Everything is centered on the disappearance of a kid named Will (Noah Schnapp) whose very vanishing triggers a domino effect of story. One minute, his mother (Winona Ryder) thinks found a way to communicate with her son through electricity, then suddenly the local police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) uncovers a bizarre conspiracy linked to Will’s disappearance. Even thought it all sounds complex on paper, this whole thing is easy to follow as we jump from one character to the next. Each plot thread either adds more clues to the odd things happening in town or helps the viewer get more acquainted with the people in the area.

boys-and-eleven-radio-roomThings get more complicated when a group of Will’s friends find a girl named “Eleven” (chilling performance by Millie Bobby Brown) who has telekinetic powers beyond belief and may hold the key to finding their missing friend Will. As expected, this is where most of the Spielberg-E.T. cliches kick in with the creature being hidden in the house as the thing tries to understand the world outside. But, there comes a set of fresh elements to keep it interesting. For one, Eleven looks like a normal girl and has the opportunity to hide within society. It gives the character more open freedom to act among people which is kind of a scary thought. Imagine if Carrie had the chance to mingle in a modern high school and you didn’t know she had these powerful abilities like channeling other worlds or destroying things with her mind. How would a normal human being be able to know she has the will to bend reality when they look like a normal person?

The John Hughes elements are centered around one of the boy’s sisters (Natalia Dyer) who pines for the hot jock and, you can sort of see where it goes. In laws of predictability, there is an outcast of some form she feels bad for, but believes he deserves help and it causes her boyfriend to act like a complete jerk about it-Again, you can clearly see where it goes. However, what you don’t except is the jock to actually turn around and even be some form of help at the end. At one point, he becomes useful in a fight against this bizarre monster near the climax and it shows that maybe he’s not that bad as you think.

21-stranger-things-steve-nancy.w1200.h630That’s what I love the most about this series. It keeps adding all these twists and turns keeping you second guessing about what’s coming next. For every new turn in the story, you just can’t help but wonder how it will all end. Even with things like the “big bad government agents,” which is a tiring cliche, Stranger Things knows how to use this well by showing how more devious they can be. Not since E.T. have I felt this trope can really pose as a huge threat. These are people that will do anything to keep a huge secret, even if it means faking a death or holding a family hostage.

There’s so much more I wish I could talk about, but it’s best for you to see Stranger Things for yourself. With season 2 around the corner, now would be a good time to catch up and see what everyone’s been praising about. For an 8 episode season, it’s really worth your time, If you like small tows with big mysteries like Twin Peaks or throwbacks like Super 8, this is worth the nostalgia trip. I’d go into deeper detail on why so much of it succeeds, but then I would have to ruin a good bulk of the plot your meant to discover. The best I can say is for anyone who grew up on a childhood diet of Spielberg, John Carpenter and Joe Dante with a small pinch of Stephen King’s writing, this is for the older crowd who grew up on those elements.

Stranger Things VHS Blu Ray DVD1On a side note, I should bring to light of the show’s recent Blu-Ray/DVD release. Target held an exclusive “special collector’s” edition where the packaging resembles an old VHS tape. Once the slipcover is removed, the discs are housed in a container that resembles a VHS tape with a “Be Kind Rewind” sticker for added nostalgia. It’s a nifty idea, but there is one major drawback. All you get is the entire first season on both Blu-ray and DVD in a fancy packaging…and that’s it. No audio commentaries from the Duffer Brothers, additional supplements or even a single behind the scenes featurette.

Stranger Things VHS Blu Ray DVD2Fans might be disappointed in the lack of extra material, but at least the first season can be seen in some physical form outside of the digital medium. The other additional plus is for people who don’t have Netflix can actually check this series out. Well for $24.99, it’s not a bad deal seeing this form of packaging is perfect for a show like this. However, it leaves you feeling there should be more to explore after binge watching a show like this. Considering there will be 3 more seasons (including the next one coming this Halloween) afterwards, it leaves one to wonder if there will be this “complete series” release. For now, I’m pleased to had this one in my collection, but this show deserves much better when housed in a grand box like this.

“Pete’s” dull and generic “Dragon”

dvnxj5nde6cjj-hzmo4lodtu15ulbzdj-largeThere were many things I questioned when watching the 2016 update of “Pete’s Dragon.” I was well aware director David Lowery wanted this take to be far removed from the 1977 musical. Honestly, I don’t blame him. I have a huge soft spot for the original, but will admit it does have flaws. The 1977 version is bloated and too goofy in certain spots. But perhaps, there is where the entertaining aspect came from. As I tried to accept the new version, I found myself at least appreciating it tried, but found myself hard to be engaged with it. Seeing it did get heavy praise from critics, is there something they missed or is there something wrong with me?

The plot for this new version takes the spine of the original and adds more meat to it. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is now a feral child that lost his family and seeks refuge with the green dragon. I give credit due to Fegley’s acting. His performance is going for a wild child take and it does work. But there was something problematic about it to me. For a kid that is lost in the woods for six years and goes “Tarzan,” chances are his vocabulary will either be limited or his speech will be underdeveloped. Having taken up psychology in college, I read up on cases where kids would be treated and lived like animals to the point they act like primitive; most notable is Victor of Aveyron. For if a child like Pete can’t understand what a balloon is or even the purpose of a sandwich, then why have him speak at all?

The reason for his survival is under the wing of a giant dragon he names Elliot. Much like the original, Elliot is big, green and the ability to turn invisible. What’s different this time around is that he’s all CGI and covered in fur. I guess someone had Falkor from NeverEnding Story in mind when designing him, but it goes against the idea of Elliot’s original design. Not only did Don Bluth animate the 1977 version, but he was also modeled after a Chinese dragon in respect for how good they are. There’s a sense of innocence and mischievous personality that feels lost in the new take. Despite the good efforts of WETA Digital, this new Elliot doesn’t have much personality and takes on the feel of a big dog. Again, I know the intent was to make this akin to being cute, but this Elliot was anything but interesting as the story expects us to know his relationship with Pete and not see it develop. I think it would have been wiser to see their relationship much like how Tarzan grew with the apes in 1984’s “Greystoke” instead of just expecting us to accept it.

The new incarnation is also treated to an array of new elements that are either there to distinguish itself or try and improve things. Gone is the fishing town Passamaquoddy, and we get an unnamed town with a logging industry. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces the character of the lighthouse keeper with a forest ranger that takes Pete in and tries to understand his survival. Robert Redford is underused as a man who claims to have seen the same dragon in comparison to the overzealous town drunk Mickey Rooney played. A scheming medicine doctor is replaced with a hunter (Karl Urban) that seeks to capture the dragon. And the list goes on.

As I watched this new version, I kept wondering just how these different elements work or even pay off in this version. Some of it does have a sense of good set up like a subtle environmental message which disappears once it gets introduced. Even character motives are lost in the group showing perhaps this version should have been thought out more. Once Urban’s character captures the dragon, he claims to have big plans when he honestly just spitballs a few ideas and claims to own the dragon. There is no real motive outside of just existing for the sake of being a conflict here. I even hoped there would be more purpose to things added in like the logging company playing a part or even Redford’s character. But most of is minimally used or gets abandoned upon first sight.

In a nutshell, “Pete’s Dragon” tries to be more like the typical fantasy family film without a drop of edge, but falls into an unfortunate trap. Instead of giving characters with interesting motives and despite doing different things, it falls into the category of boy or family gets a unique creature and does something with it. I can’t tell you how many variations I have seen of this story line ranging from “Harry and the Hendersons” to “*batteries not included” to even “D.A.R.Y.L.” It’s hard to tell if director Lowery’s intentions were to pay homage to these kind of movies, but I can say what sets itself apart from those is a lack of darkness. “Pete’s Dragon” plays itself so safe, that you can very much predict what will happen before the end credits roll. And even then, the samples I just mentioned are FAR more creditable than this one.

This one is certainly harder to recommend simply because it feels more like an outline for a “Pete’s Dragon” reboot and less like an actual fleshed out story. I found myself nearly nodding off at times due to the slow pace and had a hard time trying to keep focus for what was meant to be a simple story. I guess kids might be ok with this movie. And yet after the theatrical experience I had, my thoughts are starting to question that. Midway through the movie, a family actually walked out of the theater as wrapped in their arms was a sleeping kid. Even near the trash cans, a little girl was more fascinated with the garbage instead of the “wonder” on the screen. And she was gone right before the end credits even began. I argue that little kids might be bored or even grow tiresome about midway after how slow and plodding things are. If I walked out on this movie, I wouldn’t have regretted it. But my honest regret about this new “Pete’s Dragon” was not walking out on it.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: The Howling

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Dante at his....not worse...not best...just ok

Dante at his….not worse…not best…just ok

Joe Dante is by far one of my favorite directors. He knows how to take a simple premise and it make it plausible while wildly inventive. He had kids visiting aliens, a teenager defending his town against little green monsters and a man going inside another’s body bite sized. His films are loaded with B-movie references, repeated actors and have this distinctive charm that gives it a likable quality even if its not his best. Well, considering we haven’t dipped into the world of Dante or talked about werewolves that much (with the exception of The Wolf Man), lets see what happens if these two collided in The Howling.

Dee Wallace stars as Karen White, a Los Angeles news reporter who acts like one of those “hard copy” anchors that we normally see on shows like 20/20 or WNBC’s Help Me Hank. The film starts off with her trying to get a scoop on a serial killed played by Robert Picardo who is surprisingly creepy in this role. Knowing Picardo’s comedic tone in later Dante films, its nice to see a chance of pace. The most notable and effectively moment is when Karen goes to the back room of an adult shop to find him there in one of the film booths. The darkened theater atmosphere really puts you in the moment as she sits in the dark knowing he is there. And when he does appear, he doesn’t play around like its a game. He really sees her as prey. Its a scary scene that is executed with tight close-ups and darkened lighting and that is the film’s first problem. Its such a climatic opener that almost feels like it would be great as the end. And that is where things go downhill.

Dee Wallace is stalked by a serial killer in one of the best scenes in the movie

Dee Wallace is stalked by a serial killer in one of the best scenes in the movie

Karen experiences a traumatic shock and is recommended to take a vacation in a countryside resort called “The Colony.” She takes her husband along and finds all sorts of strange and quirky characters including a sultry nymphomaniac that takes interest in her spouse. From here on, the rest of the movie takes a quiet backseat as we go between spa treatments to little intense moments. There’s a very slow pace that goes on in these scenes after experiencing such an adrenaline rush at the start. Its not long till its revealed the “Colony’s” inhabitants are really werewolves trying to live secretly. They try to make it a big twist near the end but its revealed too soon once Karen’s husband starts seeing the leader of pack more than his wife. The actual twist is really one of its inhabitants which I won’t give away but considering how big of an element this is, you wish there was more focus to it.

You know what. Maybe there is a reason we don't see the Colony's werewolves that much...

You know what. Maybe there is a reason we don’t see the Colony’s werewolves that much…

The folks in the “Colony” are not the kind of quirky folks you would see on Twin Peaks. Little time is spent with them to the point they feel like a plot element more than actually characters. It would have been interesting to see a sympathetic side or even view more of the place. In fact, I wish more time was spent on the resort and getting to know these people. The Howling runs at such a brisk pace that it doesn’t stop to take a breath or even build on atmosphere. Unlike House of Wax where it was good and calm for a good portion and built to a nail-bitting end, this one just trudges at a slow pace and that’s fine. Not all films need something energetic and grand but something about this idea and the movie as a whole doesn’t seem to pack much punch.

A still from the deleted stop-motion effects by David W. Allen. As you can see, it really seems out of place with Rob Bottin's effects (see above pic)

A still from the deleted stop-motion effects by David W. Allen. As you can see, it really seems out of place with Rob Bottin’s effects (see above pic)

Rob Bottin does the special effects giving the transformation scenes a very gruesome execution seeing his “bubbling flesh” technique really feels effective but it doesn’t have that flare like An American Werewolf in London when we saw David Naughton’s body bend and break into a canine form. Here, its like watching soup take a solid form. Its hard to explain why I feel a tad underwhelmed about Bottin’s effects work here. His craft is unique but something about doesn’t fit here. Its too rubbery at times and the wolf designs look more rabbit and less dog-like. We even don’t get to see much of them near the end which is a bit disappointing. However, David W. Allen does provide some stop-motion animation but its only used for one shot near the end. Originally, his work would have been used in the climax but due to the limitation of stop-motion and seeing they were unsure of using anamatronics at the time, David’s work was reduced to a mere seconds on film. An interview detailing the work he did along with the unused shots can be viewed as a DVD extra and perhaps it was wise not to use these shots seeing they don’t match the rest of the film.

I feel bad seeing how I really love Joe Dante’s work but this wasn’t his best. The Howling did have a cult following and I can see why. The first scene is easily the best while the rest of the movie takes an absurd idea like a resort full of werewolves and make it believable. Dante succeeds as always but the slow pace and the the lack of seeing a full bodied werewolf or even a group of them ruined it for me. If there was more time spent with the strange folk and perhaps keep it intense as the first sequence, it would have been a better movie. To me, its really a mixed bag. I like the idea and some scenes are effectively scary but it makes you wish the rest of movie was like that and not so laid back.