Wednesday, July 18, 2018

My Favorite Louis Malle Film

As you might expect, my prep for many of my "Great Directors" posts involve hurried marathons of the chosen director's films that I haven't watched yet. Sometimes this is to help make them eligible for a post, and sometimes it's to check off a last few famous titles to scratch my completionist itch. However, I've usually picked out a title to write about for the directors I want to feature well in advance of these marathons. I've never actually found a new favorite during the last mad rush. Until now.

See, I was fully expecting to write this post about Louis Malle's "Lacombe, Lucien," the very engrossing and very timely story of a brutish young man who joins the Nazi party and comes to regret it. Then I watched Malle's 1960 film "Zazie dans le Métro," about a ten year old brat who visits family in Paris and takes the opportunity to run amok. And I was totally, utterly won over immediately. "Zazie" is a clear forerunner of my favorite French fantasy, Surrealist, and magical realist films, like Jean Pierre-Jeunet's "Amelie" and Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." It's been cited as a formative influence by A.O. Scott and Richard Ayoade, who saw it when they were kids. Truffaut and Kurosawa were reportedly fans too.

And why wouldn't they be? I can't think of many cinematic children as enchantingly infuriating as little Zazie, played by Catherine Demongeot. With her giant grin, boyish haircut, and bouncy, playful demeanor, she's a perfect little rascal. She's fearlessly demanding, unreasonable, precocious, and smart. Even though the Métro is on strike, she spends the whole movie fixated on riding it. She thinks nothing of throwing around dirty words or joking about being the victim of sex crimes. She runs rings around her poor Uncle Gabriel, Trouscaillon the cop, and any other adult who would try to assert authority over her. And she's perfectly at home in the film's Surrealist version of Paris, a colorful place brimming over with cinematic wonders.

In Zazie's world, shoes tie themselves just offscreen. Balloons have a mind of their own. Grownups are often very silly, and speak in mangled malapropisms. Two of the film's major setpieces are manic chase sequences, and carried out using the cartoon logic of old silent comedies. In the first, Zazie and Trouscaillon traipse all over the city in fast motion, and then play one slapstick gag after another in quick succession with silly props, wild sound effects, and carnival music. In the second, a chaotic car chase through Paris traffic involves several physically impossible stunts and highly unlikely vehicles. Adult characters are wildly exaggerated, both in appearance and behavior, and have a tendency to let their amorous urges get the better of them.

There's so much going on in the film, and the pace is so hyperactive, it can be overwhelming. Zazie herself is exhausted by the final act and sleeps through the concluding brawl in a restaurant. It's a mistake to write the film off as a minor effort, though, just because it's content is so joyfully juvenile. There's a wealth of beautiful shots and inventively composed visuals, brief as some of them may be. The sight of Zazie caught between two mirrors, creating an infinity of doubles, is a highlight. So is the whole weird, wacky Eiffel Tower sequence. I love the little details like a mugging happening in the background of a shot, or a cat wandering into the middle of a chase briefly. It's impossible to take in everything with only a single viewing.

Louis Malle is an interesting figure in French cinema, who was active during the New Wave, and is sometimes treated as part of it, but didn't really have ties to that crowd. He was one of the most versatile French directors, with an impressively variety of films on his resume, but there's really nothing else I've from him that looks like "Zazie." There's his penchant for sexual provocation, and several thoughtful films about the pains of childhood and growing up, but none of this freewheeling, madcap energy. At times the film feels positively experimental, with its pre-"Breathless" jump-cuts and sped-up action that he rarely used anywhere else.

And that just adds to the delightfulness of discovering "Zazie." It's such a surprise on every level, still a little bit shocking and a little bit risque after nearly sixty years. Critics of the era didn't seem quite sure of what to do with it. Audiences were likewise hesitant, though some went ahead and fell in love with it. As for me, I've never seen Paris rendered in such fantastic, frenetic fashion. It's a kid's eye view of the city at the beginning of the New Wave. It's too much of a good thing. And it's wonderful.

What I've seen - Louis Malle

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
The Lovers (1958)
Zazie Dans Le Métro (1960)
The Fire Within (1963)
Murmur of the Heart (1971)
Lacombe, Lucien (1974)
Black Moon (1975)
Pretty Baby (1978)
Atlantic City (1980)
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)


Monday, July 16, 2018

And What Didn't Make My 2017 Top Ten List

As a companion piece to my Top Ten list, every year I write a post to discuss some of the other major films that got a lot of attention, in order to give some context to my own choices. I find that writing this type of analysis piece helpful when working out how I feel about my list and the year in film as a whole. It's also usually a lot of fun. Please note that I will not be writing about films listed among my honorable mentions like "I, Tonya" and "Mudbound."

So let's start with the Oscar favorites. I've already mentioned in other posts that I was surprised that this year's frontrunners were the films I considered to be the weaker nominees in the Best Picture race. While I was overall positive on "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and "The Shape of Water," I thought both had significant weaknesses and were nowhere near the best work of their directors. "Three Billboards" was admirably ambitious, but also clunky in its execution and full of unforced filmmaking errors. "The Shape of Water" got a lot of things right, but its attention wandered in the second half, and I felt like important scenes were cut or missing. Also, some of that dialogue was very unfortunate.

Now, "Call Me By Your Name" was much higher in the ranks, but I found it awfully slow going, and only the last half hour or so proved very compelling. There are things that it does very well, but frankly this just isn't my kind of movie. "The Post" was full of wonderful things, and managed to utterly fail to live up to any of them. It's a shame, because there are a lot of little moments that I really loved in that film, but overall it's so unfocused and oddly derivative of better films. I have no complaints about "Darkest Hour," not even the subway scenes, which fit perfectly well into the kind of patriotic, larger-than-life Churchill lionizing that Joe Wright was aiming for. I just wasn't a fan of what he was aiming for, beautifully executed as it was.

The big mainstream hits turned up some interesting titles. However, as much as I appreciate the success of "Wonder Woman," I thought it was a perfectly average film. "Spider-man: Homecoming" was my favorite superhero flick this year, with "Logan" a respectable second. "The Last Jedi" is my favorite "Star Wars" film in a long time, but it's so uneven that there was no way I could justify putting it anywhere on the final list. Meanwhile, the new adaptation of Stephen King's "It" came out better than I expected, but I wouldn't call it a great film by any measure. I also found that it was largely overshadowed by a very satisfying second season of "Stranger Things."

I'm still in the process of watching the notable foreign films of last year, and there have been some interesting finds. Sadly, it was difficult for me to find much empathy for the central characters of "BPM" and "Nocturama." "Raw" was an interesting take on genre themes, but I found the ending kind of a mess. I liked parts of "The Square," though I'm not sure that I was ever on the same page with it. Finally, I was totally unable to wrap my head around what Bong Joon-ho was trying to do with "Okja," which was weird to the point of off-putting.

It wasn't a very good year for animation. "Coco" was groundbreaking in many important respects, but Miguel gets more and more exasperating on rewatches. Meanwhile the two highly touted independent animated features in the awards race, "Loving Vincent" and "The Breadwinner," both failed to impress. I'm very surprised that "Mary and the Witch's Flower" didn't get more attention, even if I wasn't all that enamoured with it.

And very quickly, "Wind River" miscast a major role and chose the wrong POV character, "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" felt like Lanthimos repeating himself and was too absurd to take at face value, "The Disaster Artist" was way too self-congratulatory, "The Beguiled" suffered in comparison to the original film, "Baby Driver" ran out of gas too early, and the Safdie brothers' "Good Time" went over my head.

Movies that almost made the honorable mentions list include "The Big Sick" and "Norman." Also, big kudos to the crew of "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" for delivering the best surprise of the year.

But oddly, the film most representative of the year may be "The Greatest Showman," an old fashioned original musical about P.T. Barnum's circus. It premiered seven months after Barnum's real circus closed for good, and a week after it was announced that the producing studio, Twentieth Century Fox, would be acquired by Disney. Times are changing, and changing fast.

And that's my 2017 in film.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 2017

I didn't watch as many recent films for 2017 as I did in previous years, partially due to lack of time and partially due to suffering some burnout. However, I found plenty to appreciate. 2017 was a dramatic and tumultuous year for the movies in every conceivable way, from the plunging box office numbers to the #Metoo and #Timesup movements, to the ongoing cultural wars raging around prominent titles like "Wonder Woman" and "Get Out." For my part, I did my best to give movies featuring women and created by women more benefit of the doubt. There were some inescapable disappointments, but also plenty of surprises too.

My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2017, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count. Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, and previously posted reviews are linked where available. The "Plus One" spot is reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list, because I've quit trying to wait for those last few foreign titles to finally hit home media. These lists are published late enough as it is.

And here we go.

Thelma - A Nordic supernatural thriller that takes a young woman's sexual awakening to some dark and uncomfortable places. This is director Joachim Trier's first foray into genre material, and it's a chilling one, full of potent nightmare imagery and haunting spiritual gulfs. I appreciate that the parents, typically the antagonists in this kind of story, are portrayed with unusual sympathy, leaving the audience to determine whether any party can be treated as truly innocent or monstrous.

Lady Bird - The magic of "Lady Bird" is that it gives us a view into the life of an average teenage girl, bored to death with her suburban surroundings, lets us sympathize with her, and then shows us how fleeting and precious her world really is. Greta Gerwig's directorial debut lovingly captures her hometown of Sacramento, the complexities of parent/child relationships, and the twilight time of late adolescence. It's all so painfully familiar, but presented with unusual insight and empathy.

Get Out - Accidentally the most topical movie of 2017, "Get Out" is a horror film about race relations and social anxieties that isn't afraid to confront its audience. It's so well observed and so efficient in its humor and commentary, deftly lampooning all the little hypocrisies and biases of well-meaning white folks. You'll never look at tea cups or Froot Loops the same way again. This is also one of the most entertaining films of the year, with a fist pumping, expectation-defying ending that lands perfectly.

Faces Places - A lark of a documentary, devoted simply to the act of making art and seeing its effects on regular, everyday people. The photographer and muralist JR and the beloved auteur Agnes Varda form an appealing odd couple, and eventually the film's rambling meta-narrative about their friendship and the bitterness of getting older turns up some great surprises. No other film this year was so full of uplifting, joyous creativity, inspiring and provoking the audience to look at the world through a new lens.

Phantom Thread - A sumptuous, elegantly executed film about terribly posh people that is hiding some downright scandalous material under its skirts. Of course Paul Thomas Anderson wouldn't make a romantic melodrama that didn't have some subversive elements in the mix, but the amount of nail-biting tension that results in the latter parts of "Phantom Thread" was delightfully unexpected. Both a nostalgic throwback and a very modern kind of love story, the movie is in a class by itself.

The Florida Project - Sean Baker's latest film is another painfully genuine examination of people struggling to survive on the fringes of American society. This time he looks in on several families living in Florida motels only a few miles away from the famous theme parks. However, what's remarkable is how little these circumstances matters to the kids at the center of the story, who are able to find adventure and excitement at every opportunity, and happily run amok in a world full of vibrant color.

Lady Macbeth - Director William Oldroyd and actress Florence Pugh are both new to me, and two of my favorite discoveries of the year. There's such a keen sense of subtlety and patience to their work here, as the twists and turns of this brutal period piece play out. Female antiheroes remain far too rare in cinema, and Pugh's Katherine is a fantastic one. Her transformation from victim to villain is frequently startling and always compelling, matched by Oldroyd's splendidly severe visuals and direction.

Blade Runner 2049 - Not just a worthy sequel to the Ridley Scott classic, but a considerable achievement in science-fiction filmmaking in its own right. Not everything works as intended, but there's such a wealth of interesting ideas in play, many of them executed with such care and craft. I'm glad Roger Deakins finally got his Oscar for this film. The worldbuilding is something that only a high budget studio production could achieve, and thus I suspect it may be a long time before we see anything like it again.

Maudie - A small, totally actor-driven feature that has some of the best work that Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke have ever done. Charting the life and career of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis, who suffered lifelong physical ailments, "Maudie" avoids most of the pitfalls associated with films about artists and films about the disabled. Instead, it comes across as a very rough hewn, but heartfelt romance between a pair of outsiders. The pretty pictures just feel like a bonus.

Dunkirk - The technical achievements and epic scope may have helped sell tickets, but what I found so impressive about Christopher Nolan's take on the Dunkirk evacuations was the way he managed to incorporate his usual time dilation tricks into the story - and it was to the film's benefit. Both broad and narrow in focus, cynical and idealistic, old-fashioned and daring, it's hard to do anything but sit back and be impressed. "Dunkirk" may have the earmarks of a prestige pic, but it doesn't behave like one.

Plus One

Bacalaureate - Cristian Mungiu continues his exploration of life in contemporary Romania through this domestic drama about a doctor and his family. What initially starts as a small crisis about exam jitters turns into a much more involved dilemma about morality, parenthood, the generational divide, and multiple systemic failures related to education, crime, and medical care. Full of uncomfortable questions and ghosts of the past, it's a riveting watch from start to finish.

Honorable Mentions

A Quiet Passion
The Meyerowitz Stories
I, Tonya
A Ghost Story
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Happy End
A Fantastic Woman


Thursday, July 12, 2018

"I Am Not a Witch" and "In the Fade"

Novelty is something that I like to see in films, and considering how many I watch every year, it's rare to find something truly new. And so, even though there's a lot that feels slapdash and half-baked in "I am Not a Witch," the feature debut of director Rungano Nyoni, I appreciate it because it introduces something wholly novel to the cinematic vocabulary.

Maggie Mulubwa stars as Shula, an eight year-old orphan who is accused of witchcraft. In Zambia, where our story takes place, witches are exiled to isolated colonies where they are exploited as cheap labor and tethered to the ground with long white ribbons on giant spools, so they will not fly away. Shula is told that if she cuts her ribbon, she'll turn into a goat, so she elects to stay with the witches. Soon she's also taken under the wing of a comically corrupt government official, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), who takes her to various jobs requiring the special powers of a witch. His wife Charity (Nancy Murilo), who also turns out to be a witch, promises Shula she will be fine if she does as she's told.

The witches with their white ribbons trailing after them and fluttering in the wind are wonderfully distinct from every other depiction of witches that I've ever seen, and make for an immediately evocative, culturally specific metaphor for the wider oppression and exploitation of Zambian women. Shula's adventures are highly satirical, and some are very funny, like her appearance on a local talk show. Others, however, are distressing or intensely uncomfortable to watch. At one point, a tourist sightseeing at the witches' camp intrudes on Shula during one of her rough patches. The woman seems sympathetic to Shula, but only long enough to take a picture.

There are parts of "I am Not a Witch" that feel incomplete or very roughly realized. The whole film is barely 90 minutes and easily could have used another twenty to help fill in some of the gaps. However, what we do see is fascinating, and comes with a very clear, critical point of view. Though the anchoring ribbons are the director's invention, there are real camps for accused witches in Zambia much like Shula's. More importantly, the attitudes we see toward witchcraft and the country's increasing westernization come across as very genuine, and it make the film's commentary all the more sobering.

Now over to Germany, where a new film by director Fatih Akin, "In the Fade," has been making some waves. Some of this is due to its subject matter, confronting the plight of recent immigrants. However, most of the acclaim is directly due to the excellent performance of Diane Kruger, who stars as Katja, a German woman who loses her Kurdish husband and their young son in a horrific bombing that appears to be racially motivated. The film is split into three parts, the first covering the bombing, the second covering the resulting trial, and the final part covering the further aftermath.

If it weren't for Kruger's involvement, the film would be a pretty pedestrian crime thriller. The social commentary is a touch too obvious and the other performances are mostly forgettable stuff. The second segment with the trial is especially humdrum, playing up predictable melodrama and spending entirely too long on familiar courtroom theatrics. The ending feels too calculated, designed to be controversial without really having the guts to be confrontational about its messages. It doesn't help that many characters, despite a few token skeletons in their closets, come across as far too idealized and contrived to be genuine.

Thank goodness for Diane Kruger then, who mostly manages to keep the whole film watchable and is frequently compelling and relatable. It's impossible not to feel for her as she processes her grief and tries to keep her emotions in check during the gruelling trial. The film is better the more it allows her to be active, which is why the last third of the film is easily the most successful. "In the Fade" would have been much better if it had expanded that final segment, with the earlier material limited to flashbacks. As is, the movie is a decent vehicle for Kruger, but it could have been much better.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"Black Panther" Cometh

It's not often that I can say I see anything really new and novel at the movies anymore, but "Black Panther" definitely fits the bill. The eighteenth Marvel Universe film may have just made the previous seventeen installments worth the trouble, because Ryan Coogler and his crew have pulled off something groundbreaking. It's not just that it's a black superhero movie. We've had those before in "Blade" and "Steel" and "Meteor Man." What we have here is a fully-formed, beautifully realized black fantasy world, on the same level as Hogwarts or Narnia.

The African nation of Wakanda, which is secretly a rich and technologically advanced civilization untouched by Western colonization, has just lost its king. The heir to the throne and the mantle of Wakanda's superpowered protector, Black Panther, is T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who faces all the challenges of being a new leader. Fortunately, he has a lot of allies including the leader of his personal guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), his best friend and security chief W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), and his tech genius teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). He's even on good terms with his ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a formidable warrior and spy. However, threats from Wakanda's past emerge, namely the arms dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis), and a mysterious African-American soldier named Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (Michael B. Jordan).

The Black Panther character was first introduced to audiences in the last "Captain America" move, but his solo film is almost entirely unconnected to anything else going on in the wider Marvel universe. This is a good thing, because "Black Panther" has a lot going on and doesn't need the additional distraction. Fans can expect all of the typical action set pieces and CGI eye candy of your usual Marvel film. Lots of smaller clashes eventually build up to the big, third act battle sequence, where the hero and villain face off in an extended duel. There's a romantic subplot that doesn't get enough attention, the side characters are often more fun than the hero, and the comic book dialogue is frequently ridiculous. The villain, Killmonger, is a much stronger and more sympathetic one than usual, so that's a nice change of pace. However, "Black Panther" is definitely a popcorn movie through and through, and mostly follows the established formula of one.

Where it really excels, though, is in executing the premise of an African hero from an African fantasy kingdom. Two of the MVPs of the movie are production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who put together the fantastic look of the Wakandan utopia from an array of East African influences. Every frame and every object make use of African design sensibilities, including the gadgetry, architecture, weapons, and clothing. We hear multiple African languages used throughout the film, each reflecting the backgrounds of the different characters. Afrofuturism, which looks at African culture's interaction with future technology, has never been brought to screen like this before. Frankly, I'd be hard pressed to name any mainstream film about Africa that has portrayed it in such positive, optimistic terms.

And this is a powerful, necessary thing to have. Wakanda is an ideal, a fantasy land ruled by benevolent monarchs, home to strong and righteous warriors, and able to produce technological wonders that could change the world. It's the kind of ideal that has been missing from black cinema, possibly because only an outfit like Disney could afford to put it onscreen. And Ryan Coogler and company do the heavy lifting of putting Wakanda in proper context too. The characters spend a good amount of the discussing Wakanda's relationship to the rest of Africa, the African diaspora, and their history. There are references to Western colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade, the Boko Haram kidnappings, and the struggles faced by African-Americans. The film's primary villain turns out to be a product of Wakanda's troubling policy of secrecy and isolationism.

"Black Panther" doesn't handle all of these elements in the best way, and it's certainly not the best forum for serious discussion of them. However, it's so refreshing to see these issues acknowledged in the context of such a big, high-profile piece of media.. I love that we now have characters like Okoye and Shuri, fantastic role models for little girls. I love that we now have a reference point when talking about the divide between Africans and African-Americans. I love that audiences are making it clear that "Black Panther" was a movie that we all needed to exist.

More please!


Sunday, July 8, 2018

"Channel Awesome" Clearly Wasn't

I had to dig back into the archives for this one, but I did write up a few posts about the "Channel Awesome" critics way back in the early days of this blog, talking about how new media and and old media were getting along, and the changing the nature of media criticism. I was one of their regular viewers when they were at the height of their popularity around 2010, happy to waste hours on the reviews and video essays of a dozen different contributors.

I haven't really kept up with Channel Awesome since the departure of a big chunk of their talent in 2014 and 2015. I still watch Lindsay Ellis and Kyle Kallgren, but stopped paying much attention to the rest. I just didn't have the time anymore, and frankly there are a lot of better alternatives. I'm not surprised they hung around though, with the site hitting its tenth anniversary this year. Doug Walker of "The Nostalgia Critic" is still railing against the mediocre media of our childhoods with no end in sight, a gimmick that his audience still loves. Chris Stuckmann, anime fan and movie reviewer, was apparently also affiliated with the site for a few years, though he's primarily known for his Youtube channel. Really, since the Blip video hosting service folded, all of these smaller video producers are Youtubers by default. The last time Doug Walker popped up in my line of sight was when he posted a video in 2016 railing against Youtube's overzealous content flagging system.

And it also doesn't surprise me that Channel Awesome is by all measures an awful, awful mess of a company. There have been reports of the site's dysfunction and behind-the-scenes drama going back years, but this past March several of the old contributors took to Twitter and really went into detail about the level of mismanagement and incompetence they experienced. A 70+ page document has been in circulation, cataloguing instances of harassment and mistreatment by the site's leadership. Much uglier stuff has come out since. #ChangetheChannel was organized shortly thereafter to boycott Channel Awesome, and all of the remaining contributors left in April - Stuckmann included. The subscriber base has also taken a significant hit.

This is a sad fate for a site that I really enjoyed and was rooting for back at the beginning. In 1998, when Channel Awesome predecessor "That Guy With the Glasses" started out, Youtube wasn't nearly the ubiquitous video hub it would become, and there was still some space for these scrappy, smaller content producers to establish themselves on the digital frontier. Nobody at that point had really made much headway with producing online content for profit, so there weren't any rules. "The Nostalgia Critic" was a rare popular success in the early vlogger era, and it was a truly independent venture, made by a couple of midwesterners who had no experience with the established entertainment world. They made vlogging look fun, like something anyone could do, and their format became very popular and influential. That's what made Channel Awesome such an attractive platform, and why it became a launching point for so much younger talent. There were next to no barriers to entry, and the no-budget DIY aesthetic was actually kind of charming.

My hope was that Channel Awesome would be a good alternative to the status quo at the time, and maybe establish a different model for content production. And this did happen to an extent. Creators like Lindsay Ellis were able to build audiences through affiliation with Channel Awesome, and figure out monetization models that worked for them. Quite a few of the producers who are still active, get by on a combination of platform ads and Patreon campaigns. However, with Youtube having grown so dominant, and social media providing many new avenues for self-promotion, the cachet of being part of a portal site like Channel Awesome has shrunk considerably. And they never figured out how to grow or improve themselves the way that other outfits like College Humor and Rooster Teeth did.

It's fascinating to trace the company's ups and downs over the years, and they way they reacted to each new change to the indie content creator ecosystem. They were clearly too dependant on Blip for too long, and didn't handled the switchover to Youtube very well. They took advantage of Indiegogo, but were resistant to individual Patreon campaigns. There's still next to no social media presence. The site itself now looks so rudimentary and badly organized compared to its competitors, it's no wonder why most of the smaller producers didn't see much reason to stick around. It's apparent that the early success really went to the heads of the guys in charge, and a few pet projects got completely out of hand . This coupled with their continued resistance to innovation severely hindered their ability to adapt.

There's no shame in being an amateur, but after ten years, it starts to look disingenuous or just plain incompetent. The recent drama revealed some very shady practices and bad behavior, but it's really the site's stagnation and inability to change with the times that has turned Channel Awesome into a cautionary tale.


Friday, July 6, 2018

"Ready Player One" (With Spoilers)

Spoilers ahead.

So, I didn't get most of the video game references. And most of the music references. And I definitely missed the "Excalibur" reference. I spent quite a bit of "Ready Player One" wondering what the experience of watching the movie would be like for someone who hardly knew any of the references. In thirty years, is this movie even going to be watchable for kids who have no idea what any of this is referencing at all?

Well, Steven Spielberg is a good enough filmmaker that the basics of the treasure hunt are still going to come across. However, if you're not pop culture savvy to some extent, so much of the experience of watching "Ready Player One" is lost. There's an undeniable pleasure to spotting King Kong during the first race, or recognizing those couple of notes from Alan Silvestri's "Back to the Future" score when the Zemeckis Cube is deployed. I'm glad the filmmakers cast the net wide enough that there's something for everyone. The Gundam should be a hit with Asian audiences. The Iron Giant is a favorite for Millennials. My favorite, no surprise, was the recreation of the Overlook Hotel from "The Shining."

And it is a stunning recreation, put together by Spielberg, who we know was a friend and a fan of Stanley Kubrick's work. And it's a good reminder that Spielberg is himself a fan like his young protagonists, and a pretty good candidate for a James Halliday-like figure himself. I suspect this is a big reason why he took pains to minimize the appearance of his own movie creations in the world of the Oasis. The whole point of "Ready Player One" is allowing him to play with the cool toys created by other artists. This is why I don't buy the criticism that some of the pop culture characters are being misused. The Iron Giant who appears here is not the friendly star of 1999's "The Iron Giant," who learns about non-violence. He's just a facsimile being borrowed by Aech in the big robot battle.

So the movie often strikes me as just one big, expensive game of pretend, and didn't we all want to play our favorite movies and comics for pretend when we were kids? You can even see some of those old schoolyard negotiations going on if you squint. Ernest Cline gets to keep in the DeLorean from "Back to the Future" and Spielberg gets to bring in "The Shining" ghoulies, and our neighbor said that we could play with their Gundam as long as we're careful with it. And like all games of pretend, the logic is often precarious, and the story is derivative to the extreme, but you can't help getting caught up in the excitement and the creativity of the players. Or at least grin at how much fun they're having.

I have some major reservations about what kinds of mixed messages the film is ultimately conveying, even if it's not on purpose. It's frustrating to see a film that gets so much right about fandom and online interactions largely ignore their dark sides. At the same time, I feel like a Grinch coming in and ruining people's fun by dictating how they're supposed to play with their toys. Then again, the movie clearly isn't meant just for kids, and the toys mostly come from the childhoods of people who are in their thirties and forties - people who it's perfectly right to remind that nostalgia comes with consequences, and that the nerds need to work on being inclusive just like everyone else these days.

Don't think I didn't notice the distinct lack of references to media aimed at girls and women in "Ready Player One." That dance club sequence easily could have featured a "Dirty Dancing" or "Flashdance" homage as easily as it did a "Saturday Night Fever" one. And the parallels to "Labyrinth" were obvious. I have a very different image of '80s pop culture than Ernest Cline and Steven Spielberg do, one that wasn't always positive. And though I love many of the same pieces of it, I'm not onboard with pretending that it was nearly as universal or accessible or as inclusive as the movie might suggest. And there's no shame in not getting the reference or being bad at video games or not liking the things that other people love.