Spielberg brings heart to technology

By Tom Von Malder | Aug 23, 2018
Photo by: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Parzival is the avatar used by Wade Watts in OASIS.

Owls Head — Ready Player One (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 140 min.). The technology of "Ready Player One" dazzles, but it also is a typical Steven Spielberg film, with a lot of heart as the main character has built the family he does not have in real life within the virtual reality world of OASIS. Based on the best-selling book by Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn ("X-Men: The Last Stand"), the adventure-ride movie is set in the year 2045, when a large segment of the population spend most of their time in virtual reality.

The biggest virtual reality draw is OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation),  a digital world created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance of "Dunkirk," mini-series "Wolf Hall") in which participants can do anything. An early montage shows people skiing the pyramids, mountain climbing with Batman (one of countless, mostly 1980s, pop culture and video game references scattered throughout the movie) or visiting a zero gravity dance club. Before his death, Halliday set up a contest in which participants in OASIS can track down three hidden keys, each of which leads to a clue and the eventual prize of $500 trillion and control of OASIS. No one has even found the first key in five years. A former Halliday intern (Ben Mendelsohn as Nolan Sorrento) leads the corporation IOI, which has an army of Sixers slaving to find the three keys.

Wade Watts, 18, (Tye Sheridan of "Mud," "Joe," "X-Men: Apocalypse") plays a lot in OASIS, using an avatar he calls Parzival. He works on games with giant Aech, Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). The trio are soon working with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke of TV's "Bates Motel," film "Thoroughbreds"), who is Samantha in the real world. It is Wade, who lives in the Stacks (mobile homes piled on top of each other) of Columbus, Ohio with his Aunt Alice and her abusive boyfriend, who figures out how to reach the first clue, which is at the end of a highly-destructive road race during which streets curve up and drop away, a T-Rex from "Jurassic Park" has to be avoided and King Kong guards the approach to the finish line, which is why no racer has ever been successful. Wade's vehicle of choice is the DeLorean from "Back to the Future." Art3mis rides a motorcycle. The race is one of many action highlights in the film, as portions of it are so fanciful and others are jarring.

There also is a nicely done dance club scene and, in something added by the filmmakers, a whole segment takes place in a digital recreation of the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's "The Shining," as famously filmed by Stanley Kubrick. There are briefer nods to Spielberg's own earlier work. In addition to a T-Rex from "Jurassic Park," there is a Martian invader from "War of the Worlds." In fact, one could easily watch the film several times just to pick out these semi-hidden references. The film is wildly inventive, with the only drawback that it is slightly overlong as it works in a gigantic battle sequence.

The extra is a six-part making-of documentary (117 min.) that is both detailed and fascinating. It covers the motion-capture work -- 60 percent of the movie and what was filmed first -- as well as the young cast, production design, costumes, exploding the Stacks, special effects work by ILM and Digital Domain, sound design, music by Alan Silvestri (John Williams was unavailable as he was working on Spielberg's "The Post") and the actors' two-week rehearsal period. Most fascinating is that Spielberg had his own avatar in the digital world and that avatar had a digital camera so it could film shots. Spielberg says it was like filming four movies at once. There also is a 12-minute conversation between author Cline, who reveals he is writing a sequel, and actor Sheridan that leads to a brief ride in Cline's tricked-out DeLorean. Grade: film 4.5 stars; extras 3.75 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Life of the Party (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 105 min.). In this only occasionally mildly funny comedy, which usually goes for the heart rather than the raucous, Melissa McCarthy (TV's "Mike and Molly," film "Bridesmaids"), who also co-wrote the screenplay, plays Deanna, who is dumped by her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) just after they drop off their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) for her senior year of college. Deanna, who left the same school without a degree her senior year due to being pregnant with Maddie, then decides to go back to school and get her archaeology degree, thus putting herself in the same class as her daughter.

There is some nastiness between the two ex-spouses, and one restaurant scene that turns hilarious, but the core of the film is Deanna becoming more involved in Maddie's world, including her sorority, and how the two women adjust to each other. I did like the bits in which Deanna becomes the object of affection for student Jack (Luke Benward of TV's "Ravenswood"). His fresh face and puppy love brightened the film, which will recall Rodney Dangerfield's more aggressive "Back to School." The film was directed and co-written by Ben Falcone, McCarthy's husband. One other character than stands out is "coma girl" (Gillian Jacobs as Helen), attending college after eight years in a coma and with a very large social media following. Deanna is given a bizarre goth roommate (Heidi Gardner as Leonor), who seemingly never leaves their dorm room.

There is inconsistency to Deanna, but McCarthy's personality usually makes the viewer not care. Extras include a look at the "I Love the '80s" party (4:51; where McCarthy shows off some dance moves); 17 deleted scenes (46:36); a collection of ad libs (3:03); a collection of insult ad libs directed at Bill (half of an accompanying couple, played by co-producer Steve Mallory) during the restaurant scene (2:44); and a gag reel (5:25; disappointing). There also is an explanation of the making sandwiches running joke, which comes from McCarthy's mother's habit (2:45). Grade: film and extras 2.25 stars

Ash vs. Evil Dead: The Complete Third Season (Lionsgate, 2 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, NR, 278 min.). This is the third and unfortunately last season of the Starz series that followed through from the film series. It always is good to see Bruce Campbell in anything and here he again plays Ash, who wields a chainsaw where his hand used to be.

The season starts with Ash opening his new hardware store/sex emporium. However, the festivities are interrupted by a woman who claims to be his wife and says their daughter Brandy (Arielle Carver-O'Neill) is in danger. Meanwhile, Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) meets a Knights of Sumeria member and witch Ruby (Lucy Lawless of TV's "Xena: Warrior Princess," "Spartacus: War of the Damned") finds the Necronomicon and gives birth to an evil entity. Pablo (Ray Santiago) has a big part to play in defeating the Dark One, helped by his Brujo. The series wraps up with an epic battle in Elk Grove, including Ash fighting a 60-foot-tall Kandarian demon.

A postscript scene shows where the show would have gone in an interesting season four. All 10 episodes have audio commentary by executive producer Rob Tapert. There also is a season overview and a look inside the world of the series. Grade: season and extras 3 stars

The Walking Dead: The Complete Eighth Season (Lionsgate, 5 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, NR, 13 hours 25 min.). This is the season in which Alexandria, Hilltop and the Kingdom banded together, under Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), to resolve the conflict with the Saviors, led by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). It also is the season in which my favorite character, and the best hope for the future, was killed off to my dismay. After the season, word came that season nine will be Lincoln's last, which brings me to about the end of the rope with the creators. One of my favorite shows has become overly difficult and does not give me much reason to continue to watch. The season also sends off Morgan Jones (Lennie James) to merge with the "Fear the Walking Dead" cast, which itself has killed off too many major characters.

Bonus features include audio commentaries on episodes three, four and 16 by executive producer Scott Gimple and, in order, writer Matt Negrete, director Don Liu and writer Angela Kang; a look at the legacy of a departing character (the extra's name gives a huge plot point away); an in memoriam feature for all lost during the season; and a look at the price of war. Grade: season 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

The Blacklist: Season Five (Sony, 5 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, NR, 946 min.). Much of the season had to do with a McGuffin, Raymond "Red" Reddington's trunk of bones. James Spader again is excellent as the string-pulling Red, a criminal genius who now helps the FBI and agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone of TV's "Blue Bloods") take down criminals the FBI does not even know exist. Elizabeth is on the outs with the FBI as she is being investigated for murder and has her infant child to raise. (You may remember, the previous season had the red herring of Keen's supposed death.) This season, Keen learns that Red is indeed her father, but again one of my favorite characters is killed off.

The set comes with 17 deleted scenes, a gag reel, two showrunner-led audio commentaries and a featurette that celebrates the 100th episode. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is the featurette, "Like Father, Like Daughter." Grade: season 3.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Blue Bloods: The Eighth Season (CBS/Paramount, 6 DVDs, NR, 15 hours 11 min.). Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg, Bridget Moynahan and Will Estes return as the Reagan family, a multigenerational family of cops dedicated to New York City law enforcement. Frank Reagan (Selleck) is the New York Police Commissioner, following in the footsteps of his father (Len Cariou as Henry). Eldest son Danny (Wahlberg) sometimes uses dubious tactics to solve cases with his partner (Marisa Ramirez as Det. Maria Baez). Daughter Erin (Moynahan) is an assistant D.A. and the mother of Nikki (Sami Gayle). Youngest son Jamie (Estes) has given up the law to become a cop and is partnered with Eddie Janko (Vanessa Ray).

During the season, Frank clashes with the new interim mayor and has to defend the department from a series of public scandals. Danny deals with the aftermath of a tragic accident and Erin reopens old cases and faces off with her ex-husband. There are guest appearances by Whoopi Goldberg, Ernie Hudson, Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco. Extras include a look back at the season with the cast, producers and crew; a look at the visual effects; bonus pilot episodes of "SEAL Team" and "Bull"; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

NCIS: The Fifteenth Season (CBS/Paramount, 6 DVDs, NR, 17 hours 7 min.). The veteran series tackles murder, espionage, terrorism and stolen submarines in this 24-episode collection. The team is still led by ex-Marin e gunnery sergeant Leroy Gibbs (Mark Harmon) and includes computer genius Timothy McGee (Sean Murray), analyst Eleanor "Ellie" Bishop (Emily Wickersham), Nicholas "Nick" Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) who is used to going solo, new agent Jacqueline "Jack" Sloane (Maria Bello) and on-loan M16 officer Clayton Reeves (Duane Henry). Also helping out are forensic specialist Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), medical examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum), assistant medical examiner Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) and Director Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll).

The season opens with the search for Gibbs and McGee in the jungles of Paraguay. Guest stars include Drew Carey, Gabrielle Carteris, French Stewart and Gates McFadden. Extras include an interview with Harmon and Joe Spano; cast and executives discussing the four-part story arc about a case gone wrong; an overall look at the season, including cast and producer interviews, plus a sit-down with McCallum about his life and career, which goes back to "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."; a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of an on-stage hurricane; a welcome to Bello; and audio commentary on two episodes.

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