In Ready Player One, in order to fit all the pop culture references, you’re gonna need a bigger boat. Steven Spielberg hovers over a mountain of movies, television shows, video games, and other ephemera of pop culture like so many mashed potatoes, obsessively sculpting them into something that only he can see (a good movie). Like Indiana Jones with snakes, in Ready Player One, it always has to be pop culture references. The film simply isn’t much to phone home about. Schindler’s List.
Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood has been a cultural touchstone for generations of children, your humble blagger included. In Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the edifying force that is Fred Rogers resounds in every scene – despite the man’s typically reserved candor.
In RBG, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West tell the fascinating life story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a relatively routine way. Those who watch a lot of documentaries won’t have their hair blown back by any stylistic flourishes or innovations. Instead, RBG is perfectly content with the wheels that have already been invented: archival footage, talking head interviews, and primary sources like court documentation. With these tools, Cohen and West weave together an inspirational tale of an American trailblazer and outright hero: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, second woman to sit on the supreme court and unabashed defender of the rights of minorities – particularly those of women.
In film or on stage, performance is a strange thing. Sometimes, the audience values showmanship and wants to see the raw talent of a performer laid bare under the lights. Sometimes, we crave realism – some indefinable feeling that the thing we are seeing on screen is genuine and true, their soul laid bare instead. To achieve one of these is rare, the stuff of chilled spines and tears. What then when an actor pulls off both, simultaneously? And, what when both leads of a film do so? Well, that’s A Star is Born. That’s magic.
Boots Riley is the truth. His directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, is one of the most bizarre cultural commentaries you will ever see. The targets of Riley’s critiques vary, from broad concepts like race relations and corporate greed, to more specific ideas like viral fame and code-switching. But the setup is simple: Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a black man in Oakland struggling to make his rent – which he owes to his very generous uncle. He’s hired for a telemarketing job, but fails to find success until he listens to a seasoned veteran: use your white voice. Armed with the pleasant, non-threatening voice of a milquetoast white man (David Cross), Cash quickly climbs the corporate ladder – and stumbles into the weirdest things along the way.
Ari Aster’s Hereditary opens simply: the white letters of Ellen Graham’s obituary blazing on a inky background. The matriarch is survived by her daughter Annie, an artist who creates miniature dioramas of her everyday life. We see one of her miniatures now: a cut-out model of her home in the forest. As we zoom in, we focus on a bedroom belonging to her teenage son Peter. Slowly, the miniature room fills the screen until the facsimile becomes reality and Peter’s father walks in to wake him for his grandmother’s funeral. From this point forward the line between reality and fantasy, between the actual and the imagined, will remain blurred.