The set-up: In the mid-21st century, an impoverished, overpopulated America, like the rest of the world, spends more time in the exciting virtual reality world of the OASIS rather than experiencing real life. After the OASIS’ founder (Mark Rylance) dies, a posthumous competition starts up — myriad players race to find the Easter Egg that he left behind which will offer ownership over the virtual realm itself. Orphaned teenager and willfully determined contestant Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one of those in the running, and he soon gets caught up between a sinister corporation and an underground rebellion who are both vying for control of the OASIS and the digital future of mankind.
The breakdown: As a pop culture potpourri with spectacular special effects, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel (co-penned by the author himself) is intense fun, and from what I understand, it improves upon some flaws in the book. Ripe with retro references and predominately ‘80s cameos (like Chucky, Freddy, and the DeLorean from Back To The Future) that populate the epic races and battles onscreen, this Spielberg-ian epic invokes his ‘80s teen adventurers from movies like E.T. Ironically, it also encapsulates the same type of unwavering idealism and leaves a lot of answered questions about the greater picture here. What nagged me by the end was the fact that the story does not go all the way with its concept — it feels like a cop out. Barring that, it works well as a manic cinematic ride.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
The set-up: After Jurassic World goes the way of Jurassic Park, a billionaire philanthropist (James Cromwell) sends Claire and Owen (Dallas Bryce Howard and Chris Pratt) back to Isla Nubar to save the remaining dinosaurs from volcanic extinction. But his deceitful underlings use the rescue mission to abscond with many the massive beasts to sell them on the black market. You can imagine what impending chaos that scenario sets up.
The breakdown: I’d say that summary was a spoiler, but you can figure it out in the first 10 minutes. Let’s face it — the first Jurassic Park still reigns supreme. While Jurassic World was a fun if unnecessary updating of the original that had its moments, this second part of the Jurassic World trilogy — while driven by dynamic effects, a few surprisingly genuine emotional moments, and fun nods to classic Universal monster movies — is marred by predictable plotting and underdeveloped characters. The rampaging finale prefaces a sequel that — spoiler alert! — will provide obvious box office competition for the forthcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I’m good now.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
The set up: The life of children’s television icon Fred Rogers is explored from the ordained minister’s humble beginnings on a local Pittsburgh station through his ascension to national parental figure. Although he had a squeaky clean image, Rogers was not a cut and dry person, nor did he come from the approach of preachy moralizing. Morgan Neville’s film presents a more complex profile and explores how his style of educational programming became more at odds with modern entertainment over time.
The breakdown: One of the things this film reminds us of is just how much of kids’ programming has always been the equivalent of junk food cereal — it tastes good but offers no substantial value. That’s not to say there are not people following in Rogers’ footsteps, but he truly channeled his inner child as he spoke to kids about love and acceptance, and he went against the grain of a television world that grooms future consumers and hammers them with slapstick buffoonery. That stuff can be fun, but we need more balance. While his programs for adults about more serious topics were not as well received, Rogers was always curious, open-minded, and non-judgmental. We sorely need someone like him now.
Three Identical Strangers (2018)
The set up: Separated at birth and put up for adoption, three identical young men from New York are reunited by a twist of fate in the late ‘70s. After they bond and become a nationwide media sensation, they later learn the unsettling truth about their origins and separation. What starts as a feel good documentary soon spirals into an abyss of shocking secrets.
The breakdown: They say you can pick your friends but not your family, and Tim Wardle’s film takes a hard look at the nature vs. nurture concept as well as the unseen forces that can shape us from youth to adulthood. In being interviewed now, the middle aged brothers display plenty of emotional fortitude as they revisit both uplifting and painful chapters of their lives. Bonus interview and commentary material, best watched after seeing the film first, provided deeper insight into the creation of the film and their backstory. Why watch empty headed reality television when you can absorb a gripping documentary like this?
The Death Of Superman (2018)
The set up: Superman may be the invincible savior of his adopted city of Metropolis, but he faces his greatest challenge ever when the brutish, rampaging Doomsday arrives on Earth bent on death and destruction. The nightmarish alien is literally an unstoppable killing machine, and when the Justice League are handily defeated by the brawny beast, Supes realizes he is going to have put every ounce of strength into stopping it, and the cost will be higher than those around him can fathom.
The breakdown: This famed DC Comics storyline not only shocked many fans in the early ’90s, but it also elicited massive media attention for the veteran superhero at a time when his comic sales were waning. While mainstream audiences saw another version of this storyline play out on screen in the underwhelming Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice (plus the 2007 animated film, Superman: Doomsday), this updated animated version carries more of an emotional wallop than the recent film while sticking to the simpler, original narrative, which also focuses on Clark Kent’s inability to fully express his love for Lois Lane because she does not know about his superhero life. The Death Of Superman is not a masterpiece but it is well executed. The high-powered voice cast includes Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Rainn Wilson, Rosario Dawson, and Nathan Fillion. Bonus features include a documentary, bonus cartoons, and a look into the next part of the story, Reign of the Supermen.
The set up: The survivors of the exploded planet Krypton live on the floating world of Argo City. When she accidentally loses the city’s power source called the Omegahedron, Superman’s cousin Kara (Helen Slater) goes from “inner space” to our “outer space” to retrieve it and arrives on Earth. But a power hungry sorceress named Selena (Faye Dunaway) has already gotten her hands on the device, setting up a showdown between these two powerful females for control not only of the Omegahedron but of Earth itself. If we can figure out what’s going on along the way.
The breakdown: Directed by Jeannot Szwarc and produced by the Salkinds, who also brought Superman I-III to life, Supergirl is probably the most incomprehensible superhero movie ever made. Slater’s Supergirl is more naive than Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and Dunaway not only gobbles up the scenery in her villainous part, she nearly overwhelms the movie. It’s not their fault: David Odell’s script is ridiculous and makes zero sense, features a weird attempted rape scene that gets brushed off, and casually tosses in Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) and a poster of Supes to connect it to the main franchise. Despite budgetary issues, the practical flying effects done outdoors without blue screen look great, and some of the set pieces are bizarrely eye-catching. This reissue includes the Blu-ray of the International Cut (with 10 minutes of bonus footage), the DVD of the Director’s Cut (24 extra minutes that do not add any more logic), and a 50-minute “making of” doc from back in the day. Despite my criticisms, I have a weird fascination with this train wreck — I’ve seen it three times. For ’80s kids and uber fans only.