Thursday, March 29, 2018

so we watched a movie

I don't imagine that I have much to say, if this were a review, about Ready Player One that would sway anyone either way. See it, don't see it. If you want to see it, you will likely enjoy at least some of what's up there on the screen. And, as I used to end my actual reviews on YouTube, if you don't want to see it, see something else; there's always something worth seeing out there.

Also, if you don't want to see it, you should probably not let your friends drag you to see it, because it is long and your enjoyment will depend quite a lot on how much you buy into the gaming aspects or the nostalgia aspects of the film. The plot is so slight, you have to be there for, what one Twitter user called, quite aptly, "an overload of metaphorical nerd fantasy porn".

I didn't read the book. I read a sample of it on my nook app and it didn't grab me. As I grew up in the 80s, have loved movies since before I knew what they were, and make a habit, here, of talking in depth about old movies. I felt more obligated than inspired to write about Ready Player One because it's a nerd touchstone, and it's the latest example of a film driven almost entirely by its visual effects...

Which actually brings up an interesting subject. Carolyn Giardina writes in the Hollywood Reporter about how there's a case to be made that Ready Player One could qualify as an animated film for Oscar consideration. (Nevermind that the shallow text of the film would mean it wouldn't be winning such an award.) After including the lengthy Academy definition of an "animated film", Giardina points out, "Motion-capture and real-time puppetry [both of which were used for Ready Player One] are not by themselves animation techniques." But, the most interesting bit for me was this:

The [animation] branch [of the Academy] is very much aware of the blurring of the lines between disciplines. In fact, the animated feature rules even state: "If the picture is created in a cinematic style that could be mistaken for live action, the filmmaker(s) must also submit information supporting how and why the picture is substantially a work of animation rather than live action."

Which brings up an interesting point regarding the Oscar categories: why is there an animated category at all? There didn't used to be. This year was the 17th year for the separate category. And, in those years, the award has gone to Disney or Pixar 12 out of the 17 times. These films, KC Ifeanyi writes in Fast Company, "certainly don't reflect the breadth of what's possible in animation". Ifeanyi quotes Duke Johnson, co-director of Anomalisa:

There's the obvious problem of animation being viewed more as a genre than merely a medium viable for telling stories in any genre... Any illusions I had of us actually being able to win going into Oscar night were dashed the moment our category was introduced by Woody and Buzz Lightyear. As if to say, this category contains films that are cute and whimsical and ultimately for children.

Anomalisa was nominated against Inside Out—which in addition to being the most popular was also, justifiably, worthy of winning—Shaun the Sheep Movie, which was very much a kid's film, When Marnie Was There, a Studio Ghibli film, so at its widest release it was on 57 screens, and it only made half a million dollars in the US (Box Office Mojo says the film made over $33 million in Japan, for comparison), and Boy and the World, which was weirdly abstract (with an animation style you might see more often in a short film), had a message that wasn't very nice to hear, and it only made about a quarter million in the US. Anomalisa itself, was a very adult film that involved themes of identity, of depression, anxiety, and our ability/inability to connect with people. It would never get the audience numbers that it deserved. (For the record, I loved it. And wrote about it for a few days—885 886 887—in this blog.) Johnson continues:

I don't think people know what to do with animation that's not broad. They don't feel qualified to judge it in the same way they do live action. Many indie offerings just don't fit into the narrow understanding of what animation is and should be for most people.

Americans see animated films as children's films. Mostly for the same reason that, Ifeanyi points out, prior to animation getting its own category at the Oscars, the Academy gave "Special Achievement awards [for animation] largely to the work of Walt Disney because there simply weren't enough animated films being produced for its own category. Some years, lately, I think that is still true, but the Academy does manage to nominate unique—and not broad—animated films, even if they don't usually win. However, that was with the animation branch picking the nominees; a new rule change means that any Academy member who wants to participate in picking the nominees for that category may do so. Sam Summers argues at Vox, the animated category drew animators into the Academy and "the floodgates opened. Since 2010 [this written before this year's nominations], 13 of 33 nominees have been either foreign, independent, or both. In that same period, only 15 nominees have been CGI. Summers quotes GKIDS president Dave Jesteadt:

The nominations have done a tremendous job in raising the profile of indie animation... This is the idea we have been pushing for a decade now—that animated films do not need to look alike, or be similar broad family-targeting comedies.

Ready Player One is broad.

So, were it to somehow manage a nomination, it might have a shot at winning... Except for The Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs*, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Gigantic, The Grinch... And I'm sure several other mainstream, broad family-targeting comedies.

* Sure, Isle of Dogs is not really a mainstream film, but it does lean into the broad family-targeting side of its Venn Diagram.

And let's be honest. It is March. It is pretty rare for any movie released in March to get any attention when it comes to award season. Ready Player One might raise qualification questions, but it will not be nominated for anything when it comes time. Spielberg himself has said of Ready Player One is not a "film" but a "movie". The distinction matters. Ready Player One is a ready-made blockbuster, an action-centric film with attractive leads fighting against The Man, built on a foundation of video-game visuals and pop culture nostalgia. It makes no effort to be a great film.

In his review for Consequence of Sound, Dan Caffrey suggests, after praising Ready Player One's "world-building and kaleidoscopic mashup of pop culture," "At a certain point, though, Ready Player One wants to be appreciated as a film as well as a movie, no matter what Spielberg says."

But Caffrey is wrong. Look at many a blockbuster not just in recent years but, well, ever. Plenty of deliberately commercial films have made it to theaters with no illusions that they are also good films.

And, that's okay.

As long as you know that is what you're in for.

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