Ready Player One (2018, Steven Spielberg)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 2045, everyone spends their time in a massive virtual-reality game. But then teenager Wade Watts learns that a huge prize can be claimed by finding an Easter egg hidden within it…

Seen before? Once, before which I’d read the source novel.

Best performance: Wade’s love interest in the story is a fellow ‘gunter’ (ie, Easter egg hunter) known by the moniker Artemis, who we initially only see as a digital avatar – a kind of cartoony, anime-ish representation of herself. The character might be a CGI creation in these scenes, but the eyes sparkle and the smile is infectious; actress Olivia Cooke (The Limehouse Golem, TV show Bates Motel) radiantly pops through the mo-cap technology. There’s a subplot going on here about Artemis being ashamed of the way she looks; that’s why she doesn’t want to meet Wade outside the RPG fantasy of the virtual-reality game. Of course, seeing as we’re dealing with a Hollywood movie here, when Wade (Tye Sheridan) does finally encounter her in reality she is captivatingly pretty even with a minor birthmark.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The film is based on a terrific 2011 sci-fi novel, which is full of references to popular culture of the 1970s and 80s. Wade has a love for and a deep knowledge of the period and the book sings with a geeky passion and enthusiasm. The movie does too, and the nods soon begin to mount up: He-Man and The Wizard of Oz, Batman and Superman, Star Trek and Star Wars, Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club, a-Ha and New Order, King Kong and Godzilla, Alien and Silent Running, Back to the Future and Tron, The Buggles and Tears for Fears, Dark Crystal and The Iron Giant, Beetlejuice and Buckaroo Bonzai, Bill & Ted and Monty Python, RoboCop and Freddy Krueger, Last Action Hero and Dune, GoldenEye (the game) and Saturday Night Fever, and many, many, many more. When adapting Ernest Cline’s novel for the screen, however, one key section caused a problem. In the book, Wade’s quest takes him into a digital recreation of the futuristic LA seen in Blade Runner. However, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic was in production at the same time as Ready Player One, so Spielberg couldn’t get hold of the rights. As a replacement, the creative team instead used the setting of the 1980 horror movie The Shining. And the sequence is a wonder: a pixel-perfect recreation of the sets, lighting schemes and general mood of Stanley Kubrick’s best film. (Quite what it all means if you’ve never seen The Shining is another matter!)

Review: Ready Player One is certainly a visually dazzling film. Huge stretches of the story take place inside the virtual-reality world of a MMORPG called the Oasis – ‘a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination’. Near-flawless CGI is used to create a sleek, sweeping, 360-degree, photorealistic and immensely detailed environment. It’s a gamer’s wet dream, and there are hundreds of pop-culture references to spot and feel smug about spotting. But for all this razzmatazz and Spielbergian panache, the core of the movie is ultimately hollow. There’s a sense of a good adventure and some decent gags, but the longer the film goes on the more it gets bogged down with boring action scenes. Wade is a limp, uninteresting lead character who lacks the zip and charisma evident in the source novel’s first-person prose. An affected Mark Rylance is miscast the Oasis’s geeky creator. There are some weak young actors in secondary roles (a real rarity from the director who had strong juvenile performances in ET, Jurassic Park and A.I. Artificial Intelligence). And despite a typically watchable turn from Ben Mendelsohn, the story’s business-exec villain is as one-note as they come. It’s not a dreadful film – far from it – but all the fantasy could do with a bit more reality.

Seven corn-syrup droughts out of 10

The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Washington, 1971. Just as the owner of a major newspaper is attempting to float the parent company on the stock exchange, its editor wants to publish hugely controversial material…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tom Hanks (here playing legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee) is very watchable as always. But it’s difficult to look past Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham. Graham was the publisher of the Washington Post, an unusual position for a woman in the early 1970s; her father had built up the company’s legacy and she’d inherited her job after the suicide of her husband. So in The Post she’s a woman with a weight on her shoulders. The way Streep plays Graham’s development from someone who nervously fumbles a board meeting to someone who takes brave and bold decisions is wonderful.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The movie is encroaching onto some sacred cinematic ground. In several ways, The Post could be considered a prequel to Alan J Pakula’s masterful thriller All the President’s Men (1976). It’s set soon before the Watergate scandal dramatised in All the President’s Men, features some of the same characters – Ben Bradlee is a big presence in both films – and the two newsroom sets are uncannily similar. The connection is made obvious in the final scene of The Post, which Rogue Onestyle leads directly into the opening of the earlier film. And as in All the President’s Men, the sequences in The Post that feature journalists working on their stories are thrilling. Whether they can – whether they should – publish the expose is the central question of the film and, even if you know the real history, it never loses its jeopardy.

Review: A mid-range Spielberg film is still a thing to behold. It’s doubtful that, in years to come, The Post will top any polls or be remembered as one of the director’s best. But it’s still an immaculate, impressive and incredibly engaging piece of filmmaking. Rushed into cinemas to capitalise on our current obsession with ‘fake news’, the movie concerns the Pentagon Papers. In 1967, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a study of America’s role in the Vietnam War. He intended it for academic posterity rather than political analysis but it contained some incendiary conclusions, not least that successive Presidents had continued the carnage even though they knew an American victory would never come. The Post tells the story of how the report was leaked and published. The movie ticks all the usual boxes for a film about journalists cracking a massive story, but it ticks them with such a rich, stylish flourish that you don’t mind that things are often predictable and occasionally a bit schmaltzy. The well-cast ensemble is led by Hanks and Streep but contains numerous good performances. The attention to period detail is fantastic. And the script never assumes the audience needs hand-holding. Actually, it’s not just the presence of Bradley Whitford and Sarah Paulson in secondary roles that makes this film remind you of Aaron Sorkin. His TV shows, such as The West Wing and The Newsroom, lived and breathed by scenes of clever and principled people arguing about important issues, and that’s what The Post is all about too.

Nine linotype machines out of 10

The BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg)


An orphan called Sophie is kidnapped by a benign giant who takes her to a strange land. He won’t let her go home because he can’t risk people finding out about giants, so she comes up with a plan…

Seen before? No. But Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel was probably my favourite book when I was a child.

Best performance: Penelope Wilton is fun as the Queen. It’s never actually specified that she’s Elizabeth II, but that’s certainly who she looks like.

Best scene/moment/sequence: Being a Steven Spielberg movie, there are plenty of great images and visual gags – especially when the BFG is creeping around London in the middle of the night. He has to hide in plain sight to avoid passers-by.

Review: Spielberg has made children’s films before, of course. The best of them – ET, The Adventures of Tintin – are for kids of all ages. But The BFG is more like 1991’s Hook: aimed squarely at a very young audience. There’s whimsy and fart gags, but the film misses the ‘real life’, wit, and sense of danger that make ET so effective. We start in an arch, fantasy-land London of cobbled streets, bumbling drunks and an orphanage that doesn’t notice when one of its girls goes missing. It’s possibly the 1980s (there’s a gag about ‘Ronnie and Nancy’). The action then moves to a magical realm and huge stretches of the film are two-handed scenes. Aside from brief appearances by some other giants, Sophie and the BFG are the only characters in the first 74 minutes… The film seriously drags. Not a huge amount happens, and given the difference in their sizes you soon get very bored of shots of Sophie actress Ruby Barnhill looking up and shouting her dialogue. It’s a huge relief when the action returns to London. Sophie’s plan for helping her new friend is to give the Queen a dream that will make her predisposed to giants, so we then get a childish but lively sequence at Buckingham Palace. As well as Penelope Wilton, this section also features Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall, two good actors gamely playing cardboard characters in return for a chance to work with Steven Spielberg. The BFG himself is a marvellous creation, played charmingly by Mark Rylance via motion-caption technology. But overall this was a chore to sit through.

Four snozzcumbers out of 10

My top 10 Spielberg movies


Today is the 70th birthday of one of my favourite film directors, Steven Spielberg. His movies have been in my life for as long as I can remember – ET was the first film I ever saw at the cinema – so to celebrate here’s my rundown of his 10 best. Click the links for full reviews…

10. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – a vibrant, dynamic, fun and likeable caper movie.

9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – a terrifically enjoyable adventure movie.

8. Schindler’s List (1993) – a tough watch, but a necessary one.

7. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) – a glorious, glorious triumph.

6. Jurassic Park (1993) – a sensationally entertaining blockbuster of a B-movie.

5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – probably Spielberg’s strangest film; certainly his most underrated.

4. Jaws (1975) – there’s plenty of humanity, as well as terror and excitement; a masterpiece.

3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – a riot from start to finish.

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – an astonishing achievement, a timeless gem.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – it’s difficult to think of a more thrilling, more captivating, more downright enjoyable adventure ride of a film.


Bridge of Spies (2015)


When a Soviet agent is arrested in New York City, lawyer James B Donovan is employed to defend him. Then the opportunity arises to swap the spy for an imprisoned American airman…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Mark Rylance won both a Bafta and an Oscar for his quiet, measured, charming performance as Rudolf Able, the Russian charged with espionage. But Tom Hanks probably has the harder job playing insurance lawyer James Donovan. He has much more screentime and a wider variety of scenes to play. It’s an extremely Tom Hanksian character, in fact: a gentle but determined and moral man with a dry sense of humour. He also gets a likeable running gag about having a cold.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The opening is superb: an almost wordless, gripping sequence where Able lives his life, picks up a dead-drop, and is followed by federal agents.

Review: Bridge of Spies is, for its first half, a courtroom drama. Then it evolves into a Cold War spy film, and throughout there’s a spine of JFK-style paranoia and politics. It’s fantastic stuff. Being critical, perhaps the plot calls for people to be reactionary a bit too often, but it is set in the time of Joseph McCarthy. You could also argue that the story lacks any real nastiness. But some lovely detailing in the writing, acting and production design mean that the two hours pass every enjoyably. And the Coen brothers co-wrote the script, which guarantees it never approaches being too earnest. On a technical level, this is immaculate filmmaking. It always is with Spielberg. Right from minute one you know you’re in safe hands. Having watched and reviewed a variable mix lately, this was like sitting through a karaoke and then putting on an ABBA album. It’s just on a more solid, more professional, more accomplished level than most films. For example, there are numerous techniques to make a film buff’s heart soar – motivated camera moves, cute scene transitions, long takes that let the actors breathe, the same imagery repeated in different contexts, handheld camerawork when there’s actually a reason for it… All things that are strangely rare in modern Hollywood movies. But the direction is never showing off or drawing attention to itself. The story is king. Spielberg’s best live-action film since at least Catch Me If You Can.

Nine U2 spy planes out of 10

Lincoln (2012)


The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, spends the political capital he’s gained from reelection to push for a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: One my favourite actors – David Strathairn, who’s in two of my five favourite movies (Sneakers and LA Confidential; yes, I know my five favourite films, what of it?!) – plays Secretary of State William H. Seward. Sadly he’s not involved as much as he could be. Daniel Day-Lewis is charismatic as Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is effective as his troubled son. However, in this film you rarely forget you’re watching actors giving performances. Most of the cast are incredibly theatrical, putting off-kilter emphases on words and shouting to the stalls.

Best scene/moment/sequence: Lincoln’s calm, thoughtful monologue about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of his numerous soliloquies.

Review: It’s a very talky film – a contrasting bookend for #SpielbergWatch, seeing how we started with the dialogue-sparse Duel. Most scenes are of men sitting at tables talking in paragraphs, which is not exactly vibrant movie-making. I missed Spielberg’s usual visual panache and inventiveness, which barely register in this. The movie does have an interesting story – but it’s a strangely flat one. We all know the ending, of course, and the fight to win the vote doesn’t seem especially difficult. Also, the film’s not as dynamic as the similar-territory Amistad, which more ably showed different aspects of the issue of slavery. Most strikingly, black characters are virtually absent from Lincoln (presumably a deliberate choice, as this is about Washington politics). On the plus side, we get a strong, very watchable lead performance from Day-Lewis, while the semi-comic subplot concerning three political operatives offering jobs and other incentives to whip votes could make a decent movie in itself. It gets nowhere near enough screen time, though; likewise, Lincoln’s family (including Sally Field as his complex wife, Mary) feel underdeveloped. An interesting movie rather than a wholly entertaining one.

Six aye votes out of 10.

War Horse (2011)


The story of a horse called Joey, who’s owned by a variety of people immediately before and during the Great War…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tom Hiddleston shows up about a third of the way in and gives the film a much-needed boost of energy.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The moment when the cavalry mount their horses in a wheat field is a beautiful image. The subsequent charge on the German camp is well staged, and ends with a powerful, high-angle wide shot. There’s later also a really good scene in No Man’s Land – one soldier from each side working together to free Joey from some barbed wire.

Review: War Horse begins like it’s an episode of Lark Rise to Candleford – we’re in rural England with poor-but-happy people who have Mummerset accents, archly villainous landlords and plenty of facial hair. The opening 40 minutes are as twee, simplistic and dull as a Spielberg movie has ever been. Then the First World War breaks out, which frankly comes as something of a relief. The pace picks up a bit, we get a bit more visual flair – but it’s too late. I was bored rigid, I’m sorry to say. The story moves on, new characters get introduced (some interesting, some mind-numbingly naff), but the leaden beginning ruined any chance of me enjoying the rest of the film.

Four Benedict Cumberbatch moustaches out of 10.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)


Ace reporter Tintin buys a model ship at the local market and gets embroiled in an adventure to track down the lost treasure of seventeenth-century pirate Sir Francis Haddock…

Seen before? Yes, at the cinema on 6 November 2011 and on DVD a couple of times since.

Best performance: Andy Serkis plays Captain Haddock and is really brilliant, with lots of energy, charm and subtly. He’s often laugh-out-loud funny and holds the whole movie together – more than Tintin, this is *Haddock’s* story. (Although an animated film, actors performed their roles out through motion-capture technology, so they drove the characters’ movement, posture and expressions.) I spoke to Serkis on the phone once – he rang looking for my then boss, Gary Russell, with whom he was writing a book. I’ve actually met a large number of the key personnel on this movie… I’ve been introduced to co-writer Steven Moffat about three times through mutual friends – he was aloof, cold and totally uninterested in me each time. I once spotted Simon Pegg (one half of Thomson and Thompson) in Selfridges, so went and told him I’m a huge fan – he was friendly and open. The next day it was announced he would be playing Scotty in Star Trek. Last year, I saw co-writer Edgar Wright in HMV on Oxford Street, so said hello and told him I love his movies. (I don’t make a habit of this, by the way. Pegg and Wright are special cases.) He was polite and patient with my fanboyness. And, although I’ve never met him, I once transcribed an interview with producer Peter Jackson for a book on The Lord of the Rings, which basically makes us best friends.

ADDENDUM: I rewatched this film on Wednesday 13 August then wrote this review Thursday lunchtime. Literally a few minutes after finishing it, I popped to the nearest shop… and walked past Mackenzie Crook on Soho’s Broadwick Street. He plays one of the bad guy’s heavies in The Adventures of Tintin! When I saw him he had a baseball cap on, but clocked that I’d noticed him and gave me a ‘Don’t talk to me’ look.

Best scene/moment/sequence: An obvious choice, but I adore the comedic chase sequence in Bagghar, which is presented as a single 142-second shot:

Review: One of the reasons I wanted to do this #SpielbergWatch process was so I’d have an excuse to see this film again. I utterly love everything about it. It might be – no, is – the best-looking animated/CGI movie of all time. The level of detail, of craftsmanship, of beauty in the design is stunning. A complete artificial world is created, and repeated viewings are a treat because you continually spot new things in the background of each shot. But, crucially, there’s real heart behind this movie too. Like in Toy Story, you soon forget about the technology and the computers, and instead get swept up in the story and charmed by the sheer talent behind it. The plot is simple but smart, with clearly defined characters. There’s wit, whimsy, danger, plenty of visual gags and madcap action… I haven’t read the Tintin books in about 25 years but this seems spot-on to me. A glorious, glorious triumph.

Ten Milanese Nightingales out of 10.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)


Indiana Jones goes up against Soviet agent Dr Irina Spalko in a bid to locate a mysterious and powerful crystal skull…

Seen before? Yes.

Best performance: Harrison Ford – as soon as he pulls on the fedora, turns towards camera and grumbles, “Russians,” he’s back as Indy. In an instant, 15 years or so of coasting in rom-coms and average action thrillers is forgotten.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The spooky, unnerving sequence at the Peruvian graveyard.

Review: I’ve never understood the negativity – vitriol, in some cases – aimed at this film. Is it as good as the three Indiana Joneses made in the 1980s? No. But it’s still inventive, playful, witty and exciting in the classic Spielberg style. It is tonally different from the last three, though. Gone are the 1930s, the Nazis, a feel of film noir and Allan Quatermain-style Boys’ Own Adventure stuff. We’re now dealing with the 1950s: Reds-under-the-beds, B-movie horror, Rebel Without a Cause teenagers, nuclear paranoia and rock’n’roll. The film has great incidental music, clever action scenes and – especially once Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood – winning humour. On the downside, Shia LaBeouf is a bit tiresome, it’s difficult to get away from how naff crystal skulls are (there’s an especially funny Peep Show episode that ridicules them), a few good jokes get unnecessary punchlines for the hard-of-understanding, and the second half of the movie is overly CGI-happy. Flawed, yes, but still good, honest entertainment.

Eight lead-lined fridges out of 10.

Munich (2005)


After 11 Israeli athletes are murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics, Mossad agent Avner Kaufman and a team are tasked with finding and assassinating the Palestinians responsible…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Geoffrey Rush has a small but enjoyable role as the team’s case officer. (Daniel Craig’s in the movie too, playing a South African. His accent takes some getting used to.)

Best scene/moment/sequence: The first ‘hit’ – tense, well staged, detailed, it feels like a sequence from The Godfather or The Untouchables.

Review: Well, it’s a darkly apt time to be watching a film about Israel violently targeting its enemies, isn’t it? It’s a curious mix and can be seen as an historical drama, a revenge movie and/or a spy thriller. It drags slightly in the middle and gets repetitive at times, but is mostly impressive stuff.

Seven Bond villains playing father and son* out of 10.

*Michael Lonsdale (Hugo Drax in Moonraker) and Mathieu Amalric (Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace – alongside Daniel Craig, of course).