Five for Friday: Playing Games and Joining Cults

Spring Break found Joe traveling around Michigan and me taking care of kids and spending some time with my wife, so sadly there’s no CROSS.CULTURE.CRITIC. this week. But we’re planning to be back with a new episode next week, so stay tuned!

That said, I had some time off work recently and was able to catch up on a lot of pop culture, so I have some fun, diverse things to recommend for this week’s Five for Friday! Let’s get into it!

Ready Player One: It amazes me that the same director — at 71 years old! — could deliver the Best Picture nominee “The Post” and one of his biggest spectacles within six months of each other. Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernie Cline’s best-seller is flawed, but the director manages to have fun and craft some of the best set pieces of his career.

The film takes places in a future where the masses retreat to a virtual playground called the OASIS, where they navigate a pop culture-laden playground to find an Easter Egg that will give them ownership of the realm and massive wealth. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a poor kid from the slums of Ohio, and he enters the world each day trying to claim the Egg before an army of corporate goons do.

Cline’s book is fun, but marred by clumsy prose and ham-handed references that think they’re clever simply for existing. Spielberg (working from a script by Zak Penn and Cline) brings a tad more soul to the story, even if half the pop-culture callbacks underline their existence in a way that removes the fun of an Easter Egg hunt. Spielberg finds enough intriguing things to say about online connection and creators looking back on their legacy that you don’t really notice Wade and the other characters are ciphers in an underwritten world until after the movie’s over. It’s sci-fi speculation buried in a messy YA body, and while it’s never terrible, it does lack the emotion Spielberg’s aiming for.

But oh man, those action scenes. One gets the sense that Spielberg, who’s most recent films have been political dramas and cuddly fantasies, wanted to prove that he was still the filmmaker who unleashed a T-Rex, sent Indy scrambling after the Ark of the Covenant, and made bikes soar across the moon. From a thrilling race across New York involving the aforementioned T-Rex and King Kong, to a dizzying dash into a movie I dare not mention, Spielberg is still capable of delivering crisp, muscular, thrilling action pieces. While the film falls apart when it slows down, these bits make “Ready Player One” a must-see on the biggest screen possible.

Game Night: If I was slightly underwhelmed by “Ready Player One,” I was very pleasantly shocked how much fun I had with “Game Night.” A comedy from the directors of the serviceable-but-forgettable “Vacation” remake didn’t sound like my idea of a great time, but this high-concept comedy delivers some solid laughs.

Think of Fincher’s “The Game” by way of “The ‘Burbs.” A couple (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) hosts a weekly game night with their friends. When the man’s brother (Kyle Chandler) tries to bring things up a notch by integrating a murder/kidnapping game, things quickly go awry when real kidnappers show up. Now the group has to figure out what’s real and what’s not.

It’s a silly premise and, quite honestly, I was surprised this plot hadn’t previously been made into a film in the ‘90s. But the cast is dialed in and the direction so much fun that it works. Bateman’s smarmy shtick is fun and he manages to keep the sarcasm up without becoming unlikable, something he’s not always been able to do. McAdams, not an actress known for her comedy, has great chemistry with him and is often very funny. It would be very easy for the wife to be portrayed as a disapproving nag or for the couple to be fighting for the whole movie, but McAdams gives it her all as Bateman’s competitive partner and the two are presented as a great team, not people who resent each other.

The rest of the cast is also a lot of fun. Chandler has a great time engaging his inner douchebag and I got big laughs from Billy Magnussen as the group’s lovable idiot. Jesse Plemons has a bit part as the group’s intense, awkward neighbor, and he walks away with the entire movie. The jokes are R-rated without being overly crass, and the dialogue is fast and clever.

But what’s most refreshing is the way directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein turn “Game Night” into a visually inventive comedy. Rather than give us another flatly lit, bland film, they have fun aping the tropes and looks of Fincher’s movie, and the flashy visuals juxtaposed with the blandness of game night get big laughs. There’s a lot of energy here, particularly with a chase throughout a mansion done in one long take; it’s just as thrilling as anything in “Ready Player One,” and at a fraction of the cost.

I don’t want to oversell “Game Night;” at the end of the day it’s a silly movie and it can’t stop itself from falling apart at the end. But for the majority of its run time, it’s a funny, clever film and one of the better comedies for grownups I’ve seen in awhile.  

“Wild Wild Country” on Netflix: My latest Netflix documentary obsession. After “Making a Murderer” and “The Keepers,” I’ve learned to trust that the streaming outlet knows how to do a good true-crime doc. But halfway into “Wild Wild Country,” I think that Netflix may have topped itself.

The story of a cult that ran rampant over Oregon land in the early 1980s, the series is a complex, crazy tale of religious devotion, clashing culture, dirty politics, and shocking crime. When Indian guru Rajneesh brought thousands of his followers to a massive Oregon ranch in 1981, the people of a tiny nearby town began to be anxious. That morphed into baffled when they learned of the group’s bizarre approaches to mediation and sex. And when the group mounted a takeover of the town…well, things just got scary. And everything I’ve described is in the first two episodes.

Early on, someone says that when the events in Oregon are all over, no one will believe they really happened; they’re too far-fetched. Three episodes into this six-part miniseries, I have to agree. Every episode seems to have at least three or four moments that cause me to drop my jaw and ask “is this real life”? On top of that, the directors get great interviews from people from within the cult, including Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s personal secretary and, many would argue, the brains behind the entire operation. Sheela is a fascinating subject, smart and bold, and the clips of her profane reactions to the press in the ‘80s are often highly entertaining.

Three eps in, this is addictive TV, surreal with a hint of menace underlying everything (the first episode hints at poisoning and attempted murder). But it’s not just exploitation. The series is balanced, with arguments from those still sympathetic to the cult and the townspeople who felt threatened. And throughout, questions arise about who was right and wrong. What makes a cult? Why are some religions protected and others seemingly not? This is another great doc from Netflix.

“The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb — Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It” by Jamin Goggin and Kyle B. Strobel: One of the most devastating crises in the Church right now is the addiction to power and influence that many have. This can be seen in evangelical culture’s love of celebrity pastors, churches’ desire to build multimillion-dollar buildings and have congregations in the thousands, and Christians’ growing dependence on political power. For a faith following a man who willingly died and commanded us to serve, this is very hypocritical.

Goggin and Strobel’s book is a refreshingly candid look at the danger of power in the church and the way of Jesus, which believes Christ works in our weaknesses. The authors interview pastors who’ve modeled humility and sacrifice the allure of importance, the dangers of power and the need to embrace our weaknesses and give God glory. While it’s ostensibly written for pastors, there’s something here that every Christian can learn from. It’s a great read.

Roseanne: I know, I know. Roseanne Barr has issues, to put it kindly. And given some of her recent Twitter behavior (not to mention the Hitler-aping photos), I feel like a hypocrite for watching her rebooted show. I can only chalk it up to nostalgia and my undying devotion to John Goodman.

I wasn’t allowed to watch “Roseanne” in the 1990s because the subject matter and language were a little rougher than what my parents wanted me exposed to. But they watched it and I’d sneak episodes; it was always funny, even if I found the family fighting a bit too loud and mean-spirited. But there’s been something oddly welcoming about revisiting Lanford, Illinois, for this reboot. Barr and some of the cast members have lost a bit of their comic timing, but John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf and Sarah Gilbert are all bringing their A-games for a sometimes very funny look at lower middle-class life and our fraught political climate.

The show was, of course, revolutionary in the ‘90s, but returning today it often seems like a relic (“The Middle,” which airs immediately after on the same channel, has done the same thing better for several years). But the show is worth returning to for the comedic talents of its cast. More than that, I think its depiction of a family where some members have voted for Trump (although he’s never namechecked) and others have voted for Hillary is refreshing. Not because conservative voices are marginalized (they’re everywhere), but because we need to learn how to have these discussions in our fractured families and see that people with different views are humans we still need to love and live with. My parents are Trump supporters; I’m vehemently not. This show feels like my life and I’m thankful for its approach. The fact that some episodes have made people happy (Episode 2 is fantastic) and others have pissed people off (Roseanne’s joke about ABC’s diversity sitcoms in Episode 3 is very problematic) shows that they’re doing something interesting here.

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