The Circle

Release: Friday, April 28, 2017


Written by: James Ponsoldt; Dave Eggers

Directed by: James Ponsoldt 

I don’t know if “knowing everything is better” but I do know that The Circle is an experience I need not have again. I wish I never even had it. A parable about the dangers of being too plugged in to the digital world does little to justify both your time and its high-profile, talented cast.

Director James Ponsoldt, known for his sensitive character studies like The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now, adapts the 2013 Dave Eggers novel of the same name. Seemingly having little faith in the material itself he overhauls what could have been another indie sleeper hit with a one-sheet of Hollywood names guaranteed to create a box office draw. (He wasn’t wrong; rather than bombing, his latest has gone on to become his highest-grossing effort internationally.)

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a young go-getter who lands an entry job with a powerful tech conglomerate known as The Circle, run by the visionary Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks in a Mark Zuckerbergian capacity). The film traces Mae’s rise to prominence as she goes from Customer Service representative to the first Circler to go “fully transparent” — wearable cameras giving her followers access to her every waking moment. In the process it asks us where we draw the line between virtual popularity and physical privacy.

At the Circle, a Google-like campus where every amenity under the sun can be found, employees are encouraged to throw themselves headlong into their work. To get connected and not only stay engaged, but intensify that engagement in perpetuity. Everyone comes across passionate and friendly. Only the most motivated of millennials are able to thrive here. If you’ve ever seen a movie, you’ll see right through this front and recognize this idyllic community for the insidious, disingenuous construct that it is (a similar problem plagued Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness earlier this year).

Mae takes the job initially to help fund treatments for her father who suffers from multiple sclerosis (Bill Paxton in his final role) but it’s not long before that selfless nobility gives way to a more unhealthy obsession with her own status. Before she’s drunk on the same Kool Aid that all her colleagues have been binging on, most notably her obnoxious college friend (Karen Gillan) who helped her score that interview and with whom Mae’s inevitably thrust into direct competition. She soon realizes that the benefits of going transparent are too many to count, and wants her parents and even her friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), the latter notorious for staying off the grid, to adopt the technology and learn to become part of the Real World.

Mae’s meteoric rise is nurtured by Hanks’ unnaturally likable CEO, who sees great, scripted potential in his protégé. After catching her breaking the law via one of his recently installed SeeChange cameras — part of a new initiative to keep the entirety of humanity more accountable for their actions and behavior — Bailey decides to give her an opportunity to become her best self. Meanwhile, comedian Patton Oswalt is stuck delivering some spiel about how none of this will manifest as one giant middle finger in the face of national and international privacy rights. Like everyone else, he’s unconvincing.

The movie from here becomes such that I really wish Hanks had just fired Watson. The movie wouldn’t have made much sense but, critically, it would have been over sooner. Declining to actually do the unpleasantries is such a Tom Hanks thing to do, and he can’t even make reading the riot act to a disobedient employee an uncomfortable experience. He’s badly miscast, though no one in this movie comes out smelling like a rose. I think it’s this fact, how even Forrest Gump has been set up to look like a dope, that makes me more mad at The Circle than its obnoxious air of superiority or the way it turns relevant social commentary into a boring, predictable and downright condescending lecture.

Recommendation: On the grounds that this is the last movie featuring the great Bill Paxton, it pains me to tell people to avoid the movie. But avoid it. Avoid it like political commentary on social media. Avoid it like the comments section underneath actors’ profiles whenever they make a statement about something other than their chosen professions. Avoid it like you would avoid anyone who tells you they’re still active on MySpace. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “We’re so f**ked.” 

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Release: Friday, March 28, 2014


The hysteria surrounding this particular release begs the ultimate question: should some stories be exempt from the full-length feature film format? Are some stories movie-proof?

Like how Moses parted the Red Sea, Noah is doing something similar to global audiences, dividing them down the middle over whether this movie is representative of the story they have known as part of the Bible. There’s no denying that some of the directorial choices made in the film are repelling more than they are attracting potential viewers, and the finished product likely will remain as not the one many were envisioning.

Admitting in an interview that the Biblical subject matter was an unusual choice for him, director Darren Aronofsky (whose Requiem for a Dream safely remains as his most identifiable project) has clearly tried to find a way to fashion one extremely popular story into his own brand of entertainment; the sui generis hasn’t taken with everyone, a fact that is also clear. He is a director known for leaving disturbing and long-lasting imprints upon the viewer’s mind; a man who won’t be comfortable until he has made everyone else uncomfortable.

It seems in 2014 he has accomplished this with ease, perhaps for reasons he wasn’t intending or couldn’t foresee. Much has been made of the film’s bizarre and head-trippy content and the characterization of its mysterious, enigmatic lead. One hesitates to call the titular role a protagonist given how Aronofsky has chosen to depict him, and this may well be the biggest challenge his film poses to viewers around the globe. It’s either that, or convincing everyone that his film is not based upon the Biblical story, but rather on a graphic novel he wrote himself, titled the same. With the written account assuming a very loose interpretation of the original story found in The Book of Genesis, the filmed version seemed doomed to do battle with an onslaught of naysayers.

Aronofosky’s Noah is less a story millions have grown up reading as it is a fantasy epic that happens to feature the popular character. We are introduced to him as a young boy, being sheltered by a protector who is later revealed to be his father, Lamech. He passes down to him a special snakeskin, the shell of the serpent that slithered through the green grasses of Eden, as part of a tradition upheld across generations. Noah grows to become a strong, brave father and husband, who is constantly plagued with disturbing dreams and visions of an impending global catastrophe. While leading his family across barren wastelands to find a suitable place to escape the human populations — people at this point are depicted as bloodthirsty, evil creatures with no redeemable qualities whatsoever — Noah witnesses a string of miracles that convince him he’s been chosen by God (referred to here as ‘The Creator’) to help carry out his plan for the fate of the planet.

Every so often we are startled by a vivid flashback — or what appear to be flashbacks; they’re actually snippets that progress the dreams Noah keeps having — that rips our attention away from the current situation and places and seems to disorient us temporarily. Aronofsky understands that for his version of this story to work, he needs to get the audience in the same kind of disturbed mental state as the titular character eventually shall experience. The task at hand is going to be physically and psychologically exhausting, this we realize quickly. What kinds of tolls are Noah’s actions going to have on him, his loved ones? Aronofsky’s second and third acts explain thoroughly, even if this is not what most people expect. . .maybe even want. Relative to the world that he has created, Aronofsky’s story makes perfect sense. Even though Noah’s safety has apparently been ensured as well as that of his family, including that of the young girl, Ila (Emma Watson) whom they adopted many years ago, scores and scores of other people are left to waste. This is a reality Noah can barely stand to acknowledge, and the burden only increases.

Despite the clutter and chaos surrounding it’s release, the storyline presented isn’t overly complex or pretentious in nature. The epic can easily be divvied up into its three distinct movements: the first forty minutes or so are devoted to tracking Noah’s nomadic existence before coming into an understanding of what he’s meant to do (become the world’s greatest carpenter, apparently). Act two beckons a strong wind of change once Noah realizes he’s going to be running the world’s first and possibly only floating zoo and has gigantic rock creatures (fallen angels who were denied the gates of Heaven by The Creator earlier for their disobedience) to help construct it. Then, the third and final part devolves into an episode of The Real World: Noah’s Ark — what happens when Biblical characters stop being nice and start being real? What happens when a movie filled with unusual events and deviations from the perceived truth hits a brick wall in terms of ideas? Turn melodramatic, of course. This is precisely what the final twenty or thirty minutes of this film unfortunately resort to.

Aronofsky, it seems, pulls the rug out from underneath me as well.

While there are quite a few aspects about the film that come across as bizarre, even out of place and to a degree, unnecessary, nothing about the proceedings is going to compel people to want to burn Aronofsky at the stake more than the twists and turns of this protracted third act. It’s here where liberties are perceived to be taken the most: the characterization of Noah seems to take a 180-degree turn (and if you ask any random attendee, they’ll probably say for the worse). Again, that’s based on the presumption that they have always pictured this man as kind and gentle, and when he farts it smells of bakery-fresh cinnamon rolls. Indeed, this is not how Crowe portrays him, nor is this the way the character is written. If it helps, picture this 21st Century Noah as the equivalent of Daniel Craig’s version of James Bond — grittier, tougher, more human than we have ever been led to believe before.

In fact, that’s the fist-sized pill everyone has to swallow watching what was once nothing more than a simulacrum of man’s savior actually living, breathing, struggling. Noah humanizes the man’s battle to understand what is being asked of him and what is occurring around him. Abundant are the arguments calling out the film’s environmental message, but this really is less of an aberration as it is being made out to be. Is it delivered heavy-handedly? Perhaps. The Book of Genesis wasn’t exactly willing to get to the specifics over what these days were like. Desperate would be a fitting description, I suppose. Epic, another.

And that’s just what Aronofsky’s film is. It’s also far from perfect, possessing more than its fair share of editing and pacing issues that give the first act more than an opportunity to stall once and again (and ditto that to the last thirty minutes or so). Thematically, it juggles cautionary tales on how people epically fail at taking care of their environment (we do, there’s no denying it); the importance of family and how it may be defined; the virtue of love versus the temptation to hate. There are many layers to deconstruct and pick apart, with no real definitive core to be found anywhere. Controversial directors often find themselves at the very center of the controversy itself.

Here is an entirely new piece of literature, a story all it’s own. With any luck, the man won’t be receiving death threats like he did after creating Requiem.


3-5Recommendation: Given that the events that take place in the film are many and extremely varied, the story provided isn’t going to be the one most expect. That’s not to say there is no place for a modern-day adaptation. Visionary, significant, and strangely mainstream, Noah can hardly be described as the most accessible film ever made, but perhaps its this director’s most accessible. By the seem of things, it could shape up to be his most talked-about effort yet. Beautifully open to interpretation, the abstract and fantasy elements will inevitably offend many, but for those who it does not, they will find greatness in this epic tale of survival.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins.

Quoted: “Please keep it inside, please!”

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The Bling Ring


Release: Friday, June 21, 2013


The Bling Ring has everything to do with the loss of innocence in the youth today.

Haha. No, I’m not really going to stand on that soapbox, but I also have no real obligation to sit here and lie about this movie, either. The characters — all of them, and (unfortunately) especially Emma Watson — are detestable little shits in this film and this really made Sofia Coppola’s new movie a difficult one to sit through. It had to have been no longer than thirty or forty-five minutes into this thing when I had decided roughly how the shape of my pie rating system would look like paired up with my review later — that it would be decidedly less than half a pie. (You can jump to the bottom real quick to see for yourself what it ended up being, or wait until you’re finished reading. . . .)

There have been those films that I’ve enjoyed myself in because the story was good, despite the main characters or some supporting roles that I really just didn’t like; and there are those films out there where the characters would do horrific things but managed to somehow stay in good standing with the audience due to brilliant scriptwriting and various other things. Take Meet the Parents (the first installment in this series), for example. Most of the characters were somewhat annoying (or so I thought) yet their actions all added up to one amazing little movie that brought out the truth about all (or at least some) of its key players. The character of Greg Focker was one giant fall from grace which I thought really worked to make the film a believable one. I could do you one better than that, actually. How about The Silence of the Lambs? If you’re willing to say you actually really liked Hannibal Lecter as a person rather than what he meant to the movie, then we might have to have a chat.

Some other movies that come to mind that exhibit unlikable characters but whose presence didn’t greatly impact the experience might be: Hall PassA Scanner DarklyThe Rum Diary, Seven PoundsWin/Win, Pulp Fiction, and probably a whole slew of others I’ve seen but aren’t remembering well right now. In fact, the entire premise behind the original Saw took two highly despicable people and called them out on it. And of course, we all know what I mean when I phrase it as “called them out;” it’s a little more serious than that sounds. 

So I’m not dismissing this film simply because the characters don’t fit or are distracting from the story in some unforgivable way. They’re intensely annoying Valley Girls who clearly value material possession over healthy relationships, and that much is certain. But that’s who these real-life thieves were. I’m sure the film is relatively accurate in portraying the real-life personalities. Because I don’t spend a good deal of time consorting with impossibly shallow, materialistic individuals, I think I might not necessarily be the target audience for a film like this. Regardless. . . my review continues. . .

Coppola directs her new movie with some deftness and confidence behind the cameras. There are several very nice and unusual shots in here that help effect the attitudes held by millions of youngsters who in some way, shape or form are climbing up the ladder to popularity based on the perfumes, jewelry or make-up they’re sporting or whose name they have printed onto their garments. Indeed this is a dream movie for anyone interested in fashion and the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. The Bling Ring follows the escapades made by five high schoolers who have been relocated to something known as a “alternative high school,” for those who have behavioral issues or exhibit anti-social tendencies. Coppola finds a cast that epitomizes both.

When Marc (Israel Broussard) finds himself to be the latest newcomer during his first classes at his new high school, he quickly falls in with a crowd of fashionistas who seem to be all about finding their latest fashion statements in the most unlikely of places: the homes of well-known celebrities. Rebecca (Katie Chang) takes to Marc pretty quickly and soon he is with an “in” crowd he’s been wanting to be a part of all his life. When the two start snatching money and drugs from parked cars one night, Marc realizes he enjoys doing this as much as the others apparently do. And so they simply keep going, raiding a good number of homes belonging to the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson and Orlando Bloom. They do these places substantial damage as they revisit them again and again.

At first you might think, “How easy must it be to rob and loot in L.A.??” Then you have to think of all the V.I.P. parties Hilton et al must attend nightly. Cleverly, this bunch of alternate high schoolers figure out via articles on TMZ and associated sites exactly when their places will be empty, and then they make their moves, removing everything from designer jewelry to framed artwork, to pets. Its a thrill seeing the level of brazenness on display here, but what it also is (and more likely to be for more well-adjusted, matured viewers) is a damn sad portrait of kids losing their identities. This is, though, a place where identity and fashion seem to converge, and it’s not difficult to avoid so much as it is easy to be turned on by the psychosis that if you spend big, your friend circle thus will be big. Here’s a film that literally values the fact that bug-eyed glasses are more popular than reading spectacles; skimpy shirts and dresses are acceptable cold weather clothing; leopard print is more common than fleece. How could I have possibly gotten to where I am now without bending to the rules of fashion sensibility and design? I ask myself this while typing on a newly acquired MacBook Pro.

Identity is identity, I suppose. And I love me some Macintosh, yo. . .

Coppola certainly feels strongly about that sentiment, anyway. Her direction brings to the forefront the collective psychology of youngsters who want to feel part of the success of famous people, by way of stealing their things, that is. She focuses on the many lootings that occurred in the valley by setting up wide angles of an entire house left empty while Marc and Rebecca enter and do their thing. This is both an example of one of the great parts of this movie and of her attention on how these kids play a role in the grander scheme of things. You can look away from the house for a second and see the vast expansion of the surrounding area around Calabasas, and where they ultimately physically fit into the “bigger picture.” I actually thought this scene and the way the shot was set up to be a stroke of genius. It is such a shame to report that this was certainly the exception rather than the rule here, though. Trailers had this guy fooled.

What The Bling Ring boils down to is a rather flat story that weaves in and out of random celebrities’ homes (if they were really allowed access to these people’s homes, it was cool to see inside. . . think a glorified edition of Cribs) while offering next to no substance in the way of developing its characters. When you meet Marc and Rebecca, well. . . you’ve met Marc and Rebecca. And now you’re stuck with them for the duration of the picture. Fortunately, though, Marc is much easier to empathize with as the ultimate consequences do end up getting faced. I applaud Coppola for at least showing some realism to her artistry in making lowlives stealing from the rich look like badasses.

Look, I’m no high roller. I don’t necessarily think the real Bling Ring were “evil” for stealing from some of the wealthiest people in Los Angeles, but their portrayal in this film wasn’t exactly interesting. You couldn’t really feel for them, in any sense of the word — aside from a steadily increasing dislike for every one of them and the way they talked. I have never been as put off in a movie based on the characters alone, but I felt like I was stranded throughout this entire picture.


2-0Recommendation: The Bling Ring is far too one-dimensional to really recommend. If it had made an attempt to characterize the people who were involved in such bold and reckless schemes, and didn’t just fall back on the girls using “selfie” shots as transitions between scenes, then we might have had a real movie here. But what we have instead is a cold and calculated examination of the nature of obsession. Not even Leslie Mann can save this one.

Rated: R

Running Time:  90 mins.

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