“The Circle” movie review

Tries for a perfect circle, but winds up more like an oval. Full of endless circular logic and irony, director James Ponsoldt’s The Circle depicts the story of a not-so-distant future, or perhaps an alternative present, in which one company dominates digital media, data gathering, and surveillance services. Based upon the four-year-old novel by author Dave Eggers, you’ll notice some stark similarities between this motion picture narrative and the smash hit TV series Black Mirror. The biggest difference between the two is that The Circle is fast-faced and poorly written whereas Black Mirror is a slow-burning but well-written anthology series. In addition to the similarities between the aforementioned, there are certainly elements of The Truman Show in this movie as well. With a powerhouse cast, brilliant composer (Danny Elfman), and excellent editing, The Circle appears to have what a blockbuster needs; however, the hollow characters, poor character development, fractured subplots, and overall diegesis hold the film back from reaching the impact that it could have had. Having taken a digital media and privacy class in graduate school, and published a few articles, this is a film that I was looking forward to in order to analyze how the social commentary or commentary on the human condition regarding reasonable expectations of privacy and big data were integrated into the plot. Sadly, the screenplay was not strong or developed significantly enough to provide big data and privacy discussions.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) hates her job at the water company, so she is incredibly excited when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) lands Mae an interview at The Circle, the world’s most powerful technology and social media company. Mae’s fear of unfulfilled potential impresses the recruiters at The Circle and she lands the opportunity of a lifetime. After Mae puts herself into harm’s way but rescued, thanks to The Circle’s newest surveillance and data gathering system, she is encouraged by the company founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) to take a more active role in technology development by participating in an experiment that puts Mae’s life on display for the world (in the vein of The Truman Show) to see. Once Mae turns on that camera, she has more “friends” than she ever imagined and becomes an instant online celebrity. Unfortunately, this decision will affect those closest to Mae and the negative ramifications will reach far beyond her inner circle and begin to impact humanity at large. Sometimes, people just don’t want to be found or be “social.”

For all The Circle has going for it, the weak screenplay keeps it from being the blockbuster that it so desperately wants to be. A great movie typically begins with solid writing, and that is what’s missing here. After five minutes (or so it seems) of opening title logos, perhaps that is indirect evidence that there were just too many hands in the pot, each trying to take the movie’s narrative in a different direction. Much like Frozen plays off like two different movies crudely sewn together, The Circle appears to be one movie for the first two acts, but takes an unexpected and unfulfilling turn in the third. A couple of conspicuous unanswered questions come after Mae meets TrueYou designer and founder Ty (John Boyega). He designed the platform that launched The Circle. At one point he asks Mae to meet him in a secret tunnel (where all the servers are stored) and tells her that “it’s worse than I thought.” Great opportunity to introduce intrigue, suspense, and more. The problem is that the audience is never told what Ty finds or what happens with what he found. You can remove that whole subplot and the movie remains the same. There are other subplots that are nicely introduced, but never carried out as well. Any or all of them can be removed and the film proceeds the same. Not good. If you can remove several subplots or unfulfilled turning points and the film’s diegesis remain largely untouched, then you have poor writing. The third act in and of itself leaves audiences with a hurried ending that does little to provide closure to the narrative; however, it does support the film’s circular logic and irony. Hardly satisfying.

In terms of the allegory here, The Circle is a Google-like company with Apple’s technology. Eamon Bailey is a Steve Jobs type innovator with characteristics of Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Thankfully, The Circle does not represent any one company, but rather combines all the most notable innovations and technological achievements of Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, and more into one globally dominating company. Antitrust issues are introduced early on, but again, that’s never fully developed. The movie highlights many issues faced by private citizens, governments, and digital data driven companies today; therefore, it sets the foundation for a movie that could have been thought-provoking, but the writing hinders that ability. The irony in the movie is for every digital answer to streamlining services or bolstering conveniences, a little privacy is eroded each time. Pretty soon, if one shares enough information, the idea of privacy is extinct. Privacy was central to the plot, but it just wasn’t handled in the most effective way. Concepts such as “off the grid,” self-proclaimed “celebrity,” and “calls to action” are displayed and discussed in the film, connecting this augmented reality to real-world issues each of us encounter or think about. One particularly interesting theme in the movie is deep friendship. Unfortunately, this was not fully fleshed as is the case with most of the movie; but still, it does get touched upon.

Exploring digital media and privacy is something I have written on within the last couple years. More specifically, I explore how entertainment media companies collect big data, and the privacy issues faced therein. In 2016, I published a short series of articles on the Walt Disney World Magic Bands entitled “Magical Data Collection.” You can read those articles by clicking HERE.

If you were hoping for another film like the brilliant Social Network, then you will undoubtedly be disappointed. Films such as The Circle should be memorable, but unfortunately this one is very much forgettable. Coincidentally, the movie itself is as hollow as the plot and characters.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“A Dog’s Purpose” movie review

adogspurposeYou’re going to need tissues! Ever wonder what your dog was thinking? You’ll find out in Universal, Amblin Entertainment, and Walden Media’s glorified Hallmark movie that follows the soul of a loving dog. As such, A Dog’s Purpose is one of those films that is so simple yet emotionally touching. Based on the novel written by W. Bruce Cameron, this movie will tug at even the toughest of hearts. Although the film does not follow a traditional diegetic arc, three-act structure, and is filled with constant verbal exposition in the form of a voiceover, it is still enjoyable and works as a great date movie. No critical thinking required. Still, the author’s tagline “a novel for humans” can be seen in the social commentary on primarily human relationship dynamics followed by the relationship between a pet and his or her owner. Filled with moments of laughter and tears, A Dog’s Purpose is a film that everyone who either has or has ever had a dog should see. If you’re a cat person like me, then there isn’t much here for you–sorry. However, I was moved to tears during a scene in which the focus was on a human romantic relationship getting rekindled. You will never look at your dog the same way again and will likely go home and hug him or her just as a friend of mine did after she screened the film with me.

A Dog’s Purpose is about a dog who discovers the purpose for his existence as he is reincarnated into different dogs over the course of his life. Finding himself part of different families–or as he likes to refer to them–as packs, Bailey does his best to affect humans by influencing their respective needs to laugh and love.

Despite the rather two dimensional nature of A Dog’s Purpose, there is a deeper theme within the mostly shallow story if you examine the film closely enough. Not shallow in that there lacks emotional appeal or enjoyment, but shallow in that there is very little that is complex and dynamic in the narrative. Although Bailey spends most of his on screen life with Ethan (K.J. Apa), Bailey’s soul finds itself in other dogs who are part of their own respective family. Doing a close reading of the film reveals that each family unit represents a different kind of relationship dynamic or lack thereof. I won’t spoil it by describing each type of relationship, but knowing that there is social commentary on human and pet relationships could likely increase the appeal and enjoyment of the film for those who prefer movies with a more cerebral plot. Interestingly, the movie includes families/human relationships that represent a good cross-section of the types of relationship dynamics that exist in our lives.

For those who typically enjoy Hallmark movies, then you’ll definitely enjoy this one. Last January we had glorified Lifetime movies and this year it must be Hallmark’s turn. As I have not read the novel, I cannot comment on differences between the book and the film adaptation.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“A Monster Calls” movie review

monstercallsA breathtakingly beautiful and dynamic film that typifies the art of visual storytelling in the gothic style. Focus Features’ A Monster Calls directed by J.A. Bayona is nothing short of a Terms of Endearment, in theme anyway, for a new generation. You are certain to laugh and cry your way through the film. Based upon the novel by the same name, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay and conceptualized Siobhan Dowd, Bayona’s adaptation of the novel plays out to be a deep, rich story that will touch the hearts and minds of each and everyone in the audience. For anyone going through the stages of grief, this film will especially ring true and perhaps bring about comfort. Although the protagonist Connor, played by Lewis MacDougal, is twelve years old, this dark melodrama with a plot revolving around terminal illness is not typically something that will appeal to kids of Connor’s age. Despite the fantasy elements and the young protagonist, A Monster Calls is more suited for older teens and adults; however, by the same token, the movie isn’t entirely going to initially appeal to adults since the protagonist is quite young. I screened the movie last night in an auditorium filled with patrons of all ages and there was not one dry eye in the audience. Looking at the film from the outside and analyzing the plot and cast, it would appear that it may not attract droves of people because of the gothic fantasy nature, typically aimed at kids and young teens, with content and theming best suited for older audiences; however, the film truly transcends age barriers and stereotypes to touch those who are young or young at heart.

While most twelve year old boys are busy with school and learning to develop socially or even romantically, or just simply playing video games and having Stephen King type adventures, Connor (MacDougal) is dealing with far more than a kid should every have to deal with. Connor’s mother (Felicity Jones) is very ill and Connor is forced to grow in many ways kids should not quite quickly to take care of her. Not entirely going through this terminal illness alone, Connor has a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who looks in on him and his mother–a grandmother with whom he shares little in common. With Connor’s father settling down in Los Angeles, Connor feels very much alone while dealing with his mother’s illness. Expressing his emotions and thoughts through water color and sketch artwork, Connor uses his penchant for beautiful art as a form of therapy. Just when all seems lost, an unexpected ally in the form of a rather gothic tree-like monster (Liam Neeson) appears in his window one night. Apprehensive at first, Connor befriends the monster who guides him on a journey of courage, truth, and faith that combine in a powerful fusion of imagination and reality.

This is certainly a year for fantastic monsters and fantasy, isn’t it? However, A Monster Calls is definitely not your typical fantasy. It deals with deep emotions, dark themes, and material usually better suited for adults. Why then choose such a young protagonist? Perhaps the author Patrick Ness wanted to reach those kids who are going through tough times and who are dealing with situation that most kids won’t face until they are much older. Some kids are just forced to grow up more quickly than others. It’s important that cinema and literature not forget them because words on pages or moving pictures may be the only source of comfort, escape, or allegory. Director J.A. Bayona appears to have successfully translated the novel to screen–from what I know. Interesting that the movie opens with the narrator describing Connor as being too old to be a kid but to young to be an adult. By extension, that is precisely where this movie fits in. It’s too “old” to be a kid’s movie but too “young” to be an adult movie. And that’s okay. Growing up is hard, and when faced with a family member or close friend with a terminal illness, life is exponentially more difficult emotionally and even psychically. Unconventional as it may seem, this film is powerful and transcends the age spectrum to provide a strong emotional journey that audiences can appreciate and from which people may receive comfort. If for no other reason, having a kid starring in a melodrama brings audiences of all ages together–many who may be going through something similar as the child, parent, spouse, or lover of someone who is terminally ill. It’s okay to grieve and let go.

From the opening credits alone, I was confident that this was going to be a visually stunning movie. The water color animation and brushstrokes are reminiscent of the story of the three brothers in Harry Potter. Absolutely beautiful. Much in the same way Kubo and the Two Strings was an innovative animated film, A Monster Calls also contains unconventional and innovative methods of telling its story. Similar to how the animated story of the three brothers in Harry Potter was integrated into the diegesis of a live action movie, so it is with this film. The more I thought about the technical and emotional elements of A Monster Calls, it is clear that it’s truly a dynamic means of cinematic art. Dynamic in that there are three different types of storytelling methods used diegetically each highlighting a different form of art: (1) motion pictures (2) visual art (3) oral storytelling. It’s been said that the novel is an extension of oral storytelling, the play an extension of the novel, and motion pictures an extension of the play. At the root of all those methods of communicating through art is the very concept of storytelling. And A Monster Calls has the art of storytelling in spades. There are so many levels to the diegesis in this film; much like an onion or matryoshka doll, this film has a message of how to deal with grief at its core but there are many different routes to get to that central theme. Each layer teaches Connor and the audience something different and valuable. The cinematic storytelling elements of direction, cinematography, editing, and score are all equally beautiful.

Structurally, A Monster Calls is an intimate story reinforced and surrounded by artistic German expressionism calling attention to its own artifice. From the exterior shots to interior rooms, the various sets appear to be meticulously constructed on a stage and the wardrobe much like perfect costumes. The art tells the story effectively with little exposition required. Fernando Velazquez’ score is so incredibly moving that you may find yourself listening to the score as it too truly assist in the overarching means of telling this story. The design of the monster is brilliant and ominous all at the same time. Almost animatronic in nature, the tree plays out like there is a puppeteer on the inside articulating the movements. The monster feels just as much like an actor as the actors playing the human characters. Liam Neeson was a perfect choice to cast as the tree’s voice. His deep bass is comforting, warm, and wise-sounding. But just who is the tree (in the story)? Although we are never told whose spirit inhabits the tree that has seen thousands of years go by, there are a couple of hints as to who it might be if you pay close enough attention to subtleties in the film. At the end of the day, whether it’s the spirit of someone or the personified life of the tree itself, it is of little consequence to the movie. Still, its definitely fun and interesting to talk about as my friend and I did after the film.

If you enjoy movies such as The Iron GiantThe Giving Tree, or Terms of Endearment, then you will immensely enjoy this film. Presently in advanced screenings and limited releases, you may need to wait a few weeks before it is at a theatre near you. Although slated for a January wide-release, it may make its way through many markets before then. Originally set for an October release, it makes since to have held it until Oscar season since this is one of those films that could grab the attention of the academy. Definitely bring your tissues.

“Nocturnal Animals” movie review

nocturnalanimalsA meta-thriller that is equally shocking, seductive, bizarre, and beautiful all at the same time. Tom Ford’s adaptation of the best-selling novel Tony and Susan (1993) will either repulse or intrigue you from the opening credit sequence. There is definitely a pronounced shock value in this cinematic erotic mystery that includes an incredible amount of symbolism and theming just eager to be interpreted and dissected. Not typically found in mainstream cinema, the avant-garde seems to be the inspiration for many films this year. Nocturnal Animals is one of those films that is destined for discussion in a film or media studies graduate class. With solid acting, writing, and cinematography, you will be sucked into this twisted mystery within the world that the wealthy live in and the real world that most of us live in. You will likely find yourself thinking about what everything means, how it might apply to you, or simply appreciate non-linear storytelling. Although the film certainly rests upon the flashback as a chief storytelling method, Ford plays his cards right and creates a film in which all three stories are equally interesting. You may have heard it said–even by me–that some good movies are poor films; but, this is a case of a good film but a poor movie. That is usually the case with films that fall into the artistic or avant-garde stylistic way of conducting a visual story that contains a strong emotional impact.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an incredibly successful art gallery owner in Los Angeles. However, the marriage to her second husband is not nearly as successful. He’s often away on business trips to New York. One evening, Susan receives a manuscript written by her first husband (Jake Gyllenhaal)–a once struggling writer and graduate student turned college professor and now professional author. She finds the novel gripping and disturbing. As she continues to pour over the pages dripping with intrigue, she is impacted on a personal level as she uses the world of the novel as a mirror on her own life. Taking her to dark places in her past, Susan finds herself on a path of self-evaluation as she is presently going through emotional and financially hard times.

Cognitive cinema. Focus Features’ Nocturnal Animals is one of those films that requires higher thinking in order to truly appreciate the symbolism and theming. Not that it cannot be enjoyed as a beautifully dark and disturbing story, but there is so much that can be analyzed in this film. From the sequence of obese nude females dancing with sparklers, ringmaster hats, and cheerleader regalia to the reoccurring imagery of crosses and death–both in terms of emotional and physical–director Tom Ford provides audiences with a film that can only be characterized as a mystery that is meta-thriller meets hints of erotica. Even now, I am analyzing the symbolism and theming as I write this review. There are so many elements to talk about. And I think that is the best part about a movie like this. Don’t watch it alone. Not because it is too intense or scary but because you will want to talk to someone about the theming or emotional commentary. I find myself with a deep desire to analyze the film with someone, but none of my friends or colleagues have seen it yet. Visually driven. Even without the dialog, Ford’s Nocturnal Animals can be understood through the imagery in and of itself. Trace amounts of Tom Ford’s legacy as a high fashion designer can easily be seen in the design of this film. And I am not just talking about Adams’ stunning wardrobe and hair/makeup. In many ways, this film–as a whole–is symbolic of high fashion clothing. It can be read in some of the same ways fashion is read and appreciated. Because this is only the second feature length film from Ford, there are elements of the story that give the impression that his talent for visual storytelling is still in the development process as there are times that his method of directing is that of an observant student or scholar of cinema.

There are three distinct narrative threads in this film. (1) is the main story that we open up to at the interpretive and conceptual art exhibit establishing Susan, her gallery, her husband, and lavish lifestyle (2) is the narrative of her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal)’s novel Nocturnal Animals and (3) is the story of the rise and fall of the relationship between Susan and Edward. Juggling three plots is no easy task. Contrary to how it may appear, the narratives are not confusing or incoherent. Each plays an important role in the overarching theme and story of the film. The incoherency is found in the interpretation and analysis of what everything means. It’s as if the film is providing the audience with puzzle pieces that can be arranged to depict something different for everyone. Perhaps you want to read the film as commentary on the relationship between Susan and Edward. Maybe you view it as symbolic of the estranged relationship between Susan and her current husband. Or maybe the novel is self-reflexive of the life Susan has created for herself.

Each story is stylized in such a way that they complement one another–do not necessarily correlate or match each other, but the narratives are complementary. Although the audience is asked to draw their own respective conclusions to the story, presumably Susan’s once lavish and charmed life will continue to rot and crumble as her husband is likely cheating on her just like she cheated on Edward. Still, there is a lot left up to interpretation in the best possible way. The Roger Ebert website review of this film commented that there are parallels between this film and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Fascinating take on this film. That is probably the best analogical interpretation of Nocturnal AnimalsLooking at the film in such a way that Susan is Alice and the two other narrative threads are her adventures in Wonderland opens a whole new window through which to view the events as they unfold. On the surface level, there is a clear theme of revenge woven throughout the plot. This is indicated by a painting that catches Susan’s attention on her way to a board meeting. The metaphysical thrilling aspect to the subplot of revenge is the revenge the past has on the present and the present on the past. In a manner of speaking, Susan is listed by ghosts of her past, present, and future. Okay, perhaps not in the same way Scrooge was visited, but there are certainly some commonalities.

If you enjoy films that make you think, then this is definitely one to watch! As it was on a limited release until this weekend, you may not have heard of it but look for it at your local movie theatre. Fans of Blue Velvet will likely enjoy this film as well. Intriguing writing, solid acting, and beautiful cinematography make this a fascinating movie to prompt deep discussions afterwards.

 

“The Girl on the Train” movie review

girlonthetrainA tastes great, less filling, David Fincher-esque flick. DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment’s The Girl on the Train directed by Tate Taylor and starring Emily Blunt is the much anticipated film adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name written by Paula Hawkins. With a slow windup and quick delivery, the suspense thriller plays off as a knockoff combination of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Fincher’s Gone Girl, and George Cukor’s Gaslight. Despite the wild success of the novel, this film adaptation appears to have jumped the tracks. In fact, fans of the novel may find that this translation from page to screen is a bumpy ride. The film is not without its high points; the plot is certainly intriguing and Blunt’s portrayal of the protagonist is excellent; however, her outstanding performance is simply not enough to carry the weight of an otherwise flawed film. The film fails to truly create that sense of dread and heighten the anxiety levels of the audience. There were many missed opportunities to tighten up the writing during the windup and spend more time on a successful nail-biting punch during the third act. It’s one of those films that feels like Act I is 2/3 of the movie with Acts II/III being 1/6 each. Lots of verbal exposition when exposition through showing would have been more effective. Don’t get me wrong; it was a fun suspense thriller and the plot twist and turning point from Act II to III was quite the shocker; but, the film just never seemed to move beyond the surface level.

Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is not adapting to life as a divorcee very well. She has a pronounced drinking problem and cannot seem to hold a job. Rides the train into New York City from the countryside everyday, passing her old neighborhood. Starring into not only her old house but the house of a couple she feels are the embodiment of love, Rachel develops an unhealthy obsession with the characters that appear outside of the window as sh narrates their lives. When she learns that the young woman who lives in the house two doors up from where she used to live, has gone missing, she place herself in the midst of the investigation. Not having dealt with her own sordid past, Rachel begins to obsess over the mystery because of the empathy she feels for the missing girl. Once the authorities feel that Rachel has crossed the line too many times, they begin to look her direction. Determined to solve the case of the missing girl, Rachel must put together puzzle pieces that she never thought she would have to face again.

If I had to sum up the film adaption of The Girl on the Train, I would concisely put it this way: under-developed. From the locations themselves to the writing (screenplay) to the plot and characters, this mystery-thriller-suspense movie fails to impact the audience and truly elicit a strong emotional response. Tapping into emotions and affecting anxiety levels is paramount for suspense-thrillers. After such a long, drawn-out wind up and the rushed showdown, this film does not live up to the hype that the novel generated. Having not read the novel, I cannot comment on differences or even how the movie could have been done better; but screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson could have done a better of job of creative a cinematic story fit for the silver screen. The flaws of the film so not stop with the writing, but director Tate Taylor’s vision, for the best-seller, should be checked because it appears as though he may need glasses. If it was not for Blunt’s commitment to the character of Rachel, the film would have had very little entertainment value. This is one of those films that was saved by attaching excellent talent.

This film falls into the same sub-genre as Gone Girl. But, what made Gone Girl so successful was the exceptional direction from David Fincher and simply the fact that author Gillian Flynn also wrote the screenplay. If an author can be trained to write the screenplay of the film adaption of their literary work, then that is always the best approach because they know the characters and plot better than anyone. Fincher also includes many WTF moments and treats the camera more than lens through which to witness a visual story but creates magic that takes the audience out of the threats and transports them into the movie. The Girl on the Train has a great premise and intriguing plot. The foundation IS there for a great movie adaptation. The writing not only doesn’t do the book justice, from what I have read, but fails to create a cinematic experience as well.

Other than Rachel, the rest of the cheaters are two-dimensional. We are given just enough information to make them mildly interesting, but the character development just isn’t there. Much like the detective in Gone Girl was as interesting to follow as the main cast, Detective Riley should have been just as well developed for this film. Rachel’s ex-husband, his wife, their nanny, and the nanny’s husband have the makings of a cast of characters filled with lies, deceit, betrayal, dark secrets, and intrigue (and to some extent, that comes across in the movie); however, all those elements are touched on but never truly fleshed out. Do those elements have a place in the plot of the film? Yes. But, do they play a dynamic a role as they could have? Not particularly. Most everything in the film is very surface level. All the makings are there for a film that could be nearly as thrilling as Gone Girl, but it’s all superficial. When location scouting for a film that relies upon houses, transportation, and proximity that are intricate to the plot, it is important to treat them AS cast. The two main houses and the train in this movie almost feel like they were selected out of convenience. Nothing about the locations or train grabbed me or generated a significant emotional response. However, I liked the proximity of the train to the houses and how the lake is on one side and the neighborhood on the other.

If you’re looking for a fun suspense-thriller to watch this weekend, then this one may fit the bill. But, you won’t get nearly the ‘train’ ride that you experienced in Gone Girl. Emily Bunt demonstrates a dynamic acting prowess compared to other characters that she has brought to life. Whether you choose to watch this film in a local cinema near you or wait for it to be on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, or HBO, the experience will be the same. At the end of the day, it’s a good movie but a poor film.