Category Archives: Film and Television

The Circle: Style Over Substance

The Circle (2017) stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a young woman who lands a dream job at a tech company called The Circle. Skeptical at first, she comes to embrace The Circle’s vision of total openness and transparency, until ultimately uncovering the company’s nefarious agenda. It is based on a novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. The Circle is visually impressive, blending current and speculative technology to bring to life a world where the digital and physical overlap. If Apple made a movie, it would look like this. Clean, simple, elegant. Unfortunately, its message is lost in a plot thinner than an iPhone 7.

The Circle was founded by Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) and Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and designed by Ty Lafitte (John Boyega). Since growing into a Google-esque tech giant, Ty Lafitte has faded into the background, becoming an Emmanuel Goldstein-like figure who quietly opposes its agenda. The Circle integrates everything about your life into one system, seeking to acquire an ever-increasing amount of personal data, including placing cameras all over the world to monitor and analyze all human activity.

The Circle is a progressive and hip company that provides everything for its employees on its massive campus. Parallels to Apple and Steve Jobs are obvious (Eamon Bailey even holds casual talks where he announces products to his employees). Employees are peer pressured into conformity and relying on The Circle for social acceptance, entertainment, and even health. While employees are continually encouraged to “become more transparent,” Stenton and Bailey operate in secrecy, hiding their future plans and true motivations. Their agenda is so secret, not even the film’s audience ever finds out what they’re up to.

Is privacy important? Is transparency always good? Those are the questions I thought this film set out to explore. Don’t expect any clear answers. Mae Holland is converted to The Circle’s philosophy after she steals a kayak and would have drowned in San Francisco Bay if not for the cameras secretly recording her activity. She decides to go “fully transparent,” broadcasting her every experience through cameras. Later, however, she is pressured into using this technology to find her ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who flees the cameras and drives off the San Francisco Bridge. Though depressed, she determines to “fix” the system. “When a plane crashes, you make planes safer, you don’t stop flying,” she tells her parents.

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Quest for Fire

Quest for Fire (1981), or La guerre du feu, is a French film depicting primitive man’s struggle to attain fire in Middle Paleolithic Europe. This movie fascinated me as a kid, but I haven’t seen it for nearly two decades. I recently decided to watch it again, to see if adulthood would ruin the magic. After 35 years, it still holds up as a cinematic achievement. Written by Gérard Brach, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, and based on a Belgian novel of the same name by J.H. Rosny, it stars Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi, and Rae Dawn Chong. This was Ron Perlman’s first film. Jean-Jacques Annaud also directed The Name of the Rose (1986), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), and Enemy at the Gates (2001).

Quest for Fire follows four Paleolithic humans as they search for a source of fire, the only thing that provides warmth, light, and security in a hostile world. As the film opens, the Wagabu, a savage tribe of ape-like Neanderthals, attacks a tribe of Homo sapiens, the Ulam, as they lounge in their cave. After a fierce battle, the Ulam scatter and find themselves in a marsh, where their pilot light (for lack of a better term) is extinguished. The tribal elder sends three men, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman), and Gaw (Nicholas Kadi), to find a new source of fire, since they cannot create it themselves.

Along the way, Naoh, Amoukar, and Gaw rescue Ika (Rae Dawn Chong) from a tribe of red-haired cannibals, the Kzamm. Ika belongs to the Ivaka, an advanced tribe of Homo sapiens. The Ivaka have mastered building shelter, using gourds as cups and bowls, atlatl, and most importantly, the ability to make fire with a hand drill. Together, the four return fire to the Ulam, but not before defeating a rival faction using their newly acquired, advanced weaponry.

After all these years, Quest for Fire holds up so well partially because there were no special effects. Most scenes were shot in a single take, and the dialog consists of grunts, gestures, and a primitive language created by novelist Anthony Burgess. All the animals are played by actual animals, even the mammoths.  The mammoths, I admit, look goofy, but I was surprised to learn the filmmakers used circus elephants to portray them. Like The Revenant (2015), Quest for Fire features a bear attack, but unlike The Revenant, the bear in Quest for Fire is 100 percent real, not CGI. There’s something unnerving about watching actual lions prowl beneath a flimsy tree, waiting for the three helpless cavemen to fall, as opposed to fake, CGI monstrosities.

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Kong: A Monstrous Popcorn Flick

Samuel L Jackson fights CGI monsters in this nostalgia-driven reboot of the 1933 classic King Kong. This is the third remake/reboot of King Kong. Though essential elements of the original remain, Kong: Skull Island (2017) is set in 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War. It is replete with counter-culture references and music from the period, with the addition of a marooned WW2 vet to appeal to Baby Boomers and their parents alike. Nostalgia is the only explanation I have for why this film has gotten such good reviews. The dialog, acting, plot, and CGI are all mediocre. Its only redeeming quality is the ending fight scene between Kong and a giant skullcrawler called Ramarak.

The plot is straightforward. Bill Randa (John Goodman), a monster-hunter, attains funding to travel to an uncharted Pacific island under the guise of a geologic  mapping expedition. He enlists the help of former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and “antiwar” photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), alongside various Landsat employees. Once over the island, they encounter Kong, who smashes their helicopters. The survivors find a primitive tribe living on the island, alongside a stranded WW2 fighter pilot, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). From there, they must cross the island to safety while avoiding oversized creatures and carnivorous skullcrawlers.

While the 2005 Peter Jackson remake staring Jack Black wasn’t great either, I preferred that version of Kong. He was essentially just a giant silverback gorilla, with complex emotions and mannerisms copied from real life. In contrast, this Kong was as tall as a skyscraper, walked upright, and had two emotional states: pensive and roaring loudly. He’s also somehow impervious to .30 cal machine gun bullets, fire, and razor-sharp teeth.

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An Honest Assessment of Get Out

getoutWritten and directed by Jordan Peele of Key & Peele and MADtv, Get Out (2017) is the story of a young interracial couple, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), meeting Rose’s parents for the first time. By all appearances, Mr. and Mrs. Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) have no idea Chris is black. They seem to be friendly and progressive, if not awkward, but all is not what it seems.

This is Peele’s first film, and it has gotten nearly universally positive reviews, which I’ll admit, perplexed me at first. When I saw the preview, I thought it was a joke, like the horror movie spoof “Ghost Tits.” It looked like something from MADtv or The Chappelle Show, which makes sense since Jordan Peele is mostly known for sketch comedy. Critics said Get Out was “the smartest horror movie in ages,” “fresh and sharp,” and “masterfully and subtly crafted.” I had to see if it lived up to the hype.

Critics love to exaggerate positives and negatives, and there’s definitely some of that going on with these reviews, but Get Out is a solid, well crafted horror film. The preview doesn’t do it justice. The music, scares, characters, editing, foreshadowing, actors and actresses–all of it works.

The characters are genuinely creepy. We’ve all walked into situations where we had to meet people for the first time and they were a little odd or off putting. Get Out ratchets up that feeling and adds a racial element into the mix to make it more believable. The audience second guesses themselves along with the main character. Is there something wrong with these folks, or is it just culture shock?

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A Cure for Wellness

cureforwellnessofficialposterFebruary has not been a good month for movies. One bright spot was A Cure for Wellness, directed by Gore Verbinski and written by Justin Haythe. Verbinski directed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, The Ring, and Rango, and Haythe is mostly known for adapting Revolutionary Road for the screen. A Cure for Wellness is a classic Gothic tale, with elements of Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

A Cure for Wellness centers on an ambitious young Wall Street executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), who is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), from a health spa/hospital built on castle ruins at a remote location in the Swiss Alps. Once there, he breaks his leg in a car accident, and the director, Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), invites him to stay and partake in “the cure.”

Over the course of a few days, he learns the castle’s gruesome history, and meets a mysterious young woman named Hannah (Mia Goth). Two hundred years ago, the castle’s baron tried to conceive a child with his sister to keep the family bloodline pure. The outraged villagers stormed the castle, murdered the baroness, and burnt the castle to the ground. All is not what it seems at Volmer Institute, and Lockhart must get to the bottom of it before it claims him as well.

There’s a lot going on in this movie. Philosophically, it criticizes modern society and treats ambition as a disease. One character literally works himself to death in the opening credits, and wealthy patients flock to the Volmer Institute and its idyllic surroundings to avoid a similar fate. There is a stark contrast between the “pure,” romantic world of the Institute, and the village below, with its dirty residents and nihilistic youth.

As the villagers once burned the castle in anger, we have, Dr. Volmer argues, overthrown aristocracy and dethroned God, so all we have left is to worship naked ambition. Dr. Volmer, however, is no crusader. He exploits this modern condition to satisfy motives that are, shall we say, less than pure.

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Is Starship Troopers a Satire of Fascism?

starship_troopers_-_movie_posterThe terms fascist and fascism get thrown around a lot, but rarely with accuracy. The science fiction novel Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein, and the 1997 movie of the same name, are alternatively accused of promoting or lampooning fascism. Starship Troopers isn’t my favorite film, but I think it’s entertaining and original enough to rewatch every now and then. I just watched it last week, when to my surprise, RedLetterMedia featured it over the weekend in an episode of “re:View.” Watch the full episode here.

In their review, Mike and Jay take the position that Starship Troopers is a satire of fascism, and that audiences largely missed the point when the movie was released in 1997. There’s some evidence for this. The director, Paul Verhoeven, definitely interpreted Heinlein’s novel in this way. At one point, characters are wearing uniforms obviously inspired by the Nazi Gestapo. Violence is shown as the only solution, and militarism and war are at the center of this futuristic society. Characters consider the alien arachnids to be ugly, mindless, and inferior to humans. They are confined to a “Quarantine Zone,” like the Nazi ghettos.

Mike and Jay argue Starship Troopers inverts a common character arch in which a character living in an oppressive society comes to rebel against that society. Instead, in Starship Troopers, characters who originally question the social order, or who are at least indifferent to it, end up embracing it. Characters become less human as the film progresses, until, at the end, they cheer when it’s revealed a captured arachnid feels fear, an emotion that typically elicits sympathy.

starshiptroopersVerhoeven himself said his movie adaptation is “playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society… of course, the movie is about ‘Let’s all go to war and let’s all die.'” He copied some propaganda scenes directly from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).

But is the Terran Federation depicted in Starship Troopers a fascist society? Despite the fascist ascetic in the film, it just doesn’t measure up. Benito Mussolini defined fascism as a merger of corporations and the state. Fascism is more generally characterized by a cult of personality, extreme nationalism, veneration of past glory, militarism, racial superiority, and authoritarianism.

Well, Starship Troopers certainly portrays a militaristic society, but that is where the comparison ends.

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