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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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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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Gold Glitters

goldGreed and obsession collide in Gold (2016), a gritty morality tale set in 1980s Nevada, Wall Street, and Indonesia. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector desperate for a lucky break. He teams up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), and together they descend into the uncharted jungles of Indonesia hoping to find one big score. This poorly-advertised film almost escaped my notice, until I saw it playing at my local theater. I’m glad I took a chance on it. Gold is a solid film and surprisingly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey disappears into the role, achieving absolute rock bottom in body and spirit.

Gold is loosely based on a true story. In 1995, a small Canadian mining company called Bre-X, owned by David Walsh, claimed to find a massive gold deposit deep in the Indonesian jungle on the Island of Borneo, near the Busang River. Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof convinced Walsh to invest $80,000 to purchase and develop the gold mine.

In 1997, Bre-X collapsed and its shares became worthless in one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. On March 19, 1997, de Guzman committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in Busang, Indonesia. An independent investigation of core samples from the mine determined de Guzman had been “salting” the samples with gold flakes, some from his own wedding ring. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in the Bahamas in 1998, and in 2007, Felderhof was acquitted of securities charges. The scandal cost investors an estimated $3 billion.

Gold follows Nevada prospector Kenny Wells, who inherited his father’s company, Washoe Mining, in the early 1980s. Stress-induced alcoholism caused by the economic downturn leads him to sell the last of his jewelry and fly to Indonesia to meet geologist Michael Acosta. There he endures hardship and survives malaria. When he emerges from the illness, Acosta tells him he made what might be the largest gold discovery in history.

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Live by Night: A Lively Gangster Tale

live_by_night_filmStrong performances by supporting actors and actresses, wonderful choreography, and exciting action make Live by Night (2016) a thrilling gangster flick despite Ben Affleck’s uninspired acting. Affleck adapted the screenplay from a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film’s genuine look and feel is no doubt attributable to the source material. Although the characters are not based on real people, they might as well have been. For his part, Lehane wrote the novel about rum running to show the “sexy side of Prohibition.” Exotic, tropical locales, flashy clothes, fast cars, and excessive violence characterize both the novel and the film.

This sprawling movie spans several decades and locations, from Boston to south Florida. As the film opens, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WW1 veteran and bank robber in Boston. He falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to blackmail Coughlin into killing Albert White. Unfortunately, Emma betrays him and White tries to have both her and Coughlin killed.

After spending several years in prison for a bank robbery gone wrong, Coughlin approaches Pescatore and asks him to help get revenge on Albert White. Pescatore sends him to Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, where White had set up his own operation, to run his speakeasies and muscle out White.

While there, Coughlin meets and marries a Cuban woman named Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). He battles the KKK, other gangsters, hostile businessmen, and Evangelical Christians in his pursuit to corner the rum market and ultimately get Florida to legalize gambling so the mob can run its casinos. Coughlin and Pescatore come to blows in a bloody climax and Coughlin retires from his life of crime.

Live by Night is ultimately about “what goes around, comes around.” In several instances, characters’ past decisions come back to haunt them, and their bad behavior is repaid with pain, suffering, and loss. No one escapes this movie unscathed, except perhaps for Coughlin’s son, who I assume goes on to lead a normal life. Read the rest of this entry

Leadership: Alexander the Great vs. Darius III

alexandervdarius1Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander presented an interesting contrast in leadership styles, particularly during its portrayal of the Battle of Gaugamela. From what I’ve read about the battle, Oliver Stone’s cinematic reenactment is fairly accurate. But it’s not the film’s accuracy or the battle tactics (per se) that I want to highlight. The battle shows the benefits and pitfalls of authoritarian vs shared leadership styles, personified in the characters of Alexander the Great and Persian King Darius III.

Historically, the Battle of Gaugamela was fought in what is today northern Iraq in 331 BC between the Hellenic League army, led by Alexander the Great, and the Persian army, led by Darius III. Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, formed the the Hellenic League, a federation of Greek states, in 337 BC and was elected its Hegemon. Philip plotted to invade the Achaemenid Persian Empire in revenge for Persia’s previous invasions of Greece, but was assassinated before he could carry it out.

Alexander the Great took up this campaign and after a series of battles met King Darius III’s army near Gaugamela. Darius’ army is thought to have outnumbered Alexander’s 100,000-250,000 to 47,000. It was the largest army ever assembled at the time. Darius chose a flat, open plane on which to fight in order to maximize the effectiveness of his heavy chariots. Alexander, however, developed a tactic to defeat the chariots, and they were never again used as a weapon of war. Alexander crushed Darius by executing a faint with his cavalry on the right flank, then turning to exploit a gap that opened in the Persian center. In Alexander, the Hellenic army is portrayed as a professional army of free men, fighting against a mass of poorly equipped conscripts drawn from all over the Persian Empire. When Darius fled, his army gradually crumbled and melted away. Read the rest of this entry

The ‘Burbs: An American Gothic Tale

A cul-de-sac in an unassuming Midwestern suburb is the setting for this classic dark comedy from the ’80s. Though underappreciated, The ‘Burbs (1989) is one of my favorite movies and helped spark my interest in the unusual. It stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun as three friends who suspect an eccentric and reclusive family is up to no good in their neighborhood. Though on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delves deep into the American gothic and the double-sided nature of modern American society, a society that consumes true crime, horror, and paranormal books, movies, and television behind picket fences and manicured lawns.

On Mayfield Place in the fictional suburban town of Hinkley Hills, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and retired Lieutenant Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) suspect a family named Klopek, who live in a dilapidated house next door to Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), are really satanists responsible for the disappearance of the house’s previous occupants, and later, an old man named Walter Seznick. Ray Peterson is skeptical, simply wanting to enjoy a quiet weeklong vacation at home with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and son. Strange events gradually convince Ray his friends are right, and they break into the Klopeks’ home seeking evidence of their crimes.

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