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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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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

Miss Sloane: Anatomy of a Failure

misssloaneMiss Sloane (2016) stars Jessica Chastain as a high strung, pill-popping Washington DC lobbyist who takes on the Gun Lobby in this dead-on-arrival political thriller. Elizabeth Sloane is the most sought after and formidable lobbyist in Washington, D.C., but when her firm agrees to take on an effort to convince women to support the 2nd Amendment, she has a change of heart and joins a lobbying firm fighting for gun control.

According to IMDB.comMiss Sloane had a budget of $18 million and made an embarrassing $59,797 in its opening weekend. As of December 14, the movie had grossed $2.6 million. Ouch. All indications point to a decent film. Good pacing, unexpected plot twists, solid acting–so what went wrong? Well, audiences don’t really want to sit through a 132 minute commercial for gun control.

Let’s start there. It’s not surprising a political thriller would have a political message, but this film wears its bias on its sleeve. It is replete with left wing stereotypes of conservatives, who it portrays as elderly white men enthralled to the gun lobby. When confronted with a plan to create a pro-gun women’s group, Miss Sloane is flabbergasted, unable to believe any woman would support an originalist view of the 2nd Amendment. (Oops, those groups already exist, WAGC and AFA to name two.) Through Miss Sloane’s later exposition, the audience is actually treated to a point-by-point refutation of arguments against gun control, making you feel like you’re attending a lecture rather than watching a movie.

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a clean, colorful, and vibrant movie about the disconnect between war and the home front, fantasy and reality, but trips up in the execution. Its much-praised frame rate of 120 frames per second (twice the previous record) isn’t really justified by the film’s simplistic plot, and in some ways it looked like a film school project. Its stereotypical portrayal of soldiers undermines what it gets right about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. Overall, it’s entertaining enough to watch but not something you’ll come back to again and again.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, a 58-year-old writer from North Carolina. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment about it in relation to the film. While I was watching the movie, however, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that this story wasn’t written by either a former soldier or someone who served in the Iraq War. “This is what a Hollywood screenwriter thinks soldiers sound like,” I thought as I listened to the dialogue. Turns out my suspicions were correct, which explains why the soldiers were so painfully stereotypical. A writer often falls back on stereotypes or popular tropes when not informed by personal experience.

The film’s portrayal of the disconnect between soldiers and civilians, however, is very insightful. It’s hard to describe the oddity of being involved in something like the military, especially if you have been deployed in a war zone. Everyone has an opinion about it, even though they have no direct knowledge or experience. Even comments from someone who supports the troops and the war effort can seem awkward and embarrassing, and this film captures that beautifully.

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The Edge of Seventeen

edge-of-seventeenIn The Edge of Seventeen (2016), 17-year-old Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld) navigates the awkwardness of becoming an adult in her junior year of high school after her father dies of a heart attack. She reaches a crisis point when her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), hooks up with and begins dating her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). Her relationship with her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), further deteriorates as Nadine vents her frustration on friends, family, and her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). The cloud has a silver lining when she meets a similarly awkward young man, Erwin (Hayden Szeto).

The film has some bright spots, and some genuinely funny or touching moments, but mostly it is just the same cliched teen movie we’ve seen a hundred times before. Not Another Teen Movie already satirized this film in 2001. It may have a deeper meaning, however, if what I perceived as a genuine portrayal of mental illness turns out to be accurate.

Critics loved this movie, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Molly Eichel at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “The Edge of Seventeen is funny and tragic, but most of all it feels real in the same way John Hughes movies felt real. It’s not a candy-coated version of teenagedom. It’s harsh, and awkward, and funny, just like being a teenager.” Other critics called it “straight and sincere,” “smart and perceptive,” and “there isn’t a moment in this movie that doesn’t feel completely true.” Who paid them to write this nonsense?

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