Movie Reviews - 2017 postsThursday September 14, 2017
Movie Review: The Circle (2017)
Here’s the biggest problem with this piece of crap.
We think our hero, Mae (Emma Watson), views The Circle, a Silicon Valley megacompany, with the same cynical eye we do. She even jokes with a savvy insider, Ty Lafitte (John Boyega), about people who drink the Kool-Aid. They laugh about it together at a company event.
Then she not only drinks the Kool-Aid, she bathes in it. She becomes the Kool-Aid. She starts out reluctant to update her profile on True You, The Circle’s Facebook, then agrees to have her entire life recorded 24/7 (w/bathroom breaks). It’s called “going transparent.” And in this way she accumulates millions of followers and thus power. During her day, random comments waft around her like perfume. And she seems perfectly happy with it! She doesn’t see the danger! She agrees with CEO/guru Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) that transparency equals accountability and privacy is for losers!
Basically she becomes LonelyGirl15 2.0.
Even inadvertently broadcasting her parents having sex doesn’t make her rethink any of it! No, she doubles down. Eamon is working on a proposal that would allow voter registration through True You, but she goes further: She suggests every person be required to have a True You account. That it would be law. It’s an idiotic, illegal proposal but Bailey and Stenton nod like it’s wisdom, or at least strategy, and she puffs up, proud, at her little foray into petty tyranny and thought control.
Which means our hero is not only stupid, she's horrible.
Sure, she finally sees the light when she causes the death of her longtime friend, and gentle soul, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane of “Boyhood”). During one of The Circle’s “all hands” meetings—which are like a mix of pep rally and TED talk—she uses her tens of millions of followers, along with The Circle’s “SeeChange” camera devices stationed all over the world, to track down a British woman who locked her kids in a closet and went on vacation. (They starved to death.) But they do it—they track her down and she's brought to justice. Yay for The Circle! Yay for Mae! Then someone shouts out that they should track down Mercer, too, who sells chandeliers of antlers, and everyone agrees; and though Mae knows it’s wrong she goes along with it. Hey, guess where he is? In a cabin in the wilderness. But he’s found! And he flees from the attention! Into his truck! And onto a highway! And guess what happens? Yeah. Bye-bye, Mercer. And the movie turns somber, and quiet, and montage-y, as Mae rethinks her recent life choices.
And gradually she begins to see what we saw an hour ago, so she teams up with Ty to get back at The Circle. How? By suggesting that Bailey and Stenton go transparent. All of their emails, their IMs, their VMs, their corporate strategizing. On stage, the two men eye each other warily, then look angry, then Stenton stomps off.
But all I kept thinking was, “No one thought of this before? The hell?”
More, I’m curious what Eamon Bailey’s end-game is. We never really find out. I don’t think it’s particularly malicious, I just think he has a double-standard. He wants his privacy but no one else’s, since everyone else’s gets in the way of the data he wants to record and store and filter, which will get at the heart of, I don’t know, being human or something. But I never did figure out any specific end-game.
But Mae, our horrible, stupid protagonist, wins in the end. Kinda sorta. There’s a weird ambiguity in the final scene. Mae goes kayaking—always her one respite—and she’s surrounded by drones. And she doesn’t seem to mind. Because...? Because she's horrible or because she's smart or because she's a 21st century automaton inured to it all?
I like casting Hanks as the villain, but that’s about the only thing I liked with “The Circle.” Watson, or her character, isn’t particularly likeable even in the early going. And then of course she becomes a Circle jerk.
Here’s advice to anyone in Hollywood making a movie about Silicon Valley tech companies: We don’t like them. We don’t like them because...
- ...they have more interesting jobs than we do
- ...that pay way, way better
- ...and that make products that make us feel stupid
Keep all that in mind if you’re going to do one of these in the future. Oh, and don't turn your heroes into assholes, either.
Movie Review: It (2017)
Stephen King must’ve had one fucked-up childhood.
It’s not just the malevolent forces he conjures—his bread and butter—but the small-town bullies. They’re not exactly the kind to give you noogies and move on. They will literally cut you, or knock you unconscious, or, hell, kill you. His good kids, the nerdy kids like us, not only live in a world without rule of law but without any parental authority whatsoever—where every parent, every single one, is worth zero. Less than zero. There are no adults in the room. The kids have to be the adults in the room.
You get a sense of this right away. When Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) wants to go outside and play with a paper boat in the rain—like all kids did in the ’80s—and his big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher of “St. Vincent” and “Midnight Special”) can’t join him because of a cold, it’s Bill who stands worried by the window as Georgie goes splashing off. The mother that normally does this? She’s downstairs playing ominous music on the piano. (“Thanks, Mom!”) And when Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgaard), the malevolent spirit of Derry, Maine, who feeds on the fear of children, makes his appearance in the sewer, tempting Georgie, we cut to a woman on her porch, hanging out. Watching maybe? For a moment we think, “At the last minute, she’ll say something, or paddle over, and Georgie will be saved.” Nope. Chomp, scream, drag. And the woman simply watches the blood on the street drain away.
In fact, halfway through, I thought that was the point of Pennywise. He’s ... parental absence. Or created out of parental awfulness. Just go down the list. No adult does anything right:
- Eight months after Georgie goes missing, Bill is still trying to find him; but Bill’s dad yells at his son that Georgie is dead. DEAD.
- Mike’s parents are dead, killed in a fire before the movie began. So he stays with his uncle, who forces him to shoot livestock in the forehead with an airgun.
- Eddie’s mom makes her son a hypochondriac.
- The local cop is the son of the chief teenage bully, Henry (Nicholas Hamilton of “Captain Fantastic”), whom he bullies. That’s where Henry learned it in the first place.
- The local pharmacist flirts creepily with Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a 14-year-old girl.
- Beverly’s dad tries to rape her.
When Henry carves an H into the belly of Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor, quite good), the other kids don’t take him to the hospital; they fix it themselves. After they discover where Pennywise lives, they tell no adult. Maybe there’s no adult to tell. These kids are forever navigating a world between teenage bullies, horrible grown-ups, and a malevolent evil spirit that appears in Derry every 27 years. It’s a wonder they all don’t stutter.
Casting for adults
A lot of loose ends here. I never really understood Derry’s original sin that led to the creation of Pennywise. Something about a well?
More, the whole adventure leads to a dilapidated mansion/crack house on the edge of Derry, which was built around that well. The kids, the self-styled Losers Club, rappel to its bottom and walk through a tunnel where they discover this garbage dump of childhood (toys, etc.) ascending upwards, and, around it, floating in space, the bodies and/or souls of the missing children. They’re just hanging there. It’s like an aria; it’s almost beautiful. And when Pennywise is finally defeated, those bodies begin to descend. The kids talk about it. I thought maybe the missing kids would come back to life the way Beverly did—pulled down and awakened, fairy tale-like, with a kiss from her secret admirer, Ben. But they don’t. Or, more to the point, we don’t see what happens. They say, “Hey look, they’re coming down,” and then we’re just outside and the Losers Club makes a pact amongst themselves about returning in 27 years if they need to. (And they’ll need to. This one broke all September box-office records.)
So maybe all those bodies just crumpled on the ground? Or disappeared? Shouldn’t someone tell the cops they can close some missing persons files? Or is Henry’s dad the only cop in town, and at that point he’s, what, lying in his easy chair covered in his own sticky blood.
And yeah, what about Beverly’s dad? Also dead. Is there going to be an investigation? Can everyone just get away with murder in Maine?
(BTW: For a crack house, it doesn’t have many crack addicts. OR any. Or did Pennywise take them, too?)
The movie is genuinely scary (to me anyway), and keeps upping the ante. At first, Pennywise is an outside force. He appears in the dark. Then he starts appearing outside during the day. Then in your basement, then in your bathroom, then seemingly any old where at any old time.
I liked the kids—the camaraderie and the tensions between them. They fit archetypes but not completely. The brave one, Bill, looks like the nerdy kid in “Stand By Me,” Wil Wheaton, rather than that movie’s more traditional-looking brave kid, River Phoenix. Finn Wolfhard goes from nerdy lead in “Stranger Things” to, here, Richie, the mouthy, profane Jewish comic relief—a budding Lenny Bruce. The other Jewish kid, Stanley (Wyatt Olef), is more quiet, and the first to abandon the team. He’s not much, to be honest. Neither is Mike, the black kid. He’s just “the black kid.” But Jeremy Ray Taylor transcends the fat-kid role. He’s got secrets, and an inner toughness, and an inner self-worth that makes romance with Beverly seem plausible. To him. Would've been interesting if the movie allowed it.
In the novel, the terror spree and formation of the Losers Club was set in 1957-58—back when kids did play with paper boats in the rain, and white bullies told black kids to leave town. The ’80s was for the adult Losers. Now that’ll be 2016-17, and there’s already speculation on which actors will play the 40-something versions. To me, you’d be nuts not to offer Beverly to Amy Adams, since Sophia Lillis is already a dead ringer. Would Wil Wheaton make a good Bill? Is David Schwimmer too buttoned-up for Richie? I also wouldn’t mind some fun, original casting. Henry Cavill for Ben, for example. But then I haven’t read the novel. I don’t know what they’re supposed to become.
Or what Pennywise might become in the digital age? Does he have a website? Can he hypnotize you with a gif file? If he lives off fear, if it’s like “salting the meat” for him, then appearing in the Trump era should be quite the feast.
Movie Review: Columbus (2017)
I first saw the trailer for “Columbus” on an evening when I was agonizing over whether to spend another $300 to travel to Minneapolis 1 1/2 days ahead of schedule so I could be with my mother who was having trouble recovering in the hospital. Would that day and a half matter? Would I just be throwing money away? I felt guilty enough just being in a movie theater in Seattle, but I was still on the fence. Then the trailer to “Columbus” began with these words:
There’s this belief that if you’re not there when a family member dies, their spirit will roam aimlessly and become a ghost.
I was in Minneapolis within 24 hours.
“Columbus” reminds me a little of last year’s “Paterson.” Both are quiet, thoughtful movies about scattered characters in an unfamous American town that is still known for something: poetry for “Paterson,” modern architecture here. “Paterson” was more acclaimed but I think “Columbus” is better.
That said, I wasn’t overwhelmed. I appreciated more than loved it.
Should I stay or should I go
Both main characters are trapped in Columbus, Indiana by a parent. Jin (John Cho), is forced to travel from Seoul, South Korea to be with his famous architect father, who collapses before a lecture and never really recovers. Cassandra, or Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, a find), is a bright 19-year-old who has eschewed college to look after her working-class mother (Michelle Forbes), recently recovered from meth addiction.
Casey is clearly chafing and keeps pursuing the nearest interesting thing, and once Jin arrives that’s him. I like their first conversation, sharing cigarettes on opposite sides of a wrought-iron fence. She first hears him speaking Korean on the phone (he’s a translator, expected to work while caring for his father), and expresses surprise that he speaks English so well. Like an American, really. But he is an American—born there, raised here, now living there—and I’m glad first-time writer-director Kogonada added this bit of complexity and didn’t try to pass off the obviously American Cho as Korean. Jin even engages in a bit of PC gamesmanship like an American—giving her a hard time for assuming he didn’t speak English. I like when he immediately expresses regret over this: “You offered me a cigarette and a I give you a hard time.” I like the twinkle in his eye when he corrects her on his name: Jin with an n. I like how their conversation ends at a break in the fence, but they each stay on their own side.
What I didn’t particularly like? Them, sadly. I found her both self-satisfied and needy—an annoying combination—while he still harbors resentments toward his father at the age of .... what? 40? (Cho is 45.) Shouldn’t he be over this by now? Shouldn’t he have forgiven his father his faults and himself his choices? The fact that he’s still working through these issues made him less interesting to me.
We don’t see him working on translations much, or even at the hospital at his father's bedside. Mostly we get them in conversation, and slowly, sometimes awkwardly, truths are revealed. She talks the meth problem in Columbus, he says meth is a problem everywhere: Korea, China. Then, based on where she takes the conversation, he asks if her mother did meth. She laughs oddly at this. “Did you mother do meth?”: How funny that sounds. She’s right, it does sound funny, but he keeps asking. Eventually she owns up. That’s why she’s still in town, caring for her. But during the course of the movie her mother appears to be doing it again. Mom's got a night-shift job but not answering her phone, and Cassie discovers a friend is covering for her. (Horrible friend.) It’s never stated out loud, and Jin never realizes it, but we do. We know why Casey's acting the way she’s acting. And we know why she leaves Columbus. Because staying hasn’t helped.
Don’t let’s start
Throughout, she, and sometimes he, talk up the modernist architecture of the city, some of which I loved (Second Street Bridge), some of which I found so-so (the 1954 purposely unimposing bank building). I think my favorite is the low-level modernist city hall, built in 1981, particularly its cantilevered brick walls that extend from left and right but don’t quite meet in the center. That’s a good metaphor for politics, particularly these days, and a good metaphor for Jin and Casey. They go all that way but don’t quite ... meet. Or consummate. There’s the age difference, mostly, and the mixed feelings. Is his concern for her fatherly, big brotherly, more? I like that it remains ambiguous, probably even to him.
It's a quiet, studied film, and the ending is poignant. From the beginning he’s wanted to leave and she’s wanted to stay. So, of course, she leaves and he stays. It’s like that They Might Be Giants line: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful.” She goes but neither is free; both have work to do. His is with his father, hers is with herself.
Movie Review: Logan Lucky (2017)
The opening has charm. Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, of the West Virginia Logan clan, a grizzled, former high school football star working on the engine of his truck while bantering with his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) about an upcoming beauty pageant she'll be in and the John Denver song he loves: “Country Roads” with its paean to his home state. As he’s finishing, he asks to see her guns and she makes muscles and kisses one of them like a Schwarzenegger wannabe. Who’s not going to smile at that? It’s sweet and feels real.
The movie lost some of its charm, sadly, with two casting miscues.
Stevie Two Tones
After Jimmy loses his construction job at a NASCAR track in North Carolina, he visits his brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), an Iraq War vet who lost his arm and makes do with a prosthetic as he mixes drinks at the Duck Tape bar. I love Driver but here his West Virginia/Southern accent fades in and out like a radio with bad reception. Sometimes it sounds normal. Sometahms he slows it da-own like he dumb or somethin’. I couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to be.
The greater miscue is casting Seth MacFarlane as asshole British race-car driver Max Chilblain. Somehow he and his posse wind up at the Duck Tape in the middle of nowhere. Then he’s a major asshole, mocking Clyde for the prosthetic limb. Leads to a fight, etc. Throughout the movie, MacFarlane is this gigantic false note in the proceedings.
But it’s not just Driver and MacFarlane. Acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh’s tone is off. Specifically, it’s two-toned. When it’s just Channing Tatum and another woman, or women, the movie feels quiet and down-to-earth and real. When the NASCAR heist comes into play, and we see not only Driver and MacFarlane but the Bang brothers (Daniel Craig, Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson), it becomes comic and campy. The accents and characterizations go over-the-top.
The heist itself is fine. It’s smart. It took me a while to figure out all the elements—like the deal with the cake in the bank vault and the painted cockroaches. And since we care about these guys, and not at all about NASCAR, we want them to get away. Which they do. But then Jimmy, on his own, lets the authorities find the money. Joe Bang (Craig) isn’t happy about that. But by and by, he, and we, realize that that's not all the money, Jimmy kept some. If they’d managed to steal millions from NASCAR, the hunt wouldn’t have ended. This way, they stole just enough to let the authorities forget about it. With one exception: an FBI agent played by Hillary Swank. But even that loose end remains nicely loose.
Kin to the King
Question: Are Southerners tired yet of Hollywood actors playing them? I’m curious. There’s hashtag protests whenever Caucasians get cast as Asians (as there should be), and when light-skinned African-Americans are cast as dark-skinned African-Americans (well...), and when, you know, this half-British, half-Chinese guy plays an Indian; but apparently any old Brit (Craig and Gleeson here) can go Southern. Tatum, who's from Alabama, gets it right.
BTW: There’s a lot of famous offspring in this movie. Of the lesser Bang brothers, Gleeson is the son of Brendan, while Quaid is the son of Dennis and Meg Ryan. Meanwhile, the Logan sister, Mellie, is played by Riley Keough, daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and thus granddaughter to the King. Not surprisingly, she gets Southern right, too. Plus she's seriously smokin’.
I enjoyed the film enough; but a less campy tone for the heist, and for the Bangs, and some better casting elsewhere, would’ve elevated it beyond a not-bad-for-late-summer fare into something worth watching in 20 or 50 years.
Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)
I’m glad it exists. I’m glad Christopher Nolan decided to cash in his considerable Dark Knight chips by making a World War II movie. But it’s not great. Sure, the sound; sure, the visuals; sure, the temporal dislocation. But the story? Who are these guys and why do we care?
I admit I was thrown off a bit by the time frame. We keep cutting between three groups of people in three different locations and with each we get a time frame:
- The Mole: A week
- The Sea: A day
- The Air: An hour
It took me most of the movie to realize, oh, that’s how long we were viewing each of their stories. We got a week’s worth of the story of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, looking like Ewan McGregor’s younger brother), one of the soldiers surrounded by the German Army on the beach at Dunkirk, and trying to get home, across the English Channel, by any means necessary. We get a day’s worth of the story of Dawson (Mark Rylance), who, rather than let the British Navy commandeer his boat to rescue the boys, makes the journey himself, along with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and teenage hand George (Barry Keoghan). And we get one hour of three RAF pilots, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy), who fly over and take on the Germans bombing the British troops on the beaches of Dunkirk.
Does it change much, knowing this beforehand? Are there subtle connections that you otherwise miss? That I otherwise missed?
Tommy is our protagonist at the first location but I kept losing track of him. That storyline keeps adding similarly sized, dark-haired boys in army fatigues: Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), first seen burying a comrade on the beach and possibly taking his boots; and Alex (Harry Styles), whom Tommy and Gibson save from being crushed by a sinking, listing ship along the mole/dock. At times, particularly during the action scenes, I couldn’t tell who was who. Is that the point? That one soldier blends into another? That they become interchangeable? But interchangeable also means replaceable. We care less about Tommy because Alex and Gibson are there.
For such a harrowing moment in history, their story almost becomes a comedy of errors. Tommy and Alex try to sneak onto a disembarking vessel by bringing a wounded man on board, but they’re ordered off. They hide on the mole, where they meet/help Alex. They manage to get aboard another boat, but that one, too, is sunk, and they return to the beach, which almost feels deserted, and hide aboard a grounded fishing boat, waiting for high tide. But first the boat’s Dutch owner arrives, and then Germans, who use the boat for target practice. As high tide arrives, the boat begins to sink, while Alex accuses the silent Gibson of being a spy. He’s not; he’s French. He goes down with that ship, I believe, while the others get aboard another, which is torpedoed. Is that the fourth ship he’s forced to abandon or the fifth? Either way, he, and I guess Alex, are eventually pulled onto Dawson’s boat and make their way across the channel.
While all of this has been going on, there’s been more tightly controlled drama aboard Dawson’s boat. In the middle of the channel, they rescue, off the hull of a downed ship, a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), who doesn’t want to return to the battle, which is where Dawson’s ship is going. So Dawson lies to him and keeps going. But at one point he becomes violent, knocks George down the stairs into the cabin. At first he can’t see; then he’s dead. There’s a great moment, later, when the pilot asks after him, and Peter, anger in his eyes, is about to tell him off; then something like wisdom appears there, his father’s wisdom, and he lies. He tells him George is OK. It’s a gift he gives him; one less burden to carry.
Then they pull into Dunkirk and rescue Tommy, et al.
The drama in the third storyline is the drama of the gas gauge. Farrier keeps going even though the gas gauge reads low, then it’s knocked out so he can’t tell. Of the three planes, one is lost in an early dogfight, the second, piloted by Collins (Jack Lowden), is ditched in the channel after a second dogfight (Collins is rescued by Dawson’s boat). Farrier continues to France, shoots down more Germans, is hailed as a hero as he flies over the beaches of Dunkirk. Then back to the gas. Rather than ditch the plane, he lands it on the beaches, intact. “Won’t the Germans capture it?” I wondered. “Won’t that be dangerous?” Nope. He sets it afire, then surrenders to the Germans. Does he sit out the rest of the war? Does he survive five years as a POW? Who knows? We don’t even know who he really is.
We don’t know who any of them really are.
That’s the main problem I had. I’m not a fan of backstory but I wish I had something to distinguish these guys. Likes? Dislikes? Turn-ons? Of the three storylines, the most interesting was “The Sea,” because the drama there was at close quarters, involved moral dilemmas, and you had Mark Rylance aboard. I could watch him in almost anything. He’s got something like the wisdom of the world in his tone and on his face. He intrigues. Hardy does, too, in his inscrutability. The others? Not so much.
And the point of it all? Churchill hoped to evacuate 30,000 and they managed to evacuate 300,000. Except ... we don’t really see it here. By focusing so tightly on three stories, we don’t see the bigger picture.
It was a retreat that was courageous—that’s another point. Tommy and Alex return to England and guilt sets in; they feel the shame of losing. But then Tommy reads Churchill’s speech, “We shall fight on the beaches,” etc. from the local newspaper, and at train stations they’re hailed as heroes, and everyone feels better. Except ... In this movie, Dawson, Peter and George are certainly courageous, and so are the RAF pilots. But Tommy and Alex? They're just trying to do anything to get home. Which is certainly human, and involves courageous acts, but it’s not exactly full of the heroism and sacrifice of the others. Meaning the most important story in the movie felt the most ... pointless.
I’m glad “Dunkirk” was made, but I came away feeling oddly empty. I thought, like Peggy Lee, is that all there is? I longed for people smarter than Christopher Nolan making our movies.