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The Circle 1/2

Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenplay: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: April 27, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, it’s time to circle the wagons and review The Circle.


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I’m coming around to it, Greg. Thanks for keeping me in the loop. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to young Mae (Emma Watson). She works in a dull cubicle job collecting money for the water department. When one day, her best friend calls and says she got an interview with “The Circle” – an Apple/Google/Facebook-like company that specializes in social media software. The interview is a bit bizarre, but she gets in and can’t wait to get started.


Mae begins working at the Circle and immediately realizes that she is expected to make the job her entire life — her friends, activities, and parties are all arranged by the Circle. At one of these parties she meets Ty Leffit (John Boyega), one of the mythical founders of the Circle who has now gone incognito. Mae realizes that Ty doesn’t revere the Circle as everyone else seems to. Soon Mae is taken under the wing of Circle co-founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who uses Mae to demonstrate the formidable power of social media.


Scott, The Circle is a movie that cannot find its center. On the one hand it wants to show us the scary side of social media and technology. On the other hand, it seems to solve all problems by adding technology to our lives.

The company introduces a mini-cam that is the size of an eyeball and can be glued to any standing structure. The idea is that it can see everything all the time. We’re never shown the downside of this but we’re led to believe there is one.

Then Mae goes “transparent” – broadcasting her every move to the world. But it gets scary when she accidentally broadcasts her parents having sex.

Then she outs a fugitive using the ubiquity of cellphone cameras. But then her best friend is killed when the same social media tool is used to chase him down. We can never tell what this film is trying to say – is technology good or bad?


I think it’s trying to say that it’s both. It’s good when used wisely and bad when used unwisely. Kind of like money, sex, marriage, and a million other things that can be good or bad.

The Circle is a well-intentioned movie about the dangers of technology in compromising our privacy. Alas, good intentions do not necessarily translate into good movies. There are major problems with this film that make me surprised that actors as seasoned as Tom Hanks and Emma Watson would agree to be a part of it.

First, this theme of technology invading privacy is hardly new. This topic has been bandied about for many years. Second, the way the storyline unfolds is painfully predictable. We know from the start that the Circle is evil, and so the ending of the film is entirely anticlimactic. Third, Emma Watson fails to portray a character who convincingly evolves from naivety to revelation. She just sort of changes one day without us seeing it happen. That’s simply bad filmmaking.


I cannot measure just how disappointed I was in this film. If you want to see both sides of an issue look at the filmcraft of Eye in the Sky. Here, three points of view about the collateral death of a young girl during a bombing the middle east are presented. It leaves the conclusions to the audience, but it makes clear that there are no good solutions.

But The Circle simply moves from one technical issue to the next with no resolution to speak of. And the writer seemed to have no comprehension of how technology works. We were dragged into an abandoned subway where apparently hard drives would be spun up with information on each of us. In fact, data is distributed across the globe to promote redundancy.

On top of that are glaring contradictions in philosophy. In one scene, Mae is devastated by the loss of her friend Mercer who died at the hands of a social media chase she instigated. She apparently has shunned technology. And so she reaches out to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) – using her cell phone. She’s in a video chat with her friend and says: “I like this. This personal connection. This is the way people should communicate.”

This was a serious face-palm moment for me. Apparently, using the internet to have a personal conversation is alright. But using the same technology to talk to a hundred people is not. Apparently talking by way of videophone is better than meeting in person. The movie is rife with these contradictions. It was maddening.


The hero’s journey is boring and predictable. Mae is excited to join the Circle and we know from the get-go that she will eventually come around to seeing the Circle as the evil entity that it plainly is. There’s not a single surprise in this movie. The only surprise is that the film was made and that good actors found themselves trapped in the Circle.

So while Mae does undergo a transformation, we aren’t impressed because we know it’s going to happen about 10 minutes into the film. And even though Mae transforms, it’s not clear in her acting that it’s happened. You don’t see it in her eyes or in her gait or anywhere — except in the speech she gives to trap Bailey at the end. This movie is a true yawner.


I don’t have your talent for clairvoyance, apparently, Scott. I can’t see what isn’t there. There is no hero’s journey in this film. We never get to see what the leaders of The Circle want. We never see Mae overcome an obstacle because every obstacle is replaced with something beneficial: When Mercer dies, The Circle invents self-driving cars to eliminate car accidents. When The Circle realizes that all voting age people are members, they create democratic voting online. Is this good or bad? We can’t tell because the ramifications of these acts are never shown.

In the final act, when Mae exposes all of The Circle’s emails, Tom Hanks turns to his henchman and says “we’re fucked.” But we don’t know why they’re fucked – because we never saw a single email they sent. No conflict means no transformation and no story.

The Circle is the most nonsensical movie you will see this year. It has no opinions about technology. Most of the technological issues it presents have been dealt with in the recent past – and in some cases decades ago. Some very fine performances from Tom Hanks and Emma Watson are wasted. I recently called out The Promise as a cause film which did not serve its cause. The Circle is a cause film without a cause. If you avoid one movie this year, make it The Circle. I give it zero out of 5 Reels.

Mae is a likable and naive young woman with noble intentions. She loves her parents and wants to help them. She likes her friend Mercer, even if she can’t return his love. But she never encounters any real obstacles and so can never grow. As a hero, she gets a mere 1 Hero out of 5.

There are no transformations in this story. Except that I was transformed from alert and watchful to bored and sleepy. I give The Circle zero Deltas out of 5.

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The Circle certainly was a gigantic disappointment. This movie should have gone straight to DVD or blu-ray. The plot is painfully predictable and the issues about technology are not explored in any depth or in any way that holds our interest. Only true diehard fans of Tom Hanks or Emma Watson may want to give this film a look. No one else should dare go near. I give this movie 1 Reel out of 5.

Mae’s hero journey is mapped out for us from the very start, and so it’s a major disappointment not seeing a single surprise from start to finish. We’ve already talked about the lack of any meaningful transformations, so let’s get right to the ratings: 1 Hero point out of 5, and 1 transformation Delta out of 5, too.

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The Counselor 1/2

MV5BMTc3ODk0MTY0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTU2MTEzMDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Cormac McCarthy
Crime/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: October 25, 2013

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scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Great Scott! Ridley has another movie out, this one is called The Counselor


And it appears he didn’t get much counseling on making an interesting movie.


The Counselor opens by showing our lead character, an attorney in El Paso, Texas (Michael Fassbender), in bed with his soon-to-be-fiance Laura (Penélope Cruz). The attorney, who is never named in the movie, is lured into participating in a lucrative drug deal by one of his clients named Reiner (Javier Bardem).


Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is fascinated with cheetahs – so much so that she has spots tattooed down her back. Reiner warns the counselor of the dangers of getting involved in drug trafficking but the counselor is not dissuaded. But things go horribly wrong when someone steals the drugs and it looks like the counselor is involved. What proceeds is a look into the dirty underworld of drug trafficking in South America.


Greg, this is one of those movies with some good pieces, but the good pieces never quite get around to forming a good whole. The good pieces include the casting. Brad Pitt, Fassbender, Diaz, and Bardem truly shine and execute their roles to near perfection. There is some excellent dialogue here and there, and Ridley Scott displays some clever and deft directing in several key scenes.

But all these commendable parts never coalesce into a good movie. Part of the problem is a heavy-handed script that perhaps tries too hard to be clever and stylish, at expense of some much-needed pacing. There is also the problem of the film being so dark and lacking in heroic direction that we’re left with a story that is bereft of much of anything redeeming or worth admiring.


Scott, I think you’re being too generous. This is a stylish movie – there is a lot of opulence. And a lot of talk about sex. But there isn’t much sex. In fact the sex talk is enough to make one blush. This film has a bad case of “talking heads.” There is scene after scene of people talking about what is going on in the film.

And there is a lot of very circular talk about morality. Which is strange because virtually no one in this film has any moral character at all. When you say the film is bereft of anything redeeming you’re not just talking about the characters in the film, but of the entire film-going experience. I get the feeling that this was someone’s idea of a good novel but lost something in translation when it was written as a screenplay instead.


Now that you mention it, Greg, all the ridiculous sex-talk was a strange distraction from the basic plot of the movie. I’m not a prude, and I enjoyed seeing Cameron Diaz as sexy and as sultry as ever. But one gets the feeling that Cormac McCarthy, the screenplay writer, is either a hypersexual or is not getting any at all. It would be an entirely different matter if the sexuality ended up playing some role in advancing the plot, or explaining a character’s motives, but it does not. And we’re left wondering why 10 to 15 minutes of film is devoted to this needless diversion.

I also think you are correct that the movie has far too many ‘talking head’ scenes, but a few of these scenes worked for me. It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since Pulp Fiction perfected the art of extended dialogue within a suspense film, and scores of movies have since tried to emulate Tarrantino’s masterpiece without success. I’m afraid that, overall, I have to agree with you that we can add The Counselor to that long list of movies that can’t even begin to touch the greatness of Pulp Fiction.


And to add insult to injury there are plot lines that are exposed and never completed along with a dozen characters who are introduced without explanation. A case in point is Ruth (Rosie Perez) who is a client of the counselor. Her son is in a Texas jail for high speed racing his motorcycle. The counselor springs the boy and ultimately he loses his life. There are a couple of people that we never meet until the end who give the counselor sage advice. We don’t know who these people are or why they’re important but somehow their meanderings on the state of existence is supposed to matter to us.

This has to be one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It has some luminary stars which makes it very pretty to look at, but there is nothing of value to be gleaned from the dialog. All the characters (save one) is bad. Everyone is greedy. Nobody learns anything. I was bored to death through the whole experience. Ridley Scott had all the materials to make a great film, sadly he elected to use this terrible screenplay as the recipe. I give The Counselor zero out of 5 Reels and zero out of 5 Heroes and humbly nominate it for the Reel Heroes Hall of Shame.

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Au contraire, Greg, we’ve seen a lot worse than The Counselor this year. I do agree with you that The Counselor was a dank, dour movie lacking in any heroes, unless we go out on a limb and call the counselor himself a tragic hero. Greed and hubris sends him down an irredeemable path. Ultimately, this movie fails by making it impossible to like any of the characters, except for a relatively minor figure, as you mention. The people who populate this film are far too verbose and their occasionally clever chatter cannot compensate for the volume of unnecessary dialogue. I give The Counselor just 1 Reel out of 5 and 1 Hero out of 5.

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The Big Wedding‌ (0)

The_Big_Wedding_PosterStarring: Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl
Director: Justin Zackham
Screenplay: Justin Zackham
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes

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Scott, this week we were invited to The Big Wedding. It looks like someone got cake on their face.



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it was a Big something. ‘Wedding’ is not the noun I would use. But I’ll save my thoughts for later. Let’s recap first.


Our story begins with Don (Robert De Niro) and Elle (Diane Keaton) Griffin who have been divorced for 10 years. Elle walks in on Don and Bebe (Susan Sarandon) who are fooling around and creates an awkward situation. Elle is visiting because her and Don’s son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) is getting married. Alejandro is Don and Elle’s adoptive son from Columbia. The problem is, Alejandro’s biological mother Madonna (Patricia Rae) is coming to the wedding and she’s a devout Catholic and believes divorce is a sin. So, Don and Elle have to pretend that they are married in an attempt to fool non-English-speaking Madonna.


There are additional attempts to inject awkwardness into the festivities, as when Don and Elle’s other son, a 30-year-old virgin named Jared (Topher Grace), meets his beautiful and horny Columbian step-sister-to-be (Ana Ayora). Don and Elle’s daughter Lyla (Katherine Heigl), arrives in sadness after having recently separated from her husband. She’s so upset that she vomits all over Don. To cap it all off, we have an alcoholic priest (Robin Williams) who doesn’t really act like a priest but who’s there to counsel everyone.


And we’re off… oh and not to mention that the in-laws are bigots and can’t stand the thought of beige grandchildren. This is a very convoluted story which is worthy of a Shakespearean comedy. However, the writing is not in the hands of the immortal bard, but rather Justin Zackham, who approaches the script with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer. We’ve seen all of these tropes in prime-time sitcoms.

But here, the writers throw political correctness to the wind. For example, Nuria (the Columbian sister) decides that she wants to go swimming so she strips down to her birthday suit in front of several onlookers. We’re led to believe that she is naive in the ways of the modern world and prone to throwing herself on men. Later, she surreptitiously gives Jared a hand job under the table at dinner. But she’s corrected by Jared’s mother who (in a single off-screen bathroom conversation) convinces her that women should be respected and turns the girl into an instant feminist.


Greg, I knew we were in trouble from the opening scene, when we’re witness to one veteran actor, who is nearly 70 years-old, interrupting two other 70-year-old actors about to perform a sex act in the kitchen. One buckles to the floor, hiding his erection, while the other two toss out jokes about body parts and intercourse. I guess we’re supposed to find this funny, but I was genuinely embarrassed for the actors involved, all of whom — until now — have had worthy careers.

This disastrous opening scene told me that the writing in this movie was going to be so weak that any laughs were designed to come from contrived situations, sophomoric behavior, and shock value. Apparently, none of the characters in this movie have anything but sex on their minds, and they also appear to be unable to censor any tasteless thoughts that pop into their heads.


Everyone in the story treats the mother (Madonna) like an idiot. She simply could not speak English. But they talk loudly and gesticulate in front of her. The main players were trying to hide Don’s relationship with Bebe by standing in front of a naked portrait of her. Or by rushing to remove pictures of her.

And (potential spoiler) Don has sex with Elle and proudly proclaims it “was the most pipe I’ve laid in 20 years.” Which begs the question, what has he been doing with Bebe for the last 20 years? The characters are embarrassing to themselves and to the stereotypes they portray.


The choices these characters make defy explanation, other than to serve as a set-up for the next sex joke. Don has to pretend to be married to Elle, and so of course that means Elle has to sleep in the same bed with Don instead of the obvious alternatives like, say, sleeping on the floor or in the chair. Their tryst is obviously preventable but that would thwart the movie’s apparent goal of showing an endless parade of unrealistic, sexually clumsy situations.

We’re also supposed to laugh when Madonna stares incredulously at one of Don’s sculptures of a woman pleasuring herself. Did I mention that these are 70-year-old actors, not middle-school kids?


By the end of the story everyone’s “problem” was resolved one way or the other – just as you knew it must. The answers to the questions are telescoped from the very beginning. This is not usually a problem. In these types of stories it’s not whether or not people get what they want, but HOW they get what they want. And in the case of The Big Wedding, everyone gets what they want in the most trivial and obvious ways possible.

The Big Wedding is a bore and simplistically structured. The laughs are a result of embarrassing situations, not clever dialogue. I give The Big Wedding 0 Reels out of 5 and 0 Heroes out of 5. And I think it deserves a nomination for the Reel Hero Hall of Shame for the worst movie we’ve seen so far this year.

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Greg, it was a mess, and these actors should fire their agents and do some soul-searching for having participated in this project. Yes, half of the actors involved are in professional decline, perhaps making them willing to take just about any acting job that comes their way. Being in this film only accelerates their decline. Robert De Niro, you’re better than this — please stay home and play golf rather than be part of a film that has absolutely no merit to it at all.

There was no hero story here. Just an ensemble cast that is largely interchangeable. One juvenile and buffoonish character could easily have substituted for any of the other juvenile and buffoonish characters. People in the real world don’t act like any of these people. Heck, people in most bad movies don’t act like them, either. So it’s a Big Mess. For that reason, I also nominate The Big Mess for the Hall of Shame, giving it as many Reels as there are good characters — zero — and as many Heroes as there are heroes in the movie — again zero.

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