Saturday, June 24, 2017

IN SPACE NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU YAWN: a review of "Life"

"LIFE"
Screenplay Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
* (one star)
RATED R

Early on during the blatantly derivative would be science fiction/horror hybrid know as "Life," when the ravenous alien life form has only just begun to wreak havoc, one of the characters looks in terror filled amazement and utters, "How smart is this thing?" Apparently, smarter than all of you humans put together.

Dear readers, we have reached an other film where I have to announce to you that I see these things just so you do not have to and "Life," from Director Daniel Espinosa is precisely one of those very films. As I have previously stated, the film is derivative to the point of plagiarism yet the filmmakers never even bothered to steal the good stuff. It is indeed that bad. A joyless, often incoherent, journey into the darkness of space that we have all seen before and much better and is unfortunately a complete waste of the talents of the game cast, and aspects of the technical side of this very good looking but entirely empty headed and cold hearted production. See this at your own risk.

Such as it is with movies of this nature, "Life" is set upon an International Space Station withth epre-requisite skeleton crew of six members. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Senior Medical Officer, Dr. David Jordan, the war veteran whose distaste of human atrocities on Earth has led him to remain in space upon this very station for long over a year.  Joining him in the station's multi-cultural crew are quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), pilot and new Father Shu Murakami (Hiroyuki Sananda), biologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), space station commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) and the wisecracking system engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds who clearly does not yet have Deadpool out of his system).

OK...after the space station captures a probe containing a soil sample that might contain proof positive evidence of life on Mars and further, Dr. Hugh Derry revives a dormant cell which rapidly grows into a multi-celled organism, which is soon dubbed with the name "Calvin." And much like the iconic comic strip character at his most devious, Calvin begins to grow in intelligence even more rapidly and in hostility even faster as it attacks Hugh before embarking upon its space station rampage, growing larger in size and ever shifting shapes and forms (Honestly, it is like a jellyfish? Or an octopus?  Audrey II from "Little Shop Of Horrors"?) as it engulfs the crew one-by-one and they not only try to survive but to stop it from reaching Earth.

You get the picture...

Daniel Espinosa "Life" is truly a pathetic title for a film that clearly carries no appreciation for its subject. For as good looking of a film as it is, and for that matter, one that is also as well acted as this one, it is also a painfully bland one, which carries absolutely no original ideas whatsoever but does house an international space station's worth of cliches and greatest hits from other better movies yet without any of the inventiveness, finesse, artistry and imagination that made those other films so memorable. Truth be told, if Ridley Scott and Alfonso Cuaron decided to file a joint plagiarism suit against the filmmakers and the studio, they would more than have a case.

Yes, "Life" is essentially a hybrid of Scott's "Alien" (1979) and Cuaron's "Gravity" (2013) with perhaps a taste of Barry Levinson's "Sphere" (1998) thrown into the mix but entirely without the creative brains to make it stand on its own two cinematic feet. It is yet another carnage filled space thriller in which scientists intelligent enough to work on a space station but stupid enough to open doors allowing murderous space creatures to roam free to devour them alive are rampant to the point of distressing unbelievability.

In some respects, "Life" felt to be like a less bloated but equally awful "Jurassic World" (2015), a film that exists to solely have stupid people do stupid things just to find themselves dismembered, thus blowing a conceptual hole into anything resembling true terror, awe, fright, or even a fight for survival. The fate is sealed once Dr. Hugh begins to become attached to little Calvin as a petri dish organism. You know from the jump that he'll be the first to find himself attacked (Yes, Dr. Hugh Derry is a Black man--and as Black people in horror films go, this man really takes a beating), and you know someone will try to save him, thus endangering the crew instantly and so on and so on and so on...

What is this eternally boring concept of every potential extraterrestrial organism existing for the purpose of annihilating humans? I mean--just as a genre unto itself, it can work and has worked many times before, sometimes as a brilliantly conceived and executed thriller like Scott's "Alien" or as a cultural critique/allegory like either of the versions of  Directors Don Seigel or Philip Kaufman's "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers" (1956 and 1978 respectively) or even Steven Spielberg's truly outstanding and horrifying remake of "War Of The Worlds" (2005).

But even as Ridley Scott continues to extend his "Alien" universe with some pretty strong prequels, even he understands that monstrous creatures destroying humans in and of itself is not enough. So wisely, he has decided to instill larger concepts about humanity, creation, existence, religion, faith, the dangers of artificial intelligence and the primal nature of survival to brutally nihilistic degrees. Yet, with "Life," Espinosa just wants to seemingly create a series of incoherently staged traps of no real excitement or consequence--especially with its bait and switch climactic sequence, which is just so poorly staged and only exists to twist the knife, so to speak.  .

And what is it with the cinematography anyway? I have no problems with Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's elegant, gliding camera work or even the beautifully displayed zero gravity special effects, which are as smooth as anything we have seen before, The issue is that, like the so-called thrills and action, the visual twists and turns through the space station are of no consequence or purpose, completely unlike what we experienced in Cuaron's "Gravity," which truly immersed you in space, giving you the awesome and terrifying feeling that you are right there alongside Sandra Bullock as she spirals through the endlessness of space. Nope, Espinosa simply plays all of the notes without understanding the music, making him look like a show-off but even so, it is still incomprehensible why we would be looking at two characters upside down when there is really no discernible need. 

Look...what more is there to say for a movie that is the equivalent of a White Castle slider. It's in. It's out. That's all. Daniel Espinosa's "Life" is a waste of talent, time and energy as it possesses a complete lack of anything resembling a desire to make a movie. In fact, this is the kind of film that hungry filmmakers should stone the screen as for all of the films that could have been make, this one was and for the love of Pete, why?

In space, no one may be able to hear you scream but here on Earth, you can certainly hear the yawns that are bound the exuded in the theaters and homes of those unfortunate enough to view this space junk.

Daniel Espinosa's "Life" is one of 2017's very worst films.

Monday, June 5, 2017

WONDERFUL!!!!: a review of "Wonder Woman"

"WONDER WOMAN"
Based upon the DC Comics series created by William Moulton Marston
Story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs
Screenplay Written by Allan Heinberg
Directed by Patty Jenkins
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13

I can't believe it!! I just cannot believe it!!

Dear readers, I am going to go on record at this moment to tell you that I was not, in any way, looking forward to seeing this film. Now, before you jump to any conclusions, my reluctance has absolutely nothing to do with the character of Wonder Woman, a superhero fixture within my childhood and life long love of comic book warriors. My reluctance had absolutely, positively everything to do with the overall quality of the DC Cinematic universe as of late and especially when com pared to the Marvel Cinematic universe, which has beaten the DC films hands down over and again.

Essentially (and if you are regular visitors to this site, I apologize for any repetitiveness), Director Zack Snyder's inaugural features "Man Of Steel" (2013) and "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice" (2016), were not disasters but they were indeed visually striking, intermittently involving would-be epics that were severely undone by incoherent storytelling messiness, a complete lack of joy within the CGI bombast and excruciating overlong climaxes where every single item except the movie theater itself was reduced to a mindless, heartless, soulless rubble (Michael Bay would be so proud!). Writer/Director David Ayer's inexcusable "Suicide Squad" (2016) was such an unmitigated disaster, that it very nearly made me want to swear off future DC films altogether.

And then, there was Gal Godot herself. Once again, my initial dismissal of Godot had nothing to do with an eternal allegiance with Lynda Carter who portrayed the iconic role of Wonder Woman in her television series from the 1970's. It was just that Godot made for quite a weak impression within her debut appearance in the role during "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice." Yes, she clearly looked the part. She obviously fit the costume. Her full entrance in the film (with that downright nifty theme music) was the movie's sole awesome moment. But, then, she began speaking and I was so put off by the woodenness of it all that I could not possibly imagine her carrying a full film on her own shoulders. Gal Godot just felt to be not up to the task at all, but here she was, cast in the role she would portray over a series of films and quite possibly, she just may have been unable to act!

For me, the bar was set at an extremely low level. But then, the initial reviews and their  high marks piqued my curiosity, allowing me to just give DC one more try. And dear readers, I am so, so thankful that I did because "Wonder Woman" is a flat out winner, a wonderful, wondrous feature that not on ly has given the DC characters their best film by a mile, but the finest one since Director Christopher Nolan's game changing "Dark Knight Trilogy" (2005/2008/2012) and even further, the film conjured up emotions of which I have not felt since Director Richard Donner's "Superman: The Movie" (1978) and Director Richard Lester's "Superman II" (1981).

Director Patty Jenkins, who helmed the brutal, brilliant "Monster" (2003) spotlighting a transformative performance by Charlize Theron, may have been a most unlikely choice to bring this figure to vivid, vibrant life. But, it turns out that she was the best choice without question, as she not only brought the DC Cinematic universe back from near death, she has outpaced and outclassed the generally more consistent Marvel films and ultimately, she has finally made one of the very best films of 2017!

While bookended by sequences set during present day Paris, Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" is an origin story primarily set near the conclusion of World War 1 but begins with our titular heroine as a free spirited child named Diana born on the island of Themyscira, home of a race of Amazonian warrior women created by the Gods of Mount Olympus with the purpose to protect mankind from Ares, the God of War.

The Amazons are led by Diana's Mother, Queen Hippolyta (the glorious Connie Nielsen) and her sister, the military General Antiope (Robin Wright), whose training sessions capture the intense interest and inspiration of young Diana (played by Lilly Aspel), much to the Queen's chagrin and worry. Reluctantly, the Queen allows Diana to be trained by Antiope in the ways of an Amazon warrior, lasting throughout her childhood, into her adolescence (played by Emily Carey) and finally, her young adulthood (now played by Gal Godot), all the while believing that she will one day be called upon to defeat Ares in battle utilizing the "Godkiller," a ceremonial sword.

The course of Diana's life is irrevocably altered when a plane miraculously crash lands off the coast of the island and carrying United States Army Air Service Captain and Allied spy Steve Trevor (a terrific Chris Pine), whom Diana rescues from drowning. Immediately thereafter, German planes, in pursuit of Steve approach the island, thus engaging in battle with the Amazons.

With the realization that "The Great War" is at hand, Diana, feeling her destiny to defeat Ares calling loudly, leaves Themyscira against the wishes and orders of the Queen to join Steve on a voyage to London. From here, the newly christened Diana Prince fully embarks upon a life-changing, world saving odyssey that will find her on the front lines of combat against the insidious General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), the mad scientist Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and their exceedingly lethal mustard gas chemicals. But most importantly, her own inner journey towards a greater self-discovery and understanding of humanity itself.

Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" is a fully engrossing, enormously entertaining comic book epic that marries the worlds of mythology, classic Hollywood romantic comedy, espionage and war films, and the modern day superhero genre effortlessly and seamlessly. It is a beautifully filmed production in which the CGI special effects do not overwhelm but somehow carry a throwback charm to a time when superhero films were not so ponderous and self-consciously dour and dark. In fact, "Wonder Woman" possesses qualities that have been long missing from the comic book film genre from both DC and Marvel, and those qualities are an unabashed sense of fun and most especially, a healthy dose of old fashioned innocence that makes the experience feel as rich as the most fantastical dream.

Whatever trepidation and resistance I held towards Gal Godot during her initial film appearance have been marvelously erased with her full fledged starring performance. Godot is sensational, fashioning a sense of joy, awe and naivete that is completely infectious and engaging to regard as she allows us to become as amazed as Diana becomes throughout the film. Without hyperbole, Gal Godot's performance unearthed in me feelings I have not really had for films like this since Christopher Reeve made us all believe that a man could fly. Yes, she is that good and I am sorry that I ever doubted her!

One sequence in particular is the spectacular "No Man's Land" battle, during which Diana first appears in the complete and iconic Wonder Woman attire--bulletproof bracelets, the golden Lasso of Truth, plus shield and the Godkiller sword all at her disposal. Just watch Godot's face during this lengthy action set piece where she defeats legions of German soldiers and throws tanks and I guarantee you will be as equally enthralled as the character, who is just so amazed to discover all of the things that she can do and all in the service of the greater good. Her sense of astonishment is ours in turn, making for a film that scales heights over and again, completely on the shoulders and good will of Gal Godot whose star making performance is precisely what this iconic character demands and deserves.

Chris Pine is absolutely perfect as the heroically rogue-ish Steve Trevor, who engages with Godot with a dazzling light comedic touch that allows the twosome to elicit stupendous chemistry that accentuates Diana's "fish-out-of-water" comedy of manners, her richly paced romance with Steve and her growing understanding of the grey areas of the human condition, especially when it comes to the insanity of war.

In my recent reviews of Writer/Director James Gunn's "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2," I remarked upon the shallowness of that film's leading actor Chris Pratt, for whom big biceps and a glib nature counts as a full performance. Thankfully, Chris Pine in "Wonder Woman" completely escapes that trap and has discovered how to create a full and rich performance out of material that could be more than a little silly. Pine always finds the correct notes, as he is always in service of Gal Godot (for it is her movie), never trying to claim the spotlight from her but is always there at the right moment with the right delivery of a wry line of dialogue, a bemused expression at the majesty he is able to witness while also being a first rate conduit for Diana to experience the fullness of the human experience in humor, romance and a surprisingly effective level of pathos.

Gal Godot and Chris Pine are a perfect team and they are aided superbly by the film's expertly chosen supporting cast, which includes Steve Trevor's rag tag trio of sidekicks, all portrayed by Ewan Bremmer, Eugene Brave Rock and Said Taghmaoui,  the masterful David Thewlis in a duplicitous role and even the charming Lucy Davis (from the original BBC version of "The Office") as Trevor's trusty secretary.

And even still, none of these performance could possibly have been allowed to shine so brightly if not working in the service of Allan Heinberg's witty, cleanly written screenplay and the pitch perfect direction of Patty Jenkins, who never has one superfluous moment and is armed with a determined and clear eyed filmmaking vision that affords her tremendous agility with transcending all of the superhero movie trappings, creating an experience that is deeply involving, honestly exciting and more than a little moving.

Trust me, dear readers. I have no need to ever sit through another origin story again yet in "Wonder Woman," everything felt fresh and new again. The film's extended climax, itself a comic book movie trapping as so many of these films, most infamously the DC brand, descend into a battering ram of numbing audio/visual cataclysm during which the world ends ten times over and yet nothing happens.

By establishing her characters so strongly, and giving us ample time to be invested in Diana's cause, mission and conflict so thoroughly, Patty Jenkins ensures that everything that occurs within the climax of "Wonder Woman" carries the proper weight, where (frankly) we give a damn because we are completely invested. For the first time in quite some time with this particular genre, I was not bored for one moment during the epic battles, which are engaged essentially on three fronts, where mythology and a more grounded reality collide powerfully and themes of sacrifice, honor and love are paramount--not how many explosions can we blast the movie screen with.

And at the center of it all is Diana Prince, her open-heartedness, her purity, her bravery and her unquestionably bad-ass warrior status is downright inspirational. I know how this film affected me. But I can only imagine what this film could possibly mean for young girls and hey, adult women in the audience who really have not had a film like this to call their own at any point during our glut of comic book films for nearly the past 10 years...at least!!! Representation is everything and Patty Jenkins clearly took up the challenge of bringing this classic figure to such vibrant life with all of the fierce creativity and skill that, again, this character so richly deserves.


At the outset of this review, I proclaimed that I just could not believe that this film turned out so exceedingly well, especially with the low quality of what preceded it. I am hoping powerfully that as DC continues to build their cinematic universe, they look to what Jenkins has achieved and follow her template. With all due respect to Zack Snyder who is ensconced in a personal family tragedy, I just don't have high hopes for the already filmed "Justice League," which will arrive this November. But afterwards, the DC films brain trust need to study Jenkins' outstanding work carefully and proudly for after hitting such a high bar, they can't go back down in quality.  

Yes, I am still undergoing my strain and sense of superhero movie fatigue but with Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman," my love of the genre has been fully rejuvenated as she has delivered a film of such imagination, adventurousness and a most delightful jubilation that just makes the film fly through the clouds.

And in turn, we happily fly right along with it!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR JUNE 2017

And now, we're off to the races!!

Despite some excellence in the first few months of 2017, my movie going has been quite scant. Things seem to change this month as the Summer Movie Season is racing out of the gate and with several already audience and critically acclaimed films ready for wide release. I'm ready, dear readers. I'm ready!!!!!

1. The DC Cinematic Universe has lagged far behind the Marvel films creatively so I was really not anticipating anything new from this outfit. But, the near rave reviews for Director Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" now has me a bit excited to see if they will finally get one right and give the legendary Amazon the movie she has long deserved. 
2. Director Sofia Coppola and Kirsten  Dunst re-team for the third time with "The Beguiled," Coppola's remake of the 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Don Siegel and for which she just won the Best Director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. 'Nuff said!
3. Yes, the one-sheet proclaims an August release date but Writer/Director Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver," his rock and roll car chase, crime, action extravaganza wowed the audiences at this year's SXSW Festival so enthusiastically, its release date was pushed upwards two months! 'Nuff said, part two!!!
4. Tom Cruise returns with a creature feature remake of "The Mummy," a concept that doesn't interest me that much but Cruise has been exceedingly consistent recently so I have to give it a shot.

So, with that, my plans and schemes for the month are set. I ask of you again to wish me well for June and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!

Monday, May 29, 2017

ERASE/REPLACE: a review of "Alien: Covenant"

"ALIEN: COVENANT"
Based upon characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Story by John Paglen and Michael Green
Screenplay Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Directed by Ridley Scott
**** (four stars)
RATED R

And the interstellar nightmare continues...

As I ponder this fact, it is indeed more than a little strange to me to think that we are now just a hair up to 40 years since Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979) was unleashed into the world.  Honestly, and despite its unquestionable influence upon the science-fiction film genre, especially from the groundbreaking special effects as well as the set, production and of course, H.R. Giger's iconic creature design aspect, the original film is really not much more than a creature feature depicting an especially lethal haunted house in space. But yes, it is one that was brilliantly realized by Ridley Scott as he created an evocative and merciless future vision that only continues to inspire, enthrall and terrify.

As one who tends to give horror films a wide berth, even I could not escape Scott's grasp all of those years ago as "Alien" was a film I would visit and re-visit often, marveling at the cast of seven and anchored by the ever resilient Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, who all addressed each other by last names while existing upon this immense yet junky space freighter, each adorned with boiler suits, baseball caps and gym shoes. To my pre-teen spirit, it was a fantasy world to get lost inside of for certain, just as much as George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977), but one that felt so oddly tangible due to the gravity of the human beings who would soon be slaughtered one by one by the chest bursting, acid dripping behemoth.

Ridley Scott's conception felt to be so complete and self-contained than any extension of that particular universe felt to be impossible. And yet, Writer/Director James Cameron achieved just that and then some with his superior, relentless and equally groundbreaking sequel "Aliens" (1986). For my money, and despite Director David Fincher's best intentions with "Alien 3" (1992), I fell out of favor with the series as inspiration and invention turned strictly to commerce. I was only attracted back to the fold with Ridley Scott's grand return with "Prometheus" (2012), the beginning of his prequel installments to his original film.

For some, "Prometheus" was a grand disappointment, mostly due to the lack of...well..aliens doing what they do so ruthlessly. For me, I really did love that film (despite some flaws--why are Scientists so stupid?) as Scott actually seemed to be having fun behind the camera again after helming one beautifully filmed but dourly presented feature after another. Even for a film that honestly does not necessitate a prequel, I had to give it to Ridley Scott and his writers for devising a history, an origin story, and something that straddled the barriers between the cerebral and fervently nihilistic as the film set to try and delve into nothing less than the beginnings of our existence.  And still, it made time for a spectacularly gonzo sequence of one character self-administering a C-section/abortion while imprisoned inside of a cryo-tube.

With the prequel/sequel, Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" has its human cake and violently eats it too as we are indeed given quite a substantial bang for our buck. Certainly those who were disappointed with "Prometheus" will be more than satisfied with this new installment as the xenomorph and their endlessly ravenous brethren are frighteningly center stage. Yet, even so, I was more than pleased to see Scott, not only continuing to be re-inspired and re-invigorated, he is also steadfast in his desire to keep unearthing the meaning of it all...albeit one chest-burster at a time.

Opening in the year 2104, 10 years after the events in "Prometheus" and 10 years before the events in the original film, Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" finds the film's titular colonization spaceship-- containing 15 crew members, 2000 colonists, 1000 embryos and overseen by the ship's synthetic crewman named Walter (Michael Fassbender)--en route to the remote planet Origae-6.

When a sudden electrical burst occurs, damaging the Covenant and killing some of the colonists as well as the ship's captain (James Franco in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo), Walter awakens the crew from hypersleep in order to make crucial repairs. Once the repairs have been made, the crew receives a mysterious transmission from a nearby, yet unknown planet that readings indicate is somehow habitable for humans.

The newly ranked captain, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of faith who feels it is the Covenant's destiny to fulfill their mission of colonization, orders a full investigation of this planet despite the protests of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the wife of the ship's original captain, who wisely and ominously feels that "if it's too good to be true, it probably is."

And from this point, I am certain you can anticipate where this film is going...

A portion of the Covenant crew heads down to the planet where they inadvertently trigger and are indeed encountered by an eco-system ready to reproduce the horrific beasts and waiting to slash them apart. Yet, more unexpectedly is the presence of David (also played by Michael Fassbender), the synthetic from "Prometheus" who was last seen travelling the universe with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in search of the source of their respective creators.

As crew members continue to find themselves slaughtered and the true intentions of David rise to the fore, it is up to Daniels on the planet's surface in tandem with Tennessee (a surprisingly strong Danny McBride), the Covenant's chief pilot to make their great escape.

Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" is a masterfully mounted installment that seems to cherry pick the best elements of this long running series and has merged them to greatly sinister,often thrilling and gruesome effect.

Working with his strong cast and his first rate team of collaborators, most notably Dariusz Wolski's crystalline cinematography and Composer Jed Kurzel's urgent score, Ridley Scott has taken the close quarters horrors and body terrors of his original film, the brutal nihilism of "Prometheus" and the war film pyrotechnics of Cameron's "Aliens" to fuel an experience that again surprised me with its inventiveness, and full throttle bombast, excitement, and dire intensity.

To think, and much like the 72 year old George Miller, who emerged with the extraordinary "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015), Ridley Scott, who will turn 80 years old this November (!), is also showing no signs whatsoever of slowing down or going away quietly. In many ways, with"Alien: Covenant," it feels like a film that allows Scott to rage violently against mortality itself.

Perhaps that is the core of the "Alien" series as a whole, especially with what Scott seems to be working towards or through with his prequel series. Clearly, the films feel formed from the mind of a passionate atheist as he has devised of a film universe where the nature of God or some sort of supreme entity is as challenged as much as it is sought, the nature of creation itself seemingly born out of some malevolent sense of power and unspeakable cruelty.

"Alien: Covenant" delves further into the mind (such as it is) and motivations of the synthetic David, who even from "Prometheus" was more than a little creepy and not at all a genteel seeker of human understanding and consciousness. He was always one to have an ace up his synthetic sleeves and in "Alien: Covenant," he becomes a truly vengeful force and completely instrumental in the continued evolution of the series' titular monsters.

And still, at his and the film's core, sits the theme of creation as we learn in Scott's purely Kubrick-ian prologue sequence that David named himself, carries a predilection towards the music of Wagner and already views his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) as inferior as Weyland will one day die while David could essentially live forever. Once David is confronted with the ore sympathetic Walter, David seethes, "When you dream, do you dream of me?"--certainly an echo as well as conceptual link to the replicants in Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982) and his upcoming "Blade Runner: 2049" as directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Furthermore and with a disturbing insidiousness, David utilizes whatever compassionate and inquisitive nature of humans completely against them (a tactic that makes those Scientist's stupid decision feel more plausible and even inadvertent at times), ultimately, creating a schematic in which, I think Ridley Scott himself is arguing: human beings are the sole engineers of their own destruction.

Even so, "Alien: Covenant" finds Ridley Scott wrestling through the primary and primal themes of every film in the series as it is a study of humanity and survival within an inhumane and unforgiving universe.  The fight for survival and the right to exist is the connective tissue that links David, the human characters and the aliens together in a ferocious Darwinian battle of the fittest and displayed spectacularly during the film's climactic battle between all three beings, in which there is one winner by film's end but a war that will rage onwards in the overall storyline as well as in what I am feeling will be potential future films (stay healthy Ridley).

These are the qualities that separate "Alien: Covenant" from other creature features like say, the increasingly lucrative yet brain dead "Jurassic Park" series, where there really is nothing in its head other than finding new ways for stupid people to do stupid things in order to find themselves eaten. In those films, it if as if none of the characters of subsequent installments have heard of anything that had occurred in the previous films, making the experience overall so meaningless. Yet, in the "Alien" series, none of the characters have even really heard of anyone else from different installments, thus making each film a singular event of such terror, while building a larger conceptual arc of nihilistic fury.

Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" finds a legendary filmmaker returning once again to where it all began for him, and miraculously mining new territory while also providing more than our fair share of the familiar elements of face huggers and chest bursters. This was propulsive, provoking, punishing entertainment, demonstrating that sequels need not be money chasing time wasters but ones that can inspire feverish excitement and dread all over again.

Monday, May 22, 2017

FAMILY FEUD: a review of "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2"

"GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2"
Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Written and Directed by James Gunn
** (two stars)
RATED PG 13

If you have been regular readers of this blog, then you will know very well that I was not a fan of Writer/Director James Gunn's "Guardians Of the Galaxy" (2014).

While not a bad film in the least, it was one that wholly underwhelmed me as I just didn't find it to be nearly as clever or as audacious as audiences, critics and even the film found itself to be. For me, from its characters, story to even the 1970's era songs contained within the film, Gunn's vision was more than a little pedestrian when I felt that it should have taken considerable risks with the Marvel formula while also expanding upon its own cinematic universe.

All of that being said, I was far in the minority with my opinion as the original film was a box office juggernaut, making it quite a favorite within the entire Marvel Comics film oeuvre. It just didn't reach me but even so, I rationalized to myself that since Gunn has gotten his origin film out of the way, perhaps the second installment would be more involving. Here's hoping...

And now, we arrive at James Gunn's "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2," the second chapter in his space rock opera and the fifteenth film in the Marvel Comics series overall. While Gunn does indeed expand upon his universe with a new legion of colorful characters (literally) as well as a broader emotional palate, and the film does have a few dazzling moments here and there, the final result was one that continued to underwhelm me due to its own tentativeness to really break free of its own conventional trappings. As with the first film, "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2" is not a bad film whatsoever. But when you think of what it could have been, the film as it is indeed another disappointment.

"Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2" opens with our titular interstellar team of miscreants, now famous for their collective derring do, ensconced in battle with an enormous tentacled monster at the request of the Sovereign race who are in need of having their sacred batteries protected.

While the wise-cracking half Earthling Peter Quill a.k.a. Starlord (Chris Pratt), the petulant warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the deadpan, muscular Drax (a terrific Dave Bautista), the rapacious, weapons obsessed Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and now Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) continue to bicker, fight and insult each other, the group has unquestionably formulated itself into a quasi family devoted towards each other and their union.

Trouble occurs after the film's opening battle, when the team is awarded Gamora's estranged, enraged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), captured after attempting to steal some of the Sovereign's batteries. Yet, upon their departure, Rocket steals some batteries, leading the Sovereign to send a squadron of attack drones in pursuit of the Guardians. An intense space chase and dogfight ensues and becoming quite perilous until our anti-heroes are rescued by a mysterious figure, thus forcing the team to crash land on a nearby planet and the Sovereign to enlist the aid of Yordu (Michael Rooker) and his space pirates The Ravagers to hunt down and re-capture the Guardians.

As the Guardians regain their bearings, they discover that they have been saved by Ego (Kurt Russell), an immortal consciousness being known as a Celestial but who has voyaged the universe through a human avatar...an especially lonely human avatar who in the year 1980 explored planet Earth, fell in love with and impregnated Peter Quill's Mother, therefore making this interstellar entity Quill's Father!

Yet, what we end up with is no simple family reunion, as Ego's duplicitous nature becomes apparent, ultimately threatening the fate of the universe once again unless the Guardians can pull themselves together to save it one more time.

James Gunn's "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2," while a worthy successor to the first film in continuity and spirit, I just wished that it had a greater impact for me as the end result is essentially an overlong sound and light show starring a collective of space cowboys and space pirates and truthfully, none of them are really all that interesting as characters in the first place.

Yes, Gunn has helmed a sleek looking film, with top of the line special effects, precisely what we are now accustomed to seeing and expecting. Yet, as with so many films these days, we are in an age where the special effects simply are not terribly special anymore. Or for that matter, they almost feel as if they are effects made by computers for computers--effects that don't seem to have that human ingenuity behind them. What "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2" delivers is just the same old-same old bombastic CGI overkill that feels more animated than actually directed.

There are some nice touches. I liked Yordu's combat arrow and how that was visualized by swift red lines free flowing through the universe. I also really enjoyed a cosmic fireworks display that occurs at the end of the film--very lovely. And most of all, there was the stunning and eerie effect of seeing Kurt Russell visualized just as he was (amazing hair and all) in 1980. That, just as Marvel has achieved with making both Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Douglas appear as they did in the movies 30 years ago, is indeed eye-popping. All of that being said, and for all of the special effects artists that take up the bulk of the film's ending credits, everything was sadly commonplace and nothing that was as spectacularly strange and as out of this world as it could have been,

Then, there is the soundtrack, a key point of enjoyment for fans of the first film and one of disappointment for me. Again, James Gunn's song picks felt to be more studio driven and fully felt, songs from the 1970's that are easily recognizable and therefore, comfortable, rather than making the experience truly unique. Within "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2," Gunn utilizes the same tactic to an unimaginative degree. Honestly, do we really need another movie, let alone this one, where we hear Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky" again? Why not "Fire On High"? Why not have a space battle set to Yes or Frank Zappa or Parliament? Just the same old songs that we all know and love as comfortable as your favorite warm blanket in a film that is supposed to be more of an untamed, wild ride.

Even so, with the music that was chosen for Peter Quill's "Awesome Mixtape," Gunn relies more heavily upon a certain soft rock aesthetic that did carry ore of a charm this time around and did lend itself to some lovely visuals. So much so, that I wished that if Gunn wasn't going to go eclectic with his song choices, then why not just fully embrace the hazy, pastoral, stoned 1970's AM radio vibe (the Cat Stevens' song was a nice touch) more openly rather than pretend he has some kind of rock and roll space odyssey, which this film is not, regardless of what it tries to express to the audience.

The uninspired quality of "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2" extends more seriously towards its own actors and characters. Chris Pratt, an actor whom I like and certainly does possess his charms, but with the first film as well as Colin Trevorrow's awful "Jurassic World" (2015) he is quickly becoming a one-trick-pony (not necessarily his fault) by being the glib hunk and not really having anything else to do and no real notes to play other than being glib. Zoe Saldana is essentially in the same boat and their overall blandness doesn't rally make the characters and potential romance of Peter Quill and Gamora anything to root for or become invested in. Frankly, when Baby Groot carries more personality than your living, breathing leading actors, you have a serious problem here.

James Gunn's screenplay, while not bad, is also one that is quite hollow and lacking of that essential character development, the kind of which that deepens and solidifies the characters, therefore, giving the plot and story some weight, meaning and essentially, the frame work for us to care a whit about anything that happens. While he did indeed tone it down to a degree, Gunn certainly still seems preoccupied with throwing in those needless pop culture references that really do nothing but announce themselves instead of feeling remotely organic to the overall storyline.  And certainly, they do not showcase any sense of storytelling risk either,

One criticism I had about the first film was that it completely felt as if Gunn and the shareholders at Disney (which owns Marvel), simply wanted to try and essentially re-make George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) but one in which every single character was basically a variation of Han Solo. With "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2," it is clear that  Gunn wanted this episode to serve as his version of Lucas and Director Irvin Kershner's "The Empire Strikes Back (1980), as Gunn has separated his main cast of characters from each other for the bulk of the film and has then layered the story with several themes of family, lineage and the sense of loyalty that is inherent.

In this area of the film, Gunn has certainly given himself more than enough to chew on concerning the Father/son relationships between Peter Quill, Ego and Yordu, the sister relationship between Gamora and Nebula, as well as a certain Father/brother bond between Yordu and higher ranking Ravager, Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone in a role that is definitely setting up future films) and then the complete family dynamics contained within the Guardians themselves. Now here is where I did appreciate some of the considerable extra effort on Gunn's part to expand his particular universe and there are some good moments scattered through the film that attempt to delve into something deeper. But for me, even with all of the psychedelic whiz-bang happening all around, ultimately, I was bored.

Yes, dear readers, James Gunn's "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2," even with all of my criticisms is not a bad film. Just a profoundly un-involving and somewhat impersonal one and it did indeed leave me bored for much of its hefty two hour and fifteen minute running time. I know that again I am in the minority on this one and the series overall but as it stands, I cannot help but to think what this series may have been like in the hands of another and more inventive, audacious director like Edgar Wright.

Now THAT would have been something to make this series wave its freak flag sky high!

Friday, May 19, 2017

STORYTELLER, JOURNEYMAN, HUMANIST: THE SAVAGE CINEMA TRIBUTE TO JONATHAN DEMME

JONATHAN DEMME
FEBRUARY 20, 1944-APRIL 26, 2017

I cannot express to you enough of the level of surprise I felt when I opened up my e-mail and saw a report from Variety that filmmaker Jonathan Demme had passed away from complications due to esophageal cancer and heart disease. He was 73 years old.  

Aside from not ever really knowing that he had been so severely ill, I was actually more surprised by his age as he was a filmmaker that seemed to be so youthfully restless, as his life's work consisted of narrative feature films, documentaries, television work and music videos all culminating with his final film, the concert documentary "Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids" (2016), plus one episode on the FOX television series "Shots Fired."  

The filmmaking legacy of Jonathan Demme is of such vastness that it would be impossible for me to speak of it at length as I have not actually seen so much of it, and to that, it is indeed my loss. But, what I can express to you is again that seemingly youthful restlessness that spoke to me. That seemingly endless curiosity that informed his work, creating an image in my mind of this bemused seeker armed only with a camera traveling around pointing his instrument at any and everything that fascinated him. Demme's complete ouvre was a showcase for that explicit fascination, which he documented and presented completely without judgement, and possibly only with the agenda to allow us to see the world through new eyes, therefore giving us a larger understanding of our shared humanity.   

It is imperative that I pay my respects at this time for this uniquely idiosyncratic filmmaker, a figure who, time and again, expanded and exploded any pre-conceived notions of what I thought the movies could and could not be. How much weaker my cinematic education would have been if I had never seen even one of his films. 

1. "MELVIN AND HOWARD" (1980)
I first came upon this film at the age of 11, the year it was originally released, via the rave reviews given by the late, great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, both in print inside of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times, respectively as well as their television movie review program, which I think was still airing upon PBS at the time. It is because of Siskel and Ebert that I saw so many different kinds of films that I otherwise never would have seen as I valued their opinions and teachings so powerfully and Jonathan Demme's "Melvin And Howard" was no exception.

I eventually saw the film for the very first time about a year after its theatrical release when the film began its cycle upon a Chicago pay TV channel called ON TV. Admittedly, I wasn't entirely sure what to make of the film after that first viewing. But, somehow, this story, set in the early 1970's about a down-on-his-luck Nevada milkman (played by the wonderful Paul Le Mat) who kindly picks up a disheveled, bearded elderly gentleman who turns out to be the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (played by Jason Robards) captured and most importantly, held my attention for its duration. 

Within this film, Demme gave me a peek into an environment that was world away from my middle class Chicago life. It was a world filled with characters and personalities that I really had never seen before or would have even given a chance if not for Siskel and Ebert. But, it was Jonathan Demme's skill as a storyteller and cinematic world-builder that kept me watching and even returning, as I gladly re-watched the film as much as six or seven more times during its pay TV cycle. While I have not seen this film for perhaps over 30 years, there are sequences and moments that I am still able to recall instantly. Actually, even writing this little about it now, I am inspired to try and track down the film and see it again through the vantage point of my adult eyes and broader worldview.

2. "STOP MAKING SENSE" (1984)
The concert film against  which most concert films have been compared with and rightfully so. Demme's "Stop Making Sense'" is undisputed in its assessment as being one of the finest and most unique concert films ever made, and this is from a filmmaker who also directed "Storefront Hitchcock" (1988) starring Robyn Hitchcock as well as the Neil Young trilogy consisting of "Neil Young: Heart Of Gold" (2006), "Neil  Young Trunk Show" (2009) and "Neil Young: Journeys" (2011). 

But, "Stop Making Sense" is a true cinematic and musical treasure, elegantly filmed and presented with such joyous abandon and inventiveness which makes it ripe for watching over and again. Demme was the perfect directorial match for a band as unorthodox and idiosyncratic as Talking Heads as he created a fully unorthodox and idiosyncratic format in which to present them and their music. By eschewing with shots of the audience having a great time, "Stop Making Sense" focuses solely upon the story of the band as they enter the stage one by one until the core foursome plus their auxiliary members explore their timeless and innovative polyrhythms, melodics and lyrics with a boundless childlike enthusiasm that was a wonderment to regard.

Bandleader David Byrne in particular made for a defiantly unique screen presence as well as musician as his anxious antics and sheer athleticism made him compulsively watchable, leading to the iconic imagery of the "Big Suit." Just unforgettable!! No wonder the band never toured again after mounting the stage s how from which this was filmed. And therefore, no wonder has there never again been a concert film like this one. 

3. "SOMETHING WILD" (1986)
One of the best films of the 1980's...period. 

Again, introduced to me through the notable enthusiasm of Siskel and Ebert and even further compounded, and audaciously so by a terrific Math teacher who was so overcome by the film that she could not even begin the morning's class session before extolling her excitement over having seen it over the previous weekend. 

Jonathan Demme's romantic comedy/thriller hybrid more than lived up to its title as the road odyssey, featuring a straight-laced "closet rebel" (played by Jeff Daniels) taken for the ride of his life by the openly rebellious free spirit Audrey a.k.a. "Lulu" (Melanie Griffith in her best performance to date) and who are both being menaced and pursued by a terrifying criminal named Ray Sinclair (a fantastic Ray Liotta), exuberantly blew apart storytelling cliches and conventions to became a completely unpredictable and equally unforgettable movie. 

Demme presented this fearlessly irreverent vision through an explosion of colors, relentless energy, striking humor, bold sexuality, truly surprising violence, and a huge heart while entirely set to the an astonishing multi-layered, multi-cultural soundtrack (of no less than 49 songs) that superbly boasted Demme's impeccable musical tastes. 

In many ways, as with "Stop Making Sense," the only filmmaker with whom I could compare Demme with in the instances of these two films would be Martin Scorsese, whose concert film "The Last Waltz" (1978) and his own audacious, wild night experience with the brilliant "After Hours" (1985). Great company to sit with indeed and much for Scorsese as it was for Demme.

4. "PHILADELPHIA" (1993)
Quite possibly Jonathan Demme's most impassioned slice of humanity could be found within his legal drama that gave homosexuality, homophobia, HIV and AIDS the precise dose of empathy and artistry to make a seismic impact within the mainstream movie-going audience. 

The casting of Tom Hanks, one of our favorite Hollywood "everymen," as an attorney who happens to be a closeted homosexual and AIDS patient who is unjustly fired by his law firm was a masterstroke, just as much as the casting of Denzel Washington as the homophobic attorney who gradually decides to take up the discrimination case of  Hanks' character.  I am expressing this view because who within our mainstream movie-going audience would wish to watch Tom Hanks dying over the course of two hours? Our empathy is already built into our shared love of this particular actor and the screen persona that he has conveyed throughout the entirety of his career. With regards to Denzel Washington, Jonathan Demme was much more shrewd by having this African-American male work as the stand-in for the presumably predominant Caucasian mainstream movie-going audience, through which Washington's evolution would mirror.

But "Philadelphia" succeeds as far more than something akin to brilliant "stunt casting," as Demme is fully concerned with showcasing precisely the elements that make up our shared humanity from careers, families, hopes, fears, desires, and most profoundly, our shared mortality. Because in the end, we are all headed to the same conclusion regardless of our sexual orientations and preferences, so what kind of a society would we be if we denied anyone the ability to live to the fullest of their particular truth? Certainly, this is a life lesson that feels to be even more urgent in the 21st century, but in 1993, mainstream movie going audiences needed a push with this deeply affecting, beautifully acted film that worked as a movie that carried a message rather than a demonstrative and hollow "message movie."  
   
5. "BELOVED" (1998)
For me, this film stood directly alongside Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" as two of the finest films 1998 had to offer, yet audiences didn't warm to this passionate, poetically political film whatsoever, which is a tremendous shame due to the shattering beauty of its uncompromising power.

Yes, the film's leading actress Oprah Winfrey's pilgrimage to bring the iconic Toni Morrison novel to the screen is more than worth any accolades the film ever received and quite brilliantly, her choice to handpick Jonathan Demme could not have been any more perfect as his cinematic and humanitarian sensibilities completely captured the interpersonal and supernatural drama of Morrison's source material.

But, what struck me the most about "Beloved" was that Demme fully fashioned a film about our country's Reconstruction period--the nation, certainly, as the film is set after the end of the Civil War. But, primarily as a story about the reconstruction of the African-American race and how we began our attempts with rebuilding ourselves after surviving the nightmare of slavery, a system that was designed to annihilate us.  This is indeed a most difficult film and rightfully so.  But, if you have not seen the film, trust me, dear readers, as I would never steer you wrong. The rewards of "Beloved" are enormous as Jonathan Demme guides us through nothing less than an existential journey from holocaust to horror to healing.

6. "RACHEL GETTING MARRIED" (2008)
One of the very best films of the early aughts and Jonathan Demme's last, truly stunning and sharply delivered narrative feature.

Serving as a brilliantly perceptive and poignant study of a family travelling through a whirlwind of joyous uplift as well as emotional minefields when Kym (an outstanding Anne Hathaway) returns home in her first week out of drug rehab to attend the weekend wedding ceremony of her sister Rachel (played by Rosemarie DeWitt), "Rachel Getting Married" superbly avoided all of the cliches and trappings that are typically found within the cinematic wastelands of self-consciously quirky "dysfunctional families" that never, ever ring true. By contrast, Demme presents a family with the perfect amount of realism, frailty, fragility, nuance, texture, fury and overarching love that would be present within anyone's extended families.  

Furthermore, Demme's presentation of this particular extended family, growing even larger with the notably inter-racial marriage of Rachel and Sidney (played by Tunde Adebimpe from the band TV On The Radio) , who is African-American, gave us a view of the changing face of the American landscape precisely at the moment the United States of America was about to elect its first African-American President. No, this aspect of the film was not through any sense of faux political correctness. Demme gave the audience a healthy dose of a social/political reality in regards to how diverse our country's population and the families within have all become.

Filled and even over-flowing with an immense joy of life, music, love and family, Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" represented this idiosyncratic filmmaker at his finest.

Those six films are the ones that I feel closest to, yet for yourselves, you just may come up with a completely different list if asked, such is the variety of Jonathan Demme's extensive filmography. As I think of him now and as I regard the full list of films that he has made--many of which I haven't even seen---it is downright remarkable to find a filmmaker so willing to extend his curiosity to seemingly wherever it carried him.

From his romantic comedies, psychological thrillers, documentaries that contain subjects as varied as President Jimmy Carter to even Demme's own Minister cousin and even more, I think what we have gathered most of all is one filmmaker's full vision and exploration of the world in which he lived, what that world meant to him, and the unabashed glee with which he created his films that carried those messages to the world.

Humanity. Possibly the theme I have returned to the very most throughout the longevity of this blogsite. Humanity is the defining characteristic that I am able to find when looking at Jonathan Demme's filmography. Who knows? Perhaps if we took a look at the world through his cinematic eyes, our viewpoint could potentially be expanded, possibly leading to a greater understanding of our shared existence. That is the greatest gift a filmmaker can have, I would think. And to celebrate, treasure and cherish the gifts he has left behind for all of us, it is to our duty and entertainment to accept what he so joyously offered.

Jonathan Demme...Rest In Power..  

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

KNOWING IS GOOD. KNOWING EVERYTHING IS BETTER: a review of "The Circle"

"THE CIRCLE"
Based upon the novel by Dave Eggers
Screenplay Written by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers
Directed by James Ponsoldt
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED PG 13

With as much as I am fascinated by and attracted to all manner of technology,those nifty adult toys with the requisite bells and whistles that keep us all addicted to being tuned in, turned on and endlessly wired and connected, I also deeply value my time away from it. Nowadays, while ensconced in the aggressively hardwired 21st century, I probably value it even more than I ever thought that I would.

While I definitely see the advantages of a GPS system, I do not have one in my car. While I do see the advantages of owning a smartphone, I also do not own one and truth be told, it really took some arm twisting to convince me to purchase a cellphone in the first place many years ago as I was so resistant to it. I do not own a flat screen HD television. My social media excursions are limited to Facebook as I am not on Twitter, Snapchat or really much of anything else at all. I don't sleep with my cellphone near me and the laptop I own is usually sitting comfortably within its case in my living room as I primarily use the desktop, just as I am doing as I write to you now.

For me, I am old enough to vividly remember life and existence without any of these items and as I journey through my daily travels seeing individuals truly locked to their phones, people walking down the street almost hypnotically looking downwards into the palms of their hands rather than remotely upwards into life itself, I am reminded that I am not missing anything by not having so many of these gadgets and items that simultaneously connect and disconnect us from our own existence.

No, I am not trying to claim some sense of superiority as I have my own ways of disengaging, most notably through my own headphones and the music I blast into my ears as I walk around, and of course through Facebook and yes, these blogsites upon which I write. But, I do think there is something to be said when I walk into any of Madison's many coffeehouses and witness people staring into screens and not engaging themselves in the art of conversation with each other face to face. And I also cannot help but to wonder about the generations of people who have only known existence with being plugged in. To them, what does privacy, surveillance or even internal silence mean, if anything at all?

This specific quandary sits at the core of "The Circle," Director James Ponsoldt's adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel. While some may wish for more of a traditional corporate, technological thriller with easy to spot heroes and villains, I think what Ponsoldt has achieved is a film that is more meditative, cerebral as well as more than a little creepy regarding our relationship not only to technology but to our own sense of interpersonal detachment and increasingly Orwellian existence, which we all seem to be only too happy to subscribe to. It is this more thoughtful approach that ultimately made for a quietly disturbing film.

"The Circle" stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a young college graduate stuck in a low paying dead end cubicle job, who worries over the status of her parents, including the debilitating health of her MS afflicted Dad Vinnie (well played by the late Bill Paxton) and still carries a tentative relationship with her ex-boyfriend Mercer (Eller Coltrane).

Via the influence of a college friend named Annie (Karen Gillan), Mae scores an interview, and ultimately a customer service position, at The Circle, a massive technological and internet/social media corporation, a campus that houses a compound and working population that would easily function as its own city (for those of you in Madison, think Epic Systems).

The Circle is owned and operated by the seemingly congenial Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), whose easy going, "aw shucks" charm combined with his technological visionary status has made him the greatest of rock stars to his staff, or perhaps, as Mae quickly questions, is he some sort of a neo-cult leader to his legion of disciples, as one of his personal mottoes happens to be, "Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better."

Soon, Mae captures the attention of Eamon and she begins to rapidly rise through the ranks of The Circle, eventually becoming the central figure in a revolutionary new technological advancement that fully blurs the ethical lines and boundaries between privacy and public knowledge which then further complicates concepts of personal freedom and virtual imprisonment.  And in doing so, Mae's participation not only threatens her relationships with her family and friends, but the overall fabric of our sense of humanity.

On the surface, James Ponsoldt's "The Circle" may feel to be a bit of a hybrid between films like David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010) and Sydney Pollack's "The Firm" (1993) or at least an experience that sits somewhere in the same virtual neighborhood as USA Network's "Mr. Robot."  While Ponsoldt's film is not in quite the same league as those comparisons, it is indeed a smart, savvy and more than insidious little thriller that uncomfortably forces its audience to take a hard look into the mirror at our own societal complacency concerning our own increasing levels of oversharing, permissive lack of privacy combined with our collective insatiable need to have our individual voices heard regardless of either the real or virtual world.

As I continue to ruminate over the film, two sequences/sections of the film come to mind powerfully in regards to the character of Mae Holland and how she serves as a reflection of each and everyone of us in the audience. The first sequence arrives during a course in the film where Mae's skepticism and quiet challenges to the authoritarian system of The Circle come into question as she is essentially coerced by Eamon and his right hand man Tom Stenton (played by Patton Oswalt) to become the test case in a program involving complete transparency, as they reason that people would behave as their best selves if they were under constant surveillance, therefore leaving every piece of themselves open for public view and ultimate scrutiny. Seeing as she has now not only made a comfortable living with the organization and the fact that her parents, especially her Father's health care needs, are being more than cared for financially, Mae feels obligated to acquiesce.

What follows are sequences where we witness every moment of Mae's life, save for an allotted three minutes of private time for a bathroom break, being broadcast to the world--kind of like an updated version of what we saw in Peter Weir's "The Truman Show" (1998)--yet, what is different is how the public at large is able to comment upon her every movement, decision and seemingly, her every thought in real time. Ponsoldt visualizes this aspect of the film by loading the screen with the variety of social media commentaries delivered by Mae's viewers and the result is disturbingly overwhelming. What's more is how after a spell, I feel that we are being asked to question just how much Mae is actually enjoying the increased attention, therefore fueling her sense of self-importance, narcissism and perhaps to an extent, whatever sense of entitlement she may be harboring in the process, calling to further question if The Circle is using her or if she is using The Circle.

Another sequence features a boardroom section where Mae arrives at a new technological idea or advancement for The Circle that could align their social media services along with the United States government in a fashion where society itself would be beholden not to a nation of laws but to essentially an internet provider service. Without inadvertently delving into spoiler territory, in the film's final moments, where Mae's ultimate confrontation with Eamon comes to a head, I would not be surprised if some audience members exit the film confused or even disappointed as "The Circle" does not lead towards a comfortable, tidy conclusion. Quite the contrary, what we are left with is an ending that is philosophically and morally ambiguous yet completely fitting with the questions Ponsoldt is asking of us regarding our relationship with the technology that we are in no hurry to detach ourselves from.

To an even greater extent, I feel that James Ponsoldt's "The  Circle" is even pondering just what does it take to achieve the so-called "American Dream" in the 21st century. How much of ourselves are we willing to compromise or even discard in order to attain a certain level of power and control. Yet, if we did relinquish the best of ourselves in the process, are we truly in control of ourselves or have we simply given ourselves over to whatever larger forces to which we are attracted?

These very questions make the character of Mae Holland and the film overall extend itself from existing as a simple computer thriller and more as a mediation about the paradoxes of our society. Is there freedom and liberation in constant surveillance? Can alienation be subverted by detaching ourselves from having any private moments? Are our thoughts still interior if we share all of them on a public forum?  If our lives are lived on-line, then are we living at all? James Ponsoldt's "The Circle" is not a film for which we can have those questions answered, and frankly, how could it? But, it was in the asking, the provocation of the questioning that ensured this film would be a notable document of how life is being lived in 2017.