Movie Review: The Circle

“Knowing is good. But knowing everything is better.” That’s the philosophy of social networking company guru/founder Tom Hanks in “The Circle.” The film, based on the best-selling novel by Dave Eggers, is the story of a naïve young woman (Emma Watson) who upgrades her McJob into a fancier customer service rep position at the Circle, and goes from making Kool-Aid jokes to – well, stop me if you’ve heard this plot before. If you have, you know what to expect – and that eventually the protagonist will snap back to her senses and fix everything in the climax, in which we cue the foot-stomping ovation. The other two company gurus are Patton Oswalt and the enigmatic “Ty” (John Boyega) who is known to be off the grid, but it’s Tom wearing the Baggy Sweater and Graying Beard Combo of Amiable Genius who is the standout – and no doubt, the most sinister in the end.

In the opening scene of “The Circle,” Emma takes a kayak out to enjoy the sun and sea, where she’s promptly interrupted by her phone ringing – symbolism alert – to the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Well, I thought, at least that’s more original than opening with the protagonist’s car speeding down the road with the stereo blasting. (That’s the next scene.) Emma is attempting to take a break from the stress of her job and her father’s (Bill Paxton) multiple sclerosis which their insurance won’t properly fund. Luckily, she soon gets a call from her friend (Karen Gillan) who has managed to get her an interview at the Circle. After she aces it, Emma is given a whirlwind tour of the facilities and given her own laptop (with her name on it, no less). She’s also plunged into the deep end as she belatedly clues into the fact that she needs to be more social – which means joining in the myriad of activities and options both on and offline (the difference soon becomes blurred). Her bohemian friend Mercer (Ellan Coltrane) tries to warn her that she’s getting in over her head, but Emma pays him no heed. If this brave new world has echoes of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” well, at least everyone seems over-the-moon to be there and pumped that their employers are putting tiny cameras all over the globe so their whereabouts can be instantly pinpointed. (And Winston Smith never got to attend free concerts by Gen X icon Beck.) Eventually, Emma decides to be the first at the Circle to go completely “transparent,” that is have everything she does 24-7 live on camera so people can feel like a part of her life. But after things go south with her family and Ellan, she joins forces with another Circle-ite to end the façade of transparency.

Differences from the book include lack of sex scenes or romantic interests, including the scrapping of the character Francis – although there is a brief nod to the book project on child kidnapping prevention. Things tend to happen lickety split – you may feel at times as if you’ve nodded off and missed key parts. However, the meat of the novel is all there – including scenes that raise questions about a world in which everyone is held accountable by social networking. The protagonist is still a cipher, as she was in the book, but Emma does a good job of making her seem more than just one-dimensional. Like Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show,” she’s a pawn in a larger game but is ultimately able to see the light – and drag Tom and co. into it kicking and screaming, too.


Movie Review: The Promise

“The Promise,” sounds like the title of an ultra-weepy rom-com, perhaps based on a bestseller by Nicholas Sparks, in which someone who is dying of cancer falls in love with someone who needs to learn valuable lessons about slowing down and smelling the roses with the majority of the scenes bathed in golden light. However, the rather uninspired title in reality is the latest film – after last year’s “Free State of Jones” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” about a man who serves on the battlefield as a medic first, not as a fighter. Like “The Free State of Jones,” (about a Southern rebel group during the Civil War), “The Promise,” which tells the story of the last days of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish genocide of native Armenians (a tragedy that has yet to be acknowledged by Turkey’s government) and stars Oscar Isaac, places women and children in the thick of the battle – only in this case, they’re unarmed, increasing the horror factor considerably.

“The Promise” is also a love triangle, in which (spoiler alert) not all the major players make it to the credits. It begins when Oscar, as a young man, uses his wife’s dowry to attend medical school in Constantinople, not being able to afford it otherwise. There’s no backstory about him as a child; instead he arrives at the university quickly, where he meets a genial classmate (Marwan Kenzari) who has chosen medicine over the military to the dismay of his well-connected father. He also becomes acquainted with a young woman illustrator/governess (Charlotte Le Bron) and her sort-of-boyfriend Christian Bale, an American journalist who wears both distracting facial hair and the same suit for the entire movie. But soon reality intrudes on their bohemian lifestyle, and Oscar finds himself in danger of losing his position as a student. The children of the family he boards with are also in peril, and Christian attempts to help them find refuge. One thing leads to another, however, resulting in Oscar being placed in a labor camp, Marwan in the army, and Christian also in jeopardy, as he risks being captured and executed as a “spy.” The four friends’ paths will cross and re-cross throughout the film, as they deal with issues of loyalty and betrayal.

As you might expect, the movie is long on action and short on romance. There is an extended sequence that rivals many thrillers, in which Oscar escapes from camp, hitches a ride on a train of prisoners who beseech him to free them, falls into the sea, then crawls to land – (and emerges remarkably unscathed, but that’s movie logic for you). There are also heartbreaking scenes that take place in the woods – the fleeing of innocents reminding me of similar ones in “Logan,” only of course, these people have only their wits to rely on. But perhaps the most chilling scene for me was when Christian is confronted by a top official who, displeased at reading his notes, blandly announces, “There is no war.” However, reality proved otherwise, and “The Promise,” is a valuable contribution to public knowledge of this atrocity.

A Look Back: Let Me In

There is an unavoidable plot-hole built into TV shows that revolve around the supernatural in Everytown, USA at least if they take place in the same community week after week – mainly that an alert viewer must conclude that virtually everyone in it, young and old, has amnesia. How else to explain why there are so many bizarre happenings on a regular basis, but most townfolk remain blase? Why do so many people – particularly “new kids in town” – keep disappearing/dying at a remarkable rate? Wouldn’t parents eventually join forces and form some kind of alliance to figure out why their offspring keep meeting a grisly fate – especially since the local authorities don’t seem to be making a dent in permanently solving the problem? Why is there not a mass exodus to avoid the unfortunate fate of so many?

I was reminded of all this when I looked up “Let Me In,” on IMDB, a horror movie featuring middle school age children, a remake of “Let the Right One In,” which is based on a book of the same name by Swedish author John Ajvide-Lindquist. There’s apparently a new TV show based on this, too – I don’t know how long it’s going to continue for (if it hasn’t ended already), but I suspect that most of the non-major characters will suffer from amnesia, in order to prolong the drama. Obviously, a movie doesn’t have to worry about this issue, though there was likely some challenge in translating the setting from Stockholm to New Mexico. But the premise stays true to the book.

It’s said that beggars can’t be choosers, and this also tends to be true of friendless, bullied movie youngsters like the one Kodi plays. So if a new gender-fluid individual (Chloe) around your age who bizarrely goes barefoot in winter, smells a tad funky and can solve your Rubik Cube overnight moves into your apartment complex, it’s not a bad idea to return her overtures, awkward as they may be. Given that you are also dealing with your parents’ acrimonious divorce and are the target of a junior Cobra Kai at school, you don’t have many alternatives. Thus you might overlook some oddities like the fact that she lives with a reclusive, light-averse guardian (Richard Jenkins), appears at your window at odd hours (but luckily when your single mom isn’t home), and can only enter a room after being given permission. Besides, Chloe soon proves herself to be a valuable ally when it comes to giving advice on how to deal with the bullies, although there are bigger crimes afoot in their community – involving bloody deaths, icy ponds and hospital wards – which helpfully show President Reagan on the telly so you know it’s the eighties. There’s also that PSA from those years, “It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” that gets cleverly inserted into the film, as well. (In this case, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.)

Although Elias Koteas as the detective who valiantly tries to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, gives solving the mystery his best shot, he is ultimately no match for Chloe who, after dispatching him, goes over to the local indoor swimming pool to rescue Kodi from a gang attack that threatens to drown him – or equally worse. The two are successful at this, as well, and are seen in the last scene on a train heading off into the unknown. It’s not exactly an exuberant ending as flying a luck dragon while the bullies cower in the Dumpster, but it’s still satisfying – even though uncomfortable questions will likely nag at you for some time afterward.

Going in Style: An Abridged Script



MICHAEL CAINE is having a meeting with a SMUG DICKWAD.

Recently I received this yellow envelope in the mail. It says my HOME is in danger of BEING FORECLOSED. Where I just happen to live with my DAUGHTER and GRANDDAUGHTER JOEY KING so she can go to a good school. Plus I’ve promised her a PUPPY if she makes the honor roll. What gives?

Sir, we’re just heartless a-holes who woke up and pulled a name out of the Who Shall We Screw Today Hat, and you happened to be it. Plus, we torture puppies for fun.

Wow, I can see this is going to be a difficult MORAL DILEMMA for the audience to decide who to sympathize with.

Well, at least you didn’t get the red envelope, which would mean you’re getting evicted tonight, ha ha..

Suddenly, a MASKED MAN bursts in and fires a gun!

OK, everybody, lie down on your back and don’t move! That means everyone, even the GOOD GUY in this film.

(wets himself in terror)

(real line)
They make a pill for that, you know. By the way, how refreshing it is that the senior citizens in this movie aren’t the butt of those kinds of jokes. So far.

(leans in, so that his TATTOO shows)
What did you just say?

Nothing. Enjoy your haul.


MICHAEL CAINE is being interviewed by a SECOND SMUG DICKWAD.
(holds out perfect sketch)
Here’s a flawless drawing of the MASKED MAN’s TATTOO. You might proceed by checking out local parlors.

Old man, leave the deductive reasoning to us. Go play something quaint like shuffleboard or bocce.

Jeez, I tangle with two a-holes in less than fifteen minutes? Are all the GUYS UNDER SIXTY DICKS in this movie?

Thanks for your time!


MORGAN FREEMAN is having a meeting with his DOCTOR.

You’re going to need a KIDNEY TRANSPLANT, but it’s up to you to find a DONOR.

Way to up the stakes! Unfortunately, I only see my family by SKYPING. Since I don’t have any close friends either, this is a major problem. But I’ll work on it.

See, even though we’re seniors, we’re fully up on our tech skills.



Stop, stop, I can’t take it anymore. You keep going, and the movie will have officially filled its wackiness quotient.

Cool, I’ve always hated the clarinet. I think I’ll be a dancer like BEYONCE instead.

Maybe in the sequel, but there isn’t time to develop this subplot right now.

(enters room)
ALAN, are you going to be busy tonight?

Nope, not interested. I’m just a perpetual GROUCH, plus it’s too early in the movie for me to warm up to you. Bye.


All right, everyone. I know you’ve got questions about why you suddenly no longer have your PENSIONS.

Just tell us the truth. Jeez, every male character under sixty really is a bastard.

We have nothing personally against you all. We just decided to take your pensions and put them toward a really rocking home in Tahiti. Ha ha.

The only good thing that’s happened so far is the chance that we’ve met our quota of young smug dickwads is decreasing.


We’re screwed! Whatever shall we do?

(pauses in front of their booth)
OK, I’m assuming you all want PIE to go with your coffee as usual.

Thanks, but we can barely afford coffee at this point.

Hey, I know what we can do. Let’s rob the bank responsible and take back our pensions. We’ve already established that the LOCAL COPS are bumbling doofuses, but we’re all as sharp as proverbial tacks, so why not?

Count me out.

We know you’re just holding out for show, so I won’t press you at this point. What about you, MORGAN?

I’m in. Since I’m not going to be hanging out on a boat without a care in the world with you guys anytime soon.

(returns with three plates)
Here’s some pie from the CASE of SYMOBLIC MOVIE DESSERTS anyway. It’s on the house.


(real lines)
Why do I have to stay in the car? It’s hot in here!

Quit your bitching. Now, our plan – what there is of it – is apparently divide and conquer? Or something. Let the high jinx begin!

The DUO BUMBLES AROUND STUFFING ITEMS in THEIR SHIRTS which isn’t obvious to the SECURITY CAMERAS or OTHER CUSTOMERS. Eventually, ALAN gets bored and comes inside where he is promptly SNAGGED by ANN-MARGRET.

Well, you certainly get around.

(holds up chicken package seductively)
Which do you prefer – breasts or thighs?

(real line)
It can go either way…

Is it late enough in the movie for my ETERNAL YOUTHFUL SASSINESS to melt your GRUFF, CURMUDGEONLY EXTERIOR and for us to HOOK UP?

Not yet. Be patient.

MEANWHILE the STORE DETECTIVE, her suspicions that it’s odd to have TWO GUYS constantly picking stuff up but not putting it back, not to mention having SUSPICIOUSLY BULGING SHIRTFRONTS triggered, is hot on the trail of MORGAN and MICHAEL. The suspense keeps mounting!

(snagging a riding cart)
Get in the basket, so we can escape!

(real line)
Who do you think I am – E.T.?

(climbs in anyway)
This is not going to end well.


KEENAN THOMPSON is showing the store video feed to the shamefaced TRIO.

OK, here’s a tip for you guys. Everything is monitored these days. Also, it’s really low to rob a discount grocery store. Next time, try a WHOLE FOODS.

MICHAEL, MORGAN and ALAN file out and return to the DINER of PLOT CONTRIVANCE

OK, we messed up. This time let’s seek assistance from lowlifes with REAL EXPERIENCE like JOHN ORTIZ. Plus he works in a pet store, so we can kill two birds with one stone and get a PUPPY for my GRANDDAUGHTER. Everybody in?

Oh all right. Getting it on with ANN-MARGRET has done wonders for my mood.


(strokes chin sagely)
I guess it comes down a simple choice: Get busy living, or get busy dying.

How profound. But why does that give me deja vu?

Never mind.


Suddenly, MICHAEL, MORGAN and ALAN wearing RAT PACK MASKS burst in and fire a gun into the air!

Everyone get down on the floor and don’t move a muscle!

Despite their extensive preparation, surprisingly, there are glitches! MICHAEL gets his mask lifted by an ADORABLE LITTLE GIRL, plus the FIRST SMUG DICKWAD spontaneously grows a spine and starts shooting back. Luckily, no one is hurt, and the TRIO ESCAPES.


KEENAN is showing FBI AGENT MATT DILLON some very interesting footage.

(plays with video monitors of both robberies)
Yep, as you can see, it’s the EXACT SAME SHUFFLE.

OK, I’ll go interview those guys. Since I’m wearing the AMERICAN FLAG PIN of AMBIGUOUS MOTIVES, it’s not like they won’t be on their guard.

He does, but thanks to the ADORABLE LITTLE GIRL, the TRIO gets away scot free!


Well, it looks like crime does pay after all. JOEY got her PUPPY and I got to KEEP MY HOUSE.

And I got my KIDNEY. Which means we all made it to the end, which probably those who haven’t seen the original were wondering.

And I got to marry ANN-MARGRET. Plus, her COMICALLY UNTALENTED GRANDSON has given up the clarinet, so I won’t have to hope I go deaf.

Gosh, for an ACADEMY AWARD WINNING TRIO, we sure learned some life lessons, didn’t we? Plus, we gave a bunch of our stash away to our other friends, so it’s not like we actually committed a real crime with consequences.

Very true.


Movie Review: Gifted

Movies about female math prodigies are few and far between in Hollywood – standing at a whiteboard writing numbers is not in itself a pulse racing activity, regardless of gender. But now in just four months, we have “Hidden Figures,” about an African-American girl who wound up, after getting a scholarship to a school for the gifted, becoming a key member of the NASA space team in the sixties. Now Gifted,” starring Chris Evans as the guardian of a young math genius (Mckenna Grace) arrives in theaters, ready and more than willing to jerk heartstrings and trigger tear ducts.

“Gifted,” resembles “Little Man Tate,” a nineties movie with Jodie Foster playing a blue-collar single mom of a young genius (Adam Hann-Byrd), and also “I Am Sam,” a film about a mentally-challenged single father (Sean Penn) suddenly having to deal with the fact that his bright daughter is advancing past him in mental age, which results in a nasty custody battle. In “Gifted,” Chris’s IQ is adequate, if not superior, however, his problem is that he is living from paycheck to paycheck fixing boats and does not even have health insurance. So far this arrangement seems to have not held Mckenna, who appears to be a healthy inquisitive girl, back. However, at the film’s start when Chris decides to mainstream Mckenna into the public elementary school, it’s soon apparent to her teacher (Jenny Slate) that she’s highly gifted, and the principal informs him that she can arrange for a full scholarship to a better school for his daughter. Obviously, if a child is capable of doing math at the college level and beyond, jumping her a grade won’t solve anything.

Chris is dead-set against it because, as we learn, he’s Mckenna’s uncle, who adopted her (sort of) after her mom committed suicide when she was a baby. He wants her to grow up to be a well-adjusted human being first, but then his mother (Lindsay Duncan) pops up – she hasn’t seen him in years and has only recently managed to track him down – and she has a whole other set of plans for her granddaughter. As Lindsay has been the driving force for Mckenna’s mother’s high level mathematic research until her death, she is keen on assuming guardianship of Mckenna and providing her with an intellectually-challenging, well-to-do Boston upbringing. Surprisingly enough, neither Chris nor Mckenna is up for this, so enter lawyers, a therapist and the possibility of a foster family. (Don’t even get me started on the subplot with the one-eyed cat.)

This is where the movie goes off the rails logic-wise. Because “Gifted” is one of those films that sets up the main conflict in either/or terms, when the resolution arrives (in the form of both parties learning that it’s best to compromise!), it’s not a mystery why only the judge brings this up during the movie and then only briefly. However, the viewer will likely be wondering why two reasonably mature people can’t collaborate already for the best interest of the child. Another plot hole (and a big one) is that while Chris wants his daughter to live a more normal kid’s life, he hasn’t bothered to enroll her in any extracurriculars. (Seriously? Have program fees at the local library, park or YMCA skyrocketed since I was young?) But this provides ample ammunition for Lindsay’s elitist lawyer to hammer Chris with during the courtroom scenes. (In addition, he makes his daughter sleep in a secondhand bed! There are palmetto bugs in their Florida home! The horror.) Luckily, the adults manage to work out an arrangement that makes all parties happy, though it takes a couple of hours and lots of tears being forcibly jerked from the viewers’ sockets. The cast, including Octavia Spencer as a sympathetic neighbor and Mckkenna’s only friend, does a good job. However, there is really nothing here to distinguish the movie from a TV one, plot-wise.

A Look Back: Cheaper By the Dozen

Usually when a director takes on the daunting task of transferring the magic of a beloved book to the big screen, the results are mixed. Some – such as “Cloud Atlas,” are doomed from the start – if you’ve never read the book, you will flounder as the two hour plus movie unfolds before your baffled eyes. If you pick a nonfiction book and translate it into fiction, such as with Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls, it may, against the odds, be accomplished and done well. Sometimes it’s the casting choice that torpedoes the movie, particularly if there’s political correctness involved. Then there is the truly unique situation of the updating of the book “Cheaper By the Dozen,” by Frank B. Giilbreth and Ernestine Carey Gilbreth, a memoir of life with a father obsessed with time management – that became a movie starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. If you’re familiar with the book, your response (like Roger Ebert’s) will be pure disbelief. It is entirely possible that no one associated with the remake has ever read the original source (perhaps the authors just took the deal and ran). Or perhaps not – as the movie is so diametrically the opposite. It’s almost as if they used the book as a blueprint for how not to make the movie.

“Cheaper By the Dozen,” (and its sequel “Belles on Their Toes”) rests on the premise that there were twelve children with a wacky father and more sensible mother – but upon reading the books, a shrewd reader picks up that one child makes an untimely disappearance that is never addressed, even though the dad keeps referring to the brood as “a dozen.” But that is the kind of thing you are able to forgive because it really doesn’t matter all that much. The book, which takes place in the fifties features, among other escapades, the following:

1. Dad gets the brilliant idea that he should film his children having their tonsils removed to see if the procedure can be streamlined. Unfortunately, the doctor mistakes one daughter for another, and almost murders her when they decide to operate on the one who didn’t fast the night before.

(OK, maybe it’s good that this didn’t make it into the remake.)

2. Dad realizes his oldest daughter, now a teen, has become keen on dating boys, so he insists on accompanying her on her first date and the following ones, at least for awhile, until he figures a way to gracefully get out of it. By the time the youngest daughter is dating (in “Belles”), Dad is deceased, though her brothers make her dates bring her home really early. When she complains, her mother isn’t sympathetic.

The book father may have some bizarre ideas on child-raising, but his basic competence as a parent is not called into question. However, in the remake, the filmmakers take the easy route by having Steve Martin portray the father as your typical clueless sitcom clod. The mother (Bonnie Hunt) is still level-headed, and the kids are adorable, but it’s clearly her that keeps everything running smoothly. When Steve gets a new job as a school football coach and Bonnie’s new book is successful, the kids (too many actors and actresses to list here) are forced to move across the country, moreover, when Bonnie jaunts off on a book tour, Dad is forced to act like an adult. He’s naturally overwhelmed, so he’s forced to rely on the help of his oldest daughter (Piper Perabo) who lives independently and who brings along her boyfriend (Ashton Kutcher, uncredited and after watching the film, it’s not a mystery why). Wacky high jinx follow. Eventually, everyone learns a valuable lesson about sticking together. Cue the group hug.

I realize that updating the book from the fifties to Y2K may pose a challenge, but I still can’t figure out why Steve chose to play the father that way. He’s very good at it, of course, but it’s too bad because he is indistinguishable from all the other movie/tv dads who love their kids but have absolutely no practical parenting skills. But the movie got a sequel (again with no resemblance to the original’s sequel), so maybe I am being a bit too harsh.

Movie Review: Going in Style

There’s a saying that in order to make an omelet, you have to break a lot of eggs. Well, apparently, it’s also true that if you and your two best friends want to rob a bank, you have to make a lot of t-shirts. At least, if you’re Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin and Michael Caine. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Little guy” heist movies, such as “Sugar and Spice” (cheerleaders) or “Fun With Dick and Jane” (recently destitute yuppies) usually follow the same formula as we get here. We’re introduced to three lifelong friends (Morgan, Alan and Michael) who are “practically 8-0” and therefore hoping to rely on their pensions soon. One wants to keep his house, another (tearjerker alert) needs a medical operation; etc., etc. When they discover that the company for whom they’ve toiled for years isn’t going to follow through, the trio is justifiably outraged, and having recently been in a bank that was robbed, Michael decides they should follow suit. At first, Alan will have none of it, but gradually, they talk him into being an accomplice.

For a trial run, they attempt to rob a discount grocery store which backfires, but with the help of veteran “lowlife” pet shop employee Jesus (John Ortiz) they get a tutorial which helps them pull off the intended heist – or have they? Even though they have a rock solid alibi (a Knights of Columbus charity fair), soon thanks to security cameras that manage to pick up odd runs (if not the faces behind the Rat Pack masks), the nefarious agent Matt Dillon is hot on their trail. Will the trio be able to complete their plan, which involves a romance with Ann-Margret, a puppy for a beloved granddaughter (Joey King), and an operation? (If you’ve seen a movie before, you can probably guess the answer.)

During “Going in Style,” there was a lot of audience participation in my theater, such as when Michael outlines his plan to regain their pensions and explains why they should go through with it.

Michael Caine: “The banks are screwing everybody!”

The woman to the left of me sotto voce: “He! Is! Right!”

A more ambitious reviewer could write an analysis of how such a response might indicate the anger and disillusionment the average American has with “the system,” as the same woman also applauded when the getaway car pulls back into its designated spot after the heist, but I’ll just stick to saying that the cast does a terrific job, the three leads have an effortless rapport, and tucked inside is a sweet but not saccharine message about standing by your friends in adversity and rewarding loyalty. As one of the characters puts it, “Everyone deserves a piece of the pie.”