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Worst of 2017: The Circle

The Circle

Continuing my spotlight on the worst films of 2017, I’m going to take a look at The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.

The plot of The Circle is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called the Circle, only to uncover an agenda that will affect the lives of all of humanity.

The Circle was directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt, whose other film credits include The Spectacular Now, The End of The Tour, and Smashed, as well as a handful of episodes on shows like Master of None, Shameless, and Parenthood.

The film is based on a 2013 book of the same name written by Dave Eggers, an acclaimed writer and publisher who is probably best known for founding McSweeney’s. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, marking one of a handful of times he has written for the screen (Away We Go, Where The Wild Things Are).

The impressive cast of The Circle includes the likes of Tom Hanks (Cast Away, The Green Mile, Philadelphia, The Burbs, Dragnet, Forrest Gump, Road To Perdition, Catch Me If You Can, The Ladykillers), Emma Watson (Noah, Beauty & The Beast, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Glenne Headley (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Don Jon, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dick Tracy, Breakfast of Champions), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood, Barry, Fast Food Nation), Bill Paxton (Frailty, Aliens, Predator 2, Twister, Nightcrawler, Big Love, Club Dread, True Lies, Apollo 13, A Simple Plan, Next of Kin, Slipstream), Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Doctor Who, Oculus), Patton Oswalt (MST3K, Odd Thomas, The King of Queens, Big Fan), and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Detroit, Attack The Block).

Two editors are credited for work on The Circle: Lisa Lassek (Serenity, The Cabin In The Woods, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, Community, Firefly, The Avengers) and Franklin Peterson (Safety Not Guaranteed, It’s A Disaster, Comet, Mr. Robot).

The cinematographer for the film was Matthew Libatique, whose notable shooting credits include Iron Man, Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, Chi-Raq, Phone Booth, The Fountain, Pi, and Everything Is Illuminated.

The music for The Circle was composed by Danny Elfman, one of the most recognizable and acclaimed film composers working today. His credits include Milk, American Hustle, Mission: Impossible, Spy Kids, Spider-Man, Red Dragon, Edward Scissorhands, Men In Black, Mars Attacks!, Darkman, Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, and Scrooged, among countless others.

The Circle marks the final film appearance of beloved character actor Bill Paxton, who died just before the film’s release. Sadly, one of his co-stars, Glenne Headley, also passed away in 2017, just after the movie hit theaters.

A handful of last minute reshoots were done in January of 2017 after test audiences cited some issues with the characters. However, the additional footage failed to remedy the grievances, and arguably worsened the issues, which contributed to the film’s poor reception.

Interestingly, the ending of the story for the film is changed from the one present in the original novel. In the book, Mae betrays Ty, and foils his plan to bring down the circle.

The Circle was made on a production budget of $18 million, on which it grossed roughly $34 million in its lifetime theatrical release. Interestingly, it wound up being released straight to Netflix in the UK, due in part to the devastating early reviews, as well as to the lower than expected grosses in its brief American theatrical release.

The Circle premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, just days prior to its theatrical release in the United States, and the negative word spread quickly. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% from critics and 23% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 5.3/10.

In his review for The Atlantic, David Sims describes The Circle as follows:

The Circle has absolutely no grasp on its own tone. It veers from insidious social commentary to wildly absurd comedy sometimes within the same conversation, warning of a world where we may use Facebook to vote, but also have microchips implanted in our children’s bones. As a satire, The Circle might have been worth a few giggles, but as a deadly serious drama, it’s laughable in an entirely different way.

As Sims points out, The Circle suffers from a very serious tone problem. While I don’t think it ever becomes an “absurd comedy,” it does vary quite wildly in intensity. There is also certainly a lack of clarity in regards to what the film is trying to say or advocate, which makes the vision and purpose of the whole movie muddy.  If it had been executed as a straight satire, there might have been something interesting to say about corporate identity and the modern surveillance state. However, everything in The Circle is taken to an absurd extreme beyond even remote plausibility, which makes the whole experience feel paper thin. Stretching the suspension of disbelief so far actually undercuts the biting criticisms that the work was trying to make, and the production looks ridiculous for it.

There are more than a few moments where The Circle devolves into the typical “kids these days” griping that every generation loves to levy at their successors (which is surreal in how out of place it is for a movie whose characters are supposed to be analogous to Google or Apple employees). There is also, unsurprisingly, a lack of understanding of technology, and the culture that surrounds it.

At least in my experience, the people who are most up to date with the latest technological advances are also at the forefront of defending net neutrality, and opposing mass surveillance measures. There is a difference between people selectively sharing aspects of their lives on social media and being “fully transparent,” a distinction The Circle doesn’t seem to grasp. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone really wants full transparency through social media: they want to be able to cultivate and cater their image, which is the whole appeal of the platform. There may be more public sharing involved than previous generations could imagine, but it isn’t unlimited sharing – it is deliberate and selective sharing, in order to build an outward persona.

It is a shame that The Circle devolves into an infantile exercise in slippery slope catastrophizing, because there is a seed of an interesting idea underneath all of this: there are things to be said about the modern surveillance culture, as well as how people incorporate brands into their personal identity. Unfortunately, the potentially salient points are all completely buried underneath a thick layer of Luddite ideology here.

Aside from the technological aspects of the film, there are plenty of other flaws worth addressing with The Circle. While the performances are for the most part pretty good (Boyega, Hanks, and Gillan all stand out), the characters are all one-dimensional, and are defined by a single trait or flaw: they don’t even remotely feel like or behave like tangible, realistic people. On top of that, the story of the film is almost completely without structure: instead of having a cogent arc to it, the story is just a sequence of events that happen, with very little connection between them. In an art movie, this technique might work: something like a snapshot of an intriguing life. However, for a movie that is allegedly a drama or a thriller, there needs to be some connection between events to build tension. For the most part, The Circle is just a series of unconnected fictitious TED talks, with brief intermissions. The result is a movie that feels about 20 times longer than it actually is – a dreadfully boring and mind-numbing experience.

The Circle, on the whole, feels like a movie with a rushed screenplay that needed a whole lot more work. For the most part, all of the movie’s critical errors boil down to writing issues: namely the characters, the structure, and the story. For the record, everything else is pretty good: the movie looks decent, has a fair share of good performances, and has an interesting enough premise. However, it is all built on a shoddy foundation, and the movie is a wreck because of it.

As far as a recommendation goes, there isn’t much to see here. Unless you are a tech geek and want to pull your hair out, this is a movie that should never even pop up on your radar. If you are looking for a bad tech movie with a poor understanding of the internet, Hackers and The Net are always there for you.

 

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Mazes And Monsters

Mazes And Monsters

mazesandmonsters2

Today’s feature is arguably the capstone of parental paranoia over the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons: 1982’s Mazes and Monsters.

Mazes and Monsters was adapted from a 1981 novel written by Rona Jaffe (who served as a producer on the film), which was loosely inspired by the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, which was incorrectly cited as being related to his hobby of playing fantasy role-playing games. The screenplay for the movie was written by Tom Lazarus, who also wrote the movie Stigmata and worked on television shows like Freddy’s Nightmares and Jake And The Fatman.

The director for Mazes And Monsters was Steven H. Stern, who specialized in television movies throughout his career. His other credits included Morning Glory, Rolling Vengeance, and Running, among many others.

The cinematographer for the movie was Laszlo George, who shot movies like Nothing Personal, Running, The Bear, and Rolling Vengeance.

The editor for Mazes and Monsters was Bill Parker, who cut numerous episodes of television series like Columbo, MacGyver, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Emergency!.

The musical score for Mazes And Monsters was composed by Hagood Harding, who also did music for The Creeper, Anne of Green Gables, and the animated feature The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The makeup effects for the film were done by one Linda Gill, who also provided effects work on movies like Johnny Mnemonic, Parents, PCU, Strange Brew, Alive, and Cocktail.

The cast of Mazes and Monsters includes Tom Hanks (The ‘Burbs, Catch Me If You Can, Splash, Road To Perdition, Toy Story, Turner & Hooch, Big, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, Dragnet, Philadelphia) in his first leading role, Wendy Crewson (The Good Son, The Santa Clause, Air Force One), David Wallace (General Hospital, Days Of Our Lives), Chris Makepeace (Vamp), Lloyd Wolfe Bochner (Millennium, The Lonely Lady), Anne Francis (Forbidden Planet), Murray Hamilton (Jaws, The Graduate), Susan Strasberg (The Delta Force), Louise Sorel (Days Of Our Lives), Vera Miles (The Searchers, The Wrong Man, Psycho), and Peter Donat (War of the Roses, The Game).

The plot of Mazes and Monsters is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Bound together by a desire to play “Mazes and Monsters,” Robbie and his four college classmates decide to move the board game into the local legendary cavern. Robbie starts having visions for real, and the line between reality and fantasy fuse into a harrowing adventure.

mazesandmonsters1One of the co-stars of Mazes and Monsters, Wendy Crewson, starred in another similarly-themed movie in 1983: Skullduggery. This movie follows a young man as he slowly becomes a serial killer due to the influence of a role-playing game, and it is astoundingly far worse than Mazes and Monsters.

Aside from Mazes and Monsters, the most famous thing to come out of the era of moral panic surrounding Dungeons & Dragons was a specific religious tract by Jack Chick, titled Dark Dungeons, which infamously portrays a highly fictionalized version of the game. This story was itself adapted into a tongue-in-cheek web series in 2014, thanks to crowdfunded Kickstarter.

The reception for Mazes and Monsters was generally negative, though it has become a bit of an ironic cult movie for fans of role-playing games. It currently holds a 4.2 user rating on IMDb, along with a 20% audience aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Tom Hanks is one of the few bright spots in Mazes and Monsters. While his performance is certainly hammy, his character shows flashes of genuine emotional distress and earnest anguish, which is interesting to see in the early career of such a storied actor. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast in thoroughly unremarkable. The only character who really stuck out to me was the runt of the group, who only did so due to his fascination for wearing ludicrous and varied hats, which changed from scene to scene.

Like with any movie with a definite message behind it, Mazes And Monsters is really transparent about what it has to say: that role-playing games and fantasy escapism are bad, period. This iron-clad belief doesn’t allow the screenplay much wiggle room to build the characters or portray the game in a way that is grounded in reality, which is always a weakness of this kind of movie. Also interesting is the fact that Hanks’s character is revealed to have already had issues relating to the game before the movie starts, and none of the other characters are harmed by the game. This sort of undermines the message, as clearly this problem had far more to do with Hanks’s personality and underlying issues than it had to do with the game.

Overall, this is a legendary bad movie, both for it’s role in the moral panic surrounding Dungeons and Dragons and for its placement in the storied career of Tom Hanks. That said, it is a pretty dull film on the whole. There are a few stand-out moments that are certainly entertaining, but if not for its fascinating cultural relevance as a relic of its time, I wouldn’t strongly recommend that people go back and watch it. As it stands, though, this is worth digging up for bad movie fans at the very least.

For more thoughts on the far-out movie that is Mazes and Monsters, I recommend checking out the episodes on the flick over at The Spoony Experiment and Good Bad Flicks.

The Ladykillers

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are two of the most acclaimed filmmakers working today, and are almost certainly the most lauded currently active film-making duo. Their filmography is rife with cult classics and best picture nominees alike, and at times it seems that everything that they touch turns to gold. However, that was not always the case.

In 2004, the Coen’s released a quasi-remake of the Peter Sellers / Alec Guinness movie “The Ladykillers,” starring one of the most acclaimed contemporary actors in Tom Hanks. The match seemed destined for glory, with Hanks coming off of acclaimed roles in “Catch Me If You Can” and “Road to Perdition,” and the Coens having just released a series of acclaimed films (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Intolerable Cruelty,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There”). Even T-Bone Burnett, who produced the highly acclaimed music for “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “The Big Lebowski,” was attached to work on the soundtrack.  Every aspect of the film seemed crafted with winning in mind. “The Ladykillers,” however, was not received well.

ladykillers1Despite being nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Irma P. Hall receiving wide acclaim for her role in the film, “The Ladykillers” was widely panned, and is often considered to be the weakest of the Coen brothers’ works. The film has an underwhelming 55% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, and an even lower audience score at 43%. The IMDb users have the film at a slightly higher 6.2, which is still far from a fantastic score for the Coens.

This is one of those films where I think the context of the movie is absolutely essential to understanding the critical response to it. For instance, most of the criticisms of “The Ladykillers” that you will find pulled together on Rotten Tomatoes fall into one of three categories:

1. The Coens can do better than this / Why isn’t this another “Fargo?”

‘Frankly, this doesn’t have that Coen magic.’

‘When the Coen brothers are capable of making brilliant stuff like Fargo, should they really be spending their time making pictures like The Ladykillers?’

‘There’s a hint of the usual Coen genius here…but only a hint.’

‘If you set your expectations low enough there are real laughs to be had, but coming to the Coens with low expectations somehow just feels wrong.’

2. The characters are too quirky and unbelievable

‘…a series of hoops the characters must jump through to prove just how strange they are.’

‘A lukewarm live-action Loony Tunes cartoon’

3. It isn’t as good as the original “The Ladykillers”

‘The Coen Brothers try their hand at remaking one of the best of the 1950s Alec Guinness comedies. A version that has little to offer anyone who has seen the original.’

‘Uninvolving and tedious rendition of the 1955 British classic, film is too slow at the gate with longwinded speeches bogging down the momentum.’

‘Such a slight effort compared to the original Ladykillers and past Coen works.’

Just looking at 1 and 3, you can start to see why people were so hard on “The Ladykillers.” Not only is the film a remake of a beloved classic that could not possibly be lived up to, but people had very high expectations of the Coens. Although “Intolerable Cruelty” received generally better reviews “The Ladykillers,” it also faced the perhaps unrealistic criticism by many of being “too normal” or “not Coen enough.” I personally think that the timing of “The Ladykillers,” following only a year after “Intolerable Cruelty,” likely suffered from being the second of two consecutive a-typical Coen brothers movies. Critics that tolerated “Cruelty” as an experiment by the Coens weren’t going to forgive another film that didn’t fit the preordained Coen mold, which I think is a real injustice for the film.

ladykillers2Looking at “The Ladykillers” on its own merits, it is definitely a strange, dark comedy with highly exaggerated characters. The criticism that the characters are too unrealistic and quirky isn’t exactly wrong, but I think that they all fit the generally off-kilter ambiance of the film perfectly. In any case, I don’t think that the way the characters behave or interact is an error on the part of the Coens: I think that “The Ladykillers” is exactly the movie that they intended to make. It may not be in accordance with the tastes of general audiences, but since when has that ever stopped the Coens from making whatever movie they felt like making?

“The Ladykillers” may very well be the weakest of the Coen brothers filmography, but I would say that it is far from being a bad film overall. The negative critical reception at the time was, in my opinion, unfair. I believe that both the acclaim of the Coens, the popularity of the source material, and the fatigue of the critics after the “a-Coen-esque” “Intolerable Cruelty” set this movie up to fail from the start, as the Coen’s vision of the film was never in accordance with what audiences and critics wanted or expected from them. One of my favorite negative criticisms of “The Ladykillers” listed on Rotten Tomatoes unintentionally illuminates this point:

“Increasingly, the Coens seem more intent on amusing themselves than the audience.”

Y’know what? There is nothing at all wrong with that. I think that same attitude has produced a number of more recent Coen movies, such as “Burn After Reading” and “A Simple Man.” Particularly, “A Simple Man” is not a film that ever had a chance at a wide draw, but they made it anyway. If the Coens started making movies just to amuse an audience, then they wouldn’t have the integrity and acclaim that they have today as artists in the film world. At the time of “The Ladykillers,” I don’t think audiences or critics were ready for the free-wheeling Coens that we have now. Hell, there were a good number of critics that greatly disliked “The Big Lebowski” at the time, and that film looks damn near mainstream compared with the sort of movies they have put out since then.

ladykillers3On the flip side, the negative reaction to “The Ladykillers” almost certainly directly led to one massive positive: “No Country For Old Men.” Functioning as the opposite end of the pendulum swing to “The Ladykillers,” the Coen’s follow-up was exactly the dark, brooding spectacle that people were craving from them, and the brothers reaped their rewards for it. Perhaps the Coens would have done “No Country” regardless of how “The Ladykillers” was received, but I’m willing to bet that having “The Ladykillers” blow up in their face gave them a little more incentive to give the people what they wanted, for better or worse.

Bargain Bin(ge) III

Bargain Bin(ge) Part 1
Bargain Bin(ge) Part 2

Shark Week

This is a shark movie from The Asylum. It is pretty hard to go wrong there. The Asylum makes their money doing two things: making CGI shark movies, and ripping off current blockbusters. I’m not expecting something on the level of “Sharknado”, but this one does seem to have a dumb plot to contend with the best of them. There’s a cheesy villain as well, and that is pretty much all I need to justify the one dollar I spent on this.

CyberTracker

This looks like a pretty promising B movie to me. However, the Red Letter Media folks apparently found it to be incredibly boring on “Best of the Worst”. This might be one of those cases where the trailer is crafted in such a way that it can fool you, but I am really curious to try this one out for myself. At the very least, I can see how my tolerance stacks up against the Red Letter Media crowd. I also love that the super cyborg prototype looks like the evil robot version of Sonic the Hedgehog in “Sonic the Hedgehog 2”.

cybert

Judgment

Oh my. I can’t express how excited I am to watch this movie. Not only is there a silly plot about our dark future of christian persecution, but this stars both Mr. T and one of my favorite overactors, Corbin Bernsen. “The Dentist” is still one of my favorite underrated shitty movies, and Corbin Bersen tears up his gums throughout that piece of trash from gnawing on all of the scenery. This trailer has me even more giddy about getting to this one, because the dialogue sounds just awful. I particularly like the line “I call to the stand…Jesus Christ”. That’s just gold.

Shredder

I remember watching this movie on FearNet a number of years ago. It is a pretty run-of-the-mill slasher movie, apart from the snowboarding focus. I do seem to recall a semi-interesting twist/whodunit plot that set it somewhat apart from the pack, but overall it was your typical gory slasher movie. Again, it has been a number of years, so I am interested to see how much I might have forgotten.

Thunderpants

This is a movie about a farting child. It co-stars Rupert Grint of “Harry Potter” film franchise fame, and the marketing unsurprisingly focuses squarely around him. His involvement is probably the only reason this has as wide of a DVD release as it does, hoping to cash in his popularity. It seems similar to how recent releases of “Mazes and Monsters” really emphasize the fact that it stars Tom Hanks, even though no one knew who he was then. In any case, this is a family-friendly movie about farts, so that’s pretty much what I am going to expect to see here. Lots of fart jokes.

Bigfoot

Danny Bonaduce starring in a movie is pretty hard to believe, but that is an easier pill to swallow than the CGI on the supersized Bigfoot here. Why did they feel the need to make Bigfoot so large for this anyway? I expected more of a typical Sasquatch movie, but this is pushing more into King Kong territory. In any case, I’m looking forward to the typical monster movie cheese here. I’m also curious if they push the environmental message to “Birdemic” levels, and if they will find some way to make destroying Mt. Rushmore interesting.

Mazes and Monsters

This movie will make you wonder how Tom Hanks ever wound up with a career. This absolute stinker of a movie plays off of the paranoia surrounding the popularity of “Dungeons and Dragons” back in the day, and comes out somehow more nauseating than the classic Jack Chick tract on the subject. Tom Hanks hams it up throughout the movie as the lead character, and has a number of notable scenes in this one that are hard to forget. All of the dialogue in the movie is atrocious from what I have seen in reviews, but I haven’t actually sat through this monster myself. I’m looking forward to rolling the dice on this one.

Slipstream (2007)

I mentioned in a previous Bargain Bin(ge) that there are a number of shitty movies out there with the title “Slipstream”. As luck would have it, I have now found the other two movies with the title (there is a fourth as well according to IMDb, but I don’t think any copies actually exist).

This one seems to me to be Anthony Hopkins’s dream project. Anytime someone writes/directs/stars, you have to wonder if they might have too much invested in the movie to cut at it objectively. Some people apparently really appreciated this as a surreal film, but the general consensus is that it doesn’t quite hit the mark, and is just a confusing and jumbled mess. I am really curious about it myself. The concept sounds really cool, and the cast is all pretty competent (maybe not Slater), but I could see how it could trip over itself.

Slipstream (1989)

Another “Slipstream”! This one is more of a straight B-movie than the previously mentioned films of the same name. This one features Bill Paxton and Mark Hamill in a futuristic wasteland, and strikes me initially as being a pretty interesting movie. The chemistry between Paxton and Hamill seems pretty solid from the trailer, and I like how this movie seems to be drawing from multiple genres for inspiration. I am pretty surprised I hadn’t heard of this one, because it looks like it has some great potential for unintentional entertainment at the very least.

She Gods of Shark Reef

I’ve never caught this one before, but it looks like more or less the usual Roger Corman fare. I actually found this the day after I watched the above commentary by Corman on this film’s trailer. There isn’t a whole lot of information about the film revealed in there, but it is nice to know that Corman enjoyed his time filming in Hawaii. I am curious exactly how one “controls” a shark, though.