Film Review: The Circle (dir by James Ponsoldt)


Earlier today, I got off work early and I finally saw The Circle!

The Circle is a film that I’ve been curious about for a while.  It’s based on a novel by Dave Eggers, a book that I absolutely loved when I first read it.  It stars Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, and John Boyega.  It’s directed by James Ponsoldt, who may not be a household name but who has previously directed such beloved films as The Spectacular Now and The End of The Tour.  It sounded like a film to which everyone should have been looking forward but instead, even with Watson appearing in the blockbuster Beauty and the Beast at the same time, The Circle opened with very little fanfare.

Then the reviews came out and, with a few notable exceptions, they were all negative.  I did a little research and I discovered that, though filming was initially completed in 2015, The Circle spent a year and a half sitting on the shelf.  In January of this year, 16 months after shooting wrapped, a few scenes were refilmed.  That’s never a good sign.  One gets the feeling that, if not for John Boyega’s role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the excitement over Emma Watson starring in Beauty and the Beast, The Circle probably would have ended up going straight to VOD.

But here’s the thing.  I loved the book.  The book managed to put a new spin on the otherwise tired topic of how social media has changed our way of looking at the world.  The book was an Orwellian masterpiece, an homage to 1984 by a writer who, as opposed to most people who are currently claiming to appreciate the novel’s dark vision, understood what George Orwell was actually saying.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the easier it was for me to assume that most critics probably missed the point of the movie.  It was entirely possible, I decided, that the negative reaction to The Circle had to do with audiences not knowing how to deal with a movie that truly challenged their assumptions.  Naively, I assumed that the story and the themes of the novel had been brought to the screen and the critics couldn’t handle it.

Well, as I said earlier, I finally saw The Circle for myself and it turns out that I was wrong.  The Circle is an absolute mess.  Despite being co-written by Dave Eggers, this film actually has very little in common with the novel that it’s based on.  The novel was a sharply satiric portrait of a world that has become brainwashed by technology and social media.  The movie is a nagging anti-internet screed that would have felt out-of-touch in 2002.  The book ends with a powerful “and he loved Big Brother” moment.  The movie ends on a note that feels so completely false that you just know it was studio mandated.

Emma Watson plays Mae Hubbard, a recent college grad whose degree in Art History is pretty much going to waste.  (Speaking as the proud recipient of an Art History degree, I can verify that the film gets this detail absolutely right.)  Through a college friend named Annie (Karen Gillian, for once not having to disguise her Scottish accent), Mae gets a job working for The Circle, an all-powerful internet company that is pretty obviously based on Google Plus.  Through a series of silly events, Mae becomes the public face of The Circle.  The Circle wants to use technology (cameras everywhere, social media addiction, everyone carries tablet, you must have a credit card to join The Circle, oh my!) to do away with the concept of privacy.  When everyone is a member of the Circle, no one will be a stranger.  No one will have any privacy.  Anyone can be found.  Anyone can be watched.  And, of course, it’ll be easier to tell everyone what to think and who to support…

…and all of this would be shocking if The Circle had been made in a time before Twitter and Facebook.

Anyway!  The Circle was founded by three men.  Two of them (Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt) are totally sinister.  Oswalt glowers in the background.  Hanks appears to channeling Christoph Waltz.  Meanwhile, the third man (John Boyega) has become disillusioned with The Circle.  He shows up occasionally, standing in the background and watching as Mae does stuff.

Throughout the film, Tom Hanks gives lectures to his employees.  They all applaud as he introduced the latest technology from The Circle.  These scenes are fun because it looks like Tom Hanks is appearing in a commercial for The Criterion Collection.

Anyway, Mae loves the brave new world but a few people don’t.  Her parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly) are skeptical.  Though his role is small, Bill Paxton gave a good performance in this, his latest released film.  I got a bit emotional watching him, especially as he was playing a character struggling with his own poor health.  Ellar Coltrane, of Boyhood fame, plays the other voice of skepticism, Mae’s childhood friend who wants to live off the grid.  Coltrane is supposed to be the voice of reason but he gives such a strange and awkward performance that the main thing that comes across is that Luddites are weird.

Actually, with the exception of Bill Paxton and Karen Gillan, it’s hard to think of anyone who actually gives a good performance in The Circle.  (This is especially shocking when you consider that, in the past, Ponsoldt has proven himself to be an excellent director when it comes to getting noteworthy work from his cast.)  Everyone comes across like they were wishing that they were somewhere else.  Emma Watson, in particular, is bad.  That said, in her defense, Watson is also totally miscast.  Mae is meant to be someone searching for an identity in an overly complicated world but Watson plays her as just being dourly earnest.  As played by Watson, Mae’s just the boring person that you dread having to take a class with.  Neither Watson nor the film, as a whole, seems to be sure who exactly Mae is.  (In the novel, the character works because Mae isn’t meant to be likable.  The film, however, tries to have it both ways, making her both a true believer in the Circle and a sympathetic character.  It doesn’t work.)

For that matter, the film also appears to be confused as to just why exactly Hanks and Oswalt are villains.  We know that we’re supposed to distrust them because Hanks is way too quick to smile and Oswalt is always standing in the background and looking like he’s just deliberately killed all of his Sims.  But how evil are they actually supposed to be?  What are the stakes?  The film doesn’t appear to be sure.

Now, I’m not totally trashing The Circle.  There were a few moments that I did like.  I enjoyed the scenes that were meant to illustrate the cult-like atmosphere at the Circle.  There’s a hilarious scene where two enthusiastic Circle employees interrogate Mae as to why she never told them that she enjoys kayaking.  (“I enjoy kayaking!  We could have kayaked together!”)  And there’s another scene where Hanks and Oswalt talk about how, if countries allow The Circle to run their elections, they could then require everyone to join The Circle and then make voting mandatory.  Mandatory Voting is a really terrible idea, the type that is always embraced by people who should know better.  I appreciated seeing the idea exposed for being the ticket to totalitarianism that it truly is.

But, for the most part, The Circle was just a mess.  Like a lot of cautionary tales (especially ones dealing with the internet), The Circle will probably eventually become a bit of a camp classic.  But for now, everyone involved with the film has done better work in the past and, hopefully, will continue to do so in the future.

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Beauty and the Beast Cordially Invites You


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Anyone who grew up during the late 80’s and through the early 90’s saw the return to it’s Golden Age of Disney animation. The Little Mermaid was the first to start it, but it was the follow-up animated film Beauty and the Beast which announced loudly that Disney was back after years upon years of lackluster and underwhelming animated films.

Disney is now in the midst of another era of dominating the film industry with both it’s live-action and animated films. Recent years saw Disney take some of its classic animated films of the past and adapt them into live-action films. We’ve gotten live-action version of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty (redone as Maleficent)

Next in line is the upcoming live-action adaptation of Disney’s own animated film (which itself was an adaptation of earlier films of the same title and premise) of Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and Luke Evans taking on the three iconic roles of Belle, the Beast and Gaston.

Beauty and the Beast is set to invite all as its guests on March 17, 2017.

Beauty and the Beast Teases an Invitation


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Walt Disney Studios continues to adapt their classic animated films into live-action and the next in line is 1991’s classic film, Beauty and the Beast.

This animated film was an instant classic and the first to be nominated outside of the Best Animated Film category in the Academy Awards. It was nominated for Best Picture and, for some, it truly deserve not just the nomination but should’ve won the Best Picture award that year.

The teaser trailer makes great use of the music written and composed by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman for the film. We get both the prologue and the title track from the 1991 soundtrack in the teaser trailer. For those who saw the original animated film during it’s original first run in 1991 should be taken back to those days when Beauty and the Beast enchanted a global audience.

With a stellar cast led by Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and Luke Evans, this live-action adaptation has a lot to live up to.

Beauty and the Beast is set to invite all as its guests on March 17, 2017.

So, was Noah good or not?


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Was Noah a good movie or not?

That’s a question that was first asked way back in March.  At the time, the answer depended on who you asked.  For instance, Noah is one of Arleigh’s favorite films of the year.  My reaction, however, was far more mixed.  Noah was one of those movies that I thought I would review as soon as I watched it but that proved to be a lot more difficult than I expected.  As I found myself wondering what I should say in my review, it became very apparent to me that I wasn’t sure whether I liked the film or not.

By the time that I finally decided that I was, overall, disappointed by Darren Aronofsky’s controversial and spiritual-but-not-quite-biblical version of the Deluge, over a month had passed and we had all moved on to different movies.

And so that review remained unwritten.  And, at first, I thought it wouldn’t matter.  As much as I try to review every single movie that I see, I know that the world is not going to end if I miss a film or two.  After all, I’ve never specifically written down just how much I hated the latest Transformers movie and the world has yet to plunge into the sun…

And yet, for all of its flaws and the fact that it left me feeling underwhelmed, Noah has stuck in my mind in a way that many of the films that I saw this year have not.  It would be a struggle for me to remember much of anything about Dracula Untold but Noah Noah has stayed with me.

Thinking back, it’s easy for me to say what did not work about Noah.

As opposed to Aronofsky’s best films (Requiem for A Dream, The Wrestler, and my beloved Black Swan), Noah felt oddly paced with certain scenes ending too quickly while other scenes seemed to drag on forever.

The film’s environmental message was delivered with such a heavy hand that it ultimately did not make much of a difference whether you agreed or not.  For a film that went out of its way to establish itself as not being a traditional biblical film, Noah was certainly preachy.

While the film deserves credit for not flinching in its portrait of a surly and self-righteous Noah, it still doesn’t change the fact that the movie was essentially 138 minutes spent with a very unlikable character.

Anthony Hopkins gave perhaps the worst performance of his career as Methuselah.  In the role of Tubal-Cain, Ray Winstone was such a one-dimensional villain that I half expected him to invent trains just so he could tie Emma Watson to the tracks.

And, of course, there were the Watchers — fallen angels who had been turned into sentient piles of stone by a vengeful God.  I know that some people loved the Watchers but to me, they looked ludicrous…

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And yet, that’s the reason why we love Darren Aronofsky, isn’t it?

Obviously, it was a risk to portray the fallen angels as being a bunch of talking rocks.  It was also a risk to take a character who is mentioned only once in the book of Genesis — in this case, Tubal-Cain — and then use that character as a representation of everything that’s wrong with the human race.  It was a risk to make a “biblical” film that openly questioned both the existence and wisdom of God.  We expect and demand that directors take risks but, at the same time, we also want to ridicule and judge when those risks don’t work out.  That’s the issue that we, as film lovers, often face.  Do we celebrate and perhaps excuse a director for his intentions or do we solely judge him based on the results?

And the thing with Noah is that, as much as the movie did not work for me, it also did work for me.  For all of those flaws that I listed above, Noah is full of images that are so beautiful and so memorable that I can still visualize them as if I saw them yesterday:

Noah and his sons walk across a gray and blasted landscape, stopping just long enough to stare at a foreboding city in the distance.

Noah walks through a decadent settlement and briefly, this somber film is so full of bright colors and flamboyant characters that the viewer is almost as overwhelmed as Noah.

That Ark, looking small and isolated, floating across an endless blue ocean.

And finally, Noah talking about the horrors of humanity and briefly, we see that the shadows that he’s visualizing are dressed in modern clothing.

For all of my issues with Noah, it’s such a visually impressive film and takes so many risks that I can’t help but respect it.  I don’t consider it to be a great film but, after all this time, I can say that it’s a film that only a true artist could make.

And, considering the current state of American film, that’s one of the best compliments that one can give.

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Back to School #76: The Bling Ring (dir by Sofia Coppola)


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The Bling Ring was one of the more divisive films of 2013.  As often seems to happen with the work of Sofia Coppola, viewers either loved it as a stylish look at America’s self-destructive love affair with fame or else they felt that it was a shallow celebration of the very lifestyle that it claimed to be satirizing.  Personally, I felt it was both, which is one reason why I enjoyed The Bling Ring.

The Bling Ring is based on the true story of a bunch of California teenagers who made headlines by breaking into the mansions of their idols.  Over the course of several months, they burglarized everyone from Paris Hilton to Lindsay Lohan to Orlando Bloom.  While they may have been smart enough to use social media to discover when their targets would be out of town, they weren’t smart enough to not use social media to brag about their crimes.  Eventually, they were arrested and, for a brief period of time, they were as famous as the people they robbed.  One of them even got her own reality show out of the whole thing.  I watched an episode or two.  It wasn’t very good.

Though the names have been changed, Coppola pretty much tells the story as it happened.  New kid in school Marc (Israel Broussard) meets Rebecca (Kate Chang), who is obsessed with celebrities.  Rebecca is also something of an obsessive thief and soon, she and Marc are breaking into the houses of their rich neighbors and acquaintances, stealing money, and going on shopping sprees.  Their thievery allows them to leave a lifestyle where every day is just another makeover montage from a romantic comedy.  Eventually, they are joined by Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien).

One thing that quickly becomes clear is that the members of the Bling Ring are not exactly the smartest group of thieves around.  Along with getting increasingly reckless while committing their crimes, they also make the mistake of showing off stolen jewelry at parties and posting pictures of Facebook.  When the police eventually do track them down, Marc is a convenient scapegoat, Rebecca is hiding out in Las Vegas with her father, and Nicki becomes a minor celebrity as she and her mother exploit her newfound notoriety for all the publicity that they can get.

I liked The Bling Ring.  It’s stylish, all of the actors look good and they’re all wearing beautiful outfits, and I loved seeing all of the houses that they broke into.  (Some of the film was shot in the actual residences that were burglarized.)  On the one hand, it doesn’t really dig too deeply into the nature of fame in America but, on the other hand, does it really need to?  We all know the culture that we live in and, at its best, The Bling Ring forces us to ask whether we would rather be one of the people on the outside looking in or if we would want to be one of the people who broke in by any means necessary.

Add to that, it has a great soundtrack!

(Now, as I said, not everyone agrees with me about The Bling Ring.  For an opposite reaction to The Bling Ring, check out Ryan The Trash Film Guru’s review.)

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Back to School #74: The Perks of Being A Wallflower (dir by Stephen Chbosky)


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“We are infinite.” — Charlie (Logan Lerman) in The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012)

So, here’s the thing.  In general, I try not to judge people.  I have friends (and family) of all races, religion, and political ideologies.  I may not always agree with you but I will always respect your right to disagree.  With that being said, if you don’t love the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, then I’m worried about you.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is based on a novel that I read and loved right before I entered high school.  In fact, I loved the novel so much that I had my doubts about whether or not the film could do it justice.  Of course, if I had been paying attention, I would have noticed that the film was directed by the same man who wrote the book, Stephen Chbosky.  Everything that made Wallflower such a powerful book — the honesty, the understanding of teen angst, the underlying sadness — is perfectly captured in the film.

Wallflower tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a painfully shy and emotionally sensitive high school freshman.  Charlie starts the school year under the weight of two tragedies — the suicide of his best friend and the death of his aunt.  Because he’s so shy, Charlie struggles to fit in and make friends, though he does find a mentor of sorts in his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd, playing the type of teacher that we all wish we could have had in high school).

Charlie, however, does not find a mentor in shop class, which is taught by Mr. Callahan (Tom Freaking Savini!).  However, he does meet Patrick (Ezra Miller), a witty and cynical senior who, because he’s openly gay, is as much of an outcast as Charlie.  Patrick introduces Charlie to Sam (Emma Watson).  Charlie assumes that Sam and Patrick are dating (especially after he sees them dancing together) but later he learns that they are actually stepsiblings and that Patrick is secretly seeing a closeted jock named Brad (Johnny Simmons).  That works out well for Charlie because he has a crush on the free-spirited Sam.

The rest of the film follows Charlie as he survives his first year in school and Patrick and Sam as they complete their final year.  It’s a long but exciting year in which Charlie discovers everything from drugs to the mysteries of sex to the pleasures of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Even more importantly, it’s a year that forces Charlie to confront his own unresolved emotional issues.

Sensitively acted by the three leads and featuring a great soundtrack, The Perks of Being A Wallflower is one of the best films about growing up that I’ve ever seen.  For me, there is no scene that best captures everything that’s great about being young than the scene where Sam, upon hearing David Bowie’s Heroes on the radio, demands to be driving through a tunnel.  It’s a great scene from a great movie that celebrates both just how scary and amazing it is to have your entire life ahead of you and the special friendships that help us survive.

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Dance Scenes That I Love: The Perks of Being A Wallflower


I really probably shouldn’t share this scene until I actually post my review of The Perks of Being A Wallflower.  But I’ve still  got three other Back to School films to review before I get to Perks and I want to share this scene now!  In this dance scene that I love, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller take over the dance floor in spectacular fashion!