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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Playing Catch-Up: The End of the Tour (dir by James Ponsoldt) and Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)


Two of the best films released last year dealt with troubled artists.

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The End of the Tour opens in 2008, with a writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) getting a call that the famous and acclaimed author, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), has committed suicide.  After learning of the tragedy, Lipsky remembers a few days that he spent interviewing Wallace 12 years earlier.  Wallace had just published his best known work, Infinite Jest.  At the time, Lipsky himself was a struggling writer and he approached Wallace with a combination of admiration and professional envy.  Lipsky hoped that, by interviewing Wallace, he could somehow discover the intangible quality that separates a great writer from a merely good one.

Almost the entire film is made up of Lipsky’s conversations with Wallace.  We watch as both the somewhat reclusive Wallace (who seems both bemused and, at times, annoyed with his sudden fame) warms up to Lipsky and as Lipsky forces himself to admit that Wallace might actually be a genius.  There are a few conflicts, mostly coming from the contrast between the withdrawn Wallace and the much more verbose Lipsky.  Lipsky’s editor (Ron Livingston) continually pressures him to ask Wallace about rumors that Wallace was once a drug addict.  But, for the most part, it’s a rather low-key film, one that’s more interested in exploring ideas than melodrama.  It’s also a perfect example of what can be accomplished by a great director and two actors who are totally committed to their roles.  Jason Segel, especially, gives the performance of his career so far.

The shadow of Wallace’s suicide hangs over the entire film.  Throughout their conversation, Wallace drops hints about his own history with depression.  Much as Lipsky must have done after Wallace’s suicide, we find ourselves looking for clues to explain his death.  But ultimately, Wallace remains a fascinating enigma in both life and death.

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Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)

Love & Mercy opens with Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) selling a car to a polite but nervous man (John Cusack).  The man sits in the car with her and rambles for a bit, mentioning that his brother has recently died.  Soon, the man’s doctor, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), shows up and Melinda learns that the man is Brian Wilson, a musician and songwriter who is famous for co-founding The Beach Boys.  After having a nervous breakdown decades before, Brian is now a recluse.  He and Melinda start a tentative relationship and Melinda quickly discovers that Brian is literally being held prisoner by the manipulative Dr. Landy.

Throughout the film, we are presented with flashbacks to the 1960s and we watch as a young Brian (Paul Dano) deals with both the pressures of fame and his own relationship with his tyrannical father (who, in an interesting parallel to Brian’s later relationship with Landy, is also Brian’s manager).  As Brian struggles to maintain his grip on reality, he obsesses on creating “the greatest album ever.”

Love & Mercy is an enormously affecting story about both the isolation of genius and the redeeming power of love.  Whether he’s played by Cusack or Dano, Brian Wilson remains a fascinating and tragic figure.  It’s hard to say whether Cusack or Dano gives the better performance.  Indeed, they both seem to be so perfectly in sync with each other that you never doubt that the character played by Paul Dano will eventually grow up to become the character played by John Cusack.  Both of them do some of the best work of their careers in Love & Mercy.

Lisa’s Way Too Early Oscar Predictions For April


Best Picture

Black Mass

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

The End of the Tour

Grandma

The Hateful Eight

In The Heart of the Sea

The Revenant

The Walk

Woman in Gold

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

Michael Fassebender in Steve Jobs

Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies

Jason Segel in The End of the Tour

Best Actress

Blythe Danner in I’ll See You In My Dreams

Jennifer Lawrence in Joy

Helen Mirren in Woman in Gold

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Lily Tomlin in Grandma

Best Supporting Actor

Jim Broadbent in Brooklyn

Albert Brooks in Concussion

Paul Dano in Love and Mercy

Tom Hardy in The Revenant

Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight

Best Supporting Actress

Julia Garner in Grandma

Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight

Kristin Scott Thomas in Suite Francaise

Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria

Meryl Steeep in Suffragette

Best Director

John Crowley for Brooklyn

Ron Howard for In The Heart of the Sea

James Ponsoldt for The End of the Tour

Steven Spielberg for Bridge of Spies

Robert Zemeckis for The Walk

Lisa’s Way Too Early Oscar Predictions for March


The-Walk-movie-poster

Best Picture

Black Mass

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

The End of the Tour

Grandma

The Hateful Eight

In The Heart of the Sea

The Revenant

The Walk

Woman in Gold

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

Michael Fassebender in Steve Jobs

Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies

Jason Segel in The End of the Tour

Best Actress

Blythe Danner in I’ll See You In My Dreams

Jennifer Lawrence in Joy

Helen Mirren in Woman in Gold

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Lily Tomlin in Grandma

Best Supporting Actor

Jim Broadbent in Brooklyn

Albert Brooks in Concussion

Paul Dano in Love and Mercy

Tom Hardy in The Revenant

Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight

Best Supporting Actress

Julia Garner in Grandma

Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight

Kristin Scott Thomas in Suite Francaise

Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria

Meryl Steeep in Suffragette

Best Director

John Crowley for Brooklyn

Ron Howard for In The Heart of the Sea

James Ponsoldt for The End of the Tour

Steven Spielberg for Bridge of Spies

Robert Zemeckis for The Walk

Lisa’s Way Too Early Oscar Predictions For February


Brooklyn

Well, tonight’s the night!  Soon, we will know which 2014 films have won Oscars.

And, as soon as the ceremony ends, it will be time to start speculating about which 2015 films will be nominated next year!  I am sharing and updating my predictions on a monthly basis and below you’ll find my latest predictions.  You can read my predictions for January by clicking here.

Some of these films and performers — like End of the Tour and Grandma — were acclaimed at Sundance.  (The recently concluded Berlin Film Festival, on the other hand, mostly just served to confirm that Knight of Cups and Queen of the Desert will probably not be contenders.)  Kristen Stewart recently won a Cesar Award for Clouds of Sils Maria.  Otherwise, the majority of predictions below are the results of my own wild guesses.

A year from now, we’ll probably look back at these predictions and laugh.

Best Picture

Black Mass

Brooklyn

The End of the Tour

Grandma

The Hateful Eight

In The Heart of the Sea

The Revenant

St. James Place

The Walk

Woman in Gold

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

Matt Damon in The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

Michael Fassebender in Steve Jobs

Jason Segel in The End of the Tour

Best Actress

Blythe Danner in I’ll See You In My Dreams

Jennifer Lawrence in Joy

Helen Mirren in Woman in Gold

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Lily Tomlin in Grandma

Best Supporting Actor

Jim Broadbent in Brooklyn

Albert Brooks in Concussion

Paul Dano in Love and Mercy

Tom Hardy in The Revenant

Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight

Best Supporting Actress

Julia Garner in Grandma

Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight

Kristin Scott Thomas in Suite Francaise

Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria

Meryl Steeep in Suffragette

Best Director

John Crowley for Brooklyn

Ron Howard for In The Heart of the Sea

James Ponsoldt for The End of the Tour

Steven Spielberg for St. James Place

Robert Zemeckis for The Walk

Clouds of Sils Maria

Back to School #75: The Spectacular Now (dir by James Ponsoldt)


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Though the film was embraced by critics and performed fairly well at the box office, it’s hard not to feel that The Spectacular Now was one of the more overlooked films of 2013.  For all of its acclaim, it’s a film that was not only ignored at Oscar time but which also rarely seemed to feature much in Oscar speculation.  That’s a shame but not particularly surprising.  With a few notable exceptions (American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show, Ordinary People, and Juno, for example), films about teenagers are usually ignored by the Academy, even if the film in question is as good as either Easy A or The Spectacular Now.

In fact, I would argue that, along with being one of the best films of 2013, The Spectacular Now is a Say Anything… for my generation.

The Spectacular Now follows two teenagers over the course of their senior year in high school.  Sutter Kane (Miles Teller) is one of the most popular kids at school.  He’s charming, he’s funny, and — perhaps not surprisingly — he’s also deeply troubled. He’s angry that his father is no longer in his life and he often takes his anger out on his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh).   He works as a salesman at a men’s clothing store where his boss (Bob Odenkirk) is willing to overlook the fact that Sutter often comes into work drunk.  Sutter, you see, also happens to have a slight drinking problem that is slowly but surely transforming into full-blown alcoholism.

When Sutter is dumped by his long-time girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), he goes on a drinking binge that only ends with him being woken up on a stranger’s lawn by Aimee (Shailene Woodley).  Aimee is one of Sutter’s classmates and is the complete opposite of most of Sutter’s friends.  Aimee is shy, doesn’t drink, and prefers to spend her time reading manga.

As you can probably guess, Sutter and Aimee do become a couple.  And yes, Sutter does help Aimee come out of her shell and Aimee does help Sutter to start to deal with all of the pain and anger that he attempts to hide.  You can probably predict all of that but what you can’t predict is just how likable and believable both Teller and Woodley are as a couple.  You believe in their relationship and the film handles it (including the scene where they have sex for the first time) with an unusual amount of sensitivity.

There’s an extended sequence towards the end of the film where Sutter and Aimee finally get to meet Sutter’s father.  At first, you want to be as exciting and as optimistic as Sutter is.  This is especially true once you discover that his father is being played by Kyle Chandler, who is one of those actors that you just instinctively want to like.  Of course, Sutter’s father turns out not to be the hero that Sutter was expecting to meet and it’s simply devastating, for both the viewers and the characters.  I’ve always felt that it takes a certain amount of courage for an actor to play a truly bad character.  (By bad, I don’t mean evil as much as I mean just the type of fuckup that we’ve all known and by which we’ve all been let down.)  Chandler has that courage.

I guess it would be a bit predictable for me to wrap this up by saying The Spectacular Now is a spectacular film.  So, instead, I’ll just recommend that you see it.

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