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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Film Review: Ghostbusters (dir by Paul Feig)


Ghostbusters

If you need any further proof that 2016 is a screwed-up year, just consider the fact that Ghostbusters, an entertaining but ultimately rather mild-mannered and innocuous summer action/comedy, has become the center of one of the biggest controversies of the year.

It all started, of course, when the reboot was first announced.  Fanboys reacted with outrage, offended that Hollywood would even consider remaking a film that was apparently one of the defining moments of their childhood.  Then, it was announced that Ghostbusters would feature an all-female cast and it would be directed by Paul Feig, the director of Bridesmaids.  The howls of outrage grew even louder.  Then that infamous trailer was released and even I felt that trailer sucked.  I wasn not alone because the trailer quickly became one of the most disliked videos in the history of YouTube.  Reading the comments underneath that trailer was literally like finding yourself trapped in a production of Marat/Sade.

Suddenly, in the eyes of very vocal group of internet trolls, the reboot of Ghostbusters went from being simply another dubious idea to being a crime against humanity.  And the trolls were so obnoxious that they managed to turn this big-budget, studio-backed production into an underdog.  Here was a movie directed by one of Hollywood’s biggest directors and starring some of Hollywood’s hottest stars and suddenly, it had become David in a biblical showdown with the Goliaths of internet.

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And then it happened.  Earlier last week, Ghostbusters was finally screened for critics.  The first reviews started to come in and they were surprisingly positive.  In fact, they were so positive that I found myself distrusting them.  I found myself wondering if critics were reacting to the film or if they were simply trying to prove that they were better than the trolls who leave obscene comments on YouTube.

Which was true, I wondered.  Was Ghostbusters the worst film ever made or was it the greatest?  Or was it perhaps just possible that Ghostbusters would turn out to be a typical summer film?

With all the controversy, it’s tempting to overpraise a film like Ghostbusters.  Battle lines have been drawn and sometimes, I feel as if I’m being told that failing to declare Ghostbusters to be the greatest and most important comedy of all time is the equivalent of letting the trolls win.

Well, that’s not true.  Ghostbusters is not the greatest or the most important comedy of all time but you know what?  Ghostbusters is good.  Ghostbusters is entertaining.  Especially during the first half, it’s full of laugh out loud moments.  At times, Ghostbusters is everything that you could hope for.

No, it’s not a perfect film.  Paul Feig is a great comedy director but, in this film at least, his direction of the big action sequences often feels uninspired (especially when compared to his previous work on Spy).  The final fourth of the film gets bogged down in CGI and the film goes from being a clever comedy to being just another summer spectacle.  Even the one-liners, which flowed so naturally at the start of the film, feel forced during the final half of the film.  Ghostbusters is good but it never quite becomes great.

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Here’s what did work: the cast.  As he previously proved with Bridesmaids, Paul Feig is a director who is uniquely skilled at creating and showcasing a strong comedic ensemble.  Kristen Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, who is denied tenure at Columbia when it is discovered that a book she wrote on the paranormal has been republished and is being sold, on Amazon, by her former best friend, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy).  When Erin goes to confront Abby, she not only meets Abby’s newest colleague, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) but she also gets dragged into investigating an actual case of paranormal activity..  Soon, Erin, Abby, and Holtzmann are investigating hauntings and capturing ghosts, all with the secret approval of the Mayor of New York (Andy Garcia).  Of course, for PR reasons, the mayor’s office has to continually disavow the Ghostbusters and occasionally have them arrested.  Working alongside the three scientists are Patty (Leslie Jones), who apparently knows the history of every building in New York, and Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), their adorably stupid receptionist.

As written, both Patty and Kevin are fairly thin characters.  Kevin’s the handsome dumb guy.  Patty is streetwise and sassy.  But both Hemsworth and Jones give such enthusiastic and sincere performances that they transcend the stereotypical nature of their roles.  At times, Kevin runs the risk of becoming too cartoonish for even a Ghostbusters film.  But if you can’t laugh at Chris Hemsworth explaining that he took the lenses out of his glasses because they were always getting dirty, what can you laugh at?

Erin is an interesting character and Kristen Wiig deserves a lot of credit for her performance.  Erin is actually given a fairly affecting backstory, centering around how she was haunted by the ghost of the old woman who used to live next door to her.  Erin is a former believer, someone who, in order to succeed in the “real” world, gave up her beliefs and conformed to the expectations of society.  When she actually meets a ghost, it’s more than just a confirmation of the supernatural.  It’s a chance for Erin to finally embrace who she truly is and what she truly cares about.  When she and the other ghostbusters chase after evil spirits, Erin is not just doing a job.  Instead, she’s finally found somewhere where she belongs.  She no longer has to pretend to be someone that she isn’t.  Wiig plays the role with just the right touch of neurotic wonder.  She grounds the entire film.

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But the true star of the film is Kate McKinnon.  Whether she’s cheerfully smiling as a ghost vomits all over her colleagues or cheerfully explaining how easily their equipment could kill them all, Holtzmann is the greatest character in the film and McKinnon gives the best performance.  If Wiig grounds the film, McKinnon provides it with a truly demented soul.

The first half of the movie, which focuses on the relationships between the characters and features snappy and endlessly quotable dialogue, is wonderful and I was thrilled while watching it, convinced that the entire movie would be as good as the first hour.  However, the second half of the film gets bogged down in a rather predictable plot and the final action sequences could have just as easily been lifted from Pixels or one of The Avengers movies.  The surviving cast of the original Ghostbusters all show up in cameos that are, at best, inoffensive and, at worst, groan-worthy.  The end result is rather uneven.  If the film had maintained the momentum of that first hour, it would be a classic.  But that second half transforms it into just another entertaining but not quite memorable summer action film.

That said, Paul Feig is an excellent comedy director and let’s hope that he never gets so self-important that he ends up turning into Jay Roach.  Hopefully, if there is a sequel, Feig will return to direct it and Kate McKinnon will have an even bigger role.

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