REVIEW: The Circle

4 08 2017

Dave Eggers’ novel “The Circle” ran 491 pages. The movie adaptation of the book, co-written with director James Ponsoldt, runs a little over 100 minutes (when you exclude the credits). It appears they made the executive decision to tame that imposing length by keeping the events of the plot but dulling the nuances of the Juvenalian satire.

The Circle” maintains so much of the reluctance of the social media era that I found so compelling upon reading two years ago (ironically before I took a job working in social media). Eggers’ eponymous technology company powerhouse combines the compulsive networking capabilities of Facebook, the Big Brother-like tracking of Google and the hardware prowess of Apple into one frightening hydra. Perhaps as a matter of budget (just $18 million), Ponsoldt can never quite translate this behemoth into visual terms. On the page, Eggers can conjure up a compound of fanciful imagination to represent The Circle’s reach. On screen … Ponsoldt shows us a Beck concert for the staffers.

As Emma Watson’s Mae Holland begins her tenure at The Circle as a low-level gopher, she comes to embody a puzzling paradox of the digital age. Even as our awareness grows of the debilitating effect of a life lived online, so does these companies’ ability to keep us trapped. Yet rather than following Eggers’ original line of thought to its logical, terrifying conclusion, the film chickens out at the end. “The Circle” betrays its literary origins, leaving behind a hollow shell of platitudes spouted by characters who act and sound like little more than the function they occupy in the narrative.

This movie could be so much more because the book its based on actually is. If the film were a straight bomb, it might be easier to write off. Yet Ponsoldt’s work arguably does the most damage by being average. It’s not a mistranslation so much as it’s just a half-hearted one. C+

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REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast

20 03 2017

From their first moments, all movies start establishing a contract with their audience to set the framework of guidelines and conventions through which to view the work. This might sound like advanced film theory – it’s not. And for all those who just want to know if Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” is worth seeing, this is relevant. These implicit contracts are some of the first things you factor into your decisions about a movie’s quality because they relate to whether or not you believe their created worlds.

Fictional films present distortions of observable reality that ask for various suspensions of normal existence. Conveniently, one of the easiest illustrations of this principle resides in the musical genre. We generally accept that people do not burst out into song as a mode of expression. If they do in a film, though, why? Is it a sung-through musical like “Les Misérables,” where music is the only mode of communication? Is it like “La La Land,” where song and dance numbers provide an expressionistic commentary? Is it more akin to “Into the Woods,” where moments of heightened emotion cause the characters to break out in a catchy melody?

The animated musicals of the so-called “Disney Renaissance” from 1989 to 1999 hinged on a fairly interesting set of conventions. The films borrowed heavily from the Broadway musical format but also took wild flights of animated fancy. Their limitation was not the confines of a stage but the edges of imagination. It’s no wonder these films carved out such a special place in the millennial consciousness.

But when it comes to adapting “Beauty and the Beast” into a live-action feature, musical numbers and all, director Bill Condon had a special challenge that Kenneth Branagh did not face in his 2015 version of “Cinderella.” Fans of the 1991 animated classic expect a certain fidelity to the original film. But so much of what made that film so effervescently delightful simply does not translate easily to a world that more closely resembles our own.

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REVIEW: Noah

28 07 2014

After “Black Swan” topped my best of 2010 list, Darren Aronofsky could have made a film about virtually anything, and I would turn out to see it.  From the earliest announcement of Aronofsky’s “Noah” in 2011, I was deliriously excited to see his distinct spin on the well-known Biblical story.

I maintained faith in spite of nearly every media report drumming up controversy about the film.  It became impossible to escape stories that claimed Aronofsky was replacing the original narrative with an environmental message, or that he was purging God from the film entirely.  Going in, I had the impression that I was bound to be offended by something in “Noah,” no matter how artfully Aronofsky presented it.

As it turns out, nothing that generated headlines about the film offended me.  What did, however, was the simple and rudimentary script of “Noah.”  It felt like Aronofsky went into production with the first draft for something that shows potential for greatness but achieves little of it.

As a character, Noah feels remarkably incomplete and incoherent.  His motivations are unclear, and I’m not sure whether to interpret that as Aronofsky saying God is confused … or whether Aronofsky himself is confused.  Russell Crowe turns in a rather schizoid performance, grappling with the seeming non-sequiturs of his character as much as he is with anything relating to God.

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REVIEW: The Bling Ring

3 08 2013

“Too many bowls of that grain, no Lucky Charms / the maids come around too much, the parents ain’t around enough,” sings Frank Ocean over the closing credits of Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” the perfect cherry on her blistering excoriation of millennial attention obsession disorder. It’s a quintessential Coppola story, containing an opportunity to reconsider the corrosive society of “The Virgin Suicides,” the clueless lives of the luxurious of “Marie Antoinette,” and the hollow celebrity culture of “Somewhere.” With her fifth feature, she swirls it all together into a darkly humorous fable with the pop of a tabloid headline turned music video.

The story is ever so lightly fictionalized from actual events where suburban L.A. teenagers harnessed the power of the Internet to rob celebrities while they were away from their homes. Curiously, they chose to steal from people who were mostly famous for their own fame, such as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Audrina Patridge. They take plenty of clothing and accessories with them, but breaking and entering becomes like a hobby or a sport for them.

“The Bling Ring” is replete with relevant discussion topics, such as intimacy, narcissism, and connection in the era of social media – just to name a few. Nancy Jo Sales’ book, an expansion of her article from which Coppola derived the film, provides excellent commentary that manages a miraculous balancing act between rich cultural criticism and the breezy feel of a magazine article. Most of that depth is absent, however, in the film as Coppola opts to skim the surface on most issues.

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REVIEW: This Is The End

13 06 2013

Now that I know the kind of deep analyses I can write on films, I’ve grown cautious of over-intellectualizing.  It’s like learning to reign in a superpower; just because you can use it doesn’t mean that you always should.  And, often times, I feel like many film reviewers and critics pull meanings out of films that might not even be there.

This Is The End” poses quite a conundrum for me.  I’m weary to read into it too much, but I think the apocalyptic comedy could be subversively smart.  Or it’s just another culturally-savvy product of the Apatow gang (although Judd himself had no part of this film).  Whichever it is, however, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s feature-length directorial debut is an outlandishly good time that packs some killer laughs.

I go back and forth on whether Rogen and pals are brilliant minds … or just stoned out of those same minds.  The fact that stars like Rogen, James Franco, and Jonah Hill are playing themselves certainly seems to indicate a certain level of self-reflexivity.  After all, no one would mistake “This Is The End” for a documentary as everyone seems to be playing an exaggerated version of themselves: Rogen the jovial teddy bear, Franco the off-kilter artiste, and Hill the slightly fruity sass-pot.

But then again, Rogen and Goldberg could easily have just been thinking of a way to make the ultimate end of the world comedy (lest we forget, there has already been the morose “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World“).  When it came time for their silver bullet, perhaps the idea popped into their head that rather than characters, the film should feature real celebrities.  Indeed, there are times that the real comedians feel a little gimmicky.  I’m not going to complain, however, so long as I get to hear Rogen and Franco weigh the relative merits of “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.”

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REVIEW: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

16 12 2012

PerksIt’s rare that a high school movie captures the full range of experiences one can have in that crucial period, and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” covers all the bases with ease.  The movie, adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his own novel, saunters at a casual mosey that allows us to take in every moment and appreciate its importance.

In a sense, it allows us to get into the character of protagonist Charlie, played wistfully by Logan Lerman.  He’s the eponymous wallflower, a passive yet perceptive observer taking it all in his freshman year rather than actively seeking to fulfill his desires.  We go from feeling sorry for him as he struggles to find acceptance on his first day of high school to quickly frustrated … because we know the easiest way to put an end to those woes!

Thankfully, Charlie stumbles into two fantastic friends before our annoyance reaches walk-out/turn-off levels.  First, there’s Patrick, an extreme extrovert who says exactly what’s on his mind no matter how inappropriate it may be.  Ezra Miller plays him with such a fantastic gusto that it’s impossible not to be drawn in by his magnetism.

Miller also sheds a tremendous light on the private shame that the very public characters struggles with: the relationship with football player Brad who won’t acknowledge the flamboyant Patrick in the halls at school.  This storyline is arguably the most compelling and dramatic of the film, especially since Miller and fellow rising star Johnny Simmons play it with such high stakes and tense emotionality.

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REVIEW: My Week with Marilyn

14 01 2012

While I’m always urging filmmakers to push the envelope, sometimes it can be nice to see a movie that takes no risks and is proud of it.  Provided that the movie is pleasant, easygoing, light and breezy like a Sunday stroll in the park, these movies can be a real treat to sit back, relax, and enjoy.  Very few movies get my “Sunday stroll” certification, and “My Week with Marilyn” earns it with ease.

It’s a little more serious than the usual stroll, but it’s a great deal of fun to watch largely because of how easily Michelle Williams totally loses herself in the persona of Marilyn Monroe.  She effortlessly brings to life the charm, the sultriness, and the seduction of the actress, making us wonder if we’re falling in love with Monroe all over again – or Williams for the first time.  While she has shocked in “Blue Valentine” and riveted in “Brokeback Mountain,” Williams has shied away from endearing and glamorous characters.  Yet with Marilyn Monroe, it provides the perfect marriage of her stunning, red-carpet looks and grace with her remarkable ability to plumb the depths of tortured and confused women.

The script by Adrian Hodges gives Williams an ample base to build her interpretation of Monroe without constraining her artistic decisions.  She may spout some lines we would expect the famed actress to say, but he thankfully realizes that the majority of the performance would come from her physicality and the bubbling psychological torment she builds up so deftly.  It’s a perfect blend of understated and flashy that will make you want to spend a week with Marilyn.

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