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: The End of the Tour

16 08 2015

The End of the TourThe celebrity interview in fiction is something that often gets fetishized, probably because it is so frequently fantasized.  I have done a few myself, and it can be tough not to get carried away just by breathing the rarefied air of a talented artist.  Rationalize the experience away as journalism, but that does not do justice to the nature of the interview.

It’s a transaction.  An exchange of goods disguised as an exchange of words.  A delicate dance. Chuck Klosterman, in his excellent book “Eating the Dinosaur,” offered a deft explanation of just how these performances work.  “The result (when things go well),” he wrote, “is a dynamic, adversarial, semi-real conversation.”

The End of the Tour” makes a movie out of a journalistic conversation for the ages, a battle of wits on a more even playing field than usual.  Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, a minimally successful novelist who pays the bills for his aspirations of fiction writing by penning non-fictional articles for Rolling Stone. Somehow, he convinces his boss to let him go on assignment to profile another writer, the first time the magazine dares to feature a wordsmith in over a decade.

Lipsky’s subject is no average writer, though. He tags along with David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel, at the last stop of his 1996 book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a thousand-page tome that reaps hyperbolic praise and adulation. After publishing such a novel, a kind of literary legend status extended to very few authors looms on the horizon.

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REVIEW: The Spectacular Now

16 08 2013

I really did like the first act of “The Spectacular Now” because it felt honest and real. Miles Teller’s Sutter Keeley felt like someone I would have known in high school, a burgeoning alcoholic with a big unchecked ego. And Shailene Woodley’s Aimee Finicke reminded me quite a bit of myself, someone bookish but a bit insecure and completely unable to picture anyone having romantic feelings about them.

I was so looking forward to the direction that the film was heading … and then Sutter and Aimee share the moment we saw coming a mile away, their first kiss. From there on out, “The Spectacular Now” heads south as the authenticity of the story and the believability of the characters flies out the window. The script, penned by “(500) Days of Summer” scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, descends into a mire of archetypes and cliches.

It’s a little more understandable for Sutter to become a flat character as his personality is so based on living up to a cultural ideal of care-free ignorance. But it’s disappointing to watch Aimee just a flip a switch and become a totally different person. Before the kiss, she was so refreshingly independent and derived her sense of self-worth from within, not from others. Afterwards, Aimee becomes little more than an accessory to Sutter, fawning over him at all times and constantly caressing him.

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REVIEW: Smashed

11 08 2013

Finding comedy in alcoholism and recovery, two notoriously heavy subjects that hit close to home for many audiences, is no easy task.  “Smashed” is hardly a gut-buster or a laugh riot, although a little humor does help some of its rougher and rawer moments.  It’s no “Rachel Getting Married” (nor the lesser-known “Sherrybaby“), that’s for sure, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t have its smaller triumphs.

Director James Ponsoldt, newly heralded as an emerging director (and being entrusted to helm an upcoming Hillary Clinton biopic and an adaptation of the musical “Pippin”), steers the film rather uneasily.  As a result, the film has some abrupt and rather jarring tonal swings.  I’m not quite sure if he intended “Smashed” to leave a comedic or a dramatic impression, but it really winds up leaving very little impression at all.  Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is good, yet it never goes the full mile like Anne Hathaway or Maggie Gyllenhaal in the aforementioned dramas.

If it sounds like I’m being vague on details, that’s because I remember very few of them.  “Smashed” is a film I didn’t dislike, but it failed to win me over or secure a spot in my memory.  Regardless, it’s an interesting and, at 81 minutes, brief bauble of a film that isn’t entirely a waste of your time.  At the very least, you’ll enjoy seeing a union of some of TV’s best talents: Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad,” Nick Offerman of “Parks & Recreation,” and Megan Mullally of “Will and Grace.”

Oh, and there’s Octavia Spencer (Oscar-winner for “The Help“) as an AA sponsor.  She never disappoints.  2halfstars