(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) There’s something really weird at play in The Circle, and I’m having a bit of trouble untangling my exact issue with it. I think that it has a lot to do with its unimaginative techno-skepticism, as it follows a young woman who starts working for a (fictional) tech giant and becomes gradually disenchanted by the disconnect between its lofty public ambitions and the less-than-positive impact it has on her life and society at large. It’s not a bad premise on which to base a film, but The Circle does itself no favours by being lazy and trite about it. There is a surprising lack of interest from the film in spelling out what exactly is so awful about the company for which our character works: it seems to rely more on common assumed notions about the evils of Facebook, Google, Apple, et al. There’s a conspiracy angle to the film that never goes farther than two senior executives saying to each other, “Oh no, we’re in trouble now!” when their emails are leaked. Paradoxically, the crutch of using viewer’s anti-tech prejudices also points at why the film feels so useless—so it simply confirms those awful suspicions about the evils of tech giants? That’s it? Nothing more? Why bother watching the film when I can just look at my favourite newspaper and read articles that go far beyond The Circle‘s freshman-level musings? Even the dumb moral at the end of the film feels badly under-thought. It doesn’t help that the film doesn’t have much in terms of energy or paranoia. Writer/director James Ponsoldt has done much better in the past. Poor dull boring featureless generic actress Emma Watson looks annoyed for ninety minutes or however long it takes to make it to the end of this ordeal. Tom Hanks seems to have fun playing the sinister CEO visionary, but there’s—again—nearly nothing of substance behind the vague menace he’s supposed to present. What a dull movie. What a hypocritical movie. What else is on?
(In French, In theatres, March 2017) Disney’s been on a roll in adapting its own animated classics to live-action lately, but the surprise is how consistently solid the result have been. They clearly understand their own material, and if the result tends to be unsurprising by design, there’s something to be said about delivering exactly what viewers are expecting. So it is with Beauty and the Beast, a film not designed for today’s kids as much as it’s aimed to everyone who has flipped over the original film at any time in the past twenty-five years. Emma Watson stars but does not impress as Belle—she plays the character like about a dozen other actresses her age would, and that’s good enough without being particularly impressive. The point of the film isn’t the human actors, though—not only is there a lot of CGI here, but the nearly-overwhelming set design takes center-stage early on and doesn’t let go. The tunes are the ones you remember (curiously enough, I like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” a lot, but it’s “Belle” that I hum most often.), and the “Be Our Guest” number is spectacular enough to be compared to then-ground-breaking original. I still don’t particularly like the story, even though much care has been spent explaining and justifying its least convincing elements. Having seen the French version, I can’t speak about the voice acting of the furniture (now here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write when I woke up today) but their characters are surprisingly sympathetic—this remake wrings all possible pathos out of their plight until the final moment. For Disney, this is a success: the kids will love it (although it’s a bit too dark for younger children), the parents will be reminded of the original and there’s enough to see to make things interesting to everyone else. Of all of Disney’s various live-action remakes so far, I think that this is the one that has the best shot at displacing (but not eclipsing) the original—it’s not that different in tone, and manages to update the weaknesses of the original without neglecting to play up its iconic elements. Time will tell—and I say this as someone who dislikes the idea of remakes supplanting the originals.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) I don’t usually go for teenage coming-of-age dramas –seeing The Perks of Being a Wallflower was a bit of self-imposed viewing to complete a checklist. But there’s quite a bit to like in this tale of early-nineties growing up in Pittsburgh: a textured look at damaged teenagers (ie; all of us) and the way they can help each other cope. Alternately hilarious, heartbreaking, tragic and uplifting, The Perks of Being a Wallflower goes everywhere but in a carefully deliberate fashion: there’s little that’s accidental in this story (written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, adapting his own novel) about how a high school freshman comes to find a support group among eccentric seniors and break out of his shell. Logan Lerman is likably bland as the protagonist, while Emma Watson proves herself to be an interesting actress in this first post-Potter role and Ezra Miller steals every scene with his outspoken character. The last twenty minutes are a roller-coaster of emotions as secrets are revealed, friendships are tested and tragedies unfold. This is a movie with heart, complexity and a decent amount of subtlety as well: It reminded me of my own early-nineties high-school years despite having almost none of the specific experience of the characters. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not a spectacular film, but it lingers in mind far longer than most Hollywood spectacles.