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The Circle

April 28, 2017
The Circle

I was excited when I went to see The Circle. Based on the novel by McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers, directed by James Ponsoldt, and featuring a stellar cast in roles I just knew they could knock out of the park, I’d been looking forward to it for months.

I could definitely see how Eggers’ book would attract Ponsoldt, who has always told stories about people with unhealthy and sometimes destructive habits. His first three features all dealt with alcoholism, including Smashed, among the finest examples of the form. His most recent was The End of the Tour, adapting David Lipsky’s memoir about a road trip of sorts with David Foster Wallace, for the 10th anniversary edition of whose magnum opus Eggers wrote the forward in 2006. Even when I didn’t care for the movie itself, I could respect the craft that went into The Spectacular Now. This was bound to be good.

But then I started watching. And one scene landed awkwardly. And another one felt forced and rushed. And another one felt unmotivated and convenient. I tried to reassure myself, of course a two-hour movie has to cut something from a five-hundred-page novel. It might not have the wonderful character development, or the thematic resonances, or the unexpectedly perfect literary structures. But surely it would at least get the overall feel and idea of the novel, right? It might be flawed, but it must still be at least passable.

I held out hope as long as possible, but I slowly came to the realization: this is a bad movie. Yes, the basics of the story are in place — Mae Holland (Emma Watson), with help from her old friend Annie Allerton (Karen Gillan), gets a job in The Circle, a mashup of Google, Facebook, Apple, and every other utopian Silicon Valley behemoth you can think of — but the similarities run thin. Mae is at first skeptical of The Circle’s share-everything ethos, as in the novel, but the person she meets who shares her suspicions (John Boyega) quickly reveals his identity. In the original it was a mystery that dragged out much longer, and even if the reader could probably guess it earlier, the question helped drive much of Mae’s evolving opinions.

Speaking of which, there’s none to speak of. We slam right from Mae feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to participate in on-campus activities and online Circle interactions — which are far from mandatory, but from which her absence keeps raising questions — into her embracing the radical openness espoused by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the charismatic Steve Jobs-esque CEO.

In contrast, Eggars’ novel guides the reader through this evolution smoothly enough that even if you don’t personally buy Bailey’s arguments and Mae’s rationalizations, you can at least see their appeal. The adaptation lacks all this nuance, allowing The Circle to become yet another example of the superficially-happy dystopias that form the settings of so many young-adult-targeted movies.

And even as Eamon’s plans with his co-founder and COO, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), are revealed, life in The Circle never takes on a darker, more threatening, or even dystopian tone. It’s bad because well obviously they’re the bad guys, but we never feel trapped within a system that’s growing to encompass more and more of our lives, that scares us as much to leave it as to stay. This goes right down into the score, which opts for a poppy Danny Elfman vibe where it really needs something closer to Cliff Martinez’ queerly edgy sensibility.

We do at least get some sense of those who remain skeptical, in the form of Mae’s parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly) and a childhood friend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). But again they feel poorly integrated into the central plot of Mae’s life at The Circle — not that we really get the feel of life at The Circle in this adaptation — and their arguments feel less like real misgivings and more like cheap knee-jerk Luddism. None of it jells into an effective statement, much less a serious attempt to wrestle with the real changes being wrought on our society by the rise of social media.

But the most galling change is the wholesale replacement of the dénouement. Everything after the climactic sequence — which of course is itself tweaked to take off its edge — is replaced by something far more pedestrian and audience-friendly than the thematic genius of Eggers’ novel. The only thing that surprised me more than the way his story was mangled was to see that he himself, along with Ponsoldt, did the mangling.

Maybe it’s not entirely fair to judge an adaptation that tries to squeeze a decently hefty novel into a single feature’s running time. But is is more than a mere abridgment; the whole texture of the work has been squeezed out, and the central ideas have been reduced almost to the point of self-parody. World-class actors struggle mightily with clunky, expositional monologues, which are all the script has time for anyway. And no matter how pretty cinematographer Matthew Libatique makes it look, it’s clear that the soul of The Circle did not survive the transition to the screen.

As a bit of a postscript: while most of the cast do at least a decent job, Paxton is the only one who is really fantastic, for as little as he’s given to do. It’s a shame for him to go out on this one, but he still manages to remind us here just how great his talent was.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but fail.

Grey Lady

April 28, 2017
Grey Lady

The title of Grey Lady is evidently a reference to Nantucket Island. I mean, I’ve never heard of it, but it shows up on the Wikipedia page, and I’m willing to concede that writer/director John Shea might know something I don’t. But that’s about as conciliatory as I’m feeling for what may number among the worst movies I’ve seen without the words “Lifetime Original” being involved somewhere.

We’re on Nantucket because Boston detective James Doyle (Eric Dane) is investigating a series of murders that have already claimed his sister and his girlfriend (Rebecca Gayheart). Who is, er was, also his partner. Oh, but the sister and girlfriend are two separate people, though the script isn’t terribly clear on that point and I wanted to at least do better on that count. Oh, and the girlfriend was also pregnant with Doyle’s baby, which I’m not entirely sure he could have known, but I think we’re also supposed to assume he knew because it adds that much more pathos to his back-story. Pathos is the name of the game here. Very, very pathetic.

Anyway, so he shows up in Nantucket despite being thrown off the case by his BPD captain — a case that since it started with his sister he shouldn’t have been on in the first place but whatever — because he doesn’t care about your rules, and he’s in this for justice. Seriously, this kind of dialogue is just in here and as far as I can tell it’s meant to be taken seriously. I could almost respect a movie that quoted this sort of self-serious garbage in an attempt at parody, but no it really is this ridden with clichés.

But why are we on Nantucket again? Honestly, I’ve been back over the first chunk of the movie again and I can’t see the connection. Something about Doyle’s family, and they used to come to the island, or he thinks some portion of them live here. It’s the sort of small town where everybody knows everybody, but nobody knows the names he’s asking about even as we later discover they’ve been there the whole time.

A representative from the local police (a wasted Adrian Lester) is there to meet him off the ferry, and he quickly meets local socialite Melissa Reynolds (Natalie Zea) who naturally falls for him but he’s still too hurt — in a quiet, manly way, of course — by the loss of his basically identical girlfriend to return her affections.
Yet. There’s a local drunk (Amy Madigan) and a loopy blonde (Carolyn Stotesbery), and Shea himself shows up as the police chief here to deliver an in-person dose of canned rogue-cop dialogue.

There is nothing redeeming here. It doesn’t look particularly good; there are no bravura performances; there’s no interesting quirk that makes up for the overwrought, well, everything. It even commits the cardinal sin of hiding information from the audience for no story-driven reason, and it has the cluelessly poor taste to do it right in front of us. I can only imagine that Shea had stockpiled a decade’s worth of favors from his television career, and hope that he has now cashed them all in.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.


April 21, 2017

Unforgettable offers us a tragic story: a beautiful, intelligent, talented young woman, forced into playing out one restrictive ideal of femininity. She repeats her dictated role over and over, internalizing her oppression until she becomes the harshest critic of her own imperfections. And even that doesn’t prevent her from being passed over and replaced with a younger, fresher face. Naturally enough, she snaps, throwing just as much craft and dedication into her rage as she once did into her affections; the very dedication that some had found off-putting in the first place. She would claw her way back to her former place, even if she had to destroy herself in the process.

But aside from Katherine Heigl, there’s not much reason to watch this one.

In a switch from her long-running typecasting as a rom-com lead, Heigl takes a heel turn in this psychological and sporadically-erotic thriller. The picture of icy perfection, thanks to her own overbearing mother (Cheryl Ladd), Tessa Conover had everything. Most importantly she had the husband, David (Geoff Stults), with his high-status job at Merrill Lynch, and she had her perfect little girl, Lily (Isabella Rice). But when David decided he’d had enough of real estate and instead started a microbrewery, things were strained. Now divorced and sharing custody of Lily, Tessa’s biggest threat comes in the form of David’s new fiancée, Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson).

Longtime producer Denise De Novi does well enough her first time in the director’s chair, and the script by Christina Hodson and David Leslie Johnson isn’t significantly worse than most others in this genre. They’re not significantly better, though, either. The movie seems to play as if there’s any mystery at all about who’s harassing Julia, which puts a bit of a damper on any tension.

It could have been a fine if somewhat lackluster thriller, except for the one big problem staring us right in Dawson’s face. I’m sure the script was turned in long before she was cast, but it’s impossible to see how a woman of Julia’s complexion sticks out in the otherwise lily-white community in the hills outside Los Angeles and not wonder how that must play into the psychodynamics. A pale blonde ice queen who met her husband at Stanford displaced by a Latina from Oakland, and somehow race never even comes into it? Even at the climax, when police are on their way, there’s no question that Julia’s story will be believed over Tessa’s. It’s a glaring omission.

Still, it’s fascinating to see Heigl turn bad, even if the result is far from unique. Everyone who dismissed her during the rom-com days might have to take another look now that she’s breaking type.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

April 21, 2017
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

If nothing else, Richard Gere’s work with producer Oren Moverman has given him some of his best acting roles since the turn of the century. First in I’m Not There., Todd Haynes’ impressionistic portrait of Bob Dylan; then in Moverman’s own Time Out of Mind, as a man dealing with homelessness and mental illness on the streets of New York City; and now in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar, whose Footnote fell just short of A Separation as Best Foreign Language Film, Norman provides Gere with yet another opportunity to stretch his range.

Which is not to say that he disappears into the role, the way some of the best character actors can. Norman is always recognizably Gere — you can’t forget a face that’s been in the public eye for so long — but he is, for lack of a better word, nebbishy, which adjective I’m pretty sure has never been applied to Richard Gere before. He’s a “fixer”, which seems to amount to a professional go-between even when you’d rather he just go away.

Right from the beginning he’s trying to get his nephew, Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen) to introduce him to big Wall Street movers-and-shakers like Wilf or Taub (Harris Yulin and Josh Charles), saying he knows a guy in the Israeli government — he can’t say exactly who right now — who wants to cut some deal about withheld taxes and if he can just meet the guy with the right capital to invest…

But of course Norman doesn’t “have an Israeli” in his pocket; he’s also hustling to find one in time for the meeting he’s hoping to set up. And though he doesn’t find what he’s looking for, he does meet the up-and-coming Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) outside Lanvin. They talk and relax, and Norman buys Micha a pair of $1200 shoes. And when, three years later, Micha turns out to be the new Prime Minister with a mission to make peace with the Palestinians once and for all, you can already see where this is going.

At times it feels almost like a caper movie, with Norman trying to get all the pieces in place to help his friend, Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi) with a favor from Wilf for a favor from Micha for a favor from Philip for a favor from the rabbi, all without each other knowing about it in a plan that you’re never sure quite makes sense, even when he explains his web of connections to an unfortunate Amtrak passenger (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who just wants to get some work done.

But it’s either more complicated than the script gets into, or not as complicated as it seems. Either way, things never quite click, and the caper aspect feels unsatisfying. The oblique Israeli politics angle as well comes up short, though it might resonate better for an audience more in tune with the rhythms of the Knesset.

Instead, what Norman really offers is a study of a character you’re never quite sure whether or not to root for. The schlubby, sad-sack bit makes us feel sympathetic, but at times it’s hard not to see Norman as simply pathetic. It’s hard to see how he even makes a living, seeming to be interested in approval and validation more than anything else. Cedar even offers us a younger version of the same kind of glad-hander (Hank Azaria) just to cement how creepy the whole thing can be.

And if nothing else it’s fun to watch Gere exploring this character. Couple that with some of the same imaginative imagery that Cedar and his cinematographer Yaron Scharf deployed in Footnote and you’ve got a pleasant enough distraction, even if it’s not the greatest film any of the principals have ever made.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine

April 21, 2017
In Search of Israeli Cuisine

Chef Michael Solomonov was already making a name for himself in Philadelphia when his brother, David, was killed in an Israeli military operation in October of 2003. In the wake of his brother’s loss, Michael decided to change his culinary focus to Israeli and Jewish cuisine. But what, it’s natural to ask, does that even mean? One answer might be a visit to his flagship restaurant, Zahav, but if you don’t live between DC and New York there’s another option. Along with documentarian Roger Sherman, Michael heads back to the Holy Land In Search of Israeli Cuisine.

In part, the question is a difficult one because despite its existence at the confluence of some of the world’s most ancient cultures, the modern state of Israel is among the youngest nations in the world. Even then, it has only embraced its cooking culture within the last thirty years. Is there even such a thing as “Israeli cuisine” that has come together in such a short time?

There are, at least, a number of different cuisines coexisting in Israel. Of course, many of them are related to the predominantly Jewish population. The traditions of the local Sabra and those of the returning diaspora populations are well-represented. But even among these, there is a stunning diversity. The Ashkenazim bring back those dishes from central and eastern Europe that can be made with local Middle-Eastern ingredients, while the Sephardim bring a whole range of foods from the Iberian peninsula and across North Africa, many of which blend over with the local Hamitic and Semitic cultures along the way.

And then there are the influences from the Muslim, Christian, and Druze minority groups. It takes a while to get around to the Palestinians, and early on there are a number of disparaging comments from some of the chefs and shopkeepers Michael interviews, insisting that no, Palestinian food isn’t really that big a deal anyway, that he lets go unchallenged. But in time he does make sure to visit the Territories and sample their own distinct flavors.

One of the most striking commonalities is the way “locally-produced” takes on a whole new meaning in a country that’s only about 250 miles long and between 10 and 70 miles wide. It’s a region that would fit comfortably within most American restaurants’ definitions of the term, and in Israel it can sometimes mean only farms the chef can walk to from her kitchen. But even within this small area is a remarkable array of climates, from the warm Mediterranean and coastal north to the central mountains to the Negev desert in the south. Each one offers its own particular influence on the local cuisine.

Lest I come off like a press release from the local tourism board, I should say here that that’s kind of what In Search of Israeli Cuisine becomes, both for Israel itself and for Michael’s restaurants in Philadelphia. It’s pleasant enough, and the food looks great, it would fit in better on the Food Network or breaking up a Sunday afternoon block of cooking and tourism shows on your local PBS station. There’s little need to pay multiplex prices for this one. And, if you’re really interested in learning about Israeli cuisine you’d be better served by working your way through Yottam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.


April 14, 2017

It’s almost a joke by now: what wouldn’t a relatively well-off upper-middle-class parent do to help their kid get over the hurdles that lie between them and the “right” college? In America, that generally extends to throwing money at the problem, with hourly rates for subject and exam tutors running into the hundreds of dollars. Horror stories abound of helicopter parents descending when they fear their investments might not pay off.

But what does it look like in Romania, a state still unsteady in its first-world status after the fall of the Soviet Union’s communist sphere of influence at the end of the cold war? Cristian Mungiu’s Bacalaureat — subtitled in English as Graduation — finds Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) searching his soul for the answer.

Romeo and his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar) left Romania after the revolution of 1989, seeking a life away from the corrupt back-scratching and influence-trading that dominated life in the failing states of the Eastern Bloc. But they returned as young, Western-trained idealists, joining the project to stand up a thriving middle class as a new capitalist backbone in the struggling post-communist economy. They would build their lives on the merits of their work; Romeo would gain respect as a skilled doctor; they would raise their child with their own ideals of honesty and fairness.

And that’s fine, as long as everything goes as planned. But as Eliza (Maria Drăguș) nears her graduation, their plans begin to unravel. She is attacked one morning as she cuts through a construction site on the way to school. Understandably shaken, she’s in no position to perform well on the national Bacalaureat exams over the next few days. And without good scores on those, her scholarship to study psychology at Cambridge is in jeopardy.

An American audience will think that surely there is some provision for delaying the exam under such extraordinary circumstances, but no. The system may resemble the West, but it’s shaky and brittle, and not resilient against unexpected events. Not that ours is perfect either — not by a long shot — but in Romania it’s so regularly broken that the people have learned to fill in the gaps by reverting to their old networks of friends and favors, just like they did under Ceauşescu. Maybe Romeo can put his thumb on the scale to move someone up the transplant list for a new liver. And maybe that guy can lean on the president of the exam committee. And maybe that guy can convince the other exam graders that when they see a paper with three words crossed out just so, they can pass it through with the highest grade.

And for all Romeo’s fretting about the ethical quandary, this isn’t the first time he’s bent rules for his own convenience. He may never have given or taken a bribe, but he’s been carrying on an affair with Sandra (Mălina Manovici), a young teacher at Eliza’s school. Magda has known about it, but has looked the other way, just as the rest of society does with the corruption and bribery that most people use to actually get things done.

The interactions with his mother (Alexandra Davidescu) are a little more confusing. She’s old and beginning to suffer from some health problems, but he insists on treating her himself and keeping her away from the rest of the medical system, even as she clearly needs more care than he can provide. But this is the key that unlocks Mungiu’s insight about what really drives men like Romeo, whether in Romania or in the United States: maintaining the illusion of control.

The desire to protect and provide as many advantages as possible for one’s children is a particularly middle-class phenomenon, because it’s the middle class that’s caught between the threat of the unexpected and the idea that they can maintain control over it. People in the upper class, with resources enough to handle any eventuality, have no real worries about what might happen. And people in the working classes are well accustomed to the idea that things will happen to them that they can’t control. It’s only in the middle where people feel the threat and the pinch, and fear the loss of control. Bacalaureat watches what happens to a man who finds the control he thought he’d established beginning to slip away.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Their Finest

April 14, 2017
Their Finest

After writing somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand reviews, it would be surprising if I didn’t have some sort of thoughts about why movies are so fascinating a subject. For me, it’s because they’re still the prime way that we tell each other stories, and stories are the foundation of culture. Stories are how we tell ourselves who we are, and what we value. A well-told story tells us something about — as the late David Foster Wallace put it — what it means to be “a fucking human being”. A poorly-told story sometimes tells us about nothing more than the cheap cynicism of the teller.

Lissa Evans understood this about movies when she wrote her novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, and Lone Scherfig carried it through her adaptation of the script for Their Finest. In the depths of the London Blitz, the Ministry of Information makes a pivot from boring informational newsreels to making a feature film that they hope will shore up British morale. And, with new scriptwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) brought on board to punch up the “slop” — women’s dialogue — they hope to convince Britain’s distaff side that their husbands and sons aren’t being put in harm’s way for nothing.

To that effect they decide to make a movie about the Dunkirk evacuation. Yes, the same one as in Christopher Nolan’s project coming out this summer. They find a human interest story about a pair of twins who stole their drunken father’s tug and took it across the channel to help. Who cares if it’s wrong in nearly every single detail; “never confuse truth with facts, or either with a good story,” senior scriptwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) advises her.

And so the twins get cut down from thirty to just past twenty; Rose chatty and Lily quiet. The chatty one gets a love interest. The father is left asleep in the hold to serve as comic relief before an honorable death. Oh, and the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons) decides he wants to use this to sell Americans on the idea of joining the battle, so they’re saddled with Norwegian-American R.A.F. pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacey), who can’t act his way out of a paper bag. And so Rose’s love interest becomes a love triangle, and so on and so on.

In fact, screenwriter Gaby Chiappe does such a good job with this aspect of her adapted script that it’s hard not to see it echoed in Their Finest itself. Of course there’s going to be a romantic tension between Catrin and Tom, but we have to keep them apart from each other so she has a husband (Jack Huston) with an injury keeping him in London as an air-raid warden. He’s an artist, which is romantic, but also sets up the idea that he’ll cheat on her while she’s away shooting the film at the Devon coast (played by southwest Wales). And we’ll lighten the mood with a self-important aging movie star (Bill Nighy) who considers the drunken father role beneath him.

Oh but the bumps along the way to getting the story on the silver screen, while enjoyable to watch, aren’t really that momentous. The early death of the movie star’s agent (Eddie Marsan) gives the idea of stakes, but doesn’t really carry through the rest of the movie. What can we do to add pathos? and once that complication is in place, let’s go back and add a secondary love story between the star and the agent’s bereaved sister (Helen McCrory).

Their Finest wears its artifice on its sleeve as nakedly as it exposes the movie Catrin helps write. And yet, like the story of two young women and their drunk of a father bravely rescuing a boatload of British soldiers — and a swaggering American journalist whose lines are mostly narration that can be recorded in voiceover — it still manages to charm. Arterton meshes well with both Claflin and Huston, as needs be. But, for my money, Nighy and Lacy provide the most entertainment, each delivering a character perfectly suited to their not inconsiderable talents.

But then we have to ask, what exactly is Their Finest trying to say? The inner movie may be a hacked-together crowd-pleaser, but it’s wrapped around a core of British resilience in the face of adversity, which message the public sorely needed at that point. So what’s the idea that makes the movie we watch more than a charming little pleasure cruise?

Well, there are some feints towards wartime feminism. Catrin chafes at the description of women’s dialogue as unimportant “slop”, though she doesn’t quite bat an eye at “of course we can’t pay you as much as we would a man”. But she keeps her dignity and thrives despite the adversity. There’s also Phyl Moore (Rachael Stirling), who is all but explicitly declared a lesbian, and who gets the line about men’s unease at the increased role women play on the homefront during the war. But little of this really goes anywhere.

As enjoyable a distraction as it is, there’s not much more to Their Finest than that. It feels good, and is excellently put together, but it’s not exactly built to last.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: surprisingly close, but it passes.