Sunday, May 07, 2017
The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt from a novel by Dave Eggers, never really had a chance. The new film is the story of Mae (Emma Watson), who parlays a college friendship with Annie (Karen Gillan) into an entry-level job at a tech company called The Circle. Eggers's novel is techno-utopianism taken to its logical extreme, a world in which the erasure of privacy and a vision of worldwide "connectedness" are presented as a cure for all societal ills. The novel's Mae, who is encouraged by her coworkers to think of The Circle as a surrogate family, is a true believer. So, what went wrong? The speed of tech is now the speed of life, and The Circle arrives after real events have made the film moot as a critique.
The public face of The Circle is Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), a sweater-wearing innovator who's constantly introducing new ideas at the company's "Dream Fridays". Bailey preaches the vision of information sharing and openness through products like a small wireless camera called "Sea Change", but the sudden humiliation of a Senator who's investigating the company (in an underdeveloped subplot) suggests there may be other agendas at work. It was smart to cast Hanks in this role - he wears his normal good humor like a mask here - but the trope of the tech corporate officer as benevolent creator has long since been deconstructed. In other words, we know Jobs and Gates were in it for the money. While the screenplay (by Ponsoldt and Eggers) never gets too specific about Bailey's darker ambitions, a scene involving a Congresswoman (Judy Reyes) becoming "transparent" (putting her public life online) is presented as the first step to a consolidation of political power. (There's a terrible scene later involving a plan to use The Circle to register voters.) Neither the film nor the novel mention anyone from the corporate world becoming transparent however, and the failure to address how The Circle could get its advertisers to act against their own self-interest feels like a hole in the story's logic. It's worth pointing out here that Emma Watson plays Mae as eager to please but skeptical, a choice made no doubt to keep audience sympathy even when Mae behaves badly. I wasn't surprised that the filmmakers swapped out the novel's ending, but the ending we get is a nothing. The Circle will keep on largely as before, but it won't do all the stuff that made people uncomfortable.
A running theme throughout The Circle is the lack of privacy in a truly connected world. Sea Change cameras are everywhere at the corporate campus and even in the home of Mae's parents. Her father (the late Bill Paxton in his final film) suffers from MS, and Mae trades away their privacy for a chance to get her parents on the company health plan. Mae's friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) is a devout off-the-grid type, and the turning point of the film involves his death during the debut of a new Circle application. Here again real life has overwritten what the film is trying to do. What would happen in the culture if someone's death occurred on Facebook Live? We know now the answer to that question is not very much. While The Circle's ability to collect and consolidate information is presented as a threat to individualism - John Boyega plays a Circle developer who raises privacy concerns - in fact an ascendant Circle would probably almost have to become something like the Facebook described in this article. The Circle would be a media outlet run by people who aren't journalists and vulnerable to being co-opted by forces whose agendas it didn't share. The Circle is vague about where Bailey and his partner (Patton Oswalt) might be going, so much so that the misuse of social media in the 2016 election seems even more horrifying. The people who made The Circle weren't prepared for the truth.
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), last seen departing with drug deal profits meant to be shared with his friends, is running on a treadmill at the beginning of T2 Trainspotting. He slips, falls off, and appears to be knocked unconscious, but the moment is never referred to again. The meaning of this sequence is made clear right about the time Mark, who had planned to go back to Amsterdam after visiting Edinburgh for the first time in 20 years, tells his friend Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) that his marriage is over and a merger will soon cost him his job. Mark and his friends are bad at life. Danny Boyle didn't need to make a sequel Trainspotting but he made a good one. T2, while as lively and profane as a fan of the original would hope, is a film about men at a particular season of life in which familiar things are tossed aside like the junked cars piled up outside Simon's pub. There's a plot involving Simon enlisting Mark to help open a brothel for the woman (Anjela Nedyalkova) they're both attracted to, but the best moments of T2 occur when Boyle and writer John Hodge evoke the ghosts of the characters' younger selves. Signature shots (the men on the train platform, Mark almost getting hit by a car) are repeated, and Boyle even digitally integrates images from the original Trainspotting into new footage. (This could easily be unbearable, but it's served up in just the right amount.) It would be hard to better portray "lost time" in visual terms than in the moment that Spud (the excellent Ewen Bremner) sees the younger men chasing each other down the street. Spud is the biggest surprise of T2, the character is now a recovering addict trying to come to terms with fact that others need and want him in the world, and Bremner gives a carefully modulated performance that never asks for our sympathy.
The other major character back in T2 is Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who is the most angry about the money Mark stole 20 years ago. The presence of Begbie means that T2 must climax in violence, and the fight in the not-completed brothel is the most perfunctory part of the film. Boyle tries to inject as much visual energy as he can here and throughout the film with freeze frame, faux old home movies, and surreal touches (a salute to George Best is great fun), but the pleasure of T2 isn't the violence but the sense of Mark and the others gaining just a little bit of purchase on the rest of their lives. T2 can never occupy a cultural moment like the original film did, but it does honor to its source in a way that feels almost old-fashioned.
The Japanese animated film Your Name, directed by Makoto Shinkai, feels very Japanese in its concerns about teenagers transitioning to adulthood, mortality, and the fluidity of time. Your Name was a huge box-office success in Japan, and while that likely won't happen here the film is still worth seeing. The specificity of the world in which Tokyo teenager Taki and the country-raised Mitsuha live is not only a pleasure to look at but also what allows the film to be relatable to a broader audience. Shinkai mostly avoids the expected comedy of what happens when Taki and Mitsuha switch bodies. Your Name is about children turning into grownups in a society that may not have room for them, and the urgency with which Taki and Mitsuha try to discover what is happening to them is rendered with indelible poignancy. The two teens experience their body switching as a series of dreams - they each can't remember the other's name for very long - and that conceit is film's central metaphor. The way that time moves forward while our younger selves constantly recede can feel like a dream, one that Your Name renders with terrific sensitivity and craft.
Sunday, April 09, 2017
Full disclosure: Kaitlyn Eastin is a personal friend.
Science fiction feels like the right genre for these times, for a period in which norms are disappearing in our politics, our culture, and in the way we identify ourselves. Even as norms change basic drives for connection and community still remain, and it's that tension that is at the heart of the three linked short films that Greenville, South Carolina filmmaker Kaitlyn Eastin (aka MJ Slide) has titled The Smoke Trilogy. Eastin wrote and directed all three installments (Catherine Dee Holly is credited as co-director), and in two of them she plays Jules Riley. Jules is a "gardener", a bounty hunter of sorts, paid to find "mods" - synthetic creatures indistinguishable from humans - and "decommission" (turn off) them when their contracts expire. The cost of Jules's work to her soul is a major through line of The Smoke Trilogy. In the first chapter (Smoke Like Echo) Jules must decommission Tess (Rachel Summers), a mod built to resemble Jules's sister Tristan. Smoke Like Echo is a two-hander, a confrontation in the woods that's as much about Tessa's new sentience as it is about Jules's pain. The rest of the trilogy is the road to Jules and Tessa forming their own kind of family in a world that builds people and then throws them away.
It's fun to see Eastin grow in confidence as an actor and director over the three films. Five Point Mend, the second chapter, is a domestic interlude that finds Tessa pondering the future with a human boyfriend named Booth (Fray Forde) and another sentient mod named Moby (Will Crown) who serves as a kind of philosophical guide. The final chapter is called Wide Bent Crowns and it's here that we're really immersed in the world of the series as the now retired Jules must confront a life she thought had been left behind. There's a long take in this last chapter where we hold on Jules at a critical moment, it's a challenge for any actor and Eastin rises to meet it. The direction and editing (by Tori Beach) are faster and more fluid and the final confrontation between Jules and her former employer Dex (Beth Hill Martin) has some genuine emotional stakes. To be clear, The Smoke Trilogy is a dense, somewhat disorienting text that might not pay off narratively after first viewing but that does function as a complete work. The disorientation doesn't feel accidental though; we're being asked to live in the question of just what our humanity is worth. The Smoke Trilogy is to a large degree about the families we choose, and its existence is an example of the creative energy of the place where it was made. I'm happy to champion it as the work of a friend and as a product of Greenville's film community.
Sunday, April 02, 2017
The new Ghost in the Shell arrives as a "problem" film, in this case one in which discussions of representation and appropriation subsume any evaluation of what's actually on screen. Based on the 1995 anime, the new Ghost in the Shell has been on the cultural radar since the casting of white American Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi. Motoko, known as "Major", is a mechanized human (a human brain in a constructed body) working as a police officer in near-future Japan. In the new version Major and her team report to Defense Minister Aramaki ("Beat" Takeshi Kitano, a major cultural figure in Japan) and work to fight illegal hacking of modified humans. Major's closest relationship is with Doctor Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the corporate scientist who designed her and serves as mother figure, but Ouelet's boss Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) views Major only as a weapon and a product.
Ghost in the Shell is working with some fairly sturdy genre tropes about the individual lost in a world where technology encroaches on humanity. There are also ideas about corporate-sponsored authoritarianism in play, though a weird distinction is made between Cutter and his company (evil) and the government (benign) as represented by Aramaki. What director Rupert Sanders and his writers can't do is put us inside the head of someone who doesn't understand what it means to be human. It's a high bar to clear, and we're told repeatedly that Major feels disconnected not only from herself but from those around her. But when Johansson (who plays Major with the correct sense of looking down at herself) walks down the street she could just as well be her character from Lost in Translation. There's a brief interaction between Major and a sex worker (Adwoa Aboah) that feels as if it could go somewhere, but Sanders cuts away as if he were afraid of the moment. What sense there is of Major's distance from the world comes not from writing or acting but largely from design. The urban Japan of the future, seen mostly in daylight to avoid any Blade Runner-style sleekness, is dingy and crowded. If there is space between buildings it is taken up with giant holographic ads, and there's a sense of Major as one more cog in an always humming machine.
Major and her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) are in pursuit of a hacker named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) who is killing scientists that work for Cutter's company. The unfolding of Kuze's true purpose and of his connection to Major is the most rushed and uncertain part of Ghost in the Shell. There is a mention of an alternate computer network, but it's never explained, and Pitt doesn't get much time to develop a character. Sanders runs into trouble with the revelation of the past that Major and Kuze share. The memory is staged in hazy semi-darkness so Sanders can avoid having to show young Kuze and Motoko as Japanese children, but that choice costs the moment any emotional resonance. That's right, Johansson and Pitt are playing Japanese people kidnapped as children whose brains have been put into constructed white bodies. It's an awkward fact that the film gets around as quickly as possible, though one of the strongest scenes involves a moving Kaori Momoi as Motoko's mother.
It is hard to argue that cultural appropriation within a text mitigates the cultural appropriation of the text's existence, but the absurdity highlights what I think is a somewhat misplaced outrage. Of course white people shouldn't play Japanese people, but Ghost in the Shell concerns a specific universe in which to some humanity is less important than social control. (Draw any parallels to 2017 at your own risk.) "Major" is a construction, a product, and it's as easy to imagine Cutter (a white man) making a thousand more white versions to sell all over the world as it is to imagine him building Japanese or black versions as needed. I don't believe that Johansson's casting is objectively a good or appropriate thing, but it does serve a function within the argument that Ghost in the Shell is making about how it's becoming easier for people to be used as parts in a machine. The "Ghost" of the title refers to the humanity lurking within Major's manufactured body. If Ghost in the Shell doesn't quite work it's ultimately because the film doesn't trust its own dark, strange ghost in favor of something bright, shiny, and obvious.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
Dax Shepard played Crosby Braverman, the lovable screw-up brother, on the NBC series Parenthood for six seasons. The role of Crosby gave Shepard a chance to show a broader range than his screen credits (including When in Rome and Let's Go to Prison) had allowed. Shepard was very winning on the show and it seemed to signal a turning point in his career. It's sad news then that with CHiPs, which he also wrote and directed, Dax Shepard has now appeared in two of the worst films I've ever seen. (The other one is this.) CHiPs is based on the late 1970's television series about California Highway Patrol officers; it isn't a show crying out for revival and Shepard may have actually made those who remember it like it less. Rookie officer Jon Baker (Shepard) and Frank "Ponch" Poncherello (played by Michael Pena and actually an FBI agent) are thrown together to investigate a series of armored car robberies that may point to a cabal of dirty Highway Patrol officers. Vincent D'Onofrio bellows and lumbers as the lieutenant who Baker and Ponch pursue through a series of surprisingly violent action scenes, but the plot is really just an excuse for the film to achieve an unusual trifecta. CHiPs is not only misogynistic and homophobic, it also hates the straight white men at its center. If you can imagine a world in which adult men are terrified of getting too close to each other in a locker room then you're living in the CHiPs universe. Shepard not only acknowledges gay panic he seems to regard it as a source of the film's comic energy. The women of CHiPs, most notably Kristen Bell as Baker's scheming wife, are uniformly sex-obsessed and there is even a scene in which the "not hot enough" Patrol officers are openly mocked. Baker and Ponch don't get off any better. Baker is an former pro bike rider who's addicted to pain pills and Ponch is a sex addict, and these choices are all the more inexplicable because they aren't paid off or resolved in any way. CHiPs is resolutely unfunny and should be ticketed for not being over soon enough.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) has had it. She is thoroughly tired of the small indignities of everyday life, from being stuck behind a pickup truck that has working smokestacks to being cut in front of at the grocery store to her job as a nurse's assistant who has to hear the (sometimes inappropriate) last words of dying seniors. Simply put, as Ruth tells her friend Angie (Lee Eddy), "Everyone is an asshole." It is this existential frustration that drives I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore, the 2017 Sundance Jury prize winner by first time writer/director Macon Blair. Ruth reaches her limit when her home is broken into, and it's what she does next that drives the action of a film best read as a very black comedy about an America most of us don't even brush against. The police are indifferent - a detective (Gary Anthony Williams) on Ruth's case is more concerned with his impending divorce - so Ruth enlists her eccentric neighbor Tony (a very funny Elijah Wood) on a campaign to get her stuff back.
On the surface I Don't Feel at Home looks like some low-budget, neo-Tarantino '90s thriller. There are violent men like Marshall (David Yow) and violent acts on Ruth's path to recovering her laptop, silver service, and medications, but the genre trappings exist just to resolve the story. Melanie Lynskey is superb at playing a very specific kind of unhappiness (see here and here), and Macon Blair knows just how to use that skill to his film's advantage. I Don't Feel at Home is about what happens when Ruth's depressive worldview runs up against something even worse. There is a moment of exhilaration when Ruth tracks down her computer, which has already changed hands once, but it's a fleeting one and doesn't help Ruth's feeling of violation. Later Ruth finds her silver, suffers an injury, and accidentally hurts an old man, and it's that chaos that animates what Blair is doing. The sense that even the smallest effort to get a piece of one's own could lead to suffering is a theme that's only going to get more relevant, and even though Blair shot I Don't Feel at Home months before the 2016 election it's not out of line to call this the first film set in Trump's America.
Blair's script missteps when he tries to create some emotional dynamics among the criminal gang (there are two younger robbers played by Devon Graye and Jane Levy), but he hints at a way out for Ruth when she tries out a ecumenical church that Tony recommends. Don't get the wrong idea, I Don't Feel at Home doesn't have a spiritual message. Religion might provide Ruth with some momentary relief but the grace note of her visiting the church is scored with a vintage Echo & the Bunnymen song. By the end of the film Ruth has begun to find her way back, but the last words Blair chooses to let us hear are those of two men arguing about burgers. The best thing about I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, besides Lynskey's performance, is this tension. There are moments of peace, but there is always a fight somewhere.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Kong: Skull Island takes place mostly in the 1970's, but the new film directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a very modern notion of our relationship to cinema's favorite gorilla. There is no capturing Kong and bringing him back to New York in this new Kong. This time we're the monsters, invaders of Kong's home island who will survive only if he allows it. It's 1973, the last days of the Vietnam War. A scientist named Randa (John Goodman) wants federal backing for an exploratory trip to the "uncharted" island that we already know (because of a prologue set in World War II) is home to Kong, who is rendered impressively by the visual effects team. Randa and his team are accompanied by a tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photographer (Brie Larson), and the whole group is flown in by soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard is the type of soldier who is disappointed when a war ends, and Jackson plays him with an advanced-level degree of jaw clenching.
As soon as we're told of the plan to drop "seismic charges" on the island it's obvious there's more going on here than pure science. Most of Packard's soldiers - who were only days away from going home - are killed and the leads must find their way to a rendezvous point where they can be rescued. The most entertaining thing about Kong besides the creatures is John C. Reilly as the man who clarifies Kong's role on the island. Reilly brings a broad good humor that's lacking in the rest of the characters, who are busy arguing and searching for weapons. Tom Hiddleston seems bored, but that's because he doesn't have a character to play. Hiddleston functions only as a sort of avatar around which the rest of the characters orient themselves, just as Brie Larson's spiky photographer is nominally an audience surrogate who is asked to do little more than run and jump.
Kong should be the most appealing character in any Kong film, and he certainly is here. The filmmakers succeed in giving him personality and in winning our empathy. The fights between Kong and other creatures have the needed degree of awesomeness, but it's too bad the characters around Kong aren't worth climbing a building for.