Friday, November 3, 2017

Movie Review - The Circle

The Circle
Based on the book by Dave Eggers
Starring: Emma Watson, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton, Karen Gillan, Nate Corddry, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Amie McCarthy Winn, Eve Gordon, Patton Oswalt, Smith Cho, Amir Talai, Elvy Yost, Ellen Wong, Poorna Jagannathan, Judy Reyes and Beck
Release Date: April 28th, 2017
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Mae's life isn't going well, her car breaking down and forcing her to call her ex Mercer to fix it is just the latest indignity. In fact her parents talk more about Mercer and all the help he's given around the house what with Mae's father having MS than they actually talk about Mae. But her luck is about to change. Her friend Annie has gotten her an interview at the groundbreaking tech company The Circle. Mae gets a job in Customer Experience, and it may not be the job to fulfill her fear of wasted potential, but it's where everyone starts at The Circle. Yet her start is rockier than most. She's not participating as much as the organization would like. She's not reaching out instead she's focusing inwards and escaping in a kayak whenever she can. Late one night after visiting her parents she snaps and takes a kayak out on the bay which she's "borrowed" from her regular rental place after they've closed. Ironically it's tech from The Circle that catches her malfeasance but also saves her life. She is brought before two of the three founders, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton who decide to not punish her but use her as an example. Make her the face of a new initiative. Mae is going transparent. Everything she does, every move she makes, can be watched by millions of people worldwide. Because sharing is caring and knowledge not shared is a crime. Yet as Mae is scaling to new heights in the company her friend Annie is spiraling downwards. Mae doesn't know the end game of The Circle or how transparency is another method of control blindly loving her fame. As she gets in deeper she will be forced to make hard decisions and witness horrors that could change everything. It's up to her to stop The Circle, but will she?

"They're Watching You!" With those simple, musical, almost whispered words while waiting for Tom Hiddleston in Kong: Skull Island in a darkened theater I was instantly sold on The Circle. Of course previews are designed specifically to get asses in seats so despite my love of the preview I waited for reviews and in the meantime picked up the book. For years I knew who Dave Eggers is, more for his founding of McSweeney's, the west coast's answer to The New Yorker, than for his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but I'd never actually read his work. Ironically the book gave me more hope for the movie, until the abysmal reviews came in. I mean, 16% "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes is one of the worst scores I've seen in recent years, but on the bright side I hear the film will do well at The Razzies. So there's always a silver lining. Going into this movie with low, in fact almost no expectations was interesting. Yes, I was still frustrated when they got something so right only to follow it up with such a colossal misinterpretation of the text, but those were things I was able to laugh off. Sometimes knowing you're watching a dud gives you freedom to enjoy it for what it is. That's not to say I didn't have major issues, I still have criticisms aplenty, they're just from a more zen place. A place where Emma Watson seemingly single-handedly destroyed a film with an otherwise near-perfect cast. But it can't all be blamed on her, oh wait, it can, because all the changes, the taking a dark satire and spinning it into a thriller, all of that seemed in service of making the character of Mae more in line with Watson's values than as she was written. Because Watson is someone who would never drink the Kool-Aid. Do the people who made this film know about Jonestown?  

So let's go into Emma Watson's Razzie worthy performance. I really can't think of anyone more miscast than Watson as Mae. Mae is ambitious, manipulative, sexual, clever, and instead here she is atonal, flat, passionless, sexless. Look at how they clothe her! She's wearing all these sweaters that fully cover her body so that not an inch of skin is visible. For years now I've had friends who hate Watson's acting. I've always been indifferent to her. She's not how I see Hermione, but then the movies aren't how I see the world of Harry Potter at all. She has a funny cameo in This Is the End, but The Bling Ring was so boring I have tried to excise it from my mind, as for Beauty and the Beast, we are not going there. But I do respect her and I do follow what she does, especially with regards to not just her stance on feminism but on reading as well. So the fact that she plays Mae as someone with no charisma, someone who literally NO ONE would follow isn't just baffling to me, it takes the punch out of the whole movie. I don't know if I can accurately state how bad she is. The lines she delivers feel as if she's reading them off cue cards and is being forced to do so and is therefore coming off as harassed and with just the whiff of pissed off teenager being forced to say hi to company. Was there even a director? Because ANY sensible person in charge should have been like, "Hey Emma, can we get some emoting or acting here? You are an actress right?" Mae is stripped bare, but not literally because God forbid Emma shows some skin, and made boring. When Annie tells Mae she's perfect, I had the biggest laugh. Annie, that's the speed talking! 

Yet the biggest changes that were wrought happen in the movie's climax. When Mae does a presentation on how Circle technology can be used to find anyone on earth things spiral out of control and her ex Mercer dies. This is true in both the movie and the book. Only in the book, a dark dystopian comedy, Mae is the instigator, she's egging the Circlers on. She's releasing drones like flying monkeys and that's the moment in the book when you realize that Mae is one of them. But here, oh no, the sexless Emma Watson couldn't be seen as causing someone's death. So instead she's pushing against hunting down Mercer. She's hemming and hawing and Tom Hanks as Eamon Bailey steps out and drives Mercer literally to his death. Um, WTF is this? Bailey is the papa bear of The Circle, if anything Patton Oswalt should have been behind this brutal manslaughter. This moment is the moment, for me, that the book gelled and also the moment when I realized Holllywood just didn't get it. James Ponsoldt, a director and writer whom I've never heard of aside from his David Foster Wallace movie which I'm now probably never going to watch, just didn't get it. The Circle isn't about a near miss, a disaster avoided, this is about a technological Utopia being thrust on us with forced adaption to this secretly totalitarian regime, not something with a happily ever after. And again, I don't know if this was to preserve the "nice" imagine that Watson has built up or because they thought the ending was too bleak. Here's the thing, the bleak ending is more real. The reason the book drew me in is because at the end Mae wasn't the savior, she was Judas!

Though Ty turns out to be the character most changed. In fact, I'm surprised they actually got John Boyega at all with how minimal the role is. In the book "Ty" is a mysterious stranger who Mae is drawn to and has relations with only to eventually find out he is one of the three founders of the company. Yes, I do admit that drawing out that reveal, even in the book, pushes credulity, but to go the opposite way and have him just as exposition and then a deus ex machina is a waste of his talents. While I wasn't all on the Boyega train to begin with I've seen him enough now to know that he is criminally wasted here. He actually has no point other than to fill the plot holes. Plus, can we talk about that hasty ending? You're not going to watch this film, trust me, you're not, so here are some spoilers, in fact all the spoilers. Mae turns against the company and in a lecture she's giving during the talk, thanks to Ty, all the "secret" correspondence of the other two founders is leaked. In the book this is actually what Ty WANTS Mae to do but as I've said before, she goes deliciously Judas and that's the end of Ty. Instead the data destroys the founders yet somehow The Circle survives and Mae's out kayaking... about the only thing they got right is Mae and that stupid kayak. I just don't get it. I mean, just why!?! This book was a bestseller and then you go and do all these tweaks and twists and add a HEA and you think you're going to get a blockbuster movie? That's not how things work. Create a good adaptation OR a good reinterpretation. Don't give us muck. Audiences don't like it, as Rotten Tomatoes has clearly shown.

But the most nonsensical thing to me is something that probably I and only other graphic designers would notice, and that's The Circle's logo. The Circle's logo as seen on the right hand of the image above is ubiquitous in the film and is just plain boring and derivative. Like Apple redoes The Criterion Collection's logo. You might be wondering why this would bother me so much, and the answer is Jessica Hische. Jessica Hische is an amazing designer noted for her typography skills. Seriously, check her out and you'll realize you've been loving her stuff for years without even knowing it. As she said about The Circle on her website: "After working with Dave Eggers on Hologram for the King I was pumped to be brought on board to design his new book, The Circle. It was especially fun to design this cover, as I’ve spent the last two years living in San Francisco surrounded by the tech industry (my husband works for Facebook) and the story is set in an influential social media company. I also had to design a logo for the fictitious company, The Circle, and was inspired by the interweaving connectivity of social media sites and also knots that once tight are difficult to untie." The logo she designed is perfection. I don't know if Eggers' description or her design came first but it captures what the book is about 100%. But should I be surprised that a movie would trash the work of a talented designer and start over with something bland and unoriginal when that is what they did with the whole narrative? I guess not. But I can still grumble about it.


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