Friday, April 28, 2017

Will we allow technology to ruin us?

The Circle wrings its hands over a problem that already has been explored elsewhere -- and fails to pack a persuasive punch.

When we're on-line are we using our computers or are our computers using us? And what about all those apps that allow us to share everything about our lives? Have we become genial participants in the destruction of our own privacy?

These and related questions constantly are debated when we discuss -- often on the very technology that's under consideration -- the increasingly linked world many of us spend far too much time inhabiting.

The great fear, of course, is that corporations with sinister motives are taking charge of all this "connection," turning us into a nation of idiots who blindly worship technology without giving enough thought to the gods before whom we're bowing. It's not only our data but our heads that are stuck in various clouds.

Such thoughts inform The Circle, a new movie based on a 2014 novel by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with the movie's director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now).

The movie stars Emma Watson as a young woman who lands her dream job with a company called The Circle. The Circle seems to be one of those "hot" Silicon Valley businesses that specialize in developing apps that create synthetic communities. The company's latest invention -- a tiny camera that can be placed anywhere without fear of detection -- is celebrated at a gathering presided over by the company's president, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks).

Bailey calls the project SeeChange. He introduces the camera with the committed fervor of someone who believes that life never again will be the same -- and that the great shift he's selling is a very good thing.

Bearded and adopting the friendly attitude of a tycoon who's adored by his employees, Hanks appears only intermittently as the movie introduces Emma's Mae to The Circle's corporate culture, which includes monitoring every employee's health and pushing participation in a variety of extra-curricular activities designed to strengthen bonds of camaraderie.

Of course, everything at The Circle seems a bit artificial, and the company's concern about the well-being of its workers might be a bit much even for these isolated tech nerds to swallow.

Much of the movie plays like a parody of the sort of companies at which campuses have replaced offices and order is imposed in ways that sustain an illusion of free-form play.

Eamon rules the company with a partner, an underutilized Patton Oswalt, who does more to suggest manipulative ambition than Hanks.

A wasted John Boyega portrays Ty, the man who created the company's signature app, TruYou. Ty wanders around the campus, occasionally bumping into Mae with whom he shares his cynicism about The Circle.

Privacy becomes the movie's big issue. How much are we willing to surrender? Are the benefits of SeeChange (everything from suicide prevention to halting child abuse) real?

Mae becomes the human guinea pig for testing SeeChange, wearing the tiny camera at all times and turning into an Internet star. She also loses her relationship with a low-tech pal, Ellar Coltrane in a wobbly performance that makes him appear like a non-actor and makes us even more appreciative of the work that director Richard Linklater did with him in Boyhood.

Watson's performance seems to stick close to the surface, but her character could have been better drawn. Same goes for Hanks' Eamon, and although the movie raises intriguing questions, it expresses them with a ton of on-the-nose dialogue that lacks the eloquence of, say, the on-the-nose dialogue Patty Chayefsky wrote for Network, a movie that, in its talky way, was prescient about reality TV and the tendency to turn news into entertainment.

Besides, the principal characters in Network were grown-ups, not 29somethings who seem to approach the workplace as if it were the playgrounds they wish they'd never outgrown.

The late Bill Paxton appears as Mae's father, a man crippled by MS. Paxton's presence -- which reminds us of his absence -- has an emotional impact the filmmakers couldn't have anticipated.

There's nothing wrong with a movie that wants to play with issues and ideas. What such movies need, though, are deeper characters than those who populate The Circle.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to Google a name that I saw dropped on Facebook.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A piercing look at a corrupt society

In director Cristian Mungiu's Graduation, the moral fiber of characters is tested. Most don't pass.
You know the drill. Two people covers. Fearful that attention spans immediately will erode, filmmakers employ a variety of strategies. The characters might talk as they walk. Maybe the camera shifts between close-ups of the speaker and the listener. Or perhaps we hear the conversation in voice over as the camera takes us to a place the filmmakers believe will advance the story.

There's nothing wrong with any of these approaches, but Romanian director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) has little use for them. Instead, he often places both speakers in front of the camera and allows them to converse in a medium shot that would drive many directors crazy with impatience.

Mungiu's style works because he allows life to unfold before the camera as if he's doing nothing whatsoever to manipulate it. He enables us to live with his characters, experience what they experience and understand the society that surrounds them.

Mungiu's new film, Graduation, evolves from a simple premise that conceals a multitude of complications. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a physician, angles to help his teen-age daughter (Maria Dragus) gain admission to prestigious Cambridge University. Romeo approaches this goal with more than the usual parental anxiety because he wants to open a door for Dragus's Eliza to leave a society steeped in corruption.

En route to school one day, Eliza is attacked. The assault shakes her, interfering with her ability to take her exams. The doctor, an ethical man, suddenly must decide whether he should plunge into the web of corruption that will be required to give his daughter an advantage in the testing.

Mungiu further complicates the life of Titieni's Romeo. He has a wife (Lia Bugnar) with whom he doesn't seem to have gotten along for years and a mistress (Malina Manovici) who has a young son. She becomes pregnant with Romeo's child.

Fortunately for audiences, Mungiu doesn't make films that are strident in their condemnation of those struggling in post-Ceausescu Romania. The corruption we see takes place in an atmosphere where pretty much everyone understands how the get-ahead game is played.

The police chief (Vlad Ivanov) is one of Romeo's friends; the doctor doesn't hesitate to go to him for help. The police chief advises Romeo to discuss the matter of his daughter's exams with one of the town's officials (Petre Ciubotaru), a man who wants to be bumped up the waiting list for a liver transplant. Help me; I'll help you. That's the way of things.

None of these people come across as evil, and we even develop sympathy for the ailing town official, who's obviously fearful of dying and perhaps dimly aware that he won't be able to finagle his way out of his own mortality.

Those familiar with Mungiu's work may place Graduation a notch lower than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a 2007 drama about a young woman trying to obtain an abortion in Romania during the 1980s. But that doesn't mean Graduation isn't worth seeing.

Every scene reveals new wrinkles of character and, equally important, of the society in which these characters function. Moreover, Titieni's performance is a wonder. He appears in nearly every frame and creates a character who has abandoned any belief that Romania will reform itself. He tries to hang on to his own integrity and ultimately must face the most difficult of problems. How much ethical compromise justifies a result that most would agree is desirable?

Thick and heavyset, Romeo carries his weight like a burden. It's not just about a few extra pounds. He's weighed down by a society in which hope too often surrenders to desperation.

What to say to a dying friend?

A Spanish drama about an actor facing his final curtain -- and his dog.

Julian has a plateful of what, these days, we're fond of calling issues: Topping the list is Julian's terminal lung cancer, but that's not the only problem Julian faces. He must come to terms with a life that has included a failed marriage, a troubled relationship with his grown son, and bad behavior toward friends.

Moreover, Julian must decide what to do with his most trusted companion, a dog named Truman, a bullmastiff that seems to move through the movie with something akin to exhausted resignation.

Though named for Julian's trusted dog, Truman isn't exactly a dog movie. The movie's precipitating event occurs when Julian's best friend decides to leave his home in Canada to pay a four-day visit to his lifelong pal, who lives in Madrid. A reluctant Tomas shows up without telling Julian that he's coming. What does one say to a dying friend, anyway? And how much will Tomas be forced to confront his own mortality?

Director Cesc Gay easily could have made Truman into a three-hankie tearjerker. Another choice would have been to give the movie a sorrowful tone as we're exposed to the relationship of two friends who've known each other since childhood. Gay takes neither route, opting instead for an approach that allows the actors -- Argentine actor Ricard Darin (as Julian) and Spanish actor Javier Camara (as Tomas) -- to create a relationship that is at once comfortable and challenging.

It doesn't take long for us to learn that Julian has decided he's done with chemotherapy, a course of treatment that gave him a brief respite from a cancer that since has returned. Julian's sister Paula (Delores Fonzi) can't accept Julian's decision. Tomas, on the other hand, realizes that Julian's choice makes sense. Why prolong a battle that can't be won?

There's a bit of an odd-couple undertone to the friendship between the two men. Julian has lived a life that has made room for impulse. Tomas, a married science professor, seldom follows his whims.

Still, he wants to be available for his pal and accompanies him to a funeral home where Julian arranges for his departure. He even indulges Julian by paying for an impromptu trip to Amsterdam so that Julian can visit his son, who's studying abroad. Among other things, Julian hasn't a Euro to his name.

Julian visits his doctor, but Gay wisely avoids turning Truman into a medical drama, devoting more time to Julian's efforts to find a home for his aging dog and to reconcile with himself before it's too late. The dog's destiny isn't difficult to predict, but what really makes this movie satisfying is Gay's focus on two men on the cusp of the third act of their lives, an act that Julian will not live to play out.

If there's a conclusion to be drawn here, it might go something like this: Even in dire situations, we remain ourselves, bumbling through as best we can.

Lost in the woods inside her head

If you've ever watched someone go through a schizophrenic episode, you understand how families can be ravaged by the behavior of a person who spirals into a world of delusion and horror, augmented by flashes of what appear to be thrilling cosmic insights. The documentary, God Knows Where I Am, tells the story of one such person. Relatively late in life, Linda Bishop was consumed by schizophrenia. During a frigid winter, Bishop occupied an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse in what was becoming a suburban neighborhood. She was about 100 yards from a neighbor but never was seen and never asked for help. Apples she found in a field became Bishop's only sustenance. Ultimately, Bishop starved to death. Directors Jedd and Todd Wider discovered a diary that Bishop dutifully kept. As a result, what might have been an anonymous death becomes the center of a sorrow-laden film that exposes the dangers of schizophrenia -- to self and others. Punctuated by Lori Singer's readings from Bishop's diaries, the movie presents a picture of a woman who expected divine intervention to save her from her four-month ordeal. I was going to call it a "self-imposed" ordeal, but that would be a little unfair. In her pre-illness life, Bishop was a good friend and a fine mother, but she lost herself to an illness that she protected from outside intrusion. True, she stopped taking the medications that normalized her life, but can a person whose mental processes become terribly distorted make responsible choices about her own welfare? Some of Bishop's diary entries have a transcendent glow that the directors try to match with visuals of the house and surrounding woods. But help -- divine or otherwise -- never arrived, and Bishop succumbed. Perspective is provided by Bishop's sister and her daughter, by townsfolk, by law enforcement officials, and by former friends. The title, taken from Bishop's writings, is instructive: Had Bishop been able to put a question mark at the end of that sentence, she might be alive today.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

When a search becomes a destiny

The Lost City of Z brings a real sense of adventure to the screen.

These days, the movies give us lots of synthetic adventure, including gargantuan comic-book creations for a generation of couch potatoes. It's been a while since anyone tried to serve up any real adventure. Credit director James Gray with doing just that in The Lost City of Z, the amazing story of a 20th Century explorer who journeyed deep into the Amazon jungle in search of an ancient city he dubbed "Z" and which others called El Dorado.

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was a British army officer who was sent to Latin America to help chart the border between Brazil and Peru. During his mapping expedition, Fawcett became convinced that he had found archeological evidence of a lost civilization that was far more advanced than anyone believed possible. European prejudice against Latin America's non-white indigenous populations preferred to see savages, not innovators.

Basing his movie on David Grann's 2009 non-fiction bestseller, Gray tells a story that shifts between England and the Amazon -- with a brief stop for some compelling war footage. Fawcett served as an officer in World War I; he was wounded during a vicious trench battle.

Populated with stuffed-shirt Brits, Amazonian tribesman, and Fawcett's loyal crew, the movie proves a stirring adventure that opts for credible realism rather than over-inflated drama.

Joining Hunnam -- quietly fierce in his commitment to finding the lost city -- is a nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson, who plays Henry Costin, one of Fawcett's crew. On his last expedition to the jungle, Fawcett also was accompanied by his son Jack (Tom Holland). A fine Sienna Miller portrays Fawcett's wife, a woman who wanted to participate in an Amazonian mission but wound up staying home. She cared for the couple's three children and endured a life of committed loneliness. She supported her husband's dreams.

At one point, tension erupts between Fawcett and arctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a man who initially supports the search for the lost city but who becomes a liability when he faces the jungle's heat and hardships.

Gray (We Own the Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant) never before has worked on such a large scale. With support from cinematographer Darius Khondji, Gray gives the jungle sequences vigor and excitement that surpasses the scenes in England, a location to which the movie periodically returns.

I have to admit, though, at times I found myself yearning for a more rapturous approach to the movie's imagery. Maybe that's more my problem than the movie's. The British interludes tend to disrupt the adventure but that may be the point. We share Fawcett's impatience about returning to the jungle.

When Fawcett encounters an opera company in the middle of the jungle, viewers may be reminded of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, another Amazon-based movie about doomed obsession.

But Hunnam (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak) makes an interesting choice: His Fawcett is not a man of febrile passions; he's a man of mettle, and he approaches adventure as a kind of solemn duty. It's his reason for being.

Fawcett eventually loses his heart to the jungle. The jungle, however, isn't the most accommodating of lovers, a reality that underlies the movie's best sequences: Arrows of tribesman raining down on the explorers' raft, an encounter with head hunters and the crew caught in torrents of onrushing water.

At one point, Miller delivers the line that underscores Fawcett's ambition and perhaps the movie's, as well. She cites Robert Browning's poem, Andrea del Sarto, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"

Despite references to Britain's imperial racism and slavery, I'm not sure that Gray attains the thematic heights that a film such as this could have reached. But his grasp proves strong: As the story of a man who consistently risked his life in search of a city only he believes existed, Lost City serves up more genuine excitement than most of its artificially inflated competitors.

Movies in the time of war and heartbreak

A great cast makes Their Finest irresistible.

I can't recall the last time I saw a movie set during World War II that made me feel better than when I sat down to watch it. Don't get me wrong, Their Finest, the movie to which I refer, never mires itself in cheap sentiment. Rather, it celebrates the pluck required to persevere in the face of terrible loss -- and, in this movie, those losses can be felt.

On one level, Their Finest is a comedy about British moviemaking during the World War II. It's 1940, and the British government wants films that are both authentic and inspirational. In search of a realism that also will appeal to the female audience, the Ministry of Information recruits an advertising copywriter (Gemma Arterton), who may have a flare for such matters. Initially, Arterton's Catrin is assigned to writing only women's dialogue, which -- in the trade -- inelegantly was referred to as "slop."

Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners and An Education) offers period-piece comforts and a cast that hits every note, including the most acerbic, with bracing clarity.

The heart of the story involves a burgeoning relationship between Arterton's Catrin and a snidely witty screenwriter played by Sam Claflin. Because of his writing skills, Claflin's Tom Buckley has been exempted from the military; perhaps his position at the home front explains Tom's cynicism. But Claflin reveals a man who genuinely cares about the movies and hopes to make a good one.

There's a complication: Catrin happens to be married. I won't say more about how the movie works this out, but know that Arterton and Claflin make a great screen couple. They argue plenty, but also set off sparks -- and, even better, their attraction springs from something akin to an appreciation of each other's skills. They're unlikely soul mates.

Joining Arterton and Claflin are Richard E. Grant, as a studio head, and Bill Nighy as an actor whose ego is stronger than his recent successes. If you didn't already know, Nighy qualifies as a comic treasure, an actor who can inflate a character's sense of self-importance without turning an audience against him. His timing remains exquisite, and he brings sincerity to scenes that require it without being cloying.

I'd love to see an entire movie about Nighy's character and Sophie (Helen McCrory), the woman who eventually inherits the job of being his agent.

The movie's writers and filmmakers are working on a screenplay for a film about Dunkirk, which is supposed to buoy British spirits, bring tears to the eyes of war-weary Londoners and help persuade the US to join the war effort. To support the latter purpose, a hunky American (Jake Lacy) who has been flying in the British air force is foisted on cast and crew. He flies better than he acts.

Set during a time when most of Britain's young men were away, Their Finest shows how the door of opportunity opened for women. Arterton's character is more than ready to walk through it. It also makes clear the horrors of the Blitz, the ceaseless bombings that made life in London truly hellish. Young men were dying at the front and civilians were dying at home.

OK, it's not exactly a revelation to say that we must keep on even when times become terribly bleak, but I had no problem watching this group of actors deliver the message.

Scherfig manages a neat trick. She has made a movie that juxtaposes smiles and heartbreak and emerges on the far side of maudlin. Good for her.

'Unforgettable?' More like regrettable

In trying to dream up a reason that someone might want to see the new movie Unforgettable, I could come up with only one reason -- and it's more about curiosity than anything that might be termed credible persuasion. Katherine Heigl, who usually plays sweet, turns bitter to play the latest murderous ice queen to provide an audience with reasons to hiss, boo and giggle. Sporting shoulder-length blond hair that never has seen a curl and an alabaster complexion, Heigl looks like a late-model android; there's something unnervingly fake about her appearance. As directed by Denise Di Novi, from a screenplay by Christian Hodson, Unforgettable can't even manage to attain the level of superior trash. It's not for want of trying: A melodramatic story introduces us to Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), a writer who leaves San Francisco to join her fiancé David (Geoff Stults) and his daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). Traumatized by an abusive relationship in which she was beaten, Julia is ready for a new life. Enter Heigl's Tessa, David's insanely possessive former wife who intrudes herself on her husband's new relationship. Tessa ultimately carries her obsession to absurdly violent heights. A near thorough lack of plausibility and scenes that had a preview audience laughing (in the wrong places, I think) make this a preposterous entry into an already soggy spring lineup.

A movie that doesn't keep its promise

Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac star in The Promise , a would-be epic that touches on the Armenian genocide of 1915.

When the Ottoman Empire was falling apart in the early part of the 20th Century and the first shots of World War I were being fired, 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Turkish army. Unlike the industrialized genocide of Nazi Germany, the murder of Turkey's Armenian population took place in less systematic fashion. In part, the Ottoman mass murders were prompted by deep-rooted Ottoman suspicions that the Armenians represented a rebellious social element. An already teetering empire would be further imperiled. And, of course, the Armenians were Christians in a predominantly Muslim culture.

There were other reasons for Ottoman antipathy toward its Armenian citizens, but few of them -- beyond the bigotry of Turks -- are effectively dramatized in the historically sketchy new movie, The Promise.

Although the Armenian genocide makes its way into much of the movie, the filmmakers try (understandably, I suppose) to find a hook on which to hang a drama with mainstream aspirations.

In pursuit of said hook, they concoct a romantic triangle between an Armenian who aspires to become a doctor (Oscar Isaac), a sophisticated Armenian woman who has lived in Paris (Charlotte Le Bon) and an American journalist (Christian Bale) trying to chronicle the murderous assault on the empire's Armenians.

Working in a conventional style that favors handsome imagery, director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) introduces audiences to a horrific chapter of history about which many know little. But George fails to fuse the movie's many elements into an emotionally shattering whole.

Tellingly, the movie's most moving element arrives during the end credits when we see photos of young Armenians who perished at the hands of Turks. A title card that enumerates the period's genocidal toll leaves us to contemplate the unthinkable in ways the movie too often fails to provide.

The story begins in a small village in southern Turkey, where Turks and Armenians live in harmony, according to Mikael Boghosian (Isaac), the village apothecary. Mikael aspires to be a doctor. To achieve his goal, he agrees to marry and use his fiancee's dowry to pay tuition in Constantinople, where he'll pursue his medical studies. Mikael vows to return to his bride-to-be (Angela Sarafyan) as soon as he completes his studies.

In cosmopolitan Constantinople, Mikael meets Le Bon's Anna. Immediately, he's smitten, thus putting his marriage promise in jeopardy. Anna, an Armenian who has lived abroad, already is involved with Chris Myers (Bale), a hard-hitting reporter who tends to lose his temper when confronted with Turkish prejudice and self-satisfaction. He becomes pretty involved in the stories he covers.

The romance forces George to bring the lovers together before driving them apart, a necessity that also prompts George to divide his attentions between Mikael's story -- forced labor to support the war effort and subsequent escape -- and Chris's attempts to document genocidal atrocities.

Mikael's perilous journey eventually returns him to his home village, where his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) insists that he fulfill his promise, marry his fiancee, hide in a cabin in the woods and "make babies." Chris's journalistic probing lands him in a Turkish prison.

Unfortunately, many developments in the movie are telegraphed or put to the service of the emotional agenda dictated by the love story and by what may have been a desire to tame a period of indigestible political chaos for the screen.

There's value in The Promise for those who know nothing about the fate of the Armenians, but a movie such as this should have left one devastated and inconsolable. Perhaps it could have had George been able to shed the kind of italicized filmmaking that, at one point, introduces actor James Cromwell (as Henry Morgenthau, US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire) to deliver an on-the-nose bit of dialogue in opposition to injustice.

Isaac's brooding, thoughtful demeanor is supposed to play against a bearded Bale's singular commitment to getting the story, but George and his co-screenwriter Robin Swicord haven't been able to satisfy two masters: the need to depict the horrors of genocide and the desire to tell a heartbreaking love story.

So we wind up with a movie that often misses its mark, and suffers all the more for it by having had the courage to tackle such an important subject.

The story of a stormy relationship

Cezanne et Moi tells the story of the friendship between Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola.
Sometimes expectation becomes the enemy of enjoyment. That partly explains why I found Cezanne et Moi, the story of the stormy friendship between artist Paul Cezanne and novelist Emile Zola disappointing.

But my initial enthusiasm about the prospect of seeing a movie about an artist whose studio and home I visited in Aix-en-Provence isn't the only reason that Cezanne et Moi proved a letdown.

The rub: The movie doesn't have enough to say about either Cezanne's art or Zola's writing.

Skipping back and forth in time, director Daniele Thompson depicts a relationship in which Zola gains fame and fortune and Cezanne suffers from a lack of recognition. Although their fates were different, neither man achieved much by way of contentment.

Cezanne comes across as a typical outsider, a painter who's contemptuous of the success of other artists. He can behave in ways that turn him into the sort of fellow people might cross the street to avoid.

Zola, on the other hand, acquires money, a home in Paris and social status. But in this telling, he also knows that his comfortable life is at odds with the social outlook expressed in his writing. He frets about being a hypocrite.

Cezanne and Zola were childhood friends in Aix-en-Provence, but as the two matured, their social positions reversed. Usually broke, Cezanne struggled to survive on a small allowance from his disapproving family. Zola, who didn't hail from a family with money, found material success.

Zola's novel, L'oeuvre became the occasion for a major split between the two men because it depicted details of Cezanne's life. Cezanne felt betrayed.

Guillaume Canet plays Zola as an emotionally steady fellow who loans Cezanne money and mostly endures the painter's insults. Guillaume Gallienne has the showier role as an artist of explosive temperament.

Women are less important to the story, but not inconsequential. Alice Pol portrays Zola's wife, Alexandrine, a woman with whom Cezanne once had an affair. Alexandrine was a seamstress and maybe a prostitute whose marriage to Zola moved her up the social ladder. Deborah Francois portrays Cezanne's mistress.

All of this would have been fine had Thompson done more to explore the work of either man. She particularly shortchanges Cezanne, offering too little by way of illumination about how he viewed his work.

Safe to say that Cezanne has eclipsed Zola in terms of reputation, so a modest suggestion: A trip to a museum where you can view Cezanne's art might prove more rewarding than this scattered, intermittently compelling drama.