Film review – The Circle (James Ponsoldt, 2017)

“Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.”

So says Eamon Bailey, Tom Hanks’s character in the new science-fiction thriller The Circle. Well, you should take his advice. Knowing that this film is one you should watch for yourself is better than believing the dismissive reviews, because the fast-tracking to direct-to-streaming does a vast disservice to film that is both thought provoking and well executed.

The film stars Emma Watson as Mae, a young woman who begins a career at the titular company The Circle, working as a help desk assistant. She is helped through the door by an old friend called Annie (Karen Gillan), who has a considerable level of seniority at the company. It is headed up by the Steve Jobs-like Eamon Bailey (Hanks), a believably powerful visionary and motivational speaker at the top of the company. We follow Mae as she journeys into the company, becoming the saccharine champion for its upcoming products and turning herself into a genuine celebrity by becoming “transparent” and having live videos of her life 24/7 on the platform SeeChange.

It’s like she looking in a Black Mirror

When I first saw the trailer for The Circle, I was sat in an AMC cinema in New York. It looked absolutely fantastic at the time and I’d already added it my my mental list of films I needed to see this year. I was, therefore, shocked to find out that it was side-stepping cinemas here in the U.K. and heading straight to Netflix. The production and distribution companies will certainly have their reasons for doing this – namely the critical planning and commercial failure in the U.S.A. – but I can’t help but think that it hasn’t been given a fair chance.

If you’re a fan of the Charlie Brooker series ‘Black Mirror’, you will be forgiven for feeling a sense of familiarity with the film. Not only is the story exactly the kind of thing that would be covered by Brooker’s brilliant series – indeed the recent episode Nosedive is a clear touch point – but the visual realisation feels like it is part of the same universe. As the page fills up with comments, likes, stats and charts, engulfing Mae as she carries on with her normal day-to-day life, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a common element across the two productions. That said, Dave Eggers’s original novel was released in 2013 so it is quite feasible that it served as inspiration to Brooker, though the visual similarities are inescapable.

Tom Hanks plays Steve Jobs

This is a film that utilises Watson’s undeniable talents as an actress to good effect. Her character goes on a journey and Watson’s performance allows us to join her on it, despite some convenient jumps in her development. Her changing relationship with her family and best friends Annie (Gillan) and Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) are the backbone of the film. There is, of course, an extra poignancy with her parents as both Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly unfortunately passed away after filming was completed.

John Boyega, through no fault of his own, is something of a let down. His character, Ty, is one of the more obvious loose ends in the film. There is almost certainly a cut of this film that exists with more Boyega included. Instead, we are left with a character that looks on with menace in the background as the plot develops around him. His character is a co-founder of The Circle but he has fallen out of love with what his company has become. There’s a lot to work with there. Why not have a meaty argument with Hanks’s Eamon to reinforce his feelings?

This is not the Star Wars and Harry Potter crossover you were looking for

Indeed, there also seems to be a whole segment dropped from the film where Annie spirals into depression following Mae’s developing successes within The Circle, which left me wondering if I’d missed a whole segment out of the film (I hadn’t). Her jump from focused career woman to nervous wreck happens in an instant, apparently in the space of one short seminar. It’s this kind of thing that makes me wonder exactly who was calling the shots on the editing and whether they’d be better suited as a tree surgeon.

The 18-35 market in the U.K. would have been excited by this kind of film and it’s a failing of the marketing research that this wasn’t spotted. Ironically, I’m confident they have looked at analytical data and spotted the popularity of ‘Black Mirror’ on U.K. Netflix, which has led them to releasing it directly on to the platform. It’s just disappointing that this will never be released at cinemas.

To look down the listings at my local cinema and see a summer schedule full of mindless sequels, I can’t help but think the audience’s lack of imagination is being encouraged and nurtured by the larger studios’ inability to take risks.

I’m sad for everyone involved that this film won’t get a wider audience and I’m sad it was critically panned. There is an important message about modern life and the role of social media here. It’s a warning. 

Film review – Sully: The Miracle on the Hudson (Clint Eastwood, 2016)

“No one told us. No one said you are going to lose both engines at a lower altitude than any jet in history.”

A defiantly memorable line from a triumphant film, delivered with all the finesse of one of the greatest living actors being directed by another. It is a coming together to be cherished, especially with results this good.

Clint Eastwood’s latest film has all the vigour of his heyday performances, despite the fact he has now reached the grand age of 86. Whilst many would have been thinking about retirement decades earlier – nobody would have blamed him for waving goodbye after what would have been a fitting farewell in 2009’s Gran Torino – he continues to surprise film lovers with yet more tremendous creative flourishes. In a year that has been tarnished by far too many deaths of icons of film, music, television and beyond, Sully is a much-welcomed gift from one of the greats.

Hanks and Eckhart are in fine form

Tom Hanks is in fine form as the titular Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, a former US Air Force pilot turned passenger plane captain who literally bet 155 lives on his own instinct when a flock of Canada geese destroyed both engines of US Airline Flight 1549 as it departed from LaGuardia Airport. Sully’s instinct led him to successfully land the plane in the Hudson River. Heralded by the media, along with his copilot First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), as a hero, the National Transport Safety Bord (NTSB) weren’t as happy, opening up an investigation into what happened with a pre-determined plan to pin the damage to the aircraft on Sully due to pilot error, which would end his career. Their argument pivoted on the feasibility that the aircraft could have been landed at any of the nearby runways, the best option of which was nearby Teterboro Airport.

The film’s story plays out in a non-linear fashion, flitting between the aftermath of the landing and build up to the court hearing, Sully’s recollection of the incident (and bouts of post-traumatic stress) and some flashbacks to his pilot training in his youth.

There is little in the way of artistic licensing from Eastwood, largely sticking to a realistic and human story. Indeed, where it really makes an impact is that it never simplifies the technicalities of the aircraft or the arguments of either side for the benefit of those who aren’t paying attention. This is an intellectual film that respects its audience. The only worrying thing is that it felt so fresh – a matter that is simply indicative of the state of Hollywood in the present day.

This film may not make great waves at the box office as it battles out against Fantastic Beasts, Doctor Strange and Rogue One, but in years to come it will stand up alongside any of the films that Eastwood and Hanks have been involved with and will be seen as a work of art.

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

After a relatively long break, Steven Spielberg is back behind the director’s chair, and it was worth the wait.

Reading the description of Bridge of Spies, his first film since the hugely successful biopic Lincoln, it has all the hallmarks of some of his greatest achievements in cinema. It’s based on a true story. It’s a story about individual battles within a larger situation. It stars Tom Hanks. It would have been a surprise if this wasn’t a huge success.

Set between 1957 and 1960 during the height of the Cold War, the film focuses on James B. Donovan (Hanks), a lawyer tasked with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a pilot whose U-2 spy plane has been shot down over the Soviet Union. The negotiation concerns trading Powers for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet KGB spy held captive in the USA who Donovan has previously defended in court. However, tensions rise when Donovan shows his determination to include an additional US citizen – student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) – in a move that seemingly only he is keen to see through.

bridgeofspiesscreenshot

The film at times threatens to be sabotaged by a slow pace, though Spielberg keeps it going just enough to avoid it becoming a snooze-fest. The plot is one full of intricacies that reward the attentive viewer, so I’m not sure the modern audiences will get it in the same way they did with Schindler’s List, for example. [1]

This is an ode to traditional storytelling and any movements it makes to remind us of Spielberg’s supreme talents are trumped by its underlining of Tom Hanks as one of the greatest living actors. This is not a story about espionage, politics or the Cold War. It is a film about one man’s unwavering desire to stick to his principles. Hanks portrays Donovan as a totally unassuming man whose aggression is only touched on when he feels the principles for which he stands are threatened. As with most of his best roles, it has a way of pulling you in and asking you what you would do in his shoes.

If it is considered for any awards in the next few months, it will be for Hanks as an actor in a leading role. For all the clever cinematography and attentive set design, they are merely the stage on which Hanks is allowed to fly.

Bridge of Spies is release in cinemas worldwide on 27th November 2015.

[1] I’m well aware that this sounds condescending. It is fueled directly by the woman in front of me who three times during the film decided to have a quick check of her phone next to her pocket. Whilst it was only a minor distraction for me (it wasn’t so bad to warrant me tapping her on the shoulder), she missed two critical plot points and the description of what the characters did next in the final credits. Definitely a justification for the theory that the audience’s participation level is as important as the care put into a film.

Saving Mr Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013)

I was inevitably sceptical about watching this. It’s a film that was created, in part, by Walt Disney Studios and stars family-favourite actor Tom Hanks as family-favourite animator, voice-actor and business magnate Walt Disney. If there’s ever any story that’s going to sugar-coat the facts, it is this.

Fortunately for Saving Mr Banks, Walt Disney is not the main character. That honour goes to Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers. Even more fortunately, her portrayal is up there with the finest of her career.

The story centres around Disney’s ongoing pursuit of producing a film adaptation of Poppins, something that Travers had resisted for years due to her apparent hatred of everything the company has ever been associated with.

In particular, we pick up the main thread story as she embarks on a short two-week trip to the studio headquarters to meet with a small creative team consisting of music legends the Sherman brothers (brilliantly portrayed by Jason Schwarzman and B. J. Novak) and Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). Her main intent is seemingly to sabotage every ounce of creativity in the hopes that the film is never made, lest the essence of her perfectly sculpted tale be destroyed.

This is intertwined with flashbacks to her time growing up in 1907 Queensland. These are the real standout portions of the film, and they shy away from the watered-down story we are unravelling in 1961 Los Angeles. Colin Farrell‘s turn as Traver’s alcoholic father is exceptional and this story is key to understanding how she acts in later life. I wished we had been treated to longer in Australia, but this tale was never going to be a three hour epic.

Back in LA, the story moves along at a reasonable pace, adding enough humour to the mix to ensure we don’t forget how magical the film making process is when Walt is driving it. This often works, but I shook my head in disbelief at the scene in which Travers finally changes her mind and starts to support the film. I won’t spoil it, but I’d love to know whether or not this really happened. I suspect not. It is somewhat ironic that a story centring on someone’s dislike of the Disney filmmaking process should be treated in exactly that manner.

Hanks didn’t have a lot to work with and that’s to be understood. That said, he still gives a stellar performance and he can’t be faulted. He will be considered for the awards season regardless, but not for this film – Captain Phillips is a much meatier role for him to be proud of, and one that will doubtless be featured heavily when the awards nominees are announced in January.

The praise in this film, rather, should be heaped upon Thompson for successfully portraying what must have been an immensely difficult character to master. That she makes us warm so much to a person that was evidently so emotionally cold is something worth admiring, even if everything around her is so sugar-coated.

Saving Mr Banks is released in cinemas in the UK on 29th November 2013.

20131117-131220.jpg