By David Elliott
APPETIZER: Reviews of The Circle and The Lost City of Z
The CircleThank heaven for Emma Watson! How often we felt that, watching her brainy little Hermione saving Harry and Ron in the Harry Potter series. Watson delivers again, as Mae in The Circle. She is rescued from a dismal temp job, invited to join the Bay Area’s smart, rising elite at The Circle. The ring-shaped, corporate campus is as cool and glassy as Watson’s American accent. The Circle is a Hogwarts School minus magic and medievalism, its British witches and wizards replaced by computers and their giddy human servants.
The movie, directed by James Ponsoldt from a script by him and original writer (novelist) Dave Eggers, has Mae as a recruit who can’t quite swallow the brightly feathered hook of futurism. The visionary fly-caster is boss Eamon Bailey. He and his partner (Patton Oswalt), among the few people over 40 at the vast complex, are angling to destroy “criminal” secrecy by eliminating privacy, by creating ominiscient spy-tech. Thrilled by this smothering promise of “transparent” democracy, young savants glow like Mormon missionaries programmed by robots. The film has a wry hum of smiling menace from Tom Hanks as Bailey, his snappy great-guyness twinkled by sinister shadings.
But it’s Watson who keeps the concepts circling, by not being too cerebral. Her pretty face and big eyes are rich in quicksilver reactions as Mae corkscrews from belief to doubt and back, though the finish has a teasing ambivalence. There are some mediocre chases and a skeptical rogue genius (John Boyega) who hangs around being obscurely subversive (instead of Deep Throat’s big garage, he has long storage vaults). There is good work by Karen Gillan as Mae’s jealous mentor, Glenne Headley as her mother and, as her stricken dad, Bill Paxton (his sign-out role; he died in February).
The story could have benefited from the more elegant visual allure and sexiness of Gattaca, the 1997 fable about the dangers of biogenetics and scientific elitism. The Circle is, to use an old-tech term, something of a chalk talk. But as Hermione proved early in Hogwarts classes, Watson is no piece of chalk.
The Lost City of ZHe never knew Richard Nixon’s rhetorical phrase (State of the Union speech, 1970) “the lift of a driving dream,” but in the early 20th century Britain’s Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett found his way to live it. Bravely (and foolishly?) he led small expeditions into Bolivia’s Amazonian wilds, not to put more imperial pink on the maps, nor for gold or oil, but to find “the ultimate piece of the human puzzle.” A Victorian-bred racist, but no snob, Fawcett felt that steamy terra incognita and its “primitive” natives had truths to offer, wonders to unfold, even the fabled El Dorado which he called Zed (no, not the source of Peter Greene’s Zed in Pulp Fiction). After World War I combat, the aging Fawcett went back for another, fatalistic penetration of the forest primeval.
Director-writer James Gray tells the tale with rugged devotion in The Lost City of Z, helped by a strong if not wildly charismatic performance by Charlie Hunnam (and excellent Sienna Miller as his wife, bound by home and kids but no meek mouse). Robert Pattinson plays his heavily bearded, sometimes skeptical cohort. The film’s budget is stretched by crafty, traditional means, and there is a potent, increasingly nutty integrity in Hunnam’s portrayal. But I never quite felt the lift of the driving dream, neither the old exhilaration (Stewart Granger tracking past countless critters to a mountain domain of tall African warriors who do exotic jump-dancing, in King Solomon’s Mines), nor the old mythic fevers (Klaus Kinski as a feral Spanish lunatic, lost in the Peruvian wilderness of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God).
While not dull, the film does tend to slog. Despite very rich, celluloid imagery by Darius Khondji and a strong score by Christopher Spelman, grand vistas and a do-or-die cast, there is a rummaging, archival aura. This dream is caught in the amber of another age’s geographic imagination, already plundered by past movies (remember Spencer Tracy as fearless Henry M. Stanley?). Lost City is a fine old Britisher at his club, beckoning us with “Listen, I have a wonderful story to tell. But first, allow me to light my pipe and describe my notes.”
SALAD (A List)Fifteen Top Movies of Exotic Adventure (with year and director): The Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924), The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924), King Kong (Cooper-Schoedsack, 1933), King Solomon’s Mines (Compton Bennett, 1950), The African Queen (John Huston, 1951), The Wages of Fear (H.-G. Clouzot, 1953), Robinson Crusoe (Luis Bunuel, 1954), The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), Aguirre Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972), The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975), Romancing the Stone (Robert Zemeckis, 1984), Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam, 1988), The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)Temporarily back in Hollywood’s favor while making Touch of Evil in 1958 (and playing its fat-slob sheriff), Welles “decided to throw a party for all the little Hollywood grandees … to show that I still remembered my friends, Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner and those people. And I was late, and I thought ‘I won’t take time to remove this terrible, enormous makeup that took forever to put on. When I came into my house, before I had a chance to explain that I had to get upstairs and take my makeup off, all these people came up (to me) and said, ‘Hi, Orson! Gee, you’re looking great!” (Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles).
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)When I first visited Rome the fabled Via Veneto seemed a little “off,” with its downhill curvature – it didn’t match my 1961 memory of La Dolce Vita. That’s because “in planting Cinecittá (studio’s) flag on the Veneto, Fellini also brought the Veneto to Cinecittá. To reproduce the street at the studio he gave up his profit share (and future wealth). His radiant replica was so level and straight that it cheated the truth, but it made the street immortal.” (From the Marcello Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle).
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
A Watutsi prince (Siriaque) meets Deborah Kerr, Richard Carlson and Stewart Granger in King Solomon’s Mines (MGM, 1950; director Compton Bennett, cinematographer Robert Surtees).
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