YOU may have noticed Netflix have branched out from riveting documentaries and binge-worthy series to produce films starring big Hollywood names like Tom Hanks, Lily Collins and Emma Watson.
I was relatively unaware (I did see Ellen Page star in Tallulah at London’s Sundance last year) of this production line until recently when plans to see Dunkirk (click here for our review) fell through and I turned to the streaming site to quench my film thirst. The Netflix conveyor belt, it seems, is moving at an incredible, star-studded pace.
Many of its releases are highly ambitious as I discovered when watching two of their recently released original films – To The Bone and The Circle. Bravely, but not without fault, these films deal with pressing issues within modern society.
First-time director Marti Noxon takes on the daunting and delicate subject of eating disorders in To the Bone.
Lily Collins (Rule Don’t Apply) plays Ellen, a 20-year-old talented artist living with anorexia. Despite dismissively claiming to be in control of the situation, Ellen’s skeletal frame tells the haunting truth: she needs beat this illness fast or she risks a premature death.
Ellen’s dysfunctional family are all too aware of this and, after exhausting options elsewhere, opt for an unconventional programme set out by Dr Beckham (a woefully simplistic character played by Keanu Reeves). Under this guidance, Ellen is presented with alternative outlooks on her situation – including a romantic one presented by whimsical brit Luke (Alex Sharp) – and must decide whether to take the path to recovery.
A quick Google search shows that To the Bone is under heavy fire for its portrayal of eating disorders. Like recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (which deals with teen suicide), critics believe the film could do more harm than good, especially among younger viewers.
As a viewer with little understanding of the complexities of anorexia, I cannot say this film did much to enlighten me. But my issues with the film lie elsewhere. Primarily because To the Bone hits all the teen-tragedy tropes I find slightly grating – antiseptic lighting, faux-edgy humour and the seemingly obligatory romance.
Where Noxon does have success is in conveying the alienating effects such disorders can have on both the victim – and those around them.
We see this as the film opens with the blurry image of two deathly thin figures walking down a hospital corridor. They look like aliens out of a Spielberg film, an image that is reinforced later on with a line from Anne Sexton’s poem Courage: ‘Then they called you cry baby / or poor or fatty or crazy / and made you into an alien.’
There is certainly empathy for all involved, particularly half-sister Kelly (Liana Liberato), who delivers one of the film’s most affecting moments at a family group therapy session. Collins, who lost a considerable amount of weight for the role, also comes out as one of the film’s few triumphs. She gives a courageous, dedicated and believable central performance. Unfortunately, it is one worthy of a more focused and candid film.
Privacy-concerned thriller The Circle tells the story of Mae (Emma Watson), a young woman whose life changes drastically when she gets a job at the world’s largest tech company (The Circle).
Mae has to quickly come to terms with her new fast-paced, closely scrutinised and highly-sociable working environment – a far cry from her old office cubicle and broken down car. The change in pace is mirrored in zippy dialogue and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s fast moving camera.
The Circle, which has obvious echoes of Apple and Google, is run by casually dressed and scruffy bearded Steve Job-type Bailey (Tom Hanks). He has ambitions to cover the world in his SeeChange micro-data processing cameras which will effectively end privacy.
The pros of such a change, he claims, will mean people are held accountable for their actions. With that, an end to tyranny worldwide and the promise of ‘freedom’ for all . Or, as one character later embarrassingly discovers, there is a chance it will show the world your parents in mid-coitus.
Mae’s growing suspicion of The Circle’s rapidly expanding and all-seeing vision of the future is shared more acutely by Ty (John Boyega), a mysterious co-worker, and Mercer (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane), an old family friend. Yet an incident outside of work, captured by a SeeChange camera, pulls Mae deeper into the company with Truman Show-like consequences.
By this point, The Circle has already overextended its heavy handed message. Most painfully so when one of the film’s most pivotal scenes dies a death on stage – literally. It, like most of the film, is over-bearingly and clumsily executed.
A real shame, especially since the premise feels all too plausible in our technology obsessed and dependent times. Just last week a US tech firm implanted employees with microchips.
Had the script, based on Dave Eggers’ novel, been tightened, we could have had a potent and immersive experience such as Alex Garland’s riveting Ex-Machina (2014) or Wally Pfister’s absorbing Transcendence (2014).
Not even the affability of Tom Hank and Emma Watson can save The Circle. SeeChange? I suggest you turn a blind eye to both of these Netflix films or watch with low expectations to avoid overwhelming disappointment.
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