dust motes: february 2018

Dust Motes is a monthly post featuring mini-reviews of new film releases, as well as new-to-me movies, that I've watched over the past month.

This month I watched a total of 16 new and new-to-me movies and TV series; this brings my total for the year to 38 new watches. Although I saw fewer movies in February, I read more books in exchange. This has always been a give-and-take relationship for me: some months I want to make progress on my Netflix queue, others I stick closer to my bookshelves. Unfortunately, that means I missed a couple of theatrical releases that came and went in the blink of an eye—Hostiles and The Death Cure were particularly disappointing to miss on the big screen.


Overall I was happy with what I picked out in February, although I'd like to shift the balance a little more in favor of what I want to watch rather than screeners. This may have more to do with my reading-over-watching mood the last few weeks, so I'm sure it will adjust over time!

The Circle (2017)
Dir. James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega

I did not enjoy the novel on which this movie is based and, as luck would have it, the adaptation took everything I disliked in the source material and doubled down. The Circle is a toothless pseudo-warning about the dangers of pervasive social media. Emma Watson and John Boyega both turn in performances that the script doesn't deserve, but the heavy-hitting supporting cast (including Tom Hanks) sleepwalks through their parts. What bothered me most is how lazy the film felt; although it was covering topics explored to much greater effect elsewhere, at least Dave Eggers' novel tried. Ponsoldt's adaptation meanders from plot point to plot point, not really caring about the motivations for characters or the repercussions of their actions. I can't stand when a story puffs itself up on tackling contemporary topics only to act as though its audience isn't enlightened or engaged enough to handle more than the most surficial treatment. It's a very disappointing effort, even if you had better luck with the source material than myself.

The Circle is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Bloodline (Season 1—2015)
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Linda Cardellini

While I haven't actually finished the first season yet, I'm absolutely loving this series. Continuing my habit of digging into Ben Mendelsohn's filmography, I was delighted to discover that Bloodline boasts an excellent ensemble cast. At this point the story continues to hover between a family drama and crime thriller, with a satisfying balance between the two. Mendelsohn might still win out with my favorite of the Rayburn family, but I'm also loving Linda Cardellini as the only daughter/sister in the clan. Since I haven't yet finished the first season it may be too early to judge, but I hope the show takes better advantage of its setting in the Florida Keys as things progress. I lived on the Gulf Coast of Florida for over two years and visited the Keys during that time; it's a beautiful part of the country with a vibrant, unique mix of cultures. Strangely enough, Florida-set films don't often elect for the string of islands between the mainland and Cuba, so I'd love it if they rose to prominence beyond some (gorgeous) establishing aerial shots.

Bloodline is currently streaming on Netflix.

Submission (2018)
Dir. Richard Levine
Starring: Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgwick

Submission has aspirations towards social commentary, with a source novel by Francine Prose that claims to update a classic film about the forbidden romance between a college professor and cabaret singer for a modern audience. It works best, however, when it deals purely in politics of a personal nature. With excellent performances from both leads you don’t always need grand statements. Their relationship—and the way in which manipulations, expectations, and conventions warp it—more than suffices. Timlin excels in a difficult and largely enigmatic role. As Angela manipulates both a system and those who function within it, her ultimate motives grow murkier and murkier. She keeps the viewer guessing for most of the film, but she always feels defined, rather floating aimlessly from motive to motive. Tucci inspires equal measures of sympathy and exasperation; at times, one can’t help but wonder just how clueless a man can be while managing to survive to middle age. He also gets the funniest moment of the film, a rant against trigger warnings and hyper-sensitivity in today’s college students that leaves a dinner party speechless and his wife (Kyra Sedgwick, outstanding in her few scenes) shaking with laughter. It’s one of the rare concessions to the satirical tone alluded to in Submission’s press materials and, while hilarious, it doesn’t necessarily elevate the story to insightful parody. For satire to really work, it requires bite. Not an occasional wink and nod. Submission may not have the teeth to function as social commentary, but it is an excellent personal drama that questions the status quo of power dynamics with a twisty, satisfying conclusion.

Submission is currently in limited theatrical release.

Annihilation (2018)
Dir. Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac

Critical consensus has pegged this as a modern sci-fi masterpiece...and I'm not sure I would go that far. Annihilation is a great film, though. I did not enjoy it as much as I did Jeff VanderMeer's novel (and you can read my review here!) but despite the massive changes Garland made in his script, the fundamental spirit of the source material remains intact. I can't remember when, or even if, I've ever seen an adaptation that managed to stay so faithful at its core while changing so many actual events. It has an overwhelming number of positives: an all female ensemble; stellar acting; a multi-layered and haunting score; exceptional special effects; and a third act that cements the philosophical underpinnings without spoon-feeding its audience any answers. Annihilation needs to be viewed on the big screen and, in all likelihood, it needs to be seen more than once. Its difficult to praise as a masterpiece because Garland took VanderMeer's monsters out of the shadows and thrust them into the light; the choice services a film audience well, but I'm not sure its the superior option overall. Evaluating the movie purely on its own merits, though, earns it a place alongside Arrival and Ex Machina as a modern science-fiction marvel.

Annihilation is currently in wide theatrical release.

What did you watch last month? Any suggestions for what I should check out next? Share your thoughts in the comments down below!

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