Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Circle plus Short Takes on Born in China

                                                Circles of Life

                                            Reviews by Ken Burke
                                      The Circle (James Ponsoldt)
A young woman working for a huge cutting-edge tech company finds, despite all the perks of this new job, she’s essentially expected to spend all of her time at their campus then becomes enamored of/disturbed by their new project which is to remove privacy from human interactions through tiny cameras placed worldwide as well as worn on her body at all times.
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Mae Holland works at a dead-end-job in the Silicon Valley area until her close friend Annie arranges for an interview at The Circle, a supremely-cutting-edge-high-tech-company where she’s embraced as a new hire, finds a wealth of perks awaiting her (including company health insurance for her MS-stricken father) as long as she’s willing to devote all of her time to the organization, eventually moving onto their campus to be available for the extra-curricular-social-activities as well.  However, when co-founders Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton recruit her for their next level of information-sharing where she wears a tiny camera that puts her every activity onto the Internet (linked up by satellite to what must be millions of these displaying-devices now put in place worldwide) she finds that, even though she’s in support of the concept of total transparency as a means to reduce backroom deals and other unfair practices, what becomes of her invasion of the privacy of her loved ones soon gives her reason to reconsider her commitment to this cause, despite worthy benefits she responds to in the original intentions.

 You can easily learn this movie’s been harshly denigrated at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, but I still recommend it for thought-provoking-ideas, solid acting, and timeliness in its challenges to how our actual society's becoming addicted to such transparency with seemingly little thought for what impact this has on our lives. The resolution offered's a bit facile in its content, conveniently pulled together in the narrative's actions, but I still find the overall situation of what’s being explored here to be done well enough to merit attention, despite the negative responses of oh so many naysayers.

So, curious readers, if you can abide plot spoilers in order to learn much more about the particular cinematic offering under examination this week please feel free to read on for more of the traditional Two Guys in-depth-explorations in our brilliant (!)-but-lengthy review format.
What Happens: Somewhere in the Silicon Valley area of northern California (right across San Francisco Bay from where I live) we find young Mae Holland (Emma Watson) working at a dead-end-temp-job in customer service for a water utility while nursing consistent concerns about her father Vinnie’s (Bill Paxton) struggles with multiple sclerosis while her mother Bonnie’s (Glenne Headly) concerned Mae won’t allow herself to get more involved with “that nice boy” Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), a handyman/craftsman eager to spend more time with Mae, although he’s most useful to her at this point when she needs roadside repairs on her suddenly-broken-down-car.  All of this changes rapidly, however, when good friend Annie Allerton (Karen Gillan) gets Mae an interview at The Circle—a humongous, cutting-edge tech company (with a massive circular building as the focus of its campus [just like the one Apple recently opened, a structure a bit bigger than the Pentagon]) with opportunities that could change Mae’s life forever for the better (although whether that’s the actually the case is the fundamental question raised by this story).  Although I didn’t find Mae’s interview answers all that compelling, a quick cut shows her (now called a “guppy”) on her 1st day at The Circle where she’s doing something similar to her old job but the unit’s now called Customer Experience, with assumptions she’ll interact with the call/text-ins in a much-more-engaging-manner than you’d find in ordinary corporate interactions.  She quickly finds satisfaction with her work, especially because she has that connection to Annie, who’s in “The Gang of 40,” the inner circle of company co-founders Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt).

 As Mae attends her first
Dream Friday company-wide-gathering, she finds it's focused on Eamon demonstrating the new product/project, which he calls SeeChange, based on tiny video cameras (linked to satellites) which Circle-gamers are quietly putting in place all over the world in an attempt for these hidden devices (that seemingly have audio-pickups as well, yet are virtually invisible because their camouflage colors allow them to subtly blend in with their background attachments) to give real-time-viewing—connected to relevant screen displays of The Circle’s enormous trove of other data (gathered from its huge Facebook-like TruYou information-mining of its billions of subscribers)—showing as much human activity as possible in order to cut down on secrecy, collusion, other forms of disadvantaged-deal-making which usually benefit only the wealthy and powerful (Eamon: “Sharing is caring.”) with the grand-egalitarian-goal of fair playing fields.  Mae’s delightfully-overwhelmed by all this but soon gets a sense all’s not as rosy as it seems.  To begin with, she encounters a mysterious co-worker who turns out to be Ty Lafitte (John Boyega), the inventor of TruYou (developed for his cerebral-palsy-burdened son, Gunnar, for the boy to better experience the outside world he can’t really interact with through a realm of video experiences, yet Ty never intended for this service to become as all-consuming for Circle users as it has) but is now a low-key, cynical prophet warning Mae not to get caught up in this Circle-mania.  

 Then she finds that while her work is much-appreciated a couple of colleagues are concerned she’s not participating in The Circle’s many extra-curricular-social-activities (for “community” building, as the company defines it) but they’re sympathetic when she explains she needs time to help at home with Dad; swiftly, he’s covered by a company insurance plan that gets him much-needed-but-previously-too-expensive-medical-care although Mom’s now concerned they don’t see much of Mae as she’s moved into The Circle’s comfy campus dorm, with virtually no contact anymore with Mercer except for taking a cellphone photo zoomed in on the background of a computer-based-call-home where Mae focuses on a ceiling ornament he’s made from deer antlers.

 Posting this “chandelier” photo on TruYou to help drum up business for Mercer totally backfires as he’s wrongly accused by a host of strangers of being a deer-killer, which prompts him to visit Mae at work to let her know about his dilemma (he’s even gotten some death threats) before he cuts off contact completely, trying to distance himself from these tech-intrusions into his life.  Despite hearing Ty’s concerns about how much private data is now being filed away in hidden Circle computers (essentially, The Cloud), Mae decides to aid in the SeeChange project (after she almost drowns in the Bay during a foggy, late-night kayaking trip, saved by available security surveillance) in agreeing to go “transparent” (supporting Eamon’s concept of “secrets are lies” as privacy provides no accountability, that everyone deserves access to everyone else’s experiences—she also has to own up to breaking into the kayak facility so she’s convinced total exposure of our actions will cut down on our bad decisions) where she wears one of the tiny cameras, which links up to any other cameras in her vicinity so her legion of followers can see (and hear) everything she experiences, watching her in various environments even when she’s asleep.*  (She does get brief offline bathroom breaks, which allows just us to see her getting hostile reactions from Annie about this new project going too far in its intrusions.) This experiment goes very wrong for Mae in 2 ways: (1) She makes a call to her parents’ home (with the connection
automatically showing an image from their location onto a large screen in her dorm room; the parents agreed to allow several cameras installed in their house in exchange for the medical coverage) where she suddenly interrupts them while making love which, through Mae’s body camera, becomes cybercast to her global followers—leading to a complete breakdown in communication with her parents for awhile; (2) Under the premise of using SeeChange to bring about total participatory democracy (she's now got acceptance by 22 governments to allow all of The Circle members to become automatically-registered-voters) by using this globally-saturated-technology to prod/shame everyone into responding on all issues up for group decision, Mae attempts a Dream Friday demonstration of the new program, SoulSearch, where a missing person can be located by encouraging the worldwide network of users to put this individual on camera for all to see; as a test of this Mae tracks down a criminal fugitive in about 20 min., leading to a quick arrest, but then when she asks the audience for the suggestion of a non-criminal to find they demand she locate Mercer.

*I recently experienced something like this with an overnight sleep study exploring the extent of my recently-diagnosed sleep apnea where I was hooked up to about 40 electrodes to monitor various aspects of my bodily functions (no, not emissions, perverts) while I was asleep, although the entire time I was being watched by a camera and in connection with technicians through an intercom.  (I’ll report back later on whatever comes of this experiment in better nocturnal breathing; for the present, my wife, Nina, has better earplugs so she’s no longer bothered by my world-class-snoring.)

 Despite her hesitation to participate in this, Eamon tells her no one should be allowed the privilege of secrecy so she reluctantly agrees; Mercer’s hidden location in the woods is quickly located, displayed on screen, but when he attempts to rush away in his truck he’s distracted by a drone as he’s driving on a high bridge, causing him to crash through the side barrier to his death (Eamon’s response to this horrid situation is simply through even more all-inclusive-technology—such as sensors that would have automatically stopped the car, not allowing it to crash through the railing—tragedy could have been avoided, with Mercer getting the help he “needed” to not be so anti-social).  Mae goes off-line for a few days in sorrowful shock but then, with Ty’s encouragement (and help), she’s back in public with a declaration that all privacy should be completely eliminated, which she initiates by showing how the personal emails and documents from all correspondence by Eamon and Tom is now available online.  This shocking (for The Circle honchos, who had no idea what Mae planned to do next) turn of events leads to a rapid ending where we see an image of Mae within a college of countless other images, implying her total transparency project has been fully implemented with all digital communication available to everyone, the entire linked-up-global-population wearing the cameras so that nothing’s hidden any longer (except, I guess, for those hermits who’ve somehow stayed farther out of range than Mercer unsuccessfully-attempted to do).

So What?  As is just about always normally the case, I haven’t read the novel this movie’s based on (Dave Eggers’ The Circle [2013]), but a summary of it indicates that the main plot devices (minus some additional complexity about some of the characters) remain in place, although it does seem the source-book more actively condemns this revisitation (from a couple of classic novels) of a Brave New World (Aldous Huxley [1932]) /1984 (George Orwell, [1949]over-dedication to group-think and enforced social engagement while the movie adaptation leaves it (in my opinion) to individual viewer’s interpretations as to whether Mae’s conversion to total transparency truly represents a philosophical commitment to the full elimination of privacy (no indication as to whether those bathroom breaks would be part of this new regimen) or whether her actions (which, I’m sure, continued to be enhanced by further Ty Lafitte postings [maybe he's a descendant of Jean Lafitte, the pirate] of what was once confidential from other business, government, and military leaders) were simply retaliation against Eamon (Is this name a shot at Elon Musk, of Tesla, SpaceX, etc. fame?  It could easily be, given all the other high-tech-allusions in this movie.) and Tom for the personal miseries their obsession with public transparency caused in Mae’s own life?  For me, it appeared she became a true convert to a world of total disclosure, which I suppose could be useful if it prevents the sort of White House stonewalling we’re now encountering regarding logs of official 
visitors, vetting info on former (briefly) National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (assuming such documentation even exists), or, I assume, God 
Trump (there may be no difference in his mind) only knows what else we the public haven't found about so far. (Clandestine operations such as these aren’t beyond the realm of these Circle leaders either, as Sen. Williamson [Eve Gordon], challenging them about her supposed findings of their anti-trust-violations, suddenly finds she's a target of the FBI for her own accused legal transgressions, with her role in the inquiry taken over by Congresswoman Santos [Judy Reyes], who’s not only supportive of The Circle but also agrees to make all of her own official business transparent.)  But the other side of that “sunshine” coin is that while constant-public-awareness might be useful in keeping us all honest, charitable, or at least non-vindictive toward our family, friends, and neighbors it’s going to take a lot of getting used to before we simply ignore the notoriety of our sex lives (including those with kinkier inclinations) seen for public consumption, our spoken-too-late-to-filter-remarks that will surely insult or hurt someone (known to us or not), or even our simple hesitation at furthering a romantic relationship with someone we’ve just casually met (that foot-dragging,  when known by our potential partners, would likely absolve the “sex lives” concern via lack of follow-up but with an accompanying decline in population continuation; yet, given the burdens human expansion puts on our planet, maybe that’s a good result after all)—extending existing concerns about employers not giving applicants a fair consideration after prying into their private lives they’ve let be showcased on Internet social media.

 These are all critically-important issues at a time when our technological innovations have already produced all-absorbing-social-media-obsessions, automobiles and home gadgets being run by the Internet, confrontations between the news media and the various rulers of government and industry over issues of national security, leaked secrets, improper (illegal?) actions in the full range of local/ national/global levels, all of which seem to be intensifying much faster than our judicial system, social mores, or even personal needs are barely capable of keeping up with.  The Circle as an organization is clearly intended to be some sort of combination of Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the like, but there’s little about its structure, employee perks, charismatic leader (just Eamon, like Steve Jobs was always the public face of Apple when both he and Steve Wozniak ran the place), desire for total market domination, and impact on the individual lives of its multitude of subscribers that feels all that fictional.  This real-world-reflection's shown even in the depiction of women in the high-tech-workplace—which initially implies it will be more egalitarian in this movie than reports in my area reveal about sexism still pervading much of the true Silicon Valley—with men as the important innovators in this story; Annie running away from the direction her company’s headed rather than doing anything to force reconsideration of those priorities; Mae presented as someone who’s able to simply overcome her parents’ humiliation and her ex-boyfriend’s death after their unwanted-intrusions, all in the name of abstract-ideological-purity, holding everyone accountable at all times for everything they might do.  (I wish her well in leading such a saintly life for her remaining decades, now she’s become a 24/7 public commodity.)

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: 
As noted above, I think The Circle presents a lot of vital, thoughtful ideas about current uninhibited-galloping into so many of our less-humane-human-interactions (despite the nobler-intentions of The Circle’s co-founders and their young hoards of easily-convinced, easily-led followers), even as I also think the movie’s conclusions come across as a bit ambiguousat worst unexploredgiven the gravity of all that's being challenged here.  Still, I find it much more worthy as a viewing/after-the-fact-consideration-or-conversation experience than the impression you’d get by checking out the standard review synthesizers-sites of Rotten Tomatoes (a pathetic 16% positive responses from 67 noted) and Metacritic (a surprisingly higher score from these usually-snobbier-writers, although only a 43% average, based on 30 reviews; more details on both in links far below) so it might be suspect to follow my outlier position (although I am in league with supportive responses such as you’ll find from Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, Owen Gleiberman of Variety); you’ll just have to make that choice yourself if you haven’t done so already (apparently not that many have yet—or have just chosen not to go—because The Circle’s taken in only about $9 million domestically [U.S.-Canada] in its 1st week of release, despite playing in 3,163 theaters, so it’s barely met half of its production budget, showing that despite the movie-star-value of its 2 leads the overall negative critical response seems to have had an impact upon attendance this time, even if that's not always
the case).  I accept the disturbing concepts as presented reasonably, I find the acting to be solid throughout, while there’s little occurring in the world outside the movie house to even begin to contradict what’s being shown on screen.  This occurs even to the point of big-screen-reminders still needing to be made prior to the showing for the audience to turn off their cellphones for the benefit of those of us who’d prefer to watch what we paid for rather than be distracted by the constantly-bright-glow of little screens all over the auditorium, but in a twist on that, though, right at the end of the movie Tom runs backstage to prevent Mae’s total transparency project from going any further in its instant-worldwide-coverage by cutting off the power in The Circle’s auditorium, but that audience, already aligned with Mae, lights up their ubiquitous cellphones to keep her illuminated as social power slips away from the tech giants who started her in this radical direction.

 I’ll wrap up these comments on The Circle with the choice of my standard device to give one last perspective on this movie but from the viewpoint of another artform by suggesting as my Musical Metaphor the song “Mr. Cellophane” (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb for the original stage dramatic-musical [1975]) from the Best Picture-Oscar-winning Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) at (sorry, but the original wide-screen-format’s been squeezed to the old 4x3 configuration of yesteryear’s film and video images at this link; if you’d like to see what it should look like, although in a shortened version of the full scene, go here) because as Amos Hart (John C. Reilly) sings about being essentially an “invisible” man, ignored by both his wife, Roxie (Renée Zellweger), and society at large, I see that as being the eventual outcome of Mae Holland’s seeming-conversion to total transparency, that we’d all simply become invisible conduits of increasingly-mundane-daily-activities (with only the most radical among us being willing to have their unconventional lifestyles/ideas/actions put forth for likely rejection/ ridicule/reaction) while “you can look right through me Walk right by me And never know I’m there!”
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
                                    Born in China (Lu Chuan)
This is latest feature-film-release from the Disneynature unit, in support of preserving what biodiversity is still left to our increasingly-human-challenged planet—opened to coincide with Earth Day—with the present focus on various animals or birds native to China: snow leopards, golden snub-nosed monkeys, giant pandas, chiru antelopes, and red-crowned cranes.
 I’ve done my best to get this next review to truly qualify under the concept of Short Takes (although I’m still pushing the concept to its limits) because there’s not really all that much to say about this latest Disneynature documentary except the cinematography is exquisite while the content provides rarely-seen-glimpses into the lives of animals that most of us will never see in the wild: a mother snow leopard (named Dawa—for our convenience—as noted by narrator John Krasinski) and her 2 cubs living in the highlands where her chief prey are mountain sheep (although we don’t witness her killing any of them, just returning home with a carcass for her little family to eat); a large group of golden snub-nosed monkeys, with the focus on an adolescent one (known to us as Tao Tao) who’s being pushed out of his direct family unit by his father (who sets the tone for his many “wives” and offspring) as attention shifts to his newborn sister; in the bamboo growth in a nearby section of the same valley forests we see a female giant panda (Ya Ya) display an opposite reaction to her little cub (Mei Mei), as Mom faces the dual challenge of teaching daughter the necessary skill of climbing trees but isn’t ready for her to get too independent just yet; on the high Tibetan plains of this vast country we witness the annual migration of the female chiru antelopes, as they leave the males behind to trek a long journey to a specific lake where their calves are born, bond with the mothers, then all of them return to the males so the whole process can start over again; the final participants in this cinematic-exploration of how these various animals’ lives evolve over a year’s seasons (from one spring to the next, emphasizing the circular nature of this presentation) are red-crowned cranes, but we see them mostly in the opening introductions, then as it’s all symbolically drawing to a close.

 Life’s harder for some of our characters in the wild than others.  Despite the sudden appearance of a few wolves as the chiru make their homeward-bound-journey, the sheer size of the horned-herd keeps the predators at bay; nothing threatens these pandas’ existences either except inherent, inevitable growth of Mei Mei who’ll eventually go her own way (although, with no footage of a male panda to be seen, Ya Ya’s nuzzling a newborn in the wrap-up so continuity’s in her life cycle as well).  For Tao Tao, there’s unsettling distance put upon him by his biological family, but he makes up for that by hanging out with a similar group of “lost boys,” at least until such time as Dad pops in to thrash the elder male leader of this group, after which Tao Tao’s welcomed back into the family circle as a reward for saving his little sister from an attacking goshawk, the only predators the very young monkeys have to fear.  Dawa’s fate is the most tragic as she’s driven from her established territory by another female snow leopard and her 3 adult sons, then she injures a paw on a sharp rock covered by snow during the winter; no long able to catch sheep she attempts to kill a yak calf only to be gored by its own large, protective mother resulting in Dawa’s death, her young
cubs now left to fend for themselves, as narrator Krasinski tells us of the legend of these elegant cranes ferrying the souls of dead animals from our world to the next.  Let’s face it, if in watching this documentary you can’t appreciate the ongoing natural struggles of all these species to keep surviving on a daily basis in their various, varied environments or you can’t find your heart melting at the sight of all of these charming cubs, calves, and baby monkeys or you can’t appreciate how we intrusive humans need to preserve the habitats of these creatures rather than continuing our expansionist policies of deforestation and excessive sport hunting, then you’d probably never find yourself spending money on a ticket for a film like this anyway.  For the rest of us, Born in China proves a satisfying celebration of Earth Day and beyond (a percentage of the first week’s receipts went to projects of the World Wildlife Federation although you can still make your own direct donations to WWF if you like)*, a beautiful cinematic experience with some footage during the closing credits that helps us understand how difficult it is to film these animals without the crews imposing themselves on these fragile lives while they’re being observed.

*At this documentary’s official website (noted a bit farther below, along with its other related links) you can find an extensive educator's guide if you'd like to make some use of all that information.

 Just to wrap us these comments in a concise fashion, I’ll note critical response was quite good at Rotten Tomatoes for ... China (83% positive reviews) although not so great at Metacritic (57% average score), while the worldwide gross has so far been quite moderate with a $16.6 million total after 1 week in release ($7.1 million domestically in 1,508 theaters, the rest from foreign markets) so I hope it continues for a while longer, helping raise our consciousness of the delightful neighbors that we humans share this fragile planet with.  As a proper send-off to this posting to help encourage that hope I’ll offer a Musical Metaphor for Born in China that speaks to the ongoing-but-necessary growth and changes that impact everything on Earth—animal, vegetable, or mineral—Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (on many of her albums but originally from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon) at (I’ve used this before a couple of times [but I never tire of hearing it nor being set straight in my own muddled mental wanderings by it’s insightful beauty] so this is a different version, done live with James Taylor in London’s Royal Albert Hall, 1970) because, just like this movie, it reminds us “We can’t return we can only look Behind from where we came And go round and round and round In the circle game.”  I’ll go round and round somewhere myself until we meet up again soon with more reviews from the more verbal one of the internationally-famous Two Guys in the Dark (Pat Craig, I know you’re out there somewhere; we’d all love to hear from you sometime when the spirit so moves you to write).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about The Circle: (57:08 [but be patient, it doesn’t start until :45 in then begins with the same trailer as above] interesting interview [from the Twitter headquarters!] with director James Ponsoldt, actors Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, and Twitter co-founder/CEO Jack Dorsey, including some commentary on diversity—or lack thereof—in the tech workplace along with some collective love for Twitter)

Here’s more information about Born in China: (8:30 behind-the-scenes clips, including of narrator John Krasinski and shots of how difficult the filming was, some of the latter incorporated into the final credits of the movie)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*

*Please note that YouTube keeps taking down various versions of this majestic Eagles performance at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so I have to keep putting in newer links (of the same damn material) to retrieve it; this “Hotel California” link was active when I did this posting but the song won’t be available in all of our previous ones done before 4/12/2017.  Sorry, but there are too many postings to go back and re-link every one.  The corporate overlords triumph again.

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 20,002; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (my past-month-total’s slipped a little from last time but I did manage to reach 5 continents again, with only Africa missing [frozen—for nowAntarctica’s never been on my list, for obvious reasons]):

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