“The Circle”: satire as a super Facebook wants to rule the world and turn it into one group mind

The Circle” is actually a sphere that looks like a marble, and is a micro camera, something like Google glasses.  In this satire, directed by James Ponsoldt and based on the novel by Dave Eggers, the plan is to get everyone the planet to wear one and be continuously logged on to this new super reinvention of Facebook.  The color is red, rather than blue, so it is less inviting to color-blind people, for starters.

Emma Watson plays Mae, a bill collector (it seems like everybody works in collections these days as movies begin) who gets invited to join this new Silicon Valley company. She already has a good life kayaking and with a humble blue-collar boyfriend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane, whose recreation of his Mason persona from Boyhood is a little forced).  But her dad has multiple sclerosis and Mae (unlike me) has gone to the effort to get her parents to have some competence with tech.

Pretty soon she buys into the sinister aims of the company guru  Bailey (Tom Hanks) and COO (Patton Oswalt) to rule the world. Beyond super Amway attitudes, they goad all their employees into sharing everything all the time.  They want use The Circle to register voters and run elections, and to make every email everyone has ever sent transparent to the whole world.  I kept wondering how long before the 2016 election was this written, as the references to Hillary Clinton’s email scandal are pretty transparent.

They have a slogan, secrets are lies, and want to destroy all privacy completely.  In fact, they see all of humanity as one group mind, so you wonder if the film is a metaphor for distributed consciousness, dolphin style.

But you can also take the film as asking, whether all human activity ought to become eventually public and knowable by others, who may want to “connect the dots” the way I do.

Mercer wants to stay out of this, but is dragged in with tragic results.  Maybe he needs resurrection.

There is an odd scene early in the film were Mae is given a medical physical, and told to drink a prep (rather like for a catscan) containing nanobots, which communicate to her Fitbit watch (they also put electrodes on her upper chest. I wondered if employees were Holter monitors all the time.)

Jack Andraka wants to do a lot with nanobots, as these two stories show (Huffington and Telegraph).

There was sci-fi movie with the title Circle reviewed here June 6.

Fact table”

Name:  “The Circle”
Director, writer:  James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  2017/4/29 Angelika Mosaic fair crowd
Length:  110
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  STX Entertainment, Europa (some financing from
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, April 29 at 11:30 PM EDT)

“Two Trains Runnin'” parallels a search for Blues musicians against the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi in 1964

Two Trains Running“, (or, “Two Trains Runnin’“) directed by Samuel D. Pollard and written by Benjamin Hedin, is a docudrama, partly animated, showing two parallel stories in 1964 Mississippi.

One is the search for two Blues singers (Son House and Skip James) in the countryside, by young white blues record collectors.  The other is the tragic outcome of the voting registration drive that led to the murder of three civil rights activists from the North (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner; the last two were white).

On one level, the film shows what the popular music world of the early 60s was like.  I collected classical records at a time when high fidelity and record wear abatement was coming into vogue.  Some of the labels, like Folkways, are shown. Much of the literature was locked up in old 78s.

One of the men was Phil Spiro, who practically flunked out of MIT but went poor in order to do his own music.  He had a day job programming the first IBM mainframe.  Tom Martin provides the voice of Jim Farley.

Then there was the class of white college students at northern universities.  Leadership wanted white college kids, offspring of those in power, involved so the country would understand what was going on with the Civil Rights movement. People were trained in Ohio in how to do community organizing and how to deal with the dangers posed not only by the Ku Klux Klan but also with corrupt police in small towns, including Philadelphia, MS at that time.  The unwillingness of the Johnson administration (including J Edgar Hoover) to enforce desegregation laws in the deep south would not start to turn around until the three young men gave up their lives, a sacrifice as real as anything in Vietnam. They did not rise from the dead, but maybe we should have expected them to. Mr. Goodman’s mother is interviewed.

The film mentions the 2013 Supreme Court decision allowing states more leeway in reintroducing voting requirements.

The film could be compared to the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning“ (Orion) by Alan Parker, with Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, which I saw at the AMC Uptown in Washington at that time.

I personally visited Philadelphia, MS in 1985, and Selma, AL in 2014.


1.   This speaker also told me that the first effort to integrate the military by race started with demonstrations in 1941, not just with Truman (HBO, Gary Sinese in 1996) in 1948 (connected eventually to the battle of “don’t ask don’t tell” starting in 1993).




Name:  “Two Trains Runnin'”
Director, writer:  Samuel D. Pollard
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, Landmark E St. 2017/4/27
Length:  80
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Avalon
Link:  official

(Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

“Strangers on the Earth”: a cellist walks the Camino de Santiago in Spain

Strangers on the Earth“, directed by Tristan Cook, presents the pilgrimage in northern Spain along the Camino de Santiago, a trail which runs from the Pyrenees to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (honoring the Apostle Saint James) World Heritage Site in Galicia, Spain.

The entire route runs almost 500 miles, and takes about six weeks to do.  Along the way there are many dormitory style hostels and private homes offering “radical hospitality” to pilgrims. Some people join only for the last 100 kilometers to get a certificate.

The film features cellist Dane Johansen, who, looking like an athlete, carries the cello on his back and plays many concerts along the way, mostly of J. S. Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. Johansen says he plays these to satisfy his own ego.  In fact, the film can be alternatively titled “A Walk to Fisterra, A Cellists Journey“.

Johansen is listed as a producer of the film, which also received Kickstarter contributions from many musicians, including some in the Metropolis Ensemble in New York City.  After the showing, I talked to Cook himself, who knew what the metaphor Blind Banister means (from April 21 concert review here).

One of the other travelers offers some cosmology, saying that all creation starts with darkness, then offers space-time, then matter and energy, then life, then cosmic consciousness leading to God, and back to nothing.

At the end of the film there is an epilogue at the Fisterra on the Atlantic coast, with fireworks and ascending lanterns.

The film finds some inspiration in the 2010 docudrama “The Way” by Emilio Estevez.

I have to say that the film title reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” (1951).  The musician reminds me of actor Dane DeHaan, somehow.

In face, the cellist Dane Johansen had considered doing a similar trip and film along the 2000+ miles Appalachian Trail.  But there is already a film “A Walk in the Woods” (2015, Broad Green Pictures, by Kewn Kwapis.

Many of the audience members indicated that they had done the walk.

Wikipedia links and typical images:

Camino de Santiago

Compostela Cathedral

J. S. Bach Cello Suites

Dane Johansen, cellist, site.

Name:  “Strangers on the Earth”
Director, writer:  Tristan Cook, Dane Johansen
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Fimfest DC, Landmark E St, small auditorium, sold out, 2017/4/27
Length:  96
Rating:  NA (“G”)
Companies:  Walk to Fisterra
Link:  Facebook

I have visited Bilbao and San Sebastian-Donesta, and the Pyrenees from the French side (Lourdes), back in May, 2001.

The pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA, and her husband, a pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in McClean VA, did the walk in the summer of 2016.  They did collect offerings to support the walk.  The pastor says she had to be “rescued” by a can almost as a hitchhiker once.  This actually happened to me on a bike ride in Delaware in 1992 when I got separated from a group.

(Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2017 at 10:15 AM)

“Last Men in Aleppo”: a feature docudrama about the White Helmets in Syria

Last Men in Aleppo” carries on, to feature length, the story of the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group in Syria.  There is already a high profile short film on the group reviewed here Oct. 6.  This new film is directed by Steen Johannessen and Frias Fayaad.  It is harrowing and difficult to watch.

The main characters are Khalid, Subil and Mahmoud, founders of the group, who remain and perform sensational multiple rescues, particularly of children buried in the rubble.

The rolling titles provide a brief history of the Syrian Civil War, backing up to the time of the Arab Spring, which had been inspired by social media, leading to the severe backlash from Assad with military support from Russia and Iran. The credits also note that there are now over one million refugees. The film shows some of the air strikes form a distance. Assad claims he is routing out terrorists, and it is obvious from the context of the film that this is not happening.

There is a scene in the middle where one man talks about losing the opportunity to emigrate to Turkey as a refugee.

The film has a brooding orchestral music score, composer unidentified, in outstanding Dolby.

In the QA following the film, director Fayaad noted that most of the men who stay behind and rescue make a choice to do so, but to do anything else would seem cowardly. It is an incredible feat for a photojournalist to make first-rate video, in widescreen, of such carnage as it happens.

CNN has a comprehensive article on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Name:  “Last Days in Aleppo
Director, writer:  Frias Fayyad
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1   (mostly in Arabic with subtitles)
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, 2017/4/26, Landmark E St., large auditorium, sold out
Length:  104
Rating:  NA (probably R for extreme war violence)
Companies:  Grasshopper Films, Sundance Selects
Link:  official 

(Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

“Tomorrow”: climate change is a starting point for an examination of sustainability in terms of living locally

Tomorrow“, written by Cyril Dion and directed with Melanie Laurent, starts with climate change and gives a five-part prescription for the sustainability of civilization, grounded ultimately in personal morality.

The keep concept is locality of living and personal interaction.  All economic growth is multifocal.

The film comprises five parts.  It starts with Urban Farming, showing people raising their own produce in the ruins of Detroit, before moving to France and England.  The film also argue against big agri-business and shows briefly some of the horrors of poultry plants and feed lots (like the 1995 Australian satire movie “Babe” about the precocious piglet). The film also showed local agriculture on Reunion Island (France) in the Indian Ocean. The film was critical even of our use of grains in our diet, since they make processed foods easier to consumer.

Part 2, Energy, is more predictable, summarizing renewable energy, particularly in Iceland and Denmark. It also shows us how ugly the tar sands in Alberta look.

Part 3, Economics, gets interesting.  The film proposes the idea of local currencies, rather like Monopoly money.  It explains that with a global euro or dollar reserve currency system, it is too easy for banks to invent money by loaning it for interest. Financial crises like 2008 become inevitable. The film might gave gotten into the subject of micro-lending or kiva here.

But this section of the film makes a strong moral case for local businesses, as generating many more jobs in proportion to their customer bases, than Internet based global retail operations.  For a writer and blogger like me, this proposes interesting challenges, like why am I not more supportive of printed books and local bookstores.  Letting Amazon do it for you is too complacent.   I do buy food at farmers’ markets, and I do visit a locally owned supermarket and tavern (the Westover Market in Arlington VA) a lot as well as bug chains.  Consumers (like me) doing so would help a bit with job creation.

This section of the film seems to argue against globalization, feeding into the “Brexit” or “America First” idea of Donald Trump (although the film was shot before these events). The film would want everyone to like in an intentional community!

Part 4, Democracy, proposes the radical idea of choosing legislators by drawing lots.  Apparently this was done after the meltdown in Iceland in 2009. There is such a proposal for choosing the Senate in Belgium.  There is also a presentation of a social experiment in India where “untouchable” castes form extended family units with the better off families.

Despite the anti-globalization view of the film, this section tends to argue that people of different races, religions, social classes or even gender roles should be able to live together and transact with one another locally.

Part 5, Education, gives a look at the education system in Finland.

Name:  “Tomorrow”
Director, writer:  Cyril Dion
Released:  2015
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, Landmark E St, 2017/4/25, small auditorium, nearly full
Length:  120
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Mars, Sundance Selects
Link:  official (France)

(Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2017 at 12:30 AM EDT)

“Human”: People around the world tell their stories, which add up, against alien-looking scenery

Human“, the project of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, alternates interviews with ordinary people from all over the world with aerial images of people in collective actions, or sometimes scenery that is so abstract in design and non biological colors that it looks alien.

The first interview presents a convicted murderer who meditates on learning what love and forgiveness mean. In time, other interviews present what makes humans tick, and some of it is chilling. A couple young men present what makes them want to fight an enemy in a brotherhood (jihad). Others talk about being socialized to sacrifice themselves to overcome common enemies. But as the film progresses, the interviews open up. In the middle section, several gay people speak, starting with a woman who had sex with a man under family pressure and got HIV from heterosexual activity. The religious objection to homosexuality, especially within Islam, is briefly explored. So is immutability.

Then the interviews move back toward a bigger vision of social justice.  One speaker (an Aborigine) mentions that earlier cultures did not have words to indicate personal ownership of anything. There is a lot of attention to the enslavement of low-wage workers overseas in quasi-dorm life.

The intervening photography is stunning.  One of the first images is of people playing soccer on a mountain plateau.  There are mass crowds with human columns and waves.  There are odd images of gas and water that look like they come right out of Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar”).  There is a shocking scene of manual labor in a mine in Russia.  Near the end there is a shocking scene of the slums in Senegal. There are over 60 filming locations.  There is an interesting abstract of Manhattan at night with the reflected light manipulated to look like fire.

The music score, by Armand Amar, resembles the music of Philip Glass.

A possible comparison would be “Koyaanisqatsi“, by Godfrey Reggio (1982).

Senegal scene similar to film, Wiki.

Name: Human
Director, writer:  Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, Landmark E St, 2017/4/24, large auditorium, full
Length:  143  (full theatrical is 190)
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Kino Lorber
Link:  official, Filmfest

(Posted: Monday, April 24, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

“The Messengers”: Volunteers serve homeless men with HIV at a house in Washington DC

The Messengers“, directed by Lucian Perkins, shows us the life of two committed volunteers at Joseph’s House, a hospice for homeless men with HIV and AIDS, in Washington DC, in Adams-Morgan.  The film showed at Filmfest DC on Sunday afternoon at Landmark E Street.

One young woman comes up for a year of service from North Carolina before finishing college, but now she has finished her Masters in social work at Columbia.

The film also traces the experiences of some of the patients, such as one who was told he had only two months to live but survived ten.  At one point Elijah actually looks forward to the possibility of his own place again, as sometimes people get better and can live on their own.  The experience here is more variable than at large “commercial” hospices where people die of old age and usually enter only when they have a few days to live. But this house is very much a home for the patients as is.

Emotionally the experience is very intense, with volunteers sitting with patients for very long periods. During the QA, it was said that the House only accepts volunteers who can make extensive minimum time commitments.  This is not an experience that benefits from large numbers for short times.

The film showed a cat and dog, and one wonders how well they understand what is happening.

In understanding the title of the film, it is well to remember that angels are messengers.




3 Comment that only long-term volunteers are needed

Name: “The Messengers”
Director, writer:  Lucian Perkins
Released:  2017
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, Landmark E Street, 2017/4/23, large auditorium nearly sold out
Length:  52
Rating:  NA
Companies:  NA  (hope to see on PBS Independent Lens?)
Link:  Facebook, Filmfest DC

(Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2017 at 11:45 PM EDT)

“Born in China”: in an alien world, animals behave like people in a primitive civilization

Born in China,” directed by Chuan Lu for Disney Nature (obviously intended for large markets in both the US and China) takes us, for the most part, to the high mountain plateaus of western China, just north of Tibet, and very much giving the look of being on another planet.  In fact, traveling to China, for most Americans, would probably be as close as it gets to space travel to an alien world.

John Krasinski narrates intersecting morality tales of five wild animal characters, covering a spring to the following spring, a marathon effort to film (the filmmakers show how they did it in the epilogue during the closing credits of a 76 minute feature).

He actually starts with cranes in the lowlands, before moving on to the Tibetan antelope (chiru), a panda with her daughter, a snow leopard with her two cubs, and a young rebellious male in a close-knit sub nose red monkey family.

The female snow leopard lives in the most alien-looking landscape, right out of one of Clive Barker’s Imajica dominions (the Fourth, probably). In an early scene she faces off a competitor for hunting territory and prevails. But later he hurts her paw in a chase and is less able to hunt, as her two kids are just getting old enough to start hunting for themselves.  Out of desperation, she takes on a herd of chiru and apparently reaches the end of her career.

The little boy monkey is jealous of the birth of a baby sister, and with the gender-based social discipline of the family structure that rather resembles Islamic polygamy. (The film does not say what happens to the unattached males, but it probably is not pretty.) Failure to protect younger siblings can leave then vulnerable to their one enemy, a huge hawk that snoops down and takes his sacrifice. A bird eating a primate, very bizarre.

The monkey community lives on the verge of civilization. We understand how animals live in a world of survival of the fittest, but social organization, however authoritarian in moral tone, that assigns risks and responsibilities within the herd or extended family, is a step toward more complex social and political organization, as in human society.  This is what we would probably find on other planets.

Tibet scene similar to film (wiki).

Name: Born in China
Director, writer: Chuan Lu
Released: 2017/4/21
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/4/22, 6 PM, fair crowd
Length: 76
Rating:  G
Companies: Disney Nature
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2017 t 11:45 PM EDT)

NY Philharmonic presents Johnathan Biss and Timo Andres in Part 2 of the Beethoven Concerto cycle

The New York Philharmonic and pianist Johnathan Biss presented one of the segments of Biss’s project of commissioning contemporary composers to invent new piano concerti inspired by the five Beethoven piano concerti. The concert was conducted by Courtney Lewis.

The concert presented Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2 in B-flat, Op. 19, which was apparently the first composed and started at a young age. The starting point of inspiration was the more contrapuntal and even sometimes dissonant cadenza that Beethoven composed twenty years later.  Otherwise, the work is “not one of Beethoven’s best”.

The Beethoven opened the second half of the concert.  Biss, to my ear, seemed in accelerate his tempi during certain phrases in the first movement, an odd effect.

The inspired (I won’t say derivative) contemporary piece (performed first, before the intermission) is the 23-minute Piano Concerto #3 in B-flat by Timo Andres (B. 1985). The subtitle is “The Blind Banister”, a curious metaphor, of a stairway railing looking into an abyss, across a gulf, without light – danger for elderly people alone. The gulf was, though, what the decades-spanning special dissonances in the cadenza inspire.

I ought to do more guest posting myself (or invite it), but Biss explains his own understanding of the piece here, and this leads naturally do a discussion of how composers get works commissioned today, what audiences will pay to hear (and sponsor), and it’s all potentially sensitive.

The work comprises three movements: “Sliding Scale” (slow), “Ringing Weights”, leading to a cadenza, and then a “Coda: Teneramente”. The opening emphasizes descending scales in drop-rolls in the piano, somewhat lushly harmonized, even sounding familiar to me. The middle section becomes more Parisian to my ears, in fact reminding me of the day I spent in Lourdes, France on May Day 2001, as young males danced a healing ritual. The work slows down and will finally end loudly (unusual for Andres, who considers quiet endings a usually necessary courtesy for listeners).

The NY Philharmonic program notes for the new work are here.

I had the mistaken impression that the work had been called “The Blind Barrister”, which would be a curious idea indeed, given Brexit. (Oops?  England?)

The concert had opened with excerpts from Hector Berlioz’s Dramatic Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17, after Shakespeare’s Tragedy. The excerpts (14 min) seem to contain the love theme that starts the slow movement, and the Queen Mab Scherzo. The very ending was a loud chord and one soft grace note (like the Dvorak New World, which I have always found very curious).  I’m not a fan of excepting from works purporting to be sonata-like “symphonies” In fact, I had heard the Montreal Symphony play the complete work (with chorus) in Minneapolis around 2002 when I got a comp ticket while working for the Minnesota Orchestra.  I remember the happy ending, as the feuding families reconcile.  Not so in the two movies (especially Ziffereli’s) that I have seen , one while working as a substitute teacher. In fact, when the play is taught in high school, teachers have to explain that it was legal (even expected) for women to fall in love and marry much younger than it is today.

The concert concluded with the 20-minute tone poem “In the South (Alassio)”, Op. 50, by Sir Edward Elgar.  That refers to the Italian Riviera. There is some nice octave work in the brass with some dissonance in the development. I have a Chandos recording of this with Thomson.

James Oestereich reviews the concert for the New York Times here.

(Posted: Thursday, April 20, 2017 at 11:45 PM)

“Summer of 8”: on a California beach, teens enjoy their last day of “childhood” before college

Summer of 8” (directed and written by Ryan Schwartz) is a low-keyed coming-of-age youth drama, that doesn’t try to get funny (compare to “10 Rules for Sleeping Around”) and doesn’t seem that ambitious.

I was led to the film by seeing pianist-actor Michael Grant (“Fair Haven”) in the cast.  Here, he plays Aiden, one of eight 18-year-olds spending the last day of summer at Newport Beach, CA, before going off their mostly separate ways to college.

The film is framed by the lead character, alpha male Jesse, Carter Jenkins (who played the teen raising a pet dinosaur in the NBC series “Surface” ten years ago), writing a letter to his perfect dad, who we learn toward the end of the film, had passed away during Jesse’s boyhood.

The film starts in the day time and passes into an all-nighter, leading to some drugs and a little sex. But the daytime conversations early in the film get interesting.  The men are rated as to their attractiveness, which typically puts heterosexual men at peril.  Aiden is an 8.5 and I guess Jesse is the 10, but poor little Oscar (Matt Shively) is a 3, but Bobby (Nick Marini) seems to be in Jesse’s class.

College, as a college professor said in an opening episode of “Jack and Bobby” on TheWB in the middle 2000’s, is where adult life starts.  The kids here are starting to ponder the fact that their lives so far have been about them as individuals, competing in school; they have no concept of what marriage and raising their own families would be like.

Orion Pictures has returned as a distributor for the theatrical release.

Name:  “Summer of 8”
Director, writer:  Ryan Schwartz
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Amazon instant, $4.99
Length:  88
Rating:  R
Companies:  Orion, FilmBuff
Link:  Cineplex

(Published: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 at 8:30 PM EDT)