Movie Reviews: 'The Circle' and 'Phoenix Forgotten'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and Patton Oswalt star in a scene from the movie "The Circle." Photo: CNS/STX Films Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and Patton Oswalt star in a scene from the movie "The Circle." Photo: CNS/STX Films

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The Circle

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Big Brother is watching you, and he has nothing to do with the government. Such, at least in part, is the message of the confused cautionary tale "The Circle" (STX).

While perfectly acceptable for a wide swath of grown-ups, director James Ponsoldt's adaptation of his co-writer Dave Eggers' novel includes a crucial scene that probably puts it over the line for all but the most mature teens.

Emma Watson plays San Francisco office worker Mae Holland. Bored with her job at a traditional firm, Mae is thrilled when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), an employee of the titular company, the world's leading social media outfit, gets her an interview there.

Once on the inside, however, Mae finds herself conflicted about her new environment.

She's drawn to the charismatic figure of Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the most visible of the Circle's three founders (Patton Oswalt portrays Tom Stenton, Eamon's more subdued collaborator at the top). And she's grateful when the Circle's in-house medical staff arrange to have her parents, Bonnie (Glenne Headly) and Vinnie (Bill Paxton), added to her health insurance plan. Since Vinnie suffers from multiple sclerosis, this is a real boon.

But Mae also quickly discovers that the Circle's corporate culture is unsettlingly cult-like. And her initial enthusiasm is also dampened by her encounters with Ty (John Boyega) the now-marginalized, and disenchanted, third creator of the firm.

The Circle's stated goal of enlisting every person on the planet as a member is obviously problematic since it raises troubling issues about privacy and the power of big business. Yet, although overworked Annie recognizes this, Mae does not.

Instead, taking her cue from Eamon, she buys into such Circle slogans as "Secrets Are Lies." Mae even suggests that the government should make membership in the Circle a prerequisite for voting.

Though already awakened to the Circle's dark side, Mae still has enough ardor to agree to go fully "transparent," that is, to have her life made totally available online 24/7 to be witnessed and commented on by millions of Circle subscribers. This experiment in privacy denial soon has negative consequences for Bonnie and Vinnie and even worse ones for Mae's would-be boyfriend, gadget-shy woodcarver Mercer (Ellar Coltrane).

As all of this suggests, Mae never seems to come down on one side or the other of the movie's philosophical divide. Even after a climactic crisis, and a gotcha plot twist, her stance remains unclear.

So it's hard to guess what the ultimate takeaway is meant to be. And the fact that the proceedings are lacking in energy throughout leaves the audience with little motive to exert themselves trying to solve this thematic puzzle.

The film contains brief semi-graphic marital lovemaking, some sexual humor, a few uses of profanity, at least one rough term as well as several crude and a couple of crass words.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Phoenix Forgotten movie still
This is a scene from the movie "Phoenix Forgotten." Photo: CNS/Allied Integrated Marketing

Phoenix Forgotten

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - The sci-fi-themed horror tale "Phoenix Forgotten" (Cinelou) includes little objectionable material, other than some salty language in the dialogue. Yet the lack of any positive seasoning makes this reasonably wholesome dish (for grown-ups, at least) dull to the taste.

Largely as barren as the Arizona desert in which much of its action is set, the movie follows the efforts of Phoenix-bred filmmaker Sophie (Florence Hartigan) to make a documentary about the 1997 disappearance of her older brother, Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts).

In the immediate aftermath of the real-life, and widely reported, UFO sighting known as the "Phoenix Lights," Josh and two friends, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews), set off for the wilderness in search of clues about that event. Though they vanished without a trace, a video camera with a cassette tape in it was discovered in their abandoned car.

Between Sophie's rough cuts and the playback of the missing trio's film, the tired "found footage" conceit is brought to bear. But even the immediacy ideally produced by that device could not alter the fact that the virtually bloodless proceedings in director and co-writer Justin Barber's feature debut -- penned with T.S. Nowlin -- fail to intrigue.

The imagery that crops up along the way to a partial explanation of what befell the pals includes the prophet Ezekiel's vision of interlocking wheels recorded in the first chapter of the Old Testament book named for him.

Any connection to scriptural faith is lacking, however. Instead, the "wheels within wheels" serve merely as a prop meant to establish a tenuous connection to the ancient past such as that sought in Erich von Daniken's 1968 volume, "Chariots of the Gods?" While idle, the use of this motif is in no way disrespectful.

Some parents may feel that the absence of gore -- apart from the sight of some ravaged wildlife -- makes "Phoenix Forgotten" acceptable for mature adolescents despite the vulgar vocabulary into which the characters sometimes lapse, especially when frightened.

The film contains at least one use of profanity and a milder oath, frequent crude and occasional crass language and unsettling images of dead animals.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.