Easy A

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Available on Blu-ray, DVD, for rental on Amazon for $2.99 & on tonight @ 7:00 pm on FXX

Rated PG-13 for language and sexual themes, content and dialogue

Review contains mild spoilers

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

This is the movie that truly launched Emma Stone’s career. She shines in this film as high school student Olive, who in a fit of exasperation and boredom, tells her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) that she (Olive) has lost her virginity over the weekend. Olive’s lie is overheard by Marianne (Amanda Bynes) the school’s vehement evangelical Christian. Marianne spreads the word of Olive’s alleged sluttiness all over the school. This results in Olive calling Marianne’s best friend the “T-word” (which Olive later spells out in peas to her parents so she doesn’t repeat it in front of her little brother) during English class. Olive gets sent down to the principal who sentences Olive to detention for this lewd outburst. Malcolm McDowell plays the harried principal who states to Olive, “This is PUBLIC school. If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus.”

At detention, Olive spends time with Brandon (Dan Byrd) who also is doing time because he was “fighting.” Brandon is gay and being bullied. Olive feels sorry for him and wants to help him, and thus begins a string of events in which Olive is labeled and shamed and becomes the school whore, all while still being, in fact, a virgin.

There is a ton to love about this movie—supporting but great performances by Lisa Kudrow as the guidance counselor, Thomas Haden Church as Olive’s favorite teacher (how long ago was Wings on? How old am I?), Stanley Tucci as Olive’s father and a brief cameo by Portlandia’s Fred Armisen as Marianne’s pastor father. As an English professor, I loved the riffing on The Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn. Teenagers will recognize the strange cadre of people who haunt the halls of their high schools in these characters and parents will love the film’s references to 80s movies and its quick, sharp and smart dialogue.

The movie takes a dark turn and causes some introspection on the viewer’s part when Olive is groped in a dark parking lot by a high school boy who has heard about her “reputation” and is determined to be the next person to have sex with her. Not only does this scene show the very real differences between male and female sexual reputations but also the danger a woman is placed in in our society if she becomes known as “that kind of girl.”

In addition to a witty script and good acting, this movie has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in the last five years or so. It includes Dan Black’s Symphonies (which might be in my top 20 favorite songs ever) as well as Jessie J’s Sexy Silk and remakes of an 80s hit or two.

If you are an open-minded sort of family and have teens ages, say 14 and up, this is a great way to spend a couple hours together on a Friday or Saturday night. But if you are of a family more in the style of Marianne and her reverend father, you may want to skip this little gem.

Thirteen

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This Catch Up is written by Chelsea Cristene

Thirteen
Year of Release: 2003
Rating: R for drug use, language, self-destructive violence, and sexuality.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No.
Spoilers: None.

I seem to be falling into a “ten year anniversary” pattern on this blog already with the 2003 movies, but I won’t lie – it’s always fun to look at films released when I was a teenager through the sage old wisdom of my mid-twenties (ha!).

Thirteen is a movie about teenagers but arguably not for them, due to the veritable platter of adult material. You name it, it’s probably in here: marijuana, LSD, alcohol, sex, oral sex, shoplifting and other forms of stealing, self-harm in the form of cutting, and of course, thongs. Written by Nikki Reed and Catherine Hardwicke (both of recent Twilight fame) and directed by Hardwicke, Thirteen is based on actual events from Reed’s troubled adolescence. Evan Rachel Wood stars as our tragic heroine Tracy Freeland; Reed stars as her influential “bad girl” best friend, Evie.

Tracy’s transformation in a mere ninety minutes of screen time is nothing short of heartbreaking. At the beginning of the film, she is a bright yet understated teenage girl who, when she’s not working on a school project, enjoys writing poetry and palling around with a young Vanessa Hudgens (yes, that’s her!). Upon meeting “regulation hottie” (thanks for making this a part of my vernacular, Mean Girls) Evie Zamora, Tracy rededicates her young life to impressing the popular clique, furiously tossing her stuffed animals into a wastebasket and bemoaning her “Cabbage Patch” wardrobe. Before long, Tracy ditches the jelly bracelets for tongue rings and the lowest of low-rise jeans, steals purses to go shopping on Melrose, and spends her evenings dropping acid at the park. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Tracy’s middle school could easily be transplanted into any suburban U.S. town, but the rest of the the film’s Los Angeles backdrop is just as much a catalyst to Tracy’s downward spiral as the manipulative Evie. The shops on Melrose Avenue are blindingly decadent (Red Balls’ storefront alone is an exercise in sensory overload), looking more like adult novelty shops than clothing stores for teens. After skipping out on a family movie night with Tracy’s mom and boyfriend, the girls run wild on Hollywood Boulevard a jungle of…well, jungle juice, hoards of teens freestyle rapping on street corners, and curtained dressing rooms perfect for stealing a torrid quickie. During the day, the city’s beachy coastal colors are distorted, muted, almost as if there’s a blue filter over the camera lens. At night, the camera movements are jerky and disorienting, increasing in lopsidedness and Tracy digs herself into more and more trouble.

It’s painful not only to watch Tracy disappear into a hell of her own making, but to watch Melanie Freeland wrestle with how to save her daughter amid all of her other troubles. Melanie (in what is easily my favorite performance from Holly Hunter and one that rightfully scored her an Oscar nod) makes ends meet as a high-school dropout with a home-based hairstyling service, regularly attends AA meetings, and, much to Tracy’s chagrin, repeatedly slips back into an on-again, off-again relationship with recovering drug addict Brady (Jeremy Sisto). She is a character as vibrant and complicated as the L.A. scenery around her, manufacturing her own brand of “cool” with her love of “entertainment streak” highlights and her penchant for tracking down thrifty second-hand clothes for Tracy’s new wardrobe. Roger Ebert described Melanie as “clueless but not uncaring,” and I’d also tack “terrified” onto that list of adjectives. Tracy’s behavior is foreshadowed during an early scene when she reads one of her deeper poems out loud to her mother (“It scares me a little,” Melanie admits) and intensifies during a heated standoff in the kitchen when Tracy repeatedly slaps at her thighs and taunts, “No bra, no panties,” as she backs the wide-eyed, disbelieving Melanie into a corner. I’d also argue that part of Melanie’s “cluelessness” is the freedom she extends to Tracy and her brother out of guilt, for she can’t buy Tracy the designer jeans she dreams of, force her ex-husband to cough up the child support, or afford anything beyond “$1.50 a square foot floor.” Tracy’s problems are many, but Melanie is the reminder we all need that even the most selfless of mothers aren’t without problems of their own.

Olympus Has Fallen

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Currently Streaming on Netflix

Rated R for frequent use of F-bomb and lots of blood, brains, stabbings, shootings, splatterings & explosions

Review contains mild spoilers

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

This movie is for lovers of big 80s-style action movies—Die Hard, Terminator, True Lies, etc. Lots of big names in this cast—Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Gerard Butler, Angela Bassett, Ashley Judd, Dylan McDermott, Rick Yune and Melissa Leo (who gives a wonderful performance as Secretary of Defense). Directed by Antoine Fuqua, one of Hollywood’s few African-American film directors (his most well-known film is Training Day starring Denzel Washington), this movie is far superior to the tepid White House Down which came out, strangely enough, at about the same time. White House Down didn’t know what it was—was it an action movie? Was it a comedy? It had no clue; so it got muddled in a no-man’s land of story-telling. Olympus Has Fallen knows exactly what it is—a story-driven action movie.

Secret-service agent Mike Banning (Butler) is President Benjamin Asher’s (Eckhart) best friend and the head of his Secret Service detail. An accident happens, and Asher blames Banning for it. Banning is banished to the U.S. Treasury Department for 18 months, where he intermittently pleads to his boss Lynn Jacobs (Bassett) for his old job back. Banning glumly sits at his desk until one day he looks out his window and there are North Korean terrorists (unsanctioned by their government) attacking the White House.

This is the part where youtube and IMDB commenters whine, “This is just so unrealistic. This could never happen.” Well, I think we get into trouble when we compare movies we watch for our entertainment with real life but I would also respond to the “this could never happen” whiners that I don’t think we foresaw anyone flying planes into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, either.

President Asher ends up in the White House bunker with the terrorists and a turncoat Secret Service agent (McDermott). The terrorists begin to coerce Cerberus codes out of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense while Banning, the lone remaining Secret Service agent in the White House, struggles to rescue the hostages.

The beating of Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan is one of the plot points that makes this movie rise above typical popcorn action movie fare. Similar to G.I. Jane (a movie which was critically panned when it came out but I have always very much enjoyed), this scene shows the squicky feelings we have as a nation when women are beaten in service to their country. We seem, as a nation, to have no problem when a woman is beaten by her romantic partner. Because that happens every 12 seconds in this country and we have yet to find any solutions for that abuse. But for a woman to receive a beating in service to her country, well, that just brings up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings. After McMillan’s ribs are broken, President Asher orders to her to give the terrorist (Yune) her Cerberus code telling McMillan, “He will never get mine.” So stand down with the tough, little lady. We like to keep our beatings domestic, thank you very much. (See what I did there?)

Some other fun things in this movie include Gerard Butler’s American accent. I don’t know exactly where Banning is from, but I want to visit there. I think it might be BrooklynBronxNew Jersey. And I adore the scene in which Acting President House Speaker Trumbull (Freeman) tells the old white general (Robert Forster) who exactly is in charge. There is also a great scene when Banning and Asher are in a deep bromance moment and it looks like they might kiss. I think they might have sold more movie tickets with a little slash. Butler and Eckhart are both very attractive men. But no one asks me these things.

And while this movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, it does have many named women in positions of power who do get screen time. Not perfect but so much better than many action movies.

Despite its high body count and arguable implausibility, Olympus Has Fallen offers some great acting (I would watch Freeman, Eckhart and Butler in almost anything), awesome special effects and most importantly, a story to go along with blowing shit up.

On Revisiting “The Hours” Ten Years Later

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene

The Hours
Year of Release: 2002
Rating: PG-13 for mature themes and mild language.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes.
Spoilers: Virginia Woolf dies at the end. Minor plot spoilers re: Laura Brown.

When I first watched The Hours I was just sixteen years old and trying to see as many Oscar-nominated movies as I could before the 75th Academy Awards – and what a year it was! Adaptation, Chicago, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Pianist…but The Hours was the only film that ended with me openly weeping upon leaving the theatre, overcome by what I had just seen.

The Hours, an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s 1999 novel, stars Nicole Kidman as troubled author Virginia Woolf living in a 1920s London suburb, Julianne Moore as 1950s housewife Laura Brown living in Los Angeles, and Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughn, living in New York City in 2001. Streep’s character in particular is any Virginia Woolf fan’s dream, as Clarissa Vaughn is essentially a modern version of Mrs. Dalloway’s titular heroine with some slight alterations: Whereas Clarissa Dalloway’s summer fling with Sally Seton lies permanently in the past, Clarissa Vaughn is an openly gay woman partnered with her own Sally (Allison Janey), and the two raise a daughter, Julia (Claire Danes), together.

The film, like the novel, explores the lives of these three characters as they transcend time and place to parallel and intertwine with one another. But of course, staying true to Mrs. Dalloway’s form, all events in the film occur during a single day. On that singular day in the theatre ten years ago, I lost myself in David Hare’s script (it’s always magic to see such an interior book come alive on the screen), Philip Glass’s driving, insistent score, and the quiet power of three of the greatest actresses alive today. I was a teenager cultivating a budding interest in gender and sexuality and hungry to read everything Virginia Woolf had ever written. The hours in my life have since moved forward, leading me to watch this film from behind very different eyes ten years later.

In one of The Hours’ more delicate scenes, Virginia and her niece Angelica find a dying bird in the garden. Angelica’s brothers refer to the bird as a “he,” but Aunt Virginia knows better. Is it a she? the young Angelica timidly asks, and the three main characters likewise find their female voices over the course of the film. It was after my exposure to feminist literature in college (and later as an English teacher) that the female voices of Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown truly became more than tropes of the suffering artist or the bored housewife. Teaching Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” allowed me to better understand the pain Woolf experienced under Weir Mitchell’s inhumane rest cure, the series of frustrations and limitations that Kidman’s character rejects by fleeing to the train station and delivering the line that very well may have won her the Oscar: If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone, in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know. Only I can understand my own condition. Laura Brown similarly flees her own suffocating life by racing to a hotel to commit suicide – though she, unlike Woolf, cannot bring herself to end it all. Instead, she makes a decision to “choose life,” by forming a plan later that evening: she will create a new life for herself in Toronto, leaving her husband and children behind. Laura sees death and despair in the same role that Kitty, her possibly infertile neighbor, so idealizes (I don’t think you can call yourself a woman until you’re a mother.) Ultimately, both women struggle with inadequately fitting Betty Friedan’s “mystique,” – Kitty due to medical complications, Laura due to a clear denial of self. What does it mean to regret, she later asks Clarissa Vaughn, when you have no choice?

Clarissa Vaughn’s character is someone I’ve learned to value well beyond her basic function as Mrs. Dalloway’s double. She busies herself with schedules and planning and floral arrangements — parties to cover the silence — as a distraction from the inevitable: Richard’s death. Clarissa brings to the screen the tendency in all of us, to some degree, to push down life’s unpleasantries under decor and distraction, to churn through the present so methodically that the past cannot possibly surface. But like there are cracks in Clarissa’s foundation. Her friend Richard is not simply an older man dying of AIDS; he is the living history of the young man she fell in love with when she was just eighteen. When Richard’s ex-lover Louis (Jeff Daniels) arrives for the party, the past becomes too real. Louis tells Clarissa that he recently returned to Wellfleet, the site of so much young passion and conflict (It was you [Richard] stayed with, Clarissa nods, I had one summer) and she finally unravels, sobbing, sliding down the dishwasher, and fiddling with her clanking bracelets in what is easily my favorite scene of the movie. I think you’re courageous, Clarissa tells Louis, to face the fact that we have lost those feelings forever. I wasn’t able to fully understand the magnitude of this scene before moving through my own young adulthood, loving and fighting with members of a close-knit circle only to later experience the shock and intensity when all of the ghosts assemble in the present. In revisiting a past that no longer exists, Clarissa faces the one thing she has so desperately sought to avoid: death.

But after she composes herself, Clarissa opens the door to receive her daughter, Julia, and the two share a tender moment. The old ghost of Louis is replaced by Julia’s youth and sense of possibility, and as mother and daughter lie snuggled up together on the bed, Clarissa is able to relive the same heartbreaking memories with a sudden exuberance:

I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.

Rewatching that scene today, I, like Clarissa, can acknowledge the contradictory nature of memory. There is pain in the loss, but joy because the moment did exist. I also think of my own mother and am able, like Julia, to acknowledge her past: All you’re saying, Julia realizes, is that you were once young. Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown were able to prolong their respective happiness by choosing city over suburban life, individual direction instead of gendered norms. Clarissa’s challenge lies now in capturing more moments of happiness as her life moves forward, embracing her immediate present instead of inventing distraction, and creating meaning in the hours that she is given.

The Joneses

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Currently streaming on Netflix

Rated R for brief nudity, occasional use of the f-bomb, and mild violence

Review contains mild spoilers

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

The Joneses is a fabulous little movie that I didn’t even hear about until a couple of years ago when it streamed on Netflix for the first time. It stars David Duchovny and Demi Moore, and costars Lauren Hutton. Released in 2009, The Joneses is the perfect blend of comedy, tragedy, romance and satire. Steve (Duchovny) and Kate (Moore) and their two teenage children (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth), move into an affluent, gated community Somewhere in America That Isn’t California. The Joneses appear to be the perfect All-American family when their neighbors Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headley) walk over to meet them. Summer carries a large basket of Robustion skincare and cosmetics line for which she is a “consultant.” (She says affirmations like “I am a powerful saleswoman.” Think of every time you’ve been invited to/attended a Mary Kay, Arbonne or similar party. Summer’s belief that she can affirm her way to success is one of the smaller underlying tragedies of the movie.)

Larry and Summer are amazed by the perfection of Steve and Kate’s house. No moving boxes, no piles of paper, no dirty dishes here. The house is immaculate and spacious with top-of-the-line furniture and the state-of-the-art electronics. Summer says to Larry when they get back to their house, “I would KILL for that dining room set.”

But of course nothing is at it seems and within the first 20 minutes of the movie we realize that the Joneses are in fact, not a family at all. They work for a large international “person-to-person” marketing firm and have sale goals for certain products in certain demographics—Kate takes care of women’s fashions, hair products, upscale convenience foods and jewelry. The teens are person-to-person marketing video games, cell phones, fashions, skateboards and even cars. And Steve (a rookie, this is his first “family” placement) works on golf, beer, cars, sportswear, cigars, and other “man toys.” The heart of this firm’s success is that people are suspicious of advertising messages, except when the message comes from their friends. This Anywhere in America Suburb sees Steve and Kate and their allegedly hot and sexy marriage and their two beautiful teenage children, and wants to be just like them, therefore they want everything the Joneses have. As Steve and Kate’s boss KC (Hutton) says, “If they want you, they will want what you have.”

What I loved about this movie was its utter skewering of consumption-driven capitalism. I am a married 46-year-old woman with two teenage children and I cannot tell you the number of times people in our same income group have tried to engage me in competition about something related to consumption. At the Catholic school my kids attended for many years the moms would list their spring break and winter break trip destinations, talk about how stressful it was to build a new home (or a second home), or about the Yankees game they had “swung by” on the weekend. Underneath this frothing patina, this gross display of wealth, is more often than not, extreme debt, extreme fear, and loneliness. One of the many interesting mirrors in The Joneses is that Larry thinks Steve is having lots of sex because of the gifts he showers on Kate, and Summer and Larry should be having sex because they are married. It isn’t quite clear why Summer consistently spurns Larry—she’s angry but movie viewers don’t know exactly why. Unfulfilled? She feels she bet on the wrong horse (even though they are living in a huge McMansion and Larry seems to still be in love with her)? Sex and power and money are closely entwined in this movie—just like they are in real life. And the irony present in a good majority of the movie is despite appearance, no one is having sex.

Several story arcs culminate in a variety of tragedies, one which is tragi-comic and involves Steve saying to Kate, “This family is fucked up. Where did we go wrong?” And another tragic scene with beautiful cinematography, soundtracked to Nick Urata’s haunting “In My Hands.” This tragedy results in Steve having an attack of conscience about his deceit, which leads to (some) of the characters in the movie realizing, to varying degrees, that all of the stuff in the world doesn’t equal a single good and loving relationship.