Anatomy of a Murder

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Currently streaming on Netflix

NR (Somewhere around PG-13 with its rape references and themes)

Review contains mild spoilers

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

 

If you ask someone in Michigan why exactly our Upper Peninsula is a part of Michigan, chances are about 50-50 they won’t have a clue. If you look at a United States map, there is no doubt that logically, Michigan’s U.P. should be a part of Wisconsin. But thanks to the Michigan- Ohio War (it was a real thing), Michigan relinquished 400 miles of Ohio, and in exchange got its statehood and was ceded the iron-rich, copper-rich, woods, lakes and waterfalls paradise that is Michigan’s U.P. It is in this sparsely populated area that Anatomy of a Murder takes place. Filmed on location in Big Bay, Marquette, Ishpeming and Michigamme, (go ahead, East & West Coast folks, try to pronounce those town names correctly. I’ll wait), Otto Preminger (director) managed to recreate both the sense of scandal and gossip, but also the sense of quiet in a small town after a murder has occurred.

Based on a novel by Robert Traver (pen name for Michigan attorney John D. Voelker), Anatomy of a Murder (the book) spent 65 weeks (!!!) on the best-seller list and helped usher in the literary thriller genre. Traver based the novel loosely on a murder that happened in the Big Bay area. The movie has a great cast; James Stewart as Paul Biegler and a very young George C. Scott as the fancy prosecuting attorney from the big city of Lansing (hahaha). The movie received seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and the American Bar Association STILL ranks it as one of the best trial movies of all time.

The premise of the movie is that Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara) has shot and killed a local bartender for raping his wife. His wife Laura (Lee Remick) appears battered. She wears tight pants and sweaters and she doesn’t wear a girdle (just panties!), and in the course of the movie, she is, as many rape victims still are, also put on trial in addition to her murderous husband. In addition to the great acting, one of the fascinating things about watching this movie is the social and cultural norms in portrays in 1959. The words “intercourse” “panties” and “contraception” are whispered and bring titillating murmurs and giggles to the court room. And, according to Reader’s Guide put out to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the movie, the movie was actually banned for a time in Chicago due to its obscenities.

One of the most painful scenes for a woman living in the 21st century to watch is when the prosecutor starts talking about Laura Manion’s morals, the way she dresses, her religious practices, her previous divorce and her sexual history. We of course pretend we don’t do this in courts of law anymore, but it is commonplace and still, 55 years after this movie is filmed, only three out of every 100 rapists will spend any time in prison.

Even with the outmoded gender roles and the depressing topic of how rape victims are treated, there is something refreshing about watching a movie where all the women characters are named, have speaking roles, and the opportunity to act and react to what’s going on around them. As strange as it may seem, women actresses in some ways had better parts in some of these old movies.

Another thing that is interesting about this film is what propels it. No one ever doubts that Manion has killed the bartender. What propels the movie is will Paul Biegler be able to defend him? Is Manion lying about why he killed the bartender? Is Manion the one who raped and beat his wife? Or is it just as Laura is saying? Even guilty, will Manion get off? Will Laura stay with her husband? Will Biegler refrain from flirting (or more) with Laura?

Oh, and the soundtrack is great. (Can you tell yet that I really like soundtracks?) It was composed and scored by Duke Ellington.

Even if you’re not a fan of “old” movies, go take a looksee at this one, especially if you like Stewart. Or Michigan. Or courtroom movies. Or stuff that’s free with your Netflix subscription.

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Towelhead

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene

Towelhead
Year of Release: 2007
Rating: R for strong sexual content, sex involving a minor, and some language.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No.
Spoilers: Mild.

I’m not going to lie – the fact that Towelhead stars Aaron Eckhart may have been the primary influence in my decision to scoop it out of the five dollar movie bin. But I’m happy to report that despite its generally mediocre reviews and little-known female lead, entertaining and teachable moments both abound in this film.

Directed by American Beauty’s Alan Ball, Towelhead is the coming-of-age story of Jasira (Summer Bishil), a thirteen year old Lebanese American growing up during the Gulf War (side note: the early nineties fashions are expertly executed here). From the film’s opening scene, we learn that Jasira doesn’t exactly have an easy time of it: Her mother’s live-in boyfriend helps Jasira shave her pubic hair, which causes her mother (Maria Bello) to go ballistic, blame Jasira, and send her daughter packing to live with her stern Lebanese father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) in Houston, Texas. Making matters worse is Jasira’s creepy new army reservist neighbor Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), his oblivious wife, and their racist son whom Jasira must babysit while enduring endless taunts and racial slurs.

Jasira’s sexual awakening is sparked by a pile of nudie magazines she discovers one afternoon while babysitting at the Vuoso house. She likes the way the magazines make her feel, and learns to rock herself back and forth to the point of orgasm. Travis is at first outraged upon discovering Jasira with his secret stash, but his anger quickly dissolves to intrigue when Jasira tells him that the magazines give her physical pleasure, and he discreetly drops a few off at her doorstep one night for her to keep. After an incident with the Vuosos’ son turns ugly, however (Zach calls Jasira a towelhead and she hits him in the arm), Travis angrily shows up late at night and demands his magazines back. As Jasira turns to go get them, Travis rapes her.

From this point forward, the spark of Jasira’s sexual awareness spreads like a roaring flame. She starts spending time with a classmate named Thomas and eventually sleeps with him. Travis Vuoso, despite his initial horror over fingering a thirteen year old girl, is soon “courting” Jasira by taking her to dinner in the evenings. During all of this, Rifat is off spending time with his girlfriend du jour, and we begin to understand that virtually every man in Jasira’s life has threatened, abused, or abandoned her in some way. Thomas, a generally nice kid exploring his own young sexuality, is the only exception to this rule, and along with a concerned pregnant couple across the street (Toni Collette and Matt Letscher), he seems to be the only character who genuinely enjoys Jasira’s company and looks out for her best interests.

If you have any interest in feminist and/or intersectionalist theory as many of my readers over at Role/Reboot do, this film is for you. Beyond the politics of being a Middle Eastern American during a war in Iraq and holding minority-on-minority racist views (Jasira’s father explicitly forbids her from seeing Thomas simply because he is black), this film should resonate with any woman who has been or felt objectified. Jasira is incapable of exercising any sort of agency over her own body due to the shame she is made to feel about her large breasts, her use of tampons (“Those are for married ladies,” Rifat reminds her in the grocery store”), and the smooth power Travis holds over her (he reprimands her for looking at pictures of “sluts,” yet traps her into being his own sexual plaything). She views her body as men would view it, until toward the end of the film when she walks out of a “Glamour Shot” studio at the mall and decides once and for all to make decisions for herself. Bishil, eighteen at the time of filming, radiates as Jasira even if the scenes between her and Eckhart are at times painful to watch. And uncomfortable subject matter aside, Ball does throw in some occasional comedic highlights that don’t at all feel forced: Jasira guiltily stores the Vuosos’ dead pet cat Snowball in the freezer; Rifat, cradling a few boxes of feminine products in his arms, asks Jasira if she would “describe her situation as light, medium, or heavy?” Heavy, indeed.

Odd Thomas

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Currently streaming on Netflix

NR (I would say it’s about PG-13 for minor gore)

Spoilers: None

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

I’m not sure what the history of this movie is—I heard rumors of lawsuits between production companies and financial problems in the middle of the shoot. I’m not sure if it had any sort of theatrical release or not (the NR would seem to indicate it didn’t?) but it sounds like it was MEANT to have a theatrical release. With a very serviceable cast of Anton Yelchin as Odd Thomas, Addison Timlin as Odd’s girlfriend Stormy Llewellyn and Willem Dafoe as Police Chief Wyatt Porter, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this adaptation of Dean Koontz’s well-reviewed thriller. (Publisher’s Weekly said about Koontz’s first Odd book, “This is Koontz working at his pinnacle, providing terrific entertainment that deals seriously with some of the deepest themes of human existence: the nature of evil, the grip of fate and the power of love.”)

I read Odd Thomas in 2004 (I think?). I got it at the library and read it quickly over a weekend. I think I might have read one of its sequels, but then I got buried again in my never-ending reading list. So when my friend said on Facebook that she had liked the movie and it was currently streaming on Netflix, I took an hour-and-a-half this weekend to watch it. I don’t remember the ins and outs of the novel, having never re-read it, but the movie definitely has the same tone—Odd was likable, funny and you know…odd.

Odd Thomas sees dead people. He doesn’t want to be locked up for being crazy, so he tries to keep his talent hidden. Because Odd often needs the police, Chief Porter does know of Odd’s ability, and tries to find ways to explain how Odd knows a suspect has killed someone, etc.

The true conflict of the movie starts when Odd sees more bodachs than he has ever seen before surrounding a guy (dubbed “Fungus Man” by Odd and Stormy) at the restaurant at which Odd works as a short-order cook. Bodachs are creepy, transparent, alien-looking creatures who feed off of suffering and death. Odd has seen them previously, each time before a tragedy has struck, but never, ever such a large number of them. Odd has to pretend he can’t see the bodachs because everyone who has ever admitted to seeing a bodach has turned up dead. Odd knows something really, really bad is going to happen in his small hometown, and so he begins to follow Fungus Man (and FM’s posse of bodachs) to try to stop whatever it is that is about to occur.

This was exactly my kind of thriller movie. I can’t stand a lot of unnecessary gore anymore I spend one-third of each episode of Game of Thrones with my hands covering my eyes. I had to turn off Zombieland because I felt queasy. I had nightmares when my niece told me the plot of Saw. (Thanks, Hannah.) But this is more action with a side order of blood and bodach.

The dialogue is witty and there is excellent use of character narration (which is sometimes used in book adaptations when the writers can’t fit in necessary exposition any other way… I’m looking at you, Lord of the Rings) but Odd’s narration actually helps add to his character development as the viewer gets even more of a sense of his “voice” which gives the movie much of its charm. Also, excellent soundtracking, which gives the film a funky, small-town feel.

Mean Girls

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This Catch Up is written by Chelsea Cristene

Mean Girls
Year of Release: 2004
Rating: PG-13 for mild sexual content, language, and adult themes.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes!
Spoilers: None.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you know that last Wednesday was the highly-celebrated 10 year anniversary of Mean Girls, the 2004 comedy-now-cult-classic that added words like “fetch,” “grool,” and “skeeze” to our lexicon. I was a junior in high school when this film was released, and am hard-pressed now to think of a sleepover when my girlfriends and I didn’t watch it or a school day when we didn’t quote it. Ten years later, my students can rattle off their favorite lines with just as much enthusiasm, signifying that Mean Girls has truly stood the test of time.

It is possible, though, to be a fully functional adult in 2014 and not have seen Mean Girls. Rare, but possible. If you’re like my best friend’s husband (who was glued to my TV set for the next 97 minutes after enduring a considerable amount of grief), Netflix is your new best friend, having just added the film to its streaming collection last month. You have no excuse.

In a nutshell, Mean Girls is the story of North Shore High School’s “clique problem” – during the first thirty minutes, we become acquainted with the Preps, JV Jocks, Asian Nerds, Cool Asians, Unfriendly Black Hotties, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks, and, last but not least, the Plastics. Led by “queen bee” Regina George (Rachel McAdams), the Plastics set the North Shore standard for what is “fetch” (a word coined by Gretchen, Regina’s desperate sidekick, played by Party of Five’s Lacey Chabert) and what is not (“That is the ugliest effing skirt I’ve ever seen,” Regina hisses to newcomer Cady Heron in the hallway).

Cady “It’s Pronounced Like Katie” Heron, played by Lindsay Lohan in better days, is the perfect blank canvas through which all of us come to understand the contrived ridiculousness of Girl World. Raised by zoologist parents in Africa, Cady is ill-equipped to navigate the trendy, touchy waters of a public high school in the States. After a few awkward lunch periods spent eating in a bathroom stall, Cady gratefully befriends the quirky Janis Ian (easily the best character in the movie) and the loveable Damian who take Cady under their wing.

Janis, however, has some mischief in mind. The mutual hatred between Janis and Regina reaches all the way back to elementary school, and after noticing that the Plastics have taken a special interest in Cady, Janis decides that the homeschooled transplant is the perfect weapon to take Regina down once and for all. Cady must pretend to be friends with the Plastics while reporting all of their best-kept secrets to Janis, incidentally now leading the same double life as her peers. Further complicating matters is the crush Cady develops on dreamboat Aaron Samuels – Regina’s ex-boyfriend. Once Regina backstabs Cady by getting back together with Aaron after giving Cady her blessing, it’s war.

Mean Girls may owe its timelessness to the subject matter (passive-aggressive cliques, popularity contests, stud/slut double standards), but it owes its entertainment value to the cast. There’s just as much here for adults as there is for teens thanks to Saturday Night Live comedians Tina Fey as the math teacher who cares too much, Tim Meadows as the principal battling a debilitating case of carpal tunnel, and Amy Poehler as Regina’s surgically enhanced “cool mom.” But my favorite character is Janis Ian thanks to her artsy and unapologetic personality: wearing a purple tuxedo to the spring fling, boldly embracing the false rumors that she is a lesbian, manipulative but caring in all the perfect ways. Her name also pays homage to the classic 1975 song “At Seventeen” by singer Janis Ian, an ode to all the girls “who knew the pain of valentines that never came” and “whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball.”

Now go turn on Netflix and make yourself comfortable, or you can’t sit with us.