Doubt

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Currently available on Blu-ray and DVD

PG-13

Review contains mild spoilers

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

 

Doubt is a film for people who love good acting. What a line-up! Meryl Streep is Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal at St. Nicolas in the Bronx. The year is 1964 and Philip Seymour Hoffman is Father Flynn, a priest wrapped in the burgeoning Vatican II changes. He wants to bring more openness to the school that Sister Aloysius runs with an iron-hand. Viola Davis is Donald Miller’s mother. Donald is the first Black student to be enrolled at St. Nicolas and everyone is concerned at how he will be treated in this primarily Irish and Italian (white white white) school. Amy Adams is Sister James, the new and naïve nun, who doesn’t know what to think of the power struggle between her superior and the priest. I honestly didn’t know Amy Adams could act. I had only seen her in the new Man of Steel and Talladega Nights (which my kids and I quote weekly to each other. “I’m still sitting in my dirty pee pants.”). I was pleasantly surprised by her innocent and nuanced performance in Doubt.

Doubt is based on the play by John Patrick Shanley, who also converted the play to the screen. The story focuses on whether or not Father Flynn is having an inappropriate relationship with 12-year-old Donald Miller or whether Sister Aloysius Beauvier is setting him up due to his “liberal” ways. Viewers will see the action in the movie with a jaded eye due to the Catholic Church pedophilia and cover-up scandal but the film is called Doubt for a reason. Viewers doubt Sister Beauvier’s motivations. We see Sister James doubt the authority of both Father Flynn and Sister Beauvier. We doubt Father Flynn’s honesty. We also see all the characters doubts in their faith and in their church. And we see Mrs. Miller struggle with Sister Beauvier about what to do with Donald.They both have their doubts in this pivotal scene. We see why the tagline of the play version of this story was called Doubt: A Parable.

A fascinating thing to watch in the film is how the storm outside of the school parallels the storm going on inside it. At first the storm is damp and cold and inconvenient but gradually it builds, causing more and more damage. Another great parallel is how the nuns eat dinner versus how the fathers eat dinner. This is brilliantly cut, scene to scene, showing Sister Beauvier’s control of the nuns’ appetites and the fathers total capitulation to theirs.

All four of the films stars—Streep, Hoffman, Davis and Adams—received well-deserved Academy Award nominations as well as a boatload of other nominations and awards for their performances in these roles. If you’re a fan of any of these actors (especially the recently departed) Hoffman, you’ll want to spend 104 of your minutes on earth with this morally gray and ambiguous parable.

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Zack and Miri Make a Porno

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Year of Release: 2008
Rating: R for…pretty much everything – adult themes, sexuality, nudity, language, crude humor. This is not a movie for “family fun night.”
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes!
Spoilers: Mild to moderate.

Zack and Miri came to Netflix, and the townspeople cheered! (In all fairness, it may have been on Netflix for a while and I just now noticed, but either way, I’m a happy camper.)

I’ll admit that for the longest time, I really, really didn’t want to give this movie a chance. I’ve been a huge fan of Kevin Smith’s work ever since Clerks forever changed the way I feel about salsa, shoe polish, and the number 37, and couldn’t bear leaving behind the cast of ‘90s characters I was raised with (not to mention New Jersey!) But on the other side – no worries, Kevin, you totally beat the pants off of Knocked Up as far as I’m concerned, no matter what the numbers say.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno takes place in Monroeville, a Pittsburgh suburb I once got hopelessly lost in for the better part of an hour. Zach Brown (no affiliation with the band, played by Seth Rogen) and Miri Linky (Elizabeth Banks) are roommates who struggle to make ends meet on a coffee shop barista and department store sales clerk’s salaries. Their kitchen is home to clusters of unpaid bills, and as luck would have it, their water shuts off on the night of their ten year high school reunion. A night Miri has been anticipating for quite some time.

The scene in the high school gym is without a doubt my favorite of the movie, given the continuous stream of awkward moments that eventually give way to golden opportunity. Miri has big plans to seduce heartthrob and former quarterback Bobby Long (Superman‘s Brandon Routh – YUM), who never paid her any mind ten years ago and is currently dating pretentious Los Angeles filmmaker Brandon St. Randy (Justin Long). After Brandon adds insult to injury by playing an Internet viral video of Miri in granny panties, Miri deals with the news like an adult (I’m going to binge drink now until I pass out) while Zack probes into Brandon’s career in porn. Inspiration, here, is found in the unlikeliest of places.

Zack and Miri throw together a cast and crew of familiar faces: Jeff Anderson (Randall from the Clerks movies), Jason Mewes (the Jay of Jay and Silent Bob), Craig Robinson (Darryl from The Office), and actual porn star Katie Morgan. Barring the momentary intrusion of a drunk Steelers fan looking for a late night pick-me-up, the group is able to discreetly shoot their film in the coffee shop where Zack works. Unfortunately, its two stars don’t anticipate the solution to their financial problems causing new, emotional ones, and it’s immediately clear that their passionate love-making on a giant sack of coffee beans is about more than just sex.

What I loved most about Zack and Miri was the heartfelt and honest look at what happens when two friends sleep together for the first time: the telling each other that it won’t be weird, the inevitable uh-oh it’s WEIRD moment, the furious and futile attempts to avoid the issue by not talking about it. I was also pleased that the movie didn’t rely on a tired “friend zone”-driven plot (*cough* Just Friends with Ryan Reynolds): I got the sense that Zack and Miri genuinely cared for one another without feeling entitled and initial awkwardness aside, I believe that their friendship would have survived no matter the level of reciprocation on either end.

What this movie had that Knocked Up didn’t: Better dialogue, a break from the bitchy, uptight female stereotype we see in crude comedy, and a far more likeable character for Seth Rogen. Oh, and no shortage of Steelers and Penguins references. Sold.

Taken 2

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Currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and playing on Cinemax

PG-13 (This is just because they don’t say the f-bomb and no one shows their boobies; which obviously in our society, swearing and boobies are far worse than broken necks, arterial blood, torture and multiple gunshot wounds/maiming/deaths)

Review contains mild spoilers

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

I very much enjoyed the first Taken movie. One of the reasons Taken did well at the box office and continues to do well with DVD, Blu-ray and OnDemand sales is because of its visceral story line. Someone(s) has kidnapped Bryan Mills’ (Liam Neeson) only daughter and he destroys half of Paris and racks up a huge body count to find her. Taken strikes at an archetype of parenting—I will protect my children without compromise. If two choices are presented, I will choose protecting my child over all things. You perfectly understand Mills’ heartless shooting and neck-snapping. Parents nod in agreement throughout Taken’s action sequences, “Yeah, electrocute that mother f*cker. He sold your baby.” But this is a movie, and in reality bad things happen to our children and more than likely we will not have special ops training, a photographic memory and secret international contacts to help us. Taken is a fantasy—but a tightly woven, fairly well-written one. Coming in at around 90 minutes, there isn’t much spare flesh in either Taken or Taken 2.

Because of the success of Taken, there was of course, a sequel. I think all of us are pretty skeptical of sequels that are not indicated in the source material (Hobbit cough cough Hobbit cough three movies really? cough cough) but overall Taken 2 performs at about a three out of five star level. One of the most irritating things about the sequel is that Lenore’s (Famke Janssen) second husband is just gone in the sequel. In the first five minutes or so, viewers learn that Lenore is getting a divorce, even though she and her husband appeared to be a loving, solid couple in Taken. It seems very contrived and about as subtle as a “new plot point” arrow appearing on the screen above Lenore’s head. Janssen does the best she can with it (Those of you who know me well know I f*cking hate Jean in the X-Men movies and it is nice to see Janssen play a different character. Because you know, Jean. ICK!). It isn’t difficult to believe Lenore is still carrying a torch for her ex-husband (all six feet six of middle-aged Liam Neeson hubba hubba)–especially after he rescued her beloved baby girl from human traffickers. This part of the movie just isn’t well-done.

Taken 2 has a solid basis—the families of the Albanian mobsters (sorry Albania) want revenge for Mills’ killing spree when he went to fetch his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) back from the Very Bad Men. But rather than have it take place in the U.S., which would have been really interesting, Mills flies the whole fam to Istanbul for vacation after one of his security jobs. Now, if your daughter had been kidnapped by human traffickers less than a year ago, would you choose Istanbul as your vacation destination? Galveston is nice. Puerto Rico is beautiful. There is whale-watching in Alaska. Montreal is very temperate that time of year. It just seems another jaunt across the seas would be ill-advised. It’s not that I think Istanbul is un-safe in real life, it just seems giving the luck this family has had that the new Harry Potter theme park might have made the short list of vacation opportunities. So I had to suspend a little disbelief at that point in the movie.

The Albanians plan is to take the WHOLE family this time. I was glad that Kim plays a more active role in the sequel, though Grace does not have the same acting chops of Janssen and Neeson, she does come off as more than an over-sized 12-year-old in Taken 2, which is a definite improvement over the original. I believe the body count might be even higher in the sequel than it is in the original, and Neeson is wrapping up shooting Taken 3. I’m not sure anyone in this fictive version of Albania will be left after the final Taken installment. Maybe that sequel will just be Liam Neeson strapped up with a bad-ass flamethrower and dropped by airplane somewhere over Eastern Europe? While I won’t be standing in line opening weekend for Taken 3, I will definitely give it a looksee when it shows up in my fancy cable queue or on Netflix.

 

Being Julia

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
Being Julia
Year of Release: 2004
Rating: R for some sexuality.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No.
Spoilers: Mild.

When Being Julia was released in 2004, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott reviewed the film as “a flimsy frame surrounding a brightly colored performance by Annette Bening, whose quick, high-spirited charm is on marvelous display.” Maybe this opinion was shared by the Academy when they nominated powerhouse Million Dollar Baby an impressive seven times next to Being Julia’s singular Best Actress nod, which Hillary Swank took the trophy home for in the end. But I’m not bitter. I digress.

To me, the frame surrounding Annette Bening’s role as temperamental stage actress Julia Lambert is not so much “flimsy” as it is a light, unobtrusive backseat to a character-driven film. Julia and her husband Michael (Jeremy Irons) are the definition of late 1930’s power couple, forming a “modern” partnership that is far less about romance than it is about business. Michael directs, Dolly (Miriam Margolyes) finances, and Julia acts: though she is growing more and more disenchanted with her stagnating career. “I want something to happen,” she insists, and until it does, she is left with regurgitating favorite lines from old performances. Early on, as Julia’s dresser Evie (Juliet Stevenson) is able to mouth Julia’s musings word-for-word, we understand that the line between Julia herself and the roles she plays are frequently blurred, if they even exist at all.

We don’t have to wait long for something to shake things up: enter a promising young American named Tom (Shaun Evans), a businessman and self-professed fan of Julia’s work. Julia is flattered by Tom’s professional – and quickly sexual – attention to her, and the two begin an exhilarating affair that has Julia feeling more alive than she’s felt in years. One of my favorite scenes will always be Julia sitting in front of her bedroom mirror the morning after she and Tom first sleep together, fresh-faced and makeup-free, breaking her low, moody drawl with an uncontrollable fit of giggles. Of course, Tom’s intentions are less than honorable. He is plainly after Julia for the social and monetary benefits, and eventually uses his connections to secure a role for his new and much younger love interest, Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch) in Julia’s upcoming play. Julia does not stay lost in her fantasy world for long as things become clear, and masterfully orchestrates the sweetest revenge on her former lover and one bad actress.

At first, we think we should dislike Julia because of her lack of authenticity – “I don’t think you really exist,” her son Roger (Tom Sturridge) tells her in one heartbreakingly honest quip – but as the film moves toward its vengeful climax, we understand that it is through the stage that Julia can regain control of her real life. Being Julia, though clocking in at a brief 105 minutes, leaves us refreshed, inspired, and contemplating the boundaries (or lack thereof) between life and art. The film is also an exercise in modern relationships – Julia and Michael do care for one another in their own way, and their exchanges (“My husband is a devious little runt,” Julia growls face-down on a massage table) are nothing less than adorable. Bruce Greenwood delights as Julia’s best friend Lord Charles, who gently rejects her romantic advances due to reasons that would be rejected by 1930s English society but are joyfully embraced by Julia herself. And Michael Gambon offers a quiet heartbeat of a performance as Julia’s acting coach, whose memory and advice influence her every move: “You have to grab the audience by the throat and say ‘Now you buggers, you pay attention to me!” And Julia, you have our attention, in art and in life.