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Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhS91ttyyLo

There’s something so seamy about the sentence, “Father Flynn called Donald Miller to the rectory.” Even without a context, it sounds unwholesome. It’s a line quietly uttered by a character in Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s film adaptation of his hit Broadway play. The line is what sparks a battle of wills between two formidable adversaries. But this movie is about much more than just kid touching. Shanley explores essential issues in an engaging way, and when it is all over, everyone emerges shaken – even those in the audience.

Set during the Vatican II reformations, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the stern principal of the Bronx’s St. Nicholas school. She has deep concern for the students there, but hides it with her unsympathetic eyes and severe demeanor. On the other end of the spectrum, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) establishes a rapport with the children. He tries to be a friendly face in the community, something which infuriates Aloysuis’ traditional sensibilities. When Sister James (Amy Adams) says the seamy line to Aloysius, the elder nun immediately suspects the worst. She begins a campaign to remove Flynn from the school, but finds that the clear-cut values of the Catholic church are losing their place in the real world. She expects the support of Donald’s mother (Viola Davis), but encounters a woman who accepts the moral concessions that Aloysius cannot. The conflict eventually ends, but little is resolved.

As with the play, the movie is a showcase for actors. Of course Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman are excellent – they’re among the best actors of their generations, and you already know this. The church is rigidly patriarchal, so it’s fascinating to watch how these two struggle with the deck stacked in favor of one side. The supporting performances deserve special mention. Amy Adams is one of the most likable actors working right now, and that quality serves the movie well. Stuck between Flynn and Aloysius, Sister James is a conduit for the audience, so her warm eyes and kind demeanor are an asset. Viola Davis is only in one scene, but her brief appearance is what lingers most in my memory. Donald’s mother has motives and beliefs that are far more murky than Aloysius can previously fathom, and it’s difficult for any actor to convey this in a short time. Davis is stunning, and I am certain she’ll get an Oscar nomination for her work.

Doubt is an intense movie, one that will linger with you long after it’s over. It’ll spark fierce debate, but somehow the final product isn’t as powerful as the stage version. Shanley wisely adds more characters and dialog (if he simply filmed the play, it would be too static). Yet his additions make the characters’ world less self-contained. One’s imagination is infinitely more vivid than film, so when I saw Father Flynn interact with Donald (something never seen in the play), it was a bit of a let-down. Without revealing too much, let’s just say that the play is concerned with the audience’s doubt, and the movie is concerned with Aloysius’ doubt. My friend who accompanied me to the movie also accompanied me to the play, and we agreed that the movie left us more certain about whether Flynn is guilty. But please don’t let our minor disappointment deter you from seeing Doubt. I wouldn’t rush to the theater if you have seen the play, but if you aren’t familiar with the material, you should make time for this uncommonly arresting parable.

Here are other movies based on plays that feature adversarial dialog between men and women:

Tape. Taking an entirely different extreme with his exploration of digital video, director Richard Linklater confines this movie entirely a motel room. Vince (Ethan Hawke), a part-time fire-fighter, is in Lansing to support his friend Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), whose movie is premiering at the local film festival. The two men chat uneasily, and it soon becomes clear that Vince has an ulterior motive. Vince believes that Jon assaulted Amy (Uma Thurman), Vince’s high school flame who coincidentally lives in Lansing. A confession of sorts is soon recorded, but to whom does the tape belong? The movie toys with ideas of guilt and forgiveness, and creates an unexpectedly complex situation. Once Amy arrives, the dynamics become increasingly sinister, and it’s never quite clear what anyone is thinking. The performances are all strong – Hawke in particular excels at playing a deceptively simple man, one with hidden depths of manipulation. Rather than use the digital camera for electronic rotoscoping, Linklater explores the freedom of movement that such a small instrument provides. It never feels like you’re watching an adaptation of a play. The movie is not among Linklater’s best, but you’d be hard-pressed to find such electric verbal sparring.

The Shape of Things. There’s a special place in my heart for Neil Labute, the writer/director who loves to explore middle class cruelty. With the adaption of his play, Labute aims his sights at academia and male vanity. Adam (Paul Rudd) is an unassuming graduate student who begins an unlikely relationship with Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a beautiful firebrand artist. As time passes, Adam loses weight and takes more pride in his appearance, going so far as to style his hair and consider plastic surgery. These developments alienate Adam’s asshole friend Phillip (Fred Ward), who is probably upset that his girlfriend Jenny (Gretchen Mol) is attracted to the New Adam. All the while Evelyn discusses art’s capacity for provocation, and her secret graduate thesis. When she finally exposes her thesis, it’s a twist that it’s both insightful and monstrous. Needless to say, the project puts the relationship of these four into a tailspin. Like In the Company of Men (one of my favorites), Labute excels at his ability to shroud unexpected motives just beneath the surface. When the end finally arrives, it feels like a punch in the gut. The Shape of Things has few laughs and no sympathetic characters, yet no other director is so willing to explore how malicious ordinary people can be.

Oleanna. David Mamet directed this adaptation of his two character play, which also examines the gender dynamics of academia. William H. Macy plays John, a professor at a small liberal arts school who receives a visit from Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), one of his students. Carol is having trouble with John’s class, and is worried she might fail. In the course of their first meeting, he dominates her and there an awkward encounter. They meet again later. With the help of a campus group, Carol brings forth charges of sexual harassment against John, who is now in danger of losing tenure. John is flabbergasted by the accusation, and reaches a point where he violently snaps. Macy is convincing as a confident man who is set in his ways, and Eisenstadt effectively transforms from naïve to empowered. Mamet’s point, I think, is to try and demonstrate how differently men and women perceive the same events. Apparently his intention is to have women outraged by the first half, and men outraged by the second. If so, Mamet certainly succeeded – Oleanna sparked angry debate during its initial run. Early reviews say the movie isn’t as powerful as the play, but I have no such complaint. The movie is fascinating – I even asked my then-girlfriend to watch so I could get her perspective.

That’s it for this weeks “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I can’t kill Hitler.

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