July 18, 2014

Movie reviews: 'Sex Tape' and 'Begin Again'

By Carl Kozlowski *

The world has gone video-crazy, with people everywhere recording their greatest moments and sharing them with the world. Two new films, “Sex Tape” and “Begin Again,” offer different spins on this idea, and both have their own distinctly different charms. 

Obviously, most people seeking a Catholic perspective on film will probably already know that a movie called “Sex Tape” is morally problematic, to say the least. It stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel as Annie and Jay, a married couple who used to love to have sex anywhere, everywhere and in every way imaginable when they first met but have lost their spark after 10 years and two kids. Annie is about to sell her blog about mommy life to a major online distributor headed by Hank Rosenbaum (Rob Lowe), a white-bread conservative who loves Annie’s now-wholesome image. Annie decides to celebrate by shipping the kids off to grandma and getting it on with Jay all night. 

But even then, getting frisky is harder than they realize. Through a series of mishaps large and small, Jay and Annie wind up worrying that they’ve flat-out lost their ability to have sex, until Annie suggests whipping out an iPad and making a sex tape for themselves, with the intention of erasing it the next day. 

Instead of erasing it, clumsy Jay accidentally sends the video out to a group of friends and family who are linked because they’ve each been given used iPads over the past couple years whenever he gets a new one through his work. And so they go on a crazed overnight quest to grab all the iPads back before they can be seen — with their best friends Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper) in tow, and with Hank Rosenbaum himself as the prime person from whom they must steal back an iPad.

“Sex Tape” isn’t a very ambitious film, but then do you really expect ambition with a title like that? If you’re not easily offended, you’ll probably laugh a fair amount of times in spite of yourself in the raunchier first half – and the second half, involving the mishaps in their quest to get the Ipads back, switches the focus from just being sex-obsessed to include some clever twists and fun slapstick.

The movie does show the frustrations of finding time to get intimate with a spouse after several years and growing children enter the scene, which is something nearly anyone can relate to. And Annie and Jay are shown as a truly loving couple who strive to be good parents, while they ultimately realize that good sex is just part of a good marriage, not the ultimate goal.

But make no mistake, it’s way too risqué and raunchy along the way to that good message for most discerning people to handle.

“Begin Again” is also an R-rated movie about adult relationships, but as a drama with a ton of terrific pop music at its core, it’s a richer and much more memorable experience. It’s also way more innocent, as it earns its R rating solely for its use of profanity, which is frequent at times and rather unnecessary, but in the context of its troubled male lead character and its New York setting it doesn’t come off as offensive as it might in other films. And it would be a shame to let some bad words get in the way of hearing some magical music and seeing a lovely story of redemption.

“Begin” pairs Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo as a mysterious open-mic singer-songwriter named Gretta and an alcoholic record-label head named Dan who stumbles into the bar she’s singing at on the night he gets fired.

Gretta didn’t even want to be on stage that night, but Dan is certain she can be the superstar he needs to make it back to the top. The two agree to work together on an album to be recorded live on the streets and in the alleys of New York City, with unemployed musicians as her impromptu band and ambient noise like subway trains, traffic and irate neighbors all left in the mix of the final product. 

Adding to the mix are the romantic complications of the two, as Dan has to deal with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter, and Gretta has to decide whether to stay involved with the rock-star boyfriend (Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and “The Voice”) who cheated on her. Through it all, New York’s glorious locations are so key to the tale that the movie becomes a valentine to the Big Apple as well as to the power of music. And along the way, “Begin” has wonderful messages about male-female friendship, the value of marriage and fatherhood, and redemption on multiple levels.

Written and directed with passion by John Carney, the Irish filmmaker whose 2006 film “Once” became a worldwide indie sensation that also won an Oscar for Best Song, “Begin Again” follows a similar story arc but has a much bigger canvas to work with and rises to the occasion on every level. Ruffalo and Knightley are in career-best roles here, with Knightley particularly impressive because she had to learn how to sing like a champion for the part. 

“Begin Again” is not only certain to be one of the best movies of the year but has joined my all-time Top Five Favorites list. In a summer overloaded with special effects wizardry, it’s got the most magic of all.

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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