To Die For (1995)

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Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, with a script by Buck Henry, and directed by Gus Van Zant, To Die For combines dark comedy, traditional drama and “mockumentary” interviews to very entertaining results.

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Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne Stone, a local cable weather girl with huge dreams of finding fame and fortune as the next Barbara Walters. What Suzanne lacks in talent and intelligence, she makes up for in manipulation and ruthlessness, and nothing, including her marriage, will get in her way.

The movie commences with Suzanne marrying Larry Moretto (Matt Dillon), the biggest catch in Little Hope, New Hampshire. It’s not certain why Suzanne falls for Larry other than she thinks his close Italian-American family has mob connections, which can help her achieve her goals. Larry is lovable, albeit a bit dim, and completely clueless to Suzanne’s calculating ways. All Larry wants to do is settle down in Little Hope, run the family restaurant and makes lots of babies with Suzanne.

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Of course, Suzanne has different plans. Despite her lack of journalistic and television experience she’s able to charm a local cable TV manager in giving her a gofer job. She parlays this lowly position into a regular stint as a weather girl. It’s not long before she recruits some local teens in producing a subpar TV special called “Teens Speak Out.” Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Russell (Casey Affleck) and Lydia (Alison Folland) are the hardly the type-A achievers you’d expect on a teen-oriented TV show. They’re inarticulate and not good students, but apparently being in awe of Suzanne is the only job requirement necessary.

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Larry gets a bit fed up with Suzanne’s ambitions and tells her it’s time to get busy with making babies. But Suzanne will have none of this. She tells her mother-in-law that being pregnant on TV is a career killer. Oh, if only Suzanne had waited a decade or so. Today, baby bumps and stupidly named off-spring are the “must have” for any celebrity. You can even become famous for simply having kids.

Suzanne realizes Larry, and his meddling family, is getting in her way of achieving TV success. There is only one thing she can do, recruit Jimmy, Russell and Lydia in bumping off her husband. Now having an affair with the devious, yet seductive Suzanne, Jimmy does the deadly deed. This local murder becomes national news making Suzanne the “star” she always desired and she revels in her tabloid notoriety. Not surprisingly, the hapless Jimmy is not so lucky.

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However, Larry’s family is very wise to Suzanne’s scheming ways and they make sure Suzanne gets her comeuppance. The mousy Lydia, who Suzanne disdained as “white trash,” tells her story in a television interview and becomes famous in her own right.

Every performance in To Die For is near perfection. Matt Dillon is very good as a man who’s happy to have the prettiest girl in town but really wants the homebound hausfrau. Illeana Douglas as Larry’s sister Janice is dryly sarcastic and figures out Suzanne’s BS early on in the game. Both Phoenix and Affleck show a great deal of promise early in their careers in their respective roles.

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But To Die For is truly Nicole Kidman’s film. With Kidman’s acting chops, Suzanne Stone is hugely self-absorbed but not very self-aware. Her calculation and cunning is as transparent as a plate of glass, but her telegenic beauty and media-savvy charm succeeds in drawing you closer. Despite ourselves, we want Suzanne Stone to be in front of the camera. Kidman won a very deserved Golden Globe for her portrayal of Suzanne Stone. She is simply a bewitching mix of evil and charisma, and Suzanne Stone is a person we recognize in everything from reality TV to national politics (ahem, or both).

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Both the film and the novel were inspired by Pamela Smart, a teacher and wannabe TV personality who convinced a young man to kill her husband. But instead of telling this story straight, the film takes a very satirical look at our obsession with celebrity, fame and notoriety. Merely entertaining when it was released over ten years ago, in our celebrity-entrenched culture, To Die For is a pointed take on a very interesting phenomenon, the desperate need for fame at any cost.

The Spotlight

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***There is a good chance there will be a writers’ strike via the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) according to Variety Magazine.*** (H/T Tari Jordan)

Move ticket prices are getting higher, and Hollywood Reporter tells us why.

Summer of 2017 movie preview courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.

Women directed films that are must-sees in 2017!

Geena Davis celebrates the 25th anniversary of A League of Their Own’s release.

Salma Hayek’s Beatriz at Dinner sounds like my kind of film, one that connects with my “Power to the People” mindset.

Talent agent Sandy Gallin dead at 76.

New documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent celebrates the eminent chef and his connection to California cuisine and the renowned restaurant Chez Panisse.

Will Netflix end its mail order DVD service in the age of streaming?

Director John Waters new summer camp for adults, Camp John Waters.

 

 

 

 

The Soloist (2009)

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The Soloist portrays the importance of the printed word in the time of the decline of major newspapers. It also tells the story of the power of music and friendship.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. While on a break from work, he hears the beautiful sounds of a violin. He looks for the source of the music, finding Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man and musical virtuoso whose two-stringed violin is his one comfort in the world as he plays it under a statue of Beethoven, his favorite composer. Though a bit hesitant about talking to a clearly mentally-unstable man, the reporter in Lopez sees a story. And soon he begins to write a column about Ayers.

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It turns out Ayers was a musical genius as a child, and later studied at Julliard. But it was at Julliard where the darkness of schizophrenia took a hold of Ayers, and before long he was on the mean streets of Los Angeles, pushing his belongings in a rickety shopping cart, trying to survive, music his only friend.

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Lopez’s columns soon make Ayers a celebrity among his readers. And in one pivotal scene, a reader sends a cello to the newspaper office for Lopez to give to Ayers. Ayers, who studied the cello in his younger years, is overcome with gratitude over this simple act of kindness.

Lopez’s relationship soon goes far beyond his byline, and he wants to help Ayers, not just write about him. Of course, wanting to help and actually helping do not always work out easily. Lopez tries to get Ayers involved in Lamp Community, a skid row homeless shelter for the mentally ill. The scenes at Lamp Community are about as far from the glitz and glamour of LA as one can get. The Soloist does not shy away from the ugliness of mental illness. The drug use and violence are very much on display. But The Soloist also gives these people their dignity, often letting them speak in their own words. And Nelsan Ellis, as the Lamp Community’s social worker, David Carter, is very convincing in his role. He is both realistic and compassionate when it comes to the people he is helping at Lamp Community.

Beyond getting Ayers help at the Lamp Community, Lopez also tries to get him medication and an apartment. He also acquires Ayers cello lessons with a local musician, and gets him into a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal at Disney Hall. But not surprisingly, things don’t always go so smoothly. Ayers isn’t too happy about the apartment, feeling more comfortable on open streets of LA. Perhaps, the four walls of the apartment would only remind Ayers of the time he was in his New York apartment as a young man when the tormenting voices of schizophrenia took over his mind. And when Lopez sets up a recital for Ayers to entertain music patrons Ayers becomes overwhelmed and breaks down. Lopez becomes frustrated with Ayers need for him, and at the same time, his tendency to push him away. Yet, Lopez knows he can’t give up on Ayers.

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Both Downey and Foxx are tremendous in their roles. Downey is subtle, the straight man in the relationship. The reporter side of him is curious, but the human side of him is both patient and exasperated with Ayers. Foxx, as Ayers, is at turns paranoid, talkative, angry and fearful. His eyes and body language convey the terror of mental illness, and he often talks in a slipstream of jumbled words that seem to make sense only to him.

At times The Soloist falters like when it uses a light show to show how music affects Ayers. The light show looked right out of a middle school dance circa 1978 and cheapened the experience. I also didn’t like the liberties the movie took with Lopez’s personal life. In the movie, Lopez is divorced from his wife (played by Catherine Keener) who is also his boss, Mary. In real life, Lopez is still very much married to his wife. I have no idea why the screenwriter, Susannah Grant, had to do this. Maybe she did it to bring more drama to the film.

But The Soloist doesn’t need any extra drama. The relationship between Lopez and Ayers is strong enough. The Soloist never gets preachy or wrap things up with a treacly happy ending. Ayers will always be mentally ill, and Lopez will always have to find a story. And just a warning, if you do watch The Soloist, you might want to have some tissues nearby. You’ll find yourself shedding some tears.

Food, Inc. (2008)

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You think food can’t be scary? Guess again. Food, Inc., the Oscar-nominated documentary, proves the food we put in our bellies can be more frightening than any ax-wielding horror flick bad guy.

Made by film maker Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. shows a disturbing and ugly vision of how food gets to our grocery stores. And it’s not the simple farmer who is providing us with our eggs, veggies, meats and grains. It’s huge corporations who are often very cozy with the government, and it’s profits that win out, not the well-being of the American citizens.

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The seemingly innocent vegetable, corn, is huge crop to agri-business. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that corn, especially the unhealthy high fructose corn syrup, is found in many of the things we eat. Sure, we expect it to be in our soda, but I certainly didn’t expect to find it in a loaf of supposedly good for me whole wheat bread. Corn is also the primary food source for animals like cows even though they are grass eaters. And why is corn such big business? It’s because it made cheap to produce by the government and therefore very profitable for agri-business.

Cows and chickens are brought up in conditions that are positively barbaric. Both are often raised in claustrophobic close quarters, pumped up with hormones and anti-biotics and literally living in their own excrement. Vegetables are often treated in ways that look like science experiments gone awry.

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Not surprisingly, this is not good for us. E coli, something we never heard of decades ago, is constantly in the news. If it’s not beef tainted with E coli, it’s spinach. And in one absolutely heartbreaking segment, a young mother tells her story of losing her son to E coli tainted food.

And it’s the smaller farmers who are working for large agri-business who are often suffering under the draconian regulations of their bosses. Not surprisingly many of the agri-businesses profiled, Tyson, Perdue, Smythfield and Monsanto, refused to be interviewed for Food, Inc. If you see this movie you’ll know why. They don’t come across too favorably.

Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, two cheerleaders for eating locally and organically, are interviewed. However, often eating locally and organically isn’t always feasible. Not everyone has access to farmer’s markets, and buying organic can really bruise the wallet. To emphasize this Food, Inc. introduces us to a struggling working class family where buying off the dollar menu at a fast food joint is more economically sound for them than buying whole grains, vegetables and fruits at the grocery store.

However, all is not lost. Despite its dire warnings Food, Inc. has moments of hope. One person featured is Joel Salatin, an independent farmer in Virginia, who refuses to do things agri-business wants. His farm is operated in a way that is both humane to livestock and Salatin’s employees. Salatin is also probably one of the most fun and entertaining characters in the movie.

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Furthermore, average American citizens are demanding grocery chains carry organic food. People are planting their own backyard gardens. And community gardens are now being built in urban areas where McDonalds, KFC, and convenience stores are the only food options.

The whole idea of eating locally, organically and in a sustainable manner has often been seen as an elitist, hippie, lefty thing. But the food we eat shouldn’t be an issue of money nor should it be a political issue of left vs. right. Food is a human issue that concerns us all. And Food, Inc. opens a dialogue that is definitely food for thought.

 

 

In a Day (2006)

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In the charming and low-key British romantic comedy In a Day, Lorraine Pilkington plays Ashley. By day Ashley works at a London sandwich shop. She’s a fledgling pianist and singer, and the sandwich shop gig is supposed to just fill in the gaps as she gets the gigs that will lead to musical success.

One morning, while waiting for a bus, Ashley is verbally accosted by another commuter. The conversation starts innocently enough. The man asks her about the book she is reading, a book on jazz. Then he asks her about going back to her place for a quick shag. Not interested in having a booty call with a complete stranger, Ashley declines his advances. This does not sit well with the stranger and he begins to harass Ashley calling her horrible names, and finishing his rant by throwing his cup of coffee on her.

Moments later, Ashley is approached by an appealing young man named Michael (Finlay Robertson). He’s a frequent customer at the sandwich shop. To make her feel better about being assaulted, Michael offers to take Ashley out to lunch. Thinking her day can’t get any worse, Ashley decides to take Michael up on his offer.

Michael and Ashley end up at a pricey restaurant. Ashley enjoys the meal and realizes she also enjoys Michael’s company. Their “date” does not end once Michael picks up the check. He still wants to treat Ashley further so he buys her a nice outfit from a pricey boutique, and he also treats her to a new haircut at an upscale salon.

Ashley is touched by Michael’s kindness and generosity, but can’t help but wonder why a near stranger would be so nice to her. And when Michael later tells her that he’s actually pampering her on behalf of someone’s request, Ashley is further confused.

Lunch, new clothes, and a haircut aren’t Ashley and Michael’s only adventures. They visit to Michael’s sister’s home to wish her a happy birthday. Unfortunately, Michael’s sister is a sourpuss who can’t appreciate anything, and you can feel Michael and Ashley’s discomfort during the entire conversation.

But later things brighten up when Ashley mentions a musician friend of hers in need of a new saxophone. Michael agrees to buy Ashley’s friend the new saxophone, and the friend is overwhelmed by their generosity. This visit also gives a chance for Ashley to show off her skills and a pianist and singer, and Michael is truly impressed.

Ashley is still baffled by this mystery man and why he’s being so nice. And when Michael finally owns up to why she deserved to be pampered, Ashley is shocked and doesn’t quite know what to make of Michael’s confession, which brings up bad memories of her childhood. She’s upset, but will she be willing to let go of the past? At the end, we get the idea that maybe, just maybe Ashley can.

In a Day (written and directed by newcomer Evan Richards), goes at a leisurely pace but is never boring. Both Pilkington and Robertson are both very appealing in their roles. Rose Keegan nearly steals the show as Finlay’s shrewish sister, and gives great insight on his psyche. If you’re looking for a sweet little film that is a good escape from the real world and all the depressing news but isn’t the usual rom-com you can’t go wrong with In a Day.

T2: Trainspotting (2017)

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Over 20 years ago, I saw a movie called Trainspotting, a movie about Scottish heroin addicts that couldn’t be more different than my life as an American more addicted to caffeine, potato chips and various TV shows than deadly smack. Nevertheless, Trainspotting became a cultural celluloid touchstone for me and many of people of my generation. My friends and I didn’t exactly condone the characters action but oddly understood why they acted in the way they did.

Trainspotting (based on the novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh) was directed by Danny Boyle, whose later film, Slumdog Millionaire, garnered quite a few Oscars, including best film and best director. Trainspotting also starred four unknowns who didn’t stay that way for long. Ewan McGregor who played Mark Renton has starred in critically acclaimed indies as well as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels. Both Robert Carlyle (Begbie) and Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy) come into our living rooms via their respective TV shows “Once Upon a Time” and “Elementary. Ewen Bremner (Spud) has starred in movies like Blackhawk Down, Pearl Harbor, and AVP: Alien vs. Predator. He will soon be seen in the latest Wonder Women movie this summer.

Now Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud are back in T2: Trainspotting, twenty years older, but are they wiser? Well…that is debatable.

When the first Trainspotting ended Renton had taken most of the ill-gotten monetary gains of some drug money (he did leave some of the money to Spud but stiffed both Begbie and Sick Boy). He’s made a new life for himself in Amsterdam working as an accountant. He’s off the smack and is fully into health and fitness. While at a local gym he has a health scare while jogging on a treadmill. Freaked out, Renton goes back to Scotland.

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Hoping to make amends with his old mates, Renton finds them still caught up in a life of addiction, crime and other assorted bad acts. Spud is still addicted to heroin and in a downward spiral that includes the possibility of suicide. Begbie is in prison, still scarily violent and about to break out. Sick Boy runs a pub, has replaced heroin with cocaine, and blackmails successful men by filming them in various sexual acts with hookers, one of them being a Bulgarian immigrant named Veronika (a terrific Anjela Nedyalkova). Sick Boy and Veronika are also planning to open a brothel with Veronika having designs on being the brothel’s madam complete with her own office. When Begbie escapes prison he tries to make amends with his estranged wife, which includes some less than satisfying sex (Begbie is suffering from what polite society calls erectile dysfunction). Begbie is also trying to get closer to his son who is in college studying hotel hospitality. However, Begbie’s idea of father/son bonding is a life of crime, something his son would rather avoid.

Once Begbie finds out Renton is back in town, he goes off the rails and pursues Renton in the only way he knows how, as a confirmed psychopath. These scenes of mad pursuit are both chilling and funny. I found myself both cringing with terror and trying to stifle the giggles.

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Renton also tries to make amends with Sick Boy to rather interesting results. Sick Boy is still ticked over being ripped off but the two of them make some kind of amends, which include criminal acts. One of these acts includes visiting a loyalist pub (loyal to the British and the Queen of England) to steal wallets. At this pub, the customers celebrate the year 1690 when a violent battle between the Catholics and the Protestants left the loyalist Protestants victorious and the Catholics defeated and many of them dead. The loyalists sing songs devoted to England and the Queen while celebrating the death of the Catholics. Renton and Sick Boy get caught up in the revelry and entertain the pub with an improvised song called “1690” the most notable song lyric being, “there were no Catholics left!” As someone who was raised Roman Catholic, and who even went to a Catholic college, I should have been offended, but instead I laughed so hard I almost dropped my bag of popcorn.

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Renton also gets closer to Veronika who has a lot more going on that she is given credit. Sure, she is a “hooker with the heart of gold,” but she’s also pretty smart and has a past that includes heartbreak all her own. Becoming a madam isn’t just a promotion; it’s a way to improve her condition and her life back in Bulgaria.

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Throughout T2 are scenes from the original recipe showing a much younger Renton and the gang, including the song “Lust for Life” written by Iggy Pop and the late David Bowie and sung by Iggy Pop (the song later became the theme song for several Royal Caribbean cruise line commercials).  Renton also revisits one of the coolest movie dialogue ever uttered in film “choose life.”

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life . . . But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

The lads turned middle-aged men often look at their youth with some nostalgia and wrong-headed pride only to realize they’ve made quite a few mistakes and haven’t come to their dotage fully clean and healed of addiction, violence and other deplorable acts that defined them when they were younger. And somehow they do manage to make some small acts of contrition that prove that they aren’t wholly awful people, the greatest being Spud’s act of simply keeping a somewhat messy journal of collective memories, ideas and opinions.

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Ultimately, I found T2 a fully satisfying and worthy sequel to its original, and one that stayed with me after the credits rolled. After I saw the film I discussed it with my fellow film goers and we all agreed that T2 tapped into the malaise that seems to define our generation no matter whether you live smack dab in the middle of the United States or somewhere in Scotland.

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. And choose to see T2: Trainspotting.

The Spotlight

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Legendary “insult” comic Don Rickles dead at 90 years old.

This is not how you write strong female characters whether it is in a book, TV show or a film.

Get Out receives six MTV Movie Award nominations

Walt Disney Family Museum showcases animator Andreas Deja’s impressive work.

Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Amy Adams to star in Dick Cheney biopic

Forty of the funniest scenes in movies according to Tastefully Offensive.

Martin Morrow schools Aaron Sorkin on the cost of writing diversity (it ain’t cheap).

Movie based on Orwell’s book 1984 to be shown throughout the globe.

The next Star Wars film might start filming this summer

Here is a list of 103 films directed by women.

Guilty Pleasure Movies: Grease 2 (1982)

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When we became “hopelessly devoted” to the movie Grease in the summer of 1978, little did we know we’d be revisiting Rydell High a few short years later. But Hollywood had different ideas. And in the summer of 1982 we got the sequel, Grease 2.

However, Sandy and Danny from the first film had long graduated. Olivia Newton-John (Sandy) was getting “Physical” and John Travolta (Danny) was in a bleak period of his career only to have a comeback with Pulp Fiction more than a decade later. Nope, Grease 2 featured a cast of unknowns (most of them stayed that way), and brand new shenanigans at Rydell.

As the school year of 1961 commences at Rydell High the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies still rule the school. Head Pink Lady, Stephanie Zinone (Michelle Pfeiffer) has just broken up with head T-Bird Johnny Nogerelli (Adriam Zmed). However, that doesn’t mean Stephanie’s loins don’t get all warm and toasty over a leather-clad, motorcycle-riding bad boy.

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Enter Michael Carrington (Maxwell Carrington) who just happens to be Sandy from the first film’s cousin. I guess Rydell has a special student exchange program with Australia. From the moment Michael lays his peepers on Stephanie he is smitten. But Pink Ladies can only date T-Birds, and Michael is way too clean-cute a wholesome for a bad ass like Stephanie.

Stephanie gives Michael the cold shoulder and tells him her feelings in the song “Cool Rider.” Not one to be deterred, Michael develops an alter ego to his goody-goody persona, a mysterious man on a motorcycle with only a helmet and goggles to hide his true self. Stephanie falls hard for this biker stud, and soon she and “Other Michael” are an item. “Other Michael” is sexy and brooding, and he’s got a bitchin’ motorbike. But he’s also kind and respectful towards Stephanie, exactly what she wasn’t getting from dating a T-Bird.

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Stephanie soon finds out it’s Michael Carrington who is her dreamboat on a bike because how much of a disguise are a helmet and goggles anyway? Not surprisingly, Stephanie is in an age-old dilemma: stay true to her high school chums or be with her one, true love. Can she possibly have the best of both worlds? You have to watch to find out.

Grease 2 features songs that make the original’s look like Cole Porter’s. However, they are rather catchy. “Score Tonight” combines bowling with a teen’s burgeoning sexuality. And in “Reproduction” the kids pay homage to doing it with lyrics like “Reproduction (reproduction)/Put your pollen tube to work/Reproduction (reproduction)/Make my stamen go berserk.” Sex is also heavy on the students’ minds in a patriotic “Do It For Our Country.” But things aren’t so sex-drenched with songs like “Who’s That Guy?” and “(Love Will) Turn Back the Hands of Time.”

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Besides featuring a cast of newbies, Grease 2 also featured stars including Eve Arden, Tab Hunter, Connie Stevens, Dody Goodman and Sid Caeser reprising their roles from the first Grease. As for the newbies, well, only Michelle Pfeiffer reached stardom. As for the rest? Well, I’m too lazy to look up their names on IMDB.com.

Grease 2 was a commercial and a critical flop, and didn’t quite live up to its predecessor’s glory. Besides in the summer of 1982 the monster blockbuster E.T. was taking over the cineplex, and another teen movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High spoke more to the teens of the early 1980s than Grease 2.

Still Grease 2 had its cheesy charm. My sister and I saw it countless times once it hit cable TV. We knew it wasn’t cinematic art, but we enjoyed Grease 2 in all of its “so bad, it’s good” glory, and isn’t that what guilty pleasure movies are all about?