Saving Face (2004)

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In writer/director Alice Wu’s inter-generational family comedy Saving Face, Michelle Krusiec plays Wil (short for Wilhelmina), a medical resident without much time for a life let alone romance. The only social life Wil seems to have is at Chinese-American gatherings in Queens where people try to set her up available young Chinese-American men.

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However, Wil has a secret. She’s a lesbian. And at one of these gatherings she meets Vivian (Lynn Chen), another lesbian who is also a dancer. Sparks fly between the two women, and slowly their flirtation turns into a romance. However, Wil isn’t quite ready to come out to her family so the romance has to remain a secret much to Vivian’s chagrin (and it doesn’t help that Vivian’s father is also Wil’s boss at the hospital).

In Saving Face, Wil’s mother (Joan Chen) also has a secret, but it won’t stay a secret for long. She’s in her forties, widowed, living with her parents…and pregnant. And she’s not exactly too forthcoming on the man who fathered her child.

Bringing shame onto the family name, Wil’s mother (known as Ma) is kicked out of her parent’s home. Knowing nowhere to turn, she ends up on Wil’s doorstep, and Wil takes her mother in, wondering how she’s going to keep her romance with Vivian a secret and deal with Ma’s impending late in life motherhood.

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As Ma’s belly grows, Wil learns more about her mother, seeing her more as a flesh and blood woman with her own desires and needs. However, this doesn’t exactly inspire Wil to come clean to her mother, and she tries furtively to keep her relationship with Vivian a secret. To be knocked up out of wedlock is one thing; to be a lesbian is quite another. What will the neighbors think? Actually, it’s one of Wil’s neighbors who tries to get her to face herself and Ma.

But will this happen soon enough? When Vivian announces she’s been offered a chance to dance in Paris, Wil realizes she needs to make a decision. Come clean, and admit her romance with Vivian, or remain closeted and let Vivian go. In other words, save face (yet lose someone she truly cares about).

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And Ma must also make some major decisions. One is opening up about who’s the father of her child, a man that superficially, might not seem suitable. And this decision must be made soon before Ma makes the disastrous mistake of marrying someone she doesn’t love just to give her unborn child a name.

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Saving Face examines how we balance the old world (when Wil is with her grandparents she speaks in Mandarin) with a “modern society” (unplanned pregnancy, homosexuality and careerism). And in like any other family, the families in Saving Face are flawed, yet loving. Saving Face may remind viewers of the sleeper hit My Big, Fat Greek Wedding. And though Saving Face is a bit predictable, its good performances and sweet charm make it worthwhile viewing.

Tribute: Audrey Hepburn

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“I never think of myself as an icon. What is in other people’s minds is not in my mind. I just do my thing.” – Audrey Hepburn 

If she had lived, Audrey Hepburn would have turned 88 years old today. Sadly, we lost her over twenty years ago. She never had the chance to reach this milestone. Being a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn, I could continue to mourn her death but I’d rather reflect on why she and her amazing life mean so much to me.

I first became interested in Audrey when I first saw the movie Funny Face as a teenager. In this movie, Audrey plays Jo Stockton, a mousy bookstore clerk turned haute couture fashion model. I figured I’d love this cinematic fairy tale for the Parisian sights, Fred Astaire dance scenes, smart and subversive humor and Givenchy fashions. But I had no idea I would become besotted with a wide-eyed gamine named Audrey Hepburn.

It was a mystery why Audrey grabbed me so much. Sure, she was beautiful, talented and charming, but so are plenty of movie stars. Audrey just had that “it factor” I couldn’t explain but I knew I wanted to see more of her movies and learn more about her as a human being. Who was the Audrey Hepburn beyond the flickering celluloid?

I began renting Audrey’s movies and watching them over and over again. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, My Fair Lady and Charade were just a few of Audrey’s movies I couldn’t get enough of. In these movies, she was both lady-like and spunky, at turns heartbreaking and strong, and so very Audrey. Sure, she made characters like Holly Golightly and Sabrina Fairchild household names, but she wasn’t afraid to court controversial topics like the possibility of lesbianism in The Children’s Hour or a nun questioning her faith in The Nun’s Story. And in her last movie, Always, she played an angel. Now she really is one.

And we can’t mention Audrey without discussing her impeccable sense of style with her friend and confidant, fashion designer, Hubert de Givenchy. Audrey helped introduce women to fashionable basics we now take for granted-big sunglasses, the little black dress, ballet flats to name a few. How empty our closets would be without Audrey’s influence. And she was always willing to give Givenchy the important credit for creating the “Audrey Look.” Audrey wore his clothing in her movies and her in personal life. She often claimed knowing what she’d be wearing in a movie helped her develop a character, and complimented Givenchy’s outfits for making her feel protected.

Like any other woman, Audrey had her share of joy and heartbreak in her life. Her parents divorced when she was a child, and she rarely saw her father afterwards. She nearly starved to death during World War II after the Nazis took over her homeland, Holland. As an adult, she was married and divorced twice, finally finding lasting love with the love of her life, Robert Wolders. Desperate to be a mother, Audrey suffered several miscarriages, finally giving birth to her first son, Sean, in 1960 with Luca following in 1970. Being a mother was Audrey’s greatest joy, and just like so many other mothers out there, she tried to achieve work/life balance and slowed down her career to devote time to her boys.

But Audrey’s care and concern went beyond her own children. In 1988, she got involved in UNICEF. UNRRA, UNICEF’s forerunner, helped Audrey at the end of World War II, and she wanted to pay them back. She became a Goodwill Ambassador and traveled around the world witnessing the atrocities of famine, drought, war, lack of education and how these issues damaged young lives. She took this new found knowledge and informed others, inspiring them to help.

It was during this time, I got to see Audrey in person. Before her untimely death, my friend Nora and I saw Audrey read from the Diary of Anne Frank, accompanied by the New World Symphony and conducted by the legendary Michael Tilson Thomas. Audrey was one of those people who spurned us to action, and to this day, Nora and I are involved in causes within our communities and abroad.

On a final trip to Somalia, Audrey fell ill. At first she thought it was a simple virus, but it was soon found out that she had colon cancer. And sadly, she lost her battle to cancer on January 20th, 1993. Nearly everyone mourned her death. Tiffany & Co. took out an entire page of the New York Times to memorialize her, and People magazine devoted a special issue in her honor. To this day, I can remember hot, sticky tears pouring down my face when Entertainment Tonight played “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s as it showed scenes from her movie and her life.

After Audrey’s death, her sons founded the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund to commemorate her work on behalf of children everywhere. As for me personally, Audrey Hepburn has influenced me in countless ways. Probably the most important way is by improving my community and the world around us through self-education, volunteering, charitable giving, and donating my skills to causes I care about.

Audrey was like a lot of us, yet she compels us to aspire to things greater than ourselves. My life is richer because of her, and I know she will continue to inspire many others. You are missed my Huckleberry friend.

“The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mode but the true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives the passion that she shows. The beauty of a woman grows with the passing years.” – Audrey Hepburn

A  Night in With Audrey Hepburn by Lucy Holliday

Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen by Luca Dotti with Luigi Spinola

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 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.

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.

Caterina in the Big City (2005)

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Mix Mean Girls with a political satire that skewers both the left and the right, and what do you get? You get Caterina in the Big City, an Italian movie that is both a whip-smart comedy and poignant drama.

Caterina’s (winningly played by Alice Teghil) idyllic life is uprooted when her father gets a transfer from a small Italian seaside town where he’s a teacher to a bigger assignment in the capitol of Rome. Caterina’s father Giancarlo (Sergio Catellitto) has more on his mind than grading papers and passing out homework. Giancarlo sees himself as an intellectual and novelist, and believes being among the sophisticates of Rome will garner him the success he has always felt he’s deserved.

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Caterina’s family settles in a Rome apartment where her meek and under-appreciated mother (Margherita Buy) takes care of Giancarlo’s ailing aunt. As Giancarlo prepares for his ascent into the literary and intellectual world, Caterina tries to gain her footing at her new school and its confusing social mores. On the left are the alterna-chicks, the offspring of leftist radicals. On the right are the popular girls, the daughters of right wing movers and shakers. Both parties throw bitchy barbs at each other as Caterina sits at her desk wondering if she’ll ever make friends.

At first, Caterina befriends Margherita (Carolina Iaqueniello) whose parents are liberal activists. Before long Caterina is experimenting with drinking, smoking and attending street protests. Giancarlo hopes his daughter’s new friendship will help elevate his career. But Margherita’s parents reject him as a lightweight, and Giancarlo forbids Caterina from seeing Margherita and her other grungy pals. It’s just as well as these girls got Caterina drunk on cheap vodka and tried to give her a tattoo.

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The class queen bees, helmed by Daniela (Federica Sbrenna), soon take Caterina under their fashion plate wings. Daniela is the daughter of an extreme right wing politician and a mother who is usually nursing a hangover. Hanging out with Daniela, Caterina is transformed from a wholesome girl to a sex pot, and is also introduced to shoplifting, night clubs, and flirting with men nearly twice her age. Initially, Caterina is enthralled with this glamorous life, but soon grows despondent, especially after one of Daniela’s cousins rejects her for being low class And when she sees Daniela’s family sing fascist songs at a wedding reception, Caterina realizes with friends like these who needs enemies?

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By the end, Caterina gains some much earned wisdom and maturity. The best person to be is oneself, and the real Caterina is a pretty awesome individual. Sadly, for her father, this lesson comes a little too late, and he deals with yet another rejection.

Directed by Paolo Virzi, Caterina in the Big City is brutal in its skewering of the excesses of both the left and right, but it’s also an affective coming of age story that truthfully conveys wanting to belong is something we never quite grow out of.

Caterina in the Big City is unrated and is in Italian with English subtitles.

American Teen (2008)

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Directed by award-winning film maker Nanette Burnstein (On the Ropes, The Kid Stays in the Picture) the documentary American Teen was filmed in Warsaw, Indiana over the course of the 2005-2006 school year. Warsaw appears to be the type of place that Hollywood loves to mythologize, the typical Midwestern town where the biggest event is the upcoming homecoming game and the rest of the world barely exists.

For an entire school year, Burnstein focused her camera lens on five Warsaw high school students during their senior year. All of them fall into familiar archetypes that you will recognize no matter how long ago you grabbed your diploma-the princess, the jock, the geek, the rebel and the heartthrob.

First we have Megan Krizmanich, the school’s queen bee. She’s pretty and popular, the daughter of a surgeon and student council president. She’s also a “mean girl” who even turns her venom on her own friends.

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Jake Tusing is the kid no one notices in high school. He’s a band geek and addicted to video games. He’s also got a lethal case of acne and a mouth full of braces but that won’t deter him from finding a girlfriend.

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Colin Clemens is the star basketball player. Instead of being the stereotypical jerk athlete, Colin is nice all-around guy. But underneath his easygoing nature, is desperation. He needs a scholarship to pay for college.

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Hannah Bailey is the rebellious alternative girl. Hannah is artsy, creative and plays guitar in a band. Her biggest goal in life is to get out of Warsaw.

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Mitch Reinholt is the dreamboat. Like Colin, he’s a jock and runs with the cool crowd. He has a killer smile and on a superficial level seems to be just another vapid pretty boy, until he falls for Hannah.

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During the school year, the kids have moments of pure joy, and moments of self-doubt. They have their triumphs and tribulations. All of this is captured by the unblinking eye of Burnstein’s camera.

Early in the school year, Hannah is dumped by her boyfriend. This causes her to go into a tailspin of intense depression. She misses so many days of school that graduation hangs in the balance. Megan’s bitchiness goes out of control. When she gets her hands on a friend’s compromising photo, she e-mails it to everyone at school. Her friend is deemed a skank and becomes the school pariah. Told by his dad that he needs to get a scholarship to afford college (or go in the Army), Colin becomes a selfish player on the court, and causes conflict with his team mates.

Jake awkwardly looks for a girlfriend, and finally finds one among the freshman girls. But she dumps him for the band’s studmuffin, and Jake goes through a cringe-worthy attempt to find a new girlfriend.

At one of her gigs, Mitch finds himself attracted to Hannah, and they start going out. However, later on he caves into peer pressure. After all, their separate castes should never even talk to each other, let alone date. So Mitch breaks up with Hannah via text message.

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Family also comes into play in American Teen. During the movie, we find out that Megan’s family suffered a horrible tragedy. She also feels a great deal of pressure to get into Notre Dame, the alma mater of most of her family, including her successful father. Colin’s father embarrasses his son by working as an Elvis impersonator part-time. It doesn’t take much to embarrass one’s kids, but being an Elvis impersonator really takes the cake.

But it’s Hannah’s parents who truly broke my heart. Her father is distant and her mother is a manic depressive. When Hannah tries to convince both of them the importance of going to San Francisco to study film, her parents tell her that she shouldn’t expect much out of life. When Hannah’s mother coldly says to her, “You’re not that special,” I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I can only imagine how Hannah felt.

During the film we see kids ignoring the teachers, hanging out with their friends, yawning during class, drinking too much, talking about sex, dancing at prom, and sending text messages. These kids pretty much do what a lot of us did in high school. Okay, some of us our too old to have sent text messages in high school. And interspersed throughout the film, are several animated segments that convey the dreams and desires of these kids.

At the end, we see Colin, Megan, Hannah, Jake and Mitch graduate and go on with their post-high school lives. We also learn what they are up in the two years since they graduated, but I’ll refrain on sharing this information.

For the most part, American Teen, is engrossing, suspenseful and affecting. I ended up caring about these kids, even Megan, who I wanted to smack most of the time. However, just because this is a documentary doesn’t mean that some parts didn’t seem staged. For instance, after she feels she is backstabbed by another student council member over the prom theme, Megan defaces his house with toilet paper and homophobic graffiti. Would she have done this without the prodding of the ever present cameras? I’m not sure. Then again, in a time where kids expose their crazy revelry on various social media and on YouTube, I shouldn’t be surprised to see a scene like this. And anyone familiar with reality TV shows know that what is supposed to be “real” can be as easily manipulated as any fictional TV show or movie.

In the end, American Teen gives us the old adage that the more things change the more they stay the same. Pretty much anyone who went to high school will be able to relate in some way to these kids and the cliques that define them.

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American Teen’s Nanette Burnstein

Sunshine Cleaning (2008)

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Sunshine Cleaning, which briefly graced the big screens a few years back, is the story of the Lorkowski sisters who eke out a living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Amy Adams plays Rose. Rose once ruled the school as the head cheerleader and she also dated the quarterback. Unfortunately, the years post-graduation haven’t been so kind. She toils as a house cleaner and struggles to raise her offbeat son as a single mom. She’s also having an affair with her now-married high school sweetheart who works as a cop.

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Emily Blunt plays Rose’s younger sister, Norah. Norah is the rebellious bad girl, with the tattoos, black eyeliner and shitty attitude to prove it. She parties all night and sleeps all day. And as the film begins she’s just been fired from her waitressing job, and has no other job prospects on the horizon.

On the advice of her ex-boyfriend, Rose begins a post-crime cleaning business and brings Norah on to help clean up scenes of murders, suicides and other deathly messes after the cops have finished their investigative work. It’s one thing clean up the homes of living people, but it’s quite different to clean up the blood, urine, feces, maggots and vomit of the deceased. But soon Rose and Norah learn there are very human stories among the gore.

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At one home, Norah finds a fanny pack filled with photographs of a young girl. This young girl is the daughter of the deceased, and she’s still living in town. Norah starts stalking the woman (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) and they end up forming an odd and awkward friendship. Rajskub’s character can’t quite figure out why Norah is so interested in her life, and during an embarrassing moment, she thinks Norah’s interest is sexual, and acts accordingly.

Meanwhile, Rose strikes up a friendship with the one-armed owner of an industrial cleaning products store named Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Winston takes a liking to Rose’s son and he helps the two out when they get into a bind. But despite some of the success Rose is having with the business she can’t help but feel like a big loser, especially when she comes in contact with some of her old classmates who are now living successful lives and living in fancy McMansions, some of which Rose has cleaned. At a baby shower, Rose tries to explain her life to her old classmates, and her shame is unmistakable. As is the thinly veiled smugness and condescension of her fellow high school grads.
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Rounding out the family is Rose and Norah’s father, a not always successful salesman, played by Alan Arkin. His love for his daughters never wavers, but it’s not always enough to keep things together. Especially, with a family secret about the girls’ mother that still haunts them as adults.

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Sunshine Cleaning is a sweet film that will probably bring comparisons to another indie flick, Little Miss Sunshine (and not just because of the appearance of Alan Arkin and sunshine in the title). There is not one bad performance in the film, but this is truly Blunt and Adams’ film. And Adams continues to impress me. I’ve loved her since her Oscar-nominated turn in June Bug. I just know she’ll get that big prize one day.

Sunshine Cleaning also proves that there is validity in every job, even those without a fancy title or a huge paycheck. There can be grace in the moments of grotesque. This is best explained by Rose when she tells her old high school friends, “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound and sad, and we help. In some way, we help.”

Look At Me (Comme Une Image-2004)

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The French comedy of manners, Look at Me (Comme Une Image), centers on Lolita (Marilou Berry) and her famous writer father Etienne (Jeanne-Pierre Bacri). Lolita is plain and overweight, and assumes most people want to get to know her because of her father. And usually, she’s right. However, she does have one thing going for her, a lovely singing voice, and is taking voice lessons.

Unfortunately, her father is too wrapped up in his own world to take notice of his daughter. One of his books has just been made into his movie. He has a stunning second wife. And people are constantly vying for his attention. He has no interest in his insecure daughter, and seems almost ashamed of her. Lolita herself is not without her faults. She is distrustful of anyone who makes overtures of friendship. And at times her self-pity is off-putting.

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Yet, Lolita does seem to have one bright light in her life-music. And her singing teacher Sylvia, played by Agnes Jaoui (who also directed and co-wrote the script) takes a special interest in Lolita. Initially, Sylvia’s interest is rather self-serving. Her husband, Pierre (Laurent Grevill) is a fledgling writer. Sylvia assumes if she befriends Lolita, she’ll introduce Pierre to her father, and Pierre’s writing career will finally get off the ground.

But it isn’t long before Sylvia realizes Lolita has a talent that must be nurtured, and that Lolita, herself, is worthy of attention and praise. Sylvia especially notices this when she and her husband are invited to Etienne’s country estate, and he berates everyone around him including Lolita.

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At the same time Lolita’s musical talent is being developed, she begins a friendship with a young man named Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza). Sébastien is also a writer, and Lolita once again thinks his friendly overtures are only to connect with her father. Lolita tries to get her father to help Sébastien, too dense and insecure to realize Sebastien is actually interested in her, and her only. Yes, he’s a writer, but he’d rather concentrate on developing a writing project with his friends rather than be mentored by an egotistical blowhard like Etienne. Will Lolita wise up and realize Sébastien really likes her for her, and she has value all on her own?
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Look at Me is at turns funny and mortifying. Ms. Berry is wonderful as Lolita, vulnerable, heartbreaking and all to easy to identify with all at once. At times you don’t know if you want to shake her or hug her. And you will find Mr. Bacri positively maddening as the selfish Etienne especially in one scene where he walks out of his daughter’s choral performance to take a phone call.

Look at Me takes an unflinching look at our narcissistic celebrity culture, especially once we learn those we worship often have feet of clay. It also examines how feeling like loser in a sea of success, fame, money and beauty that is so crippling we can barely break out the box we’ve put ourselves in.