No Impact Man (2009)

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We recycle. We carry our groceries in cloth bags. We shop local farmers’ markets. And we’ve even traded our traditional light bulbs for long-lasting, energy efficient spiral fluorescent bulbs. We do the best to reduce our carbon footprint and be more ecologically-sound. Still, we know we’re making an impact on our planet. Could we possibly make no impact?

Colin Beavan, a Manhattan-based writer, decided to become more “green” and lessen his family’s impact on the planet. In fact, he wanted to make no impact at all, thus becoming “No Impact Man.” Beavan began his experiment in 2006 and blogged about it soon gaining media attention from both the New York Times and Good Morning America. And his (and his very patient family) journey is captured in the Justin Schein and Laura Gabbert documentary No Impact Man.

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Beavan’s experiment went a bit further than most of us would be willing in the pursuit of making no impact. He and his family lived without electricity, public transportation, driving, television, toilet paper (yes, toilet paper) and new clothing other than the bare necessities. Beavan rode his bike everywhere, bought local produce at the farmers’ market, walked up countless stairs instead of taking the elevator and composted food scraps.

Along for the ride is Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin, and their adorable toddler, Isabella. Not surprisingly, Michelle is less than thrilled with her husband’s grand scheme. She’s a writer for Business Week, and is a girl with a yen for Starbucks and retail therapy. But she loves her husband, and figures she can do this experiment for a year even as she goes through serious caffeine withdrawal, and expresses her desire for another child.

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Not quite sure what he’s getting into, Beavan embraces his experiment with giddy zeal. Using no toilet paper? How exciting! And it’s not long before his blog gets media attention. Though some people find his experiment intriguing and inspiring, many write him off as an affront to capitalism, abusive towards his family and a smug, humorless yuppie. Or as Michelle plainly puts it, “They’re calling us bourgeois fucks.”

Beyond the media attention, things don’t always run smoothly. Beavan and his wife bicker about having another child. Milk gets spoiled when the family relies on using two clay pots for refrigeration. And remember, no toilet paper, which makes them subjects for ridicule.

But still, the family soldiers on in their quest to lessen their impact on the environment. It’s not long before they find out that some things about their experiment are pretty cool. They enjoy spending time at the park and riding their bikes together. Even an old-school games of charades turns out to be more fun than a night in front of the boob tube watching reality TV.

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No Impact Man can at times be exasperating (no toilet paper), but you can’t help but come away with some more awareness. It helps that Beavan (and his family) is rather likable, frustrating, yet likable. Sure, Beavan can be a bit rigid, but he’s no finger-wagging scold. He knows what he’s doing is experimental. Sure, Michelle whines at times (that must be the caffeine withdrawal), but she’s no bitchy shrew. In the end, you see a family that truly loves and appreciates each other, and you also learn a few things. Shop at local farmers’ markets? Why yes. Stop using toilet paper? You’ll get my Charmin Double-Ply when you take it from my cold, dead hands.

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Blame It On Fidel (2006)

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It’s 1970s France, and little nine year old Anna (Nina Kervel-Bey) lives a charmed life. She resides in Paris with her journalist mother, Marie (Julie Depardieu), lawyer father, Fernando (Stefano Accorsi) and little brother, Francois (Benjamin Feuillet). She is adored by her grandparents who make their home in a grand estate in the French countryside. As Blame It On Fidel begins, we see Nina at a family wedding, outfitted in an immaculate frock, and schooling her lesser cousins on the proper way to cut a piece of fruit with a knife and fork.

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However, Nina’s life is about to get topsy-turvy. Her father, originally from Spain, takes in his sister and her daughter after his brother-in-law disappears under Franco’s fascist regime. Doing this alters Nina’s parents’ priorities. Fernando begins to focus his new radicalized politics on his law practice. Marie, stops writing superficial articles for Marie Claire, and begins to write articles about serious women’s issues, including the thorny topic of abortion.

Nina doesn’t care about any of these things. She just knows her life has been changed completely. And she doesn’t like it. Her beloved nanny, Filomena, is let go only to be replaced by a string of different nannies (including one who provides the title of the film). Her family moves from their huge home to a cramped apartment. Bearded, smoking radicals are always around taking up her parents’ time. And Nina is removed from her beloved religion class at school.

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The movie is seen mostly through Nina’s nine-year-old eyes. She doesn’t care about what’s going on in the world. She just wants things to go back to the way they were. Sure, she’s self-absorbed, but so are most children. They want security and stability. They don’t care about “sticking it to the Man.”

And what makes Blame It On Fidel most effective is how it is shot at a child’s eye level. This is most evident when little Nina is dragged along with her parents to take part in a political demonstration. All Nina can see are legs, arms and feet. She is too small to see the faces of the protesting adults. And when things get out of hand, and tear gas fills the streets, you feel Nina’s fear and confusion.

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Blame It On Fidel is superbly directed by Julie Gravras, herself the daughter of lefty movie director Costas-Gravras. This is a film that could easily be grim and one-dimensional  but a has wry humor and a bittersweet sentiment. Nina’s parents may want to change the world, but their love for her will never waver. And perhaps once Nina gets older, she will realize this.

All the performances are wonderfully acted. But Miss Kervel-Bey is astounding as young Nina, her serious face and intense eyes conveying so much. With a lesser talent, Nina might come across as bratty and spoiled, but Kervel-Bey gives this young character a heart and soul the movie so richly deserves.

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Blame It On Fidel is not rated, and is in French with English subtitles.

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.

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

Retro Reels: A Place In the Sun (1951)

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In the drama A Place in the Sun, Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman. Though related to a rich industrialist named Charles Eastman, George is looked down upon because his family is poor. Still, that doesn’t stop him from taking a job in his uncle’s factory. George hopes his work ethic will impress his uncle so he can work his way up, and also work his way into his uncle’s upper crust world.

Though dating co-workers is strictly verboten, George starts dating fellow factory worker Alice Tripp (Shelly Winters). Alice is plain-looking and poor but truly smitten by George and his connections to his wealthy uncle even though George’s connections seem to be in name only.

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Despite dating Alice, George falls in love with Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor in her first adult role) after meeting her at a party. Angela is not only beautiful she is also from a wealthy family. Dating Angela brings George closer to the upper crust world he always desired.

hqdefaultHowever, Alice is hardly out of the picture, and it isn’t before long she announces she is pregnant with George’s child. She believes this will prompt George to marry her. Not surprisingly, George is not happy with this idea, especially since he is in love with Angela. He tells Alice to have an abortion but she refuses. She figures since George is getting closer to his uncle’s world of wealth, he’ll have no problem supporting a wife and child.

Alice soon sees a newspaper of photo of George and Angela and realizes he is cheating on her. Alice confronts George, threatening to tell everyone about what is going on between them and about the pregnancy. He better marry her or else.

To save face, George takes Alice to the local city hall for a quick elopement. However, it is Labor Day week-end and city hall is closed. Instead of ditching Alice, George convinces her they should visit a nearby lake. Not quite realizing what George has in mind, Alice agrees.

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While renting a boat under a false name, George acts nervous. Finding out there are no people on the lake George thinks this might be a good time to murder Alice and dispose of her body. With Alice out of the picture George is free to continue dating Angela and free from marrying Alice.

However, once Alice tells George how excited she is about their future and the upcoming birth of their child. George has a change of heart. He can’t murder Alice. He must do the right thing and marry her. But when Alice stands up in the boat, the boat capsizes, and Alice does drown.

816full-a-place-in-the-sun-screenshotGeorge, however, is safe, and he swims to shore. He goes to Angela’s family lake home and struggles to keep the story of Alice’s drowning a secret. But before long Alice’s body is discovered, her drowning is ruled a homicide.

With a great deal of evidence stacked against him George is arrested for Angela’s death. This happens just as George is going to ask for Angela’s hand in marriage.

Though George is innocent, the evidence is overwhelming. He tries to explain what lead up to Alice’s accidental drowning, but the prosecutor (Raymond Burr) aggressively pulls apart George’s testimony. The prosecutor convinces the jury that George committed first degree murder and the jury finds him guilty. George is sentenced to the electric chair.

As George faces his last days he pours his heart out in a letter to Angela. He claims he did not kill Alice but her drowning was perhaps his only way to leave his poor, underprivileged past behind and start fresh with Angela.

A Place in the Sun is lushly filmed in black and white, and its romantic scenes are unbelievably passionate and erotic. Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty is beyond compare and she and Montgomery Clift have electric chemistry that leaps off the screen. A Place in the Sun was nominated for nine Oscars and won six, including a best director Oscar for George Stevens.

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Based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun highlights the huge gap between rich and poor, even among family members. It also conveys how one’s ambitious desires, and obsession with money and status can make people consider doing horrible things. A Place in the Sun also shows how people can be victims and victimize others.