Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Rita Chiarelli Speaks About the Making of ‘Music From The Big House’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place on June 13, 2012.

Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli made a special appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the documentary “Music From The Big House.” Directed by Bruce McDonald, it follows Chiarelli as she goes inside the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary to perform with inmates who share her love of music. Chiarelli’s appearance was part of her tour with the documentary which has her traveling to 60 cities in 70 days for post-screening Q&As and performing the blues, and she blew us away with what she had to say as well as her music.

Moderating the Q&A was Richard Matson of Matson Films, the company distributing “Music from the Big House” in the United States. His first question for Chiarelli was how she managed to persuade the prison to let her in, and she said she had to be “very charming.” She admitted to having many meetings with the warden and other prison officials in Louisiana and managed to gain their trust over time. Putting it very bluntly, she said, “They let me in… and they also let me out.”

One audience member asked why the documentary was shot in black and white, and Chiarelli said cinematographer Steve Cosens originally shot it in color. However, it was decided later on to take the color out as everyone thought this was really how the movie should be seen. The way Chiarelli says she saw it, black and white “carried the story more” and made it “truer to its meaning.”

Chiarelli also added how the whole documentary was shot in just two and a half days and that everything done “was a first take.” Everything we saw on screen was “totally how it went down.”

Another person asked why the prison had so many African-Americans and young men incarcerated there. Chiarelli responded that 80% of the population in Louisiana is black and added “whatever that speaks to, that’s what’s going on.” She also said the laws in Louisiana are “very strict” and that it is the only state in America which still operates on the Napoleonic Code which allows more in the way of judgment calls than anything else.

One thing I wondered about, as did others, was why the crimes these inmates convicted of and serving time for were listed at the end of the documentary. We don’t know exactly what they had done to be behind bars while watching, but we do get hints at times of what landed them there. Chiarelli stated this was done so we “wouldn’t judge them before meeting them.” She and McDonald wanted us to meet the inmates first, get so see them in their present state and show how their love of music elevated their souls, and then we got what she called the “nitty gritty” of their crimes.

Chiarelli said she found it hard to ask the inmates what they did as it felt “rude to ask.” Her hope was they would eventually “open up by choice” and they would trust her and the filmmakers to tell their story.

Chiarelli finished her evening at the Aero Theatre by performing some songs from “Music from the Big House” live, specifically “Rest My Bones” and “These Four Walls” which she wrote after the making of the documentary was completed. She certainly has a great set of pipes on her, and her passion for blues music is beyond measure. It is this same passion which is shared by the inmates onscreen, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating musical documentaries you could ever hope to see.

Exclusive Video Interview with Michele Ohayon About ‘Strip Down, Rise Up’

Pole dancing has long been associated with strip clubs, but it has since expanded from that realm to dance studios where it is taught as a form of aerobic exercise. Still, there is a strong stigma to this form of dancing as it most people refuse to see it as anything other than pornographic and debasing. But with the new documentary “Strip Down, Rise Up,” female instructors use pole dancing as a way to help women deal with traumas and body-image issues which have plagued people for far too long. Through sensual movement, the participants find themselves transforming to where they succeed in reclaiming their self-esteem and sexuality, and they find a power within themselves which can never be lost.

The director of “Strip Down, Rise Up” is Oscar-nominated filmmaker Michèle Ohayon, and her cameras capture a diverse group of women from various walks of life. Among them are Evelyn who has lost her husband and trying to deal with her grief, the successful businesswoman Patricia who is uncomfortable in her own skin, and the very brave Megan who was sexually abused and ended up testifying against her abuser. We also get to see instructors like Sheila Kelley, Amy Bond and Jenyne Butterfly whose methods differ from one another in fascinating ways.

Ohayon hails from North Africa, and she has said her films are largely about transformations. In addition to “Strip Down, Rise Up,” her work includes “Colors Straight Up” which is about at-risk youth in Los Angeles who turn their lives around through the performing arts, the hidden homeless women documentary “It Was a Wonderful Life” which had the privilege of being narrated by Jodie Foster, and the docu-comedy “Cowboy del Amor” about a cowboy who becomes a matchmaker. Her inspiration for “Strip Down, Rise Up” came about when she and her daughter attended a pole dancing class as a way to explore a new form of exercise.

I got to speak with Ohayon recently, and this marks my first ever video interview done via Zoom, so please bear with me as the video quality is a bit different from what we are all used to.

“Strip Down, Rise Up” debuts on Netflix on Friday, February 5, 2021. Please check out the interview above and be sure to check this documentary out when it drops.

‘Belushi’ Documentary is an Intimate Portrait of a Hilarious ‘SNL’ Icon

One of the opening scenes of the documentary “Belushi” features a packed audience at the Hollywood Bowl, waiting for the Blues Brothers to make their grand entrance. There was something about the size of this crowd which blew me away, and their excitement at seeing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd come onto the stage as Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues was very palpable. When they do finally appear, it’s an exhilarating moment as Belushi in particular looks as though he was on top of the world, and back in 1978 he certainly was. But then we hear a voiceover from the late Harold Ramis who says about Belushi, “Knowing his appetites, I don’t think he’ll survive this.” As we all know, he didn’t.

Like another documentary about another “Saturday Night Live” star who left us way too soon, “Love, Gilda,” “Belushi” is at a disadvantage as we all know what happened to this beloved comedy icon and of how he died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles on March 5, 1982. Several books have been written and several movies were made which detailed his life and death, and Aykroyd once said how many of them were written by “unfeeling, unqualified personnel.” But with “Belushi,” writer and director R.J. Cutler takes the time to look at him not so much as a comedy icon, but as a man who had his passions and loves which deserve more of our attention than his excesses ever did.

Among the most interesting parts of “Belushi” come at the beginning as animation is used to illustrate his life as a young boy in the west side of Chicago. It was a kick to learn how he would sometimes go to homes of his neighbors to tell stories or do performances. Seriously, John was the kind of person William Shakespeare wrote about, and this is summed up perfectly in his line of “all the world’s a stage.”

To learn of John’s troubled relationship with his father, an Albanian immigrant named Adam Anastos Belushi, was a revelation of sorts as I am tempted to think this played a large role in his development not just as an artist, but as a person as well. Adam expected John to take over the family business which was the Fair Oaks Restaurant, but John was determined to become an actor. There is something about the last meeting between these two which seems to linger throughout the documentary to where I could not help but wonder how deeply this affected John throughout his life. Of course, I have to remember I am not a psychotherapist.

One of the benefits of “Belushi” is it contains interviews which are featured as voiceovers throughout. These interviews were conducted by Tanner Colby for his book “Belushi: A Biography,” and in this documentary we get to hear these interviews for the first time. Whether or not the thoughts of Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher or John Landis surprise you in the slightest, I am thankful we get to hear their most specific thoughts about John as they help to fully describe a man who would have truly done anything to get a laugh from everyone and anyone.

But perhaps the most telling addition to “Belushi” is the participation of John’s widow, Judith Belushi-Pisano who shares, among other things, the letters John wrote to her over the years. In those letters, we see how John was hungry for success, that he did not want to be like his father, and how even he knew he was on a path to self-destruction. The one letter which stood out to me the most was when John confessed to Judith of how he didn’t know how to be comfortable with himself in life. This is a man who yearned to connect with other people, and the one thing he craved, success, kept him from do so.

There was a point where John was in the number one movie in America (“Animal House”), had the number one album in the country (the Blues Brothers’ “Briefcase Full of Blues”), and was starring on the television phenomenon “SNL.” While this may have seemed like a tremendous accomplishment, it is almost treated as though it were a death knell for John as he had nowhere to go but down. Lorne Michaels once said drugs did not kill John, fame did. After watching this documentary, I could not agree more.

Watching “Belushi” quickly reminded of other documentaries about other tremendous talents whose lives were cut far too short. There was Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” which gave Amy Winehouse the eulogy she never would have received from any other filmmaker, and we watched as she walked up to the stage in one scene to accept an award, and the applause from the audience kept getting louder and louder to where any cries for help were forever washed away from our collective consciousness. And then there was also “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” which chronicled the life of the Nirvana front man, and the interview with his mother when she realized just how famous Kurt was going to end up being still haunts me as she quickly realizes he will not be able to handle in a healthy way. Like John Belushi, these are talented artists who the song “Shooting Star” by Bad Company was all about, and their lives were quickly swept up in the tsunami of fame.

Granted, there are some problems with “Belushi” as I was hoping this documentary would go a little deeper in certain areas. When it comes to movies like “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” they deserve their own documentaries as their reputations remain very enthralling, but I would have loved to see Cutler examine John’s performance in “Continental Divide” a bit more as this was a movie in which he dared to go in a more serious direction. And yes, there is the issue of Cathy Smith being omitted from here. Cathy gave John the controlled substances which ended his life at the far too young age of 33. I am not saying Cathy deserves to be crucified, but her role in John’s death does deserve some more insight as it may allude to how certain people treat celebrities who are at their most vulnerable.

Regardless, “Belushi” represents the kind of documentary which digs deeper than the average showbiz expose ever does. So many movies on famous people like this one typically just skim the surface and focus on the most controversial moments at the expense of everything else, and this one does not. For that, I am very thankful as I have always been a big fan of John Belushi, and until Cutler’s film, I truly felt I never got to see him as an individual. Regardless of how you feel about him, John Belushi was a human being like the rest of us who craved love and respect, and he should still be with us all these years later.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Robin’s Wish’ Sets The Record Straight About The Late Mr. Williams

As with the deaths of Jim Henson, River Phoenix and Phil Hartman, Robin Williams’ hit me like a punch in the gut and left me speechless for a time. Here is a man whose work I had followed ever since I first saw him in Robert Altman’s “Popeye,” and we have always known his brain to work at 100 miles a minute. He was an extraordinary talent who kept us laughing hard as he managed to improvise routines out of what seemed like thin air. The fact we were now living in a world without him seems unreal even today, and there are times when I think August 11, 2014 should be designated as the day the laughter died.

Among the striking images shown in the first few minutes of “Robin’s Wish,” other than the beautiful vistas of San Francisco and Marin County, are images of newspapers, magazines and tabloid rags which pondered over why the Oscar-winning comedian committed suicide. Was it because he suddenly left a 12-step program where he was dealing with alcoholism? Was he in dire financial straits? Was he upset the show which marked his return to television, “The Crazy Ones,” was cancelled after only one season? Did he really never get over the death of John Belushi? Did all those years of drug and alcohol abuse finally catch up with him? In the wake of his passing there were many questions, and they eventually became rumors which spread like wildfires. As many sought to get to the truth, the rest of us felt so far removed from it.

The documentary “Robin’s Wish” is filmmaker Tylor Norwood’s attempt to set the record straight about what really happened to Robin Williams and why he died. It also serves as a deep examination of disease Lewy Body dementia (LBD) which may sound new, but has actually been around for many, many years. We also get a close and personal look at Robin’s last days before his tragic death, and it proves to be both very sad and yet hopeful all at the same time.

Instead of a full-fledged biography, Norwood looks specifically at Robin’s evolution as an actor and comedian. We see Robin talk about how the brain is “an extraordinary three-and-a-half-pound gland” and that he does not have an act as much as he does a “cesspool of consciousness.” He discusses his time at Julliard in New York where he got heavy duty training as an actor, and of how he left before he could have graduated and moved back to San Francisco to find acting work. When he couldn’t find any, he started doing stand up comedy in which he succeeded in, as one close friend put it, in “demolishing” every single audience he performed in front of. Back then, everyone was in awe of his talents as his mind moved at lightning speed, and this was only the beginning. Like them, we were in awe of what he could do.

Throughout, the documentary moves back and forth from his life to the subject of the LBD which, while it may pale in comparison to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS, can be every bit as debilitating and deadly. UCSF Professor Bruce Miller is shown describing it as a devastating disease which is fast and progressive and a killer. It also increases mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, and paranoia and delusions are also major symptoms. There is no none cure for this disease as of yet, and it usually ends in suicide. But even worse, is often misdiagnosed.

Robin’s widow, Susan Schneider, did not have a name for what killed her husband until she read his autopsy report. Initially, Robin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but this was not the case. Susan says had Robin known what he was suffering from while he was alive, then he would have at least had some peace. As for Professor Miller, he described Robin’s case as being the most devastating case of LBD he had ever seen, and he was amazed the “Good Will Hunting” actor could move or walk at all.

As “Robin’s Wish” goes on, we see how LBD came to affect the actor long before he died, and it is devastating to witness the effect it had on his comedic gifts. Whether it was on the set of “The Crazy One” or the third “Night at the Museum” movie, he started to have trouble memorizing his lines and coming up with stuff to improvise. At one point, he tells someone how he is not himself anymore, and you feel his disassociation around everyone to an infinite degree. To realize you are not who you once were has got to be horrifying.

Learning about this mental disintegration from friends and colleagues such as Rick Overton, David E. Kelley and Shawn Levy helps to shed light on what Robin was going through as LBD was already taking its toll on him. To see someone lose gifts few are ever endowed with is painful, and it also reminded me of the last time he was a presenter at the Oscars. Whereas in the past he would come up with some hilarious thing to say or take aim at Jimmy Swaggart (“Remember, there is no such word as audit in the Bible, okay?”), he simply just listed the nominees and read the winner. Many wondered why he seemed so listless, and now we know.

Schneider deserves a lot of credit for being so open about Robin’s struggles as she still feels the pain of his death from day to day. The love they had for one another was very real, and we see the two of them at their wedding and in many pictures which illustrated just how close they were to one another. She also shares why the two of them had to sleep in separate beds at one point as Robin’s insomnia worsened to where he woke up at early hours and accidentally injured her.

“Robin’s Wish” does make a solid case for how serious a disease LBD is, and after watching the documentary there is no doubt this is what killed him. It makes clear what a wonderful soul he was as he took the time to meet with soldiers who were wounded, children who were sick and others who needed a laugh during a dark time in their lives. It also makes clear of the fact Robin was clean and sober at the time of his death. Drugs and alcohol did not rob us of him.

If there is anything I feel is left out here, it is the thoughts and feelings of others close to Robin such as his children or his ex-wife Marsha Garces whom he was married to for 20 years. Their absence here makes me wonder how they feel about all of this. Perhaps they were not invited to participate or chose not to. Even though this is not meant to be a full out biography of Robin Williams, it feels like some pieces are missing which would have made this portrait more complete.

“Robin’s Wish” is not the easiest documentary or movie to sit through as we know how it ends. The void the famous comedian and actor left in his wake is still deeply felt all these years later, and it is impossible not to feel bad for his closest friends. This is especially the case for the one friend who was informed of Robin’s death over the phone by a reporter who said he died by suicide. This is not the way to inform someone of their friend’s passing.

Nevertheless, as sad as “Robin’s Wish” may seem, it also filled with hope. As debilitating as LBD was for him, he fought it like a warrior even if he did not know exactly what he was fighting. We are also reminded of his perspective on life which he earned through a lot of life experiences and mistakes he learned from. To him, life was always about other people, and he simply wanted to make everyone feel less afraid. Norwood definitely finds the right note to end this documentary on as, while Robin may be gone, he shows we can still carry on his legacy from one generation to the next. No one who knew Robin Williams will ever forget the impact he had on others, and no one ever should.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to find out how you can donate to the Lewy Body Dementia Fund of the American Brain Foundation.

Underseen Movie: The Interrupters – Trying to Stop Violence in America

“The Interrupters” is a truly brilliant documentary which explores violence in America, and of a group of people working desperately to stop it. It covers a period of a year in South Side Chicago, but the events we see could be happening in any other city where violence has long since engulfed its citizens. At its center is the non-profit group CeaseFire (now known today as Cure Violence) which treats violence like an infectious disease, and those employed by it work to stop the violence before it happens. While the description of this documentary sounds bleak, it is full of hope and redemption that most fiction movies can only dream of portraying honestly.

What makes CeaseFire an especially unique group is the workers have been on the wrong side of the law in the past. These are not just citizens wanting to live peacefully, but those who were once as bad as those gang members they are working with and trying to help. They are well-meaning and working to find redemption for their wicked pasts which could easily have destroyed their lives. Among them is Ameena Matthews, whose father, Jeff Fort, was a notorious gang leader. Through finding peace in her Muslim faith and having children, she turned her life around and started helping those who are travelling down the same path she once did.

The most compelling moments in “The Interrupters” involve the workers of CeaseFire themselves. We watch as Ameena struggles desperately to get through to a deeply troubled teenage girl who seems stuck in between going into a life of crime and seriously trying to find a way out of it. Seeing Ameena working with her is understandably exhausting emotionally; we all want the best for this person, but there is only so much that can be done.

Next there’s Cobe Williams who spent much of his years in and out of prison before joining CeaseFire. Cobe manages to get some footing with the toughest of people through his genuinely good nature and disarming sense of humor. Then we have Eddie Bocanegra, who served 14 years in prison for a murder which haunts him to this very day. His attempts in teaching art to children show how sincere he is in his efforts to help them avoid the mistakes he made, some of which can never be undone.

Directing “The Interrupters” is Steven James, the same filmmaker who is responsible for one of the greatest documentaries ever made, “Hoop Dreams.” Not once does Steven try to beat us over the head with statistics showing us how bad things are. We can tell the situation is bleaker than many of us could ever imagine. In capturing the memorials of those slain (most in their teens or early 20’s), we feel the innocence cruelly deprived just by looking at the names listed underneath them.

But perhaps the most powerful scene to be found here comes when a former gang member, now released from prison, visits the barbershop he robbed with friends to apologize for what he did. It is an amazing moment, and one I do not often expect to see (but certainly hope to). You can feel the raw emotions of the employees as they respond to this most unexpected of visits, and if this does not make you believe in the power of redemption, you have a heart made of stone.

“The Interrupters” is a must-see documentary which captures moments that cannot be found elsewhere, let alone in many Hollywood movies which boast about being “based on a true story.” This is real life being shown here, and it is the kind many of us do not see up close. The hope and redemption it captures is completely genuine, and it is a one of a kind cinematic experience in this or any other year. This is a must see!

* * * * out of * * * *

Phil Joanou on How He Came to Direct U2: Rattle and Hum

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in 2012.

Filmmaker Phil Joanou was at New Beverly Cinema when the theatre showed two of his films: “Three O’Clock High” and the U2 documentary “Rattle and Hum.” While most of the evening was spent talking about “Three O’Clock High” as it had arrived at its 25th anniversary, Joanou did take some time to talk about how he was hired by U2 to direct their first music documentary (or rockumentary if you will). The story ended up becoming one of the strangest and funniest ones told on this evening.

Joanou was busy doing post-production on “Three O’Clock High” when his agent got him a meeting with U2 on the day before the band had to leave America for Ireland. They had already interviewed a number of directors already, but Joanou said they hit it off to where they asked him, “can you come to Dublin tomorrow?” He said sure, but he had to call the producer of “Three O’Clock High” to explain why he had to leave post-production on a little early. The producer apparently was not too happy about this sudden opportunity, but Joanou got to go anyway.

Once in Dublin, Joanou said U2 interviewed him for five days about directing “Rattle and Hum.” Where the story goes from there is not what you might expect as the band kind of left him hanging.

Phil Joanou: They would take me to a friend’s house and then Bono and Edge would leave and I would have dinner with the husband and wife. After that they took me to a wedding and they left me there as well. I’m there in Northern Ireland and I’m all by myself at an Irish wedding and I’m like, okay great! I don’t know anyone here. I had to figure out how to get home. So, they would do weird things like that to me. They’d drop me off at a bar and leave me. This went on for five days!

After all this craziness, U2 came up to Joanou and said, “alright, you can do the film.” Joanou said that to this day he still does not know what the criteria was for them hiring him, but he described making “Rattle and Hum” as being an “incredible experience.” Looking back, he described the Irish rock band as having taught him so much while being on the road and in the studio with them.

“Rattle and Hum” was greeted with a critical backlash when it came out as critics accused the band of being too grandiose and self-righteous. Watching it today, however, is a different experience as “The Joshua Tree” tour, as it is presented here, feels far more intimate than any tour they have done since. The musical numbers are exhilarating to watch, especially in black and white, and their journey through the American music scene gives us a number of unforgettable moments. But moreover, it was especially great to see it on the big screen for the first time in many years. Concert movies like these really need to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.

American Teen – The Breakfast Club as a Documentary

“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point! Surviving it is the whole point!”

-Christian Slater from “Pump Up the Volume

High school. Like you, I do not miss those years, and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back through all that nonsense, and I see this even though I have credit card debt to pay off. The peer pressure, the rejection, the heartache, the unfulfilled longings and all the pressure which is unloaded on us by our parents when it comes to getting into a good college; I am stunned I survived any and all of it.

Still, I wonder what it is like for kids today. They have all these new advances in technology I never got to play with back then, but has the way we deal with each other in high school changed? Are people nicer now after horrible school shootings like Columbine or Parkland, or have things gotten worse? After you see “American Teen,” I think you will agree life as a teenager and in high school are neither better nor worse. In fact, everything remains the same. There are the cliques and the pressure to get into a prestigious college, and there are those who fit in and those who feel endlessly rejected. It has been more than 20 years since I graduated from high school, and kids still go through the same crap.

“American Teen” is a documentary by Nanette Burstein who previously directed “The Kid Stays in The Picture” and “On the Ropes.” Here, she gives us “The Breakfast Club” as if it were a documentary as she follows the lives of various teenagers as they go through their senior year at a small-town Indiana high school. There is nothing too edgy about this film, and it doesn’t deal much with drugs, sex, or school violence. What she is more interested in is taking the stereotypes of the jock, the nerd, the rebel, and the beautiful to where turns them upside down as she looks closely at the individuals inhabiting those stereotypes.

Burstein has gone on record and said that she considers herself a part of the “John Hughes generation,” and it’s very interesting how she takes the tropes of Hughes’ films and melds them into a movie filled with real people.

Unlike reality shows such as “The Hills” or “The Real World,” I think “American Teen” has a lot more to offer in terms of how teens deal with real problems, and I think it is also good viewing for those who are in high school right now as many of them likely think they are the only ones going through what they are going through. It’s important for them to know they are not alone, and we also need to listen to what they have to say.

Of all the subjects here, the most appealing one is Hannah Bailey, the liberal rebel of the highly conservative town of Warsaw, Indiana where this documentary takes place. She starts off as a free spirit and, deep down, she is the person many of us wanted to be like: free spirited and unconcerned of how others think of her. However, she is forever shattered when her boyfriend whom she was madly in love with, ends up breaking up with her after they have made out. Her emotional devastation is hard to watch as we have all dealt with the harsh pangs of young love. Hannah ends up getting so depressed to where she cannot bring herself to go to school out of shame and embarrassment. With her breakup comes a feeling of worthlessness which can easily engulf a young person and change who they are. From the start to the very end, Hannah is the one you root for the most.

We also have Jake Tusing, the nerd with a face ravaged with acne which cries out endlessly for the nearest dermatologist. Jake is a guy you at times feel sorry for, but you later find yourself cringing when he opens his mouth. A painfully shy kid who still suffers from the emotional scars he suffered in junior high, we see him being very uncomfortable around large groups of people. When a new girl moves into town, he sees this as his opportunity to get a girlfriend, something he hopes to acquire before he graduates. But soon, his defenses go up and he begins to push people away before they have the chance to do the same to him. In retrospect, Jake almost comes across as a real-life Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener from “Welcome to The Dollhouse” as he goes from being likable to unlikable throughout the documentary.

Then there is Colin Clemens (no relation to Roger Clemens), the star of the high school basketball team in a town the sport is like a sacred religion. We see his dad constantly pressuring him to make those shots in the game when he is not doing his Elvis impersonation act for the local senior citizens in town (and who refuse to believe Elvis is dead). This intense pressure comes from the fact Colin’s family does not have enough money to send him to college, and his best hope is to impress the college recruiters so he can get a basketball scholarship. Colin comes across as a good kid whose parental influence leads him to make some crucial and painful mistakes, but he becomes a better person and teammate by this documentary’s end.

Finally, we have the most popular person at the school, and she proves to be a bitch beyond repair when you cross her. She is Megan Krizmanich, the daughter of a prominent local surgeon, the student council vice president and the homecoming queen. She is what many of us would call “little miss perfect” even though she is far from it. Like Regina George from “Mean Girls” in that she is one of the most popular people in high school as well as the one most loathed by the audience. She is under enormous pressure to get accepted into Notre Dame as all her family members have been accepted there. I won’t spoil it if she gets in or not, but when she gets the letter from the school, her expression isn’t so much happiness or sadness as it is sheer relief that the waiting is over.

One of this documentary’s taglines is “which one were you?” Taking that into account, you should be able to see yourself in all of these individuals regardless of what high school stereotype you ended up being trapped in. The pressures, the heartaches, the isolation; we have experienced it all. After watching “American Teen,” you may have felt like you lived through your high school years all over again. The high school pecking order on the social ladder has not changed one iota, and it remains an emotional boiling pot in the life of an adolescent.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

-Kurt Russell from “Escape From LA

I wanted to know everything there was to know about these kids as “American Teen” went on, and I wanted them to succeed in what they wanted to do and to be happy. Happiness can be in such short supply when you are in high school at times. This documentary is filled with animated interludes which serve to illustrate the inner lives of its main characters. With Jake, we see him as the hero of those “Legend of Zelda” games he loves to play, rescuing the princess he longs to have as a girlfriend. With Colin, we see his dream of playing on an NCAA team after graduating from college. Hannah’s animation interlude illustrates her painful post-break up existence as she feels so differently about herself, and of her deep-seated fear of ending up like her manic-depressive mother. Then you have Megan’s moment which you can’t help but laugh at as she sees Notre Dame as this heavenly place where she can meet a diverse crowd of people who are nothing like those she picks on at school.

This is a great documentary to watch with an audience because everyone is bound to have a strong emotional reaction to what is going on throughout. We share in Hannah’s heartbreak and her triumphs as she proves to be the real hero here. We cringe and laugh at the socially awkward Jake as he stumbles through conversations with potential girlfriends. When he talks, you can’t help but put your hands in your face and shake your head in disbelief. With Megan, you feel a hatred and resentment which dissipates when you get to know her better. All the same, she reminds me of the one blonde cheerleader in my Shakespeare class who interrupted the teacher by saying, “THERE IS A RUN IN MY NYLONS!”

All that said, “American Teen” is by no means a perfect documentary. It does feel a bit staged, and it probably was in some cases. Also, part of me wished Burstein went a little deeper with other subjects. We see Hannah’s best friend is a homosexual who is always there for her when her self-esteem plummets, but we never really get to know who he is or of how he deals with living in a very conservative town. I also wanted to see more of the adults and of how they went about raising these young adults. We complain about the way kids act, but a lot of it has to do with the way their parents spoil them rotten. Trust me, this was a big problem in the town I grew up in.

Granted, Burstein wanted things to be shown from as much of the teenagers’ lives as possible, but the adults factor into this more than what we are shown. While “American Teen” does show the relationship Colin has with his Elvis impersonating dad, we don’t get as much with the other kids. Megan ends up committing a slanderous act of vandalism which she gets busted for, but her dad isn’t so much mad at her for doing it as he is with her not being able to keep from being caught. You have to wonder what kind of values these parents are instilling in their children as some are not the least bit healthy.

We also Hannah determined to move to San Francisco, California so she can pursue a career in television and film. She is so determined to get out of Indiana and lead a life which is anything but mundane, and we want to see her accomplish this regardless of how the odds are against her. But her mother ends up telling her she is “not special, and this is one of “American Teen’s” most wounding moments. I think any parent who tells their child this should be slapped. The world is tough enough without our parents breaking us down like that.

There is also a good deal of profanity bleeped out here. “American Teen” is rated PG-13 despite the f-word being mentioned only a couple of times. If the MPAA thinks they are trying to protect the kids old enough to see this movie from the bad words contained in it, they have failed. You wouldn’t believe the amount of bad language I heard on the playgrounds of the elementary and junior high schools I attended. It reminds me of Roger Ebert’s arguing how “The Breakfast Club” should have been PG-13 instead of R because he felt it was more than appropriate for teenagers. I couldn’t agree more, and the beeping out of “bad” language is ridiculous and only draws more attention to what the MPAA is trying to suppress.

Whatever you may think about “American Teen,” you have to give these kids credits for bravery because what they did here will forever be captured on celluloid and burned into our memories forever. It will be interesting to see a follow up to this documentary on where these kids are today. I’m not talking so much about the effect of the movie itself, but of the effect their years in high school have on their lives today. After graduation, they have nowhere to go but up, but life still has its pitfalls. How will their past inform their present?

Go Hannah!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains is an Unforgettable Documentary

Now I am sure many of you have long since become familiar with this story. On October 13, 1972, a young ruby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, boarded a plane which was going to take them to a match in Chile. Their plane ended up crashing on a remote Andean glacier, its fuselage torn off and wings shorn. Anticipating they would be rescued, they waited in the snowy wreckage for help, but none came. When they ran out of food, they were forced to eat from the bodies of those passengers who had died. Eventually, two passengers managed to breach the treacherous Andes Mountains and brought help to their teammates left stranded in what was left of the plane. Out of the 45 passengers on that plane, only 16 survived. They were stranded on that glacier for 72 days. The fact any of them survived is nothing short of a miracle.

This story caused a sensation when first presented on the news, and many focused more on the sensational aspects of what happened, namely the cannibalism or reports of it. It was later documented in the 1973 bestselling book “Alive” written by Piers Paul Read. I have not read the book, but I did see the movie it was based on back in 1993 which starred Ethan Hawke. I remember watching it with my brother, and we both dug the seriously nasty plane crash which opened it. The movie was okay, but even with a screenplay by John Patrick Shanley of all people, it got weighed down by an endless variety of clichés. There did not seem to be any real tangible way to really get at how those rugby players truly felt while they were stranded on a glacier which they seemed destined to die on. How could they anyway?

Decades after this plane crash occurred, we got a documentary about it entitled “Stranded: I’ve Come from A Plane That Crashed on The Mountains.” This one has the advantage of having all the survivors from the crash participate participating in interviews in which they recount all the horrors they were forced to endure, and it was directed by a documentary filmmaker who also happened to be a childhood friend of theirs, Gonzalo Arijon. Through archival footage, interviews and reenactments of the events, Arijon succeeds in creating a shockingly intimate look at what these people went through in order to survive, and it puts us right into the mindset of the survivors in a way no movie or book, however well written it was, could. It proved to be one of the most astonishing cinematic portraits I have ever seen about survival, and it has stayed with me ever since I first watched more than a decade ago.

A documentary with reenactments almost sounds like an oxymoron. Certain other documentaries like “American Teen,” which came out in the same year, have been accused of restaging events that happened to the people, and it threatened to take away what felt truly real about it. The director of the movie, Nanette Burstein, admitted to restaging one event regarding a text message, and it did make for a good emotional moment, and I really do not blame her for doing so. I bring this up because the reenactments and restaging of events in “Stranded” serve to illustrate how incredibly desolate the circumstances were for these people, and they are necessary to show the way they survived. Plus, there is not a lot of archival footage for Arijon to work with, and without the reenactments, I am not sure he would have had much of a documentary.

The archival footage consists of photographs which were taken before and after the crash, and they are haunting to see as they show who these people were and what they ended up becoming. There are also some interviews shot with the survivors after they are rescued, and the audience reacted strongly when the interviewer asked them how they managed to survive. Their response to this at a later news conference brilliantly spells out why they did what they did.

The issue of cannibalism, if you really want to call it that, is handled very sensitively here. The reactions of the survivors to eating the flesh of those who have died goes through a variety of emotions from revulsion of even thinking about it to determination to survive and see their families again. But in the end, who are we to judge them for what they did? These were people pushed to the brink of madness and did whatever they could to survive, and “Stranded” puts us right in their mindset as they made their decision to eat from the bodies of their teammates. Do not even think you would have done things differently because you have not been through what they had. If you want to get cynical about it, those teammates were already dead, so they did not have a lot of say in the matter.

But the most astonishing moments in “Stranded” come from the survivors themselves. Their recollections of what they went through are still very vivid to them to this very day. The participation they gave to this project was invaluable, and we see them with their spouses and children as they go to revisit the site of the crash and go over what happened with them. What they do here is very brave, and their willingness to talk about what went on is beyond commendable. While this documentary may seem more about death than anything else, it is really more about survival and the power of the human spirit. It is also about the power of friendship and how indestructible it can be even in life’s worst moments.

With the aid of Arijon’s work, we see specifically how the survivors remember all the details of what happened. We see them lose their friends and of how they died, and of the ways they survived which included punching each other constantly so the blood would circulate better in their bodies. The moment we see those three men, which later became two, breach the Andes Mountains, we feel their desperation as well as their dwindling feeling of wanting to survive. All of these elements provide us with the most intimate portrait of this plane crash they could ever hope, or want, to get.

2008, the year in which “Stranded” was released, proved to be a tremendous year for movies set in the coldest of environments. During the summer, we got “Frozen River” which took place in the subzero weather of upstate New York. A few months later, I watched “Let the Right One In” which observed the tender relationship between a young boy and a female vampire in a frigid suburban neighborhood of Sweden. The details of these ferociously cold climates are almost completely dwarfed by the barren coldness which this documentary focuses on. Some of us are spoiled by the elongated summers we have in certain parts of the United States, but nothing we have experienced thus far will ever seem as cold as it is here.

“Stranded” gave me one of the most powerfully absorbing cinematic experiences I back in 2008. It is at turns thrilling and harrowing and, in the end, it is utterly inspiring as some of these passengers just refused to give up and die. Gonzalo Arijon brilliantly succeeds in capturing the events of this situation in a way no other filmmaker could, and it will stay with you long after you have finished watching it.

* * * * out of * * * *

Errol Morris’ ‘Tabloid’ is More a Love Story Than a Documentary

Tabloid movie poster

“What is a lie when every man has his own truth?”

-Clark Johnson from “Homicide: Life on The Street”

 “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

-Bill Pullman from “Lost Highway”

 “Facts are simple and facts are straight

Facts are lazy and facts are late

Facts all come with points of view

Facts don’t do what I want them to

Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out

Facts are getting the best of them.”

-from “Crosseyed and Painless” by Talking Heads

The story at the center of “Tabloid” is further proof of how truth can be much stranger than fiction. It is an endlessly entertaining documentary on an utterly bizarre incident from 1977 involving former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney. She talks about falling head over heels in love with a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson, and of how he disappeared without a trace after they became engaged.

Joyce spent the next couple of years searching for Kirk, eventually finding him in Ewell, Surrey where he was working at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Desperate to be reunited with him, she flew to England determined to rescue and marry him as she sees her destiny as being with him until death separates them forever. But from there the story splinters into two heavily contrasting versions. Joyce claims the Mormon religion is a cult which brainwashed and robbed Kirk of his free will, and that he went with her willingly upon finding him at the church. However, Kirk later told police he was abducted by Joyce and chained to a bed in a cottage where she seduced and raped him.

Whatever the case, this story exploded in the press and became, as one interviewee called it, “the perfect tabloid story.” With its mix of sex and religion, this case came to be known as “The Mormon Sex in Chains Case” and “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.”

You may come out of “Tabloid” frustrated as it is not made entirely clear who is honest and who is lying, but getting to the truth is not the intention of this documentary. Morris constructed it in a way which tests who and what we believe in and how our perceptions have been molded over time by the media culture more than we ever bother to realize. It almost doesn’t matter what actually happened because the story is so weirdly captivating, and viewers find themselves wanting it to go in a particular direction regardless of whether the facts match up with that direction or not.

John Patrick Shanley was dead on correct when he wrote how doubt is a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. Everyone in “Tabloid” has an inescapable shadow of doubt hovering over everything they say and what they believe to be true. It’s like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books we all read as kids. You know, the ones which tell you to turn to this page or another to where the outcome of your journey remains truly unpredictable.

Seeing the media at work on this “Mormon in Chains” case makes one realize not much has changed in their coverage of events. Back then, the public ate all the lurid details of this absurd story as it touched on those guilty pleasures we are never quick to admit we have. People like to believe they are above “trash” like this, but unconscious minds are always quick to wander to the magazine aisle in the supermarket to peek through the latest issue of the National Enquirer among other magazines which take the truth and manipulate into something wonderfully lurid. We know it is bad for us, but we cannot always keep our morbid fascination in check.

As an interview subject, Joyce McKinney is never boring for one second. At the start of “Tabloid,” she has an endearing quality which makes you want to spend all this time in her company. You will find yourself feeling for her when the world more or less threw her under a bus, and you will not be able to stop empathizing with her even after much of what she says comes into question. You can hear Morris interviewing her in the background, and every other question he asks sounds like, “Oh my god are you kidding me?!”

Still, it does at times feel like Joyce is putting on a performance for us, one which she has rehearsed for decades. Morris said she was the star of her own movie long before he started making this one, and it is easy to see how this is the case. Regardless, you will find yourself wanting to buy her story even as others come up with proof of how she lied.

With all the various facets of her life put up onscreen, you are eager to see where Joyce will take us next as it is unpredictable for those who are not the least bit familiar with this case. Even if she is lying about everything, it’s never less than interesting.

The truth these days is such a malleable thing as everyone shapes it to fit their own needs and beliefs. Others will say we are wrong or lying, but we are quick to defend what we know to be the truth. Many will convince themselves of what is true to where we can no longer be objective about the experience they had. We replay certain moments in our lives over and over again until they seem correct to us. Even Joyce says at one point, “You know you can tell a lie long enough until you believe it.”

What is great about “Tabloid” is how on top it is a love story of the most unusual kind. There is never any doubt that Joyce still loves Kirk after all these years. Even if you feel miles away from truth after watching this documentary, it is safe to say this much is certain.

* * * ½ out of * * * *