Reviews

21 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
3/10
Back in the day when astral projection was cool
13 October 2017
This happened to be the first movie I reviewed for my high school newspaper, because it had some kind of four-walling special engagement at my local mall. The youth appeal was clear, with the attractive young couple, and more so, the mystical theme. Before the internet, teenagers in the '80s were fascinated by paranormal possibilities like astral projection, especially if it involved sex scenes.

To be honest, I don't remember it that well, and no longer have that review (which was contained on some kind of floppy disk and printed in crude dot matrix format), but I would see it again out of curiosity. I do remember it being hokey, and even as a salacious teenager myself, it didn't seem so erotic.

I'm now a film professor, so I write about movies for a living, and I will say this: for all the hype around the supernatural, there's not many movies about astral projection. IMDb lists less than 20, most of which you've never heard of, and most of which are only vaguely about the subject (or about another form of extrasensory experience). Maybe it has simply fallen out of fashion, or maybe bad movies about it have made astral projection less appealing.
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Trash (I) (2014)
8/10
This is fascinating.
27 June 2017
As a tale of young teens struggling against corrupt forces within a culture of poverty, 'Trash' is a captivating tale of determination, ingenuity, and moral vision. The production values are particularly high here, which I can't help but consider against the squalid conditions that are portrayed. The story moves along with lots of twists and a complex set of clues to unraveling a mystery, giving the kids credit for their intelligence.

There's always facile criticisms to be made of wealthy white movie studios shooting films that exploit "Third World" concerns, so if your politics demand such sanctimony, you should turn to homegrown dramas that you can claim as authentic. If you want a well-made adventure offering hope to children who earn deliverance on their own within realistic circumstances, there are not many better than this.
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Lydia (1941)
9/10
What an unexpected gem
10 June 2017
Warning: Spoilers
For a melodrama with a modest budget, this production is surprisingly sophisticated. You may find the story somewhat plodding, particularly in the first half, but after Lydia discovers her true calling in helping blind children, the cinematography takes on some striking symbolism. You can further appreciate the attention to detail in some of the sets and costumes, particularly when attention is drawn to darkness.

Consider that this film was made in 1941 as the U.S. was poised to enter the war already raging in Europe, and women would soon be compelled to work and sacrifice. The romantic repression of Lydia thus seems irrational in context, and the ending suggests as much. It pre-dates the Hollywood work of Sirk, who would critique American clichés in his great '50s films, and similarly exposes some of the delusions of masochistic romance.
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4/10
Bizarre, fascinating train wreck of '50s cinema
28 April 2017
Warning: Spoilers
This little-known movie caught me by surprise, for all kinds of reasons, not the least being Nicholas Ray's awkward adventure into Douglas Sirk territory. More so, the story's focus on the now-more-timely topic of prescription drug addiction is captivating to see from a perspective 60 years later. As a piece of post-war cultural history, it is compelling, dealing as it does with doubts about medicine and concerns about mental illness. As a movie though, I was distracted by its stiff production and histrionic message. It sure is strange enough to keep your attention in any case.
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Birthright (1939)
8/10
A significant historical portrait of American racial conditions
25 July 2016
I had wanted to see this film-- and many others by Micheaux-- for decades, and was relieved to see that TCM presented it as part of a restoration project (DVDs are also being released).

There's no doubt that Micheaux occupies a significant and often mercurial place in American film history. He directed films from the silent era well beyond the conversion to sound, confronting concerns about African Americans' experiences through a wide range of stories, and yet many of his works have been lost forever.

In this case of this film, the first two reels are missing, but the restoration has preserved that part of the story with script notes and stills that introduce the action. Thereafter, the tale of a Harvard-educated black man, who returns to his southern town to face racist attitudes and family strife, conveys sincere and articulate statements about relevant political issues of that period that still resonate today.

You will quickly recognize hallmarks of low-budget conditions, such as insert shots that often break continuity, but the film remains a vital testament to racial conditions in the 1930s as the culture was overcoming the Depression and about to head into another major war. Micheaux also has a prescient sense for the civil rights movement that would energize the next generation.

I hope that further work is done to locate and preserve these historical artifacts, which help us to understand our past beyond the dominant Hollywood tradition that has otherwise absorbed all the attention.
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Illusion (2004)
9/10
Fascinating and rare perspective on end-of-life concerns
27 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
I studied this film for my book "Fade to Gray: Aging in American Cinema" (2016) and found it entirely surprising. The divergent reviews that other users have shared do not surprise me; the low-budget production and emotional story are going to put off some less sophisticated viewers. Yet if you want a film that deals with the unusual subject of how to account for your life in old age (not like the films about middle-aged folks to which this is erroneously compared), then this is a sensitive and intriguing take on the subject.

Kirk Douglas gives a compelling performance in his late 80s as a dying movie director confronting mystic visions of a son he never came to love, and perceptively conveys his cathartic liberation from egotism as he achieves grace in his final hours. Despite the limitations of the lengthy flashbacks to the son's life, the story comes together well, and anyone who is a parent can relate to the conclusion in which Douglas just wants his unknown son to be happy.

Not many American films afford elder characters such dignified deaths. In fact, my co-author Nancy McVittie and I studied hundreds of U.S. films about older people and found very few that portrayed them dying with dignity (most of the time their deaths are dramatic and sensational, or more often, completely postponed or set off screen). This is the list we would count in the "dignified" category, although of course others are arguable:

Heaven Can Wait (1943); Kim (1950); Little Big Man (1970); Being There (1979); Rocket Gibraltar; (1988); Meet Joe Black (1998); Big Fish (2003); The Bucket List (2007); Hannah Free (2009); Beginners (2010)
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6/10
They don't make 'em like...
7 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers
I'm a film professor, and this is one that had me in knots because I appreciate it as an artifact but also cringe at its awkward elements. I'll say this much: after good old Ben Mankiewicz on TCM told us at the start that the two planes in the film are flying on a collision course toward each other, I could not turn it off without seeing where all its hokey characters ended up.

Yes, the film uses that recurring interior dialogue device (move in to close up, then voice-over, along the lines of, "That's funny, Jim usually likes my coffee..."), but there are more gems of discomfort throughout, like characters way too self-conscious about their looks and some smarmy sexual jokes. And you'll be tickled to see that coach accommodations in 1960 were far better than first class today.

Just stick around for the collision, which pays off not only for its cheap special effects (which appear to have been shot with a little boy's toys in his basement), but far more so for its astonishing portrait of passengers laughing as they plummet to almost certain death. Warner Bros. apparently knew the audience would not only accept the fake effects and delusional behavior, but that the crowd would not care at all that the two military pilots-- one of whom is choosing between marriage and the Naval Academy-- perish in a fireball, which is summarily ignored for the rest of the film! With all the advances in aviation since 1960, there's still no way an airliner could take a hit from a fighter jet and land with only a few casualties. But like most any disaster, you are just too morbidly curious to look away from this one...
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The Choking Game (2014 TV Movie)
7/10
better than most teen message movies
29 July 2014
Warning: Spoilers
I study teen cinema as an academic (Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in American Cinema Since 1980) so I have seen many hundred of films about teenagers. This LMN production is not meant to provide laughs and thrills, but at least it's not too preachy about its message (choking is indeed stupid), and better yet, it delves into the personal reasons why the two lead girls become involved in the practice. It's at least worth seeing to talk with teens about trying dangerous behavior for its own thrill, especially in an era when youth are trying to find ever-greater "extreme" behavior to stand out and/or fit in.

The actors throughout-- both the teens and the adults-- do fine, believable work. And the script does not try to be too hip with teen lingo or attitudes. The kids use the relevant amount of contemporary technology and have realistic parents. They are a little wealthier than average teens, which is the case in almost all teen movies. The protagonist faces legitimate pressure about graduating from high school and going to college, and has a boy crush that is handled sincerely.

SPOILERS: The images that the girls envision when unconscious are rather dramatic, and even beautiful. I am not sure that this is the best approach to discourage the practice! After all, dreaming when naturally asleep is dramatic and beautiful, but not dangerous. The core issue among the girls is about acceptance and pressure (both with peers and adults), so I am not sure why the producers bothered to render any imagery for the choking.

You may have an issue with the ending, which plays it too safe (or is simply too ambiguous) about the fate of the "bad" girl who leads the "good" girl into the choking game. You know that she will pay some kind of price, because the bad influence always does, but just what happens to her, on a medical level, is so vague that it might lead some younger viewers to assume the girl will be okay, when the suggestion is otherwise made that she has suffered permanent lifelong damage. I am not sure why the producers chose this approach.

I am also unsure of the alarming statistics posted before the end credits. Young people may be resistant to view choking as an epidemic when less than 10% of teens try it. Again, the film may be more valuable to foster discussion about overall dangerous behavior among teens, especially that which may seem morally acceptable because it is not illegal. At one point the teens down alcohol at at party, which is passé compared to choking, and I think that gets at its appeal, of course.
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Autumn Leaves (1956)
8/10
Melodrama, noir, thriller, mystery... take your pick
1 December 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This is one of those undeniably intriguing films of the post-war era where Hollywood was trying to pull together multiple elements to appeal to multiple audiences.

You have the screen legend Joan Crawford playing a lonely spinster. She meets a confident young man who happens to have a gorgeous ex-wife and an unusually smarmy father. Not knowing about these relatives nor the trouble they have caused him, our heroine marries the young charmer and proceeds to suffer far more than she ever did when she was alone, which makes it all so worth it.

Director Aldrich falls prey to exaggeration late in the film when Crawford is at her worst, but otherwise his work is eerily effective, as we get caught up in the mystery of just what the hell is wrong with this dude. Aldrich uses noir style to accentuate the tensions, grossly over- lighting some scenes to force the contrast, especially as the contrasts between the characters become more extreme later in the film.

You can really relish how insanely the psychiatric field is represented, which brutalizes the young man into a zombie so he can accept the brutality put upon him by his father and ex- wife. And lest you fret, the "cure" for his trauma does not make him want to leave his cougar lover in the end, it only makes them a more stable couple-- which is actually a slight shift in the melodramatic tradition of the woman's suffering being eternal.

I happened to catch the beginning of this around midnight on TCM and though I would just watch a little to see how the May-December romance was set up. After the first scene between Crawford and Robertson, I was engrossed, because it offers so much more than I expected.
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The Master (2012)
2/10
P.T. wallows in his B.M.
29 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This is one of those pretentious films that a lot of Anderson fans will claim achieves some kind of grace, but all it does is bore. Anderson has seriously gone too far with the languid shots that just on on forever, because he loves that. And go ahead and love Anderson if you have the time to watch very little happen for well over two hours.

Sure, the story could have been an intriguing expose on the emergence of Scientology and other cults after WWII-- and of course the Scientology folks would never allow it to be named specifically-- but all it says is that crazy people follow other crazy people. Anderson does draw out excellent performances from Phoenix and Hoffman, but they spend so much damn time just looking and walking around. Because that gives the film nuance, sure.

Anderson even inserts his own inside joke about his films, when The Master publishes his second verbose tome and a critic says he could have cut it down to 3 pages. Anderson did well to bring in a sweet romance, "Punch-Drunk Love", in 90 minutes, and that film was fulfilling. This is just a bunch of dreck the producers are indulging so that Anderson can win the favor of equally pretentious fans.
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9/10
check out the DVD extras
29 November 2013
There is little dispute about the greatness of this movie, so I wanted to comment on the DVD extras from the 2003 "special edition" which, as far as I know, is the most recent release.

You'll find audio commentaries by the director and the writer, both thorough and enjoyable, although the director is a little too proud of his work.

There is a short doc on Katherine Hepburn, made for this edition and not long after she passed away, which contains a lot of great images and appreciation of her, but it's nothing too special.

What is special is the short doc "Reflections on Golden Pond", which features the cinematographer and much of the crew, and really delves into the beautiful natural lighting of the picture. Better yet, the crew talks in specific detail about how they achieved certain effects for this entirely on-location film, long before digital made the beauty of movies so damn fake. You may look at 'Golden Pond' and think it's rather sweet and simple, but they when you watch this doc you realize just how much thought and work went into making it look so right.

I teach film studies, so I'm always recommending material like this for students to learn more about the filmmaking process. It's so nice to watch a classic film and enjoy it on its own, and then learn more about how it was made.
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Lovely, Still (2008)
8/10
Special portrait of elderly romance
23 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Other reviews speak to the story's surprises quite well, and I agree that the acting by the four key players is superb.

What makes this film more special than its twists and performances is the fact that it explores love among elderly people without being demeaning, and without sentimentalizing them into goofy old codgers. Landau conveys an excitement for romance that anyone of any age can relate to, and Burstyn is just so convincing in her role, which is more demanding than it first seems. Hollywood tends to make old men horny and vulgar, with old women being prudish and celibate, while this fine indie production is able to bring out many nuances within these complex, venerable lovebirds.

Just BE PATIENT if you become frustrated with the lack of character development. I found this frustrating at first, but there are important reasons-- both within the story and in terms of how society treats the elderly-- why we do not learn much "background information" about these characters. Hollywood movies about the elderly go to great lengths to have old characters tell stories about their younger days, and to explain how they came to be the cranky or corny curmudgeons they are today. This movie lets you spend some time simply appreciating the unexpected romance between two deserving people.

And as a Christmas movie, I think anyone past childhood would like this.

In fact, anyone who does not like this movie is probably not yet dealing with adulthood.
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Hannah Free (2009)
6/10
A rare look at elderly lesbians
21 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
There have been very few films that reflect on the lives of gay people in their later years, after the thrills of youthful romance have given over to the practicalities of health needs, while abiding love remains. This is a tender yet fraught story about an elderly lesbian still so deeply connected to the one true love she has known since her childhood, yet kept from visiting her in the same nursing home where they both reside, because she is not "legally" family.

Thus the film deals with a lot of interesting issues: how our youthful pasts influence and interfere with our older age; how religious and social oppression can restrict love between same-sex partners; how legal issues-- especially in the remaining states that deny marriage equality-- restrict the access of same-sex partners to each other; how euthanasia may be the most humane confrontation with death at the end of life.

And the film handles this heavy agenda with concision, challenging us to think about these women's long lives from the 1920s to present while also celebrating the joys and torments of enduring love. The script is clearly based on a play set primarily in one room, while the direction utilizes exteriors rather well in the many flashback scenes of the protagonist. No one should be criticizing this film for its low production values; the resonance here comes from the story and the very competent acting.

Sharon Gless is indeed the star, and fits the title role completely. Also pay attention to the actor who plays young Greta, who has such a natural sense of style and relation to the older characters, and who has since become transgendered. S/he really owns her character, and should gain more attention in other films, within and beyond the GLBT market.
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5/10
Bridges to nowhere in particular
10 November 2013
A well-off lawyer and his socialite wife have a few episodes in their lives during the 1930s and into the 1940s. The man is a rather overbearing patriarch and the wife is a doting housewife who doesn't quite know how to handle her adult kids.

There are a few subtle lessons here about living above average in the Midwest during tough times for the rest of the world. Otherwise, there sure isn't a lot of drama, or really much of any consequence.

The film may have been intended as a character study, but even as such, the characters are just not that distinctive. They do not achieve much and they impart little to the world.

Newman and Woodward, married in real life longer than almost any other Hollywood couple, are reliably good actors, and I just wish they had more to do here. She has some laments about his lack of affection for her, and he thinks some modern changes are foolish. Still, that was not enough to make me care.

If you're a fan of the actors, or the era, I think you will find this quaint. There is certainly nothing here to upset anyone, nor to provoke much at all.
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3/10
Luscious dancing, tepid movie
9 November 2013
Duvall owns this film, starring, writing, and directing... but he does not seem to know if he wants to make a movie about the beauty of tango or the banality of organized murder. At once it seems like he is trying to draw a parallel between the passion of dance and the intricacies of crime, but he allows scenes to drag on too long without significant action or dialogue.

I get the feeling that Duvall wanted to celebrate the tango in its natural habitat without indulging in the erotic aspects of the dance, just as he wanted to portray a crotchety assassin in a foreign land without speaking of the relevant political context. He wants to keep it all simple: great dancing and a little bit of murder. And that is all we get.

For a movie about such potent subjects as sex and death, dance and crime, loyalty and treachery, Duvall's storytelling here is just lukewarm. The fact that his protagonist meets such a captivating girl and does not consummate the relationship is indicative of the film's own lack of fulfillment. The painfully weak ending further betrays the energy of the dance the film purports to enjoy.
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Steam (2007)
7/10
Women unlike Hollywood can imagine
8 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This is a refreshing examination of three women, whose only apparent connection is a local spa where they happen to enjoy steam baths at the same time.

Their ages are roughly 20, 40, and 80, and the generational differences between them are portrayed as they each prepare for a first date with someone new. The oldest, played by the legendary Ruby Dee, is mourning the loss of her husband and happens to meet a nice local man whom she agrees to have over for dinner. Ally Sheedy plays the middle-aged woman, frustrated by her ex-husband's manipulation of their son but flirtatious with the boy's football coach who is half her age. Relative newcomer Kate Siegel plays a college student with overbearing religious parents and is excited to explore her first lesbian relationship.

You can expect some awkward aspects to the production such as lengthy shots and awkward framing (and steam seems to fill rooms that are not even in the spa), but the actresses all give great performances, and most importantly, these are roles that you do not see in Hollywood movies. Elderly women falling in love are almost never portrayed, and sexy single mothers tend to be so much more neurotic than Sheedy is here. The college lesbian is a little underdeveloped, as if her attraction to girls suddenly happens when she sees a ravishing lass at school, but her sexual exploration is not exploitative or melodramatic.

Each woman faces joy and despair in their respective romances, with Dee's being the most complex, and ultimately, the most powerful. Similar to her character here, Dee's real-life husband Ossie Davis died the year before, and she conveys such wise pain in her scenes. Hers is also the rarest of the three characters, yet they are all worth appreciating for their realism, which is ironically distinct from the norm we are so often shown in movies about women.
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Standing Up (II) (2013)
7/10
Captures an awkward age quite well
2 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I have published three books on the roles of teenagers in movies, and I can say with confidence that few of them depict early adolescence as delicately as this film. Some viewers may find it too delicate in that regard-- there's little violence and no sex, no drugs or drinking, no insanity-- yet it shows the calculated anxiety that teens deal with when they are bullied and ostracized.

Young viewers should be happy that the protagonists do not play into their victim roles, and learn to gain confidence in a slowly realistic way. Sure, it's a boy and girl on the edge of their sexual awakening, but sex has yet to become an issue in their lives; self-esteem and survival are much higher priorities.

Parents will be happy that the taboos of so many teen movies are not broached here, and that the only parent shown in the film is not bumbling or mean but actually accomplished and concerned.

The novel the film is based on is probably better, because you can just feel the character development that it must have conveyed in many words which is here reduced to a few lines of dialogue and the actors' behavior. Still, there is plenty here to interest and provoke young people-- as other comments have indicated-- and it's a nice alternative to many of the harsher, commercialized films that Hollywood pushes on youth today.

And just in case you get to the ending hoping for a bigger resolution (spoiler alert...), the final lines of the film are written and not spoken, and they powerfully convey perhaps the greatest kind of longing and confession that young teens have so energetically packed inside themselves, roaring to get out.
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1/10
ought to be long confusion
25 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This movie is so inept on so many levels, its only use is to study how cheap production values defeat all aspects of a film.

The entire soundtrack-- and I mean dialogue, effects, and music-- must have been re- dubbed in a metal bathroom. (One person is credited with about 90% of the audio work.) The flat digital visuals look like they were shot on old 8mm stock with lights from a local hardware store. The attempts at blood-and-guts gore are entirely amateur. And the already flaccid script did not even merit an ending.

Maybe some real zombie completists will want to see this to explore the truly worst of the genre. I wanted to see it as a teen horror film, and it offers nothing worthwhile in that regard.

I enjoy recommending films that are bizarre or extreme, but this is just stupid.

However... You might want to watch the "making of doc" that is included on the DVD, because it shows the sincere mania that is grassroots filmmaking. The people behind the film had delusions of grandeur, and so much more ambition than ingenuity. And again, you realize how any positive aspects of making the film-- and it looks like they did have fun making it-- are ruined by the failed production that came out.
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Fun (1994)
8/10
after two decades, still carries a kick
9 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
So hard to believe that this film came out nearly two decades ago, five years before Columbine made the topic of juvenile violence so taboo in teen movies. And it still remains impressive as an examination of girls' anger rather than boys, as a meditation on the possible yet inexplicable outcome of childhood torment.

  • spoiler of ending ahead -


Two girls meet one afternoon and, after sharing stories of their childhood abuses and going on a cross-neighborhood prank spree, end up murdering an elderly woman in a cathartic rampage of unleashed aggression. Their lack of motive for the crime and their passionately non-sexual devotion to each other baffle the authorities who question them: for these effectively parentless children, the path from conversation to confession to stealing to games to jokes to murder is a logical progression, and the film leaves open the unsettling question if many young women are simply waiting for the right partner with whom to follow a similar epiphanic trajectory. In the end, after being imprisoned, one of the girls kills herself when she learns that the two of them will be separated, which becomes her twisted attempt to immortalize their uniquely understanding relationship. The film wisely concludes that the diffuse yet damaging oppressions of girls may lead to all manner of "fun" or furious outbursts and reactions.
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3/10
fine for kids in the '70s, alas no more
8 April 2013
I really enjoyed this film when I saw it at the Saturday matinée during its release, and remember that experience vividly, but watching it now nearly 40 years later, I can appreciate that it has not aged well at all. This was clearly re-packaged to capitalize on the mountain adventure movies of the time, and to that end it has some gorgeous photography, but the story-- and especially the ham-fisted narration-- are just too hackneyed to bear. Even if it's based on truth, which the film clearly asks you to question, especially with its grossly fake documentary stylings, I can't imagine kids today would enjoy its slow pacing, stiff acting, and real animals. If you want to study it as an artifact of truly typical fare for the '70s, it does have its curiosities-- and for that matter, you could look at the "Benji" films too. But there's a reason why the "Benji" films are not considered classics, which is that they were simply bad. So is this.

There are far better films from the era to enjoy, even for children.
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Cutting Loose (1980)
7/10
quite obscure but memorable
6 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I saw this on late-night TV back in the mid-'80s when teen cinema was coming into a "golden age" unlike any other, yet it was more in keeping with '70s styles and attitudes-- which is actually refreshing in retrospect, because teen film in the '70s was usually rather lame. Unlike showboat pieces such as "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" this film had a more subtle nuance to it, with a character who I could relate to as a small town school kid. Plus it came out before the later '80s codified so many of the high school stereotypes that we came to view as vapid and tired.

Alas, I can't say much about the story because so many of the details are lost on me, and if it ever came out on video, I never saw it over all these years. What I recall is its emotional impact, the sense of frustration the protagonist felt, as specifically rendered in one scene where he finally does "cut loose" alone in a classroom, but without breaking into dance or violence. And I do remember the ending, which has a great ambiguity to it that I won't spoil any further, in hope that someday it will become available.
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