American Hustle captures '70s culture in captivating manner

“American Hustle” is an awful film with terrible acting, terrible direction and a terrible story line.

If you believed that, then you can imagine what it’s like to get lost in the web of cons surrounding Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) in David O. Russell’s stylized, fantastic story of scandal.

It’s a film about lies, deception and the art of the con. A fictional story (loosely based on facts surrounding the ‘70s Abscam political scandal) bolstered by an historically-accurate backdrop, “American Hustle” is a unique, character-driven experience.

Bale plays a simple con-man who gets roped into pulling larger and more risky schemes by the seductive Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Eventually the two get caught by a broke and desperate FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who agrees to let them go if they help him pull a few high-profile cons involving the incrimination of political figures such as Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

Every character gets in a little over their heads, and the result is an engaging and entertaining story throughout.

The hilarious script and impeccable cast are the strongest points of the film. Every actor involved sinks deeply into their role and pulls off incredible comedic timing. Jennifer Lawrence has a fairly strong performance as the eccentric Rosalyn Rosenfield to whom Irving is reluctantly “married.”

However, of the five main cast members, Lawrence’s performance was the weakest. I couldn’t get past the lurking feeling that I was just watching her playing a character, rather than truly seeing Rosalyn Rosenfield come to life. In addition, her accent didn’t feel consistent. While her character was well-designed and well-written, Rosalyn deserved a more immersive performance than Lawrence gave.

On the other hand, Bale, Cooper, Adams and Renner were all fantastic. Russell has worked with most of these actors in the past (Bale and Adams in “The Fighter,” Cooper and Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook”), and he knows their strengths well.

In addition, the cinematography, sets, costumes and lighting are all gorgeous. From extravagantly-decorated casinos to lavish hotels, the movie is a delectation to look at.

Russell is an experienced director, having been nominated for best director and best adapted screenplay at the 2013 Academy Awards for “Silver Linings Playbook.” His perspicacity as a filmmaker shines through in every shot and directorial choice.

The period costumes are captivating and beautiful. Adams and Bale both have near 40 costume changes each, and it works. Everything period-specific in the movie is a shining example of the most classy, grandiose aspects of the ‘70s.

And nothing exemplified the ‘70s better than the film’s soundtrack. With Elton John, the Bee Gees, Chicago, Santana and America, there are plenty of great artists from this era, some of which aren’t well known. Music Supervisor Susan Jacobs uses these songs in an incredibly effective ways to creatively amplify the action on screen.

“I’ve Got Your Number” by Jack Jones plays while Irving is describing his enduring love for Sydney. “Evil Ways” by Santana plays while Lawrence’s character walks towards a group of mobsters unaware of the danger that will follow.

Not all of the songs are perfectly period accurate (such as “Long Black Road” by Electric Light Orchestra from 2001), but they all fit in and work together to create sonic joy.

Perhaps the best example is “Jeep’s Blues,” a 1950s song by Duke Ellington that plays an important role in the film, appearing three times. The song becomes an intrinsic theme for the movie, and is a prominent illustration of the relationship between Irving and Sydney.

Despite the chaotic double-crosses and plot-twists, “American Hustle” is a love story at its core. The tumultuous relationship between Irving Rosenfield and Sydney Prosser is the focal point of most of the events in the film. Moments that are touching and introspective work in good balance with moments that are outrageous and comical. “American Hustle” is a tremendous success.

UFOs? Whoa! (with video)

“Domed,” “oval-shaped,” “quilted surface,” “lights in the center and on each end,” “fantastic speeds,” “sharp turns,” “dive and climb,” “great maneuverability.” These are some of the words used to describe an unidentified object seen by dozens of witnesses including law enforcement on March 20, 1966 in Dexter.

That night, on Frank Mannor’s McGuinnes Road farm in northwest Dexter, in the midst of hundreds of UFO sightings in Michigan at the time, Mannor, his family and dozens of other witnesses said they saw a domed, oval-shaped object with a quilted surface actually land in a nearby swamp. According  to these witnesses, the object had lights in the center and on each end.

According to then-40-year-old Mannor, he and his 18-year-old son Ronald followed the UFO into a swampy area, but as they came closer, it slowly rose up, moved right above their heads and quickly disappeared into the night.

Just after, two officers who had not arrived on scene yet, Stanley McFadden and David Fitzpatrick, saw an object that matched the same description over Mast and North Territorial Roads in Dexter. They said it looked to be about the size of a small house, and they had never seen those types of movements on any air craft as it hovered quickly disappeared into the night moments later.

Dexter resident Louie Ceriani has lived in Dexter since 1928 and recalled the incident as exciting. He said it sparked a lot of intrigue in most citizens whether they believed in UFO’s or not.

“The excitement of all of this caused people for miles around to look skyward looking and hoping to see a UFO,” Ceriani said. “Some said they saw one but never told the press but only to their friends and that was with a smile.”

Jim Koch was a junior at Dexter High School at the time and said he felt the collective excitement that was going around town at the time.

“I remember it was a big deal at the time,” Koch said. “I was in high school at the time, and one of our favorite activities to get out of the house was to go look for UFOs.  We would cruise around the back roads and do what high school kids at the time did.”

In fact, Ceriani said people came from miles around to check out Mannor’s farm because the case got so big.

“Even professors came to Frank’s farm,” he said. “Of course, they knew better: that Frank was just making it up. But Frank stuck to his word saying he did see a UFO. The more intelligent people thought maybe Frank was a little tithed, not well-educated. The press even took pictures of Frank and his house.”

Due to the various, alleged UFO sightings in Michigan at the time, the Dexter case attracted national attention as Project Blue Book, set up by the U.S. Air Force, sent Dr. J. Allen Hynek to investigate the sighting reports.

At first, Hynek agreed that there was something going on in the Michigan skies. But after he consulted with Blue Book headquarters, he changed his mind, and said that the sightings were nothing more than swamp gas.

“Marsh gas usually has no smell but sounds like the small popping explosions similar to a gas burner igniting,” Hynek said in 1966. “The gas forms from decomposition of vegetation. It seems likely that as the present spring thaws came, the gases methane, hydrogen sulfide and phosphine, resulting from decomposition of organic materials, were released.”

With Hynek’s conclusion, the case was closed. Project Blue Book, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, was terminated Dec. 17, 1969. Of a total of 12,618 sightings reported to Project Blue Book, 701 remained “unidentified.”

Then-Sherrif Douglas J. Harvey was angry at the time due to Hynek’s conclusion. He had spent time in army bases in the swamps of Lousiana during World War 2 and claimed he had seen plenty of swamp gas before.

“That’s a pretty weak theory,” Harvey said. “I’ve seen plenty of swamp gas and this wasn’t it. We saw what we saw, all right.”

Sharrar promoted to new position

When new Superintendent Chris Timmis was hired on June 12, he said he saw changes right away that he wanted to make in the district administrative structure.

And with an announcement on Dec. 3 that Assistant Principal Mollie Sharrar would be accepting a new position as the Executive Director of Instruction and Strategic Initiatives, Timmis started the first of these changes.

After working as an assistant principal split between the high school and Mill Creek middle school from 2006 to 2007, Sharrar became the principal at Creekside Intermediate school. She worked there full time until 2010, at which time she returned to the high school to once again be an assistant principal.

Throughout her time at the high school, Sharrar has seen her fair share of changes, one of them being the implementation of the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Timmis said he noticed a conflict in the district between supporters of an Advanced Placement curriculum and those who supported the International Baccalaureate curriculum. But in his view, there really shouldn’t be a conflict.

“The way I see it, they’re all smart kids,” Timmis said. “There isn’t a program that works for all students because everyone learns differently, so why not figure out a way to make them both work.”

Such debate between supporters of AP and IB was just one of the factors that has lead Timmis to begin putting together a district instructional support team that he wanted Sharrar to lead.

“There’s nothing more important that we do than teach,” Timmis said. “And right now, we don’t have anyone in charge of that. The whole concept is to have a team that will lead what we do in terms of teaching. There’ll be a team to oversee and manage new initiatives to make sure we get them done.”

Sharrar was on a short list of people Timmis said he considered for the position. He said he met with her to discuss some of the details and sent her a proposal. After he worked with Sharrar to tweak the proposal a bit, he appointed her to the position.

“I looked for strong leaders in key roles,” Timmis said. “I had no need to look outside the district, since we already had her here. Now, I’m most looking forward to putting this instructional support team model into place.”

What most often ends up happening in a school district is that a principal doesn’t necessarily have control of making the changes they want to make happen, happen, Timmis said. His plan is to set up a team so Dexter has the people in place to implement new curriculum, changes and ideas, and implement them well.

But as Sharrar’s influence in the district expands, it means changes for the high school’s administration.

Sharrar, who was in charge of testing at the high school, was part of a three-person team that also included Principal Kit Moran and the other assistant principal, Ken Koenig. And Moran said he’s going to miss Sharrar immensely.

“I have the best team of people on the planet,” Moran said. “We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses really well. We all kind of do our own thing, so it’s really the three of us in charge, collaborating.”

Moran also said he enjoys working with Sharrar, and has worked with her for five years, so filling her shoes would be no easy task.

“Our new job is to find someone with the skills (Sharrar) has,” Moran said. “Someone who will fit into the team just as she did.”

And find someone they did.

On Jan. 20, the board of education approved former high school teacher consultant Karen Walls as the new assistant principal.

Walls was among 160 applicants for the position and was called back for two rounds of interviews.

“We’re all looking forward to working with her,” Moran said. “Her energy and enthusiasm is fantastic. And so is her knowledge of special education students.”

Although she won’t be moving very far within the building, Walls is just as excited about the new position.

“What was so enticing about this is that as an administrator, I will still stay connected with kids,” Walls said. “I’m not far removed from any of the staff, and I’m looking forward to being able to have a really positive influence. I’m really so thankful to transition with Sharrar, but I know I have big shoes to fill.”

Laurence Carolin's memory lives on through Make-a-Wish Foundation

For those who knew him, Laurence Carolin was someone who put others before himself at all times.  He cared for people, helped others and cheered people up on daily basis.

Carolin died in January 2010 at the age of 15 from a brain tumor which developed in the center of his brain.  When his doctors told him that he didn’t have much time left, however, he didn’t fear death. His attitude was that if it was time to die, it was time to die.

“Some people die sooner than others,” he said at the time.

Accepting death is one of life’s biggest challenges.  Fighting for life is another.  Regardless, Carolin didn’t let his brain tumor stop him from staying positive.

He was offered a wish from the Make-A-Wish foundation and said that he’d like to meet Bono from the band U2. Carolin credited the band’s lyrics as with helping to raise his spirits and keep him positive about his situation.

Make-A-Wish said that they were unable to make the arrangement so Carolin then said that he wanted the $5,000 that was going towards his wish to go towards the UN Foundation.  This act of selflessness is how we should remember him.  He has helped raise over $20,000 dollars in donations to the UN Foundation.

He was truly a one-of-a kind kid.  He is not the average Joe who would just cruise through the day and do everything for himself.  Carolin went out of his way to support and care for the people in his life.  For him it was a priority, not just a side gig.  Carolin is respected because of actions like these.

And one of his most important legacies is Airplane Day, so named because it was the day when the adopted Carolin flew into the United States from South Korea.  Today, the Carolin family still celebrate Airplane Day.  They get together to remember how great the day was and its importance.  They give gifts to each other share stories related to Laurence.

This year’s Airplane Day is going to be celebrated at Foggy Bottom as an awareness/fundraiser/music festival on Saturday, Feb. 22 from 6-10 p.m.  Admission is free, but donations to the United Nations Foundations will be accepted at the door.

If you can’t make it to the celebration, please consider donating to the UN Foundation online at

Laurence Carolin inspired more people than I can count.  His strength and fight are what kept him moving forward.  We should follow his example.  We should put others before ourselves and pay it forward.

New bill in the House of Representatives seeks to change teacher evaluation guidelines

House bills 5223 and 5224, which aim to change the standards by which teachers are evaluated, were read in in the House of Representatives on Jan. 22.  These could change goals for teachers beginning as early as next year, but there is still much dispute about whether these changes will be for the best.

These bills would set up a new system for teacher and administrator evaluation in Michigan.  Under the proposed legislation, student growth will comprise at least 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation for the first three years and would increase to at least 50 percent beginning in 2017.  The rest of the evaluation will be based on teacher practice, namely the results of observations.

Additionally, the bills will require schools to set up a mentor system in which teachers with high evaluations are partnered with teachers who are deemed less effective.  While some schools already use a mentor system, the bills propose making it a requirement.

Dexter Education Association President Joseph Romeo, a computer teacher at Dexter High School, said he supports this aspect of the bill.

“Mentors are absolutely critical,” he said.

While the intent of the bill is to provide a concrete measurement for how effective individual teachers are in communicating the material, the fear among many educators is that the emphasis on student growth will shift focus from benefiting the students to simply producing test scores and grades.

“All of our jobs are to prepare (students) for college,” Principal William Moran said.  “I’m disappointed that we’re going to create a situation where teachers aren’t trying to do the best teaching. I want my teachers to focus on teaching the kids that show up every day to the best of their ability.”

Part of the problem, Romeo said, is that all students do not come from similar situations outside of school.  The differences in students’ ability to focus on education outside of school will be reflected in their test scores and, in the new system, in their teachers’ evaluations.

“I would say to understand whether schools are adequately doing their job, we must address (other) issues,” Romeo said. “You would expect … students from higher socioeconomic communities to outperform students from lower socioeconomic communities.”

In order to ease such fears, legislators went to the Michigan Council on Educator Effectiveness for recommendations on which to base their bill.  This way, educators would be involved in forming the education bills.  Much of the bills are based on these suggestions, but more weight was given to student growth in the bills than was advised by council.

“The (MCEE) recommendation was excellent,” Moran said, despite his qualms about the bills themselves.

According to Moran, the effects of the bills changes in teacher evaluations would primarily be seen when deciding which teachers will be laid off in times of financial strain.  Therefore, the changes would be less evident in districts such as Dexter, where mass layoffs have not yet been a problem.

As these bills are only the most recent in a string of proposed changes to the Michigan educational system, teachers cannot yet be sure what changes will come in the near future.  Moran is not confident, however, that the legal system will produce an ideal system for teachers and students.

He said, “I wish I was more optimistic.”

Dicaprio elevates his game to a new level in "The Wolf of Wall Street"

As most true Americans know, Leonardo Dicaprio is “the man.”  With his great looks, beautiful acting and overall Playboy status, he is one of the most desirable men in America. Man or woman, you would be foolish to not take his hand in marriage.

With his recent track record of acting in such roles as Jay Gatsby in the 2013 release “The Great Gatsby” and “Dominick Cobb” in the 2010 release “Inception,”  Dicaprio had his fan base (all of America) craving more.

The legendary producer Martin Scorsese heard America’s cry and this past December he sent us into the new year with the blessing of Dicaprio’s presence in his film “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

The film follows the rise and fall and true story of self-made billionaire Jordan Belfort.  He worked as a stockbroker and pioneered the trade of penny stocks.  Between a twisting series of events including corruption and greed, and a Playboy lifestyle of hard drugs and reckless partying, Belfort’s life spirals out of control.

For the first hour or so the film is extremely captivating, and really funny at times.  Vulgar and sharp humor delivered by supporting cast such as Jonah Hill, keeps the movie fresh.  However, as the plot builds, the movie becomes more stressful.  At about two hours in, I was ready for the movie to end.

There are parts where it could have been tied up and ended perfectly, but there always seemed to be “just one more thing.”  For example Dicaprio’s character is offered a chance to turn himself in, and then another chance to cut a deal with the police and turn his partners in.  Instead he keeps doing what he’s doing and it draws out the movie way too much.  It got to the point where I was exhausted and began to lose interest.

After all, this plot is nothing new.  It’s the same classic concept as in movies like “Scarface,”and “Blow.”  Money and power corrupts;  it’s not the most original of screenplays, but what it does have going for it is that it is a true story.

That being said, it’s still a great movie.  The acting is phenomenal, and it definitely has entertaining parts.  My advice to any viewer would be to just stop watching the movie when you feel like it should be done.

There are countless points throughout, where you could just leave the theatre and be completely content with that “ending.”

Lockdown procedure gets overhaul

During the summer of 2013, Principal Kit Moran and School Liaison Deputy Jeremy Hilobuk decided to implement ALICE lockdown training for the Dexter Community School District in an effort to enforce safer procedures if an intruder were to enter the building.

ALICE, an acronym standing for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate is a critical incident-response training company that specializes in active shooter and violent intruder response strategies. It is more of an active-response training as opposed to what Moran described as the passive-response training that was used previously.

With the new procedures, students and teachers will be instructed differently. For example, if an intruder were to enter near the office door, and students were in the art room on the bottom floor of the opposite side of the building, they would exit the building and get to the next-safest destination.

As for teachers, the training is designed to make them more aware of how to handle a life or death situation if it were happening, as quickly as possible. They’re scheduled to have a first meeting about the new training on Jan. 23.

“Teachers will learn defense tactics like latching the door, blocking the entrance with desks, different kinds of barricades, and essentially anything they can do to slow down the intruder,” Moran said. “Many of these instances only occur in 5-10 minutes, so finding anything to slow an intruder down will save lives. There is a body count for every minute or two it takes for the police to get here. If you can get out of the building, get out of the building.”

It was a training session in August that made it apparent to Moran and Hilobuk that ALICE would be the new lockdown method for the district.

“They reenacted Columbine (the school shooting incident in Colorado in 1999 where 16 people including the two student-gunmen died), and it was scary to say the least,” Moran said. “It was frustrating to watch because there were so many instances where kids lost their lives because they were following an illogical lockdown method, and we don’t want that to happen here.”

However, training didn’t stop there. Moran underwent multiple training sessions to become more accustomed to the ALICE procedures.

“Training entails raise level of awareness,” Moran said. “Showing what ALICE looks like,  going through each letter of ALICE and seeing how we can do that here, with scenarios, and practicing those scenarios in the location where you hide.”

But that’s the milder side of training. It becomes more realistic when the sheriff’s department gets involved.

“Hilobuk comes in with a cap gun and it gets frightening,” Moran said.  “They show us what we used to do, when we hid in a corner and the guy could come in and shoot us.  Then we practiced ALICE, finding ways to slow down the intruder and evacuate as many people as we can to safety.  It’s all very eye opening.”

Moran said he expects to have the school participate in an ALICE lockdown drill during lunch.

“It’s a very unorthodox procedure because students must act on their own judgement and teachers won’t have as much structure and organization over their students,” Moran said.

A large issue lies in the elementary school and how young children will handle a situation like this. Good judgment and critical thinking skills, attributes that are needed for ALICE to be executed successfully, may not be fully developed yet for these children.

“The main thing we want to do is give people options,” said Hilobuk. “One advantage when it comes to the elementary schools is since they’re so close together, if one thing happens at one school, they can take them to the other school.”

Not only can ALICE be applied to the classroom, but also in everyday life.

“It’s good life skills,” Hilobuk said, “you can be aware in other environments too.” It is evident that ALICE is a more effective lockdown method, and while hopefully it is a procedure we will never have to use, we will all be capable of performing it if need be.  As Moran said “ALICE is us fighting back.”