Posts filed under 'Popular Culture'

February 19th, 2019

Best of 2018! And more…

Before I list my favorites of 2018, here’s a recap of other films covered by CHIRP’s Fourth Wall last year:

One of my all-time favorite relationship films, Drinking Buddies delves into a quartet of intertwined Chicagoans, two of whom are co-workers at a local microbrewery. What are we all looking for in relationships? Director Joe Swanberg emerged a decade ago as one of the champions of the “mumblecore” film movement which strives for authenticity, and here, all four characters seem completely honest and real.

When it comes to the bank-robbing brothers Connie and Nick in Good Time, well — the ultra-suave Rat Pack this is not. After a bungled heist ends with a sack of worthless money and Nick in custody, Connie is forced to ad-lib an assortment of schemes over the next 24 hours in the hopes of freeing him… with misfortune befalling any unfortunate soul who gets sucked in along the way.

With any and all political documentaries, “truth” is a murky subject, and it’s no different in 13th. Director Ana DuVernay’s agitprop film was a compelling launching point for a discussion on race, politics, and the criminal justice system. As for her answers? Your Mileage May Vary based on your worldview.

In director Jason Reitman’s Tully, there’s a montage early on that spins us between diaper-changing, wailing, and assorted spills in rapid-fire fashion. It didn’t take much imagination for this humble scribe to visualize childrearing as an exhausting horrorshow. So how does Marlo (Charlize Theron) deal? Enter Tully…

While I was disappointed with his latest offering The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ distinctive brand of deadpan weirdness was on full display in his previous film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Here, he asks the question: how much stress can we inject into a household before even fundamentally serene people start to crack?

And now for my Top 10 of 2018:

1)Leave No Trace — Ben Foster plays a PTSD-stricken vet who lives with his teenage daughter in the woods outside of Portland, until he’s forced to vacate and falls into the hands of social services. One of the rare films that truly has no villains; almost everyone the pair meets is trying to help and do right by them in some way, but Foster’s unspoken past won’t let him re-integrate with society. His daughter (Thomasin McKenzie in a brilliant performance), however, isn’t bound by those same constraints, and doesn’t understand why they can’t be part of a community. (The photo at the top of this post was a still from this film.)

2)The Rider — Chinese director Chloe Zhao turned her camera on the world of horse farming and rodeo riding in South Dakota, and essentially posed the question, “What if you knew you were put on Earth to do one thing… and then were no longer able to do it?” Enter rodeo rider Brady, who has just suffered a severe injury at the start of the film, and finds himself facing this very dilemma. When I first saw the film, I was astounded at the level of authenticity, and then I learned that Zhao’s cast was comprised entirely of non-actors. Brady Jandreau really is a horse trainer, and the people playing his father and sister are in fact his real family.

3)Roma — Another first-time actor, Yalitza Aparicio, stars as a maid for a well-to-do family in 1970s Mexico, during a time of political unrest. “Quiet desperation” is the name of the game for many of the films on this list, and especially so for Aparacio’s Cleo, whose navigation through socioeconomic spheres brings to mind a (much) less-stuffy version of British “upstairs/downstairs” tales like Gosford Park. Shot in B&W by Alfonso Cuaron, who also wrote the screenplay — it’s a semi-autobiographical depiction of his own upbringing.

4)Wildlife — What happens to the women who tend to the homesteads while the men are off fighting war? Carey Mulligan is a wife whose aimless husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) splits town to join the forces waging battle against forest fires in 1960s Montana. She’s got rent to pay, a teenage son to feed, and no money coming in from her spouse… so what’s her play? And how does that mesh with the newfound attention from an automobile dealer (Bill Camp), the wealthiest man in town? At what point does pragmatism take over? Stunning performance by Mulligan here — this is her film to carry.

5) They Shall Not Grow Old — I’ve grown wary of documentaries in recent years due to oversaturation of the genre, but this World War I film from director Peter Jackson is a stunning achievement on both technical and storytelling levels. Jackson and his team of studio wizards have resurrected the grainy archival footage of the war with stunning clarity. And this ain’t Ted Turner colorizing classic movies to the horrors of cinephiles; as Jackson explained in the post-film “Making Of” feature, the original cameramen would’ve loved to have had color and consistent frame rates if such a thing were possible at the time. Did I also mention the sound? When the audio accounts of the soldiers are meshed with recreated artillery blasts and gunfire, you are there in the thick of the action. For better or worse.

6) Ava — Along with Wadjda (2012, Saudi Arabia) and Mustang (2015, Turkey), this Iranian film is another gut-wrenching look at life for young girls growing up in conservative Muslim societies — and the consequences of even appearing to step outside of the rigid expectations for females. High-school student Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is an exemplary student and musician… but what will people think if word spreads that (gasp!) she’s been seen with a boy? All three film mentioned above were written and directed by women of Middle Eastern descent, and in particular, Wadjda was the first movie made by a Saudi Arabian woman in Saudi Arabia. The times-they-are-a-(finally)-changin’.

7) First Reformed — Where does Ethan Hawke rank among Gen X actors? Is there a better Everyman out there right now? Writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) tells a tale of a pastor (Hawke) who counsels a pregnant woman who’s pressured by her husband to have an abortion; the husband thinks that mankind’s mistreatment of the planet will render the world inhospitable for future generations. And it seems that the pastor begins to agree. Should he be compelled to act, even violently, in the name of environmental justice? We’re privy to his thoughts and internal debate via a journal-turned-inner monologue. The ending is a bit polarizing, but this was a thoroughly engrossing, Slow Burn tale.

8) Loveless — Remember Kramer Vs. Kramer, where Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play parents who are both fighting for custody of their son? In the Russian film Loveless, it’s apparent that neither of the separated couple want to be saddled with their 10-year-old boy. Ugh. The soon-to-be-divorced parents have yet to sell their condo, but have already settled into new relationships, and one night, neither of them return home to keep an eye on their kid. By the next morning… he’s gone. And so begins a manhunt that re-opens many of the wounds between the two along the way. When combined with the backdrop of a Russian winter, Loveless is as bleak as a film you’ll find all year. (What a tagline for the movie poster! Trust me, it’s also rather cathartic.)

9) Madeline’s Madeline — What price art? This film brought to mind the notorious wars waged between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, where Herzog often drove the mercurial Kinski to the brink of insanity (and then some) in the hopes of securing superlative performances. In Madeline’s Madeline, theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker) showers young actress Madeline (Helena Howard, in a fantastic debut) with the sort of praise and attention that Madeline has a much tougher time eliciting from her mom (Miranda July). Along the way, Evangeline keeps pushing and pushing her protégé to bring dark secrets to the fore during rehearsals, and… did I mention that Madeline was taking medication for mental illness? Enter the Unreliable Narrator. Standout performances from all three leads here.

10) Summer 1993 The second of two autobiographical tales on the list, Summer 1993 is Spanish director Carla Simón’s recollection of her childhood at age 7 — when her mother died and she moved to the Catalan countryside to live with her uncle and his family. Young Frida (Laia Artigas) is confused and upset, and doesn’t quite know how to express her anxiety at the situation. Probably the best performance I’ve seen from a child actress since Onata Aprile in 2012’s What Maisie Knew (another one of my favorites).

Honorable Mention: Border, Three Identical Strangers, Eighth Grade, Free Solo

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May 18th, 2018

Revolutionary Road, The Thin Blue Line, Thirteen, and others…

It’s been a while, I know, but I’ve got lots more content out there in the way of cinema conversation!

Revolutionary Road  — Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet tear down their marriage from within, one verbal dagger at a time, in this ’50s-era adaptation of a Richard Yates novel.

The Thin Blue LineThis Errol Morris film about the murder of a police officer a decade earlier not only served as a landmark documentary, but also led to the exoneration and release of a wrongly-convicted suspect.

ThirteenLet’s just say that the lifestyles of these renegade youth (based on the real exploits of actress/co-screenwriter Nikki Reed) were way crazier than anything experienced by this humble scribe, who spent much of this age buried under computer games and comic books.

MindhunterSeems that most folks dug this Netflix series about 1970s FBI investigators on the trail of a serial killer? I didn’t. Read to see why!

Black Mirror, Season 4 In contrast, Charlie Brooker’s series on the dark side of technological progress has rarely failed to deliver the goods. In this season, Brooker & Co. tackle online dating, helicopter parenting, and the world of immersive computer gaming.

These and more reviews are featured in the Essays page!

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November 3rd, 2017

The Florida Project! The Square! And more ramblings about that tricky concept called humor…

Greetings folks — more Fourth Wall conversations for your consumption!

The Florida ProjectMy pick for the best film of 2017 (thus far), about folks scraping by in the seedy motels that reside in the shadow of Orlando’s Disney World.

The Square — A rather excellent Australian neo-noir caper from 2008, written by Joel Edgerton (and directed by his brother Nash).

The Fall of The SimpsonsNo, that’s not a spinoff adventure of Homer & Co.; it actuall is about the decline of a once-great landmark comedic work, spurred by the fascinating dissection of humor via an insightful YouTube critique.

BoJack Horseman, Season 4 — “I know now why you laugh, but it’s something I can never do.” If I was playing Arnold’s T-800 in Terminator 2, I might’ve used this line instead? BoJack has wowed fans and critics, including my Fourth Wall collaborator Clarence. As for me, I spent the whole time watching with a vacant stare…

The Levelling — A low-key British drama from 2016, about a young woman who comes home to pick up the pieces of the family farm after a tragedy.

The Babadook — Just in time for Halloween! This 2014 Australian horror tale kicked off a broader conversation on our tastes re: the horror genre.

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June 11th, 2017

The Fourth Wall — The Baker’s Dozen!

Hey folks — we just finished our 13th edition of The Fourth Wall for CHIRP Radio. Come check out fellow scribe Clarence Ewing and me discuss all sorts of cinema topics! From the recent James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro to technolove in Her… and everything in between. You can access the entire archive here.

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March 16th, 2017

New Film Blog: Fourth Wall!

Check out the new weekly film blog, Fourth Wall, I’ve co-launched with fellow CHIRP Radio volunteer Clarence Ewing! Basically, the two of us will pick a topic each week and then trade thoughts via e-mail until we publish the discussion on Fridays. Here’s our take on the current state of Hollywood. Next up — the new film Get Out. 

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January 24th, 2017

Quiet Desperation: The children of “Alba” and “Moonlight”

Hi folks — here’s the first in what will hopefully be a continuing series of thoughts on various new films. These won’t necessarily be reviews, but more an exploration of themes expressed in each story. To start: two of my favorite cinematic experiences of 2016: Alba and Moonlight. 

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Few films and television shows paint an authentic picture of childhood. Some of it assuredly smacks of lazy writing, but I imagine that once we pass a certain age, it’s simply tough to get inside the mind and perspective of a child. Can you remember when the world was a scary place? When you weren’t sure of how to behave in certain social situations? Or when you had to deal with malicious peers?

Many young kids are quiet. And shy. And very few are truly self-assured. This is true even in the best of environments, with a stable home life and supportive parents. What happens when those pillars are stripped away? How do we cope and adapt? Two of my favorite films of 2016, Alba and Moonlight, offer refreshing contrasts to the trope of the Precocious Hollywood Tyke.

In Alba, a semi-autobiographical debut from Ecuadorian director Ana Cristina Barragán, the title character is an 11-year-old who lives with her ailing, divorced mother. When the mother’s condition worsens and she is hospitalized, Alba is sent to live with her taciturn, haggard father — who, while employed, seems mired in poverty and sitting only one rung higher than flat-out homelessness. The shellshock is written on her face as she continues to go about her daily life at her private school, suddenly very aware of the disparity between her and her well-to-do peers.

Chiron, the protagonist of Moonlight (also somewhat autobiographical, from director Barry Jenkins), doesn’t even have a grace to fall from — when we first are introduced to him at grade school, he’s already mired in a Miami ghetto, saddled with a drug-addled mother and her rotating cast of boyfriends. What’s even more problematic is that his demeanor projects weakness, which has already made him a target for bullies. This aura of vulnerability, wrapped around issues of identity, remains with him throughout his entire childhood… so much so that when we check back in with him two decades later, he’s evolved into a fearsome drug dealer.

We generally look back at life with rose-colored glasses, and have a tough time remembering the trials endured as a child, or even our mode of thinking in those early days. As a result, what we often see on screen are countless scores of kids depicted as either wise-cracking, gregarious mini-adults, or empty vessels for audiences to fawn over (a particular staple of traditional sitcoms). Director John Hughes may have had his pulse on the American teenager in the 1980s, but the confident, pint-sized hero of his 1990 home-invasion comedy Home Alone (famously played by Macaulay Culkin) was depressingly foreign from any eight-year-old I’ve ever known. At that age, simply navigating the world is a challenge, let alone foiling criminals and spouting philosophical insights.

What was most striking about Alba and Chiron is how their words were extracted about as easily as teeth, with their faces betraying little. Alba’s wariness was borne from a fear of having her classmates discover her true living conditions — there’s one moment in particular where she’s entranced with just how bright and clean a friend’s home is. Whereas Chiron, particularly in his teenage years, walked a dangerous tightrope where violence could erupt at any time. You keep silently pleading for each of them to speak out about their worries (in fact, a counselor at Chiron’s high school practically begs him to), but neither of them do. Emotions stay bottled. It’s only as a hardened adult that Chiron can finally open up to an old classmate, while Alba struggles to connect with a father who’s practically a stranger to her. Lives of quiet desperation, but also riveting… each via a filmmaker’s honesty that is admirable.

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January 12th, 2016

Essays! Trailers!

Here’s a trailer I cut last summer for the ReelAbilities film festival here in Chicago. The annual festival is “dedicated to sharing the human experience of disability through art and film.” As you can see, there were a slew of amazing independent films showcased… and on a related note, I was inspired to finally watch the 1989 Oscar-nominated picture My Left Foot, based on the real-life story of artist Christy Brown. An incredible story (and film) to say the least.

Some of you know that I’ve contributed a number of essays to Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government collegiate textbooks over the years — here are a few of my latest:

Cinema As Political Advertising

Hollywood and Global Politics

Campaigning in the Digital Age

The Murky World of Think Tanks

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May 28th, 2013

Cultural “Sophistication,” w/guest Leonard Pierce

We live in an age where we have nearly-limitless access to not only mass media, but also the critical dissection of said culture via the internet. What sort of impact has this had on our “sophistication” re: film, television, and music? And what does it mean to be “sophisticated” in the first place — has that definition shifted over time in response to various trends in art? Joining me is cultural critic Leonard Pierce, who has written about film and music for numerous publications, and is the author of If You Like The Sopranos… on crime cinema. Leonard’s writing can be found at leonardpierce.com.

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December 12th, 2012

Looking back at The Terminator, w/guest Scott Von Doviak

Released in 1984, the unheralded The Terminator not only propelled director James Cameron and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom, but would eventually become recognized as a landmark work that would influence cinema for decades to come. Sitting at the center of a hub of themes ranging from corrupt A.I.s to dystopian futures, The Terminator is the focus of a new book from Scott Von Doviak: If You Like The Terminator, Here Are Over 200 Movies, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You Will Love. Scott is a cultural critic whose writing has been featured in the A/V Club, Nerve, and numerous other publications.

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July 16th, 2012

The Second Golden Age of Horror, w/guest Kendall Phillips

George A. Romero. Wes Craven. John Carpenter. These three icons revolutionized the horror genre of cinema during the late 1960s and ’70s via films like Night of the Living Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, and Halloween — movies that were particularly attuned to the American zeitgeist at the time. Why do many credit this trio of directors with ushering in a second “golden age” of horror? In what ways do we still feel their influence today? Returning as my guest is Kendall Phillips, a professor of communications at Syracuse University and the author of the new book, Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film.

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Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.

In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.

Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.