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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Let us now praise Elvis Presley and his movies

Posted By and on 01.08.19 at 06:00 AM

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Welcome to Flopcorn, where
Reader writers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, associate editor Jamie Ludwig and culture editor Aimee Levitt consider the filmography of Elvis Presley on what would have been his 83rd 84th birthday.

Jamie Ludwig: So while everyone else in America was watching Bird Box this week, you and I were were watching Elvis movies.

Aimee Levitt: But Bird Box is just for now. Elvis movies are forever. They take me back to high school when my mother would make me go through the TV Guide every week and circle them all. And then we would watch all the ones that were on at a reasonable time. Which weren't a lot.

JL: Sounds like a fun memory. When I told my mom we were doing this, she made a face and told me how much she hates Elvis.

AL: No! Sacrilege!

JL: I think she was too young for Elvis. It would have been like us being excited about the heartthrobs of a generation or two before us, rather than thinking they were lame.

AL: True. But I think the beauty of Elvis movies is that they are so cheesy! The idea of all these girls screaming and throwing themselves at him whenever he sang . . .

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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Making sense of Billy Jack, declared America's first action hero by at least one dad

Posted By on 01.03.19 at 06:00 AM

Billy Jack Goes to Washington
  • Billy Jack Goes to Washington
Welcome to Flopcorn, where Reader writers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, social media editor Brianna Wellen tries to find the appeal in her father's favorite series.

Just before the holidays I woke up to see that my dad had left me a voicemail at six in the morning. It's the kind of thing that would make most people freak out and assume someone was dead, but I know my father well enough to know that this means he had to tell me about something he had seen on TV. This time around? All four Billy Jack movies played in a row on Turner Classic Movies, and now he finally had the whole collection on his DVR.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas With the Kranks is an unacknowledged noir masterpiece

Posted By on 12.25.18 at 06:00 AM

Christmas With the Kranks
  • Christmas With the Kranks

Welcome to Flopcorn, where Reader writers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, contributor Mason Johnson ponders the darkness that lies at the heart of Christmas With the Kranks.

The joy of Christmas may be all around us, but the majestic, terrifying Christmas with the Kranks firmly plants its feet in film noir, friendo.

The first scene of Kranks feels more like a wistful story of alienation like Lost in Translation or Garden State than it does phoned-in holiday drivel. It begins with a shot of the emotionless faces of Luther and Nora Krank lying awake in bed as their alarm clock goes off. The whiny and melodramatic indie song playing like a war chant in the background almost guarantees you could replace them with Zach Braff and Scarlett Johansson and nothing would feel amiss. You would think: "Oh, this movie was made around 2003." Despite this audio oddity, Luther and Nora aren’t experiencing Noah Baumbach-like internal struggles—they’re just two desperate people at the end of their Christmas rope with nothing to lose.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

In praise of Neil Breen, an auteur who finds new and exciting ways to be bad with every movie he makes

Posted By on 12.18.18 at 06:00 AM

Neil Breen in Twisted Pair
  • Neil Breen in Twisted Pair

Welcome to Flopcorn, where
Reader writers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, staff writer Leor Galil tries to fathom the works of Neil Breen.

Anyone who says they understand Twisted Pair is a liar. I'm skeptical Neil Breen could fully explain it, and he practically made the movie single-handedly; he's the writer, director, star, producer, editor, casting director, and head of craft services. And it's not even his first movie! After a one-night-only screening of Twisted Pair at the Music Box last month, I left wondering which of Breen’s choices (if any) were intended to be illuminating or coherent.

Breen made four films before Twisted Pair. I’ve now seen all but one, his second, I Am Here . . . . Now (2009). (Yes, the title’s ellipsis has four periods. If this is alarming, you might not want to watch Breen's movies.) Breen recycles a few core themes and narrative elements in all of his movies, or at least the ones I've seen. The world is usually threatened by a hidden evil; those responsible are generally millionaire CEOs or people who hold high positions of power in government. Breen, always the star, is often the only one who holds the key to the truth and the salvation of the world.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Chicago hat is definitely the best part of The Princess Switch

Posted By and on 12.11.18 at 06:00 AM

The Princess Switch
  • The Princess Switch
Welcome to Flopcorn, where Reader writers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, social media editor Brianna Wellen and staff writer Leor Galil discuss the bizarre appeal of the Netflix holiday extravaganza The Princess Switch.

Brianna Wellen: I first clicked on The Princess Switch on Netflix because I have an undying love for cheesy holiday rom-coms. My mother introduced me to the made-for-TV snowglobe genre of movies because she genuinely loves them, sappy unbelievable plots and all, and as I've gotten older I've grown to love them in my own way because the plots are ridiculous, the acting is over the top, and it somehow still makes me feel emotional by the end. So I know why I watched this movie: it’s in my blood. But Leor, why did you watch this movie?

Leor Galil: I'm still trying to figure out why I watched this movie. It is not my brand, it is far from the list of things Netflix would suggest I watch, even with the amount of time I spend trying to throw Netflix off my scent. But I've got a close group of friends with whom I enjoy viewing quote-unquote bad movies, and I get a lot of cheer from the experience. For our most recent film-watching hangout, we wanted that cheer to be holiday-themed, so we turned to Netflix's latest entertainment gruel, The Princess Switch. And it was . . . memorable, partially because it didn't reflect our normal movie choices. I was mostly shocked by how thin the whole enterprise was, and I'm told it's similar to Hallmark's battery of entertainment. How does The Princess Switch fit into this "holiday" (cough cough Christmas) special spectacle?

BW: The Princess Switch was an obvious attempt to build on the success of last year's sensation A Christmas Prince, which apart from a complete misunderstanding of the field of journalism (but no one ever quite gets that right) was a truly enjoyable movie that in my opinion is better than similar Hallmark films. As far as the normal holiday fare go, so far Netflix's attempts are actually slightly less schmaltzy and provide a welcome change of scenery thanks to what I'm assuming is a much larger budget. Almost every Hallmark movie takes place in some small Connecticut town with little spectacle to speak of. The sparks that fly between the big city lawyer and the down-to-earth carpenter (the careers can be interchangeable, of course) are all we get. And Hallmark rarely challenges its leads to play multiple characters as is the case with The Princess Switch.

LG: Can we actually describe what Vanessa Hudgens did as "playing multiple characters"? I realize she was given two roles, and one role required her to speak with an accent that suggests she'd spent a weekend in the UK, but she didn't have much to work with, really, for either character. One is a princess and has shorter hair, the other is a baker that's allegedly from Chicago, which we can only confirm because she wears a baseball hat that says "Chicago." (Editor's note: Technically she is a duchess and won't become a princess until she marries the prince, even though the movie is called The Princess Switch. This is not confusing at all!)

The Hat
  • The Hat

BW:
Well, Leor, let's consider that she had to play both of those characters on their own plus each of those characters pretending to be the other character, which some might describe as four roles.

LG: I'm surprised both her characters managed to convince every adult that they hadn't unexpectedly run into their body double and decided to switch places!

BW: Hudgens not only spoke with a somewhat British accent, but with a faked British accent and a somewhat-British-accent-trying-to-sound-like-an-American-but-not-really-Chicago accent.

LG: I'm . . . a little surprised her foreign princess character didn't try to speak in a southern accent while pretending to be an American

BW: Maybe we should briefly describe the plot for anyone we've lost so far.

LG: Wait, you're telling me there's a plot?!

BW: Actually, it seemed like there were several plots that just kind of got lost in the shuffle. A baker who lives in Chicago is invited to compete in a world-renowned baking competition in the fictional European country of Belgravia. The competition is taking place at the same time that the duchess of another fictional country, Montenaro, arrives to marry the prince of Belgravia. The baker and the duchess pull a Prince and the Pauper-esque switch-a-roo for reasons that I'm still unsure of, and fall in love with the respective men that the other person just happened to be spending that weekend with. Is that pretty much it? (Editor's note: The duchess wanted to experience life like a "normal person" before she got married. For reasons.)

LG: I realize you just typed a lot of words to describe what happens during the course of a movie that apparently is more than an hour long but began to feel like three hours in the last act, but I was a little surprised anyone still makes movies this . . . thin. We shouldn't struggle to figure out the princess's main motivation when the people who made the movie didn't bother to do the basic research of creating a world that feels a little more—maybe not realistic, but certainly more developed.

BW: Part of what makes the conceit of these switch-em-up movies fun (think The Parent Trap) is that we're just waiting for one of the characters to get caught by someone who knows them well doing something completely out-of-character and seeing how they wiggle their way out of it. In this instance, the duchess-as-baker is found out almost immediately by her sous chef's daughter, and no one seems to have met the duchess before, so everyone thinks she's just a little quirky. There are no stakes.

Stakes are introduced in the baking competition, however, which could have been one of the most dramatic scenes in the movie! A too-shortly-on-screen baking rival cuts the cord to our heroine's mixer, but it ends up being not a big deal at all.

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LG:
I mostly forgot about the baking competition, even though that's the very event that brings our Chicago crew to Belgravia in the first place. And no one besides the rival appears to care much about it either. But perhaps that's because the baker, the sous-chef, and the sous-chef's daughter were more invested in the baker's love life than the thing that allows them all to survive?

BW: In the movie's opening scene they all definitely seemed more concerned with the baker getting over her ex than the long line of customers begging for one of their famous . . . cakes? Cookies? I'm not even sure what they're known for baking.

LG: I couldn't even see a kitchen! Their bakery looked more like a jewelry store than a place to purchase . . . cakes?

BW: The only other store shown on the hustling and bustling streets of "Chicago" is a shop that just says "Christmas Store" on the window.

LG: Chicago, famous for its glistening bakeries and Christmas Store!

BW: And don't forget, the hat!

LG: Who could forget the hat? It's the only memorable part of the movie! I forgot the names of all the characters!

BW: The Chicago hat has somehow become the biggest star of this movie, even more than the mysterious old man who pops up every now and again to talk to our characters about love for no discernable reason.

I feel like a lot of the descriptions of things that happen in this movie can be tagged with "for no discernable reason."

LG: Which is what I found both frustrating and fascinating in this movie. Netflix, which throws an unknown but large amount of money at a finite but large number of projects, invested in a holiday romcom that wasn't romantic or all that funny, made by people who don't appear to understand how societies and humans function.

BW: This reminded me of one of the most baffling scenes, when the baker-as-duchess attends a fundraising gala with the royal family and is asked to play the piano. She sits down at the piano, looks a little flustered, then the prince comes over and leads her in the MOST BASIC, one-finger-at-a-time rendition of "Carol of the Bells" ever. Keyboard cat would have hit more notes. And the room erupts in applause.

LG: To be fair, I've never seen anyone who has no basic piano training and is also pretending to be a princess actually pull that off. But also no one at that ball knew all of that background information or pretended to notice that a princess who allegedly is quite skilled at the piano had trouble playing it. Or is Belgravian society so misogynistic that the performance exceeded their expectations? We don't know! All we know about Belgravia is that its denizens speak with British accents!

BW: And that they apparently have the best children's dance school in the world! Another shoehorned plot point.

The Princess Switch makes no sense, features terrible accents, and feels like it lasts forever. So why do we like it so much?

LG: I don't know if "like" is the correct word, I'm just fascinated that it exists. It's B-grade fare that manages to be comfortably innocuous. It's produced and distributed by an entertainment giant. And it is just "off" enough to feel anomalous. There are a lot of variations of "bad" movies out there, but this hits an unusual combination that I didn't think could be possible in 2018.

BW: It's a movie that I genuinely enjoyed being perplexed by with a friend, and would watch in a group again if only to throw my hands up and yell "WHY IS SHE WEARING A CHICAGO HAT?" over and over again.

I can't help but wonder if Vanessa Hudgens and the director and everyone involved went into this with a genuine love for the material or if they knew it would hit the so-bad-it's-good sweet-spot. In an era where bad movies are celebrated more than ever, it seems impossible to not be self-aware of the possibility.

LG: The only moment that struck me as self-aware was when two of the characters settled down to watch a holiday movie and they selected . . . A Christmas Prince. That broke my brain. This movie broke my brain. And I need that Chicago hat to keep it together.

BW: Well, A Christmas Prince got a sequel this year. We can only hope that in 2019 the Princess Switch Chicago hat will get its own spin-off.

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Monday, November 19, 2018

Craft beer, corporate beer, and Master Cicerones: drink it all in with Brewmaster

Posted By on 11.19.18 at 01:05 PM

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The goal of the documentary Brewmaster, director Douglas Tirola says, "is to tell the story of the craft beer boom." It encompasses more than craft beer, though: it also follows Drew Kostick, a New York lawyer trying to start his own brewery, and Brian Reed, a trade brewer for Tenth and Blake who's studying to become a Master Cicerone. Tenth and Blake is the craft and import division of MillerCoors, and while it includes several craft beer brands—including Pilsner Urquell, which provided funding for the documentary—the company isn't exactly a microbrewery. (Whether craft brands owned by megabreweries still qualify as "craft" is a topic for another day, though the Brewers Association says no.)

So while the documentary includes interviews with craft beer luminaries like Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head), Garrett Oliver (Brooklyn Brewing), and Jim Koch (Boston Beer Company), it's really a story of the beer world, not just the craft beer one. It's coming to the Music Box on Tuesday, November 20, for a one-night screening that includes a Q&A with Tirola and Reed, along with local brewer and author Randy Mosher and Ray Daniels, founder and director of the Cicerone Certification Program, who both appear in the film. I talked to Tirola and Daniels (separately) about the film and the Cicerone Certification Program, which, like Daniels, is based in Chicago.

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Monday, November 5, 2018

What we learned at the Chicago Humanities Festival this weekend

Posted By , , , and on 11.05.18 at 05:26 PM

Don't forget Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells
  • Ida B. Wells

Remembering is hard work, and being the guardian of memory for a famous ancestor is even more taxing. Just ask Ida B. Wells's great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster.

Wells was born into slavery in 1862. She became an investigative journalist, an anti-lynching campaigner, and one of the most influential people of her time. An unapologetic intersectional feminist long before that term entered common parlance, Wells co-founded the NAACP and published prolifically. Yet other civil rights and feminist leaders—both black men and white women—resented her radical fervor and outspokenness and sidelined her throughout her life. In 1931 she died in obscurity without so much as an obituary in the New York Times.

The paper of record is trying to remedy that oversight and published a long-overdue tribute to Wells last spring. But the resurrection of Wells’s memory is an ongoing project.

Wells lived in Chicago for many years, at 36th and King Drive, and became the namesake of the city’s first public housing development for black families. With the destruction of the projects her name was erased from the city’s landscape. For the last ten years, Duster has been fundraising to build a monument in Bronzeville to preserve Wells’s memory—often at the expense of her own identity, since most people want to talk to her only about her great grandmother and seem to overlook that she, Michelle, a writer and lecturer at Columbia College, is her own woman.

This year, boosted by the social media activism of some of today's prominent black woman journalists, educators, and organizers, Duster’s family’s dream came one step closer to fruition. In the span of two months, they raised $200,000 to pay for a commission by sculptor Richard Hunt. The sculpture will stand in a small plaza where the Ida B. Wells Homes used to be; after demolition was completed in 2011, they were replaced by a mixed-income community. Last summer, the city also moved to rename Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive. And people are eager to do more. When asked how else they could keep Wells’s memory alive, Duster responded plainly: "Vote." —Maya Dukmasova


Tom Hanks prefers his sandwiches breadless

Hanks and Sagal, admiring the simultaneous transcription - DAVID T. KINDLER
  • David T. Kindler
  • Hanks and Sagal, admiring the simultaneous transcription

As Tom Hanks strolled out onto the stage, holding hands with NPR’s Peter Sagal, his interviewer for the evening, the audience was palpably star-struck. However, as the these longtime pals, who are two of the more iconic voices of the last few decades, started their conversation, an equally strong sense of ease swept the crowd, as if we were all listening to our cool uncles sharing advice over a couple of pints. This is an odd sensation to have while in the same room as one of the most acclaimed and successful actors of a generation, but that seems to be Tom: hero to many and friend to all.

Hanks has had his fair share of portraying heroes. It’s through his newest role though, as a first-time novelist, that he finally shares what he thinks makes a hero. After writing and putting together his collection of short stories Uncommon Type: Some Stories he had to step back and ask himself "What are the connective tissues that tie these works together?"
None are grand tales with extremely terrible situations or extremely wonderful outcomes. And yet, to Hanks, they are examples of heroism. They are all studies of people's ability to make it through each day and still feel good about themselves, aided by unexpected allies. That's it, and it's the exact same combination of conditions and attitude that shaped the epics of Jim Lovell, Captain Miller, Robert Langdon, Chesley Sullenberger, Ben Bradlee, and Forrest Gump. For Captain Phillips literally and the rest metaphorically, what made them heroes was the constant thought of, "How can I get these people off this boat" and the wherewithal to see it through.

About the bread thing. When asked, by an audience member, what his ideal sandwich would be, Hanks replied that the nutritionist who helps him manage his type 2 diabetes told him that for his metabolism, bread is poison. But adding an egg is always a good idea. Even to oatmeal.

When Sagal asked what his favorite story in the book was, Hanks said it was the one based on his father-in-law’s escape from Communist persecution in Bulgaria. Until pressed on it by Hanks, he had never spoken about his immigration to the United States. He assumed that no one would be interested. To Hanks, it was the pinnacle example of, again, someone just trying to make it through his day, not knowing he is doing so against great odds, but aided by bravery, luck, and the goodness of fair people.

According to Hanks 90 percent of people are good. And, yeah, 5 percent are assholes (with 5 percent unaccounted for) but it’s that far greater majority that matter. Hanks recounted that while growing up in pre-Civil Rights Act Oakland, California, he rode the bus every day. He rode side by side with people of every color, and day in and day out all that happened was that people got on the bus and people got off the bus. He didn’t realize it at the time, but that was extraordinary. That was the 90 percent in action.

Time was nearly up when Hanks and Sagal realized that everything they were saying was being transcribed and flashed on a screen above them, and we learned that if Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Tom Hanks can marvel at something he simply hadn’t yet noticed, then we can all look a little closer at something each day and realize there is something new to be delighted by.

Oh, and to always add an egg. —Brita Hunegs


Dessa has to sign copies of her book even at the airport

Dessa - DAVID T. KINDLER
  • David T. Kindler
  • Dessa

Dessa knows how to entertain people. What's more, the rapper, singer, poet, and author understands how to reach a crowd regardless of whether they're deeply invested in her solo work or the music she's made as part of the independent Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree. So as an introduction to her Chicago Humanities Festival talk at the Chicago Athletic Association on Sunday, she read fragments from the second chapter of her new memoir, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love. That section is laid out as a glossary, and it offers a snapshot of Dessa’s rise through the international independent music circuit.

Her reading showed why she's survived in a brutal industry. Witty, easygoing, and magnetic, Dessa didn't so much read aloud as interact with her writing, at one point enlisting a volunteer to act as her hype-man in order to explain the term "hype." Dessa knows how to wrench life out of the dull and mundane. In My Own Devices, she uses the repetitive rituals of tour life to shed light on her Doomtree compatriots or to consider idiosyncratic questions concerning science and nutrition—like how many cashews she’d have to eat in a day to survive if that’s all she were allowed to consume.

Dessa also discussed the peculiar hiccups she encountered as an indie musician working on a book for a big publisher. The Penguin Random House imprint Dutton is a world away from Rain Taxi, the Minneapolis alternative publisher behind Dessa's 2013 poetry book, A Pound of Steam. Now Dessa has a book publicity team encouraging her to sign copies of My Own Devices at every bookstore where she can spot the memoir. Even in airports—yes, on at least on occasion she got handed a stack of her own books to sign in an airport bookstore.

In her conversation with Tribune music critic Greg Kot, Dessa dug deeper on what it’s meant for her to select an unconventional career path and stick with it. She dropped her solo album Chime on Doomtree's independent label in February and turned 37 a few months later, an age that’s conventionally seen as ancient by hip-hop standards. A mixture of her own ambition and stubbornness along with a little luck have helped Dessa, but she also acknowledged that the possibility of failure has been a motivating force. "For me, the idea of having wasted my life is a prospect that pushes me back to the lab, or back to the microphone, or back to the writing desk," she said. "I affirm the idea that we’re more sensitive to losses than to gains." —Leor Galil


Jessica Hopper got through her 20s with a lot of help from her friends

Jessica Hopper - DAVID SAMPSON
  • David Sampson
  • Jessica Hopper

Jessica Hopper looked to her personal journals while writing her memoir, Night Moves, and there's one passage in particular that she can't shake: "If I'm not living my most hopeful politics at the ripe old age of 29, then what the hell am I doing?" Hopper says reading that line at age 40 is what steered her back toward writing.

"That line kicked my ass," she told her interlocutor, poet José Olivarez. "What would 29-year-old me think? It made me take an immediate inventory of my life."

Now a 42-year-old suburban mom, Hopper mostly remembers the period covered in her book—2004 to 2008—as years of being broke and living in a gross apartment, trying to make a living by writing concert previews for the Reader and taking DJ gigs for measly amounts of money. But writing the book has right-sized her vision, helping her appreciate what was really happening at that place and time while still not romanticizing it.

The core of the memoir is about how Hopper came to find who she calls her "forever friends" and how they shaped her time in Chicago. She specifically avoided any romantic arc in the book (though her now-husband is mentioned throughout) because there are plenty of books about women who go through torrid love affairs in their 20s. And that's not what was as important to Hopper, anyway.

"For me," Hopper says, "friendship is really the thing that's evolved my thinking and being more than my romance." —Brianna Wellen


There was a real girl behind Nabokov's Lolita—of course there was

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When I first heard about Sarah Weinman's research project—now a book called The Real Lolita, the research for which was the topic of her CHF discussion with Rachel Shteir of DePaul University in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church, I was captivated. There was a real girl behind Vladimir Nabokov’s most renowned fictional creation? Of course there was. A man known as Frank LaSalle—although he had about 20 aliases—kidnapped an 11-year old girl named Sally Horner from her home in Camden, New Jersey in the summer of 1948. (This is mentioned in Nabokov’s text.) If the legacy of #MeToo leaves us with no other lasting lessons, let it leave us with the knowledge that there is always a real crime against a real woman or a girl at the heart of all fiction.

Lolita is the perfect story to consider in this post-#MeToo moment: Weinman says she wanted to "create a portrait of what this 11-year-old girl had gone through," including sexual abuse, repeated rape, and trauma. Because the novel is told by way of unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert, readers aren’t even made aware it was happening.

Of course, the audience was paltry, which gives us further insight into the #MeToo legacy: It'll still be awhile before we learn to give a shit about real things that happen to real women and girls. —Anne Elizabeth Moore

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The new Suspiria manages to be about women's power without being feminist

Posted By on 10.30.18 at 06:00 AM

SUSPIRIA
  • Suspiria

From the beginning, the Suspiria remake is intent on giving us its own vision of Dario Argento's beloved 1977 horror classic. Both films revolve around a young woman named Susie—played by Jessica Harper in the original and Dakota Johnson in the remake—who has come to Germany to study at a dance academy, but most of the similarities end there. Where Argento tended to avoid the politics of the time and focused on creating a lavish feast for the senses, Luca Guadagnino immerses us in a gritty Berlin of darker muted color tones. The city is grappling with the revolutionary spirit of its young people; hijackings and bombings are semi-regular occurrences. Both films show Susie coming to the realization that the school is run by a coven of witches with supernatural abilities. But it's the recent version that most fails to deliver the feminine, feminist vision it so clearly thinks it does. As The Love Witch director Anna Biller wrote in her essay about feminism in movies: "To be feminist, a movie has to have the express purpose of educating its audience about social inequality between men and women (and, I would argue, not take pleasure in the voyeuristic degradation or destruction of women)." Suspiria doesn't much bother with the first, and absolutely takes pleasure in the second.

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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Peter Bogdanovich explains why Buster Keaton still matters

Posted By on 10.18.18 at 06:00 AM

Bogdanovich - COHEN MEDIA GROUP
  • Cohen Media Group
  • Bogdanovich

Silent movies have been enjoying a revival locally, with frequent offerings from the Chicago Film Society, the Music Box Theatre, and the Gene Siskel Film Center, to name a few. This year the 54th Chicago International Film Festival spotlights Buster Keaton, one of the top comedians and directors of the silent era, with The Great Buster, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich, 79, began his career as a film critic and a programmer at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which led to forays as an author and actor (he studied with Stella Adler) before he turned to filmmaking. This documentary is his first project for Cohen Media Group, a production and distribution company that also restores classic films; his next will be about Douglas Fairbanks.

In addition to The Great Buster, which he narrates, Bogdanovich can be seen in two other festival entries, the newly-completed The Other Side of the Wind, which was directed by Orson Welles but left unfinished for decades after Welles's death in 1985, and Morgan Neville's documentary about the film, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead. Recently I spoke over the phone to Bogdanovich about this bonanza (full disclosure: I once worked with him years ago when he was a guest cohost on Roger Ebert's TV special If We Picked the Winners, on which I served as producer).

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Sketches from CIFF: a few thoughts on the nature of virtual reality

Posted By on 10.17.18 at 01:00 PM

VR zombies in the AMC River East lobby, afternoon of October 12
  • VR zombies in the AMC River East lobby, afternoon of October 12

The AMC River East isn't exactly Grauman's Chinese Theater and the Chicago International Film Festival isn't Cannes, but over a week and a half each October some of the better new films and many of the people who made them show up at this airport terminal-like multiplex a half mile short of Navy Pier on Illinois Street. When I pitched writing something about the festival this year, I envisioned wandering about and eavesdropping on the excited conversations of film lovers and putting together an impressionistic travelogue-type essay. But in the lobby of the theater on Friday, there were more young festival volunteers in blue t-shirts than anyone else. The line for Will Call was mostly empty and there was a lot more traffic flowing toward the bowling alley/sports bar and newfangled videogame arcade than the movie theater box office on the second floor. I wrote my editor to try to weasel out of my assignment. Then I saw the people in VR goggles.

In a makeshift roped-off area in front of the elevators, a couple of young volunteers were signing people up to try out the goggles. Beyond them, a middle-aged man was doing a sort of clumsy, slo-mo tai chi thing while holding black strap-like controls in each hand. The goggles covered up half his face and protruded several inches in front of his eyes. Two younger men next to him were doing their own version of the dance, each of them looking like a helpless sleepwalker or maybe somebody being controlled, mannequin-like, via invisible strings. And so they were. I don't know which game they were playing or what the goggles were showing them and took no steps to find out. The whole scene made me think very uncharitable thoughts about the human race in late 2018. If waving arms around feebly with a sensory-deprivation helmet is where we're at as a society, then maybe it's time to call it a wrap.

Virpi Suutari during the Q and A after the 3:30 PM screening of Entrepreneur on October 12
  • Virpi Suutari during the Q and A after the 3:30 PM screening of Entrepreneur on October 12

The movie I saw that afternoon went a little ways towards lightening my mood. Entrepreneur is a deep meditation on the profound changes going on in the global society but is told through the very specific personal experiences of just a few people. Set in Finland, it tells the contrasting stories of a family selling smoked meats out of a traveling truck and two young women who start a business selling an oat-based substitute to meat. It's about new and old economies and the way we used to live and the way we will live in the future. Its director, Virpi Suutari, answered questions afterward. She was as thoughtful and inquisitive as her film and I left the screening feeling better about the state of the world. 

I returned to the festival Monday afternoon to watch Melissa Haizlip's documentary, Mr. Soul!, which tells the story of her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, and the great African-American cultural showcase he created for public television in the late 60s and early 70s. Watching clips of Al Green singing, Nikki Giovanni reciting poems, James Baldwin telling it like it is was bittersweet: there's still no complete archive of this amazing TV show and, 50 years on, the issues with race in this country seem no closer to being resolved in any meaningful way.

Melissa Haizlip at the Q and A after the 12:30 PM screening of Mr. Soul! on October 15
  • Melissa Haizlip at the Q and A after the 12:30 PM screening of Mr. Soul! on October 15

During the Q and A afterwards, Haizlip talked a lot about the challenges of documentary filmmaking and, more specifically, the hurdles for a film like hers has to overcome in order to reach the mass audience that it richly deserves.

I had a ticket for a narrative film an hour later but walked out after about 15 minutes. This was no knock on the particular film but more a testament to the power of a good documentary to keep reverberating in the mind long after it's over. In comparison, watching a bunch of actors play make-believe seemed silly.

The three films I watched all the way through at CIFF this year were all documentaries. Entrepreneur and Mr. Soul! were both superlative in the ways in which they illuminated imported facets of the past and present. Mercifully, the VR zombies weren't in the River East lobby Monday. Perhaps they traded in their goggles in favor of using their own eyes, but that might be overly hopeful. I'm just glad that Virpi Suutari and Melissa Haizlip used their eyes and minds to make my life a little richer over the course of those few days.

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