Monthly Archives: December 2014

Chicago International Film Festival 2014

Recap of the Turner Time at the Chicago International Film Festival 2014

The Chicago International Film Festival quietly celebrated their 50th anniversary this year, touting its role as the longest running competitive film festival in North America. CIFF even has a separate component of industrial, instructional and educational films and inspired the Children’s International Film Festival. As with many aspects of Chicago culture, CIFF gets far less fanfare than the much newer (and more exclusive) Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. Still the festival’s selection of over 100 films in categories ranging from Reel Women to Cinema of the Americas delivering a first-rate cultural experience to America’s second city.

Director Taylor Hackford’s two films from that 80s, White Nights (1985) and Idolmaker (1980), set a distinctly low bar as my first introductions to the festival. Both films made their premieres at the festival and played a large part in launching Hackford’s career as a profitable, albeit artistically stagnant, director of music films. At over two hours long with rambling plots and misogyny abound, these two films are fairly representative of Hackford’s career of Hollywood success with his most famous hit being An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). There were strong points, as mentioned in my review of the films, but my interview with Hackford largely colored my negative opinion of him as representative of the recalcitrant Baby Boomer establishment who continue to ignore the impact of web-based cultures on filmmaking.

Luckily the subsequent contemporary films all came from different countries and employed vastly different visual styles, making for a great series of cinema. The Golden Hugo award-winner for Best Picture this year, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President, gave a great post-Arab Spring look at a deposed dictator trying to engage with his people as one of them – with no idea what that even means. The Iranian director has had a long history of filmmaking with over twenty films under his belt, and incorporates his unique view as an Iranian expat in Europe with this dark satire on the real meaning of revolution.

Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo’s Concrete Night offers a counterpoint to the stark, and often disturbing, realism of Makhmalbaf’s film. This surrealist adaption of a 1981 young adult novel captures quite well the hormonal confusion of being a 14-year-old boy. The black and white coloring along with the soft visuals and sharp lighting moderate some of the film’s most challenging moments, adding a poetic touch to this coming-of-age film.

The final film I had the privilege to see was multimedia artist Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s documentary on South Korea’s Miracle on the Han River, a colloquial term for the country’s unprecedented economic growth after the Korean War. Park’s role as a multimedia artist skewed the film much more into art film territory than traditional documentary. Large expanses of time pass sometimes with only shots of beautifully framed factories set to ambient music. This first-time director really stands in contrast to the aforementioned films by exploring some interesting visual and storytelling techniques that make it one of the most intriguing films I have seen this year.

In addition to these films, I also attended the Awards Night with Kathleen Turner heading up the main competition jury. Martin Scorsese sent in a video honoring famed Chicagoan Roger Ebert whose inaugural award was introduced by his stepdaughter at the festival. Another high profile director Joe Swanberg, probably most well known from the Chicago-based Drinking Buddies, sent in a video congratulating the film festival on 50 years. Sadly very few award winners made the effort to come to Chicago so there were a lot of video acceptance speeches, but nonetheless the diverse group of winners, from animated shorts to documentary, seemed genuinely happy to have won.

In addition to the films I mentioned, there were panels, collections of shorts, master classes and more that I just didn’t have time to attend. CIFF’s International Connections Program, begun in 2003 to encourage awareness of diverse cultures, is starting to pay real dividends with a huge selection of minority-focused films. So if you’re ever in the Chicagoland area during October and want a huge selection of independent films at reasonable prices, I would recommend taking a trip to the Chicago International Film Festival.

A Dream of Iron

A Dream of Iron Artfully Ponders South Korea’s Glimmering Future

For a country that is 15th in world GDP, South Korea does not get a lot of international fanfare. This intellectual blind spot makes A Dream of Iron’s meditation on Korean industrialism over the past 50 years a vital contemporary commentary. In astrology lore, a “dream of iron” is one where the dreamer fears sitting judgment of others and whoever controls the iron has control of the situation. If Park’s compelling art film/ documentary hybrid is to be believed, then South Korea’s breakneck industrialization after the unbelievable destruction of the Korea War could be seen as trying to take control of the iron.

Most Underpublicized Country in Asia

Maybe because Japan and China have been in more precarious positions the past few years, but I feel as though the average American would not finger South Korea as Asia’s highest income earner. Director Kelvin Kyung Kun Park brings out the backbone of South Korea’s success with a unique, local perspective in Ulsan, home of the world’s largest car manufacture plant. The tone of the film is slow and pensive, never moving too quickly from a grand shot of towering crane to aerial shots of the city’s huge, metal infrastructure.

The dots never get connected quickly, but the reverential cinematography towards Korean industry hints at its growing roles as a new Korean religion. A particularly strong moment comes about 20 minutes in when the blips of a whale slowly transition to the drums of a traditional Korean ceremony, which then return to swimming dolphins before a somewhat harsher cut to a Hyundai employee at the factory. Through visual style over concrete facts, Park suggests the movement from Korea’s ancient whale-based religion to traditional Confucianism and Buddhism occurred gradually, but Korea’s industrialism boom happened in a historical instant. Park periodically returns to a series of ancient religious petroglyphs that have since become submerged due to a nearby factory adding a heartfelt jab on the real implications on Korean history.

Manufacturing as South Korea’s Seoul

The origin for Park’s interest in this subject came from his grandfather who operated a scrap metal business in Seoul that became largely irrelevant as the years went on. Despite this being Park’s first feature film, he expertly juxtaposes archival footage of Koreans with eyes of full of hope awaiting Hyundai’s first manufacturing plant opening with an unsettling eulogy to a Hyundai executive given by a man who proudly describes ignoring his wife on her death bed so he could work more. Industrialism brought perhaps one of the world’s biggest national transitions in recent years catapulting South Korea into the worldwide economy, which according to Park seems to have come at the price of almost religious devotion.

Park took a greater amount of control than often seen in feature films by writing the script, shooting a large part of the film and directing it, perhaps because of his distinct connection to the subject matter. Sparse use of narrative elements prevent A Dream of Iron from erring farther into Park’s experience with video installation and performance art. The most conventional documentary-style profile follows a woman who stumbled into a job at Hyundai twenty years ago with the idea of it being temporary. The Hyundai factory has been a staple of this woman’s life, donning the layers of her safety mask reminiscent of the traditional talchum ceremony.

Narrative moments often devolve, or evolve in a certain sense, into contemplative industrial scenes scored to a lo-fi soundtrack that manages to echo both traditional music and the whirs and clangs of an industrial plant. The distant shots of beautifully lit industrial machinery say what the narration never explicitly delineates – these are the new iron idols. Towards the end there is a five-minute continuous take of one piece of machinery being placed down by a crane, interacting with the light forming new and interesting shapes and visual illusions before reaching the ground. Apart from simply making an unidentifiable metal structure become art (for a few minutes at least) Park addresses both the reality of modern South Korea and the potential that has for the country moving forward.

Concrete Night

Concrete Night’s Sweet Visuals Come With a Bitter Story at CIFF

The opening scene presents 14-year-old Simo (Johannes Brotherus) watching a light rail train collapse into the Gulf of Finland. He finds his way inside and swims around, but soon thereafter he bangs on the window trying to fix this problem he made himself. Pirjo Honkasalo’s 2013 film Concrete Night sounds as though it could be an indulgent, indie flick with high production value and a lot of gimmicks. While the film has a high production value for sure, the off-beat and hard to define coming of age story proves just as compelling.

pirjo honkasola

Finnish fixture Honkasalo has filled every role from cinematographer to film editor in her more than 40 years of filmmaking, which puts her in a unique position to be an expert in most major areas of film production. As a result I’m sure she played a role in Peter Flickenberg’s captivating cinematography which sets this film apart in how far it is willing to push conventions, uncharacteristically combining stark, high key lighting with a soft focus. The black and white coloring further transforms the notion of film noir young Simo probably has in his mind, into a sort of surreal dreamworld.

Pirkko and Pirjo

Honkasola can’t take all the credit because the screenplay was adapted from author Pirkko Saisio’s 1981 book of the same name. This is the bildungsroman you don’t normally see in film where confusion is highlighted and extracted almost to the point discomfort. Simo lives with his alcoholic Mother (Anneli Karppinen) and his soon to be imprisoned brother Ilkka (Jari Virman) in a confining, postmodern apartment in an equally confining concrete neighborhood. Ilkka, an insufferable loser by all accounts except Simo, bosses Simo around and intimidates their mother into complacency.

The presentation of Simo’s journey luckily allows us to see essentially the opposite of an unreliable narrator. Certainly there are scenes that can’t be taken literally, but his relationships although eccentric feel as grounded as a teen’s relationship with his family is expected to be. His mother prepares herself for a solid eight hours for a date just to get drunk and bring the man back to their apartment. Simo seems to take pleasure in deriding his mother in the same way Ilkka does, but we clearly see she is the ambitionless alcoholic Simo characterizes her as.

Brother Hero Worship at Its Most Honest

Conversely the audience has a stark view of how awful Ilkka is but here Simo can’t quite see past the alluring veneer of beer drinking, criminal older brother. When Illka takes Simo to a bar and he gets turned away for being underage Ilkka glares at the waitress, but Simo flips the whole table over.

In capturing the slice of puberty few acknowledge, i.e. the cruel and misguided decisions meant to impress, Concrete Night delivers above and beyond. While the attractive cinematography smoothes out some of the film’s darker edges, it is very much up to the viewer to negotiate the characters’ behavior. It can be challenging at points, but the seamless combination of disparate genres both tonally and visually makes this movie a must see.

White Nights versus Idolmaker

‘The Idolmaker’ and ‘White Nights’ Low Points of CIFF

These two movies from director Taylor Hackford premiered at the festival during the eighties and mark those oldest films I saw at the Chicago International Film Festival. The Idolmaker (1980) and White Nights (1985) were both rescreened as part of the CFF’s 50th Anniversary festivities and I had the opportunity to do a roundtable interview with Mr. Hackford. He was being shuttled off to another engagement so I didn’t get to ask him too many questions, but some of what he said has informed my reviews.

Only White Nights Really Capitalizes on All the Perks of Being a Music Movie

Both White Nights and The Idolmaker are music movies, but only the former seems to be aware of this. Hackford got his start in the entertainment industry covering concerts for a public TV station in LA, which has led to long career directing a variety of musician biopics and movies with a lot of music in them. The Idolmaker was his first fictional, music movie and although well regarded at the time of release, Hackford’s film based on the life of manager and promoter Bob Maracucci has not stood the test of time.

The Idolmaker chronicles working class Vincent “Vinnie” Vacari’s (Ray Sharkey) rise to the top of the music industry representing a local Brookyln singer Tomaso DeLorusso (Paul Land). Tommie’s almost unimpeded rise to the top drains the film’s first half of much conflict and the introduction of a new singer named Guido (Peter Gallagher) in the second half takes plot on a left turn that leaves the viewer feeling cheated. All three men are quite unlikable with the alarming near-rape of a teenaged girl at the beginning stopping cold any sympathy I had for those involved. Further the primarily Italian New Yorker main characters are offensive personifications of almost every Italian stereotype from the overbearing patriarch to a lot of “youse guys”.

All things being equal White Nights is not great either, but at least it is a somewhat unprecedented film about world-class ballet dancer Nikolai Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov) getting stuck in the Soviet Union with an American tap dancer, Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines). The government traps Rodchenko in the USSR because they want him to perform at the Kirov, pushing through a series of rather sinister Russian portrayals in line with American opinion during the Cold War.

Despite the film’s 136 minutes, plans don’t get fully explained and time is spent on unimportant information that doesn’t contribute to the main story. The plot is left hazy in large part because Rodchenko and Greenwood’s dance sequences cause a complete halt in plot development so the audience can marvel at their footwork. What Hackford failed to match in The Idolmaker was a clear cinematographic focus on the film’s biggest draw – the dancing setpieces. These scenes combine two rather different dancing styles, full-bodied ballet and fervid tap, with stunning choreography by famed dancer Twyla Tharp.

Lackluster Singing Not Enough to Save The Idolmaker’s Lagging Plot

White Nights at least if lacking in plot delivers on the dancing front, but The Idolmaker flounders in its singing scenes. The rambling plot is more noticeable because less time is spent on musical numbers and worse yet the musical numbers are mostly terrible. In the beginning Vinnie brings Tommie in for a one on one recording session, which is supposed to be impressive but the result is at best average. It’s as if the scene in the beginning of Space Jam where young Michael Jordan does the awesome slam dunk was just MJ doing a layup that almost misses the hoop.

Both films do have strong actors behind them, though White Nights wins out here as well. That film introduced Isabella Rosselini to American audiences as the wide-eyed wife of Raymond Greenwood and Helen Mirren delivers a strong performance as Galina Ivanova, a former dancer trapped in Russia, not to mention Gregory Hines as a disillusioned Vietnam defector. The Idolmaker is far more melodramatic overall which makes the acting harder to appreciate, but Ray Sharkey won a Golden Globe for his role as Vinnie.

While most of my review is critical of both films, I am sure during the period in which these films premiered they were par for the course. In fact, Lionel Richie won the Academy Award for his song “Say You, Say Me” in White Nights that was a hit in 1985, but has thankfully faded from public memory. Our standards of misogyny and even plot development have built upon the generation before us, and in Hackford’s case the generation before that, so it might be unfair to criticize these films from a current perspective. Still in comparison to other contemporary films, they both offer shaky plots with little of technical distinction, resulting in a tough sell on two long movies for ten minutes total of singing and dancing sequences.

The President and Dachi in Hiding

The President Wins Gold Hugo at Chicago International Film Festival with Powerful Political Satire

The President has a lot going for it both as a topical dramatic satire on revolutions in the wake of the Arab Spring and as a personal closer look at the people at the center – the President and his family. Early on in the film, Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s brings together the first of many striking juxtapositions during a scene where the President (Misha Gomiashvili) and his grandson, Dachi (Dachi Orvelashvili) look out from their lofty palace turning the city’s lights off and on per the 5-year-old’s request. That kind of mercurial behavior is characteristic of a dictator not a president, as the title indicates. When the city lights get turned off a second time and city erupts in an uprising, it’s clear the President hasn’t had to consider the distinction between President and Dictator – until now.

Makhmalbaf set his dwelling on what it takes to recover from such a large-scale breach of trust between the government and its people in an unnamed country. Lacking specificity allows the film to more broadly apply to the diverse countries still living under authoritarian rule. While on the run from militants, the two make a pit stop to go to the bathroom and Dachi protests afterwards that he has never had to wipe himself before. The President says he hasn’t either. Apart from learning basic life skills, this movie isn’t about the President learning the faults of actions, but rather about them being outsiders in a country that is only ostensibly theirs.

Iranian Director Makhmalbaf Plays With New Wave Genre

The film’s wandering protagonists harken back to Iranian New Wave predecessors German New Cinema and the French New Wave. Films like Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Agnes Varda’s Vagabond feature protagonists getting beaten down wherever they go by the monotony of society in the United States and France, respectively. The difference here is that unlike their unlucky Western counterparts, here the President directly caused his oppression, i.e. civil unrest.

Perhaps the Grandson is innocent, but the beginning of the film indicates that he was well on his way to becoming his grandfather. As Makhmalbaf’s 28th film, he has mastered capturing several disparate story essentials with sophistication in both style and production. We watch as the President is driven down the street, passing his presidential banners burning, each one more alight than the last. The weight of the scene is conveyed only by the muted sound of smoldering fire.

The President and Dachi are the only characters seen consistently throughout the movie, but Gomiashvili’s stoic portrayal of the President wisely makes it difficult to understand his mental processes. His strong, but subdued, performance fortunately allows young Dachi to come out in full force. The inclusion of the grandson often draws out the truth of the situation by continually forcing the President to translate the extremely complex situation into something simple enough for Dachi to understand.

Moments of tenderness frequently follow moments of harshness, serving as striking juxtapositions that hit home the man the President represents to his family is world’s away from how the people he’s now surrounded with see him. On the lam, the President forces an impoverished barber to cut his hair and hand over what little clothes he has as disguises. That night, however, the President holds Dachi’s hand through their beds made of cardboard boxes to provide some semblance of comfort.

Satire of Revolution Highlights the Disjunction

The film won the Gold Hugo for Best Film at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival and for good reason. As a satire on both dictators and violence of the common person during revolution, this film gives shape to a film that could seem aimless and hard to comprehend. Similarly the disjuncture between palace life and life in the countryside adds some levity to a film that has the potential to be devastating.

At certain points in the film, however, the notion of satire inserts itself too prominently with lines clearly added to serve as social commentary that detract from the movie’s subtle power. Scenes occasionally border on melodrama at these points, but as part of a cohesive whole they still work. Makhmalbaf’s quasi-exile from Iran has likely colored the writing of this film, but hope of a peaceful resolution in this unnamed country still comes across as possible though definitely not easy. To the film’s credit nothing is deemed certain except that people are always in war for power.

Black Santa White Christmas Dre and Kids

Black-ish Season 1 Finale “Black Santa/ White Christmas” Settles for Pleasant

Not sure why the title couldn’t just be “Black Santa” instead of adding on the sort of obvious White Christmas part, but this weird titling kind of emblematizes my problems with Black-ish’s first season finale. Instead of taking a stand on some of the episode’s more vibrant and maybe a little more contentious material, this episode did its very best to remain pleasant. You might think that pleasant and funny can go together, but usually when that happens we’re talking about dad jokes. Real comedy involves taking chances and committing to them, which is where Black-ish fell flat with a Christmas episode that is neither heartwarming nor a commentary on the commodification of Christmas, but rather a hodgepodge of comedic elements that never really come together.

Ruby’s Usually Not a Good Sign

Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) returns to spend Christmas with Dre (Anthony Anderson) and the kids, which I’m beginning to think is part of problem because no episode with her in it has been good. “Black Santa/White Christmas” pretty mush rehashes the same conflict between her and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) from “Oedipal Triangle”. Bow challenges Ruby to let her cook Christmas dinner because just like last time, everyone agrees that Ruby is a better cook. It’s sort of hard to understand why all the kids prefer Ruby because she’s not tell-it-like-it-is pushy like Sophia on Golden Girls, but just regular old pushy and obnoxious.

Bow wants to show everyone her biracial heritage is just as good as Ruby’s by getting the kids to sing at Dre’s Christmas Party, although considering Bow’s parents were in a cult it’s hard to see why as a kid she would have sung family Christmas carols. The kids are ridiculously bad at singing so in a gimmicky 2010 joke, Bow gets an iPad app that magically allows her to autotune the kids as they rap (just to emphasize this makes no sense). The interesting part about how Bow came up with this idea and how she trained her tone deaf kids to rap so quickly is not addressed, with more focus than necessary on bad Ruby jokes.

A throughline joke about Mexican people unites both Bow and Dre’s storylines, basically stemming from Dre and Ruby’s claim that black people can’t be racist. I didn’t find the plot actually racist or blameworthy, though I tend to give a little more leeway for comedy to challenge taboos than others might, but the promising question doesn’t get addressed. Dre and Ruby are shown to be sort of racist, but then in the end we find that Ruby orders her famous Christmas dinners from a Mexican-owned restaurant that doesn’t really make sense because for Thanksgiving she was perfectly capable of making her own food. Factual problems aside, I think they really could’ve milked some more humor out whether black people could be racist or push the absurdity of being racist against Mexicans a little farther.

Show Backs Off When It Should Double Down

Dre also really wants to be the first black Santa at his office, but his boss gives the role to a Mexican lady instead which brings up the whole kerfuffle about whether black people can be racist or not. Dre ousts the lady because her “ho ho ho’s” are subpar, but fails to deliver on presents for underprivileged kids. The running gag that Dre wants black Santa as a sort of black ambassador, but keeps messing up is funny in comparison to the rest of the episode but not funny given a general understanding of humor. In a montage set to the kids’ autotuned song, Dre buys presents for the kids he let down and all is well. Watching this episode was like eating oatmeal, not horrible but I definitely wish I could’ve had something else.

The tags on Black-ish have been consistently weak, with this tag about Ruby’s appropriation of the autotune app just as bad as Bow singing karaoke on the otherwise strong episode last week. Unfortunately how bad this episode was caused the show to lope to a finish instead of surge on to give us all hope about a better second season. I think this show has enough promise, and represents a demographic largely underserved in primetime televisions, but hopefully Black-ish pulls the threads from its stronger showings this season like “The Nod” or “Colored Commentary” instead of anything with Ruby in it.


Black-ish S1 E9 “Colored Commentary” Lives Up to Its Potential with Humor and Insight

I think Blackish’s second to last episode of the season, and maybe the series, “Colored Commentary” was a pretty funny episode, which is all I’m looking for out of the show at this point. Despite receiving a million less viewers than the last new episode, perhaps due to the rerun over Thanksgiving, the somewhat bland premise on paper was executed quite well. This might be in part due the helming of an experienced writer, Yvette Lee Bowser, who has written for some of the who’s who of black sitcoms including Hanging with Mr. Cooper, Living Single and A Different World.

We start off seeing Dre (Anthony Anderson) trying to initiate a family game night with absolutely no interest, prompting him to make everyone attend Jack’s (Miles Brown) baseball game. Unlike some of Blackish’s previous episodes like “Oedipal Triangle” which dwells with the initial premise for far too long, this episode starts with a racial focus and expands out to some universal problems. Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) picks a fight with Dre for not backing her up on what she describes as “coded language” from the announcer about Jack’s race influencing his performance and extends to Bow demanding Dre publicly support her even if she is wrong. The show makes good use of a cutaway shot to Dre getting ready to use his race card like a villain about to push a bomb detonator, but him deciding it’s not the right time.

Dre further embarrasses Bow at an art gallery event where he lets her pontificate about the wrong artist to a bunch of art snobs. While I generally don’t like Dre’s voice overs, in this case hearing his thought process deciding whether or not to interrupt her with the correct artist is pretty funny and serves to show how long Bow is talking for. My biggest gripe about this whole plotline, though, is that the show falls too far into caricatured sitcom gender dynamics that stretches the believability of the whole story.

Blackish Colored Commentary Bow and Dre at Art Gallery

I mean when Bow tells Dre to use his judgment when standing up for her in public he responds with “So you want me to act like you’re right, even when you’re wrong?” Geez, despite being a hotshot ad executive, Dre has the common sense of a four year old and one could make a case that Bow’s female unreasonableness gets played up this episode too. I’m sorry to keep bringing Modern Family into my reviews, but it’s the de facto standard bearer for the family sitcom. The dad on that show, Phil Dunphy, is eccentric and weird but he at least seems to grounded enough to follow his wife’s train of thought most of the time – even if he ends up putting a weird spin on things.

While Bow is embarrassing herself at the art gallery, the Jack and Diane end up putting a hole in the wall and all the kids are culpable. The subsequent cover up leads Dre to interrogate each kid one by one until he gets one to break. I appreciate the amount of conflict that the show often shies away from to the point where everyone is angry at everyone else towards the end of the episode. Furthermore, that conflict is based in the motif of the family not sticking together adding a cohesive touch to the episode about the family that’s anything but.

I found this episode to have engaging A and B plots, which is a stark improvement from the last episode, which had neither. There were a lot of great zingers and comedic bits that felt fresh and well suited for the show, but as before Blackish seriously needs to capitalize on the qualities that you can’t get from any other show in television. I’m seeing a show trying to find it’s legs, but hopefully viewership picks up for the finale otherwise this show might not get a chance to show all it has in store.

Blackish "Oedipal Triangle"

Black-ish S1 E8 “Oedipal Triangle” Lobs Another Bland Episode Our Way

Again Blackish finds itself in the ballpark of something interesting, but “The Oedipal Triangle” can’t get past a generic plot, which draws comparisons to previous shows that have tackled tenuous in-law relationships and school crushes before and better. Family Ties or the oft-compared The Cosby Show could get away with basic premises like the domineering in-law comes to town, but viewers are so savvy now they can see that story arc from a mile away. As a result, Dre’s mom coming to town and stepping on Bow’s toes and Zoey giving her nerdy brother advice on picking up girls can no longer be the whole story without some sort of deviation or unexpected twist, but this episode that’s all we get.

Dre’s Obsessed With His Mom – We Get It

Dre’s mom comes to visit this episode with promise of deliciously unhealthy home cooking and inappropriately sumptuous gifts for the kids, making everyone happy except Bow who finds herself put last when mom’s in town. Dre’s mom Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) pushes a connection to her “Zulu-Cherokee” ancestry on the kids insisting, for example, that Diane back to her natural hair. The rub is that Bow and the kids feel, well, black-ish. Diane’s hair as a running joke lands well, in no small part due to the scene stealing Marsai Martin, but Ruby calling out Bow for seeing a therapist after having the kids (which ones or when, I don’t know) feels like a brick in the face.

Still these moments are when Blackish really feels like it’s leveraging what makes it unique, hinting at a sort of cultural rupture between older working class blacks who paved the way for their kids’ success even if that meant their kids living a life they don’t really know much about. Unfortunately this topical rupture is only casually addressed with primary attention paid to Dre engaging in “different but the same” hijinks to keep both Bow and his mom happy. The scene where Dre brings Ruby and Bow to the same lookout and they agree about how much of a knucklehead Dre can be seems so artificial. Their behavior reflects nothing of who they are as people and feels copy and pasted from some other show, to the point where it’s hard to feel invested in the characters because the writers sure don’t.

Zoey and Junior Can’t Quite Hit the Mark

The B plot where the popular Zoey coaches Junior into getting the hottest girl in class has little specificity to it and the moments that are clearly trying to be funny often don’t make much sense. Junior starts off rummaging through the garbage with another girl for recyclables or something, but Zoey intercepts and offers to help him get Ciara, the “hot” girl with eyes glued to her phone. Although Junior demonstrates a preference for garbage girl, we never see her again and Zoey’s guidance helps Junior get the girl, sort of. Again Junior doesn’t really care about this popular girl and it’s hard to see why Zoey is so invested in the situation either, which again makes it difficult to care about what happens in this story.

This episode was not without its charms, for sure, like Jack saying they got rid of Bow’s kale salad thinking it was “jumbo parsley” and Dre’s weird over-the-covers biscuit nap with Ruby. A couple of unrelated zingers don’t in and of themselves make for good television and neither does a strong premise, if so Blackish would be breaking Nielsen every Wednesday. The premise of Modern Family sounds like the most boring thing ever (three blended families talking to each other a lot?) but the stories are honest, fun and consistent which are three things Blackish needs to work for next season.

Blackish the gift of hunger beef plantation

Black-ish S1 E7 “The Gift of Hunger” Retreads Old Sitcom Territory

The seventh episode of Blackish, “The Gift of Hunger” incorporates several standard family sitcom conventions in an effort to propel this sluggish plot to something greater. Unfortunately by employing tired tropes instead of capitalizing on the show’s unique perspective, this episode meanders until the end. Pratfalls and precociousness provide momentary laughs, but Dre and Rainbow’s plans to ensure their kids don’t end up spoiled largely retreads old comedic territory.

One Liners Can’t Save A Bad Plot

The episode begins with Dre taking the family to the Beef Plantation, which prompts a couple solid zingers from the family (“You have Roots on Laserdisc, but eating at a place called Beef Plantation doesn’t bump you?). Growing up eating baking soda sandwiches, Dre thinks his kids are spoiled because they don’t appreciate the (bad) food he relished as a kid. Consequently he leaves nothing but baking soda, ketchup and baloney in the refrigerator to teach them a lesson. Rainbow offer a counterpoint to Dre in that she grew up with some money, but she joins his side when the youngest kids, Jack and Diane, beg for food from the neighbors across the street. Here is where the show’s story trajectories separate into Dre’s bland A story and Rainbow’s somewhat witty and topical B story.

Dre employs the older two kids, Zoey and Andre Jr., at his advertising firm which results in Andre Jr. screwing up at every turn in an overdone series of physical comedy bits – he drinks all the coffee trying to figure out which one is decaf and runs into the door excited he finally got the order right. Hardy har har. The main focus, however, is on Dre discovering that his self-obsessed and seemingly airy daughter Zoey actually has a successful make-up tutorial Vlog channel. Zoey’s premise would be pretty clever – if it hadn’t been blatantly stolen from a far better Modern Family episode.

Subpar Rendition of a Modern Family Plot

In season five, episode 13 of Modern Family Phil and Claire take their eldest daughter, Haley, out to dinner in order to convince her she needs to start thinking about her future until they find out she has already been profiting off a makeup tutorial Youtube channel. Here the stakes are continually raised because Phil and Claire get drunk and are revealed to Haley to be humorously manipulative. Unfortunately for Blackish even if we didn’t have the powerhouse Modern Family to compare it to, the plot points are so obvious and the writing so bland it wouldn’t have executed the premise well anyway. The father-daughter plot even gets resolved with an almost Full House­-esque speech where Zoey complains about how Dre took control of the one thing that meant something to her and he apologizes for blah blah blah, you can piece it together.

The B story with Rainbow, Jack and Diane still kind of played to the tropes of the normally smart mom going to absurd lengths to impress an inconsequential neighbor, but at least it was done with some finesse. This episode Rainbow has largely been the mouthpiece of this show’s unique voice, highlighting, for example, that Diane begging on behalf of the only black family in the upper middle class neighborhood puts them all in an awkward position. Then the neighbor misconstrues Jack and Diane’s lemonade stand as Rainbow’s pathetic attempt to make some money, which isn’t particularly clever but the surprisingly strong acting of Marsai Martin especially gives the talented Tracee Ellis Ross someone to play off.

Blackish R&B Music Video Spoof Gif

This episode was distinctly mediocre not because it was uninspired, but because it just did not understand how to make use of what differentiates it from Modern Family and all the other single-camera family sitcoms out their right now: the Millenial/ Gen X, wealthy black perspective on family life. Instead of squeezing out pithy one-liners that could be found anywhere, they should build on the Beef Plantation and the oddly fitting cutaway to the kids in an early 2000’s R&B music video fantasy that no other show on television could pull off. Here’s to hoping Blackish finds its real voice before ABC moves onto another show that can.

In Your Eyes Movie Poster

“In Your Eyes” is Nobody’s Favorite Movie

When I saw the term “paranormal romance” on Wikipedia describing Director Brin Hill’s 2014 film In Your Eyes, I groaned. In my defense, the only reference point I had for that genre was the fairly awful Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves movie The Lake House where the two maintain a relationship connected by their lake house mailbox – while living two years apart. I only mention this because in this case the paranormal was exploited as just another superficial obstacle between lovers like distance was for Sleepless in Seattle or class for Pretty Woman. In Your Eyes uses the paranormal in a similar way, but Joss Whedon’s writing draws you into the story to the point where you acknowledge the plot is largely devoid of character development, but then ignore that thought because the movie’s just so darn enjoyable to watch.

More Romance Than Paranormal

Basically the two main characters Rebecca Porter (Zoe Kazan) and Dylan Kershaw (Michael Stahl-David) have access to what the other says and sees, despite them never having met and living thousands of miles apart. The two have lived their whole lives thinking those weird flashes and feelings were just some unexplainable part of their minds, until one day the two telepathically introduce themselves. Before the supernatural component is established, the movie was just spitting out exposition like any carbon copy indie drama, but when the threads of Rebecca and Dylan’s connection is made clear it all starts to come together. This film never gets too heavy into the drama, but does allow us to explore both characters’ feelings of entrapment in their lives with Rebecca in an isolating marriage to an older man and Dylan trying to stake himself as a good guy despite being surrounded by his former friends and current criminals.

Although In Your Eyes is actually an early Whedon script, apparently written in the early 90’s and repeatedly written until recently, the story still maintains his trademark feminist overtones. While the plot has its weaknesses, the writing reveals on a spectrum from so-subtle-you-just-might-miss-it to this-is-the-point-dummy several emotional throughlines, including the nature of Rebecca’s sense of self. The very first scene shows a young Rebecca’s mother not doing anything particularly awful, but still unsettlingly overbearing, which is picked up later as her husband Phillip (Mark Feuerstein) condescends to poor Rebecca about containing herself around his highfalutin coworkers.

Zoe Kazan Channels the Quirk, Surprising No One

While Whedon’s script can be credited for some of the plot’s relatability, I think Zoe Kazan’s acting picked up on the spirit of her character and shaped Rebecca in such a way that you can just get what she’s going through, without the overacting Stahl-David was prone to at certain points. Where Stahl-David puts on an affected Southern accent and waxes poetic on how he has disappointed everyone he’s ever met, Kazan relates that same sentiment as if she were talking to a friend. Not all of this can be attributed to Kazan’s stellar talent as she, like Zooey Deschannel, often finds herself in the same quirky, cutesy roles like her other popular film Ruby Sparks but still without Kazan this film would probably be less fun to watch.

Zoe Kazan In Your Eyes Screenshot

Despite my praise of Kazan, the film overall tends towards fantastical melodrama for the most part. Since the conflicts the characters face remain largely the same, the surrounding drama around said conflicts just get amplified. Dylan attempts to avoid his criminal past and turn over a new leaf as his former partners try to recruit him for another job, yet when the focus shifts to romance it’s as if Whedon thought we forgot everything Dylan had up held dear up until that point. The same goes for Rebecca where the plot is given precedence over her character development so that by the end you’re enjoying every minute of the will they or won’t they, but the gnawing thought in the back of your mind telling you this is a little ridiculous grows louder and louder.

I’m always on board for a cheesy romance, so perhaps I have a higher threshold than the average person, but I think In Your Eyes hits all the right notes almost on cue. Due to a parroting of indie conventions, in visual style and, to an extent, the writing, this film probably won’t be anyone’s favorite movie. If you are with your friends, however, fighting over movies to watch on Netflix, I would say this movie is a great compromise.