Monthly Archives: December 2016

Pop Culture Happy Hour: In One Year And Out The Other, 2017 Edition


How did your predictions and resolutions for 2016 stack up?
How did your predictions and resolutions for 2016 stack up?

This is the time of year when everybody is making predictions for next year, and everybody is making resolutions for the things they plan to do. But it’s a Pop Culture Happy Hour tradition that while we do these things too, we also revisit the ones from last year to see whether we have any ability to know what’s going to happen (rarely!) and any tendency to follow through on our own plans (sometimes!). As she has for the last two years, Kat Chow of NPR’s Code Switch team sits down with us to check in.

What will the Oscars bring? Did Kat get her dad using Netflix? Just how much is Stephen promising to write? What habit is Glen trying to break? All this and lots, lots more on this special New Year’s edition of Pop Culture Happy Hour.

Here’s Glen’s chart, by the way.

Glen’s chart, referenced on this week’s show.

NPR


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NPR

As always, we close with what’s making us happy this week. Stephen is happy about sharing a new show with his kid, Glen is happy about a film that “aches for you to be charmed by it,” Kat is happy about an upcoming book you’re sure to hear more about, and I’m happy about a feature Glen recently completed and the return of a favorite reality franchise.

Thank you for listening this year, and follow us on Twitter to get good stuff in 2017: me, Stephen, Glen, Kat, producer Jessica, and producer emeritus/music director/pal Mike.

Is It Possible To Die Of Grief?


In this 2003 photo, actress Carrie Fisher embraces her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds’ death, just one day after her daughter’s, has led many to ask whether it’s really possible to die of a broken heart.

Jill Connellly/AP


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Jill Connellly/AP

In this 2003 photo, actress Carrie Fisher embraces her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds’ death, just one day after her daughter’s, has led many to ask whether it’s really possible to die of a broken heart.

Jill Connellly/AP

The actress Debbie Reynolds’ death just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died, has led some to speculate that grief from the loss might have been a contributing factor. There was similar speculation when actress Britney Murphy’s husband Simon Monjack was found dead at just 39, several months after the sudden death of his wife.

It’s a common theme in literature — 10 of Shakespeare’s characters die of strong emotion — but is it actually possible to die of a broken heart?

The short answer is, maybe. A small study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 evaluated 19 patients who showed symptoms of cardiovascular dysfunction after sudden emotional stress, concluding: “Emotional stress can precipitate severe, reversible left ventricular dysfunction in patients without coronary disease.” The condition, known as Broken Heart Syndrome, has been well-documented since this small study, and is now recognized by the American Medical Association as occasionally fatal. It seems to primarily affect older women.

While this particular condition is quite rare, stress and strong emotions have long been known to elevate the risk of more common problems, like heart attack and stroke. Some reports have suggested Reynolds had stroke-like symptoms before she died.

Dr. Ilan Wittstein was lead author of the NEJM study and is a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University. “It looked clinically like a heart attack,” he says of the patients suffering Broken Heart Syndrome in his study. But, he adds, “Typically a heart attack is caused by a blockage in an artery, that develops a blood clot around it, and then blood flow to the heart is cut off. And what we saw in our patients was that they really didn’t have any blockages in their arteries.”

The good news is that the effect seems to be remarkably short-lived and treatable in most people. While heart attacks cause permanent damage to the heart muscle, the effect of Broken Heart Syndrome seems to be completely reversible. “Typically within a couple of weeks the heart muscle is back to normal again,” Wittstein says. He adds that while the condition can be fatal, it usually isn’t.

Wittstein thinks the physiological explanation involves the hormones your body produces when you’re under significant stress: adrenaline and noradrenaline. “We think these stress hormones, when they’re produced in large amounts, actually go to the heart and affect the very tiny blood vessels that surround the heart,” triggering a temporary decrease of blood flow to the heart.

“As a result, the heart muscle is stunned,” Wittstein says. “It can’t function properly for a matter of days.”

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist who studies grief at Columbia University, says he’s skeptical that grief had anything to do with Reynolds’ death. “It’s a little on the 19th century side to be saying she died of grief,” he says. In most cases, after a loss, “we get on with our lives pretty quickly. I had argued, and I think the data supports, that we’re kind of wired to do that.”

Bonanno says sadness is adaptive: We have evolved to feel sad in the same way we evolved to feel cold.

“You don’t need to feel cold,” he says. “Your body will regulate its temperature as best it can, without you even knowing you’re cold. But we evolved the feeling of cold later in evolution because it’s instrumental.” When you feel cold, you can often do something to help your body — by putting on a coat, going inside, or turning up the heat.

In the same way, Bonanno says, there must be a good reason humans evolved to feel sadness. “Being sad is very adaptive when you’ve had a major loss, because you’re turning inward, because you’re reflecting, because you’re re-calibrating,” he says. “And all those things are all very important to do.”

His work has also examined facial expressions, and how people who look sad invite sympathy. One theory is that, by feeling and looking sad, we let the people around us know that we need their help.

But, like so many things, sadness might be “adaptive” only in moderation. Camille Wortman is a psychologist at Stony Brook University who studies grief and bereavement. She’s especially interested in cases where the loss of a loved one is very sudden or traumatic. She says there is a more extreme grief associated with the sudden loss of a child — even if that child is an adult — as was the case for Reynolds.

“The death of a child is absolutely devastating for a parent no matter when it occurs,” Wortman says. “I don’t think those people really bounce back the way we might think. I see them struggling for years and years with just an enormous hole in their heart, and an enormous sense of emptiness.”

People do improve over time though, she says, provided they get the help and support that they need.

We may never know whether a sudden stun to the heart or any other manifestation of grief played a role in Debbie Reynolds’ death. But Wittstein says the symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome are very similar to that of a heart attack — chest pain and shortness of breath — and anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical attention.

As for the psychological and emotional aspects of grief, Bonanno and Wortman both say it’s important not to be judgmental, of your own grief or that of others. There are many healthy ways to grieve, and Bonanno says, grief comes and goes in phases. Everyone’s pace of healing is different.

“We don’t stay in these states all day long, even though it may seem like we do,” he says. “We go in and out of these states.”

In his research coding facial expressions, Bonanno has found that the majority of people are able to laugh and smile when remembering things about a deceased spouse, even very soon after their death. “[They] might be crying one second, and then you’d get somebody genuinely laughing and smiling,” Bonanno says. “You see people do this at funerals,” he adds. Loved ones gather, and “most people are actually capable of interacting with them in a really meaningful way.”

Affleck’s ‘Live By Night': An Ambitious, Frenetic But Overstuffed Gangster Film


Ben Affleck and Sienna Miller in Live by Night.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures


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Ben Affleck and Sienna Miller in Live by Night.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures

Ben Affleck made his debut as a director with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, a much-admired adaptation of a Dennis Lehane crime novel. After the success of 2012’s Argo — which won the Academy Award for best picture without so much as a nomination for Affleck, its director and co-star — he was in a position to choose his projects, but he stuck with the one he’d been eyeing even before Argo was released: Live By Night, another Lehane book, this one about a Central Florida bootlegger’s struggles with rival gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the speakeasy: Affleck became a movie star again. He played a murder suspect in Gone Girl, a critical and commercial hit, and signed a multi-picture deal as the latest Batman. Live by Night was repeatedly back-burnered.

Now that it’s finally here, the finished film betrays its writer, producer, director, and star’s divided attention. The picture is handsome and ambitious but maddeningly unfocused. It aspires to be a grand meditation on American corruption in the vein of Once Upon a Time in America or There Will Be Blood. But in the end, it’s just a slightly better-than-mediocre genre picture, one literally dressed up in fancy clothes. (Affleck’s dozens of pinstripe suits and fedoras must taken a substantial bite out of its $65 million budget.)

Part of the problem is Affleck’s screenplay, which tries to preserve more of Lehane’s 400-page book (itself the middle installment in a trilogy) than the film’s 128-minute run time can handle. The first act, which establishes Affleck’s Joe Coughlin as World War I vet-turned-hoodlum in Prohibition-era Boston, is particularly bloated. Coughlin is in love with a mobster’s mistress (Sienna Miller), and after a botched heist and a betrayal by his moll, he finds himself beaten and about to be murdered. His police-captain father (Brendan Gleeson, a pleasure to watch no matter how small the role) saves his life, and even blackmails a District Attorney to secure leniency for his son’s many crimes. Coughlin serves three years in prison, then finds himself drafted into the service of Italian mob capo (Remo Girone), who sends him to Tampa to clean up his operation illegally importing Cuban rum. Want to know more about how the son of a high-ranking cop became a crook? Me, too. Guess I’ll have to read Lehane’s book.

Anyway, the movie should’ve eighty-sixed all that preamble and just opened with Coughlin getting off the train in Ybor City, where it finally manages a foothold on some less-trod narrative turf. Affleck has some nice chemistry with Chris Messina, who plays his lieutenant and guide to the shadowy parts of the Sunshine State, and his relationship with Chris Cooper — as Irving Figgis, a pragmatic lawman who’s willing to turn a blind eye to crimes of vice if the crooks keep violence to a minimum — is the picture’s most intriguing. Figgis has a teenage daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), who’s off to be a star in Hollywood. Of all the story’s shaggy turns, that Chief Figgis has given his blessing to this plan is the hardest to swallow.

Coughlin is a Irish Catholic working for Italians, romantically involved with a Cuban woman (Zoe Saldana), and running speakeasies that cater to black people. Any one of those would be reason enough to rile the KKK. Stopping a local Klansman from bombing and shooting up his clubs means blackmailing Chief Figgis with dirty pictures of his strung-out little girl. Once she gets clean, she becomes a church leader who campaigns against the casino Coughlin is building on the expectation that after prohibition ends, gambling, like hooch, will eventually be legalized. Like Cooper, Fanning makes a strong impression in just a handful of scenes, which just underscores how sterile the movie is when she (and he) is not in it.

Again, it’s a miniseries worth of story packed too tightly to resonate on an emotional level. The overcaffeinated pace also prevents the film from breathing photographically, even though Affleck hired the great cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has shot multiple features for Martin Scorcese, Oliver Stone, and Quentin Tarantino, including last Christmas’s Ultra Panavision 70 Western The Hateful Eight. That fact, even more than Affleck’s haphazard and intrusive voice-over narration, betrays the yawning gulf between what Live By Night aims for and what it delivers.

‘Neruda’ Affectionately Dismantles The Myth Surrounding The Chilean Poet


Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in Pablo Larrain’s Neruda.

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Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in Pablo Larrain’s Neruda.

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If Pablo Larrain is news to you, he won’t be for long. The Chilean director, whose Tony Manero, No, and The Club won critical praise but only modest box office here, has two highly recommended new films in the awards spotlight this year. Like Jackie — a challenging and brilliant portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination — Larrain’s Neruda engages in iconoclastic play with clichés that have clung to a national legend, in this case Chile’s beloved poet-politician Pablo Neruda. Neruda is warmer, funnier, more accessible and more willing to entertain than Jackie, in part because it’s only a nominal bio-pic that comes cunningly wrapped in genre packaging. Expect no saints or blemish-free heroes; the story is narrated by a fascist cop, and he’s not the only one crafting a grandiose self-image here.

The movie begins with Neruda at the height of his populist appeal even as the Communist Senator is impeached and about to flee the wrath of Chile’s rising dictatorship three years after the end of World War II. Framed as a detective road picture, Neruda is a fanciful unpacking that works in the flawed spaces separating Neruda the hero, the artist, and the man. As played by Luis Gnecco, he’s a long way from the rosy look-in Neruda got in the saccharine 1995 movie The Postman (Il Postino). Paunchy and balding with a bad comb-over and a disconcerting Cabbage Patch doll face, Gnecco’s Neruda is nobody’s idea of a pin-up, still less a literary lion.

Yet women — from hotel maids to the hookers he cavorts naked with on unauthorized jaunts away from his various hideaways, to his wives past and present — go mad for him. And he for them, though his treatment of women, to say nothing of the workers and leftist politicians and intellectuals who faithfully abet his efforts to escape the authorities, careens between loving, evasive, and downright cruel. The son of a railwayman and a dedicated champagne Communist who hangs out with bohemians and intellectuals, Neruda is a political animal who fairly bursts with contradictions that Larrain delights in playing off one another.

Like many men of The People, this Neruda falls short when he’s around actual flesh and blood. Larrain has us rooting for Neruda’s second wife, Delia (Mercedes Moran), a cultivated and preternaturally loyal painter, only to have him turn away from her when necessity or need arise. Sensitive and generous with impoverished strangers, he routinely places his handlers in danger by wandering off from the safe houses they risk their lives to secure for him. Neruda really did go on the run, fleeing across the Andes to Argentina while writing and circulating his famous cycle of poems, “Canto General.”

He also read crime novels to while away the tedium of a life in hiding, and Larrain has given him a delicious, fictionalized nemesis in the form of an openly corrupt policeman, played by Gael Garcia Bernal in a dopey fedora and pencil mustache. His Oscar Peluchonneau fancies himself both a great cop — he models himself on Chile’s notorious Chief of Police — and a great artist like Neruda. He both loathes and over-identifies with the man he’s tasked with taking down, and who keeps setting traps for him. He is, of course, Neruda’s creation, and together, as it grows unclear who is writing whom, they carry the tone into farce.

For all its jokey impudence, though, Neruda takes deadly aim at Chile’s flowering dictatorship. Peluchonneau is as sinister as he is ridiculous, and Augusto Pinochet, who would later become Chile’s President until his overthrow in 1981, pops up as a vicious prison commander, rounding up workers and dissidents with gusto. As in all his movies, Larrain is an expert juggler of tones: by turns antic and lyrical, Neruda is shot with a dark, nocturnal beauty and a mournful orchestral score.

As the left-wing son of right-wing parents, Larrain is no stranger to irony or complexity. Neruda doesn’t merely unpacks the idea of the hero as saint; it dismisses the whole notion of an integrated personality. (Jackie, too, grasps Kennedy’s widow as a woman of steel determined to preserve the whole Camelot flimflam in the midst of her grief.) Yet if Larrain never saw a facile myth he didn’t love to dismantle, he’s no cynic either in this tough, tender portrait of a man, at once an opportunist and an idealist, with Chile’s best and worst selves duking it out inside and around him.

Run, Run, Fast As You Can! We’re Smashing Your House, Gingerbread Man


The Gingerbread Demolition lets people destroy gingerbread houses for charity.

Kim Lajoie/Courtesy of The Gingerbread Demolition Crew


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Kim Lajoie/Courtesy of The Gingerbread Demolition Crew

The Gingerbread Demolition lets people destroy gingerbread houses for charity.

Kim Lajoie/Courtesy of The Gingerbread Demolition Crew

On a summer’s day in December, a warehouse in Melbourne, Australia, was filled with two things — gingerbread houses and people who were willing to spend good money to smash them.

In the center, a giant gingerbread house was surrounded by the items of its impending doom: mallets, baseball bats, rolling pins, frying pans. Smaller edible homes bordered the room, waiting to be raffled for private destruction. There was even a karate chop station.

The Gingerbread Demolition started as a fun way for Jeanette Cheah (official title: chief smashing officer) and her co-demolisher, Will Wightman, to celebrate the holidays with friends. Today, they’ve harnessed people’s destructive tendencies for the greater good – the event is a fundraiser for local charities.

After smashing the giant house, frenzied adults grab gingerbread debris and stuff it in their mouths. “We eat it all,” Cheah says. “We’re just letting adults unleash their inner child.”

After the destruction, attendees get to eat the delicious debris.

Courtesy of The Gingerbread Demolition Crew


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Courtesy of The Gingerbread Demolition Crew

After the destruction, attendees get to eat the delicious debris.

Courtesy of The Gingerbread Demolition Crew

While clobbering gingerbread for charity is uncommon, doing so for your own joyous pleasure is not. The Internet is filled with photos and videos documenting otherwise wholesome-looking families bringing these houses down with a bang. Cheah says that most of the people who relate to this pastime are Americans: “Let me show you this video of my friends blowing up a gingerbread house with dynamite in a field,” they’ve told her.

It’s a good thing there’s no such thing as gingerbread house insurance. These structures have been run over with cars, exploded by fireworks, bombarded by cannons and squished under children’s snow boots. Some people have made videos showing dinosaur toys devouring a home with stop-animation or a yeti carrying the house away, presumably to nibble on back in the cave.

In 2004, a Craigslist post from a man in the Bay Area was popular enough to be included in the site’s “best of” section. In it, he described his dream: “to see an enormous herd of goats gobble up a gingerbread house.”

People have turned this calamitous activity into a creative exercise: How about creating a hollow gingerbread structure with a chimney, so that when you set its insides ablaze it looks like a cozy, crackling fireplace gone terribly wrong?

Mannerly people quietly tip the weeks-old edible structures into the trash when the holidays are finished (trashing hundreds of calories in the process); others choose to proudly express their inner Grinch.

Gingerbread demolishing has become a touching underground tradition for some families. On New Year’s Eve, they gather together and destroy their creation as a team. Some have called it a way to symbolically clear the slate before the New Year. Others call it like it is: fun.

When thinking up a way to tear down your gingerbread house, just remember to keep safety and local laws in mind. In 2012, a Maryland man was charged with reckless endangerment and possession of illegal fireworks after putting them inside a gingerbread house on his front porch.

As for those who aren’t sure they can bring themselves to destroy the houses, Gingerbread Demolition’s website provides some common sense: “You’re a unique snowflake, so we’ll leave this ethical dilemma in your hands.”

Tove K. Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Actress Debbie Reynolds Dies A Day After Daughter Carrie Fisher’s Death


Updated at 9:30 p.m.

Actress Debbie Reynolds has died, just one day after the death of her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher, NPR has confirmed.

Hours before reports of her death, the Los Angeles Fire Department confirmed to NPR that an elderly female was transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Public records found by NPR show the address the woman was taken from is listed as belonging to Carrie Fisher.

Debbie Reynolds, 84, has had a long and celebrated career as a film actress — she was in the classic Singin’ in the Rain — a TV star — The Debbie Reynolds Show — and a Broadway and Las Vegas star.

She has been nominated for an Academy Award, an Emmy and a Golden Globe. In 2015, she won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She received the award on the Oscar telecast.

Reynolds has been an activist for mental health awareness alongside her daughter, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The pair had a close and complicated relationship. Much of it was outlined in Fisher’s book Postcards from the Edge, which was made into a movie.

Fisher died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack last Friday aboard a plane from London to Los Angeles.

Actress Debbie Reynolds Dies A Day After Daughter Carrie Fisher’s Death


Updated at 9:30 p.m.

Actress Debbie Reynolds has died, just one day after the death of her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher, NPR has confirmed.

Hours before reports of her death, The Los Angeles Fire Department confirmed to NPR that an elderly female was transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Public records found by NPR show the address the woman was taken from is listed as belonging to Carrie Fisher.

Debbie Reynolds, 84, has had a long and celebrated career as a film actress — she was in the classic Singing’ in the Rain — a TV star — The Debbie Reynolds Show — and a Broadway and Las Vegas star.

She has been nominated for an Academy Award, an Emmy and a Golden Globe. In 2015, she won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She received the award on the Oscar telecast.

Reynolds has been an activist for mental health awareness alongside her daughter, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The pair had a close and complicated relationship. Much of it was outlined in Fisher’s book Postcards from the Edge, which was made into a movie.

Fisher died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack last Friday aboard a plane from London to Los Angeles.