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Even podcasters go a little mad sometimes...

Monday, October 19, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #28, host Erik Martin celebrates the 60th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's ultimate treatise on terror, "Psycho." Erik checks into the Bates Motel with Alexandre Phillipe, the director of "78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene," which deconstructs the infamous shower murder sequence from Psycho. He and Alexandre explore why this film is worth commemorating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the picture today, how it has stood the test of time, and more.
Alexandre Phillipe

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsGoogle Play MusicPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

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Dance of the dead

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Horror is one genre where a paltry production budget doesn’t automatically equate to an inferior product. With a little ingenuity and creativity, fright filmmakers can fashion a movie that can be both unsettling and entertaining, despite limited resources.

Case in point: Herk Harvey’s study in disquieting dread, Carnival of Souls, originally released in 1962. Our CineVerse group laid out a case last week that acquits this B-picture nicely, based on the evidence (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What directors or movies might’ve been inspired by Carnival of Souls?

  • George Romero and his Night of the Living Dead (1968), which also features pasty-faced ghouls
  • David Lynch, whose films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet are infused with the same spirit of existential dread, the decay and subversive elements found within small-town suburban or rural life, and haunted characters estranged from others.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Chuck Bowen wrote: “Romero and Lynch took from Harvey a sense of how id and chaos comically and poetically reside underneath misleadingly placid surfaces.”
  • The Argentine director Lucretia Martel
  • What sources might Carnival of Souls have drawn from or been influenced by?
  • The Twilight Zone, which also featured stories about characters supernaturally alienated from fellow human beings, including The Hitch-Hiker
  • Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • The works of European filmmakers, including Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, particularly Cocteau’s Orpheus from 1950
  • Hitchcock’s Psycho from 1960, which also depicted an independent-minded and attractive young blonde who is objectified by men and drives far away to escape from her past.

What did you find surprising, unexpected, memorable, or resonant about Carnival of Souls?

  • The filmmakers accomplish much on a paltry budget – in this case, $33,000, which afforded merely 3 weeks of shooting. This low-rent approach arguably works well for a horror film of this ilk.
    • Bowen further wrote: “Effective fantasy and horror films both thrive on a tactile sense of the reality from which they’re departing, underlining a divide between objective and subjective experience, implying that the distinction might be misleading or arbitrary. This is why micro-budget productions in these genres are often more haunting than their more elaborate and expensive counterparts, as they show the formal, and, by extension and implication, the emotional strain that’s necessary to taking irrational leaps from the established realm of the rational. Slickly produced genre films, particularly in the age of impersonal computer-generated effects, rarely produce such tension, as anything is possible and consequently taken for granted.”
  • The moody monochromatic cinematography and smartly framed compositions are particularly notable; typically, shoestring budget horror movies don’t showcase this kind of visual panache.
  • The consistent use of brooding pipe organ music creates an unsettling atmosphere, underscoring the scenes as a sort of unceasing funeral dirge.
  • Interestingly, much of this film is shot outdoors and on location, in Utah and Kansas, as opposed to on a fabricated set. Film reviewer
    • Film reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “Most horror had existed in a stagebound European never-Neverland, while contemporary horror films rarely strayed outside the unreal confines of studio sets.”
  • While almost all the other actors are subpar and wooden or weird in their characterizations, Candace Hilligoss, in the lead role, gives a strong performance – often using simple and subtle facial expressions and believable reactions to make us believe in her plight.
  • This was a one-off by the crew and cast; director/co-writer Herk Harvey and the lead actress never made another feature film.
  • Many questions are left unexplained and unanswered, including how Mary survived the drowning, why she is inexorably drawn to the abandoned amusement park, and why she plays the discordant organ music that gets her fired. Likewise, the character of Mary is mysterious. We don’t know why she’s acting so strangely or what motivates her, unless she’s slowly losing her soul or identity in some way and passing into another realm of existence that is confusing her.

Themes prevalent in Carnival of Souls

  • Estrangement and alienation. Mary can’t connect with those around her. She acts aloof, icy, and indifferent, finding it difficult to display emotion, passion, or romantic interest. We see how she prefers to be alone, but her surrounding community isn’t accepting of this.
  • Bad omens. Mary is increasingly haunted and disturbed by signs that she is either losing her mind, her identity, or her soul. These signs include sudden appearances by the white-faced man and his minions as well as eerie episodes where she cannot interact with human beings around her.
  • The afterlife is enigmatic. Assuming the obvious interpretation – that Mary actually drowned and never emerged from the car alive – this is a story about experiencing some sort of after-death transformation to another realm of existence or a state of limbo, which for many can be as or more terrifying than the concept of hell.


A modern horror comedy you can sink your teeth into

Friday, October 9, 2020

Horror comedies can be hit (exhibit A: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) or miss (exhibit B: Scary Movie). A recent example of the former is What We Do in the Shadows, written and directed by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi. The colorful vampire roommates who populate this tale may suck, but the movie certainly doesn’t. Here’s proof, as summarized from our CineVerse group discussion this week (click here to listen to a recording of that discussion):

What did you find surprising, satisfying, curious, or interesting about this film?

  • It spoofs many classic vampire tropes, as you’d expect, including the need to find human victims, avoiding daylight, not having a reflection in the mirror, sleeping in a coffin, having to be invited in by someone to their dwelling, and being ancient/living forever.
  • But it also portrays characters and situations you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a vampire movie, including a boring side character named Stu who works in IT, roommate squabbles, practical matters like whose turn it is to do the dishes, selling goods on eBay, and getting into nightclubs. Blogger Richard Nelson wrote: “It embraces mundanity – putting these supernatural creatures in the same dull suburban lifestyles that we all know.”
  • This works as a true ensemble piece in which three primary characters share screen time fairly equally – much like This Is Spinal Tap – and there are several colorful smaller parts.
  • Despite being produced on a scant $1.6 million budget, there’s strong attention to detail throughout the movie, with commendable work done in the makeup department, special effects, and production design of the home the vampires share.
  • The picture doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at a brisk 86 minutes and, apparently, utilizing the very best bits and takes (from more than 125 hours of footage shot).
  • What We Do in the Shadows can also be as touching and sweet as it is sharply satirical, comedically edgy, and irreverent. Consider how the roommates and friends can bond and reconcile with each other after squabbles and how delighted they are to see that Stu has survived his werewolf attack.
  • Ponder, as well, that each of the roommates represents a vampire archetype we’ve seen in other stories and films: there is a Nosferatu-like character in Petyr, a dandy in Viago who would fit nicely in an Anne Rice novel, a womanizing count in Vlad the Poker, and a bad boy rebel (perhaps like one of The Lost Boys) in Deacon.

Themes prevalent in What We Do in the Shadows

  • Social and cultural marginalization. Co-director Taika Waititi said in an interview: “I always liked the idea that vampires were a metaphor for marginalized groups; immigrants, homosexuals, anyone who’s had to live in the shadows of society.”
    • Film review blogger Joey Keogh wrote: “Much of the laughs – and it is a painfully funny film – come from the central trio’s inability to behave like normal people, and their desire to simultaneously blend in and stand out in modern society.”
  • Mid-life crises. Co-director Jermaine Clement was quoted as saying: “I think this film is a lot about middle age. Reflecting on regret, on your life, on not being able to get over things that you thought you’d be able to move past.”
  • The compromises involved with cohabitation. Each vampire roommate is unique in personality and mindset and from a different background, which inevitably leads to clashes and disagreements. Interestingly, the undead roommates learn to work things out, despite their differences.
  • Acceptance of outsiders. The housemates come to respect and admire Stu, even though he’s a mortal with a relatively bland personality.
  • The inability to escape our pasts and true natures. We see that Viago is still holding a flame for his lost love, whom he returns to wooing by the end of the movie; Vlad resorts to his torturing ways and rekindles a love/hate affair with his old girlfriend The Beast; and Nick can’t help but brag to everyone that he’s a vampire.

Like-minded movies

  • Mockumentaries such as This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Take the Money and Run, and Borat
  • Horror comedies like Young Frankenstein, Shaun of the Dead, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It
  • Reality TV programs including The Real World


Up the creek without a censor

Monday, October 5, 2020

Many film fans assume that Hollywood in the 1940s avoided rocking the boat – and rocking the baby carriage when it came to promoting wholesome and upstanding family values. But an exception to that rule is Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which depicted a sexually uninhibited woman possibly engaging in premarital relations and having a baby out of wedlock (sort of): topics rarely tackled for a 1943 picture that normally wouldn't have passed muster with the censors. Our CineVerse band performed a closer examination of this comedy gem last week; here’s a summary of our analysis (listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film here).

How would this film have been controversial and unique for a 1943 movie – one many wouldn’t have expected to slip past the censors?

  • Virtually no movies of this era broached the subject of sexual promiscuity with a stranger and pregnancy that could disgrace a family and a town. The Production Code strictly forbade these kinds of topics in Hollywood films.
  • The story serves as a kind of comedic spin on the immaculate conception/virgin birth. Consider that Norval plays a befuddled Joseph to Trudy’s formerly virginal hometown girl who is clueless as to the mysterious father’s identity. There is a nativity scene of sorts in which the Kockenlocker family has to leave town, where there is no room for them at the inn of social and moral acceptance, and at least one barnyard animal is present: a cow. Plus, the sextuplets (fitting that the director chose a number that would use the word “sex”) are born on Christmas day.
  • The name Kockenlocker itself is a double entendre word suggesting that Trudy is willing to entrap a man (Norval) to cover up for her mistakes.
  • The picture appears to be lampooning the conservative values of small-town America and its judgmental citizens.
  • Trudy’s sister Emmy is a precocious, streetwise character who seems to know a lot more than she should for a 14-year-old.
  • The movie takes swipes at women, marriage, motherhood, and the choice to have several children.
  • The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek even turns politically farcical when it showcases Mussolini and Hitler look-alikes.
  • Turner Classic Movies wrote: “The film was made at the height of World War II, with patriotic fervor running high, and Hollywood was busy extolling the virtues of brave soldiers overseas, faithful women on the home front, and the homespun values of Anytown, USA. Then along comes a movie skewering small-town life and attitudes, with a hapless lead character declared unfit for service and a fun-loving unwed mother with the last name of "Kockenlocker," all of it wrapped in a wicked parody of the Christmas nativity story (including a shot of livestock in the room with the pregnant heroine). And this at a time when film censorship was at its most rigidly institutionalized.”

What else from this film stood out as impressive or unexpected?

  • There is a variety of comic stylings at work, including slapstick, verbal wordplay, sight gags, and visual comedy, and social satire.
  • Actor William Demarest executes a lot of cringe-inducing pratfalls, without the use of a stunt double, even though he was 50 years old at this time.
  • This is a rare instance of a meta-movie in which characters from a previous film briefly crashed the party: in this case, the title character and “big boss” from Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty.
  • Impressively, the director shoots two long-form walking scenes in nearly uninterrupted takes.
  • The Sturges stock company of character actors is deep and memorable, including Porter Hall as the justice of the peace, Akim Tamirof as the boss, Alan Bridge as Mr. Johnson the lawyer, and many other familiar faces.

Other movies that share commonalities with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

  • The 1958 remake Rock-a-Bye Baby starring Jerry Lewis
  • The Great McGinty, also directed (earlier) by Preston Sturges, which features characters that make cameos in this film
  • Knocked Up

Other films written and directed by Preston Sturges

  • The Great McGinty
  • The Lady Eve
  • Sullivan’s Travels
  • The Palm Beach Story
  • Hail the Conquering Hero
  • Christmas in July


Living (and dying) in the land down under

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Actor Mel Gibson was hot stuff by the mid-1980s. But few film fans are even aware that he starred in a number of Australian productions starting in the late 1970s, including Gallipoli (1981), an impressive outing by Australian New Wave director Peter Weir. Our CineVerse gang unpacked this coming-of-age/anti-war drama and found many merits (to hear a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).

What stood out as noteworthy, impressive, or unanticipated about this film?

  • Only the third and final act concerns World War I; unlike so many other war films, the majority of this movie is a relationship study between two friends and their journey to get to the battlefield, with several exciting, humorous, and exotic experiences along the way. The final battle in the trenches actually only concerns the last 30 minutes or so of the picture, and the inevitable violence is only depicted in the final minutes.
  • This movie is more focused on the bromance that develops between two young athletes – Archy and Frank. This is more a story about friendship, camaraderie, and maturing into adulthood.
  • Interestingly, the movie’s first act plays as a sports film. Luke Buckmaster, film critic for The Guardian wrote: “For the first 25 minutes, Gallipoli is an archetypal sports movie, the protagonist establishing his skills in against-the-odds challenges (he outruns a man on a horse then wins a race with mangled feet).”
  • This features a very young and fresh-faced Mel Gibson in only his seventh film role – one that earned him an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role.

Themes on display in Gallipoli

  • Loss of innocence.
  • Disillusionment – the young men quickly learn that war is not a game or fun adventure that represents the height of male experience; instead, it’s a brutal, tragic, and cruel endeavor in which men are treated as a disposable commodity.
  • Coming of age: the journey from boyhood to manhood. Recall how Uncle Jack reads from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling earlier in the film, describing how Mowgli must leave his family of wolves and assimilate into humankind.
  • The power of friendship.
  • The athlete as warrior, and the warrior as athlete.
  • Larrikinism. A larrikin is an Australian English term defined as "a mischievous young person, an uncultivated, rowdy but good-hearted person," or "a person who acts with apparent disregard for social or political conventions.”
  • Patriotic pride. “One of the reasons the Gallipoli landing is so significant to our nation’s history and national identity is that our innocence and ignorance drove us to rush into a situation we had no comprehension of,” wrote Australian blogger Daniel Lammin.

Other movies we think of after watching Gallipoli

  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Paths of Glory
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Das Boot
  • Breaker Morant
  • The Lighthorsemen
  • Platoon
  • The Water Diviner
  • 1917

Other films directed by Peter Weir

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock
  • The Year of Living Dangerously
  • Witness
  • Dead Poet’s Society
  • The Truman Show
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


A symphony of violence and vice that still plays perfectly – 30 years later

Friday, September 25, 2020

Plenty of films made within the last three decades have been memorable, entertaining, and resonant. But few have been as influential as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which first hit movie theaters 30 years ago this week. To better appreciate this magnum opus on mafiosos, we held it up to the CineVerse magnifying glass and made the following discoveries.

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it has so many elements that combine to make for a great viewing experience: fantastic performances by a top-notch cast, a riveting episodic narrative structure that is constantly moving, brilliant directorial and editing choices, a wonderful soundtrack of carefully curated popular music, meticulous attention to detail of each year depicted, and quickly shifting tonality that takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotions; one moment we're laughing at the exploits of Henry and his friends, and the next we’re shocked by sudden violence and brutality, later feeling somber and melancholy at the unexpected deaths of even small characters we’ve come to appreciate.
  • The movie’s infinitely quotable lines of dialogue have certainly helped it stand the test of time.
  • It still matters, too, because it manages to tell multiple stories exceedingly well. There are two voiceover narrations and two points of view: Henry’s and his wife Karen’s. There are also two tales woven into this picture: the first tale, which introduces us to Henry’s profession and the people in his life, told in a nostalgic way that romanticizes his good fortune and privileges; and the second tale, which arguably begins when Tommy shoots Spider dead, which could mark a turning point for the audience by showing the negative side of this lifestyle and its violence and inhumane repercussions.

In what ways was this film innovative or influential on cinema and popular culture?

  • While this movie didn’t invent or introduce any new techniques, it is noteworthy for containing an array of memorable shots and cinematic approaches that collectively make for an exceptionally creative endproduct.
    • The film opens with a flash-forward that is later repeated – a scene where Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy stop their car in the dead of night, open the trunk, and reveal a victim of their violent vocation.
    • It contains two extended and unbroken tracking shots where the camera follows Henry into two different clubs, with each of the sequences demonstrating Henry’s clout, entitlement, and accepted inclusion among an elite group. The second unbroken shot lasts an impressive 184 seconds.
    • When Henry testifies in court, he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience briefly; the last shot of the film also shows Tommy firing a pistol directly at the camera.
    • The camera seems to be regularly in movement throughout this story; complemented by smart and sometimes daring editing choices, Goodfellas feels like a frenetic car ride that never stops, which is fitting when you consider the opening credit sequence by Saul Bass that features words and names that quickly zoom by horizontally like speedy automobiles.
    • Martin Scorsese briefly apes Hitchcock in the diner scene where Henry agrees to meet Jimmy; we see a glimpse of the disorienting dolly zoom Vertigo effect.
    • Helping to immerse us into Henry’s world, the film features several memorable POV shots, including the gun in the face, the upside-down view of the lion’s den, and the two tour de force tracking shots into the clubs.
    • Curiously, there are several close-up shots of smaller objects – some are weapons, like guns, and others are shown as additional tools of the trade, including keys, restaurant checks, and doorbells. 
  • The list of works this picture has inspired is impressive: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; Donnie Brasco; Casino; The Usual Suspects; Boogie Nights; The Sopranos; American Hustle; Requiem for a Dream; 54; Blow; Lord of War; and Black Mass, just to name a handful.
  • The soundtrack, lacking a proper original score and instead featuring a smorgasbord of pop tunes from the 50s through the 70s – 43 in total, including classic crooning by the likes of Tony Bennett contrasted with the punk rock caterwauling of Sid Vicious – would certainly have left a strong impression on many filmmakers who, after seeing Goodfellas, adopted a similar approach.
    • Interestingly, Scorsese often doesn’t play the majority of a song – instead opting to use only a section or snippet from a tune to punctuate a particular scene, such as the instrumental second half of the song Layla, used ingeniously as the musical bedrock to the melancholy montage of dead bodies discovered following the Lufthansa heist, and Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy, which we hear suddenly after Henry does a snort of cocaine.
    • The soundtrack is also chronologically accurate; as the years pass and the characters age, so do the songs, many of which would have been popular around the time of the particular scene depicted.
  • Goodfellas also demythologizes our expectations for a gangster film, stripping away the operatic baggage associated with mob heavyweight movies like The Godfather and instead focusing on the common foot soldier in the underworld and the highs and lows they experience.
  • The immersive look deep into the lives of these underlings and the realism embedded into these depicted stories, thanks to the fine attention to detail given to wardrobe, culinary preferences, manner of speech, and other markers of authenticity, paved the way for many filmmakers to follow.
  • Unlike so many previous gangster pictures, women characters are provided more screen time. The fact that Karen is given one of the two voiceover narrations tells you that the female perspective is important in this story.
  • The narrative is also very episodic and elliptical, abandoning a throughline plot and choosing instead to feature vignettes of the characters that paint a composite picture of their lifestyle and choices. The several years Henry spends in prison, for example, is glossed over; unlike gangster heist films like The Killing, the film doesn’t waste time showing us the actual Lufthansa heist or how it was executed; and the courtroom scene isn’t milked for all of its dramatic impact like it could’ve been.
  • In pointing to influences on Goodfellas that may have inspired it, consider It’s a Wonderful Life, which also has a voiceover narration and a freeze-frame moment; the French New Wave, including films like Jules and Jim, with its edgy and innovative jump cuts, freeze frames, and editing style; The Great Train Robbery, which has an outlaw pointing and shooting a gun directly at the camera as Tommy does at the very end of the film; Howard Hawks’ Scarface; Fellini’s I Vitelloni; Force of Evil; Point Blank; and Once Upon a Time in America.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Goodfellas?

  • The seductive nature of power, money, violence, and ambition. Consider how Henry’s life of privilege completely unravels because he decides to sell drugs behind Paulie’s back. Also, think about how, for a good portion of the film, Henry is on a great winning streak, suggesting that crime pays. “The rewards of honor and privilege are at the heart of Goodfellas,” wrote Roger Ebert.
  • Fall from grace. Scorsese has said that Henry’s life was akin to walking amongst the gods, but then he is cast from Mount Olympus after committing hubris and defying Zeus – or, in this story, Paulie.
  • There is no honor among thieves. We see how Jimmy becomes paranoid and decides to whack everyone involved in the Lufthansa heist to cover his tracks. Henry is also reminded not to break the two cardinal rules of the mob: Never rat on your friends, and keep your mouth shut; by the end of the film, he has violated those two Commandments.
  • Loyalty and betrayal. Henry cheats on his wife and betrays Paulie and Jimmy. Tommy, who thinks he is about to be a made man, is betrayed by his crime family. And Jimmy betrays most of his partners in crime on the Lufthansa heist by having them killed.
  • We are a product of our environment. Goodfellas is a lesson in how your culture shapes your values and lifestyle – for better and worse.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Gift #1 is that the film satiates like a cinematic bouillabaisse, with the combination of multiple quality ingredients creating a thoroughly satisfying and lip-smacking experience. There are so many ingeniously interwoven elements of excellence on display here – fascinating characters galore, ultra-credible dialogue, a kinetic camera, compelling voiceover narration, inspired visual and musical editing choices, engrossing episodes that play like mini-movies within the movie, period and occupational authenticity, an emphasis on fine small details that enhance the personalities, settings, and situations, and infectious passion for the subject matter.
  • Gift #2 is its credibility as a plausible cautionary tale. This movie feels real and honest, not just because it’s based on true life people and events that actually happened but because the talents involved aimed for veracity, emotional sincerity, and superior storytelling designed to enthrall from the first frame to the last. This film may not surpass The Godfather, but it belongs on the Mount Rushmore of mob movies and, unlike that picture, it’s not a work of fiction.
  • Gift #3 is the array of colorful characters who get indelibly etched into our pop-culture consciousness, from the major players like Tommy, Jimmy, Henry, Karen, and Paulie to the unforgettable bit players like Billy Batts, Spider, Maury, Frenchy, Tuddy, and Sonny. What’s amazing about Goodfellas is that everyone is so perfectly cast – even the thespians in the non-speaking roles who blend into the background have time-worn faces and idiosyncrasies that make this underworld universe so believable. Gift #4 is the astounding sequence near the end of the picture that details the day Henry is arrested, relayed in a cocaine-infused rush of pressure cooker paranoia in which musical extracts, quick jarring cuts, timeline-stamped shots, and unpredictable compositions in constant motion coalesce into an unforgettable montage of increasing dread and tense anticipation. Some think this is the finest 10 minutes of filmmaking that Scorsese has ever conjured up.


The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

What you get when you mix two mammoth movie stars with director Mike Nichols in the mid-1980s? Acid indigestion doesn’t come to mind but Heartburn does, which is the vehicle that first paired Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and tore the sorted lid off the real-life breakup between journalist Carl Bernstein and author/screenwriter Nora Ephron (portrayed, respectively, by Nicholson and Streep). We popped a collective Alka-Seltzer and took a closer look at this film in our CineVerse group discussion last week. Here are the highlights of our conversation. (To hear a recording of that group discussion, click here.)

In what ways was Heartburn surprising, unique, or satisfying?

  • This was the first of two Meryl Streep-Jack Nicholson pairings (the other being Ironweed), which makes for a notable cinematic experience considering their titanic statures and heavyweight cache.
  • Interestingly, one could argue, as Roger Ebert did in his review of this film, that Streep and Nicholson don’t have much chemistry, despite charming scenes like when Mark breaks out into song while chomping on pizza and Rachel expressing several times early in the film how happy she is. But the possible lack of chemistry is kind of the point: these two characters ultimately don’t harmonize, which contributes to the breakup.
  • The movie could be interpreted as more of a rom-com than a relationship drama; in fact, there are more comedic elements in this picture than many would expect, including two hilarious bits where the television seems to be talking to Rachel and commenting on her life and suspicions. Of course, the comedy is in keeping with Nichols’ style and reputation.
  • It’s surprising how Rachel takes Mark back so quickly, and without an apology from him for his philandering, after their first split. We see how needy and vulnerable she is, waiting desperately for Mark to phone her; but it isn’t until the end of the film we observe her true agency, when Rachel decides to humiliate Mark in front of their friends and walk out on him for good.
  • This film plays out as a kind of “scenes from a marriage,” with vignettes, brief set pieces, and fragments of their relationship on display, but not necessarily key moments – except for the births of their two children. In other words, it doesn’t cover every pivotal moment in their courting, marriage, reconciliation, or post-breakup. But it gives us enough snatches and milestone moments to make for a composite experience of their flawed relationship.
  • The roster of actors showcased here is deep, boasting even Kevin Spacey (in his first role) and Mercedes Ruhl in small parts. Consider the other talents on screen: Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, Catherine O’Hara, and even film director Milos Forman.
  • This was also a very personal movie for Streep, as she was pregnant with her second child (in her first trimester) during filming, and her real-life first child played the toddler Annie. In fact, the film casts three generations of the Streep and Gummer family: Mary Streep (mother of Meryl and grandmother to Mamie), Meryl Streep (daughter to Mary and mother to Mamie), and Mamie Gummer (daughter of Meryl and granddaughter to Mary). Plus, Meryl’s brother Dana also plays a tiny unspoken role.

Themes evident in Heartburn

  • Structural flaws that never get fixed. There is plenty of foreshadowing suggesting that Rachel and Mark’s marriage will be in jeopardy, due to his cheating as well as her suspicions and anxiety about Mark’s behavior. This is mirrored in the house they purchase and are continually upgrading – it seems to always have problems, including leaks, remodeling challenges, and unfinished areas. Ebert wrote: “… The joke is that the renovations to the house will last longer than their marriage.”
  • The difficulty in trusting a significant other. This is the second marriage for both Rachel and Mark, and she goes into it with trepidation, as evidenced by her nearly leaving Mark at the altar. Throughout the movie, the audience is reminded that the divorce rate is high, marriages involve compromises and often acquiescence, and infidelity is always a possibility.
  • The itsy-bitsy spider climbs up the spout again. Rachel demonstrates – twice – that she won’t tolerate cheating and lies and, despite the repercussions of raising children in divorce, has the will and agency to move on, start over, and reinvent her life.

Other films directed by Mike Nichols

  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  • The Graduate
  • Carnal Knowledge
  • Silkwood
  • Working Girl


As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a podcaster

Sunday, September 20, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #27, host Erik Martin wears a wire and goes undercover with film critic Glenn Kenny, author of the new book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, to uncover the secrets behind perhaps the greatest mob movie ever made, “Goodfellas,” directed by Martin Scorsese, which celebrates a 30th anniversary this month. Erik and Glenn explore why this film is worth commemorating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the picture today, how it has stood the test of time, and more.
Glenn Kenny

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Pocket Casts, Google Play MusicPodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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Michael and Mary make for a bittersweet M&M

Monday, September 14, 2020

Films about philandering often depict one spouse or partner in a relationship committing the misdeeds; that’s why it’s refreshing to see a movie that showcases mutual cheating and Machiavellian multitasking from both parties involved. The Lovers is a prime example of this, with a softer comedy shell but a crunchy emotional dramatic center. Here’s a recap of our CineVerse discussion points on this picture: 

What did you find different, unique, distinctive, unexpected, or memorable about The Lovers?

  • It’s a refreshing twist on the subject of infidelity in a marriage and an ironic take on the repercussions of having extramarital affairs.
  • The ending – in which we see that Michael and Mary intend to continue their cheating ways, only this time on their current companions – is somewhat surprising and implausible. This level of sneaking around doesn’t seem sustainable for long.
  • In the 1930s, this would have been a screwball comedy of remarriage in which a couple on the precipice of divorce decide to get back together. Here, it’s less comedic and more dramatic.
  • The violin-heavy score is active throughout most of the picture, which can be viewed as a plus or minus, depending on your point of view.
  • While both spouses are adept at frequent lying and deception, Michael is particularly untruthful in many examples throughout the film.
  • This is a movie where the smartphone is a bit of a side character; it comments on the ever-present nature of technology and relationships and infidelities nowadays and how devices can be used as distractions and substitutes for human interaction and communication.
  • It’s also nice to see the more reclusive Debra Winger again, who hasn’t appeared in a lot of movies the last several years; and actor Tracy Letts has established himself as a performer with chops, despite having only appeared on the scene the last few years – in his 50s, impressively.

Themes worth examining and The Lovers

  • The unpredictable nature of passion and romance
  • Even moribund marital relationships can be rekindled – at least physically – by remaining attuned to your partner and being open-minded.
  • Cosmic irony and the wayward arrows of Cupid. Despite the logic and practicality of transitioning to a new and presumably healthier relationship with a fresh partner, both Mary and Michael can’t help but indulge in long-ignored passions with their spouse, which risks all the relationships involved and will likely end in unhappiness for all four players.
  • Parents are far from perfect. We see how Michael and Mary’s son has difficulty looking up to his parents and respecting them based on the past stale nature of their marriage; Joel wants to avoid the mistakes mom and dad have made and ensure a brighter and more lasting future with his chosen partner, which could be challenging because Joel is a product of his environment – undoubtedly influenced by his parents’ imperfect relationship growing up.
  • Be careful what you wish for. The grass always seems to be greener on the other side, but it’s possible that Mary and Michael won’t be fulfilled and satisfied by Robert and Lucy, respectively, two lovers who don’t yet know what makes Michael and Mary tick – and tock, too.
  • You can’t see the forest for the trees. Mary and Michael have long denied their buried attraction for each other, despite sleeping in the same bed for years. This movie demonstrates that sometimes the most exciting things aren’t beyond our front door but right in front of our eyes.

Other movies that echo The Lovers
  • Monkey Business from 1952
  • Sex, Lies and Videotape


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