Blog Directory CineVerse

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

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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.

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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

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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.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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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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Masterfully straddling the thin line between comedy and tragedy

Sunday, September 6, 2020

How great is The Great Dictator? Read on for a summary of our CineVerse group discussion points discussed last week about this masterwork by Charlie Chaplin, which celebrates an 80th anniversary this year (and click here to listen to a recording of that group discussion).


What was brave, innovative, or unique about The Great Dictator, especially for 1940 audiences?

  • This was Chaplin’s first all-talking motion picture and his last appearance as a Little Tramp-like character. Before The Great Dictator, audiences only knew Chaplin as maker of silent films.
  • This was a rare early example of an American movie that made fun of Adolph Hitler. This is important to keep in mind, as the United States had not yet entered into war with Germany or the Axis powers at the time of the film’s production and release.
    • There was also pressure on Hollywood studios not to anger or irritate foreign leaders, which could make matters politically uncomfortable and reduce box office receipts in foreign markets. In addition, many Americans throughout the 1930s regarded Hitler as an ally and were against entering what they regarded as a foreign European conflict.
  • The topic of anti-Semitism was rarely tackled in a Hollywood film before The Great Dictator.
  • Charlie Chaplin, who funded the film entirely on his dime and using the resources available to him at his studio, United Artists, took a major professional and personal risk in making this film, which was budgeted at around $2 million – his most expensive production to date. He knew he could not count on getting the movie distributed in many countries overseas, and he received death threats and pressure from many to abandon the project or tread lightly on the topic.
    • He had to be careful in how he chose to satirize Hitler, Mussolini, and their henchmen; they had to be the butt of jokes and never earn sympathy from the audience. And it was challenging trying to balance the tonality of the film and its comedic angle with the suggested violence and hatred toward the oppressed Jewish people and the suffering they endured.
    • This was arguably the most successful propaganda movie ever created. Not only was The Great cat dictator Chaplin’s biggest commercial success, but it increased awareness worldwide about Hitler’s mindset and evil ambitions and increased support among Americans for the plight of oppressed people in Europe more than a year prior to the United States’ entry into the war.
    • While many around the world sought appeasement with Germany and downplayed its unlawful actions, Chaplin wasn’t afraid to directly indict Hitler, fascism, and anti-Semitism. The film seemed prescient in its depiction of the suppression of and violence toward Jews – even though plenty thought Chaplin was going too far in his depictions of these events and figures.
    • This could be one of the boldest individual political gestures by an artist ever. Although he was encouraged to pursue the production by President Roosevelt, this became a passion project and personal goal of Chaplin’s: to thoroughly lampoon Hitler and fascism, making them objects of derision and cutting them down to size with comedy.
    • Note that Chaplin later admitted that, if he was aware of the hidden horrific details of the Nazi genocidal strategy and the concentration camps at the time, he never would’ve made The Great Dictator.
  • The speech Chaplin delivers in the guise of the barber masquerading as Hinkle, but intended as an impassioned soliloquy from Chaplin himself delivered directly to the audience, is particularly memorable and rare for a Hollywood movie. Chaplin here is pleading for hope and humanity in the face of encroaching evil, arguing that peace is possible if the world wants to embrace it. In this way, Chaplin breaks the fourth wall, jumps out of character, and risks spoiling the film and its comedic triumphs. But it’s this articulate plea that resonates with viewers across the ages.
  • Criterion Collection essayist Michael Wood wrote: “The greatness of the film lies in the bridge Chaplin builds between the little guy and the bully, so that in an amazing spiral, the thugs who pursue Chaplin as victim are under the orders of Chaplin the boss. He is his own persecutor, and at the end, he is the voice of resistance to his own mania. The effect is not to humanize Hitler but, in part—and this is an aspect of the film’s courage—to Hitlerize Chaplin. This strategy is wittily announced on a title card right at the beginning: “Any resemblance between Hynkel the dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental.” This is true, in a way, since Chaplin plays both roles, which is not exactly a question of resemblance. The joke, though, if we linger over it, suggests very clearly what the film is after: its casting keeps connecting what its plot insistently separates… His antifascist argument pursues the fascist in all of us, and the implication of his equation of the victim with the dictator is not only that the comic could have been the madman but that even the good guys and the persecuted, represented by the world’s best-loved clown, are not to be trusted with absolute power. Chaplin’s finest further touch, having made his dictator ridiculous, is to remind us of how much harm even ridiculous people can do. Nothing in the film is quite as frightening as the sight and sound of the ludicrous Hynkel casually ordering the execution of three thousand striking workers. We should know better, but we easily forget how lethal the ludicrous can be.”

Other films that spring to mind after watching The Great Dictator

  • Duck Soup
  • You Nazti Spy!, In which the Three Stooges spoof Hitler, debatably the first Hollywood movie to satirize him
  • The Mortal Storm
  • To Be or Not to Be
  • The Producers
  • Life Is Beautiful
  • The Dictator
  • Jojo Rabbit

Other notable feature films by Charlie Chaplin

  • The Kid
  • The Gold Rush
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • Limelight

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Shiver me timbers

Monday, August 31, 2020

Young director Robert Eggers impressed many with his directorial debut The Witch. But while his penchant for historical accuracy and extreme attention to detail was intact on his follow-up feature, The Lighthouse, the latter film was a different kind of dark cinema than his first foray. Layered with fascinating psychological subtexts and propelled by two powerhouse performances, The Lighthouse is a movie that practically begs for deeper analysis and scrutiny. Our CineVerse group took a stab at it last week and discussed several aspects and interpretations, including the following.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or memorable about The Lighthouse?


  • It’s a decidedly different modern movie: The canvas is black and white, there are only two actors in the entire film, and the aspect ratio is 1.19:1, called Movietone, which was more prominent in the silent film days and which helps better depict vertical compositions, especially the tall, vertical lighthouse structure and its interiors.
  • The film is sexually candid, depicts various bodily functions, and has homoerotic tones. The characters engage in private or embarrassing acts, including flatulence, masturbation, and potentially homosexual urges; additionally, the lighthouse itself serves as a giant phallic symbol, and we are shown a graphic depiction of intimate relations with a mermaid.
  • Both men are unreliable narrators whom we cannot trust. Both are revealed as liars who distort the truth to suit their needs.

Themes on display in The Lighthouse

  • Greek mythology: Winslow is written as a modern metaphor for Prometheus, who yearned to dwell among the gods and tried to trick them by stealing their fire but was punished cruelly by having an eagle peck at his liver for eternity. Wake is a representation of Proteus, a sea-dwelling God who serves Triton/Poseidon, is personified by tentacles, and is known for his prophecies and curses. And the lighthouse symbolizes Mount Olympus.
  • Moral shades of gray. It’s appropriate that the filmmakers use black and white in this movie, which signifies morally monochrome characters, whose ethics and virtues cannot be trusted.
  • The dangers of toxic masculinity and two men being cut off from civilization and women.
  • Gaslighting, as evidenced by each character playing mind games with and trying to assert dominance over the other, particularly Wake, who forces Winslow to question if he’s experiencing reality or fantasy.
  • Guilt and shame. Winslow experiences extreme feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety over his logging co-worker’s death, which could be impacting his mental health.
    • Consider that we witness Winslow seeing images of a third man – presumably the dead logger. He’s likely suffering a psychological breakdown due to this guilt. Recall, as well, that we observe the seagull he kills has only one eye, similar to the severed head he discovers later; both one-eyed figures remind Winslow of the man he either killed or whose death he didn’t prevent.
  • A descent into madness. The Lighthouse suggests that Winslow, whose point of view we are shown, is quickly devolving and losing his grip on reality – likely due to the extreme circumstances, including captive isolation with a domineering and critical boss, increasing reliance on alcohol, sexual frustration, physical exhaustion, and severe feelings of alienation and isolation.
    • It has been theorized that Winslow is homosexual and possibly had a homosexual relationship with a logger back in Canada who ended up dead. Now that he’s in an isolated environment with Wake, he experiences sexual impulses toward this new man, but instead of thinking about Wake sexually, he envisions having animal-like sex with a mermaid creature, possibly out of shame, guilt, or the inability to accept a homosexual relationship.
    • Another reading of the film is that, as Wake insidiously suggests, Winslow isn’t even on the lighthouse property – instead, he’s imagining this coexistence with Wake while he still back at the logging site in Canada.
    • Even though we see imagery of mermaids, Wake as a Poseidon-like God, and tentacled creatures, these things don’t exist except in Winslow’s mind.

Other movies and works of literature that The Lighthouse makes us think of

  • The writings of Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Night Tide, a 1961 supernatural film noir
  • Pulp Fiction and Kiss Me Deadly, both of which also feature strange objects that are unexplained to the audience
  • The Shining, which also features characters in isolation and threatened by an ax, an alcoholic caretaker, and mysterious or potentially supernatural phenomena.
  • The Fog
  • Black Swan
  • A Field in England 
  • Sleuth, another mystery yarn that features and involves only two characters

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Don't squeeze the shaman

Monday, August 24, 2020

Part adventure/odyssey, part documentary, part road trip (with a boat and a river substituting for a car and a highway), and part psychedelic head trip, Embrace of the Serpent works as several films in one, creating an unforgettable cinematic experience aimed to stir your emotions and your social conscience. After watching the movie last week, our CineVerse group had many observations. Here's a summary.

Other movies or works of literature that spring to mind after watching Embrace of the Serpent

  • Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote
  • Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially for the similarities to the Stargate sequence at the end of the film
  • Apocalypse Now, which also depicts a power-mad and megalomaniacal dictator
  • Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, two historical epics by Werner Herzog set in the Amazon
  • Dances With Wolves

What did you find memorable, distinctive, surprising, or puzzling about this film?

  • It’s shot in glorious black and white, on location in the jungles of Vuapes, Columbia, with the filmmakers opting for a monochromatic palette over what many would consider the obvious choice: dazzling color. The latter would have showcased the Amazon jungle beautifully, but arguably would have distracted viewers from the central messages of the film. Black and white is often the appropriate template for movies about a bygone place and era, and it creates a classic, timeless patina and resonance that’s appropriate for a film like this.
  • Interestingly, the picture bursts into resplendent color once Evan takes his hallucinogenic trip, zooming out celestially with each subsequent image until we see universe become multiverse.
  • This is the first Colombian movie ever to earn an Academy Award nomination, in this case for Best Foreign Language Film.
  • This is a road trip movie of sorts that traces two different timelines, but with the shaman serving as the bridge between both tales.
  • This movie “aims to speak for the untold hundreds of thousands whose cultures and language were wiped out by invading rubber profiteers,” wrote Slant Magazine reviewer Steve Macfarlane, who added “the paralleled trajectories allow the screenplay to trace the Domino -like effects of this violence across generations. In the face of such historical vastness, no mere three-act screenplay would suffice for encapsulation.”

Themes evident in Embrace of the Serpent

  • The dark and destructive legacy of colonialism and the rape of the natural world. White men have been exploiting South America and the Amazon rain forest for hundreds of years, with countless conquistadors, missionaries, rubber barons, and modern capitalistic entities destroying indigenous tribes and cultures and stealing its natural resources.
  • The loss and reclamation of identity, and the redemption of a lost soul. The shaman Karamakate is shown in two separate stories and time periods, with his older self lamenting his loss of memory and devolution into a chullachaqui, a deflated spirit roaming the land without purpose or past to motivate him. Yet, we see the older shaman remember his way back to old haunts and places containing the rare and elusive yakruna plant. Karamakate can impart his wisdom upon a second white man, despite his diminished status.
    • We also witness how the orphans of the native tribes and those enslaved have been stripped of their identities, beliefs, and practices by the invading white men, including the missionary and rubber barons.
  • Man versus nature, as exemplified, respectively, by the serpent – which the indigenous peoples believed brought mankind to the earth in the form of an anaconda – and a jaguar, which could represent the untamed jungle, natural world, and/or Mother Nature. Later, we see a night vision-illuminated battle between the two animals, with the jaguar emerging victorious. This perhaps suggests that nature, or planet Earth, will ultimately prevail in its long struggle against the encroachment of man.
  • The circularity and constant flow of life. The filmmakers use the river, and some clever editing, to connect the two storylines, which feature two intelligent and relatively respectful white men, Theo and Evan, each seeking the mysterious yakruna plant. This plant serves as a kind of fountain of youth or holy Grail for each of these men.

Other films directed by Ciro Guerra

  • The Wandering Shadows
  • The Wind Journeys
  • Birds of Passage
  • Waiting for the Barbarians

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Romantic fluency is hard to master

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Romantic couples struggling through a second act of their relationship have been well depicted in several films over the past few decades. One of the most recent worthy outings in this subset of the rom-com subgenre is 2 Days in Paris, written, directed, produced, edited and scored by Julie Delpy, who also stars alongside Adam Goldberg. CineVerse engaged in a group therapy of sorts recently to get to the bottom of this movie's strengths and flaws. Here's a recap:

Movies that come to mind after screening 2 Days in Paris

  • Annie Hall and Manhattan
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • The Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight trilogy starring Delpy
  • Meet the Parents
  • Lost in Translation
  • The sequel 2 Days in New York

What surprised, intrigued, frustrated, or enthralled you about 2 Days in Paris?

  • It felt authentic and believable, thanks in large part to it being written, directed, edited, produced, and scored by Julie Delpy, whose costars include a past boyfriend (Adam Goldbert) and her real-life mom and dad playing this character’s parents Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet.
  • While it was derivative to an extent of some early Wood Allen films—particularly the sexually liberated characters played by Diane Keaton and the neurotic and often irritating analytical personalities portrayed by Allen in Annie Hall and Manhattan—as well as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and it milked the running gag of Marion’s promiscuous past and the offputting nature of some Parisians perhaps too long, the film was entertaining and insightful about the pitfalls of relationships that have survived beyond act one.
  • Refreshingly, the picture didn’t rely on clich├ęs or stereotypes (Roger Ebert wrote that he didn’t think he “heard a single accordion in the whole film”) or famous landmarks like the Louvre or Eiffel Tower in which to rekindle Cupid’s passions. Actually, this film isn’t very romantic at all for a romantic comedy; the emphasis is more on laughs, plenty of them of the uncomfortable sort, and its sexual frankness gives it an edgy cache that sets it apart from a conventional rom-com.
  • However, the ending was abrupt and ambiguous, suggesting either a reconciliation or a breakup softened by happy recollections of better earlier times. Either way, this conclusion has a wobbly, tacked-on, rushed feel.

Themes examined in 2 Days in Paris

  • Skeletons in the closet: Past relationships and proclivities that can haunt a current romance.
  • A stranger in a strange land. This is a fish out of water tale of sorts depicting a foreigner who feels out of place and consistently confused in another country.
  • Relationship incompatibilities that can break up a good thing.
  • Honesty and trust, two virtues that can be elusive in a relationship where each party is culturally, ethnically, and politically different from the other.
  • The impossibility of completely knowing or understanding a significant other, despite intimacy.

Other films directed by Julie Delpy

  • The Countess
  • 2 Days in New York
  • Lolo
  • My Zoe

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