Blog Directory CineVerse

It's a dog-eat-dog world out there

Friday, July 3, 2020

Amores Perros can be a challenging watch, especially for dog lovers and those averse to graphic violence in their chosen motion pictures. But those who stick it out are rewarded in their realization that this richly layered film boasts many truths and insightful observations about the human experience and the precarious nature of relationships--or lack thereof. Our CineVerse group's post-viewing discussion covered several fascinating topics, including the following:

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or memorable about this film?

  • While all the acting performances are top-notch, the dogs are arguably the best actors if we are to believe that none were hurt during the making of the movie.
  • The filmmakers employ unique approaches for each of the three segments. In story #1, we’re shown more close-ups; story #2 relies more on medium-shots; and story #3 more commonly uses long shots and densely layered compositions from a farther distance. The film stock and color tones are different for each segment, as well.

Themes woven into Amores Perros

  • Fidelity and disloyalty, as demonstrated by many characters, including Octavio, Susana and Ramiro, and Daniel and Valeria. Because dogs are synonymous with loyalty and obedience, they are also fitting characters within the film.
  • Man’s best friend is representational of his owner.
    • Consider how Cofi is introduced as a companion pet but devolves into a violent killer, similar to Octavio and Ramiro. Ponder how Ritchie is pampered and coddled like Valeria, but ends up lost and injured, much like its owner, who isn’t in control of her life just as she lacks control of her pet. And think about how Cofi is eventually taken in by El Chivo; but as with his new owner, he kills those around him, causing the homeless man to reevaluate his life and the negativity he is responsible for, which leads him to change.
    • Due to the chaotic and unstable lives of their masters, every dog we see ends up suffering, becoming more violent, or becoming the victim of violence by the tale’s conclusion.
  • The haphazard impact of fate upon different walks of life. The car crash, shared by all three main characters, is a violent random occurrence that appears less preordained than indiscriminate, random, and unpredictable.
    • We also observe three different social classes in this picture: the upper class (Valeria and Daniel); the lower-middle class (Octavio, Susana, and Ramiro), and the poor lower class (El Chivo).
    • Blogger Natalie Stendall wrote: “The transient connections between lives – the unexpected, fleeting crossovers – suggest a bigger, metaphysical presence in the universe. In the moments leading up to the second and third times we see the car crash, we anticipate it, we can feel it is about to happen. But we’re always shocked when it does. The context is different each time and so are the angles it’s captured from, more details are revealed. This peculiar blend of anticipation and surprise draws our attention to the interconnected nature of life.”
  • The interconnectedness of human beings and how we all experience both joy and suffering and share common emotions, including love, hate, lust, fear, longing, and loneliness.
  • Unrequited love, and the challenge of finding and sharing love in a cruel and complex world. Recall how Octavio doesn’t end up with Susana; Valeria loves Ritchie more than Daniel, but Ritchie abandons her and Daniel may be cheating on her as he did with his wife; and El Chivo wants to be a part of his estranged daughter’s life but knows he probably can’t.
  • Redemption. This is possibly achieved by El Chivo but not the other characters—whom we see in melancholy, somber moods of defeat at the ends of their stories.
  • “We are also what we have lost.” These words are displayed at the conclusion of the film and suggest that suffering, estrangement, separation, betrayal, and unreciprocated love are all part of the human experience and factor into the persons we become.

Many of the stories and characters share commonalities. Can you name any?

  • All three stories conclude with the main character alone and presumably left unloved by someone they adore.
  • Story #1 and 3 depict brothers who try to harm or murder each other.
  • Each of the three stories and main characters is involved in a violent car crash, the point at which all three tales and personalities intersect.
  • All three segments feature dogs, especially canines that end up suffering or dying.
  • Each segment depicts a father who doesn’t fulfill his responsibility to his children or abandons them.

Other movies that Amores Perros brings to mind

  • Hyperlink films that contain different storylines and characters who eventually converge and cross paths, including Pulp Fiction, Crash, Grand Canyon, and Short Cuts
  • Non-linear narratives that employ time shifts and which may revisit scenes told from another perspective, including Pulp Fiction, Mulholland Drive, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Godfather Part II, Once Upon a Time in America, and Hiroshima Mon Amour
  • Films by surrealist director Luis Bunuel, including Tristana and Los Olivados
  • Dekalog by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Other notable works by Alejandro González Iñárritu

  • 21 Grams
  • Babel
  • Birdman
  • The Revenant

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Keep two eyes on these Jacks

Saturday, June 20, 2020

It's incredible to think that the first cut of One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando's one and only directorial effort from 1961, ran close to eight hours, if the rumors are true. The version we can view today is still a lengthy watch at 141 minutes, but it's packed with interesting characters, classic western film conflict, and Marlon mannerisms that suggest a Method actor's approach to a fairly conventional oater. Our CineVerse group put this film under the magnifying glass last Wednesday and surmised the following.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, surprising, or memorable about Oned-Eyed Jacks?

  • Marlon Brando directed as well as starred in the film; known for being a Method actor, he personifies and enlivens this character with traits and idiosyncrasies that many wouldn’t expect for an antihero character in a tough western.
  • There’s a Freudian Oedipal subtext going on in this film, which depicts a man betrayed by his partner but refusing to immediately seek revenge on him—even though he can; instead, Rio opts to seduce his ex-partner’s stepdaughter, lying to her about who he is and what he intends, and deflowering and impregnating her.
    • Consider that the ex-partner’s name is “Dad Longworth,” which suggests that Rio has “daddy issues” and is almost acting out like a rebellious, unpredictable teenager who hasn’t quite matured yet to make the best decisions but who is steadfast in his determination to wreak revenge upon Longworth.
  • The visuals and runtime are sprawling; there’s some fantastic location shooting here on display that showcases Mexico and Monterey in picturesque splendor. Also, this is quite long in the tooth for a western of this time or any time, clocking in at 141 minutes (after Brando originally had a first cut of nearly five hours long).
  • The movie feels like a blend between an old school Hollywood western—the kind directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks—and a New Hollywood film that employs greater acting nuance and range as well as deeper psychological themes, adult situations, and shades of grey in which the antihero—later perfected by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name—could thrive and be accepted by audiences.
    • This picture has been described as having European arthouse film sensibilities to some extent, especially in its meandering, nontraditional narrative.
    • It also interestingly has characters speak Spanish without the use of subtitles, forcing non-fluent viewers to pay close attention and attempt to decipher what’s being said in the context of the scene.
  • The ending feels morally and practically unresolved and ambiguous. We see Rio determined to move on and hide out from the law, refusing to take Louisa with him but vowing to be reunited with her.
  • Brando is presenting an intriguing antihero character who is designed to leave us conflicted. How are we supposed to feel about Rio, who has proven himself to be a pathological liar, opportunist, bank robber, and murderer (or at least manslaughterer)? Rio is a walking contradiction: a man who takes advantage of women and their trust in him, uses threats and violence to get what he wants, and is a known criminal, yet a character who seems to redeem himself and defend the honor of women and whom we are unavoidably rooting for and charismatically drawn to. Is he worthy of our trust and admiration?

Themes at work in One-Eyed Jacks

  • The duplicitous and hidden natures of human beings. The film is titled “One-Eyed Jacks” for a reason; the idiom means someone who presents a positive side of their character while obscuring their dark other side. Rio tells Dad: “You may be a one-eyed jack around here, but I've seen the other side of your face.”
  • Betrayal, revenge, and attempted redemption in a morally ambiguous universe.
  • Rebellion against patriarchal authority, as embodied by Rio versus a former partner in crime named, interestingly, “Dad Longworth.”

Other films similar to One-Eyed Jacks

  • Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
  • The Appaloosa
  • The Missouri Breaks
  • The Law and Jake Wade
  • Lonely Are the Brave
  • Johnny Guitar
  • Shoot Out

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Very Cary, auspiciously Audrey, but essentially Alfred

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Any filmmaker who has attempted to outdo Alfred Hitchcock in the suspense/thriller department, or slavishly imitate his style, has usually failed. But not always. One shining example of a Hitchcockian film that you might swear was directed by the Master himself if you didn't know any better is Charade, a 1963 outing helmed by Stanley Donen, which fits neatly within the Hitchcock canon in multiple ways. We counted those ways last week during our CineVerse meeting and discussed the following:

Other films and works that Charade makes us think of

  • Hitchcock thrillers like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief as well as Vertigo
  • James Bond spy thrillers of the time, including Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger
  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • 1960s stylish crime comedies and romantic thrillers, especially ones set in foreign countries, such as Arabesque, How to Steal a Million, Mirage, and The Pink Panther
  • Agatha Christie’s And Then There Was None

This film has been hailed as the greatest Hitchcock picture not made by Hitchcock himself. How does this movie look and feel like a Hitchcock film?

  • It casts Cary Grant, who starred in four outstanding films for Hitchcock: North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Notorious, and Suspicion.
  • It uses the theme of the wrong man suspected of a crime or act that he (in this case, a woman) did not commit, which Grant played to perfection four years earlier in North by Northwest. It also employs two other common Hitchcock themes: deception and duplicity.
  • It features a MacGuffin—a device that motivates the characters but which doesn’t matter much to the overall story or our satisfaction with the movie. Here, the MacGuffin is the missing $25,000, which later turns out to be three rare stamps.
  • It deftly balances the Hitchcock blend of suspense, black comedy, intrigue, and romance between two attractive leads.
  • It’s set and filmed in a romantic and picturesque location—in this case Paris—similar to how Hitchcock filmed To Catch a Thief in the south of France and showcased all the lavish facets of that country. Here, as in many Hitchcock films, our characters also interact with or observe popular landmarks, such as Notre Dame, Champs-Élysées, and the Palais Royale. Hitchock reveled in featuring American landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Rushmore, and the Statue of Liberty in some of his movies.
  • The opening titles are reminiscent of visually arresting and textually animated openings for Vertigo and Psycho.
  • Aping Hitchcock, there’s even a cameo by the director, Stanley Donen, who appears, opposite the film’s screenwriter, in one of the elevator scenes.
  • Unlike most Hitchcock films, however, this one infused more comedic and cutesy elements into the story, which created a more lighthearted tone. This tone would be more consistent with a latter Hitchcock work like Family Plot or, to some degree, The Trouble With Harry.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or surprisingly different about Charade?

  • It can quickly turn from light and funny to dark and disturbing. One moment we’re enjoying a chuckle-inducing scene between Grant and Hepburn and a few scenes later we are shown the victim of a brutal murder (such as a man drowned, a man with his throat cut, and another man who has been asphyxiated with a plastic bag).
  • There’s a lot more action, perhaps, than you’d expect in this film, especially action demanded of Grant’s character, despite the actor and the character being in his late fifties. Peter has to grapple acrobatically with a hook-handed hulk, run full bore in pursuit of Regina, and engage in a nimble shootout with Hamilton.
  • The casting is impressive, considering the presence of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and Oscar winner George Kennedy in addition to Hepburn and Grant.
  • Criterion Collection essayist Bruce Eder wrote: “Charade occupies a special place among sixties thrillers. In an era of spy films resplendent with macho-driven eroticism (the James Bond series), cynicism (Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer series), or farcical irreverence (Casino Royale; the Flint movies, with Charade costar James Coburn), it was the only successful take on the genre to place a woman at its center.”

Other films directed by Stanley Donen

  • On the Town
  • Royal Wedding
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
  • Funny Face
  • The Pajama Game
  • Damn Yankees
  • Indiscreet

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Take a swig of vintage redrum

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Kim Newman
For Cineversary podcast episode #24, host Erik Martin takes an eerie trip into the Overlook Hotel with film critic and horror movie expert Kim Newman to commemorate the 40th anniversary of "The Shining," directed by Stanley Kubrick. Erik and Kim explore why this horror masterwork is worth honoring 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.

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.

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

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A Ronin stone gathers no moss

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Looking for an action flick that's a bit offbeat without missing a beat as an entertaining and gripping picture? Check out Ronin, John Frankenheimer's 1998 thriller starring Robert De Niro and a notable cast of supporting performers. Why is it worth your time? Our CineVerse group discussed Ronin's merits last week, as summarized below.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or refreshingly different about this film, particularly as a spy/espionage-type action thriller?

  • Robert DeNiro plays against type here, portraying at 54 years old an action hero. We’ve never really seen him in this kind of role before, although his turn in Midnight Run showed he could effectively play an athletic tough guy with a gun (in that film he was a bounty hunter).
  • Instead of developing a love story subplot between Sam and Deidre, which is hinted at briefly, the real relationship that blossoms in this movie is between Sam and Vincent: a bromance instead of a romance, if you will.
  • The film also avoids many tropes and conventions for this breed of picture, including a comedic sidekick, an obligatory sex scene, excessive explosions, speechifying from heroes or villains, and music-accompanied montages (like a weapons-gathering montage orchestrated with pulsing hip-hop music).
  • The cast assembled here is exceptional for a smart action movie of this kind. Aside from DeNiro, we see Jean Reno, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, and Sean Bean—each of whom has served as impressive lead actors in films of their own.
  • The car chase sequences—especially the more elaborate second one—are impressive, especially when you consider how tight some of these streets are and how congested the thoroughfares are with drivers and pedestrians. These are real stunt drivers driving real cars at real fast speeds in real European locations, and the stunt choreography, fast-paced editing, and sound design make for a pulse-pounding experience.
  • The film lacks a comprehensible plot and character development. Still, with all the double-crossings and surprise twists and turns it takes, the rapid pacing, and the fact that much is left unexplained (like what’s in the case, who is working for who, why Miki doesn’t care about the skater Natacha being killed, and what happened to Deidre), the narrative can be confusing and difficult to keep up with.
  • Thanks to the European actors cast and European settings, this doesn’t look or feel like an average American spy/heist derring-do movie.

Themes on display in Ronin

  • Betrayal, shifting allegiances, double-crossing, and switchbacks
  • Abiding by a professional code, which in this line of work includes trusting no one, anticipating your enemy’s next move, solving problems yourself without relying on others, not getting personally attached, and knowing who you’re working for and with.
  • Playing chess, in which anticipating your adversary’s next move is crucial to winning the game, the professionals are the major pieces and bystanders are the disposable pawns.
  • Finding purpose and merit as a wayward warrior. We learn that Ronin are masterless samurai who essentially become mercenaries for hire, yet because they are so highly trained and disciplined, they are valued for their specialized talents. Interestingly, we think Sam is ex-CIA but by the end of the film he reveals that he’s still with the CIA: In other words, his partners in the scheme are ronin but he is not.

Other movies that Ronin brings to mind

  • Films with fantastic car chase scenes, including Bullit, The French Connection, and Vanishing Point
  • Pulp Fiction, which also features a mysterious case that’s never opened
  • The Bourne films, including The Bourne Identity
  • Heist, CIA, and spy films like Heat, The Jackal, From Paris With Love, Mission: Impossible, Spy Game, The Assignment, and The Foreigner

Other films directed by John Frankenheimer

  • The Manchurian Candidate
  • Seconds
  • Seven Days in May
  • Birdman of Alcatraz
  • The French Connection II

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"No one's paying attention." Until they did--far too late.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Want to better understand what caused The Great Recession and the burst of the housing bubble 12 years ago? Check out The Big Short (2015), director Adam McKay's riveting treatise on Wall Street greed unchecked. With its fascinating characters and narrative techniques, it makes a convoluted topic comprehensible and unnervingly entertaining. Upon our exploration of this film last week, our CineVerse club reached several conclusions, including:

How did this film surprise you or defy your expectations in any way?

  • It uses a variety of clever and entertaining techniques to educate viewers on the issue, including:
    • Breaking the fourth wall by having characters, especially the main narrator played by Ryan Gosling, look at and talk to the audience.
    • Employing visual metaphors, including the Jenga tower, the vision-impaired credit rating expert, the fish stew story, and the blackjack table sequence, to explain complicated financial terms and concepts in easy-to-comprehend ways.
    • Using brief cameos by celebrities, such as late chef Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez, and Margo Robbie, to explain complicated financial terms and concepts in easy-to-understand language.
  • The film adopts a variety of styles to impart its message, including:
    • Rapid-fire and edgy music video-like editing
    • Handheld documentary-like camera work (where we’ll often see shaky shots or rough-panning shots that go in and out of focus, for example)
    • Freeze frames
    • Random quotes and unrelated footage of everyday Americans to separate the film into different chapters or sections
    • Definitions of complex terms superimposed as text on the screen
    • Pop and rock music, the lyrics and rhythm of which underscore what’s happening, including Metallica’s Master of Puppets, That’s Life by Nick D’Edigio, When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin, and Money Maker by Ludacris.
  • The Big Short blends a variety of genres and subgenres to tell its story and captivate us, including comedy, thriller, documentary, true crime story, heist film, and character study.
  • It’s easy to root for the three groups who dominate the narrative—Dr. Burry, Mark Baum, and Jamie and Charlie—as they are anti-establishment underdogs whom we want to see vindicated. Yet if they are successful, that means untold misery and ruin for millions of Americans. So by the end of the picture, when they are proved to be correct and profit from their prescience, it’s easy to feel uneasy—as if we’ve been emotionally manipulated by the filmmakers similar to how the stockholders and homeowners were financially manipulated by the puppetmasters who caused the Great Recession.
  • Ultimately, the film proves that, with some ingenuity and creative approaches, even the most complicated and boring subjects can be demystified and accessible to everyday people. Director McKay said in an interview: “The premise was that we were going to take this 24-hour pop-culture machine that tells us what Kim Kardashian is up to, and then say, ‘What if that machine told us real information?’.”
  • As New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott wrote: “It offers no solutions, and no comfort.” The film allows us to draw our own conclusions about its characters, who was responsible, and if our country has learned enough to prevent history from repeating itself.

Themes found in The Big Short

  • The uneasy triumph of the underdog: Dr. Burry, Mark Baum, and Charlie and Jamie, the latter two merely bit players in the investing game, bet their fortunes that Wall Street and the housing market are wrong and are proved correct. Yet their victories, especially to Charlie and Jamie, don’t feel satisfying or celebratory, as they know that it signifies a corrupt and broken system that has failed and will cause pain and suffering to millions of Americans.
  • Gambling on a longshot. Here, the players who buck the system and bet on a long odds prospect are ultimately rewarded; interestingly, we root for Jamie and Charlie, Baum, and Burry because others consider them crazy, misguided, or beneath them—making them more endearing to the viewer. Yet, this is an awkward and conflicting rooting interest, as their success means negative outcomes for countless Americans.
  • The rippling consequences of greed and arrogance. We see how good people, many who aren’t connected to Wall Street, suffer while the rich either get richer or go unpunished for their misdeeds.
  • This film begs the question: Can you be a good person in a bad system and a corrupt world?

Other movies that come to mind after viewing The Big Short

  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Wall Street
  • Moneyball
  • Inside Job
  • Too Big to Fail
  • Margin Call
  • 99 Homes

Other films directed by Adam McKay

  • Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
  • Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
  • Step Brothers (2008)
  • Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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Gourmet chop socky

Monday, May 25, 2020

Technically, American audiences didn't first experience Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon until late 2000. But 20 years ago this month the martial arts movie masterpiece debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Two decades later, there are still plenty of deep truths and poetic virtues to uncover, as demonstrated by the following analysis:

Why is this picture is worth celebrating 20 years later? How has it stood the test of time, and why does it still matter?

  • The ethereal, graceful and masterful quality of the martial arts choreography and fight sequences are breathtakingly executed; instead of employing hard, aggressive fighting styles, it uses catlike, soft, almost balletic movements and depicts superman powers that stretch the laws of physics.
  • While the action and fighting are thrilling and important, it’s not the main focus of the movie: The action serves to advance the story and enhance the characters, rather than the other way around. Director Ang Lee said in an interview that “the choreography expressed the character development.”
  • For a martial arts movie, it’s quite richly textured with a plot structure that features romance, revenge, tragedy, and unrequited love.
  • It’s also a film with five particularly intriguing characters who each possess absorbing backstories and motivations: Li Mu Bai, Jen, Yu Shu Lien, Lo, and Jade Fox.
  • The cinematography, natural location shooting, and extreme widescreen vista result in a sweeping, epic, colorful, and awe-inspiring picture that serves as a feast for the eyes.
  • The score, featuring a mournful cello by Yo-Yo Ma and exciting drums, is beautifully moving and well syncopated to the rhythm of the fighting, movement, and editing.
  • While it has eastern philosophical sensibilities and character motivations that may be difficult for westerners to grasp, it’s an emotionally accessible film for audiences of any country and features exhilarating cinematic moments that can be appreciated by someone of any language or cultural background. Producer and screenwriter James Schamus said: “We wanted a film that would have accessibility to audiences around the world.”
  • Additionally, consider that Americans love musicals, and this film has been compared to a movie musical that substitutes fight sequences and acrobatic action for song and dance numbers.
  • Lee said: “Martial arts films are musicals at heart,” and “Crouching Tiger was a musical for me.”

In what ways do you think Crouching Tiger set trends or was influential popular culture and cinema?

  • While it may not necessarily be the greatest wuxia or martial arts film ever made, it’s pretty close in many viewers’ eyes. A big reason is that, unlike many chop-socky predecessors, often inexpensive quickies low on production value, this movie had a rich sheen to it, thanks to a relatively large budget, impressive cast, and assemblage of talented filmmakers involved.
    • Its success ushered in a new wave of wuxia films that delighted western audiences, including, The House of Flying Daggers, Hero, Seven Swords, Curse of the Golden Flower, Reign of Assassins, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Brotherhood of Blades, Sword Master, and even the animated Kung Fu Panda.
  • Crouching Tiger went on to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film in history up to that time, which speaks to its immediate popularity.
    • Arguably, a foreign film had never received, collectively, so much media attention, public adoration, Oscar recognition, and critical acclaim before Crouching Tiger. It was nominated for 10 Academy Award nominations—a record that still holds today—and won for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design. At the time, this was only the third movie nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film.
    • That impact paved the way for other foreign films to get imported and noticed in America.
  • With its focus on strong women characters and the female-centric narrative with Jen at its center, this film was ahead of its time. Today, many superhero films and action movies spotlight powerful and interesting female characters who defy gender conventions and expectations. Without Crouching Tiger, perhaps Quintin Tarantino doesn’t make his Kill Bill films, for example, and possibly superhero films with female leads don’t get greenlit. You could make a case that this is the most feminist action movie ever created.

What messages or themes are explored in Crouching Tiger? What’s the moral to the story here? 

  • Revenge, betrayal, suppressed and repressed love, and the pursuit of liberty are the obvious ideas at work.
  • Don’t underestimate women or their agency. The three primary female characters each try to push beyond the boundaries of what culture, tradition, and society expect of women.
    • Jen struggles between her wish to be respected by her family and accepted by society and her yearning to be free of patriarchal rules.
    • Jade Fox is bitter because her mentor wouldn’t teach her the master martial arts methods because she is a woman, and she resents that he was willing to have sex with her but not engage her fully as a partner.
    • By contrast, Yu Shu Lien abides by the moral codes and patriarchal society mores imposed on her, respects the privileges of males, and ignores her desire for Li Mu Bai because it would be dishonorable to wed him after being engaged to his late brother. Yet she demonstrates an awesome repertoire of martial arts skills that is equal to Jen’s and superior to all males in this story except Li Mu Bai.
    • Screenwriter James Schamus said: “The film is a constant dialogue about authority and teaching and mastery and masculinity versus femininity…and how these two things end up not being in opposition.”
    • One interpretation suggests that the Green Destiny sword is a phallic symbol of power that Jen and Jade Fox aspire to.
  • The conflicting relationship between student and teacher (Jen and Jade Fox, Jen and Li Mu Bai), especially when the pupil surpasses the master.
  • Duality, duplicity, and concealment. Ponder the film’s title: The name “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” concerns the hidden or undiscovered talents and mysteries that exist below the surface of a person who otherwise appears normal.
    • Lo’s name means “Little Tiger,” which refers to the “Crouching Tiger of the title.
    • Jen’s real name means “Jade’s Dragon,” which refers to the “Hidden Dragon” of the title.
  • No person is an island. During an interview, Ang Lee said the film suggests that “you can’t live by yourself alone—nobody has total freedom.”
  • Freeing your mind from boundaries and adult rules. Lee was also quoted as saying: “Sometimes you have to go far away to find your long-lost innocence.” He suggested that Crouching Tiger “takes you back to childhood,” a time when you could imagine yourself flying and performing superhuman acts. I think what he’s getting at here is how the film makes you want to believe that people can fly and engage in superman stunts. But to suspend your disbelief, you have to be receptive to the joy of discovery and have a curious and open mind about the wondrous nature of the world.

How are we to interpret the ending, when Jen leaps from Wudan mountain? Is this a suicide, and if so, why does she do it?

  • Jen realizes that marriage would keep her confined and repressed.
  • Perhaps she experiences guilt, as the freedom she sought resulted, inadvertently, in the death of Li Mu Bai.
  • Maybe she believes that suicide is an honorable and heroic action under the circumstances.
  • More likely is that Jen yearns for the total freedom that death would bring, which she can accomplish in a way that harkens back to the story her lover Lo describes earlier in the movie—the tale of a boy who jumps off the mountain. film scholar Tasha Robinson posits that Jen throws herself from the mountain “in hopes that the purity of her sacrifice will please the gods, who will grant her a wish.” We hear Jen tell Lo to make a wish; in response, Lo says he desires to return to the desert with Jen and be like they were before. Perhaps visualizing that image before plummeting to her demise, Jen achieves that wish, at least in her mind.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • The five major fight sequences staged remain fantastically rewarding, each unique and memorable and all the more impressive because each duel refreshingly involves women kicking ass and outshining male combatants or—in the case of the final contest between Jen and Li Mu Bai, females proving to be powerful adversaries.
  • Crouching Tiger is endlessly rewatchable, not just for the dazzling martial arts sequences and combat choreography but for the breathtaking cinematography, nuanced performances, and philosophical truths and questions it conjures.
  • It has a haunting and melancholic resonance, driven home by the often dirge-like cello music played by Yo-Yo Ma and the fact that all the major characters either die or endure with unfulfilled wishes of love. This kind of gift is like dark chocolate—a richer and less sweet confection that is better for your body.
  • It serves as yet another example of the diverse talents of a master filmmaker, Ang Lee, who has distinguished himself in so many different genres, including the romance genre with Sense and Sensibility, the social commentary period drama with The Ice Storm, the western with Brokeback Mountain, the adventure thriller with Life of Pi, and even the comic book movie with Hulk.

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We are not alone in our admiration of Spielberg's Close Encounters

Thursday, May 21, 2020

When you recall the early part of Steven Spielberg's directorial career, it's easy to immediately think of the blockbuster masterworks like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. But often overlooked among this period is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his standout treatise on science-fiction and the possibility of contact between man and alien life forms. Our CineVerse group looked upon this 1977 classic with fresh eyes this week (click here to listen to our recorded discussion) and came away with these observations:

Why was this film important and groundbreaking in 1977, and how did it prove to be influential?

  • This movie benefitted from excellent timing, being released right on the heels of Star Wars, and further proving that science-fiction could be an extremely popular and important genre.
  • Like Star Wars in the same year, the special effects in this movie significantly advance the genre and our expectations for how a sci-fi film can and should look. The mothership, in particular, was and is breathtaking.
  • The film no doubt inspired many first-contact sci-fi films that came later, including E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Abyss, Fire in the Sky, Contact, and Arrival.
  • This was a refreshing return to the concept of benevolent aliens and the potential for friendly contact between humans and extra-terrestrials. Consider that so many science-fiction movies, from the 1950s up through the present day have often depicted threatening, monstrous, and evil alien creatures bent on conquering or destroying the earth.
  • While this film is often tonally consistent with conspiracy thrillers of the pre- and post-Watergate era, which milked the mistrust Americans had in their government and reflected a cynical and pessimistic worldview, we end up seeing the authorities doing the right thing here, including preparing for and communicating with the aliens in a non-defensive and amiable way; although they frighten away the public from the Devils Tower location with deceptive tactics, these tactics are relatively harmless.
  • It’s a rare example of a film that works equally well for kids and adults without having to dumb down the material or aim for a G rating.
    • Reviewer James Berardinelli wrote: “Close Encounters is one of those rare films that works equally as well for children and for adults. Kids see this film as a promise of what might be out there and an unthreatening look at the possibilities that the universe holds. How many UFO believers today began their fascination with alien life after seeing this movie as a child? Adults, even skeptics, see Close Encounters as an accomplished fairy tale. Whether UFOs are real or not, this movie beautifully postulates the best of all alternatives - that the government cares about first contact and about the welfare of its citizens, that the aliens are benevolent, and that we can take comfort from the fact that "we are not alone". Remarkably, a film like Close Encounters speaks to the adult in the child and the child in the adult.”
  • This movie undoubtedly encouraged many people to watch the skies, learn more about science and astronomy, believe in UFOs and alien life, and take a closer look at Francois Truffaut, the brilliant French director who Spielberg cast in a key role here.

What is impressive or interesting about Steven Spielberg’s approach to the material and directing choices?

  • He captures the middle-class American family perfectly. The scenes between Roy and his family are impeccably crafted, with realistic dialogue and believable emotions. The dinner table scene with the mashed potatoes is a master class in cinematically depicting a typical dysfunctional nuclear family.
  • He doesn’t attempt to answer every question. We don’t learn why the aliens choose who they do, why they are returned, how they or their vessels work, or why they’re coming to earth at all. We are meant to maintain a sense of wonder and indescribable awe about what we and the characters experience.
  • The picture smartly weaves scary and pessimistic elements with upbeat, optimistic, and emotionally moving elements to take our feelings on a roller coaster ride.
    • Kieran Fisher of Film School Rejects wrote: “The brilliance of Close Encounters is the way it subverts the scary tropes of alien invasion movies to tell a story about overcoming fear and achieving great things. The only way to find progress is to make compromises, and we can’t co-exist with others if we don’t learn about them. The movie contains some great values about acceptance, but it doesn’t shy away from giving us terrifying thrills and some complex food for thought to chew on, either. In the end, the blind optimism of Roy and the kid paid off, but the movie is an emotional roller coaster all the same.”

Themes at work in this picture

  • The importance of maintaining a childlike innocence and sense of wonder. Consider that the only two characters we see who are taken away by the aliens are a very young child and a grown man who still loves cartoons, exudes a youthful mindset, and maintains a strong sense of curiosity about the world. It’s no mistake that there are several references to Disney’s Pinnochio here, including a Jiminy Cricket toy and strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star” heard in the musical score.
  • "We are not alone" (the film's tagline) in the universe. There is higher life that exists outside our planet, and we can find common ground and communicate with these life forms if we choose to.
  • The search for truth, life, and connection beyond our planet can be a spiritual or religious experience. Think about how Roy seems to have been “enlightened” in his first and last close encounters with aliens, and recall the awe and wonder on the faces of the authorities who make musical contact with the aliens at the conclusion. And recall how we are briefly shown a scene from The Ten Commandments movie on Roy’s television: the sequence where Moses splits the Red Sea. The filmmakers continually remind us that Roy is undergoing a religious experience.
  • Music is a universal language that bridges cultures and, in this case, worlds.

Other movies we think of after watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind

  • Sci-fi films of the 1950s, particularly the rare ones with benevolent aliens including The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space
  • E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Cocoon
  • The Abyss
  • Fire in the Sky
  • Contact
  • Arrival

Other films directed by Steven Spielberg

  • Jaws
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark and its 3 sequels
  • E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Jurassic Park
  • Schindler’s List
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • A.I: Artificial Intelligence
  • Minority Report
  • Munich
  • War of the Worlds
  • Lincoln
  • Bridge of Spies

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Talking tigers, dishing dragons

Monday, May 18, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #23, host Erik Martin treks to China with Kenneth Chan, professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado and a scholar of Asian cinema, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," directed by Ang Lee. Erik and Kenneth explore why this standout film is worth honoring 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.
Kenneth Chan
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 Music, PodBean, 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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