Blog Directory CineVerse

War is hell. For proof, ask Mr. Lawrence.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

When it comes to movies about prisoners of war, not many are as violent, bleak and realistic as "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," a hauntingly moving yet disturbing picture based on the novel "The Seed and the Sower," written by Laurens van der Post, a survivor of a Japanese POW camp during World War II. Here's our CineVerse breakdown of this film:

What about this film left an impression on you?

  • It’s geometrically and numerically interesting. The narrative is constructed around a quartet—one Western pair contrasted against an Eastern pair—and also around trio of nested tales. Additionally, the compositions feature a lot of linear geometry, hard lines and symmetrical patterns.
  • The score is memorable and even familiar to those who may not have seen this picture before; interestingly, it was composed by the actor who plays Captain Yonoi, Ryuichi Sakamoto.
  • The casting of David Bowie is a quirky one. On one hand, he would have made this a bigger box-office draw based on his rock superstar popularity at the time (this was 1983, the peak of his fame); on the other, it can be hard to picture the slight and fey Bowie as a battle-tested military commander.
  • Likewise, the filmmakers chose to cast a famous Japanese singer/songwriter in the role of Yonoi, despite the fact that he’d never acted professionally before.
  • It’s curiously multicultural. Ponder that the story was written by a South African who lived long in Britain yet was directed by a Japanese filmmaker.
Themes built into this movie include:
  • Failure to communicate: We have two languages, two cultures, and two sets of men who can’t connect or understand each other.
  • Courage in the face of adversity and despair
  • The senselessness and brutality of war and human conflict
  • A clash of cultures: East vs. West, Axis vs. Allied Forces, brunette vs. blonde.
  • Living by a code: Captain Yonoi prides himself as a follower of Bushido and the way of the samurai, but he is sexually attracted to a foreign man, which is forbidden by his code and culture.
  • The dangers of nationalism and the fate of two fading empires
  • Guilt and remorse
Films that come to mind after viewing Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • The Long and the Short and the Tall
  • Stalag 17
  • King Rat
  • The Great Raid
  • Unbroken
Other films directed by Nagisa Oshima
  • The Ceremony
  • In the Realm of the Senses
  • Empire of Passion
  • Taboo


Wyatt and Billy may have blown it, but "Easy Rider" doesn't

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

On its impending golden anniversary, "Easy Rider" has the ability to shake off the cobwebs and shine with a luster befitting its age and stature. Yes, it's creaky in parts, and the late 1960s may feel as irrelevant today as the Prohibition era did then. But dare to look deeper and you'll find rivulets of undeniable truth spurting from virtually every seam on this faded denim feature.

Last week, CineVerse took a time machine back to the summer of 1969 to rediscover this relic; what surprised our group was how powerful a testament to a time and generation the film remains. Here's a recap of our discussion:

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’s a time capsule of a film that depicts what was in the public consciousness in the late 1960s, a time when the counterculture and the young generation was searching for answers, power and respect. This film spoke to them in ways that no previous movie had because it presented characters and themes that represented their generation and its hopes and dreams. It’s also one of the first examples of a movie catering to audiences who had grown increasingly dissatisfied with and suspicious of the government and the establishment; consider all the cynicism, mistrust and pessimism we see directed toward the police, the military, politicians, and the American dream in subsequent movies, particularly in the early to mid-1970s.
  • Even if it looks and feels dated 50 years later, it serves as a fascinating snapshot of the late 1960s and the lessons we can learn from that era and the people this film mattered to at that time. 
  • This, along with a few predecessors like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, helped rewrite the rules of American film by introducing more adult situations, profanity, nudity, and drug use and effectively ending the censorship era. 
  • It’s a wildly experimental film in narrative and editing style; while some of its techniques, like the stagger-ific flash forwarding to future scenes, may no longer be effective or in fashion, this was a completely unique film for its time or any time—not a cookie cutter production that colored within the lines. 
  • Easy Rider also stands as a revisionist western that usurps and updates the classic Hollywood western film; consider how Wyatt and Billy are named after western icons, yet look, act and think so differently from those real-life characters. Instead of riding horses, they drive motorcycles. Also, instead of heading west, they’re travelling east—antithetical to the direction you’d expect in a western heroes. 
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • It became one of the most successful independent films of all time up to that point, earning $60 million worldwide on about a $400,000 budget, proving that movies made outside the control of the major studios and by guerrilla filmmakers could make big money as well as earn critical acclaim. This achievement motivated many other up-and-coming directors and independent filmmakers to pursue their own outside-Hollywood projects.
  • Like The Graduate before it, it features a soundtrack of pop music that was contemporary and popular in its time, eschewing an instrumental original score; today, countless movies follow the same musical formula. 
  • It introduced Jack Nicholson to the masses and made him a star overnight. Nicholson steals every scene he is in and has the best lines of the film. 
  • It was the “first film to show drugs as an accepted part of people’s lives,” according to critic Emanuel Levy. The actors used real drugs in the movie, and the acid trip is considered the first and most authentic use of LSD in a major motion picture. 
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Easy Rider?
  • Is it possible to be a truly free American? Wyatt and Billy pride themselves on being untethered nomads who are free to roam and explore where they want, completely off the grid and beholden to no one. But is this ideal hippie lifestyle practical or truly possible? We see how the establishment—in the form of rednecks—doesn’t approve of them and, eventually kills them. Although it may no longer be as dangerous to be like Billy or Wyatt on the road, prejudice, intolerance and generational and political divides still exist and threaten this ideal.
    • Think about the most important lines in the movie, uttered by Nicholson: “They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you present to ’em…What you represent to them is freedom.”
    • Consider, too, how Nicholson’s character serves as an intermediary and fulcrum between two diverse sides: the counterculture and the establishment. His character is a mix of both, and it’s fitting that he appears roughly in the middle of the movie.
  • The death of the 1960s ideal. The counterculture and the hippie generation yearned for independence from the establishment and corporate America and the liberty to be able to live their alternative lifestyles and practice free love in peace while expressing themselves without fear of reprisal. But we see how that turns out for Wyatt and Billy.
    • The line “we blew it” also reinforces this. You could interpret this as a confession that Wyatt and Billy have sold out their values and idealism by making the drug score and valuing money and possessions, conforming to a capitalist ethos in that regard while also failing to truly feel free. In a 1995 making-of featurette, Hopper said the film’s main message was that freedom comes with great responsibility; Billy and Wyatt didn’t live up to that responsibility.
    • Or, consider what Criterion Collection essayist Matt Zoller Seitz wrote: “But the line strikes me also as a more personal sort of confession, an admission that they have ultimately succumbed and bought into their own outlaw version of the capitalist rat race—the idea that a man is not a true success unless he has accumulated enough money to stop working and take it easy.”
  • Martyrdom. Wyatt and Billy are, ultimately, counterculture casualties in the culture wars of the late 1960s, and Wyatt in particular is drawn as a kind of Christ-like figure. We see how they enjoy a sort of “last supper” in New Orleans and then have a kind of “Garden of Gethsemane” experience of LSD-induced confusion, suffering and prayer before they are killed. You could interpret the end of the film as decidedly downbeat, making the movie a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-expression and pursuit of individuality in a country that isn’t truly “free.”
    • Levy wrote: “The movie goes to great lengths to celebrate the romantic individualism of the youth movement, but within this celebration there is actually a thoughtful and clever warning. Easy Rider, be it dated, does present the question of whether excessive, irresponsible individualism might have detrimental effects.”
    • Seitz believed that “the film’s piquant final shot—the camera rising away from Wyatt’s shattered, burning bike—suggests a soul’s ascent to heaven. It could represent the death of a man, or of a dream of revolution. But it may also signify the death of a false dream of comfort. Billy and Wyatt were born to be wild, and they died wild; in its twisted way, it’s a happy ending.”
    • Roger Ebert posited: “It is possible to see that Captain America and Billy died not only for our sins, but also for their own.”
  • Being in the right place at the right time.
    • Recall how the commune leader gives Wyatt and Billy a cube of acid that he recommends they quarter it once they get to the right place with the right people; yet, when they choose to consume it with the prostitutes in New Orleans, we see what is depicted as a bad trip, insinuating that this was the wrong time with the wrong people.
    • Earlier, Wyatt throws away his wristwatch, as if suggesting that he will not be bound by the rules and restrictions of time. While we may cheer this rebellious act of nonconformity, we see examples as the movie progresses of how Wyatt and his friends end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, ultimately leading to their deaths. It’s also possible that these men are too far ahead of their time to be accepted, or that it’s impossible not to live a life free of the boundaries of time, schedules and temporal constraints.
    • Characters throughout the film talk about time, delivering lines like “Do your own thing in your own time,” “The time’s running out…” “I’m hip about time.”
Who do you think this film appealed to initially when it was released in 1969, and who do you think it appeals to today? And if that appeal has changed, what does that say about the film’s impact, influence and legacy?
  • Undoubtedly, in 1969 this feature attracted young adults and teenagers, hippies, college students and liberals, as well as bikers and motorcycle enthusiasts; I recall Dennis Hopper noting in a making-of doc that some people in theaters cheered for the rednecks and the demise of Wyatt and Billy, so it’s likely that many people who weren’t part of or sympathetic to the youth movement or counterculture also went to see this picture.
  • Today, my hunch is this is more of a dated but fascinating relic to newer generations and a much harder sell as a recommendation. While many of its themes remain timeless and resonant, this is definitely a movie anchored in the time it was made and arguably irrelevant and odd to younger viewers who didn’t live through the 1960s and 1970s.
What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • Hitchhikers, acid trips, communes, asking people for their zodiac signs—these are fossils of a bygone era.
  • On the other hand, marijuana is a much more tolerated and trusted drug today that is becoming legalized in many states for recreational purposes, so Billy and Wyatt’s pot smoking doesn’t seem as dated or taboo.
  • There remains a great cultural, sociological and political divide in this country, as evidenced by continued racism, intolerance and animosity by many toward people who are different from them. As depicted in Easy Rider, it still feels as if there are two Americas—liberal vs. conservative, blue versus red, socialist vs. capitalist, North or West vs. South, and alternative vs. mainstream.
What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?
  • Arguably, it’s greatest gift is that the movie serves as a document of a specific time in American history—1969, when our country was terribly divided along generational, racial and political lines. In this way, although the context has changed, it can present relevant messages today, also a time of great schism in our country’s history. The questions it asks, such as “is America truly free,” and “is individuality, personal liberty and autonomy an illusion in a world controlled by corporate greed,” are meaningful today, too.
  • Many contend that Easy Rider’s strongest point is the casting and performance of Jack Nicholson. You could make a case that its greatest gift was the introduction of an acting legend who, at the time, confessed that he was ready to quit acting after toiling in obscurity for so many years; Nicholson demonstrates his great talent for bringing remarkably colorful and likeable characters to life.
  • Remember, too, that Easy Rider made it cool to use pop music as your soundtrack; that’s a gift that keeps on giving.


Christmas comes 6 months early

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Make way for World Cinema Wednesday at CineVerse on June 12, when we'll screen and discuss a co-production from Japan and the United Kingdom: “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983; 123 minutes), directed by Nagisa Ă”shima, chosen by Jane Williams.


Get your motor runnin'...

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Cineversary comes back to CineVerse on June 5, when we honor the 50th anniversary of “Easy Rider” (1969; 96 minutes), directed by Dennis Hopper. Plus: Enjoy Born to Be Wild, a 1995 documentary on the film (30 minutes).


A road trip that takes a few detours

Thursday, May 30, 2019

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the flood gates were open and many American filmmakers were unencumbered by the conventions and censorship of the past. This gave rise to an exciting but short-lived era of greater experimentation with film narrative and form, ambiguous endings, enigmatic characters, and non-traditional dialogue. Case in point: Monte Hellman's 1971 anticlimactic and nonconformist cult classic "Two-Lane Blacktop," which serves as a somewhat puzzling counterpoint to Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider," released two years earlier. We jumped in the back seat and took a ride with James Taylor and Dennis Wilson last night at CineVerse. Here's what we came up with:

What caught you by surprise here? 

  • The lack of a strong and cohesive narrative. We are led to believe that the movie is ultimately about winning a race, a possible romance with a girl, and reaching a destination. But the truth is that none of these narrative threads are resolved. In fact, the film is quite anticlimactic.
  • The slow pacing of the film, which is surprising considering it’s a road movie that builds up to a race.
  • It has a documentary-like feel and realism.
  • James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are surprisingly non-emotive. Instead of overacting (from two non-professional first-time actors), we get underplaying and stone-faced portrayals, which speaks volumes about the state of mind these characters are in. Here are two skilled professionals driven by a mission to drive, race, and keep moving (DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson posited: “The Driver and The Mechanic are the evolutionary culmination of the 'professional' Howard Hawks- kind of movie characters, who define themselves by their skills”). We get virtually no back story, no context for what motivates them. Despite the fact that the film cast two musicians in lead roles, Taylor and Wilson don’t disappoint.
  • The girl doesn’t serve as eye candy, sexy currency, or a romantic love interest. Instead, she’s fickle and fleeting and not emotionally tethered to any one man.
  • Arguably, the film is most focused on GTO’s character—he serves as the heart of the movie. And what a strange and somewhat pathetic character he is.
  • There is no proper score or soundtrack; all the music we hear (and there isn’t that much of it) is diegetic and in the background. That’s quite a departure from films like “Easy Rider,” which rely more heavily on a well-curated pop music soundtrack to help tell their story.
  • Aside from indulging in alcohol, we see no drug use or references to drugs—also unconventional for a film that appeals to the counterculture and youth crowd in this era.
Themes imbued in Two-Lane Blacktop:
  • Existential crises: This is a film geared toward young adults and the counterculture, who were left disillusioned and somewhat aimless after their 1960s ideals were shattered. Consider how the Driver and Mechanic are so emotionless, almost numb, in contrast to GTO, who represents the older generation—a man who won’t shut up and is living a self-delusional life and suffering a mid-life crisis of sorts.
  • Criterion Collection essayist Kent Jones wrote: “It is a movie about loneliness, and the attempts made by people to connect with one another and maintain their solitude at the same time—an impossible task, an elusive dream… The characters think they’re in a race, but they’re really players in a theater of life, the stage of which stretches from sea to shining sea.”
  • The need for speed as well as for direction in life. Director Monte Hellman said in an interview: “I thought it was a movie about speed, and I wanted to bring the audience back out of the movie and into the theater, and to relate them to the experience of watching a film. I also wanted to relate them to, not consciously but unconsciously, the idea of film going through a camera, which is related to speed as well. I think it came to me out of a similar kind of thing that Bergman did with Persona.”
  • Burned-out dreams and desires. Consider the last shot, which depicts that the actual film in the projector that’s projecting “Two-Lane Blacktop” has burned up, “suggesting both the corrosion of the characters’ counter-cultural nobility (a la Easy Rider) and contradictorily the sense in which the characters ‘live on’ outside of the flammable finiteness of the film itself,” according to film reviewer Joseph Jon Lanthier.
  • Lack of communication.
  • Mass commercialism and mainstream values versus customization and nonconformist counterculture values. This is evidenced by the mass-produced GTO going up against the hybridized and recycled gearhead vehicle put together by the Driver and Mechanic.
Films similar to Two-Lane Blacktop include:
  • Easy Rider
  • Vanishing Point
  • Aloha, Bobby and Rose
  • American Graffiti
  • Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry
  • Electra Glide in Blue
  • Kings of the Road
Other films directed by Monte Hellman
  • Ride in the Whirlwind
  • The Shooting
  • Cockfighter


All roads lead to CineVerse on May 29

Sunday, May 26, 2019

On May 29, take a road trip with CineVerse as we enjoy “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971; 103 minutes), directed by Monte Hellman, chosen by Mike Bochenek.


A lesson in family planning

Thursday, May 23, 2019

There have been countless movies depicting the struggle of unwed teenage mothers-to-be, and chances are that one is playing right now on Lifetime or The Hallmark Channel. But for a refreshingly different take, with a satisfying Irish flavor added, turn to Stephen Frears' 1993 under-the-radar effort "The Snapper," which tackles this subject in quite the upfront manner. Here are some of the conclusions we reached at CineVerse after viewing the film:

What struck you as memorable, touching or surprising about this movie?

  • There is no slow or gradual buildup to the central conflict; the film opens straight away with the daughter’s revelation to her parents that she’s pregnant.
  • It handles the topic of teen/young adult pregnancy with surprising candor, honesty, empathy and originality. Here we have a young woman who lives in a large Irish family in a small town—not a single expectant mother living on her own or in a big urban metro.
  • This is arguably less a tale about unexpected pregnancy than about familial relationships and its dynamics and challenges.
  • Despite the fact that there are a lot of characters and family members to sort through, the filmmakers focus smartly on the father and the daughter, whose relationship serve as the heart of the story.
    • The characters are also quite colorful and credible. Roger Ebert wrote: “These characters understand human nature. Look, for example, at the relationship between Sharon and her father in this film. He treats her like a good friend, does not condescend to her femininity or her pregnancy, and is less concerned with "appearances" than with fairness. He and his wife are, in fact, model parents, although that is not always evident in the chaos of their small home, in which up to 10 people have to share the same bathroom. Crowded together without privacy, their strategy is to live in public; the whole family shares everything.”
  • The movie cleverly balances comedy and drama, shifting between tones nicely and touching on both the comedic aspects as well as the poignant, emotional and conflict aspects. This could have been a much more serious and solemn film; but it wisely tries to make us laugh as much as possible.
  • There is a surprising amount of profanity used throughout the picture, which often makes it funnier. However, it’s a bit hard to believe that this was a made-for-television film and presumably wasn’t edited for TV audiences in the UK.
Themes at work in The Snapper:
  • The value and importance of unconditional family love
  • The danger of secrets and lies in a small town
  • The ability of simple, common folk to rise above challenges when they work together
  • The shame and stigma placed on individuals who fall outside the boundaries of what some communities consider socially acceptable
  • Single motherhood is challenging; these parents need all the help they can get.
Other films that The Snapper brings to mind include:
  • The Commitments and The Van; these other films are taken from stories in novelist Roddy Doyle’s “Barrytown Trilogy”; The Snapper is the second of Doyle’s books.
  • Other Irish and British dramedies, including Happy Ever Afters, Circle of Friends, My Family and Other Animals, and Waking Ned Devine
  • Similar movies about teen or young adult pregnancy, such as Juno, For Keeps, Where the Heart Is, and Unexpected
  • Sixteen Candles, which also depicts a chaotic household yet a father who is very supportive of his troubled teenage daughter.


I was a teenage Parisian

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

For episode #11 of the Cineversary podcast, host Erik Martin takes a trip to Paris (let's call it an audio journey) with Columbia University film studies professor Annette Insdorf, author of the book "Francois Truffaut" and former personal translator for the late director. She's the ideal guest to help celebrate the 60th anniversary of "The 400 Blows." In this installment, Erik and Annette explore why the movie is worth celebrating 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.
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That's one snappy movie title...

Sunday, May 19, 2019

World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse on May 22 with a movie from the United Kingdom: “The Snapper” (1993; 91 minutes), directed by Stephen Frears, chosen by Carole Bogaard.


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