Blog Directory CineVerse

Do you love talking about movies? Here's a rare chance to join our CineVerse group

Monday, January 24, 2022

Do you enjoy watching and talking about classic films, foreign movies, modern masterworks, silents, independent features and other conversation-worthy motion pictures? We're looking to add a new member to our private CineVerse film discussion group that meets weekly on Zoom, and this could be your chance to join our exclusive member community, which is normally closed to the general public.

Interested in being considered for inclusion in our Zoom group? Here's what you need to do:

  1. Have the necessary technology. You need access to Zoom (on your phone, computer or tablet), and you need high-speed internet. More importantly, most of the movies we view and discuss are available on Kanopy, so you will need a free Kanopy account, which many public libraries provide. (Unfortunately, many libraries do not partner with Kanopy, which is out of our control.) Note that if you don't have access to Kanopy, you would be responsible for finding each week's movie on your own (e.g., via YouTube, Netflix, local library, etc.)
  2. Be available Wednesday nights. We meet every Wednesday from 8 pm to 9:15 pm Central on Zoom. We don't require you to participate every week, but this is our designated time slot and we encourage you to attend as regularly as you possibly can. If you join us any given Wednesday, you'll be expected to engage in the discussion and share your opinions about that week's scheduled film.
  3. Tell us why we should pick you. Email us (at cineversegroup@gmail.com) a carefully crafted message that demonstrates your passion for the cinema, explains why you love talking about movies, and convinces us that you would be a worthy addition to our group. Extra points if your message is articulate, moving, and/or funny. Conclude your message with a list of your 5 favorite films of all time, followed by a written confirmation that you meet our tech and time conditions (as detailed in #1 and #2 above).
We'll evaluate all messages sent to us and choose one lucky respondent to join our CineVerse Zoom group. Your deadline to email us your message is noon Central Tuesday, February 8, 2022. Good luck!

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Cineversary host appears as guest on Retro Movie Roundtable podcast

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Erik Martin, host of the Cineversary podcast, recently made a guest appearance on the Retro Movie Roundtable podcast to discuss the film Easy Rider with hosts Chad Robinson and Bryan Frye. 

To listen to the episode, click here or visit https://retromovieroundtable.podbean.com

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A movie where style and substance mesh

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Columbus, a 2017 feature film by then-first-time director Kogonada, would on the surface appear to be a movie that explores the man-made magic and artistry of architecture and the way buildings can inspire us or make us think differently about the world. But at its core, Columbus is actually more of a film about emotional architecture, which our CineVerse group discovered last week upon further examination of this distinctive and thought-provoking picture (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Our collective thoughts on Columbus are summarized below.
 

What did you find unexpected, surprising, offbeat, or curious about Columbus?

  • This is a very different approach for a coming-of-age/relationship film. Casey and Jin seem attracted to each other, but they refrain from physically expressing any mutual interest and keep things on a platonic level. Meanwhile, the supporting characters Gabriel and Eleanor serve as possible love interests, but Jin’s longing for the latter and Gabriel’s crush on Casey remain unrequited. The movie sidesteps predictable and formulaic narrative approaches, including plot twists, sex scenes, melodramatic subplots, and speechifying.
  • This film forces us to pay attention to the compositions – the way the characters inhabit the frame and are juxtaposed to the structures around them. Despite being static creations, these architectural works offer an interesting emotional backdrop to the characters we care about.
  • The filmmakers often use long-unbroken shots and let the actors and their dialogue keep our interest as opposed to frequent cutting and reframing of various shots.
  • Often, either the physical architecture around or behind the characters in the frame appears symmetrical while the human beings are asymmetrically placed in the composition, or two characters are symmetrically aligned to balance the shot while an object like a building off in the distance is not symmetrically balanced (recall the shot where the two are standing outside the car and resting on opposite sides of the car’s roof looking at each other).

Major themes

  • Emotional architecture, or the symmetry and asymmetry between human beings as well as the objects they inhabit. The film’s characters frequently discuss architecture, and we see how many buildings as well as compositions in this movie are symmetrically framed and in balance, yet one or more objects within the frame tend to skew that balance.
    • Casey and Jin are similar in some ways but very different in others. They both are being held back in some way by a parent who has failed them, they are both intellectuals, and they each admire modern architecture. Yet there is a major age gap, they are ethnically and physically different, and Casey is relatively warm and compassionate while Jin is often cold and reserved.
    • Casey remarks of one building: “It’s asymmetrical, but it’s also still balanced.”
    • Slant Magazine critic Chuck Bowen wrote: “Kogonada offers, to use a phrase coined by Casey’s co-worker, a “critique of a critique,” as the rapturous clarity of his own images is the very source of his interrogation. In the context of this film, symmetry can mean a balance of life and art or refer to order that’s imposed on life, draining it of vitality. Meanwhile, asymmetry can evoke the wonderful chaos of life, or connote a lack of balance, as artists and aficionados retreat definitively into their own obsessions. Balance is tricky, in other words, and these anxious riddles inform the surpassingly beautiful Columbus with probing human thorniness, as it’s an art object gripped by the possibility that art, in the right light, can insidiously launder alienation. Though life without art, for people such as Casey and Jin, is akin to life without life.”
  • Coming-of-age. This is a story about a girl’s maturation and acceptance that she has the right to decide her own destiny and follow her own artistic ambitions. Actually, both Casey and Jin assumedly realize by the end of the story that they have to love and accept their parents and move on with their lives without letting the baggage of the past hold them back.
  • Looking deeper and beyond the obvious to understand what moves us. Jin challenges Casey to stop merely describing architectural details and spitting out facts. He asks her: “Do you like this building intellectually, because of all the facts?” She responds: “No, it moves me.” This pair is demonstrating that we need to more deeply explore the motivations behind what inspires us so that we can better understand ourselves, not just inanimate objects of art.
  • Perfection versus imperfection. Many of the buildings and edifices that Casey and Jin admire appear architecturally flawless and as perfect works of art, yet we see how the human beings who create and inhabit these structures are quite imperfect.

Similar works

  • Films by Ozu Yasujiro, including Tokyo Story
  • The Before trilogy, including Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight
  • The Florida Project
  • Short Term 12

Other films by Kogonada

  • After Yang
  • Pachinko
  • Various video essays for the Criterion Collection and other outlets

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One podcast to rule them all

Thursday, January 13, 2022

In Cineversary podcast episode #43, host Erik Martin celebrates the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson, by interviewing Brian Sibley, the author of Jackson's biography who is also renowned for writing the famous BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and other works, including The Lord of the Rings: Official Movie Guide. Erik and Brian take the scenic route through Middle Earth to explore Fellowship's legacy and cultural impact, why it's worth honoring two decades later, what we can learn from the movie in 2022, and more.
Brian Sibley

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 CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

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

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Confidentially, Kansas City isn't even the main setting of this noir classic

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

When you think of Kansas City, you probably think of barbecue, jazz, and Patrick Mahomes leading the Chiefs to a Super Bowl win. But those two words might also conjure up an association with film noir. That’s because one of the most memorable noir works is Kansas City Confidential, a 1952 crime thriller directed by Phil Karlson and starring John Payne (most famous from Miracle on 34th Street) but more importantly featuring Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, and Neville Brand in unforgettable supporting roles. Our CineVerse crew pulled out the files on this caper last week and discussed several key points, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What stuck with you as interesting, remarkable, distinctive, unexpected, or otherwise about Kansas City Confidential?

  • It’s firmly in noir territory, but it lacks some of the traits and conventions of classic noir, including a femme fatale who leads men to danger, a story that primarily takes place in a dark urban jungle, and a downbeat/pessimistic ending. Instead, the prime female in this narrative is a law-abiding love interest for Joe, most of the tale occurs in a Mexican vacation town, and the conclusion sees Joe and Helen igniting a romantic “happily ever after” spark.
  • Interestingly, only the first few scenes occur in Kansas City, despite the title hinting that the town plays a major role in the entire story.
  • It’s filmed in a semi-documentary style and introduced via title card as if it were a true-crime recreation or police procedural. Yet this is a fictional yarn that plays out like a conventional crime thriller.
  • The movie was popular enough to usher in a series of "confidential" films from its producer Edward Small: New York Confidential, Chicago Confidential, and Hong Kong Confidential.
  • Put in proper context, there’s a lot of violence on display here for a 1952 film. We see plenty of bitch-slapping among the males, pistol-whipping, jaw-socking, and even groin-kicking. The fight choreography may not be exemplary, but you truly get the feeling that Joe has the proverbial snot kicked out of him during the hotel room interrogation scene.
  • Likewise, there is racy prurient insinuation between Romano and Teresa, whom we see tuck money between her cleavage and saunter sexily next to men, implying that she is a sex worker of sorts and that Latinas are hot-blooded.
  • This movie was controversial at the time for suggesting that police officers can be bad apples working against law and order. The director said in an interview, referring to himself in the third person: “This was so far ahead of itself that I say these pictures have been copied and recopied so many times. Unfortunately, Phil Karlson never got the credit for it because I've never been a publicity hound.”
  • Debatably, the biggest misstep in this film is the writing of the Helen character; she hasn’t given much to do, it’s an unrewarding role, and her romantic chemistry with Joe isn’t very believable or constructive to the plot.

Major themes

  • The wrong man, a theme often used in Hitchcock pictures in which an innocent protagonist is accused of a crime and in danger and must try to clear his name and overcome the villains.
  • The impossibility of the “perfect” crime. Despite Foster’s careful planning and clever prerequisite that none of the other collaborators know their identities, his scheme is bound to fail; that’s partially because films made in this period and during the censorship era must punish criminals by the end of the story and demonstrate that crime does not pay so as not to send the wrong message to audiences. But the scheme is also destined to go south because it is hubristic in its design and because Foster didn’t count on Joe, the framed patsy, demonstrating agency and ingenuity.
  • The forming and fellowship of a rogues gallery. Harris, Romano, and Kane are all intriguing characters most notably because the character actors portraying them are among the most memorable in cinema, having appeared in many other noirs, westerns, and genre pictures – each with an idiosyncratic appearance, physique, and mannerism.
  • Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. The key to Joe clearing his name and staying alive amid a den of snakes is to flush out all the criminals and keep close tabs on them. He’s not always successful and pays the price for dropping his guard or underestimating the cunning and ruthlessness of these villains. But rounding up the suspects and inhabiting their intimate world will prove crucial to his success.

Similar works

  • Asphalt Jungle
  • The Killing
  • Reservoir Dogs
  • The Thomas Crown Affair
  • The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3
  • The Dark Knight

Other films by Phil Karlson

  • Walking Tall
  • Scandal Sheet
  • The Phenix City Story
  • 99 River Street

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Rain song

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The French are renowned for their wines, pastries, sauces, painters, and architecture. They can also craft a colorful and memorable movie musical, as evidenced by Jacques Demy’s bittersweet cinematic confection The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which our CineVerse band watched and conversed about last week. Our conclusions are summed up below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).
 

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has been called a great musical experiment. Howe is it innovative, different, or unique from Hollywood musicals you’ve seen?

  • There is no normal spoken dialogue—all the dialogue is sung, even the mundane bits of talking.
  • The film is quite melancholy and poignant, especially the ending, which is not a tacked-on happy Hollywood-type ending.
  • There are no show-stoppers or big production numbers—the picture has no dancing, chorus, or duets.
  • The acting style, body movements, characters, and situations are naturalistic in contrast to the sometimes exaggerated esthetics and colors around them.

What is interesting about the visuals, music, and temporal rhythm of the film?

  • It’s a tribute to as well as a rejection of the cloying, unrealistic tendencies of American musicals.
  • It imitates the artificiality and heavily exaggerated stylization of studio-bound musicals in its bold, bright colors, yet the dialogue and situations are commonplace, ordinary, and credible.
  • The colors are meant to either complement or clash with the mundane conversations, characters, and situations.

Other films by Jacques Demy

  • The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
  • Lola
  • Une Chambre en Ville

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George and Mary celebrate a diamond anniversary

Thursday, December 30, 2021

On December 20, 1946, an inconspicuous little picture called It’s a Wonderful Life first hit American theaters. Seventy-five years later, we’re still watching and talking about it, which speaks to its lasting influence, emotional potency, and ageless entertainment value. Fittingly, during Christmas week, our CineVerse group took a closer look at this most beloved of all Yuletide movies, and focused on several discussion points, as outlined below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

Why is this film worth celebrating 75 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • What sustains the film's longevity could be the established ritualistic tradition it has become. You must either be a cave dweller or movie hater to have not heard of the film by now and to have seen at least some of it on television over the holidays. Consider that this is one of only a handful of classic films still shown annually on network (non-cable) television—the only others are the Wizard of Oz, The Ten Commandments, and The Sound of Music.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life still matters because it offers something for every type of viewer: If you are religious, it’s one of the most spiritual films ever created; if you enjoy romance and comedy, it fulfills in those departments; if you’re a fan of noir, suspense, horror, or even science fiction, there are plentiful dark elements at work in the 30-minute fantasy sequence that can scratch those itches; if you appreciate outstanding acting, the movie boasts possibly career-best performances from James Stewart, Thomas Mitchell, and Donna Reed, in addition to tremendous turns by the numerous character actors in the cast; and if you are in the mood for a holiday film, they don’t come any better or more moving than this one.
  • It’s also worth celebrating 75 years later because, despite some dated elements, its ideas and themes are refreshingly modern: George Bailey may have had a wonderful life thanks to his family, friends, and good-hearted nature, but he’s also been shown how dark and seedy the world can be and he’s tasted the bitterness of an unfulfilled dream (sacrificing his dream of becoming an architect and traveling the world.
    • Per Salon.com writer Rich Cohen: “It’s a Wonderful Life”…is really the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made.” “If you were to cut “It’s a Wonderful Life” by 20 minutes, its true subject would be revealed…the good man driven insane.” “Look again at the closing frames — shots of Jimmy Stewart staring at his friends. In most, he’s joyful. But in a few, he’s terrified. An hour earlier George was ready to kill himself. I don’t think he’s seeing the world that would exist had he never been born. I think he’s seeing the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.” “George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn’t know it.”
    • Film Spectrum blogger Jason Fraley also posited: “In a world of bank bailouts and home foreclosures, It’s a Wonderful Life is just as relevant today as it was in 1946.” “The internal struggle of America is right there in George Bailey’s angst. Should we engage in overseas adventurism, or turn inward toward the domestic? Should we focus on the rugged individualism of the private sector, or the social safety nets of a compassionate public sector? And should we chase the notion of exceptionalism, or be an important piece of a larger whole? Capra seems to say that America works best when both parts are in their proper proportions.”
  • The movie has remained evergreen because it is intrinsically American, certainly in its themes, characters, and situations but also in its wide historical scope. Consider, the film covers the post-World War I era, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and immediate postwar America masterfully, within the context of its characters and the situations they’re involved in, as only the cinema can—by using effective techniques like montage, flashbacks, vignettes, and voiceover narration.

In what ways was It’s a Wonderful Life influential on cinema and popular culture?

  • While they likely weren’t the first of their kind, the film’s long, uninterrupted takes and extreme romantic close-ups that possibly influenced later filmmakers (for instance, George Stevens, who would use some of these techniques in A Place in the Sun). Recall the famous romantically charged single shot where George and Mary, in close up, talk on the phone and fall in love; also, in the train depot scene when George learns from Harry’s new wife that Harry won’t be relieving him of his work duties; and when Gower the druggist first berates then embraces young George. Leaving important shots like these unbroken gives them more gravity and allows the actors to maintain a consistent emotional resonance and characterization that can be diluted when a scene is broken up into too many shots and counterpoints.
  • There’s the famous freeze-frame on George’s face when he accepts Gower’s suitcase gift; some film scholars say this is among the earliest example of a freeze-frame in a feature film—preceding the ones used in “All About Eve” and “The 400 Blows” years later.
  • Posit the “breaking of the fourth wall” that occurs when George turns his head and eventually faces the camera and us upon running away from his mother’s boarding house; this was very unusual for a non-comedy Hollywood movie.
  • While all of these points can be debated as to their influential value or inventiveness, one thing cannot: This picture forever changed the way that fake snow was created and used in the movies. Before It’s a Wonderful Life, bleached cornflakes, asbestos, and cotton were commonly employed to stand in for the white stuff. But it didn’t look realistic; so Capra tasked RKO special-effects department guru Russell Shearman to devise an innovative new solution, which involved mixing sugar, soap, Foamite found in fire extinguishers, and water to create a more photogenic and practical end product; this invention ended up winning an Academy Award in 1949 and quickly became the go-to recipe for artificial snow in Hollywood movies for the next few decades.
  • Another indisputable truth about this movie’s influence: Contemporary creatives love to feature it in their works. Over the past several decades, It’s a Wonderful Life has made numerous cameos as a diegetic film – meaning it appears on a TV screen being watched by characters in a different movie or TV show – including Gremlins, Beverly Hills 90210, Bruce Almighty, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Sopranos, Home Alone, Cinema Paradiso, and so many others.
  • You could even make a case that certain aspects of Its a Wonderful Life – especially the dark fantasy/alternate reality sequence where George is never born – have been riffed on in countless subsequent films and TV shows, such as several episodes of The Twilight Zone, Click, The Butterfly Effect, Shrek Forever After, Bedazzled, Mr. Destiny, and Back to the Future Part II. And the earlier sequences in which George’s life is reviewed by heavenly powers are later echoed in films like Defending Your Life.

Is this James Stewart’s greatest performance?

  • Stewart commands this movie with his unique behavioral acting style. His charming mannerisms, tripping speech patterns, articulated facial expressions, and awkwardly lanky frame create an unforgettable and iconic persona. The playful spirit that builds to romantic tension while falling for Donna Reed's character is spellbinding, and this performance remains an eternal source of enjoyment for new and old audiences alike.
  • It’s hard not to be incredibly moved by the shot in Martini’s bar where Stewart conjures up real tears as he prays for divine help, or the earlier sequence where a thoroughly distraught George comes home on Christmas Eve and lashes out at his wife and children.

Why and how was Frank Capra the ideal director for It’s a Wonderful Life? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • As an immigrant child, Capra was impressed by common, everyday people whose lives he so grew to appreciate that his ambition was to someday project them onto the screen. Quite possibly his greatest talent rested in his power to represent the ordinary person’s strength to face insurmountable evil, thereby benefitting his fellow man. Capra realized this power early in his career when he decided to create films that would exhilarate the depressed spirits of the American public, inspired personally by his dramatic recovery from what was apparently a serious illness.
  • Capra envisioned the It’s a Wonderful Life narrative not as a Christmas yarn, but as a story intended for any time of year. He wasn't intimidated by the tale's dark implications of suicide and despair. He saw the potential for transcendence and inspiration, and the depiction of abundant human emotion. And, of course, Capra was already well-skilled in this art, as evidenced by his previous sentimental creations like “Meet John Doe,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
  • From the beginning, Capra conceived IAWL as his masterwork. He stated in his autobiography: "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.” “It wasn't made for the oh-so bored critics or the oh-so jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people.” “I think that a lot of people everywhere will be able to associate themselves with the character (of George Bailey) and will perhaps feel a lot better for having known him. People are seeking spiritual guidance and moral reassurance.”
  • Consider the cinematic techniques Capra uses to tell his story and imbue it with meaning. 
    • First, First, every major character has symbols and motifs associated with them:
      • George is linked to broken down machinery or makeshift technology—his old jalopy of a car, the snow shovel he uses as a sled, the ramshackle house he moves into, the broken railing cap, the fence door that won’t open, the second-hand luggage he accepts as a gift, and the “shabby little office” he works in. This imagery contrasts nicely with the perfect machinery that eludes him—the train waiting to take him out of town, the nicer cars he admires, and the rich man’s office he covets. The words “broken down” are often used by George or about George, as well; and remember that George is denied military service due to his bad ear.
      • Mary and her children are correlated with flowers—the corsages she wears in many scenes, the hydrangea bushes she hides in, the floral garden in front of her mother’s house, the floral wallpaper in that same house, and Zuzu’s flower petals and bedroom furniture featuring floral designs.
      • Interestingly, there’s a dichotomous geometric pattern at work in this film: Mary is associated with rounded objects (the moon she wants George to lasso, phonograph records, her mother’s round-shaped phone receiver, Christmas tree ornaments, the ice cream scoop, rocks used to break windows, flowers, and a loaf of French bread), while George is paired with straight lines and sharp angles (the homes and buildings he didn’t get to build but which he’s lending out money for, office doors and counters, dollar bills, a tree trunk, the bridge, cage bars, travel brochures and posters, the clothesline, picture frames, the lasso rope, and his draftsman table and tools). These patterns coalesce when we see Mary and George in the pregnancy reveal scene: The headboard of their bed features rounded corners surrounding straight bars.
      • Uncle Billy is associated with sympathetic, simple-minded, stray animals—the squirrel and raven.
      • Clarence is named “Odbody” for a reason: he’s a walking oddity who likes old books, antiquated clothing, and old-fashioned libations.
      • The color black is assigned to Mr. Potter, who sports a predominantly black wardrobe that includes black ties and hats (contrasting with Uncle Billy’s white hat), dark and ornately carved furniture, and an eerie black skull and black globe lamp that adorn his desk.
      • Harry exemplifies balance (remember him acrobatically carrying three pies?), dexterity and natural skill (for which he becomes a decorated war hero), good luck (he survives his wartime missions and marries a beautiful woman), and front-page popularity—in contrast to George’s older and “broken down” body and spirit.
    • Further proof of Capra’s skills? Think about his symbolic commentary via clever misc-en-scene. 
      • Case in point: Ponder the changing walls of the Bailey home—Mary wallpapers the walls with pastoral prints, but later we see an anchor pattern on the wall adjacent to George after he returns home tired and angry from a tussle with potter; the anchor reminds us of his dream of traveling and also suggests he’s tied down. Think, too, of the butterfly framings/paintings on the walls of George’s parents’ home and Mary and George’s house, suggesting the elusive freedom that George cannot grasp. Also, recall the clothesline that spatially and symbolically separates George and Clarence within the bridge operator’s room—suggesting that Clarence is on a higher ethereal level than George.
    • Capra is also a master of foreshadowing.
      • That same clothesline image, shown in a similar tilted angle, is echoed earlier in the bedroom scene where Mary reveals she is pregnant—it’s off in the corner, a strange portent of things to come. Also in that scene, consider the odd placement of the pull-string with a loop at the end that comes between George and Mary lying in bed—visually insinuating a noose (that foreboding symbol of suicide/doom). Vertical bars and shadows are also prevalent as foreshadowing devices; remember how, in that previously mentioned bedroom scene, we see the shadows of vertical lines, like prison bars, behind George; earlier, George is separated from the Building and Loan throng by a steel gate that conjures up imagery of a prison door; and Uncle Billy peers through the vertical bars on the front gate at the bank, another visual cue that bad outcomes are imminent.
    • Give thought, as well, to Capra’s misc-en-scene depth. 
      • We are shown a richly detailed foreground, middle ground, and background in many settings, especially Potter’s office, the Building & Loan office, the back room of the pharmacy, and even George’s living room. Everything we see has been carefully chosen to give us texture, backstory, and characterization.
    • While he didn’t write the musical score, Capra was a proponent of leitmotifs (repeated musical cues). Buffalo Gals is repeated throughout the film to remind us of the loving bond between George and Mary; we hear “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” again and again as a kind of theme for Clarence; and “Hark the Herald” is played in connotation with kith and kin.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in It’s a Wonderful Life?

  • No man is a failure who has friends.
  • The struggle of the little guy to get ahead in a rigged system run by oligarchs.
  • The depths of personal depression, based on negative personal circumstances, can drive a person to despondency and surrender.
  • The profound butterfly effect that each human being can have upon his fellow man and environment.
  • The dark underbelly that can exist beneath our glass-half-full outlook on the world.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life also shares common themes that run throughout many Capra films, including:
    • Man conflicted by alternating realities. Ruminate a moment on George Bailey: He has a lust for Violet but a need for Mary, and he desires fame and success and to escape the confines of social responsibilities yet he’s compelled to stay in Bedford Falls and mortgage his dreams to keep a positive cash flow.
    • The masses are easily swayed, for better or for worse, and populist values can be powerful: Consider how easily manipulated people are in this film, as well in Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and other Capra works.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • When it comes to gifts, It’s a Wonderful Life is like the magical sack Santa Claus carries, endlessly replenishing its contents with countless presents. But one gift many would likely put at the top is the film’s amazing capacity to draw contemporary audiences by invoking nostalgia in three key ways—a wistfulness for a simpler time, its focus on a close-knit hometown community, which, for many people doesn’t exist any longer, and its emphasis on fundamental humanistic values. Even if modern viewers didn’t grow up with those three elements, It’s a Wonderful Life can make them wish they did, which is an extremely impactful quality. Some are quick to criticize what they characterize as the mawkishly manipulative, over-sentimentalized nature of this film as a turnoff, “Capra-corny,” if you will. But it’s hard to name a more emotionally powerful picture, one that can instantly elicit humility, empathy, gratitude, faith in human nature, and, ultimately, tears – even on an umpteenth screening. If the mark of a well-made and meritorious film is to produce a genuine emotional response and allow the viewer to easily connect with and understand its characters and their conflicts, then It’s a Wonderful Life exceeds all expectations for a wonderful movie.
  • Its second-greatest gift is the stellar portrayal of a relatable and ordinary yet extraordinary man by the incomparable James Stewart. Stewart had many exemplary roles in his career that deserve consideration as his very best, including Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Elwood Dowd in Harvey, Jon Ferguson in Vertigo, Lin McAdam in Winchester 73, and Mike Connor in The Philadelphia Story. But many would crown his personification of George Bailey as the finest among that bunch.

Similar works

  • A Christmas Carol
  • Meet John Doe, featuring another Capra character who plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Back to the Future Part II—in which another character sees a negative alternate reality version of his hometown
  • The Majestic

Other films directed by Frank Capra

  • It Happened One Night
  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  • Lost Horizon
  • You Can’t Take it With You
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Meet John Doe

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Tales of moonlight and rain from the land of the rising sun

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Ugetsu, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, is a cherished work of Japanese and world cinema for many reasons, from its stunning compositions and period-authentic costumes to its resonant themes and unique sound design. Our CineVerse mission in mid-December was to decipher the many truths imbued in this timeless masterwork from 1953. Our observations are shared below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).
  • Ugetsu Monogatari, which means “Tales of Moonlight and Rain,” was a key work that helped Western audiences discover Japanese cinema, much as Rashomon did three years earlier.
  • This film impressively weaves between the real and the surreal, the living world and the ghost world.
    • The scene where the two families traveled by boat along a fog-enshrouded lake is one of the most visually and tonally haunting sequences ever captured on film.
  • Contrary to expectations, the ghost sequences in this movie aren’t intended to shock or horrify. Recall how the spirit of Miyagi is gentle, loving, and non-threatening, for instance. And consider how Wakasa is actually a sympathetic victim of previous violence who rightfully desires love, faithfulness, and happiness.
  • Interestingly, our moral judgments and empathy can change throughout the movie. While we may feel consistent sympathy for Miyagi and her young child, it’s easy to feel unsympathetic for Genjuro and Tobei throughout the story, until perhaps Genjuro tries to escape the ghost of Lady Wakasa and Tobei is humbled by learning that his wife has been victimized.
  • The film is surprisingly relevant today in how it depicts the seemingly eternal disconnect between male and female partners, what each gender often values more, and how men often misinterpret what they think will make women happy.

Major themes

  • The repercussions of greed, envy, unbridled ambition, infidelity, and hedonistic pleasures.
    • However, Criterion Collection essayist Phillip Lopate wrote: “Are we to take it, then, that the moral of the film is: better stay at home, cultivate your garden, nose to the grindstone? No. Mizoguchi’s viewpoint is not cautionary but realistic: this is the way human beings are, never satisfied; everything changes, life is suffering, one cannot avoid one’s fate. If they had stayed home, they might just as easily have been killed by pillaging soldiers. The fact that they chose to leave gives us a plot, and some ineffably lovely, heartbreaking sequences.”
  • The value of honest work, simple pleasures, and a united family.
  • Taking for granted the blessings and good fortune you’ve been given.
  • The female victims and casualties of a patriarchal society driven by male egos.
    • Slant Magazine film critic Chuck Bowen wrote: “Ugetsu is a tragic and irreconcilably rapturous poem of violation. In the tradition of many male directors preoccupied with the atrocities suffered by women, Mizoguchi expresses his compassion through a pronounced and cleansing pitilessness.”
  • Appreciating the true value of skill, artistry, and expertise. 
    • According to film scholar Robin Wood: “Genjūrō's pottery…evolves in three phases, reflecting Mizoguchi's changing approach to filmmaking. Genjūrō begins making the pottery for commercial reasons, shifts to pure aesthetics while isolated with Lady Wakasa, and finally moves on to a style that reflects life and strives to understand it.” Some have theorized that Genjuro is a stand-in for the director Mizoguchi.
  • Expressing the emotional trauma suffered by the Japanese people following their country’s aggressive actions that provoked and prolonged World War II, with the 16th-century civil war setting of this story representing WWII.

Hallmarks of Mizoguchi’s filmmaking artistry

  • The “flowing scroll shot” was one of his trademarks, a “one-shot-one-scene” approach that employed long takes without cuts and sweeping pans across the landscape in the style of a Japanese scroll painting.
  • He favored fluid and continual camera movements meant to convey a poetic lyricism.
  • The director rarely used close-ups, often opting instead to keep the camera far back from the subject and sometimes choosing unconventional camera placements, as demonstrated by the emotionally powerful overhead shot of Miyagi being attacked by the soldiers on the road.
  • Mizoguchi was also inventive and innovative. Recall the nighttime scene where Genjuro and Lady Wasaka are bathing nude; the camera tracks left and cuts seamlessly using a dissolve to a daytime scene where the couple is picnicking near the picturesque shores of a shimmering lake.

Similar works

  • Throne of Blood
  • Rashomon
  • Kwaidan
  • Onibaba
  • Stories by French writer Guy de Maupassant

Other films by Kenji Mizoguchi

  • The 47 Ronin
  • The Life of Oharu
  • Sansho the Bailiff
  • New Tales of the Taira Clan
  • Street of Shame

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Examining A Place in the Sun—70 years later

Friday, December 17, 2021

Named by the AFI as one of the top 100 American films of all time in its 1998 list, A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens, remains a memorable work of lasting craftsmanship and significance. Originally released in 1951, this picture persists as a haunting morality tale that is both endemic of its era and resonant seven decades later.

Still have your doubts? Read on for more compelling evidence of why this film deserves to be cherished and revisited.

Why does A Place in the Sun still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it remains an extremely effective mashup of several subgenres. A Place in the Sun satisfies as a romantic melodrama, a noirish thriller, a courtroom drama, and a richly-themed tragedy.
  • A Place in the Sun has stood the test of time because the performances resonate 70 years later. This could be Montgomery Clift’s finest two hours of film; it’s one of Elizabeth Taylor’s most impressive performances, especially considering how unproven she was as a serious dramatic actress before this and how young she is here – 17 years old; and Shelley Winters basically creates the template for the frumpy, naïve, clinging love interest who eventually gets murdered, infusing her character of Alice with a sensitively trusting nature but unglamorous banality that sharply contrasts with the actress’s image at the time and with Taylor’s Angela. (Note that Alice is not some flirty floozy who would seem to deserve her fate; she’s a more sympathetic character today than she was in 1951.) Deservingly, both Winters and Clift were nominated for Oscars for their work in this movie.
    • It also helps that the teenage Taylor was smitten with Clift. Even though Clift, a gay actor, did not reciprocate the offscreen affection, the on-screen romantic chemistry is evident.
  • It’s worth celebrating because it continues to be one of the most apropos and poetic movie titles of all time, living up to its name “A Place in the Sun” by effectively contrasting the light and dark natures of a fascinatingly complex lead character. Many of the scenes involving George with Alice employ noirish high-contrast lighting and occur at night or in inky black environments. But when George is around Angela, the world is literally and figuratively a brighter place, with the filmmakers employing ample natural and artificial light to underscore how bright George’s potential future is if he chooses this path.
    • Film critic Leonard Maltin said: “Elizabeth Taylor represents the aspirational brightness that Montgomery Clift so desperately wants. But it all changes when the scene involves Shelley Winters.”

In what ways was A Place in the Sun influential on cinema and/or popular culture?

  • It was notable in its day for its creatively expressive use of extended overlapping dissolves between shots and scenes that juxtapose images that often contrast with each other, such as a nighttime shot of Alice’s bedroom that transitions into an early morning shot and, later, a darkly-lit shot of George’s pious mother slowly dissipating into a brightly-lit image of George attending a swanky party.
  • Stevens’ choice to use extreme close-up over-the-shoulder shots of Angela and George embracing and kissing was unusual for its day; yet these incredibly tight soft-focus images proved highly memorable and influential, with the first kiss scene between George and Angela often appearing in many highlight reels referencing some of the most iconic imagery Hollywood ever created.
  • The picture also proved controversial in its depiction of a pregnant unwed mother seeking an abortion. The Hays code wouldn’t allow the use of the words “pregnancy” or “abortion,” so the filmmakers had to dance around these words and ideas carefully. Alice tells the doctor that she’s gotten in trouble, which was another way of saying pregnant, and in a roundabout way is asking the doctor to help her and the pregnancy, which the doctor refuses. This was regarded as a taboo subject for a Hollywood film in those days.
  • A Place in the Sun may have created fashion trends or at least made audiences take notice of the look and attire of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor’s wardrobe was designed by the legendary Edith Head, and apparently some of her outfits proved popular in the fashion world, while Clift’s simple leather jacket and white T-shirt look predates later 1950s icons like James Dean and Jack Kerouac.
  • You could debatably trace a throughline from the passion-dripping kissing sequences in A Place in the Sun to the sultry rolling-in-the-surf shots two years later in From Here to Eternity and also attribute this movie’s melodramatic elements as emotionally inspirational fodder for the films of Douglas Sirk years later, like Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, and Imitation of life.
  • Ponder, as well, that A Place in the Sun would likely have been a major influence on Woody Allen’s excellent Match Point 54 years later.

Why and how was George Stevens the ideal director for A Place in the Sun? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • Stevens wasn’t afraid to push boundaries and break from cinematic conventions. For instance, he sometimes puts a key character’s back to the camera for long stretches. Cases in point: Alice faces George but is turned away from us in the bedroom scene where George arrives late on his birthday; and George faces Angela when she visits him on death row.
  • Stevens and his cinematographer William Mellor, both of whom won Academy Awards for their work in this film, didn’t balk at extremely dark compositions and shadowy nighttime scenes. The sequence where George enters Alice’s residence and woos her in the utterly black edges of the frame is a worthy example, as is the later montage where George tries to escape through the murky forest.
  • This director also valued long, uninterrupted takes that allow a scene to unfold organically and the actors to do the heavy lifting. Exhibit A: the previously mentioned scene where George arrives late to Alice’s home on his birthday, which primarily occurs in one beautifully acted unbroken shot.
  • Stevens shrewdly uses motifs to suggest ideas and create foreshadowing. One repeated pattern is George being separated from someone or something by a kind of barrier, such as George standing outside Alice’s window, George watching Angela across the front gate of the house, and George behind prison bars. Another motif is drowning, which is suggested by the painting of Ophelia (a character who drowned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet), Alice’s mentioning that she cannot swim, and the news broadcast that cautions listeners to be careful when celebrating the holiday.
  • Likewise, Stevens had a gift for tapping the ideal thespian talent, choosing then-glamour girl Shelley Winters as a dowdy lower-class love interest to George and casting a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in the radiant role of Angela. This film announced the arrival of both as serious talented actresses to be reckoned with.
  • The director and his collaborators also demonstrate a form of cinematic mastery in how efficiently and economically they introduce the story, its characters, and the central conflict. Within the first 10 minutes, George and his lower-class predicament are impressively well-established, as is Alice. The filmmakers even use the opening credits sequence to get the narrative machinery going, not wasting those first few minutes to begin the tale.
  • Stevens was known for shooting a lot of film and providing lots of coverage to give himself more flexibility during the editing process, and this approach likely paid off with A Place in the Sun, as nearly every shot seems perfectly designed, framed, lit, and acted.
  • George Stevens is criticized by some for sometimes being overly symbolic, lacking nuance, and painting in broad melodramatic brushstrokes. Consider how on-the-nose the “Vickers” neon sign glowing outside George’s bedroom window is, for example, or how ripe for parody the extreme close-up soft-focus kisses between Angela and George appear to be. Others, however, credit Stevens with being innovative and ahead of his time in his approaches used in this film.
    • Anna Swanson of Film School Rejects wrote: “The film has yet to be canonized the way other comparable movies have been, partly because of incorrect and reductive assessments of what the norms were in the 50s and an attitude that melodrama and nuance cannot go hand in hand…A Place In The Sun was praised in 1951 for being a sweeping, emotional narrative more than willing to wrestle with — but not provide any easy answers for — difficult questions about morality and guilt…Melodramatic style or not, these are themes that have a place in our world as much as they did in the world of the 50s.”

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in this movie?

  • The dark side of the American dream. Seventy years ago, nearly every man aspired to have what George craved: a beautiful wife, wealth, and a successful climb up the social ladder. But A Place in the Sun serves as a cautionary tale that this dream can turn into a nightmare, given the right circumstances.
    • Film reviewer Michael Barrett wrote: “One of the film’s tricks is to discomfort us by making us despise George and sympathize with him…To see him as winner and loser, as the constructor of his own downfall, as the victim of his own envy, is implicitly to question the tease of the American Dream. That’s how Dreiser saw it and Stevens’ meticulous staging and orchestration conveys these ideas while constructing one of the ultimate statements on how Hollywood cinema serves up desire, literally projecting our desires as so huge, dreamy, and intoxicating that we can taste them.”
  • The inescapability of your past. George cannot untether himself from his background as the son of poor religious good Samaritans or his lack of education and financial resources, just as he cannot evade his recent past, in which he rushed into a relationship with disastrous consequences for his ambitions. This movie reminds us that we can’t outrun our identity or the regretful choices we’ve made.
    • George seems to forget the spiritual lessons and honest work ethic instilled in him by his mother, choosing instead to devote himself to a female from a privileged background, Angela, who dotes on George and whispers in his ear, “tell mama…tell mama all.”
    • Film critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “The key achievement of A Place in the Sun is that its doomed spiral of events never seems like a fated, noirish tale. George Eastman is an individual, and not a symbol of oppression, and neither fault of character, nor a cruel society can be given the blame for his sad story.”
  • The outsider versus the insider. George has a dual identity, that of the privileged fortunate son who, by virtue of family lineage, has an opportunity to social climb and be part of the “in-crowd”; at the same time, he’s the perpetual outsider, the enigmatic odd duck in the Eastman line who doesn’t quite fit in. To visually emphasize the latter, George often faces away from the camera, showing us his back and standing out from other characters in the same frame.
  • Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it. George seems to have what he wants in his grasp – the girl, the career, the social acceptance, the bright future – but ultimately he experiences karmic comeuppance because he had to shirk his responsibilities and deceive to get there and because he had evil intentions regarding Alice.
  • Watching and being watched. Throughout the story, we see George being observed by those around him, either out of curiosity, attraction, suspicion, or animosity. And we hear Angela about to say “I love you” to George, but cuts the remark short and says “Are they looking at us?” as she makes eye contact with the camera and, by extension, us.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • A Place in the Sun continues to bestow several greatest gifts on fans and admirers of this film. First, it’s still a Grade A example of the power of the Hollywood fantasy machine, giving us an utterly delectable aspirational mirage with dreamily romanticized imagery and serving particularly as a male wish-fulfillment movie about the pleasures of the perfect life—what it’s like to have the world’s most beautiful woman head over heels in love with you, to be on the fast track to career success, and to accepted as part of the “in-crowd.”
  • But its second greatest gift is that reminds us that we cannot escape our moral responsibilities nor the earlier choices we’ve made. Leading a double life simply isn’t sustainable, a sobering lesson the film serves up by contrasting George’s blissful illusions with a terrifyingly stark reality: It’s easy to feel trapped into a life of compromises, sacrifices, and surrender of your ambitions if you take what you have for granted and follow temptation.
  • What makes this film a cut above is that it’s not a simple black-and-white cautionary tale; it explores George’s quandary in intricate shades of gray. Yes, George is judged as guilty by a jury of his peers and put to death, but the truth of his culpability is cloudy. Seven decades after its release, it’s easier to poke holes in George’s defense that he is legally innocent, and contemporary audiences are surely more sensitive to the injustices experienced by Alice. But personally, in my most recent rewatch of A Place in the Sun, I put myself in George’s shoes and wondered, what would I do in his situation? I’m not saying I would choose adultery, murder, or deceit; I’m suggesting that we often don’t know what we're capable of under the right circumstances. And to me, that makes this film more than a straightforward entertainment: It’s a picture that makes you think and wonder, “What if?”.

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