Blog Directory CineVerse

Meet Leonard Shelby--the man behind some unforgettable tattoos

Monday, March 1, 2021

Christopher Nolan’s Memento is regarded by many as one of the finest noir thrillers of the new millennium, and understandably so: By employing two narratives that ingeniously travel in opposite directions, the viewer is challenged to solve the mystery without the benefit of a traditional linear chronology. It’s a risky gambit, but one that paid off for the filmmakers. Our CineVerse club assembled the fragmented forensics strewn across this crime story and concluded the following (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What did you find memorable, distinctive, or impressive about Memento?

  • It’s a reverse mystery with diverging narratives: The main storyline, shown in color, is told in reverse chronological order, while an intercutting secondary storyline, shown in black-and-white, is told in chronological order. Each of these two narratives contains important clues that, by the end of the film, we can assemble to solve most of the mystery. Also, by the movie’s conclusion, the two narrative sequences converge and correlate.
    • Telling the story primarily in reverse chronological order creates a challenging but intriguing puzzle that can be much more satisfying for audiences to piece together; it also allows us to get into the jumbled and fractured mindset of the flawed main character.
    • The point of the secondary narrative – the Sammy Jankis story – is to suggest that Leonard may not be who we think he is; his condition may not be reliable or real, and who we think is Sammy is likely Leonard, a man who has inadvertently killed his diabetic wife through insulin overdose and who is or was in an insane asylum. For proof of the latter, consider the brief subliminal shot of Leonard sitting in the same chair that Sammy was; the face changes from Sammy to Leonard after someone walks in front of the camera.
    • By the dénouement, it’s difficult to conclude what is true and who to believe. After all, we are relying on the memory of a man with brain damage who has permitted himself to believe a lie (that Teddy killed his wife).
  • It contains elements and characteristics of classic film noir, including a femme fatale who leads men to danger, a flawed protagonist in a gritty and violent underworld, a pessimistic worldview, an unreliable narrator, and a flawed anti-hero who seeks justice and vengeance in an unjust universe. Memento is a “neo-noir,” which describes contemporary movies made after the classic noir period that spanned 1941 through roughly 1958.
  • The inside joke of the movie is that it’s actually testing your memory of events by telling the tale backward and forcing you to place things together in proper order, which requires strong recollective faculties.

Several questions are left unresolved by the end of the film, including:

  • Is Sammy really Leonard, who mistakenly killed his wife through insulin injection and ended up in a mental hospital?
  • How is it possible for Leonard to recall being in bed with his wife, still alive, and the tattoo on his chest that reads, “John G. raped and killed my wife”?
  • Why can’t Leonard remember that his spouse suffered from diabetes if he can’t recollect his life prior to his brain injury?
  • Why are there pages missing from the police report that Leonard possesses, and who removed these pages?
  • Why does Teddy keep helping Leonard find and kill different men he says are each responsible for the murder of Leonard’s wife? Isn’t this extremely risky for Teddy?
  • Why doesn’t Leonard use a tape or digital recorder to more accurately document facts and quotes?

Themes at play in Memento

  • The unreliability of memory, and the inability of time to heal emotional wounds. Recall how Leonard says “How my supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?”
  • The danger of lying to yourself and believing your own lies, and the repercussions of attempting to heal through violence and vigilante activity.
    • IGN essayist Siddhant Adlakha wrote: “Leonard re-enacts a story akin to a spy movie or detective novel in order to feel a sense of purpose. His lies are more gratifying than having to face the truth of having harmed his wife, and casting “John G” as a phantom mastermind (rather than a junkie he already killed) creates a neat narrative bow for him to chase in perpetuity. This is his “truth,” while his “facts” — manipulated and redacted to send him on his quest — have him returning to an abandoned warehouse to kill the wrong man over and over again. He’s caught in an impotent loop, forever chasing, in his wife’s name, a violent catharsis that will not and cannot last.”
  • Which is more trustworthy: memories or facts? Recall how Leonard puts faith in the facts he’s gathered for himself. But by the end of the narrative, fact and memory have blurred in his universe, with both open to interpretation.
  • Plato’s cave allegory: The philosopher Plato gave an allegory of people imprisoned in a cave since birth and tied up so that they could only gaze on the cave’s back wall; the shadows that fall on this back wall comprise reality to these captives, who have never viewed the outside objective world.

Movies that remind us of Memento

  • Puzzle films like The Usual Suspects, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Mulholland Drive
  • Fugue state identity films like Fight Club, Shutter Island, Angel Heart, Jacob’s Ladder

Other films directed by Christopher Nolan

  • Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises
  • Inception
  • Interstellar
  • Dunkirk
  • The Prestige


Here's the (unofficial) story on The Official Story

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Intimate portraits are often the effective gateway for filmmakers to convey wider political or historical narratives. Such is the case with The Official Story, a powerful film from 1985, directed by Luis Puenzo, that depicts the repercussions of Argentina’s Dirty War on its survivors. Here’s our CineVerse assessment of this picture (to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this movie, click here).

What did you find admirable, memorable, intriguing, or different about The Official Story?

  • It attempts to tell a larger real-life political tale pulled from the pages of history by employing a personal narrative, focusing on a bourgeois schoolteacher who is mostly oblivious to the actions of her husband and Argentina’s oppressive government.
  • This story feels authentic and true largely because the filmmakers involved lived through this. The director, Argentinian Luis Puenzo, wrote this story while the military dictatorship was still in place and shot the movie entirely in the city of Buenos Aires, including the Plaza de Mayo site where the Mothers of the Plaza demonstrated regularly. Also, actress Norma Aleandro went into exile at the time this story takes place, not returning to her native land until the military government fell in 1983.
  • The movie isn’t sensationalistic or exaggerated. The filmmakers could have visually depicted more of the violence and suffering that actually ensued in the countr and introduced more dramatic twists, plots, and suspense, but they chose to tell the story primarily through the eyes of one woman who serves as a surrogate for the audience – late to learn about the terrible crimes committed by the government, as many viewers were.

Trace the path to enlightenment that Alicia travels. In order, what encounters and events open her eyes and change her mind about Argentina’s Dirty War in which 30,000 people disappeared?

  • During a dinner out with her husband’s colleagues and their spouses, one of the wives subtly criticizes and questions the fact that Alicia has an adopted daughter.
  • In her classroom, Alicia continually observes and confronts students who question or reject official textbook history. She senses a left-leaning mentality and open-minded cynicism in many of her students that she gradually grows more acceptive of toward the end of the film.
  • When she reunites with an old friend, she learns that the friend was tortured, imprisoned, and raped simply for having a dissident boyfriend.
  • A gathering at her in-laws’ home and a visit to her husband’s office impress upon Alicia that her husband is probably on the wrong side of history, possibly involved with shady government dealings.
  • She pulls down the box of her adopted daughter’s belongings and, without a word, realizes that the girl’s parents were probably killed or disappeared.
  • Alicia eventually learns that the parents of her adopted daughter may have been killed and that her maternal grandmother is alive and eager to reunite with the child.

Themes crafted into The Official Story

  • Wokeness: Becoming politically awakened and enlightened about the murder, torture, imprisonment, and plight of dissidents and their stolen offspring.
  • The importance of learning from history. Alicia is, fittingly, a history teacher – one who follows a government-approved curriculum and preaches adherence to recorded history but eventually learns that the history books can be filled with lies and deception.
  • The guilt of complicity. Even though Alicia has been relatively unaware of and oblivious to the crimes committed by the government and the suffering of other Argentinians, she gradually realizes that she’s inadvertently been part of the problem, which drives her desire to seek the truth and a resolution about her adopted daughter.
  • Truth is its own reward, a sentiment expressed by Alicia’s students, many of whom demonstrate that they don’t accept what is taught in history textbooks.
  • Profound moral dilemmas:
    • Alicia feels compelled to learn the truth about how she came to adopt Gaby and who Gaby’s parents were, but this may result in her losing Gaby and ruining her marriage.
    • Likewise, Alicia is trained and expected to teach her students government-approved history, but many of her students object to what is taught, eventually contributing to Alicia questioning “the official story” of Argentina’s recent history. This could lead to Alicia losing passion for her profession or getting fired.
    • Also, without objecting or questioning, Alicia listens to many people around her as they make subtle or direct political statements, and only by the end of the film does she address injustice directly by confronting her husband; this puts her at risk physically (we see her attacked by her husband), jeopardizes her marriage, and ultimately results in Gaby possibly living with her biological grandmother.

Similar films worth mentioning

  • Z
  • El Norte
  • Missing
  • The Magdalene Sisters
  • Oranges and Sunshine
  • Argentinian films made about Argentina’s Dirty War, including Funny Dirty Little War, Night of the Pencils, and Veronica Cruz
  • Sophie’s Choice

Other movies directed by Luis Puenzo

  • Old Gringo starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda
  • The Plague starring William Hurt and Robert Duvall


Why The Silence of the Lambs still gets under our skin

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Three decades after making its theatrical debut, The Silence of the Lambs continues to terrify, intrigue, and inspire. Performing a closer examination of this seminal film and asking deeper questions reveals several key points as well as a greater appreciation of what is now considered one of the very finest films in several categories, including horror, police procedural, psychological thriller, and drama.

Why does The Silence of the Lambs still matter 30 years later, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It matters because of its exceptional craftsmanship. Think about the way the film turns the tables on us as viewers by employing various clever techniques.
    • Example #1: From the start, we identify with and admire Clarice – a small, outnumbered female in a world dominated by men. We often see Clarice’s point of view and are commonly reliant on her discovery of the facts to help uncover the mystery; interestingly, near the end of the film the POV shifts abruptly after the lights go out in Buffalo Bill’s subterranean lair; suddenly, we are given Bill’s perspective, which shows a terrified Clarice seen through night-vision goggles – which makes us all the more fearful for her.
    • Next, note how we are tricked by Lecter’s clever escape scheme in which he masquerades as a wounded police officer; after that stunt, the audience isn’t sure what to trust with their own eyes.
    • Example #3: The film brilliantly utilizes parallel editing – also called crosscutting – in which the shots of two separate but concurrent sequences, each taking place at separate locations, are juxtaposed to make us think that a SWAT team has amassed outside of the home of Buffalo Bill, whom we see reacting to the ring of his doorbell; only it’s Clarice who has actually pressed his doorbell, at the same time a plainclothesed officer rings the bell of a different house. What a sequence.
    • Also, ponder the amazing sound design throughout the film – especially that climactic scene where Clarice enters Bill’s home: we hear barking, yelling, rock music, flapping sounds, and heavy breathing – all of which add up to an unnerving audio wallpaper. Earlier, we hear subtle but strange and disembodied breathing, cries, and sighs (including an exhalation audible when the Gypsy moth is removed from the throat of Buffalo Bill’s first victim), as well as low-frequency rumbling and water plops.
  • Furthermore, The Silence of the Lambs remains an innovative study in suspense and horror.
    • Here’s a horror movie in which the hero is a woman, the leading man is a psychopathic killer who eats people, there is no sex or romance, and there are two monsters: one on the loose and another who is caged – at least for most of the film. Buffalo Bill may be more abhorrent to us, but Hannibal is just as violent, dangerous, and loathsome, although the audience is rooting for him to express his intelligence, match wits with Clarice, and aid her in her task, which makes him more sympathetic.
      • Director Jonathan Demme said: “It’s a suspense movie with a female protagonist who is never in sexual peril. It’s a slasher movie that is devoid not only of slasher scenes but of the anticipation of seeing them.”
    • It’s riveting, as well, because there’s a time limit involved: We know that Clarice only has three days in which to find Buffalo Bill or his captive will be killed.
    • The Silence of the Lambs has also stood the test of time because it showcases its genre film roots proudly and plays upon our fears of real-life psychopaths and serial killers.
      • It riffs on old-time horror movies like Frankenstein, Nosferatu, King Kong, and Psycho – all of which contain monsters that, to some extent, Lecter resembles or makes us think of – as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey (its villain, HAL 9000, inspired Hopkins’ performance, he revealed) and Aliens – another horror film that features a strong female protagonist who hunts monsters and plays the part of a rescuer.
      • Interestingly, it features brief cameos by two renowned horror directors: Roger Corman and George Romero.
    • It would have also conjured up earlier memories of John Hinckley and his obsession with Jodie Foster before attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan; real-life serial killer Ted Bundy who donned a cast to appear benign and lure victims into his vehicle; and another true-life serial killer, Ed Gein, who also used the skin and human remains of his victims.

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

  • Unlike predecessors that depicted psycho killers and mentally deranged sociopaths, this movie attempts to employ a forensic psychology approach to better understanding the mindset and motivations for the criminals.
    • Film reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “Prior to The Silence of the Lambs, the psycho movie genre’s view of psychology and behavior had been rooted in absurdly outmoded and melodramatic forms of Freudian trauma – Psycho (1960) and successors – or where killers were stripped of human motivation and seen as incarnate faces of evil – Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) and various sequels. The forensic psychology psycho-thriller gave the psycho film psychological motivation – it took a glimpse inside the heads of psychopaths and what made them tick behaviorally.”
  • While many earlier or films had already established the formula of the “final girl” – in which the last survivor is a vulnerable female who has been pursued and attacked by an antagonist, this picture refreshingly presents a strong female protagonist who is the hunter instead of the hunted, the hero instead of the victim, and the rescuer. Clarice presents an inversion of the “knight in shining armor” male archetype who has to rescue the fair maiden locked in the villain’s castle.
  • This movie’s influence was wide and vast in popular entertainment.
    • Consider all the imitators that came in its wake, including pictures like Se7en, Copycat, Kiss the Girls, Beyond Bedlam, Just Cause, The Cell, Angel Dust, When the Bough Breaks, The Bone Collector, etc.
    • It may also have inspired the forensic police procedural TV dramas that came a few years later, including CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Bones, Without a Trace, etc.
    • It created a cottage industry of sequels, prequels, and TV shows based on the film’s characters, including three subsequent movies featuring Lecter, the NBC series Hannibal, and the brand-new CBS series Clarice, which debuts this month.
    • The Silence of the Lambs has also been constantly referenced in pop culture over the past 30 years, with mentions, spoofs, and parodies in films like Austin Powers in Goldmember, Fatal Instinct, and Dumb and Dumber along with nods in The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

What themes, messages, motifs, or symbols are explored in The Silence of the Lambs?

  • Breaking through barriers. Clarice, a lone female in a male-dominated profession, is challenged with breaking through the glass ceiling. Symbolically, the film features multiple barred doors that Starling must pass to enter the domains of both Lecter and Buffalo Bill, respectively. And interestingly, Clarice has to ascend and descend through different levels to achieve her goals. The film opens with her jogging up a hill and climbing over training obstacles, but soon she must descend various levels to reach the villains – both Lecter and Buffalo Bill.
  • Usurped gender conventions. Consider that Bill is a seamstress, regarded by many as a female vocation, while Clarice is a rugged and resourceful FBI agent, a role often assigned to males.
  • Voyeurism and watching. We are given many shots from Clarice’s point of view. But more often we observe recurring POV shots that demonstrate Clarice is being watched as well as shots of Clarice being outnumbered, dwarfed, objectified, or leered at by groups of men or a single man. “All of the shots contribute to the impression that Clarice is not in command of her own space, but is threatened by others,” wrote Roger Ebert.
  • Pairing and twinning. Lecter and Clarice serve as parallel characters.
    • As Ebert surmised: “Both are ostracized by the worlds they want to inhabit – Lecter, by the human race because he’s a serial killer and a cannibal, and Clarice, by the law-enforcement profession because she is a woman. Both feel powerless – Lecter because he is locked in a maximum-security prison… And Clarice because she is surrounded by men who tower over her and fondle her with her eyes. Both use their powers of persuasion to escape from their traps… And both share similar childhood wounds.”
  • American iconography. The film repeatedly uses the colors red white and blue as well as American flags and additional symbols of patriotism – such as the Washington Memorial and the Capitol building as well as a cake sporting the seal of the Department of Justice. In a perverse subversion of the American Eagle, Lecter displays the spread-eagled body of one of his victims.

What elements from this movie are showing some wrinkles?

  • Controversially, it taps into fears and misconceptions by heterosexuals of gay and transsexual people in how it depicted Buffalo Bill as a confused and disturbed homosexual/wannabe transgender who may or may not have come out of the closet. Many in the LGBT community despised this portrayal as stereotypical and damaging.

What are this film’s greatest gifts to viewers?

  • The mainstream introduction of one of contemporary horror cinema’s greatest and most iconic characters – Hannibal the cannibal – thanks, in large part, to the exceptional and unconventional manner in which Anthony Hopkins plays this character. There’s a good reason why this persona has launched so many spinoff works: Lecter is spellbinding, unpredictable, inventive, perceptive, and smarter than anyone else in the room, which makes him a refreshing departure from a mindless monster or cliché slasher killer.
  • Equally great is the character of Clarice, who, as a sturdy, resourceful, and quick-witted heroine, has aged so gracefully over 30 years. Thinking back now on how far women have come in the past three decades, how they command greater respect and admiration as well as demonstrate more agency, it’s easy to observe Clarice and see her as a trailblazer helping to supplant the archetype of the passive female lead, the obligatory love interest or sex object, or the damsel in distress. Jodie Foster infuses this role with incredible humanity and vulnerability but also quiet conviction, resiliency, and fearlessness. She and Starling prove they should not be underestimated. As with Hopkins, this is probably Foster’s finest work.
  • Its third greatest gift is its subjective camera and commitment to close-ups. By continually bringing us up close and personal to the character’s faces, we are provided an often unsettling intimate view into the minds of these characters, particularly Starling and Lecter. These POV shots are logical, in that we see through his or her eyes, and we are then given a counterpoint shot, but these tight shots are most effective psychologically because they eliminate the periphery and focus intently on what the character is seeing, hearing, perceiving, and experiencing – causing the viewer to do the same.
  • Demme was quoted as saying: “The most powerful shot of all is when you put the viewer right in the shoes of one of the characters so they are seeing exactly what the character is seeing.”


There's no such thing as bad pizza, sex, or noir

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

In the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood studios cranked out noirish fare regularly. Many of these cheap quickies rapidly evaporated from the public consciousness, being the disposable entertainments they were, but others were ripe for rediscovery generations later – despite their cut-rate pedigree.

One such example is Woman on the Run, directed by Norman Foster. CineVerse identified this movie’s multiple merits last week, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

How is Woman on the Run different from or similar to other noir films you’ve seen?

  • It does not feature an evil femme fatale spider woman who leads men into danger. However, it does spotlight one of the three major noir character types: the middle-class victim who gets pulled into a dangerous situation by a stroke of fate – in this case, a bystander who witnesses a mob murder.
  • Like many films noir, it’s set in a large city; here, it’s San Francisco. But different from many other noirs, which are often low-budget affairs shot on confined studio sets, Woman on the Run often features memorable outdoor location shooting across San Francisco and Northern California, using famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, and the Ocean Park Pier amusement park in Santa Monica.
  • It has the visual aesthetics of classic noir, by virtue of its use of canted angles, tracking shots, and chiaroscuro lighting. But consider the many daytime scenes shot; when you think of noir, you often imagine dark, shadowy nighttime sequences.
  • This film also has a slightly more comedic and lighthearted tone then many hard-boiled and gritty noirs.
    • Film blogger Eric Hillis wrote: “It stands out from the crowd by just how comedic it is. The dialogue by Ross Hunter is some of the wittiest you’ll find in noir, and Sheridan is the perfect vessel for this particular brand of snark.”
  • Interestingly, this film adopts a different approach than expected. Here, neither the police investigator nor witness husband are the primary character we follow; alternatively, the filmmakers spotlight his wife, a relatively safe character who isn’t being chased by the police or the mob. We come to care more about her as we realize, as she does, that she and Frank have stronger feelings for each other than previously thought.
    • Per film historian Philippa Gates, Woman on the Run is one of the few noir films foregrounding a heroine's quest, and especially one where "the heroine's quest is not necessarily complicated by [heterosexual romance ..., in fact] the love interests are absent for the majority of the story."
    • “While the film has the trappings of a classic film noir mystery, the murder and chase almost take a backseat to the psychological examination of Eleanor and her husband,” wrote film blogger Morgan Lewis.

What are some possible missed opportunities or questionable decisions related to this film?

  • The title is misleading. Eleanor, the wife, is not technically “on the run.” She’s trying to find and warn her husband. More accurately, it’s her husband who is on the run – or, to be specific, hiding out.
  • Arguably, the major twist reveal, that Dan is not a reporter but actually a hitman for the mob out to kill Frank, occurs a bit too early and, at least for modern audiences, can be a bit easy to sniff out ahead of time. The advantage, however, of revealing his duplicitous nature early on is that it builds suspense about whether or not Eleanor will unwittingly guide Dan to her husband and his demise.
  • Although the climactic amusement park scene is relatively well-staged, edited, and executed, it could have been even more tense and gripping if the filmmakers had included a well-edited sequence showing the cops reaching Frank in time and killing Dan before he can murder Frank. Likewise, instead of showing the floating body in the water and then quickly revealing that the dead man is Dan, it would’ve been better if the disembodied hand of Frank reached in from out of frame to touch Eleanor on the shoulder as she looked down at the dead man, giving us a brief moment of suspense as to who survived. That would have been a Hitchcockian touch.

Films or other works that come to mind after watching Woman on the Run

  • Strangers on a Train and Lady From Shanghai, two noirish pictures that each feature amusement parks or funhouses as a pivotal setting
  • The Third Man, which also has us follow an evasive figure who does not emerge until well into the film.


30 years of lambs, Lecter, and liver with fava beans

Sunday, February 14, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #32, host Erik Martin sends birthday wishes to The Silence of the Lambs, which was released 30 years ago on Valentine's Day, 1991. The film's co-producer, Ed Saxon, joins Erik to examine why this film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie today, how it has stood the test of time, and more. 
Ed Saxon

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2021: A space oddity

Monday, February 8, 2021

As a low-cost, direct-to-video sci-fi entertainment, Europa Report provides an impressive return on investment for the filmmakers and viewers alike. Buoyed by a credible premise (the enticement of visiting a moon in our solar system that scientists believe may sustain life) and an intriguing cinematic setup (in which we rely on found footage, recorded by cameras on the spacecraft, that have survived a doomed mission), this picture serves as a refreshing “science-fact” take on sci-fi entertainment – albeit with a few flaws.

The CineVerse faithful screened and discussed Europa Report last week, with the following observations documented (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

Other films that come to mind after watching Europa Report

  • Gravity
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • 2010: The Year We Make Contact
  • Moon
  • Apollo 13
  • Sunshine
  • Alien

How is Europa Report different from or similar to previous fact-based science-fiction films?

  • It’s a mashup of several different genres, including science-fiction, science-fact, thriller/suspense movie, mockumentary, meta-movie, and found footage film.
    • As a found footage movie, we are meant to uncover the events that unfolded during and mysteries surrounding the fate of the space mission via surviving recorded video footage. Except for footage featuring mission control leaders on Earth, every shot is sourced from a camera found within or without the ship.
  • The story is not told in linear chronological fashion; instead, the filmmakers choose to provide a fragmented narrative that jumps around in time and location. We know early on that something has gone horribly wrong with the mission and one of the crewmembers has died; eventually, we learn what, how, and why it happened.
  • This picture doesn’t follow predicted formula. The scenario is classic sci-fi horror, in which we might expect an encounter with a dangerous alien life form that threatens the lives of the astronauts. And, following that form, each member of the crew dies, leaving a “final girl” as many horror films do. However, there is no gratuitous or graphic violence, no jump scares, no viscera or gore, no nudity or romantic intrigue, and no betrayal or villainy by a human character. Instead, the movie takes a realistic approach by simulating NASA spacecraft, using stock footage of actual launches, focusing on a bona fide celestial body in our solar system, depicting the professionalism of each crew member, and featuring a variety of ethnicities, ages, and personalities – in keeping with astronauts we’ve seen on the International Space Station.
  • Unlike those sci-fi predecessors listed above, this isn’t a mega-dollars special-effects-laden extravaganza with showy set pieces, impressive creature effects, or expensive pyrotechnics. The only glimpse we get of an alien life form comes at the very end, revealed in a handful of seconds.

Themes laced into Europa Report

  • The price paid for man’s unquenching thirst for knowledge. At least twice in the film, the astronauts mention how their lives are insignificant compared to the quest for cosmic truth and information. Rosa says: “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known... what does your life actually matter?”
  • The fragility of our physical human existence. This story demonstrates how even the smallest errors or twists of fate can lead to disastrous consequences that can quickly terminate corporeal life. Furthermore, there is an irony to the fact that we’ve created and perfected the incredible technology required to explore space, but our physical limitations can prevent us from fully experiencing or surviving extraterrestrial contact.
  • Claustrophobia and lack of privacy or normalcy. We are given an intimate look into the confining and restricting spaces these astronauts have to live in.
  • Guilt and regret. We perceive how the older senior engineer experiences guilt at the fact that his partner died in space after saving his life. Likewise, the crew undoubtedly feels conflicting emotions after Rosa disappears in the ice. The resourcefulness, resilience, and selflessness of human beings operating at their peak. The film demonstrates, on multiple occasions, how brave and intelligent acts of altruism and unselfishness help save crew members and preserve the video footage for posterity.


Suds and the City

Monday, February 1, 2021

Soapy and silly are two words that some used to describe Richard Brooks’ 1954 melodrama The Last Time I Saw Paris. But it’s hard to deny the pristine sheen coating the surface of this big-budget A-list Technicolor outing from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. For our CineVerse group’s take on this somewhat over-the-top flick, read on (to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).

What about this movie got your attention or left an impact – good or bad?

  • It’s an impressive array of talent on display here, especially the prestigious and deep cast, including a 22-year-old vivacious Elizabeth Taylor, Van Johnson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed, Ava Gabor, and Roger Moore in his first Hollywood screen role. Director Richard Brooks went on to make several key films in the 1950s and 1960s, the source material is an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, and the screenwriters included the Epstein brothers, famous for crafting the script for Casablanca.
  • The film has been criticized for lack of character development and an overreliance on weepy melodrama.
    • Consider that Reed’s sister character is given very little screen time, and her apparent brooding jealousy isn’t clarified to the viewer until the end of the picture.
    • Helen is depicted early on as a bit of a materialistic, flirty playgirl, making us think that she will turn out to be a bad catch for Charles; but once they are married she remains relatively faithful and loyal to Charles.
    • Charles’ flirty and philandering nature seems to materialize out of the blue, clashing with his image up to that point of an ambitious and hard-working loyal spouse; it can be assumed that his frustrations as a writer and emerging alcoholism are behind these unsavory character traits, but this creates a confounding and contradictory character.
    • Likewise, Charles’ descent into wallowing self-pity is an eye-rolling development that makes his character unsympathetic.
  • It’s obvious that this film has fallen into the public domain and persists in a state of ignominious visual disrepair. It begs for a restoration of some kind to rekindle its dulled color cinematography. Unfortunately, a cleanup job would likely reveal van Johnson’s splotchy complexion problems all the more; it looks as though he’s suffering from some kind of rash or dermatological condition.

Themes present in this movie

  • Don’t take what you have for granted. Helen dreams of being rich, while Charles yearns for success as a writer. Both learned that money and prestige don’t necessarily make you happy and that it’s important to appreciate the gifts and blessings you have in hand rather than continually fantasize about something possibly unattainable.
  • Self-reflection and forgiveness. Marion realizes that she’s been punishing Charles – by keeping his daughter away from him – for not reciprocating her affection and for choosing Helen. By the conclusion, Marion has acknowledged this fault and forgiven Charles.
  • Good fortune is fleeting and not guaranteed. Helen is struck down in the prime of her life, the family’s oil fortune dries up, and Charles’ ability to see his daughter is jeopardized.

Films that Last Time I Saw Paris remind us of

  • Till the Clouds Roll By
  • The melodramas of Douglas Sirk like All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, and Imitation of Life

Other films directed by Richard Brooks

  • In Cold Blood
  • Elmer Gantry
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • Blackboard Jungle
  • The Professionals


Shining a light on Chaplin's most luminous work

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Fine wine, a Beethoven symphony, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture – Some things never go out of style, regardless of their age. Charles Chaplin’s City Lights is another good example. Released 90 years ago today, this film exemplifies what it means to be an ageless classic. Want proof? Ponder the points below.

Why City Lights is deserving of celebration 90 years later, and evidence that it has stood the test of time

  • It still matters because it speaks a universal cinematic language that can be understood and appreciated by audiences worldwide – regardless of language, race, or background. Despite the fact that this is technically a sound film that uses sound effects and synchronized music, it plays as a silent and can be easily comprehended and enjoyed even by young children and those who cannot read the English titles and intertitles. Chaplin used fewer titles and intertitles in City Lights than he did in his previous movies.
  • Likewise, it stands the test of time because it showcases the power of pantomime and physical comedy to entertain, without the need for dialogue and exposition. The fact that the film can still be regarded as hilarious and relevant, nine decades after its initial release, speaks to the timeless magic of cinema – even old-time cinema – as a visually expressive medium.
  • City Lights also worth honoring because it’s a representation of brilliant filmmaking on so many fronts. What we have here is a near-perfect work flawlessly executed by Chaplin and his team: the screenplay is lean, limber, and emotionally logical; the visuals are efficiently constructed, thanks to carefully designed compositions, impressively choreographed body movements, and even the most minor facial expressions that are precision-timed to elicit a maximum response from the viewer.

How this film may have been influential on cinema and popular culture

  • The critical and commercial success of this movie proved to early 1930s Hollywood that silent films in the new era of talkies weren’t quite dead. Chaplin would go on to make another pseudo silent in 1936 – Modern Times.
  • The fact that Chaplin bucked the odds and made this film at an enormous personal expense – taking several years and spending millions of dollars, primarily funded by liquidating his stock portfolio, to complete City Lights – may have inspired future independent filmmakers to take greater risks in pursuit of their visions.
  • This has been credited by some as probably the first feature-length comedy in the sound era that intertwined pathos with playful humor – that evoked equal parts laughs and tears. Chaplin was warned that this hybrid approach and delicate balance wouldn’t work, but he proved the naysayers wrong. Today, many successful comedies function across an emotional spectrum in which the silly and the sad slash serious can coexist, and this evolving formula can be traced back to a film like City Lights.
  • The sound design of City Lights is also cited as innovative for its time, with Chaplin employing sound itself as a punchline or humorous payoff instead of words or physical comedy. Consider the yuks that ensue after the Little tramp mistakenly swallows the penny whistle and treats our eardrums to a hilarious series of noisy hiccups.
  • Unlike Chaplin’s previous pictures, which depended primarily on gags and set pieces, City Lights places a strong emphasis on its narrative and personalities, marking a change in style for the filmmaker.
  • City Lights is also noted by some as Chaplin’s first major attempt to infuse politics and social messaging into one of his feature-length movies. By bringing attention to the plight of the impoverished, underprivileged, and lower classes, in contrast to the privileges of the idle rich and snooty establishment, especially at a time when the Great Depression was on everyone’s mind, Chaplin set a template here for funny movies driven by a social conscience.
  • Some notable movies that likely took a cue from City Lights are:
    • The Bride of Frankenstein, in which a hideous monster is befriended by a blind man
    • Mask, a movie about a teenage boy with a rare facial deformity who is in love with a blind girl
    • The Artist, a throwback kind of film from 2011 that won the Best Picture Oscar and pays homage to silent film comedy romances.

Messages or themes of note in City Lights

  • The stark contrast between the haves and have-nots and between spiritual wealth and material wealth. Characters lacking financial means in this film tend to be more well-rounded and spiritually enriched, while the millionaire, for example, lives a lavish but vacuous lifestyle devoid of much meaning. This would have sent a powerful message during the depths of the Great Depression in 1931.
  • Life is worth living: This is no small point that the Little Tramp teaches both the Millionaire and the blind girl, to whom Chaplin’s character serves as a redeemer and savior.
  • The thin line between comedy and tragedy. Chaplin keeps us teeter-tottering from chuckles to sniffles, often in quick succession, by alternating humorous bits with melancholy moments—as we often experience in everyday life.
  • Mistaken and misjudged identities and faulty assumptions. Ponder that the intoxicated millionaire mistakes the Little Tramp as a class equal and the police assume the Tramp is responsible for stealing from the millionaire; also, the blind girl believes the Tramp is a wealthy man. As well, we see the Tramp confuse a hunk of cheese for a piece of soap and assume dominance over a worker rising from a sewer lift until he realizes the man is a giant not to be messed with.
  • The struggle to see and be seen. The Little Tramp is ignored and overlooked by society, but ironically a blind woman pays attention to him. She can’t see his destitution; she only sees his kindness and compassion.

Chaplin’s style as a filmmaker

  • Quintessential elements of Chaplin’s directorial and storytelling approach that he tends to employ throughout many of his films include:
  • Sentimentality and pathos: Some contend that his movies are emotionally manipulative, but Criterion Collection essayist Gary Giddins wrote: “The difference between pathos and sentimentality is the difference between art and manipulation—any director worth his salt can manipulate basic emotions. But Chaplin husbands those emotions in a way that few other filmmakers could do. He turns us at will between the funniest routines ever put on film and a poignant fairy tale, but never plays our empathy cheap. He wants us to cry only once, at the very end, and not for her” (the blind girl).
  • His feature-length films often play out as a series of episodes, sometimes only loosely connected, that can work as mini-movies within the larger film, although many believe he paid more attention to a consistent plot and narrative through-line starting with City Lights.
  • The universality of the human experience. Chaplin was the master of silent cinema because he didn’t need words or talky exposition to elicit a strong emotional reaction in viewers; consequently, people from different cultures around the world – even the illiterate – can understand, relish, and be enthralled by his pictures.
  • Championing the underdog and the outsider: The Little Tramp character functions as a self-reliant, resourceful misfit who is not accepted in society; he learns to survive, thrive, and earn the companionship he needs through his humanistic qualities as well as quite a bit of sheer luck.
  • Chaplin was also known as a perfectionist, often spending much more time and money on his films than the big studios did on their movies. In fact, City Lights still holds the Guinness world record for the most retakes – specifically involving the scene in which the tramp meets the blind girl.

Chaplin’s repertoire as a performer/comedian and salient characteristics to watch for

  • Pantomime: using facial expressions, gestures, and body language without words to convey emotions and reactions. Case in point: The drunken Little Tramp at the nightclub.
  • Physical comedy: using comically exaggerated and boisterous actions or situations that defy the limits of our physical world for comic effect. For example, being thrown into the water because he gets accidentally tethered to the heavy stone tossed by the millionaire.
  • Using objects that resemble other objects: For instance, the streamers that the Tramp thinks are spaghetti and the bald man’s head believed to be a party treat.
  • Self-deprecation: Many laughs come from the Little Tramp trying to maintain his dignity despite his rags, small stature, and laughable appearance. Exhibit A: the paperboys who tease him and the butler who throws him out of the mansion.
  • Humorous set pieces: self-contained, hilarious vignettes that, when strung together throughout a movie and interwoven with a central plot, help form a finished film. The boxing match is a prime example.

Elements from this picture that have aged well and aspects showing some serious wrinkles

  • The chivalrous notion of a knight in shining armor underdog coming to the rescue of a helpless damsel in distress is antiquated, although the Tramp’s tireless compassion, humanistic qualities, and personal sacrifices he makes for the blind girl are virtues that never go out of style.

City Lights' greatest gifts to viewers

  • Possibly its greatest gift of all is the final scene, particularly the last shot, which features the Tramp in an incredible close-up that packs an emotional wallop – a close-up that reveals the challenging life he’s lived and the likely hardscrabble future ahead of him. This is an image of the clown unmasked, shaky but sincere, emaciated but earnest. It’s a slightly unresolved ending that feels absolutely honest, the perfect capper to a thoroughly satisfying and masterfully constructed film. Many movies have difficulty sticking the landing, petering out with disappointing dénouements. But this is without question one of the finest and most fulfilling conclusions ever to a motion picture.
  • Another greatest gift is the diversified emotional tone. While some people find Chaplin's films sappy and emotionally simplistic and argue his mise en scène is too fabricated and controlled, many appreciate the dexterity with which he’s able to juggle physical comedy and sweetness, joy and suffering, clownishness and dignity, absurdity and morality. City Lights feels more significant and substantial because, in a league of lightweight laughers, it isn’t afraid to be a comedy heavyweight that packs on the pathos. It’s more memorable than your typical film comedy because it touches our hearts and tickles our funnybones in a very efficient 87 minutes, telling us everything we need to know about each main character literally without saying a word. As the most exemplary synthesis of all his talents and the most rewarding work in his canon, City Lights shines the brightest among all his works.


Speaking a universal language

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Differently-abled people are often given short shrift in Hollywood films. It’s refreshing, then, when filmmakers honestly and authentically depict the lives and challenges experienced by persons with disabilities. Such is the case with Children of a Lesser God, a film that stands out not only for casting a deaf actress in a leading role but for having a female director at the helm. CineVerse spoke some universal truths about this movie last week, including the following (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

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

  • It was a movie of several firsts. It marked the first time a Best Picture Academy Award nominee was directed by a woman – Randa Haines (although it didn’t win). Actress Marlee Matlin became the first deaf performer in a lead role as well as the only deaf actor and the youngest female ever to win a Best Actress Oscar. Interestingly, William Hurt had won the Best Actor Academy Award the year prior, so he was scheduled to announce the Best Actress winner at the Oscars; Hurt ended up bestowing the statuette to his girlfriend.
  • It brought attention to the deaf community, particularly deaf actors, and introduced many Americans to the benefits of American Sign Language (ASL).
  • Here, life imitated art in that William Hurt and Marlee Matlin engaged in a serious offscreen romance that lasted a few years after meeting on the set of this film. The chemistry and passion are evident in every scene together between the actors.
  • For greater realism and verisimilitude, the film employs real-life deaf actors and individuals – most importantly Matlin, who had been deaf since young childhood. The actors had to use ASL signing during their scenes, which meant that several performers had to learn how to accurately sign and communicate with the deaf.
  • The filmmakers could have chosen to use subtitles or internal monologue and not have Hurt speak Matlin’s messages aloud as often as he does, which some critics believe was overused in the film.
    • Roger Ebert, for instance, said: “By telling the whole story from Hurt’s point of view, the movie makes the woman into the stubborn object, the challenge, the problem, which is the very process it wants to object to.”
    • He and others contend that, if the filmmakers had chosen to tell the story more from Matlin’s POV (by, for example, occasionally presenting completely silent scenes and using subtitles), it would be a more balanced narrative that gives a more privileged and intimate look into Sarah’s world.
  • The title of the film and the play is based on a line in an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem called Idylls of the King.

What themes or conflicts are explored in this picture?

  • The inability to fully communicate with and understand differently-abled people. Sarah insists that trying to teach her to speak instead of using hand signing is an unfair means of trying to control and manipulate deaf individuals – forcing them to conform to the hearing community as opposed to the other way around. James believes that deaf people should adapt and use verbal language in addition to signing.
  • Finding common ground. For James and Sarah, arguably they are best able to connect, express their love, and understand each other in water and light.
    • The intimate scene in the swimming pool demonstrates that James needs to see the world from Sarah’s perspective; underwater, they are both deaf and speechless and must learn to bond in a nonverbal way.
    • Likewise, light is a signifier of passion and connection between these two lovers, as demonstrated by the scene where they get into an argument that quickly leads to hot-blooded lovemaking in front of a bright swivel lamp that they forcefully push out of the way.
  • Also, music is a way for hearing and deaf people to come together, if they can appreciate music from the other person’s perspective. James loves music for the way it sounds, while Sarah enjoys dancing to music (which James is not good at).
  • The degree to which special needs individuals are disregarded, misunderstood, and underestimated by most people.
  • Lasting love requires compromises. “There is a happy ending where James suggests that they can come to a compromise where there is not all silence but there is also not all speaking,” wrote blogger Jesse Marpoe.

Other films that Children of a Lesser God bring to mind

  • The Miracle Worker
  • Love Story
  • The Other Side of the Mountain
  • My Left Foot


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