Blog Directory CineVerse

One downright different kind of diner

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

If “quirky,” “offbeat,” and “eclectic” are more your taste when it comes to movies, you’ll probably get a kick out of Bagdad Café, a 1987 independent feature and international production directed by Percy Adlon that boasts a diverse cast and a script that’s difficult to predict. Our CineVerse directive last week was to fine tooth comb this flick; a summary of our discussion follows (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find Memorable, Interesting, Surprising, Significant, Impressive, Laudable, or Eye-opening about Bagdad Cafe?

  • This is a refreshing story and production, blending cultural and racial diversity with Americana and American iconography.
    • Bagdad Café is a film that isn’t afraid to mix disparate elements like an overweight German woman (played by an actress not afraid to show nudity), a headstrong African-American small business owner, a Native American sheriff and cook, an oddball tattoo artist, blue-collar truck drivers, a boomerang-throwing drifter, a classical piano-playing black teenage father, and a roadside rundown motel and diner. Consider how the word Bagdad makes us think of the Middle East, yet it was a real ghost town in California. Throw in a haggard-visaged and crookedly smiling actor associated with tough guy roles (Jack Palance), now playing a bohemian free spirit, and you’ve got a curious but delightful concoction of unexpected components that somehow gel.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “(Director Percy Adlon) is saying something in this movie about Europe and America, about the old and the new, about the edge of the desert as the edge of the American Dream. I am not sure exactly what it is, but that is comforting; if a director could assemble these strange characters and then know for sure what they were doing in the same movie together, he would be too confident to find the humor in their situation. The charm of Bagdad Cafe is that every character and every moment is unanticipated, obscurely motivated, of uncertain meaning and vibrating with life.”
  • The narrative has a slapdash feel to it, as if the filmmakers are making it up as they go along and seeing where things go. Yet this approach serves the picture by making it unpredictable, idiosyncratic, and non-formulaic.
  • While the filmmakers aren’t necessarily showy or ostentatious in their style and visuals, the movie employs curious choices like canted camera angles (as if to suggest the disorienting and off-kilter environment or mindsets of the characters) and oversaturated/exaggerated colors, especially shots of the painted Mohave Desert.
  • The film was positively reviewed and well received enough to warrant a spinoff television series in 1990 that lasted two seasons, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Cleavon Little, and Jean Stapleton.
  • Interestingly, the story ends quite abruptly – on a beat that a viewer would expect would provide more closure or a follow-up conclusion scene.

Major themes

  • A fish out of water, or a stranger in a strange land. Jasmin, a Bavarian wife on vacation in California, decides abruptly to leave her husband and immerse herself in the tiny but colorful subculture of Bagdad.
  • The merits of making a fresh start. Jasmin teaches Brenda the value of starting anew without a husband and selflessly serving others.
  • Soul sisters: Jasmin and Brenda are about as different as possible when it comes to race, background, culture, and physical appearance. But eventually, the women bond and synergize their talents for hosting and entertaining.
  • There’s magic to be found in even the unlikeliest of places. With her sleight-of-hand tricks, showmanship, and amiable charm, Jasmin demonstrates that even a location as desolate and seemingly forgettable as Bagdad and its namesake café can conjure up enchantment and mysterious delights.
  • Like the boomerang thrown by the drifter, life can come full circle on you in good and unexpected ways. Jasmin is forced to leave but eventually returns. Brenda parts with her husband but is reunited later. Jasmin leaves her husband but gets a new one.

Similar works

  • Stranger Than Paradise
  • Two novels: The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers, and Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins
  • Paris, Texas
  • Coen brothers films like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona
  • Postmark Paradise
  • Chocolat
  • Local Hero
  • Mary Poppins
  • Whatever Happened to Shirley Valentine

Other films by Percy Adlon

  • Sugarbaby
  • Salmonberries
  • Younger & Younger
  • Hawaiian Gardens
  • Mahler on the Couch

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When David met Sarah

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Entertainment offerings depicting autistic characters seeking romance have started to emerge over the last several years, as evidenced by the popularity of Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum and documentaries like Autism in Love. A worthy cinematic example is Keep the Change, a 2017 romantic comedy directed by newcomer Rachel Israel that defies expectations and proves to be as funny and refreshing as it is touching and truthful. Last week, our CineVerse assignment was to parse this picture carefully and mine its merits, which are summarized below (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

What struck you as memorable, impactful, resonant, and unexpected about Keep the Change?

  • This is certainly a romcom, but it doesn’t fall into many of the traps and protectable formulas that many romantic comedies suffer from. There isn’t a “meet cute,” the two primary characters aren’t necessarily adorable leads – each has issues and problematic quirks – there isn’t a lovable sidekick, there is no speechifying, soliloquy-giving, or grand gesture, and the ending isn’t guaranteed to be happy.
  • Wisely, the filmmakers chose to cast autistic individuals at different levels on the autism spectrum, including non-professional actors, which adds authenticity and veracity to the movie and its characters. The performers playing David and Sarah are more or less being themselves without having to act much.
  • The picture doesn’t try to evoke pity for autistic individuals or overtly manipulate us emotionally. Instead, it presents these characters organically and naturally by casting real people with autism.
  • Additionally, Keep the Change isn’t trying to be a message movie or the “definitive cinematic statement on autism.” It tells a simple story about love and friendship featuring two characters who happen to be autistic.
  • The film has plenty of comedic moments that tonally balance the dramatic portions.

Major themes

  • The universality of the human experience, despite disability. This is a film that is intended to open our eyes to how differently-abled people really aren’t that different from most of us. They can feel and express the same emotions as any of us, including joy, sadness, shame, physical attraction, and anger. While some autistic individuals are more highly functioning than others, many are capable of living relatively independently and engaging in meaningful relationships and interests.
  • Opposites attract. Sarah and David are distinctly different personalities who don’t necessarily have much in common other than physical desire and a need for companionship. But they learn to compromise and express empathy. David, while seemingly suffering from a milder form of autism, can be offputting with his controversial sense of humor and outspoken nature, while Sarah, although optimistic and complimentary, can be socially awkward and naïve.

Similar works

  • Atypical
  • Love on the Spectrum (Netflix reality TV show)
  • A Kid Called Po
  • Adam
  • Autism in Love (documentary)
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • Please Stand By
  • Jack of Red Hearts

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Here's looking at you, Casablanca

Sunday, November 20, 2022

This week, one of the most cherished films in the classic Hollywood canon marks an 80th anniversary. What makes Casablanca so timeless, and why is it worth celebrating eight decades later? The CineVerse group attempted to answer these and other key questions about this 1942 standout earlier this month (listen to a recording of our group talk, click here; to listen to the current Cineversary podcast episode on this film, click here). Below is a summary of our major discussion points.

Why is Casablanca worth celebrating 80 years later? Why does this movie still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • Casablanca could be the finest example of a studio assembly line product being churned out during the golden age of Hollywood. Many scholars and critics marvel at the picture’s construction and quality, particularly considering the luck and happenchance nature of its making and reception. Consider that Casablanca was filmed in under three hurried months. Many screenwriters, including Casey Robinson, were called in to help doctor the screenplay. Several of the actors didn’t care for the director or each other. Furthermore, this was just another production on Warner Brothers’ docket, with no great expectations from the makers involved. And the U.S. getting involved in World War II and the Nazis entering Casablanca shortly before the film’s release made the movie timely and relevant to modern audiences.
  • It boasts an outstanding ensemble cast, including colorful supporting characters portrayed by veteran character actors. This film could have the most effective lineup and the deepest bench of any picture up to that time or even since, thanks to the inclusion of Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, Conrad Veidt, S.Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau, Joy Page, John Qualen, and Leonid Kinskey.
  • Casablanca features top-notch behind-the-camera talent, too, among them director Michael Curtiz, crafty producer Hal Wallis, skilled writers Howard Koch and brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, genius composer Max Steiner, ace director of photography Arthur Edeson, and savvy future director Don Siegel.
  • The ending is not predictable. In fact, it’s exceptionally complicated, ambiguous, and poignant, and the fact that the conclusion was written at the last minute, with the actors unaware of how the denouement would unfold, speaks to how affecting and seemingly spontaneous some of the performances are.
  • The dialogue is surprisingly cynical and often sparse, which has helped make Casablanca evergreen. This film is among the most quotable in history, enriched with a multitude of great lines, including:
    • "Here's looking at you, kid."
    • "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
    • "We'll always have Paris."
    • "Round up the usual suspects."
    • "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
    • “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
  • It checks the boxes in several categories: It’s quite possibly the best romance film, the most patriotic movie, the most perfectly cast, and maybe the best screenplay ever.
  • With its genre-blending, Casablanca offers something for everyone: romance, melodrama, comedy, music, action, and even political commentary. Thematically, the film also beautifully melds idealism, intrigue, and romance. And tonally, the pessimism is offset by humanism and sentimentality.
  • Arguably, this is the film that reminds most Americans, nostalgically, about World War II, in that its plot greatly involves that strife and was released just after the United States got involved; thus, it wistfully evokes a bygone, unforgettable era that history and posterity won’t allow us to forget.
  • Its centerpiece song “As Time Goes By” further helps make Casablanca ageless.
    • Deep Focus Review author Brian Eggert wrote: “The song wisps the characters away from the past where love was easy and time seemed to float. The song elicits the same reaction for viewers because as it plays, we remember the joyful experience of the whole film and escape into the pleasant simplicity of The Golden Age of moviemaking—as much a product of an unsound but strangely proficient and industrialized studio system the film may be. As time goes by, the song and Casablanca itself stay with us and mature through nostalgia and their enduring hypnotic spell.”

In what ways was Casablanca influential? Were any movies or filmmakers inspired by this work?

  • Casablanca represented a sea change in American movies for its time. It helped steer Hollywood toward a new era of moral sophistication in which the protagonist’s motivations and past actions are blurry and suspect. Rick exudes the classic traits of a prototype anti-hero, at least until the story’s close. Some believe this approach prefigured the onset of film noir and its darkly-tinged characters capable of both virtue and vice.
  • The emotionally complex and unresolved conclusion may have inspired later films. It’s not a classic Hollywood happy ending for its time: There are no easy choices, nor is there a clear resolution.
    • Neither Ilsa nor Rick knows what the other is thinking or feeling about one another, and no one necessarily “lives happily ever after.” Every major figure has to ultimately make sacrifices by the conclusion, but doing so guarantees their redemption as characters and our admiration as viewers.
    • We don’t know by the end whom Ilsa loves more; she has not professed her undying amore for one man. Nor do we know Rick’s true motivations: Is he giving up on Ilsa because he knows he can’t compete with Laszlo? Is he enacting some kind of emotional revenge on her for Ilsa abandoning him? Is Rick selflessly choosing the greater good?
    • The ending involves a painful decision and a conflict between personal love and political idealism. If you interpret the conclusion as a straightforward propagandistic moral that sacrifice is necessary to win the war, you may believe that it’s an upbeat and inspirational ending. But if you are more heavily invested in Rick and Ilsa’s love story, it’s hard not to feel torn and somewhat deflated after she flies off with Lazlo. True, there's a lighthearted capper in how Rick befriends Louis with the hint that they will escape to freedom together, but we are left to ruminate on “what-ifs” and “if-onlys.”
    • Ultimately, the finale suggests that the crux of the whole film rests on the sudden, developing friendship between Rick and Louis, and how that relationship, per DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson, “acts as a ballast to Rick’s relationship with Ilsa…The film is really a political romance between Rock and (Louis), as they circle and test one another to see who’s worthy and who’s not. When it comes time to act, their combined cool saves the day. Each makes a dramatic choice to step away from their cynical detachment and take a stand. With these two sharpies in charge…we know there’s hope for the future.”
  • Films inspired by Casablanca include Passage to Marseilles (reuniting Bogart, Curtiz, Rains, Lorre, and Greenstreet), To Have and Have Not, Sirocco, The Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca, Play it Again, Sam, and Havana.

What is noteworthy about the filmmakers, especially the choices of producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz?

  • While he was considered a journeyman director who wasn’t known for stamping his films with a particular style, Curtiz has an impressive curriculum vitae, helming several other classics such as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Angels With Dirty Faces, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, Life With Father, and White Christmas.
  • Hal Wallis is often credited with being the primary creative force behind Casablanca, curating the story from a failed stage play and guiding its construction carefully by choosing the director, writers, cast, and crew responsible for its creation.
  • The film moves effortlessly and invisibly between shots and scenes thanks to a steadily moving camera, an economy of well-composed shots, and terrific old Hollywood studio system talent that knew how to manufacture a product efficiently.
  • According to Turner Classic Movies writer Bret Wood: “Casablanca embraced what is now known as "invisible style." Rather than dazzling the eye with eye-catching visuals and histrionic acting, it seduces the viewer by creating a seamless, lush universe that gradually envelops the audience. Hardly an effortless accomplishment, "invisible style" required an absolute mastery of the various cinematic elements by its collaborators.”

What major themes or messages can be culled from Casablanca?

  • Selfless sacrifice. Each major character, by the end of the film, must choose to forfeit something for the sake of defeating the Nazis: Rick chooses to let Ilsa go; Ilsa decides to get on the plane with Lazlo, and Louis elects to protect the three lovers.
  • The choice of neutrality in both love and war. Rick and Louis must decide whether or not to fight the Nazis, and Rick and Ilsa have to choose whether to rekindle their romance and remain together or sacrifice for the greater good of the war and her marriage.
  • The inescapability of the past. Rick, Isla, and Louis cannot evade their memories or their previous romance. Rick is reminded of Ilsa by music and her re-entry into his life; Ilsa is torn between her past lover and her current lover; and Louis realizes that he, like Rick, must leave Casablanca and join the French resistance after aiding Rick.
  • The power of good luck. Gambling, and the promise it offers to those seeking to escape Casablanca, is prevalent at Rick’s café, where wagers are made and games of chance involving human lives are played. Recall how Sam sings the song “Knock on Wood,” which is a reference to a popular idiom that means you hope good fortune will persist.
  • Political allegory. The film plays like a well-timed fable about America’s stance on World War II. Before 1942, the United States, like Rick, tried to remain neutral and sidestep the world conflict. (Remember Rick’s line: “I’ll bet they’re asleep all over America,” which is a veiled reference to this isolationism.) But following Pearl Harbor, and after Elsa suddenly re-enters Rick’s life, more Americans, like Rick, embraced the ethical value of sacrifice and the importance of political idealism over personal desire and self-preservation.
  • The anti-hero turned hero. Rick is one of cinema’s most memorable early anti-heroes throughout most of the movie in that he has positive and negative qualities; he’s a multifaceted, mysterious personality (as evidenced by how many names he is called by others) with a shady past and seemingly selfish motives. “I stick my neck out for no one,” and “I’m the only cause I’m interested in” are two telling lines delivered by Rick. But once he makes the moral decision to help Laszlo and Ilsa, he becomes a heroic figure.
  • Living in exile. Casablanca is a city replete with foreigners, most of whom can’t return home due to the war. America represents a promised land on the far side of the desert, while Casablanca symbolizes a purgatorial oasis in the desert, with Rick’s Café standing as a neutral sanctuary for all.
  • A classic lover’s triangle.

What is Casablanca’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Casablanca’s greatest present to film fans could be its proud pedigree as a standout in the romance genre. It placed tops on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Love Stories Of All Time List for good reasons.
    • The tortured romantic tale at the heart of this movie, the bittersweet backstory involving Rick and Ilsa’s whirlwind relationship, and the array of conflicting feelings and wartime motivations that tug at them from different directions after she reenters Rick’s life—including jealousy, attraction, anger, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, patriotic pressure, and altruism—coalesce to create an emotionally resonant cinematic experience.
    • But what particularly helps distinguish this work from other romantic dramas of its era, or any era, is that there is no obvious happy ending. Soul mates though they may be, Ilsa and Rick must part, for the greater good, before the credits roll. However, their unselfish choices make their characters all the more deserving of empathy and appreciation. Instead of expressing idealized romantic affection they ultimately demonstrate unconditional love by letting each other go and realizing that their personal story doesn’t even warrant a trifling footnote in the pages of history that are being written. Theirs is a love where time, place, and circumstance conspire against them, and it is these oppositional forces that add crucial dramatic weight to the narrative and the performances.
    • Part of the brilliance that buoys Casablanca is that it’s a film of temporal relevance for 1942—a time when the tides of war were in the Nazi’s favor, uncertainty about the global conflict and its repercussions prevailed, and a mysterious foreign locale with an exotic name like Casablanca could concomitantly command both the box office and newspaper headlines. Using this intriguing setting and topical context as the backdrop of a love story provides a priceless gravitas that has helped Casablanca defy Father Time and the dustbin of popular entertainment irrelevance.

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Cineversary podcast explores why Casablanca gets better as time goes by

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Kenneth Turan and David Thomson
For Cineversary podcast episode #53, host Erik Martin revisits one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed films ever made: Casablanca, which celebrates an 80th birthday this month. In this installment, he’s joined by David Thomson, a renowned film critic, cinema historian, and author of Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire; as well as Kenneth Turan, film critic for National Public Radio, former film critic for the Los Angeles Times, and author of Not to Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film. Erik and his guests return to Rick’s Café Americain to hear Sam play it again and to examine why Casablanca continues to resonate and how it has transcended time.

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 Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, 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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Le Samourai passes the white glove test

Monday, November 7, 2022

Jean-Pierre Melville isn’t a name well known by many, but perhaps it should be considering how influential his 1967 masterwork Le Samourai has become in the 55 years since its release. The CineVerse spotlight shone strong on this French feature last week, which generated and engaged dialogue about the various virtues of this picture (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Highlights of our conversation are recapped below.

What did you find interesting, unanticipated, memorable, or curious about Le Samourai?

  • The title is a bit off-putting in that it makes us think of a classic Japanese samurai—a highly skilled fighter/killer; yet samurai typically follow a code of ethics and personal honor and were often pledged to protect and defend, not necessarily kill, especially not as a mercenary.
  • This is an exercise in style over substance to some extent, a film with a relatively simple plot and spare dialogue but which carries a vibe of detached coolness, relying heavily on the quiet stoicism and poker-faced magnetism of Costello, as suavely played by Alain Delon.
  • It’s a film assumedly set in modern times (1967, that is), yet it isn’t anchored to anything that would make it feel dated.
    • Director Jean-Pierre Melville said: “I don’t want to situate my heroes in time; I don’t want the action of a film to be recognizable as something that happens in 1968. That’s why in Le samouraï, for example, the women aren’t wearing miniskirts, while the men are wearing hats—something, unfortunately, that no one does anymore. I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.”
  • The director, in the words of Roger Ebert, “uses character, not action, to build suspense. Consider a scene where one of the underworld hirelings calls on Costello, to apologize and hire him for another job, and Jef stares at him with utterly blank, empty eyes. ‘Nothing to say?’ the goon says. ‘Not with a gun on me.’ ‘Is that a principle?’ ‘A habit.’"

Major themes

  • Abiding by a personal code. Jef is an impassionate killer with nerves of steel, an antihero with negative qualities; but we admire the extent to which he conducts himself with professionalism, intuitively sniffs out his enemies, and evades capture and death. The fastidious way he dons white gloves prior to a killing shows how savvy he is at his craft and dedicated he remains to his routine.
    • Costello also follows a samurai-like bushido code in that he’s willing to both commit suicide at the conclusion and, at the same time, abort the killing of a woman he admires (the pianist, Rey’s wife). Why does he choose not to kill her? Perhaps it’s because she protected him earlier during police questioning. Why does he choose to be cornered and killed by the police? Maybe it’s because he has accepted his doomed fate, realizing that it’s only a matter of time until the police catch him, and he wants to go out on his own terms.
  • Honor among thieves. Jef has several accomplices and complicit friends who are willing to help him even if it means breaking the law.
  • Deceit, double-crossing, and betrayal. Jef’s client attempts to have him killed after they fear the police will capture him. Rey also hires Jef to kill his wife for reasons undisclosed.
  • The hunted becomes the hunter. Costello turns the tables on Rey, who previously hired him to murder the nightclub owner, by killing Rey.
  • Isolation and alienation. Recall the film’s opening quote: “There is no solitude greater than a samurai's, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle."

Similar works

  • Point Blank
  • Blast of Silence
  • The French Connection
  • The Conversation
  • Bullit
  • The Driver
  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
  • Thief and Heat by Michael Mann
  • Leon: The Professional

Other films by Jean-Pierre Melville

  • Army of Shadows
  • The Silence of the Sea
  • Bob the High Roller
  • The Doulos
  • The Red Circle

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All aboard for zombie mayhem--South Korean style

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Fast-moving zombies invade a bullet train: Sounds like a great premise for a modern horror film. And it certainly is, as evidenced by Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan from 2016, which has quickly become a critical and fan favorite among fright films. Our CineVerse group took a ride aboard this runaway thriller last week and arrived at the following conclusions (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here).

How is Train to Busan different from other zombie films, and what did you find unexpected, refreshing, memorable, or distinctive about it?

  • It entraps its vulnerable characters within a confined space, in this case a high-speed train.
  • Although it wasn’t the first to do so, this film features rapid-moving zombies instead of slow, shambling creatures.
  • It introduces a new tweak to the zombie mythos: the living dead need to see their intended victims clearly, which means darkness is their enemy.
  • For a zombie film and horror movie, the emotional stakes are surprisingly high. The filmmakers slather on sentimentality, sorrow, and emotional trauma by giving us characters we care about and killing them off in devastating ways. The anguished cries of Seok-Woo and his daughter at the conclusion are incredibly moving.
  • There are several outstanding set pieces and action sequences, particularly in the scene where the train occupants depart at the station but must rush back to the safety of the train when pursued by zombies; later when the three men must fight three train cars loaded with the living dead to reunite with their loved ones; and toward the end when the last survivors make daring escapes from beneath the wrecked train and onto a getaway train.
  • Train to Busan has a political subtext that comments on the corruption and controversy swirling around the South Korean government and its then-President Park Genu-hye, who was eventually removed from office after public uproar later in the same year this film was released.

Major themes

  • Selfish self-preservation at all costs versus altruism, teamwork, and selfless sacrifices. Train to Busan suggests that, for the human race to survive, we need to think of others first, cooperate as a group, and make beneficent self-sacrifices. Consider that the final three survivors endured mostly because others acted heroically and gave their lives for their survival.
    • Seok-Woo, who earlier tells his daughter to “only watch out for yourself,” is humbled and changed by her unselfishness and compassion.
  • The benefits of active versus passive parenting. Seok-Woo isn’t present much in his daughter Soo-An’s life, and she’s resentfully aware of this. But by forgoing a day at work to escort her to her mother, remaining by her side as a stalwart protector through the zombie invasion, and ultimately sacrificing himself for her survival, she comes to love and appreciate her father and his character is redeemed.
  • Unchecked capitalistic greed can lead to catastrophe. It’s hinted in the film that Seok-Woo’s soulless fund-managing on behalf of his avaricious clients can cause others to suffer, and the zombie outbreak may have been caused indirectly by lax or hubristic practices by Seok-Woo’s employer.
  • Human beings can be more evil and dangerous than movie monsters. The most disgusting and despicable character in Train to Busan isn’t a zombie at all (at least, until his demise)—it’s the businessman Yon-suk, who evades death and minimizes his risk by treating others as expendable and manipulating the guilable.
  • The importance, and vulnerability, of the nuclear family. It’s no trivial matter that the final three survivors are a man, his daughter, and a pregnant woman who becomes the girl’s surrogate mother. Collectively, they stand a better chance of survival. The father must forfeit his life so that the other two can endure, and in so doing ensure continuity of the nuclear family.
  • Xenophobia, class warfare, and distrust of the government.

Similar works

  • Snowpiercer
  • 28 Days Later, World War Z, Zombieland, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and other modern living dead films featuring fast-moving zombies
  • George Romero’s original zombie trilogy: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead
  • Action thrillers in which the characters are trapped aboard a vessel, including Snakes on a Plane, Horror Express, Howl, and Alien Express
  • Contemporary disaster films like San Andreas, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow
  • Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake featuring a similar absent father character who must protect his children from disaster
  • The Mist
  • The Cassandra Crossing
  • Children of Men

Other films by Yeon Sang-ho

  • Seoul Station, and Peninsula, the respective prequel and sequel to Train to Busan
  • Psychokinesis
  • The King of Pigs, and The Fake, two earlier animated features

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Forget the sequels and reboots: The original Halloween still slashes its way to the top

Friday, October 28, 2022

None of the movies that comprise David Gordon Green's recent trilogy and reimagining of the Halloween franchise, which concludes with Halloween Ends released this month, can hold a jack-o'-lantern candle to the 1978 original helmed by John Carpenter. The 44-year-old thriller remains the benchmark against which modern horror and slasher pictures are measured, warts and all. Why does Carpenter's Halloween continue to resonate and inspire? Ponder the following points below, and click here to listen to the Cineversary podcast episode that extrapolates on what makes the film exceptional.

Why is Halloween worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s managed to stay relevant and interesting because of the quality filmmaking involved. Think about the film’s style and esthetics, the slow but regularly moving camera employed; this creates an insecure, unsettled, paranoid, distorted reality. It also makes you feel that something is lurking behind every corner, and it forces you to look for clues everywhere in the frame.
  • Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey craft masterful compositions: Consider the rich foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds, deep blacks off in the background or periphery that reveal nothing, and the wide angle lens aspect ratio. All these factors make you feel like something is hiding in the shadows, off to the side, or just out of frame.
  • The focus is more on suspense than gore. Surprisingly, there is very little blood or mutilation; there is onscreen violence, but not much in terms of splatter and body parts.
  • The design of this film and its elements are minimalistic but incredibly effective. 
    • The plot is hardly convoluted. 
    • The look of Michael Myers, also referred to as the shape, is hauntingly stark and plain yet terrifying, with his bleached white expressionless mask and uniformly bland mechanic’s jumpsuit. 
    • The music by John Carpenter, featuring only keyboards and synth sounds, uses uncomplicated but repetitive themes to ratchet up the tension.
  • It has also stood the test of time because Carpenter and his team learned valuable lessons from earlier horror film standouts, such as Psycho, which used a subjective camera and voyeuristic techniques that tried to make the audience intellectually/psychologically complicit in the crime. Ruminate on how the shower scene in Psycho is imitated by the young Michael Myers’ stabbing of his sister in the opening sequence.

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

  • The subjective point of view camera shots were inspirational. We see the stalking and killings through the eyes of the killer or his victims and hear his heavy breathing. You notice this approach instantly aped in subsequent movies like the first Friday the 13th.
    • This forces you into a deeper more involved participation; thus, the picture becomes a more visceral experience.
    • Think about how the filmmakers often begin with wide shots and slowly move in closer, framing tighter, creating a kind of claustrophobic feeling so that the viewer can identify with a character experiencing the encroaching fear.
    • The long opening take, featuring an extended tracking shot, was made possible via a Steadicam, which was a new technology at that time.
  • Halloween also reinforced the convention of the final girl, earlier propagated by horror landmarks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas and later echoed in movies like Alien and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
  • This movie suggests an eerie ambiguity about the villain, too—that Michael Myers may simply be a cunning insane person or supernaturally gifted.
  • The sparse and simplistic but unnerving score by Carpenter created arguably the most instantly identifiable theme song for a horror movie and a minimalistic but effective assault on our nerves.
    • Nat Brehmer of Diabolique Magazine wrote: “Halloween, with maybe the exception of Suspiria before it, was the first score to be melodic and sinister at the same time. The score is always there, drifting between two or three repeating themes, then going to a single note during acts of murder. The music is used less when Michael Myers is actually killing someone. The music aids this by focusing mostly on the tension and the buildup to the moment. Once the moment comes, the tension is over and the music drifts out.”
  • When you picture Michael Myers, it’s almost impossible not to also have the theme song concurrently play in your head. That’s how powerful that score is.
  • Perhaps most important of all, Halloween created an iconic, archetypal monster who has possibly become the most famous, popular, and instantly recognizable horror icon of the past 50 years. Leatherface came first, but Michael Myers set the mold for how to build a horror franchise around a killer character, a template that would be copied by the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, and Scream films.
  • Halloween launched a slew of copycat movies like When a Stranger Calls, Prom Night, Graduation Day, New Year’s Evil, Mother’s Day, My Bloody Valentine, Silent Night Deadly Night, and April Fool’s Day.
  • Critics often blame Halloween for setting the slasher subgenre in motion and introducing a steady output of increasingly sadistic, gory, and misogynistic horror movies.

What themes or messages are explored in Halloween?

  • Immorality will be punished: the trope of the final girl is more firmly established in this film, which suggests that Laurie Strode survives the shape’s onslaught because she is not preoccupied with sex, doesn’t indulge in promiscuity and lose her virginity, didn’t abandon the children she’s responsible for babysitting, and is smarter and demonstrates more agency than her peers.
  • Arguably, this film espouses a conservative morality. Consider the evidence:
    • Those who are killed are sexually promiscuous and drug users (although Laurie does take a brief puff of pot).
    • According to AMC Filmsite writer Tim Dirks, Halloween “asserted the allegorical idea that sexual awakening often meant the literal 'death' of innocence (or oneself).”
    • Dr. Loomis calls the boy “pure evil”; a psychiatrist is supposed to analyze human behavior, not form black-and-white moral judgements
  • The film also suggests that a small, quiet town can harbor evil secrets—that there’s a dark side to suburbia.
  • Halloween propagates the concept of unavoidable destiny. Laurie’s teacher says “fate is immovable, like a mountain.”

Who did the movie appeal to initially in 1978 versus today?

  • Certainly Halloween attracted plenty of older teens and young adults during its initial run. Today, there’s a lot of nostalgia for the Carpenter film, which means 50-somethings and older probably place it high on their all-time horror film lists and revisit it somewhat regularly. But the fact that they’ve attempted to reboot and reinvent this franchise multiple times tells you that the original movie’s appeal spans multiple generations.
  • Arguably, critics and cineastes take the 1978 movie much more seriously nowadays than back in the late 1970s, which means that it’s more deserving of critical respect and scholarly study.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • The Haddonfield neighborhood doesn’t exactly “look the part.” Virtually no kids are out trick-or-treating. And there’s a dearth of autumn leaves colorfully splashed across the trees or streets.
  • It’s easy to get “totally” irritated by actress P.J. Soles repeating the word “totally” throughout the picture.
  • Debatably, the shot of the young Michael Myers being de-masked by his parents lingers far too long. Is it realistic to assume that mom and dad would stand nonplussed and immobile while their catatonic-looking offspring sports a bloody knife for 29 seconds?
  • But these are small quibbles. Almost everything else, besides the 1970s hairstyles and wardrobe fashions, holds up very well, especially the cinematography, wide-angle compositions, editing, POV shots, creepy humor—such as when Michael Myers dons the bedsheet to fool Lynda (Soles)—and the decision to keep Michael’s face, backstory, and motivations relatively mysterious.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • This is a high-quality horror film fans can be proud of. Considering that horror is regarded by many film critics, scholars, historians, and viewers to be a bastard stepchild genre that so often produces things putrid over pristine, it’s nice to have an unimpeachable classic that can rank high with giants of the genre like Psycho, Jaws, The Exorcist, and others.
  • Plus, Michael Myers and John Carpenter’s score have become emblematic touchstones of the genre. Today, no child dresses up as Frankenstein, Dracula, or the Wolf Man on October 31 anymore; but you see plenty of kids proud to don the Michael Myers cosplay.
  • Just as many people revisit old-time Christmas classics in December, like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story, future generations will continue to watch Halloween in October. As movies and audiences continue to tolerate more violence in film as the years pass, the first Halloween film will actually be considered fairly tame as an R-rated feature, which could actually increase its reach to younger ages (hopefully with parental oversight/permission).

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How Cat People still keeps us purring with excitement

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Cat People proved to be a game-changer in the horror genre when it was released in late 1942. Eighty years later, it's easy to extol the virtues of this clever psychological thriller (or is it a monster movie)? For proof, listen to our CineVerse group discussion of this film recorded last week (click here to access the recording), check out the current episode of Cineversary that explores Cat People in depth (available here), and digest a summary of our discourse available below.

Why is this movie worth celebrating 80 years onward? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s deserving of celebration because it reinvented the horror genre in the early 1940s, making the horror more psychological; the danger is primarily suggested rather than shown, and that was groundbreaking for the time. The fear is primarily of the unknown and what may be lurking but is not clearly defined in the shadows or the periphery of the frame.
  • What has helped it transcend time is the fact that this is a female-driven story at a time when women were often the helpless damsels in distress and innocent protagonists in horror movies. In contrast, the female personalities in Cat People are fascinating, particularly Irena who is a tragic but well-illustrated figure but also an antagonist to Alice.
  • It still matters because it remains effective as an unsettling psychological horror film, thanks in large part to its simplistic design. It benefits from a streamlined plot, a small cast of characters, and only a handful of settings and locations, and it lets your imagination do much of the heavy lifting instead of emphasizing what would now be outmoded special effects.

What impact did Cat People have on the genre that inspired subsequent films?

  • It adopted a novel approach to horror movies for the time: Instead of showing a physical manifestation of a monster, as was the trademark of Universal horror films, it suggested that there can either be a supernatural explanation for what we see or a psychological explanation, with the latter insinuating that it’s all simply happening in the character’s mind. In short, Val Lewton introduced the psychological horror film, which is still with us today.
  • Cat People also proved that, with a lot of imagination and talent, you can overcome small budget limitations and create a memorable motion picture.
  • This movie kicked off the Val Lewton cycle of horror films at RKO comprised of B movies that played like A films; Lewton is also a rare early example of a producer who is considered the true author of his works instead of the director.
  • Cat People and the rest of the Lewton cycle also led to the emergence of a handful of other important filmmakers who collaborated with Lewton, including Robert Wise, who went on to helm The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, and others; Jacques Tourneur, director of one of the greatest film noirs in Out of the Past as well as horror classics like Curse of the Demon and I Walk With a Zombie; and Mark Robson, who became a talented director in his own right.
  • Lewton and company were instrumental in putting female characters first as the main protagonists in horror films. Today, many fans, film scholars, and critics would likely name among the very finest big screen horror works those that have one or more female actors at the top of the cast list. Before Cat People, few big-screen horror pictures gave top billing to females. The only two examples that spring to mind are Fay Wray in King Kong and Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter.
    • According to Deep Focus Review author Brian Eggert, “The film remains exceptional because Lewton demanded its artistry and themes move away from what audiences were accustomed to seeing. In doing so, Lewton made the first supernatural horror story set in modern times, typifying a standard formula for today’s paranormal horror genre: It’s a real-world story whose characters have complex relationships, maintain unglamorous careers, and remain skeptical toward the prospect of anything fantastical.”
  • The Lewton unit also invented “the bus” – an audio technique, first introduced in Cat People, where a long silence or quiet scene is abruptly interrupted by a shrill, loud noise, nowadays called a “sting,” that is meant to startle the audience.
  • The success of Cat People also triggered a sequel, 1944’s Curse of the Cat People; 40 years later, a modern remake was helmed by Paul Schrader.

Can you identify any themes or messages within Cat People?

  • The film offers several sexual subtexts, including repressed desire, intimacy phobia, lesbianism, arousal by an exotic female, and sexual harassment (in this case perpetrated by Dr. Judd).
  • There are deep psychological themes at work, too, like corrosive jealousy, inherent evil within good people, isolation, and estrangement.
  • Another theme is the pressure on women to conform to patriarchal and marital expectations.
    • Slant Magazine critic Chuck Bowen wrote: “Irena might be the literal monster in “Cat People,” but she's also an immigrant woman who's manipulated and batted around by men of authority who're mostly concerned that she gentrify in accordance with American urban culture. Because Irena is afraid to have sex, given what she thinks she may be, the film is a coded tale of a frigid woman in need of conditioning. Irena faces a hypocrisy familiar to all women: She's relentlessly pressured by puritanical society to be chaste, yet resented when she doesn't sexually gratify men. Tom marries Irena, but strays toward his co-worker and friend, Alice (Jane Rudolph), who represents an ideal of the franker, more accommodatingly sexual and easygoing modern woman.”
  • Xenophobia and fear of foreigners.
  • Inescapable fate and doomed destiny.
  • Superstition and spirituality versus science and reason.
  • A love triangle that ends in tragic circumstances.

What is Cat People’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One could make a compelling case that its best gift is the audio-visual one-two-punch of an inspired sound design and brilliantly atmospheric lighting scheme.
  • Unsung genius cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca paints fear in deep pools of ebony and gray, employing a textbook palette of chiaroscuro contrast that encourages our eyes to conjure up feline demons from every inky corner. And whoever was responsible for the extraordinary sound design and effects is well deserving of kudos as well.
  • One standout portion that illustrates this suspenseful symmetry of sound and vision is the shuddersome nighttime scene where Irena stalks Alice.
  • But the very best example that demonstrates the efficacy of Cat People’s exemplary lighting and audio, which many would also nominate as the film’s best scene period, is the swimming pool sequence. Recall how they meticulously craft that scene for maximum effect. Let’s dissect it for a moment: We see Alice prepare to enter the indoor pool and hear echoey drips, splashes, and noises endemic to that watery environment. But she stops to notice a black cat, back arched and alarmed by something in the direction of the adjacent shadowy staircase. Alice first scoffs at the feline’s cries, but then takes a closer look and begins to hear the menacing snark of what sounds like a panther followed by a shadow descending the staircase toward her. Frightened, she runs to the water and punctuates the otherwise eerily quiet ambiance by jumping in with a loud splash. We view alternating shots of Alice doggy-paddling nervously and circularly in the deep end with darkly composed images of her dim surroundings, as shimmers of water-reflected light dance across the dusky walls and ceiling. The low drone of feral growling persists as Alice spins in terror, the camera juxtaposing medium shots of her treading water with eerie images of the pool room’s empty dark corners that increasingly suggest a panther’s shadow nearby. The growl intensifies to a threatening roar as we hear Alice’s shrieks and screams for help. Irena suddenly appears, flicking on a light switch, and the terror has subsided, although Alice discovers her robe ripped apart after Irena departs. It’s a masterclass in how to escalate tension and insinuate a monster with simple suggestive elements.

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It's still the best film version of Frankenstein

Friday, October 21, 2022

Frankly, James Whale's 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein, featuring an immortal and star-making performance by Boris Karloff, the greatest horror film actor ever, remains the finest big screen rendition of Mary Shelly's timeless tale. For proof, listen to our CineVerse group discussion of this film from last week, available here

Last year, Frankenstein was also the focus of our Cineversary podcast. To hear that episode, click here.

And we published our extensive notes on what makes the 1931 Frankenstein great here (worth a re-reread).

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