Blog Directory CineVerse

Go West, young ham

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Much has changed in the 46 years since Mel Brooks' trailblazing satire of western films "Blazing Saddles" was unleashed on virgin audiences, including social acceptance of ethnic slurs and sexual orientation scoffing. But you can't deny the sheer audacity of Brooks' satirical aim here, which is as wide as an overstuffed wagon train. We shared some metaphorical beans by the campfire this week at CineVerse and re-examined this flick to determine if it remains comedically relevant. Here's our assessment:

How was this film groundbreaking, controversial, or radically different from prior comedies and westerns?

  • It wasn’t afraid to be politically incorrect when it came to parodying race relations and movie tropes and conventions. There are no sacred cows, and the “N” word is used multiple times. You could probably never make a film like this today or ever again, considering how offensive some of these jokes and characters are.
  • The picture spares few ethnic stereotypes, from Middle Easterners on camels and Mexican bandits to Chinese laborers to ignorant rednecks. It’s an equal opportunity offender.
  • “Blazing Saddles” upends everything we usually associate with a classic Hollywood western. It also infuses offbeat nonsequiturs into the western genre, like scatological references to the Wide World of Sports and disparate genres like the musical, with the Count Basie Orchestra performing “April in Paris” as an example.
  • This film subverts the standard convention of having a leading male hero in a western targeted to white viewers, especially a hero with a minority sidekick like Tonto; instead, we get a black hero lead and a white sidekick.
  • Is this the first time movie audiences are given an African American lead protagonist whom we laugh with at the expense of racist white characters, whom we laugh at? Is this the first time a film uses the “N” word in a comedy? The answer to both is probably, and, if so, that’s significant.
  • This wasn’t the first interracial male friendship depicted in a film, but it was one of the first in which race wasn’t an impediment to the fellowship. Consider how Bart and Jim strike up an affinity and partnership quickly, with no talk about racial differences after an initial exchange.
  • This is arguably the first instance of a black buddy comedy film, which paved the way for many subsequent Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor pairings, like “Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy,” and for movies like “48 Hours,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Rush Hour,” and more.
  • “Blazing Saddles” could be the first real gross-out comedy, by virtue of its campfire fart scene. Some experts peg this as the first Hollywood film to depict comical flatulence.
  • While the movie was racially progressive and satirically sharp in its treatment of an African American character, many have criticized how dated and tone-deaf it is in its treatment of gay and female characters and sexual violence as a source of comedy.
  • Although this isn’t the first “meta-movie,” “Blazing Saddles” breaks the fourth wall and descends into the absurd by magically moving from the Old West to modern Hollywood.
  • According to blogger/reviewer Tim Brayton: “This film is a social satire, a genre parody, an absurdist comedy, and in its final act…(a) meta-movie about filmmaking.”

Themes on display in Blazing Saddles

  • Racism is stupid and deserves to be laughed at. Instead of creating a serious social message picture that points out how much progress we need to make as a society on race relations, Brooks uses humor to make his point and thoroughly skewer bigots and backward-minded folk.
    • Racists are cartoon characters worthy of mockery.
  • Friendships can form in the unlikeliest of places and environments. Bart and Jim quickly become cronies in a hostile environment.

Other films that come to mind after watching "Blazing Saddles"

  • Destry Rides Again, featuring Marlene Dietrich in a role that’s spoofed here by Madeleine Kahn.
  • Gross-out comedies that feature body humor and crude jokes, including Animal House, Caddyshack, Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and many more.
  • Support Your Local Sheriff
  • Cabaret
  • The Frisco Kid
  • Airplane!
  • A Million Ways to Die in the West

Other films directed by Mel Brooks

  • The Producers
  • Young Frankenstein
  • Silent Movie
  • High Anxiety
  • Spaceballs

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March/April CineVerse schedule boasts a variety of films

There's a noir classic, an all-time great war movie, a rock opera, an animated masterpiece, a women's picture from the Eighties, a tribute to a recently deceased legend, an Oscar winner for Best Picture, a film that introduced the world to Jack Lemmon, and a mirthful meta movie on tap for CineVerse over the next two months.

Learn more by checking out the March/April 2020 CineVerse schedule, available here

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Celebrating a century of screams

Sunday, February 16, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #20, host Erik Martin speaks with guest Kristin Thompson, film scholar, Criterion Channel video essayist, and co-author of the seminal film studies texts Film Art and Film History, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of one of the most influential movies of all time and the first horror feature film that really mattered, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," directed by Robert Wiene. Collectively, Kristin and Erik explore why this masterwork is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the picture today, how it has stood the test of time, and more.
Kristin Thompson


To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Google Podcasts, Google Play Music, Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Anchor, Breaker, Castbox, Overcast, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, Spotify, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

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

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Brooks brings the laughs on Feb. 19

Enjoy a silly salad with some western dressing on February 19, as CineVerse presents “Blazing Saddles” (1974; 93 minutes), directed by Mel Brooks, chosen by Larry Leipart. Plus: Stick around for a trailer reel preview of the March/April CineVerse schedule.

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You can never know too much about a great Hitchcock film

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Although many consider Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" a relatively minor effort by the master of suspense, a case can be made that this work deserves to be lauded among his best creations. For proof, consider the talking points we discussed this week during our CineVerse film group meeting:

What did you find interesting, impactful, memorable, or distinctive about this movie?

  • It’s a relatively long film for such a straightforward and simple story, clocking in at 120 minutes – 44 minutes longer than the original “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” directed by Hitchcock in 1934. It also takes a long time before the central conflict (the murder of the secret agent and child kidnapping) arises – about 40 minutes into the film.
  • There are long stretches with no dialogue, which arguably helps to build the suspense. Communication is often conveyed through looks, reactions, and other nonverbal means.
  • Hitchcock ratchets up the suspense by using misdirection and red herrings, including a scene where walks into a taxidermy shop that proves to be a terrifying-turned-funny dead-end.
  • The climactic musical sequence at Albert Hall is one of Hitchcock’s greatest set pieces and memorable sequences. It’s yet another example of the director choosing a famous historical place or tourist attraction in which to decide the fate of his heroes and villains, as he does in North By Northwest (Mount Rushmore), Saboteur (the Statue of Liberty), and Vertigo (the Golden Gate Bridge).
  • Hitchcock preferred controlled environments like a closed studio set. He often used process shots in which one of our characters plays in the foreground with previously shot footage projected in the background. This deliberately stylized and artificial look is part of his style, but it can appear dated and phony to modern viewers. Another filmmaker might have chosen to actually shoot in Morocco on location for greater authenticity and more plausible visuals.
  • Hitchcock also liked to give the audience more information than the protagonists to create more suspense; for instance, we know that the boy is to be killed at the embassy but Ben and Jo don’t know this.

Themes at work in this film:

  • The innocent man who gets swept up in political and nefarious intrigue and who becomes forced to solve the problem himself without help from the authorities.
  • Strangers in a strange land and the ugly American abroad: the McKennas represent a relatable middle American family from the 1950s who feel culturally alienated and compromised in a foreign country. Consider how Ben quickly grows impatient with the local customs.
  • Entropy: The concept that everything in the universe eventually moves from a state of order to disorder. This movie demonstrates how a structured and harmonious life can subtly and unfairly descend into chaos and disarray.
  • A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Ponder the film’s title, and its irony considering the fact that Ben McKenna actually doesn’t know enough to solve the problem and has instincts that continually prove incorrect.
  • Interesting 1950s gender politics: Ben commands sociocultural authority and hierarchy over his wife. Yet, for being the supposedly dominant partner who tries to assert command over the situation – going so far as to drug his wife into a state of submissive nonaction – Ben’s choices often proved to be missteps, at least until he concocts the final plan for his wife to sing so that their kidnapped son can lead Ben to him. By contrast, Josephine’s intuitions from the start turn out to be right: She’s suspicious of the man on the bus who turns out to be an agent, dubious of the couple who join them for dinner, figures out that Ambrose Chapel is a place, and smartly decides to go to the Albert Hall to find Inspector Buchanan.
  • Triads, or good and bad things often happen in threes. Blogger Bob Aulert wrote that Hitchcock uses “a series of triads demonstrating the order before the chaos: first, he shows us the conductor (a Hermann cameo), the chorus, and orchestra. Next, we see another group of three: the cymbalist (whose climactic cymbal crash will mask the assassin’s gunshot), the assassin, and an accomplice. Then, three innocents: Dr. McKenna, Jo McKenna, and the assassination target. Then events begin in parallel to disrupt order – the cymbalist picks up his instrument with his right hand, the assassin picks up his weapon with his right hand. It’s a masterful 12-minute, 124-shot sequence that contains not one single word of spoken dialog; communicating solely through images and music, the editing building in tempo in time with the music.”
  • Playacting: Think about how Bernard appears as a tourist but is really a spy, how Drayton is an assassin conspirator but presents himself as a polite tourist and later as a man of the cloth, and how the underling to the prime minister appears as a faithful servant but is secretly planning to assassinate the prime minister.

Other films that come to mind

  • The 1934 original starring Peter Lorre
  • The 39 Steps
  • The Man Who Knew Too Little
  • Taken
  • Man on Fire

Other films directed by Alfred Hitchcock

  • Rebecca
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • Notorious
  • Strangers on a Train
  • Rear Window
  • Vertigo
  • North by Northwest
  • Psycho
  • The Birds

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Unlocking "The Cabinet" and its deliciously dark secrets

Sunday, February 9, 2020

It's only fitting that a classic of world cinema and a horror movie touchstone turning 100 years old this month--"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"--continues to cast a long and pervasive shadow of inspiration over filmmakers all these decades later. Arguably, it's the most influential film ever made. That's quite a boast, but we've got evidence (which we discussed last Wednesday at CineVerse) to back up that claim. Intrigued? Read on.

Why is “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s a timeless work of artistry, imagination, and creativity that proved highly influential.
  • It is so well preserved for being a 100-year-old film, which speaks to the care and attention it has received as a lasting masterpiece of world cinema.
  • It’s fun to trace the film’s inspirations and influences—to examine the movie and imagine how future filmmakers would have been motivated to emulate the look, feel, and design of this film and its characters.
  • It’s fascinating to explore the political underpinnings of this movie, the statements it made about Germany and its people at the time of its release, and the subtextual commentary that appears prescient about the future of post-World War I Germany.

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

  • Many consider this the first true feature-length horror film and among the first cinematic works of expressionism—a subgenre of films originated in Germany that featured highly exaggerated and stylized sets with strange, twisted angles in which the feelings and mood of the characters or vibe of a location are externalized and reflected in the physical environment. Other expressionistic films to follow include "Nosferatu," "The Last Laugh," "Metropolis," and "M."
  • This had an undeniably massive impact on horror films, film noir, and fantasy movies. Consider the horror and science-fiction children it spawned: “Nosferatu,” “The Man Who Laughs,” “ Metropolis,” “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mummy,” “The Black Cat,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Son of Frankenstein,” “Night of the Hunter. Think of how it inspired noir films in their use of shadow, canted angles, and stylized sets and lighting. Ruminate on how it fired up the imagination of Tim Burton in movies like Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Batman Returns.
  • Ponder the many horror tropes and conventions it advances that we see echoed in later movies, including:
    • The mad scientist and his experiment (picked up later in “Frankenstein”)
    • Beauty and the beast (instead of killing the girl, Cesare falls in love with her and carries her away, much like Kong does in “King Kong”)
    • The monster on the loose threatening the community (“The Wolf Man,” “Frankenstein”)
    • The nocturnal fiend who must return to his resting place before dawn (“Dracula,” “The Wolf Man”)
    • Zombies and the living dead (“Night of the Living Dead”)
    • The serial killer “slasher” film (“The Lodger,” “The Leopard Man,” “Psycho”)
    • The thriller with a shock/twist ending (“Psycho,” “Diabolique”).
  • Additionally, Caligari is regarded as the first movie to provide a subjective simulation of events shown. Instead of going for realism, as most films had up to this point, Caligari presents an emotionally abstract, skewed, slanted, and personalized point of view.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are explored in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”?

  • Gullibility and naiveté. This film serves as a metaphor for the German nation and its people after losing World War I. Caligari represents the German government and its war machine embodied in a puppet master who can control his subject—Cesare, a stand-in for the sleepwalking populace who easily fell under the spell and false promises of German leaders and who were, as soldiers, brainwashed into being mindless killers in World War I. German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer theorized that the film predicted the rise of Hitler—in the form of Caligari—who would emerge to fill the subconscious need among Germans for a dictator and authoritative tyrant.
  • The thin line between sanity and insanity and the subjective nature of reality. Everything we see in the film is questionable once we learn that the narrator—Francis—is himself a lunatic in an asylum; his testimony is now unreliable. The man we thought was murderously mad, Dr. Caligari, is actually the asylum director, which promotes an ironic message: The inmates are running the asylum.
  • Duality: the dual nature of human beings.
    • Caligari has two sides—he’s a respected leader of a mental institution in the opening and closing, but a crazy manipulator in the main story.
    • Cesare can be seen as both a victim and a perpetrator, as both a heartless monster and a man who falls in love with the woman he intended to kill.
    • Francis appears as a heroic protagonist who seeks the truth and learns Caligari’s dark secret, yet he proves to be a mental patient.
    • The fair itself has both a light and fun side as well as a dark, dangerous side once Caligari is introduced.
  • According to Kracauer, the film’s central message is that the soul must reckon with either tyranny or chaos, either of which can thwart the ability to overcome authoritarian rule. “The narrative implications of the story…showed a distinctly postwar fear about how a privileged class could rise up and take authority over the state,” wrote blogger Kevin Kryah.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • The story remains impressive and not easily outguessed.
  • The filmmakers do an excellent job of thickening the plot, covering their tracks well, using misdirection, and preventing the viewer from quickly predicting what will happen. For example, merely showing the killer’s shadow (without revealing his identity) and then introducing the subplot about the criminal who is arrested and blamed for Cesare’s murders makes us question who’s committing the crime. Showing us what Francis sees—the apparent figure of Cesare sleeping in the box—causes us to wonder what’s going on. And the disclosure of Caligari as the head of the asylum, where Cesare (or someone who looks like him) is an inmate, pulls the rug out from under our collective feet.
  • The concluding twist remains interesting and unexpected; it’s rare to see a 100-year-old silent film turn on a dime so quickly and shockingly by the denouement, when it’s revealed that Francis is not to be trusted as a narrator and everything we’ve previously seen is now in doubt.
  • “Caligari” continues to be thought-provoking and unsettling. It conjures up intriguing questions, like:
    • Is it possible that Francis was telling the truth about Caligari? Did Caligari have Francis committed to the asylum to conveniently shut Francis up and cast him as an unreliable witness?
    • Who is the truly insane person: Francis or Caligari? And who’s crazier: the mad leader or the ones who follow him?
    • Has Francis possibly committed the murders that he blames on Caligari and Cesare?
    • How much of perceived reality can be trusted?
    • How easy is it for the common person to fall under the spell of a Caligari or, for that matter, the government or its leaders?
    • Does the wraparound story dilute the central message by easily explaining away that this was all the vision of an insane person, or does the wraparound infuse the film with a cynicism that still resonates today?
  • The movie is entirely unique, and though its look and design have been imitated and honored, it’s never been duplicated. Yes, we can see its influences on later horror and noir pictures, but the visuals and aesthetics of this film are one-of-a-kinds.

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The man who knew too much about suspense

It's been a while since we've traversed down the twisted path paved by Alfred Hitchcock, but on February 12 CineVerse will pay a visit to “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956; 120 minutes), directed by Hitchcock, chosen by Dan Quenzel.

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Celebrating a century of macabre medicine

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Cineversary and World Cinema Wednesday coalesce yet again, this time on February 5 with a masterwork from Germany. That's the date we'll honor the 100th anniversary of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920; 78 minutes), directed by Robert Weine. Plus: From 7-7:45, join us for a movie trivia game for a chance to win DVD prizes.

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God save the Queen (from power-hungry lackeys)

Thursday, January 30, 2020

If you're looking for a genuinely warts-and-all cinematic portrayal of British royalty without an overreliance on grandiose language, prim decorum, and predictable gender roles and sexual politics, look no further than Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Favourite." Our CineVerse crew took a walk through this castle of nonconformity last night. Here are our takeaways:

How did “The Favourite” defy your assumptions and catch you off guard, and what stood out as impressive or unconventional to you?

  • It’s rare to have a costume period drama based on a monarchy in which three strong women are the dominant characters. There are males in this narrative, but they take a backseat to the power playing among the females who command this tale.
  • It’s also highly unconventional to depict an English queen with eccentric sexual proclivities. While any historians insist that the relationship between Anne and Sarah was platonic, not physical, this “what if” story creates intrigue and deviates from many previous portrayals of British royalty.
  • There’s a lot more aberrant sexuality, profanity, vomiting, and female empowerment depicted here than you’d possibly expect for a film about a British monarch from the 18th Century.
  • There’s an uninteresting political subplot percolating in the background regarding the Whigs vs. the Tories that almost seems inserted merely to draw attention to how much more interesting the main plot between the three female leads is.
  • This director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is a distinctive filmmaker who has a reputation for presenting strange narratives and making curious directorial choices. Here, for example, he employs extreme wide-angle lenses, a fisheye lens, natural light and candlelight instead of artificial illumination, whip pans, an oddly blue birthday cake, women who wear no makeup contrasted with men who wear excessive makeup and grandiose wigs, and monochromatic female costumes worn by Queen Anne’s court that make the characters almost resemble chess pieces.

Themes examined in this film

  • The same compulsions and motivations that drive men apply to females: power, lust, greed, sex, revenge, and cruelty.
  • The female of the species is capable of being more powerful and dangerous than the male. In this story, we see how women rule the roost, call the shots, and command attention and power over male characters, refreshingly.
  • The corruptive and depraving nature of power.
  • The love triangle: This time between three romantically linked women.
  • The power triangle. We see how, at different points in the film, one of these three women wields power or dominance over another. But eventually, that power dynamic shifts, and the more submissive one exerts control. Consider how Sarah appears to have dominance and influence, respectively, over both Abigail and Anne earlier in the film; but by story’s end, the tables have turned. Recall, too, how we see Abigail stepping cruelly on a helpless rabbit—just because she can—and then the Queen metaphorically steps on Abigail by summoning her to kneel down and rub her ailing leg. We see the Queen push down on Abigail’s head, making the girl seem quite like a helpless rabbit herself.
  • The drawbacks of dominion: Anne appears lonely, depressed, alienated and isolated, and devoid of any family, despite being the most powerful and revered person in England. We know that she’s lost 17 children. And the montage imagery we see in the film’s final scene of increasing quantities of rabbits (suggesting their unbridled capacity to breed) seems to mock Anne’s childless state—or at least serve as an ironic visual statement on how utterly alone she truly is.

Similar movies “The Favourite” makes us think of

  • Dangerous Liaisons
  • Cries and Whispers
  • Amadeus
  • Peterloo
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Love & Friendship
  • All About Eve

Other films directed by Yorgos Lanthimos 

  • Dogtooth
  • The Lobster
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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