Blog Directory CineVerse: June 2016

Caught in the crosshairs

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Even in his mid-eighties, Clint Eastwood continues to make riveting dramas that explore the human condition and the complicated nature of relationships and how difficult choices can affect the bonds between human beings. Case in point: "American Sniper," Eastwood's highest grossing film to date. Here's a roundup of salient points made about this film during our recent CineVerse discussion:

Gran Torino
The Bridges of Madison County
Flags of Our Fathers
Letters from Iwo Jima
Million Dollar Baby
Mystic River
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Pale Rider
Play Misty for Me
The Best Years of Our Lives
Coming Home
The Deer Hunter
The Hurt Locker
Zero Dark Thirty
Green Zone
In the Valley of Elah
Lone Survivor
Full Metal Jacket

This is less of a conventional combat/war film and more of an examination of the personal effects war has on a soldier. While we do see Kyle at work on the job in Iraq during his different tours of duty, this isn’t a picture with a plot necessarily driven by battle sequences or riveting action scenes. We certainly see plenty of battles and action, but they are more a means to an end—leading us inevitably to Kyle’s readjustment period back home. How do we know, even early on, that his readjustment period back home is what the filmmakers are focused on here? Because they telegraph it to us in Kyle’s wife’s doubt and frustration over Kyle’s antisocial behavior toward her and, eventually, the kids. 
Arguably, this is one of the most effective films ever made about posttraumatic stress disorder, combat fatigue, and the Iraq war.
This is also not necessarily a jingoistic, flag-waving, patriotically propagandist war film that takes a political side in the matter; instead, the film focuses on the difficult decisions soldiers have to make and the ramifications of those decisions over the long run. Kyle doesn’t escape unscathed from his military service. And the film doesn’t attempt to justify our combat operations in Iraq.
Also, the movie tightens the knot for the viewer by personifying Kyle as a time bomb waiting to go off; we see how he is affected and how he acts out, even to his loved ones, and there is an impending, foreboding sense of ill fate and possible doom hanging over the proceedings.

Dana Stevens of Slate wrote: “It’s an existential critique of violent but she is mode that doubles as a celebration of violence… Eastwood makes the viewer alternate between fear for Kyle’s life in fear for the lives of the people who cross through his gun sites – more than once, women or children, whom he must decide whether or not to shoot based only on fragments of unreliable information. There are moments when American Sniper unabashedly revels in its hero’s skill at marksmanship.”
What can also be troubling to some viewers is what filmmaker Michael Moore expressed as his dismay over the movie’s romanticization of sniper warfare – the fact that snipers kill from a far, hidden, often safe distance, which can be regarded as much less brave or heroic than a soldier forced to engage in close combat.
Chuck Bowen of Slant posited the following: “Eastwood normally rues the personally costly myth of the hero, only to indulge it with a righteous ass-kicking finale anyway, as he did in the great but thematically incoherent unforgiven. Or, he’ll make a pretense of examining much is Moe’s ugliness while indulging it anyway, as he did in Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino.”

“(A) warrior who is torn between the potential use and disuse of his talents,” according to Bowen. This theme is examined in several Eastwood films, including Unforgiven, Gran Torino, and Bronco Billy.
Heroism can take on many morally troubling forms and carry a heavy weight for the hero. Kyle isn’t fighting in World War II – a war that clearly differentiated between good and evil forces and which was considered morally justified. Kyle also isn’t a close combat soldier – he’s a sniper, with impressive skills who can help America defeat its enemies. Bowen further reflected: “Heroism is a construct carried by people who bear the accompanying burden of a great undertow of alienating sadness, which springs from an intimate knowledge of the chaos that might be growing close to the bounds of civilized society’s reach.”
The recipients of Kyle’s sniper fire aren’t just faceless video game-like targets: “There’s a real person at the other end of that gun” Kyle is told. And the camera often lingers uncomfortably on the dead bodies of Kyle’s sniper targets to remind us of the human casualties.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Clint Eastwood can still pack a punch behind the camera, as evidenced by “American Sniper” (2014; 133 minutes), directed by Eastwood and chosen by Marce Demski, slated for CineVerse on June 29.


July/August CineVerse lineup published

Friday, June 24, 2016

Admit it – you're dying to know what movies are scheduled for CineVerse in July and August, aren't you?

The wait is over, and you can view our new schedule right now by visiting


Wanda's wicked ways

How do we love "A Fish Called Wanda"? Let us count the ways – John Cleese, Michael Palin, Kevin Kline, Jaime Lee pretty much don't need more than those 4 reasons. Unless you also count the invaluable contributions of Ealing Studios veteran director Charles Critchton, whose gift for cinematic comedic timing cannot be overestimated. Here's a film with levity aplenty that can appeal to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and hold up quite nicely over nearly 3 decades. Consider these merits:

It combines both British and American styles and sensibilities, lampooning both cultures with ample political incorrectness for our amusement. The casting of two Monty Python alums juxtaposed with two American actors with a keen gift for comedy was shrewd.
The lead actor, John Cleese, known for making us laugh so hard in previous Monty Python creations, plays the straight man here – he’s funny, but he is arguably not the funniest character in the film.
This movie is imbued with the spirit and heritage of Ealing Studios – the British film company responsible for so many classic British comedy masterpieces, including The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit.
o The director is Charles Chrichton, an Ealing veteran who also helmed The Lavender Hill Mob (which is somewhat similar to Wanda in its colorful characters and crime caper comedy convolutions).
o Cleese said in his recorded commentary on the DVD that Chrichton allowed scenes to play out organically with as few cuts and camera moves as possible – permitting the actors to create a good comic rhythm without being interrupted by editing or flashy camera moves.
o As Roger Ebert put it: “(Chrichton) understands why it is usually funnier not to say something, and the audience know what is not being said, then to simply blurt it out and hope for a quick laugh. He is a specialist in providing his characters with venal, selfish, shameful traits and then embarrassing them. And he is a master at the humiliating moment of public unmasking.”
Ebert also said one of this film’s strengths is “its meanspiritedness. Hollywood may be able to make comedies about mean people…but only in England are the sins of vanity, greed and lust treated with the comic richness they deserve.”
It introduces its four main characters quickly and efficiently within the first few minutes of the movie – without the need for unnecessary dialogue or exposition. Consider how we first see Otto, sleeping with a copy of Nietzsche’s book on his chest and awakening suddenly by the alarm clock, which he proceeds to shoot with the gun; at first, he appears confused and disoriented, but then smiles and nods, confirming that shooting the clock was the right decision. Immediately, the audience understand Otto’s character and its quirks.
It cuts right to the chase at the start of the film by depicting the jewel theft; often, caper comedies depict the actual crime much later in the movie – building up to it with comedic episodes and light suspense.

Role playing and play acting to deceive others.
Shifting loyalties and doublecrossing.
The contrast and uneasy rivalry between Brits and Americans: the English are satirized as snobby, excessively polite and mannered, timid and scared, and emotionally controlled; the Americans are depicted as brash, uneducated/ignorant, profane, outspoken, deceitful, gold digging, and violent. Writer Mike D'Angelo put it well: “Wanda mocks the inferiority complex Americans feel regarding England, the home of Shakespeare, royalty and all the ritzy productions that are shown in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theatre,” he wrote, adding that Otto has an obsession “with not being called stupid, which speaks to his deep-seated fear that others see him…as an ignoramus.”
Our passions can be our undoing: Palin’s love for animals forces him to reveal secrets and suffer grief when his plans to kill a witness ends in the death of several dogs; Curtis’ aphrodisiac-like weakness for foreign language love-talking almost persuades her to abandon her criminal plans and fall for Cleese; Cleese, meanwhile, is tired of his reserved and proper British middle-class life and is excited by the vivacious, lively and animated presence of Curtis, who threatens to completely destabilize Cleese’s family and career.
Even the most flawed person has redeeming qualities:
o As reserved and subjugated as Cleese is, he actually is capable of great romantic passion and living for the moment – carpe diem style.
o Although Otto is prone to acting and talking stupidly without thinking first, serving as a caricature of many blustery and overconfident Americans, he is the most kinetic personality in the film, projecting a certain acrobatic grace, uncontainable energy, and joie de vivre.
o As murderously motivated and dangerous as Palin appears to be, his unbridled love for animals makes him a sympathetic character.
o Because we care most about the fate of Archie, the fact that he ends up apparently happy with Wanda, who gives him 17 children, tells us that perhaps she’s not the conniving gold digger we thought she was.

The Lavender Hill Mob
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
The Grifters
Trading Places
Quick Change

The Lavender Hill Mob
The Titfield Thunderbolt
One of the segments in the 1940s British horror anthology film Dead of Night


Revisiting a post-Python masterpiece of mirth

Sunday, June 19, 2016

You won't want to miss CineVerse on June 22, when we infuse a little levity via “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988; 108 minutes), directed by Charles Crichton, chosen by Larry Leipart. Plus: Stick around for a trailer reel preview of the July/August CineVerse schedule.


Going into the trunk and coming out of the closet

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Considered by many film critics, scholars and historians as a minor work in Hitchcock's filmography, "Rope" still stands as a marvelous technical achievement and a daring not-so-subtle depiction of a homosexual relationship at a time when even talking about such matters was decidedly taboo. To recap our CineVerse discussion on "Rope," read on.

This picture was a series of firsts for the director – it was his first color film, his first casting with James Stewart, and his first independently produced movie (from this point on, Hitchcock produced every movie he would work on).
It was also arguably Hitchcock’s greatest technical experiment attempted to date: the shooting of long, uninterrupted takes to produce single, continuous shots joined together with inconspicuous editing to generate the illusion that, like viewing a stage-bound play, we are watching a movie filmed in one complete, unbroken take, shot in real time without any cuts. 
o The goal is to create a “you are there/fly on the wall” voyeuristic experience for the viewer, as if they are an invisible witness to the crime and ghoulish parlor games played by the murderers.
o The long takes also deny the viewer any break in the suspense a la juxtaposing shots like a reaction shot or close-up. You cannot look away from this twisted situation or escape its discomfort. Consider how the camera turns to show the murdered son’s father peering out the window and contemplating where his missing son might be.
o “The camera’s eye does the job that editing would normally do, focusing our own eyes on key points, directing us to see things in ways the characters do not, giving us an all-seeing presence enhanced by the suspense of our not being able to physically interact with the characters surrounding us,” wrote reviewer Mark Bourne.
This was also Hitchcock’s most brazen and controversial attempt yet to suggest a homosexual subtext and gay characters in his films, although the production code of the time prevented him from using any direct language or insinuating anything overtly that defined the characters as” gay” or their relationship as “homosexual.” 
o Hitchcock had to be extremely careful and how he depicted these characters and the nature of their relationship.
o Even though there is little concrete evidence to confirm the pair’s homosexuality, there are enough clues left to come to this conclusion. Consider that the plot is based on the real-life Loeb-Leopold killings in which to college students stab a 14-year-old boy to demonstrate Nietzschean theories about moral superiority, as well as the speculation that Farley Granger was intentionally cast because he was an openly gay actor at that time, who’s then-lover is the movie’s co-screenwriter, Arthur Laurents.
The story is not focused on the whodunit angle, which is different from other suspense films and film noirs of this period. 
o Instead, the filmmakers are concerned with tapping into the perverse and sociopathic motivations of the murderers.
o The suspense is built on more of a “will they get caught” intrigue as well as the guilt that Hitchcock evokes from the viewer.
o In writing for The Guardian, Pamela Hutchinson wrote: “Hitchcock always wanted to make his audience suffer, and with Rope, guilt, the guilt that Brandon should be feeling, is what makes us miserable. The murderers need an audience to applaud their crimes, and with their dinner guests in the dark, our privileged knowledge of what’s in the trunk makes us uneasily complicit in what they’ve done.”
This film is a rare example where you might pay less attention to the plot and more attention to its technical bravura (asking yourself, how do they move that big, heavy Technicolor camera around from room to room, or how are the actors able to deliver their performances without mistakes for up to a 10 minute take?).

The excitement of showing off and trying to get away with the crime by being clever. 
o This is not only true of the two killers, but also Hitchcock himself, who wants to be appreciated for this movie’s technical and cinematic achievements.
o As Hutchinson posited: “Hitchcock is torturing his audience, for sure, but he is also parading his own cleverness, and like Brandon, on some level he wants to be found out, too. There are, after all, cuts in the film; you only notice them if you’re watching the direction rather than the story. Once you’ve spotted one, you’ll want to know why it’s there and then, bam, you’re thinking about Hitchcock.”
The cultured, suave, sophisticated villain who has complex psychological motivations. This type of antagonist character is used often in Hitchcock films – from the original “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to “North by Northwest.”
The idea that homosexuality is deviant and perverse, serving as a catalyst to commit murder.
o The suggestion in this movie is that Philip and Brandon are heartless, lawbreaking sociopaths because they’re gay.
o The  cliché notion of the murderous gay or lesbian character had been explored in previous Hollywood films, including Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon, and Waldo Lydecker in Laura.
o In Rope, “their crime clearly stands for another illicit act,” and “it is just as valid to see the murder is not so much a perversion of their mentor’s teachings as a perversion of the feelings they are not allowed to express for each other,” wrote Fernando Croce in Slant Magazine.
o According to Croce, “Brandon and Philip recompose themselves as if awkwardly cleaning up post-coitus, complete with a was-it-good-for you cigarette to soothe jangled nerves,” and “it’s fitting that Hitchcock’s themes of death and sex culminate in a pistol’s climactic ejaculation out the window.”
o Yet, Croce believes “Hitchcock is more interested in examining the way violence erupts out of oppression than in using gays as a convenient shorthand for boogeyman.”
Verisimilitude viewing: As stage-bound, contrived and carefully choreographed as Rope is, the intention is to create the illusion that we are invisible spectators who are provided a privileged inside view, in real time, of a crime and what happens in the 75 minutes that follow. Hitchcock’s ultimate goal with this experiment is to ratchet up the suspense, but also the temporal realism in a confined space (he first experimented with a limited setting with Lifeboat in 1944).

The MacGuffin is the murder weapon itself – the film’s titular object, the rope itself.
The director’s cameo occurs at approximately the 55-minute mark, where we can see his famous silhouette in a red neon sign out the window.


You're invited over for tea, crumpets and murder

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Part 6 of Hitchcockronology: A Sequential Study of the Master of Suspense is planned for CineVerse on June 15 with “Rope” (1948; 80 minutes), directed by Hitchcock. Additionally, we'll feature the documentary “Partners in Crime: Hitchcock's Collaborations” (55 minutes).


Why Marge matters...and Jerry, Carl and the Coens, too

Thursday, June 9, 2016

No moss has grown on "Fargo" over the past 20 years – the film is still entertaining, relevant, bitingly comical, and refreshingly different from mainstream cinema. At least, these were among the opinions shared by members of our CineVerse film discussion group last evening after viewing the Coen brothers' 1996 masterwork all these years later. What makes "Fargo" tick? Consider these points:

It sets itself up as a true crime thriller, even with the title card that it is based on a true story, with names changed to protect the innocent. However, it unfolds as a very unconventional and unpredictable take on this subgenre, using humor, irony, and flawed but fascinating characters to tell its story.
Some of the violence that should be disturbing and grisly becomes funny—such as when Carl is shot in the face, his partner pushes down Carl’s severed foot in the wood chipper, Shep Proudfoot whips Carl, Jerry’s wife stumbles around blindly in the shower curtain, etc.
Marge is the complete opposite of a traditional heroic protagonist: she’s female, pregnant, and not exactly Sherlock Holmes like in her crime-solving skills, although she proves to be intuitive and smarter than audiences might have expected. She isn’t a wisecracking gumshoe detective with a sordid past; actually, she’s polite and contented. She also leads a very simple, Monday and life with her ordinary Joe husband, whose major accomplishment is getting one of his artistic works on the three cents stamp.
Jerry and Carl, while capable of great evil, are depicted as petty and pathetic villains whose greed and selfishness obscures their ability to properly plan a crime. The bad guys in this movie bungle just about everything, which contradicts the unwritten rule in the crime thriller that the antagonist should be shrewd, elusive and diabolically intelligent. Ironically, Jerry comes across as somewhat sympathetic, despite being cruel and heartless in his motivations, which are to flee with the cash and abandon his wife to violence and death and abandon his son. Carl, meanwhile, provides much of the comic relief in this film, despite being a dangerous criminal.
The setting is one that is almost never chosen in mainstream Hollywood movies; the cold, bleak wild expanse of North Dakota and Minnesota. Also, the regional dialect is one rarely used in movies.
The movie also contains quirky subplots and digressions, such as Marge meeting up with an Asian former schoolmate.
This picture also contains a MacGuffin – it is never explained why Jerry needs the money.
Many crime thrillers contain gratuitous nudity or at least erotic scenes; “Fargo” has minimal sex scenes, and these are decidedly unsexy.
The dialogue is often quite clumsy and stilted—like real life; this is not a film with clever quips and one-liners.
Also, the title is completely misleading, as nothing actually occurs in Fargo, North Dakota; most of the action happens in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Marge has wrapped up the case, and she and Norm can look forward to their forthcoming baby and celebrating the fact that his art has been chosen for a minor stamp. However, these victories appear rather humdrum, unglamorous and anticlimactic.
However, consider that the villains, despite all their planning and efforts, were not successful. Their pursuit of “a little bit of money”, according to Marge, was futile and destructive. Marge cannot understand their petty and materialistic motivations. At the end of the movie, we are left watching a scene of simplistic domestic bliss, which may appear like a boring reward or vindication to us. But it’s an affirmation of the abiding power of simple people and the affection they share.
Marge and Norm are the characters left to inherit the ending of the movie. They are like the 3-cent stamps—often overlooked, not as important or sexy as the full-postage stamp, but they can serve a significant purpose when needed. Likewise, the message here could be that the meek shall inherit the earth.
Another theme could be that ignorance is bliss: Marge and Norm may be unflappable Midwesterners, and their tastes may be relatively plain and simple, but they appear happy.

Blood Simple
Raising Arizona
Miller’s Crossing
Barton Fink 
The Big Lebowski
O Brother Where Art Thou
No Country for Old Men
True Grit


Catch up with Marge Gunderson...20 years later

Sunday, June 5, 2016

CineVerse has selected a special feature for June 8, its 11th anniversary date: “Fargo” (1996; 98 minutes), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Plus: we'll screen the documentary “Minnesota Nice” (27 minutes).


Pawn in the cruel game of life

Friday, June 3, 2016

For 1964, “The Pawnbroker” was a considerable gamble; here’s a picture that tackled the tinderbox topic of the Holocaust and its effects on survivors, tried to chip away at the censorship standards of the time by presenting nudity and interracial relationships, was considerably downbeat and pessimistic in its tone throughout (hurting its commercial viability), and featured a brash, discordant jazz score by a young Quincy Jones. Despite these factors, the film found an audience – as well as critical respect – and continues to be talked about, discussed and analyzed for its brave filmmaking merits all these years later. CineVerse took a closer look at this 50-plus-year-old film and came up with these conclusions:

• It was one of the first Hollywood feature films to tackle the topic of the Holocaust and its effects on survivors.
• It was one of the first American films to show nudity, which helped lead to the demise of the Production Code and decades-long censorship; by the end of the 1960s, the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system replaced the antiquated Hays Code – this film helped break down those barriers. “The Pawnbroker” was the first movie to feature bare breasts and receive approval from the Production Code.
• The movie employs rapid flashback cuts and nearly subliminal editing to depict the impact of emotion and memory on the human psyche; this technique was inspired by the French new wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s. “The effect is of a nagging memory crashing bit by bit into the conscious present,” wrote reviewer Glenn Erickson. This use of associative flashbacks, overused in the years since “The Pawnbroker,” was considered a groundbreaking editing approach at the time for a Hollywood movie.
o Other movies that employ pseudo-subliminal images and editing include: The Exorcist; Cruising; Fight Club; The Ring; Black Swan.
• The picture garnered pushback from several groups, including some Jewish organizations that called for a boycott of the movie because they felt the title character promoted anti-Semitism stereotypes; the Legion of Decency, which denounced the movie for its nudity; and many African-Americans for the film’s depiction of black drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and other stereotypical characters.
• The downbeat and depressing subject matter and the crime-ridden, dark urban setting made the film difficult to market and attract an audience.
• Although Rod Steiger was nominated for an Oscar 10 years earlier, this was the film that put him on the map as a top shelf actor.
• There is a hint of a gay relationship between the thugs who tried to rob the pawnbroker’s shop, and we see an interracial relationship between Jesus and the African-American prostitute, which would have rocked the boat in 1964.
• We also hear ethnic slurs, like the “K” word for Jews, which was still considered taboo and a Hollywood film at this time.

• Survivor guilt – which was a serious emotional challenge for those who lived through the concentration camps and the Holocaust. Consider that Sol has chosen to resume his life in a shady form of business – pawnbroker – located in a seedy part of town, as if this is an expression of self-loathing, self-punishment, and penance for the guilt he feels.
• The extent to which a person will go to shield himself from a cruel world and hide to escape emotional pain. It’s possible that Sol intentionally injures himself at the end to either punish himself for being a survivor, punish himself for previously denying his emotions, or to prove to himself that he is capable of feeling, even if that feeling is pain.
• A man’s descent into the emotional abyss and the gradual breakdown of his psyche. Reviewer David Blakeslee suggested: “Nazerman’s cold-hearted disdain functions as an emotional armor that he uses to block out painful recollections of traumas that he endured, and that killed the wife and children he loved. Through extremely short (one second or less) flashback cuts, visualizations of long-suppressed memories, we see the cracks emerging in that protective shield as it buckles under the mounting pressures of adversarial run-ins with his sad-sack customers, brawling neighborhood crooks and the prying gaze of a concerned social worker who intuitively recognizes the suffering that Sol is barely able to manage. Nazerman’s gradual breakdown is captured so evocatively, thanks to the inspired combination of Lumet’s incisive direction, Steiger’s masterful command of an intense emotional palette, top notch cinematography by Boris Kaufman (Oscar winner for On the Waterfront) and the brilliant editing of Ralph Rosenblum.”
• The prison of memory –Sol chooses to work behind bars in a grimy pawnbroker store within the inner-city, visually suggesting that he remains in a prison, much like the concentration camp he survived.

• There are several earlier Hollywood films that at least broached the subject of the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors, including, in chronological order:
o The Stranger
o The Search
o The Juggler
o Singing in the Dark
o The Diary of Anne Frank
o Judgment at Nuremberg
• Films following The Pawnbroker that dealt with the Holocaust included:
o The Shop on Main Street
o Au Revoir les Enfants
o Army of Shadows
o Sophie’s Choice
o Schindler’s List
o Life is Beautiful
o The Pianist
• Hiroshima mon Amour and Night and Fog in its use of flashbacks and innovative editing

• 12 Angry Men
• Dog Day Afternoon
• Serpico
• The Verdict
• Network
• Murder on the Orient Express
• Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
• Fail Safe


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