Blog Directory CineVerse: 2019

A lesson in family planning

Thursday, May 23, 2019

There have been countless movies depicting the struggle of unwed teenage mothers-to-be, and chances are that one is playing right now on Lifetime or The Hallmark Channel. But for a refreshingly different take, with a satisfying Irish flavor added, turn to Stephen Frears' 1993 under-the-radar effort "The Snapper," which tackles this subject in quite the upfront manner. Here are some of the conclusions we reached at CineVerse after viewing the film:

What struck you as memorable, touching or surprising about this movie?

  • There is no slow or gradual buildup to the central conflict; the film opens straight away with the daughter’s revelation to her parents that she’s pregnant.
  • It handles the topic of teen/young adult pregnancy with surprising candor, honesty, empathy and originality. Here we have a young woman who lives in a large Irish family in a small town—not a single expectant mother living on her own or in a big urban metro.
  • This is arguably less a tale about unexpected pregnancy than about familial relationships and its dynamics and challenges.
  • Despite the fact that there are a lot of characters and family members to sort through, the filmmakers focus smartly on the father and the daughter, whose relationship serve as the heart of the story.
    • The characters are also quite colorful and credible. Roger Ebert wrote: “These characters understand human nature. Look, for example, at the relationship between Sharon and her father in this film. He treats her like a good friend, does not condescend to her femininity or her pregnancy, and is less concerned with "appearances" than with fairness. He and his wife are, in fact, model parents, although that is not always evident in the chaos of their small home, in which up to 10 people have to share the same bathroom. Crowded together without privacy, their strategy is to live in public; the whole family shares everything.”
  • The movie cleverly balances comedy and drama, shifting between tones nicely and touching on both the comedic aspects as well as the poignant, emotional and conflict aspects. This could have been a much more serious and solemn film; but it wisely tries to make us laugh as much as possible.
  • There is a surprising amount of profanity used throughout the picture, which often makes it funnier. However, it’s a bit hard to believe that this was a made-for-television film and presumably wasn’t edited for TV audiences in the UK.
Themes at work in The Snapper:
  • The value and importance of unconditional family love
  • The danger of secrets and lies in a small town
  • The ability of simple, common folk to rise above challenges when they work together
  • The shame and stigma placed on individuals who fall outside the boundaries of what some communities consider socially acceptable
  • Single motherhood is challenging; these parents need all the help they can get.
Other films that The Snapper brings to mind include:
  • The Commitments and The Van; these other films are taken from stories in novelist Roddy Doyle’s “Barrytown Trilogy”; The Snapper is the second of Doyle’s books.
  • Other Irish and British dramedies, including Happy Ever Afters, Circle of Friends, My Family and Other Animals, and Waking Ned Devine
  • Similar movies about teen or young adult pregnancy, such as Juno, For Keeps, Where the Heart Is, and Unexpected
  • Sixteen Candles, which also depicts a chaotic household yet a father who is very supportive of his troubled teenage daughter.

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I was a teenage Parisian

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

For episode #11 of the Cineversary podcast, host Erik Martin takes a trip to Paris (let's call it an audio journey) with Columbia University film studies professor Annette Insdorf, author of the book "Francois Truffaut" and former personal translator for the late director. She's the ideal guest to help celebrate the 60th anniversary of "The 400 Blows." In this installment, Erik and Annette explore why the movie 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.
To listen to this episode, click the "play button" on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using 
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That's one snappy movie title...

Sunday, May 19, 2019

World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse on May 22 with a movie from the United Kingdom: “The Snapper” (1993; 91 minutes), directed by Stephen Frears, chosen by Carole Bogaard.

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A vampire flick that doesn't suck

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Deconstructing an Iranian vampire western isn't exactly easy--but then it again it can be, if you have some fun with it. That's what our CineVerse crowd did last night, fully relishing the opportunity to draw comparisons between our chosen feature--"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"--and previous vampire films as well as numerous classic movies. Our collective observations follow:

What did you find memorable, distinctive, or unpredictable about this picture?

  • It seems to blend several different subgenres and styles, including the vampire movie, the western, the teen angst film, the arthouse feature, and the postmodern meta movie of the likes of Quentin Tarantino.
  • The decision to shoot in black and white makes this feel like a throwback film to an earlier time, when classic horror movies or independent American films of the 1970s and 1980s were more in vogue.
  • We get the point of view of a cat in some shots—a curious choice.
  • The score features a diverse array of musical styles and cultures.
  • The setting seems to be an alternate universe that mirrors our own. According to reviewer Ren Jender: “The film takes place in a parallel California which contains a Farsi-speaking, Iranian enclave called “Bad City.” We know we’re not in Iran because the pimp has visible tattoos and later we see a woman in public with her hair and much of her body uncovered. Also The Girl wears her chador in such a way that we see her hipster, stripey, boat shirt (too short for modest dress) and skinny jeans underneath.”
  • There are fun references to many classic movies peppered throughout the film, including Diabolique (the bathtub scene); Giant (the oil rigs); the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (we hear a trumpet-heavy song reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s score in that film); Duck Soup (when The Girl mimics the movements of Hossein); M (the balloon that touches the power line); and The Third Man (the shots in the dark tunnel and the boy peering out from the second-floor window).
Can you identify any themes or big ideas at work?
  • Feminism and a backlash against patriarchal values and the social and cultural suppression of women
  • Consider how the film targets males, especially those who are cruel to women and cats.
  • Females, like cats, have an aura of mystery, chic and unpredictability about them; the girl, like cats, is a survivor with seemingly multiple lives and multiple sides to her personality.
  • The girl vampire’s chador represents multiple things: a dark cape like a vampire count would wear, a surrogate for her otherwise transforming into a bat, a symbol of patriarchal control of Persian women, and a symbol of the girl’s mystique and agency.
  • Women are powerful—and sometimes possess the power to horrify in ways more terrifying than men. Jender also wrote: “The first person who scares us when we are children is often a woman, whether it’s a mother or another woman authority figure.”
  • Going from the light to the dark, as Arash seems to do. Recall how he stares at the streetlight earlier in the film, and by the end of the picture is only shown at night—like The Girl.
  • It’s hard to be a “good boy” in Bad City. The film explores issues of morality—of right and wrong and light and dark—and how every person has the capacity for being good and bad.
What other movies does this film make you think of?
  • Persepolis
  • Spaghetti westerns like The Good the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars
  • James Dean films like Rebel Without a Cause and Giant
  • Previous vampire films like Dracula’s Daughter, Vampyr, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, Let the Right One In, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise
  • Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche
  • Appropriate Behavior, about a Persian bisexual woman challenged with rebuilding her life after a romantic breakup
  • David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Wild at Heart
  • Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City

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Don't walk home alone at night on May 15--join us at CineVerse instead

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Count on attending CineVerse on May 15, when we'll feature “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014; 100 minutes), directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, chosen by Peggy Quinn.

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A different kind of undocumented immigrant

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hollywood dished out a fair amount of films depicting benevolent aliens who come to earth, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to Starman and The Brother From Another Planet. CineVerse focused on the latter last night. What follows are the key discussion points.

What caught you by surprise about The Brother From Another Planet that you didn’t see coming?
  • It’s a science-fiction film that doesn’t rely on special effects or exaggerated action sequences to entertain audiences.
  • It’s a comedy that doesn’t go for cheap laughs, body humor, or cliché gags. Instead, this film plays as a humorous parable or comedic social message movie.
  • It features very few known or famous actors, yet, as proven in so many low-budget independent films by talented filmmakers, it doesn’t need A-list stars to be effective or satisfying.
  • The film’s running gag—that the alien doesn’t talk—continues throughout the entire movie. Even E.T. and, from the same year, Starman learned to talk or attempted normal speech.
  • The cinematography is colorful and crisp, depicting an urban environment brimming with life and detail; consider that the movie was photographed by Ernest Dickerson, known for his memorable visuals in Spike Lee joints like Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Jungle Fever.
Ideas at work within this picture include
  • Racial prejudice, class struggles, economic inequality, and oppression of minorities and immigrants
  • The sad truth that human beings often judge each other by the color of their skin, which an extraterrestrial would likely find illogical
  • A fish out of water, or stranger in a strange land
  • Escape and pursuit—the hunted and the hunters
  • The universal appeal of liberty, independence and equality—which can transcends this earthly estate, assuming there is other intelligent life in the universe.
    • Film critic Jessica Ritchey wrote: “The Brother From Another Planet is not a blueprint on how to save the world, but a warm, humane guide on how to live in it. Not passively accepting injustice and looking the other way, but rather how to get through the day-to-day business of living and surviving: How to know who to trust and who can be counted on; How to send a message for help; How to find and build communities. That the cast is predominantly people of color is no coincidence, where until recently questions of survival in oppressive systems, or fun bits of escapism for white audiences, have become an uncomfortable reality. The film is vital in illustrating how paying attention to, listening to and following POC will be essential in the fight for everyone's future.”
Other movies and works that The Brother From Another Planet brings to mind
  • Films about benevolent aliens, including The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Men in Black
  • Being There, another film in which people project their own expectations and emotions upon a silent and expressionless character, seeing in him what they want to see
  • Silent comedies by the likes of pantomime masters like Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin
Other works directed by John Sayles
  • Return of the Secaucus 7
  • Matewan
  • Eight Men Out
  • City of Hope
  • Passion Fish
  • Lone Star

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Oh "Brother" where art thou? At CineVerse, of course

Sunday, May 5, 2019

On May 8, CineVerse presents “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984; 108 minutes), directed by John Sayles, chosen by Sterling Weston.

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A blow-by-blow analysis of Les Quatre Cents Coups

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Many film critics, scholars and historians consider the French New Wave as the demarcation line between old school classic cinema and new school modern movies. One of these films that helps draw that line in the sand is Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," which celebrates a 60th anniversary in 2019. Last night at CineVerse, we threw a Cineversary birthday party of sorts for this feature and discussed the following:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time
?
  • It stands as one of the greatest coming of age films ever and one of the cornerstone examples of The French New Wave—a cinematic movement in France that changed the way movies were made and viewed forever.
  • The challenges that Antoine faces in this movie, despite it being 60 years old, remain relevant and timeless; every teenager has gone through growing pains, suffered emotional highs and lows, and felt rebellious, alienated and misunderstood at some point in their adolescence. This picture makes adult viewers recall their own childhoods and its ups and downs.
  • The 400 Blows feels real. That’s because director Francois Truffaut wisely cast an excellent young actor and allowed him to deliver much of his own unscripted dialogue; the film has a freewheeling, episodic feel that seems always on the move. It isn’t an exaggerated narrative; there are plenty of mundane and predictable things that happen. Yet, The 400 Blows exudes a freshness and spontaneity in its style, story and filmmaking techniques.
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • Truffaut, like Godard and other French New Wave directors, opted for a realistic look and feel by choosing black and white film stock, shooting on location versus in the studio, employing handheld cameras that often film in tight confines (for more intimate visuals), used interesting angles (like the bird’s eye view of the schoolchildren going in different directions), and moved the camera a lot—as evidenced by the tracking shots along Antoine’s escape run at the end and car-mounted camera shots.
  • The film harkens to the past while also embracing the future; it feels nostalgic about childhood and slightly echoes the filmmaking style of Jean Renoir (Truffaut’s influence); it’s also respectful of Italian neo-realism techniques used over a decade earlier. But it also has a kinetic energy and unencumbered nature to it that makes it appear unscripted and extemporaneous.
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in The 400 Blows?
  • The importance of proper parenting. We see how neglect and abandonment of a child, failure to understand him, and lack of communication with and empathy for him can lead to acting out, anger, rebellion and delinquency.
  • Our innate desire to be free from the constraints of rules, boundaries and institutions. This is certainly true of most adolescents, who yearn to buck the system, think for themselves for the first time in their lives and form a separate identify from their parents.
  • The awkwardness that comes with sexual curiosity. Antoine is a pubescent boy who passes around pinup photos, talks about sex, is repulsed by the thought of childbirth, and pays attention to his mother’s female form and philandering.
  • The volatile and dangerous nature of a young and curious mind. Consider how Antoine lights a candle in his shrine to Balzac, and the candle starts a fire—suggesting that his passion cannot be hemmed in and is combustible. We also witness how his transgressions increasingly get worse, from lying and accidental arson to stealing and then escaping from a juvenile center.
  • Going around in circles and getting nowhere. The carnival ride Antoine takes implies that he’s caught in a vicious circle and caught in a world he can’t escape.
What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • From an American’s point of view, it’s hard to say what has aged, as many of us aren’t familiar with French culture, let alone what was in vogue in 1959 in that country. That makes The 400 Blows possibly more evergreen for foreigners.
  • The notion of troubled teens, unwanted pregnancies, neglected children, cheating adults, and schools as repressive factories of boredom haven’t gone out of style, either.
What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?
  • That last shot, which suggests multiple things and opposing theories. 
    • You could view it as, Antoine has finally found the elusive freedom he has long sought, and on his own terms—he can run freely to the ocean, which he’s always wanted to see.
    • On the other hand, he now appears cornered—with nowhere else to run and the ocean to his back. 
    • The final shot, which is a freeze frame zoom-in, is also poignant because it breaks the fourth wall: Antoine is looking at us, creating an intimacy and inviting the viewer into his world and his triumph or dilemma, whichever way you view the finale. No one else in the film up to this point has understood or empathized with him; that last shot is almost a question, asking the audience, “will you”?
  • Again, the verisimilitude that feels inherent in this film continues to reward viewers; it speaks honesty about childhood and coming of age. It doesn’t offer resolution by the conclusion, insinuating that we all, like Antoine, face an uncertain future.
Other films that The 400 Blows makes us think of
  • Ivan’s Childhood
  • Les Mistons
  • The Wild Child
  • Small Change
  • The Squid and the Whale
Other films directed by Francois Truffaut 
  • The autobiographical Antoine Doinel series of 4 films: The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love on the Run.
  • Shoot the Piano Player
  • Jules and Jim
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Bride Wore Black
  • Small Change
  • Day for Night
  • The Man Who Loved Women
  • The Last Metro

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400 x 60 = Infinite enjoyment

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Once a month in 2019, CineVerse will celebrate a milestone anniversary of a cinematic classic with a special Q&A discussion format unique to our Cineversary series. On May 1, we honor the 60th anniversary of “The 400 Blows” (1959; 100 minutes), directed by Francois Truffaut. Plus: Enjoy a brief video essay on the film.

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A foreign fable washed in scarlet

Thursday, April 25, 2019

CineVerse took a trip to 1930s China last night, courtesy of "Red Sorghum," Zhang Yimou's colorful and poetic paean to his nation's people and their spirit of solidarity in the face of struggle and oppression. Our post-screening conversation covered several topics, including:

What took you by surprise about this film? What did you find memorable or resonant?

  • It features lush, deep colors and serves as a visual feast, compliments of its stunning cinematography. Note that the filmmakers used the Technicolor process and the CinemaScope anamorphic lenses for ultra-widescreen.
  • It is considered the first contemporary Chinese movie to be released commercially in America.
  • Additionally, it’s the most important work to that date of The 'Fifth Generation'—a group of directors whose movies signify an especially creative period in the history of Chinese cinema, generally spanning the 1980s and early 1990s. Zhang Yimou is often regarded as the most gifted and important Fifth Generation director.
  • Blogger Jonathan Wroot suggests that Zhang took risks with this film, possibly incurring the wrath of the Chinese government and censors by depicting a conservative slant on 1930s China; Wroot said it retains a left-wing message, but does so in a creative and artistic way that ran contrary to what many assumed about China—that it’s people suppress their emotions, passions and interests.
  • The film also turned actress Gong Li into a big star in China and a muse for Zhang to recast in subsequent films.
What is this film about? What are the big ideas and themes at work here?
  • Legend and fable vs. harsh realism. The first half of the movie is told more like a parable or fable; consider how the urine in the wine seems like something you’d read in a Greek mythology story. The second half of the film almost plays out like Italian neo-realism in its brutal violence and ugly details.
  • The primal pleasures of the physical and the flesh, and “a celebration of the carnal,” according to essayist David Neo. He contends that the movie is focused on basic biological urges, including drinking, eating, love-making, and expelling waste. Ponder how we see nude, dusty, sweat-drenched and even mud-caked bodies; a man urinating into vats of wine that, ironically, the people agree makes it taste better; men and women taking off or wearing skimpy clothing.
    • “The scenes of the invocation of the wine god succinctly encapsulate the celebration of the carnal as the characters of the film overtly evoke the Nietzschean celebration of the Dionysian spirit. The semi-nude men displaying their raw masculinity get drunk in the worship of the wine god and chant,” wrote Neo.
  • An introspective search for roots and a “questioning of the Chinese heritage,” Neo suggests. Think about how the story is narrated by the grandchild of the two main characters; this narrator isn’t certain who his ancestors are, how the sorghum came to flourish in the territory shown, and more.
  • The strength and resilience of the Chinese people. Consider that the main conflict in the second act concerns the Japanese invasion of China in World War II and how the workers stand up against their oppressors.
  • The power of people united, which is a strong Maoist/communist message.
    • Yet, consider that, “by allowing the only avowedly Communist character to perish at the hands of the invading imperialists, Zhang also suggested that the workers resisted their tyranny through their own innate heroism, just as their own labour and ingenuity had revived the fortunes of the winery,” wrote reviewer David Parkinson.
  • China’s emergence into the modern era and rejection of its old ways and regimes. The leprous winery owner is a stand-in for the corrupt Ching dynasty that fell in 1911.
  • The color red represents a character unto itself in this film, perhaps symbolizing, as Parkinson wrote, “life and death, birth and renewal, and the physicality and humanity of the villagers” as well as standing for communism.
Other films that Red Sorghum reminds you of
  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • Ju Dou
  • The Story of Qiu Ju
  • Farewell My Concubine
  • The Road Home
  • The Flowers of War
  • Purple Sunset
Oher movies directed by Zhang Yimou
  • Raise the Red Lantern
  • To Live
  • Hero
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • Curse of the Golden Flower
  • Coming Home
  • Shadow

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Our podcast gets pulpy

Sunday, April 21, 2019

In episode #10 of the Cineversary podcast, host Erik Martin invites Filmspotting podcast co-host Adam Kempenaar to join him for a bowl of Fruit Brute cereal, a Big Kahuna burger, and a $5 milkshake from Jackrabbit Slims as they honor the 25th birthday of Quentin Tarantino's masterwork "Pulp Fiction." Erik and Adam explore why the movie 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.

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

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast, like us on Facebook at facebook.com/cineversarypodcast, and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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A colorful and compelling directorial debut by Zhang Yimou

Circle April 24 on your calendar; that's when World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse with an arthouse special from China--“Red Sorghum” (1988; 91 minutes), directed by Yimou Zhang, chosen by Joe Valente. Plus: arrive early and play a movie trivia game and win DVD prizes.

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Stream of the crop

Friday, April 19, 2019

Love classic, critically acclaimed, arthouse, independent and under-the-radar films? You probably won't find a vast array of movies that fit these criteria on Netflix or Amazon Prime. But there are two other streaming services that serve these kinds of feature films up fresh 24/7. And one of these services is completely free.

First, The Criterion Channel recently launched, offering around 1,000 movies within the carefully curated library of films Criterion offers on DVD and Blu-Ray, plus several other films not already in its collection. You can get a complimentary 14-day trial of the channel by clicking here.

Second, you can sign up for Kanopy, another streaming channel that works in conjunction with participating libraries to provide approximately 30,000 gratis and commercial-free movies, including recent Academy Award winners and nominees as well as classics, documentaries, Criterion Collection titles, and many other movies spread across different browsable categories. Click here to see if you are eligible for a free membership via your local library. Kanopy is one of those things that's almost too good to be true--check it out for yourself.

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Passing Turing's test with flying colors

Thursday, April 18, 2019


If you enjoy films that force you to ask deep existential and philosophical questions--particularly queries that are topical and relevant in our increasingly technological current times--then you owe it to yourself to become immersed in "Ex Machina," quite the thought-provoking picture. Our CineVerse crowd engaged in a healthy discussion on said film last night. Here's a summary:

What did you find surprising, refreshing or unexpectedly different about this film?
  • It falls into several subgenres; it plays as a horror film or thriller, a science-fiction movie, a cautionary tale morality play, and even somewhat as a film noir in how Ava functions as a kind of femme fatale who uses her wiles and charms to destroy men.
  • It’s an extremely simple premise, setting, plot and cast. There really are only four characters shown. There’s relatively little “action,” and the special effects aren’t bombastic. Yet, despite these simplicities, the themes and questions the picture evokes are quite complex. Arguably, the most satisfying or intriguing element of this film is in trying to determine what each character’s designs or motives are. Who is testing who?
  • Ex Machina is replete with Biblical nods and references. Ava sounds like Eve; Caleb and Nathan are both Old Testament names. Nathan’s built environment around her suggests a Garden of Eden of sorts, with Caleb serving as Adam, Eva representing Eve and Nathan a stand-in for God (a god who is “drunk” on power throughout much of the movie).
What is this movie about? What are the big ideas at work here?
  • What does being human mean? What makes artificial intelligence intelligent, and at what point can an artificial intelligence pass for a human being (based on the Turing test or otherwise)? And to what extent are human beings themselves programmed?
  • The dangers of playing God and trying to create artificial life
  • Taking and passing a test: Nathan is testing Caleb as well as Eva, Eva is testing Caleb, and Eva is also testing the viewer—think about how she’s trying to sway Caleb and the audience into thinking that she’s essentially human and female.
  • Skeletons in the closet. We see inert figures of past robots hanging in Nathan’s closet, suggesting that he’s got plenty of dark secrets.
  • What it takes for women to break free from men’s expectations and control of them and achieve true autonomy. Consider how Ava is an objectified “thing” that, ironically, uses how men think of women against them—Caleb sees her as a helpless prisoner and an attractive love interest; Eva exploits these feelings to help her escape. Arguably, she becomes an empowered real woman once she leaves Nathan’s prison—in the sense that she can blend in and pass for a human female. Also, recall the story Caleb tells her earlier about Mary in the black-and-white room who becomes human once she escapes from that room and enters the outer world.
    • Blogger Robert Anderson wrote: “For the entirety of the movie Ava is genderless and not human. Her flirtations with Caleb are a tactical escape plan that involve the utilization of her assigned gender. It is only after her escape, during the film’s denouement that she becomes human and a woman. It is after Nathan’s death that she takes the skin from the other failed A.I. and constructs her feminine body. The driving forces that facilitate Ava’s escape are the male egos of Caleb and Nathan. Nathan’s estate is a small-scale patriarchy kingdom, with an entourage of robotic female slaves. Nathan has no intention of releasing Ava; even if she proves to have complete consciousness, he will never view her as anything more than a machine. This is Nathan’s downfall. By invalidating Ava’s status as a living consciousness, he is blinded to her ability to succeed in escaping his facility. He never suspects that she would be one step ahead of him…Why does Ava leave Caleb for dead in Nathan’s facility at the end of the movie? Perhaps just as Nathan would never validate her as a being with consciousness, Caleb will never validate Ava as an independent woman. In the post-escape world of Ex Machina, if Ava were to bring Caleb back to civilization with her, her escape would not be her own, it would be a product of Caleb’s ‘heroics.’”
  • The “blurred line between human life and its imitations,” per Atlantic reviewer David Sims
  • The “uneasiness regarding social interaction,” Sims continued, “and the inherent fears everyone has…about whether someone else really likes you or if they’re just faking it.”
    • Sims asks, “Is Ava showing interest in Caleb because she’s designed to behave like a human, or is she simply trying to manipulate him into granting her freedom? And even if it’s the latter, doesn’t that kind of survival instinct make her, in a way, human?”
Kindred films or works of literature include:
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (both works feature a young man invited to a castle inhabited by a strange loner)
  • Metropolis
  • The Island of Doctor Moreau
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Silent Running
  • Blade Runner
  • A.I. Artificial Intelligence
  • Her

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Variety on tap in May and June

Admit it--you're dying to learn what's on the docket at CineVerse over the next 2 months. Well, good news: The May-June 2019 CineVerse schedule is live and ready for viewing. To see it in full, click here.

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Android sex appeal

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Science-fiction hedges into disturbing and thought-provoking territory in the movie “Ex Machina” (2015; 108 minutes), directed by Alex Garland, chosen by Dan Quenzel and slated for CineVerse on April 17. Plus: hang around to view a trailer reel preview of the May/June 2019 CineVerse schedule.

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The plane truth

Friday, April 12, 2019

Surprisingly, not much has been written about Billy Wilder's 1957 biopic "The Spirit of St. Louis." Do a Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB search of critical reviews and there simply aren't that many out there. Yet this film is worthy of closer and more detailed introspection, as many believe it's an underrated feature deserving of reappraisal over 60 years later. We attempted the effort this week at CineVerse and came away with these conclusions:

What did you find memorable, unexpected or distinctive about this film?
  • Despite its long runtime, it isn’t a soup-to-nuts comprehensive biography of Charles Lindbergh, who actually had some controversial politics (he admired the Nazi party and was decorated with a Service Cross of the German Eagle by Hermann Goering in the 1930s). This biopic doesn’t cover his youth or introduction to aviation, or even what happens immediately after his historic flight.
  • There are very few characters in the film. Like “Castaway” starring Tom Hanks, this picture would rest heavily on the shoulders of one actor, James Stewart, who appears by himself throughout most of the film.
  • Stewart pushed hard to be cast in this role, even though he was 47 and Lindbergh was 25 at the time of the flight. But Stewart is one of the greatest actors in film history, and he served as an Air Force pilot during World War II, flying combat missions and being promoted to Brigadier General years after the war.
  • This is a very different kind of movie for director Billy Wilder, better known for his sexy comedies and films noir. This movie is not comedic or sexy or witty in that unique Wilder way, and it lacks a crunchy and deep cast of characters like many of his other films. It’s unlike virtually every other picture he ever did.
    • Ponder, as well, the challenges the filmmakers faced here, especially keeping the audience interested in such a static, claustrophobic environment: much of what we see occurs in a tiny cockpit occupied by one man. H ow do you tell this story cinematically? By presenting lots of spectacular aerial footage, by giving Stewart something to play against and talk to (a fly), by introducing threats and dangers, and by changing camera angles and alternating shots inside and outside the plane.
  • Consider that the picture had to meet with Lindbergh’s approval; he had several scenes cut that would have added colorful details and fleshed out his character more.
    • For example, according to DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson: “The movie was meant to begin at the Flight Line at Edwards California, where the assembled Air Force Brass and test pilots heard a "This is Your Life" tribute to old "Lucky Lindy". The flashbacks would all come from this platform, with either Lindbergh telling his story or one of the generals doing it for him. After Lindy lands in Paris and stands staring at his plane, the movie would return to Edwards Air Force Base for a spectacular finish, a fly-by of planes representing the entire history of aviation, until the sky is pierced by the military jets of 1957.”
Themes prevalent in this movie
  • The risks and rewards of being a pioneer or trailblazer
  • Determination, grit and courage in the face of dangerous odds
  • The loneliness that sometimes plagues those with elite skills
  • Other films that “The Spirit of St. Louis” brings to mind
  • The Right Stuff
  • Amelia and Amelia Earhart
  • The Flying Irishman
Other key films by Billy Wilder
  • Double Indemnity
  • The Lost Weekend
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Ace in the Hole
  • Stalag 17
  • Sabrina
  • The 7 Year Itch
  • Witness for the Prosecution
  • Some Like it Hot
  • The Apartment

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Take flight with CineVerse on April 10

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Billy Wilder made more than comedies and films noir, as evidenced by his hefty biopic on Charles Lindbergh and his famous solo flight across the Atlantic, “The Spirit of St. Louis” (1957; 135 minutes), directed by Billy Wilder, chosen by Larry Leipart, and scheduled for CineVerse on April 10.

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Separating fact from "Fiction"

Friday, April 5, 2019

What can possibly be said about Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" that hasn't been said already? Plenty, at least if you love talking about movies that matter. And Tarantino's second feature is certainly one that matters in the grand scheme of the cinematic universe. Why? We detailed the reasons last Wednesday at Cineverse. Here's a recap:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?
  • It bucks so many conventions of the traditional Hollywood narrative:
    • That you have to tell a linear story with a clearly structured beginning and told in proper order and infused with conflict and resolution that’s dramatized in a straight line.
    • That gangster and crime figures have to conform to particular stereotypes; this is a decidedly different take on cliché characters, like the professional hit man and his targets, the underworld kingpin and his moll, and lovers on the run.
    • That these conventional crime characters have to abide by the language and lexicon laws of the cinematic universe; instead of the predictable dialogue you usually get in crime pictures, this film is replete with casual, everyday banter, funny anecdotes, and otherwise disposable lines that everyday people would say in the real world, not the predictable world of typical movie personalities.
    • That the tone of a pulp fiction story has to be consistently dark, violent, serious and noir-ish. Instead, Pulp Fiction conjures up big laughs and smiles as well as gasps, cringes, teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing. Interestingly, there is consistent suspense, even when the mood suddenly shifts to something funny or more lighthearted.
    • That a violent crime drama has to have a particular type of music soundtrack that features either a serious score or classic rock songs (Pulp Fiction primarily uses old surf music).
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • It encouraged filmmakers to explore more crime fiction characters and plots. It made creepy, degenerate, underworld and unsavory characters more acceptable to the mainstream, provided they were interestingly shaped, offered distinctive dialogue, and weren’t stereotypical or clichéd.
  • It introduced a new era where colorful and credible dialogue can serve as the heart of a story, a character unto itself that helps move the plot along.
  • The curious tonality of Pulp Fiction—which alternated between sudden extreme and repulsive violence and ironic comedy—emboldened filmmakers to explore more violent and disturbing content and situations counterbalanced by hipster humor and black comedy.
  • Its non-linear narrative and time shifts also made it cool to tell a different kind of story that forces the audience to pay more attention and derive meaning from a non-traditional three-act structure.
  • Its numerous pop culture references and nods to earlier films made it fun to pay attention and identify all the influences and winks to the audience. Consider that the movie feels very fresh and timely, yet it continually harkens back to a bygone culture as well as older films and songs.
    • The references come fast and furious: the Pepsi challenge, A Flock of Seagulls, the Quarter Pounder with cheese, Speed Racer, Fruit Brute cereal, Madonna’s Lucky Star period, The Three Stooges, Clutch Cargo, Green Acres, Fonzie, The Guns of the Navarone, and 1950s icons like Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly and James Dean.
    • Here’s just a small handful of the films and works of literature that Pulp Fiction references or was inspired by: The Killing, Kiss Me Deadly, Deliverance, The Bodyguard, Charley Varrick, J.D. Salinger’s Glass family anthology tales, and books by Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford.
  • It rejuvenated the careers of John Travolta and Bruce Willis and put Samuel L. Jackson on the map as the cool actor everyone wanted to cast.
  • It demonstrated that a lower-budget independent movie could be an A-list picture that drew big audiences, garnered major award nominations, and produce big profits. This is the flick that turned Miramax into a critical and commercial powerhouse that dominated independent cinema for many years thereafter.
  • It made surf music cool again, if only for a little while.
  • It inspired a host of imitators. Other movies that were influenced by Pulp Fiction include: Destiny Turns on the Radio, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, The Usual Suspects, Suicide Kings, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, Go, Amores Perros, Reindeer Games, The Way of the Gun, Zero Effect, Memento, Get Shorty, Be Cool, and Boondock Saints.
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in (movie name)?
  • Redemption. Butch, Jules and Marcellus are each redeemed in their own way, by the end of the movie.
  • Passing the test. Think about how the three main characters are each tested to prove their mettle.
    • First, Vincent is faced with a trial of loyalty—can he resist the tempting wife of his underworld boss?
    • Second, ponder Butch’s attachment to his watch and what that watch represents—an heirloom of honor passed down from brave and admirable ancestors in the military. Instead of leaving Marsellus to a fate of indignity and torture at the hands of his captors, he chooses to do the brave thing by selecting a weapon symbolic of honor and skill, a samurai sword. Thus, Butch passes the test of honor and distinguishes himself as not just another American who’s names “don’t mean shit.”
    • Third, Jules confronts a test of faith: Which path will he choose, that of the shepherd or the tyranny of evil men? The incident in the apartment where he and Vincent are miraculously spared from certain death inspires Jules to seek a more enlightened path and abandon his violent ways. In the coffee shop, he seems to pass this test by deescalating the Mexican standoff situation and letting Pumpkin and Honey Bunny depart with his blood money and their lives.
  • Luck and fortune smiles on the brave, the stupid, and the undeserving. Consider how Jules and Vincent are magically spared from close-range bullets; how Butch finds a way to kill the hit man stalking him, even up things with Marcellus, and get away with his girl and the money; how Marcellus is ironically saved by Butch, and how Vincent saves his hide by bringing Mia back from an overdose.
What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • Because the film is such a pastiche that blends myriad pop culture references, styles, fashions, music, and eras, it hasn’t dated and arguably never will.
  • On the other hand, Tarantino has his own hipster style and panache that stamps movies like this as very grounded in 1990s postmodern sensibilities; thus, it could date this film for some.
  • The frequent use of the “N” word, especially used by white characters, likely touches a nerve for many and perhaps stands as Pulp Fiction’s most egregious or archaic element today.
What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?
  • Its dialogue. Hearing credible as well as quirky conversation uttered by infinitely interesting characters will always be refreshing and satisfying. This movie has some of the most quotable lines in all of cinema. Roger Ebert said in his review that this movie would work as an audio book.
  • Its narrative structure. The characters and situations take on different significance and shine with more resonance because the story is not told in chronological sequence. We realize, for example, that although Vincent is a fun personality to follow, he dies an ignominious death two-thirds of the way through the movie; his return in act three, after we know that he will soon end up dead, possibly makes him less relevant as a character—one that can serve as more of a comic relief and sidekick to Jules, who takes on greater significance in the last third of the movie. Again, the non-linear narrative forces the audience to pay closer attention and compartmentalize each of the three main acts as vignettes that each tell their own important tale yet also serve the complete story.
  • The tonality. Tarantino is a master at mixing violence with comedy and building suspense out of both the extraordinary and the mundane. The black humor, perfectly timed to counterbalance moments of extreme suggested violence, gives viewers breathing room and makes the bloodshed and disturbing content more acceptable. You could describe this film as both distressing and delightful, shocking and silly, violent and hilarious.
Do you think this movie will still be widely watched and considered relevant in another 25 years? Why or why not?
  • The appeal and cult of Tarantino, while a few years past its prime, will probably persist for many years to come—he’s only 56 years old and likely has many more films left in him. That fact alone will keep what is considered by many to be his masterwork relevant for a long time.
  • Because Pulp Fiction provides such a high return on viewer investment—it offers plentiful rewards and new insights on subsequent watchings—it will remain a fan favorite for the indefinite future.
  • Then again, if we somehow become a more politically correct society that increasingly frowns on violent, profane or disturbing content—not likely—this movie could be less well remembered by future generations.

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It's Tarantino's world--we just live in it

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Cineversary comes back to our film discussion Group on April 3; that's the date we honor the 25th anniversary of “Pulp Fiction” (1994; 154 minutes), directed by Quentin Tarantino. Note: due to the long runtime of tonight’s movie, our CineVerse meeting will start early, at 6:45 p.m.

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No bull, all Bull Durham

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Baseball season is underway, which makes now a perfect time to catch up on some baseball movie staples. One of the best remembered is "Bull Durham," which outshines many of its ilk for several reasons. We counted the ways last night at CineVerse and came away with a winning group dialogue about the movie. Here's our score sheet:

How does Bull Durham defy your expectations or surprise you in any way?

  • It satisfies on different levels and conforms to several subgenres, including the sports/baseball film, the romantic comedy, the teacher/pupil picture, and the coming-of-age movie.
  • As a baseball movie, it may leave viewers unsatisfied; we don’t see game-winning, heart-lifting heroics by the denouement, or some come-from-behind underdog tale, as in “The Natural.”
    • It’s also not sentimental or mawkish, as “Field of Dreams” or “Pride of the Yankees” are accused of being, and it’s not overtly silly like a “Major League” or “Bad News Bears” can be.
    • Instead, it’s a much more adult take on “athletes who play for the love of the game” (according to reviewer James Berardinelli) and the love affairs of the game’s lovers.
    • It also features a lot of privileged “inside baseball” matters that everyday fans don’t often see or hear in a sports movie.
    • “Those who complain that Bull Durham is anti-climactic are missing the point. The qualities that distinguish Bull Durham from so many other baseball movies are its low-key humor (in contrast to the overt jokiness of Major League and The Naked Gun), the smartness of the dialogue (see that above monologues), and its true-to-life depiction of what it's like to be an A-ball player,” wrote Berardinelli.
  • The casting of a 41-year-old Susan Sarandon was an inspired choice. Here’s a rare example of a middle-aged actress serving as the sexy love interest and proving to be quite attractive. Most filmmakers would likely choose someone younger.
    • Her character is also refreshingly different and played against type; she’s essentially a groupie who abandons her object of desire after the baseball season and moves on to a new prospect the following year.
  • This movie also features more sexual dialogue, imagery and situations than you’d likely expect from a film about baseball players.
  • With its street smart, snappy dialogue and sexually-tinged comedy stylings, this interestingly plays as a modern screwball comedy—only one not set in an urban milieu, as usual.
  • “In Bull Durham, Shelton casually refutes the puritanism that governs even classic screwball comedies. These films substituted good dialogue for sex, inadvertently honoring a fraudulent duality between intelligence and sensuality, which our society often assumes to be mutually exclusive. Instead, Shelton serves up sparkling dialogue and then allows us to see the fruits it eventually bears,” wrote Slant reviewer Chuck Bowen.
Themes explored in Bull Durham
  • Experience vs. skill and desire vs. ability. Crash has plenty of the former, while Nuke is graced with the latter but needs some coaching and guidance.
  • Overthinking life can get you in trouble. Consider how, when Nuke or Crash think too much, their performance suffers. This picture suggests that the mind and body often are at odds with each other.
  • Lust and short-term gratification vs. love and commitment. Annie doesn’t anticipate falling for Crash; she sees him, like other men, as a means of sexual gratification and security but doesn’t count on succumbing to love.
  • Sport as Dharma and baseball as religion.
  • The classic love triangle between a woman and two men, who each represent different needs and things to her. Consider, too, how Nuke, another point on the triangle, is manipulated by the other two so that they can send a message to each other.
Other films that Bull Durham makes us think of
  • For the Love of the Game and Tin Cup, also starring Kevin Costner
  • Bang the Drum Slowly
  • Fever Pitch
  • Major League
  • Summer Catch
Other movies directed by Ron Shelton
  • Blaze
  • White Men Can’t Jump
  • Cobb
  • Tin Cup

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It's root, root, root for the home team--and for CineVerse

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Opening day in the major leagues is just around the corner. What better way to celebrate than by spotlighting “Bull Durham“ (1988; 108 minutes), directed by Ron Shelton, chosen by Brian Hansen, slated for March 27 at CineVerse.

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Walls and bridges

Thursday, March 21, 2019

There just aren't enough quality movies that depict the African American experience, present or past, and that have been viewed and appreciated by audiences of all colors. However, one great example, and a recent one, is "Fences," directed and starring Denzel Washington. In one way, it plays as a different slant on the main protagonist and messages found in "Death of a Salesman"; in other ways, it's revelatory in its dialogue, characterizations and milieu and speaks to us from the past about things that continue to matter now and in the future. At CineVerse last evening, we breached this film's barriers and came away with these observations:

What did you find refreshing, different, unforeseen or satisfying about this film?

  • It’s a rare example of a high-profile mainstream Hollywood film featuring an all-black cast, helmed by a black director, and focused entirely on the African American experience.
    • Interestingly, while the characters occasionally talk about racial inequality and segregation, this film isn't really focused on racism or racial issues.
  • You don’t have to be African American to find truths in its story or appreciate the characters. These are situations, family dynamics, and personalities that many people can relate with and to.
  • This was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson; adapting a stagy, talky play for the big screen can often be problematic. But arguably the filmmakers pull it off by focusing on the strongly-written characters and dialogue, casting terrific performers, and not trying to be showy or clever with the camera or editing.
    • Film reviewer Odie Henderson wrote: “Since theater is an intimate medium, the general consensus on translating plays to screen is to “open up” the play, which quite often destroys the natural fabric of the work. The masterful thing about Denzel Washington’s direction here is that he doesn’t exactly open up the play. Instead, he opens up the visual frame around the players. He and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen use the entire screen to occasionally dwarf the characters inside the backyard setting where much of the film takes place. At other times, tight framing gives an air of claustrophobia that’s almost suffocating. Throughout, there’s clear evidence that careful thought has been put into the quiet visual architecture of this film.”
Themes infused in Fences
  • Visiting the sins of the father on the children. To what extent are we destined to repeat the mistakes of our parents or become an unwitting product of our environment?
  • How history shapes our future. Troy wants Cory to avoid the disappointments he encountered as a semi-pro athlete, but Cory’s future shouldn’t necessary be determined by a bygone past. Troy is holding Cory back because he invests too much significance in the past.
  • The challenges of African American manhood. Consider that many blacks suffer childhoods in which one parent—often the father—is missing; Troy lost his mother early on and left his abusive father behind. How will Cory and Lyons fare if and when their father is out of the picture? This movie depicts the coming of age struggles of black males in a difficult economic and social environment.
  • The literal and figurative barriers that either separate or contain us. Think about the building of the fence beyond the family’s backyard and how it impacts their lives and reflects each of their sensibilities; Rose sees the fence as keeping her family intact and safe, but her husband and son are reluctant to build it. The fence and its construction come to symbolize Troy’s dedication and loyalty to their relationship.
  • Baseball as a metaphor for life (three strikes, full count, etc.).
Other movies or works that this film brings to mind
  • The Great Santini
  • This Boy’s Life
  • Ordinary People
  • The Piano Lesson
  • Death of a Salesman
Other films directed by Denzel Washington
  • Antwone Fisher
  • The Great Debaters

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Take the red pill and enter The Matrix, 20 years later

Sunday, March 17, 2019

In episode #9 of the Cineversary podcast, host Erik Martin jumps down the rabbit hole with philosophy professor and author William Irwin to explore "The Matrix," which celebrates a 20th birthday this month. They examine why the film 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.

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

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast, like us on Facebook at facebook.com/cineversarypodcast, and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.


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Denzel delivers in front of and behind the camera

On March 20, CineVerse will feature “Fences” (2016; 139 minutes), directed by Denzel Washington, chosen by Jeff Kueltzo.

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A good offense is the best defense

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Years before the O.J. Simpson "trial of the century," Claus von Bülow dominated headlines. Convicted for the attempted murder of his wife Sunny, which had left her in a coma, von Bülow makes for a fascinating character study in "Reversal of Fortune," the 1990 legal drama that depicts his forthcoming second trial for the attempted murder and his brilliant defense mounted by Alan Dershowitz. Our CineVerse group reviewed the evidence, parsed the testimony, and reached the following verdicts about this film last night:

What took you by surprise about this film?

  • For such a famous court case, very little of the story or drama occurs within an actual courtroom. Most of the plot and action involves catching us up on the back story and the sleuthing and preparation of Alan Dershowitz and his team.
  • Unlike heavy-handed legal thrillers like A Few Good Men, Presumed Innocent, Witness for the Prosecution, or The Verdict, which can rely on startling twists in the courtroom, surprise witnesses, over-the-top theatrics, and subplots involving attorney protagonists grappling with personal problems, the primary conflict and tension here ride with Dershowitz and his tireless digging into the truth as well as the moral and philosophical questions he forces his young team to ponder. This picture also has a lot more laughs and lightheartedness than the aforementioned movies.
  • This film satisfies on many levels and falls within several subgenres, including courtroom drama, murder mystery, black comedy, and docudrama.
    • “The movie is at once a complex legal drama, a comedy of manners, a sordid peek into the lives of the idle rich, and — finally — a tragedy about the idle rich,“ wrote film critic Owen Gleiberman.
  • Roger Ebert posited that this movie’s strength is its focus on personalities; think about how interesting Claus and Alan are as contrasting characters, and how intriguing Sunny herself is.
  • Interestingly, the tale is narrated by the comatose wife, Sunny. The filmmakers could’ve chosen not to have voiceover narration or could have selected Dershowitz or Claus von Bülow to be the narrator. But the focus is immediately put on the consequences of a possibly criminal act and who’s responsible by having Sunny’s voice lead us through the story.
Themes at work in Reversal of Fortune
  • Appearances can be deceiving. Claus von Bülow may look the guilty part and appear privileged and selfishly motivated, but this movie suggests that it is possible he didn’t try to kill his wife. Likewise, Alan Dershowitz comes across as a nerdy, manic and verbose savant—not a stoic, handsome, enigmatic silent type in the vein of Atticus Finch; yet his intuitive skills and shrewd instincts provide a strong defense for von Bulow.
  • It’s the journey, not the destination, that can be important and satisfying. This is true of the viewer as well as Dershowitz.
    • We never ultimately learn if von Bülow is guilty or innocent, and the case is not neatly resolved by the end of the picture; likewise, Dershowitz doesn’t take the case because he’s convinced of his client’s innocence; instead, he felt it important to tackle crucial moral/legal issues that could have ramifications for later legal cases.
    • Dershowitz’s journey—his team’s investigation of the facts—constitute the heart of this movie.
  • Is it possible to achieve true justice in a flawed but necessary criminal court system? Consider that von Bülow probably wouldn’t have been acquitted if he wasn’t rich and couldn’t afford a great lawyer.
    • Skilled representation is crucial if you want to win a court case. Winning requires talented legal experts—and some luck in terms of finding loopholes, errors by the other team, and compelling witnesses eager to testify for your side.
  • This is also a film about avarice, class, and uppercrust politics.
Movies that Reversal of Fortune brings to mind
  • Jagged Edge
  • Devil’s Knot
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
  • The Verdict
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Presumed Innocent
Other films directed by Barbet Schroeder 
  • Barfly
  • Murder by Numbers
  • Our Lady of the Assassins
  • Single White Female

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Courtroom cleverness

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Alan Dershowitz may not be movie star material, but he makes for a riveting and colorful attorney character, as demonstrated in “Reversal of Fortune” (1990; 111 minutes), directed by Barbet Schroeder, chosen by Farrell McNulty, which is slated for CineVerse on March 13.

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Welcome to the desert of the real

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Few movies over the last two decades are as philosophical and thought-provoking as "The Matrix," released back in 1999. On the surface, it plays as a visually dazzling epic adventure, but beneath the CGI veneer lies a virtual reality noodle bender that encourages watchers to ponder deep questions about the nature of existence and our connection to technology--messages that are more relevant today than 20 years ago. CineVerse examined "The Matrix" in depth last night and discussed the following:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?
  • It has proved to be enormously popular, influential and thought-provoking. It also spawned two sequels.
  • It still matters because it set a new standard—first set by 2001: A Space Odyssey—for films with a dystopian setting and that explore the dangers of artificial intelligence.
  • The special effects still hold up very well, and The Matrix’s myriad philosophical themes keep it evergreen and relevant.
  • The Matrix is also imbued with timeless elements borrowed from fairy tales, religion and philosophy, comic books, and classic science-fiction, that appeal to the child, the geek, and the true believer found within all of us.
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • Its visual effects were groundbreaking, particularly its presentation of bullet time—which is defined as the visual impression of detaching the time and space of a camera (or viewer) from that of its visible subject. The Matrix didn’t invent bullet time, but it perfected this technique, and inspired many later video games and movies to adopt this approach. Examples include 300, Superman Returns, Watchmen, Spider-Man, I Robot, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, V For Vendetta, Kung Fu Panda, and countless others.
  • Its action sequences, fight choreography, and wire fu techniques inspired copycats in subsequent films. “Wire fu” signifies a style of Hong Kong action cinema, popularized in pictures like those directed by John Woo and starring Jet Li, that combines thrilling kung fu moves with wire work involving stunts accented by hidden pulleys and wires. These copycats included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Charlie’s Angels, X-Men, and Daredevil; these techniques were also lampooned in other movies, like Shrek.
  • It stimulated several subgenres: dystopian films, cyberpunk movies, alternate reality fantasy films, and movies that examine the risks of AI; think of Minority Report, Avatar, Inception, The Maze Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Limitless, Snowpiercer, Ex Machina, Ready Player One, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse, and others.
  • The complete Matrix trilogy and its success encouraged Hollywood to make more fantasy, superhero, and action/adventure trilogies.
  • The Matrix also spurred more interest in many philosophical and religious teachings, as it borrows liberally from the works of Jean Baudrillard (author of Simulacra and Simulation); Plato (and his Allegory of the Cave); Immanuel Kant (author of the Critique of Pure Reason); the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi; Christianity (consider how Neo is a Christ-like messiah figure and Trinity’s name conjures up the Father, Son and Holy Spirit trinity of Christian theology); Buddhism (and its message of living in the now and attaining enlightenment); Gnosticism; and Hinduism.
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in The Matrix?
  • Freedom vs. fate, and destiny vs. free will. Consider how the world inside the actual matrix is the opposite of free; humans think and live as the machines program them to. Ponder, as well, how the Oracle can predict what’s going to happen, suggesting fate. Yet think about how, despite her saying Neo is not “the one,” he proves to be the one after all. This suggests that his free will and determination overcame fate or destiny, which is why the Oracle couldn’t see it. It’s also possible that she tells Neo he’s not the one as a lie to get Neo to discover his own truth for himself; recall that Neo said earlier that he doesn’t believe in fate.
  • The nature of reality. What is real? Is our life real and authentic or an illusion based on what we’ve constructed and what we perceive to be real? The philosopher Descartes theorized “I think, therefore, I am.” But what if AI has programmed you to think a certain way—do you truly exist unto yourself? What if the world we think is true is a fantasy built to trick us—a “matrix” that we don’t know exists?
  • Awakening from a stupor into a new reality. The character of Neo and his progression symbolizes how we can change our lives and escape our personal prisons and what others expect from us. 
    • In his book, “But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past,” Chuck Klosterman astutely wrote: “In some protracted reality, film historians will reinvestigate an extremely commercial action movie made by people who (unbeknownst to the audience) would eventually transition from male to female [Klosterman is referring to the directors, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who were previously Larry and Andy, two men, when the film was made]. Suddenly, the symbolic meaning of a universe with two worlds—one false and constructed, the other genuine and hidden—takes on an entirely new meaning. The idea of a character choosing between swallowing a blue pill that allows him to remain a false placeholder and a red pill that forces him to confront who he truly is becomes a much different metaphor. Considered from this speculative vantage point, The Matrix may seem like a breakthrough of a far different kind. It would feel more reflective than entertaining, which is precisely why certain things get remembered while certain others get lost.”
  • The relationship between technology and humans. In this film, it’s ironic that the human characters often act more robotic and non-emotive than the Smiths, which seem more capable of creativity, emotional expression and adaptation. There’s a blurring line here between humanity and technology and how each is dependent on the other. Even the way humans talk to other humans in this film implies that they have robotic-like qualities: “He’s a machine,” “you need to unplug,” “Listen to me, Coppertop.”
  • The mind-body connection. Morpheus says that the body cannot live without the mind; we see evidence of this in how, if you die inside the matrix, your real body dies. The mind also cannot live without the body.
  • The power of true love. Trinity’s confession of love for Neo, and her kiss, magically bring him back to life, much like the kiss of the prince does in the classic children’s stories Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty.
Who do you think this film appealed to initially when it was released in (original year), and who do you think it appeals to today? And if that appeal has changed, what does that say about the film’s impact, influence and legacy?
  • Recall that The Matrix received an R rating from the MPAA, so it would have had a more limited audience of adults during its original theatrical release. Those adults were likely predominantly male science-fiction/action/adventure/fantasy fans.
  • Today, however, 20 years later, it’s likely that The Matrix has a much wider appeal and, despite its “R” rating for violence and profanity, is probably considered by parents to be more acceptable to their preadolescent and teenage children. In other words, we’ve become more desensitized to the kind of violence shown in this film, which is probably considered more of a PG-13 kind of movie nowadays; plus, the deeper philosophical and existential questions it forces audiences to ask could motivate parents and adults to allow more kids younger than age 17 to watch it.
  • Additionally, because AI and its threats are increasingly being reported on and depicted in pop culture today, it’s safe to assume that The Matrix is more widely watched and appreciated today by a more diverse array of viewers.
  • What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • Arguably, most of the special effects still look fresh and are effectively realistic, and the movie’s sound design remains exceptional.
  • Its cyberpunk esthetics—which feature high- and low-tech elements as well as an overlap between sophisticated technology and what Bruce Sterling described as “the modern pop underground”—still resonate and are being mirrored in other films; contemporary examples that fit within the cyberpunk subgenre, which may have drawn influence from The Matrix, include Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One, Elysium, Tron: Legacy, and the remakes of Ghost in the Shell and Robocop.
  • Yet, in a world with increasing gun violence, this film’s reliance on high body count artillery, an ample supply of bullets, and innocent bystanders getting shot to pieces can turn some off—particularly in an age where we hear about horrific mass shootings on a regular basis.
What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?
  • Its greatest gift is that it’s a rare combination of a thrilling science-fiction/action/adventure movie that also makes you think. And think hard and deeply. It has rich text as well as rich subtext, plenty of eye candy and pyrotechnics, as well as themes and messages that linger long in your mind. That’s the mark of a good and memorable film worth celebrating.
Do you think this movie will still be widely watched and considered relevant in another 20 years? Why or why not?
  • Absolutely. Special effects may improve and, by comparison, make this film look more dated in the realm of fantastical visuals. But as AI progresses in the real world, the issues this movie tackles about our dependence on AI and its associated risks will remain relevant, if not somewhat prescient.
  • You could make a case that this movie will remain relevant indefinitely for all the reasons already stated. It serves as a cautionary tale that will never grow old in a world increasingly reliant on technology.

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They're watching you...and we'll be watching them on March 6

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Don't miss CineVerse on March 6: That's when Cineversary returns to our film discussion group. Once a month in 2019, we will celebrate a milestone anniversary of a cinematic classic with a special Q&A discussion format unique to our Cineversary series. On March 6, we honor the 20th anniversary of "The Matrix” (1999; 136 minutes), directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski.

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