Blog Directory CineVerse: 2019

A bit of cinematic hocus-pocus from The Netherlands

Sunday, July 14, 2019

World Cinema Wednesday makes a comeback at CineVerse on July 17, when we'll feature a film from The Netherlands: “The Vanishing (Spoorloos)” (1988; 106 minutes), directed by George Sluizer, chosen by Janet Pierucci.


Do the right thing: Attend CineVerse on July 10

Sunday, July 7, 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 July 10, we'll celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing” (1989; 120 minutes), directed by Spike Lee.


Star spangled Cagney

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Want to feel good about your country on Independence Day? Watch "Yankee Doodle Dandy," arguably the most patriotic film ever released by Hollywood, and an important piece of wartime propaganda to boost morale at home in 1942. Ranked #98 on the American Film Institute's list of top 100 movies, this gem never fails to entertain. We discussed the reasons why last night at CineVerse. Here's a summary of that discussion:

What emerges as different, distinctive, or surprising after watching Yankee Doodle Dandy?

  • James Cagney steals the show in unexpected fashion. Here’s an actor so typecast as Grade A gangster that it’s a revelation to see that he’s multitalented; viewers then and now were and are probably surprised to discover that he can dance and sing. He may not croon as well as Crosby or hoof it as majestically as Astaire (who turned down this role), but he has an energetic dynamism in his dance moves that absolutely rivet our attention. Roger Ebert wrote that “he was such a good actor he could fake it.” Cagney is so invested in this role, and his sheer force of will and enthusiasm command us to keep watching and enjoying.
  • It’s a biopic without much serious conflict or high dramatic tension. This is built to be a feel-good flick that entertains as its first and foremost goal; Yes, George M. Cohan suffers some setbacks along his journey—like getting fired and the death of his father. But the film is imbued with such sheer joy and exuberance, primarily thanks to Cagney’s ebullient performance, that it’s virtually impossible not to feel uplifted and amused.
    • Blogger Tim Brayton wrote: “There's not a cynical bone to be found anywhere in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but there's quite a lot of clear-eyed, unsentimental appreciation for the desperate work done by desperate people to drive the entertainment industry, and that tends to help the gloppy sentimental passages go down easier… as much as it's unmistakably a tribute to the most idealistic version of the United States as a glowing symbol of democracy and prosperity, Yankee Doodle Dandy is maybe even more a tribute to the cutthroat fearlessness of America's vaudeville tradition, positioning the Four Cohans as the best kind of troupers, endlessly plying their trade in crap theaters across the continent according to a robust, unwritten code of ethics.”
  • The songs are familiar and memorable. Cohan really did write some all-time classic numbers that have become embedded in the American fabric—likely more songs than you knew were created by this one man.
Themes crafted into Yankee Doodle Dandy
  • Patriotism: Cohan wrote many songs that have become flag-waving standards meant to inspire Americans in the early part of the 20th century and beyond. His personal story and the lyrics and spirit of his songs capture the essence of American pride and exceptionalism.
  • Success and the American dream: Cohan stands as the perfect embodiment of the American ethos and recipient of the land of opportunity; his is an inspiring story to others about how a hard-working and creative American can help make his country great and vice versa.
  • Strong family values. We see how the Cohan family worked so diligently and often performed best as a well-oiled collective unit. We are shown how George honors, respects and adores his parents and sister, and vice versa.
  • The power of the movies to motivate. Alongside Sergeant York, Casablanca, and a handful of others films released during World War II, this picture roused audiences to support our country in wartime and boosted morale.
Similar films that come to mind
  • The Glenn Miller Story
  • Words and Music (about the songwriting team of Rogers and Hart)
  • Night and Day (about Cole Porter)
  • The Great Ziegfeld (about the famous theater producer)
  • Rhapsody in Blue (about George Gershwin)
Other movies by director Michael Curtiz
  • The Mystery of the Wax Museum
  • Captain Blood
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood
  • Angels With Dirty Faces
  • The Sea Hawk
  • Casablanca
  • Mildred Pierce
  • Life With Father
  • White Christmas


One dandy of a film just before the 4th

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Don't miss CineVerse on July 3: We'll celebrate Independence Day a day early with “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942; 126 minutes), directed by Michael Curtiz, chosen by Jim Doherty.


Adventure and romance in Africa -- Hollywood style

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Now 68 years old, "The African Queen" is a vessel that shows its age yet still maintains fine form while demonstrating impressive resiliency and strength--thanks in large part to the powerhouse casting of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Our CineVerse group discussed this John Huston-helmed classic last night and drew these conclusions:

What makes this film memorable and a cut above? What elements particularly shine?
  • It’s shot on location in the Belgian Congo, adding to the realism; in 1951, it was extremely rare not to recreate exotic locales within the studio or on a lot. Here, the filmmakers actually travel to Africa and risk the cast and crews to many perils, including stampeding elephants and waterborne illness.
  • The tramp steamer itself and the natural environment become crucial and colorful characters in the film.
  • The film ticks many genre and subgenre boxes: romance, action/adventure, war film, and drama.
  • Humphrey Bogart’s Charlie Allnut continues the Huston tradition of using anti-heroes as one of the main protagonists; consider how Bogart and Huston bring many other anti-heroes to life in films like The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Key Largo. Allnut’s gruff personality, penchant for booze and smokes, and overall griminess make him a classic anti-hero, although he evolves into a more classic hero/good guy as the movie progresses.
  • The filmmakers used Technicolor cameras, which were difficult to haul and position on a remote shoot on the water; hence, the cameras had to show closer and closer shots of Charlie and Rose—establishing an intimacy with the audience.
  • Bogart and Hepburn represent a colossal coup of casting—two superstars never before paired together—that works wondrously. We believe in their characters’ unexpected romance, one of the greatest in the classic Hollywood era.
  • “Great movie romances aren’t easy to accomplish, and the best ones tend to think outside of the box. Here we have two relatively older people from opposite walks of life falling for each other in a surprisingly short amount of time. It shouldn’t work, but it does. And as time goes on, The African Queen’s many breaks from typical romances only make it seem more modern and fresh,” wrote movie blogger Evan Saathoff.
Themes prevalent in The African Queen
  • Humanism vs. divine intervention. Charlie and Rose demonstrate the amazing capacity for human beings to rise above their flaws and challenges, be resourceful (such as making torpedoes out of spare parts) and solve problems, and draw from inner strengths, yet some of the ways they escape incredible danger seem to almost be deus ex machina-like (such as avoiding death on the rapids, getting unstuck from the mud and weeds, not being hanged or blown up when the torpedoes sink the Louisa, etc.).
  • Nature versus man. Set in an exotic and dangerous locale, with elements, animals and the natural environment representing significant threats to survival, Charlie and Rose have the odds stacked against them. And yet, they are able to hold their own against nature but nearly succumb to the threat posed by other human beings (the Germans).
  • Opposites attract. Charlie is a gritty, worldly man with lots of doubts and pessimism as well as vices (smoking and drinking); Rose is a prim, proper woman of stout religious beliefs whose optimism and determination help them survive and fulfill their mission.
  • True love conquers all. If this sounds like a sappy convention from classic Hollywood movies, it’s because it is; this is a classic Hollywood movie that makes you believe in the power of true love and its ability to overcome obstacles.
  • The doomed quest. As in many films by John Huston (including Moby Dick, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Man Who Would Be King), our protagonists are on a bit of a suicide mission—or at least think they are.
Movies similar to The African Queen
  • Jean Renoir’s The River (also from 1951)
  • Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison
  • Rooster Cogburn
  • Australia
  • White Hunter, Black Heart
  • Apocalypse Now (much of the story also takes place on smaller ship)
  • The Empire Strikes Back
Other films directed by John Huston 
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  • Key Largo
  • The Asphalt Jungle
  • The African Queen
  • Moby Dick
  • The Misfits
  • The Man Who Would Be King
  • Prizzi’s Honor
  • The Dead


Queen for a day

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Circle June 26 on your calendar; that's the date “The African Queen” docks at CineVerse (1951; 105 minutes), directed by John Huston, chosen by Ken Demske.


Born to be wild about podcasts

In episode #12 of the Cineversary podcast, host Erik Martin is joined by Barna Donovan, professor of communications and media studies at Saint Peter's, the Jesuit College of New Jersey; together, they take a cosmic trip (minus the hallucinogenics) back to 1969 and celebrate the 50th anniversary of "Easy Rider." Erik and Barna examine why the movie is worth celebrating five decades later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the picture today, how it has (and hasn't) 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, like us on Facebook at, and email show comments or suggestions to 


Summertime fun at CineVerse

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The next two months promise thrills, nostalgia, comedy, gripping combat action, and romance at CineVerse, as evidenced by the variety of movies scheduled for July and August.

To view the complete July-August 2019 calendar, click here.


The old man and the see (it before you die)

If you were only given six to 12 months to live, how would you spend your remaining time? If you're Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, you live it up to the hilt and cross as many things off your bucket list as you can. And that's basically the plot of Rob Reiner's "The Bucket List," which serves as a comedy, drama, road movie, adventure film (of sorts), buddy picture, and philosophical feature all in one. We broke down the film last night at CineVerse and came away with these ideas:

What are this film’s strongest attributes, including elements that may have surprised you?

  • The acting chops and irresistible charisma of Jack Nicholson is fully evident. Even if you didn’t care for this film, it’s hard not to admire Jack and what he brings to the role.
    • You could make a case that Jack is simply playing Jack here: a fabulously rich man who’s had his share of fun and who enjoys living alone yet wants to continue having expensive fun.
  • The camaraderie and chemistry between Nicholson and Morgan Freeman stands out; here are two senior-aged A-list actors who command respect, gravitas and attention and who play off each other nicely.
  • The exotic locales, toys and trips are memorable. This film serves as a wish fulfillment vehicle for viewers who may never get to see or do the things these two older gentlemen experience. We can live vicariously through these characters and, even if we don’t share a terminal illness, can learn a valuable lesson about living life to the fullest.
    • Interestingly, the “bucket list” experiences and vignettes only constitute about a third of the film; the trailer and marketing campaign had many believing that this was going to be a nonstop road picture, sort of a fun action/adventure thrill ride for senior citizens. It is for a while, but not the majority of the movie, which is reserved instead for character development, poignancy and smaller details.
  • The ending, arguably, wraps up nicely and bookends the movie similarly to how it began.
Themes built into The Bucket List
  • You can’t take it with you, so enjoy life and treat yourself now.
  • It’s the little things in life that often mean the most.
  • Coming to grips with one’s own mortality and limitations.
  • Refusing to be defined or constrained by illness or physical limitations.
  • Opposites attract; consider how different Edward and Carter are racially, economically, and otherwise. The latter is married, the former is single, too.
  • Good friendships are priceless.
Other films that The Bucket List brings to mind:
  • Going In Style
  • The Intouchables
  • Last Vegas
  • Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
  • The Magic of Belle Isle
  • 50/50
  • Patch Adams
  • About Schmidt
  • As Good As It Gets
  • Gran Torino
Other films directed by Rob Reiner:
  • This is Spinal Tap
  • Stand By Me
  • The Princess Bride
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Misery
  • A Few Good Men


A film that should be on your bucket list

Sunday, June 16, 2019

On June 19, be sure to attend CineVerse and catch “The Bucket List” (2007; 97 minutes), directed by Rob Reiner, chosen by Marce Demske. Plus: Hang around for a trailer reel preview of the July/August 2019 CineVerse schedule.


War is hell. For proof, ask Mr. Lawrence.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

When it comes to movies about prisoners of war, not many are as violent, bleak and realistic as "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," a hauntingly moving yet disturbing picture based on the novel "The Seed and the Sower," written by Laurens van der Post, a survivor of a Japanese POW camp during World War II. Here's our CineVerse breakdown of this film:

What about this film left an impression on you?

  • It’s geometrically and numerically interesting. The narrative is constructed around a quartet—one Western pair contrasted against an Eastern pair—and also around trio of nested tales. Additionally, the compositions feature a lot of linear geometry, hard lines and symmetrical patterns.
  • The score is memorable and even familiar to those who may not have seen this picture before; interestingly, it was composed by the actor who plays Captain Yonoi, Ryuichi Sakamoto.
  • The casting of David Bowie is a quirky one. On one hand, he would have made this a bigger box-office draw based on his rock superstar popularity at the time (this was 1983, the peak of his fame); on the other, it can be hard to picture the slight and fey Bowie as a battle-tested military commander.
  • Likewise, the filmmakers chose to cast a famous Japanese singer/songwriter in the role of Yonoi, despite the fact that he’d never acted professionally before.
  • It’s curiously multicultural. Ponder that the story was written by a South African who lived long in Britain yet was directed by a Japanese filmmaker.
Themes built into this movie include:
  • Failure to communicate: We have two languages, two cultures, and two sets of men who can’t connect or understand each other.
  • Courage in the face of adversity and despair
  • The senselessness and brutality of war and human conflict
  • A clash of cultures: East vs. West, Axis vs. Allied Forces, brunette vs. blonde.
  • Living by a code: Captain Yonoi prides himself as a follower of Bushido and the way of the samurai, but he is sexually attracted to a foreign man, which is forbidden by his code and culture.
  • The dangers of nationalism and the fate of two fading empires
  • Guilt and remorse
Films that come to mind after viewing Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • The Long and the Short and the Tall
  • Stalag 17
  • King Rat
  • The Great Raid
  • Unbroken
Other films directed by Nagisa Oshima
  • The Ceremony
  • In the Realm of the Senses
  • Empire of Passion
  • Taboo


Wyatt and Billy may have blown it, but "Easy Rider" doesn't

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

On its impending golden anniversary, "Easy Rider" has the ability to shake off the cobwebs and shine with a luster befitting its age and stature. Yes, it's creaky in parts, and the late 1960s may feel as irrelevant today as the Prohibition era did then. But dare to look deeper and you'll find rivulets of undeniable truth spurting from virtually every seam on this faded denim feature.

Last week, CineVerse took a time machine back to the summer of 1969 to rediscover this relic; what surprised our group was how powerful a testament to a time and generation the film remains. Here's a recap of our discussion:

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’s a time capsule of a film that depicts what was in the public consciousness in the late 1960s, a time when the counterculture and the young generation was searching for answers, power and respect. This film spoke to them in ways that no previous movie had because it presented characters and themes that represented their generation and its hopes and dreams. It’s also one of the first examples of a movie catering to audiences who had grown increasingly dissatisfied with and suspicious of the government and the establishment; consider all the cynicism, mistrust and pessimism we see directed toward the police, the military, politicians, and the American dream in subsequent movies, particularly in the early to mid-1970s.
  • Even if it looks and feels dated 50 years later, it serves as a fascinating snapshot of the late 1960s and the lessons we can learn from that era and the people this film mattered to at that time. 
  • This, along with a few predecessors like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, helped rewrite the rules of American film by introducing more adult situations, profanity, nudity, and drug use and effectively ending the censorship era. 
  • It’s a wildly experimental film in narrative and editing style; while some of its techniques, like the stagger-ific flash forwarding to future scenes, may no longer be effective or in fashion, this was a completely unique film for its time or any time—not a cookie cutter production that colored within the lines. 
  • Easy Rider also stands as a revisionist western that usurps and updates the classic Hollywood western film; consider how Wyatt and Billy are named after western icons, yet look, act and think so differently from those real-life characters. Instead of riding horses, they drive motorcycles. Also, instead of heading west, they’re travelling east—antithetical to the direction you’d expect in a western heroes. 
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • It became one of the most successful independent films of all time up to that point, earning $60 million worldwide on about a $400,000 budget, proving that movies made outside the control of the major studios and by guerrilla filmmakers could make big money as well as earn critical acclaim. This achievement motivated many other up-and-coming directors and independent filmmakers to pursue their own outside-Hollywood projects.
  • Like The Graduate before it, it features a soundtrack of pop music that was contemporary and popular in its time, eschewing an instrumental original score; today, countless movies follow the same musical formula. 
  • It introduced Jack Nicholson to the masses and made him a star overnight. Nicholson steals every scene he is in and has the best lines of the film. 
  • It was the “first film to show drugs as an accepted part of people’s lives,” according to critic Emanuel Levy. The actors used real drugs in the movie, and the acid trip is considered the first and most authentic use of LSD in a major motion picture. 
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Easy Rider?
  • Is it possible to be a truly free American? Wyatt and Billy pride themselves on being untethered nomads who are free to roam and explore where they want, completely off the grid and beholden to no one. But is this ideal hippie lifestyle practical or truly possible? We see how the establishment—in the form of rednecks—doesn’t approve of them and, eventually kills them. Although it may no longer be as dangerous to be like Billy or Wyatt on the road, prejudice, intolerance and generational and political divides still exist and threaten this ideal.
    • Think about the most important lines in the movie, uttered by Nicholson: “They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you present to ’em…What you represent to them is freedom.”
    • Consider, too, how Nicholson’s character serves as an intermediary and fulcrum between two diverse sides: the counterculture and the establishment. His character is a mix of both, and it’s fitting that he appears roughly in the middle of the movie.
  • The death of the 1960s ideal. The counterculture and the hippie generation yearned for independence from the establishment and corporate America and the liberty to be able to live their alternative lifestyles and practice free love in peace while expressing themselves without fear of reprisal. But we see how that turns out for Wyatt and Billy.
    • The line “we blew it” also reinforces this. You could interpret this as a confession that Wyatt and Billy have sold out their values and idealism by making the drug score and valuing money and possessions, conforming to a capitalist ethos in that regard while also failing to truly feel free. In a 1995 making-of featurette, Hopper said the film’s main message was that freedom comes with great responsibility; Billy and Wyatt didn’t live up to that responsibility.
    • Or, consider what Criterion Collection essayist Matt Zoller Seitz wrote: “But the line strikes me also as a more personal sort of confession, an admission that they have ultimately succumbed and bought into their own outlaw version of the capitalist rat race—the idea that a man is not a true success unless he has accumulated enough money to stop working and take it easy.”
  • Martyrdom. Wyatt and Billy are, ultimately, counterculture casualties in the culture wars of the late 1960s, and Wyatt in particular is drawn as a kind of Christ-like figure. We see how they enjoy a sort of “last supper” in New Orleans and then have a kind of “Garden of Gethsemane” experience of LSD-induced confusion, suffering and prayer before they are killed. You could interpret the end of the film as decidedly downbeat, making the movie a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-expression and pursuit of individuality in a country that isn’t truly “free.”
    • Levy wrote: “The movie goes to great lengths to celebrate the romantic individualism of the youth movement, but within this celebration there is actually a thoughtful and clever warning. Easy Rider, be it dated, does present the question of whether excessive, irresponsible individualism might have detrimental effects.”
    • Seitz believed that “the film’s piquant final shot—the camera rising away from Wyatt’s shattered, burning bike—suggests a soul’s ascent to heaven. It could represent the death of a man, or of a dream of revolution. But it may also signify the death of a false dream of comfort. Billy and Wyatt were born to be wild, and they died wild; in its twisted way, it’s a happy ending.”
    • Roger Ebert posited: “It is possible to see that Captain America and Billy died not only for our sins, but also for their own.”
  • Being in the right place at the right time.
    • Recall how the commune leader gives Wyatt and Billy a cube of acid that he recommends they quarter it once they get to the right place with the right people; yet, when they choose to consume it with the prostitutes in New Orleans, we see what is depicted as a bad trip, insinuating that this was the wrong time with the wrong people.
    • Earlier, Wyatt throws away his wristwatch, as if suggesting that he will not be bound by the rules and restrictions of time. While we may cheer this rebellious act of nonconformity, we see examples as the movie progresses of how Wyatt and his friends end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, ultimately leading to their deaths. It’s also possible that these men are too far ahead of their time to be accepted, or that it’s impossible not to live a life free of the boundaries of time, schedules and temporal constraints.
    • Characters throughout the film talk about time, delivering lines like “Do your own thing in your own time,” “The time’s running out…” “I’m hip about time.”
Who do you think this film appealed to initially when it was released in 1969, 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?
  • Undoubtedly, in 1969 this feature attracted young adults and teenagers, hippies, college students and liberals, as well as bikers and motorcycle enthusiasts; I recall Dennis Hopper noting in a making-of doc that some people in theaters cheered for the rednecks and the demise of Wyatt and Billy, so it’s likely that many people who weren’t part of or sympathetic to the youth movement or counterculture also went to see this picture.
  • Today, my hunch is this is more of a dated but fascinating relic to newer generations and a much harder sell as a recommendation. While many of its themes remain timeless and resonant, this is definitely a movie anchored in the time it was made and arguably irrelevant and odd to younger viewers who didn’t live through the 1960s and 1970s.
What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • Hitchhikers, acid trips, communes, asking people for their zodiac signs—these are fossils of a bygone era.
  • On the other hand, marijuana is a much more tolerated and trusted drug today that is becoming legalized in many states for recreational purposes, so Billy and Wyatt’s pot smoking doesn’t seem as dated or taboo.
  • There remains a great cultural, sociological and political divide in this country, as evidenced by continued racism, intolerance and animosity by many toward people who are different from them. As depicted in Easy Rider, it still feels as if there are two Americas—liberal vs. conservative, blue versus red, socialist vs. capitalist, North or West vs. South, and alternative vs. mainstream.
What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?
  • Arguably, it’s greatest gift is that the movie serves as a document of a specific time in American history—1969, when our country was terribly divided along generational, racial and political lines. In this way, although the context has changed, it can present relevant messages today, also a time of great schism in our country’s history. The questions it asks, such as “is America truly free,” and “is individuality, personal liberty and autonomy an illusion in a world controlled by corporate greed,” are meaningful today, too.
  • Many contend that Easy Rider’s strongest point is the casting and performance of Jack Nicholson. You could make a case that its greatest gift was the introduction of an acting legend who, at the time, confessed that he was ready to quit acting after toiling in obscurity for so many years; Nicholson demonstrates his great talent for bringing remarkably colorful and likeable characters to life.
  • Remember, too, that Easy Rider made it cool to use pop music as your soundtrack; that’s a gift that keeps on giving.


Christmas comes 6 months early

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Make way for World Cinema Wednesday at CineVerse on June 12, when we'll screen and discuss a co-production from Japan and the United Kingdom: “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983; 123 minutes), directed by Nagisa Ôshima, chosen by Jane Williams.


Get your motor runnin'...

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Cineversary comes back to CineVerse on June 5, when we honor the 50th anniversary of “Easy Rider” (1969; 96 minutes), directed by Dennis Hopper. Plus: Enjoy Born to Be Wild, a 1995 documentary on the film (30 minutes).


A road trip that takes a few detours

Thursday, May 30, 2019

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the flood gates were open and many American filmmakers were unencumbered by the conventions and censorship of the past. This gave rise to an exciting but short-lived era of greater experimentation with film narrative and form, ambiguous endings, enigmatic characters, and non-traditional dialogue. Case in point: Monte Hellman's 1971 anticlimactic and nonconformist cult classic "Two-Lane Blacktop," which serves as a somewhat puzzling counterpoint to Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider," released two years earlier. We jumped in the back seat and took a ride with James Taylor and Dennis Wilson last night at CineVerse. Here's what we came up with:

What caught you by surprise here? 

  • The lack of a strong and cohesive narrative. We are led to believe that the movie is ultimately about winning a race, a possible romance with a girl, and reaching a destination. But the truth is that none of these narrative threads are resolved. In fact, the film is quite anticlimactic.
  • The slow pacing of the film, which is surprising considering it’s a road movie that builds up to a race.
  • It has a documentary-like feel and realism.
  • James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are surprisingly non-emotive. Instead of overacting (from two non-professional first-time actors), we get underplaying and stone-faced portrayals, which speaks volumes about the state of mind these characters are in. Here are two skilled professionals driven by a mission to drive, race, and keep moving (DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson posited: “The Driver and The Mechanic are the evolutionary culmination of the 'professional' Howard Hawks- kind of movie characters, who define themselves by their skills”). We get virtually no back story, no context for what motivates them. Despite the fact that the film cast two musicians in lead roles, Taylor and Wilson don’t disappoint.
  • The girl doesn’t serve as eye candy, sexy currency, or a romantic love interest. Instead, she’s fickle and fleeting and not emotionally tethered to any one man.
  • Arguably, the film is most focused on GTO’s character—he serves as the heart of the movie. And what a strange and somewhat pathetic character he is.
  • There is no proper score or soundtrack; all the music we hear (and there isn’t that much of it) is diegetic and in the background. That’s quite a departure from films like “Easy Rider,” which rely more heavily on a well-curated pop music soundtrack to help tell their story.
  • Aside from indulging in alcohol, we see no drug use or references to drugs—also unconventional for a film that appeals to the counterculture and youth crowd in this era.
Themes imbued in Two-Lane Blacktop:
  • Existential crises: This is a film geared toward young adults and the counterculture, who were left disillusioned and somewhat aimless after their 1960s ideals were shattered. Consider how the Driver and Mechanic are so emotionless, almost numb, in contrast to GTO, who represents the older generation—a man who won’t shut up and is living a self-delusional life and suffering a mid-life crisis of sorts.
  • Criterion Collection essayist Kent Jones wrote: “It is a movie about loneliness, and the attempts made by people to connect with one another and maintain their solitude at the same time—an impossible task, an elusive dream… The characters think they’re in a race, but they’re really players in a theater of life, the stage of which stretches from sea to shining sea.”
  • The need for speed as well as for direction in life. Director Monte Hellman said in an interview: “I thought it was a movie about speed, and I wanted to bring the audience back out of the movie and into the theater, and to relate them to the experience of watching a film. I also wanted to relate them to, not consciously but unconsciously, the idea of film going through a camera, which is related to speed as well. I think it came to me out of a similar kind of thing that Bergman did with Persona.”
  • Burned-out dreams and desires. Consider the last shot, which depicts that the actual film in the projector that’s projecting “Two-Lane Blacktop” has burned up, “suggesting both the corrosion of the characters’ counter-cultural nobility (a la Easy Rider) and contradictorily the sense in which the characters ‘live on’ outside of the flammable finiteness of the film itself,” according to film reviewer Joseph Jon Lanthier.
  • Lack of communication.
  • Mass commercialism and mainstream values versus customization and nonconformist counterculture values. This is evidenced by the mass-produced GTO going up against the hybridized and recycled gearhead vehicle put together by the Driver and Mechanic.
Films similar to Two-Lane Blacktop include:
  • Easy Rider
  • Vanishing Point
  • Aloha, Bobby and Rose
  • American Graffiti
  • Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry
  • Electra Glide in Blue
  • Kings of the Road
Other films directed by Monte Hellman
  • Ride in the Whirlwind
  • The Shooting
  • Cockfighter


All roads lead to CineVerse on May 29

Sunday, May 26, 2019

On May 29, take a road trip with CineVerse as we enjoy “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971; 103 minutes), directed by Monte Hellman, chosen by Mike Bochenek.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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


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, like us on Facebook at, and email show comments or suggestions to


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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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