Blog Directory CineVerse: April 2019

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


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.


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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