Blog Directory CineVerse: May 2019

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.
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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


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