Blog Directory CineVerse: July 2019

Cary + Kerr = fireworks long after July 4

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Romance is in the air at CineVerse on July 24, when we'll spotlight “An Affair to Remember” (1957; 115 minutes), directed by Leo McCarey, chosen by Danealle Kueltzo.

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Insidious abracadabra

Friday, July 19, 2019

Some films linger in your cranium long after the credits have rolled--sometimes for days thereafter. One such motion picture is George Sluizer's "The Vanishing" from 1988, which provides a privileged eerie look inside the lives of two men: one who remains haunted by the shocking disappearance of his girlfriend three years earlier, and the other being the sociopath who abducted her, a clever man who seems to have committed an airtight crime. Our CineVerse group performed an autopsy on this movie on Wednesday; here's what we discovered:

What are this film’s strengths and unique qualities that help it rise above your average thriller? 

  • As in many Hitchcock films, the audience is given a lot more information than the protagonists—including who the perpetrator is and, intimately, how he lives. Contrary to what you’d expect, this helps build suspense, and it also builds intrigue about the villain, causing us to guess what he may do next.
    • Consider that the more we know as viewers, the more unsettling and fearful we become.
    • “'The Vanishing’ is a thriller, but in a different way than most thrillers. It is a thriller about knowledge - about what the characters know about the disappearance, and what they know about themselves,” wrote Roger Ebert.
    • "Films like The Vanishing, Le Boucher, M, The Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en are more fascinating than most thrillers because you get inside the head of the villain, and you try and figure why they do what they do,” per the Classic Art Films blog.
  • While we are given some information, other crucial details are withheld, such as what Raymond the sociopath did to her. This film effectively employs both suspense and surprise; the latter is accomplished by shocking us at moments along the way, most crucially at the conclusion. And cheap jump scares are avoided.
  • It’s fresh and unpredictable in its narrative structure, and it avoids tacking on an upbeat ending. To its credit, while you could make a case that the stark conclusion is inevitable, many viewers don’t see it coming.
  • The villain isn’t a cookie cutter stereotype; he appears normal and harmless and has a wife and children. He has the look and personality of someone you wouldn’t suspect of this crime.

Themes built into The Vanishing

  • Persistence and dogged determination
  • A creepy game of cat and mouse
  • Curiosity killed the cat (or, in this case, the mouse): the dangers of obsession and unquenchable curiosity
  • Fate and destiny
  • The allure of a second chance, reboot, or the possibility of starting over
  • Evil hidden in plain sight; how a villain can blend in and evade suspicion
  • Motifs used in The Vanishing
  • A golden egg; oval shapes
  • Coins
  • Frisbees
  • Crosses
  • Bicycles and the Tour de France

Other works that The Vanishing brings to mind

  • The 19th-century urban legend of the vanishing lady
  • Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes
  • So Long at the Fair
  • And Soon the Darkness
  • Dying Room Only
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock
  • Frantic
  • The 1993 remake also directed by George Sluizer
  • Gone Girl

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Flashback to a flashpoint film

Thursday, July 18, 2019

In many ways, Spike Lee's masterwork "Do the Right Thing" is more meaningful and profound today than when it was released 30 years ago. That observation is a sobering commentary on the fact that, despite progress made, America still suffers from a racial divide. Lee explored these sociocultural rifts in his 1989 film, which CineVerse discussed last week. Here's a recap of the major takeaways from that conversation.

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 matters because it attempts to show how all races are capable of racial intolerance. Consider that the diatribe monologue featuring rants to the camera by people of different races shows impartiality/fairness. We see how both Sal and Mookie, whom some viewers can relate to, sympathize with or understand, are each capable of racist, nonconstructive words and acts.
  • It also matters because it doesn’t give viewers any easy answers or solutions to the problem of bigotry and prejudice.
    • One could argue that there are no good or bad guys; some characters whom you sympathized with do some unsympathetic things (Mookie throwing the garbage can, Sal bashing the radio).
    • Mookie may be the main character, but he is flawed: He’s not a responsible father or boyfriend, and he’s lax in many of his duties on the job.
    • Sal demonstrates kindness and understanding to his black customers, but we see that he can also be gruff, impatient, violent, and bigoted in his words and actions.
    • Even da Mayor, who preaches doing the right thing and deplores the riot, is not perfect; he drinks a lot to escape his pain, and his well-intentioned messages often go ignored.
  • The film attempts to distill themes and situations reductively, condensing them into the space of one day: its primary focus is on race relations, and it doesn’t try to tackle every societal problem, like drugs, poverty, gang violence, etc.
  • On one hand, several of the characters appear to be stereotypes—possessing oversimplified characteristics that are broadly drawn and that conform closely to the idea of a preconceived type. But on the other hand, these sometimes stereotypical characters have nuances and shades of gray that make them more distinctive. For example, Sal shows that he can both tender and kind as well as judgmental and violent.

In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • This was arguably the most important and most widely reviewed and seen movie by an African American filmmaker to date.
  • It legitimized Spike Lee as a major filmmaking talent, and its box-office success ($37 million earned on a $6 million budget) proved that movies that more realistically depicted the African American experience and made by black filmmakers could be profitable, highly acclaimed and worth greenlighting.
  • It inspired and influenced contemporary African American directors and future generations of black filmmakers; this film paved the way for important works to follow, like Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, New Jack City, Friday and its sequels, Poetic Justice, Soul Food, Barbershop, and many others.

What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in “Do the Right Thing”?

  • Racial intolerance and bigotry
  • Violence and police brutality
  • We also get the important presentation of two different quotes at the film’s conclusion; one advocates nonviolence, the other condones violence as a means of self-defense:
    • "Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers."--Martin Luther King, Jr.
    • "I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self- defense, I call it intelligence."--Malcolm X
  • That begs the question: What is the appropriate for society to confront racism—Love, empathy, and pacifism? Violence and whatever means necessary? Cultural segregation?
    • Consider Mookie’s decision to throw the garbage can through his employer’s window. If you don’t feel like his action here was justified, remember that Mookie had just witnessed a black man getting killed by the police; ask yourself, is that more of an outrage than the destruction of property (not to condone the latter)?
    • The killing of Radio Raheem becomes a flashpoint that triggers violence; the people of the neighborhood contribute to the burning and looting of the pizzeria. But consider the repercussions of this act: they will suffer in that one of their favorite destinations will be gone.
  • This film argues that people of all colors and ethnicities need to be accountable for their personal actions.
  • The movie also examines what it means to “be a man.” The need for men take responsibility for their obligations (Mookie needs to be a better father) and the need for males to express (“you da man”), project (Radio Raheem’s defiant attitude) and defend (Vito’s need to stand up to his brother) their masculinity, which often leads to tense confrontations.
  • This film plays like a tragedy from classic literature, with the ending somewhat unresolved and conflicting; the 3 men on the corner serve as the Greek chorus of sorts.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • The movie’s depiction of police brutality and excessive violence toward African Americans by law enforcement remains relevant today, in the wake of many news reports about the police shootings of unarmed and/or innocent black men.
  • Vibe.com pointed highlighted several lessons learned from this movie that resonate today, including the prevalence of sneaker culture, the expansion of gentrification in black neighborhoods, the dichotomy of sports, entertainment, and race, and the intensity of black rage.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its greatest gifts is that it appears to be fair and impartial in its criticism of people and their inclinations toward racism. We see how black, white, Asian, Latino and other ethnic characters in the movie all have the capacity for prejudice and racial insensitivity. Spike Lee doesn’t appear to be judging or favoring one side against the other, and his inclusion of the two opposing quotes at the denouement is proof that the film doesn’t attempt to answer everyone’s questions or present a perfect solution—it’s up to each of us to decide on what the right thing to do is, and how to do it.
  • The movie features fantastic color cinematography and creative filmmaking techniques to imply the sociocultural conflicts going on and paint a picture of a specific place at a specific time: Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, 1989.
    • Lee uses extreme close-ups of sweaty faces; Brash, bright and hot colors in the costumes, paints, signs, etc.; canted/tilted angles, suggesting an askew universe; low and high camera angles and subjective POV shots to suggest conflict and power shifts: the scene where Buggin Out and Clifton confront each other; and different musical styles, suggesting racial and cultural diversity: you have a powerful rap song, and you have a jazz and classical music mixture score that brings out the varying emotions of the characters.

Do you think this movie will still be widely watched and considered relevant in another 30 years?

  • Probably. It has already grown in stature and become more accepted and revered 30 years after its release. However, one hopes that racial insensitivity and police brutality aren't among the top reasons why it may be relevant or worth revisiting in 2049.
  • Recall that this was a very controversial movie in 1989, with many critics, pundits, and politicians warning at the time that it would incite race riots, looting, burning, and violence. None of those fears materialized.
  • This remains one of the most important films that tackles the theme of bigotry and racial divides, and it will continue to serve an important purpose: to create a conversation and dialogue on these matters and force us to ask ourselves, can we “do the right thing?”

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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.

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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.

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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

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