Blog Directory CineVerse: 2020

Gourmet chop socky

Monday, May 25, 2020

Technically, American audiences didn't first experience Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon until late 2000. But 20 years ago this month the martial arts movie masterpiece debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Two decades later, there are still plenty of deep truths and poetic virtues to uncover, as demonstrated by the following analysis:

Why is this picture is worth celebrating 20 years later? How has it stood the test of time, and why does it still matter?

  • The ethereal, graceful and masterful quality of the martial arts choreography and fight sequences are breathtakingly executed; instead of employing hard, aggressive fighting styles, it uses catlike, soft, almost balletic movements and depicts superman powers that stretch the laws of physics.
  • While the action and fighting are thrilling and important, it’s not the main focus of the movie: The action serves to advance the story and enhance the characters, rather than the other way around. Director Ang Lee said in an interview that “the choreography expressed the character development.”
  • For a martial arts movie, it’s quite richly textured with a plot structure that features romance, revenge, tragedy, and unrequited love.
  • It’s also a film with five particularly intriguing characters who each possess absorbing backstories and motivations: Li Mu Bai, Jen, Yu Shu Lien, Lo, and Jade Fox.
  • The cinematography, natural location shooting, and extreme widescreen vista result in a sweeping, epic, colorful, and awe-inspiring picture that serves as a feast for the eyes.
  • The score, featuring a mournful cello by Yo-Yo Ma and exciting drums, is beautifully moving and well syncopated to the rhythm of the fighting, movement, and editing.
  • While it has eastern philosophical sensibilities and character motivations that may be difficult for westerners to grasp, it’s an emotionally accessible film for audiences of any country and features exhilarating cinematic moments that can be appreciated by someone of any language or cultural background. Producer and screenwriter James Schamus said: “We wanted a film that would have accessibility to audiences around the world.”
  • Additionally, consider that Americans love musicals, and this film has been compared to a movie musical that substitutes fight sequences and acrobatic action for song and dance numbers.
  • Lee said: “Martial arts films are musicals at heart,” and “Crouching Tiger was a musical for me.”

In what ways do you think Crouching Tiger set trends or was influential popular culture and cinema?

  • While it may not necessarily be the greatest wuxia or martial arts film ever made, it’s pretty close in many viewers’ eyes. A big reason is that, unlike many chop-socky predecessors, often inexpensive quickies low on production value, this movie had a rich sheen to it, thanks to a relatively large budget, impressive cast, and assemblage of talented filmmakers involved.
    • Its success ushered in a new wave of wuxia films that delighted western audiences, including, The House of Flying Daggers, Hero, Seven Swords, Curse of the Golden Flower, Reign of Assassins, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Brotherhood of Blades, Sword Master, and even the animated Kung Fu Panda.
  • Crouching Tiger went on to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film in history up to that time, which speaks to its immediate popularity.
    • Arguably, a foreign film had never received, collectively, so much media attention, public adoration, Oscar recognition, and critical acclaim before Crouching Tiger. It was nominated for 10 Academy Award nominations—a record that still holds today—and won for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design. At the time, this was only the third movie nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film.
    • That impact paved the way for other foreign films to get imported and noticed in America.
  • With its focus on strong women characters and the female-centric narrative with Jen at its center, this film was ahead of its time. Today, many superhero films and action movies spotlight powerful and interesting female characters who defy gender conventions and expectations. Without Crouching Tiger, perhaps Quintin Tarantino doesn’t make his Kill Bill films, for example, and possibly superhero films with female leads don’t get greenlit. You could make a case that this is the most feminist action movie ever created.

What messages or themes are explored in Crouching Tiger? What’s the moral to the story here? 

  • Revenge, betrayal, suppressed and repressed love, and the pursuit of liberty are the obvious ideas at work.
  • Don’t underestimate women or their agency. The three primary female characters each try to push beyond the boundaries of what culture, tradition, and society expect of women.
    • Jen struggles between her wish to be respected by her family and accepted by society and her yearning to be free of patriarchal rules.
    • Jade Fox is bitter because her mentor wouldn’t teach her the master martial arts methods because she is a woman, and she resents that he was willing to have sex with her but not engage her fully as a partner.
    • By contrast, Yu Shu Lien abides by the moral codes and patriarchal society mores imposed on her, respects the privileges of males, and ignores her desire for Li Mu Bai because it would be dishonorable to wed him after being engaged to his late brother. Yet she demonstrates an awesome repertoire of martial arts skills that is equal to Jen’s and superior to all males in this story except Li Mu Bai.
    • Screenwriter James Schamus said: “The film is a constant dialogue about authority and teaching and mastery and masculinity versus femininity…and how these two things end up not being in opposition.”
    • One interpretation suggests that the Green Destiny sword is a phallic symbol of power that Jen and Jade Fox aspire to.
  • The conflicting relationship between student and teacher (Jen and Jade Fox, Jen and Li Mu Bai), especially when the pupil surpasses the master.
  • Duality, duplicity, and concealment. Ponder the film’s title: The name “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” concerns the hidden or undiscovered talents and mysteries that exist below the surface of a person who otherwise appears normal.
    • Lo’s name means “Little Tiger,” which refers to the “Crouching Tiger of the title.
    • Jen’s real name means “Jade’s Dragon,” which refers to the “Hidden Dragon” of the title.
  • No person is an island. During an interview, Ang Lee said the film suggests that “you can’t live by yourself alone—nobody has total freedom.”
  • Freeing your mind from boundaries and adult rules. Lee was also quoted as saying: “Sometimes you have to go far away to find your long-lost innocence.” He suggested that Crouching Tiger “takes you back to childhood,” a time when you could imagine yourself flying and performing superhuman acts. I think what he’s getting at here is how the film makes you want to believe that people can fly and engage in superman stunts. But to suspend your disbelief, you have to be receptive to the joy of discovery and have a curious and open mind about the wondrous nature of the world.

How are we to interpret the ending, when Jen leaps from Wudan mountain? Is this a suicide, and if so, why does she do it?

  • Jen realizes that marriage would keep her confined and repressed.
  • Perhaps she experiences guilt, as the freedom she sought resulted, inadvertently, in the death of Li Mu Bai.
  • Maybe she believes that suicide is an honorable and heroic action under the circumstances.
  • More likely is that Jen yearns for the total freedom that death would bring, which she can accomplish in a way that harkens back to the story her lover Lo describes earlier in the movie—the tale of a boy who jumps off the mountain. film scholar Tasha Robinson posits that Jen throws herself from the mountain “in hopes that the purity of her sacrifice will please the gods, who will grant her a wish.” We hear Jen tell Lo to make a wish; in response, Lo says he desires to return to the desert with Jen and be like they were before. Perhaps visualizing that image before plummeting to her demise, Jen achieves that wish, at least in her mind.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • The five major fight sequences staged remain fantastically rewarding, each unique and memorable and all the more impressive because each duel refreshingly involves women kicking ass and outshining male combatants or—in the case of the final contest between Jen and Li Mu Bai, females proving to be powerful adversaries.
  • Crouching Tiger is endlessly rewatchable, not just for the dazzling martial arts sequences and combat choreography but for the breathtaking cinematography, nuanced performances, and philosophical truths and questions it conjures.
  • It has a haunting and melancholic resonance, driven home by the often dirge-like cello music played by Yo-Yo Ma and the fact that all the major characters either die or endure with unfulfilled wishes of love. This kind of gift is like dark chocolate—a richer and less sweet confection that is better for your body.
  • It serves as yet another example of the diverse talents of a master filmmaker, Ang Lee, who has distinguished himself in so many different genres, including the romance genre with Sense and Sensibility, the social commentary period drama with The Ice Storm, the western with Brokeback Mountain, the adventure thriller with Life of Pi, and even the comic book movie with Hulk.

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We are not alone in our admiration of Spielberg's Close Encounters

Thursday, May 21, 2020

When you recall the early part of Steven Spielberg's directorial career, it's easy to immediately think of the blockbuster masterworks like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. But often overlooked among this period is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his standout treatise on science-fiction and the possibility of contact between man and alien life forms. Our CineVerse group looked upon this 1977 classic with fresh eyes this week (click here to listen to our recorded discussion) and came away with these observations:

Why was this film important and groundbreaking in 1977, and how did it prove to be influential?

  • This movie benefitted from excellent timing, being released right on the heels of Star Wars, and further proving that science-fiction could be an extremely popular and important genre.
  • Like Star Wars in the same year, the special effects in this movie significantly advance the genre and our expectations for how a sci-fi film can and should look. The mothership, in particular, was and is breathtaking.
  • The film no doubt inspired many first-contact sci-fi films that came later, including E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Abyss, Fire in the Sky, Contact, and Arrival.
  • This was a refreshing return to the concept of benevolent aliens and the potential for friendly contact between humans and extra-terrestrials. Consider that so many science-fiction movies, from the 1950s up through the present day have often depicted threatening, monstrous, and evil alien creatures bent on conquering or destroying the earth.
  • While this film is often tonally consistent with conspiracy thrillers of the pre- and post-Watergate era, which milked the mistrust Americans had in their government and reflected a cynical and pessimistic worldview, we end up seeing the authorities doing the right thing here, including preparing for and communicating with the aliens in a non-defensive and amiable way; although they frighten away the public from the Devils Tower location with deceptive tactics, these tactics are relatively harmless.
  • It’s a rare example of a film that works equally well for kids and adults without having to dumb down the material or aim for a G rating.
    • Reviewer James Berardinelli wrote: “Close Encounters is one of those rare films that works equally as well for children and for adults. Kids see this film as a promise of what might be out there and an unthreatening look at the possibilities that the universe holds. How many UFO believers today began their fascination with alien life after seeing this movie as a child? Adults, even skeptics, see Close Encounters as an accomplished fairy tale. Whether UFOs are real or not, this movie beautifully postulates the best of all alternatives - that the government cares about first contact and about the welfare of its citizens, that the aliens are benevolent, and that we can take comfort from the fact that "we are not alone". Remarkably, a film like Close Encounters speaks to the adult in the child and the child in the adult.”
  • This movie undoubtedly encouraged many people to watch the skies, learn more about science and astronomy, believe in UFOs and alien life, and take a closer look at Francois Truffaut, the brilliant French director who Spielberg cast in a key role here.

What is impressive or interesting about Steven Spielberg’s approach to the material and directing choices?

  • He captures the middle-class American family perfectly. The scenes between Roy and his family are impeccably crafted, with realistic dialogue and believable emotions. The dinner table scene with the mashed potatoes is a master class in cinematically depicting a typical dysfunctional nuclear family.
  • He doesn’t attempt to answer every question. We don’t learn why the aliens choose who they do, why they are returned, how they or their vessels work, or why they’re coming to earth at all. We are meant to maintain a sense of wonder and indescribable awe about what we and the characters experience.
  • The picture smartly weaves scary and pessimistic elements with upbeat, optimistic, and emotionally moving elements to take our feelings on a roller coaster ride.
    • Kieran Fisher of Film School Rejects wrote: “The brilliance of Close Encounters is the way it subverts the scary tropes of alien invasion movies to tell a story about overcoming fear and achieving great things. The only way to find progress is to make compromises, and we can’t co-exist with others if we don’t learn about them. The movie contains some great values about acceptance, but it doesn’t shy away from giving us terrifying thrills and some complex food for thought to chew on, either. In the end, the blind optimism of Roy and the kid paid off, but the movie is an emotional roller coaster all the same.”

Themes at work in this picture

  • The importance of maintaining a childlike innocence and sense of wonder. Consider that the only two characters we see who are taken away by the aliens are a very young child and a grown man who still loves cartoons, exudes a youthful mindset, and maintains a strong sense of curiosity about the world. It’s no mistake that there are several references to Disney’s Pinnochio here, including a Jiminy Cricket toy and strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star” heard in the musical score.
  • "We are not alone" (the film's tagline) in the universe. There is higher life that exists outside our planet, and we can find common ground and communicate with these life forms if we choose to.
  • The search for truth, life, and connection beyond our planet can be a spiritual or religious experience. Think about how Roy seems to have been “enlightened” in his first and last close encounters with aliens, and recall the awe and wonder on the faces of the authorities who make musical contact with the aliens at the conclusion. And recall how we are briefly shown a scene from The Ten Commandments movie on Roy’s television: the sequence where Moses splits the Red Sea. The filmmakers continually remind us that Roy is undergoing a religious experience.
  • Music is a universal language that bridges cultures and, in this case, worlds.

Other movies we think of after watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind

  • Sci-fi films of the 1950s, particularly the rare ones with benevolent aliens including The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space
  • E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Cocoon
  • The Abyss
  • Fire in the Sky
  • Contact
  • Arrival

Other films directed by Steven Spielberg

  • Jaws
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark and its 3 sequels
  • E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Jurassic Park
  • Schindler’s List
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • A.I: Artificial Intelligence
  • Minority Report
  • Munich
  • War of the Worlds
  • Lincoln
  • Bridge of Spies

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Talking tigers, dishing dragons

Monday, May 18, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #23, host Erik Martin treks to China with Kenneth Chan, professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado and a scholar of Asian cinema, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," directed by Ang Lee. Erik and Kenneth explore why this standout film is worth honoring 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.
Kenneth Chan
To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Pocket Casts, Google Play Music, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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Playing the fame game

Thursday, May 14, 2020

There's a reason why A Star is Born keeps getting reinvented every few decades: It speaks a timeless truth about the pitfalls of being a celebrity and the sacrifices required in a relationship. Our CineVerse group discussed the 1937 edition of this film last night (click here to listen to our recorded group discussion) and drew the following conclusions:

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or desirably different about this movie, especially compared to other versions of A Star is Born?

  • It’s the only non-musical version of the story, unlike the 1954, 1976, and 2018 adaptations.
  • It’s rare to see such an old film graced with Technicolor; this was one of the first movies ever the be filmed in the then-new three-strip Technicolor process. Unfortunately, it looks quite faded and dated visually because the film stock has not been well preserved due to the picture falling into the public domain.
  • There’s a lot more cynicism, tragedy, and dark subject matter here than you’d expect for a 1937 classic Hollywood film. This movie shows the dark side of Hollywood star-making—how the press can lionize or bury you, how your identity is quickly replaced with a fabricated one, how the capricious public can turn on you, and the pressures that come with celebrity status and partnering with someone who eventually outshines you.
    • Hollywood rarely depicted social problems like alcoholism and suicide at this time; to pack both in your movie may have surprised moviegoers in the late 1930s.
    • Yet, while the movie attempts a warts-and-all portrayal of Hollywood and the price it exacts on its players, this film also whitewashes other elements that we know better about today. For example, many producers and studio heads at that time were lewd, vindictive, sexually manipulative, and incorrigibly tyrannical.
  • Curiously, we never witness Esther actually act in front of a camera.
  • There are also some trivial things in this film that stand out today: Like the fact that Esther’s aunt (played by Clara Blandick, Auntie Em from the Wizard of Oz) arguably looks older than Esther’s grandmother (played by Mary Robson); Norman’s not-so-funny alcoholism (including driving drunk) is often treated as a source of comedy; and Esther calls herself “Mrs. Norman Maine” at the end of the film, which may not jive with the gender politics of today.

Why does A Star is Born keep getting remade? What themes stand out that resonate with viewers?

  • The fickle, random, and happenchance nature of fame and failure, of triumph and tragedy. We see how quickly Esther’s star can rise at a proportionate velocity to Norman’s plummeting fortunes.
  • Can love withstand the cruelties of fate and relationship disparities? We see how patience and unconditional love is demanded of Esther, and we observe how Norman is willing to kill himself to prevent his wife from sinking with him.
  • The sacrifices required to achieve or support stardom. Norman and Esther each pay a terrible price for their fame.

Other movies that we think of after watching A Star is Born

  • Show People
  • What Price Hollywood?
  • Nothing Sacred
  • The Star
  • The three remakes (1954, 1976, and 2018)
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • The Bad and the Beautiful
  • All About Eve
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Inside Daisy Clover

Other films directed by William Wellman

  • Wings
  • The Public Enemy
  • Nothing Sacred
  • Beau Geste
  • The Ox-Bow Incident
  • Yellow Sky
  • Battleground

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"People scare better when they're dyin'"

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Parsing meaning and merit from a masterwork as densely layered and important as Once Upon a Time in the West isn't easy to do within an hour. Nevertheless, Our CineVerse group tried its best to tap the key themes and points of resonance from this milestone western last night (click here to listen to a recording of that discussion). Here's a recap:

How did this film defy your expectations or differ from classic or conventional westerns you’ve seen?

  • It’s arguably more of an exercise in pure style than a western that traditionally satisfies with narrative, subplots, romance, or action. Consider that the main story could have been condensed to less than an hour, but the film’s runtime is closer to three hours. Director Sergio Leone and his team prolong sequences, milking them for every drop of emotional resonance by relying on close-ups and extreme close-ups of weathered, dirtied, and cruel faces and drawing out otherwise simple exchanges and character meetups.
  • The sound design of this film is exceptional. Consider the opening 12-minute wordless sequence, in which we have no music but hear the unnerving sounds of this barren western environment, like a rusty windmill, dripping water, and the rat-a-tat of a ticker tape machine. Leone uses silence punctuated by sudden noises and foreboding sounds to get under our skin.
  • Both Henry Fonda and Jason Robards are cast against type; the former plays one of the most despicable and memorable villains in movie history, deliberately cast by Leone to thwart our expectations of Fonda as a traditional hero type or righteous man from John Ford films; the latter portrays a grungy but likable antihero criminal.
  • Despite its length, the movie has some plot holes and jumps around, forcing you to wait for later explanations or deduce what happened (such as how Cheyenne escaped his recapture, or who gunned down Morton and the goons around him). Several key sequences that factor into the plot occur off-screen.
  • Interestingly, the film’s “most flawlessly executed moments involve acts of exposure or revelation. Each character’s face is initially revealed to the audience either through measured zooms or graceful, swirling pans around the character’s body, and Leone uses his elegantly dreamy pace to consistently tantalize us with hints of things to come,” wrote Slant Magazine reviewer Nick Schager. For example, consider how we don’t see the blurry identity of the man in Harmonica’s flashback vision revealed until the end of the movie.

Themes found within Once Upon a Time in the West

  • The death of the old west, which cannot survive the onward progress of manifest destiny. Leone crafted this film as an elegy of sorts for the classic western film, and it’s fitting that its archetypal characters, especially Harmonica, Frank, and Cheyenne, will either not survive by the end or not stick around to see civilization advance westward.
    • Schager wrote: “…with progress, the coal-devouring locomotives also bring death—death for the American West’s unspoiled beauty, death for an uncomplicated rugged individualism, and death to the cowboy, who has no place in the newfangled modern world of corporate villainy and commerce.”
    • Think about how Harmonica says to Frank: “You’ve learned some new ways, even if you haven’t given up the old ones.” The new ways don’t involve a gun; they require being a shrewd businessman. But because Frank relies on the way of the gun, he—and Harmonica—is doomed to the dust heap of history.
    • Consider what Frank tells Harmonica: “The future don't matter to us. Nothing matters now - not the land, not the money, not the woman.” He and Harmonica are remnants of a dying way of life.
    • And ponder how Cheyenne refers to Harmonica as having “something to do with death.”
  • Water as a source of life. Jill is associated with water (the well on her property, the water she shares with the workers, the bath she takes, etc.), and we often see many crucial scenes play out near or involving water, including Morton remembering the sound of the Atlantic ocean he left and dying near a shallow pool of water.
  • You have to be willing to play dirty to survive and thrive in this environment. Recall how Cheyenne tells one man reaching for his gun: “You don’t know how to play.” He also remarks, about Harmonica: “He not only plays. He can shoot too.” The main characters each have to be willing to kill (Harmonica, Frank, Cheyenne, Morton), betray (Morton), pretend (Jill), and/or risk their best interests (Cheyenne, Harmonica, Jill) to outlast their enemies. Only the two who “play” the best survive: Jill and Harmonica.
  • Revenge. As in many Leone films and revisionist adult westerns, reprisal for a past crime survived is often the driving force of a character, including Harmonica.

Other movies that spring to mind after viewing this film

  • High Noon, which also features a showdown shootout at a train station
  • Johnny Guitar, another movie that spotlights a tough-skinned female protagonist
  • The Searchers, which also depicts the slaughter of a family on a remote home site
  • The many westerns of John Ford, including those starring a heroic Henry Fonda and those shot in Monument Valley
  • Vigilante and revenge films like Death Wish starring Charles Bronson
  • The Sword of Vengeance and other Japanese samurai features
  • Chinatown
  • Kill Bill I and II, two pictures that also rely strongly on style and exaggerated characters and archetypes

Other films directed by Sergio Leone

  • The “Man With No Name” trilogy: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
  • Once Upon a Time in America

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Why butlers get the blues

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Remains of the Day, a Merchant Ivory production that earned a bevy of critical love in 1993 and eight Academy Award nominations, stands as one of the best character studies of a servant class figure in all of filmdom. One colossal reason is the stunning performance by Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Stevens, a romantically repressed butler who's too good at his job for his own good. Our CineVerse discussion on this film yesterday (click here to listen to a recording of it) focused on the following talking points:

What strikes you as memorable, unexpected, or surprising about The Remains of the Day?

  • There’s a melancholy and sense of loss and regret that permeates every frame of this film. Stevens comes across as a tragic character and pathetic figure who loses out on the opportunity for romantic and personal growth.
  • It feels like and was marketed to viewers as a love story. Yet we never see the potential couple partake in physical intimacy of any kind or even call each other by their first names. The romantic longing is palpable to the viewer, but ultimately no love is expressed. The ending is awash in utter frustration, as we see Miss Kenton depart on the bus with tears in her eyes.
  • The time shifts are sudden but subtle, with most of the film presented in flashback framing; as with “The Irishman” from last year, we know it’s present day for Stevens when we see him driving or away from the estate.
  • This could be Anthony Hopkins’ finest turn as an actor, which was rewarded when he received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
  • Hopkins, and the film, forces you to pay attention to the slightest cues and clues, as we aren’t privy to his private thoughts. Is it possible he’s naïve about matters of the heart and politics? Or is he aware of what’s going on but refusing to commit himself?

Themes on display in this picture

  • The consequences of emotional tunnel vision. Stevens is so focused on his job and professionalism that he cannot see opportunities for growth around him, including the prospect of love, the chance to offer opinions and demonstrate individuality, and the ability to make a personal or political statement of conscience.
  • The indignity of blind obedience to dignity. Stevens explains that dignity is the key component to a successful butler. But his adherence to this principle prevents him from expressing himself emotionally and engaging as a well-rounded human being.
  • The dangers, per Roger Ebert of “a society where tradition is valued, even at the cost of repressing normal human feelings.”
  • The sins of the father are visited upon the son. We see how Stevens carries on the tradition of pride, perfectionism, and professionalism practiced by his father; interestingly, we observe his father falter and fail, which is the fate Stevens is doomed to repeat, assumingly never to leave his servants class status until he likely dies or is physically incapable. Like his father who lost his grip on the tray and trips on the stone, suggesting a lack of balance in his life, Stevens—by the end of the story—is losing his ability to perform his job to the high level he expects. For proof, consider that it is Lewis who is quick enough to capture and free the pigeon from their interiors; this would have been a duty that a skilled butler like Stevens would have probably handled easily as a younger man.
  • Ironic deficiencies. Interestingly, Lord Darlington and his peers pass themselves off as professional diplomats and politicians when, in fact, they are amateurs. They are criticized by Congressman Lewis as “gentleman amateurs” who are trying to run international affairs that should be run by the professionals. Likewise, Steven presents himself as a professional in his work but proves to be an amateur when it comes to love and acting like a fully formed human being.
  • Loss and tragedy. Every major character suffers casualties: Stevens loses the would-be love of his life and his father; Miss Kenton loses Stevens and her husband; Darlington loses his reputation; and his godson Reginald loses his life. The only winner appears to be Lewis, who wins the argument about Darlington and his appeasers being amateurs and claims Darlington’s estate in the end.
  • No one is doomed to a predetermined destiny and societal rank. Stevens believes it’s his duty to live the role of a professional butler, and he doesn’t dare question this status or his position in the pecking order, refusing to offer opinions when asked or jeopardize his station in life. But we see how stifling, stale, and unfulfilling this kind of life and the acquiescence it demands can be. This is a cautionary tale about the importance of living life to the fullest and bucking traditions and sociocultural expectations.

Other films that spring to mind after viewing “The Remains of the Day”

  • Movies featuring butlers or servants as the main character, including My Man Godfrey, The Servant, Being There, and The Butler
  • Other period dramas of the last 30 years, including Howards End, The Piano, The Age of Innocence, Gosford Park, Downton Abbey, and Brideshead Revisited

Other movies from the team of Merchant and Ivory

  • Howards End
  • A Room With a View
  • Maurice
  • The Bostonians
  • The Europeans
  • Mr. and Mrs. Bridge

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A few of our favorite things about "The Sound of Music"

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Adjusted for inflation, "The Sound of Music" remains the third highest-grossing film of all time, which speaks to its endless popularity and enduring appeal. In celebration of its 55th anniversary this month, here are multiple reasons why it continues to capture our hearts.

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 still matters, above all, because it remains arguably the greatest songbook for a major musical. 
    • Almost all of the dozen or so songs featured in the film are all-time classics, and several are standards covered by artists across many genres, including “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Edelweiss,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “Maria,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and the title track. 
    • This music is woven so firmly into the public consciousness and pop culture that most film watchers know the lyrics by heart, as evidenced by the popularity of sing-a-long theatrical reissues and costumed events over the years and the fact that the soundtrack album has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. 
    • With most movie musicals, you might like half of the songs or a couple of standout numbers. Here, it can be argued that at least eight of the 11 main songs are instant classics. 
    • Interestingly, as with “The Wizard of Oz,” the vast majority of songs appear in the first half of the movie, in this case nine of the 11 main songs, not including reprises.
  • It matters, as well, because of the synergy of the great talents behind the production, from the timeless tunes of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein to the fantastic screenplay adaptation by Hollywood legend Ernest Lehmann to the scintillating singing and performance of Julia Andrews—here in her absolute prime—to the steady direction of Robert Wise, a filmmaker already known by the time for helming a handful of classics and who won the Oscar for best director here.
  • It has stood the test of time because, despite complaints by some of being schmaltzy or saccharine, it’s eternally crowd-pleasing and immensely joyful, it’s fairly accurate as a true story about how a woman brought life and love into a family, and it remains one of the best pictures about a family and for kin to enjoy together. 
    • In fact, this movie is the last of its kind in a way: It marks the end of the family-friendly Hollywood musical—at least a musical that has remained widely beloved by movie fans. Yes, in the immediate years after “The Sound of Music” you had “Doctor Doolittle,” “Oliver!,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and a few other all-ages-appropriate musicals, but none of these are as rewatched and treasured today as “The Sound of Music.”
  • The third act, in which the Nazi threat to the family grows, adds tension and historical reality to the film. This helps neutralize any frothy or sappy elements, underscores the family’s suddenly precarious status, and adds gravitas to the argument that they are stronger as a cohesive unit.
  • It has also aged very well because the studio lavished a large budget and generous TLC on the production. 
    • For example, it makes a difference that many exterior shots were, fittingly, filmed on location in Austria, lending the movie a cultural authenticity and architectural verisimilitude that couldn’t have been duplicated had the entire film been shot in Hollywood. The movie today continues to look rich and chromatically resonant, thanks to it being filmed in glorious 70 mm Todd-AO widescreen and produced with DeLuxe Color processing.
  • Despite being a family-friendly live-action musical—a genre that doesn’t appeal to as many people today as it did decades ago—the film doesn’t look or feel dated.
    • Part of the reason is that the songs remain so universally beloved and evergreen.
    • Another reason is that it’s a period story, set in late 1930s Austria, not mid-1960s America, when it came out.
    • Perhaps you can’t say the same thing about “West Side Story,” a film released just a few years earlier that depicts early 1960s street gangs that haven’t aged too favorably.
  • Above all, “The Sound of Music” matters because it was and remains immensely popular.
    • The film remained in theatrical circulation between 1965 and 1969—an amazing four-and-a-half years.
    • Consider that this was the first American movie to be completely dubbed, both music and dialogue, in a foreign language.
    • The picture was also a big hit in virtually every country where it ran, except Germany and Austria.
    • It continues to be one of the most performed musicals in the world, too.

How was the Sound of Music influential or set trends in any way?

  • This was the first studio musical to depict the dark threat of Nazism and this time of uncertainty in Europe just before World War II.
  • Without this movie, you probably don’t have modern live-action musicals like “Moulin Rouge,” “Mama Mia!,” and “The Greatest Showman.”
    • According to Pamela Hutchinson, writer for The Guardian, “perhaps the recent success of ‘The Greatest Showman,’ as well as other fan favourites such as ‘Mamma Mia!’...tell us critics and audiences want very different things from a musical. Where reviewers found ‘The Sound of Music’ slow, sugary and mendacious, audiences discovered a heartwarming story about childhood, and a series of catchy, upbeat songs.”
  • “The Sound of Music” continues to inspire artists and fans alike.
    • Ariana Grande’s song “7 Rings” from last year was inspired by “My Favorite Things.”
    • Lady Gaga sang four numbers from the film during the 2015 Oscars telecast.
    • It enjoyed a Broadway revival in 1998, it was staged as a live TV production on NBC in 2013 and remade again for the small screen 2 years later.
    • “Sound of Music” singalongs, which sometimes include costume-wearing attendees, play today in many cities.

Why did most critics pan this film when it was originally released in 1965, and how and why did “The Sound of Music’s” reputation as a film classic worthy of praise grow over the ensuing decades?

  • Critics of the day described the movie as “icky sticky,” “cosy-cum-corny” and "the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat", with audiences having been "turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs,” per a scathing notice by Pauline Kael.
  • Yet the film quickly went on to surpass “Gone With the Wind” as the all-time box-office king.
  • It has garnered an impressive current Rotten Tomatoes rating of 83%. And the American Film Institute has placed it high amongst several lists, slotting it as the 40th best American movie of all time in its 2007 Top 100 list, ranking it #4 on its list of the 100 greatest musicals, and naming three of its songs among the 100 best songs in American cinema.
  • This is kind of a rare example of a major blockbuster and Best Picture Academy Award winner that wasn’t very well received by movie reviewers when it opened but that today is regarded by most critics as an indisputable classic.

What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in “The Sound of Music?”

  • The power of music and its ability to serve as a healing, unifying, and life-affirming force. Think about how Maria earns the trust and love of the children by singing to them and teaching them music; likewise, the Captain can relate to his children again through the magic of music.
  • Follow where your heart leads. Maria learns that her heart isn’t truly set on being a nun; instead, she has fallen in love with the captain, suffers a crisis of faith and doubt, but is advised by Mother Abbess to listen to her heart, “live the life you were born to live,” and marry the captain. Likewise, the captain realizes that he’s in love with Maria and decides to end his relationship with the baroness. Also, the captain cannot fathom working for the Third Reich; despite the risks, he decides to escape the country with his family.
  • Be true to yourself without conforming to sociocultural expectations. Consider how Maria is a free-spirited and outspoken dreamer, which makes her a bad nun-in-training and an undesirable governess to the captain, at least at first. But we see how her energetic, ebullient, permissive, and generous personality is what endears her to the children. If she was a submissive employee, the captain likely wouldn’t have fallen in love with her, either.
  • The key to a successful family and parenthood is spending quality time together, especially time having fun and being creative and expressive. The Von Trapps are at their best when they are singing and performing collectively, and, as their clever escape from the Nazis demonstrates, they survive and thrive as a collective unit when they work together.
  • There’s a kind of Cinderella fairy tale at work here, too, where we have a misfit princess-in-the-rough who falls for the handsome royal prince and wins his heart in the end.

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

  • The fantastic scenery and cinematography have helped this movie age so gracefully.
  • Also, the incredible performance by Julie Andrews stands as a testament to the power of perfect casting.
  • A bit problematic is the fact that, with its large cast, most of the children aren’t well developed and lack interesting personalities.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • “The Sound of Music’s” greatest gift continues to be its songbook. Not only are these numbers instantly recognizable, hummable, and infectious, but they work so well to advance the story, characters, and relationships. Thanks often to genius lyrics, the songs eliminate the need for exposition, often propelling the narrative forward more efficiently than dialogue and action could. Case in point: the action of “Do-Re-Mi” takes place over several days, but is told in just a few short minutes.
  • We live in a cynical postmodern age when it’s easy to scoff at break-out-into-song musicals and too-good-to-be-true type stories about wholesome families. But it’s hard not to be moved by the story of the Von Trapps—considering that the core story we are shown actually happened—and its message that it’s never too late to fix a broken family. So another greatest gift is the movie’s power to inspire parents and families to work harder at showing love, patience, and kindness, and to find common interests. Maybe that common interest is singing, maybe it’s puppet shows, maybe its hiking in the mountains. Whatever it is, this film tells us there’s hope that even the most dysfunctional of families can change.
  • This is also a picture that takes us back to childhood—whether that’s because you remember first seeing and falling for it as a child, or because it’s easy to live vicariously through the Von Trapp children and the joy they experience in Maria’s presence.
  • Lastly, the incredible exterior visuals are a greatest gift. This is one of the great examples of a movie serving as a board of tourism-like marketing tool to get viewers immersed in and intrigued to visit a foreign country.
  • Just as “Manhattan” serves as a visual love letter to New York, “Amelie” poetically portrays Paris, Rome becomes a wonderfully romantic getaway in “Roman Holiday,” and “The Quiet Man” paints our imagination about Ireland green, “The Sound of Music” makes us want to vacation to Salzburg and explore Austria.

Do you think this movie will still be widely watched and considered relevant in another 55 years? Why or why not?

  • One probably doesn’t have to worry much about a 55-year-old film that remains this popular. It continues to be shown on broadcast television usually once a year on ABC, and now that Disney owns the rights and offers the movie on its streaming channel, it should continue to earn new generations of fans.

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Welcome to Scarlet Street--where the road runs red with blood and nail polish

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The great thing about classic noir films is that even the lower-budget and lesser-known examples from the genre are usually grade A pictures that continue to reward new generations that discover them and are willing to take a closer look. Exhibit A is Scarlet Street, a great little crime thriller from 1945 and directed by Fritz Lang and starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. Here is a summary of our CineVerse talk about this movie (click here to listen to our recorded group conversation):

What did you find interesting, curious, or unexpected about Scarlet Street?

  • It’s pretty “adult” for a 1945 movie subjected to heavy censorship standards. While the filmmakers couldn’t come out and say or show it, it’s suggested that Kitty is a prostitute and Johnny is her pimp. (For symbolic proof, think about how Kitty lives in her own “filth,” with cigarette butts and dirty dishes all around.) Also, the concept of Kitty being a “kept” woman or mistress to Chris would have been controversial at this time.
  • This is a surprisingly bleak, haunting, and tragic film, and the hand of fate at work here seems especially cruel. As in many of Lang’s films, all types of characters—virtuous and corrupt alike—can be suddenly struck by terrible misfortune.
    • Even though he steals money to fund Kitty’s dreams and is attempting to cheat on his wife, Chris comes across as sympathetic and likable. Arguably, he doesn’t deserve the treatment he receives from others, including Kitty, Johnny, and his wife.
    • Johnny, while completely unsympathetic, doesn’t deserve to die in the electric chair because he’s been framed for a murder he didn’t commit.
    • Also, think about how unkind and heartless the world is to Chris, a person who has a heart. Bad things happen to good people in Lang’s cosmology.
  • Scarlet Street predates even the earliest instances of slasher films. We witness Chris kill Kitty with an ice pick, a quick and sudden scene that develops and which would have been shocking to mid-1940s audiences for its explicit violence and for the fact that we never expect Chris to perpetrate this action.
    • In some ways, Scarlet Street is arguably more a horror film than noir, thanks to the ice pick murder scene, the failed hanging, and the haunting guilty conscience ending that some people say makes this the “creepiest, darkest old film they’ve ever seen,” according to DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson.

Themes crafted into Scarlet Street

  • Inescapable doom, fate, and destiny. Consider our lead character’s name: Chris Cross, which suggests a marked man, a star-crossed tragic fool. Lang explores this theme of unavoidable providence in many of his movies. Ponder how everything eerily falls into place, as if set up by the Greek fates, for Chris to murder Kitty, including his proximity to an ice pick.
  • Karmic irony. Perhaps the cruelest punishment Chris has to endure is knowing that his paintings are treasured and worth a fortune by others, all while he is penniless and unable to benefit.
  • The “corruption of innocence,” Erickson posits, and the suddenness with which a good person can be compelled to kill someone.
  • The most worthy and talented artists aren’t driven by pride or ego. Erickson wrote: “Chris is an artist because his paintings are pure emotion without an investment of ego…Chris is truly inspired and tragically pure.”
    • Interestingly, Lang could be making a subtle self-commentary here that his best work may come more from smaller “labor of love” type projects like Scarlet Street, which may not be appreciated by the masses until long after he’s gone or able to enjoy the adulation.
  • Gender debasement
    • Think about how Chris is emasculated time and again by his henpecking wife, being forced to wear the apron as she figuratively wears the pants in the relationship.
    • He’s also dissed by his boss, who suddenly departs the party he’s holding for Chris so that he can instead spend time with his young mistress, and by the patch-eyed ex-husband, who suddenly returns and draws a stark, more stereotypically masculine contrast to Chris’ meek and humble image of a male spouse.
    • We also see Chris paint Kitty's toenails, a task many would consider belittling for a man.
    • Likewise, Kitty is physically abused and demeaned by her pimp boyfriend—behavior that she twistedly finds attractive and desirable.

Other movies that Scarlet Street brings to mind

  • The Woman in the Window
  • La Chienne (The Bitch), an earlier adaptation of this story directed by Jean Renoir
  • Numerous films noir of the classic 1941-1958 period

Other notable films directed by Fritz Lang

  • Metropolis
  • M
  • Fury
  • Man Hunt
  • The Woman in the Window
  • The Ministry of Fear
  • The Big Heat
  • Human Desire
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

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The hills are alive with the sound of Cineversary

Monday, April 20, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #22, host Erik Martin sings the praises of "The Sound of Music," celebrating a 55th anniversary this month, and is joined by Julia Hirsch, former story editor for director Robert Wise and author of the book "The Sound of Music: The Making of America’s Favorite Movie." Erik and Julia examine why this beloved musical 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.

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

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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The power of good journalism meets the merits of a mighty movie

Thursday, April 16, 2020

It's hard to compete with "All the President's Men" as an exemplary newspaper movie that defines a generation and the time in which it was made. But "Spotlight," released in 2015 but set in the early 2000s, is deserving of that praise. Why? Read on for a summary of our discussion points shared during last night's CineVerse meeting on Zoom (to listen to our recorded discussion, click here).

What’s unique about this film as a suspense thriller, procedural, or newspaper movie?

  • Although there’s a lot of reporter movement and activity shown, it relies on very little action: Most of the plot involves phone calls, face-to-face interviews, and meetings.
  • Other thrillers typically include elements like chases, explosions, sex, and violence to keep your attention.
  • The villains are mostly offscreen. Other than Cardinal Law and a brief scene early in the film of an accused priest, we don’t see the 90 or so priests alleged to have abused these children. They remain enigmatic, elusive, and mysterious.
  • Because this was such a big story reported on back in 2002, many viewers already know how it begins and ends—which is a rarity among films of this type
  • Some have said “Spotlight” has a documentary-like feel to it, as if we’re witnessing history unfolding.

Even though the plot relies on phone conversations, interviews, and little traditional action, why and how is “Spotlight” so gripping and suspenseful?

  • We already know the resolution ahead of time, yet it’s how the characters get to that point that is fascinating. Those who already know how it’s going to end are forced to pay attention to the details—how the journalists pieced together the puzzle.
  • Having an ensemble cast, in which each of the four “Spotlight” journalists roughly get equal time without overshadowing each other, also helps rivet our focus and force us to pay close attention to each person’s discoveries that help get the story for the Boston Globe. Usually, the rule of thumb for a good movie is that you need strong character development. Here, we learn very little about each of the four reporters or their personal lives, but it doesn’t detract from our interest in and enjoyment of the film.
  • Like “All the President’s Men” before it, “Spotlight” also does a fantastic job of accurately depicting how reporters work to get the story, how meticulous their standards have to be, and the sleuthing skills required of these individuals. It gives us a rare and authentic look inside this profession, which audiences find intriguing and revealing.
  • To the film’s credit, we aren’t given scenery-chewing, scene-stealing soapboxing, soliloquy-delivering, or melodramatic acting or dialogue. By employing a more subtle, nuanced approach, the filmmakers and actors let the development of this newspaper story tell the tale rather than focus predominantly on any one character or subplot.
  • Additionally, the score is low-key; instead of submerging the story in musical bombast, it employs quieter, more brooding tones and cues that delicately amplify the mood and ratchet up the tension.

What themes stand out in “Spotlight”?

  • Getting to the truth requires lots of hard, meticulous work and patience, and the risks of failure and backlash are high. This story wasn’t broken in a day, week, or month. It took years to get to the full truth and fully tell this story.
  • Teamwork pays dividends. Here, no one Spotlight teammate is more important than any other, and all share a common goal: getting the story and telling it truthfully.
  • Journalism matters in this ever-changing, increasingly digital, and ultra-politicized world. “Spotlight’s” message, even though the plot concerns events that occurred nearly 20 years ago, resonates today: The fourth estate serves an essential purpose in a functioning democracy; yet, people are less inclined to trust journalists, read or pay attention to the news, and buy actual newspapers. Going forward, it’s likely going to get harder to break important stories like the church abuse scandal. This film forces us to ask the question: Could a story like this be uncovered now? And would an increasingly dubious and fickle public pay attention?

How do the filmmakers use architecture to comment on the story and situation?

  • By repeatedly showing church exteriors and interiors around the reporters’ territory of investigation, we are continually reminded of how integral and present the Catholic Church is to the greater Boston community.
  • Likewise, the main setting is the Boston Globe building and its many offices. That structure’s exterior is also shown a few times throughout the film.
  • Interestingly, the filmmakers also take us and the reporters up and down different levels to find the truth, including a trip down to the Globe’s dingy and smelly basement, where they uncover dark secrets.
  • Other structures stand out as memorable, including the spooky-looking house on Matty’s block where two abusing priests reside.

Other movies about the craft of journalism

  • Good Night and Good Luck
  • Broadcast News
  • The Insider
  • Citizen Kane
  • Absence of Malice
  • The Paper
  • The Post

Other films by director Tom McCarthy

  • The Station Agent
  • Win Win
  • The Visitor

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There's gold in them thar Hollywood hills

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Last night, our CineVerse group reconvened online for its very first videoconference meeting to discuss Charles Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" (the 1925 original version). Despite this being a 95-year-old silent film, there was plenty to talk about (to hear our group discussion, click here). Here's a recap of our talking points:

What is it about the Little Tramp character that we identify with and enjoy? What’s the secret behind this character’s appeal?

  • The Little Tramp is kind of an everyman—a surrogate for the audience on a journey, quest, adventure, or experience.
  • He’s a likable underdog by virtue of being diminutive, often surrounded by bigger and stronger but not always smarter men.
  • Because the humor is often self-deprecating, making the Tramp the butt of jokes and a subject of humiliation, he makes us feel sympathy and empathy amidst the comedy. Indeed, he evokes a range of emotions from the viewer, which makes Chaplin a powerful and effective filmmaker and his Little Tramp so memorable. Some argue that Chaplin’s sensibilities are overly sentimentalized, that there’s too much pathos and maudlin mushiness in his movies—especially compared to his contemporary filmmaker/performer Buster Keaton. Others feel Chaplin hits the perfect emotional chords to leave us feeling satisfied by the end of the picture.
  • The key to appreciating the Little Tramp, however, is to realize that the inherent charm and humor comes from presenting a cartoonish character who always tries to maintain dignity, pride, normalcy, and virtue despite repeatedly being embarrassed, belittled, overlooked, mistreated, and not taken seriously and despite his impoverished look and condition.
  • He also expresses a gallantry, civility, sincerity, and romantic sensibility that make you root for him. DVD Savant writer Glenn Erickson wrote: “His depiction of romantic innocence is one of the highlights of the silent cinema.”

What’s significant about The Gold Rush and Chaplin at this time (1925)?

  • Some accounts have this as the highest-grossing silent comedy of all time.
  • In 1925, Chaplin was the world’s most famous person, recognized and beloved across the globe, and the highest-paid employee on the planet.
  • This was considered a major, epic film and production. Walter Kerr, author of “The Silent Clowns,” said only two comedies from the silent era earned the right to be called an epic: This film, and Buster Keaton’s “The General.”
  • What’s notable about “The Gold Rush” in Chaplin’s oeuvre and for comedies of the 1920s is that it’s kind of a stark and dark black comedy that traffics in death as well as laughs. Consider how we see other prospectors meet their demise throughout the story, such as Black Larsen and the unidentified man who collapses in the snow during the first scene up the mountain pass. We view the Tramp walked past a grave, see how hunger can drive a man to consider cannibalism, and watch as our heroes come perilously close to death as their cabin teeters on the edge of a cliff.
  • There are numerous unforgettable scenes and set pieces here, including the dinner roll dance, shoe-eating sequence, the fighting-the-wind scene, the dance with the tethered dog, the snow shoveling bit, and the harrowing sequence depicting the cabin hanging from the cliff’s edge.

What themes rise to the top after examining “The Gold Rush”?

  • Greed, luck, and resourcefulness. All of these qualities come back to reward or punish the prospector characters we follow. Some also see this film as an allegory for the untapped potential of Hollywood at the time—where gold of another kind was waiting to be mined by intrepid prospectors, many of whom would suffer in defeat while others struck it rich in the young boomtown.
  • Inner warmth can keep you alive in a cold world. The Tramp survives in large part because he demonstrates courage in the face of Mother Nature, courtesy and chivalry to Georgia and her friends, loyalty to Big Jim, and inventiveness making a meal out of whatever he can find.
  • The virtues of humility. At the story’s conclusion, we see that the Tramp is willing to shed his fur coats and put his hobo outfit back on upon request, suggesting that he won’t forget where he came from or how he got to his place of success.

Other films that remind us of The Gold Rush

  • The Call of the Wild
  • White Fang
  • North to Alaska
  • Alive

Other masterpieces by Chaplin

  • The Kid
  • The Circus
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight

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Miss CineVerse? Listen to one our past group recordings

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Missing CineVerse while riding out the coronavirus crisis? You can relive virtually any one of our group meetings since 2007 by listening to a past recording of that session.

In fact, there are more than 600 recorded group discussions from which to choose: from our talk about "It's a Wonderful Life" recorded in July 2007 to a chat about "Blade Runner" in June 2012 to a deep dive into "Vertigo" in September 2016 to a fun foray into "Caddyshack" from August of last year. Part of the fun of lending an ear to these captured conversations is hearing how the group has changed over the years, with new members adding fresh voices as CineVerse has evolved since its inception in 2005.

Every recording includes the post-screening initial thoughts shared by each member in attendance followed by a more extensive Q&A session with the group.


You can access the CineVerse group discussion podcast archive by visiting:


To most easily view and use this archive, follow the directions below.
So put aside your worries and cabin fever concerns for a little while and take a trip down CineVerse memory lane. Before long, we'll be back to dissecting movies in person and sharing opinions about them on Wednesday nights. Until then, enjoy some past group memories.
Stay healthy and safe...

Erik Martin
CineVerse moderator

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CineVerse group meetings suspended until further notice

Monday, March 16, 2020

Due to COVID-19 concerns, the Oak Lawn Park District has canceled all clubs and programs in its buildings, including Oak View Center. That means CineVerse will go on hiatus until further notice. There will be no group meeting this Wednesday or any future Wednesday for the time being.

Films we had slated on the March/April CineVerse calendar will be rescheduled at a future time.  When we are allowed to reconvene our group meetings, presumably weeks down the line, I will post an update.

Meantime, stay safe and healthy, and remember to practice protective measures against coronavirus.

Erik Martin, CineVerse moderator

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A podcast about "Airplane!"? Surely you can't be serious...

Sunday, March 15, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #21, host Erik Martin yuks it up with guests Michael Digiovanni and Andrew Bloom, hosts of the Classic Film Jerks podcast, to honor the 40th anniversary of one of the funniest flicks ever, "Airplane!", directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. Collectively, they examine why this comedy gem 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.

Andrew Bloom (left) and Michael Digiovanni

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

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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Taking a deeper dive with "Das Boot"

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Wolfgang Petersen's brilliant "Das Boot" (1981) is a full-frontal assault on the senses and a stark reminder of perhaps the biggest casualty of war: our sense of humanity. CineVerse revisited the theatrical cut of this magnum opus of world cinema last evening (click here to listen to our group discussion) and came to the following observations:

What is unique or memorable about “Das Boot” as a war picture or even an anti-war film?

  • It shows the cost of war from the enemies’ point of view, which is kind of rare for American audiences.
  • We find that it’s easier to identify with and sympathize with the so-called bad guys than perhaps we thought.
  • Most of the film is slow-moving with a tightening knot of anticipation and suspense, unlike common action and war movies driven heavily by plot, sets, and effects.
  • The movie is almost documentary-like in its realism: It tries to accurately depict life on a German submarine and how dirty, difficult and unglamorous a job it was.
  • While there have been plenty of anti-war films, from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Paths of Glory” to “Platoon,” this film shows with masterful subtlety and sledgehammer definitiveness how these young men were used and abused by the German war machine.

What are your typical expectations of a war film, and how does “Das Boot” defy those expectations?

  • Most war movies employ spectacular set pieces, elaborate special effects, relentless action, and a fast-paced plot to make their statement and keep your attention.
  • In Das Boot, very few battles or actions sequences occur; most of the film is about quiet, stillness, despair, and waiting for doom.
  • Many war films are patriotic, flag-waving exercises that support the rightness of the side the characters are fighting on. In Das Boot, some of the leaders are critical of Hitler’s regime and complimentary of the enemy.
  • The characters aren’t cookie-cutter predictable stereotypes.
    • For example, the captain isn’t a brilliant tactician—he makes mistakes.
    • The Nazi officer (mocked as a “Hitler youth”) isn’t depicted as a complete monster who gets his comeuppance.
    • The engine room mechanic Johann proves to be unreliable but then redeems himself.
    • The war correspondent Werner becomes less of a distant observer than an equal among the crew as a human being.
  • Victories aren’t won on the battlefield in this film; triumph is felt when the men strive to fulfill their duties and make the captain they love proud.

“Das Boot” has been called a masterpiece of thrilling suspense. How do the filmmakers build tension and grip the audience without an overreliance on special effects or excessive action?

  • The vast majority of the film takes place within claustrophobic confines of this 10-foot by 150-foot submarine.
  • The filmmakers very rarely show any external views of the sub or even shots outside the vessel.
  • The film is comprised mostly of close-ups and cramped two-shots and three-shots to heighten the claustrophobic feeling. The movie is an intricate study of the human face and its many expressions.
  • Sound is arguably the most important element in this film; the diegetic sounds of life on a sub (sonar pinging, depth charge explosions, pressure on the hull, men sniveling and coughing) and lack of sounds (silence) interplay to heighten the realism and ratchet up the stress
  • For the set, the filmmakers created a replica of U-boat and shot within those tight quarters.
  • The filmmakers chose to shoot linearly, in chronological order, which is rare. As a result, the actors were forced to spend weeks confined to this claustrophobic set, grow natural beards, and go without sunshine or outdoor exposure.
  • The camera work is technically quite impressive and documentary-like, employing handheld camera techniques that follow the men and their actions closely. Point-of-view shots add to the realism, too.

What is the turning point in this film, the moment that makes it a definitive anti-war, humanistic statement that tries to change our perceptions about war?

  • When they surface to finish off the tanker, only to find the British sailors burning to death and drowning in the water.
  • They are forced to confront the consequences of their actions—the terrible destructive impact of war on human beings that is rarely seen from a periscope or a far distance away.
  • This scene depicts the frustration of the moment: The Germans couldn’t help the doomed sailors if they wanted to because there wasn’t enough room on their U-boat.

How do you interpret the bleak, sudden ending of the movie?

  • It’s important that it happens suddenly, unexpectedly and quickly.
  • Ironically, they survive all these other impossible situations and life-threatening scenarios only to be wiped out upon returning home to the admiration of their fellow countrymen.
  • It’s as if the pomp and circumstance and glorious flag-waving and saluting that greeted the sailors was a portent of doom to come. Remember early in the film that the captain says Germany was looking for heroes to worship and salute; the Motherland got its heroes in the form of this returning crew but at a terrible price.
  • This conclusion, of course, reminds the audience that Germany lost World War II.

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Das Boot: A film of high repute

Sunday, March 8, 2020

On March 11, World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse with a classic from Germany: “Das Boot” (1981; the 149-minute theatrical cut), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, chosen by Dan Quenzel. Note: Due to the long runtime of tonight’s film, CineVerse will start promptly at 6:45 p.m.

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Tinseltown unmasked

Friday, March 6, 2020

Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” can’t be denied as a near-perfect work of cinematic art, a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking genre hybrid that had the chutzpah to indict Hollywood’s hollow values and inability to adapt to the changing times. In honor of the 70th anniversary it celebrates in 2020, CineVerse took another look at this classic with fresh eyes this week (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film) in an attempt to answer key questions.

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 arguably the best film made by one of the great American directors, Billy Wilder, known for many masterpieces. This film ranks #16, Wilder’s highest-ranked movie, on the AFI’s Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list.
  • It boasts a stellar combination of talents, including Wilder and Charles Brackett who wrote the Oscar-winning original screenplay together; Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim, who each received Academy Award nominations for their performance; a brooding, brilliant score by Franz Waxman, who earned Oscar gold for this music; and fantastic lighting and composition by cinematographer John Seitz. In all, the film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three, including Best Art Direction-Interior Design.
  • It’s regarded by many as the finest movie about Hollywood ever made. This is one of the first and greatest meta films created, in which the movie is self-reflexive about the making of motion pictures. We are given an insider’s look at how the industry works, Tinseltown’s winners and losers, and the cynicism inherent in this industry. Turner Classic Movies describes it as “one of the first serious treatments of life in Hollywood, coming at a time when most movies about movies were irony-free comedies and musicals.”
  • It’s also a picture that works across several genres and categories. It plays like a classic film noir, with Norma Desmond serving as a femme fatale that leads men to danger; it functions as a striking black comedy and self-reflexive satire on Hollywood; you could build a case that it works as a horror film, with Norma as a kind of vampire creature capable of insane violence; and it checks the box as a character-driven drama, too.

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

  • Thanks to its meta approach that provides textual and subtextual commentary on the film industry, "Sunset Boulevard" likely inspired subsequent movies to adopt similar approaches, including the casting of actors and filmmakers who play themselves and riff on their personas. Without "Sunset Boulevard," you don’t have films like "The Bad and the Beautiful," "The Star," or "The Barefoot Contessa" (released just a few years later) that give us a continued inside look at the workings of Hollywood. Consider, too, how movies like Robert Altman’s "The Player," Spike Jonze’s "Being John Malkovitch," and "Wes Craven’s New Nightmare" feature actors and directors playing themselves to somewhat comedic effect. By casting the director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, playing themselves, and by using former actors and directors in roles that riff on their previous fame—like Stroheim as a washed-up prior director who in real life actually shot a movie starring Gloria Swanson, and silent comedy star Buster Keaton as an over-the-hill actor friend—authenticity and offbeat excitement were added to "Sunset Boulevard." And this picture was undoubtedly an influence on later films like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," "Day of the Locust," "Woman in the Dunes," and "Mulholland Drive."
  • The movie also seemed prescient in its focus on the dark side of fame and celebrity culture as well as celebrity crime. Norma killing Joe makes us think of the later murders associated with Robert Blake and O.J. Simpson, for example. And "Sunset Boulevard’s" cynical tone helps peel back the façade of the Hollywood dream factory, exposing its rotten underbelly and preoccupations with past glory.
  • It was also controversial for its depiction of an older rich woman essentially paying a man for companionship and, presumably, sex.
  • This film helped catapult Holden to stardom, too.

What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in "Sunset Boulevard"?

  • The dangers of living in the past and not evolving as a person or artist. We see how Norma is living in a delusional fantasy world and refuses to learn or accept the truth: that she is no longer in demand or attractive to audiences. She can’t escape the sins of pride, vanity, and obsession with self-image.
  • Determinism and dark fate. It’s crucial that the story begins at the end and is told in flashback, as many classic noirs are. We see that Joe is dead, and he’s ironically telling his story as a voiceover narrator from beyond the grave. This makes the viewer feel that the character’s fate is predestined—we know upfront how his luck will turn. Consider, too, how Max announces to Joe, a stranger who has wandered into Norma’s mansion, “Madame is waiting for you upstairs.” And reflect on how Joe keeps running into Betty, as if they’re star-crossed lovers destined to fall in love.
  • Guilt and manipulation. Recall how Joe rushes back to Norma’s side after he learns of her suicide attempt, feeling a sense of culpability and sympathy, and how Norma threatens to kill herself if he leaves her again.
  • The consequences of enabling. Max makes matters infinitely worse because he keeps feeding Norma’s ego with lies and faux attention from imagined fans and filmmakers.
  • There are no shortcuts to success: Hard work, real talent, and lots of luck are required. Ponder how Joe is down on his luck as a Hollywood writer but decides to take up Norma’s offer to live with him and write for her. Ultimately, he pays for this decision with his life.
  • Hollywood needs to reckon with its past and change with the times. This movie was made at a time when the film industry was challenged in several ways and the studio system was faltering. Studios were forced to sell off their owned theaters, deal with the HUAC proceedings and communist witch hunt, and compete with increased competition from television. The message here is that the old money and antiquated forces that built Hollywood (as exemplified by Norma and her mansion) could no longer prop up modern Tinseltown. The industry needed to roll with the changes. This movie also serves as a sad commentary on how quickly talent can become a disposable commodity, forgotten and ignored by the fickle public and big business in its greedy pursuit of profit.

What are this film’s greatest gifts to viewers?

  • The script by Wilder and Brackett alone makes this an all-time classic. "Sunset Boulevard" is chock full of all-time great scenes and quotable lines, from “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” to “Funny how gentle people get with you once you’re dead,” to “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.”
  • The contrast in the two main characters’ personalities (and the acting styles of Swanson versus Holden) makes for a fascinating study. Joe’s demeanor is cool and cynical, his mindset modern, and his mannerisms naturalistic. Norma’s movements, expressions, and speech, by contrast, are stylized, exaggerated, overdramatic and grandiose; she creates a grotesque and creepy impression that plays on the opposite spectrum.
  • The noir and horror elements also serve as a delicious juxtaposition to the comedic and satiric qualities infused in this movie. This genre mashup and disparate stew of styles create an unforgettable film experience among viewers who can appreciate a sharp wit and ironic tone.

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