Blog Directory CineVerse: 2020

Old blue eyes strikes gold―in glorious black and white

Friday, July 31, 2020


It's interesting to wonder what The Man With the Golden Arm would have been like if Marlon Brando, the other actor considered for the role of Frankie Machine (which ultimately went to Frank Sinatra), got the part, considering how this movie feels like a distant relative to the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Both films feature claustrophobic urban environments where women are pressured by domineering or flawed men, and both movies feel like stage play adaptations, even though Golden Arm was sourced from a controversial novel and never saw the light of Broadway. We gave this film the CineVerse treatment last Wednesday and arrived at the following conclusions (to hear our group discussion of this picture, click here).

What was interesting, unexpected, surprising, or rewarding about this picture?

  • This was a groundbreaking film on several fronts. Research suggests it was the first major motion picture to seriously tackle the topic of narcotic addiction (The Lost Weekend first addressed alcoholism 10 years earlier). Also, it helped diminish the power of Hollywood censorship by weakening the Production Code Administration and taking on the Catholic Legion of Decency. Director Otto Preminger and the film’s distributor, United Artists, took a chance on adapting this controversial novel for the screen and releasing it theatrically before receiving a PCA seal of approval. Note that the Hays Office and PCA prohibited even a mention of drug use in movies at this time. The PCA and MPAA banned the film, but no theaters that booked it stopped its exhibition. Lots of people paid for tickets, thanks in large part to the publicity generated from all this controversy. These collective factors helped weaken the censorship powers in the movie industry.
  • Frank Sinatra appears well cast, earning an Academy Award nomination for this role. The film was also nominated for best art direction/set decoration, and best music.
    • Sinatra is convincing as a man suffering through cold turkey hell and constantly besieged by marital, career, and societal pressures.
  • The opening titles, by Saul Bass, proved innovative; Bass later designed many memorable stylized film titles for Hitchcock, Preminger again, and Martin Scorsese.
  • The ending feels very Hollywood tacked-on; the original novel concludes with Frankie killing a man and committing suicide, his wife going insane, and Molly becoming a prostitute.
    • Also, it defies belief that this drug addict with few career prospects or cash would be so coveted by two highly attractive women, one of whom maintains a charade of being crippled for years and the other who risks personal safety and humiliation to befriend Frankie.

Themes explored in this film

  • Loss and redemption. Frankie was redeemed earlier when he was released, clean and sober, from a prison hospital. By the end of the film, he kicks the habit again and ditches his old life of card dealing for two-bit hustlers.
  • The consequences of addiction. Not only is Frankie hooked on heroin, but he easily falls into old habits, too, like going back to his old job dealing cards for shady characters. He finds it hard to shake his past and his proclivities for risky behavior.
  • Taking a chance on love. Molly, the matchstick girl with a heart of gold, has been burned time and again by wounded strays like Frankie and her new lowlife boyfriend. But even after skipping town to get away from it all, she returns and, with the prospect of little reward, allows Frankie to sober up in her apartment. Her faith in him pays off by the film’s conclusion, as we see the two, now both free from past entanglements, able to assumedly live a romantic life together.
  • We are a product of our environment. Frankie returns to familiar territory once released from rehabilitation, only to be infected again by the crooked characters and malignant milieu of the Chicago neighborhood he calls home.

Other films that The Man With the Golden Arm conjures up

  • The Lost Weekend
  • Days of Wine and Roses
  • Clean and Sober
  • Rush
  • Trainspotting
  • 28 Days

Other films by Otto Preminger

  • Laura
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Carmen Jones
  • Advise & Consent
  • Bunny Lake is Missing
  • Fallen Angel
  • Angel Face

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From Springsteen to Payne, "Nebraska" is a state of mind

Sunday, July 26, 2020

By several measures, Alexander Payne's Nebraska is a throwback film: It's shot in melancholy black-and-white; it's a meandering road film that focuses more on characters than plot or narrative payoff; and it's not afraid to spotlight the existential plight of people middle-aged and older. CineVerse explored Nebraska last Wednesday. Here are our takeaways (to listen to our group discussion of this movie, click here):

Films and other works that come to mind after watching Nebraska

  • I Never Sang for My Father
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Harry and Tonto
  • Fargo
  • Nobody’s Fool
  • The Straight Story
  • About Schmidt
  • The Thing About My Folks
  • Don Quixote: Woody and David represent a kind of modern windmill chaser and his sidekick
  • Various American artists, including folksinger Woody Guthrie (possibly our lead character is named after him), writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (the fictional town of Hawthorne could cheer his name), and Bruce Springsteen, whose album Nebraska, also features black-and-white imagery (on the cover) and simple, reflective, and melancholy music

What did you find interesting, distinctive, unexpected, or surprising about Nebraska?

  • It’s refreshing to see a late-career turn by an aged actor known from another era – in this case, Bruce Dern, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance and won the Best Actor Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Rarely are seniors given the top spotlight in a major motion picture these days.
  • The choice to shoot in black and white is spot on. Draining the film of color adds a tinge of melancholy, regret, and loss to the story and heightens the realism. Considering that this is filmed in and around America’s heartland, which particularly suffered during and after the Great Recession, monochrome is ideal here.
  • You could make a case that director Alexander Payne is being condescending to or critical of simplistic Midwesterners and hicks. But there’s an obvious subjective focus on, love for, and reverence toward Woody and his son, whom we follow around on their road trip. And we grow to care about and root for these characters, even if some of the rural personalities around them aren't shown in such a favorable light.
  • The movie eschews overt sentimentality because the past these older characters have left behind doesn’t seem worthy of wistfulness. We aren’t given any “come-to-Jesus” moments, no grand reuniting events, mushy reconciliations, healing hugs, or speechifying from characters, either. This film makes broad statements through small gestures and minimal words.
    • Film critic James Berardinelli wrote: “(Payne is) making a statement about the stagnation of those ‘old-time’ values and the misapprehension that just because something about a bygone epoch that it’s necessarily ‘better.’”
    • New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote: “The chilling implication of this film is not that the old values of hard work, family and community have fallen away, but that they were never really there to begin with. Yet somehow the feeling that lingers after the last shot is the opposite of despair.”

What themes can be mined from Nebraska?

  • The dying or death of the American dream. We see how Woody believes he’s the beneficiary of a large jackpot, almost as if it’s an end-of-life reward for all his suffering, regrets, and hard work. But we quickly learn that this prize is a sham – much as the dream of prosperity and success for many Americans proves to be a fallacy.
    • Supporting this theme are the desolate and ramshackle landscape images the filmmakers provide and the aged and/or down-on-their-luck characters we meet, many of whom are out of work or bereft of motivation or meaningful endeavors due to long-standing poor economic conditions.
  • Reckoning with mortality. This picture reminds us that we are all fated to age and pass away, most of us into relative obscurity except for the degree to which our descendants remember us. At middle age, and again near life’s end, it’s natural to take stock of your wins, losses, regrets, missed opportunities, and legacy.
  • Hereditary existentialism. Taking a road trip with his father, David confronts the truth about his father’s complicated life and the secrets that were withheld from him as a child. We also sense that David is worried about following in his father’s footsteps of futility and frustration and seeks to avoid making many of the same mistakes. But we can be encouraged by the assumption that David is possibly living a better life than his father did. Consider how we hear that Woody would have been whipped if he stepped into his parents’ room, and we know that Woody suffered during and after his service in the Korean War; by contrast, David didn’t have to fight in any war or endure the same hardscrabble upbringing. The takeaway? Each succeeding generation hopefully improves upon the last. This is a movie about what we can learn from our parents and older generations, both good and bad, and using that knowledge to hopefully lead a better life. We, like David, need to put ourselves in our parents’ shoes and appreciate who they are and what they want – warts and all.
  • The corrupting influence of money. Even simple, down-home folk – far removed from the vices of the big city – can reveal their avaricious true colors once the hint of profit and monetary opportunity is sniffed.

Other films by Alexander Payne

  • Citizen Ruth
  • Election
  • About Schmidt
  • Sideways
  • The Descendents

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The greatest yarn in journalism since Livingstone discovered Stanley

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Stripped free of sentimentality, untethered from the temporal constraints of normally paced life, and existing in its own bubble of bygone journalistic profligacy, His Girl Friday is more than a screwball comedy with one of the strongest pedigrees from Hollywood's golden era. It's also a gift that keeps on giving with its caustic wit, zippy one-liners, and rat-a-tat repartee. Our CineVerse pack parsed through this picture carefully; here's what we discovered:


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 because it’s one of the finest and most representational of screwball comedies—that subgenre in which romances and love stories are satirized and a comedic battle of the sexes is depicted, often using witty banter, physical humor, a funny plot centered on courtship and marriage or remarriage.
  • His Girl Friday is worth celebrating for its ultra-fast pacing in the humor and repartee, direction, editing, and dialogue delivery.
  • In fact, it could be the fastest-spoken film ever made. The director, Howard Hawks, was actually trying to break the record at the time for the speediest dialogue ever filmed.
  • This is also one of the very best remakes of all time; its first iteration was The Front Page, released in 1931 and based on the 1928 stage play. A Hollywood remake rarely bests the original, but this picture is the exception to that rule.
  • This is also, arguably, the finest version of this story adapted to the big screen. The Front Page story has been made into a movie at least four times: in 1931, in 1940, in 1974, and, loosely, as Switching Channels in 1988.
  • What’s more, His Girl Friday features, debatably, the finest performances in the careers of both Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Their comedic timing, cadence, physical gesticulations, and sheer ability to deliver lines at a practically impossible pace create truly unforgettable characters that exemplify the very best that screwball comedy can offer.

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

  • This movie is famous for its innovative use of rapid and overlapping dialogue. Often, the actors are speaking at a frenetic pace, and two or more characters sometimes talk simultaneously. This forces the viewer to try to keep up with what is said and helps to cram in a lot of jokes and content in a short amount of time, making the film more rewarding on repeat viewings.
    • In an interview, Hawks explained why he opted for speedy and concurrent dialogue: “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialog in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping."
    • Reportedly, the average word per minute pace in this picture is 240, compared to the typical speed of approximately 140 words per minute in a normal conversation. I found in my research that His Girl Friday has nine scenes containing a minimum of four words each second and two or more scenes paced at over five words per second. Consider that the final screenplay tallied 191 pages; usually, each page equates to 60 to 90 seconds of screen time. Yet this movie’s run time is merely 92 minutes.
    • Instead of the common practice at the time of relying on a single boom mike, the filmmakers chose to employ several microphones; technical limitations of the day forced the sound technician to turn microphones on and off as needed on cue to capture the sound, with certain scenes calling for switching up to 35 microphones on and off as needed.
    • Additionally, Hawks allowed his actors to use ad-libbing and improvisation to generate more realistic discourse.
  • This would have been a groundbreaking portrayal of a smart, autonomous, resourceful, strong-willed female lead—a woman character who was treated as a professional equal by her male counterpart, a rarity for a Hollywood film up to this time.
    • This picture deserves credit, as well, for exploring and bending gender politics. Danny Peary, author of Guide for the Film Fanatic, wrote that the movie “is not so much about the traditional battle of the sexes as it is about sexual differentiation. Hawks repeatedly shows that when characters put their guards down, they take on characteristics of the opposite sex and stop paying attention to others' genders. When no one's looking, the tough-talking male reporters become as gossipy as a women's bridge group.”
  • His Girl Friday also marked an evolutionary milestone for the screwball comedy. According to Lauren Rabinovitz, author of The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: “His Girl Friday was the first screwball comedy to depart from the money-marriage-ego conflicts of Holiday [1938], My Man Godfrey [1936], and The Philadelphia Story [1940], inserting into the same comic structure and pattern of action a conflict between career and marriage."
  • His Girl Friday helped solidify the newspaper story subgenre, as well. It’s been cited by many as one of the most important and beloved films ever made about journalism, and one that, upon its release, supposedly inspired many to pursue a career in the press. Ponder the many films about the newspaper biz that immediately followed in His Girl Friday’s wake, including Foreign Correspondent, The Philadelphia Story, Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe, and Penny Serenade.
  • It’s also an early example of a meta-movie: one that slyly comments on the motion picture biz by providing amusing references to Archie Leach (Grant’s real name) and Ralph Bellamy, who plays Bruce and who portrayed a similar third wheel suitor in The Awful Truth three years earlier.

How and why is Hildy Johnson an important female character, especially compared to typical female characters in Hollywood films of this time?

  • Hildy is a sharp tack with agency to spare. She can hold her own with the ultra-clever uber-conniver Walter. Witness how the boys in the newsroom treat her with more respect and admiration than virtually everyone else they encounter, including other females like Mollie Malloy or Mrs. Baldwin and most male characters, too.
  • At this time, women in films, and real life, were expected to get married at a young age, have children, tend house, cook the meals and put career aspirations on hold in deference to patriarchal pressures. Hildy proves that a determined and skilled female can defy those expectations and live a fulfilling and exciting life—even in a profession dominated by men.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are explored in His Girl Friday?

  • Stay true to yourself and your talents. We see how, by the denouement, Hildy is relieved that she has reunited with Walter, will continue as an in-demand journalist, and has avoided the temptation to settle down and live a life of likely spousal subservience in the ’burbs with someone who is not her intellectual and emotional equal.
  • The importance of adapting to a chaotic and rapidly changing world. Viewers observe how Hildy rolls with the changes thrown at her—how she impressively multitasks and quickly pivots to situations as they abruptly shift. There’s a value to thinking quickly on your feet, talking faster than the other person, and doing what it takes to “get the story,” as this intrepid female reporter does.
  • Opposites don’t attract after all. Hildy and Bruce are kind and courteous to each other, at least in the beginning. But they just aren’t cut from the same cloth, and they aren’t destined to make each other happy. Walter and Hildy, by contrast, seem made for and deserving of each other.

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

  • The headstrong, intelligent, and thick-skinned character of Hildy is refreshing to see in a film from 1940, preventing the movie from standing as a dated relic of antiquated gender politics.
  • The material here isn’t dumbed down for the audience; you still have to pay close attention to the dialogue and character interplays to understand and appreciate His Girl Friday.
  • Some things can make a modern viewer wince, including the murder of a black police officer and use of the word “pickaninny” (referring to a small black child).
  • There are some anachronisms to parse, including the concept of “production for use” and some topical and political references that 1940 audiences may have picked up on.

How are we supposed to think and feel about Walter and Hildy, considering their amorality, yellow journalism tactics, and unlawful behavior?

  • The bygone context helps. We see a sort of disclaimer at the start of the film that this story occurred years ago and tries to briefly explain that this is how the journalism profession used to operate.
  • Moreover, I believe we can abide their behavior thanks to Hawks’ unique style. Hawks is known for often focusing on skilled professionals within an insular environment—experts who are driven by a love of their work and a code of professionalism and camaraderie without being encumbered by sentimentality. We are meant to believe that Hildy and Walter are the best at what they do, even if what they do is create sensationalistic journalism without ethics. There’s something to be admired in that kind of talent.
  • Also, despite the cramped milieu of basically three or four main sets, Hawks—known for being a director of action pictures—keeps things kinetic and moving by having speedily-spoken words and sudden dramatic and comedic twists function as the action elements in what would otherwise be essentially the prosaic filming of a stage play. In other words, the medium-tight compositions, masterful editing, and intense focus on verbiage help distract us from any moral dilemmas we may feel. This is ultimately an action movie, only it uses words and abrupt plot twists instead of car chases, combat, or explosions to keep us riveted.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Besides the impeccable casting—including the brilliance of using Ralph Bellamy as yet another comical love interest who loses the girl to Cary Grant and the use of so many great character actors, from Porter Hall and Gene Lockhart to Roscoe Karns, Billy Gilbert and Abner Biberman—this movie’s greatest gift is its snappy discourse—the astounding verbal gymnastics aced by the actors and the characters they portray. Many films impress with their masterful visuals and compositions; His Girl Friday stands out instead for its words and their breakneck tempo and rhythm. It’s probably less funny than it is fascinating for its wordplay and the dynamism of its two leads. 

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His girl Molly spills screwball secrets on Cineversary

Monday, July 20, 2020

In Cineversary podcast episode #25, host Erik Martin journeys back to the newsroom, circa 1940, with feminist film critic extraordinaire Molly Haskell, author of the groundbreaking cinema text "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies," to celebrate the 80th anniversary of quite possibly the best screwball comedy ever made, "His Girl Friday," directed by Howard Hawks. Erik and Molly examine why this 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.

Molly Haskell
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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One man's detour is another man's femme fatale fork in the road

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

What's the greatest B-movie ever made? It could be Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Some nominate Night of the Living Dead. But the answer for many is Detour, a picture made by a poverty row studio in 1945 that got the Criterion Collection treatment and has earned a rightful place of deep admiration from film critics, scholars, and fans over the decades. Our CineVerse group put this movie under the magnifying glass last week and offered answers to the following questions: 

What classic characteristics of film noir are at work in Detour?

  • A femme fatale leading men into danger.
  • A dark, pessimistic, and fatalistic world view that espouses doomed destinies for one or more main characters.
  • A first-person voiceover narration.
  • Hardboiled dialogue that employs the wisecracking vernacular of the sinners who inhabit the urban jungle.
  • High-contrast, low-key lighting that creates deep blacks and dark shadows, especially darkness that obscures the faces, bodies, and surrounding environments of the lead characters.

What was surprising, unexpected, or curious about Detour to you?

  • The film looks cheap—it’s only 69 minutes long and the production values are bargain basement—yet its visually and narratively arresting because it’s a well-written yarn with bona fide noir esthetics and adroit stylistic choices.
  • We’ve never heard of these actors—especially Tom Neal and Ann Savage—and yet they seem well cast and deliver impressive performances. Neal is perfect at evoking sympathy and relatability with his sad-sack countenance and down-on-his-luck physical passivity, while Savage looks and acts like the bride of Satan.
  • Savage’s Vera is arguably the most corrosive and utterly evil femme fatale ever etched on celluloid. She embodies no redeemable, sympathetic, or sentimental qualities and is consistent and unrelenting in her wickedness. The trashy hairstyle, dark eyes, and acerbic tongue make for a truly enduring performance.
  • Al is one of the most passive and weak-minded noir leads every created. Roger Ebert wrote: “The difference between a crime film and a noir film is that the bad guys in crime movies know they're bad and want to be, while a noir hero thinks he's a good guy who has been ambushed by life. Al Roberts complains to us: ‘Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.’ Most noir heroes are defeated through their weaknesses. Few have been weaker than Roberts. He narrates the movie by speaking directly to the audience, mostly in a self-pitying whine. He's pleading his case, complaining that life hasn't given him a fair break.” Ebert also wrote: “Of course, Al could simply escape from her. Sure, she has the key to the room, but any woman who kills a bottle of booze in a night can be dodged fairly easily. Al stays because he wants to stay. He wallows in mistreatment.”

Is there more than one way to interpret this story?

  • It can be taken literally, in which we easily accept what Al is telling us and believe that he’s the unluckiest soul ever to grace the pages of pulp fiction, a relatively innocent victim of one terrible circumstance after another.
  • Other film critics and scholars posit that Al is not a reliable narrator: that he’s conjured up, for him, a psychologically acceptable rationalization for everything that has occurred. In essence, he’s “talked” himself and us into believing that he’s not responsible for the deaths and crimes that have occurred so as to rid himself of the associated guilt and concoct a plausible alibi—at least to himself. But it’s entirely possible that he did intentionally kill and steal from Haskell and murder Vera. This interpretation makes the movie that much more fascinating and worthy of a rewatch to look for holes in Al’s story, including:
    • the likely disparity between the real down-on-her-luck Sue and the elusive golden-throated goddess he describes her as and that we see in his flashback;
    • the implausibility of Al being an innocent bystander to Haskell’s death and then, against all odds, later picking up the very girl who fought with and knew Haskell.
    • the last scene, which may be imaginary or real. All the flashbacks we watch occur in the diner. But at the end, Al leaves the diner and we see him picked up by a police officer as he says, “Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” This could be happening in real time, or it could be a flashback of regret that Al has after he’s been incarcerated. Or it may not have happened at all, existing as an imaginary reminder to Al, and us, that he’s a doomed man and it’s only a matter of time until he’s caught.

Other films directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

  • People on Sunday
  • The Black Cat starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

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It's a dog-eat-dog world out there

Friday, July 3, 2020

Amores Perros can be a challenging watch, especially for dog lovers and those averse to graphic violence in their chosen motion pictures. But those who stick it out are rewarded in their realization that this richly layered film boasts many truths and insightful observations about the human experience and the precarious nature of relationships--or lack thereof. Our CineVerse group's post-viewing discussion covered several fascinating topics, including the following:

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or memorable about this film?

  • While all the acting performances are top-notch, the dogs are arguably the best actors if we are to believe that none were hurt during the making of the movie.
  • The filmmakers employ unique approaches for each of the three segments. In story #1, we’re shown more close-ups; story #2 relies more on medium-shots; and story #3 more commonly uses long shots and densely layered compositions from a farther distance. The film stock and color tones are different for each segment, as well.

Themes woven into Amores Perros

  • Fidelity and disloyalty, as demonstrated by many characters, including Octavio, Susana and Ramiro, and Daniel and Valeria. Because dogs are synonymous with loyalty and obedience, they are also fitting characters within the film.
  • Man’s best friend is representational of his owner.
    • Consider how Cofi is introduced as a companion pet but devolves into a violent killer, similar to Octavio and Ramiro. Ponder how Ritchie is pampered and coddled like Valeria, but ends up lost and injured, much like its owner, who isn’t in control of her life just as she lacks control of her pet. And think about how Cofi is eventually taken in by El Chivo; but as with his new owner, he kills those around him, causing the homeless man to reevaluate his life and the negativity he is responsible for, which leads him to change.
    • Due to the chaotic and unstable lives of their masters, every dog we see ends up suffering, becoming more violent, or becoming the victim of violence by the tale’s conclusion.
  • The haphazard impact of fate upon different walks of life. The car crash, shared by all three main characters, is a violent random occurrence that appears less preordained than indiscriminate, random, and unpredictable.
    • We also observe three different social classes in this picture: the upper class (Valeria and Daniel); the lower-middle class (Octavio, Susana, and Ramiro), and the poor lower class (El Chivo).
    • Blogger Natalie Stendall wrote: “The transient connections between lives – the unexpected, fleeting crossovers – suggest a bigger, metaphysical presence in the universe. In the moments leading up to the second and third times we see the car crash, we anticipate it, we can feel it is about to happen. But we’re always shocked when it does. The context is different each time and so are the angles it’s captured from, more details are revealed. This peculiar blend of anticipation and surprise draws our attention to the interconnected nature of life.”
  • The interconnectedness of human beings and how we all experience both joy and suffering and share common emotions, including love, hate, lust, fear, longing, and loneliness.
  • Unrequited love, and the challenge of finding and sharing love in a cruel and complex world. Recall how Octavio doesn’t end up with Susana; Valeria loves Ritchie more than Daniel, but Ritchie abandons her and Daniel may be cheating on her as he did with his wife; and El Chivo wants to be a part of his estranged daughter’s life but knows he probably can’t.
  • Redemption. This is possibly achieved by El Chivo but not the other characters—whom we see in melancholy, somber moods of defeat at the ends of their stories.
  • “We are also what we have lost.” These words are displayed at the conclusion of the film and suggest that suffering, estrangement, separation, betrayal, and unreciprocated love are all part of the human experience and factor into the persons we become.

Many of the stories and characters share commonalities. Can you name any?

  • All three stories conclude with the main character alone and presumably left unloved by someone they adore.
  • Story #1 and 3 depict brothers who try to harm or murder each other.
  • Each of the three stories and main characters is involved in a violent car crash, the point at which all three tales and personalities intersect.
  • All three segments feature dogs, especially canines that end up suffering or dying.
  • Each segment depicts a father who doesn’t fulfill his responsibility to his children or abandons them.

Other movies that Amores Perros brings to mind

  • Hyperlink films that contain different storylines and characters who eventually converge and cross paths, including Pulp Fiction, Crash, Grand Canyon, and Short Cuts
  • Non-linear narratives that employ time shifts and which may revisit scenes told from another perspective, including Pulp Fiction, Mulholland Drive, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Godfather Part II, Once Upon a Time in America, and Hiroshima Mon Amour
  • Films by surrealist director Luis Bunuel, including Tristana and Los Olivados
  • Dekalog by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Other notable works by Alejandro González Iñárritu

  • 21 Grams
  • Babel
  • Birdman
  • The Revenant

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Keep two eyes on these Jacks

Saturday, June 20, 2020

It's incredible to think that the first cut of One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando's one and only directorial effort from 1961, ran close to eight hours, if the rumors are true. The version we can view today is still a lengthy watch at 141 minutes, but it's packed with interesting characters, classic western film conflict, and Marlon mannerisms that suggest a Method actor's approach to a fairly conventional oater. Our CineVerse group put this film under the magnifying glass last Wednesday and surmised the following.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, surprising, or memorable about Oned-Eyed Jacks?

  • Marlon Brando directed as well as starred in the film; known for being a Method actor, he personifies and enlivens this character with traits and idiosyncrasies that many wouldn’t expect for an antihero character in a tough western.
  • There’s a Freudian Oedipal subtext going on in this film, which depicts a man betrayed by his partner but refusing to immediately seek revenge on him—even though he can; instead, Rio opts to seduce his ex-partner’s stepdaughter, lying to her about who he is and what he intends, and deflowering and impregnating her.
    • Consider that the ex-partner’s name is “Dad Longworth,” which suggests that Rio has “daddy issues” and is almost acting out like a rebellious, unpredictable teenager who hasn’t quite matured yet to make the best decisions but who is steadfast in his determination to wreak revenge upon Longworth.
  • The visuals and runtime are sprawling; there’s some fantastic location shooting here on display that showcases Mexico and Monterey in picturesque splendor. Also, this is quite long in the tooth for a western of this time or any time, clocking in at 141 minutes (after Brando originally had a first cut of nearly five hours long).
  • The movie feels like a blend between an old school Hollywood western—the kind directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks—and a New Hollywood film that employs greater acting nuance and range as well as deeper psychological themes, adult situations, and shades of grey in which the antihero—later perfected by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name—could thrive and be accepted by audiences.
    • This picture has been described as having European arthouse film sensibilities to some extent, especially in its meandering, nontraditional narrative.
    • It also interestingly has characters speak Spanish without the use of subtitles, forcing non-fluent viewers to pay close attention and attempt to decipher what’s being said in the context of the scene.
  • The ending feels morally and practically unresolved and ambiguous. We see Rio determined to move on and hide out from the law, refusing to take Louisa with him but vowing to be reunited with her.
  • Brando is presenting an intriguing antihero character who is designed to leave us conflicted. How are we supposed to feel about Rio, who has proven himself to be a pathological liar, opportunist, bank robber, and murderer (or at least manslaughterer)? Rio is a walking contradiction: a man who takes advantage of women and their trust in him, uses threats and violence to get what he wants, and is a known criminal, yet a character who seems to redeem himself and defend the honor of women and whom we are unavoidably rooting for and charismatically drawn to. Is he worthy of our trust and admiration?

Themes at work in One-Eyed Jacks

  • The duplicitous and hidden natures of human beings. The film is titled “One-Eyed Jacks” for a reason; the idiom means someone who presents a positive side of their character while obscuring their dark other side. Rio tells Dad: “You may be a one-eyed jack around here, but I've seen the other side of your face.”
  • Betrayal, revenge, and attempted redemption in a morally ambiguous universe.
  • Rebellion against patriarchal authority, as embodied by Rio versus a former partner in crime named, interestingly, “Dad Longworth.”

Other films similar to One-Eyed Jacks

  • Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
  • The Appaloosa
  • The Missouri Breaks
  • The Law and Jake Wade
  • Lonely Are the Brave
  • Johnny Guitar
  • Shoot Out

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Very Cary, auspiciously Audrey, but essentially Alfred

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Any filmmaker who has attempted to outdo Alfred Hitchcock in the suspense/thriller department, or slavishly imitate his style, has usually failed. But not always. One shining example of a Hitchcockian film that you might swear was directed by the Master himself if you didn't know any better is Charade, a 1963 outing helmed by Stanley Donen, which fits neatly within the Hitchcock canon in multiple ways. We counted those ways last week during our CineVerse meeting and discussed the following:

Other films and works that Charade makes us think of

  • Hitchcock thrillers like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief as well as Vertigo
  • James Bond spy thrillers of the time, including Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger
  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • 1960s stylish crime comedies and romantic thrillers, especially ones set in foreign countries, such as Arabesque, How to Steal a Million, Mirage, and The Pink Panther
  • Agatha Christie’s And Then There Was None

This film has been hailed as the greatest Hitchcock picture not made by Hitchcock himself. How does this movie look and feel like a Hitchcock film?

  • It casts Cary Grant, who starred in four outstanding films for Hitchcock: North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Notorious, and Suspicion.
  • It uses the theme of the wrong man suspected of a crime or act that he (in this case, a woman) did not commit, which Grant played to perfection four years earlier in North by Northwest. It also employs two other common Hitchcock themes: deception and duplicity.
  • It features a MacGuffin—a device that motivates the characters but which doesn’t matter much to the overall story or our satisfaction with the movie. Here, the MacGuffin is the missing $25,000, which later turns out to be three rare stamps.
  • It deftly balances the Hitchcock blend of suspense, black comedy, intrigue, and romance between two attractive leads.
  • It’s set and filmed in a romantic and picturesque location—in this case Paris—similar to how Hitchcock filmed To Catch a Thief in the south of France and showcased all the lavish facets of that country. Here, as in many Hitchcock films, our characters also interact with or observe popular landmarks, such as Notre Dame, Champs-Élysées, and the Palais Royale. Hitchock reveled in featuring American landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Rushmore, and the Statue of Liberty in some of his movies.
  • The opening titles are reminiscent of visually arresting and textually animated openings for Vertigo and Psycho.
  • Aping Hitchcock, there’s even a cameo by the director, Stanley Donen, who appears, opposite the film’s screenwriter, in one of the elevator scenes.
  • Unlike most Hitchcock films, however, this one infused more comedic and cutesy elements into the story, which created a more lighthearted tone. This tone would be more consistent with a latter Hitchcock work like Family Plot or, to some degree, The Trouble With Harry.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or surprisingly different about Charade?

  • It can quickly turn from light and funny to dark and disturbing. One moment we’re enjoying a chuckle-inducing scene between Grant and Hepburn and a few scenes later we are shown the victim of a brutal murder (such as a man drowned, a man with his throat cut, and another man who has been asphyxiated with a plastic bag).
  • There’s a lot more action, perhaps, than you’d expect in this film, especially action demanded of Grant’s character, despite the actor and the character being in his late fifties. Peter has to grapple acrobatically with a hook-handed hulk, run full bore in pursuit of Regina, and engage in a nimble shootout with Hamilton.
  • The casting is impressive, considering the presence of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and Oscar winner George Kennedy in addition to Hepburn and Grant.
  • Criterion Collection essayist Bruce Eder wrote: “Charade occupies a special place among sixties thrillers. In an era of spy films resplendent with macho-driven eroticism (the James Bond series), cynicism (Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer series), or farcical irreverence (Casino Royale; the Flint movies, with Charade costar James Coburn), it was the only successful take on the genre to place a woman at its center.”

Other films directed by Stanley Donen

  • On the Town
  • Royal Wedding
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
  • Funny Face
  • The Pajama Game
  • Damn Yankees
  • Indiscreet

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Take a swig of vintage redrum

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Kim Newman
For Cineversary podcast episode #24, host Erik Martin takes an eerie trip into the Overlook Hotel with film critic and horror movie expert Kim Newman to commemorate the 40th anniversary of "The Shining," directed by Stanley Kubrick. Erik and Kim explore why this horror masterwork 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.

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 PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsGoogle Play MusicPodBeanRadioPublic, 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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A Ronin stone gathers no moss

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Looking for an action flick that's a bit offbeat without missing a beat as an entertaining and gripping picture? Check out Ronin, John Frankenheimer's 1998 thriller starring Robert De Niro and a notable cast of supporting performers. Why is it worth your time? Our CineVerse group discussed Ronin's merits last week, as summarized below.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or refreshingly different about this film, particularly as a spy/espionage-type action thriller?

  • Robert DeNiro plays against type here, portraying at 54 years old an action hero. We’ve never really seen him in this kind of role before, although his turn in Midnight Run showed he could effectively play an athletic tough guy with a gun (in that film he was a bounty hunter).
  • Instead of developing a love story subplot between Sam and Deidre, which is hinted at briefly, the real relationship that blossoms in this movie is between Sam and Vincent: a bromance instead of a romance, if you will.
  • The film also avoids many tropes and conventions for this breed of picture, including a comedic sidekick, an obligatory sex scene, excessive explosions, speechifying from heroes or villains, and music-accompanied montages (like a weapons-gathering montage orchestrated with pulsing hip-hop music).
  • The cast assembled here is exceptional for a smart action movie of this kind. Aside from DeNiro, we see Jean Reno, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, and Sean Bean—each of whom has served as impressive lead actors in films of their own.
  • The car chase sequences—especially the more elaborate second one—are impressive, especially when you consider how tight some of these streets are and how congested the thoroughfares are with drivers and pedestrians. These are real stunt drivers driving real cars at real fast speeds in real European locations, and the stunt choreography, fast-paced editing, and sound design make for a pulse-pounding experience.
  • The film lacks a comprehensible plot and character development. Still, with all the double-crossings and surprise twists and turns it takes, the rapid pacing, and the fact that much is left unexplained (like what’s in the case, who is working for who, why Miki doesn’t care about the skater Natacha being killed, and what happened to Deidre), the narrative can be confusing and difficult to keep up with.
  • Thanks to the European actors cast and European settings, this doesn’t look or feel like an average American spy/heist derring-do movie.

Themes on display in Ronin

  • Betrayal, shifting allegiances, double-crossing, and switchbacks
  • Abiding by a professional code, which in this line of work includes trusting no one, anticipating your enemy’s next move, solving problems yourself without relying on others, not getting personally attached, and knowing who you’re working for and with.
  • Playing chess, in which anticipating your adversary’s next move is crucial to winning the game, the professionals are the major pieces and bystanders are the disposable pawns.
  • Finding purpose and merit as a wayward warrior. We learn that Ronin are masterless samurai who essentially become mercenaries for hire, yet because they are so highly trained and disciplined, they are valued for their specialized talents. Interestingly, we think Sam is ex-CIA but by the end of the film he reveals that he’s still with the CIA: In other words, his partners in the scheme are ronin but he is not.

Other movies that Ronin brings to mind

  • Films with fantastic car chase scenes, including Bullit, The French Connection, and Vanishing Point
  • Pulp Fiction, which also features a mysterious case that’s never opened
  • The Bourne films, including The Bourne Identity
  • Heist, CIA, and spy films like Heat, The Jackal, From Paris With Love, Mission: Impossible, Spy Game, The Assignment, and The Foreigner

Other films directed by John Frankenheimer

  • The Manchurian Candidate
  • Seconds
  • Seven Days in May
  • Birdman of Alcatraz
  • The French Connection II

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"No one's paying attention." Until they did--far too late.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Want to better understand what caused The Great Recession and the burst of the housing bubble 12 years ago? Check out The Big Short (2015), director Adam McKay's riveting treatise on Wall Street greed unchecked. With its fascinating characters and narrative techniques, it makes a convoluted topic comprehensible and unnervingly entertaining. Upon our exploration of this film last week, our CineVerse club reached several conclusions, including:

How did this film surprise you or defy your expectations in any way?

  • It uses a variety of clever and entertaining techniques to educate viewers on the issue, including:
    • Breaking the fourth wall by having characters, especially the main narrator played by Ryan Gosling, look at and talk to the audience.
    • Employing visual metaphors, including the Jenga tower, the vision-impaired credit rating expert, the fish stew story, and the blackjack table sequence, to explain complicated financial terms and concepts in easy-to-comprehend ways.
    • Using brief cameos by celebrities, such as late chef Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez, and Margo Robbie, to explain complicated financial terms and concepts in easy-to-understand language.
  • The film adopts a variety of styles to impart its message, including:
    • Rapid-fire and edgy music video-like editing
    • Handheld documentary-like camera work (where we’ll often see shaky shots or rough-panning shots that go in and out of focus, for example)
    • Freeze frames
    • Random quotes and unrelated footage of everyday Americans to separate the film into different chapters or sections
    • Definitions of complex terms superimposed as text on the screen
    • Pop and rock music, the lyrics and rhythm of which underscore what’s happening, including Metallica’s Master of Puppets, That’s Life by Nick D’Edigio, When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin, and Money Maker by Ludacris.
  • The Big Short blends a variety of genres and subgenres to tell its story and captivate us, including comedy, thriller, documentary, true crime story, heist film, and character study.
  • It’s easy to root for the three groups who dominate the narrative—Dr. Burry, Mark Baum, and Jamie and Charlie—as they are anti-establishment underdogs whom we want to see vindicated. Yet if they are successful, that means untold misery and ruin for millions of Americans. So by the end of the picture, when they are proved to be correct and profit from their prescience, it’s easy to feel uneasy—as if we’ve been emotionally manipulated by the filmmakers similar to how the stockholders and homeowners were financially manipulated by the puppetmasters who caused the Great Recession.
  • Ultimately, the film proves that, with some ingenuity and creative approaches, even the most complicated and boring subjects can be demystified and accessible to everyday people. Director McKay said in an interview: “The premise was that we were going to take this 24-hour pop-culture machine that tells us what Kim Kardashian is up to, and then say, ‘What if that machine told us real information?’.”
  • As New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott wrote: “It offers no solutions, and no comfort.” The film allows us to draw our own conclusions about its characters, who was responsible, and if our country has learned enough to prevent history from repeating itself.

Themes found in The Big Short

  • The uneasy triumph of the underdog: Dr. Burry, Mark Baum, and Charlie and Jamie, the latter two merely bit players in the investing game, bet their fortunes that Wall Street and the housing market are wrong and are proved correct. Yet their victories, especially to Charlie and Jamie, don’t feel satisfying or celebratory, as they know that it signifies a corrupt and broken system that has failed and will cause pain and suffering to millions of Americans.
  • Gambling on a longshot. Here, the players who buck the system and bet on a long odds prospect are ultimately rewarded; interestingly, we root for Jamie and Charlie, Baum, and Burry because others consider them crazy, misguided, or beneath them—making them more endearing to the viewer. Yet, this is an awkward and conflicting rooting interest, as their success means negative outcomes for countless Americans.
  • The rippling consequences of greed and arrogance. We see how good people, many who aren’t connected to Wall Street, suffer while the rich either get richer or go unpunished for their misdeeds.
  • This film begs the question: Can you be a good person in a bad system and a corrupt world?

Other movies that come to mind after viewing The Big Short

  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Wall Street
  • Moneyball
  • Inside Job
  • Too Big to Fail
  • Margin Call
  • 99 Homes

Other films directed by Adam McKay

  • Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
  • Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
  • Step Brothers (2008)
  • Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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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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