Blog Directory CineVerse: December 2020

Dancing delicately between two relationships

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Michelle Williams has demonstrated that she can command the screen with sheer acting chops. These talents were on full display in Take This Waltz, an offbeat exploration of the classic love triangle film that not only manages to surprise viewers by its conclusion but also showcases Seth Rogen in a more serious role that deviates from the stoner shlub/slob characters he’s been typecast in. Our CineVerse group examine this 2011 romcom/dramedy with fresh eyes and made the following observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here): 

In what ways is Take This Waltz refreshing, unexpected, or memorable?

  • This story doesn’t rely on the stereotypical characters and situations you’d expect in a love triangle movie. Lou, the husband, isn’t a brute or oaf; Margo is not a sultry nymphomaniac, gold digger, or homewrecker; and Daniel is incredibly patient and respectful of Margo’s hesitancy.
    • In fact, Margot and Lou share a lot of humor in their relationship and know how to comfort one another. Likewise, Margot seems happy and accepted by her in-laws. Collectively, this would seemingly contribute little in the form of conflict within the story.
  • The filmmakers are also quite nonchalant and forthright about showing the female body in a non-sexual way.
    • Austin Chronicle reviewer Kimberley Jones wrote: “There is also a casualness about bodies – I call it European, but this is a Canadian film through and through – that explores without didacticism the range of human physicality, from the functional ho-hum of showering and evacuating waste to the exhilarating extremes of sexual pleasure, and chronicles without comment how the human form ages and changes.”
  • It’s possible that, near the end of the film when we see the montage of Margo being physically intimate with Daniel (and a few others) and assumedly experiencing life to the fullest, this is a fantasy or exaggerated sequence exposing Margo as an unreliable narrator. Consider that we soon see her leaning next to the oven door in virtually the same pose and state of melancholy that she displayed at the beginning of the movie – in a kitchen that looks remarkably similar to the one she shared with Lou.
    • Ask yourself: what is the likelihood that her new kitchen with Daniel is a carbon copy of the one in her previous home with Lou? And isn’t that second kitchen a bit of a downgrade for the trendy, upscale type of home (with its giant, open floor plan) that Daniel and Margo share? This suggests that either we can’t trust the second kitchen scene or we can’t trust the intimacy montage before it – or both.
  • There are some small world implausibilities here. First, what are the odds that Daniel would end up living right across the street from Margo? Second, how believable is it that they seem to run into each other everywhere? Third, considering how often Margo and Daniel intersect, wouldn’t Lou have seen them together a few times earlier or later?

Themes at play and Take This Waltz

  • Newness and novelty eventually wear off, and all honeymoons end sooner or later. The secret to keeping things fresh is to be open, honest, and realistic in your expectations.
  • Life and relationships are not perfect. As sister-in-law Geraldine says: “Life has a gap in it… It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it in like some lunatic.”
  • Beauty is only skin deep. We see many interesting, intelligent, and likable women throughout this film, including many in unflattering full nakedness during the shower scene. We also witness a consistently makeup-free Margo (and Michelle Williams playing her) who the filmmakers aren’t afraid to show in less than glamorous moments, such as wearing the same shirt to bed every night, using the toilet, and undressing to enter the shower in a very non-titillating way. The implication here is clear: Female characters in movies don’t have to be physically attractive, erotic, or feminine to a clichéd degree to be worthy of our attention and admiration.

Movies that Take This Waltz bring to mind

  • Brief Encounter
  • Blue Valentine
  • Hope Springs
  • The Story of Us
  • To the Wonder
  • Celeste & Jesse Forever

Other films directed by Sarah Polley

  • Away From Her
  • Stories We Tell


Buzz and Woody strike silver

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

In Cineversary podcast episode # 30, host Erik Martin and animation professor, historian, author, and ex-Disney animator Tom Sito travel to infinity and beyond in their admiration of “Toy Story,” which turns 25 this year. Erik and Tom examine why this film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie today, how it has stood the test of time, and more. 
Tom Sito

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, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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Three acts, one unforgettable character

Sunday, December 13, 2020

One of the finest films to authentically capture the modern Black experience in America is Moonlight, the 2016 breakout picture written and directed by Barry Jenkins that surprised audiences with its honesty and depth of emotion. Our CineVerse club stepped into Moonlight mode this past week and engaged in an intensive discourse on the merits and majesty of this movie (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find impressive, surprising, offbeat, or memorable about Moonlight?

  • This was the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture that had an all-black cast.
  • It’s brilliantly segmented into three parts, each given roughly equal length and importance, that depict the growth and maturation of an African-American male.
  • Instead of using a hip-hop or urban-flavored soundtrack, the film employs an orchestral score, although one that plays upon hip-hop and R&B motifs.
  • The timing of the release and embrace of this film is appropriate, considering how many in our culture are increasingly supportive of black lives and LGBTQ rights.

Themes examined in Moonlight

  • The struggle for identity, particularly black male identity in a world in which African-American males are often taught to act tough and masculine, suppress tenderness and emotions, and avoid looking or acting effeminate.
  • Exploring the black experience and the perceived powerlessness felt by many black males.
  • Coming-of-age and transitioning into adulthood
  • Water, and its power to cleanse, heal, comfort, awe, baptize, embolden, and inspire.
    • We see Chiron interact with water in several key scenes, including when he is taught to float and swim by Juan, when he immerses his face in ice water, when he takes a shallow bath, and when he explores his sexuality with Kevin on the moonlit beach.
    • In one scene, Chiron talks about crying so often that he feels as if he could simply transform into liquid and roll into the ocean.
    • Fittingly, the last shot of the film shows Little looking out upon the ocean, as if to suggest that he has come to embrace his destiny.
  • The dangers of toxic masculinity and a culture that rewards violence and aggression and punishes weakness and subservience.
  • Appearances and names can be deceiving. The film is interestingly titled “Moonlight” for reason: The title reminds us of the story that Juan relates to Chiron about how a stranger once told him: “In moonlight, black boys look blue.”
    • We hear Juan say that he abandoned the nickname “Blue” so that he could forge a new identity.
    • Likewise, in the third act, Chiron has adopted the nickname “Black” as well as a drug dealer lifestyle and the affectations (e.g., wearing gold teeth caps) that come with it.
    • When he reunites with an adult Kevin, Kevin sees through this façade and says this isn’t who Chiron truly is. By the end of the movie, we have hope that Chiron will embrace his true nature, stop hiding from his identity as a gay black man, and accept the love and affection he deserves.

Moonlight makes us think of other films, including:

  • Boyhood
  • Call Me By Your Name
  • Blue Is The Warmest Colour
  • The Florida Project
  • Blackbird
  • Fresh
  • Killer of Sheep
  • The 400 Blows, which also features a stunning final shot of a boy staring at the ocean.

Other movies directed by Barry Jenkins

  • Medicine for Melancholy
  • If Beale Street Could Talk


Listening closely to what The Conversation has to say

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Here’s an amazing thought: Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is arguably his weakest directorial outing of the 1970s – after all, he also made The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now in that amazing decade – and it’s still a masterpiece. For proof, consider the points our CineVerse group espoused during last week’s discussion of this movie (which you can hear a recording of by clicking here):

Even though it was not a box-office hit, how was this film indicative of the period of its theatrical release and reflective of the mood of the country and events affecting it?

  • Americans were growing more suspicious of authority and distrustful of government in the wake of Watergate (in fact, the Watergate cover-up was exposed just before this film’s release), the Vietnam War, the Warren Commission findings, and the assassinations of major leaders.
  • There was a pervading, brooding sense of paranoia and cynicism in the culture, and conspiracy theories were becoming more popular to explain political mysteries.
  • Many Americans felt helpless to affect change and ignorant of what might really be going on.
  • This is one of several dark, brooding, pessimistic thrillers that examined themes of paranoia, corruption, and disillusionment in the 1970s; other examples include:
    • Executive Action (1973)
    • Day of the Dolphin (1973)
    • The Parallax View (1974)
    • Chinatown (1974)
    • Three Days of the Condor (1975)
    • All the President’s Men (1976)
    • Capricorn One (1977)
    • Winter Kills (1979)

What’s unique about this picture as a suspense film/political thriller?

  • It relies on very little action: most of the plot involves watching Harry eavesdrop on people.
  • Other thrillers typically include chases, explosions, sex, violence, etcetera, to keep your attention.
  • The villains in this story (some anonymous corporation) remain primarily out of sight; the bad guys prove to be enigmatic, elusive, and difficult to pinpoint.
    • Essayist Megan Ratner wrote: “An often neglected aspect in discussions of America in the 1970s is the shift in corporate identity. No longer were businesses merely commercial entities – they began to be individualized. Brands and the corporations behind them started to take on aspects of personality, the marketing ever more sophisticated. Sharing a Coke and wearing Levi’s jeans became more than just soda and dungarees: it was a way of life, a corporate dogma. And the corporation as grand manipulator is at the very center of The Conversation.”
  • In keeping with its voyeuristic themes, many of the shots are composed and staged from a voyeuristic point of view.
  • It has the DNA of a horror film, with its taut suspense, amorphous villain, and grisly murder elements.

What is curious, different, and unique about Harry Caul as a movie protagonist?

  • He’s actually not very good at his craft. As Roger Ebert put it: “Here is a man who is paid to eavesdrop on a conversation in a public place. He succeeds, but then allows the tapes to be stolen. His triple-locked apartment is so insecure that the landlord is able to enter it and leave a birthday present. His mail is opened and read. He thinks his phone is unlisted, but both the landlord and a client have it. At a trade show, he allows his chief competitor to fool him with a mike hidden in a freebie ballpoint. His mistress tells him: ‘Once I saw you up by the staircase, hiding and watching for a whole hour.’” Additionally, his actions may have resulted in the deaths of a mother and child. And throw in the fact that he’s a hunter who has become the hunted; a surveillance man who is now being watched and bugged himself.
  • He’s a bland, quiet, lonely, anonymous man who has very little to distinguish him as distinctive, other than his saxophone and jazz records.
  • He’s fixated on maintaining his privacy, yet ironically works as a wiretapper invading other people’s privacy.
  • He’s fittingly named: “Caul” means the membrane that enwraps a fetus, and also mean’s a spider’s web.
    • We see “Caul”-like images of various sheets, opaque surfaces, and membranes throughout the film: Consider Harry’s see-thru raincoat, the plastic curtain inside his office, the telephone booth he stands inside, the glass partition separating the hotel balconies, and the shower curtain.

What themes are espoused in The Conversation?

  • Privacy, and the limits to which we can enjoy and assume it. Coppola was quoted as saying: “I wanted to make a film about privacy using the motif of eavesdropping and wiretapping, and centering on the personal and psychological life of the eavesdropper rather than his victims. It was to be a modern horror film, with a construction based on repetition rather than exposition, like a piece of music. And it would expose a tacky, subterranean world of wiretappers: their vanities and ethics."
  • Guilt, and the extent to which we are personally responsible for the well-being of others through our actions, even if we don’t intend them harm.
  • The dangers of relying too much on technology. This story has been called an “Orwellian morality play” in which technology is employed against the person using it.

Other films that you may think of after watching The Conversation

  • Enemy of the State, which also features Gene Hackman
  • Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which has a similar plot that focuses on photography instead of sound recording
  • Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, which also spotlights a sound recordist protagonist involved in a murder conspiracy
  • Hitchcock’s Psycho, which also depicts the murder of a woman in a hotel and the flushing of a toilet as a small plot point
  • Chinatown, released the same year and featuring a similar backstory in which the main character is haunted by the consequences of his actions that occurred years ago in another locale.
  • Serpico, which delved into similar themes of corruption
  • The Lives of Others

Other films directed by Francis Ford Coppola

  • The Godfather trilogy
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Outsiders and Rumble Fish
  • The Cotton Club
  • Peggy Sue Got Married
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • The Rainmaker


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