Blog Directory CineVerse: March 2021

The vision of a master through the eyes of a child

Monday, March 29, 2021

Directorial debuts can be hit or miss for aspiring filmmakers. But Satyajit Ray hit one out of the park in his first at-bat with Pather Panchali (1955), one of the most moving and well-crafted humanist statements in motion picture history—one that transcends any language and quickly established Ray as a creative giant of world cinema. The CineVerse faithful studied this masterwork in-depth last week (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion), arriving at the following conclusions:

A few quick facts about the movie

  • The title is translated as “song of the little road.”
  • This was the first in the Apu trilogy, three films centered around the character of Apu and his family. Film #2 is Aparajito (1956), and the third installment is The World of Apu (1959).
  • This was director Satyajit Ray’s first movie; in fact, Ray had never directed anything before this, and he worked without a true screenplay.
  • The film was made on a bare-bones budget, the cameraman had never photographed a movie before this one, the composer/musical performer Ravi Shankar was not yet internationally known, the child actors had never been tested for their roles, and most of the cast were nonprofessional actors.
  • Despite these challenges, the film took the cinematic world by storm, garnering praise across the globe, winning awards, and putting India on the map as an artistic filmmaking force. It was the first Indian movie screened for Western viewers.
  • Before Pather Panchali, India had a prolific film industry, but most movies were musical romances and by-the-numbers populist entertainment; this was one of the first serious art films released in the country.
  • Before long, Ray was being compared to giants of world cinema like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini.

What’s unique, different, or memorable about Pather Panchali as a film?

  • It’s clearly influenced by Italian neorealism, which was characterized by movies often featuring inexperienced actors, shot in real locations instead of fabricated soundstages, and depicting the struggles and triumphs of common people. The filmmakers employed naturalistic lighting, extended takes, eye-level compositions, and other approaches to lend authenticity and realism to the movie.
  • Pather Panchali often looks and plays like a documentary film; the story is more an interconnected series of vignettes and slice-of-life moments instead of a traditional three-act plot.
  • The movie is imbued with lyrical qualities and features astounding visual poetry, including powerful images of nature, the community’s natural environment, and moments of silence that dramatically punctuate what the characters are experiencing.
  • Ray and his team play on universal themes that audiences from different cultures can relate to and take to heart, even though Westerners may be socioculturally dissociated from the way of life, practices, traditions, and milieu of the world these characters inhabit.
  • Does the film disappoint in any way due to its lack of plot, slow pacing, or long runtime?
  • Instead of focusing on a structured story, subplots, action, comedy, or romance, Pather Panchali is an intimate portrayal of a family facing challenges as well as the joys of juvenile discovery.
  • It strips away narrative convention and predictable plot devices to instead tell a simple tale – one adapted from a popular Bengali novel –which makes us identify with and care for this family all the more.

Important themes in the film

  • The circle of life, which can affect old and young alike. We witness the birth of Apu, the decline and death of his aunt Indir, and the growth and tragic death of his sister Durga. While there is a clear contrast between youth and old age, there is also an intrinsic kinship in how they appreciate simple pleasures and manage to smile and laugh, despite adversity.
  • Joy and sadness: Happiness can be found in even the most mundane of circumstances, and tragedy can occur when it’s least expected.
  • Being a witness to the wonder of the world. Interestingly, Apu as a young boy isn’t introduced to the movie until nearly halfway through. He serves as more of a peripheral observer, soaking in experiences and visions, until the very end of the story when he intervenes and hides evidence of his sister’s theft of the necklace, thus preserving her assumed innocence. His innate curiosity and sincere awe of the world around us reminds viewers of the innocence of childhood and the “epiphany of wonder,” a term used by some film scholars to describe this movie.
  • The impending transition from a less sophisticated Third World to a place of changing customs and revolutionary technology. The father remarks that, despite advice from the village elders to remain in their ancestral home, it’s time to move on after all the hardship his family has endured.
  • The universality of the human condition and human experience.
  • The power of nature and the inevitability of fate, which can be more potent than faith and God. When the nighttime monsoon arrives, we see a shot of Ganesh, a Hindu deity who is thought to bring luck and protect households; yet, the storm blows out the candle and the image fades to darkness.
  • Dreams dashed, dreams delayed.

How do you interpret the famous train discovery scene? What themes, ideas, and emotions do you think the filmmakers were trying to express here?

  • Debatably, it symbolizes progress, hope in a better life, the contrast of old and new, adventure/mystery, and that there is a road out of Apu’s familiar, everyday environment – a journey that will be explored in the subsequent two movies.
  • The inevitable arrival of technology and industrial transition in a poor country.
  • It may also serve as a foreshadowing of doom and the tragic events to come later in the film,
  • Although this culture is far removed and perhaps harder to understand for many Westerners, why do we care about the characters and their situations?
  • We can identify with their fears and family dynamics: struggling for money, fighting between spouses, rebellious children, caring for an elder relative, etc.
  • The film’s simplicity generates a sense of foreboding—that something big or catastrophic is bound to happen to get our attention and shake the world of these characters.

Does Pather Panchali remind you of any other films?

  • Bicycle Thieves
  • The 400 Blows, Angela’s Ashes, and other stories told from a child’s point of view
  • Nanook of the North
  • The Grapes of Wrath

Other films directed by Satyajit Ray

  • Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apu Sansar (The World of Apu), the remaining films in the Apu Trilogy
  • The Music Room
  • The Big City
  • Charulata


Why Marge remains in charge: How Fargo speaks to us today

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The distinct pleasures earned from watching Fargo remain intact 25 years after the film’s theatrical debut. Doubters need only revisit this 1996 treatise on pseudo-true crime and the twisted comicality inherent in human conflict catalyzed by avarice to quickly be reminded of Fargo’s gift for effortlessly blending black humor with believable bucolic sensibilities. Take a few moments to reflect on why this film still matters in 2021 by asking yourself a few questions:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It stands as a textbook example of how filmmakers can masterfully manipulate viewers and defy their expectations. And it deserves to be appreciated because it was completely unconventional and unexpected for its time.
    • Think about how Fargo sets itself up as a true-crime thriller, even with the title card that it is based on a true story, with names changed to protect the innocent. However, it unfolds as a very unconventional and unpredictable take on this subgenre, using humor, irony, and flawed but fascinating characters to tell its story. And of course, we quickly learn that the tale and its characters are pure fabrication, with a disclaimer given during the final credits that all persons and incidents were fictitious.
      • Ethan Coen said in an interview: “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”
      • As an aside, Joel and Ethan Coen admitted in recent years that two elements of the narrative were based on fact: Someone decades ago tried to defraud the General Motors Finance Corporation by fudging the serial numbers on cars, and a Connecticut man dispatched his wife’s body via a woodchipper.
    • Example #2 of how Fargo upends our expectations: Some of the violence that should be disturbing and grisly becomes funny—such as when Carl is shot in the face, his partner pushes down Carl’s severed foot in the wood chipper, Shep Proudfoot whips Carl, Jerry’s wife stumbles around blindly while wrapped in the shower curtain, etc.
    • Ponder, too, how Marge is the complete opposite of a traditional heroic lead: She’s female, pregnant, and not exactly Sherlock Holmes-like in her crime-solving skills, although she proves to be intuitive and smarter than audiences might have expected. She isn’t a hardboiled brawny cop or a noirish detective with a sordid past; actually, she’s polite and contented. She also leads a very simple, mundane existence with her ordinary Joe husband, whose major life accomplishment proves to be getting one of his artistic works on a three-cent stamp. She’s not even introduced until the second third of the movie, and we don’t get any grand payoff by the conclusion of a happy birth by a new mother.
    • Additionally, Jerry, Carl, and Gaer, while capable of great evil, are depicted as petty and pathetic villains whose greed and selfishness obscure their ability to properly plan a crime. Jerry in particular seems as bright as a box of rocks. The bad guys in this movie bungle just about everything, which contradicts the unwritten rule in the crime thriller that the antagonists should be shrewd, elusive, and diabolically intelligent. Ironically, Jerry comes across as somewhat sympathetic, despite being cruel and heartless in his motivations, which are to flee with the cash and abandon his wife to violence and death and desert his son. Carl and Gaer, meanwhile, provide much of the comic relief in this film, despite being dangerous and violent criminals.
      • “One of the reasons for making them simple-minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood cliché of the bad guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does. In fact, in most cases, criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies,” Ethan was quoted as saying.
    • Ruminate, as well, on how the dialogue is often quite clumsy and stilted—like real life; while Fargo is infinitely quotable, this is not a film with clever quips and articulate one-liners.
    • Furthermore, many crime thrillers contain gratuitous nudity or at least erotic scenes; Fargo has minimal sex scenes, and these are more humorous than titillating.
    • Next, give pause to how Fargo’s setting is one seldom chosen in mainstream Hollywood movies; the cold, bleak wild expanse of North Dakota and Minnesota. Also, this regional dialect is rarely used in movies. In fact, this is a rare film that puts a strong emphasis on the vernacular and manner of speech of a particular community.
    • What’s more, the title is quite misleading, as only the initial scene where Jerry first meets Carl and Gaer actually occurs in Fargo, North Dakota; most of the action happens in Brainerd, Minnesota. In this way, the film is similar to Chinatown, a movie that only features one scene in the titular location.
      • Ethan Coen said they chose the title because “we liked the sound of the word—there’s no hidden meaning.”
  • The film also contains quirky subplots and digressions, such as Marge meeting up with Mike Yanagita, an Asian former schoolmate. Sidebar: While many point to the Yanagita scenes as diversionary, trivial, and even unnecessary, consider that Marge learning that Mike had been lying motivates her to re-question Jerry, whom she suspects is also lied to her.
  • On a side note, it’s interesting that this picture contains two Hitchcockian MacGuffins: the ransom money, which we never learn the fate of; and Marge’s pregnancy, which has no bearing on the story.

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

  • While it’s difficult to make a definitive case that Fargo initiated a new subgenre or inspired peers or influenced the next generation of filmmakers, there are a few subsequent works that owe a debt to this picture, including:
    • A Simple Plan by Sam Raimi from 1998
    • 2005’s The Ice Harvest by Harold Ramis
    • Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter from 2015, the story of a Japanese woman hunting for the buried ransom money shown in Fargo.
    • The cult classic cable series Fargo on FX that has now spanned four seasons since its inception in 2014.

What themes or messages are explored in Fargo? What’s the moral of the story here?

  • It’s the simple pleasures in life that matter. At the finale, Marge has wrapped up the case and she and Norm can look forward to their forthcoming baby and celebrating the fact that his art has been chosen for a minor stamp. These victories may appear rather humdrum, unglamorous, and anticlimactic, but they are important to Marge and Norm.
  • The meek shall inherit the earth. Consider that the villains, despite all their planning and efforts, were not successful. Their pursuit of a little bit of money, according to Marge, was futile and destructive. Marge cannot understand their petty and materialistic motivations. At the end of the movie, we are left watching a scene of simplistic domestic bliss, which may appear as a boring reward or trifling vindication to us. But it’s an affirmation of the abiding power of everyday, common, downhome people and the affection they share.
    • Marge and Norm are the characters left to inherit the ending of the movie. They are like the three-cent stamps—often overlooked, not as important, popular, or attractive as the full-postage stamp, but they can serve a significant purpose when needed.
  • Ignorance is bliss: Marge and Norm may be unflappable Midwesterners, and their tastes may be relatively plain, modest, and unsophisticated, but they appear happy.
  • Telling a tall tale. It’s no coincidence that the Coen brothers show us a statue of Paul Bunyan multiple times and that the name of the bar where Carl and Gaer meet two hookers is the Blue Ox, harkening to Bunyan’s pet animal Babe. Bunyan, who wielded an ax, was a larger-than-life legendary folk hero associated with tall tales and exaggerated folklore. It’s fitting, then, that Gaer also employs an ax in Fargo – the weapon he uses to murder Carl.
    • These associations suggest that, despite the movie stating that it’s based on a true story, Fargo is a modern tall tale of sorts.
    • Remember, too, that the film’s tagline is “A homespun murder story.” The word “homespun” makes it sound like the Coen brothers wove this tale out of whole cloth.
  • Life can often divvy out a raw deal. Interestingly, many characters use the word “deal” throughout the movie: “This is my deal,” “So what’s the deal?” “We had a deal,” “A deal’s a deal,” “We had us a deal here for nineteen-five,” “Let’s just finish up this deal here,” “They want my money, they can deal with me,” “Yeah, the deal was the car first then the $40,000,” and “Don’t sound like too good a deal.”
  • Isolation. Recall the birds-eye overhead shot of Jerry walking to his automobile after his request for money is turned down. Reflect on how remote and alienating the hideout location is that Carl and Gaer take refuge in. Ponder how few pedestrians or motorists you see in the same outdoor field of view as Jerry, Carl, Gaer, or Marge. And give thought to how the expansive white snowy canvas makes objects stand out as detached and contrasting.

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

  • Some would argue that the movie comes across as too condescending or belittling of its Midwestern characters. Perhaps the film can be viewed today as more insensitive and overtly stereotypical of Minnesotans.
    • Bright Lights Film Journal essayist Robert Castle wrote: Fargo depicts “a society stupefied by its hypothetical aspirations. At the end, Marge and Norm stare at the nature show, little realizing they are approaching nature’s fixity and flatness. Marge will feed the baby growing in her womb as the bark beetle fills itself, to give birth in the spring. A new generation will arrive. Any smarter or any better? The Coen Brothers appear skeptical.”
    • On the other hand, the filmmakers seem to have compassion and respect for Marge and Norm and the honest, humble Midwestern values they represent.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its most treasured gifts is the personage of Marge Gunderson and the personification of her by Academy award-winning actress Francis McDormand. The Coens have created one of the great cinematic characters of the last 25 years in Marge, a thoroughly likable heroine who, at first glance, would appear to be physically and mentally incapable of solving this crime and apprehending the offenders but proves to be as resourceful as she is intuitive, perceptive, disarming, and shrewd. And it isn’t enough that the brothers merely chose a woman as their intrepid protagonist: she’s also in her third trimester of pregnancy and a fan of the simple pleasures in life, including fast food, watching TV, and making conversation with locals.
  • A second greatest gift is the talent for black comedy that the Coens so adroitly exhibit in Fargo. Granted, this picture may not be bust-a-gut funny, nor is it intended to be categorized specifically as a laugher. But Fargo is often comical and uncomfortably so, even in its darker sequences – such as when Carl tries to cope with a profusely bleeding face or Gaer uses a two-by-four to shove his partner’s leg through the wood chipper. The humor helps take the edge off the graphic violence and disturbing scenes, and it also demonstrates that life is often unintentionally amusing, even when human beings don’t intend to be funny or situations seem dire. Ethan and Joel Coen expertly balance the tonality of Fargo by seesawing between dark and light moments, sometimes within the same shot or scene. That takes considerable skill and not a small amount of confidence.
    • In an interview, Joel Coen said: “The comedy would not have worked if the film had been shot as a comedy, instead of sincerely and directly.”


No, it's not that Bernie (the politician); it's this Bernie (the mortician)

Monday, March 22, 2021

Director Richard Linklater has established himself as an expert storyteller across several genres. Even his overlooked works glimmer with interesting ideas, curious notions, and captivating characters. For proof, explore Bernie, a 2011 film that was quickly ignored and forgotten. CineVerse brushed off the dust and discovered a shiny little gem last week during our discussion of this movie (to listen to a recording of our group talk, click here). Here’s a recap of our talking points:

What did you find surprising, unexpected, refreshing, or memorable about Bernie?

  • This is debatably Jack Black’s finest performance and best role.
    • Slant critic Jordan Cronk wrote: “Black, a performer who oftentimes needs to be reined in with a steady hand, is here finally granted the opportunity to tap into most everything he does well (quirky physical humor, darkly shaded yet sincere comedy, musical performance), in service of a character that would be all too easy to overplay. His Bernie Tiede is at once identifiable, sympathetic, and reprehensible, a tightrope walk that he ably navigates, casting a spell not unlike the real-life Tiede.”
  • Director Richard Linklater approaches the material as a mockumentary in which we are given straight dramatic scenes with actors that are commented on by talking head locals—some of whom are non-actors. This lends authenticity and sociocultural credibility to the movie, making Bernie more believable and accessible to audiences.
  • The filmmakers and actors don’t definitively okay answer what motivates Bernie or pigeonhole him into one category. It’s easy to deduce that he’s a sly gold digger, but we learn that he gives most of Marjorie’s money away. We aren’t shown scenes of sexual intimacy between Bernie and Marjorie or anyone else. And, at least until the trial, we aren’t given any information about Bernie’s post-murder plans.
  • Tonally, Bernie is an interesting picture, wavering between light and dark, comedy and violence/tragedy, realism and Hollywood fabrication. It also serves as a true-crime film.
  • The film is particularly rewarding for viewers who have no prior knowledge that this was an actual crime and that the story was based on true events and real people. Instead of giving us a prologue title card indicating this, the filmmakers choose to reveal, without words during the end credits, that Bernie is a real convict who paid for the crime of murdering an older woman.
  • On a side note, this film convinced the original prosecutor, Bernie’s lawyer, and a judge to revisit the case and consider previously unknown facts, such as that Bernie was sexually abused between ages 12 and 18, which triggered his sudden murderous violence. After serving 17 years in prison, the real Bernie Tiede was released in 2014. However, Tiede was resentenced in 2016 and is currently serving a 99-year sentence for the crime.

Themes present in Bernie

  • The mystery of human nature and how even the most docile and kind person is capable of violence, evil, and crime.
  • Opposites attract. The warm, friendly, generous, and popular Bernie is so unlike the antisocial, hurtful, cruel, unsympathetic, and unpopular Marjorie. Yet they form an affectionate, intimate bond and that reaps rewards for each.
  • Judging a book by its cover, perception vs. truth, and bias vs. impartiality. The townspeople, and likely many viewers of this film, want to see Bernie acquitted, even though he has confessed to the crime and seems to have enjoyed his time between the murder and his arrest.
  • "Should the law or the community itself decide the fate of its citizens” is a deep question that Film Comment reviewer Kent Jones poses as a message of this movie.
  • Performance and playing a role. BFI film reviewer Andrew Tracy wrote: “Bernie is, among other things, a film about performance – about how we present ourselves or, in the case of the dearly departed, are presented in public. “He had a real knack for drama,” enthuses one of the real-life Carthage residents of Bernie – a sentiment that darkly boomerangs when preening district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey, hilarious) declares in his summation at Bernie’s trial that “Bernie Tiede is a calculating, evil actor… he fooled this whole town.”

Other films that Bernie reminds us of

  • Mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap, and Take the Money and Run
  • Fargo, another film with shifts between comic and serious tonalities and which focuses on the culture of a particular regional community
  • True crime adaptations of famous supposed perpetrators, I, Tonya and Reversal of Fortune
  • Clay Pigeons
  • Cookie’s Fortune

Other movies directed by Richard Linklater

  • Slacker
  • Dazed and Confused
  • Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight-- a romantic trilogy
  • School of Rock
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Boyhood


A 50-year love affair with Harold and Maude

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Fifty years following its theatrical debut, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude has earned a place of appreciation among multiple generations, including younger viewers far removed from the countercultural ideals of the late 1960s. After parsing through this picture last week (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion), our CineVerse crew construed the following:

What makes Harold and Maude stand out to you?

  • It’s a film with interesting tonal shifts, one that spans multiple genres and sub-genres, including comedy, tragedy, romance, satire, buddy picture, and political film.
  • Three elements are key to making the picture work:
    • The spot-on casting of Ruth Gordon (who was around 73 at this time) as Maude and the boyish-faced Bud Cort (22 at the time of filming) as Harold
    • The songs by Cat Stevens that seem to perfectly comment on and musically sync with the story and its characters
    • The curious and somewhat offbeat directing choices of Hal Ashby, who blends emotional realism with exaggerated scenes of cartoonish comedy.
  • Interestingly, many things are unexplained, such as exactly why Harold obsesses about death and enjoys startling his mother with fabricated suicides (quite likely for attention he’s not getting) and why Maude espouses strong humanistic and life-affirming qualities while at the same time chooses to kill herself, has a penchant for taking risks behind the wheel, and attends the funerals of strangers. It’s also easy to miss the extremely brief shot of the concentration camp tattoo stamped on her arm; she explains several of her fascinating past experiences, yet avoids talking about this.
  • The film was rejected in its original theatrical run, receiving mostly negative reviews by critics and bombing at the box office. Many considered the movie’s love story between Maude and Harold to be shocking, even for 1971.
    • But it found its voice in subsequent years as a midnight movie and a darling of the college campus film circuit. Criterion Collection essayist Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the film “is timeless in part because it never quite belonged to its own time.”
    • Today, Harold and Maude is considered a cult classic admired by multiple generations, ranking number 45 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest movies of all time, selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, earning an 84% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and benefiting from the Criterion Collection treatment.
  • Although Harold and Maude strikes a chord with anti-establishment, antiwar viewers of its generation, instead of being a confrontational political statement of a film, the movie expresses a more humanistic stance.
    • Seitz notes that “it establishes that generational in class and gender divisions are real, but it finds them curious rather than menacing. It treats each character, including the authority figures who oppose the title couple, as an eccentric who has no idea how weird and special he or she is.”
    • Brian Eggert, blogger with Deep Focus Review, apparently agreed, writing: “Harold and Maude resists becoming an adversarial political statement or dialectical argument designed to reignite a movement. Its strength resides in a philosophy rooted in self-exploration through personal fulfillment, bodily acceptance and exploration, artistic creation, and spontaneity, endearingly represented through its eccentric humor and a love affair for the ages.”

Themes central to this film

  • Individuality, liberty, and nonconformity. Maude tries to teach Harold that the problem with human beings is everyone trying to act and look like everyone else and our willingness to surrender personal freedoms. Maude tells him: “I feel that much of the world's sorrow comes from people who are this (pointing to a single daisy) yet allow themselves be treated as that (referring to a field of daisies).”
  • Live life to the fullest, regardless of your age. “A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They're just backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt even. But play as well as you can,” Maude says.
  • The circle of life. Death should be considered a natural part of life that shouldn’t be feared. Throughout most of the film, Harold delights in fearlessly faking suicides and expressing an obsession with death; but when he is confronted with the impending death of a loved one, he feels pain, anguish, anger, and fright. After Maude passes away, Harold stages one last suicide attempt – this time apparently for himself and not his mother; he has chosen to accept the inevitability of organic death and will assumedly abandon his morbid preoccupation with premature death and self-destruction, choosing instead to adopt a carpe diem lifestyle.

Other works that spring to mind after watching Harold and Maude

  • The Graduate, which is an earlier counterculture film also featuring a soundtrack by a single pop artist (Simon and Garfunkel)
  • Easy Rider
  • Films with a morbid sense of humor and dark comedy directed by Tim Burton, especially starring Johnny Depp
  • Movies directed by Wes Anderson, particularly Rushmore
  • Fight Club
  • Films depicting a romance between opposites or eccentric couples, like Trust, Benny & Joon, and Lars and the Real Girl

Other movies directed by Hal Ashby

  • The Last Detail
  • Shampoo
  • Coming Home
  • Being There


Fargo turns 25? You betcha!

Monday, March 15, 2021

For Cineversary podcast episode #33, host Erik Martin heads to the Upper Midwest to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Coen brothers' Fargo, which first hit theaters in March 1996. Joining him for this installment is Minneapolis StarTribune film critic Chris Hewitt, who's been singing the praises of this film for a quarter century. Together, they explore why Fargo is worth honoring all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film in 2021, how it has remained virtually ageless, and more. 
Chris Hewitt

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 CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


A cozy film that asks you to pull in and stay awhile

Monday, March 8, 2021

Driveways, directed by Andrew Ahn, is a slice-of-life drama that examines deep questions and rich themes, despite its simple story and small cast of characters. Our CineVerse group took the scenic route while exploring this picture last week (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here). Here’s what we surmised:

What took you by surprise about this film and left a memorable impression?

  • On paper, the movie’s premise, characters, and triangular relationships would appear to be overly simplistic and ripe for soapy melodrama – the kind of fare you would expect perhaps on the Lifetime channel. However, the film proves to be deep, reflective, universally resonant, and emotionally intelligent, despite its unsophisticated story.
  • Lesser filmmakers would have delved into unnecessary subplots and introduced greater conflict in an attempt to create a more compelling narrative.
    • For example, in the scene where Cody is asked by a neighbor boy to wrestle, we could have been given a scene depicting classic bullying and suffering by a timid child; the director could have chosen to have Cody’s father make an unexpected appearance at the house, causing consternation; we could have been shown a foreshadowing scene in which Del suffers a mild medical event, such as a fall or survivable heart attack.
    • But Driveways doesn’t need shoehorned tension, plot twists, romantic love angles, or dramatic character arcs to be effective.
  • The picture wisely avoids clichés, weepy manipulative moments, precocious child characters, and contrived comic relief, instead choosing to let the film breathe and its characters emote organically.
  • Brian Dennehy gives one of the finest performances of his career – one that is nuanced, reserved, intrinsically honest, and free from verbose speechifying.
  • It’s refreshing to watch a film that doesn’t try to emotionally puppeteer us, cram in mass-appeal entertainment aspects, or tie up every loose end by the end of the story. It’s left to our imagination what happens to these three characters and if Cody and Kathy ever see Del again – which is not likely.

Themes found within Driveways

  • The pain and void of loneliness and isolation: Each major character – Kathy, Cody, and Del – lacks companionship and friendship. Collectively, they help fill the void for each other.
  • The challenge of fitting in: Cody can’t quite connect with kids in his new neighborhood, and Kathy has difficulty relating to some of her neighbors as well as strangers at a bar.
  • The power of kindness, compassion, and empathy. Del quietly and unassumingly offers help to his new next-door neighbors and steps in to salvage Cody’s birthday; Kathy offers Del a ride when he needs one and lets Del participate in her yard sale; Cody listens attentively to Del and treats him with respect and affection.
  • The specter of death and absence. Kathy’s sister has died, there is a dead cat in the house that Cody reverently buries, Del’s wife has passed on, and Del knows that he is in the late winter of his years. Likewise, Cody’s father is absent from his life.
  • Bonding through surrogacy. Del serves as a father/grandfather figure to Cody, Kathy serves as a daughter-like figure to Del, and Cody fills an important gap for Del – helping him better appreciate his life and rekindling deep memories.

Other films that spring to mind after watching Driveways

  • On Golden Pond
  • What They Had
  • The Florida Project
  • Gran Torino
  • St. Vincent
  • The Horse Whisperer


Meet Leonard Shelby--the man behind some unforgettable tattoos

Monday, March 1, 2021

Christopher Nolan’s Memento is regarded by many as one of the finest noir thrillers of the new millennium, and understandably so: By employing two narratives that ingeniously travel in opposite directions, the viewer is challenged to solve the mystery without the benefit of a traditional linear chronology. It’s a risky gambit, but one that paid off for the filmmakers. Our CineVerse club assembled the fragmented forensics strewn across this crime story and concluded the following (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What did you find memorable, distinctive, or impressive about Memento?

  • It’s a reverse mystery with diverging narratives: The main storyline, shown in color, is told in reverse chronological order, while an intercutting secondary storyline, shown in black-and-white, is told in chronological order. Each of these two narratives contains important clues that, by the end of the film, we can assemble to solve most of the mystery. Also, by the movie’s conclusion, the two narrative sequences converge and correlate.
    • Telling the story primarily in reverse chronological order creates a challenging but intriguing puzzle that can be much more satisfying for audiences to piece together; it also allows us to get into the jumbled and fractured mindset of the flawed main character.
    • The point of the secondary narrative – the Sammy Jankis story – is to suggest that Leonard may not be who we think he is; his condition may not be reliable or real, and who we think is Sammy is likely Leonard, a man who has inadvertently killed his diabetic wife through insulin overdose and who is or was in an insane asylum. For proof of the latter, consider the brief subliminal shot of Leonard sitting in the same chair that Sammy was; the face changes from Sammy to Leonard after someone walks in front of the camera.
    • By the dénouement, it’s difficult to conclude what is true and who to believe. After all, we are relying on the memory of a man with brain damage who has permitted himself to believe a lie (that Teddy killed his wife).
  • It contains elements and characteristics of classic film noir, including a femme fatale who leads men to danger, a flawed protagonist in a gritty and violent underworld, a pessimistic worldview, an unreliable narrator, and a flawed anti-hero who seeks justice and vengeance in an unjust universe. Memento is a “neo-noir,” which describes contemporary movies made after the classic noir period that spanned 1941 through roughly 1958.
  • The inside joke of the movie is that it’s actually testing your memory of events by telling the tale backward and forcing you to place things together in proper order, which requires strong recollective faculties.

Several questions are left unresolved by the end of the film, including:

  • Is Sammy really Leonard, who mistakenly killed his wife through insulin injection and ended up in a mental hospital?
  • How is it possible for Leonard to recall being in bed with his wife, still alive, and the tattoo on his chest that reads, “John G. raped and killed my wife”?
  • Why can’t Leonard remember that his spouse suffered from diabetes if he can’t recollect his life prior to his brain injury?
  • Why are there pages missing from the police report that Leonard possesses, and who removed these pages?
  • Why does Teddy keep helping Leonard find and kill different men he says are each responsible for the murder of Leonard’s wife? Isn’t this extremely risky for Teddy?
  • Why doesn’t Leonard use a tape or digital recorder to more accurately document facts and quotes?

Themes at play in Memento

  • The unreliability of memory, and the inability of time to heal emotional wounds. Recall how Leonard says “How my supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?”
  • The danger of lying to yourself and believing your own lies, and the repercussions of attempting to heal through violence and vigilante activity.
    • IGN essayist Siddhant Adlakha wrote: “Leonard re-enacts a story akin to a spy movie or detective novel in order to feel a sense of purpose. His lies are more gratifying than having to face the truth of having harmed his wife, and casting “John G” as a phantom mastermind (rather than a junkie he already killed) creates a neat narrative bow for him to chase in perpetuity. This is his “truth,” while his “facts” — manipulated and redacted to send him on his quest — have him returning to an abandoned warehouse to kill the wrong man over and over again. He’s caught in an impotent loop, forever chasing, in his wife’s name, a violent catharsis that will not and cannot last.”
  • Which is more trustworthy: memories or facts? Recall how Leonard puts faith in the facts he’s gathered for himself. But by the end of the narrative, fact and memory have blurred in his universe, with both open to interpretation.
  • Plato’s cave allegory: The philosopher Plato gave an allegory of people imprisoned in a cave since birth and tied up so that they could only gaze on the cave’s back wall; the shadows that fall on this back wall comprise reality to these captives, who have never viewed the outside objective world.

Movies that remind us of Memento

  • Puzzle films like The Usual Suspects, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Mulholland Drive
  • Fugue state identity films like Fight Club, Shutter Island, Angel Heart, Jacob’s Ladder

Other films directed by Christopher Nolan

  • Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises
  • Inception
  • Interstellar
  • Dunkirk
  • The Prestige


  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP