Blog Directory CineVerse: April 2021

The devil is in the duplicity

Monday, April 26, 2021

Jake Gyllenhaal works twice as hard to impress us with his acting chops in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, a movie that can cause you to do a double-take time and again with its themes of identity blending, disturbing deceit, and arachnid anxiety. It’s a difficult picture to decipher, but patient scrutiny will yield pivotal clues that make for a fascinating analysis and conversation with fellow film lovers. CineVerse got caught in its tangled web last week and arrived at the following notions (to hear a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).

How are Adam and Anthony similar yet different?

  • Adam is a frustrated college teacher: He clearly doesn’t make much money, his girlfriend doesn’t enjoy or want to have sex with him, and his students don’t appear engaged during his classes.
  • Anthony is much the opposite: He’s wealthy, successful, beloved by his pregnant wife, and apparently happy and satisfied. But unlike Adam, he cheats on his partner, enjoys playing the role of sexual predator, and attends secret sex clubs.

What is the proof that this story should not be taken literally?

  • Adam and Anthony are actually the same person – a man suffering from a split personality syndrome who is married to a pregnant wife but cheating on her with his girlfriend. Adam is the man Anthony ultimately will become by choosing to remain with his pregnant spouse: tamed and reliable but unfulfilled and disempowered. He chooses to kill off the negative “Anthony” part of his personality (and end his philandering) by crashing the car. But he identifies Helen as the empowered female “other” that will threaten and devour him when he sees her as a giant spider.
  • Proof of this: Helen refers to Anthony having a good day at school; Adam’s mother suggests that he should quit movie acting; Adam and Anthony are never seen together with a third person present; Anthony in front of a mirror rehearses what he’s going to say to Adam; what are the odds that a person has an identical non-twin who also has an identical scar in the same location and are living in the same city?
  • Blogger Ryan Thompson wrote: “By using the concept of doubling, Villeneuve is able to set up two contrasting characters, one who has an unfulfilling life and one who is fulfilled, in order to assert the idea that, for men, marriage and building a family results in indulging in the mundane and giving up on personal desires… the film is implying men have better lives when they are not focusing on building a family. Yet, interestingly enough, the film's resolution results in Anthony dying in a car accident and Adam choosing to live with Anthony’s wife, suggesting that even though Anthony understands the disadvantages of being married, he is still drawn to it.”
  • With this reading of the film, the story serves as more of a metaphor or allegory than a narrative that should be taken literally (as with films like The Lobster). Proof of this idea is the gigantic arachnid walking amongst the skyscrapers, which isn’t really happening in this story but which serves as a visual symbol of Adam’s growing dread and a foreshadowing of the last scene in the bedroom.
  • Despite discarding his Anthony persona, Adam will repeat the same mistakes as Anthony, as he’s chosen to use the new key to revisit the sex club—even though he’s chosen to stick with Helen.

Themes and motifs examined

  • Chaos is order yet undeciphered. Even in the most convoluted of tales there is truth, structure, and meaning if you opt to untangle the thematic webs. Adam needs to remove chaos from his life by choosing a life of order and predictability.
  • Male fears of commitment, surrendering personal ambitions, loss of individual expression, losing sexual agency, and acquiescing to marriage, parenthood, and domesticity.
  • Females, including Anthony’s pregnant wife and the upside-down-walking spider head woman, are equated with arachnid-like creatures that frighten Adam.
  • Creeping totalitarianism. Forrest Wickman of Slate wrote: “I think ultimately it’s a parable about what it’s like to live under a totalitarian state without knowing it… The central irony in all of this is that even the main character, though he’s an expert on the ways of totalitarian governments, doesn’t see the web that’s overtaken the city until he’s already stuck in it.”
  • Doubling, twinning, and doppelgängers. Anthony and Adam are identical; Anthony has two names; their significant others also look alike; Adam tells his class “Everything in history happens twice,” and that the first go-round is a tragedy while the second is a farce;
  • Spiders, as evidenced by the giant spider on the horizon, the spider-faced woman in the dream, the tarantula stepped on by the high-heeled woman in the sex club, the giant spider in the film’s last scene, the cobweb appearance of the broken windshield, the pregnant wife (whose belly resembles the bloated abdomen of a spider), and the transit system’s overhead lines. Because so many people have built-in fears of spiders, they serve as a powerful and effective visual motif throughout the movie.

Other films and works of literature that come to mind

  • Works of David Lynch, including Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Eraserhead
  • Puzzle films like Memento and Inception
  • Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Through a Glass Darkly
  • Eyes Wide Shut
  • Adaptation
  • Fight Club
  • Shutter Island
  • Dead Ringers
  • Sisters
  • Orphan Black
  • Freaky Friday
  • Dostoevsky’s The Double
  • Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Other films by Denis Villeneuve

  • Arrival
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Sicario
  • Prisoners


Generation gap or generation trap?

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

His name may not be as familiar to moviegoers as much as contemporaries like Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, or Wes Anderson, but Noah Baumbach and his works have come to represent some of the finest qualities inherent in independent cinema and filmmaking by Generation X. Speaking of, the latter cohort is not-so-flatteringly represented in Baumbach’s 2014 outing While We’re Young, although millennials appear to get the brunt of the criticism in this intelligent dramedy starring Ben Stiller, Adam Driver, Naomi Watts, and Amanda Seyfried. Read on for a CineVerse-style analysis of this picture (and click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film).

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

  • The cast is impressive, featuring two Oscar-nominated heavyweights in Driver and Watts as well as Stiller, Charles Grodin, and the curious casting of Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys and Peter Yarrow from Peter, Paul, and Mary.
  • The story is not predictable. The foursome doesn’t reunite by the end of the film, the spouses don’t have affairs with their friend’s spouses, Jamie doesn’t really get any comeuppance, and Josh isn’t exactly vindicated in his takedown of Jamie or in his career ambitions.
  • The narrative and characters are funny, but the point isn’t to produce a laugh riot here like previous Ben Stiller comedies.
    • The New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote: “Mr. Baumbach is, as usual, a piquant observer of the manners and morals of the various demographic subsets of the white, urban lower-upper-middle class. He is without peer among screenwriters as a composer of incisive, non-punchline-driven comic dialogue, and unrivaled among directors as a choreographer of fraught social encounters.”
  • Arguably, the female characters take more of a backseat here than their male counterparts. Cornelia and Darby aren’t as well fleshed-out or given as much emphasis as Josh and Jamie, which is unfortunate.
  • Some critics found fault with the movie’s preachiness about the flaws of the younger generation. Consider how you feel about Jamie – representational of millennials – by the end of the film; his character doesn’t appear redeemable, even though he is popular and successful. Also, ponder how you assess Darby by the film’s conclusion, as she chooses to split with Jamie and live life more on her terms; that can be construed as a more favorable interpretation of Generation Y.

Themes explored in While We’re Young

  • The generation gap and demographic conflicts. This film has its sights squarely on Gen Xers versus Gen Yers (millennials), although there’s also a schism explored between Boomers (personified by Leslie) and Gen Xers, which means the film can translate as a somewhat universal statement on the disparity between any earlier and subsequent generation.
  • Attempting to recapture your youth and remain at least young at heart
  • Accepting your limitations and finding a comfortable compromise with your unachievable ambitions. Josh realizes that he isn’t going to achieve all his dreams and that he’s running out of time to create any kind of legacy; he also acknowledges that the advice he’s been given by the older generation – represented by Leslie, his father-in-law, who advises him to edit his 10-year-old documentary film – is worth adapting to some degree. Cornelia, meanwhile, comes around to the idea of parenting and, with her husband, is preparing to adopt.
    • “Ultimately, this film is about to well-meaning people coming to grips with who they actually are versus who they’ve always thought they were supposed to be,” wrote Nashville Scene reviewer Noel Murray.
  • The rewards and risks of not staying in your lane. Josh and Cornelia at least briefly enjoy trying to act younger and more hip and associating themselves with the next generation who will eventually replace them. But debatably, they realize that there is wisdom in experience, reward in staying true to yourself and remaining committed to longtime friends, and dignity and grace in acknowledging that it’s okay to get older and make compromises—like the compromises that come with parenting.
    • Recall the text prologue of the film, taken from Isben’s The Master Builder; Solness expresses consternation about younger people, but is advised by a younger woman (Hilde) to “open the door and let them in.” Solness soon falls to his death from the tower he’s constructed. At the end of the film, the end credits include the Paul McCartney song Let 'Em In.

Similar films

  • All About Eve
  • Crimes and Misdemeanors
  • The Four Seasons
  • Broadcast News
  • The Overnight

Important works by Noah Baumbach

  • The Squid and the Whale
  • Greenberg
  • Francis Ha
  • Mistress America
  • Marriage Story


90 reasons why "M" still stands for "masterpiece"

Sunday, April 18, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #34, host Erik Martin revisits Weimar Republic-era Germany to commemorate the 90th birthday of quite possibly that country's finest film export ever: Fritz Lang's M, originally released in May 1931 and starring Peter Lorre in his breakout performance as a serial killer of children. Accompanying Erik on this outing is Jan-Christopher Horakpast director of the UCLA film and television archive, former curator for the George Eastman Museum, previous director of archives/collections for Universal Studios, and longtime film scholar. Together, they investigate why M is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film in 2021, and more.           
Jan-Christopher Horak

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


Honor thy father and mother -- and this Japanese masterpiece, too

Monday, April 12, 2021

Voted by directors as the greatest film of all time and the #3 best movie ever by critics, per a 2012 Sight and Sound poll, Tokyo Story stands as a towering cinematic achievement that accomplishes so much with so little when it comes to story and style—demonstrating that a minimalistic approach is often best for films  aimed directly at the heart. CineVerse studied this picture last week, arriving at several key findings and interpretations (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

Hallmarks of director Yasujiro Ozu’s style

  • Low camera angles, with cameras anchored merely three feet or so from the ground – a height amenable to ideally framing subjects sitting or kneeling on a Japanese tatami mat.
  • An unmoving camera; Ozu rarely used tracking, panning, dollying, craning, or other camera movements, instead choosing to let visual emphasis rest on his characters and their movements or positioning within the shot.
  • Transitions between scenes using seemingly random long shots of outdoor environments, including clouds, shorelines, cityscapes, and other vistas. Where other filmmakers may use dissolves, fade-outs, fade-ins, and wipes to transition between sequences, Ozu preferred poetically visual still life-type shots.
  • Placing the camera between two subjects to convey a dialogue scene. Rather than use the traditional Hollywood over-the-shoulder shot back-and-forth between characters, Ozu puts us at the center of the conversation, creating more intimacy. His subjects often look directly at the camera—thereby addressing the viewer—when they speak to an adjacent character.
  • Remaining on a character for the entirety of their speech. When a character says something to another character, Ozu’s camera doesn’t stray from that subject or introduce a reverse shot showing the opposite character’s nonverbal reaction.
  • Not allowing any single character to dominate a given scene.
  • Letting shots breathe by lingering in an empty room or space before or after characters enter or exit the scene. This defied the Hollywood rule of “invisible editing” in which the cuts between shots were meant to be seamless, smooth, and often quick.
  • Letting situations and conversational scenes unfold naturally and organically and choosing to not crowd his stories with subplots, turning points, or scenes that would detract from the strong focus on emotions and relationships. For example, we aren’t shown the grandparents’ journeys on the train, their actual visits to the Atami baths, or Tomi’s moment of falling gravely ill. We learn about these things simply through exchanges of dialogue. Also, ponder how the city of Tokyo itself is not extensively shown, including its landmarks and famous places.
  • Ozu’s narratives are minimalistic, uncomplicated, unpretentious, unfussy, relatively tranquil and calm, and laced with wistfulness.

What elements from Tokyo Story made a strong impression on you?

  • The entire story is infused from start to finish with a tone of melancholy.
  • Slant Magazine’s Chuck Bowen wrote: “underneath the film’s ostensible logline, which involves an aging couple’s trek to see their adult children, resides a large cast of characters lost in a dense thicket of disappointment, tension, and unquantifiable and unresolved emotional, political, and cultural fallout. The film is an epic disguised as a short story, or, more specifically, it documents the largely unceremonious end of an epic that’s mostly unseen. The source of the film’s brilliance and of its considerable pathos resides in how gradually and subtly Ozu transforms the domestic, “simple” quotidian into the stuff of great universal tragedy.”
  • This is the most meager of tales; Tokyo Story has a narrative that can be quickly summarized. But the plot is not the point: The value is in the way the characters are written and performed and in how the filmmakers choose to strip away any flashiness or stylistic grandeur, letting a simple story hook itself into your conscience by focusing on the character’s often unspoken internal struggles and the fractured family dynamics.
  • Ozu avoids painting these characters in black and white; each has shades of gray. For instance, the father appears docile and friendly, but it’s revealed that he was a problematic alcoholic when his children were younger. Eldest daughter Shige would seem to be an irredeemable, ungrateful, and materialistic woman but she breaks down in tears multiple times when her mother dies and is concerned that her father might succumb to his old drinking ways. Additionally, the children aren’t evil or unforgivable: Many of the reasons they have for not being able to spend time with their parents are valid and understandable.

Themes built into Tokyo Story

  • The generation gap, and how it’s usually inevitable that adult children drift away from their parents physically, emotionally, morally, and value-wise.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “It is about our families, our natures, our flaws and our clumsy search for love and meaning. It isn't that our lives keep us too busy for our families. It's that we have arranged them to protect us from having to deal with big questions of love, work, and death. We escape into truisms, small talk, and distractions. Given the opportunity at a family gathering to share our hopes and disappointments, we talk about the weather and watch TV.”
  • Every clan has skeletons in its closet – some that may come back to haunt the family.
  • The dissolution of the traditional Japanese family and its value system, replaced by a less sensitive and more frenetic, modernized, industrialized, and Westernized culture. Consider that, following the new Civil Code instituted in 1948, much of Japan had adopted Western capitalist notions and abandoned older traditions and mores.
  • Life is often imperfect and unsatisfactory. Recall Noriko’s comment to Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?” Also, remember how the grandparents commented privately to themselves about their dissatisfaction in their grandchildren, the fact that their eldest was not a successful doctor, and how their eldest daughter’s attitude had changed for the worse.
  • The inability to talk frankly with loved ones about problems. Even though Shukishi consistently semi-smiles, nods, and utters words of acknowledgment, like “yes,” we discern through context that he’s subtly hiding many of his problematic emotions. Also, the children engage in ample small talk with their parents.

Similar films

  • Make Way for Tomorrow
  • Ikiru
  • The Straight Story
  • Sansho the Bailiff
  • Yi (2000) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991) by Edward Yang
  • Still Walking
  • Driveways

Other important films directed by Yasijuro Ozu

  • Late Spring
  • Early Summer
  • An Autumn Afternoon
  • Late Autumn
  • Floating Weeds


Pushing the boundaries of the Hays Code

Monday, April 5, 2021

For a classic film, Dodsworth doesn’t get much attention nowadays, even though it’s arguably one of the finest Hollywood works of the 1930s. CineVerse tried to correct this oversight by studying the movie last week and arriving at the following observations (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What struck you as noteworthy, different, unforeseen, or curious about Dodsworth?

  • This is a rare example of a Hollywood film in the early years of the Hays code that addressed controversial topics like infidelity and divorce. In fact, Dodsworth is credited as the first picture of the early censorship era that permitted a male character to leave his marriage for another woman without being punished for this action. Typically in movies of this era, philandering while tied to the bonds of matrimony ultimately resulted in major repercussions or comeuppances for that character.
  • Dodsworth is credited for avoiding a soap opera approach to an otherwise soapy type of story. It boasts a screenplay and direction that is sophisticated yet subtle and nuanced without being sensationalistic. If the filmmakers could have chosen to include melodramatic subplots or sudden twists like a suicide attempt by Sam or a miscarriage that would have left grandma Fran feeling guilty. Instead, they kept faithful to the source material by Sinclair Lewis and presented both Sam and Fran as flawed yet approachable, understandable characters who each have good and bad sides, although Sam comes off as much more sympathetic because he doesn’t cheat on his spouse or indulge in immoral flirtations.
    • Film scholar Glenn Erickson wrote: “What's difficult to appreciate now about William Wyler's achievement in Dodsworth is that he approaches the subject with a mature attitude that isn't concerned with anything exploitative. The cast was made of big names, but not glamorous marquee bait. American audiences weren't used to being treated like thinking adults very often back then (don't ask about now) and responded to Dodsworth very positively.”
  • The filmmakers likely got this material past the censors thanks to its impressive pedigree: It was presented as a prestige picture made by an A-list producer, Samuel Goldwyn, and a highly respected director, William Wyler. And the book on which the story was based was written by Lewis, a revered figure in American literature. Because they were trying to adapt his tale faithfully, the Hays office likely let things slide.

Themes at play in Dodsworth

  • Fear of aging and living life to the fullest
  • Taking things for granted—like your spouse and her interests
  • The overriding power of love and familiarity. Despite being cuckolded by his wife, Sam can’t let her go and is willing to take her back until the very end of the story.
  • The ugly American abroad, and how Americans often can’t properly appreciate or adopt European culture and sensibilities; consider how Sam can’t pronounce Louvre, and how Fran doesn’t quite realize what her flirtatiousness can lead to. Also, think about how Fran is perhaps unfairly and callously but accurately sized up by Kurt’s mother.
  • Americans need to hold onto their values abroad. Fran yearns to live a carefree cosmopolitan lifestyle of infidelity overseas, courted by promiscuous Continentals, but ultimately ends up spurned and unhappy. Sam, meanwhile, finds love not with a European woman but instead an American expatriate living in Europe who doesn’t try to seduce him.
  • Karma and comeuppance.
  • To thine self be true. Sam ultimately learns to look after himself.

Other films that Dodsworth reminds us of

  • The Unsinkable Molly Brown
  • Summertime
  • Heartburn
  • Take This Waltz
  • Screwball comedies featuring the idle rich and their romances and remarriages like The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth, and Holiday

Other movies directed by William Wyler

  • Ben-Hur
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Roman Holiday
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Jezebel
  • The Little Foxes


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