Blog Directory CineVerse: May 2021

A marital mess snowballing out of control

Monday, May 31, 2021

Some films make great date movies you can enjoy with your significant other. Force Majeure is not one of them. That’s because what you see unfold between the husband and wife in this story could easily be applied as a “what-if” scenario to your relationship, causing your partner to possibly question what you would do in the same situation. Nevertheless, Force Majeure, directed and written by Ruben Östlund, makes for great debate and a terrific picture to discuss in a group context, as our CineVerse club did last week (click here for a recording of our group chat). Here’s a summary of our talking points:

What struck you as interesting, unique, or memorable about this movie?

  • Tonally, it intricately shifts between heavy and ponderous drama and biting satire, forcing us to often laugh at and not necessarily empathize or connect with these characters.
    • Slant critic Abhimanyu Das wrote: “Despite the weight of the philosophical questions being pondered, Östlund and his cast also display the ability to mine comedy from the unlikeliest corners. Force Majeure is as sustained an exercise in cringe-inducing humor as anything produced by Larry David or Ricky Gervais, and arguably more controlled, turning on a dime between exquisitely calibrated laughs and unsettling emotional violence. Heated exchanges are abruptly rendered hilarious by cutting away to a reaction shot or by a change in the participants’ emotional register. A stony-faced janitor appears at the most inopportune moments to witness, gargoyle-like, some of the characters’ more hysterical outbursts.”
  • The filmmakers opt for interesting approaches. For example, they often show the characters and their arguments either from a far distance or intimately close; the avalanche scene is a continuous 4 ½ minute take without edits and framed from a distance so that it doesn’t draw attention to the father’s actions; the camera doesn’t look away from characters during tense or uncomfortable scenes, forcing us to linger on cringeworthy moments. The filmmakers don’t seem to be picking a side here; instead, we are allowed to draw our own conclusions about these characters and the controversy.
  • Also, the story is segmented into acts separated by title cards that indicate the day of the trip, stirring Vivaldi strings are heard sporadically throughout the film, and interspersed exterior shots of the stark wilderness – all adding portentousness and creating a sense of foreboding. These techniques create an ironic effect when you consider that no one dies or is even physically hurt and this relationship challenge is presumably salvageable.
  • The director said that this movie was inspired by an incident in which a Swedish couple – his friends – vacationed in Latin America; the duo was having dinner when gunmen burst into the restaurant and began firing. Instead of protecting his spouse, the husband ducked for cover. The shocked wife couldn’t let this failure go, proceeding to retell the tale to her friends time and again. Östlund later researched couples who survived disasters like shipwrecks and tsunamis and discovered that a high proportion of these partners end up divorcing.

Themes crafted into Force Majeure

  • Gender role reversals and expectations. Thomas seemingly acts contrary to expected masculine and macho ways, and Ebba demonstrates that she doesn’t always play the role of the protective matriarch or polite female stranger. Likewise, her friend Charlotte proves to be a promiscuous player like many would expect a man would be.
  • What does it mean to be a man and to exhibit masculinity in the modern age? Thomas and Mats are continually emasculated and forced to question their manhood, sex appeal, and motivations. This film explores the gap between what men project and assume about themselves and their true natures. The movie suggests that most men are inherently flawed because they try too hard to live up to an idealized standard and won’t be honest with themselves and others about their faults.
  • Relationships can be a catastrophe waiting to happen. Much like an avalanche that can snowball out of control, a flawed marriage or relationship built on shaky grounds can crumble suddenly or at least prove seriously vulnerable.
  • “The clash between our attempts to control nature, whether of landscapes or feelings, and the inevitability with which the world, and our own fallibility, confound and leave a stranded,” according to Jonathan Romney, film critic with The Guardian.
  • The picture also challenges the audience by asking: What would you do in this situation? What are you capable of in a crisis? Would you protect your loved ones during a catastrophe? Would you question and doubt your partner if they didn’t live up to your expectations? Would you deny any culpability? What should happen when one partner spectacularly flops in his or her obligations to his family and children and subsequently can’t acknowledge his or her failure?

Similar works

  • The Shining
  • The Loneliest Planet
  • Films by Michael Haneke, including Hidden, Funny Games, White Ribbon, and Amour
  • Films by Ingmar Bergman, including Scenes From a Marriage, that also suggest the “silence of God”
  • Downhill
  • Perfect Strangers
  • The Vanishing

Other films by Ruben Ostlund

  • Involuntary
  • Play
  • The Square
  • Triangle of Sadness


Rhythm in your bloodstream

Monday, May 24, 2021

You don’t need a stethoscope to know that the cardiac muscle can pump up the volume when pushed hard. And the same is true of our emotional core, as evidenced in a feel-good film like Hearts Beat Loud, which will get your feelings flowing and your toe tapping. The CineVerse faithful performed a cinematic cardiogram when we explored this movie last week (listen to a group discussion of this picture by clicking here), arriving at these observations:

What about this film left an impression on you, good or bad?

  • The cast is impressive for a small independent feature, boasting Toni Collette, Ted Danson, and Blythe Danner in supporting roles. Nick Offerman as Frank and Kiersey Clemons as Sam are perfectly cast as the main players.
  • It’s nice to see character and personality diversity in a romantic comedy, as evidenced by the personage of Sam, who is both multiethnic and lesbian. It’s also a relief to see that these two traits don’t have to become super-serious subplots.
  • The actual songs written for the picture and performed by the actors are all, surprisingly, good, with the titular tune standing out as particularly well-crafted and memorable.
  • The filmmakers don’t linger excessively on manipulative emotional beats; a different director may have played the maudlin, cloying, or sentimental notes too long or too emphatically, for example. This isn’t the most inspirational movie you’ve ever seen, but it’s also not the most melancholy or mushy, either.
  • As a testament to its streamlined writing, the characters don’t engage in excessive dialogue, superfluous exposition, or predictable patterns. For instance, we aren’t told upfront that Sam’s mother is dead, or how she died; we learn it contextually and organically.

Themes at play

  • Turning life’s conundrums into art.
  • The connective and bonding power of music, performance, and art, as we see demonstrated by the record store gig, the karaoke singing, and the spontaneous exuberance felt when writing and rehearsing songs.
  • Role reversals: Ironically, Sam seems more mature, resolute, and self-secure than her father Frank.
  • Growing up while refusing to grow old. Frank is preparing to send his daughter off to college, suggesting that it’s time for her to mature into adulthood and responsibility, and yet it’s Frank who needs to do the same. By collaborating artistically and indulging their love for music together, Frank and Sam can remain young at heart and connected.
  • Multi-generational challenges and mid-life crises. Frank’s mother is becoming more dependent on him, while his daughter is proving to be more independent. Frank yearns for the opposite: Sam needing him more and his mother needing him less.
  • Change is inevitable, and it can be surprisingly good and beneficial. Frank and Sam are each at a crossroads, having to decide their respective futures. What they choose to do will have positive and negative consequences.
  • Moving on without forgetting the past. Frank must learn to let go of his musical ambitions and forge a different future for himself—one that may involve less music playing and promoting. But he may be able to salvage the relationship with Leslie, his landlord, in his next act. And Sam decides to go to UCLA and study medicine instead of staying in Red Hook and going on tour with her father; but the last scene shows that she has not surrendered some of her musical dreams.
  • “Let’s put on a show,” which is a theme that goes back to the early days of the cinema.
  • Trying to understand matters of the heart—both literally and figuratively. The film opens with Sam learning about the anatomy and function of the heart organ, which underscores her passion for wanting to become a doctor, and it continues with her exploring emotional depths and layers of the heart with her girlfriend and father.

Similar works

  • High Fidelity
  • Empire Records
  • Begin Again
  • Like Father
  • One More Time

Other films by Brett Haley

  • The New Year
  • I’ll See You in My Dreams
  • The Hero
  • All the Bright Places
  • All Together Now


I spy a thrilling espionage film

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold depicts cold, hard facts about Cold War agents and operatives, sourced from an acclaimed text by an author (John le Carré) who wrote from firsthand experience. Our CineVerse group unsealed the dossier on this cinematic document last week and surmised the following reflections (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What did you find interesting, unpredictable, noteworthy, or curious about this picture?

  • This is credited as one of the first movies to depict real-world espionage as “neither glamorous nor honorable,” according to Slant Magazine writer Chuck Bowen, who called it “an uncompromising look at a dehumanizing profession.”
  • This shows the gritty, dark, unglamorous side of being a government agent, with a character, lifestyle, and mission that runs counter to the seductive and adventurous mythmaking of James Bond.
  • Richard Burton has rarely been better as a man with hidden motivations or a lack thereof: the ultimate poker-faced spy we want to trust as the man two steps ahead of everyone else but whom we learn is out-of-the-know on many crucial matters, a chess piece who gets played by Control and suffers a crushing twist of fate.
  • It was shot in black-and-white at a time when most studios were opting for color. But debatably, this monochromatic palette serves the film tonally and thematically, suggesting enigmatic shades of gray that match this world and its characters.
  • Interestingly, Burton and Claire Bloom previously were lovers; at the time of filming, Burton was married to Elizabeth Taylor. If you detect any chemistry between Alec and Nan, this may help explain it.
  • This is a convoluted plot that requires paying close attention. Consider that we know only as much as Alec, and the fact that he learns he’s “out in the cold” from what Control intends means that we also learn new information when Alec does; it’s as much a surprise to him as it is to us.
  • There is virtually no comic relief and no lovemaking scenes.

Themes found in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

  • There’s little difference between the West versus the East. They both are capable of committing unethical acts of violence and betrayal in the name of patriotic duty or national security.
  • The human casualties and collateral damage of war – even a Cold War.
  • Do the ends justify the means? What do all these espionage maneuvers gain the players involved, most of whom are not told the full truth of what they’re involved in? Knights on the chessboard like Alec as well as pawns like Nan prove expendable, which begs the question: Why do this kind of work? What’s the point? And will their efforts even make a difference?
  • You have to stand for and believe in something or life can prove meaningless.
    • Recall the story Alec tells Nan about the two trucks that converge on a road and crush a car carrying a family caught between. DVD Talk reviewer Jamie S. Rich wrote: “Though he thinks that the point of the story is that the mighty, interchangeable forces of world government always trample the innocent underfoot as they rush for power, the true message is one that everyone else is trying to teach him: You can’t stay in the middle, one must choose a side. It doesn’t have to be either of the great behemoths or even either side of the Wall they have built to separate their ideologies, it can be taking a stand against both of them in defense of the station wagon. You have to stand for something. If you don’t, you will find yourself caught in no man’s land.” Arguably, by choosing to remain on the East Berlin side of the wall with his dead lover, Alec decides to take a stand – one that he knows will end in his death.
  • Alienation, inaccessibility, and unfulfillment.
    • Chuck Bowen of Slant Magazine wrote: “To be a spy in Le Carré’s fiction, and the author famously lived a bit of what he writes, is to have knowledge that alienates you from the rest of the world. The knowledge you possess, as a le Carré spy, only underlines how much you still don’t know, and this realization transforms life into a series of stifling paradoxes: The world is huge, yet claustrophobically contained in an endless procession of anonymous bars and backrooms, and every problem reveals a hundred more upon its solution, like a great hydra. In other words, the Le Carré spy ultimately knows that he knows nothing, and that perhaps there’s no overriding Something to know, which might be as close as a bureaucracy can come to proving that God doesn’t exist.”

Similar films

  • The James Bond movies
  • Other film adaptations of le Carré novels, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama, and The Constant Gardener
  • Bridge of Spies
  • The Ipcress File
  • The Lives of Others
  • The Manchurian Candidate

Other films directed by Martin Ritt

  • Hud
  • Hombre
  • The Long Hot Summer
  • Sounder
  • Norma Rae


Kane's reign now spans 80 years

Sunday, May 16, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #35, host Erik Martin takes an extensive tour through Xanadu with three special guests to celebrate the 80th birthday of what many still consider to be the best film ever made: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles, originally released in May 1941.

This king-sized installment features interviews with Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, TCM's senior director of original programming Scott McGee, and film historian, professor, and author Joseph McBride. Collectively, 
they examine why Citizen Kane is worth honoring all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film today, 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 CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.
Michael Phillips, Scott McGee, and Joseph McBride
Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


When in Venice, do as the Venetians do

Monday, May 10, 2021

Katharine Hepburn fans smitten with her acting prowess would probably enjoy watching her read from the phone book. Fortunately, she’s asked to do a lot more in David Lean’s Summertime, a 1955 romance that plays like a travelogue for a bucket list trip to Italy. In fact, Hepburn is present in virtually every scene of this movie, although she accomplishes much with simple body language instead of talky exposition on the joys and laments of love.

Our CineVerse group took a trip to Venice, the waterlogged land of gondolas and gothic architecture, this past week to explore Summertime (even though we are still firmly fixed in the spring season) and came away with several suppositions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Here’s a recap of our Q&A conversation.

What did you find different, unexpected, memorable, or curious about Summertime?

  • It’s directed by David Lean, the man known for major epics to come afterward like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to India, yet this is a simpler, more intimate film with a very small cast. However, Lean demonstrated 10 years earlier with his direction of Brief Encounter that he was a master of the romantic drama. He once remarked that this was his favorite of all of his films.
  • The movie and your estimation of it depends a great deal on two factors:
    1. The performance of Katharine Hepburn, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Jane. Rarely has Hepburn been better, accomplishing so much with nonverbal acting and moments of quiet reflectivity.
    2. Shooting on location in Venice, which serves as a picturesque character unto itself and undoubtedly swayed countless Americans to visit Italy and Europe.
  • For a romance picture, this movie strays from formula: First, Hepburn was around age 48 at the time of this filming, long past her youthful attractive prime; Jane is not given a romantic interest until the second half of the film (when Renato is finally introduced); her unexplained decision to depart for home occurs abruptly, bringing the story to a sudden, quick conclusion that can feel unleavened and too ambiguous and bittersweet for many viewers’ tastes; and Renato, though he predictably chases her down before her train pulls away, doesn’t succeed in handing her his gift or convincing her to return to him.
  • This film would’ve been controversial and groundbreaking for a mid-1950s movie watched by American audiences.
    • Ponder that the story depicts its two infidelities – one involving Renato and Jane, the other involving Eddie (the married artist) and a mistress – that are not punished.
    • Additionally, it was rare then, as it is now, to place a middle-aged woman at the center of a steamy film romance.
    • Also, ruminate on the film’s most controversial line, which was censored in America at the time due to its suggestiveness: “You are a hungry child who is given ravioli to eat. ‘No,’ you say, ‘I want beefsteak.’ My dear girl, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli.”

Themes crafted into Summertime

  • American versus European morals and sensibilities. The British Film Institute wrote: “The theme here is a traditional one: New World Puritanism confronts European opportunism; the innocent American surrenders to the charm and experience of the Old World, and at the same time retreats from its implications of corruption.”
  • “Two is the loveliest number in the world” – which Jane says aloud at one point in the movie. Consider how lonely and unappreciated she is before she meets Renato.
  • Every person, no matter how plain, unglamorous or common, is a unique vessel for untapped love.
  • Interestingly, the red goblet Jane treasures lacks a duplicate to make it a pair; Jane is like that red goblet, but she quickly loses interest in finding a match for it when she learns how common and relatively valueless these red goblets are—which makes her distrust Renato, who built up the goblet’s significance and rarity in her own mind.
  • Similarly, Jane chooses a relatively un-ostentatious flower for Renato to buy her. When she loses the flower, Renato tries hard to get it back, despite its practical insignificance, and even chases after her at the train station with a substitute similar flower at the end of the story, suggesting that Jane is a delicate, precious thing that’s hard to hold onto.

Similar films

  • Brief Encounter
  • Before Sunrise
  • Now, Voyager
  • To Catch a Thief (which also features a sexually suggestive fireworks scene following passionate kissing)
  • Rome Adventure
  • Summer of ’42
  • Light in the Piazza
  • A Certain Smile
  • Three Coins in the Fountain

Other works by David Lean

  • Brief Encounter
  • Oliver Twist
  • Great Expectations
  • Hobson’s Choice
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Doctor Zhivago


This "Stranger" is friendly to classic film fans

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Arguably the worst movie made by Orson Welles would probably be the best film helmed by a lesser director. Possible case in point: The Stranger, Welles’ 1946 noirish thriller that lacks many of the stylistic flourishes and storytelling derring-do that distinguished his two previous films. Regardless of its shortcomings, The Stranger satisfies on several levels. Our CineVerse band examined it in detail last week (click here to listen to a recording of that discussion); here’s a review of our talking points.

What did you find distinctive, different, unexpected, or curious about The Stranger?

  • Despite being directed by Orson Welles, the filmmaker behind Citizen Kane, this movie may disappoint based on the expectations you have for Welles to wow you with his directorial choices and artistic genius. First-time viewers may anticipate the kind of stylistic innovation, groundbreaking narrative techniques, and visual panache that Welles was known for based on his other works, especially the two predecessors Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
  • But the truth is that he had fallen far out of favor by Hollywood and filmgoers after the failures of those two films, and he was given an opportunity by producer Sam Spiegel to direct his third film, but only if Welles could bring the picture in on time and under budget. Wells accomplished both goals, although he had to compromise his artistic vision on the project, abandon lofty ambitions for the picture, and acquiesce to Spiegel on several decisions.
    • Yet, the movie still showcases Welles’ brilliance with its atmospheric high-contrast lighting, deep-focus photography, unconventional camera angles, ambitious crane and tracking shots, long takes (such as the shot through the woods that ends with Kindler strangling Meineke), fast-paced finale montage, compositions featuring silhouettes, and reflective shots using mirrored surfaces.
    • Welles builds tension through technique (such as using tracking shots to suggest that the players are unable to evade their pursuers and the townspeople’s interests) as well as by building our expectation for Kindler being sniffed out by Wilson and the residents of Harper. The film becomes a clever cat and mouse game type story.
    • Ironically, this is been cited as the only film directed by Wells to turn a profit.
  • This is the first Hollywood movie to show documentary footage of the Holocaust, which would have been eye-opening to American audiences at the time.
  • Interestingly, the screenplay, though credited to Anthony Veiller, was rewritten by director John Huston and Welles himself.

Themes explored in The Stranger

  • Duplicitous doubling/twinning: Kindler leads a double life, while Wilson masquerades as someone other than a Nazi hunter; Wilson and Meineke are opposites but arrive at the same time in the small town of Harper; and both Wilson and Rankin enjoy tinkering with clocks.
  • A man running out of time. Kindler demonstrates skill in repairing the clock tower and prides himself on clockwork precision as a planner. But as a cosmic irony, he is destroyed by the very hands of time when one of the clock tower figures fatally skewers him through with its sword.
    • Film scholar Glenn Erickson wrote: “For Rankin/Kindler, bringing the broken clock back to life might represent getting the gears of the Nazi mechanism working in this new, unsuspecting country. The clock tower becomes the stage for risky confrontations and Kindler’s last stand.”
  • Evil can hide in plain sight and infiltrate anywhere – even small-town America. Harper, Connecticut, is a safe and sociable little burg where all the residents know each other personally: the ideal environment in which a monster like Kindler can hide and gradually be accepted without suspicion, or at least that’s his plan. But he quickly learns that it’s harder to find safe refuge in a small town than he anticipated and even the naive, unsuspecting rubes can turn on you quickly when they learn the truth.
  • Even the people closest to you can turn out to be complete strangers. Mary eventually learns that the man she has married is an unknown outsider, the kind of person she would never expect to marry. Consider that the title “The Stranger” could refer to up to three characters: Kindler, but also Wilson or Meineke, who each recently enter Harper as outsiders who attract attention from the locals.

Similar works

  • Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt
  • Mid-1940s films that suggest the rise of a new Third Reich, including Notorious, Gilda, and Cornered
  • Salem’s Lot
  • Twin Peaks

Other important films directed by Orson Welles

  • Citizen Kane
  • The Magnificent Ambersons
  • The Lady From Shanghai
  • Othello
  • Touch of Evil
  • Chimes at Midnight


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