Blog Directory CineVerse: September 2021

A sacred screwball

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

One of the screwballiest of comedies released in the 1930s is William Wellman’s sharp satire of the media and celebrity culture Nothing Sacred, starring Carol Lombard and Fredric March. Our CineVerse group fine-tooth-combed this film last week and came away with strong favorable impressions, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).

What emerges as unforeseen, enjoyable, offbeat, or noteworthy about Nothing Sacred?

  • Most of the comedy still works today, from slapstick moments like the kid biting Wally’s leg (which works as an in-joke about how a ‘man biting a dog’ is more newsworthy than a dog biting a man, in this case, a child biting a dog of a man) to the sexually-tinged quips delivered by the emcee during the “Heroines of History” floorshow to the running gag of the small-town folk saying only “yep” and “nope” when Wally asks them questions. The comedic lines are crackling and sharp throughout:
    • “You're a newspaperman. I can smell 'em. I've always been able to smell 'em. Excuse me while I open the window?”
    • "I'll tell you briefly what I think of newspapermen. The hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn't elevate one of them to the depths of degradation."
    • “He's sort of a cross between a Ferris wheel and a werewolf. But with a lovable streak if you care to blast for it."
  • The film’s pedigree is impressive: Produced by David O Selznick; directed by Wellman; written by Ben Hecht (known for His Girl Friday, Scarface, Notorious, Spellbound, Kiss of Death, and countless other screenplays); polished by contributing writers Ring Lardner Jr., Budd Schulberg, Moss Hart, George S Kaufman, and Dorothy Parker; scored by Oscar Levant, Alfred Newman, and Max Steiner; and starring Lombard and March with a winning supporting cast.
  • There are some cringe-worthy non-PC moments, including racial stereotyping of a heavyset black man, use of the word “darkies,” and the punching of a woman in the face, that date this film and detract from the entertainment value.
  • This film falls firmly within the screwball comedy subgenre—movies that often featured:
    • Farcical stories and situations—where the film pokes fun at stereotypical characters, such as fatcat filthy rich fathers and spoiled rotten daughters (such as My Man Godfrey)
    • Fast pacing in the humor and repartee, direction, editing, and dialogue delivery (like His Girl Friday)
    • Physical humor, including slapstick (Bringing Up Baby), pratfalls (The Lady Eve), and sight gags (To Be Or Not To Be), often used to elicit major laughs and make dignified characters look ridiculous
    • A plot centered on courtship and marriage (The Philadelphia Story) or remarriage (The Awful Truth)
    • Themes highlighting the differences between upper and lower socioeconomic classes, with many of the settings taking place among the high society but involving a likable male love interest from the other side of the tracks (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It Happened One Night)
    • A female lead who is often strong-willed, determined, and sometimes tomboyish, commonly depicted as stronger and even smarter than her male counterpart (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve)
    • A story involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding, or the keeping of an important secret, occasionally involving cross-dressing or masquerading (Some Like it Hot, Bringing Up Baby)
    • A classic battle of the sexes between a man and a woman, with the male lead’s masculinity often challenged by a strong female love interest (The Awful Truth)
    • Colorful supporting characters with quirky personalities (Barry Fitzgerald’s gardener in Bringing Up Baby, Mischa Auer’s protégé Carlo in My Man Godfrey)
    • Often a secondary character (such as a third wheel male suitor) who is more prim, proper, and boring (Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth)
    • The golden period of screwball comedies was between 1934 and 1944, bookended somewhat between It Happened One Night and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Major themes

  • Media sensationalism and yellow journalism. This movie satirizes the immoral and dishonest practices of newspapers and reporters, who would practically sell their souls to get a scoop on a hot story. The filmmakers also suggest how disposable and unpleasant the newspaper product is, as evidenced by how it is used to wrap dead fish.
  • The public’s fickle fascination with celebrity culture and human interest stories. Film reviewer Casey Broadwater wrote: “What stands out here is just how scathing (Ben) Hecht's script is when it comes to satirizing the muckraking, tragedy-mongering tendencies of newspapers and the disingenuous sympathy of their readers, who delusionally believe--as Oliver puts it--that their "phony hearts" are "dripping with the milk of human kindness." When, in actuality, of course, they just want to gawk and gossip and revel in another's misfortune.”
  • People are self-serving and materialistic everywhere – from the Big Apple to the small towns like Warsaw, Vermont. Film credit Emmanuel Levy wrote: “The movie presents a counter-view to Hollywood’s predominant imagery of small-town. Nothing Sacred is a rare film in that it suggests that there are no significant differences between small-town and big city’s folks since their conduct is shaped by similar (selfish) motivations.”

Similar works

  • It Happened One Night
  • Libeled Lady
  • The Talk of the Town
  • The Fortune Cookie
  • The Out-of-Towners
  • A Star Is Born
  • Screwball comedies like The Lady Eve, Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, and The Awful Truth

Other films by William Wellman

  • The Ox-Bow Incident
  • A Star Is Born
  • The Public Enemy
  • Wings
  • Yellow Sky


Tree-mendous reimagining of a fairy tale

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Pop singer Bjork is known for more than her outlandish attire (remember that outrageous swan dress she wore at the 2001 Academy Awards?) and edgy 1990s music videos. Years earlier, she also established herself as a formidable actress, as evidenced by her performance in The Juniper Tree, a lesser-known indie darling from 1990. That was last week’s spotlight film for CineVerse, which fostered a robust conversation about the merits and misses of this movie (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here), as summarized below.

What struck you as different, unanticipated, thought-provoking, or impressive about The Juniper Tree?

  • Pop stars can act. The casting of Bjork, while seemingly a curious one (and consider that she was not a well-known musician yet when this was filmed), is an inspired one that pays off. Her Margit is believable as a haunted, compassionate, perceptive stray soul.
  • The visuals are exceptional. Black-and-white is the perfect palette to depict this medieval adaptation of a fairytale, and the decision to shoot throughout South Iceland – a location known for its natural scenic beauty, as popularized in recent films like Captain America, The Tree of Life, and The Fate of the Furious – proves ideal.
  • The film is imbued with a surrealistic, lyrical quality that plays not like a plot-driven movie but more like visual poetry (recall, too, the citing of a T.S. Eliot poem in the prologue). The infrequent dialogue, lack of character development and narrative exposition, and absence of closure or explanation of meaning force us to pay more attention to the imagery, sounds, and negative space (topography that would otherwise be filled with more people, buildings, and action).
  • In this story, we are meant to take the witchcraft and supernatural elements literally, just as you would if told a bedtime fairytale.
    • However, director Nietzchka Keene said in an interview that she wasn’t intending to make a statement about witchcraft, and the movie doesn’t suggest that the spells truly work.
    • Blogger Dan Willard wrote: “She feels that many who were accused of witchcraft in the early 17th century were merely practicing folk medicine. The sisters use the only knowledge they have in an effort to control an environment in which they are extremely vulnerable. Keene was more interested in creating a fairy tale world and a mood of melancholic loneliness which is part of the reason she chose to shoot in black and white on bleak locations.”
  • This is an attempt at a revisionist fairytale in which the wicked stepmother character is reimagined or at least presented from her point of view, as well as the POV of another important female character (her sister Margit).
    • Film Comment writer Mark Asch wrote: “Keene is doing the right kind of critical revisionism, adding rather than subtracting—reframing the uncanny, contorted alien logic of folktales within a politically updated dynamic, offering her own interpretation of an old story while honoring its lingering richness.”

Major themes

  • Resourcefulness is required to survive in a harsh world. This feminist retelling of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale about a wicked stepmother portrays that character in a more sympathetic light, especially considering that her mother was stoned and burned as a witch and she and her sister Margit were forced to flee and go into hiding. Katla uses witchcraft to keep her and Margit safe and secure.
  • Females are powerful and not to be underestimated. The fact that Katla and Margit apparently have supernatural abilities in this story suggests that women are special, possessing agency, powerful talents, and ingenuity that can help them survive and thrive in a patriarchal-controlled world.
  • The power of love and memory to transcend death. Margit’s ability to see visions of and communicate with her dead mother speaks to the strong bond between mother and child and our collective human struggle to overcome grief, understand mortality, and accept the possibility of an afterlife. Margit also interprets the appearance of a raven as an embodiment of the surviving spirit of the dead boy Jonas, whom she has also not forgotten.
  • Conflicting loyalties and the “challenges faced by blended families,” according to Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips.
  • Rebirth and reincarnation

Similar works

  • The Seventh Seal and other films by Ingmar Bergman
  • The Witch
  • The Strange Case of Angelica
  • The Secret of Roan Inish
  • Into the Woods
  • The Brothers Grimm
  • I Married a Witch
  • Wicked Stepmother
  • The Crucible
  • Wendy
  • The Song of Bernadette


Taking the scenic (and surreal) route across Mulholland Drive

Monday, September 20, 2021

For Cineversary podcast episode #39, host Erik Martin tackles a tantalizing but tricky cinematic text, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which celebrates a 20th anniversary this year. Joining Erik this month are two terrific guests: Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and author of the book David Lynch: The Man From Another Place; and Chris Rodley, a UK-based filmmaker and editor of the book Lynch on Lynch. Erik, Dennis, and Chris claim a front-row seat at Club Silencio as they attempt to make sense of the movie and examine why Mulholland Drive is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie in 2021, and more.

Dennis Lim
Chris Rodley
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. Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


Far from a "Farewell" to noir

Monday, September 13, 2021

Despite what many believe, film noir didn’t fade away after the fifties. Its roots found fertile ground in the 1970s, with dark dramas like Klute, Dirty Harry, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Gumshoe, Chinatown, and Night Moves revitalizing the genre. Included in that wave of neo-noir throwbacks five decades ago is Farewell My Lovely, an interesting adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story featuring detective Philip Marlowe, this time with rugged but wrinkled Robert Mitchum playing our favorite private eye. CineVerse examined this picture last week and came away impressed by its fidelity to Chandler’s source material and to the spirit of classic noir (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). A summary of our conversation follows.

What did you find surprising, memorable, unexpected, or refreshing about Farewell My Lovely?

  • Unlike other neo-noir films of this era, such as Klute, Serpico, The Long Goodbye, and Mean Streets—all of which were used a contemporary setting—this was an attempt to adapt a classic noir tale in a retro fashion by using voiceover narration, employing flashbacks and noir conventions, casting two actors who remind us of classic 1940s-1950s noir (Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling, who is meant to look like Lauren Bacall), and setting the story at a time when noir was first blossoming: 1941.
  • It’s also a relatively faithful adaptation of a Chandler story, unlike the earlier adaptation Murder My Sweet or 1973’s The Long Goodbye.
  • One of the great pleasures of watching this picture is hearing the crackling hardboiled dialogue delivered by Mitchum, who utters one great line after another, such as:
    • The house itself wasn't much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler building.
    • She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.
    • It was one of those transient motels, something between a fleabag and a dive.
    • I sparred with the night clerk for a couple of minutes, but it was like trying to open a sardine can after you broke off the metal lip. There was something about Abraham Lincoln's picture that loosened him up.
  • Mitchum is a major improvement as private detective Philip Marlowe versus Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet. Even though Mitchum is probably 20 years older than the character as written by Chandler, he perfectly embodies this role.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: ” He was born to play the weary, cynical, doggedly romantic Marlowe. His voice and his face and the way he lights his cigarette are all exactly right, and seem totally effortless. That's his trademark. In a good Mitchum performance, we are never aware he is acting. And it is only when we measure the distances between his characters that we can see what he is doing.”
  • This is a very cynical and adult take on a Marlowe screen story, one that reflects the pessimism and R-rated culture of the mid-1970s. The movie is brutally honest about 1940s racist attitudes among police officers and whites, there’s a brothel scene showing full-frontal nudity, and we hear an old-timey private eye use profanity.
  • Like other Chandler stories and Marlowe yarns, the plot of Farewell My Lovely can sometimes be hard to follow, and some character motivations are difficult to explain/understand (such as why Marlowe is kept prisoner and doped up at the brothel and why Sylvester Stallone’s tough guy goes so far as to kill Amthor). However, the best attributes of Chandler stories are their dialogue, mood, and colorful characters—not necessarily the plots.

Major themes

  • Duplicity and deceit: The femme fatale in this story goes by two names – Velma and Helen Grayle
  • Corruption and greed: Everyone in this murky milieu can be had for a price, even the police.
  • The impossibility of innocence: In the dark, seedy world of noir, all souls are tarnished and tempted, and everyone seems to be sinful. Arguably, the most virtuous character in this tale is Marlowe’s friend who runs the newsstand.
  • The hunter becomes the hunted. Marlowe is a private eye investigating mysteries and searching for people, but he is also sought by Moose, Brunette, Helen, Judge Baxter, and the police.

Similar works

  • The Falcon Takes Over, and Murder My Sweet: two earlier adaptations of this Raymond Chandler story
  • The Godfather, The Long Goodbye, and Chinatown: three immediate predecessors that were all neo-noirs and period films
  • The Big Sleep (1978), another remake of a classic Chandler story, also starring Robert Mitchum
  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a 1973 neo noir also starring Mitchum
  • Marlowe (1969)


The Meek shall inherit the earth--or not

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Here’s a welcome departure from western genre conventions: an oater directed by a woman and primarily featuring female characters that doesn’t rely on action or romance to enthrall audiences. Meek’s Cutoff checks off all those boxes and more.

Last week, our CineVerse group attempted to better understand this underrated feature. Here are several of the observations we came to (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find memorable, surprising, refreshing, or different about Meek’s Cutoff?

  • This is not presented in the typical modern widescreen format of 1.85:1 or larger. Instead, the filmmakers employ the aspect ratio of classic Hollywood of the 1940s and earlier, roughly 1.33:1, which essentially boxes in the characters, despite the expansive landscape surrounding them.
  • This film deviates significantly from most westerns and the expectations that genre fans have. There is very little action, no gunfights, no bloody skirmishes between cowboys and Indians, and no romantic subplot.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Nick Schager wrote: “Rather than expansive widescreen, she shoots in a boxy Academy-standard 4:3 aspect ratio that turns the vast Oregon plains claustrophobic; instead of expressive close-ups that capture frontiersmen and women’s tumultuous conditions, she opts for medium and long shots that keep her subjects at a distance; and in place of gunfire-peppered narrative momentum and relatively clear-cut good-versus-evil characterizations, she slows her material to a crawl and drenches her action in ambiguity, to the point that the entire affair quickly becomes engulfed in literal and moral/spiritual haziness.”
  • The point of view is told more from the female characters’ perspective. The camera lingers more with them, especially when the men are consumed by a job or go off to capture the Native American, for example.
  • The ending is ambiguous and unresolved, suggesting perhaps that our characters are in a no-win situation in which the conclusion is irrelevant – they are likely doomed no matter what happens and we, like them, are left to linger on an unsettling ending to the story.
  • The soundtrack and sound design are interesting; we hear very little musical score throughout the movie, and the dyad soundscape is relatively quiet. That makes us listen more attentively when we hear recurring noises like a creaky wagon wheel, squeaky hand-crank, chittering bird, or scraping on a rock or piece of wood.

Major themes

  • The blind following the blind, or the dangers of following an entrusted leader into uncharted territory. Meek seems full of tall tales, bluster, and bravado, but he’s gotten the group lost and, by the end of the story, relinquishes leadership and responsibility.
  • Trust versus logic, or blind faith versus rational thought
  • The chasm between different cultures. The westward settlers cannot communicate with or understand the Native American they have captured and vice versa. Yet, each side is dependent on the other for survival.
  • The story of America shouldn’t exclusively focus on or be told by men. Women played just as important a part in even the smallest of stories of our nation’s growth and struggle. A strong female character like Emily demonstrates that, while women on the frontier likely lacked agency and authority, they could make their voices heard and opinions known. We see how hard the women toiled, just like the men, in making the journey westward and trying to eke out a hardscrabble existence in the 1900s. This picture demonstrates that the sacrifices made by the wives, mothers, and daughters were equally significant.
  • The white man’s imperialistic attitude toward the land and the native peoples they attempted to conquer.

Similar works

  • Little Woods
  • McCabe and Mrs. Miller
  • Days of Heaven
  • Gerry
  • The Horseman

Other films directed by Kelly Reichardt

  • Wendy and Lucy
  • Old Joy
  • Night Moves
  • Certain Women
  • First Cow


Beware of the wee beasts

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

As an allegory and cautionary tale about the tendency for human beings to be innately inhumane under the right conditions, William Golding’s literary classic The Lord of the Flies works astoundingly well. As a 1963 film adaptation directed by Peter Brook, The Lord of the Flies achieves similar greatness, expounding on the source material’s dark themes and imbuing the visuals with verisimilitude thanks to the commitment to shoot in monochrome on location with untrained actors. Our CineVerse group conducted a dialogue about this picture last week, with the following observations and opinions made (to hear a recording of our discussion, click here).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, refreshing, or rewarding about Lord of the Flies?

  • It is admirably faithful to the source novel, reproducing the same characters, situations, and much of the dialogue found in the book, although the events are condensed; instead of occurring over presumably several weeks, this story on the island takes place over just a handful of days.
  • The filmmakers chose to shoot in cinema verité style, lending a documentary-like realism to the look and feel of the movie. To up the authenticity factor, nonprofessionals were cast as the child characters (many of whom never acted again) and the picture was shot not in a studio but on location on a real island near Puerto Rico, where the cast and crew were sequestered for several weeks. Black-and-white film stock was also selected, which accentuates the stark themes espoused in the story and forces us to pay more attention to the characters and situations than the beautifully exotic surroundings, which would have been colorful but distracting to what the filmmakers wanted us to focus on.
  • Although some of the acting from these amateur and inexperienced child thespians is stilted, awkward, and less than desirable, many of these children deliver wonderfully unrestrained, natural, and believable performances that arguably could not have been evoked with carefully trained young actors.
    • Criterion Collection essayist Geoffrey Macnab wrote: “There is nothing affected about their performances. Brook’s technique was as close to that of an anthropologist as a conventional film director. He took the kids to the island, gave them a broad outline of what they should be doing, and then turned on the camera and observed their behavior. He shot hours and hours of footage, then took this raw material and winnowed it down into a very taut ninety-minute film that closely follows the trajectory of the book.”
  • Even though this is a story about and starring pre-adolescent children, the story pulls no punches in its pessimism; as in the novel, kids are killed, hunted, and bullied and a pagan religion is created.
  • This is a very English story about a particular subset of English children that explores class differences.
    • Macnab further wrote that the kids are “from a privileged background. Their fathers are leaders—military commanders, politicians, captains of industry… Class is an issue as well, even in this remote wilderness. The reason Jack so despises Piggy is not just his appearance but also the fact that he is not of the right caste. Yes, Piggy is fat, wears spectacles, and looks like Billy Bunter, but the real problem is that he’s from Camberley. He’s suburban, lower-middle-class—an outsider among all these blue-blooded chorister types.”

Themes explored

  • The thin line between civilization and savagery, and how it’s easy to cross over that line given the right circumstances.
  • Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, and the inescapability of the human condition, which is often dictated by hate, fright, a lust for power and control, and aggression.
  • Fascism can easily flourish without effective leadership or a shared, collective yearning for common decency and courtesy.
  • Trouble in paradise: The irony of this story is that these kids are marooned on a garden of Eden -like island where food and water are plentiful, there are no grown-ups to tell them what to do, there are no sexual complications to get in the way, and they can play endlessly; yet, violence, chaos, and religious zealotry quickly take root.
  • Rational, intellectual thought is in short supply when mob rule prevails. Ralph, Piggy, and Simon, who each represent the voice of reason and the conscience of the group, are quickly outnumbered by the sheer size, might, and determination of Jack’s tribe.

Similar works

  • Animal Farm
  • Heart of Darkness
  • Los Alivadados
  • The Beach
  • Life of Pi
  • Lost
  • Cast Away
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • The Blue Lagoon and Return to the Blue Lagoon
  • The Most Dangerous Game
  • The Maze Runner


  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP