Blog Directory CineVerse: July 2023

The leads are weak, but the movie's not

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

In 1992, James Foley helmed the cinematic adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer-prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, setting critics and audiences abuzz with excitement about its performances, dialogue, and tense dramatic sequences. The screenplay, also penned by Mamet, ensured a faithful representation of the play's dialogue and themes.

The movie boasts an exceptional ensemble cast, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, and Jonathan Pryce. Set in a cutthroat and highly competitive real estate sales environment, the story revolves around a group of salesmen who resort to extreme measures to secure deals and achieve success. It’s a gripping narrative that delves into themes of desperation, morality, and the unforgiving realities of the American Dream.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

Glengarry Glen Ross benefits from the whip-smart writing of Mamet, especially the characters' credible dialogue and distinctive vernacular, as well as the rhythm and cadence of the language. It also ripples and resonates on the strength of incredible casting, featuring an A list of top-notch actors, each of whom could carry their own movie: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Jonathan Pryce. Notably, Pacino and Lemmon's outstanding acting received critical acclaim, while Alec Baldwin's brief yet impactful appearance earned him widespread recognition, especially for delivering one of the most memorable monologues in cinematic history.

Interestingly, the story is efficiently condensed, occurring over roughly 24 hours; hence, we get a snapshot portrait of each character within a short time frame and a pressure cooker milieu.

Most importantly, Glengarry Glen Ross penetrates with intense and razor-sharp dialogue: Mamet's script is renowned for the rapid-fire words that come out of his characters’ mouths – verbal exchanges that delve deep into the personalities and psyches of these men in which_ the cutthroat nature of the sales world. Arguably, the film set a benchmark for exceptional writing, boasting several iconic monologues, such as Alec Baldwin's powerful "Always Be Closing" speech, which has become legendary within the realm of cinema.

However, there isn’t much of a story here; the office theft and the investigation of it add intrigue, but this is less of a plot than it is a character study and a depiction of a harsh workplace environment and vocation. Written originally as a stage play, the movie is bereft of action and shifts to interesting settings. Hence, this isn’t a film that’s going to showcase dramatic camera movement, innovative editing techniques, or impressive sets. It’s a work that soars or fails on the merits of its characters, which means it had better be finely scripted and superbly acted.

Consider, too, that it’s a quite bleak, pessimistic, and tonally dark picture with many unsympathetic characters, which can leave you feeling depressed and cynical.

Mamet’s work explores how the quest for materialistic rewards leads to corruption, decay, and destruction. He stated that the play is about “how business corrupts” and about how “those in power in the business world…act unethically.”

Indeed, Glengarry Glen Ross provides a scathing critique of American capitalism and the fiercely competitive sales landscape, where success is rewarded and failure is brutally punished. This “rich get richer and poor get poorer” economic structure reveals that those who succeed are rewarded with more opportunities to drive, while those who struggle cannot advance. The film effectively showcases the lengths to which people will go and the sacrifices they are willing to make to get ahead.

Critics and historians have posited that this play, written in the 1980s, is Mamet’s critique of Reaganomics and the “greed is good” materialistic ideology of the eighties. Mamet was heard to say about his play: “This play is not…about love. This is a play about guys, who when one guy is down…the guy who’s up then kicks the other guy in the balls to make sure he stays down.”

A further lesson imparted herein: Nobody wins in a corporate culture that emphasizes greed and numbers over human beings. By the end of the film, every character has lost—Roma’s sale to Lingk has been lost; Lingk feels like he has disappointed Roma; Williamson has lost business and productivity after the offices ransacked; Levene and Moss will be prosecuted; and an emotionally shaken Aaranow is accused of theft.

Glengarry Glen Ross perfectly conveys the universal experience of being in a job you hate and feeling powerless and desperate as you’re trapped in that position.

This is also a study about the persuasiveness of language: those characters who can verbalize persuasively succeed and command respect.

In this story, masculinity defines a character, and masculinity in this universe is earned. Fascinatingly, though, as the narrative unfolds each character is eventually stripped of power and emasculated in some way.

Similar Works

  • Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
  • Wall Street
  • Margin Call
  • Boiler Room
  • Swimming With Sharks
  • Reservoir Dogs, in how there’s not much of a plot, it’s a character-driven piece with terrific dialogue, and nearly every character betrays each other.
  • Patton, in that both films start with tremendous opening monologues that play like stern pep talks.

Other films by James Foley

  • At Close Range
  • Who’s That Girl
  • Confidence


Ace is the place with the hateful hardboiled man

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole – also known as The Big Carnival, was released to little fanfare in the summer of 1951. Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, and Robert Arthur, the plot centers around Chuck Tatum (Douglas), a struggling reporter who stumbles upon a potentially major story: a man trapped in a collapsed mine. But instead of promptly rescuing the trapped individual, Tatum milks the situation to prolong the event, creating a media circus to advance his career.

Wilder’s work emphasizes the unethical nature of yellow journalism and the exploitation of human tragedy. By critiquing the media's manipulation of news for profit and public attention and exploring themes of corruption, avarice, and the corrosive power of personal ambition, the movie proved to be ahead of its time; its cynical tone and scathing subtextual commentary on the dark side of media help Ace in the Hole remain relevant today.

Fascinatingly, the film bombed at the box office upon initial release. But it has since garnered significant recognition as a thought-provoking morality play exploring media ethics and the pursuit of sensationalism. It also features one of Douglas’ most unforgettable performances.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

Amazingly, this film was a major flop with audiences and critics in 1951. It’s not hard to contemplate why. Ace in the Hole is overwhelmingly cynical and scathing in its depiction of the press and the public's fascination with sensationalistic stories.

The film would have touched a nerve with journalists, especially film critics who work for newspapers, as it might have been too close to the truth. It also pulls no punches in indicting audiences, as they are equally guilty as Tatum in their craving for sleazy and sordid stories. Additionally, Ace in the Hole was ahead of its time in portraying the media circus, the manipulation of news by journalists, and the public's inclination towards manufactured human interest stories. And the picture features very few sympathetic characters and ends on a dark and depressing note, without much redemption. The sheriff and other collaborators manage to escape the consequences, while Leo dies.

Fair question: Who do you feel sympathy for by the end of the film? Has Tatum redeemed himself? Debatably, the answer is no. His desire to spill the beans and confess seems more like an act of self-loathing and passing the blame rather than a genuine attempt at cleansing and salvation. There are no likable or admirable dramatis personae, except perhaps for Boot, Leo's parents, and the doctor, who are all minor characters.

Arguably, this film has a psychological triangle at work that doesn’t involve Leo or his wife. Tatum signifies the id, embodying base and animalistic instincts. Mr. Boot, a pillar of journalistic integrity, symbolizes the superego, which represents one's moral conscience. Herbie, the young cub photographer, represents the ego, the conscious and realistic component of the mind. He serves as a stand-in for us, the viewers, who are also torn between opposing influences: the easy and seedy journalism of Tatum or the hard work, low-glamor dignity, and morality represented by the Albuquerque editor.

Although it’s not set in the urban jungle of the big city, nor does it feature any private eyes, gangsters, wrong-man protagonists, or the like, you could certainly make the case that Ace in the Hole is a film noir. Consider the morally ambiguous characters: Like many films noir, Ace in the Hole explores ethically complex and flawed characters. The protagonist, Chuck Tatum, is an unscrupulous reporter who manipulates a tragic event for personal gain. The film delves into the ethical dilemmas faced by its characters, reflecting the moral ambiguity often found in film noir narratives. The film effectively employs visual techniques commonly associated with film noir, as well, including stark contrasts, deep shadows, and expressive cinematography. These artistic choices contribute to the brooding and dark atmosphere typical of the genre. 

Film noir frequently delves into subtexts of corruption, greed, and the darker aspects of society. Ace in the Hole aligns with these themes by exposing the sensationalism and moral decay within the media. It highlights the exploitation of human tragedy for profit, providing a critical view of society. Noir often employs nonlinear storytelling, flashbacks, or voice-over narration to create suspense and ambiguity. Although Ace in the Hole primarily follows a more straightforward narrative structure, it still engages with the dark and morally complex themes commonly associated with film noir. Lastly, while not as prominent as in some other film noirs, Ace in the Hole features a character, Lorraine, portrayed by Jan Sterling, who shares traits with the archetypal femme fatale. Lorraine manipulates others and uses her sexuality to advance her own interests, adding an element of treachery and deceit to the narrative.

Many critics have posited that Ace in the Hole is seething with erotic and sexual undertones. The song composed for Leo carries a double entendre, serving as a mocking ditty that satirizes the perverse excitement surrounding his predicament. This includes the enthusiasm displayed by Tatum and his wife, who revel in the situation. The circus truck bears the name The Great S & M Amusement Corp, a deliberate reference to sadomasochism. The unyielding drill assumes a phallic symbolism, representing Tatum's virility fueled by greed. This stands in stark contrast to Leo's emasculated state, trapped and helpless within the cave. The cave itself becomes a sexual metaphor, likened to the womb. Leo's entrapment signifies being confined within the womb, while Tatum and Lorraine act as his unscrupulous parents. The mother figure rejects the child, while the father figure intentionally delays the birth to exploit the situation.

The character of Tatum in Ace in the Hole exhibits a unique quality among Billy Wilder's films. However, similarities can be found between Tatum and characters in other Wilder movies such as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Apartment, and Some Like It Hot. These parallels include an exploration of themes centered around deception, masquerading, and assuming false identities that are contrary to one's true nature. Also, unlike the other characters mentioned, Tatum is not pretending or straying from his nature. Nevertheless, he stands out as the central figure embodying the art of deception in the film. In many of Wilder's films, the leading characters mentioned are often redeemed and justified by the conclusion, albeit sometimes too late, as seen in Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. These personalities are cynical characters who are willing to compromise their integrity and make deals that come at the expense of their souls.

Similar works

  • Other films critical of tabloid journalism and the manipulative power of the media, including: Citizen Kane, Sweet Smell of Success, A Face in the Crowd, Broadcast News, Day of the Locust, Network, and Nightcrawler
  • James Cagney films, particularly Public Enemy

Other key films by Billy Wilder

  • Double Indemnity
  • The Lost Weekend
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Stalag 17
  • Sabrina
  • The Seven Year Itch
  • The Spirit of St. Louis
  • Witness for the Prosecution
  • Some Like It Hot
  • The Apartment


Schindler's List remains as moving and memorable as it did 30 years ago

Friday, July 14, 2023

Steven Spielberg’s most important, personal, revered, and critically acclaimed work, Schindler's List tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who bravely saved around 1,200 Jewish workers during the Holocaust. Spielberg's exceptional storytelling abilities are evident in this picture, the screenplay for which was crafted by Steven Zaillian, based on Thomas Keneally's novel Schindler's Ark.

To hear a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Schindler’s List, conducted last week, click here. To listen to the July episode of the Cineversary podcast, which spotlights Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, click here.

What makes this picture profoundly significant and relevant 30 years after its release? This is one of the most emotionally powerful films of all time, and the ending could be the most humbling, moving, and memorable conclusion to a motion picture ever created. More importantly, Schindler's List endures as a crucial historical document. Through its unflinching portrayal of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Poland and different concentration camps, the film emphasizes the vital importance of learning from the past, embracing the truth about the persecution and mass killing of the Jews.

The power of Schindler's List also lies in its ability to offer a message of hope and compassion amidst the unspeakable evil of the Holocaust. The film showcases the courage of individuals who risked everything to help others during one of the darkest periods in human history, reminding us of the inherent goodness within humanity and the importance of standing up for what is right.

Furthermore, the film played a significant role in raising awareness about the Holocaust and its lasting impact on the world. It inspired a new generation of filmmakers to explore this pivotal historical event, leading to an increase in the production of Holocaust-related films and documentaries.

Its significance as a crucial cinematic text intended to raise Holocaust awareness and honor this true life story often overshadows another truism: that Schindler’s List is an excellently crafted film that could represent Spielberg’s finest work. This is above all a triumph of storytelling, with perhaps the most deserving praise going to the screenplay by Steven Zaillian and to Spielberg for his directing choices. Likewise, the performances deserve considerable kudos, particularly the portrayals of Schindler, Amon Goeth, and Itzhak Stern by, respectively, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley – actors who seem to effortlessly inhabit these roles and exude extraordinary credibility and authenticity.

Schindler's List was groundbreaking and inspiring in numerous ways, as well. First, it was one of the first major Hollywood films to directly depict and seriously dramatize the Holocaust and the persecution and genocide of the Jews with dramatic realism and disturbing violence, an approach that had previously been largely avoided in mainstream cinema. The film portrayed the horrors of the concentration camps and the cruelties and atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis with unwavering authenticity and in distressing detail, creating a powerful and important work that, for many, remains the benchmark non-documentary Holocaust film.

The picture was also aesthetically memorable in its use of black-and-white juxtaposed with selective color. The choice to shoot in monochrome was astute, as it lends the movie an aura of gravitas and makes the narrative look and feel timeless. Black and white effectively captures the stark reality of the concentration camps and the unspeakable acts that occurred there; it creates a sense of historical distance that emphasized the gravity of the events depicted. But just as striking is the brief employment of color in merely a handful of scenes: The prologue, which shows a Jewish family celebrating the Sabbath; the red coat of the young girl running for her life during the ghetto liquidation scene; the later return of the red coat, whose young wearer is shown dead; and the epilogue, showing the actual survivors visiting Schindler's grave in contemporary times.

Schindler's List further stands out as distinctive by portraying the Holocaust through the eyes of a non-Jewish protagonist. This approach provided a fresh perspective on the theme of moral responsibility and highlighted the bravery and compassion of those who risked everything to help others during this dark time.

As a result of its critical and commercial success, Schindler's List had a lasting influence on the film industry, inspiring a new wave of Holocaust-related films and documentaries. Its impact helped to raise global awareness of the Holocaust and its ongoing impact on the world.

This is also noteworthy as being Spielberg’s first R-rated feature, containing several scenes with graphic violence, nudity, and profanity. Previously, this director was firmly associated with PG and PG-13 films, many of which were geared to all ages and families.

Thematically, Shindler’s List is, perhaps above all, an examination of the dichotomy between good and evil. First presented as self-centered and opportunistic, Schindler pivots between the influence of the malevolent Göth and the morally righteous Stern. He eventually chooses the path of the latter as Schindler undergoes a transformation from exploitive businessman to surreptitious rescuer, using his power and resources to save over a thousand Jewish lives. The main character demonstrates that each of us can be lured between these opposing poles but ultimately choose to be a force for good.

A handful of movies and filmmakers likely inspired by Schindler’s List and Spielberg include:
  • Life is Beautiful (1997) - An Italian film that tells the story of a Jewish man who uses his imagination to shield his son from the horrors of a concentration camp. Jakob the Liar (1999) - Directed by Peter Kassovitz, this film is a remake of a 1975 East German film and tells the story of a Jewish man who fabricates news reports about Allied victories during World War II to inspire hope among his fellow prisoners.
  • The Pianist (2002) - A biographical film that tells the story of a Jewish pianist in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation.
  • The Book Thief (2013) - Directed by Brian Percival, this film is an adaptation of Markus Zusak's novel and tells the story of a young girl in Nazi Germany who steals books to share with others and resist the regime.
  • Ida (2013) - Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, this film tells the story of a young woman in Poland who discovers that her parents were Jewish and were killed during the Holocaust. Like Schindler's List, it is a powerful exploration of the legacy of the Holocaust.
Among other movies about or set during The Holocaust that have been released since Schindler’s List are:
  • The Long Way Home - USA, 1997 (Documentary)
  • The Grey Zone - USA, 2002
  • The Counterfeiters - Austria, 2007
  • Inglourious Basterds – USA, 2009
  • In Darkness - Poland, 2011
  • Son of Saul - Hungary, 2015
  • Denial - UK, 2016
And here’s a timeline of notable feature films with the Holocaust as a primary focus, setting, flashback, backstory, or secondary element, released before Schindler’s List:
  • Night Train to Munich – UK, 1940
  • The Mortal Storm – US, 1940
  • The Great Dictator – US, 1940
  • To Be or Not to Be – US, 1942
  • None Shall Escape – US, 1943
  • The Seventh Cross – US, 1944
  • The Unvanquished – USSR, 1945
  • The Stranger – US, 1946
  • The Juggler – US, 1953
  • Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) – France, 1956
  • The Diary of Anne Frank – US, 1959
  • Judgment at Nuremberg – 1961
  • The Pawnbroker – US, 1964
  • The Last Chapter – US, 1966 (documentary)
  • Hitler: A Film from Germany – Germany, 1977
  • The Holocaust – US, 1978 (TV miniseries)
  • Sophie's Choice – US, 1982
  • Shoah – France, 1985 (documentary)
  • Escape from Sobibor – US, 1987 (TV movie)
  • Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie – France, 1988 (Documentary)
  • Music Box – USA, 1989
  • Europa Europa – Germany, 1990


Cineversary podcast celebrates big anniversaries of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Annette Insdorf and James Kendrick
In Cineversary podcast episode #60, host Erik Martin honors the 30th anniversary of Schindler’s List and the 25th anniversary of Saving Private Ryan, both directed by Steven Spielberg. Joining him this month is Annette Insdorf, professor in the Graduate Film Program of Columbia’s School of the Arts and author of Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust; and James Kendrick, professor of film at Baylor University and author of Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg. Erik, Annette, and James will explore why these films still resonate all these years later, ways they were inspiring and innovative, what they reveal about Spielberg, 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 Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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


Move over, Babe: This pig in the city's got a perturbed papa you won't forget

Monday, July 3, 2023

Let’s be honest: The past several years have been hit or miss for actor Nicolas Cage, who has made some curious acting choices, to put it mildly, in the 21st century. But he’s enjoyed a critical and popular resurgence of sorts lately, as evidenced by his work in Mandy, Color Out of Space, and, perhaps most impressively, Pig – a 2021 memorable feature directed and written by newcomer Michael Sarnoski. Cage portrays Rob, a truffle hunter living a quiet life in the secluded Oregon wilderness alongside his beloved pet: a cherished foraging pig. Rob's peaceful existence is shattered when his porcine pal is abducted, thrusting him into an audacious trek through the bustling metropolis in search of her. Along the journey, he plunges into the mysterious underworld of the culinary realm, revealing to us his own enigmatic history and unearthing the profound significance of his connection with the pig.

What sets Pig apart from the pack is its profound and emotionally charged storytelling. Sarnoski skillfully intertwines a narrative centered around characters that captures the very essence of the tale. Critics have lauded the film for its unique and innovative premise, captivating cinematography, and stimulating examination of identity and purpose.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Pig, conducted last week.

This is an unpredictable movie that undercuts our anticipation for what we think it’s going to be. Instead of a bare-knuckled, gritty revenge thriller in which the protagonist vanquishes his foes and recovers his kidnapped loved one – a la Taken or John Wick – Pig turns out to be a nuanced, surprisingly sensitive character study with several twists and curiosities along the way.

You might have, for example, expected it to feature more action, violence, or thrills. These elements are minimal. Or, perhaps you thought it was going to take a more comedic or quirky route, like an oddball buddy picture, or an outlandish odyssey tale like The Straight Story. Instead, the tone often remains melancholy and serious. This could have been a contemporary noirish detective story, but not to be. And no (spoiler!), our hero and his swine in distress are not reunited by the conclusion.

Interestingly, the movie is peculiarly segmented into different chapters with unusual titles, like “Mom’s French Toast & Deconstructed Scallops” or “A Bottle, A Bird, A Salted Baguette.” And the subculture of restauranteurs, chefs, fighters, bakers, and other underground players in and around Portland make for a colorful dramatis personae.

Cage demonstrates again that he should not be underestimated. Although he’s taken some serious left turns and stumbles since his Academy Award win for Leaving Las Vegas nearly three decades ago, he’s more than capable of turning in a stellar performance. This is certainly true of his embodiment of Rob in this film.

The obvious life lesson at the heart of Pig? Be your authentic self. Rob challenges Amir, Chef Derek, and others to stop being fake and follow their true pursuits without conforming, acquiescing, or denying their deepest passions. We see how Amir is putting up a front and rejecting a false image of success and cultural sophistication, but the truth is he’s living in the shadow of his shady father and the prevailing grief and toxicity that haunts his family.

Brian Eggert with Deep Focus Review wrote: “(Pig) questions how people resolve to adopt roles or wear masks, while underneath, they remain unhappy and betrayed by themselves. Somber and cynical about our habit of choosing financial comfort and assimilation over our dreams, Sarnoski’s film asks that we question whether our choices are authentic…Pig is a rare film that treats its characters with an open heart and its themes with an intimate profundity that never feels affected or disingenuous. Like Robin’s effect on other characters, it can take people to places they may not want to go but should.”

Pig also reinforces the truism that you can never truly go home again. Although Rob is forced to venture back into the Portland world and subculture he left behind years ago to pursue his stolen pig, he and we know that he cannot re-assimilate into this milieu. There is simply too much water under the pig trough for that to happen.

This is a work that reckons with the power of loss, heartache, and memories. A pet oinker may seem like a relatively insignificant companion, but to Rob – who also lost his wife in unexplained circumstances years before – the pig is an intrinsic part of his life whose absence will take a toll. Consider that Rob likely withdrew from society and the big city because of the death of his wife long ago. His inability to play her homemade cassettes speaks to the might of memories and the pain that the loss of a close loved one can bring. Ponder, too, the impact of cherished memories; case in point, Rob serving the same thrilling meal he cooked Darius and his wife years prior triggers recollections in Darius of happier times with his spouse, which causes this villainous character’s tough façade to crumble; Darius then admits the truth about the death of Rob’s pig.

A further movie moral to contemplate is that it’s commonly life’s simplest pleasures that are often the most impactful and profound. Rob is an austere man with modest needs. He appears happy merely living off the grid in the woods with his snouted companion, finding quiet joy in rooting out nature’s delicacies and cooking them up in his shack. Way to win at life, Rob, and beat the high cost of living, too.

Similar works

  • Fight Club
  • Taken
  • John Wick
  • Big Night
  • The Menu
  • Okja
  • Babette’s Feast
  • Winter’s Bone
  • Ratatouille


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