Blog Directory CineVerse: November 2023

The Queen comes clean

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Director Lauren Greenfield hit the documentary jackpot when she was filming The Queen of Versailles, her 2012 feature chronicling the lives of uber-rich couple David and Jackie Siegel. That’s because the 2008 financial meltdown happened during production, which seriously threatened the fortunes of Siegel and his timeshare empire, transforming the film seemingly from a puff piece profile of extravagant prosperity to a cautionary tale rumination on the fleeting nature of wealth and privilege. The timing was perfect, as the Siegels were constructing the largest single-family home in the United States, inspired by the Palace of Versailles in France, while the cameras were rolling, until the financial crisis hit and their Xanadu was put on hold. This doc adeptly captures the aftermath of that tumultuous period, providing a distinctive perspective on how economic downturns can impact even the most advantaged individuals. David and Jackie Siegel emerge as fascinating—if not completely unsympathetic—characters, shedding light on the extravagances and vulnerabilities inherent in the lives of the super-rich. The Queen of Versailles also serves as a timely social commentary on opulence, consumerism, and the pursuit of the American Dream, prompting watchers to ponder the ramifications of unbridled ambition and materialism.

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

Unparalleled access to privileged lives makes this movie particularly riveting. It’s easy to question why David and Jackie would allow the cameras to infiltrate into their present and past lives to such an intimate and revealing extent. And some of the unflattering, nakedly candid, and boastful things David says are eyebrow-raising – things he will likely later regret revealing.

It’s difficult to feel sorry for these real-life characters whatsoever, considering their extravagant lifestyles, selfish proclivities, and swaggering attitudes. But Jackie in particular can sometimes evoke our empathy – not necessarily sympathy – because she appears more down-to-earth, humanistic, and centered than her husband.

The filmmakers seem to be relatively objective and fair-handed in the footage they present, avoiding any statement-making about, for example, David’s financial comeuppance. However, a New York Times article brought the director’s editing approaches into question, suggesting that shots were arranged out of order to affect the narrative timeline, which suggests that this film is biased and manipulative. Reviewer Brian Orndorf wrote: “Greenfield keeps the focus on the absurdity of behavior and routine, studying David and Jackie for cracks in their veneer, hoping to expose a pinhole of vulnerability as the empire comes crashing down around them, introducing new realities for the pair and their kids, a spoiled yet observant bunch who will have to sing for their supper when adulthood hits them like a truck.”

Major themes woven into this work include the dark side of the American dream, hubris, bad karma, and schadenfreude. David Siegel is easy to dislike because he comes across as arrogant, boastful, narcissistic, and opportunistic. His fall from financial heights is especially delicious to viewers who find him vulgar and appalling in his ostentatious lifestyle. Indeed, The Queen of Versailles also reminds us that pride goeth before a fall. This story proves, yet again, that overconfident, self-important, and conceited people are likely to fail and suffer indignity and public scorn. The Economist wrote: “The film's great achievement is that it invites both compassion and Schadenfreude. What could have been merely a silly send-up manages to be a meditation on marriage and a metaphor for the fragility of fortunes, big and small.”

Life lesson #2? Never forget your roots. Jackie comes across as a slightly more relatable character we can empathize with, partially because she doesn’t forget where she came from and she demonstrates compassion and generosity for those less fortunate, although she is also spoiled, privileged, and presumptuous. Recall how she mistakenly thinks that the car rental company will provide a chauffeur and that the hired help can handle all of the responsibilities around her home.

The emperor wears no clothes is another clear takeaway. David and Jackie flaunted their wealth and power for years, but face a reckoning after the financial crisis of 2008. Despite having a home that appears lavish and countless enviable possessions, their property is littered with feces and accumulated junk – a symbol of how, despite being rich on paper, this couple has poor values.

Lastly, this is certainly a story of a floundering family tree. David and Jackie should be overjoyed that they have a large family and many children who, at least earlier in the story, presumably won’t have to worry about their financial futures. But they take these kids for granted, let other caregivers primarily raise them, and in the case of David show little to no attention. A man can, despite lacking money, be enriched with the rewarding responsibility of having a family, but David appears to be going broke on both fronts.

Similar works

  • Billionaire Boys Club
  • The Big Short
  • Too Big to Fail
  • Some Kind of Heaven
  • Inside Job
  • Untouchable
  • Reality TV series like The Real Housewives

Other films by Lauren Greenfield

  • Thin
  • Generation Wealth
  • The Kingmaker


Dark political comedy, Italian style

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Directed by Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, Seven Beauties is a dark comedy-drama from 1975 depicting the story of Pasqualino, a World War II petty criminal and deserter portrayed by Giancarlo Giannini. Renowned for its black humor and thought-provoking perspective on war, politics, and human nature, the movie follows Pasqualino as he navigates a harsh and tumultuous world and tries to survive despite increasingly harsh circumstances. The film delves into themes of endurance, morality, and the dehumanizing impact of war. Despite its somber thematic content and graphic violence, Wertmüller skillfully infuses laughs and satire into the storyline, resulting in a distinctive fusion of genres.

Seven Beauties garnered critical acclaim for its daring and unconventional approach, securing four Academy Award nominations, notably Best Director for Wertmüller, making this the first film directed by a woman to receive a nomination in that category.

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

One of the most interesting things about Seven Beauties is that, despite being made by a woman, it’s not regarded as a feminist film. Many of the female characters in the picture are deliberately made to look and act ugly, grotesque, fat, crazy, cruel, and inhuman. Wertmüller makes us follow and root for a repugnant, unsympathetic man who commits murder and rape, acts violently against women, kills his fellow prisoners, and yet survives against the odds.

Seven Beauties has one of the strangest opening sequences of any 1970s film, featuring black-and-white archival war footage mixed with a jazzy tune married to badly sung lyrics that seem to be indicting the gullibility of the Italian people for their part as an Axis power in World War II under the spell of the dictator Mussolini.

Additionally, the movie adopts sudden and strange tonal shifts, trying to balance between serious drama and black comedy and often leaving the viewer unsure as to how they should feel. Wertmüller attempts to wield comedy as a tool to navigate through the tragedy, introducing a layer of complexity to the narrative. Some critics found fault with this approach, while others admired it.

Per reviewer Amelie Lasker: “The film is a masterclass in shifting tone. It manages to mingle humor with the atrocities without trivializing what the Nazis are doing. Instead, Pasqualino trying to dispose of the body of the pimp he murders, is effectively played for laughs, as is a scene in which he feigns madness to get himself moved from prison to the insane asylum. Giannini is fantastic in both the comedic scenes and the intensely emotional scenes…How Wertmüller mixes the humorous with haunting realism makes both seem more intense.”

Seven Beauties is noteworthy, too, because Wertmüller often uses no dialogue to depict major scenes, such as the courtroom sequence; also, the narrative is told in nonlinear fashion, beginning in the middle of Pasqualino’s tale and interspersing lots of flashbacks as it cuts between timelines. Cinema Sight blogger Wesley Lovell wrote: “One of the most interesting things about the film is the structure of the parallel time periods. The present-tense segments are short at the beginning and grow in length until they dominate the latter half of the film. In reverse, the flashbacks monopolize the first half of the film and then diminish in length through the end. And the final scene, designed like the flashbacks, but purportedly taking place in the present, almost seems too idyllic and hopeful, suggesting that perhaps what we’re witnessing is a flashforward of desire and not an embodiment of reality.”

This would have been controversial as one of the first films to attempt a graphically violent representation/recreation of a Nazi concentration camp where Holocaust victims were kept and killed. Seven Beauties also contains one of the most deliberately repulsive and non-titillating sex scenes ever made.

Survival at all costs is the predominant tenet here. The filmmakers continually ask: What are you willing to do and how much morality and self-respect are you willing to forego to survive when you are desperate? Pasqualino, ironically a man consumed with maintaining honor, appearances, and dignity, is prepared to debase himself to the extreme to avoid death and punishment. He learns that, to survive and thrive, you have to be willing to compromise yourself and your values, as evidenced when he returns home at the end to find that his mother, sisters, and the girl he loves have all become prostitutes. Unlike earlier in the film, when he would have rejected these supposedly corrupted women, he accepts their status and insists on marrying the prostitute who loves him.

“Seven Beauties is essentially one long prostitution joke, one which operates on the central thesis that anyone who can survive war must inherently be some kind of monster,” opined Blogger Eli Boonin-Vail. “In a brilliant and sickening twist of fate, Wertmüller chronicles how a man who once assaulted his own sister for becoming a prostitute is forced to pimp himself out.”

The dehumanizing effects of war are front and center, as well. Pasqualino is forced to commit immoral acts while a soldier, deserter, and concentration camp prisoner that erodes any sense of morality, honor, or dignity.

A reading of Seven Beauties is also impossible without exploring gender politics. Pasqualino seems to represent some of the worst aspects of toxic masculinity, including the adoption of macho bravado, misogynistic treatment of women, and being sexually opportunistic and deviant. But we witness his gradual debasement as the power dynamics are shifted away from Pasqualino to other women, including the asylum clinician and the female commandant of the Nazi concentration camp.

Lastly, consider how political crimes are punished worse than more reprehensible acts in the world of Seven Beauties. Pasqualino gets a lighter sentence than another prisoner who is labeled a socialist, and he’s more severely punished (with electroshock therapy) for mocking Mussolini in the sanitarium than he is for raping a patient there. Talk about making a political statement as a filmmaker.

Similar works

  • Amarcord
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Life is Beautiful

Other films by Lina Wertmüller

  • Swept Away
  • The Seduction of Mimi
  • Love and Anarchy


Here's looking at you, "Kid"

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Kid, a 1921 silent comedy-drama film directed, written, produced, scored, and starring Charlie Chaplin, remains one of the artist’s most renowned and timeless creations. The narrative revolves around a vagabond who stumbles upon an abandoned infant, taking on the role of a surrogate parent. Six-year-old Jackie Coogan portrays the child, whose presence becomes an integral part of the tramp's existence, as they grapple with the hardships of poverty, the complexities of social services, and the challenges of life on the streets.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of The Kid, which occurred last week, click here.

What’s significant about The Kid is that this was Chaplin’s first feature-length film he directed and wrote—a six-reeler that spans over 60 minutes. Chaplin had been increasing his runtimes over the previous few years, but this was a gamble on his part financially and artistically that a 60-plus-minute movie would be commercially successful and embraced by the masses, which it was. (Note that the original 1921 version of the film was slightly edited by Chaplin in 1971 and given a new score he wrote; the director excised some shots and scenes he feared were too maudlin for contemporary viewers.)

The Kid is also noteworthy for its groundbreaking narrative approach, seamlessly blending elements of comedy and melodrama, at a time when the two weren’t commonly mixed. It aptly demonstrates Chaplin's knack for melding slapstick humor with poignant and emotionally resonant moments, earning it a place as one of the earliest instances of a dramedy (comedy-drama) in cinema.

Jackie Coogan's performance garnered deserved critical acclaim, too. His work in The Kid, at the tender age of six, solidified his position as one of the first major child stars in the history of film.

This work also serves as a platform for social commentary, shedding light on the trials and tribulations of the impoverished and the obstacles they confront, including the inadequacies of the welfare system. It emerged as one of the early films to address social issues through a combination of humor and storytelling.

Consider that Chaplin came from a childhood of poverty and abandonment. He had an absent father and a mother who couldn’t provide financially for her children; she was committed to a mental asylum when Chaplin was 14. The boy also was forced to serve in a workhouse twice before age nine. Additionally, Chaplin’s newborn son died of birth defects just days after being born in 1919, and he experienced a troubled marriage and impending divorce from his first wife. All of these factors contributed to the narrative, acting, and sentimental/melodramatic tone of The Kid. “The horror of abandonment, the pathetic vulnerability of an infant in a harsh world, provides the dark backdrop against which that vision stands out. Instead of denying such horrors, Chaplin learned from melodrama that hardship could be confronted and defeated. His way of defeating horror was to transform it—by converting loss into gags,” opined Criterion Collection essayist Tom Gunning.

The thematic thrust of The Kid concerns socioeconomically disadvantaged surrogacy, or the concept of a “stray adopting a stray.” Despite his impoverished position and several attempts to skirt any responsibility, the Tramp ultimately chooses to keep the orphaned and abandoned infant as his own, and he finds a way to make this arrangement work practically and financially. Even though he is not the boy’s biological father nor is he an ideal provider financially, the Tramp develops a stronger bond with young John than most dads would with their sons.

Reinvention and resourcefulness is a further collective idea espoused in this film. The Tramp is forced to get crafty and adaptive with the meager means he has. He recycles or reconfigures several objects and cleverly finds solutions to common parenting problems like the need for diapers and bottles by being quick-witted. Gunning continued: “Chaplin’s poetic response to the world relies on his ingenious redefinition of objects. Many of his gags repurpose things, transforming their uses and meanings through his inventive play with them…We see him efficiently cutting up and folding cloths for the baby’s diapers, acknowledging from the start that care includes the most basic of bodily functions. Instead of a traditional cradle, the baby hangs suspended in an improvised hammock. His nutritive needs are taken care of by a similarly hanging teapot with a nipple forced onto its spout.”

The Kid also reminds us that we are our brothers’ keepers, suggesting that, regardless of our station in life or lack of resources, we have a responsibility to step up and help those less fortunate, the emotional rewards for which can be priceless. Per film essayist Audrey Fox: “It’s a tremendously optimistic view of humanity, that a reclusive and antisocial person who is perhaps least likely to seek to protect the herd would nonetheless make the choice to care for a small, helpless child for no other reason than instinctual compassion. This raw empathy is why “The Kid” remains Chaplin’s most emotionally complex film, and how his simple story of would-be father and son has maintained its relevance for a century.”

Additionally, this movie stresses that maintaining a traditional family dynamic is often in a child’s best interest. Remember that the Tramp is, in reality, a con artist by necessity who trains his child in the business of bilking customers who wouldn’t otherwise need his products and services. Like a Jean Valjean who would steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, the Tramp remains sympathetic to us because of his low socioeconomic underdog status and the fact that he chose to unofficially adopt John when he didn’t have to. But this hardscrabble life likely would have led to a lack of opportunities and higher risks for John growing up. It’s fortunate, then, that he is reunited with his mother by the conclusion of the story and that she allows the Tramp to presumably remain in John’s life, although we don’t know to what extent. John will assumedly be safer, healthier, and better advantaged under her roof while also, hopefully, benefitting from a continued relationship with the Tramp. Fox added: “It’s crucial to the impact of the story that the Tramp’s way to earn a living lies outside the law: it further highlights how removed he is from a traditional community and creates a natural conflict within the narrative. The life he can provide for his child is loving, but is that enough?”

Similar works

  • A Dog’s Life, a short also by Chaplin
  • Paper Moon
  • Sidewalk Stories
  • A Perfect World
  • Little Miss Marker
  • News of the World
  • The Midnight Sky
  • Up
  • The Mandalorian
  •  Leon: The Professional
  • Kramer vs. Kramer

Other feature films by Chaplin

  • The Gold Rush
  • The Circus
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight


Cineversary podcast honors 70th birthday of Ozu's Tokyo Story

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

In Cineversary podcast episode #64, host Erik Martin is joined by David Desser, emeritus professor of cinema studies at the University of Illinois and one of the world’s foremost experts on Asian cinema, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujirō Ozu. They discuss why and how this film remains a masterwork, Tokyo Story’s prominent themes, Ozu’s unique style, and much more.
David Desser
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


Hello darkness, my old friend...

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Whether you regard it as a timeless classic or a fascinating but dated relic of its era, The Graduate continues to intrigue as a unique cinematic work that reflects the boomer generation it targeted as well as the talented collaborators involved, including director Mike Nichols. Adapted from Charles Webb's 1963 novel of the same name by screenwriters Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, the movie features Dustin Hoffman in the role of Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate grappling with uncertainty about his future and embarking on a complex affair with an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, portrayed by Anne Bancroft. The film delves into themes of alienation, intergenerational strife, and the quest for purpose in a post-graduate world.

The Graduate serves as a mirror to the evolving societal norms and values of the 1960s, vividly depicting the generation gap between younger and older characters while challenging the conformity and materialism prevalent in the older generation. Notably, the film's soundtrack, featuring music by Simon & Garfunkel, gained immense popularity and is closely associated with the movie. Songs such as "Mrs. Robinson" and "The Sound of Silence" became chart-toppers and are inseparable from the film's thematic essence. The Graduate's impressive cinematography, narrative techniques, and use of symbolism have left an enduring influence on the craft of filmmaking, and the work garnered numerous Academy Award nominations, including a nod for Best Picture, with Mike Nichols securing the Oscar for Best Director. 

Our CineVerse group revisited this picture last week and engaged in a healthy discourse about its many merits. To listen to a recording of that group discussion, click here.

To read a past CineVerse post about The Graduate, click here.


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