Blog Directory CineVerse: December 2023

From soap to fudge, A Christmas Story remains the go-to movie for fans this time of year

Friday, December 22, 2023

Let’s talk turkey here—Chinese turkey, if you will. What’s America’s most beloved and rewatched Christmas movie? Many would say the honor goes to a black-and-white classic like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, or Miracle on 34th Street. Others argue a more modern Yuletide film is deserving of the crown, such as Home Alone, Christmas Vacation, or Elf. But based on continual cable replays, strong polling, and endless repeat viewing value, the champion is A Christmas Story—currently celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Consider that the film was only a modest commercial success upon its original release in November 1983 and garnered mostly mediocre notices from critics. It quickly vanished from theaters but years later began snowballing into a huge fan favorite thanks to home video and cable. This is a case study of a little engine that could: A film that defied the odds and became a pop culture sensation.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted this week, click here. To listen to the latest episode of the Cineversary podcast celebrating A Christmas Story, click here.  

Amazingly, A Christmas Story has been played in a 24-hour marathon every year on TNT since 1997 and on TBS for the past 20 years. In 2008, over 54 million people are estimated to have watched the marathon, which represents almost one in six Americans tuning in to the cable channel for their yearly dose of A Christmas Story.

As proof of its continued popularity, In 2019 and 2012, the film was named the favorite or best holiday movie ever based on the results of surveying by OnePoll and Marist Poll, respectively. It’s also placed tops on the list of greatest Christmas films of all time by IGN and AOL.

A Christmas Story earns extra points in the authenticity column for being a period piece that gets all the small details and references right: the fact that kids would use a decoder pin to decipher secret messages on popular radio serials like Little Orphan Annie; Lifebouy soap would have been considered the worst tasting among foul-mouthed kids; sparks and electrical fires were a more serious concern due to overloaded outlets in early 1940s America; the Chicago Bears football team—world champions three out of four years in the early 1940s—was the squad you rooted for if you lived in Northwest Indiana like the Parker family did; many a mom had a copy of Look Magazine in her home; and the Wizard of Oz would have been on the minds of many kids at this time (if you pay attention, you can catch a bit of a meta joke: the costumed Oz characters at the Christmas parade chase away Mickey Mouse and his Disney-ites; remember that the film A Chrisstmas Story was made by MGM, also the studio behind The Wizard of Oz).

It’s deserving of accolades, too, thanks to nearly perfect casting. Peter Billingsley has the ideal face, size, and acting instincts for the role of Ralphie, using his big blue eyes, sheepish grin, and expressive eyebrows to maximum effect, while Ian Petrella as younger brother Randy never looks like he’s acting at all, so natural is his performance. All of Ralphie’s friends absolutely look their parts, and the freckled countenance and wicked smile sported by Zach Ward as Scut Farkus is unforgettable. But the crowning touch casting-wise comes with the presence of Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin as mom and dad Parker, who know exactly how and when to play it straight and when to yuk it up for maximum laughs. McGavin as the “Old Man” chews a bit of scenery, but that’s entirely appropriate considering these are hyperbolic childhood memories.

This picture also has one of the all-time great lines in movie history, which is a fantastic running gag: “You’ll shoot your eye out”; among the greatest movie villains ever in the town bully Scut Farkus; and one of the best David versus Goliath feel-good underdog wins in the movies when Ralphie finally fights back and defeats Farkus.

What gives this film its staying power and longevity over the past four decades – especially considering that this is a story set in 1940, 83 years ago, and was released 40 years ago? It’s more than simply blind tradition and comfort viewing of a film we’ve seen so often that we can’t help but revisit it that explains its evergreen appeal. A Christmas Story serves as a mini pop-culture history lesson, teaching new generations about what life was like as a kid 80-plus years ago and reminding viewers that the childhood experience and its ups and downs are universal, regardless of what era you grew up in. Younger viewers who pay attention may find it fascinating that the most advanced entertainment technology in 1940 was a radio, that many families brought home and decorated a real Christmas tree much later in the Christmas season, that tires often blew out loudly and suddenly on cars, or that Red Ryder and Little Orphan Annie were as popular to youngsters as Spongebob Squarepants or The Avengers. And yet many can also relate to Ralphie and his life, including the challenges of living in a middle-class family, worrying about Santa getting you the present you want, stressing about a school assignment, or trying to avoid neighborhood bullies, profanity-spewing fathers, report cards, getting punished for a misdeed, your parents arguing, being embarrassed by a younger sibling, and discovering the ugly truth about crass commercialism and consumerism.

Per Emily St. James at AV Club: “It’s the Christmas movie I’d most want to live in. The movie’s Norman Rockwell America seems further and further away with every year—and that’s a good thing in a lot of ways…But at the same time, I miss a world that I came in at the tail-end of—of downtown department stores and small towns that weren’t just bedroom communities for larger cities, of boisterous, copyright-flouting Christmas parades and two-story houses a family could live in on one income.”

It remains a cut above in the Christmas cinema subgenre perhaps because it’s refreshingly postmodern in its tone and sensibilities while also being traditional in its themes and intentions. Put another way, it’s sentimental yet cynical, nostalgic yet streetwise, although not overly so in any of those departments.

Ruminate on how the film’s department store depiction of Santa is certainly not sweet, touching, or precious, or how there is no saccharine scene involving Ralphie having a transcendent moment of spoken kinship with his father, who remains so intimidating, curious, and idiosyncratic to him throughout the story. Also, the boys, while often cute and innocent, are sly and precocious for nine-year-olds, often using adult vernacular like “old man,” “smartass,” and “son of a bitch” and demonstrating a prepubescent interest in the opposite sex, as we see Ralphie fondling his father’s leg lamp. And Ralphie proves to be an undependable friend, abandoning Flick twice and ratting on Schwartz. There’s little sentimentality to be found in these and other examples.

Yes, Clark and his collaborators wrap things up in a tender, poignant bow by the conclusion. But many of the vignettes are colored by hilariously sarcastic quips and tinged by the sardonically articulate insights of our narrator, the now-adult Ralphie, who is looking back upon a cherished time in his youth with a fondness that’s nevertheless framed within the aged lens of experience. He’s being honest in his reminiscences, but we can discern that Ralphie the grownup acknowledges that a lot of the things he found wondrous and mysterious as a child actually can be more easily understood now. The wisened and older Ralphie yearns for those simpler, happier times, as we can, too, but he relays how being a kid was more often frustrating, disappointing, confusing, unfair, and downright frightening.

“A Christmas Story threads an incredibly difficult needle,” St. James continued in her review. “It’s nostalgic both for a more universal childhood holiday, one full of longing for presents and negotiating bullies and writing down a Christmas wish list—things kids will probably always do as long as the holiday exists—and for a very specific kind of American holiday that’s mostly disappeared… filtered through grown Ralphie’s point-of-view, it becomes this weird nostalgic thing, a memory of something unpleasant that becomes pleasant because of the gauzy haze of nostalgia.”

Vanity Fair’s Sam Kashner called this “a new kind of holiday movie, one that acknowledged—even relished—the “unbridled avarice,” the commercialism, the disappointments, the hurt feelings, and all-around bad luck that, in reality, often define the merry season. In other words, what real Christmas was like in real families. It brought a bracing blast of satire and realism.”

This was one of the very first holiday films to be told from a child’s point of view. Our main protagonist is Ralphie, now a grown man as the narrator who recalls his experiences as a nine-year-old at Christmastime in the Midwest in 1940. As in E.T. a year earlier, the filmmakers often shoot at the kids’ level and keep the adult characters to a minimum.

What’s also significant is that, like Home Alone seven years later, it’s that rare Christmas picture involving child characters or geared to kids in which there are no supernatural phenomena—the real Santa doesn’t appear and save the day, for example.

In 1983, it was arguably the most significant movie set during and themed around Christmas since Disney’s Babes in Toyland, a 1961 musical that no one remembers or rewatches. You could make a case that the last cherished holiday film before A Christmas Story was 1954’s White Christmas starring Bing Crosby.

Unlike many other holiday movies, this one is less driven by plot, serving more as a series of vignettes strung together, many of which have little to do with Christmas. Still, these various episodes work as mini-movies within the movie, scenes that play as self-contained stories you could watch out of context or order and still get immense satisfaction from viewing.

As further evidence of its staying power, ponder that A Christmas Story has three sequels: It Runs in the Family, also directed by Clark, released in 1994; A Christmas Story 2, released straight to DVD in 2012; and A Christmas Story Christmas, which debuted on Max in 2022. Additionally, following the debut of A Christmas Story, PBS’ American Playhouse featured two TV film adaptations using Sheperd’s narration and the same characters from the 1983 work: The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski, and Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. In 2000, there was also a stage play adaptation of the film, in 2012 the movie was adapted into a Broadway musical, and in 2017 that musical was aired live on Fox.

The late Bob Clark – who had previously helmed completely different films like the horror movies Black Christmas and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, as well as the teen sex comedy Porky’s – would seem an odd choice to direct A Christmas Story. However, although he’s not known for any particular stylistic tendencies and won’t be called an “auteur” anytime soon, Clark seemed to have a knack for bringing out memorable performances in children, as later evidenced in the family comedy Baby Geniuses and its sequel. It was his idea to cut into the set floors and place the camera at Ralphie’s height, better reflecting the perspective of a nine-year-old boy.

He used detailed index cards to storyboard each shot, demonstrating careful planning. And when writer and voiceover narrator Jean Shepherd tried to outflank Clark by attempting to supervise some of the actors and scenes, Clark quickly took charge and prevented the author from accessing the set.

The filmmaker also had a gift for visual comedy. Case in point: The scene segues of kids running to and from school between vignettes, the Black Bart gang-on-the-run imaginary sequence, and the turkey-stealing Bumpus dogs hastening a quick retreat from the Parker kitchen—all of which are exaggeratedly sped up and impeccably edited for comedic timing. Likewise, his other fantasy sequences – his teacher transforming into the Wicked Witch of the West and a blind Ralphie returning home to shame his parents – are equally effective funny bits. It’s also a nice touch to have Ralphie break the fourth wall and sneak a rascally smile to the audience after he convinces his mother that an icicle broke his glasses.

“Clark knows when to play things straight, as in the unbroken long shot of the final Chop Suey Christmas Dinner. He also knows when he can be clever, as shown in Ralphie's disastrous visit to Santa. Clark's wide-angle Santa-boot-in-the-face shot expresses the trauma of childhood powerlessness as well as anything in David Lean's Great Expectations,” per DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson.

Perhaps Clark should also be given credit for some minor racial inclusivity. Ralphie’s classroom has a few African-American students in it, and we have a quick shot of African-Americans caroling on the street, although none of these actors are giving lines of dialogue or listed in the end credits. (On the other hand, Clark and company poke some uncomfortable fun at a group of Chinese restaurant workers in a very dated scene that hasn’t aged well.)

Thematically, it may not be Citizen Kane, but A Christmas Story has some valuable messages and subtexts to share. First, it teaches us that the secret to life is turning lemons into lemonade. Time and again, Ralphie and his family are unexpectedly and suddenly challenged but find ways to turn a bad situation into something good. Exhibit A: Thwarted by his subtle attempts to persuade his mother to get him a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, Ralphie then tries to advance his aims in writing via his class paper; when that falls through, he pivots to petition Santa toward his cause; that fails, too, but ultimately he is rewarded, surprisingly, when his father makes Ralphie’s wish come true. Exhibit B: After the neighbor’s dogs ruin their Christmas feast, the Parkers buck tradition and enjoy a meal at a Chinese restaurant. The line that sums up this overall life lesson? “Life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

Big takeaway #2? Frustrations are fleeting, but family is forever. A Christmas Story reminds us that life is often unpredictable and upsetting, but things work out when you have a good support system, as in a loving family. Ralphie’s mother covers for her son after his fight with Farkus, helping gloss things over with his father. “From then on, things were different between me and my mother,” the narrator says. And, despite long dreading the punitive nature of his father, the Old Man proves he can be loving and sensitive; remember that it’s Ralphie’s old man who comes through in the clutch by getting him the Red Ryder BB gun, to the mild objection of his mother. (The Old Man undoubtedly recognizes some of his younger self in Ralphie and gets his son the same toy he had when he was nine years old.)

This is also, to some extent, an innocence lost narrative. A Christmas Story is really about how Ralphie learns how the world works and how every childhood eventually matures into adulthood. The eloquent voiceover narration from a grown and more sophisticated Ralphie reminds us that we’re being shown two perspectives here: the POV of a nine-year-old but filtered through the weathered lens of a grownup who is wistful about his past yet expresses a worldly sarcasm disguised by florid language. The young Ralphie is wise to the commercialism around him and more perceptive to the power dynamics that drive his parents’ relationship. “We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught,” he says, and so it’s no surprise that he conjures up a lie about an icicle breaking his glasses to avoid having his BB gun confiscated and hearing, “I told you so” about shooting his eye out. Yet, Ralphie is still young enough to believe in Santa Claus and put his trust in St. Nick to deliver the goods. This story depicts that precious pivotal age when blind belief and childhood fantasies didn’t yet surrender to plausible realities and more critical thinking.

An official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred-shot range model air rifle may be the greatest Christmas gift Ralphie would ever receive. But the greatest gift a Christmas Story bestows on viewers is stellar storytelling. This tale and its voiceover by Shepherd demonstrate the author’s exceptional talent for wordsmithing and weaving a transfixing narrative pieced together from brilliantly articulated recollections of his own childhood, many of which were captured in his 1966 tome In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, some among them that became legendary stories he famously shared on the radio decades ago. Shepherd’s remarkable linguistic skills, Seinfeld-like observational humor, and penchant for relaying relatable yarns that underscore life’s many ironies, foibles, and otherwise routine occurrences that become bigger-fish-story astonishing moments through the prism of fallible memory are deservingly front and center throughout this film. (The television series The Wonder Years, launched a few years later, would successfully steal this adult voiceover narration approach.)

Imagine, for a moment, A Christmas Story stripped of this audible storyteller. Sure, it would have been a fun flick with Billingsley as Ralphie doing the heavy lifting. However, it’s the audio narration and verbiage crafting by Shepherd that gives this movie its comical gravitas, nostalgic power, and undeniable charm. His disembodied presence is also crucial to better appreciate one of the key messages of this work—loss of innocence—because without that voice we aren’t reminded how important it is to cherish our childhood memories, both good and bad, and appreciate a time when we maintained a trusting sense of wonder about the world’s mysteries just before its harsher truths came into full light.


Noir meets sci-fi, French New Wave style

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Imagine a science-fiction movie loaded with fascinating ideas and themes but boasting zero special effects. The end product would probably be a lot like Alphaville, a 1965 French film helmed by the influential director Jean-Luc Godard, which emerged just after the zenith of the French New Wave cinema movement. Set against a dystopian backdrop, the narrative follows Lemmy Caution, portrayed by American actor Eddie Constantine, a clandestine operative navigating the emotionless metropolis of Alphaville. Governed by the supercomputer Alpha 60, which orchestrates every facet of existence while stifling human emotions, Caution's directive is to locate and dismantle Alpha 60.

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

Consider how any science-fiction film today would be crucified by the public for daring to lack the dollars and digital resources we expect of a futuristic genre picture. Yet, despite lacking visual effects, a major budget, or a sacrosanct script (much of the acting and dialogue were widely improvised), the work benefits from a unique visual aesthetic, characterized by stark and minimalist set designs and Godard's incorporation of urban landscapes and modern architecture that contribute to the setting’s Orwellian ambiance. Godard also impressively blends sci-fi and noir elements as well as high and low culture with this production, and he peppers the film with interesting pop culture references--from Dick Tracy and Heckl and Jeckl to Ford automobiles and Nosferatu.

This is, after all, a film by one of the architects of the French New Wave and an extreme cinematic experimenter, so it’s no surprise Alphaville looks and feels vastly different from other movies of this period. He employs jump cuts, long takes juxtaposed with quick cuts, and a hodgepodge of stylistic choices, including using negative photography. His characters even occasionally break the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera.

DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson admired this approach, writing: “Godard constructs his movies like unrepentant beat poetry. Many have ragged inter-titles arbitrarily inserting bald political messages, sometimes frustratingly obvious ones. In Alphaville, the screen is constantly being seized by neon signs, drawings and traffic signals, etc. Here they signify the aura of the omniscient Alpha-60 computer, a menace represented visually by whirring fans and crude flashing lights accompanied by telegraph noises…Godard doesn't try to compensate for a lack of traditional production values but instead flaunts his budget 'weaknesses' by declaring them irrelevant. There are no special effects except for flashing to negative every once in a while -- to perhaps represent the malfunctioning of Alpha-60? Raoul Coutard's handheld photography is actually very smooth, even beautiful. There are a number of well-shot scenes that contrast with setups as crude as anything in a no-budget exploitation movie. It's the artistic tone of Godard's film that says, 'I'm trying to express myself here. This is Jazz. Read between the images - it's not my job to put a perfect phony image in front of your faces at all times.'”

The score for Alphaville can register as unrelentingly self-serious and bombastic, but it hints at Godard’s winking parodic style. He’s often playing with tropes of the noir/detective genre, as when Caution suddenly tussles with an assassin in his hotel room or when he’s being manhandled by the police. Being that the mid-60s was also the prime era of the secret agent thriller film/story, Godard has fun with the iconography and conventions of this subgenre, particularly by casting Constantine as Caution, a character he’d played in a string of B films for other directors before Alphaville.

One of the big ideas driving this cinematic bus is that love conquers logic. This is a treatise on the dehumanization of society and how technological progress can gradually strip us of our individuality, personal freedoms, and self-expression. Godard imagines a dystopian future in which emotions are outlawed, replaced by cold intellectualism and a reliance on artificial intelligence. Caution disrupts this new order when he arrives in Alphaville and rejects the prevailing rules.

It's also a film that espouses staying true to yourself and your ideals. Caution refuses to accept Alphaville’s laws and structure, which often take on a geometrically symbolic circular pattern, fitting considering the circular logic offered by the Alpha 60 supercomputer and even the architecture we see, suggesting that this society is “going in circles”; by contrast, Contrast gets to the heart of the matter quickly by going in a straight line and not deviating from his goals. Recall how the words within the love poem shared by Natasha and Lemmy mention “going straight to what you love.” 
“The moral of the story, if there is one, seems to be that a commitment to one’s ideals, to one’s possibilities, regardless of how implausible they may appear to the society that one lives in, are the sole method through which can oppose systems of mental and political domination...(Natacha’s) role in the film is essentially to illustrate the possibility that an individual completely imprisoned within a system of ideology may still somehow break out,” wrote Maximilian Yoshioka with Bright Lights Film Journal, who went on to suggest that Alphaville asks probing questions that require careful examination: “But if only those who have existed outside of a particular system of power-knowledge have the potential to escape from it, do those indoctrinated from birth have no hope? And then of course there is the question of what happens to those who escape from oppressive systems; are their new destinations ever free from forms of political oppression and domination?”

Alphaville ruminates, too, on the power of poetry and imagination: not just written words but the ability to express yourself creatively and freely and to be inspired by love and emotion, which Alpha 60 cannot compute. Here, words are also important, however, as evidenced by how Alphaville’s dictionary is constantly being updated, with words regularly being removed or replaced, and how books are vanishing.

Additionally, this is yet another tale of the individual versus the state. The filmmakers depict a somewhat futuristic totalitarian/fascist society where the population is forced to conform to new rules of dispassionate reasoning dictated by a technological overlord, robbing humans of their humanity, free speech, and feelings. But Caution upends this structure by demonstrating that one person who dares to disagree and cut right to the heart of the problem (in this story, that means directly addressing and perplexing Alpha 60) can make a difference--as he does by rescuing Natasha from an underworld of brainwashed compliance and subservience, returning her to the real world a la the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Similar works

  • Blade Runner
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • The Matrix
  • Brazil
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  • THX-1138
  • Equilibrium
  • Dark City
  • Gattaca
  • Orpheus
  • Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood)
  • 1984 and Brave New World

Other films by Godard

  • Breathless
  • Masculin-Feminin
  • Band of Outsiders
  • Contempt
  • Pierrot le Fou


Tarantino packs a potent Rum Punch adaptation

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown defied audience expectations upon its release in late 1997. This adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch, with a screenplay penned by Tarantino himself, was the director’s third effort, following his breakout 1994 hit Pulp Fiction. The narrative centers around Jackie Brown, portrayed by Pam Grier, a flight attendant who becomes ensnared in a convoluted scheme involving arms smuggling, law enforcement, and perilous criminals portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, and Robert De Niro. The storytelling weaves through multiple characters and perspectives, crafting a layered and suspenseful crime drama.

Tarantino's skill in creating memorable and nuanced characters is evident in Jackie Brown, with particular emphasis on the well-developed title character. Additionally, the narrative structure is intricate and non-linear, showcasing Tarantino's distinctive storytelling style. The plot unfolds with multiple layers, intersecting storylines, and unexpected twists.

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

Jackie Brown continues to fascinate film fans on several fronts. First, It’s a different kind of approach for Tarantino, at least up to this point. Jackie Brown takes its leisurely time – over 2½ hours – painting these characters in fine brush strokes and giving preference to dialogue and character dynamics rather than plot. This film contains less action than other works by Tarantino, but you still get his notable blend of sudden, extreme violence, whipcrack streetwise dialogue, tasty pop-culture references, and quirky personality traits. Some critics and fans didn’t appreciate the slow burn tone and more relaxed pace of Jackie Brown, while others relished this more character-focused narrative that forces us to linger in seemingly trifling but intriguing and revealing mundane moments that allow the actors extra time to breathe and fill their roles with small, realistic touches.

“With Jackie Brown, Tarantino doesn’t solely rely on the flashier aspects of his patented postmodern style (disjointed editing, extreme violence, fetishistic images) to convey a character’s fated desires or failures. He positions individuals as pieces of a larger mosaic, one populated by burgeoning and disintegrating relationships that reach beyond the frame. This construct produces subtext-heavy conversations containing real conflict and tension at their core. The menacing verbal dance between Ordell and Jackie set in her apartment, where the former turns off each light the latter has just switched on, is a perfect example of this seemingly organic tension between conflicting characters. It’s just one of the many great moments in Jackie Brown where applied emotional pressure is a defining attribute, a telling lesson in flight or fight,” wrote Slant’s Glenn Heath Jr.

Yet, despite a more streamlined story than his predecessor, Pulp Fiction, Jackie’s heist and the dangerous game of chess she’s playing is fairly complex, motivating the viewer to pay close attention and try to evaluate all the angles and possibilities. Jackie Brown’s endlessly enthralling characters reward repeat viewings, but so does its central scheme as we root for Jackie to outwit her adversaries. Roger Ebert posited: “One of the pleasures of Jackie Brown…is that everybody in the movie is smart. Whoever is smartest will live… This is the movie that proves Tarantino is the real thing, and not just a two-film wonder boy. It's not a retread of "Reservoir Dogs" or "Pulp Fiction," but a new film in a new style, and it evokes the particular magic of Elmore Leonard--who elevates the crime novel to a form of sociological comedy… This movie is about texture, not plot.”

Tarantino has fun here paying tribute to blaxploitation films and influential cinematic works, large and small. There’s a nod to The Graduate in the opening credits, and plenty of references to other pictures like The Killing, Rashomon, Coffy and Foxy Brown, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Once Upon a Time in America, Shampoo, and more.

Tarantino’s cache as a hot filmmaker at this time enabled him to cast two long-forgotten thespians in the lead roles: Grier and Forster, who each prove they can carry a movie with aplomb, charisma, and good looks—despite their ages (48 and 54, respectively).

Notably, this is the only Tarantino film where the story is adapted from a different source; all of his other films are original screenplays he wrote himself. Jackie Brown has also been called “his most conventional movie…and his most humane and most romantic: he gives Grier and Forster one of the greatest screen kisses in history,” per The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. Additionally, Max may be the director’s most empathetic male character, according to Collider.

Jackie Brown is a fascinating rumination on unrequited affection. Max instantly falls for Jackie and secretly pines for her without coming on too strong, although these feelings are not reciprocated or shared by her, at least as strongly. The story ends with Jackie leaving Max romantically unfulfilled although not necessarily broken-hearted, a refreshing and unexpected conclusion. Tarantino’s playful notions on how opposites attract are evident, too. Max and Jackie are about as unexpected a couple as you could likely expect, each with extremely different backgrounds, ethnicities, careers, and cultures. But Max is quickly smitten with Ms. Brown, including her taste in music, and Jackie quickly learns to trust him completely in her plans. Similarly, we see other interracial romantic pairings, including Ordell and Melanie, Louis and Simone, and Ray and Jackie.

This is also a film about survival of the fittest and the fine line between loyalty and betrayal. Jackie Brown is an absorbing study of characters who continually backstab, sabotage, or damage each other, with the only honest relationship existing between Jackie and Max. Audiences appreciate the rags to riches and pluck of the underdog themes at work, too. Jackie is a woman of meager means from the bottom rungs of the societal totem pole, with the fewest resources to work with. Yet, with clever strategizing and by using her sex appeal, she persuades men to help her overcome Ordell, walk away with his fortune, and raise her station in life.

Similar works

  • Out of Sight and Get Shorty, two other Elmore Leonard film adaptations
  • Coffy and Foxy Brown, also starring Pam Grier
  • Blaxploitation films from the 1970s including Super Fly, Dolemite, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Shaft, Blacula, and others
  • Oceans Eleven
  • Heist
  • Snatch
  • The Limey
  • Sexy Beast

Other films by Quentin Tarantino

  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Kill Bill I and II
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Django Unchained
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Cineversary podcast rings in A Christmas Story's 40th birthday

Thursday, December 7, 2023

In Cineversary podcast episode #65, host Erik Martin talks Chinese turkey with leg lamp expert Andrew Scahill, a film studies professor at the University of Colorado Denver known for his holiday movies course, as they commemorate the 40th anniversary of A Christmas Story, directed by Bob Clark. Andrew and Erik cover this film from soap to fudge, exploring why this film remains timeless and deserves celebration four decades later, how it became a pop culture phenomenon, and much more.

Andrew Scahill
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


Tall tales of bygone crimes in the Windy City

Monday, December 4, 2023

Helmed by Brian De Palma, with a screenplay by David Mamet, The Untouchables quickly became a hit after its theatrical debut in the summer of 1987, drawing inspiration from the real-life endeavors of Elliot Ness and other law enforcement agents who banded together to take down infamous gangster Al Capone during the violent Prohibition era in Chicago. The film, produced by Art Linson, boasts a star-studded cast featuring Kevin Costner in the role of Ness, Robert De Niro as the notorious Capone, and Sean Connery (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), Andy Garcia, and Charles Martin Smith.

This picture skillfully blends historical events (it’s more of a “based on” than an accurate retelling) with compelling storytelling, delivering an engaging narrative that vividly captures the essence of the bootleg era and the battle against organized crime.

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

What stands out about this 36-year-old film? It’s a throwback, in many ways—a retro love letter to the gangster and social message pictures of the 1930s and 1940s primarily made by Warner Brothers, especially in how it hones in on very clear good vs. evil themes and the need to bring extreme social villains like Capone to justice. The exaggerated if not implausible action scenes and bravura moments feel very Hollywood, and DePalma’s hyperbolic stylized tendencies make for an extremely entertaining narrative with characters that are easy to root for.

Yet, DePalma has the benefit of employing graphic violence and brutality to help sell the idea to the viewer that Capone must be stopped, at all costs, by any means necessary. Interestingly, this is the rare rated-R film with no nudity or sexual scenes and little profanity. It’s DePalma’s brand of blood, gore, and carnage that pushes this into restricted territory.

The Untouchables looks astounding, benefitting from a high-production-value sheen and Stephen H. Burum's cinematography, marked by iconic scenes and the effective use of visuals to heighten tension. Indeed, The Untouchables is one of the very best retro dramas evoked visually, thanks to careful attention to authentic details like shooting on the streets of Chicago (carefully dressed to look like the Windy City of 1930), fantastic period-authentic costumes and sets, and diegetic music of the time.

The gunfight at Union Station—created by DePalma on the fly when original plans for a showdown via helicopter chase fell through due to budget constraints—is a tour de force of stylized suspense, echoing the visuals and editing of the famous Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Some argue this is DePalma’s finest moment as a director. His choice to use slow motion and extend the tension is an inspired one.

Much of this plot is pure hokum, as many of these characters and situations are fabricated or embellished. Ness didn’t kill Capone enforcer Frank Nitti, the Canadian raid is fictional, as are the gunfights at the courthouse and train station, and the real Wallace (his actual name was Wilson) wasn’t murdered. Still, although it plays loose and fast with historical events, The Untouchables satisfies as a white-knuckle action film and police thriller.

There’s an impressive array of talent attached to this project, including DePalma in the directing chair, Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet handling screenwriting duties, venerable maestro Ennio Morricone scoring the music, and heavyweights like Connery, DeNiro, and Costner in the top roles. Some critics found fault with DeNiro’s extravagant take on Capone, while others commended his approach. Per critic James Berardinelli: “This is a cartoonish interpretation – a villain so black-hearted that it's impossible to root for him. Some critics have seen this as a flaw, but it's actually an asset. Let other movies paint Capone as a complex individual. De Niro's over-the-top portrayal is perfect for this context.”

“Right vs. might,” or the legal way vs. the Chicago way, is the key to appreciating this movie’s thematic center. Ness’ character arc begins with an earnest attempt to capture Capone lawfully and legally but his methods and mindset change as he realizes, like Malone told him, that he’s got to play dirty and outside the law to succeed in a town as corrupt as Chicago. Malone’s advice? “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way.”

The Untouchables also touches on the benefits of rugged individualism and a hardened heart. Much of the film’s emotional conflict concerns if and how Ness will turn to the dark side, and how his inherent virtues and beliefs will be forever compromised or surrendered. Ness and company realize that vigilantism and emotional prejudice are necessary to bring down a ruthless criminal. Ness, a sensitive character attuned to the female sensibilities of women around him like his wife, his daughter, and the grieving mother, learns the hard way that he has to adopt a more macho, insensitive attitude against Capone, with whom he is consistently contrasted in the film.

Brian Eggert with Deep Focus Review wrote: “Capone’s masculinity defines him; he’s surrounded by tough men with guns, while other men in the press admire and laugh at his jokes. Never do we see a woman by his side. By contrast, Ness is surrounded by women: his wife Catherine (Patricia Clarkson) and their young daughter, to whom he gives delicate butterfly kisses. Butterflies symbolize Ness’ femininity. When the press mocks his initial failures, they call him a “poor butterfly” and liken him to the suicidal wife in Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly—a character who waits up for her husband only to be humiliated. Ness is a man bound by his family. He endearingly remarks, “It’s nice to be married,” and smiles at the note his wife included with his lunch reading, “I’m very proud of you.” But Ness is too close to the wholesome family ideology he’s trying to preserve. Capone sees Ness’ weakness and uses his slimy hitman Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) to issue a veiled threat to Ness’ family. Ness knows he must send away his wife and daughter—a pointedly feminine and therefore vulnerable family in these very classicized terms—to focus his energies on Capone.”

Ness’ line, “You tell Capone that I’ll see him in hell,” spoken before he kills Nitti, suggests that Ness has crossed over the threshold into lawless vigilantism and is morally damned for compromising his principles; yet, by the end of the film, he appears satisfied that justice was served and, we can assume, like Malone said, “Well, then, you've done your job. Go home and sleep well tonight.”

Additionally, this is a work that reminds us not to underestimate the underdog. Wallace proves he’s more heroic than the nerdy pencil pusher he appears to be; a lowly beat cop demonstrates that he’s the most savvy at strategizing Capone’s downfall; the short-statured and soft-spoken Stone is the most reliable and resourceful in a showdown; and Ness, despite the odds stacked against him and his inability to trust anyone besides his small team, cleverly outlasts Capone in the end, enjoying the satisfaction of telling Capone to his face: ““Never stop fighting till the fight is done!”

Similar works

  • Gangster pictures of the 1930s, including The Roaring Twenties, Public Enemy, and Scarface
  • Battleship Potemkin
  • Sabotage by Hitchcock
  • Modern retro gangster films like Public Enemies, Gangster Squad, Gangster Land, and Mobsters
  • The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen
  • Serpico
  • The King of New York
  • Once Upon a Time in America and Once Upon a Time in the West by Leone

Other films by Brian DePalma

  • Carrie
  • Dressed to Kill
  • Blow Out
  • Scarface
  • Body Double
  • Mission: Impossible


  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP