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The man who wasn't noir (in a movie that was)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Coen brothers give us plenty to ponder over with their 2001 neo noir "The Man Who Wasn't There." Here's some film food for thought, generated from our CineVerse discussion of the movie last night:


HOW IS THIS MOVIE SIMILAR TO OTHER CLASSIC FILM NOIR PICTURES OF THE 1940S AND 50S?
  • It’s shot in stylistic black and white and features a chiaroscuro (high contrast) lighting scheme that employs deep shadows.
  • It presents a downbeat, pessimistic world view and characters that each have sins and flaws.
  • It features a prominent voiceover narration, just as noir classics like “Laura” and “Double Indemnity” does.
  • Characters in noir often are bound by a predetermined fate or destiny, and to aspire beyond that fate is hubris. As Ebert says: “film noir is rarely about heroes, but about men of small stature who are lured out of their timid routines by dreams of wealth or romance. Their sin is one of hubris: these little worms dare to dream of themselves as rich or happy.” Ed Crane is one of these people. Thus, he must pay for dreaming to be a dry cleaner and to get revenge against his wife’s lover.
  • There’s a lot of smoking. 

HOW IS “THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE” DIFFERENT FROM ITS NOIR PREDECESSORS?
  • Ed Crane is not a good looking lead like the lead men played by John Garfield, Fed McMurray or Robert Mitchum; he’s plain, ordinary, softspoken and reserved. Unlike most noir male leads, he’s passive, not active. He’s asked twice: “What kind of man are you?” Crane isn’t a self-indulgent opportunist in the classic noir sense—he doesn’t take advantage of the sex that the piano student offers, he doesn’t seek to destroy his wife or her lover but merely to use the blackmail money to fund his dry cleaning dreams.
  • The setting is not a gritty urban locale, with dark alleys, tall buildings, underworld hangouts and city sights; it occurs in the vanilla suburbs.
  • Many early noirs were paced and scripted as suspense or mystery thrillers; this film’s vibe is, as put by The Guardian critic Phillip French, “one of subdued melodrama” instead.
  • The score for the film spotlights Beethoven sonatas and a deep-toned sole piano. 

HOW WOULD THIS FILM HAVE BEEN AN IFFY GAMBLE FOR ALL INVOLVED?
  • It’s a 2001 movie shot in black and white—a tough sell in the modern age.
  • It’s a period piece set in 1949, 50-plus years removed from when the film was released.
  • It features a slow delivery voiceover narration, which became passé long ago.
  • The pace is molasses slow and measured for many viewers.
  • Ed is, arguably, a boring protagonist: he’s very passive and unemotional—in keeping with the theme of the movie and the way the character contrasts with others in the story.
  • The film’s dark tone increases in intensity as the story progresses, and the denouement is somber and gloomy.
  • Arguably, the approach feels cold and calculating and emotionally detached. It may be hard for modern viewers to engage with the story and care about these characters. 

WHAT THEMES ARE EXAMINED IN THIS MOVIE?
  • Man’s inherent alienation from his fellow man. See how Ed is almost always isolated within the movie frame or set off from others within the frame. And consider Ed’s vision of the UFO near the end of the film. Perhaps the filmmakers are commenting on Ed’s inaccessible nature. Blogger Michael Nordine wrote: “Too alien for this world, yet human, all too human for theirs, Ed exists in an unreachable state beyond any rescue, especially from himself.”
  • The futility of trying to aspire to something bigger or higher than your current stature.
  • The fallacy of the American dream, which has been subverted by greed.
  • The flaws within the nuclear family and the revered institution of marriage.
  • This picture plays as a variation on a recurring Coen brothers theme: “placing doltish, unreastically drawn, powerless characters in an uncertain, comically brutal universe…the brothers seem to be poking fun at creations they love. In the process of humiliating, damaging, and annihilating these figures, they render them in an extremely vivid and often hilarious way,” wrote blogger Drew Gardner.
  • Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the concept of “the more you look, the less you know” is played up here, too.
  • Is it possible that Ed is already “dead” (figuratively and spiritually)? Maybe that’s why he’s so emotionless, is able to tell that the fortune teller is a fake, and why he’s observant of hair continuing to grow after death. Think about how he feels like a ghost and how people sort of look right through/past him, as if he weren’t there; in other words, he isn’t there spiritually—he’s dead to the world.
  • Repetition is another theme; consider the motifs and patterns repeated in this film: haircut styles, lighting up/smoking of his cigarettes, shaving of legs, driving in the car with women (and how both driving scenes are framed the same way), and the recurrent question “What kind of man are you?” The point here is: life is repetitive, monotonous and ironic. 

DOES THIS PICTURE BRING OTHER MOVIES TO MIND?
  • Scarlett Street (Ed Crane resembled Edward G. Robinson)
  • Night of the Hunter (both films have a dead person behind the wheel of a convertible)
  • Double Indemnity (a side character is referred to as “Diedrickson”, and the murder plots of both films are slightly similar)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice
  • Shadow of a Doubt (both films are set in Santa Rosa, Calif.)
  • Other neo noir films by the Coens, including Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing 

OTHER NOTABLE FILMS BY THE COEN BROTHERS
  • 1984    Blood Simple
  • 1987    Raising Arizona                                                         
  • 1990    Miller's Crossing                                                                    
  • 1991    Barton Fink                                                    
  • 1996    Fargo
  • 1998    The Big Lebowski                                                      
  • 2000    O Brother, Where Art Thou?                                                             
  • 2007    No Country for Old Men
  • 2010    True Grit

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Neo noir, Coens style

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Coen brothers create more than quirky crime capers and hipster remakes. Proof positive is exhibit A, slated for January 28: “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001; 116 minutes), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, chosen by Peggy Quinn.

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Hepburn + Grant = movie magic

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The holiday season may be long gone, but anytime is a good time to watch "Holiday," the distinctively different screwball comedy/drama that kicked off CineVerse's new "Sophisticated Screwballs" series last night. We came away with these conclusions about the flick:

WHAT ARE IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTICS SHARED BY SCREWBALL COMEDIES? WHAT ARE THE QUALITIES THAT MAKE THEM “SCREWBALL”?
  • Farcical stories and situations—where the film pokes fun at stereotypical characters, such as fatcat filthy rich fathers and spoiled rotten daughters (“My Man Godfrey”)
  • Fast pacing in the humor and repartee, direction, editing and dialogue delivery (“His Girl Friday”)
  • Physical humor, including slapstick (“Bringing Up Baby”), pratfalls (“The Lady Eve”) and sight gags (“To Be Or Not To Be”), are often used to elicit major laughs and make dignified characters look ridiculous
  • A plot centered on courtship and marriage (“The Philadelphia Story”) or remarriage (“The Awful Truth”)
  • Themes highlighting the differences between upper and lower socioeconomic classes, with many of the settings taking place among the high society but involving a likeable male love interest from the other side of the tracks (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “It Happened One Night”)
  • The female lead is often strong-willed, determined and sometimes tomboyish, commonly depicted as stronger and even smarter than her male counterpart (“Bringing Up Baby”, “The Lady Eve”)
  • A story involving a mistaken identity, misunderstanding, keeping of an important secret, occasionally involving cross-dressing or masquerading (“Some Like it Hot” and “Bringing Up Baby”
  • A classic battles of the sexes between a man and a woman, with the male lead’s masculinity often challenged by a strong female love interest (“The Awful Truth”)
  • Colorful supporting characters with quirky personalities (Barry Fitzgerald’s gardener in “Bringing Up Baby”, Mischa Auer’s protégé Carlo in “My Man Godfrey”)
  • Often, there’s a secondary character (such as a third wheel male suitor) who is more prim, proper and boring (Ralph Bellamy in “His Girl Friday” and “The Awful Truth”)
  • The golden period of screwball comedies was between 1934 and 1944, bookended somewhat between “It Happened One Night” and “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”

WHAT GAVE RISE TO THE SCREWBALL COMEDY SUBGENRE IN THE 1930S AND 1940S?
  • The format was borne from the major studios’ wish to sidestep censorship problems they might run into from the Hays Code that prohibited depictions of sexuality. To be able to depict risqué themes and situations, moviemakers had to be more subtle, discrete. For example, to convey sexual tension, verbal sparring and physical comedy between men and women was used. You also get some coded sexual language, such as “The first thing father will want to know is, how are you fixed?”
  • This subgenre also took root during the heights of the Great Depression, when weary audiences wanted to escape to the movies and laugh at the foibles and problems of the idle rich and be entertained by stories of lower class underdogs finding love and money.
  • The 1930s was the second decade after women were allowed to vote, so women moviegoers appreciated female characters who are given more prominence and power in these stories.
  • Many East Coast/New York writers headed to Hollywood to screenwrite, leading to more witty, urbane, sophisticated dialogue
“HOLIDAY” IS TYPICALLY CATEGORIZED IN THE SCREWBALL COMEDY SUBGENRE. HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM MANY OTHER SCREWBALL COMEDIES, HOWEVER?
  • It can be more dramatic and less comedic at times; tonally, it shifts between being a comedy, a romance, a social message type picture, and a light drama.
  • Arguably, it plays as more of a classic comedic romantic triangle film than a traditional screwball comedy that showcases a battle of the sexes or a comeuppance of the rich.
  • Cary Grant’s character appears just as strong, if not stronger, than Hepburn’s strong female character.
  • The characters in this film aren’t as stereotypical as many of the exaggerated personalities we see in typical screwball comedies; these folks are a bit more nuanced and well-rounded; consider, for example, how Julia is fairly likeable, at least until she reveals that she highly values money later in the picture.
OTHER FILMS BY GEORGE CUKOR
  • Little Women (1933)
  • Dinner at Eight (1933)
  • David Copperfield (1935)
  • The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  • Gaslight (1944)
  • Adam's Rib (1949)
  • Born Yesterday (1950)
  • A Star Is Born (1954)
  • My Fair Lady (1964)

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I scream, you scream, we all scream for screwballs

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Make your plans to attend CineVerse on January 21, when we'll kick off the first in a limited new monthly series called Sophisticated Screwballs: Masterful Romantic Comedies from Hollywood's Golden Age. Part 1 will feature “Holiday” (1938; 95 minutes), directed by George Cukor. Plus: Watch a trailer reel of classic screwball and sophisticated comedies from the 1930s and 1940s.

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Boy gets bike, boy loses bike, boy gets bike back...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Kid With a Bike" was the subject of last evening's CineVerse dissection. And the film proved to be a simple yet powerful exploration of a pre-teen's troubled life, minus all the sentimentality and emotional ham-fistedness that normally accompanies movies about youth in crisis. Lessons learned about "Kid With a Bike" include:

WHAT DID YOU FIND INTRIGUING, CURIOUS, OR SATISFYING ABOUT “KID WITH A BIKE”?
·         It’s a tale that begins “in medias res,” which means in the middle of the action/plot, without a prologue or preamble.
·         It feels like it’s constantly moving, thanks to mobile handheld camera work that has us following the boy and seeing things from his point of view throughout the movie (and we have to keep up with him, as he is ever walking, running, biking, moving); it also has a kinetic editing style and a tightly written story; there’s arguably no “fat” here or scenes that don’t move the story or the characters forward.
·         We aren’t given much backstory or psychological motivations/explanations for why characters think, act and feel the way they do. Nothing is explained, for example, as to why Samantha wants to become a surrogate mom-of-sorts to Cyril, or how/why Cyril’s mother has disappeared.
o   This is in keeping with the Dardenne brothers’ penchant for keeping sentimentality and melodrama out of their films. They want viewers to come to their own conclusions without resorting to sappy emotional manipulation, romanticized dialogue or tug-on-your-heartstrings-style storytelling.
o   In this way, the filmmakers are more concerned with living in the now, as opposed to dwelling on the past via flashbacks, expository dialogue, or revealing information that could explain motives or thought-processes.
·         The boy is exposed to tough, streetwise elements like the drug addict, yet the filmmakers chose to refrain from using profanity in their vernacular.
·         This film also differs from the Dardenne brothers’ earlier works, which were typically bleaker and less redemptive and which featured no music, unlike this movie. However, this film is similar to their previous ones in that it’s set primarily on the streets of Seraing, Belgium, shot in a “fluent yet functional realist style, with an often highly mobile camera, and lasting around ninety minutes,” according to Criterion Collection essayist Geoff Andrew.
·         The conclusion is quite open-ended without any clear resolution; it ends abruptly, and we aren’t sure if this boy will straighten up and fly right, but it’s a hopeful sign that he walks away, without resentment or retribution, from an antagonist at the finale.

KID WITH A BIKE HAS BEEN DESCRIBED BY THE FILMMAKERS AND OTHERS AS A FAIRTALE-LIKE STORY AND FILM. WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE OF THIS?
·         We have a lost boy who, like so many young protagonists in animated Disney films, is:
o   Parentless, abandoned or far from home (Cinderella, Snow White, Lion King, Peter Pan)
o   on a quest to retrieve or redeem something
o   falls under the spell of a bad influence (Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio)
o   gets lost in the scary forest (Snow White, Beauty and the Beast)
o   has a fairy godmother of sorts watching over him (Cinderella)

HOW IS “KID WITH A BIKE” SIMILAR TO AND DIFFERENT FROM “THE BICYCLE THIEF”?
·         This is imbued with a modernistic sense of realism in the way it’s shot (handheld camera, fast-paced editing style); Bicycle Thief was considered a masterpiece of the neo-realism movement. Both films are shot on location in the actual settings their stories are based in, giving them a realism and documentary-like feel.
·         However, in the older film, the boy has a father but must hunt for his lost bike; in this picture, the boy has a bike but must hunt for his father.

OTHER FILMS OR STORIES THIS MOVIE REMINDS YOU OF
·         The Bicycle Thief
·         Night of the Hunter
·         Oliver Twist
·         Snow White
·         The 400 Blows

OTHER FILMS BY JEAN-PIERRE AND LUC DARDENNE:
·         Le Fils (The Son)
·         L’Enfant (The Child)
·         The Silence of Lorna
·         Two Days One Night

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Pedaling into your heart

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On January 14, World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse, this time with an import from Belgium: “The Kid with a Bike” (2011; 87 minutes), directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, chosen by Janet Pierucci. Plus: Play a movie trivia game prior to the start of the film for a chance to win DVD prizes.

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"Back to the Future" meets "Silence of the Lambs"

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Imbued with an excellent premise--what if a grown son could communicate via a ham radio with his deceased father when pops was alive 30 years earlier--"Frequency" takes on the time travel subgenre by starting out as a wistful wish-fulfilment flick and morphing into an action thriller. Here's what our CineVerse group concluded about the movie:


“FREQUENCY”, LIKE OTHER TIME TRAVEL SCIENCE-FICTION MOVIES, CAN SOMETIMES MAKE LEAPS OF LOGIC, LEAVE GAPING PLOT HOLES, AND PRESENT CONFUSING NOTIONS ABOUT TIME, SPACE, AND SCIENCE. CAN YOU PROVIDE EXAMPLES?
·         As Roger Ebert suggests: “At one point both the father and the son are fighting the same man at points 30 years separated, and when the father shoots off the 1969 man's hand, it disappears from the 1999 version of the man. But then the 1999 man would remember how he lost the hand, right? And therefore would know.”
·         Another Ebert observation: “Consider a scene where the father uses a soldering iron to burn into a desk the message: I'm still here, Chief. His son sees the letters literally appearing in 1999 as they are written in 1969. How can this be? If they were written in 1969, wouldn't they have already been on the desk for 30 years?”
·         There’s a time warp of sorts that occurs that bridges two events 30 years apart to the day, both involving a ham radio and the Aurora Borealis.
·         John says he has “new memories” of his father dying and living, but yet he can’t remember the serial killer murdering 10 victims or his mom dying.
·         Also, the butterfly effect would have certainly changed things enough to affect the outcome of the 1969 World Series, wouldn’t it?

“FREQUENCY” HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS A “WISH-FULFILMENT MALE FANTASY” MOVIE. IF YOU AGREE, WHAT STORY ELEMENTS MAKE IT SO?
·         The desire to reconnect with dead loved ones, especially fathers who have passed away
·         The dream of traveling backward or forward in time
·         The chance to undo our mistakes and change the direction of our lives
·         The opportunity to save a loved one’s life and/or become a hero
·         Our yearning to conquer time and cheat death
·         It’s a very wistful, feel-good, sentimental kind of story that’s hard to overly criticize because it tugs on the heartstrings and is imbued with much passion and feeling.
·         It combines several genres particularly appealing to men: thriller, mystery, police procedural, and fantasy

WHAT MAJOR THEMES ARE EXPLORED IN THIS PICTURE?
·         The notion that love conquers time, space, hate and evil
·         A united family bonded by love is the key to happiness
·         The sins of the father are visited upon the son
·          Breaking with tradition doesn’t have to be a bad thing (the fact that the son becomes a cop despite the fact that his ancestors were firefighters)
·         Good communication can bridge all boundaries and distances and heal wounds

WHAT MOVIES ARE SIMILAR TO “FREQUENCY”?
·         The “Back to the Future” films
·         Field of Dreams
·         The Sixth Sense
·         Jack Frost
·         Ghost
·         Zodiac
·         Contact
·         It’s a Wonderful Life
·         The Time Traveler
·         White Noise

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY GREGORY HOBLIT
·         Hart’s War
·         Fracture
·         Untraceable

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CineVerse takes a holiday until January

Sunday, December 21, 2014

There will be no CineVerse meeting on Dec. 24 or 31 for obvious reasons. CineVerse will reconvene on Jan. 7, 2015. Happy holidays to you and yours,

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Kickoff schedule for 2015 posted

Thursday, December 18, 2014

You're probably chomping at the bit to learn what's on the CineVerse calendar for January and February. Well, now you can take a bite out of the official schedule, which has been posted for public viewing.

Check out our January/February 2015 schedule by visiting http://1drv.ms/1GVW9GW

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