Blog Directory CineVerse

New CineVerse schedule available

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Our May/June schedule listing what's on tap for CineVerse and Cineversary is now ready for viewing. To access the new calendar, visit tinyurl.com/cineversemj17.

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No country for old men

If you enjoy films that function as interesting character studies of individuals living realistically in their natural environment, you'd be hard pressed to find a truer example of this form than Vittorio De Sica's 1952 neorealism masterwork "Umberto D." Warning: the plot is thin, the tone is grim, and the pace is slow. But it's about as honest and authentic a movie of its period can be, and that's refreshing. Our CineVerse group came to the following realizations about this picture:

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PRIMARY THEMES PREVALENT IN UMBERTO D.?
Life is often not fair, and those who often need the most help find the least help.
The struggle to maintain dignity and eke out an existence in a pitiless world where no one seems to care.
Even the most mundane existence devoid of excitement can still have meaning and resonance.
As long as you have at least one other being to love and be needed by, life is worth living.

WHAT DID YOU FIND INTERESTING, UNEXPECTED AND MEMORABLE ABOUT THIS FILM?
It isn’t sentimental, mawkish or emotionally manipulative; ponder, for example, the scene where Umberto looks for his dog at the pound and sees all the confined canines who will likely be euthanized—the filmmakers could have tugged at your heartstrings more here, but they don’t; they simply let the scene play out without manipulation.
It’s a bleak, warts-and-all character study that can be depressing and downbeat. There’s very little humor or comic relief, and few exciting things that happen to this man or his dog.
The lack of sentimentality can actually cause viewers to feel less or no sympathy for Umberto. Consider what reviewer Glenn Erickson wrote: “The story doesn't have cute kids, dreamy lovers, or crime thrills to distract the audience. Instead we get the kind of grinding real-life problems faced by the honest poor. I can see less generous viewers reacting to Umberto's lack of options by deciding that his problems are his own fault. It's true: the average audience will accept social realities in their entertainment, but even an art house crowd wants to be 'entertained'. Umberto D. is an uncompromised neorealist experience.”
It employs real time sequences and depicts banal everyday occurrences—consider the maid’s humdrum morning routine or the old man’s attempts to go to sleep.
It feels documentary like, brutally honest, unscripted, and nontheatrical. This is not a sympathy-soaked melodrama filled with contrived conflict.
Contrary to other neorealist movies, this does not depict the struggles of the working class everyman in or near the prime of his life; Umberto himself is a low-income, forgotten old man who lives a relatively miserable existence. He’s not rebelling against socioeconomic forces or seeking justice—he simply wants to exist alone and in peace.
The key social issues explored in this film are not necessarily economic injustice, man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, and postwar social challenges faced by most people; instead, the struggle here is to thwart shame and maintain dignity and decency in the face of old age.
This neorealism film has a much simpler and straightforward plot. The primary relationship portrayed here is between a man and his dog.
The movie uses a lot of long shots that often show Umberto and his dog from far off, versus medium or close-up shots; the longshot effect evokes a feeling of distance, isolation from others, and loneliness.
According to Roger Ebert: “"Umberto D" tells what could be a formula story, but not in a formula way: Its moments seem generated by what might really happen. A formula film would find a way to manufacture a happy ending, but good fortune will not fall from the sky for Umberto. Perhaps his best luck is simply that he has the inner strength to endure misfortune without losing self-respect. It is said that at one level or another, Chaplin's characters were always asking that we love them. Umberto doesn't care if we love him or not. That is why we love him.”

OTHER MOVIES DIRECTED BY VITTORIO DE SICA:
Shoeshine
Bicycle Thieves
Miracle in Milan
Two Women
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Marriage Italian Style

WHAT OTHER FILMS CAN UMBERTO D. MAKE YOU THINK OF?
Ikiru
Wild Strawberries
Un homme et son chien
A Dog Year

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Spotlight on a man and his dog

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Circle April 19 on your calendar--that's the date for “Umberto D” (1952; 89 minutes), directed by Vittorio De Sica, which serves as part 3 of CineVerse's current Quick Theme Quartet on "Italian Neorealism Revisited." Plus: Stick around for a trailer reel preview of the May/June CineVerse schedule.

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Rome is where the heart is...and the heartache

Friday, April 14, 2017

It's for no small reason that director and film historian Martin Scorsese called Rome Open City “the most precious moment of film history.” He and many experts believe this picture infused cinema with a new kind of realism, immediacy and energy that proved to be highly influential on both sides of the Atlantic. This movie is worth studying and appreciating for multiple reasons, including the following discussed by our CineVerse group last night:

WHY DO YOU THINK THIS FILM WAS CONSIDERED SO IMPORTANT, GROUNDBREAKING AND INFLUENTIAL?
It’s credited as pioneering because it’s one of the first Italian movies to portray the hardship Italians suffered during World War II and the German occupation of their country; consider that pictures made earlier in the war were censored and carefully controlled by Mussolini and made the Allied countries look like enemies.
It’s often praised as the first major work of Italian Cinema to be seen and appreciated by international viewers. How many pre-1945 Italian movies can you even name? This is the film that helped put Italian cinema on the map, that laid the path for masters like Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, and Guiseppe De Santis to tread, and that made later works like Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D, and La Strada to be enjoyed by people around the world. 
It looks and feels like a documentary, even though it’s technically scripted and acted; however, what was shot often was improvisational and invented on-the-spot. Keep in mind that it was originally intended to be a documentary about a priest shot by the Nazis for aiding the resistance as well as a documentary about Roman children who resisted the Nazi occupying force. It reenacts the real tale of a woman gunned down by the Germans before the barracks, too. In this way, Rome Open City plays as an innovative hybrid film imbued with realism and authenticity, even though it’s not a true documentary. 
Critic Kenneth Turan delves into this hybrid film theory further. “What makes "Open City" special is that it doesn't follow its own rules. It is both realistic and melodramatic, passionate and dispassionate, using newsreel-style cinematography but unafraid to indulge in big emotions,” he wrote.
Others credit Rossellini with creating a new kind of emotional cinematic experience that immerses the viewer into a fabricated reality that doesn’t appear fabricated. Essayist Stephanie Cotela Tanner wrote: "Rossellini was looking back at events in which he was not officially politically involved and created the illusion that the events were taking place in real time, thus allowing himself and his spectators to become involved. He used film as a mass medium to disseminate to a wider audience information that previous techniques could communicate only to a happy few. The novelty of Open City lies in its transformation of art into information. Rossellini provides the viewer with a real memory of something the viewer has not actually experienced."
It features some Italian actors but mostly nonprofessionals and everyday citizens. Arguably, the city itself is the primary character. Shooting on location in the streets and in actual homes and buildings, not on a studio lot, gives the film an immediacy and credible energy.
It was created outside the context of any studio involvement by independent filmmakers. It was a film made on the fly, by guerilla-style filmmakers who begged, borrowed and stole to get this picture made, literally; the director depleted his savings, bought black market film stock and borrowed short rolls of leftover film when he ran out of film stock; his life was also threatened.
Consider that, contrary to some rumors, the film was shot after the city’s liberation by the Americans in 1944, and not while the Germans were still there; still, the wounds would have been very fresh, and the rubble, destruction and human stress would have been quite evident. It would have taken guts and real bravery to attempt to make this movie in this context, in this setting, so soon after the Nazi occupation of Rome.
Tanner further suggested: "Open City is a testimony because it records on celluloid how Rome looked after World War II, including sites of memorable events. The most notable instance is the field at Forte Bravetta used as the setting for Don Pietro’s execution. It was on this site that several antifascists including Don Guiseppe Morosini, one of the models for Don Pietro’s character, was shot during the occupation. After the Liberation (10 June 1944), various leading Fascists who collaborated and/or carried out acts of repression or torture were also shot at this site. In this way, an otherwise ordinary-looking strip of land serves as a stimulus to collective memory and has an authenticating function in a scene that is in other respects a dramatized reconstruction."
It features “unorthodox approaches to storytelling”, wrote Criterion Collection essayist Irene Bignardi; think about how the tone shifts from comedic to shocking and tragic rather quickly. It also takes the story to the streets and gives us a candid look at the human condition, depicting real people left vulnerable in their own hometown. 
The lively and courageous children who fight back would have inspired the French New Wave, which later invoked the vibrant spirit of youth culture. French New Wave filmmakers would have also admired the resistance of the Italian people, which draws comparisons to the French Resistance.
Interestingly, the filmmakers aren’t afraid to paint some Italians in a bad light, too; consider that those who resist are betrayed by their own countrymen.

OTHER FILMS SIMILAR TO ROME OPEN CITY
Arguably, there are none; this movie is truly one of a kind and hard to compare to any other cinematic work.
However, it does share many commonalities with other contemporary neorealism films like Bicycle Thieves, Bitter Rice, Shoeshine, Miracle in Milan, and Umberto D.
This film is also part of a trio by Rossellini referred to as his War Trilogy; the two later movies are Paisan and Germany, Year Zero.
It also conjures up similarities to The Battle of Algiers
OTHER FILMS BY ROBERTO ROSSELLINI
Stromboli, Journey to Italy, Fear, and Europe ’51, starring his wife Ingrid Bergman
The Flowers of St. Francis
Ways of Love
Escape by Night

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Singin' about a 65th birthday

Monday, April 10, 2017

Cineversary reconvenes at the Oak Lawn Library on April 15 from 1-4 p.m. to celebrate the 65th anniversary of “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952; 103 minutes).

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Visit Rome, circa 1945

Sunday, April 9, 2017

On April 12, CineVerse's current Quick Theme Quartet on "Italian Neorealism Revisited" returns with “Rome, Open City” (1945; 100 minutes), directed by Roberto Rossellini.

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Il postino always rings twice

Thursday, April 6, 2017

It's widely known that Franco filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut loved American pulp fiction and film noir. But long before the French New Wave and its slight tip of the cap to noir influences, the Italians were dabbling in the genre, as evidenced by Luchino Visconti's 1943 classic "Ossession," an early adaptation of James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice." Our CineVerse group took a closer look at this picture last evening and came away with these observations:

HOW IS THIS ADAPTATION DIFFERENT FROM AMERICAN VERSIONS OF “THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE”?
The 1946 version with Lana Turner was glossier, and featured more of a true film noir femme fatale who was evil and calculating.
The female lead in this movie, by contrast, is arguably a more sympathetic character who is driven by understandable marital frustration and desperation for her economic and trapped condition. We see her collapse, surrendered, in a kitchen full of dirty dishes and feel for her more than Lana Turner’s femme fatale.
This version “excels in a more taboo realm,” wrote reviewer Gary Morris, who cited the Italian film’s “barren landscapes, driven characters and sexual frankness…and unabashed lust with which Visconti treats the illicit relationship.”
Speaking of the setting, the location is more rural, realistic and believable than in the 1946 version. This is a more bleak and unfertile landscape.
Prostitution is also common in the world these characters inhabit; Giovanna implies that she previously prostituted herself before marriage out of financial pressure, and Gino is enamored with a young harlot later in the film.
This adaptation doesn’t show the murder, nor have a suspenseful buildup to the crime or a carefully planned murder plot. The murder occurs off-screen and is executed seemingly on the spot, at the sudden whims of the secret lovers.
This version also features the suggestion of a gay relationship between Gino and Spagnolo—or at least an unrequited crush on one for the other. “What makes Ossesssione particularly compelling,” wrote blogger Tony D’Ambra, “is a homoerotic strand interwoven with a critique of petit-bourgeois values.
Per Henry Bacon, the director “wanted to convey the internal life of his characters through their behavior and their relationship to the environment, to capture their essence by showing them as an organic part of a certain social reality, which in various ways constantly conditions and guides their behaviors, thoughts and feelings.”
Here, instead of using stylized setups, formalistic framing or clever editing the camera is employed to depict the psychology of the main characters. Consider how the female characters are first introduced and continually photographed in the 1943 vs. 1946 films: the latter uses soft lenses and glamorous lighting; the former doesn’t try to objectify or pretty up the female lead.
There is more of an exploration of class warfare and tension between the social classes in this Italian rendition.

WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN RISQUE AND CONTROVERSIAL ABOUT THIS FILM FOR 1946?
The sexual subtext: the passionate sudden physical-based romance between the 2 lovers.
Its dark and seedy subject matter and bleak tone: this film was considered provocative and insulting to the Fascist regime, and hence suffered from censorship meddling and distribution hurdles—with prints of the movie seriously edited and even destroyed. Fortunately, the director stashed away a secret negative or it would have been lost forever.
Clara Calamai, who plays Giovanna, had appeared topless in an Italian film a year before this, so she had likely developed a sexy reputation that would have rattled cages.

WHAT THEMES ARE EXAMINED IN “OSSESSIONE”?
Doomed love
The corrupting influence of lust and greed
Shifting loyalties
Betrayal
Paranoia
Ironic fate

OTHER FILMS THAT OSSESSIONE BRINGS TO MIND
Double Indemnity, also involving a plot by lovers to do away with a husband
Body Heat
Other adaptations of Postman: The Last Turning (France, 1939); a remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange from 1981; and a 1998 Hungarian version titled Passion.

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Film noir meets neorealism

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Once a quarter (every third month) in 2017, CineVerse will explore four movies tied together by a theme, called Quick Theme Quartet. For April, the theme is "Italian Neorealism Revisited," focusing on four important films made in Italy that were part of the neorealism movement. Part 1: “Ossessione” (1943; 140 minutes), directed by Luchino Visconti, scheduled for April 5.

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A middle-age nightmare

Thursday, March 30, 2017

"Still Alice" is a brave but haunting exploration into a vibrant life suddenly interrupted by a very cruel disease: early-onset Alzheimer's. In many ways, it's more terrifying than a modern horror film. But it's also more poignant, human, honest, and life-affirming than the vast majority of big-screen dramas. Our CineVerse group tried to carefully examine this film last evening and came away with the following conclusions:

WHAT IS IRONIC ABOUT ALICE SUCCUMBING TO ALZHEIMER’S?
She’s a busy teacher, mother and member of her community, which requires you to keep track of and remember a lot of things.
She’s a linguistics professor; linguistics is the study of language and articulation of it, but a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s inhibits the use and articulation of language.
She’s in the prime of her adult life—otherwise healthy and happy at 50; she’s not in her 70s or 80s, which is often when this disease begins to manifest itself.
The neurologist tells Alice that memory goes faster are people who are more educated.
Alice’s disease has robbed herself of the ability to choose whether to live or die – consider that she fumbles and drops the suicide pills, and her careful planning to end her life if things got bad enough is all for naught.

WHY IS THE FILM TITLED “STILL ALICE”?
It could be a declarative statement, as if to say that she’s “still Alice, still herself, despite having serious memory issues.
Or, it could be more of a questioning title, as if to say, “is she still Alice if she can’t remember her identity and the memories and details that sum up who she is?”
The word “still” can also suggest lack of movement, immobility, growing stagnant, and remaining stationery while life moves on around you.
It suggests several themes and questions, such as do we lose our identity and sense of self when we forget who we are and the people that love us? Are we ever truly forgotten, so long as we are remembered and cherished by our loved ones?

WHAT ARE THE DIFFICULTIES THAT COME WITH TRYING TO MAKE A FILM ON THIS SUBJECT?
First, Alice is succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s, not late-onset Alzheimer’s; the latter would require an older character/actor and probably depict a more depressing and debilitating condition. The filmmakers want to approach this topic with honesty and realism, but they have to be careful not to pour on the depressing details too far. By having the affliction happen to an otherwise healthy, vibrant, intelligent and attractive 50-year-old, they keep us from losing interest and keep the character from losing too much dignity.
To be respectful and honest about the subject matter, you have to treat it seriously. That means very little opportunity for humor, distraction or redemption. This is a degenerative and irreversible disease that is as terrifying as it is shattering.
The other challenge is avoiding overt sentimentality and mawkishness. It’s easy to try to manipulate the viewer into tears if you want to lay it on thick here. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t indulge in melancholy melodrama, poor on the syrupy score, or milk scenes for extra teardrops (case in point: the scene where Alice and her husband reveals the disease to their children could have been more drawn out and emotionally devastating).
This film also has to serve as a kind of public service to the viewer, because it’s one of the first of its kind that broaches the subject of early onset Alzheimer’s disease; hence, there’s a responsibility here to broaden awareness about this malady and treat the topic with truth and verisimilitude.
Most importantly, this is not a commercially appealing film for the masses – it’s going to be downright difficult to get butts in the seats for a somber, depressing movie like this.

SOME CRITICS HAVE NOTED THAT JULIANNE MOORE GIVES A MORE SUBTLE, MINIMALIST PERFORMANCE THAN ONE MIGHT EXPECT FOR THIS ROLE. IF YOU AGREE, WHY WAS ADOPTING A SIMPLER, MORE RESTRAINED APPROACH TO THE ROLE THE RIGHT CHOICE?
Alzheimer’s doesn’t “happen” overnight; gradual changes and losses of memory occur over time, and each realization of a new change or memory loss by the sufferer, even if it’s a small one, probably feels devastating.
Hence, Moore leaned away from an over-the-top, overplayed performance because she wanted the viewer to pay attention to even the slightest, most subtle differences they notice in her personality and her environment. This acting approach forces us to pay closer attention and look for clues and instigators that tell us she’s been affected by the disease.
According to critic Mark Jackson, “Moore’s is an understated, minimalist performance, and the tiny increments by which the disease encroaches are slightly reminiscent of the horror genre, where the specter in the background flits by so quickly it almost goes undetected, except that you know you saw something, and that’s slightly hair-raising. These “What did I just see?” moments unsettle because one senses that’s how it would realistically go down."

OTHER REVIEWERS HAVE POSITED THAT THE MOVIE MAY SUFFER FROM FOCUSING TOO MUCH ON ALICE AND PERHAPS NOT ENOUGH ON HER SUPPORTING CAST FAMILY. DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE?
On one hand, the filmmakers may feel a responsibility to represent the personal, devastating experiences of the sufferer, letting us live vicariously through Alice to better understand what it’s like to have this disease. In her Film Comment essay, Molly Haskell said “It’s the intent of this moving film to capture something that for obvious reasons is rarely attempted in memoir or movie, i.e., the experience of the deadly disease from the perspective of the sufferer rather than the caregivers.”
On the other hand, perhaps it’s a missed opportunity that we aren’t shown more of the husband’s and daughters’ perspectives and how this disease affects them. Blogger Courtney Small felt this way, writing: “…the film lacks that extra dramatic punch to truly make it soar. This is especially evident in how underutilized the supporting cast is. It is understandable that Glatzer and Westmoreland would give Moore plenty of room to develop the nuances of her character, but it is a shame that the likes of Baldwin and Stewart were not given meatier roles to chew on.”
Arguably, her husband seems a tad too perfect – in real life, there may be a lot more conflict felt and expressed by the significant other.

THEMES AND SYMBOLS USED IN THIS FILM INCLUDE:
Butterflies and the theme of metamorphosis and rebirth – possibly a rebirth into a whole new but unwanted identity
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Matrix – recall that Lewis Carroll’s titular character is given the choice to eat certain things that make her smaller or bigger (essentially changing her identity), and Neo in The Matrix is given a choice to take the red pill or the blue pill, with one representing the choice to remain in his safe but unsatisfying reality and the other representing the choice to go down the rabbit hole into a whole new realm of existence. Likewise, Alice is faced with the choice of whether or not to take a pill to end her life.
The art of losing, and struggling versus suffering
Home movies: Alice’s memories are played in her mind like home movies

OTHER MOVIES THAT REMIND US OF STILL ALICE
Away From Her
Poetry
The Savages
Aurora Borealis
The Notebook
A Beautiful Mind
Philadelphia

OTHER FILMS CO-DIRECTED BY RICHARD GLATZER AND WASH WESTMORELAND
The Last Robin Hood
QuinceaƱera
The Fluffer

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