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Philly cream without the cheese

Thursday, May 5, 2016

It's fascinating to watch Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant interplay and parry with comedic banter, verbal wit and facially expressive playfulness. Throw James Stewart into the mix and you've got fireworks amplified to the third power. Such are the undeniable charms of "The Philadelphia Story," one of the grand big star romantic comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age. In dissecting this light drama masquerading as a screwball comedy, here are the conclusions our CineVerse group reached:

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”

“THE PHILADELPHIA STORY” IS TYPICALLY CATEGORIZED IN THE SCREWBALL COMEDY SUBGENRE. HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM MANY OTHER SCREWBALL COMEDIES, HOWEVER?
Instead of a comedic love triangle, it depicts a love rectangle, with three different men vying for Tracy’s attention.
There is a somewhat dark undercurrent running through this film, as evidenced by Grant’s character: we learned that he is an alcoholic, is not above physically reprimanding his wife and raising his fists to her, and making comments like “I thought all writers drink to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time, I secretly wanted to be a writer.” You could also make the case that grant plays more of a straight man to the other more comedic characters, which gives credence to the belief that Grant’s is the most challenging role in the picture.
This movie also defies your expectation for a formulaic conclusion, which logic would dictate as her ending up with the newspaper reporter, with whom Tracy appears to have great chemistry and a lot of fun. Instead, she reconciles with her formerly alcoholic and arguably abusive ex-husband. The “getting back together with your ex” screwball comedy plot has been used before in past films, including “The Awful Truth,” but here it’s not as anticipated an outcome.

WHAT THEMES ARE EXAMINED IN THIS FILM?
The trials and tribulations of the idle rich in the privileged class, which can seem petty and trivial to some but are sickly hilarious and escapist to other viewers.
How men venerate women and put them on a pedestal. Consider that Tracy is called a “Citadel,” “virgin goddess,” “distant Queen,” “statue,” “your Majesty,” and “made of bronze” and one man promises to build her an ivory tower.
The unpredictability of love, as demonstrated by the fact that Tracy chooses her ex-husband in the end.
Masquerading, playacting and impersonating.

DOES “THE PHILADELPHIA STORY” BRING ANY OTHER MOVIES TO MIND?
Its remake, “High Society” (1956)
“Holiday,” also starring Grant and Hepburn
“ The Awful Truth,” slightly similar in plot and also featuring a well-intentioned but dull love interest who you know won’t end up with the girl at the end
“Bringing Up Baby,” another screwball comedy starring Hepburn and Grant
“Notorious,” also featuring Grant playing in acid-mouthed character who comes across as a jerk at first

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY GEORGE CUKOR
Little Women (1933)
Dinner at Eight (1933) 
David Copperfield (1935) 
Holiday (1938)
Gaslight (1944)
Adam's Rib (1949)
Born Yesterday (1950)
A Star Is Born (1954)
My Fair Lady (1964)

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Hollywood royalty descends on Philadelphia

Sunday, May 1, 2016

On May 4, the Our Favorite Film series returns to CineVerse for the 28th time with “The Philadelphia Story” (1940; 112 minutes), directed by George Cukor, chosen by Margaret Rooney.

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Elemental cinema

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring," director Kim Ki-Duk's visually resplendent Zen meditation on the circularity of life and the interconnectedness of man and nature, can be a challenging film to grasp for Westerners, despite the universality of its themes and images. Among the observations offered by our CineVerse group on this movie are the following:

THIS PICTURE HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS A VERY “ZEN” FILM. CAN IT ONLY BE BEST APPRECIATED BY BUDDHISTS, OR CAN NON-BUDDHIST WESTERNERS ENJOY AND APPRECIATE THIS FILM?
Like the young monk apprentice, nearly everyone in life, regardless of your culture, religion, nationality or location, seeks guidance, wisdom, enlightenment and tutelage, and also makes mistakes. 
Viewers from any background can also appreciate the monk’s fall from grace, repentance, redemption, and maturity. Eventually, we all become seduced by desires and later teachers of a sort by becoming parents, grandparents or elder statesmen.
On the other hand, the film’s slow pace, lack of action and plot, focus on small, simple details and foreign setting and worldview can be difficult for westerners to appreciate and assimilate. 

WHAT THEMES ARE EXPLORED IN THIS FILM?
The changing of seasons is an existential metaphor for a person’s life: like spring changing to summer to fall to winter, we blossom, mature, and begin to fade. 
Lost innocence of a childhood left behind and an adult world of sin and vice.
The circularity of life—consider how the film ends where it begins and the cycle repeats itself.
The long-term consequences of our actions. The boy’s desire leads to crime and unhappiness.
The universality of the human experience. It’s interesting that neither of the male leads are named, suggesting that their experiences and life lessons can be understood and incorporated by anyone.

WHAT SYMBOLS AND MOTIFS ARE USED IN THIS PICTURE?
Animals for each season: a puppy (in spring); a rooster (in summer); a cat (in fall); a snake (in winter, possibly signifying rebirth/resurrection); as well as various animals like fish, a turtle, and a frog.
Stones and statues—representing weights and burdens that have to be carried as well as timeless deities and objects of worship.
Doors—which often aren’t practical doors that serve any useful purpose other than to stand as portals through which tradition and custom compel people to enter/exit.
Sinking—of the boat, the rock-burdened frog, the frozen boat and the burned monk’s remains, and the woman who surrenders her baby to the monk and drowns.

IS THERE ANYTHING IN THIS FILM THAT DOESN’T WORK OR COULD HAVE BEEN IMPROVED UPON?
Some have suggested that the only major female character in the movie depicts her gender in a negative light; the woman serves as a sort of unwitting femme fatale leading the monk to danger and an obstacle on the path to spiritual enlightenment.

FILMS OR WORKS OF LITERATURE THAT REMIND YOU OF SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER…AND SPRING
William Blake’s poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY KIM KI-DUK
The Isle
3-Iron
Pieta
Samaritan Girl

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East meets West meets Mother Nature

Sunday, April 24, 2016

World Cinema Wednesday comes back to CineVerse on April 27 with a special from South Korea: “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” (2003; 103 minutes), directed by Ki-duk Kim, chosen by Peggy Quinn.

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CineVerse May-June calendar set

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Curious to learn what's on the docket for CineVerse over the next two months? Check out the May/June 2016 schedule, available now for viewing by clicking here.

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Welcome to filmmakers hell

Few movies depict the frustration, monotony and repetitive malaise that accompanies the making of a film better than "Living in Oblivion," a comedic meditation on the trials and tribulations of creating a low-budget independent feature. This under-the-radar gem from 1995 is worthy of rediscovery, as it remains relevant and comically insightful to modern audiences. Here's a summary of our collective observations about this flick:


WHAT DID YOU FIND UNEXPECTED AND SURPRISINGLY DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS MOVIE COMPARED TO WHAT YOU EXPECTED?
It’s comprised of three acts, two of which are revealed to be dream sequences; this could be frustrating to viewers, making them doubt everything they see and mistrust the film’s details, or it could be seen as clever and creative.
It’s both funny and painfully honest—comedic in its colorful characters and Murphy’s Law situations that ensue, but sincere at showing the warts and all reality of how difficult it actually is to shoot a low-budget independent feature film. 
This film bursts the audience’s bubble that making movies happens in a dream factory where the experiences are stellar, resources are vast, and cast and crew are united in a creative collaboration. Many viewers suffer from the illusion that making a movie is a glamorous, glitzy, enormously rewarding endeavor involving geniuses and treasured talents, when actually many films have to work very hard with subpar talent and compromise the filmmakers’ vision just to get made at all. That’s a depressing thought the viewers as well as artists, but this film softens the blow by dressing itself up as a comedy that’s only a little tongue in cheek.
This film falls within the subgenre of “metacinema,” in which the audience is watching a movie within a movie—a story about the making of a film in which the movie’s production is referenced. A metacinema movie is also a film that knows it’s a film, sometimes breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge its audience, and even acknowledges itself directly. “Living in Oblivion” is a movie that depicts filmmakers producing a movie called “Living in Oblivion.” Famous examples of other metacinema movies include 8½, F for Fake, Mulholland Drive, Day for Night, and Being John Malkovich.  

WHAT THEMES ARE SUGGESTED IN THIS FILM?
Illusion versus reality
The creative process is far from easy—it’s actually very difficult, taxing, and unpredictable. 
A team is only as strong as its weakest link: the fictional film crew in this movie is interdependent on each other.
Even in a metacinema movie that attempts to show the candid, nonglamorous, unattractive side to making movies, you can’t necessarily believe everything you see (as evidenced by the sequences revealed to be dreams).
The prize is just out of reach: consider the symbol of the apple, which remains inaccessible for Nicole in her scenes and which also remains elusive metaphorically for Nick.

DESPITE THE FACT THAT THIS FILM WAS COBBLED TOGETHER—THE FIRST THIRD WAS COMPLETED AND ORIGINALLY INTENEDED AS A FINISHED SHORT, WITH ACTS TWO AND THREE ADDED ON TO MAKE IT A FEATURE-LENGTH FILM—MANY CRITICS THINK “LIVING IN OBLIVION” FEELS ORGANIC AND FLOWS WELL. DO YOU AGREE?
The first act was shot on 16 mm black and white film, which is different from the rest of the movie; the “film within a film” sequences were shot in color. But later scenes use a reverse strategy. In this way, some could argue that the film’s overall look and palette appears disjointed, yet using monochrome vs. color and 16 mm vs. 35 mm fits within the “metacinema” approach discussed earlier.

DOES THIS FILM REMIND YOU OF ANY OTHER FILMS OR TV SHOWS?
Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night”
“Behind the scenes” type movies like “American Movie,” “The Player,” “My Life’s in Turnaround,” and “Mistress”
David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” TV series and follow-up film, which also featured strange dream sequences and a dwarf in a red room

OTHER WORKS DIRECTED BY TOM DICILLO
“Box of Moon Light”
“Delirious”
“The Doors: When You’re Strange” (documentary)

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Low-budget filmmaking, high-caliber film discussion

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Attend CineVerse on April 20 for “Living in Oblivion” (1995; 90 minutes), directed by Tom DiCillo, chosen by Farrell McNulty. Plus: Stick around for a trailer reel preview of the May/June CineVerse schedule.

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Charlie says...love that good and evil

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Alfred Hitchcock once called "Shadow of a Doubt" his favorite among all the pictures he directed. And it's easy to see why: here is a film endowed with richly layered characters, a brooding atmosphere of infiltrating evil contrasting against a bright and cheery family millieu, memorable performances by Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright, and masterfully composed shots imbued with stylized lighting that evokes the very best of the classic Hollywood period and the encroaching influence of film noir. Here are the major observations reached by our CineVerse group about this standout effort from the Master of Suspense:

HOW IS THIS MOVIE UNIQUE AND DISTINCTIVE AMONG HITCHCOCK’S CANON?

The plot isn’t very credible: Uncle Charlie evades capture several times, it’s hard to believe the niece would either kill Uncle Charlie herself of permit him to leave town in exchange for her keeping quiet about his secret, and the detectives would appear to be dimwitted amateurs who don’t abide by jurisdiction boundaries.
Yet, plausibility isn’t what Hitchcock is going for here, despite shooting on location in an actual small town. He’s aiming more for mood, atmosphere, and disquiet in a seemingly benign, charming, comfortable milieu of everytown, USA. The suspense here is a slow builder, insidiously creeping into a place the characters feel safe, invading the middle American home and usurping the safety and values of Norman Rockwell-painted America. This is apple pie America, but with a burnt crust, a critique of assumed American innocence.
This is a memorable milestone in Hitch’s oeuvre thus far because he infuses cynicism, sarcasm and doubt into his depiction of wholesome, clean-cut, small town America. He makes the viewer second guess the sanctity and unimpeachable ideals of the small town by letting Uncle Charlie’s dark influence and negative world view seep into Young Charlie’s mind.
o She hears what he says about the world she refuses to see: “You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell.”
o Young Charlie sees the morose waitress waiting on them at the bar as a cautionary tale—a reflection of what she herself could be in the years to come.
o Young Charlie, a sweet, innocent, harmless teenager, also finds a festering and violent hate inside herself that makes her threaten to murder Uncle Charlie. 
The screenplay was co-written by “Our Town” playwright Thornton Wilder, purposely chosen by Hitchcock to weave a wistful vision of a small town that is threatened and twisted. As critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “Our Town also has a horrifying undertone. People hold down jobs, weather disappointments and endure lives that are sometimes intolerably dull.”
o Note that, despite the veneer of a domestic middle class utopia, there are disturbing layers of non-normalcy going on in Young Charlie’s family: the father likes to talk murder and morbid fantasies with his neighbor, and the mother spoils her son with an almost incestuous energy.
Biographer Donald Spoto called this film “the first spiritually autobiographical film of (Hitchcock’s) career.” To provide context, the director’s mother grew gravely ill back in England while the screenplay was written, with her son not able to visit due to the challenges of traveling abroad during World War II. During production, she passed away, and Hitchcock poured a lot of his heart and soul into the movie, especially the idealized vision of domestic bliss and maternal comfort shown in Santa Rosa, California.
Unlike some of Hitchcock’s other works of suspense, this one has more fully realized characters, especially the characters of the two Charlies, who form a symbiotic relationship. Hitchcock was quoted as saying he was especially fond of this movie because “it was one of those rare occasions where you could combine character with suspense. Usually in a suspense story there isn’t time to develop character.”

WHAT THEMES ARE PREVALENT IN “SHADOW OF A DOUBT”?
Essentially, the innovative idea at work here is to introduce a murderer into the average American home, according to reviewer Brian Eggert. And the insidious nature of this relationship is that the murderer is a relative who shares the same blood and genes as the decent, morally upstanding family members whose home he has infiltrated.  This suggests that every other member of that family—but particularly Young Charlie—can become infected with, or at least victimized by, Uncle Charlie’s evil.
Twinning, doubling and doppelgangers are a recurrent motif in this film. There are two Charlies at opposite ends of the spectrum: one young, one old, one sweet and innocent, one devious and devilish, one on the west coast, one on the east coast. Visually, the film links them together by using symmetrical poses, cross-cutting action that juxtaposes one with the other, and other techniques. The niece even declares that “we’re sorta like twins.” Young Charlie also conjures up a sinister twin of herself when she says, “Go away or I’ll kill you myself,” insinuating a darker second side of her personality. Likewise, there are parallel and repeat images used in “Shadow,” including shots of the train coming (earlier) and the train leaving (later); him lying in bed, her lying in bed; her going out with the detective to a bright diner vs. her going to a dark bar with her uncle; the two run-ins with the traffic cop; Uncle Charlie hurting her arm, etc.
A human monster in our midst is another central tenet of “Shadow of a Doubt.” Uncle Charlie is depicted as a kind of horrific vampire. Consider how he prefers to lie in the dark behind curtains, evades capture by the two gumshoes, doesn’t appear winded from the chase, he insists on not being photographed, and he seems to possess a telepathic power to communicate with his niece. Later, a character is told to tell the story of Dracula.
Subversion and perversity is another theme: Hitchcock subtly suggests a sexual conflict between the two Charlies: she describes their connection as “not just an uncle and a nice,”, and he gives his niece a ring as a present. She appears more as a jilted lover betrayed by him than a disappointed niece after she discovers the truth about him.
The film is aptly named, as shadows and doubt are also important themes: literally, we see shadows fall across the image as foreshadowing elements, such as in the shots of the train and the dark billowing smoke it belches out; high contrast lighting is sometimes used in scenes with Uncle Charlie; and we see doubt cast across Young Charlie’s face in several later scenes. 
Suppression is the lesser of all evils: Young Charlie must suppress her urge to kill or expose Uncle Charlie and give into her dark side in order to maintain the veneer of normalcy and wholesomeness that Santa Rosa requires to maintain order and purity. Consider that Uncle Charlie is given a hero’s funeral at the end, which prevents the town from being forever stained.

OTHER FILMS SIMILAR TO “SHADOW OF A DOUBT”
Orson Welles “The Stranger” and David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” two other movies about danger lurking in seemingly safe suburban communities.
“Step Down to Terror,” a 1958 remake of this story
The low-budget horror films of RKO producer Val Lewton, whom Hitchcock admired, including “Cat People,” “The Leopard Man” and “The Seventh Victim,” which each depict malignancy and menace lurking about in mundane neighborhoods and towns.

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Never say never to "Neverland"

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Last week, CineVerse examined "Finding Neverland," a biopic loosely based on the life of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie and the sources that inspired him to write his famous story. While the filmmakers played fast and flexibly with the true-life facts about the author, the movie serves as a undeniably entertaining sentimental reflection on the power of creativity and the passionate resolve of an imaginative mind. Among the conclusions we came away with after viewing the picture, these thoughts prevailed:

WHAT DID YOU FIND UNEXPECTED OR REFRESHINGLY DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS FILM?
It’s an adult-oriented movie that puts yourself at the level of the child characters in it and doesn’t condescend or treat such matters trivially. It forces adults to give credence to the importance of the imagination at any age—something grownups have abandoned a long time ago.
There’s no hint of a romance between Barrie and Sylvia; usually, a love interest/affair is shoehorned into any drama.
Barrie isn’t shown as a Michael Jackson-like kook or deranged genius; he simply personifies the values imbued in Peter Pan: he never wants to grow up and become a prim and proper adult.
We are also allowed to see what Barrie sees and imagines—rain in the theater, his dog transformed into a bear, Neverland in the backyard, etc. 
Depp also isn’t chewing scenery or performing over-the-top acting acrobatics here; this is arguably one of him most subtle, subdued and quiet performances that are rare to find in his filmography lately. He was also nominated for a best actor Academy Award for this role.
The movie doesn’t give short shrift to the Barrie’s marriage; this conflict lingers throughout the film, and both husband and wife are sympathetic figures who each have their reasons.

THIS FILM HAS BEEN CRITICIZED FOR NOT ADHERING MORE FAITHFULLY TO THE TRUE LIFE FACTS ABOUT J.M. BARRIE. IS THIS A FAIR CRITICISM, OR ARE THE LIBERTIES THE FILMMAKERS HAVE TAKEN ACCEPTABLE TO YOU IN ORDER TO PRODUCE A MORE ENTERTAINING MOTION PICTURE?
To be fair, the opening and closing credits state that the movie is based on the stage play and “inspired” by true events, which serves as a fair notice disclaimer that what is depicted is not necessarily accurate.
The big problem that some film critics and scholars have about this biopic is that irresponsibly misleading: that it conjures up a tall tale that Barrie based Peter Pan on the young Peter Davies’ refutation of emotions concerning the death of his father (who actually was alive at that time). In this way, the movie overlooks the popular theory that Peter Pan was pure and simple a wish fulfillment creation by Barrie.
Virtually every biopic or film adaptation of an historical event plays loose and fast with the facts, often to tell a better cinematic, visual story within a tight two-hour format. Consider that “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Ed Wood,” “Braveheart” and so many other biopics are considered quality films, yet they condensed and altered characters and situations, cast actors who didn’t look like the original person, and created fantasies and legends to engage the audience instead of depicting the straight honest details.

FILMS THAT COME TO MIND AFTER VIEWING “FINDING NEVERLAND”
Big Fish
Amelie
The Princess Bride
Shadowlands (based on the author C.S. Lewis)
Saving Mr. Banks (about the professional relationship between “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney)

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY MARC FORSTER
Monsters Ball
Stranger than Fiction
The Kite Runner
Quantum of Solace
World War Z

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