Blog Directory CineVerse

Cineversary podcast honors "Vertigo"

Friday, September 21, 2018

For its third episode, Cineversary pays homage to one of the greatest movies of all time: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," originally released in 1958. Host Erik Martin interviews USC film professor and world-renowned Hitchcock film scholar Drew Casper to get at the heart of what makes "Vertigo" so memorable. They discuss why the picture is so revered 60 years later, ways it inspired countless filmmakers, what it can teach us today, and more. To listen, click play below.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at www.tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast, like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cineversarypodcast, and email show host Erik Martin with a comment, question or suggestion at cineversegroup@gmail.com.



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From red to red, white and blue

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A good "fish-out-of-water" story, when told well, can be satisfying to movie watchers. "Mao's Last Dancer" is that kind of tale, told from the perspective of a Chinese dancer-turned-dissident who discovers the wonders and possibilities of America while never forgetting his homeland and the family he left behind. Here's a recap of our group discussion of this film last night at CineVerse (to hear the full recorded discussion, click here):

WHAT DID YOU FIND INTRIGUING, REFRESHING, OR UNEXPECTED ABOUT “MAO’S LAST DANCER”?

  • You don’t have to be a ballet or dance enthusiast to enjoy or appreciate this movie. The story themes and various genre elements—including action, music, romance, and political thriller—are compelling enough to appeal to all kinds of viewers. 
  • The film isn’t necessarily centered on politics, and it doesn’t try to preach, such as a movie like “Rocky IV” does (consider that film’s ending, where Rocky tells the Russian sports spectators and Soviet leaders in attendance, “if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!” 
  • There are a lot of flashbacks employed here; instead of following a linear narrative, from childhood through modern day, the filmmakers bounce around a lot, perhaps suggesting that Li is reflective and deeply contemplative of his past. 
  • It’s likely many viewers didn’t see the failure of Li’s first marriage coming, or the surprise that he later marries the new female dancer he’s suddenly paired with toward the end of the film. When that new dancer is first revealed to Li, by his teary-eyed former dancer (Mary) who’s been replaced, the expectation is that, perhaps, this new dancer will serve as a late act villain and present an intriguing subplot. But that doesn’t happen. 
SOME CRITICS CONTEND THAT “MAO’S LAST DANCER” USES ASIAN AND IDEOLOGICAL STEREOTYPES THAT ARE CLICHED. DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE?
  • Ella Taylor from NPR wrote: “I wish that Beresford had not fallen into the familiar trap of dividing Chinese characters into two roles: brutal, ideology-spouting apparatchiki; or parable-spouting, salt-of-the-earth proletarians, the better to show off by contrast the open society of the West.” 
  • Cinema Autopsy blogger Thomas Caldwell wrote: “The representation of ideology in Mao’s Last Dancer is incredibly shallow and crude. The exploration of racial and cultural differences are also very clichéd and reducing Li’s early dialogue to pigeon-English is simply embarrassing.” 
  • One could argue that these approaches used in the film were necessary to tell this kind of story, where you have to contrast the politics and culture of the East versus the West and depict Li’s struggles and challenges—including language barriers and political pressure felt—in order to better sympathize and understand his situation. 
THEMES AT WORK IN THIS FILM:
  • Culture clash—the movie contrasts Li’s repressive native land, China, with the land of plenty that he experiences, America. 
  • Commitment—Li demonstrates bravery in choosing to defect, and must remain determined and focused in his goal of becoming a great dancer. 
  • Transition—we see many shifts, evolutions and conversions as the movie progresses, including the transition from boyhood to manhood and maturity, from East to West, from repression to artistic expression, from rags to riches, from unimportant to renowned, from single to couple, etc. 
  • Fables and parables—like the story of the frog and toad, and the tale of the archer 
  • A fish out of water, or stranger in a strange land 
  • Art as an expression of freedom. While Li performs ballet in his native China, he isn’t able to perfect his craft and dance the way he wants to on his terms until he comes to America, a land of democracy and independence. 
  • Art knows no boundaries. Consider the different nationalities present in this film and its making; you have a multicultural love story, and the movie was shot by an Australian filmmaker on location in Australia, China, and Texas. 
MOVIES SIMILAR TO “MAO’S LAST DANCER”:
  • White Nights 
  • Moscow on the Hudson 
  • Center Stage 
  • The Last Emperor 
  • The Turning Point 
OTHER PICTURES DIRECTED BY BRUCE BERESFORD:
  • Driving Miss Daisy 
  • Tender Mercies 
  • Breaker Morant 
  • Crimes of the Heart 
  • Mister Johnson 
  • Black Robe

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Save the last dance for Mao

Sunday, September 16, 2018

World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse on September 19 with a sleeper from Australia: “Mao’s Last Dancer” (2009; 118 minutes), directed by Bruce Beresford, chosen by Carole Bogaard.

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A rally-round-the-flag film

Thursday, September 13, 2018

They just don't make films like "Sergeant York" anymore. Truth is, who would swallow the sincerity and genuine patriotism today? That would be some heavy lifting for a contemporary filmmaker and a modern audience. Yet it's fascinating to examine the propagandistic power and forthright folksiness of Howard Hawks' 1941 picture, which wears its heart--and its love of country in a time of war--on its sleeve. These thoughts made for a compelling conversation last night at CineVerse, during which time we discussed the following:

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY HOWARD HAWKS:

  • Scarface
  • Bringing Up Baby
  • Only Angels Have Wings
  • His Girl Friday
  • To Have and Have Not
  • The Big Sleep
  • Red River
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blinds
  • Rio Bravo
HOW DID THIS MOVIE DEFY YOUR EXPECTATIONS, GOOD OR BAD?
  • While capably directed by Howard Hawks, this picture doesn’t showcase as many of Hawks’ signature traits or hallmarks.
    • For example, Hawks often liked to focus on the dynamics and power of a group working together; this movie concentrates mostly on one person’s heroic journey. 
    • Critics often praise Hawks for his ironic wit and cynical sensibilities, but here he has to treat the character and subject matter with sincerity and reverence.
    • Film critic Robin Wood said: “It is precisely these factors that work consistently against the film’s artistic success. One feels Hawks continually hampered by having to ‘stick to the facts’; an intuitive artist, he is ill-equipped to handle big issues on any but a superficial level.”
  • Interestingly, three-quarters of the movie depicts Alvin York’s life before combat; only about a quarter of the film—most of the last third—depicts his wartime heroics; consider that the latter is what York is famous for. Yet it’s important to flesh out his backstory to invest us more in his personal crisis of conscience and to get us to care about the man and what he values.
  • It feels like the America of York’s time is very different from the America of today.
    • Then, we were rallying round the flag in a show of support for our country, which was just about to enter World War II; this film was unashamedly propagandistic in trying to encourage patriotism and military enlistments. The sentiments and religious convictions are sincere, and there’s no trace of irony or cynicism. 
    • Today, these factors may make the film appear sappy and far outdated, in an era where viewers are skeptical about patriotism, spirituality and trust in government.
    • Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant reviewer, wrote: “Sergeant York pulls out all the stops to get Americans behind its message. It almost shamefully reconstructs the Frank Capra populist formula of 'Mr. Deeds', the naive innocent, staying noble and pure while taking on the evils of the outside world. Instead of asking America to understand what's happening, it keeps its arguments simplistic and personal.”
    • Erickson continued: “Sergeant York doesn't do what we expect it to, condescend to the hillbillies. Hawks and his writers use an hour to paint a warm and fair image of God-fearing, quick-to-fight mountain folk, with understatement and tact. The Tennessee'uns are neither Bible thumping saints nor Dogpatch yokels, and except for York, none are presented as being inherently noble in their ignorance.”
  • It also helps that, even though it’s a war that happened 25 years earlier, the enemy, Germany, is the same.
  • The film has been criticized by some for glorifying war. Consider how York employs his “gobble” turkey tactic to flush out German soldiers, which some say suggests that combat is a sport that rewards the clever. 
THEMES BUILT INTO SERGEANT YORK:
  • Love of God versus love of country—and the reconciliation between these two convictions.
  • Love of country and unabashed patriotism as priority. This film was meant to serve as wartime propaganda during WWII and stir viewers into supporting our country’s involvement in it.
  • Redemption and conversion—both a spiritual conversion and a conversion from a pacifist to a person who believes that war and combat are justifiable. We see York as a kind of Saul to Paul biblical character who is transformed on the road.
  • The meek shall inherit the earth: York comes from simple country folk and uses his skills and values as a farmer to succeed in combat and rise above others’ expectations of him.
  • Honor, bravery and sacrifice.
  • The love of a good woman can inspire any sacrifice.
SIMILAR MOVIES THAT COME TO MIND AFTER WATCHING THIS PICTURE:
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  • This Is the Army
  • To Hell and Back (the Audie Murphy story)
  • Hacksaw Ridge (the true story of Desmond T. Doss, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite refusing to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds)

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Tryin' hard to look like Gary Cooper...

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Gary Cooper won his first Best Actor Oscar for "Sergeant York” (1941; 134 minutes), directed by Howard Hawks. Join CineVerse on September 12 for this movie, chosen by Tom Nesis.

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The simple bear necessities of "Life"

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Pairing up Morgan Freeman with a popular and respected A-list actor (like Jessica Tandy in "Driving Miss Daisy," Tim Robbins in "Shawshank Redemption," Brad Pitt in "Se7en," and Clint Eastwood in "Million Dollar Baby") and having him serve as the "Jiminy Cricket conscience" of the duo has worked wonders over the past three decades. Would casting Freeman alongside Robert Redford in "An Unfinished Life" repeat that magic and elevate the film as a cut above? The jury was split on this one, as evidenced by the reception (mostly positive) to the film last evening at CineVerse. Here's a recap:

HOW DOES THIS MOVIE RISE ABOVE THE TRAPPINGS OF A TYPICAL PAINT-BY-NUMBERS, OVER-SENTIMENTAL MELODRAMA – OR DOES IT FIT THAT DESCRIPTION?
  • You can make a case that the story is fairly predictable: Redford’s crusty old codger simply has to thaw once he gets to know his granddaughter better; Jean will almost certainly escape the clutches of her abusive boyfriend somehow; and Mitch is destined to either find healing and peace or die an inspirational death. 
  • Yet, the solid casting of beloved veterans like Redford and Freeman ensure that this picture will be a cut above the norm, based on sheer acting talents alone. 
    • Redford, in particular, is memorable here, as he is freed from the shackles of having to be the romantic lead. 
    • On the other hand, many critics found fault with the casting of Jennifer Lopez in her role, feeling that she isn’t up to par with Freeman and Redford. 
  • Also, the way the bear subplot is resolved could take many viewers by surprise, especially those who expected the bear to be shot down or to maul someone else. 

WHAT IS THE TITLE OF THE FILM – AN UNFINISHED LIFE – REFERRING TO, AND YOU FEEL THIS IS A FITTING TITLE?
  • It could be referring to Einar’s dead son and the fact that there are unresolved threads and unfinished business left behind after his passing. 
  • Consider that Einer’s granddaughter, who he didn’t know existed previously, could represent the unfinished part of the dead son’s life – she continues his story by continuing the family lineage. 
  • Or, it could be referencing the father, who has unfinished business of his own before dies – namely, making peace with his daughter-in-law and overcoming his bitterness. 
MORALS AND MESSAGES WOVEN INTO AN UNFINISHED LIFE:
  • The power of forgiveness and redemption 
  • The unpredictability of predators and the damage they can inflict – think of both the abusive boyfriend and the bear 
  • Recovering from grief and overcoming bitterness 
  • Blood is thicker than water, and family is forever 
  • Don’t cage up your rage: Like the bear, you have to let go of your bottled-up anger. 
WHAT METAPHORS ARE EMPLOYED IN THIS FILM?
  • The bear = anger/raw emotion 
  • Teaching/entrusting the granddaughter to drive and forgiving her accidental hitting of the gearshift = Einar forgiving his daughter-in-law and accepting that his son’s death was an accident 
  • The treehouse = Einar’s family tree; at first he tells his granddaughter to get down from there (suggesting she doesn’t belong and isn’t part of his family), but later he tells her to stay there 
  • Honey on the meat = treating others with kindness can be a lot more successful
OTHER MOVIES THAT AN UNFINISHED LIFE REMINDS US OF:
  • Ulee’s Gold 
  • Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven – two films by Clint Eastwood featuring Eastwood playing a grizzled older character paired with Morgan Freeman 
  • Films in which respected actors, previously considered handsome romantic leads, aren’t afraid to show their warts and all older sides, such as Paul Newman and Nobody’s Full, Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt 
  • On Golden Pond 
  • The Horse Whisperer, directed by Redford 
  • Rabbit Hole 
  • Still Walking 
  • Moonlight Mile 
  • Journey 
OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY LASSE HALLSTROM:
  • What’s Eating Gilbert Grape 
  • Chocolat
  • The Cider House Rules 
  • My Life As a Dog

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Robert + Morgan + JLo = a finished movie

Sunday, September 2, 2018

On September 5, CineVerse will present “An Unfinished Life” (2005; 108 minutes), directed by Lasse Hallström, chosen by Brian Hansen. Make plans to join us for this highly acclaimed film.

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I know all there is to know about the crying game...

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Not many motion pictures take as many left turns as Neal Jordan's "The Crying Game" from 1992, which starts out as a political thriller, shifts into a strange love story, then meshes these two elements into a gripping third act. Of course, there's a shocking twist along the way (SPOILER! Dil, a love interest of the main protagonist, is revealed to be transgender) that created much buzz and controversy 26 years ago. The film still has the power to provoke robust thought and discussion, as shown last night at CineVerse. Here's a summary of our talking points:

WHAT DID YOU FIND FASCINATING, UNEXPECTED OR EVEN OFFPUTTING ABOUT THIS FILM?

  • The film turns in different directions that you don’t see coming. Consider that the first third leads you to believe this will be a gripping political thriller. But after 30 minutes, the focus shifts to more of a mystery/love story. 
  • We come to identify more with a character we didn’t expect we would as the movie progresses. In this way, and others, this film is like Hitchcock’s “Psycho”; recall how in that film, the main character, Marion, was killed halfway through the movie and then we are forced to identify with Norman Bates. 
    • According to Roger Ebert: “Jordan's wonderful film does what Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), a very different film, also did: It involves us deeply in its story, and then it reveals that the story is really about something else altogether. We may have been fooled, but so was the hero, and as the plot reveals itself we find ourselves identifying more and more with him.” 
  • The film plays with gender roles and gender expectations in many ways. Think about how the female love interest is actually not the top-billed actress Miranda Richardson – instead, it’s a person who’s either a transvestite or a transgender woman. Ponder, as well, how some characters names are often associated with the opposite gender, like Jude and Jody. 
  • The movie also defies casting expectations. The filmmakers cast a Brit (Miranda Richardson) to portray an Irishwoman and an American (Forest Whitaker) to portray a Brit. 
  • Jaye Davidson, who plays Dil, doesn’t let the character become a stereotype. If you’ve not previously seen the movie or heard anyone talk about it, it’s likely that you, along with the vast majority of folks who first saw the movie in 1992, don’t guess prematurely that Dil is not who she appears to be. 
    • “Jordan never allows Davidson to be portrayed as an absurdist caricature, as characters in cross-dressing films such as Some Like it Hot or Tootsie often are. Davidson may be dark humored, witty and ironic, but never farcical. His inscrutability is convincing enough so the character’s gender shifts (from feminine to masculine then back to feminine) are each persuasive, layering the character’s many dimensions,” wrote essayist Brian Eggert at the Deep Focus Review. 
  • The picture could be seen as a pro-IRA statement, which caused controversy at the time. Director Neil Jordan tried to defuse these criticisms by saying:” “The IRA has done terrible things. But what’s important about the way the film approaches that reality is that they’ve become people they didn’t want to be. That doesn’t mean the cause is wrong.” 
THEMES AT WORK IN THE CRYING GAME
  • People stay true to their natures, as echoed in the story of the scorpion and frog. 
  • Things are not what they seem, people are often not who they appear to be, and life is unpredictable. Recall Dil’s quote: “Funny the way things go, never the way you expect them.” 
  • Love transcends the boundaries of gender, race and politics. 
  • A bizarre love triangle in which one third of the triangle is dead. Triangles are also a motif in the film: Fergus, Dil and Jody; Fergus, Dil and the bartender; Fergus, Dil and her bald boyfriend; Fergus, Jody and Jude; and Fergus, Dil and Jude. 
  • The quest for redemption 
FILMS THAT THE CRYING GAME REMIND US OF:
  • While many other films have surprise twists, there are actually very few movies like The Crying Game – which supports the notion that this is a one-of-a-kind original film with few imitators 
  • Vertigo and Psycho 
  • Boys Don’t Cry 
OTHER FILMS BY NEIL JORDAN:
  • The Company of Wolves 
  • Mona Lisa 
  • Interview with the Vampire 
  • Michael Collins 
  • The End of the Affair

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Suspense and intrigue from overseas

Sunday, August 26, 2018

World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse with a gem from the United Kingdom on August 29: “The Crying Game” (1992; 112 minutes), directed by Neil Jordan, chosen by Dan Quenzel.

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