Blog Directory CineVerse: August 2017

Fable of a benevolent alien

Thursday, August 31, 2017

"E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" still packs a strong emotional punch 35 years after its release. Director Steven Spielberg focus less on science fiction and more on fairytale fantasy to tell a very personal story from a child's point of view – and that child be any one of us, regardless of age. How do we as viewers love "E.T."? Let us count the ways...

WHAT IS MEMORABLE AND SPECIAL ABOUT E.T., PARTICULARLY AS A SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FILM?

  • It strikes a chord with the inner child in all of us—the one who experienced loneliness, awkwardness, misunderstanding or alienation when we were young; it’s especially relevant to children of broken homes and divorce, middle children, and kids who grew up in the suburbs, which describes the character of Elliott. 
  • It’s an intimate, emotional movie that Steven Spielberg considered his most personal film. Steven Spielberg said in an interview: “"E.T. was about the divorce of my parents, how I felt after my parents broke up. [It was] the first movie I ever made for myself.”
    • It’s a very emotionally resonant film that requires you to be an actively engaged viewer—it involves your feelings and moves you; films that can evoke a strong emotional reaction in audiences are powerful pictures that tend to be remembered and revisited.
  • It’s a rare science fiction story about aliens that are benevolent; many sci-fi films feature extraterrestrials that are violent and destructive to humans. Here, the message is that strangers from different worlds can and should coexist in peace and find a way to communicate.
  • It features a brilliant, emotional score by composer John Williams that ranks #14 on the AFI’s list of 25 greatest film scores.
  • Some believe E.T. turned aliens into pop culture icons and gave a lovable, memorable face to an alien being that was safe for and acceptable to children.
  • It helped usher in the era of product placement (Reese’s Pieces and Coca-Cola) into the movies, for better or worse.
  • It firmly established Steven Spielberg as the world’s most popular and famous director—a man with the Midas touch after consecutively helming Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and now E.T.
  • This was also nearing the end of the era when audiences showed up in droves, creating extremely long wait times and lines that often stretched around the block. With the proliferation of multiplex theaters later in the 1980s, these ridiculously long lines would subside; but in 1982, chances are that you had to get in a long line and wedge into a packed theater to see E.T.
  • Despite old school special effects limitations of its era, compared to the dazzling computer wizardry of today, E.T.’s effects hold up, especially the animatronic and puppetry work involved in making the alien look realistic and act believably.Disconnection from home and family is not healthy. E.T. needs to go back to his kind and his own world; he is reborn because he has made reconnected with the ones that love him. This suggests that Elliott, too, must find a connection and treasure his life with his family in suburbia, even if he doesn’t always fit in so well and lacks a father. It also underscores how E.T. and Elliott are connected and similar; think about how “E” and “T” are the first and last letters of Elliott’s name.
WHAT IS MEMORABLE AND SPECIAL ABOUT E.T., PARTICULARLY AS A SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FILM?
  • Seeing life through a child’s eyes. Consider that it adopts the literal as well as emotional viewpoint of a child: the camera is often placed at a child’s level, and the point of view is often Elliott’s or E.T.’s. Consider how the “bad” adults like the man with the keys are often only shown as faceless silhouettes and from the mid-torso down.
  • Christ-like rebirth. This an uplifting story about a helpless creature who’s been abandoned and left behind, is vulnerable, friendly and cuddly, and can work feats of magic; yet, the creature gets sick, dies and is reborn. 
  • The importance of maintaining a sense of wonder and imagination. This picture makes you feel young again and taps into the mysteries and energy of childhood—how cool it is to find something really precious that’s your unique secret, trying to find your place in a world where you don’t feel like you fit in, and being in awe of the marvels and mysteries of the universe.
    • It also speaks to the power that children have to possess a powerful sense of imagination and an awe and reverence for magic, to be resourceful and resilient, to be open and receptive to the idea that aliens, monsters or the supernatural can exist, and to connect and communicate with life and nature in a way that most adults have forgotten or can’t.
    • It references Peter Pan in the film, and often plays on the themes of Pan—that you can fly, have adventures, wish upon a star for a miracle, and defeat the pirates (or, in this case, the adults trying to take E.T. away). . Remember that the “Keys” adult character is like a grownup Elliott or former Peter Pan—he’s been “wishing for this since (he) was 10 years old.” He, too, wants to be a kid again.
  • The importance of tolerance, compassion and understanding. Film journalist John Kenneth Muir wrote: "E.T. purposefully asks audiences to accept that which is alternative or seem different, and judge it not by how it looks. On the contrary, E.T. and Elliott develop a symbiosis, and so come to understand the feelings of one another. No matter how different or alien someone may seem, they possess the same feelings that you do. That too is E.T.'s message."
OTHER FILMS THAT E.T. BRINGS TO MIND:
  • Super 8
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Earth to Echo
  • Lilo and Stitch
  • Peter Pan
  • Snow White and the 7 Dwarves
  • Starman
OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG
  • Jaws
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Jurassic Park
  • Schindler’s List
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • A.I.-Artificial Intelligence
  • Lincoln

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Anniversary for your favorite alien

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Don't miss CineVerse on August 30, when we'll wish a happy 35th anniversary to "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982; 115 minutes), directed by Steven Spielberg, chosen by Bob Johnson.

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Drama, comedy and horror on the menu for CineVerse in September and October

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The September-October 2017 CineVerse schedule is now posted and ready for viewing. Eager to see what's planned for the weeks ahead? Click here for a peek.

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"Past" tense

Many film critics, historians and scholars will point to "Double Indemnity" as the gold standard for classic film noir. While it's hard to argue against that film being the standard bearer for the genre, there's a dark horse candidate that's emerged in recent decades as a possible contender to the crown--Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past," which features a femme fatale nearly as cold-blooded and conniving as Phyllis Dietrichson and a less hardboiled anti-hero lead. Consider the following points in the film's favor, as discussed during last night's CineVerse meeting:

HOW IS THIS FILM DIFFERENT AND DISTINCTIVE FROM OTHER FILMS NOIR?
  • Many noirs predominantly feature nighttime scenes in gritty urban jungles using high contrast lighting that create lots of dark shadows; this film features plenty of daytime scenes in bright, sunny settings, including bucolic outdoor locations.
    • According to essayist Gary Morris, “Director Jacques Tourneur follows Hitchcock’s approach in finding terror in the everyday, in this case the majestic backdrops of Lake Tahoe and Puerto Vallarta. This is not to say there aren’t recognizably dark “noir” scenes, but, again as in Hitchcock, the darkness emanates mainly from within the characters. This gives even a scene shot on a bright afternoon at a woodland river an atmosphere of bleakness and horror, when a fishing trip ends in a gruesome murder. It also shows the limits of Jeff’s world. Finished with Kathie, he falls in love with a sweet girl from the town where he’s been hiding, but while most of their scenes together are shot during the day, in natural locations, it’s clear from their nervous, almost desperate exchanges that there are stronger, darker forces that will prevent them ever coming together.”
  • The male lead here is laid back, laconic and low-key in speech, sleepy-eyed and possessing a cool detachment; most noir male leads, which are often private eyes or anti-heroes plotting a crime, are more hardboiled, tougher, sharp-tongued, alert and attentive. Credit Robert Mitchum with infusing a new nonchalant style and attitude to this noir anti-hero archetype.
  • Almost all classic noirs feature characters smoking, but this one seems to be trying to set records for how many coffin nails can be lit up and sucked in a 90-minute flick. Smoking, in fact, becomes a form of jousting. Roger Ebert wrote: “Few movies use smoking as well as this one; in their scenes together, it would be fair to say that Mitchum and Douglas smoke at each other, in a sublimated form of fencing.”
  • The movie uses real locations and natural settings for a more realistic, authentic look.
  • Like many noirs, this one employs a flashback, which occupies nearly half the runtime; what’s interesting about the flashback is that (1) it primarily occurs in broad daylight, and (2) Kathie is depicted as more of “an idealized love object. When the narrative leaves flashback mode, her aura vanishes…Kathie then elicits nothing but contempt from Jeff,” wrote film reviewer Glenn Erickson.
THE CHARACTERS’ NAMES REVEAL INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT THEM. CAN YOU PROVDIE EXAMPLES?
  • Markham suggests a “marked” man who is fated to die.
  • Moffat sounds like “Little Miss Muffet,” who was visited by a spider; Moffat herself becomes a spider woman femme fatale.
  • Whit sounds like “wit,” a man of sharp intellect and facetiousness.
  • Meta has multiple meanings; in ancient Rome, "meta" meant a column or post, or a group of columns or posts, placed at each end of a racetrack to mark the turning places. The character of Meta also appears at and signifies a turning point in this story. Also, "meta" is a prefix designating the meta position in the benzene ring in the world of chemistry; benzene is a toxic compound.
  • Former partner Fisher has a name that makes us think he’s fishing for something or is fishy.
  • Eels speaks for itself: a personality who operates in a slippery underworld who finds himself “underwater” and dead at the heels of Whit and his henchman.
  • Stefanos sounds like Mephistopheles, Mephisto, a demon or evil spirit.
  • “The kid” remains nameless, and is deaf and mute, as if the dealings of these other shady characters have left him speechless and deafened him with their evil intonations; he stands as a silent cypher, merely observing what’s happening, and serves in a way as a surrogate for the audience.
THEMES SUGGESTED IN OUT OF THE PAST INCLUDE:
  • Inability to escape one’s past or one’s fate. The whole story is set in motion by Whit’s henchman finding Jeff and dragging him back to his past.
  • A doomed love triangle: Jeff, Kathie and Whit are all bound together and fated to fall. Arguably, however, this dominant relationship here is between Jeff and Whit, who have in common the same femme fatale woman, scathing hatred for each other, a certain personal code of honor, and a cynical, pessimistic worldview.
  • Fate and doomed destiny: interestingly, Jeff proceeds in getting involved with Kathie and Whit and reinvolving himself with him and her despite being aware that he’s being double-crossed and framed. It suggests that he can’t help himself because of Kathie’s allure.
  • Moral ambiguity: As Ebert posits, “The movie's final scene, between the hometown girl Ann and Jimmy, Jeff's hired kid at the gas station, reflects the moral murkiness of the film with its quiet ambiguity…As Jimmy answers Ann's question, is he telling her what he believes, what he thinks she wants to believe, or what he thinks it will be best for her to believe?”
  • Unanswered questions: Erickson also wrote that the secret of Out of the Past's superior dialogue is that “no question is ever given a straight answer. It's always another question, or a smart remark insinuating something.”
  • The dangerous noir female and what this character personifies. Morris wrote: “(Kathie) embodies postwar fears that women, having contributed mightily to the war effort and moved into “men’s work,” might abandon the domestic sphere entirely, causing all manner of social mayhem. She’s the culmination of the self-consumed, anti-domestic, anti-social female as evoked by Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, and even the most powerful men around her can’t comprehend or control the violent forces she represents.”
OTHER FILMS THAT REMIND US OF OUT OF THE PAST
  • Its 1984 remake, Against All Odds
  • Gilda
  • The Big Sleep, which also features labyrinth-like double crosses and a complicated plot
  • Angel Face
OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY JACQUES TOURNEUR
  • Cat People
  • I Walked With a Zombie
  • Curse of the Demon
  • The Comedy of Terrors

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Living in the "Past"

Sunday, August 20, 2017

One of the all-time great film noir movies makes its way to CineVerse on August 23: “Out of the Past” (1947; 97 minutes), directed by Jacques Tourneur, chosen by Danealle Kueltzo. Plus: Stick around for a trailer reel preview of the September/October CineVerse schedule.

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"I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you."

Thursday, August 17, 2017

With a movie as monothematic as "Taken," the filmmakers can cut right to the chase--literally (after a brief setup and introduction of characters, that is). And that's to the advantage of a picture like this, which draws its irrefutable strength from the protagonist's resolute purpose and thirst for vengeance. Here we have 91 minutes of no-bullshit, balls-to-the-wall urgency that any viewer with a pulse can relate to--the kidnapping of a loved one and the race against time to retrieve her before the unthinkable happens. Here are the major takeaways from our group discussion on "Taken":

WHAT DID YOU FIND INTERESTING, MEMORABLE AND DIFFERENT ABOUT TAKEN, PARTICULARLY COMPARED TO OTHER ACTION THRILLERS?
  • It grips you with its emotional pull and sentimentality right away, making Mills a sympathetic figure and this a very black-and-white, good guy vs. bad guys story. With nothing to cloud our moral judgement or rooting interest, it’s easier to just enjoy the thrill ride and focus on the protagonist’s modus operandi.
  • Despite being a predictable film in which we know ahead of time that the daughter is going to be kidnapped and the father is going to kick some ass in getting her back, it does a masterful job of keeping us in suspense, tightening the knot, and keeping us emotionally invested.
  • Liam Neeson really looks this part; it’s important that we believe he’s physically and emotionally capable of taking on the villains here; while some action scenes are implausible (like taking on 6 guys at once), Neeson has an imposing physicality and steely determination in his face—coupled with a “hangdog Irish mug that makes both the innocence of (his) love and its fierceness intensely believable,” wrote Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek.
  • The runtime is relatively brief (91 minutes); this is a lean, mean fighting machine of a motion picture with no fat to trim, no superfluous scenes, no subplots that are romantic or otherwise, no unnecessary exposition and backstory to linger on for long.
  • Unlike James Bond films and other slick modern action thrillers, this movie is not really about gadgets and technology, although cell phones and surveillance equipment are important tools for Mills.
“TAKEN” BELONGS TO A SUBGENRE CALLED THE VIGILANTE FILM. WHAT ARE SOME HALLMARKS AND TRAITS OF MANY VIGILANTE PICTURES, AND CAN NAME ANY OTHER VIGILANTE FILMS?
  • Vigilante films usually feature a sole hero or anti-hero who decides to take the law into his or her own hands—wandering outside the boundaries of the law and normal conventions and living by their own moral code.
  • Vigilante films almost always depict graphic onscreen violence or suggest abhorrent off-screen violence; the instigating violence is typically the catalyst that sets the protagonist in motion (e.g., rape, torture, and/or killing of a loved one).
  • As the film progresses, typically the level of violence increases, with each instance sometimes topping the last in terms of disturbance value, brutality, gore and mercilessness.
  • To be crowd-pleasing, satisfying wish fulfilment pictures, vigilante movies have to fulfill the audience’s wish: that is, for the hero or anti-hero to get revenge and take out the antagonists with extreme prejudice and often creative punishment that can serve as poetic justice.
  • Early examples include Dirty Harry, Billy Jack, Death Wish and its sequels, Straw Dogs, and Walking Tall. More recent examples include Law Abiding Citizen, Django Unchained, and A Man Apart.
OTHER MOVIES THAT REMIND US OF TAKEN:
  • The Bourne film series
  • Man on Fire
  • Ransom
  • Snitch
  • Not Without My Daughter
  • The Man From Nowhere
  • Leon: The Professional

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Lawbreaking lovers on the run

Monday, August 14, 2017

Make plans to attend Cineversary on August 17 from 6-8:45 p.m. at the Oak Lawn Library, when we'll celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967; 111 minutes).

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Hell hath no fury like a father scorned

Sunday, August 13, 2017

You don't want to piss off Liam Neeson. Why? See for yourself on August 16, when CineVerse views and discusses “Taken” (1986; 96 minutes), directed by Tom Moore, chosen by Jeff Kueltzo.

Plus: Movie trivia game for a chance to win DVD movie prizes, from 7-7:45 p.m.

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A glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Few films move with such boundless and kinetic energy and frenetic momentum as Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which takes audiences on a journey across four different eras and several colorful boundaries in Eastern Europe--a journey propelled by richly drawn characters spun from fertile imaginations. There's a lot to digest upon initial viewing, but here are some of the key takeaways discussed at last evening's CineVerse group meeting:

WHAT IS INTERESTING, UNIQUE AND UNEXPECTED ABOUT THIS FILM?
  • It tells a story within a story within a story within a story—essentially using a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, like a set of Russian dolls. Thus, the narrative is epic in scope in terms of its time periods, settings, and characters.
  • Despite it being set in the 1930s, 1960s and 1980s, it’s meant to be resonant and impactful for modern audiences, with the visitor to the grave (happening in current times) standing as a surrogate for the audience as well as possibly a surviving descendant of Agatha (she resembles her for a reason), who had died in that long ago war.
  • It shifts between different aspect ratios and color palettes. 
    • We see classic 1.35:1 Academy framing in the 1930s sequences, which is the era when movies actually used that aspect ratio; later settings are featured in wider frames. The former depicts actors in tighter compositions, suggesting more unity, closeness and camaraderie; the latter depicts actors often set further apart at opposite ends of the frame, insinuating emotional distance, alienation and colder detachment.
    • It employs a bright, saturated pastel color palette within the hotel—suggesting artistry, vibrancy, whimsy and life—but a drab monochromatic scheme when our heroes are on the run, implying that fun and freedom are threatened. 
  • Gustave is a fully realized and colorful personality, yet a walking contradiction. Consider New York Times critic A.O. Scott’s description of him: “Gustave is both courtier and sovereign, a devoted servant to the guests and the capricious, mostly benevolent ruler of the staff. He corrects their slightest lapses of deportment and lectures them endlessly at mealtimes. He is a lover of poetry and also of the elderly women who summon him to their suites, and maybe of a few men as well. Somehow, he is both an ascetic and a sensualist, highly disciplined and completely irresponsible. A thoroughly ridiculous man and at the same time “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.”
  • The bright pastel colors, stylized characterizations and physical traits of some of the players, and artificial facades suggest that this is a kind of fairy tale facsimile of the real world.
WHY DO THE FILMMAKERS CHOOSE FICTIONAL FORCES AND IMAGINARY COUNTRIES? INSTEAD OF HUNGARY OR CZECHOSLOVAKIA, WE GET ZUBROWKA; INSTEAD OF NAZIS OR THE SS WE GET THE ZZ.
  • They likely wanted this to be more of an allegorical tale or fable without burdening the audience with the baggage of real World War II events and tragedies, even though this is undoubtedly meant to represent 1930s Eastern Europe; 
  • This is meant to serve as a cautionary tale about the oppression of people by a totalitarian regime; the results are the same—good people died because of racial hatred, greed, and unchecked power.
  • Essentially, this is a film about the Holocaust, an extremely disturbing and depressing period in history that is difficult to depict onscreen; Anderson and company choose to tell a more lighthearted, comedic tale about the forces driving and effects of the Holocaust without giving us the gruesome details.
  • Writer Norman Eisen with The Atlantic suggests that the “characters are a warm tribute to the three main populations targeted by the Nazis. M. Gustave…is openly bisexual (thousands of men arrested after being condemned as homosexuals were estimated to have died in concentration camps). Zero…is a refugee whose family was slaughtered in their village, standing in for the Roma and other “non-Aryan” ethnic minorities the Holocaust also targeted. The two men are aided throughout by a Jewish lawyer.”
  • Eisen further posited that: “Talking about the most serious subjects with the help of comedy is a long European tradition running from Aristophanes to Voltaire to Jonathan Swift to Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose works were a principal influence of the film. That tradition was particularly strong in the real-life Zubrowka, Czechoslovakia, where Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik sent up militarism, Franz Kafka’s novels and stories mocked bureaucracy, and Havel’s comic plays helped bring down Communism. These artists recognized that profound issues deserve to be looked at through every single human lens, and no issue is perhaps more profound than the Holocaust, its causes and consequences.”
  • The tone in this film is predominantly comic and ironic, yet there is an undercurrent of darkness and foreboding, accentuated by sudden acts of violence, that can make you feel quite unsettled. 
WHAT THEMES, MESSAGES AND MORALS ARE EXPLORED IN THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL?
  • Grace under pressure, and maintaining dignity and civility in a time of barbarism and hatred. Consider that Gustave puts on airs about being witty, urbane and well-versed, but when faced with the true horrors of what’s happening around him often succumbs to base profanity.
  • Our duty to remember and honor the past, especially those who suffered and died so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have today.
  • Even the most oppressed and disadvantaged can survive and thrive; think about Zero and how his name is fitting. 
  • The pain and longing of a love interrupted.
  • The priceless virtues of tolerance, kindness and compassion can save lives and inspire others.
  • Nostalgia for a bygone time when manners, intentions, craftsmanship and brotherly love mattered. “Times have changed,” as the older Zero says.
  • Fantasy and illusion, as evidenced by the pink and pastel colors, the shots of the fake fa├žade mountain/hotel, the drawn-on mustache, doors that open by themselves, a hitman with teeth like a werewolf, a birthmark in the shape of Mexico, and a jailbreak that’s far too easy.
WHAT OTHER FILMS COME TO MIND AFTER VIEWING THIS ONE?
  • The sophisticated but brave comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, including two that dared poke fun of totalitarian regimes, Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be.
  • Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator
  • Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful
  • Many Hitchcock films, including Torn Curtain, North by Northwest and Vertigo.

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A five-star hotel deserves a five-star movie

Sunday, August 6, 2017

On August 9, CineVerse will conclude its summer Quick Theme Quartet (Go Wes Young Man: 4 Films by Wes Anderson) with Part 4: “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014; 99 minutes), directed by Wes Anderson. Plus: we'll watch 2 interviews with Anderson about the making of the film (10 minutes).

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