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The Colbert Report Signs Off

December 19th, 2014

The Colbert Report signed off with a star-studded finale that no other comic of this generation could match.

On the last show, a mammoth sing along to the tune of We’ll Meet Again featured everyone from Randy Newman to Henry Kissinger to Willie Nelson to James Franco to Gloria Steinem to Charlie Rose and every imaginable stop in-between – a fitting end to what was arguably the greatest late night satirical talk show in television history.

As Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine, “I’m blue. After nine years and two months, The Colbert Report is off the air. I’ve seen each of the 1446 episodes leading to tonight’s sign-off, and cherished almost all of them. The show’s conclusion will leave a void in my life and in my writing, since I’ve shoehorned Colbert references into reviews of Superbad, Prince of Persia, Pompeii, Jackass 3D, Nightcrawler and Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, and into essays about Richard Nixon, Ingmar Bergman, Derek Jeter, makeup artist Dick Smith and the 2012 Super Bowl.

For my wife Mary Corliss and me, Colbert has been destination viewing. Even in the early years, we never took the show’s excellence for granted, agreeing that some day we’d look back on the double whammy of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as the golden age of TV’s singeing singing satire.

That age ends now. Colbert is gone from TV until September, when he takes over David Letterman’s CBS 11:35 slot and, at 51, becomes the oldest man to debut as the host of a late-night network talk show. He’ll be off the air for nine months — a long time for admirers like me to go cold, or Colbert, turkey. And when he finally starts on CBS, he’ll just be Stephen Colbert. Not ‘Stephen Colbert,’ the greatest fake newsman in TV history, and one of the richest fictional characters in any popular art form of the past decade.”

So until September, it’s cold turkey for Colbert fans – when we’ll meet again.

The Horrifying Future of Movies – Nothing But Franchises

December 18th, 2014

Here’s an absolutely brilliant and deeply impassioned piece by author Mark Harris.

Writing in the journal Grantland, Harris sees a future of nothing but utterly predictable franchise films, made by cost accountants and others with no real investment in film as an art form, which it most certainly is. As he writes, in part, “I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.”

You can see the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; essential reading.

Robert De Niro’s Actual Hack License for Taxi Driver

December 17th, 2014

Talk about method acting!

This has been floating around the web, and is worth posting here; this is Robert De Niro’s actual hack license that he used to prep for his career defining role as Travis Bickle, a loner taxicab driver in New York City driven to a homicidal frenzy by forces he can’t control. It’s one of the great American movies, and was shot right around the corner from where I then lived, at 203 East 14th Street in Manhattan. De Niro – a total professional, completely dedicated to his craft, and it shows in the finished film, which is perhaps the finest film from Scorsese, De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster and everyone else involved. No other film so authentically captured the grit and grime of New York City in the 1970s.

A fascinating artifact from a lost era.

The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism by Mattias Frey

December 15th, 2014

Here’s an interesting book on the current state of film criticism – a real concern of this blog.

Published by Amsterdam University Press, Frey’s book posits that “film criticism is in crisis. Dwelling on the many film journalists made redundant at newspapers, magazines, and other ‘old media’ in past years, commentators have voiced existential questions about the purpose and worth of the profession in the age of WordPress blogospheres and proclaimed the ‘death of the critic.’ Bemoaning the current anarchy of internet amateurs and the lack of authoritative critics, many journalists and academics claim that in the digital age, cultural commentary has become dumbed down and fragmented into niche markets. Mattias Frey, arguing against these claims, examines the history of film critical discourse in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He demonstrates that since its origins, film criticism has always found itself in crisis: the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns.”

It’s refreshing to see someone taking a level-headed, non-apocalyptic look at this issue; as Frey argues, “film criticism has always found itself in crisis,” from the earliest iterations of the cinema, and the rise of poplar “fan magazines” as opposed to the serious study of the cinema.The gap between pop culture “reviews” of the latest blockbuster – actually just opinion pieces with little real critical analysis, usually posted in daily newspapers or on the web, and considered by most readers not familiar with the study of film to be serious reviews, and work that actually takes the film apart, places it within a critical and historical context, measures it against similar films from the past, and operates from a detailed understanding of the medium as a whole – has been an ongoing issue in film criticism from the 1900s onward.

Frey’s book offers an excellent overview of the history of this contest between superficial, throwaway writing and actual critical analysis, and as he puts it, demonstrates that “the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns” in film history, theory and criticism. This is fascinating and important reading, demonstrating that the problem here isn’t so much the web – it’s the fact that many of the people writing on the web on film, as well as numerous other topics, substitute their own personal likes and dislikes for any real, informed analysis. In film as in all the arts, the audience is really an afterthought; it’s what the creators of any given work of art want to express that is paramount.

You can read a pdf of the introduction the book by clicking here, or on the image above.

100 Year Old Canadian Film Found, Restored

December 13th, 2014

A one hundred year old film has been found and restored – against all odds.

As Shawn Conner reported on December 6, 2014 in The Vancouver Sun, “It’s been lost, found, restored, misunderstood, and restored again. This weekend, 100 years after its initial release, In the Land of the Head Hunters is once again being released, this time in a digitized format. Written and directed by Edward S. Curtis, the 1914 film is the American photographer’s attempt to document the customs of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) peoples of the Central Coast, while telling a story about how their ancestors lived.

But the film, which opened in New York City and Seattle, disappeared soon after its initial release, having made less than a seventh of what Curtis spent on it.  It wasn’t until 1947 that a film collector found a 35mm nitrate print in a back alley. He donated his find to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In the late ’60s, anthropologists Bill Holm and George Quimby used the museum’s damaged, incomplete version to make a 16mm version. Holm then took the 16mm up the Inside Passage and showed the film at a number of Kwakwaka’wakw villages.

‘It was the first time anybody up there had seen it, even though many of their parents had acted in it,’ said SFU emeritus professor Colin Browne, who served as a consultant for a new restoration. Holm brought some elders to watch the film at the Newcombe Auditorium at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. ‘They spoke to the screen the words they thought the characters were saying, and layered those with some comments,’ said Browne, who taught film history, production and critical writing at SFU School of Contemporary Arts until about a year ago. ‘That became the soundtrack of the movie.’

Adding the recordings of the Kwakwaka’wakw elders, Holm and Quimby refashioned the film as In the Land of the War Canoes. ‘That’s how it showed up in the ’70s, with new intertitles and the Kwakwaka’wakw soundtrack,’ said Browne. Good portions of the beginning and ending were missing. ‘It seemed to everybody that it must be a documentary.’ In the Land of the War Canoes, with its depiction of warring tribes and First Nations customs, was mostly shown in anthropology classes in universities, and rarely in film studies classes.

But the original got a revival following the discovery of the original score in 2007. Around the same time, a 35mm print of the film’s final reel was also discovered. A restored version was screened in various cities, including Vancouver in 2008. The restored version is made up of footage from both the 16mm and 35mm prints, as well as still images in places where footage has been permanently lost or damaged. (The still images come from the Library of Congress. At the time In the Land of the Headhunters was made, producers copyrighted their work by submitting stills from every scene of their films.)

At the screenings, orchestras and ensembles played the original music along with the restored version. Among the musical groups was Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble, and it is their recording that appears on the digital version, which [was] released Sunday, Dec. 7 on DVD by Milestone Films. The Land of the Head Hunters is the first feature film made in B.C., and the first ever with an all-indigenous cast. It deserves to be seen for those reasons alone, but it’s also full of indelible images that have inspired other filmmakers, Browne notes.

‘People haven’t really had a chance to see the film the way we’re going to see it now, which is probably the best restoration we’ll ever have,’ Browne said. ‘I’m hoping film scholars and historians will see it and they’ll go “Oh my God, here’s another great film, we have to include this in the canon of cinema.’” And indeed, the canon of film is constantly expanding – due in large part to archival work like this.

See the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Highway to Hollywood – Maury Dexter

December 13th, 2014

Writing about The One I Love, I ran across this interesting surprise.

Director Maury Dexter, certainly not one of the major figures in film history by a long shot, has nevertheless written his autobiography – published in 2012 – and made it available as a free pdf file (click on the image above to access). Dexter’s work is extremely straightforward, and he specialized in low budget, quickly produced films for producer Robert L. Lippert for 20th Century Fox, after breaking in as an actor and getting advice from no less than director William Beaudine on how to effectively “act” on screen – Beaudine’s advice; “don’t act!”

From this, Dexter segued into assistant work, then directorial assignments, and more often than not made routine films for a set price, with the notable exception of the groundbreaking science fiction film The Day Mars Invaded Earth (not, sadly, available on DVD), winding up working for Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie.

Dexter’s memory remains sharp, and if he’s not a great prose stylist, he’s still got a lot of tales to tell. Dexter’s memoirs are short and punchy, with lots of inside information, and make for a light, easy read. This is a story of the underside of Hollywood, and the “bread and butter” pictures that cost so much, made so much, and never strained the limits of genre filmmaking.

But the price is right – so check it out; Hollywood in the 50s and 60s.

The One I Love: Another Film Lost in The Cosmos

December 10th, 2014

I have a new essay on Charlie McDowell’s film The One I Love in Film International.

As I note,The One I Love (2014) is yet another film that’s been completely overlooked in the headlong rush to the multiplex, yet it’s a stunning directorial debut by Charlie McDowell, from a script by Jonathan Lader, and produced by the Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay (Charlie McDowell, incidentally, is actor Malcolm McDowell’s son with Mary Steenburgen). Mark Duplass does double duty – an apt turn of phrase, as you will see – starring in the film, in addition to his co-producer role, as harried husband Ethan, who is first seen in a therapy session, both angry and repentant after having cheated on his wife Sophie (Elizabeth Moss, best known for her work on the TV series Mad Men). More on that later.

Yet, for all the force and power that The One I Love possesses, it might as well not have been made at all, so quickly did it disappear. As Wikipedia notes, after a well received screening at the Sundance Film festival on January 21, 2014, ‘The One I Love opened in a limited release [on August 22, 2014] in the United States in 8 theaters and grossed $48,059 with an average of $6,007 per theater and ranking #42 at the box office. The film’s widest release was 82 theaters and it ended up earning $513,447 domestically and $69,817 internationally for a total of $583,264.’ And then it was gone.

That’s a shame, because The One I Love is both original and unsettling, even as it incorporates themes, either by design or simply through coincidence, from John Cromwell’s The Enchanted Cottage (1945), tinged with the much darker vision of Maury Dexter’s The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963), with touches of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) thrown in for added resonance.

The One I Love starts off in a seemingly predictable manner, as if the film will be another earnest study of a marriage in collapse, in the manner of Mike Nichols’ film of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, which is actually referenced in the film’s dialogue), but soon any clinical realism is abandoned for a far more sinister and elliptical scenario – a kind of dark ‘magical realism’ – in which the audience is never sure about the characters’ motives, or even their putative identities.

Not surprisingly, Ethan and Sophie are experiencing a moment of crisis in their relationship as a result of Ethan’s infidelity, and their smooth and all-too-affable therapist (effortlessly played by Ted Danson) suggests that they spend a weekend at a therapeutic retreat to ‘reconnect.’ At first, when the couple arrives at the lavishly appointed estate, which is to be their home for the next few days, all seems well. It’s a rather odd place, overflowing with flowers and lavishly decorated throughout, with a guest book in the front hallway attesting to the salutary effect it has had on the previous couples who have stayed there.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the complete essay.

Cinematography Roundtable – The Hollywood Reporter

December 9th, 2014

The Hollywood Reporter’s Cinematography Roundtable is an invaluable video seminar.

As Gregg Kilday and Carolyn Giardina note in the text that accompanies this revealing half-hour discussion, “The visionaries behind some of the year’s most visually striking movies — Unbroken, Into the Woods, Gone Girl, The Theory of Everything, Noah and Mr. Turner — open up about everything from how to develop a relationship with a director to high-dynamic-range technologies

They’re sad that instead of projecting movies on film, theaters have turned to digital projection — even if it means they no longer have to worry about scratched or fraying prints. They’re resigned to the fact that reviewers never quite know what to make of their work. And especially when filming outdoors, they always keep one eye on the weather — in fact, veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, 65, confessed he has four weather apps on his phone to make sure he remains prepared.

Fortunately the sun was shining when Deakins, who recently finished shooting Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, got together at THR’s invitation with five fellow directors of photography: Into the Woods’ Dion Beebe, 46; Gone Girl’s Jeff Cronenweth, 52; The Theory of Everything’s Benoit Delhomme, 53; Noah’s Matthew Libatique, 46; and Mr. Turner’s Dick Pope, 67. They happily compared notes on their recent movies, which took them from the biblical realm of Noah to the 19th century British salons of Mr. Turner to the contemporary crime scenes of Gone Girl.

[But their work goes largely unappreciated by most observers. As Benoit Delhomme noted] ‘for me, it’s incredible to realize that what you can expect as a DP is to get one line at the end of the review saying just two words about your work.’ [Added Deakins,] ‘People confuse pretty with good cinematography. [The late cinematographer] Freddie Francis said there is good cinematography and bad cinematography, and then there’s the cinematography that’s right for the movie. I often feel that if reviewers don’t mention your work, it’s probably better than if they do.’”

Having just finished a book on the history of black and white cinematography on a worldwide basis, Black & White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, which will be published by Rutgers University Press in late 2015, I can attest that this is absolutely true. As fate or luck would have it, I knew Freddie Francis very well from 1984 up until his death, and watched him at work on the sets of several films he either directed or photographed, and it’s absolutely true that most reviewers and critics have absolutely no idea of what the DP does on a film, or the degree of input they have on the final project.

Most often, from the beginning of cinema up to the present day, directors are more than content to take all the credit for the visual design of a film, when in fact the choice of a DP on any given film tells you much about how the finished project will look. I often think about the bold black and white work of DP John L. Russell on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award – but lost out to Freddie Francis for Sons and Lovers – and while Hitchcock was certainly an assured and accomplished visual stylist, it’s clear to me that Russell’s work on the film was a major factor in the overall impact of the film.

But as with the DPs discussing their work here, credit often is not readily forthcoming, and so this discussion is an invaluable look behind the scenes for those who stick to a strictly “auteurist” view of the cinema – without the DP, you wouldn’t have any images on the screen at all.

The best DPs in cinema history, such as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, Stanley Cortez, Nicholas Musuraca, Robert Krasker, John Alton, Boris Kaufman, Gunnar Fischer, Sven Nykvist, Karl Freund, Fritz Arno Wagner, John Seitz, Robert Burks and many others created an alluring and phantasmal world out of nothing more than light and shadow, transforming the real world into a cinematic trompe-l’œil which was so seductive and all – encompassing that it became an entirely new universe. It’s only right that we acknowledge and celebrate their contribution to cinema history.

You can see the entire video by clicking here, or on the image above.

24th James Bond Film Announced – “Spectre”

December 5th, 2014

The 24th James Bond film is underway, with Christoph Waltz as the villain of the piece.

As The Indian Express reports, “James Bond’s 24th adventure will be called Spectre, [in which] 007 will be seen uncovering secrets of a sinister terror organization, director Sam Mendes announced at Pinewood Studios today. Daniel Craig, 46, is returning as Ian Fleming’s famous fictional spy for the fourth time, while it is Mendes’ second Bond film after Skyfall. Sherlock star Andrew Scott, Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz and Monica Bellucci are joining as new cast members along with other actors. Spectre will release on November 6 next year.

‘We are very excited and I think I speak on behalf of all of us to say that we cannot wait to bring this movie to you in just under a year’s time. We hope you like it,’ Mendes said as he announced cast and crew details with producer Barbara Broccoli at Pinewood where the principal photography will begin from Monday. The film will be shot in England, Mexico City, Rome, Tangier & Erfoud, Morocco, Solden, Obertilliach and Lake Altausee (Austria). In the new movie, a cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization (Spectre). While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind Spectre.

The title is named after the shadowy [fictional] terrorist organisation created by Fleming, which first appeared in his novel 1961 Thunderball. Spectre stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. ‘We’ve got an amazing cast and, I think, a better script than we had last time. We started something in Skyfall, it felt like a beginning of something. This feels like a continuation of that. We’re going to put all of those elements in, and much more,’ Craig said.”

Can’t wait!

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook

November 29th, 2014

Looking for a truly original, really scary horror film? Try Jennifer Kent’s debut feature, The Babadook.

As Wikipedia notes, “Kent studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Art [in Australia]—where she learned acting alongside Babadook’s lead actor, Essie Davis—and graduated in 1991. She then worked primarily as an actor in the film industry for over two decades. Kent eventually lost her passion for acting by the end of the 20th century and sent a written proposal to Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, asking if she could assist on the film set of von Trier’s 2003 drama film, Dogville, to learn from the director. Kent’s proposal was accepted and she considers the experience her film school, citing the importance of stubbornness as the key lesson she learned.

Prior to Babadook, Kent’s first-ever feature film, she had completed a short film, titled Monster, and an episode of the television series Two Twisted. Kent explained in May 2014 that the origins of Babadook can be found in Monster, which she calls ‘baby Babadook.’ . . . Kent has stated that she sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness with ourselves, the ‘fear of going mad’ and an exploration of parenting from a ‘real perspective’ . . .  In terms of the characters, Kent said that it was important that both characters are loving and lovable, so that “we [the audience] really feel for them” . . .

Kent drew from her experience on the set of Dogville for the assembling of her production team, as she observed that von Triers was surrounded by a well-known ‘family of people.’ Therefore, Kent sought her own ‘family of collaborators to work with for the long term.’ Unable to find all of the suitable people within the Australian film industry, Kent hired Polish director of photography Radek Ladczuk, for whom Babadook was his first-ever English-language film, and American illustrator Alexander Juhasz. In terms of film influences, Kent cited 1970s and ’80s horror—including [John Carpenter's version of] The Thing, Halloween, Les Yeux Sans Visage, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining and Let The Right One In—as well as Vampyr and Nosferatu.”

Partially crowd funded on Kickstarter, and completed for roughly $1.5 million US dollars, The Babadook has received numerous awards on the festival circuit, including a screening at the Sundance Film festival, and when it opened theatrically in the United States on November 28, 2014, the critical response was equally adulatory. But since it isn’t a mainstream release, and as yet is available only on Australian DVD – an all region version, however, so I bought it immediately – you can only see it on demand, if you’re lucky enough to have it on your cable system, or in a theater if you live in New York City or another major metropolis.

This, of course, is the real tragedy here – this is an intelligent, absolutely riveting and completely original film that will keep you guessing right up to the last frame, and at the same time scare you to death, as a horror film should, but without the requisite gore and misogyny that seems to mar the horror genre of late – and it deserves the widest possible audience. There are echoes of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw here, at least for me, and traces of De Maupasssant’s The Horla, and the overall feel of the film is akin to Jack Clayton’s 1961 masterpiece The Innocents, but The Babadook is really a completely unique vision, immaculately photographed in CinemaScope and suitably subdued color.

As Anthony Lane wrote in his ecstatic review of the film in The New Yorker, “let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors. It would curb so many antiquated tropes: the use of young women, say, underdressed or not dressed at all, who are barely fleshed out as characters before that flesh is coveted, wounded, or worse. Beyond that, the law would restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition. Such thoughts are prompted by The Babadook, a fine new Australian film, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is about a woman in peril, yet it has no truck with the notion that she is a mere victim. At times, indeed, the peril seems to be, if not her fault, at least of her own making. Is she the sum of all fears, or the root of them?

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow, living in a small and ill-lit house with Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her only child. He is unmanageable, but, then, his origins were dire; his father was killed in a car crash, nearly seven years ago, as he drove Amelia, who was in labor with Samuel, to the hospital. Now it’s just the two of them, although they are soon joined by an unexpected third. The Babadook is towering and dark; he looms taller as you look at him, like an unhappy memory that swells in the traumatized mind. He wears a top hat, like the Artful Dodger, and his hands could be a child’s drawing of hands—a splay of simple spikes. He cleaves to what we ask of our monsters, that they be both amorphous and acute: oozily hard to pin down, but manifestly there, like a knife against the throat. His name has a nice Australian tang; Aboriginal legend tells of a frog called the Tiddalik, with an insatiable thirst.”

Watch the trailer by clicking here, or on the image above; then see the film as soon as you can – it’s that good.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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