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Archive for July, 2013

Behind The Scenes

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Director Ishiro Honda and friend on the set of Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964).

Here’s a great collection of behind the scenes stills from such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Alien and numerous others. This is a really stunning set of stills, kicking off with some extremely rare stills from the set of Fritz Lang’s science fiction classic, Metropolis.

Click here, or on the link above, to take the tour, and enjoy!

Inside The Asylum: The Outlaw Studio That Changed Hollywood

Friday, July 26th, 2013

I have a new article on The Asylum Studio in Los Angeles in the latest issue of Film International.

As I write, “Some people get into the movie business because they have a passion for film. Some have dreams of creating the ‘great American movie,’ or rising to the top of the Hollywood Dream Factory. But as mainstream films become ever more expensive, routinely costing $100,000,000 or more simply to produce, and then under-performing at the box office – Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger are two prime examples – it seems that the old system of making movies is broken.

The risks are simply too great – a few bad bets can sink a studio. Low budget films like The Purge and The Conjuring, both made for a pittance, rule the multiplexes. Spectacle and special effects just don’t bring in audiences anymore; people want something new, and outrageous, for their entertainment dollar. And a relatively new studio in Hollywood, The Asylum, is dedicated to doing just that; giving the viewer something the majors won’t. Something like Sharknado (2013).

The Asylum is following in a long line of low budget Hollywood production companies. Independent film studios, like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and Concorde/New Horizons in the 1970s and 80s, offered viewers something the mainstream studios couldn’t; films aimed directly at their target audience – outlaw movies that made up their own rules as they went along.”

You can read the rest of the article on this fascinating studio here, or by clicking on the image above.

Helen Keller Meets Charles Chaplin

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Here’s another amazing artifact from the early days of cinema.

Helen Keller meets Charlie Chaplin at his studio in the 1920s; thanks to Dana Miller for sending this along, and also for the image of the MGM lion, posted on this site below. A look at a time when the world was younger, more innocent, and when people communicated directly, and not through an electronic interface.

This is an astonishing image.

Filming the MGM Lion Roar

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Here’s a blast from the past: filming the MGM lion roar used in the main title of every MGM film.

But to the trained eye, this is obviously a publicity shot, circa 1930 or so, because the camera is clearly not “blimped” – covered with sound proofing to prevent the noise of the camera from spoiling the sound track – or even “barneyed” – a more primitive method of sound proofing, effected by piling blankets or other material around the camera, again to prevent noise from leaking through. But the set-up itself seems real enough; here is Leo the Lion, ready to perform for the camera, and a typical sound-to-disc recording set up to capture the soundtrack, with technicians at the ready. Even if it is a staged publicity shot, it’s almost like seeing the real thing.

A fascinating tidbit of Hollywood history.

Lissa Price’s Enders Cover Debuts

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

And while we’re in a YA mood, the paperback edition of Lissa Price’s Starters debuts tomorrow — and here’s a sneak peek at the cover of the sequel, Enders.

As Breia Brissey writes in today’s edition of Entertainment Weekly, “the paperback version of Starters, author Lissa Price’s debut novel, hits shelves tomorrow. In honor of the re-release—complete with a new look, and a never-been-seen short story “Portrait of a Spore”—we got our hands on the cover of Enders, the sequel to the 2012 YA novel, due out January 7, 2014.” Starters and Enders are the hot new young adult novels on the scene; the film versions of these books are a natural, because both novels offer something new and fresh for readers and viewers, rather than rehashing yet another tired franchise.

Lissa Price can really write page turning stuff, and these books are both really fast paced, absorbing reading, no matter what your age. Starters really impressed me — assured, fast moving, great characters, and an absolutely original plot. And to top it off, if you click here, or on the image above, you can see a brief preview from Enders – about ten compelling pages that will leave you wanting more, right now – at the bottom of the page.

Check it out — after The Hunger Games, this is the next big thing!

Catching Fire Trailer Debuts

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

The first trailer for Catching Fire, the second part of The Hunger Games trilogy, is on the web.

I have always liked Francis Lawrence, the director of the forthcoming Catching Fire, even when his films aren’t completely successful, as is the case with both I Am Legend and his earlier film Constantine. The first forty minutes or so of I Am Legend, depicting Manhattan completely devoid of people, overgrown with trees and vines and populated by wild animals, as the iconic buildings of the metropolitan landscape rot in the distance, are absolutely memorable, made all the more so by the complete absence of music, which usually tells you exactly how to “feel” at any given moment.

At his best, Lawrence is an energetic action director with a surprising sense of subtlety, and here, working with the returning actor Donald Sutherland and series newcomer Philip Seymour Hoffman, he promises to deliver a much full full-blooded experience (no pun intended) than the Gary Ross original. While I’m certainly not sitting around waiting for the film to open on November 22nd — that’s a long way off — this first trailer seems to possess an altogether darker and more harrowing vision than The Hunger Games, and is well worth watching.

You can view the trailer by clicking here, or on the image above.

Low Budget Films Dominate Summer Box Office

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Just look at this chart; the smaller budgeted films are winning; audiences are rejecting big budget bloat.

As Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman of the Los Angeles Times observe, “Summer moviegoing is usually about the stars, the spectacle and the sizzle. But in a trend that’s mystifying Hollywood, this summer’s box office is being driven by films with modest ambitions, including relatively inexpensive comedies, lower budget animation and horror pictures. Call it the summer of the B-movie. Like the quickie flicks the studios used to crank out for the back end of double features, these new hits —The Purge, The Heat, Grown Ups 2, Despicable Me 2 and, as of this weekend, The Conjuring among them — are drumming up business while bigger-budgeted offerings such as The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim struggle to sell tickets.

It’s these smaller films that have helped summer box-office receipts climb by 14% over last year, defying the conventional wisdom that summer is the time when audiences mainly want to see movies that are big, loud and laden with costly special effects. Several factors may be behind the turnabout, according to Hollywood analysts, including studios doing a better job of serving niche audiences and consumers experiencing blockbuster fatigue. ‘Everything looked watered down and the studios were left trying to distinguish their movies,’ said Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theatres.

This weekend the trend seems to be hitting its apex. R.I.P.D., a supernatural science fiction comedy starring household names Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges that cost at least $130 million to make, is projected to take in less than $15 million at the box office. Meanwhile, The Conjuring, a paranormal-themed film made for the horror faithful at one-seventh the budget, is expected to collect as much as $35 million.”

None of this surprises me; when I look at my own viewing, the unexpected hits are the ones I’ve been seeing, and blogging about, and the other films strike me as boring and unimaginative. When you have too much money, you take fewer creative risks because too much is at stake. Too many people become involved, and you just keep throwing money at the film until it’s finished, as with The Lone Ranger, even if the entire project has gone off the rails.

When you have $4 million, as with The Purge – I heard $3 million, actually – you have to use your creativity and improvise on the spot, because you don’t have the time or the money – you have to get it and move on. All the money in the world, and all the empty spectacle in the world, can’t make up for original ideas, craft, passion, and energy, which usually comes from having less to fall back on.

The studios need to rethink their strategy, which is a throwback to the 1950s, when television threatened theater attendance. 20th Century Fox decreed that all future films would be made in CinemaScope, Warner Bros. rushed House of Wax into theaters in 3-D, and Cinerama was born. It worked for a few years, and then burned out. And after the fall, what was the Academy Award winner for Best Film of 1955? Marty, a small little film that could just as easily have worked on television, but audiences wanted to see it, so they went out to theaters in droves, making the modest little film a hit.

Marty even won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But Hollywood still thinks bigger is always better, and that bombastic CGI effects will always stun audiences into submission, but that strategy is beginning to play to diminishing returns: the “wow” or dazzle factor has worn off. People are getting tired of destruction. The studios always want to cash in on the past, as if by simply remaking a hit film, the same thing will work in the future. Sometimes it will, as with the Bond franchise, but sometimes it doesn’t — and a little bit of creative energy is more than welcomed by both audiences and critics. I hope it’s the start of a trend.

You can read the rest of their excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Conjuring

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

I have a new essay on James Wan’s film The Conjuring in the latest issue of Film International.

As I note, “The Conjuring is a remarkably traditional film in both style and content; once again exorcism and possession are ramped up for the usual thrill ride, complete with objects flying around the house, children in peril, a possessed mother, ghosts from the past tormenting the living, with special effects that seem remarkably similar to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), the film that really kicked off the whole trend nearly half a century ago.  Indeed, the film itself is set in the early 1970s, and everything about it seems linked to the past; one might easily imagine that it was shot in the 1970s, as well. And, of course, it’s based on a true story!

Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into a crumbling isolated house in the middle of nowhere because it’s the best deal they can get; they don’t have much money, and the house is a real fixer-upper. Having gotten the property from the bank in a foreclosure proceeding for a song, they haven’t really inquired too closely into the house’s past – like, for example, the fact that it has a walled off cellar that apparently no one ever told them about, or that several murders and suicides have taken place on the grounds, but hey – a bargain is a bargain.”

You can read the rest of the by clicking here, or on the image above.

Eclipse Series 38: Kobayashi Against the System

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Criterion’s Eclipse series of unjustly overlooked masterpieces has just put out a superb set of films by the great Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi, who is almost unknown in the West.

As critic Michael Koresky notes in a superb essay on the Criterion website, “among all the important directors who emerged in Japan just after World War II, Masaki Kobayashi would distinguish himself as the most aggressively social-minded. He used cinema to speak eloquently against rigid and corrupt systems that denied or abused individual rights, and to indict a status quo that allowed amorality and venality to flourish. His three-part magnum opus, The Human Condition (1959–61)—an existential portrait of one man’s efforts to maintain his integrity in a rotten world, and a condemnation of the machine in which he is ultimately little more than a cog—marked the high point of the period early in his career when he began to grapple with these difficult themes, in a string of arresting, socially committed films set in contemporary Japan, none of the rest of which are widely known today. With these films, produced between 1953 and 1962, Kobayashi tried to make sense of a postwar nation that he believed had lost its bearings, and in the process became a mature morally and politically engaged cinematic artist.

Having studied philosophy and art history at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Kobayashi turned his attention to film after graduating in 1941, and got an assistant director position at Shochiku studios. Only eight months later, however, he was drafted into military service. While stationed in Manchuria and the Ryukyu Islands, the left-leaning, pacifist Kobayashi remained opposed to the actions of the Imperial Army, even declining to ascend past the rank of private when his superiors wanted to promote him. Deeply affected by his experiences in a war he would later call ‘the culmination of human evil,’ he returned to Shochiku driven to express his dissent on-screen. First, though, he assisted on his mentor Keisuke Kinoshita’s middle-class comedies and domestic dramas, exemplars of the studio’s preferred style at the time and which influenced the largely apolitical content of his own first films, My Sons’ Youth (1952) and Sincerity (1953).

Kobayashi’s third film, The Thick-Walled Room, completed in 1953, was a different story. It demonstrated the seriousness of the filmmaker’s intent, and it was among the first films in Japan to deal openly with the nation’s wartime legacy. It concerns a group of B and C (second- and third-tier) war criminals—rank-and-file military men who acted on orders—who have been imprisoned and treated cruelly by members of the American occupying force, though their superiors have gone unpunished.

The film, based on the diaries of real-life prisoners, treats the low-ranking soldiers not as innocents but as dupes of a system that will not assume responsibility for its actions. Rather than take a broad historical approach, Kobayashi turns this raw material into intimate drama, his immediate, exquisitely composed black-and-white images evoking his characters’ psychological anguish; meanwhile, the shadowy prison in which they’re held is effectively filmed as a looming character in itself. Though the American occupation had ended in 1952, the Japanese government feared that The Thick-Walled Room’s incendiary content would offend the U.S. and demanded that Shochiku either cut or withhold it. Kobayashi was unwilling to trim the film, so it was shelved until 1956.

The controversy surrounding The Thick-Walled Room didn’t do much to ingratiate Masaki Kobayashi with Shochiku head Shiro Kido. For decades, Kido had fostered a specific house style in shomin-geki (contemporary stories of everyday life)—lyrical films about love and family directed by such auteurs as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s mentor. After The Thick-Walled Room was shelved in 1953, Kobayashi went back to this gentler mode of filmmaking, coming out with several sentimental films, including Three Loves (1954), Somewhere Under the Wide Sky (1954), Beautiful Days (1955), and The Spring (1956), works that in their affirmation of small-town values recalled Kinoshita’s megahit Twenty-four Eyes (1954), which regarded loneliness, war, and death from the perspective of a deeply moral schoolteacher. Kido was impressed by Kobayashi’s output, and the director eventually felt that he had enough support to set out again for the angrier, more political territory that was closest to his heart.

I Will Buy You (1956) was Kobayashi’s first step back in that direction. The subject matter—the machinations behind the scenes of professional baseball in Japan—may not initially seem particularly inflammatory. But this is hardly the kind of sports movie that we’ve become accustomed to in the West, with epic triumphs and last-minute redemptions, or even the kind that Japanese audiences were used to—the long popular supotsu-mono genre generally focused on disciplines like judo and karate. The suspense in this deliberately paced, scathing examination of the greed that drives the sports world is predicated not on how many home runs its star player will hit but on how much of his and his handlers’ souls will be lost in the process.

Baseball had been Japan’s favorite sport for decades by the time the film was released. Kobayashi fully intended to shock viewers with his takedown of the beloved institution. (The outrage his treatment of the subject conveys may seem quaint today, when we’re more cynical about sports’ corporate interests.) Adapted from a Minoru Ono novel, the film is told from the perspective of and narrated by Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a ruthless scout hot to sign the up-and-coming college player Kurita (Minoru Ooki) to the major-league Toyo Flowers. Kurita, also being courted by the Handen Lilies, proves to be a tough sell, however, as the scout must appeal not only to him, his poor rural family outside Osaka, and his skeptical girlfriend, Fueko (Keiko Kishi), but also to his tough-minded and avaricious mentor, Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), who acts as much out of slimy self-interest as Kishimoto does.

There’s little sports-film catharsis in I Will Buy You—and relatively little baseball. Most of the interactions are pitched like boardroom negotiations, shot by Kobayashi with clinical detachment and often in ominous shadow. The world Kobayashi depicts may be a hollow one (notwithstanding Kishimoto’s climactic crisis of conscience, when he states, ‘It is our job to be ruthless and unaccountable . . . Because we see people like Kurita not as players but as commodities’), but there’s an exhilaration to the film’s truth-seeking. In bearing witness as he saw his country losing its moral way, Kobayashi also demonstrated how trying times can serve as a crucible for art.”

This is a brilliant analysis of the film, and a brilliant film, as well. Kobayashi is absolutely unforgiving in his portrayal of the potentially corrupting influence on money in big time sports, and as with the other films in this Criterion set, particularly The Inheritance, his view of the world is bleak indeed, yet all too accurate in the final analysis. Far from being punished for their actions, the protagonists of both films occupy a world in which cunning and deception are the norm, and which almost rewards evil – there’s no sincerity of thought or action here, only sheer self-interest. As one might expect, the transfers of the films here are absolutely flawless, with meticulous subtitles, and an absolutely essential part of any cineaste’s collection.

It’s disconcerting to think that Kobayashi thought that he was making these films for posterity, as his testament to the world, and how black and white filmmaking has all but vanished, as well as film itself, and were it not for the efforts of Criterion, these films would never see the light of day. Kobayashi is a superb filmmaker, and his pitless vision of social commerce rings all too true in the current 99%/1% landscape of society on a worldwide basis. All of the films in this set are remarkable, but for me, I Will Buy You, beginning with the unambiguous directness of the film’s title, is a one-of-a-kind indictment of greed and human weakness, and makes American noir sports films like Champion seem weak tea indeed.

This is a box set that any serious film aficionado should get immediately.

Sharknado / The Asylum Studio

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Everyone is talking about Sharknado, which is both preposterous and quite entertaining.

Most of the chatter on this film centers on the sheer implausibility of its premise, and that’s certainly a factor here. But it seems to me that in the end, Sharknado is no better or worse than 2012, War of the Worlds, White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen, Paranormal Activity, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or any number of big budget multiplex movies that have been flooding theaters in recent years. The studio behind this cheerfully insane project, aptly named The Asylum, has been cranking out “mockbusters” (or cheap copies of major studio films) for quite some time — most recently Asylum released Atlantic Rim as a response to Pacific Rim, and in the past has created such films as Snakes on a Train (yes, Train), The Day The Earth Stopped (or Stood Still), and numerous other unorthodox projects.

But for films that are made for a pittance — anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 all in, and then released either through the SyFy Channel, or as On Demand streaming video, or even on DVDs and Blu-Rays, The Asylum’s projects are the essence of action movies; fast moving, shamelessly designed to appeal to audiences, utterly poker-faced no matter how outrageous the concept, and most of all economical – they move along at a rapid clip, and thanks to the legions of interns working for little or no money, have surprisingly high production values. Add a few stars on the way down, some recognizable faces from the soaps or reality shows, and a whole lot of CGI effects, and you have the Asylum formula.

In the end, it seems to me that Sharknado is altogether a better dumb genre action movie than many films currently in release – think of The Lone Ranger, for example – and that film cost $225,000,000 (!!) just to shoot, before promotion and DCP print costs. It’s staggering to think that a film can still be made these days for as little as $500,000, and at that price, The Asylum could make a stunning 450 full-length features – amazing when you think about it even for a moment. There’s so much wastage in Hollywood now, in both above and below the line costs — critics and the majors deride The Asylum’s films, but they’re the essence of crowd-engineered responsive genre filmmaking.

All in all, The Asylum’s films are often better, I think, than their big-screen genre counterparts.

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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