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Archive for December, 2014

J.K. Simmons on Whiplash (2014)

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Here’s a brief but excellent interview with J.K. Simmons on his new film Whiplash.

Whiplash is being praised as one of the best films of 2014, and while I think it’s a long way from that, what really does redeem the film – which is yet another version of The Red Shoes – is J.K. Simmons’ performance as a ruthless teacher driving a gifted student to the breaking point in the pursuit of “perfection.”  Simmons has been a deeply underrated actor for a long time now, working in numerous commercials, the Law & Order franchise, and many other supporting roles. Like any truly great actor, he makes all of this seem effortless – you instinctively believe him, whether he’s playing a police psychologist, or a rabid neo-Nazi, or the gentle pitchman in the Farmers Insurance advertisements. In Whiplash, he has his first chance to stretch out and tackle a really big part, and the shocker for me is that he’s being considered only as Best Supporting Actor in the upcoming Oscar derby; he’s really the star of the film.

Of course, as a journeyman professional, who’s seen and done so much work in his career, Simmons would modestly refute this, but it’s nevertheless true – the film simply would not work without him. Perhaps someone with the range of Stanley Tucci might be able to tackle it, but consider what would happen if someone specializing in traditional bombast had taken the role – it just wouldn’t be as effective. And yet in Simmons’ capable hands, a truly monstrous music teacher becomes both real and genuinely frightening, with depth and resonance, rather than delivering just a one-note performance. So this film is really worth seeing chiefly because Simmons is in it; and he should certainly win the Best Supporting Oscar, whatever that means, for his work in Whiplash – but mind you, he’s the star of the film, and not a supporting player.

Click here, or on the image above, to listen to Simmons’ thoughts on the film.

TCM Remembers 2014

Monday, December 29th, 2014

This year, as every year, we lose so many people who mean so much to us.

Turner Classic Movies, the last movie channel on cable that runs classic films commercial free, uncut, in their original aspect ratio, and is thus a literally invaluable cultural resource worldwide, remembers those who worked in the film industry each year in a touching memorial video. Here’s this year’s edition, a year in which we lost such disparate talents as Juanita Moore, Lauren Bacall, Mickey Rooney, Ruby Dee, Maximilian Schell, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alain Resnais, Richard Attenborough, Elaine Stritch, Gordon Willis and so many more. Some achieved much; others were just getting started when they were cut down in their prime. It’s fitting to take more than a few moments to remember their many and varied contributions to the cinema, whether in front of, or behind the camera.

All the more reason to value their accomplishments now, and the work they left behind.

Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide – The Last Edition

Friday, December 26th, 2014

This is the last – the very last – edition of this iconic, essential movie guide.

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide has been a staple for film fans both serious and casual for decades – providing succinct summaries, reliable cast and director information, correct running times and aspect ratios, and w whole lot more. Maltin is a popular movie critic, so it’s not depth you get here, but encyclopedic grasp, much as with the late Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, both pre-internet era staples. In recent times, the Internet Movie Data Base and to a lesser extent The All Movie Guide online have supplanted both these works, but with both these sources, you get facts, but not reliable opinions – it’s all fan stuff. The great thing about Maltin’s book is that it covers the classics, as well as more mainstream films, and Maltin knows what the films are trying to do – whether they’re aiming for something beyond mere entertainment, or just hoping for sheer escapism.

Thus, the news that Maltin is hanging it up after 45 years with this volume, because he simply can’t compete with the ubiquity of the web, is sad indeed. This newest edition omits silent films for the most part, and dropped some features that were useful in previous editions (lists of credits for actors and directors at the back of the book, for example), but what makes Maltin’s guide unique and extremely valuable is the even-handedness of his critical appraisal of each film, with entries written both by Maltin himself and his band of colleagues, especially Luke Sader. If you get this last edition – which right now is #1 on Amazon’s film book list – please get the oversize paperback edition, not the smaller pocket book size. The typeface is bigger, and the book is much easier to skim through, looking for your favorite titles.

And that’s a pleasure that you can’t replicate on IMDb. Just open Maltin’s book to any page, and start reading. Listed in strict alphabetical order, you’ll soon be careening from high to low art within just a few entries, browsing through cinema history in the company of someone who really does know the entire history of cinema. Not every film is listed here, of course- they couldn’t be, or the book would be several million pages long. And sometimes you’ll disagree with Maltin, whether you’re a serious academic or merely a recreational film viewer. But for an overview of film history available on both TV and DVD as well as streaming on the web, Maltin’s guide is hard to beat, and I for one am sorry to see it go.

As Pete Hammond wrote in Deadline of Maltin’s Movie Guide, “Director Noah Baumbach told Maltin he grew up with the book and actually referenced it in his 2010 film Greenberg. When someone asks the morose Ben Stiller how he’s doing, Stiller answers ‘okay’ and guesses ‘Leonard Maltin would give him two stars.’ Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori told Maltin, ‘I am thrilled to just be on the same page as Once Upon A Time In The West.’  Alexander Payne said a review in the Guide meant the most to him because it was ‘for the ages.’ Maltin says Billy Bob Thornton told him he spotted a copy for sale once in the Singapore Airport and it made him feel like there was a touch of home. In fact the Guide is sold around the world and has been translated into Italian and Swedish, among other languages.” For 45 years, Maltin’s Movie Guide was an essential film reference tool, and remains so today.

After 45 years, Maltin’s Movie Guide is no more – get a copy while you can.

The Interview Opens On The Web

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

Sony suddenly decided to upload The Interview to the web today – after nearly pulling it altogether.

So Sony decides to dump The Interview on Google, XBox and YouTube VOD for $6.99 or so, thus creating the first saturation booking campaign on the web, essentially opening everywhere at once to forestall negative word of mouth. At the same time, however, this undercuts all the independent theaters who plan to open the film tomorrow when the major chains wouldn’t, thus depriving them of some very profitable playdates – most people will simply stay home and watch it.

And, of course, within minutes, literally hundreds of “rips” were uploaded to YouTube, but were almost immediately taken down, with a cheerful announcement that “we’re sorry, but this video has been removed . . .” etc. So this is a public relations coup for Google – a major Hollywood film opening on YouTube, which will drag more eyes there – and a nice “save face” for Sony, in the form of an early Christmas present to viewers – and if it works, we may see less of theaters in the future altogether.

Why go out, when you can stay home and see first run films on your laptop? But I wonder what the theater chains will do if this becomes the new model; they can’t compete against streaming home video using 4D, 3D and huge screens forever. Streaming The Interview, since the major chains won’t touch it, is a really innovative strategy, along with the “art house” break in major cities, as well as small ones – it’s even playing at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. This may be the way all movies are distributed in the future – but you have to admit, this one had one heck of a viral buzz going for it.

It’s an interesting strategy.

New Book – Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

Here’s a new, groundbreaking book on the horror film in the 1940s.

As the editors, Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, Charlie Ellbé and Kristopher Woofter note of this excellent collection of new essays, “the 1940s is a lost decade in horror cinema, undervalued and written out of most horror scholarship. This collection revises, reframes, and deconstructs persistent critical binaries that have been put in place by scholarly discourse to label 1940s horror as somehow inferior to a ‘classical’ period or ‘canonical’ mode of horror in the 1930s, especially as represented by the monster films of Universal Studios.

The book’s four sections re-evaluate the historical, political, economic, and cultural factors informing 1940s horror cinema to introduce new theoretical frameworks and to open up space for scholarly discussion of 1940s horror genre hybridity, periodization, and aesthetics. Chapters focused on Gothic and Grand Guignol traditions operating in forties horror cinema, 1940s proto-slasher films, the independent horrors of the Poverty Row studios, and critical reevaluations of neglected hybrid films such as The Vampire’s Ghost (1945) and ‘slippery’ auteurs such as Robert Siodmak and Sam Newfield, work to recover a decade of horror that has been framed as having fallen victim to repetition, exhaustion, and decline.”

In essays by Paul Corupe, Blair Davis, Louise Fenton, Anne Golden, David Hanley, Karen Herland, Mark Jancovich, Kier-La Janisse, Cory Legassic, Peter Marra, Ian Olney, Dennis R. Perry, Selma Purac, Gary D. Rhodes and Rick Trembles, the authors examine a wide range of Gothic films from the era, including such long forgotten gems as Lew Landers’ Return of the Vampire (1944), Bela Lugosi’s last “straight” turn as a rapacious creature of the night; the long-neglected Universal Inner Sanctum series of films, starring Lon Chaney Jr.; and the above-mentioned The Vampire’s Ghost, directed by Lesley Selander from a script by the great Leigh Brackett, who would later go on to work on Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), and a little film called Star Wars (1977). All of these films, and the other works discussed in this volume, deserve greater attention, and this superb group of essays by some of the most accomplished younger writers in the field is real contribution to the existing literature on the subject.

As critic L. Andrew Cooper says of the volume, “Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade surveys that touch on horror’s fate during the 1940s, and is a must-read for genre scholars and for anyone who teaches film history. Not only does this collection of essays offer an overwhelming amount of evidence—including accessible, teachable examples—of the genre’s vitality during the period, but it also shows Gothic horror’s presence in film noir’s monstrous gangsters, melodrama’s silenced women, and other cinematic traditions more often discussed as vital to the 1940s. The book’s diverse perspectives offer productive challenges to long-held assumptions about the boundaries and histories of film genres; it’s a great learning opportunity for experienced researchers or for educated readers coming to the subject for its inherently dark pleasures.”

Read more about this intriguing new book by clicking here, or on the image above.

Edwin L. Marin’s A Christmas Carol (1938)

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Time for a true Christmas classic!

As Christmastime rolls around again, with all of its attendant merchandising and commerciality now firmly and sadly attached, I always make it a point to watch the 1938 version of Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol, directed by Edwin L. Marin and starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. The story has been burlesqued and retold countless times, but this traditional version from MGM, made in the waning days of the Depression, carries more emotional resonance for me than any other version.

Clicking on the image above will take you to a curiosity — a 2:45 minute trailer for the film, as introduced by Lionel Barrymore, who played the role of Scrooge on radio during the 30s and 40s nearly every Christmas, but who, by 1938, was confined to a wheelchair, and unable to handle the leading role in anything but a radio drama. It was Barrymore who suggested that Owen take over the role for this film version — a very generous gesture, giving Owen one of the finest roles he was ever to have — and while the film is deeply traditional, it also radiates an honest sentiment and cheer that continues to brighten my holiday season, year after year.

The 1951 version, ably directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, also has its adherents, and justly so; it’s an excellent rendition of the classic story. But the 1938 version seems cheerier, more compact — much like the story itself — and full of the optimism and hope that characterizes the best of the holiday season. See it for yourself on TCM, where it runs regularly at this time of year, or buy it on DVD — it’s a Christmas tradition for me, and always will be.

Happy Holidays and all the best for 2015 from Frame by Frame!

Adrian Danks on Bruce Conner’s Report (1967)

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Bruce Conner’s classic film Report is a masterpiece of montage, dealing with the death of JFK.

As Adrian Danks noted in his brilliantly detailed essay on the film in the journal Senses of Cinema, “completed over a three-year period, Bruce Conner’s Report [1967] is one of the key works of 1960s avant-garde cinema, a refinement and extension of the filmmaker-artist’s film work to that date. In some respects, it is a return to the montage, association and found footage driven preoccupations of his first cinematic opus, the truly seminal and massively influential A Movie (1958), and something of a condensation of Conner’s key interests in popular culture, mass media, the contemporary power of celebrity, recontextualization, and the constitutive significance of cataclysmic violence to both the United States and what we might call late modernity.

Although enmeshed in the nature of cinema itself, as well as our experience of it (it is in essence both a visceral and intellectual encounter), Report equally resonates with Conner’s significant work in sculptural assemblage and what would become known as conceptual art. Initially conceived in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s murder, Report is a deeply felt work, an often lacerating but emotionally draining attempt to deal with John F. Kennedy’s death and the ways it was exploited by the mass media, particularly television (in fact, its use of such material as the “cross-hairs” included in countdown leader suggest an even greater level of culpability). It is also, aesthetically, a prescient but undervalued work, prefiguring the structuralist turn in much avant-garde cinema in the late 1960s.

Report is a film that asks for an affective response from its viewer but also requires forensic attention to detail and structure. It is never an easy film to watch. Roughly divided into uneven halves, it relies upon the principles of association, repetition, variation, recognition, and the often-contrapuntal relationship between sound and image to try to capture the “feeling” of the event. Conner’s decision to only partially ‘illustrate’ Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath is both pragmatically and intellectually apt. Initially, Conner wanted to make a more conventional and fully-formed documentary on Kennedy’s death (how conventional even this film would have ended up being is another matter).

Living in Kennedy’s birthplace, Brookline, Massachusetts, at the time of his death, Conner originally intended to draw heavily upon television archives and to film the burial he expected to occur in his own neighborhood (Kennedy was ultimately buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Pennsylvania). The ambitious nature of Conner’s project was partly driven by the Ford Foundation Grant he had received (one of ten given to experimental filmmakers in 1964), but was also an outcome of an uncommon obsession (though perhaps quite common at the time) with the assassination. In this regard, Report can be considered as something of a mourning work, an attempt to deal with and actually register Kennedy’s death (an aspect that Conner builds into the form and structure of the film itself).”

Another masterpiece of the cinema, which deserves a much wider audience.

The Colbert Report Signs Off

Friday, 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

Thursday, 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

Wednesday, 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.

About the Author

Headshot of 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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