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Some Final Thoughts on Reviewing Godzilla (2014)

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

This image of the Hollywood sign in collapse seems sadly appropriate for this post.

My review of the new Godzilla film seems to have sparked some real response, and in the comments section, I added these thoughts, which I think should be repeated here. In response to a number of people agreeing with my assessment of the film, and some people disagreeing, I added these final comments on both the film, and on reviewing films that I’m not fond of – something I don’t enjoy doing.

“I took no particular pleasure in doling out a bad review of the film — and I really went in expecting a genuine return to the roots of Godzilla, so to speak. But we have to keep these things in perspective. On one level, the whole thing is ridiculous – I mean, who really cares if a Godzilla reboot works? On the other, the original film was such a serious and potent metaphor for the nuclear decimation of Japan in 1945 that to see the whole concept turn into just another monster movie is a real betrayal of the 1954 original.

Pop thought it may be, the first Gojira had depth, which this film lacks; then again, I wish Edwards would go back to smaller, more thoughtful projects, but now that Hollywood has him in its grasp, there’s little likelihood of that. The 2014 Godzilla reminded me most strongly of Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!; 2009), a short film made by another spfx wizard, Fede Alvarez on a dimestore budget, which also led to another Hollywood deal.

So it’s like this; make one good film with no money, then Hollywood snaps you up, and you make one bad film after another which is totally compromised by studio/exec interference, but they’re still hits because the studios have sunk so much money into them that they can’t afford to let them die, so they promote the hell out of them, and thus they become ’successes,’ and so you do another.

So I’m waiting for Manoel de Oliveira’s next film, which will have no money, lots of ideas, and will no doubt challenge and engage me more than this — but circling around all of this for me is my conviction that the 1954 Gojira and Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2011) are roughly approximate in seriousness of intent, and that a stronger case needs to be made for Ishirō Honda in the first film. The genre really doesn’t matter here; it’s seriousness of intent.” As Honda himself famously noted, “monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy,” and that’s the tragedy of this film, too.

And that’s more than enough on that topic.

Godzilla – Savior of Mankind

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Sadly, Gareth Edwards’s attempted reboot of the Godzilla franchise is deeply disappointing.

As I note in Film International today, “Now, we have Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version of Godzilla, and the results are decidedly mixed. I am a great admirer of Edwards’ 2010 film Monsters, which Edwards, an accomplished digital special effects technician, wrote, directed, photographed, produced and edited on a budget of significantly less than $500,000. Unlike most tech-heavy films of its type, Monsters betrayed real signs of intelligence and originality, imbuing the aliens, who are only glimpsed in full during a final, eerily mystic mating sequence at a desert gas station, with a genuine if other-worldly presence.

Edwards made up Monsters as he went along, shooting out of the back of a van on location, improvising most of the film with just two actors, and later described it as being ‘Lost in Translation meets War of the Worlds,’ which really does sum the film up rather neatly. One might almost call it an alien romantic fantasy, and the bare bones, documentary style of the film, combined with the laid back performances of Scott McNairy and Whitney Able as the two leads, created a work of genuine quality – a rarity in effects driven films. Though the film was only a modest commercial success, Hollywood took notice, and recognizing Edwards’ skill with actors as well as CGI effects, quickly snapped him up for bigger things.

Bigger, yes, but sadly not better. Made for $160 million, with extensive location shooting, and an added promotional budget of $80 million to put the film over the top, Edwards’ version of Godzilla has benefited from a shrewd marketing campaign, with a trailer that, as with Monsters, withheld the title character from view almost entirely, while banking heavily on actor Bryan Cranston’s presence in what seems to be a leading role in the film – in the trailer, he gets nearly all of the dialogue, intercut with suitably spectacular scenes of destruction. But – spoilers ahead – the trailer is one of the most remarkably deceptive ad campaigns in recent memory.”

You can read more by clicking here, or on the image above. This is a real missed opportunity.

The Film Fatales Collective

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

“We’re a group of filmmakers who make each other’s dreams come true.” – Danielle Lurie

As their site – follow the links above in the photo and the opening quote – accurately notes, “Film Fatales is a collective of female filmmakers based in New York who have written or directed at least one feature narrative or documentary film. Our members meet the first week of every month, hosted at the home of a different filmmaker each time. Gatherings consist of a meal, a topical conversation relevant to the creative process, and a sharing of the current projects of our members. Film Fatales has quickly become a grassroots community of collaboration and support, with over a dozen films in production by our members this year alone. By offering a space for mentorship, peer networking and direct participation, we hope to promote the creation of more stories by and about women.”

Filmmaking is tough; collectives such as this make it easier to create new and original work.

Godzilla (2014) – Extended Trailer

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Here is an extended trailer for the new Godzilla film, which opens Friday May 16, 2014.

The new version of Godzilla, a potential reboot by director Gareth Edwards, has been much anticipated by fans of the series. Hopefully, the film will restore the much-damaged franchise to its original vitality and intensity, just as Christopher Nolan did with the Batman reboots.

I spoke with Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on this film, who wrote that “over the 28-film series from Japan — five more than James Bond — the giant lizard became a pop-culture icon, but the films ‘descended into baroque parody,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska.

The worst of them include the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla with Matthew Broderick. The black-and-white original is a still poignant document of Japan 10 years after two atomic bombs were dropped on the country to end World War II. Rural and urban scenes that portray civilian and military life, and even women’s roles, are a glimpse of a country rich in tradition struggling to be modern.

Godzilla, portrayed by an actor in a rubber suit, is considered a neo-dinosaur reanimated after atomic testing, and the original film is a metaphor for Japan’s lingering nuclear trauma [. . .] In an attempt to restore the creature’s dignity, Toho oversaw the making of [this] new Godzilla film and had ’specific touchstones’ it wanted to include, said Dixon.

Toho is ‘painfully aware this is an incredibly valuable character in their arsenal. They are looking to crack the American market decisively’ with a first-class production and state-of-the-art effects. ‘This is their chance to reclaim and reboot the entire franchise,’ Dixon said.”

We’ll have to wait and see if this works out as planned.

The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Delphine Bénézet’s new book on Agnès Varda is a superb piece of work.

Agnès Varda never seems to get enough credit. The fore-mother of the French New Wave, long before Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd picked up a camera, Varda was making feature films from 1954, employing Alain Resnais as her editor, and pretty much setting out the basic precepts of simplicity, communality, and originality that her colleagues would later follow. But while Godard and Truffaut became art house darlings in the 60s – and certainly their work deserves the attention it got – Varda was somehow overlooked, although such films as Cleo from 5 to 7, Les Creatures, and Le Bonheur remain absolutely daring in their approach to the film medium, as well as dynamics of relationships between men and women, and particularly in affairs of the heart.

As the volume’s website notes, “Agnès Varda, a pioneer of the French New Wave, has been making radical films for over half a century. Many of these are considered by scholars, filmmakers, and audiences alike, as audacious, seminal, and unforgettable. This volume considers her production as a whole, revisiting overlooked films like Mur, Murs/Documenteur (1980–81), and connecting her cinema to recent installation work. This study demonstrates how Varda has resisted norms of representation and diktats of production. It also shows how she has elaborated a personal repertoire of images, characters, and settings, which all provide insight on their cultural and political contexts. The book thus offers new readings of this director’s multifaceted rêveries, arguing that her work should be seen as an aesthetically influential and ethically-driven production where cinema is both a political and collaborative practice, and a synesthetic art form.”

In five succinct chapters, detailing Varda’s place within cinema history, her “ethics of filming,” and the aesthetic and technical concerns that inform her films, Bénézet, who teaches comparative literature in the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film at Queen Mary, University of London, offers a compelling case for Varda as a major filmmaker of not only 20th century, but also 21st century cinema, and one of the most successful at embracing digital cinema in her newer films, such as the transcendent documentary feature The Gleaners and I, shot entirely on a small home digital camera. Bénézet makes it clear that Varda has never stopped evolving as both a filmmaker and an artist in general, embracing new technology and the changing culture of France to create work of stunning resonance and beauty with absolutely minimal resources.

Varda has survived many of her contemporaries, and she keeps on working to this day; in the end, Varda is finally managing to get some measure of the respect and care she so clearly deserves simply by the act of sheer survival – she has outlived her detractors, mostly male, who really couldn’t see the value in her work. Dismissed or marginalized when first released, her films, now lovingly restored by Varda herself in DVD editions available throughout the world, have finally taken their place in the cinematic canon along with those of her male counterparts. There have been other excellent books on Varda, but this particular text, neatly illustrated with frame blow-ups, and graced with a detailed filmography, is one of the best, and also has the virtue of being the most complete.

In short, this is an excellent book from Wallflower Press / Columbia UP; pick up a copy now.

The DGA Visual History Archive – Director Interviews Online Here

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

The DGA Visual History Program offers an excellent collection of free video interviews with directors.

As the Directors Guild of America website notes, “founded in 2000, the DGA’s Visual History Program has conducted more than 160 interviews with directors and director’s team members discussing their careers and creative processes in film, television and other media.” These include such luminaries as Agnes Varda, Constantine Costa-Gavras, Claude Lelouch, Robert Altman and many, many others. You can see the interviews by clicking on the image above, and then searching the data base, or clicking on the images of some of the directors featured this month. My friend Dennis Coleman brought this to my attention; many thanks, Dennis! This is is an incredible resource.

Click here, or on the image above, to access these remarkable video interviews.

William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) and How Star Wars Changed Movies

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

William Friedkin’s superb film Sorcerer (1977) has finally been released on Blu-ray.

As Jason Guerrasio notes in the April 21, 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, “In 1977, there was no director hotter in Hollywood than William Friedkin. His last two films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, were instant classics and now he was about to release what he considered his masterwork, Sorcerer. What he didn’t foresee, however, was that a modestly budgeted science-fiction epic called Star Wars would destroy his beloved film and change the Hollywood landscape forever.

A reimagining of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer stars Roy Scheider as one of four outcasts who take on a lucrative but dangerous job of transporting unstable dynamite through a South American jungle in dingy trucks. Though the film boasts solid acting and a thrilling sequence where the trucks must cross an ancient bridge—not to mention an incredible score from Tangerine Dream—production on the film was marred in delays and on-set conflict.

Things didn’t get any better when Paramount released the film a month after Star Wars, quickly becoming a casualty of the craze over George Lucas’s intergalactic opera. Outside of the occasional repertory screening over the decades, Sorcerer was forgotten. Then in 2012, Friedkin sued both Paramount and Universal (which had international rights) to find who owned the film. Through that, Warner Bros. bought it and on Tuesday will release a remastered Blu-ray of the film; a select theatrical release is planned as well.”

[As Friedkin told Guerrasio] “I’d say 80 percent of American films today are all offshoots of Star Wars. If Star Wars had failed you would not have the kind of films that are popular today. Hollywood has given over completely to the comic-book and video-game heroes, and rightly so because they are successful, the audience wants them. But that hunger, that desire, was tapped by Star Wars. None of us could see the tsunami of Star Wars. It happened rather quickly. You know, virtually every studio passed on Star Wars. I had a company with Coppola and [Peter] Bogdanovich then called the Directors Company, it was financed by Paramount and we had the right to green-light any films we wanted, outside of our own, at a certain budget.

Francis brought us the script of Star Wars and Peter and I looked at it and said, ‘What the hell is this? Who’s going to direct this?’ And he said, ‘George.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I couldn’t believe George could pull it off, and I was wrong. I think fate plays the most significant part in all of our lives and that’s what happened. For a long period there I enjoyed nothing but success: critical and commercial. All I was interested in then and now is how close I could come to my vision of the film I wanted to make. In those days, we had no idea what kind of money films made, until Star Wars. It wasn’t in the papers every day. The quality of the film is all I cared about. Of course, you’re disappointed, but I never guided my life by any of that.”

It’s a remarkable and all but forgotten film; check out the Blu-ray now.

“A Lioness on the Prowl”: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I have an article out today on Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin in Film International.

As I write, in part, “Under The Skin is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.

In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.

Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.

We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.

Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.”

This is a remarkable film, but you’ll have to seek it out; see it as soon as you can.

Oculus: Another Look In the Haunted Mirror

Friday, April 11th, 2014

I have a new review essay out on the film Oculus in Film International.

As I write, “Oculus is a rather pretentious title for a rather straightforward movie, but despite the assembly line nature of its’ construction, the film still has something going for it. At first it’s hard to say precisely what the film has to offer, because on the surface it deals with so many basic and time-worn horror conventions that it seems to be almost aggressively unoriginal. But as the film picks up speed, and accelerates its march towards death and damnation, it gathers a certain sort of peculiar power that isn’t without value. I’m not about to give away the ending here, or any of the major plot twists, because those are the main things the film has to recommend it. Yet having said that, there’s a certain Resnais-like fatalism to the film that reverberates in one’s memory, despite the workmanlike nature of the film as a whole.

Though released theatrically today, April 11, 2014, the film was shot in 2012-2013, and was first screened on September 8, 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s yet another of the Jason Blum / Blumhouse Productions, all of which are low budget horror films, and the best of which to date is The Purge. Blum has a deal with Universal under which he cranks out numerous horror films in the $3 million or so range, but many of them don’t even see the light of day in DVD or streaming format, much less get a theatrical release. His idea is to keep on cranking out as many films as he can, and then see if anything sticks.

Despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic corpses, so to speak, sitting around in Blum’s vaults, with the number of films Blum makes, some of them are bound to hit. The Purge is going into a sequel, which from the looks of the trailer seems a sort of knock off of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – the premise being that for twelve hours all criminal acts are legal, which acts as a societal safety valve. In the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, a group of people are left outside when the purge starts, and have to run across a city in lockdown to safety, but it lacks Ethan Hawke in the lead, and screams “knock off” in every department. But I digress.

Oculus is about a haunted mirror, a staple of cinematic fantasy since the days of Georges Méliès. It’s been used in countless episodes of television series, such as Thriller and Twilight Zone, though my favorite variation on this well-worn theme remains the episode of the classic omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), directed by Robert Hamer, in which Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys an ornate, oversize antique mirror as a gift for her husband Peter (Ralph Michael), only to discover that the previous owner killed his wife in front of it in a fit of jealousy, and that Peter is now falling under the mirror’s influence, as well. It’s one of the great horror stories of the cinema, and remains the most effective version of this tale, but for all that Oculus still has, as I suggested, something to add to the subgenre.”

You can read the entire essay here. Here’s looking at you, kids!

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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.

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/