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African American Film Critics Association Awards

Monday, December 7th, 2015

The African American Film Critics Association has just announced their awards for 2015.

As Patrick Hipes writes in AwardsLine, the sister publication of Deadline Hollywood, “Universal’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton has been named Best Picture by the African American Film Critics Association, one of three categories it topped along with Best Ensemble and Best Supporting Actor for Jason Mitchell.

Best Director went to Creed helmer Ryan Coogler, while its star, Michael B. Jordan, won for Breakout Performance and Tessa Thompson was named Best Supporting Actress. Best Actor went to Will Smith for Concussion and Best Actress to Teyonah Parris for Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq.

The AAFCA honors excellence in cinema by creating awareness for films with universal appeal to black communities, while emphasizing films about the black experience and those produced written, directed and starring performers of African descent. It will hold its awards ceremony February 10 in Hollywood. Here’s the full list of winners:

Best Picture
Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)

Best Director
Ryan Coogler,Creed (Warner Bros.)

Best Ensemble
Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)

Best Actor
Will Smith, Concussion (Sony)

Best Actress
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

Best Supporting Actor
Jason Mitchell – Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)

Best Supporting Actress
Tessa Thompson, Creed (Warner Bros.)

Best Independent Film
Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

Best Screenplay
Rick Famuyiwa – Dope (Open Road Films)

Breakout Performance
Michael B. Jordan, Creed (Warner Bros.)

Best Animation
The Peanuts Movie (20thCentury Fox)

Best Documentary
A Ballerina’s Tale (Sundance Selects)

Best Song
“See You Again”, Furious 7 (Atlantic Records)

Best TV Comedy
Black-ish (ABC)

Best TV Drama
How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)

Best Cable/New Media TV Show
Survivor’s Remorse (Starz)

AAFCA Top Ten Films of 2015 in order of distinction:

1. Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)
2. Creed (Warner Bros.)
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.)
4. Beasts of No Nation (Netflix)
5. The Martian (20th Century Fox)
6. 3-1/2 Minutes/Dope (HBO/Open Road Films)
7. Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)
8. Carol (Weinstein Co.)
9. The Big Short (Paramount Pictures)
10. The Danish Girl (Focus Features)

Congratulations to everyone involved!

Quentin Tarantino Explains Why 70MM Film Is Better Than Digital

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Click here, or above to see Quentin Tarantino and DP Robert Richardson shooting The Hateful Eight

As notes in Deadline Hollywood, “when Quentin Tarantino first discussed his vision with the Weinstein Co. to resurrect the roadshow picture for his eighth title The Hateful Eight in 70MM, there was one major hurdle to overcome: How could the cinema format be rebooted if most theaters don’t even have the equipment?

In a digital cinema age, few theaters own reel-to-reel projectors, let alone a 70MM machine. While these projectors were still common in the 1990s when Universal released Ron Howard’s immigrant epic Far and Away, by today’s standards they’re antiques.

All heads at the Weinstein Co. turned to Erik Lomis to meet this challenge. While his daily oversee at TWC as distribution chief entails booking titles in the widest number of theaters, Lomis was suddenly tasked with a rescue and secure mission akin to Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield’s in Pulp Fiction: To obtain as many 70MM projectors for the roadshow release of Hateful Eight on Christmas Day.

‘In order to play the best theaters, we had to get them the equipment,’ says Lomis, ‘we bought into Quentin’s vision and we’re making it happen or we’ll die trying.’ Luckily, Lomis had a learning curve with the 70MM situation and the glitches that could arise when he released Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in September 2012. While Anderson shot in 65MM, the filmmaker didn’t insist on a minimum percentage of theaters showing The Master in 70MM.

At its widest point, The Master was shown in 70MM at 14 theaters, with a few prestige venues still in possession of the equipment, i.e. the Hollywood Cinerama Dome, The Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, and the Village East in New York City. During the run of The Master, dilemmas would ensue whereby a projectionist couldn’t thread the print or a projector’s motor would burn out. In such moments, the Weinstein Co. would send technicians out.

A few times, Lomis even rolled-up his sleeves and solved some 70MM problems in projection booths around L.A. ‘We even had Paul Thomas Anderson threading in one booth,’ recalls Lomis about one instance.”

This is quite an experiment; thanks to Lynn Rogers for the tip on this!

Steven Spielberg on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Steven Spielberg argues that movies shot on film are superior to digital cinema – and I agree with him.

Recently, I was reading an article by Hugh Hart in the Summer 2015 issue of the DGA Quarterly, which discussed film vs. digital cinema, a topic which has been much examined of late. While 99% of all Hollywood films, and independent films as well, are being shot and post-produced digitally – i.e. “born digital” – the article highlighted a new phenomenon – major commercial filmmakers returning to the physical film medium because the celluloid image offers a different, warmer, and some would argue superior set of visual values, resulting in a new countermovement within the industry, which challenges the conventional wisdom that “film is dead” and digital rules.

I would agree with this movement, and argue that film is more alive than ever, and that the headlong rush to digital is something that has its benefits and drawbacks. And indeed, there are many within the industry who feel actual film stock is an indispensable part of the cinema, both on an indie and a completely commercial level. As proof of this, one can cite J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justiceall of which are shot on film.

In an interview with Michael Rosser published on December 3, 2015 in Screen International, Steven Spielberg argues that “if it is a straight story, without any benefits of new technology, there’s no reason to shoot anything digitally. The outcome digitally looks like the difference between a painting with acrylics and a painting with oils. Film is textural and had a kind of velocity in the grain count alone where digital is as clean as looking through a pane of glass at the outside world and to me it’s almost too vivid, too vibrant, too real.

Especially in historical films, there needs to be a bit of a veil between the here and now and something that happened way back when. That veil is almost unconsciously provided when you shoot on celluloid but is lost when you shoot it digitally. As long as we have film, why not shoot with the real stock?” When asked if George Lucas, a long time fan of digital cinema, ever tried to change his mind, Spielberg replied that “he used to, but he could never get me to do that.”

I think he’s absolutely right, and that this burgeoning movement is a return to the real.

Godfathers of Comic Book Films

Friday, November 27th, 2015

Before the Marvel and DC Universe, these were the pioneers who created the comic book film.

In this one astonishing shot, taken at a nostalgia convention in 1973, some of the greatest action directors of all time stand with cast members, a cinematographer, and stunt men who helped to create such classic serials as Spy Smasher, Captain America, Superman, Batman and many others – in their original versions as Saturday morning serials in the 1940s and 50s – working for most part for Republic Pictures, the studio that created the modern action film.

From left to right, director William Witney, who helmed numerous serials with his friend and colleague John English, in addition to directing a stack of classic Westerns – and incidentally, he’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director; Billy Benedict, a reliable sidekick in numerous action films of the era; Spencer Gordon Bennet, dean of serial directors, with hundreds of films to his credit; and Bud Thackery, sporting a goatee, an ace action cinematographer who later finished up his career at Universal in the 1960s.

Continuing on, stuntman George DeNormand stands in the back; Frank Coghlan Jr., who played the role of Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter-ego in the serial of that name; Kirk Alyn, the original Superman in two serials, both directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; legendary stuntman “Crazy Duke” Green, whose specialty was running up walls and then launching himself into space during a fight scene; the equally capable stuntman and actor Tom Steele; and stuntman Davey Sharp, whose credits as a stunt double number into the thousands.

Just watching these amazing professionals at work, knocking out three and four hour serials in 30 days on budgets in the $200,000 range, or lower, is an amazing sight – a look into the past of motion pictures, before CGI and motion capture replaced feats of genuine athleticism and skill. None of these people thought twice about working twelve hour days, or longer, six days a week, for decades at a clip, to deliver the thrills that entranced audiences in the middle part of the 20th century.

Let’s not forget them now – they created the comic book film.

Lost Walt Disney / Ub Iwerks Cartoon Found

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

A print of the silent cartoon Sleigh Bells – long thought lost – has been found at the BFI Archive in London.

As The British Film Institute notes on their website, “The BFI National Archive and Walt Disney Animation Studios are pleased to announce the rediscovery of a rare, long-lost, Walt Disney animated film, Sleigh Bells (1928) featuring the first ever Disney character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a long-eared precursor to Mickey Mouse.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was invented by Walt Disney in 1927 and was loved for his mischievous and rebellious personality. A number of other films do survive but Sleigh Bells has been, until now, a lost film, unseen since its original release. The animation in the film was accomplished by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, both of whom went on to create the character of Mickey Mouse, following a contractual disagreement with Universal Pictures, for whom they had created the Oswald films.

The print of Sleigh Bells (1928) was preserved in the collections of the BFI National Archive. The exciting rediscovery was made by a researcher browsing the online catalogue of the BFI National Archive’s holdings. Walt Disney Animation Studios have taken this unique surviving film print and created both a new preservation print and digital copies. The film has a running time of approximately six minutes.”

It’s not surprising to me that the film turned up in the BFI Archives; they’ve been way ahead of the United States since the 1940s in cataloguing and preserving classic films from all over the world, when the Hollywood studios themselves did little to preserve the treasures of the past. But now you can see this bit of history for yourself, thanks to an archive that really cares about the history of the cinema. Hats off the to the BFI!

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from Sleigh Bells.

100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Hire Right Now

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

Hollywood’s lack of gender and racial diversity is just simply wrong.

As Kyle Buchanan points out in this excellent article in Vulture, “Studio executives often protest that there simply aren’t enough talented female filmmakers to choose from. They are wrong. Enough. Enough with the studios like 20th Century Fox, Sony, Paramount, and the Weinstein Company, none of which put out even a single film this year that was directed by a woman.

Enough with the executives who would rather hand a lucrative blockbuster to a man who’s never made a movie before (like Seth Grahame-Smith, the novice director recently picked by Warner Bros. to direct a big-budget adaptation of The Flash) than a woman who has. And enough with the producers who claim that there’s still just a shallow pool of female directors to draw from, because we’ve got 100 reasons why that’s not the case.

We’ve compiled a list of the best and brightest female directors in the industry, very few of whom are afforded the same major opportunities as their male counterparts. Some are promising up-and-comers, while others are award-winning veterans.

Their talents run the gamut from comedy to drama, and from action to arthouse. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, it wasn’t hard to assemble such an enormous list of smart, eminently hireable female directors. The only difficult part was culling it down to just 100.”

The names include Debbie Allen, Ana Lily Amirpour, Allison Anders, Gillian Armstrong, Jamie Babbit, Elizabeth Banks, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Gurinder Chadha, Lisa Cholodenko, Sophia Coppola, Tamra Davis, and that’s just the beginning of a very long list indeed, complete with clips from their films. Why aren’t these people working – right now?

Click here to go to the link; this is essential reading.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Relentlessly grim and doggedly procedural, the last film in this franchise is easily the best of the lot.

Unlike the other films in The Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 – despite its clumsy title – is the most efficient and involving film of the series, for the simple reason that it’s the most direct and linear; there are no “hunger games” in the film, but rather Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) death march with a group of fellow freedom fighters to the Capitol of Panem to kill the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and that’s about it.

Shot in oddly claustrophobic CinemaScope with a mostly handheld camera, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is dominated by the grim visage of Lawrence’s character, who is usually seen in tight close-up, and is hardly off the screen for a moment. The other characters in the series make brief cameos, but they’re really peripheral to the main thrust of the film; will Katniss make it to the Capitol and kill Snow, or not? Of course she will.

This is, of course, predestined, just as Julianne Moore’s turn as President Alma Coin – who from the first plans to take over as dictator of Panem once Snow has been dispatched – along with Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and other players in the game seem to be merely distractions, trotted on and off merely to satisfy followers of the franchise as a whole.

The saddest part of the film is the ghostly presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died during production with one week left to go. Director Francis Lawrence wisely decided not to recreate Hoffman digitally to finish out the film, giving Hoffman’s closing speech to Harrelson in the form of a letter, which Harrelson reads to Katniss, in a penultimate scene so obvious that it’s painful.

But comparisons to The Battle of Algiers and Kanał – I know, I know, but it’s true – are not far off the mark in this aggressively Dystopian film, in which one dictatorship inevitably gives way to another, and everyone is being played for a sucker by some higher power on the political food chain.

Most of all, the film belongs to Jennifer Lawrence – no longer “the girl on fire,” but rather a battle weary Joan of Arc leading her followers on to victory – who steps up and dominates the entire proceedings with an air of solemn gravity, making this the most brutal, and in a curious sense, realistic film of the series.

As Todd VanDerWerff notes in his review of the film in the web journal Vox, “the point of all of this is simple: War is a machine that grinds ever onward, and it steamrolls its participants. It’s repackaged as entertainment for an unsuspecting populace, lest they get too bored by it, but those who took part in it have to live with the scars forever.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the face of Katniss Everdeen, who spends almost the entire first half of the movie in a state of shell-shocked horror, wandering from one encounter to the next, after a former trusted compatriot tried to kill her. It’s like she’s been hollowed out and propped up, transformed into a symbol more than a person.”

There are many things wrong with the film, of course, but overall, the impact of the work is undeniable; The Hunger Games franchise speaks to those in their teens and 20s because it accurately depicts a world in which nothing is fair, the rich have everything and the poor have nothing, and even revolution seems doomed from the start. The stark message of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is that nothing can be counted on, and the daily struggle to survive is all that awaits.

Worth a look, by any measure – a thoughtful, and well executed mainstream film.

Spike Lee Finally Gets An Oscar

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

Spike Lee, one of America’s greatest filmmakers, is finally getting some Academy recognition.

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences noted, “Spike Lee, a champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers, made an auspicious debut with his NYU thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which won a Student Academy Award in 1983.  He proceeded to blaze a distinctive trail with such features as She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, which earned him a 1989 Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay.

His work as a director ranges from the Oscar-nominated documentary feature 4 Little Girls to such mainstream successes as Malcolm X and Inside Man.  Lee’s other feature credits include Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, He Got Game, 25th Hour, Miracle at St. Anna and Red Hook Summer.  He currently serves as the artistic director of the graduate film program at NYU.”

In truth, Spike Lee should have won an Oscar for Direction a loooooooong time ago, probably for Malcolm X, one of his most powerful and influential films, on the life of the great civil rights leader. But Lee has always worked as an outsider, and even on Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington cast in the leading role, he had to seek funding from outside investors, such as Oprah Winfrey, to bring the film in on time and on budget.

As he tweeted shortly after he received his Academy Award, “you have to bust your ass, roll up your sleeves, and attack, attack, attack every single day” to make a film, and it’s a never ending battle to get meaningful films made.

As Access Hollywood wrote of the event, “Spike Lee told an audience of entertainment luminaries that it’s easier for a black person to become President of the United States than head of a Hollywood studio or network. Lee made the remarks Saturday as he accepted an Oscar statuette at the film academy’s seventh annual Governors Awards dinner in Hollywood. ‘We need to have some serious discussions about diversity and get some flavor up in this,’ Lee said. ‘This industry is so behind sports it’s ridiculous.’

The filmmaker praised Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs for ‘trying to do something that needs to be done.’ Earlier in the evening, Isaacs called on the industry powers in attendance to take action toward ‘recognizing and embracing a broad cross-section of talent.’ She also announced the academy’s new five-year plan to improve diversity in its staff and governance.”

And yet Spike Lee continues to struggle – his latest film, Chi-raq, due out December 4th, was finally funded by Amazon after every conventional Hollywood studio turned the project down flat. In an industry dominated by followers, Spike Lee is a leader, and a genuine original, who continues to tackle projects that deal with contemporary issues of race, politics, disenfranchisement, and social inequality in a town that loves fantasy more than anything else. Spike Lee will never make a conventional film, and it’s high time that that Academy honored him for his amazing body of work.

Spike Lee – one of the most important American filmmakers working today.

Interview on Sirius XM – “The Enduring Appeal of James Bond”

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

James Bond seems immortal, despite all the changes he’s gone through over the years.

On November 12, 2015, I participated in a discussion on Sirius XM on the James Bond franchise. As the site for the program notes, “the latest James Bond blockbuster, Spectre, opened last weekend, and while its flavor may be a little bit different from previous outings, it’s still firmly in the 007 oeuvre, filled with amazing stunts, twisty plots, improbable villainy and of course, its magnetically attractive yet coldly distant hero.

Since the first film was made featuring Ian Fleming’s signature secret agent back in the 1960s — Dr. No, starring Sean Connery and filmed for a mere million bucks — the Bond movies have grown steadily more successful and deeply embedded in the culture, evolving with each sequel to fit the moment.

But in the modern era of film and society, do we even need 007 anymore? What’s next for the super spy, and what does his ever-growing popularity signify? The Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 recently interviewed Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, and Christoph Lindner, a professor of media and culture at the University of Amsterdam who has edited a couple of books about the James Bond phenomenon, to discuss those ideas — and to answer that nagging question: Who is the best Bond?”

You can read the transcript, or listen to the podcast, by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Spectre of James Bond

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Spectre is the latest and least in the long-running James Bond series.

Call it exhaustion, call it the end of Empire, call it playing to diminishing returns, put it down to indifference and fatigue – call it whatever you wish. Spectre, the latest of the James Bond films, which has opened to solid but not spectacular grosses, is 2 1/2 hours of almost unrelieved boredom, all dressed up in production values that put the film into the $200 to $300 million production range. It’s a spectacle, all right, but one that is so jam packed with promotional tie-ins and self-referential nods to the series’ past that it ultimately has no identity of its own.

Daniel Craig, who has famously suggested that he is tired of the entire franchise, walks through the film as if he has absolutely no interest in the proceedings, and only Ralph Fiennes as the new “M” – replacing the departed Dame Judy Dench – offers any sense of gravitas at all. Christoph Walz similarly drifts through his role as the latest incarnation of Ernst Blofeld as if the part were an obligation, rather than an opportunity – but then, given the tediousness of the dialogue, there really isn’t much he can do with the role.

All the set pieces are here – Bond once again designated as a “rogue agent” and left in the field to fend for himself; Léa Seydoux as the latest in a long procession of “Bond girls” – and shouldn’t that be retired?; “Q” played by Ben Whishaw as a techno nerd with the usual plethora of gimmicks up his sleeve; the requisite scene in which Bond is tortured by Blofeld but miraculously escapes in the nick of time; Monica Bellucci in for about three minutes as another love interest, soon abandoned by the narrative; Bond’s ubiquitous Aston Martin; and, of course, the opening crane / tracking shot in Mexico City, a spectacular piece of camerawork ending in an enormous explosion, which is technically impressive, but really has no need to be there.

Most of all, though, there is the film’s crushing length – about forty minutes too long at least – and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s dark, brooding cinematography, which masks Walz’s Blofeld in deep shadows until the last third of the film, making him almost a peripheral character, while giving the entire film an unmistakably fatalist air of a franchise which has run out of gas.

Daniel Craig, here credited as a co-producer of the film, still has one film to go on his contract, and despite his protestations that he doesn’t want to continue in the role, he no doubt will. Apparently, the producers wanted him to film the next Bond entry back-to-back with this one, and Craig refused, but maybe he should have gotten it over with; the Bond role is a career straitjacket that none of the series’ leading men have ever really escaped.

Missing here is any sense of urgency or imagination – the script and story, devised by no less than seven screenwriters, hits all the bases with a tired sense of duty – but the speed, energy and verve of series entries such as Dr. No, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and other top notch Bond films is entirely missing here. Sam Mendes’ slack direction is partly to blame, but the whole film is overstuffed, lacking in focus, more interested in scenery than scenes, and watching it quickly becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.

At the screening I attended on a Sunday morning, the theater was populated by only a few patrons, all of whom made frequent trips to the lobby to replenish their giant tubs of popcorn, when they weren’t otherwise occupied texting mini-reviews on their cellphones in the darkness. No one seemed very interested in what was happening on the screen, and when the film was over, we all filed out without comment. It’s sad – casting someone like Archie Punjabi or Idris Elba as Bond would be a really smart move at this point, and give the series new energy – but it’s doubtful that anything like that will happen.

But the Bond films – a lucrative enterprise for all concerned – need a reboot if they are to continue.

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

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of film, media and other topics in the past month - http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

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