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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.

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.

Highway to Hollywood – Maury Dexter

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

The One I Love: Another Film Lost in The Cosmos

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24th James Bond Film Announced – “Spectre”

Friday, December 5th, 2014

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

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

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

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

Can’t wait!

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – But Who Cares?

Friday, November 28th, 2014

The first “teaser trailer” for the new Star Wars film is here, and I have only one question – who cares?

Talk about playing to diminishing returns – this film reunites a bunch of the cast members from the original 1977 film, which was quite a fun piece of entertainment, even if deeply indebted – by design – to the Saturday morning movie serials of the 1930s and 40s, but hasn’t this whole franchise been done to death? At least one of the original participants – now deceased – wasn’t happy with the film from the start, though he shrewdly realized it would be a huge hit, and negotiated a percentage of the profits as part of his salary, which paid off handsomely.

As Keir Mudie reported in The Sun on May 3, 2014, the gifted actor Sir Alec Guinness, forever after typecast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, called the first film “fairytale rubbish” with “lamentable dialogue” and complained during the shooting that ” [I] can’t say I’m enjoying the film… rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable” though he noted after Star Wars was completed that “it’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience.

But must we keep beating it to death with one useless sequel after another? Aren’t there better things to do with our lives? Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens won’t come out until December 2015, and people are already talking about the film as if it’s a must-see event. Personally, I can’t think of any less imaginative or duller way to spend an afternoon – and even though the original film earned Guinness “more than £56million in royalties, a best supporting actor Oscar nomination and global stardom,” I have to agree with him – it is sheer rubbish. The follow up sequels are even more tedious, while the first film, at least, had some energy. But now that Disney owns the rights to the franchise, and plans to to put out a new film every year for the foreseeable future, I’m sure that, just like the endless chain of James Bond films, there will be a Star Wars film playing in cinemas from now until the end of time.

Indeed, Guinness disliked the film so much – which pretty much erased all of his previous work in a single stroke in the public consciousness – that he threw out all of the fan mail that came to him associated with Star Wars, and when confronted by a young boy who told him enthusiastically that he had seen the film 100 times, tartly responded “well, do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?” If only it were possible, but unfortunately, the franchise grinds on – with the only possible upside being that it supplies work for an army of technicians and extras, and will certainly draw crowds to theaters. But when I think of all the excellent films that will be completely ignored in the stampede to see this latest iteration, well, it makes me more than a bit sad.

Isn’t it time to just drop the whole thing, and move on to something new?

The End of Physical Media?

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Is the end of physical media imminent? Here’s an interesting post on this subject by Jason Stershic.

As Stershic wrote on his website Agent Palmer (named after the character Harry Palmer in Sidney Furie’s film The Ipcress File), “on January, 18th, 2014, The Los Angeles Times Entertainment Section ran an article that was titled, ‘Paramount stops releasing major movies on film.’ I’m very aware of the new technologies that exist – digital media players have made physical albums a thing of the past and streaming video services have made DVDs virtually obsolete – so the fact that Paramount is ‘the first big Hollywood studio to embrace digital-only U.S. releases’ should come as a natural progression.

But I, for one, don’t really know how I feel about this. Sure, I consume music and watch movies and television shows through various streaming services, but I’m not ready to go completely digital. Are you? It’s not just audio and visual mediums that are going this way. The eBook, in all of its various incarnations, has pushed physical book retailers to their limits as well [emphasis added]. Even comic books can be read in digital formats.

But I am not ready to go completely digital. The entire world seems to be heading that way, but I can not seem to follow suit. I still read physical books, buy comic books and magazines, DVDs and CDs. I enjoy having a physical collection that I can see on my shelves.

It seems now is the time to embrace physical media as never before, if for no other reason than it seems to be disappearing. I know that the physical media aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but every time a big company like Paramount makes a decision like it has, others will follow suit.

So what happens when Paramount, or Fox, or Universal decide to stop making DVDs? What happens when a  big music company decides not to lay down tracks on CDs? What happens a major book publisher decides to to release their books only in digital form?

I collect things and I’m not alone. We all have our collections – books, movies, albums, comics, art, games, the list goes on. I understand that big corporations need to save money, but they’re only saving it for themselves. They aren’t passing the savings on to the consumer. You’re still going to be shelling out $8+ for movie tickets. But when the physical media goes away, you can’t own anything, and we all like owning things.

The best example is Netflix. I enjoy plenty of shows and movies that they stream, but those things won’t always be there. Their library is subject to contracts and sometimes contracts run out. What then? [emphasis added] If you’re favorite movie is on Netflix and you don’t own a physical copy, how will you watch it?

Honestly, I see Netflix in the same way I look at libraries. I get access to a plethora of things, I wouldn’t normally have access to, but when I like something, I go out and buy it. I buy the book, movie or show that I enjoyed, as I want to be able to watch it when I want as a permanent part of my collection [. . .]

I guess the lesson is, if you want something in your collection, don’t wait to buy it. At some point it may be too late. Of course the flip-side is that the secondary market on eBay could be a booming business. But not everyone wants to buy things secondhand. What’s the other lesson we can take away?

Well, for the sake of the economy buy, buy, buy! For the sake of your collection, buy, buy, buy! For the sake of control buy, buy, buy! Control is the part of the equation that is lost in what could happen, but it’s there to be lost. If you don’t have the physical media, your access to your favorite book, comic, album, movie or show could be limited or even eliminated by higher powers. Don’t let that happen to you [emphasis added]“

Really – I’m doing the same thing myself. Buy those DVDs now – they may not be available forever.

The Universal Monsters Reboot Won’t Work

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

It won’t work because there’s the wrong talent in the room – and the wrong approach to the problem.

Lord knows, there are many more important things in the world today to discuss, and for the most part, I try to keep this blog positive, but the news – which has been trickling out for months – that Universal is trying to reboot the classic monsters that gave the studio its initial identity would be welcome – were it not for the fact that they’re going about it in precisely the wrong way. Looking at the Marvel universe films, which are enormously successful, Universal is trying to do the same thing with The Mummy, The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, The Wolfman – and it simply isn’t working.

Look at the recent reboot of Dracula Untold – a complete commercial and critical failure, which came across as yet another knockoff of the 300 franchise, and not a horror film at all.  The recent revamp of The Wolfman – the same thing, complete with a switch of directors halfway through, and a new, grafted on ending that spoiled the entire premise of the film. As one observed suggested, “just re-issue the originals, save a lot of money, and give us some classy entertainment!” But of course, that’s not going to happen.

What should happen – but won’t – is that Universal finds some Gothic filmmakers who have a real connection to the genre and then turns them loose to create authentic, reimagined-from-the-ground-up reboots of the entire series, and scrap everything they’ve done in the last decade or so, starting with The Mummy, Van Helsing, and the other misguided attempts to bring new life to Mary Shelley’s, Curt Siodmak’s  and Bram Stoker’s creations, among other possible restarts – and go back to the source material. Not the films; the texts that inspired them.

In the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer studios successfully revitalized the classic gallery of Universal monsters as essentially British, Gothic creations with Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which took the storyline seriously, acted as if none of the Universal films had ever been made, and offered an entirely new vision of the entire Frankenstein mythos.

Universal fought Hammer tooth and nail during production of the film, accidentally doing Hammer a big favor by prohibiting them from using any aspects of the Universal version of the monster – so the look, the storyline, the pacing, the use of violence, everything about the film – had to be completely original, going back to the textual source material from 1818.

As Hammer correctly noted during production, the Frankenstein saga was firmly in the Public Domain, and so if someone could create a fresh version of the classic tale, then there was nothing to stop them legally. Hammer finished up the film, and offered it to Universal, but the studio, still incensed that someone else was “poaching” on what they considered was their domain, passed on distributing the project.

Hammer took it to Warner Bros., where Jack Warner pounced on it. The film opened worldwide, made a fortune, immediately rejuvenated the genre, elevated Peter Cushing (as Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Monster) to overnight stars, and finally Universal saw the writing on the wall. Universal had run out of ideas – or a vision of what they should be doing – and it took outsiders who could use nothing from the earlier films to make the genre new again.

Striking a deal with Hammer, Universal offered Hammer a shot at the entire gallery of their cinematic malefactors, and Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958) followed in rapid succession, and was an even bigger hit. Hammer then cycled through all the Universal monsters for an extremely profitable decade or so, until the genre finally collapsed under the weight of diminishing returns, just as Universal’s original series eventually wound up as a parody of itself with the “monster rally” films of the mid 1940s, and finally Charles Barton’s parody Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948).

None of this is news to any film historian – everyone who knows the history of horror films know this. But it seems that Universal simply doesn’t get the message. The monster franchise is not a Marvel “universe” series – it needs a completely fresh approach, which none of the people currently involved can accomplish – they’re too caught up in the Comic-Con world to recapture the vitality and energy of the original films. What’s happening now is a complete mistake. I wish it were otherwise, but I absolutely guarantee you, this “Monster universe” strategy will not work.

Only an authentic “start from scratch” approach will revitalize this franchise.

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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