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William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953)

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see Menzies’ entire film Invaders From Mars.

Invaders From Mars is a classic of 1950s Red Scare science fiction, depicting a world that is paranoid beyond belief, photographed in garish color, as directed and designed by the renowned William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of many excellent films, including Gone With The Wind (1939) — the first film on which a “production designer” credit was formally listed in the credits. The film is being screened in January at the UCLA Film Archive in its original 35mm format, and has long since been recognized as one of the classic “childhood nightmare” films of the era, and one of Menzies’ finest achievements. Menzies’ biographer, James Curtis, will introduce the screening.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant notes of the film:

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the 50s Sci Fi cycle, when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King’s Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by single-handedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him, the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

As Glenn Erickson continues, “the furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes [. . .] Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. These repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire screenplay for the original film.

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

Monday, December 21st, 2015

An absolutely essential book on one of the most influential cinema artists of all time.

James Curtis’s William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it’s prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics.

It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies’ work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often, as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative.

Most of all, it is the careful, conscientious, but never pedantic style of the book that impresses. Curtis clearly knows Menzies’ work inside out, and yet he wears this knowledge easily, creating an accessible, reasoned, brilliantly written book, one of the most carefully detailed and critically measured volumes written on any historical figure, no matter what their profession.

Time and again, I was struck by the carefully reasoned tone of Curtis’s work, his sharp yet graceful prose style, and the remarkable way in which he managed to gather such an incredible amount of material in one volume, and make the whole thing flow so smoothly – it’s easily his finest book. The design of The Shape of Films to Come is another plus factor; the volume is overflowing with images, and the layout of the text and illustrations – something Menzies would appreciate – is impeccable.

Curtis’s book is thus a supreme achievement on every level, and for those who don’t know Menzies or his work, it opens up a world of wonder and amazement – often amazement at how much Menzies managed to accomplish on many of his assignments with very little in the way of a budget.

From Menzies’ production design on Gone With The Wind, to his science-fiction children’s nightmare Invaders from Mars, to the pioneering futuristic epic Things To Come, to his work on such projects as The Whip Hand, Address Unknown, The Maze, Around The World in 80 Days and numerous other films, Curtis meticulously details Menzies’ long career, a life filled with hard work and a good deal of tragedy, but one which ultimately left us with some of the most memorable images in cinema history.

In short, this is a must read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the cinema, and a singular accomplishment in every respect. The Shape of Films to Come gets my highest possible recommendation – this is literally a flawless book. And considering the massive amount of detail that went into it, that in itself is a stellar accomplishment. Once you pick this book up, I guarantee you won’t put it down.

This is a major work of scholarship, history and theory, and a genuine delight to read.

The Star Wars Juggernaut

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be the most commercially successful film of all time.

As Anthony D’Alessandro and Anita Busch write in what is arguably the entertainment industry’s most authoritative business news website, Deadline Hollywood, ”industry analysts currently see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with an opening day record of $125M-$127M+ en route for an all-time record opening of $251M-$255M, calculated from midnight tickets sales on both the east and west coast.

To put Force Awakens’ opening in perspective, consider the following: Disney made $100M from the film in just 21 hours at 1PM PST; an amount that most successful tentpoles open to in a 3-day weekend. By Sunday, Force Awakens will beat or come close to beating the entire domestic runs of the last two Hobbits which were released over the last two Decembers— The Desolation of Smaug ($258.4M) and The Battle of Five Armies ($255.1M). It took Jurassic World five days to cross $250M.

Domestic all-time grosser Avatar, which opened during this frame back in 2009 to $77M and ended its stateside cume at $749.8M, took 12 days to clear $250M. However, that was during the pre-historic days of digital and 3D cinema. When Avatar opened there were 3,100 RealD screens in the U.S./Canada; now there are 14,000 with the majority of them playing Force Awakens.”

As I write this, screenings of the new Star Wars film are literally going on around the clock, with some theaters staying open 24/7 to meet audience demand.  This is all very good news for the Walt Disney Company, which owns the rights not only to the Star Wars franchise, but also the whole of Marvel Entertainment, just for starters – two of the current industry’s most profitable money-spinners.

Although some see signs of fan fatigue in the distance, I can’t agree - while I am resolutely not a Star Wars fanI’ll side with Alec Guinness in his opinion of the franchise – there’s no question that this 1977 film which started out as an indie film no one wanted has become a totemic part of our shared worldwide cinema culture. With Disney’s plans to roll out another episode in the series one a year for the next fifteen years, it seems there is no end in sight.

If this what audiences want in an era of terrorism and fear, so be it. It is, however, disturbing that more thoughtful screen fare has been pushed off the big screen into the limbo of VOD or the increasingly marginal art house circuit, but as always in Hollywood, the bottom line rules.

As far as The Force Awakens, I’ll have to agree with Sam C. Mac of Slant - “it exists less as a meaningful extension of its world than as a fan-service deployment device” – or J.R. Jones of The Chicago Reader – “as with other installments, this is less a movie than an exercise in massaging a juvenile-minded audience that wants the experience to be new and familiar at the same time” – and Roger Moore of Movie Nation -”a glib facsimile” – but then again, these are minority opinions.

So I’ll make a prediction of my own; when the film finally exhausts itself at the box office – just this installment, mind you – I predict (channeling The Amazing Criswell here) that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will gross more than two billion dollars worldwide, to recoup roughly half the $4 billion that Disney paid to buy the entire franchise a few years back from George Lucas. And, as the box office numbers clearly show, this was a very smart business decision indeed.

May The Force Be With You!

Manohla Dargis – “The Best Advice for Movie Lovers”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Thanks to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times for this mention.

The quote comes from an interview I gave to Peter Monaghan of Moving Image Archive News back in August on my new book Black and White Cinema: A Short History, in which I said that “if you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print. With VHS, everything came out, everything. And then they looked at what sold, and what didn’t sell didn’t make the jump to DVDs.

There were thousands of films, tens of thousands of films, that were on VHS and never made the jump to DVD. Important films. Now that we’re going to Blu-ray, lots of films aren’t making that jump. And then there’s electronic sell-through. If you download something, you’re not going to put it on your computer because it takes up too much space, so you’re going to have to put it up on ‘the cloud,’ and then you’re going to have to pay to store what you ostensibly own.”

And it’s true – if you see a valuable DVD listed for a low price, grab it. It isn’t coming back.

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!

Manoel de Oliveira’s Last Film: “Visit, or Memories and Confessions”

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira left a surprise after his recent death at age 106; a film shot in 1982, but never released.

Readers of this blog will know that of all filmmakers working in the 20th century, I value Manoel de Oliveira above everyone else; this is a purely personal choice, and anyone would be foolish to discount the value of such auteurs as Renoir, Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – the list goes on and on – but Oliveira speaks to me the most clearly, and I find his best films inexhaustible treasures that can be visited and revisited over and over again, yielding new insights with each viewing.

Oliveira was also a trickster of sorts; many of his films have surprise endings, which you can’t see coming in the distance, and now, in death, his estate has released Oliveira’s last film, shot in 1982, but which Oliveira insisted could not be screened until after his death – on April 2, 2015 – and until the first screening of Visit, or Memories and Confessions, the film sat in a vault for more than thirty years.

Finally – though frankly I wish that Oliveira had lived another twenty years, and made twenty more films, rather than see this posthumous effort – Visit, or Memories and Confessions was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. As critic Ben Kenigsberg wrote of the occasion, “Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira made a film in the early 1980s that he requested not be shown to the public before his death.

That turned out to be more than three decades after the film was shot: Oliveira died in April at 106, following the most prolific period of his career; his recent films include The Strange Case of Angelica and Gebo and the Shadow. Titled Visit, or Memories and Confessions, this unearthed film, slightly more than an hour long, screened at Cannes Classics last night—on celluloid, no less.

Funded in 1981 (the festival catalog gives the completion date as 1982), Visit is—it should come as a surprise to no one—an intensely personal movie, essentially a family album in motion. ‘It’s a film by me, about me,’ Oliveira says in voiceover as the movie begins. ‘Right or wrong, it’s done.’ Cued by an alternating man-and-woman narration, the movie is largely set on the grounds of a house that Oliveira tell us he has lived in since 1942. Part of the occasion for making the movie, it seems, is that he has had to sell the home to pay some debts.

At the risk of reading too much into Oliveira’s intentions, you can see why he might have wanted the movie released as a sort of ghost story. Much of Visit concerns the haunting emptiness of this once-bustling home: We hear constant footsteps and watch doors open, Jean Cocteau–style, as we move from room to room, but a good portion of the film goes by before we actually see a human being. The first is Oliveira himself, who appears at the typewriter where he writes his treatments and turns to the camera to address us.

His musings are as idiosyncratic as they are private. He waxes philosophical, shows us photographs and film footage of his family, and recalls visits to the house by such figures as the great film theorist André Bazin. His wife turns up briefly (‘You can’t separate the artist from the man,’ she says), but this is primarily Oliveira’s reflection on his own life.

Late in the film, in a powerful anecdote, he speaks of his 1963 arrest by the secret police under Portugal’s then-repressive government. ‘I’ve always sacrificed everything so I could make my films,’ he says. Visit closes with a flourish suggesting that this director who lived more than a century remained eternally young.”

I’d love to see this on DVD, but I doubt that will ever happen; one last gift from the great Manoel.

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.

Interview on NPR’s “Inquiry” With Mark Lynch

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Mark Lynch’s NPR program Inquiry interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

You can see what Mark wrote above as an introduction to the interview – it was a fun session, and Mark always asks all the right questions – plus, he knows what he’s talking about, so it’s always a pleasure to converse with him. Inquiry comes from WICN, the New England NPR station, and Mark Lynch really does his homework – and it shows. There’s really no need to say anything further – just click here, or on the image above, to go to the interview, and listen for yourself – it runs about 30 minutes, which absolutely flew by.

Thanks, Mark- much appreciated!

Roberto Rossellini’s General Della Rovere (1959)

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

And as long as I’m in a De Sica mood, here he is in Rossellini’s masterpiece General Della Rovere.

Vittorio De Sica wasn’t only a director; he was comfortable on both sides of the camera, and did some of his very best work as the lead actor in Roberto Rossellini’s tragic drama of the Italian Resistance during World War II, General Della Rovere.

Shot in a mere 33 days, and edited in 10 days after that in order to make the deadline for the Cannes Film Festival that year, Rossellini’s film is audacious on any number of levels – from the gradual shifting of the lead character’s complete selfishness to resolute heroism; the stunning use of actual newsreel stock footage of the war, used here both as establishing material, as well as an occasional backdrop for an actor performing in front of a rear-projection screen, in a completely self-referential fashion; to Rossellini’s revolutionary use of the zoom lens in a manner which anticipates his later historical films – and won the Golden Lion at the Festival.

As DVD Beaver notes, “Roberto Rossellini’s first box-office success after a string of commercial failures, notably with Ingrid Bergman, was also a return to the themes of the film that brought him international fame, Rome, Open City and his other neorealist classics. In a magnetic performance, Vittorio De Sica is Emanuele Bardone, an opportunistic rascal in wartime Genoa, conning his fellow Italians and exploiting their tragedies by promising to help find their missing loved ones in exchange for money. But when the Nazis force him to impersonate a dead partisan general in prison to extract information from fellow inmates, Bardone finds himself wrestling with his conscience for the first time.

Based on an article by the Italian journalist Indro Montanelli, Rossellini casts Vittorio De Sica as confidence trickster Emanuele Bardone who helps to save Italians arrested by the Gestapo or at least pretending to do so in exchange for money or gifts from their family. When he attempts to save a man already executed he is turned over by the man s wife and is given the choice of execution or carrying out a confidence trick for the Germans; to assume the identity of the General Della Rovere. Turning on his country to save his skin Bardone enters prison to seek out the identity of the partisan commander, Fabrizio.”

I watched this film again a few days ago, a film I have known and loved for more than four decades, and once again, it simply knocked me to the floor. In addition to De Sica’s indelible and letter-perfect performance in the lead, there is the equally masterful performance of Hannes Messemer as SS Col. Müller, who attempts to use Bardone’s skills as a con man to get information from the members of the resistance. But as the film moves inexorably towards its tragic yet transcendent finish, it’s clear that Bardone’s transformation from scam artist to patriot can lead to only one conclusion, and one of the most powerful endings in the history of cinema. Simply put, this is a must see film.

Fortunately available on several DVD formats, General Della Rovere is simply essential cinema.

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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