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Luchino Visconti’s Adaptation of Camus’ “The Stranger”

Friday, May 26th, 2017

Luchino Visconti’s stunning adaptation of Camus’ The Stranger gets a rare screening.

As Jim Hoberman writes in The New York Times, ” the Marcello Mastroianni retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center includes a work that is itself rare: Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Albert Camus’s novel “The Stranger.”

The movie, in which an ordinary Pied-Noir (Algerian-born Frenchman) irrationally murders an Arab in broad daylight on a Mediterranean beach, was made in 1967 with Mastroianni in the lead. It has long been without an American distributor and, owing to complicated rights issues, was never released here on DVD. It’s showing on Saturday and Tuesday in an excellent 35-millimeter print from the Istituto Luce Cinecittà.

Shot in Technicolor entirely in Algeria, with Jean-Luc Godard’s favored actress, Anna Karina, as the protagonist’s lover, Visconti’s The Stranger makes the senseless sensuous — even sybaritic — in its blazing light and palpable heat [ . . . ]

Visconti originally planned to set it in independent Algeria, a transposition vetoed by Camus’s widow, Francine Camus. The time frame was pushed back to the late 1930s, intensifying the emphasis on French colonial rule. The novel necessarily focuses on its antihero’s internal world; the movie effortlessly calls attention to the situation of the Pied-Noir, living amid a sea of subjugated natives [ . . . ]

The first half of The Stranger depicts a shabby idyll. Visconti’s anticlerical, anti-bourgeois politics become overt only in the trial sequence, broadly staged in a real, seemingly stifling Algiers courtroom. The movie reaches its existential apotheosis in the confrontation between Mastroianni’s character and a priest in a dark prison cell.”

While bootleg pan and scan copies of the film proliferate on the web, all apparently ripped from the same VHS release, now resolutely out of print, dubbed into English, German, and in the original Italian and French without English subtitles, we can still use them to get some idea of the power of this work.

Whoever is holding this film hostage should think twice about the decision to do so, and turn it over to Kino Lorber, Criterion Eclipse or another solid distributor; more irritating is the fact that, in the film’s absence, a host of self – appointed Visconti “experts” have taken to the message boards of the web to denounce the film, which, without a decent proper aspect ratio release, has no chance of reaching a contemporary audience.

Yet another film that’s fallen between the cracks, and if you’re lucky enough to be in New York tomorrow, the 28th, and find yourself at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, you should certainly go to see it; it runs again on the 30th of May. But for the rest of us, there are just these tantalizing fragments of the film – grainy, atrociously dubbed, uploaded in countless inferior copies – when what we need is the real thing in a quality DVD / Blu-ray release.

Such is always the way with film; now you see it, now you can’t. 

A Great Idea: Women Only Screening of “Wonder Woman”

Friday, May 26th, 2017

The Alamo Drafthouse Theater in Austin, TX is hosting a “women only” screening of Wonder Woman.

As Lorena O’Neil writes in The Hollywood Reporter, “It’s time to pour one out for the countless male tears that are being shed in Austin, Texas over a grave injustice they feel is being committed against the fragile male species. A movie theater in Austin is daring to host — gasp — a women-only screening of Wonder Woman.

This potential threat to world order is tremendous and truly terrifying for some men in Texas (or at least, trolls on Facebook) who are absolutely aghast that the Alamo Drafthouse theater is trying to celebrate the biggest female icon in the comic book world. Where will we be able to watch the movie? the men sob. At the same exact theater, which is also of course showing regular screenings as well. But will we ever get our own, male comic book superhero? the men despair. Yeah, try almost every other superhero ever.

In reality, the reactions are much more predictable.

The Drafthouse event invitation reads: ‘Apologies, gentlemen, but we’re embracing our girl power and saying “No Guys Allowed” for one special night at the Alamo Ritz. And when we say “People Who Identify As Women Only,” we mean it. Everyone working at this screening — venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team — will be female.’

‘I hope someone sues this is discrimination based on sex,’ remarked one man on Twitter. ‘Great, let us know when you have guys-only screenings of Thor, Spider-Man, Star Wars, etc. Let’s see you walk the walk now that you set this precedence,” said a Facebook commentator, who meant to say precedent.

The Drafthouse is replying to many of the complaints. When one man asked if they had ever held a men-only screening, the Drafthouse said, ‘We’ve never done showings where you had to be a man to get in, but we *did* show the the Entourage movie a few years ago.’ They also encouraged someone else to host a private men-only event if they so desired.

There were also some men who voiced their support of the event. ‘This is a great idea and I will see it another time!’ said one commenter. ‘Wow, that was easier than deciding to feel persecuted!’

The theater company has already sold out of both women-only screenings and told Mashable it is planning to bring the idea to other locations. ‘That providing an experience where women truly reign supreme has incurred the wrath of trolls only serves to deepen our belief that we’re doing something right,’ creative manager Morgan Hendrix told the publication. ‘As a result, we will be expanding this program across the country and inviting women everywhere to join us as we celebrate this iconic superheroine in our theaters.’

As Gizmodo‘s Beth Elderkin points out, ‘Since 1920, there have been about 130 superhero and comic book films with solo protagonists in the United States, both on the big and small screens.’ She adds, ‘Do you know how many of those 130 films had female leads? Eight.'”

Sounds like a great idea to me!!

Indiewire’s Cannes 2017 Roundup

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

There’s lots of great films at Cannes. Most will never get real distribution.

Cannes is still going on until May 28th, but the coverage provided by Indiewire above gives one an idea of the embarrassment of riches on display at the fest, even if it has been marred – ever so slightly – be tech snafus and some less than stellar entries and sidebars.

But consider: the festival offered a superb restoration of Belle de Jour, as well as a new documentary on Stanley Kubrick’s long and illustrious career; animated films from Iran; talks by Wim Wenders and Spike Lee at the American Pavilion; the premiere of Todd Haynes’ new film Wonderstruck; a wealth of technical information for aspiring and practicing filmmakers; the first two episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot; a seminar on how VOD and theaters will continue to co-exist; as well as new films by Arnaud Desplechin, Vanessa Redgrave in her directorial debut, Takashi Miike’s 100th feature film, Bruno Dumont’s “heavy metal” Joan of Arc film Jeanette, Sofia Coppola’s take on The Beguiled and so much more.

There’s so much going on here – so much more than what’s going at your local multiplex. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town that supports an art theater, please go and see the more adventurous films there. They won’t be coming to the main commercial houses, who are too busy prepping for Top Gun 2 (seriously). For all the expense and crowds and security and other inconveniences of Cannes, it remains a magnet for talent and controversy in the cinema, all the more important in an era that doesn’t value art as an essential aspect of human existence, which it absolutely is.

Follow all of Indiewire‘s coverage of Cannes by clicking here, or on the image above.

Cannes 2017 – 12 Feature Films By Women Directors

Friday, May 19th, 2017

As Ella Wilks-Harper reports in The Independent, Cannes 2017 has 12 feature films by women in the line up.

Which isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but it’s a start. However, the festival has also taken some much deserved flack – in my opinion – for the official poster for the 2017 season, not reproduced here, which as Wilks notes uses “a heavily photoshopped image of Italian actress Claudia Cardinale.” Still, as Wilks-Harper writes, “The line-up for the highly anticipated Cannes Film Festival 2017 has been announced, unveiling a notable rise in female directors making the list. A total of twelve will have films screened at the prestigious festival, up from 2016’s nine and a significant change from 2012’s festival, where no films by female directors were shown.

In a press conference, festival president Pierre Lescure – alongside General Thierry Frémaux – announced the Official Selection, including the eighteen films that will be in competition this year, including Naomi Kawase’s Radiance and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. Kristen Stewart’s directorial short film, Come Swim, will also premiere at Cannes. Last year the actress starred in Olivier Assayas’ film Personal Shopper, which was booed by the audience at Cannes, despite positive reviews. Also at the festival, two episodes of the eagerly anticipated reboot of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks will be shown.”

The full schedule is as follows:

Competition

Ismael’s Ghosts – Arnaud Desplechin (opening film)

Loveless – Andrey Zvyagintsev

Good Time – Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie

You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay

A Gentle Creature – Sergei Loznitsa

Jupiter’s Moon – Kornél Mundruczó

L’Amant Double – François Ozon

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Yorgos Lanthimos

Radiance – Naomi Kawase

The Day After – Hong Sang-soo

Le Redoutable – Michel Hazanavicius

Wonderstruck – Todd Haynes

Rodin – Jacques Doillon

Happy End – Michael Haneke

The Beguiled – Sofia Coppola

120 Battements Par Minute – Robin Campillo

Okja – Bong Joon-ho

In the Fade – Fatih Akin

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – Noah Baumbach

Un Certain Regard

Barbara – Mathieu Amalric

The Desert Bride – Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato

Closeness – Kantemir Balagov

Beauty and the Dogs – Kaouther Ben Hania

L’Atelier – Laurent Cantet

Lucky – Sergio Castellitto

April’s Daughter – Michel Franco

Western – Valeska Grisebach

Directions – Stephan Komandarev

Out – Gyorgy Kristof

Before We Vanish – Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The Nature of Time – Karim Moussaoui

Dregs – Mohammad Rasoulof

Jeune Femme – Léonor Serraille

Wind River – Taylor Sheridan

After the War – Annarita Zambrano

Out of Competition:

Blade of the Immortal – Takashi Miike

How to Talk to Girls at Parties – John Cameron Mitchell

Visages, Villages – Agnès Varda & JR

Midnight Screenings

The Villainess – Jung Byung-Gil

The Merciless – Byun Sung-Hyun

Special Screenings

An Inconvenient Sequel – Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

12 Jours – Raymond Depardon

They – Anahita Ghazvinizadeh

Clair’s Camera – Hong Sang-soo

Promised Land – Eugene Jarecki

Napalm – Claude Lanzmann

Demons in Paradise – Jude Ratman

Sea Sorrow – Vanessa Redgrave

Special Screenings – Events

Twin Peaks – David Lynch (first two episodes)

24 Frames – Abbas Kiarostami

Come Swim – Kristen Stewart

Top of the Lake: China Girl – Jane Campion, Ariel Kleiman

Carne y arena – Alejandro González Iñárritu

It’s nice to see so many familiar names on the list, such as Agnès Varda, but at the same time, a number of people are making the point that perhaps participating in Cannes isn’t the greatest way to launch a difficult, indie film. If everything goes well, then fine – it certainly can’t hurt. But if the audience doesn’t like a film – and Cannes viewers are typically quite open for their disdain for a film, if it fails to catch their fancy – you’re pretty much doomed from the start, and chances of getting a theatrical distribution deal drop dramatically. The festival, which got underway a few days ago, has already been marred by technical glitches and various controversies about “what constitutes a film” – does it need a theatrical opening to compete?

As Elsa Keslassy wrote in Variety on May 10th, “the Cannes Film Festival said Wednesday that it would keep Netflix movies Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories in competition despite opposition from French exhibitors but that, in future, all competition titles ‘will have to commit…to being distributed in French movie theaters.’ The festival’s board had convened a meeting Tuesday to discuss the possibility of yanking both films from competition, as recommended by France’s exhibitors’ association, which is represented on the board. Although the idea was rejected, the festival issued a statement Wednesday expressing regret over Netflix’s decision not to release the films widely in French cinemas.

‘Cannes is aware of the anxiety aroused by the absence of the release in theaters of those films in France. The Festival de Cannes asked Netflix in vain to accept that these two films could reach the audience of French movie theaters and not only its subscribers,’ the statement said, adding: ‘The festival regrets that no agreement has been reached.’ The festival said it had decided to ‘adapt its rules’ for the future. Starting next year, ‘any film that wishes to compete in competition at Cannes will have to commit itself to being distributed in French movie theaters.'”

There will be much more on this, but sadly, most of the films in the festival will never see general release – a drastic change from the days when every film in the festival was guaranteed a theatrical opening, if only because of the prevailing technology of the era. And the glitz and glamour amp up every year, so that in a sense, the movies themselves become almost incidental. Still, it’s a celebration of the cinema – with many diverging opinions – and it’s nice to see a festival which honors the art of the cinema, while at the same time being one of the most competitive cinematic marketplaces on the face of the planet.

You can see a complete rundown the festival, which runs from May 17 to 28, by clicking here.

The Collapsing Theatrical Window for Films

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

As Anthony D’Alessandro notes in Deadline, theatrical release windows for movies are in jeopardy.

There’s been a lot of talk recently that film distribution is moving away from theaters, and towards PVOD – Premium Video on Demand – viewing a film at home on the day of release for as much as $50 a pop. It’s been tried before, and except for big ticket sporting events, it hasn’t really worked out. But that may be changing.

As  D’Alessandro reports, “The urban myth feared by many is that if the per-title rental price in the PVOD window drops down to $20, consumers ultimately will realize that it’s cheaper to watch a movie at home then in cinemas, forgoing costs that come with a night out, i.e. babysitter, parking, dinner, etc. Some studio executives claim their talks with exhibition over PVOD aren’t contentious, but many insiders say that both parties’ working relationship is best described as ‘frenemies.’

Says one distribution veteran: ‘Exhibitors are freaking out. They can’t make money unless they grow their companies, and it’s hard to build these $40M multiplexes. If you have your investors hearing about windows closings, what incentive is there for them to hold on to their stocks?’ The former executive adds that PVOD, if not managed properly, could cause ‘a slowdown in exhibitions’ luxury-seat remodeling and force the mom-and-pop theaters out of business.’ Some also forecast that the domestic supply will shrink, that moviegoing will be relegated to tentpoles with mid- to low-budget fare relegated to in-home streaming.

However, these are doomsday theories, and there’s some positive evidence that the majors aren’t going to cannibalize their own business. Here they are:

The Theatrical Window Will Be Protected: ‘The last thing studios would want to do is threaten that lucrative revenue stream by encroaching on the theatrical window,’ says Tony Wible, Media & Entertainment Senior Analyst at Drexel Hamilton. ‘Theatrical plays a role in pricing the TV licenses for films, and there’s an incentive for studios to maintain the theatrical window.’

Despite Their Bullishness, Studios Haven’t Figured Out a PVOD Formula Yet: There’s buzz that Warner Bros. will come to terms on a PVOD solution by Q4 or Q1 2018, but they’re not going to act alone in the marketplace without another studio. In addition, there are too many moving parts to the PVOD equation, and the whole notion of it goes beyond the Monday-morning haggling between a distributor and exhibitor to hold a film on screens. Other windows like electronic sell-through [EST, when the consumer purchases a permanent video download, either in the cloud or on their computer] would be impacted, and that’s another discussion studios need to have with digital partners including iTunes and Vudu.

If PVOD Becomes a Reality, It Will Face Its Own Challenges: Home consumers already have committed their [money] to cable bundles, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. When it comes to content in the home, they have way too much of it, not to mention VOD menus are already crowded. So, where’s the incentive to rent one title for [as an example] $30? ‘If you have a $30 VOD product, it’s going to be too expensive for the home consumer when it’s priced against these services,’ says Wible, ‘There’s a value trade-off.’

In Addition, Exhibition Claims That In-Home Streaming Services Aren’t Their Direct Competition: According to Alamo Drafthouse and Neon label chief Tim League,’Theaters are more in competition with restaurants and comedy clubs and the types of entertainment that gets you out of the house.’ Currently, exhibitors such as Regal, Cinemark and AMC are barreling forward with luxury modeling and food/alcohol amenities, and these efforts have led to increased capacity and B.O. revenue upticks, with increased cash-on-cash returns.

Mid- and Low-Budget Movies Can Remain in the Theatrical Space: Some have screamed that economically budgeted fare doesn’t have a chance going forward in an event-driven theatrical marketplace, but the success of Get Out, Split, Fifty Shades Darker, Hidden Figures, John Wick: Chapter 2 and even La La Land have proved otherwise; that’s all about how a studio positions and sells a film. ‘There’s not a clear delineating line of what is meant for theatrical and what’s intended for streaming,’ says Amazon’s distribution and marketing chief Bob Berney.

Whether a mid-budget or indie film winds up on streaming or theatrical has a lot to do with a film’s financiers, and when there’s a company like Netflix willing to pony up big bucks for the smaller screen, money talks. In addition, mid-level and low-budget films ‘need to be event-ized,’ says Berney. Whether they thrive on the big screen boils down to several factors, i.e. a distributor’s passion for the film, how far they’re willing to go with it, a pic’s critical and festival reactions. Not to mention, as long as there are Oscars, there will be smart, upscale specialty movies on the big screen.”

There’s much more to this excellent article; you can read the whole piece by clicking here.

The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age

Monday, April 17th, 2017

I have a new article out today: “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age.”

As I note in the article, “this essay takes its title from Erle C. Kenton‘s 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’ Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content.

Universal is rebooting their stable of classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy in Alex Kurtzman’s 2017 film of the same name starring Tom Cruise, with revamped versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow if the film is successful. Significantly, the 2017 Mummy is more of an action film than anything else; it seems that mood and menace will no longer hold an audience. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value?”

You can read the article by clicking here, or on the image above.

A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

Jason Bourne Meets Mission Impossible Meets The Mummy

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Universal is starting a reboot of their classic horror films this summer, starting with The Mummy (2017).

As I write in my new article, The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age, “at Universal Studios in Hollywood, the parking decks for visitors are named after the various classic monsters (the Frankenstein lot, the Dracula lot, the Mummy lot, and so on), with enormous paintings on the outside depicting the first iterations of each character, but that’s about all Universal seems to be able to come up with. Universal is desperate to restore their ‘creations’ to some semblance of their former glory, but the 2017 version of The Mummy promises little in the way of originality or imagination, while piling on the special effects and action sequences in a frenzied attempt to sustain flagging audience interest.

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program of entries in the coming years. Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. Indeed, this would seem to me to be the very worst possible strategy. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a Bourne or Mission: Impossible series – they’re not action movie characters. All this will do is degrade the material further. They’re not action films; they’re films that inspire genuine dread. The original Mummy, for example, depended upon pacing, atmosphere, and Karloff’s iconic performance in the title role.

Only by returning to the source material, treated with utmost fidelity, can anything worthwhile be attained. What is needed is a creative force like the Hammer Film Productions team in the mid 20th century, which took the material seriously, and treated each project with the utmost care and attention, placing the emphasis on character, setting, and thematic development, rather than relying on special effects and fleeting star power to put these forthcoming projects across in the marketplace.

Until Hollywood returns to the original narratives that inspired the first wave of classic monster films, as Christopher Nolan did when he rescued the Batman franchise from ignominious parody with the straight-ahead reboot Batman Begins (2005), there’s no real hope for a Renaissance of horror. In these new Universal monster films and others like them, we will get only a simulacric vision of these mythic characters, especially Victor Frankenstein and his creation; in short, all we will get is the ghost of Frankenstein.

That’s hardly enough to inspire a whole new generation of millennial horror fans, let alone resuscitate the classic figures that inspired two cycles of Gothic horror films – the first Universal series, and then the Hammer remakes in the 1950s and 60s, which brought the various monster back to their original roots. Frankenstein’s ‘undying monster’ may finally be dead after all; we’ll just have to wait and see what Hollywood is cooking up in their own mad labs.”

Click here, or on the trailer above to see for yourself; this may make money, but it’s not The Mummy.

Theatrical vs. VOD – The Future is Now

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

As Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press notes, theatrical vs. VOD is a key issue for filmmakers today.

As she writes, “would you pay $40 to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home 10 days after its big-screen release? How about $30 after 45 days? These are just a few of the ideas being thrown around by major Hollywood studios looking to more effectively compete with streaming services, television, smartphones and everything else that consumers can choose to spend their time with nowadays.

Premium video on demand (PVOD) is less disruptive than Sean Parker’s troubled Screening Room idea, which would have offered movies in the home for $50 on the same day they’re released in theaters. Yet PVOD still had many questioning its merits this past week at the theater industry’s CinemaCon in Las Vegas, from big studio execs to small theater owners, and stars and filmmakers in between.

For most exhibitors, shortening the theatrical window, as the industry calls it, from the traditional 90 days is seen as a bad idea, especially for those who’ve invested large sums of money to upgrade seats and projection tools at the behest of the studios. ‘The shortening of the theatrical window would be horrible for the entire industry,’ said Glen Gray, an exhibitor from South Florida.

As would be expected at an annual gathering of exhibitors, from big theater chains to single-screen operations – many studio executives were quick to emphasize their commitment to the theatrical experience. Dave Hollis, the executive vice president of distribution at the Walt Disney Company, used his platform to speak on behalf of his company and other Hollywood studios to tell exhibitors that they ‘all believe deeply that films should be seen in a theater’ and that they ‘have a common goal to get people to see them in your cinemas.’

Even Amazon Studios, with its blatant streaming strategy, offered encouragement to theater owners. ‘We really believe in the theatrical experience by fully supporting the theatrical window for our releases,’ said Jason Ropell, Amazon’s head of motion pictures, noting that Manchester by the Sea‘ is in its ’19th week and counting’ in theaters.

But there’s no question the marketplace is changing. The North American box office may have reached record highs the past two years, yet attendance has remained nearly flat for over a decade. In other words, growth is coming from higher ticket prices, not more people seeing movies.Warner Bros. marketing and distribution chief Sue Kroll was the rare executive at CinemaCon to speak openly about theatrical threats.

Customers, she said, ‘want more choices in where and how they consume our content. Where there is demand, somebody is going to step in and fill that void,’ Kroll said. ‘We have to be creative and innovative in addressing the challenges of this marketplace, as we always have [and] move toward a future that will be beneficial and profitable to all of us.’

Moments later, director Christopher Nolan took the stage to preview footage from his ambitious, large-format celluloid epic Dunkirk and offered a different view from Kroll, who is distributing his film. ‘The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition,’ Nolan said. The usually quiet audience erupted into applause. Earlier, the director told The Associated Press that while the threat [of VOD]  is nothing new, it’s also not something filmmakers are, ‘particularly excited about.’

‘You really want your film to be in theaters as long as possible because that’s where they are meant to be seen,’ Nolan said. Indeed, most of the filmmakers sided with Nolan, including Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve, who said he will ‘always make movies for massive screens,’ and Downsizing director Alexander Payne. ‘I don’t work in television, I work in cinema and I like my films to be seen on the big screen. Period,’ Payne said.”

And yet the future of cinema is undoubtedly through streaming platforms, in digital cinema formats, however much we might want to return to the immersive nature of the theatrical experience, sharing a viewing of a film with a large audience. But theatrical exhibition, once the norm, is now becoming a niche format, except for the most grandiose blockbusters, which seemingly demand Dolby Surround Sound and IMAX screens.

Amazon may tout the virtues of theatrical distribution, but Manchester by The Sea would play just as well on the small screen as it does in theaters, and the bulk of Amazon’s product, such as Mozart in the Jungle and the forthcoming series The Last Tycoon, is distributed through streaming video, where Amazon makes most of its money.

So theatrical is superior, but in the end, streaming video will win out for home viewers.

Dorothy Arzner Retrospective in Melbourne – Interview

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Recently, I was interviewed on the Dorothy Arzner Retrospective at the Melbourne Cinematheque.

Click here, or on the image above to hear the podcast, and as the site notes, “the Melbourne Cinémathèque hosts a season dedicated to the zesty, irreverent films of Dorothy Arzner, a pioneer female filmmaker whose career spanned the silent era into the 1940s.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is a film critic who has written an essay accompanying the season for the Senses of Cinema online journal on her 1932 film, Merrily We Go to Hell. He places Arzner in the pantheon of early women whose role as pioneers is still under appreciated.”

The interview was conducted by Jason Di Rosso, for his show The Final Cut, and he did a superb job with the editing – cutting in sound bites from several of Arzner’s films to really drive the point home – and the entire event was a distinct pleasure – with a sound link via telephone to Melbourne that was as clear as a bell.

I’m thrilled that Arzner is finally getting some measure of the international respect she so clearly deserves; my thanks to Jason, to Senses of Cinema, and of course, hats off to the Melbourne Cinematheque for making the retrospective an event not to be missed. Now, how about a box set of her work on DVD?

Here’s a chance to see a classic film on the big screen, the way it was meant to be shown.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

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

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