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Nell Shipman and Back To God’s Country

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017


Here’s an excellent article from Offscreen on the pioneer filmmaker and film actor Nell Shipman.

As the author of the piece, David George Menard, writes, “to discuss the role of women in Canada’s film culture, and even in Hollywood’s film culture, over a period of about a hundred years, is to discuss absence, gaps, discontinuities, and distortion. The images of women in feature films are distorted by a male dominated industry, and at times, inflated through men’s visual obsessions. The trend in any film culture over the last century has been to display the images of women as adjuncts to images of men.

The visual ideas of women have been represented as symbols of ‘otherness’, reflecting the male dominated world of filmmaking, a world of male narcissism and power. Although women have made great contributions to the world of film throughout its history, such efforts have been obscured and belittled —the visions and voices of the women of cinema have been suppressed.

This historical fact is unfortunate because there were great women film pioneers such as Alice Guy who made the first edited fiction film, La Fee Aux Choux (1896); Esther Shub who created the art of compilation film, as seen in The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty (1927); Lotte Reiniger who made a feature length film a decade before Disney, as seen in The Adventures Of Prince Ahmed (1926); and finally there was Nell Shipman from Canada, also a scriptwriter and a star actress who performed as the principal protagonist in one of Canada’s earliest major feature length film, Back To God’s Country, released on October 27th, 1919.

In the early days of cinema, many young women embarked on acting careers to become Hollywood starlets. Some of the actresses who succeeded at this grand and noble endeavor sometime showed remarkable versatility behind the cameras, and many of them became writers, directors, and producers. Nell Shipman was one of these talented women. She was born Helen Barham in 1892, Victoria, British Columbia.

At the young age of thirteen, she left home to attend acting school. In 1907, she performed in the Jesse Lasky play The Pianophiends. In 1909, she was the leading lady in the Charles Taylor play The Girl From Alaska. In 1910, she got the leading role in The Barrier, a play produced by the famous Canadian producer and theatrical entrepreneur Ernest Shipman, whom she married in 1911.

Thereafter, Nell and Ernest moved to Pasadena, California, in an attempt to wedge their way into the film business. In 1912, Nell Shipman won a script writing contest sponsored by the Tally Theater in Los Angeles, and her winning script, Outwitted Billy, was produced by Selig Polyscope in 1913. In 1914, she scripted the first film produced in Australia, Shepherd Of The Southern Cross.

In 1915, she accepted the leading role in a film, produced by the Vitagraph studios, playing a character from a script adapted from James Oliver Curwood’s novel God’s Country And The Woman. The picture, her first film for a major film company, was an outstanding success, and resulted in movie contracts with Vitagraph, Fox, and Lasky for 1916-17, a period in which she completed thirteen films. All of Nell Shipman’s film experience to this point set the stage for one of Canada’s earliest feature length film, Back To God’s Country.”

There’s much more to read; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Offscreen – An Essential Canadian Film Journal

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an absolutely essential, completely free film journal that deserves much more attention.

I came across this journal this morning, and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it before – mea culpa! Offscreen, an online film journal based in Canada, offers a refreshing alternative to the Hollywood based fan mania which is currently inundating the web, and showcases the major contributions that Canadian cinema – often neglected in the United States – offers to cinema culture and practice.

As the journal’s editor, Donato Totaro notes, “Offscreen has been online since 1997, along with its French language sister journal Hors Champ. Based in Montréal, Offscreen is a wide-ranging film journal that covers film festivals, retrospectives, film forums, and both popular and more academic events. Part of our mandate is to cover the Montreal film scene, but within an international context. The scope of its content, and the type of material featured and promoted in Offscreen can be summarized as follows:

  1. personal and independent film above big budget, formulaic film
  2. the under-represented (young, up and coming filmmakers)
  3. films with creative design and broad social commitment
  4. local and Canadian films/filmmakers
  5. Asian and alternative cinemas (horror, exploitation, esoteric,
    experimental, documentary, etc.)

Offscreen features extensive interviews, in-depth festival coverage, and lengthy, well-researched essays. The latter is in line with the guiding editorial policy at Offscreen, which is to allow for the flexibility to feature rigorous, well-researched texts alongside material that does not fit into traditional scholarly formats (director interviews, film festival reports, DVD reviews, etc.).

In short, our goal is to produce intelligent, thoughtful, and combative film criticism, analysis, discussion, and theory. We are driven to this end because we feel strongly that, within today’s image saturated info-entertainment landscape, cinema needs to be rigorously discussed in order to continue being an important voice of cultural and artistic expression well into the 21st century.”

It’s an excellent journal, and I found several articles of immediate interest. Click here, or on the image above to go straight to the journal’s website, and see for yourself the wealth of material available, covering everything from experimental cinema to indie features, decisively in favor of independent visions over corporate franchise films. It’s really breath of fresh air, and I recommend it highly.

Check out Offscreen by clicking here, or on the image above – happy reading!

What’s Up With The Star Wars Firing?

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Directors don’t have the same autonomy they used to – here’s a case in point.

As Kim Masters writes in The Hollywood Reporter, in part, “matters had already reached a boiling point in mid-June when Phil Lord and Chris Miller, co-directors of the still-untitled young Han Solo movie, were in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon but didn’t start shooting until 1 p.m. That day the two used only three different setups — that is, three variations on camera placement — as opposed to the 12 to 15 that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy had expected, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Not only was the going slow, but the few angles that had been shot did not provide a wealth of options to use in editing the movie. This was hardly the first time Kennedy was unhappy with how the film was progressing. And as he looked at dailies from his home in Los Angeles, Lawrence Kasdan — screenwriter, executive producer and keeper of the Stars Wars flame — also was said to be displeased.

Meanwhile, Lord and Miller, the exceptionally successful team behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, were chafing, too, according to a source close to them. There were ‘deep fundamental philosophical differences’ in filmmaking styles, this person says, and the directors felt they were being given ‘zero creative freedom.’ They also felt they were being asked to operate under ‘extreme scheduling constraints’ and ‘were never given enough days for each scene from the very beginning.’

Shortly after the shoot in the Millennium Falcon, on June 20, the world learned that Kennedy — with the backing of Disney studio chief Alan Horn — had taken the extraordinary step of firing Lord and Miller. Obviously, Kennedy knew this would set off a storm of publicity that no one wants or needs in any movie — especially one in the Star Wars universe, where every move is closely watched by a gigantic audience with a sense of ownership . . .”

The problem here is simply one of auteurship – who’s really running the show in this case? It’s just another Star Wars film, so it’s off my radar, but it’s clear that the Lucasfilm people wanted tighter creative control over improvisational sequences, and more coverage – footage shot from various different angles to play around with in the cutting room – when it’s well known that directors who shoot fewer takes, and fewer angles, are often doing this so the film can only be cut together one way, avoiding later interference in the cutting room.

But frankly, this seems to me to be a tempest in a teapot. It’s a Star Wars franchise movie, so what do you expect? It’s much too valuable a property to allow for too much experimentation, and the replacement director, Ron Howard, will no doubt bring it on time and on budget – as much as he can, given the amount of material he probably has to reshoot – and deliver a perfectly salable product.

There was nothing on the line here in the first place. This is just a commercial enterprise. Directors on franchise films are simply hired guns who are brought in to “wrangle” the project into shape, and they shouldn’t expect any creative freedom. This isn’t as if someone is trying to take Persona away from Ingmar Bergman, and give it to another director to finish. It’s a Hollywood popcorn movie, due out sometime in 2018 – and may the force be with it.

This is just business as usual – nothing to see here; move along, move along.

Shocking News! Movie Trailers Lie!

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Would you believe it? Sometimes movie trailers – especially for horror films – can be deceptive!

As Jordan Crucchiola notes in Vulture, “If you went to see the horror movie It Comes at Night, chances are you saw a movie that was entirely different from the one you were expecting. Based on the movie’s trailers, you might have thought you were getting a highbrow take on a cabin-in-the-woods movie, with an unknown terror waiting to jump out at any moment. What you got instead was a dark, deliberate rumination on what it means to be human in a violent, unstructured world. That’s a movie that one subset of horror fans will love, but it’s not the movie A24 was selling.

This isn’t an exceptional situation. Any time an incredible trailer comes out, fans whip themselves into a state of high anticipation, even while fretting over the possibility that all the cool shots have gone into the previews. It’s long been a play in the bad-movie handbook to dazzle ticket buyers with two minutes of tantalizing material, only to leave them dissatisfied when the movie turns out to be a mess. (Suicide Squad, please stand up.) But what we’re seeing a lot more recently is studios selling good movies with deceptive trailers. It Comes at Night is the most recent example, but it’s hardly alone: One hallmark of the new wave of prestige horror is that the movies are often nothing like the trailers.

In its mood and setting, It Comes at Night is reminiscent of another A24 horror movie The Witch, which was heavily lauded at Sundance and enjoyed healthy studio support for its release last spring. Critics loved it, and it made a lot of money for a micro-budget film — but a lot of viewers walked out of it unsatisfied. While it pulled in a 91 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score was just 56 percent. (The same has happened to It Comes at Night: Audiences, feeling the bait and switch, have given the movie a D CinemaScore rating.)

When people see the word Witch and watch a trailer with lots of exciting 17th-century action, they’re not buying a ticket for a quiet, suspenseful period drama. When expectation doesn’t match reality, fans are bound to be disappointed, no matter how good the movie is. But even if The Witch didn’t live up to the excitement of its trailer, the movie at least had a witch; there’s no ‘it’ in It Comes at Night.”

It’s true; I’ve seen the film, and it’s more of a low key survivalist drama with very little plot, lots of atmospheric lighting, and long sections where various cast members prowl around a large, deserted house in a supposedly post-apocalyptic world – and nothing happens. The set up for the film is admirably sparse; a family in a house is trying to survive as a mysterious illness sweeps the nation in a world after some sort of unspecified global meltdown.

All well and bad, but from there, the film reminds me of nothing so much of the numerous Italian horror films of the 1960s in which the various protagonists would wander through the halls of some ancient castle, candelabra in hand, only to discover after a long series of elegantly executed tracking shots that there’s nothing really happening – other than a “shock” scare that lasts only for a second. It’s a handsomely mounted, but ultimately empty film.

I’m somewhat amazed at the stellar reviews this film is getting; oh, well.

Patty Jenkins / Richard Donner DGA Screening – Wonder Woman

Monday, June 12th, 2017

Last night, Richard Donner hosted a screening of Wonder Woman at the DGA with Patty Jenkins.

I know, I know, I’ve blogged on this before, but this is becoming a really landmark event – Patty Jenkins is finally, hopefully, breaking through the artificial “glass ceiling” of mainstream directing, fourteen years after her first feature, Monster, which was a smaller scale character study rather than being a big budget action film – and a masterpiece.

But at the DGA screening, which was attended by a  friend of mine, action director Richard Donner literally passed the baton – he actually pulled out a baton, and passed it – to Jenkins, acclaiming her as the premier action director of the 21st century. While it may surprise some people, despite her art house cred with Monster, Jenkins is an unabashed fan of Donner’s work on such films as Superman (1978), as she told Emily Zemler in a recent interview:

“‘I’ve been influenced by a lot of films,’ says Patty Jenkins. ‘And a lot of them are the typical interesting, artsy films. But I haven’t talked enough about how there are those few big blockbusters that really rock your world.’ She’s [talking about] Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, which was essentially the first-ever comic book superhero film. The movie, adapting the DC Comics character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, starred Christopher Reeve as the titular hero, pitting him against Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Unlike some of today’s comic book tentpoles, it was very character-driven—a film that allied the viewer with its protagonist in a genuine, grounded way.

‘It had a huge influence on me making Wonder Woman [. . .] There is a really strong reason that I’m making it, and it is because of the experience I had seeing this movie when I was 7. I loved Star Wars too, but [Superman] was, to me, what Star Wars was to so many little boys. It rocked my world completely. I sobbed through half the movie. I stood up and cheered through the other half. It stayed in my subconscious ever after [ . . .] Here’s a story of a little boy who loses his father twice over and discovers that he can be something else in the world. Superhero movies are so [relevant] because of the metaphor that they trigger in one’s self about who you could be if things were different.'”

It’s no secret that Wonder Woman is cleaning up at the boxoffice, essentially burying Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, but for me it was quite a discovery that Jenkins had such an affinity for action films, and for Donner’s work in particular. As a number of people have commented, the first thirty minutes of the film are particularly strong, and Jenkins’ action direction reminds one of the work of serial specialist William Witney, still the absolute master of the action film, and creator of the first wave of superhero serials in the 1940s.

A great evening – bravo Patty Jenkins!

Manohla Dargis & A.O. Scott – Best 25 of the 21st Century

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of The New York Times pick the best films of the 21st century.

As they immediately add, “so far.” The introduction to the article notes that “we are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start.

As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.” And we’re off to the races.

My favorites on the list are The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Boyhood, Summer Hours [I was genuinely surprised and delighted to see this film on the list, but even so, I would have gone with Clouds of Sils Maria, but hey . . . Assayas is a master, so fine with me], The Hurt Locker [shot by multiple crews in Super 16mm so it looks as real as any battlefield coverage], In Jackson Heights, The Gleaners and I, Moonlight, Wendy and Lucy, and the exquisite Silent Light.

Missing for me immediately are The Aura and Melancholia, two stunning films that have gone into my ever-expanding Top Ten list, which now has at least 250 films in it, but that’s the fun of these listings, and it’s a solid stab at what will be remembered, and revered in the future. I’ll never, ever vote for a Pixar film, that’s for sure, but these are all solid and thoughtful choices, the kind of journalism we could use more of in daily newspapers.

Read the entire lavishly illustrated article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Bresson’s “Four Nights of A Dreamer” Needs a DVD Release

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Robert Bresson’s incandescent masterpiece is still not available on DVD.

OK, enough about genre films and comic book movies. This brief post is really just a placeholder; a reminder that one of the most beautiful and sensuous films of all time still, still, still isn’t available on DVD. There’s a streaming link on Amazon, of reasonable quality, but I’m sorry – that’s simply not good enough. A Criterion DVD is definitely in order, especially since nearly every other Bresson film in the director’s long career is readily available in either a US or European version, with English subtitles. But it seems unlikely that this will happen.

As writer Michael Brooke describes the film’s enigmatic plot on IMDb, “The ‘dreamer’ is Jacques, a young painter, who by chance runs into Marthe as she’s contemplating suicide on the Pont-Neuf in Paris. They talk, and agree to see each other again the next night. Gradually, he discovers that her lover promised to meet her on the bridge that night, and he failed to turn up. Over the next couple of nights, Jacques falls in love with her – but on the fourth night her original lover returns . . .” – and what happens then, I’ll leave for you to discover.

The Amazon streaming version gives only a hint of the film’s stunning pictorial splendor, and it’s a shame to see such a beautiful film held hostage by what I can only presume are rights problems. A Japanese Blu-ray of the film, with Japanese subtitles only, emerged about a year ago, but almost immediately sold out. What makes the whole thing even weirder is that Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of the same story, White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is easily available in an excellent transfer.

But such are the vicissitudes of fate – here’s a film that I saw in 35mm format when it first came out, and never forgot, but once again, as with so many glorious masterpieces of the cinema, now you see it, now you can’t. In the meantime, here’s a superb interview with Bresson on his last film, L’Argent – enjoy this, and perhaps in the future we’ll get to see Four Nights of A Dreamer in its proper form. I first wrote about this film in 2012 – nothing has changed since then.

Just another film that needs – desperately – a DVD release – right now.

Jason Blum Should Helm Universal’s “Classic Monsters” Project

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

When it comes to horror films, Jason Blum is the smartest man in the room right now.

Here’s a link to a great piece by Amy Nicholson in LA Weekly on Jason Blum, the man behind Blumhouse, the most successful and prolific producer of horror films right now working in Hollywood. As she writes, “an average studio movie costs $75 million, plus another $30 million in marketing. That model is: Go big or give up on making a fortune in China. As a result, audiences moan that Hollywood has become too glossy, too bland, too costly, too safe.

There are too many superhero movies and too few of everything else. Midpriced films have vanished, those solid romantic comedies and middlebrow crowd-pleasers that kept adults happy for decades. Blum’s frighteningly successful formula argues that there’s another way to do business: Think small. Hollywood is intrigued, and it has two questions for him: How does he make movies so cheaply? And can other producers — and other genres — do the same?”

Yes, if they want to do so – and Blum will be the first to admit that not every project works out to his advantage. His production of Jem and The Holograms stiffed, but as he put it, with just a five million dollar budget – generous for Blum – “the model is, really, if everything goes wrong, we will [still] recoup.” And then there’s Whiplash, not a horror film at all, but budgeted at about $3 million, which led, of course, to La La Land.

And, of course, the most interesting and successful film, regardless of genre, of 2017: Get Out, a horror film with real social commentary. That was another $5 million film. Some of Blumhouse’s films never make it to a theater; they’re released via VOD and some just wind up hanging out in the vault, never to be released. But that’s just the minority; Blumhouse has many more hits than failures, both critically and commercially, and that makes him a definite outlier in contemporary Hollywood.

Which leads me to my main point here: Universal’s “Dark Universe” series. Frankly, I’m sick of discussing this, since there are so many other much worthier films to address, but it struck me this morning that since Universal clearly doesn’t know what to do with its most valuable intellectual property, why not give Jason a crack at it?

And the irony is – he works for Universal!

In fact, he has a unique deal in place that he can greenlight any film at all as long as the budget is $3 million or less, and then Universal gets a first look. He’s a smart person, who knows about the history of the genre, and the main figures; Val Lewton, Terence Fisher, James Whale, and all the rest. And Blum uses the key strategy of successful low budget production as one of the cornerstones of his philosophy; use one central location for 90% of the film’s narrative, and you don’t waste a lot of travel days, and cut down considerably on expenses.

Come to think of it, Hammer Films used a house/studio at Bray for their most successful films, many of them brilliant Gothic thrillers shot for a mere pittance – like Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula – so Blum is merely copying, in a sense, a very successful model. Val Lewton, even though he worked for RKO in the 1940s, did the same thing; one set for most of the scenes.

So my thought is this; instead of just doing the “Dark Universe” series of updated action films – like 2017 version of The Mummy, which is raking it in at the box office not because it’s a horror film, but because it’s a Tom Cruise action flick – Universal should initiate a “Classic Monsters Universe,” which reboots all the studio’s major horror figures in an honest and unadulterated fashion, and put Jason Blum in charge.

Keep it simple; one location, unknown actors, perhaps one star (Ethan Hawke loves to work with Blumhouse), and stick faithfully to the source material, making it a genuine horror film which ups the graphic specificity of the material – as Hammer did in the 1950s – without sacrificing the intrinsic integrity of the genre.

It would be great if this series was set off from the other Universal films with it’s own logo at the top; the Universal globe spinning into place, and as it does so, a brief montage of clips from the classic black and white horror films of the 1930s and 40s matted into the center of the screen, alerting audiences to the fact that this will be a return to the values that originally inspired Universal’s classic Gothic thrillers.

The cost – about $5 million a film – would be nothing by Hollywood standards – and Universal could keep the other “Dark Universe” series going at the same time. There’s no reason they have to conflict, since one is really a series of action movies, and the other authentic Gothic horror – and even if everything goes wrong, as Blum notes, “we will recoup.” So something to think about, since franchise films seem to have taken over the mainstream cinema so decisively; why not try something a bit edgier, with little financial risk, and see what happens?

You can read the entire interview here; fascinating stuff.

The Mummy – Brutal Reviews And A $177M Opening Week

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

The 2017 Mummy is out; the reviews are brutal, and yet it still seems destined to make a fortune.

As I wrote in an article earlier this year, “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age,” “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 – the so-called Dark Universe – of entries in the coming years, with Johnny Depp tentatively attached as the lead in a reboot of The Invisible Man; Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson potentially linked to a reboot of The Wolf Man; and a remake of the 2004 film Van Helsing.

Scarlett Johansson is being considered for a remake of The Creature from The Black Lagoon; with Javier Bardem, perhaps, as the monster in a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Angelia Jolie considered for the role of the Bride. These are tentative casting choices at the moment, but no doubt, one ‘A’ list star or another will appear in each of these reboot attempts.

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 about Dracula?]. 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. Horror films are 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.”

Critic A.O Scott in The New York Times commented that the 2017 version of The Mummy “deserves a quick burial,” adding “it will be argued that this one was made not for the critics but for the fans. Which is no doubt true. Every con game is played with suckers in mind.” Harsh. And the other major critics aren’t far behind. But as Nancy Tartaglione and Anthony D’Alessandro argue in the trade journal Deadline, The Mummy could “turn out to be Tom Cruise’s biggest global opening of all-time with [a] $177M [opening weekend]” despite a lackluster US showing at the box-office, noting that “industry sources tell us that The Mummy stands to clear $125M-$135M in its overseas release in 63 territories, which when added to its domestic range puts global between $160M–$177M

On the high end, that would be a record global opening for Cruise, besting War of the Worlds which posted a traditional global opening of $167.4M (3-day domestic + 5-day foreign; Box Office Mojo’s $203.1M figure rolls in extra domestic days). After War of the Worlds, Cruise’s next best worldwide debut is Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation ($120.5M).” So, is there a link between quality and profitability? Or are we just making one cash cow after another? It saddens me that it’s come to this, but it has; everything is a franchise, and everything is a “Universe.”

As A.O. Scott concludes, “the old black-and-white Universal horror movies were a mixed bag, but they had some imagination. They could be creepy or campy, weird or lyrical. The Mummy gestures — or flails — in a number of directions but settles into the dreary 21st-century action-blockbuster template. There’s chasing and fighting, punctuated by bouts of breathless explaining and a few one-liners that an archaeologist of the future might tentatively decode as jokes. A more interesting movie might have involved a similar struggle within Ahmanet [the film’s central character], but a more interesting movie was not on anybody’s mind.”

Only by returning to the roots of Universal horror can anything worthwhile be achieved. 

Film Franchises: Closing Time, Please!

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Film franchises have got to go – here are two ready for the scrapheap.

As Owen Gleiberman writes in Variety, “A character who rules over a multi-billion-dollar global movie franchise always deserves a grand entrance. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Alien: Covenant raise the question: How grand can your entrance really be when you’ve never gone away? In Dead Men Tell No Tales, Jack Sparrow, the sloshed freebooter [. . .] shows up as a dissipated mess, rousing himself to consciousness as he lies inside a great big metal bank overflowing with gold coins [ . . . ] But even as the series winks at the idea that Jack has seen better days, it leaves us with a non-winking reality: He sure has.

In Alien: Covenant, the Alien’s first appearance gives you a similar what’s-old-is-new-but-not-really feeling. We’re on a leafy planet, in rugged terrain that looks perfect for a camping trip; the novelty is that the Alien is going to explode into view not on a sterile spaceship, or inside a slimy obsidian cave with walls like a T. rex’s rib cage, but in the great outdoors. We’ve already seen microbes float into a crew member’s ear like pollen, which leaves you wondering what happened to the facehugger (as it happens, the facehugger is still around, which makes the film seem like it’s playing by two sets of rules, which it is, but never mind). Then the moment of truth arrives. There is much coughing and writhing, there is blood-vomiting, there’s a mood that strains to come off like shock and awe. But when the alien fetus bursts out, the audience feels a bit like an obstetrician presiding over his 10,000th birth. Yep, that’s what it looks like. Next!

It’s worth noting that in the original franchise era, the 1980s, when the word ‘franchise’ was an inside-baseball syllogism that was only just starting to be used by people like Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg, almost all Hollywood sequels were bad — Halloween II, Jaws 3-D, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Amityville II: The Possession, Grease 2, The Sting II, Conan the Destroyer, Staying Alive, The Jewel of the Nile, Meatballs Part II, The Karate Kid Part II, Revenge of the Nerds II, Beverly Hills Cop II, Crocodile Dundee II, Ghostbusters II, Arthur 2: On the Rocks, Fletch Lives, Big Top Pee-wee, Caddyshack II, The Gods Must be Crazy II, The Fly II, Back to the Future Part II, and on and on.

There was a cynicism, not just among film critics but among the audiences who went to see these movies, that a sequel might turn out to be cheesy fun, but that it was almost always going to be an inherently second-rate bill of goods, because it was based, transparently, on commerce: taking the original movie and squeezing its appeal dry. The very word “sequel” had a déclassé aura.

That era, of course, is long gone. Franchises are the basic commercial architecture on which the movie business now rests, so the whole culture — audiences, critics, the industry — has a vested interest in viewing this situation without cynicism. Besides, in our era, there have been enough artful and transporting sequels, from The Dark Knight to the Bourne films to the Before Sunrise films to Toy Story 3 to Mad Max: Fury Road, that one’s hope can always burn bright.

Yet that doesn’t mean that the old rules don’t apply. One of the reasons the word “franchise” passed from industry talk to a colloquial term is that it sounds strong and powerful. You’re not just seeing a movie, you’re glimpsing a part of something larger. You’re not just watching it, you’re joining it. But it can be healthy to return to the mindset of the ’80s and remind yourself that a sequel is often just a sequel: a movie that has no organic reason for being, even if it pretends otherwise [emphasis added].”

This raises a number of very interesting points. In the 80s, as Gleiberman usefully points out, we were assailed with a veritable tidal wave of terrible sequels, prequels, and knock-offs from original and interesting films, and they were, indeed, all absolutely terrible. There was something a bit more than “déclassé” about these films – they were strictly down-market affairs, made on the cheap, designed to wring a few more dollars out of an existing hit. Today, studios routinely through hundreds of millions of dollars at the same thing – remakes, sequels – and try to convince us that we’re getting something new and worthwhile.

But are the “franchise” films today really any different? They trod the same well-worn path as their predecessors, where nothing is at risk, and no original ideas are countenanced – answering the unspoken audience request “give us something like what we just saw, only slightly different.” And so the wave of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man films continues on unabated, along with another in the endless series of Bond films, and the moment that something truly new and original arrives on the scene, and is a hit, it too becomes fodder for the remake mill. When Get Out came out earlier this summer, it was something sharp, different, and original – but will there be a Get Out II? I hope not.

It’s said that all genres go through four distinct phases – origin, classical, baroque and finally parody – and then they have to be scraped up off the floor, injected with some new blood – so to speak – and brought back to life, just like the Frankenstein monster, to give some artificial existence to a concept that should have expired long ago. The first Alien came out in the summer of 1979, and was at once original, surprising, and innovative – introducing not only the famous “chest burster” scene and the “face hugger” creatures, but also the concept that the future would be rundown and falling apart, as the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo is.

Then, too, the company that all of the crew members of the Nostromo work for thinks nothing of sacrificing their lives to obtain a specimen of a structurally perfect, indestructible killing machine, by misdirecting them to a Hellish planet, knowing that it means certain death, and even secreting a humanoid robot on board to make sure everything goes according to plan. And it has – again, and again, and again, and again. Enough! It’s time to put the plug in all these franchises, and – just a suggestion – go back to making films that are based on books, rather than comic books; on ideas, rather than leftovers; made with passion, rather than in pursuit of a buck.

Of course, I’m dreaming – but what the heck – I can dream, can’t I?

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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