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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.

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!!

Books Are Still An Essential Part of Any Library

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

A library without books isn’t a serious library – too much material hasn’t been digitized.

In an interview in The Christian Science Monitor today, I told writer Weston Williams that “‘as the author of some 30 books on cinema history, I can readily attest that most of the deep research materials in this area, and in other related humanities areas, have never made the jump to digital format . . . The more superficial and recent articles are readily available, but once you get into the history of the medium, in the early part of the 20th century, you’re working with microfilm, or even more likely, actual print materials.’

Ignoring these older physical media, Dixon argues, is ‘erasing the past,’ until every scrap of information is online. And even then, there are other potential problems. The removal of 60 percent of the physical collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, caused an uproar after it was reported that many of the books removed had been destroyed. A campus spokesman said that nothing had been lost from the scholarly record, since duplicates were retained in other libraries or available online. Given the short timeframe and seeming lack of consultation of the faculty, however, many critics expressed doubts that this was actually the case.

‘Only by trundling through the archives in detail – a process that would probably take a staff of people a number of years – could one be sure that nothing not digitized was being eliminated,’ says Dixon. ‘Also, in a number of cases, when materials are scanned, a very bad job is done of it, and the scan quality is so poor as to make the document almost unreadable.’ So, in most cases the primary research sources one needs for serious humanities research simply aren’t online – as I found writing my recent book Black & White Cinema: A Short History – and only print materials, properly preserved, gave me the information I needed.

If everything – everything – every scrap of information – is digitized, then perhaps one can make the case for a “bookless library.” But that will never happen, and so books, microfilm, periodicals, and other print materials from the dawn of the printing press to the end of the 20th century should be preserved at all costs, and readily accessible – not in high density storage. Otherwise, one has no idea what one is missing, which is indeed erasing the past.

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

I’d Die For You: The Lost Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

Here’s a new collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories, from his Golden Era as a writer.

As the Manuscripts Division of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collection at Princeton University Library notes of this new release, “lovers of the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Class of 1917, can celebrate the publication of I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories (Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Anne Margaret Daniel,  a literature professor at The New School, prepared this eagerly awaited edition. The book includes sixteen previously unpublished short stories and two ‘uncollected stories.’

Some are what Fitzgerald labeled ‘false starts.’ Others had been rejected outright by publishers; needed revision, for which he lacked time; or dealt with taboo subjects. Daniel has edited most of these unpublished stories from handwritten and typescript drafts in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers. The author’s daughter, Scottie Fitzgerald Lanahan, donated the papers to Princeton in 1950, along with the papers of her mother, Zelda Fitzgerald. Scottie retained a group of unpublished stories in the hope of finding a publisher. Unfortunately, most of these stories were not published. Put aside and forgotten, they were rediscovered by the Fitzgerald family a half century later.

Fitzgerald is celebrated today for The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934), though his youthful first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), holds a special place in Tiger hearts. Yet for most of his life, Fitzgerald made a living as a successful writer of light fiction, especially for The Saturday Evening Post. Fitzgerald published more than 150 short stories in popular American magazines, from ‘Babes in the Woods’ (1919) to the posthumous ‘Gods of Darkness’ (1941).

Some stories were published in series, like the Basil Duke Lee stories in The Saturday Evening Post and Pat Hobby Stories in Esquire. A number of the short stories are highly regarded by critics, such as ‘Winter Dreams’ (1922), ‘Absolution’ (1924), ‘The Rich Boy’ (1926), ‘Babylon Revisited’ (1931), and ‘Crazy Sunday’ (1932). Many of Fitzgerald’s short stories were anthologized by Charles Scribner’s Sons in Flappers and Philosophers (1920), Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), All the Sad Young Men (1926) and Taps at Reveille (1935).

All but one of the short stories in I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories date from the 1930s, when the intertwined lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were unraveling and Fitzgerald was struggling to make a living as an author and screenwriter. Several stories are clearly autobiographical, including ‘The I.O.U.’ (1920), written early in Fitzgerald’s literary career, about publishing; ‘Nightmare (Fantasy in Black)’ (1932), set in a mental hospital; ‘I’d Die for You (The Legend of Lake Lure)’ (1935/36), drawing on his time in North Carolina ; ‘Travel Together’ (1935/36), about a struggling screenwriter; ‘Offside Play’ (1937), about collegiate football, ostensibly at Yale; and ‘Love is a Pain’ (1939/40), recalling Princeton days.

Providing a context for Fitzgerald’s very readable stories are the editor’s general introduction, head notes and explanatory notes for each story, and a selection of illustrations (mostly from the Fitzgerald Papers).” It’s always a treat when any previously unpublished Fitzgerald work comes to light; ‘The I.O.U.’ was recently printed in The New Yorker as a sort of appetizer for the volume; I’ll come clean and admit that Fitzgerald is my favorite early 20th century writer, and so the chance to read some more of his work is always welcome.

I bought my copy today – how about you?

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.

This Remake Is Generating A Lot of Buzz!

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Herbert Marshall and Vincent Price in the 1958 version of The Fly – click here to see the trailer.

As Dave McNary reports in Variety, “Fox is developing a remake of the iconic horror movie The Fly, and is in negotiations with Sleight writer-director J.D. Dillard. Should the deal go through, Dillard would direct the remake from a script that would be co-written with his writing partner Alex Theurer. Blumhouse and WWE bought rights to Sleight at last year’s Sundance Film Festival following its premiere.

The original 1958 movie The Fly, starring David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, and Herbert Marshall, centered on a scientist who mutates into a human insect after a fly flies into his transportation machine. Directed by Kurt Neumann, The Fly was based on a George Langelaan short story.

David Cronenberg remade The Fly in 1986 with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis with Goldblum’s character slowly mutating into a giant insect. It became the top grosser of Cronenberg’s career with more than $60 million at the box office and won an Academy Award for best makeup.”

The Fly is one property that Fox keeps rebooting at regular intervals; not mentioned here is the fact that the 1958 version had two immediate sequels, Return of the Fly and Curse of the Fly. While some people are objecting to a remake of the original film – and remembering that the Cronenberg version was really a riff on the 1958 version – the time might be right for a complete reboot of the franchise, which with the proper treatment could be a compelling film.

This should be interesting; let’s see what happens.

Cutting The Cord – or Not?

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Christopher Elliott just interviewed me for his syndicated column on “cutting the cord” on cable television.

While Elliott doesn’t recommend cutting the cord on cable for everyone, I’ve found it a very useful way to reduce stress, and increase personal time by simpy doing away with television altogether. As Elliott wrote, “when Wheeler Winston Dixon’s cable bills rose to more than $100 a month, thanks to bundling, he looked around and found no other viable cable options.

‘There was no alternative, other than satellite, and all they offered was an introductory offer that would reset to roughly the same rate after a few months,’ says Dixon, a college professor in Lincoln, Nebraska. Finally, he decided to cut the cord. ‘We listen to more music, read more books, take more walks, and have a much happier life,’ he says. When he wants to watch TV, he streams video from Amazon Prime, Vimeo, YouTube and other alternative sources. Problem solved!”

Read the rest of Elliott’s column by clicking here – personally, I’d recommend it!

Sweet and Lowdown: Woody Allen’s Cinema of Regret

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Lloyd Michaels has an excellent new book out on the cinema of Woody Allen.

As the publisher, Wallflower Press / Columbia UP note on their website, “Over a career that has spanned more than six decades, Woody Allen has explored the emotion of regret as a response to the existentialist dilemma of not being someone else.

Tracing this recurrent theme from his stand-up comedy routines and apprentice work through classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Bullets Over Broadway as well as less esteemed accomplishments (Another Woman, Sweet and Lowdown, Cassandra’s Dream), this volume argues that it is ultimately the shallowness of his protagonists’ regret—their lack of deeply felt, sustained remorse—that defines Allen’s pervasive view of human experience.

Drawing on insights from philosophy, theology, psychology, and literature, the book discusses nearly every Woody Allen film, with extended analyses of the relationship films (including Alice and Husbands and Wives), the murder tetralogy (including Match Point and Irrational Man), the self-reflexive films (including Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry), and the movies about nostalgia (including Radio Days and Midnight in Paris).

The book concludes by considering Allen’s most affirmative resolution of regret (Broadway Danny Rose) and speculating about the relevance of this through-line for understanding Allen’s personal life and prospects as an octogenarian auteur.”

Lloyd Michaels edited the journal Film Criticism from 1977 through 2015 and has published four previous books on cinema, and this is one of his most ambitious and transcendent works – absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in American cinema, and the fate of the individual talent in contemporary Hollywood. It’s also nice to see that the book is named after Sweet and Lowdown – one of my favorite Woody Allen films, and arguably Sean Penn’s finest performance.

Available now from your local bookseller; a book not to be missed.

Is The Universe Is A Hologram, & Are We Just Illusions?

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

According to a new scientific study, maybe our entire existence is just a sort of 3-D movie.

As noted on the website Wall Street Pit, “a group of astrophysicists have found evidence that suggests a holographic universe is just as feasible as conventional theories about the origin of the universe.

As reported by Phys Org, a collaborative study involving researches from Canada, Italy and the UK may have provided the first detectable evidence indicating that our universe may in fact be a ‘vast and complex hologram’. It’s an idea that’s been around since the 1990s — that everything we see around us exists on a flat, 2D surface, but we see everything in 3D because the universe acts like one giant hologram.

To explain the concept better, the common analogy used is to imagine the holographic universe as if you were watching a 3D movie in a movie theater. As movie-watchers, we see images on the screen as having height, width, and depth, even if they’re being projected on a 2D screen. In the case of our universe, it’s a bit more complicated because we can’t just see things, we can touch things too, which makes our perceptions ‘real’.

A holographic universe is a concept that appeals to physicists because it can potentially reconcile inconsistencies between quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Because although Einstein’s theory can explain large-scale aspects of the universe, it breaks down at quantum levels. In other words, it can’t explain quantum mechanics. And that just won’t do when describing what the early universe was like.

According to the researchers, proof for their theory can be found in the Big Bang’s ‘afterglow’ or its cosmic wave background. Through telescopes, they were able to detect a huge amount of data hidden in the afterglow following the beginning of the universe. They then compared this data with data from quantum field theory.

What they found was that their equations appeared to reconcile irregularities between the Big Bang afterglow and quantum physics. And the only explanation for the universe working the way it does is that it must have been a hologram at that time, meaning, during the early stages when the universe was being formed, everything was being projected in 3D from 2D boundaries.

As University of Southampton Mathematical Sciences Professor Kostas Skenderis said: ‘The idea is similar to that of ordinary holograms where a three-dimensional image is encoded in a two-dimensional surface, such as in the hologram on a credit card. However, this time, the entire universe is encoded.’ [See his lecture on this subject here].

What exactly does the concept of a holographic universe mean for us? It might not have a direct impact that we can feel. But if it’s true, it will pave the way for the unification of two conflicting theories — general relativity and quantum mechanics. And that will in turn lead to a better understanding of how the universe began, and how time and space came about. Findings of the study have been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.”

An interesting concept, at the very least- click on the links above to learn more.

Reel Film Day – March 5th, 2017

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Support Reel Film Day – films screened the way they were meant to be seen.

As The Alamo Draft House theatre chain announces, “mark your calendars, cinephiles! 35mm film will be alive in all its glory on March 5th — or 3/5. A collaborative initiative from Alamo Drafthouse and Kodak, the first-ever Reel Film Day will champion the beauty of cinema’s richest and most enduring format with celebratory screenings at Alamo Drafthouse and independent theaters across the U.S.

‘There is nothing like experiencing actual 35mm projected film,’ said Steve Bellamy President of Kodak Motion Picture Film and Entertainment. ‘I don’t care if it is the greatest 8K projector in the world, 35mm is a radically different thing and there is simply no comparison. Projected film is watching light blast through dozens of layers of color dye clouds and emulsion, 24 times per second.

A film projectionist is a master craftsman and seeing his or her work is akin to performance art. While the world has largely migrated to the utility of video projectors, there is a massive growth in consumers who understand the experience of film projection. This is why theatres projecting film are coming back so strongly and doing so well!’

As a true celebration of the wide-ranging scope of cinema, Reel Film Day programming will be deeply eclectic, featuring classics including Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil rubbing reels with cult favorites like W. D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

At press time over 25 screenings are taking place, and it is expected that ultimately hundreds of theaters across the country will join in. No matter the location, the unifying factor is that all films will be presented large and lustrous from 35mm film.

‘Less than 5% of our film history exists in a high-definition digital format,’ says Alamo Drafthouse CEO and Founder Tim League. ‘If you really love film, then join us to recognize, celebrate and support film screenings in independent theaters everywhere. This scrappy group of fellow cinephiles is truly preserving film history. Support your local theater, support 35mm (and 70mm) film on 3/5, the first annual Reel Film Day.'”

‘Nuff said, as Stan Lee would say. Support Reel Film Day at a theater near you!

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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