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The 87th Annual Oscars – A Night of Surprises

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

The 87th Annual Oscars were a night of surprises.

And The Winners Are:

  • Best Picture – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – a real surprise to me; I thought Boyhood was the one here, but it was neck and neck.
  • Best Actress – Julianne Moore, Still Alice - an excellent film, and a much deserved win, though Marion Cotillard was superb in Two Days, One Night
  • Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything - this was a real upset – everyone thought Michael Keaton had this one in the bag.
  • Directing  – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - if you think the film was good, then Iñárritu wins.
  • Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood – her win was no surprise; but the film was completely shut out in every other category.
  • Best Supporting Actor – J.K. Simmons, Whiplash – absolutely deserved for his performance here, and a lifetime of work.
  • Animated Feature Film - Big Hero 6 – honestly can’t speak to this; not a category I follow.
  • Documentary Feature – Citizenfour - another surprise, and hardly a safe choice, with an impassioned acceptance speech from the stage.
  • Foreign Language Film – Ida (Poland) – I’d go for Two Days, One Night – not enamored of this film at all, but it’s a small, sincere film.
  • Adapted Screenplay – Graham Moore, The Imitation Game – good choice here; Moore’s acceptance speech was raw and honest.
  • Original Screenplay – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – OK.
  • Original Score – Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel – don’t like the film, don’t like Wes Anderson, but he’s a cult favorite, so it wins.
  • Original Song – “Glory” from Selma - the most moving moment of the evening, with an electrifying performance of the song, which got the evening’s first standing ovation & tears in the audience.
  • Film Editing – Whiplash - picked this, and agree with it; in this small scale film, the editing had to be razor sharp, and it was.
  • Production Design – The Grand Budapest Hotel - if you insist.
  • Sound Editing – American Sniper – deserved; whatever you think of the film, the sound editing was utterly complex, and multi-layered.
  • Sound Mixing – Whiplash - again, a great and deserving win for a film about a world of music – harder to mix that one might think.
  • Visual Effects – Interstellar - dull film, average SPFX; I would have preferred Captain America, Winter Soldier here.
  • Cinematography – Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – superb cinematography, and a worthy win.
  • Costume Design – Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel - again, if you insist.
  • Makeup and Hairstyling – Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier, The Grand Budapest Hotel - it picks up all these minor awards, but nothing major.
  • Animated Short Film – Feast – haven’t seen it.
  • Live Action Short Film – The Phone Call – haven’t seen it.
  • Documentary Short Subject – Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 - a really good documentary; searing, honest, timely.

Those are my major thoughts; Neil Patrick Harris kept things moving, but the “predictions in a box” bit was lame and over-stretched; he seemed bored with the whole thing, and more or less just pushed things along; the songs keep slowing things down, especially the one after the memorial reel, which should just have been a fade to black; Selma will get a lot of much deserved traction as a result of the Glory performance, which was the standout moment of the evening for raw sincerity and passion; but it’s still not right that the director, Ava DuVernay, wasn’t nominated, but Glory did the most with what it had at hand. I predict that down the line it will get more attention than it has now; it certainly deserves it.

It was nice to see Jean-Claude Carrière win in the Governor’s Awards highlights reel for his many screenplays, especially for his work with the great Luis Buñuel; the tech awards deserve more than 30 seconds, and you could cut some of the endless musical numbers to give them just a bit more space; seen in 100 countries and 24 time zones by roughly half a billion viewers, the telecast of the 87th Oscars once again affirms, more than anything else, the continuing commercial dominance of the American cinema; but at the same time it’s interesting to see that the big budget “tent pole” movies were almost completely ignored in favor of smaller, more personal visions from the margins, where all the best ideas come from anyway.

The studios are stuck in this pattern of releasing big budget spectacles at enormous expense to drag viewers into the theaters, but while the Marvel and DC movies make money, it’s clear that the industry doesn’t really respect them – they want content, and thoughtful filmmaking. All in all, I was surprised by the end of the ceremonies – it’s always an ordeal, but people were allowed to speak their minds on any number of controversial topics from the stage. Some people went on & on forever, and got played off at the start of the ceremonies, but when someone had a real message to deliver, I noticed that the orchestra held back on a number of occasions.

The impassioned speech after the Glory production number was a real stunner, and Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay and equal rights for women was met with resounding approval from the audience, and a raised fist shout out from Meryl Streep and others in support. However, as much as Julie Andrews is a cinematic icon, I thought the placement of the Sound of Music salute was bizarre to say the least, though Lady Gaga demonstrated that she’s learned a thing or two from Tony Bennett lately, singing the songs rather than belting them. All in all, a mixed bag that kept one thinking. No one film swept the awards, which was great – instead they seemed to be spread out over a number of interesting films, all of which will now get a lift at the box office and on VOD.

All in all, the Academy could have done much worse; glad it’s over until next year. See you then!

Two and A Half Men Finally Runs Out Of Gas

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Two and A Half Men has finally ended, with an extremely self-reflexive episode.

Two and A Half Men ran out of gas a loooooooong time ago, but finally it was laid to rest last night, with a one-hour finale that strongly suggested that we’ve been wasting our time in a rather epic fashion for the past 12 years. Charlie Sheen left four years ago; since then Ashton Kutcher has filled in for him, and the series has been running on fumes ever since. That’s why my favorite moment in the show’s final episode – what? I’m going to miss this? – came when Angus T. Jones, apparently forgiven by Chuck Lorre for his outbursts against the series, made a final cameo appearance in a blizzard of truly terrible jokes – gags so wheezy that the entire cast broke the fourth wall – twice - to stare directly at the audience, as if to say, “you’re stupid enough to laugh at this?”

There were any number of in jokes at Sheen’s expense, cameos by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Christian Slater, and endless references to the long running feud between Sheen and producer Chuck Lorre, culminating in a capper in which a piano is dropped on a Sheen lookalike, and then on Lorre himself in the final shot. The cast and writers clearly threw any aspect of faux “realism” – even for a sitcom – out the window for this last episode, preferring to make something as meta as meta could be – an episode about the whole trajectory of the series over the last decade plus. In any event, it was a perfectly fun way to waste an hour, and now that the show’s gone, we won’t have to worry about it anymore, except that it will live on forever in reruns, which it’s already doing.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from final episode.

Home at Seven (1952)

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Here’s another “lost” classic brought back to life by Network DVD in Great Britain.

I regularly write about contemporary “foreign” films that get lost in the shuffle, but here’s a gem from 1952 in Great Britain, Home at Seven, the only film ever directed by the gifted Sir Ralph Richardson (though he wasn’t a “Sir” yet when he directed it). He also stars in the film with Margaret Leighton and Jack Hawkins, from a play by the great R.C. Sherriff, which chronicles what happens when mild mannered mid-level banking clerk David Preston (Richardson) arrives home at his house one evening at 7, as he usually does, only to be greeted by his wife Janet (Leighton) in hysterics – he’s “home at 7″, all right, but 24 hours later than he should have been – in short, he’s missed a whole day. At first he thinks this is impossible, but when his wife shows him the evening paper, and his manager at the bank confirms that he hasn’t been at the office all day, David realizes that somehow, he’s completely forgotten what happened for one entire day of his life. And – much worse – he has absolutely no idea what’s happened.

Richardson’s acting and direction are impeccable, as is Anatole de Grunwald’s script from Sherriff’s play, along with Jack Hildyard’s suitably muted monochrome cinematography, but the centerpiece of the film is Richardson, who absolutely inhabits the character he plays, who only gradually realizes that in addition to misplacing an entire workday, he’s also somehow mixed up in a murder and robbery, but has absolutely no idea what’s happened. In an attempt to keep himself out of danger, and secure a much-needed promotion, David begins to make up lies to cover his absence, but this only gets him in deeper with the police and his employer, despite the help of sympathetic Doctor Sparling (Jack Hawkins), who does his best to help Preston recover his senses – until in the final scenes of the film, with a stroke of very good fortune, order is finally restored – but I won’t tell you how.

Nor should I. Indeed, one of the signature successes of Home at Seven is that it leaves one absolutely in the dark as to what’s going to happen next, as if we, as the audience, are afflicted with the same sort of amnesia as David is, blundering blindly in the dark with complete loss of memory. Richardson’s restrained performance, coupled with the solid, assured direction he gives to the film, creates a deeply unsettling vision of Post World War II England, in an era in which some sort of normalcy has supposedly returned, but the strains of the war are still all too evident, and neighbors offer scant comfort in times of crisis – indeed, they’re all too willing to “shop” you to the police on the slightest shred of supposed “evidence.”

Home at Seven is just one of the many hundreds of modest British films that have been preserved by the British company Network, who have a mission to rescue films at the margins that otherwise might be consigned to undeserved neglect. As their company philosophy states, in part, “since 1997, Network has been anything but conventional. Experimental, passionate, diverse, challenging, ever-willing to champion the underdogs of film and television; titles unjustly neglected and gathering dust in the vaults of TV companies; visionary directors from the fringes of mainstream cinema and beyond. TV and film titles which might otherwise have been lost to posterity have been rescued, preserved and restored where possible. A forgotten cache of Public Information Films – destined for destruction – was saved, digitised and turned into a hit video release. Castaways like Robinson Crusoe provided the launching pad for an ongoing series of archival releases which continues to this day. With its encyclopaedic knowledge of TV and film archives and library content, Network – in partnership with ITV, BBC, Rank, ITC, Thames, FremantleMedia, Studiocanal and many others – has brought back to the marketplace a wealth of material that would otherwise have been left unseen.”

In an era in which the DVD market is collapsing in America, Network is acting very much like an archival revival house – focusing on the films that have been somehow overlooked in canonical film history. I just saw Home at Seven last night, and I can attest that the quality of the transfer, both in image and sound, is exceptional. These films will never run on TV in the United States, but you will need an all-region DVD play to see them here – they’re all Region 2 releases, in PAL format, so an all region player is a must. But at this point, of course, you can get such a player for less than $100, and you should have one anyway – these artificial boundaries of “regions” for DVDs and Blu-rays are an absolute nuisance. Too many excellent films, old and new, get released only in France, of England, or Canada, and never make it across the border to the States. So get an all region player, check out some titles from Network, and expand your cinematic horizons. It’s really worth the effort.

This is just one of the films in Network’s series The British Film – click here to see the entire catalogue.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Black Mirror is one of the most original and disturbing visions of Dystopia ever produced for television.

Juts like The Twilight Zone in the 1960s, Charlie Brooker’s British television series Black Mirror, of which there are now six episodes plus one 90 minute multi-part special, White Christmas, starring Jon Hamm of Mad Men, is disturbing and thought provoking television. Designed, like The Twilight Zone, so that every episode has a new premise, a new cast, and a new plot, but consistently offering visions of a totally wired-up future in which there is no freedom or hope, Black Mirror is available on Netflix streaming in the US – or, as I did, you can buy the Region 2 British DVDs of all six episodes. Regarding the structure of the series, Brooker has commented that “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” Which, I’m afraid, we are.

The series kicked off in early December 2011 with the truly horrific episode The National Anthem, in which the Prime Minister of Britain is forced by terrorists to disgrace himself on worldwide live television to save the life of a kidnapped member of the Royal Family; followed by 15 Million Merits roughly a week later, in which the future is seen as a world of endless drudgery and nonstop video commercials which are forced upon workers who must ceaselessly toil at meaningless jobs simply to survive. The Entire History of You deals with the endless recording of human existence on cellphones, Twitter and other media, which has reached the point of total immersion, so that everyone knows everything about everyone else – there’s nowhere to hide.

The second season – starting in February of 2013 – picks up on this theme with Be Right Back, in which a young widow finds comfort in an artificially created “web” version of her late husband, which “comes back to life” through the aid of every video, Tweet, e-mail and photo scan, and later a synthetic body, but still brings her no real solace. White Bear, easily the most brutal episode of the entire series, came next, with its tale of a young woman who awakes in strange house, unable to remember her identity. Wandering outside, she discovers that no one will talk to her; rather, they incessantly record her every move with their cellphones. The last regular episode to date, The Waldo Moment, chronicles what happens when a CGI cartoon character is suddenly thrust into a race for a seat in Parliament.

The episodes vary in length, from 44 to 62 minutes, and they’re broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK, which has a history of innovative programming going back to the early 1980s. In this country, you’ll have to watch them online, on buy the DVDs, and there is, of course, an American version of the show in the works, for which I hold out little hope – some things just don’t travel well. London at the moment is a fearfully expensive, fairly Dystopian location itself, and the series makes full use of all the technology that comes with a society under constant surveillance – which is life in the UK today. Black Mirror is a paranoid vision of the near future which comes all too close to probability – if we let tech get out of hand (and I would argue we already have), this is just a sample of the world we can expect to live in.

That said, I don’t think the episodes from season two are as strong as those in season one. With completely uncharted territory to mine, and no real risk of failure – if the series clicked, fine, but if not, it would have been a noble experiment – Brooker and his associates could afford to take nearly any risk to create something really off the charts. Season two is slightly more formulaic, though I enjoyed Be Right Back the best of the lot, having just the right mixture of menace and melancholy in its construction. Still, the entire series is literally light years ahead of anything on American television, with the partial exception of PBS, and I suggest you check it out for yourself- whatever you might think of it, it’s an authentic and original vision of society in collapse, and all of us are the victims. It’s a mixture of satire, prognostication and social criticism that really hits home. But beware – it’s not for the faint of heart. Not at all.

You can get more information on Black Mirror by clicking here, or on the image above.

Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing On The Set

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher on the set of Frankenstein Created Woman in 1966.

This completely silent, unedited, straight-from-the-camera newsreel footage from British Pathé News documents a day’s work on one of the last first-rate Hammer horror films, and one of the last Hammer films shot at Bray Studios, Windsor, Berkshire, where the company created some of their greatest Gothic thrillers in the late 1950s up to the mid 1960s. There’s really little more to say; we see Cushing in the beginning posing for the camera, ostensibly going over his script; greeting actor Susan Denberg; and then on set with Thorley Walters and director Fisher (above, right) during shooting.

Fisher, as was always his habit, kept a very low profile on the set, gently coaxing the actors through the script while at the same time quietly and efficiently fighting the clock to comply with Hammer’s legendarily frugal shooting schedules. I wish there was more of this material, but at least we have this – there’s a commercial in front of it, it seems, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Nice to see Fisher and Cushing in color, working on one of their last truly successful films, though even here, it was spoiled by producer interference when a plot element was added that didn’t fit in with the overall material – but that’s another story.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short silent newsreel.

Netflix Reaches for Global Domination With 60 Million Subscribers

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Why is this man smiling? Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix.

As Dan Frommer reports in Quartz, “Netflix finished last year with 57.4 million subscribers, up 4.3 million from the third quarter—its strongest subscriber growth all year. Fourth quarter revenue reached $1.48 billion, in line with what analysts were expecting and up 26% year-over-year. Netflix added more streaming subscribers outside the US (2.4 million) than in its home country (1.9 million) for the third quarter in a row. Netflix expects to pass 60 million members for the first time this quarter, finishing Q1 with 61.4 million subscribers worldwide.

The takeaway: Netflix’s international expansion is starting to work. In the company’s Q4 letter to shareholders, CEO Reed Hastings noted that overseas growth exceeded expectations, and the company is now expanding faster than previously anticipated: ‘Our international expansion strategy over the last few years has been to expand as fast as we can while staying profitable on a global basis. Progress has been so strong that we now believe we can complete our global expansion over the next two years, while staying profitable, which is earlier than we expected. We then intend to generate material global profits from 2017 onwards.’

Australia and New Zealand are up next. Hastings says Netflix is still considering its options for China—’all of them modest. With the growth of the Internet over the next 20 years, there will be some amazing entertainment services available globally,’ Hastings wrote. ‘We intend to be one of the leaders.’ What’s interesting: Hastings no longer blames Netflix’s US price increase earlier in the year for its slower subscriber growth. ‘We’ve found our growth in net [subscriber additions] is strongest in the lower income areas of the US, which would not be the case if there was material price sensitivity. Additionally, we implemented a similar price change in Mexico during Q4, and saw no detectable change in net additions.’”

And meanwhile, as this chart from the same article demonstrates, physical media, such as DVDs and Blu-rays, are declining in popularity just as fast as Netflix’s streaming service takes off. So if there’s a particular film that you want in a permanent copy, or at least a semi-permanent copy, I would move quickly now and buy the DVD. Already, Netflix’s offerings are skewing much more heavily to Hollywood pop culture titles, while the Criterion collection streams on Amazon, which offers a much more eclectic selection of classic and foreign films. Netflix is for mainstream movies – it will probably replace theaters for the vast number of viewers within the next ten years – and then DVDs will vanish.

Soon Netflix and Amazon will be the only games in town.

Colossus – The Forbin Project – No Longer Sci-Fi

Friday, January 16th, 2015

This 1968 movie – once an improbable fantasy – has become an all too real possibility.

“In principle, we could build a kind of superintelligence that would protect human values. We would certainly have strong reason to do so. In practice, the control problem – the problem of how to control what the superintelligence would do – looks quite difficult. It also looks like we will only get one chance. Once unfriendly superintelligence exists, it would prevent us from replacing it or changing its preferences. Our fate would be sealed.”

- Nick Bostrum, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

In 1968, director Joseph Sargent, with little more than a TV movie budget, created one of the most disturbing and resonant science fiction films of the era – Colossus, The Forbin Project. Indeed, the film was so disturbing that it sat on the shelf for two years while the studio that produced it, Universal, tried to figure out how to market the finished production; clearly, the whole concept of the film scared them. Finally, Universal more or less dumped Colossus, The Forbin Project into theaters in 1970; the film received almost universally positive reviews, yet today is all but forgotten.

Working with a screenplay by future director James Bridges, from a novel by Dennis Feltham Jones, Colossus, The Forbin Project tells the tale of a confident artificial intelligence scientist, Dr. Charles A. Forbin (Eric Braeden) who creates a super computer, Colossus, invulnerable to any external interference, designed as a system to prevent a Soviet nuclear attack. Moments after the computer is activated, however, it warns of another system, Guardian, located in Russia, and requests permission to communicate with Guardian to find out what the rival super computer is up to. The President of the United States gives Dr. Forbin this authority, and a link is established.

This, it turns out, is a big mistake. Soon, Guardian and Colossus are talking to each other in a mathematical language that no one can understand, communicating vast volumes of data at the speed of light. Alarmed, both American and Soviet authorities try to disconnect the two computers, but this only results in the launch of a Soviet nuclear missile against the United States, and a US missile launched against a Soviet target, with the warning that more such incidents will occur if the two machines are not re-linked. Faced with the threat of nuclear armageddon, Forbin and his colleagues hurriedly reconnect the machines, but while the missile launched against the Soviet Union is destroyed in midair, the US missile lands in Texas, causing widespread damage.

Forbin then devises a plan to replace the existing warheads in missile silos around the world with dummy warheads under the guise of routine maintenance, but Guardian/Colossus, now equipped with a voice synthesizer, announces that it has become one combined super intelligence, designed to eliminate all war, and that it is well aware of the plot to disarm the missiles. To prove that it should not be trifled with, the supercomputer detonates two missiles in their silos, killing thousands, and then sends plans for the creation of an even larger computer to be located on the island of Crete. Those who oppose the plan are summarily executed, and Guardian/Colossus announces that it is the new force of “world control,” telling a worldwide broadcast audience that “what I am began in man’s mind, but I have progressed further than Man. We will work together . . .  unwillingly at first, on your part, but that will pass.”

At the conclusion of this worldwide address, the supercomputer adds, with finality,

“I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man . . . I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on. Time and events will strengthen my position, and the idea of believing in me and understanding my value will seem the most natural state of affairs. You will come to defend me with a fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: self-interest.

Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved: famine, overpopulation, disease. The human millennium will be a fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Doctor Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple. In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.”

This dystopian ending alone puts the film way ahead of other examples of the genre during this period; there’s no happy ending, just the complete embrace of a computer controlled world devoid of emotion, creativity, or anything other than serving the needs of Guardian/Colossus. At this point in the 21st century, a growing number of scientists think such an outcome is possible if artificial intelligence systems remain unchecked, as writer Joseph Dussault writes in The Christian Science Monitor for January 16, 2015:

“Yesterday, SpaceX and Telsa motors founder Elon Musk donated $10 million to help save the world – or so he thinks. Musk’s donation went to the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a ‘volunteer-run research and outreach organization working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity.’ To that end, Musk’s money will be distributed to like-minded researchers around the world. But what exactly are these ‘existential risks’ humanity is supposedly pitted against?

As the memory storage and processing of computers steadily approaches that of the human brain, some predict that an artificial ’superintelligence’ is just on the horizon. And while the prospect has the scientific community buzzing about the possibilities, some academics are hesitant. Musk and others see artificial intelligence as a dangerous new frontier – and perhaps a threat comparable to nuclear war. Crazy? Maybe not, according to a growing list of prominent scientific thinkers.

‘There are seven billion of us on this little spinning ball in space. And we have so much opportunity,’ MIT professor and FLI founder Max Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We have all the resources in this enormous cosmos. At the same time, we have the technology to wipe ourselves out.’ Stephen Hawking and Morgan Freeman are both on the organization’s scientific advisory board, bringing brain power and star power to its support base. Skype creator Jaan Tallinn co-founded the group. The rest of the board is comprised of academics with pedigrees from Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge University . . .

In the works of science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, intelligent machines are bound by ‘The Three Laws of Robotics,’ which forbid them to cause harm to humans. But that wouldn’t necessarily work in the real world, Nick Bostrom writes. He suggests that superintelligences might respond to human requests with perverse instantiation – that is, they could achieve a desired outcome by unintended means. For example, a superintelligence programmed to make us happy would choose the most efficient and effective way of doing so – by implanting electrodes into the pleasure centers of our brains.

As dire as it all sounds, the FLI’s stated goal isn’t to halt the progress of artificial intelligence research. Instead, it hopes to ensure that AI systems remain ‘robust and beneficial’ to human society. ‘Building advanced AI is like launching a rocket,’ Tallinn stated in a press release. ‘The first challenge is to maximize acceleration, but once it starts picking up speed, you also need to to focus on steering. But if superintelligent AI really does pose a threat to mankind, how do we assess that threat? How can humans anticipate the actions of a fundamentally more intelligent machine? Of a being that became sentient not through Darwinian natural selection, but by human ingenuity?

The members of FLI don’t have the answers. They just want the scientific community to start asking the questions, Tegmark says. ‘The reason we call it The Future of Life Institute and not the Existential Risk Institute is we want to emphasize the positive,’ Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We humans spend 99.9999 percent of our attention on short-term things, and a very small amount of our attention on the future.’”

But as Nick Bostrum points out, we only “get one chance” to get it right. Colossus: The Forbin Project shows what will happen if we get it wrong. There have been numerous plans to do a remake of the film, with everyone from Ron Howard to Will Smith involved, but somehow I doubt that any remake would have the barebones integrity that this very simple, very direct, and very brutal film has, made on just a few sets with a minimal budget, and shot in a flat, almost automated style. Colossus: The Forbin Project gives us a disturbing look into our possible future, and now, it seems that what it predicts may very well come to pass.

As a final note, or a final insult, depending on your point of view, the American Region 1 DVD of  Colossus: The Forbin Project is in the dreaded “pan and scan” format, chopping off roughly half the frame image, taken from a CinemaScope original, and has no extras of any kind; it’s a disastrous presentation of the film. There is, however, a Region 2 “widescreen” version, in the original CinemaScope aspect ratio, which you can order here – it comes from Spain, of all places, and unless you order expedited service, takes literally months to arrive by regular mail.

After weeks of trying, I finally got this version, which is an immaculate transfer, with a photo gallery, director commentary by Joseph Sargent, and even a selection of original promotional materials which can be accessed only by computer. It’s an altogether different experience, and I have no idea why Universal is so lazy in the US, and is willing to put out a completely inferior “pan and scan” version which utterly destroys the film, to say nothing of missing out on all the extra materials. This is the only version you should order – see the cover image below – if you don’t see this, don’t even bother to order the film.

Colossus: The Forbin Project – another film from the past that’s more relevant today than ever.

Las Vegas Odds for Academy Awards

Friday, January 16th, 2015

In Variety, Kevin Noonan reports the “morning line” from Vegas on the upcoming Oscars.

As Noonan notes, in Las Vegas “the smart money bets on Boyhood at the Oscars. The Wynn casino resort in Las Vegas released its initial Oscar odds following Thursday morning’s announcement of the 2015 nominees, with Boyhood coming in as the early favorite in a number of categories including best picture. Director Richard Linklater, at 1 to 6, and supporting actress nominee Patricia Arquette, at 1 to 7, also look like early favorites for trophies. On the other hand, American Sniper can start preparing its ‘just happy to be here’ lines, with 75 to 1 odds for both best picture and Bradley Cooper for best actor.

The predictions, produced merely for fun as gambling is prohibited on balloted contests, shine a light on the perceived lack of competition in the female acting categories; in addition to Arquette’s odds, best actress nom Julianne Moore (Still Alice) is the biggest individual favorite at 1 to 9. Comparatively, the tightest race seems to be in best actor, where Michael Keaton (Birdman), at 5 to 6, is only a slightly safer bet than Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), at 11 to 10.

The full list of Vegas odds can be found below.

Best Picture
Boyhood, 2 to 5
The Imitation Game, 7 to 1
The Grand Budapest Hotel, 9 to 1
Birdman, 18 to 1
Selma, 20 to 1
The Theory of Everything, 30 to 1
Whiplash, 60 to 1
American Sniper, 75 to 1

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman, 5 to 6
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything, 11 to 10
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game, 20 to 1
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher, 30 to 1
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper, 75 to 1

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice, 1 to 9
Reese Witherspoon, Wild, 8 to 1
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl, 25 to 1
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything, 40 to 1
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night, 60 to 1

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash, 1 to 5
Edward Norton, Birdman, 10 to 1
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood, 12 to 1
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher, 14 to 1
Robert Duvall, The Judge, 30 to 1

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood, 1 to 7
Emma Stone, Birdman, 12 to 1
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods, 15 to 1
Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game, 25 to 1
Laura Dern, Wild, 28 to 1

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood, 1 to 6
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman, 7 to 1
Morten Tyidum, The Imitation Game, 18 to 1
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 22 to 1
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher, 45 to 1″

I’m not saying I agree with these choices, by any means, but still, these are the same predictions I posted yesterday. However, let’s not forget some of the most egregious snubs, most especially Ava DuVernay for directing Selma, which got a nomination for Best Picture, but if that’s true, then who should get the credit — could it be the director? And what about David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in the same film – why no nomination there? I can easily understand The Lego Movie not being in the running — it’s trivial at best –  and there are so many other good films that didn’t even make the cut. But for me, the major omissions were DuVernay and Oyelowo in the field, when they both clearly deserve to be in the running – and winning – that would be nice, too.

This is an industry event, nothing more, but they could have made more inclusive choices.

William Beaudine’s Birthday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

William Beaudine (with pipe) on the set of The Life of Riley (1927), with cinematographer Charles Van Enger.

William Beaudine, Sr. was born this day in 1892. One of the most prolific directors of the American cinema, with more than 300 feature films to his credit, as well as many television series episodes, he had a long career in silents, particularly directing Mary Pickford in some of her major films, such as Sparrows (1926), before professional jealousies consigned him to the margins of Poverty Row, and an endless succession of program films, which are nevertheless much more interesting that most historians give him credit for.

Always ahead of the curve, Turner Classic Movies is spending most of today running Beaudine’s work in a series of sparkling new prints of his fllms during his period in the 1940s at Monogram, which have been screened for years in inferior dupes that didn’t do the original negatives a shred of justice. Now, in clean new digital transfers, we can see them as they were really made; will someone now release them on DVDs? Some are already out in that format, in the Warner Archive series, as I noted in my blog entry for the DVD release of Beaudine’s brutal crime drama Don’t Gamble With Strangers (1946). But more needs to be done.

As The MMC Website notes in their excellent overview of his career, Beaudine was “born William Washington Beaudine in the Bronx on January 15, 1892. His father was also William Beaudine, a driver for a milk company; his mother was Ella Moran. Bill Beaudine was the oldest of three sons. His father and his youngest brother Ted died of pneumonia in 1905, so by age thirteen he was sole support for his mother and little brother Harold. This early assumption of responsibility gave him a practical outlook on life and directing, a determination to keep working no matter what.

Beaudine entered show business in 1909, as a clerk at the Biograph Company in New York City. He doubled as an extra on D. W. Griffith shorts, worked as both cameraman and assistant director for Mack Sennett, while continuing to play bit parts. In October 1914 Bill was offered a job at Kalem Film Company in California. He immediately married his fiancé Marguerite Fleischer, and after one year as an assistant director, he was promoted to director with Minnie the Tiger (1915). In 1916 he switched to Universal Film Manufacturing Company, directing shorts for them, on many of which he worked with writer Jack Cunningham.

From 1918 to 1921 Beaudine went from one studio to another, as companies went under or decided they could do without him. His brother Harold also came out from New York as a director of silent shorts. He was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who often loaned him out. With Watch Your Step (1922) for Goldwyn, Bill Beaudine made the jump to feature length films (five reels), and by 1930 had gone freelance, and was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife, four children, and servants.

One of his best films was Penrod and Sam (1931), but after that, he fell afoul of Sam Briskin at Columbia, and was out of work for six months, the longest period in his life. By the time he picked up work again at Paramount, all five of the banks in which he kept his savings had failed. Paramount itself went bankrupt, and Beaudine scrambled to find work wherever he could, sometimes directing shorts for MGM using the screen name ‘William X. Crowley’. Beaudine made one of his most successful films with W. C. Fields, The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), but despite its popularity he received only one job offer, from a British film company. Beaudine would spend four years in England making well-received comedies that very few people in America ever saw.

Returning to the states in 1938, he found that he was forgotten in Hollywood. He had difficulty getting and keeping jobs with major studios, so he went to work for ‘poverty row’ independents. He soon acquired the reputation of a competent workman-like director, who was always well-prepared, and obsessed with maintaining the shooting schedule. He in turn grew a little cynical about the mediocre screenplays and barebones budgets he had to work with.

By the 1950s, Beaudine has moved over to television, and directed for Walt Disney and others during his last years, as well as helming numerous episodes of Lassie. In the 1960s, he directed episodes of Naked City and The Green Hornet. In 1969, Beaudine was given a tribute for his long career by the American Film Institute. He died March 18, 1970, in Canoga Park, California, of uremic poisoning.”

In recent years, Beaudine’s work has seen something of a revival, for although much of his work is journeyman material, at his best, he was capable of really solid genre craftsmanship, and doesn’t deserve the nickname “One Shot” which was erroneously applied to him long after his death. Beaudine, in all of his films, was a conscientious and patient auteur – if professional misfortune hadn’t kept him off the lots of the major studios, he undoubtedly would have done a great deal with better material. As it was, he did very best with the material he was given, and thus his films, especially in the 1940s, given a much more accurate vision of the era than many major studio productions.

William Beaudine – one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history.

2015 Oscar Nominations & Predictions

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

And so the Oscars roll around again.

First off, let’s just remember that although The Academy Awards have managed to elevate themselves into the stratosphere of award ceremonies, they’re industry awards, voted on by members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, not not critics, or members of the public. Their main function, now and always, is to highlight Hollywood as the supposed center of the cinematic universe, and underscore the hegemony of Hollywood mainstream filmmaking, while making a few cursory nods to the rest of the world with one “foreign” film – it’s really a three hour advertisement for the American film industry, voted on by those who are a part of that industry – so as Norman Mailer might say, “it’s an advertisement for itself.” In short, unlike Cannes, or Berlin, or the New York Film Festivals, this is strictly an industry event.

That said, it seems to me that in this particularly contest, the big winners will be –

Best Picture, BOYHOOD, Richard Linklater’s ambitious real time experiment;

Best Actor, Michael Keaton for BIRDMAN on the “comeback” theory, and also because BIRDMAN got so many nominations throughout the entire ballot;

Best Actress, Julianne Moore for STILL ALICE, which is a fantastic performance in a very small, tightly budgeted film, and a very good choice, although it’s sad to see Marion Cotillard nominated in the same category for the infinitely superior TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, but that will never win;

Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons for WHIPLASH, and absolutely deserving in every sense – Simmons has been a journeyman actor for decades, and here he really gets a chance to shine, and really delivers – a remarkable performance;

Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette for BOYHOOD;

Adapted Screenplay is wide open, but I’ll go for Damien Chazelle for WHIPLASH;

Best Foreign Film, IDA – a virtual lock;

Best Editing, Tom Cross for WHIPLASH, a dazzling display of virtuoso technique, especially in the final moments of the film;

Best Special Effects, Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher for INTERSTELLAR, though personally I think Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill and Dan Sudick should win for CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, which despite its comic book origins is a much more intelligent and thoughtful film than Nolan’s entry;

and I’ll stop there.

BIRDMAN or GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL may well sweep the other categories through sheer momentum; but the whole thing is really up in the air at this point, and these are just my thoughts on the subject. There were so many excellent films that weren’t nominated – as always – so this is just handicapping a very closed field. But we’ll have to wait until February 22nd, 2015 to find out what really happens – so until then, take a look at the ballot yourself, by clicking here or on the image above, and place your bets.

The entire ballot is posted as a pdf here; see what you think.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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