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The Big Party — The 86th Annual Academy Awards

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Here’s the star-studded selfie taken by host Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars that really did crash Twitter.

I worked with Dan Wood of The Christian Science Monitor on this Oscars this year; you can read his article here. For me, the only surprises were The Act of Killing not winning Best Documentary, and The Hunt not winning Best Foreign Film. I was also mildly surprised that Spike Jonze won for Best Original Screenplay for Her, but the rest were all predicted in my previous blog posts. It was business as usual, with the accent on business. A more artificial spectacle could hardly be imagined.

Gravity, one of the emptiest films of all time, swept most of the categories, including Best Director; Twelve Years A Slave won Best Film, because it obviously was the best film nominated, and the Academy could hardly ignore it. The show itself was overlong, as usual, with interminable musical numbers, tributes to cinema’s Hollywood past, but as I’ve noted before, and stressed in my interview with the Monitor, the Oscars are not an index of quality, but rather an industry event that advertises and reaffirms Hollywood as the center of the cinematic firmament, even as it marginalizes all of the rest of the world’s film output.

It isn’t voted on by critics, or even audience members; you have to be a member of the Academy to vote, and this year they turned out in record numbers, thanks to an aggressive e-mail campaign. So it’s really a popularity contest, or, as the actress Janet Gaynor once observed, a “nice pat on the back.” Anyway, it’s over now, and hopefully winter with it, and so we can wait until next year when the whole mad carnival whips up again, with more competition, more self-advertising, and more “bests” culled from a narrow field that is comprised, for the most part, of mainstream commercial films alone.

Click here for a complete list of the winners.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014)

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Four years ago, Gareth Edwards (that’s him above) made a small and very effective film, Monsters (2010).

That film cost practically nothing, and was shot on location in Mexico on a catch as catch can basis, picking up scenes along the way and then repropping them with low cost but very effective CGI enhancement, something that Edwards is really good at. At the time, Edwards said that with Monsters, he wanted to create a film that was a cross between War of The Worlds and Lost in Translation, and oddly enough, the film was just that; a thoughtful, low key monster film, in which the monsters were kept out of view for most of the movie, only to be revealed rather spectacularly at a gas station in the middle of the desert in the film’s final moments.

Now, he’s back, with something much more conventional; yet another reboot of Godzilla, based on the 1954 Ishiro Honda original. Actually, Godzilla – both the character, and the movie – could really use a reboot, for once, since it’s been the subject of so many subpar remakes and sequels, not to mention – let’s please don’t mention – the miserable Matthew Broderick remake a few years back. But here, Edwards seems to be taking a Christopher Nolan approach to the material, and the cast is first rate; Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn and Juliette Binoche all are involved. So this may work.

Click here to view the trailer , which is full of destruction, but no monster until the very end. Check it out.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The Death of Foreign Films in America

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time.

Once upon a time, every movie had to open in a conventional 35mm theater run to make money. This made for a kind of financial egalitarianism; a $100,000 horror movie would have to open in a theater the same way that a $5,000,000 movie would have to; there were no DVDs, streaming videos, video on demand services, or even cable. While no one would want to go back to the analog age, as this blog itself demonstrates, the fact remains that from the dawn of cinema until the late 1980s, foreign films had a solid chance in the US market, and were roughly divided into two groups: commercial cinema and art cinema. But no matter what the label was, every film still had to open in a theater to make money — there simply was no other market.

Commercial foreign films, such as Italian westerns or horror movies, or Japanese science-fiction spectacles, were hastily dubbed into English and dumped into theaters on a mass basis, and made their money back. More serious fare, such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – which I wrote about in a 2010 article in the web journal Senses of Cinema – were presented with subtitles, and no one seemed to mind. Eventually, La Dolce Vita, too, was dubbed for wider distribution, although this version never really caught on, and audiences of the period were discerning enough to notice that replacing the actors’ voices in the film essentially destroyed Fellini’s work.

But La Dolce Vita — which is one of my favorite films of all time, and perhaps the best examination of modern pop throwaway celebrity culture ever created – made the bulk of its money in a subtitled version, and thus audiences were educated from a very early age to realize that there were many different kinds of films available. There were American films, of varying degrees of budget and artistic ambition – and often some of the lowest budget films were the most artistically ambitious — and then there were foreign films, and the junk was dubbed, while the better films were presented aurally and visually intact, with subtitles. But now it seems that dubbed or subtitled, no one is going to foreign film anymore, except for Bollywood films, which have a huge audience throughout the world, as well as here in the States.

As Richard Corliss, who knows his way around cinema history, writes in an article in Time Magazine, “you probably know about Blue Is the Warmest Color, the French movie with the lesbian lovers romping through a five-year affair. But chances are you haven’t seen it. For all its ballyhoo and bravas, Blue has earned only about $2.1 million at the U.S. box office. Given the high price of art-house tickets, that means only a couple hundred thousand people have paid to see it in its three-month American run — fewer than the number that bought tickets to Ride Along this past Tuesday.

These are hard times, maybe the end of times, for a kind of film that accounts for only about one in every 200 tickets sold in the U.S. But before we get to the depressing news about the current state of foreign-language films in the States, consider a time when this tiny niche was a tremendous niche — representing about 5%, not 0.5%, of the domestic market — and when foreign films were thought essential to any true cinephile’s education and appetite.

We speak of the 1960s. Giants like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and François Truffaut strode the earth; and their favorite actors — Marcello Mastroianni, Max von Sydow, Toshiro Mifune and Jeanne Moreau — became icons on this side of the pond. Mastroianni and the rest provided the best directors with faces and personalities that charmed the foreign-film audience across America. And soon other movies with these stars appeared in U.S. theaters. In the early ’60s, as many as 30 Italian films reached U.S. shores.

That’s because of the startling success of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which, in terms of tickets sold, is still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time. It earned $19.5 million in U.S. theaters in 1961, when the average ticket price was just 69 cents. In today’s dollars, that would be $236 million — more than the domestic gross of 2013 hits like Oz the Great and Powerful and Thor: The Dark World. In 1966, Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, a race-car love story starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, grossed the modern equivalent of $107 million. Three years later Costa-Gavras’s political thriller Z took in what would be $92 million today. As the moguls would say, real money.

Two quick reasons for the appeal of foreign-language films in the ’60s: They had a higher IQ than the average Hollywood movie — making works like Fellini’s and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad the subjects of earnest debates at penthouse cocktail parties and on college campuses — and they were sexier, exposing flesh along with their vaunted angst and anomie. A third reason: they gave any American with cinematic wanderlust a view of other countries and cultures. Here were people and ideas so different, perhaps forbidding, yet often enchanting.

At the end of the decade, Hollywood grew up fast, with copious infusions of sex (Midnight Cowboy), blood (The Wild Bunch) and double-dome philosophizing (2001: A Space Odyssey). That’s an oversimplified way of saying that American movies had recaptured the conversation [. . .] Another factor: Americans lost interest in other cultures; we were not only No. 1, we were the only 1 we cared about. With foreign films’ monopoly on intellectual maturity and adult themes broken, they receded to specialty status: canapés for connoisseurs.”

I’m afraid that Corliss is right; the multiplexes, as I have observed many times before, play simply the biggest hits in a very tight playlist, and no one seems to have for more thoughtful cinema anymore. The big news these days is the upcoming Superman/Batman team up, and ComicCon rules the box office. Not much chance for anything enlightening there. In the 1960s, and until the late 1980s, theaters gave audiences a choice, simply because they had to — theaters were the only venue available. Now that the studios can dump smaller films on VOD or streaming, you can forget about a theatrical release. Which means that most people will never hear of it, which means most people will never see it, which means that if you want thoughtful film viewing, it’s either the VOD foreign cable channel, or a a DVD, or Netflix.

But it’s not the same as seeing it on a big screen, and at the same time, it has much less cultural impact. This is bad for American viewers, bad for the future of cinema, and portends an endless array of nonstop comic book movies with no content – just action, action and more action, like the Fast and Furious franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, if all you want is to see a bunch of cars crashing and things being blown up. But it would be nice to have a choice, available to all and widely publicized. Once, you had such a choice. Now, you have no choice at all.

Foreign films led the way to a more enlightened cinema – what has happened to that cinema today?

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The 86th Annual Academy Awards

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

The 86th Annual Academy Awards are upon us.

It continues to amaze me how few people understand that this isn’t some sort of national poll of either critics or audiences; it’s an industry event. And yet the public continues to tune in, year after year, to what is essentially a three hour plus commercial for the American film industry, which is all well and good, but one must remember that it marginalizes so many excellent films from around the world, as well as in the United States, into an “all or nothing sweepstakes” in which there can be only one winner in each category. That said, I blogged a few days ago on my initial thoughts on “who would win what”; now that the nominations are actually out, here are some more thoughts on the subject.

Directing, as I suggested in my last post, will go to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, though Steve McQueen for 12 Years A Slave is a strong contender, and in my opinion should get the nod; Best Actor to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, but Bruce Dern is a strong favorite for Nebraska, now that Robert Redford is out of the running; Best Actress to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, which seems to me pretty much a lock; 12 Years A Slave for Best Picture, again pretty much a lock; Best Supporting Actor to Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, yet again pretty much a lock; and Best Animated Feature to Frozen, one more time, a lock. So that’s all recap of the earlier post.

So now, some new predictions, and here I’m venturing into much riskier territory. These thoughts should be taken with a huge grain of salt, and will be modified by future events that are, at this moment, too far away on the horizon to see; Best Supporting Actress is a toss up between Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle, Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave and June Squibb, for Nebraska, and Ms. Squibb might surprise everyone by taking this one home. Best Original Screenplay is again a long shot, but Bob Nelson’s nomination for Nebraska assures him of a decent shot. However, the other nominees are also very strong, so it’s really too close to call, and the same thing goes for Best Adapted Screenplay.

However, I’ll go out on a limb again and predict Thomas Vinterberg’s superb film The Hunt for Best Foreign Language Film, though this category continues to rankle. There are simply so many superb “foreign” films out there that to pick simply one film to represent the entire world is really a suspect enterprise, but in any event, that’s my pick in this least egalitarian of all Oscar categories. Best Documentary, the nearly unbearable The Act of Killing. Best Cinemtography, Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity, simply because the film is such a visual tour-de-force; and Best Visual Effects, Gravity again, for obvious reasons.

That’s all for the moment; all of this, of course, is subject to change without notice.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Film International — One of The Best Film Journals on The Web

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Film International is one of the best film journals on the web.

Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

As the journal’s mission statement notes, in part, “Film International covers film culture as part of the broader culture, history and economy of society. We address topics of contemporary relevance from historically informed perspectives. We wish to bridge the gap between the academy and the outside world, and encourage the participation of scholars from a variety of disciplines, as well as journalists, freelance writers, activists and film-makers.

We refuse the facile dichotomies of ‘high’ and ‘low’, Hollywood and independent, art and commercial cinema. We discuss Hollywood films seriously, and ‘art’ movies critically. We aim at becoming a truly international journal, recognising local specificities, but also the ultimate interconnectedness of an increasingly globalised world.”

FI covers international film, Hollywood film, independent cinema, and everything else in between. It features reviews, interviews, and festival reports on a regular basis, and has an egalitarian spirit which allows all critical voices to be heard, without forcing any of the writers to adhere to a particular philosophical, political, or artistic school of thought.

Commercial cinema, radical cinema, the past, present and future of the medium all meet in the pages of FI, which is absolutely free for online use with just the click of a button. I regularly contribute to FI, but I also savor the contents provided by all of the other writers for the journal, and I constantly find that FI discusses those films that other journals simply pass over, giving a well rounded perspective on the current cinema scene.

Ably edited by Daniel Lindvall, Film International is one of most indispensable film journals on the web today.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

How Universal Plans to Salvage Fast and Furious 7

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Fast and Furious 7, and the franchise itself, is simply too lucrative to abandon.

As everyone knows, series regular Paul Walker was killed in a car crash two weeks ago, and since then Universal has been quietly trying to figure out how to save the film, and the series. Sara Nathan, writing in The MailOnline, reports that “Paul’s brother Cody, 25, who has worked as a stuntman, is set to take his place in the final scenes. According to a source close to the production, producers have been in-and-out of meetings since the star’s death, trying to work out a way to fill his void.’They soon realized they needed someone who looked like Paul to finish the movie and that’s when they approached his nearly identical brother, Cody,’ claims the source.’They can shoot Cody from behind and at distance and it it’s a shot they need Paul’s face in close up they can CGI it later on,’ explained the source.”

The death of a major actor during filming on a movie has certainly happened before — see this link — but what might be nice is if the script is reworked so that Walker’s character, Brian O’Connor, is sidelined by a minor accident within the film, and the team decides to call on his brother to help out with whatever scheme they’re up to in this episode. Cody Walker, an experienced stuntman, could easily adapt to a franchise like the Fast and Furious films, which is little more than nonstop action.

This would give Universal a chance to showcase Cody, with perhaps a scene in which Paul – through the extensive use of CGI – decides at the end to hang it up, walks away, and his brother takes over his slot in the series. That way, “Brian O’Connor” remains alive at the end of the film, just in retirement from the fast life, and reality isn’t allowed to intrude on what is essentially a fantasy series. It makes a great deal of sense – as when George Sanders handed over the Falcon series of detective thrillers in the 1940s to his brother, Tom Conway. I’m sure that Cody Walker will feel more than a little strange doubling for his brother, Paul, and I hope that he strikes a deal with the studio that makes him an instant multi-millionaire for his services.

It’s sad, but that’s Hollywood, where the bottom line is always a prime consideration.

Jean Renoir on Val Lewton

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

Renoir worked briefly with Val Lewton on Woman on The Beach (1947).

As he observed in a 1954 interview, “I’ll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it’s already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren’t expensive, with ‘B’ picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don’t go thinking that I despise ‘B’ pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that ‘B’ pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

You can read more about Renoir’s thoughts on this by following this link.

Catching Fire Flames Out

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s my review of Catching Fire in the November 22, 2013 issue of Cinespect, edited by Charles Meyer.

I open with the text above, and continue by noting that in the film, “stalwart Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is once again pressed into service in a new round of Hunger Games, while tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) rigs the games to kill all the previous winners by pitting them against one another in a special 75th anniversary edition of the contest.

This time around, Snow is assisted by the newly installed Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his ‘games master,’ while Katniss is aided by her old cohorts Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) as she readies herself for the competition, which is once again emceed by the unctuous Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and his fey sidekick Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones).

But things don’t go as smoothly for President Snow as they did in the initial entry of the trilogy; in fact, there’s already an insurrection brewing at the start of the film, and inevitably, the unrest snowballs until it threatens to engulf Snow’s dreams of empire. The film is certainly elaborate enough. The production design is appropriately Riefenstahlian, the sets are grandiose and overblown, the special effects are state of the art, and the combat sequences are suitably violent for a PG-13 project, but the film never, shall we say, catches fire.”

You can read the rest of the review here; but I can’t recommend that you see the film.

To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 9–November 12, 2013

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Here’s an opportunity you can’t afford to miss.

Once again, The Museum of Modern Art is running a stunning series of films, saved and restored from archives around the world, in film format, as part of their ongoing annual series To Save and Project, MoMA’s international festival of film preservation, which celebrates its 11th year with gloriously preserved masterworks and rediscoveries of world cinema. Virtually all of the films in the festival are having their New York premieres, and some are shown in versions never before seen in the United States.

As the program notes indicate, “this year’s edition features a Carte Blanche selection by filmmaker Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants, Election). Other guests include Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who introduces Hotel Monterey (1972) and News from Home (1977), her beautiful New York films of the 1970s; and Filipino sensation Lav Diaz, who presents the full-length version of his 2001 crime drama Batang West Side. An evening with the great American writer E. L. Doctorow, a special presentation of Le Conversazioni literary festival, includes a screening and a conversation moderated by its artistic director, Antonio Monda.

A sidebar dedicated to the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, includes classics of Belgian cinema as well as a fascinating rediscovery: the first American anti-fascist film, Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934). To Save and Project also features Jacques Barratier’s gorgeous French-Tunisian drama Goha (1958); Rowland V. Lee’s demented pre-Code puppet romance I Am Suzanne! (1934); and one of the most anticipated films in the festival, the world premiere of Karl Brown’s Stark Love (1927), with a new musical arrangement performed live by the NYU Cinemusica Viva Players, conducted by Gillian B. Anderson. The festival also includes gems of film noir; the premiere of rarely screened Andy Warhol film shorts, followed by a panel discussion with Warhol collaborators and scholars; a Modern Mondays premiere of Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976); and a theatrical run of Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots (1972), together with Peter Von Bagh’s The Story of Mikko Niskanen (2010).

What distinguishes To Save and Project among the world’s film preservation festivals is that nearly all the titles are presented on celluloid, respecting their original format of 35mm or 16mm. This festival, then, is a celebration of the vital work of archives around the world, including MoMA’s Department of Film, as well as Hollywood and international studios, distributors, and independent filmmakers, to save our cinema heritage.”

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, this is an event not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above, to get a complete schedule of all the screenings for this remarkable event.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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.

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