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Oculus: Another Look In the Haunted Mirror

Friday, April 11th, 2014

I have a new review essay out on the film Oculus in Film International.

As I write, “Oculus is a rather pretentious title for a rather straightforward movie, but despite the assembly line nature of its’ construction, the film still has something going for it. At first it’s hard to say precisely what the film has to offer, because on the surface it deals with so many basic and time-worn horror conventions that it seems to be almost aggressively unoriginal. But as the film picks up speed, and accelerates its march towards death and damnation, it gathers a certain sort of peculiar power that isn’t without value. I’m not about to give away the ending here, or any of the major plot twists, because those are the main things the film has to recommend it. Yet having said that, there’s a certain Resnais-like fatalism to the film that reverberates in one’s memory, despite the workmanlike nature of the film as a whole.

Though released theatrically today, April 11, 2014, the film was shot in 2012-2013, and was first screened on September 8, 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s yet another of the Jason Blum / Blumhouse Productions, all of which are low budget horror films, and the best of which to date is The Purge. Blum has a deal with Universal under which he cranks out numerous horror films in the $3 million or so range, but many of them don’t even see the light of day in DVD or streaming format, much less get a theatrical release. His idea is to keep on cranking out as many films as he can, and then see if anything sticks.

Despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic corpses, so to speak, sitting around in Blum’s vaults, with the number of films Blum makes, some of them are bound to hit. The Purge is going into a sequel, which from the looks of the trailer seems a sort of knock off of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – the premise being that for twelve hours all criminal acts are legal, which acts as a societal safety valve. In the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, a group of people are left outside when the purge starts, and have to run across a city in lockdown to safety, but it lacks Ethan Hawke in the lead, and screams “knock off” in every department. But I digress.

Oculus is about a haunted mirror, a staple of cinematic fantasy since the days of Georges Méliès. It’s been used in countless episodes of television series, such as Thriller and Twilight Zone, though my favorite variation on this well-worn theme remains the episode of the classic omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), directed by Robert Hamer, in which Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys an ornate, oversize antique mirror as a gift for her husband Peter (Ralph Michael), only to discover that the previous owner killed his wife in front of it in a fit of jealousy, and that Peter is now falling under the mirror’s influence, as well. It’s one of the great horror stories of the cinema, and remains the most effective version of this tale, but for all that Oculus still has, as I suggested, something to add to the subgenre.

You can read the entire essay here. Here’s looking at you, kids!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or, Nothing You Believe is True

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

I have a new review out on this rather remarkable project in Film International; read it here!

As I write, in part, “I’m teaching a class right now in comic book movies, partly to trace the history of the genre from the 1940s on – when they began as Saturday morning serials – and partly to discover, if I could, why these films have moved to the mainstream of cinematic discourse. There’s no question about it anymore; Comic-Con rules the multiplex, and for the most part, I’ve avoided these films like the plague.

I remember sitting through Christopher Nolan’s interminable and interminably boring Inception (2010) impatiently looking at my watch throughout the film; there was nothing in it even remotely original, and plenty that had been “borrowed” from Cocteau, Resnais, and others, and at the center, it really wasn’t about anything.But at least the emptiness of that film was less offensive than the straight out class warfare of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which Daniel Lindvall effectively eviscerated in the pages of Film International. And yet from the Iron Man films to Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), emptiness, coupled with over-the-top violence, is all that’s on display.

Here, we have something different. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on the CIA, hypersurveillance systems, killer drones, and the Snowden affair, and comes down on the side of the average citizen for a change, rather than the ruling elite. The special effects are absolutely non-stop, the violence is ramped up to hyperkinetic levels, with cutting to match, and the performances are all cardboard, but at the center of the film, giving one of his most effective performances in years, is none other than Robert Redford, who’s never done a comic book film before, superbly playing the villain of the piece.”

Read the rest of the review here now; it’s best in 3-D, on a big screen – who says I don’t like some mainstream movies?

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle Finally Released on DVD and Blu-ray

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Click here to read my review of the DVD of L’Immortelle released yesterday, a full 51 years after the fact.

As I note, “L’Immortelle was shot in 1962, and released in France on March 27, 1963, but despite the enormous success of Marienbad, L’Immortelle was deemed too difficult for American audiences, and resolutely uncommercial – which it is – and with a rough negative cost of $100,000, the producer and distributor of the film deemed a United States release more trouble than it was worth. And so it was not until six years later that L’Immortelle made the rounds of screening rooms in Manhattan; after that, I think it might have played at a few art houses for a week or so, but then it vanished from sight completely.

L’Immortelle itself has a curious genesis; it was made with blocked funds in Turkey that couldn’t be taken out of the country, and so shooting in Istanbul was a given, though Robbe-Grillet had ties to the city and knew it well. The producers even went so far as to say that they didn’t even really care if the film made money, just so long as they could get something out of Turkey. Thus, Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine, who appears in the film as the enigmatic Catherine Sarayan, scouted locations and had the entire project ready to go, when a revolution interrupted their plans, and shooting had to be put off for two years before a new regime was installed, and some semblance of order restored. Then the film was shot quickly and efficiently, in richly saturated black and white.

The film’s narrative is so slight as to be nonexistent; the official press synopsis describes the film as ‘an erotic, dream-like fantasy in which a despondent man meets a beautiful, secretive woman who may, or may not, be involved in using kidnapped women as prostitutes.’ This is as good a synopsis as any might be, because the real psychic and visual terrain of the film is memory, repetition, the impossibility of knowing another, the unreliability of the senses, and a circularity of narrative that keeps bringing the viewer back to one location after another with the stubborn insistence of a spectral tour guide who seemingly insists that we visit a room, a mosque, a nightclub, an antique store, an apartment and numerous other locations just one more time, until they are indelibly imprinted on our memory.

The leading characters, Françoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, known only as L and N respectively, are not so much characters as situations; people frozen in time and memory who walk through the film with an air of complete detachment from any sort of reality, as if they are the principals in their own fantasy of Istanbul, and the few supporting characters who surround them behave in exactly the same fashion. Scenes are routinely repeated two, three times or more, sometimes exactly the same, down to the slightest detail, and other times with minor variations, seemingly in slow motion, as if actors are sleepwalking through the world they inhabit. Often, characters appear within a scene without explanation, as if they had always been there, and perhaps always will be there; timeless, unchanging, fixed and motionless.

There is a timelessness about the film, and for good reason; as Robbe-Grillet has acknowledged on numerous occasions, Françoise Brion’s character is already dead when the film begins, although she assumes a phantom corporeality for the purposes of the film, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, for all intents and purposes, is in love with someone who no longer exists, if she ever existed – in fact, we can’t be sure if any of the narrative ever occurred, or if everything we’re seeing is a fever dream, something conjured up out of loneliness, isolation, or the sheer existential longing of one man’s need to be loved.”

This is essential cinema; get the DVD or Blu-ray now, and prepare to be astonished.

Graham Greene on Paris in Spring

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Here’s a charming musical that isn’t available on DVD, and should be.

A lot of people forget that writer Graham Greene was a prolific film critic in the 1930s. In addition to the fact that many of his short stories and novels were made into films, and he was a man of immaculate taste. Here, he discusses in a contemporary review the long forgotten film Paris in Spring, featuring a young Ida Lupino in a supporting part, which he smartly compares to the best of Ernst Lubitsch, the master of light romantic comedy. Yet, sadly, the film isn’t available on DVD.

It should be admitted, as Greene notes, that the film’s director, Lewis Milestone isn’t a name readily associated with a project such as this; Milestone’s most famous film, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), is a grim slice of anti-war realism, set during World War I. Yet so strong is the pull of Paris in Spring that having only seen it once, many years ago, complete with its highly stylized opening titles and location work at the Eiffel Tower, that I have never been able to forget it. Here’s what Greene had to say on the film, which was released as Paris Love Song in the UK.

“You wouldn’t think that [Lewis] Milestone, the director, was a Russian, so deftly has be caught the gay, the shameless Lubitsch Manner. It is a silly, charming tale of an Italian count [disappointed in love] who goes up the Eiffel Tower to pretend to commit suicide, and finds at the top a young woman who intends to commit suicide [for the same reason]. They agree, of course, to make their lovers jealous, and the lovers come together in the same conspiracy. Mr. Milestone mas made out of this nonsense something light, enchanting, genuinely fantastic.

Mary Ellis’s is the best light acting I have seen since [Kay] Francis appeared in [Ernst Lubitsch’s] Trouble in Paradise. She is lovely to watch and listen to; she has a beautiful humorous ease . . . only the cinema is able in its most fantastic moments to give a sense of absurd unreasoning happiness, a kind of poignant release: you can’t catch it in prose: it belongs to Walt Disney, to [René Clair’s] voices from the air [in À nous la liberté, 1932], and there is one moment in this film when you have it, as the Count scrambles singing across the roofs to his mistress’s room; happiness and freedom, nothing really serious, nothing really lasting, a touching of hands, a tuneful miniature love.”

As always, it’s the films that survive in circulation that have the best chance to being reevaluated as time passes by – but since Paris in Spring has been more or less abandoned to the Paramount vaults, and circulates only in bootleg DVDs, one either has to see a second rate copy of this first-rate film, or be content with memories. Complicating things further is a really vicious review of Paris in Spring in The New York Times by Frank S. Nugent from July 13, 1935, when the film was first released in the States – contrast this with Greene’s review, which is only available in a volume of his collected film reviews, and not on the web.

This is yet another film that deserves to to be on DVD; one more film where only the reviews survive.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on The Phantom of Liberty

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Above: Luis Buñuel directs Jean-Claude Brially and Monica Vitti on the set of The Phantom of Liberty.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema on this superb film, in which she notes that “Luis Buñuel, to my mind the greatest and most ingenious of the Surrealists, was as fervent and consistent in his rejection of the moral hypocrisy of the most guarded tenets upheld by religion and bourgeois conventionality as he was emphatic in his embrace of the elegance of chance, the power of the imagination, and his love of the power of all things subversive.

It seems ironic and imbecilic that Buñuel is sometimes misperceived as a libertine as well as someone who simply subversive used humour to reject morality, as in reality Buñuel strenuously worked to replace notions of conventional morality with his own deeply held understanding of personal morality built upon a deep understanding and love of the illusory nature of chance, the asymmetrical wisdom of Nature, the naturalness of all things perverse, and a passionate hatred for the human propensity to turn perfectly natural objects into things that are labeled wrong and perverted.

Decades after its release, Buñuel’s brilliantly anti-narrative film Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974) not only seems to anticipate many of our current obsessions and human foibles, but stands out as much more than a Surrealistic satire or comedy; it is in many ways a politically charged manifesto that not only overthrows narrative as we know it but also seems almost frighteningly prescient in it’s treatment of the routine celebrity of terrorists and mass murderers and, more importantly, in the way it anticipates the humankind’s own destruction of the world through our own imbecilic and suicidal pollution of the earth.

In many respects, The Phantom of Liberty plays as if it was made for 21st century audiences. Buñuel delighted in repeatedly saying that he made the film in collaboration with Karl Marx (the title refers to the first line of the Communist Manifesto); but the title is also a personal nod to a line spoken in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969): ‘Free will is nothing more than a simple whim! In any circumstance, I feel that my thoughts and my will are not in my power! And my liberty is only a phantom!’ Buñuel firmly believed that chance governs our lives, and as much as they could, Buñuel and his screenwriting companion Jean-Claude Carrière tried to invite chance at every opportunity into the writing of The Phantom of Liberty.”

You can read the rest of this brilliant essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Spartans Meet The Muppets, or 300: Rise of an Empire

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

I have a review essay out today on the new film 300: Rise of An Empire in Film International.

As I write, “It would be a mistake to dismiss director Noam Murro’s sword and sandal “historical” pageant 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) entirely, if only because mainstream pop culture films can often tell us more about the times we live in than so-called ‘quality’ films, since they pander so shamelessly to their audiences. So it is with 300: ROAE, but let me hasten to add that most of what it has to tell us is unintentional freight. The makers of this film – the producers, screenwriters and the director – wanted a serviceable follow-up to Zack Snyder’s 2007 original, to create what could be a profitable franchise, if properly handled – and Murro delivered it. It’s a maelstrom of unending cruelty, barbarism, and conflict.

You want endless, mindless, slow motion violence, delivered with a minimum of dialogue or motivation (other than the standard ‘I want revenge’ card)? You got it. Battlefields littered with corpses? Check. Huge, panoramic vistas that trail off into infinity, as the protagonists strike heroic poses in the twilight? Coming up! Spectacular battles on sea and land? Gotcha! Sex scenes with a dollop of violence? Of course! It’s all here, trotted out to meet audience demand, something Murro is no stranger to. Murro has directed numerous high-end commercials and videos, and one feature, Smart People (2008), starring Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker. He’s even worked with The Muppets! Now, if only he could learn to direct people.

That’s probably good training for this film, because most of the cast walks through their paces like so many automatons; what really saves the film as a visual construct is Murro’s sense of non-stop kineticism, which is easily the equal of some of the best action directors in motion picture history. Mind you, I’m talking sheer technique here, not resonance; the film is as empty as it is dazzling, but nevertheless, some main points come to mind. Watching the film, I kept thinking of what a first rate talent like Sam Peckinpah might have done with similar material in his prime; ‘Bloody Sam’ would have been right at home here, provided he was willing to bring the film in on time and under budget.”

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster: Surviving the Monster Mom: Child’s Pose

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in Film International on the Romanian film Child’s Pose.

As she writes, “If a toxic abusive mother raised you, be forewarned. Child’s Pose is a harrowing and deeply traumatic film that will leave you shaken far beyond any previous cinematic exploration of familial horror and dysfunction. Another superb example of the Romanian New Wave Cinema, Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului), directed by Călin Peter Netzer, and co-written by Netzer and novelist Răzvan Rădulescu, emerged from lengthy discussions Netzer and Rădulescu had about their own domineering mothers. The result is one of the most emotionally demanding films one can imagine.

The plot of Child’s Pose is deceptively simple: a wealthy Romanian mother, Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorghiu) will stop at nothing to keep her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) from going to jail after he hits and kills a young boy while speeding on the freeway in a race with another driver. That a wealthy son is responsible for the death of an underprivileged child is important in that it is used to force us into an engagement with a spectacularly dysfunctional mother-son relationship and, at a secondary level, to explore the evil of the class system of Romania, a society rife with blatant corruption and moral decay.

As Dana Stevens notes in Slate, “the original title, Pozitia copiluilui, refers to the literal physical position of a child – an image which might have several meanings in the movie’s context, none of them involving a relaxing forehead-to-floor asana,” and much more to do with the cringing, child-like, defeated persona of Barbu, who seems to have no life or will of his own. I have never witnessed another film that so effectively captures the inescapable trauma of being the spawn of such a dangerously toxic pathological mother. There is no doubt in my mind that both Netzer and Rădulescu understand first hand the pathology of the monstrous parent; the level of realism in the film obviously has much to do with personal experience.”

You can read the rest of Foster’s essay on this amazing film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Missing in Action: The Lost Version of Vanishing Point

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

I have a new article out today on the “lost” version of Vanishing Point, one the key films of the early 70s.

As I write, “Much has been deservedly written on Richard C. Sarafian’s existential road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a shambling, glorious wreck of a film that nevertheless manages to achieve a certain sort of ragged splendor in its countercultural tale of loner driver Kowalski (Barry Newman), who takes on a nearly impossible drive from Denver to San Francisco to deliver a Dodge Challenger in less than 24 hours.

Based on two true life stories; one of a San Diego police officer who was kicked off the force in disgrace, and a separate story of a man who died after a high speed chase when he crashed into a police roadblock, Vanishing Point is pure twentieth century high octane nihilism – but with a twist. The archetypal loner, Kowalski (no first name is ever given) has a checkered past; at various times a race car driver, a policeman kicked off the force for stopping his partner from raping a woman during a routine traffic stop, and a Vietnam veteran, Kowalski has clearly given up on life, and seeks only speed and escape.

On his way out of Denver late Friday night, Kowalski stops by a biker bar to score some speed from his pal Jake (Lee Weaver), and bets him he’ll make it to San Francisco by Saturday at 3PM – way ahead of schedule. Jake is skeptical, but Kowalski is on a mission – indeed, when he first pulls into the garage on Friday night to pick up the Challenger, we have no idea when he’s last slept at all, if ever. Like a shark, Kowalski has to keep moving or die, constantly in motion, and constantly evading those who would seek to knock him out of the game.

For, not surprisingly, Kowalski’s epic speed trip soon attracts the attention of the police in the various states he crisscrosses on his way to the West Coast, and as he crosses one state line after another, the cops play tag team with him, each group hoping to stop him for good. From Colorado to Utah to Nevada and finally to California, Kowalski has got the cops on the run – but they’re gaining on him, and with each new state line, the obstacles get tougher and tougher to deal with.

But something’s missing, and it’s only available on the initial US release of the DVD, which presents two versions of the film with almost no fanfare; the 98 minute standard US version, and the 105 minute cut featuring a key, lost sequence with none other than Charlotte Rampling – absolutely assured as usual – as a mysterious hitchhiker in the dead of night, suitcase in hand.”

It’s true; the cut seven minutes changes the entire film. Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

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

Spies of Mississippi: Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Last night, I saw Spies of Mississippi, an amazing documentary on the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

Spies of Mississippi covers ground that’s been mined before, but Porter has done something new here, uncovering the amazing story of  “the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission’s [MSSC] efforts to preserve segregation during the 1950s and ‘60s — when its network of informants spied on over 87,000 Americans — as it covered up violence and murder in order to preserve the status quo.” Clocking in at just an hour, Porter’s documentary is much more than a succession of talking heads; it’s a gripping, compact, and absolutely riveting mix of raw footage from the period, much of it never before seen, recently declassified documents from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission showing just how rampant racism was in the state, and interviews with the people who lived through the period, and know better than anyone else the reality of the situation. In an interview you can read by clicking here, or on the image above, Porter opens up about the making of Spies of Mississippi. As she told Craig Phillips,

“before I heard this story I thought I knew a lot about the era. That’s what is so wonderful about history — if we look, there are more things to find. Many people know about the FBI’s efforts to undermine the civil rights leaders, but very few people knew of the network established by Mississippi state government. And that’s what really attracted me to this story; this is not a story of a few rogue racist individuals, it’s state government, using taxpayer dollars to deny rights to a group of people based on race. I think it’s a remarkable story about abuse of power and how secrecy is not always a friend to democracy.

I was surprised by so many things, but clearly one of the most shocking was the information about the black informants.  The idea that African Americans would spy for white supremacists probably should not shock me, but it did. Second, I feel like this fills in a piece of the puzzle regarding the tragic deaths of the young civil rights workers [James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael 'Mickey' Schwerner].  They didn’t have an accidental run in with the racist police or the Klan, they were tracked using information from spies.

I was shocked to learn that the State of Mississippi, not just the FBI, used spies to try and intimidate and stop integration. When I learned that some of them were black I wanted to know what would motivate people. Digging into the story, it makes sense that there were complicated feelings in the African American community about the marchers and civil rights activity. There was a lot of fear.”

This is the kind of work we need much more of on television, and the sort of hard-edged and innovative reporting that only PBS seems to offer. In addition, it’s also superbly confident filmmaking, thrilling in its mastery of the medium, and the work of a master filmmaker.

Just minutes after I saw this documentary, I ordered the DVD. This is brilliant, important work.

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.

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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