Thanks to producer Ian Mylchreest, I was asked to appear with Rebecca Romney of Bauman’s Rare Books to discuss famous books that have been made into films, including The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind and many more. As the show’s website above notes, “Bauman’s Rare Books in the Palazzo Shoppes has assembled an exhibition of novels that became famous films. The store has everything from a signed copy of Gone with the Wind to first editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. We look at some of the books and the movies that were made — what kind of books makes a great movie?” It was a fascinating discussion, and you can listen to it by clicking here, or on the image above.
Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category
As the journal’s website notes, “Cinespect is a leading media source on the New York City cinema experience and beyond. Founded in 2010, Cinespect is dedicated to offering readers the most robust and well-rounded content, including reviews of new releases and repertory programming, articles about film-related events in the city, interviews with industry professionals, op-eds, film festival coverage, and in-depth features.”
The current issue features articles on new DVD and Blu-ray releases; what’s happening at Film Forum, one of the last and most respected repertory cinema theaters in the United States, and one of the only theaters left that still has 35mm projection capability, regularly screening new 35mm prints of the classics in their original format; as well as reviews, festival coverage from around the world, interviews with emerging and established filmmakers and critics, and a host of other material.
Contributors include Genevieve Amaral, Joel Neville Anderson, Rachel Chu, Matt Cohen, Brian Doan, Will Dodson, Judith Dry, David Fitzgerald, Christopher Garland, Daniel Guzmán, Daniel Kavanagh, Sheila Kogan, Mónica López-González, John Oursler, Claire E. Peters, Nathan Rogers-Hancock, Jennifer Simmons, Ed Vallance, Stuart Weinstock, Marshall Yarbrough and a wide range of additional writers, each with their own distinctive voice and point of view, allowing for the widest possible range of discourse.
One of the most interesting critics working for Cinespect right now is Will Dodson, whose work on the site can be found by clicking here; right now he seems most interested in Japanese cinema both high and low, no pun intended. Subscriptions are free, and you can sign for the newsletter on the home page, which can be accessed by clicking the image above; check it out – this is some sharp and invigorating writing from a host of new voices, and absolutely worth your time and attention if you care at all about the past, present and future of the cinema.
As historian and critic Tim Dirks notes on his excellent website, “war and Anti-War Films often acknowledge the horror and heartbreak of war, letting the actual combat fighting or conflict (against nations or humankind) provide the primary plot or background for the action of the film. Typical elements in the action-oriented war plots include POW camp experiences and escapes, submarine warfare, espionage, personal heroism, ‘war is hell’ brutalities, air dogfights, tough trench/infantry experiences, or male-bonding buddy adventures during wartime. Themes explored in war films include combat, survivor and escape stories, tales of gallant sacrifice and struggle, studies of the futility and inhumanity of battle, the effects of war on society, and intelligent and profound explorations of the moral and human issues. Some war films do balance the soul-searching, tragic consequences and inner turmoil of combatants or characters with action-packed, dramatic spectacles, enthusiastically illustrating the excitement and turmoil of warfare. And some ‘war’ films concentrate on the homefront rather than on the conflict at the military war-front. But many of them provide decisive criticism of senseless warfare.”
As it says on the website for the podcast of the show, “Tonight on Inquiry we welcome back Wheeler Winston Dixon. He is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His new book is Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access. Professor Dixon declares that we are now in the “postfilmic era”, a time when movie film will no longer exist and all movies will be shot digitally. DVDs will also cease to exist as all films will be “streamed” and movie houses, those that are still extant, will only show digital copies of movies. But what are the implications of all of this for the art of film, the preservation of old films and how we watch movies? The answers are disheartening and a little bit frightening. Tune in and find out why.”
As critic Michael Koresky notes in a superb essay on the Criterion website, “among all the important directors who emerged in Japan just after World War II, Masaki Kobayashi would distinguish himself as the most aggressively social-minded. He used cinema to speak eloquently against rigid and corrupt systems that denied or abused individual rights, and to indict a status quo that allowed amorality and venality to flourish. His three-part magnum opus, The Human Condition (1959–61)—an existential portrait of one man’s efforts to maintain his integrity in a rotten world, and a condemnation of the machine in which he is ultimately little more than a cog—marked the high point of the period early in his career when he began to grapple with these difficult themes, in a string of arresting, socially committed films set in contemporary Japan, none of the rest of which are widely known today. With these films, produced between 1953 and 1962, Kobayashi tried to make sense of a postwar nation that he believed had lost its bearings, and in the process became a mature morally and politically engaged cinematic artist.
Having studied philosophy and art history at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Kobayashi turned his attention to film after graduating in 1941, and got an assistant director position at Shochiku studios. Only eight months later, however, he was drafted into military service. While stationed in Manchuria and the Ryukyu Islands, the left-leaning, pacifist Kobayashi remained opposed to the actions of the Imperial Army, even declining to ascend past the rank of private when his superiors wanted to promote him. Deeply affected by his experiences in a war he would later call ‘the culmination of human evil,’ he returned to Shochiku driven to express his dissent on-screen. First, though, he assisted on his mentor Keisuke Kinoshita’s middle-class comedies and domestic dramas, exemplars of the studio’s preferred style at the time and which influenced the largely apolitical content of his own first films, My Sons’ Youth (1952) and Sincerity (1953).
Kobayashi’s third film, The Thick-Walled Room, completed in 1953, was a different story. It demonstrated the seriousness of the filmmaker’s intent, and it was among the first films in Japan to deal openly with the nation’s wartime legacy. It concerns a group of B and C (second- and third-tier) war criminals—rank-and-file military men who acted on orders—who have been imprisoned and treated cruelly by members of the American occupying force, though their superiors have gone unpunished.
The film, based on the diaries of real-life prisoners, treats the low-ranking soldiers not as innocents but as dupes of a system that will not assume responsibility for its actions. Rather than take a broad historical approach, Kobayashi turns this raw material into intimate drama, his immediate, exquisitely composed black-and-white images evoking his characters’ psychological anguish; meanwhile, the shadowy prison in which they’re held is effectively filmed as a looming character in itself. Though the American occupation had ended in 1952, the Japanese government feared that The Thick-Walled Room’s incendiary content would offend the U.S. and demanded that Shochiku either cut or withhold it. Kobayashi was unwilling to trim the film, so it was shelved until 1956.
The controversy surrounding The Thick-Walled Room didn’t do much to ingratiate Masaki Kobayashi with Shochiku head Shiro Kido. For decades, Kido had fostered a specific house style in shomin-geki (contemporary stories of everyday life)—lyrical films about love and family directed by such auteurs as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s mentor. After The Thick-Walled Room was shelved in 1953, Kobayashi went back to this gentler mode of filmmaking, coming out with several sentimental films, including Three Loves (1954), Somewhere Under the Wide Sky (1954), Beautiful Days (1955), and The Spring (1956), works that in their affirmation of small-town values recalled Kinoshita’s megahit Twenty-four Eyes (1954), which regarded loneliness, war, and death from the perspective of a deeply moral schoolteacher. Kido was impressed by Kobayashi’s output, and the director eventually felt that he had enough support to set out again for the angrier, more political territory that was closest to his heart.
I Will Buy You (1956) was Kobayashi’s first step back in that direction. The subject matter—the machinations behind the scenes of professional baseball in Japan—may not initially seem particularly inflammatory. But this is hardly the kind of sports movie that we’ve become accustomed to in the West, with epic triumphs and last-minute redemptions, or even the kind that Japanese audiences were used to—the long popular supotsu-mono genre generally focused on disciplines like judo and karate. The suspense in this deliberately paced, scathing examination of the greed that drives the sports world is predicated not on how many home runs its star player will hit but on how much of his and his handlers’ souls will be lost in the process.
Baseball had been Japan’s favorite sport for decades by the time the film was released. Kobayashi fully intended to shock viewers with his takedown of the beloved institution. (The outrage his treatment of the subject conveys may seem quaint today, when we’re more cynical about sports’ corporate interests.) Adapted from a Minoru Ono novel, the film is told from the perspective of and narrated by Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a ruthless scout hot to sign the up-and-coming college player Kurita (Minoru Ooki) to the major-league Toyo Flowers. Kurita, also being courted by the Handen Lilies, proves to be a tough sell, however, as the scout must appeal not only to him, his poor rural family outside Osaka, and his skeptical girlfriend, Fueko (Keiko Kishi), but also to his tough-minded and avaricious mentor, Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), who acts as much out of slimy self-interest as Kishimoto does.
There’s little sports-film catharsis in I Will Buy You—and relatively little baseball. Most of the interactions are pitched like boardroom negotiations, shot by Kobayashi with clinical detachment and often in ominous shadow. The world Kobayashi depicts may be a hollow one (notwithstanding Kishimoto’s climactic crisis of conscience, when he states, ‘It is our job to be ruthless and unaccountable . . . Because we see people like Kurita not as players but as commodities’), but there’s an exhilaration to the film’s truth-seeking. In bearing witness as he saw his country losing its moral way, Kobayashi also demonstrated how trying times can serve as a crucible for art.”
This is a brilliant analysis of the film, and a brilliant film, as well. Kobayashi is absolutely unforgiving in his portrayal of the potentially corrupting influence on money in big time sports, and as with the other films in this Criterion set, particularly The Inheritance, his view of the world is bleak indeed, yet all too accurate in the final analysis. Far from being punished for their actions, the protagonists of both films occupy a world in which cunning and deception are the norm, and which almost rewards evil – there’s no sincerity of thought or action here, only sheer self-interest. As one might expect, the transfers of the films here are absolutely flawless, with meticulous subtitles, and an absolutely essential part of any cineaste’s collection.
It’s disconcerting to think that Kobayashi thought that he was making these films for posterity, as his testament to the world, and how black and white filmmaking has all but vanished, as well as film itself, and were it not for the efforts of Criterion, these films would never see the light of day. Kobayashi is a superb filmmaker, and his pitless vision of social commerce rings all too true in the current 99%/1% landscape of society on a worldwide basis. All of the films in this set are remarkable, but for me, I Will Buy You, beginning with the unambiguous directness of the film’s title, is a one-of-a-kind indictment of greed and human weakness, and makes American noir sports films like Champion seem weak tea indeed.
As I note at the beginning of my essay, “in the early 1960s, director Roger Corman was on fire. Coming off a wave of ultra-exploitational titles for the fledgling film production/distribution company American International Pictures (AIP), which arguably defined late 1950s teen cinema, with such titles to his credit as Premature Burial, Pit and the Pendulum, Creature from the Haunted Sea (all 1961), Last Woman on Earth, The Little Shop of Horrors, House of Usher (all 1960), The Wasp Woman and A Bucket of Blood (both 1959), as well as She Gods of Shark Reef, Teenage Cave Man, Machine-Gun Kelly, War of the Satellites, I Mobster (all 1958), and Sorority Girl, Teenage Doll, Rock All Night, The Undead, Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth (all 1957), Corman had mastered genre filmmaking, and was looking around for a new challenge.
The range of Corman’s work during this period is astounding; Pit and the Pendulum and House of Usher were the first two Gothic horror films in Corman’s long-running and highly influential series based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe; A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors were two of the first truly ’sick’ comedies, both shot in a matter of days; Machine-Gun Kelly introduced a young Charles Bronson to audiences, in a period piece designed as a nod to the Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s; Teenage Doll and Sorority Girl were pure teen exploitation; and Attack of the Crab Monsters, War of the Satellites and Not of This Earth were clear-cut science fiction.
Most of Corman’s films during this formative period were shot in a week, on budgets of $100,000 or less – The Little Shop of Horrors was famously shot in two days and a night, for roughly $40,000 – although the Poe films represented a real step up for the young director, at least in terms of physical production values. With 15-day schedules, budgets in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, Panavision and Pathécolor, Corman could relax a little, and take some more time with the material.
But even on these films, he often finished ahead of schedule, and he seemed driven to make one film after another, all of them incorporating thematic concerns outside the realm of conventional genre cinema; teen crime, peer pressure, consumerist materialism, even humanist parables, as in Teenage Cave Man, in which the ‘Stone Age’ the protagonists are living in is revealed in the film’s final moments as actually being a post-apocalyptic world after the Third World War has destroyed most of the planet.
While Corman could dabble in social commentary in these films in a rather light and tangential fashion, as a lifelong liberal filmmaker he longed to do something utterly uncompromising. Bolstered by the continuing commercial success of all of his previous films, he decided to direct a film on the racial tensions of the 1960s, shot on location in the American South. And so, right in the middle of his run of commercially successful films for AIP, Corman went off on his own and, with his own money and no studio support, made The Intruder (1962) for a mere $80,000, creating one of the most brutal, honest, and unflinching examinations of American racism in cinema history.”
As the film’s press kit notes, “Al, a young man from a modest background, is ten days away from marrying the daughter of his boss, along with succeeding him as the head of the car dealership where Al has been working for most of his life. One night, while coming back drunk from his bachelor party, Al commits a hit-and-run when he hits a man by accident and is urged to leave the scene of the crime by his two childhood friends who are with him in the car. The next day, gnawed by guilt, he decides to go to the hospital to inquire anonymously about his victim.
What he does not know is that the entire accident was witnessed from a balcony by a young woman, Juliette, who is going through her own emotional upheavals. Juliette not only called 911, but also helped to contact the victim’s wife, Véra, a Moldavian illegal immigrant whom she decides to help and keep company at the hospital. But when Juliette recognizes Al as the reckless driver in the hospital corridor, for some reason she is unable to denounce him. Gradually they get to know each other better through more frequent meetings and phone calls, and Juliette becomes a mediator between Al and the unsuspecting Véra. However, things get complicated when romantic feelings between Juliette and Al start to arise, and Véra finally finds out about their secret relationship.”
Corsini was born in France in 1956, and starting at age 18 moved to Paris to pursue a career as an actress. Instead, she started working on screenplays for short films, and in 1988 directed her first feature, Poker, and has directed 16 films, most notably Leaving (Partir, 2009) starring Kristin Scott-Thomas, which was an enormous international success. Three Worlds is equally ambitious, and is distributed in the United States by Film Movement, an ambitious subscription plan that sends viewers a film each month, selected from the many offerings available around the world, becoming — through DVDs or streaming video — the new art house model for the 21st century.
Three Worlds is a remarkable film, and Corsini’s visual and narrative style — to say nothing of its bleak moral worldview — is reminiscent of the great French crime thriller auteur Claude Chabrol, while the score for the film echoes the equally romantic, yet fatalistic work of the late film composer Georges Delerue. From first frame to last, Three Worlds will hold your attention, and is definitely worth the time and effort to seek out.
As Penelope Andrew noted in a review in The Huffington Post, “Corsini has taken on enormous subjects: immigration, class structure, poverty, money and greed, and the unintended consequences inherent in the misuse of modern technology. She’s searching, I think, to explicate France’s current moral crisis. For most of the film, Vera appears to be the most powerless, desperate character; she’s in dire need of money and takes it. But in a twist of irony near the end, which feels like poetic justice, this illegal immigrant is elevated to judge and jury over the fate of a native son of France.”
Bomb Girls was an ambitious Canadian television series shot on a break neck schedule and minimal budget in Toronto with a converted furniture factory in Etobicoke standing for the fictitious Victory Munitions Factory, which dealt realistically and sympathetically with the vicissitudes of life in wartime Canada, as women struggled to contribute to the war effort, and also to gain equal rights, as well as equal pay for their efforts. The series ran for two seasons.
As the series’ production website notes, “Bomb Girls tells the remarkable stories of the women who risked their lives in a munitions factory building bombs for the Allied forces fighting on the European front. The series delves into the lives of these exceptional women from all walks of life – peers, friends and rivals – who find themselves thrust into new worlds and changed profoundly as they are liberated from their home and social restrictions.”
Season 1 was filmed from September 12 to November 16, 2011, a very tight production schedule from any point of view; Season 2 was shot with equal speed and efficiency. With standout performances from Meg Tilly, Jodi Balfour, Charlotte Hegele, Ali Liebert, Anastasia Phillips, Antonio Cupo, Sebastian Pigott, Peter Outerbridge and others, the show was a refreshing change from the endless series of cop shows, detective procedurals, dreary reality series and serial killer dramas — the same thing year after year.
Bomb Girls was something fresh and original, and you could see that everyone in the series was working as hard as they could to get the most out of every production dollar. In addition, several excellent directors were attached to series, including Anne Wheeler, whose film Bye Bye Blues (1989) was an equally interesting and compelling World War II drama told from a feminist perspective.
However, despite critical acclaim and a growing fan base on April 22, 2013 Global TV and Shaw Media announced that Bomb Girls would not return for a third season. They did however suggest that a two hour TV movie serving as a series finale could air sometime in early 2014. Disappointed viewers have launched a campaign via savebombgirls.com in an effort to get this decision reversed.
As Kate Taylor wrote in The Globe and Mail, “when it launched as a six-part miniseries on Global in January, 2012, Bomb Girls got mixed reviews, but it quickly caught the attention of viewers and critics for its content. Depicting the lives of female munitions workers played by Meg Tilly and a group of younger actors, it has covered such issues as sexual harassment, infidelity, abortion and lesbianism.
This year, Bomb Girls won the best-drama category at the Gracie Awards, the prizes for women’s television in the U.S., where the show runs on the digital cable channel Reelz. It also airs on more than 40 countries in Latin America and Europe. At home, industry insiders gave points to Global, a network with a feeble track record of producing successful Canadian content, for illuminating an unusual chapter in Canadian history.
In part, the show owes its success to the way it fits into two increasingly popular genres: the period drama, represented by Mad Men and Downton Abbey; and female-centric shows such as Girls. Its social-media presence reveals a strong following among young women charmed and intrigued by the story of how their grandmothers fought to get jobs and respect. Initial ratings in Canada were very strong for a Canadian series: The first episodes drew well over a million viewers to Global.
The second season, which concludes Monday, also started well: 1.1 million watched the premiere. Bomb Girls’ producers add that the show reached another 200,000 to 300,000 viewers who recorded it to watch later. Ratings remained in the 800,000-to-900,000 range, they said, until the show got bumped off the schedule in February. ‘We lost 25 per cent of our audience between February and March,’ says executive producer Michael Prupas. Even in the 600,000-to-700,000, range, the show would be competitive with many dramas in CBC’s predominantly Canadian lineup.
Getting the right spot on a crowded schedule is a tricky proposition for any show in any market, but Canadian series are at a significant disadvantage. The reason: Canadian broadcasters maximize ad revenues by accommodating popular U.S. programming first. (Under Canadian regulations, a broadcaster can require the cable and satellite operators to drop Canadian ads into a competing U.S. signal when the broadcaster airs a show at exactly the same time as the U.S. network.)
Simulcasting means that commercial Canadian TV schedules are largely determined in Los Angeles, and Bomb Girls was the unusual Canadian show that won a weeknight, wintertime spot. Global airs its other prime-time Canadian drama, the cop show Rookie Blue, in the summer, when U.S. dramas are on hiatus.
Ironically, when Bomb Girls returned to a new Monday-night spot in late March it was up against not only the U.S. shows The Following and Two Broke Girls but also the CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries. The competition between two rather similar Canadian shows might not have been the wisest use of tax dollars: It is not only the CBC that uses public money to make Canadian TV. Typical of Canadian dramas, Bomb Girls depends on the Canadian Media Fund for 25 per cent of its budget, while another 30 per cent is covered by government tax credits.
Seeing how successful Murdoch has been since it moved from CITY-TV to the CBC in January, some observers have speculated that the public broadcaster could rescue Bomb Girls. They have received, however, scant encouragement. ‘Our schedule for next season is set and … there’s no room to pick anything else up,’ says Kirstine Stewart, head of English-language services at the CBC. ‘Fans of Bomb Girls should talk to Global.’
But Global says it backed Bomb Girls to the hilt, and had always intended to program it in six-week arcs, like a miniseries. ‘We put massive support behind the show,’ says Barb Williams, senior vice-president for content at Shaw Media. ‘When it returned from hiatus, Bomb Girls was scheduled between heavy hitters like Bones and Hawaii Five-O and we put more marketing and publicity support behind it than any other Global show – in the hopes that the audience would grow over these successive story arcs.’
The broadcaster is now talking to the producers about creating a two-hour special next winter to wrap up the storylines. The producers want to proceed with that project – which Global unveiled this week in a press release that disguised the cancellation as an announcement of the special – but point out it has to be done in a way that leaves the door open.
“What we are trying to do, going ahead with this movie, is to ensconce Bomb Girls as an iconic show, so hopefully we can come back to the characters at some later stage,” Prupas says, pointing to British shows like Prime Suspect that have been revived after a long break. ‘Keeping the title alive is important to us. We hope it will have a future.’”
Much has been made of Soderbergh’s supposed “retirement” from filmmaking, but I’m beginning to suspect that the whole thing is just a ploy to make it more of a “coup” when someone snags him for a new project. Yes, Behind the Candelabra wrapped before Soderbergh announced he was stepping down, but now he’s in talks to do a new series for Cinemax entitled The Knick starring Clive Owen — which sounds like a very interesting project indeed, and I look forward to it — but it seems to me that his self-imposed exile just makes him all the more attractive to selective, high profile projects.
Which brings me to Behind the Candelabra — does it work? In a word, no. I was rather disappointed, because at his best, as in Magic Mike (which was on HBO right before Candelabra, and thus offered an immediate and welcome contrast to the the film), he’s a really accomplished filmmaker, both in directing the actors, and staging the entire production — but here he seems content to set it up and shoot it, for as usual, Soderbergh does his own cinematography under the alias of Peter Andrews, and then cuts it together — here, in a really routine fashion — again using an alias, as Mary Ann Bernard.
The resulting film is flat, predictable, and uninvolving, and though Douglas attacks the role of Liberace with gusto, he doesn’t really have the “larger than life” punch that the character requires. The rest of the cast tackle their roles with varying degrees of success: Rob Lowe is a standout, perfectly creepy as an unscrupulous plastic surgeon; Debbie Reynolds is all but unrecognizable as Liberace’s mother, and really doesn’t make an impression; Matt Damon is appropriately wide-eyed as Scott Thorson, and Dan Ackroyd is matter-of-fact as Liberace’s business manager.
I was surprised to see former sitcom star Paul Reiser in a very small role as Thorson’s attorney near the end of the film, and the film is certainly well mounted, with no skimping on production values. But in the end, it feels exploitational and hammered out, as most TV movies are. Magic Mike reminded me just how good Soderbergh can be when he really clicks with a project, but Behind the Candelabra too often descends into clichés and has a really syrupy finish — by the end of the film, I really didn’t care about anyone; the whole thing seemed like an animated waxworks, and little more.
About the Author
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/