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Film Franchises: Closing Time, Please!

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Film franchises have got to go – here are two ready for the scrapheap.

As Owen Gleiberman writes in Variety, “A character who rules over a multi-billion-dollar global movie franchise always deserves a grand entrance. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Alien: Covenant raise the question: How grand can your entrance really be when you’ve never gone away? In Dead Men Tell No Tales, Jack Sparrow, the sloshed freebooter [. . .] shows up as a dissipated mess, rousing himself to consciousness as he lies inside a great big metal bank overflowing with gold coins [ . . . ] But even as the series winks at the idea that Jack has seen better days, it leaves us with a non-winking reality: He sure has.

In Alien: Covenant, the Alien’s first appearance gives you a similar what’s-old-is-new-but-not-really feeling. We’re on a leafy planet, in rugged terrain that looks perfect for a camping trip; the novelty is that the Alien is going to explode into view not on a sterile spaceship, or inside a slimy obsidian cave with walls like a T. rex’s rib cage, but in the great outdoors. We’ve already seen microbes float into a crew member’s ear like pollen, which leaves you wondering what happened to the facehugger (as it happens, the facehugger is still around, which makes the film seem like it’s playing by two sets of rules, which it is, but never mind). Then the moment of truth arrives. There is much coughing and writhing, there is blood-vomiting, there’s a mood that strains to come off like shock and awe. But when the alien fetus bursts out, the audience feels a bit like an obstetrician presiding over his 10,000th birth. Yep, that’s what it looks like. Next!

It’s worth noting that in the original franchise era, the 1980s, when the word ‘franchise’ was an inside-baseball syllogism that was only just starting to be used by people like Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg, almost all Hollywood sequels were bad — Halloween II, Jaws 3-D, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Amityville II: The Possession, Grease 2, The Sting II, Conan the Destroyer, Staying Alive, The Jewel of the Nile, Meatballs Part II, The Karate Kid Part II, Revenge of the Nerds II, Beverly Hills Cop II, Crocodile Dundee II, Ghostbusters II, Arthur 2: On the Rocks, Fletch Lives, Big Top Pee-wee, Caddyshack II, The Gods Must be Crazy II, The Fly II, Back to the Future Part II, and on and on.

There was a cynicism, not just among film critics but among the audiences who went to see these movies, that a sequel might turn out to be cheesy fun, but that it was almost always going to be an inherently second-rate bill of goods, because it was based, transparently, on commerce: taking the original movie and squeezing its appeal dry. The very word “sequel” had a déclassé aura.

That era, of course, is long gone. Franchises are the basic commercial architecture on which the movie business now rests, so the whole culture — audiences, critics, the industry — has a vested interest in viewing this situation without cynicism. Besides, in our era, there have been enough artful and transporting sequels, from The Dark Knight to the Bourne films to the Before Sunrise films to Toy Story 3 to Mad Max: Fury Road, that one’s hope can always burn bright.

Yet that doesn’t mean that the old rules don’t apply. One of the reasons the word “franchise” passed from industry talk to a colloquial term is that it sounds strong and powerful. You’re not just seeing a movie, you’re glimpsing a part of something larger. You’re not just watching it, you’re joining it. But it can be healthy to return to the mindset of the ’80s and remind yourself that a sequel is often just a sequel: a movie that has no organic reason for being, even if it pretends otherwise [emphasis added].”

This raises a number of very interesting points. In the 80s, as Gleiberman usefully points out, we were assailed with a veritable tidal wave of terrible sequels, prequels, and knock-offs from original and interesting films, and they were, indeed, all absolutely terrible. There was something a bit more than “déclassé” about these films – they were strictly down-market affairs, made on the cheap, designed to wring a few more dollars out of an existing hit. Today, studios routinely through hundreds of millions of dollars at the same thing – remakes, sequels – and try to convince us that we’re getting something new and worthwhile.

But are the “franchise” films today really any different? They trod the same well-worn path as their predecessors, where nothing is at risk, and no original ideas are countenanced – answering the unspoken audience request “give us something like what we just saw, only slightly different.” And so the wave of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man films continues on unabated, along with another in the endless series of Bond films, and the moment that something truly new and original arrives on the scene, and is a hit, it too becomes fodder for the remake mill. When Get Out came out earlier this summer, it was something sharp, different, and original – but will there be a Get Out II? I hope not.

It’s said that all genres go through four distinct phases – origin, classical, baroque and finally parody – and then they have to be scraped up off the floor, injected with some new blood – so to speak – and brought back to life, just like the Frankenstein monster, to give some artificial existence to a concept that should have expired long ago. The first Alien came out in the summer of 1979, and was at once original, surprising, and innovative – introducing not only the famous “chest burster” scene and the “face hugger” creatures, but also the concept that the future would be rundown and falling apart, as the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo is.

Then, too, the company that all of the crew members of the Nostromo work for thinks nothing of sacrificing their lives to obtain a specimen of a structurally perfect, indestructible killing machine, by misdirecting them to a Hellish planet, knowing that it means certain death, and even secreting a humanoid robot on board to make sure everything goes according to plan. And it has – again, and again, and again, and again. Enough! It’s time to put the plug in all these franchises, and – just a suggestion – go back to making films that are based on books, rather than comic books; on ideas, rather than leftovers; made with passion, rather than in pursuit of a buck.

Of course, I’m dreaming – but what the heck – I can dream, can’t I?

Jaume R. Lloret’s Side by Side Remakes of 25 Films

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Here’s a fresh look at the ways in which remakes dominate the current cinema.

As Joe Berkowitz writes on the website FastCoCreate, “when director Gus Van Sant announced that he would be following up his breakthrough commercial hit, Good Will Hunting, with a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, many were confused. That confusion did not go away when the film was eventually released either. Audiences and critics couldn’t tell whether the whole exercise was a dadaist art statement or what was even happening. Was Van Sant’s message that no cows are sacred or that all cows are sacred? Nobody could quite tell. If the director’s aim was to urge other filmmakers away from remake culture, however, it was a resounding failure.

Nearly 20 years later, remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations make up what feels like at least half of each year’s major cinematic offerings. (The other half are adaptations.) The degree to which studios, filmmakers, and audiences have embraced remake culture, though, means more opportunities to approach these properties from different angles. Every now and then, a film will treat its source material with nearly the same perhaps ironic reverence as Gus Van Sant did Psycho, but most others indulge in more of a flickering faithfulness. A new video puts together side by side comparisons of scenes from 25 movies and their remakes to show how different (or not) the same movie can be the second time.

Barcelona-based filmmaker and editor Jaume R. Lloret had his work cut out for him in some movies more than others. Finding footage from Psycho that matches up is like shooting a barrel in a barrel factory. (Steven Soderbergh once overlaid both versions of the film on top of each other to play simultaneously.) Lloret also includes the curious case of when Michael Haneke remade his own Austrian film (Funny Games) in English with different actors but no other changes whatsoever. The other films, however, comprise just about the entire spectrum of remakes and reveal a lot about how these are made and received.”

Fascinating stuff – read the entire article, and see the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

Children’s Best Picture Oscar Summaries – Totally Accurate!

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

As Riyad Mammadyarov reports in Indiewire, these kids have it all down on this year’s Oscar contenders.

As Mammadyarov notes, “kids sure do have wild imaginations. And Fandango Movieclips takes full advantage of their outrageous lateral logic thinking in yet another edition of Reel Kids, which take a group of young, precocious children and let them intellectually loose. As we begin the countdown to this weekend’s Oscars, some ‘Reel Kids’ take their sweet, indecisive time to spell out what they think each Best Picture nominee is really all about.

As the children fumble over their words and wildly change their pitches to describe what each movie is about, the host, Dan, riffs with the various children to flush out their hilariously cute ideas. One explains that The Big Short is really nothing more than a rip-off of the Schwarzenegger-DeVito buddy flick, Twins. Another suggests that Mad Max: Fury Road is a simple and touching tale of a young man’s harrowing journey to take a quiet and restorative nap. The Revenant? Obviously a fun-loving story about Revenant the Elephant.”

Personally, I’d rather see their versions of these films!

Calum Marsh: Ten Movies Not To Miss in 2016

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Village Voice critic Calum Marsh picks ten must-see movies in 2016.

The Village Voice, once an indispensable source for film reviews in the 1950s through the late 1990s, fell on hard times when critics Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas retired, followed by the departure of Jim Hoberman, and then the Voice itself went from being a paid newspaper to a freebie distributed throughout Manhattan in giveaway boxes. But now it seems to have found itself again in the 21st century with a new group of sharp, perceptive critics, one of whom is Calum Marsh.

In this brief article, Marsh picks out ten films to look forward to in 2016 which are outside the normal fare one might find at the local multiplex, such as Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch – which Amirpour, the director of the highly acclaimed vampire thriller A Girl Walks Home Along at Night describes as “‘Road Warrior meets Pretty in Pink” – Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler (shown above) and several other interesting films.

These are all films that absolutely deserve your attention in the New Year, and this brief, informal overview is a great way to think about what you’re going to spend your time watching in 2016. Look beyond the local first-run theaters. Look for more interesting stuff, and you’ll find it. And while you’re exploring this article, click on some of the other links to see The Village Voice‘s increasingly interesting film coverage, as we move towards the second decade of the new century.

There’s great filmmaking going on out there – you just have to find it.

Peter Stults’ Imaginary Movie History

Monday, December 21st, 2015

Here’s an art project by Peter Stults that reinvents Hollywood’s past in a most unusual fashion.

As Kathryn Bromwich writes in The Guardian, “when he was studying film at college, Peter Stults used to come up with imaginary movie ideas and turn them into posters. Fifteen years on, the New York-based graphic designer makes modern films look like old classics in his What If series, using a mix of Photoshop and collage. ‘People assume I don’t like modern movies – I do,’ he says, ‘But I am attracted to the poster art of the golden age.’

He spends weeks, sometimes months, researching directors, actors and studios in a quest to make the posters look as authentic as possible. ‘I like it when I trick people into thinking the modern movie is a remake of the film in my poster. If I can do that, I’m doing my job right.'” Of his re-imagined poster for Gone Girl, Stults says that “I think Marlon Brando captures the ambiguities of the character – did he kill her? Is he insane? Is he innocent? And I’d recently seen Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils and she seemed perfect.”

So take a walk through the imaginary world of Hollywood’s past, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Bedazzled – Drimble Wedge & The Vegetations

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations – from Stanley Donen’s classic film Bedazzled.

As Jaime J. Weinman wrote on his Something Old, Nothing New blog, “I’m glad that Bedazzled (the [1967] original, not the Brendan Fraser remake) finally got reissued. I notice from the booklet notes that Peter Cook expressed some reservations about Stanley Donen‘s direction of the film, or at least the way he and Dudley Moore responded to his direction. As film neophytes working for an experienced director like Donen, they perhaps deferred too much to his judgment and didn’t give themselves all the freedom they needed to be at their funniest.

Also, by this time Donen — who had been living in Europe for years and had just made the innovative, fragmented Two For the Road — was filling all his movies with crazy camera angles and trendy ‘cinematic’ effects. Which works fine for something like Two For the Road, but not so much for a straight-up comedy-thriller (compare Donen’s incomprehensible Arabesque to the much more normal Charade, which he made only three years earlier) or a satirical comedy like Bedazzled . . .

But Cook and Moore are so funny that even a tilted camera angle can’t stop them. And despite my carping about Donen, he does bring a certain warmth to the film and to the relationship between Cook’s devil and Moore’s sad-sack Faust. And there are a number of scenes where he tones down the with-it technical flourishes and lets Cook and Moore have more leeway; and still other scenes where his attempt to be groovy sits well with the material.

Like this scene where Moore wishes to be a pop star so girls will love him — only to find that his fame is eclipsed within minutes by Cook’s rival act (‘Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations’). Moore’s music — the same melody arranged into two different styles of song — is a dead-on parody of late ’60s pop styles, and Donen matches it with a spoof of in-concert films and broadcasts.”

I think he’s entirely too hard on the film itself, which is a brilliant piece of satire, but he’s dead right about Cook’s satiric pop song. Here are the minimalist lyrics, aproproatelyspoken in an entirely flat, disinterested monotone:

“I don’t care.
So you said.
I don’t want you.
I don’t need you.
I don’t love you.
Leave me alone.
I’m self-contained.
Just go away.
I’m fickle.
I’m cold.
I’m shallow.
You fill me with inertia.
Don’t get excited.
Save your breath.
Cool it.
I’m not interested.
It’s too much effort.
Don’t you ever leave off?
I’m not available.”

Click here, or on the image above, to see this truly groundbreaking “anti-pop” song.

A Deadly Adoption – Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig’s Lifetime Movie

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig are both big Lifetime movie fans – so now, they’ve made one of their own.

Lifetime movies live in a world all their own; predictable scripts, constant peril and deception, people living in enormous houses that are way beyond the means of most of us, and most noticeably, they trade in truly outrageous melodrama.

Ferrell and Wigg have long been fans of the genre, and now they’ve taken the next logical – or illogical – step, and created a Lifetime movie all their own, which despite the over-the-top premise they’re going to play straight – a rather remarkable coup for Lifetime, whose films are usually populated by unknowns and fading stars.

As Lifetime’s website for the film notes, “inspired by a true story [but of course!] A Deadly Adoption is a high-stakes dramatic thriller about a successful couple (Ferrell and Wiig) who house and care for a pregnant woman (Jessica Lowndes, “90210”) during the final months of her pregnancy with the hopes of adopting her unborn child” – but as you can see from the brief teaser trailer by clicking here, or on the image above, things don’t go too smoothly along the way.

As Wikipedia notes of the film’s somewhat unusual production process, “on April 1, 2015, it was revealed that Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and Jessica Lowndes were set to star in the film as a parody to the genre of Lifetime films, with Rachel Lee Goldenberg directing and Andrew Steele writing the screenplay.

The next day, Ferrell issued a statement regarding the film saying ‘We are deeply disappointed that our planned top-secret project was made public, Kristen and I have decided it is in the best interest for everyone to forgo the project entirely, and we thank Lifetime and all the people who were ready to help us make this film,’ [thus] shooting down the prospect of the film being released.

However, on June 2015, a billboard for the film was spotted with a release date of June 20, 2015. On June 12, 2015, a teaser trailer was released. The premiere of the film coincides with the 25th anniversary of Lifetime’s movie franchise.”

The billboard announces that the film will be released on “Sunday, June 20th.” June 20th is a Saturday.

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.'”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

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.

So You Want To Write A Novel?

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Here’s an absolutely hilarious instant cartoon about an “aspiring” novelist.

I usually don’t post on these things, but this one really nails it; the complete absence of any thought or preparation on the part of the would-be novelist in this short cartoon is truly staggering. It’s also somewhat shocking that this kind of “I can do anything I set my mind to” approach to writing a book or a novel is so prevalent; sadly, the cartoon’s depiction of this sort of unjustified blind optimism isn’t all that far off the mark. Kudos to David Kazzie, the creator of this sharp and pointed video, which has much more truth to it than one might immediately think.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short, clever video.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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