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New Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot on the “sick” humor films of the 1960s.

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical HollywoodStreaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

Here are some early comments by reviewers:

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The Dixon dynamo’s done it again. In a swift and assured push, he opens doors to the sights, sounds—and smells—of the other world cinematic story. He peels back eyelids for us to see one built not only on the backs of the Griffiths, Hitchcocks, Bunuels, and Truffauts, but on the extraordinary creativity of those pushed into penumbric shadows; those cineastes like Max Ophüls, Juan Orol, Marcel Hanoun, and D. Ross Lederman who dared to bend minds and expectations at any cost. We have our world cinematic critic and he’s invited us to strap ourselves for a journey to the chaotic dark side of world cinematic history. As with Kubrick’s Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong, with Dixon you’re in for a hell of a ride!” – Frederick Luis Aldama, Arts & Humanities Distinguished University Professor and author of The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s new collection of essays, Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s, offers even more than its title promises.  To be sure, its opening essay presents a richly detailed and thoughtful meditation on the iconoclastic ‘sick’ humor of sixties films from Dr. Strangelove to Putney Swope.  But readers will also find much else of value, including pieces on the unsung Hollywood auteur D. Ross Lederman, the lost version of the 1971 cult road movie classic Vanishing Point, and the fatalistic noir films of Max Ophüls.  All are written with Dixon’s customary verve, wit, and attention to historical detail, making this book a must for any serious student of cinema.” – Ian Olney, author of Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

“This book glitters with a treasure of informative, witty, and acute insights into films and filmmakers too long neglected in their unconventional but deeply provocative importance.  No one writes about film with more infectious vivacity than Wheeler Winston Dixon, especially in these pages.” – Murray Pomerance, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

Welcome To This House: A Film About Elizabeth Bishop by Barbara Hammer

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Barbara Hammer, one of my favorite filmmakers, has a new film out.

Barbara Hammer has been making brilliant and uncompromising independent films since the 1960s, and is still going strong, as evidenced by her recent retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as other venues, but now comes the news that Hammer has released a new feature film on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, which I have yet to see, but which I look forward to with great anticipation.

Her work is seemingly everywhere: in the past few years, Hammer was honored with a month long retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City from September 11-October 13, 2010, and in February 2012 she had a month long retrospective at The Tate Modern in London, followed by retrospectives in Paris at Jeu de Paume in June 2012 and the Toronto International Film Festival in October 2013.

As the press materials for the film by Monica Nolan note, “poet Elizabeth Bishop has gained notoriety as much for her tempestuous romance with Lota de Macedo Soares as for her poetry. While that affair inspired a book and a movie (Reaching for the Moon), this new documentary broadens the focus and puts the Lota affair in context. Frameline24 Award recipient Barbara Hammer (whose previous films at Frameline are too numerous to list!) creates a layered portrait of the person behind the poet, from her childhood in Nova Scotia to her death in 1979.

Bishop described herself as ‘timorously kicking around the coastlines of the world,’ and the film is loosely organized around her stays in Nova Scotia, Key West, Brazil, and Cambridge—the homes she made for herself and the lovers she took. Never ‘out’ as a lesbian—the concept would have been foreign to the writer who graduated from Vassar in the thirties—Bishop nonetheless actively pursued women, from her first summer-camp crush to the May-December romance that was her last affair.

Hammer examines Bishop from all angles, interviewing everyone from literary luminaries like Marie-Claire Blais and Edmund White to Lota’s aged former maid. Hammer pulls the viewer into Bishop’s world, blending present day footage of each location with archival photos, and recreating moments in the writer’s life. Throughout the film we hear Bishop’s own words, read by Kathleen Chalfant, revealing yet another facet of a complicated and passionate woman.”

Barbara Hammer (right) with Florrie Burke. Photo: Joyce Culver.

This sounds like a typically brilliant film from Hammer, who has made over 80 moving image works in a career that spans 40 years, and is considered a pioneer of queer cinema. In the meantime, you should check out Barbara Hammer’s latest doings as chronicled on her website by clicking here, or on the image above – with news of her latest doings in the world of cinema, someone who is courageously moving forward in an era in which the arts are often pushed aside by the incessant pursuit of comic book films and other non-demanding escapist entertainment. Want some real nutrition for a change? Then check out Barbara Hammer’s work, and see what you’ve been missing.

Barbara Hammer – one of the most important independent filmmakers working in cinema today.

Michael Bay to Produce Remake of “The Birds”

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

The Birds is coming – again.

This project has been in the works for some time, but apparently, now it’s really going to happen. As Britt Hayes reports in ScreenCrush, “A remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (or any Hitchcock, for that matter) seems absurdly unreasonable and destined to fail. A remake of The Birds from producer Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes banner seems even more absurdly unreasonable, but here we are. The remake has been in development for some time now [since 2014, at least], but Bay & Co. have finally found a brave soul to volunteer their services.

Variety reports that Dutch director Diederick Van Rooijen has been hired to helm the remake of The Birds, which is being produced by Platinum Dunes, Mandalay and Universal. Platinum Dunes is well-known for its remakes of ‘80s horror flicks, while Universal has recently been developing reboots of its classic monster films, and now the pair have met somewhere in the middle with Hitchcock.

Hitchcock’s classic 1963 film centered on a socialite who moves up to Northern California only to discover that the peaceful seaside town is under attack by hordes of birds that have suddenly turned murderous. The Birds was — and remains — such a singular horror classic that it’s hard to imagine a modernized retelling improving or even matching the original.

Van Rooijen is best known for the Dutch thrillers Daylight and Taped, and while I have not seen the former, the latter is very well executed and intense. But remaking a Hitchcock film is an incredibly difficult feat, and there aren’t many directors who would be up to the task. Van Rooijen has some specific talents to bring to the table, and as a director many Americans are unfamiliar with, he does have a slight advantage no matter if the film succeeds or fails.”

Anyone remember Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho, with Vince Vaughn? That didn’t work out too well. And actually, there’s already been a remake – of sorts – of The Birds – the straight-to-cable TV movie The Birds II: Land’s End (1994), directed by Rick Rosenthal, who was so unhappy with it that he insisted his name be removed, and the project became an “Alan Smithee” film – a film no one wanted to claim (this long running pseudonym was retired in 2000). So this seems like a rather risky project to me.

I really don’t know of one Hitchcock “remake” that has ever worked. Do you?

Francesca Catalano – A Brilliant New Director of Cinematography

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Francesa Catalano is a new talent to watch – literally!

Yesterday, at the suggestion of Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, I viewed Luca Boni and Marco Ristori’s low budget horror film, Reich of the Dead (2015), shot in Italy on a minimal budget with English speaking actors – including Andrew Harwood Mills, Dan van Husen, Aaron Stielstra, Ally McClelland -  which would be just another program picture were it not for Francesca Catalano’s absolutely superb CinemaScope cinematography, using a RED Scarlet digital camera to achieve some really astonishingly subtle effects.

From what I can gather, this is her first film as a full-fledged DP, although she has worked in second unit and assistant capacities on a number of films. But on the evidence of her work here, she is clearly a major talent, and someone who is ready to step up to fulltime DP work on a major project. Someone smart will grab her soon – she’s got a style all her own, which uses a good deal of available light, and deeply saturated color, and makes this very minor film well worth watching – sort of like one of Val Lewton’s Gothic thrillers from the 1940s.

In particular, her style of cinematography embraces the principles of tenebrism, which as Wikipedia notes,  “is a style of painting using very pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. The technique was developed to add drama to an image through a spotlight effect, and was popular during the Baroque period of painting.”

I wrote her to ask for her thoughts, and she responded, in part: “Thanks so much for your note. I really love [the painter] Caravaggio, and I think everyone who wants to be a DP should know or have seen once in their life some of his great work. You’re right, the movie is done with a very low budget and just a few lights, which is the reason that I tried to use natural light as much as possible, to bring out the colors of the location itself, and enhance the costumes.”

Catalano’s work is really one of a kind – as I told her, it is reminiscent of Caravaggio, but also recalls the work of the great Italian DP Mario Bava in its atmospheric and restrained sense of mood and atmosphere – in short, the vision of a true original, who has obviously studied painting seriously, and instinctively understands how to use light and shadow to create a really remarkable series of images on a very limited budget.

American DPs often approach their work as if it’s just another assignment, and expect most of the color grading to be done in post-production, but here, working with minimal resources, Catalano shows how much can be done on the set, using the qualities of the scene itself, and taking real risks with her compositions, to achieve something really extraordinary.

All in all, Catalano has the sensibility of a true artist.

Batman V Superman, or, Twilight of the Franchises

Friday, June 26th, 2015

What do you do when a franchise starts to falter? You double down – watch the trailer here.

In the mid 1940s, Universal was coming off a two decade wave of horror movies, such as Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941), but at length, audiences were bored with just one monster, and demanded something to amp up the franchise. Thus, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) was born, the first of the Universal monster “team ups,” but in short order, the entire franchise collapsed as Universal combined nearly all their famed horror icons in two “monster rally” entries, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in cheap, hastily staged films that did little more than revive the monsters only to destroy them. With these final two films in the initial series, it seemed that the franchise was exhausted, and the next Universal horror entry wasn’t a horror entry at all; it was the parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). It wasn’t until Hammer films re-energized these classic characters in such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that the franchise once again took on new life.

It seems to me that we’re now at a similar point with the DC Universe; the Superman series seems a bit played out, as the character seems a bit too straight arrow to relate to 21st century audiences; and Christopher Nolan has run the Batman series into the ground, as did Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher before him, so that both characters seem, for the moment, played out for the contemporary viewer. What to do? Why, just put them both in one film, as a a sort of WWF smackdown, recalling the first Universal team up, Frankenstein Meets (or more accurately, “battles”) The Wolf Man. And so now we have Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack “300” Snyder on a $200 million dollar budget, which wrapped filming in December 2014, and is now going through an apparently intensive post-production process, and won’t be released – at latest word – until March 25, 2016. What the final cost will be, who knows? Will it “blow up” like Jurassic World, and make a fortune? DC certainly hopes so.

It seems worth noting to me that Marvel has been much more successful at these “ensemble” films lately, but then they have a much larger cast of characters to work with. And when one character gets tired, they just sideline her or him for a while, and go for an Avengers team-up, and everyone seems happy as the dollars roll in, and then Marvel eventually gets around to rebooting whatever needs to be jump started next, as the cycle continues with Sisyphian relentlessness. But DC, I think, doesn’t have the same depth in its playing field, and so this team-up has, at least for me, the inescapable whiff of “last chance at the genre corral,” when you take your two most influential characters and put them into a face-off. After this, what can you do; repeat the same thing all over again, perhaps throwing in The Green Lantern for some added traction?

It seems sad to me that this is one of the most hotly anticipated tickets of next year – because the whole thing seems so formulaic and predestined, but there it is. On yes, and Wonder Woman, in the person of Gal Godot, will also swing by to get in on the action, so this in many ways might be closer to the “monster rally” films than the first Universal team-up film. In an excellent wrap article in Cinema Blend, Eric Eisenberg tracks what we know so far about the film, whose cast includes Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, and Holly Hunter. Notes Eisenberg, “the idea of a Batman/Superman movie has been around so long that it was even made into an Easter Egg gag in the Will Smith action movie I Am Legend [2007] – the film jokingly dated for release only after the Earth had been devastated by an apocalyptic plague.”

He continues, “Warner Bros. released an official plot synopsis for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and watching the debut trailer one can at least kind of pick up on what this movie is putting down. It seems that the world of the growing DC Cinematic Universe has labeled Superman (Henry Cavill) a controversial figure after the events seen in Man of Steel, and while there are many in the world who see him as a superhero, there are many others who view him as an extreme threat. It would seem that Batman (Ben Affleck) falls into this latter category, and uses his incredible resources to do what he can to try and stop the perceived alien menace.

The first official footage sees him as a superhero, there are many others who view him as a savior. And that plot synopsis does little more than confirm this. How the story will deal with all of the major supporting characters (of which there are many) remains a mystery, though that same synopsis does tease a new threat that comes out of the woodwork, which has led many to speculate about Doomsday’s possible involvement. While provoking Superman into a fight probably seems like a terrible idea to most of us, Batman will have some special toys specifically designed to negate his enemy’s advantages. Specifically, he will wield a Kryptonite-laced spear. How exactly he obtained this substance remains unclear, but he’s Batman. The guy has means of acquiring all kinds of unusual items.”

You can read the whole article here – the trailer is above, behind the image.

Jurassic World – Diminishing Returns – But Not at The Box Office

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Variety’s Scott Foundas has the best review I’ve seen yet of the new blockbuster Jurassic World; read it here.

As Foundas writes, in a deeply knowledgeable and sharply observed critique of the film, “‘No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore,’ notes one character early on in Jurassic World, and it’s easy to imagine the same words having passed through the lips of more than one Universal Studios executive in the years since Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park shattered box-office records, along with the glass ceiling for computer-generated visual effects. Two decades and two lackluster sequels later, producer and studio have spared few expenses in crafting a bigger, faster, noisier dinosaur opus, designed to reclaim their place at the top of the blockbuster food chain. What they’ve engineered is an undeniably vigorous assault of jaw-chomping jolts and Spielbergian family bonding that nevertheless captures only a fraction of the original film’s overflowing awe and wonderment.

If the first Jurassic Park served as a game-changing harbinger of the CGI-era tentpole movie (as well as the movie-as-theme-park-attraction-as-movie), Jurassic World can be seen as a self-aware commentary on the difficulties of sustaining a popular franchise in an age when spectacular “event” movies are the rule more than the exception. The galloping gallimimus herd and screen-filling T-rex head of ’93 now seem almost as quaint as the stop-motion ape of the 1933 King Kong after the VFX breakthroughs of Lord of the Rings, Avatar and the two Planet of the Apes movies (whose writer-producers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, share Jurassic World screenplay credit with director Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly). And when Jurassic World begins, a similar dilemma faces the operators of the eponymous theme park, which, after rocky start, is running incident-free on that doomed Costa Rican isle of Isla Nublar, where it has become a full-fledged, Disney-like resort, complete with luxury Hilton hotel (one of the many brands seemingly unfazed by placing its products in a movie about a literal tourist trap).

Business is booming at Jurassic World, yes, but in the tourism business as in Hollywood, stasis is a kind of death. The public — and, moreover, generous corporate sponsors — want ever more bang (and teeth) for their buck, observes the no-nonsense Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a loyal corporate flack who oversees park operations for Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the Indian billionaire who inherited Isla Nublar from the late John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). So it’s time for a little razzle-dazzle cooked up by ex-Hammond geneticist Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the sole Jurassic Park cast member to reprise his role here): a new, hybrid dinosaur breed known as Indominus rex (or, more precisely, Verizon Wireless Indominus rex), made from T-rex DNA and whatever else tumbled into the gene splicer. Will these people never learn? Not as long as the thrill-seeking public keeps queuing up for more.”

Meanwhile, the film has grossed roughly $511.8 million globally at the box office – just for openers.

An Interview with Denis Côté – Joy of Man’s Desiring

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new interview with Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté in Senses of Cinema #75.

As I wrote, in part, “Denis Côté is a young Canadian filmmaker who has burst onto the international film scene with a group of challenging and innovative movies in the past few years. Born 16 November, 1973 in New Brunswick, Canada, Côté began his career with a group of short films, and made his first feature in 2005, Drifting States (Les états Nordiques), which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Since then, Côté has worked a number of commercial and/or personal projects, most notably Curling (2010), a father/daughter family drama that was exceptionally well received by audiences and critics alike; Bestiare (2012), a ‘docufiction’ – that’s my own term – film centering on the animals who populate a tourist destination zoo in Canada; Vic+Flo Saw A Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours, 2013), a harrowing tale of two women trying to make it on the outside after a stint in prison, and how the world conspires against them to make redemption – at least in life – almost impossible. Vic+Flo Saw A Bear was probably Côté’s most successful film to date, and was screened at more than 90 festivals around the world.

Most recently, Côté completed the superb Joy of Man’s Desiring (aka Que ta joie demeure, 2014), which documents, after a fashion, daily life on the factory floor, as workers methodically partner with their machines to create the staples of daily existence. In all these projects, Côté offers his own unique take on concepts of narrative in his fiction films, and reportage in his documentaries, to create a series of films that are at once open-ended, mysterious, and subtly disturbing.

As of this writing, Joy of Man’s Desiring is only available on Vimeo, distributed by EyeSteelFilm. After seeing the film two or three times, I was so impressed with Côté’s audacious mixture of real events and lightly staged fictional sequences to create an entirely alternate reality that I contacted him, and asked if he would discuss the film with me; he agreed, and this interview was conducted on 4 April, 2015.

I’d like to talk with you about your most recent film, the fictionalized documentary Joy of Man’s Desiring, which for me is one of the most stunning explorations of daily factory life I’ve ever seen. So, my first question is if you’ve ever seen Godard’s British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1970), the only other film to my knowledge that tries to tackle the workplace in this fashion, although, in my opinion, it overloads the soundtrack with Marxist slogans and the usual Godardian intercut titles – yet the sequence on the car assembly line is really powerful. Have you seen it, and was it an influence?

I was a film critic for a decade while making short films. I have seen an enormous number of art films. When you are young, you get easily confused and overwhelmed by so many influences and desires to pay homage or copy your favorite filmmakers. But being the age I am today, having more experience and a stronger personality, I can definitely see I am not corrupted by direct influences anymore. It’s a bit of a cliché to think that filmmakers are strongly conscious about references of any sort. So, to answer your question, I am not familiar with British Sounds, but I will do my homework.

Joy of Man’s Desiring deals with blue-collar work, and with the machines that seem to dominate, and define the workplace. Indeed, the film begins with a series of trance inducing zooms in on machines that seem to rule the entire work environment. Were you introducing them as the controlling personalities?

Not being familiar with those environments, I decided to start the film with the most spectacular and fascinating point of entry: the machines and their primitive sounds. I felt the need to look at things like a four year-old would. For the first three minutes I let myself, and the viewer be amazed by the power, strength and perfection of those machines. I wanted to put the audience in a hypnotic mode right away.

As you said in another interview, you were struck by “the terrifying idea that we all have to work and eventually find serenity, rest, a sense of accomplishment.” While it’s true enough that we all – or most of us – have to work, do you think that everyone finds “serenity, rest, [and] a sense of accomplishment”? For most people in factory jobs, it seems like a continual struggle just to keep up with the machine.

I do think we can find a personal sense of realization and/or accomplishment in any type of work. It’s really easy to think that machines are evil and kill human feelings, free will and ambition. I had those preconceptions myself before entering those environments, but you would be surprised to know how many people told me they consciously look for a repetitive job all day long. They told me those are the best jobs, because you don’t have to think all day long. Nighttime is for family matters and problems! Who am I to judge such thinking? I knew my film would not be frontally political, activist or judgmental and had to be more of a hypnotic journey.”

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

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.

Behind The Scenes – San Andreas Without Special Effects

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

Click here, or above, to see some great “raw” footage from the disaster film San Andreas, courtesy of Sploid.

The tagline on this video is how “ridiculous” San Andreas looks without the finished special effects work, but I think that’s completely off the mark. Just a casual look at this video – with intensive under water work, harnesses pulling stunt performers into the air, gigantic crowd scenes, helicopter stunts and the like, demonstrates once again that movie making is brutally hard work – something that most people simply don’t understand.

You want to experience a really tough work environment? Then crew on a feature film. Every day, day after day, you have to get up, create complex set pieces, haul tons of equipment from place to place, deal with meal penalties, overtime, safety regulations which are more than necessary, all in the service of creating a series of images that will pass by fleetingly on the screen, and then be forgotten. With the typical crew for a film such as this in the hundreds simply during physical production, and a great deal of genuine risk involved, this is nothing to fool around with.

The movie “is what it is,” in one of my least favorite phrases – it’s a big budget disaster movie directed by Brad Peyton, whose other credits include the “aggressively unambitious” Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), which I actually suffered through on Pay Per View in a hotel in California, appropriately enough – and the whole enterprise is designed to do precisely one thing: make money.

But despite that, there’s a considerable amount of craftsmanship that went into the final film, and this video will give you a glimpse of that. Really, it’s a remake of Mark Robson’s 1974 film Earthquake, and in every way an improvement on the original. The special effects are better, and while The Rock is certainly no Sir Laurence Olivier, he doesn’t pretend to be – he’s an action star, and proud of it.

It really isn’t so easy to shoot such an ambitious spectacle – try it sometime, and see for yourself.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see the first trailer for The Scorch Trials.

This is the second in the Maze Runner films, inspired by a group of science fiction novel novels by James Dashner, which will apparently conclude with Maze Runner: The Death Cure in 2017. The Maze Runner films, as well as the books, owe an obvious debt to William Golding’s classic 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, which was made into a brilliant film by Peter Brook in 1963, and a terrible film by Harry Hook in 1990, but despite the clear thematic links, the first Maze Runner film lingers in my memory far more than the less-inspired, and much more formulaic Hunger Games films, which are, of course, enormously successful, and to my mind, at least, owe a clear debt to Koushun Takami’s 1996 novel Battle Royale, which was made into an excellent film (sadly, his last, before his death from cancer) by director Kinji Fukasaku in 2000.

Director Wes Ball, just 29 years old, is the creative mind behind the Maze Runner series, and as of now, he looks set to direct all three films, and has revealed that the third novel will not, for once, be split into two segments to drag things out, but rather released as a final stand alone project. As the official 20th Century Fox release notes for the film state, “in this next chapter of the epic Maze Runner saga, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, returning from the first film, along with many other cast members) and his fellow Gladers face their greatest challenge yet: searching for clues about the mysterious and powerful organization known as WCKD. Their journey takes them to the Scorch, a desolate landscape filled with unimaginable obstacles. Teaming up with resistance fighters, the Gladers take on WCKD’s vastly superior forces and uncover its shocking plans for them all.”

With a cast that includes the excellent actors Giancarlo Esposito, Lili Taylor and Patricia Clarkson, despite the recycled plot tropes, Ball’s vision the future is both fresh and convincing, and he’s clearly mastered the use of special effects and CGI imagery in an intelligent fashion, using them to enhance the story rather than to overwhelm the viewer. In the end, I found myself both caring about the characters, and curious as to what would befall them in subsequent installments of the trilogy, and so I look forward to the release of The Scorch Trials this September. I also think it’s a solid idea not to drag this out, and release the final film in 2017 – let’s say what we want, and then move on, to new projects and new ideas, which I’m hopeful that Ball will handle with equal restraint and economy.

However, it should be noted that Dashner has added two additional novels to the series; one published, and one forthcoming – The Kill Order (2012) and The Fever Code (coming in 2016). The trilogy has thus been stretched into a pentalogy, seemingly so as not to let a profitable franchise die, which is to my mind never a good reason for continuing anything. So we will probably see films of those books sometime in the future, but I don’t know if Ball will be directing them. For now, I’ll just be content with what we have on hand, and wish the cast and creators of the first three films the best.

I’m surprised that I liked the first film so much; let’s see how The Scorch Trials measures up.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

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