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Posts Tagged ‘Commercial Cinema’

The Spectre of James Bond

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Spectre is the latest and least in the long-running James Bond series.

Call it exhaustion, call it the end of Empire, call it playing to diminishing returns, put it down to indifference and fatigue – call it whatever you wish. Spectre, the latest of the James Bond films, which has opened to solid but not spectacular grosses, is 2 1/2 hours of almost unrelieved boredom, all dressed up in production values that put the film into the $200 to $300 million production range. It’s a spectacle, all right, but one that is so jam packed with promotional tie-ins and self-referential nods to the series’ past that it ultimately has no identity of its own.

Daniel Craig, who has famously suggested that he is tired of the entire franchise, walks through the film as if he has absolutely no interest in the proceedings, and only Ralph Fiennes as the new “M” – replacing the departed Dame Judy Dench – offers any sense of gravitas at all. Christoph Walz similarly drifts through his role as the latest incarnation of Ernst Blofeld as if the part were an obligation, rather than an opportunity – but then, given the tediousness of the dialogue, there really isn’t much he can do with the role.

All the set pieces are here – Bond once again designated as a “rogue agent” and left in the field to fend for himself; Léa Seydoux as the latest in a long procession of “Bond girls” – and shouldn’t that be retired?; “Q” played by Ben Whishaw as a techno nerd with the usual plethora of gimmicks up his sleeve; the requisite scene in which Bond is tortured by Blofeld but miraculously escapes in the nick of time; Monica Bellucci in for about three minutes as another love interest, soon abandoned by the narrative; Bond’s ubiquitous Aston Martin; and, of course, the opening crane / tracking shot in Mexico City, a spectacular piece of camerawork ending in an enormous explosion, which is technically impressive, but really has no need to be there.

Most of all, though, there is the film’s crushing length – about forty minutes too long at least – and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s dark, brooding cinematography, which masks Walz’s Blofeld in deep shadows until the last third of the film, making him almost a peripheral character, while giving the entire film an unmistakably fatalist air of a franchise which has run out of gas.

Daniel Craig, here credited as a co-producer of the film, still has one film to go on his contract, and despite his protestations that he doesn’t want to continue in the role, he no doubt will. Apparently, the producers wanted him to film the next Bond entry back-to-back with this one, and Craig refused, but maybe he should have gotten it over with; the Bond role is a career straitjacket that none of the series’ leading men have ever really escaped.

Missing here is any sense of urgency or imagination – the script and story, devised by no less than seven screenwriters, hits all the bases with a tired sense of duty – but the speed, energy and verve of series entries such as Dr. No, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and other top notch Bond films is entirely missing here. Sam Mendes’ slack direction is partly to blame, but the whole film is overstuffed, lacking in focus, more interested in scenery than scenes, and watching it quickly becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.

At the screening I attended on a Sunday morning, the theater was populated by only a few patrons, all of whom made frequent trips to the lobby to replenish their giant tubs of popcorn, when they weren’t otherwise occupied texting mini-reviews on their cellphones in the darkness. No one seemed very interested in what was happening on the screen, and when the film was over, we all filed out without comment. It’s sad – casting someone like Archie Punjabi or Idris Elba as Bond would be a really smart move at this point, and give the series new energy – but it’s doubtful that anything like that will happen.

But the Bond films – a lucrative enterprise for all concerned – need a reboot if they are to continue.

The Death of Foreign Films in America

Monday, January 27th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orson Welles on Commercial Filmmaking

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Welles shooting Citizen Kane (1941)

We can thank Orson Welles for this pithy, and all too true comment on commercial cinema:

“The best thing commercially, which is the worst artistically, by and large, is the most successful.”


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.

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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 for more details.

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