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Shocking News! Movie Trailers Lie!

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Would you believe it? Sometimes movie trailers – especially for horror films – can be deceptive!

As Jordan Crucchiola notes in Vulture, “If you went to see the horror movie It Comes at Night, chances are you saw a movie that was entirely different from the one you were expecting. Based on the movie’s trailers, you might have thought you were getting a highbrow take on a cabin-in-the-woods movie, with an unknown terror waiting to jump out at any moment. What you got instead was a dark, deliberate rumination on what it means to be human in a violent, unstructured world. That’s a movie that one subset of horror fans will love, but it’s not the movie A24 was selling.

This isn’t an exceptional situation. Any time an incredible trailer comes out, fans whip themselves into a state of high anticipation, even while fretting over the possibility that all the cool shots have gone into the previews. It’s long been a play in the bad-movie handbook to dazzle ticket buyers with two minutes of tantalizing material, only to leave them dissatisfied when the movie turns out to be a mess. (Suicide Squad, please stand up.) But what we’re seeing a lot more recently is studios selling good movies with deceptive trailers. It Comes at Night is the most recent example, but it’s hardly alone: One hallmark of the new wave of prestige horror is that the movies are often nothing like the trailers.

In its mood and setting, It Comes at Night is reminiscent of another A24 horror movie The Witch, which was heavily lauded at Sundance and enjoyed healthy studio support for its release last spring. Critics loved it, and it made a lot of money for a micro-budget film — but a lot of viewers walked out of it unsatisfied. While it pulled in a 91 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score was just 56 percent. (The same has happened to It Comes at Night: Audiences, feeling the bait and switch, have given the movie a D CinemaScore rating.)

When people see the word Witch and watch a trailer with lots of exciting 17th-century action, they’re not buying a ticket for a quiet, suspenseful period drama. When expectation doesn’t match reality, fans are bound to be disappointed, no matter how good the movie is. But even if The Witch didn’t live up to the excitement of its trailer, the movie at least had a witch; there’s no ‘it’ in It Comes at Night.”

It’s true; I’ve seen the film, and it’s more of a low key survivalist drama with very little plot, lots of atmospheric lighting, and long sections where various cast members prowl around a large, deserted house in a supposedly post-apocalyptic world – and nothing happens. The set up for the film is admirably sparse; a family in a house is trying to survive as a mysterious illness sweeps the nation in a world after some sort of unspecified global meltdown.

All well and bad, but from there, the film reminds me of nothing so much of the numerous Italian horror films of the 1960s in which the various protagonists would wander through the halls of some ancient castle, candelabra in hand, only to discover after a long series of elegantly executed tracking shots that there’s nothing really happening – other than a “shock” scare that lasts only for a second. It’s a handsomely mounted, but ultimately empty film.

I’m somewhat amazed at the stellar reviews this film is getting; oh, well.

A Great Idea: Women Only Screening of “Wonder Woman”

Friday, May 26th, 2017

The Alamo Drafthouse Theater in Austin, TX is hosting a “women only” screening of Wonder Woman.

As Lorena O’Neil writes in The Hollywood Reporter, “It’s time to pour one out for the countless male tears that are being shed in Austin, Texas over a grave injustice they feel is being committed against the fragile male species. A movie theater in Austin is daring to host — gasp — a women-only screening of Wonder Woman.

This potential threat to world order is tremendous and truly terrifying for some men in Texas (or at least, trolls on Facebook) who are absolutely aghast that the Alamo Drafthouse theater is trying to celebrate the biggest female icon in the comic book world. Where will we be able to watch the movie? the men sob. At the same exact theater, which is also of course showing regular screenings as well. But will we ever get our own, male comic book superhero? the men despair. Yeah, try almost every other superhero ever.

In reality, the reactions are much more predictable.

The Drafthouse event invitation reads: ‘Apologies, gentlemen, but we’re embracing our girl power and saying “No Guys Allowed” for one special night at the Alamo Ritz. And when we say “People Who Identify As Women Only,” we mean it. Everyone working at this screening — venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team — will be female.’

‘I hope someone sues this is discrimination based on sex,’ remarked one man on Twitter. ‘Great, let us know when you have guys-only screenings of Thor, Spider-Man, Star Wars, etc. Let’s see you walk the walk now that you set this precedence,” said a Facebook commentator, who meant to say precedent.

The Drafthouse is replying to many of the complaints. When one man asked if they had ever held a men-only screening, the Drafthouse said, ‘We’ve never done showings where you had to be a man to get in, but we *did* show the the Entourage movie a few years ago.’ They also encouraged someone else to host a private men-only event if they so desired.

There were also some men who voiced their support of the event. ‘This is a great idea and I will see it another time!’ said one commenter. ‘Wow, that was easier than deciding to feel persecuted!’

The theater company has already sold out of both women-only screenings and told Mashable it is planning to bring the idea to other locations. ‘That providing an experience where women truly reign supreme has incurred the wrath of trolls only serves to deepen our belief that we’re doing something right,’ creative manager Morgan Hendrix told the publication. ‘As a result, we will be expanding this program across the country and inviting women everywhere to join us as we celebrate this iconic superheroine in our theaters.’

As Gizmodo‘s Beth Elderkin points out, ‘Since 1920, there have been about 130 superhero and comic book films with solo protagonists in the United States, both on the big and small screens.’ She adds, ‘Do you know how many of those 130 films had female leads? Eight.'”

Sounds like a great idea to me!!

The Bestseller Code by Matthew Jockers and Jodie Archer

Monday, September 12th, 2016

The Bestseller Code is a groundbreaking work, exploring the secrets of what makes a hyper-successful book.

As Leslie Reed writes in UNL Today, “after reading 4,500 of the latest English-language novels, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln supercomputer named Tusker helped crack the bestseller code and explain why some books shine while others languish.

Matthew Jockers, an English professor who uses computers to study literature, and his colleague, Jodie Archer, a former acquisitions editor for Penguin Books UK, enlisted Tusker in their quest to identify the secret to making the New York Times Bestseller List.

They found there is more to it than marketing, luck and a name like Stephen King. Their conclusions will be unveiled in their new book, The Bestseller Code, to be released Sept. 20 by St. Martin’s Press.

Tusker, a room-sized cluster computer based at the Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha, is one of four supercomputer systems operated by the university’s Holland Computing Center. Red, the oldest and most powerful, is used by physicists working on the Compact Muon Solenoid project at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Named for the mammoth-like creatures that once roamed the Great Plains, Tusker typically is used by biology researchers for gene mapping and genome sequencing, according to David Swanson, Holland Computing Center director, and Adam Caprez, a high-performance computing specialist.

For this project, Tusker’s reading list included some of the hottest novels published in the last three decades – titles such as Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The DaVinci Code, Gone Girl and The Devil Wears Prada. Perennial bestsellers Danielle Steel, John Grisham, James Patterson, Jonathan Franzen, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Lisa Scottoline and Jodi Piccoult were among the authors on the list.

Jockers worked with Emelie Harstad, a high-performance computing specialist at the Holland Center, to implement the algorithms that guided Tusker on the project. ‘It was a particularly interesting project. It wasn’t a typical field like physics, computer science or even economics,’ Harstad said. ‘It was kind of a unique use of our system.’

Tusker extracted approximately 28,000 features from each novel and then studied those data looking for patterns in word choice, sentence construction, topic, plot structure and pacing.

Using a form of artificial intelligence, it learned which features best differentiated a bestseller from a flop, identifying about 2,800 features that make the difference. In rigorous, class balanced cross validation experiments, Tusker was able to correctly identify the bestselling and the non-bestselling novels 80 percent of the time.

It took up to 15 hours of computer time for each novel studied, Jockers said. An ordinary computer would have had to run constantly for nearly eight years to complete the analysis. Tusker, with the equivalent capability of thousands of laptops, analyzed the novels in a matter of weeks.

Now in his fifth year at the university, Jockers specializes in text mining, a technique that uses high-powered computing to identify thematic and stylistic patterns among thousands of literary works. A co-founder of the Stanford University Literary Laboratory, Jockers first began working with Archer when she was his doctoral student at Stanford.

Archer’s publishing background piqued her interest in using text mining to identify the traits of bestsellers. Her doctoral dissertation, which Jockers supervised, formed the foundation for the joint project that resulted in The Bestseller Code.’After her graduation, Jodie suggested we write a book together,’ Jockers said. ‘Neither of us could have taken on this project solo.’

The pair continued their collaboration after Jockers moved to Nebraska. In fact, Jockers now teaches a course on bestsellers at the university, with Archer serving as a guest lecturer. Though Tusker is smart enough to recognize the hallmarks of a bestselling novel, the computer is not yet capable of writing one, Jockers added.

Writing a successful novel still requires creative and critical thinking, Jockers said. Even though computers can be programmed to write, such efforts often pull strongly from previously published works, shared online texts and input from programmers. ‘We would rather just sit down together with pen and paper and use the findings of our research to attempt to write a novel ourselves,’ Jockers said.”

This is fascinating and groundbreaking work – a whole new way of looking at the craft of commercial writing.

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.

David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie’s long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953)

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see Menzies’ entire film Invaders From Mars.

Invaders From Mars is a classic of 1950s Red Scare science fiction, depicting a world that is paranoid beyond belief, photographed in garish color, as directed and designed by the renowned William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of many excellent films, including Gone With The Wind (1939) — the first film on which a “production designer” credit was formally listed in the credits. The film is being screened in January at the UCLA Film Archive in its original 35mm format, and has long since been recognized as one of the classic “childhood nightmare” films of the era, and one of Menzies’ finest achievements. Menzies’ biographer, James Curtis, will introduce the screening.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant notes of the film:

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the 50s Sci Fi cycle, when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King’s Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by single-handedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him, the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

As Glenn Erickson continues, “the furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes [. . .] Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. These repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire screenplay for the original film.

Godfathers of Comic Book Films

Friday, November 27th, 2015

Before the Marvel and DC Universe, these were the pioneers who created the comic book film.

In this one astonishing shot, taken at a nostalgia convention in 1973, some of the greatest action directors of all time stand with cast members, a cinematographer, and stunt men who helped to create such classic serials as Spy Smasher, Captain America, Superman, Batman and many others – in their original versions as Saturday morning serials in the 1940s and 50s – working for most part for Republic Pictures, the studio that created the modern action film.

From left to right, director William Witney, who helmed numerous serials with his friend and colleague John English, in addition to directing a stack of classic Westerns – and incidentally, he’s Quentin Tarantino‘s favorite director; Billy Benedict, a reliable sidekick in numerous action films of the era; Spencer Gordon Bennet, dean of serial directors, with hundreds of films to his credit; and Bud Thackery, sporting a goatee, an ace action cinematographer who later finished up his career at Universal in the 1960s.

Continuing on, stuntman George DeNormand stands in the back; Frank Coghlan Jr., who played the role of Billy Batson, Captain Marvel‘s alter-ego in the serial of that name; Kirk Alyn, the original Superman in two serials, both directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; legendary stuntman “Crazy Duke” Green, whose specialty was running up walls and then launching himself into space during a fight scene; the equally capable stuntman and actor Tom Steele; and stuntman Davey Sharp, whose credits as a stunt double number into the thousands.

Just watching these amazing professionals at work, knocking out three and four hour serials in 30 days on budgets in the $200,000 range, or lower, is an amazing sight – a look into the past of motion pictures, before CGI and motion capture replaced feats of genuine athleticism and skill. None of these people thought twice about working twelve hour days, or longer, six days a week, for decades at a clip, to deliver the thrills that entranced audiences in the middle part of the 20th century.

Let’s not forget them now – they created the comic book film.

Interview on Sirius XM – “The Enduring Appeal of James Bond”

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

James Bond seems immortal, despite all the changes he’s gone through over the years.

On November 12, 2015, I participated in a discussion on Sirius XM on the James Bond franchise. As the site for the program notes, “the latest James Bond blockbuster, Spectre, opened last weekend, and while its flavor may be a little bit different from previous outings, it’s still firmly in the 007 oeuvre, filled with amazing stunts, twisty plots, improbable villainy and of course, its magnetically attractive yet coldly distant hero.

Since the first film was made featuring Ian Fleming’s signature secret agent back in the 1960s — Dr. No, starring Sean Connery and filmed for a mere million bucks — the Bond movies have grown steadily more successful and deeply embedded in the culture, evolving with each sequel to fit the moment.

But in the modern era of film and society, do we even need 007 anymore? What’s next for the super spy, and what does his ever-growing popularity signify? The Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 recently interviewed Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, and Christoph Lindner, a professor of media and culture at the University of Amsterdam who has edited a couple of books about the James Bond phenomenon, to discuss those ideas — and to answer that nagging question: Who is the best Bond?”

You can read the transcript, or listen to the podcast, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Allison Janney and Stephen Colbert Perform “Hot Blooded”

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Allison Janney and Stephen Colbert “performing” the song Hot Blooded on The Late Show.

Allison Janney is one of my favorite actors – from her current series Mom, to her work on the series Masters of Sex, The West Wing and so much more – she always delivers a superb performance. At the same time, she also has roots in improvisational acting, as does Colbert, and so watching the two of them “act out” the ludicrous lyrics to Foreigner’s 1978 hit Hot Blooded is a real treat – it’s funny as hell, and at the same time, showcases two incredibly gifted actors having a great time, and improvising with real skill and style.

When Colbert springs this little skit on Janney with no advance notice, she’s nevertheless instantly ready, shouting “bring it on!” and snatching a pen from Colbert’s desk to serve as a prop thermometer in her reading – immediately thinking on her feet, and using the available materials to bring the skit to life. At the end, you can see that both Janney and Colbert have had a marvelous time with the bit, and also deeply respect each other’s work – although this is all in fun, it’s a great example of how to bring new life to old, and very trite, material.

Pop culture and improvisation – it’s a really impressive piece of off-the-cuff work.

Supergirl – The TV Series

Monday, October 5th, 2015

Finally, a Supergirl television series – and it’s long overdue.

I seem to be in a comic book vein these days, and now comes word that Supergirl, who has always been neglected in both TV and movies, just like Wonder Woman – can you say gender discrimination? – is finally going to get a TV series, long, long after the 1950s Superman series hit the airwaves, starting October 26th on CBS. Of course, it’s pop culture stuff, but at the same time, it offers a powerful role model for young women to identify with, and starts – just starts – to balance out the scales, which have long been tipped in favor of male protagonists, both in regular dramas, as well as comic book/pop culture films and television shows.

As the show’s official bio notes of the series, “Supergirl is an action-adventure drama based on the DC Comics character Kara Zor-El, Superman’s (Kal-El) cousin who, after 12 years of keeping her powers a secret on Earth, decides to finally embrace her superhuman abilities and be the hero she was always meant to be. Twelve-year-old Kara escaped the doomed planet Krypton with her parents’ help at the same time as the infant Kal-El. Protected and raised on Earth by her foster family, the Danvers, Kara grew up in the shadow of her foster sister, Alex, and learned to conceal the phenomenal powers she shares with her famous cousin in order to keep her identity a secret.

Years later at 24, Kara lives in National City assisting media mogul and fierce taskmaster Cat Grant. She works alongside her friend and IT technician Winn Schott and famous photographer James Olsen, who Grant just hired away from the Daily Planet to serve as her new art director. However, Kara’s days of keeping her talents a secret are over when Hank Henshaw, head of a super-secret agency where her sister also works, enlists her to help them protect the citizens of National City from sinister threats. Though Kara will need to find a way to manage her newfound empowerment with her very human relationships, her heart soars as she takes to the skies as Supergirl to fight crime.”

Let’s see what this develops into – I, for one, wish the series all the best.

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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