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Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

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Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” Is Unbearably Sad

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

As Aaron Couch wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, this teaser dropped at Comic-Con; click here.

As Couch notes, “It’s game on. Fans got a first look at Steven Spielberg’s anticipated Ready Player One in Hall H on Saturday at Comic-Con [based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline]. The footage for the ’80s-themed (but future-set) action adventure debuted during Warner Bros.’ presentation, which included DC films and Blade Runner 2049.

The footage sees star Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts, teenager and gamer on a high-stakes treasure hunt in the all-encompassing video game, Oasis, designed by the nostalgic eccentric James Halliday, played by Spielberg-favorite Mark Rylance. We see the stacks of Ohio, the slum where Wade lives. Trailers are stacked one atop another, sky-high. Inside his trailer, we see Wade put on the Oasis gear, and then he’s transported into the game.

There are flashes of the different environments: a futuristic dance party, Wade hanging out with the Iron Giant (‘The Iron Giant is a real player in this story,’ Spielberg said), Wade racing around in the DeLorean from Back to the Future as he avoids wrecking balls, and fighting Freddie Kruger. We also see the forces of evil, who sit in an office and control avatars in the game, clearly trying to find the treasure before our hero . . .

[Said Spielberg of the film], “what made me want to tell the story more than anything else was the kind of world 2045 gives to people, which is so Dystopian. People are leaving the country and all of a sudden virtual reality gives you a choice, gives you another world to exist in. And you can do anything in that world — anything you can possibly imagine. . . . That interaction between real life and virtual life, by the third act of this movie, is virtually nonexistent.”

You can see for yourself how the frightening the trailer is; Watts lives in a series of stacked trailers in a spawling Hell of the future – born in 2025, but desperately wanting to live in the past. The Oasis supposedly offers him the chance to do that, but of course, it’s just an illusion. There’s no escape – he’s still stuck in a trailer wearing a VR mask.

What strikes me most about this new wave of ultra-synthetic movies is that both audiences and filmmakers seem to have given up on saving the world from ecological disaster, and are instead conditioning viewers – and by extension, society at large – to expect nothing from the future, other than providing VR as a means of escape.

VR is a prison; I wrote an article about it entitled Slaves of Vision, and that’s exactly what it is. VR is the prison of the present, and, if we let it happen, the prison of the future – a hopeless panacea in a world that needs solid answers, not another way of avoiding reality. Spielberg to the contrary, virtual reality does not gives you a choice, does not give you another world to exist in. It’s a place where no one can exist, and nothing really happens.

Again, a quick read of Charles Eric Maine’s prescient novel Escapement (written in 1956) will tell you where all of this is headed; VR as an addiction for people without hope, without prospects, without education, without a real life. There is nothing here of any value – just a fun house full of distorted mirrors, offering momentary respite from non-existence.

And this is the future we want? The future we embrace?

A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

Glenn Kenny: “Is Watching a Movie on a Phone Really So Bad?”

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Glenn Kenny of The New York Times has an interesting take on cellphone film viewing.

As he writes, “‘People who watch movies on phones (especially if they think they can leave valid critical comments on imdb) should be shot,” the critic Anne Billson declared on Twitter in mid-December. I quote her not to scold her, or to hold her to her word, but to underscore that passions in the format-platform controversies run high.

I’ve already cited, in my first installment of this column, David Lynch’s condemnation — more than a decade old — of The Very Idea of Watching a Movie on a Phone. Over the century-plus of cinema, new ways of watching movies have made film folk antsy. In a sense, it’s the one thing that the money guys and the creatives have fretted over in more or less equal measure. Steven Spielberg was initially wary of having his works put on home video, grumbling about movie theaters being sacred spaces and such.

Martin Scorsese had more optimism, writing in 1989: ‘[H]aving instant access to movies, being able to pick something up and show it at the drop of a hat, is great.’ Much of the work of his nonprofit restoration and preservation concern the Film Foundation is made available on home video, with high-definition formats preferred.

Still, smartphone movie-watching is for many a kind of line in the sand, albeit one that streaming services are obliged to ignore. The whole point of a streaming service is that it makes content available to watch on a panoply of devices, from a big-screen display to a tablet or Nook or Kindle or Galaxy or iPhone. I recently got my first iPhone, largely to put a bunch of streaming services on it (also because I was getting sick of everybody asking me ‘Why do you still have a BlackBerry?’), and dove in.

I thought it would be interesting to watch some 100-year-old Charlie Chaplin pictures on the device. After all, when Chaplin was making his shorts for Keystone and Essanay in the early 20th century, they were not necessarily projected in the cathedrals Mr. Spielberg once spoke of but in intimate, barely appointed nickelodeon theaters and in shortened versions made for penny-in-the-slot single-viewer Mutoscope machines . . .

The Criterion Channel, a part of the new streaming service FilmStruck, offers Chaplin shorts in batches, each a feature-length compilation from a particular period, and nicely restored. They look great on an iPhone — their black-and-white and sometimes sepia tones are nice and crisp, and the action is more than coherent. At 14 or so minutes a short, they’re well-suited to the contracted attention span that holding an iPhone in one’s hand tends to encourage.”

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I have to disagree, simply quoting the director Roy Ward Baker, who summed up the issue for me, and I think for many others, when he told me in an interview at his London home late one afternoon, shortly before his death, that “one can inspect a film on DVD, but you can’t experience it.” Baker, of course, directed the best movie about the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958), and had just come from a theatrical screening of the film, as part of a retrospective of his work.

“It just hit me with such impact” he told me. “I’ve seen it many times on television, and thought to myself, ‘that’s a good movie,’ but it didn’t really hit me with same impact as when I first made it until I saw it again in its proper aspect ratio, on a large screen, with an appreciative audience [another thing – and not a small matter either – that’s missing with the cellphone experience].” Of course, our conversation took place long before the advent of the cellphone and video streaming, but the basic concept is still the same – small screen vs. the real thing.

Want a quick viewing of a film? By all means, use a cellphone or whatever else is handy. Want to really see the film? There’s only one way; in a proper theatrical setting, with an audience, in the proper aspect ratio, on a big screen – the format that the movies were designed for. Thomas Edison, as Kenny points out elsewhere in his article, was against theatrical motion picture projection, but since the inception of the cinema, films have been made to be screened in large, theatrical format.

On a cellphone, you’re just getting a fraction of the actual experience.

Kodak’s New Super 8mm Camera – The Return of Film

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Just like vinyl records vs. mp3s and CDs, actual film is making a comeback in cinema.

Still, I was surprised by this news item; Kodak is re-introducing a Super8mm camera that shoots actual film, which at this point is being marketed at much too high a price point for the average consumer, but is rather aimed at those who want to use film as a medium for artistic expression.

The last Super 8mm camera I owned, many years ago, was a Kodak Super 8mm sound camera, which used 50 ft. cartridges of film with a magnetic sound strip on the side – it worked well enough, particularly when one used high speed Ektachrome film, but it was almost instantly superseded by the advent of video cameras – and that, for the moment, was the end of that.

However, as Don Clark notes in The Wall Street Journal, “Eastman Kodak Co., the photography pioneer that was disrupted by the digital revolution, is placing a new bet on a gadget from a simpler time. The company is using the Consumer Electronics Show to lay out plans for a film camera based on the Super 8 design launched 50 years ago. Kodak stopped producing Super 8 units in 1982, after video cameras savaged the market for home movies made with film.

Jeff Clarke, Kodak’s chief executive, isn’t ignoring the changes in the market now that billions of consumers own mobile phones with digital cameras. But he believes professional filmmakers and serious amateurs will appreciate the subtle qualities of an analog medium that many Hollywood veterans used to learn their trade.

Mr. Clarke cites the preference among many Hollywood directors to shoot on 35-millimeter or 70-millimeter film. He also sees a parallel in the way some audiophiles prefer the analog medium of vinyl records.

Kodak plans to play on some of the conveniences of digital technology. Just as movies shot on film are usually converted to digital files for editing and projection, buyers of the new camera that turn to Kodak for processing will get a digital copy of their imagery as well as eight-millimeter film to use in projectors.

The new camera will feature a digital viewfinder, he said. ‘This is no longer the classic script of a war of digital versus analog,’ Mr. Clarke said. ‘What it really is now is the complementary characteristics of both.’ . . .

The first Super 8 camera was launched at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and went on sale the next year. It featured a pistol-style grip and packed eight millimeter film in a cartridge, an advance that avoided the need to thread film through the camera in the dark.

Kodak’s effort to revive Super 8 is aimed in large part at film schools, where many students no longer get a chance to experiment with analog footage, Mr. Clarke said. He also expects some people making commercial or experimental films–who have sometimes used eight- or 16-millimeter footage–to try the new product.

Mr. Clarke said Kodak has received expressions of support for the new camera by many Hollywood directors, including Steven Spielberg and Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, who directed a 2011 film called Super 8 and was famously hired by Mr. Spielberg as a 14-year-old to work on the older director’s Super 8 film archive.”

I would also venture to say that a lot of old Super 8mm cameras will now be brought back to life, assuming that Kodak makes enough raw stock. And as one commenter on the article noted, “Dwayne’s in Parsons, KS (notable as the final Kodachrome shop) will process a 50ft super-8 cartridge for $12. Just saying.” Hmmmm . . .

So – this is interesting – another sign of the celluloid backlash. We’ll have to see what happens.

Steven Spielberg on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Steven Spielberg argues that movies shot on film are superior to digital cinema – and I agree with him.

Recently, I was reading an article by Hugh Hart in the Summer 2015 issue of the DGA Quarterly, which discussed film vs. digital cinema, a topic which has been much examined of late. While 99% of all Hollywood films, and independent films as well, are being shot and post-produced digitally – i.e. “born digital” – the article highlighted a new phenomenon – major commercial filmmakers returning to the physical film medium because the celluloid image offers a different, warmer, and some would argue superior set of visual values, resulting in a new countermovement within the industry, which challenges the conventional wisdom that “film is dead” and digital rules.

I would agree with this movement, and argue that film is more alive than ever, and that the headlong rush to digital is something that has its benefits and drawbacks. And indeed, there are many within the industry who feel actual film stock is an indispensable part of the cinema, both on an indie and a completely commercial level. As proof of this, one can cite J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justiceall of which are shot on film.

In an interview with Michael Rosser published on December 3, 2015 in Screen International, Steven Spielberg argues that “if it is a straight story, without any benefits of new technology, there’s no reason to shoot anything digitally. The outcome digitally looks like the difference between a painting with acrylics and a painting with oils. Film is textural and had a kind of velocity in the grain count alone where digital is as clean as looking through a pane of glass at the outside world and to me it’s almost too vivid, too vibrant, too real.

Especially in historical films, there needs to be a bit of a veil between the here and now and something that happened way back when. That veil is almost unconsciously provided when you shoot on celluloid but is lost when you shoot it digitally. As long as we have film, why not shoot with the real stock?” When asked if George Lucas, a long time fan of digital cinema, ever tried to change his mind, Spielberg replied that “he used to, but he could never get me to do that.”

I think he’s absolutely right, and that this burgeoning movement is a return to the real.

Film Vs. Digital – The Battle Continues

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

As Hugh Hart reports in the Summer 2015 issue of The DGA Quarterly, the battle is far from over.

Writes Hart, “Even after Richard Linklater shot his DGA Award-nominated movie, Boyhood, on film, the Austin-based director had no qualms about switching to digital video for his upcoming ’80s-era comedy, Everybody Wants Some. ‘I’m not an absolutist so I’ve never really bought into digital versus film,’ Linklater says.

‘Film history is full of these little bursts of, “Oh there’s a huge paradigm shift!” and then it kind of recedes back to what filmmaking is at its core—storytelling. And behind that storytelling is a director and a creative team making aesthetic choices: What should the movie look like? What should it feel like? To me, that’s the director’s job.’

And those aesthetic choices continue to include the option to shoot on film thanks in part to Christopher Nolan’s advocacy. The British-born filmmaker, who’s shot all of his movies on film stock, has no interest in imposing personal taste on other artists. Instead, he wants to fortify the integrity of the director’s voice. ‘I’m not anti-digital in any way, but I’m absolutely committed to getting this choice back into the hands of the director. I don’t want anyone telling any filmmaker they can’t shoot on film any more than I want anyone telling David Fincher or Steven Soderbergh that they can’t shoot digital. It’s the director’s right. It’s their choice.’

Nolan became alarmed about the future of film last summer when Eastman Kodak Company, the only remaining manufacturer of 35 millimeter stock, threatened to shutter its photochemical film business. Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke explains the company’s dilemma: ‘We used to make prints for tens of thousands of theaters but over the past eight years, we went down 96 percent, from roughly 25 billion linear feet of film a year to half a billion.”

Faced with the prospect of stopping film production at the company’s upstate New York factory, Clarke decided to visit Los Angeles and meet with his customers so he could gauge Hollywood’s interest in the future of celluloid. As he visited studio executives, Clarke also sat down with Nolan.

‘The heads of postproduction and production at the studios had all basically told Jeff to buzz off: film’s dead, digital’s everything,’ Nolan recalls. ‘I turned around and said, “You need to be talking to a higher level because nobody running a Hollywood movie studio is going to want to oversee the death of a technology which not only is a prized part of our history; it’s also something we absolutely need for the future.”

Though he was deep into postproduction on Interstellar, Nolan got on the phone with filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Bennett Miller, and Judd Apatow. They, in turn, called the studios and lobbied for a continued commitment to the medium of film. Clarke recalls, ‘Within 48 hours of having lunch with Christopher Nolan, I’d gotten calls from five of the six major studios and a dozen of the most important filmmakers. At that point we were able to build a coalition.’

Martin Scorsese was another director who supported the Keep-Kodak-Open campaign. ‘Filmmakers should have the choice of whether they want to shoot on film, it’s important to have the option,’ he says. ‘Film has a history, and that history doesn’t begin with digital formats, it begins with film. … And that’s part of the art form—the light meets the emulsion and extraordinary things happen. So yes, I believe it is essential to preserve that choice.’ As a result of the high-powered lobbying, all the major studios agreed in February to buy contractually specified quantities of film stock from Kodak over the next several years.

The Kodak deal assures the continued production of movies using film on the scale of such upcoming shot-on-film releases like J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The Directors Guild supported the agreement. ‘While most appreciate the opportunities that digital provides, directors and fans alike share a love for the beauty and history of film,’ DGA President Paris Barclay said at the time. ‘We’re incredibly pleased that film will remain a viable option for filmmakers for the foreseeable future.'”

I’d like to repeat one sentence above, in boldface: “the Kodak deal assures the continued production of movies using film on the scale of such upcoming shot-on-film releases like J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

With such major productions – like them or not – being shot on film, this isn’t ending anytime soon.

Transformers Universe?

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Paramount wants to make the Transformers films into a “Marvel Universe” style franchise.

Somebody out there must be watching these filmsthey make a fortune, even though my students routinely dismiss them as special-effects driven trash, without even the slightest narrative thread to hold anything together. But in Hollywood, especially in 2015, the bottom line rules, so here comes the “Transformers Universe.” As Germain Lussier reports in Slashfilm,

“Marvel is doing it, DC is doing it, Lucasfilm is doing it, the Ghostbusters are doing it and now it looks like Transformers will be doing it too. Deadline [arguably the top Hollywood inside business journal] reports that Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning writer of a A Beautiful Mind (and the writer of Batman and Robin, among other films) is in negotiations with Paramount to lead a brain trust of writers with the aim of upping the output of Transformers movies for the studio. Goldsman will join executive producers Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg and Lorenzo di Bonaventura in the hiring of a collection of writers to create ‘a potential multi-part Transformers sequel, and come up with potential spinoff films.’

Deadline broke this news and say things are expected to come together quickly. Bay, who has directed the last four uber-successful Transformers films, is currently expected to come back for Transformers 5. (Which is tentatively set to come out in 2016, but 2017 seems more likely.) He’s about to start production on 13 Hours and the hope is, once he’s done with that, a plan and script will be in place for him to work on. They also report that while Goldsman might be the leader of this group, he isn’t likely to write the movies himself.

With Transformers being such a monster hit for Paramount, this really isn’t a big surprise. It’s how Hollywood is going. Plus, the last few movies have had a very cut and paste feel about them with very little cohesion or logic. If a group of people get hired to keep everything straight, that’s a good sign. In addition, the last film definitely left the franchise in a place where there was a pretty blank slate. All we do know is Mark Wahlberg will likely be back.”

Along with Michael Bay, and of course, the Transformers.

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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