Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: A Holiday Gift Guide for the Discerning Cinephile

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My latest books piece for The Film Stage has arrived, JUST in time for the holidays.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year for film fans, with some of the best films of the year in theaters and lots of elaborate and thoroughly-researched books to read. This rundown has real variety, with new and recent texts covering cinema history, TV greats, and, of course, Star Wars. Note that one of this year’s finest books, The Oliver Stone Experience (Abrams Books), was covered by The Film Stage in September via an interview with author Matt Zoller Seitz. Make sure to check out Experience, and see below for another fine selection from the prolific Seitz.

 

Star Wars Year by Year: A Visual History, Updated Edition by Daniel Wallace (DK Publishing)

It’s a fantastic idea: a book that offers a timeline not of the Star Wars story, but of the Star Wars phenomenon. This newly updated edition of the 2010 release now includes recent works like The Force Awakens and Star Wars Rebels, ending with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the soon-to-arrive Star Wars-themed lands at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Quite simply, everything is here: the BBC radio adaptations, that odd magazine cover of George Lucas without his beard, Star Tours, Phineas and Ferb: Star Wars, Disney Infinity. It’s an exhaustive, enormously entertaining coffee table book that succeeds in not only charting the progression of the series, but also configuring its place in popular culture.

 

Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome by Shawn Levy (W.W. Norton & Company)

Levy’s account of 1950s Rome is a stunning parade of legendary names and insightful details. The writing is wonderful (he first describes Fellini as a “cartoonist, journalist, gag writer, script doctor, and shambling man-about-town”) and the imagery unforgettable. Here, for example, is Levy on Marcello Mastroianni’s decision to stay based in Italy rather than the U.S.: “In Rome, he explained, he knew where to go for a coffee, where to get his haircut, where to test-drive the sports cars in which he’d begun to indulge himself once he started commanding substantial salaries. And he had a friendly relationship with a press corps that granted him a remarkable degree of discretion as he indulged in what had become a habit of wandering from the steadfast marriage he bragged about in interviews.” Imagine that! Dolce Vita Confidential is a delight for film fans and anyone who adores yesterday’s pop landscape.

 

TV (The Book) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz (Grand Central Publishing)

Who better to ponder the greatest television shows of all time than Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall? Both critics are responsible for some of the finest writing about the medium in recent history, via New York Magazine/RogerEbert.com and HitFix.com, respectively. TV (The Book) is like a long, nicely conversational conversation, one that hits the obvious (The Wire, The Simpsons, Mad Men) and the less-so (Terriers, Futurama). Most effective is the analysis of series that proved to have a lasting impact beyond their initial success, like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. (Seitz calls it “the most Brechtian sitcom of the ’80s.”) It’s also interesting to hear the authors’ take on some of the current greats of TV, like the FX drama Fargo. (“It had no business working,” Sepinwall writes. “None.”)

 

The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: Volume Two: The Next 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman  (Thomas Dunne Books)

The second volume in the Star Trek oral history series from Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman is just as compelling as the first. Covering the Next Generation series and films, the later small-screen Trek installments (Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise), and the J.J. Abrams’ films, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years includes virtually every figure of note. What’s most involving, however, is the painstaking analysis of some of the Trek failures. Perhaps the biggest of those failures was the final Next Generation film, Nemesis, and the cast holds director Stuart Baird most responsible. Costar Marina Sirtis sums up the cast’s feelings best: “The director was an idiot.” Of course, there are triumphs as well, and ending with Star Trek rejuvenated and reinvigorated on the big screen makes for a fitting conclusion. If you are even the least bit interested in Gene Roddenberry’s creation, these two books are a must.

 

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen (GoodKnight Books)

It’s difficult to find new ground to cover when discussing the personal life of a legendary figure like Jimmy Stewart, but author Robert Matzen more than pulls it off in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. This seriously researched and hugely illuminating text explores the actor’s wartime exploits, and the effect these experiences had on his later life and career. The level of detail is astounding, from stories of his ladies-man days with pal Henry Fonda to the ways in which It’s a Wonderful Life benefited from his military service. (Wonderful Life, Matzen writes, was his Stewart’s first post-war film, and “called on him to express a range of emotions he had never tapped into before.”) The star was never quite the same: “Stewart rarely spoke about his military service and never about combat … Jim being Jim, the memories remained locked inside.”

 

The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia by Stephen Whitty (Rowman & LIttlefield Publishers)

If ever there is a cinematic kingpin deserving of an encyclopedia, it is Alfred Hitchcock. Journalist and critic Stephen Whitty brings humor and insight to The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, and that makes the text a real delight. The reader can open the 500-page book in random spots and invariably find a worthy entry. Whitty’s takes on John Gavin (a “tall, dull, and handsome leading man”), Kim Novak (her “shyness [was] so often mistaken for hauteur”), and so many others are a treat. And his takedown of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (Whitty calls it “an inexplicable remake”) is hard to disagree with. His Encyclopedia undoubtedly belongs on every cinephile’s shelf.

 

Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth: Inside the Creation of a Modern Fairy Tale by Mark Cotta Vaz with Nick Nunziata (Harper Design)

It is the tenth anniversary of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and the more time that passes, the stronger the film seems. This new making-of text is painstakingly piece together, with interviews, the filmmaker’s own drawings and designs, and on-set photography. Most enjoyable is the time spent hearing from del Toro himself, a unique and inimitable figure in modern film. “I know I’m a bit of an alien,” he states in Modern Fairy Tale. “I don’t quite belong in a genre and I don’t quite belong in an industry.” Those comments provide a clue how a story as visually unforgettable and dramatically compelling as Pan’s Labyrinth came to be.

 

Feeding Hannibal: A Connoisseur’s Cookbook by Janice Poon (Titan Books)

There has to be something that screams “fun” on this list, doesn’t there? The fiendishly clever Feeding Hannibal: A Connoisseur’s Cookbook offers a stunning array of recipes written for the beloved, dearly departed NBC series Hannibal. The titles alone are wondrous — “Using Your Brains in the Kitchen,” “Rack of Sacrificial Lamb,” “Hannibal’s Disarming Way with Ham.” These creations from Toronto-based food stylist Janice Poon sound seriously tasty, and the accompanying text and photos are a droll delight. (Poon on “Hong Kong Ribs”: “To shoot the scene, I used baby back ribs because they can be twisted to resemble a human ribcage.”)

 

Film Noir Compendium: Key Selections from the Film Noir Reader Series by James Ursini and Alain Silver (Applause Books)

Like The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, the Film Noir Compendium edited  by James Ursini and Alain Silver should be a required read for new film fans. But that’s a rather limiting classification, since it fails to highlight the inherent joy in these articles. The newly updated compilation features legendary critics like Robin Wood as well as critics-turned-filmmakers like Paul Schrader and Claude Chabrol. Standouts include an analysis of Kiss Me Deadly with perfectly chosen stills and a stunning, deep dive into Out of the Past.

 

BONUS: NOVELS ROUND-UP

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by James Luceno (Del Rey)

It’s almost time (at last) for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and we still know very little about the intricacies of the story. That’s a good thing. However, some background never hurts, and that’s why Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by James Luceno is an essential December read. The focus here is on the relationship between Orson Krennic and scientist Galen Erso, and of course, the reader can easily imagine Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen in their respective roles. There are surprise cameos (I hope you’re seated, Poggle the Lesser fans), but it’s the Krennic-Erso face-off that resonates strongest.

 

Star Wars: Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston (Disney-Lucasfilm Press)

We have The Clone Wars TV series (and the less-successful film) to thank for many unique additions to the Star Wars canon, and at the top of the list is certainly Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s Padawan apprentice. She finally gets to be the central character in E.K. Johnston’s novel Star Wars: Ahsoka. Smartly, the book focuses on Tano’s time after she left the Jedi order — in other words, the time between The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels — and it’s a fine, well-written story involving her experiences on a farming moon. And like Catalyst, there are some crucial cameos that tie the novel in with RebelsA New Hope, and beyond.

 

Reykjavik Nights: An Inspector Erlendur Novel by Arnaldur Indridason (Picador)

I was unaware of author Arnaldur Indridason and his Inspector Erlendur series before the recent release of the brisk, relentlessly entertaining Reykjavik Nights. Now I can’t wait to read the rest of the Icelandic detective’s adventures. Like Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, Erlendur is flawed and fascinating, and this prequel about two seemingly unconnected killings is a perfect introduction.

My latest books piece for The Film Stage: New books from A.O. Scott and Owen Gleiberman, Welles, ‘Star Wars’ and more

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It’s time for another roundup of new books on filmmaking for The Film Stage, and this one features a typically diverse bunch.

Part of the fun in rounding up recent books about (or connected to) cinema is the sheer diversity of releases. This latest collection features a dive into this history of Hollywood legends, lots more Force Awakens, compelling reads from two fascinating critics, texts highlighting the art of Batman v. Superman and The Little Prince, and more. Plus, if you’ve been coveting Constable Zuvio mentions, you’re finally in luck.

Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies by Owen Gleiberman (Hachette Books)

Movie Freak

My favorite book of 2016 thus far has arrived, and it’s Movie Freak by former Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman. For many a nineties teen, EW was something of a pop culture bible, and Gleiberman’s incisive writing was a key reason. In Movie Freak, his unguardedly personal memoir, he talks of films loved (Blue Velvet, Manhunter), friendships dashed (with the likes of Oliver Stone and Pauline Kael), and the clashes that inevitably accompany life as a critic. His last days at EW say much about how print journalism has changed in the last decade, and why magazines such as Entertainment Weekly have been forced into service asPeople-lite just to stay afloat. As a critic and parent myself, it’s hard not to swoon over Gleiberman’s closing account of his young daughter’s plunge into the world of cinema: “Whether or not she turns out to be a movie freak, she is every inch the daughter of a critic.”

Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott (Penguin Press)

Better Living Through Criticism

“What’s the point of criticism? What are critics good for?” So opens New York Times critic A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism, a witty, self-effacing exploration of what criticism means, and what it means to be a critic, Scott pogos from his online “battle” with Samuel L. Jackson over The Avengers to a walk through the Louvre and the idea that there “are so many ways to be wrong.” Part of the fun — and it is very, very fun — is letting the great Scott bring so many unexpected diversions into his analysis. It all ends, as it should, with Ratatouille’s snobbish Anton Ego. As Scott puts it, and as a great many critics would be afraid to admit, “Anton Ego, c’est moi!”
Orson Welles Volume 3: One-Man Band by Simon Callow (Viking)

One Man Band

When actor-author Simon Callow’s third book on the life and art of Orson Welles was announced, I assumed it would bring the outsized icon’s story to a close. That is not the case, as Callow instead covers only 1947 to 1964, a time period in which Welles was exiled from America. This is a very good thing, as we’ll have another weighty stunner at some point to come. Callow brilliantly examines an era in which Welles mounted some of his most ambitious projects, including Othello, Touch of Evil, The Trial, andChimes at Midnight. The section recounting the making of Touch of Evil, in particular, is riveting. (The most memorable moment is likely a post-production face-off with star Charlton Heston. Welles authored a letter with a “merciless portrait of Heston as a goody-goody — ‘cooperative Chuck … In a word,’ says Welles, ‘he’s the Eagle Scout of the Screen Actor’s Guild.”) While the overall tone is rather somber, Callow rightfully argues for the vitality of Welles’s work during this stretch. One can hardly wait to read his account of the master’s final years.
The Essential Humphrey Bogart by Constantine Santas (Rowman & Littlefield)

Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart’s personal life has always been of interest to film obsessives, but what makes Constantine Santas’s The Essential Humphrey Bogart a noteworthy read is its deep plunge into the actor’s work. Each chapter, in fact, looks closely at a different film. By the time we reach Bogart’s final film, The Harder They Fall, we have a clear understanding of why each one of his nearly 40 pictures is so important. My favorite detail comes from the chapter on Sabrina. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bogart was not Billy Wilder’s first choice to play Linus Larrabee. But Santas says he made the role once pegged for Cary Grant his own: “Bogart had been born into privilege, and his instincts could tell him what to do when a role demanded that he play a mannered gentleman. Bogart thrives on transformation when the role demands it.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens — A Junior Novel by Michael Kogge (LucasFilm Press)

The Force Awakens Junior Novel

Why should someone who already owns the previously released Force Awakens novelization consider picking up the “junior novel” by Michael Kogge? That’s an easy one: because it’s perfect for the kiddos. This is a short (a little over 180 pages), easily digestible breakdown of the story that is ideal for younglings. It’s also smart and well-written. (One poignant addition is Leia’s final words to Rey as she departs to find Luke Skywalker: “You won’t share the fate of our son.”)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Rey’s Story by Elizabeth Schaefer (LucasFilm Press)

Reys Story

Like the junior novel, Rey’s Story is another tight (around 140 pages) distillation of The Force Awakens for young readers. What makes Elizabeth Schaefer’s text such a treat, however, is the focus on Rey. This is her story, from start to finish, It’s a unique way to approach the film’s plot, and it makes for an enjoyably personal read. (My son has already worn out our copy, which is a very good sign.)
Star Wars: Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka (LucasFilm Press)

Before the Awakening

Before the Awakening might be the most essential The Force Awakens spinoff, since it details the backstories of Finn, Rey, and Poe. It is divided into three parts, and while the Finn and Rey sections intrigue, Poe Dameron’s is the best. Author Greg Rucka nicely captures the character Oscar Isaac brought to life, and the info about his pilot mother — a Battle of Endor veteran — adds much to the Poe mystique.
Star Wars: Tales From a Galaxy Far, Far Away — Aliens Volume 1 by Landry Q. Walker (LucasFilm Press)

Aliens Volume 1

You wanted the Zuvio, you got the Zuvio. Yes, Constable Zuvio, that oddly-helmeted figure of pre-release intrigue for Force Awakens fans due to his invisibility in the film (yet prominence on toy shelves) is front and center inTales From a Galaxy Far, Far Away. This collection of short stories is delightful, and while I don’t want to diss the Constable, it is the final tale here, “The Crimson Corsair and the Lost Treasure of Count Dooku,” that is most memorable.
Star Wars: Rey’s Survival Guide by Jason Fry (Fun Studio)

Reys Survival Guide

Perhaps the most clever Force Awakens-themed release is Rey’s Survival Guide, a clever, nicely designed journal of Rey’s pre-Finn adventures. Curious where exactly Rey lives on Jakku, and how she first encountered some of the planet’s surly denizens? The answers are here, along with plenty of wonderful illustrations. You’ll even learn whose pilot’s helmet Rey wears while chowing down early in the film. Jason Fry’s book ends as Rey, Finn, Han, and Chewie arrive on Takodana — and you know what came next.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — The Art of the Film by Peter E. Aperlo (Titan Books)

BvS The Art of the Film

Now that the dust has settled, it is perhaps easier to take a more measured look at what exactly Zack Snyder was hoping to accomplish with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Whether you find those accomplishments successful or not (and I do not), The Art of the Film is an insightful read. It does not make for a better film, but having a clearer look at the late Robin’s graffiti-covered suit, Wonder Woman’s armor, and vehicles like the Batwing is certainly appreciated. In quotes throughout, Snyder and his team make the case for their dark vision.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — Tech Manual by Adam Newell and Sharon Gosling (Titan Books)

BvS Tech Manual

The Dawn of Justice Tech Manual is the more gleefully geeky of the twoBatman v. Superman texts, and should be of interest should only to design junkies and effects-heads. The photography — of Batarangs, the interior of the Batmobile, Wonder Woman’s lasso, and the like — is gorgeous, and the book itself serves as a sterling tribute to the production design of the film.
Ian Fleming’s James Bond: SPECTRE — The Complete Comic Strip Collection (Titan Books)

Ian Fleming

Last year’s deeply flawed James Bond entry Spectre offered a number of pleasures, but the performance from Christoph Waltz as Ernst Stavro Blofeld was not among them. A far more compelling Blofeld can be found inIan Fleming’s James Bond: SPECTRE — The Complete Comic Strip Collection. This wildly entertaining book brings together the 1960s comic strip adaptations of Fleming’s Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice. Sure, it’s a product of its time (Bond is referred to as “Limey” throughout the Spy Who Loved Me strips), but these comics are ridiculously fun and delightfully nasty.
The Little Prince: The Art of the Film by Ramin Zahed (Titan Books)

The Little Prince

The Little Prince hit a major bump just a few days before its American release, as Paramount dropped the film from its schedule. Netflix swooped in to acquire this animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novel, and until we can stream it, we can enjoy The Art of the Movie. As the book makes clear, the landscapes conjured by director Mark Osborne and his team are imaginative delights. One can hardly wait to see such visual treats as “The Grown-Up Planet” on the big… well, small screen.
Bonus: Novel Round-Up

Shaker

There are several noteworthy recent novels with links to the world of cinema. One of these is Jane Two (Center Street), the debut novel byYoung Indiana Jones Chronicles and Boondock Saints star Sean Patrick Flanery. It’s an acutely observed coming-of-age tale about a young man finding his way through life and love in 1970s Texas. A strong first effort, its lead character, Mickey, is a smart, likable creation. Jean Stein takes a stunning look at old Hollywood in West of Eden: An American Place (Random House), an ambitious tapestry that weaves together real-life figures like actress Jennifer Jones and mogul Jack Warner. And in Shaker(Alfred A. Knopf), screenwriter-turned-novelist Scott Frank has written a novel that fits nicely with some of his big-screen efforts (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, The Lookout). It’s a razor-sharp Los Angeles crime drama with a cinematic flair.