Recommended new books on filmmaking: My latest Film Stage feature

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My latest Film Stage books piece features some new (and newish) reading options looking at Mad Max: Fury Road, Robert Altman, Grand Budapest Hotel, and more.

If your idea of beach reading is Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steel, click away. (And reconsider your life choices.) However, if you plan to work on your tan while paging through weighty hardcover tomes about Robert Altman, Boyhood, and Grand Budapest Hotel, read on. We start—as one should—with George Miller’s fast-and-Furiosa masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road by Abbie Bernstein (Titan Books)

Many thoughts run through one’s head while watching Fury Road—Could George Miller’s film make the rest of this summer’s blockbusters look any weaker in the knees? Can fans stop worrying about the chronology? Why wasn’t late Howard Stern Show fan favorite Eric the Actor cast as the little person who looks through the telescope?—but the most pressing is likely, “How did they do that?!” The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road has some answers. From storyboards and sketches to insightful production photos, the book is an extravaganza of ugly-beautiful details. Some of it is haunting, including a still of a young “War Boy” in the making gazing in the distance and an extreme close-up of a disturbingly skeevy Nicholas Hoult. Some is surprising, including the concept that the “Wives’ quarters” are “filled with the world’s last remaining books.” All of it, without question, makes a rich film seem even richer. Abbie Bernstein’s book is a brisk, fascinating read, and a must-have for the Rockatansky completist.

The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Matt Zoller Seitz (Abrams)

Matt Zoller Seitz’s dazzling, marvelously designed 2013 book The Wes Anderson Collection was one of the finest film-related texts of recent years, but had one failing: Timing meant that it could not include 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel. That problem is now solved. The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel is a glorious companion, featuring more than 250 pages of interviews (with Anderson, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Yeoman, and others), essays (from the likes of David Bordwell and Ali Arikan), and photos, artwork, and much more. There are even excerpts from the works of Stefan Zweig. Above all else, there are illuminating thoughts like this one, from Zoller Seitz’s preface: “[W]ith each successive viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a funny, really not­-so-funny thing happens: We realize that all these acts of self-reinvention and self-determination will nonetheless be trampled by the greedy and powerful, then ground up in the tank treads of history.”

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt (Scribner)

Comedian-actor-Twitter superstar Patton Oswalt is a cinephile extraordinaire, and Silver Screen Fiend—subtitled Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film—is one of the finest chronicles of movie love and its life-altering impact in some time. As the memoir progresses, Oswalt’s stand-up career slowly flourishes, but it’s the film talk that makes Fiend so memorable. His Day the Clown Cried anecdote alone makes this an essential read, as done his heartbreak after seeing The Phantom Menace. Oswalt’s thoughts on a second viewing of the Star Wars prequel are wonderfully well-reasoned: “I guess I’m hoping for some sort of redemptive miracle, or that maybe I was wrong in my initial assessment. Also, there are parts of it I like. It’s sheer uncut nostalgia. … But it still sucks.”

Star Wars Epic Yarns: A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi by Jack and Holman Wang (Chronicle Books)

The Star Wars Epic Yarns trio is summarized nicely on the back of each book: “Twelve handcrafted felt scenes + twelve words = one epic microsaga!” That about sums it up. While the twelve words are a bit banal for readers over, say, 6 (“trouble,” “hurt,” “boom!”), the scenes are stunningly detailed. Yoda, in particular, is adorable, and the key moments from A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are all here. My Star Wars-obsessed 4-year-old finds the three books delightful, and so do I.

Altman by Kathryn Reed Altman and Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan (Abrams)

The career of Robert Altman demanded a colorful, photo-heavy coffee-table book like Altman. This visual biography is co-authored by the late director’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, and film critic Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan. They have created a wildly entertaining summary of the man’s career and life, including scores of interviews (collaborators represented include Lily Tomlin, Jules Feiffer, and Julian Fellowes) and unique insight into the peaks and valleys of his life. The lows of the 1980s are especially interesting, but readers will be most moved by the photos and memories of his final days. The last photo of husband and wife, taken at home shortly before his passing in 2006, is gloriously loving. “I think it’s a very special picture,” Reed Altman writes. That’s an undeniable sentiment.

Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film by Matt Lankes (University of Texas Press)

Last year around this time, most film fans were anxiously awaiting the chance to see Richard Linklater’s Sundance smash, Boyhood. In a matter of weeks after opening, the 12-year-in-the-making backstory had become part of pop culture lore. While the film failed to pick up the Oscars many thought it should (besides Patricia Arquette’s much-deserved Best Supporting Actress statue), the passage of time has not diminished the boldness of Linklater’s approach. The gorgeous photographs by Matt Lankes in Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film make it even easier to appreciate the uniqueness of production. Here are the faces of Boyhood—all of them, from Mason and his mom and dad to the guy behind the counter at the liquor store. The behind-the-scenes pics, especially, demonstrate what an experience the film must have been to make, and remind us how thrillingly alive it felt to viewers.

 

Vacation Reads (Recent Film-centric Novels)

Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme (Overlook Press)

Self-Styled Siren blogger Farran Smith Nehme’s debut novel is an utter delight. Movie-loving lead character Ceinwen Reilly is a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi now living in 1980s New York. She finds herself on a quest to track down a long-lost silent film, and I find myself hoping that Emma Stone is cast in a big-screen adaptation of Reels.

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (Viking)

It is hard not to be fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s years in Hollywood. In West if Sunset, the great Stewart O’Nan (Snow Angels) imagines the final years of the author’s life. The novel is wonderfully detailed and hugely moving. It’s a fine companion to Fitzgerald’s own The Love of Last Tycoon.

Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo (Knopf)

Jo Nesbo is no stranger to Hollywood—see Headhunters, and, hopefully, eventual adaptations of his Harry Hole novel The Snowman and the stand-alone novel The Son. (Channing Tatum is attached to the latter.) Blood on Snow, the compulsively readable story of a crime scene “fixer,” has Leonardo DiCaprio on board as producer and possibly star. Note to Leo: Blood is bloody good. Take the lead role, please.

The Revenant by Michael Punke (Picador)

Speaking of DiCaprio, the actor’s next film is The RevenantBirdman Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s adaptation of Michael Punke‘s 2003 novel. If the recently re-released book is any indication, DiCaprio has perhaps one of his most formidable performances yet in store. This tale of a 19th century a fur trapper on a quest for revenge is a captivating read. Buy it now, and ponder what Iñárritu and his stellar cast (which also includes Tom Hardyand Domhnall Gleeson) will bring to the table.

 

The great “Grand Budapest Hotel,” and the films of Wes Anderson

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I know it seemed like an endless wait, but Wes Anderson’s latest film, Grand Budapest Hotel, finally opens in Buffalo tomorrow, and the wait was worth it. I think this is one of the director’s best films, perhaps his LARGEST scale project to date: size, scope, vision. The performances, especially from Ralph Fiennes, are impeccable. And this is his freshest collection of characters in many years.

In fact, I believe Budapest is his best film since The Royal Tenenbaums. And that thought got me pondering all of his films, and how I would rank them. So without further ado, my ranking of the films of Wes Anderson.

1. Bottle Rocket

I am in the minority with this one, I know, but I believe Anderson’s debut film is hit most original, his most emotional, and his most gloriously fresh. There is a youthful spirit on display that is rarely captured onscreen — it FEELS young and naive, in the best sense. And I maintain Owen Wilson gave his finest performance to date as Dignan.

2. Rushmore

Anderson’s second film features his greatest character. No, not Max Fischer. Bill Murray’s Herman Blume. It also features his best soundtrack, his best opening, and his best ending. A perfect film, one that contains my favorite Anderson montage: the “Oh Yoko” sequence.

3. The Royal Tenenbaums

“I know you, asshole!” I could drop about 100 other classic lines, or refer to songs like “These Days” and “Need in the Hay.” But I’d rather just watch, and drink it all in again.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

People will love this film. In fact, they already do. I predict it will land a Best Picture nomination.

5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

I will never forget seeing the trailer for Zissou, and being utterly gob-smacked, to the degree that a friend and I considered traveling to see the film before it opened in Buffalo. I still think it’s one of finest trailers ever made — all Murray magnificence, set to Bowie’s “Queen Bitch.” The film itself was more sour than I’d expected, and a bit too stylized, but still a success, to be sure.

6. The Darjeeling Limited

The forgotten Anderson film? Maybe. Great moments, great acting, yet it never quite gels. This is all relative; he has never made a bad film.

7. Moonrise Kingdom      

Overrated? Yes. Very good? Certainly.

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox        

Anderson’s weakest film, to be sure, but guess what? It’s still quite good. Of course. Criterion recently released Mr. Fox on Blu-ray, and it was a deserving reissue.

And now, to close things off, “Ooh La La.”

2014 so far: Like Father, Like Son and Grand Budapest Hotel strike a chord

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Thanks to TIFF, I was able to get a jump on 2014 releases. And over the last couple months, I’ve continued my crawl. There is much I have been unable to see, but what I have seen has impressed — for the most part.

The two best films I have seen so far this year are Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel — more on that soon — and Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son. The latter just opened in Buffalo last Friday, and it’s a stunner. The Cannes prize-winner takes a rote plot — babies switched at birth — and handles it with subtlety and humor. There are no over-the-top dramatics or wild plot twists. Instead, it is a beautiful, moving, smart look at the reality of such a situation. Don’t miss it.

I will elaborate more on all of these soon, but for starters, here is my quick breakdown:

  • Grand Budapest Hotel ****
  • Like Father, Like Son ****
  • Abuse of Weakness *** ½
  • Stranger by the Lake *** 1/2
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune *** 1/2
  • Visitors *** ½
  • The Lego Movie *** ½
  • Breathe In *** ½
  • Bad Words ***
  • A Field in England ***
  • In Secret ** ½
  • Young & Beautiful ** ½
  • Endless Love **
  • The Bag Man – zero stars