Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: ‘Twin Peaks,’ Steve McQueen, and More (for The Film Stage)

My latest post on new books on filmmaking for The Film Stage ran in early May, just a few weeks before Showtime’s Twin Peaks debuted.

We’re knocking on the door of summer, and that means lots of big properties are ready to be unleashed. But it’s not too late to read books exploring some recent films, as well as some new works about Sherry Lansing, film noir, and Steve McQueen. Let’s start with a unique look at David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

The Essential Wrapped In Plastic: Pathways to Twin Peaks by John Thorne

When Twin Peaks debuted on ABC in 1990, there were no message boards in which fans could argue and dissect the latest episodes. Starting in 1992, however, there was Wrapped In Plastic, the immortal Peaks’ fanzine. Just in time for the series return on Showtime is The Essential Wrapped In Plastic: Pathways to Twin Peaks. Here, WIP co-editor John Thorne brings together some of the publication’s most vital, important essays. Every episode is included, but what makes the book a must-read is the analysis of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Featuring everything from a probing look at the film’s strange critical response upon release to a convincing argument that the Chet Desmond section is actually “the dream of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper,” The Essential Wrapped In Plastic mesmerizes the reader with vivid, startling discoveries.

Marvel Year by Year: A Visual History, Updated and Expanded (DK)

The updated and expanded edition of Marvel Year by Year is heavy — literally — and absolutely packed with details. Starting in the 1940s and running through 2016, this stunning text is big, bold, and deliriously dense. For a casual comic book fan like me, it’s full of new info. (The wedding of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson was “recreated with actors at New York’s Shea Stadium on June 5, 1987”?) Even die-hards are likely to stumble upon new details. 1950s Marvel character Marvin Mouse himself would be impressed.

Film Noir Light and Shadow edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini (Applause)

The visual style of film noir is instantly recognizable, but that does not make it simple. Film Noir Light and Shadow explores just how complex and meaningful this style was. Films like Kiss Me Deadly and Double Indemnity are explored in detail, while a series of noteworthy authors also break down less-known films like Violent Saturday and Crossfire. It’s the kind of book that sends one racing to Turner Classic Movies.

The Great Wall: The Art of the Film by Abbie Bernstein (Titan Books)

There is no other way to put it: Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall was a flop, at least stateside But it was a fascinating flop, a strange spectacle that swung for the fences (or walls) and came up short. Still, the size and scope of the project makes The Great Wall: The Art of the Film a beautiful publication. It’s a sturdy account of how the Matt Damon-starrer came to be, and it’s a reminder that whatever the film’s failings, the cinematography and production design is never less than breathtaking. It’s a film made for the glossy coffee table treatment.

World Film Locations: Cleveland edited by Alberto Zambenedetti (Intellect)

The city of Cleveland has quietly made a major dent in cinema, a fact confirmed by World Film Locations: Cleveland. With maps, stills, and photos, the book explores locations from films like American Splendor, The Deer Hunter, and Stranger Than Paradise. It also spotlights some times when the city doubled as someplace else, including Spider-Man 3 and The Avengers. (I’m volunteering myself to write the Buffalo, New York, version of World Locations.)

Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker by Stephen Galloway (Crown Archetype)

There is no overestimating Sherry Lansing’s impact on Hollywood history. As the first woman to be name president of a major studio (Paramount), she helped pave the way for countless female execs to come. As Stephen Galloway’s new biography Leading Lady demonstrates, she did so with poise, charm, and humility. The book includes colorful backstories of troubled films that eventually worked (Fatal Attraction, Titanic) and some that didn’t (Sliver). It’s compulsively readable, and full of juicy tidbits on her dealings with the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin.

A bushel of LEGO Batman books (DK)

The LEGO Batman Movie was one of 2017’s undeniable pleasures, a fast, fun film that simultaneously worked for LEGO-crazy kids and Bat-moms and dads. DK released a plethora of books to accompany the film’s release, and they run the gamut from a neat-o sticker book and texts for wee readers (Rise of the Rogues and Team Batman) to The Essential Guide (by Julia Marsh) and The Making of the Movie (by Tracey Miller-Zarneke). The latter shows how the character design progressed, and also lets us admire some of the elements that flew by so quickly on the big screen.

Star Wars: The Visual Encyclopedia by Tricia Barr, Adam Bray, and Cole Horton (DK)

The Star Wars encyclopedia and dictionary bookshelf is ever-growing. When the texts are as painstakingly designed and wonderfully structured as Star Wars: The Visual Encyclopedia, why shouldn’t it? This latest effort is broken into five sections — geography, nature, history, culture, and science and technology — and is almost absurdly detailed. Looking for an up-close look at Mace Windu’s Jedi Council chair? It’s here, on the furniture spread.

Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror by Don Nunley with Marshall Terrill (Dalton Watson Fine Books)

While the Steve McQueen auto racing film Le Mans was a box office disappointment in 1971, it’s now considered one of the most important and greatest racing flicks of all time. Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror is a fascinatingly deep dive into the making of the film, and also serves as a fine bio of the complex McQueen. Packed with gorgeous on-set photos, it’s an essential account of how a film the authors call “a crashing bore” can eventually be seen as “the most historically realistic representation in the history of race.”

Recommended early summer reads

Chuck Wendig’s gripping Aftermath trilogy of post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars novels comes to a fine end with Empire’s End (Del Rey). There are numerous treats here, including cameos from Lando Calrissian and … well, you’ll see. Another recently released Star Wars novel, Join the Resistance (Disney Lucasfilm Press) is for younger readers. However, older fans may find this story of a trio of young Resistance recruits to be of interest. (It’s written by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker.) Irvine Welsh’s 2002 Trainspotting sequel, Porno, has been re-released as T2: Trainspotting to tie in with the film. While the story underwent drastic changes, a number of elements (including Renton living in Amsterdam and Sick Boy’s pub) stayed intact. It’s a worthy followup, if a bit time-intensive due to Welsh’s frequent use of Scottish dialect. Lastly, Leonardo DiCaprio recently bought the rights to Stephen Talty’s nonfiction work The Black Hand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and this story of an early-20th century detective attempting to stop a crime wave is riveting.

 

Christopher Schobert’s Top 10 Films of 2016 (for The Film Stage)

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It’s always exciting to see my personal top 10 list for 2016 posted at The Film Stage. But it’s always difficult to call it “finished.” Here’s how things stand … at the moment.

Ignore any suggestion that 2016 was not a fantastic year for cinema. Moments linger (the campfire dance in American Honey, the final encounter in Certain Women, the Tracy Letts–Logan Lerman debate in Indignation, the first ten minutes of High-Rise, both “Camelot”-soundtracked sequences in Jackie, any scene that featured Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash) and performances resonate (everyone in Moonlight, Emma Stone in La La Land, Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters).

Choosing ten favorites and five honorable mentions is nasty business; I wish I could have included Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, a ridiculously underrated film that does not deserve to be remembered as a flop. But it just missed the cut. (Also, I was unable to see Silence in time for end-of-year consideration.) What these fifteen films have in common is the ability to surprise, confound, and delight in equal measure. Let’s see 2017 top that.

Honorable Mentions

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10. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

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The finest film of summer was Shane Black’s non-blockbuster The Nice Guys, a wildly funny, seriously involving slice of 70s noir. Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, and (soon-to-be-a-megastar) Angourie Rice are perfectly cast, and somehow the plotline seems fresh. It is such a satisfying viewing experience, in fact, that I found myself desperately hoping that it would kick off a franchise. That’s not to be, but that’s OK — we have The Nice Guys to enjoy forever.

 

9. A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)

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From start to finish, A Bigger Splash is beautifully disorienting. This tangled web of relationships and insecurities is highlighted by Tilda Swinton’s (voice-resting) rock star, and, of course, by Ralph Fiennes. He is a delightfully gyrating force of nature who is somehow not a lock for an Oscar nom. You’ll never hear “Emotional Rescue” again without picturing his moves. Even when offscreen, Fiennes’s aging record producer feels deeply involved. Clearly, Splash cements Luca Guadagnino’s place on the list of the world’s most exciting filmmakers.

 

8. Sing Street (John Carney)

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Like La La Land, the best moments of John Carney’s Sing Street felt charged by an almost relentless sense of positivity. What makes that accomplishment so remarkable is that much of the film is rooted in poverty, heartbreak, and sadness. That sadness, however, is balanced by some gobsmackingly fun music. And in the “Drive Like You Mean It” sequence, Sing Street truly achieves emotional liftoff. The film also takes the crown for must-own soundtrack of 2016.

 

7. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

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Where did American Honey come from? It’s hard not to ask that question while watching Andrea Arnold’s film, an almost indescribably exhilarating teenage road movie. A cast of unknowns (and a never-better Shia LaBeouf) excels at making this crew of magazine-hawking teens seem startlingly real. It’s a long journey — over two and a half hours — but never drags. In fact, Honey seems to fly by, so intoxicating is its mix of fiction and (quasi) reality.

 

6. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

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In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch makes the everyday riveting. And much of the credit has to go to Adam Driver, whose bus driver-poet is quite unlike any artist we’ve seen onscreen before. The same can be said of his wife, Laura, played by a luminescent Golshifteh Farahani. It’s the most effortless film of Jarmusch’s career, and certainly the most moving. It also features the most unexpectedly heartbreaking scene of the year, involving Driver, Farahani, a poorly behaved dog named Marvin, and a book of poems.

 

5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

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The Handmaiden is pure cinema — a tender, moving, utterly believable love story. It’s also a tense, unsettling, erotic masterpiece. There’s a palpable exhilaration that comes from watching this latest film from Park Chan-wook. From its four central performances and twisty script to the cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon and feverish, haunting score by Jo Yeong-wook, The Handmaiden is crafted to take your breath away. It’s hard to imagine a 2016 film with a better look, feel, and sound.

 

4. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

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Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is wise, funny, and wholly original. This is the family drama reimagined, in visually intoxicating fashion. The performances stand out, especially Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. Yet it’s Mills’ script that resonates strongest; there are a few lines from Bening that seem to capture what it truly feels like to be a parent. Interestingly, it seems 20th Century Women is already underrated.

 

3. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

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Watching Moonlight is a wondrous experience. This coming-of-age drama following a young African-American male through three complex stages of his life never strikes a wrong note, and it always surprises. Barry Jenkins has crafted something extraordinary here, and it will be fascinating to see what he does next. In the meantime, let’s rewatch Moonlight, a film to be treasured and analyzed for years to come.

 

2. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

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Pablo Larraín’s Jackie upends the traditional historical drama with bold storytelling, note-perfect performances, and a piercingly smart, emotionally probing script. The film belongs to Natalie Portman, but the entire cast stands out, especially John Hurt. With Jackie (and his other late-2016 release, Neruda), Larrain has deconstructed the film biography, and it’s thrilling to watch. It’s difficult to imagine a film about a recent historical figure that feels as emotionally affecting.

 

1. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

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Damien Chazelle’s Los Angeles-set musical lives up to the the fall festival hype. And my goodness, that’s saying something. Wonderfully unrealistic, even its flaws (and there are a few) are endearing. The songs, the performances from Gosling and Stone (the look on her face when the Messengers’ burst into life in concert might be the most perfect reaction of 2016), and that opening are unforgettable. But these are all topped by its dazzling final sequence, which sees La La Land practically explode with a mixture of joy and melancholy. The result is a film that leaves the viewer in a state of bliss — high on the feeling that comes from great cinema.

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.

Review: ‘Oasis: Supersonic’ is a wildly entertaining blast of bombast

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Here’s my Film Stage review of SUPERSONIC, which screened in Buffalo and across the nation on October 26.

Oliver Stone. That’s the filmmaker who should have been asked to chronicle the career of Oasis, the hugely successful, ever-combustible, now-departed kings of Britpop. Looking at the entirety of the band’s lifespan — from the early 1990s to break-up in 2008 — it’s hard not to notice the trademarks of Doors-era Stone: controversies, fisticuffs, conspiracies, bravery, insanity, ego, vulnerability, lust, and violence. In rock and roll, these are positives, and the joys that emanate from such feelings and behavior is certainly on display in Oasis: Supersonic, a Noel and Liam Gallagher-approved documentary. The band’s career, however, is not really the subject of the new documentary directed by Mat Whitecross and from the producers of Amy, Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy Winehouse documentary. Instead, Supersonic is about the rise of the band, the period from birth to its two concerts (to 250,000 attendees) at Knebworth.

And that’s fine, since Supersonic is a wildly entertaining blast of energy and bombast. There are few successes in music history quite like the one-two punch of Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, and the film’s mix of interviews, videos, concert scenes, and unseen footage is, in a word, stunning. Even die-hard Oasis fans will be floored by scenes of the band’s first concert with Noel Gallagher, at Scotland’s King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in 1993. (Not to mention video from the band’s infamous Whisky A Go Go bust-up in 1994, as well as a rehearsal room performance of “All Around the World” from the early 90s.)

Told mostly in chronological order after opening with the band’s epic Knebworth concerts (minus a few time jumps), Supersonic moves from the Gallagher brothers’ youthful antics to the start of Oasis, signing by Creation Records, the remarkable successes of Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory, and… that’s it. The Knebworth gigs surely represent the apex of Oasis’s popularity, but hitting the brakes here may disappoint the band’s most hardcore fans. Those hoping for tales of the 2007 bust-up that killed the band must look elsewhere. Newer fans and those with only a modest interest in Oasis are likely to walk away a bit more impressed by the film, and what the Gallaghers accomplished. As Noel puts it in the film, “I don’t think anybody will ever be able to fully explain to people, who are maybe like teenagers now, what a colossal thing Oasis was in the lives of anybody who gave a shit about music,” Gallagher said.

Indeed, Supersonic does a fine job of showing just how large-scale the phenomenon was: countless concert scenes, lots of snappin’ paparazzi, and some stunningly nasty put-downs from Noel to “has-beens” like the late Michael Hutchence. More intriguing are the photos and stories from Noel and Liam’s childhood in the Manchester suburb of Burnage. The unsung hero of these early scenes is surely mom Peggie Gallagher, a hard-working, loving figure forced to hold down several jobs. Her husband was physically abusive, and the scenes described by Peggie, Noel, Liam, and third brother Paul are harrowing. Psychologically, we learn much about the brothers’ Gallagher here, and the reappearance of their father at the height of the band’s popularity is both sad and expected.

The opposite is true of, well, much of the film. There are moments of (sometimes surreal) humor, specifically an animated re-creation of a drunken ferry ride to Amsterdam, some studio hijinks during the making of Morning Glory, and Noel’s admission that Liam oozed the rock-star charisma that he [Noel] did not: “He had a great haircut, a great walk.” Noel, in particular, comes across as the most thoughtful member of the band. (Sorry, Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs and Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan; only the former agreed to be interviewed for Supersonic.) The most startling example might be his memories of writing the song “Supersonic” during the time it took for the other members of the band to eat some take-out food. Liam Gallagher’s starpower remains undeniable; whether messing about at the Definitely Maybe cover shoot or pontificating poolside in Japan, it’s clear his magnetism was as important to Oasis’s success as the hooks of “Live Forever” and “Wonderwall.”

Supersonic truly blasts off after Definitely Maybe drops, and the band is hurtled toward international popularity. The film ends with 1996’s Knebworth concerts, and this means we never see the drug-fueled excess of Be Here Now, not to mention the fascinating place Oasis found themselves in after the tide turned against that record. It’s understandable that Whitecross chose Knebworth as an ending point, since the band never again commanded the attention of the zeitgeist on that scale. It takes for granted that we all know what happened from then on — as Liam puts it late in the film, “We were never gonna do ten rounds” — but leaves us wanting more. Perhaps that’s what every music documentary should aspire to.

Yet as a longtime Oasis fan, it’s hard not to see Supersonic as something of a missed opportunity. There are some surprisingly notable omissions. The band’s influences — The Beatles (of course), The Smiths, The Stone Roses — are barely acknowledged. (We do hear a Stone Roses tune in the background of an early scene; interestingly, Whitecross previously directed the 2012 ensemble comedy Spike Island, which used the Roses’ famous concert as its backdrop.) The controversial 1996 MTV Unplugged performance, which saw Liam drop out due to vocal issues, is unmentioned, an odd choice considering the major headlines it caused. Also missing is the band’s 1996 MTV Video Music Awards performance of “Champagne Supernova,” notable for Liam’s slow gob at song’s end. “Britpop” and “Cool Britannia” are never uttered. But most noteworthy is the film’s failure to include the infamous “Blur vs. Oasis” battle of summer 1995. The simultaneous release of Blur’s “Country House” and Oasis’s “Roll With It” was the starting point for the 2003 Britpop documentary Live Forever, so this ground has indeed been covered on film. Still, the band’s “loss” to Blur, followed by a gargantuan victory on the album charts, is an undeniably important moment in the group’s history, and U.K. music in general.

Interestingly, Whitecross chooses to use only voice-over; we never seen the Noel and Liam (not to mention Bonehead or Guigsy) of today. It’s a surprising move, as watching the brothers speak is often more interesting than what they actually say. There’s also a surplus amount of concert footage. (My friend Anthony Chabala, a longtime expert regarding the instruments used by the band, considers Supersonic a concert film with biographical embellishments.) Even with these minor quibbles, we’re left with a film that is undeniably strong, and never less that hugely entertaining. The only logical criticisms, in fact, relate to what’s left out. There is still a great, epic, full account of the Oasis story to be told. In the meantime, we have Supersonic, a reminder of a time when two brothers born in poverty and bred on Beatles took over the world. It didn’t last long, but it was one helluva ride. Above all else, Supersonic captures that feeling.

Oasis: Supersonic screens for one night only on Wednesday, October 26.

 

Interview: Ben Wheatley, director of High-Rise (for The Film Stage)

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I was honored to have the chance to interview High-Rise director Ben Wheatley for The Film Stage. One of my favorite films so far this year, the J.G. Ballard adaptation is finally opening nationwide following a VOD release.

It’s no exaggeration to say that after Ben Wheatley’s exhilarating High-Rise made its long-awaited debut at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, audiences staggered out of the theater in a daze. While some may have found the experience overwhelming, just as many emerged with a feeling of real exhilaration. Yes, Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel is that kind of film. This story of life becoming unhinged in an imposing, endlessly fascinating tower block is violent, oozing with sex and littered with chaos. And while clearly not for all tastes, it’s almost impossible not to be impressed with Wheatley’s filmmaking prowess.

With a starry-cast — a never-better Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss — music from Clint Mansell and Portishead (the band contributes a stunning cover of Abba’s “S.O.S.”), High-Rise is the latest uncompromising visual and sonic explosion from Wheatley. The English director’s Down TerraceKill ListSightseers, and A Field in England have earned him a dedicated following. He is also known for his television work, including two episodes from the eighth season of Doctor Who.

Like his other big-screen efforts, High-Rise was written by and co-edited with his partner, Amy Jump. While promoting the film in Vancouver, Wheatley discussed how he and Jump approached Ballard’s text, why the transition from his earlier features to the world of High-Rise was not as massive a leap as it might seem, and also provided an update on his next film, the Boston-set crime drama Free Fire. Recently picked up by A24, Free Fire is executive produced by Martin Scorsese and stars recent Room Oscar winner Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, and Jack Reynor. In the meantime, the sensual menace of High-Rise is finally coming to theaters this Friday after a VOD release.

 

The Film Stage: High-Rise has always been categorized as an “unfilmable” book. Did that label have any impact on your approach to the film?

Ben Wheatley: It just depends how you define unfilmable. There are books that are structurally and formally difficult; something like Naked Lunch is formally difficult because it jumps all over the place. I don’t think that was ever the issue with High-Rise. When you actually look at the book, it has quite a linear storyline to it, and it’s quite strong visually. The difficulty comes in the way the characters act. It doesn’t have a traditional happy ending, and the characters don’t act like traditional Hollywood movie characters do. But I think High-Rise has unfairly had this unfilmable tag just because it’s been in development for a long time. It doesn’t necessarily always mean the same thing. With High-Rise, it just means there’s not been an appetite for it up until now, not that it’s been impossible to film.

 

You’ve said part of what you found appealing about Ballard as a young reader was that his work felt dangerous. Was that part of the appeal in bringing High-Rise to life — tackling something that inspired those feelings?

Yes, but when I was a kid and I read High-Rise, it was basically predictive fiction. Unfortunately, now it’s kind of come true. We’ve come to meet Ballard’s predictions rather than [see them] become less relevant. They’re actually more relevant over time. And the idea of being kind of Ballard-ian characters trapped in this modern world seems to feel more like documentary than like fantasy.

 

Do you think the story’s parallels to the present day were always there? Was that another element of your attraction to adapting High-Rise?

Yes, I think so. That’s just part of what happens when you are engaged in writing predictive fiction — your story is always [looking] into the future a little bit, so it’s got stronger legs than most novels might have. Ballard’s peers were writing about their experiences of being professors at universities and their love affairs or whatever, but those books date a lot faster than something that’s already looking to the future.

I think the main attraction for me to Ballard and for readers to Ballard is that he could look at the modern world and dissect it, and he had a very unique vision of what the modern world was. He saw beyond the bubble of reality that we exist in, the thing that makes everything seem to make sense in the modern world. I think maybe his own experiences of being a child — where he saw the world he was living in completely destroyed and reassembled again — gave him an insight into the way that the world works. [You don’t have that insight] without having that violent wrench from one reality to another reality. The modern person just feels that what’s happening to them at this moment is something that’s immutable. This is a problem with the western world, that most people don’t even think they’re going to die, let alone can see beyond their own immediate moment.

 

In terms of mounting the film, what was it like to make the transition from your earlier films to something with the size and scale of High-Rise?

I think if you look at the films I’ve made and you go from Sightseers to High-Rise, it looks like a massive leap. But the reality is that during that time I also made a lot of television and directed lots of adverts. In my films, we never had enough budget to even move the camera — everything had to be handheld because of budget restraints. I love handheld camera, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to have a large set built and even to have extras, really. I feel like I’ve been working with a full deck of cards for the first time. Not that I mean there is anything wrong with the other films, but they were very specifically designed to be done for the budgets that we had.

 

Talk a little about the editing style? There are moments when you jump to different parts of the buildings in the same sequence, and sometimes even mid-sentence. How much of this was pre-planned, and how much was developed in post-production?

Amy tends to write the scripts with the editing in, and because she is the editor with me, she knows that she can have that control. Accepted wisdom is that the script should be as vanilla as possible going forward to the director, but because I’m going to direct it and she’s going to edit it with me, we know that anything that’s written in the script at the beginning can be executed at the end, and not in a way that will irritate the people making the movie. There’s this idea that screenwriters should know their place, and not interfere with the work the director does. But because those jobs are so blurred between our different roles, it’s absolutely fine. So quite a lot of the structure of the film was already in place before we started shooting. Obviously, some of the montage stuff was created on the fly as we made the movie. On High-Rise and on [upcoming film]Free-Fire, and even on A Field in England, we edited as we went along. That means I can [identify] shots I need as I’m in production that I can fire off to the second unit to go and get to make those sequences work.

 

In order to finance a film as bold and ambitious as High-Rise, was it essential to have a cast of established names?

Totally. It’s important in getting any film made, but at a certain budget level, you just don’t financing unless you’re swimming in that pool. And that’s the way it’s always been. But then the other side of it is that people don’t rise up to become those names unless they’re really, really brilliant as well. So it’s absolutely fine.

 

Your next film, Free Fire, is another large-scale production. Can we expect to see it make the fall festival circuit? And how fun was it to see your star Brie Larson’s success?

It’s finished, so I think it’s looking at a release in September. We’re really looking forward to unleashing it. [As for Brie Larson], we were filming well before Room was nominated; none of it had happened really. All that was happening at the time was that Room was being talked about as being really good. But it’s been an incredible ride for her. It’s quite something, really.

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.

From The Film Stage — Books on Filmmaking: ‘The Force Awakens,’ Spike Lee, Pixar, and More

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My latest books piece for The Film Stage is heavy on The Force Awakens, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Take a look. (Amazon links to all books can be found at the link.)

Force Awakens fever is still gripping the film industry two months after the release of the seventh Star Wars entry, and the world of cinema-centric books is just as Snoke-obsessed. But there’s plenty more worth snagging, including in-depth analyses of Pixar and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a lavish study of musicals, and a graphic stunner called Filmish.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary by Pablo Hidalgo (DK Publishing)

Star Wars The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DK’s Star Wars visual  dictionaries are, quite simply, must-owns. (Even the three prequel editions are fascinating.) And the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary might be the best yet. Author Pablo Hidalgo goes deep, providing everything you wanted to know about Jakku (but were afraid to ask), offering insight on briefly seen characters like Max Von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka, and breaking down exactly why the “crossguard blades” of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber are a necessity. Plus, the film stills and close-up images are a Star Wars geek’s dream come true. Been coveting a good look at Han Solo’s insulated boots and Rey’s pilot doll? You got it.

Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film by Edward Ross (Abrams Books)

Filmish

While technically a 2015 release, I feel confident in saying the winner of Cinephile’s Most Beloved Book of 2016 has arrived. Edward Ross’s Filmishis, as its subtitle puts it, “a graphic journey through film,” one that touches on more than 300 films, Centered on concepts like “the eye,” “the body,” “voice and language,” and “power and ideology,” Filmish is a joy to page through. Part of the fun is identifying the films referenced, and happily, Ross does include a filmography. How eclectic is the mix? Everything from They Live to Hiroshima, Mon Amour makes an appearance. Filmish would be an especially perfect read for a budding young film fanatic; I wish I’d had it as a teen obsessively taping old films on Turner Classic Movies.

Richard Pryor: American Id by Jason Bailey (The Critical Press)

Richard Pryor

Writer Jason Bailey’s books on Pulp Fiction and Woody Allen are two of the most enjoyable filmmaking reads in recent years. He shifts gears with the essay collection Richard Pryor: American Id, but the results are no less impressive. Bailey opens with an analysis of “the most riveting footage ever captured of Richard Pryor,” a trainwreck of a morning-show interview shot on the Arizona set of Stir Crazy. “You cannot take your eyes off it,” Bailey writes, sending the reader racing to YouTube for a viewing of the coke-crazed, deliriously profane comic. The interview provides a unique intro to a text exploring Pryor’s work, his life, and racial identity. You’re unlikely to find a more fascinating 80-page read.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Official Novelization by Alan Dean Foster (Del Rey/LucasBooks)

Star Wars The Force Awakens novelization

It is certainly fitting that Alan Dean Foster, author of the novelization of A New Hope and famous spin-off novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, was chosen to write the novelization of The Force Awakens. The differences between the film and the text have been well-documented — Unkar Plutt follows Rey to Maz Kanata’s place and loses a limb in the process, Finn and Rey steal a snowspeeder — and certainly add to one’s enjoyment of the film itself. While some of the added dialogue is rather silly (“We’ll have a party later,” Han tells the reunited Finn and Rey. “I’ll bring the cake.”), Foster’s Force Awakens is a brisk, entertaining read that stands nicely on its own.

Woody: The Biography by David Evanier (St. Martin’s Press)

Woody

Yes, David Evanier’s Woody: The Biography is yet another tome about the films and personal controversies surrounding Woody Allen. What makes this one stand out is its analysis of Allen’s recent cinematic output a well as the details surrounding the recently resurfaced accusations of Dylan Farrow. In addition, Evanier’s book concludes with a chat — although not an interview — with the man himself. “[Our] conversation encompassed the moral realities of the world we live in: discussion of the Holocaust, discussion of art and the idea of a masterpiece versus frivolity,” the author writes. While we’re left wishing for even more highlights of the one-on-one chat, what’s here is enough to bring the biography to a grand close.

Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story (DK Publishing)

Musicals

Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story is a coffee-table stunner for any lover of Broadway, or the film adaptations that often follow stage success. The sheer scope of this visual extravaganza makes it a major achievement. Starting in 17th century France and stretching all the way to Hamilton (a very appropriate ending), the text is as entertaining as it is educational. And while a Sondheim timeline and breakdown of Julie Taymor’s approach toThe Lion King might not be groundbreaking, in the context of Musicals such elements seem remarkably fresh.

The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Phil Szostak (Abrams Books)

Star Wars The Force Awakens Art

Of all the new Force Awakens-themed literary releases, the one that offers the finest sense of how the film came together is surely The Art of The Force Awakens. In this remarkable text, we witness how young heroes “Kira and Sam” developed into Rey and Finn, how the concept of a “Jedi killer” morphed into Kylo Ren, and what a film featuring more direct involvement from Luke Skywalker may have looked like. The Art also makes clear that the much-debated parallels with A New Hope from a visual and storytelling perspective were always intentional. Did the Starkiller Base design remind you of the Death Star? Of course it did. As art director Kevin Jenkins puts it, “It’s a massive homage.”

Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled by Ashley Clark (The Critical Press)

Facing Blackness

Fifteen years after its release, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled remains one of the most complex films of its director’s career. All too often it has been disregarded, so it is high time for a contemplative book like Ashley Clark’sFacing Blackness. Yes, Bamboozled is “hardly fan favorite material,” Clark writes, but also a radical effort that harnesses “blackface imagery in complex and provocative ways.” While she finds the satire “occasionally muddy,” Clark also rightly finds Bamboozled to be a “horror film” that “streaks the screen with unhealed psychic scars.” This is brilliant, essential writing about an unforgettable film.

 

 

Yesterday Is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios by Josh Spiegel (The Critical Press)

Yesterday is Forever

Movie Mezzanine’s Josh Spiegel shines new light on the Pixar oeuvre inYesterday Is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios. Spiegel adroitly makes the case for nostalgia, “the renewable fuel of modern popular culture,” as central to the successes of John Lasseter and company. Perhaps most insightful is his comparison of Disney’s Frozen with Pixar’s underrated Brave. The latter, he writes, is “fully committed to depicting a mother-daughter relationship without any make intrusion,” whereas Frozen is “more concerned with the nebulous concept of romantic, not sisterly, love.”

 

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Incredible Cross-Sections written by Jason Fry, illustrated by Kemp Remillard (DK Publishing)

Star Wars The Force Awakens Crosssections

DK’s Force Awakens Incredible Cross-Sections is the least-essential TFAbook of the bunch, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wildly intriguing. The level of detail here — the auxiliary generator in Poe Dameron’s X-wing, the fuel tank in Rey’s speeder, the “relief pilot bunk” in the Millennium Falcon — is staggering. Plus, the artistry of illustrator Kemp Remillard makes every page frame-worthy.

Alien Next Door by Joey Spiotto (Titan Books)

Alien

And now for something completely different. The premise of artist Joey Spiotto’s Alien Next Door is simple, smart, and very, very funny: What would our favorite Ripley-battling sci-fi monster look like when going to the beach, bowling, or taking a selfie? Filled with numerous in-jokes any fan of theAlien films will appreciate, Alien Next Door is a face-hugging treat.

Bonus: Novel Round-Up

The Girl in the Spiders Web

Those looking for two gripping novels with links to the world of cinema should check out David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Alfred A. Knopf) and Jo Nesbo’s Midnight Sun (Alfred A. Knopf). The former is the continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series and the story of its heroine, Lisbeth Salander. While fans of Larsson’s original trilogy may have been concerned with the idea of another author carrying on the series, it quickly becomes clear that Lagercrantz’s book is respectful and appropriately thrilling. Let’s hope we someday have the chance to see Rooney Mara in a big-screen adaptation of this story involving hacking the N.S.A. And Jo Nesbo, author of The Snowman (finally filming with Michael Fassbender as iconic detective Harry Hole), returns with another chilly crime drama called Midnight Sun. This tale of the former fixer for a Norwegian crime lord is a short (less than 300 pages), fast-moving blast of a novel.

Christopher Schobert’s top 10 films of 2014 (via The Film Stage)

two days

I was thrilled to contribute my thoughts on the this year’s best films to The Film Stage. Take a gander, and see if you agree. (See the site’s top 50 list here.)

I saw the best film of 2014 in April, but do not take that as evidence of a weak year. It was, in fact, a rather wonderful 12 months of cinema, perhaps the finest in some time. Consider some of the enthralling films that did not make the cut: The Raid 2, The Double, Enemy, Gone Girl, The Trip to Italy, Snowpiercer, Locke, Jodorowsky’s Dune, The LEGO Movie, The Theory of Everything, Joe, Edge of Tomorrow, Life Itself, Palo Alto, Nymphomaniac, Like Father Like Son, Land Ho!, and Big Hero 6. And many came nowhere near a list of the top 15, but offered distinct pleasures: Lucy, Neighbors, Guardians of the Galaxy, Belle, Godzilla, The Skeleton Twins, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Fault in Our Stars, In Bloom, The One I Love, Blue Ruin, We Are the Best!, and Magic in the Moonlight.
Consider, also, that I have not had the chance, for one reason or another, to see Inherent Vice, Goodbye to Language, Selma, Love is Strange, Calvary, Unbroken, Citizenfour, Pride, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, among others. Oh, and there are also two biggies that were handsome, well-acted, but, to me, disappointing: Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game. Incidentally, the worst film of the year was an easy one — the Cusack-De Niro abomination The Bag Man — but I must also acknowledge the three big-budget wannabe-monsters that wasted time, money, and talent: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transcendence, and RoboCop. Now, on to happier thoughts.

Honorable Mentions: Force Majeure, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Immigrant, Maps to the Stars, Obvious Child

10. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski)
Ida is the definition of a seemingly out-of-nowhere, quietly powerful spellbinder. The performances from Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida and Agata Kulesza as her aunt Wanda rank among the year’s finest, and deserve Oscar consideration. (It’s not going to happen, but they deserve it.) Ida is a haunting experience, with an ending that ranks among the boldest and most engaging of 2014.

9. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Between Enemy and Nightcrawler, it was one delightfully creepy year of Jake Gyllenhaal. The latter, from director Dan Gilroy, is an incisive, acidic view of the creation of a monster — in this case, Gyllenhaal’s amoral videographer. Watching it at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was downright exhilarating, as Nightcrawler revealed itself to be more than just a goosebump-y thriller. Indeed, this is bold, go-for-broke filmmaking that will look even more impressive in years to come.

8. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
The buzz emanating from Cannes was on the money: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a Russian tragedy that lingers in the memory. What is perhaps most interesting is how the story slowly develops, moving from small-town politics to gender study and, eventually, a meditation on luck, fate, and violence. The imagery here is unforgettable, and the performances stunning. Leviathan is a dark and incisive look at life in modern Russia.

7. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Like the imagery in Leviathan, the faces in the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night are unforgettable. Well, one face, actually: that of the great Marion Cotillard. As spare and contemplative as the Dardennes’ best work, Two Days, One Night has an emotional urgency that is almost overwhelming. Cotillard makes the fate of Sandra — a factory worker attempting to persuade her co-workers to give up their bonus, allowing her to keep her job — the fate of the audience. This is her finest performance. And that’s saying something.

6. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
The Sidney Lumet talk is apt, as J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year certainly captures the scope and pulse of the late master’s dramas. But this is a dark-side-of-the-American-dream epic with a reach all its own. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain create the most compelling couple of the year, and by the time the credits role, the viewer feels as if they have just witnessed the most significant moments in the birth of a giant.

5. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
It seemed almost impossible that Iñárritu’s Birdman could live up to the festival hype, but indeed it did. Yes, it is a technical marvel. But, above all else, it is an actor’s showcase. Watching Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson levitate, contemplate, rage, and annoy makes the film one of this year’s most pleasurable, and he is equaled by Edward Norton and Emma Stone, especially.

4. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s romantic, cool, mesmerizing love story is an idiosyncratic gem, and a vampire film that feels utterly, thrillingly fresh. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are remarkable as the central couple, the visuals are lush and mysterious, and the soundtrack enhances vistas both urban and exotic. The overarching feel is unmistakably that of a Jarmusch picture, but on a heretofore unreached scale, and its open-ended conclusion is thematically appropriate. It makes the audience feel as if Jarmusch’s dreamlike film could loop back to the beginning, in a circle, and run again, again, and again. How wonderfully fitting.

3. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater’s film is one of the finest studies of adolescence ever made, and a remarkable achievement that pulls off something extraordinary: It makes one feel as if you’ve watched a fictional character grow up before your eyes — because you have. Sort of. Admittedly, being a parent made Boyhood resonate on a deep level, but its force is obviously not limited by age or life status. I think audiences have embraced Linklater’s film so strongly because it makes so many other coming-of-age stories seem trite and overblown. By focusing on the little things, Linklater made a film that can speak to nearly everyone.

2. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
Whiplash is one of the most exhilarating films in years, and certainly one of the finest of 2014. It’s also one that may end up severely misunderstood. Many reviews see the theme as very direct: the only way to become a great artist is through merciless practice, preferably under the tutelage of a tyrant. I’m not sure it is quite so clear-cut. Yes, the movie ends — SPOILER — with Andrew finally winning the respect and approval of the drill sergeant-esque Fletcher. For a few moments, at least. It’s a victory, to be sure, but not necessarily an indication of stardom, or even greatness. This success does not mean director Damien Chazelle necessarily believes it was all worth it, or that he agrees with Fletcher’s methods. It is the appropriate ending, and a great one at that.

1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is the film I referenced at the start, the one that I saw in April and never stopped swooning over. But what is it, exactly, that makes this film come in so far ahead of any other in 2014? Perhaps it is the way Skin makes the Scottish landscape look positively, well, alien. Maybe it is the incredible performance from Scarlett Johansson, an absurdly fascinating score, and the brain-searing imagery. Or perhaps it is how those elements come together for one entrancing experience. This is the most haunting, complex film of the year, and a sad, disturbing work of art. There are scenes that continue to linger in my memory months after that first viewing — chiefly the sight of a crying baby, alone on the beach. That sequence, and others, still resonate, and they will for some time to come. Quite simply, any year in which there is an Under the Skin is a great year for cinema.