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The Best Documentaries of 2018

Written by The Film Stage, December 13, 2018 at 8:31 am 

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An epic concert from nearly a half-century ago, sports documentaries that break the mold, a look at the American Midwest, a document of a film that never was — these were just a few of the subjects and stories that this year’s documentary offerings brought us. With 2018 wrapping up, we’ve selected 15 features in the field that left us most impressed, so check out our list below and, in the comments, let us know your favorites.

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack)

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A time capsule that’s as fresh and powerful an experience as it must have been when recorded live in Watts in 1972, Amazing Grace is arguably one of the year’s most-anticipated films arriving after years of litigation and a fetal technical glitch that was finally resolved thanks to digital workflows and persistence. What remains is a powerful and captivating performance by the great Aretha Franklin as she opts to record a live album after a string of number one hits. Reverend James Cleveland accompanies along with the Southern California Gospel Choir for a spiritual performance that brings the house down and attracts the likes of Mick Jagger to observe. Before the first night of her performance Revealed Cleveland tells the audience that you don’t have to believe to feel the spirit the spirit and 46 years later the film still inspired a range of raw reactions from clapping, toe-tapping, and tears when screened at Film Forum during its sold out Oscar-qualifying run. The raw, often handheld improvisational style of its filmmaking is a departure from the heavily-choreographed and -covered performance documentation we see today, giving the film the raw intimacy of sitting in the church watching the production of the record take shape in the moment. Amazing Grace, directed by an uncredited Sydney Pollack and completed by producer Alan Elliott and editor Jeff Buchanan is a powerful experience and one that should be seen (and heard) in cinema.  – John F.

Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene)

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Over the past decade, Robert Greene has carved out a place as one of the most vital American documentarians working today, and with Bisbee ’17, he has produced perhaps his most accomplished work to date. A chronicle of the centennial reenactment of the forced deportation of mining workers that occurred in the eponymous Arizona town, the film emerges as a clear-eyed, blistering look into contemporary political divisions through an entire spectrum of viewpoints, while still possessing some of the most lucid and impressive filmmaking of the year. – Ryan S.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson)

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Throughout the remarkable Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? – director Travis Wilkerson’s attempt to learn more about and confront the murder of the African American Bill Spann by his white great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, through a cinematic essay on racism in America – there are many black-and-white images of houses, forests, and roads in Alabama, the state in which the killing took place. As interview subjects recount memories or details related to the crime — through either first-person testimony or Wilkerson’s second-hand paraphrasing — the film often eschews focusing on the speaker to dwell on local spaces, quietly moving through static shots of Alabaman milieus. These images are so still that, at first, they resemble photographs — specifically, old photographs of the sort that one might find in the photo album of someone who was alive when Bill Spann was killed. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the leaves and grass are actually moving, rustling ever so slightly in the breeze. – Jonah J. (full review)

Good Luck (Ben Russell)

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There is a symbol at the beginning, middle and end of Good Luck. It is a simple geometric circle with a horizontal line evenly separating top from bottom. Does it represent above ground and below; Northern and Southern Hemispheres; Ying and Yang; daylight and darkness? It could be any one of these or all of them at once. Shot in 2016, this visually stunning, obliquely political, and rather extensive ode to the hardest of graft is built to offer the viewer the otherworldly experience of first going down the shaft of a state-run copper mine in Serbia and, in the second half, that of illegally digging for gold under the Surinamese sun. – Rory O. (full review)

The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson, Evan Johnson)

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Few directors seem to reinvent cinema with each new picture, but Guy Maddin and his passion for boundless experimentation does it time and time again. His latest formally thrilling film is a “parallel-universe version” of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, utilizing footage from San Francisco-set features, ranging from Hollywood classics to avant-garde films to prime-time television. Commissioned by San Francisco Film Society, it’s not only a must-see for cinephiles but not since Thom Anderson’s L.A. opus has a filmmaker so gleefully dissected a location with clearly beloved footage. – Jordan R.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross)

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Structurally, Hale County This Morning, This Evening does not do much to distinguish itself from other contemporary vérité documentaries which focus on quotidian details within a certain milieu. But even so, it still finds value in the unique incidents it captures. Send a hundred different filmmakers to a hundred different places, and even if their work is aesthetically identical, they’ll each document at least a few unique moments that will make each piece worth it. Beyond that, director RaMell Ross demonstrates a talent for framing a scene in a striking manner, such as shooting a trash fire so that the rays of the sun shine through the smoke. – Dan S. (full review)

Infinite Football (Corneliu Porumboiu)

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In Romania at the end of the 1980’s–the autumn years of the Ceausescu regime–Adrian Porumboiu worked as a professional referee for the national football league (or however it was referred to at the time). His son Corneliu (born in 1975) would grow up to become a significant filmmaker in the so-called Romanian New Wave of the mid ’00s. In 2014, Corneliu made a movie about his dad called The Second Game in which he narrated over a full 90-minute match that his father had refereed. Through the ever-politicized veil of sport the director was able to talk about the realities of those times. He returns to the beautiful game in 2018 with Infinite Football, a contemporary portrait of a man who suffered a bad injury before his career—at least in his eyes–had the chance to take off. – Rory O. (full review)

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The Best Directorial Debuts of 2018

Written by The Film Stage, December 11, 2018 at 9:03 am 

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While we aim to discuss a wide breadth of films each year, few things give us more pleasure than the arrival of bold, new voices. It’s why we venture to festivals and pore over a variety of different features that might bring to light some emerging talent. This year was an especially notable time for new directors making their stamp, and we’re highlighting the handful of 2018 debuts that most impressed us.

Below, one can check out a list spanning a variety of different genres and distributions, from those that barely received a theatrical release to wide bows. In years to come, take note as these helmers (hopefully) ascend.

Blockers (Kay Cannon)

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Blockers doesn’t pull off the impossible so much as it turns the tables on a common formula, finding something fresh, empowering, and hilarious in that time-old story of a group of friends making a pact to lose their V-card on prom night. Directed by Kay Cannon in her debut, there are a few more real-world complications for our leads, including Lisa (Leslie Mann), a single mother with an unhealthy obsession with her daughter; Mitchell (John Cena), a buff yet sensitive dad in a committed marriage; and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), a party boy with surprising depth. This studio comedy even finds room for a tender (yet still very funny) coming out story to overbearing parents. – John F. (full review)

Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)

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A confident, clear-eyed debut by director Carlos López Estrada and writing duo Rafael Casal and (Hamilton alumni) Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting is a film of heightened, theatrical rhythm that builds layers of feeling and performance into both its comedy and drama; providing a propulsive movement that gives this story of class, race and gentrification a rare kind of joyful energy that leaves the viewer unconscious of the political realities of these issues until they come crashing back, manifested in the daily lives of the people who make Oakland what it is. – Josh L.

Cam (Daniel Goldhaber)

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It’s scary to be a woman online, where safe places don’t exist and any creep can look up your address if he pleases. That horror hasn’t fully acknowledged this 21st-century truth is evidence that the genre sometimes needs a woman’s touch in order to fully bring to light what’s truly scary. While the directorial debut of Daniel Goldhaber, Cam, unlike most horror films this decade, feels relevant in large part thanks to screenwriter Isa Mazzei who forces viewers to confront the horror of a total loss of agency in the digital age. – Willow M.

Custody (Xavier Legrand)

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Custody shows domestic abuse isn’t something that comes and goes. It’s not a 0-60 scenario where some days escalate and others don’t. Life perpetually travels at 80 mph instead. You must be ready for any outcome because your predator is as desperate to find you as you are to escape. And when your only connection is a young boy who can’t help being coerced by constant questioning and outside interference, isolation isn’t permanent. – Jared M. (full review)

Den of Thieves (Christian Gudegast)

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Writer/director Christian Gudegast exploded early in 2018 with this stunning 2-hour, 20-minute piece of pop sleaze cinema. His debut Den of Thieves is Heat by way of Monster energy drink; all the broad strokes of an exciting crime drama but slick, sweaty and loud, and chock-full of all the cartoonishly toxic machismo and grease-stained details you could ask for. Gerard Butler brilliantly fills in the Pacino role as “Big Nick,” a drunken, divorced gorilla cop whose violent tendencies are displayed as prominently as his cheap-takeout-filled beard.” – Josh L.

Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)

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Eighth Grade, the comedic-dramatic study of a 13-year-old girl which marks comedian and writer-director Bo Burnham’s freshman venture into feature filmmaking, is a sometimes sidesplitting, sometimes gut-wrenching film in which, on a certain level, nothing of any tremendous significance happens. And yet, with Burnham’s immensely empathetic observations of character psychology, clever choices of structure and editing, and cinematographer Andrew Wehde’s striking closeup shots and dreamy, saturated color palette, we are brought so close into the emotionally turbulent world of a struggling middle schooler that every petty social pitfall and personal triumph carries the emotional weight that many lesser films resort to pure shock value to achieve. Dialogue about Snapchat, vlogging and sexting isn’t just there to proclaim the film’s up-to-the-minute relevance, either: the film is almost an oblique science fiction piece, insofar as it repeatedly interrogates how the technology of ubiquitous ultra-networked devices uniquely affects the psychological, social and sexual realities of a generation of Americans living their formative years in the shadow of Twitter, Instagram and Youtube. Eighth Grade isn’t just the definitive tween comedy of the 2010s: it’s an accomplished piece of impressionist cinema which announces the arrival of a potentially electrifying young talent. – Eli F.

The Great Buddha+ (Huang Hsin-yao)

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Huang Hsin-Yao is a new voice in independent Taiwanese cinema, and his first narrative feature–an adaptation of his short film The Great Buddha–carries itself with all of the vitriol that one would expect from somebody angry at the state of the Taiwanese film industry and government. This is apparent from the outset of The Great Buddha+, when Huang speaks to the audience as the credits roll, speaking harshly about the producers and delivering a personal statement. This anger remains throughout–a character named after the producer that Huang is particularly dissatisfied with is even killed off in a darkly humorous manner. – Jason O. (full review)

The Guilty (Gustav Möller)

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The Guilty is an exhilarating, minimalist thriller that effectively sinks its hooks in, despite its bland, melodramatic title. In the vein of Locke and My Dinner with Andre, it isn’t exactly a one-man show fronted by Jakob Cedergren, but works as well as it does thanks to director Gustav Möller’s taut editing, voice cast, and sound effects that create a haunting scene halfway through the film without a drop of onscreen blood. – John F. (full review)

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Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: Howard Hughes, Tintin, ‘Isle of Dogs,’ Beastie Boys & More

Written by Christopher Schobert, December 10, 2018 at 8:00 am 

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Yes, you could spend your holiday in the company of family and friends. But wouldn’t you rather curl up with a new book centered on cinema? There are new options aplenty, but let’s start with the latest from one of the most insightful, compelling voices we have: the great Karina Longworth.

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood by Karina Longworth (Custom House)

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Is there more to say about Howard Hughes after decades of biographies and films? Indeed, and the latest from Longworth, the host of the essential podcast You Must Remember This, is evidence. The focus in Seduction is not only Hughes himself, but the many women in the mega-tycoon’s orbit. These include household names like Katharine Hepburn but also figures like silent star Billie Dove and Mighty Joe Young star Terry Moore. Longworth brings these women to vivid life, and captures the absurdity of Hughes’s universe. The final years, especially, are unforgettably described by the author, one of the finest currently writing on cinema (or anything else): “He barely ate; it would regularly take him eight hours to finish a can of soup. The nourishment of food couldn’t compete with the fulfillment he got from the same source that had been providing it for him for decades: Hollywood movies, starring Hollywood women.”

First Man: The Annotated Screenplay by Josh Singer and James R. Hansen (Titan Books)

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With still a few weeks of releases to go, it’s hard to say if Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the year’s most overlooked prestige picture, but one can make the argument that the Ryan Gosling-starring biography of Neil Armstrong deserved a greater reception from audiences when it debuted this past October. It also deserved this proper screenplay release from Titan Books, which gives one an entirely different experience of this journey to space. In addition to the script, the book also includes notes from screenwriters Josh Singer and James R. Hansen, and plenty of stills.

A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away by Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance (Running Press)

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Who better to explain the tangled history of 1954’s A Star Is Born than Lorna Luft, the daughter of star Judy Garland? With co-author Jeffrey Vance, she explains why the film’s production was so difficult, and also why it was such a crushing disappointment to her mother. (It was a financial failure, and did not bring Garland the Oscar she’d longed for.) Luft also shares why Star has always been “an upset experience” for her: “The film’s story, and its underlying message about fame and addiction, hits too close to home. The massive disappointment of the film at the time hardened my mother’s heart about Hollywood.” Happily, the years have been kind to A Star Is Born. And with the gargantuan success of Bradley Cooper’s remake, it’s a fine time to explore the power of George Cukor’s version.

The Wes Anderson Collection: Isle of Dogs by Lauren Wilford and Ryan Stevenson (Abrams)

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One of the most delightful literary creations of the past few years are the ongoing Wes Anderson Collection books from Abrams: hardcover, gorgeously designed texts that include interviews, analysis, and production anecdotes. The latest, on Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, is every bit as insightful as the first three volumes. Of particular interest are the behind-the-scenes shots of the stop-motion animated production, as well as a lengthy chat with Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. Along with a discussion of process and influences, Coppola makes a shocking revelation: “I prefer cats.” Well then!

The Female Gaze by Alicia Malone (Mango Publishing)

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I’m not sure there’s a more engaging host than Alicia Malone, the delightful author known for her work on Turner Classic Movies and the dearly departed FilmStruck. Her latest book, The Female Gaze, is a passionate, tremendously enjoyable exploration of milestone films made by women. In addition to Malone’s writing style, what makes Gaze stand out is its sheer variety–not just writing on canonical classics like Cleo from 5 to 7 and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, but The Lure and The Babadook as well. Wonderful writers/critics like Farran Smith Nehme, Jen Yamato, and Danielle Solzman also contribute essays.

Star Wars TY-1300 Millennium Falcon Owners’ Workshop Manual by Ryder Windham, Chris Reiff, and Chris Trevas (Insight Editions)

To paraphrase a young Anakin Skywalker, now this is an owners’ manual. Insight Editions goes deep — schematics of a hyperdrive engine deep — to explain the inner workings of the Millennium Falcon. The result is fascinatingly detailed and surprisingly fun. Note also that the book includes every film featuring the Falcon, from A New Hope to Solo. Finally, a clear view of Lando Calrissian’s custom bar!

Best Movies of the 80s by Helen O’Hara (Portable Press)

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I’m always on the look-out for books I can someday pass on to my kids for some film history background, and Best Movies of the 80s is an ideal choice. This chronological breakdown of each year of the decade is short on surprises (don’t expect, say, Dead Ringers or Diva), but heavy on the fun factor. There’s also solid insight from author Helen O’Hara on the likes of The Thing and Heathers.

Tintin: The Art of Hergé by Michael Daubert (Abrams)

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When my now-eight-year-old son was a newborn, I decided to buy some of Hergé’s Tintin comics, and every so often we revisit the young reporter’s globetrotting adventures. We’ll do the same in future with Tintin: The Art of Hergé, a weighty celebration of ninety years of the character. Filled with biographical details about the author (including some of his other works), early sketches, and pages from the comics, this is a visually sumptuous book–one fans will be poring over happily for years to come.

Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files by Zack Handlen and Todd Vanderwerff (Abrams)

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Monsters of the Week is the essential guide casual X-Files viewers have been waiting for. For this is an epic, episode-by-episode study from the very start through both films and the latest season. The authors, both AV Club vets, write in a lively, often hilarious manner. Their conversational tone makes Monsters a genuinely gripping read; I love Handlen’s diagnosis of the first Files feature: “Fight the Future sprang more out of brand extension than creative necessity, so … it’s hard to get tremendously excited about the result. But it absolutely could’ve been worse.”

Ad Nauseam: Newsprint Nightmares From the 1980s by Michael Gingold (1984)

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If you long for the days of opening up a newspaper and discovering oodles of ads promoting upcoming films, Ad Nauseam is for you. While the ads herein are mostly for genre films (Terror Train, Funeral Home, Legend of the Bayou), there are also some higher profile selections like Angel Heart and The Fly. There is so much creativity and artistic excellence to savor in these ads, and the text by Michael Gingold is note-perfect.

Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz (Spiegel & Grau)

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There simply could not be a more Beastie Boys book than, err, Beastie Boys Book. This 500-plus page collection of memories from Mike D and Ad Rock, vintage photos, contributions from the likes of Spike Jonze and Colson Whitehead, and truly epic mixtape playlists captures the soul and spirit of the band. The book is also laugh-out-loud funny and, when remembering the late Adam Yauch, a little sad. It adds up to one of 2018’s essential releases.

Power Rangers: The Ultimate Visual History by Jody Revenson and Ramin Zahed (Insight Editions)

Insight’s Power Rangers: The Ultimate Visual History is a shockingly exhaustive trip through every era of Ranger-ia. And even if one is a non-fan (right here!), the book is a grabber. The early days of the series are probably most interesting, but authors Revenson and Zahed spend pretty significant time on every single incarnation, right up to the 2017 film.

Harryhausen: The Movie Posters by Richard Hollis (Titan Books)

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Ray Harryhausen is a film legend whose name is practically a genre. We know what’s coming from a “Harryhausen” effort: elaborate, hand-crafted creatures and epic battles. It makes sense that the poster art for films like 20 Million Miles to Earth and, of course, Jason and the Argonauts would be classics. Paging through them here is a treat, just like the films themselves.

 

Star Trek: The Art of John Eaves by Joe Nazzaro (Titan Books)

John Eaves is not a household name, but for Star Trek fans, it should be. As this book shows, the artist has defined the look and feel of modern Trek. From the dreary Star Trek V: The Final Frontier through the J.J. Abrams reboot and series like Discovery, his work is bold and unique. It’s a joy to see how Eaves’s concepts have evolved.

 

Star Wars Icons: Han Solo by Gina McIntyre (Insight Editions)

star_wars_icons_han_solo_coverStar Wars Icons: Han Solo is described as “the definitive book for Han Solo fans,” and my goodness, that’s an accurate assessment. This hardcover look at every appearance, right down to the comics and Expanded Universe, is wonderfully readable and beautifully designed. What makes Icons especially nice are the new interviews with figures like Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, Alden Ehrenreich, and Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan.

Dungeons & Dragons Art and Arcana by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer (Ten Speed Press)

“I grew up in the 1980s, and despite what Stranger Things would have you believe, in those days, Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t cool.” So writes Joe Manganiello in his forward to Art and Arcana. As he explains, and the book demonstrates, “[t]hat nerdy, basement game for weirdos and ‘Satanists’ has somehow become both mainstream and prestigious.” Indeed it has, and this visual history, featuring more than 700 pieces of artwork, is the logical next step. It delves into the history of the game and its characters, and also breaks down how and why it took the world by storm.

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Shampoo (The Criterion Collection)

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Hal Ashby is deservingly back in the spotlight, to some degree, with the recent documentary Hal and the Criterion release of one of his most entertaining films, 1975’s Shampoo. The Warren Beatty-Julie Christie starrer has needed this transfer for years — the film has never looked better — and the disc also includes an insightful essay from Frank Rich, and even better, a conversation between Rich and Mark Harris. The greatest pleasure here, though, remains the sight of Beatty at the peak of his sex-god powers.

Continue: The Film Stage’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide

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See more recommended books on filmmaking.

Posterized December 2018: ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,’ ‘Cold War,’ ‘The House That Jack Built,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, December 6, 2018 at 7:36 am 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


DC, Marvel, and Transformers? It must be … December. The studios are going big this Christmas on the counterprogramming for Oscar-bait titles and you can’t really blame them. While your cinephile family member brings the tissues, you can bring the fun.

It’s kind of nice too because that means more films to skip as you catch-up on end-of-year list must-sees. The comic book and toy franchises will still be out come January, so you can take your time and give your money to the independents this holiday season instead. They deserve it.


Contractually obligated collage

The poster for Capernaum (limited December 14) isn’t the kind of collage you’d expect—nor is it like the three I’ll be talking about next. Rather than position heads of differing sizes in the center of the page, Sony Pictures Classics goes heavy on critic quotes. And it’s not just brief buzz phrases either since a Pete Hammond centerpiece spans thirty-eight words and four lines. Add the slew of accolades at the bottom and its obvious the studio is banking on praise to sell tickets before unsuspecting theatergoers have a moment to realize there will be subtitles.

It’s too bad because the festival sheet with the same imagery (although clearer, more colorful, and attractive) is stunning by comparison. The painted Arabic is a welcome touch and the single laurel for a Cannes Jury Prize says all you need.

Next is Aquaman (December 21) and its Comic-Con sheet of kitchen sink aesthetic. Jason Momoa might be in the foreground, but Patrick Wilson and Black Mantha take center stage with giant heads stealing our gaze from the chaotic mess below. You can’t necessarily blame Little Giant Studios, though, considering this work is more about exposing paying fans to an early character tease than anything else. This isn’t selling the movie as much as fueling blind excitement from sycophants frothing at the mouth.

And let’s face it: this result succeeds in that goal where B O N D and photographer Michael Muller’s Finding Arthur Curry does not. Is this thing exemplifying his marine biology skills? His shark whispering skills? The designer’s Photoshop skills? All I know is that it’s difficult not to laugh at the grid-like collection of animals with a tagline that says “Home Is Calling” as though they’ve been invited to dinner.

The duo’s gold-plated serious face isn’t any better, but at least it’s positioning this hero as someone who commands respect while still offering some levity thanks to the juxtaposition of “He’s not around here.” You don’t say? The trident tease by Concept Arts is probably my favorite of the bunch, though, since it leaves things to the imagination.

BLT Communications, LLC doesn’t fare much better with their floating heads on Bumblebee (December 21). I will give them credit for letting the Transformer have top billing size-wise, however. Because let’s face it. This property has run its course and the only reason anyone is interested in continuing the ride is the titular character’s penchant for humor. Sorry Hailee and John, but your airbrushed faces framed by a videogame-esque neon logo ain’t the draw.

I’m merely disappointed the studio went in this direction when the kid-friendly, Iron Giant retread imagery was executed with skill. You should lean into the whole kid befriending robot angle because that type of fantasy dynamic will get younger attendees excited. If Paramount were smart they would have gone full PG too with Laika boss Travis Knight at the helm. Transformers are toys after all. The nostalgia my generation had when the first film bowed is gone now. Target the product’s actual demographic.

At least BLT was allowed to do exactly that on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (December 14). It helps when the medium is animation, though, since it brings a built-in preconception of fun. And when the whole point of the film is to showcase a crazy amount of different web-slingers from alternate dimensions, go crazy. Put Miles Morales, Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, and those other two in frame with a sense of kinetic motion. Create a faux idea of three-dimensionality so the children walking by can stare mouth agape in awe.

And if you want to go a bit more serious, shift the color palette. I’d argue the cooler blues and greens of the teaser complement Spidey’s darker suit with bright red best. The 180-degree spin to have his falling down appear as though he’s flying up adds an invigorating sensation of vertigo too. You can feel the rush of adrenaline watching this thing in 3D will most certainly provide.


Dynamic duos

A film I was intrigued by until watching the trailer, Holmes and Watson (December 21) gets a teaser from WORKS ADV as funny as it is tragic. “Holmies?” “H” and “W” hand gestures as gang signs? It’s cultural appropriation at its worst with humor ten-plus years stale. Just give us Step Brothers 2 already.

Thankfully Creative Partnership knows how to do a good two-hander with Mary Queen of Scots (limited December 7). Here we have authentic gazes that can pierce through your soul with an eye for the beauty and drama of period aesthetic rather than its potential for laughs. I love the hand-scrawled title font and the dark coloring to let those two pale faces in chiaroscuro pop and look our way with determination.

B O N D it equal to the task with their gold text on gold wardrobe on gold background piece of art, pulling the camera out to get a look at the full regalia. But it’s the character sheets that outshine them all. These two look like paintings on canvas made all the more stunning with their deep blue on blue and red on red of actors bleeding into backdrop. Stick a gaudy frame on these and ready for war.

Welcome to Marwen (December 21) goes the opposite direction with bright light, plastic surfaces, and odd couple juxtaposition courtesy of Steve Carell and sixth-scale action figure Steve Carell. I’m very leery of the direction this film’s marketing has taken considering the heavy subject matter it’s based upon, but I’d like to give director Robert Zemeckis the benefit of the doubt. Making the intentional choice to pick Forrest Gump out of his filmography, however, doesn’t bode well as far as handling things with a deft touch.

At least LA’s tease gives Carell’s doll a stoic expression as soulful as it is resilient. This is the face Mark Hogancamp’s story deserves and hopefully will be provided. The rest is just clean sans serif text atop more of the same, each letter blending into the next so the artistry and emotion of the portrait shines through.

Kudos then to Empire Design for delivering the month’s best-designed duo with Stan & Ollie (limited December 28). They knew that the most iconic visual motif this comedy partnership has is its hats and they create a funny scene to prove it. Rather than lose that simplicity upon deciding to remove the newspaper, the firm keeps things light and jovial with the white space above the actors reserved for Laurel’s cap in flight.

And don’t discount the font thickness increasing from thin Stan to heavy Ollie. It’s subtle enough to not be a “fat joke” and effective enough to supply a visual metaphor without sacrificing legibility.

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‘The Princess Bride’: Revisiting Rob Reiner and William Goldman’s Paean to Pure Storytelling

Written by Eli F., November 22, 2018 at 8:00 am 

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After Monty Python and the Holy Grail eviscerated the self-seriousness of the Arthurian epic but before Shrek added pop songs and fart jokes galore, Rob Reiner and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride was pop culture’s definitive postmodern comic fairytale. Penned by the late, great screenwriter based on his own novel (sorry–his abridged version of the novel by stuffy 19th-century fantasist “S. Morgenstern”) Goldman’s most beloved creation plays to the uninitiated as a deliciously eclectic mixture of loquacious wit, dry self-mockery, and sweetly earnest paean to pure storytelling–long before such tropes became codified cliche in blockbuster genre cinema. Its precarious balance between irony and sincerity has often been copied, but never truly replicated.

The comic adventure at the story’s core remains as charming today as it was thirty years ago, filled with loving pastiche of the romances of old: passion, intrigue, honor and vengeance all drive a rich ensemble cast of rogues and royalty (portrayed by a who’s who of once and future stars, from premium-TV breakouts Robin Wright and Mandy Patinkin to comedy legends Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest) through fairytale locales almost as colorful as their bold-faced archetype personalities and urbane, witty dialogue. It’s fortunate that Goldman was on hand to adapt his own work, however, because many other writers might have balked or shrugged at the prospect of translating the novel’s defining metatextual framing device to the screen: the withering, dithering color commentary of Goldman’s fabricated proto-Lemony Snicket narrator persona on the fabricated book-within-the-book, used to deliver cheeky parody of the European romances even while lovingly invoking “the good parts”. Lesser writers might have simply excluded this aspect of the source material (or even refashioned the narrative around a more impartial cinematic narrator, as Stanley Kubrick did in adapting the actual 19th-century novel that became Barry Lyndon), but Goldman and Reiner cleverly translate it to a cinema-friendly framing device that is equally subversive and iconic in its own right.

Rather than a scholar adapting the work of “S. Morgenstern” for a contemporary audience, the narrative interpreter of the fictional novel is now a suburban grandpa (Peter Falk) with a Polish immigrant affect, conveying the old-timey story to his skeptical bedridden grandson (Fred Savage). Reiner takes great joy in decorating the fictional boy’s room – the film’s only set outside of the couched fantasy narrative – with every possible signifier of a 1980s consumer culture obsessively tailored to young boys: Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Star Wars, Marvel Comics, Nintendo. Savage’s character functions as both the hypothetical consumer for the 1980s studio blockbuster, and the executive trying to second-guess its creative priorities: he repeatedly pre-empts and interrupts the plot to critique its ability to satisfy, demanding less “kissing scenes”, less talk, less girls, more machismo, more violence. He berates his old-country grandpa, with his repertoire of classic influences, for being strange and boring and out of touch with his generation. Yet Falk defiantly presses on, having total faith in the universality of good storytelling, and we see his efforts pay off as the once-bullheaded child gradually softens, opening his mind to new emotions and narrative experiences right before our eyes.

This, perhaps, is the film’s true staying power. Beyond the many layers of chuckling postmodern irony, it’s a fairytale outside a fairytale; only its magic is the transformative, communal power of storytelling itself. Little wonder that Goldman adored the work almost as much as his audience.

The Princess Bride is now available on The Criterion Collection.

Count Your Blessings: In Praise of the Thanksgiving Film Canon

Written by Caden Mark Gardner , November 21, 2018 at 2:30 pm 

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Thanksgiving film canon is quite small. Part of that is understandable due to the fact that in a film landscape that has become increasingly more international the American holiday (apologies to the Canadian Thanksgiving on October 14th) would get pushed aside. Plus, Christmas is always around the corner, and all of the marketing in being ‘a Christmas film’ that affords a pretty simple campaign and a built-in audience of such films is right there for studios to fall back on. Even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (the central cultural touchstone of Thanksgiving in visual media), while designed to celebrate the holiday, always ends on a note of Christmas with the Santa Claus float closing the parade–itself the inciting plot point of the two versions of Miracle on 34th Street, both Christmas films. Thanksgiving is even hemorrhaging its own calling card to Christmas. It is truly the middle-child between Halloween and Christmas.

Getting to the canon of Thanksgiving films, there’s Alice’s Restaurant, Arthur Penn’s film treatment of Arlo Guthrie’s counter-culture folk album of the same name in 1969. The film has become something of a cultural time capsule of American folk and hippies but deeming it among best cinema of that decade or a highlight of what Arthur Penn (Night Moves, Little Big Man, and Bonnie and Clyde) could offer as a film director would be a hard sell. But it is a Thanksgiving film and for that it is canonized and carries some cultural import once a year. You still would be better off listening to the album while cooking and basting the turkey, though.

John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) presents Steve Martin’s pilgrimage to reach his family in time for Thanksgiving dinner as a manic farce of a road film, but Thanksgiving is rendered the destination, not the journey. Make no mistake, the delirium and horror of holiday travel has never been better realized than in that film. Perhaps the smartest use of Thanksgiving in film is Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), which has three Thanksgivings serving as intervals in the life stations of its ensemble, who each go through various transformations in love, faith, and profession.

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Posited as a non-denominational holiday combining national identity and family, Thanksgiving’s role in the culture can feel more humble compared to the days and weeks of non-stop Christmas over-saturation. But to say Thanksgiving is without impurity of commercialization and corporate co-option would be dishonest. Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s satire Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) is about a lot of things and tackles a lot of topics about America, to various degrees of success. One of those successes is in recreation, a dramatized version of the real-life event used in the book, which is the 2004 Thanksgiving Game Halftime Show in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. It had Destiny’s Child perform a spectacular music set surrounded by returning Iraq War Veterans who marched around them with intense precision. The scene was an intersection of God, country, football, militarism, popular culture, capitalism, and extra-large American hubris, that if you saw it the way it was intended was also at an accelerated frame rate of 120 frames per second. The film was a tough sell due to that high frame-rate and it became a box-office bomb in addition to a critical failure, but Billy Lynn felt like it was uniquely revealing the unspoken cynical undercurrent that surrounds the holiday and its traditions, increasingly encroached by commercial interests that feed into self-interest. How many Thanksgiving dinners are going to end with people going straight to a Black Friday queue out the mall? Billy Lynn may not be your classic idea of Thanksgiving canon, but it has returned to the mind along with the holiday and will surely be thought of whenever the Cowboys are front and center in their heavily pixelated mausoleum football stadium, along with whoever is doing their halftime act.

There are also Thanksgiving films that bring a level of ironic distance and subversion against the idealized imagery of the holiday, such as the white nuclear family having a blissful  feast at their large dining room table in Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom from Want,” the artist’s tribute to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech. That painting has been parodied so many times over that it can bring instant smirking given how many shorthands and riffs exist, from MAD Magazine covers to the poster art of Albert Brooks’ film Real Life to Art Spiegelman’s politically charged art in The New Yorker to, most recently, poster art for Deadpool 2. It should not be shocking that such irony extends towards the creation of ThanksKilling horror films series, giving a mean and scary twist to the holiday. One can also just find there to be something too perverse and gauche with Thanksgiving in relation to America’s colonialist roots and feel most seen in Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci) in The Addams Family sequel Addams Family Values (1993). While costumed as Pocahontas, Wednesday decries the treatment of Native Americans by the pilgrims and succeeding generations of white settlers in the United States. She proceeds to lead a coup against her sinisterly cheerful, WASP-y summer camp during a Thanksgiving play and the victorious sequence is hilarious. (The film itself was released on November 19th, 1993, right on time to be watched on the holiday in theaters.)

It can be difficult being earnest about the holiday’s iconography and some of the most notable Thanksgiving films bring moods of dark humor or an air of manic futility–sometimes both. Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), an adaptation of the Rick Moody novel of the same name, at its core is about the deteriorating nuclear family malaise of the 1970s Watergate era, where the hormonal teenagers want to be more like the adults and the adults wish to forego their responsibilities if for one night at a neighborhood key party. The moral fabric has been stained if not outright damaged; everybody is secretive because everybody is untrustworthy. The undercurrent is no more evident than the Thanksgiving dinner of the Hood family. Family patriarch Ben (Kevin Kline) allows Wendy (Christina Ricci) to say grace and it escalates into Wendy making a political statement–as though Moody and screenwriter James Schamus took cues from Addams Family Values–about the treatment of Native Americans and the then-hot topic of the bombing of Cambodia. So much of everyone’s reaction to Wendy at that dinner table and Wendy herself are a microcosm of the Hoods themselves and their central family dynamic. Thanksgiving is where people can be who they are, going up against the next person across from them doing the same, which can lead to volatile shifts between absolute silence and arguments.

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The ultimate–but not necessarily the best–Thanksgiving movie in that regard, would be Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995). Single mom Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) gets down on her luck right as she is pulled back into her native Baltimore with her family’s inner-circle and all of its dysfunction on Thanksgiving, clearly the product of years of living under the same roof with so many contrasting personalities. Mishaps, misunderstandings, and hijinks ensue. The lesson, of course, is that, in the end, these insane people in Claudia’s life are still her family and love her. The Larsons are your typical family with a few modern twists (Robert Downey Jr.’s Tommy and Claudia being divorced) which does make their story and film accessible for audiences as opposed to overly awkward, cringe-worthy sendups to the holiday experience. That in turn brings to mind the American indies in this 21st century from Krisha (2015) to Pieces of April (2003) to Tadpole (2002), which have used Thanksgiving as a device in tying the central drama and conflict to characters being at a large family social gathering with varying success rates. Thanksgiving can be about characters coming as they are, but how much baggage can that setting and those other characters handle, never mind the audience?

For most films, what can be the aesthetic of Thanksgiving can also be simply seen as the season of autumn. But there is an opportunity in making a personal connection with the holiday rather than reverse engineering the holiday into a narrative. One such notable example is in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017). Lady Bird is structured as a memory poem of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) senior year of high school. While the film begins with a Joan Didion quote that contrasts the perceptions of outsiders about California hedonism versus Sacramento Christmases, due to the McPherson family’s financial straits, their Christmas is incredibly low-key. The holiday that gains importance in Lady Bird’s narrative and the central conflict in the film is Thanksgiving. Lady Bird accepts going to her boyfriend Danny’s grandparents home for Thanksgiving in the affluent Sacramento neighborhood the Fabulous Forties, full of revival Tudor and Colonial homes. When Danny (Lucas Hedges) meets her family in the McPherson home, he unintentionally spills what Lady Bird presents to others about her family, that she comes from “the wrong side of the tracks.” Lady Bird’s mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) suppresses her wince when hearing this from Danny but she later does throw that characterization of their family back at Lady Bird in an argument much later on, holding onto that insult that hits on a lot of class shame. Lady Bird’s time in the Fabulous Forties home is a warm gathering where she socializes with people of a different stripe from her and Gerwig chooses to not dig in too deeply in showing the McPherson’s Thanksgiving, never contrasting visually as the viewer can already envision the imbalance and not need further evidence to get the point.

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Lady Bird continues her Thanksgiving with a night out with friends and her mother catching her, Danny, and her best friend Julie high on pot with a major case of the munchies once home. It’s a light, non-confrontational moment, but once her friends leave, Lady Bird talks to her brother’s live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) who is outside smoking a clove. Shelly discloses to Lady Bird that she was missed at her Thanksgiving dinner and vouches for Marion, noting that after being kicked out of her house due to her parents rejecting her life choices that Shelly was welcomed into Marion’s house. “I admire her,” she softly responds to Lady Bird stating her mother hates her. Lady Bird is silent for a brief moment. It hits her that she is lucky.

Still, within Gerwig’s career in screenwriting she also has given Thanksgiving treatment to “the alternative family.” Toward the end of Mistress America (2015), that Gerwig co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach, Tracy (Lola Kirke) searches for Brooke (played by Gerwig), her would-be sister that due to their parents breaking up off-screen–and not going through with their Thanksgiving wedding–has them no longer in the same orbit. But it would be too dishonest for the two of them to just return to being strangers. Tracy is left to herself on Thanksgiving and reconnects with Brooke after a pretty intense fallout. They make their peace over a meal before Brooke heads out west, having enrolled in college. The last shot of the film is them together, the audience looking at them through a restaurant window, laughing and reminiscing. This is their “Friendsgiving” and it feels earned. The significance of Thanksgiving in Greta Gerwig’s films often stems from her female characters being drawn to the holiday’s offerings as some break, an escape from the chaos and disappointments of everyday life, putting aside any lingering issues they are all holding to sit down, relax, and eat.

Perhaps what can be done in punching up the Thanksgiving film canon is viewing the holiday exactly in these terms that Gerwig succeeds in. Having the characters falling into the holiday as a fabric of their lives, rather than the day itself being the backbone of the film in structure. It is a day in the life, but for many it is also a day of significance and an abundance of feelings, pressures, and deeply personal histories and memories rooted in family and friends. Maybe that is why Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films, which check off all of those boxes, have been becoming a Thanksgiving tradition on AMC. I suppose that can be acceptable. Thanksgiving film canon needs all the help it can get.

Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah: Four Sisters’ Brings a Female Perspective to Survival Under the Horrors of Nazism

Written by Eli F., November 18, 2018 at 11:23 am 

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Less than half a year after Claude Lanzmann’s passing this past summer, the Quad Cinema in Manhattan has this week premiered the late documentarian’s Shoah: Four Sisters, a compilation of four short features described as “satellites” of his 1985 Holocaust magnum opus. Comprised of selections from the staggering private archive of interview footage compiled by Lanzmann during Shoah’s 11-year research and filming process in the 1970s, the four segments respectively consist of four extended one-on-one interviews with Jewish women who survived the Nazi death camps across Eastern Europe, each one sharing her harrowing personal story of atrocities witnessed and, at times, horrifying compromises made.

The four women speak different languages, hail from different cities, and lived very different lives before and after the war, but in labeling them as “sisters,” Lanzmann draws attention to the identity formed by shared trauma and collective witness to history. Indeed, all of their stories share certain narrative and historical touchstones: an escalating sense of collective terror as the rise of Nazism gave way to increasingly militarized antisemitic oppression, then to abject slaughter; the isolation of being surrounded by indifferent or outright cruel civilian onlookers, happy to see Jews and other undesirables taken from their midst or too self-absorbed to care. Moments of horror-film-like surprise and irony in face-to-face confrontations with murderous Nazi officers and collaborators dot the stories, prefacing acts of absurd, hauntingly pointless sadism by those with the power to use human bodies as they please. Above all, each and every account portrays survivors in an unceasing, years-long race against a colossal oncoming machine of absolute death and destruction.

Certain notes also echo eerily in the present moment of the West’s resurgent fascist right: the sheer orderliness of the Nazis’ methods and rhetoric allows them to cling to a pretense of “civility” and “fairness” as they advocate and carry out acts of irrational and unfathomable hatred. Everywhere there are hints of the ways in which the Nazi machinery of extermination came with built-in means to downplay their own responsibility: formal pleasantries which indicate facile nods toward law and order–the families of men slaughtered and dumped in mass graves received postcards informing them of their loss. Euphemisms to soft-pedal atrocities–in one stomach-churning anecdote, Josef Mengele himself is recalled to have avoided the word “selection” in describing his macabre on-site sorting of prisoners into “healthy laborers” and victims of the gas chambers. One survivor posits a plausible theory that the camps were specifically designed to break their occupants’ will to live rather than kill them directly, so that the Nazis could shrug off immediate responsibility when mass deaths were attributed to illness and starvation. Most controversially, the latter two segments of the film deal at length with accounts of the Judenrat, Jews employed by the Nazis to police and pass judgment on their fellow prisoners, some even using a direct line to Adolf Eichmann to negotiate who might be spared while marking others for death.

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More subtly yet even more universally, the four accounts also join together in painting a portrait of women survivors in times of war and brutal oppression. All four narratives are uniquely those of women, indicating the different paths and particular horrors laid before them in that hellish time. Some clung to husbands to survive, while others were forced to negotiate the good graces of male officers as they subsisted in the camps and ghettoes on niches of “women’s work.” One shares the tragic and death-defying story of a pregnancy carried to term amidst the death camps, with a life-saving act of grim mercy provided by a Nazi nurse sympathetic to their shared experience of birth and bodily womanhood. Under siege by unimaginable forces of destruction, such marginalized women are the weakest of all people, physically and socially–yet the survivors cling to life by the strength of their cleverness, cunning, empathy, and sheer will.

Lanzmann’s grainy, unrestored footage, minimally edited and often static in extended takes, gives the impression of a supplemental feature or an archival museum piece more than a stand-alone, prose-poetic film like Shoah itself. Aesthetically and emotionally it’s a grueling, restless task to sit through just one of the film’s four segments, let alone several back-to-back. Yet the restlessness induced by this rough presentation perhaps serves its own purpose. Watching these women tell their stories as a Jew–a Jew with close family residing in the recently-terrorized community of Squirrel Hill, PA–my most immediate response was a dull, creeping sensation of displaced energy. Knowing what was behind me, I–just like the survivors–wanted, or perhaps needed, to move on from its black hole of the past, with eyes turned toward the future. I needed to prove a point, to the antisemites or perhaps the world itself, merely by living and feeling. The women of Shoah: Four Sisters give the impression of plain and earnest people; only their stories are extraordinary. Scabbed and mangled by trauma, yet never truly extinguished, their will to live on, to surpass an unthinkable and seemingly insurmountable violence, is understatedly infectious.

Shoah: Four Sisters is now playing at Quad Cinema.

Posterized November 2018: ‘Creed II,’ ‘The Favourite,’ ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, November 2, 2018 at 10:01 am 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


Welcome to prestige central. All the spooky goblins and demons have disappeared to be replaced by November’s slate of Oscar-nominated artists (with some winners) swinging for the fences in hopes of another. There’s high drama for parents and fantasy flavor for kids with auteur visions from festival season filling in the blanks. While the studios save their super serious stuff for Christmastime, those more “fun” titles of counterprogramming with critical appeal hit theaters now to whet our collective appetite.


Such a tease

Leave it to the Harry Potter franchise’s producers to look at Thanksgiving and think, “Let’s use the holiday to make sure our second week matches our inevitable first.” It’s a shrewdly calculated and self-aware move. And the same description could be used when talking about the marketing campaign for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (November 16) too.

WORKS ADV hit the streets with familiar iconography, a familiar lead, and the film’s main attraction: Jude Law as young Dumbledore. I’m half surprised they even bothered to include the title since Eddie Redmayne holding a wand is all you need to know what’s being sold. Kudos for the dramatic lighting and electric smoke aesthetic, though. Things are looking much darker than the first.

The conspicuous absentee is of course the rightfully maligned Johnny Depp despite his being the titular character. So it’s hardly surprising that the next card in WORKS ADV’s sleeve makes sure to have everyone’s face visible but his. Yes, there’s contextual reasoning for such a maneuver, but it’s kind of fun to think Warner Bros. was trying to distance themselves a bit from Depp’s current news cycle.

It’s only with the final sheet and its ornately stylish snake-like frame that we finally see his face with equal billing to Law. I’ll admit that this poster is well done considering how stale its content proves. While it’s perhaps not as moody as the tease, the dark palette works infinitely better than the blinding white and too graphically perfect line work of the previous example. In the end it really doesn’t matter, though. This franchise will either show how it remains king or reveal its decline regardless of how pretty the advertising is.

A film that should benefit from good marketing is Bohemian Rhapsody (November 2). Here’s a biopic that has a not so great history considering Sacha Baron Cohen’s public departure from the project after the surviving members of Queen stated they wanted a story that showed “their perseverance as a band despite Freddie Mercury’s death” and the firing of credited director Bryan Singer mid-way through production. So anything able to bring the focus back onto the music and Mercury is necessary.

Gravillis Inc. was up to the task with their UK tease of Rami Malek in silhouette against a gloriously grainy sunset. The coloring makes this sheet what it is, giving the whole an otherworldly feel. The crest under the title isn’t distracting and the dual font selection proves a perfect complement to one another.

Sadly, WORKS ADV’s US sheets aren’t as good. Their close-up of Malek’s jawline could work, but not as is. Putting the word “Queen” in his sunglasses doesn’t negate the fact that this looks like a rejected design for Super Troopers 2. You need to have a concert atmosphere—a microphone, stage, pose, or whatever. I’m not sure what this is trying to say.

Concept Arts, on the other hand, do right by Ralph Breaks the Internet (November 21). The character is recognizable on its own and his sheepish look of “whoops” along with the context of a Google search bar and accusatory arrow provide the title as visual riddle rather than just by the hashtag below. It’s the sort of tease you need to place the brand back into our consciousness well before the release date.

That minimalism is rendered even better when measured next to Ten30 Studios’ sheet. I don’t mind how busy the environment is (the internet should be when compared with a vintage arcade network) and do enjoy the arrow taking Ralph and Vanellope to who knows where. What’s unwieldy is the title as app icon. Putting Disney inside the box is bad enough, but what they do with the notification circle is unforgiveable. Having the “2” there is ingenious, but only if you keep the name “Wreck-It Ralph 2.” Putting those words super tiny inside the circle conversely admits you know the gimmick doesn’t work and were too lazy to figure out a real fix or simply scrap the idea completely.

One poster that doesn’t need meddling is Concept Arts’ Creed II (November 21). Much like their Ralph teaser, they know the character is enough. The added bonus here, however, is that this character wears his name on his clothing. So despite the artwork being nothing but a Frank Ockenfels photo atop a giant Roman numeral “II,” those two pieces are intentionally combined to form the title.

The black and white also adds some welcome drama the second poster loses in its glossy, try-hard attempt to earn emotion through a scream. Is this a happy scream? Angry scream? We don’t know. Maybe he’s singing. And don’t get me started on the title/actor list top right because it needs to be rotated 180-degrees so my left-to-right English-based brain stops screaming as loud as Michael B. Jordan.


This has character

Characters in a film don’t always have to be actors, especially not when we’re talking about documentaries like The Last Race (limited November 16). Here’s the story of a small-town racetrack and the community that rallies around it. The poster could have gone the route of using some citizens that we don’t know to sell its product, but why not go for drama instead? Why not focus on the subject of racing and what this specific track has to offer?

The result is a captivating image of a beat-up stock car painted red, white, and blue with smoke ascending out the engine. It has a showcase feel similar to when dealerships put their latest edition on a revolving circular platform and have photos taken from a low-angle to portray its “muscle.” The condition itself is both a literal representation of what happens and a metaphorical parallel to the track’s struggles to survive. And this car is allowed to exist in alone that headspace, the title bold yet detached for a perfectly balanced composition moving us through the smoke from “character” to text.

For Jinn (limited November 15), Blood & Chocolate have taken an image of its star and cropped her in a way that allows them to mimic the contours of her face with their text. The right justified credits box follow the path of her mouth until the slight slope of the “j” outlines her nose. A river of negative space is therefore created so our eyes can travel down it, the stark white title grabbing our attention before releasing us onto the rest. And the coloring is superb with headscarf and background filling diagonal corners to highlight her smile. The film is about a young girl struggling with her identity and if nothing else this poster gives us hope she’ll come out of it okay.

InSync Plus’ If Beale Street Could Talk (limited November 30) uses similar imagery in a different way. Like the last sheet, both KiKi Layne and Stephan James have heads bowed. Unlike Zoe Renee’s sense of joy, however, these two are tilted with somber reverence and love in the midst of oppression. And rather than having text cradle their faces as it does above, they meet as though pieces of a puzzle matching forehead to forehead as no other soul could.

The coloring is intriguing in that the photo itself is black and white with green at bottom fading cloudily into red at top. There’s good motion in that transition so we can effortlessly shift our gaze along the vertical axis from title to date.

After characters portraying drama, joy, and love comes my fourth entry to this section: comedy. You cannot help but laugh at MIDNIGHT OIL’s The Favourite (limited November 23) simply because of Emma Stone sunk down on the floor with arms crossed while Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz look on regally by comparison. The poster literally frames the latter pair as though they epitomize a pristine image that should be sold and yet it’s the odd woman out who steals our attention and the show.

The rest is a mix of the surreal and idiosyncratic. The bunnies add a nice flourish (I haven’t seen the film to comment on their inclusion), the way Colman’s cape interacts with the false frame and then becomes a rug is delightful, and the decision to force all text into full justified columns proves as confounding as it does memorable. On the whole this poster is simultaneously abstract and matter-of-fact, playful and severe. Knowing Yorgos Lanthimos, the film itself should follow suit.

This design ultimately proves much more palatable than Vasilis Marmatakis’ teaser. That one is much darker and obtuse—perhaps relying too much on our having seen the film to understand it. Unforgettable in concept, I wonder if it’s simply too weird to leave an indelible mark.

Continue >>

10 Highlights from the 30th Edition of Newfest, NYC’s Premier LGBT Film Festival

Written by The Film Stage, October 23, 2018 at 3:26 pm 

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NewFest kicks off on Wednesday, celebrating the 30th year of New York City’s premier queer film festival. Each year, NewFest presents some of the buzziest titles from all over the world, but it also plays home to brand-new fiction films and documentaries that you can’t see anywhere else.

International titles with strong acclaim are some of the best films in this year’s slate, many making their NYC debuts: the Kenyan lesbian love story Rafiki, which premiered at Cannes, is the festival’s International Centerpiece; Mario from the Locarno Film Festival; and Hard Paint from the Berlin Film Festival. Yen Tan’s critically acclaimed AIDS drama 1985 starring Cory Michael Smith will open the festival, followed by Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased as the U.S. Centerpiece. NewFest closes out with Making Montgomery Clift, directed by the actor’s nephew Robert Anderson Clift and Hillary Demmon.

We selected 10 titles among the dozens of excellent projects at this year’s festival. A 20th anniversary screening of the Angelina Jolie-starring Gia and 10th anniversary screening of Gus Van Sant’s Milk are also cineaste highlights. NewFest runs from October 24-30, and you can check out the slate right here.

1985 (Yen Tan)

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Adrian (played with heartbreaking sensitivity by Cory Michael Smith) is coming back to his small Texas hometown for the first time in three years. He’s brought Christmas presents for his conservative parents (an extraordinary Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis) and his little brother who keeps his stash of Madonna tapes hidden, but he also comes with a couple of secrets: he’s been living as an out gay man in NYC, and he’s HIV positive. Set in the title year, director Tan’s attention to detail makes the festival’s Opening Night Film a treasure trove of 80’s nostalgia. But in many ways, the film itself (shot in grainy 16mm) also feels like a relic from the era. With characters painted like archetypes rather than people, and life lessons imparted that you can see coming a mile away, it’s more after school special than poetry. – Jose Solís

Daddy (Jonah Greenstein)

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In his directorial debut, Jonah Greenstein takes on the sad reality of homelessness in New York by focusing on a young man (Alexander Horner) who survives in the city by sleeping in the homes of the “daddies” he meets on Grindr. Almost every scene shows him showing up at the apartment of a different man, most of whom fetishize his youth to the point where he seems more like a sex toy than a human being. That is until he meets William (the always remarkable Thomas Jay Ryan) who seems to see the young man for who he is, rather than what he wants from him. Greenstein has a keen eye for capturing the many ways in which people become invisible in NYC, and through subtle cues (a TV set is blasting a live report on the 2016 election) he shows the ways in which an intimate encounter with a stranger can make all the difference. – Jose Solís

Hard Paint (Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon)

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You wouldn’t expect a film about a glowed up camboy to tackle social repression, bullying, and the internet’s ability to erase class boundaries through the avatars at our fingertips, but Hard Paint does so with a keen eye. Like directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon’s previous films, Hard Paint–which won the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film at this year’s Berlin Film Festivalis based in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. Pedro (Shico Menegat) is a teen, socially ostracized by his community for defending himself against daily bullying. Seeking an outlet from his restricted reality, Pedro transforms himself into NeonBoy, a cam model performing with neon paints and earning his living from private performances. When a competitor steals Pedro’s neon schtick, he has to find a creative solution for maintaining his livelihood. Pedro’s neon sexual performances and real-life encounters shine a light from the chromatic edges of civil society on boundary-less networks of internet communities. – Joshua Encinias

I Hate New York (Gustavo Sánchez)

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Director Gustavo Sánchez followed four transgender performer-activists over ten years in New York City, resulting in a title proclaimed by many: I Hate New York. The J.A. Bayona-produced documentary profiles Amanda Lepore, Chloe Dzubilo, Sophia Lamar, and T De Long, who inherited the infamous club and art scenes that integrated with the broader culture–or their culture disintegrated, depending how you look at it–after 9/11. A musical structure replaces a traditional visual beat of beginning, middle, and end. With the audacity of Godard’s audio editing, composer Ryūichi Sakamoto weaves the women’s stories together as a testament to their cultural interregnum in the early 2000s. – Joshua Encinias

The Heiresses (Marcelo Martinessi)

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After being together for three decades, Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún) are about to face their first significant time apart when Chiquita is sent to prison for fraud charges. Having lost all their wealth, and even being forced to sell the possessions they inherited from their families, Chela suddenly finds herself becoming a cab driver for the rich ladies in her neighborhood. In his feature directorial debut, Martinessi crafts a singular portrait of being a woman in Latin America, and the way in which class comes into play to the extent that if you’re rich enough, no one will question the gender of the partner you choose to spend your life with. Brun and Irún are true forces of nature as women who refuse to kneel in the face of disaster, with Brun in particular displaying an emotional inner life that allows viewers to almost literally see her become someone else in front of their eyes. – Jose Solís

Making Montgomery Clift (Robert Anderson Clift and Hillary Demmon)

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Making Montgomery Clift makes a compelling case for an alternative to the accepted history of Montgomery Clift self-destructive gayngst. Made by Robert Clift (nephew of Montgomery) and Hillary Demmon, they analyze family archives, including phone calls between Montgomery and his brother, recorded for posterity. Robert acts as the on-screen, documentarian gumshoe, like a minister presiding over an exhumation and reburial of his long-deceased uncle’s legacy. At times the documentary glosses over the substance abuse that lead to Clift’s early death, but its analysis is worth considering. For instance, by infamously refusing to sign studio contracts, he was considered a diva about town, but it also allowed him to forgo the kind of sham marriages studios foisted on gay stars like Rock Hudson. One wonders if the evidence provided in the documentary warrants reconsideration of Clift’s legacy as a tragic homosexual, or if it says something about the family’s uneasiness with that legacy. – Joshua Encinias

Mario (Marcel Gisler)

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Following the basic plot of Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country but set in the world of soccer, Mario’s sexually repressed titular character, played by Max Hubacher, has plans for a fantastic soccer career. These become threatened by Leon Saldo (Aaron Altaras), a dark-haired and sexually open teammate from Germany. The two stumble into love only to have it threatened by the unwritten, homophobic rules held by their soccer club. The film highlights there are no openly gay players in Premier League. More importantly, Mario’s lived-in characters take the film beyond its tropes with broad humanistic appeal. Hubacher won the Swiss Film Award for best actor for the 71st Locarno Film Festival selection. – Joshua Encinias

Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu)

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Love stories rarely come with the vibrancy and swoon-worthiness of Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki. Set in modern day Nairobi, we meet Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) the pink-haired “perfect Kenyan girl,” and the tomboyish Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) who fall in love despite their fathers being political rivals, and homosexuality being taboo in their country. Kahiu paints a portrait of a country caught in the middle of unrelenting change, where spiritual leaders can no longer provide the comfort young people need to satiate their innermost longings, and where forbidden love must seek secret places in which to thrive. Despite having many moments of tragedy and loss, the film is remarkable for its liveliness. It embodies the youthful spirit of its protagonists to show that, and as corny as it may sound, love is always meant to win. Banned in Kenya for depicting a lesbian relationship in a positive manner, Rafiki is political cinema that truly inspires. – Jose Solís

Retablo (Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio L.)

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Fresh of a successful bow at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio L.’s directorial debut is a worldview-shattering welcome into adulthood for fourteen-year-old Segundo (Junior Béjar Roca). The film follows a rift between Segundo and his artisan father Noe (Amiel Cayo), who creates story boxes that earn him the title of “maestro” in their Peruvian community. Noe is the paragon of manhood in their male-dominated community, but when Segundo encounters his father having sex with another man, he loses the ability to calibrate the man he’s expected to become, with the man his father is, and his own burgeoning sexuality. – Joshua Encinias

The Skin of the Teeth (Matthew Wollin)

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Josef (Pascal Arquimedes) arrives at the apartment of his hedge fund manager date, the much older John (Donal Brophy), and is instantly impressed by the simple opulence: the steak dinner, the wine, the music and the view. Things go out of hand when the young man, who assumes a rich dude ought to have the best drugs, takes a pill he finds in John’s bedroom, and wakes up in an interrogation room where the very essence of his being is questioned. Even though the film is never as clever as it thinks (the ending seems like it’s meant to “shock” rather than the bring the story to a rightful conclusion) there is a lot to enjoy, especially in the earlier seduction scenes which brim with sensuality and playfulness but sadly fail to bring to surface how class and racial dynamics play out in gay dating. Now that’s a mystery worth cracking. – Jose Solís

The 30 edition of NewFest runs from October 24-30. See the lineup here.

Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: Coen Brothers, Marilyn Monroe, Caitlin Cronenberg, and More

Written by Christopher Schobert, October 22, 2018 at 7:00 am 

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Fall is a fine time to submerge oneself under an afghan with a good book, and there are many new treats centered on cinema. From a Hollywood super agent’s tell-all to a comprehensive look at the Coen brothers, there’s plenty here to enjoy in between diving into leaf piles and clutching a pumpkin latte. The autumn cliches are now complete, so let’s move on.

The Endings: Photographic Stories of Love, Loss, Heartbreak, and Beginning Again by Caitlin Cronenberg and Jessica Ennis (Chronicle Books)

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One of the most thrilling photographers on the planet is Caitlin Cronenberg, the marvelous shooter of Drake’s Views From the Six album cover (the memorable shot featured the Canadian artist perched atop Toronto’s CN Tower), among other gems. Cronenberg’s latest project, a collaboration with art director Jessica Ennis titled The Endings, is her most stunning achievement to date. A series of photographic vignettes featuring the likes of Keira Knightley, Tessa Thompson, Julianne Moore, Patricia Clarkson, and Juno Temple, The Endings is audacious, gorgeous, and nakedly emotional. As American Psycho director Mary Harron puts it in her introduction, “Caitlin and Jessica think of these stories as stills from a film that was never made.” Indeed, each set of images carries the dramatic weight of a full-length film. Several “histories” at the book’s end outline the imaginary backstories of each vignette. Yet there is also room for the reader to imagine different tales. This is an extraordinary creation; a book of startling beauty and great mystery.

Who Is Michael Ovitz? by Michael Ovitz (Portfolio Books)

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There was a time when no Hollywood titan wielded more power than Michael Ovitz. Those days are over, but the CAA co-founder and super agent brings that period to vivid life in his long-awaited memoir, Who Is Michael Ovitz? It’s a brisk, compelling read featuring a swath of cameos, including but not limited to Bill Murray, David Letterman, and Martin Scorsese. Ovitz comes across here as honest and self-effacing, while also justifiably proud of the role he played and the respect his position garnered. This is not the hit-job many anticipated. Rather, it’s a smart exploration of how projects like Schindler’s List came to be, and why a figure like Ovitz was often an essential part of the process.

The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together by Adam Nayman (Abrams)

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Adam Nayman’s The Coen Brothers is the book the directors of Blood Simple, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men have long deserved. A big, bold walk through every feature they’ve ever made (up to ending on Hail, Caesar!), this is, indeed, the book that really ties the films together. Nayman, whose book on Showgirls is another gem, finds insightful connections between films like The Hudsucker Proxy and Hail, Caesar! while also diagnosing the significance of each entry in the duo’s filmography. (“True Grit,” Nayman explains, “was a big-tent movie for the Coens”–in other words, a major box-office success with real cultural impact.) In addition to analysis, plot details, stills, and behind-the-scenes photos, the text includes interviews with collaborators like Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell. What is most endearing about This Book is that it spends a comparable amount of time on each entry in the Coens’ filmography. Even the lesser-regarded likes of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers are explored with thematic insight and detailed photographic analysis. There’s no doubt this is one of 2018’s must-own books for film lovers.

Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope (Hachette Books)

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The story of Jho Low seems ripped out of fiction: a shady Wharton grad with an ability to raise billions of dollars produces films like The Wolf of Wall Street and befriend the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. It couldn’t last, of course, and thankfully authors Tom Wright and Bradley Hope are here to show Low’s downfall in entertaining detail. It’s a story that seems to demand the big screen treatment, so fingers crossed that Billion Dollar Whale inspires a documentary adaptation.

Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon by Charles Casillo (St. Martin’s Press)

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Do we need another Marilyn Monroe biography? Yes, when it is fresh and insightful as Charles Casilio’s Private Life of a Public Icon. The screen legend’s tortured story is recounted with much new detail, especially the conflicting accounts of Bobby Kennedy’s whereabouts during Monroe’s final days. The reader finishes Casilio’s text in a state of sadness, but that is more than appropriate. There is quite simply no other emotion more fitting when pondering the end of Marilyn.

The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula by Alexandra West (McFarland)

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Alexander West is a unique and important writer about modern horror. In The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle, she digs into an era that is easy to overlook. In films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, West sees legitimate attempts at asking teen audiences to confront the nature of violence. It’s a fascinating thought, and the author also explores a number of films mostly ignored by the critical establishment, including Fear, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and Idle Hands. As she stalks through these horror entries, it’s more than a nostalgia trip, making for a juicy read.

Star Wars: The Complete Visual Dictionary (New Edition) by Pablo Hidalgo and David Reynolds (DK)

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It seems like there’s a new Star Wars visual dictionary from DK every few months, and guess what? Each one is stellar. The latest, a new edition of The Complete Visual Dictionary, is the finest and most comprehensive yet. It features the prequel trilogy, the original trilogy, The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and Solo over the course of nearly 350 pages. As always, a plethora of visual delights are included, most memorably a full spread of the infamous Sarlacc that is sure to delight (and gross out) hardcore fans.   

Solo: A Star Wars Story by Mur Lafferty (Del Rey)

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It’s quite interesting to watch Ron Howard’s enjoyable, underrated Solo: A Star Wars Story at home along with the deleted scenes, and then read Mur Lafferty’s novelization. Many of these deleted scenes are also included in the Hugo-nominated author’s book, and some of them–Qi’ra’s backstory, Han’s time as a pilot in the Imperial Navy–strengthen the story’s choppy first chunk. (Lafferty also makes the scene in which Han and Qi’ra reunite much more emotional.) This is certainly a case in which the novelization adds additional layer and texture.

Die Hard books from Insight Editions

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This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Die Hard, and Insight Editions is celebrating with three new books. First is Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History by James Mottram and David S. Cohen, a wonderfully detailed run through the history of all five Die Hard films. Most interesting is the pre-production and production info related to John McTiernan’s original, specifically the project’s link to Frank Sinatra (the book on which the film is based was a sequel to Sinatra’s 1968 drama The Detective) and the names bandied about for John McClane (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, and, er, Richard Dean Anderson). The victor, of course, was Bruce Willis, and the rest is history. While the book becomes less compelling as the series progresses, it’s still tremendously readable. Next is A Die Hard Christmas, written by Doogie Horner and illustrated by JJ Harrison. Yes, this is a storybook version of the film that playfully answers whether Die Hard should be considered a Christmas movie. The illustrations are suitably delightful, and suitably violent. Lastly is a graphic novel sequel, A Million Ways To Die Hard, written by Frank Tieri and illustrated by Mark Texeira. Taking place thirty years after Die Hard, it features an older, now-retired McClane on the hunt for a serial killer. It’s a fine continuation, and certainly a more compelling McClane story than A Good Day to Die Hard. Note to Fox as they plan the inevitable next franchise film: Book Willis, bring back McTiernan, and let them rip.

Building, crafting, making: Three picks for kids

As a parent, one of the joys of writing about film-related books is receiving examples tailor-made for my own kids. I knew that Star Wars Maker Lab: 20 Craft and Science Projects (by Liz Lee Heinecke and Cole Horton; DK) would be a hit in the Schobert household, and indeed it was. While many of the projects are a bit involved (an R2-D2 holoprojector, a Hoth snow globe), that’s part of the fun. And searching for the right materials makes this a nice weekend afternoon activity. Meanwhile, DK’s “build your own adventure” Lego books offer a nice blend of text (there’s generally a brief story) and detailed building instructions. The latest Ninjago edition, Greatest Ninja Battles, offers some neat ideas for young ones; my favorite is the food stall featuring wee fried eggs. And then there’s Batman: Flashlight Projections (by Jake Black; Insight Kids), a clever creation featuring cut-out windows featuring the Dark Knight and lots of villains. My phone flashlight proved perfect for this one, and the text is simple enough for beginning readers.

Killer comic-inspired creations

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Speaking of kid-friendly releases, I can’t tell you the positive effect DK’s Marvel Studios Visual Dictionary (by Adam Bray) has had on my eight-year-old’s Lego building. He literally opens the book, pages through it until he finds an image of a superhero whose minifigure he has not yet acquired, and creates his own. But the book is not just for little ones. Any Marvel fan will find much to chew on in this wonderfully exhaustive collection of oddball character details (Pepper Potts’s ring was a gift from her grandmother!), close-up photos of weaponry (Hawkeye’s quiver!), and lots of backstories. A little too creepy for kiddos but fascinating for older fans is DC: Anatomy of a Metahuman, written by S.D. Perry and Mathew K. Manning, and illustrated by Ming Doyle (Insight Editions). It’s an anatomical breakdown of everything from Bane’s veins to Aquaman’s lungs, and it’s pretty stunning. Doyle’s illustrations, in particular, deserve a callout. And the last noteworthy entry for comics fans this month is DC Comics Absolutely Everything You Need to Know (by Liz Marsham, Melanie Scott, Landry Walker, and Stephen Wiacek; DK). This colorful guide is ideal for a lazy fan like yours truly, and I expect longtime followers will also find much of interest. Best of all is the presence of minor characters like Bizarro’s clone, Zibarro, and simian sleuth Detective Chimp. The latter deserves his time in spotlight, dammit.

Blu-ray bonuses

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A case can be made that The Tree of Life is one of The Criterion Collection’s most audacious and important releases in their history. While Terrence Malick’s 2011 film remains a bold, exhilarating viewing experience, what makes this 2018 release so noteworthy is what the disc includes. There is the film, of course, and the usual special features, some text (an essay from Kent Jones and Roger Ebert’s original review), and an expert restoration. But the cherry on top is the presence of Malick’s new, extended cut featuring an additional fifty minutes. The Brad Pitt-Jessica Chastain starrer that cuts between the dawn of creation, 1950s Texas, and the present day, in many ways, feels like an entirely new film. For more, check out Jordan Raup’s feature.

Nearly as exciting is Criterion’s release of Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water, a 1994 drama rarely seen in the United States. This tale of two teenagers in 1970s Paris features a party sequence that critic Girish Shambu, in a wonderful essay included in the booklet, says “might be the fullest and most ambitious expression of Assayas’s ability to wed his mastery of movement to a structural bedrock of music, a series of songs that accompany the episodes we witness.” Cold Water, then, would make a fascinating double bill with the director’s seemingly overlooked autobiographical 2012 drama, Something in the Air.

See more recommended books on filmmaking.