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‘My Winnipeg’: Illusion Travels by Streetcar

Written by Nate Fisher, February 23, 2017 at 1:42 pm 


Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

It’s some time after midnight, and you’re riding the bus. The rehearsed movements from here to bed are already running through your head: ten or eleven more blocks, fifty steps to the building door, up two flights of stairs, three doors in total. Effectively, you’re already asleep. So your mind wanders into a waking dream space encased in this bus. The lights, buildings, and trees around you reflecting from one window to the other intermingle with your recollections, from what you did two hours ago before you got on the bus to what you did six years ago on that bench you’re about to pass. Maybe you can see the city skyline, or, on occasion, a passing car or a silhouetted person. Perhaps, for a second, you dream about what’s way out there, off the bus route and past the skyline. The narrative of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg comprises this split second.

Late-night public transportation serves as the spine for our journey into the city of Winnipeg and the mind of Guy Maddin, which are, in the lonesome frustrated air of the circling streetcar, inseparable. What follows for the rest of the 79-minute film is difficult to pin down by genre, and remains, ten years on, one of the furthest forward in the vanguard of 21st-century formally flexible documentaries. My Winnipeg is a stringent Marxist history of the city of Winnipeg interspersed with a raucous, often silent comedy. We see grainy footage of the snowy streets as if from a passing car or trolley inserted within Maddin’s black-and-white phantasmagoria. There are no formal restrictions — silent intertitles, stock video footage, stock color photos, animations, and grainy color camcorder DV are all included. But because the filmmaker is always “trapped” in Winnipeg and his memories, we return to the circling streetcar, host to “ghosts” of all kinds.

Memories of Fellini’s 8 ½ flicker in the mind, and Maddin does little to distance himself from the well-traveled cinematic landscape of directors having a good old navel gaze. But the difference between 8 ½ and My Winnipeg points to a core reason for Guy Maddin’s genius. Where the first scene of 8 ½ puts us in a nice Italian car with Fellini’s avatar Marcelo Mastroianni, My Winnipeg starts on a much less impressive trolley with (apologies to him, but) Darcy Fehr as “Guy Maddin.” His flashy style is always mapped onto a dowdy parochialism, and often has a laser focus on his ho-hum hometown. My Winnipeg may be his masterpiece in this regard.

Maddin, as has always been central to his aesthetic, pushes towards a detailed hyperspeed montage of surreal images, but a montage that winks back at its extremely low-budget origin and production. He is a backyard filmmaker at heart, a director for whom something as intimate as black sheets covering a garage wall can be a soundstage. In films like Archangel, The Saddest Music in the World, and Brand Upon the Brain, Soviet city symphonies and expressionist canvas backdrops are mimicked by hand with a physical closeness that lays bare their psychological underpinnings.

This stylistic tendency becomes the narrative arch of My Winnipeg, where Maddin turns his mental processes into fodder for story. Before we even get to the dreamspace streetcar, the first image is of the director’s mother, played by Ann Savage, 60 years on from Detour, and being directed from offscreen by Maddin. Inasmuch as there is a story to My Winnipeg, it concerns the Maddin character, dreaming throughout his extended trolley trip, living out his memories in an attempt to exorcise those ghosts that keep him mentally and physically in Winnipeg. In order to complete the exorcism, the director hires local actors to play his family and restage events from his childhood.

Such is the film’s pace that the restaging of his childhood, the primary narrative event, scarcely covers a chunk of the runtime. It is a tough task to describe My Winnipeg because it is a tough task to describe the director’s Winnipeg, which is at once an imprisoning force and a series of shifting illusory surfaces. Winnipeg is a city where “everything here is a euphemism,” and there are not too many straightforward facts in Maddin’s voiceover of his film. Winnipeg doesn’t have “ten times as many sleepwalkers as the average” as he alleges, but it is a city where corporate interests have destroyed cherished landmarks and have consigned others to being mere ghosts, as is well elucidated. This Winnipeg is a city where a psychic confluence under the forks of two rivers causes a hotbed of labor politics in the twentieth century.

These places draw Maddin back time and again, places like the Sternbergian restaurant downtown and the hallowed hockey rink. In one of the films greatest tragedies, the old Winnipeg Arena is demolished, but not before the director gets one last commemorative piss in the fabled men’s room trough. This activity, one of the picture’s many lewdnesses, is in lockstep with Maddin’s sensory and Freudian treatment of memory. And that act demonstrates how his ritualistic journey through the places of his past fails to exorcise him of his past the way he would like. The irony, an irony not lost on the man, is that it’s the very belief that only by returning home can he conquer home that has always trapped him there. This is what he means when he sarcastically admits: “When you miss a place enough, the backgrounds in photos become more important than the people in them.”

In a last ditch attempt to free himself of the burden of having to care about his place of origin, Maddin concocts a revolutionary hero – Citizen Girl, who restores all the buildings and people and the entire city to their ahistorical former glory, so that they can stop being ghosts. This effort, shot in Riefenstahl style, is half-hearted, as he knows what direction history moves. The last rhetorical questions he asks himself after creating Citizen Girl are, “Now I can be free of the ghosts? How can one live without ghosts? What’s a city without ghosts? Unknown.” The film ends with a montage of those ghosts: the ghost of the old house, the ghost of the mother and dead brother. The streetcar ride out of town is forgotten and unfinished.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Hot Fuzz’ and Edgar Wright’s Art of Perfect Parody

Written by Daniel Schindel, February 17, 2017 at 2:06 pm 


Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

Hot Fuzz is a true parody film. A lot of entertainment that’s created and sold as “parody” is, in fact, just an example of whatever genre or stock plot it’s targeting, but with jokes. Witness the sorry slew of films made by the Friedbergs, Seltzers, and Tiddeses of the world. This is easy to forget because the final act delivers a nonstop barrage of gunfire and explosions, but Hot Fuzz is comparatively light on action for most of its running time. It’s also easy to forget because it unquestionably feels like an action film for the duration, deliberately applying the Tony Scott school of editing to everything from paperwork to pen-clicking. Yet most of Hot Fuzz is a slow-burn build-up revolving around the more old-fashioned, decidedly more British genre of the provincial murder mystery.

Writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer / star Simon Pegg conceived Hot Fuzz out of a desire for the UK to get its own big ‘80s-style action cop film. Historically, detective stories in print and TV have dominated that country’s pop-culture crime corner. (And since this film was released, we’ve seen the popularity of British detective TV go international, thanks to the likes of Sherlock and Netflix.) But hyper-competent rogue police officers getting into massive gunfights and constant chases, cracking giant criminal conspiracies, and clashing with cigar-chomping superiors would feel far too outlandish in such a setting.

And Wright and Pegg double down on the absurd clash by placing their pastiche in a quaint country village. As perhaps the foremost director of comedy working today, Wright has a knack for purely visual humor. He wrings endless material out of putting guns into the hands of wool-clad middle-aged people without ever exhausting it.

Hot Fuzz continually makes punchlines of either charging mundane situations with high energy — like a chase for a supermarket thief that’s interrupted by moms strolling their babies and a swan – or setting up archetypical action beats, only to cut them short – think the tremendous fake-out with a shed full of munitions that looks ready to explode, only for the characters to run out and… nothing happens. This can be seen as a “test run” for how The World’s End holds off on any genre elements until around a third of the way through, swelling with purely character-based tension right up until the point when it would be too much to take. Of course, Hot Fuzz tips its hand from the beginning that there’s more afoot than is apparent to (most of) its characters, and that all the deaths happening around the small town of Sanford are indeed not freak accidents.

The continual subversion and frustration of action clichés also channels the mindset of Pegg’s character, Nicholas Angel, a star London officer forcibly relocated to picturesque Sanford and addled with boredom by the lack of crime to fight. Angel is every small-town denizen driving themselves mad with fantasies of a more exciting life. He is essentially Wright when he was growing up in his own small town and in love with genre cinema – made all the more evident by the meta aspect of how the movie was shot in Wright’s hometown of Somerset. Hell, he even held a job as a youth in the supermarket that’s used as an important recurring location. (“I love it, but I also want to trash it,” he once said in an interview.)

The films of the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy all feature arrested development as a plot point, and it appears here in a more complicated way than perhaps even in The World’s End — though certainly not in as dark a way, given how, in that film, a refusal to grow up literally destroys civilization. After Angel spends the entire story refuting the childish, action-movie-influenced ideas of his partner, Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), embracing that un-modern, unregulated form of policing proves to be empowering, and the proper way to combat the villains. And the movie ends with Angel and Butterman in full-on cowboy cop mode to respond to nothing more than “some hippie types messin’ with the recycling bins at the supermarket.” Which is a goodly larff but also scary when you think about it. After all, if they’re now sheriffing the town with such tactics, have they merely supplanted the fascistic Neighborhood Watch Association rather than defeated it?

That brings me to the oddest way this film has aged. And I’m sorry to bring contemporary politics into it, but, for God’s sake: main villain Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent in one of the greatest against-type castings of the decade) actually says that the NWA’s motivation behind its covert murder campaign was to “make Sanford great again.” NIMBY conservatism in the middle class is, of course, an evergreen subject, but it’s taken on a new, scarier heft since 2016. While the political specifics of the modern situation are missing — immigration doesn’t come up, although itinerant Romani (“filthy Gypsies”) are at the root of Frank’s evil origin story — the NWA emblemize the core of Brexit. They want things to remain precisely as they are, and react to the slightest thing that’s out of place with utmost belligerence. Am I saying the proper response to UKIP is to drop-kick them in the face? Maybe.

After codifying the cinematic style he established with his TV series Spaced in Shaun of the Dead, Wright perfected it here by taking the speed from 40 to 100. This is as lightning-fast as a film can move while maintaining comprehension and letting its jokes land, and at the same time it crams in literally hundreds of smaller moments waiting to be caught on a rewatch or appreciated in a freeze-frame. I can appreciate it an entirely different way than I did as a teenager, even if the giddiness I get from a man’s head being exploded by a falling steeple is the same now as then. Hot Fuzz is perfect.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Music and Lyrics’: Sweet Dreams are Made of This

Written by Manuela Lazic, February 14, 2017 at 12:59 pm 


Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

In many ways, Marc Lawrence’s 2007 rom-com Music and Lyrics begins like a fever dream. Not only does Hugh Grant suddenly appear onscreen with a sky-reaching hairdo, he’s also singing to the camera and wearing tight trousers. Soon, a similarly clad and always charming Scott Porter, of Friday Night Lights fame, joins him and also gets vocal. It is 1984 and, together, they are Pop!, the band whose hit “Pop Goes My Heart” had a video to match its greatness. Making faces straight out of a silent movie to portray Grant’s heartbreak (or heart-popping), the duo evolves through a scenario that involves a dizzying black-and-white room, a hospital, and choreography centered on their crotches and behinds. Like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” sequence in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (also 1984), this music-video-within-a-movie captures the exhilarating, not-always-convincing liberated spirit of the 1980s with humor and devotion. The psychosexual obsessions of Body Double are, however, dismissed for a much more palatable and whimsical sentimentalism.

But the dream soon comes crashing down. An aggressive voiceover relates the duo’s history since: one day, Colin Thompson (Porter) decided to go solo and became an even bigger star, leaving Alex Fletcher (Grant) to drown his sorrow in drugs and alcohol. As if that weren’t bad enough, Alex now finds himself offered the opportunity to appear on television in an actual, physical “Battle of the 80s Has-Beens.” Yet this violent cocktail of nostalgia, shaming, and exploitation nonplusses Alex. Or at least he can joke about the term “has-been”: “It’s a very clear statement: ‘I live in the past. Everything good I ever did was long ago. Don’t expect anything new or exciting from me now.’ Really takes the pressure off. Especially on a first date!” Failure and near-bankruptcy have made Alex deeply sarcastic and less picky about his image. With acid humor, he convinces himself that the dream of earnest sensitivity sold by his old Pop! video was only a naïve fantasy, and hides his pain to others and himself.

But Lawrence’s decision to open with such a joyful homage to ’80s pop already suggests that Alex’s cynicism isn’t the writer-director’s. As surprising as the music video bursting on the screen for Music and Lyrics‘ opening sequence is a woman entering Alex’s life and offering a breath of fresh, hope-filled air. When he gets a shot at coming back on the music scene by writing a song for the sensuous but juvenile, pseudo-spiritual starlet Cora (Haley Bennett), Alex unexpectedly finds in his plant lady Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), a gifted lyricist. The very fact that Sophie charitably accepts to help him should be a sign that all isn’t about greed and self-interest in life, but it will take Alex more than that to pierce the thick skin he’s grown through years of disillusionment.

Sophie’s tornado-like attitude isn’t a simple personality trait or plot device to contrast with Alex’s taciturnity; it takes a moment of vulnerability for her to reveal what lies behind her manic behavior and chronic lack of confidence. A bestselling novel in a bookstore window brings back memories of her ex-lover, an esteemed writer and professor who broke her heart and parodied their story in that very book. Rather than losing patience and worrying about his song, Alex listens carefully to Sophie. Just as she helps him write and encourages him to sing whatever he wants to sing, he tells her that she’s too talented and wonderful to care about this ex’s opinion of her.

The fact that both Alex and Sophie are perpetually struggling against a feeling of inadequacy gives Music and Lyrics a strange, deeply enjoyable realism. Their attempts to be socially acceptable versions of themselves results in extreme self-deprecation in Alex and a frenzied behavior in Sophie. The sense of awkward panic that taints their interactions with each other and the world is, of course, funny, but also keeps them down to earth and close to the audience, despite their rather unusual story.

Indeed, depicting the creative process via cinema is a high-wire act for several reasons. An artist can easily seem self-involved, when in fact creativity is often motivated by a genuine desire to open up to others and a willingness to make oneself vulnerable. While Alex and Sophie do successfully express their feelings through their song “Way Back Into Love,” Lawrence’s brilliant script avoids all potentially pretentious self-congratulatory moments for them. It’s not only that Alex’s cynicism regarding the music industry and Sophie’s lack of self-confidence imply that neither wants to praise their own efforts too loudly; it’s also that the race-against-time structure of this story leaves them no time to enjoy their success. Every line they manage to write is a small victory, but there are so many more to compose before Cora’s short deadline. The duo is making art but can’t afford to look cool doing it, instead remaining endearingly focussed on the task at hand.

The other dimension that’s challenging to depict is inspiration. How an artist gets ideas can rarely be explained without dumbing down this ever-elusive process. Some directors are literal about the magic of creativity: in Begin Again, John Carney chose a montage of instruments coming alive to represent Dan (Mark Ruffalo) thinking about a melody, thus making songwriting seem detached from its musician — not to mention whimsy. Music and Lyrics — a title already revelatory of a more humble approach than the cutesy Begin Again — shows Alex successively playing each musical part of the song himself, using simple melodies, loop machines, and computers. Rather than artificially adding a dose of fantasy to elevate pop music, Lawrence understands that its power to move listeners lies in its very simplicity and cheesiness. He highlights the easy bliss that Alex’s music brings to people at every concert the singer gives, big or small, for the hyper-excited middle-aged female spectators are never ridiculed. As Sophie points out, their glee is beautiful and something to be proud of.

Naturally, the aptly titled “Way Back Into Love” brings happiness to its makers, too. In taking breaks from songwriting to talk about their experiences, Alex and Sophie start detaching from their self-hatred by first putting it into words, then music and lyrics. Their dedication to their song leads to their devotion to each other and a realization that they are worthy of affection — but most importantly, of self-love. The dream of simple pleasures as presented by Pop! and pop music seems believable again.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Diary of the Dead’ and George A. Romero’s Formal Self-Awareness

Written by Mike Thorn, February 14, 2017 at 12:58 pm 


Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

For spanning half a century and six films to date, George A. Romero’s Dead series could reasonably be labeled the most ambitious single-auteur franchise in horror. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead’s release in 1968, this sequence is linked by its various uses of zombie uprisings as a vessel for sociopolitical critique. Night found as its inspiration Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 novel I Am Legend, a sci-fi horror tale that places its isolated protagonist within an apocalyptic world of humans-turned-vampires; surely, Matheson’s text posits an early sketch for the contemporary zombie, and Romero’s film cements that concept by replacing the novel’s creatures with reanimated corpses. Before Night of the Living Dead, the zombies of horror cinema aligned more directly with an origin in voodoo ritualism. Consider, for example, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), a model Wes Craven later revisited in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

Night of the Living Dead’s notoriety stems not only from its genre-related development, though; rather, it stands as a tentpole achievement of independent filmmaking, boasting rich black-and-white cinematography, a calculated development of tension, and insights into the angst of its contemporary zeitgeist, particularly ongoing battles for civil rights and vehement protests of the Vietnam war. Romero’s political intuition carries through Dawn of the Dead’s critique of then-burgeoning rampant consumerism, Day of the Dead’s thoughts on militarism and scientific ethics, and Land of the Dead’s proto-Occupy evaluation of late capitalism’s ludicrous wealth disproportions.

Enter 2007’s Diary of the Dead, a film as deeply political as its predecessors, but characterized by a uniquely pronounced formal self-awareness. After Land saw major studio development under the banner of Universal Pictures, Diary finds Romero reevaluating the kind of micro-budget conditions that produced Night of the Living Dead. It calls attention to the sensibilities that have overwhelmingly haunted mainstream horror since the release of two genre-shaking titles in the late 1990s: Wes Craven’s Scream and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project. Romero taps into the postmodern auto-critique of the former, and the subjective “found footage” aesthetic of the latter. It is worth noting that 2007 sees a general resurgence of the found-footage genre, bolstered most loudly by the premiere of Paranormal Activity, as well as Spain’s highly regarded [REC]. But as a rigorous self-evaluation and confrontational engagement with contemporary technology, Diary stands out. Romero’s film is forward-thinking genre cinema, as opposed to a work of simple reaction (Paranormal Activity mostly recycles the Blair Witch model) or homage ([REC] openly evokes the early works of the auteur in question).

Indeed, an accurate description for Diary of the Dead is less “found footage” and more “mock documentary.” The film’s voiceover alleges that it has been edited by Debra (Michelle Morgan) from various sources, including footage shot by her boyfriend, Jason (Joshua Close). The “documentary” also includes coverage from surveillance cameras, along with additional footage from Debra and Jason’s film-school classmates. Romero regularly calls attention to his own film’s fictitiousness. Debra’s opening narration lays bare the film’s methods of production: “The film was shot with a Panasonic HDX-900 and an HBX-200,” she says. “I did the final cut on Jason’s laptop. I’ve added music occasionally for effect, hoping to scare you.” Shortly after this reflexive admission, Diary sees Jason guiding the production of a mummy-themed horror film; in true post-Scream fashion, the scene incorporates Tracy’s (Amy Lalonde) incisive critiques of generic sexism: “Can somebody please explain to me why girls in scary movies always have to, like, fall down and lose their shoes and shit?” she asks in exasperation. “It’s totally lame. And why do we always have to get our dresses torn off?” Romero furthers this self-awareness when a climactic scene mirrors the droll opening: now, the mummy-costumed boy chasing Tracy really does mean to hurt her, and she voluntarily disposes her shoes before her dress is torn.

What sets Diary apart is not simply its acknowledgment of itself as mock documentary, but a sustained and attentive scrutiny of itself as a cinematic object. It also conducts a genuinely complex study of information overload in the age of digital technology. Romero gets away with skillful editing and composition by attributing his subjects with backgrounds in film. In providing this character information, Romero also justifies his film’s incorporation of highly stylized montages, which consist of overlaid newscast footage and narrations alongside Debra’s sharply political commentary. The formal self-awareness plays out even more powerfully in an emphasis on individual images: multiple scenes find subjects recording each other on handheld cameras, so that the audience is watching itself watching. Romero, highly critical of digital media’s fallibility, mirrors these images with one striking shot that finds the camera pointed similarly into the barrel of a National Guard member’s rifle. This explicit visual metaphor speaks to the film’s questions about the merits (or lack thereof) of documenting violence —“There will always be people like you,” film professor Andrew Maxwell tells Jason, “wanting to document, wanting to record some sort of diary.”

Yes, Romero is well aware of the pun on “shot” that goes along with recording brutal imagery, and he makes his auto-critique clear. It seems that Romero has no interest in subtlety, stationing himself instead within the territory of direct confrontation. This is a film of unavoidable conflicts, rendered all the more indelible through its horrific imagery. One especially disturbing episode finds Debra revisiting her suburban home to find her undead mother feasting on her father’s flesh, before being attacked by her young brother. The paradoxically “sophisticated” and “savage” Maxwell dispenses with the boy using a bow and arrow. Indeed, as the oldest major character in the film, Maxwell might well be Romero’s stand-in – erudite, pessimistic, and wryly humorous, he acts as a guardian and lovably cynical overseer of the young adults’ journey. One telling scene shows Maxwell discovering a first edition of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and quoting without an apparent sense of irony: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

For finding his vision newly rejuvenated by digital technology, Romero might admit that, in some sense, this is “the best of times.” In offering perhaps his bleakest worldview to date, with a final line that asks, “Are we worth saving?,” he might be just as quick to state that this is “the worst of times.” A decade later, it has perhaps become tiresome to belabor the dire political state of our world. But it is fascinating to ponder whether a 2017 Dead entry would still allow for a belief that this contemporary moment is the best of times.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: Princess Leia, Alfred Hitchcock, Going Rogue, and More

Written by Christopher Schobert, February 13, 2017 at 12:31 pm 


The world of film-related books has been dominated by Star Wars for the last two years, and that’s not a bad thing. With insightful authors like Pablo Hidalgo and gorgeous efforts like Star Wars: Galactic Maps, there has never been a better time to be force-crazed. This month is no exception, but you’ll also find new releases about Hitchcock, the Marx Brothers, and even two involving X-Files prequels. Let’s start with a book that took on new relevance just weeks after its release.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (Blue Rider Press)


Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, a hilarious and touching look at her life as Star Wars icon Princess Leia, was a must-read even before the sudden, shocking passing of its author in December. It is even more poignant now. While the book earned pre-release buzz over its revelation of an on-set affair with Harrison Ford, that juicy item is only one of Diarist’s noteworthy elements. Even better is the tale of how she was cast by George Lucas in A New Hope (“George gave me the impression of being smaller than he was because he spoke so infrequently”) and how Leia’s legendary hairdo came to be (she calls it a “hairy-earphone configuration”). Her memories are mesmerizing, and so is The Princess Diarist.

Going Rogue: New Rogue One books


Another year, another must-own Star Wars visual dictionary from DK … The latest, Star Wars: Rogue One: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Lucasfilm creative executive Pablo Hidalgo, is lovingly crafted and smartly designed. The best element of these books is always the level of detail, and in the Rogue One text that means a full spread of Jyn’s childhood toys (I heart “Koodie” the Tooka), a Saw Gerrera timeline, and even a section on those aged Death Star scientists working for Galen Erso. The Art of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Abrams Books) by Josh Kushins is a visual stunner that demonstrates how the film’s designers paid tribute to the past (including Ralph McQuarrie’s ) and forged the unique worlds of Eadu and Scarif. It’s also fun to see the evolution of characters like K-2SO, Baze Malbus, and Chirrut Îmwe. Alexander Freed’s novelization, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Del Rey), nicely expands on some of the film’s key scenes. Cassian, for example, has a nice moment of contemplation before the final explosion that adds much to his character. Similarly, Jason Fry’s Star Wars: Rogue One: Secret Mission (DK) and Rogue One: Rebel Dossier (Disney Lucasfilm Press) provide interesting tidbits that are sure to help young readers better understand the context of the film. The “personnel files” that make up the Rebel Dossier are especially fun.

Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese)


For a biography of Alfred Hitchcock, A Brief Life is, well, surprisingly brief at 260 pages. But this economy proves a key selling point for what proves to be a marvelous book. While it covers the Master of Suspense’s entire life, it is the end section that finds Ackroyd’s writing at its most elegant, and most devastating: “He slowly faded away. He lost interest in the world. He refused food and drink. He was cold, even hostile, to visitors. He screamed at his doctor. He turned his face to the wall. He seemed to have forgotten that Alma was still in the same house. Once more he was lying alone in the darkness, with the scythe of death descending ever closer to him.”

Fantastic Books: The Potterverse goes Beast-crazy


Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was an autumn smash, and seemed to mostly please fans of J.K. Rowling’s beloved wizard. Scholastic released a number of books to tie-in with the film, all geared toward young readers. The Beasts: Cinematic Guide, Magical Movie Handbook, and Character Guide are three above-average examples, as is the lovely Fashion Sketchbook. The latter beautifully highlights Colleen Atwood’s wonderful, Oscar-nominated costume designs. Also nice are four Cinematic Guides, slim but info-packed volumes focusing on old favorites Harry, Hermoine, Ron and Dumbledore. My copies have been heavily read by my 6-year-old, and that’s a good sign.

George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Little, Brown and Company)


The life of George Lucas has been heavily chronicled in recent years, but Brian Jay Jones manages to unearth some new pearls in A Life, many of them revolving around the prequel trilogy years. If the early and middle sections feel overly familiar (the teenage car accident, friendship with Francis Ford Coppola, the rejection of THX-1138, the birth of Star Wars), the later period makes up for it with some fresh insights. Among these are details on the conversations between Lucas and Disney’s Bob Iger that resulted in the sale of Lucasfilm. But my favorite is the story of a visit from Coppola during the filming of Attack of the Clones: “Even with more than thirty years of friendship between them … it didn’t take long for the pair of them to fall almost unconsciously into the old familiar roles again, with Lucas playing the padawan to Coppola’s Jedi master.”

Television: A Biography by David Thomson (Thames & Hudson)


Biographical Dictionary of Film heavyweight David Thomson turns his gaze to the small screen in Television: A Biography, and the results are typically fascinating. Disappointingly, there is no mention of Twin Peaks. But there is Thomson on commercials, Thomson on Carson, Thomson on long-form TV drama. Consider his oh-so-Thomson take on True Detective: “That first season was extraordinary, and yes, it was flat-out pretentious. But if that is permitted in all the other arts, why not in television, too?”

Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Promotion by A.T. McKenna (University Press of Kentucky)

UKY05 Showman of the Screen Selected.indd

Who is Joseph E. Levine? You’ll discover the answer in Showman of the Screen, and it should delight you. A producer and marketing genius, Levine helped bring to American screens everything from Hercules Unchained and Godzilla, King Of The Monsters! to The Graduate and Contempt. He was a larger-than-life figure who, McKenna writes, was also “a little man with a bad leg and a big belly.” Showman is a fitting and wildly entertaining tribute.

Star Wars: Galactic Maps written by Emil Fortune and illustrated by Tim McDonagh (Disney Lucasfilm Press)


While it’s classified as a children’s book, any Star Wars fan should consider snagging Galactic Maps. It’s nearly 80 pages of planetary maps (including Rogue One’s Jedha), all gorgeously illustrated, Each page is bursting with neat bits of info. (Who knew Dagobah had “jubba birds” and “dragonsnakes?) And the book opens with a helpful timeline and character guide that, on their own, would be useful. Here, they are sprinkles on top of Galactic Maps’ already delightful Star Wars sundae.

The Art of Selling Movies by John McElwee (GoodKnight Books)


Lovers of old Hollywood and cinema history will be spellbound by The Art of Selling Movies, a 300-page tret packed with photos and vintage advertisements. (My favorites date from the fifties, specifically ads run by small-town newspapers to promote genre fare. One, a spider with a skull’s head, is particularly memorable) Featuring everyone from Valentino and Pickford to Bardot and Hitchcock, this is a wonderfully entertaining and insightful coffee table tome.

Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage by Robert S. Bader (Northwestern University Press)


Robert Bader’s book highlights a fascinating, little-known segment of the Marx Brothers’ career: the 25 years the foursome spent on stage. He traces the comic legends’ road from live performance (Groucho made his debut in 1905) to big-screen successes, and does so with wit and insight.

The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos by Kami Garcia and The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate by Jonathan Maberry (Imprint)


It’s a killer idea, really: What were X-Files protagonists Fox Mulder and Dana Scully like as teenagers? Two new X-Files Origins novels set in 1979 explore this question, and the results are certainly intriguing. Agent of Chaos finds a 17-year-old Mulder involved with a missing child, and dealing with the disappearance of his younger sister. Meanwhile, in Devil’s Advocate a 15-year-old Scully must deal with a series of mysterious dreams and a suspicious accident. They’re fun reads, and equally enjoyable is pondering who might play young Mulder and Scully in the inevitable adaptations.

See more recommended books on filmmaking.

What are you reading? Have you enjoyed any of the above picks?

The 50 Best Action Movies of the 21st Century Thus Far

Written by The Film Stage, February 7, 2017 at 1:18 pm 


Since the dawn of the 21st century, action cinema has undergone a bigger change than perhaps any other genre. As the tools with which filmmakers craft their works have continually advanced, a sort of renaissance has begun wherein action films stepped firmly into their own. Often put in the same category as horror — not taken seriously as a form of artistic expression outside of its core fanbase — action has had to boldly announce itself as a viable medium through which big set pieces, but also big ideas, can be presented and explored.

With the highly anticipated John Wick: Chapter 2 arriving in theaters this Friday, we’ve set out to reflect on the millennium’s action films that have most excelled. To pick our top 50, we’ve reached out to all corners of the globe, choosing an array of films ranging from grand to gritty, brutal to beautiful. The result is a showcase of what action cinema can do at its peak presentation: knock you flat on your back while igniting ideas and emotions with explosive, lasting impact.

Check out our top 50 below and let us know your favorites in the comments. One can also see the full list on Letterboxd.

50. Shoot ‘Em Up (Michael Davis)


Everyone has that one friend who is just crazy, who runs across a highway with a bottle of whiskey in his hand while screaming something that might be considered a slur and also shamelessly hits on his friends’ girlfriends. Why do we hang out with that guy? Because every now and then he does something so insane you know that when you’re 80 years old you’ll be telling your grandkids about it when their parents are out of earshot. That is what Shoot ‘Em Up is – a mad bastard of a film that must be seen to be believed and that would have a giant Motley Crue back tattoo if it ever took human form. Clive Owen plays a sharpshooter by way of Bugs Bunny that has to team up with a prostitute played by Monica Bellucci to keep a baby safe from… everyone. This movie takes place in a universe where guns are the only tool, and the only thing deadlier than a gun is a carrot. God bless it, and keep it away from weddings. – Brian R.

49. Hanna (Joe Wright)


When it hit theaters in 2011, Hanna immediately distinguished itself from the annual mass of faceless action movies through sheer, idiosyncratic style. Spanning locations as varied as Finland, Germany, and Morocco and driven sonically by a pulsing electronic beat by The Chemical Brothers, Joe Wright’s film feels like a mélange of European art cinema, Jason Bourne, and Grimms’ fairy tales, a delectable confection that features Saoirse Ronan as a naïve teenage assassin qua Little Red Riding Hood and Cate Blanchett as the Big Bad Wolf in high heels who brings the wilderness of the wicked world to the uninitiated heroine’s doorstep. As a twisted tale of tainted innocence, Hanna packs a wallop, but the film can also be enjoyed on the more visceral level of its hand-to-hand combat, which astonishes not so much on account of its choreography (though the film ain’t half bad in that department either) but the accompanying editing and cinematography, which add a degree of rhythm and spatial dimension to the fight scenes that is absent from most of Hanna’s genre counterparts. Wright, in his wild experimentations with shot orientation, length, and composition, demonstrates an understanding that, though “action” can describe bodies in motion, the word can apply to the camera as well. – Jonah J.

48. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii)


The sequel to Mamoru Oshii‘s seminal 1995 cyberpunk film may seem an unconventional pick for a list celebrating action films – after all, as many irritable fanboys may tell you, the majority of the film consists of quiet mood scenes and dense, citation-heavy musings on the fate of man in a post-human world. The action scenes present, however, are like nothing else ever glimpsed in animation or live action. Though the quick and beautiful blitzkriegs of gunplay and futuristic martial arts combat may warrant the easiest comparisons to John Woo, Oshii and his talented crew at Production I.G. take full advantage of the possibilities of digital animation to play with movement, framing and distortion in ways live-action cinema could never imitate to the same degree of breathtaking fluidity. Though the film’s composition and editing takes at least a general cue from live action (in contrast to some other animated gems like Hiroyuki Imaishi’s masterpiece Dead Leaves — too short to qualify for this list, regrettably, but most assuredly wreaking havoc in our hearts — Oshii, whose earlier work helped inspire the iconic action choreography of The Matrix, is not content to let himself be overshadowed by Hollywood. In GitS2 he proudly demonstrates his mastery of the medium in a final act in which nine minutes of continuous combat are choreographed to a sweeping, otherworldly vocal suite of Buddhist poetry from trusted musical collaborator Kenji Kawai. The “bullet ballet” of East Asian action cinema has never before or since felt so literal, or so transcendental. – Eli F.

47. Three (Johnie To)


A sterile hospital building may not be the first choice to capture cinematic beauty, but Three proves that a film in the hands of Johnnie To means expectations will be upended. If cinematography is as much about camera placement and movement as visual quality, Three is a masterclass in the former. The best (perhaps only worthwhile) action movie of last year, this is the rare genre entry in which the intense build-up may impress more than the guns-blazing climax — itself a euphoric, sublimely executed bout of showmanship. – Jordan R.

46. Fast Five (Justin Lin)


The Fast and Furious movies began as a pretty blatant rip-off of Point Break. They offered the thrills and chills of high speed car races and undercover detective stories wrapped up in a single package. It was until the fifth installment, however, that the franchise found its true calling as a movie about demi-gods whose chariots happen to be muscle cars. A heist film mixed with action beats that laugh at even the pretense of reality, Fast Five put the outsized personalities of its stars (plus new addition Dwayne Johnson) into a mad context that deserved them. Everything since then has been bigger, but this is where the self-aware fun hit its apex. – Brian R

45. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim Ji-woon)


The films of Sergio Leone have influenced a generation (or more) of filmmakers, both explicitly and subtly, but few products of inspiration have more madcap fun than Kim Ji-woon‘s The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Featuring Lee Byung-hun (who would actually go on to star in another Sergio Leone remake last year), Song Kang-ho, and Jung Woo-sung, the perfectly-cast trio simply have a blast in this South Korean western, which never shortchanges both its sensibilities from its native country as well as the genre it’s embracing. – Jordan R.

44. Dredd (Pete Travis)


In Dredd, all that was once old and stolid becomes searingly new again. Combining the acute spatial coherence and laser-focused screenplay of Die Hard with the gritty dystopian vibe and satiric wit of Robocop, the film may well be one of the greatest pure shoot-em-ups since the genre’s heyday in the 1980s. And yet, the dazzling sensory onslaught of aestheticized uber-gore and the meticulously constructed sense of topography, each keenly picking and choosing the strongest aesthetic and narrative qualities of violent video games, are unmistakably products of a new generation. (For a fun activity, just try and find a scene where you can’t figure out within 20 seconds where one character is, and where they are going, in relation to another — then compare that to a Christopher Nolan film.) The fusion of old wisdom and irreverent young blood proves an explosive, enticing and deliciously nasty concoction. – Eli F.

43. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

Edge of Tomorrow

Prior to its release in 2014, Edge of Tomorrow seemed like a sure-fire failure. Its production was chaotic, its budget spiraled out of control, its title was changed (it wouldn’t be the last time), and the film generally had mounting bad buzz. However, it ended up earning glowing reviews, and it quietly climbed towards almost $400 million worldwide thanks to strong word-of-mouth. The film is a real sci-fi treat: Halo meets Groundhog Day, with Tom Cruise daringly playing against type in the first half as a cowardly guy who actually undergoes a character arc. Emily Blunt is likewise memorable in her role, and the two leads have genuine chemistry that helps to elevate the thrillingly repetitive story. While the movie suffers a bit in its final moments, reeking of studio intervention, the setpieces here make an impression — even if it’s the 50th time we see them. – John U.

42. Elite Squad (José Padilha)


Brazilian favelas are both rich with culture and crime. In this 2007 film directed by José Padhilla, the native filmmaker dives deep into the slums and creates an action-packed crime thriller that is one of the most intense portrayals of life in the favelas to date. By alternating between two narratives between the corruption of the police and their connection to the street gangs, Padhilla weaves a tapestry of betrayal and revenge. It also features some of the grittiest and elaborate shootout scenarios that any action film fan can truly appreciate, propelling the film to become a franchise in South America where it spawned two big budget sequels. – Raffi A.

41. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)

District 9

South African director Neill Blomkamp was attached for some time to the unproduced adaptation of Microsoft’s Halo series, and that ill-fated project’s legacy peeks through in District 9‘s frantic, videogame-inspired second half. Eccentric aliens, head-exploding carnage and grimy futurism are all well and good, of course, but what really sets the film apart from the pack (including Blomkamp’s own modestly successful follow-ups) is the way it channels the political tensions of the director’s homeland. Drawing from South Africa’s loaded history of prejudice, terror and apartheid without offering explicit commentary, Blomkamp takes after The Twilight Zone in fashioning a twisted sci-fi fable in which cathartic action beats bear the undercurrent of lived history and relevant social context. District 9 may not be mistaken for a “cerebral” film — again, there are a lot of exploding heads — but in its class of genre thrill rides it’s one smart cookie. – Eli F.

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Josef von Sternberg’s Swan Song ‘Anatahan’ and the Reduction of Humanity

Written by Daniel Schindel, February 3, 2017 at 9:35 am 


Josef von Sternberg called Anatahan his best film. Borne from more than a decade’s worth of frustration with the studio system, it was, as the last picture he completed, his stamp on his time as a director. Even then, when released in 1953, it was only released in a butchered format, and, as it often goes in such cases, was subsequently abandoned by popular consciousness. But a few times each year, cinephiles (at least ones in major cities) are treated to big-screen resuscitations of long-neglected works. Now, Anatahan has been restored by Kino Lorber to Sternberg’s uncensored version, and it hits theaters again this week.

Anatahan tells the true story of a group of Japanese sailors stranded on the namesake island after a series of shipwrecks in 1944. Abruptly cut off from the war they were fighting, the seamen struggle to maintain order and sanity on the tiny stretch of jungle. This is exacerbated by the presence of a single local woman, Keiko (Akemi Negishi), who inevitably becomes the object of fixation, which just as inevitably foments conflict and, eventually, violence.

The subject matter is lurid, and one might expect a ‘50s treatment of the story to play that up for all it’s worth, yet Anatahan approaches it with a respectful remove. Though irrepressible horniness torments the soldiers, the movie only dips into overt or even covert sexualization in a few moments. An early nude scene does the work of striking the audience with a sense of the men’s hunger for Keiko. Later touches, e.g. Keiko casually resting her foot on one man’s shoulder, do more to raise suspense than arousal. Even 60 years ago, it was old hat to use castaway narratives to reduce humans to their animal nature, but none have done so in quite this way: Sternberg’s eye transmutes base lust into something ragged and desperate – sexuality stripped of sexiness. The plainly artificial jungle set enhances this heightened, allegorical atmosphere.


That feeling of humanity’s total reduction is compounded by how the tale is told. Japanese dialogue is left untranslated, while ever-present narration (provided by Sternberg himself) explains the setting and characters’ actions. The narrator speaks on behalf of all the men, another method by which the movie conveys their dehumanization. First-person plural strips away their individuality. Anatahan elapses seven years – as time crawls on and civilization rots away, they become less identifiable as the characters they were introduced as, now an anonymous hive competing for the favor of Queen Bee Keiko.

Crucially, the role of “queen” is not one that Keiko seeks out, or even accepts. The movie continually contrasts her practicality with the men’s futile war games. When an American plane crashes on the island, several men seize a pair of guns because they see this as the means of attaining power. Meanwhile, Keiko claims a parachute to turn into clothing. Less than a year after their marooning, the party has an opportunity to escape when a passing ship announces news of the Japanese surrender and World War II’s end, but they stubbornly resolve to stay. This is the key, and the utter pointlessness of the holdouts’ situation underlies their every subsequent squabble, culminating in the deaths of several.

Meanwhile, their prize, holding all the true power on the island, has little idea what to do with it because there’s nothing to do with it — not in such a remote, desolate place. It is Keiko’s eventual rejection of power that shows the way to peace. Sternberg’s grasp of group dynamics is marvelous, and it’s a boon that audiences finally have a chance to appreciate this punctuation point on his career.

Anatahan is now screening at Metrograph and will expand in the coming weeks.

Posterized February 2017: ‘The Lure,’ ‘John Wick: Chapter 2,’ ‘A Cure for Wellness,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, February 2, 2017 at 2:30 pm 

“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.

You’ve made it out of dump month, hopefully having caught up on all the Oscar nominees that rolled out wider nationwide. February even has a couple prizes for your trouble whether festival holdovers or hotly anticipated sequels. You may just have to tread carefully amongst a few more clunkers to find them.

Sadly, the poster selection is going to be no help on this front. Lackluster is the word that comes to mind: a few will catch your eye and a handful will draw you in, but most will escape your memory as soon as you walk by.

Replace toner

I don’t want to call BLT Communications, LLC‘s poster for A Cure for Wellness (February 17) a facsimile of Slither, but it’s hard. My assumption is that Gore Verbinski’s latest also has a scene of snakes in a bathtub. Choosing it for the marketing campaign therefore points towards the image being a visceral one to grab attention more than an intentional decision to prey on James Gunn fans’ memory banks.

What cannot be excused, however, is the level of artifice at play. From the bathtub down is great. It’s a bit bright and absent of atmosphere, but it looks “real.” The same can’t be said about what’s it. The faucet looks giant, flat, and badly Photoshopped. The shadow glows around it at the same consistency whether the pipes supposedly against the wall or the handle and spout presumably jutting out. Depth becomes nonexistent, the pristine tiles look like wallpaper, and both prevent us from believing the tub is real anymore.

Gravillis Inc.‘s entry isn’t perfect, but it gets your mind racing to decipher the choice of having a character float within a medicine bottle rather than pick apart its glaring flaws. There’s a fantastic sense of motion from bottle stopper down through the girl’s feet towards the title’s sharply angled, bold sans serif. The color pops off the white and the whole possesses that eerie sense of the unknown mirrored in the trailer.

The first thing I thought after seeing the poster for Bitter Harvest (limited February 24) was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The difference is that everything the latter did right, the former does wrong.

PPZ does a great job of coloring its sky to put a halo around its duo, their wardrobe fading into the cool-hued darkness yet standing out against the warm light. It also puts them in a stance that’s ready to uncoil, giving us the illusion of motion despite the impossibility of providing any.

By contrast, Bitter Harvest decides to muddy everything in the same brown: ground, clouds, and clothing. Even where there’s light, it’s just a tint of that tan. And maybe it’s just me, but the desire to put its duo in an embrace of potential romance is completely wasted. Rather than look like Samantha Barks and Max Irons are going to kiss, it seems like she’s moving in to suck out his soul and he’s stiff-backed and frozen in fear. I do believe the reason Stalin’s tyranny can’t destroy their love is because they don’t have any.

I hate to say it, but the generic collage one-sheet is light years better if only because of the color. Letting that same embrace from before show clearer and bigger also allows us to see the emotion on Irons’ face rather than blank pause. He does want her after all.

I’ll throw in some extra points for highlighting Barry Pepper’s hair too.

For my most anticipated film of the month — Jordan Peele’s Get Out (February 24) — LA goes another generic route with the shattered glass of scenes motif. This isn’t always a bad way to go, but it’s uninspired unless you’re putting a spin on it like Louder Than Bombs did (mirrors, broken family, torn emotions, etc.)

There’s no seeming rhyme or reason here because none of the shards engage us. These characters aren’t looking through the broken window. They aren’t looking into a broken mirror at themselves. Every section is a film still: the two at top showing happy times and the ones at bottom showing fear. I wonder what it would look like if the whole were just Daniel Kaluuya’s scared face staring at us, frozen in the glass with a silent scream.

I can’t even say the tease is better since it holds no impact. The darkness makes it hard to see anything, the text at top and bottom is way too big not to conflict with the title (considering half is outlined rather than bolded), and there’s nothing to focus on. This print campaign does the film no favors in cajoling passersby.

As far as Rings (February 3), BLT embraces the overused horror sheet with monochrome character underneath top to bottom text. Think the Carrie remake. Think The Evil Dead remake. Snore.

I will give the copywriter some credit, though, because the tagline is ballsy. “First you watch it. Then you die.” On one level it’s speaking about the video of Samara that permeates this franchise. On another it’s telling you that you’ll die after watching it. I like when a campaign puts the viewer into the movie. It gives you pause.

It’s also a lot better than “Evil is reborn.” Snore number two. I don’t mind this second poster’s imagery, though. The branded ring on her back is pretty gruesome and the font changes things up from the usual kid’s scrawl. Just don’t look at the release date. Like The Bye Bye Man before it, this Halloween-slotted work was dumped too.

Maybe things would have been different if BLT was able to talk the film’s American distributors into using the international graphic. I really like this view of Samara exiting the TV towards us. This could give you a fright with some 3D technology. More please.

Play on

It’s difficult not to come up with something fun where LEGO movies are concerned. The product built its reputation on creativity and imagination and has only expanded that success as the years advance. Going into the license business to create LEGO versions of characters was an inspired choice and the way in which they’ve fabricated helmets, hair, and faces to bring beloved pop culture icons to life inventively retains that LEGO feel.

So when Proof sought to give The LEGO Batman Movie (February 10) a teaser sheet, they went all-in. The yellow backdrop is a peg sheet, Batman’s helmet is beautifully rendered in its matte plastic, and the Bruce Wayne hair-do is impeccable. What I don’t love are the dueling proportions when affixing the logotype onto that pegboard. The pieces forming it are much smaller than the pegs presented for visual clarity. Maybe a flat yellow would have been better to avoid this? Maybe I’m just looking way too hard at it.

I’m not the only one, though. Just look at Ten30 Studios‘ poster. By shifting the pegboard to become the ground on which characters can run, the world is cohesively brought together. The peg size matches the feet sizes now — everything fits. It’s a minute detail, I know. But it’s one that matters in the context of getting the reality right. Now the logotype can float above and be whatever size pieces it wants thanks to a changing depth of field.

This is the version that gets the LEGO feel down pat. That doesn’t mean I don’t also enjoy Art Machine‘s graffiti character sheets seemingly melding the 2D faces from the original LEGO Movie and street art of The Dark Knight, but it’s not “LEGO world” specific. They’re cool (some drips go around pegs to give it three-dimensionality), but hardly unique. Although it’s not like the properties involved need mind-blowing advertising to battle for a box office victory.

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The Best Films at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

Written by The Film Stage, January 30, 2017 at 5:25 pm 


With over 50 films reviewed, a number of interviews conducted, and more coverage coming from the Sundance Film Festival, it’s time to wrap up the first major cinema event in 2017. We already got the official jury and audience winners (here), and now it’s time to highlight our favorites, as well as complete coverage from the festival.

One will find our favorites (in alphabetical order), followed by the rest of our reviews (from best to worst, including previously premiered features), then interviews as they are published. Check out everything below and stay tuned to our site, and specifically Twitter, for acquisition and release-date news on the below films in the coming months.

Axolotl Overkill (Helene Hegemann)


Playwright, author, screenwriter, and director Helene Hegemann has said (through her publisher) that, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” The words were spoken after her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill earned critical praise, a spot as a finalist for a major book award, and multiple, potentially damning plagiarism claims. Hegemann was seventeen when it published and admitted to the cribbing as soon as it was brought to light. She blamed her generation’s penchant for mixing and sampling, for taking what’s bouncing around the æther and making it her own with newfound honesty and meaning. Say what you will, the book sold and kept selling. This German phenom hit upon the zeitgeist with her tale of drug-addled excess and mental instability — in subject matter and process. – Jared M. (full review)

Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman)


Burgeoning sexuality is the basis for nearly all coming-of-age films, but with her specific eye, Eliza Hittman makes it feel like we’re watching this genre unfold for the first time. With only two features to her name, she’s captured the experience with a sensuality and intimacy nearly unprecedented in American independent filmmaking. Following 2013’s It Felt Like Love, the writer-director follows it with another look at the teenage experience in Brooklyn for this year’s Beach Rats, this time with a protagonist five years older and of a different gender. – Jordan R. (full review)

The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)


From start to finish, The Big Sick, directed by Michael Showalter, works as a lovingly-rendered, cinematic answer to the dinner party question: “So how did you two meet?” Based on comedian Kumail Nanjiani‘s real life (he co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Emily V. Gordon), we meet Kumail (Nanjiani) as he finishes a stand-up set in Chicago. He becomes fast friends with a wooting heckler named Emily (Zoe Kazan, lovely), and a relationship begins to blossom. – Dan M. (full review)

Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)


“I have loved you for the last time,” Sufjan Stevens sings in his original song “Visions of Gideon” in Call Me By Your Name. It’s a moment of both bittersweet happiness and a farewell to a passion that won’t be replicated again for Elio (Timothée Chalamet) as, deep down, he knows his relationship with Olivier (Armie Hammer) is over after his six-week stay in their Italian villa. Luca Guadagnino’s disarmingly nice and intoxicatingly sexy film is an extraordinary queer romance, one that evocatively explores the body and mind’s surrender to lust and love. – Jordan R. (full review)

City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman)


Cut together with gut-wrenching intensity and packed with footage that feels equal parts remarkable and horrifying, Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman returns to Sundance with City of Ghosts, a 90-minute documentary chronicling the lives of the head members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). A campaign made up of activists based in the Syrian city of Raqqa and around the world, these young men risk their lives to garner intel on and about ISIS, what they’re doing and what they plan to do. As the Arab Spring brought revolution to countries like Syria, the vacuum of potential democracy was filled by a militant group calling themselves the Islamic State (ISIS). – Dan M. (full review)

Columbus (kogonada)


The path to becoming a director is one generally accompanied by a profound knowledge of film history, but that passion is rarely more public then when it comes to kogonada. After years of working on visually detailed video essays for The Criterion Collection, Sight & Sound, and more, he’s now made his directorial debut with Columbus, an impeccably composed drama of quiet humanity and curiosity. If his nickname wasn’t enough of a hint, traces of Yasujirō Ozu’s influence can be found, but this first-time director has created something distinctly his own. – Jordan R. (full review)

Get Out (Jordan Peele)


Resisting a deep racial analysis in the vein of I Am Not Your Negro, master satirist Jordan Peele’s horror comedy Get Out requires an audience ready to hoot, holler, yell, and laugh along. In large part, his directorial debut is a success, a rare studio comedy/thriller with a surface-level social agenda. The true test of a film like this is rather simple: are we with it or do we resist? The answer is largely the former and Get Out has a great of fun satirizing our “post-racial” society in a horror comedy of manners, though it never actually tackles the depressing realities of the issue. – John F. (full review)

A Ghost Story (David Lowery)


The premise is a simple one. A man only credited as C (Casey Affleck) dies after a head-on car accident in front of his house, leaving behind his wife, M (Rooney Mara). After examining his corpse at the hospital, she leaves the room, and, covered by the white cloth over his body, his ghost rises up and returns home to observe the grieving widow he left behind. If one thought only a spooky, small-scale haunted house tale is to follow, David Lowery’s latest is proof that a premise is merely a foundation. Beginning with the beauty, patience, and humor of an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie before segueing into the existential musings reminiscent of Richard Linklater dialogue, and then infinitely expanding its scope to become a stunning meditation on the passage of time, A Ghost Story is one of the most original, narratively audacious films I’ve ever seen. – Jordan R. (full review)

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Our 20 Most-Anticipated Films at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

Written by Jordan Raup, January 16, 2017 at 12:31 pm 


Comprising a considerable amount of our top 50 films of last year, Sundance Film Festival has proven to yield the first genuine look at what the year in cinema will bring. Now in its 39th iteration, we’ll be heading back to Park City this week, but before we do, it’s time to highlight the films we’re most looking forward to, including documentaries and narrative features from all around the world.

While much of the joy found in the festival comes from surprises throughout the event, below one will find our 20 most-anticipated titles. Check out everything below and for updates straight from the festival, make sure to follow us on Twitter (@TheFilmStage, @jpraup, @djmecca and @FinkJohnJ), and stay tuned to all of our coverage here.

20. Come Swim (Kristen Stewart)


With her pair of career-best performances under the direction of Olivier Assayas, as well as working with Kelly Reichardt, Woody Allen, Ang Lee, David Fincher, David Gordon Green, Walter Salles, and more, Kristen Stewart has had no shortage of considerable filmmaking talent to learn from. She’s now helmed her first short, Come Swim, which utilizes a both impressionistic and realistic style to capture a man’s day. Set to premiere in the shorts program at this year’s festival, followed by a release by Refinery29, we can’t wait to see the results.

19. Kuso (Steven Ellison)


You may not have heard the name Steven Ellison, but we’re betting you’re familiar with Flying Lotus. In the past few years, Ellison’s music persona has been one of the most influential in the world of hip-hop, electronica, and whatever other genre he’s interested in at the moment. Following his short film Royal, he’s now made his feature directorial debut with Kuso, which follows the survivors after Los Angeles’ worst earthquake. Promising to be psychedelic fever dream, this will certainly be the trippiest film at the festival.

18. Sidney Hall (Shawn Christensen)


After his Oscar win for the short film Curfew, director Shawn Christensen adapted it into the feature-length drama Before I Disappear. For his follow-up, he’s amassed quite an ensemble. Sidney Hall, which stars Logan Lerman (who gave one of last year’s best performances at the festival with Indignation), Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Monaghan, Blake Jenner, and Nathan Lane, follows the life of a writer as we flashback to his dark past. That logline may not be anything new, but with the talent of this cast, we can bet it’s something special.

17. Columbus (kogonada)


Whether online (potentially at this very site) or on a Criterion collection disc, you’ve likely seen the video essay work of the artist known as kogonada. He’s now segued to feature filmmaking with his debut Columbus. Starring John Cho, the film follows his character in the wake of his father’s coma as he strikes up a conversation with a local woman as they venture around their midwestern town. With the director’s clear knowledge of film history, it has the makings of the kind of well-composed, relaxed feature that could delight.

16. Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer)


Staples at Sundance Film Festival the last few years, Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen have now teamed for their own comedy Ingrid Goes West. While the former star has proved her comedic talents numerous times, we’re looking forward to seeing what Olsen has in store in the film that follows an mentally unstable woman who ventures to Los Angeles to connect with a social media influencer. Featuring  a score from Islands frontman Nick Thorburn, this is one comedy that could get dark and for that we look forward to it.

15. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (Macon Blair)


One of the most exciting careers to witness on the rise the last few years has been that of Macon Blair. After breaking out under the direction of Jeremy Saulnier in Blue Ruin, he’s now made his directorial debut with I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. Starring Melanie Lynskey as a woman who teams with her neighbor, played by Elijah Wood, to track down a burglar, Blair certainly seems in his wheelhouse to deliver a revenge tale in his unique language.

14. The Yellow Birds (Alexandre Moors)


After bringing his harrowing drama Blue Caprice to Sundance a few years back, director Alexandre Moors is back with a film of a bigger scale. The Yellow Birds, starring Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Patric, Toni Collette, and Jennifer Aniston, follows the disappearance of a solider in Iraq and the aftermath when the survivors return home. Co-scripted by David Lowery (whose next film also appears on this list), it has the makings of another intense drama set in a post-9/11 world.

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