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‘Mission to Mars’: Brian De Palma’s Lavish, Epic-Scale Lark

Written by Ian Barr, August 22, 2016 at 4:10 pm 

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“It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans [Mission to Mars] does not understand movies, let alone like them,” declared Armond White in 2000. While perhaps an over-corrective to the critical drubbing the film had just received, there’s nonetheless a grain of truth in his statement. Far from being a pale imitation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as many reviewers accused, Mission to Mars actively deflates its predecessor’s misanthropy and grandeur – on one level, it’s a lavish, epic-scale lark from a director who’s often been as much a satirist as a craftsman.

With a budget of $100 million, it was and still is the most expensive project Brian De Palma has tackled. It’s also the only straight-up piece of science fiction among his filmography, as well as a relatively wholesome, PG-rated affair – a rarity for this most salacious of mainstream American filmmakers. Originally to be directed by Gore Verbinski (fresh off his debut, Mousehunt), it remains one of the true outliers in De Palma’s oeuvre; you’d have to go back to 1986’s Wise Guys to single out a film that delivered less of what one had come to expect from the director.

On paper, it seems a blatant ill fit for his sensibility, but circumvention and misdirection have always been elements of that sensibility. It opens with one of his trademark bait-and-switches, in which an illusion is quickly revealed for what it is: a blue sky, with an off-screen voice counting down to lift-off, then a rocket shooting straight up, only moments later revealed to be a sky-rocket launched in celebration of the upcoming mission. This is immediately followed by another of his trademarks: without a cut, we switch to a roving steadicam tracking shot that drifts and whips through a backyard barbecue, introducing the film’s main players in a single, fluid take and establishing the film’s ultimately jovial, communal atmosphere.

Following this frisson, however, is a graceless dump of exposition in which we learn that Luke (Don Cheadle) is preparing to lead the Mars 1 spacecraft’s expedition to the planet, which was the lifelong dream of his best friend, Jim (Gary Sinise), who was denied the opportunity due to emotional instability following his wife’s passing. Redeeming this rough patch of amateurish screenwriting is an elegant cut: from Jim’s footprint, left deliberately and ruefully by him in the backyard sandbox, to the surface of Mars. This ellipsis brings us forward to the incident that jeopardizes Luke and his crew, in which a phallic, vortex-like creature emerges from a sandstorm and kills a few crew members while leaving others stranded on the planet. Jim is then recruited for an emergency rescue mission as co-commander, led by Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), along with mission specialists, Terry (Connie Nielsen) and Phil (Jerry O’Connell).

As a space-adventure film, Mission to Mars is an unpretentious, enjoyably hokey affair that stays true to tone of 1950s sci-fi landmarks such as Forbidden Planet and The Thing From Another World; Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires also seems to be a key inspiration. Rather than wasting the talents of Robbins, Cheadle, Nielsen et al., only skilled actors can maintain the slightly stilted, artificial acting style that this material requires, rife with lines including, “He’s right – it’s no use” and, “Let me understand this right…” Ennio Morricone’s score isn’t one of his most inspired, but the familiarity of its cues – loud stingers for the sudden appearance of a long-believed-dead character, a sighing major-key orchestral swell the second that peril is resolved – blends well with the iconography that De Palma embraces throughout. Most importantly, its Mars sequences are just plain beautiful and eerie. On the level of mood and visual majesty alone, it leaves Ridley Scott’s prosaic The Martian for dead.

Indeed, the initial critical reception (Cahiers nonwithstanding) seems perplexingly harsh for a film whose greatest offense is steadfast corniness; to these eyes, only in Jerry O’Connell’s exasperating “comic relief” is where it crosses a line. Meanwhile, the references to 2001 ingeniously and cheekily reinforce the film it isn’t – the centrifuge-as-hamster-wheel sequence is riffed on for a joyous diegetic dance set to Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away,” while Kubrick’s monolith is evoked in the final act as a horizontal rectangle of black against a white backdrop, conversely revealed to be a welcoming entrance into a space where peaceful alien contact is made.

The latter sequence is where the film reaches its apex of endearingly cornball mysticism, and it’s best to look beyond the even-then-antiquated CGI aliens to the implicit sight of De Palma finally letting his guard down. He’s never been evidently interested in the cosmic – he’s most in his wheelhouse when delineating space and time, hence his obsession with the possibilities of split-screens and split-diopters (the latter, but not the former, makes an appearance here). Accordingly, Mission to Mars works best, in a conventional sense, during an earlier set piece in which the rescue mission becomes endangered by oxygen leaks in the spacecraft, triggering a race against time to identify and fix them. Its depiction of extra-terrestrial contact is less convincing, yet there’s something poignant about De Palma surrendering to the material’s demand for uncomplicated, awestruck wonder.

If the tendency in critical writing about De Palma has been to use his early, Godard-ian work (chiefly Hi, Mom!) as the key to accessing the latent reflexivity of later, more straightforward genre exercises, Mission to Mars might be the closest he’s come to changing the locks. When viewed alongside the late works of the director’s fellow Movie Brats, the closest relative might be Scorsese’s similarly, uncharacteristically benign Hugo, but De Palma takes a resolutely non-reflexive path in his attempt to evoke the wonder felt by a child watching Le Voyage dans la Lune in 1902. If Mission to Mars ultimately elicits snickers more than awed gasps in the final stretch, it’s nevertheless immensely touching for the defiant sincerity of these scenes – it is also, needless to say, altogether vastly superior to 2000’s other Mars movie, Red Planet.

Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.

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The 25 Best Fall 2016 Films We’ve Already Seen

Written by The Film Stage, August 22, 2016 at 1:01 pm 

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Now that the summer is cooling down, we’re entering perhaps the best time of year for cinephiles, with a variety of festivals — some of which will hold premieres of our most-anticipated 2016 features — gearing up. As we do each year, after highlighting the best films offered thus far, we’ve set out to provide a comprehensive preview of the fall titles that should be on your radar, and we’ll first take a look at selections whose quality we can attest to. Ranging from acclaimed debuts at Sundance, Cannes, and more, we’ve rounded up 25 titles that will arrive from September to December (in the U.S.) and are all well worth seeking out.

As a note, these didn’t make the cut, but you can see our reviews at the links: White Girl (9/2), Other People (9/9), London Road (9/9), Goat (9/23), Sand Storm (9/28), Do Not Resist (9/30), The Birth of a Nation (10/7), Desierto (10/14), Little Sister (10/14), Fire at Sea (10/21), In a Vally of Violence (10/21), King Cobra (10/21), Gimme Danger (10/28), Christine (October TBD), Evolution (11/25), Tank 432 (November TBD), and The Eyes of My Mother (12/2).

Klown Forever (Mikkel Nørgaard; Sept. 2)

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Those familiar with the off-kilter comedic duo behind the Danish TV series Klown (or Klovn as it is known in Denmark) — which spurned one of the most hilarious and inappropriate feature films of recent years — will know exactly what type of humor to expect from their sequel Klovn Forever. Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen star essentially as parodies of themselves in this Curb Your Enthusiasm-style comedy, combining mundane issues from their personal lives with some extremely outlandish situations. They push the boundaries of what is considered appropriate with their off kilter brand of humor, falling into categories that are intentionally offensive — such as misogyny and even racism. But therein lies the appeal: in these playful antics, here considered nonchalant, do we as an audience find humor in how outrageous and disrespectful they can be. – Raffi A. (full review)

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson; Sept. 9)

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Kirsten Johnson has been a cinematographer and / or camera operator on documentary films for 20 years. This has taken her all over the world and led her to meet all kinds of people. She’s been in Bosnia, interviewing survivors of the genocide. She’s observed Nigerian midwives in action. She watched Edward Snowden deliver his revelations about NSA surveillance practices to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. She has over 60 camerawork-related credits to her name on IMDb, and she’s not slowing down any time soon. Cameraperson is her self-described “memoir,” an album of her life as expressed through her life’s work. Dan S. (full review)

Author: The JT Leroy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig; Sept. 9)

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Author: The JT LeRoy Story relives the literary hoax of the early aughts, the truly weird and out of control tale of JT LeRoy. An allegedly gender-fluid HIV positive son of a West Virginia truck stop hooker, he rose to the heights of indie stardom befriending the likes of Courtney Love, Shirley Manson, Lou Reed, Michael Pitt, Billy Corgan and filmmakers Gus Van Saint and Asia Argento (both would “adapt” works by LeRoy). An anonymous experiment originally conducted by Laura Albert, the myth grows out of control when she hires Savannah Knoop, her sister-in-law, as an avatar. The real Laura Albert had been described by media accounts as a Brooklyn housewife, but here director Jeff Feuerzeig dives deeper. – John F. (full review)

Operation Avalanche (Matt Johnson; Sept. 16)

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For all the criticism the found footage genre gets, like many a well-worn structure, there is still room to build. Operation Avalanche, from Matt Johnson and Josh Boles (The Dirties), aims to do just that and succeeds, for the most part. In the late 60s, four young C.I.A. agents convince their superiors to send them undercover at NASA, posing as a documentary film crew. Soon they learn that the mission to the moon is in jeopardy of pushing past 1969, thus faltering on JFK’s famed promise. Led by the ambitious Matt (Johnson), the “film crew” conspires to fake the moon landing. – Dan M. (full review)

Closet Monster (Stephen Dunn; Sept. 23)

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Writer/director Stephen Dunn’s feature debut Closet Monster cares little about convention to tell the story of Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup) growing up with a psychological revulsion to his sexual urges, all thanks to an extremely disturbing event witnessed as a child. This prologue glimpse at his youth (played by Jack Fulton) is a mash-up of tough coming-of-age-dramatics and a dark-edged imaginative whimsy that intrigues to draw you closer. It will be divisive with an idyllic world’s caring father (Aaron Abrams‘ Peter) “pushing” dreams into his son’s head via a balloon, a talking hamster named Buffy (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), and the horrific teenage assault of a homosexual with a piece of rebar in a cemetery. But this tumultuous roller coaster is worth you sticking around. – Jared M. (full review)

American Honey (Andrea Arnold; Sept. 30)

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European directors have often faltered when crossing the Atlantic. Billy Wilder and Wim Wenders found things to say where Paolo Sorrentino could not. American Honey is certainly the former. Based on a 2007 article from the New York Times, it’s a backwater American road movie directed by an Englishwoman, Andrea Arnold, and shot by Irishman Robbie Ryan. We spot a few cowboys and gas stations and even the Grand Canyon, but it’s nothing to do with any of that. It’s about America (duh) but it’s also about friendship and money and learning to look out for yourself, and that primal connection young people make between music and identity. It’s visually astonishing and often devastating, too. This might be the freshest film about young people in America since Larry Clark’s Kids from 1995. – Rory O. (full review)

Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari; Oct. 7)

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Cinema is often a space for abstract, subconscious expressions that require airing. Under The Shadow is an inspired psychological thriller from Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari that effectively delivers the thrills expected, and more. Here, the horror is both personal and natural. It’s a theme found amongst a few world cinema selections at Sundance this year, notably the cancer drama A Good Wife, which also uses the landscape of the war torn Bosnia as an emotional theme. – John F. (full review)

Newtown (Kim A. Snyder; Oct. 7)

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When the worst horror imaginable happens to your community, how do you emotionally rebuild? How do you embrace your neighbor, knowing the pain that’s seared into their soul? How does one come to a place of resolution, if ever? With Newtown, director Kim A. Snyder takes a humanistic approach in exploring this recovery in the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting of schoolchildren in United States history, which left 26 people, including 20 children, dead. – Jordan R. (full review)

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‘Snake Eyes’: Brian De Palma’s Funhouse of Facades and Fabrications

Written by Ty Landis, August 18, 2016 at 1:30 pm 

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In the weeks leading up to Snake Eyes’ release in August of 1998, my dad and I had gone together to see Lethal Weapon 4, There’s Something About Mary and The Negotiator. Both action titles were forgettable fare, but were a big deal upon release. (Riggs and Murtaugh vs. Jet Li! Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey conversing via walkie-talkie!) Brian De Palma‘s Snake Eyes with dad was the next order of business. The theater was packed because adults frequented the multiplexes not so long ago. You’re all of 10 years old, Nicolas Cage’s recent output – The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off — has been terrific, and something seemed off with this new one. You remember leaving the theater not disappointed, but with little to discuss with dad on the ride home. Dad passed away in 2013, long after the Gary Sinise villain era and a few years before cinephiles would comb through De Palma’s entire body of work. Most memories of dad have long faded, willfully replaced with those of an unrecognizable, horrible person — when he’s referenced in the later years, “dad” is replaced strictly by his first name — but somehow, perhaps hilariously so, our date with Snake Eyes endures.

“They were specifically told they couldn’t have a camera up there.” Such a line is delivered with both sternness and a directorial winking eye in De Palma’s divisive conspiracy thriller. It’s a moment that arrives late in the film and not-so-surprisingly serves as the key to unlocking what gets the director off time and again: otherworldly surveillance and deceptive imagery in an environment where nearly every gesture and motivation is driven by deceit and upward mobility.

Sandwiched between Mission: Impossible and Mission to Mars in the director’s oeuvre, Snake Eyes boasts the goal of investigating a dizzying environment of corruption and false illusion. Far from a renowned success, and with two recent viewings under my belt since its initial release, the film is as flawed and ridiculous as the outfit Cage wears throughout. As a formal exercise for hardcore fans, it more than suffices. There’s also a gold cell phone.

Playing like a far less gutting, gaudier version of Blow Out, Snake Eyes begins on the night of a huge boxing match in an Atlantic City arena-hotel-casino owned by Gilbert Powell (John Heard). Outside, Hurricane Jezebel is gaining steam, but inside roams the flamboyant, crooked hometown police detective Rick Santoro (Cage), the focus of a blissful twelve-minute Steadicam shot that is among the best things De Palma has put to screen and stands as this film’s runaway highlight. Rick spends the opening minutes fielding calls from both his mistress and wife, abusing his power to steal money and placing a large bet on the fight. Rick scores ringside seats since his best friend, Kevin Dunne (Sinise), is heading up a security detail for Defense Secretary Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani). During the fight’s climax (first presented offscreen), the Secretary is assassinated, spurring Rick to do all he can to make sure Kevin has an alibi.

The extremely busy, information-packed first act opens up chaos as Rick begins to burrow deeper to find the truth. This gives De Palma free rein to retreat to his usual bag of formal tricks. POVs end up shifting from Rick to Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw), the boxer who purposefully threw the fight for a handsome payday – his perspective begins in his dressing room, where his manager pleads with him to stay on the straight and narrow, and then into the ring, where he suffers a phantom punch and loses the title – then to Kevin, who explains to Rick how a buxom redhead distracted him from protecting Kirkland, and finally to Julia (Carla Gugino), who sat next to Kirkland when he was shot. Her story is rehashed via split-screen, where Rick learns the shape and scope (military strategies) of what has been eluding him. Vehemently frustrated with her story, Rick comes to the realization that he’s lost control.

Deception is the order of the evening in this sewer of a town that’s begging to be wiped clean. Rick is juggling two lovers, Julia wears a wig to shield us from her true identity, Lincoln navigates sell-out-infested waters like an angry ghost, and Kevin plays up the fall of his golden-boy persona in order to throw Rick off his scent.

Since image remains the great deceiver in the land of De Palma, Snake Eyes‘ single-location setting plays marvelously well. He often centers his films on one crucial event (the crash in Blow Out, the prom in Carrie, the elevator encounter in Dressed to Kill), and the boxing match and assassination are just a couple of ways in which De Palma exploits this setting for maximum effect. The centerpiece of the second act takes us through the hotel and casino – up elevators, down hallways, and through rooms (those wonderful overhead shots!) – as Kevin and Rick go on a separate search to track down Julia. Each have different intentions, and the tension is ratcheted up with the use of all-knowing surveillance cams and Ryuchi Sakamoto’s taut score.

Rick’s newly minted moral compass converges with Kevin’s treachery, resulting in Rick refusing to join the conspiracy — the final sign that his hubris has been swayed. The police and a camera crew crash their climactic showdown, where Kevin takes his own life. Even today, it’s a strange, straightforward finale that deserved an upgrade. In Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary, the director explains that the original and much more fitting ending had Atlantic City being destroyed by the hurricane, footage of which is shown therein. Oddly enough, it always seems like Snake Eyes is heading there until it comfortably settles down.

David Koepp’s script may give away too much early on, but cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and editor Bill Pankow keep this train on schedule. The film’s value now seems lost and is likely rooted in the banal ranking of other De Palma efforts. Its worth remains not so much in the memory of seeing it as a youngster, but as a film that ceases to exist anymore: it’s the pleasure of seeing Nicolas Cage as the god and king of his own realm, a notion briskly sanded-down and taken to task; it’s the arousing nature of the images and motives being shuffled around; lastly, it’s De Palma not flexing his muscles, and instead proving that, sometimes, he doesn’t have to. Flirting with greatness can still be a fun endeavor.

Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.

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‘Mission: Impossible’: Brian De Palma’s Guide to Building an Action Figure

Written by Conor O'Donnell, August 16, 2016 at 1:27 pm 

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In a time before summer blockbuster slates were jam-packed with cinematic universes, two-part franchise finales, and reboot culture, Hollywood took some time in the mid-90s and new millennium to cultivate a different, fertile source of non-inspiration: old television. There, the Bradys, Thunderbirds, and Angels abound. It was an awkward period, no doubt, but Brian De Palma’s take on the the ’60s spy hit remains the crown jewel of that era with little-to-no competition. The schlock jock turned full-tilt commercial blockbuster, and the result was (and still is) his largest pairing of financial and critical success. His not-so-secret weapon: the then-prince of movie stardom, Tom Cruise.

After spending the ’80s and early ’90s navigating a skyrocket to near-untouchable success, Cruise, the surefire mega-hit with a crooked smile, was aiming to take more creative control over his projects. Despite making calculated choices to work closely with other great auteurs, Mission: Impossible was his first spin as producer, embedding him directly in the kind of commanding position he had been angling for. Until then, he only had two previous stints in any kind of creative capacity, with a story credit on 1990’s Days of Thunder and a director credit on an episode of Showtime’s 1993 neo-noir series Fallen Angels, the latter of which has a certain amount of De Palma-ism to it. The relationship began as less-than-amiable, with Cruise swapping De Palma screenwriting veteran and friend David Koepp with his own screenwriting veteran and friend, Robert Towne. While there are director trademarks aplenty, Mission: Impossible is also undoubtedly a Tom Cruise joint — but DePalma manipulates this to maximum effect, taking another page from his more Hitchcockian tastes.

De Palma’s proclivities for aping Hitchcock are peppered throughout his oeuvre to varying degrees of success, depending on who you ask. Those with a personal penchant for the British auteur may frequently take DePalma’s nods with whole servings of salt, but when he tips his hat and it lands, it lands with sledgehammer subtlety in the best ways possible. The director throws all of the gloss and a bit of the grotesque on display in this Hitchcock quotation. If Obsession, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double are Vertigo, Psycho, and Rear Window, respectively, then Mission: Impossible owes as much to the Cold War-era espionage of North by Northwest as it does its television namesake. Both films even end with a train in a tunnel, although one less Freudian than the other — make of that what you will. With a few key set pieces, Hitchcock turned charming kook Cary Grant into what is ostensibly the first superspy, and De Palma follows suit with Cruise. North by Northwest takes Grant from a whimsical drunken car chase worthy of Buster Keaton (the kind of goofiness typically attributed to him) to full-blown machismo clinging to a founding father’s forehead. For Cruise, despite having dipped his toe into the action blockbuster a handful of times, dangling from high-wires and hugging bullet trains was new territory to be sure.

The gum-chewing, devil-may-care cowboy in the film’s first act more closely resembles Pete “Maverick” Mitchell than he does the Ethan Hunt of last year’s Rogue Nation. He’s a full-on representation of Cruise’s cocksure nature up to that point. But lo and behold, red light, green light — he ditches the gum for an explosion, and De Palma’s smoldering crucible culminates in the explosive birth of Tom Cruise: Action Figure* (*explosive chewing gum sold separately). De Palma seems to relish every opportunity to make Cruise earn the newfound action-star stripes he seems to desire so feverishly. The helmer blows up a giant fish tank (in the best threat-by-fish-tank since Danny DeVito in Wise Guys), uses him as a human marionette, and finishes it all off by literally threatening to slit his throat with a helicopter in the Chunnel. All as if to say, “You want this, Tom? I will turn you into an action star if it fucking kills you” while not seeming to care if it does. Cary Grant got Eva Marie Saint. Tom Cruise got Ving Rhames, The Cranberries, and a helicopter in the face.

Cruise’s turn aside, De Palma takes giddy delight in subverting almost every other aspect of this film’s casting. In ‘96, fans of the show (and original star Peter Graves) lamented Jim Phelps’ turn as villain, but, upon looking back, the move feels delightfully brazen: a healthy dose of reverence to the show with a playful and refreshing middle finger. Take that in equal measure with the plucky introduction of Emilio Estevez’s tech guru Jack Harmon. He and Cruise trade pithy back-slapping remarks, and, for a few scenes, we think we’re being treated to an Outsiders reunion we never knew we even wanted, only for the proverbial rug to be pulled when De Palma makes quick work of Estevez in what is arguably cinema’s most mechanically menacing elevator shaft. Ving Rhames is brought into the picture practically ripped (suit, glasses, and all) from Pulp Fiction. Instead of Marsellus Wallace, we get a boyish computer geek. The same goes for Jean Reno (vacationing from Leon) slinking around as a smarmy heavy rather than a gentle killer. The two are on loan to De Palma from 1994, and he knows exactly what to do with those expectations.

His instincts are out in full force, but not without mediation. He packs just about as much Brian De Palma gore as a PG-13 rating will allow, and it proves potent rather than garish. How about that bloody Jon Voight fever dream? One is hard-pressed to find something so strange and arresting in a contemporary summer actioner, let alone one from 1996. The scene is welcome, if a bit out-of-place, and that’s why De Palma’s conflicting relationship with Cruise is paramount to the film’s resilience 20 years later. Cruise’s steadfast grip over his own image keeps Mission: Impossible within the pleasurable confines of what put people in the theatre. He made us comfortable back then, and it was De Palma’s job to betray that comfort in favor of his own eccentricities. (Split diopters! Over-lighting! Dutch angles!) The result isn’t merely a tightly wrought bit of popcorn action; it became a mantra of sorts, a recipe for the franchise endurance that rubbed off on Cruise as he cultivated the brand. De Palma did De Palma, which allowed others to do themselves, and so forth. In a blockbuster landscape bereft of signature filmmaking, it’s heartening to know that — whether Woo, Abrams, Bird, McQuarrie, or anyone else — there’s always an Ethan Hunt action figure waiting in the sandbox, courtesy of one Brian De Palma.

Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.

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‘Scarface’: Brian De Palma’s Grand Cultural Touchstone

Written by Brian Roan, August 11, 2016 at 4:18 pm 

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Growing up, certain movies exist as ideas long before you ever see them. You hear older brothers or parents whisper about this scene or that performance or that character, and, before you know it, the movie has become a part of you. Very few films achieve this status, becoming a specter in your life while still essentially unknown. It takes a skilled creator to make such a work, to craft a story or character that becomes a shorthand for an idea, to compose scenes that can be suitably evoked with a single word. The Silence of the Lambs is one such film, with the name Hannibal Lecter and the concept of fava beans or lotion in a basket becoming shadowy terrors long before you grasp their full meaning.

Growing up, one of the most fearsome phantom movies I ever allowed myself to create was Scarface. Because of the way that it had infiltrated the culture, because of how much of its story and dialogue had flooded daily speech and become almost archetypal, I had created a version of Scarface in my head before I ever saw it. And that movie terrified me. The invocation of a rage-filled “say hello to my little friend” while holding a gun. The concept of inhaling an overabundance of cocaine. The chainsaw scene. It was all too much.

Maturation is the slow confrontation of all of the things that scared you as a child, though, and so one day I had to face the real Scarface, as directed by Brian De Palma, rather than my own imagination. This was before I understood directors, the art of editing, the way sound and visuals co-mingle to create an idea in the viewer’s mind. When I had been hearing “chainsaw in show” I had a very clear idea of what I was in for. Now, looking back on how I was then and how I saw Scarface for the first time, I can understand how De Palma helped introduce me not to movies, but to filmmaking.

Scarface has become such a cultural touchstone that it’s sometimes difficult to see the picture for what it is. It’s not just the movie that inspired a million pieces of college wall art. This is the quintessential American immigrant story as filtered through the lens of the Reagan ’80s and told by an absolute master of tone. This is a pulp gangster story told in the form of a grand epic, a remix of the high and the low that brings out the best of both.

Al Pacino deserves all of the credit he receives for making Scarface work, as it is his magnetic performance that anchors the narrative. For as much as he has become a punchline for letting volume and elastic facial movement do the heavy-lifting in his recent roles, Scarface shows Pacino at a perfect balancing point, using his overwhelming physicality to show the rage and passion within Tony Montana without tipping into camp. His is the well from which the human element of this movie springs.

But even with his powerhouse performance, it is still De Palma who is Scarface‘s real star and the reason it continues sending waves through the culture. It is De Palma who takes a character that ought to come off as cartoonish and vulgar and places him at the center of an aesthetic universe that somehow makes him seem like a victim of his own place within it. De Palma shoots the trappings of high living – decadent homes, mountains of cocaine, dance clubs, high fashion – in a way that makes them feel as though they are poisonous plants dripping from the trunks of trees in some dense jungle.

We track Tony’s entry into this world and see the hunger in him as he begins to find his way through the cocaine trade, willing to become more and more monstrous as he proceeds, but never failing to hold on to some essential, intimate part of himself. De Palma seems to understand that no one ever changes, even as their circumstance does. What the acclimation of power and wealth means for Montana is that his desire can now be sated, and his need to act in a way different from how he would like is thus diminished.

Let us not forget that his innate compassion for children – or people who he views as being innocent, like his sister – is the reason for his downfall. De Palma roots the fall of the man in the man himself, not some existential threat from without that cannot be changed. Not by fate. De Palma believes in the intensity of human agency.

This is how he takes a film that could have been just your average story of a rise and fall and makes it something more. This is also why that phantom movie never could live up to the real thing. De Palma makes choices that the average narrative engine never would. It makes a monster who is more monstrous because of his humanity and his softness. In that chainsaw scene, De Palma cuts away from the act of violence to focus on Tony’s reaction, letting him bear the brunt of the horror for an audience. The same is true of Scarface as a whole. As Tony himself says, everyone wants to be able to point their fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” De Palma’s gift is that he can do this while still remembering that, under the right circumstance, a finger could be pointed at anyone.

Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.

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‘Carlito’s Way’: Brian De Palma’s Introspective Crime Tragedy

Written by Dan Mecca, August 11, 2016 at 4:04 pm 

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“Did you ever kill anybody, Charlie?”

Penelope Ann Miller’s Gail asks this of Al Pacino‘s Carlito Brigante throughout Carlito’s Way, a thoroughly impressive piece of studio entertainment from Brian De Palma, the first of the director’s trio of films with accomplished screenwriter David Koepp (Mission:Impossible, Snake Eyes). Released a decade after Scarface, this film plays, in many ways, as a more intelligent, more mature counterpart.

The parallels are obvious. Both Scarface and Carlito’s Way are gangster films starring Pacino, directed by De Palma, and produced by Marty Bregman. Cocaine is a large motivator in both. Carlito is set in 1975. Scarface is set in 1980. There’s even a prevalence of cockroaches (said and seen) in either. It’s the differences that reveal how De Palma grew as a filmmaker painting on a large canvas. Gone is the over-the-top turn by Pacino as Cuban refugee Tony Montana, here replaced by a tragic, romantic performance as Carlito Brigante, a New York-born, Puerto Rican ex-con looking for a way out. Gone is the three-hour runtime full of superfluous camera moves and slow-motion explosions of violence, replaced by a comparatively tight 140-minute social examination of a criminal trying to assimilate into an environment built on corruption. And though by no means subtle, Koepp’s screenplay builds characters while Oliver Stone’s Scarface screenplay creates caricatures.

Where Tony Montana quite literally represents American capitalism, Carlito is merely a cog in the wheel of commerce, trying to survive as much as he’s trying to succeed. Just as he is released from a 30-year sentence on a legal oversight caught by criminal (and criminal) lawyer Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn, in one of his most underrated performances), our man will fall due to his own oversight in not killing Benny Blanco from the Bronx (John Leguizamo).

De Palma choreographs this ending from the start, opening in black-and-white as Carlito is shot dead in front of Gail, his lover. It’s an introduction in which the director announces how the next two hours will blend cynicism with compassion. This is a world where the question that Gail continually poses lacks an easy answer. Similar to Pacino’s Donnie Brasco performance, Charlie is a man riddled with the complexities of his past. A killer and a good man. Furious and full of compassion.

A large theme looming over the proceedings is the idea of loyalty among thieves. Against his better judgment, Carlito is forced back into a world of crime by Dave, the man who delivered his freedom. And though the logic is flawed and the irony clear, we understand his plight: he was raised into a situation in which one of the only rules was to be loyal to his friends, for better or worse. This kind of dilemma does not exist in Scarface. Sure, Tony makes a big deal about not being a rat, but friendship means very little to him. Hell, the man watches one friend get cut up by a chainsaw and murders another. It’s these touches that elevate Carlito’s Way not just above Scarface, but most of De Palma’s work.

Now, make no mistake: De Palma’s usual stylistic tropes are still present. The voyeurism highlighted in his ’80s pictures (Dressed To Kill, Body Double) rear their head in a scene where Carlito finds a rooftop from where to watch Gail dance undisturbed. The violence of those same films pops up in the bar shootout scene, which ends with the brutal death of a young, dumb John Ortiz. Even the overlong, overwrought, and quite amazing set-pieces from films such as The Bonfire of the Vanities shine through in the climactic chase through New York City’s subway system, ending at Grand Central. This fusion of intelligent design and intelligent deliberation is a rare gem in De Palma’s oeuvre.

If there’s one thing Carlito does lack, it’s trickery. We watch the hero die in the beginning and he dies at the end. The narrative remains relatively straightforward, Koepp relying on internal voiceover from Carlito throughout to navigate each turn. There’s a social awareness and an ultimate skepticism that fuels the proceedings, more closely resembling a ’40s noir than an ’80s De Palma picture. In the context of the filmmaker’s projects with Koepp, this first one appears to have the most Koepp in it. Mission: Impossible got taken over by Tom Cruise, who replaced the scribe with Robert Towne, and Snake Eyes was co-written by De Palma himself.

Upon its initial release, Carlito’s Way received lukewarm notices and was somewhat ignored by audiences. The New York Times called Carlito “a vaguely written, not-so-clever character,” while Peter Travers in Rolling Stone accused De Palma of copy-catting his own Scarface in “the need for a hit after the debacle of The Bonfire of the Vanities.” With time, these takes feel undercooked and reductive. Pacino has rarely been better and De Palma’s rarely been more impactful. For an auteur applauded for his sense of style, there’s plenty of substance here.

Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.

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The 50 Best Comedies of the 21st Century Thus Far

Written by The Film Stage, August 10, 2016 at 3:16 pm 

The-Best-Comedies-of-the-21st-Century-So-Far

No genre is more subjective than comedy. What makes one person laugh may make another cringe. Some “comedies” may only result in a few chuckles while watching, yet are heightened as one looks back. Others may cause constant laughter, yet are forgettable after theater’s lights come on.

With Seth Rogen‘s latest comedy, Sausage Party, arriving in theaters this week, we’ve set out to reflect on the millennium’s comedies that have most excelled. To note: we only stuck with feature-length works of 60 minutes or longer and, to make room for a few more titles, our definition of “the 21st century” stretched to include 2000.

Following our favorite sci-fi films and animations, check out our top 50 below and, in the comments, let us know your favorites. If you’re on Letterboxd, you can follow the list here.

50. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan)

Walk Hard

It is wholly possible that a more perfect spoof comedy will never be made. Picking up the mantle from comedy greats David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (Airplane!, The Naked Gun), Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow primarily poke fun at musical biopics such as Walk the Line and Ray and get weirder from there. John C. Reilly’s performance — the man does impressions and runs the gamut of emotions while eliciting laughter — is proof that comedic turns deserve to get more serious awards consideration. – Dan M.

Best line/joke: “The wrong kid died.”

49. Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim)

Tim and Eric

I usually go by the notion that you should give all films their due, even if you aren’t clicking with the first act. However, if you aren’t laughing within the first minutes of Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, it is simply not for you. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim‘s feature-length film is a work of surrealist, inane art, complete with their brand of bizarre, finely tuned editing techniques emphasizing blank reactions and repeated phrases, to name but two standout components. It’s possible that, in the history of cinema, never before has this amount of work been put into something so stupid — and I mean that with the highest praise possible. Five bags of popcorn, at least. – Jordan R.

Best line/joke: Chef Goldblum and the Schlaaang Super Seat.

48. Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)

Enough Said

Any conversation around Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said inevitably comes back to its trite “twist.” But it’s a very good (and very funny) film on its own terms, and a belated gift in bringing together two of the best actors, comedic or otherwise, of this generation: James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. For being released the year of Gandolfini’s untimely passing, Holofcener’s film carries a mournful glow, but there’s also a down-to-Earth giddiness. It’s like much of Holofcener’s work with a precisely calibrated, low-key story, and cutting self-reflection, and it’s also just deliriously entertaining to watch Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus genially snipe at each other about getting older and not necessarily wiser. – Michael S.

Best line/joke: “Yes, yes, the Container Store. The store that sells crap you can put your crap in so you can go out and buy some more crap.” “I love that store. I love crap.”

47. Four Lions (Chris Morris)

Four Lions

Chris Morris‘ fearless directorial debut, Four Lions, presents its audience with five main comedic protagonists: suicide bombers planning a terrorist attack on the city of London. What may appear to be rudimentary shock-comedy tactics slowly reveals itself to be a pained portrait of flawed, but lovable people, heads filled with lies and misinformation, sleepwalking toward a terrible fate. Instead of watching with morbid fascination, we’re so caught up in the lives and hearts of these misguided men that we are dragged to the edge of our seats, hoping they will come to their senses and abort their plans. Every nuance of the world feels exquisitely defined and real, as does every character within this dark comedy of errors — including the lead bomber’s wife and son, who encourage the men to go through with the attack, even as they begin having understandable doubts. “Don’t worry. You’ll be in heaven before your head hits the ceiling,” the son gently reminds his father with a smile. We laugh, though we could just as easily cry. – Tony H.

Best line/joke: As Omar attempts to talk Waj out of the bombing via cell phone, Omar says, “No, Waj! You’re confused!” Waj takes a selfie, examines it, and replies:”I’m not confused, brother! I just took a picture of my face, and it’s deffo not my confused face.”

46. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright)

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

The first viewings of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are akin to being thrown in a pop-culture blender, references to video games, movies, television, comics, music, and historic events made at a relentless speed through direction and editing that are, at times, jaw-dropping. By the third or fourth viewing, things once obscured — most of all the characters’ complex psychological profiles and how the banal selfishness of their actions affect their heightened world — come to light. An amazing sensory experience, a painfully studied look at why and how we fail ourselves as much as we do others, and a time capsule of the late ’00s that already feels timeless. And with a part where a gorilla made of rock music fights two dragons composed of electronica. – Nick N.

Best line/joke: “What a perfect asshole.”

45. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)

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Why is this the Hong Sang-soo movie that’s having a moment, insofar as a more-than-a-little-depressing and structurally baffling South Korean comedy can, in fact, have a moment? If nothing else, and as this placement will suggest, it’s among the funniest he’s made – bewitching in its Groundhog Day-like structure and devastating in its done-twice comedy of errors, one that anybody who’s ever been too stupid to nab a desired partner will relate to in some deep way. – Nick N.

Best line/joke: This exchange.

44. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

Love and Friendship

I never thought I’d be laughing throughout a Jane Austen film, but there I was, just earlier this year, loving the experience of Whit Stillman‘s Love & Friendship. While there’s not much initial comedy as Stillman sets up all the characters, plotting, and dynamics, soon enough you ease into the lush landscapes and the quick wit displayed by its eclectic cast. The men are buffoons and the women take full advantage, none more than a delightfully sarcastic Kate Beckinsale. – Bill G.

Best line/joke: “Oh, so that’s what it’s called? Churchill? I was very confused at first, seeing neither a church nor a hill. Churchill… DELIGHTFUL!”

43. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

Frances Ha

A coming-of-age story directed at anxious millennials newly cognizant of the responsibilities adulthood entails, Frances Ha technically qualifies as a comedy, except much of it isn’t funny. Put another way: this film meets the requirements of its genre through an abundant supply of gags and faux pas — but rather than tickling, these punchlines sting. Growing pains may be humorous in retrospect, but they ache in the moment, and Frances Ha’s story of one woman’s emotional maturation is told in the present-tense. Visually evoking the freewheeling mobility of the French New Wave even as its heroine becomes mired in one difficult situation after another, the film finds wisdom in cringe comedy and beauty in the act of embracing life’s awkwardness. – Jonah J.

Best line/joke: “You look across the room and catch each other’s eyes — but not because you’re possessive or it’s precisely sexual, but because that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there, in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about.”

42. Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders)

Black Dynamite

The art of parody has suffered a lot recently. The glut of “[Genre] Movie” movies that substitute poor imitation for actual construction and comedy ruined the concept of a parody for a whole generation. Then comes Black Dynamite, with its faux-poor production values, groovy soundtrack, and relentless stoicism to turn your damn world upside down. The writing is snappy, the actors are committed to the cinematic reality of the Blaxplotation kung-fu flick they are making, and the story is just as manically “political” as you’d want from a ’70s throwback. – Brian R.

Best line/joke: Police chief: “I can’t have you running through the streets creating a river of blood.” Black Dynamite: “Tell me who did it and I’ll just leave a little puddle.”

41. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids is remarkable, in part, because it ventures into the historically male-dominated territory of gross-out comedy with an all-female main cast — but, more importantly, it is also remarkable because it’s hilarious. This second attribute makes the first that much more significant, since it leads to this question: why isn’t Hollywood offering more female-led comedies that are this well-orchestrated? The titular bridesmaids take raunchiness and indecency to the level of art, breaking both gender- and non-gender-coded social conventions in the process of navigating a touching story of friendship and emotional resilience. When it first hit theaters, Bridesmaids was an event. Now, it’s well on its way to becoming a comedy classic. – Jonah J.

Best line/joke: Post-lunch dress shopping.

Continue >>

‘Raising Cain’: Brian De Palma’s Audacious Role-Playing Experiment

Written by Christopher Small, August 4, 2016 at 1:26 pm 

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These days, there’s the buffer of Redacted to shore up Brian De Palma’s credentials as a Godardian ironist. Perhaps in the time when it was fashionable for high-minded critics to bolster De Palma’s significance while decrying the filmmakers he cited as influences, the takedowns by card-carrying auteurists might have seemed a necessary antidote to all the doting. De Palma long represented the negative end of a New Hollywood excess, championed by one side of a polemic and lambasted by the other.

De Palma’s bad taste and his love of schlock discounted him from the pantheon erected by auteurists, while the same characteristics attracted the attentions of less-serious-minded populist critics, who saw the director’s near-indistinguishable alternations between facetiousness and sincerity as a plus. Still, even these De Palma diehards generally struggled to explain why he was significant, outside of an anti-intellectual impulse towards celebrating baroque kitsch as an alternative to a high-art strawman. Meanwhile, the auteurist crowd simply struggled to take him seriously. But years passed, as did the critics on both sides, and De Palma’s reputation mellowed and calcified. The political rebel of the movie brat coterie had been replaced by a neutered version of same; the provocateur De Palma had become the emboldened auteur De Palma behind a string of bloated classics. In 2007, Redacted, at least for the few who saw it, evoked the spectre of De Palma’s forgotten home movies (Dionysus in ‘69GreetingsHi, Mom!); suddenly, it somehow seemed impossible to ever see the movies — the white elephants and termites both — in quite the same way again.

So if Raising Cain felt, in 1992, like the timely corollary of a waning New Hollywood, where the star directors of the past two decades were forced to exploit the expressive possibilities of genre fare rather than try to recover the noble territory of the ’70s mainstream arthouse, today it plays as a kind of exaggerated, experimental collage of these same forms and feelings — in other words, its own kind of home movie. As in his even better Femme Fatale or in Michael Cimino and John Carpenter’s parallel excursions into lower- and lower-budget material, there’s no pretense of good taste; De Palma takes the generic skeleton as a starting point, using the tropes as a bulwark to riff against. It’s all dotted surface feeling: paranoia, dread, elation. Never mind that little of it makes sense, tonally or narratively. As the film’s warring moods clash scene by scene, so do the rise and fall of John Lithgow’s various acting styles. In maybe his best performance, Lithgow seems to take the spirit of this movie very seriously, playing each role with an ironic commitment (or a committed irony) that makes a stage of every scene’s tawdriness. His criss-crossing affectations redouble De Palma’s efforts to turn Cain into a rather ostentatious spin (is there any other kind?) on the very idea of role-playing — that is, the power to rewrite the late-night television-movie world these characters inhabit as a shabby excuse to step into a new role, fill out another wig, and illuminate some surface-level sentiment peddled by the genre and by De Palma both.

What’s oddest about De Palma’s sublime experimental film, like several of his others — Body Double, Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale — is the pitless audacity of the thing. Never afraid to come off sounding superficial, De Palma’s best ideas are also his dumbest, suggesting feelings and forms as the true subject over any kind of theorized schema. Within this demented confusion of a thriller narrative, an abundance of ambiguous images hint at the representational experimentations sub-Cain: the ghostly images of the baby monitor — a Nosferatu-like Lithgow blurrily gliding around in a sea of pixels — that reappear again and again; the reimagining of Psycho’s swamp-sinking sedan as a cheapened, morbid image of evil, a flailing victim reawakening from the dead and pawing desperately, vengefully at the rear window; a psychiatrist’s fingertips pressed against the glass screen of a television set, recovering one image of a person in another; the urine-green hue of the final motel set-piece, as characters and objects alike glissade into position within De Palma’s great mechanism of simultaneous sensation. But any distinctions between these glimpses of ’70s-era audacity, the time when the sheer weirdness of American cinema gave way to whole works in this style (Carrie, Obsession, The Fury), and the VHS-era banality of Raising Cain’s production are challenged and dissolved in De Palma’s ode to these, his pet forms — all in this glorious, purgatorial, perfunctory waltz of the senses.

Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.

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Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: Stanley Kubrick, Éric Rohmer, ‘Star Trek,’ Wes Anderson, and More

Written by Christopher Schobert, August 4, 2016 at 11:46 am 

Wes Anderson Bad Dads

A nearly 600-page biography of a French filmmaker would not make every summer reading list, but any discerning cinephile will consider Éric Rohmer: A Biography. It’s one of several stunning recent releases, along with a weighty oral history of Star Trek, an intimate remembrance of Stanley Kubrick, and a fascinating breakdown of the great Suspiria. Now that’s an eclectic roster of beach reads.

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

The Fity Year Mission

Even minor Star Trek fans will be spellbound by The Fifty-Year Mission, a stunning oral history from Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. The first in a two-volume set — Volume Two, covering the last 25 years, will be released in late-August — is impressively comprehensive, and full of unforgettable stories. These include the original series rivalry between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, a situation that resulted in a fierce letter to both stars from creator Gene Roddenberry. (“Toss these pages in the air if you like, stomp off and be angry, it doesn’t meant that much since you’ve driven me to the edge of not giving a damn,” Roddenberry wrote.) Then there’s the chaotic making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with a “special effects debacle” that nearly derailed the project. And nothing tops the backstory of Shatner’s disastrous Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. (Access Hollywood’s Scott Mantz sums up the film’s legacy best: “What the hell was that? It was embarrassing.”) Volume One, which ends after the release of Star Trek VI, is stuffed with details, memories, and analysis. Fans will find it ridiculously compelling.

The Wes Anderson Collection: Bad Dads (Abrams Books)

Wes Anderson Bad Dad

I’m not sure there is a lovelier collection of film texts than Abrams Books’ Wes Anderson series. The first two from the always insightful Matt Zoller Seitz, The Wes Anderson Collection and Wes Anderson: The Grand Budapest Hotel, were immaculately designed and stunningly perceptive looks at the Anderson oeuvre. The latest entry is Bad Dads: Art Inspired by the Films of Wes Anderson, and it’s the series’ most visually splendiferous book yet. Featuring work from Spoke Art Gallery’s traveling series (titled “Bad Dads”), it’s a wildly diverse collection of frame-worthy creations. As one would expect, there’s plenty of Murray, especially Zissou. But even less-heralded characters take center stage, including Bottle Rocket’s Kumar and The Royal Tenenbaums’ Dudley. The Fantastic Mr. Fox-inspired work is especially gorgeous, but my personal favorites are centered around Moonrise Kingdom. In fact, the portraits of young Sam and Suzy are so moving that the film — one I’ve always ranked low on the Anderson filmography — has new resonance for me. That’s the power of art, and of one wonderful book.

Stanley Kubrick and Me: Thirty Years at His Side by Emilio D’Alessandro, with Filippo Ulivieri (Arcade Publishing)

Stanley Kubrick and Me

One of the most intimate looks at Stanley Kubrick ever committed to paper has arrived thanks to his longtime personal assistant and friend Emilio D’Alessandro. Stanley Kubrick and Me: Thirty Years at His Side is an essential read for Kubrick fanatics, both as a rebuttal to many of the sillier rumors about the filmmaker’s personality and because it offers a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes details. Kubrick comes across as warm, loyal, and enormously particular. Many of D’Allesandri’s stories are humorous (Ryan O’Neal “was white as a sheet” after a drive with the former Formula Ford driver; Jack Nicholson “made faces at anyone who turned their back on him). Others are deeply moving (specifically his account of Kubrick’s funeral). All are wondrously told, and deeply felt.

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon (Simon & Schuster)

The Caped Crusader

As Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture explains, the passionate (and often misguided) fan criticism that recently greeted Ghostbusters is not entirely unprecedented. The Dark Knight has inspired his own unique form of fandom, all culminating in our current level of cultural obsessiveness. As Weldon theorizes, “the culture has changed around Batman [and fans]; the wall between nerd and normal is now a thin, permeable membrane through which ideas like Batman flow freely back and forth.” The author’s understanding of the character’s essential “nerd-ness” makes for a hugely entertaining read. Just as essential is his breakdown of the Caped Crusader’s various incarnations. Interestingly, the outcry over the casting of Michael Keaton, for example, feels almost quaint next to the fanboy rage of today.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de de Baecque and Noël Herpe (Columbia University Press)

Eric Rohmer

As author Derek Schilling puts it on the back cover of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, “[t]his, the first biography of Rohmer (né Maurice Schérer), is likely also to be the last.” It’s hard to disagree, as the book by Antoine de de Baecque and Noël Herpe feels as comprehensive and definitive as any filmmaker bio ever written. It’s also an utterly enthralling read, traveling from his youth to his days in charge of Cahiers du cinema, the success of his “Moral Tales,” and the making of fascinating late works like The Lady and the Duke. While the stories behind the films are involving, the more intimate details stand out. These include the recounting of an event that took place just a few weeks before Rohmer’s death (in January 2010), as the then 89-year-old director sat on a bus with his faithful producer Françoise Etchegaray. “The tension was palpable,” as Etchegaray was set to leave Paris for two weeks. “[Rohmer] was gripped by fear at the idea of not finding anyone to accompany him on his trips [to the office]. … The two friends looked out in silence at Les Invalides, a monument Rohmer cherished above all other, which the bus was passing just then.” Rohmer suffered a stroke just two days later. It’s a sad, brief story, but the type of beautiful scene that makes Éric Rohmer: A Biography so memorable.

The Art and Making of Independence Day Resurgence by Simon Ward (Titan Books)

Independence Day Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence came and went from theaters with remarkably little cultural impact. That does not mean, however, that the poorly received sequel is without interest. Regardless of the film’s status, Titan Books’ The Art & Making of Independence Day: Resurgence is worth a look. Nearly a third of the book focuses on the 1996 original, and that’s a surprising amount of space. However, the backstory makes one a bit more appreciative of the design work that went into ID:R. Does it make the experience of watching Resurgence any better? Not necessarily.  But it certainly makes for a nice companion.

The Essential Mickey Rooney by James L. Neibaur (Rowman & Littlefield)

Mickey Rooney

Even those with a deep appreciation for film history can find difficult to fully grasp the level of Mickey Rooney’s stardom in the 1930s, when he was crowned the most popular actor in Hollywood. Some have only seen the later of the late Andy Hardy star’s more than 300 (!) film appearances. That makes The Essential Mickey Rooney by James L. Neibaur an important text. Neibaur analyzes 61 of his most interesting performances, from 1936’s The Devil Is a Sissy to 1979’s The Black Stallion. The author reminds us that Rooney was “one of the most durable, important, fascinating performers” in cinema history.


Suspiria by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Columbia University Press)

Suspiria

Author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a must-follower on Twitter (@suspirialex), and her background, as the author of texts like Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study and Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality, makes her an ideal author in the “Devil’s Advocates” horror cinema series. In Suspiria, she takes a deep, probing and entertaining look at Dario Argento’s unparalleled 1976 masterpiece, and the director’s career as a whole. Heller-Nicholas’s insights — including analysis of its “fairy tale tone” and a cataloging of the film’s enduring legacy — add new dimensions to an oft-discussed classic. She captures what makes this “poetic, chaotic” favorite so special.

Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life edited by Liesa Mignogna (Thomas Dunne Books)

Last Night a Superhero Saved my Life

A diverse lineup of authors and writers — everyone from Neil Gaiman and Anthony Breznican to Brad Meltzer and Jodi Piccoult — chronicle their superhero love in Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life. The most memorable? “On the Hulk: You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry” by Delilah S. Dawson. The author of Delilah S. Dawson is the writer of the Blud series and Servants of the Storm, among many other books and stories, tells a dark, personal story of growing up with an alcoholic father. She discovered her “inner Hulk,” and as adult, she is grateful for that. Her tale is just one highlight in a very unique book.

The Latest in Star Wars Lit

Bloodline

The post-Force Awakens library continues to grow. First up is Star Wars Character Encyclopedia: Updated and Expanded (DK), an essential catalog of characters from the original trilogy, the prequels, and TFA. It is written by Simon Beecroft and Pablo Hidalgo — a.k.a., the man tasked with responding to your Snoke questions on Twitter — and offers unique facts about everyone from Ackbar to Zuckuss. It’s another treat for the SW obsessive. Star Wars: ABC-3PO (Disney-Lucasfilm Press) is also a treat, for SW obsessive parents and their children. Written by Calliope Glass and Caitlin Kennedy, and illustrated by Katie Cook, the book is a delightful mix of adorable illustrations and humorous rhymes. (“On the planet of Tatooine / In a palace none too clean / Lived Jabba the Hutt. / A creature whose gut / Was as giant as Jabba was mean.”) ABC-3PO is already a favorite of my two kids, ages 6 and 2. Lastly, two of the most recent Star Wars novels rank among the finest in the SW canon. Claudia Gray’s Bloodline (Del Rey) gives Leia Organa a focus that The Force Awakens could not, while Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath follow-up, Life Debt (Del Rey), turns the spotlight on Han Solo and Chewbacca. Bloodline provides crucial backstory to the post-Endor political strife that crippled the New Republic, while the action-heavy Life Debt sets the stage for the infamous Battle of Jakku. That conflict will be the focus of the third book in Wendig’s series, Empire’s End.

Bonus Novel (and Memoir) Round-Up

Silence

It’s hard to find two novels that are more different than My Mad Fat Diary and Silence, but both are gripping reads. Shusako Endo’s Silence: A Novel (Picador), of course, arrives soon on the big screen thanks to the passion of Martin Scorsese. The filmmaker wrote the forward for this reissue of the 1969 classic, and his words provide the reader with an indication of the harrowing journey to come: “Silence is the story of a man who learns — so painfully — that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows.” Indeed, this story of two Jesuit priests in seventeenth century Japan is a very difficult read, but a wholly rewarding one as well. It’s easy to see the appeal this story had for Scorsese, especially its powerful ending. And now for something completely different… My Mad Fat Diary is a startlingly funny and bittersweet U.K. series currently airing on Hulu in the U.S., and the book it’s based on has finally earned an American release. Rae Earl’s memoir (St. Martin’s Press) is a touching coming-of-age story of piercing humor and relentless honesty. Call it a fun chaser after the upset of Silence.

See more recommended books on filmmaking.

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

Posterized August 2016: ‘Suicide Squad,’ ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ ‘Pete’s Dragon,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, August 3, 2016 at 12:59 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.


There’s a good mix of independent originals and blockbuster remakes/sequels this month to satisfy young and old. How they’re all going to fend for screens I’m not sure—Finding Dory may finally have to bid us adieu until its home video release in October. So if you haven’t seen it or Star Trek Beyond, go quick. Suicide Squad (August 5) is going to be taking over very soon and I don’t think Batman v Superman‘s relative “failure” will affect its own longevity.


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

One of the aforementioned sequels (Suicide Squad is technically one too, right?) is Mechanic: Resurrection (August 26). Did you know this was happening? I enjoyed the original Jason Statham vehicle (itself a remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson movie), but never thought in the wildest recesses of my brain that it would warrant a second go-round—especially without Ben Foster.

When I saw this first poster I immediately thought of Taylor Lautner sliding down a glass skyscraper in Abduction only to discover it’s even more identical to the poster for its own 2011 predecessor. I remember the black and red graphic sheet with gun made of other guns, but not this repelling Statham readying to fire. The new rehash doesn’t possess the same amount of action—his staring up at a window trying to figure out how he’ll grab that other anchor with a gun in his hand conjuring giggles, not suspense. The logo block is at least improved with the removal of that awkward “The” inside the “M,” though.

I think I’d actually prefer the other sequel sheet by The Refinery if only because of Tommy Lee Jones’ goofy goatee. I kind of want to go just to see that thing in action.

BOND‘s poster for War Dogs (August 19) is equal to the copycat task by blatantly ripping off Scarface. The surprising thing, however, is that the update works. I love the pastel coloring and floating heads above black and white backgrounds with its scratchy, mirror-like (cocaine) texture. Besides the struggle to make the top text readable along the transition line, this thing is bold enough and familiar enough to grab your attention in the lobby.

It’s a heck of a lot better than WORKS ADV‘s alternate showcasing Jonah Hill’s cackle. The way the title is drawn with the actor names popping out brighter than the “War” makes it seem like the movie is simply known as “Dogs.” I guess it gets the whole “From the director of The Hangover trilogy” aesthetic across, though. Two buffoons shooting automatic weapons and laughing about it—tickets will sell themselves.

Another successful redux arrives from BLT Communications, LLC with Pete’s Dragon (August 12). If you’re going to crib off another family friendly film, you can do a lot worse than P+A / Mojo‘s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s a perfect glimpse of mystery, the giant tree in the foreground masking the reveal of both Pete and the dragon as it shares just enough to whet our appetite for its fantasy adventure.

The second poster from cold open delivers its own sense of the unknown in a way that bears resemblance to Disney’s original cartoon/live action hybrid. The cupped tail holding Pete is just similar enough to the bent tail supporting him in the 1977 version to make the nostalgic connection. We see the boy’s joy and the comfort and security the dragon supplies. We don’t need to be exposed to anymore than this before sitting down to watch the film for ourselves.

P+A’s own Disorder (limited August 12) has a distant relative in Concept ArtsFocus if only because of its desire to use pretty people with stoic looks to sell us style before the substance can even be exposed. That Will Smith vehicle used some grainy contrast to set it apart from the more polished photo-heavy sheets on the wall, but Disorder takes it even further. You can almost feel the bumps of shadowy dots speckling Matthias Schoenaerts and Diane Kruger’s faces.

What I really enjoy is the bold decision to put the text vertical. The designers do a good job rotating the words rather than putting them as one letter above the next (a design no-no). My preference would have been to take it one-hundred and eighty degrees more so we could still read left to right, but maybe forcing us to read right to left plays into the “disorder” aspect.

It’s a nice improvement over the older festival sheet when the movie was still called Maryland. That one has intrigue, but the stark white downplays the drama a bit. I like the new one because it’s darker and in close for added tension. These attributes seem to fit what the overall feel will ultimately provide.


Quite the characters

It never ceases to amaze me that a film like Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins (August 12) can garner the marketing appeal for a character series. Do we need three-sided monuments to Meryl Streep’s latest vehicle starring at us while we buy popcorn? Won’t a one-sheet with the three actors together be enough to let people know that a movie they were probably already interested in seeing is coming out? It boggles the mind.

I do like what Creative Partnership has done on the posters, though. The ornate framing, canvas cracks, and muted coloring make it all look very period specific while correctly juxtaposing the air of haughty taste against hammy expressions. Streep’s face is fantastic; Helberg’s hilarious. Just put the final advert through the same carefully selected filters and call it day. As is these character sheets end up working better than that cartoonishly bright abomination they made.

Ben-Hur (August 19) doesn’t necessitate so many posters either, but I understand that its budget warrants their creation. BLT got to make two different character series for this one: full body poses and up-close portraits. Some are alternate photos (Jack Huston) and others merely zoom in further (Morgan Freeman) to the same one. Add buzzwords instead of a tag and we’re thrown into this world … or so the studio hopes.

I won’t deny that Freeman’s face will sell tickets that may not have been sure things, but static shots don’t possess the same impact as an action piece. This is Ben-Hur, we need to see chariots and speed. The full sheet may not be spectacular (especially considering BLT gives it to us in stages with background extras and without alongside a generically metal-wrought title block), but it’s at least exciting. You hire director Timur Bekmambetov to supply visual wonderment and this one alludes to that fact where the others don’t.

Where Kubo and the Two Strings (August 19) is concerned, however, characters are the selling point. Kid films attract their audience by the potential toy lines they will purchase from store shelves and McDonald’s Happy Meals. You don’t hide the insanely detailed monkey for later; you show that thing in all its brilliance right now.

What’s great about these P+A posters is that Frank Ockenfels is credited with photography on those first two. To me this means that Laika let him come into the studio and pose their figurines for action shots to shoot. That’s pretty cool. Pixar can’t do that with their computer-generated pixels. Laika understands what it is that sets them apart and they utilize it to full effect.

Those first two capture the detail of the characters beautifully—something the next pair loses with burnt colors. The second couple is over-exposed in a bad way when compared to its subtler counterparts.

P+A truly excels on the combination shots that provide a sense of scale and environment. I love the profile entry with Monkey, Kubo, and Beetle gazing right and the tease with Kubo’s sword in the air. And the other three are glorious examples of the crazy aesthetic to expect. Laika has gone bigger with every subsequent film so far and this is no exception.

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