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The rise of the film critic filmmaker

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The line between film critic and film maker has always been a blurry one. “Battleship Potemkin” director Sergei Eisenstein wrote essays and books about the language of motion pictures that continue to be studied by film students to this day. Many of the biggest figures of the French New Wave, from Jean-Luc Godard to Francois Truffaut, were first writers for the magazine “Cahiers du Cinema.” The same was true of the leaders of the New Hollywood era, where Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader crossed over from writer to critic. Even the great critic Pauline Kael took a job as an executive at Paramount Pictures for a short time.

Through all of that, though, there was still a bit of a divide. You could write a piece of film criticism, or you could make a film, but it was very difficult to do both. Now, that seems to be changing. We’re witnessing the rise of the film critic filmmaker.

Arguably the most famous film critic filmmaker, and certainly the spiritual father to this new marriage between film commentary and film production is still almost entirely anonymous. In 2001, this faceless, nameless editor took George Lucas‘ cut of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” — which, in an interesting bit of timing, is coming back to theaters this Friday in a new, 3D print — and excised almost twenty minutes from the film, removing most of the scenes featuring characters like Jar Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker that fans of the original “Star Wars” trilogy hated. He called it “Episode 1.1 – The Phantom Edit,” and he was so scared of reprisals from Lucasfilm that he credited himself only as “The Phantom Editor.” This all took place so long ago that the project was initially considered by many to be nothing more than an urban legend. Those who saw it, at least at first, did so on dubbed VHS tapes. Just a decade later, it’s astonishing how much has changed.

The Phantom Editor did eventually out himself as Mike J. Nichols, a Hollywood film cutter who’s worked on movies like the Billy Joel concert documentary “The Last Play at Shea.” But that came much later. Nowadays, film critic filmmakers don’t need to hide behind assumed identities. A few are even gaining recognition from sources outside the echo chamber of the Internet. One of the most well-received films at last month’s Sundance Film Festival was “Room 237,” a feature length examination of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” The documentary, by director Rodney Ascher (not, say, “Mr. Redrum”), explores the myriad interpretations of Kubrick’s work and features film (or conspiracy) theorists explaining how “The Shining” might actually be a story about the genocide of Native Americans or an admission of guilt on the part of the director for getting involved in the “fake” Apollo 11 moon landing. Though Ascher interviewed all these people, he illustrates their arguments and comments with footage from “The Shining” and other Kubrick films. For that reason alone, the film will almost certainly be impossible to release in a typical, commercial way. But the fact that a film that a decade ago would almost certainly have been met with skepticism or fast and dirty lawsuits played at Sundance at all is an important marker of the progress of film critic filmmakers on the road to artistic legitimacy.

A similarly audacious project was launched last week on the Indiewire blog Press Play by film critic filmmaker Peet Gelderblom. His “Raising Cain Re-cut” is a “Phantom Edit”-style revision of Brian De Palma’s 1992 film “Raising Cain.” As Gelderblom explains in an essay that accompanies his “Re-cut,” De Palma was never fully satisfied with the structure of his film and, exasperated in the editing room, he radically revised his initial conception of the picture during post-production. Gelderblom decided to take the theatrical version of “Raising Cain” and restore it to something closer to the director’s original vision. At least for now, you can watch the entire “Raising Cain Re-cut” in this embedded video.

Raising Cain Re-cut from Press Play Video Blog on Vimeo.

To get the full effect of Gelderblom’s work, I rewatched De Palma’s “Raising Cain” over the weekend and then dove immediately into the “Re-Cut” version. In my (non-filmmaker) film critic opinion, he’s done as good a job as seems possible with the material he had to work with. In interviews, De Palma stressed that his reason for making “Cain” was not (SPOILER ALERT) to tell the story of a crazy dude with multiple personalities, but really to delve into a romantic melodrama involving the crazy dude’s wife, who cheats on her husband in a surreal swirl of dreams and nightmares. In the theatrical version, John Lithgow’s Carter is established first — and established as a nutjob — before we ever meet his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich). Gelderblom’s biggest adjustment is to start with Jenny, and to keep Carter as a background character through the first twenty minutes of the film. Right after Jenny has succumbed to a series of fantasies (or perhaps true adulterous encounters) Carter surprises her by strangling her, seemingly to death.

There’s one major downside to Gelderblom’s version, namely that this protagonist fake-out makes “Raising Cain” look even more like a “Psycho” knock-off than it already did. But otherwise, his conceit works, and makes a certain amount of sense, too. Davidovich’s character is having a hard time telling the difference between dream and reality and all of a sudden her husband tries to kill her; which, at first, seems like another possible layer of dream. The “Re-cut”‘s biggest problem is that Gelderblom only has the original theatrical cut to play with — and his version could use at least a few more scenes of seeming domestic bliss between Jenny and Carter to really sell the big reveal, as well a a clearer transition between Carter’s attempted murder of Jenny and the flashback to the beginning of his wicked deeds.

All in all, though, it’s a very interesting effort. And while he hasn’t spoken publicly about it, I imagine De Palma would approve, if not with the execution then at least with the conception. After all, De Palma was, on some level, a sort of prehistoric ancestor to the modern film critic filmmaker. Few directors know more about the movies than De Palma, and few deploy that knowledge more explicitly in their work. His movies were sort of remixes before the rise of remix culture. “Blow Out” combines elements of “Blow Up” and “The Conversation” with the conspiracy around the Kennedy assassination (not to mention Chappaquiddick). “Body Double” is a bit of “Vertigo” and a bit of “Rear Window” with a dash of some Hitchcockian Wrong Man thrillers as well. And “Raising Cain,” of course, with its cross-dressing, multiple-personality-afflicted protagonist, owes a fair share to “Psycho.” You wonder whether De Palma sees these film critic filmmakers and imagines what his own career would look like if he’d come of age today. It might be enough to drive a man crazy.

What do you think of the rise of film critic filmmakers? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Carol Cate Blanchett

Spirit Guide

Check Out the Spirit Awards Nominees for Best Male and Female Leads

Catch the 2016 Spirit Awards live Feb. 27th at 5P ET/2P PT on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

From Jason Segel’s somber character study of author David Foster Wallace, to Brie Larson’s devastating portrayal of a mother in captivity, the 2016 Spirit Awards nominees for Best Male and Female Leads represent the finest in the year of film acting. Take a look at the Best Male and Female Leads in action, presented by Jaguar.

Best Male Lead 

Christopher Abbott, James White
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea

Watch more Male Lead nominee videos here.

Best Female Lead 

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Bel Powley, The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

Watch more Female Lead nominee videos here.

Ferris Bueller could use another day off

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Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. And then when you do finally stop and look around, your childhood idols are doing commercials for compact SUVs. And they’re doing them as the rebellious character that made them your childhood idol. Life moves pretty fast all right, and it is freaking weird.

A week before it’s scheduled to play during the Super Bowl, Honda premiered an extended cut of its “Matthew’s Day Off” ad on YouTube. The 2:30 short, directed by “The Hangover”‘s Todd Phillips, features actor Matthew Broderick riffing on his iconic character from 1986’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhkDdayA4iA

Whether you like the ad or not, it’s got the entire Internet talking about Honda and it’s already been viewed over 1.8 million times on YouTube — a hefty number of eyeballs delivered at a fraction of the cost of a Super Bowl ad. It’s also been posted and dissected on film sites all over the Internet (including this one, obviously). That’s more free advertising. That’s why, in my opinion, debating the quality of the ad is irrelevant. Whether you like it or not, it worked. That much is done with.

So it’s a good ad. But is it a good sequel? Well, no. Broderick’s on hand, along with that insidiously catchy theme song, but where’s the rest of the cast? Without Alan Ruck moping around as Cameron, or Jeffrey Jones skulking through the Buellers’ backyard as the scheming Principal Rooney, or Charlie Sheen proving his range as a doped-up delinquent, it’s just not the same. You’ve got Ferris Bueller, but you don’t have “Ferris Bueller” (you also don’t have the man who wrote and directed “Ferris Bueller,” since John Hughes tragically passed away in 2009). Not to mention that the CR-V, handsome vehicle though it might be, is no vintage Ferrari. Plus it doesn’t even get dropped out of an austere, modern, and totally non-functional garage or anything.

In a way, though, I’m glad this commercial exists. When Honda leaked a ten second tease of “Matthew’s Day Off,” the Internet almost literally exploded (the tease has already been viewed more than 4.5 million times on YouTube). Sites posted breathless hypotheses (like this one) speculating as to the nature of Ferris’ return. It turned out to be this ad (in which, let’s note, the words “Ferris” or “Bueller” are not uttered a single time). But it could have been a sequel; a sequel that, apparently, many people would have been excited to see.


Hopefully this commercial, effective and clever though it might be, kills any notion that such a sequel would be a good idea. Ferris Bueller not only doesn’t need a sequel, he couldn’t bear one. I love the film so much myself I can understand the desire to find out where Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane wound up — or even to want to just hang out with them for one more day. But look at Matthew Broderick now. Slightly plump, slightly balding, talking with that slightly affected delivery he’s used in every performance he’s given since 1995. This guy isn’t Ferris Bueller anymore. Ferris Bueller is a teenager; maybe the teenager, as far as the movies are concerned. To force him to age would sully the perfection of his magical (and, thanks to the movies, eternal) adolescence.

A sequel now would destroy the brilliant achievement of the first film. That’s what invariably happens with any sequel set well after the original movie. The classic example is “Blues Brothers 2000.” Eighteen years after the original movie, sixteen years after John Belushi’s death, they dusted off Dan Aykroyd and the rest of the Blues Brothers band, threw a cutesy kid into the mix, and danced all over the memory of the first masterpiece. “Blues Brothers 2000″ didn’t “rape my childhood” or anything nonsensically hyperbolic like that. But it did take a little of the luster off the first movie. When you think about “Blues Brothers” you have to avoid thinking about “Blues Brothers 2000.” I don’t want to have to do that with “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Still not convinced? Take a look at the other “Ferris Bueller” project that was made without Hughes’ involvement, the short-lived “Ferris Bueller” TV show. The ad is fine. But we should all let Ferris Bueller enjoy many days off — every day off until the end of time.

Do you still want to see a “Ferris Bueller” sequel? Even though we think you’re crazy, we still want to hear why — tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Shelf Life: George Lucas’ “THX 1138″

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Just six short years after shepherding the last installment of the “Star Wars” series into theaters, “Revenge of the Sith,” George Lucas returned to the big screen last week with the release of “Red Tails.” Lucas didn’t direct the film himself – that honor went to Anthony Hemingway – but its story was one that Lucas was interested in for years, and which he financed himself with the knowledge that it was unlikely to make all of its money back.

Of course, decades of “Star Wars” discussions, not to mention the various changes he’s made to the films, and his seeming obliviousness (or ambivalence) about his fans’ feelings about those changes, have cast Lucas in a decidedly unflattering light: we understand that the films are his to change, they say, but why antagonize us by denying us versions that we love as they are? Regardless, it’s because of all of this that people forget that he was for a time a pretty impressive, unique filmmaker; he wasn’t close friends with folks like Francis Ford Coppola and Carroll Ballard for nothing. As such, we decided to take a look back at his earliest filmmaking effort, “THX 1138,” and see if it still speaks to his abilities a director as well as it seemed to at the time of its release.


The Facts

Released on March 11, 1971, “THX 1138” was George Lucas very first feature film, an expansion of a short that he made while in film school at USC. Unlike his later triumphs with the “Star Wars” films, Lucas met with commercial failure when it was released, and even when it was rereleased after Lucas’ name became a draw, it remained commercially unsuccessful, earning only $2.4 million total from its various theatrical runs.

Meanwhile, the film enjoyed a healthy level of success among critics, who responded to its dystopian story. The film hovers at 89 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 57 reviews.

What Still Works

Unfortunately, neither of the two original theatrical cuts were ever released on DVD, so the only version of the film available to watch is the Director’s Cut, released in 2004. Nevertheless, Lucas’ film retains all of its ominous power today, offering a portrait of an anesthetized, totalitarian society whose edges begin to fray after one of its citizens diverges from a steady diet of mind- and sense-numbing medications. Especially today, the film seems obviously inspired by Stanley Kubrick, in particular “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange” in terms of its set design, camera angles, and underlying concepts. But Lucas somehow manages to work all of those ideas into a story that’s fully his own, and creates something emotionally evocative and thematically resonant even as he turns a generally unhurried story into a thriller via his Director’s Cut updates.

Amazingly, “THX” may be the only film of his whose changes either don’t affect the viewing experience, or improve it. His use of CGI to flesh out the city in which THX and his fellow citizens live gives the film a broader scope, but it also enhances the victory he achieves when he escapes its underground confinement. As suggested above, meanwhile, the action is intensified, amplifying some of the shots where cars have to be navigating space in traffic or in the society at large, but the truth is that Lucas did such a great job creating this elliptical chase between THX and pursuing authorities on motorcycles that the enhancement is at once welcome and superfluous.

Notwithstanding some digital trickery in which THX’s eyes roll up into his head, the performances of the actors is unilaterally terrific: As the title character, Robert Duvall embodies a certain kind of confused consternation, even when he’s finding unexpected pleasure, and throughout the film he lends the character’s saga a momentum whose significance – or even purpose – seems to escape even him, although he must play it out anyway. As LUH, THX’s “roommate,” Maggie McOmie is also great, albeit understated, and disappointingly absent from the final act of the film, precisely because we’ve grown to care about her. And as SEN, Donald Pleasance gives the film a sniveling sort of bureaucracy, a social and even technological hierarchy where he controls one small quadrant of THX’s life, but it’s enough to ruin it.

What Doesn’t Work

In retrospect, the idea of striking back (or at least positioning oneself) against the existing political or social mores of the day feels like a fairly conventional idea for the culture at large in 1971, and even then wasn’t especially original as an artistic choice (George Orwell’s “1984” was released 22 years earlier). If you’re especially dismayed by Lucas’ employment of Kubrickian ideas and visuals, that’s probably an issue as well, although his utilization of them doesn’t impugn the impact of the films from which he borrowed, and his photography as a whole is quite beautiful.

Despite the general consistency in quality of the Director’s Cut, it’s been so long since any real version of the original cut (or cuts) was available that it would be interesting to see what Lucas changed or enhanced, and what he left the same. There are two specific instances in which the CGI just doesn’t hold up, and calls too much attention to itself – during the rolling-eye scene mentioned above, and when THX is encountering the fringe dwellers at the entrance to the tower he climbs up through in order to reach the surface. Again, however, the changes in the film are mostly aesthetic, and in fact quite understandable – Lucas had little money to create the sorts of vistas he was able to utilize to great effect in the Director’s Cut, and those decisions are oddly justified by the scale of the storytelling.

The Verdict

“THX 1138” is a surprisingly great movie, even for today, and in many ways eerily prescient: Lucas foresaw the advent of a society that is constantly medicated and its senses numbed. His depiction of television and other technology is also really fascinating and accurate as well. But the bottom line is, does the film tell a solid, engaging story, and it absolutely does, then and now. So even if you’re no longer a fan of Lucas’, or think his work and re-work and re-work on the “Star Wars” films renders him unredeemable, “THX 1138” still manages to be a great film, even if you have to squint a little bit and forget who made it – or perhaps more accurately, what he made after it.

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