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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.

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Rocky IV Paulie Robot

Mr. Roboto

5 Reasons Rocky IV Is Too Rotten to Miss

Catch Rocky IV Friday at 8P during IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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Photo Credit: MGM/UA/YouTube

When Rocky IV was released in 1985, the critics were not kind. (While it wasn’t around back then, the film’s 39% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes speaks for itself.) Less of a movie than a jingoistic music video starring a robot and a steroid-addled, monosyllabic Russian baddie, Rocky IV is a far cry from the Italian Stallion’s humble origins.

Still, more than any movie ever made, it exemplifies the whole “so bad its good” genre. This movie was made for us, the great-unwashed masses of the 1980s, who loved the band Survivor and hated those Commie bastards. Before you catch Rocky IV on IFC’s Rotten Fridays, let’s take a look at some moments that make this flick a “too rotten to miss” classic.

5. That Opening Shot

Rocky IV
United Artists

It takes all of 30 seconds for the audience to know they’re in for one ridiculous rollercoaster ride through a Cold War conniption fit of good vs. evil. Gone is the subtle tone and grounded reality of the first Rocky. In its place we see two gloves, one emblazoned with the American flag, the other with the Soviets’, hurtling toward each other. When they collide, sparks fly, and we witness an explosion decades in the making.

In case the symbolism is too subtle for you, director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone is trying to hint that this movie will be the clash of civilizations we’d all been waiting for, but instead of nuclear bombs, a humble palooka from the streets would be duking it out in the ring with the ultimate representation of coldhearted Communism. If it were up to us, this opening shot would’ve won Best Picture all by itself.


4. So Many Montages

Rocky IV has a running time of 91 minutes and 20 seconds. Its eight montages (yes, EIGHT) run a total of 29 minutes and 10 seconds. That is one third of the movie solely dedicated to montages. (Considering Stallone’s contempt for all things Soviet, we have to wonder if he knows it was a dirty Ruskie who invented the montage.)

During one of the many, many montages, director Stallone actually flashes back to a scene that had happened a minute and half prior, creating the impression that he might actually flashback to the montage we were just watching in the same montage. Stallone clearly loves a good montage set to an inspirational ’80s song, and so do we. Which brings us to…


3. A Soundtrack Full of Pumped Up ’80s Jams

Speaking of montages, they are set to the score of some of the cheesiest hits from the mid-’80s. For once, we’re spared tracks from Frank Stallone, with Stallone replacing his rocker brother with synth-y singles from Survivor, John Cafferty and Kenny Loggins. And of course, Robert Tepper, possessor of an ’80s mullet that could topple empires, crooning “No Easy Way Out.” The music in this movie is one step away from being a parody of the music in this movie. If you ever want to know what cocaine can do to the human mind, just listen to this soundtrack.


2. Rocky Ends the Cold War

Rocky IV speech
United Artists

In one of the most misguided, self-congratulatory, and immediately dated moments in cinema history, good ol’ galoot Rocky Balboa single-handedly ended the Cold War four years before the Berlin Wall came down.

To quote the Italian Stallion himself: “In here…there were two guys… killing each other. But I guess that’s better than millions. What I’m trying to say is… if I can change… and you can change…everybody can change!” And just like that the Soviet public, generals and even the Premier himself rose to their feet in applause, realizing what fools they’d been. This guy beat Mr. T for Heaven’s sake. He knows what he’s talking about!


1. Paulie’s Robot

Okay, let’s all take a deep breath and really consider this for a moment. Rocky IV has a robot butler in it. A movie franchise that began back in 1976 exploring the gritty reality of a bum fighter trying to prove himself somehow limped along long enough to turn into a weak Short Circuit rip-off in which an alcoholic mooch with a history of domestic abuse now gets his coffee served to him by a robot. A robot that he has programmed with a “sultry” lady voice!

Stallone was inspired to include the real life robot Sico in Rocky IV because of the work it did to help autistic children like his son Seargeoh. That’s all very moving, but doesn’t explain why he decided to write a scene where Paulie dubs poor Sico “the love of my life.” It’s a testament to Rocky IV‘s “too rotten to miss” status that Paulie’s robot girlfriend/personal servant isn’t even the craziest thing that happens to Rock and the gang.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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Swimming To Cambodia Spalding Gray

Gray's Anatomy

Everything You Need to Know About the Movie That Inspired “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”

Brand new Documentary Now! airs Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom Pictures

This week Documentary Now! spotlights a master monologist with “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.” Before you tune in at 10P this Wednesday on IFC, check out our guide to Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 film that captured writer/performer Spalding Gray’s acclaimed one-person show.

Spalding Gray 101

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures

Actor and renowned monologist Spalding Gray spent two years on stage perfecting his Obie Award-winning “Swimming to Cambodia” monologue. In it, Gray tells the story of his eight weeks in Southeast Asia while shooting the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields. He had a small role, but the experience gave him several anecdotes about hanging out with the film crew and experiencing the local culture, all while searching for “the perfect moment.”

Directed by the Silence of the Lambs Guy

Hannibal Lecter
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme took Gray’s two-night, four hour performance and crafted it down to 85 minutes. His use of dramatic lighting, stylish camerawork and a score by performance artist Laurie Anderson was praised by critics and earned the film a cult following. No stranger to groundbreaking docs, Demme also directed the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which Documentary Now! pays tribute to in this season’s episode “Final Transmission.”

All about the Voices

While it may have been a one-man show, Gray created a repertoire of characters all with distinctive accents. (He portrayed conversations between himself and others just by turning his head.) Our favorite impressions are of his demanding girlfriend Renee and Ivan Strasberg, the South African director of photography on The Killing Fields who, as depicted by Gray, sounds a bit like a Jamaican surfer.

The Original Cranky New Yorker

In one memorable scene, Gray rants about how his noisy upstairs artist neighbors are driving him and Renee crazy. Even in the mid-’80s, there were New Yorkers complaining that the city wasn’t what it used to be.

Show and Tell

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures/YouTube

A big fan of visual aids, Gray used pull-down maps to illustrate his travels. This helped to bring Swimming to Cambodia to life, since he’s basically sitting at a desk the entire time.

Inspired One-Person Shows

Gray’s groundbreaking performances in Swimming and other documentaries like Monster in a Box and the Steven Soderbergh-directed Gray’s Anatomy (about Gray’s struggle with a rare eye condition) paved the way for future one-person shows. (We wouldn’t have everything from Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” without him.) Even Doc Now! star Fred Armisen got into the one-person show act for his recent SNL monologue.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Spalding Gray when “Parker Gail: Location Is Everything” premieres Wednesday, September 28th at 10P on IFC. 

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Rocky IV Stallone Lundgren

Burning Heart

10 Reasons Why Rocky IV Is the Ultimate Rocky Movie

Catch an all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: United Artists/Everett Collection

Sure, most people love the first Rocky for its heart, gripping boxing scenes and the classic training montage. Or, you might love Creed for being both a return-to-form and a new exploration of the Rocky mythology. Maybe the thrill of seeing Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the same movie makes Rocky III your top pick. Well, sorry, you’re wrong: Rocky IV is the greatest of all the “Italian Stallion”‘s movies.

Before you watch the all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC (with Rocky IV airing at 8P as part of Rotten Fridays), check out a few reasons to appreciate the fourth installment as the king of the series.

1. The Greatest Opening Ever

How many openings are able to sum up the entire conflict of the film in less than a minute and without a single line of dialogue? And how many of those movies have exploding boxing gloves? Just try to watch the opening sequence above and not be completely psyched for the pumped-up flick to come.


2. Montages!

We all know that the best part of any sports movie is the montage, and Rocky IV doesn’t give you one measly montage. There’s a recap of the previous films montage, a getting to Russia Montage, two training montages and an ending fight montage. That’s five montages! There’s probably a montage of montages snuck in there, too.


3. There’s a Full James Brown Musical Number

This movie is so packed with memorable moments, it’s easy to forget one of the first things that happens in the film: Apollo comes out to fight Drago dressed as a shirtless Uncle Sam, while James Brown and a full band play “Living in America.” To drive home the number’s patriotism, there are dancers in tuxedos and top hats, weird unitards and bowler caps, and bedazzled showgirls with headpieces for miles. Oh, and don’t forget the giant tentacled dragon statue on the stage. This is how every boxing match should start. Heck, this is how we always want to enter a room.


4. The Soundtrack

The Rocky IV soundtrack doesn’t just feature James Brown — it has rock anthems galore, all of which make you immediately want to hit the gym. From “Heart’s on Fire” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to “Sweetest Victory” by Touch to multiple Survivor jams, you’ll get pumped and stay pumped. Even the instrumental score rocks! Sure, sometimes it sounds like it was made on a kids Casio, but this soundtrack never quits and — to quote Robert Tepper — never takes the easy way out.


5. Abs!

Rocky IV weights

Every Rocky movie shows off Stallone’s incredible physique, but Rocky IV really ups the game. Not only do we get Dolph Lundgren mostly shirtless looking like a man machine, but we get a wide variety of scenes of Stallone doing impossible tasks. Stallone’s crazy dragon fly crunches, aka a thing no human should be able to do, automatically take this movie to the top.


6. Two words: Ivan Drago

Ivan Drago
United Artists

Not only does Rocky IV explore the global conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, but it encapsulates all of our fears of the Cold War in one perfect villain. Ivan Drago only trains with machines and science and looks like he stepped out of an Aryan Nations recruitment poster. He also only responds in short, cold phrases like “If he dies, he dies,” or “I must break you.” There’s never been a villain who we so clearly want to get the crap beat out of than Ivan Drago.


7. Rocky Makes Chores Look Badass

Rocky saw
United Artists

Rocky doesn’t need to be hooked up to machines to become the perfect fighter. All he needs are huge tires and some outdoor chores to do. No one’s ever looked cooler chopping wood and using tractor parts. Half of his training is lifting an old wagon, probably to fix a broken axle. If anything, this film inspires us to take care of that gardening work we’ve been neglecting.


8. Rocky’s Beard

Rocky IV Beard

Stallone’s beard game is truly on point in Rocky IV. And this isn’t some “I forgot to shave, here’s a little stubble” look. No, we get full out, lumberjack-style beard action. Does any other Rocky movie have our hero looking like an old Russian aristocrat? Another point for Rocky IV.


9. There’s a robot!

Again, there’s so much to Rocky IV, you probably forgot about the robot. Well, Rocky has some money now and he’s not going to spend it on frivolous things for himself. He’s going to buy Paulie a robot! The best part of this scene is how truly disturbed Paulie is by this new technology until he gives it a sexy lady voice.


10. Rocky Ends the Cold War

If you’re still not convinced that Rocky IV is the greatest, answer this question: Does any other Rocky movie bring peace between the US and Russia?

By the end of the film, Rocky rises up to beat the seemingly undefeatable Drago. He fights so well, that even the Russians begin to appreciate his skills. Then, instead of using his victory to prove America’s superiority, he gives a rousing speech of “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!” The whole crowd goes wild, including all of the Russian government, who we assume give up Communism immediately based solely on Rocky’s words. Stallone’s call for international reconciliation through brutal fighting and a variety of montages makes this if not one of the greatest films of all time, certainly the greatest Rocky of them all.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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