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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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John C. McGinley -Photo Credit Kim Simms/IFC

Necessary Evil

Get Freaky With New Stan Against Evil Photos

Stan Against Evil haunts IFC starting November 2nd at 10P with back-to-back episodes.

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From the warped minds behind The Simpsons and The Walking Dead comes your next horror comedy obsession.

Stan Against Evil employs ghoulish horror and pitch-black comedy that’ll both tingle the spine and tickle the ribs. And before the demon-possessed festivities kick off Wednesday, November 2nd at 10P ET with back-to-back episodes, we’ve got a glimpse at stars John C. McGinley and Janet Varney as mismatched small New England town sheriffs Stan Miller and Evie Barret who find themselves pitted against witches, demonic goats and other bizarre horrors.

Check out the Stan Against Evil stars — both living and undead — in the brand new photos below. Follow Stan on Facebook and Twitter for more updates as we approach the scarifiying November 2nd premiere.

Janet Varney Stan Against Evil

Witch Stan Against Evil

Book Stan Against Evil

Demon Stan Against Evil

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Zombieland Jesse Eisenberg

Brain Dead

The 10 Funniest Zombie Movies

Catch Zombieland this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

Zombie movies are based on our fear of mortality, but if there’s one thing action heroes do best it’s laugh in the face of death. The rotting, easily-shotgunned face of death. We’re enjoying undeath this month on IFC with Zombieland, so we’re also counting down the 10 funniest zombie movies. Run!

10. Army of Darkness

Ash Army of Darkness
Universal Pictures

Ashley J. Williams is the hardest working blue-collar demon fighter in movie history. (Even though he causes most of the problems he solves in the first place.) When he’s not defeating the Deadites, he’s delivering hilarious quips with typical deadpan flair.


9. Fido

Fido
Lionsgate Films

Fido is a fantastic comedy, but you should expect that with stand-up superstar Billy Connolly in the title role. A nightmarish 1950s-esque world of white picket fences and decaying flesh sets the scene for painfully funny interactions between the living and the dead — and it’s quickly revealed that the zombies are better family figures than many of the upstanding citizens.


8. Dead Snow

Dead Snow ramps up the camp with an isolated group of teenagers battling an entire zombie Nazi division, and it doesn’t skimp on the gore in the process. One of our heroes looks really badass when he amputates his own arm to escape the effects of a zombie bite — only to look down in despair when a zombie chomps on his crotch.


7. Dead and Breakfast

Line Dance
Anchor Bay Entertainment

Dead and Breakfast is a musical zombie comedy, and even with all that you might not expect what happens next. You always knew a zombie movie would have to do a “Thriller” moment. You might not have expected the filmmakers to turn the Michael Jackson hit into a country-style line dance.


6. Dead Alive

Lord of the Rings-meister Peter Jackson cut his teeth on gory, outrageous horror comedies, and his 1992 New Zealand film Braindead (known as Dead Alive in America) is one of his best. It also can claim the definitive zombie baby scene.


5. Warm Bodies

Dead Heat
Summit Entertainment

Warm Bodies takes Romeo and Juliet to a new, gorier level. The warm and loving Julie falls for the mono-syllabic “R,” whose dead heart really is brought back to life by her affection. There’s a great parody of teen romance movies with a musical montage makeover sequence where the zombie is transformed into an attractive date.


4. Return of the Living Dead Part 2

Screwdriver
Lorimar Entertainment

Return of the Living Dead Part 2 is, true to its name, the revenge of the original brain-eating zombie movie. Part 2 goes all-out on the comedy, and while some super-serious fans may balk, there are a lot of great gags to enjoy. Our favorite has to be the zombie literally saying what’s going through its head, a hilarious moment as brain munchers rarely get great lines despite being the whole point of these films.


3. Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead
Universal Pictures

Dawn of the Dead is an unrelenting attack of undead horror and despair, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for fun. Because when you’ve got an infinite supply of zombies and ammunition while chilling on the roof of your gun store, you can kill time and celebrity look-a-likes.


2. Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead Records
Universal Pictures

Shaun of the Dead isn’t just an excellent comedy — it’s a love-letter to zombie movies. An early scene where the tired Shaun stumbles through a zombified wasteland as if it was another unpleasant work morning is wonderful, but the funniest bit has to be the life-or-death music reviewing scene, where our heroes decide which records can be spared or used to fight off a hungry undead.


1. Zombieland

Zombieland
Columbia Pictures

There are hundreds of zombie movies, but there was never any doubt which one was the funniest. Because only one has Bill Murray. His brief appearance as an actor whose zombie impersonation goes a little too well is an instant cinema classic. And also the funniest thing ever to happen because of Garfield.

For more laughs and scares, check out a sneak peek of IFC’s Stan Against Evil, premiering November 2nd at 10P with back-to-back episodes, below.

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Scary Movie 2

Rotten Fruit

Catch Scary Spoofs and Kung Fu Keanu on IFC’s Rotten Fridays

Scary Movie 2, The Matrix Revolutions and more are coming to IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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Warner Bros.

Compelling plots, believable characters and plausible conflicts are standard in Hollywood classics. But sometimes our brains need a break, which is why IFC and Rotten Tomatoes have teamed up to give you the best of the worst, the “too rotten to miss” movies every Friday at 8P throughout September.

This month’s crop of “Rotten” favorites includes highlights (and lowlights) from Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone and more. Check out the full schedule below and start planning your most sarcastic live-tweet commentary.

Rotten Fridays

“Too Rotten to Miss Movies” every Friday @8P on IFC.

The Matrix Revolutions (Tomatometer: 36% Rotten) – Friday, September 2nd starting @ 8P
Speed 2: Cruise Control (Tomatometer: 3% Rotten) – Friday, September 9th starting @ 8P
Epic Movie (Tomatometer: 2% Rotten) – Friday, September 16th starting @ 8P
Scary Movie 2 (Tomatometer: 15% Rotten) – Friday, September 23rd starting @ 8P
Rocky IV (Tomatometer: 39% Rotten) – Friday, September 30th starting @ 8P

Kick back with The Matrix Revolutions this Friday at 8P on IFC!

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