News Column

On Movies: A random roundup of books on film

July 28, 2013

YellowBrix

July 28--Iconic silent era photographs . . .. Directors' favorite forgotten films. . . . Essential science fiction . . .. A critic chimes in.

We've got books, movie books. Herewith, a roundup of some recent cinema-centric tomes:

Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography (University of Chicago Press, $50). David S. Shields' appropriately photo-packed history of the nascent days of movie publicity -- the first photographers to capture silent screen stars on set, on the backlot, in candid settings and staged studio portraits -- offers far more than just an amazing collection of images. So many films from the early decades of the 20th century have been lost, but here, miraculously, they can be found again. Look at Geraldine Farrar in The Woman God Forgot (1917), the exotic Alla Nazimova in Salome (1923) and The Red Lantern (1919), Theda Bara as Cleopatra (1917), Charlie Chaplin in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914). The gorgeous Mack Sennett's "bathing beauties" image of the doomed star Marie Prevost (she of the Nick Lowe song) will put a smile on your face; the erotic portraits of Evelyn Nesbit and Gilda Gray will take your breath away.

Shields' book traces the development of the still photograph and its integral relationship with motion pictures, and the pioneer lensmen (Albert Witzel, W.F. Seely, Napoleon Sarony, Ray Jones, Bert Longworth) responsible for so many iconic shots. If there's a drawback to this deeply researched book, it's in the reproduction of the images: as impressive as this collection is, there's something less than impressive in the printing and presentation of the photos. This is not quite a top-of-the-line coffee table book. But that's a minor complaint for what is truly a major achievement.

The Best Film You've Never Seen: 35 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies They Love (Chicago Review Press, $16.95). Robert K. Elder's idea is simple genius: line up some of the top filmmakers of the day (Danny Boyle, Richard Linklater, Guillermo del Toro) and ask them to talk about their favorite underappreciated films. And so we have the very British Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill) on the very American Breaking Away; Hong Kong action maestro John Woo discussing Jean-Pierre Melville's doomy '60s noir Le samourai; Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) on John Huston's late-period gem Under the Volcano, and many more eye-opening commentaries.

As for Boyle, Linklater and del Toro, their picks, respectively: Eureka (1983, "Nicolas Roeg is probably my favorite director"); Some Came Running (1958, "To me it's about passion"); and Arcane Sorcerer (1996, "It's the Barry Lyndon of horror films").

100 Science Fiction Films (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, $20). Barry Keith Grant's handsome trade paperback offers thoughtful appreciations of essential sci-fi titles from Alien to Zardoz. Although there will be some complaints (Inception isn't here, nor X-Men, nor Bride of Frankenstein, while the mostly horror The Cabin in the Woods is), M. Night Shyamalan's Signs makes the cut. So do the creepy low-budget Invaders from Mars (1953) and Village of the Damned (1960). And yes, Paul Verhoeven's epic Starship Troopers makes the cut!

Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era (Santa Monica Press, $24.95). Peter Rainer's sharp, perceptive criticism, currently to be found online on the Christian Science Monitor's site, and formerly in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, and numerous other publications, is marked by a passion for film, an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, and a maverick sensibility. This collection covers an awesome range of films and filmmakers, unsung actors and overexposed stars. Grouped in thematic chapters ("Overrated, Underseen," "Comedies (Intentional and Unintentional," "Auteurs," etc.), Rainer's book features memory-jarring reexaminations of masterpieces, expected and otherwise (The Night of the Hunter, Blue Velvet, Shoot the Moon), and offers insightful takes on Buster Keaton, Marlon Brando, and, yes, Will Ferrell and Sylvester Stallone. His 1994 essay, "Hollywood's Lost Generation of Women," in which he pointedly laments the dearth of serious, substantial big screen roles for actresses of considerable talent, sadly seems as relevant today as it did 20 years ago.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.

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