MOVIE GUIDES BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS: Into the dark with the Lumieres

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IN cinema's 100th year, the screenplays of fanboy extraordinaire Quentin Tarantino (published by Faber) waltzed out of the shops, while the man himself was mobbed at every signing. Faber are also celebrating the centenary in more sober style with the Letters of Auguste and Louis Lumiere: Inventing the Cinema (pounds 20). Highly technical, sometimes cryptic, the letters record the brother's early experiments with photochemistry and the development of colour photography (on the back cover is a beautiful autochrome of their daughters). Their correspondence, with other scientists and enthusiasts, details with growing excitement the construction of the cinematograph, alongside their great rival Edison's kinetoscope. After a whirlwind of creativity, backed up by commercial nous and sound financing, the pace settles down. Auguste's last letter, written at the age of 91 in 1953, is a touching farewell.

Lights, Camera, Action! by Tony Bilbow and John Gau, but "presented" by Michael Aspel (Little, Brown pounds 17.99) is less hermetic and much more starry-eyed, with chapter titles like "Hooray for Hollywood!" and "A Star is Born". But despite the jaunty manner, it's packed with detail. "The Grand Illusion" illustrates the catch-all method: "From Metropolis to Forrest Gump, it all goes back to Melies", they declare, before going on to examine ways of making actors look taller, the gamut of special effects, Beckton Gas Works doubling for Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket and the filming of a key scene of Barabbas during a solar eclipse. Poppy but informative.

It's not entirely clear how, when around five new movies each week are reviewed, The Time Out Film Guide (Penguin pounds 12.99) comes out year after year without ever getting any bigger. This reprints the TO database of informed but frequently idiosyncratic contemporary reviews: it's interesting to see that the cult appeal of, for example, The Blues Brothers ("a $27 million whoopee cushion") went unspotted by its reviewer. Particularly useful is the thematic appendix, should you wish to look up movies about Transplantation of body parts (The Hands of Orlov), Scarecrows, malevolent (Scarecrows) or Drugs, extraterrestrial responsibility for (Dark Angel). But there has clearly been some revisionism: I distinctly remember reviewing the John Woo movie Hard Boiled for Time Out, but the review printed here is by esteemed Sinologist Tony "Layns" Rayns. To celebrate cinema's centenary, TO asked filmmakers and critics to list their ten favourite films: how interesting to see that Kieslowski likes Kes, that Polanski could only muster six candidates, and that Paul Schrader nominates his own Mishima.

Brewer's Cinema: A Phrase and Fable Dictionary (Cassell pounds 20) is actually an encyclopaedia with added quotes. The dutiful entry on Ken Russell ("Controversial British director, best known for his flamboyant and irreverent biopics") is enlivened by Bob Guccione's assessment: "An arrogant, self-centred, petulant individual. I don't say this in any demeaning way." Sharon Stone descants on her love-hate relationship with Paul Verhooven [sic], director of Basic Instinct: "He loves me and I hate him." This is a handy all-purpose volume, both a primer of technical terms and biographical guide.

At least Verhoeven is correctly spelled in the Encyclopedia of European Cinema, edited by Ginette Vincendeau (BFI/Cassell pounds 19.99). There's a shrewd mini-essay on Russell, though the conclusion ("though his visual imagination is often striking, it leaves little room for the imagination of the spectator") surely applies to other directors as well. That other British Ken, Branagh, is skewered for his directorial mannerisms ("a lot of running actors and wheeling cameras") but his "not completely sub-Coppola" Mary Shelley's Frankenstein comes in for qualified praise. So much for the Brits; it's also a compendium of Euro-talent from Victoria Abril to Mai Zetterling, with attractive stills to boot.

The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction edited by Phil Hardy (Aurum pounds 25) is arranged in year order, not too handy if you just want to look up Ken Russell. Ah, here he is with 1980's Altered States: "an awesomely idiotic fusion of sci-fi, naked-ape horror and hippie trip". Entertaining, unpompous and surprisingly wide-ranging.

The boom in film studies presumably explains the number of books with an academic, not to say po-faced, bent. Michael Paris's From the Wright Brothers to Top Gun (Manchester University Press pounds 12.99) curiously does not mention Quentin Tarantino's celebrated spiel, in his brief cameo in the film Sleep With Me, on the not-so-hidden homosexual subtext of Top Gun. Subtitled "Aviation, Nationalism and Popular Cinema", this is a disappointingly straight survey (nothing on Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines) but nevertheless of real interest to fans of all those stiff-upper-lip films about chaps in the RAF.

Lesley Stern's The Scorsese Connection (BFI/Indiana pounds 14.99) has a Tarantinesque jumpiness and attack, positioning Scorsese's films as cunning reworks of other movies (Raging Bull replays The Red Shoes?) and throwing in bafflingly wide cultural references larded with attention-grabbing sub-heads and boxes to prove it. Also in the series is Sam Rohdie's The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini. For heavyweights only.

On the lighter side, Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy (Faber pounds 9.99) features acolytes of the legendary no-budget director Ed Wood paying tribute to his wayward genius. Respect!

The memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian Orson Welles, were left in disarray at his death; now they appear as Beyond the Stars, ed Richard Taylor, trs William Powell (BFI pounds 40). Despite the author's frank egotism, stream-of-consciousness prose and flights of existentialism, gems can be gleaned about the making of Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky and October, and his curiosity, humour and exuberance shine through.