Jun 20 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 6/21/17

Similar in structure to fellow McFarland & Company releases Now a Terrifying Motion Picture! and Classic Horror Films and the Literature That Inspired Them, yet by a different author, Ron Miller’s Mystery Classics on Film: The Adaptation of 65 Novels and Stories provides a thorough breakdown of the changes that short stories and novels have undergone on their path from the page to 24 frames per second. Tackling works nearly as old as cinema itself and as recent as the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, Miller (formerly a syndicated columnist on the topic of the telly) mines a wealth of whodunits for this multimedia survey, reviewing both the source material and the resulting movie with equal devotion and effectiveness. While several bona fide classics are covered — e.g., Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon — Miller makes his work more interesting by deviating often from the usual suspects, most obviously in eschewing the Agatha Christie adaptations And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express for … What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw. All this, plus Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Mike Hammer, Auguste Dupin and even that lovable serial killer, Dexter Morgan.

Few reads can be as addictive as the oral history, and having written ones on SNL and ESPN, James Andrew Miller is arguably a master of them. Now he turns his attention to another set of initials, CAA, in Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency. A 2016 release now in paperback from Custom House, the brick of a book (now with additional material, no less) traces the unlikely rise of CAA from the ashes of five disenchanted William Morris agents to a near-monopoly on the entertainment industry as a whole. Along the way, a classic Cain and Abel story builds between its two most powerful founders, Mike Ovitz and Ron Meyer, but their fallout occurs in the second act; Powerhouse loses its luster after that, arguing for an earlier ending. Absolutely packed with gossip and dozens of unreliable narrators, Powerhouse offers both a business lesson in innovation and a cautionary tale of hubris.

Not for nothing does Robert Hofler’s latest biography, Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts, sport chapter titles of pairs, because his jack-of-all-trades subject is a textbook study in duality — and far more than mere separation of the public and private. Although a married (for a time) man with children, Dunne long enjoyed the company of his own gender, via anonymous restroom encounters and even skipping his father’s wake for a backseat coupling. Hofler plays these details not for gossip’s sake, but in crafting a full portrait of a very complex man — one who forever wrestled with guilt and, following the slaying of his daughter, Poltergeist actress Dominique Dunne, turned guilt of another kind into a second-act career as reporter of cause célèbre trials, most notoriously the O.J. Simpson circus. Whether you know Dunne from that journalism work, from the movies he produced (e.g., The Boys in the Band, The Panic in Needle Park) or from the high-society novels he wrote and their tony television adaptations (The Two Mrs. Grenvilles), Hofler — the author behind one of my all-time favorite cultural histories, 2014’s Sexplosion — does one helluva job documenting the life of one helluva interesting guy. —Rod Lott

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Jun 6 2017

Reading Material: Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s

Entire books have been written about the revolutionary wave of American cinema in the 1970s — most notably Peter Biskind’s seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — but New York-based journalist Charles Taylor isn’t interested in rehashing those stories of the walloping impact and lasting legacy of The Godfather, Jaws, et al. Instead, he casts his critical eye to the pictures that fell through the decade’s cracks, curating for delicate dissection 15 choice B movies — some forgotten, others still admired, all sharing “an air of disreputability.”

The slim, comfy volume that results, Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s, is the year’s most rewarding film read thus far.

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May 21 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 5/21/17

I suspect I’m not the only one who, upon the death of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert in 2013, bought his 2006 collection, Awake in the Dark, thinking it to be the definitive summation of his prolific and distinguished career. The University of Chicago Press has proven me wrong, by issuing Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert — Second Edition. Roughly half of the original volume was taken up by his best-of-year reviews from 1967 (Bonnie and Clyde) to 2005 (uh, Crash); this newer edition picks up where that left off, from 2006 (Pan’s Labyrinth) to 2012 (um, Argo). While his choices could be suspect, he nonetheless demonstrated an affinity for making his case, and making it sing; most notable — and representative of his power — are his now-famous support for the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams and the ’98 sci-fi mind-bender Dark City. The book also features sections on docs, foreign pics and underseen gems, as well as assorted essays, including a Pauline Kael tribute, a list of the century’s 10 most influential movies and a round-robin series from the early ’90s on the state of film criticism, in which Ebert gets into it with peers Richard Corliss and Andrew Sarris. This book is as essential as the man is missed.

Former Nevada Film Office deputy director Robin Holabird draws upon nearly a quarter-century of government work scouting locations for motion pictures and television shows in the Silver State, for her memoir on those glitzy, glamorous years, Elvis, Marilyn, and the Space Aliens: Icons on Screen in Nevada. With such big movies as Independence Day, Ocean’s 11, Showgirls, Smokin’ Aces, Jane Austen’s Mafia and Casino on the table, one longs for a VIP tour through the making of these flicks, but in that department, the author woefully rolls snake eyes. Readers are lucky to get a quote relayed through her here and there, but most of the content is strictly a rundown of Such-and-Such Project shooting Such-and-Such Scene at Such-and-Such scenic spot. At least Holabird keeps the University of Nevada Press paperback moving at a whirlwind, not to mention spanning the gamut of prestige, from the long-running TV smash CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to the chintzy Stella Stevens project Las Vegas Lady. All in all, though, a missed opportunity.

Attention, cult cinemaniacs who like to sniff out zines catering to their peculiar tastes: Hunt down Woof! Dog Eat Cinema Magazine. The damaged brainchild of Hans Minkes, the Netherlands-based publication combines enthusiastic movie reviews with top-notch illustrations, then shoves the oft-ribald results into the size of your standard comic book. Like a Cinema Sewer from the other half of the world, contents lean into the lascivious, yet are wonderfully varied; among the three issues I’ve read (#2-#4), spotlighted titles include Lady Iron Monkey, Pete Walker’s The Comeback, the infamous atrocity pic Men Behind the Sun, a Django porn parody and Albert Band’s Ghoulies II, the latter as part of each issue’s “Whatever Lola Wants,” in which Minkes’ young daughter randomly selects a VHS tape for Dad to cover. Another recurring feature is Hans Van Den Broeck’s “Fur on Film,” with each installment exploring a werewolf subgenre, whether Asian, X-rated or good ol’ Andy Milligan. From my POV, Woof’s two best articles savaged the films of Draculina publisher Hugh Gallagher (Goregasm, et al.) and the post-apocalyptic roller-skate movie, of which there are more than you think (mostly “thanks” to Donald G. Jackson). Interested pups should email woofmagazine at hotmail dot com for ordering deets!

Presumably tied to this summer’s highly anticipated release of War for the Planet of the Apes, Abrams ComicsArts continues its exquisitely packaged series of Topps trading-card retrospectives with Planet of the Apes: The Original Topps Trading Card Series. The hardback devotes a full page to each card’s front and back, numerically going through the entire stack — not just the one based on the 1968 classic film, but also the short-lived TV show and the Tim Burton remake (and its numerous limited-edition cards), with author Gary Gerani contributing commentary as we go. (His introductory essay is fascinating; for example, Charlton Heston initially balked at being pictured on those damn, dirty bubble-gum cards.) As with Abrams’ other Topps books, a sealed pack of cards is glued onto the inside back cover. For Apes fans — and especially collectors of the franchise’s memorabilia — it’s a madhouse of pop-culture preservation! —Rod Lott

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May 14 2017

Reading Material: ’80s Action Movies on the Cheap: 284 Low Budget, High Impact Pictures

A word of warning to those interested in the book ’80s Action Movies on the Cheap: 284 Low Budget, High Impact Pictures: “Cheap” is an adjective not used carelessly, so expect neither Stallone nor Schwarzenegger. Know that there is nary a Batman or Bond, and that Van Damme is more or less persona non grata. In fact, Mr. American Ninja himself, Michael Dudikoff, is as mainstream as it gets. This is the kind of book in which Reb Brown claims 14 pages, which is nothing compared to Godfrey Ho’s 36 — and if you don’t know who they are, this McFarland & Company paperback release is not for you. I happen to love it like a child.

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Apr 30 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 4/30/17

Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s 2016 documentary, De Palma, stands among my 10 favorite films of last year, with my only criticism being that it stops after 93 minutes. Anyone else who was left wanting more (and more and more) may find that itch somewhat scratched by Douglas Keesey’s Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film. New in paperback from University Press of Mississippi, the book more or less takes the same tack of chronologically examining each of the filmmaker’s features — but here in more detail and from a perspective that is not the filmmaker’s own. A critical piece of Keesey’s thesis is examining how much of De Palma’s recurring themes — such as the ever-controversial merging of sexy women and graphic violence (Body Double and Dressed to Kill in particular) — is ingrained in the man’s own DNA. While he may lack in the behind-the-scenes dish, Keesey overflows with insight and ideas. The result is a close cousin of a Criterion commentary track, flooding your mind with a greater understanding and forcing you to see the films in a whole new light. Regardless of what De Palma might think of this book, I think it’s tops.

Take one look at Escape Velocity: American Science Fiction Film, 1950–1982 and you might sigh heavily and think, “Really? Another history of sci-fi movies?” Well, yes, but also no. For this Wesleyan University Press paperback, film professor Bradley Schauer does indeed take the reader on a fantastic voyage through sci-fi’s cinematic life, but more importantly fueled with cultural and economic perspectives, rather than merely the historical. Starting with the genre’s first recognition as such by studio powers and ending with its box-office apex of Best Picture nominee E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the author covers ground swiftly yet smartly. Terrific design aside, what makes Escape Velocity so worthy of your time is the attention Schauer pays to such avenues of interest similar studies ignore: the value of camp, the infusion of politics, the rise and function of fanzines as film criticism, and the Star Wars-ization of blockbusters, more present today than ever.

Those who read Bryan Senn’s 2013 book, The Most Dangerous Cinema: People Hunting People on Film, will not be surprised at the sheer scope of his latest (and arguably greatest), The Werewolf Filmography: 300+ Films. Although far from the only text on the subject, it is hands (paws?) down the most complete and comprehensive to date, placing it well ahead of the pack. For each of the many, many movies covered, Senn reviews it in authoritative detail and with a healthy sense of humor — the latter primarily in lycanthropic descriptions, such as the “cross between a schnauzer and Fozzie Bear” in 1969’s Dracula (the Dirty Old Man). Every werewolf movie you could possibly think of is here, plus ones the average Joe Moviegoer is not likely to have been exposed to, including the rockin’ Werewolf of Woodstock; the clip comedy President Wolfman and the Paul Naschy/Fred Olen Ray sexploitation pairing, The Unliving. (See Senn’s recent Guest List for Flick Attack for seven unsung gems.) While valuable as a reference work, the McFarland & Company hardback is an absolute pleasure to read page by page, all 400-plus of them. The only thing I can hold against it is getting me interested in all those crazy Howling sequels. —Rod Lott

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