Sep 17 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 9/17/17

Bart Beaty’s study of 1960s-era Archie Comics, Twelve-Cent Archie, came out two years ago, but with the squeaky-clean icons turned into the soapy hit TV series Riverdale, Rutgers University Press has reissued it with full-color illustrations, so anyone who ever enjoyed the comics no longer has an excuse against buying this milestone in pop-culture criticism. While my eyes appreciate the upgrade, my heart is certain that the book was fantastic even in black and white. Unlike, well, every other academic work I’ve read, Beaty has divided his into 100 tight, concise chapters, and then seemingly threw them into the air and let gravity decide the order. The genius of this approach is that it absolutely works. Whether dissecting the literal shape of panels or discussing whether Archie would be better off with Betty or Veronica (mathematics provides the answer, hilariously), Beaty never fails to enlighten as he charms. I haven’t so much as touched an Archie comic book since leaving grade school, yet every page held me rapt.

In Comic Book Film Style: Cinema at 24 Panels Per Second, Canada-based Dru Jeffries argues — rightly, successfully — that the media continues to misuse the term “comic book” as it relates to the movies, in part because it’s bandied about so carelessly, it’s applied even when the source material isn’t a comic book at all. So what is the comic book film, exactly? Jeffries is glad you asked! Per chapter one of his University of Texas Press paperback, the mostly forgotten 2010 actioner The Losers best represents the true definition, in translating the page to the screen as faithfully as possible — not merely in story, but also in style — and the accompanying images from both mediums prove the point, over and over. Subsequent chapters loosen up a bit to examine more flicks, whether through their use of onscreen onomatopoeia (1966’s Batman: The Movie), framing to replicate panels (Creepshow) or manipulation of time (300). Although smartly designed and more than generously illustrated, the book can grow dry if approached from a casual standpoint. So don’t! This material would kill in a classroom setting.

So venerated is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 existential sci-fi epic that you could fill a small shelf with books dedicated to the film. Even more are on the way; in the meantime, here’s another! From McFarland & Company, film critic Joe R. Frinzi’s Kubrick’s Monolith: The Art and Mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey reads less like a serious study of the picture (although that exists in one chapter) and more like a Fodor’s guidebook. With enthusiasm and efficiency, Frinzi covers how Arthur C. Clarke’s short story turned into what now is a classic, but considered a failure in its day; plus 2001’s needle-drop soundtrack of classical cuts; Oscar-winning special effects, especially the trippy Star-Gate sequence; and the various sequels, spin-offs and illegitimate children. Chapters vary in usefulness, from quite handy (comparing the various soundtrack albums over the years) to not at all (giving a beat-by-beat plot synopsis). —Rod Lott

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Aug 31 2017

Reading Material: Lights, Camera, Game Over!: How Video Game Movies Get Made

As revenue generated from video games rivaled — and eventually eclipsed — that of motion pictures, Hollywood executives have been eager to reclaim some of those plunked quarters by adapting arcade and console favorites into movies. It wasn’t always the more-regular occurrence it is today, and the results have been messier more often than not, and both those points make Luke Owen’s book on the subject a fairly fascinating chronicle of coin-op/cinematic synergy.

In Schiffer Publishing’s Lights, Camera, Game Over!: How Video Game Movies Get Made, the British-based Owen offers detailed production histories of 11 key adaptations — well, okay, 10 adaptations, plus Adam Sandler’s two-bit flop on 8-bit nostalgia, 2015’s Pixels.

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Jul 24 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 7/24/17

Fresh from editing last summer’s Klaus Kinski: Beast of Cinema book, Matthew Edwards follows up with another winner in McFarland & Company’s Twisted Visions: Interviews With Cult Horror Filmmakers. Just shy of two dozen directors sit for probing, lengthy Q&As; none are household names, unless your household is adorned with Nekromantik merch. (And if that’s the case, I politely decline your invitation for a sleepover.) Among the highlights: Alfred Sole reveals one of his actresses tried to kill herself during the Alice Sweet Alice shoot; Don’t Go in the House’s Joseph Ellison recalls facing the loaded rifle of the owner of the house they shot at; Rodrigo Gudiño traces his path from founder of Rue Morgue magazine to full-fledged filmmaker; and, in arguably the most interesting chapter, Jack Sholder spills the details about what an asshole Michael Nouri was throughout the making of The Hidden. Edwards is a strong interviewer, posing questions that have genuine thought behind them, which shows in the subjects’ passionate, candid responses.

In a summer when the overdue Wonder Woman has reigned supreme, one wonders if Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise didn’t give the Amazon princess a boost to smash the multiplex’s glass ceiling. In commemoration of the 1991 Oscar winner, Becky Aikman chronicles every step in its making — and subsequent leaps of influence — in Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge. I only wish the Penguin Press release were at least half as compelling as the film it commemorates. While Aikman is a fine writer, initial chapters focusing on screenwriter Callie Khouri alone tend to overstate the stakes or create drama when there appears to be none, assumedly to support one exec’s quote that all the planets aligned for this one-in-a-million moonshot. Her you-are-there approach works once the film’s tortured, elongated, barrier-strewn development process begins, including Scott not in the director’s chair, Goldie Hawn lobbying hard for a lead and failed sitcom supporting player George Clooney auditioning for the small, shirtless role that eventually made a star out of one William Bradley Pitt. One of the strongest parts of Aikman’s book is the epilogue, in which Hollywood remains a boys’ club, despite T&L‘s Zeitgeist success. No argument there.

Another McFarland trade paperback, this one from Lyndon W. Joslin, gets a fresh coat of blood-red paint for its third edition: Count Dracula Goes to the Movies: Stoker’s Novel Adapted. More than half of the book finds the author comparing Bram Stoker’s 1897 epistolary classic to 18 subsequent screen adaptations, to see how faithful (or not) the likes of Tod Browning, Francis Ford Coppola, Werner Herzog, Jess Franco, Dario Argento and Mel Brooks are — or, as the case often is, are not. While Joslin knows Stoker’s text inside and out, reading scene-by-scene beats of each film is tiresome; I quickly found greater enjoyment skipping these synopses and diving straight into his commentary. Later, less-exhaustive chapters focus on the Universal sequels, the Hammer cycle and notable vampire flicks that owe more to the Hollywood matinee than the Gothic text, from AIP’s Count Yorga to the Wes Craven-presented Dracula 2000. This book inadvertently makes a terrific companion to the publisher’s recent Vampire Films of the 1970s. —Rod Lott

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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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