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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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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