Feb 5 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 2/5/17

David Thomson is one of our finest living writers, period. He just so happens to work in the field of film criticism, yet his prose sings as marvelously as any acclaimed work of fiction. Each book he releases is an event for cineastes, including his latest … although it is about the movies’ archenemy. In the Thames & Hudson hardback Television: A Biography — heavy in size, heady in subject — Thomson relates the history of TV in the same manner he did cinema in 2012’s The Big Screen: purely on his terms. That means neither chronologically nor logically by anyone’s standards, yet the book feels that way once the whirlwind tour is done. The man can pivot on a dime, going from Gunsmoke to The Rockford Files to James Garner’s Polaroid ads with Mariette Hartley to Merv Griffin — and somehow, his dot-connecting leaps work. The cover image — the iconic one from 1982’s classic Poltergeist — is as good a joke as any, representing Thomson’s sometimes contentious relationship with the boob tube. And let’s be honest: His is ours.

While not quite a runaway smash, The Legend of Tarzan performed better than expected at last summer’s box office, proving there’s lots of life left in the lord of the apes. For the life already lived, David Lemmo recounts the pulp hero’s first century of existence in Tarzan, Jungle King of Popular Culture. Published by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback has the daunting task of distilling 100-plus years of content into roughly a 200-page narrative, and for the most part, the man succeeds. With Edgar Rice Burroughs writing dozens of novels starring his creation, adapted for dozens more motion pictures, there is little space for Lemmo to dive too deeply into individual works. Plus, the preceding sentence doesn’t take into account Tarzan’s adventures into TV, radio, comics, toys and other merchandising vines, all of which get covered here — just at a monkey’s-eye view. For example, the aforementioned Legend film merits one paragraph, but that’s more than is earned by Hollywood’s heretofore most recent live-action Tarzan film, 1998’s flop Tarzan and the Lost City (a vehicle for a loinclothed Casper Van Dien). Lemmo’s writing leans heavily on names and dates, so passages tend to grow arid. For those seeking a reference work on just the movies, reach for Scott Tracy Griffin’s recent Tarzan on Film; for a broad overview on the character’s wide-ranging market penetration and influence, Lemmo’s book serves as that introduction.

As you may have noticed with his previous book on Jamie Lee Curtis in 2010, when David Grove gets interested in a celebrity as a subject, he goes all in. Now, he’s gone all in on the troubled star of Damnation Alley, White Line Fever and TV’s Airwolf in Jan-Michael Vincent: Edge of Greatness. One of the best things about the BearManor Media release is that it exists at all; although once a matinee idol, Vincent is remembered more today (when he’s remembered at all) for substance abuse struggles and other tabloid fodder. I’ll be the first to admit I thought the actor already had died. Perhaps Grove’s book can help — not to rewrite Vincent’s history or legacy, but just to make certain that someone acknowledged his talent and, furthermore, mourned its loss. If you’re not already a fan, Edge of Greatness won’t change your mind; I suspect it won’t even be read by JM-V virgins. Working without input from or access to his subject, Grove guides us through each step of Vincent’s career at a quick clip, from its sharp ascent to an extended train wreck of a fall. Any fear on your part that Grove will indulge in hagiography is unwarranted, as the rather odd and sobering (pun not intended) final chapter makes clear. —Rod Lott

Get them at Amazon.


Jan 26 2017

Reading Material: Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page

Blair Davis’ Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page was not quite the book to which I had been looking forward for the better part of 2016. Turns out, that’s a good thing — even a great one.

While the rest of the film world debates the merits of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC’s catch-up attempts, Chicago-based cinema professor Davis dives deep into the comic-book (and -strip) movies and TV shows few care to acknowledge, from the Dick Tracy flicks of the 1940s and all those Blondie comedies to the early serial adventures of Superman, Batman, Captain America and pulp-borne heroes of whom you haven’t heard.

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Jan 11 2017

Reading Material: Mars in the Movies: A History

With movies, as with potential mates, everyone has a type toward which he or she instinctively gravitates. For me, it’s heists or spiders. For Thomas Kent Miller, it’s that angry red planet — a lifelong fascination that culminates in the publication of the book Mars in the Movies: A History.

Released by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback surveys nearly 100 Mars flicks, roughly from the 1910 Thomas Edison silent short A Trip to Mars to 2015’s blockbuster The Martian. With the latter making a mint and taking seven Oscar nominations, you’d think Miller would find Ridley Scott’s populist smash to be a source of unending joy. Instead, he had “zero emotional response to the film. When I should have felt elated, I felt nothing.” And that call-’em-as-I-see-’em approach is all part of the book’s hours of fun.

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Jan 6 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 1/6/17

Now adults, the children of the 1980s clearly are nostalgic, judging from this past fall’s glut of books on that era’s teen movie. Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast came first, followed closely by Kevin Smokler’s travel-leaning Brat Pack America. Now, journalist Jason Diamond joins the fray with Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned from Watching ’80s Movies, but stands out as unique because it’s a memoir. Hoo-boy, is it ever. As a Chicagoan, Diamond felt a particular kinship to Hughes’ movies — Sixteen Candles; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; Home Alone, et al. — which tended to take place there, albeit in the fictional suburbia of Shermer, so the miserable barista longing to be a professional writer embarked on a biography of the iconic filmmaker. Instead, as we witness, the project morphed into this memoir of the author’s own terrible childhood and arguably even worse teenage years, during which Hughes’ CV offered a recurring temporary escape. The end result is raw, real, gut-wrenching and, like Hughes’ work, worthy of resonating with an entire generation. Oh, if only they read more than 140 characters!

With Applause’s paperback release of Film Noir Compendium: Key Selections from the Film Noir Reader Series, newcomers to the dynamic duo of cinematic historians Alain Silver and James Ursini can get a taste of the goods without having to wonder which prior volume to purchase or whether to buy them all. (You may find yourself doing the latter if you enjoy this lovingly oversized presentation, overflowing with hundreds of stills.) Compendium culls some 30 articles from 20 years worth of contents — all with an academic bent, but not to a point of inaccessibility. Standouts include Ursini’s visual breakdown of the Mike Hammer classic Kiss Me Deadly; Todd Ericsson’s 1990 examination of noir’s then-resurrection as a genre (e.g. Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot, Michael Mann’s Thief and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.); and Paul Schrader’s well-informed “notes on film noir,” which is the equivalent of a master class — no surprise to readers of the Taxi Driver scribe’s Film Comment pieces, past or present. The book’s layout could stand a sharper design, but the words are what really matter here — especially when you have Stephen Farber putting “the bitch goddess” under a microscope.

Which horror films feature the most of Mr. Mephistopheles? Which horror soundtracks are the scariest? Who draws horror comics best? The answers to these and many other superlative-determining questions await in The Thrill of Repulsion: Excursions into Horror Culture. For the Schiffer-pubbed hardcover, Horror News Network contributor William Burns presents nearly two dozen essays on terror-related topics primarily concerning movies, but also not ignoring TV, music and books (comics included). Nearly all of the chapters are presented in the ever-popular list format, each cleverly and consistently going to 13, rather than the standard, ho-hum 10. I was unfamiliar with Burns’ name or work, so I don’t know how much critical credibility he brings to the project, but he obviously is well-versed in cinema that goes bump in the night. I especially enjoyed his countdown of horror films “That Deserve Better,” because his selections prove him right, from The Boy Who Cried Werewolf to the top-slotted The Spider Labyrinth. —Rod Lott

Get them at Amazon.


Dec 31 2016

Reading Material: A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies

Hands down and no question about it: For me, the entertainment book of 2016 is A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies. Written by Trapped Ashes screenwriter Dennis Bartok and collector extraordinaire Jeff Joseph, the University Press of Mississippi hardcover shines a light on the rarest of film subcultures: one I didn’t know existed!

There’s a whole history of FBI arrests and/or investigations into film obsessives who sold and/or traded actual prints — typically 35mm and often stolen from studios and theaters. They range from Hollywood’s own (Roddy McDowall and Rock Hudson) to two-bit ex-cons, and nearly two dozen of them have their colorful stories told here, run-ins and close calls included.

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