Saturday, June 25, 2011

More random stuff from my bookshelf, non-fiction

I love the art of cinematograpy. In another universe I am a director.

Superbly organized with eye catching graphs and pictures and loaded with tons of fascinating and useful information.

Might be a bit dry and technical for non-film school types.

Insightful, scholarly analysis of my favorite film. 

A must own for Croneberg fans, this book is packed with behind the scenes information, interviews and great pictures.

Written by film scholar and genre expert extraordinaire Tim Lucas.

I have an endless fascination/obsession with the Roswell incident and the UFO phenomenon. This is one of the most thorough, serious, investigative books about the famed 1947 incident I have read.

Colorful, comprehensive guide to help feed my addiction for lurid pulp paperbacks.

I love these pop culture philosophy books, especially this Blackwell series, and I am a huge Battlestar Galactica fan.

So say we all.  

A page turning tale about the rise of a powerful Sith Lord, except it is real.

A fascinating and frightening portrait of evil.

Super cool mainstream physics book along the lines of the works of Michio Kaku.

The perfect gift to give someone from the Michele Bachmann anti-science crowd who insist the earth is only 6000 years old crowd.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Random stuff from my bookshelf

Check out the killer cover painting by the legendary master Frank Frazetta.

There may been better Conan ripoffs during the Frazetta inspired Robert E. Howard Sword and Sorcery boom of the late 60's and 70's, but the Brak the Barbarian series was my favorite.

John Jakes could always be counted on to craft a well structured, seductively readable adventure with colorful action. I also read some his Kent Family Chronicles historical soap opera novels and few of his old science fiction pulps, Timgate was one if memory serves.

David Goodis was one of the old master hard boiled noir writers and his stuff might have been the bleakest of them all.

The entire Hard Case Crime series is terrific and feature new covers done in vintage pulp style of the masters.

This novel is a fascinating character study in bleakness. At the same time there is a  riveting, primal sexual tension simmering underneath every word.

Cover art is by Glen Orbik

I went on a Star Wars extended universe binge in the mid 90's and next to the outstanding X-Wing series by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston, the Bounty Hunter trilogy books are my favorite.

Many fans were put off by K.W. Jeter's emotionally distant, hard edged style. But the cyberpunk author is the perfect writer to flesh out the cult character Boba Fett and to tell what is essentially an old school hard-boiled gangster story set between the the events in Empire and Jedi.

Cover art by Steve Youll.

I have a voracious appetite for these sleazy paperback pulps of the 60's and their addictive covers, especially those published by Midwood .

The best ones are by Sloan Brittain (whose real name was Elaine Williams, a tragic figure and a brilliant writer), and Joan Ellis (Julie Ellis, who went on to be a huge success in mainstream romance and historical fiction).

Many of the books in this genre are very well  written, and always entertaining.

Cover art by Paul Radar.

J.G. Ballard's Crash is considered avante-guarde shock fiction, as is the hypnotic 1996 film adaption by David Cronenberg. But both are really visionary works of science fiction exploring the implications of technology and how it changes us, literally molding with our flesh. Eerie, edgy, fascinating, and  strangely erotic.

Fans of the author Chuck Palahniuk and filmmaker David Lynch might what to check out the works of Ballard.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Taken, the original Spielberg, Fanning project

It makes perfect sense Elle Fanning's career will explode after her amazing performance in the J.J. Abrams directed Spielberg/Amblin production Super 8. Elle's superbly talented sibling Dakota did likewise when her career ignited after her other worldly appearance in Taken.

Taken was an Emmy and Golden Globe Award winning mini-series that aired on the Sci-Fi (now SyFy of course) Channel over ten nights in December 2002, and is available on DVD.

Taken was created by Leslie Bohem who creatively combines modern U.F.O mythology with the epic family soap opera mini-series format and sets it against a backdrop of real post war American History. The saga begins in WWII with the appearance of the "foo fighter" U.F.Os, and moves on to cover Roswell, Project Paperclip Nazi scientists, the abduction phenomenon, all of it told through the eyes of two American families.

The saga begins in WWII with the appearance of the "foo fighter" U.F.Os and moves on to cover Roswell, Project Paperclip Nazi scientists, and the abduction phenomenon. All of it told in sprawling style through the eyes of two American families spanning over three generations and fifty years. Although it has elements of The X-FIles and Spielberg's classic 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, what made Taken unique was the fresh approach of Bohem and Spielberg. Think of it as a Roots, or The Thorn Birds for the genre fans and UFO buffs.
As with any Spielberg/Amblin production, the technical credits are superb, especially the music by Laura Karpman. But more importantly the story is captivating and emotionally involving. All of the performances are first rate, and Dakota Fanning's appearance is truly memorable and takes the mini-series to a whole new level.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Three scores, one year, one composer

Three of my favorite soundtracks are all from the year 1998 and feature the music of James Horner in one his most prolific periods.

Deep Impact is Horner at his melodramatic best. One outstanding track, "The Wedding" became a mainstay of Horner's musical arsenal for the next decade.

The Mask of Zorro is an immensely entertaining old school adventure and features one of  James Horner's most exciting and orignal scores. A top five Horner soundtrack and a must own for film music fans.

Might Joe Young is one of the most underreted James Horner scores and in many ways is the most direct percursor (along with The New World) to his epic work for Avatar. A lush, exciting, energetic soundtrack, it has a moving main theme/love theme and exciting action music.  My favorite African flavored score.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. may be the most obvious sources of inspiration for J.J. Abrams new film Super 8. But there is another movie that shares the many of the same sensibilities and sense of wonder, Joe Dante’s Explorers.

Jason Pressmon, a young Ethan Hawke, and the late River Phoenix give wonderful natural performances as three young boys who literally build there own spaceship to travel and meet the aliens who have been communicating with them in dreams. In many ways the plot is sort of a Contact with kids.

The age of the kids in the movie, as well as their geeky pop culture personalities, are similar to those in Super 8. There is even an "it" girl. Although the character is nowhere near as developed Elle Fanning’s in Super 8, Amanda Peterson does a fine job. Two years later she would go on to star in 1987's terrific teen romance comedy Can’t Buy Me Love.

Explorers shares the same sense of wonder as Super 8. But where as the Super 8 finale is pure Spielberg, the final act of Explorers is all Joe Dante at his most irreverent off center best.

One area where Explorers does top Super 8 is the soundtrack. Michael Giacchino creates some nice musical moments in Super 8 and it is a great score. But Jerry Goldsmith’s soaring music in Explorers is a shimmering work of orchestral and eletronic wonder.  It literally lifts the film to a whole new level of emotional resonance and imagination.

Explorers was rushed into theaters July 12, 1985 with little fanfare from the Paramount and was met with mixed reviews and box office indifference. It was same some summer that the far inferior The Goonies was cleaning up at the box office and getting inexplicably good reviews.

Today Explorers has a cult following among Joe Dante fans.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

In Thy Image

The master crane shot overlooking Spielbergia from the hill top above.

The mysterious other that enters into the life of the characters just when they need it most. The sinister men in flashlights who will do anything to carry out their secret agenda of control and manipulation. Even a wonderful shot of a utility worker having a mysterious encounter, ala Roy Neary.

Yeah, Super 8 is a homage all right. And a wonderful one, impeccably crafted on every level, right down to the carefully chosen period color schemes, the lighting, and Michael Giacchino’s nod to John Williams.

Oh you bet it is a homage. But is so much more than that.

This is not an exercise in style alone. This is not Brian De Palma doing Hitchcock.

This feels like a deeply personal film. And without knowing anything about what J.J. Abrams went through at that age, the experiences of the main character feel very real. As if Abrams may have been shaped by similar events, in the same way Spielberg was by the divorce of his parents. The details feel personal too, the model making, the monster make-up, even the period songs. The approach Abrams takes with Super 8 reminds me of Joe Dante's most personal films, Explorers and Matinee.

The two main character in this movie are wonderfully written and acted. Played by Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, they are the heart and soul of the film. The best scene in the movie is a quiet scene. It involves two kids and super 8 film that helps them come to terms with a tragedy and begin to heal. It is one of many scenes where Abrams demonstrates that if there ever was an heir apparent to the bearded one, it is the creator of Lost.

Elle Fanning is simply astonishing. She takes command of every scene, line of dialogue and gesture in such a natural way. She brings to mind other actresses who were great at that age, Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, and of course her sister Dakota. Time will tell, but Elle just might be better than all of them.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Action Figure

A dramatic reading from Action Figure as Wes Jackson marches on in his battle against fate in the lurid thriller described as "24 meets Falling Down".

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Golden Age of Amblin Entertainment

With "Super 8" looming, it is time to reflect back on the ghosts of summer movies past. Back when not every single movie that opened was a tired sequel or an unnecessary remake.

Anyone who grew up in the '80s and frequented the local multiplexes of the pre-stadium theater era can recall when the films of Amblin Entertainment were the dominant fare of summer escapism.

Although Amblin Entertainment still exists as a production company, it only functions today like most production companies do today, as a facilitator of material and a deal-maker. There was a brief period of time from 1984 to 1987 when the Amblin logo was a very distinct trademark and meant a very specific type of film.

The wave of Amblin Entertainment productions came in the wake of the massive success of E.T. in 1982. Each movie was an attempt to recapture not only the magic of that classic, but also the sense of adventure of 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark", and the cosmic mystery of 1977’s "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".
It was an elusive quest for the Spielberg touch. But unlike those films above, these Amblin productions were not personally directed by the filmmaker turned mogul, but by his friends and protégés.
Here is a look at some essentials from the golden era of Amblin Entertainment.

Gremlins (1984) directed by Joe Dante

Hot off the 1981 cult werewolf classic "The Howling" and his "It’s a Good Life" segment of the 1983's "The Twilight Zone" movie, Joe Dante brought his irreverent sensibilities to what was originally written as straight, gory horror spec by a young Chris Columbus. Joe Dante went on to make "Explorers" the next year, a criminally underrated gem that might be the best Amblin Entertainment movie not actually made by Amblin.

Back to the Future (1985) directed by Robert Zemeckis

The title says it all. A classic that holds up well and it is still the best time travel screenplay ever written. Followed by the dark, gripping and complex "Back to the Future II", and the lightweight finale, "Back to the Future III".

The Goonies (1985) directed by Richard Donner

I admit, I am in the minority on this one. I was expecting an Indiana Jones type adventure but with kids. Instead it felt like being trapped in a Chucky Cheese for two hours.

I thought maybe I had misread the credits when I first saw this in 1985. Ed Blank of the Pittsburgh Press was one of the few critics at the time who called Spielberg out for attaching his name to such a sloppy mess. The film has a monstrous and devout cult following today, more so than any other Amblin films of that era including "Back to the Future".

Amazing Stories (1985-1987) NBC television

One of the most hyped pop culture television events of the 1980’s, "Amazing Stories" premiered in September 1985 with the 30 minute episode "Ghost Train" directed by the man himself. Critics were absolutely savage. I still recall Rona Barret on Entertainment Tonight angrily railing against the director and accusing him of "showing off" his technical skills with a tracking shot (masterfully executed by the way) and other flashy cinematic flair.

However uneven the story quality might have been, each episode was literally a piece of innovative short filmmaking. The series brought cinematic techniques to the small screen with young talents like Phil Joanua and Lesli Linka Glatter as well as A-list directors such as Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, and Clint Eastwood.

Of special note are the following episodes:

"The Mission", a one hour episode directed by Spielberg in top form and featuring a sensational John Williams score, and a cast that includes Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland.

Robert Zemeckis’s outrageous Halloween horror "Go to the Head of the Class".

Peter Hyam’s scary "The Amazing Falsworth".

Phil Joanou’s two episodes, the slasher "Santa ’85", and the charming Richard Matheson penned love story "The Doll".

Leslie Link Glatter’s deeply moving tear-jerker "Without Diana".

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) Directed by Barry Levinson

If only this movie had been marketed with the same fevered pitch and championed by critics the way "The Goonies" was. Maybe this should have been a summer movie. Amblin never did have much success with December releases.

"Young Sherlock Holmeshas a witty and character driven screenplay by Chris Columbus (I still cannot believe he is one of the perpetrators behind "The Goonies").

The direction by Barry Levinson is sharp and understated. An entertaining, exciting, well-acted, involving film, "Young Sherlock Holmes" was ignored when it opened in December 1985 by everyone except those in the SFX industry who took notice of the ground breaking visual effects, including the first on screen CGI character.

The sensational musical score by Bruce Broughton is in a class with the best of John Williams.

One does not have to look hard to see the obvious influence this forgotten film had on the "Harry Potter" books. And it is easy to see why Chris Columbus was the perfect choice to helm the first two Harry Potter films. In many ways, this was the "Harry Potter" of its day, except no one actually went to see it.

Harry and the Hendersons (1987) directed by William Dear

The "E.T" formula of the magical visitor entering the dull world of suburbia and helping teach us something about ourselves is re-used here. But this time it is a Bigfoot instead of an alien.

Played more for laughs this time around, "Harry and the Hendersons" is a charming, sentimental film, the kind of live action family oriented fare that is not made anymore. Wonderful closing credits sequence (see video below) featuring a terrific song by composer Bruce Broughton "Love Lives Onsung by Joe Cocker. Beautiful on location shooting just outside Seattle.

Innerspace (1987) directed by Joe Dante

Joe Dante returns to the Amblin fold for this entertaining comedy adventure.

Featuring an engaging performances by a young Dennis Quaid, a pre-star Meg Ryan, and Martin Short at his comedic peak. The movie has nifty (and Oscar winning) special effects, and a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith.

A nice blend of comedy, action, and romance, the film should have been a summer smash. But after it tested through the roof, Warner foolishly played cheapskate and backed off on the advertising campaign, and like Amblin’s other summer 1987 film "Harry and the Hendersons", "Innerspace" tanked at the box office.

Batteries Not Included (1987) directed by Matthew Robbins

Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn star in this sentimental re-telling of "E.T." but this time the setting is an urban environment. The miniature UFO’s are a special effects treat, and like "Harry and the Hendersons" and "Young Sherlock Holmes", this is a terrific family film.

The big band influenced score by James Horner has become one of the most sought after out of print CDs in the collector’s market

Maybe it was the December release date. Maybe it was the oversaturation of Amblin product including the mega-hyped ground breaking anthology NBC series "Amazing Stories". Or maybe Amblin had gone to the well once too often with the "E.T." formula and drove it into the ground.

Whatever the reason, by the end of 1987 audiences had grown weary of the Spielberg touch, and "Batteries Not Included" turned out to be the swan song of the golden age of Amblin Entertainment, ending the era on the perfect sentimental touch.