Tuesday, June 30, 2020

My bookshelf

Above - Some of my books.

Below - Complete published bibliography to date (06-30-2020)

James J Caterino published bibliography

Jenifer the Sketchbook Girl (2020)
Fantastic Stories: Season 2 (2020)
The Mesomorph (2020)
Femme Fatales: The Art of James J, Caterino (2020)
The Green Girl (2020)
Super Hornet 1942 (2020)
Sketchbook 5: The Art of James J. Caterino (2019)
The Girl from the Stars (2019)
The Pledge (2019)
Starfighter (2019)
Fantastic Stories (2019)
The Dream Factory (2019)
Super 8 Images (2019)
Fireflies (2018)
The Rally (2018)
Sketchbook 3: The Art of James J. Caterino (2018)
Rollercoaster (2018)
Barry's Run (2018)
The Eco-Warrior (2018)
Watch the Skies (2018)
In Thy Image (Sketchbook 2) (2018)
Caitlin Star and the Hand of God (2017)
Technicolor Dreams (2017)
Battle of the Network Superheroes (2017)
Just Imagine: The Sketchbook of James J. Caterino (2017)
Among the Stars (2017)
The Last Neanderthal (2016)
The Selfie (2016)
Caitlin Star: The Trilogy (2016)
The B Girl (2016)
Caitlin Star and the Rise of the Barbarians (2015)
Caitlin Star and the Guardian of Forever (2014)
Caitlin Star (2013)
Sword of the Bull Mongoni (2012)
Rise of the Bull Mongoni (2010)
Action Figure (2008)
Video Noir (2007)
All About Amy (2006)
She (2005)
Gunner Star (2004)
Steel Phantom (2002)

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Hate U Give (2018) film review

Reviewed on 06-27-2020

Directed by George Tillman Jr. with a screenplay by Audrey Wells and based on the book by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is the story of a traffic stop gone fatally wrong. It is essentially—along with an apocalyptic pandemic and the rise of a petulant tyrant to Godlike status—the story of our times.

Reviewing this movie right now (see the above date) is like grabbing a hot potato right out of the burning flame.

So be it.

The movie begins with an inciting incident. A sixteen year-old girl named Starr is in the car with a lifelong male best friend of hers who is driving. They are both black. They are pulled over by a white police officer. Things go bad and Starr watches in horror as her friend dies right before her.

Let’s get right to it.

The Hate U Give should be required viewing in our time right now, in the same way that Do the Right Thing was in 1989, and Boyz n the Hood was in 1991.

No, I’m not saying that The Hate U Give is a breakthrough piece of cinema in the way that those two classics are. Because what Spike Lee and John Singleton did was show us worlds and the things happening in those worlds that nobody outside of Brooklyn NY or South Central LA had even heard about, let alone experienced. Thanks to the prevalent use of cell phone video (and now dash and body cams) going into Hate we already know about the fraught and too often lethal relationship between police and the African American community. But what the movie does do is, through the use of bold, effective, emotionally involving storytelling, take us deep inside that experience so we viscerally feel it all for ourselves.

It is all about the characters, because this is a movie about people and at the center of it all is sixteen year-old Starr, a wonderful, fully realized main protagonist played with effortless brilliance by the outstanding Amandla Stenberg, who you may remember from The Hunger Games in 2012.

Starr lives in a neighborhood not too removed from the South Central LA of John Singleton’s above mentioned classic. But she goes to a nearly all white high-end Prep School. complete with uniforms and all, thanks to her supportive and loving parents determined to give her all the opportunities they were denied. So in a sense, Starr lives in two worlds and she keeps them apart.

Even her white (and serious) boyfriend Chris, played by K. J. Apa of Riverdale, has yet to meet her family, because Starr fears, and rightly so, how her father would react to her having a white boyfriend.

See, this is a movie that is not afraid to show all sides.

There is a ruthless neighborhood gangster who is intimidating Starr into not testifying at a hearing about the shooting because her friend who was shot worked for him. It is in his best interest to leave things the way they are, so he stays off the radar and keeps control of the neighborhood.

There is Starr’s Uncle Carlos, a cop himself, whom, in a nifty piece of monologue given by Common, gives the cop’s perspective of what it is like to pull someone over, and what runs through a cop’s mind during such an encounter.

We get to see one white character bravely stand by Starr’s side when the shit hits the fan, and another abandon her because, tragically, she is a racist without even knowing it, and thus unable to face it and evolve.

This is a movie that really does show us all sides. And although it may not be showing us anything we haven’t already known about and seen play out on live TV before our very eyes, The Hate U Give takes us inside that world and allows us to experience it through vivid, fully realized characters.

And ultimately, no matter how small the sliver may be, it is a movie that offers some hope. Something we all desperately need right now.

Bottom line **** (out of four)

To say that The Hate U Give is urgently relevant would be an understatement. It is also a strong, emotionally involving story, with shrewd direction and great performances.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Road House (1989) film review

Reviewed on 06-25-2020

Road House, written by David Lee Henry and Hillary Henkin from a story by Henry, produced by Joel Silver, and directed by Rowdy Herrington, is an exploitation film.

I mean that as a compliment. I love exploitation films.

I have more Jess Franco DVDs stacked in my bookcase than anyone should admit to. I’ve probably seen more Eurotrash and Italian Giallo movies than anyone who’s not an editor for Video Watchdog. One of my prized possessions is a boxed DVD collection titled Drive-In Cult Classics, because within that collection is perhaps the most erotic movie ever made, Cindy and Donna (1970). Heck, I even have an exploitation movie listed in my all-time top 20 films called The Girl with the Gold Boots (1968). No really. You should see it sometime.

In the genres of horror and sex/eroticism, exploitation flicks can thrive because, with the right amount of artistic flair, it is easy to deliver scares, cheap thrills, and titillation on a low budget. Big names or even competent actors are not required because they are not expected. People are there for the sex and the horror. The cheap thrill.

But when it comes to action movies, it’s a whole different game.

Outside of Hong Cinema (where there are hundreds of awesome action exploitation flicks), action exploitation, or even the more prestigious term, action B-movies, are mostly wretched. Because action requires complicated staging, often using multiple vehicles and multiple stunt people, and a practical effects team, and even a big second unit operation. And all of this requires money, a lot of it, and expertise. And expertise costs even more money.

Plus, action movies do mandate a star. Or at least someone with the rock star charisma of a movie star.

But let’s say you could come with this cool high-concept idea—a legendary bar bouncer with a philosophy degree comes to town to take on the bad guys. Then you turn it into a really neat hybrid action/western exploitation B-movie script that pushes all the right buttons. Then, let’s say you could hook up with a big time studio connected Hollywood producer movie mogul known for making slick, glossy, and R-rated, super cool, high-concept action movies featuring A-list bigtime actors operating at the peak of their prime.

Enter Road House.

Master of the late 80’s/early 90s action movies, producer Joel Silver and his very capable and talented director, the aptly named Rowdy Herrington, have made a slick, wildly entertaining B-movie exploitation minor masterpiece.

And they got their star in a big way.

Patrick Swayze was at the peak of his post Dirty Dancing (1987) rock stardom and he just oozes charismatic bad-ass-ness in this movie. Ghost (1990) may be his best performance, but this film and Point Break (1991) are the best “Patrick Swayze movies”.

This movies has it all. A fearsome bad guy, kick ass and expertly choreographed fight sequences, over the top violence, humor, gratuitous nudity, a really hot sex scene between the two leads, and some great politically UN-correct dialogue.

I mean any movie where a bad guy says to the hero during a brutal fight to the death confrontation, “I used to fuck guys like you in prison”, gets my vote every time.

What’s really wonderful is all of this over this top titillation and mayhem looks amazing because Road House was shot by one of the best cinematographers of all time, Dean Cundey. Plus, Patrick Swayze and his gorgeous co-star, the statuesque Kelly Lynch, are very pleasing on the eye. As is Patrick’s buddy, the always welcome Sam Elliot.

And the movie sounds good too, courtesy of composer Michael Kamen (a Joel Silver regular), and The Jeff Healy Band, who plays the live music in the bar.

Bottom line ***1/2

Producer Joel Silver and star Patrick Swayze are at the top of their game in this guilty pleasure classic.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The sins of the past strike back in Poltergeist

Poltergeist (1982) film review

Reviewed on 06-23-2020

It does not matter how nice your neighborhood is, how perfect your family, how blissful your marriage, how precious your kids, and how beautifully designed your dream house in the suburbs is. None of that matters, because no matter how deep you try to bury the darkness, you cannot escape the sins of the past.

The above is what Poltergeist is really about.

Flashback to Friday June 4th 1982, the day Poltergeist opened up theaters across North America.

Though the great bull market of the 80s would not get underway until December, the sharking your way to the top, greed is good, it’s all about keeping score, corporate culture of the everyone wants to be rich feel good materialism of the 1980s, was well underway. So much so, that it is spot on appropriate that near the start of Poltergeist that the Freeling patriarch Steven is seen reading a biography on Ronald Reagan—while smoking a joint with his wife Diane.

Steven and Diane would have come of age during the 60’s. Deep down they are still free spirited hippies. They may still partake in the occasional joint, but they long ago sold out their identities and values to get ahead and stake their claim in Reagan’s America. And at first look, it seems they have succeeded on a massive scale. To me, and so many others who gazed upon this perfect family, the inviting house and the picturesque neighborhood, this was a house we all would have loved to have grown up in. The kind of house every kid in the neighborhood would be drawn toward and want to hang out in.

Yet beneath it all, something lurks. Something from beyond, lurking, planning, waiting for a chance to “punch a whole into this world”, and take with it the most precious gift the Freelings have. Not the house or their possessions, but their angelic youngest child Carol Anne.  

I give you all this background and subtext not because I like to wax on and theorize and sound like I’m writing for Film Comment or some stuffy journal. I bring these things up because they are important. The background and subtext is what gives Poltergeist depth and meaning, beyond just being an expertly produced, shrewdly directed, and beautifully acted scary light show.This subtext matters because it is why Poltergeist still matters.

You can’t just build your house on top of a graveyard and pretend the bodies are not there. This is a lesson being taught to us in 2020 in ways as horrific as any horror film.

You can’t just build an empire on genocide and slavery and pretend it never happened. You can’t just trash the Earth and slaughter wildlife for your own amusement and for “exotic meat markets”. Keep doing it. Keep being arrogant about it and you’ll get deadly viruses and social unrest.

You want to build your house on a graveyard you arrogant greedy bastard? Good luck with that pal.

What about the film itself? Well, you don’t need me to tell you it’s a fucking masterpiece. And as far as the, who really directed it thing? I look at this the same way I view Superman II.

Was that Tobe Hopper or Spielberg who directed that scene? Was that Dick Donner or Richard Lester who staged that Niagara Falls sequence?

I really don’t give a rat’s ass. All I know is that both movies are brilliantly directed and since Tobe Hooper is the director of record on Poltergeist, he gets the directing credit, regardless of Spielberg’s obvious influence. Remember, Spielberg wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay, in addition to handling most of the post production including the spotting of Jerry Goldsmith’s insanely brilliant score. Strong producers have been influencing movies and putting their auteur stamp on films since the beginning of Hollywood—David O’Selznick, Val Lewton, Joel Silver, etc.

Upon re-watching the film recently, there are some things that really struck me.

The performances are all so spot on and so natural. These feel like real people and this feels like a real family we all could have grown up next door to. Anyone long enough in the tooth to have seen Poltergeist in the theaters in 1982 will remember being knocked out by Zelda Rubinstein as the spiritual medium Tangina brought in to “clean” the house. She is sensational and just takes over the film during much of the final act.

But the true standout performance is by the heart and soul of the movie, JoBeth Williams as Freeling matriarch Diane.

Spielberg films and productions always seem to nail the casting of the suburban mom, but none have been required to do as much as JoBeth is asked here. With rare exceptions, acting nominations (or any non-technical nominations for that matter) are never bestowed upon horror movies, especially in 1982, but in an ideal world where horror is not shunned, her performance is good enough to be in the running for an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination. Really, she is that good.

So are the special effects.

I have yet to see Poltergeist again on the big screen during one of those throwback night things, and now probably never will, since we may never, ever, ever have movies in theaters again. But man oh man, I’d love to see Richard Edlund, Bruce Nicholson and company’s visual treats back up on the big screen. Because even on my 21 inch monitor, they look amazing. I would take the optical/practical visual effects of Poltergeist (or Close Encounters or Blade Runner) over today’s super dull repetitive CGI stuff any bleeping day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

Another thing that struck me during my revisit of Poltergeist is how the film can be so legitimately spooky and scary, and yet so hauntingly beautiful. The “Parade of Ghosts” scene where we see the other-worldly spirits drifting down the staircase is, like so much of film, is infused with such a great sense of wonder.

Speaking of beautiful, haunting, spooky, and filled with wonder, as well as being downright jolting—there is the music of Poltergeist.  I won’t spend time on Jerry Goldsmith’s masterpiece of a score here because I review it elsewhere in this book. But suffice to say it is a classic, one of Jerry’s best and flat out one the best soundtracks of all time. Period. Full stop.

Bottom line **** (out of four)

A timeless classic with strong performances, brilliant special effects, and a rich thematic subtext that make the film as relevant today as it was in 1982.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Cinematic ‘Stargirl’ soars across the small screen

Reviewed on 06-20-2020

 Produced by team Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Batwoman, etc,) and airing on the CW, Stargirl was created by acclaimed comic scribe Geoff Johns based on the DC book Courtney Whitmore that he co-created with Lee Moder.

 I won’t play any games here. I’ll get right to it.

Stargirl is the best superhero TV series ever—by a mile. Due in a large part because it does not feel like television at all.

It is to comic book superheroes what The Mandalorian is to Star Wars. As soon as the pilot episode began to unfold across my monitor I said to myself, “Fuck yeah!”

The cinematography, the beautifully orchestrated push-ins and expertly composed master shots. And that lush, full-bodied score by Pinar Toprak. She is the composer of Captain Marvel, one of the best soundtracks in the entire MCU series.

It is all so cinematic. The other CW shows, even when they are good, feel like TV shows. Stargirl feels like a movie. I felt as if I were seated in a darkened theater watching a summer blockbuster. This may be a DC property, but it feels so much like a Marvel movie, in all the good ways. It also has a vibe similar to last year’s wonderful Shazam from DC

Then there is the cast.

It is a wonderful cast, anchored by veterans Luke Wilson and Amy Smart, and featuring Trae Romano as the wisecracking little brother. 

Too often in the other CW shows, the villains are forced, cheesy, and uninteresting. The villains here are formidable. They feel real. They are intimidating and scary and we are nervous when Stargirl has to confront them.

Of course, for any of this to work you have to have the right lead. In this regard, the producers have hit a home run.

Brec Bassinger stars in the title role. She is a firecracker of a find who is born to play Stargirl in the same way Melissa Benoist was created to play Supergirl. The fit is so natural. So perfect in every way.

That is all I’ll say for now because I am only three episodes in and have two more to go to get caught up, and cannot wait to see more.

Bottom line: **** (out of four)

Stargirl is the real deal. A superhero show you can brag about watching. You can even recommend it to your friends who normally wouldn’t be caught dead watching a superhero show.

Cool World (1992) film review

Reviewed 06-19-2020

I went to see Cool World on opening night on July 10th 1992 and was jacked to see the movie for several reasons.

I was already a Brad Pitt fan by then, having seen him in a little known (and apparently never seen by anyone but me) 1991 film called Across the Tracks about two high school cross country runners who are brothers. It co-stars Ricky Shroder and Carrie Snodgress and is a wonderful, earnest, after-school-special type movie. I knew right away that Brad had it, and then after seeing him again that year in his brief appearance in Thelma and Louise, I declared to anyone who would listen that this Brad Pitt dude was the man and was going to be a major star. My predictions were validated in 1992 with Cool World (despite the film flopping) and with his electrifying turn in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It.

I was also psyched to see the fine actor Gabriel Byrne who had wowed me in the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing in 1990. And I dug Kim Basinger as well.

I enjoyed director Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings (1978) and his American Pop (1981).

Also, I was drawn to the premise and story—because I had written one just like it in 1986 called Comic Book Girl.

No, I’m not saying screenwriters Michael Grais and Mark Victor somehow got a hold of my story from my college writing Professor at Pitt or the editor of the long defunct Fantasy Illustrated magazine. I certainly was not the first person to write about a comic book creator being sucked into the world he created by an alluring femme fatale. The point is, I obviously love the concept and premise and was really looking forward to see what Bakshi, Grais, and Victor had done with it, especially given the three super talented actors they had to work with.

So, yeah, I was jacked. My expectations were high. And man oh man, those expectations were not met. Not met at all. I left the theater that night disappointed, frustrated, and annoyed. Because all the ingredients for greatness were there. All they had to do was not fuck it up.

The fault here lies with the studio. As Newman said in Jurassic Park, “Don’t get all cheap on me now.”

The studio went all cheap. They cut corners. They went at it half-ass. And when you are making a movie that completely relies on the believability of real life actors interacting with animated characters in an animated world, the last thing you want to do is go cheap and half-ass.

I mean, were the producers and the studio aware that four years earlier there was this little movie called Who Framed Roger Rabbit? A new bar had been set. Audience expectations were built in. No, you don’t have to outdo the dazzling Roger Rabbit. But you have to make it at least good enough. Good enough for suspension of disbelief.

So I gave the movie a thumbs down in my review at the time. Giving it two stars out of four. The two stars for Brad Pitt, Gabriel Byrne, and Kin Basinger. Brad Pitt is awesome. Gabriel Byrne is solid. And Kim Basinger sexy. Really sexy actually, as is her counterpart Holly, the one piece of animation in the movie that actually looks good. Most of the time. Plus, I still like the story. Just not the execution of it.

Flash forward to the present. June 2020.

I revisited Cool World for the first time since 1992. But this time the expectations are set low and the screen is my 21 inch desktop computer, not the giant curved thing at the AMC Coral Ridge 10 where I sat in the third row back in 1992.

Given all the above, this time, I actually enjoyed Cool World.

 I was able to get past all the technical shortcomings and enjoy the parts of the animation that does work—the sexy Holly/Basinger stuff, and the colorful art direction.

And I was able to relish in the performances. Brad Pitts’ steely film noir character. Gabriel Byrne getting out of prison and going into a comic book shop. The fan girl neighbor of his. And Kim Basinger’s over the top femme fatale sultriness.

And I really do like the story. I always have. Since way back in 1986.

Bottom line: **1/2 (out of four)

It certainly ain’t no Rogger Rabbit, but if you get past the technical shortcomings, Cool World does indeed have some cool stuff to enjoy, especially the performances of the three leads. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Harry and the Hendersons (1987) film review

Reviewed on 06-18-2020

Opening on June 5th, 1987 after a mysterious E.T. style marketing campaign, it was one of the final big three swan song to the Golden Age of Amblin Entertainment; along with Innerspace and Batteries Not Included. Amblin would go on to produce all sorts of other films and television projects, but aside from the SciFi Channel (as it was called then) miniseries Taken (2002), none would have the specific Spielbergian feel of those films (and the series Amazing Stories) from 1982-1987.

Like most the Amblin films from that sacred era, regardless of how it performed at the time, Harry and the Hendersons left a mark on those who saw it and has fans to this day. But even back then, the big guy had his supporters.

No less than the esteemed Harlan Ellison wrote at the time in his column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (as collected in the must own book Harlan Ellison’s Watching) that Harry “is a delight. It’s manipulative as a Rocky flick, but the manipulation is in service of making us feel good, and hey, I’ll invest in that any day.”

I whole-heartedly agree and I remember experiencing that first hand in 1987.
I vividly remember seeing Harry and the Hendersons on opening night at the AMC at Adventura Mall in Miami for an eight PM Friday night show.

The near capacity crowd in the theater responded to the movie with visceral exhilaration—as did I—laughing and cheering in unison, and crying when—well that’s all you get. No matter how old the movie, I try to avoid spoilers in these reviews, at least blatant in-your-face spoilers, since many reading this were not even alive in 1987 and never saw the film. But suffice to say, the audience was all in and as the lights came up, the credits rolled, and the exuberant, emotionally affected crowd departed the theater, I was certain Harry was going to be a sure-fire monster hit. Sigh. For reasons to murky to discuss here, that was not to be.

The story and setting are pure Spielberg.

John Lithgow plays George Henderson, the ineffectual father of a dysfunctional nuclear family. George longs to be an artist but settles for working at the family business, a gun shop catering to hunters. He suffers daily at the hands of his bullying father who belittles George and mocks his artistic dreams.

Enter the outside supernatural force, this time in the form of a sweet, giant Bigfoot creature named Harry. Through his interactions with Harry and the close friendship they develop, George learns to stand up to the bullies in his life, protect those he loves, pursue his artistic dreams, and win the respect of his family.

Harry and the Hendersons may not be E.T. and writer/director William Dear is no Spielberg, but he has a keen instinct for physical comedy as well as sentiment. And thanks to a terrific performance by John Lithgow and great work by Kevin Peter Hall inside Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning make-up/creature effects suit—the film works beautifully as a sentimental suburban fable with a lot of heart.

Harry also has something important to say. About animals and wildlife and the environment, and about the tragic act of killing for sport. These were bold messages in 1987. There were not many animal sanctuaries, protected forests, or wildlife protection organizations around in 1987. This message is not ham-handed or forced or pandering, say in the way the DEO stopped using guns that one time on Supergirl. It is a subtext that is naturally woven into the script because it organically springs from the characters. Because this is a story about a creature from the wilderness, and how he changes the perspective of the family whom he befriends.

The performances in this movie are spot on, particularly Melinda Dillon as the quintessential Spielberg suburban mom, and of course, the great John Lithgow who, along with Harry, is the heart and soul of the film.

Don Ameche plays anthroplogist and lifelong Bigfoot seeker Dr. Wallace Wrightwood who has given up hope and stopped believing. Laine Kazan is hilarious as a Mrs. Kravitz type neighbor. The great character actor M. Emmet Walsh plays George’s bullying father. You could argue that David Suchet over does it as the villainous Jacques LaFleur. But he had to. This is a comedy and if he played it too straight it may have come across as to grim and sinister.

In addition the aforementioned Oscar winning makeup work by master Rick Baker, the technical aspects of the movie are impeccable.

Harry and the Hendersons features gorgeous on location filming in the Seattle area and is beautifully shot by E.T. cinematographer Allen Daviau and has an outstanding score by the super talented composer Bruce Broughton.

There is also a wonderful, bittersweet end title song performed by Joe Cocker, “Love Live On”. It is a heartfelt track that really captures the essence of the film’s sentiment. The song features the music of Bruce Broughton’s main theme and was written by Bruce Broughton and Barry Mann, with moving lyrics by Cynthia Weil and Will Jennings.

The song is heard over the super cool closing credits featuring George drawing scenes from the movie via rotoscoping animation, the technique made famous by the Steve Barron directed A-ha music video “Take Me On”. 

In my initial review back in 1987 I gave Harry three out of four stars, essentially knocking off a star for no good reason other than it was not E.T. Just as I punished Batteries Not Included for not being Close Encounters. Well, as I did with the Batteries re-evaluation, it is time to correct that silly oversight.

Bottom line: **** (out of four)

A funny, endearing, heartfelt film with an awesome main character and wonderful work from John Lithgow.

“Love Lives On”
Lyrics by Cynthia Weil and Will Jennings

You touched my life
And turned my heart around
Seems when I found you
It was me I really found

You opened my eyes
And now my soul can see
Our moment may be over
But you're still here with me

'Cause love lives on
Beyond goodbye
The truth of us
Will never die
Our spirits will shine
Long after we're gone
And so our love lives on

There was so much
I didn't understand
And then you brought me here
Far from where
It all began

The change you made
In my life will never end
I look across the distance
I'll know I have a friend

'Cause love lives on
Beyond goodbye
The truth of us
Will never die
Our spirits will shine
Long after we're gone
And so our love lives on

I was travellin' in the dark
Never sure of what to do
I didn't know that I was lost
I found myself in you

Play something..
{instrumental break}

Love lives on
Beyond goodbye
The truth of us
Will never die
Our spirit will shine
Long after we're gone
And so our love lives on
And on
And so our love lives on

Book review: Driving in LA by Brenda Bakke

Reviewed on 06-18-2020

Driving in LA is an autobiographical novella, a memoir presented as fiction to “protect some person’s identities”. It is written by Brenda Bakke, an actress. So let’s start there, with the actress, before we get to the writer and the work at hand.

What brought me to Driving in LA, was Brenda the actress, because I was searching on Amazon for movies with her in them, and this book popped up. Being a long-time fan, I snapped it up in a heartbeat.

Side note: My Amazon search did bear fruit. Not just in the find of this book, but in the discovery of a 1994 science fiction space film called Star Quest (a.k.a. Terminal Voyage) from shlockmeister Concorde Pictures. The movie also stars Steven Bauer (Scarface, Ray Donavan) and Emma Sams (General Hospital). It is a delightful guilty pleasure. I watched it streaming and dug it so much I bought the bargain-priced DVD.

At this point, and probably from the outset of this review, most of you are asking, “Just who the hell is Brenda Bakke anyway?” Well, let’s just say she might be the flat-out sexiest actress to slink across screens in many a decade. Maybe since Pam Grier. Maybe since Veronica Lake.

Don’t believe me? Watch Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993). Then watch a few episodes of the 1995 TV show American Gothic, created by Shaun Cassidy, produced by Sam Raimi, starring Gary Cole, Lucas Black, Sarah Paulson, and Brenda Bakke as the sultriest school teacher you will ever see.

She is a classic, seductive femme fatale from 1940’s film noir packaged into the fit and toned athletic body of a modern woman.

Don’t believe me? Then ask acclaimed director Curtis Hanson, because he actually did cast her as the Veronica Lake in LA Confidential (1997).

Side note number two: I named a character after Brenda Bakke in my screenplay Among the Stars and the short story spawned from it, Starfighter.

Okay, now that you know who Brenda Bakke is and why I bought this book. Now, on to Driving in LA.

Driving in LA is about a hundred pages. I’m guessing about thirty thousand words. And after I unpacked the book and cracked the cover open, I devoured all of it—in one sitting.

Yeah. I could not stop reading.

Driving in LA tells the story of young girl (say eighteen-ish) from a small town in Oregon who heads to LA to be an actress and steps headfirst into a cocaine and alcohol fueled, spinning odyssey of hucksters, conmen, rapists, pimps, and other assorted bizarre and sinister characters.

It is as fascinating as it is horrific, and as strangely hopeful as it is nihilistic.

It is a harrowing account written in the first person. The book has drawn comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (made into a 1987 film starring Robert Downey Jr., James Spader, and Jami Gertz). It is a good comparison because this book explores the seedy side of LA in the early 80s from a different angle—that of a poor, broke, small town naïve girl instead of the rich, bored, privileged spawn of Less Than Zero.

Bottom line: Driving in LA is a quick, addictive, intense, fascinating, depressing, and exhilarating read that takes us right into the seamy, dark side of LA in the early 80’s.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Wesley Snipes, the original Black Panther

Written on 06-17-2020

He was a megastar, a top box office draw with acting chops to match his searing charisma and chiseled physique.

 He shared the screen in co-starring roles with the likes of Woody Harrelson, Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, and Sean Connery and worked with top A-list directors such as Phillip Kaufman, Spike Lee, Ron Shelton, Tony Scott, and Guillermo del Toro.

Two decades before The Black Panther (2018), he starred in his own movie franchise based on a Marvel comic book, Blade (1998). And years before that in the early 90s, he was all set to bring The Black Panther to the silver screen until the powers to be pussed out.

Then, after fifteen years of delivering the goods time and time again, both commercially and critically, in the early 2000s, right after Blade III (a letdown, mainly because he was not in it enough), Wesley Snipes just vanished.

Oh, don’t even bring that IRS thing up as for the reason for his demise. Far lesser accomplished stars had far worse scandals without enduring hardly a blip in their careers. And for fuck’s sake, the most powerful Homo sapien on the planet is fighting to the death to make sure nobody ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER sees his crooked, non-charity giving, littered with Russian mob money, tainted tax returns. So no. I ain’t buying the IRS thing.

And here is the thing that really irks me. It’s like people forget he ever existed. Like the Taylor Swift song.

Remember when Black Panther hit a few years ago to well-deserved praise, for both the awesomeness of the movie and what it meant for African Americans in cinema and the black community? That was all wonderful, except for the fact everyone kept saying over and over again “the first time a superhero or comic book movie has had a black lead”.

Wait? What about Wesley? What about Blade? Three movies and they all made a lot of money and the first two were huge critical successes as well. What about the Blade TV series in the mid-2000s starring Sticky Fingaz or the 1998 film adaption of Spawn starring Michael Jai White?

They should all get their due, but the case with Wesley is the one that matters the most because his Hall of Fame resume speaks for itself. But it’s like he’s been erased. Kind of like what baseball has tried to do to Barry Bonds.

“Well, he never really hit all those home runs.”

“Well, he was never really in all those movies.”

Ironic because one of “those movies” is a Tony Scott film called The Fan (1996) where Wesley portrays a baseball player modeled after Barry Bonds who is stalked by psycho fan Robert De Niro.

Anyway…I’m holding out hope that maybe now, in this new woke era, Wesley Snipes gets rediscovered and is given his chance to be once again what he once was. A badass Hollywood leading actor. In the meantime, for those of you too young to have grooved to Color Me Bad or those who spent the 90s in a coma, here are some absolute must see films starring Wesley Snipes.

Major League (1989)

Mo' Better Blues (1990)

New Jack City (1991)

Jungle Fever (1991)

White Men Can't Jump (1992)

Passenger 57 (1992)

Rising Sun (1993)

Demolition Man (1993)

Sugar Hill (1994)

Drop Zone (1994)

The Fan (1996)

Murder at 1600 (1997)

U.S. Marshals (1998)

Blade (1998)

The Art of War (2000)

Blade 2 (2002)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

*Batteries Not Included (1987) film review

Reviewed on 06-16-2020

In this book you get the *The Batteries Not Included triple crown. Reviews of the film, the novelization, and the soundtrack.

Can you tell I have a fondness for this late 80s heartfelt gem from Amblin Entertainment, director Matthew Robbins, and his team of screenwriters, Brad Bird, Bent Maddock & S.S. Wilson, and story originator Mick Garris?

 Batteries tells the story of group of tenants in a rundown vintage apartment building, each of them down on their luck, each of them hitting rock bottom. Each of them with nowhere else to go. And if life hadn’t beaten them down enough, they now have to contend with a real estate kingpin named Lacey, who has hired local thugs to try and muscle them out of the only home they know (think Donald Trump 1987, before he became a dime store Mussolini and when just a scumbag NYC conman).

The cast is anchored by Hollywood veterans and real life husband and wife Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy who play Frank and Ray Riley, long-time residents and owners of the first floor diner. The diner is being crushed because Lacey has leveled the rest of the neighborhood to make way for his vanity project. Faye is suffering from dementia. Both are hurting from a tragedy in the past. Things could not be bleaker.

Cronyn and Tandy are sensational as are the rest of the actors who play the lost souls of the seemingly doomed building, including gentle giant Frank McRae as a punch drunk ex-boxer, Elizabeth Peña as a young pregnant girl abandoned by her rock star boyfriend, and Dennis Boutsikaris as a painter looking for inspiration.

And inspiration does come in the form of miniature UFOs that float into Faye’s open window one night and change the lives of this group of kind-hearted people forever. Watching them pull together and rally around the new visitors as Lacey closes in, makes for an entertaining, emotionally potent movie experience.

The pre-digital visual effects by ILM are an absolute delight. As is the wonderful score by James Horner (reviewed elsewhere here). The seamless effects, Horner’s sentimental strains, combined with the strong performances and Matthew Robbin’s pitch perfect direction, make for a potent emotional cocktail. Batteries is a movie the kind of sneaks up on you. It makes you feel—in a good way.

 Bottom line: **** (out of four)

It may not be Close Encounters or ET, but *Batteries Not Included is a sweet, unsung gem in the Amblin catalogue. It will make you feel good. I promise.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Witchboard (1987) film review

Reviewed 06-13-2020

 Just a house cleaning/technical thing to clear up first. You will see this movie listed elsewhere as a 1986 film. Umm, no. Yeah, it was released on fifteen screens at the last second on December 31st 1986, then promptly disappeared until its wide release on March 13th 1987. Why this happened? I have no idea. I guess they wanted it to qualify for the Oscars? Maybe hoping the Academy had added a low budget/lurid horror film category? I know. That is exactly why this is 1987 film. Full stop.


I saw Witchboard in a theater because back in those youthful days of 1987 I went to the movies two to three times a week and saw just about everything released. Even pre-Covid Apocalypse, (you know, that democratic hoax thing that was just going to go away like a “miracle” back in early March), getting my ass into the seat of the local stadium theater even once a week was a herculean task. But back in 1987…

I wanted to see Witchboard for three reasons back then. I liked horror. I wanted to lust after Tawny Kitaen, whom I was familiar with as Tom Hank’s fiancée in Bachelor Party (1984).

And I also wanted to see Stephen Nichols, one of the male leads. At the time he played a cool character named “Patch” on the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives (hey, it’s a guilty pleasure. Don’t bust my balls). Given his command of the daytime small screen, I was curious to see if his charisma translated up onto the big screen.

And in a word, yes. It does. Stephen Nichols is quite good here, as are the other two leads. The aforementioned Tawny Kitaen, and Michael Madson look alike, Todd Allen. There is also a hilarious supporting cameo by character actress Kathleen Wilhoite.

So for a low budget horror flick the acting is quite solid. As is the direction by first timer writer/director Kevin Tenney. There are several sequences that are very creatively staged and shot, almost in a Sam Raimi kind of way. To top it all off, there is a wonderful John Carpenter-esque 80s style synth score by Dennis Michael Tenney.

Look. I judge low budget horror the way I judge low budget comedy. In the case of comedy, is it funny? With horror, is it scary? And yes, Witchboard is scary. It scared me in the theater in 1987 and creeped me out again when I re-watched it the other night on Amazon prime for this review. As the recent Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) proved, there is just something so spooky and sinister about those damn Ouija boards.

Bottom line: *** (out of four)

Effective low budget supernatural horror film from 1987 that is worth another look for fans of horror and 80s cinema.