Book Reviews By Mike White. Future X (Kent Smith, Holloway House, 1990)
The year is 2073. The United States has been divided with parcels of land given to African Americans...
Future X (Kent Smith, Holloway House, 1990)
The year is 2073. The United States has been divided with parcels of land given to African Americans. These are institutionalized ghettos, surrounded by walls, guarded, and monitored heavily by police (called "Bruisers" for their love of inflicting pain). The story follows two men living in New Watts: Ashford and Zeke. Ashford is a radical actor who presents street plays based on outlawed books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X (his great, great grandfather). Zeke works for The Man by day (for which he gets a pass outside of the city) while running a cell of Black Radicals by night.
It’s only a matter of time until the two men’s paths cross. As it is, the whole book becomes "a matter of time." From the opening scene which sets up a device used by law enforcement to reverse time after a crime has occurred (where the criminal would be arrested for something they intend to do), author Kent Smith introduces a science fiction element which sounds like it might rival the "pre-crime" scenario of Philip K. Dick’s "Minority Report." When Ashford and Zeke team up, they decide to hijack the time travel device and use it for resetting history, going back to 1964 and encouraging Malcolm X to initiate a Black Revolution.
When Ashford finally sees his ancestor, it’s the moment when Malcolm X is stabbed in an airport bathroom. Scared out of his wits, Ashford pulls off the greatest performance of his life, taking over the life of X. Black Power meets the Space Time Continuum in this insightful yarn which draws upon Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Future X also strongly recalls Michael Moorcock’s sci-fi classic, Behold the Man, in which a time traveler assumes the life of Jesus of Nazareth, bowing to a fate which seems predestined.
Holloway was a notoriously cheap publisher. It’s obvious that they didn’t spend much (if anything) on proofreading Smith’s work. It’s dotted with typos, occasional homonym abuse, and misspelling ("looser" rather than "loser"). These are fairly easy to overlook due to the compelling story.
Satanic Screen (Nicholas Schreck, Creation Cinema Collection, 2001)
Why do I have to be this way? Why do I have to be such a nitpicker? Why do I take one small bit and make it representative of the whole? That’s the case when I read Nikolas Schreck’s The Satanic Screen.
Satan’s appearances on the silver screen have long fascinated me. I grew up during Satan’s heyday – the ’70s. He was racing with Warren Oates and Peter Fonda. He was aiding cheerleading squads. He was popping out progeny like mad. And, he was making lots of girls do lots of naughty things.
Schreck expounds on Satan’s many guises since the inception of cinema, starting with his portrayals by George Méliès and concluding with his role in The Ninth Gate. Along the way, Schreck breaks down Satan’s career by decade with special attention paid to his heyday in the ’60s and ’70s. Schreck’s writing is informative and wonderfully scathing when skewering lower grade demonic fare.
So what’s my problem with Schreck’s book? It’s not the omission of Psychomania, one of my favorite pact with the Devil films. No, it’s his coverage of Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man. I can understand reading the vampiric night denizens as a comment on the Manson Family but Schreck errs when he talks about a nuclear war and the protagonist’s crucifixion. Yes, Neville (Charlton Heston) ends up in a "Jesus Christ Pose" but it’s in a fountain, not on a cross.
Why am I being so picky? Mostly because I’m not familiar with 99% of the movies Schreck discusses. Thus, if he screws up the details of the one film I know then how can I be certain the rest of his coverage is flawless? I can only hope he didn’t and believe what I’ve read is as accurate as it is entertaining. I can definitely make exceptions for older films or movies not available on video – there are concessions to be made for memory. But, The Omega Man?
Regardless of my nitpicking, I recommend this read.
Ain’t It Cool? (Harry Knowles, Grand Central Publishing, 2003)
I often hear, "I didn’t know you were a writer!" I quickly correct anyone who thinks this about me. I’m not a writer. I’m more of a typist. I put words down on paper and hope they form sentences.
I’m not a writer, and neither is Harry Jay Knowles of the website AintItCoolNews.com. I’ve never been a big fan of Harry’s website due to his laborious "scene setting" efforts that attain John Grisham levels of annoying details. Says Harry, "Every review I’ve ever posted has probably at least paid lip service to the circumstances in which I saw the film: going there, who you’re with, what it reminds you of, how it reconnects you with the continuum of your life. I just think that’s endlessly relevant." You may, Harry, but I don’t.
Despite this irksome style, I thought I’d give Harry’s book, Ain’t It Cool? a chance out of "car crash curiosity" – it’s one of the few books I’ve ever seen attain a solid F in Entertainment Weekly.
Clocking in at 318 pages, Ain’t It Cool? is an excruciating exercise in self-love. The introduction alone us a harrowing journey into Harry’s tenuous metaphors and inappropriate peppering of movie quotes. In this case it’s an overabundance of Raiders of the Lost Ark lines. A few hundred pages later, Knowles gives other aspiring scribes advice in aping the Knowles style including these sagacious pointers: "If you’re excavating the latest gleaming factoids from a desert of archeology, see yourself as Indiana Jones digging up the Well of the Souls, searching for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Or a three-quarter-ton dolly happens to be down on top of you? Make it the giant boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This isn’t rocket science. It’s free association and anyone can do it with a little practice. But it looks great when all of a sudden you do it in an interview." Obviously, Harry practices what he preaches. It’s just a shame that he preaches such tripe. I’d like to aim a bazooka at this book and blow it up.
Ain’t It Cool? serves as another medium for Harry to use as a pulpit. Yet, it’s also his confessional. It seems that Harry wants to come clean. He shares his twisted family history (TMI!) and his less-than-honest journalistic tactics. Harry describes how, after being carted to a Sundance screening of Gods & Monsters, he "filed equally glowing reviews under seventeen different names, which I think went a long way toward convincing distributors that the film appealed to a broad cross-section of people." Harry doesn’t claim that he was directly responsible but heavily implies that it was his influence that won the film a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. In another section, it’s inferred that Harry’s championing of James Cameron’s Titanic (a film he just won’t shut up about) swept the Academy Awards as well. You can picture Harry’s wet dream of James Cameron saying, "I owe you a debt of gratitude, Mr. Knowles."
There are a few "no duh" nuggets of insight in Harry’s book ("traditional entertainment stories come from press releases," over-testing of films creates lowest common denominator entertainment) but the majority of Ain’t It Cool? makes one’s eyes bleed even when skimming through pages of self-congratulatory chiding of Hollywood and awestruck star-fucking. That it took Harry and not one but two(!) ghost writers to squeeze out this turd truly boggles the mind. If anything, at least co-authors Paul Cullum and Mark Ebner excised some of the excited punctuation from the "Impresario of Exclamation Points."
Harry is a figure of fascination for me. He’s a living caricature; The Simpsons’s Comic Book Guy come to life. On an episode of The Howard Stern Show, Stern grilled film critic Roger Ebert about Harry’s appearance on Ebert’s television show. The question of Harry’s body odor came up and Roger denied Harry emitted any foulness. Curious about Harry’s alleged aroma I consulted a friend who had put up (and put up with) Harry at a film festival.
"Does he stink?" I asked her.
With a roll of her eyes and an exasperated sigh she asked me, "Do you remember that episode of Seinfeld with the smelly car? That was my car after Harry had been in it. No one would even be in the same vehicle with him."
More than Harry’s stench, I’m also interested in his double standards. After a bootleg copy of X-Men Origins: Wolverine made its way around the internet one of Harry’s disciples called for the resignation of a journalist who saw fit to review the rough cut. Harry made his bones this way and now AICN sang a different tune. Maybe, now that Harry and his cadre of zealous fanboys could score glowing quotes on every genre film released (at least for a while), he sought to distance himself from his own practices. Regardless, it smacked of hypocorism. Maybe harry can address that one in the sequel.
Homemade Hollywood: Fans Behind the Camera (Clive Young, Continuum, 2008)
Former Mos Eisley Multiplex maven Clive Young has taken his love of fan films to a whole new level with his book Homemade Hollywood: Fans Behind the Camera. This diligently researched tome goes far beyond a fish in a barrel essay about the latest handful of dull fan films at TheForce.net and dives deep into the history of independent productions based on established works from an unsanctioned Little Rascals/Our Gang shorts (which may have been part of a grift, and perfect fodder for a heartwarming film) to Ernie Fosselius’s Hardware Wars to Kevin Rubio’s Troops to today’s freshest crop of films which may or may not get a thumbs up from the rights holders.
The tales of these films are captivating and Young relates them via perfectly structured chapters. I thought I knew the stories behind some of the more recent films discussed in Homemade Hollywood but Young provides a wealth of new information that put everything in proper context. Great stuff.
Hollywood Hex: An Illustrated History of Cursed Movies (Mikita Brottman, Creation Cinema Collection, 1999)
Hollywood Hex has some moments of interesting film study contained in its morbid pages. The book initially comes off as a dime store version of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, recounting the sordid details of suicides, murders, and bizarre accidental deaths. After it wallows in this mire we get to the heart of the book which examines several allegedly "cursed" productions (The Crow, The Exorcist, Poltergeist) and a few that tie in well with famous murders (Macbeth, The Believers). Apart from the deaths/murders of several key actors from the trilogy, the examination of the initial Poltergeist film as an indictment of lax parenting is terrific. Likewise, Polanski’s Macbeth as a reaction to his wife and child’s murder may have been covered before in other publications but the workmanlike examination of the gory film in Hollywood Hex stands above other similar essays. Unfortunately, there are a few jarring mistakes in the book that may make the reader call the credibility of the rest of the work into question such as the timeline for The Crow that has the film being made a decade prior to its release. Apart from the macabre beginning and end of the book, Hollywood Hex offers some interesting analysis and solid writing.
Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon (Jake Rossen, Chicago Review Press, 2008)
It was folly to think that I was the only person writing about the long, hard road from concept to screen for Superman V as I did in Cashiers du Cinemart #15 with my piece, "Superman: Grounded." The subject had been fodder for blogs and message boards for years prior. I suppose I was hoping to legitimize the subject as well as provide my obsessive-compulsive hand to the mix by hunting down every version of the proposed Superman scripts I could find. I didn’t want to rely on second and third hand accounts of scrapped scripts from such unreliable sources as Ain’t It Cool News.
Synchronicity has provided another take on the sordid history of Superman adaptations, Jake’s Rossen’s Superman Vs. Hollywood. In this tome, Rossen gives equal weight to the multi-million dollar fiasco that brought Superman to the screen in 2007 that left actors, directors, and screenwriters in its wake. He also chronicles Superman’s earlier incarnations across myriad multimedia (radio, serialized shorts, television shows, animation, etc).
Having been immersed in "all things Superman" for a while as I researched "Superman Grounded" as well as "Superman II: The Long Strange Trip," I wasn’t expecting a lot of surprises from Rossen’s book. Luckily, he managed to pull out the aces with chapters on the Superboy television show and other incarnations of Kal-El that I’d never witnessed. I was tickled, too, by the author’s swipes at the "militant geeks" at AICN, even discussing the payola perks that its portly poobah proffers in exchange for positive plugs.
For anyone even remotely interested in the fantastic story of Superman’s use and abuse by the men who have owned his copyright over the years, Rossen’s book is a must-read. And, though he and I tread a lot of the same ground, his book didn’t render what I had to say about the Man of Steel completely moot.
Spooky Encounters: A Gwailo’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror (Daniel O’Brien, Critical Vision, 2003)
Somehow Daniel O’Brien’s book Spooky Encounters came out without me noticing. O’Brien gives the most comprehensive history of Hong Kong horror films during the Golden Age of HK filmmaking (roughly the ’70s through 1997) I’ve had the pleasure of reading since the second issue of Colin Geddes’s groundbreaking zine Asian Eye.
At 180 pages, Spooky Encounters is jam-packed with information, reviews, and comparisons of HK Horror. O’Brien breaks topics down into the history of HK Horror, the Mr. Vampire series, the influential films of Tsui Hark, Category III blends of sex and scares, and the last days of HK Horror films on the eve of the ’97 takeover. O’Brien ties the popularity of films back to their native HK box office gross which provides an interesting insight on how these films were received at the time compared to their legacy (or lack thereof).
O’Brien’s prose makes the book easy to read. Moreover, his writing is clear and concise which helps to make sense of some of the more obtuse film plots and the use of Eastern legends in others. O’Brien doesn’t take the easy road of gushing over the good films and demonizing the poor ones. His tone is even-handed though he doesn’t shy away from taking some laugh out loud potshots when necessary. One of my favorite lines comes from his review of July the 13th/Qi Yue Shi San Zhi Long Po he writes, "While Alan and Laura appear to be back together, the enigmatic ending hints that their happiness will be short-lived. It also suggests that Wellson Chin and Abe Kwon didn’t know how to end their film."
Highly informative and well-crafted, Spooky Encounters is a must-read for genre fans and cineastes interested in an under-appreciated movement of cinema.
"Greetings, Gate!" The Story of Professor Jerry Colonna (Bob Colonna, BearManor Media, 2010)
Before he became an insufferable curmudgeon, Daffy Duck lived up to his name. I used to love when Daffy would bounce off of the walls and cause havoc like he did in Daffy Doodles where he serially defaced posters and billboards with painted-on mustaches. As a youth, the end to this cartoon befuddled me. Daffy is acquitted of his crime by a jury of twelve mustachioed men (the same man, twelve times, really) with bug eyes who all chime, "Ah, yes, not guilty!" That I didn’t know this strange man’s identity made it even more of a surreal moment. Years later, I ran across the record album Music for Screaming with this same man on the cover. That day I learned Jerry Colonna’s name.
For over three decades, Gerardo Luigi Colonna entertained in song, film, radio, and television. Best known as Bob Hope’s sidekick, Colonna spiced up Hope’s USO tours, movies, and popular radio show with his bizarre bits and signature musical style. Colonna, a trombonist by trade, would begin vocal performances with incredibly sustained opening notes (the wind up) before finally jumping into the verse head first.
Bob Colonna may not be the most objective narrator of his father’s life. If anything, Bob glosses over quite a bit and doesn’t brag about his father’s impact as much as he could. Instead, it’s a fascinating, albeit brief, discussion of the life and career of a complicated man and what could have been a simple life as a second banana. The coverage of Hope’s break with Colonna gets short shrift and it often sounds like Bob didn’t see all of his father’s films when researching the book. However, Bob sketches his father as a loving husband and family man with a terrific sense of humor.
Greetings, Gate! may not be the definitive Colonna biography but it’s a good introduction to an often overlooked entertainer. Interesting, isn’t it?
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