Book Review: ‘Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema’ by John Pierson

I came to know John Pierson through his show from the late 1990s Split Screen. While I had heard about it back then, through message boards and chat rooms (when they were still a thing), I never really had access to it until it was available on FilmStruck’s streaming service through their extra Criterion Channel add-on.

Having watched some of the earlier episodes, some of which featured Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, I got to know Pierson’s story and understand his influence and importance on 80s and 90s indie film. Because of that, I wanted to know more of the details, so when I discovered that he had written this book, I got a copy.

While the book tells these stories from Pierson’s point of view, they aren’t as exciting as one would hope. That’s not a knock against Pierson but he is sort of a bland guy and it comes through. This could also be my mistake for reading this after I just finished a string of Joe Bob Briggs and Hunter S. Thompson books, which put me on a colorful and charismatic high.

The best parts of this book are the sections where Pierson has conversations with Kevin Smith. Had the book featured more of this or just this, as Pierson tells the stories by conversing with those involved, it would have been a much more entertaining read. In fact, those sections feel more like an episode of Split Screen, which unfortunately could only fit in so much with its half hour running time and magazine style format.

Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes is still worthwhile, if you care about the filmmakers involved and how they got their start. It is just very straightforward and dry.

Book Review: ‘Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Film Making’ by Greg Merritt

As of late, I have been reading a ton of books on filmmaking and film history. The main reason is due to this website. I want to go through everything I can find on the subject of film in an effort to review it, so that others know which books are better resources than others.

Celluloid Mavericks isn’t so much about the filmmaking process, as it is about the long history of independent films in the United States. It is a thick book jam packed full of history and insight and it is one of the best works I’ve found on the subject.

Merritt goes through the earliest days of indie film and discusses the monopoly that the big studios had and how that all changed, opening doors for maverick filmmakers who didn’t want to have their art be controlled by a conglomerate of massive studios and government regulation.

The book really gets going when it gets into the late 1950s and the quick pace from that point on never stops. Realistically, this is where real indie films were born, leading into the experimental 1960s and the wide open 1970s. Being that the book was published at the end of the last century, means that it doesn’t get passed the 1990s but it is still a great reflection on indie film, as a whole, in the 20th century.

While the book’s cover may be a bit misleading, as it makes it seem like it covers just the 90s, that is only a small portion and the final chapter of this whole body of work.

Greg Merritt was thorough and his analysis along the way is really helpful and adds context to the films he’s discussing.

Documentary Review: Back In Time (2015)

Release Date: October 21st, 2015
Directed by: Jason Aron
Music by: Allen Calmes, G.C. Johnson

Malka Media Group, Jason Aron Media, Patchwork Media, FilmRise, 95 Minutes

Review:

There is an old adage that says, “If you don’t love Back to the Future, you must be a horrible person.” Okay, so maybe I made that up but that’s pretty much how I feel about it.

Back In Time is a documentary about the film and its huge cultural impact. It came out just in time for Back to the Future‘s 30th anniversary.

While not as amazing as I had hoped, it does interview a lot of the people involved in the production and creation of the film series. It talks to Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, Steven Spielberg, Huey Lewis and actors Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and others.

Unfortunately, Thomas F. Wilson and Crispin Glover weren’t in this documentary. It would have been really cool to hear their insight and how the film has effected them over the years. Glover, especially, due to how he left the film series and ended up suing over the use of his likeness, forever changing how business is done in Hollywood. While his actions left a bad taste in the mouths of many involved, enough time has passed, one would hope, to where he could have talked about the experience.

Back In Time talks a lot about the films themselves but it really showcases the fandom that has grown since the first one came out three decades earlier. It also interviews other notable people in the entertainment industry who were influenced by the Back to the Future franchise.

If you love the film series and have some time to kill, this documentary is worth a watch. There is nothing vital here but it is cool seeing those involved with it, reflect on it. It is also nice to see how it has captivated so many people since its release.

Book Review: ‘Godzilla FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the King of the Monsters’ by Brian Solomon

I have read a lot of books about the Godzilla franchise and kaiju in general over the years. Godzilla FAQ is, by far, one of the best books I have ever picked up on the subject.

If you have read extensively on the Godzilla films, as I have, this is a good refresher on a lot of the information that has been available elsewhere for awhile. But this isn’t just a rehash of older books. Godzilla FAQ digs deeper than most books and it is well organized in chapters specific to different elements within the production and history of the franchise.

It gives good bios on some of the producers and actors, unlike any other publication I have come across. It talks a great deal about those involved in the franchise from the American side of the Pacific Ocean too.

The book also extensively covers each of the 30-plus films, the monsters within those films and just about anything you could think of and then it throws in some stuff you wouldn’t have thought of. The book is exhaustive and awesome.

It also benefits from a lot of photos, which is rare in a book about Toho’s films, as they are notorious for going after those who violate their copyrights. I’m assuming the publisher did the right thing and got Toho’s permission, otherwise, this might not last on shelves very long.

The best thing about this book, is that it just came out and is as current as a printed book can be. It covers the 2014 American remake, the 2016 Shin Godzilla film and even mentions this year’s Kong: Skull Island as well as the other upcoming American films in the works.

I’d say that this is a “must own” for avid kaiju and tokusatsu fans or just fans of Godzilla, the true king of monsters.

Documentary Review: Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s the Fantastic Four (2015)

Release Date: July 10th, 2015 (Comic-Con International: San Diego – premiere)
Directed by: Marty Langford
Music by: Davis Horgan

Uncork’d Entertainment, 85 Minutes

Review:

The Fantastic Four franchise has never really produced anything great from a cinematic standpoint. The mid 00s films were mediocre and the recent 2015 attempt was one of the worst comic book movies ever made. But there was also an attempt that predates all of those films: the 1994 Roger Corman produced Fantastic Four film.

The reason why most people don’t know about this film is because it was never officially released. In fact, the movie was made on a tiny budget and rushed, just so that the studio who owned the rights could still hold onto those rights. It was made cheaply and quickly and those behind it, felt they were horribly duped and that their efforts were wasted.

Since that time, the film has circulated in a bootleg form at comic book conventions and on the Internet. Many people have seen it now but it is still a strange enigma and despite its limitations, is considered to be the most accurate portrayal of the Fantastic Four comics.

This documentary tells the story about the film from the perspective of the filmmakers and actors involved. It is a pretty good film and the interviews are all satisfying and engaging. Everyone involved seemed to really love making the picture even if they had some reservations about certain aspects of it. Ultimately, they were all trying to do their best and saw the picture as a turning point in their careers. Unfortunately, the public never got to see it theatrically and it didn’t become the launching pad that many of the people involved in its development had hoped.

I’ve never seen the film but it has been on my radar for a long time and I’ll probably check it out now, much sooner than later. I actually like some of the people in the cast due to their work in other projects.

If you are one of the rare fans of this film, then the documentary will probably make you happy. It’s nice seeing most of these people still feeling a sense of accomplishment and showing enthusiasm, even if they were conned into a dead project that was never to be released.

TV Review: Split Screen (1997-2001)

Original Run: March 10th, 1997 – April 2nd, 2001
Created by: John Pierson
Directed by: various
Written by: various
Hosted by: John Pierson

Grainy Pictures, IFC, 66 Episodes, 22 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

Now that I have the Criterion Channel, thanks to my FilmStruck subscription, I have access to episodes of IFC’s old show Split Screen. I never got to see it when it was current but I remember people talking about it online a lot back in the late 90s.

Split Screen is a mixed bag. I do enjoy it and I find its 4.6 out of 10 rating on IMDb to be a bit strange and kind of harsh. Truthfully, it is not a fantastic show but at its best, it is really fun and informative.

Hosted by John Pierson, a man who helped launch the careers of Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith and Michael Moore, Split Screen is typically a show that interviews independent film directors about their projects, whether current ones or their past work.

The show also veers off into other directions and this is maybe what hurt it in the eyes of the people who rated it so low. Regardless, everything about the show is focused on some aspect of filmmaking.

The episode about the multiple film festivals in Park City, Utah was great and taught me a lot about what the film festival system is like and how the politics of it work.

Another episode I enjoyed was the one where Pierson interviews Kevin Smith in the actual Quick Stop store from his 1994 debut Clerks.

Like I said, Split Screen is a mixed bag but if you are really into independent film, especially from the 90s – where a lot of new filmmakers rose to prominence, then this is a show worth your time.

Book Review: ‘How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond’ by James Monaco

James Monaco’s How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond is a pretty informative and very exhaustive work. It is quite the book and I really found it captivating, as it delves much deeper in how to see film than anything else I’ve picked up in recent memory.

Film studies, when I took it in high school, was by far my favorite subject and film, in general, is really my favorite thing in the world. Wanting to expand my knowledge on more of an academic level, I’ve been taking different online courses and reading whatever I find that I feel might meet my needs.

How to Read a Film certainly meets my needs and actually goes well beyond what I was looking for. The book is almost too big and too informative. There is a lot to take in and explore and frankly, it is a book I will have to keep handy in the future and revisit often. But those are the best kind of books. Ones that outlive their initial read through and continue to be a part of our lives.

James Monaco has written one of the best books on the subject of how to view a film and how to understand them. The version I read was the Fourth Edition, which is the version in the picture above. I’ll probably keep an eye out for any future editions as they become available.

If you have an interest in the art of filmmaking, which you probably do if you are reading this site, this deserves a place in your library.