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.

Documentary Review: Atari: Game Over (2014)

Release Date: November 20th, 2014
Directed by: Zak Penn
Music by: Stephen Endelman

Fuel Entertainment USA, GRAiNEY Pictures, Lightbox, 66 Minutes

Review:

Atari: Game Over is an engaging enough documentary for those who loved playing the various Atari systems before Nintendo came along in the mid-80s.

This documentary follows two narrative paths that weave together.

Initially, it talks about the history of Atari and how it rose to power and then pretty much disappeared. Secondly, it discusses the E.T. game, which many consider to be the worst game ever made. It isn’t the worst game ever made but it seemed to become the scapegoat for Atari’s misfortune. Also, a massive stock of E.T. game cartridges were dumped in a desert landfill and have since become some sort of legendary pop culture treasure, waiting to be unearthed.

Zak Penn takes us on a journey through the history of Atari, while being present for the massive excavation of the landfill, in an effort to see if the game cartridges are actually there. I don’t want to spoil the ending.

Unfortunately, this is a rather short documentary and to be honest, I’d be more interested in a film that tells the Atari story in much more detail than being constantly sidetracked back over to the landfill. While the discovery of the buried E.T. cartridges is sort of the point of this film, it just isn’t as interesting as the Atari story, overall.

Also, the film paints a picture that the video game industry completely crashed and that Atari disappeared and it leaves it like there was some big massive void in the universe. The reality is that Nintendo came along, as did Sega and many other companies. Market share shifted and Atari was no longer a monopoly. Their systems couldn’t compete with Nintendo and Sega and they dwindled away. Consumers ate up Nintendo and were much happier with it. That’s the reality. Also, Atari didn’t just go away, they still made games and had to alter their business model. Atari still exists today.

Atari: Game Over was sloppy and left you grasping for straws. It was enjoyable for its good bits but I felt that it was sort of dishonest and more focused on legends than truth.

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.

Film Review: Detroit (2017)

Release Date: July 25th, 2017 (Fox Theatre premiere)
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Music by: James Newton Howard
Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Samira Miley, Chris Chalk, Chris Coy

Annapurna Pictures, First Light Productions, Page 1, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 143 Minutes

Review:

“I’m just gonna assume you’re all criminals.” – Krauss

John Boyega has been getting a lot of work lately, which is great, as I have been a fan since Attack the Block. Will Poulter, who I really only know as the virgin teen from We’re the Millers just made his entire career off of the back of his performance here.

Detroit has been released fifty years after the 1967 Detroit riots that it showcases. I’m not sure if that was intentional or just a convenient coincidence. Either way, the film shines a light on an incident that needed to be told and unfortunately, still has relevance today.

The movie uses its first hour to focus on the riots and the social and political climate around them. Although, if you are still alive and well in America today, it isn’t hard to understand. In fact, it makes you wonder how far we’ve actually come in half a century but the reality of the answer to that question is just depressing.

After the first hour of setup and character development, the film really picks up and gets to the story that was the main focus of the film’s trailers. Racist, psychotic police officers storm a hotel and discover two white girls in a building full of young black men and are offended by this. During the process, the main psycho cop (Poulter) shoots and murders a black man as he was running away through the building. The rest of the people in this part of the hotel are rounded up and put against a wall, as the cops threaten them, beat them and even kill some.

Following the hour or so with the cops in the hotel, the movie shifts to their trial and the aftermath of the situation for those who survived it.

Kathryn Bigelow, who is one of the best directors working today, proves, once again, that she can tell an exceptional and emotional tale that is relevant to what is happening in our world today. She also doesn’t box herself in with a traditional plot structure, as this film has three very different acts yet they all work in unison and weave a tale bigger than just the central incident of this film.

Getting back to Will Poulter, his performance as the racist piece of shit cop Krauss, was one of the best on screen villains in a long time. The kid has acting chops that go far beyond anything I could have expected, only having seen him in We’re the Millers. He has a unique look that can play virginal and innocent or intense and psychotic. He has the gravitas to pull off just about anything and I can’t wait to see where his career goes, as this should certainly open up a lot of doors. Based off of his look alone and his sly and sinister smile, I’d rather see him as the Joker than Jared Leto… just throwing that out there.

Detroit is not a perfect film or the best film that I have seen this year. However, it does what it sets out to do and it does it in a tasteful way that is hard for naysayers to argue against. While a lot of people want to turn a blind eye to how cops and the system have historically treated black people in this country, you can’t turn away and be disaffected by this picture. I hope it, at the very least, this opens some eyes.

I also hate the fact that it is 2017 and we still have to have these conversations.

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.

Documentary Review: Nintendo Quest (2015)

Release Date: June 26th, 2015
Directed by: Rob McCallum
Music by: John H. McCarthy

Pyre Productions USA, Canamedia, 92 Minutes

Review:

Nintendo Quest was a documentary that followed one man’s quest to acquire all the classic Nintendo Entertainment System titles in thirty days or less. He had a limited budget and couldn’t use the Internet. He had to travel abroad, visit stores and private sellers in an effort to complete his goal. For the record, there are 678 classic Nintendo games.

The film is a labor of love between two friends, the director and Jay, his best friend and the guy trying to collect the games.

This is not a compelling or great documentary but it is at least fun and interesting to anyone who had a love for the original Nintendo system, which is really any kid from the 1980s and 1990s.

Nintendo Quest is a very nostalgic journey through history, as it showcases Jay trying to get every single title and it talks about a lot of the classic games and puts a lot of emphasis on the real rarities out there.

I don’t think that there is a lot here for non-Nintendo fans but it also wasn’t made for anyone but the old school Nintendo heads who know these titles and want to reminisce about them through Jay’s journey. That doesn’t make this a bad documentary but also doesn’t make this a good one either. It sort of exists in limbo.

 

 

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.