Monday, May 10, 2021

Review: 'Moonlighting: An Oral History'

Not since the days when Adam West played comedy straighter than Gary Cooper or Micky Dolenz serially broke the fourth wall had there been anything like Moonlighting on TV. At a time when Dallas’ soapy entanglements passed for drama and Family Ties’ laugh-track clich├ęs passed for comedy, Glenn Gordon Caron’s neo-noir absurdist romantic-comedy sparkled brighter than Cybill Shepherd through a diffusion filter. And unlike Batman and The Monkees, Moonlighting was pitched squarely at adults what with its fixation on boinking.

 

As welcome as Moonlighting was in a mid-eighties television environment notoriously lacking in imagination, multiple issues conspired to derail its magical run. Stars Shepherd and Bruce Willis loathed each other. Shepherd loathed Caron. Caron often seemed intent on keeping his stars from sharing screen time. Shepherd successfully got Caron booted from his own show.

 

Yet amidst the egos, chaos, and the series’ very dated sexism, some great TV got made. Remember the black and white one that Orson Welles introduced? Or the one with the extended dance number set to that Billy Joel song? Or the Casablanca take-off starring underrated wing-people Allyce Beasley and Curtis Armstrong as Ms. Dipesto and Mr. Viola? Certainly everyone remembers the Taming of the Shrew episode. My high-school Shakespeare teacher even screened that one in class.

 

Scott Ryan addresses the tribulations and the fun swirling about Moonlighting in his delightful new book Moonlighting: An Oral History. As our tour guide, Ryan maintains a lighthearted, cheeky tone in keeping with the series, but he leaves most of the storytelling to Glenn Gordon Caron, Cybill Shepherd, Allyce Beasley, Curtis Armstrong, and numerous writers, actors, and directors. No, Bruce Willis is not among the interviewees, but his perspective is not really missed. After all, the book’s biggest star, Shepherd, rarely provides much insight, and seems to conveniently not remember a great deal of what went down on the show or regard conflicts as being less intense than other participants recall. We get a lot more details out of Caron, producers Jay Daniel and Roger Director, writer Debra Frank, and Beasley, who still seems a bit bitter about how the stars sabotaged her show.

However, Moonlighting: An Oral History is hardly a bitter book. It is a celebration (complete with full-color photos) of a show that paved the way for so many other shows that barreled through network TV’s substantial barriers, such as Ryan’s (and my) person personal fave Twin Peaks. Incredibly, for a show that was so popular, controversial, and influential, Moonlighting had never before been the subject of a serious book. It took more than thirty years since the series’ cancellation for the first one to be written. Fortunately, it’s terrific.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Preview 'Sinister Century: A Critical Trip Through 100 Years of Horror Cinema'

You can preview the Kindle edition of my new book Sinister Century: A Critical Trip Through 100 Years of Horror Cinema: 1920 - 2019 for free now by clicking this link.

If you decide to take the plunge and read the whole thing, I'd greatly appreciate a review on Amazon. Thanks!

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Review: ''Sukita: Eternity"

The covers of albums such as Wish You Were Here and Nevermind are regarded as art because of their provocative and unusual compositions. However, with a photographer as focused as Masayoshi Sukita behind the camera, the simplest shot can become iconic. Take his work on the sleeve of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, which features nothing more than the artist chest up against a featureless backdrop. Yet the striking clarity of Sukita’s black and white and Bowie’s unnatural pose are as powerful and unforgettable as any flaming businessman or money-grubbing water baby.

Eternity presents the breadth of Sukita’s work in a halting package. Though they haven’t crossed into the culture the way his photos on the covers of “Heroes” and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot have, Sukita’s portraits of Marc Bolan (who, like Bowie and Pop, is the subject of an entire chapter), Klaus Nomi, Bryan Ferry, David Byrne, The B-52’s, Ray Charles and Quincy Jones, Joe Strummer, and Elvis Costello punching himself in the face are also potent. Sukita may be at his most arresting when working with Yellow Magic Orchestra, who were up for having their faces painted or plastered with newsprint or propelled through the air amidst a flurry of cassette tapes. Such photos deliver all the striking character of Sukita’s work with Bowie and Iggy and the conceptual ingenuity of those Pink Floyd and Nirvana covers. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Review: 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' Blu-ray

Teen comedies weren’t quite a thing yet when Fast Times at Ridgemont High hit theaters in 1982. Porky’s had been a big hit the year before, but Bob Clark’s puerile approach was very different from Amy Heckerling’s more nuanced one even if a lot of critics couldn’t tell the difference. The dawn of John Hughes’s teen comedies that would define the decade was still a couple of years away, and his glossier, more mannered, more melodramatic approach was very different from Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s inclination toward realism. 

On first blush, the filmmakers’ snapshot of eighties high school life may not feel totally naturalistic. Sean Penn’s iconic stoner Jeff Spicoli and his nemesis, Ray Walston’s Mr. Hand, are caricatures… but they are not two-dimensional caricatures. Judge Reinhold and Robert Romanus are clearly too old to play high school students… and yet their portrayals are almost completely convincing even though Romanus’s sleaze-ball Mike Damone inches toward caricature too. Some of the situations are perhaps a touch too silly… although I remember some pretty silly shit from my own high school days, and I know you do too.

 

However, there is zero artifice in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s confused and very much still a child Stacy Hamilton, and as the film’s focal point, she shines truth on every other character and situation in her orbit. Her ambivalence about sex, her discomfort in her own skin when courting, her effortless comfort when seducing boys that are clearly beneath her, and her matter-of-fact abortion transform a movie that perhaps could have become another Porky’s with a less assured actor and director and a fair share of studio meddling into the only eighties teen comedy that feels authentic. Spicoli and Hand’s sparring is really funny, and the myriad unforgettable scenes and one liners deserve a lot of credit, but that underlying gravity Crowe, Heckerling, and Leigh bring to Fast Times is what really makes it unique, a natural cult movie, and a worthy inclusion in the Criterion Collection.

 

Criterion’s new Blu-ray presents Fast Times at Ridgemont High correctly. Not the candy-dipped picture Hughes’s movies are, the image retains the strong grain and somewhat dim look that defines the film, but it is also sufficiently sharp and vivid. The rock and roll soundtrack (The Go-Go’s! Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers! The Cars! Led Zeppelin [but not Led Zeppelin IV]!) sounds great. A few seconds of full-frontal Damone that would have earned the picture an X-rating has been reinstated for this release.

 

Brand-new supplements are limited to a 35-minute, Olivia Wilde-moderated Zoom chat between Heckerling and Crowe and text essays by critic Dana Stevens and Crowe, both of which are worth reading (I gasped when Crowe revealed who the studio’s first choice for director was). There’s also a vintage AFI interview with Heckerling and the 40-minute documentary and audio commentary from the 1999 DVD. Most amusing is a pan-and-scan presentation of this decidedly R-Rated movie’s TV edit. It includes a few minutes of extra footage, but I still have no idea who’s gonna watch that.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Review: 'A Band with Built-In Hate: The Who from Pop Art to Punk'

The great irony of The Who’s career is that despite their utter musical uniqueness they were constantly on the look out for a gimmick to distinguish them from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the rest of their Rock & Roll peers. Although no group had a songwriter as equally tender and perverse as Pete Townshend or such combative yet virtuosic instrumental interplay, The Who and their management were convinced that the only way they could rise above the throng was to refashion themselves as Mods… or end their act with a brutish yet intellectually rooted act of “auto-destruction” (i.e.: guitar smashing)… or maybe position themselves as the pop equivalent of an Andy Warhol silkscreen… or compose rock operas.

That The Who’s image was constantly shifting according to whatever they thought would best promote their music in the moment is the focus of Peter Stanfield’s new book A Band with Built-In Hate: The Who from Pop Art to Punk. Stanfield examines how The Who took in disparate influences from outside the rock world—influences flying in from the fine and pop arts, youth culture, and so-on—and shipped them back out to be co-opted by everyone from The Creation to The Sex Pistols. It is the first deep, book-length look at an important aspect of The Who’s persona and art that is an integral portion of every book on the band.

 

Throughout A Band with Built-In Hate, Stanfield views The Who through the lens critic and Townshend’s confidant Nik Cohn shaped. Cohn believed that Rock & Roll was truest when it was trashiest, though there is nothing trashy about A Band with Built-In Hate despite the clashing promise of its title. It is fairly academic as far as Rock & Roll books go, and I’ve never been a proponent of reducing rock to an academic topic, but it moves quickly enough and fills in the gaps of an important area of Who history satisfactorily.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Sinister Century: A Critical Trip Through 100 Years of Horror Cinema 1920 - 2019


I'm horrified to announce that I have a new book that is now available on Amazon.com as both an e-book and a softcover. The content may be familiar to dead-icated Psychobabble cultists as "Psychobabble's 200 Essential Horror Movies" and "Monsterology", but I have revised, expanded, and illustrated those old series for this new book. 

Sinister Century: A Critical Trip Through 100 Years of Horror Cinema 1920 - 2019 features critical looks at 228 films from silents such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu through contemporary creepshows such as Us and Midsommar. Along with those entries on individual films are in-depth looks at some stock movie monsters that don’t receive nearly as much attention as the usual vampires and werewolves: Homicidal headless horrors! Killer clowns! Brutal brides! Murderous babies!

Order the print edition here for $14.99 or the Kindle edition for just $4.99 (cheap!)... and stay tuned for more book-related news soon.

Here is the full list of films I discuss in Sinister Century: A Critical Trip Through 100 Years of Horror Cinema 1920 - 2019:

Monday, April 26, 2021

Marvel Comics Artist's and Artisan Editions

Before the colorists have their ways with comic book pages, line artists conceive and perfect the contours of the superheroes who swing across skylines on their webs or smash through brick walls. For some aficionados, pre-colored pages are the purest products of the central artist's vision, hence the existence of "Artisan" and "Artist's" editions of iconic comics. 

IDW's latest additions to its "Artisan" and "Artist's" library showcase Jack Kirby's unpretentious illustrations for Fantastic Four issues #71, #82-84, and Annual #6 (in which the Invisible Girl brings down an android and the FF put Maximus's hypno-gun out of commission), John Romita's similarly bold and basic work for Spiderman #67-69, #71, #75, and #84 (in which Spidey finds himself shrunk down to 6 inches and grapples with the Kingpin), and a random assortment of pages depicting Jim Lee's comparatively complex work on X-Men

Unlike the "Artisan" homages to Kirby and Romita, Lee's Artist's Edition makes no attempt to spin stories. It's all about the art, which appears on astoundingly huge 12" x 17 1/2" pages in a hardcover package with giant centerfold. When the illustrations are blown up to such proportions and drained of color, the eye is drawn to unexpected spots on the page. The central images that register with perfect punch on standard-sized pages step aside to allow the small details to swoop out: the tirelessly applied hatching, the wrinkles of a furrowed brow (there are a lot of those), the stubble on a square jaw (lots of those too). 

The pages of Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four: Artisan EditionJohn Romita's The Amazing Spider Man: Artisan Edition, and Jim Lee's X-Men: Artist's Edition are also uncommonly tactile despite the absence of consciously applied color. Taped-on typed page numbers, globs of white paint, penned notes in margins, and even dirty fingerprints humanize comics that always seemed a bit like they slipped in from some more perfect dimension.


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