3 New Pop Culture Books

David Thomson is one of our finest living writers, period. He just so happens to work in the field of film criticism, yet his prose sings as marvelously as any acclaimed work of fiction. Each book he releases is an event for cineastes, including his latest … although it is about the movies’ archenemy. In the Thames & Hudson hardback Television: A Biography — heavy in size, heady in subject — Thomson relates the history of TV in the same manner he did cinema in 2012’s The Big Screen: purely on his terms. That means neither chronologically nor logically by anyone’s standards, yet the book feels that way once the whirlwind tour is done. The man can pivot on a dime, going from Gunsmoke to The Rockford Files to James Garner’s Polaroid ads with Mariette Hartley to Merv Griffin — and somehow, his dot-connecting leaps work. The cover image — the iconic one from 1982’s classic Poltergeist — is as good a joke as any, representing Thomson’s sometimes contentious relationship with the boob tube. And let’s be honest: His is ours.

While not quite a runaway smash, The Legend of Tarzan performed better than expected at last summer’s box office, proving there’s lots of life left in the lord of the apes. For the life already lived, David Lemmo recounts the pulp hero’s first century of existence in Tarzan, Jungle King of Popular Culture. Published by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback has the daunting task of distilling 100-plus years of content into roughly a 200-page narrative, and for the most part, the man succeeds. With Edgar Rice Burroughs writing dozens of novels starring his creation, adapted for dozens more motion pictures, there is little space for Lemmo to dive too deeply into individual works. Plus, the preceding sentence doesn’t take into account Tarzan’s adventures into TV, radio, comics, toys and other merchandising vines, all of which get covered here — just at a monkey’s-eye view. For example, the aforementioned Legend film merits one paragraph, but that’s more than is earned by Hollywood’s heretofore most recent live-action Tarzan film, 1998’s flop Tarzan and the Lost City (a vehicle for a loinclothed Casper Van Dien). Lemmo’s writing leans heavily on names and dates, so passages tend to grow arid. For those seeking a reference work on just the movies, reach for Scott Tracy Griffin’s recent Tarzan on Film; for a broad overview on the character’s wide-ranging market penetration and influence, Lemmo’s book serves as that introduction.

As you may have noticed with his previous book on Jamie Lee Curtis in 2010, when David Grove gets interested in a celebrity as a subject, he goes all in. Now, he’s gone all in on the troubled star of Damnation Alley, White Line Fever and TV’s Airwolf in Jan-Michael Vincent: Edge of Greatness. One of the best things about the BearManor Media release is that it exists at all; although once a matinee idol, Vincent is remembered more today (when he’s remembered at all) for substance abuse struggles and other tabloid fodder. I’ll be the first to admit I thought the actor already had died. Perhaps Grove’s book can help — not to rewrite Vincent’s history or legacy, but just to make certain that someone acknowledged his talent and, furthermore, mourned its loss. If you’re not already a fan, Edge of Greatness won’t change your mind; I suspect it won’t even be read by JM-V virgins. Working without input from or access to his subject, Grove guides us through each step of Vincent’s career at a quick clip, from its sharp ascent to an extended train wreck of a fall. Any fear on your part that Grove will indulge in hagiography is unwarranted, as the rather odd and sobering (pun not intended) final chapter makes clear. —Rod Lott

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Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page

Blair Davis’ Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page was not quite the book to which I had been looking forward for the better part of 2016. Turns out, that’s a good thing — even a great one.

While the rest of the film world debates the merits of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC’s catch-up attempts, Chicago-based cinema professor Davis dives deep into the comic-book (and -strip) movies and TV shows few care to acknowledge, from the Dick Tracy flicks of the 1940s and all those Blondie comedies to the early serial adventures of Superman, Batman, Captain America and pulp-borne heroes of whom you haven’t heard.

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Mars in the Movies: A History

With movies, as with potential mates, everyone has a type toward which he or she instinctively gravitates. For me, it’s heists or spiders. For Thomas Kent Miller, it’s that angry red planet — a lifelong fascination that culminates in the publication of the book Mars in the Movies: A History.

Released by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback surveys nearly 100 Mars flicks, roughly from the 1910 Thomas Edison silent short A Trip to Mars to 2015’s blockbuster The Martian. With the latter making a mint and taking seven Oscar nominations, you’d think Miller would find Ridley Scott’s populist smash to be a source of unending joy. Instead, he had “zero emotional response to the film. When I should have felt elated, I felt nothing.” And that call-’em-as-I-see-’em approach is all part of the book’s hours of fun.

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3 New Film Books for This New Year

Now adults, the children of the 1980s clearly are nostalgic, judging from this past fall’s glut of books on that era’s teen movie. Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast came first, followed closely by Kevin Smokler’s travel-leaning Brat Pack America. Now, journalist Jason Diamond joins the fray with Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned from Watching ’80s Movies, but stands out as unique because it’s a memoir. Hoo-boy, is it ever. As a Chicagoan, Diamond felt a particular kinship to Hughes’ movies — Sixteen Candles; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; Home Alone, et al. — which tended to take place there, albeit in the fictional suburbia of Shermer, so the miserable barista longing to be a professional writer embarked on a biography of the iconic filmmaker. Instead, as we witness, the project morphed into this memoir of the author’s own terrible childhood and arguably even worse teenage years, during which Hughes’ CV offered a recurring temporary escape. The end result is raw, real, gut-wrenching and, like Hughes’ work, worthy of resonating with an entire generation. Oh, if only they read more than 140 characters!

With Applause’s paperback release of Film Noir Compendium: Key Selections from the Film Noir Reader Series, newcomers to the dynamic duo of cinematic historians Alain Silver and James Ursini can get a taste of the goods without having to wonder which prior volume to purchase or whether to buy them all. (You may find yourself doing the latter if you enjoy this lovingly oversized presentation, overflowing with hundreds of stills.) Compendium culls some 30 articles from 20 years worth of contents — all with an academic bent, but not to a point of inaccessibility. Standouts include Ursini’s visual breakdown of the Mike Hammer classic Kiss Me Deadly; Todd Ericsson’s 1990 examination of noir’s then-resurrection as a genre (e.g. Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot, Michael Mann’s Thief and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.); and Paul Schrader’s well-informed “notes on film noir,” which is the equivalent of a master class — no surprise to readers of the Taxi Driver scribe’s Film Comment pieces, past or present. The book’s layout could stand a sharper design, but the words are what really matter here — especially when you have Stephen Farber putting “the bitch goddess” under a microscope.

Which horror films feature the most of Mr. Mephistopheles? Which horror soundtracks are the scariest? Who draws horror comics best? The answers to these and many other superlative-determining questions await in The Thrill of Repulsion: Excursions into Horror Culture. For the Schiffer-pubbed hardcover, Horror News Network contributor William Burns presents nearly two dozen essays on terror-related topics primarily concerning movies, but also not ignoring TV, music and books (comics included). Nearly all of the chapters are presented in the ever-popular list format, each cleverly and consistently going to 13, rather than the standard, ho-hum 10. I was unfamiliar with Burns’ name or work, so I don’t know how much critical credibility he brings to the project, but he obviously is well-versed in cinema that goes bump in the night. I especially enjoyed his countdown of horror films “That Deserve Better,” because his selections prove him right, from The Boy Who Cried Werewolf to the top-slotted The Spider Labyrinth. —Rod Lott

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A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies

Hands down and no question about it: For me, the entertainment book of 2016 is A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies. Written by Trapped Ashes screenwriter Dennis Bartok and collector extraordinaire Jeff Joseph, the University Press of Mississippi hardcover shines a light on the rarest of film subcultures: one I didn’t know existed!

There’s a whole history of FBI arrests and/or investigations into film obsessives who sold and/or traded actual prints — typically 35mm and often stolen from studios and theaters. They range from Hollywood’s own (Roddy McDowall and Rock Hudson) to two-bit ex-cons, and nearly two dozen of them have their colorful stories told here, run-ins and close calls included.

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4 New Entertainment Titles for Which to Be Thankful

sinisterurgeIn Sinister Urge: The Life and Times of Rob Zombie, metal music bio specialist Joel McIver considers the career of the Renaissance man not content to constrain his talents to just one medium. If the Backbeat Books hardcover focused solely on Rob Zombie’s music — from White Zombie to his current solo act — I wouldn’t have been interested, but luckily, his forays into filmmaking are covered almost in as much depth. While the weight given to each movie is wildly off-balance, fans can learn a lot about the battles to make 2003’s controversial House of 1000 Corpses and the even more controversial 2007 remake of Halloween, and yet may be left wanting more about comparatively glossed-over subjects, such as the film-within-a-film excised from 2012’s The Lords of Salem or the clashes with David Caruso while shooting a CSI: Miami episode — I mean, tell me you don’t wanna hear everything about that! I assume this is because McIver had to draw upon existing sources since Zombie was not interviewed specifically for the book, so to judge what is there, which includes his absolutely crazy comics, I give it a thumb up rather than a middle finger.

filmfatalesWomen? Gotta love ’em. Women in spy movies? Gotta lust over ’em! And Tom Lisanti and Louis Paul’s tag-teaming of Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films and Television, 1962-1973 damn near covers every one of the genre’s notable and/or nubile beauties: Raquel Welch, Lana Wood, Diana Rigg, Ann-Margret, Ursula Andress, Susan Hart, Honor Blackman, Tina Louise, Stella Stevens, Anne Francis … it’s the rare book that prompts the need of a cold shower. More than 100 of these starlets — seemingly half of them from James Bond adventures — are featured in their own few-pages-apiece chapters, profiling their careers overall and specific highlights from their filmographies. Generously supplemented with a nice photograph, they’re like IMDb entries with more depth and more flesh. Because of this setup, few will want to tackle Film Fatales cover to cover, opting instead to read up on the women with whom they’re most, um, “familiar.” But trust me: You’ll want to thumb through all the pages just for the photos alone. Unfortunately, so will your teenage brother/nephew/whoever, so hide it if you can. And if you cannot, good news: Originally published in 2002, this new reissue from McFarland & Company is close to half the price in paperback.

lostsoulshgAlso from McFarland, Lost Souls of Horror and the Gothic: Fifty-Four Neglected Authors, Actors, Artists and Others does just what it says. Edited by Elizabeth McCarthy and Bernice M. Murphy, this collection of biographical sketches is all over the place, but I suppose that is its point. While genre fans are likely to already know Rosemary’s Baby novelist Ira Levin, 1936 Sweeney Todd star Tod Slaughter and Just Before Dawn director Jeff Lieberman, even the most ardent enthusiasts may not be aware of the more obscure subjects, like illustrator Sidney Sime and author Marie Corelli. Bold choices include pop singer Danielle Dax, After Hours screenwriter Joseph Minion, Ghostwatch creator Stephen Volk and the team behind the Silent Hill franchise. Although the typical essay runs four pages, not even 100 times that amount would convince me that the legendary, double Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman deserves a place among these Lost Souls.

bookkithThis is a review of This Is a Book About the Kids in the Hall, John Semley’s unimaginatively titled but perfectly readable biography of the venerable Canadian comedy troupe whose HBO series found a considerable cult. Published by ECW Press, the paperback delves expectedly into the Kids’ formation, dissolution and eventual reunion, but also reveals more about the members’ personal lives than I would have thought, particularly their upbringings, in which the running thread is “shitty dads.” The most interesting chapter chronicles the highly contentious making of the Kids’ first — and to date, only — feature film, the misunderstood 1996 flop Brain Candy (a movie I will defend to my dying day). Although the author inserts himself into the book too often and takes occasionally superfluous sojourns — the weak Kids in the Hall Drinking Game being the worst offender — I recommend any self-respecting KITH fan snap it up all the same, lest he or she risk a well-deserved head-crushing. —Rod Lott

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The Amazing Toys of Marvin Glass: 1950s to 1974

amazingtoysMarvin Glass: You may not know his name, but you likely know some of his work. Born in 1914, the man dreamt up some of the most memorable playthings for the big-boy brands kids know and love — Hasbro, Mattel, Aurora, Kenner, Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, et al. — right up until he passed away in 1974. Some still made and sold today, his greatest hits run the gamut from board games (Operation and Mouse Trap) and handheld electronic games (Simon) to toys like the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle and the almighty Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.

He also created the nightmare-inducing Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces, but my psyche would like to gloss over that one.

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Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen

monstrousnatureIt took one childhood viewing of William Shatner taking on a small town’s Kingdom of the Spiders to make me an instant, lifelong fan of the horror subgenre of animal-attack films. Widening the scope to nature overall fighting back against an unappreciative and oblivious populace, Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann explore how these movies reflect how our culture grapples with our uneasy co-existence with flora and fauna, in their new essay collection from University of Nebraska Press, Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen. While I was primed for a highbrow take on a lowbrow topic, I was ill-prepared for how much fun it can be.

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The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World

tetriseffectRecently, the Hollywood trade papers announced that MORTAL KOMBAT franchise producer Lawrence Kasanoff not only will be gifting us with a feature film based on the classic video game TETRIS, but three of them; the project is plotted as a movie trilogy. The only question more automatic and pressing than “Why?” is, of course, “How?”

Only time will tell, but I can tell you right now that the real drama is the real truth: how the game was made and, more importantly, how it broke big and busted borders — all told in the new nonfiction book THE TETRIS EFFECT: THE GAME THAT HYPNOTIZED THE WORLD. Written by Dan Ackerman, the PublicAffairs hardcover release contains the same kind of twisty, tortured-birth tale that made THE SOCIAL NETWORK so oddly engaging.

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Fall into These 4 New Pop-Culture Books

comingbackOne-night-only engagements and George Lucas tinkering notwithstanding, nowadays it pretty much takes the death of a beloved celebrity to get old movies back on the big screens of the multiplex; witness the recent passing of Prince and Gene Wilder, and the immediate return of Purple Rain and Young Frankenstein to first-run theaters. Once upon a time, however — the days before cable TV and VHS, to be exact — reissues were likely the only way audiences would get another chance to see a particular motion picture. Brian Hannan examines this bygone phenomenon in Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014, published in trade paperback by McFarland & Company. In admittedly “forensic detail,” Hannan chronologically examines this business model of sloppy seconds — initially a financial necessity for studios yet despised by exhibitors (until television and James Bond double-bills changed their tune). While the author grants big-picture visibility throughout this unusual slice of Hollywood history, his case studies — using films as disparate as Gone with the Wind and Reefer Madness — offer the greatest entertainment value. So thorough is Hannan, the footnotes to chapter one alone number 470! Don’t think that dedication to research translates into a wan read; Coming Back is a lively look back, packed with scads of incredible ads and posters that illustrate a peculiar sort of Tinseltown ballyhoo.

viewcheapseatsMan, what can’t Neil Gaiman write? (“Poorly” may be the answer, although the question was rhetorical.) Although famous for his fiction across novels both prose (American Gods) and graphic (The Sandman), the fantastic fantasist got his start in nonfiction. Published by William Morrow, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction is not a collection of that early journalism, but nearly 100 essays he has penned — plus reviews he has written, speeches he has given, introductions he has contributed — since “making it.” The title refers to his surreal experience at the Oscars in 2010; attending for Coraline, an excellent animated adaptation of his 2002 YA work, the out-of-element author recounts crossing paths with Steve Carell, Michael Sheen and the Westboro Baptist Church. The movies constitute an admirable chunk of Cheap Seats’ contents, with an appreciation of The Bride of Frankenstein; three pieces on pal Dave McKean’s MirrorMask, for which he wrote the screenplay (with Gaiman’s Sundance diary being the best of the trio and somewhat of a companion to the title article); and, for the small screen, childhood nostalgia for Doctor Who. You’ll also find pages on music, comics and a lot of lit — all splendidly crafted, no matter the topic.

tvthebookAnd now for something that could start as many arguments as the current presidential election: TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time. Undertaking this rather intimidating endeavor with due diligence, noted boob-tube critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall have ranked and reviewed the finest 100 U.S. series in the history’s medium. After a maddeningly redundant introductory chapter that preserves their Google Chat debate on whether The Simpsons or The Sopranos is most deserving to claim that No. 1 slot (spoiler: Homer > Tony), the paperback functions as the kind of dynamic reference work that movies get all the time, while television rarely does. In our era of binge-watching and “peak TV,” their book is perfectly timed (if already dated) and rife with thoughtful, helpful, why-it-matters essays on such picks as Cheers, Twin Peaks, Batman, St. Elsewhere and Police Squad! Their taste is near-impeccable — How I Met Your Mother?!? — and extends beyond the top 100 to shout-out current newbies likely to land on the list in future editions, shows of “a certain regard” that didn’t quite make the cut (from the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker to season one of True Detective) and top-10 lists of made-for-TV movies, miniseries and live plays. Peppered throughout are looser lists to celebrate the finest in theme songs, pilots, finales, bosses, homes, ridiculous names and memorable deaths (Chuckles, we hardly knew ye). Despite the dead-serious approach (not to mention insane algorithms) Seitz and Sepinwall take to their self-imposed assignment, fun is first and foremost the name of their game. It earns the equivalent of the TiVo Season Pass.

thekrampusIt only took several hundred years, but that anti-Santa demon known as the Krampus finally has become an American celebrity, thanks to movies like A Christmas Horror Story, Night of the Krampus, Krampus: The Reckoning, Krampus: The Christmas Devil and just plain ol’ Krampus. Exactly from where did this unconventional leading man come? That’s the global-spanning goal — cleared! — of performance artist Al Ridenour in The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Using the baby-consuming creature’s recent cinematic surge as a launching pad, Ridenour explores the horrific goat-man’s European origins, town-to-town traditions (Buttnmandl, anyone?), stage appearances and more, all pithy and neatly arranged under subheads for easy-to-digest reading. Personally, I would have preferred more focus on the aspect of pure pop culture. One of the most appealing chapters introduces readers to the Krampus’ monstrous relatives, such as Pinecone Man. As is the modus operandi of outré publisher Feral House (whose recent volumes on Grand Guignol theater, sleazy sex novels of the 1960s and men’s adventure pulp magazines are all incredible), this trade paperback is a veritable visual feast of maps, photos and possbily insane vintage illustrations. So visual is The Krampus that it’s quite possible that functionally illiterate could spend time leafing through its pages and emerge satisfied, but why? They’d miss out on half the fun. —Rod Lott

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