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Review: Alien: The Weyland-Yutani Report, text by SD Perry April 22, 2016

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cover88137-mediumThis is another Netgalley review, a review in exchange for a free advance e-galley of the book. This is based on a pdf that includes a note that it may not be the final version.

S.D. Perry has written a few Alien tie-in novels, but this book is something different, a report on what the Weyland-Yutani Corporation has learned about the alien xenomorphs in a series of encounters (the four Alien movies and Prometheus).

It’s a large illustrated book, laid out magazine-style with text boxes over large images. Most of the images are taken directly from the movies, but there are also illustrations of aliens, weapons, and vehicles. The text sections include notes on the alien life cycle and other things you’d expect in an in-universe corporate report: corporate history, summaries of encounters, quotes of dialogue, character biographies, and a brief overview of the possible benefits for the corporation if they can acquire and manage a number of xenomorphs.

Personally, I’d like the book better if it had more new illustrations and fewer screen captures, and if it had more text. It doesn’t take long to get through. But I’m judging it from a galley pdf. There’s a note in the pdf that the final version may have more content, and the screen captures will no doubt look a lot clearer than the murky pdf versions, so the final version may well be more impressive.

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Review: Gun Crazy: The Birth of American Outlaw Cinema by Eddie Muller March 13, 2016

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guncrazyEddie Muller, as mentioned in the Goodis post below, has spent the last 20 years or so becoming one of the go-to guys on the subject of film noir. He’s written several books, but this is the first time he’s focused on a single film. And what a film.

Gun Crazy is a 1950 b movie with a devoted cult following. Neither of its stars, John Dall and Peggy Cummins, had wildly successful careers, but their performances, the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo from a MacKinlay Kantor story, and the direction by Joe Lewis make this the best doomed lovers on a crime spree movie ever.

Muller’s books on noir aren’t dry film studies texts. He’s an opinionated fan, not an academic, so his books are entertaining reads. In this book, well illustrated with photos, copies of documents, and shots from the film, he sets out to dispel some of the myths that have apparently grown about the movie — some spread by Lewis, the director, some by writers who favour the auteur theory. Muller spends a lot of time looking at the development of the story, from the Kantor short story through the script development and on through filming and editing. Along the way he provides background on Kantor, the King Brothers (the producers), Joe Lewis, writer Dalton Trumbo, and Dall and Cummins.

The film is a compelling mix of bravura filmmaking with, at times, surprising amounts of stock footage. Muller goes into detail on the two big heist scenes in the movie, the extended single shot bank robbery and the Armour heist. These scenes and others are technical feats that don’t draw attention to themselves because the viewer is caught up in the suspense.

Muller ends the book with a brief look at the undeniable influence Gun Crazy had on films like Breathless and Bonnie and Clyde. The book’s a pretty fast read, very well laid out and designed. Definitely recommended to film buffs. Order direct from Black Pool Productions.

(I’ve read another book on Gun Crazy, a BFI Film Classics book by Jim Kitses. It’s a long time since I read that one, but I’m pretty sure that the world has room for both books.)

Review: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me January 12, 2016

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51jz4wKcWJLIt’s entirely possible that you’ve only heard any of the music in this film without knowing this band existed. You’ve probably heard that classic 60s hit “The Letter” by the Box Tops without knowing what the guy who sang it did next. You may have heard the opening credits song from That 70s Show played by Cheap Trick without ever having heard the original. For that matter, you’re probably skeptical whenever rock critics or obsessive music fans tell you that this band you never heard was actually one of the best bands ever, never mind one of the best bands that never had a hit. Well, give this a shot anyway.

If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already got this.

This is a two-hour documentary about a band most people still haven’t heard of, decades after they came and went. But they’re a band with a big cult following that includes a lot of influential musicians and writers, so there’s been a couple of books already, too.

Having read those books, I thought there were a few things that could have been covered in the documentary that weren’t… but that’s a fairly minor quibble, which I’ll get back to in a minute.

Overall this is a really good documentary that should work both for committed fans and people just wondering what the fuss is about. There’s a surprising amount of 1970s video footage of the band members, along with more recent interviews with band members, family, record company people, and other musicians. You get the pre-band history — Alex Chilton having a big hit single as the singer of the Box Tops, Chris Bell starting a band with some friends — and what came after. Chris Bell trying to go solo, Big Star continuing without him and then Alex Chilton going solo and spending years trying to get away from anything to do with Big Star and its sound, the unexpected reunion, and a lot of deaths. It’s not the most cheerful movie, to put it mildly. But the snippets of music and the obvious love for the band from many of the people interviewed, as well as the way in which Big Star was eventually discovered by a larger audience, adds a lot of positivity.

The main thing I missed from the documentary was most of what got me interested in Big Star. In 1985 I bought It’ll End in Tears by This Mortal Coil, which has covers of the Big Star songs “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust.” Not long after that I picked up the Rainy Day album, with another version of “Holocaust.” In 1986 the best song on the second Bangles album, A Different Light, was their cover of “September Gurls.” In 1991, the third This Mortal Coil album had covers of two of Chris Bell’s songs. In 1993, His Name Is Alive covered “Blue Moon.” And somewhere in there the Replacements recorded their tribute song “Alex Chilton.” The Replacements tune is referenced in the movie, but that’s it.

A few other things, the aforementioned quibbles:

  • what I’ve read about the third album suggests that Chilton’s girlfriend Lesa Aldridge played a big role as muse and, apparently, as a singer, until Chilton wiped most of her vocals; she’s not interviewed and not mentioned much.
  • Though there’s a fair amount about the Big Star reunion shows, the new lineup’s live album and single studio album go unmentioned aside from an album cover popping up on screen for a second.
  • The film is open about Chris Bell’s drug and alcohol abuse but only dances around the issue of his sexuality; he may have been gay or bisexual.

Oh… What did they sound like? Well, they were influenced by the Beatles and in turn influenced an awful lot of North American and UK alternative/indie bands. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills is in this; so is Douglas Hart of the Jesus and Mary Chain. If you were ever a new wave/alternative/indie rock/power pop fan, Big Star is in the DNA of your music. If you were into art-damaged ethereal goth bands like This Mortal Coil, well, the third album adds some precursors of that music to the power pop/classic rock sound, and it works. But you should probably start with #1 Record/Radio City, usually available on a single CD, then go for Sister Lovers/Third and Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos. I bought them in the mid-1990s and was impressed, and as time goes by I listen to them more and more often. To quote the Replacements, “I never travel far without a little Big Star.”

Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe December 4, 2014

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Review posted at Netgalley a while back in exchange for a free advance reading copy, but first, a comment about the new trailer. If you don’t know who John Boyega is, go watch Attack the Block. It’s better than any of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. And if you’re bitching about a black man in stormtrooper armor, you’re racist. It really is that simple. The troopers were clones during the Clone Wars, which is why they called them the Clone Wars. They weren’t clones during the good movies, set decades after the prequels, and there’s no reason why they should be several more decades later. Not to mention that we’ve seen Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in stormtrooper uniforms, and we don’t necessarily know that Boyega’s character is a stormtrooper any more than they were. And now for the book review.

It sometimes seems like pretty much everyone is a Star Wars fan, and virtually everyone is at least aware of it, as the book’s introduction demonstrates. But it’s also relatively easy to be a fan. You just soak it up through pop culture. Sure, there are hardcore fans and collectors, but I suspect this book will appeal most to people who’ve watched the movies a few times, maybe played the games or read the books or collected action figures, but never really looked into the story behind the story.

What you get here is a couple of books combined. There’s the history/biography that looks at how Lucas became a filmmaker and how he made the Star Wars films. Then there’s the chapters that look at some of the ways Star Wars has taken over pop culture and modern life, not unlike Jeff Greenwald’s 1998 book Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth. (Different franchise, similar idea.) The way the chapters are integrated isn’t always obvious; we get a few chapters from one of stream then suddenly we’re reading a chapter from the other, like jumping to a magazine sidebar.

Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable read and I expect a fair number of people I know will be interested in it. I’m not the best qualified to judge its factual accuracy because I’ve generally been a casual fan. Since the first movie was released, but still.

The writing is solid and readable, in a fairly casual, breezy style, with one odd choice. People are generally referred to by their last names (Lucas, Kasdan, Dykstra, etc). But Alan Ladd, Jr, whose nickname was apparently Laddie, is Laddie all through the book. Likewise Irwin Kershner, known to friends as Kersh, is usually referred to as Kersh throughout the book. It feels a bit *too* casual.

I have a few factual nitpicks, too. It’s Douglas Trumbull, not Trumball. Forbidden Planet is set on Altair IV, not Altaria. At one point, someone seems to me to be describing Stanley Weinbaum’s classic short story “A Martian Odyssey,” though Taylor doesn’t seem to recognize it. There are a few other errors of dating and whatnot here and there, but the stuff I’ve noticed is generally pretty trivial.

So, yeah, I expect this’ll get a lot of buzz and do pretty well. It’s Star Wars time again.

Various artists: The Last Pogo (1978) February 18, 2009

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The Last Pogo LP and DVD

The Last Pogo LP and DVD

The Toronto punk scene gathered at the Horseshoe Tavern in 1978 for two nights of music, an event called The Last Pogo. Fortunately, some of that history was preserved on record and on film. These days, when anyone can record an album on a PC and burn CDs or upload mp3s to a myspace page, it’s hard to believe how difficult it used to be for unsigned bands to record and release their music. Without The Last Pogo, some of these songs would have gone unheard for decades, and the bands would be… well, even more obscure and unknown than they are now.

The LP has seventeen songs: punk, quirky new wave, straight up rock and roll, and roots reggae from The Secrets, Drastic Measures, Cardboard Brains, The Scenics, The Mods, The Everglades, The Ugly, and Ishan Band. (A 2004 CD reissue, which I don’t have, apparently drops a couple of songs and adds songs by the Viletones and Teenage Head, who were the bands with the highest profile at the time, and who were at The Last Pogo.) As an album, it’s a good-sounding collection of the various styles in the early punk scene, with the usual caveat that it was probably more fun if you were actually there.

And that’s why it’s a good thing the DVD exists. Although it has less than half an hour of music footage from The Last Pogo, it nonetheless captures the vitality and excitement of a burgeoning new scene. You get to see several of the bands performing, and you get to see the cops shut the show down, and you get to see the aftermath of the riot (no, they didn’t film the riot itself). There’s also some interview footage of the show’s promoters and other interested parties. There’s so much happening that it’s surprising the film’s so short. To make up for that, there’s a half hour cable TV show featuring one of the bands, and you can watch the main feature with a video commentary by Chris Haight of the Viletones.

You can order the DVD for C$12 plus shipping. If you’re interested in the history of punk or of the evolution of the Canadian music scene, it’s a must. Meanwhile, the filmmaker, Colin Brunton, is working on a follow-up documentary The Last Pogo Jumps Again, revisiting all the musicians and fans who were there at The Last Pogo.

Vangelis: Blade Runner Trilogy (2007) February 17, 2009

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Vangelis: Blade Runner Trilogy

Vangelis: Blade Runner Trilogy

Just as Blade Runner’s mix of film noir and science fiction styles made the movie visually stunning, so too did the mix of electronic music, jazz, and other styles make the soundtrack a classic…. which makes it frustrating that the music has been so poorly served by official soundtrack releases.

The first official soundtrack didn’t even use the movie’s actual music; it was a rerecording by the New American Orchestra, and it didn’t capture the score at all well. But that’s all there was, aside from bootlegs. Until 1994, when Vangelis put together the first official release including his music from the film. It was a major improvement, but it still wasn’t quite what fans were waiting for. A lot of the film’s music was absent. New music was added. Most annoyingly, dialogue snippets were sprinkled across the album.

Before too long, though, Blade Runner fans had access to a whole new world of Blade Runner music through the Internet. Difficult-to-find bootlegs started popping up online. My own first discovery was a fan site with mp3s from the so-called Gongo and Offworld bootlegs. Those disks added a few tracks, including some non-Vangelis material that was used only briefly in the film, but were still missing a lot. Still, they gave an idea or two of what should be possible in a Blade Runner soundtrack.

There were also mp3s of Frank Klepacki’s soundtrack from the 1997 Blade Runner computer game. Klepacki emulated Vangelis’s style for the game, which I spent a lot of time playing — it does capture a lot of the movie’s atmosphere.

Then I discovered the Yahoo Blade Runner soundtrack group, which led to finding the Deck Art version as high quality mp3s. More music than the Offworld/Gongo, and better quality. And then the LA November 2019 CD, not a musical soundtrack but an ambient sound composition made up of sound effects from the movie and the game with occasional bits of music. And now I have the two CD Esper Edition, which is one of the most complete versions yet. (Not an original, of course, as there were only ten copies. But thanks to the digital nature of CDs, even if it’s a tenth generation copy, it’ll do nicely.)

All of those bootlegs are cool, but there are always some flaws, imperfections, bits of music missing due to lack of access to the original tapes, and so on. So imagine the excitement when it was announced that Vangelis was compiling a three-disc, 25th anniversary special edition of the soundtrack.

Then imagine the confusion when we heard what was going to be on those three discs. Instead of a full score, we were getting three distinct CDs. The first is the 1994 release, unchanged. The second is a collection of “previously unreleased and bonus material.” The third is “BR 25,” all new Vangelis music with voiceovers by random people.

Disc 2 is the main reason for Blade Runner fans who have the 1994 soundtrack to get this album. Unfortunately, most of the music on this disc is quieter and less dynamic and dramatic than what’s on disc 1, and isolating it here out of the context of the score as a whole makes it a bit of a dull slog at times. Also, according to some reviews, Vangelis has again tinkered with tracks, adding sound effects and other tweaks that once again defeat the goal of getting a real and complete Blade Runner soundtrack.

Disc 3, BR 25, is…. odd. If you want to hear Roman Polanski muttering some Polish poetry, or something from the Chinese ambassador to Cyprus, this disc has them. What they have to do with Blade Runner, I don’t really know. In theory, the idea of Vangelis going back to Blade Runner and creating a suite of new music inspired by the film is a good one. In reality, it’s a rather dull Vangelis album that sinks close to new age and lite jazz fusion territory while incorporating brief snatches of music that remind the listener of better music on the real soundtrack. The best thing I can say about the voiceovers is that they’re sometimes almost inaudible. Some people, to be fair, were quite happy with this disc, but I suspect it marks the dividing line between people who love Blade Runner but aren’t Vangelis fans in general, and people who love the Blade Runner soundtrack because they love Vangelis. Personally, I’ve tried listening to other Vangelis albums, but they just don’t click for me. Blade Runner is special.

So, can I recommend this CD? If you don’t have the time or interest to try to track down torrents of bootlegs, if you’re not a purist, and if you can find it for a reasonable price, then sure, the first two discs are worthwhile, especially if you resequence the tracks a bit in your preferred media player. If you’re a Vangelis fan you’ve already bought this.

Here’s some good background information on the Blade Runner soundtrack saga:

I Dreamt Music. This article, from 2002, provides a much more detailed history of the various releases of Blade Runner music up to that time. Outdated somewhat but still worth reading.

Visions in Sound. Bentley Ousley, author of the above article, is interviewed on radio about the Blade Runner soundtrack. The full discussion is available as a series of mp3s.