Showing posts with label Book Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book Review. Show all posts

September 11, 2014

Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks by Brad Dukes

Every episode that we were on television was kind of a miracle.” - Madchen Amick (Shelly Johnson)

There aren’t too many network dramas from 1990 that still inspire viewer marathons and high-quality Blu-ray releases today. Of course, calling Twin Peaks a “drama” is like saying Orange is the New Black is a comedy. The label feels slight and fails to do justice to the original qualities of the series. Several decades later, I’m still thinking about Bob, the Log Lady, the Giant, and the Black Lodge.

I want to know what really happened to Josie and still hope that Agent Cooper can escape his tragic fate. If you’re like me and obsessed with these topics, Brad Dukes’ Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks is the book for you. Nearly all the major cast and crew members speak warmly and openly about the experience of making the classic series. It was a true television landmark, and we’re still feeling its impact today.

Dukes provides a chronological history that does a lot more than just restate the well-known stories. The 310-page book feels like it could have been twice as long, and that isn’t just hyperbole. The reason is the wealth of untapped material from nearly every participant. It was a remarkable cast with veterans like Piper Laurie and Russ Tamblyn alongside new faces like Sheryl Lee and Sherilyn Fenn. They bring plenty to the table, and hearing from so many of them is a treat. While most had great experiences, there were some exceptions. Fenn speaks openly about frustrations with her character’s direction in the second season, and her candor is refreshing. Once Audrey’s relationship with Cooper was nixed, they didn’t have a great idea of what to do with the character.

Lee also describes the turmoil in portraying Laura Palmer and how the distress made a permanent impact. Along with playing a dead body, she also shot one of the most terrifying death scenes in TV history. I can still remember watching Maddy’s final scene as a 14-year-old in 1990 and having an awful time with it. Plus, they shot the same sequence three times over an entire day. How could anyone experience this brutality (even as an actor) and not be affected? Lee calls it “probably the most difficult day of work that I’ve had in my whole life”, and that’s totally understandable. Laura was her first role in front of the camera, and that’s quite an introduction. She’ll always be known for this character, and it wasn’t an easy part to play given all the nastiness towards her in the show and the prequel film.

It’s no huge surprise that we don’t hear from David Lynch in this book. He isn’t the kind of filmmaker that gives detailed interviews about the creative process. Thankfully, Mark Frost fills in many of the blanks from our understanding of Twin Peaks. Lynch gets most of the credit, but it’s clear it was more of an equal collaboration. Both guys brought their own skills, and the combination led to such a unique series. It’s too bad that both drifted away in the second season, and you can feel their absence when certain story lines go off the rails.

There’s a clear shift in tone between the sections on the pilot and first season with the final episodes. We hear a wide array of different theories on the reasons for the quick downfall. Many blame the network for moving the show to Saturdays and not believing in it, and that certainly played a role. However, maintaining the momentum was also challenging on the creative side. This a show that could run for 10 years.

Given the continued interest in Twin Peaks, it’s remarkable to realize how few books exist about it. There were several tie-ins during its run, including The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. A compilation of critical essays, Full of Secrets, was released in 1994. There was a definite need for this type of oral history from the people directly involved in the show. It reminds me of just how many brilliant artists were involved in just 30 episodes of television. People like Ray Wise, Lara Flynn Boyle, and even Don S. Davis have found success in other projects, but plenty have barely appeared since that time.

A guy like Eric DaRe was chilling as Leo Johnson but has few acting credits. Many will appear in a guest role here and there, but few are as memorable as they were on this show. This book provides a family reunion of sorts by connecting all their interviews into a smooth conversation. It’s a must-read for the countless fans of this continually spellbinding show. The clever mix of laughs, scares, and flat-out weird moments has never been seen again on television.

If you're interested in this book and Twin Peaks, you should also check out Joel Bocko's great interview with the author at the Lost at the Movies blog.

September 9, 2014

Book to Screen: Divergent (2014)

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Divergent

Veronica Roth’s Divergent is tailor-made for the big screen. Released in 2011, it’s the first installment in a trilogy of young-adult books. A teenage lead faces a new world and learns about her rare abilities. Who wouldn’t identify with that experience? Tris is becoming a strong individual and battling enemies while finding romance. She’s a loner and the only person capable of stopping the villains’ plans. It’s easy to compare this story to The Hunger Games, and there are some definite similarities. Both feature a female protagonist and a post-apocalyptic universe, though the structure and politics are much different. I’ll avoid focusing too much on those connections during this piece. It’s the first in a new series on this site that will cover both the original book and the film adaptation for various titles. The frequency will depend on my ability to find the reading time. These books are long! I’m starting with Divergent, which thrived at the box office in March.

The novel Divergent, written by Veronica Roth

The Book

Let’s begin with the book, a first-person narrative about Tris’ induction into the Dauntless faction. They’re a warrior group with no tolerance for weaklings, so Tris struggles to prove her worth. Stepping back for a moment, this world is divided into five factions based on particular traits. When they turn 16, each teen faces a test that reveals where they should go (I’d fall within Candor or Amity). They aren’t required to choose that group, though. Tris is a rare case and “divergent”, which means her skills cross multiple factions. We spend a majority of the book with the Dauntless before the real threat becomes clear in the final pages. Roth takes her time and depicts the other initiates and the testing process. It’s the type of information that a film can’t provide. By the time we reach the end, our understanding of this universe is clear. The structure may be a stretch, however.

The first-person perspective puts us inside Tris’ mind, so it’s easy to understand her thought process. The dialogue gets awkward, especially when it covers her growing bond with Four. It makes sense from a 16-year-old’s mind, though. Comprehending how the factions really function is a greater challenge. Would the demarcation between each one fit so clearly? Dauntless leaders have created new rules that weed out weaker members, but they’re an exception. How would the Amity faction ensure they remain peaceful and happy? The key to enjoying Divergent is accepting this world on faith and pushing any concerns out of your mind. Roth uses the split to make a point about people having more diverse personalities. Putting everyone into a box is just encouraging dissenters to pursue a violent conflict. They’ll see the others as a threat and want to control the world, while other free thinkers with a similar mindset become dangerous towards their power.

The factions are a direct allegory and remind us that having a divided society is a bad idea. Roth nails down the themes by having the smart group prepare to grab control from the humble one. Like political parties vying for power, ethical rules fly out the window. The book is entertaining because it never feels heavy handed, thankfully. Roth seems to understand that the most important move is building an interesting story. Tris is like a student entering a new high school, and the growing friendships (and young love) keep us engaged without considering the larger message. There are no huge surprises, but the plot moves along and doesn’t get bogged down in too much exposition. The result is a page-turner that won’t astound you but is appealing enough to make it worth your time.

Divergent, directed by Neil Burger and starring Shailene Woodley

The Movie

The Divergent film is directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless), and it doesn’t stray much from the source. We stick with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and follow her through the Dauntless training. We don’t get more background on Four (Theo James), the villainous Jeanine (Kate Winslet), or others unless it connects to Tris. That maintains the focus of the novel but makes the world smaller. Despite expensive visual effects, it doesn’t feel like a complete universe. That isn’t a huge negative, however. Instead of wasting time explaining the intricate details, the characters are the focus. The challenge is doing justice to the book without sticking too closely to it. The Harry Potter movies faced a similar obstacle, and they became much stronger when they strayed from them. This film doesn’t try to cram in every moment, but it stays faithful to the book despite removing a few key moments.

The best move is casting Shailene Woodley, who makes Tris believable and doesn’t over sell her skills. It’s a subtle performance that reins in the emotions, which fits with the humble Abnegation background. The other actors are a mixed bag, however. Theo James is okay as Four, and Miles Teller has fun with the conniving Peter. We barely get a chance to know Tris’ friends Christina, Al, and Will; they’re victims of the limits in a film version. The trouble is that it mutes the impact of the key emotional moments. It’s hard to care about Al because we hardly know him. I wonder if he was needed at all in the movie. We’re rushing headlong towards the climax, and the few minutes leading to his tragic end don’t give us enough to care. Writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor had to make tough choices, and I would have enjoyed a leaner two-hour version that excised a few more subplots.

Despite these issues, Burger finds the right tone for this fictional universe. The Dauntless world is tricky because it sounds ludicrous, yet the environment feels right. The grey color palette fits the spare and grimy world of warriors that have little time for luxuries. They're too busy trying to prove their dominance. A key factor was shooting on location in Chicago, including the Navy Pier and its Ferris Wheel for the war games where Tris makes her name. The pace also works and moves quickly through the testing process. These assessments include mental challenges in a dream universe, and those visions are great. Watching Tris face down hawks and struggle with drowning keeps the impact on the screen. The final test lacks the power from the book, but that could relate to the PG-13 rating. Instead of choosing between sex or death in the test, Tris just pushes Four out of the way and moves to the next fear. It’s essentially the warm-up act for the real battle against Jeanine’s forces, so Burger doesn’t waste too much time on that scenario.

Divergent, a 2014 film based on the novel by Veronica Roth

The Last Word

Divergent is an easy read and written for YA audiences, and the book works in that realm. I’m curious enough to check out the second installment, so that’s an achievement. The movie should please the novel’s many fans, though it could also baffle viewers unfamiliar with the source. I had to explain a few parts to Erin that weren’t explained well in the movie. Many popular genre books (The Giver, Ender’s Game) have failed on the big screen, so I shouldn’t discount its success. The young cast keeps the material from being too dour, and Woodley was the right choice to lead the franchise. I won’t be lining up to see the next movie, but there was enough to keep me interested. I’m hoping that Roth and the filmmakers expand the world in the follow-up books and movies. If that happens, there’s enough in the basic formula to deliver an engaging story. That’s enough, right?

April 7, 2014

Scorsese by Ebert

Scorsese by Ebert book

Before the rise of the Internet, one of my favorite pastimes was reading the Roger Ebert Movie Yearbook. It compiled his reviews from the past year plus others of notable films. Getting access to the best film criticism was trickier, so having so much great writing within one book was rare. That’s hardly the case today, which raises the question about whether books compiling reviews still have relevance. Most critics’ thoughts on any film are just a few clicks away, so is there a difference on the printed page? This brings me to the Scorsese by Ebert book, a 2008 release that collects reviews, interviews, and other pieces about the legendary director. Ebert adds some new pieces reconsidering certain films, but it’s mostly recycled work. Despite the availability of this writing elsewhere, there’s still plenty to enjoy within this remarkable book that discusses classic films from the past four decades.

What makes the book shine is the way it depicts Scorsese’s evolution through the eyes of a critic who’s followed him since the beginning. Ebert’s review of Who’s That Knocking at My Door (then called I Call First) in November 1967 was Scorsese’s first. He hasn’t loved every film, but they’ve always introduced an interesting discussion. I share Ebert’s mixed feelings about Kundun, which is beautiful yet doesn’t have the same emotional connection. While I might not be as high on Bringing out the Dead, I share the feeling that it’s an underrated gem. I’m also right with Ebert on After Hours, which creates such a sense of dread within the confines of a zany comedy. Gangs of New York is one of Scorsese’s most ambitious works, yet I’m also a bit more lukewarm on some of its characters. Even when I disagree with Ebert, it’s never irritating to read his well-defined thoughts about these movies.

Raging Bull is considered one of the '80s best films

A highlight is the 49-page transcript of an interview that Ebert conducted with Scorsese at the Wexner Center of the Arts at Ohio State University. The 1997 discussion covers his entire career and offers so many insights about his directing approach. This book is worth every penny just to check out this amazing interview. It’s hardly a one-sided affair either. Ebert has plenty to offer with his takes on Scorsese’s films, and the conversations heads in such interesting directions. The look at Raging Bull in particular is so engaging because it reveals how essential it was in continuing his career. His comments are hardly the standard fare you’d expect and show how Scorsese looks at film. Here’s a perfect example:

We have to be in there with him and it’s gotta be The Wild Bunch. Every punch has to be worked out in such a way, or let’s say, not every punch, but you have to do it like music. You have to do it like it’s from the musical sequences in New York, New York where three bars of music was one shot, literally. Not four cameras then you cut ‘em together in the editing room. That’s selecting, not directing; it’s a different thing, you know. But directing is…these four punches…one, two, three, four, camera tracks from left to right, swings around over the should of the guy who’s getting hit, and we see a close-up of LaMotta hitting him. And it’s gotta be a knock, shoom, like this, and as fast as the punch is.

Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas

This quote does more than remind us about Scorsese’s rapid-fire pace when speaking about his films. It provides the glimpse at a guy who understands movie making like few others. He’s talking about a project from 17 years ago, yet it sounds like he’s describing a picture that he shot yesterday. Another bonus is Ebert’s introductions to the six parts that summarize his thoughts on each section. The final section includes his Great Movies articles on five Scorsese films, with The Age of Innocence being the surprise among the obvious classics like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. It’s a remarkable film and definitely worthy, but it rarely gets the same acclaim. Ebert has a clear understanding about why that movie and the Edith Wharton novel are so powerful. It’s another reason why he’s inspired so many young writers and continues to bring more into the fold after his passing. This book is highly recommended for fans of either guy and shows plenty about both of their fine careers.

March 7, 2014

Making Movies by Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet had a directorial career of more than 50 years.

One of the goals with my writing this year is to avoid extreme statements that represent an absolute point about a film. This is especially true on the negative end of the spectrum. It’s too easy to call something out with terms like “terrible”, “awful”, or “worst” to deride a movie that doesn’t work for me. So many different elements can lead to a performance that falls short or directing that seems to miss the mark. After reading Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, I’m even more convinced this is the right approach. This excellent book explores the countless facets that make up the completed movie. Given all those aspects, I’m amazed that we even get as many great films as we do. Factors completely outside of the director’s control can derail a project or make it truly original.

Lumet is well-known as the director of classics like Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Serpico during the ‘70s, but he was quite prolific over a more than 50-year career. He also shot the courtroom dramas 12 Angry Men and The Verdict. There are many films that I know little about from his background. This book offers anecdotes from across the spectrum that give valuable details into his thought process. He isn’t afraid to speak candidly about difficulties when it’s necessary but never resorts to cheap shots. The offenders go unnamed while talents like Katherine Hepburn, Sean Connery, and Al Pacino get justifiable praise. This is hardly your typical behind-the-scenes piece about working in Hollywood. The title says all you need to know about Lumet’s goals with this book. He’s giving us a look behind the curtain about each step of the process in putting the pieces together to make a movie.

Al Pacino and John Casale in Dog Day Afternoon.

Written in 1995, Making Movies arrives at a time before digital projection had taken over the industry. It’s interesting to note how we’ve moved past some of the practices described with celluloid. It still applies to modern cinema, however. Lumet talks frequently about working with actors from the opening reading to shooting daily on the set. I’ve rarely read a book that so vividly captures what it feels like on a movie set, at least in theory. His writing is down to earth and gives movie fans a chance to get a clearer grasp of the process.

An intriguing chapter focuses on style, a term frequently used by bloggers and film critics. A common idea of “style over substance” often appears, particularly when looking at big-budget films. Lumet describes style as the way you tell a particular story and doesn’t side with the idea that it’s separate from the content of the movie. This concept hits home and makes sense, though it may not apply to ever filmmaker. It definitely fits within his work, which isn’t known for visual flourishes. Paddy Chayefsky’s Network script gets plenty of attention, but it only works if Lumet can sell it. This chapter is interesting because it says so much about his movies. It doesn’t mean that I agree with all of his points. It’s rare to get such a specific perspective from a director with so much to say about the medium.

Peter Finch in Network

The final section covers Lumet’s tricky relationship with the studio and the challenge of test screenings. I’m frequently amazed by the contentious ways that executives deal with directors. It’s a commodity-based medium with profits as the sole goal, and that atmosphere’s only increased since the book was written. Lumet gives previews a fair shake, but it’s clear they’re difficult for a guy who comes from a different era. Making Movies offers plenty of insights into his thoughts process and is a surprisingly easy read. I need to see a lot more of his work, especially movies he cites repeatedly like Prince of the City. I’ll be curious to read this book again after seeing those films. Given all the material that’s packed into it, there should be a lot more to learn from such an accomplished filmmaker.

February 12, 2014

The Disneyland Story by Sam Gennawey

A trip to Walt Disney World has become a rite of passage for many families with young children. Super Bowl winners announce “I’m going to Disney World!” on TV right after the game. People drop thousands of dollars to experience the “magic”, meet Mickey Mouse, and ride Space Mountain. But what about the original park that spawned it almost 60 years ago? Disneyland is still very popular and draws huge crowds in California, yet it’s sometimes forgotten amid the rush to Florida. I visited the park as a kid in 1985 but didn’t return until a brief stay in 2012. That recent trip was an eye-opener about the differences between the two resorts. Both have plenty of charms, yet the original feels so different. It’s a lot smaller, but there’s an authenticity that can’t be recreated. Walt Disney had a direct hand in its creation, and there was nothing else like it in 1955. While you can’t go anywhere and escape Disney these days, the original park was a risky proposition. It became an incredible success, but there were plenty of obstacles before it even got off the ground.

The history of Disneyland is chronicled brilliantly in Sam Gennawey’s The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream. Released in November, the book offers a comprehensive look at the park’s evolution into the place it is today. It’s essentially a biography of Disneyland that documents the ups and downs of keeping it relevant to new generations. Despite the wealth of information, this book never feels like a dry history lesson. Gennawey balances well-known anecdotes with material that’s barely seen the light of day. It’s a well-researched look at a place that’s still remarkable today.

A challenge with many Disney history books is the lack of depth because the writers are too close to the material. They restate myths and are so enchanted by the marketing idea of “Disney magic” that they never get beyond the surface. This isn’t an issue with this book, and that relates to Gennawey’s background as an urban planner. He loves the parks but can look beyond the charms and discuss them on a larger scale. The challenges in complying with the city of Anaheim are sometimes just as interesting as the attractions. Disney could be ruthless in getting the government to go along with its plans, though the obstacles grew larger as the city expanded. Gennawey also wrote the excellent book Walt and the Promise of Progress City about Walt Disney’s plans to build an experimental community in Florida. Walt died before it came to fruition, and the result was a much different EPCOT. Gennawey brings a similar mix of fandom and intellectual curiosity to this project.

A highlight is an extensive section where Gennawey walks the reader through each land during the park’s opening day. It’s remarkable to learn about some of the odder attractions (they had mule rides!) that were considered a big deal at the time. Walt continually tinkered with the parks and kept adding new things at a rapid pace. For instance, he didn’t have the time or money to do a real Tomorrowland in 1955, so it was nearly empty at the opening. Four years later, he added the submarines and the Monorail plus the Matterhorn nearby. That major expansion changed the face of the park and started it on the path to what’s present today. The Fantasyland dark rides were so different than the current versions of classics like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Peter Pan’s Flight. Attractions have been repainted, torn down, and extended into something that resembles the original but fits the modern age.

A surprising chapter looks at Disney’s original ideas for the second gate that eventually became California Adventure. Their ambitious plans for a DisneySea park would have been amazing, and it’s sad to realize that some of the attractions that are thrilling visitors in Tokyo could be in California. They also had plans for a west coast version of EPCOT that would have been intriguing. I also expect that the current issues at EPCOT in Florida might not be there if it had a sister park at Disneyland. It might have strengthened the brand and given them more pressure to keep it relevant. Like California Adventure’s low-budget approach when it opened, those projects might not have been so ambitious by the time they were constructed. Even so, it would have been amazing to see what happened.

The Disneyland Story is aimed at Disney fans interested in more than the standard marketing materials. That means it’s basically written for me, and I was sad to finish it. There isn’t anything on par with this book in print, and having so much fascinating material in a single book is so refreshing. This is clearly a passion project for Gennawey, yet it reads like a professional and nuanced portrayal of a beloved park. I dare any Disney fan to read this book and not immediately want to make their travel plans for California. The park’s 60th anniversary is next year. Who’s with me?

Photo Credits: 1 by Sam Gennawey, 2 and 3 by Jeff Kurtti

December 7, 2011

Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

I typically read about 50 books a year, and very few of them are memoirs. Even when I'm interested in that person, that format isn't the most exciting way to learn more about the subject. NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast recently did a feature about impressive new memoirs, and they sounded like good reads. However, I'm unlikely to read the selections anytime soon. Even with this hesitation, I decided that I couldn't pass up reading about the life of my favorite film critics, Roger Ebert. Given his love of film, excellent writing, and recent health difficulties, his memoir Life Itself was worth making an exception to my usual rule. I still wondered if the non-film chapters would be interesting, but my hesitation was unnecessary. It's easily one of the most enjoyable books that I've read this year.

One of my concerns was that Ebert's pre-critic life would be less interesting. Would we spend hundreds of pages learning about his days in school? Thankfully, Ebert provides engaging anecdotes that avoid the typical formula. Even when he talks about his family, the material flows well because of the insight into his personality. It also helps that he's a good writer, which is not always the case in this genre. I also wasn't aware that Ebert is an alcoholic, and his candid words about that affliction are surprisingly honest. This matter-of-fact approach keeps him from falling into predictable territory.

Roger Ebert

Another highlight is Ebert's discussion of his recent health issues, which have left him without the ability to speak. Although he looks much different because of complications with facial surgeries, he maintains a public presence. What's admirable is how this book describes the situation without trying to shape his return as a remarkable triumph. Instead, Ebert discusses his experiences in a straightforward fashion. There's no need to  get self-indulgent and push his courage down our throat. This isn't a surprise if you'd read Ebert's blog, but it's still refreshing to see him avoid the easy route.

Although Life Itself's first half covers Ebert's pre-critic life, he still includes plenty of material that will interest movie fans. Chapters on Werner Herzog, Woody Allen, Robert Mitchum, and other legendary icons provide great information about the artists and his relationship to them. The details might be familiar to readers who've read his other books, but it's still very interesting. My favorite section discusses Gene Siskel and the origins of their famous television series. It's an honest, enjoyable look at a show that helped to change the face of film criticism. Siskel and Ebert became worldwide icons, but their genuine love of film remained throughout the experience.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

Back in 2006 and 2007, I watched all the films from Ebert's first Great Movies book that I'd missed up to that point. This attempt forced me to tackle movies I never would have seen without the push of this project. Some screenings were difficult (The Apu Trilogy, Broken Blossoms), while others (Persona, The Exterminating Angel) were eye-opening. I chronicled this experience on my brother's website Erasing Clouds over 37 posts. The writing wasn't always great, but putting my thoughts down kept me focused on the plan. The best part was getting the chance to read Ebert's essays immediately after screening the movies. His writing pointed out key themes that I'd missed without seeming pretentious. I didn't always agree with Ebert's take, but his thoughts were always interesting.

If it wasn't obvious by this point, I'm a big fan of Ebert and believe he remains one of the best film writers. I'll admit that he's giving fewer negative reviews lately and has lightened his approach to criticism, but his words remain sharp and insightful. Personally, reading his work over the years has inspired me to write better and learn more about film history. An excellent resource is Awake in the Dark, a recent collection of Ebert's strongest writing during his career. I'm frequently revisiting that book and the Great Movies collections, even when I've read the pieces in the past. Life Itself deserves a place alongside Ebert's best work and is highly recommended, even if you're not a movie fanatic.