Thursday, June 26, 2014

If You Have To Shoot, Shoot....Don't Blog

The recent passing of actor Eli Wallach prompted a number of tributes to the man on the internet. All of these tributes mentioned Wallach's role as Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. As a matter of fact, GBU was just about the only movie mentioned in most of the posts. In a way, this does Eli Wallach a bit of a disservice. Wallach had a long and varied screen career, and a lot of his performances deserve to be better known.

The fact that Wallach's passing brought out so many mentions of his portrayal of Tuco is testimony to how much THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is ingrained in popular culture. If you go back and read most of the original reviews of GBU when it first came out, you will find that just about every critic considered it violent junk. Sergio Leone really was ahead of his time. GBU is my second-favorite movie (next to the original 1977 version of STAR WARS) and I've been fascinated by it every since I first saw it way back on TV in the 1980s.

I not only know just about every line of dialogue from GBU, I also know just about every camera angle. I watch it about two or three times a year, and the more and more I see it, the more I realize how magnificent a job Eli Wallach did.

Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (also known as "The Rat") is not a decent guy. He's a thief, a liar, and a cheat. He's vicious, cruel, dirty, and obnoxious. His list of "known" crimes is so long that it becomes a running gag. But despite all wind up liking Tuco. He's so full of energy and vitality that you can't take your eyes off him when he appears on the screen. He's the heart and soul of GBU.

Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef may be billed ahead of Wallach in the credits, but make no mistake--Wallach is the film's leading man. He's the one who gets the most screen time, and the one who gets the most dialogue (Wallach says more lines in two minutes than Eastwood does in the whole DOLLARS trilogy). Even when Tuco isn't really doing anything, he's doing something. He's constantly scratching or rubbing himself, or making faces, or taking in his surroundings. Look at the scene where Tuco is observing a Civil War battle being fought right in front of him. Tuco has the wide-eyed wonderment of a child--and it's no wonder, since in many ways Tuco is a child (albeit one who has a deadly proficiency with firearms). Also notice the legendary "Ecstasy of Gold" sequence--Tuco's running around the graveyard in search of a certain tombstone reminds me of a kid running around a playground in search of a lost toy.

There's another thing that's appealing about Tuco--he's genuinely funny (even though the character is not trying to be funny). I've read stories that during the making of GBU, Sergio Leone was so tickled by Wallach's antics that the director basically let the actor decide how to play the role. The result was that Clint Eastwood (to his own bemusement) wound up being a supporting actor in a movie supposedly built around him.

Not only is Tuco the most appealing character, he's also the only one that is really human. The characters of Eastwood and Van Cleef are almost unemotional superheroes, with no real ties to anyone whatsoever. Tuco, however, has a wife (maybe several), and we actually meet his brother, a priest (in one of the best, and most surprising, scenes in any of Leone's films). During the running time of GBU we experience every single facet of Tuco's personality. At the end of the film we feel that we know him--and you certainly can't say the same thing about the characters of Eastwood and Van Cleef.

Most American actors of the mid-1960s would have looked at a role like Tuco as something of an insult (especially in a movie like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY). At the time of the making of GBU Eli Wallach already had a distinguished acting pedigree. He could have turned his nose up at a character like Tuco....but instead he took it and ran with it. He not only stole a film right out from under the nose of a legendary movie star, he also firmly cemented a place for himself in cinema history.

I was going to end this by saying that it would be a shame if Eli Wallach is remembered for nothing more than being Tuco....but, really, it wouldn't be a shame at all.

The MGM Blogathon: GASLIGHT (1944)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is without doubt the most famous of all Hollywood movie studios. Most film buffs consider MGM to be the cream of the crop, the ultimate example of a classic cinema factory. When I decided to participate in this MGM Blogathon, I wanted to write about a film that epitomizes everything that MGM stood for--a production that had lush art direction, beautiful cinematography, major leading stars, and a famous story. The film that I have chosen is 1944's GASLIGHT, directed by George Cukor.

GASLIGHT is based on a British stage play by Patrick Hamilton. The play had already been adapted to the screen in a 1940 English film. The MGM version expands upon the play, and it is far more luxurious than the original film version.

Ingrid Bergman plays Paula Alquist, the niece of a famous opera singer. Paula's aunt was murdered in her own London home, and after the crime Paula was sent abroad to train to be a singer. Paula meets and falls in love with the mysterious Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). After the couple is married, Gregory convinces Paula to move back into her aunt's London townhouse. The house has an effect on Paula, as does the strange behavior of her spouse.

It will not be much of a surprise to know that Gregory killed Paula's aunt, and he is trying to drive Paula insane so he can get control of the house and the treasure that he thinks is hidden there. GASLIGHT isn't really much of a mystery--almost from the beginning Gregory acts suspicious and Paula acts emotionally fragile. The real suspense in the film is observing Paula being mentally abused by Gregory. Bergman plays it to the hilt (she won a well-deserved Best Actress Academy Award for GASLIGHT), but she never goes too far over the top. Bergman's situation--and her beauty--make the viewer worry about her plight.

Charles Boyer is particularly cold-blooded as Gregory (some say he's a bit too obvious). Director Cukor goes out of his way to show that Gregory, if anything, is even more emotionally disturbed than Paula. The climax, in which Paula is given a chance to turn the tables on Gregory, is an all-time classic MGM moment.

In the original play and film of this story, the role of the Inspector was played by a middle-aged man. In the MGM version the middle-aged man is changed to the very younger--and very un-British--Joseph Cotten. This allowed MGM to showcase three major stars instead of two. I wouldn't say Cotten's presence ruins the story....but if the role of the Inspector had been played by one of the many character actors under contract to MGM, the Inspector might have been a bit more interesting. (What's really interesting is how MGM cast three of the most non-English stars available in a British period thriller, and made it work.)

The supporting cast is well up to MGM standards as well. Dame May Witty plays Paula's very noisy neighbor, and Paula's first meeting of the woman on a train reminded me of Witty's role in Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES. The other major supporting role proves that not only did MGM use major stars, they introduced several as well. Angela Lansbury, in her movie debut, plays the upstart maid Nancy. Lansbury all but steals the film, and she even nabbed a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

George Cukor is now remembered for being a "woman's director", and he certainly got magnificent performances from Bergman, Witty, and Lansbury. But GASLIGHT may be Cukor's most visually stunning film, thanks to the exquisite cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg (who was also nominated for an Oscar for this movie). Ruttenberg's style here can best be described as "Victorian Noir". The art direction (which garnered an Oscar) and production design certainly helped contribute to the mood of this picture. Like most MGM films of the 1930s and 40s, GASLIGHT has a glossy, expensive look to it--the sets representing Paula's house are so filled with 1890s household bric-a-brac that it really feels that someone actually lives there.

Today many film historians sing the praises of the 1940 GASLIGHT (which is included on the DVD of the 1944 GASLIGHT). Some critics say the 1944 version is over-long and too opulent (the 1944 GASLIGHT is a half-hour longer than the original). The 1940 GASLIGHT isn't bad....but for my money the MGM version is a great classic film. It is first class in every single department, and a true example of a studio at the height of its power. The 1944 GASLIGHT was nominated for seven Oscars overall, and this was when the Academy Awards actually meant something. GASLIGHT is MGM at its finest.


Ingrid Bergman in GASLIGHT

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Universal Problem

The above picture is a DVD box set that Universal will be releasing later on this year. Is this great news for monster fans? Well, yeah, if you don't have any of these movies on home video. And let's face it--if you are a monster movie fan, you own all these movies already, and you've probably bought them multiple times.

Heck, it wasn't that long ago that Universal released a Blu-ray box set containing some of the films in this collection. Universal has put out their classic monster films on DVD about three or four times. Why this super-duper box set--especially in an era in which most of the major studios are upgrading their film catalogs to Blu-ray--is coming out now is a bit puzzling.

But Universal has always acted somewhat strange when it comes to releasing product on home video. There's hundreds of movies that they control that still have not seen the light of day on DVD or Blu-ray. Universal owns the rights to most of the Paramount films from the early 1930s through 1948, and very few of those entries have made it out. That includes a lot of classic films with big stars and famous directors, including a number of titles featuring Carole Lombard.

And there's still classic monster movies that have yet to make an American DVD debut. There's a few Universal thrillers from the 30s and 40s still missing, and some more scattered titles such as ISLAND OF TERROR--a film directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing. (Does Universal really think that film collectors would not be interested in that?)

I understand that Universal has to market their most famous material, and get the most out of their assets--but how are they doing that by re-releasing the same stuff over and over again? This "new" set is going to have a list price of over $120. I bet if you did some internet digging, and went on Amazon, or, or Ebay, you could get all 30 of these movies for less than $120. They are all already out on DVD, so that shouldn't be too hard.

The other thing about this "new" set is that it has no new extras to speak of--no new documentaries, no new audio commentaries, nothing. And no Blu-ray.

There's another monster movie set Universal will be re-releasing this year as well--their Hammer Horror set, which came out about a decade ago. That first set was in DVD--just like the new edition! About the only thing different in the 2014 Hammer set is that apparently the discs will not be double-sided. Universal is missing out on a prime opportunity by not putting the whole Hammer set on Blu-ray....if they would just put BRIDES OF DRACULA on Blu-ray alone, monster movie fans would go crazy.

Universal is one of the most famous and historic movie studios in the entire world. Why they seem so reticent to put more of their legendary past out on the market is beyond me. Yes, I know sales have something to do with it--but with so many titles just sitting on the shelf going to waste, wouldn't it make sense to try and get something out of them? Companies like Criterion and Kino have done more with Universal's back catalog than Universal has.

I know someone out there is probably thinking, "What's the big deal? Everything is going to be streaming or available on the internet sooner or later anyway." That could very well be true, but my response is this. What happens when someone pushes the delete button?

Monday, June 23, 2014


If you been reading this blog, you'll know how much I enjoy the animated adaptations of the DC Comics Universe. I still say that the people responsible for these various features and television programs should be the ones responsible for the live-action DC Superhero movies. That idea will more than likely never happen--but at least the animated features keep on coming.

One of the most ambitious DC Comics animated adaptations of them all was the recent version of Frank Miller's seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. That 1986 graphic novel is one of the most acclaimed and controversial comic books of all time. Trying to adapt it in any format is just asking for trouble. It wouldn't be impossible to do it in live-action....Miller's work has been the basis for films like 300 and SIN CITY. An animated THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS would seem to be the way to go. This version is a worthy attempt, but I think in the end it comes up a bit short.

This story was originally released to home video in two parts. The Deluxe Edition combines the two, unabridged, into a 148-minute feature. That's a mammoth running time for an animated movie, and it shows that the crew behind it tried to incorporate as much of Miller's story as possible. Just about everything that was in Miller's original graphic novel is in the animated feature--but it is presented in a slightly different way. The animators try to live up to Miller's iconoclastic milieu....but in my opinion it just doesn't have Miller's spirit. It's not a bad all fairness, it is probably the best that could have been done, considering the format and the material. (By the way, Frank Miller had nothing to do with this animated feature.)

The movie tries to imitate Miller's visual style--but at the same time, it doesn't try to go to far with it. There are many scenes and characters which still look relatively normal. Several of Miller's iconic comic panels are reproduced, but they stand alongside a number of scenes that don't look like Miller's work at all. I think the animators felt that two and a half hours of pure Miller might have been a bit too much for some viewers.

This feature is rated PG-13. In all honesty, any real adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns would have to be rated R. The animated version is a bit watered down--but make no mistake, it is definitely not for kids (even though I saw it placed in the Kids movie section at my local Target).

I have to point out one of the politically correct changes. In Miller's comic, Commissioner Gordon is constantly smoking a cigar. In the animated feature, Gordon chews gum. What gets me about this is that the animated feature shows the Joker shooting several people at point blank range....but you can't show Gordon smoking a cigar??

I guess in the end no matter how the animated movie came out, it would in no way match up to the game-changing impact that Frank Miller's original concept had. The Dark Knight Returns is almost a genre unto itself, and any attempt to transpose it to a standard narrative form will feel a bit lacking. I do have to give credit to DC and Warner Animation for trying.

The extras on this Deluxe Edition may excite comic book geeks more than the feature. There's a 78-minute documentary on Frank Miller and his creation of The Dark Knight Returns. This is highly recommended, mainly due to the fact that Miller himself appears in it. There are also other extras discussing plot points involved in Miller's work, and a talk with director Jay Oliva on the adaptation process (which wasn't as illuminating as I thought it would be). Another interesting extra is a short look at the life of Batman creator Bob Kane, which reveals that the man had a rather complex personality.

I think this Deluxe Edition is a worthy purchase, simply for the extras alone. The feature itself is well done--but it is certainly not as good as the original comic. In the end this edition is more for major Batman comic book fans (notice I didn't say Batman movie fans).

Monster Bash 2014

On June 20-21, I attended the 2014 Summer Monster Bash, which was held at the Four Points Pittsburgh North Sheraton in Mars, PA. Just like last year's Bash, I had a great time and met a lot of nice people.

My personal highlight of the Bash was meeting actress Julie Adams. She's best known for starring in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but she has really had an amazing career in movies & TV. I also purchased her autobiography, and I will be posting a review of it on this blog as soon as I read it.

With Julie Adams

Autographed photo of Julie Adams
I also met Ricou Browning, who played the Creature in the underwater scenes of all three Black Lagoon films.

With Ricou Browning

Autographed photo of Ricou Browning
There were plenty of vendors and memorabilia dealers there--if I had won the lottery, I could have gone to Monster Bash and still wound up broke.

One Monster Bash story I have to relate: I was in the hotel elevator, and who walks in but none other than Judith O'Dea (who played Barbara in the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD). So of course I looked at her and said...."Uhh...we're not going to get attacked by zombies while we're in here, are we?" She laughed, but I'm sure by the end of the Bash she was probably getting tired of comments like that.

If you are a major classic horror/science-fiction fan Monster Bash is definitely worth going to. It has a low-key, laid-back is certainly more fan-friendly than all the bigger conventions like Wizard World. I was even recognized by author and film historian Frank Dello Stritto, which I thought was pretty cool.

The next Monster Bash will held October 10-12 of this year. This one will have a Hammer Films theme, with guests such as Caroline Munro, Veronica Carlson, Yvonne Monlaur, and.....Larry Storch??


The McDougal's Wax Display, inspired by ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN

.....and speaking of Abbott & Costello...

An original poster for HORROR OF DRACULA. They only wanted $1200 for it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


The city of Chicago, Illinois has been featured in hundreds of theatrical films. There's no other big city that looks (or feels) like Chicago. You can't fake Chicago--although that hasn't stopped a number of producers and directors from trying in recent years.

WORLD FILM LOCATIONS--CHICAGO, edited by Scott Jordan Harris, covers 46 different scenes from various movies that were shot in the Windy City. Most of the usual suspects are included here such as THE BLUES BROTHERS, FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF, and THE UNTOUCHABLES. But there are also a number of not-so-famous films (and not-so-famous Chicago landmarks) featured as well.

Each location's address is given and a recent photo as well. Some of the locations do not exist anymore (such as good old original Comiskey Park--yes, it is in this book), and some of them are no longer recognizable. A brief synopsis for each scene discusses the location within the context of the film and the location's part of Chicago history.

This book also includes chapters on African-American pioneer film director Oscar Micheaux, Roger Ebert, the Chicago Gangster film, and the numerous Chicago film festivals.

Most of the writers of the chapters have a Chicago connection in some way, and understand the unique Midwestern sensibility that the city has. This is more than just a "tour guide" book (even though it can be used as such). Along with highlighting certain landmarks and buildings, the book tries to give the reader a sense of what makes Chicago so artistically stimulating.

WORLD FILM LOCATIONS--CHICAGO is a nice little book (its small size makes it easy to carry around on your next trip to the city). It is part of the World Film Locations book series.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

RED RIVER From Criterion

One of the greatest Westerns of all time--some would even say the greatest--has just been released on Blu-ray/DVD by Criterion. It is Howard Hawks' majestic RED RIVER (1948).

Those who have seen RED RIVER for the first time might wonder what all the fuss is about. They might consider the movie a somewhat generic Western tale about a giant cattle drive. That's because those viewers do not realize that RED RIVER introduced several now-familiar Western stereotypes. Dozens of films and TV shows have been inspired by RED RIVER (perhaps "copied" or "ripped off" are more accurate terms).

John Wayne (in one of his best roles) plays larger-than-life Texas cattle baron Tom Dunson, who is forced by financial circumstances to attempt to drive his entire stock on an arduous journey to Missouri. Dunson's adoptive son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his film debut) has some very different ideas on how the drive should go. Dunson becomes more and more obsessive, and eventually Matt and the other trail hands take over the heard and leave Dunson stranded and injured. Dunson swears he will catch up to Matt and kill him. This sets up a showdown between Tom and Matt which ends in a rather peculiar way.

After seeing the film, legendary director John Ford was supposedly so impressed by John Wayne's performance that he told Howard Hawks, "I didn't know the big son-of-a-bitch could act!!" Personally I think Ford knew Wayne could act all along, or else he would have never used him in the first place. I feel Ford was really expressing his surprise at what a great Western Hawks had made, and what a great job Wayne did in the film. Howard Hawks is one of the classic Hollywood directors who doesn't get as much respect as, say, Ford, Capra, or Billy Wilder. This is because Hawks never tried to be an "artist" and he never tried to have a message or a theme; he just tried to make entertaining films. Hawks worked in every genre possible, and he mastered every one of them. RED RIVER was, believe it or not, his very first Western. Upon seeing RED RIVER one would think that Hawks had been making Westerns for years.

The movie has many memorable moments--the beginning of the film, where Wayne says goodbye to his true love; the start of the cattle drive; the cattle stampede; an Indian attack; and the climax, which I won't give away, and which some may say is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

I had actually not seen RED RIVER in a while until I bought this Blu-ray/DVD set. I used to think that Montgomery Clift was miscast in this film--but after seeing both versions of RED RIVER, I've changed my mind. The whole point of the story is that Matthew Garth and Tom Dunson are two very different people--and Montgomery Clift is 180 degrees different than John Wayne. If Hawks had cast a more "tougher" personality--say, Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster (who were also starting their film careers in the late 1940s)--the story might not have worked as well.

RED RIVER has a fine supporting cast of well-known faces, including Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Hank Worden, Harry Carey Sr. (and Jr.), Noah Beery, and Paul Fix. There's also Joanne Dru...and how you feel about her will depend on how you feel about the film's ending.

Criterion once again puts out an impressive package. There are four discs overall--two DVDs and two Blu-rays. There are two versions of RED RIVER presented here--a 133 minute "pre-release" cut, and a 127 minute "theatrical" cut. The "pre-release" cut is the one that is usually shown on TV--and why that is, I don't really know, and the extras in this set do not explain it, either. The 127 minute version is the one that was originally released to theaters. The main difference between the versions is that the 133 minute version has diary pages on the screen instead of narration by Walter Brennan, and the climax is longer. Apparently Hawks preferred the shorter version, but I like the longer one. I think Walter Brennan's narration in the shorter cut is unnecessary--RED RIVER is made so well you really don't need someone explaining to you what is going on.

There's plenty of extras, including interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Molly Haskell, and author Lee Clark Mitchell; audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Bogdanovich and Howard Hawks; audio excerpts from a 1970 interview with RED RIVER screenwriter and author Borden Chase; and audio of a Lux Radio Theater adaptation of RED RIVER from 1949. All the extras (and both versions of the film) are on both DVD and Blu-ray.

The best extra of them all is an actual copy of the novel BLAZING GUNS ON THE CHISHOLM TRAIL by Borden Chase--the very book on which RED RIVER was based on. Hopefully Criterion will do this for future releases.

I'm sure that when the end of this year rolls around, Criterion's release of RED RIVER will be on my top five Blu-ray/DVD list.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


As anyone who has read this blog knows, I'm a huge fan of Hammer Films. I haven't seen ALL of Hammer's output--there's a few still out there that I haven't gotten to for one reason or another.

One of those few was THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1960). Last night it was featured on MeTV's Svengoolie program. I was very excited to see it--not just for the fact that it was a rare Hammer film, but for the fact that I was going to see it in a certain way.

The very first time that I saw all the great Hammer films was on Svengoolie's show in the 1980s(actually he was the Son of Svengoolie back then). Now of course those Hammer movies were not presented in HD, or in widescreen, or in an uncut form. The prints usually were not all that great, and of course you had to deal with commercial interruptions. But...that's how I originally saw all the great classic horror films, and that's how I saw THE SHADOW OF THE CAT last night. Seeing it that way brought back a lot of memories. I can't really remember the last time I've seen a feature film for the very first time on broadcast commercial television. If you grew up in the 1970s and the 1980s, that's how you saw all the famous classic films--and you usually had to stay up late to do it.

Now there's DVD, Blu-ray, cable, internet, streaming video, Redbox, Netflix, etc....and we take all these things for granted. I'm certainly not complaining about seeing rare films in a uncut, anamorphic, pristine condition....but I have to admit that there was something fun about staying up late as a kid and watching a movie you never saw before. There was a sense of didn't have the internet or IMDB to look something up, and the only way you could get access to certain movie books would be going to your local library. In a way, viewing old movies on TV was my personal film class. I feel that you develop a love for a certain subject through your own experiences--not through someone else teaching you about it or other people trying to convince you it is something cool to get involved in.

As for THE SHADOW OF THE CAT....many people don't even consider it a "real" Hammer film. The name Hammer is nowhere on the credits (it was a co-produced with BHP Productions), but trust's a Hammer film. It was made at Bray Studios and Black Park, and every name on the crew credits list is a Hammer veteran.

THE SHADOW OF THE CAT is an interesting take on the Old House/Disputed Will/Scheming Relatives/Beautiful Heiress thriller. The movie starts out with the murder of an elderly woman--a murder "witnessed" by her pet cat. Eventually, all the greedy relations & servants are "done in" by the feline. It plays out better than it sounds. Director John Gilling (who would go on to make several films for Hammer, including THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE REPTILE) gives the film a decent amount of atmosphere, and even throws in several camera shots supposedly from the cat's point of view! Barbara Shelley, one of the greatest of all the Hammer hotties, is the beautiful heiress, and there's a fine supporting cast, led by Andre Morell and Freda Jackson.

The biggest problem with THE SHADOW OF THE CAT is that all the nasty conspirators act as guilty as all get out from the very beginning (especially Andre Morell and Freda Jackson). It's hard to believe the local police can't figure out what's going on right away....heck, Barney Fife and Inspector Clouseau could have solved this case.

It's rather fitting that THE SHADOW OF THE CAT was distributed in America by Universal, because it has a very 1930s-1940s feel to it. It was filmed in black & white, and there is no gore. One could easily imagine this film being made in 1936 on the Universal lot and starring Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart.

The film's cat theme inspired Svengoolie to pull off a whole bunch of feline jokes and references (including an appearance by "Purry Mason"). After 30+ years, Sven is still funny (at least, I think he's funny), and you have to give him credit that he's still going strong in the 21st Century. It's even safe to say that due to MeTV's nationwide reach, Svengoolie is more popular than ever.

Seeing THE SHADOW OF THE CAT the "old-fashioned way" was a rare treat for me. I'm kind of glad that there are still movies out there I've never seen. That means there is always something to look forward to.

Barbara Shelley in THE SHADOW OF THE CAT

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


One of my latest purchases from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers is a volume titled WHY WE FOUGHT: AMERICA'S WARS IN FILM AND HISTORY. I bought it for $5...when I looked up the book on Amazon to see if there were any reviews on it, I found out that the on-line giant was selling it for $45!

WHY WE FOUGHT (edited by Peter C. Rollins and John O'Connor) is a collection of essays concerning how America's wars have been dramatized by the entertainment industry. The entries in this book have been written mostly by college professors. This is not a book written by film historians or film buffs.

The book has chapters dealing with just about every major conflict in American history, starting with the Revolutionary War. It ends with chapters on 9/11 and the War on Terror.

WHY WE FOUGHT reads more like a textbook than something written for a mainstream audience. Some of the chapters are easier to get through than others. The authors are more concerned with the social and historical aspects of the movies mentioned than their artistic quality. This means will get a far different view of certain famous films than you would from a typical movie book.

My favorite chapters were Frank Thompson's examination of the 1960 and 2004 versions of THE ALAMO (Thompson was a historical consultant on the latter project); Peter C. Rollins' review of modern popular culture's attitude toward the Vietnam War; and a chapter on the making of BLACK HAWK DOWN.

Most of the chapters run about 20 to 25 pages--and that, in my opinion, is somewhat of a detriment. Just when a reader is getting interested in the author's take on a particular subject, the chapter ends. It seemed to me that in some of the chapters the respective authors had more things to say, but we limited by the format.

If you have an interest in American history and war films this is definitely a title to pick up....if you can get it as cheap as I did (I certainly would not pay $45 for it). For other readers this book might be a bit too dry.

Monday, June 2, 2014


EIJI TSUBURAYA: MASTER OF MONSTERS was originally published in hardcover back in 2007. That version of the book now commands a huge price tag (if you can find a copy). A paperback edition has recently been released, no doubt to coincide with all the hype surrounding the new Godzilla film.

EIJI TSUBURAYA, written by Japanese film expert August Ragone, is a magnificent biography of the man who oversaw special effects work for almost every one of the legendary Toho fantasy films of the 1950s and 1960s. Tsuburaya (1901-1970) first started working in the Japanese film industry in the silent era, and eventually became a FX expert. Ragone covers Tsuburaya's entire career, including his work on several World War II-era battle epics, and of course the movie that changed Tsuburaya's life, the original GODZILLA (1954).

After the first Godzilla film Tsuburaya was involved in almost every other Toho Kaiju entry, including such films as RODAN, MOTHRA, and GORATH. Tsuburaya would eventually form his own FX company, and that would lead to the creation of several famous Japanese TV shows and characters--the most famous being the legendary Ultraman.

In many ways Tsuburaya was way ahead of his time--his FX shop had a huge hand in the production of various filmed entertainment, just like ILM, Weta, and Pixar in the 21st Century. Most of the Kaiju Tsuburaya helped create still live on to this day in one form or another.

The real highlight of this book is the incredible behind-the-scenes photographs, which showcase the detail and fine work that was a hallmark of Tsuburaya's technique. I know most people in the Western world have a tendency to dismiss Japanese cinematic special effects as "phoney"--but as author Ragone explains, Tsuburaya wasn't as concerned about re-creating reality as he was with creating an illusion of reality.

Of course Tsuburaya didn't do all of the FX by himself. Ragone mentions several of Tsuburaya's co-workers and collaborators. Ragone also gives background material on Japanese cinema and the Kaiju genre in general, to properly put Tsuburaya's work into context.

The book has a nice, clean design and layout, and it contains a selected Tsuburaya filmography.

Is there a limited audience for this type of book? Well, one would suspect at first that only old monster movie geeks like me would go for it. But I think a lot of film buffs--even the ones who would never admit to watching a Godzilla movie--would be impressed with Ragone's effort. The pictures in the book are spectacular enough on their own--but Ragone's text is informative and interesting as well. EIJI TSUBURAYA: MASTER OF MONSTERS is certainly a must-have for those who love giant monster movies, but it is also recommended for those willing to learn about a type of cinema most Americans have very little familiarity with.