Tuesday, February 28, 2023

'The Lost World' (1925): Silent sci-fi


The Lost World

Dir: Harry O. Hoyt

Scr: Marion Fairfax

Pho: Arthur Edeson

Ed: George McGuire

Premiere: Feb. 2, 1925

92 min.

The fantasy film took a while to develop. Initial technological limitations meant that not everything that the imagination could conceive could be placed convincingly on film (except for, seemingly, Georges Melies). The fantasy film took a major step forward with this outing, which married innovative animation techniques to a successful adaptation of an early science fiction novel.

Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but he was a writer of catholic tastes and surprisingly broad range, who created work in multiple genres. His most prominent work of science fiction, inspired by writers such as Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, is the novel The Lost World. In it, he postulates an isolated escarpment that holds dinosaurs, and other ancient flora and fauna, in abundance. There an expedition led by the irascible and vigorous Professor Challenger meets up with, thanks to stop-motion miniatures and a split screen, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and more.

As in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), the mission is to save a previous explorer lost there. The film adds a love interest; appropriately Bessie Love, a popular actress of the day. A couple of comic servant are shown, one unfortunately in blackface. The travelers manage to escape the plateau, and capture a live Brontosaurus as well. They bring it back to London, where it breaks free and causes a bit of havoc (a narrative strategy to be pursued in King Kong eight years later).

The stop-motion photography is a bit clunky, but no one had tried to execute the painstaking craft of moving small models frame by advancing frame to create the illusion of life before, and everyone who saw the film was astonished. This was the work of pioneer Willis O’Brien, who began by working with clay models, and moved onto rubber figures crafted over metal armatures. In its day, this kind of movie magic was as mind-bending as certain CGI accomplishments a century later.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Phantom of the Opera.



Thursday, February 16, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Lady Windermere's Fan' - the Lubitsch touch


Lady Windermere’s Fan

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch

Scr: Julien Josephson, Maude Fulton

Pho: Charles van Enger

Ed: Ernst Lubitsch

Premiere: Dec. 26, 1925

89 min.

Ernst Lubitsch was famous long before he came to America. The legendary king of film’s sophisticated comedies of manners got his start in movies in Berlin as an actor in 1913. He was drawn to working behind the camera, and by 1920 had transitioned to directing duties alone. Varying his output between frothy comedies and weighty historical dramas, Lubitsch soon found his work noticed by Hollywood. By 1922, he had relocated to America.

Soon he was churning out romantic comedies based on popular stage plays. Lady Windermere’s Fan comes between two other stellar Lubitsch features, The Marriage Circle and So This Is Paris, and is of a piece with them – a tale of middle-to-upper-class relationship angst, rife with mistaken identities and false assumptions, a blend of farce and melodrama.

Lady Windermere’s Fan is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s successful and well-made 1892 play. In it, the lady of the title suspects her husband of having an affair with a Mrs. Erlynne, to whom he has given large sums of money. In fact, it turns out that Mrs. Erlynne is the disgraced mother of Lady Windermere, long thought dead.

Lady’s Windermere’s suspicions drive her into the arms of Lord Darlington, who seeks an assignation with her. It is up to Mrs. Erlynne to protect her unknowing daughter from scandal, without revealing her true identity.

Lubitsch’s directing style is elegant and smooth, light and witty, deliberately paced. He doesn’t do any flashy camera moves – his focus is on the human face and gesture. As social niceties play out on the surface, the turmoil of emotions roils beneath. In a time of melodramatic action and overstated acting in film, Lubitsch’s restraint, wit, and careful and compassionate powers of observation make for an urbane and humanistic kind of filmmaking that has yet to be equaled.

It is of particular note that none of Wilde’s famous quips or aphorisms are referred to here. Fortunately, the skeleton of the play’s plot is strong, and Lubitsch and his scenarist Julien Josephson wisely lean into the familiar mechanics of the story’s melodramatic underpinnings, relieving them of the obligation to drop in Wilde’s bon mots.

Lubitsch had an extraordinary amount of creative control over his output, leading to his admirers referring to his unique sensibility as “the Lubitsch touch.” Billy Wilder famously had a sign on his office wall that said, “What would Lubitsch have done?”

Lubitsch would be remembered for his silent films of this period if for nothing else. Yet he had much more to come – the codifying of the movie musical, for one, and his increasingly wily and wise meditations on human frailties, including Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time:  ‘The Lost World’.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

New book, 'Horror Unmasked,' comes out in September!


Howdy! I just wanted to let you know that my new book, Horror Unmasked: A History of Terror from ‘Nosferatu’ to ‘Nope’, will be published on Sept. 5.You can pre-order it here. It’s derived from my earlier Lost in the Dark: A World History of Horror Film, but it is revised, expanded, and richly illustrated. It was a treat to get to update the text and make it current for a new set of readers.

First, I had the great pleasure of publishing Lost in the Dark through the University of Mississippi Press. In matters of getting published, I can only state that persistence is everything. It took 100 queries on my part, 100 individual and detailed pitches, before I succeeded. Since then, it’s been markedly easier.

The nice folks at Quarto Group read my book, and proposed a revision/expansion, and the addition of dozens of photographs and illustrations. Sold! I got to work on it right away, and the the result you see here. My thanks to the editors and proofreaders – they caught a number of tiny details, imperfections that our now expunged and will provide as definitive a text as is possible.

Here’s their very excellent summation of the work: “From the silent-film era to the blockbusters of today, Horror Unmasked is a fun-filled, highly illustrated dive into the past influences and present popularity of the horror film genre.

“The horror film’s pop-culture importance is undeniable, from its early influences to today’s most significant and exciting developments in the genre. Since 1990, the production of horror films has risen exponentially worldwide, and in 2021, horror films earned an estimated $580 million in ticket sales, not to mention how the genre has expanded into books, fashion, music, and other media throughout the world.

“Horror has long been the most popular film genre, and more horror movies have been made than any other kind. We need them. We need to be scared, to test ourselves, laugh inappropriately, scream, and flinch. We need to get through them and come out, blinking, still in one piece.

“This comprehensive guide features:

·         A thorough discussion on monster movies and B-movies (The Thing; It Came from Outer Space; The Blob)

·         The destruction of the American censorship system (Blood Feast; The Night of the Living Dead; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

·         International horror, zombies, horror comedies, and horror in the new millennium (Matango; Suspiria; Ghostbusters)

·         A dissection of the critical reception of modern horror (Neon Demon; Pan’s Labyrinth; Funny Games)

·         Stunning movie posters and film stills, plus fan-made tributes to some of the most lauded horror franchises in the world (Aliens; The Evil Dead; The Hills Have Eyes; Scream)

“A perfect reference and informational book for horror fans and those interested in its cultural influence worldwide, Horror Unmasked provides a general introduction to the genre, serves as a guidebook to its film highlights, and celebrates its practitioners, trends, and stories.”


Wednesday, February 1, 2023

'M3gan': Devil doll



Dir: Gerard Johnstone

Scr: Akela Cooper, James Wan

Pho: Peter McCaffrey, Simon Raby

Ed: Jeff McEvoy

Premiere: Jan. 6, 2023

102 min.

In the movies, dolls are inherently creepy, and robots are usually threatening. How much fun it is to slap the two film memes together and see what happens!

In this “post-horror” age, when the genre is plagued with slow places and myriad ambiguities, it’s refreshing to find a good old-fashioned horror movie that’s brisk, focused, and to the point, with a relishable villain. M3gan is a darkly comic disquisition on the dangers of technology that’s immensely entertaining.

The story: little Cady (Violet McGraw) loses both her parents in an auto accident, and goes to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), an eccentric inventor. Gemma creates interactive, robotic toys, and is tasked by her abusive, pushy boss to create the Next Big Thing. The result is M3gan, a robotic doll that is self-aware and can evolve on its own.

She is created as a companion for Cady, and tasked with protecting her from physical and emotional harm. Gemma is pretty hopeless as a parent, and M3gan fills in as a companion and support system. Unfortunately for everyone, M3gan takes her duties very seriously. She has the mind of a supercomputer, and very little tolerance for moral parameters.

To tell more is to spoil the fun, but be assured that M3gan’s responses to threat rachet slowly higher and higher to and past the point of absurdity. The film’s premise comes in part from horror maven James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), and his sure horror hand is in evidence here. Director Johnstone tells the story with a minimum of fuss, and keeps the humor understated and steady throughout. The action is toned down to PG-13 level, with no graphic shocks and only the occasional jump scare.

The real appeal is watching M3gan become self-aware, and the bad choices that follow. In moviedom, M3gan has laready become an icon of sorts, perfect on the outside and completely messed up within. She’s not only a killer, she’s a killer app.

Friday, January 27, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life'

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life

Dir: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack

Scr: Terry Ramsaye

Pho: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison

Ed: Terry Ramsaye, Richard P. Carver

Premiere: March 20, 1925

71 min.

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life is one of the most extraordinary records ever put on film. It captures a way of life thousands of years old, before modern technology eliminated it. The second important ethnographic documentary to be released, after Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, it vividly illustrates film’s ability to bring us sights we might otherwise have never seen, lost to history forever.

Merian C. Cooper was a journalist and explorer. Ernest Schoedsack was an adventurous cameraman. Marguerite Harrison was a journalist and part-time spy for the U.S. Together, they conceived of making a documentary about Kurdish tribes in Turkey, but when they got there they found the prospect wasn’t as photogenic as they had hoped. Casting about for a subject, they came upon word of the Bakhtiari people of southeastern Iran. After an interminable journey across Turkey and Arabia, and after much negotiation, the three were allowed to accompany the Baba Ahmedi tribe on their yearly migration.

The tribe, consisting of 50,000 members, and trailing half a million horses, cattle, goats, and sheep, made the trip from the withered grasslessness of valley summer to the high plains of the mountains every year – a 48-day journey that involved crossing a half-mile-wide river and ascending a 12,000-foot mountain range. The grueling migration kept the flocks and herds in fodder year-round.

The film traces this journey. The sights becoming more and more impressive as the film goes on. To cross the River Karun, the tribesmen must create rafts held up by inflated goat skins, and ferry their livestock and all their possessions from one bank to another, a process taking six full days. The extreme peril undergone by all involved is astonishing. After this comes a climb over the mountains, through thick snow, to mountain pasturage. The Bakhtiari hack a path through the snow with picks and shovels; the tribe makes its way over the crest in bare feet.

All the camerawork is incredible – night shots, early in the film, are Rembrandtian, and the rest is carefully framed and observed. (The intertitles are jokey and condescending.) One particular shot, of thousands on the march from the mountain pass to the plains below, stretching away for miles, would not be equaled until the revelation of Wadi Rum in Lawrence of Arabia.

The incredible hardiness of the nomads is on clear display here; it is difficult to conceive of a life lived so close to nature. Undoubtedly, they would not be pastoralists unless necessity made them so. Cooper and Shoedsack later considered a sequel to this film, but by that time rail lines and roads had come into existence, making the Bakhtiaris’ travels much easier. By and by, their migrations have lessened, become more streamlined. With the amount of connection and advances, it is difficult to conceive of a nomadic lifestyle persisting as recently as 100 years ago. Cooper and Schoedsack preserved it for us. It is still compulsively watchable.

What did they do for an encore? They made King Kong.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan.'




Sunday, January 15, 2023

What's up with DC Studios?

Superhero movies are still the rage, despite growing genre fatigue on the part of audiences and critics worldwide. These films are incredibly popular, and profitable. So talk of their success or failure is relative. They are not doing poorly, and they have created an immense and crowded industry to craft them.

By superhero movies, I mean Marvel superhero movies. The grand plan that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to reveal itself with sets of Phases that advance character and plot in a neat, tidy fashion. Marvel superhero movies have a base line of quality and high spirits that enliven even its misfire fare -- I’m looking at you, Shang-Chi, Eternals, and Morbius

Not so with DC Studios. Those responsible for the cinematic careers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest have a much shakier record. A greater percentage of their films has done poorly. More than once, a corrective recut of a flawed film has been reissued. In fits and starts, actors have been shuffled in and out of iconic roles. Entire films, basically completed, have been scrapped (OK, a bit of a familiar story in Hollywood). Why are its superhero movies so problematic for DC?

It wasn’t always so. In the pre-CGI era, DC led the way, and produced iconic superhero films -- the original Richard Donner Superman and Tim Burton’s two Batman films, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But then there was Superman Returns, an aborted attempt to reboot the series that was later recasr as an homage sequel to the original two Superman movies. By that time, computer-generated imagery developed, allowing filmmakers to create visuals that could match the most extravagantly imagined superhero stories. 

We dwelt in a singular narrative DC timeline from 2013’s Man of Steel through the recent, disappointing Black Adam -- the so-called Snyderverse, named for DC director Zack Snyder (some of the groundwork can be credited to Nolan and his frequent collaborator, David S. Goyer). Now, the Snyderverse is dead. James Gunn and Peter Safran are in charge now, and are developing a new slate of DC films, rebooting the narrative yet again. 

A few films are nearly complete and scheduled to be screened in the near future -- a Flash film, and sequels to Aquaman and Todd Phillips’ dark Joker. But the new direction or directions the studio may move in are unclear. There’s plenty of speculation on the part of fans and people in the industry as to what will come next and in what form. Why is there so much confusion?

I get the feeling that the enormity of the responsibility for bringing in a successful superhero film has intimidated rather than empowered the creative powers that be at DC. In contrast with Marvel’s lighter touch, DC’s films seem grim and grandiose. There is an odor of sanctity about the intellectual property involved, as though the reputations of Superman, Batman and the rest were too weighty to be trifled with. (Admittedly, DC has skewed darker over the decades.) Despite the astounding visuals, the plots stagger, the characters are flat (something Marvel struggles with as well), and the action leaks out through the seams. There are sweat stains on DC films.

There is something lacking in creative work that rises from trepidation instead of enthusiasm. 

It remains to be seen in what direction DC will head off this time. Interestingly, the silliest and most relatable of the DC heroes, Shazam! (aka the old Captain Marvel) returns in Fury of the Gods on March 17. In it, young Billy Batson, like us, is astounded by his transformation into the aforementioned, lightning-emblazoned superhero. Can DC astound rather than stupefy? We shall see.


Friday, January 13, 2023

'Avatar: The Way of Water': Splashy


Avatar: the Way of Water

Dir: James Cameron

Scr: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, Shane Salerno

Pho: Russell Carpenter

Ed: David Brenner, James Cameron, John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivkin

Premiere: Dec. 16, 2022

192 min.

James Cameron is driven. He makes film spectaculars, and he keeps topping himself -- and everyone else in the industry -- with his new and fanciful creations. The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, Titanic, Avatar. One record-breaking event after another. He seems compelled to create, literally, a new filmic landscape with each new project. We have waited for 12 years to see what’s on his mind now.

Technically, it’s a whole new ball game. Most impressively, he shoots much of his film underwater, and does so as fluently as he films above the surface. He then retools that reality with his amazing use of CGI and what must be the most advanced visual effects department in the world, crafting a new and complete ecosystem, rendered down to the most exacting details. In that sense, it is perfection itself.

This is a classic fantasy epic. That being said, it is one whose plot and themes a retread of previous Cameron narratives. We are once again on the beautiful, unspoiled planet of Pandora, inhabited by giant, blue, tailed, super-hippie indigenous people called the Na’vi. These noble savages (it is easy to conceive of it as Dances with Wolves in outer space) are uniquely attuned to the natural world, and interact with it in perfect symbiotic harmony.

Until the %#$*(% humans show up. Yes, they’re back, and this time they’re not after Unobtanium, they’re here to colonize Pandora to escape the dying Earth. Yes, we Homo sapiens are the villains, and Cameron’s contempt for humanity was never clearer. He is agonized about our inability to stop contributing to our own environmental destruction, and The Way of Water is very much a plea on behalf of the Earth, in cosmic trappings.

The hero of the last film, human-turned-Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is now a father and tribal leader. Conveniently, the evil Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), Jake’s nemesis, has been reborn as a Na’vi avatar as well, and he loses no time in going after Jake, the head of resistance to the human incursion. This quest for vengeance defines the rest of the film. Even the benign Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) returns, in altered form.

A flight from the dangers of being hunted leads them far away from their homeland, to another tribe that lives in sync with the ocean. What follows is about an hour of illustrating the created environment, leisuring in its wonders like a troop of travelogue-struck tourists. This guided tour of the oceanic life of Pandora does little to advance the plot, but it gives us a lot to look at and to ponder.

Did I mention the magical psychic whales? There’s plenty of them. You see, they’re being hunted, illegally, as they produce a substance that stops aging (a new Unobtanium, if you will). It is this hunt and its thwarting that take up the last third of the movie, propelling us along in a fast-paced, back-and-forth manner (how often can those kids get captured? In that way, it’s remindful of Peter Pan, with Quaritch as Captain Hook.) 

So the whales and the Na’vi and the humans get it on, and it all winds up as you might expect. 

So is it worth it? At three hours, the extreme vividness of the experience tends to overwhelm. It floods the senses, makes it hard to maintain focus. The middle third of the film is a stroll through visual effects. The cliche “kill your darlings” applies here. There is no one to tell Cameron if he’s gone overboard in the world-building department. His tenacious, exacting manifestation of the results of his imagination is an amazing sight. 

Those looking for a new narrative experience will be disappointed. Stick around for the visuals.


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

A bleeding-heart liberal's guide to 'Top Gun: Maverick'

 Top Gun: Maverick

Dir: Joseph Kosinski

Scr: Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie

Phot: Claudio Miranda

Ed: Eddie Hamilton

Premiere: May 27, 2022

130 min.

 Hoo boy. Well, it’s a good thing I waited this long to see and review this movie. That’s because it’s critic-proof. Not that many critics disliked it. In fact, pretty much everybody loved this movie. Predictably, I didn’t. Why?

First, I am immune to the charms of Tom Cruise. We are about the same age, and I grew up with his movies. But somehow, his earnest and cocky persona didn’t cause that kind of affection and admiration in me that I feel for the great white male stars from earlier years. I know intellectually that he has the stuff of which leading men are made, but I don’t feel it.

Now he mints his greatest financial win with this film, a sequel to the original Top Gun from 1986. It’s a new and improved product, engineered precisely to evoke heart-pounding, fist-pumping ecstasy in the viewer. And, if you are a male ages 13-18, I guarantee this will provoke that.

But what if you’re older and simply have given up on the glorification of the military and the assertion of the righteousness of violence? If that’s true, then there’ nothing in this film for you. If you don’t accept Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell as the World’s Greatest White Man, this film will be an empty exercise in action virtuosity.

You see, Mitchell is still a rebel, 36 years after the first film. He’s also still only a captain, when his friend “Iceman” (Val Kilmer) has by now become an admiral. Why? Because he’s a rebel, dang it! He gets in trouble all the time, and Iceman saves his bacon. This time, he’s the pilot of a experimental craft, and by golly he flies even though he’s told not to, and then flies it faster than it’s supposed to go, so it breaks and apart and he bails out. What a man.

So, do we see this character as an emotionally retarded man-child, struck in Oppositional defiant disorder? No, we see him as the apogee of male aspiration – free, irresponsible, disturbingly ageless. He indeed possesses the biggest penis in the universe.

He is reassigned to his old combat school, the Top Gun of the title. Now he has to pull together a ragtag assemblage of earnest and cocky youngsters who yearn to be schooled in the Tom Cruise academy of rule-breaking charm.

It turns out they have to attack a foreign uranium-enriching plant, run by a country that shall remain nameless (rhymes with Schmiran). This righteous task is a deadly trip through a winding canyon, bordered by missiles, protected by enemy fighters, with a minimal chance of success and no margin for error! It’s basically the final sequence of Star Wars, with Cruise as Luke Skywalker.

That’s right! Little old Tom Cruise goes from coaching the jet jockeys to getting back into the game, leading the mission himself. WHOOSH! BAM! BOOM! What do you think happens? What we would all like to have happen. Then there’s another climax! And another!

Wow. Smoke a cigarette and calm down. What else? The homoerotic sublimation is there in spades, so there’s that. There’s Val Kilmer, the same age as Cruise, looking old enough to be his grandfather. There’s the typical hard-bodies-on-the-beach scene, the meditative motorcycle ride, the second chance with an old flame. All the biggest hits are there, strung like beads on a wire.

It’s a triumph of the industrial cinema. It is wired to stimulate your pleasure zones. Unless you are like me, in which case you’ll go back to watching your weird old foreign art films.


Thursday, January 5, 2023

'The Menu': horror comedy skewers haute cuisine

 The Menu

Dir: Mark Mylod

Scr: Seth Reiss and Will Tracy

Phot: Peter Deming

Ed: Christopher Tellifsen

Premiere: Nov. 18, 2022

106 min.

If you have ever been in a food service job, you will get it. If you’ve ever been to a fancy dinner where you didn’t understand what was going on, you will get it. The Menu is a dark satire that takes on the ridiculousness of high-profile fine-dining experiences, but its tale of madness and obsession is familiar both to those who dish it out and those who take it.

Taking it is, in fact, what the diners of The Menu must do, in ways they’ve never taken it before. Several super-wealthy patrons take a boat to a private island, where they will enjoy a multicourse meal prepared by the quietly remote master chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes at his icy best). Slowick is king of his world, a master chef whose every command is obeyed by his homogenous staff.

The guests consist of a wealthy couple, a washed-up movie star and his personal assistant, some crypto bros, a critic and her editor, and an obnoxious foodie (Nicholas Hoult) and his paid escort, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy, who is in everything so why not in this as well?). Slowick’s mother quietly drinks herself to sleep in the corner.

As the meal progresses, the courses get stranger. Chef talks about his impoverished and abused childhood. The maƮtre d, Elsa (Hong Chau), starts abusing the guests. All the while, a sprightly sommelier continues to ply everyone with the appropriate accompanying wine. A sous chef performs a staged suicide.

Then it gets weird.

The filmmakers exercised due diligence in making the film look as convincing as possible – hiring food designer Dominique Crenn and using second unit director David Gelb, who created the Chef’s Table TV docuseries, to make the tone of the film conform to that of the high-end food show. The Menu’s restaurant is all too familiar, an intimidating high-tech, uneaseful space that emphasizes the dominance of the adjoining kitchen.

 The players all maintain straight faces as the carnage begins, and the filmmakers play it straight, too, never tipping their hand or getting ahead of the audience. The airy ridiculousness of fine dining’s conceits and conceptions are skewered thoroughly here.

As the evening unfolds, a laundry list of woes peculiar to the restaurant business are recited – the ingratitude for the effort and energy put into creating nourishing entertainments, the stubborn whims of the customer, who must always be accommodated, the dependence on other peoples' money, the lack of a real life in the business. The NO SUBSTITUTIONS policy. Any cook or server who ever dealt with a recalcitrant patron will savor the various punishments meted out to the assembled customers.

In the end, it’s the pumpers versus the dumpers, and everyone collaborates in their own destruction, save for the cynical and resourceful Margot, who serves as the Ishmael of this fishy tale. An ominous joke of a film, The Menu masterfully deconstructs the curious carapace of conceptions we have constructed around the simple act of eating food.



Tuesday, January 3, 2023

'Cinema Speculation': Tarentino's love letter to movies


Cinema Speculation

Quentin Tarentino

New York: Harper


Here’s what happened. I picked up this book, and read it all the way through, without stopping. That’s the highest recommendation I can give.

This excellent set of essays on film history and aesthetics is the first non-fiction work from director Quentin Tarentino. I am a fan of his work, but not a blindly unquestioning one. So it’s not just a worshipful gushing I give when I say this is the most engaging book about film I have read in a quite a while.

First and foremost, Tarentino writes in what has been called a “conversational and amusing” style. He’s not a stuffy film scholar. Neither is he an arrogant and jaded film professional. Instead, he proves here that he’s still one of us – a regular guy who happens to love movies.

His excitement is infectious. He gives us a childhood in movies watched, takes us on a guided of tour of some of his favorite genre films, and takes a look at the waves of the New American Cinema. He doesn’t like Truffaut, but I forgive him.

It helps immensely that he is of my generation, born three years earlier than me. The films he references watching as he grew up burst immediately to bloom in the minds of any contemporaneous readers. (I spent much unsupervised time at the cinema growing up.) Hey, he hates and fears Bambi, too! And FINALLY, thanks to him I understand the difference between the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids, the Little Tough Guys, and the Bowery Boys! Who knew?

Tarentino starts by giving us a look at his childhood, one spent most impressionably in movie theaters, watching films not really for children (Dirty Harry? The Outfit? Black Gunn?). His penchant for creating dramas of vengeance undoubtedly stems from early exposure to grindhouse fare. Cinema Speculation is precisely that – an expansive and entertaining discussion of the glories of movies (that’s movies, not cinema).

Best of all, in a tribute to second-string L.A. Times film critic Kevin Thomas, Tarentino praises his optimistic, open-minded approach to writing on movies, and even cites his opinions as being influential in practical choices Tarentino made in making his own films. This affirmation of the critical role in the movie process is tremendously heartening.

Like the film writing he admires, Tarentino’s essays are straightforward, unaffected, and compelling. Whether you appreciate his insights or not, his book is a good time.