Sunday, 10 August 2014

Joss Whedon - Geek King Of The Universe by Amy Pascale

Before you start worrying, this is not another long-winded speech about our love for the Geek King of the Universe that is Joss Whedon. Someone else has already got there.

Sort of.

For those who don't know (and why the hell are your reading this blog if you don't know?) Joss Whedon is a writer of TV shows, films and comic books. Up until recently, his work was known to a smallish audience who made up for their lack of huge numbers with passion.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL and FIREFLY are considered (by their fans at least) as some of the finest science fiction and fantasy shows ever put on television. They never broke into the mainstream, though, and DOLLHOUSE barely made a dent on the popular culture.

Marvel's AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, however, really put the man on the map by becoming one of the biggest moneymaking movies of all time. Taking time off to relax from making that blockbuster, he made a film version of Shakespeare's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING in his house!

We at the Sci Fi Freak Site have always loved Joss Whedon, so it was no hardship to read this biography. Amy Pascale's chronological retelling is carried out in a clean and clear style that never puts the writing ahead of the story that it is telling. The author certainly knows her subject, with input from Whedon's family, friends and co-workers on almost all subjects, whether it is his work, his Shakespeare readings with friends, his support of the writers' union or his rocky relationships with various TV companies and movie producers. Whilst his private life is kept private (he's married, he has children, that's about all you're getting), his professional life is laid bare and whilst his early life might not raise too much interest, the moment that we get into the stuff we really want to know about, the book becomes unputdownable.

If there is a negative to be found then it is that a book about a man who is described by almost everyone as the wittiest man they have ever met could have done with a bit more itself.

If you're interested in Joss Whedon's work, then this biography gives a great insight into his history and his methods.

It's available now.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

THE ZOMBIE FILM from White Zombie to World War Z by Alain Silver and James Ursini

Now that the whole sparkly-vampires-make-good-boyfriends farrago is come to an end and the werewolves-also-make good-boyfriends phase never managed to get off the ground, attention has turned to the zombie as the paranormal boogeyman of choice. Zombies have often featured in low-budget movies, but now the budgets aren't always so low and screens both large and small are awash with the shambling dead.

To cover this increasingly huge genre of work comes this large format book that starts with the generally accepted first zombie movie, White Zombie (having already covered the myth and written words history of the undead) and takes the reader through all the various iterations of the zombie whether it be George A Romero's shambling metaphors for modern society, Stephen King's reanimated pets in a sematary, raging speedsters appearing 28 Days Later or (oh the horror, the horror) zombie strippers.

The early parts of the book are the more interesting as the formative years are covered with appearances by masters of horror Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in films that set the earlier, voodoo-linked stories. That moves on nicely into the George A Romero period of increasing gore and social commentary. When it moves into the more modern era, it becomes less sure of itself, often becoming overwhelmed by the sheer amount of output that there is to cover and becoming often a list of films and what happens in them rather than analysis into the thematic and historical contexts. Of course, that might just be because there are no themes being examined any longer. The writing style is generally clean and accessible and entertaining, certainly in the book's earlier sections.

It is surprising, however, that THE WALKING DEAD television series gets so little coverage, considering how influential it has been in the genre.

There is a huge filmography at the end so that you can make sure that you have caught up with all of the more obscure offerings that the genre has and the book also has interviews with zombie filmmakers and contributors that vary from the interesting to the intrusive. For sheer coverage, the book also cannot be faulted as it covers the most obvious entries in the genre to some of the less obvious. It's concentration on the contribution made by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend is refreshingly insightful.

The content of the written words might be variable, but there is no faulting the visuals. The books comes stuffed full of lobby cards, stills and images of corpses in various stages of decay. As you can see from the cover image, this is probably not a book to leave where your four year old can get their hands on it and give themselves nightmares.

THE ZOMBIE FILM from White Zombie to World War Z might not be the ultimate guide to the zombie genre, but it will certainly fill the hole whilst we wait for that that one to come along.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014


Stephen King is one of the great storytellers of our age, hell of any age if it comes to that. It is therefore a strange thing that movie and TV adaptations of his books more often than not fall well short of, well, not sucking.
This book is a comprehensive look at all things screen when it comes to taking the printed words and, more often than not, ignoring the hell out of them. Every production you can think of (and a whole bunch you couldn't and will wish you hadn't found out about) can be found inside the covers here.
First of all, let's deal with the title. STEPHEN KING FILMS FAQ suggests a certain format, but it's not like that at all. There are no list of questions being answered, frequently asked or otherwise. And then there is the matter of the subtitle 'All that's left to know about the king of horror on film'. Well, that forgets about the whole chunks devoted to videotape productions and I'm curious to know what it means by 'all that's left to know'. All that's left to know after what?
Let's deal with the good stuff first. Scott Van Doviak knows his Stephen King adaptations. What it may lack in surgical detail it makes up for in the sheer breadth of its scope. Whilst books could be written (and have been) about the troubled making of Kubrick's THE SHINING, it gets a single chapter before we head on to the next one. There is so much ground to cover that we don't get to dig too deeply at any point.
Von Doviak's tone is light and pleasant and the book itself is a very easy read, almost a page turner. It's very easy to settle down to a quick sample and find that three or four chapters have gone past. The layout is clear, going through celluloid examples chronologically before then moving onto the televisual delights on offer. It starts to run out of steam toward the end, however, but that's because we're on to the odds and sods such as THE SIMPSONS pastiches and films inspired by Stephen King.
Curiously, Von Doviak doesn't really seem to like many of the films and shows on offer. He certainly spends more time waxing rhapsodic about what's wrong with each of them than what's great. Then again, we all do that.
Despite the fact that it's 'all that's left to know', I doubt that there is that much in there that the King devotee didn't already know. The more obscure outings might be useful for the King completist, however. For the person just getting into the visualisation of Stephen King's books, however, there is a wealth of stuff to choose from. Is THE STAND miniseries as good as the book? How did THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION move from a short story to a long masterpiece? Is the Stephen King scripted THE SHINING better than the Kubrick version?
It's all here.
As someone who's liked and hated his fair share of King's books and films, but is far from being an expert, I found this an enjoyable, easy read, though I was possibly not all that more well-informed at the end of it.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses - Roger Corman: King Of The B Movies

Now that's a title and a half for a book.
But that's fair enough because it's a lovely book, both to look at and to read. It's lavishly illustrated with movie stills, film posters and behind the scenes photographs, all illustrating the story of a quite remarkable man.

In case you don't know, Roger Corman is a hugely prolific film-maker who produced enough films to make him practically a studio. He's the man who shot THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS in two days, but also made my favourite THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which is just a gorgeous film.

This is not a critical biography of the man, though. The story is told in interview snippets from so many people that worked with (and for, let's be honest) Roger Corman and other movie luminaries. John Landis, Jack Nicholson, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron and many more all put in their penny's worth.

And pennies seems to have been Corman's ethos. Pay as little as you can get away with and make a profit on everything that you put out. Some of the films were outright exploitative rubbish, but others were bona fide masterpieces.

If only through the people whose careers he helped to kickstart, Roger Corman has been a huge influence on the movie industry and this bright, cheerful and fun read seems just the right way to celebrate him.

BFI 100 Science Fiction Films

When it comes to movies, the British Film Institute knows a thing or two, so when they choose to produce a book giving you the top 100 entries into a genre then you'd expect to sit up and take notice.

As a result of those expectations, 100 Science Fiction Films by Barry Keith Grant is something of a puzzle.

Now, don't get me wrong - the author knows his science fiction films. Whilst all the usual suspects are there (Metropolis, Blade Runner, Star Wars) there are a few less obvious entries. Nobody could argue with La Jetee, for example, but it's a bit on less well-known side as are Born In Flames and Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (what do you mean, everyone has heard of that one?).

No, the reason for puzzlement is the form of the book. Nobody would expect a book from the BFI to be a vapid picture gallery, but the assessment that goes with each film proves to be mainly a precis of the storyline (and yes, spoilers ahoy!) with only a small amount of time spent on why the film is notable. Each film only gets two pages and that's reduced to only a page and a half when you take into account the single image that goes with it. This really doesn't give enough space for the author to go into any great depth.

So, here's the rub - who is this book for? True, if you are a newcomer taking on the genre for the first time, then this might be the book to guide you on your way, but there are plenty of 'best of' lists online. For the the experienced sci-fi moviegoer, there really isn't enough here to make it even a worthwhile gift from a loved one.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

DARK EDEN - A Walk On The Dark Side

Time to be honest, this review is delayed because this book was my very first experience of audiobooks (I know, I'm so 19th Century). As a result, I needed to try out another audiobook to make sure that the problems I had with DARK EDEN were down to the book itself and not to the experience of audiobooks. I've listened to another one and enjoyed it, so everything that follows is purely down to the book.

Firstly, the book is technically well-produced, with narrators who voice it clearly and flawlessly. There's not a lot in the way of fancy touches, just the story being told, but that's fine. I like things simple.

DARK EDEN is the tale of a group of humans descended from just two, living in a small forest of light and warmth-giving trees on the surface of a planet that is swathed in darkness and ice. Interbreeding has given them birth defects and they have forgotten most of the science and most of the language that their forebears possessed. A young man rises up to challenge the hidebound ways of this 'family' and determines to leave and go in search of a 'promised land'.

Biblical allusions are rife in the book, as you would expect from the title, and there isn't anything here that is going to surprise anyone.

My main problem with this book lies in the use of language. Since language has deteriorated over the generations, the characters can no longer express themselves in anything but very simple terms. When distraught, a character says that they are 'sad, sad'. This is perfectly plausible and fits the scenario, but since the book is narrated in the first person (by one male and one female narrator), the language becomes repetitive and simplistic and that grates after a while. It makes what the characters are feeling seem shallow and unimportant.

It feels like a YA book, and yet it takes in very adult themes such as incest, murder, masturbation and rape, very matter-of-factly.

What is remarkable about DARK EDEN is the world-building. From the giant trees bringing heat to the surface to the batwings, leapords and woolybacks, the world of Eden is brought to life evocatively. You can certainly imagine it in your mind's eye in all its detail. It is a compelling background to a less than compelling story.

Ultimately, the linguistic style of the book proved to be too frustrating for me, but one thing is for sure, it won't be my last audiobook.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Take a STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, musically speaking

Following the recent announcement that the Royal Albert Hall will host the UK premiere of Star Trek - Live in Concert, a celebration of the extraordinary collaboration between J.J. Abrams’ 2009 hit film and Michael Giacchino's score on May 29 2014, the venue is now delighted to announce another first.

One day later, on May 30, 2014, the Royal Albert Hall will host the UK premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness - Live in Concert, giving fans old and new a unique chance to experience Abrams’ newest blockbuster film with Giacchino’s score performed live on stage. 

With Star Trek fever at an all-time high, due to Abrams’ rebooted film franchise and this most recent film, these live concerts will feature Giacchino’s score brought to life on stage by the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, while the films are shown in high definition on the big screen, in the majestic surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall. Under license by CBS Consumer Products, the concert explores the collaborative relationship between music and storytelling that is a must for movie lovers.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” debuted at No.1 at both the U.S. and UK box office, and has already earned $440 million worldwide.

“To hear Michael Giacchino's music, the secret weapon of the Star Trek series, performed live in Royal Albert Hall, will be, I promise, a thrill,” says J.J. Abrams. “The full orchestra scoring sessions for the films have been among my favourite life experiences. To give the public a chance to hear this incredible music performed live is a wonderful thing.  I cannot wait to go and celebrate Michael's truly remarkable achievements!”

Michael Giacchino adds, “In 2003, before I wrote my first film score, I saw John Williams conduct ET live to picture at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. I will never forget that event. A little over ten years later, I will have the honour of experiencing my music for both Star Trek films performed by the incredible 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of the talented conductor, Ludwig Wicki. That in itself is exciting, but the fact that we will be in the Royal Albert Hall in London is truly amazing. After working with J.J. for 13 years, it will be so rewarding to have his wonderful films brought to life in a whole new way. I look forward to sharing these concerts with J.J. and the Star Trek fans, new and old.”

Jasper Hope, Chief Operating Officer at the Royal Albert Hall, said“To go from the cinema version to the live orchestra screening inside a year clearly shows the phenomenal power of the Star Trek franchise, and the Royal Albert Hall is honoured to be presenting the UK premieres of not only the 2009 Star Trek film but now also its recent blockbuster sequel.”

These events are part of the Royal Albert Hall’s series in celebrating classic films with live orchestra. 100,000 people have now enjoyed sold out performances at the Hall of The Lord of the Rings TrilogyThe Matrix, the 50th Anniversary of West Side Story, Disney’s Fantasia, Singin’ in the Rain and the upcoming world premiere of Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton on October 7th and UK premiere of Pixar in Concert on February 22nd 2014. The Hall looks to provide memorable visitor experiences for all and, as a charity, these own-promoted events form a part of its extensive public benefit remit. 

Tickets £15 - £55 (booking fees apply)
Box Office 020 7589 8212 

Tickets go on sale for Star Trek Into Darkness on Friday July 5th 2013 at 9am from the Royal Albert Hall Box Office. Tickets for Star Trek on Thursday 29 May 2014 are already on sale