Book Review ‘Into the Black’: Glorious Liftoff

April 13, 2016


Rowland White

Author Rowland White of the new space history book ‘Into the Black.’

As a longtime resident of Houston, I’m subject to a chicken-or-the-egg question: Is my love of space why I live in Houston, or has living in Houston sparked my love of space?

Actually, it’s a bit of both, because I’ve been space-fascinated since, as a boy of 6, Sputnik 1 became the first satellite to reach Earth orbit (though I was watching Leave It to Beaver‘s premiere in Waco at the time.)

But I also moved to Houston — just two years after the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981 –and I’ve been here ever since, sharing my adopted community’s grief over the wrenching tragedies of losing two Shuttle crews, but also the triumphs of our continued space endeavors.

As a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I also had the honor of interviewing such space pioneers as Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan, Alan Bean, Buzz Aldrin and Gene Kranz, and I cheered from the sidewalk as John Glenn rode down Texas Avenue in a parade after his return from a 1998 Discovery mission.

Now I’m faced with the most detailed history I’ve ever read spanning both eras — from the first space missions of my childhood to the soon-routine flights of the Shuttle while I lived in Space City. That history is Rowland White’s Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her.

Due April 19 from Touchstone, the hardcover, 464-page book is a compelling read. Based on White’s extensive research, interviews and newly declassified documents, it details how a parallel military space program evolved during NASA’s early years, then spun off into alignment with the space agency for development of the incredible space plane known simply (thanks to President Nixon) as the Space Shuttle.

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Blu-ray Review ‘Rue Morgue/Dunwich Horror’: Poe Meets Lovecraft

March 27, 2016

Rue Morgue

I love the double-feature concept of March 29’s Scream Factory (from Shout! Factory) Blu-ray disc with 1970’s The Dunwich Horror and 1971’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. What’s not to love about pairing dark, twisted authors H.P. Lovecraft (Dunwich) and Edgar Allan Poe (Rue Morgue)?

But in execution, the two films, which weren’t related in their original releases, fall short.

In part that’s because both were based on short stories expanded into movies, for which 1841’s Rue Morgue was wildly changed, morphing into less of a detective story and more of a Phantom of the Opera yarn, with a masked murderer haunting a Paris theater. As for 1928’s Dunwich, it loses Lovecraft’s brooding ’20s tableau in favor of a sunny setting in then-current day 1970.

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DVD Review ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXV’-To the Moon

March 16, 2016


By this time, Shout! Factory and adept extras-maker Ballyhoo have spoiled us, which is why a combined 40 minutes of special features on Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXV, a four-disc set due March 29, seem slim.

But that’s not counting inclusion of an 86-minute, non-riffed version of Time Walker (aka Being From Another Planet). And the four featurettes are good, so let’s take a look.

Best of the bunch for me is the nine-minute You Are There: Launching ’12 to the Moon‘. Its interviewee is relative newcomer to these things Jeff Burr, a filmmaker/historian with loads of exploitation flicks (pardon me: horror genre productions) to his credit. Read the rest of this entry »

DVD Review: ‘McHale’s Navy’ Double Feature

February 14, 2016

McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force

It’s one thing to turn TV series into movies long after the fact (Get Smart, Bewitched, George of the Jungle, 1997’s McHale’s Navy), but in the ’60s, some such spinoffs were made and released while the series still aired.

Take 1964-68’s The Man From UNCLE, which added footage to existing episodes for two feature films, and 1962-1966’s McHale’s Navy, which shot two all-new features.

Both of the latter are on a single-disc DVD due Tuesday from Shout! Factory, which also has released the zany WWII naval comedy’s four seasons and 138 episodes.

The first film, 1964’s McHale’s Navy, show the pros and cons of splashing small-screen shows onto big-screen canvases. Though production values are higher — starting with using color, unlike the b&w series — they aren’t that high.

The film clearly is a backlot So Cal production, using obvious process shots to show ships at sea. Yet it’s still nice seeing Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine’s PT-boat commander, McHale, and his rascally boys amid more expansive on-land locations and in wider views.

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DVD Review ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV’: RIP AIP

November 29, 2015


Two trailers, two Frank Conniff intros running three minutes total and one Ballyhoo featurette? That’s all the extras for Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV, new Tuesday from Shout! Factory?

Yes, that’s all. But it turns out that’s a lot.

The four-disc set’s sole featurette — on the history of American International Pictures — runs 92 minutes, or longer than many of AIP’s own movies. That makes it the most ambitious documentary of Ballyhoo’s many look-backs at films, filmmakers and film studios for MST’s box sets, and given its many films used on MST, AIP was well worth it.

Playing off the absurdly long title of one of the four AIP films in this set (The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent), the retrospective is named It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The AIP Story.

Laced with vintage clips and recent interviews of film historians and filmmakers — including Roger Corman — the story is classic Hollywood stuff, putting AIP’s birth and growth in historical perspective: Baby Boom teens with wheels and rock music wanted rebellious film fare made for them. You could say AIP pandered, but didn’t any studio trying to make a buck?

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‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ Book Review: Short ‘n’ Sweet

November 18, 2015


Ask many people to name Stephen King’s occupation and they’d say “novelist.” And they’d be wrong.

Yes, King has written a library’s worth of novels, some of them topping 1,000 pages. But he’s also written hundreds of short stories — enough to make The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, new from Scribner, his 10th such collection. And short stories, I’d argue, are clearly among his narrative strengths, especially in his beloved horror genre.

As King himself says in the book, “There’s something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience.”

I agree. The Stand may be a page-turner, but that’s too many pages to turn in one riveting experience. “A Death,” on the other hand, which is one of Bazaar’s most compelling reads, clocks in at 14 pages.

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‘The Rebel’ Season Two DVD Review: War is Over

November 16, 2015

The Rebel S2Something didn’t add up. The Rebel had 36 Season One episodes, then a whopping 40 for Season Two. Then the 1959-61 half-hour western series was canceled?

Shout! Factory’s release of Season Two on DVD Nov. 17 clears that up, thanks to a generous sixth disc loaded with extras. They explain how a botched negotiation with ABC caused the highly successful show — the network’s top Sunday night drama — to be axed.

Even so, The Rebel amassed 76 total episodes of stark if not dark western dramas — episodes with strong casts, plots, direction and performances. And with the new bonus features, we can gain an even greater appreciation and perspective for this standout in a vast herd of TV oaters.

They start with Looking Back at The Rebel, a 66-minute interview by Bob Anderson of writer-producer (he’d say producer-writer) A.J. Fenady, a classic, cigar-puffing Hollywood raconteur.

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Blu-ray Review ‘Hackers’: The mouse that roared

August 30, 2015

Hackers-CastMy most vivid memory of 1995’s Hackers (just out from Shout! Factory) wasn’t watching the early computer-geek flick, but interviewing stars Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller when they visited Houston to promote its release.

How young were these then-relative unknowns! And how in love! (They married in ’96, then divorced in ’99.) And how high on life — or something.

This was a one-on-two. We did the interview jointly at Houston’s Ritz Hotel (now the St. Regis), and the two stars were about as happy and agreeable as any actors I’d ever met.

Yes, their romance fizzled — as did the film, which grossed a paltry $7 million for a budget of $20 million. But I’ll be damned if Hackers didn’t turn out to be surprisingly prescient and on-target about the computer-driven world in which we now live. And its teen characters played by 20-something actors at least rollerbladed, went to school, partied and got entangled in adventures, meaning they did more than zone out all day in front of a computer monitor or an iPhone. (Today’s cell phone zombiefication would have ruined Hackers.)

The film also gets some respectfully elaborate extras for its Blu-ray debut, notably three series of interviews with the likes of director Iain Softley and actors Matthew Lillard and Fisher Stevens (but not Angelina or Jonny — I feel so special).

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DVD Review ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume 1’: Reprise to please

August 30, 2015

MST Vol. 1Oops. Out of print copies of Rhino’s Mystery Science Theater: Volume 1 may not be fetching $200 or so now that Shout! Factory is obligingly reissuing the four-disc set Tuesday for a more modest price. But even if you have the original, you may want to pick this up.

Yes, there are extras — a good many, in fact, starting with the “bumpers” between commercials which were omitted by Rhino. Beyond that is a fetching array of material from our friends at Ballyhoo, and a theatrical trailer for The Creeping Terror.

In fact, its disc is crazy for Creeping. There’s much more for the so-bad-it’s-good-in-an-Ed-Wood vein el cheapo monster mash in which a walking carpet terrorized teens. To wit: an extended trailer (seven minutes!) for The Creep Behind the Camera, a 2014 film about making the ’60s movie — or, more precisely, about its oh so dark creator, actor-writer-director Art Nelson, aka Vic Savage, about whom “creep” is an understatement and a relative compliment.

There’s also a 17-minute panel and Q&A for the film at the 2014 Screamfest in Los Angeles, hosted by MST’s own Frank Conniff.

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DVD Review ‘The Rebel: Season One’

August 16, 2015

nick-adamsGiven recent uproars about Confederate flags representing modern-day racism, The Rebel: Season One, new from Shout! Factory Tuesday at Warlmart, is timely. (A Complete Series set also is available online.)

Is it racist? Does it emblazon the screen with Confederate images?

No and no. Instead, this stark and stout Western drama, whose two seasons aired on ABC from 1959-61, has a lone wandering hero, Johnny Yuma (Nick Adams, who also co-created), possessing a strong moral compass — and it doesn’t just point South.

For all the treacherous varmints Johnny meets while roaming the West in 1867, the former soldier’s saga has humanism and compassion at its heart, as he helps the innocent and defies the prairie scum. Though he still wears a Rebel cap, Johnny rarely mentions the war (he served from Texas, on the Confederacy’s fringe), which seems to have both scarred and spurred him to seek meaning in a troubled world, as he conveys in journals he keeps as an aspiring, soul-searching writer.

“There’s different kinds of wars,” Johnny says. “There’s wars that go on inside.”

He also wields a mean double-barreled sawed-off shotgun given to him in the first episode. Groovy.

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