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Tag Archive: Book review


Review by C.J. Bunce

Like many of us, astronaut Chris Hadfield sees his life, both on Earth and off-planet, as a series of worst-case scenarios waiting to happen.  In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, he not only shares his autobiography and pathway to space and afterward, he uses his life to provide a self-help plan for accomplishing your dreams and reaching whatever success you’re after.  Originally issued in hardcover but now available in a paperback edition, Hadfield’s Guide is just what you need to read if you’re in a slump, if you have a goal and can’t figure how to get yourself to attain it, or if you just need a pep talk.

“Most people, including me, tend to applaud the wrong things: the showy, dramatic record-setting sprint rather than the years of dogged preparation or the unwavering grace displayed during a string of losses,” Hadfield says in his book.  And Hadfield takes his errors and his stumbles and displays them for everyone to see so they can use them to learn how to adapt and overcome their own obstacles.  “Sweat the small stuff,” is his mantra, and it’s that attention to detail that he says allowed humans to get to visit outer space in the first place–the required discipline that allows the two other astronauts in your capsule to fully trust you will do your job, and vice versa.  As with astronaut Leland Melvin’s account of his pathway to space (reviewed last month here at borg.com), this meant years of brain work and physical preparation, monotony, and several false defeats and false triumphs before the final ride on that rocket to the stars.  “Since the odds of becoming an astronaut were nonexistent, I knew it would be pretty silly to hang my sense of self-worth on it.  My attitude was more, ‘It’s probably not going to happen, but I should do things that keep me moving in the right direction, just in case — and I should be sure those things interest me, so that whatever happens, I’m happy.'”

Chris Hadfield floating above Earth during a spacewalk.

Colonel Hadfield–who is afraid of heights–always wanted to be an astronaut, at least since he saw Apollo 11 make the first moon shot on television when he was nine years old.  But his path wasn’t easy, especially since Canadians weren’t yet astronauts when he was a kid.  “I wasn’t destined to be an astronaut,” says Hadfield, “I had to turn myself into one.”  He not only had to turn himself into an astronaut, he had to change the perception and rules of those around him as he climbed the ladder to fulfilling his dream.  Along the way that meant diligence, determination, study, practice, repetition, volunteering, and over-achieving to make himself stand out, and sacrificing all his waking hours and much of his family time.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Syd Mead, the famed “artist who illustrates the future,” is an icon of visionary design and illustration.  No other creator has shown the world a utopian vision of a possible future in so many ways.  At the same time he has created a world we want to see develop that lies ahead, we have seen his future begin to be realized.  His aerodynamic designs have influenced auto design in recent decades from car makers including Chrysler, Ford, and GM.  He has created the look of space technology that we all accept as believable thanks to his concept art–art that has influenced the art direction of films for four decades.  A new book published this month provides an in-depth intellectual review of Mead’s style, influences, and impact on the history of design.  The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist is a college level, art design course book of sorts that takes movie concept art to an entirely new level, a serious look at his style that will appeal to serious artists in any field, and a popular work for fans of the films he has inspired.

“What makes Syd’s vision so compelling,” says the book’s author, architect/designer and professor Craig Hodgetts, “is not only the means he employs to convey it, but the acute physical and environmental awareness: the endless curiosity about how the world works; the precise level of detail and the practical engineering knowledge that he brings to even the most fantastic devices.”  Beginning with the look of the both geometric and organic mechanical villain V’ger from the year 2273 in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture to a mid-21st century casino and hotel in this year’s Blade Runner 2049, Mead’s sketches, drawings, illustrations, and paintings have inspired and influenced the art design of dozens of movie productions.

   

Mead’s most groundbreaking and memorable cinematic visionary creations came in the 1980s with four films.  Returning to our theme of celebrating 1982 films, for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner Mead was influenced by Edward Hopper’s desolate cityscapes.  To translate author Phillip K. Dick’s writings into visual form, Mead and Scott took an idea of sculpture artists Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Stankewicz and author William Gibson.  The filmmakers lay claim to be the first to use their ideas of “retro-fitting” on film–the process of creating a unique object by means of a strategic assemblage of allied components; by harvesting parts from abandoned or obsolescent “donors” and re-assembling them, a new entity is created.  In the same year as Blade Runner, Mead saw his designs realized in the very different world of Tron, modelling a convincing digital world by extrapolating from the patterns of computer motherboards and other now obsolete technology of the era.  The giant screen-filling image of Master Control, the labyrinthine pathways for the lightcycles, and Sark’s hefty transport vessel all hailed from the mind and pen of Mead.  Taking the look of James Cameron’s original Alien film and modifying it significantly, Mead skipped the “slick shapes of Star Trek” and the “greeblies of Star Wars” to create what he envisioned as a “highly-engineered, purposeful vessel” where each feature could have a function, in the 1986 sequel Aliens In the same year, Mead created what would become an iconic image of the 1980s, Number Five the robot, the friendly star of the film Short Circuit.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Darryl McDaniels–he’s the DMC of the trio Run DMC, known for its team-up with Aerosmith on the band’s cover of “Walk this Way,” plus hits like “Tricky” and more.  He’s the King of Rock, sold 30 million albums, made rap and hip-hop the popular music genre it is today, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  But he doesn’t count any of those things as his most important personal accomplishment.  In his memoir, Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide–A Memoir, McDaniels reveals in a personal and down-to-earth way the trials he has faced despite his money and career success, leading to alcoholism and debilitating depression.  Despite its “Ten Ways…” title, it’s not his version of a twelve-step program as much as an insightful self-help book that doubles as an autobiography.

McDaniels’ story is deep and dark and yet he uses his story to motivate those around him and his writing reflects this generous sharing of failures for others to learn from.  McDaniels was a middle class, self-styled geek, raised in a good family, successfully avoiding the gangs and violence of New York City as a kid, and by the time he was out of his teens he was a superstar.  As a kid he loved comic books and he loved to draw.  “Growing up, I’d always been a comic book geek.  I loved to draw superheroes almost as much as I liked to read about them.  Comics were an escape, a way to make myself feel strong and invincible rather than like the quiet little four-eyed nerd I essentially was.”  But his venture into comics wouldn’t happen until much later.  He jumped on board with two neighborhood kids from Queens as they used turntables and rhyme to create a new music niche in the mid-1980s.  All those kids wearing high-top sneakers with no shoestrings?  Run-DMC also set a new fashion style for a generation.  And McDaniels infused comic book concepts into his songs along the way.

McDaniels in 2014 talking to fans at Planet Comicon, one of his many comic convention visits.

But McDaniels says he always felt something missing, and he often turned to alcohol to escape.  Ups and downs and assistance from family and friends allowed him to break through it all and come out on top, but not easily.  In one of his best stories he recounts the backlash early on that he received because of his band’s instant fame–even beyond other established rap heroes.  Members of his favorite band–Cold Crush–dissed him and Joey “Run” Simmons backstage at a show, but rather than be brought down by it, he saw it as an indication of success.  But by McDaniels’ account, Run’s dominance in the band left him without a role after a few albums, and alcoholism would literally take away McDaniel’s voice.  After he thought he was past the alcoholism, he would find himself returning to drinking whenever a life crisis presented itself.  A key event was discovering he was adopted, learned after a conversation with his mother while working on documenting his life story.  He would go on a reality show and track down and ultimately find his biological family, which introduced even more confusion for his mental state, but it was also his pathway for getting help from a therapist and rehab.  Inspiration to get help and move forward surprisingly also came from the soothing music of Sarah McLachlan, and his story of her role in his upward climb is now well-known.  They eventually recorded an album together (I discussed it here at borg.com after meeting McDaniels at Planet Comicon back in 2014).  It’s a great story and he recounts all the details in his book.

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Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy–Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command–excited a generation of Star Wars fans when the original trilogy was in the past and no future movies were planned.  It’s greatest value was in its continuation of our favorite characters: Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and the droids.  But it also introduced two key players: Mara Jade aka the Emperor’s Hand who would one day become the object of Luke Skywalker’s affection, and a blue-skinned, white-garbed officer of the Imperial Navy called Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Thrawn became part of the post-Disney canon in the animated series Star Wars Rebels, which reflected the foreboding leader of Zahn’s original books.  This month Zahn brings Thrawn’s rise to power into Star Wars canon again in his new novel Star Wars: Thrawn.

Thrawn is a military overview of the Nazi Germany-inspired Imperial Navy, recounting an exiled, strategy-savvy “Chiss” (Thrawn’s alien race) who uses his unique abilities to climb the ladder and assume greater power as part of the growing Empire following the events of Revenge of the Sith.  Zahn includes first person narration by Thrawn in both introductory chapter paragraphs and observations inserted into the text as he keys in on descriptive details of every encounter.  Thrawn is Zahn’s attempt at a Holmesian genius, a calculating survivor who still must rely on a young cadet (his Watson) named Eli Vanto, used primarily for his ability to translate both words and culture.  Unlike Zahn’s original trilogy, Thrawn feels more enmeshed in Star Wars prequel storytelling than the original trilogy movies.  By showing Thrawn’s backstory as an exiled leader who finds his way out, Thrawn also reads as if Zahn was attempting to make Thrawn the Khan (a la Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) of the Star Wars universe.  Unfortunately we don’t really get to see Thrawn in any confrontation with a powerful foe as Khan saw in Star Trek II, although he is potentially as intelligent and crafty as Star Trek’s Khan.

   

It’s Thrawn’s backstory before the events in the Thrawn novel that appear to contain the action and intrigue missing here–Thrawn both before his exile and during his exile sound like the makings of a great book.  Instead here the focus on Thrawn’s own quirks, like a fascination for Clone Wars era technology, and Thrawn’s awkward attempts to navigate the lower ranks of the Imperial chain of command, make for a slow read.  This is in part due to an unnecessary but lengthy sideline story of the struggles of Ahrinda Pryce, who will become a governor of Lothal in Star Wars Rebels.  Pryce’s story takes over a fair chunk of this 448-page novel.  The time given to Pryce and Vanto pull away some much needed action, intrigue, and suspense.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

After reading Michael Crichton’s groundbreaking science fiction novel Jurassic Park, I was hooked, and set out to read everything else he had written before and awaited each subsequent work with excitement.  I quickly learned that you can identify his work through his character choices and his storytelling, and not only were his ideas fresh and new (Crichton passed away in 2008), he knew how to spin a good yarn.  Yet, except for the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, each of his books is completely different from one another.  In common the books follow intelligent people who set about accomplishing something unprecedented.  Crichton’s latest (and perhaps final?) posthumous novel is Dragon Teeth, and in true form it is both a brilliant Crichton work, and also unlike anything he’d written before.  It arrives at bookstores later this week.

Shelf Dragon Teeth alongside Jurassic Park as the very best of Crichton.

Here at borg.com I’ve so far reviewed three of Crichton’s eight “lost” novels penned under pseudonyms.  In the early days of borg.com I reviewed Crichton’s Micro, a posthumously published novel Crichton hadn’t quite finished when he died, which included the technology that could shrink humans to half-an-inch tall beings.  With Dragon Teeth, there is no suspension of disbelief required as with many of his works.  This story is historical fiction, and a Western–easily one of the best Westerns I’ve read.  We meet a college student in 1876 named William Johnson.  He is an arrogant, self-absorbed son of a shipping magnate who takes on a dare and ends up accompanying a professor on a journey across the Old West in an early search for dinosaur bones–then newly-discovered proof that the planet is much older than previously thought.  The professor, one of the early paleontologists, is in a lifelong battle with another, competing paleontologist and their squabble becomes deadly as Johnson finds himself a pawn in repeated attempts at oneupsmanship.  Based on the feud of real-life 19th century professors, Dragon Teeth sucks the reader into every black and white Western movie where the heroes weren’t all that heroic, the dust was thick, the path was treacherous, and each new day could very well be your last.

Crichton stitched together all the Western spots you didn’t want to find yourself in as an outsider in 1876–Cheyenne, across the Badlands, into Montana and Wyoming territory, and the end of the line in murky Deadwood.  Dragon Teeth has all the atmosphere of Silverado, and reads with both the folklore of a Louis L’Amour novel and the peril and adventure of a Jon Krakauer true-life account.  You’ll find deceit and friendship as they existed beyond the frontier, Native American friends and enemies, and a look inside political and religious clashes that exist to this day.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

We’ve reviewed dozens of books here at borg.com about the filmmaking process.  Great books like Special Effects: The History and Technique, and movie-specific, behind the scenes masterpieces like Dressing a Galaxy: The Costumes of Star Wars Limited Edition and Star Wars Frames.  More books have been written about Star Wars than most films, and accounts like Roger Christian’s Cinema Alchemist: Designing Star Wars and Alien really take fans back to 1976 and 1977 to learn how such an important series of films began.  With this week’s announcement from Disney that we can look forward to Star Wars spinoffs into the 2030s, the franchise has never had greater worldwide appeal.  One superb account of the Star Wars filmmaking process we have not yet discussed is Lorne Peterson’s Sculpting a Galaxy: Inside the Star Wars Model Shop Limited Edition, originally published in 2005, still available from Insight Editions in both its standard and deluxe format.

Sculpting a Galaxy: Inside the Star Wars Model Shop is the ultimate look at the making of Star Wars models by Lorne Peterson (shown above), about the fantasy worldbuilding work of Peterson and his peers at Industrial Light & Magic from Star Wars: A New Hope through the prequel trilogy.  More than half of this deluxe hardcover book features ships and other vehicles–large, full color photographs (more than 300), and many gatefolds, with sections on each major ship and nearly every minor ship and vehicle created in both 1:1 and small scale for the original trilogy and early prequels, plus those creations digitally rendered by ILM for the later prequel films.  ILM co-founder Peterson provides the creative vision behind each ship–like the fact the Rebel Blockade Runner was originally designed as the Millennium Falcon and why it was changed into its now famous form.  Many of the final models were the product of kitbashing–using parts from model kits of the day like car engines and World War II German tank components to create a look of tangible reality to the construction of the Star Wars galaxy, similar to the method of using “found” items for production used by Roger Christian to create sets and props for the original film.

 

Peterson also looks at set models created for many environments needed for the six films, plus those creatures and robots ILM worked on for the series.  Diehard fans will appreciate references to paint colors used, and sources for components for various ILM creations, including blood for the Tatooine Cantina scene and full views of the escape pod that R2-D2 and C-3PO used to get there.  Anecdotes like the fact that ILM used modifed Six Million Dollar Man action figures in the seats of many vehicles make this book a fun read.  (Guess who really drove the Landspeeder in its original trip to Mos Eisley!).  Those who may not be fans of the prequels will no doubt appreciate the artistry behind creating the vehicles and sets for the film, shown scattered throughout the pages of the original trilogy in a way that creates its own comprehensive history.  Boba Fett’s Slave 1, the Imperial Probe Droid, AT-ATs, extensive coverage of the Millennium Falcon, the Death Stars, the Star Destroyers (including the unused prototype), the Naboo Rebel Starship, X-Wings, A-Wings, B-Wings, TIE Fighters, and the Landspeeder–all the models fans want to see can be found here.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

For one hundred years the Westmore name has been synonymous with makeup.  Modern fandom knows Michael Westmore as the go-to guy for the face of the stars and alien prosthetics of decades of Star Trek TV shows, but what you may not know is Westmore had an exceptional career in cinema before his days creating the look of the final frontier.  You may also not know Westmore is a great storyteller.  Happily for cinephiles everywhere, Westmore has chronicled many of his encounters with film greats past and present and documented his stories in a new book, Makeup Man: From Rocky to Star Trek, The Amazing Creations of Hollywood’s Michael Westmore.

Full of anecdotes and brushes with Hollywood royalty, Makeup Man showcases Westmore, his famous family that preceded him, and the work he created that cemented his name in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  For Star Trek fans looking for insight into re-creating their own Klingons and Vulcans, Westmore previously shared his knowledge in the now out-of-print books Star Trek: Aliens and Artifacts (available at Amazon here), and the Star Trek: The Next Generation Makeup FX Journal (available here).  Makeup Man touches on Westmore’s Star Trek makeup work in the last third of the book, but it is targeted more at his Hollywood memories before the 1980s.  In fact Makeup Man is best when Westmore recounts stories that blend the unique creations and techniques of his craft with the acting and film legends of the past that he worked with, like a story about a little-known, MacGyver-esque, facelift trick he used from his family’s past for Shelley Winters.

Westmore’s prose evokes an amiable master artisan sharing campfire stories of days long ago.  Most interesting is his work with Sylvester Stallone in creating the look of Rocky (1976).  Westmore discusses dodging the cameraman during takes to be able to add the necessary makeup to reflect Rocky’s next punch to the head.  Westmore recounts a little known (but popular at the time) 1984 made-for-TV movie based on a true story, called Why Me?  For the film he had to recreate actual facial reconstructive surgery during all its phases for a woman disfigured in an auto accident.  Westmore’s greatest achievement is probably his Academy Award for Mask (1984), also based on a true story, where he earned the Westmore family’s only Oscar for his work recreating a 16-year-old boy with a rare facial disorder (played in the film by Eric Stoltz).  Each of these stories documents the challenges of Westmore’s craft and his ingenuity in delivering Hollywood magic on the big (and small) screen.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The best thing about reading a book about the making of a film, without first watching the film, is that your view of the book is not skewed by your opinion of the film.  If you knew nothing about The Great Wall, the new behind-the-scenes look in The Great Wall: The Art of the Film will prompt you to want to see it.  Not only will you find incredible concept art, set design, costumes, and props, the book itself is unique.  In the past five years “making of” film and art books have vastly improved in quality.  Abbie Bernstein’s new book from Titan Books features the best quality images, the best layouts, and the best book design of any book yet reviewed at borg.com–the book itself has a traditional Chinese book binding and gilded edges.  It also features an element left out of many film books these days–it includes images of the entire film, and doesn’t remove spoiler elements, such as, in this case, detailed images of the film’s monsters and ending (the art book for Star Wars: The Force Awakens provided no final image of Luke Skywalker and several costumes and props, as an example).

An icon of China cinema, the man behind several “art house” films in China and the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, director Zhang Yimou discusses in the book why The Great Wall is unique and how it became the biggest production in China film history.  If you have watched stunning Chinese film work over the years and aren’t a fan of dubbed or subtitled films, the barrier is language–how can you connect U.S. and Chinese film audiences?  Yimou intended just that by making a Hollywood-esque film as a Chinese production in English with a cast and crew from dozens of nations, including more than 100 on-set translators.  Beyond that goal, the powerful imagery of the film as displayed throughout The Great Wall: The Art of the Film, is the stuff of Academy Award-winning costume design and art design.

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Along with interviews with Zhang are chapters featuring producer Peter Loehr, actors Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian, and Willem Dafoe.  The most visually stunning chapters detail The Nameless Order, with Zhang’s color coding of each fighting corps, including the royal blue Crane Corps–the fighting unit consisting entirely of women.  We see frosted plastic pages displaying each corps symbol, and poster quality designs highlight each leader, along with their shields and weaponry.  Detailed sections feature the creation and design of the film’s monsters–the mythical Tao Tei–and how WETA and Industrial Light and Magic created them.  And each key sequence of the film is revealed with photographs of special effects and the actors in action.

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grimbeard-didier

As the old song goes, “It’s a pirate’s life for me.”  If you can imagine Popeye the Sailor Man and Yosemite Sam as a pirate and a dwarf of the classic fantasy variety, then you’ll have a hint at what’s coming in Grimbeard: Tales of the Last Dwarf, a new fantasy-comedy novel written and illustrated by Samwise Didier.  Didier is senior art director for Blizzard Entertainment, where he became known to fantasy gamers for his work on Warcraft, StarCraft, and Heroes of the Storm.

Captain Grimbeard is a salty old pirate who leads up a crew of two (a foodie TV-watching cook and the severed head of a formerly massive fellow) on his sea vessel, the Ol’ Girl, a ship that incorporates the aura of both a dragon and a dog.  He is also the last dwarf, resulting from a genocide caused by the worst of the fantasy races, the detestable, betraying, “traitor-ious” elven race.  Thrust a thousand years into the future he balances life as a cantankerous drinker of ales, a tough and hardy carrier of the great dwarf legacy, and a bawdy rogue finding his way among the worst part of today’s world… social media.  What is a dwarf to do?

Grimbeard shares in first person his exploits: how he missed out on the destruction of his race because he was breaking up a frost giant wedding, how he assembled his noble crew, how he started (and abandoned) his own Friday night boxing event, how he landed a (pretty-ish?) troll by consuming too much Taroellpiz, and how he ended up the centerpiece of his own surreal reality show.

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Adventure Time fans, and fans of bawdy comedy shows like Ted, Family Guy, and South Park, will appreciate the humor here.  Grimbeard will also appeal to fans of the lighter, comedic side of fantasy roleplay.

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Fans and filmgoers may not realize the theatrical adaptation of the popular Ubisoft video game Assassin’s Creed is really unlike any other past movie based on a video game.  Never before has a brand owner, here Ubisoft, taken such a hands-on approach to making a film adaptation.  That comes through in Ian Nathan’s new look at the film and its unique production process, Assassin’s Creed: Into the Animus.

Ubisoft has been involved in not only several iterations of the game but continuations found in comic books and graphic novels, as well as behind the scenes concept art books for the various versions of the game.  Pride in the brand and maintaining the integrity of the story for gamers was taken into account from the inception of the film as concept.  From casting Michael Fassbender as the film’s lead to Fassbender’s role as a producer and personally delving in to understand the mechanics of the world of the gameplay and what that meant for his two parallel characters–Aguilar in the past and Callum in the modern age–loyalty to the game was always a priority, as recounted by the crew interviewed by Ian Nathan for this book.

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For those who haven’t seen the film, the plot follows two protagonists in a world of Assassins and Templars, men separated by centuries of history yet linked by their DNA, necessitating the re-creation of a historically accurate fifteenth-century Spain and a technologically advanced present day world.  Assassin’s Creed: Into the Animus is an introduction to the complex world of the games, a look at the elaborate sets and exotic filming locations, an understanding of the choreography of the parkour scenes the film is known for, and maintaining the trademark look of the franchise, including Aguilar’s famous assassin’s hood.

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