Book Review: Star Vs. the Forces of Evil The Magic Book of Spells

While I am a huge fan of behind-the-scenes material and making-of books, I’m also a big fan of things that are meant to be materials from a series or show (that is, if the items are done right).

With the television series Star vs the Forces of Evil, creator Daron Nefcy and some of her associates, first attempted to give their fans a “tangible” item the year 2017, with Star and Marco’s Guide to Mastering All Dimensions. The book provided some insights by Princess Star Butterfly and her friends, along with some tidbits regarding Star’s Magic Book of Spells.

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Scene from the book’s first appearance in the Star vs the Forces of Evil segment, Monster Arm.

Introduced in the show’s first season, the book of spells has been handed down through generations of Mewni Princesses and Queens. It was a place where they could put down some of their own thoughts, and provide information about new magic spells they had come up with.

Also contained within the book, is a little blue man named Glossaryck of Terms. One would assume that he would be there almost like a helper, but most of the time, all he seemed to do (according to Marco Diaz),  was “spout cryptic remarks and eat pudding.”

Though it is not-to-scale or as thick as the version seen on the show, Daron Nefcy, Dominic Bisignano, Amber Benson, and Devin Taylor have attempted to create a version of the book that reveals more about Mewni’s past…well, as much as is recorded by the women who ruled over the kingdom.

The main focus overall, is on the numerous princesses and queens that have come before Star Butterfly.  Up until now, we only had a few names revealed to us from the television show, but this book quickly fills us in on the others we were less privy to.

Like many royal lines lines in our realm,  Mewni’s has some interesting rulers, and a few “duds” here and there. Some of the entries are real page-turners, and others made my head droop as I struggled to stay interested. The book also gives information on several spells Star Butterfly has used, and just who in her past lineage, created them.

On the show, it was mentioned that the inside of the book is “a complete disorganized mess.” Of course, when dealing with a book for people to read from cover-to-cover in our dimension, it probably was made clear to Nefcy and her crew that there would need to be some semblance of order. However, the book does stick to it’s television counterpart, by having the table of contents in the center.

For those like me who were intrigued by the strange culture of Mewni, there was one thing I was hoping the book would finally do: blow the lid off of the strange symbols we’ve seen all throughout the kingdon on television.

While the book does not provide us with a Mewni-to-English alphabet, it does give enough information to allow the more astute readers, to decipher the symbols if they look through the book enough (or, just go online and find the people who have already figured it out!).

That ability for the readers to also interact with the book, seems to be something that creator Daron Nefcy prizes greatly. There was a bit of this in the last Star book she did, but here, that reader/book interaction is on display in a number of ways.

Readers are encouraged to cut out a few things here and there. Plus, it is assumed that the reader is now the book’s new owner, and is encouraged to personalize it, along with designing what their magic wand looks like, and creating their own log and spells.

The Book of Spells at over 256 pages, is almost on par with another show-oriented book that Disney Press released several years ago: Journal 3 from the hit television series, Gravity Falls.

Much like that book, Spells manages to take a tome that is well-known to the show’s viewers, and add some things that the die-hard fans are yearning to know about, as well as be an intriguing find, or a gateway to those who may not have heard of the series.

Personally, I was hoping for a bit more information written in the book from the numerous owners. At times, it feels like some sections were truncated due to the page-count.

Even so, I do feel that most fans of Star vs the Forces of Evil will enjoy what Disney Press has put out, and may bring in some new fans, who happen to come across the book.

 

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Book Review: The Art and Making of Pacific Rim – Uprising

In 2013, filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro released Pacific Rim, his ode to Japanese monster-movies. Five years later, director Steven S DeKnight would continue the film’s story, with Pacific Rim: Uprising.

Taking place ten years after the first film, Uprising showed us a world that has been altered in many ways by the former Kaiju invasions. The once-in-jeopardy Jaeger program has been reborn, upgraded to newer models, and standing by in case of another possible invasion.

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Concept art showing Pacific Rim: Uprising’s new fleet of Jaegers. From L to R: Titan Redeemer, Guardian Bravo, Gipsy Avenger, and Sabre Athena.

However, there is also a threat from the corporate world, as China’s Shao Industries, looks to streamline (and possibly privatize) the Jaeger program.

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Over the years, the publisher Insight Editions has handled a number of behind-the-scenes books for Del Toro’s films, and they have continued to provide their services with this book as well.

These days, there are often a lot of things going on in some films, that it’s on-screen characters don’t have time to explain or point out. This has led to publication/tie-ins in the form of prequel comic books or accompanying publications, which to someone like me, can be seen as a bit much (most of the time, I just want to walk in and see the film). However, I am often moreso intrigued about the development and design process, that brings to life the images on-screen.

With this book, author Daniel Wallace manages to not only shed some light on the development process of the film, but provide plenty of additional pieces of information from those who worked on the film as well. We get everything from actors telling about their audition process, to the sound effects crew talking about how they came up with specific audio experiences you will now think twice about.

Reading books like these, I’m often surprised how I come away finding out information about the design process, that I didn’t consider. A good example is that the coloration of the numerous Jaeger models we see, are tied into certain protective units or branches in our society.

A good example is a Jaeger named November Ayjax, whose duty is to patrol along the war-ravaged Los Angeles Coastline. The coloration of the Jaeger is blue, tying into the theme of it being like a Police Officer for the area, “keeping the peace.”

I was also pleased at the over-abundance of different concept and design examples throughout. A prime example is in the design of Gipsy Avenger’s head. There are quite a number of iterations, and it feels like what we see in the book, are only a fraction of them. That ability for the book to provide a great number of visual concepts, made me eager to keep turning pages, let alone going back to review them once I had finished it.

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Some of the many iterations of Gipsy Avenger’s head design.

One concept that Insight Editions has used in a number of their books, is the inclusion of a number of removable, extra materials in their books.

For this book, they include everything from a collection of storyboard images, to Newton Geiszler’s (aka Charlie Day) Kaiju tattoo designs. While these are nice little additions to the overall book, I have felt that the company’s inclusion of these items affixed to the various pages gives them a greater chance of being lost. Personally, I feel they could have been included in a large envelope at the end of the book (maybe with a rubber-stamped “Classified Shatterdome Information” title across the front of the envelope!).

What I was most surprised about, was that while the book does give us insight into parts of the film, they also held back on revealing some major plot-points. I’ve often been apprehensive of some making-of books ruining everything about a film, but this one has just enough information to keep the overall story, a mystery. For the record, there are some images that do tie into some of the plot-twists, but they are never called out for the reader.

Earlier this year, I was eager to get my hands on another Insight Editions tome: The Art of Ready Player One. However, while that book gave me plenty of information, I felt it didn’t answer as many of the questions I had regarding it’s visual design/development phase. In contrast, The Art and Making of Pacific Rim: Uprising ended up feeling like a much more satisfying read. For those that enjoyed Pacific Rim: Uprising, this is definitely a fitting companion book, and one of the more well-compiled reads I’ve encountered in awhile that connects to a feature-length film.

A Peanuts Prospectus: Of Snoopy, Lila, and Old Relationships

Sometimes when we go back and look at things some years down the line, we can see them in a different light.

This is often the case when it comes to some of the works of Charles Schulz. When I was a kid, some of the Peanuts comic strips he wrote dealing with relationships, lost love, and heartache just didn’t resonate with me. Then, when I grew up (a little), they really began to speak to me in some respects.

Regarding past relationships, one story arc revolving around Snoopy, recently celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. It would reveal some startling revelations about the beagle we assumed had always been owned by Charlie Brown, and, showed that you may never really know everything about someone.

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As the Peanuts comic strip continued over the years, Charles Schulz gave us more information on Snoopy. From the name of the puppy farm where he came from, to the circumstances that led to Charlie Brown getting him in the first place.

But in 1968, Schulz opened a new door into Snoopy’s past, and through it would come a little girl named, Lila.

Unknown to most readers out there, Lila originally showed up (by name) in a comic strip in February of that year, when we see Snoopy eagerly going through a stack of Valentines he’s received from female admirers.

PeanutsLila1At one point, Charlie gets upset at the dozens of girls Snoopy knows, and tells him that Lila did not send him a card (see left). Snoopy is heartbroken for a few seconds, but quickly brushes it aside, and continues going through the rest of the cards.

PeanutsLila2In June of that year, Snoopy received several letters from Lila, leading him to much frustration (see right), notably when she claimed she was coming to visit him. Even Charlie agonized over this visit, but claimed in one comic panel that he had no idea who Lila was (which makes his acknowledgment of her in February of that year seem very odd!).

When Lila did come to visit on June 7th, Snoopy hid in his doghouse until she left. Once she had gone, he wrestled with his feelings, but quickly pushed them aside as he wondered when suppertime was. It is also assumed that Charlie Brown never saw her.

Two months later, another letter would arrive from Lila. Snoopy’s first reaction is one of frustration, but upon reading it, he grabs his supper dish and rushes off…leaving Charlie Brown in a confused daze. He eventually tells Linus what happened, and mentions how he is at a loss as to why Snoopy would rush off like he did.PeanutsLila3

The next day, we see Snoopy arriving at a hospital, and carefully sneaking through it’s corridors. He soon finds Lila’s room (see left), and we are treated to our only image of her in the entire comic series.

After visiting Lila in the hospital (her reason for being there is unknown), Snoopy returned home. Charlie eagerly wanted to know what happened, but received the silent treatment from his dog.

Seeing his best friend about to lose his mind about not getting any answers, Linus provided Charlie with the calming hand he needed regarding more information about Lila.

PeanutsLila4Knowing that Snoopy had been purchased from the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, Linus called them for more information. He learned that before Charlie Brown’s family had purchased Snoopy, the beagle had originally been purchased by Lila’s family. However, upon finding out the apartment they lived in did not allow dogs, they returned Snoopy back to the puppy farm, where Charlie eventually purchased him.

Even though Charlie is now Snoopy’s owner, he does wonder if given how Snoopy rushed off to see Lila, if he still wished he was still her dog.

“I doubt it, Charlie Brown,” says Linus. “He wouldn’t have been happy in an apartment.”

The final panel of the storyline, showed Snoopy once again as the World War I Flying Ace, off on another mission. I often took this as a non-verbal sign that Schulz was saying that Snoopy definitely preferred his life with Charlie and the kids, and that Linus was right.

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Lila never showed up again in the comics after 1968, but four years later, she would be part of the story arc in the 1972 animated film, Snoopy Come Home.

PeanutsLila5Unlike the more concise storyline in the 1968 comic strips, the film became mainly  a road-trip story involving Snoopy and Woodstock, on their way to see Snoopy’s original owner.

The film starts off with Snoopy seeming almost like a nuisance to the kids (at one point he gets frustrated and attempts to bully Linus out of his blanket!), and we also get a subplot of him being upset in a world where everywhere he looks, there are “no dogs allowed” signs (see left).

Unlike the comic, we would spend some more time with Lila in the hospital, and see her interacting with both Snoopy and Woodstock.

PeanutsLila6We see Snoopy enjoying his time with her, but there comes a point where she says something that makes him a little apprehensive:

“Perhaps soon, ‘we’ can go home.”

Lila claims that Snoopy’s presence has helped her get better, and she feels that her parents will see this and let him come home with her, and it can be like it was long ago.

However, Snoopy suddenly breaks down in tears, torn apart by his emotions. While he does care for Lila, much of the life he’s known, is back with Charlie Brown and the other kids.

PeanutsLila8Thinking with a more grown-up mind, I couldn’t help but feel that the emotional turmoil Snoopy was experiencing, was not that different than encountering an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, and finding that they want to get re-acquainted with you after so many years.

However, you’ve moved on. You want to be sure that person you had something with a long time ago is alright, but you know it can never be like it once was.

Snoopy decides to leave after a few days, but he emotionally finds himself giving in to Lila’s request, making her very happy.

It is then that she suggests he go home to “settle his affairs,” before coming to live with her.

This leads to Snoopy returning to the neighborhood, much to Charlie Brown’s delight! However, Snoopy quickly types up a letter, declaring his going -away, and the donation of a number of his things.

PeanutsLila7A farewell party is held, and Snoopy tearfully goes on his way. However, upon finding where Lila lives, he learns that not only does she also have a cat (he can’t stand them!), but that the apartment building she lives in has a “no dogs allowed” policy! This sign is right outside the front door of the building, and it seems odd that for all her time living here, Lila never once noticed it.

This means that Snoopy is unable to stay and after bidding his former owner goodbye, cheerfully returns to the kids back home (as Lila sadly watches him go).

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It looked like that would be the last time Lila would appear in animated form, but in 1991, she showed up in the television special, Snoopy’s Reunion.PeanutsLila9

Over the years, Schulz had introduced a number of siblings for Snoopy. From his brother Spike to his sister Belle, Snoopy was soon revealed to be one of 6 siblings in the comic strip. In Reunion, the number was expanded to eight, with the TV special giving him an extra brother and sister.

The special showed Lila’s mother taking her to the puppy farm where she chose Snoopy, and we are then privy to some scenes of the two happily playing together. It is soon revealed that the family has chosen to move to an apartment…one that has a “no dogs” policy.

Sadly, Lila returns Snoopy to the puppy farm, and back into the hands of the farm’s owner (making it one of several animated shorts where we see adults interact with the kids).PeanutsLila10

This seemed to tie in with what we’d seen established with the 1968 comic strips and Snoopy Come Home, but the special rewrote a few more things.

Unlike the comic telling of Charlie Brown going with his parents to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm when he was very young, he and Linus go by themselves to purchase a dog. It is also while there, that Linus snoops around, and finds the information about Snoopy being “a used dog.”

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Love and relationships in many forms have been a part of the Peanuts strips over the years.

While Snoopy would have his ups-and-downs with female dogs (even coming close to marriage at one point!), Lila was one of the more prominent little girls in his life. However, she wasn’t the only one who (painfully) broke his heart.

In late 1972 and early 1973, Schulz showed that Snoopy had another “bad relationship experience.” This was seen in the last Sunday comic strip of 1972, when a girl named Poochie came to see Snoopy.

Snoopy was very upset, recalling how he encountered her when he was a naive little puppy. Poochie made him fetch a stick, but upon running to return it to her, he saw that she was walking away with an English Sheepdog, making it seem that maybe she was toying with his affections.

PeanutsLila11When Poochie eagerly came to see Snoopy in the next Sunday strip (see left), she found him not as a cute little puppy anymore, but wearing his Joe Cool shades.

“Thomas Wolfe was right,” said Poochie, as she left Charlie’s house (and the comic strip forever), “You can’t go home again.”

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Some often dismissed Peanuts as being a comic strip for kids, and Schulz over the years, often balked at these statements. There was something fascinating in the stories he told in his comics. That mixture of the kids and Snoopy, often dealing with the big issues in life, even though they themselves seemed not of the appropriate age to deal with them.

The relationship with Lila showed how many of us can have things happen to us in the past, that can shape the course of our lives. Sometimes we can ignore them, but other times, we may not be able to completely shut them out.

 

 

Movie Review: Summer of 84

(This film is Not Rated)

Once upon a time, the suburban landscape was seen as the next safe bastion of modern society, beyond the seediness and crime of the city.

Soon, it seemed that the well-manicured lawns and the gable-roofed dwellings, were little more than false-fronts to unspeakable terror.

In the 80’s, there were a number of films that explored what might be hiding behind the locked doors, with films like Fright Night and The Burbs showing normality being invaded by the abnormal.

In Summer of 84, the directing trio behind the cult-favorite film Turbo Kid, move their 80’s-era focus out of the action genre, and into the territory of suspense.

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In Ipswitch, Oregon, 15-year-old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), is spending his summer vacation delivering newspapers, hanging out with his best friends, and lusting after the neighborhood hottie, Nikki (played by Tiera Skovebye). However, the lazy summer mood is soon broken, when word comes that a serial killer is on the loose, and a number of boys in the area begin to turn up missing.

A fan of mysteries and unexplained events, Davey soon believes he has the perfect suspect: his next-door-neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer). This seems strange to his friends, as Mackey is a local Police Officer that has lived in their neighborhood for years, but Davey is determined to solve this summer mystery, with or without them.

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When it comes to retro-laced media, we seem to be living in an era that is currently set on idolizing the world of 30 years ago. In the last few years, we’ve seen shows like Stranger Things and film adaptations like It, plunge their youthful protagonists into a familiar-yet-frightful world.

Unlike those recent pop-culture hits, Summer of 84 has no supernatural elements to be found, or multiple plot layers to pick through. The story strives for something a bit simpler in it’s execution, with much of the time focused on the main kids.

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L to R: Dale Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), Tommy Eaton (Judah Lewis)

Along for the ride with Davey, are Dale Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Tommy Eaton (Judah Lewis), and Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew). While the film starts out feeling like it’s just going to be these four talking trash to each other and oogling skin-mags for a majority of time, it surprisingly manages to open up a bit more, and reveal a bit more about who a few of them really are.

I was also surprised to find that there were also a fair amount of jump-scares that actually end up working in the film’s favor (with some of them getting quite creative). The filmmakers definitely use an impressive sleight-of-hand trick to make them work.

While the strange, outlandish wasteland of Turbo Kid seemed open for unquestioning acceptance of that story’s world, there are quite a number of areas in Summer of 84 that had me questioning some of the film’s logic that the directors use.

A good example would be that while we see headlines about a number of young boys disappearing in the Ipswitch area, we never get any indication that the parents or local authorities are that concerned for their kids. Several times we see the four boys and some other non-descript neighbor kids playing a game at night, and yet there’s never a call for a curfew.

There also are some uneven bumps in the road regarding Davey’s crush (and former babysitter), Nikki. Originally seen as an object of desire, the film soon throws her in as an unofficial member of the boy’s investigative group (kind of like how Andy and Steff became unofficial Goonies), but some of the ways the story has her pop up in certain areas seems a bit odd. It almost feels like some added backstory on Nikki could have made her character a bit more acceptable in some scenarios.

Much of the film’s tone almost seems to meander along, until it gets to it’s third act. It is here that it felt like the audience I was with, was suddenly jolted awake by what we were seeing. The suckerpunch end scenes of the film are definitely something that is still seared into my brain, but I did wish that the film could have given us a few more moments during the story, that made us sit-up and take notice a bit more.

Summer of 84 is commendable for not throwing in a supernatural element to it’s nostalgic tale, but there are areas where the storytelling gets a bit too loose for my tastes. A good film, but it feels like with some extra time and care, it could have been a great one.

Final Grade: B-

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Movie Review: The Captain

(This film is Not Rated)

When I was younger, we were often taught that what a person wore, signified who they were. A person in a Police Officer’s uniform was someone you could trust to protect you, or someone in a fancy business suit was a wealthy entrepreneur. Of course, in the last few decades, we’ve seen more and more instances of how appearances (and reputations) can be deceiving.

With his latest film The Captain, writer/director Robert Schwentke has chosen to look into the perceptions of humanity and appearances, all based around actual events that occurred in the waning days of the Second World War.

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As the film begins, we find a German soldier named Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), deserting his post. As he runs across the barren countryside, he soon stumbles upon an abandoned vehicle, which contains a Nazi officer’s uniform inside.

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Max Hubacher as Willi Herold

Willi puts it on, and soon encounters a number of other German soldiers, who upon seeing the uniform of a superior officer, quickly offer their services to him. He soon spins a tale that he has been sent to the front lines under direct orders from Der Fuehrer, and the men are quick to believe his story and follow him.

Their journey eventually leads them to a camp that houses a number of German deserters, and the start of a reign of terror that would lead to Herold being dubbed, “The Executioner of Emsland.”

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To many of us in this country who have seen historical events portrayed on the big-screen, our perceptions of the Germans during World War II have largely been shaped by stories either involving American soldiers (Saving Private Ryan), or those dealing with the Holocaust (Schindler’s List, The Pianist).  The Captain manages to stray from the path of ‘the familiar,’ holding only on Herold and the German men he encounters. The only traces we get of any ‘foreigners’ to this world, are in the form of several (enemy) planes flying overhead.

While the film is based on actual events, Schwentke makes a bold move, by not giving his subject an elaborate backstory. At first, one can see that Herold’s wearing of the uniform gives him easy access to hot meals and warm beds. However, as he gathers more men, his actions become more enigmatic. This open interpretation allows the audience to draw their own conclusions to a number of the snap decisions he makes, and will probably make for some interesting discussions after the film ends.

When it comes to the enigmatic Herold, Max Hubacher does a decent job in his characterization of the historical figure. One can at times see his fear of being found out, and at other times, he creates a steely gaze that makes one question just what is going on behind those eyes.

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L to R: Freytag (Milan Peschel), Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), Kipinski (Frederick Lau)

Of the men that Herold commands, two that stand out are Freytag (Milan Peschel), and Kipinski (Frederick Lau). Freytag is Herold’s most loyal soldier, but also one of his more restrained confidantes. In contrast, Kipinski seems to revel in any chance to cause trouble, oftentimes becoming the loose cannon in the group. In several instances, it is how these men react to Herold’s commands, that adds some extra tension to some of the film’s more haunting scenes.

The Captain is also an intriguing look at how easily some people will compromise their morality. This is best shown when Herold begins giving orders to deal with the deserters at the camp he and his men arrive at. One can see the camp’s officers growing upset at their command being usurped, but given Herold’s uniform and proclamation that he is in the good graces of Der Fuehrer, many of them are quick to go along with his orders.

Where the film falters a little for me, is in the rather loose, pseudo-documentary style that Schwentke chooses to use. Some scenes seem to drag on a little too long, and there are a few instances that feel like someone may have spliced in film from another reel altogether.

There also is the use of a synthesized score in places, intermingled with traditional German music. Several of the synthesized pieces seem like odd choices given some of the scenes they are used in, though for much of the film, it is the general ambiance of the bleak scenes and music of the era that pull us into the film’s world.

Overall, it is rare to find a film about Germany that does what The Captain does. While Robert Schwentke’s historically-based film may have it’s flaws, the thought-provoking look at perceptions and power that it gives us, makes it an intriguing film to experience.

Final Grade: B

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Movie Musings: Remembering “American Graffiti,” 45 years later

For a young George Lucas in the early 1970’s, things were looking pretty rough.

At the University of Southern California, he had gained notoriety for daring to be different, and winning numerous accolades for his dystopian short film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. However, his attempts to build his film career were met with much resistance.

The translation of his short-subject into the feature-length THX-1138, was reviled by a number of critics, let alone the studio (Warner Brothers) that distributed it. The studio also showed it’s power over Lucas, when they edited the film against his wishes, sowing the seeds for his distrust in the Hollywood studio system.

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George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Following THX, George’s friend Francis Ford Coppola felt that he should try to make something he dubbed, “warm and fuzzy.”

This led to George looking back on his teen years in the early 1960’s. He had been enthralled by cars at that time, and when he later learned how cars figured into ‘the mating rituals of teenagers’ in those days, he decided to make his film about the ‘cruising culture’ in Northern California.

At first, Lucas shied away from writing the story himself. He attempted to have his friends Bill Hyuck and Gloria Katz write it, but they were busy with a personal project of their own. Once he had secured financing, he recruited another friend to write it.

Unfortunately, the script that was turned in went against what Lucas wanted. In the end, George was forced to write it himself.

After being rejected by a number of studios, Lucas did another rewrite, and got some interest from Universal Studios. Once the deal was made, Lucas called on Bill and Gloria (who had finished their personal project by this time), to do some additional rewrites.

The studio also requested Lucas get ‘a name’ to associate with the film. Given that he was going to not be casting any big-name actors, George asked his friend Coppola to sign on as a producer.

This worked to his advantage, as The Godfather had become a hit, and the studio could use the pull of Coppola’s name in the film’s advertising.

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Daring to be Different

Throughout his filmmaking career, George Lucas has often had a very maverick sense of filmmaking. From his days at USC Film School to his production of THX-1138, his sensibilities were often seen as ‘out there’ by a number of people.

Even with something as simple as rock and roll and vehicular nostalgia for the early 60’s, George’s production of Graffiti would be very unconventional.

One would assume that a 1960’s era film about teenagers would be more akin to the beach movies of yesteryear. However, George had more in mind than just another Frankie-and-Annette ripoff.

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L to R: Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) John Milner (Paul Le Mat), Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams), Steve Bolander (Ron Howard)

His film would be more in the vein of a documentary, as if George and his film crew just decided to follow these kids into the hot August night, and see what they got themselves into.

The production was also open to interpretation by the actors. The script was largely seen as an outline, and Lucas would often give his actors free rein to change a line or two, or just improvise.

Some of the actors admitted they were surprised at times, when George would keep filming some scenes over and over again. This led to some of the actors either flubbing lines, or doing unexpected things. Those ended up seeming more ‘natural,’ and oftentimes ended up in the final cut.

There was also the intertwining of four different storylines throughout the film. At the time, the studio said audiences would be confused by this, and that you could only tell one story. Naturally, Lucas’ documentary-style ideas quashed this thinking, and he did it his way.

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Music and Sound

Most notable about the film, is it’s wall-to-wall music soundtrack. A majority of the film’s $750,000 budget went to securing the rights to the 41 original songs that were woven throughout the film.

What some who saw the film never realize, is the ‘”world-izing” the sound team did to the music tracks.

Some of the music sounds like it’s coming from the car speakers, while other times, the music can be altered slightly to draw you into a particularly emotional scene.

Because of the budget constraints, this left little money for any orchestral music. To solve this dilemma, sound effects were layered in to help keep some non-musical scenes from just going silent.

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The Ending Explains the Film

One wouldn’t think of it today, but the film’s ending at the time was considered somewhat controversial.

As Curt’s plane takes wing for the east coast, we see the yearbook pictures of the four guys…and find that not everything ended up happily for them all.

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The studio and several of George’s friends felt this ‘destroyed’ the film, but George claimed it ‘put the whole thing in perspective.’

Graffiti was George’s anthropological ode to “a simpler time.” In his mind, that hot August night in 1962 that these kids shared in, was probably one of the last major nights of their lives, before the rest of the decade overtook them.

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Surprise Hit

Even with a number of successful test-screenings, the head of the studio informed George that the film was a wreck, and some wondered if they should just edit the film and air it as a TV-movie-of-the-week.

The studio was also unsure about the title. The word “graffiti” wasn’t widely-known, and some people felt that the public would think it was “a film about feet.”

It looked like another strike in Lucas’ film career, until Francis Coppola defended his friend, and claimed he was willing to purchase the film back from Universal.

The studio finally relented, and on August 3rd, 1973, American Graffiti was released, and became one of the year’s most profitable films.

It’s overall theatrical gross of $115 million, made it one of the most profitable films at the time given it’s very low production budget.

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The Thematics of George Lucas

If you watch enough films by a director, you soon start to notice patterns in what they make.

Many probably didn’t see it at the time, but if one looks at Lucas’ filmography these days, the themes begin to show up:

Man’s relationship to technologyThis theme manifests itself in several forms. The most obvious is the cruising culture of the film, where we see the kids in it socialize through the late-night driving around their hometown.

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Wolfman Jack as himself.

It’s also notable in relation to all the kids listening to radio DJ Wolfman Jack. The majority of the film’s teens have never met Wolfman, and yet they are totally enthralled by his antics, connecting with a person who is little more than a disembodied voice coming in through their car radios.

EscapeIn the film, Dreyfuss’ character named Curt, returns with Ron Howard’s character to their hometown after a year in college, but is having second-thoughts about going back.

For Curt, the night becomes one where he reminisces about the past, is enticed by a blonde in a white T-Bird, and questions whether he should stay in his hometown.

Much like Obi-Wan Kenobi giving Luke Skywalker advice, Curt finds his words-of-wisdom from Wolfman Jack himself.

In the end, Curt heads back to college, and eventually moves to Canada, where he becomes a writer.

The theme of ‘escape’ is prevalent in almost all of Lucas’ films.

  • In THX-1138, THX stops taking hs medications, has his eyes opened, and escapes from the film’s underground totalitarian society, into the world above.
  • The first films of Lucas’ Star Wars trilogies, have this play out with both Luke and Anakin Skywalker. They long to escape their environments on Tatooine, and in both cases, a sage-like figure helps them take their first steps (much like Curt after his talk with Wolfman Jack in Graffiti).

Graffiti is also the only film Lucas has done, that almost seems to sidestep the notion of politics (which figure into THX’s totalitarian society, and the Empire’s iron grip over the galaxy in Star Wars).

The closest we get to any form of political mention, happens when Curt is cruising with some girls in their car. One of them happens to be an ex-girlfriend, who tells them about Curt’s dream to one day become a Presidential aide, and shake hands with John F Kennedy.

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The Legacy of Graffiti

Next to his film-series Star Wars, American Graffiti is probably Lucas’s second most well-known film.

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Lucas outside of Mel’s Drive-In on Van Ness Blvd, in San Francisco, CA.

Over the years, many have associated the Mel’s Drive-In chain of restaurants with the film, given it’s prominence as the local hang-out for the film’s teenage crowd. Some even say the film saved the chain from going out of business (sadly, the one at Van Ness Blvd in the film was razed many years ago).

Mel’s also would be featured prominently for several decades in a few of Universal Studios’ theme parks, as both a sit-down restaurant and gift shop.

One of the most notable vehicles in the film, was John Milner’s yellow deuce coupe, which became the film’s unofficial symbol. Some people have often tried to replicate the iconic vehicle, even down to giving their vehicle Milner’s THX-138 license plate (a nod to Lucas’ first film).

Lucas’ hometown of Modesto, California (where he did his cruising before heading off to film school), also immortalized the director and his film.

Along a section of the town’s busy thoroughfares, is George Lucas Plaza. There you’ll find a sculpture of a young teen couple, sitting on the fender of a vintage car.

Since 1998, the town has held an annual American Graffiti Festival, where one can see countless vintage vehicles cruise up-and-down it’s streets. The festival got a huge surprise for the film’s 40th anniversary in 2013, when Lucas accepted their invitation to be the parade’s Grand Marshal.

One thing some don’t know, is that in 1979, Lucas produced a sequel called More American Graffiti.

It was set during the middle of the 60’s, and would have shown what happened to some of the characters from the first film.

However, it became another unnecessary sequel, not even coming close to the first film’s budget (and tone), and left a trail of bad reviews in it’s wake.

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In Conclusion

For some directors, there often comes a film that is seen as insight into who they are. Steven Spielberg did this with E.T., Tim Burton with Edward Scissorhands, and with Lucas, American Graffiti captured a bit of who he was in it’s storytelling, showing who Lucas was with some of it’s characters, and who he had become with it’s pseudo-documentary-style.

It’s far from a perfect film, but it definitely marks an important step in his career. While THX showed his concern over the United States heading towards (or already being in!) an Orwellian dystopia, Graffiti allowed him to try and develop characterization, and show a world both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

It would prove to be a valuable learning tool, when he would get down to working on his film about fast spaceships and laser-swords, a few years later.

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Blu-Ray Review: Gravity Falls – The Complete Series

(DVD MSRP: $59.97; Blu-Ray MSRP: $99.99)

When it comes to Disney’s animated television series Gravity Falls, I didn’t start watching until it was halfway through it’s second season. This proved to be perfect timing, as each episode quickly made me eager for more, and soon put me on track to watch the final episodes with the rest of the series’ super-fans online.

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For their summer vacation, twin siblings Dipper and Mable Pines are sent to the remote town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. There, they are put in the care of their Great-Uncle (aka “Grunkle”) Stan Pines, who runs a seedy tourist-trap called The Mystery Shack.

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L to R: Soos (Alex Hirsch), Dipper Pines, (Jason Ritter), Stan Pines (Alex Hirsch), Mabel Pines (Kristen Schaal), Wendy Corduroy (Linda Cardellini)

Shortly after the twins’ arrival, Dipper finds a hidden journal that details how the little town has a number of secrets. Pretty soon, the Pines family and their friends end up encountering a number of strange and frightening entities, that will make this a summer they will never forget.

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Some say that at 40 episodes long, Gravity Falls ended too soon. I beg to differ, as I find it’s short two-season lifespan gives us one of the most intriguing and entertaining animated series ever made. Plus, the ending was approved by it’s creator Alex Hirsch, allowing the series to conclude on it’s own terms, and not become the victim of another studio-approved cancellation (like a lot of other animated shows out there).

Unlike most animated series that struggle at first to figure out ‘what’ they are supposed to be, Falls seemed to know what it was from the very first episode. The general idea was a show that combined the relatable/emotional character antics of The Simpsons, with the mysterious atmosphere of Twin Peaks. Hirsch had always been big into mysteries and conspiracy theories growing up, and with this show, he managed to make thousands of people just as crazy as him, as they attempted to decipher the clues hidden in each episode.

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One of the messages/clues at the end of a Season 2 episode.

The show became one of Disney’s most popular series on their cable channels, and spawned a number of product tie-ins over the years. However, for many of the die-hard fans, there was one thing they wanted above all else: an official release of all of the show’s episodes on DVD.

Unfortunately, even with a massive social media campaign, it seemed there was noone at the Walt Disney Studios who felt putting out such a thing would be worth it. Imagine the surprise of many fans, when it was revealed that there WAS a company who did see it as a worthwhile endeavor. This was Shout Factory, a media company that often puts out a number of music and home video-related products.

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In this era of streaming media, boxsets regarding an animated show’s seasons are pretty rare to find. At most, the studios will just give you the show’s episodes, and that’s it. Fortunately for us, Shout Factory has often been willing to go the extra nine yards with their fan-pleasing products, and they’ve embellished this set with a number of special features!

A highlight for me, is that each of the show’s forty episodes has it’s own audio commentary track. Hirsch is present in all of them, along with an assorted mix of the cast and crew. I’m always up for hearing creators talk about the process of making things, and the behind-the-scenes dialogue was right up my alley. Back when I collected season releases of The Simpson on DVD, the commentary tracks were the big reason I made those purchases, and it was this component that led me to purchase this set.

There are also two interview segments made exclusively for this release.

The biggest one is a multi-part documentary titled, One Crazy Summer. The 105-minute special shows Hirsch and a number of the cast and crew talking about their work on the show, interspersed with video of him going through an old storage locker, where he stored a number of the show’s production materials. We get to see snippets of abandoned story concepts, and plenty of other goodies that will make you want to hit pause over-and-over again.

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Concept art for the show’s Mystery Shack location.

What some people don’t realize, is that just like Dipper and Mabel Pines, Alex Hirsch is also a twin. In The Hirsch Twins, Alex and his twin-sister Ariel sit down for a little chat about growing up together. There’s plenty of childhood pictures, and some great stories about how Alex took their personalities and interests, and intertwined them into the show’s main characters.

The set also touts a deleted scenes feature, but I was a little disappointed regarding their format. Instead of almost-finished animation, what we have are season 2 story meetings, with Hirsch narrating over rough storyboards. While it is a nice look into the show’s production process, I think it would have been better if the deleted scenes could have been included with their corresponding episodes. It would give viewers the chance to compare/contrast them with the final scenes the showrunners used.

There’s also the inclusion of a number of animated promotional materials, as well as smaller interview segments that aired on the Disney cable channels.

Shout even goes the extra mile in the packaging for the 3-disc set.

The DVD/Blu-Ray cases resemble the show’s journals (of which there were three!), and when the discs are watched, the main menu shows the opened pages of the journals.

Plus, the fun doesn’t stop there.

Just because the show is over, doesn’t mean the mysteries are too. There are a number of secret codes seen on parts of the special features disc, using the special alphabet the show created. Once deciphered, they will lead the viewer to find ‘easter eggs’ hidden within the menu pages.

I will admit that even with all the material mentioned above, I was surprised that the show’s original unaired pilot episode wasn’t included. While it is a little similar to the show’s first official episode, I felt it would have been a nice way to help show the evolution of Gravity Falls (like on the early Simpsons boxsetswhere they’d show clips from the character’s first appearances on The Tracy Ullman Show).

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Screenshot from the Season 1 episode, The Time Traveler’s Pig.

Even though it doesn’t give us everything with it’s special features, Gravity Falls: The Complete Series is still one of the most compelling boxsets for an animated series I’ve seen in a long time, and another home run release from the people at Shout Factory!

If you’re a fan of the show, it is highly-recommended that you pick up a copy. If you’re curious as to what the show is about, and got a jones for behind-the-scenes material, you’ll probably find it to be just as entertaining as I did.