Stories from the Trenches (Book Review)

Stories from the Trenches (Book Review)
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PLOT: Author Marco Siedelmann goes on a film-by-film journey through the résumé of director Sam Firstenberg, with Firstenberg revealing fascinating behind-the-scenes details on each one of his movies.

REVIEW: For fans of 1980s cinema and old school action, the version of Cannon Films run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus is one of the most popular and dearly missed studios of the era. That logo and accompanying music instantly brings a smile to your face, because you know you're in for something special and very '80s when you watch a Cannon movie. A lot of authors and documentarians have been looking back at Cannon recently, with Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films and The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films both being released in 2014. Now author Marco Siedelmann has gotten in on the Cannon action, but his book Stories from the Trenches: Adventures in Making High Octane Hollywood Movies with Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg (buy a copy HERE) is about more than just Cannon. It follows director Sam Firstenberg not only through his entire career, which began at the Golan/Globus studio, but really through his entire life.

Early in the book, Firstenberg says that he has always had a knack for storytelling - and from that point on, he really goes on to prove it, because this thing is packed with extensive interviews with Firstenberg on every single movie he ever directed, plus a television series he directed several episodes of. To save you a trip to IMDb, we're talking about twenty-four different titles here. It would be shocking if there are any interesting details about any of these projects that didn't make it into the book, because Siedelmann and Firstenberg make sure to be as thorough and in-depth on each one as possible. As the pages went by, I was stunned to see how much Firstenberg remembered about each of these jobs he took, not just because there were so many of them, but because even the most recent credit is nearly twenty years old, and he earned his first directing credit over forty years ago. And yet it seems he can still talk about all of them as if he were just on set last month. In addition to the Firstenberg interviews, Siedelmann reached out to many of the people who worked alongside the director over the years, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, getting even more information on the circumstances. 

American Ninja Sam Firstenberg Michael Dudikoff Judie Aronson

Firstenberg was a superb choice to be the subject of a book like this, because he directed some of the biggest, most famous films Cannon made: the all-time classic American Ninja and its first sequel American Ninja 2: The Confrontation; Revenge of the Ninja; the off-the-wall bonkers Ninja III: The Domination; and Breakin' 2, that film with the subtitle people have been joking about for 37 years, Electric Boogaloo. These films are well-known, and yet not the types of movies that would usually be explored to the degree that they are covered in Stories from the Trenches, so it's awesome to see them get this sort of attention.

As we all know, Cannon eventually crumbled, but Firstenberg was able to keep working steadily, knocking out B-movie action flicks like American Samurai and Cyborg Cop, getting the chance to try film noir with Motel Blue, working with the likes of Hulk Hogan and Eric Roberts, and yes, he did make a horror movie along the way - 2001's Spiders II: Breeding Ground.

From Firstenberg's youth, growing up in Jerusalem and going to the movie theatre every week, to his days studying film in college and working as an assistant director on films made in Israel, and then the movies he directed, Stories from the Trenches covers it all in an exceptionally interesting way. I haven't seen every movie Firstenberg has made, but I was engrossed by the stories told about the making of every one. I had to read this book relatively quickly for this review, but this would be a great one to go through slowly and savor, especially if you could get your hands on all of the movies discussed and watch each one after you've finished reading the chapter on it.

Firstenberg isn't the only skilled storyteller who contributed to the book. Siedelmann was truly blessed when it came to his interview subjects, because no one in here gives lacking answers. Everyone he talked to was willing and able to turn their answer to a question into a revealing story. Interviewees include the American Ninja himself, Michael Dudikoff; Breakin' 2 stars Lucinda Dickey (also the star of Ninja III), Adolfo Quinones, and Michael Chambers; stuntmen, editors, and producers; American Ninja's Judie Aronson (known to horror fans for her role in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter); Brooke Theiss (the cockroach girl from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master), who worked with Firstenberg on the films The Alernate and Quicksand; and more. Steve James worked with Firstenberg on the first two American Ninja movies, plus Avenging Force and Riverbend. Sadly, he passed away in 1993 at a much too young age, but he is present in the book as well. Siedelmann includes an interview with James from Impact magazine that was published just a few months before he died.

Stories from the Trenches is packed with so much information, it can seem daunting to get through, which is another reason why the best way to read it would be to go through it slowly, piece by piece. It is massive, a coffee table sized paperback with a page count of 755. Many of those pages are taken up by publicity photos and behind the scenes pictures from the films Firstenberg worked on, but there's a whole lot of conversation in its pages as well. Anyone interested in Cannon, the types of movies Firstenberg made over the years, or even just filmmaking in general are encouraged to take the challenge and check it out, because this is an excellent book, and quite an amazing accomplishment for Siedelmann.

If you're not a fan of Sam Firstenberg now, you will be by the time you finish reading Stories from the Trenches.


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