Walter Koenig Looks Back at ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’

Walter Koenig in Star Trek IV

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2011.

Fifty years after his screen debut, Walter Koenig took a trip down to the Egyptian Theatre which was showing “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” By that, I mean he literally tripped while making his way to the front of the audience. Fortunately, he was unharmed and said he always planned to do that.

Koenig played Pavel Chekov on the original “Star Trek” TV series as well as in the first seven movies of the franchise. Of all the movies, he declared “Star Trek IV” to be his favorite and reveled in how Chekov actually had his own theme music. “The Voyage Home,” he said, reflected the best things about the show and had a strong sociological statement. It also had soul and got you really involved with the characters, and it showed the connection they had with the audience whether or not they were Trekkers.

Koenig also called “The Voyage Home” the most ensemble film of the film series as each actor had their own stand out moment. That is, except for George Takei who was supposed to have a scene where Sulu meets his great grandfather. Koenig described the kid who was cast in the role as being “a real pain in the ass.” Every time the crew was ready to shoot, the young boy would say, “I don’t wanna!” By the time he did want to shoot, the sun had gone down and the crew lost the shot. Suffice to say, Takei was not happy about that.

Koenig also took the time to applaud the audience for what he called their “Pollyannaish” devotion to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” When it first came out, he said the reviews were “brutal” and that critics complained the cast was “too old” and should “only be on TV.” At the time, Koenig considered himself “anonymous” compared to the rest of the cast, but he found this to be great because his name was never mentioned in the reviews. Looking back, he figured they forgot he was in the movie.

When it came to “Star Trek: Generations,” Koenig knew going into it he would have nothing more than a cameo. Initially, the whole Enterprise crew was supposed to be in it, but Takei, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley considered their parts to be not worthy, and Koenig said they were right. In the end, it came down to William Shatner, the late James Doohan and him acting as the bridge to the “Next Generation” cast.

When it came to “Star Trek: Generations,” Koenig originally said no to it because, despite the six-figure salary, he felt he had done this before and that there was nothing new for Chekov to do. The movie’s producer, Rick Berman, met with him, and Koenig suggested they add a scene which would make Chekov a bit deeper, and this involved when he was with Scotty after Captain Kirk got blasted into space. The end result of what Koenig did brought a half dozen people on the set to tears, but in the end it got cut out in the editing room. Koenig said he believed it was all a Machiavellian setup designed to get him involved and that they never planned to put the scene in the final cut.

It was great to see Walter Koenig in such good spirits considering the personal tragedy he endured when his son Andrew committed suicide, and he left the audience with a great treasure trove of behind the scenes stories to remember. He left us to find those “nuclear wessels” as he sarcastically said we were probably all waiting to see “Star Trek V.”

Thanks for a fun evening Walter!

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All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Maximum Overdrive’

Okay let’s be honest, “Maximum Overdrive” is not a good movie, and that is being generous. It is one of the many adaptations of a Stephen King novel or short story, in this case “Trucks,” and it also marked the feature film directorial debut of King as well. The fact he hasn’t directed a movie since should be no surprise to anyone who has seen this one. The acting is embarrassingly over the top, the editing very sloppy, and not even a rock and roll score by AC/DC is enough to lift, as King described it, this “moron movie” out of the cinematic abyss.

But when all is said and done, the trailer for “Maximum Overdrive” is one of my favorite movie trailers of all time. Watching King gleefully describe what he has in store for us makes me want to watch this movie again, and that’s even though I already know just how bad it is.

Right from the start, King makes it clear to the audience how “Maximum Overdrive” will be a unique movie compared to the others based on his work, and as the camera closes in on his face, he gives off a wide-eyed expression and a twisted smile which quickly reminds us how this is the same man who wrote “Carrie,” “Salem’s Lot” and “The Shining.” I love how he talks about how he “sort of enjoyed” directing a motion picture, but it makes me wonder if this was the cocaine talking as he later admitted how “coked out of his mind” he was while making this Golden Raspberry nominated film.

It was also a brilliant move to use the “Chariots of Pumpkins” theme John Carpenter and Alan Howarth composed for the “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” soundtrack here as the wonderfully creepy music adds to King’s creepy appearance while he stands in front of the Green Goblin mask which is featured prominently on the front of the biggest truck in “Maximum Overdrive.”

The worst parts of each actor’s performance are kept to a bare minimum here, but the annoying nature of the character Yeardley Smith plays is something even the makers of this trailer could not hide from the public. But do not feel bad for Smith. She has more than persevered since “Maximum Overdrive” as she still is the voice of Lisa Simpson on “The Simpsons,” and it is enviable role for any actor which she has held onto now for decades.

When King points his finger at us and says “I’m going to scare the hell out of you and that’s a promise,” it is a wonderfully unsettling moment as those of us who are fans of his writing are well-aware of how often he has kept us up nights. Of course, this movie is anything but scary, so perhaps he was talking about one of his books instead without even realizing it.

In a world filled with an infinite number of movie trailers, the one for “Maximum Overdrive” stands out for me among so many others. Even though the movie it advertises proved to be a critical disaster, I still enjoy watching it from time to time as there are few other trailers like it.

 

 

Savage Steve Holland Revisits ‘Better Off Dead’ and ‘One Crazy Summer’ at the Aero Theatre

Better Off Dead poster

The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica was sold out yet again when director Savage Steve Holland was there to talk about his two 1980’s comedies “Better Off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer” back in June 2008. But the big attraction of the evening was “Better Off Dead” as it still has a huge cult following 30 years after its release. Like many movies from our youth, it was a box office flop and got eviscerated by critics. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down, and Peter Travers tore it apart limb from limb, but it eventually found its audience on video, cable, DVD and Blu-ray. These days, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t watched “Better Off Dead,” and everyone who has seen it loves it.

“Better Off Dead” follows Lane Meyer (John Cusack), a teenager with an obsession for skiing and an even bigger obsession for his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss). But soon after the movie begins, Beth dumps Lane for the captain of the ski team, and this leaves him utterly devastated to where he tries to kill himself in order to get her attention. Throughout, he is forced to deal with a crazed paperboy who wants his two dollars, his mother’s bizarre ways of cooking food, his dad’s insistence on doing something about his Camaro which remains immobile on the front lawn, his kid brother who reads books on how to pick up “trashy woman,” and a lovely foreign exchange student who has the misfortune of staying with the dork heads, ahem, the Smiths next door.

After “Better Off Dead” ended, Holland came to the stage and was greeted with thunderous applause. Dressed in jeans, a white buttoned-down shirt and wearing a green baseball cap, he was so happy to see all these people who came out to see this movie which he made long ago. Along with Holland was Diane Franklin who played the French exchange student Monique, and Curtis Armstrong who plays Lane’s best friend Charles de Mar.

Holland said “Better Off Dead” was inspired by his own life experiences, particularly the one where a girlfriend dumped him for somebody else. One scene has Lane tying an extension cord around his neck in the garage, and Holland said he did the same thing and had attached the cord to a pole while standing on a plastic garbage can. Holland said he became terrified and couldn’t go through with it, and then the lid of the garbage can suddenly broke and he fell right into it. Then the pipe above him broke, water came out and he almost drowned as a result. His mother came into the garage to see what was going on, and she ended up yelling at him for breaking the pipe.

“Better Off Dead” did so well in test screenings to where Warner Brothers gave Holland even more money to make “One Crazy Summer.” The studio executives were so convinced they had a big hit on their hands, and they wanted to work with him again on his next movie. Unfortunately, “Better Off Dead” failed at the box office and, while he did get the opportunity to make “One Crazy Summer,” Holland said he was quickly consigned to what he called “movie hell.” This is the place you go to when your movie doesn’t have a big opening weekend, and all those friends you thought you had in Hollywood stop calling you as a result.

one_crazy_summer_xlg

One fan asked Holland what the difference was between making “Better Off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer.” With “Better Off Dead,” Holland said he had total creative freedom to where no one was looking over his shoulder, and this made it the best filmmaking experience he has ever had. With “One Crazy Summer,” it was very different because there was more money involved, and studio executives were on set watching his every move. A lot of this was due to their initial response following the first “Better Off Dead” screening as they came out of it horrified, thinking it was a sequel to John Water’s “Pink Flamingos.”

Franklin, as it turns out, is not French. She said her father is in fact German, so this may account for her looking like she is from another country. As for her French accent, Franklin said she took French classes in high school and became very good at speaking the language, and the accent came to her easily as a result. When she came in to read for “Better Off Dead,” Franklin was actually up for the roles of Beth and Monique. Franklin said making this movie remains the best experience she has had as an actress, and she remarked how Holland created a fun and comfortable atmosphere for everyone to work in. She also confirmed it was indeed a woman who did her skiing sequences in the movie and not a man as many assumed. Holland did say, however, that her stunt double looked almost exactly like her, and the only thing separating them was the stunt double’s tan.

Also up for the role of Monique was Elizabeth Daily who sang the movie’s title track at the school dance. But in the end, it was determined Daily was just “too hot” for the role.

Armstrong came up with some of the most memorable aspects of Charles de Mar. The scene where the ski captain asks Beth what her name is and Charles replies, mistakenly thinking he the one being talked to, was Armstrong’s idea. He also came up with the top hat Charles wears throughout the movie, saying it was inspired by his love for The Beatles and, in particular, George Harrison. It was also his idea to bring along the jar with the dead pig in it to school. However, Armstrong said he could not take credit for this famous piece of dialogue: “I have been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.”

Armstrong also brought up a brief conversation he had with Kim Darby who played Lane’s mom. At one point during a break from filming, Darby came up to Armstrong, took him by the shoulders and said, “Watch out! They’re trying to destroy you!” After that, she never spoke to him again.

Holland also discussed some of the movie’s deleted scenes, and among them was one which showed how Lane’s mother belonged to the cult of Gumby and was collecting money for it at the airport. Other deleted scenes included Lane’s father (played by David Ogden Stiers) coming home to find his wife vacuuming the lawn, Lane trying to practice the theme song to “Flipper” on his saxophone, and there is a seal there which ends up applauding another person who ends up performing it better than him. Also, the scene of the paperboy falling off the cliff actually lasted a lot longer as Holland had about three minutes of it on film, but test audiences had a very sickened reaction to it, and it got shortened as a result.

If there was one thing which dampened the mood for “Better Off Dead” fans, it is the fact Cusack hates the movie. Holland said he got along great with Cusack while making “Better off Dead,” and he really wanted Cusack to like it as much as he did. Before they began shooting “One Crazy Summer,” Holland got the cast members to hang out with each other in Cape Cod so they could become comfortable with one another. While there, someone was presenting a screening of “Better Off Dead” which they all went to. Twenty or so minutes into it, Cusack walked out. Holland figured Cusack had to take a call or something, but the actor never returned. Holland later caught up with Cusack who told him he thought the movie was horrible and that he no longer trusted him as a director. Suffice to say, this really brought the audience at the Aero Theatre down.

Someone else asked how Rupert Hine came to score “Better Off Dead.” One of the companies involved in the movie’s making was A&M Records which had worked on soundtracks for other films like “The Breakfast Club.” Hine was a featured performer on that soundtrack but had never actually done a film score before. “Better Off Dead” was his first effort as a film composer, and the resulting soundtrack release for the movie is indeed awesome.

This evening was a lot of fun for everyone involved, and it says a lot about “Better Off Dead” that it remains so popular decades after its release. One fan proudly proclaimed it as being “bar none, the greatest movie ever made.” Such a fan this guy was, he got Holland to sign an authentic air filter for a 1967 Camaro, just like the one featured in the movie. Along with that, he also had the original vinyl release of the soundtrack as well as the movie’s original script.

“Better Off Dead” is truly one of the most entertaining comedies to come out of the 1980’s, and it is a movie Cusack really should be proud of. What else can you say about a movie in which Steven Williams utters one of the most famous lines in cinema history?

“Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwing away a perfectly good white boy like that.”

The article’s over… You can go home now.

 

Tom McLoughlin Revisits ‘Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives’ at New Beverly Cinema

Tom Mcloughlin Jason Voorhees tombstone

On Friday June 5, 2009, Phil Blankenship presented a triple feature for horror fans at New Beverly Cinema with “Friday the 13th Parts IV, V, & VI.” The fourth film was called “The Final Chapter,” and seeing its title on the screen induced uncontrollable laughter in every member of the audience for obvious reasons. The fifth film, “A New Beginning” remains the most despised of the sequels as it tried to continue to the series without Jason, and it proved to be an embarrassing failure. “Jason Lives,” on the other hand, is one of the best in the series thanks in large part to the great sense of humor the filmmakers brought to it. All the sequels which came after this one turned out to be completely stupid and unintentionally hilarious with a few exceptions. In retrospect, these three movies marked the franchise’s peak as well as the start of its downward spiral.

As time went on, these three “Friday the 13th” sequels became known as the Tommy Jarvis trilogy. We first meet Tommy Jarvis in “The Final Chapter” where he is played by a very young Corey Feldman and spends his time playing on his computer or indulging in his hobby of making masks. Tommy ends up killing Jason with his machete, and then he can’t get himself to stop bashing him with it. In “A New Beginning,” we see an older Tommy, now played by John Shepherd, still dealing with the intense psychological damage his encounter with Jason thrust upon him. And then in “Jason Lives,” Tommy (this time played by Thom Matthews) is convinced Jason is not dead despite having been buried for years. But of course, he ends up accidentally resurrecting Jason and has to take him down yet again.

Blankenship gave the crowd a special treat by bringing out the writer/director of “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives,” Tom McLoughlin, to talk with the audience about its making. McLoughlin started off by saying how glad he was to be at New Beverly Cinema as he got all of his film education here, that shooting this sequel remains the most fun he has had as a filmmaker, and he confessed he has not seen a print of it since 1986.

Friday the 13th Part VI Jason Lives poster

When first hired to direct “Jason Lives,” McLoughlin admitted the only “Friday the 13th” movie he had seen previously was the first one. As a result, the executives at Paramount Pictures forced him to watch the other four. With “Jason Lives,” McLoughlin was intent on ignoring the events of “A New Beginning” because he said it really pissed him off. The audience at the New Beverly was in complete agreement with this, and they applauded him loudly.

McLoughlin also said he had originally planned to introduce Jason’s father, Elias Voorhees, into this sequel in order to give the iconic slasher more of a back story. We all know about his crazy mother, but not much has ever been said about Jason’s poppa. But Paramount Pictures was not crazy about this plot element because they weren’t sure which direction it would take the franchise in, so they put the kibosh on it. However, the DVD reissue of “Jason Lives” does have the film’s original ending with Jason’s father in the form of storyboards, and it is a must see for fans.

One fan asked McLoughlin how he got Alice Cooper to contribute songs to “Jason Lives.” It turns out Cooper is a big fan of the “Friday the 13th” series and was more than happy to participate, even allowing McLoughlin to use any of his songs in the movie. Cooper gave “Jason Lives” its end title song of “The Man behind the Mask,” but McLoughlin said the original version was much faster.

Blankenship asked McLoughlin the inevitable question about how he dealt with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and of what it took to get “Jason Lives” an R rating. Surprisingly, the MPAA didn’t want McLoughlin to cut scenes, but frames instead. McLoughlin said the frames didn’t have blood or gore in them, but the MPAA found them to be too intense. In the end, he made no secret he wanted this movie to be a “huge bloodbath.”

Thom Matthews was cast as Tommy Jarvis in “Jason Lives” as McLoughlin wanted someone who seemed more heroic. Plus, John Shepherd, who played Tommy in “A New Beginning,” didn’t want to return because, as McLoughlin put it, “he got all religious.” Shepherd had since become a born again Christian and his church didn’t feel like doing a slasher movie was in his best interest.

With this particular “Friday the 13th” sequel, McLoughlin admitted he tried to give it a strong sense of humor. This is apparent right from the start when you see how the opening title shot is a clever homage to the gun barrel sequences in the James Bond movies. Indeed, you come out of this sequel feeling like McLoughlin actually took the time to work on the script instead of just throwing something together at the last minute. Plus, the interplay with the kids, and this is one of few movies in this franchise which actually had kids in it, was great like when they hide under the beds and one boy asks another, “So, what were you going to be when you grew up?”

Ron Palillo, who plays Allen Hawes, is best known for playing Arnold Horshack on “Welcome Back, Kotter.” This got McLoughlin talking about how everyone in the city kept calling Palillo “Horshack” wherever he went. Looking back, he said this made him realize how hard it is for actors to get past a character they played which was so popular.

Another fan asked McLoughlin if he had any favorite on-set stories he could share. This got him to talk about a stunt man who came on the set dressed like Evel Knievel and said, “I’m here to crash something. So what do you want me to do?” The stunt he performed was an especially dangerous one as it required him to drive a big RV (is there any other kind?) over a ramp at 90 miles an hour. McLoughlin said this was the scariest time he ever had on a film set as he worried this guy would get killed. Fortunately, the stunt came out perfectly with the RV crashing on its side the way it was supposed to, and the stuntman pulled himself out of the wreckage and said, “Did I do alright?”

It turns out there were different endings thought up for “Jason Lives,” but McLoughlin made it clear he always intended for Jason to end up back in Crystal Lake. One of those endings did include Jason’s father bringing him back to life with voodoo magic. In the end, McLoughlin decided to keep it simple and used the image of Jason’s good eye suddenly opening up wide to show the audience that, surprise, he’s not done killing camp counselors yet.

As for the man behind the mask, two actors were hired to play Jason. The first was Dan Bradley who has since become known as the premier stunt coordinator for Hollywood movies like the Jason Bourne franchise. The powers that be at Paramount Pictures, however, after watching some dailies, decided he should be replaced because they felt he didn’t have the character’s build. Enter C.J. Graham who had just finished a stint as a United States Marine and had no previous acting experience. McLoughlin said Graham came onto the set answering all of his questions with “yes sir.” Today, Graham is a casino manager in Las Vegas.

In regards to his favorite death in “Jason Lives,” McLoughlin replied it was when Sheriff Michael Garris (David Kagen) gets folded in half. This came about because he wanted Jason to kill in ways he thought would seem “superhuman.” The fact Jason starts off being struck by lightning makes it seem all the more logical he would kill people this way. It certainly made for many memorably gruesome moments!

The last question for McLoughlin was if Paramount asked him to direct another installment, and why this didn’t happen. He said he was actually approached by Frank Mancuso to do the next sequel, and Mancuso asked him, “How about Jason vs. Freddy?” To this, McLoughlin replied, “How about Cheech & Chong vs. Jason?”

Later on, McLoughlin did get the offer to direct “Freddy vs. Jason,” but he said he didn’t like the script given to him. New Line Cinema, which ended up buying the rights to “Friday the 13th” from Paramount, invited him for a meeting to talk about it. However, the meeting lasted only ten minutes after which he walked out, and he has not been involved with the movie franchise since.

Since making “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives,” McLoughlin has gone on to make movies like “Date with An Angel” which featured Emmanuelle Béart at her most beautiful, and he also directed episodes of the “Friday the 13th” television series. His other credits include the Stephen King TV movie “Sometimes They Come Back.” Outside of his contribution to the “Friday the 13th” franchise, he has made a good and comfortable career as a director. Having him speak to the fans at New Beverly Cinema was a real treat, and he really enjoyed the time he spent with them. Special thanks go out to Phil Blankenship for putting this screening together. This particular sequel still remains one of the best of this series, and McLoughlin’s appearance made sitting through “Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning” somewhat bearable.

‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’ is a Mixed Bag, But It’s Never Boring

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 poster

After I finished watching “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I was in no hurry to watch part two. The 1974 horror classic still probes to be an intensely unsettling cinematic experience decades after its release, and Tobe Hooper’s film was far more terrifying than I expected it to be. Recovering from the original was no different than when I slowly pulling myself back together after watching Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” or just about any Lars Von Trier film. But with Hooper having recently passed away, the time had come for me to check out “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” a sequel heavily criticized when it opened in 1986, but which has since become a cult classic in the eyes of many.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” takes place over a decade after the original, and an opening narration tells us the police searched for Leatherface and his cannibal family but never found any trace of them. But of course, it doesn’t take long for this sequel to reintroduce us to Leatherface as he gleefully slices away at a pair of obnoxious high school seniors who harass on-air radio DJ Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams). Stretch captures the audio of these kids’ murders and passes it on to Lieutenant Baude “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper), uncle to Sally Hardesty and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin who were victims of Leatherface’s chainsaw wrath. From there, the two of them become determined to end Leatherface and the Sawyer family’s reign of terror once and for all.

How you enjoy this sequel largely depends on what your expectations are when you go into it. If you think Hooper planned to match the claustrophobic terror and unnerving power of the original, you are in for a serious disappointment. But if you are able to accept this sequel in regards to what Hooper intended to accomplish with it, I think there is a good deal of fun to be had even if feels like there is a lot missing from this follow-up.

With “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” Hooper wanted to focus more on the black comedy he said was inherent in the original. Was there black comedy in the original? Yes, but it took a couple of viewings to realize this was the case. This sequel, however, was made to satirize both horror movies and the excess of the 1980’s. Since this one came out in 1986, the time had come to take aim at the greed which came to define this particular decade. Also, when you take into account how the poster gleefully parodies the one for “The Breakfast Club,” you should know this a film which will not take itself too seriously. Plus, this was released by Cannon Films, so you could count on it being entertaining, and maybe for reasons its director didn’t intend.

Looking back at “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” my feelings about it are decidedly mixed. I did enjoy the frenzied energy Hooper and company brought to the proceedings, and the actors look like they had great fun committing onscreen mayhem. At the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity as the style and substance of this sequel proved to be much too distant from the original. Its links to the 1974 film are very weak to where this feels like a sequel in name only. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns’ character from the original) is only mentioned in the opening narration as having since gone into catatonia. It would have been cool to see her come back in one way or another, perhaps as some badass hardened warrior eager to get revenge. Heck, this sequel came out in the summer of 1986 not long after Sigourney Weaver set a new standard for female action heroes in “Aliens.” Had Burns come back, it could have been the summer of the vengeful female warrior.

One thing which especially bummed me out was the lack of actors returning from the original. In fact, the only actor from the original to appear here was Jim Siedow who reprises his role as Drayton Sawyer. While his creepy face alone is the kind which inspires wicked nightmares, Siedow doesn’t get as much to do this time around. As for Leatherface, he is portrayed by Bill Johnson and not Gunnar Hansen who brought a twisted realism to the iconic horror character. Johnson isn’t bad as he can wield a rusty chainsaw like the best of them, and his sudden appearance from a room filled with vinyl records results in one of this sequel’s scariest moments, but Hansen is sorely missed here as no other actor can possibly match what he brought to the first film.

The rest of the cast, however, does rise to the frenzied challenge Hooper laid out for them. Bill Moseley, who has since appeared in Rob Zombie’s “House of a 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” looks to be having the time of his life as Chop-Top Sawyer as he gleefully tortures Stretch even after a part of his skull gets accidentally sawed off by Leatherface. Speaking of Stretch, Caroline Williams brings a wonderfully spunky energy to the role as she uses her smarts to outwit the Sawyer family in an effort to escape with her life, and her last moment in this sequel is a memorable one to say the least.

But the actor I got the biggest kick out of watching in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” was Dennis Hopper who played former Texas Ranger Baude “Lefty” Enright, a man deeply obsessed with finding the Sawyer family and avenging the suffering they and Leatherface inflicted on his kin. Hopper was in the midst of a major comeback in 1986 as he appeared in “Hoosiers,” “River’s Edge” and, most famously, David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” While those films are better examples of his acting, his performance in this sequel is equally inspired as he clearly knew he was in an over-the-top horror movie and relished the opportunity to go mano-a-mano with Leatherface. Seeing the “Easy Rider” battle Leatherface with a chainsaw is wickedly gleeful fun as a battle with chainsaws is something this sequel just had to have.

So, when all is said and done, I did admire “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” but certainly not it in the same way I admired the original. Hooper’s vision wasn’t lacking here in the slightest, but he instead took things in direction fans were prepared for 30 years ago. It is only with the passing of time we can look at it differently and understand how it attained cult status. I don’t think it’s a bad film, but it does feel strange compared to what came before.

Looking back, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” represented one of several attempts by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of taking a well-received motion picture and turning it into a hopefully long-running franchise. Clearly, they had more luck commercially, if not critically, with “Death Wish,” but at least this sequel fared much better than “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” the film which pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for Cannon Films.

Of course, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise didn’t stop there as the buzz of the saw is still an inviting sound to horror fans all over the world, and filmmakers have continued on with other sequels, a remake, prequels and, yikes, an upcoming origin story. People still want to experience the visceral thrill the 1974 horror classic in one way or another, but when it came to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” perhaps Hooper realized from the start that it was not possible to top the original or match its terrifying power. Instead, he felt it was better to try something a little different, and that’s what he did with this sequel for better and for worse.

* * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Platoon’

Platoon movie poster

I think its use of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber is one of the reasons I stayed away from watching “Platoon” for the longest time. It still is one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard, although it would later be eclipsed by the even more emotionally devastating “Symphony No. 3” (subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by Henryk Górecki which Peter Weir used to powerful effect in “Fearless.” Plus, the way the violence in “Platoon” was described to me by friends at school, like when a soldier gets his arms blown off by a bomb, filled my mind with horrible images which had no business infecting my mind at such a young age.

It took buying the 25th anniversary edition of “Platoon” on Blu-ray for me to finally sit down and watch it. I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, and here I am buying it at Costco for $11.99 By then, I had seen many Oliver Stone movies like “Born On the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” and “Natural Born Killers,” so I was long overdue to give this Best Picture winner a look.

Before “Platoon,” I had seen “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” which viewed the Vietnam War from different perspectives. The one thing they had in common was they were directed by filmmakers who had never served in Vietnam. Stone, however, had served there, so “Platoon” is largely autobiographical for him. As a result, this is probably the first truly realistic depiction of the Vietnam War anyone could have ever hoped to see in a movie.

Charlie Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, and it’s interesting watching him here as this was long before his days on “Two and a Half Men.” Taylor serves as the narrator and most relatable character as, like him, we are coming into this war fresh-faced, naïve and innocent. The first scene where Taylor comes off a plane with a bunch of newbies is an omen of what is to come. Seeing body bags filled with fallen soldiers and crossing paths with those men who have seen the war up close quickly gives you a good idea of what Taylor will probably end up looking like at the movie’s end.

Sheen is perfectly cast as he makes Taylor go from being a newbie to an experienced combat veteran in little time. It’s a shame Sheen has since pissed away a good portion of his talent to where he’s pretty much playing a version of himself as some drunken womanizer, be it on a television show or a movie. His work here is a strong reminder of how good he can be as he is utterly believable in a role no one would cast him in today.

Seeing Taylor struggle on through the Vietnamese jungle after the opening scene is a quick indication of how unprepared he is for combat. Like many wars Americans have fought, it was on the soil of another country they were completely unfamiliar with. We see how this puts them at an immediate disadvantage as they look completely exhausted and depleted even at the start of the day.

When it comes to Vietnam, Taylor makes it clear he is a unique case as he tells everyone he dropped out of college to volunteer and serve in the war. This makes him seem like part of a generation raised to believe fighting in a war is both noble and infinitely patriotic, something to be proud of. Taylor also feels that not only poor kids should be sent to fight instead of the rich, but he soon learns the truths about war, one of which is given to him by King (Keith David) who tells him something which resonates strongly even today: “You got to be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody know, the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”

The other two performances worth noting are given by Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes. Both figure prominently in Taylor’s tour of duty, and even he says these two were fighting for his soul. Dafoe is mesmerizing as the idealistic soldier who sees America’s involvement in Vietnam ending badly. The Christ-like pose he gets in, whether its holding a machine gun over his shoulders or as he runs from the Vietnamese soldiers, is no mistake. Elias ends up dying for the sins of his fellow soldiers while doing his best to protect them.

Berenger’s performance as Barnes ranks among his best ever. He succeeds in getting inside the head of someone who has been shot at so many times to where they are forever psychologically altered. Having seen death up close, Barnes acts as if he has surpassed it. In some ways, Berenger doesn’t need those makeup scars to show you how many firefights his character has been in as watching him walk through the jungle, completely unaffected by explosions going off around him as if he were Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” is more than enough proof of this.

Stone makes you feel the blood, sweat, tears and exhaustion these soldiers experience, and it’s all so vivid to where we come out of “Platoon” feeling like war veterans ourselves. It leaves all those other movies which make war seem like fun to utter shame. Coming from a filmmaker who has seen this particular war up close, we cannot deny the authenticity he puts on display.

“Platoon” also captures how quickly people can lose their moral bearings in the face of war. The scene in the village is by far the movie’s most unnerving moment as we watch Taylor and the other soldiers get overcome by their boiling anger and hatred. What’s so horrifying is that while you would like to believe you would have acted differently than they did, there’s no way you can be sure if you haven’t been in combat. The line between soldier and killer gets seriously blurred here, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Before filming began, the cast was treated to an intensive military training course under the tutelage of former Marine Captain Dale Dye who also served in Vietnam. They were made to dig foxholes and subjected to forced marches and nighttime ambushes which utilized explosions. This succeeded in breaking them down, and you can see and feel the weariness in them throughout. It more than adds to the sheer realism we see here.

There’s no victory to be found in “Platoon,” only death and destruction on both sides of the conflict. The movie gets at the truth of war which Danny DeVito talked about in “The War of the Roses” when he said, “There is no winning! There’s only degrees of losing!”

The violence and death portrayed may not seem quite as visceral as it did when the movie first came out. There have been many other war movies since like “Saving Private Ryan” which featured scenes of such brutal violence that no other filmmaker could possibly match. Plus, we all know about the Vietnam War in general and big a mistake it was for America for many years now. Still, “Platoon” is nothing less than powerful as its vision of the craziness and insanity of war is impossible to shake once you have seen it.

The Vietnam War may be a thing of the past, but the lessons we learned from it still need to be taught over and over again. America keeps fighting wars which, whether necessary or not, continually overstay their welcome and leave a lot of people feeling angry and betrayed. Oliver Stone certainly understands that, and he makes “Platoon” into a movie which shows the damage of war and why we can’t just let the past be the past.

* * * * out of * * * *

David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ Proves to Be More Than the Average Gross-Out Movie

The Fly 1986 movie poster

David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” was released in 1986, a year filled with everlasting cinematic classics like “Aliens,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” “Platoon,” and “Top Gun.” More importantly, it came out during a time where remakes were very rare compared to today, and also when remakes were actually worth watching. Whereas remakes these days serve to capitalize on a known quantity or are being exploited for the sake of some potential franchise, “The Fly” is one where the director took what came before and made it completely his own.

You should all know the story by now. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a brilliant and eccentric scientist who has invented a set of telepods which allow objects to travel instantaneously from one pod to another. Seth shares the story of his invention with science journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) as he attempts to test teleportation on living subjects. Eventually, Seth decides to test it on himself, but he doesn’t realize a common housefly has entered the telepod with him, and the computer gets confused and ends up merging the two lifeforms at a molecular-genetic level. Seth believes the teleportation has purified his body as he discovers a strength he didn’t previously have, but it’s all a build up for a transformation which becomes all the more horrifying as “The Fly” reaches its gruesome climax.

What I love about “The Fly” is its slow build as Cronenberg makes Seth’s transformation into “Brundlefly” all the more unnerving by taking it one step at a time. We first see him engaging in an extraordinary set of gymnastics we would all love to be capable of, and then we watch as he puts an enormous amount of sugar into his coffee at a local diner. This leads Veronica to ask him, “Do you normally take coffee with your sugar?” While I expected a reply along the lines of Christian Slater’s in “True Romance” where he said, “I’m not satisfied until the spoon is standing straight up,” it is immediately clear that Seth is too involved in his own process to see the damage it is doing to his body.

Seth’s face comes to look like it is riddled with severe acne scars, and this brought about a number of PTSD flashbacks for me of when I dealt with my own acne outbreaks back in high school. But the key moment doesn’t come when Seth snaps a guy’s arm in half during an arm wrestle contest (it’s always painful to see a bone sticking out of a person’s body), but instead when he finds himself pulling out his own fingernails. Just the idea of pulling out your own fingernails is painful in itself, but seeing Seth pulling his out to where a great deal of puss explodes from his fingers proves to be even more painful than watching George Clooney getting his fingernails pulled out with a pair of plyers in “Syriana.”

At this point, I want to point out one of “The Fly’s” biggest stars which is Chris Walas. Walas won an Academy Award for Best Makeup for his work here, and it should go without saying just how much he deserved it. As Seth’s body continues to deteriorate in the midst of an unwanted, let alone unexpected, transformation, Walas makes each moment sting with a thankfulness we are not going through what this misguided scientist is. He also gives you the assurance that he and his colleagues have researched all there is to know about this kind of metamorphosis, and this makes Seth’s transformation all the more horrifying. Walas makes you believe something like this could actually happen to where you cannot help but react strongly to everything unfolding before you.

1986 was a big year in science fiction as Sigourney Weaver not only had the lead role in “Aliens,” back when it was rare for an actress to have such a role in a movie, but she also scored an Oscar nomination for her performance which was well-deserved. It’s a shame Goldblum didn’t get the same respect from the Academy as his performance is truly brilliant and wholly original. Just as Weaver dominated all those special effects in “Aliens,” Goldblum makes it clear the makeup is not doing all the acting for him as he fully inhabits Seth Brundle at every stage of his transformation. For the actor, the makeup becomes a costume which comes to inform his character throughout, and Goldblum is fearless in portraying this scientist’s descent into an unwanted fate.

Scientists in movies tend to be either over the top or exceedingly modest and timid, but Goldblum gives us one whose eccentricities make him more alluring than the average one. The actor even sells us on a wonderful moment where he explains why he wears the same suit, shirt and tie each day, and seeing his closet reminded me of a number of movie spoofs where this same situation was used for sheer comedic effect. Even as Seth becomes increasingly unpredictable, let alone unlikable, to be around, Goldblum seduces us deeply into his strange plight which brings about a change he never saw coming.

But let’s not leave out Geena Davis who shares a strong chemistry with Goldblum throughout, and this only makes sense as they were a couple at the time and were briefly married. As Veronica Quaife, Davis creates a complex character whom is eager to take advantage of Seth’s invention for the story of the century, but she soon finds herself falling for him to where she cannot tear herself away from his hideous transformation. The scene where she hugs him after getting her first glimpse at the horrific changes his body is going through brought about a loud gasp of disgust from the audience I watched this movie with at New Beverly Cinema, but it shows just how powerful her performance is. Veronica is at once mortified at how bad things are getting for Seth, and yet she can’t tear herself away from him because she is too emotionally involved to just give up on him. Davis’ commitment to her performance shows the range which would eventually earn her an Academy Award for her work in “The Accidental Tourist.”

Many see Cronenberg as a filmmaker who makes nothing more than gross-out horror movies, but they neglect to see the intelligence and thought he puts into each movie he makes. Whether it’s “The Fly” or “Rabid” or “Scanners” or “Dead Ringers” or “eXistenZ,” Cronenberg has fearlessly explored the phobias we all have of bodily transformation and disease to unforgettable effect. His movies are not designed to make you throw up, but instead to confront how our bodies deteriorate in one way or another. His remake of “The Fly” is one of his most unforgettable motion pictures as we can’t take our eyes off the screen even as Seth Brundle’s transformation becomes all the more disgusting. Its power comes from how it draws you in emotionally more than anything else, and we have as much luck at disconnecting ourselves from Seth’s unnerving plight as Veronica does.

Watching “The Fly” again, it is clearer than ever that this movie is about a tragic romance more than anything else. Heck, Shakespeare would have been proud to have written a tragedy like the one presented here. While much of the attention on this remake is forever directed at the makeup design which still grosses audiences out to this very day, it is the romance between Seth and Veronica which drives the story more than anything else. The two of them want to tear themselves away from one another, but deep down neither of them can truly bare to do so, and they are the kind of couple U2 sang their song “With or Without You” about.

If there’s anything wrong with “The Fly,” it’s the ending as things are resolved in a way which is not altogether satisfying. We are left with questions which would not be answered until “The Fly II,” and while that sequel had its moments, it’s no surprise how it paled in comparison to Cronenberg’s remake.

Horror movie remakes are a dime a dozen these days, but Cronenberg’s “The Fly” remains one of the best and most visceral. It is still the director’s biggest commercial hit to date, and I prefer to see this as proof of how his unique style of filmmaking can reach a wider audience than we typically realize. All these years later, Cronenberg remains one of the most original filmmakers working today, and we eagerly await his next cinematic opus with great anticipation.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Jennifer Grey and Jason Reitman Revisit ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ at New Beverly Cinema

Ferris Bueller Jennifer Grey

On Friday, February 19, 2010, Jason Reitman began his program of movies at New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. The first double feature of his program was “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Election,” great movies dealing with high school and teenagers in an intelligent way and which star Matthew Broderick. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was one of John Hughes classic films from the 1980’s which everyone has seen at least nine times. Reitman remembered wanting to see it with his dad when it first came out, but his father, Ivan Reitman of “Ghostbusters” fame, was busy shooting “Legal Eagles” and couldn’t get away from the set. They ended up going to the movies later, but instead they watched “Big Trouble in Little China,” John Carpenter’s ode to martial arts movies which was not as successful, but later become a beloved cult film.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off poster

Reitman said he considers “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to be Hughes’ love letter to Chicago. Indeed, Chicago does look very beautiful as shown here. These days, it’s rare to see it without snow covering it. Richard Belzer has a brilliant quote when he played John Munch on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Chicago has two seasons, winter and St. Patrick’s Day.”

Reitman saw Ferris Bueller as the guy who knows everyone is dying from a terminal disease. Knowing this, he lived every day as if it were his last. He then went on to say “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is a movie about people dying, and the last moment of joy anyone has comes at the end of the parade when Broderick is out shaking his bod to The Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout.” The acclaimed director was serious about this and even said, “If you came out of this movie happy, THEN YOU MISSED THE ENTIRE POINT!”

Before the movie began, Reitman brought out a special guest, Jennifer Grey. She played Jeanie Bueller, Ferris’ largely unpleasant and infinitely resentful little sister. Grey would go on to become a big star when she starred in “Dirty Dancing” opposite the late Patrick Swayze. Reitman said he asked Grey to come just this morning, and she was very gracious to appear at such short notice.

Grey warned Reitman upfront she smoked a lot of pot during the movie’s making, so she doesn’t remember a lot of it. However, during her brief time with Reitman, she did remember quite a bit, so maybe all the smoking helped.

One of the big revelations was that Grey admitted was never really a big fan of Hughes before she got cast. She had just seen “Pretty in Pink” which he wrote the screenplay for but didn’t direct, and she declared she didn’t get it. As a result, Grey went into the audition not really caring if she got the part or not. She didn’t even try to hide her attitude towards Hughes when talking to him about how she didn’t really care for his films. It was this attitude which got her cast as the bitchy little sister of Broderick’s iconic character.

Another big revelation we learned was Hughes and Broderick were always at odds with one another, and the tension between them was always high. Broderick found it very hard acting to the camera, one of the signature devices of this movie. Grey also said Broderick was “very slow” in putting a performance together, and this was certainly the case when he played Ferris. It got to where Hughes was constantly waiting for Broderick to start giving him what he wanted, and there were points where Grey said Hughes leaned over to her and said, “Is he ready now? Is he warmed up? Is he gonna give us ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs?!’”

Still, Grey recalled her experience of making “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as being “heaven on earth,” and she felt very safe with Hughes as a director to where she never felt self-conscious about anything she did. She admitted she loved every single experience she had making this classic, and she even developed a big crush on Hughes, describing him as being a “Baby Huey.”

Reitman asked how Charlie Sheen got cast as the drug addict who befriends Jeanie Bueller while waiting at the police station. Grey explained she was the one who got Sheen involved as she had just done “Red Dawn” with him. There was actually a lot of improvisation during the police station scene, and Grey said the moment where Jeanie says some people call her Shawna was born out of that.

One of the questions really burning on Reitman’s mind was what it was like for Grey when she worked with “her brother.” Broderick and Grey were actually dating for a time during this movie’s making, and she replied the only time you see her character and Ferris together in the same room is at the very beginning and right near the end.

Before the movie started, Grey finished by saying Hughes did such a great job in capturing the voice of the time and of teenagers in general. She pointed out what we all came to see, that Hughes very much understood the gravitas of being a teenager and of how difficult and frustrating those years can be.

It was great to see Grey come out for this special screening of one of the best and most entertaining movies of the 1980’s. Reitman went on to say we all must be wondering what became of Ferris Bueller after he graduated from high school. There was always talk of a sequel which would show Ferris as a burned-out executive of some corporation, and a day off from this kind of job is always welcome no matter what day of the week it is. What did Reitman think? For that, he said to check out Alexander Payne’s “Election.”

 

 

Jonathan Demme’s ‘Something Wild’ Takes Us on an Irresistible Journey

Something Wild movie poster

I got to revisit “Something Wild” recently at New Beverly Cinema, and it quickly reminded me of what a unique filmmaker Jonathan Demme was back in the 1980’s. He had a wonderfully offbeat approach to making movies few others did at the time, and they functioned as parties he gleefully invited us to time and time again. This style of filmmaking disappeared in the 1990’s when he made “The Silence of the Lambs,” and while it is one of the best movies ever made, it marked the beginning of his work having a darker and less playful look to them. This is not to take away from his resume since as it includes such great movies as “Philadelphia,” “Rachel Getting Married” and a number of Neil Young documentaries, but watching “Something Wild” made me realize how much I miss Demme’s earlier style of filmmaking as it was more joyous and anarchic than much of what he has made since.

Jeff Daniels stars as Charles Driggs, a conservative looking banker whose wife and kids have since left him. We catch up with him while he is eating at a diner in the urban part of New York, and he suddenly decides to leave without paying his check. However, he is caught in the act by Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who confronts him about his felonious act and sees a rebellious side in him she is eager to exploit. From there, she offers to drive him back to his office and ends up kidnapping him on an adventure which flies in the face of everything considered conformity.

When Lulu gets a hold of Charles’ pager (yes, this movie was made a long time ago) and throws it out her car window to his utter shock, we are along for the ride as she brings out a side of him he has not exercised for quite some time. What I love about “Something Wild” is that, while Lulu essentially kidnaps Charles against his will, it tapped into something deep within me to where I would be open to her taking advantage of me. What Lulu does is force Charles to abandon his normal lifestyle and engage in something adventurous, and there’s a point in all our lives where we want to break out of a lifestyle which eventually becomes much too stifling for our own good. Granted, common sense usually kicks in as we can’t afford to get into the kind of trouble they get into in this day and age, but this is why we go to the movies: to experience things we have the knowledge to avoid in real life.

We are with Charles as Lulu takes him on an adventure no one could easily prepare for, and it makes what we watch in “Something Wild” all the more exciting. The movie digs into our deepest desires as these two engage in an unexpected road trip which has the two of them falling in love. Things, however, take a sharp turn when Lulu’s husband, Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), comes back into the picture and threatens to destroy their newfound coupling with his Svengali and violent ways.

It’s fun to watch Daniels in this role as he makes the squarest of human beings appear more charismatic than what was on the written page. This could have been a thankless role in the hands of another actor, but Daniels makes Charles’ transition from a conventional banker to a love-struck man determined to save the woman he has fallen in love with very believable to where we are with him every step of the way. Daniels’ career had nowhere to go but up from there as he went on to deliver brilliant performances in “The Squid and the Whale,” “Steve Jobs” and “Dumb and Dumber.”

Griffith’s career was at its height in the 80’s as her performances in “Working Girl,” “Body Double” and “Stormy Monday” showed us she was an actress who did not back down from a challenge. Her performance as Lulu, who is later revealed to be Audrey Hankel, is one of her best as she fearlessly portrays a character who is as free-spirited as she is reckless in her law-breaking ways which allow her to live life on the edge. At the same time, Griffith gives Lulu/Audrey a vulnerability which makes her performance all the more fantastic as even she comes to see her fling with Charles has become much more than that.

But then along comes Ray Liotta as Audrey’s violent ex-husband, Ray Sinclair, who steals the show. The audience at New Beverly Cinema applauded loudly when the actor made his first appearance in “Something Wild,” and it’s not hard to understand why. From the moment he arrives onscreen, Liotta gives us an infinitely charismatic villain we can’t take our eyes off of. We know he’s dangerous, but like Daniels’ character we can’t help but go along with him on a ride. You know he’s bad for you, but Liotta’s unpredictability keeps us pinned to our seats. He is mesmerizing as he fights to get Audrey back into his life even as she struggles to break free of him once and for all, and he makes it easy to see why it is not at all easy to get rid of him.

Demme pulls off the impossible here as the screenplay written by E. Max Frye starts off as a road movie and then turns into a domestic thriller. Such a shift can be jarring in a movie, but Demme keeps everything running smoothly even as the story heads into darker territory. By the time we are introduced to the devious Ray Sinclair, we have come too far with Charles and Audrey to just give up on them.

The director also works with a colorful palette which keeps things feeling light even as we head towards a violent conclusion. He also provides us with a terrific soundtrack with choice tunes from Fine Young Cannibals, New Order, Oingo Boingo and David Byrne. This is not to mention Demme’s usual cast of actors he has worked with constantly like Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, Sister Carol and Gary Goetzman who bring their unique energies to the roles they are given, and they make us remember their characters long after we have left the theater. There are also some inspired cameos from filmmakers John Sayles and John Waters, and Waters’ cameo is as priceless as the expression on his face when Audrey offers him a bribe.

Looking back at “Something Wild” makes me realize what a uniquely talented filmmaker is as he cheerfully invites us on a ride which goes against what’s normal and becomes all the more exhilarating as a result. Some filmmakers try to keep you at a distance from their characters’ exploits, but Demme instead offers you a front seat to the action, and it results in a truly irresistible time at the movies. In addition, his casting choices here are perfect, and you can tell the actors are having a blast with the material they have been given.

I find it good to see a movie like this every once in a while as it makes me question whether I have become too complacent in my life. Granted, I wouldn’t be that quick to jump into a car with a complete stranger behind the wheel unless it was a Lyft ride I requested, but to be taken on a ride which allowed me to break out of the routine of life feels absolutely necessary as time continues to speed up as we get older. Demme understands this, and he makes “Something Wild” into an invitation we movie buffs would be foolish to turn down. It remains as entertaining today as it did back in 1986.

* * * * out of * * * *