Archive for August 2017

Tobe Hooper 1943-2017

August 28, 2017

tobehooperThis hasn’t been a good summer for masters of horror films. First George Romero last month, and now Tobe Hooper. (Note: We will return to regularly scheduled reviews next time. As you’ll see, I couldn’t let this death — this life — pass unremarked upon.) The Austin-born filmmaker could be said, fairly or not, to have peaked in the ‘70s. That was when he delivered his two best-known undisputed gems of film fear: 1979’s TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and, of course, 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I consider the greatest American horror movie. If Hooper had done nothing else, he could take credit for directing and co-writing a masterpiece of terror, one that everyone who hasn’t seen it expects to be bloodier than it is. As with Psycho, misdirection and editing do half the work; the other half was accomplished through sheer sweat and atmosphere.

Hooper was born in 1943 and, like so many of his generation, got started making movies at age nine playing with his dad’s 8mm camera. Chainsaw wasn’t his first feature; that distinction belongs to 1969’s Eggshells, an unabashed experimental “hippie film” of which I could only endure about 45 minutes. His second, Chainsaw, revealed a master of mood and menace; by all accounts the movie was hell to make, and it looks it. (Several of the surviving cast members responded to Hooper’s death with polite silences or terse statements. He put those actors through the wringer.) After that he helmed two grindhouse flicks that have their fans — 1977’s Eaten Alive and 1981’s The Funhouse (also his first for a major studio). The creepily effective Salem’s Lot introduced him to a new audience of millions, scaring the stuffing out of a generation of kids with such scenes as the one in which a recently vampirized boy pays a visit to his friend, floating outside his bedroom window, asking to be let in. And then, in 1982, came Poltergeist, perhaps Hooper’s most controversial film.

Ever since it premiered, rumors have persisted that Hooper didn’t actually direct Poltergeist — that its co-scripter and executive producer, Steven Spielberg, really did the bulk of the directing. This narrative was harmful to Hooper’s reputation throughout his career; some who worked on the movie insisted Hooper called the shots, others swore Spielberg was the main man and had various explanations as to why. (Spielberg himself has always maintained it was Hooper, as did Hooper, but why listen to them, right?) I have always seen Poltergeist as a Hooper film with very vivid Spielberg fingerprints, owing to Spielberg’s being new to the executive-producer game and perhaps a bit overbearing. Certainly the most frightening moments — the clown doll, the parapsychologist hallucinating tearing his own face off — read to me as more Hooper than Spielberg, in execution though not in conception.

After that, Hooper drifted into the clutches of schlock studio Cannon, for which he directed 1985’s Lifeforce, 1986’s Invaders from Mars, and 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. All of them are fun, though Chainsaw 2, as over-the-top gory as the original Chainsaw was restrained, requires a strong stomach and a dark sense of humor. The 1990s, for Hooper, were a blur of less-than-memorable work made for TV or sent direct to video, though I never miss an opportunity to talk up his segment of the 1993 horror anthology Body Bags. Hooper’s bit, “The Eye,” starred Mark Hamill as a baseball player who loses an eye and gets a transplanted eye from a serial killer, which makes him see things he’d rather not see. Hamill, around the same time he started a new career for himself voicing the Joker for TV’s Batman: The Animated Series, gave an astonishing manic performance (he paid his respects on Twitter, saying that Hooper was “so kind” to him — maybe Hooper mellowed with age).

Hooper’s final films were decreasingly well-attended or well-received. I avoided them, not wanting to let them cloud my admiration of his early work with sadness at his later spiral. (His swan song, 2013’s Djinn, won such praise as “an unmitigated disaster.”) And there were dispiriting allegations back in June that his girlfriend, almost 40 years his junior, had physically abused him. Whoever directed Poltergeist, and whatever compelled Hooper to use up energy on stuff like Crocodile and a remake of The Toolbox Murders, only one man directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salem’s Lot, and I can’t think of a filmmaker worth his or her viewfinder who wouldn’t be happy to have made those. So here’s to you, Mr. Hooper. You done good. You rest now.

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Jerry Lewis 1926-2017

August 20, 2017

jerrylewisOne of the last has fallen. Jerome Levitch, known to the world as Jerry Lewis, died today at age 91. Since he started performing (along with his show-biz parents) when he was five, Lewis takes with him 86 years of entertainment memories. Such a man, if he remains mentally sharp (and it seems Lewis did), can function as an invaluable living record of the whos and whats of show biz for most of the twentieth century and some of the twenty-first (for instance, in 2003 he did a guest voice on The Simpsons). Unfortunately, age did not improve his prickly (at best) demeanor, and the last interview he gave, to the Hollywood Reporter, was notable for Lewis’ lengthy, surly silences.

Lewis was a man of the mid-twentieth century, for better or worse. That was his peak — his ten-year partnership with Dean Martin, and then his solo career as a performer/director who popularized the video-assist system, a process in which a video camera simultaneously records what the film camera is shooting. The movies Lewis directed — the most acclaimed being The Nutty Professor — have their fans, particularly (and notoriously) in France, where he is lauded as a genius. Dean Martin didn’t think so, informing Lewis near the end of their collaboration, “You can talk about love all you want. To me, you’re nothing but a fucking dollar sign.” This was reported in Nick Tosches’ seminal Dino and corroborated in Lewis’ own Dean and Me: A Love Story.

Those who seek a fair but honest assessment of Lewis the artist and Lewis the man could do no better than Shawn Levy’s biography King of Comedy. Named after the 1983 film in which Lewis gave, arguably, his finest performance, the book allows the star his dignity as a comedian with surprising longevity in an ever-changing entertainment landscape (his last movie, The Trust, was shot in 2015, 66 years after his film debut) while contending with his often difficult personality. Some of that personality flashed like a shiv whenever disability activists criticized him for his yearly muscular dystrophy telethons. In trying to raise money for a cure, Lewis threw political correctness to the wind, infantilizing the disabled and sometimes downright insulting them. Many disabled people don’t have much patience for such “othering,” well-meant or not, and they shouldn’t.

I’m not really a fan (you could tell, yes?), but I respect Lewis’ legacy as a creative, and despite my non-fanhood I find I own the only four books you need concerning Jerry Lewis: the aforementioned two books, plus Lewis’ Jerry Lewis In Person and The Total Film-Maker. The latter book, which I’ve been saying for years needs to be reprinted (the hardcover edition I own is currently fetching $245 and up on Amazon, though that might be a short-lived spike due to his death), is one of the best volumes about filmmaking ever written — or spoken, since the book is drawn from 480 taped hours of Lewis’ lectures at USC. It’s a terrific read, full of common-sense advice that’s still valid 46 years later, as well as a prophetic passage in which he praises some unknown kid named Steven Spielberg on the basis of Spielberg’s 1968 short film Amblin’.

Lewis clearly knew his stuff, the stuff of entertainment. The problem with those who know all about entertaining is that they don’t know how to be when there’s no audience — the cliché of the sad-faced clown. Speaking of which, one of the more infamous Lewis projects was The Day the Clown Cried, a 1972 film in which Lewis played a clown during the Holocaust, forced to entertain children on their way to the gas chamber. You haven’t seen it. Few have. It is perhaps the most famous suppressed film, held from release by complicated rights issues, though Lewis insisted he was the one withholding it from public view. Whatever the case, it seems likely nobody will see it unless the rights issues are squared away. Some film geeks, who may have welcomed Lewis’ death because they thought the movie would now be shown, will have to look elsewhere for their rare-film needs.

In the meantime, I can muster a salute to a man who swung so hard for the fence while having so little self-awareness in his life, in his philanthropy, and in his art. Levy’s King of Comedy theorizes convincingly that the obnoxious alter ego Buddy Love in Nutty Professor was not a parody of Dean Martin, as many assumed at the time, but an unwitting revelation of the real Jerry Lewis — the one beseeching us belligerently for cash all those Labor Days, the one whose anger in the film The King of Comedy feels all too genuine. Rage, I think, is what fueled Lewis, kept him alive for 91 years, and in a lot of ways kept him alone.

Alien: Covenant

August 14, 2017

aliencovenantClosing in on eighty years old, Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to be able to leave his legacy alone. October will bring a sequel to his Blade Runner, which he’s executive-producing but not directing, and he has now directed two prequels to the Alien saga, which he started in 1979. The first of them, 2012’s Prometheus, was a ponderous though gorgeous slog through questions of life’s origins — did he who made the xenomorph make thee? Now we have Alien: Covenant, a direct follow-up to Prometheus that bows to commercial demands and actually calls itself an Alien film. Which it is, more or less. Prometheus was dull but at least attempted something larger; Covenant (named after the spacecraft in the film) is a regression to the original Alien’s set-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down schematic.

Michael Fassbender, at least, is back, this time in two roles: as David, the android from Prometheus, and Walter, a later, upgraded version of David. Walter serves on the crew of the Covenant, which seeks to colonize a remote planet. Two Fassbenders is even better news than one, and the actor plays the duty-bound Walter and the somewhat more emotional David with a variety of gradations. The rest of the crew are either non-entities or played with one or two notes, with the exception of Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, whose close-cropped hair and general aura of torment (Daniels is widowed early in the film) reminded me of Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.

Daniels is clearly being groomed as the new Ripley (the hero of the original four films, played by Sigourney Weaver), and as long as Waterston plays her, I’ll need to come back for more. She’s about the only dab of humanity in this aggressively designed, biomechanical movie, which like Prometheus has the best technical bona fides money can buy (returning editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) but labors under a convoluted plot overlaying the slasher-flick structure. The aliens, it seems, were deliberately created and have been maintained on some ghastly planet where they killed all the Engineers (the weird-looking folks who apparently created life). These critters keep being called “the perfect organisms,” but all they do is shriek and hiss and drool acid and reproduce. They were never the interesting aspect of the Alien series; that was Ripley.

Will Daniels be allowed to take on the metaphorical, #YesAllWomen struggles of Ripley, with the soulful Waterston stepping into Weaver’s boots? I hope so, because Alien: Covenant doesn’t otherwise point to a promising future for the franchise. The movie is sleek and morbid, with the usual ugly undercurrent of gnashing teeth, shredded flesh, misting blood. More than once, I heard myself sighing at the predictability not only of the film’s and-then-there-were-none structure but of the supposed twists. I called the big twist a mile off, and anyone who’s seen a movie before will, too; the reveal is delayed a bit, so that the real twist is that, oh yeah, there is a twist after all. It still does away with a character with no explanation and lazily expects us to accept and overlook that.

Alien: Covenant isn’t all bad. Some of the images have a dour beauty; the various alien landscapes glow like a sunrise in Hell. I was happy to hear Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous, minimalist theme for the first Alien, an echoing strain that has always sounded to me almost prophetic, prefiguring the newly remorseless sci-fi/horror blockbusters of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It turns up in Covenant now and again, reminding us of the Ridley Scott who scared the crap out of us in 1979 without having to yoke the movie to some half-assed creation myth involving bodybuilders with Easter Island heads making life out of black liquid. I suspect that Scott, looking his eighth decade in the face, wanted to make his what’s-it-all-about saga with Prometheus but couldn’t get the budget unless it could be marketed as Ridley Scott’s return to the series that made his name. Alien: Covenant shows, rather dispiritingly, that Scott is not resentful about regressing; on the contrary, he has gotten comfortable in this old pair of slippers. And despite the blood and teeth, that’s what the movie feels like.

The Dark Tower

August 7, 2017

darktowerThe Dark Tower is a mediocre, overshort movie, but it has done what nothing else has done — it has made me want to read the books that inspired it. Stephen King’s eight-volume series is about the ultimate hero against the ultimate villain in a struggle over the titular Tower, which holds all worlds together. It’s all very archetypal, informed as much by Sergio Leone as by Tolkien. The movie is an abbreviated riff on several of the books; we’re informed that it’s not an adaptation of King’s work so much as a sequel — another “turn of the wheel,” since the entire saga was conceived as a narrative ouroboros (or became one, anyway). “The man in black fled across the desert,” begins the first book, “and the gunslinger followed” — and apparently the two men will go on fleeing and following until the end of time.

The gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), who in this iteration seeks revenge on the man in black, or Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), for killing Roland’s father. Walter goes by different names; he has turned up in various guises in King’s fiction, most prominently as Randall Flagg in The Stand. As McConaughey plays him, Walter is a saturnine Erl-King in rock-star cosplay, swaggering around and getting people to kill each other or to stop breathing with a bland command. Truth to tell, McConaughey was more sinister in those moody Lincoln commercials (the ads actually convinced me he could play the Stephen King version of Satan), and the director, Nikolaj Arcel, doesn’t even give him a juicy intro — Walter is just suddenly there, looking on as his big death machine saps psychic children of their energy and channels it into a big death ray pointed at the Tower.

When the Tower takes a big death hit, our Earth rumbles, and a boy, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), feels it in his mother’s Big Apple apartment. Jake has been having visions of Roland and Walter, and it turns out he packs enough psychic oomph to shame Danny Torrance from The Shining. The movie seems awfully front-loaded to favor Jake, creating the unhappy sense that Roland, whose casting with a non-white actor caused some consternation among those pained by such things, has been relegated to a supporting character in his own epic story because, well, he’s black. After a while the balance evens out a little, Taylor’s performance gets better as Jake becomes more useful, and Idris Elba maintains his stoic sangfroid whether reciting Roland’s Mid-World doggerel (“He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father” and so on) or performing, as Pauline Kael put it in another context, “kinetic self-realization with a gun.”¹

This Dark Tower is practically guaranteed to vex the books’ fans, who will be painfully aware of what’s missing and what a wasted opportunity it all is. Judged on its own shaky merits, the movie skims the surface of the iconic saga, and the occasional bit of strangeness — like Walter’s minions the Low Men, looking, accidentally I’m sure, like members of the Trump administration — stands out in relief against much of the conceptual dullness. But McConaughey and especially Elba have given me intriguing men to picture when I return to the books. I read the first two, in college, several thousand years ago and remember little except the lobstrosities, which sadly stay home from work here. Much is appealing about King’s good-vs.-evil superstory, and the movie, by virtue of containing at least a swallow of King’s potion, is weird and borderline acid-western enough to hold one’s interest on a slow Tuesday. I imagine, though, that it won’t be the version of The Dark Tower that endures.

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¹This was in reference to Andy Garcia’s Vincent Mancini in The Godfather Part III.