Saturday, March 22, 2014

Gee, It's Good To Be Together Again

Year: 2014
Director: James Bobin
Cast: Rickey Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

A quick word about the Monsters University tie-in short that opens the film - it is hilarious. Presumably more so than the entire film that spawned it. But that's neither here nor there. The Muppets are back!

Ever since their smash comeback in 2011's The Muppets (to which I gave a rave review that appeared on my original blog which has unfortunately vanished into the ether), The Muppets have had clout in the 21st century like never before and it was only a matter of time before the sequel hit. And while it's certainly not quite the sparkling gemstone that made its predecessor an instant classic, it really is a tremendous followup.

And let's face it, it's physically impossible for a Muppets film to be actively bad.

Sure, it doesn't quite tie together under a coherent theme. Sure, many of the Muppets (both old and new, and especially Walter) are given short shrift in favor of a new character, Constantine, the evil Kermit lookalike with an accent straight from Tommy Wiseau's Twelve Step Program to Speaking American. Sure, some of the meta gags make inter-film continuity endlessly confusing.

But this is children's entertainment! It's got great songs, laugh a minute gags, and plenty of Muppet mayhem. Sometimes it's hard to be a Grumpy Gus in the face of such delightfully clever and effervescent family entertainment.

The story goes like this - to capitalize on their newfound success, Kermit and the Muppets book  Dominic "It's Pronounced Bajy" Badguy (Rickey Gervais) to manage their European comeback tour. Little do they know that Dominic works for the world's number one criminal, Constantine the Frog, who makes short work of framing Kermit for his crimes and sending him to the Siberian Gulag while he tours with the Muppets as a front for a series of heists leading up to the theft of London's Crown Jewels.

Also featuring Ty Burrell as an Interpol Officer about half a millimeter away from actually being Inspector Clouseau and Tina Fey as a Russian prison warden, Muppets Most Wanted has a lot of fun with its multinational setting, politely poking fun at things like European vacation days and funny names for German towns without resorting to crude stereotypes (coughcoughDespicableMe2cough).

Also Tina Fey gets to sing a song in a Russian accent and it is 100% flawless.

As always the Muppets aren't afraid to sacrifice wit just because they're for children. My inner film major was tickled by an out-of-nowhere reference to Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and some of my favorite jokes veer dangerously close to existential horror, wringing peals of laughter from the incongruous presence of Kermit and pals in such situations. Trust me, it's hard to explain, but it totally works. 

Speaking of fun and incongruous, cameos include Tom Hiddleston, James McAvoy, and an anthropomorphic ARTPOP advertisement. The surprise celebrity appearances are always part of the fun of the Muppets films so I won't spoil anything more, but some of the best jokes come from them as they get to pop onscreen and play with Kermit and Co. for 20 seconds or so.

All in all, Muppets Most Wanted is an enchanting musical comedy that is enjoyable for every second of its run time. Even I, reigning champion of grousing about movie lengths, had no complaints about the nearly two hour run time because every moment maximizes its comedic potential. So maybe it's not The Muppets 2011. But it's Muppets Most Wanted and that's a fantastic thing to be.

TL;DR: Muppets Most Wanted is silly to the core and there's never a dull moment, although it's not quite up to snuff with the 2011 masterpiece.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Yes! It's March! What else is out? Treat yourself.
Word Count: 646
Reviews In This Series
The Muppet Movie (Frawley, 1979)
The Great Muppet Caper (Henson, 1981)
Muppet Treasure Island (Henson, 1996)
Muppets from Space (Hill, 1999)
The Muppets (Bobin, 2011)
Muppets Most Wanted (Bobin, 2014)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Beat It, Essay: The Book Of The Dead

So, it turns out that even though I'm the TA for the Horror Class this semester, I still have to do all the work and write the essays. What a relief! I was worried I would have to do them recreationally!

All kidding aside, I really do love this class. Because it's just another excuse to write about horror movies, something I'm clinically addicted to. Anyhow, the first one is due on Monday, so here we go. This is what the onslaught of Evil Dead reviews this week was building up to. Prepare yourselves!

The Prompt
Compare and contrast Army of Darkness (1992) with The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead 2 (1987), and Evil Dead (2013). Cite elements in common and discuss how the undead are portrayed in each.

Very few people have had more influence on the modern horror genre than Sam Raimi, the idiosyncratic and deranged auteur behind the Evil Dead franchise. Each successive movie has brought something new to the discussion and, in a nigh on impossible chain of events considering the current state of film studios, Raimi has had a personal hand in each of the films, directing all three of the main franchise and producing the 2013 remake.

Raimi's immense dedication to the beloved cult franchise has resulted in some of the most perversely unique and phenomenally innovative horror films in modern cinema. From his days as a fresh-faced auteur with something to prove to his tenure as a grizzled genre veteran, his lunatic vision has fueled the delight and nightmares of generations of audiences, starting all the way back in 1981 with the infinitesimally low-budget production The Evil Dead.

The story of The Evil Dead is a simple one, almost like something you would hear around a campfire. Five paper thin characters (two men, three women) spend Spring Break holed up in an abandoned cabin in the woods and accidentally unleash a horde of angry Candarian demons from an ancient book known as the Naturom Demonto. As the spirits begin to possess the flesh of the living, so begins a long and harrowing journey for perennial hero Ashley J. Williams.

The original film is utterly unique, breaking open the craft of cinema and turning it inside out. Although it is more or less a straightforward horror film in terms of genre (and an incredibly tense one at that), the campy excesses of the gore sequences, the zany twirling and zooming of the camera, and the boisterously overproduced sound design all work in tandem to create an heightened reality entirely separate from our own. Camp and terror freely intermingle as the fleshy melodrama plays out.

The isolation of the cabin suits this tone well, creating a feeling of distinct separation from the "real world." This inventive approach brings the genre into the new decade, actively combatting the serial nihilism of 70's horror. Films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, and the grindhouse holdouts of the early 70's were grubby and bleak, whereas Raimi's undead tale has a keen awareness of its own excesses and a sense of "Look what I can do!" glee throughout the proceedings.

The film's portrayal of the undead follows along much the same lines. The undead (which, it can be argued, are technically Candarian demons, but it does not do one well to try to impose rules upon a Evil Dead movie) could easily kill Ash if they had a mind to. In fact, three of them spend a large portion of the second and third acts in the same room as him. But the fact that they are content to play with their captive like a cat with a mouse is reflective of the director's approach to the film and the concept of cinema in general.

Despite the film's darker tinges like the brutal forest rape scene and some intense tactile gore, for the most part Raimi wants to play. The simplicity of the story allows him to push the envelope of cinematography, shot composition, editing, performance, effects, and just about every single element that makes a film a film. From a man who spent a decade watching increasingly downtrodden horror films, The Evil Dead provided a shot in the arm to audiences, inoculating them from nihilism and preparing them for the campy explosiveness of a decade that would come to a crux with films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Raimi's own Evil Dead 2.

A lot can change in six years, and such was the case with Evil Dead 2. As the decade went on, horror films became increasingly silly and inconsequential, expanding on Raimi's own campy premise with delight but pushing it too far into the realms of fluff. There were still classics of the form around the time of the Evil Dead sequel, but it acts as a course correction for the woebegone majority of horror films in the late 80's. The truly Raimiesque quality of the film is that it does so by amplifying the genre even further, becoming what is essentially a parody of the first film - a perfectly balanced combination of outrageous campy comedy and gross-out gory horror.

Taking a cue (and a Necronomicon) from H. P. Lovecraft, this film explores even deeper and darker themes in terms of horror while simultaneously engaging in slapstick pratfalls and Bruce Campbell mugging, all wrapped up within the loopy and revolutionary aesthetic of the original film. The undead in this film are even more playful and comedic, but the loose rules governing them makes them absolutely manic and unpredictable, highlighting the terror of the film as it gracefully dances upon the line between two disparate genres.

At one point, Ash even becomes a demon himself, exemplifying Raimi's no-holds-barred, over-the-top approach to his own story, a reaction to both the state of the genre and the increasing seriousness of American affairs at that time. This time around, the demons aren't the enemies, merely playthings to distract the audience (and Ash) from the darker activities swirling around the edges of the frame and in the backs of the audience's minds.

Another five years after that genre-bending stone cold masterpiece, Army of Darkness came barreling out of the chute. Raimi knew he wasn't going to be able to replicate the success of his earlier films if he rehashed the same plot for the third time so he lifted out the slapstick elements of Evil Dead 2 and married them onto an effects-driven swords and sandals action flick. This also had the effect of satisfying the censors, who had started tightening the reins on gory horror around 1989.

Army of Darkness ended the original trilogy and, as such, continued to utilize the traditional filmic elements of the franchise as it progressed naturally to a more overtly comedic register. Ash's mugging and physical comedy reach their absolute peak in this film and Campbell's Jim Carreyesque performance tamps down the horror to let the comedy shine. Toning down the gore and horror of the earlier installments in the franchise allowed this concluding film to explore the consequences and results of the previous two, acting as a personal exploration for Raimi as well as a loving sendoff for the series that made him a household name.

In between the always fresh and clever Three Stooges recreations and slapstick vignettes, Army of Darkness spends more time exploring Ash's character than any of the preceding films. After having lost his girlfriend no less than three times and had two sets of friends ripped away by the Deadites, he is left a bruised and scarred survivor, closed off to the world and uncaring about its inhabitants.

Because of this more careful exploration of character, the nature of the demonic menace is quite different. Instead of an intimate selection of prancing demons, he is facing a vast army of the undead led by his own shadowy doppelgänger. As he struggles to overcome his selfishness and learn to care about his fellow human beings enough to save their town, he literally battles the darkness within himself and a skeleton battalion representing each and every corpse he left behind in that cabin, eventually coming out on top, renewed in spirit and more heroic than ever. The perfect ending to a stellar franchise.

Of course by now we have all learned that Hollywood is incapable of leaving well enough alone, so naturally a high budget remake was slated for 2013. Fortunately, the modernization incorporated many of Raimi's classic elements including the hurtling POV camera, the American gothic cabin design, upside down shots and the like. His ever fresh repertoire of film tricks is an essential element at the core of Evil Dead's being.

Evil Dead suffered somewhat from a lack of necessity, but returning the franchise to its roots as a straightforward horror film did it well. Evil Dead is again a harrowing survival tale, this time populated with characters that are fleshed out (save one or two who are merely, shall we say, fleshed apart) and recognizable to any modern audience member.

The introduction of the drug addiction concept to keep the young men and women in the cabin and unaware of the initial horrors that are occurring was nothing less than genius and more than validates the film's reasons for existence, at least in terms of being a well-shot and gory horror movie for the 21st century crowd. And the film does capture some of the energy of the original trilogy, although it is diluted through the tamperings of a big budget studio.

The undead here are merely beings of pure evil, a bane of the overly simplistic remake culture of the late 2000's. Thanks to landmark films of the decade like Saw and Hostel, the demons are more focused on grossing out their prey (and the audience) than psychologically tormenting them, and while the film does succeed in bringing the themes and ideas of The Evil Dead into a modern setting, perhaps that isn't necessarily the best place for them.

Although it is certainly the weakest of the entire franchise, Sam Raimi's limitless abandon in approaching his material (even as producer) sends it across the finish line in fairly good shape. That same indefatigable enthusiasm is what made the Evil Dead films as important and influential as they are today and will remain for many years to come.

Each film uses Raimi and his boundless enthusiasm as the glue that holds them together as well as the unlimited supply of fuel that provides them with the power to explore deeper and deeper aspects of character, society, the horror genre, and cinema itself. The characters of the undead constantly bend, snap, twist, and break, allowing themselves to be the skeleton (pun intended) upon which a fantastic tale of cinematic imagination and intimate inspection of ourselves and the world around us can hang.

Their nature is formless and adaptable, crossing genres, decades, and bodies, all to further the one thing that propels his work - the deep love and respect he has for his craft and for bending the rules to create bigger and better universes. Everything in The Evil Dead comes from a place of joy and giddy childish glee at the sheer act of cinematic creation. This reason, more than any other, is why these films have survived the test of time despite the limitations of their budgets and technology.

They resonate subconsciously with audiences across the globe, all of whom can feel the depth of the creator's passion and his sense of the limitless opportunity of the medium. That, more than consistent story or character or even genre, is what links the individual films of this zeitgeist franchise. You don't need to have the best equipment or actors or makeup around to pour your heart into a story as long as you have the sheer nerve and gusto that Raimi instills upon everything he touches. And Hollywood would do well to recognize that.
Word Count: 1991

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Dark Ages

Year: 1992
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert
Run Time: 1 hour 21 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Army of Darkness is a hell of an odd little movie. As the five-years-later followup to the smash comic horror masterpiece Evil Dead 2, it had some big shoes to fill. Instead of even trying, it cut its own feet off and rolled around on the ground with the shoes to make a nice little dismembered dirt angel.

For the first time abandoning the "cabin in the woods" angle, Army of Darkness takes place in a nonspecifically British medieval past after Ash (Bruce Campbell) has been transported through a demonic wormhole, apparently getting a personality transplant along the way to turn him into a massive dickbag.

Like, a complete bag of dicks.

Ash's experiences in that forlorn cabin have turned him into the sort of gruff manly action hero that earns him movie poster poses that look like they come from a bad romance novel. He's full of grumpy grump one-liners and ice cold badassery. This changes the genre entirely. 

While it's still full of Raimi's manic camera, silly demons, and plenty of Three Stooges choreography, the franchise had somehow transformed from a harrowing survival tale to a swords and sandals action flick as Ash prepares the medieval village to battle a horde of incoming Deadites in exchange for using the Necronomicon to get him back to his home time.

The plot of Army of Darkness is basically an assortment of medieval-themed slapstick vignettes followed by a massive castle defending battle against a troop of skeletons on horseback. It's insane, is what it is, so it's clear that Raimi and his robust creativity are back in the saddle.

"Robust creativity" and "Shotgun" are interchangeable.

Its biggest drawback is, strangely enough, the film's relatively gargantuan budget - largely because it went to horses and castles and period costumes and extras and Bridget Fonda, not to gore, which is really what matters. I don't think anybody would have minded if Ash spent the entire 81 minutes in that darn cabin again, as long as every cent of every dollar was poured into realizing as much creative and fantastic gore as possible.

Unfortunately it wasn't, and the result is an effects-laden extravaganza that can't rise above the level of hokey and chintzy cheese ball action. But this was the 90's after all, a bleak time to be a horror film. So let us never underestimate the impact such a shot of energy could have on the genre in general, resulting in the last and strongest wave of eternal Evil Dead fanboys.

And with shots like this, could you blame them?

There are still some brilliant and entirely new Raimi touches like S-Mart and the Boomstick (watch and you'll understand), but the fact remains that the entire film is pretty thin overall compared to the dense deranged intensity of the two stone-cold classics that it follows.

Hence the thinner review. I miss the Deadites. But holding Army of Darkness up against such leviathans as The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 is enormously unfair and I recommend that everybody who hasn't seen it take a moment and bask in some of the corny glory.

Because it really is an enormous success in the bogs of rough-hewn 90's horror. A beautiful maiden (Embeth Davidtz), a surly hero, and an ocean of post-Harryhausen skeletons pratfalling and exploding in glorious fiery infernos is certainly enough to keep anybody entertained. Let us not neglect the joy of this film simply because it's not worthy to be on the pedestal with its brothers.

TL;DR: Army of Darkness pales in comparison to its predecessors, but is still a solid, clever, and creative Sam Raimi feature.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 629
Reviews In This Series
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981)
Evil Dead 2 (Raimi, 1987)
Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992)
Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dead By Dawn

Year: 1987
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Let's get this out of the way first. Evil Dead 2 is not a remake. There has been a long-standing debate over the nature of this six-years-later sequel because it takes place in the same cabin in the woods and opens with a truncated, reshot version of events from The Evil Dead, replacing Ash Williams' (Bruce Campbell) four friends with just one - his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler).

This was shot out of necessity because the company that owned the rights to the original film wouldn't allow them to use footage from it to open their film. Studios are dumb. Always have been, always will be. But that doesn't change the fact that, but for ten minutes in the beginning, this sequel is its own entirely unique movie. So there.

My sentiments exactly, severed hand.

As you can probably surmise from that screenshot, Evil Dead 2 has somewhat more of a sense of humor than its fairly straight-laced precursor (and more of a budget, but that's a different story entirely). The elements of the original are still intact - zooming Steadicam shots, explosively creative and zany editing and performances, and an Amazon sized river of blood and guts. But all of it is approached from the angle of outright slapstick comedy, complete with pratfalls and silly sound effects.

This is where Sam Raimi really hit his stride tonally and discovered his talents for perfectly treading the line between the two genres, making this film the high water mark against which all subsequent cross-genre attempts would be measured. I've included it on my Top Horror Comedies list at the number 3 spot and I always urge anybody who hasn't seen it to immediately find a way to get it onto their TV screens.

But I can never escape the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I just like the original a little bit better. I'm in a staggering minority here, but the lo-fi cheesefest of The Evil Dead is right up my alley, especially in terms of the gore effects which are of course present in abundance in the sequel, but more specifically comedic and less grounded in tactile physicality than the first.

I mean, yes. Here we have a ballet dancing demon, a headless body brandishing a chainsaw, eyeballs flying into mouths, spurts of blood in every color of the rainbow, and plenty of sticky grossness. It's frankly incredible. But it's more glossy and slick than the DIY gore of the glory days. I just don't adore it with my entire heart the same way I love the fleshy tackiness of what came before. 

Although it's hard to hate the goo. I'm not complaining here.

That's a really minor argument and it has no impact on the quality of this film. It actually helps this film achieve its perfect tonal balance, but I guess that tone is slightly off center from the bulls-eye on my own personal dartboard.

But enough about the first one! This is the sequel! And it has more money and more humor, so let's not get bogged down in petty nitpicking.

The entire first half of the film (minus the recap opening) is basically a one man show as Bruce Campbell fights the zombiefied Linda and, later, his own hand and mugs at the camera something fierce. Ash is of necessity more fleshed out in this film, so he really settles into the character and turns him into the zany badass that would go down in history as one of the most iconic horror heroes of all time.

I have his bumper sticker on my car, even.

I don't even remember why I was complaining about this film. Everything pales in comparison to the chainsaw hand.

The second half throws him in with a whole crop of new blood bags. I mean, friends. There's Annie (Sarah Berry), the knowledgeable daughter of the demonologist who owns the cabin; her boyfriend Ed (Richard Domeier) who says about three lines before he's thrown onto the chopping block; Jake (Dan Hicks), their hillbilly guide through the forest; and Bobbie Joe (Kassie Wesley), his skanky girlfriend who is attacked by the forest in a much less rapey scene, presumably to make up for the last film's sins.

It's at this point that the film slows down somewhat as it enters its plot phase. But the film never loses its humor, all the way to the very end. All in all it's a plenty terrific zombie movie, one of the best of the business. This is the film that planted Sam Raimi firmly into the horror pantheon without question and ignited the roaring fire of support many horror fans for his entire filmography.

One of the best horror sequels to ever be released and a perfect example of the horror comedy. A hit in the cult market. Hilarious, groundbreaking, and genre-defining. Not bad for a low budget feature starring nobody you know.

Pictured: Sam Raimi - Actual Magical Witch

TL;DR: Evil Dead 2 doesn't have the grubby charm of the first film, but makes up for it with a perfect blend of comedy and gross-out horror.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 879
Reviews In This Series
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981)
Evil Dead 2 (Raimi, 1987)
Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992)
Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Cabin In The Woods

Year: 1981
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In preparation for what is shaping up to be a pretty darn cool essay, I've been rewatching Sam Raimi's quintessential horror series, The Evil Dead. This is a film series that would change horror as we knew it, create a massive moral uproar, and ignite a cult following that pulses steadily to this day.

Way back when, before James Franco the Dumb and , before Drag Me To Hell and Spider-Man, Sam Raimi was a young buck with a couple bucks and the determination to make a movie out of it. That movie was The Evil Dead, a horror film with a fairly straightforward premise - five college students spend Spring Break in a remote cabin in the woods where they unwittingly release a horde of Candarian demons that begin to kill and possess them one by one.

You might raise an eyebrow at the whole "demon possession" angle when the poster and fanbase so adamantly insist that it's a zombie movie. Well, you might as well pluck that eyebrow out because human logic has no place in the realm of Raimi.

Our lovely demon zombie beautician would gladly help you with the tweezers.

The Evil Dead is the story of five young men and women: Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), his best friend Scotty (Richard DeManincor), and Scotty's girlfriend Shelly (Theresa Tilly). I listed no personality traits because there are very few discernible personality traits between the five of them.

Scotty's kind of a douche and Ash is the protagonist. That's about it for character development. So, with a bare bones plot and paper characters, what is it that makes this film so dreadfully important?

I'm glad you asked, hypothetical reader.

Behind it all was a young auteur with a lot of talent and something to prove, and from that was born one of the single greatest creative downpours the genre had seen thus far. I'm talking upside down, sideways, crossways camera, I'm talking rapid-fire editing and extreme close-ups, I'm talking zooming improvised Steadicam shots and madcap wall-to-wall sound design.

Sam Raimi blanketed the entire film with his gleeful and energetically creative approach to filmmaking and it's grubby, kinetic, exciting, and unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. The Evil Dead is an unrelenting assault on the senses that is like sweet rain to the genre faithful.

Show this image to any self-respecting horror fan and their pulse will skyrocket. Seriously. Try it.

No, it's not a comedy. That kind of thing wouldn't happen for a while. Although he's frequently lauded for his perfect blend of horror and comedy, Raimi made his start here with a straight genre piece and it is beautiful. And who needs Three Stooges routines when we have unreserved melodrama and geysers of blood?

With this film, Raimi took everything about the increasingly nihilistic horror genre of the 70's and pushed everything to their over-the-top extremes, resulting in a film that is so ebulliently gory and cheesy and disgustingly hilariously bad-good that it transcends its low budget limitations to become something much larger than itself, an utterly perfect genre film.

Because no, it isn't perfect. To be blunt, the film looks like crap. All the Blu-Ray wrangling and color correcting in the world can't change that. The sound is fuzzy and occasionally poorly dubbed. There's a wildly ill-advised rape scene that is almost unwatchable and landed the film on the infamous Video Nasties list in the UK.

[Side bar: I'm not trying to justify this scene at all. Sometimes, there's no accounting for taste. But, to be fair, many first-time horror auteurs will do all they can to shock the audience in whatever is the most depraved manner they can conceive. Wes Craven did it with The Last House on the Left, and Raimi is no different. This leads to some terrible storytelling decisions, but they just need to get it out of their system. Raimi has since expressed his regret at that scene, and let's put a pin in that for now. Rape in horror cinema is about to get its own overlong article, so stick around.]

If you dare.

At any rate, the surface crappiness is heaven for genre fans because it's a filmmaker's playground. Not having to worry about production values allows a lot more breathing room for experimentation, the type of which led to this cavalcade of ingenious and inventive cinematic designs.

And it doesn't hurt that the gore technicians really knew what they were doing. It's impossibly colorful and gooey, fake enough that it doesn't revolt the audience, but real enough to propel the sense of danger through the roof. A scene involving a pencil and an ankle is one of the most memorable gore sequences in my history of the genre and that's before the really good stuff even starts to happen.

Pictured: Good stuff

Raimi's is a world without rules. Things shift from shot to shot, the powers any of the possessed display vary from moment to moment, and whatever is happening in the current scene is sure to be completely divorced in context from the next, all to maximize the disorienting terror of trying to survive the night surrounded by unknowable evil.

The demons could easily kill Ash and devour him chilled with a side of rice, but they instead spend their time playing with him like cats with a particularly fat and delicious mouse. And that's exactly what Raimi does to his audience, poking and prodding us to see how far he can make us bend.

The Evil Dead is my favorite of the franchise for its no-holds-barred low budget mayhem, providing everything I've ever wanted a cult film to give to me. It's no Rosemary's Baby. Hell, it's no Devil's Due. But it revels in its lowly station and provided a jolt of life to horror, paving the way for cult favorites like Re-Animator and From Beyond and inspiring mainstream filmmakers to newer and greater heights.

By pushing the limits of the genre, this twisted little bugger changed it forever. And that was just the very beginning of a long career in filmmaking for one Mr. Raimi. Evil Dead is everything.

TL;DR: The Evil Dead is ecstatically gross, silly, and wonderful.
Rating: 10/10
Word Count: 1068
Reviews In This Series
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981)
Evil Dead 2 (Raimi, 1987)
Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992)
Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Best Picture Roundup: Siri Not Siri

I actually watched another Best Picture nominee! This might be the highest proportion of contenders I've seen in any Oscar year!

...I'm not a great film major.

Year: 2013
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Before I dive into some of the harder to swallow nominees like Dallas Buyers Club or 12 Years a Slave, I thought it best to start with the soft, pastel embrace of Her, Spike Jonze's tale of love in the not too distant future. A strangely divisive movie, this love it or hate it story details a future world in which a newly divorced man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

That's about all there is to the plot, really. Chris Pratt magically appears (inexplicably dressed like Ron Swanson) in a couple scenes because he is contractually obligated to show up in the exact places you'd least expect him. Also Theodore's friend Amy (Amy Adams) has troubles with her husband (Matt Letscher), a man who proves that no matter how much things change, douchebaggery is eternal.

Although it doesn't commit the Wolf of Wall Street sin of stretching a diaphanous plot to an unbearable three hours, it can hardly make it to two without tearing somewhat, despite the strengths of the screenplay and performances.

Although any movie with Amy Adams deserves at least two hours of your time.

Largely a one man show, Her relies entirely on credible interactions between one man and a disembodied voice and Phoenix sells it utterly, packaging it all in a man full of tics and an invisible complete backstory hidden behind every gesture and expression. Not to be petty, but he certainly deserved that acting nomination far more than Leo ever did. Sorry, Shannon.

Johansson also does a terrific job, exuding effortless Rashida Jones charm and singlehandedly steering a script that loses track of her character around the beginning of Act Three. All without being onscreen for a single second! It's hard to synthesize naturalistic emotions on a soundstage stool clutching a bottle of mineral water, but she owns it.

And oh, the production design! All creamy pastels and just a touch beyond modern architecture, Her imagines a future seamlessly attached to the direction of the world as we are living it. The set design is soft, smooth, tactile, and pleasant - the exact culmination of a society that is slowly collapsing inward as people find newer and newer ways to ignore each other.

And what else could this film possibly be about but the way in which modern technology provides us enough comfort to ignore those niggling feelings like loneliness or unfulfillment? Don't get me wrong, I love technology. But there people who use it as a crutch to avoid ever having to interact with people and, well, the metaphor isn't too difficult to unpack.

Nope. Nothing metaphorical here.

What Her does best is casual and relaxed world building, one of my favorite elements of sci-fi/futuristic films. Only one of the technological advancements of this future is important to the story, but there's enough information in the dialogue and background to provide a complete and credible universe for this technology to exist within.

I guess I'm just a sucker for well thought out alternate universes. But the way Theodore's video games can interact seamlessly with his AI and his desktop files makes me yearn just a little bit. Really incredible production design that was put together with great care and love makes me proud.

But anyway. The rest of the movie. There's some great cinematography at work here that actually enhances the story instead of clouding it with artsy squartsy nonsense (although it does have its fair share of inscrutable visual symbolism) and the screenplay is sprinkled with Oscar bait nuggets of wisdom tailor made for inspirational Tumblr blogs.

The third act is where things begin to unfortunately unravel. The enjoyable premise loses a lot of its flair past the 90 minute mark and begins to drag as the plot scrambles to find an ending (which I won't spoil here but I will say that the company that makes the OS's should prepare for a hell of a class action suit).

There's several problems inherent in being in love with the device that's in charge of your entire computer.

Her always operates at a base level of pleasantness that it rarely departs from, but it finds it difficult to be both pleasant and meaningful for the entirety of the run time, although it does come close. I certainly enjoyed it and would recommend it, but maybe it's not such an important film as all that, despite the many high quality efforts put into its production.

TL;DR: Her is a tad overlong but never unpleasant.
Rating: 7/10
Did It Deserve Best Picture? Probably not, but it was an interesting piece of intellectual cinematic fluff.
Word Count: 833

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Beat It, Essay: Music Is For The Birds

I've been taking a Music in Film class! I had to write an essay about a film score and because I have an insatiable need to stick it to the man, I wrote about The Birds, which has not a single note of written orchestration. Pray for me.

Update: For those of you who found this through Google, I got an "A" on the paper, so it's actually a solid model. Good luck!

The Prompt
Discuss the role of music in a single film created in 1970 or before.

The famed film composer Bernard Hermann is quite well known for having created some of the most memorable film scores in human history. After scoring the indelible classic Citizen Kane, his career took him even further when he was asked to pen the compositions for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. His use of shrill dissonance and solely string instrumentation was tremendously beneficial in putting the audience in the mindset of a psychotic killer. The theme for the shower scene is perhaps one of the most well-known film compositions in the entire world.

But one of Hermann’s other great compositional triumphs is hardly even a score at all, at least in the traditional sense. When he was asked to develop the sound for Hitchcock’s horror follow-up The Birds, he made the ingenious decision not to include a single piece of non-diegetic music. This worked perfectly because The Birds made a habit out of defying audience expectations: The plot of the entire first act is a decoy, turning what seemed like a screwball romantic comedy on its head once the first bird attacked. The Birds also exhibited an entirely unprecedented level of gore for the time, rendered in beautiful full color.

In every regard, The Birds was pushing the envelope and Hermann recognized the importance of keeping that quality consistent within the score. Where the audience, after decades of movie watching was expecting either a lush post-romantic score (assuming a romance) or a dissonant modern score (assuming a horror), what they got instead was absolutely nothing. Due to the almost unconscious nature of film music, most audience members wouldn’t have actively recognized the lack of a score but it would have continuously registered in the back of their minds, creating an unbearable psychological tension during the first act of the film, even before anything goes wrong.

This is where Hermann’s genius works its magic. Despite its technical lack of instrumentation, his silences work in the exact same manner as a traditional film score, playing with the audience’s preconceived notions of certain styles, motifs, and instrumental colors and their meanings within the context of cinema. A traditional film might use a sultry sax to signify a sexual scenario or a sweeping orchestra to denote an astounding act of heroism because it effortlessly puts the audience in the right mindset thanks to their experiences with similar techniques in previous films. It is this exact prior experience that Hermann exploits to create the oppressive atmosphere that haunts the entirety of the film.

Some might argue that Hermann’s work on The Birds isn’t a true score, but that is ignoring its base nature as a way of using music to manipulate an audience’s emotions. That is, in fact, exactly what Hermann is doing here, but simply in a wildly alternative format. And that argument ignores the presence of source music and sound composition, all of which was carefully selected by the composer himself for maximum effect and terror. Although sound design is somewhat out of the scope of this essay, Hermann’s use of flapping wings, clacking beaks, and avian squawks provides an unsettling rhythm and quasi-score of its own.

The two most important musical moments of the film are source music, impeccably chosen to break the silence at the two most opportune times to set the opposing tones of the beginning and middle of the film. The first, Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1 in E” can be heard on the radio during the first, romantic, portion of the film. It highlights the elegant nature of Tippi Hedren’s character Melanie Daniels as well as the wistful romance with which she approaches her life. This song choice is immensely important because it comes early on in the film, lulling the audience into a false sense of security, both in terms of film composition (having heard an expected classical composition early on would make it that much more unbearable during the absence of regular score) and of movie tone (one of pure classical romance and the innocence of the era).

However, that security is shattered with the startling placement of the next musical piece. After already having an uncomfortable encounter with the business end of a seagull, Melanie Daniels is on edge and taking a smoke break outside of the local elementary school while she is waiting for her friend – a teacher – to get off of work.

During this scene, the children’s choir is singing “Rissle-dy Rossle-dy,” a derivation of a traditional Scottish folk song while black crows slowly gather on a playground behind an unsuspecting Melanie. 

This comes after a long period in which the film has been utterly devoid of music and the innocence and joy of the song provides a modicum of relief in the listener. That is, until the murder of crows begins to roost. With the arrival of each additional crow and the threat of an impending attack, the children’s song grows more and more eerie, replacing the pleasant tone with the terrible potential of the slaughter of unaware innocents.

This is the most effective scene in the whole film, entirely because of Hermann’s unprecedented skill in using music (and its absence) to manipulate an audience. It’s absolutely brilliant, using the infrequent source music and ample expectations due to cinematic precedents in order to to play the audience like a fiddle – another alternative form of orchestration. Hermann will forever be remembered for his contributions to Kane and Psycho, but The Birds is a sonic experience of unparalleled skill so subtle that it will rarely be appreciated to the extent that it deserves.

What should be one of the most memorable scores in human history will perhaps never attain such status due to the completely subliminal effect it creates. Nobody even realizes that it exists! That is the beauty of Hermann’s work on this film and it’s certainly no mistake that he was paid the full salary of a traditional composer.
Word Count: 1047