Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, August 12, 2019

Director Report Card: Alexandre Aja (2019)

8. Crawl

For horror fans that don't really keep track of this stuff, it probably seemed like Alexandre Aja just disappeared for a while. After his hyper-violent breakthrough “High Tension,” he found mainstream success with gory remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Piranha.” After that, he tried to branch out with more distinguished material. “Horns” was still basically a horror movie but it skewed more on the psychological side of things and had a major star, in the form of Daniel Radcliffe. But not many people saw it. “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” got buried and that was probably for the best.

Now, sixteen years after first catching horror fans' attention, Aja has finally got a movie in megaplexes all over the country again. It would seem he's gotten back to his populist roots, directing a trashy genre picture. Set in Florida but shot on Serbian sound stages, the film was produced by Sam Raimi, a combination that seems irresistible. (And one I'm surprised didn't happen during Sam's Ghost House Pictures days.)  “Crawl” is another down-and-dirty, waterlogged killer animal flick from the French auteur. The undeniably catchy premise of “woman trapped in a flooding house, full of pissed-off gators” caused the movie to crack my list of most anticipated features of 2019. Because I, for one, can appreciate some glossy gator-sploitation.

Haley is a competitive swimmer who lives in Florida. She has a somewhat complex relationship with her recently divorced father, who is having trouble letting go of the family home he shared with his daughters' mother. Hurricane Wendy, a category five storm, is blowing into the state. When her sister can't get a hold of her dad, Haley drives right into the storm's path to figure out what's going on. She finds her father in the house's crawlspace, where he's been attacked by a pack of seriously angry alligators. Soon, the two are trapped inside the building as Wendy rolls in and entirely floods the area. They'll have to battle the weather and fight the gators if they hope to survive.

“Crawl's” script comes from the mind of the Rasmussen brothers, a screenwriting team that previously wrote John Carpenter's “The Ward” and a bunch of other low budget horror stuff I never noticed before. I can't speak much for the quality of their other films but the script for “Crawl” delightfully takes advantage of its ridiculous premise. For Haley and her dad, things just go from bad to worst. What starts as two gators grows to an entire pack. The water level just keep rising and rising, dad pressing his face to the floorboards for one last gulp of oxygen. Just when it seems our characters get a break, that's when the levees break and a tidal wave rolls in... “Crawl” amusingly exploits every possible outcome of its delightfully pulpy premise.

More than pluming just about every situation you might think of after reading that long line, “Crawl” actually functions decently as a thriller. As unlikely as a Floridian home right in the flood zone with a basement might seem, it proves a tense location to set a creature feature. For most of the film's first half, Haley and her dad are hiding in different corners of the tight location, sneaking between pipes that the giant reptiles can't quite squeeze through. There's not even enough room for either of them to stand up. It's definitely the last place you want to be trapped with some angry gators and “Crawl” takes full advantage of that. You feel the danger the characters are in, more room becoming unavailable as the water rises and the beasts close in.

There have been many crocodilian thrillers over the years, ranging wildly in quality. “Crawl” distinguish itself from the scaly lot by making its gators especially aggressively. In real life, American alligators are usually not going to attack people. In this movie, they tear humans apart without a moment's notice. They are also shockingly sneaky for reptiles that can weight upwards of 500 pounds. More than once, “Crawl” engineers surprisingly effective jump scares around its reptilian antagonists. The gators fall suddenly onto stairs, are revealed by lightning brightening the room, or leap from a doorway to attack. Though largely brought to life via CGI, the creatures still have a surprising amount of weight and heft to them. They hiss and roar, slinking across the ground but swiftly navigating the water.

Alexandre Aja largely founded his career on his ability to deliver intense sequences of gory mayhem. After backing away from the gore a bit with his last two films, Aja brings the grisliness back in a big way with “Crawl.” These incredibly pissed off gators sure like to tear people apart. The water is flooded with red many times throughout the film's run time. The gators grab limbs in their powerful jaws, crushing them, stabbing them, and graphically tearing them apart. Interlopers are introduced into the story largely to beef up the body count, looters or cops being pulled apart by a whole pack of gators. Aja, like before, makes every attack as painful as possible. Even the non-gator gore, like a scene of the dad setting a bone all by himself, are fittingly upsetting in their own way. The sound design is full of cringe-inducing crunching and popping.

In fact, all of the sound design in “Crawl” is surprisingly good. In the early scenes, before the flood water really starts to rise, an uneasy tension is built by the dripping water from the leaky pipes and the static of a radio Hailey's dad brought down with him. Once the flood waters truly start to roll in, Max Aruj and Steffen Thum's fittingly noisy musical score ramps way the fuck up. “Crawl” is a well produced motion picture, is my point. You also see this in Aja's stylish direction, which utilizes several underwater effective P.O.V. shots and other tactics to keep the tension on the upswing. My favorite of which is when Aja sends the audience on a death roll with one of the victims.

“Crawl” is a star vehicle for Kaya Scodelario, an actress I keep hearing people talking about even though I've never actually seen her in anything else before. I can now say I definitely get the hype. Scodelario gives an impressive physical performance. She spends pretty much the entire movie submerged in water. That's in addition to being torn up and battered around by gators and waves. Through it all, Scodelario brings an unerringly tough – I'm tempted to even say plucky – protagonist to life. She even manages to inject some humor into a role that mostly has her facing down death, drowning, and gory dismemberment.

“Crawl” is practically a two-hander, between Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper. (Three hander, if you count dog Cso-Cso. And you should, because she's a very good girl.) Pepper is not as convincing as Scodelario. Sometimes, he does not seem as paternal as the script calls for him to be. Pepper isn't always willing to totally buy into the emotions of the material. However, Pepper is similarly up to the physical demands of his character. In fact, that's the part of the film he really seems to enjoy. Struggling with a broken leg and numerous other injuries throughout the film, he similarly grasps a certain toughness.

The team behind “Crawl” was clearly working hard to make this more than just a movie about gator carnage. There are obvious themes of family and survival here. Though Haley and her dad have had many disagreements over the years, they clearly still love each other. That clear affection for each other is part of what keeps them fighting through this crazy situation. The film attempts to link this idea with the movie's scaly villains.  Midway through the film, we learn why the alligators are acting so extraordinarily aggressive. It turns out they've built a nest of eggs in the house's drainage pipe. So the gators are also motivated by a love of family, a need to keep their off-spring safe, through this story.

Disappointingly, this plot point is dropped more-or-less the minute after its introduced, “Crawl” getting on to the more pressing matter of in-coming flood waters. It's not the only way the writing, though admirable, is a little underdeveloped. I know survival is a big theme of the film because the characters lay it out. More than once, Dad tells Haley exactly what her special skills are, precisely how and why she should can keep fighting. The script lays that on a little thick, connecting it back to Haley's life as a pro-swimmer and the challenges she faces. I'm all for adding more depth to our trashy horror flicks but that needs to be paired with some subtly too.

Ultimately though, I really enjoyed “Crawl.” As grim as the material can be, a tongue-in-cheek end credits song choice makes it clear we aren't suppose to take these events too seriously. The whole film is in-and-out in less than 90 minutes, the kind of speedy runtime I didn't think showed up in theaters much anymore. But that's exactly the kind of run time needed for a low-demand, gory, and intense creature feature like this. I'm pretty pleased to see the film has done well at the box office, so hopefully Aja won't spend quite so long in exile after this. [Grade: B]

Friday, August 9, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

Following the release of “Avengers: Endgame,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe certainly seemed like it had reached its climax. (That this was timed so closely with the death of Stan Lee, the MCU's mascot and the self-proclaimed creator of the comic universe, seems like the most major of cosmic coincidences.) Yet the Disney corporate beast will not be sated until it owns all of popular culture and a proper conclusion is no reason to kill the billion dollar franchise. And so the next phase of Marvel's hugely ambitious cinematic adventure kicks off with “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” It's a smart choice for an opener, considering how well-liked “Homecoming” was, how Spider-Man is one of the few truly iconic Marvel heroes left standing from “Endgame.” Smartly inviting back director Jon Watts, “Far From Home” has been another crowdpleaser from the biggest name in Hollywood superhero theatrics.

Explicitly picking up from “Endgame,” “Far from Home” explores what happened to the world in the aftermath of Thanos' defeat. Millions of people suddenly flashed back into existence, an event called the Blip, at the same age and moment where they left, in a world that has grown five years in their absence. Yet Peter Parker is eager to get back to normal. His high school class is visiting Europe at the end of the semester and he hopes this'll be a break from being Spider-Man. He also hopes that it'll give him time to confess his feelings to Michelle, the quirky classmate he has increasingly romantic feelings for. The world has other plans. With Iron Man gone, Nick Fury is eager to recruit new heroes, like Spider-Man, to protect the world from incoming threats... Such as Elemental entities supposedly from another world. Yet is Mysterio, the survivor of that doomed planet who is warning of the Elementals' arrival, all he claims to be?

While “Homecoming” was a film largely devoted to establishing this version of Peter Parker, to send the young Spider-Man on a quest of self-realization in a sometimes uncertain world, “Far from Home” reflects more explicitly on our own world, here in 2019. This is a film about deception, a “Spider-Man” movie perfect for our era of fake news, deep fakes, and alternative facts. Peter Parker questions his own eyes throughout the film. He questions who he can believe or who he can trust. This is nailed home rather astutely with the post-credit scene, which brings back a familiar face in a more timely guise. And it's cool that “Far from Home” is attempting to discuss these themes, of living in an uncertain world where the concrete morality of reality is constantly denied by those in power. Of course, Marvel/Disney wimps out, painting certain authority figures as ultimately correct, evil acts only being committed by “evil” men. Yet I guess a massive corporation deserves some kudos for even sort-of, kind-of acknowledging these distressing ideas.

This half-assed approach, of wanting to critique our disturbing modern age without actually incriminating those in control, isn't the only thing that miffs me slightly about the latest Spider-Man adventure. The Marvel movies have gotten really, really serialized. “Far from Home” is not just a sequel to “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It's a direct follow-up to “Endgame,” which was a sequel to “Infinity Wars” and well over a dozen movies. On one hand, it's neat that a Spider-Man movie can reference Doctor Strange or casually include Nick Fury. On the other hand, “Far from Home” lives in the shadow of Tony Stark, the film never going long without his face appearing. Peter Parker feels overwhelmed by the world wanting him to become the next Iron Man. Me, the viewer, also feels overwhelmed by this sequel carrying the weight of so many other movies on it. Can't a Spider-Man movie just be a Spider-Man movie? Must it also be an Iron Man movie, a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, an Avengers adjacent movie? Must Peter Parker, poor kid from Queens, be casually utilizing high-tech equipment willed to him by a dead billionaire?

More pressing than any of this, “Spider-Man: Far from Home” drags a little in its first half. Anybody who knows anything about comics knows that illusion and deception is Mysterio's entire gimmick. That he's a fishbowled trickster with a fleet of convincing holograms at his disposal. The sequel, at first, treats the villain as if he's a hero. It presents his story of inter-dimensional travel and elemental monsters that threaten the world at face value. Everyone, from Peter Parker to master spy Nick Fury, believes him. (Though the film does eventually justify Fury buying into such an obvious deception.) We savvy viewers know a reveal is forthcoming, making these scenes feel somewhat protracted and listless. Furthermore, Spider-Man feels slightly out of his element exploring Europe. When he gets back to New York at the end, things finally feel balanced again.

Mysterio is one of my favorite Spider-Man villains, a classic bad guy who has long been crying out for a cinematic portrayal. Considering Marvel's frequently revisionist approach to their villains, I was really worried Mysterio would be extensively revamped. No need to fear, it turns out. Though his origin is needlessly linked to Tony Stark, like every MCU villain, Mysterio is otherwise perfectly handled. He cloaks himself in occult symbols, like a crystal ball and the Eye of Horus, but Mysterio is ultimately an egomaniacal conman. Amusingly, the film portrays himself as something like an unhinged movie director. His crew includes a writer, a production designer, effects specialists, and even a costume expert that he brutally orders around. Jake Gyllenhaal, finally in a “Spider-Man” movie after fifteen years, portrays the character's rakish grin while never forgetting the rotten heart that drives him.

Jon Watts' grasp on Spider-Man and his world remain strong. Visually, this is a solid film full of high-flying web slinging. Honestly, sometimes the action scenes are a little too elaborate. Spider-Man weaves some truly complex webs, spinning around Mysterio's drones in a way that's almost too fast to follow. “Far from Home's” visuals truly shine when focusing in on Mysterio's illusions. Once Peter realizes Quentin Beck is tricking him, the film launches into an especially impressive fantasy. Reality shifts around Spider-Man, mirrors reflecting endless copies. The eyes of a giant spider become an army of marching Mysterios. The New York skyline erupts from an earthy graveyard, along with a few Marvel Zombies. Mysterio's huge fist tosses Spider-Man into an uncertain nightmare world. And it's pretty bitchin', everything I've always wanted from a cinematic adaptation of Mysterio.

As satisfying as its villain is, as fun as the action sequences are, maybe the best thing about “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is its perfect supporting cast. Yes, it's a little weird that Happy Hogan is a regular player in Spider-Man movie, more-or-less filling the role of Peter Parker's comic relief sidekick. Yet Jon Favearu is really funny in the part, playing off Peter, Marisa Tomei's Aunt May, and the rest of the cast fantastically. Jacob Batalon as Ned, a highlight from “Homecoming,” gets even more fun stuff to do here as he's throw into a hilariously all-consuming overnight romance with Angourie Rice's Betty Brant. Martin Starr is a little to goofy as the most incompetent of Peter's teachers but he made me laugh a lot, so I can't complain too much.

Especially charming is the growing romance between Peter and Michelle, the MCU's largely unique riff on Mary Jane Watson. Zendaya's hyper-snarky take on the character is often funny in a dry and unexpected way. This contrasts nicely with Tom Holland's utterly sincere Peter Parker. Yet these are still teenagers and they are prone to certain awkwardness. Their courtship hits many bumps, as Peter tries to outsmart a seemingly more charismatic romantic rival. It's really adorable the way the two stammer around each other, clearly interested but a little too shy and inexperienced to outright say the things they are feeling. These small character moments are increasingly becoming the true high points of the Marvel Cinematic Universe brand. Holland and Meechee being such likable performers makes this movie even better than it would've been otherwise.

I didn't like “Spider-Man: Far from Home” as much as I liked “Homecoming,” which is still among my favorite MCU films. (Though “Into the Spider-Verse” might've topped it as the best Spider-Man movie.) It has its strong points, including a fantastic villain, a supporting cast that expertly plays off each other, and some highly entertaining visuals. Yet the script is also somewhat strangled by the needs of the larger cinematic universe, an uncomfortable disconnect between the subtext and reality, and a first act that takes too long to get going. I do appreciate the shout-outs to deeper Spidey lore – such as the rough approximations of obscure villains like Hydro-Man, Molten Man, or Cyclone – though am slightly bummed it'll prevent “real” versions of those characters from appearing later on. That's my geekiness getting in the way of my nerdiness. But, hey, I still had a great time at the movies with this so I can only bitch so much. Marvel's Spider-Man films are still greatly entertaining. [7/10]

Thursday, August 8, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Venom (2018)

Evil counterparts are among the most common supervillain types in comic books. Probably because it's easy to take the good guy, flip his costume around some, and say it's the thematic opposite of the hero. Among comicdom's most successful evil counterpart is Venom. A bulky, evil Spider-Man with monstrous tongue and teeth, the character was insanely popular in the nineties. So much so that he eventually became an anti-hero, held down an on-going series and gained an evil counterpart or seven of his own. So it makes sense that Sony would try to make a “Venom” movie. They had been trying to make it since Marvel forced Sam Raimi to include the character in “Spider-Man 3.” (And apparently there was an earlier attempt by David Goyer in 1997.)

Following the premature collapse of Sony's proposed cinematic universe of Spider-Man movies, surely the idea of a “Venom” movie must've seemed absurd. Especially since the legal agreement the studio had with Marvel/Disney meant Spider-Man himself would be barred from appearing in the spin-off. Yet Sony went ahead anyway. And then the strangest thing happened. Tom Hardy, a leading man who usually does interesting projects, agreed to star. “Venom” was largely presumed to be a fiasco. But then it won some decent reviews, a passionate fan following, and did very well at the box office. A year later, how does this Spider-Man Movie Without Spider-Man hold up?

Eddie Brock's evolution into Venom revolves around Peter Parker but, as previously established, this movie couldn't touch that stuff. At least Eddie is still a journalist. A muckraking investigative reporter, Eddie is asked to interview Carlton Drake, the head of the Life Foundation, an obviously evil bio-engineering company. After the interview, Eddie looses his job and his wife, Anne. Unbeknownst to him, the Life Foundation has been experimenting on slimy alien organisms they discovered in space. After sneaking into the building, Brock bounds with one of these symbiotic lifeforms. Calling itself Venom, the oozy alien begins to direct and control Eddie's life. Soon, the two are reluctantly working together to prevent an alien invasion of Earth, which Drake is at the center of.

Shockingly, most of the cult following that quickly sprung up around “Venom” had nothing to do with the edgy comic fanboys who ate the character up in the nineties. Instead, people reacted largely to the oddball relationship between Eddie and the Venom symbiote. (And also wanting to fuck the titular monster.) Maybe because “Venom” works so much better as a strange buddy flick and comedic romance. Venom's affinity for tatter tots and his slow grasping of Earth culture is worth a laugh or two. The script, amusingly, has the two characters – human reporter and slime alien – bonding over their mutual status as losers and outcasts. The way Venom bluntly states this fact, among others, made me chuckle. The relationship between Eddie and Anne is shockingly well realized, largely due to Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams' chemistry. By the time the symobiote is offering romantic advice to Eddie on how to win her back, “Venom” had officially charmed me.

In fact, “Venom's” goofy streak and the titular pair's homoerotic relationship might be the only thing redeeming the film. The movie's plot is as generic as can be. There's awkward exposition, Venom barking out his weaknesses over the course of a cab ride. An evil corporate executive, my least favorite supervillain type, motivates the story here. Carlton Drake's eventual bonding with the Riot symbiote, his decision to lead an alien invasion of Earth, happens very quickly. The Life Foundation is so cartoonishly evil, murdering homeless people with glee, that you wonder how anyone could take them seriously. Obviously, various factors conspire to push Eddie and Venom apart, forcing that tedious middle secton of the buddy movie where the buddies break up. You always know where the story is headed.

As an action movie, “Venom” doesn't impress much either. Director Ruden Fleischer, previously of “Zombieland” and “Gangster Squad,” employs a lot of cheesy slow motion. While Venom and his adversaries' shape-shifting abilities should've lent themselves to interesting action, the film mostly just has the aliens impaling people with tentacles. A fight scene in a office building lobby is largely a hard-to-follow blur, the film obscuring Venom's oft-stated preference for eating people's brains. A motorcycle vs. drone chase scene has one or two decent beats but largely relies on awkward green-screen effects. For the big finale, “Venom” degrades into a blur of indistinct CGI effects. Making the villain of the movie Riot – one of half a dozen evil symbiotes introduced during the “Separation Anxiety” story arc – wasn't a great idea. Devoting the last act of the movie to a fight between two nearly identical looking CGI slime monsters wasn't a great win for the movie's general coherence.

And yet, as I said, “Venom” almost works in spite of its obvious narrative and directorial flaws. Tom Hardy shoulders much of that success. Adopting another goofy accent, Hardy gives an amusingly eccentric performance. Once Brock bonds with Venom, Hardy fully transforms into a twitchy weirdo. A highlight of the entire film is his intrusion into a fancy seafood restaurant. It's a hammy performance that is certainly never boring to watch. The supporting cast is largely indifferent. Jenny Slate is mildly entertaining in a supporting role. Riz Ahmed plays Drake as a wide-eyed egomaniac, with little variation or humanity. I don't know what the hell a classy actress like Michelle Williams is doing in big budget schlock like this but, hey, she does work well with Hardy.

If not for its oddball streak and hilariously strange lead performance, “Venom” would've been a totally forgettable superhero success-grab, inoffensive but bland, comparable in quality to a number of the pre-MCU Marvel adaptations. Yet those positive attributes do count for something, making “Venom” far more entertaining than it otherwise would've been. Sony's gambit unexpectedly paid off and they fully intend to ride this cash cow for all its worth. In addition to “Venom 2,” which is gratuitously set up by a flashy mid-credits teaser and recently gained a director, they rushed another movie based on a Spider-Man-villain-turned-antihero into development. While “Morbius, the Living Vampire” has also had his own book from time to time, I kind of doubt he has the same box office appeal as “Venom.” But who the hell knows? This one shouldn't have worked at all either. [6/10]

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Despite grossing nearly as much as the first “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Amazing Spider-Man 2” was such a colossal clusterfuck, such an industry embarrassment, that Sony smothered its entire cinematic universe in its cradle. With few other options remaining to redeem this massive boondoggle, the company touched upon an idea that must've seemed inconceivable only a few years prior: Spider-Man would be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney and Sony maintaining dual ownership of the character's film rights. Yes, another reboot was happening. However, with Marvel steering the ship this time, fan reaction was enthusiastic. Spider-Man's supporting role in “Captain America: Civil War” was unanimously praised. When “Spider-Man: Homecoming” hit theaters in 2017, it was widely considered as the best cinematic depiction of the web slinging wall crawler ever.

After Tony Stark recruited him to help capture Captain America, Peter Park returns to Queens. He's eager to help out the Avengers, who seem resistant to returning his phone calls. Iron Man encourages him to focus on smaller adventures, not world-saving endeavors. Meanwhile, Peter tries to balance his superhero life with his high school life. His best friend Ned discovers his identity, he's bullied by Flash Thompson, his debate team duties are often interrupted, and he struggles with asking Liz, the girl he likes, to homecoming. That's when Peter discovers Adrian Toomes, a blue collar family man who is stealing alien tech, making weapons from it, and selling it on the black market. Inevitably, conflicts arise and secrets are revealed.

This Spider-Man is deeply entrenched in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that really changes things. Marvel smartly skips the traditional origin, Uncle Ben's fate only being hinted at. Instead, Tony Stark fills the role of Peter's deeply snarky, often aggravated, paternal mentor. Iron Man builds Spidey's suit, outfitting it with an on-board A.I. and a plethora of gadgets. Happy Hogan is a supporting character. Captain America and Thor are mentioned, while the events of “The Avengers” informs the entire story. However, connecting this “Spider-Man” so explicitly to the M.C.U. does makes some stuff a little awkward. The plot revolves around the Vulture attempting to steal from a Stark jet full of Avengers artifacts. In other words, “Homecoming” is about a poor kid from Queens risking life and limb to help a billionaire protect a mere fraction of his innumerable assets. That's, at best, kind of fucked up and, at worst, a complete betrayal of everything Spider-Man should be about.

Yet the politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have always been contradictory and poorly thought out. I guess that's inevitable when a war profiteer is your flagship hero. As is usually the case, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is so funny and entertaining, that you rarely notice. The film establishes an irrelevant sense of humor early on, showing us Peter's energetic video journal of his trip to Europe. From there, we get amusingly awkward school news broadcast and Spider-Man making a hilarious trip through the suburbs. Maybe my favorite sequence has Peter befriending the A.I. built into his suit, which proves surprisingly conversational. As it is with Marvel's best films, “Homecoming” is a well oiled entertainment machine. Never more than a few minutes passes between a funny quib or an exciting action sequence.

Receiving most of “Homecoming's” critical praise was our new Peter Parker. Many have gone so far as to say that Tom Holland is the best Spider-Man ever. Holland is a fantastically entertaining performer. He has a boundless youthful energy, seeming excited and totally sincere about almost every opportunity that comes his way. This is not a Spider-Man burdened by the responsibility of his power but energized by it. Holland's innate likability and boyish charm makes the movie an absolute joy to watch. Whether he's the best Peter Parker is debatable. However, I think it's fair to say he's the best Peter Parker for this movie, a funnier and hipper interpretation that keeps the angst a little more under the skin.

During Phase Three of their cinematic endeavor, Marvel would really begin to respond to criticisms that most of their villains weren't very good. “Homecoming” largely reinvents the Vulture, a somewhat corny classic villain that wasn't that different from Iron Man. In fact, Adrian Tooms becomes the inverse of Tony Stark. He's a small business owner, desperate to take care of his family, and decides to redistribute some of the super-rich superhero's wealth. In other words, he's right. Tooms' ruthlessness is what makes him a villain, creating a number of tense sequence. The reveal that Peter is much closer to the bad guy than initially assumed is fantastic, leading to a wonderful tense conversation in a car. Michael Keaton, returning to the superhero genre after thirty years, borders his steely intensity with some wry humor. Combining such intimidating power with totally understandable motives makes for a more compelling villain and film.

Marvel scooped director Jon Watts out of relative obscurity because of his dark but nevertheless energetic boys-on-an-adventure thriller, “Cop Car.” (And probably not because of his pitch black body horror comedy, “Clown.” Though I liked that movie too.) Yet Watts is clearly a Spidey fan. He engineers a number of iconic moments, right out of comic book splash pages, for the webslinging hero. An exciting action sequence on the Manhattan ferry concludes with the instantly iconic image of Spidey attempting to hold the boat together with his webbing. Later, Watts reprises the classic panel of Spider-Man pushing against a pile of rubber fallen atop him, in a surprisingly more vulnerable way. While Watts is great at creating big Spider-Man moments, he's equally adapt at the smaller, more irrelevant moments. Peter goofing around in-between adventures, like walking on a tight rope between buildings, is equally endearing.

A truly unexpected plus of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is its phenomenal supporting cast. One of the film's smartest decision is to give Peter a best friend aware of his secret. Jacob Batalon's Ned – loosely inspired by Ned Leeds – is such an entertaining presence. His interaction with Holland is fantastic and his own lines are frequently delivered with perfect comedic timing. (His reaction to being caught in the school library is priceless.)  Marisa Tomei, vivacious and fairly young, seemed like odd casting for Aunt May. The movie leans into that in the best way, resulting in an adorably sweet May seemingly unaware of the effect she has on men around her. Zendaya has a surprisingly dry wit as “Michelle,” her sarcasm proving a nice contrast to Peter and Ned's enthusiasm.

Where “Homecoming” falls in the pantheon of “Spider-Man” movies is hard to say. Its detailed link to the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes it so very different from any prior “Spider-Man” movie. The film is as much reinvention of these classic characters as an adaptation. Yet it is very much a likable reinvention, successfully bringing this cast of characters into the modern age without loosing sight of their soul. A fantastic cast combines with the Marvel formula for satisfying story telling, pacing, and structure to make perhaps the most consistent Spidey movie, if not exactly the best. [8/10]

Monday, August 5, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Evil Dead (2013)

For as long as I've cared about it, I've heard rumors about “Evil Dead 4.” Fans obviously demanded it, even if “Army of Darkness'” box office didn't exact support it. Over the decades, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell would plant just enough hints about such a project to keep it from slipping totally into fan boy daydreams. As Sam became more and more of a big deal, the likelihood of a fourth “Evil Dead” movie ever actually reaching theaters seemed more unlikely. Instead, the remake route is what it took to get “Evil Dead” back to the big screens. Naturally, Sam and Bruce would shepherd the new version of their classic film through production, with newcomer Fede Alvarez behind the camera. The resulting film would sharply divide fans of the original, with some loving it and others being more indifferent.

Realizing that spending a weekend in a spooky cabin is probably not your average college student's idea of a fun vacation, this “Evil Dead” updates the premise in at least one important way. Following the death of her mother, Mia has become a drug addict. Hoping to get her clean, her friends Eric and Olivia – as well as Mia's estranged brother David and his girlfriend Natalie – take her to an isolated cabin for detox. The group is unaware that demonic rituals have been performed in this location. In the basement, Eric finds a disturbing book and reads from it. And thus, the demonic, possessing spirits are unleashed again to take over another group of young people and destroy their minds, bodies, and souls.

The original “Evil Dead” is remembered as a gore-fest, which is not unfair at all. However, what made Sam Raimi's original film scary was more so its creepy atmosphere, a growing sense of foreboding, the isolation of the setting. No matter how hard it tries, Fede Alvarez' film can never capture a similar feeling. A lot of that has to do with how the original “Evil Dead” was made by a bunch of wackos in the woods and the new one is a professional, 17 million dollar studio production. 2013's “Evil Dead” has the same overcast, brown-and-gray visual palette as many of the big horror remakes from the last decade did. Though there are a few attempts to replicate the original's use of a first-person-perspective, ominous “force,” Alvarez utilizes it much less than Raimi did. The result is an “Evil Dead” shockingly low on atmosphere.

Instead, 2013's “Evil Dead” doubles down on the gore. In fact, explicit violence is seemingly the only trick the remake has up its sleeve. It tries every tactic to make the violence disturbing, to the make the audience cringe. So a needle is driven into an eye and slowly pulled out. Lips are carved open with a piece of glass. Nails are repeatedly shot into someone's face. The meatiness of a human arm is emphasized as a girl is forced to saw it off, the severed arm eventually dangling by a gristly thread. And, of course, the infamous tree rape is reprised. In fact, it's made more explicit, with some barb-wire-like thorns being added to the mix. 2013's “Evil Dead” is trying so hard to shock and unnerve, that it soon comes off as desperate. (That the possessed victims also go on vulgar tirades only furthers this assumption.) By the time blood is raining from the sky, and our protagonist is wedging her arm under a car and tearing it off, we are numb to the film's constant gory assault. The only moment that genuinely made me cringe was when a hand is smashed apart with a crowbar. That was pretty cool.

2013's “Evil Dead” is one of those remakes that feature a number of gratuitous winks at the original. Yet these often seemed inserted more because they are expected than because they make any sense. The opening sequences features a man we can assume to be Professor Knowby but it's never actually expounded on. While the original film introduced a surprising amount of lore around its Book of the Dead, the remake mostly just has the accursed tome set-up events later in the film. Mia is given a necklace highly reminiscent of the one Ash gave Linda in the original... Except this necklace never does anything, making you wonder why the film pauses to introduce it. Once again, we see the evil infection spread through a hand, a twisted ghoul peering out of a trapdoor, even the P.O.V. shot of a sink faucet are recreated. Yet the approach is dispassionate, the filmmakers inserting these nods seemingly because they assumed fans would be annoyed if they weren't they. Nothing sums up this approach better than the literal last minute cameo, which does not connect with the rest of the film in any way. It's just shoved in there.

Ultimately, I think my biggest problem with the remake of “Evil Dead” is that I simply do not care about any of the characters. While the original's cast might've been loosely defined. You at least were invested in who lived and who died. The heroes of the remake range from boring to actively annoying. Though Jane Levy is a likable performer, Mia is introduced as an explicitly bad person. Her habit to go on tear-strewn car drives while screaming profanity does not endear her to the audience. Spending most of the movie as a Deadite, her arbitrary transformation into an Ash-like hero is totally unearned. We never connect with this character in any positive way. Shiloh Fernandez' David is a bland, White Guy McHero horror protagonist and his girlfriend, Natalie, is a similarly thin perfect blondie angel. The kids of the original didn't really realize what they were awakening until it was too late but Lou Taylor Pucci's Eric picks up an obviously evil book and keeps reading from it, long after the point he should've realized that was a bad idea. Only Jessica Lucas' Olivia seems to have any degree of likable personality, as she at least offers empathy towards Mia. Naturally, she's one of the first characters to die.

Early in the pre-release buzz of the new “Evil Dead,” rumors began to percolate that the film wasn't truly a remake but a stealth sequel. This is certainly possible, as the film never directly contradicts anything from the original trilogy. (Though how Ash's car got from 12th century England back to the cabin, I don't know.) It has long since been revealed that the plan was originally for Levy's Mia and Bruce Campbell's Ash to meet up in an eventual sequel. While 2013's “Evil Dead” was certainly a box office success, with reviews that were somewhat mixed but generally leaned towards positive, these plans have yet to materialize. Ash's story instead continued and concluded on television with no sequel to the remake forthcoming. Ultimately, the new “Evil Dead” left me cold, featuring plenty of blood and guts but little in the way of what made the original interesting or endearing. [5/10]

Friday, August 2, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Sony originally hoped that “The Amazing Spider-Man” would be their “Twilight,” a massively popular fantasy/romance that had huge cross appeal with both young women and men. Instead, blockbuster movies were changed forever a few weeks before “The Amazing Spider-Man” came out by the release of “The Avengers.” Now, superhero team-up movies and cinematic universes were what every studio wanted. The series quickly moving forward, Sony retrofitted “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” with these goal in mind. This humble 200 million dollar superhero sequel was now going to be the lynch pin for an entire web of spin-offs. These hugely ambitious plans were doomed pretty from the start, “Amazing Spider-Man 2” becoming a punchline before it was even released. But is the film really that bad?

A year after becoming Spider-Man, Peter Parker is still learning to balance his personal life and superhero life. He loves Gwen Stacy but wishes to respect her father's dying request, afraid his enemies may hurt her. He is still investigating his parents' disappearance, discovering they had connections with Oscorps. He reunites with old friend Harry Osborn, heir to the Oscorps fortune. Harry has his own problems, as a genetic disease passed down from his father is threatening to turn him into a human goblin. He hopes Spider-Man may provide the solution to his problem. Meanwhile, Oscorps engineer Max Dillion, who has an unhealthy obsession with Spider-Man, suffers an accident and becomes a being of pure electricity, dubbing himself Electro. Through the power of superhero sequel bloat, all these plot threads come together.

Even the people who liked the first “Amazing Spider-Man” agreed that the subplot centered around Peter Parker's parents was a dead end. Proving that Sony was truly rushing into this without thinking things through, “Amazing Spider-Man 2” still devotes a long portions of its run time to this subplot. It even opens with a lengthy flashback, the elder Parkers fighting a hitman on an airplane, that feels truly disconnected from the rest of the film. Peter's dad apparently left a calculator full of secrets to his son, leading to a secret subway train full of further secrets. It reeks of desperation, of a nascent franchise desperate to build a mythology out of anything. (Considering “Spider-Man” comics are absolutely packed with mythology, this really shows you how badly Sony fucked things up.)

The things that really worked about the first “Amazing Spider-Man” were the relationship between Peter and the women in his life. The sequel screws this up too but it still manages to be one of the stronger aspects of the film. Peter breaking up with Gwen is a ridiculous excuse for romantic melodrama. The way he handles being in love with Gwen but being unable to be with her – basically stalking her – sure is an inelegant solution. Yet the romantic chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone remains absolutely fiery. Similarly, Aunt May is drawn into the whole ridiculous Peter's Parents plot. Sally Field still gets a really touching monologue mid-way through the film, explaining how her bond with him is more important than his vanished parents.

Much of the criticism directed at “Amazing Spider-Man 2” dealt with its villains. As depicted in this film, Electro is an extremely dorky Oscrops employee with a disturbing fixation on Spider-Man. (This is very different from his comic book origin as a blue collar worker turned career criminal with massive powers.) This includes talking about the hero whenever he gets the chance, decorating his apartment with his pictures, and imagining an elaborate friendship between them. When Spider-Man is forced to fight the dangerously disorientated Electro, he immediately turns on his hero. From there, he spends some time with a cartoonish mad psychologist and develops a god complex. You'll notice that's a really strangled character arc and it doesn't play any better in the film. A wildly miscast Jaime Foxx plays the pre-transformation Electro in a very goofy manner, as an exaggerated nerd. Post-transformation, his performance is mutated beyond human recognition by CGI.

The new series' close proximity to the Raimi trilogy did not stop the first one from killing Uncle Ben again. Similarly, even though “Spider-Man 3” did the entire “Harry Osborn becomes the Green Goblin” plot again, “Amazing Spider-Man 2” redoes that one as well. In some ways, this is actually one of the parts of the film that works. Peter and Harry were close friends when they were both younger, explaining how a bullied nerd could be friends with the richest kid in school. Dane DeHaan is appropriately petulant and confused as Harry. His scenes with Garfield have a nice, relaxed energy to them. Yet everything else pertaining to Harry is a disaster. Giving him a disease that mutates his physical appearance was such a dumb (and overly literal) way to reinvent the character. The tangled mess of plot points that has him turning into the Green Goblin, rolling in magical blood and a conveniently placed high-tech battle suit, could not be more of a mess.

The action scenes were another highlight of the first film and “Amazing Spider-Man 2” does build on those positively. After that ridiculous Richard Parker: Action Hero prologue, the film begins with the kind of sequence I've always wanted to see in a Spider-Man movie. Mainly, a brief segment devoted to Spider-Man taking down a B-list villain. While on morning patrol, Spidey derails an elaborate bank robbery attempt by a gangster soon to be known as the Rhino. (Played by a delightfully over-the-top Paul Giametti.) It's a brisk, funny, and inventive sequence, balancing humor and fast-paced action in just the right way. Marc Webb does continue to produce dynamic visuals, making sure to sneak in plenty of acrobatic poses for Spidey as he spins through the air, using his webbing in all sorts of novel ways. “Amazing Spider-Man 2” also has maybe the best Spider-Man suit ever created for a live action movie, for what that's worth.

So the film is absolutely a mess. However, at least it's a relatively watchable mess, including lots of decent action and interaction between characters we are semi-invested in. The final battle between Spider-Man and Electro, which nicely brings Gwen Stacy into the fray, seemingly takes the film out with a solid climax... And then “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” keeps on going. Within the movie's final twenty minutes, it shoves in a dozen more events. An entire adaptation of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is forced in, Peter's grief at loosing Gwen so suddenly almost working. An extended epilogue is added from there. The Sinister Six are gratuitously set-up for a future sequel. The Rhino appears. Spider-Man is convinced to come out of retirement, his grieving of his dead girlfriend occurring over the course of a montage. An already overstuffed movie totally overwhelms viewers right as they are going out the door, draining any sense of satisfaction from the narrative.

The film didn't just leave the door open for a sequel, it was punching holes in the walls before it even got close to the door. The studio hoped “Amazing Spider-Man 3,” obligatory team movie “Sinister Six,” and “Venom” would follow. Oh yeah, Felicity Hardy is in the movie too, potentially setting up a “Black Cat” spin-off as well. At some point, Sony totally lost its mind and started announcing all sorts of crazy bullshit, like an “Aunt May” prequel movie. It was all for naught, of course. Despite making over 700 million dollars worldwide, “Amazing Spider-Man 2” was declared a failure and the character would be rebooted again in just a few years. It turns out, building an entire cinematic universe around a mediocre sequel to a movie nobody wanted in the first place isn't a great idea. Despite some positive attributes, the sequel is unquestionably a complete fiasco. [5/10]

Thursday, August 1, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

“Spider-Man 3” was a massive money-maker but everyone recognized that the film had its problems, its director most of all. Sam Raimi was determined to make up for it with an epic-in-scope “Spider-Man 4.” That sequel would've featured John Malcovich as the Vulture, Anne Hathaway as a Felicia Hardy that became either the Black Cat or the Vulturess, and more contrived melodrama than you could shake a spider leg at. (Oh yeah, and Bruce Campbell would've had a cameo as an overweight Mysterio.) When Raimi realized he couldn't deliver a decent film by the May 2011 release date Sony was demanding, he dropped out of the project. With all the cast refusing to return without Raimi's involvement, it was clear this iteration of “Spider-Man” was over.

Normally, that would be the end of things. However, Sony could only hold onto the rights to this highly lucrative character if they kept making “Spider-Man” movies, least they revert back to Marvel. So a new Spidey adventure immediately went into production. Mere days after Raimi's “Spider-Man 4” officially died, Marc Webb was hired to direct a reboot, presumably because his last name made a good pun. Thus was born “The Amazing Spider-Man,” a misbegotten film that launched a doomed franchise strictly to meet a release date and legal shenanigans. Now that we know how all this turned out, how does one look at “The Amazing Spider-Man” now?

So what are the big differences between “The Amazing Spider-Man” and Raimi's “Spider-Man?” Everyone is a little younger and sexier. Peter builds mechanical web shooters, instead of having organic ones. Uncle Ben still dies in a similar manner to last time, though minus the pro-wrestling. Mary Jane is traded out for Gwen Stacy, Peter's other major love interest. The plot involves Peter Parker investigating his disappeared parents, which brings him to Oscorp scientist Dr. Curt Connors. The one-armed Connors is experimenting on mixing human and animal genetics. This results in the super-spiders that bite Peter, transforming him into Spider-Man. It also changes Connors into a humanoid lizard monster with nasty plans for the whole city, forcing Spider-Man to swing into action.

From the beginning, “The Amazing Spider-Man” was a movie torn in multiple directions. Sony was eager to capitalize on what was trendy. Because “Batman Begins” was popular, this “Spider-Man” was an origin story, even though the first Raimi film did that less than ten years prior. Because “The Dark Knight” was popular, this “Spider-Man” was going to be darker and grittier. He would run from the cops and beat up random people on the subway. Because “Twilight” was popular, this “Spider-Man” was going to focus on romance. One assumes that's why Marc Webb, previously of “(500) Days of Summer,” landed in the director's chair. You can also see a desire to address the criticism people had about Raimi's films. People thought Raimi's Peter Parker was too mopey, too dorky, not enough of a joker. So this Peter rides a skateboard and constantly cracks jokes while fighting muggers. They even made the Lizard the villain of the movie, seemingly because fans were annoyed Raimi teased that character repeatedly without ever delivering.

Of all those somewhat questionable decisions, the choice to rejigger Peter Parker's origin is by far the most questionable. Yes, the comic books eventually revealed that Peter's parents were secret agents. However, for the most part, the elder Parkers simply do not matter. Despite that, Webb's film tries to build a mystery around what happened to the Parkers. It opens with a flashback to the last night Peter saw his parents. Peter still deeply feels the loss of his mom and dad. His father is made a scientist, with links to both Dr. Connors and Peter's eventual transformation into Spider-Man. All of this is hugely unnecessary for other reasons too. Surprisingly, “Amazing Spider-Man” finds the perfect Aunt May and Uncle Ben in the forms of a funny but truly maternal Sally Field and a shockingly wise but down-to-Earth Martin Sheen. The scenes they share together are great and any focus on the grand secret of Peter's parents takes away from that.

As much as “Amazing Spider-Man” wanted to distance itself from Raimi's trilogy, Webb is clearly emulating his directorial style. He includes multiple point-of-view shots from the perspective of Spider-Man or his web shooters. Admittedly, this does lead to some pretty cool visuals, such as the reveal of Peter's overly muted suit. We get another P.O.V. shot when the construction workers of New York City unite to help Spidey out, a moment clearly inspired by a similar scene in 2002's “Spider-Man.” Webb does bring a graceful energy to the action scenes. Spider-Man utilizes his webbing a lot more offensively, formulating more complex webs to hold his opponents back. The fight scene with the Lizard in the school has him spinning around the supervillain, cocooning him in a novel way. It's all, admittedly, pretty cool.

People who hate “The Amazing Spider-Man” complain that its version of Peter Parker is a complete betrayal of the character. They argue that Peter Parker is an essential dork. He doesn't skateboard, stand up to Flash Thompson, or have perfect hair. Which are all fair criticisms. Yet I genuinely do enjoy Andrew Garfield as this hipper, sexier Spider-Man. As overwritten as his jokes may be, Garfield has enough style and timing to make the jokes land. He also has the perfect physicality, as spindly and aerodynamic as Spider-Man has always been drawn. Moreover, Garfield has incredible chemistry with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Stone is even funnier, smart, tough, and stunningly beautiful. Whenever these two are playing off each other, “The Amazing Spider-Man” truly comes to life.

From the moment Dylan Baker showed up as Dr. Curt Conners in “Spider-Man 2,” fans were wondering when he'd transform into the Lizard. Raimi never got around to using that character, and apparently wouldn't have even in “Spider-Man 4,” so it fell upon the reboot to handle it. Rhys Ifans steps into the part of Dr. Connors, leaning a little too hard into the sinister intent but otherwise doing fine. But there's a problem. First off, the design of the Lizard is more David Icke than Marvel comics, which bugs me. Secondly, perhaps the script reveals why the Lizard had never been the main villain in any of the previous films. Dr. Connors' descent into full-blown villainy involves him wanting to turn everyone in New York into lizard people. He plans to do this via a heavily foreshadowed dispersal machine. He wants to this because he comes to believe reptiles are superior to humans in the most ham-fisted way possible. The decision to directly tie Connors' research in with Peter's origin further reveals the desperate measure the screenwriters have gone to in order to make this smaller scale, more personal threat into a bigger deal.

Ultimately, there are things I admire about “The Amazing Spider-Man.” The two leads are pretty good, despite the obvious loops the script sends them through. The direction is often slick. The action scenes are cool. It does course-correct some of the issues I had with “Spider-Man 2” and 3. However, the film makes so many weird choices in what it chooses to emphasize, resulting in a reboot desperate to be hip and cool but deeply misunderstanding why we find these characters interesting in the first place. [6/10]

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (2013)

14. Oz the Great and Powerful

After making a fairly triumphant return to lower stake horror with “Drag Me to Hell,” there was this perhaps naive hope that Raimi was done with massive blockbuster entertainment. Once you have a success like the “Spider-Man” trilogy to your name, I guess big budget studio movie making will inevitably come calling again. After the inexplicable success of Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland,” Disney started searching around for other, similar properties to exploit. (They had yet to touch upon the idea of just doing shot-for-shot remakes of their cartoons.) They soon realized “Wizard of Oz,” that other public domain classic of children's fantasy literature, about an outsider adventuring through a marvelous world, was the next natural choice. Combining the idea with another then-hot trend – origin stories! – resulted in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a prequel to Frank L. Baum's beloved classic.

In the early 1900s, Oscar Diggs travels the American Midwest as part of a carnival sideshow. He works as a magician, trying to impress largely apathetic crowds with mediocre parlor tricks. Mostly, he passes the time seducing farm girls. That gets him in trouble and he's forced to flee the carnival in a hot air balloon, just as a tornado blows into Kansas. He is transported to the magical land of Oz, where prophecies speak of a wizard coming from the skies and saving their world. Oscar is certain this isn't him but is quickly wrapped up in a quest to save the Emerald City, led by the seemingly friendly Evanora and Theodora, from the Wicked Witch of the West. But all is not what it seems...

On the surface, “The Wizard of Oz” doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would interest Sam Raimi. Supposedly, the director has been a long-time fan of MGM's iconic 1939 film version, which would certainly explain his interest in wicked witches. However, Raimi fans can't help but notice something about “Oz the Great and Powerful:” It has a lot in common with “Army of Darkness.” Both films are about a caddish guy getting tossed into another world. The locals believe he's a hero but he dismisses their claims, only desiring to go back home. Despite that, he's encouraged to rouse the locals into fighting back against a villainous force. He uses his modern engineering abilities to build machines to help win that battle. He seduces a local woman who is then transformed into an adversary. It's not a perfect 1-to-1 match. There are no skeletons in the Wonderful World of Oz, for one. But the similarities are such that it seems unlikely they were unintentional.

Aside from directly referencing one of his previous cult classics, Sam Raimi brings other elements of his style to the table. Once or twice, the camera goes askew and crash-zooms into people's faces, when people hear someone ominous arriving or a witch reveals herself to the camera. There is, naturally, a montage full of colorful cross-cutting and images overlapping, when Oz is designing his various tricks and tools. The director of “The Evil Dead” working for the House of Mouse is such an unlikely situation but you can see a little bit of that ambiance here. A shot of Glinda walking through a foggy, spooky forest with a big rusty gate or some of the film's wackier monsters – flying baboons or aquatic fairies with big fangs – brings some horror movie flavor to this PG family flick.

Still, “Oz the Great and Powerful” does play into some of Raimi's worst instincts as a filmmaker. As the “Spider-Man” trilogy progressed, you could see the director getting more and more fascinated with CGI trickery, sometimes to the detriment of the story and characters. This unfortunate tendency continues here. The film was obviously shot with a 3-D release in mind. Countless times, objects, characters, and creatures are thrown towards the camera, flying over the audience's head. Moreover, there are multiple moments when the film just stops so the cast can ooh-and-aw over CGI imagery. (Admittedly, some of this stuff, like blossoming flowers made of jewels, is pretty neat.) Both of these problems rear their head during a sequence where Oz and Glinda float around in giant bubbles. By the time CGI scarecrows are rolling out of a forest on unicycles, I had officially had my fill of this.

Something I really disliked about Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland,” a movie I really disliked in general, was how it squeezed Lewis Caroll's work of absurdist literature into a typical sci-fantasy, “chosen one” action/adventure narrative. “Oz the Great and Powerful” does something similar, which is, admittedly, another thing this film has in common with “Army of Darkness.” Apparently, Oscar's arrival in Oz was foreshadowed by an extremely specific prophecy, that a wizard bearing the land's name would arrive to save it. Where this prophecy comes from is never expounded on. Oz's journey from selfish cad to hero is a totally expected one that leaves little room for surprise or variation.

Considering most of Disney's attempts to replicate “Alice in Wonderland's” success would draw upon their own library of titles, it's interesting that this was the second of the fairy tale adventures they chose. Walt Disney always wanted to adapt Baum's books as an animated feature but lost out on the film rights. (This interest would eventually culminate in “Return to Oz,” a future cult classic but then-flop.) With no Disney “Oz” to draw on, Raimi's film is obviously beholden to MGM's classic. Though legally forbidden from using any icongraphy unique to that film, such as the ruby slippers, Raimi still clearly calls upon its legacy. Appearances from a lion or scarecrows are meaningless unless you know where this is all headed.

But one way this film interacts with the 1939 one is kind of interesting. No doubt in an attempt to piggyback off the popularity of “Wicked,” “Oz the Great and Powerful” focuses extensively on the Wicked Witch of the West. Theodora has a somewhat tense relationship with her sister, Evanora. The older witch seems to boss the younger one around, often being annoyed with her more naive sensibilities. Of course, this is all foreshadowing for the obvious reveal that Evanora is actually the story's villain. This continues a theme of sibling rivalry that has floated through Raimi's work since at least “A Simple Plan.” Even more interesting is how Theo begins her march towards villainy. She is totally justified in her resentment towards the Wizard, as he clearly did emotionally manipulate her. (They have a romantic fireside dance, the PG version of a sex scene.) The film could've leaned more into this tragedy, how a good woman is turned into a green skinned villain to protect a wounded heart, but then Disney might as well have just made a “Wicked” movie.

As much as I want to hate “Oz the Great and Powerful” on principal, as another soulless corporate product from Disney and true proof of Sam Raimi selling out, it's not a bad movie. In fact, it's a perfectly serviceable popcorn muncher for the majority of its run time. The opening sequence, in another deliberate homage to the 1939 film, is shot in black-and-white. Raimi has a clear affection for the circus setting, the eccentrics on stage and the country bumpkins in the audience. The image is cramped into Academy ratio so that, when Oscar arrives in Oz and the screen opens up, it makes more of an impact. The gadgets Oz cooks up to help save the Emerald City, involving a home-made movie projector and smoke bombs, are similarly inventive and clever in a way that seems distinctly Raimi-esque.

The setting of Oz presents enough creative opportunities, enough neat ideas, to keep audiences hooked. Turning the flying monkeys in big, snarling baboons was a clever idea. Throughout his adventure, Oz journeys through a village made entirely of china, populated solely by sentient china dolls. There he meets one of several sidekicks he acquires throughout the film. The little china doll, voiced by a more-than-capable Joey King, is adorably spunky, especially during the cute scene where Oz asks her to leave. Zach Braff plays a flying monkey named Finley, acting as the conscious to the frequently amoral Oz. Munkins shows up eventually, as you'd expect, being introduced through a gleefully silly musical number. Tony Cox plays an especially grumpy munkin, which is right in the actor's wheelhouse. This stuff is all pretty fun, as is the inevitable cameo of Bruce Campbell as a winkie guard.

For all its likable elements, there's a primary reason why the audience finds Oz's redemptive arc so unbelievable. By the end of the film, Oz has gone from a con artist and a womanizer to a real wizard who has a genuine romance with Glinda the Good Witch. What makes this hard to swallow is that he's played by James Franco, real life manipulator and womanizer. Franco is exactly as smarmy in this part as you'd expect, wearing a shit-eating grin for roughly 70% of his screen time. Yeah, Franco is really well cast as a bullshit artist. He's even visibly having fun when playing tricks on his opponents. It's only when he's asked to behave like a normal human, who's in love and believes in things, that it start to feel funny. That's another weird side effect of the star/director of “Interior. Leather Bar” headlining a Disney movie.

Luckily, the rest of the supporting cast picks up the slack for Franco's weaknesses. Mila Kunis is inspired casting as Theodora, a beauty who projects a child-like naivety. Once she begins her transformation into the green-skinned Wicked Witch – she's not any less sexy even then, by the way – Kunis is equally good at displaying a fiery, feminine rage. Rachel Weisz is another solid choice as Evanora. Weisz has to act benevolent while projecting a sinister undertone, a challenge she's more than up too. Michelle Williams, an excellent actress, plays the Glinda the Good Witch. The part doesn't ask much more of her than to be a smiling, graceful angel. But, hey, Williams can obviously pull that off.

Disney pretty clearly expected “Oz” to launch a franchise. It ends with Oscar established as the Wizard of Oz, ready to go on further adventures. While the film ditches the “It was all a dream” ending of the thirties classic, it does create real world equivalents to most of the people we meet in Oz, suggesting some sort of connection. The film probably made enough to justify a sequel too, though it was far from a hit on the level of “Alice in Wonderland.” However, Raimi had zero interest in returning for a follow-up. And Disney has clearly focused on other endeavors, so it seems unlikely we'll ever return to this particular iteration of Oz. Unlikely to be remembered among Raimi's best films but far from terrible either, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a 200 million footnote that entertains without sticking in the brain. [Grade: B-]

It's been six years since Sam Raimi has directed a movie and I'm increasingly wondering if he has another one in him. Oh, Raimi has stayed busy as a producer, having a hand in creating successful horror flicks like "Don't Breath" or "Crawl." Yet he's gotten into the bad habit of being attached to projects that ultimately never come to fruition. Like epic fantasy adaptation "Kingkiller Chronicles," a remake of French crime drama "A Prophet," a tornado heist thriller called "Stormfront," or an adaptation of the novel "Love May Fall." More recently, he's been attached to a fun-sounding Bermuda Triangle movie with Ryan Reynolds and has even started talking about doing more "Evil Dead" stuff. (Though I'm doubtful he'd direct that, if anything comes of it.)

It's hard to say why Raimi is having such trouble returning to directing. Maybe he's gotten too big for his britches. Maybe he truly is focused on producing. Or maybe never getting to make his "Spider-Man 4" broke him. Either way, I suppose we'll probably see him back in the director's chair eventually but I also suspect his hiatus will last a while longer. Don't know why, just a feeling I have.

Thank you for reading this Director Report Card. I'll be throwing in a few more reviews for Raimi adjacent projects next, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (2009)

13. Drag Me to Hell

It happens almost every time. Whenever a cult/horror director breaks through into the mainstream, die hard fans quickly begin to wonder when he'll return to his original genre. People are still waiting for Peter Jackson to return to “Bad Taste” territory. Nerds hopelessly pined for David Cronenberg to get back to body horror. With Sam Raimi, fans wondered for years when he'd stopped messing around with highfalutin' thrillers and spider men and create more gory mayhem. Since I'm use to directors leaving their genre roots behind and never looking back, I was genuinely surprised when Raimi announced a return to horror in 2008. While “Drag Me to Hell” wasn't quite the “Evil Dead 4” we had been anticipating for years, it would become pretty damn beloved in its own right.

Christine Brown thinks she has her life in order. She’s rising through the ranks at her job as a bank loan officer. She has recently become engaged to boyfriend Clay, even if his rich snob parents don’t approve. That is when she denies a loan to Mrs. Ganush, an elderly Roma woman. In retaliation, Ganush violently attacks Christine and tears a button from her coat. She places a curse on the girl. For three days, she will be tormented by visions of Ganush and a demonic entity called Lamia. At the end of the three days, Lamia will personally drag Christine to Hell. Christine pursues increasingly desperate means to save herself.

Much like “The Evil Dead” pulling from a number of classic horror tropes, “Drag Me to Hell” sees Raimi combining his influences once more. The film is blatantly in the mold of EC Comics, of someone morally in the wrong getting their comeuppance, of increasingly ghastly ghouls and revenge from beyond the grave. Mrs. Ganush is a culmination of Raimi’s career-long obsession with creepy witch villains. The plot — a curse that’s passed via object, that climaxes with a demon appearing after several days — is obviously reminiscent of “Curse of the Demon.” The film is also an example of the “gypsy’s curse” premise, a totally racist concept that Raimi makes no attempt to subvert or criticize.

However, that aspect is softened a little if Mrs. Ganush’s vengeance is totally justified. Supposedly, Sam and Ivan Raimi first conceived of “Drag Me to Hell” ten years before it entered production, before Sam got distracted making “Spider-Man” movies. That’s surprising, considering this is a horror story perfectly suited to the subprime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s. Mrs. Ganush is asking for an extension on her loan because she’s about to loose the home she’s had most of her life. Christine, up for a promotion, puts her job above basic human decency. Though still sympathetic, Christine's selfish behavior is ultimately an extension of the same predatory banking behavior that screwed over countless normal people and destroyed the economy. So “Drag Me to Hell” emerges as another socially conscious horror film, taking the anxieties of the time it was made and turning it into a cathartic experience.

When the film was announced to have a PG-13 rating, I was skeptical. How would Sam Raimi make a true return to the genre without “Evil Dead”-style gore? The film found a novel solution by utilizing a number of other gross bodily fluids. Upon being introduced, Mrs. Ganush coughs up a brown loogie into a napkin. During a nightmare scene, she vomits worms and bugs into Christine's face. Splattered eyeballs and brains are later similarly splattered. Flies buzz in and out of her mouth. A gooey eyeball glares from a slice of cake. Ganush attempts to bite her with slimy gums. A regular nose bleed for Christine evolves into a geyser of blood, which is somehow nastier than the typical blood spray you expect from a Raimi film. If Raimi couldn't make a super bloody horror film, he seemed to determined to make the grossest horror film he could. The film successfully makes the audience gag several times.

I was also concerned that, after making the CGI-filled “Spider-Man” films, Raimi would load his return to horror with too much computer generated flashiness. “Drag Me to Hell” does feature its share of modern effects. Ganush appears as a hanky and tries to fly down her Christine's throat, as an example of the visual trickery on screen. However, Raimi smartly utilizes CGI to enhance the film's thrills, not distract from them. When the Lamia spirit first appears in Christine's house, we get some pretty cool shots of shadows stretching under doors and across rooms. As the effects get crazier, with bloody smoke pluming out of mouths or the ground opening up, the film reaches an atmosphere of exciting, fun house-style thrills were just about anything can happen.

“Drag Me to Hell” also features plenty of Raimi's trademark dynamic visual energy. The film seems to especially delight in launching things at the viewer. Mr. Ganush shoots a ruler out of her mouth before her dentures fly towards us in slow-motion. Frenzied editing makes this scene even more furious and intense. Sudden crash zooms on people's faces and various objects they are reaching for put in appearances. There's even a P.O.V. shot of an ominous force, as a gust of wind sneaks up behind Christine early on. More of that classic “Evil Dead” atmosphere appears thanks to the ominous sound design, further helping to create a creepy tone. While not as visceral or intense as the original “Evil Dead,” “Drag Me to Hell” certainly still feels like it belongs to Raimi.

Another thing that made “Drag Me to Hell” unexpected in 2009 is that horror/comedies were hardly mainstream at the time. The film was sold as a regular shock-heavy horror flick, akin to “The Grudge” movies Raimi produced. Yet “Drag Me to Hell” has its own delightfully wacky sense of humor. It starts early on. There's a deliberate ridiculousness to an old woman, even a witch-like one, tackling a younger person so viciously. Especially when she starts getting staples fired into her face. There is, admittedly, a feeling of cartoony ludicrousness to many of the attack scenes. Mrs. Ganush even has an anvil dropped on her head in one scene! During the climatic exorcist sequence, the film goes delightfully nuts. We have a demonically possessed goat rasping in a baa-ing voice, a demon gleefully dancing through the ear (which so much feels like something out of “Evil Dead 2”), and the phrase “Pork queen!” being used as an insult. It's so much fun.

And yet there does seem to be another meaning to the wacky, gruesome events that play out. Christine is trying to escape her past, hoping to become more sophisticated than the country bumpkin she grew up as. Most prominently, Christine was a fat kid. The demon seems to delight in reminding her of this embarrassing past she hopes to bury. Subsequently, most of the abuse seen throughout the film is delivered to the mouth. A number of objects are ejected from or into someone's throat. At one point, the ghost of Ganush shoves her entire arm down Christine's throat. Another important moment has Christine about to eat a slice of sugary, delicious cake before it becomes a monstrous, disgusting sight. Which raises an interesting question: Is “Drag Me to Hell” about eating disorders? Does Ganush and the Lamia become representations of a condition Christine feels shame over, something so secret the film doesn't even bring it up directly? While I have no idea if this was intentional – it doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the movie's idea – but too many of these choices seem deliberate for me not to wonder.

Originally, “Drag Me to Hell” was going to star Ellen Page which I would have, of course, absolutely loved. Instead, the part went to another movie star crush of mine, Alison Lohman.  Lohman has basically retired from acting now and it's clearly a loss. Lohman begins the film as a sunny, smiling figure, the ideal of a totally likable and relatable every-woman. However, as more crazy abuse is piled on her, she becomes an appealingly physical performer. Lohman gets tossed around, slammed into things, dangled upside down, splattered with any number of fluids, and buried up to her head in muddy water. Lohman is game throughout it all. As she takes the fight against the spirit, Lohman emerges as the totally unexpected heir to Bruce Campbell's quib-snipping, survivor bad-ass character type. Even if Christine is in the wrong morally, you definitely want to see her fight and survive.

Despite that, a movie entitled “Drag Me to Hell” does create certain expectations in its viewer. It's an awesome title, a ballsy in-your-face exploitation movie title that came during a time when the horror genre seemed ashamed to do something like that. (You can easily imagine the movie being entitled “Accursed” or “Damned” or something boring like that.) Raimi clearly understands this as well. Christine seems to triumph over her demonic persecution, seemingly reversing the curse and defeating Ganush and Lamia... Before an ironic twist shows a simple mistake undid her plan. In the film's final minutes, she does indeed get dragged down to Hell. It might've come off as mean-spirited if the film hadn't so perfectly captured that EC Comics feeling, were cosmic justice must be dealt out. And also because, if you call your movie “Drag Me to Hell,” you better damn well see someone dragged to hell.

Supporting Lohman throughout the film is a similarly solid supporting cast. Justin Long plays her boyfriend in a way that is so subtly good, I wonder if he did it on purpose. See, in modern terms, we'd probably call Clay a “fuckboy.” He's super smug and overly invested in his own intelligence. More than once, he dismisses his girlfriend's concerns in a rather callous way, coming awfully close to gaslighting her. This is so on-type for the roles Long normally plays that I wonder if it was an intentional subversion or not. Lorna Raver leaps into the role of Mrs. Ganush with a full-hearted ferocity, snarling, spitting, and acting out with every ounce of her being. She's the perfect performer for this kind of part. Dileep Rao and Adriana Barraza, as the mystics that attempt to help Christine, are also well cast, both adding a layer of respectable importance to their roles.

For a long time, when it seems like we were never going to get more “Evil Dead” content, I was more than happy to declare “Drag Me to Hell” as the spiritual fourth entry in the series. It's another story of a protagonist that keeps fighting and refuses to give up, going against an escalating series of outrageous supernatural threats, ending with the hero tossed into an even worst situation than the one they just got out of. There's action, comedy, and impressive gross-out horror sequences. It's not quite the same thing but it definitely scratches a similar itch. More than any of that, the film proved Raimi could still make an amusingly wild horror picture that makes you both shiver and laugh even after directing massive blockbusters. [Grade: B+]