Evil Dead

April 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci
Directed by: Fede Alvarez (debut)
Written by: Fede Alvarez (debut)

If you walk out of the remake of “Evil Dead” and actual think Sam Raimi’s original film was better, there is a cult-classic bias in you that can never be exorcised. Simply put: Raimi’s “Evil Dead” is so 1981. First-time feature director Fede Alvarez’s take is fresh and fiendishly entertaining.

Okay, we jest…to a point. Raimi’s original film, of course, will forever be considered a cult favorite by fans of the horror genre and deservingly so. The campy feel of it – even more today – is ridiculously amusing. But Alvarez, who has never made a feature-length film before in his life, takes Raimi’s framework and builds something even more gruesome and throws in a nastier streak that would never have made it past the censors 30 years ago. If you liked the sometimes unintentional humor of the first one, there’s not much of that in its successor. There’s no room for laughter, anyway, when so much blood is spewing all over.

That’s not to say graphic horror remakes these days have an impressive track record when it comes to impaling body parts in excess. Things like “Black Christmas” in 2006, “My Blood Valentine” in 2009, and Rob Zombie’s version of the “Halloween” franchise are a very small handful of horror movies that didn’t get it right. Despite it not being very scary at all, Alvarez’s “Evil Dead,” however, gets fewer things wrong and has a blast doing it.

Like the 1981 movie, the reincarnated “Evil Dead” follows a group of young friends into the wood where they shack up in a remote cabin. Instead of camping, however, the characters in the new flick are having a rehab session for Mia (Jane Levy), a friend who has decided she wants to kick her drug habit cold turkey. But when her friends run across a barbwire-bounded Book of the Dead in the cellar, left over from some satanic ritual, Mia and her cohorts, including her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and their friends Eric (Lou Tatylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), have a lot more to worry about than Mia’s manic withdrawals. She’s not vomiting blood because she needs a fix. She’s got a demon inside her.

Relying more on good old-fashioned special effects than those of the CGI brand, the new “Evil Dead” never feels fake (although a creepy female victim from the book’s past shows up in the first half and almost ruins it). With Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell, who we all know as Ash in the franchise, on board as producers, the re-visioning of “Evil Dead” is about as much fun as watching someone get shot in the face with a nail gun. Gauge your threshold for gore on your reaction to that last sentence and you should know whether or not you have the stomach for it.

“Evil Dead” was screened at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

Oz the Great and Powerful

March 8, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Sam Raimi (the “Spider-Man” trilogy)
Written by: Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rise of the Guardians”)

There aren’t many movies that your grandparents could have enjoyed as small children that are still capable of entertaining audiences today, but the 1939 MGM classic “The Wizard of Oz” defies convention and remains enjoyable 74 years later. Despite displaying very little of the grammar present in modern filmmaking (like cutaways and performances that aren’t constantly projected toward the back of the theater), “The Wizard of Oz” endures. It’s curious, to say the least, that the last three-quarters of a century has failed to deliver another universally-acclaimed film set in L. Frank Baum’s enchanted Land of Oz. Yeah, sure, there was “The Wiz” and “Return to Oz,” but those remain cult hits at best. Why hasn’t some studio stepped up, eager to craft a modern classic that would also earn them enough cash to build an actual Emerald City?

Twenty-eight years after their aforementioned “Return to Oz” flopped, Disney, um, returns to Oz with the prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful.” James Franco stars as carnival magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a low-rent huckster working a sideshow in the dusty Kansas countryside. With the help of his put-upon hype man (Zach Braff), Oz fools the yokels with his sleight of hand and charms the ladies with a never-ending supply of his grandmother’s one-of-a-kind antique jewelry boxes. When one of his romantic encounters comes back to bite him, Oz books it for a hot air balloon. One tornado later, however, and Oz finds himself in Oz. Stumbling out of his wrecked balloon, Oz meets the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him of a prophecy wherein a wizard named Oz will defeat the Wicked Witch. Who is the Wicked Witch, you ask? Is it naive, love struck Theodora? Her conniving sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz)? Or their rival, glittery, good-hearted Glinda (Michelle Williams)?

Of course it’s not Glinda. I mean we’ve all seen “The Wizard of Oz,” right? Anyway.

Try as he might, director Sam Raimi can’t overcome two big problems that bog “Oz” down. First, the screenplay, credited to Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, creaks and lumbers under the weight of too much exposition and almost-certain corporate interference. It too-often lazily mirrors the plot structure of the 1939 classic. Second, and most disappointing, is that Franco is completely wrong for the part. The movie needed a natural flim flam man – someone with smarmy charisma to spare; someone like Robert Downey Jr., who was originally cast and dropped out. Franco can be a great actor, but when he’s called upon to laugh heartily like a vaudevillian rascal and shout “prestidigitation!”  he sounds more like a high school drama student getting ready to tie a classmate to cardboard railroad tracks while he twirls his mustache. “Oz” is far from a total blunder, though, and a handful of bright spots stand out. Williams’ warm and radiant Glinda, the magnificent and fragile living doll China Girl (voiced by Joey King), and the whiz-bang climax all point toward the rousing adventure the bloated script and James Franco are keeping hidden behind the curtain.

Drag Me to Hell

May 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver
Directed by: Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”)
Written by: Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead”) and Ivan Raimi (“Army of Darkness”)

Director Sam Raimi returns to his horror roots in entertaining fashion with “Drag Me to Hell,” a creepy, campy, and richly-stylized blood offering from the man who grossed us all out with his “Evil Dead” films of the 80s and 90s.

After sinking his teeth into the blockbuster trilogy “Spider-Man” for five years, Raimi proves he still has a grip on fiendish humor and doesn’t even need actor Bruce Campbell to make it work. In the bluntly-titled “Drag Me to Hell,” Raimi and screenwriting partner/brother Ivan give us a story about cursed souls and the demons who await their arrival into the underworld.

The film stars Alison Lohman as Christine Brown, a self-conscious loan officer who has her hopes set on a promotion at her bank. While she one of the two leading candidates for the position, her boss makes it clear that he wants her to take initiative and make more bold decisions for the benefit of the company.

Christine gets her chance to impress her supervisor when Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an old, unsightly Gypsy woman with brittle fingernails and ghastly rotted teeth, walks into the bank to ask for a third extension on her mortgage. When Christine denies her insistent requests, the old woman casts an evil spell on the young loan officer and seals her fate for a fiery death.

Now hexed with the spirit of the Lamia, a violent and devilish creature who stalks her every move, Christine and her skeptic boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), attempt to find a way to rid her of the entity before her three-day window shuts and she is dragged into the pits of hell forever.

While the story is fairly basic and becomes entirely too predictable, Raimi shows audiences that horror films built on traditional ideas and scare tactics are just as effective as any computer-generated fluff most American horror uses as a crutch today. This is what was specifically great about films like the “Evil Dead” series. Grotesque makeup, stop-motion techniques, and other rare treats in the genre that aren’t used nearly enough are showcased sparingly in “Drag Me to Hell.” It’s when Raimi allows other influences to manipulate his aesthetic when the movie gets the messiest. It’s doesn’t happen too often here. Horror fans of all ages (because of the PG-13 rating) will end up going on a trippy and repulsive ride.