Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Michael Bay's Surprising and Darkly Funny Return to the 90s

Directed by Michael Bay, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, starring Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson, Ed Harris, and Tony Shalhoub - Rated R

This is a comedy the Kurgan would like, which says all kinds of messed up things about me...
It’s been a long time since director Michael Bay made a film that didn’t involve giant fighting robots, and it’s about time. Nothing against the Transformers movies, but I’ve always felt that Bay could’ve stopped after the first film and just produced the next few. Instead Bay stayed on for the whole trilogy, and he’s even starting up a new Transformers movie for his next directing job. So Pain & Gain, unfortunately, is only a pit stop for Bay between robot movies.

I say “unfortunately” because Pain & Gain is an entertaining and interesting film from a director who had become quite predictable over the years, and it would be nice if this became the norm for Bay. The film, based on one of those true stories that prove reality is indeed stranger than fiction, is dark comedy at its best: disturbing.

Reviewing a comedy is tricky, and I’ve actually come to the point that I will not even review most comedies because it’s all about the viewer’s sense of humor. But Pain & Gain is more than just a comedy. The true story angle sets it apart.

Pain & Gain is based on the series of articles of the same name written by Miami Times reporter Pete Collins. Of course, true stories get changed as characters are merged, dates change, and events are altered. But screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely stay surprisingly faithful to the basic outline of the events. If you’re a stickler for the details, just read the articles online; it’s a fascinating read and, at times, even crazier than the movie’s version of events.

The too crazy to believe true story is a very dark, twisted series of events. (Stop reading now if you don’t want the story slightly spoiled.) In the mid-90s a personal trainer/scam artist named Daniel Lugo, along with assorted friends and acquaintances, kidnapped a local Miami businessman and forced him to sign over all of his wealth. Emboldened by this first “success” the group tries again with disastrous results. That doesn’t sound all that crazy until you come across the finer points in the story. Some of the actions of the people involved defy belief. Police officers ignore blatant evidence of the kidnapping, a man survives being blown up and ran over, body parts are barbecued out in the open, etc. And that’s all stuff that actually happened. Toss in some movie-only craziness involving a sex toy warehouse, cocaine, and a severed toe and you’re in for some wacky moments.

That could be a problem for some viewers. Not only is this a grisly story, but it’s also told for laughs. Actual people died. When you keep that in mind, it’s hard to laugh. Maybe I’m a terrible person, but I found Pain & Gain quite funny, even more so as things got dark and twisted in the end. As a dark comedy, this film is a success…for people with my sense of humor, anyway. That said, dark comedies are extremely hit and miss depending on the viewer, so I can understand why some people might hate it.

It might also rub people the wrong way because Daniel Lugo, played by Mark Wahlberg, is treated almost like the hero of the film. He’s a guy who just wants the American dream, which, to him, means being buff and rich. He has the buff part down, but the rich part is something he has to take. I did have issues with this guy being treated as the protagonist at first. Then I remembered Scarface and many other gangster films in which the audience is kind of expected to root for the “bad guy.” It’s just that this bad guy is based on a real terrible person. The American dream aspect of the movie makes up for that, however. Scarface spawned an entire subculture that glorifies a twisted idea of the American dream. To be fair, that’s not the point of Scarface, but many fans of that film have failed to notice. With Pain & Gain, there is no mistaking that Daniel Lugo is an idiot and someone to be ridiculed. He is a sociopath whose actions make clear that the American dream can be quite dangerous if interpreted a certain way. Will everyone walk away from the film with that message? No, but I doubt that you’ll hear people quoting Lugo as often as people quote Tony Montana.

Daniel Lugo may not go down as one of cinema’s great antiheros, but that doesn’t mean Wahlberg does a bad job. He’s perfect for the role of a muscle-bound optimist. He carries the film with ease, but his cohorts provide the most fun. Anthony Mackie cracked me up constantly with his fast rants about getting buff. And Dwayne Johnson was the best part of the film because of his meltdown in the second half. He seems to be in a completely different movie than the rest of the cast the last hour, and it’s hilarious. The rest of the cast is superb, as well, with Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Rob Corddry, and Rebel Wilson making appearances. Even Ken Jeong, who I find nearly unbearable these days, had me laughing as an obnoxious self-help guru.

Add Michael Bay’s direction to these proceedings and you’re left with the most surprisingly enjoyable film of the year thus far. Bay could’ve destroyed this movie easily if he had turned it into an action fest, but he didn’t. Instead, he basically made his version of Tony Scott’s Domino. The similarities between the two films are hard to ignore. Both are based on unbelievable true stories in the mid-90s and are helmed by directors who often let style get in the way of substance. Bay has made the better film because Pain & Gain takes the more comedic tone. Domino attempted to be relatively serious, and it was all too crazy to care that much about. Pain & Gain has a story that could be taken very seriously, but it would be very hard not to laugh at some of the true moments. Thankfully, Bay and company embraced that. Does he still whip the camera around too often and employ too much slow-mo? Yeah, but trust me, the action and plot are much easier to follow in this film than in his previous Transformers work.

Despite my eventual enjoyment, I was on the fence about Pain & Gain the first hour or so. There were far too many characters with voice-over. The anachronistic bits, like the Taco Bell box, a wireless videogame controller, etc. took me out of it. It just seemed to be a mess of a film. Somehow in that last hour it all made sense. It’s still a mess of a film, but the characters are train-wrecks, so how could the plot not get messy? The true story is convoluted, so why wouldn’t the movie be as well? The messiness of it is what got me laughing consistently by the end of the film. It was equal parts hilarity and befuddlement. That’s entertainment to me. Just try not to dwell on the fact that most of the stuff in this movie actually happened.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
While I am quite tired of Bay's now obligatory camera-doing-a-360-through-two-rooms gimmick, I laughed a lot at the absurdity of the two vastly different actions taking place.  On one side, Marky Mark is killing a guy.  On the other, The Rock is putting on a push-up display while C&C Music Factory blares. 
Speaking of The Rock, shouldn't he have been limping a bit more since he was missing a toe?  Or is coke that powerful?  Or is it simply that The Rock is that powerful?
The anachronisms bothered me, but I still dug some of the 90s elements of the movie.  The car phones, the above-mentioned music, etc.  Although, for the most part, this film felt like it took place in present day. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Michael Bay Should've Stayed in the 90s

"Look upon my works, ye Mighty..."
Allow me to confess first and foremost that I honestly enjoy nearly all of Michael Bay's films to one degree or another, but this is not going to be a rundown of his entire filmography, nor is it going to be a pre-review of Pain & Gain.  It's just that when I first found out that his new film would be set in the 90s, it clicked with me as something that made sense for Bay now that he's taking a break from the giant robots.

The 1990s belonged to directors like Michael Bay.  Sure, there's an article making the rounds about him apologizing for Armageddon (of course, that article is misleading in that Bay is really just saying that the film was rushed and could've been more fine-tuned), but Bay really knew what he was doing during that decade.  Looking back, I realize that I miss (most) of Bay's pre-Transformers films.  I'm just not sure what happened to change things.  Is it the modern audience?  Is it because of the center stage terrorism has taken since films like The Rock?  Is it just that Bay has always been a weak director, and it took a few movies to realize it?  Is it simply the internet's fault?  Whatever it is, it appears that Bay has realized that the 90s were a better a time for him as his latest film, Pain & Gain, takes place during that decade and appears to be more in the vein of a film like Bad Boys than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

If Bay is trying to capture the feeling of the 90s again, then I hope he succeeds.  As a child of the 90s, I am very nostalgic for films like The Rock and Bad Boys that seem to have this 90s-vibe.  That feeling that things were great and would only get better.  Of course, this could just be the feeling I attribute to the 90s because it was the time of my youth when anything was still possible.  Either way, films by guys like Michael Bay always make me reminisce about better, simpler times.  This was the time when the action movie had reached it's apex of fun.  Today, action movies have to be either completely serious, or over-the-top goofy (The Expendables series attempts to recapture this essence, but really just ends up beign another modern serious action movie with random moments of humor tossed in).  Movies like Bad Boys could feature serious action along with ridiculous banter between the stars, and it somehow made sense.  The 90s action movies were great because there was no nitpicking.  They were just good, innocent fun. 

I suppose every generation can say the same thing about their youthful decade, but the 90s deserves attention now because so few films have tried to capture that essence.  Look at the plethora of 70s and 80s movies that have come out (and are still coming out).  What 90s films are there?  Domino?  That hardly counts because even though Tony Scott was a 90s director, that film definitely did not feel like a 90s movie.  I suppose Alpha Dog was slightly successful in that regard.  And Lord of War had some segments that got it right.  But aside from that, not many films have even attempted to be a "90s movie."  Perhaps that's a good thing.  Does anyone really want to see their beloved decade given the stereotype treatment that the 70s and 80s have received? 

More to the point, can Michael Bay recapture that spirit with his new movie?  I hope so.  Movies like Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon will always trigger certain memories in me.  Are they great films that hold up well?  Not really.  I don't even own any of them (and I buy almost anything I even slightly like).  But there's still something I love about them.  Criterion apparently has the same nostalgia problem that I have, as they have, believe it or not, released versions of Armageddon and The Rock.  Yup, Michael Bay has two films in the Criterion collection.  Although I have noticed that they haven't upgraded them to blu ray yet.  Maybe they're embarrassed by what they liked in the 90s, I know I am sometimes (hey, Ace of Base, what's up?).

But all good things must end.  Bay's first film of the new millennium was Pearl Harbor, but I that film doesn't matter all that much as far as I'm concerned.  First, I didn't care for it (it is my least favorite of his movies) because I found it to be a sugar coated, bland version of history.  Second, it's a period piece, and Bay is not meant to direct a film set that far in the past.  This minor misstep was confirmed as just that when Bad Boys II came out. 

"Hey guys, I'm going to ride this thing right
back to the 90s!  Anyone want me to pick
them up a Zima?"
The 90s truly ended for me with 9/11, but they ended much later for Michael Bay.  Bad Boys II, released in 2003, is essentially a 90s movie.  It's a fun buddy cop movie with over-the-top action.  Martin Lawrence and Will Smith exchange jokes during shootouts almost non-stop.  It actually gets awkward at times because the banter goes on too long, which is kind of the joke.  But it seems natural, even in a post-9/11 movie world.  In fact, 9/11 does get mentioned in the film, but only as the reason why the cops have updated technology.  Aside from that mention, the tone of this filmis decidedly 90s.  I enjoyed this film immensely, although it helped usher in two issues I have with action films now: it was twenty minutes too long and it felt the need to send the protagonists to Latin America, which seems to happen in at least one action movie each year now (nothing against Latin America, but having the bad guy's fortress there in so many action movies is getting old).  

The 90s continued for Michael Bay as he made The Island. This was Bay's first borderline bomb (it ended up making more than its budget with worldwide box office included).  This sci-fi film wasn't marketed all that well, wasn't based on any toy-line or easily identifiable high concept (like blowing up an asteroid), and it featured two stars who weren't (and still aren't) capable of carrying a big summer movie on their own.  It's still a very decent and fun movie if you give it a chance.  And even though it takes place in the future, it still feels like the 90s.

Then the Transformers showed up.  I have actually enjoyed all of the Transformers movies, though I had grown very tired of them by the third film (the first is still by far my favorite).  Bay has still not lost his 90s sensibilities, it's just that this series downplayed them to near nonexistence.  Bay's previous films focused on the characters.  Sure, they weren't terribly realistic, but they were usually likable and funny, at least.  When the robots showed up and started destroying everything in sight, the humans took a backseat.  And why shouldn't they?  Aren't the most pointless parts of that trilogy the moments when the group of soldiers run around with their guns thinking they can actually do something?  So why give any traits to the characters.  I honestly think Optimus Prime is a more fleshed out character than Sam Witwicky, the guy whose only character trait is to run around and complain about getting/keeping/losing his mannequin girlfriend.  Stuff blows up all nice and pretty in those films, but I want to see some likable funny humans again.

So the 90s ended for Michael Bay with the release of The Island.  His filmmaking style hadn't changed all that much, but the response to his films had.  These films all make money, so the audience is still there, it's just that they have become more and more vocally negative towards them.  This is a combination of the internet and changing values in cinema.  If someone hate The Rock back in the 90s, you only knew about it from talking to them personally.  If someone hates Transformers: Dark of the Moon, you can find a few thousand negative comments/reviews in a matter of seconds.  It has become fashionable to hate Michael Bay (which must mean that soon, if not already, it will become fashionable to like him again). 

Despite the new hatred and technology, Bay has been making essentially the same films, just with a focus on giant toy robots.  That series truly ended the 90s for Bay.  So yeah, Transformers was the 9/11 of Bay's career, but only in the sense that it ended the 90s for him. 

"Hey Mike, I'm real excited about doing another Bad Boys, but I am not physically capable of
morphing into a semi.  What are you talking about?  Jerry, will you please rein him in?"
I think Bay has finally realized this, at least for a moment.  He did make Pain & Gain, which certainly seems to be a much more grounded film.  I'm sure it contains some ridiculous elements, but I imagine they are more along the lines of Bad Boys than Transformers.  I am extremely excited for this movie.  I honestly think it's going to be the first true Michael Bay movie since Bad Boys II.  I still think the guy is capable of a good 90s movie.  I don't necessarily mind the new Bay with his robots, but I want to feel some nostalgia when I watch his movies. 

Maybe I'm giving Bay too much credit for what his films are like, though.  This article could also be called "Bring Back Bruckheimer!"  Producer Jerry Bruckheimer was along for most of Bay's better movies.  Alas, he is not involved with Pain & Gain, so that one's looking a little less interesting.  Here's hoping that rumored third Bad Boys movie actually happens.

Unfortunately, Pain & Gain is going to be the only taste of 90s I get from Bay for some time.  He's already going to back to Transformers for his next movie.  Who knows, maybe some time spent back in the 90s will revive him a bit, and we'll get the best Transformers yet.  Or maybe it's like reality, and the 90s are gone for good.  If that's so, I guess I can always buy the Criterion copies of a couple "classic" Michael Bay movies.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

It's Not a Remake. It's Not a Sequel. It's "Oblivion."

Oblivion - Directed Joseph Kosinski, written by Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt, starring Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Melissa Leo - Rated PG-13

There's no real sci-fi connection to be made with Chigurh, but he is kind of like a human version of a drone, isn't he?

Don't be fooled by that gun. He doesn't use it much.

Oblivion is a rarity among big sci-fi films. It isn’t a sequel, prequel, remake, reboot, or anything like that. Technically, it is an adaptation of a graphic novel, but it’s really just an adaptation of an idea that has yet to be used in a graphic novel. Oblivion is an original sci-fi film that doesn’t appear to be an attempt at starting a franchise. That fact alone gives it an edge.

A film doesn’t deserve a pass simply for not being a franchise, however. In this case, it is the icing on the cake of an interesting story filled with great visuals. It isn’t ground-breaking, but if you allow it, Oblivion can sink its hooks into you for the full two hours.

I’m told by some of my students (for those who don’t know, I am a high school English teacher) that I am wrong in liking Oblivion. A few of them walked out of the film because “it was so boring.” After chiding them for judging a movie they gave up on, I told them that the mystery of the film was interesting. Sure, there was a surprising lack of action, but good sci-fi doesn’t have to be all lasers and explosions. To be fair, Oblivion does feature some action, including one very impressive scene in which the camera follows a drone on an attack run, but it is certainly not an action movie. The best sci-fi has always found a balance between action and story. People will see Tom Cruise and expect that balance to tip more into the action territory than the story, but that’s not what happens.

Oblivion is more concerned with the world of the film and the mystery of it. I’ve been intentionally short about the plot thus far because the filmmakers have wanted to keep it as secretive as possible. I can’t rightly continue a review without giving a bit more of a synopsis, however. So if you want to watch this movie as fresh as possible, stop reading now. For those continuing to read, I won’t necessarily spoil the film for you, but I will be giving some specific plot details. Consider yourselves warned.

The mystery of the film is what kept me completely invested in it. Cruise plays Jack Harper, a maintenance man with a wiped memory who, along with his wife(?)/co-worker, fixes drones on a decimated planet Earth. Earth had been mostly destroyed years ago during an alien attack and the bulk of humanity now lives on Titan, the largest moon of Jupiter. The humans won the battle, but “lost the planet.” Now, a triangular mothership called the Tet has been left in Earth’s orbit, controlling the drones that protect the giant machines that salvage the rest of the planet’s power. The aliens were defeated, but there are some stragglers left, and it’s up to Harper to keep the drones working so the mission can succeed. As the movie begins, Harper and his partner have two weeks to go before they get to retire to Titan with the rest of humanity.

Oblivion is not, of course, a movie about maintenance only. Harper keeps having these dreams of a regular Earth, and he seems to have a fondness for memorabilia of the planet before the attack. As you can imagine, this leads to some problems and a few shocking discoveries. I’ll leave it at that, but if you’ve seen the previews, you know there’s more to this story than just Tom Cruise and his girlfriend eating future food and fixing killbots.

Since we don’t get to actually see this war that Cruise tells us about, we’re left to imagine how it all happened. More importantly, it allows us to be suspect of the claims he makes and wonder if there’s something he doesn’t know about. Trying to piece together the mystery of Oblivion is the most rewarding part of the film. Although it also leads to a weak point in the film in that a lot of story has to be told rather than shown, which can lead to a bit of confusion. I felt like I was paying close attention to the film, yet when I left there were still a few question marks. Oblivion might be one of those films that really benefits from repeat viewings.

Because of the use of drones, and since this is sci-fi, one can’t help but start applying current events to this film and trying to shoehorn some kind of allegory out of it. I won’t get into any theories here, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to posit an idea or two about what this movie might be saying about the use of unmanned drones and where that might take us as a society. That might politicize the movie a bit too much for some, but I’ve always felt that good sci-fi should at least attempt to hold a mirror up to society.

Is this what you want, America?!  Is it?!

If a mysterious setup doesn’t do it for you, then perhaps the visuals of Oblivion will. The ruins of Earth are interesting, but we’ve seen it all before. It’s the futuristic home and weapons that set this film apart. First, the house is something right out of director Joseph Kosinski’s other film, TRON: Legacy. That’s a compliment, by the way, because the house looks very cool in this film. Just wait until you see the pool. The weapons steal the show, though. Actually, it’s just the drones. They are photo-realistic and come across as truly dangerous creations.

The look of the drones and the film in general is impressive, but sound plays just as much of a factor. Once again, much like TRON, Kosinski uses sound extremely effectively. The drones have a distinct sound that adds to their menace. The music factors in a bit, too. The score by M83 was fitting, though nowhere close as a perfect match as Daft Punk was for TRON. Regardless, Kosinski is a director to pay attention to as he obviously has a distinct style and a love for sci-fi.

That love for sci-fi might lead people feeling a bit more negative towards this film. It’s impossible to watch this and not be reminded of other, arguably, better films. Of course you’ll be reminded of any post-apocalyptic films, but there are also elements of (possible SPOILERS) Moon and The Matrix. I was certainly making active comparisons to those films as I watched, but it didn’t leave me feeling negatively about Oblivion. Besides, how can you really call something a rip-off when literally everything that has been released in the past few decades has at least been influenced by other work? Anyway, Oblivion might seem a little familiar, but it’s still visually and intellectually stimulating. Plus, it features Tom Cruise being, well, Tom Cruise. And if you’re a fan of that, which I am, then you’ll come away pleased with this one. And if you don’t like it, at least take comfort in the fact that there (probably) won’t be any sequels or prequels.

Random Thought (SPOILERS)

Did I hear Morgan Freeman's character correctly?  About an army of Tom Cruises?  How awesome would that be?  I know I said I was cool with this film being light on the action, but can you imagine what that film would be like?  Okay, screw it.  I want a prequel.  Oblivion: Invasion of the Toms.

Can you imagine an army of these smirking psychos descending upon you?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

You're Hating It Wrong. An "Evil Dead" Review/Defense

*Disclaimer: There will be SPOILERS for the Evil Dead series in this review.  Also, I refer to a "young" audience quite often.  I only use the word "young" because "people who watched the movie but had not seen any of the original films before they watched the remake" is a pain to type over and over again.  I watched the original three films while I was a high school student, so I know that young people can and sometimes do have good taste in movies.

The Evil Kurgan would've had no problems at all in the cabin.

Remakes can be a tough pill for a movie fan to swallow. I take issue with several remakes/reboots/reimaginings for being “pointless.” Last year, I was particularly unimpressed with the new Spider-Man movie. I just didn’t think it offered anything new, and it was too similar to the recent films to justify its existence. Sam Raimi directed the first Spider-Man film, and he also directed The Evil Dead, which has just been remade as simply Evil Dead. This time, I think the remake (which is what I’ll call it for lack of a better word) is justified.

No it isn't, but I still liked it.
I’m a big fan of the Evil Dead series. The over-the-top gore coupled with comedic elements, not to mention a terrific Bruce Campbell, really work for me. A remake of the ultra low budget first film could have been a disaster (and some will tell you that it, in fact, is). The first sign that it was going to be okay was the fact that there is not an Ash character. No one is attempting, nor should they, to be the next Bruce Campbell. On top of that, both Raimi and Campbell have been very vocal about their approval of the film, which is very rare in the remake world (Raimi initially claimed he would not watch the new Spider-Man film at all). Armed with that knowledge and a love of the original films, I went into Evil Dead with an open mind, and I was pleased with the results. I might be in the minority on this, however.

I watched Evil Dead in a packed theatre on opening night. It was the single most annoying film-going experience of my life, but I still liked the movie. It was the audience that bothered me. They were all obnoxious, loud, and idiotic. I wondered why these people were even interested in the movie. I noticed a few people who were obviously fans of the series (we have a certain look…), but by and large this was an audience used to the crappy, banal horror films that get churned out each year. This was a product of the marketing for the film. Billed as “The most terrifying film you will ever experience,” Evil Dead was almost certain to disappoint most general audience members. First, it’s not that scary. Second, it’s an Evil Dead movie, and this series is not meant to be taken completely serious.


Evil Dead is one of those rare remakes that is meant for the fans. This film didn’t come across as a movie that was trying to introduce Evil Dead to a new generation. In fact, there is a possibility that this is not a remake at all, because Raimi and Campbell have mentioned possible plans for a crossover film linking this new series to the old one. Younger audiences most likely will not have seen the original, so any connections will be lost on them. And if they are told to expect a terrifying film, then when confronted with the idiotic, and hilarious, decisions by the characters in the film, they will dismiss the film as “stupid.” As a teacher, I get to talk about new movies with students. Only a handful have seen the film, and the most favorable comment was, “It was okay,” and the least favorable comments consisted of words like “horrible,” “stupid,” and “terrible.” They did not get to see the movie they were promised.

The young audience, to their credit, dislike the movie for logical reasons.  They found character actions extremely idiotic.  They are the type to scream, "You idiot!  She's still a demon! Kill her!" and "Why are you going back into the cellar, you moron!"  These are horror fans who are sick of seeing characters act stupidly as they try to avoid death.  They know that what these characters are doing is not realistic.  This audience also does not care for unrealistic survivors.  When a person is stabbed or, say, shot multiple times with a nail gun, (or both) they think that person should die or at least become ineffective for the rest of the film.  Or when a character comes across a book bound in human skin filled with demonic illustrations and cryptic warnings, they expect that character to know that reading from the book will only cause problems.  I agree with all of these issues as a member of a modern movie-going public.  I would consider these weaknesses as well...if this were anything but an Evil Dead movie.  You see, this stuff is simply what happens in this series.  The filmmakers know it's crazy and ridiculous.  The fans know it, too, which is why we enjoy it so much. 
Hopefully some of these young fans will look past the deceptive marketing and come to love the film for what it is, and not condemn it for what it wasn't.  But I don't have a problem with the people who hate this movie for not scaring them.  In fact, that vocal portion of the audience who hated the film probably make up a lion's share of the gross thus far.  So the movie wasn't necessarily made with them in mind, but their money will serve the interests of the fans and a sequel can be ordered.  That movie will hopefully please the franchise fans even more.
In my opinion, fans of the series get the movie they want to see. Despite that, at my screening I heard a fan angrily say that the remake “only had three things in common with the original.” And fans abound on the internet are freaking out, as well (but don’t they always?). As for the guy at my screening, I didn’t ask him to elaborate because his complaint made no sense to me. How can a fan of the original be upset that a remake wasn’t a carbon copy of the original?  Did this type of fan want to see someone do a Bruce Campbell impression?  What would be the point of that?  Remakes are usually hated because they lack originality.  Evil Dead is certainly not original (but it's not like demonic possession was some new found concept when the original came out, either), but it is at least a different take on a similar story.  If you want to see The Evil Dead, just watch it again.  Plus, the original film was a bit of a remake of an earlier Sam Raimi movie called Within the Woods.  Double plus, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn essentially remakes the first film during the opening minutes.  The point is that we've seen Ash and his battles at the cabin; we don't need them recreated shot for shot. 

I am not criticizing any fan for disliking Evil Dead.  I will never be one of those people who claim complete strangers are not "true" fans of something just because they didn't love an entry in the series.  I only take issue with those who wanted a complete copy of the original. 

Most complaints I've seen around the movie sites consists of stuff about too many jump scares, plot holes, bad acting, weak character development, etc.  I don't want to recreate the same arguments that can be found on IMDb's message boards or the Slashfilm comment section, but I will side with the people who argue that these issues are all abound in the original.  Some argue that a remake should fix these problems, not just copy them.  Yeah, but these are the qualities that I do want a remake to copy because it adds to the feel of an Evil Dead movie.  Still, some fans hate this movie.  Fine.  You're not wrong.  You hated it, I enjoyed it. 

All of that said, I do have issues with the movie.  I didn't care for the back story opening because it led to too many unanswered questions.  Such as, if the brother and sister spent so much time there as children, why didn't they notice there was a cellar?  And how exactly did they keep the entire cabin from burning down after they set the demon on fire?  What happened to the strange, mutant hillbilly folk?  I'm sure there are explanations implied or something, but I hope there's more of an answer in a sequel.  It rubbed me the wrong way because the original series tended to explain things blatantly to the audience (not that we're idiots, we just want a straight forward funny demon-fighting movie).  I also did not care for how much the music was used to create mood.  I remember the lengthy silent moments of the original and they are much creepier than anything featuring standard "scary movie" music.  Hmm...what else?  I'm still not sure if I like that they included the chainsaw and had Mia lose her hand.  It felt a little too much like fan service to me, when the gore, the cabin, and the book were all I needed.  Though it was nice to see the car behind the cabin...but shouldn't that car be in the 1300s?  Finally, the addiction subplot bothered me because it seems like you could take this whole film as a metaphor for battling addiction.  One could argue that by the end of the film, none of that stuff actually happened, it was just how her withdrawal-induced mind perceived it.  Nothing against the use of metaphors, but I never considered Evil Dead to be a series that even allows theories to be applied to it.  It doesn't help that battling addiction is often referred to as fighting one's demons.  Thankfully, I haven't seen anyone try to posit that theory (crap, maybe I shouldn't have even mentioned it...), but that it even occurred to me is a little annoying. 
Yeah, this is an Evil Dead movie.

More importantly than all of that, I loved the majority of this movie.  Blood spraying all over the place, demon puke in faces, severed limbs, a chainsaw to the face...it was fantastic.  I found the atmosphere of the film to be sufficiently creepy, but it's just impossible for them to recreate the cheap, and kind of realistic, tone of the original films.  Overall, what sold me on this movie was the dark humor.  The gore was hilariously over-the-top, but the actions and responses of the characters really cracked me up.  David's constant affirmation that "Everything is going to be all right" had me laughing aloud every time.  It reminded me of Ash pouring water down Scott's dead face in the original and talking about how they would all make it out of there.  And, finally, there was a tree, or should I say root, rape scene.  Not that the scene was all that shocking or anything, but it was fun to spot the fans from the non-fans in the theatre.  Plenty of laughter from the fans and confused, unbelieving comments from the non-fans. 

Evil Dead was the experience I was expecting and hoping for.  If you're a fan of the series and you were left disappointed, that's unfortunate.  But if you have never seen the original trilogy and you hated this remake for any of the reasons mentioned above, like bad marketing, then I strongly suggest you give this one another chance.  But only after you've seen the originals.  After watching those, there's no way you'd buy into the misleading marketing.  No series featuring the line, "This is my BOOMstick!" could ever be considered terrifying.  Creepy and also funny?  Absolutely.  The most terrifying movie you will ever experience?  Hardly, and that's a good thing.

*Random final comment: I took particular enjoyment from the fact that a teacher named Eric brought all of this about by reading a book.  As an English teacher named Eric, I got a kick out of that.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"The Trees Didn't Attack You!" Revisiting "The Evil Dead"

This picture is all I needed to see to start believing in the remake.

There will obviously be SPOILERS for the original film, but there might also be spoilers for the new version, too.  I haven't seen the new one yet, but if it's faithful at all, then some of this stuff will most likely spoil it.

*A note regarding remakes, reimaginings, reboots, and whatnot.  I don't take a side in the debate over these kinds of films.  I like and I hate some of these movies.  I don't think you can give a blanket response to all re- films.  It's just unfair.  So I might complain about the new Spider-Man movie being pointless while I praise Batman Begins.  If the film doesn't do anything new and interesting, in my opinion, I will trash it.  But I judge things from a movie to movie basis.  Therefore, I am excited to see the new Evil Dead film, even if it is considered to be a remake of sorts.  Plus, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are both very positive about this film.  How can you argue about an Evil Dead film with those two guys?

The new Evil Dead is getting some serious promotion, and it honestly looks pretty awesome, so I decided to check out the original film before I venture out to see the new film this weekend.  It had been over ten years since I had last (and first) seen the classic Sam Raimi film.  Aside from the most memorable portions (*COUGH* tree rape *COUGH*), I had forgotten most of the movie. 

What I do remember about The Evil Dead was the infamous "tree rape" scene.  In fact, I considered titling this article "Tree Rape," but that seemed somewhat offensive and gimmicky.  Regardless, that scene, in which a woman is held down by weeds and raped by a tree, stuck with me more than anything.  To be honest, my first response was stunned laughter.  Is that bad?  I don't care.  If you want to join a debate about it, click here.  The laughter may be a result of how I watched the film.  It was with a group of friends back in high school.  Most of us had seen Army of Darkness and I had seen Evil Dead 2, but we had not watched the original.  Assuming it would be a goofy film, we rented it.  The tree scene definitely threw us for a loop.  Thankfully, a few of us got called into work very soon after that scene, so no one (especially the girls in the group) could start to analyze my laughter.  So I went to work and eventually watched the rest of the film.  I remember dismissing the film as the lesser of the three, but that tree scene stuck with me through the years.

This is all I dare present from the "tree rape" scene.  Google it more at your own risk.  (This is actually from a similar, tamer version of a nature attack in Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.)

Cut to last night.  I go down to my basement to get on the treadmill and watch The Evil Dead on Netflix.  Why is this important?  I think I may have found the perfect viewing experience for this, or any other, horror film.  First, I was in a basement alone.  My basement isn't like the cellar in the film or anything, but a basement is a basement.  Second, when I am on the treadmill the TV gets my complete attention so I don't think about the fact that I am jogging like a hamster on a wheel.  Third, you are running in place as you watch people run from demons.  It's a very empathetic way to view the film.  Anyway, I was involved with the film this time, to say the least. 

I may have come away from my initial viewing less than enthralled because of how I watched it: as a teenager and broken into separate viewings.  Paying close attention to it, I truly appreciated the film for the first time.  It was genuinely scary at times, funny here and there, gross often, and flat out annoying for a minute or two (that shrieking demon death scene...).  All of that equals a unique and enjoyable viewing experience.  I also noticed that despite the limited budget, there is some style to this film.  I love the camera movements and angles, and the homemade gore is disgusting in the best kind of way.  Plus, it does have that low-budget charm that ultimately leaves younger or uninitiated viewers with a very negative opinion of the film, while it leaves people like me with an overly positive reaction. 

That low-budget appeal is the basis of an argument Bruce Campbell makes for the new version in Entertainment Weekly.  To paraphrase, he writes about how great it will be to see a version of the story done with an actual budget.  I get that, and I am excited to see that as well, but I don't imagine a lot of money for better production values can replace the charm of this gross, cheap movie.  Campbell brings up another point that I have contention with: he thinks it's great that a version of Evil Dead will be widely available rather than seen intermittently by people who have a "weird uncle" who shows them the film.  While I didn't have a "weird uncle" who showed the film to me, I do like how I came across the movie.  Sure, I didn't love the film and didn't even watch it in one sitting, but it felt more special than just going to the theater on opening night.  We found the film in the old VHS section.  The movie was older than us.  A tree does something unspeakable to a woman in the first half hour.  It was weird.  It was memorable. 

Back to the movie itself.  The first time I saw the film, I was disappointed with how much Ash wasn't like the Ash that I knew.  This is my own fault, since I saw Army of Darkness before either Evil Dead film.  This also explains why I still consider Army the best of the three; first impressions and whathaveyou...  I was less than thrilled to see Ash as a lame boyfriend who only reluctantly uses his trademark weapons.  And he doesn't really mouth off to the demons at all.  Watching it now, I see the shades of future Ash in Campbell's performance.  He doesn't spout off catch phrases, but when he yells, "Shut up!" to his demon girlfriend, it makes me smile a bit.  You can hear in his tone that hero that will one day be very fed up with the undead.  It's in the physicality of the role, as well.  As Ash wildly throws haymakers at his demonfriend's head, you can't help but find a little humor there.  Is his reluctance to commit what is essentially domestic violence some kind of parable?  I hope not, because  I just find it all amusing.  His friend, near death, is sitting on the couch urging him on, and Ash is wild-eyed and pummeling away to no avail.  It's so frustrating and hopeless that you have to laugh.  Or maybe I just have to laugh. 

A hero is born...

It all boils down to Cambell's delivery, though.  While the first film isn't in-your-face and comic like the other two, there is still something there.  It's interesting to watch the origin of the character and the actor at the same time.  Still, I found myself expecting Ash to say, "It's a trick.  Get an axe," when the zombie was playing dead.  Of course it would make no sense for him to know that, but that's beside the point.  Also, "zombie playing dead" would be a great band name; feel free to steal that.

Even though the character of Ash and all his goofy adventures are my favorite parts of this franchise, none of it would exist without Sam Raimi.  His work on this film created a style that has led him to the heights of Hollywood.  I would argue that that is bad thing, but I'm starting to accept that Raimi might need to stay with the big event pictures for a while.  I'm not sure it's possible for him to replicate what he's done here.  He still values real sets and things as much as possible, but it seems like every film he's choosing to make is impossible to make without vast amounts of CG.  Here, he had no choice but to make things messy, and the film benefits from that.  The blood, the demon makeup, that milk-blood stuff they puke up, the over-the-top violence; it's all so much more fun, and at times, frightening, to see because you know that it had to be done onscreen, not on a computer months later. 

All of this leads to the remake, directed by newcomer Fede Alvarez, who wowed Raimi, and others, with his short films.  Raimi also made plenty of short films before he made The Evil Dead, so it's fitting that Alvarez would get to make his version of it.  From what I've seen in pictures and previews, it appears that Alvarez has made a worthy film.  The most important aspect of the film is the fact that there is no Ash character.  This is good for two reasons.  1. No one should try to be the new Bruce Campbell, especially since Bruce Campbell is still alive and well.  2.  More importantly, Campbell has suggested that eventually the two separate Evil Dead versions could merge.  Alvarez is already talking about a sequel, and the plan involves another Army of Darkness followed by a seventh Dead film that would tie it all together.  That sounds pretty great to me.

Even if the new version disappoints me, it has at least given me a reason to revisit this great film.  The tree rape is still effective (though I didn't laugh this time), but the rest of the film works so much more for me now.  Would a younger audience appreciate it?  Probably not.  Not yet, anyway.  But based on a picture I found during my research for this article, I think they might get the same experience from the remake that I got from the original anyway...