Wednesday, April 10, 2013

EVIL DEAD (2013)

Lets be honest, the original Evil Dead wasn't much more than a geek show. Sure it was a fun, feverishly surrealistic geek show with the ultra charismatic Bruce Campbell holding it all together, but it was interested exclusively in finding new and innovative ways to launch gallons of goo at the audience.

With the exception of the 'new and innovative' part, the remake is much the same. Like before, we have a group college students arriving at a cabin in the woods for the weekend only to find the cabin wrecked and covered in blood, the aftermath of a demonic ritual that took place there.

The only clue to what happened is the Necronomicon, an ancient book bound in human flesh and inked in human blood. As if that wasn't enough of a warning, the kids find the book wrapped in barbed wire and defaced with all caps warnings to not read it. Does that stop anyone? Hell no! The book is immediately read, summoning daemons to feast on the souls of the living.

In a slight twist that gives that amounts to the films best attempt at substance, the kids have gathered not for vacation, but to help their friend Mia (Jane Levy) get over her drug addiction. The genius of the approach is that as she starts to show signs of demonic possession, her friends just think she's going through withdrawal and ignore her.

Despite this and other departures, the film has the same mentality that earned the original an X rating in 1981. This remake is trashy in all the ways that gore hounds love: it's gooey, oozy, squishy, sticky, sickly and icky. Gee golly darn this thing is violent. People drown in corn syrup. Blood rains from the sky. If nothing else, this film significantly ups the ante for how pervasively gory a mainstream film can be. One suspects that only some kind of demonic backroom deal with the MPAA kept this film from an NC-17.

The film works as a cavalcade of gore, and is capably made by first timer Fede Alvarez. It's slick and glossy, but has nothing close to the freneticism of Raimi's original and the film doesn't even try and find a lead as fun as Bruce Campbell. The result is a very dower film, which is odd. Yes, the original Dead played its material fairly straight but most of the nostalgia we have for the series is linked to the slapstick parody Raimi introduced in the second and third installments (which in turn have inspired a string of recent horror parodies like Cabin in the Woods and the superior Tucker & Dale vs. Evil). There are comic ideas in Evil Dead 2.0, like the moment a man slips, banana peel style, on a severed cheek, but Alvarez plays these moments so straight and so bloody as to undercut any comic potential.

Still, it's a fair representation of the intentions of the original, albeit without the low budget charm or the raw talent of Sam Raimi. Also it's better than the majority of the Horror remakes we've gotten of late. If you want to see lots of hardcore gore done the old fashion way with a minimum of CGI, this is your ticket, everyone else should stay away.

Grade: C

Note:  There is a very short scene after the credits. Hardcore Evil Dead fans might appreciate it, but it'll do nothing for non Deadites.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Death, as it must to all men, came to Roger Ebert this week. The news was a shock not because it was unexpected, the 70 year old Ebert has had a long, well documented battle with cancer, but rather because it hit me just what a gap his passing left in the world of film criticism and for me personally.

For me, the world of film seemed to radiate from Ebert. He, along with Gene Siskel revolutionized film criticism with At the Movies, were the duo discussed the weeks films before giving them a Thumbs Up or Down. Not everyone approved of the idea, arguing that the simplistic Thumb system was a debasement of the art of criticism. But those detractors were missing the point. The discussions (frequently arguments) Siskel and Ebert had between the Thumbs were the shows real value, and provided the shading and nuance the Thumbs lacked on their own.

Ebert never liked rating films, especially as time went on, but he recognized their value to suck people in. Also, it turns out that beaming film discussions into millions of living rooms turns a lot of young people into film buffs. I've read a lot the touching obituaries of Ebert over the last few days, a lot of them from critics who literally grew up with Ebert in their homes. That's how it was for me. Ebert taught me that there was more to film than the blockbuster of the week. I was always kind of into film but it was the influence of Ebert on TV and in print that turned me into a cinephile. I can say without hyperbole that without him, I probably wouldn't be doing this blog. My relationship to film would likely be different. I would be different.

That's what film offers us, the chance to be transported and transformed by sharing in the stories of people and places far different from what we see everyday. Ebert understood this. In his thoroughly accessible print reviews, he reveled in the storytelling aspect of film. You knew that he really liked a film when he opened the review with a campfire like retelling of a particular scene. To this day, few things get be in the mood to write more than reading one of his 'Great Movie' essays.

I had the good fortune of meeting Ebert twice. These were not grand encounters, but I'll tell them anyway.

The first was in 2005. I was 16. My mother knew someone at ABC News who had invited us to some function of another. About halfway through the evening I realized Ebert was at the next table. I immediately started ignoring the Channel 7 anchor I was half talking to so I could eavesdrop as Ebert told stories about working with Russ Meyer (the legendary sexploitation filmmaker Ebert wrote scripts for in the early 70's). The whole time I was fantasizing about how I could insert myself into the conversation. But I was too scared to try. I thought of Wayne Campbell's refrain in Wayne's World: "I'm not worthy!" After summoning up a lot of nerve and waiting for an opening, I went up to him and told him that I was a huge fan. It was completely the wrong approach. Instead of saying something interesting, I'd just said the same stuff he'd been hearing from people on the street for the past thirty plus years, and for my efforts he brushed me off with a zing. Nothing mean spirited, just kind of playful.

He always seemed kind of playful. A serious critic when the time called for it, but I always saw Ebert as being a bit of an imp. He noted his love for the wit of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain and it showed in his reviews, particularly the negative ones, which were often uproariously funny and deserve to be read just as much as his positive ones. Everyone remembers his famous review of North, the Rob Reiner debacle which Ebert "hated, hated, hated," but check out his review of Milk Money which takes the form of a one-act play, about two studio executives plotting how to best exploit their unsuspecting audience. Nobody remembers that film, Ebert probably suspected that would be the case, but that didn't prevent him from penning an inventive review of it. To have one of his legendary zings directed at me was a great honor. His love of language and wit is something I've frequently tried, and failed, to replicate with my own reviews.

The second time I met Roger was in 2011. Another private function I had managed to con my way into. It was a wholly different encounter; there were no zings and I had no illusions about being able to engage him conversation this time. This was long after his rebirth as an internet pundit that started when he lost his jaw to cancer. The irony of his transformation wasn't lost on me, and I often took strength at just how well he adjusted and how openly he wrote about his condition. His wife, Chaz, was there helping him, talking for him when necessary. After the dinner, a line formed in front of Ebert and he began to sign things. I worked my way up to him and asked him to sign my program and told him, slightly more eloquently this time, how vital I found his work. I was so nervous throughout the encounter that it wasn't until later that I realized he had misspelled my name. I didn't care.

I met the man twice and only fleetingly. An outsider might say he slighted me both times, but they can't understand, they were two of the happiest memories of my life.

Thanks Roger, for the reviews, the columns, the books, the DVD commentaries, for helping me figure out who I am. Thanks for the movies.

(here's a music video for The Kelley Affair by the pop-punk band Be Your Own Pet. The song follows the plot of Beyond The Valley of the Dolls, the cult Russ Meyer film for which Ebert wrote the screenplay)

Monday, April 1, 2013


As surrealistic and subversive as Harmony Korine's dark comedy Spring Breakers can be at times, it's not so much as a provocation but an explosion of candy colored hedonism. It follows four college girls who really, really, realllllly want to go to Miami for spring break. Unfortunately they're broke. No matter, armed with nothing but liquor filled squirt guns and the creed  "pretend it's a videogame," they rob a restaurant.

Flush with funds, the girls (played by clean cut Disney-esque starlets Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) make their way to Miami and have what might be one of the best times ever had in the history of cinema: they drive scooters to massive beach parties, drink, swim, smoke weed, shop, let well-oiled men snort cocaine off their nethers and dance in hotel rooms overfilling with bubble bath. Ke$ha would be proud of these girls. But eventually the party stops and the girls are arrested, only to be bailed out by the films most interesting character, a silver grilled wigger drug dealer/DJ named Alien (James Fanco). The girls don't know him, and wonder why in the world he'd want to help them as he whisks them into his car.

Later, at his pad, Alien shows off the numerous spoils of his thug life, which notably include "Scarface on repeat," and "shorts in every color!" Later the girls turn the tables on him and, at gunpoint, demand that Alien show off his sensitive side, leading to a spirited Britney Spears rendition while the girls dance like ballerinas with their matching pink ski masks and assault rifles.

For all it's surrealistic imagery and cheeky, if slightly outdated, jabs at the superficiality of youth culture, the film isn't interested in saying too much about it, apart form a few moments where the girls tell their parents, with complete earnestness, that all their activities constitute a divine spiritual experience. Stylistically, the film is a colorful update of all those 50's moral panic exploitation movies, only instead of biker gangs eroding our society, it's spring break. Like those films, Korine often tries to play it both ways as to whether he's approving or condemning all the debauchery on display.  Unlike those films, Korine paints everything in psychedelic, day-glo hues that make the movie feel like Russ Myer's Blade Runner.

I was probably too sober to enjoy Spring Breakers fully. The use of lighting, music and editing try their best to replicate the feeling of a drug trip. Sometimes it's very effective, sometimes it feels like Korine want's his audience to meet him half way. Not that I condone it, but if one were to see this movie under the influence, I imagine they'd have an amazing time and miss nothing. The plot is fairly minimal, as it should be, and the points that do exist are repeated often enough via non-linear editing. It's an art film for pot heads. Korine doesn't have quite enough Hunter S. Thompson in him to pull that off completely, but it's still an admirable effort.

Grade: B+