Catching Up With: The Evil Dead – 1981

Modern horror movies have been plagued by gimmicks. Torture-porn, found footage, Oogieloves (not a horror movie? Go watch that trailer and tell me it isn’t terrifying), all high-concept filters that sometimes mask a lack of creativity. The best movies  the genre has to offer are the most primal, devoid of pretensions and only interested in destroying an audience’s sensibilities.

A classic example is 1981’s “The Evil Dead,” the debut film from writer/director Sam Raimi. Shot in a run-down shack with amateur actors on a shoestring budget with a premise; five kids stranded in a cabin surrounded by undead demons, that’s so old it’s covered in cobwebs, “The Evil Dead” is still a wild, gory marvel of DIY ingenuity.

The five candidates for slaughter are Ash (Bruce Campbell), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scott (Richard DeMannicor), Ash’s girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), and Shelly (Theresa Tilly). Except for Ash, none of these characters are fleshed out too much, which is a shame, but does not cripple the movie. Anyway, these five arrive at a  deserted cabin in the Tennessee wilderness, ready for a weekend of drunken debauchery. Of course the only escape from this wooden enclave, a rickety bridge, collapses under the weight of their car, which is never a good sign. An even worse sign of doom is the skin-bound Book of the Dead that the group finds in the basement, along with a tape recording of satanic chants. As we learned in “Cabin in the Woods,” common sense does not compute in horror movies, so they play the tapes and wind up summoning ancient demons that turn people into rotting monsters. Luckily they have a shotgun on hand to dispose of them right? Unfortunately, the only way to kill whoever is possessed by these demons is by full-body dismemberment, so things are going to get real bloody real fast.

What “The Evil Dead” lacks in strong characterization and nuanced performances it makes up for in Raimi’s wild, merciless filmmaking sensibility. After Cheryl gets raped by a tree and becomes possessed by the demons (you read that correctly, we’re definitely in the wild blue yonder on this one), this film throws subtlety into the foggy wind and becomes a Looney Tunes cartoon from Hell. The idea that these demons can only be stopped by removing all of their limbs is an inspired one, because it takes grueling effort to take any of them down. As Ash and co. use everything in their disposal; chainsaws, knives, etc., to tear off the undead limbs, the blood-soaked mayhem that comes as a result makes the film painfully visceral. Raimi’s camera is out of control; literally bouncing off the walls, tracking shots that come in so fast you wouldn’t be surprised if the camera knocks over whoever is on-screen, contorting into impossible angles to wring every ounce terror and malice that $90,000 can offer. It doesn’t matter that the makeup is only a couple steps up from a high school play, Raimi’s conviction overcomes those limitations.

Oh, and then there’s the blood. And pus, and all sorts of thick, viscous liquids that coat the walls of the cabin and Ash, when he is the last one left to do battle with what used to be his friends. Bruce Campbell had not quite developed the acting chops that would make him a cult icon in the series’ later entries, but he definitely has a funny screen presence. He is put through the ringer against these undead mutants, armed only with a chainsaw, which still doesn’t keep him from being engulfed by geysers of blood and God knows what that yellow stuff is supposed to be. “The Evil Dead” is a movie that sees people projectile vomiting after viewing it as a victory, a testament to its crude, stomach-churning power. If you’re tired of jump scares and torture porn with pretensions of making a statement about society, give this sick twist of a movie a spin. “The Evil Dead” makes the genre intense and  fun again by serving it up raw, and extra, extra bloody.

Grade: A-

New Arrivals: Skyfall

Before Daniel Craig was bestowed with the license to kill, I was never a James Bond fan. I thought the exploits of the MI6 agent were just too…quite frankly, stupid. To be fair I haven’t seen all of the Bond films, but the few I did see did nothing for me; they were just cheesy artifacts, too busy winking at action and thriller tropes to be taken seriously as movies. Perhaps my biggest problem was that James Bond wasn’t a character; he was an idea, a male fantasy that didn’t have anything going on in his head and just beat up bad guys and slept with every partially lobotomized woman he met. After the CGI-mad clusterfuck that was 2002’s “Die Another Day” the franchise either needed to die or be reborn. “Casino Royale” was such a breath of fresh air; a movie that turned James Bond into a full-bodied, reckless character capable of getting his heart shattered into pieces. Daniel Craig was the perfect choice for 007. His work in “Layer Cake” and “Munich” showed he could be ice-cold and ruthless, but  vulnerable at the same time. Unfortunately, Marc Foster’s shaky-cam and an incomplete script made the follow-up, “Quantum of Solace,” a massive disappointment that lost the thread that “Casino Royale” established so brilliantly. For the latest installment, “Skyfall,” the Broccoli family handed the reigns over to Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”), who was an esteemed if unconventional choice to continue the franchise.

But bringing in new blood and a renewed focus on the sensibilities established by “Casino Royale” were just what we needed. “Skyfall” is an immaculate, exhilarating piece of popular entertainment that succeeds by once again stripping the series to its very essence, but the most fascinating thing about it is that it’s a character study designed as an action movie.

The movie begins with Bond and a new female operative named Eve (Naomi Harris) in Istanbul chasing down a man who has stolen a hard drive containing a list of all the double-0 operatives in MI6. Bond chases him by train, car and motorcycle until he is accidentally shot by Eve and is left for dead in the river. Bond’s superior M (Judy Dench) doesn’t have time to mourn for him. She is dealing with an unknown enemy hellbent on destroying her and MI6, and her failure to protect her agents’ identities has forced the British government to investigate by sending a rep from the Prime Minister’s office, Mallory (a solid if underused Ralph Fiennes) to start a transfer of power.

Meanwhile, Bond is indisposed of, drowning his past and his current defeat in alcohol and women. James Bond is a broken man; plagued by gunshot wounds, bad legs and the greatest affliction of all, age. Him and M are in a world where they are becoming relics at the mercy of anyone who knows how to use a computer. Bond’s condition doesn’t improve when he comes back to the fold to find the stolen list; he’s weakened, he can’t shoot straight, and his own country is tentative to trust him and MI6 again.

Who wants to destroy M? What is “Skyfall,” and why does Bond bristle at hearing it during a personality test? To answer the second question would reveal one of the many surprises lurking in the excellent script by Robert Wade, Neil Purvis and John Logan. But the villain of this piece is Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent with a personal vendetta against Bond and M.

Of all the Bond films, “Skyfall” is one of the smallest in terms of scale. There’s no grand plot to blow up the world or a plethora of ridiculous gadgets from Q,(who returns to the franchise in the form of the young, nerdy Ben Whishaw). “Skyfall” is about people at the end of their rope, who have to prove that they still have a place in the world. Mendes the director said “The Dark Knight” was a huge influence on his approach to “Skyfall.” Just like how Christopher Nolan showed Batman as a broken man trying to fix a broken world, “Skyfall” finally shows Bond as a flawed human being, with a haunted past and an uncertain future. The great Daniel Craig once again puts his own spin on the role of Bond, making him tenacious and unrelenting, but realistically so. There’s a weariness behind his ice-cold blue eyes and impeccably tailored suits. His tenuous relationship with M is also tested, as Bond begins to question M’s willingness to sacrifice agents for the prime directive. In a film that doesn’t have a traditional “Bond girl,” Dench tears into the role as M, making her a stubborn, tragic figure, finally letting some remorse seep in when her way of life is under siege.

Silva, a victim of M’s habit of abandoning agents, has let revenge mentally (as well as physically) warp him into a sadistic madman. Bardem plays Silva like the hellspawn of Liberace and Anton Chigurh, the now-legendary hit man from “No Country for Old Men,” which won Bardem an Oscar. We don’t see or even know Silva’s name until almost an hour into “Skyfall,” and his introduction; walking toward a tied-up Bond with an monologue on how to trap rats, drips with unsettling menace. He is easily the best villain the series has ever had because he wants to destroy the souls of M and Bond, not Earth. Bardem has the ability to make you think his character is over-the-top, without ever raising his voice. He is able to suggest the outlandish nature of his character through a haircut and speech patterns. It’s an astonishing display of feral, yet coiffed, malice.

Mendes makes this meaty, character-driven story come to life on screen, mixing his elegant, old-fashioned approach to character with a surprisingly sure hand in the action scenes The opening chase is cleanly edited and shot, a revelation in the shaky-cam era. He also uses long takes and tracking shots, making what is so incoherent in lesser movies so enveloping here.  His partner in crime is the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. It’s hard to put into words how beautifully shot this movie is. The chase in Turkey is a sun-drenched blur, a casino in Macau is given a burnt-gold sheen, and a rooftop confrontation between Bond and an impossible informant is shot entirely in silhouette, with a backdrop of neon lights from the adjacent towers (my favorite scene of any movie this year), and the final showdown in Scotland, at a place tied to Bond’s past, is an overcast tapestry of fog and dust. Deakins and Mendes put effort into every frame in this film, which is why it is a career peak for both of them.

“Skyfall” is also a new peak for the James Bond series because it acknowledges that its characters have pasts, demons that feed into why they do what they do. Filled with surprises that change the way we look at these characters (including a fantastic cameo from Albert Finney). One of  the final shots in “Skyfall” has James Bond, looking out at the London skyline. The series, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is like England itself. Stubborn, regal, and ready to face the future on it’s own terms. “Skyfall” is Bond redefined, by way of using the past as prologue for a revitalized future.

Grade: A 

Catching Up With: Moonrise Kingdom – 2012

There are few modern-day auteurs as idiosyncratic as Wes Anderson. All of his films are showcases for his instantly recognizable universe filled with brightly colored uniforms, settings filled with odd items and furniture that are always arranged just so, 60’s-pop music on the soundtrack, and a den of odd eccentric characters that speak in short, staccato bursts of deadpan that comment on the world around them with a weird acceptance. On the surface Anderson’s movies may look too precious, suffocated by Anderson’s obsessively arranged, whimsical worldview. But dig deeper and you will find universal themes of sadness, isolation, and finding a place in a world that fundamentally doesn’t understand you. The characters that populate his films; the overachieving Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” the wannabe thieves in “Bottle Rocket,” the cavalcade of eccentric family members in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and the underrated “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and even the dysfunctional woodland creatures in the animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox” are all examples of people who make up for their lack of real-world behavior with a sense of melancholy and the search for purpose and meaning.

“Moonrise Kingdom,” a profoundly strange, funny, sad and moving ode to adolescence and my favorite movie of 2012 (so far), is another example of that, one that finds Anderson honing all of his writing and directing quirks to a fine sheen and explores new, even more profound emotional depths.

The film is set on a small island in New England called New Penzance. It’s 1965, and two 12-year-old children: Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) have declared their love for each other and after a year of planning via postal correspondence, they decide to run away from the island and start their own lives. These two come from very different backgrounds. Sam is an orphan who has just been kicked out of his foster home, and is the most unpopular member of the local Khaki Scouts troop led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). Sam, with his coonskin cap and Coke-bottle glasses, is like precocious owl of a kid, and a classic Anderson over-achiever, with his love of topography and nature. Suzy has parents however, two hilariously self-obsessed lawyers played brilliantly by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, who just see her as a nuisance. She is prone to violent outbursts and is constantly looking through her binoculars, as if to make the outside world look closer than it actually is. This sojourn is their means of breaking away from the restraints of their lives on this island that is itself trapped by the ocean around it, and the impending hurricane due to arrive in three days time, which we are warned about from a very informative narrator (Bob Balaban).

The lonely island cop, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who happens to be having an affair with Suzy’s mother, leads the search with all of the other adults to bring Suzy home to her parents and Sam into the custody of a representative from Social Services named…Social Services (Tilda Swinton) who will take him to juvenile hall.

“Moonrise Kingdom” unfolds like a storybook fable, one that is an ode to adolescence and how a small crush can be blown up to gargantuan proportions. This kind of story is tailor-made for Anderson’s artistic sensibilities. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography captures the lush woodland landscape and the earth tone of the color scheme adds to the ’60’s New-Wave landscape of the film, as well as Alexandre Desplat’s strange, occasionally operatic score. Anderson’s camera constantly glides across the screen, stopping to create his trademark widescreen dioramas that capture these characters literally  in the middle of their lives, while the funny, buoyantly clever script by Anderson and Roman Coppola adds shades of emotion and experience to the desert-dry, deadpan lines of dialogue this ensemble was given.

“Moonrise Kingdom,” perhaps more so than any other film in Anderson’s oeuvre, is defined by small details that deepen the characters. Suzy, for example, tries to make herself look more like an adult, with the clothes she wears and the copious eye shadow she uses; it’s as if she can’t wait for adulthood to come and offer her an escape from childhood. Her parents’s marriage is so dead that they refer to each other as “Councilor” and only communicate with each other through legalese and notes from old court cases. Scout Master Ward is obsessed with keeping his uniform just so, and thinks of his job as a math teacher secondary to his current occupation. These details add to the dichotomy of the film, and the very thing that Sam and Suzy are running away from: the adults in their lives are miserable, and they’re trying to preserve the connection they have before it erodes away, even though the elements and some hilariously militant boy scouts stand in their way.

The acting in “Moonrise Kingdom” is excellent across the board, with Anderson veterans and novices perfectly dialing into the dialogue’s specific frequency. Willis does his best work in years, making Sharp a lonely, vulnerable man who learns to do something with his life. Norton does his funniest work in forever as Ward, making this guy who has devoted his life to the scouts slowly come unglued and finally question his station in life, and Jason Schwartzman has a great extended cameo as another Scout Leader that is another spin on his “Rushmore” character. But the soul of the movie is in Gilman and Hayward as Sam and Suzy. Both kids are wise beyond their years, and at the same time, hopelessly naive to what their future holds. Some may find the levels of intimacy that this relationship reaches uncomfortable, but it never feels exploitative. Moments of fear, recklessness, and outright joy bleed through the artifice, bringing some reality to rampant whimsy.

Like Max in “Rushmore,” Dignan in “Bottle Rocket,” Royal Tenenbaum in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Sam and Suzy are trying to create their own place in the universe, sometimes against their better judgment. The adults have already given up on personal utopias for themselves.  That is what makes “Moonrise Kingdom,” one of Wes Anderson’s finest achievements, both a fantastical celebration and a requiem for childhood innocence.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: The Raid: Redemption – 2012

“The Raid: Redemption” has the most misleading title of any movie I’ve seen this year. Don’t get me wrong, there is a raid in this movie. What’s missing is the redemption part, because that implies there is some sense of character development and emotional discovery that the characters must deal with. Instead, this Indonesian film directed by the young Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans is more than happy to provide wall-to-wall, gleefully over-the-top action that is undeniably impressive, but the technique is not enough to make up for the gaping hole where this film’s soul should be.

“The Raid” is about a SWAT team in Indonesia, led by virtuous rookie Rama (Iko Uwais) and the grizzled, duplicitous Lt. Jaka (Joe Taslim) who learn that the notorious drug lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy) is holed up in the top floor of a run-down apartment building with his gallery of homicidal maniacs. The SWAT team, which has no communication with their precinct, storm the building to bring Tama to justice. As a result, gun-rattling, blood-spraying, neck-breaking hilarity ensues, with the cops doing battle with the gangsters on every floor, working their way up to Tama himself.

“The Raid” isn’t just wall-to-wall action. It’s wall-to-stairwell, wall-to-ceiling, wall-to-window, wall-to-everything. And as far as the action goes “The Raid” is a tour-de-force of action choreography, for a while at least. Evans’ fight scenes and gun battles are immaculately filmed and edited, free from the incoherence of shaky-cam. Everything moves lightning fast, aiming to make the frequent snapping of necks, slashing of jugular veins and all-out destruction tearing across the screen incredibly easy to understand. The choppy editing and shaky camerawork in modern action films have made filmmakers lazy (Paul Greengrass being the exception), as they don’t have to take the time to fully implement some artistry into the chaos. Evans understands this, and he has a bright future in this genre.

For a while, “The Raid” is thrilling in its technique, despite the lack of story, compelling characters, or any of that boring stuff.  But this movie started to remind me of the 20-minute drum solo “Moby Dick,” by Led Zeppelin. Sure, John Bonham’s technique is something to behold, but after minute 5 you just want to hear a fucking song already. All of the well-made action, with no interludes or any thematic substance running underneath, becomes numbing really quickly. To inverse a famous quote, “all play and no work makes ‘The Raid’ a dull movie.” Through sheer repetition it transforms from a wild exercise into a dumb video game.

The movie tries to add some depth to the sketch of the story, by making Rama’s brother a member of Tama’s gang, but it’s too cliched and hastily dealt with to add the necessary gravitas. The only memorable performance comes from Sahetapy as Tama, who tears into the role to create a truly sadistic villain. But he’s the only semblance of humanity anywhere in this thing. This movie reminded me a lot of Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down,” which also had a constant barrage of battle that grew weary due to a lack of characters or narrative. Throw in the  generic techno score by Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and the cringe-inducing dialogue (Evans also wrote the script), and you have a film that deflates like a souffle over the course of 102 minutes.

If all of these shortcomings don’t bother you and you just are an action-movie junkie, “The Raid” is definitely worth seeing. Just the smallest amount of non-synthetic involvement from anything in this film could have been it’s saving grace. Evans is definitely an extraordinary talent, but the frustration that comes from “The Raid” can be summed up, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, as all ass-kicking frosting, and no cake.

Grade: C+