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Evil Dead (2013)
Fairly Good Remake - Necessarily Different from the Original
I approached the Fede Alvares remake of Evil Dead with both trepidation and curiosity. My concerns were simple - Who could possibly improve on a Sam Raimi film? How can you call it Evil Dead without Bruce Campbell?
My concerns began to evaporate when I noticed Raimi's involvement in the opening credits and were completely dispelled when I realized that the new film shared only the most fundamental plot structure with the original. Both films are about friends in a cabin in the woods fighting a mysterious, purely evil, and incomprehensible force triggered by a mysterious ancient book. Otherwise, the films are only vaguely connected.
So this answered my first question - about remaking a Raimi film. You don't, you simply do something new on the same foundation.
The new Evil Dead is much more of a straightforward horror film and the differences go way beyond the disturbing addition of a crack addict as a central character. Most of the central characters aren't even likable, let alone funny. So much for my question about replacing Bruce Campbell. Again - you don't.
In 1981, Sam Raimi, his brother, an aspiring actor (Campbell) and a group of non-actors and amateur film makers made a horror classic with almost no budget and a great deal of debt. It took more than a decade for them to recoup the costs of this near-instant cult classic though the film was viewed as a "break-through". More recently, as one of Hollywood's most respected directors and producers, Raimi gave young Uruguayan writer / director Fede Alvares a shot at creatively re- imagining the film that made Raimi a contender.
The acting is better than that of the original (which should be no surprise since there were really only two actors in the Raimi film), the effects are more sophisticated, but cleverly reminiscent of the Raimi tradition of clever simplicity, and the film, like the original delivers a few good scares despite its ridiculous premise.
Shot for about $17,000,000 (which is not much these days), the Alvares re-do netted a 300% profit before it left theaters. Profitability has very little to do with quality these days, but I say good for them!
The new Evil Dead is worthy and a credit to the original.
Iron Man Three (2013)
Pulp for Genre Purists
Iron Man 3 is more of a moving comic than a motion picture. Even the cinematography is reminiscent of old-time comic book panels. The story is light years from any reality we participate in. Like the best comics, it alludes to various aspects of history and reality cleverly but without yielding to the oppression of the everyday. Iron Man 3 is not entirely consistent with the rest of the franchise, however. Iron Man's various armor configurations appear to be a lot less resilient and functional than in the previous films (a bit like the difference between the creature in Alien and those of Aliens).
Tony Stark is experiencing a great deal of apparently justifiable paranoia. He is also suffering from crippling anxiety attacks and nightmares. At one point, he is diagnosed by the most likable, heroic, and memorable character in the film - pre-teen Harley Keener (played by Ty Simpkins) - as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Stark is facing a shadowy, almost invisible, enemy, who is apparently hidden in plain sight. Having lost what would appear to be a decisive battle, Stark must rely on his wits, his own unreliable technology, and a series of unlikely heroes - a young boy (Simpkins), the alcoholic mother of a dead soldier, a media operator with a good internet connection - to prevail. Of course, Pepper (Paltrow), his AI Jarvis (Paul Bettany) and War Machine/Iron Patriot/Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) also come in handy.
The plot is extremely predictable, but it moves along and successfully relies on escapism, awe-inspiring effects, and entertainment value.
With their respective talents, Paltrow, Downey and Pearce didn't even need to try. Paltrow and Pearce do, however, and really make the film worth watching. Downey never seems as fully engaged with this script as he has in previous comic book films. All the same, Iron Man 3 is a lot of fun and will appeal to those in search of the insane action, dysfunctional myopia of the main character and the tongue-in-cheek, slightly smarter-than-average dialog that characterize this franchise.
Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
See the Right One
Oskar is a smart, if somewhat desensitized young teen from a broken home. Persecuted by his peers, he presents stoicism to the world and inwardly fantasizes about killing his persecutors as he becomes increasingly alienated from his parents. Kåre Hedebrant breathes a great depth into Oskar, creating a highly sympathetic, entirely believable and yet quite edgy protagonist.
When a strange little girl, Elli (Lina Leandersson) bonds with him by announcing, out of nowhere, that they can not be friends, an intense Platonic love story begins. Elli, who may not be entirely human, and Oskar, a perennial victim, learn to defend each other in the only ways they can and in ways only they can.
The story is quite touching, but, unsurprisingly, will leave you wondering how something so 'off' could be so delightfully moving. With a budget around $4,000,000.00, veteran director Alfredson has clearly gotten a great deal of art out of comparatively few resources.
Adapted from a John Ajvide Lindqvist novel, Let the Right One In is a movie worth seeing at least once. It features exceptionally good acting, superb character development, straightforward but appropriate cinematography, and a memorably twisted love story. Accept no big-budget low quality imitations. This is the one you need to see.
Les Misérables (1935)
Justice vs. the Law
Jean Valjean (Frederick March) steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's children and is sent to prison for ten years. Prison degrades him and he completes his term a broken and, possibly insane, man. While in prison, one of the guards, Javert (Charles Laughton), takes note of Val jean's remarkable strength. Javert is more obviously unstable - he is obsessed with the rigid enforcement of the law, in denial of his past (his parents were criminals. Confused, depressed, and very fearful, Valjean ventures into his parole with questionable intentions. But he is soon taken in by a very kindly Bishop who bends the truth in order to protect Jean from himself and the police. Explaining himself, the priest tells Jean that 'Life is to give, not to take'. This single act, and the priest's words, set Valjean upon a path of service and honor which requires him to reinvent himself. In Act 2, we meet him in the person of Mssr. Madeline, a successful and well-loved businessman who is being asked to run for mayor in the small town he has done so much for. Complicating matters, Javert has been appointed to head the local constabulary.
Through all three parts of this epic story, Valjean is pursued by his former captor, whether by circumstance or obsessive intent. This is the central conflict of the story, but the depth and elements of the conflict truly hinge upon a non-participant third-party. Valjean/Madeline meets Cosette, a good-hearted but more-or-less orphan child whose plight reminds him of his sister's children and deeply touches his heart. He reunites Cosette and her mother, giving them both a good home for the mother's final weeks. After she passes, he essentially adopts Cosette. The love that develops between Cosette and Jean, that of a father and daughter, saves them both. Perhaps this love will eventually save the incorrigible and obsessed Javert.
Les Miserables is written with extremely powerful characterization, from a deeply Catholic/Christian perspective, though it is not an evangelical work. Although none of the characters are stereotypes, archetypes, or caricatures, the central conflict is not one of men, but rather one of faith. Javert perfectly represents faith in the laws of men, the Bishop reflects the laws of his god, and Valjean must resolve the inevitable conflicts between the two both internally and externally. The ethics of Les Miserables is, in contrast to the opinion of one popular review, far from 'situational.' It would be much better described as 'subtle', complex, and very carefully considered. The simple message is that law is no substitute for justice.
Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is probably my favorite novel of all time. While leaving whole episodes of this massive tome out, the unfortunately short-lived Richard Boleslawski's 1935 film captures more than just the essence and spirit of the book and is not a Reader's Digest condensation or a "Cliff Notes" version. The W.P. Lipscomb script is perfectly economical and Boleslawski wisely relied on Gregg Tolland's spectacular camera work to tell more of the story than the dialog. Despite the difficulty of distilling a 1000+ page, relatively dense French novel into a film of slightly over 1.5 hours, the director made the camera responsible for conveying a great deal of information about the story and the characters . The casting is also quite perfect. March and Laughton are tremendous in what may be the apex of their collaborative efforts. I was also impressed by the performances in a few of the minor roles - Cedric Hardwicke (the Bishop) and Frances Drake (Eponine) especially.
All considered, this film should appeal to those who appreciate mature, intelligent, morality plays spiced up with a bit of adventure, and those who are looking for a good film version of the classic novel.
La horde (2009)
Much better than it deserved to be
Not recommended for fans of typical zombie films.
Recommended for those who have been waiting for an independent horror film which does not simply make fun of the genre.
A team of angry Parisian police officers vow revenge against a gang lead by two Nigerian brothers who have recently killed a friend of theirs. They lead a seemingly suicidal, unsanctioned, raid on the gang's compound and are almost immediately captured. As the torture, interrogation, and killing of police slowly reaches an apex, it becomes apparent that the cops and gangsters should probably be the least of each other's worries. Inexplicably, zombies are destroying civilization, and Paris is burning. Don't be fooled by the complete absurdity of this premise. The Horde, though redolent with the usual genre-defining campiness and cliché, is not a self-parody, and does not bother to explain itself.
Aside from Mr. Romero's more serious efforts, I have rarely seen a zombie film which was created with the level of TLC that went into The Horde. Most of the characters actually have their own personalities and the acting is good. The script is, though predictable, a lot less absurd than the usual horror film, and never insults your intelligence. Though the film is not utterly humorless, it stops well short of comedy, and carries its plot admirably. The visual effects and choreography are excellent. Claude Perron's fight scenes are especially entertaining.
Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)
Somewhat reflexive presentation about schizophrenia
Do not expect to be entertained, and do not expect to be overwhelmed by the aesthetic of this film. Julien Donkey Boy is no more beautiful than its subject. Harmony Korine, in directing and writing this film, has done exactly what he set out to do - he has created a concentrated dose of family life with schizophrenia. In saying that the experience is concentrated, what I mean is that the film uses exaggeration rather liberally in order to condense its somewhat impossibly defined subject matter. Although there are certainly interwoven story arcs for the main characters, there is no central plot, no linearity, no unfragmented reality. The film itself, therefore, is just a little unhinged.
One of my older sisters was schizophrenic. You would have to condense a couple decades worth of her psychotic episodes into a couple of hours to get anywhere near the level of constant distress that is depicted in this film. I most closely related to the character of Pearl, Julien's pregnant sister, but recognized aspects of my own family in all of the characters. What I am trying to say is that there is certainly some truth to what this movie says and the archetypal characters portrayed, its truth may be hard to recognize if you haven't lived through it.
Living with a schizophrenic will bring out and amplify your own nature - and if you are open to it, you will be a better person. It is also, however, fairly easy to allow the experience to overwhelm you. People who have never been exposed to schizophrenia in any but a superficial way will find most of the film's characters and vignettes very difficult to believe. I am pretty sure Korine knew this going in.
Korine has portrayed schizophrenia in a sensitive and truthful, but nevertheless utterly disturbing and somewhat unrealistically condensed way. Every directorial decision is meant to create a sense of realism. The method is very effective, and the film is essentially successful. Julien intentionally and clearly positions its audience as voyeurs, using hand-held photography almost exclusively and allowing character- development (the bulk of the film) to dictate the pace and rhythm of every scene. All of the acting is superb, and although there are very few feel-good moments in this film, it may be somewhat cathartic for folks like me, and somewhat (painfully) enlightening for those who grew up in less dysfunctional, or more-traditionally dysfunctional, families.
Not the Standard B Movie Fare
Mindwarp is a relatively early effort by Steve Barnett (Director) and Henry Dominic (writer). Barnett is chiefly known for post-production work, which, surprisingly, is not a major feature of Mindwarp. His few directorial efforts have been limited to fairly dubious material like Scanner Cop II. Dominic has done some more high-profile writing in recent years, including Terminator III. Given this team's background in sci-fi, and the timing of the film (1992), it should not be surprising that Mindwarp blends plot-heavy cyberpunk, horror, and hardcore sci-fi. What is, perhaps, surprising, is how well it does so with an obviously low budget.
Several years before the Matrix began shooting, Mindwarp presented the story of Judy, a smart, precocious but sheltered young 'in-worlder' who wants to experience real life, rather than simply plugging into the seemingly utopian synthetic fantasy world she can access through a serial port in the back of her neck. She just has the feeling that there must be something more to life. Of course, she has no idea what might await in the "deadlands". Most of the film follows her adventures in captivity among subterranean cult of mutant land-fill denizens and the struggle she shares with hero Bruce Campbell as they try to free themselves from the evil grip of the cult leader, Scrimm. Despite the straightforward action, however, Mindwarp is anything but a straightforward story.
With a cast featuring B Movie legends Bruce Campbell and Angus Scrimm (Phantasm)you might expect Mindwarp to be an archetypal B film. Not only does Mindwarp exceed the B film standard but it also manages to entertain on more levels than most of Bruce Campbell's films do - no mean feat. Unlike many films in which he appears, Campbell does not dominate the screen throughout the film and does not have many opportunities to utter any of his hallmark clichés. Instead, we have Marta Martin (AKA Marta Alicia) in her second major role. Martin plays the immature yet very headstrong Judy very well, and would subsequently land many returning roles on popular TV shows. Their nemesis, Angus Scrimm, as of 2010, is 84 years old and still acting. He plays essentially the same role he has had countless times - a big, menacing, old, creep. Only a few other actors have speaking roles in this fairly intelligent mutant gruntfest.
Recommended for Sci-Fi and Cyberpunk fans.
Death Machine (1994)
Off-beat or just 'off'. Doesn't matter - great fun!
This horror/psycho thriller/sci fi story pits a hard-nosed, naive and ethical businesswoman against the existing power structure at a very large defense contractor, Chaank Industries. What Hayden Cale (Ely Puget) does not know is that, underlying most of what she knows as Chaank Industries, is a murderous maniac - Jack Dante. Dante is played by the remarkable, under-rated, Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Eyes of Laura Mars, Blue Velvet, Dune, Wild Blue Yonder, Lord of the Rings, etc etc). Dante will do ANYTHING to avoid having his sick little world disturbed... anything. The plot and characters are a string of clichés, but the movie does not take itself very seriously, and what results is a campy, intelligent, self-parody. Direct homages are paid to off-beat directors who frequently use comedy to liven up sci fi and horror stories - There are major supporting characters named Sam Raimi, John Carpenter and Scott Ridley.
Dourif, the deft pacing of the film, and the cleverly written script make this predictable farce thoroughly enjoyable. Richard Brake makes a very good impression in a support role, and lead Puget is charismatic and manages to play her role laudably straight as a counterpoint to Dourif's utterly bizarre behavior.
Death Machine was Stephen Norrington's directorial debut. Norrington has done and continues to do a lot of visual effects and robotics work on major releases which require substantial, cutting edge, effects. He also directed the decent but disappointing League of Extraordinary Gentlement and is now working on a re-make of The Crow.
White Pongo (1945)
I got through it - what do I win?
Sam Newfield, director of White Pongo, had a long and productive career, spanning from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s. Averaging 3-4 films per year (a total of 7 in 1951), he apparently did not have a great deal of time to waste with art, script refinement, and cinematography. His most well-known films achieve a relatively high rating here on IMDb (4), and are all within the horror genre (e.g. Dead Men Walk), but he did occasionally branch out into Sci-Fi (Lost Continent) and made a decent number of respectable war and western films in the last ten years of his career. Although I have not seen many of Newfield's films, and remember even fewer, I am willing to wager that White Pongo is fairly representative of the lot.
There are essentially two weakly developed plots. First - an expedition of upper crust white guys and a beautiful young woman are out in the jungle searching for a missing link (an albino gorilla whose only truly distinguishing characteristic is bad costuming). Since this plot had been done several times previously in equally bad films and the excellent King Kong, the screenwriter included a rather over-dramatic romantic quadrangle between the young lady, a privileged jerk to whom she is apparently betrothed, a decent young laborer, and - of course - the albino gorilla. Raymond Schrock, who had been writing for film since the teens gets the only credit I can give anybody in the production team for giving the actors something reasonable to work with. Schrock is an interesting character. Most of the films he was involved with are very obscure and difficult to find, but those which remain in the light seem to rate pretty highly here on IMDb. Sadly, White Pongo was made within the last five years of his career. and, in terms of plot, it's a very predictable, unoriginal, mess.
The cinematography is fairly standard for the jungle adventure genre as it stood in the middle of the 20th century. In other words, it is quite limited by available technology and set problems. The directing exemplifies the term "pedestrian", and the acting, though uninspired, is not nearly as bad as might be expected from the largely unknown cast. Those interested in the history of African American participation in film may be interested to see activist actor Joel Fluellen playing an unfortunate stereotype "Mumbo Jumbo" in this film, and will appreciate the irony that the only two 'ethnic' actors in this film (Fluellen and Al Eban) outlasted the rest of the cast. Fluellen appeared in some fairly good roles in Oscar and Grammy nominated films late in his career.
Best viewed with the aid of intoxicants and friends with good senses of humor. Otherwise - to be avoided.
Solid Early '60s Italian Hard Sci-Fi
The appearance of Claude Rains is not the only surprise in Anthony Dawson's Il pianeta degli uomini spenti (A.K.A. Battle of the Worlds). Rains plays an eccentric, reclusive, contemptuous elderly scientist who leads a powerful research team. Professor Benson is the best, and he has little patience for lesser minds. His only link to humanity seems to be Eve (Maya Brent), his assistant. Her coming of age, the insubordination of one of the younger members of his research team, and the impending arrival of an enormous and mysterious space object - The Outsider - combine to challenge "the old man's" carefully-constructed self concept, his arrogance, and, ultimately, the continuation of life on earth.
Ultimately, this is one of Italy's best and most serious sci-fi films, and one of the better early '60s sci-fi films to come out of Europe. The relatively primitive (but creative) effects coupled with the very serious and dramatic tone of the dialog may be difficult for most American viewers. Giorgio Giovannini's soundtrack is jarring and intense. And the excellent, but sometimes surreal, Marcello Masciocchi cinematography won't help the average viewer enjoy this film. The international cast (mostly Americans) does very well.
Given the film's dubious pedigree and silly cliché title, I can certainly understand why some reviewers felt compelled to use the words "cheesy" and "spaghetti" in their reviews. I am tempted to point out that macaroni and cheese is a very tasty dish, but I will refrain. Approach this film with an open mind and you might just be able to get something more than guilty pleasure from it.