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2012/10/28

The Evil Dead Trilogy

by Jav Rivera

In 1981, Director Sam Raimi released his classic horror film, The Evil Dead.  The world would never be the same.  Well...not until around 1983, that is.  The film was Raimi's first feature length and didn't get much attention until the help of author Stephen King.  King had written a review of the film praising it for its gore and innovation.  This, among other support, allowed Raimi to produce a sequel in 1987, which lead to a third film in 1992.  But so many people wonder how and why these films achieved such cult fame.

Unofficial Evil Dead poster as interpreted by Olly Moss
I think perhaps the biggest reason some people have trouble with The Evil Dead series is its unusual style.  The films are gruesome indeed but they're also silly and kind of hammy.  But for Raimi, that's exactly what he set out to do.  Being a huge fan of The Three Stooges, Raimi and his trusty companion, Bruce Campbell, combined the Stooges' slap-stick humor with gore.  Just how much gore?  [chuckle]  A lot.  If Raimi wants a geyser of blood shooting out from a cellar door, he gets a geyser of blood shooting out from a cellar door.  Who cares if it doesn't logically make sense that someone can bleed that much and that harsh?  Forget science - this is just a movie!

Sarah Berry vs. Geyser of Blood in Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn
But it's not just the blood that sells the film.  Raimi had little money to work with when he created the first Evil Dead.  And it didn't stop him from being clever.  He invented camera mechanisms that could knock down a door or smash a window as the camera ran towards it.  They may be simple now in modern times, but back then these devices didn't exist.  They weren't even ideas on paper yet - he designed them for very specific shots.

Many of these camera devices are talked about in Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell's autobiography, "If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor".  The book also contains diagrams to help visualize Raimi's many creations.  On a side note, the autobiography is a great read.  It's incredibly insightful and written with Campbell's charmingly funny voice.  He explains the torture he endured both as a man and actor - mostly caused by Raimi - and his strange life as a cult hero.  After reading it, you almost feel bad for the guy.  But then you remember the sweet gig he's got on USA Network's hit TV show "Burn Notice" and think, "Oh yeah...he's doing alright." (Burn Notice reviewed here).


Aside from his unique camera work, Raimi also embraced the use of sound design.  The more recent DVDs (and now Blu-rays) were released with remastered THX sound because frankly, without sound, The Evil Dead may not have been as provocative.  And when it came time to produce Evil Dead II, he used the skills he mastered on the original to his advantage.  If nothing else, these films (especially the first two) are prime examples of using sound for film (so film students: don't dismiss these so quickly).

Along with sound, Raimi took advantage of special effects, everything from make up and costume design, stop motion, animation, and animatronics.  Raimi and his team didn't think in terms of what they had, they thought about how they could build things to help achieve his vision.  The DVDs and Blurays of the trilogy offer many extras, several highlighting his special effects team.  Raimi obviously loved his crew, and his admiration shines through in all the DVD extras.  (And Bruce Campbell is an excellent DVD commentator, by the way.  He keeps the information flowing and never allows for dead air.)

Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi (circa 1980)
But Raimi and his team had something else that made these films extraordinary: Bruce Campbell.  Forget the physical endurance and forget the willingness to help the crew out while not on screen - just think about the kind of character he played in all three films.  No one could have replaced him.  From a weeny coward to a cocksure hero, Bruce Campbell's portrayal of "Ash" is one of cinema's greatest icons.  And it's because Campbell did it just right.

Bruce Campbell as "Ash" in Army of Darkness
The films have bled so deep into cult culture that they've spawned several imitators, video games, apparel, toys, costumes, and even musicals. The films have also been referenced in countless films and television programs (ex. High Fidelity starring John Cusack).  Children are actually being named after Bruce Campbell's character "Ash"!  And as it turns out, Raimi, Campbell, and Evil Dead's original producer Robert G. Tapert are now producing a remake which is due out in 2013 (IMDb Page & Trailer - for mature audiences only).

L-R: Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Bruce Campbell, and Kassie Wesley DePaiva in Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn
So yes, these films are a bit dorky but they're extremely fun.  And Raimi set out to entertain, which he did successfully.  Let yourself be scared, appalled, and humored by The Evil Dead series.  And if you have to pick only one to watch, pick Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn.  As a filmmaker, I appreciate what Raimi did in the original, and as an audience member I enjoyed the more commercial appeal of Army of Darkness (catchphrases, etc.) but it's Evil Dead II that best represents the trilogy.

For more information visit the films' IMDb pages:
The Evil Dead
Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn
Army of Darkness

TRIVIA: The Oldsmobile Delta 88 featured in the Evil Dead trilogy also appears in nearly all of Sam Raimi's films, including Spider-Man (2002).

2012/10/21

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

by Jav Rivera

Some films have the ability to twist a genre and create their own sub-genre.  Some do it by blending genres together (ex. Shaun of the Dead = comedy and horror), others do it by creating one (Lethal Weapon = buddy cop action).  Director Andrew Dominik and his film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford created a Western like no other.  And how he twisted the genre is a bit of a mystery.  It's definitely in the Western genre but something about it makes it stand out in its own class.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, released in 2007, starred Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford.  Both performances are easily one of their best and have even been praised by the descendants of James.  The film has also been regarded as one the most historically accurate accounts of the James gang.

Along with Pitt and Affleck is a collection of the finest and underrated performers, including Sam Shepard as Frank James, Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford, Jeremy Renner as Wood Hite, Garret Dillahunt as Ed Miller, and Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil.  And the smaller "bit parts" feel giant in the hands of the cast's list of quality actors.  Mary Louise-Parker, Ted Levine, and Zooey Deschanel don't disappoint, but high praise belongs to the more unknown players such as Kailin See, Alison Elliott, Pat Healy, and a surprisingly great James Carville (yes that one).  It's almost eerie how amazing the cast gels with one another.  With no one trying to steal scenes, it's hard to find a moment when you're not taken back by the ensemble.

L-R: (Top) Garret Dillahunt, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, and Casey Affleck
(Bottom) Brad Pitt and Sam Shepard
One of the film's best aspects is its slow but mesmerizing pace.  Editors Curtiss Clayton and Dylan Tichenor, along with their director, create something magical simply by allowing a scene to takes its time.  In fact, it comes close to what Sergio Leone did with Once Upon A Time In The West. It's Assassination's pace that helps bring the audience into the West where days weren't filled with technology.  Some movie-goers may have an issue with the film's slowness, and somewhat lack of action, but if the film was any different, its charm would surely dissipate.


The film is also brought to life with its use of narration (which was sadly omitted from the film's official trailer).  Actor Hugh Ross provides his calm, historic-like voice.  Much like Morgan Freeman before him, Ross has filled cinema's void in narration quality.  And again, the film would suffer from the removal (or worse, replacement) of his voice.  So many parts of this film were in perfect tune.

Hugh Ross, of course, was fortunate to have his voice placed underneath some of the most awe-inspiring imagery captured by one of cinemas finest directors of photography - Roger Deakins.  Deakins, who has won several awards and has been nominated countless times, has credits that include The Shawshank RedemptionO Brother, Where Art Thou?, and most recently Skyfall (the 2012 James Bond film).

Deakins takes a shot as simple as the shadow from a wooden chair and, with the help of Ross' narration, creates a menacing moment.  The same can be said about the entrance of a train in the night (during a train robbery scene).  The steam from its engine engulfs the black beast as it barrels towards the camera.  As the train reaches the camera lens, the front end of the train then pushes the camera, transforming the once stationary camera into a dolly backwards, carrying it through the dark woods. It's a shot tailor made for cinematography courses.

Deakins also utilized his self-penned "Deakinizers", which created a blurry haze on the edge of the camera lens (much like old-timey vignetting).  He explains that these "Deakinizers" were used to transition moments within the film.  The combination of his unique point of view and attention to meaning adds to the film's prestige.  Instead of just doing something 'cause it looks cool, Deakins uses his experience and visual style as a means to enhance, making him a true master of his profession.

Roger Deakins (Director of Photography)
With all these aspects in place, much of the film's credit also goes to its director - Andrew Dominik, whose previous film was seven years prior: 2000's Chopper starring Eric Bana (reviewed here).  Chopper was a far departure from Assassination which surely made Warner Bros. Studios sweat.  In fact, Dominik fought for many of the film's attributes.  And if it were not for the support of Producers Brad Pitt and Ridley Scott, Assassination may have been a completely different film.

But, Dominik stuck to his guns and his team backed him up.  Pitt, a fan of Chopper, probably took solace in the fact that Dominik successfully transformed a handsome gentleman like Eric Bana into a hideous criminal.  Dominik also made a story about said criminal into an entertaining story, set almost entirely within prison bars.  Pitt was justifiably confident with his director, which leaves no doubt why the two paired up again for the 2012 film Killing Them Softly.

Andrew Dominik (Director) and Brad Pitt (as "Jesse James")
Sadly, the film got little attention at the box office, but no matter.  So many films have been ignored by a majority of the general public and eventually found their audience (ex.: The Shawshank Redemption).  If it's not already being studied by film students, Assassination is soon to find Western fans who ache for quality content.

The film has also been criticized by some for not having a strong enough story, but to me, that's not the point of this film - I interpret it more as a mood filmed on celluloid; a mood of distrust stemming from Jesse James and bleeding into the other characters.  And there is indeed a story connecting all these characters, but the string that ties them together is Jesse James.  The moods of everything - from the characters to the landscapes - keeps you feeling uneasy from beginning to end.  And it's this feeling that makes you want to watch it over and over again.  Well…that combined with the brilliant team in front of and behind the camera.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford succeeds in so many ways - from the impossibly perfect cinematography, to the flawless cast, to the haunting score, to the documentary-like narration, to the art direction, to the sound design, to the slow and steady pace.  But it could have all been destroyed if not for the film's direction.  Andrew Dominik created a truly poignant film and is sure to be studied for years to come.

For more information visit their IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0443680

TRIVIA: Brad Pitt stipulated in his contract that the name of the movie was not to be changed. 

2012/10/14

Mamá

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

Honestly, there are some times that you DON'T want your mommy...
For me, horror films are sort of like a car accident on the side of the road.  I know that it's better to just pass them by; no slowing down to gawk and try to satiate my curiosity, unless (in the case of the aforementioned horror movies) I want to end the evening on high alert while trying to fall asleep: “What the {bleep}was that noise? Did that freakin’ shadow in the corner just move?!”  Oddly enough, there have been a few times when I was happy that my fascination overrode the risk of bedtime paranoia; I saw some extremely good pieces of work--even if, later that night,  I could’ve sworn that my coffee cup was in a different place than where I’d last left it.

With a run time of slightly over three minutes, Andres (Andy) Muschietti’s 2008 short film Mamá is one of those risks gone right.  It grabbed me right out of the gate, kept me riveted, and preyed on my not-so-long dormant childhood fears.  For me, it’s this piece of work’s simplicity that makes it truly stand out.  It does this with some of the earmarks of thoughtful filmmaking: good use of lighting, music selections that enhance but don‘t interfere with the mood, and subtle sound effects that help to up the ante.  (It was also, impressively enough, reported to be created from just two camera shots.)  It doesn’t have to rely on many special effects or the shock value of blood and gore to frighten us.  It just gives our imaginations free reign to scare the crap out of us on their own.

            

And it’s that subtle, psychological tension of the short that makes it so damn creepy.  Like some of the best thriller/suspense movies of the past, it uses a cat and mouse technique to toy with us, slowly building on the trepidation we're feeling, and allowing us to come up with our own sinister possibilities.  We don’t really know what’s happened to title character Mamá; is she back from the dead? Worse, is she back from the dead but perhaps possessed by some kind of evil? Or, has some horrible event caused people to mutate? The suspense of not knowing just what she is (though obviously no longer a “normal” human being) ups the uneasiness the viewer is feeling.

There were a few things that I especially liked about the film, and that I felt made it really stand out: the first seconds of Lili scurrying backwards into the room in the opening scene immediately set the tone and mood for me; it put me on edge right away, suspicious of who (or really, what) she was and what her intentions might be.  The relative darkness of the whole film added fantastic tension too; you never knew what might be lurking in the shadows.

I also like that the little girls in the film act like little girls, not some heroic mini adults; they do incredibly kid-like things.  Even while her sister is urging her to hurry, Victoria wastes precious seconds to go back to grab her fish bowl on the way out of her room.  Later, in a moment of sheer terror and panic, Lili acts first and thinks later, with definite consequences to follow.

Promo for the 2013 full-length film
I’m not always a fan of film adaptations, but in January of 2013, a full-length feature will be released, based on this short.  Guillermo del Toro, director of Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and many others, will be producer, with Muschietti as director.  Hopefully, in those capable hands, the full-length film won’t do anything to detract from the original short.  I wouldn’t usually say this, but in this case, I’m sort of looking forward to being scared out of my wits.  I’ll just have to put aside some extra money for the electric bill; I’m sure I’ll need to leave a light on for a few nights.

(Fun trivia: Mamá was filmed in Barcelona, but the house used for the set was slated for demolition in a couple of weeks.  The filmmakers were enamored with it, so they organized the cast and crew and shot the film as quickly as possible, before demolition could take place.)

To find out more about the short, check out its IMDb page here: www.imdb.com/title/tt1315885

2012/10/07

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Paul Giamatti

By John Bloner Jr.

It’s not easy being Paul Giamatti. Despite receiving accolades for performances in films "American Splendor", “Sideways” and “Cinderella Man” and the mini-series, “John Adams”, The Believer magazine calls him, “the lit-geek equivalent of Gollum”. Onscreen, he’s often blue-collar, a boozer and a bastard. “I have no interest in sympathetic heroes”, he recently told George Stroumboulopoulos. “I can’t remember any time when I didn’t feel deeply cynical about humanity.”

He's my kind of guy. 


His first big break came in playing the part of “Pig Vomit” in Howard Stern’s picture, “Private Parts”. In his career, he’s also played a legless leper monk, a janitor with a stutter, and once earned a credit as the “man in a sleeping bag” on an episode of NYPD Blue. In the 2009 film “Cold Souls”, created by French director Sophie Barthes, he plays a character named Paul Giamatti, a New York actor who’s working off-Broadway in a production of Anton Chekov’s play “Uncle Vanya.”


Like the irascible Vanya, Giamatti's character is middle-aged, childless, and burdened by the belief that he's wasted his life. "I have a pain in my chest, like somebody put my heart in a vice and just tightened it," he tells his on-screen wife. What he wants to pull out, however, is not his heart, but his soul. In this film, a soul is not an immaterial entity, but a tangible thing that animates the person it possesses. For some, the soul is a source of enormous delight, while for others, it's a virus that defeats its host.

One night, Giamatti reads of a company that can extract his soul and place it in cold storage until he wishes to regain it.


"Cold Souls" is a comedy in the spirit of Chekov who referred to his plays as comedies. The Russian playwright's translator, Paul Schmidt, said of him, "If any one author ever had a sense of the human comedy, the heartbreaking ridiculousness of our everyday behavior, it was Chekov."

"Cold Souls" is heartbreakingly ridiculous as it depicts Giamatti's life as an actor and husband. He discovers that the absence of his soul is worse than the terrible weight of one. He can barely function. When he returns to the lab to reclaim it, he learns to his horror that not only has his soul been stolen, it's in Russia where it's been implanted in the body of a soul trafficker's wife.


For her first feature film, French director Sophie Barthes has created “Cold Souls” with a style of storytelling that has earned comparisons to the work of Charlie Kaufman in his work with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry and his own first picture. Barthes refutes the connection. "I don't think [Cold Souls] feels like a Kaufman film," she told the Village Voice. "He's much more cynical, sarcastic, and twisted."


Sophie Barthes with Paul Giamatti on the set of Cold Souls
A dream, by way of C.G. Jung and Woody Allen, inspired Barthes to create "Cold Souls". Before falling asleep, she was reading Jung's book "Modern Man In Search of Soul", which posits that modern man is manipulated by technology and mass media ads. In order to restore balance in his life, he must feed and strengthen his inner self.

Shen then dreamt of a doctor's office where she and other patients, including Woody Allen, were holding boxes that contained their souls. Allen was furious because his soul resembled a chickpea. Before Barthes could open her own box, the dream ended, but the inspiration for "Cold Souls" was born.


Barthes gives Giamatti a chickpea for a soul in her film, but the tiny garbanzo isn't a mere MacGuffin. Its role is transformed from an object of pain ("I feel stuck", Giamatti complains.) to embarrassment ("Are you telling me that my soul is a chickpea?" he cries out to his doctor) and finally to something that nourishes his life.

In the 13th century, the Persian poet Rumi spoke of a chickpea soul which discovers its torment is a process toward its delight.

A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it's being boiled.

"Why are you doing this to me?"

The cook knocks him down with the ladle.

"Don't you try to jump out.
You think I'm torturing you.
I'm giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.

(poem excerpt: translation by Coleman Barks)

 Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) and Giamatti examine his chickpea soul.
Giamatti discovers the lovely vitality of being human through his inner and outer journeys in "Cold Souls".  The film is dominated by scenes of winter; yet, in the final image of Brighton Beach, the viewer sees the sun rise and the waves rush along the shore, symbolic of the thawing of the cold-soul in Giamatti and a new start for his life.


Barthes' partner, Andrij Parekh (shown above with her) served as cinematographer on the film, capturing a world of perpetual winter, buildings in ruin, and retro-futuristic technology. Together, they have created the short films "Happiness" and "Snowblink", along with "Cold Souls".

Composer Dickon Hinchliffe
Music plays an important role in "Cold Souls", as written and performed by Dickon Hinchliffe. Hinchliffe delivers a soundtrack that sounds at times like a music box or a baby's mobile. A great film is never the product of just one person, but the ensemble of actors, authors, set designers, cinematographers and those who create its music.  Critics have used terms like "sublime", "subdued melancholy" and "so inspired they make your limbs ache" to describe Hinchliffe's sounds as solo musician and as a member of the band, Tindersticks.



Barthes and Giamatti are teaming up again in 2013 to bring the novel Madame Bovary to the screen. Giamatti should revel in the role of Monsieur Homais, a long-winded, brown-nosing charlatan. He told the NY Daily News, "I find that the crazy narcissists, the selfish-loons are often the most fun to be around, weirdly."

They're also a lot of fun to watch.  Thanks, Paul.


Time Magazine has called Paul Giamatti, "the world's best character actor".  For more on him and his career, visit his page at IMDb.com.