film

Old School Review: "The Evil Dead" (1981)

Written and directed by Sam Raimi, “The Evil Dead” is the quintessential archetype of the “Cabin in the Woods” style of horror films. Recently, a group of friends and I rewatched Sam Raimi’s masterpiece indie horror cult classic- and it dawned on me that I had never written about it here in the blog. There’s no time like the present they say, so, here I am. First, there will be spoilers- but I highly recommend the film if you’ve never seen it, it’s one of my all time favorite horror films. In the film, five young Michigan State University students travel through the Tennessee mountains to vacation in a remote cabin. Their journey there takes them through increasingly abandoned roads and eventually through a two-track trail deep into the forest. In a bit of unnerving foreshadowing their final descent involves crossing a rickety wooden bridge in Raimi’s 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, affectionately nicknamed “The Classic”.

Once the group reaches the cabin, an ominous porch swing continuously slams into the side of the cabin walls until Ash (Bruce Campbell) unlocks the front door with a skeleton key ring above the door’s mantel. The five friends all settle in despite the creeping sense of an ominous force in their midst. One of the girls, Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), is drawing the clock on the wall but becomes weakly posessed for a moment as she’s forced to frantically draw a crude rendering of the infamous Necronomicon, or “Book of the Dead”. Then shortly afterwards at dinner, the trapdoor to the cellar abruptly flies open. Ash and Scott (Richard DeManincor) investigate the occurence and wander through the basement, to which they discover a litany of bad omens in a secluded room. Daggers, bones, and a filthy book bound in human flesh and inked in blood are all on display, at which point Ash and Scott laugh at the oddity and decide to take the items upstairs for a goof. They also found an archaeologist’s tape recorder which they play at their peril. In the tape the archaeologist describes the phenomenon that they are about to experience in which ancient Sumerian rituals raise demonic spirits. Cheryl asks them to stop the tape, but Scott insists they hear the end, and when he turns the tape back on the archaeologist has begun reciting the incantations that stir and wake the slumbering demonic forces of evil, eager to posess their latest victims. Initially The Evil Dead stalk their victims from the shadows before going all out on the college students. Cheryl keeps hearing voices clamoring for her to “Join us” and eventually goes out into the woods to confront them- which is a massive mistake as the trees attack her and in one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, rape her with swarming tree branches and sticks. It’s gruesome and horrifying, but it certainly sets up this supernatural phenomenon as one of absolute Evil.

The rest of the film is the blueprint for hundreds of homages, tribute scenes, and essential structure for horror movies utilizing remote locations with teenage protagonists set against something usually quite awful. While the whole film is wrought with excellent suspense and eerie ongoings, the second half of the film is where its at. The practical effects employed in the making of this film are truly stunning and crazily inventive for the time and genre. Once the film gets into it’s third act it gets absolutely bonkers with gore and over the top violence. It’s disgusting, revolting- nauseating even! The fact that the special effects of this indie horror movie still hold up roughly forty years later is effective proof of the film’s cult success and it’s unending rewatchability. Raimi’s direction and camera movement choices help prod the film even further into the absurdism of the third act. His inclusion of extreme dutch angles during Ash’s descent into madness and paranoia are filmed with wonderful speed and ferocity. Especially memorable are the scenes where the mirror turns to water and the comically dark beat where Ash tries to give his obviously dying friend Scott a drink of water that pours down his face as Ash confidentally tries to tell him they’ll all make it out alive.

If you’ve only ever seen Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films from the early 2000’s, I highly recommend you give his earlier work a shot. “The Evil Dead” movies that Raimi and Campbell worked on together share a crazy, manic, and creative spirit, and that’s inspiring. If you’re wondering why so many film nerds are excited by the recent news that Sam Raimi will be directing the “Doctor Strange” sequel, beyond his Spidey films, these horror films showcase a truly intense and massively creative talent behind the camera. We can only hope Raimi’s indie roots stick with him through his introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a bright future in film folks!

Final Score: 1 Ash, 4 Deadites

For fun, check out this article which takes a look at “The Classic”s many appearances throughout Sam Raimi’s filmography:

http://www.filmbuffonline.com/FBOLNewsreel/wordpress/2013/04/09/the-classic-sam-raimi-and-the-1973-oldsmobile-delta-88/

film

Old School Review: “Chungking Express” (1994)

Written and Directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “Chungking Express” is a uniquely romantic film out of Hong Kong in the early-to-mid 1990’s. This film falls heavily into the category of “Art film” and it relies far more on the feeling or sensation of its characters and imagery than the logic of plot progression. If that sort of film repels you, then this one may not be for you. Though I do suggest going out of your comfort zone when choosing which movies to watch, broadening one’s artistic horizons is always encouraged. Anyways, this film is essentially split into two halves- almost directly down the middle of the runtime. Each half even has its own cinematographer! The first half belonging to Andrew Lau, and the second to Christopher Doyle.

Both halves of the film follow lovelorn police officers in Hong Kong. The first half follows Officer 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) in the midst of his listless drudgery, the symptoms of a recent breakup. He’s taken to buying canned pineapple with the expiration date of May 1st- thereby giving himself a month after the break to wallow in self pity. When the date comes, he decides to eat the entirety of the canned pineapples he’s collected and then go out to a bar and try to seduce the first woman he sees. That first woman, however, happens to be a someone we’ve seen along side Officer 223’s malaise. We get almost no information about this woman (Brigitte Lin), other than the fact that she’s involved with some serious criminals. She’s always sporting a blonde wig and sunglasses, something that looks straight out of a 1940’s Noir’s femme fatale wardrobe. We witness her oversee a bunch of Indian men as they prepare to smuggle large amounts of heroin, watch her dance with a white man in a nightclub (possibly indicating him to be her superior), and observe as she goes on the run in an escalating foot-chase through the crowded marketplaces and streets of Hong Kong with a few haphazard shootouts along the way. By the time she escapes into a quiet bar and has a few drinks to settle her nerves, officer 223 enters in civilian clothing- eyeing her as his next obsession of love. From here, the two share a night of communal drinking, awkward expressions, and a sexless night at the officer’s apartment as he watches old movies late into the night as she sleeps unconsciously next to him. When she mysteriously exits in the morning, we follow officer 223 on his habitual route to the Midnight Express fast food shop, which just so happens to be frequented by another officer, number 663 (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung).

The second half of the film changes up it’s color palette and tonal sensibilities while still focusing on another officer experiencing love-loss in Hong Kong. This half is drenched in a colder blend of colors, whereas the first was submerged in deep reds and yellows. It’s also more akin to a rom-com dipped in whimsy than the first’s playful experiment in aspects of pulpy crime; a woman in danger, some gunplay, all existing in a subsect of a criminal underworld that exists parallel to everyday life. Officer 663 is also experiencing a sense of purposelessness in the aftermath of a breakup with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow). After the flight attendant leaves 663’s apartment keys, accompanied by a handwritten letter, at the Midnight Express we’re introduced to Faye (Faye Wong), the cashier with a pixie cut. After everyone else in the kitchen has read the letter, Faye indulges and takes a keen interest in officer 663. Faye’s interest quickly turns into a strangely, quirky, obsession as she repeatedly sneaks into his apartment to clean and rearrange his things. In other films, and in real life, several of her actions would seem alarming and unstable at times- but here it’s presented as playfully romantic. Which incorporates into the film’s thesis on relationships, both in the wake of longing and the potential of a new love. Taking the film as a whole, it’s harbors a unique ideology in which change is inevitable, but also that you must open yourself up to allow for the potential of a new positive evolution to take place.

This was an interesting film to take in. On its own merits, “Chungking Express” has something unique to offer- even if I didn’t quite love it as much as I anticipated, the film’s reputation exceeded itself for me personally. Though I am glad to have seen it. I admired the techniques employed throughout both halves. Melding slow motion, pixelation, and freezing the foreground while simultaneously blurring and speeding up the backgrounds of officers 223 and 663 in certain compositions helped to establish them as alone in a sea of people constantly on the move. Even though the film immerses itself in the wallowing of dissolved relationships- it retains a sheen of dreamy optimism that pairs well with it’s hypnotic nihilism, resulting in something truly bittersweet. I caught this film on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service (The Criterion Channel), and I cannot recommend the service enough. If you love old cinema and foreign films from every era, its worth your time.

Final Score: 1 month’s worth of canned pineapple

*For a deeper dive into the film and further context, check out the link below! I found the article to be an illuminating read:

https://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/216-keynote-chungking-express/

film

Review: Thunder Road

Written and directed by Jim Cummings, “Thunder Road” is a comedic-drama about the worst week of officer Jim Arnaud’s life. In a small Texas town the film opens in a church with the funeral proceedings of our lead character’s mother having just passed away. For context’s sake, this powerful opening scene was essentially lifted beat for beat from Cumming’s award-winning Sundance short film of the same name. A couple of years later Cummings opened that story up to it’s current feature length and expanded on the existential devastation that Cummings’ Arnaud goes through.

The single shot, 10 minute, opening eulogy that Jim gives is the solid foundation that the remainder of the film rests upon. In it he runs through the gamut of scrambled emotions that can befall someone when losing a loved one. He shares stories, tells jokes, he even dances, all resulting in a rambling absurdist confessional that feels more akin to a bad American Idol outtake than how most films would handle such a scene. Which is exactly why this film is so memorable. Jim Cumming’s performance is littered with so much nuance that informs the audience about his character’s state of mind, past, and psychology that I know more about Jim Arnaud’s life than I will ever know about almost any male lead in a given feature. The vulnerability in this performance is palpable, there’s no proper or polite crying here. Jim’s anguish is a raw nerve exposed with ugly-face crying all while repeatedly trying to pull himself back from the edge in an effort to appeal to his own perception of manliness and politeness. Everything that can go wrong in this scene does, his daughter’s pink boombox that he hauls onstage to play the title track doesn’t even work- so he mimes the performance through tears and cringe-inducing embarrassment.

The rest of the film follows Jim after his public devastation, on his job as an officer of the law and in his home life as he battles for joint custody of his daughter. His ex-wife, Roz (Jocelyn DeBoer), attempts to gain sole custody of Crystal (Kendal Farr) and move out of the town. After a particularly confrontational day at work Jim seeks out his sister Morgan (Chelsea Edmundson) for familial advice and comfort, but after a scene that digs deeper into both characters’ connected past through their shared mother- Jim realizes that he must move forward on his own. From there the film exponentially accelerates the anxiety of his life at work and at home with attempts to alleviate the woes of both his daughter and the local police chief (Bill Wise).

So, this brings me to the conversation around the Academy Awards. I’ve already spoken before on my distaste for ranking, numbering, or giving out awards for art in general (as all art is subjective to the viewer’s taste)- but if we’re going to give awards out for performances, then we have to decide how we’re prioritizing the dialogue on film awards. The whole reason to give a best actor/actress award is to shine a light on a performance widely accepted as objectively good, and if that’s the case shouldn’t we focus on the lesser known performances that stand out as exceptional examples of the craft? If that’s the case then I have to admit that I’m amazed that “Thunder Road” hasn’t been mentioned in any conversation that I’ve heard concerning this year’s Oscars. Jim Cummings should be a name to keep an ear out for from this point on.

A French advertisement for the American indie hit “Thunder Road”

The acting in this film is superb and the number one reason to see it in my opinion, however, some praise should be given to how Jim Cummings and his team self distributed the film as indie filmmakers without going through the major studio/marketing system. After the film’s success at the South by SouthWest film festival Cummings and his team fought through the red tape of the major market distribution and instead used social media, kickstarter, got a few investors, invested in the film themselves some too, and before you knew it the film was a box office hit in France of all places. I highly encourage giving the links below a read-through to get more into the details of how they made this film and got it out to audiences in a variety of creative solutions. *(I don’t even know if the film has a physical copy release on DVD or BluRay, but I “rented” the film on YouTube and I’m glad I did!)

Final Score: 1 pink children’s boombox

*Check out the links below to get more in-depth information about how Jim Cummings and his team self distributed this film.*

https://www.indiewire.com/2018/09/thunder-road-jim-cummings-sundance-self-distribution-french-theatrical-1202005318/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/risasarachan/2019/01/03/independent-filmmaker-jim-cummings-on-how-filmmakers-can-create-and-distribute-without-help/#5c16d6e54543

film

Passion. Drive. Grit.

I’m gonna take a moment here to say something to all you would be filmmakers out there (fyi I count myself among that crowd).

Don’t. Give. Up.

If storytelling is in your blood, if its the thing that captures your attention from the moment you wake til the second your head hits that pillow, if its what inspires awe, laughter, even sadness, or simple reflection, then embrace it! Embrace that undying need to create, to inspire in others what moves you most!

I am fully aware of all the things that stop somebody from going out there and shooting a movie. Making a movie is a huge ambiguous, gelatinous, shapeless thing, it is different every time someone puts pen to paper, or powers on a camera, or buckles that last belt on their costume. It cannot be done alone, nor should it be. There are many, many, many, many, many, many variables to consider, and problems to overcome. Chief among them being the simple task of having enough money to even be able to start. That’s where I’m at. I get it. I have no gear, a handful of friends spread across several states that have interests in film, but reality steps in and takes precedence.

For Now…

My point is, do what you can, when you can. Have an idea? Write it down! I am no stranger to starting a billion ideas before finishing one. Clarity and focus is key. Knowledge is also important! Read up on it all! Do your homework. Get acquainted with the lingo, at least the basics. A particularly influential Art teacher I had in High School taught me that you have to learn the rules first, so you know what to break later. Here’s my current film related reading list, some I have completed, others I have yet to start, but they cover almost every aspect an indie filmmaker might want to know:

1 “The Filmmaker’s Handbook: A comprehensive guide for the digital age by Steven Ascher & Edward Pincus. My Thoughts: Its a bit of a behemoth, but packed with facts, details, and techniques. It solidly explains everything from how a camera works on its most primitive level, all the way to the heat of production and post. This might be the most info you get for your money out of all the books on this list.

2  “Making Movies” by Sidney Lumet. My Thoughts: I hadn’t heard of director Sidney Lumet before this (I know, shame on me), but I immediately respected him for his process of filmmaking. He was very detail oriented and planned things out way ahead of time, his style of controlling the creation of his films was a unique and fascinating one. If you haven’t seen any of his movies, check out “Serpico”, “Network”, and “Dog Day Afternoon”. Personally I loved all three and they made me realize Al Pacino was capable of more than a well placed “Ooo Aaahh”.

3 “Filmmaking: The Hard Way” by Josh Folan. My Thoughts: This book is a case study of indie director Josh Folan’s first feature length flick. If you’re wondering how other people in your shoes did it, check this out! He details the entire process from pre-production all the way to distribution. Plus the guy’s a very active and responsive social media personality, nice guy, and he’s totally willing to help with any questions that you might have (at least it seemed so from my short exchange with him).

“On Film-making: An Introduction to the craft of the Director” by Alexander Mackendrick. My Thoughts: Just because the framework of the story is “old school” in its time and references doesn’t mean the core ideas are “Out of Touch”. Plus if “The Third Man” comes up and you still haven’t seen that, you really need to stop what you’re doing and go watch that, a classic, and great, noir film starring Orson Welles (of “War of the Worlds” [not that one you mook] and “Citizen Kane” fame).

“Tough Shit” by Kevin Smith. My Thoughts: Even if you don’t necessarily care for Smith, this book still has valuable information in it. It details how he took his film “Red State” across continental America and self distributed it proving some twenty years after “Clerks” that he still is the indie kid that could, and did.

“Writing the Character Centered Screenplay” by Andrew Horton. My Thoughts: I’ve personally always had a bit of trouble adhering to the script format, and this helped break down the essentials for me, and helped me to appreciate a different, more character oriented take on the form. Very Useful.

7 “Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from concept to screen” by Steven D. Katz. My Thoughts: As an extremely visual person this one is VERY helpful to me as sometimes I just need to see it to better understand it, helpful for story-boarding and the multitude of different shots out there.

“Rebels on The Backlot: Six Maverick directors and how they conquered the Hollywood studio system” by Sharon Waxman. My Thoughts: Reads like a bit of an expose on the six most famous indie directors of the nineties at times, but I found it mesmerizing to learn how all of them worked so differently from each other, and how each arrived at success in wildly different ways. Directors include: Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, and Spike Jonze.

“True and False: Heresy and Common sense for the actor” by David Mamet. My Thoughts: Haven’t even opened this one yet, but from my time working at a theatre during college, I know David Mamet knows his stuff when it comes to acting, or so I’m told. Most likely worthwhile.

10 “Making a Good Script Great” A guide for writing and rewriting by Hollywood script consultant Linda Seger. My Thoughts: This one is just a great layer of extra fluff knowledge backing up your primary writing knowledge, it does focus on a good rewrite, which is an immensely important aspect.

If you’re not much of a bookworm then I have one last suggestion for you.“The Story of Film: An Odyssey” is a 15 episode series, one hour each, that features an in depth look into the entire history of filmmaking. I’ve found it to be an inherently fascinating watch. The series is chock full of knowledge on essentially every aspect of how filmmaking has evolved over time and I strongly suggest anyone that has a loose or even decent grasp on the history of filmmaking to check it out, it’s on Netflix, and surely available elsewhere as well.

Well there you go folks! I hope you find something useful in all that, I sure did! Remember, just be as productive as possible in your current situation! Never give up, and keep dreaming!

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Heroes: Edgar Wright

Within this subsect of my (possibly everchanging) blog, I intend to put a spotlight on the people that make me want to pursue my dreams more so than anyone else in the movie-making business. For my first entry I chose a director that has been in the spotlight in the last year regarding his once future film “AntMan”. First off, I admired Wright’s work before this whole “AntMan” hubbub. “Shaun of the Dead” is easily my favorite zombie movie and “The World’s End” might be in my top ten favorite films. It’s that good, really it is. I adore his work so much because it reflects the reality of what I want to do, that its possible to succeed if you work very hard and pour your soul into it. Yes, sometimes a quip with a zombie, or an invading alien robot deserves a little bit of heart. Taking a step back to our pint sized superhero flick though, Wright clearly isn’t just making movies just to get a foot in the door with the larger world of newly accepted geekdom. He had a vision with that character and Marvel wanted to do it in a specific way, and I respect the man for stepping back when he knew he was no longer making his “AntMan” film.

Such is what happens when big money and properties come into play. But I also understand Marvel’s point of view as well, at this point they have a formula, one that they intend to keep cashing in on. As they should, but not all director’s fit into a formula. Wright leaving Marvel to pursue other creative opportunities keeps me in mind of the ever present battle of creative control in the studio versus the indie filmmaker. This is important. It comes down to how you want to define yourself as an artist when writing or directing your films, and somewhere along the line you have to decide how much control you’re willing to give up for a multitude of reasons. Better pay, being part of a larger integrated system, bigger toys, bigger sandbox etc. This isn’t to say I’m against studios or studio made films, but this argument does matter though when considering creative freedom.

At the very least I’m glad what we got out of all of that was a fairly good superhero flick to add to Marvel’s vault of success. Wright’s presence can be felt throughout the flick and who knows, maybe that’s why it felt more personal and (pun intended) smaller than its big blockbuster brother that preceded it this summer. In fact between the Avengers sequel and “Antman” I personally got more out of the latter than the former. Expectation may be the culprit to blame most here though. With “Antman”, I was just hoping for it to be fun and a bit self referential in its wildly apparent silliness, which I got in spades. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was entertaining enough, but ultimately didn’t reach the height of the first movie, and really, who could blame them? The first “Avengers” was a milestone in the genre.

I think I’d have to side with Wright if I had been in his position though, if only because I long to be the kind of involved director that writes his own material and is very much “down in the trenches” of film-making. Maybe it’s just because I’m young, have hardly any film-making experience, and haven’t grown into the culture as of yet, but I’d like to believe in the power and integrity of the indie filmmaker. Until then I’ll be heavily anticipating Edgar Wright’s next piece, because if his cornetto trilogy is any indication, Wright is the fine wine of indie genre film-making and he’s only going to get better!