Wednesday, October 29, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Army of Darkness

Bruce Campbell shows us his boom stick in Army of Darkness.
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 29: Army of Darkness (1992)

Bold, charismatic leaders may not win wars, but they lead great armies. By the time Army of Darkness, the third film in the Evil Dead trilogy, rolls around to its epic conclusion, Bruce Campbell’s Ashley J. Williams has completed the metamorphosis that began in Evil Dead II. He is a leader of men, ready to take his troops into battle against a strong, superior, and supernatural enemy.

Onscreen evolution is easy to chart: We see actions translated either as cowardice or bravery, and we see competence translated as either success or failure. What is more difficult to appreciate is the evolution of the leader behind the camera, and like his heroic creation, director Sam Raimi is a bold, charismatic leader of men and women.

By the third film in his legacy-making trilogy, Raimi has gone from clearly talented novice to impossible-to-deny master of the craft. Army of Darkness is Raimi’s fifth feature film and would be the last time the horror maestro would tackle the genre for nearly two decades until his near-perfect Drag Me to Hell. For the lead into a 17-year horror hiatus, he threw everything at the wall, including a couple kitchen sinks. What he and his highly qualified cast and crew produced is a glorious exercise in excess, an over-the-top, genre-bending mash-up of everything Raimi holds dear.

Ash has been transported back to medieval times along with his car, his chainsaw, and his shotgun.  These accessories – which by this point, in ways both literal and figurative, are as much a part of Ash as his good hand – make him virtually a god in this mostly in-the-dark society. The first impression he makes is to kill a couple of the un-killable Deadites, an act which is now so commonplace as to almost be beneath him.

There is no denying that even at a rapid-fire 81 minutes, the plot gets convoluted, and it gets there quickly. To vanquish the Deadites for good, Ash must find the “Necronomicon,” which you may recognize as the book that got him into all this trouble in the first place. Along the way, there are wenches and women, wizards, magic, an army of tiny Ash’s, and the evil version of our intrepid hero –named Badash, no doubt with a wink and a nod.

Raimi’s influences are as much the Three Stooges and Jason and the Argonauts as anything from the first two films in the series. The comedy and old-school effects come flying from moment one, and coming from someone who has loved just about everything Raimi has done, I have to say this film feels the most like the one he was born to make. He clearly relishes the vastly increased budget – going from about $350,000 on The Evil Dead to $13 million on this picture – and puts every dollar on screen.

If some of the effects look hokey to modern eyes, well, they looked that way to viewers in 1992, as well. It is a purposeful effect, and if you are on Raimi’s wavelength – which you must be if you have made it this far in the series – you will love it. This is a director who showed enough talent and achieved enough success to warrant this kind of investment from a studio, and he used it to make the kind of movie he would have made for free in his parents’ backyard with even a few of the same actors.

The reason Army of Darkness hold up after all these years and what makes it worthy of rewatching is the do-it-yourself spirit of the cast and crew. Raimi went on to make some of the biggest, most expensive movies of the new century with the Spider-man series and Oz: The Great and Powerful, and there are wonderful thing about those movies, but when I really want to enjoy myself and be reminded why movies are fun, I will take Army of Darkness and the brilliant glow of a guy making a movie with his friends.

Tomorrow, for the penultimate entry in our series, we go straight to the top. We have explored the bloodiest, the most violent, the craziest, the darkest, and my personal favorite, but on Day 30, we are just looking at the best. I know we said this is not a best-of list, and it is not, but the month would not be complete without a superlative exclamation point somewhere.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Evil Dead II

Bruce Campbell is groovy ... and a little insane in Evil Dead II.
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 28: Evil Dead II (1987)


It would be hard to own a word as thoroughly as Bruce Campbell owns the word “groovy.” The man just radiates groove. For crying out loud, his Twitter handle is actually @GroovyBruce. The screening I attended last year of Fede Alvarez’s fantastic remake, Evil Dead, was a raucous, jubilant affair with a packed house of people who knew what they wanted and got it. They cheered, cringed, and laughed their way through the whole movie – and I was right there with them – but the biggest cheer of the night came in the three-second after-credits moment when Campbell appears in near silhouette as Ashley J. Williams and says, “Groovy.”

The transformation of Campbell from Bruce Campbell Actor into Bruce Campbell Ambassador of All Things Groovy took place right here in Evil Dead II. Director Sam Raimi has always taken a perverse delight in tormenting longtime friend and collaborator Campbell. This is egged on by the fact that Raimi has not just a little contempt for his and Campbell’s most famous creation, going so far as to call Ash the equivalent of a clueless moron.

To be fair, the Ash who shows up at the cabin in The Evil Dead is a bit of a bumbling fool, but what can any of us say we would do when faced with an ancient and unstoppable evil? Evil Dead II is a direct sequel to The Evil Dead, though some confusion is created by its opening 10 minutes, which play like the events of the first movie told as a short film. This was necessitated by Raimi’s desire to recap the first picture for the audience coupled with an inability to obtain the rights to the footage from The Evil Dead.

As it is, for the uninitiated, it could read as though Ash is returning with a new girl to the cabin of his previous torture. To Raimi, the distinction makes little difference, a view he addresses on the DVD commentary, saying that people have asked if Ash would be so stupid as to return to the cabin. In Raimi’s view – yes, yes he would. So, sequel, remake, unrelated standalone film, it does not matter. Ash is at the cabin, and the dead are on the loose.

However, this is not the old Ash. Whether you want to say he has evolved from the events of the first movie or this is a reimagined take on the character, this Ash has gone from apprentice to master in the art of killing Deadites. The Ash of Evil Dead II is resourceful, cunning, brave, a little crazy, and just a bit sexy, if that is your thing. When fans get their Evil Dead tattoos, this is the version of the character they get. He is beaten and bloodied. His shirt his torn. He has lost a hand and replaced it with a chainsaw, and his good hand carries a shotgun. To put it briefly, Ash has got his groove back.

Campbell carries the first half of the movie basically on his own. It takes a long time for the supporting characters to show up, and by the time they do, the audience really could care less about any of them. All we want to know is the fate of our hero. Campbell gets knocked in some corners for being a B-movie actor – a moniker he has embraced if we go by the title of his autobiography – but the quality of his film projects has no bearing on the quality of his performances. I will take an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink performance from Campbell any day over some of the stuffed-shirt performances so often heralded.

In one of my favorite scenes in film history, the inanimate objects of the cabin come to life and shriek with laughter at Ash’s predicament. By this point, we can forgive Ash for having gone a touch insane, and he returns their shrieking with a maniacal burst of laughter of his own. What I remember is a rocking chair, a mounted deer head, a particularly sinister lamp, and an unhinged, all-or-nothing performance from Campbell.

It is hard for me to discuss Campbell without sounding like a gushing fan, but I embrace it. I have been a fan since before I knew who he was. He lends his voice to the main character from one of my favorite video games as a child – “Pitfall 3D.” To me, Pitfall Harry was as cool as Indiana Jones, and Campbell is Pitfall Harry. Then I saw Evil Dead II. I was too young to understand everything I was seeing, but the visceral thrills and unmitigated joy I felt watching that movie could not be matched by anything else.

For all intents and purposes, Evil Dead II is a horror-comedy, a genre changeup from The Evil Dead. It features Raimi’s love of Three Stooges-style slapstick and the kind of wild pratfalls of which Campbell is a master. It is a near-perfect exercise in genre blending that is sometimes regarded as superior to their first effort. I cannot go that far because the first time is always the best, but this gets damn close, and as experiences go, Evil Dead II is damn groovy.

Tomorrow, we bring the Evil Dead series to a close with yet another genre switch and a hell of a lot of medieval insanity.

Monday, October 27, 2014

New movie review: Dear White People

Tessa Thompson (center) stars as Sam White in Justin Simien's Dear White People.
It is provocative. It is a discussion starter. It is an important topic. It means well – but the road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People, has all the makings of a message film filtered through the sensibilities of a satirical comedy-drama. That it mostly succeeds at comedy and mostly fails at drama is beside the point. The goal of this feature is to hold a mirror up to the culture and show us where we have gone wrong. What appears in the reflection will say more about the viewer than the film.

Race remains a lightning-rod issue in all corners of society. Polite conversation can devolve into uninformed political rhetoric and outright anger just by bringing race into the discussion. Most people would rather avoid the topic all together and tuck it away with their talking points about religion and politics until they find like-minded folks with whom they can just nod their heads.

This is particularly true if you find yourself among the white people in “mixed” company, whatever that means anymore. Maybe you try to steer the conversation away from controversy or just bite your tongue altogether. God forbid you should offend someone or, worse, be called a racist. Do you know who is most afraid of being labeled racist? Racists.

Dialogue is good. Discussion is good. Hell yes, debate is good. In one of Dear White People’s many “that is so true” moments, firebrand radio host Sam White, played by Tessa Thompson, announces on her show that white people who use the term “African American” because they are afraid of saying “black” should just go ahead and say “nigger” because that is what they want to say anyway.

The moment is played for laughs but is in reality an instance of bracing honesty. This film is speaking to a generation of 18- to 25-year-olds who want to ignore race, move past it, and pretend they do not see color. Their intentions are good, but those road signs you see point directly to hell. We will not get past issues by claiming we are above them. We will get past them by diving down into the mud and fighting. Controversy should be courted and confronted.

In this respect, Dear White People is a noble and necessary effort. Any film that fosters intelligent debate among people with differing views should be seen far and wide; however, I cannot say the conversations this film starts will necessarily be intelligent. The problem lies in the prevalence of the aforementioned “that is so true” moments, which are this film’s stock-in-trade.

It bears repeating that race is a tough topic to tackle on film. Most people just do not want to hear it, and when they do, it makes them defensive. “I would never say that” or “I could never do something like that” are the familiar refrains of moviegoers confronted with a reality they hoped not to acknowledge, but the oft-ignored fact is: It does not matter what you would do or have done; all that matters is that it is done.

Remember, we are living in the time of President Barack Obama and a generation of teenagers and young adults who vowed to be better about these kinds of things, definitely better than their parents’ generation and the generations before that. The president of the fictional Ivy League university featured in Dear White People even says at one point, “Racism is over.” And would you believe there are people, smart people, who believe this to be true?

The problem with Dear White People’s satirical approach to storytelling is that it gives audience members permission to laugh at themselves. Rather than challenge viewers to think critically about the roles they play in oppression, racism, and inequality, it lets them off the hook with its artifice of humor. As a result, people are most likely to leave the theater joking with their friends about how “that is so true,” sharing a chuckle, and wondering what they are going to get for dinner.

One of the biggest drawbacks of the film is that Simien tries to cram too much story and too many characters into an already bloated hour and 50-minute runtime. There is Thompson’s White, a mixed-race woman trying to embrace her essential blackness. There is Tyler James Williams as Lionel Higgins, whose identity crisis comes from the fact that he does not conform to typical black stereotypes. Kyle Gallner plays Kurt Fletcher, whose successful father bullies him into actively avoiding those same stereotypes. And Teyonah Parris is Colandrea “Coco” Conners, who wants notoriety and recognition any way she can get it.

Those are just the main characters. There are about a half-dozen side characters whose stories we are asked to follow and concern ourselves with, as well as a complex and contradictory web of motivations for all of them. Streamlining would have done Simien’s film a world of good. For all the interlocking plots and showy storytelling devices, the central theme of the movie boils down to this: How can a black person be the most honest version of himself or herself in a predominantly white culture?

It is a powerful thesis question, enough for a whole series of films on the black experience in America. That would be an exciting project, something I would be first in line for every time. Instead, Simien gives us a picture with so much to say that it is constantly tripping over its tongue trying to get it all out. I am glad this film was made. I am energized by the idea that people may ask questions about their prejudices and the prejudice they see. But Dear White People is better in its design than its execution, and I am sad to report this probably will not be the film that exposes the cracks in the broken veneer of social harmony.

Having already discussed movies like Pride and Gone Girl in this space, it is hard not to think we are in a year of movies with important things to say about the society we have built but with no idea how to get their messages across. They intend to provoke. They intend to start discussions. They indent a lot of good things, but it is not enough. We need to move beyond good intentions and embrace positive actions. If we cannot do that, then I guess I will see you in hell.

See it? Yes.