Archive for Sam Raimi

Because of the Wonderful Things He Does

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2013 by dcairns

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL should be seen for the fab 3D — Sam Raimi has always been a 3D filmmaker anyway, punching at that screen with his little girlish fists, trying to smack the audience in the face as if it were one of his beloved Stooges, and now he can finally do it, if only virtually. There are some really gorgeous effects here, particularly the snowflakes, which had us all swiping at the air like babies encountering soap bubbles for the first time. And during the Academy Ratio b&w opening sequence, Raimi keeps breaking the frame by having things like a fire-breather’s blazing puff burst out of the edges of the shot and into the auditorium.

There are, admittedly, some problems with the drama. There isn’t a lot of what you might call thrilling action, the non-period dialogue is irksome, and the mechanics whereby James Franco’s Oz actually destroys a decent character are troubling — he can never really be redeemed from this, and certainly doesn’t deserve to get the girl. If you watch this and then watch the 1939 original, the bit where Oz sends Dorothy to kill his ex-girlfriend will strike you as tonally rather off.

And an early scene where Oz, a Kansan magician, is threatened by an audience because he is unable to cure a crippled girl, is just peculiar. These may be hicks, but it’s unlikely they would expect a stage magician to perform actual miracles of healing. The scene could only make sense if Oz were a snake-oil salesman or faith healer, and I can only presume somebody thought that was too unsympathetic. But the character is pretty hateful at this stage anyway. He’s just ineffectively hateful.

My thoughts on the film seem to be whirling around like uprooted picket fence posts in a cyclone: let’s just sit by the window and check them out as they drift past. However — the movie may be best experienced knowing nothing about the story, so be aware there are a few spoilers below, and maybe avoid reading until you’ve seen the movie, if you plan to.

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The movie is a remake of Raimi’s ARMY OF DARKNESS. It is. But the ending is swiped from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. (“Revenge of the Big Face.”)

All along I had a problem with Franco, who can play a phony but can’t play calculation, insincerity and confidence-inspiring baloney. Fiona initially disagreed: “I liked him, I thought he was fine.” “They turned down Robert Downey Jnr.” “WHAAAAAAAT???!!!”

Michelle Williams is the best: the only character you always believe, for every line and look. There’s never any doubt with MW. And she’s playing the Billie Burke role, for God’s sake. It doesn’t exactly strike one as a gift to the actor. But she embraces the challenge of making Goodness and Strength interesting. Raimi has always had a touching faith in sweetness in women (and a corresponding fear of female sexuality).

Raimi’s connection to Oz goes back at least to the animate trees of EVIL DEAD, though his are considerably nastier than those Dorothy Gale tangled with.

Bruce Campbell gets hit with a stick, so that’s fine. By the dwarf from BAD SANTA: you get extra points for that.

Raimi’s still casting all his kids in crowd scenes, but he doesn’t shoehorn in irrelevant dialogue for them this time, as he did in SPIDER MAN III.

Fiona reckons Mila Kunis must look scary in real life, since her eyes are somehow bigger than the head that contains them. I was wondering how she would manage to the transformation from spherical to pointy head. Maybe she’d end up looking like a Sputnik. But the makeup is quite effective. Nobody can be Margaret Hamilton except Margaret Hamilton, though.

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The main reasons I liked this a lot better than Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, which had the same producers and also a by-the-numbers Danny Elfman score:

1) You can’t turn Lewis Carroll into a parable of good versus evil, and only an idiot would try. It’s about sense versus nonsense, or ordinary logic versus strange and sublime logic.

2) Fewer curlicues in this one.

3) Burton had no ideas for 3D whatsoever, and seemed unable to focus pull or edit without throwing the viewers’ brain out of whack, since what your eye was led to by the 3D was never consistent with the other filmmaking choices.

4) Admittedly, nobody in OTGAP is as good as Anne Hathaway in AIW. But nothing is one tenth as bad as Johnny Depp’s dance.

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China Girl is a really great SFX creation. Too bad they couldn’t have left her sweet and sentimental: the more raucous humour spoils the character a bit.

The Munchkins attempt a song, making this the fulfillment of Raimi’s dream for the ill-fated CRIMEWAVE: “I wanted to make it the Ultimate Film of Entertainment.”

(Is this the modern cinema experience in a nutshell: a big, bloated, yet oddly uneventful event, miscast and indifferently written, yet winning a measure of our respect just by virtue of presenting a slight variation on the usual form of spectacle? But wasn’t it ever thus? But isn’t it more so now?)

Webb Head

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2012 by dcairns

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN — enough has been said about whether this was an absurdly rapid reboot (I’d say so), about whether there are too many superhero movies (I’d say so) or about whether making every superhero film an origin story betrays a lack of imagination (it does)  – having caught the film at last, I want to say that it’s pretty good, for a superhero movie.

It’s really two movies. Director Marc Webb must’ve been hired partly for his name, and partly to bring the characters to something like three-dimensional life. This, he succeeds in. The film is actually emotional, the leads are appealing and convincing, and everything involving Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Sally Fields and Denis Leary is good, human drama. The filming is a little ordinary, to the point where you can barely even tell it’s in 3D for the first ten minutes or so.

Then there’s the action side. This is kinetic and packs plenty of visual oomph. We’re used to big movies being kind of patchworks, with the visual effects and second unit guys handling everything that doesn’t involve standing still and emoting, but the result is particularly striking in this case. On the other hand, the dialogue in the scenes involving Spidey and the Lizard, his hulking foe, is pretty pitiable, a collection of clichés and disconnected one-liners. I’m guessing that two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (PAPER MOON, STRAIGHT TIME) didn’t write those bits.

As well-staged as it is, the monster-fighting doesn’t offer much we haven’t seen before, although the web-slinging and city-swinging is MUCH more convincing here than it was in Sam Raimi’s cartoony pastel Manhattan. And the film’s villain, Rhys Ifans / the Lizard, isn’t very well integrated into the other storylines. Ifans, maybe the film’s best actor (see his AMAZING turn as Peter Cook in Not Only But Always), gives probably its weakest central performance. I don’t think anybody involved was really enthusiastic about, or believed in, the mad scientist transformation stuff.

Here’s where the origins story thing hurts the movie: it’s actually sort of interesting, in a nerdy formulist way, to watch Spider-man’s origin get re-told, exactly the same key story points expressed in different ways, but like the first Raimi film, the movie takes an age to get going because we also have to see the villain’s origin. And Raimi did this in EVERY ONE of his Spider-man movies (and in DARKMAN). How much more interesting (and speedy!) it would be to have the monster already at large and have the hero uncover the secrets of its existence and motivation. The only recent movie I can think of that does anything like this is THE AVENGERS. Which is part of why I respect THE AVENGERS.

Then we ran (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, Webb’s previous effort, and it was so much better than THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that I did kind of wonder — has Webb wasted several years of his life? He could clearly have made two movies like (500) in the time it took him to make the blockbuster, and for that money he could have made (50). Of course, the economics of the film biz doesn’t work that way. But I’m hoping that the bigger movie will allow him to make more smaller movies.

(The harsh version: John Cassavetes to Martin Scorsese, after the latter had made BOXCAR BERTHA. “You just wasted a year of your life.”)

Webb has a real gift, clearly, for casting handsome couples — Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel go great together. And the playful narrative choices (think ANNIE HALL’s splitscreen, animation and subtitles) and non-linear structure via first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber keep the thing constantly on its toes. The pity of it is that a super-hero blockbuster COULD have precisely those virtues — the nasty but very funny KICK ASS practically does. (KICK ASS also has a more convincing sense of the modern world, with its hero becoming a YouTube sensation. In AS-M, a giant lizard rampages across the Williamsburg Bridge and nobody shoots it on their phone, leading the cops to dismiss it as a fantasy.)

There’s also emotional depth — you may tear up, and you certainly may recognize bits of your own life, sharply observed. The film is so much fun that it could coast by on charm alone, but it chooses to get into real heartbreak, which is what separates the truly romantic from the mere romcom. And this comes out even in the ludic filmmaking choices — a splitscreen comparison of expectation versus reality late in the show creates a genuinely anxious, sinking feeling in the stomach.

I carry in my mind the idea that we’ve lost the ability, for some reason, to do good romantic comedies, but while I stand by the idea that it used to be somehow easy and natural to do those films well and now it seems to be hard, there have been some really good funny romances in the last twenty years. It’s just that, from GROSS POINTE BLANK to SCOTT PILGRIM VERSUS THE WORLD to (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, they more often seem to be predominantly from the male perspective. Am I wrong, or why is that?

Schlock Corridor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by dcairns

I idly wondered if the best bit from Sam Raimi’s CRIMEWAVE (his second film, following THE EVIL DEAD, co-written with the Coens) was on YouTube. Of course it was.

A strangely beautiful bit of live-action cartooning.

CRIMEWAVE was the victim of consistent and egregious studio interference — they refused to allow Bruce Campbell to play the lead, despite his modest EVIL DEAD cult status (their replacement choice is a complete no-name) and messed with the score and sound effects. What with Raimi mixing Three Stooges slapstick with Hong Kong action cinema camerawork, the result is a rather deafening bit of chaos: I know from experience that an extra cook or two can turn something from “lively” into “irritating” in short order. But a few bits are beautiful. I wish Raimi had brought some more of his style to the SPIDERMAN franchise, which was one of the better superhero things while it lasted but seemed to have been through some kind of extravagance removal program.

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