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Column Fri May 29 2009

Drag Me To Hell, Up, Easy Virtue and Courting Condi

Drag Me To Hell

Sometimes fans don't like it when a director strays too far from what they perceive to be his/her comfort zone. And probably an equal number of fans hate it when a director repeats himself a few too many times. You can't please everybody (I think I'll copyright that because it's so damn original). It's tough to think of another director that fans would love to see do nothing more than repeat himself than Sam Raimi. If he did nothing but make Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies, most of the world's geeks would be completely satisfied. But if that had happened, we would have never gotten such tasty nuggets as Dark Man, A Simple Plan or The Gift. But a director like Raimi, like the consummate artist that he is, needs to stretch his wings every so often just to remind himself that he can. Watching a nearly finished work-in-progress print of Drag Me To Hell at SXSW last March saw Raimi somehow managing to do something I didn't think was possible — satisfying both schools of thought by making a non-franchise movie that still managed to tap into all of the thrill-house antics that have made him so damn much fun to watch over the nearly 30 years since The Evil Dead first changed the face of horror.

Raimi also remembers that you can show the world that you are a more mature filmmaker than you were 30 years ago while reminding everyone that the kid inside still likes to have the whiz scared out of him. And Raimi manages to scare us in a wholly satisfying manner in a PG-13 format. Let me just say this before I go any further: I've seen the finished film, and I'm a little surprised that it got a PG-13 rating. What I also noticed is that there is no swearing stronger than the word "bitch" (at least not that I can remember) and there's no nudity. So Raimi effectively said to the MPAA, "I'm not giving you any other opening besides cartoony blood and guts to give me an R rating," and so they didn't. And if you don't give this film a shot because it's PG-13, you're categorically insane and I'll hereby revoke your Horror Fan ID badge and decoder ring. I couldn't stop thinking about Robert Wise's 1963 masterpiece The Haunting, perhaps one of the scariest films ever made, a film that used nothing more than sound, shadows, and inventive camera work to scare us to death. Raimi's takes entire chapters from Wise's playbook, as well as a few tricks out of his own bag, to make us grip the armrests and curl our toes with fear.

But Drag Me To Hell also remembers how to have fun. The sweet and petite Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men, Things We Lost in the Fire) is a nice stand-in for Bruce Campbell as the human ragdoll who get tossed around by unkind — and largely unseen — beings from the spirit world who have attached themselves to her thanks to a gypsy's curse. Lohman's Christine Brown is a loan officer vying for a promotion from her boss (David Paymer), and she refuses to grant an extension to a little old lady named Mrs. Ganush (the splendidly wicked Lorna Raver, a TV character actor in her first big film role). Mrs. Ganush gets on her knees to beg for the extension, but Christine refuses, so the old gypsy lady lays a whammy on her something fierce. There's a fight scene between the two women in a parking garage (I'm sure a lot of you have seen it) that signals exactly the tone that Raimi is striving to achieve — fun, exciting, a little sickening, thrilling and whacky.

Lohman finds out from a medium (Dileep Rao) that the demon that has been cursed upon her will violently haunt her for three days before breaking through the earth's crust to literally drag her to hell. In the film's opening sequence, we see a scene set decades earlier when the same curse is placed upon a young Mexican boy who meets that exact fate. Christine's boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) is skeptical but is trying to be understanding and supportive to her beliefs. There's a strange backstory to Christine involving her being raised on a farm and the fact that she used to be fat that is amusing, but I'm not really sure that information enhances the story. For most of the film, Raimi relies on CG shadow effects, one of the great soundscapes in recent horror film memory, and his usual demented sense of playfulness ("Here kitty kitty.") to bring us to a masterfully staged séance set piece that uses every trick in the book and adds a few more publications to the shelves. Some may view what goes on during this 12-15 minutes as an Evil Dead Greatest Hits package (if anything, it's like one of those Greatest Hits sets where the band has to re-record all of their own songs due to ownership rights.) Possessed people float in the air doing demonic dances, inanimate objects in the room suddenly get very animated, and the voices of the possessed sound a hell of a lot like the demons inside folks in that cabin in the woods.

I also loved Drag Me To Hell's subtext. Christine is a loan officer in a bank, and the film could certainly be viewed as a "Kill the Bankers" statement. On that level alone, the movie feels very timely. However you choose to look at it, Drag Me To Hell acts as a great pallet cleanser for both Raimi and his fans between Spider-Man movies. Sam and his brother Ivan have concocted a screenplay that is low in concept but high in execution. The film is filled with things that ooze, gush and explode with nastiness of every shape and size, and it may be the closest thing we ever get to another Evil Dead film. My only real complaint with the film is that Raimi relies a little too heavily on cheap scares punctuated by loud music alongside his well-earned moments of genuine terror. I'd actually forgotten how gifted Raimi was at building tension, and I don't think he's ever done it to the extent he does with this work.

But comparing this film to Evil Dead isn't entirely fair or accurate (even though I just did), and the fact that Drag Me To Hell opens with the '80s-era Universal logo (and another vintage treat for those who stick around after the credits) shows that Raimi is trying to make a modern-version of a classic Universal scare film (or at least a much-improved version of Thinner). Whatever he's up to, I'm on board, and I hope that any loss of control that he might have felt as a result of working on Spider-Man 3 has been somewhat brought back to him as a result of this. And pay attention studio heads: Drag Me To Hell is the result of letting this great, proven filmmaker do what he does best with next to no interference from the outside world. It's not a perfect film, but the flaws are Raimi's to own and for fans to debate. What works here, however, works so damn well that I can't image fans of Raimi, fans of horror, or fans of groovy filmmaking being disappointed.


Up


Ho-hum. Another year, another fantastic Pixar film. What else is new? What? 3-D? Please continue. Excluding the first 45 unfinished minutes that I saw of Up at Butt Numb-a-Thon last December, I've actually seen this movie twice — once in 2-D and once in 3-D — and despite some people's claims that there's some degradation in the image when you strap on the 3-D glasses, unless you're looking at both version side by side, you aren't going to notice the difference. That said, I think anyone would be lucky to see the film in either 2-D or 3-D; this is one of the few 3-D-available movies that I think suffers nothing by not being seen in 3-D. I liked the film equally in both formats, so if you're desperate to catch Up and you don't have ready access to a 3-D-ready theater, don't sweat it.

From one of Pixar's founding fathers, Peter Docter (Monsters Inc.), comes what is essentially the final Indiana Jones movie... or at least it should. Actually I think Up has better and more believable action sequences than the last Indiana Jones chapter, and is a far better tale of a recipient of social security who straightens up his hunched-over back and arthritis-riddled hands for one final adventure in an exotic location. The man in question here is 78-year-old Carl Fredrickson, a man who married his elementary school sweetheart Ellie, and had always planned on taking her on a trip to South America (or possibly even moving there). In one of the greatest opening sequences in recent memory (and certainly the most emotionally satisfying), we see Carl and Ellie's life together. The bond as children over the exploits of world-famous adventurer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), who we see in newsreel footage as he is discredited after failing to produce evidence of his greatest scientific find. From their first meeting on, Carl and Ellie were practically inseparable. We're treated to a series of moments in their modest lives, done largely in unspoken scenes that convey just how devoted they are to each other, and how Carl's income as a balloon salesman at the zoo never quite afforded them that trip they were always planning. When Ellie dies, Carl (played by Ed Asner as a elderly gentleman) basically folds in on himself.

Jumping ahead a few years, Carl's home is being encroached upon by urban development all around him, but he refuses to sell him home and move into a retirement community, until a mishap in front of his home forces the issue and he is given no choice in the matter. It is right around this time that he meets Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer looking to get his final merit badge, one for helping the elderly. Carl doesn't need any help and slams the door in the kid's face. On the day that Carl is supposed to move out, he devises a plan using his skills from the previous job and ties thousands of balloons to his house in an effort to rip it from its foundation and fly it to South America and a spot he and Ellie had seen where they wanted to move. The launching of Carl's house sequence will make you forget to breathe, it's so beautiful. And the film just gets better from there.

The rest of Up is a little tougher to explain, so I won't really try. In my mind, it felt like the most wonderfully random series of adventures that the filmmakers could come up with. You probably already know that Russell somehow manages to stow away and become Carl's co-captain on the journey. But what happens to them once they reach their destination is so unpredictable and fun that I don't want to ruin too much of it. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that the pair do stumble about Muntz, who has carved out a life for himself filled with talking dogs (or more specifically, dog collars that allow his dogs' barking and other noises to be translated into speech), and decades of bitterness stemming from that one newsreel-captured moment of disgrace.

The imagination fireworks are on full display with Up, and I honestly can't remember a previous Pixar film that had this much fun being weird while remaining totally accessible. Perhaps because the film's central character is an old man, the filmmakers felt like they needed to make Russell a bit more of a kid than I think he needed to be, but that didn't really bother me (the film is, in fact, only Pixar's second PG-rated film, along with The Incredibles). Quite the contrary, the comedy stylings of Carl and Russell make Up Pixar's funniest film to date, as well as the most purely adventurous offering from the animation house.

Most of what I could say about my great affection for Up would probably only take the form of a long list of small touches that added up to an outstanding final product. For example, I love the Carl uses his walking stick as a tool for adventure, as he does his garden hose (still attached to the side of his flying house). I love that the meanest dog in the pack has a broken collar resulting in a Chipmunk-like that the other dogs laugh at. I love that people are debating whether Russell is Asian or not. It's silly — of course he is. I love the way the balloons look and move so incredibly real that it makes we want to hold a balloon and be its best friend. I love that the Pixar folks still managed to find room for John Ratzenberger's voice in a movie that doesn't have many characters. I loved the thunderstorm sequence. I'm a one-man lovefest for this film and I don't care who knows it. And while Up doesn't strive to apply a deeper meaning to its story the way Wall-E did, the message about never giving up on your childhood dreams is front and center here, and that's inspiring as hell. We could all use that reminder on a regular basis.

The best thing about casting Ed Asner as Carl is that if this film were somehow made as a live-action feature, Ed would still be playing Carl. In a rare instance for me, I never forgot that it was Asner in this role. My mind transplanted Asner's face right on top of Carl's body, and that was OK by me. He is Carl, and Carl is he. There's no line. He inhabits this character because he is this character. OK, Asner might not be as curmudgeonly as Carl in real life, but beyond that they inhabit the same space. Asner/Carl is the third grandfather I'd always wished I'd had but never knew it until I saw this film.

Enough gushing. You know you want to see this movie. It's Pixar, and even their least interesting work is better than 95 percent of what you see in a given year. Stop reading and go. If you can find it in 3-D, great. If you can't, doesn't matter. Have the adventure of a lifetime, even if it isn't your lifetime.

I should also add here that the opening Pixar short, Partly Cloudy, is yet another example of brilliant, dialogue-free storytelling and perhaps the single most creative short Pixar has ever made. Bravo to director Peter Sohn and Co. for giving us Pixar's version of creationism; it's certainly one I can get behind.

To read my exclusive interview with Up director Pete Docter, go to Ain't It Cool News.


Easy Virtue

Have you ever experienced a film that is clearly trying to make you feel more jubilant and saucy than you're actually feeling while watching it? It's filled with overdrawn characters doing things that aren't nearly as wild and crazy as the people in the film seem to think it is, and the result is a bunch of actors and filmmakers trying way too hard to entertain you with mixed results at best. Welcome to Easy Virtue, based on the spirited play by Noël Coward (Hitchcock made a silent film version of the same play in 1928), and directed and co-written by Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Welcome to Woop Woop).

Set in post-WWI Britain, Easy Virtue is story of a aristocratic family that is quickly losing its luster. The laid-back Colin Firth plays the patriarch who is tired of playing the role of the snooty head of the house, while his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) carries the torch with relish, even though the family fortune is not what it used to be. When the family's only son, John (Ben Barnes from Prince Caspian) returns home newly married to Larita (Jessica Biel), a larger-than-life American pilot, who has wowed both sides of the Atlantic with her daredevil flying ways. John's two sisters at times take great inspiration from Larita and other times despise her for her loose morals and brash behavior. Scott Thomas's character can't stand her from the first second she meets Larita, while her husband is delighted to have a spark of life inside the household's otherwise dimly lit walls. What ensues is little more than a period-film version of "Three's Company" with mishaps and antics consistently winning out over style and substance. By the time the real heart of the plot emerges — the increasingly sweet and mutually useful relationship between Firth and Biel — the movie had long lost my interest.

There's no denying that this is the best acting that Jessica Biel has done on the big screen, but considering it's a toss-up between a movie with Freddie Prinze Jr., one with Adam Sandler, or this, that's not really saying much. There's a certain playfulness that kept me from falling asleep while watching the film but certain there's nothing here that really made me think about it 12 hours after it ended. Ben Barnes is an emotional dud, and his character's attachment to his mother and fulfillment of her every wish was not only unbelievable, but a little creepy. Scott Thomas is never bad in a film, but she's stuck playing a stereotypical British upper-class twit, and it's a waste of her considerable skills. Firth fares better than anyone as he tosses out great Coward one-liners under his breath with a master's touch. But other than Firth, there's not much here to go gaga over. Feel free to skip right on past this one. Or if you feel the overwhelming desire to check out Biel's wonderful curves in period dress, the film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Courting Condi

In one of what is sure to be a long line of documentaries about members of the President George W. Bush's inner circle of advisors and cabinet members (remember Bush's Brain about Karl Rove?) comes this truly original take on the standard-issue biography film from director Sebastian Doggart. Treading the line between doc and mock, Courting Condi is an often hilarious examination of the life of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice through the eyes of musician and sometime-actor Devin Ratray (he had a role as one of Macaulay Culkin's siblings in the Home Alone movies). Not caring an iota for Rice's politics, Ratray is madly in love with this woman for her beauty, her power, her confidence, and he decides (along with his filmmaker friend Doggart, a "Project Runway" producer) to trace her life from the racially divided community in Alabama where she was born to Colorado where she went to school and all points in between leading to Washington, D.C., serving first under George H.W. Bush and then his son.

As silly as this concept may sound, the end result is pretty solid. In between Ratray's ridiculous love songs (and accompanying music videos) proclaiming his love for her, we actually do learn a great deal about Rice, including some supreme educated guessing on her present-day attitudes toward torture, the war in Iraq, and, yes, even her sexual history... or lack thereof. I was surprised to hear that she was childhood playmates with one of the four little girls killed in the now infamous church bombing in 1963 Birmingham, an incident that profoundly changed her life. The film also features what I understand is the first and only interview with the former Denver Broncos player who was engaged to Rice in her college years. He sheds quite a bit of light on her attitudes about premarital sex or apparently even premarital French kissing; both were a no-no back then, and her former beau believes her attitudes haven't changed to this day.

From scholars and biographers, it is made clear the impact and influence that her minister father had on shaping her life, the fascination she had with all things Russian (she was first brought into the White House as an expert on the Soviet Union), her switch from Democrat to Republican, and the role she may have played in condoning the use of torture as an intelligence-gathering technique during the current war. It's a solid psychological profile of Rice that I would have not expected from a film that seems to get a cheap thrill out of making Ratray look like a fool for pursuing her. But as he learns more and more about her alleged misdeeds, Ratray begins to lose interest in the object of his affections. The scenes of him falling out of love with Condi seem pretty phony, but that never stops the film from being funny or informative. His ultimate goal to meet her (he tries the White House front gate, the entrance to the State Department offices, and the Watergate Hotel, where she lived at the time Bush was in office) is a frustrating one, but after a professional makeover and an intense encounter with a focus group that listens to his goals on this journey, things do begin to look up. I'm not going to ruin where this film ends up, but I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Although I won't go so far as to say that I was moved by Ratray's plight and search, I will say that Courting Condi is educational and never boring. I had a lot of fun watching this one. The film opens for a limited run at the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning Friday, May 29, when it plays at 6pm and 8:15pm. It screens again on Sunday, May 31 at 3pm, followed by showings Tuesday and Thursday, June 2 and 4, respectively, at 8pm.

 
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