Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pain & Gain

PAIN & GAIN: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, directed by Michael Bay (129 min).

Pain & Gain is an incredible true story about some incredibly inept people, a story so twisted and bizarre and unbelievable it had to be told in Hollywood. I just wish it had a more competent director than the one it was saddled with. It’s hard to keep telling yourself as the events unfold this actually happened; even the film itself stops down near the end of the second act to remind us that, yes, this all happened. So in that way, the plot is fascinating and the events hold a certain weight given they were all true. But when these true (and truly disturbing) things begin to happen, I simply wish they weren't undercut by that ill-timed humor and relentless bad taste only Michael Bay can deliver.

The three central performances are inspired and energetic. Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a muscle-bound personal trainer in Miami who’s desire to sculpt his body is only superseded by his thirst for a better life. His personal training techniques has boosted the membership of his gym and made the owner, John (Rob Corddry), a wealthy man. Lugo has seen none of the money in his paycheck. So one day, when Victor Kershaw rolls into the gym and begins talking big about his money and mansions and boats and women, a light goes on over Lugo’s head. Albeit a dim and flickering light over an empty head.

Kershaw, played with oily verve by Tony Shaloub, is a scoundrel and a jerk in just about every way, berating Hispanic gardeners at his house, treating women poorly, you know the drill. Lugo wants to clean him out, to take all of his money and his home and his cars and leave him with nothing. Never mind that his plan from the beginning is hardly a functioning idea let alone the workings of a criminal mastermind. He brings in his friend and workout partner, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who blindly goes along with Daniel’s idiotic scheme because, you see, he doesn't think it’s idiotic at all. He thinks it’s brilliant because his muscles have sucked away his brain power as well. The duo decide they need a third for some reason; enter Paul Doyle, played by Dwayne Johnson as a coke-snorting born again ex-con who is sensitive on the inside but built like a mountain on the outside. He also might be the dumbest of the trio, and that is saying something.

The plan involves kidnapping Kershaw and torturing him into signing over everything in his name. Never mind that they might need paperwork notarized, they don’t even know what a notary is. While Daniel and Adrian try and figure out how to get the cash, it is up to Paul to watch Kershaw in an abandoned sex-toy warehouse. I haven’t read anything about the actual kidnapping winding up in a sex-toy warehouse, just a warehouse, so who’s to say if it was one or not. I am willing to bet it wasn't a sex-toy warehouse, this was just Bay’s attempt at humor and his way to make sure his typical homophobic line of comedy makes its way into the film.

Which gets me to my real issues with Pain & Gain. The story is wildly fascinating and (mostly) true, and the performances from the three leads are top notch. Ed Harris, who appears later in the film as a private detective, adds a certain level of legitimacy to the proceedings. Wahlberg is especially engaged and dedicated to his part, all wide eyed and incredulous as the story gets increasingly out of hand. But Daniel Lugo is the craziest, dumbest member of the group; he is a sociopath and his actions are played for humor even as he is chopping up bodies or willingly murdering and stealing without so much as a second thought. I was reminded of Very Bad Things, the gruesome dark “comedy” from the mid nineties, and that’s not exactly what I wanted to think about.

Bay’s signatures are all over Pain & Gain, and these are all the problems with the film. It isn’t the true story that makes up the plot or the performances, which are all solid in their own way. It is in the homophobia, in the objectification of women, the poor sense of humor, all of which have ruined just about every one of Bay’s films. Maybe this could have been something beyond what it is, something dark but with humor placed correctly and tastefully. As it is now, the mixture is uncomfortable, and it makes the film choppy and disjointed and the tone of the picture uneven as we bounce from discomfort to laughter that doesn't quite feel right. Give me the truths of the story, save the Bay nonsense.


Monday, April 22, 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes (140 min.)

The Place Beyond The Pines is a visual essay on the sins of the father and its influence across generations.  If that sentence sounds a bit bold and broad, then it does its job to describe this film.  It is bold and broad, but never uninteresting, always engaging despite its hefty length, and it left me with a great deal of information to process.  Sometimes, all I ask is for a movie to challenge me a little, to throw ideas at me with great conviction and worry about the consequences some other time.  My favorite films are the ones that keep me thinking about them several days afterward even if they may not be "perfect."  Pines is that type of film.  As sprawling and unfocused as it might get on occasion, it never left me wanting, and it will most certainly keep me thinking for a few days more.

I will try and tread lightly in any sort of synopsis for fear of spoiling the developments, and there are enough to fill two films.  Ryan Gosling, littered with jailhouse tattoos and greasy blond hair, plays Luke.  Luke is a drifter and a loser, working as a motorcycle stunt driver for a traveling carnival.  We see him in action in an intense opening sequence where he whips around a metal globe at high speeds with two other stuntmen.  After his show he runs into Romina (Eva Mendes, looking appropriately tired), an old flame he shared a night with his last run through town.  He discovers Romina had a son, his infant son, Jason, and this new information stirs emotion that had long been buried within him.  Despite Romina's protests, Luke is determined to be a part of his son's life.  He quits the carnival and tries to find steady work in town to provide for Romina and Jason, finding only spare work with another local burnout, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), in a shack hidden in the woods of Upstate New York.

Robin suggests to Ben that he rob banks.  He has the skills as a motorcycle stuntman to flee the scene, and with Robin's help he could make some quick cash.  Luke succeeds early and becomes driven by his newfound income.  He wants to do more banks, then two in one day, until one day his paths cross with a young beat cop whose quick thinking propels his story into the picture.  The young cop is Avery, played by a sqeaky-clean Bradley Cooper as a young family man with a year-old son of his own.  Avery becomes a hero and sees his own career take off, but not before he uncovers corruption within the Force.  This is where it might be best for me to stop summarizing the film; anywhere I go from here would spoil the events of the second and third acts.  Let me just say Pines is split firmly into three acts, each of which could function as their own individual film.

The story travels over time, at least fifteen years and a few months, and deals in the currency of sins across generations.  The sins of Gosling's Luke have their impact on young Jason, as do the sins of Avery impact the life of his own child.  But what do these end results say of the sins committed by their fathers?  And there is another father in the film, a New York judge who has his own influence on his son.  Pines is a dense and complicated film, and has very many ideas, notions, and themes to digest.  Director Derek Cianfrance - who also directed Gosling in Blue Valentine - aims high here and his film hits all the right tonal notes.  The score is inky and rough around the edges, mirroring the characters on the screen and propelling a great deal of emotion throughout.  And he handles the action scenes with immediacy; the motorcycle chase scenes vibrate off the screen.  I could write an extended essay on so many different aspects of the picture, but I will save that for another time when it feels acceptable to work in spoilers.

There is little doubt (though I am sure it could be argued elsewhere) that Ryan Gosling is the supreme talent of his generation, some sort of powerful cocktail of Brando, McQueen, Paul Newman, and a young Mickey Rourke.  He commands the screen even as he whispers his lines and his eyes show sadness and depth.  If Gosling is the top of the heap, Bradley Cooper is quickly becoming next in line (if he would only cut out those Hangover movies already).  Cooper is shaping his career as an intense actor with powerful conviction in his characters.  Mendes is soulful and perfect as the emotionally wounded Romina, and supporting performances from Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta are spot on.  This cast masks any warts that may show up with the structure or the focus of the film.  Maybe Cianfrance tries to do or say too much here (for some anyway), but I am okay with it.  Even as I type these words my admiration for the ambition of the film grows.  Because, as I said, The Place Beyond The Pines will keep me thinking for days after leaving the theater.


Sunday, April 21, 2013


OBLIVION: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough, directed by Joseph Kosinski (130 min.)

The new science fiction films are dealing exclusively in the currency of dystopia, of an uninhabitable or destroyed Earth where populations relocate to other places in the universe for safety. For now I count three major sci-fi releases this year; there is the Neil Blombkamp film, Elysium, starring Matt Damon releasing this summer, and there is After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi adventure starring Will and Jaden Smith. First up, however, is Tom Cruise in Oblivion, from director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy). Oblivion is the unofficial signal that the summer movie season is underway, and while there are a handful of negative things within the film, the positives tend to outweigh setbacks in the end. It is beautiful, sometimes exciting, mostly engaging. But despite the notion this is an original science fiction film, it cannot help escape a hodgepodge of genre entries from the past.

The year is 2077, sixty years since Earth was attacked by alien forces who destroyed the moon and sent the planet into mass chaos. With no other options, Earth used their nukes and, as Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper tells us in a debriefing voiceover as the film opens, “we won the war, but lost the planet.” Most of the planet is uninhabitable, with your typical monuments and landmarks jutting out from the new terrain. There is the Washington Monument leaning and partly submerged in new swamp land; there’s the Pentagon disheveled and sporting a massive hole in the middle now. The majority of the survivors have moved out to Titan, Saturn’s moon. This dystopian Earth is fully realized and sometimes breathtaking simply to look at on the screen.

Jack Harper is in charge of maintaining drones which patrol large triangular orbs floating over the ocean collecting resources to take back to Titan. Harper and his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), live as a couple on what amounts to a Jetsons-like apartment in the sky. Daily, Harper scours the planet to repair drones, but there are also members of the alien race left behind looking to kill him whenever the opportunity arises. This is the very basic premise of the film and, as you can imagine, things begin to happen and this world that is set up for Jack and Victoria begins to show cracks.

A space shuttle crash lands with a human survivor in a sleep pod. She is Julia, played by Olga Kurylenko (from Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder), and Jack somehow, some way, knows her from these recurring dreams he has been having. Without explaining much more and ruining the surprises, I will point out that Julia and Jack return to the crash site and are captured by a small faction of humans on the planet, led by Beech, a very Morpheus-looking Morgan Freeman. Naturally, Beech has certain things to tell Jack about who he really is and where he comes from.

The twists can be seen coming early on for the most part. There are a few added wrinkles as the story unfolds, but these are not fresh ideas where the history of sci-fi cinema is concerned. The revelations are a mish mash of previous films, but if I try and list them here the plot points might be spoiled. Regardless of these trappings of the genre, Oblivion still works more than it fails. I have said before, genre lends itself to cliché and repetition, it is how the filmmakers and the cast handle these aspects of the narrative that determine whether or not it is successful. What aids Oblivion is the beautiful scenery and the fully-realized dystopian Earth, shot in cool blues and grays.

The action is exciting for the most part (those drones are some mean machines when they spring into action), but the humanity in between these moments is where the picture begins to wobble. It tries to hit on big ideas, but does better when it stays within the confines of the plot. This is not a sci-fi of ideas, but of adventure. And despite the valiant and dedicated effort from Cruise, the emotion doesn’t quite hit home the way Kosinski would hope. Cruise is an unstoppable actor in these action roles, and whatever you may think about him outside of his work, there is no more magnetic action star out there. He elevates Oblivion and helps hide many of the warts. While it may not have the staying power of sci-fi classics, I cannot dismiss Oblivion due to its sheer effort to go big and its stunning visual artistry.


Thursday, April 18, 2013


It has been nearly a decade since Shane Carruth released Primer, a science-fiction film steeped much more in the science than the fiction.  It has been many years since I first saw Primer, and now that Carruth's sophomore effort, Upstream Color, is making the festival rounds and slowly being released across the country, it felt like a good time to revisit one of the most mind-bending pictures I have ever seen.  Shot on a shoestring budget, Primer is told economically, direct, with very few frills and tension that is made all the more palpable due to its roots in realism.

Trying to explain the layout of Primer is virtually impossible.  The twists and turns and loops and tricks are so plentiful and told with such cryptic sharpness that any linear explanation would drive even the most level-headed person mad.  We open on four friends, all with day jobs in the corporate world, who spend their evenings in a garage working on electronic "error-catching" devices.  These are never really explained fully and they aren't necessary to the plot; these four friends are tech gurus looking to patent a device and make some money to live comfortably.  They hit speed bumps and snags in their research and testing, but they remain steadfast because they know something is just around the corner.

Two of the friends, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) begin brainstorming a new idea one night, a device that will lessen the weight of objects.  A device like this could reduce shipping costs significantly and reduce the overall cost of goods across the world.  Aaron and Abe decide to work on this new creation exclusively and cut out the other two guys.  Before long they have a prototype they test out in the garage.  Abe notices a fungus on the outside of the object they tested in the machine, a small ceramic egg.  The fungus, Abe explains through the help of a lab scientist, would take months to accumulate on this egg; this accumulation took only a few minutes.  Something has been manipulated with time, and a loop of time.  Aaron and Abe have stumbled upon time travel.

Tests turn into larger tests, until a human-sized contraption is built and the two men begin experimenting with traveling into the past.  The discovery of the time-travel device - hidden away in a U-Haul storage building - is told flatly, but is chilling in its directness.  For a while Aaron and Abe use the device to travel back and make a few safe trades on the market and accumulate some easy cash.  But certain scientific hangups begin to cause problems.  There are now doubles of Aaron and Adam looping behind them in time.  What to make of the paradoxical situations that might arise?  Both men begin having trouble writing words out normally.  Then there is a brilliant twist that takes practically the rest of the film to figure out.

Nothing is overloaded with action here, there are no explosions or car chases fantasy devices at play.  And yet, the picture is as thrilling a time-travel film as you will ever see.  But it takes patience.  This has to be the most realistic way for a film to approach time travel, and it had to take a great deal of research and planning.

Primer is brilliant in that it works while you are watching it, but once it is over I defy you to explain everything to anyone without confusing yourself.  And as I mentioned, the economic way in which it unfolds (the run time is under 80 minutes) benefits the strict realism of the story.  That realism makes threats real and tension earned.  Aaron and Abe have lives away from the machine, they have girlfriends and friends and gatherings, but this machine begins to consume them and threaten their friendship.  Even more complications arise when it seems that their funding partner has discovered the machine and used it, though we never quite know how this is possible.  Primer is enigmatic, but at its core remains logical.  Carruth, who wrote, starred, and directed, is a true talent and a masterfully complex storyteller.  I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us with Upstream Color.

Monday, April 15, 2013

To The Wonder

TO THE WONDER: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, directed by Terrence Malick (113 min.)

For the last fifteen years, since his reemergence as a director after twenty years spent living in Europe, Terrence Malick's films have grown more and more personal and, subsequently, farther and farther from traditional structure.  Dialogue has been secondary to his painterly images and stunningly beautiful visual artistry, and the result had been some of the finest films.  The Thin Red Line is haunting, The New World serene, The Tree of Life inspiring and arguably one of the most beautiful films of all time.  Now comes To The Wonder, a film shot in exactly the same way as Tree of Life.  Only this time around, as dialogue is even more sparse and characterization even thinner, things don't quite work.

I have taken a day now before writing a word about To The Wonder, and this time has softened by stance a bit on the finished product.  As the credits began I was frustrated and weary from Malick's decisions here.  Where I was in awe of his 2011 masterpiece, I was frankly bored this time around.
At least I understand what he is trying to do now, but I am still not convinced his choices were the correct ones.  And I don't like to compare directors' works to one another, but the similarity in style between this picture and Tree of Life force my hand.

Ben Affleck stars, or at least is involved here, as Neil, a man madly in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and living with her and her young daughter in Paris as the film opens.  At least we are led to believe Neil loves Marina, but he never speaks.  There are no conversations, just endless amounts of walking and gazing and frolicking against the backdrop of so many beautiful settings.  Even as they move back to Oklahoma, where their love begins to deteriorate, Malick manages to pull every last bit of beauty out of the landscape.  Marina's visa expires and she must return to Paris while Neil stays behind and falls into a relationship with Jane, a former love from his younger days who endured tragedy in her past.  Rachel McAdams plays Jane as a paper-thin sketch of a character.  There are ideas of characters here, but they are no more than vehicles to walk through the beauty of the landscape.

There is a parallel story which I found infinitely more interesting and compelling than the love triangle.  It is the story of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a wholesome priest who struggles with his own faith and with the loneliness which must surround priests.  It is an aspect I never thought about with priests, and the idea of this man and what he does when he is not holding service is fascinating here.  Quintana reaches out to the impoverished and the troubled in the area - drug addicts and teen mothers - as best he can, but his own struggles with God distract his heart.  In voice over (which is ninety percent of the dialogue), Quintana speaks to Christ, begging him to speak back and fill the loneliness.  I was engaged with Bardem's performance and his plight, and a conversation he has with the maintenance worker at the church is the most energetic passage of the whole film.

There are bad choices made, relationships wounded, and an eventual end which I will not spoil.  I was disappointed with To The Wonder.  Everything in Malick's style, the stargazing and aimless wandering and fascination with the external world, worked perfectly in Tree of Life, a film focusing on the arch of humanity and, ultimately, a child.  To The Wonder would have benefited from conversation from time to time.  I don't expect the rapid-fire words a David Mamet play when I sit down for a Malick film, but a little bit more would have drawn these characters out to a point where I felt something when tragedy struck.  There are no strong characters to carry the film like the young boys in Tree of Life, or Brad Pitt's stern father.  Everyone is passive, so the tone of the film remains distant and thin to me.

To The Wonder has its moments, and it is not something altogether terrible; but it suffers under the weight of a style which doesn't seem to fit what the story wants to say.  I understand the personal nature of this film, the way it may mirror certain things in Malick's own life, but it is the very nature of the film that disagrees with me.  The strongest feelings I gathered from the picture is my desire to sit down and watch Tree of Life once more, where all of these embellishments make sense.


Monday, April 8, 2013

SILENT CINEMA: Nosferatu (1922)

It is subtitled "The Symphony of Horror," and is the birth of the celluloid vampire.  Nine years before Bela Lugosi added layers of sexuality and humanism to Dracula, the world's most famous vampire, it was F.W. Murneau's nightmarish vision of the character which set the precedent.  Nosferatu is a film that needs no sound, no spoken words, because it exists all in the mood of the visuals and the macabre performances, most notably of Max Schreck who plays the vampire.  The story is the same as any straight Dracula story, based on the Bram Stoker classic epistolary novel, but here it is at its most primal and, arguably, most disturbing.  Some silent films feel dated because of their technology liitations; Nosferatu remains as eerie and masterful as it did nearly one hundred years ago.

The antiquated delivery adds a certain level of dread to the proceedings as you glimpse into a distant past to a time unknown by most of us.  The skittish framework and the opaque transfer enrich the text and the events rather than hinder.  The story, as I mentioned, is familiar to any fans of the Dracula legend.  A young man travels to the castle of (in this version, due to the protests of Bram Stoker's widow) Count Orlock, whose very mention sends chills up the spines of the villagers.  They warn young Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) that Count Orlock is not human.  He is the bringer of death, living in the realm of ghosts and conjurer all sorts of bad things upon any who fall victim.  Hutter laughs off these warnings and travels to the castle to close off the real estate deal for his boss back home.

The introduction of Count Orlock is legendary in cinematic history, and is still one of the best entrances for the horror villain.  Of course we see him as the carriage driver before his true reveal, hidden beneath a cloak and a hat, but once he is revealed for all to see his batlike features and sunken eyes are the things of nightmares.  Appearing from the shadows, Orlock's fingers must have been inspiration for the Alien face hugger, and his pointed ears and rat teeth make him less human and more demon.  This long early portion of the film takes place in Orlock's lair, and there is an extended sequence aboard the ship to London that is often shortened in later versions.

The scenes aboard the ship are the most iconic, with Orlock's silhouette looming atop the ship's deck as he kills the sailors to feed his bloodthirsty desires.  Despite only being on the screen for roughly nine minutes, Max Schreck burns the images of Orlock into our mind to create the first and arguably most disturbing characterization of Dracula.  Murneau took advantage of the German expressionism of the time, using sharp angles and light and shadow to convey horror in its truest form.  The film was banned in Sweden for excessive terror, a ban which made it all the way to 1972.

Director F.W. Murneau is credited as the inventor of the sunlight death for vampires.  Having already borrowed heavily from Stoker's novel, changing the names to suffice legal hurdles, Murneau implemented the sunlight as a way to kill Orlick in order to avoid further litigation from the Stoker estate.  And the production of the film was controversial in the way Schreck acted on the set; some even said Schreck himself was supernatural as he immersed himself into the character beyond what is deemed reasonable.  The film shoot was even the subject of Shadow of the Vampire, a 2000 film about the creepy involvement of Schreck and its effect on Murneau.  Nosferatu was remade in the seventies by Werner Herzog, and is definitely appreciated as a film.  But something is lost in the addition of sound and color.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Evil Dead

EVIL DEAD: Jane Levy, Shiloah Fernandez, dir: Fede Alvarez (91 min.) 

Call me old fashioned, but I like my horror films to come with a little surprise, a little suspense, and some thrills beyond the geek show of relentless gore. The best horror in my opinion takes its time to scare me. There is build up and pay off. Sure, I understand certain horror relies on bloodletting, but the best of that bunch comes with a little humor, as twisted as they may sound. Take the original Evil Dead for example, a midnight drive-in gorefest that was tongue in cheek and made the violence a little fun. You winced, but you laughed right afterward. This new version – produced by the original’s director Sam Raimi – takes all the fun out of things in lieu of relentless gore, painful realism, and unnerving bloodshed.

There are similarities and references to the original cult classic in this new Evil Dead, and the twist on the set up is intriguing at the start. The brain trust behind this version knows we are all tired of the over-sexed teena
gers going to a cabin in the woods for a hedonistic weekend of debauchery, so they take a different approach. This time around the female lead, Mia (Jane Levy), is trying to get clean from drugs. Her three friends and her brother, David (Shiloah Fernandez), have gathered at this dilapidated cabin to try and help her through her withdrawals. Mia’s friend is a nurse so she knows what to do when the bad symptoms take hold. There is also some animosity within the dynamic that is mentioned from time to time but generally a passing layer.

The group finds a basement full of dead cats strung up from the ceiling, a nasty odor, and a book wrapped in human flesh. This is the infamous Book of the Dead which releases all sorts of hell (literally) on the cabin mates. Which leads me to a major issue I had with the back story; this cabin has been in Mia and David’s family for years it seems, and there are pictures of their deceased mother and them on mantels and walls. So how did nobody ever find this witchcraft dungeon before? Seems like quite the oversight if you ask me.

If you have seen the original you know the story, and if this is your first experience with the story you probably know the drill anyway. Words are uttered from the Book, unleashing a demonic force in the woods and the cabin. The demons get to Mia first and she is attacked by the trees before bringing the monstrous spirit back to the rest of the group. This is where the gore takes over and comes fast and furious without so much as a break to deal with the story. People are stabbed, shot, faces are carved off, brains beat in, and arms severed over and over until the affect is no longer there. The first nauseating moment simply leads to the next, and so on and so forth until my eyes began glazing over. Director Fede Alvarez chooses to linger on the violence for an uncomfortable amount of time. The gore and the violence is so realistic it becomes unsettling early and doesn’t let up.

As I said, I am all for squeamish moments in a horror film, but an entire ninety minutes? There are some clever new twists to the story and a nice approach, one that is all but abandoned for bloodletting. And, again, the humor and camp of the first Evil Dead and its predecessors and copycats softens the blow and keeps the mood light enough for the geek show to be entertaining. This new Evil Dead is cynical and mean spirited. It is also another slap in the face of our ridiculous ratings board in this country, the MPAA. There is no way this film should have been given the R rating. I was told they cut eleven minutes from the film to avoid an NC-17 rating. Eleven minutes or no, this new Evil Dead is a little too evil for me.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

What Roger Ebert Meant to Me.

When the news came down yesterday afternoon of Roger Ebert's death at 70 years of age, there was an outpouring of emotion which made me realize his reach beyond just film criticism.  Roger Ebert was a national treasure, and obviously appreciated by most as a writer of rich prose, deep thought, and a love for film I only wish I could possess.  Like any other amateur film critic, analyst, or simple admirer, I knew and appreciated and aspired to be like Roger Ebert.  Many sought out the internet to purge their emotions right away.  I had to take some time, to collect myself, and to try and explain just what he meant to me.

News of Ebert's passing stirred in me emotion which some may deem as extreme or over the top.  Not to me.  Roger Ebert and his partner, the long-lost Gene Siskel, were my introduction into another avenue of film at an early age.  It is a tragedy that they are now both gone.

I remember watching Siskel & Ebert as a young child, which might seem strange to some people.  When it came to film, I was always strange; I don't recall many other twelve year olds in the theater seeing Schindler's List.  The entire time there was Ebert, along with Siskel, bickering and agreeing and arguing and laughing about the most recent film releases all throughout my formative years.  What was most memorable to everyone were the disagreements, which were never staged but always with a good heart.  Siskel & Ebert felt much more important than entertainment to me.  They were the first film journalists to put a face on film criticism and lend it some legitimacy across society (apologies to Pauline Kael, who never reached as wide an audience).  Without their influence I might have never seen a film for more than what it was on the screen between the frames.  Their criticism opened up an avenue in my brain.

I was in high school when Gene Siskel died, and I had grown apart from the duo as most teenagers might.  I still adored and watched movies, but rather than reading or watching Siskel & Ebert on a Friday night there were many other idiotic things to occupy my time.  But nevertheless, Siskel's death was not lost on me.  And over the next several years, as I scratched and clawed my way into adulthood, Roger Ebert became more important to me.  I started having these crazy thoughts about being a film writer in my spare time, about trying to express my thoughts and knowledge on my own website.  I consulted the works of Roger Ebert immediately.

Of course I would and will never be what he is, but there is no harm in trying to emulate someone I idolize as a writer and a thinker.  I was that undersized under-talented kid taking jump shots on the black top trying to be Michael Jordan.  I immersed myself in Ebert's writing, reading every review he had to offer.  Maybe there are some I have missed but I will read them some day.  I found his "Great Movies" collection and studied the words he used to describe films like On the Waterfront, Amadeus, and Fargo.  Often times I would have to stop mid read to absorb the prose of Ebert's work.  Often times I was truly in awe.  His writing stretched beyond film and into culture and society, and as he lost his ability to speak in 2006 he became somehow more vocal through social media.  Ebert inspired me just like he inspired millions of film writers who would never have a voice had it not been for him.  But a funny thing happened as I studied Ebert's writing; I found stories of his life, read his biography, and learned so very much about him as a person.

What was so enjoyable about learning of Ebert's life is that everything I read was written by his own hand.  I learned about his early battles with alcoholism, his marriage to Chaz in the nineties, his love-hate, and ultimate love relationship with Siskel, and his valiant fight against cancer.  Roger and Chaz shared a love that belongs in the history books.  She seems like a wonderful woman, and I hope she can make it through this.  I wanted to try and comb through some of my most favorite reviews, clips, and arguments of the Siskel & Ebert archives, but I fear that list would go on endlessly.  And to be honest, I knew his cancer was getting the best of him and this day would be sooner rather than later.  But that doesn't soften the blow, or the thought that the second half of the duo I admired and followed is now gone.  Regardless of heaven or wherever, I want to think Ebert is sitting down in a magical and pain-free theater in the sky, right next to Gene Siskel, to watch Saturday Night Fever followed by Cop and a Half.

Hopefully some of you get that last part...

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The Evil Dead (1981)

The first thing I always remember is the thumping.  It sticks out in my head, that repetitive thump of the front porch swing against the side of the cabin.  It is a simple yet effective scene welcoming ominous dread, something that is well forgotten by the time all hell breaks loose in Sam Raimi's cult classic, The Evil Dead.  Banned in several countries and condemned for its gruesome nature upon its release, the film has since grown quaint - as most films of this type tend to do - but there is still something wonderfully charming and macabre about this legendary horror classic.  It stands the test of time for the very reason its effects are anything but special, because the acting is pure camp, and because the style and the elements of the film have been done and redone over the years in several ripoffs and clones.

Sam Raimi and his crew knew the budget they were working on with The Evil Dead, so they knew they must keep it simple.  Work with what you have and keep the blood flowing and the geek show elements coming.  Keeping it simple was a necessity more than a choice, but had it been anything else it would not be so revered by the swarms of horror geeks and fanboys around the world.  Even the cabin itself, which has since mysteriously burned down leaving nothing but a brick chimney, is a thing of legend.

The actors in The Evil Dead are perhaps the least important portions of the film, which is all plot as it should be.  Of course, the star Bruce Campbell has since become a cult legend among certain horror circles, building a fun and eclectic career after The Evil Dead and its two sequels.  But the rest of the cast is fairly obscure.  They are five friends, two guys and three girls, traveling to an abandoned cabin for the weekend.  You know the story.  When they arrive at the cabin, that dreadful thumping of the swing indicates a threat we have yet to see.  The fivesome do want all the teens in these films do, have dinner, drink, fornicate a little, and uncover a deadly secret in the basement involving burial grounds and demonic possession.  They discover a "Book of the Dead" and a foreboding tape recording from the cabin's previous inhabitants.  One by one the members of the group become possessed by these demonic forces and begin attacking one another.

It is not only the spirits or demons at play here; the forest around this cabin comes alive to try and kill these poor souls.
One infamous scene involves one of the girls, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) is assaulted and raped by the roots and weeds of the forest.  Things escalate into bloody carnage and the Campbell character, Ash, is left to defend himself against the possessive forces.  Unfortunately, the only way to kill the demons once they have taken over a body is to dismember them.  You can imagine the tough choice Ash has to make as he holds a chainsaw over his white-eyed, demonic girlfriend.

The Evil Dead was filmed on a budget of $350,000 after a great number of donations, loans, and mortgages were put in place.  Raimi knew what he had working for him here.  Despite the lack of funds and the infamously difficult shoot (temperatures were below freezing the entire time), Raimi uses smoke and mirrors to get some wonderful effects.  Many shots early on, before the demons take center stage, are low angle POV shots that add a nervous tension.  There are a great number of Easter eggs throughout the film, including a poster for The Hills Have Eyes and a t shirt from Raimi's childhood summer camp.  Ever since its release, The Evil Dead has inspired countless ripoffs and homages, but there is no blame to be passed around to these films; Raimi did plenty of borrowing and winking here.  Despite the fact the actors (aside from Campbell) may have not done much beyond The Evil Dead, they can still take solace in the fact they were involved with one of the earliest and most charming, most cult, horror classics of all time.