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Evil Dead Review

Evil Dead Review (Film, 2013)

I do not consider this review to have any major spoilers. Nothing I discuss in depth happens after the first 20 or so minutes of the film. These details are also not a surprise to anyone who has a passing familiarity with The Evil Dead franchise.

Though her name doesn’t appear in the actual credits of the film, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody’s work on the remake of Evil Dead is easily felt. Structurally, it’s one of the tightest horror film screenplays in recent memory. Everything is layered in from the start to create a strong sense of believability in the over the top paranormal mayhem to come. There are even times where her masterful use of slang and pop culture references are allowed through unfiltered. Who else would have college students sincerely use the phrase “bump uglies” in a horror movie?

Evil Dead PosterAfter a brutal flashback demonstrating one way to eliminate the scourge of the Necronomicon, we jump to five college students arriving at a remote cabin in the woods. They are there to help their friend Mia (a masterful performance by Jane Levy) detox from a nasty drug addiction. Mia complains about a nasty smell for hours and is ignored until her brother David finds the source. The basement is filled with rotting animals, blood, and a book sealed in barbed wire. The friends have unwittingly woken up the evil of the Necronomicon. Now they are in a fight for their lives against a scourge that will stop at nothing to claim them all.

The original The Evil Dead film is a campy schlock horror masterpiece. It’s filled with disturbing imagery and really shocking plot twists that still hold up today. It was actually remade with a slightly higher budget as the first act of The Evil Dead 2, an interesting spin on horror sequels that has not been replicated with anywhere near the same level of success since.

Evil Dead
Why not hang out at the abandoned cabin? (click for full)
Calling Evil Dead a remake is perhaps a misnomer. It’s a reintroduction to the series by way of a completely new nightmare in a remote cabin. The characters, plot, and tone are almost completely removed from the original. There are no laughs to be had here. Everything is played straight and the effect is intoxicating. You want to look away but the next twist draws your eye back to the screen.

The strength and, sadly, greatest flaw of the film is the new drug addiction angle. As Mia begins to suffer from withdrawal symptoms, her friends refuse to believe anything she says. Olivia, a registered nurse who is leading the detox, warns everyone that Mia will say and do anything to go back home and use again. Even when Mia swears there is a strange woman in the woods and a tree attacked her, no one believes her.

But, that level of distrust is not wielded as effectively as it could be. Mia is the perfect unreliable narrator for the story. She’s flipping out over every imagined slight against her. She begins to behave in irrational ways, walking in circles in the rain and jumping out of windows. Yet the film doesn’t trust us enough to let the ambiguity linger once the book is in play. There is a clear shot of Eric, a school teacher, unwrapping the Necronomicon and invoking the spell that seals their fate. From there, we know every bad thing that happens is a result of the book, not Mia’s withdrawal symptoms.

Evil Dead Mia
Why wouldn’t you trust Mia in Evil Dead? Wait. This is before anything bad happens? (click for full)
The incantation needs to come into play for Evil Dead to be a real Evil Dead story, but there has to be a more nuanced approach than shifting direction with a big flashing sign. The infamous tree scene–somehow more brutal here than in the original–could have been a lot truer to this film if they didn’t just announce “this is paranormal.” Imagine if Mia started seeing these things and we, the audience, didn’t know what was real. It could have been revealed later on, right before all hell breaks lose, that Eric used the book. Just having the open book on the table could have been enough to cue in more observant viewers before the big reveal.

That missed opportunity does make it seem like a very strong new concept for the series is just tacked on to be different. The results are too layered throughout the film to just be posturing of originality, but in the moment it seems ineffective. The film does regain its footing but there was no need to stumble at all. A moment of disconnect in a horror film can spell disaster by way of a lost audience. Evil Dead does enough to overcome this but should have been so much stronger than it is.

Rating: 7/10

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Macbeth Review

Macbeth Review (Broadway)

What is it that has kept us coming back to Shakespeare again and again for centuries? Is it the masterful wordplay? The colorful characters? The layers of meaning and themes interwoven throughout? The structure that binds each play together?

Macbeth Windowcard
A drum, a drum! Macbeth doth come.
Alan Cumming teams up with directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg to push our understanding of the power of Shakespeare in a new one act adaptation of Macbeth. Set entirely in one room of a mental hospital, Macbeth is reimagined as the paranoid fantasy of a sick man. Cumming carries the show, with Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley assisting as a doctor and an orderly in the facility. Macbeth is told with a series of props–surveillance cameras, examination tables, a baby doll, a bathtub, and a mirror, mostly–that defines location and characters.

This production of Macbeth is not something you can easily shake off because it is such a radical and challenging examination of the text. Cumming’s interpretation of the characters onstage goes against tradition at every opportunity. Duncan is a laughable oaf who could easily be eliminated by anyone with enough spare brain cells to spark up an idea. Lady Macbeth is overtly sexual, refusing to let her husband climax until he agrees to her every whim. Macbeth is quiet and relaxed even as fate begins to spin against him. Each character, from the witches to the guardsmen, is not played how you would expect.

Neither are the technical elements of the show. Max Richter composed a shockingly oppressive synth score that turns Macbeth into a brutally dark revenge thriller from the perspective of the criminal. A huge sweeping cadence of ambulance sirens, whistles, and incomprehensible speech swells to mark each act as well as the beginning and end of the show. There is barely a moment of actual silence on stage as the threat of more interference from the hospital staff is always there in the back of the unnamed man’s mind.

Macbeth Setting
So many places to hide from the truth in this Macbeth
The psychiatric ward room is even more experimental than the score. A huge two-way mirror is mounted to the back wall, allowing the doctor and the orderly to just stand and stare at the man as he acts out his fantasy. Three surveillance cameras track his every move on three huge flat screen TVs mounted to the ceiling. A single mirror in the corner is illuminated by an exposed light bulb behind the staircase, blinding Cumming and the audience whenever he examines himself. A large bathtub sits filled in the middle of the stage, long enough to hold his whole body and deep enough to fully submerge himself if he so chooses. An extra passage is hidden behind a second bed and hospital divider that is only used in case of emergency. Each element onstage has a significant purpose in the show without once stretching believability. It’s quite remarkable.

Shifting Shakespeare to a new time period or location is nothing new. Neither is setting Shakespeare in an insane asylum. What Cumming, Tiffany, and Goldberg bring to this production of Macbeth is a keen understanding of the text. Their cuts to the play are effective and do nothing to change its meaning on a surface level.

The context, more than anything else, redefines what Macbeth could be. They have wild ideas that allow the bloodlines and irony to rule the day over characters and storytelling. It’s a masterful work of theater that will upset some theater goers. You can’t reinvent the form without leaving a few people behind and a trip this wild will never please everyone.

Macbeth is playing at the Barrymore Theater in NYC through 30 June 2013. I strongly encourage you to get a ticket if you’re in the area and have an open mind about Shakespeare.

Misdirecting Django

Misdirecting Django

I watched Django Unchained for a second time today and actually like it even more. There is so much going on in the background and the art design of the film that is so easy to miss if you only look at the main cast. There are interesting details that create a rich world, such as the woman in a cast fleeing from Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in the town or who is sitting where in the quick cuts at Candieland.

Misdirecting Django
Don’t look there, look here, no here, or maybe there…
Yet the greatest bit of layering that writer/director Quentin Tarantino brings to Django Unchained is a choppy suspense motif. Basically, Tarantino sets a little bit of plot in motion and then resolves it quickly. Then the next part is spelled out and it goes according to plan. Just how long are we supposed to believe that two men can outsmart everyone else they encounter with some aggressive theatrics and a keen eye for detail?

The first person to notice something isn’t on the level is Rodney (Sammi Rotibi), one of the new slaves walking into Candieland. He is not the slave that stares at Django during the walk. He is the slave that is shown, in close up, staring at the initial encounter between Django (Jamie Foxx) and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Stephen does not trust Django because Django is not behaving in a typical manner. This is a repeated motif in the film, as people are shocked to see a freedman riding on a horse. The first scene at Candieland plays on all the disjointed moments of racism and aggression from the earlier part of the film to set the stage for the conflict that overwhelms the end.

You just might not notice when watching the film for the first time. At this point, there is a simple plan. Dr. Schultz will work with Django to trick slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) into freeing Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The film sets you up for the happy reunion from the first time Django talks about Broomhilda. Even when the story segments into varied and disjointed pieces, the driving thrust is the same. Django’s wife is the prize and nothing will stop the new team from freeing her.

Misdirecting Django
A training montage can only mean one thing, right?
By the time Tarantino’s masterful little sleight of hand trick pays off, the suspense is unbearable. A simple dinner that should go exactly as planned is complicated step by step as each player accidentally reveals their hand to everyone else. Who picks up on what determines the order of action that, again, defines the direction of the film in the last act.

The over the top violence and racism isn’t a distraction from the real story of Django Unchained; it is the real story. This is all about the folly of revenge by any means necessary. The revenge film formula is masked by the spaghetti western but still spells out the core tent poles of the film. Tarantino prepares you for what is to come with very precise foreshadowing hidden in moments of ugly onscreen content. It’s a pretty stellar trick to guide and misdirect the audience at the same time. You’re not lied to once. You just might not want to look at the truth of the story dead on until it’s already passed.

Thoughts on Django Unchained? Share them below.

Download Django Uncahined on iTunes.

Speed Grapher

Speed Grapher and The Push for Structural Innovation

Speed Grapher is a very strange anime from GONZO. Originally released in 2005, the 24 episode series earned mixed reviews from fans and critics. Oddly enough, the English dubs are considered better than the original Japanese audio because of the quality of writing. A story this strange needs to play everything as strange, not ground the dialogue in subtle shades of reality like the original broadcast.

Speed Grapher Eye
I’d get that checked out if I were Saiga
A war photographer, Tatsumi Saiga, investigates an underground club for the extremely wealthy. There he meets The Goddess, teenager Kagura Tennozu, who grants Saiga a superhuman ability with a kiss. His camera is no longer a tool to capture reality but a way to destroy anything he sees through the lens. The pair escape, setting the entirety of the Tennozu Group–a wealthy investment company run by Kagura’s mother–on their trail. This includes a long series of similarly gifted club members who will stop at nothing to recover The Goddess for the club.

Speed Grapher (Speed PhotoGrapher, get it? Cause I didn’t for a long time) has one story to tell over 24 episodes. There are little diversions into individual characters and some time skipping stuff to provide context as the story goes, but it’s mainly a linear store. The show creates interest through a vast array of bizarre characters, each stranger than the next.

Tatsumi’s ability to cause explosions with any camera is one thing. The next gifted human you meet is a professional dancer with a totally elastic body. After him is a woman made of diamonds. After her, a dentist with many drill-tipped limbs.

As the characters become more extreme, a bizarro sense of suspense is created. You begin to wonder how much further the characters could go even as their strangeness begins to distract from the story. The more realistic episodes always happen after a huge fight between gifted humans and work to reground the series in the story.

Speed Grapher
I still can’t figure out what this guy really wished for. (click for full)
Speed Grapher is the story of how Tatsumi tries to free Kagura from the Tennozu group’s underground crime and club circuit and nothing more. It’s a story that could have been completed in three episodes on another series. Here, it is the sole narrative thrust. The random diversions into dark fantasy and violence shade the linear tale into something more adventurous and unpredictable. Who else is hiding a secret about Kagura? How many have been blessed by The Goddess? And when will the next devotee emerge to reclaim their unwilling benefactor?

The show really soars when an episode teases a meeting between the opposing sides. After running away, Kagura and Tatsumi wind up in a drag club for protection. Kagura is forced onstage by her new “big sisters” and quickly picks up the act. In between scenes of Kagura having the time of her life in front of a live audience, members of the Tennozu group–including a man who earned a hypersensitive nose from The Goddess–confirm that Kagura is inside. The episode cuts so many times between the concurrent scenes that you cannot predict when the Tennozo group will make a move. When they do, it’s chilling. It’s also a masterful piece of misdirection as the presumed threats from earlier in the series are nothing compared to what Tatsumi and Kagura are actually up against in the club.

Speed Grapher is strange, violent, and very gritty. The one hero solves challenges by blowing up his surroundings and the other hero is a genetically altered victim simultaneously sexually exploited and infantilized by an evil corporation. There isn’t much plot but there is a lot of innovative suspense and dark fantasy battles. You can describe what happens with great ease but will never convey the novelty of the show.

Speed Grapher is currently available to stream on Netflix and Hulu Plus.

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American Dad!

American Dad! and Misdirection: Breaking Suspense

American Dad!, one of the best animated series you’re probably not watching, has a formula that has served itself well since Season 2. The writers set up a scenario that’s a spin on classic sitcom tropes. Then, in the final few moments, something totally unexpected happens that pushes the joke into wild and unexplored territories. The resolution is rarely what you know has to happen based on the set-up but it still feels satisfying because the pay-off is big laughs.

There are some traditional suspense elements used for great comedic effect. The writing team is fond of Chekov’s gun. This is the principle that states if you introduce a loaded gun in a play, it has to fire before the curtain falls; otherwise, you didn’t need the gun at all.

American Dad roastOn American Dad!, the gun is rarely a gun. In one episode, where Roger the alien demands a roast for his birthday then traps the Smith family in a revenge fantasy for hurting his feelings, a rare pair of scorpions are introduced during the second segment. They will eat the inside of the human body through whatever orifice they can enter. The scorpions accidentally enter Roger but then burrow their way out during the final few moments for grand comedic effect.

In another episode, the Smith family is moved to Saudi Arabia and Stan embraces total control over his wife and daughter. An early scene sees one of his new coworkers shot dead for singing in public. Out of nowhere in the final few minutes, his wife Francine rebels against his new-found authority by performing an elaborate song and dance routine that results in a death sentence.

American Dad!‘s use of the Chekov’s gun concept for humor usually plays out more than once. It is a very rare episode that doesn’t somehow turn on a prop introduced in the first segment. It’s rarer still that the first use of the prop is the only use of it. The show sets up the importance of a visual gag, puts it on the backburner, then hits you two or more times with jokes you’ve been waiting for the whole time.

But the formula of American Dad! really relies on the plot twist in the final few moments. The recent Lent-themed episode establishes a rather nasty conceit. The Smith family agrees to a bargain with the CIA director to break their vices. The first family member to act on their bad habits will surrender a finger for the director’s collection.

American Dad LentRight away, the characters try to sabotage each other to save their own fingers. When those efforts fail, they fake a mass murder/suicide to convince Francine to light up a cigarette to calm down. The director demands the contract be upheld and sets up an elaborate ritual to remove the finger. Expectedly, the family decides to offer their own fingers in place of Francine’s, ending the contract once and for all. The happily ever after is short-lived as Stan chops his own finger off so the family finally commits to something they agreed to do. It was totally unexpected and led to a dry joke about cartoon hands that ended the episode.

The twist in the final few moments took the ending the audience anticipated, the Smiths coming together to oppose the brutal contract, into a wild and bloody sight gag. The sight gag tied into the original conceit of the episode where no one in the family ever followed through on a promise. The expected conclusion was a twisted act of misdirection before the real ending could unfurl.

American Dad! uses this formula to attack a wide range of controversial subjects with a lot of humor. Murder, warfare, reproductive rights, education in America, helicopter parenting, gay marriage, drug abuse, and a whole lot more are turned into bizarre and unpredictable commentaries on the form of the sitcom. On other shows, you know the character is going to get their head out of the grand prize trophy by the end; on American Dad!, the person’s head is removed from the trophy shortly before something completely unexpected pops up onscreen that shifts the focus to a throwaway line at the top of the episode. The result is a very funny show riffing on current events, genre fiction, and the traditional American sitcom.

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The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines Review (Film, 2013)

The Place Beyond the Pines is a linear anthology film telling three distinct chapters in a much looser story about fathers, sons, and personal responsibility. In the first story, professional motorcycle stuntman Luke discovers he has an infant son with one time fling Romina. He will do anything to be involved in his son’s life, even rob a bank to provide for him. In the second story, rookie police officer Avery discovers a deep strain of corruption in his department and sets out to clean up the crime unit. This brings him in direct contact with Romina’s family, intertwining the fates of their two infant sons. In the third story, it’s fifteen years later and Luke’s son Jason meets Avery’s son AJ for the first time. They’ve both been lied to about their parents’ circumstances and unravel their shared fate together.

The Place Beyond the PinesWriter/director Derek Cianfrance and screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder take a huge risk in The Place Beyond the Pines. It really is three separate films loosely linked by the chronology of core characters’ lives. The style of Luke’s story is different from the styles of Avery and the sons’ stories. Everything from the cinematography to the scoring changes to reflect a new direction in the film.

The big question is whether or not the anthology works to create a cohesive whole. It does in a very loose way that can hardly be called successful. The film clocks in at 140 minutes and each story is weighted evenly. 47 minutes is hardly enough time to tell Luke’s story and more than enough time to tell the story of the sons, yet each segment is the same length.

Cianfrance is playing with the influence of fathers on sons and personal responsibility. From that concept, the equitable running time makes sense. You learn about Luke, you learn about Avery, and then you learn how their stories define their sons’ lives. The logic is sound.

From an artistic standpoint, the film loses steam in each successive segment. Luke’s story is a high action heist thriller with big bold character strokes and modern noir lighting. It’s jam-packed with a whole lot of engaging content and wild cinematography. Then the film jumps to a much quieter, dare I say tired, corruption drama with very predictable twists and turns. A huge novelty turns into something all too familiar but very well-executed. Then the sons take over and their story is less their own than a way to bridge the gap between the two wildly different styles.

The Place Beyond the PinesThe final few minutes almost make you forget all the cliched high school drama the characters are put through to artificially raise the stakes at the end of the film. For the first time since Luke’s story, the characters behave in realistic ways. Genuine suspense builds as you don’t know how far the next generation will take the unresolved conflict 15 years in the making. It’s shockingly good considering the hour of pablum and well-worn tropes shoved in after Luke’s story.

The Place Beyond the Pines is technically well-executed. The acting is strong, with Eva Mendes as Romana, Ryan Gosling as Luke, and Dane DeHaan as teenage Jason doing the heavy lifting. The film looks good. It just doesn’t come together like it should. It’s a bit too loose and flexible in its style and focus to really sell the message Derek Cianfrance is pushing.

Rating: 6/10

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The Last Five Years and Structural Suspense

The Last Five Years and Structural Suspense

So far during Spring Into Suspense, we’ve focused a lot on horror, thrillers, and crime dramas. Naturally, these are not the only genres that benefit from suspense. Even comedies can riff on the uncertainty of what will happen next, though the payoff is very different

The stakes in suspense do not even have to be large or linear. Suspense can come from the events that define individual lives: love, loss, success, and failure.

In the intimate two-person musical The Last Five Years, you know how the story ends before it even begins. Cathy sits alone onstage and sings “Still Hurting” about the end of her marriage. Instead of lingering on Cathy’s emotional state in the present, the show jumps to the beginning of the relationship as Jamie declares his love for “Shiksa Goddess” Cathy after their first meeting.

Suspense is created immediately as we don’t know when the two characters will finally interact in a meaningful way with each other onstage. If she’s going backward in time and he’s going forward, they’re bound to intersect on the same moment. What will it be? The characters can interact onstage, but the songs are all solo until their memories line up at the same time in the same place.

The Last Five Years

Buy the original cast recording
The draw of The Last Five Years has always been the stunning music. Writer/composer Jason Robert Brown crafted a series of 13 songs that create evocative and relatable images. You might never have done summer stock theater in Ohio, but you’ve probably had a disappointing job before. You may have never landed a book deal, but you’ve probably had good news after falling in love. Brown creates a strong sense of believability through the score that turns the semi-autobiographical tale into something far more universal.

The Last Five Years is not a perfect show. It is incredibly difficult to stage. The focus on the individual characters in their individual moments at the expense of interaction demands two phenomenal actors and a keen eye for stagecraft to pull off. The two leads are terribly flawed characters, making it harder and harder to root for a happy ending whether it’s in the past or the present. It’s also a slight show, an experiment in form over function. The most beautiful music in the world cannot cover for a light narrative. Just ask the cast, crew, creative team, and producers of The Grass Harp on Broadway about that.

The Last Five Years Revival
Looking in from the outside
And yet, if you allow yourself to be swayed by the unusual conceit for suspense, seeing The Last Five Years live and in person can be a thrilling experience. There is something beautiful and mesmerizing about this score performed by just the right cast. The honesty of the emotions can cover for a whole lot of flaws with something this beautiful.

The show will never appeal to everyone and critics will never be kind to it. The Off-Broadway revival happening right now confirms it. I fear for the inevitable critical drubbing of the feature film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan because the screenplay calls for all of the songs to be sung just as they are onstage: alone and isolated from the relationship even if the other person is in the scene. It’s the greatest strength and the greatest flaw of a show that hinges on not knowing when the two characters will finally meet in song.

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Trance Review

Trance Review (Film, 2013)

Trance is the intimate, quiet, and reality-driven companion film to 2010′s Inception. An art auctioneer in London gets pulled into organized crime when he helps steal Goya’s Witches in the Air. He loses all memory of the theft after being knocked unconscious by the crime boss. Now, the boss wants the painting and the only way to get back the memory is hypnotherapy.

Trance Stolen
Where is the canvas?
Danny Boyle knows how to make a crime thriller. This isn’t a surprise at this point. What is always a pleasant surprise is seeing how much style and energy he can bring to even the wildest of premises. There is not a moment in Trance that is not stunningly beautiful. Everything that happens onscreen happens for a very good reason and there is not one ounce of extra fat in the final cut.

The only flaw is the electronic score by Rick Smith. While it works well later in the film during the more fanciful hypnosis scenes, it stands out way too much at the start. A quiet scene in an art auction filled with 100-plus year old paintings, business suits, and proper etiquette is overwhelmed by pulsing synth beats. The film needed a more naturalistic approach–not necessarily acoustic, but more orchestral–to balance the location, characters, and subject matter. The underground crime and aggressive hypnosis can handle the trance/electronica vibe but the more proper exposition scenes.

Other than the score, Trance is solid. The acting is remarkable, especially Rosario Dawson as hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb. Everything about her character–including her American accent in an otherwise British film–is perfectly aligned with the screenplay and all the twists and turns to come.

Trance ElizabethElizabeth is the type of strong female character we need more of onscreen. She has been victimized but she is no victim and no one will stop her from living her life how she chooses. One key scene later on, a montage of hypnotherapy patients, sees her take an entirely different approach to her calm and brutally efficient demeanor in her office. A domestic violence victim wants to leave her abuser. Dr. Lamb preaches to the rafters the hypnotic suggestions this woman needs to begin picking up the pieces and live her life again. Elizabeth’s experience with domestic abuse is handled delicately and actually enhances the overall narrative of high crime and psychology.

Trance swings for the outfields in every scene and the layering of plot twists and character reveals will probably force you outside of the film at some point. It’s a whole lot of exposition that is weighted to favor no story detail over any other. A monologue delivered in the first act has the same pace as a monologue in the final 10 minutes. Trance does not baby you and explain everything as it happens. It expects you to put the pieces together yourself even when the characters shift their focus to the final piece of the puzzle. These are not plot holes because everything is explained. You just have to tie it all up yourself.

Trance is a bizarre film because of its approach to layering narrative through hypnotherapy sessions and the creation of false memories. It won’t appeal to everyone and I fully understand that. I bought into it hook, line, and sinker and almost started to applaud when the film threw me out of the narrative and caught me just a few moments later with a new exciting lure. Danny Boyle is choosing not to rest on his previous success. He is pursuing adventurous new projects and that suits his style well.

Rating: 8/10

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