The Films of Sam Raimi
The Evil Dead (August 9/16)
Sam Raimi's first directorial effort, The Evil Dead follows five friends (Ellen Sandweiss' Cheryl, Hal Delrich's Scott, Betsy Baker's Linda, Sarah York's Shelly, and Bruce Campbell's Ash) as they arrive at a remote cabin in the woods and are soon besieged by flesh-possessing demons. Raimi's impressive comfort behind the camera is apparent right from the word go, as The Evil Dead kicks off with a captivating (and thoroughly stylish) opening stretch that effectively establishes the characters and the evil force lurking in the woods. And while it's admittedly difficult not to question the intelligence of these people (ie that cabin is awfully remote), Raimi does a superb job of building tension by emphasizing the many creepy happenings in and around the movie's central locale. It's disappointing to note, then, that The Evil Dead does begin to lose its way as it enters its mixed-bag midsection, as Raimi's screenplay adopts a fairly repetitive structure revolving around aforementioned flesh-possessing demons' growing incursion on the heroes - with the less-than-captivating feel compounded by a roster of decent yet one-dimensional protagonists (ie Campbell's Ash is, naturally, the only figure able to make a reasonably strong impact). The film recovers for a splatter-filled third act that is, admittedly, as exhausting as it is fun, and it's finally clear that The Evil Dead stands as a striking debut from a filmmaker who would go on to much, much better things.
Evil Dead II (August 10/16)
A sort-of-remake-but-mostly-sequel to 1981's The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II follows Bruce Campbell's Ash as he's once again forced to battle bloodthirsty demons within a remote cabin in the woods. There's little doubt that Evil Dead II, for the most part, improves upon its entertaining yet erratic predecessor, as filmmaker Sam Raimi, along with coscreenwriter Scott Spiegel, places a consistent emphasis on Campbell's always-entertaining protagonist and, in fact, devotes a good chunk of the first half to Ash's solo exploits - with the character's efforts at battling demonic forces certainly standing as a ludicrously over-the-top highlight within the entire series. (It's especially difficult not to get a kick out of Ash's ongoing fight with his possessed hand.) Raimi's decision to bring a new batch of characters to the cabin about halfway through prevents stagnancy from setting in, as the new blood, so to speak, ensures that the movie, up to a point, doesn't quite suffer from the repetitiveness that plagued the first movie. Having said that, Evil Dead II does begin to run out of steam at around the one hour mark - with the movie, like its forebear, simply unable to sustain the fast-paced and incredibly broad tone for the duration of its brisk running time. It's just as clear, however, that the film picks up for a gleefully, insanely outrageous final stretch, which ensures that Evil Dead II both ends on a positive note and lives up to its place as a memorably gruesome (and often very funny) splatfest.
One of Sam Raimi's best films, Darkman follows Liam Neeson's Peyton Westlake as he's tortured and left for dead by a sinister gangster (Larry Drake's Robert G. Durant) - with the movie detailing Peyton's eventual transformation into the title figure and his continuing efforts at avenging his fate. It's a fairly irresistible premise that's employed to consistently engaging and unapologetically over-the-top effect by Raimi, as the filmmaker has infused the briskly-paced proceedings with a comic-book sensibility that's been hard-wired into its various attributes - with Raimi's larger-than-life modus operandi, which is reflected in everything from the performances to the visuals to the narrative, certainly perpetuating the picture's compulsively watchable vibe. Neeson's sympathetic and engrossing turn as the increasingly conflicted protagonist certainly plays a key role in confirming the movie's success, while Raimi has done an absolutely superb job of filling the supporting cast with one memorable periphery performer after another. (This is especially true of the movie's roster of compelling villains, which includes Colin Friels' Louis Strack Jr, Nicolas Worth's Pauly, and Ted Raimi's Rick.) The somewhat episodic storyline moves quickly and efficiently and contains a raft of compelling sequences (eg Peyton loses his cool at a carnival, Durant finds himself face-to-face with Peyton's double, etc, etc), and it's clear, too, that the film benefits substantially from an escalating sense of momentum that peaks with an (admittedly drawn-out) action-packed finale. The end result is a fantastic comic-book movie that isn't actually based on a comic book, with Raimi's exuberant approach to the material ultimately playing a key role in confirming Darkman's undeniable success.
Army of Darkness
Picking up directly where Evil Dead II left off, Army of Darkness follows Ash (Bruce Campbell), now stranded in the 14th century, as he reluctantly agrees to help defend a castle from a literal battalion of the dead. The movie, which continues the series' tradition of tweaking its immediate predecessor's conclusion, opens with a terrifically entertaining stretch detailing Ash's fish-out-of-water exploits in medieval times, with the character's sarcastic, sardonic observations on his surroundings lending the early part of the proceedings a hilarious and thoroughly compelling vibe. Campbell's tremendously appealing turn as the now-iconic central character is instrumental in confirming the movie's early success, while director Sam Raimi's typically flamboyant visuals, coupled with an emphasis on cheesy yet compelling special effects, perpetuate Army of Darkness' distinctly watchable atmosphere. It's clear, though, that the decision to gear the film towards a younger audience is, to put it mildly, somewhat jarring, as scripters Ivan and Sam Raimi lean heavily on broad instances of Three Stooges-like physical comedy and old-school adventure shenanigans (ie the buckets of blood that defined the first two movies are completely absent here). The climactic battle between the living and the dead that closes the picture is well done yet disappointingly lacking in thrills, and it is, ultimately, fairly clear that Army of Darkness remains pitched at a level of pleasant mediocrity throughout its brief running time.
The Quick and the Dead
A Simple Plan
For Love of the Game
Spider-Man 2 (June 28/04)
With Spider-Man 2, director Sam Raimi has done the seemingly impossible: he's managed to top the original (which remains one of the best adaptations of a comic book). Not content to exist as merely a retread of the first film, Spider-Man 2 does what ever good follow-up should do by continuing the storyline. Watched back to back, there'd be a real sense of continuity to both Spider-Man films; something that can't be said of most contemporary sequels. There is, however, a strong possibility that impatient audience members will have a tough time embracing Spider-Man 2, as the movie spends an unusual amount of time developing the various characters. There are many spectacular action sequences, to be sure, but when everything's said and done, the film has devoted more screen time to quieter moments than to special effects set-pieces. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent doesn't limit himself to exploring Peter Parker's psyche, spending an almost equal amount of time on periphery characters like James Franco's Harry Osborn and Rosemary Harris' May Parker. As a result, the film's not nearly as plot-heavy as one might expect. The villain this time around is Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) - or Doc Ock - a scientist whose latest experiment has left him with four gigantic metal arms fused to his body. Peter (Tobey Maguire) is still struggling with his double life, finding plenty of success as Spider-Man but virtually none as Peter. His relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is on the sidelines, though it's clear Peter still has strong feelings for her. Harry is still dealing with the death of his father at the hands of Spider-Man, while May is finally beginning to accept Ben's senseless murder. Obviously, a lot of credit for the seamless blend of action and drama has to go to Raimi. He seems far more comfortable this time around, inserting little in-jokes and gags that will undoubtedly please his longtime fans (check out the welcome appearance of a chainsaw in a pivotal sequence). The film also marks his return to the widescreen format (For Love of the Game remains his only other film to be shot in that ratio), and - along with cinematographer Bill Pope - Raimi does a wonderful job of utilizing the expanded frame, filling the screen with the sort of eye-catching camerawork that's become his trademark. Of course, such things would mean nothing if it weren't for the continued efforts of an exceedingly talented group of actors. Maguire once again delivers a fantastic performance, deftly balancing the Peter Parker/Spider-Man personas with apparent ease. Molina is just as effective as Doctor Octopus, providing Spider-Man with an engaging and intriguing foil. He brings a great deal of humanity to the role, allowing the audience to sympathize with him a little (not too much, though; he is a supervillain, after all). Supporting performers like Franco and J.K. Simmons (as Spider-Man hating publisher J. Jonah Jameson) add unexpected depth to even the most minor of roles. And the requisite Bruce Campbell cameo just might be the highlight of the entire film. It's hard to say what's more enjoyable in Spider-Man 2 - the spectacular action sequences or the surprisingly moving dramatic elements. The bottom line is that Spider-Man 2 is a summer movie for people that don't ordinarily enjoy summer movies.
Spider-Man 3 (April 27/07)
Spider-Man 3 suffers from precisely the sort of problems that the series' first sequel managed to avoid, as director Sam Raimi - along with co-screenwriters Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent - devotes the lion's share of the film's screentime to a surfeit of subplots and new characters. It's consequently clear that the movie, while never boring, just isn't as tight or relentlessly engaging as either of its predecessors, although - to be fair - it seems likely that few viewers will walk away from the movie flat-out disappointed. Spider-Man 3 continues the plotlines established in the first two films, with the bulk of the story revolving around the relationship between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). James Franco's Harry Osborn still holds Peter's iconic alter-ego responsible for his father's death, and has essentially picked up where his departed dad left off by assuming the guise of New Goblin. Also thrown into the mix is escaped convict Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who unwittingly finds himself transformed into a shape-shifting supervillain called The Sandman. Finally, there's an alien symbiote that attaches itself to Peter before bonding with a jealous rival named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace); the end result is Venom, a creature that possesses all of Spider-Man's abilities. The seamless blend of action and drama within Spider-Man 3 continues to set the series apart from its summer-blockbuster brethren, as Raimi effectively offers up little bits of character development throughout the film's admittedly overlong running time. Unfortunately (and unlike either of its predecessors), there's no getting around the fact that several of the new faces aren't quite as richly drawn as one might've liked - something that's particularly true of Bryce Dallas Howard's Gwen Stacy and Church's Flint Marko. It's not difficult to imagine that the film would've been well served by some judicious pruning, as there's just no denying that several characters and subplots receive short shrift due to the unmistakably overstuffed vibe. Having said that, the inclusion of several genuinely thrilling action set-pieces - coupled with Maguire's expectedly strong performance - goes a long way towards ensuring that the whole thing remains as entertaining as one might've hoped. Raimi's steady direction remains a highlight, as the filmmaker refuses to succumb to the quick-cuts/fast-editing tricks that seem to form the basis of most contemporary adventure movies. And although Peter's brief union with the alien symbiote results in a midsection that's occasionally just a little too broad for its own good, the filmmaker does a nice job of maintaining a tone that's consistent with the series (this includes, of course, an irrisistible and tremendously entertaining cameo from Bruce Campbell). While there's ultimately little doubt that Spider-Man 3 would've benefited from a shorter running time and a few less subplots, it's equally apparent that the movie has plenty to offer fans of both the series and the comics (ie Venom has been brought to life in a manner that's surprisingly faithful to his comic-book origins).
Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi's first horror flick since 1992's Army of Darkness, Drag Me to Hell stars Alison Lohman as Christine Brown - an ambitious loan officer who is hit with a supernatural curse after she denies a creepy old lady's request for an extension on her mortgage. The movie subsequently follows Christine's efforts at reversing the curse before she's forcefully taken to hell by a mysterious demon called the Lamia, with her increasingly perilous quest aided by concerned boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long) and a helpful spiritual advisor (Dileep Rao's Rham Jas). Though saddled with a lamentable PG-13 rating, Drag Me to Hell has nevertheless been outfitted with many of the elements that have come to define Raimi's work within the horror genre - including gross-out special effects, irresistibly stylish visuals, and a sporadic emphasis on slapstick-heavy instances of comedic relief. Raimi - along with co-screenwriter Ivan Raimi - has infused the proceedings with a briskly-paced sensibility that effectively ensures that there are few lulls within the narrative, although it's just as clear that the unapologetically over-the-top atmosphere results in an experience that's often akin to a trip through a funhouse (ie the movie is rife with spooky noises, sudden shocks, etc). This is admittedly a minor complaint for a film that's otherwise consistently engaging, with the absence of palpable scares - seemingly necessitated by the family-friendly rating - not quite as problematic as one might've feared thanks primarily to the overt (and relentless) enthusiasm with which Raimi tackles the material (ie the movie's climactic séance goes from relative tedium to balls-to-the-wall insanity within the space of a few minutes). And while the abrupt and flat-out baffling conclusion ensures that the whole thing ends on a less-than-enthralling note, Drag Me to Hell ultimately stands as a refreshing alternative to the myriad of Asian-horror remakes that have been flooding the marketplace as of late.
Oz the Great and Powerful
A prequel to L. Frank Baum's Oz series, Oz the Great and Powerful follows Oscar Diggs (James Franco) as he's swept to the mystical land of Oz in a hot-air balloon - with the movie detailing the character's exploits in the magical realm and his eventual efforts at defeating the series' villainous Wicked Witch. There's little doubt that Oz the Great and Powerful fares best in its lengthy black-and-white prologue, as filmmaker Sam Raimi has infused this stretch, which revolves around Oscar's swindling antics as a traveling magician, with an old-fashioned feel that proves impossible to resist and certainly establishes the film as an ideal companion piece to 1939's The Wizard of Oz. The delightfully retro atmosphere persists right up until Oscar lands in Oz, with the remainder of the movie containing a palpably contemporary feel that's reflected in Raimi's use (and occasional overuse) of computer-generated effects (ie nothing here feels especially real). The movie's mild success, then, is a result of both Raimi's lighthearted touch and the effectiveness of the performances, with, in terms of the latter, Franco's impressively charismatic turn as the central character perpetuating the film's fun, easygoing vibe. (The supporting cast, which includes Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Zach Braff, is just as good, although Mila Kunis, as Theodora, seems somewhat out of her depth here.) And although Raimi has peppered the proceedings with a number of engaging sequences - eg Oscar's encounter with a chatty porcelain doll - Oz the Great and Powerful, saddled with a 130 minute running time, often feels as though it's been padded-out to an almost unreasonable degree, with the rather tedious buildup to the finale certainly standing as the most obvious example of the movie's bloated sensibilities. The finale, when it finally does roll around, does manage to recapture the magic of the movie's opening, and it's ultimately clear that Oz the Great and Powerful fares somewhat better than most similarly-themed, geared-at-kids big-budget fare.