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Monday, March 24, 2014

Matt's Movie Mortuary: The Evil Dead – The Original, The Remake, and Within the Woods

There's Something in the Woods... Even 30 Years Later
By Matt Wintz
Professor Wintz
Note: Matt Wintz is an Adjunct Professor in the Humanities and Cultural Sciences Department of Mesa Community College in Arizona. He teaches "Women and Films," where he discusses the impact of women in different film genres. He has been making short films – specifically horror – for ten years now. He is currently in pre-production for "Pumpkill 2: Seeds of Destruction" and is also planning a web series that's an amalgamation of "Heroes" and "The Stand." Professor Wintz's column –"Matt's Movie Mortuary" – will feature reviews and articles about the spooky and surprising world of horror films.
Remakes. Re-imaginings. Whichever you want to call them the movie industry has seen a share of them, especially in the horror genre. The eighties had them with "The Blob" and "Night of the Living Dead" and as the new millennium joined us, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Halloween," "Friday the 13th," and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" got them. So did "Dawn of the Dead." In some ways the films were able to stand on their own, bringing something that the original was missing or didn't have the full ability to capitalize on. Some were, in the technical term, horse-shit.
When it was announced that there was an "Evil Dead" remake in the works, fans groaned. Even though Sam Raimi and Bruce "The Chin" Campbell were going to be involved, as producers, the fans clamored for a sequel to "Army of Darkness." There's only ONE Ash, there's only ONE chainsaw-handed, one-line spouting, S-Mart Employee of the month who's able to look at one ugly woman and say "Yo She-Bitch... let's go." So to say that this idea was met with skepticism was an understatement. However, with the original being such a classic (seriously, Stephen King praised it) and since I'd heard good things about the remake, I decided to settle in for a viewing. But I was going to do something else. I tracked down "Within the Woods," the short film Sam Raimi did before "Evil Dead" that is supposed to be "Evil Dead" before he got more money, and decided I would watch that film, the original "Evil Dead," and the remake and see just what worked, what doesn't, and what else was going through my head.
Evil Dead (2013)

The remake kicks off with a girl in the woods being kidnapped by two "Deliverance" looking guys and being tied up in a basement/cabin, only for her father to be part of the kidnapping. We then see that they are trying to purge a demon from her because, well... in this movie that kind of thing happens. After setting her ablaze as she threatens to rip out his soul, the father then shotguns her to bring up the opening credits. We then get to the obligatory introduction of five young people showing up at a cabin, but this time we're not here for just a fun trip. Mia is being treated to an intervention by three friends and her brother David, and we're treated with some family background and drama as the scene becomes a dark and stormy night for Mia's first night of withdrawal.
As Mia complains of a smell, Olivia (who's a registered nurse) tells everyone it's the withdrawal. However, when the family dog paws at the rug in front of everyone, it uncovers a bloodstained floor and door into the cellar. Upon opening it, everyone reacts to a smell and we go downstairs to the cellar from the opening scene, complete with the Necronomicon and Double-Barreled Boomstick sitting on the table. Mia, the recovering drug addict, is the smartest one in the room, telling them they shouldn't have touched anything in the basement as they bring the book and shotgun up. Dun-dun... DUN.
Our hippie-looking high school teacher Eric decides to cut open the bag with the book and read it, aloud, as he cuts his finger on a page and bleeds on it. And even though it's written in BIG RED LETTERS to NOT read the book, he decides to. And we get the classic "Evil Dead" force running through the woods and hits Mia just as she throws up. She then begins seeing a creepy girl in the woods before coming inside and we're treated to Mia saying she needs to get out of there, the group refusing to let her go, and her running out and grabbing the car and taking off. She sees the girl on the road again and crashes the car into the river, and now we've established they won't have a way out when the demons come a calling. As Mia runs from the river, we're then treated to a remake of one of the more memorable scenes from the original when a group of trees decide to get a little frisky and proceed to, well... rape her, thanks to some black grossness provided by a possessed version of herself.
Eric and Olivia talk about how David is there, and there's no reveal of why Eric's pissed. David finds the dog dead, having been beat to death with a hammer, and David believes it to be Mia, leading to him trying to break the door in and they find her boiling in the shower. As David tries to get Mia out, we come to the bridge which has been washed out while Mia is going all demoness in the front seat. Olivia, who had been the whole "I'm giving her the treatment she'd get at a hospital" and leading the crusade is now becoming unraveled with what happened, and Eric talks about how things are getting worse. Mia then walks out, cracking her neck and bringing the shotgun with her. She shoots David in the arm and we get some demon stuff going on, followed by her saying "You're all going to die tonight" and she collapses. We then get a bloody deadite vomit bath on Olivia who throws Mia into the open cellar, and they close it on her. So slowly, the movie starts to pay homage to the original, and things begin to pick up steam. Eric then throws down the "It's witchcraft" gauntlet and Olivia then starts to show signs of getting possessed: we are off to the races. Olivia goes after Eric, and afterward Eric reveals to David that he read from the book and it's "something evil." David's girlfriend Natalie (who is finally given a name forty-five minutes into the movie) goes to find things to help treat Eric's wounds, and she finds that the cellar is now open and Mia is calling for her. And of course, she goes into the cellar.
I will give the movie some credit, they do come up with some pretty decent demonic one-liners such as "Your sister is being raped in hell." They also look to homage "Evil Dead 2" as Natalie's hand becomes possessed (much like Ash's in the original) and she decides to hack it off, but this time not with a chainsaw but an electric knife. They also use the old Professor Knoby reading from the first "Evil Dead" in the closing credits, which is a nice touch as well. I always loved that reading, it sets a great tone. And of course, the post-credits sequence is, well... "groovy."
The Evil Dead (1981)
Now of course one of the biggest critiques of the new "Evil Dead" is that it's simply not the original. The original, for those who are uninitiated, was the 1981 Sam Raimi classic that had a wonderful quote promoting the movie from Stephen King on the poster. Starring the greatest chin in the business, Bruce Campbell, the original followed series protagonist Ash Williams, his sister Cheryl, his girlfriend Linda, and their friendly romantic couple Scotty and Shelly as they ventured into the woods and were beset by demons after a tape recording of some of the readings from the same Book of the Dead that the remake brings in. One thing to remember about the original 1981 film, that some fans seemed to forget when the remake was announced, was that it played as a straight horror film. There was no possessed hand into chainsaw hand into wisecracking one-liner hero, Ash just happened to be the last one standing after a demonic nightmare that his friends succumb to. Here, the remake and original both stand together: this isn't necessarily a "splatstick" horror comedy. Is there humor at times? Maybe, but it's a horror movie, you're supposed to be squeamish as the trees rape the young women they do, and while the gore and blood is over the top, it's still meant to be a trippy nightmare.
Within the Woods (1978)
The entirety of the "Evil Dead" universe comes from a short film that Raimi and Campbell had done together as a precursor to all this entitled "Within the Woods." This doesn't have the Book of the Dead but deals with a possibly possessed dagger that is taken from its place in an Indian burial ground. The interesting twist here is that it's Bruce Campbell's character who takes it and is possessed, and it's his girlfriend (played by Ellen Sandweiss who plays his sister in "Evil Dead") who's the main heroine. Running around a half hour but having many bits of both "Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead 2" that would come later, the film was used as a way for Raimi to make money for a full-length feature. Found on the bootleg market (or Youtube) the film isn't horrible and if you can get past its low budget from 1978, it's definitely wonderful as a curiosity piece.
Overall, I can say that I enjoyed the newer version of "Evil Dead" and there are some good moments that make the viewer squirm. This was not a remake that fell flat to the viewer or the informed public of the original, but it doesn't set itself apart like, say, the "Dawn of the Dead" remake that has gone on to break from the constraints of being just a remake and be an excellent stand-alone. Now of course, if pressed, I would say that the newer version isn't as great as the original, but that is part because of the aura the original (and its lead actor) have built for themselves over thirty years. It is possible, given a few years and the potential sequels being talked about, that this new saga of "Evil Dead" could pave its own blood-soaked path through the woods of horror history.
Until next time...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Silver Screen Surprises of Cuba Gooding Jr.

Silver Screen Surprises Shows You the Money with These Hidden Gems

By Chris Sabga

With the Oscars now behind us, it's easy to wonder where the most recent crop of Academy Award winners – such as Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett – will be a decade from now. What roles will they play? What will their careers look like? Will they still be on top of the Hollywood food chain?

When Cuba Gooding Jr. won the Best Supporting Actor statuette for 1996's "Jerry Maguire," the actor – who famously uttered the line "show me the money!" in his award-winning role – seemed poised to have a big money career.

He probably didn't imagine his post-Oscar trajectory going quite the way it has. Instead of reigning atop the box office, he ended up toiling away in mostly obscure direct-to-DVD movies that gathered dust in video stores, rental kiosks, and bargain bins.

But Cuba Gooding Jr. is an Academy Award winner for a reason: He is an enormously gifted performer with a staggering level of range – no two characters of his are ever the same – and he remains, without exaggeration, one of the best actors in the world.

Here are five "silver screen surprises" from his career, both before and after the Oscar. Some of these went straight-to-video but deserve to be seen by a far wider audience.

Life of a King (2013): Based on the life of Eugene Brown, an ex-con who developed a chess program for inner city high school students, Cuba Gooding Jr. shares the screen with Dennis Haysbert ("24"), LisaGay Hamilton ("The Practice"), and several promising young actors. This particular story is nothing new for Hollywood – you've seen it all before in films such as "Dangerous Minds," "Lean on Me," "Freedom Writers," and "The Ron Clark Story," to name a few – but it never gets old. Cuba, especially, is fantastic. His portrayal of Brown – beaten down and humbled by hardship and past mistakes, but still willing to fight for the right to make a difference – is such a far cry from the arrogant buffoon he played in "Jerry Maguire." This film may not cover any new territory, but it's still incredibly entertaining and inspirational. You'll feel great after watching it. The best part: The real-life Eugene Brown is still teaching kids how to play chess.

Shadowboxer (2005): Before director Lee Daniels became famous for "Precious" and "The Butler," he worked with Cuba Gooding Jr. in what has to be the strangest film of either man's career. How strange? Gooding and Helen Mirren play lovers. Yes, the same Helen Mirren who played the elderly Elizabeth II in "The Queen." If that wasn't enough, Mo'nique and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are also romantically involved. What else can really be said? If that doesn't pique your interest, nothing will. I can't guarantee that you'll actually like this oddity, but you certainly won't forget it.

Dirty (2005): This movie seems to take a few cues from the far more famous "Training Day" – both are about corrupt cops – but Cuba may have actually out-Denzeled Denzel here with a completely a wild, balls-to-the-wall, anything-goes performance that immediately grabs your attention and never lets go. Even though it's been years since I've seen "Dirty," Cuba's crazed character continues to be indelibly etched in my memory.

Judgment Night (1993): Led by Emilio Estevez and also featuring Stephen Dorff, Cuba Gooding Jr. appeared with two other future stars, Denis Leary and Jeremy Piven. The premise: a group of friends take a wrong turn, witness a murder, and then all hell breaks loose. It's a wild ride and one of the most enjoyable and underrated action movies of the '90s.

Coming to America (1988): Everyone has seen "Coming to America." But what most people may not realize is that Cuba Gooding Jr. is in it. He's the boy in the barber shop. Okay, it's hardly a large or important role – his presence certainly doesn't make or break the film. But it's definitely a cool early career highlight for him – not to mention a fun Easter Egg for sharp-eyed viewers to spot and say, "Hey, wait a minute, isn't that...?"

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The 86th Annual Academy Awards: Results and Reactions

Oscar Winners and Surprises

By Chris Sabga

The 86th Annual Academy Awards have now come and gone!

My thoughts throughout the evening:

Before the Show

I thought Seth MacFarlane – the previous Oscar host – was the best in years, but he received a controversial mixed reaction for his bawdy jokes and inappropriate skits during the 2013 ceremony. Personally, I much prefer someone who will take chances and get people talking. Even though we all love the Oscars, let's face it, the whole thing can often be dull and overlong. A wild card like MacFarlane made the never-ending evening much more memorable. But the Academy apparently disagrees. This year, they're playing it safe with Ellen DeGeneres. Then again, the fact that an openly gay entertainer like Ellen is now considered "playing it safe" shows how far we've come. That's a good thing. Besides, who doesn't love Ellen? I am happily hoping she will exceed my expectations and surprise me.

Red Carpet

I don't care who wore what. Find a fashion blog – they'll have you covered. I'm all about the movies.

But in case you care: Silver Screen Sister said Cate Blanchett was the best-dressed because she had on a beautiful diamond outfit. Cate: a winner on the red carpet and – maybe – at the Oscars!

The Oscars are about to begin… I have my bag of popcorn ready.

The Academy Awards are Here!

Full results are listed at the end.

Ellen is off to a good start with several great one-liners and zingers. I laughed constantly at the beginning.

Very touching speech by Jared Leto.

Funny forced smile by the Somali actor from "Captain Phillips," Barkhad Abdi. But I can't blame him for being disappointed. Who wouldn't be?

I hate the filler on these Oscar shows, particularly the various highlight reels and live songs. Aren't the Academy Awards already long enough as it is? But this is hardly a new objection – it's the same ol' same ol' every year.

So glad "Dallas Buyers Club" won for makeup. It was an incredible what they did with a $250 budget. Yes, you read that right!

Poor Bradley Cooper. The joke with Ellen giving him a scratch lotto ticket so he'd win something tonight seemed to hit him a little too close to home.

It was very cool to see Kim Novak of "Vertigo" fame up on stage.

Kudos to the "Frozen" team for letting everyone who won for Best Animated Feature actually speak. I hated the recent trend of only one person in a group of winners speaking for all. I don't know if the rule changed or if the "Frozen" crew emboldened others to follow their lead. Either way, I'm glad.

Classy speech by Lupita Nyong'o from "12 Years a Slave."

Ellen's gags – such as the pizza delivery bit – were all incredibly hokey, yet also quite endearing.

Nice shout-out to the late Harold Ramis by Bill Murray during the Cinematography Award.

With "Gravity" winning so many awards, Silver Screen Sister feels like she can go to sleep and not miss anything. We'll see.

I love Whoopi. That's all.

Despite my feeling that there are too many filler segments during the Oscars, a tribute to the incredible "Wizard of Oz" is something I can get behind – and I like Pink too. (She performed a song celebrating the all-time classic film.) 

Did Bette Midler get cut off at the end by a commercial? If so, that's a shame. The "In Memorium" video tribute was once again very classy, and Midler's beautiful rendition of "Wind Beneath My Wings" was the perfect way to honor them.

Jamie Foxx was awkwardly hilarious in a seemingly unplanned moment, pausing inconveniently at the word "blow" before concluding with "your mind."

"12 Years a Slave" writer John Ridley delivered what might be my favorite Oscar speech this year – and Robert De Niro's introduction about the craft and pain of writing was pitch perfect.

I couldn't quite bring myself to love "Her" but I'm glad to see originality get rewarded. Awarding Spike Jonze the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay was the right move.

Silver Screen Sister about Cate Blanchett's acceptance speech: "Sandra was crying, either because she lost or because that speech bored her to tears." Ouch! But, hey, at least Cate looks great in a dress (according to Silver Screen Sis) and commands the screen no matter what she's wearing.

Matthew McConaughey's speech was certainly a bit strange, but it was also very memorable and heartfelt. His win was a given but completely well-deserved. I was rooting for him.

There were really no huge surprises at tonight's ceremony, but that's okay.

Overall, Ellen was a fun, lively, and entertaining host – but the ceremony itself felt too long, too dull, and too self-congratulatory. It seemed that every other speech was dedicated to the victims of AIDS/slavery/fill in a cause here. I'm sure everyone was very sincere in their sentiments, but it became too much after a while.

Full Results

Best Motion Picture of the Year: 12 Years a Slave 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong'o for 12 Years a Slave

Best Achievement in Directing: Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: Her: Spike Jonze

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: 12 Years a Slave: John Ridley

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year: The Great Beauty: Paolo Sorrentino (Italy)

Best Achievement in Cinematography: Gravity: Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Achievement in Editing: Gravity: Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger

Best Achievement in Production Design: The Great Gatsby: Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn

Best Achievement in Costume Design: The Great Gatsby: Catherine Martin

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club: Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score: Gravity: Steven Price

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song: Frozen: Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez ("Let It Go")

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing: Gravity: Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro

Best Achievement in Sound Editing: Gravity: Glenn Freemantle

Best Achievement in Visual Effects: Gravity: Timothy Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, Neil Corbould

Best Documentary, Feature: 20 Feet from Stardom: Morgan Neville

Best Documentary, Short Subject: The Lady In Number 6: Malcolm Clarke, Carl Freed

Best Short Film, Animated: Mr Hublot: Laurent Witz, Alexandre Espigares

Best Short Film, Live Action: Helium: Anders Walter, Kim Magnusson