“Evil Dead” has been touted in marketing as the “most terrifying film you will ever experience”. How adorable.

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For the past several months, banners have hung in movie palaces and city walls across the country advertising the new Evil Dead as the “Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience”.

Aren’t these guys adorable?

If there’s one thing that the horror genre instructs us as filmgoers, it’s to put full faith in the concept of diminishing returns. If an exceptionally bold, original idea happens to emerge in a film, sequels and remakes will dilute the initial appeal until it no longer exists — witness the hallucinatory brilliance of the first Nightmare on Elm Street being utterly wiped out by eight sequels and a remake, or the delirious, shocking savagery of Texas Chainsaw Massacre being consigned to a similar fate, due to the industry’s inability to just let sleeping dogs lie.

Two significant exceptions exist to this rule — Italian shockmaster Dario Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy (irrelevant), and Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy (highly relevant). Few cinematic rides offer as much senseless gore, pitch-black comedy and pure scrappy charm as Evil Dead‘s installments smashed back-to-back, and they’re among my very favorite films for it. So as Raimi (who’s moved on with Oz and the Spider-Man trilogy) and original star Bruce Campbell (who’s moved on to cult stardom) gave this reboot their unrestrained blessing, die-hards like myself braced for greatness on the lowest scale possible.

That scale is not met.

Evil Dead suffers from an identity crisis so profound it literally undoes almost everything the film gets right, which to its credit is a fair amount. For starters, it’s an utter wet-dream for gorehounds, as it puts five young cabin-dwellers through some of the most traumatic, painful experiences in recent cinema history. First-time director Fede Alvarez conjures an atmosphere of genuine discomfort and tension, and I concede that a couple strong scenes had me clenching both the seats and hands around me. Box cutters, tree branches and chainsaws are used to a very effective degree. And the premise of the film lends itself well to unpredictability: over one night, a demonic force moves through a group of friends, occupying their bodies one at a time and conjuring horrific violence. In this way, Evil Dead plays with audience loyalties cleverly, as every character, no matter how ‘good’, manages to be the villain at some point in the film.

But the ground on which the film is founded, especially its relationship with the 1981 original, genuinely dampers most of this good stuff. All of the significant elements from the original Evil Dead are at play — the cabin, demonic force, weapons, the five-protagonist structure, and even entire camera-moves are all lifted beat-for-beat. This would seem to classify the film as a ‘remake’, yet the film wildly deviates at points — adapting a deadly-serious tone throughout, switching the gender of the main character, and in the film’s biggest missed opportunity, giving them a legitimate reason to prowl around in an abandoned cabin: the lead, Mia, needs to kick heroin.

The agonizing, hallucinatory nature of drug withdrawal lends itself so well to a great horror movie, I can’t believe it hasn’t been significantly done before. Yet, Alvarez has no interest in prowling that territory with Evil Dead. The one idea that could have made the movie great is wasted as an excuse to simply get five people in a room, as Mia’s addiction is totally forgotten at around the 20 minute mark once the movie discovers it can make its characters bleed. (And oh, how they bleed!)

The makers seem to think that great remakes must essentially re-enact the events of an entire film, while wildly flipping the script at random points just to claim its own singular identity. It’s a cute idea, but the result is something that likely won’t satisfy the core fan-base for which the film was made. This means that all the ways in which it grovels for the love of its original fanbase end up working against it, serving as reminders that while the outer elements remain, the goofy, bat-shit spirit of the original films is nowhere to be found. This puts Evil Dead in a funny place, as it becomes a rare film where your experience with it is actually hurt by how much you love the elements and materials that inspired it. Re-read that sentence and contemplate how shitty that is. D+

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“Jurassic Park” 3-D re-release transcends gimmicky origins, remains totally masterful escapism

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America elected a black president, the world economy shit the bed, over 45 large-scale armed conflicts went down, jeans got tighter, morals got looser, New York City saw its dual monuments burn to the ground, global connectivity skyrocketed, Converse came back, New Balance went, soccer never caught on, the price of college doubled, Michael Jackson went in, out, in, out, and finally in public favor (at the cost of his life), and the availability of information exploded.

And the funny thing? After all this, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park STILL look good.

Perhaps a more essential question is whether the actual storytelling of America’s one-time “Biggest Movie Ever” holds up. In short, no doubt. But given that the return of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur flick has been touted as a mega-million/IMAX/3-D/whatever-the-hell-else spectacle, it certainly doesn’t hurt to know that all of the generally mindless, sometimes soulful scares are still as raw and as visceral as one remembers them. The film is presented with no edits, CGI addendums or extra footage, leaving the end product to stand simply for itself.

With 20 years (or 16 in this reviewer’s case) of hindsight, Jurassic Park serves as a total anomaly in the history of blockbuster filmmaking on one very simple basis: the spectacle serves the storytelling, not vice-versa. The impact of this film on the usage of CGI has been well-documented (in short: afterwards it flooded the market), but seeing Park on a massive screen was surprising in the sense that one realizes just how rarely Spielberg caves into special effects. The dinosaurs here are largely animatronic, giving every roar and every step a sense of physical dimension that many films simply don’t do. Spielberg’s outlandish set-pieces remain remarkably effective, especially the long-awaited reveal of the T-rex at the hour mark. It’s worth noting, for an artist widely criticized for perceived overt sentimentality, just how often he dangles children’s lives about in this film. He makes them writhe, climb, fall, bleed and scream, and while I certainly recognize that in a sense he’s using them, he still does it rather well.

And perhaps it’s because this aspect was criticized upon initial release, but the human dimensions of Jurassic Park go largely underrated. Where the heroes of today’s blockbusters are all too content to play it cool as absolute chaos rages around them, screenwriter David Koepp wisely allows them the space to express genuine awe at what they see. The performance of Jeff Goldblum remains sharp and rambling, while Sam Neill’s arc from withdrawn fossil expert to warm, genuine hero is still convincingly pulled off, cliches and all. Seeing Wayne Knight, the cruel fat guy from Seinfeld,  getting eaten alive by dinosaurs remains insanely satisfying. It’s also a neat gimmick to see Samuel L. Jackson performing, the year before his Pulp Fiction Jheri curls lifted him to cult stardom.

For reasons fairly self-evident, this is a landmark film. History has taught us (or at least, taught me) to be utterly grateful for films such as this, where the highest available standard of technology is employed not for the sake of itself, but for the sake of genuine artistic fulfillment. In this case, what exactly is being fulfilled? If a detractor were to say, ‘little more than a warning not to tamper too much with nature’, I couldn’t fault them. But even still, with Jurassic Park we witness Steven Spielberg at a peak of confidence and assurance as both a storyteller and technological innovator. As history taught us, he was only just getting warmed up this year, dropping Schindler’s List a mere six months after its June ’93 release, but Spielberg managed to stretch cinema’s boundaries with Jurassic Park. It wouldn’t be the first time, it wouldn’t be the last, but it just might be the most fun of them all. A

[Note: The actual 3D aspect of this film’s release did exactly what it should in situations such as this: enhance the depth of field and immersivity of the experience to the extent that it eventually disappears. The technology is not a gimmick, but a tool, and while this re-release was no doubt financially motivated I sincerely believe it was done for reasons of integrity as well. It is a success.]

A few words on a man of many.

I’ve written hundreds of sentences tonight about the impact of Roger Ebert, on both my life and the filmgoing experience, at large.

I discarded them all.

They used many big words, pulled many great tricks, and ultimately didn’t amount to much. However, selfish as this may seem, I will comment that with his passing I feel many roles — journalistic mentor, utter inspiration, human standard of intelligence & decency — have been ripped from my life.

Ever since I first glimpsed his work — reading small fragments of his effusive “Toy Story 2” critique, aged three — I’d always hoped that one day, Ebert would read a Ryan Michaels review. Should the course of my life end up as I aspire, perhaps he’d even see a Ryan Michaels film. With his passing, I suppose I must move on from a pursuit that’s sustained me as long as I’ve held conscious thought.

But no matter. As long as our planet has a good pair of eyes, a healthy curiosity of art, or an abiding respect of passion and warmth, the work of this humble little Chicago man will be read and respected.

The very last sentence of his final published blog spot reads, word for word, “I’ll see you at the movies”. How prescient. Although today may have been the last time we woke up together, he’ll be there with me as long as I live.

1942-2013.

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“Dead Man Down” a thankless, contradictory crime thriller

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Dead Man Down opens with the sort of sordidly-delivered monologue that immediately calls to mind mob films of days past: from the languid David Mamet quotables of The Untouchables to the ‘I believe in America’ monologue that opened Coppola’s Godfather saga, and more recently, evoking Danish Drive auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s opener to his superb Pusher trilogy’s middle installment. Delivered by Dominic Cooper, it’s a sweeping little piece that ties together discussion of family, duty, and responsibility. Dead Man Down is thus immediately set up for failure, by elbowing its way in with films whose depth (in Godfather’s case) or operatic escapism (Untouchables) it simply cannot compete with. 

Set in an anonymously dreary city, Dead Man Down has a fairly promising, pulpy premise: Colin Farrell’s Victor is a high-level mob enforcer with a massive secret: he intends to sabotage his organization and murder his boss, as revenge for the death of his family at their hands several years prior. Noomi Rapace’s Beatrice was a model until a drunken driver left her scarred and disfigured. The two strike up a friendship, seeing each other as an opportunity to solve their problems — Beatrice wants Victor to kill the man that ruined her career, and Victor wants Beatrice silent regarding his wrongdoings.

Director Niels Arden Oplev, making his American debut following his Swedish-language Girl with the Dragon Tattoo iteration, has established himself as a filmmaker unafraid to probe into gloomier territory than others. This is admirable. However, Oplev has also demonstrated a dreary visual style to match, coming off less as ‘realistic’ or ‘rugged’  and more..I dunno..ugly. This makes Dead Man Down a fairly grueling experience from the get-go, casting an aura of grime and gruel to Dead Man Down that moves past stylization into utter shit. Within the thematic context of the film, it doesn’t seem to make much sense either; while violence and dread certainly permeate these events, Oplev builds to a genuinely optimistic climax that not only invalidates many of the film’s prior trepidatious messages about revenge, but the entire style under which the film was composed and conceived. The gloomy overcasts and concerned looks lose their meaning, the film’s final message becomes incoherent and the whole exercise is rendered pretty pointless.

The cast is littered with respectable names that make fairly inexplicable appearances — Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham gets a thankless three-minute cameo as a mentor to Victor, Terrence Howard’s villainous intensity is compromised by the biteless dialogue he’s given, and legendary European actress Isabelle Huppert is left to stand around in a kitchen and make food for our protagonists. The leads themselves are fairly blank slates, attempting to emulate the stoic reflection of a European noir protagonist (Ryan Gosling’s title character of Drive seems to have kickstarted this revivalism) but without the emotional complexity or cool to execute it. They ponder. They stare. They shoot. But they don’t leave an impression. Much like the film they’re left with. D+