(On TV, June 2017) As discussed elsewhere, I’m not particularly taken by the links that a number of artists make between baseball and grander themes. I get that it’s an effective chord to strike for average Americans, but as it turns out, I’m Canadian—I’ll let you know when I see the Great Hockey Film. In the meantime, there’s For Love of the Game, which uses a pitcher’s last game as a structural element on which to tell us all about that pitcher’s life, loves and setbacks. Thanks to director Sam Raimi (here signing what looks like an atypical film), the device is somewhat effective. Not all the flashbacks are equally compelling, and the romantic story developed by the film suffers from a few serious cases of idiot plotting, but the overall concept is intriguing enough. Kevin Costner is his own usual stoic self as a pitcher about to throw his last few balls, with Kelly Preston and John C. Reilly providing support in different roles. Unfortunately, for all of the interest of the film’s structure, the plot it develops is generic to the point of being dull—for all of the subplots, the film doesn’t quite manage to deliver something that rises to the level of its premise. The result is still watchable enough, but For Love of the Game stops well short of fulfillment.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Here we go again: beloved kid’s fantasy series transformed into an overblown 3D Hollywood special-effects spectacle with a bit of snark. If the criticism sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been the playbook for just about everything since The Lord of the Rings made so much money. Here, The Wizard of Oz gets a prequel and while the results are familiar, they’re not as bad as they could have been. James Franco may or may not have been the best choice as a con-magician forced to be a hero (with Franco, it’s hard to tell sincerity from laid-back detachment), but director Sam Raimi is certainly in his element in showcasing a bright and colorful Oz in all of its 3D glory. Oz the Great and Powerful is not as derivative as it may first appear: Despite its kinship to L. Frank Baum’s work and the classic 1939 film, it feels relatively new and doesn’t try to ape the first film in its finer details. Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis all do fine work as the three main witches, although it’s Kunis who gets the most interesting material and best make-up work. The visual spectacle is worth a look, and if the film’s so-contemporary hip detachment is its own disservice (because much of Oz should be viewed with pure unadulterated glee), there’s enough here to make the film interesting to adults. The result may not be particularly challenging, but it works well enough, and the de-emphasis placed on straight-up combat in favour of tricks and deception is a welcome change of pace from the usual epic fantasy template.
(In theaters, June 2009): After the indulgent and bloated Spider-Man 3, one could justifiably wonder what happened to Sam Raimi, and if ever the champion of such films as Evil Dead, Army of Darkness and Darkman would ever find his way back to the kind of superlative B-grade movies that made his reputation. Well, all of those doubts can be laid to rest with Drag Me to Hell, a convincing throwback to the core of old-school horror. Relentless to the point of seeming mean-spirited, Drag Me to Hell has a lot of sadistic fun pitting its blonde heroine against a dark curse that will not stop until she’s gone. The mechanics are unsubtle (everything worth understanding is highlighted about three times), the heroine isn’t distinctive and the stereotypes are rough-hewn, but the jumps are plentiful (the cell phone one is particularly effective) and the pacing seldom slows down. A mixture of occult traditions, shlocko movie-making and over-the-top wackiness, it’s a film that feels reinvigorating not only for Raimi, but for horror fans in general. The third act is marred by an obvious set-up, but most of the film is pure horror gold: Fans will be delighted, and not only because it’s such a refreshing change from the dross passing itself off for horror these days. Just don’t look for a moral message.
(In theaters, May 2007) I won’t try to pretend that I disliked the first two Spider-Man films, but it’s fair to say that I haven’t been as impressed with them as most other people have been. Partly, I mourn the Sam Raimi of the Evil Dead trilogy; partly, I can’t stand the lowest-common-denominator approach that has ensured the series’ success. So when Spider-Man 3 comes out and ends up annoying everyone, I’m left muttering “Well, what did you expect?” This being said, there’s no doubt that this third instalment is weaker than the first two ones for obvious reasons: too long, too scattered, too coincidental. Obviously, storytelling standards have fallen when, of all the possible places on Earth, a meteorite carrying an evil symbiont just happens to fall next to Peter Parker as he’s making out in the park. I happen to like the Venom plot thread, but it seems superfluous in a third tome of a trilogy chiefly concerned about the Parker/Harris/Osborne relationship. That it blows up the duration of the film well past its optimal time is just another knock against it. Without Venom, we might have been given a few more scenes fleshing out the Sandman character… although if the alternative is yet another coma-inducing speech by Aunt May, I’ll pass. No, Spider-Man 3 has obviously succumbed to the increasingly common self-importance syndrome of third-parters: the producers’ belief that it can do no wrong and audiences will lap it up any way. They may be right… but that won’t be of much comfort in a few years when hardly anyone will recall such movies with affection.
(In theaters, July 2004) Maybe I’m getting too old for this stuff; I wasn’t a particularly enthusiastic fan of the original Spider-Man (too dull, too ordinary) and if the second one is distinctly better, I’m still not all that convinced. Oh, certainly, I just love parts of this sequel: the operating room sequence is pure Evil Dead Raimi, the action sequences are directed with impressive fluidity and the villain is a lot of fun. Even the over-arching story makes sense and at least tries to reach above the usual superhero crap. But it’s not through dull romance and mortgage concerns that I try to escape reality, and so Spider-Man 2 just isn’t as much fun when it’s dragged-down to harsh reality, especially when it starts forgetting that there’s a super-villain running around. Worse is the heavy-handed direction and the on-the-nose dialogue, which makes sure to highlight every single emotional nuance to make sure that even the dumbest teen in the audience doesn’t miss a thing. By the time the crotchety old lady delivers her speech about the importance of heroes, it’s hard to tell if the filmmakers are laughing at the audience. Oh well; at least JK Simmons is excellent as J. Jonas Jameson and Alfred Molina gets to show that fat middle-aged men can be super-villains too! (Talk about an untapped segment for wish-fulfilment) Blockbuster-wise, it could have been worse. But it could have been better too, and it does no one any favour when the film’s aim reaches so obviously for the broadest common denominator.
(In theaters, May 2002) So everyone’s favorite web-slinging superhero swings in theaters, and even if I bemoan the quasi-absence of the classic TV show’s theme, I’m rather impressed with the rest of the film. Focusing as much on character than on action scenes, this is very nearly the ultimate comic-book film insofar as the “secret identity” passages aren’t deathly dull. Tobey Maguire transforms a potentially miscasting in one of the film’s greatest assets; Peter Parker, the geek-turned-superhero! Willem Dafoe is also excellent as the antagonist. (oh, that mirror scene… genius!) Kirsten Dunst, on the other hand, is blander than beige, giving us no reason why we should fall for her like our hero does. The few action scenes in the film really rock, thanks to the dynamite direction of Sam Raimi, who seemingly helms the film he’s been born to. Spider-Man appeals on several levels; if ever you’re bored, you can always watch for how it’s a curiously Catholic superhero film, as Spider-man is defined by guilt, celibacy and self-sacrifice. Good summer entertainment; I would have liked a few more action scenes, but now that the background’s been taken care of, maybe the inevitable sequel will be even faster-paced?
(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) This is pretty much the definition of a superhero movie for general audiences. Some adventure, some romance, some character development, some soap opera plotting, some special effects and some flashy colors. Sure, it made millions, but is it a film one can absolutely love? Eh. Shrug. The DVD is the incarnation of this eagerness to please everyone; two making-of are strictly pre-release promotional material (which isn’t appropriate material for the DVD, since we already paid for the damn thing; we don’t need to know how wonderful everyone was!) and the technical material is reduced to a strict minimum, safely tucked away in a “special feature” where only the die-hard geeks will look for it. The commentary track is okay, and so are the repetitive pop-ups. (Alas, the infamous first “World Trade Center trailer” is missing) Slick entertainment for the whole family, but a second look reveals the mechanical underpinnings of this lucrative enterprise.
(On VHS, September 1999) This obviously isn’t for everyone, with its ultra-low budget, shaky acting, primitive special effects, heavy-handed misogynism and over-the-top gore. For usual moviegoers, it oscillates between bore and gross-out. For horror fans, however, this film pretty much ranks up there with the greatest works of the genre. Though it’s not as sophisticated, funny or slick as its two latter sequels, The Evil Dead already exhibits Sam Raimi’s devilishly clever direction, darkly funny atmosphere and plain old fun of the follow-ups. Do yourself a favor: rent all three, invite a bunch of friends and have a grand good time.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2006) What one tends to forget in the shadow of this film’s sequels is that The Evil Dead series started out a pure cheap horror without much in terms of comedy. Neither is Bruce Campbell all that impressive in this first outing. (The familiar “Ash” persona would fully emerge only during the second film.) It, fortunately enough, still works relatively well today, but there isn’t much in there to keep audiences coming back. Coming out of nowhere, it’s still an impressive effort. As a prelude to what’s to come, well, it’s a bit bare-bones. The DVD contains an amusing audio commentary by the producers that sheds some light on the film’s ultra-low-budget origins.
(On VHS, July 1999) Simply put, a blast. A shotgun blast. Effectively mixing dark comedy and liquid gore while making the most out of its small budget, this movie works by sheer audacity. Director Sam Raimi’s devilishly inventive camera angles and non-stop pacing (the movie’s 85 minutes, but packs a wallop) are as frantic as anything you’ve seen elsewhere. Plus, Bruce Campbell is very cool and the special effects are pretty well-handled. Drags a bit by the end. Works simultaneously as a movie, a parody and MST3K fodder. Clever, hip and simply a lot of fun. Rougher than its sequel Army Of Darkness, but well worth the rental.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2006) I’m sure that this film does get old at some point, but watching it every few years is still a treat: The mixture of horror and comedy is one thing, but Sam Raimi’s hyperkinetic camera style is still a blast after twenty years and countless imitators. The film manages to top itself minute after minute, and this despite an introduction that repeats the entire first film in a matter of moments. It also helps that Bruce Campbell truly emerges as an icon right on time at the beginning of the third act. Good gags, appropriate gore and tons of creativity: ah, if more horror movies could be like this… The DVD contains an amusing commentary by the principal crew members, who take the time to reflect on the film shoot in general and how specific scenes were shot.