Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: "Away We Go"

It's only the end of June but I have summer movie fatigue already.

Not that it's been a bad summer. There have been some very enjoyable movies, like "Up," "Star Trek" and "The Hangover." But while everyone was plunking down their cash to help "Transformers 2" rake up a $200M opening weekend, I found myself exhausted by the mere prospect of sitting in a theater for 2 1/2 hours watching computer generated creatures wreak havoc (maybe I'm growing up, or maybe I'm just weary after "Wolverine" and "Terminator Salvation.")

Instead of seeing Optimus and Megatron duke it out, I decided to check out the small indie "Away We Go," starring John Krasinski ("The Office") and Maya Rudolph ("Saturday Night Live.") And I was reminded that sometimes the best summer surprises are the quiet, gentle films that actually take the time to tell stories about characters that audiences can enjoy spending time with.

The actors portray Burt and Verona, a couple in their mid-30s anticipating their first child. When they learn that Burt's parents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) are moving to Belgium for two years, they take advantage of their untethered status (Verona's parents are dead) and journey cross country to find a place to raise their family. Along the way they encounter Verona's tacky, boorish old boss and her husband (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan), Burt's New Age cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and others; each family showcases the fears that Burt and Verona have about raising their children--will they fall out of love? Love the kids too much? And the couple, who spends much of the film wondering if they are screw ups, begin to realize that maybe no one has life figure out; maybe the best thing people can do is just do the best they can with the life they're given.

The plot really doesn't offer much in the way of actual structure. It's episodic and a bit meandering and never really does offer much in the way of a challenge for Burt and Verona. But I was thankful for that, particularly given the penchant of director Sam Mendes to resort to melodrama in some of his other examinations of the American family, in "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road." Mendes simply allows Burt and Verona to encounter these other characters and then move on, sometimes a bit more grateful that they have things figured out and sometimes a bit concerned about whether they'll be able to navigate the unfairness and complexities of life.

Some critics have complained that Burt and Verona come off as a bit unlikable and smarmy, but I couldn't disagree more. Krasinski and Rudolph each shine here in turns that reveal depths I never would have expected from them given their television work. Rudolph, in particular, if funny, touching and radiant as Verona. It could be argued that Krasinski is playing a bearded and slightly more intelligent version of Jim Halpert, but I think that is more from the fact that, like his "Office" character, Krasinski is playing a genuinely good and likable guy.

The first scene of the movie, which could be played as crass and quirky, actually sets the tone for these characters, establishing the two characteristics that will carry them through their journey: they are very smart and well-read and very much in love. As they discuss where to raise their daughter, it's obvious they've thought it out--Burt wants to be the father who "cobbles" (he means whittles) and wants his daughter to have a "Huck Finn upbringing." And Verona, still hurting from the loss of her parents, wants to be the best mother she can be. It's obvious they've read the books and are prepared to be good parents...but now they have to ask whether all that preparation has truly made them ready. Are they screw ups as the move into this phase of life? How can they raise a child when they don't have life figured out themselves?

Mendes has dealt so regularly with broken families (it could be argued that everying he's done, from "American Beauty" to "Road to Perdiion" to "Jarhead" to "Revolutionary Road" is about broken, scarred families) that it's refreshing to see that he can tell a story about a couple who is happily and passionately in love. Verona comments that the baby's heart rate is low because they never fight; that leads not to a predictable blowout but to a series of very funny gags in which Burt tries to pick nonsense fights out of nowhere. There's never a doubt in our mind that, despite the bumps in the road, that Burt and Verona will turn out okay. The question of marriage comes up but Mendes wisely doesn't build to a predictable engagement or ceremony, instead prefering to have a private, quiet moment on a trampoline that may not be legally-binding but leaves no doubt in our minds as to the commitment of this couple.

Some have also complained that Burt and Verona are also condescending, thinking they're better off than everyone else they come across. But you know what--they ARE better than most the people they come across. Burt's parents are self-absored prats who only care about their own experiences, not their soon-to-be-born grandaughter. Verona's ex-boss and her husband are boorish, loud, tacky and miserable, they don't care about their kids and simply are just content to let things fall apart because, in their mind, everyone ends up screwed up in the end. And Burt's cousin is so flighty and mystical, wrapped up in her identity as a mother, that it takes on creepy proportions.

Let it be said, though, that these scenes never come across as dark or depressing but very very funny. Daniels and O'Hara steal their scenes right out from under Rudolph and Krasinski and Janney and Gaffigan do the same just ten minutes later. I was a bit worried that Krasinski and Rudolph may simply take a back seat to the shenanigans of these supporting actors, but there's a scene with Gyllenhaal's character over a family dinner (Mendes' specialty is awkward family dinner) that is both funny and triumphant for Krasinski. The film then takes off to Montreal and then Miami, for two interludes that are surprisingly touching and heartfelt.

The looser style is a nice fit for Mendes, a skilled director whose staging often seems to outshine his cast (the rain actually is what I remember from "Road to Perdition," despite fantastic work by Tom Hanks and Paul Newman). It allows him to focus on the characters and allow them room to breathe and play and allows him to step into the background as a storyteller. I doubt we'll see this aesthetic become a regular for him, but it's a nice fit.

I find that it's hard to talk about this movie objectively. Surely some will see it who will be put off by its quirkiness or meandering structure. And they may have a point; it's not a perfect movie.

But sometimes something just hits me at the right moment. As I prepare to hit 30 in a month, I find that I'm wrestling with some of the same questions as Burt and Verona. I don't have a kid on the way, but there is that question whether or not I'm a screw-up and that fear of turning into those I've seen around me, who either have grown cynical or lost touch with reality. And there's the fear that the unfairness of life or others may derail me and cause me to lose hope.

But Burt and Verona make me smile and make me realize that there's also the option to be a good, decent person. They are two characters I enjoyed spending time with, loved seeing them to the end of their journey (and releaved that Mendes didn't throw in any of his typical last-minute devastations) and I genuinely want the best for them.

I don't think I can say the same about Optimus Prime and Megatron.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Movie Review: "The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009)

Sorry this one's a bit late. It's a fine film but I really just forgot about it after seeing it.

Director Tony Scott's remake of "The Taking of Pelham 123" is a lot like a roller coaster. While the ride is in motion it's fast, fun, full of twists and always seems just about ready to spin out of control.

But upon exiting the ride and looking back, you realize it was a controlled, structured piece of entertainment that was never at any risk for jumping the tracks. "Pelham" is predictable, safe entertainment; but that doesn't stop it from being a well-oiled machine that delivers some good, fun summer thrills.

The film borrows loosely from the plot of the original film (so I've heard; the original has gone unseen by me thus far): a team of gunmen, led by an ex-con who calls himself Ryder (John Travolta) hijack a NYC subway car. When he calls in with his demands he gets transit dispatcher Garber (Denzel Washington) who becomes the unwitting hero of the ordeal, helped by a negotiator (John Tuturro) and the mayor of New York (James Gandolfini).

Like any good hostage flick, there are twists and turns throughout the flick. There's the assortment of hostages of all ethnicities, ages and genders and a new modern update involving a laptop webcam that broadcasts the chaos to the World Wide Web, a former armed forces recruit and a mother with her son. None of these subplots ever particularly stick, and Scott treats them more like filler instead of making us concerned about them or care for them. We've seen this movie more than once (and not just in the original): we know at least one hostage will be killed just to show thaat Ryder means business, another will probably sacrifice his life and everyone else will get out just in time for the score to be settled person-to-person between Garber and Ryder.

Scott sticks to the script, so the movie loses a bit of the suspense it could have otherwise had. But he's also one of the most skilled action filmmakers around when he dials down his stylish tics--as he does here. No one is able to make sitting around in a stalled subway care seem so...immediate or stage a car crash with such flair. This isn't Scott's best work--I would give that to "Crimson Tide" or "Man on Fire." But it's solid and capable and will give audiences exactly what they're asking for.

Obviously the big draw is not to see what happens to the hostages since, honestly, we're probably already aware that they'll mostly leave safe and sound (and they're not developed enough for us to care if they don't anyway). The draw is to see Washington and Travolta go head-to-head.

I find myself drawn to Denzel Washington movies even if they don't look too good because he's one of the few movie stars who still is able to bring some subtlety and character to even the most mundane roles. I've never seen him phone it in, even when the movie stinks, and he's actually done some of his best work with's no coincidence that the two movies I mentioned before, "Crimson Tide" and "Man on Fire," also star Washington. Here, Garber could have easily been a paycheck role, the standard reluctant action hero. But Washington gives Garber a sense of insecurity, of shame over some past indiscretions and a genuine hesitation at getting involved in the whole affair. In the third act the plot does require him to turn into a dashing action hero, but until then Washington is pretty great.

Travolta gives his standard "bad guy having way too much fun" shtick that he's been doing since "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off." To be sure, it's fun to watch him scream and rant, but the actor goes painfully over the top several times...maybe it's the 10th time he screams "motherf---er" that I began to grow weary. Or when he told the cops to "lick his bunghole" (I'm not making this up.) Travolta may command our attention but his delivery feels wrong; he's a live-wire supervillain in a film that calls for a gritty, calm and unshakeable bad guy.

In the supporting roles, I have to admit that when Jon Turturro showed up playing the sarcastic, arrogant cop, I cringed...Turturro's a fine actor who, like Washington, earned his stripes under Spike Lee. But lately he's just been the crazy, bug-eyed freak (not looking forward to seeing him in "Transformers 2.") But thankfully, Turturro turns down the quirks after his first few scenes and actually becomes a sympathetic, likable hero...although his little nod to Washington from a helicopter at the end is a bit too much. Luiz Guzman shows up as one of Travolta's cronies, proving the rule that every movie can be made better by adding more Luiz Guzman. Most surprisingly, however, is James Gandolfini's brief work as the New York Mayor. Again, this is a role that I'm sure was written to be one-note. But Gandolfini adds a world-weariness and a cynicism to the politican that feels genuine. It makes me wonder why he's not getting more post-Sopranos work.

And, like I said, Scott keeps things moving fast enough for the most part that the film is enjoyable; you won't realize most of its flaws until after the movie is over. Only in the third act, when the action leaves the subway and the movie turns into a standard chase picture, does it begin to lose its steam and give in to cliches. Also, (spoiler), I think that there was more going on with Ryder that may have been cut out. His actions at the end--begging Washington to shoot him--led me to believe that the whole scam was for a better purpose. I half expected Washington to shoot him, Ryder to make a killing in the stock market from the day's events and then have the money left to his wife and child. The movie seems to be heading that way, but never really proves it. (end spoiler).

In the end, "Pelham" is a simple pleasure. It's the type of movie you can spend two hour on during a hot summer night and you'll walk out feeling that you've been sufficiently entertained. But it's also going to be the first to be forgotten when the next big film comes along.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Movie Review: The Hangover

Yeah, yeah. I know...this review is late. Busy week at the office. Besides, I know that everyone who wanted to see this movie has probably already done so, based on the bank it's made so far. But I'll contribute my thoughts.

The key moment, I think, in the raucous new Vegas comedy "The Hangover" involves comedian Zach Galifianakis using a baby's hands to make a crude gesture. It's an infanitile, immature gesture. Totally wrong. And the other two characters in the scene--played by Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms--know so and say so.

But as they do, they also hide a laugh. Yeah, this is dumb, immature stuff...but it's also pretty funny.

That could probably sum up the feeling of watching "The Hangover," an uproarious mystery from director Todd Phillips ("Old School"): the things these three characters do are stupid, reckless and childish. And yet I dare anyone in the theater to keep a straight face.

I'm sure everyone knows the story by now. Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis take their friend to Vegas two nights before his wedding for a bachelor party he'll never forget. After a round of drinks, we flash forward to the next morning, with the three men passed out in a recked hotel room. The chair is smoking. One man (Helms) is missing a tooth. There's a baby in the closet, a tiger in the bathroom and a chicken pecking around.

And the groom is missing.

What follows is a series of misadventures through Vegas that involves a quickie wedding to an escort, a naked asian man in the trunk of a car and Mike Tyson singing Phil Collins. To say anymore is to spoil the absolutely absurd twists and turns the film takes; this is a film in which each scene brings a new, bizarre discovery that is usually almost as funny and bizarre as the characters themselves.

It's tempting to describe "The Hangover" as a men-behaving-badly comedy. But I don't think that's a fair comparison. Had the film simply been a recount of the bachelor party and all the shenanigans, I don't think it would have been as funny...we'd just be watching guys doing things that the filmmaker thought was funny. But deep inside we'd be be seeing, "this is just stupid."

The clever twist of making this a "morning after" comedy is that it acknowledges that these three men acted very stupid and immature. They're dealing with the consequences of a drunken night and seeing just how idiotic liquor made them. What they did that night is probably not that funny--watching them discover the mess they made and trying to clean it up...that's pretty priceless. It goes back to that scene with Galifianakis and the baby--they did some stupid things...but you're going to laugh at it anyway.

The casting here is one of the best in recent comedies. Cooper, Helms and Galifianikis play to their strengths. Cooper, who is just beginning to shine as Hollywood's most likeable cad, is the closest the film has to a straight guy. He's the guy who spearheads the night, gets everyone to loosen up and have some fun, charms the ladies...and, oh yeah, doesn't really think much about taking money from his students under the guise of a field trip to field the adventure. Helms is basically playing the same character he plays on "The Office" and "The Daily Show"--the seemingly mature, emasculated, straight-laced doctor (excuse me, dentist)--who will of course undergo a change into a wild man.

And then there's Galifianiakis who was, prior to this, only one of those comedians I had been told "you have to see" but had never gotten around to watching. This is his Frank the Tank role--the role that, like it did for Will Ferrell in "Old School," will hopefully launch him into bigger things. I don't even know how to describe his work here--he's quiet, shy, socially awkward, sometimes a bit sweet...and yet, possibly insane. His character is one moment telling his friend he can't be within 200 feet of a school (or a Chuck E. Cheese) and the next minute standing up in the car screaming "Road Trip." Galifianikis is just unhinged in this movie, an unpredictable character who can turn even throwaway dialogue or an awkward shamble into the background into something gut-busting. His character is the loyal type who will sing about his best friends. He will also, in the middle of a chase, double check that Halley's comit is, in fact, not that evening. Because he wouldn't want to miss it.

Phillips's casts are always his strong points. I've been a fan of his "Road Trip," "Old School" and "Starsky and Hutch" because of his skill with casting the right actors for the roles. Here he not only gets the right individual actors but is able to get those who have a strong comedic chemistry together, who can pull off the feeling that they are old friends and make their reactions to everything seem perfectly natural (I love the fact that much of their reactions are not shock but rather amusement). This is also the most visually competent and cohesive film Phillips has made...I don't know if it's the use of a tighter plot or simply the allure of the visuals of Vegas but this film actually looks pretty slick.

It's not a perfect film. Heather Graham's role is weakly written and the comedic potential of Helm's marriage to a stripper/escort (she has his grandma's Holocaust ring) is never really explored. And the Mike Tyson scenes are amusing but never really pack the punch (pun intended) that I think they were going for--although that may also be because those particular moments were heavily used in the marketing and the surprise was a bit muted.

Still, whatever flaws "The Hangover" has are made up for by the sheer volume of big laughs in the movie. This isn't a Judd Apatow film where depth and emotion are snuck in under the laughs...this is just an unapologetically funny movie where a good majority of the jokes not only stick but are funnier than you'd think.

There's not much else to say, except that they never do answer the question about the chicken (probably for the already-greenlit sequel).

And...the MPAA was NOT paying attention to those end credits.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Movie Review: "Land of the Lost"

In his latest film, Will Ferrell pole vaults into a Tyrannosaur's mouth. He then reappears later, having escaped (how do you THINK?) and actually rides the dinosaur into battle.

And this is the most normal thing you will see in "Land of the Lost," a truly cracked-out comedy that is either a testament to the human imagination or to the power of screenwriters on drugs. I'm heavily leaning towards the latter.

I never saw the 1970s television series this is based on but they did try and remake it on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. From what I recall, the series was about a scientist who was taken, with his children, to an alternate reality where past, present and future merged into one. There were bizarre lizard creatures known as Sleestacks, dinosaurs and a furry little monkey-man creature named Chaka.

This latest summer entry, directed by Brad Siberling (the underrated "A Series of Unfortunate Events"), ditches the kids but keeps the same basic idea. Dr. Rick Marshall (Ferrell) is a laughingstock who, in the funny opening sequence, picks a fight with Matt Lauer after its revealed that every scientist in the world thinks he's a crackpot for his time travel theories. Three years later, Marshall is a professor at the La Brea Tar Pits and is approached by Holly (Anna Friel), who claims that she believes Rick's claims to be true. The two head off to a tourist trap in the desert where fireworks salesman-tour guide-entertainer Will (Danny McBride) leads them down a river into...where do you think?

Also, at one point, Rick says "F*** you" to Chaka.

I bring that up before going into more of a description as a warning. The previews for this movie portray it as a funny adventure for the family. There were quite a few kids at the theater last night when I went to see this. But parents should be warned that this is EXACTLY what you would expect from a team-up of Ferrell and McBride (who is quickly becoming my favorite comedic talent thanks to HBO's uproariously wrong "Eastbound and Down"). There are crude sex jokes, the language is quite salty and a scene where the heroes unwittingly trip on drugs. Also, maybe my mind was just in the gutter but I think one shot subtly implied that Chaka and Will did something fairly untoward (kids and most adults will probably not get it, but there's no way McBride didn't know what he was doing when he got into that position).

I honestly don't think there's anything worse than any of Ferrell's previous movies (well, besides "Elf") but parents should still be aware that this is not a kids' movie.

I'd describe the plot in further detail, but I don't think I can. It's basically one thing after another, jumping from chase sequences involving a Grumpy T-Rex (named Grumpy, of course), bizarre encounters with the Sleestacks, pterodactyl eggs, and the soundtrack to "A Chorus Line." The movie is never boring although being bizarre isn't necessarily a good thing...sometimes the movie goes so far out into left-field that I have to wonder if Siberling and the cast were just entertaining themselves.

Still, the fantastical elements to the film are fun if only because every other second you're asking "what the heck?? what am I watching?" Siberling's adept at bringing bizarre worlds and characters to life (again, "A Series of Unfortunate Events" was a very underrated family flick) and he manages to give the film a brisk pace so that we really don't have much a of chance to stop and say "hey, wait a minute..." The special effects are deliberately bad in some sequences (I love that the Sleestacks are basically just men in rubber suits) and there's a great running gag in how Will and Holly are unfazed by anything they see, remarking about a dinosaur's beauty or stopping to take a picture even as their lives are in danger. The comedy undercuts any real feelings of suspense or peril but that's fine...this is a comedy, first and foremost and I'd rather laugh than pretend I'm really concerned that Ferrell is going to be eviscerated by a dinosaur.

I think people forget how difficult it is to pull off big-budget comedies. The discipline and structure required in special effects sequences usually removes the freedom improvisation provides and films like this usually silence the comedy in favor of the effects. Very few films can succeed in balancing big effects and big laughs; "Ghostbusters" and "Galaxy Quest" are the only exceptions I can think of.

And that's not to say that "Land of the Lost" completely succeeds. The plot meanders and several jokes do fall flat. But Siberling gives his actors enough freedom to play around even in scenes requiring heavy CGI. Ferrell's "Land of the Lost" theme song--while his blood is sucked by a mosquito--is funny and there's a sequence involving dinosaur urine that is pure Ferrell--it starts off kind of funny, goes on a bit so it becomes unfunny and then goes on even longer so it becomes really funny (also loved the fact that Siberling lets McBride and Ferrell improvise a bit about how peaceful it was collecting the dinosaur pee).

Of course, much of your enjoyment of this film is going to be dependant on whether or not you're a fan of Ferrell and McBride. Ferrell detractors will probably not become fans with this film and I think event his most ardent fans will realize that he's basically just playing his "greatest hits" here. Ferrell's best films allow him to create a complete and bizarre character. Here, Rick Marshall really is not a fully-developed character. Sometimes he's shown as a genius, other times as mentally unhinged. It's hinted that he eats a lot when he's frustrated but nothing comes of the gag. Yes, it's kind of funny to hear him declare "Matt Lauer can suck it" but that's really just a riff on Ferrell's standard high-ego characters. And when he lets out a "By Captain Kirk's nipples," it's a funny line...but I have a feeling it was a line that was simply left over from Anchorman outtakes. Make no mistake, I think Ferrell's one of the funniest people around and I giggled when he first appeared, staring way-too-intently into the camera on the "Today" show. But while he's funny here, there's really nothing we haven't seen him do before and better (the Chorus Line dance is funny...but it's just a redux of his ribbon dance from "Old School"...probably not the comparison he wants to invite when his film is up against the much-better reviewed "The Hangover," from "Old School" director Todd Phillips).

McBride will probably fare better simply because he hasn't generated Ferrell's following (yet). Most people probably know him simply from "Pineapple Express" or "Tropic Thunder," while those who have followed him in "The Foot Fist Way" or on "Eastbound and Down" will realize that Will is basically the same exact character, just without the F-Bombs. He's the inappropriate wild man once again, which is basically his stock character--although no one does it better. It works better than it should here, though, because McBride feels like an intruder...this was supposed to be a family film, I'm guessing, and McBride just saunters and pushes that PG-13 to its limit. When he referred to a firecracker as a "Mexican vasectomy" early in the film I let out a giant laugh because I knew McBride was going to hijack this movie. But still, like Ferrell, he's just rehashing his previous work.

Of course, maybe that's the point. I've read many people refer to the original "Land of the Lost" TV show as a "gateway drug" into harder science fiction...the kids who grew up on Sleestacks later moved on to Vulcans or Jedi. And maybe, this is a gateway drug into better comedy. Surely someone who walks up to me and proclaims this is the funniest thing they've ever seen is going to receive a lecture about how Ferrell was basically aping Ron Burgundy and McBride was delivering a toned-down Fred Simmons or Kenny Powers. Maybe this prepares people for the unhinged comedy of Ferrell and McBride.

"Land of the Lost" is getting fairly savaged by critics, and I can see why. It's too silly for an family movie, too dirty for a family movie and the most outright bizarre film of the summer. And it's not a great movie. But there's some truly funny stuff here and it's definitely worth a look for comedy fans.

Movie Review: Drag Me to Hell

You can almost hear Sam Raimi giggling in mischevious liberation in every frame of "Drag Me to Hell."

After a few serious dramas (including the brilliant "A Simple Plan") and then the blockbuster "Spider-Man" franchise, I'm sure fans who had followed Raimi through the "Evil Dead" franchise wondered whether he would ever let his ghoulish side out again or whether he could even capture the anarchic spirit of his self-christened "spook-a-blasts": films that mix terror, excitement and outlandish comedy. Certainly "Spider-man 3" hinted that the studio system had gotten to him, resulting in a weak, formulaic and dull entry in a series that had previously been a breath of fresh air.

And when it was announced that "Drag Me to Hell" would be a PG-13 studio entry, my fears were that Raimi had totally sold out--lending his name to horror without any teeth.

That's why it was such a great surprise to realize that if you replace the beautiful Allison Lohman with the chinerrific Bruce Campbell, "Drag Me to Hell" would make a perfect fourth entry in the "Evil Dead" series.

It also proved to me that as long as you keep light on the blood, sex and swearing, the MPAA will give a PG-13 to anything. Even a movie in which an old lady has her eye stapled shut and vomits bugs on a pretty young woman.

Christine Brown (Lohman) is a nice girl just trying to do her job as a loan officer at a bank. She's so nice, in fact, that her boyfriend's (Justin Long) parents wonder what a well-to-do young man sees in a former farm girl. She's also too nice to refuse loans, which puts her in jeopardy for a promotion at the bank.

Brown picks the wrong time to decide to assert herself, refusing a mortgage extension to an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver--who doesn't really ingratiate herself by emptying Brown's candy jar into her purse and taking her dentures out on her desk). The woman, feeling shamed, gets on her knees to beg...and then, after an altercation in the parking lot, places a curse on Christine. Christine will be tormented for three days by the Lamia, a cloven-hoofed demon who will, on the third day...drag her to hell (what did you THINK was going to happen in a movie called "Drag Me to Hell"?). We've seen the Lamia at work before in the film's prelude, in which Raimi proves he's not going to play by conventional rules by dragging an 8-year-old boy to hell.

Yes, it sounds absolutely cheesy and ridiculous. But Raimi, channeling his inner prankster, plays it not as a dark, foreboding horror film but more like a carnival haunted house, jolting the audience out of their seats, making them groan at some really grotesque gags (the formeldahyde sequence alone--which is not even a horror scene--had me laughing and trying to keep down my lunch at the same time) and then following it up with events so over-the-top and out-of-left field that the audience quickly switches from screams to laughs. One scene, in which Christine battles the reanimated corpse of the old woman in her shed, is basically set up so that Lohman can drop an anvil on the woman's head (because we all have anvils hanging from our ceiling, right?). Only Raimi could use his artistic freedom to set up a Looney Tunes gag...and make it work.

This isn't really a step forward for Raimi; it feels more like a cry of freedom after being mired in the studio system. This is the "Evil Dead" film he would have made on a big budget and, indeed, the film opens with the old school 1980s Universal Logo (this week's "Land of the Lost" opens the same way). His camera twists, turns and zooms at impossible angles and he plays the audience like a piano--yes, everything is absurd but Raimi's command of the camera and his skill in setting up set pieces is so strong that we never ask any questions. It's also refreshing to have a horror director who knows that there's a fine line between a scream and a laugh--"Drag Me to Hell" is scary and intense but it's always meant to be fun, unlike a lot of American horror these days. Raimi has a dark sense of humor and knows when to push the envelope (the fight in the parking lot is pure, unhinged Raimi) and when to draw back and let the audience's mind do the work (poor'll know what I mean). A seance late in the film's second Act is so over-the-top and energetic that I half expected it to be revealed that this was, in fact, a sequel to the Evil Dead series...items in a small room reanimate, demons zip from body to body, a goat talks and the entire scene plays as pure horror-comic bliss.

Raimi loves to put his stars through the ringer and he doesn't hold back on Lohman. She's more than willing to let Raimi toss her across the room, bash her into furniture and dump loads of gross fluids on her--there may be only one sequence with any blood in the film but Raimi goes full-out in the gross out realm, and it's a pleasure just to see how far he can go with the grossness and still keep it safely in PG-13 territory. Lohman's a sweet girl and yet Christine also has her moments of selfishness---again, there's the poor cat, and then a scene when she contemplates passing the curse onto innocent bystanders. It creates a nice tension for the audience--we want to see her escape...but we also don't mind seeing her get roughed up for her actions.

I'm not the first critic to point out that Raimi has basically made a morality play here. Christine has the chance to do something right at the beginning of the film. She doesn't do it and she spends the rest of the film suffering for that. And rather than try to make things right, she tries to get herself out of the situation...which only makes it worse. It's why Raimi can pull off a deliciously wicked twist in the final act and we're both shocked and yet, to be honest, a little giddy that he actually went that far. "Drag Me to Hell" is just that type of taps into our twisted sense of fun--that kind that enjoys seeing Wile E. Coyote fall off that cliff--and then makes us pay the price by jumping out of our seats).

Is this a great horror movie? I don't know...I was scared and I jumped but it's too fun to say I was horrified. But I don't think Raimi simply wanted to make a horror movie, but a great piece of entertainment, a summer roller coaster. And in that, he's succeeded...I'll gladly be dragged back to hell again.


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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.