I suspect this will be one of the most controversial films in the MCU. We will do our best to avoid spoilers but there is one element that is revealed in the first ten minutes that is unavoidable if we are to have an intelligent discussion of the flaws of this film. If you have to wait until you see the movie to discover the villain, then you have not seen a trailer and you should stop reading now and come back next week after you have seen the movie.
This second film in the Doctor Strange centric universe does some damage to the story arc of a major character who has been an Avenger and the subject of their own Disney Plus spinoff show. It may be a plot thread that is consistent with the comic books that the character originated in, but it is a complete reversal of the character’s journey in the steaming television series.Wanda Maximoff is a character that we have suffered with and who managed her grief , ultimately learning to live with it in a mature manner after the events of “WandaVision”. This movie throws out most of the character development of that show and it keeps only the concept of the children that Wanda invented. Somehow, the Scarlet Witch takes over and becomes obsessed with a problem that Wanda has already managed. This makes Wanda the major antagonist of the film, and for people who feel her pain and the steps she has gone through up to this point, it feels like a betrayal.
Writer Michael Waldron, who did a terrific job with the “Hawkeye” series, has fumbled the ball with this film and some of the lazy writing is evident in the most obvious of places. Taking a character who can manufacture a world that Doctor Strange feels is “so real”, make the most annoying slip possible to accidentally reveal her intentions is the most basic example of that laziness. Later in the story, the wisest beings in one of the multiverse worlds, are completely blind to the threat that the Scarlet Witch presents, which makes what happens satisfying in a way that is also cheap. Wanda’s character is also so focused on the selfish goal that she is pursuing, she ignores all of the sacrifice made by others, including her lost love, and it is as if the grieving process never took place at all. Her inability to look at reason, and to think that the absence of killing everyone is a measured choice, just seems silly.
Having said this, I still want to say I enjoyed the film for what it is on it’s own, rather than for it’s place in the extended MCU. Doctor Strange and Wanda are like a different version of magical wizards Harry Potter and Voldemort. They cast spells at one another, they find ways to trick each other to gain the upper hand, and it is always about the fact that it has to be these two characters who face off. Replace wands with the fling rings and magic shields, and you get the picture. They even stage a sequence that will remind you of the battle of Hogwarts. That is not a bad thing, but it is derivative and another example of the lazy writing. Regardless of those points, I did like the last act, and even though you can see the resolution coming, it still works.
Director Sam Rami was chosen for this project for a pretty obvious reason, that final act. You could easily think you had stumbled onto the sequel to “Army of Darkness”. The Doctor Strange in the final showdown is an extended version of a comic book character that Rami created for his 1990 film, and it is just as cool as an outake from “The Evil Dead”. There are deadites but there is no chain saw. In the one consistency in telling the story, there is a consequence to using the “Book of the Dead”, I’m sorry, the “Darkhold”, but you do have to wait for the final moment of the main film to see it.
There are spectacular visuals everywhere you look. In visiting some of the other Universes, we get clever twists on our own world, and there are nods to some of the elements of the comic book cosmos as well. Blink and you might miss a reference to another Multiverse Marvel film that will be coming out later this year. I think red means go is another lazy plot transition, but it does justify some of the actions that Steven Strange commits in that world. The actors are all good, although Michael Stuhlbarg is even more wasted as a presence than he was in the origin story. Elizabeth Olsen gets a wide range of deviousness to play, Benedict Wong continues to be an MVP in the films he is in, and Rachel McAdams does have something to do in the film, but I can’t say too much. There is a fun piece of fan service with the Illuminati, serving as a alternative universe set of Avengers, and I was was surprised by the characters and cast and would not dream of saying more.
So having dissed the storytelling and praised the technical accomplishments, let me say that some people will enjoy the heck out of the movie, I know I did, but not for the reasons you might want to enjoy the movie for. I did not see the Delta 33 but I’m sure it was there. I did however see his other trademark and enjoyed it immensely. Rami fans will know what I mean, and you want to stick around for the end of the credits to get the final stinger.
I am getting ready this weekend for a Podcast on the LAMB, covering the 1995 Sam Rami film, “The Quick and the Dead”. I have just watched it for maybe the thirtieth time and I am so excited to talk about the film again. The movie was one of eight that I submitted to be Movie of the Month on the Lambcast. As host, I get to select the films that the community votes for in my Birthday Month. While it is at least the fourth time I have submitted “The Man Who Would be King” as a MOTM option, I am perfectly happy with the results found here because I clearly love this film.
Let me point to the two biggest factors that draw me to this movie. First of all, it is a western, and they don’t make them much any more. The early 90s saw a brief revival of the genre, lead in part by the fantastic Clint Eastwood film, “Unforgiven”. At the time this was shot, there were a number of other westerns being made and reportedly, costumes became a little sparse. When I was growing up, most of the westerns being released were post modern critiques of the traditional genre. “The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance”, “The Wild Bunch”, and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, focused on breaking down the myths of the western, and giving us anti-heroes as our protagonists. Of course there were television westerns all over the three major networks, and that saturation probably lead to the decline of the film genre. While some of those featured unconventional heroes, none of them that I remember were out right bad guys for us to root for. Leone and Sam Peckinpah turned shady characters into the stars of their films and ever since, there is a delicate morality to the movies.
The second major factor that keeps me hypnotized by this film is the performance of Gene Hackman. I have made no secret of the fact that Hackman is my favorite actor. He is not movie star handsome, he is not chiseled like a superhero, and unfortunately, he stopped working in movies in 2004. The thing that he is is talented. He seems to have an instinct for the characters he is playing and the everyman quality he brings to the screen, actually enhances both his roles as good guy and as villain. In “The Quick and the Dead”, he is clearly the later. Unlike the brutal sheriff of Big Whiskey, that he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in “Unforgiven”, John Herod, the town of Redemptions usurper king, has no pretentions as to morality and justice. He is a self centered monster who rules with an iron sidearm and an iron fist. More about his performance in a bit.
So those are the two primary draws, but they are not the only sugar bringing this fly to the table. The star and co-producer of the film is Sharon Stone. This film came out the same year as her Academy Award Nominated role in “Casino”. She was at the height of her star power and sexual charisma, and she is using it in this movie. There is something striking about a woman in the traditional gunfighter’s role that makes it compelling. The film is drawing on her bigger than life persona to turn her character into the person that we most want to see succeed in the story. The fact that her wardrobe flatters her, and she still gets to wear very western garb is visually satisfying in almost every scene. “The Lady” as she is usually referred to as, wears a her holster and the gun at a slightly different angle. Her style is also just different enough to be noticeable without it becoming an artificial conceit. Slightly forward on her hip rather than low and on the outside.
When it comes to talent and charisma, the film does not run out of steam with the two leads. There are two actors billed after Hackman and Stone who will dominate the masculine acting roles for the next twenty five years. Russel Crowe is making his American film debut with this appearance and he quickly leans into Sam Rami’s style and looks the heartthrob that he would become for a decade after.
The part of Cort, gives him a meaty role that allows him to act as well as engage in the action. He is a reformed criminal who is doing penance for his previous life by taking up the role of preacher and is reluctantly dragged back in to the town by the will of his former mentor and now enemy, Herod. His conflicted participation in the quick draw contest that frames the story is dramatically satisfying without sucking up all the air in the revenge drama that Stone’s character is playing out.
Speaking of heartthrobs, this movie features a young actor, fresh off of his first Academy Award Nomination and just two years away from playing the biggest romantic lead in the biggest romantic movie of the last fifty years. Leonardo DiCaprio, was 20 years old when he played the part of Fee, better known as The Kid, opposite the three other acting legends. He looks like he is twelve, and playing cowboys with the big kids. He does however have a winning smile and a effervescent way of talking that belies the characters desperation to be accepted at the grown up table by his suspected true father, Herod. Of all the actors, he needs the most help with the gunplay required of his part. He manages the bravado of the tricks and the poses, but he just seems slow in comparison to everyone else.
So those are the stars, but the acting wattage does not really end there. Among the cast are veteran TV character actors like Roberts Blossom, Kevin Conway and Mark Boone Junior. They are grimy character actors who make up so much of the environment of the movie. The personalities that fill in the background are even bigger. Keith David is Sgt. Clay Cantrell, a self described gentlemen’s adventurer and shootist. His enigmatic character faces down Hackman both in the parlor of Herod’s house and on the street of Redemption. The polite banter that he and Hackman engage in is an opportunity to see the professionalism that the two gunfighters want to project to the world. Another gunfighter, played by Lance Henriksen, is the blow hard Ace Hanlon. A self promoter who has affectations that mark him as something of a buffoon, including a deck of cards stacked with aces, one for every man he has killed, and boots to die for, Hanlon is a character that enters the film dramatically and exits it too early.
Momentarily I will get to the plot and it’s connection to the Leone films of the 1960s, but one actor who appears in the flashback sequences should also be named. A year after his nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Forrest Gump, Gary Sinise, plays the long ago Marshall of the town of Redemption. His character is the catalyst for the revenge story that Sharon Stone is following. Even though his scene is broken up into bits for the brief flashbacks, he creates a sympathetic character that the audience can see as important to the story arc that Ellen (The Lady) is carrying out. Sinise does the whole scene balanced on a chair and choking. What happens creates a different kind of choking on the part of the audience.
The film’s story and the look of the movie, are clearly influenced by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. There is an entrance based on riding by the local undertaker as they enter the town, In “A Fist Full of Dollars” Clint tells the man to get three coffins ready, here, the coffin maker speaks and accurately states the height of Stone’s character, suggesting he will be ready when her turn comes. The duster she wears is not the same as the poncho that the Man with No Name wears in the Dollars Trilogy, but she does have a scarf that gives a very similar effect in her appearance and both of them seem to favor the same tobaccoist.
“The Quick and the Dead” is Sam Rami’s homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s. There are tense close ups in the build to each showdown. The eyes of the characters are doing so much of the acting in those scenes that we barely notice the rest of the surroundings. Rami cross cuts tightly and the images close in, just as Leone did in so many of his films. There is a scene in a gun shop in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where Eli Wallach’s character Tuco, is examining the guns and clicking through the cylinders. Crowe does the same thing as Herod takes him to get armed for the contest in Fee’s shop. Woody Strode, the athlete turned actor who supported John Wayne in Liberty Vallance, and tried to gun down Charles Bronson in “Once Upon a Time in the West” makes his final screen appearance in this film as the coffin maker and the movie is dedicated to him. The most obvious steal is the scene featuring Sinise. Sharon Stone is a much more attractive version of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica from “Once Upon a Time in the West”.
For every idea and stylistic flourish that Rami takes from Leone, he brings his own original style to the movie as well. The dolly zooms that he used so much in the Evil Dead films, fit perfectly in several spots in this movie. The gunfighters stand far apart from one another, but we can feel the tension ratchet up as the next shot zooms the opponent in at a weird Dutch angle.
All of these tricks are needed to help overcome the somewhat repetitive showdown in the street structure of the story. This is a quick draw contest, ultimately to the death, and there are 16 participants so there are going to be a lot of gunfights in the movie that are one on one in the main street of the town of Redemption. When I have seen negative reviews of this film, they often claim that the story is boring because the same event is reenacted over and over. Siskel and Ebert gave the movie Two Thumbs down for that very reason. What people are missing ate the innovative ways each of those gunfights is shot. There are also twists in several of the face offs that make the each contest unique. Additionally, the music themes play up different emotional beats for the fights. Sometimes the score is nearly whimsical and other times it is thunderous.
Two of Herod’s fights demonstrate this. The showdown with Ace Hanlon is slow to develop and then like a whip, the first shot is cracked and then we get a villain’s exposition from Hackman that is so condescending, the end is almost a relief to Ace. With Cantrell, we get two extra shots, one that spins his fancy sidearm around after the man has been shot and then the Coup de Grâce, a point of view shot that is disturbing and inventive and new to the genre. The TV critics down play it as grotesque, but let’s face it, the deadly combat in and of itself is also morbid.
Back to Gene hackman for a few minutes. Herod is an egoist who wants everything to go his way. He demands the retorn of Cort to his town, just so he can lord over him the power that he has. He is dismissive of The Lady at first and then tries to manipulate her to his will. At the dinner scene, Ellen gets the drop on him with a small gun under the table, hidden from view. Herod hears the hammer being cocked and responds with a similar sound to dissuade her from shooting. After she blinks, he gives away the fact that he was bluffing with the hammercock sound he produced, using a metal matchbox. He smiles smugly in his victory over her as she retreats. Hackman does these kinds of smiles and small hand gestures throughout the picture. Before his gunfight with Cantrell, he meticulously files the hammer on his disassembled firearm, to insure it is working properly. Rami tags on a slow motion shot when Hackman is lighting his cigar during a showdown, which accentuates the moment but it is the deliberate manner he uses in a casual way that sells his total control of the situation. Just to add one more element to Hackman’s complete command of the part, he looks elegant in all of his costumes, including the sidearms that go around his suit jacket in one scene.
In previous posts about the film, I mentioned the music, in fact I had a link up to the theme on YouTube, that seems to have expired for some reason. I have an updated link to a suite of the music here:
It is quite lovely, and it does mirror some Morricone themes from the softer moments of the Dollars films. There is nothing as grandiose as the Theme from the Good ,The Bad and The Ugly”, but there are a lot of places where it builds tension really well. Composer Alan Silvestri, who has done scores for “back to the Future” and four of the MCU films, has never received an Academy Award, but his music has received a lot of love from fans, and this is one of the pieces that is maybe not as popular, but it is certainly well matched with the drama of the film.
Director of Photography Dante Spinotti worked with Rami to get the signature shots that enliven the shootouts, but he has also photographed the plains, town and dingy barrooms of Redemption in a beautiful fashion. The sometimes sepia infused lighting is great for some of the interiors and the early shots. I was very impressed with all of the shots supposedly taking place in the rain, especially the shootout between Ellen and Dread. Spinotti would go on to an Academy Award nomination two years later for “L.A. Confidential”.
There will always be more to talk about on this film. Russell Crowe and DiCaprio should merit some comments of their own. Some of this will be discussed on the podcast, and I will come back and add a link to that when it goes up. For now I am just happy to be anticipating the discussion we will have, the notes that I have just given you, and the fact that a 4K version of the film arrived on my doorstep today, and I am about to watch it again.
The LAMBCAST will be featuring “The Evil Dead” Franchise as our Halloween Horror lookback episode of the month. Recording is tomorrow but I just spent two days catching up with all four theatrical films and thought I’d put my notes down in a supplemental post for readers of this site.
The Evil Dead (1981)
I’d seen Evil Dead II before I saw the original, and I’d been told that the film was basically a remake of the first film. I would disagree to a large extent. The original Evil Dead is a straight horror film with a huge amount of gore and imagination to drive it. It practically invented to “Cabin in the Woods” trope found in so many horror films. Although the story is basically the same, it is told in a vastly different manner and should be approached as a distinct piece of work from the two “sequels”.
The inventiveness of the film is certainly due in part to the budget restrictions of Sam Rami and his partners. Creative camera shots and vivid makeup effects mark the film as being distinctive from most horror films of the era. The cast feels haunted before they even get to the cabin, based on the way they are shot while traveling in the car to their weekend location. The stop motion animation that caps off the climax of the film uses very basic tools that require patience and a clear vision. It may look a little cheezy by today’s standards but it works.
Bruce Campbell is launching his acting career with this movie and you don’t see the cocky smart ass that he plays in most of his subsequent roles, but rather a more simple male lead. He was clearly abused by the effects team and I suspect his weariness reflects not just the character but the actor’s real situation. Many be the most memorable incident in the film and the whole series is the “rape” of Cheryl by the possessed trees of the forest. It is disturbing in the imagination, but much less graphic and exploitative than it might have been in another film.
Evil Dead II : Dead by Dawn (1987)
So this was my gateway drug into the series, first experienced on home video at a Halloween party after all the small children had gone to sleep. This is the place where Bruce Campbell creates the character of Ash as the real star of the movie. His monologues with inanimate objects, and his moments as possessed Ash are very memorable. This is where the Chainsaw becomes a part of his body and he becomes a ninja warrior against the dead.
While still full of horror, the film can rightly be classified as a comedy because of the consistent use of humor. Rami’s sped up camera work and point of view material supplements the Dutch angles of the horror original with a hyper realized sensibility that is slightly silly and easy to fall into rhythmically. The whiplash dialogue responses of Ash to moments in the film also accelerate it’s tempo, making it a more frenetic experience and again, a lot funnier. There are a couple of quotable moments but that line of delight waits for the third film to turn into a tidal wave.
Once again, the horror aspects are highlighted by very good 1980s practical make up effects. The reason these 80s films hang around and are beloved by so many is that they seem real. This is not a computer generated cartoon of a movie, these actors had to look this way as they were filming and their performances are more manically gleeful as a result. Everything in this film tries to double down on the original. Instead of calling this a sequel, we should rightly classify it as one of the original reboots of a concept. The events of the first film are never referred to, this is a first time experience for all of these characters. Instead of a group of five friends, it is a collection of sets of people who encounter the Evil Dead and respond in different ways. This adds a little culture clash to the humor as well.
Bonus: Here is a shot of my Special Blood Red Edition of the Laserdisc
Army of Darkness
You can almost exclude this from the horror category, it is an action/adventure comedy with horror elements but it really is a far cry from either of the first two films. The budget is bigger, the action is bigger, the cast is bigger and Ash’s ego is bigger. Universal did not want the film to just be seen as the third in a franchise that was not necessarily that big to begin with. So they changed the title and forced some other alterations on the original version. Most cinephiles loathe when studios interfere with the director’s vision of the film, but sometimes they are right and this is one of those cases.
For instance, the end of the picture was re-shot with an action sequence and some comedy that was more in line with the film we had seen up to that point. The original post apocalyptic ending feels like a retread of the ending of Evil Dead II, landing Ash in another location for further adventures. Rami and company were forced to come up with some things that fit the spirit if the main part of the movie, and “Hail to the King,baby” is the perfect exit for this character in this storyline.
I have always been a sucker for stop motion animation and effects. The Ray Harryhausen films and the original King Kong were my idea of perfect special effects. This movie uses a little of that technology, a lot of rear projection, some costuming and make up and a large amount of puppetry to achieve it’s goal. This film is goofy fun, through and through. Bruce Campbell becomes the man-god that will be his persona for the remainder of his career, probably preventing him from achieving legitimate stardom, but projecting him to the cult deity that he remains today. For a more elaborate discussion of this film, feel free to look at this other post: Army of Darkness.
Evil Dead (2013)
This is a complete do over of the concept and it was controversial as a result. There is no Ash, and the comedy elements are all gone. What you have here is a reworking of the original premise as a contemporary horror film, but done in the spirit of the original. So the question is simple, does it work? Hell yes!
When I see a horror film, I want to be scared. This movie scared me. I like 70s and 80s gore films, and this movie replicates and expands on those approaches with copious amounts blood, guts, vomit. dismemberment and simply sick special effects. One of the things that was most appealing about this version is that it eschews the use of CGI to achieve it’s results and instead relies on the traditional make up and effects magic which made those early films so memorable. There were many times when I needed to draw a breath or turn away from something that was taking place on screen.
There was also an effort to update the movie in a way by changing the reason for the group being at an isolated cabin from a leisure activity, to a drug intervention. The members of the group have had good relations in the past, but they are severely strained by the current circumstances. This adds to the drama and it also creates some justification for the slow reaction to the supernatural events that begin to happen.
One thing that is a little different, the protagonists develop a plan for trying to get through this. It is nuts, but you can tell that it was justified by the characters in the movie and it seemed reasonable under the circumstances. All of these kinds of movies have to be taken with a grain of salt. You cannot patch a chest wound to the lungs with a band aid and if you cut off a body part, you will bleed to death without some sort of tourniquet. There is a nice emotional undercurrent to the film as well, one that concerns family and not just horror. If we can’t see some human connection between the people in the story, they will be cardboard figures to cut down. That is a problem that so many horror films don’t overcome, but I thought this one did. [My original review from 2013 is here.]