★★★½ (out of five)
Sam Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD is a horror touchstone and infamous piece of '80s cinema (partly down to its 'video nasty' reputation), and led to two jokier sequels that made a cult hero of Bruce Campbell as wisecracking, resourceful demon-slayer Ash. There's been talk of a fourth movie for many years, which I don't see happening now Raimi's in the upper echelons of Hollywood, so it makes perfect sense to let another new director take a crack at rebooting the whole shebang. Enter Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez, who made an alien invasion short called PANIC ATTACK! that went viral in 2009, who also co-writes the remake and finds a number of ways to subtly improve Raimi's formula...
Perhaps the best decision EVIL DEAD makes is to avoid having its own variant of Ash, and to remember the original was never overtly comedic. The premise remains largely the same (a group of friends travel to a remote woodland cabin and accidentally summon Evil forces after reading a cursed book they find in the basement), but Alvarez's reboot approaches the material in a more interesting way. This time the gang are there to support Mia (Jane Levy), a young woman trying to beat a drug addiction by going 'cold turkey'. This is immediately more interesting and original as 'spam in a cabin' set-ups go, but also means the film's craziness works as a warped realisation of Mia's mental state as she suffers withdrawals. Even better, when Mia starts trying to convince her friends about what's happening, for once it feels plausible how dismissive they are of her disturbed warnings.
As a fan of the original, I was relieved EVIL DEAD doesn't sully the cult franchise, but instead provided an entertaining tribute that wasn't just a slavish copy. There are in-jokes for eagle-eyed fans, and understandable decisions to embrace what worked so brilliantly before (Raimi's signature Steadicam shots of an 'evil force' rapidly approaching between trees), but it also does a much better job meshing everything together. I loved how the Book of the Dead is now something of an instruction guide for creating what the script refers to as an 'Abomination' for the climax, because that makes it more than just a catalyst for random horror; and the way Mia's arc plays out was also very unexpected and kept you guessing.
If you're not much of a fan to begin with, EVIL DEAD will at least make an impression for being the goriest mainstream horror movie in years (including the SAW saga). The blood literally pours from the sky by the end, and there are all manner of disgusting bodily mutilations and creatively twisted misuses of hypodermic needles, a nail gun, electric carving knife, and the franchise's beloved chain-saw. Unfortunately, I wouldn't say EVIL DEAD is a particularly scary movie because nothing gets under your skin... it's just relentlessly blood-soaked and guaranteed to make you wince. It isn't simple 'torture porn' because there's more going on with the characters (it's no coincidence most people are killed by their loved-one), but I can understand that reaction from people. The original was also a cheap student film at heart, which always lends things more of a grimy reality (ignoring the awful claymation effects), whereas this remake is very obviously a slick $17m Hollywood product.
I have no idea if a sequel's on the cards for EVIL DEAD, because one isn't required and the story reaches a natural conclusion (no extrinsic portals leading to Medieval England, folks), but I'm glad EVIL DEAD managed to avoid the curse of remaking beloved '70s and '80s horrors, by turning in something with clear improvements that's respectful but never servile to what came before.
★½ (out of five)
It would be hard to make a sci-fi comedy about a neighbourhood watch group battling aliens feel leaden and desperate, but THE WATCH achieves this--even with the likes of Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade and Jonah Hill all involved. (I refuse to count Vince Vaughn as a comedian, because his post-SWINGERS success just baffles me.) Stiller's in need of a big hit these days (it's been years since TROPIC THUNDER), but THE WATCH is unfortunately one of the biggest duds he's been involved with. No wonder ZOOLANDER 2's in the pipeline now...
Something's killing people in the small-town of Glenview, and after setting up a Neighbourhood Watch that only attracts three dysfunctional men, Costco manager Evan Trautwig (Stiller) soon realises the killer's extra-terrestrial in nature. But if you're hoping for something along the lines of THE FACULTY meets MEN IN BLACK, this movie will disappoint you every step of the way. It's one of those excruciatingly unfunny semi-improvised comedies, produced by Shawn Levy (CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM) and directed by Akiva Schaffer (SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE writer and founding member of the cult Lonely Island comedy troupe), where a half-baked idea tries to find cohesion and greatness simply by throwing a lot of individually talented people at it. It rarely works.
The script's a mess, most of the characters are either dull or dislikeable, the subtext is wonky (Evan's sterile and can't father children, so the aliens have gooey blood that feels 'like cum' and their weak-spot is their penises), and most of the jokes feels very desperate. There's a scene where The Watch take photos of each other abusing the corpse of a murdered alien that's just... yeah, infantile and sick.
God knows why Richard Ayoade chose this to make his Hollywood debut, but my guess it he couldn't refuse a phone call from Ben Stiller (a renowned Anglophile, who was probably sent an IT CROWD box-set). At least he's the least-objectionable thing in it, albeit treated in much the same way as Stephen Merchant: a one-dimensional English nerd.
★★½ (out of five)
It doesn't help that I wanted WRECK-IT RALPH to be an arcade version of TOY STORY, because this film lacks that Pixar trilogy's characterisation and storytelling chutzpah. It's not a bad effort in a marketplace crowded with mind-numbing CGI animations, mainly because I like the message it imparts about staying true to who you are, but given the rich video game milieu there are a lot of wasted opportunities here.
Wreck-It Ralph (John C Reilly) is the mammoth-armed villain of a 1980s Donkey Kong-style video game called 'Fix-It Felix Jr', who grows so tired of being "the bad guy" and ignored by his fellow sprites, that he abandons his post and goes looking for praise and medals in neighbouring arcade machines. It's not long before he meets cute Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) in the racing game 'Sugar Rush', who's on a similar quest to be accepted by her peers because she's a walking "glitch" the King (Alan Tudyk) refuses to let race.
What bothered me about WRECK-IT RALPH is how it doesn't fully embrace the possibilities of its nifty concept; partly because the creators couldn't license as many video game characters as you'd hope for. There are fun appearances from Pac-Man, Q*bert, Street Fighter's Zangief and Super Mario's Bowser, together with a quick Sonic the Hedgehog cameo and throwaway mention of Lara Croft, but very little else. Worse, the entirety of the film's action takes place within fictional games (primarily a dessert-themed Mario Kart knock-off that makes you forget this is a video-game movie entirely). I'm not saying WRECK-IT RALPH singularly fails because there aren't as many tie-ins as you'd expect, but it did make the novelty of this animation's concept wear off very quickly... because the characters just couldn't compensate.
As I said, the moral of the story is well-established and has merit for young target audiences, and there's nothing here that's outright terrible, but I just couldn't help feeling disappointed it wasn't more of a gleeful mash-up—especially because the film's jokes aren't too strong, and the biggest laughs are when it's using audience knowledge of gaming culture (see the 'Bad-Anon' meeting of various gaming villains like Sonic's Dr Eggman). The fact it's a modern film that thinks arcades are still a big deal is also an odd anachronism for 2012, but an understandable one from a creative standpoint.
At least there's ample room to expand and improve on this effort, so the prospect of a sequel doesn't feel like a bad idea. I just hope they take the humour, in-jokes and characterisations to the next level.
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