Saturday, May 30, 2009

Biggest Month EVER

Just a quick note to say a humble and sincere thank you to all of you for making May 2009 the biggest month EVER here on Reflections on Film and Television. The number of visitors this May was nearly double what it was for May of 2008, and this month even edged out July 2008 -- the month my X-Files: I Want to Believe -- sort of went viral.

So, my deepest deepest appreciation -- and don't stop coming...the best is yet to come.


Ode to a Delta 88: The Classic Returns!

"He absolutely loved it (the Delta 88), and it kept on getting destroyed, and he would rebuild it. He had a very sentimental attachment to that car..."

-Robert Primes (director of photography, Crimewave).

Once upon a time, director Alfred Hitchcock was famous for making cameo appearances in his films. Today, Sam Raimi is almost as well-known for featuring his beloved car -- "The Classic" (a yellow Oldsmobile Delta 88 from 1973...) -- in his various Hollywood productions.

Ash (Bruce Campbell) piloted Raimi's treasured Delta in Evil Dead (1983), Evil Dead 2 (1987) and even time-tripped with it in Army of Darkness (1993). The director's car was also featured (and virtually destroyed...) in a nighttime car chase in the cult film, Crimewave (1985). More recently, it served as Cate Blanchett's clunker in The Gift (2000),and Uncle Ben's (Cliff Robertson's) car in Spider-man (2002). You can also see it in Spider-Man 3 (2007).

The cinematic love affair between Sam Raimi and his car continues to this very day, with this week's Drag Me to Hell (2009). The 36-year old Oldsmobile returns as the conveyance of diabolical old gypsy, Sylvia Ganush. The Classic even has a good supporting role this time around too: showing up (malevolently) in a darkened parking deck, and later seen quiescently parked in the gypsy's driveway.

When I wrote The Unseen Force : The Films of Sam Raimi in 2004 for Applause Theatre and Cinema Books (now available on Amazon's Kindle...) I had the honor of interviewing several cast and crew members from Raimi's productions, and we inevitably got around to the subject of The Classic. Sheree Wilson, star of Crimewave told me that the car was indeed Sam's "baby" and that she got a lot of special privileges with it, "hanging off...dangling off... "(page 83) of it.

After working on Spider-Man, the great Cliff Robertson told me that Raimi's Classic serves as the director's "signature." Roberson noted he was unaware of the car's deep significance until the "yellow Oldsmobile appeared on the scene" and his character died "in front of it at the Public Library."

Robertson added that it would be "interesting to see" how Raimi is going "to put it in a futuristic movie..." (page 304), but that he was sure that Raimi would "find a way, being the inventive, creative man that he is..."

Let's hope we next see The Classic battling Deadites again in Evil Dead IV...

Friday, May 29, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Drag Me To Hell (2009)

"The totality of the psyche can never be grasped by the intellect alone." - Carl Jung.

If you are an admirer of good, scary horror movies, then run -- don't walk -- to Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell, a fiendishly original and effective genre effort. Without a whit of hyperbole or exaggeration, I can happily declare that this movie is absolutely inspired in both presentation and story. This makes the film, perhaps, the first authentically great horror enterprise of the Obama Era.

Thankfully, Drag Me To Hell isn't one of the three dreaded "Rs" of today's horror movies (a remake, re-boot or a re-imagination). It's not a tired prequel, sequel or threequel, either.

Instead, Drag Me To Hell is a lean and laudable exercise in virtuoso technique and directorial audacity. Accordingly, the production shows off director Sam Raimi's unwavering capacity to garner laughs amidst screams. Not to mention his absolute, almost maniacal obsession with entertaining and surprising the hell out of his audience.

No matter the cost to your nerves. No matter the dictates of movie decorum. And no matter the edicts of good taste....

So be warned: cuddly little kittens don't emerge unscathed. No blood flood is too...moist. And every spine-tingling jolt is punctuated by bombastic, explosive moments on the soundtrack... the aural equivalent of shock treatment. This is a big, bold, confident horror movie that spares no attempt to scare you silly. (With silly being the operative word, at least at a few critical points.)

Drag Me To Hell tells the story of young Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a loan officer toiling away at the Wilshire Pacific Bank. Although she's dating a psychology professor named Clay (Justin Long), and is on a successful if uninspiring career track, Christine lacks self-confidence. Perhaps this is so because she grew up on a farm and spent her teenage years overweight. Now, Christine's promotion to position of assistant manager is threatened by Stu (Reggie Lee), an obsequious and treacherous new co-worker. The boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer) likes the fact that Stu isn't afraid to "make hard calls" and big decisions in support of the bank (and the bank's bottom line...).

One day, an old gypsy woman, Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) arrives at the bank asking for Christine's help. Because of a recent, prolonged illness, the elderly lady has fallen behind making her mortgage payments, and -- on this very day -- the bank is set to foreclose...yanking the woman's home of thirty years right out from under her.

Christine's first instinct is to help Ms. Ganush, but then she recalls her boss's words about making hard calls for the bank...and fatefully decides not to extend Mrs. Ganush any further credit. Mrs. Ganush drops to the bank floor and literally begs for help, but Christine rebuffs her, and the old gypsy feels shamed. It's not just that she was rebuffed.. Ganush was humiliated.

Before you can say "Gypsy Curse," Christine is reckoning with the very real idea that a demonic spirit, the "Lamia," has been summoned by the evil Mrs. Ganush to destroy her; to drag her Hell. The curse takes three days to come to completion (not unlike a bank loan...), and now Christine must race against time (and the demonic Lamia) to escape a fate worse than death.

How good is her credit score?

It's a simple story, but Drag Me To Hell achieves some special resonance in the hothouse climate of the current economic recession. The banking "system" that Christine is a part of requires her to make a deliberate selection between her humanity...and her employer's bottom line. It's a world in which decency and humanity don't matter, in which those qualities are, in fact, looked upon as weaknesses, not strengths. Christine's promotion hinges, particularly, on her ability to destroy the life and dignity of another human being, not her ability to help that human being.

Old Mrs. Ganush -- part hyperactive Deadite and part taunting Wicked Witch of the West (and possessed of a mean set of removable teeth...) -- warns Christine that "soon" the tables will be turned; that the unfortunate girl will be begging her for help. That turns out to be true: Christine quickly finds herself in the very position of desperate Mrs. Ganush, with no one to help her; no higher authority to consult, and no place at all to turn. Christine requires $10,000 dollars (cash) in 24-hours to pay for the assistance of a medium. Accordingly, she must pawn all of her beloved middle-class belongings, from jewelry to electronic equipment, to childhood treasures. Now the shoe is truly on the other foot, and the person foreclosing on another person's house sees her own "soul" being foreclosed upon by a merciless collector.

The message Drag Me To Hell imparts to us is really that, for the most part anyway, this is a culture in which people don't seem to believe that there is a spiritual price for our behavior here on Earth.

We know Christine's moral sin: putting career advancement above basic human decency. But other characters are part of the same broken "system." Stu steals from Christine on the job to get ahead of her in line for the promotion. Mr. Jacks plays his employees against each other, and when Christine is overcome by a real gusher of a bloody nose, he doesn't even ask if she's okay. Instead, he wants to know if any of her fountaining blood got in his mouth. Even Clay's disapproving parents -- judging Christine's worth from the comfortable vantage point of their opulent mansion -- are highly uncharitable in their conclusions.

Christine's help comes from two sources in the film: a caring boyfriend (Clay), and -- tellingly -- two ethnic minorities (meaning non-whites): the Latino medium, Shaun San Dana, and the Indian "fortune teller," Rham Jas (Dileep Rhao). It is Jas, in fact, who quotes Jung's famous line about the intellect, and the intellect's inability to grasp the totality of the world.

Indeed, to grasp that totality -- and to quote an Obama-ism -- we require more than logic or law; we require empathy.

That's not a bad word, folks, no matter what the Rush Limbaughs of the world have been telling us. Empathy is but a necessary human understanding that there are things in this world more important than the bottom line, or more important than the agenda of corporations, credit card companies and financial institutions that are lucky enough to be deemed "too big too fail." Empathy is an understanding that not everybody who fails in life did so because they were a deadbeat, a con artist, or the most mythological of boogeyman, the evil welfare queen. Sometimes, events just conspire against us (an illness here, an accident there...). Yet if our system can't distinguish those tragedies from real turpitude, then we have lost the capacity, as a civilization, to make meaningful moral distinctions.

Given this idea of "spiritual" bankruptcy and an evil spirit foreclosing on our souls, it's downright fascinating the way Raimi deploys rather unconventional objects as weapons in Christine's battle for survival. One critical engagement is fought between the vengeful Ms. Ganush and Christine...with office supplies. A ruler and a stapler, to be precise. The sub-text is plainly that these workplace implements are part of the avaricious forecloser's quiver -- taking away homes and destroying lives as surely as devastating weapons of war do.

Drag Me To Hell also points to the hypocrisy of the high-minded who have never suffered desperation themselves: Christine counts herself an enlightened person with a certain set of bedrock values, but when she's faced with an unstoppable demon seeking spiritual foreclosure, the first thing to go are those values. She actually sacrifices a small animal according to the tenets of a book called Animal Sacrifices in the Service of Deities. Later, Christine is given the chance to "transfer" her destiny of doom (being dragged to Hell...) to an innocent victim, and it's a cooking of the books she contemplates for a good long time. As, I might add, any of us would likely do in that situation. What's clever about this scenario is that Christine is indeed our surrogate. She's us, and her plight makes us empathize for those who are desperate. Radiant and resourceful, Christine is not a villain: she's somebody who tried to get ahead in a morally bankrupt system without weighing the possible "cost."

Despite the clear Great Recession sub-text, Drag Me To Hell is never preachy. On the contrary, it's a fever-pitched hoot from start to finish, with Raimi pulling out every trick in the book to keep the audience off-kilter and uncomfortable. He literally sweeps us from scene to scene with his unconventional visual transitions and sound-bridges, and expertly adopts a Godard-esque series of jump cuts at one point to help us understand how it "feels" to be in Christine's 'fractured" shoes (a display of technical empathy, perhaps).

Raimi is a veteran filmmaker whose compositions are so adroit that he can literally make clattering pots and pans terrifying. He's a magician with a bizarre bag of tricks that conventional horror film directors would be too timid or too afraid to deploy in a mainstream release. A talking goat. A malevolent handkerchief. A set of goopy dentures. A pesky fly that not just lands on your cheek, buts crawls up your nostrils, goes down your throat, and gets spit up during a formal dinner. It's an outrageous style and a mode that darts brilliantly between terror and madness. Yet despite the occasional cartooniness/Three Stooges approach, this movie is not un-serious or inconsequential.

On the contrary, Raimi's latest (and perhaps greatest) may just leave you shrieking with its screaming sense of finality. Drag Me To Hell's valedictory moment is so stunning, so brassy, so utterly irrevocable that you could very well find yourself in a kind of paralytic shock after watching it. The film's ending card (in HUGE letters) comes up before you can fully process the terror, before you can even exhale. This is the cinematic equivalent of slamming the door in our act which will rattle and shake you like few recent films have.

And when you're alone in the dark tonight, weighing the movie, intellect alone won't keep away the shivers. Instead, that last moment -- and all it portends -- will haunt you.

What do you have in your (spiritual) wallet?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 87: Star Wars Droid Factory (Kenner; 1979)

Back in the late 1970s, Kenner created a hugely diverse and impressive line of toys based on the original Star Wars (1977). A young fan could play not just with cool action figures by the dozen, but large-scale mock-ups too, such as the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star Space Station, the Creature Cantina, and more.

Under the category of "more" came this most unusual and interactive of the Kenner Star Wars play sets, 1979's The Droid Factory. This industrial droid production center was unique because it was not a reproduction of a set or ship, or even a landscape (like the Land of the Jawas Playset...). Instead, it was an original and very cool setting not seen in the film, one in which you could build your own version of R2-D2. As a child (and even before The Empire Strikes Back), I appreciated this -- it was good for the burgeoning imagination -- because an original toy like the droid factory indicated that there was a larger world "around" Star Wars than the one we saw in the movie.

The Star Wars Droid Factory came in a large box complete with a beige "factory base with swivel crane" plus "38 robots parts." Essentially, you could "build up to 5 different robots at the same time," "make hundreds of different combinations," and just have a hell of a lot of fun with the "interchangeable robot parts." These factory-constructed robots were the same scale as the other figures, so kids could experience the immediate gratification of landing their newly-built droids into the action with Han Solo, Hammerhead, Jaws, Greedo, Blue Snaggletooth or anyone else.

The Kenner Droid Factory also came with a neat "Droid Maker Blueprints" set which offered instructions for building "the 5 basic droids." These were: the Mechano Droid, R2-D2, Tracto-Droid, Quad-Pod Droid, and Rollarc Droid. The last page of the booklet offered details on how to build a goliath "Monster Droid." Clean-up after play was easy too, as the booklet thoughtfully informed parents: "Each part has its own place in the Base. When you are finished playing with your DROID FACTORY, put all the parts back just like you see it here."

The only drawback to this great vintage toy (which I'm now sharing with Joel...since he's become obsessed with R2-D2 and C3PO): there was no way to build Threepio. Yep, Anakin could do it on Tatooine, but you can't do it with your Droid Factory! Clearly, that's a huge oversight in an otherwise very cool toy. Below, you can see the original TV commercial for the Kenner Star Wars Droid Factory.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"God help us...we're in the hands of engineers."
Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park (1993)