Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Sam Raimi – Movies Spotlight – March 2013

Sam Raimi, 53, is best known for his two film trilogies: The Evil Dead and Spider-Man, but for his fans his filmmaking style also stands out. Raimi employs many stylistically iconic trademarks like Dutch angles, whip pans, kinetic camera movement, references to The Three Stooges, and even tries to include his yellow 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 in all his films (to name a few). In March his new film Oz the Great and Powerful is set for release. It sees Raimi reteaming with frequent collaborators composer Danny Elfman (who he has worked with six times) and cinematographer Peter Deming (who he has worked with four times). It stars James Franco (who also starred in the Spider-Man Trilogy), Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Zach Braff. The film is a prequel to the classic The Wizard of Oz. The trailer for Oz the Great and Powerful: Here.

Early Career:

Raimi got his start making Super 8 films with his friends (including Bruce Campbell – who has appeared in most of Raimi’s work) and brothers (Ivan and Ted Raimi – both also continue to be frequent collaborators) in high school. He then attended Michigan State University with long-time friend and producing partner Robert Tapert (his roommate). With Tapert and Campbell, Raimi made his first two short films Within the Woods and It’s Murder! Their successes directly lead to his feature debut The Evil Dead (see paragraph below).

Raimi also developed a good friendship with writer-directors the Coen Brothers (who helped edit and raise money for The Evil Dead). The brothers, Campbell, Kathy Bates, Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, and Raimi all shared an apartment together. For his second feature, Raimi directed Crimewave (intended as a live-action comic book), which he co-wrote with the Coen Brothers. Originally, he wanted Campbell to star, but the film’s producers wanted someone else so Campbell was left with a small supporting role. Raimi was unhappy with the end result and complained about the producers interfering too much in the making of the film. Early in their careers, Raimi and the Coen Brothers worked together frequently (the brothers employing a few of Raimi’s directing trademarks in their own films): Raimi helped them raise money for their first film Blood Simple., he has a funny cameo in Miller’s Crossing, and he co-wrote and directed the second-unit on The Hudsucker Proxy (and he also has a cameo). Joel Coen and Raimi also have a cameo in John Landis’s Spies Like Us (and Landis has cameos in Raimi’s Darkman and Spider-Man 2).

As a precursor to entering Hollywood, Raimi wanted to make a film adaptation of The Shadow, but was denied. So, he created his own similar original character and made Darkman. Again, Raimi wanted Campbell in the lead, and again the film’s producers objected. Liam Neeson was eventually cast opposite McDormand, but Campbell still has a cameo in the film (this is also the first film Elfman worked with Raimi on).

The Evil Dead Trilogy:

With the shorts It’s Murder! and Within the Woods under his belt, writer-director Raimi, producer Tapert, and star Campbell were able to secure financing for The Evil Dead, which went into production in 1979. Principal photography took place in Tennessee, after Raimi could not find a cabin in Michigan. The making of the film was an arduous experience for all involved, and ran out of money halfway through. Raimi, Tapert, Campbell vowed to do whatever it took to raise the remaining money needed to finish the film (taking out high interest loans, borrowing money from friends and family, cold calling local businesses for donations, and even putting up family land as collateral). The film finally came out in 1981 and was rated X, being banned in a few countries. However, he became a cult hit launching Raimi’s career.

For Evil Dead II, Raimi never intended in remaking The Evil Dead, but some fans think that it is a remake because Raimi had to reshoot the backstory that opens the film depicting events from the first film, as he was denied the rights to use footage from it. While The Evil Dead was intended as a straight horror film (in the vein of Wes Craven’s early work), Evil Dead II saw Raimi’s silly sense of humor and love of the Three Stooges become a major factor in the film, as much of it is filled with slapstick comedy. It is both scary/gory and hilarious (and my personal favorite of the trilogy – it is also Raimi’s first collaboration with Peter Deming).

The third film in the series Army of Darkness is pretty much a straight fantasy comedy with most of the horror elements left behind. It also has a much more epic scale (and even has famous names appear in the credits like Embeth Davidtz and Bridget Fonda, though both were just starting their careers at the time). Campbell is great in the film, completely playing up Ash as sort a boorish brute who only cares about himself. He also has many very funny moments. The film features work from composer Joseph LoDuca (who scored the whole trilogy, and has worked on most of the Raimi/Tapert produced TV series), composer Elfman contributes a piece of music as well, and cinematographer Bill Pope shot it (he would work again with Raimi shooting Spider-Man 2 and 3). It was a box office flop, but is now also considered a cult classic finding a life on video.

Hollywood Films (A Mixed-Bag):

In 1995 Raimi released his first Hollywood film for TriStar Pictures, a western called The Quick and the Dead. The film has a star-studded cast with Sharon Stone (a big star in the 1990s), Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, and Leonardo DiCaprio (the latter two were somewhat early in their Hollywood careers, but still known actors). However despite its stars, the film is very campy (much like Raimi’s earlier work) and failed to connect with audiences. It is among his weakest films – though it does have a few good moments and ideas.

Next Raimi made a great crime drama/thriller with A Simple Plan (probably his best film that no one has seen). The film was critically acclaimed (Roger Ebert even gave it a perfect score), but no one went to see it. Bill Paxton (whose father has a cameo in the Spider-Man Trilogy), Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda star in a tale about three small-town friends that discover a large sum of money – however the money breeds mistrust and distain between them with tragic consequences. It is a great little gem and well worth checking out. Raimi also got advice from the Coen Brothers on how to shoot in the snow (the Coens having just made Fargo).

For his third consecutive film, Raimi made another box office flop with For Love of the Game, which stars Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston. The romantic sports drama is about an a washed up star baseball pitcher and the girl he loves, shown through flashbacks of his career and relationship with her as he pitches what could be his last game. While it is also considered a critical failure as well, the film deserves a second look. The baseball stuff in the film is brilliant. It is clear that Raimi understands the game and has a love for it. The romantic stuff, on the other hand, is a little clichéd. Personally, I like the film (but mostly due to its baseball stuff – if it had only been a movie about Billy Chapel’s career, it would have been really good).

With The Gift, Raimi had his first Hollywood success (though, this is due to the film’s low budget and international appeal, as critically it played to mixed reviews). The film is probably best remembered for its cast, as it stars Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear, and Hilary Swank. It is a decent crime drama. Raimi would next be hired by Sony to direct Spider-Man, which is all the more shocking considering his output to date in Hollywood.

After finishing his Spider-Man Trilogy, Raimi decided to return to his horror roots writing Drag Me to Hell with his brother Ivan and directing. The film very much feels like an Evil Dead film (specifically Evil Dead II as it mixes horror and strange slapstick comedy). It has some very thrilling moments (like the scene where star Alison Lohman is assaulted in her car) and a great score from Christopher Young (who also scored Spider-Man 3, after Elfman left the series due to creative differences with Raimi). It is a fun horror film, especially for Raimi fans that do not mind his campy style.

The Spider-Man Trilogy:

Raimi very much wanted to make a super hero movie. He has been a lifelong comic book fan (with reportedly over 25,000 comics in his collection). First he tried with The Shadow, then he actively campaigned to direct Batman Forever after Warner Bros. decided not to bring Tim Burton back, but Joel Schumacher was chosen instead (and we all know how that worked out). Thus, when Sony was ready to move forward with Spider-Man, Raimi again vigorously crusaded for the job. He was not Sony’s first (or even second) choice, but eventually won the job due to his love and enthusiasm for the characters and comics. Raimi also benefited from the growing trend in Hollywood to give fantasy/adventure genre films to cult cinema auteurs (like Peter Jackson being hired to direct The Lord of the Rings and Bryan Singer to direct X-Men), a movement that Warner Bros. started hiring Burton to direct Batman.

Suddenly, Raimi was at the helm of a film with a budget of $139,000 when the biggest budget he had ever worked with was $50,000 on For Love of the Game (and most of that went to Costner’s salary). However, he proved himself to be very capable, directing a very fun action/adventure film setting a new standard for comic book films. Spider-Man stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, and Willem Dafoe (playing Green Goblin).

With Spider-Man 2, Raimi made the quintessential comic book film (and in my opinion, the best comic book film still to date). It has a flawless narrative structure as each scene builds into the next and the characters have well defined and developed arcs. Novelist Michael Chabon was brought in by Raimi to help craft the story, and it really pays off. Alfred Molina is also very good as Dr. Octopus, giving a memorable villain performance. What also works very well about the film is that Raimi allows his style to find its place (the operating room scene where Octavius’s metal tentacles attack the doctors is a fantastic example and scene) but balances it nicely so it does not take over and make the tone campy. 2004 was a very good year for films, but the level of storytelling on display in Spider-Man 2 is a notch above anything else released that year. It is Raimi’s best work. However, with the utter disappointment that was Spider-Man 3 (once the initial happiness of a new Spider-Man film wore off – remember, it is still the most financially successful in the franchise) has somewhat soured people’s memory of the trilogy and Spider-Man 2, but taken alone it is a magnificent film (comic book movie or any other kind of film).

As mentioned above, Spider-Man 3 is remembered as a disappointment (probably too harshly, as there is still a lot of good stuff in it – Raimi’s campy side just had too big a role, among other issues). The film is also a classic example of a studio not trusting their director (a director who had just delivered too massive hits with the first two films in the series), overreaching, and ruining a film. Sony/Marvel wanted Venom in the film and Raimi did not. He had cast Ben Kingsley as the Vulture and was well underway into production, but Sony/Marvel would have their way no matter what and the script was reworked (even though production had already begun!) to include Venom in  addition to Sandman (played by Thomas Haden Church coming off his Oscar win for Sideways). Topher Grace was (mis)cast as Venom and Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy (a competing love interest). Screenwriter Alvin Sargent knew there was a big issue, and tried to structure the film into two parts but could not get it to work. The film was over-packed with villains and characters (two new villain origin stories, Parker’s new relationship with Gwen, his continuing relationship with Mary Jane, and his friendship/feud with Harry all needed to find a place in the narrative) – a lesson apparently not learned by Sony/Marvel as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sure seems like it has a lot of new characters and villains. All things considered, the film is actually not half bad.

Feeling that he was not allowed to make ‘his’ Spider-Man film due to Sony/Marvel’s gross interference on Spider-Man 3, Raimi signed a deal to direct Spider-Man 4, but only if he was creatively left alone, with the potential for a fifth and sixth part. Everyone was onboard for another film, and production seemed to be ready to get underway – there were even negotiations with John Malkovich and Anne Hathaway to play characters. But, then Sony demanded that Raimi finish the film in a timeframe that Raimi felt would hurt the overall quality of the film (due to scripting issues). Thus, Sony fired Raimi, only to delay the film by a year, deciding rather to reboot the franchise in 3D: giving us The Amazing Spider-Man (which is the third best film in the combined Spider-Man franchises to date).

Despite the rocky finish, Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy is still overall a critically acclaimed and hugely financially successful franchise – only second to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy (in terms of comic book film series).

Producing Projects:

Sam Raimi and producing partner Robert Tapert have also produced a number of films and TV projects. They started with Raimi’s The Evil Dead, Cimewave, and Darkman (and its subsequent terrible sequels – which Raimi did not direct). But, from there they branched out producing the Jean-Claude Van Damme 1990s action films Hard Target and Timecop (yeah, I know, super random).

However, on television, Raimi and Tapert found a niche in cheaply made (filming in New Zealand to save production costs – something Peter Jackson would later do with his big budget films) adventure series. Their first hit was Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, followed by the spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess. While they are fairly cheesy, they are actually very entertaining and were quite successful. More recently, they have produced two new adventure series: Legend of the Seeker (which is essentially the same as Hercules and Xena, but better – I actually think it is one of better adventure series made) and the highly stylized and graphic Spartacus (which is also very good – their best TV series to date).

In the 2000s they started Ghost House Pictures to make low-to-moderately budgeted horror films, the first of which was The Grudge in 2004. Ghost House Pictures has produced ten feature films to date.

Upcoming Projects:

Next on Ghost House Pictures’s slate is the Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell produced Evil Dead remake. It is co-written and directed by Fede Alvarez, co-written by Diablo Cody, and stars Jane Levy, Jessica Lucas, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, and Elizabeth Blackmore. It is supposed to be extreme, and the most terrifying film ever made (or so says the marketing – the trailer is pretty intense).

Raimi is also attached to produce a remake of Poltergeist (the 1982 film is a horror classic) with Gil Kenan directing, but it is still early in the production cycle.

Career Highlights:

1)      The Evil Dead (1981) – writer, director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
2)      Evil Dead II (1987)* – writer, director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
3)      Army of Darkness (1992)* – writer, director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
4)      The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)* – writer, second-unit director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
5)      A Simple Plan (1998)* – director (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
6)      Spider-Man (2002) – director (Blu-rayFull Trilogy Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
7)      Spider-Man 2 (2004)* – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
8)      Legend of the Seeker (2008-2010) – executive producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
9)      Drag Me to Hell (2009) – writer, director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
10)   Spartacus (2010-2013) – executive producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

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