Sunday, April 30, 2023

Nerd Notes: April 2023

Apparently some people had problems with this season of The Mandalorian but, you know, I say those people are clowns. I think the current era of serialized storytelling has ruined many viewer's ability to just enjoy an episode of television for what it is rather than getting agitated when it isn't immediately apparent how an individual episode progresses the larger arc of the season. Sure, you could say that this was the weakest of the three seasons but yet it was still freaking awesome and it's crazy to me to see people bitching about it. I'm so stoked that Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau are going to be getting their chance to bring their corner of the SW universe to the big screen.  

Is this movie a one off or is it the start of a new horror franchise? Time will tell but as mediocre and middle of the road as this movie is, I'm kind of rooting for it to get a couple of sequels. Russell Crowe strikes just the right note of sincere hamminess here and I'd be very game to see him continue to go up against various occult forces a few more times, with The Vatican sending him on missions that only he can handle. The shameless, blatantly commercial set up for more at the end of The Pope's Exorcist is actually one of the most appealing aspects of this movie so I'm pulling for a follow up. I do hope they step their game up a bit if the opportunity to do a sequel should arise but far worse movies than this have spawned franchises. 

It's always a bummer when something looks like a slam dunk on paper but then proves to be kind of unsatisfying. Such is the case with Renfield. Telling the tale of Dracula's eternally put upon assistant, giving Reinfield's plight as a bug eating lackey a comedic slant, sounds terrific. It sounds even better to know that Nicholas Cage will be playing the Count. In reality, though, this movie is just ok. The main problem is that rather than being content to be a funny tale about Renfield, it also wants to be a kick ass action film and a semi-serious character study as well. The tone of this movie is all over the place. Some movies can smoothly veer from serious to funny but here it's jarring. Adding to the jarring aspect of Renfield is how weirdly plot heavy it is. Aside from telling Renfield's story, there's the story of a cop played by Awkwafina who is up against her corrupt, paid off precinct and she's also trying to take down the mob family responsible for killing her honest cop dad. Then there's another subplot about the adult son of the matriarch of the mob family who is trying to prove himself to his mother and who becomes an adversary to Renfield and Awkwafina's character. It's just a lot of story bogging down what should have been a simple, quirky tale. For splatter fans, this does offer up a ton of over the top gore but all the hard R bloodshed is just another indication that this is a movie that never quite knows what it wants to be or what master it's trying to serve. 

Thursday, April 27, 2023

"Mid" Marvel

With today marking the fifth anniversary of Avengers: Infinity War and with news on Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania's streaming debut also hitting today, I think it's worth taking stock of where the MCU has been and where it's going. Four years ago, all of the narrative dominos that had been placed over the course of Phases 1 through 3 were starting to fall as Earth's Mightiest Heroes were finally throwing down against Thanos and excitement for the climax of the Infinity Saga was off the charts. Today, news of Quantumania's home release is accompanied by an assessment of its status as a box office disappointment. Quantumania's unsteady kick off to Phase 5 has only fed into the arguments that arose throughout Phase 4 that, post IW/EG, that the MCU's best days were over and that the public appetite for Marvel movies has waned. To that I say "feh." 

While it's inevitable that after eleven years of sustained cinematic storytelling that some would want to get off the ride after a climatic chapter, what a lot of people who aren't comic readers don't understand is the ebb and low of comic narratives. After a major line wide event in comics, it isn't immediately followed by another big event. You can't keep going from one massive high to another. You have to have peaks and valleys. You can have an event like Secret Wars but then you have to go back to smaller stakes (by comic book standards, at least) and regroup, introduce new characters, new elements, slowly start putting the pieces in place for what the next big event will be. 

That's where the MCU is at now. They spent years getting to Infinity War/Endgame, building to it film by film. They couldn't go right from the conclusion of that right into something on the same level. The MCU has always been about playing the long game and that's the strategy they're still pursuing. There's some audiences who don't get that or don't have the patience for it. They just want that bigger and bigger high, every time out. They also want to know what the plan is and where everything is heading and rather than enjoy the journey they get frustrated if the big picture isn't immediately clear to them. But that's not how storytelling works in comics. The big moments take time to ramp up to. To arrive at the kind of pay offs that matter, you have to put the time into building towards them. 

Some complain that too many movies in Phase 4 were "mid" and that's why they weren't Endgame level hits but I say that's bullshit. Movies like Infinity War and Endgame are never going to be commonplace. That can't be the goal every time out. That's not how the MCU got there. They got there by patiently putting out one solid performer after another and never jumping the gun. Some entries did better than others but most were not massive hits. They just did well enough to keep the MCU viable and to pave the way for more. And the fact is, a lot of the movies throughout Phases 1 through 3 were every bit as "mid" as anything found in Phase 4 MCU. They were fun but not exceptional. Just a good time at the movies, not a reinvention of cinema. Some were on a higher level but the majority were not. And that's fine. Most movies in general, across all studios, across all genres, are "mid." Most movies in the history of movies are just ok. Most action movies, most comedies, most dramas. To believe that every MCU movie must be an exceptional example of filmmaking in order to justify their existence or earn the audience's continued interest is just silly. 

Some of what was in Phase 4 ranked among the best that the MCU has delivered to date. Some of it was mid to lower tier. But you could say the same all through the MCU's history. The key to the MCU's longevity isn't about hitting home runs every time, it's about scoring base hits and staying in the game. Just as you can't get to Infinity War and Endgame without a Thor: Dark World or Ant-Man, the road to Avengers: Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars doesn't happen without Quantumania

Five years ago, the MCU was at a popular peak. Five years from now, they well could be at another one but the takeaway of Infinity War shouldn't be to look to that as what every MCU movie should be but to realize that those crescendos only work when you take the time to build up to them.   

Rise Rules

From today's perspective, it's odd to remember that, for a long time, The Evil Dead existed only as a trilogy, a cult trilogy at that, one whose audience was once deemed to be so microscopically niche that the marketing for Army of Darkness was based on the belief of Universal Studios that it even wasn't worth acknowledging its connection to the previous two films. For many years it was generally accepted by fans that after 1992, we had seen our last Deadite and that we'd have to be satisfy our Evil Dead itch going forward by dutifully buying each new Special Edition of each film in the trilogy on every new home video format. Sure, there was always the hope that Ash would return in an Evil Dead 4 but it seemed more far likely that AoD marked the end of the road for all things Evil Dead, save perhaps in comics and games. 

But proving that nothing Evil ever dies, there was the Fede Alvarez big screen reboot in 2013, shepherded into existence by producers Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell, a movie that revived the hardcore spirit of the original in grand, gory fashion, followed by three seasons of Ash vs. Evil Dead on Starz from 2015 to 2018 that gave us more Ash than the movies could have ever given us and here we are in 2023 with yet more big screen ED action with Evil Dead Rise. What was once three films with a devoted cult following is now a still-thriving franchise. Not just still thriving but arguably, pound for pound, the finest modern horror franchise. We'll see that be put to the test if they start to pump out movies with more frequency but for now, you've got five movies and three seasons of a TV show without a single miss in the bunch. Whether you put Evil Dead Rise towards the top or the bottom of your ED rankings, it still kicks ass because they all kick ass.  

Arriving in theaters on the heels of the not bad but kind of ho-hum possession yarn The Pope's Exorcist, Evil Dead Rise is a masterclass in showing 'em how it's done. Director Lee Cronin picks up the gauntlet from Fede Alvarez and confidently puts his own bloody stamp on the ED franchise. As a horror fan who remembers the battles genre filmmakers fought throughout the '80s with the MPAA and how neutered much of the splatter output of the '80s was, it will never not seem crazy to me how much bloodshed a R rating can get away with now. For whatever reason, the MPAA long ago straight up stopped giving a shit about graphic violence and horror fans are reaping the benefits. I know some horror fans find gore to be a bore and, hey, that's fair but these recent ED films aren't made for that crowd. 

No, Evil Dead Rise is a movie designed to cater to gorehounds who bought their ticket secure in the knowledge that the people involved in making this movie weren't going to waste time getting cute with them or tease shit and then not deliver. This is a movie made for the crowd who, when they spot a tree mulcher in the background of a scene early on, know full well that the next time they see it, someone's going to be getting fed into it. Some might shrug at the promise of that kind of carnage and it's safe to say that if splatter isn't your thing, or if you just feel like you've already had enough to last a lifetime, Evil Dead Rise won't be your kind of party. For those whose enthusiasm for gore remains insatiable, though, EDR is cause for celebration. As an old school gorehound who always lamented the way that chainsaw mayhem was always teased in movies like Motel Hell, Pieces, and The Evil Dead but never really shown, I have to say I find the explicit chainsaw related gore in the modern ED's to be very satisfying to behold. Hey, we've all got our things, right?   

At this point, Evil Dead is a series comprised of five movies that form two trilogies. The first trilogy consists of the 1983 original, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. There the emphasis is on Ash and his adventures against the Deadites. The other trilogy is the original, the 2013 ED and now Evil Dead Rise and in that trilogy the star of the show is the Necronomicon itself. That evil tome is the linking device across those films and if you just watch those three, it's about people encountering that book and unleashing hell upon themselves and everyone in the immediate perimeter. 

In retrospect, the original has only become perceived as campy because of the turn towards comedy in Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness but that was not how The Evil Dead was seen in '83. Back then, it was serious hardcore horror, devoid of laughs (but not devoid of fun!) and I love that the two recent films have reclaimed that OG ED vibe. I love Ash and I love the splatstick humor of Evil Dead 2 and AoD (and the TV series) but I also love that Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell have been able to make Evil Dead a viable ongoing franchise without Ash while still being completely true to the "dead by dawn" spirit of the original. If we keep getting more movies like this where the Necronomicon wrecks havoc in different locations (and perhaps even different times!), I'm all for it. 

Most point to the change in location from a cabin in the woods to a apartment building in LA as being the big shake up in Evil Dead Rise but while that is notable, I think the bigger change is in having a family in peril. Sure, we've seen adult siblings pitted against each other, caught up in the throes of demonic possession but this stuff hits very differently when you see a mother and her three young children going through it. It's emotionally grueling and disturbing in a way that no previous Evil Dead movie has been. 

We spend enough time with Alyssa Sutherland as single mom Ellie and Gabrielle Echols as older daughter Bridget, Morgan Davies as brother Danny and Nell Fisher as the youngest sibling, Cassie, to feel genuinely horrified when this family literally starts ripping each other apart. Even though you know going in that this is where the movie is likely to go, it's still unsettling to see kids being tormented by their possessed mom and in turn being possessed themselves and trying to butcher their siblings. Beyond the bloodletting, it's strong stuff on a character level. Lily Sullivan as Ellie's sister Beth rises to the challenge of being the latest ED hero to stand against the Deadites and in true ED fashion, grows stronger through suffering. 

I know some fans balk at seeing Evil Dead becoming a slick commercial vehicle but Evil Dead was never art house stuff. It was always intended to be commercial. It's just that the audience for this type of material has grown beyond the cult cul-de-sac over the years, where what was once considered the extreme edge of horror has become more acceptable, and with decades of experience under their belts, Raimi, Tapert and Campbell have developed expert eyes for knowing what Evil Dead needs to be. They're doing a great job of bringing the right directors in and the loosening of the MPAA has meant that these new movies can go even farther than the original while still getting a R rating that allows them to play to a wider audience. It's impossible to have a new Evil Dead with the same raw energy of the original. What Evil Dead is now is a Book of the Dead that's still being written, chapter by bloody chapter.