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Column Fri Apr 13 2012
The Cabin in the Woods
The day has arrived. The Cabin in the Woods, the film many of you have been waiting years to see, has finally made it to theaters. If you've chosen to, you've read virtually unanimous positive reviews, but hopefully you played this one smart and went with the advice of many of us who saw this a while back to stay away from any reviews or descriptions of the film, whether they have spoilers or not. There is something to be said for the days when the most you could ever know about a film before sitting in the theater to watch it might have been one trailer and one or two TV commercials. And few people have benefitted from the less-is-more approach to movie promoting like director and co-writer of Cabin Drew Goddard, who last writing gig, Cloverfield, seemingly came out of nowhere.
But The Cabin in the Woods is a different monster entirely. No, it isn't a game changer that is going to set the horror movie-making community on its head and make it rethink the way it operates from here on out. But the film clearly comes from a place of frustration with, as well as love of, the genre. It lets those who make horror films know that we see into their bag of tricks, their basements filled with artifacts that may trigger any manner of scary creatures, their paint-by-numbers approach to knocking off young victims, their loud music crashes that make us jump at nothing.
I've seen the film Scream tossed about as an example of a self-referential work that Cabin resembles, but I think Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon owe more of a debt to Men In Black. Both films acknowledge the odd foreground (terrorizing creatures, aliens) as well as a group of unseen (by the general public) players that attempt to control the foreground. In Cabin's foreground, we have a group of five college students, including ones played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor, the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman) and Fran Kranz (Whedon's "Dollhouse"), who travel to the titular cabin for a vacation weekend. In the background, we have Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, who appear to be manipulating events from a control room to mysterious ends. The juxtaposition of the cabin-based dwellers' terrifying story and humor that the pencil-pushing workers controlling things is fantastic.
And that's all I'm going to tell you about The Cabin in the Woods. The film uses the audience's knowledge of the way horror films work to its advantage, and it takes these films' predictable nature to, in a way, manipulate us. Every time you think you have an idea what's going on, you probably don't until that moment when all is revealed. This film is a shining example of a horror film that isn't afraid to show us its brains. It's proof positive that the genre is still capable of giving us something original and smart, and quite frankly, if you don't see this movie, something may be wrong with you. I will admit, the scares aren't that scary most of the time, and when the film does turn bloody, it's so cartoonish (most of the time) that it's tough to imagine that those of you who tend toward the squeamish will be bothered by any of it.
I was so genuinely impressed with The Cabin in the Woods that I can't imagine not going back to see it again and again. I've seen it twice now, and knowing all there is to know when you go for a repeat viewing turns it into an entirely different and equally great movie. I was especially impressed with the way Kranz plays the stoner character Marty, whose depth and perception go far beyond what you might expect. He's the breakout performance here, and I can't wait to see what he bring to Whedon's post-Avengers feature Much Ado About Nothing. The Cabin in the Woods is so perfect in so many ways that I'm actually eagerly awaiting the naysayers just to see how quickly they are beaten down by the fans of this wildly entertaining work.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Cabin in the Woods director/co-writer Drew Goddard.
The Three Stooges
I suppose the good news here is that the new Farrelly brothers movie isn't the worst thing they've ever done (that honor still belongs to The Heartbreak Kid). In fact, their version of The Three Stooges (which is actually treated like three episodes of the old serial) actually did make me laugh more than a few times thanks in part to the three utterly committed performances by the lead actors. The movie is a prime example of just throwing jokes, pratfalls, sight gags, prop comedy and probably the kitchen sink at the audience and seeing what sticks. And believe it or not, some of it sticks. Naturally, some of it is so broad that they best you can hope for is a pained eye roll, but Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe, Sean Hayes as Larry and Will Sasso as Curly all have their moments.
What we also have to endure is Jane Lynch as the Mother Superior at an orphanage where the boys arrive as babies and are never adopted, Larry David as the mean nun that the boys are always taunting, and Jennifer Hudson and Kate Upton as fellow nuns. Craig Bierko and Sofia Vergara (with her never-gets-old strong accent) play as an adulterous couple that mean the Stooges harm, and almost nothing about any of the supplemental characters is especially humorous. No, what made me laugh occasionally were the same things that used to make me laugh at the Stooges shorts — their anti-authority stance and complete disregard for well-mannered behavior. I could have done with all of the modern references (most of which will not age well); the idea of Moe becoming a part of the cast of "Jersey Shore" is an example of anti-humor and the cheapest of cheap stunts.
Some of the Farrelly's love of the Stooges is on display here, and clearly they weren't looking to do a biopic or hard-hitting character study of the team. But simply thrusting the boys into modern times feels too square peg/round hole for my tastes. The idea that the don't know about cell phones because they've lived in an orphanage their entire lives seems like an utterly pointless stretch.
But truth be told, there were times watch The Three Stooges where I laughed. The random, insensitive nicknames Moe gives people he comes across are almost always hilarious. And on a strictly impersonation level, all three of the actors floored me with how perfectly they captured the on-screen personae and movements of the Stooges. Nothing else really works as well, and it's hard for me to imagine that die-hard Three Stooges fans will really want any part of this movie, but I've misjudged audiences before. I can't even imagine kids getting into the movie behind reacting to the physical comedy. Make no mistake, The Three Stooges is a bad movie, but it's nowhere near the catastrophe I'd expected it to be. Keeping it short helps it tremendously.
There's dumb fun, and then there's just plain-old fucking dumb. Not a whole lot shocks me in this world, but people defending Lockout is a shocking concept to me at this moment. Yes, there are actually people talking up Lockout as great escapist fun. And I suppose if you trend toward enjoying an incomprehensible, non-sensical futuristic story about an ex-government agent (Guy Pearce) sent on a redemptive mission to rescue the president's daughter (Maggie Grace) from a maximum security prison in outer space. I won't lie: I actually love this premise, and I'm a huge Guy Pearce fan. Hell, I even tend to like many of the works that stem from the pen or production company (in this case, both) of co-writer/producer Luc Besson. But Lockout isn't even trying.
But the writing here is so obvious and terrible, I found myself looking for distractions during the movie. What passes for dialogue is just a) '80s-style wisecracks and one liners from Pearce or b) overwritten bad-guy threats and exposition from the villains. None of it amounts to an actual compelling story, and it made me want to punch my own face to make the experience in any way interesting... or to know that I was still alive. Directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger do what they can with this material, and I suppose there is a definite visual spark to Lockout, but there are also a couple of action sequences that are so blindingly fast and disorienting that I completely lost track of who was fucking up whose shit. The motor-unicycle chase alone is so clearly all sped-up special effects that you won't be able to do anything but laugh.
I haven't even mentioned the villains of Lockout, and that's because they aren't worth mentioning. How many tattoos and piercings can one dude fit on this body to use as shorthand for being a badass? Go see Lockout to find the answer. Or not. I'm actually annoying myself right now writing this review, because drawing any attention to this movie seems like the wrong move. It pained me to watch Pearce, a truly great actor, waste his time in this dreck. And I get it, sometimes jumping into the Besson production camp pays off handsomely, as it did with Taken or the Transporter movies. But people forget that movies like Columbiana or this movie are the price we must pay. I'm here to help you dodge this bullet. You don't have to thank me; just stay safe and stay away from Lockout.
The much talked about new documentary Bully from director Lee Hirsch (Amandla!) has mostly been discussed in terms of its rating, and of course the idea of this film getting an R rating is foolish, bordering on insensitive. But what hasn't been discussed much is the film's content beyond a few swear words, and there's a reason for that. The film is average at best at achieving what it sets out to do, which is to start a dialogue about this clearly out-of-control issue that is directly leading to high school teens committing suicide or, in extreme cases, students seeking revenge on their bullies via school shootings.
But Bully is a blatant missed opportunity that fails to deliver a very crucial piece of this situation. We've seen victims of bullying before, we know them well and how much they offer and internalize the humiliation they experience. And as sad and empathetic we feel for the kids featured in this film, bullying is a learned behavior. Despite what we learn in some horror movies, kids aren't born bad, so bullies are bred, often by factors on their home life. And this film doesn't deliver a single first-person account of a bully or his home life. Bullying isn't going to stop unless there are real consequences faced at home, but this film ignores that fact and treats these few bullies we briefly see as creatures that don't exist outside of school, which is nonsense.
My guess is that people's reaction to Bully will be strongly linked to how deep a personal connection you make with the material. I suspect former or current bullying victims or the parents or siblings of such people will react quite strongly to the film. Of course, there's no denying the impact you'll have watching a child get pummeled on a school bus or being subjected to foul verbal abuse. Perhaps equally as shocking is how utterly ineffectual both teachers and school bus drivers are in dealing with these countless incidents, whether the child be simply socially awkward or has nerdy hobbies or is a minority or is gay (no, I'm not equating the four; I'm just saying these are all reasons kids in this movie get picked on).
There are certainly moments in Bully that are extremely moving and powerful. One child, nicknamed "Fish Face" by pretty much everybody, tells his family about getting beaten and choked on the bus and how it doesn't bother him because he doesn't even feel it any more. At that moment, you look deep into his eyes and wonder what kind of adult this poor kid is going to turn into. But then there is another girl who reacted to bullying by bringing a gun on her bus and threatening those who tormented her. When you hear the circumstances of her actions, you may question her being in this movie at all, since we never actually hear the specifics of her bullying. Instead, the film focuses on her court case and whether a bullying defense will work to ward off several cases of kidnapping. The police don't believe any amount of bullying justifies bringing a gun on a school bus, and of course they're right.
But every time a counselor or teacher or school administrator uses the "kids will be kids" reaction to a child coming directly to them to complain about being bullied, I wanted to throttle them, and it's in those moments when Bully gains some power. But in order to confront this terrible, seemingly growing trend, the filmmakers should have looked into the eyes of the monster and attempted to get a bully to talk. This probably would not have been an easy interview to get, but I don't think it would have been impossible either. Bullying is a predatory behavior, and by forcing the bullies to understand the consequences of their actions, the lesson learned here might have saved two lives at a time instead of just one... or none.
Don't expect your mind to be blown or your eyes to be opened. There's very little new information here. Instead, Bully gives us tough story after tough story, and I'm not quite sure how that is supposed to inspire change. If you decide you want to see this movie, temper your expectations substantially. All that you've read isn't based on the substance of this film, just the bad words.
I'll admit, I don't see nearly as many independently produced horror films as I used to. Of course, it used to be a hell of a lot easier to keep up with the seemingly dozens that came out every week (most of which go straight to video), especially when I'm also trying to keep up with all the non-horror releases. Woe is me, I know. But I do my best. At the very least, I try to keep up with the horror offerings that open in theaters or play at festivals that I attend. Case in point, I received a copy of a new film called Nailbiter in the mail recently, found out it was playing at an upcoming horror film festival in Chicago, and was excited to give it a look.
If my research is correct, Nailbiter is the second feature by director/co-writer Patrick Rea (he also helmed The Empty Acre, a 2007 film I haven't seen), who has done a tremendous job making a good-looking film that actually delivers serious tension and a few genuinely scary moments. Much of the good will I feel toward the film has to do with the caliber of the acting, particularly from Erin McGrane and Meg Saricks, who play at-odds mother and eldest daughter Janet and Jennifer Maguire. The Maguire women, which also includes younger sisters Sally and Alice (Sally Spurgeon and Emily Boresow), live in rural Kansas and are on the eve of Papa Maguire coming home from fighting overseas.
Because there's a big storm on the way, they decide to drive to Kansas City a day early, stay in a hotel, and meet him in the morning, but while driving, they get caught out in some horrific weather. When Janet spots a tornado approaching on the horizon, she pulls the car over, and the family runs for the nearest farmhouse with a storm cellar. The storm passes, but that doesn't mean the Maguires are out of danger yet. There doesn't seem to be anyone in the home above, and a tree has fallen on the doors to the cellar, so they must find a way out of what they have now come to realize is a slightly creepy basement. An attempt by Sally to crawl out of a small window results in a rather unsettling injury, and before long, the women realize that they aren't so much trapped as they are being held captive.
I don't want to say too much more about the Nailbiter plot; I think seeing it more or less cold is the best way to go and will result in bigger surprises and purer anxiety-filled moments. But I was really impressed with the flow of the story, the reasons behind the ladies being held captive, and the way everything plays out. And while the movie certainly leaves itself open for a sequel (hell, it practically feels like Part 1 of a two-part story), it was refreshing to watch a non-sequel, mostly original horror film that wasn't afraid to get a little kooky sometimes. I also liked the little touches each character has: mom is a recovering alcoholic, Jennifer is a teen smoker who is trying to quit. And of course, alcohol and fire are two key elements in them possibly escaping their underground prison. I have no idea if you'll get a chance to see Nailbiter on the big screen, but I hope you do because some of the shots of the expansive Kansas landscape seem built for big, wide screens. But even if you only get to see the film On Demand or via DVD, you owe it to your self to check out this little gem.
And it just so happens that folks in the Chicago area will get a chance to see Nailbiter on the big screen as well as several other horror features and shorts at Chicago Fear Fest, a newly created independent horror film festival, taking place April 13-14 at the Muvico Theater's Rosemont 18, 9701 Bryn Mawr Ave. in Rosemont. Highlights of the event include the Chicago premiere of [Rec]3, a showing the great Cuban zombie movie Juan of the Dead, and special appearance by Adam Green (the Hatchet movies, Frozen) and Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2 and the upcoming Knights of Badassdom), who will be on hand for screenings of the first two episodes of their new FEARnet series "Holliston," plus a rare big-screen showing of Hatchet II, which a certain chain pulled from release after only three days.
The event also includes Q&As, panel discussions, parties, and lots of great horror shorts. For details on event, screening schedules, and a list of guests (including Nailbiter director/co-writer Patrick Rea), go to Chicago Fear Fest's web site.