Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Alternate Title:  Deconstructing Horror

One sentence synopsis:  Five college students go to a remote cabin and fall prey to a horrible fate.

Things Havoc liked:  I am not a fan of horror movies. The entire genre is basically lost on me, as I don't find the spectacle of watching awful things happen to undeserving people to be either fulfilling or beneficial. I recognize that this is an unfair characterization of the genre, the pinnacles which are masterpieces of craftsmanship and atmosphere such as Alien, Exorcist, or the Thing. It is simply a matter of taste in my case, similar to my antipathy towards Romantic Comedies, and I have avoided reviewing horror films for this weekly exercise to-date because I simply do not believe that I have the proper background or objectivity to speak to their quality. So it was with some reluctance that I sat down to watch The Cabin in the Woods, on the strength of very strong recommendations from friends and family, and prepared myself to witness the usual routine of teenagers and twenty-somethings being transformed progressively from living beings to dead meat.

That expectation lasted ten seconds.

The Cabin in the Woods was created by the always-polarizing Joss Whedon, in conjunction with Cloverfield screenwriter Drew Goddard, a partnership that has already produced many hit television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Whedon is many things to many people, and there is a current within the nerd community that believes him strongly overrated, but he has always been fond of twisting the genre conventions of whatever genre he happens to be working in at the moment in a way that most other directors and writers merely pay lip service to. As such, describing this film as a horror movie does not properly do it justice. The movie plays with expectations to a degree I don't think I've ever seen in any film before, changing entire genres not once but multiple times, in a send-up to every horror film concept imaginable. The best comparison I can give is perhaps the Scream movies, only where Scream merely toyed with the concept of a self-aware horror film, this movie doesn't merely dive into the concept, but then rejects that notion in turn, and peels back another layer. It's actually fascinating.

You will notice I'm not saying much about the plot. The reason for this is that I don't believe I can say much about it without spoiling something, and here, the very explanation of what even the initial plot is will serve as a spoiler of sorts. Better, perhaps, to discuss the cast, which though comprised mostly of people I've never heard of, is spot-on-point from start to finish. The five leads play characters that are superficially the usual archetypes that one finds in the film, the Jock, the sexpot, the stoner, etc, but all of them are played with subtle nuance that renders them into actual characters, rather than simple sketches, and provides the answer to the age old question of why such disparate archetypes would ever associate with one another. The only one I recognize is Chris Hemsworth, of Thor fame, who here is frankly just as good as he was in that previous film. Special accolades should go to Fran Kranz, whom I've never heard of before, whose stoner philosopher is drop-dead hilarious (and not in the usual 'laugh at the stoned guy' way), and who truly steals the show in at least half a dozen scenes.

The antagonists, of which there are many, are headed off by, of all people, Bradley Whitford (of the West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (of The Visitor), both of whom turn in wonderful, funny(!), believable, and tremendously entertaining performances that remind of me of Aaron Sorkin's work (though that may be because Whitford seems to be playing Josh Lyman in his post-White House career, not that I object). If you're having trouble imagining how these two men in their 50s and 60s, both famous as realistic, sardonic character actors, manage to play the antagonists in a horror film and do it well, then all I can say is that the film manages to do just that. To say more would be to reveal matters that of plot, and in this case, the plot is the point. Finally, there are a couple of cameos, particularly one at the end which, if one is cognizant of the genre (which one ought be if one wishes to get everything out of this film), are simply wickedly-awesome, and must be seen to be believed.

Things Havoc disliked: Of all the five main leads, I wasn't wildly fond of Kristen Connoly, who seemed a bit too worldly to be playing the character she was (the bookish shy girl). As I said, everyone's archetype is twisted here to round them out and make them actual interesting characters, but I thought her rounding wasn't done as well as everyone else's, and that her performance as a result felt less real. This may be a factor of the high standard to which she is being compared, but it did stick out.

More importantly, and you all must forgive me for being coy on this subject, I did not find the ending of the film to be satisfying. I understand where it comes from, given the irreverent disembowelment of the usual rotes of the genre, and I certainly can't accuse the movie of either failing to make sense logically or failing to have the courage of its convictions. But given the characters that we've been presented with, and their general likeability, the decisions made at the end of the film struck me as very off-putting, a case of the screenwriters ceasing to simply wink at the audience and stepping out from behind their curtain. That can work sometimes (Inglorious Basterds for instance), when the film's tone has lent itself to the decisions made at the end of the movie, but as the tone, detached as it was, did not establish itself properly in this case, I felt the ending was a let-down. Your mileage may vary.

Final thoughts:    I've been surprised by the quality of movies before, but rarely have I been as surprised as this. The Cabin in the Woods transcends its genre, indeed it may transcend all genres, and stands as a film that I can unhesitatingly recommend not only to aficionados of Horror (of which I am not), but to any moviegoer mired in the still-lingering doldrums and looking for something different to see (of which I definitely am). Say what you will about Joss Whedon's quality as a storyteller, the man knows how to produce daring and even riveting work, and here has generated a true masterpiece, one that, if there is any justice in the world, will easily displace Scream as the archetype of a truly modern horror film.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Raid: Redemption

Alternate Title:  Ass Kicking, The Game: The Movie

One sentence synopsis:  An Indonesian SWAT officer must fight his way through an apartment complex filled with the minions of an evil drug lord.

Things Havoc liked:  There is a part of me that appreciates the premise of a movie like this. One man is required for arbitrary reasons to beat the hell out of an entire army of bad guys using only his guns, melee weapons, and martial art fighting skills. A movie that has no pretensions of being anything except precisely what it is: a showcase for violence in the most cinematic style conceivable. There is a place in my heart for this sort of film, and I went into it expecting to see awesomeness.

The Raid is an Indonesian production, designed to showcase the panoply of indigenous martial arts known as Pencak Silat, a catch-all term for a series of martial arts practiced throughout the Indonesian islands. I can't say that I can tell the difference between Silat and other south-east-asian martial arts, but then I don't suppose I need to. Indo-chinese martial arts are infamous for their brutal, vicious deadliness, with many limbs being snapped in horrible, acrobatic fashions. This movie provides more than enough opportunities to showcase Silat in all its gory glory, as our hero proceeds from assault rifles to guns to melee weapons to bare fists, destroying a metric horde of enemies in every conceivable manner. Action sequences are varied and high-energy, showcasing the skills of our hero (Iko Uwais) over those of his sufficiently dastardly enemies. If Uwais is attempting to make it as an action movie star, this film should give him plenty of bragging rights, for he definitely comes across as a sufficiently bad dude here.

Of course a hero is nothing if not pitted against sufficiently nasty antagonists, and this movie establishes several excellent ones, particularly the inventively-named "Mad Dog" (Yayan Ruhian), a reasonably small man who exhibits terrifying skill at demolishing those people who cross his path. Several other antagonists, including a terrifying-looking man with a machete whose name I have been unable to determine, serve as excellent foils for our heroes efforts to smash his way through every floor of the run-down apartment building. All of these men perform stunt-work that is truly impressive, and succeed in selling the ruthless, brutal violence that the movie uses as its raison-d'etre.

Things Havoc disliked: You may have noticed that I didn't mention the plot above. The reason for that isn't what you think.

A movie like this is not going to be plot-heavy. The plot exists as a vehicle for fight sequences of greater or lesser length, and is generally dispensed with. Many martial arts films actually take pride in this fact, producing advertising that hinges on the notion of having a complete, 90+ minute film without any of that boring plot stuff to get in the way. Walking into this movie, I felt as though I had been promised such a thing, and was disappointed to find that I did not receive it.

Before anyone pillories me, I'm not saying that movies should not have plots. I am saying that the plot in this film, which is necessarily forgettable and foolish, was not worth the sacrifice of 30-or-so minutes of the runtime. Standard movies must have plots, of course, but the martial arts film is a genre unto itself, and while there are plenty of martial arts films with excellent plots, characters, and story (Fearless, Kung Fu Hustle, etc...) a lazy, half-MacGuffin plot simply does not add to the experience. One is reminded of the old saying about pornographic movie plots, that they are expected to be there, but do not form the attraction of the film.  The filmmakers should have had the courage to actually follow through with their plot-less convictions, or alternately should have put in the time and effort to give us something worth seeing for half an hour of their movie. They unfortunately did neither.

But while the plot is secondary to a film like this, the action is not, and much as it pains me to say, this action, while good, is not world-class. Films like Ong Bak, or Sat Po Long have really raised the bar in terms of what superb action choreography and filming can be these days, and the fight sequences in The Raid, impressive as they are, athletic as they are, are not in the league of the reigning champions of this genre. The battles seem too choreographed, too forced, too close to the old saw of one man destroying legions of foes with one move each as they obediantly attack him one after the next. The durability of the hero and his major opponents becomes ludicrous after a point, and while none of this makes the film bad, it doesn't elevate it to the stratospheric heights of the great films in the genre.

Final thoughts:    Lest I seem too harsh though, this is a movie that more or less does exactly what it was intended to do, provide a spectacle of beatings and violence to entertain those who have an affinity for such things. Nothing here is done particularly badly, but neither is it elevated above its material. Still, if one is eager to see one man beat the tar out of many in a flashy, cinematic fashion, one could do far worse than this. Anyone else simply need not apply.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Alternate Title:  Grumpy Old Jews

One sentence synopsis:  The undistinguished academic father of a distinguished academic son mistakenly receives his son's prestigious award.

Things Havoc liked:  What a strange film this is.

Billed, or at least masquerading as a comedy from the trailers, what we have here is a quirky, psychological portrait of two men, a father and son played by Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi. The former plays a man who is simply neurotic, a philologist of such extreme academic focus as to test the credulity of even a Jewish academic. This is a man who feels his life's work is validated by a single footnote in an obscure journal, and who feels no shame in publicly denigrating anyone, including his own successful son, who doesn't meet his arbitrary definitions for scholarship. Bar Aba's performance is seething and bitter, a solopsistic bastard who never does anything specific that one could call out, but nevertheless leaves his contempt for everyone around him slathered all over everything he touches. Though I would not call him comedic, his is probably the best performance in the movie.

But only slightly less good is Lior Ashkenazi as the younger, more successful Professor Shkolnik. Much less insane than his father, he spends the first half of the film trying to convince the governing authorities to grant the prize to his father and the second half regretting it. The first half is his better work, as the movie wisely does not make him out to be an asshole or arrogant about his success. We see him fight for his father in the face of men who want to give him awards, and laud his father's accomplishments before crowds of dignitaries at ceremonies in his honor. The elder Shkolnik may be an asshole, but he is this man's father, and it shows.

I described the film as "quirky" a moment ago, and that's a reasonable descriptor for the filming style. The characters of these two professors are explained to us in a series of vignettes, complete with graphical presentation and subtitles. It works pretty well for what it is. Moreover while the movie is not a comedy, it does have moments of levity, particularly a hilarious sequence with the prize committee and their meeting room. Without ever saying a word about it, the film draws attention to the pettiness and absurdity of the posturing academicians in their incredibly narrow fields. If only more of the film could have been taken up with such material, I would have liked it better.

Things Havoc disliked: But the base fact is that most of the film is taken up with sequences, the purpose of which are wholly opaque to me, even after a week's reflection.

I've seen slower movies than this, but not many. And while nothing in the film is done incompetently, the fact is that sequences that should take thirty seconds require six times as long due to the need to apply the proper "style" to them. The father's revelation, the son's descent into jealousy, all of these themes are perfectly workable, but the montages that accompany them seem to be moving much less fast than the brains of the audiences, and we are left sitting there, having figured out fifteen seconds into a montage what is going to happen, and then waiting for six minutes for it to actually finish. When this happens multiple times in a film, it becomes old rapidly.

More seriously however, the problem with this film is that Bar Aba does his job a bit too well. The elder Professor Shkolnik is such an unlikeable bastard that we start to wonder how anyone, even his own son, can possibly put up with his bullshit. The man visibly seethes with jealousy of his son, contemptuously dismissing all of his accomplishments and mocking the very notion of being a teacher ("Philologist!" he screams to himself, insulted). Having finally won the award, he turns around and eviscerates his son (and most of the rest of academia) in the press for being lesser, corrupted, charlatans, in language that would drive theology professors to reach for their knives. I have literally had college professors threaten to commit vehicular homicide against my person for lesser slanders than this, and the fact that nobody ever calls Bar Aba to account makes everyone involved seem masochistic, stupid, or both.

Finally, without spoiling too much, the entire last section of the film, intended I believe to be ambiguous, is not. A movie such as Inception can get away with trickery in their endings, because of the care and time established to permit multiple points of view that can be paid off logically. Despite what some might think, there is actually a difference between being ambiguous, and between being lazy. Telling the audience a story is the job of the film-maker, and making them do all the work in a situation wherein the audience does not have the evidence necessary to infer it for themselves is a dereliction of the film-maker's duties. One risks at such times falling into a situation where the audience begins to suspect that the film ended where it did not because the story was finished, nor because the filmmaker had crafted it to end there, but because the writers could not figure out what they wanted to happen next.

Final thoughts:    Most movies I see get a little better in my memory after a few days. This one did not. It's hard to illustrate exactly why, as nobody in it is bad, nor is the story naturally uncompelling. But the behaviors of the characters are at such odds with one another, and the filmmaker is allowed to meander on to a forced conclusion in a way that I found fundamentally dis-satisfying. Perhaps there is a cultural element at work here, and that audiences in Israel are accustomed to interacting with the stories they are shown in a different manner. But here in the States, to my mind, there was an element to this movie that simply left me feeling like I had missed something fundamental.

Final Score:  5.5/10

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