Monday, May 7, 2012

The Cabin in The Woods

Dismemberment Goblins!?

It's been a banner year for Joss Whedon to say the least. With The Avengers doing outstandingly well, both critically and financially, he's likely to get a big push in the mainstream appreciation department. A lot of people love him, but a lot of people also like to be contrarian dicks and tear him down. I say "fuck 'em". Most of what this guy touches is gold. I thought The Avengers was pretty darn good and I have a lot to say about his obvious influence on making it that way. However, as much as I enjoyed that film, it still doesn't out-do my favorite film of 2012 so far (one that Whedon co-wrote), The Cabin in the Woods.

It's been a few weeks since I saw Cabin, so I may have forgotten some of my thoughts on the film, but I think I've retained much of my post-screening gushing. A week or so prior to seeing it, I rented Scream 4, and I think many of things I hated about it are things I loved about Cabin. Craven just seems lazy these days. The series is known for being self-reflexive, but here it's just so ham-handed. The opening scenes really pissed me off. Yeah! I get it! Move the fuck on.

Cabin is about horror films without really bringing them up - and their rules - in every scene. This film attempts to give rhyme and reason to our oft-repeated criticisms of the genre while having a lot of fun. "Why the hell did the protagonists split up? Or play with the demonic Rubik's Cube? Or just act so damn stupid?" Cabin's answer (and the only truly logical one) SPOILERS: Because the powers-that-be, in service of malevolent elder gods, have drugged and manipulated them, and have also fixed the situation to make their desired outcome more likely.

Those powers-that-be are represented in the film by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. The duo is easily my favorite part of the movie. They sit in their control room, clad in suit and tie, overseeing the ill-fated cabin-retreat of the college-aged guinea pigs. This sterile image quickly melts away as the two's behavior begins to resemble ritualistic, blood sacrifice.

You see, they (in service of some global, shadow-organization), set the players up to choose their destruction. We see that there are many options - werewolves, zombies, bat-creatures, faceless-ballerinas and even mermen (Whitford's character so badly wants someone to choose merman!). They each have their own triggering mechanism; the quasi-Pinhead requires the above-mentioned demonic puzzle-cube and the merman a conch (naturally). In this instance, the protagonists end up reading a key-phrase from the diary of a pain-worshipping hillbilly and her family subsequently rises to terrorize them. 

If you think their chosen oppressor is a little disappointing and bland (as I did), then the final act of the film will more than make up for it with a veritable, creative explosion. Following a brief celebration over the fruition of their plans, set to REO Speedwagon's "Roll With the Changes" (optimal lyrics: "if you're tired of the same old story..."), things really go to shit for Whitford, Jenkins and Co.. Due to the meddling of the immune-to-manipulation stoner, a majority of the nightmares from the horror pantheon show up in some shape or form to reap havoc on the suits.

Ultimately, Sigourney Weaver's character, known only as The Director, shows up to explain to her unruly pawns why they must accept the ridiculous fate laid out for them - essentially, there are world-ending implications. The final, resulting, conclusion is one I found immensely satisfying and is just another feather in the film's well-adorned cap.
There's some blood and gore and minor scares, but more-often there are big laughs - I daresay some of the biggest laughs I've had in a theatre, or anywhere else, in quite some time. The film's lack of real horror has been a sore-point for some critics, but I don't think they get that Cabin isn't really supposed to be scary. It doesn't "re-define" horror, with the potential of churning out more and more decrepit sequels; It's a humorous hypothetical in answer to some of the genre's most glaring flaws.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

2011's Top 20

Here's my full Top 20 Feature Films of 2011 list. It seems like the natural reaction of everyone to say, after each film-year has concluded, that it was a weak one. Sometimes they're right, but in the case of 2011, they would be incorrect. Last year had a lot to offer, especially in the way of unique and expert storytelling, but unfortunately many of these films were overlooked by major awards in favor of the mundane and popularly-resonant. There were quite a few films that didn't make my top-ten that I thought were still pretty darn good, so I wanted to recognize (briefly) them here.

1. Drive

I love Drive from opening to close, everything from the performances to the music to the pink titles and Gosling's scorpion coat. Not only the year's best, but now one of my all-time favorites.

2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A spy film that asks the viewer to engage and pick up on the clues instead of feeding everything via exposition. It captures the 70's with style and features the best ensemble cast of 2011. 

3. Shame 

Though a bit gratuitous on occasion, Shame is expertly acted and features some of the most powerful scenes of the year. Like Tinker, this film also relies on the viewer to pick up on the story's depth and the extent of the protagonist's struggle.

4. The Artist

Pulling off a silent, b/w film in 2011 is no small feat, but The Artist, in no way, relies on gimmick or charm to get by. The story, which is oftentimes downright heartbreaking, is especially poignant to film history buffs, but on a lesser level to anyone with a heart. 

5. Take Shelter

Maybe my pick for the most-unappreciated film of 2011. Here, Nichols has created a modern psychological drama classic featuring one the year's best performances. 

6. Attack the Block

The film starts out strong but only gets better from there. An impressive debut from writer/director Joe Cornish, who has created something both current and nostalgic in this youth-centered adventure/horror.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene

MMMM features some very strong performances and unique non-linear editing that slowly builds the creepiness of the realistic cult environment. More unsettling of a viewing than any horror I saw all year.

8. Meek’s Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt is on her game here. Meek's is stunningly realized and wholly unsatisfying to the conventional film viewer, which is part of what makes it great. 
9. Harry Potter 7 pt.2

A more fitting end to the series than its literary counterpart provided. Highly emotional and genuinely stirring, this film gave the closer I'd been needing since finishing the books.

10. The Tree of Life

Frustrating at times, but beautiful to behold, The Tree of Life is a film that benefits from repeated viewing to unearth its intentions.

11. The Skin I Live In

A peculiar and highly entertaining film from Almodovar that has a lot to say about gender and human sexuality without beating the audience over the head with it. 

12. Midnight In Paris

 Midnight In Paris is intensely likable, featuring Owen Wilson as an effective Woody-surrogate and supported by a cast of well-realized historical figures.

13. The Guard

In a less competitive year, Brendan Gleeson would have certainly nabbed a Best Actor nomination or two. He carries this outrageous dark comedy throughout, but also benefits from the odd-couple chemistry with Don Cheadle. 

14. Super

Super did not look at all good to me on paper, but after catching the incredibly violent conclusion one day, I was compelled to watch the whole thing. It's a brutal film that plants the superhero in more realistic surroundings than we've ever seen. I was skeptical, but both Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page deliver. Kevin Bacon was also pretty entertaining as the Crimson Bolt's nemesis.
15. X-Men: First Class

Bolder and more stylish than your average comic-book adaptation, First Class benefits from its strong leads (so much so that we can forget the weak supporting mutants) and fitting period setting.

16. The City of Life and Death

Easily one of the best war films made in recent years. A depressing look at the horror of combat and the struggle of the occupiers and occupied.
17. 50/50

Not a straight comedy in tone, but effective in delivering a lot of laughs while dealing with serious subject matter. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is outstanding and much like Gleeson in The Guard he unfortunately fell victim to a strong year for leading actors.

18. Hanna

There are a lot of reasons to like Hanna, but the main ones are its great score, strong female lead, and dynamic action. There's a tracking shot that follows Eric Bana's character into a subway (and a fight) that stands out in particular. 

19. Contagion

I thought Contagion was solid epidemic-thriller with a great cast. Some of its sections are more captivating than others, but it makes the top-20 based on those strong points.

20. Beginners 
A nice, mostly un-cliched love story that is effective in showing how people develop their approaches to and feelings on serious romantic relationships.

And just because I feel like being a jerk, here are my picks for the 5 Most Overrated Films of 2011 (not that I hated them, just that they received un-due praise)

1. A Dangerous Method - If it wasn't Cronenberg, it would have been panned. 
2. A Separation - Decent, but praise is amplified because it's from Iran.
3. Melancholia - Overlong, featuring a less-than-stellar lead in Dunst. 
4. Tyrannosaur - A nice debut from Considine, but also cliched and often weak. Mullen and Colman were okay, but not as good as people are saying. (Just because a role is challenging doesn't mean the performer was great in it, see: Knightley in Dangerous Method too)
5. Super 8 - It had a lot of promise, but didn't deliver, featuring a lame and wholly unsatisfying conclusion.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Golden Schmoos 2012!

Bottom Line: The Oscars are a sham and don't encourage quality filmmaking with their farcical nominations. Their most heavily-touted films range from mediocre to just downright bad (with the exception of The Artist), but that's why there's The Schmoos and a million other critical best-of lists - so that the legitimate cases of excellent filmmaking can be recognized.

These are my picks for the best films in each category, with my pick for outright best in bold.

Best Costume Design:
Meek's Cutoff
Midnight in Paris
Harry Potter 7 Pt. 2
The Artist
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  

Best Art Direction:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Meek’s Cutoff
Midnight in Paris
The Artist
Harry Potter 7 Pt. 2

Best Visual Effects: 
X-Men: First Class
Tree of Life
Attack the Block
Harry Potter 7
Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Cinematography: 
The Artist
The Tree of Life
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Musical Score:
Take Shelter
The Artist
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Attack the Block

Best Editing:
Harry Potter 7 Pt. 2
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The Skin I Live In
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Harry Potter 7 Pt. 2
We Need to Talk About Kevin

Best Original Screenplay: 
The Artist
Take Shelter
Attack the Block
Midnight in Paris

Best Supporting Actress:
Carey Mulligan – Drive/Shame
Elena Anaya - The Skin I Live In
Vanessa Redgrave - Coriolanus
Jessica Chastain – Take Shelter
Melanie Laurent – Beginners 

Best Actress:
Michelle Williams – Meek’s Cutoff
Tilda Swinton – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Berenice Bejo – The Artist
Elizabeth Olsen –Martha Marcy May Marlene
Rooney Mara – Dragon Tattoo

Best Supporting Actor:
Albert Brooks – Drive
John Hawkes – Martha Marcy May Marlene
Mark Strong – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Jonah Hill - Moneyball

A note on this category: There were such a large number of solid male leading performances this year, I couldn't help but recognize what was, to me, the top ten. Also, Fassbender deserves this and his Oscar snub was probably one of the most glaring in the Academy's history.  

Best Actor:
Ryan Gosling – Drive
Michael Fassbender - Shame
Michael Shannon – Take Shelter
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 50/50
Ralph Fiennes- Coriolanus
Brenden Gleeson - The Guard
Owen Wilson - Midnight In Paris
Tom Hardy - Warrior

Best Director: 
Refn – Drive
Nichols – Take Shelter
Alfredson – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Havinicius – The Artist
McQueen - Shame

Best Foreign Language Film: 
The Troll Hunter
The City of Life and Death
The Athlete
The Skin I Live In
A Separation

Best Ensemble Cast:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Artist
Take Shelter 

Best Documentary Feature:
Give Up Tomorrow
El Velador
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Marathon Boy
Becoming Santa
If a Tree Falls
Louder than a Bomb
The Woman and the Five Elephants
The Redemption of General Butt Naked

Worst Feature Film:
Your Highness
Sherlock Holmes 2
Red Riding Hood
Battle: LA
Cairo 678
A Dangerous Method

Best Feature Film:
Meek’s Cutoff
Harry Potter 7 pt.2
The Tree of Life
Take Shelter
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Attack the Block
The Artist
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy