Archive for April, 2012
REVIEW: ‘Cabin’ an experience worth seeing in theater
We attend movies for different reasons. Sometimes it is loyalty to an actor or director. Often times a popular novel or book series is adapted to the big screen. And sometimes — as is the case with this week’s review — a film not even on your radar generates enough buzz to get you to the theater to see what the talk is all about. Enter “The Cabin in the Woods,” directed and co-written by Drew Goddard. On the surface, the film looks like any other slasher-in-the-woods movie, but given Goddard’s pension for the mystery and macabre (he wrote “Cloverfield” and served as a writer and producer on TV’s “Lost”), you have the feeling there has to be something more. And there is … much more.
Five college friends are looking for a weekend of fun and relaxation at a remote lakeside cabin. Everything is not as it seems in the cabin, though, as two mystery technicians are closely observing the friends every move. When the cabin guests unknowingly unleash nightmarish terrors, they slowly realize that a higher power is manipulating their actions, and their only chance to survive is to escape. When running away from the campsite is not an option, any hope of survival lies in uncovering the true meaning of the cabin.
Vague, I know, but I cannot reveal much more without spoiling the entire film. When describing “The Cabin in the Woods” to my film students, I told them it is a campy ‘80s throwback horror film. When I realized most of my students were born in the ‘90s and didn’t quite get the reference, I switched gears and called it a sci-fi version of “Evil Dead.” Most of them got that having seen the Bruce Campbell cult classic. Extra credit all around this week.
Based solely on the trailers, I expected “The Cabin in the Woods” to be somewhat scary, but I thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected cheeky humor. Imagine my surprise when Richard Jenkins (“Step Brothers”) and Bradley Whitford (“Billy Madison”) were the first two characters to appear on screen. The two provide classic timing and comic relief as shameless voyeurs who claim their dirty deeds are a necessary evil while clearly enjoying every minute of it.
“The Cabin in the Woods” is a classic example of story vs. plot. A film’s plot is what we see onscreen during the 90 to 120 minutes of a movie. A film’s story refers to the events that occurred leading up to the cinematic moment where we as audience members come in (keep in mind this is different than a character’s backstory, which may or may not be related to the plot). Sometimes the story is directly referenced, other times it is more inferred. Goddard is brilliant with the slow reveal of the story, patiently dropping small morsels of clues about the meaning of the cabin while we watch the plot unfold. Though you start to get a sense of what’s happening early in the second act, there are still plenty of surprises waiting at the film’s climax.
Co-writer Joss Whedon called “The Cabin in the Woods” a chance to move the horror genre away from what he describes as “torture porn” (i.e. the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises). It does indeed take a retro approach to killing off characters in an almost juvenile way, much like the days before sadistic killing for the sake of killing took over the cinema world. The film is full of subtle nuances that will take several viewing to fully appreciate. It’s a fun experience worth seeing in the theater with some friends. Just be careful … you never know who’s watching.
REVIEW: ‘Lockout’ a must-see for sci-fi/action fans
One of the first things I discuss with my film students is how audience bias and expectations play a role in how we view movies. This week’s film review of “Lockout” is a perfect example for that lesson. Because of my predilection for big budget sci-fi/action films, I view them through a totally different lens than the other genres. I give filmmakers a pass for the ridiculous scenarios, cliché one-liners and one dimensional characters, looking instead for pure entertainment. The trailer for “Lockout” appeared to qualify the film for all of these faults and more (I’ll revisit the trailer in a bit), so I headed to the multiplex to see if it was as good/bad as I was hoping.
In 2072, a maximum security prison called “MS1” is operating in space, housing Earth’s most heinous criminals. First Daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace, “Taken”) suspects there might be abuse occurring at the prison and visits the facility to interview prisoners who have been kept in stasis during their incarceration. A prison break ensues during the visit, and MS1 starts on a collision course with the U.S. eastern seaboard. Former government agent Snow (Guy Pearce) has been accused of espionage and his only shot at freedom is to accept the dangerous mission to infiltrate the prison. Called impenetrable by its creators, Snow must now do just that — get inside the prison and rescue the President’s daughter before the facility slams into Earth.
The film’s trailer explains that “MS1” houses the planet’s most deadly criminals, followed of course by the hook that the President’s daughter is visiting on a goodwill mission. Why they would ever allow the first daughter to visit such a dangerous place is beyond me. We then learn that there’s only one man capable of going in to rescue the president’s daughter, but he is a loose cannon. I would be disappointed if he weren’t. The trailer alone is pure cheese, and the corresponding film delivers in this respect.
“Lockout” is the brainchild of Luc Besson (Director of “The Fifth Element”), who served as Executive Producer. He tabbed young Irish filmmakers James Mather and Stephen St. Leger to co-direct the film, and you can tell they don’t take themselves or the film too serious. The plot is more about convenience than drama, more than half of Pearce’s dialogue consists of witty one-liners, and the hardened criminals are able to navigate most of the prison’s high tech gadgetry with ease. But when Snow shows up and crashes the party, who cares? We’re here to see Guy Pearce beat up some bad guys in space — there it is again…that exception that this genre always receives.
Despite the less-than-stellar story, the film’s casting is surprisingly good. Guy Pearce bulked up for the role and feels natural in an action hero role. He brings a snarky wit to the character that helps separate Snow from many his action-adventure predecessors. Grace said she was attracted to the role of Emilie Warnock because of the character’s toughness. British actor Joseph Gilgun (“This is England”) steals the show as the psychotic Hydell. He’s part of the brother duo that leads the prison riot, and his actions drive the antagonist’s narrative. When Warnock’s accusations of prisoner abuse are proven true, Hydell becomes somewhat of a twisted sympathetic role, despite his evil actions.
“Lockout” is a fun 95 minutes. Imagine if “Escape from New York” met “Alien” and had a film love child. You never feel fully engaged in the story because despite the environment, the characters never appear in real danger. It’s more chase than confrontation. Visually the film is a success with unique locations and a plethora of science fiction tech to work with. While I wouldn’t recommend you rush to the theatre to grab your seat (there will be plenty), fans of the genre should check this film out at some point.
DVD REVIEW: ‘War Horse’ a recommended journey
I had planned on heading to the theatre this week, but with the only new cinematic release being “American Reunion,” I decided to rethink my strategy. I’m sure the film is funny, but let’s face it, this is something like the 18th incarnation of the franchise. Instead, I turned to the newly released DVD “War Horse.” The film’s cinematic debut fell between Christmas and New Year’s Day last year, so it kind of got lost in the shuffle. I’m a fan of Steven Spielberg, war films, and film’s featuring animals, dating back to 1989’s “Turner & Hooch.” It was finally time to see how the master director would put all of these elements together.
To spite his bullish land owner, local drunkard Ted Narracott buys a thoroughbred horse rather than a plow horse for use in his fields. His son Albert (British actor Jeremy Irvine) names the horse Joey and develops a strong bond while training him for work on the farm. The two are ripped apart when the family is forced to sell Joey to the British Cavalry during World War I. Joey’s journey takes him to both sides of the war effort while Albert enlists with the hopes of finding Joey, and as the war tears Europe apart, man and animal continue their improbable journey in hopes of a reunion.
Though “War Horse” is one film, the narrative unfolds as several individual stories connected through the experiences of Joey. Some critics call the film old-fashioned, and the first sequences certainly have a high key Technicolor look to them a la “Gone with the Wind.” This all changes when we move from British point of view to the German’s. The shift in mise-en-scene is brilliant as it changes with the overall tone of the film. Bleak colors replace light as oily death machines crank towards the German front lines, pulled by horses once regaled by soldiers.
Spielberg claimed he didn’t want to create another “Saving Private Ryan” yet the backdrop of the war plays an integral role in the film. Using subtle techniques such as blocking the firing squad death of two soldiers with the fan blade of a spinning windmill and slashing sword blows without what seems now to be the obligatory spurt of blood, he creates a violent world that doesn’t overpower you with graphic images but rather emotion. The film turns dark very quick, but still manages to maintain its purpose of telling Joey’s story – including the darkest periods of the magnificent creature’s life.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the film is the personification of Joey. The steed’s stubbornness, fondness of close relationships with other animals and the people around him, and unwillingness to give up are all captured throughout various moments of the film. It is a testament to screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, who were tabbed with combining the original novel and stage adaption into an effective narrative featuring an animal as the protagonist.
“War Horse” is as much a celebration of horses in life as it is on celluloid. The original children’s novel “War Horse” written by Michael Morpurgo was inspired by real conversations the author had with World War I veterans. Spielberg captures the essence of those memories in the film — from the relationships the soldiers had with their horses to the sacrifices of the animals during the war. The film also features hundreds of horses and minimal special effects. The only scene they couldn’t shoot using an actual horse is a squint-inducing scene where Joey is completely tangled in barbed wire.
I don’t usually find myself hoping for the typical Hollywood ending. In fact, I rather enjoy an unexpected twist that leaves a film a bit messy rather than in a nice package with a tidy bow. But “War Horse” was different. I felt emotionally invested in Joey and in the journey he takes to get back home. Of course Spielberg delivers, with a great minor twist that works without soiling the film’s denouement. Though not your typical war film, “War Horse” is a journey I recommend everyone take.
DVD REVIEW: ‘Corman’s World’ reveals a caring, complex individual
What if I told you one of the most influential men in Hollywood doesn’t own an Academy Award? If you asked today’s film school students, they wouldn’t even know his name. I’m talking about Roger Corman, better known as the king of “B” movies. Corman has made nearly 400 films in his illustrious career, most of them independent and extremely low-budget. New to DVD is “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” — a documentary about his impact on the film industry. From aliens to radioactive insects, the film covers all of Corman’s classics, and much more.
Through a collection of clips from his films and interviews with Hollywood legends such as Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson, director Alex Stapleton does a great job of building not only a retrospective of Corman’s work but also capturing his true impact on Hollywood. Often called pulp cinema known for outlandish plots and cheap effects, Corman’s legacy is not necessarily his screen credentials but rather his role as a mentor and influence on today’s biggest directors.
Scorsese calls Corman’s films, “Art, just another kind of art.” It’s a fair assessment of a true Hollywood rogue who eschewed big studio budgets in favor of total control of his films. Corman would cut both cost and time from his productions while surrounding himself talented yet inexperienced actors, directors and producers. He launched the film careers of Jack Nicholson and William Shatner, and Peter Fonda credits Corman with saving him from a Disney image. “Corman’s World” explains how he did it all with a risk-taking style and never taking himself too serious.
It wasn’t all smiles for Corman. The documentary also reveals a depth to the filmmaker that may surprise people. He seems at peace with the “B” films he’s known for but does wish that he was taken more seriously in his career. While sharing a deeply personal experience about filming the racially charged 1962 film “The Intruder” he reveals that this was his only film that lost money (William Shatner also goes into detail about the experience in his autobiography “Up Till Now”). Corman says the experience taught him how to use the subtle art of subtext to get his social message across — not necessarily the first thing you think of with a Corman film.
Stapleton juxtaposes Corman’s hidden longing for austerity with a review of his most artistically noteworthy films. He is perhaps best known for his six Edgar Allen Poe films, though in typical Corman fashion he used his access to one of the sets to crank out the non-Poe film “The Terror.” Scorsese calls “The Trip” a kind of poetry. Peter Fonda says “The Wild Angels” set the stage for “Easy Rider.” Though Corman never received an Academy Award, he was given an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2009.
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” goes beyond recapping a historic film career. The documentary reveals the long branches of the “Corman Film School” tree that includes Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper and countless others. Corman truly worked independent by choice. In the late 1970s when many of his mentees moved on to bigger things, Corman stayed true to his independent roots. Corman knew his audience and what they wanted to see, no matter what personal message he wanted to include. Most importantly, the film reveals a caring, complex individual who loves his craft, his colleagues, and his fans. Perhaps this is what makes him a true Hollywood rebel.