Friday, 27 April 2012

New(ish) Review: 'The Cabin in the Woods'

I’ve been trying to put this review together for over a week now. So far: NOTHING. I could not be more stuck. See, this isn’t a case of me being lazy (well...); it’s that I have absolutely no idea how to do this. I won’t beat around the bush, though. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods is fantastic. Like: holy crap this is great and should really be seen in the cinema good.

But there’s hardly anything I can actually write about. Okay, that’s a lie. With this horredy, there’s loads to discuss, but going into details would spoil what has quickly turned out to be one of the most startling and original horror films ever released. If I, even accidentally, spoiled just one of Cabin’s many surprises for someone, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Simple as that.
Setting hyperbole aside for a paragraph, what can I tell you about? Only what the trailer already has, I’m afraid, and in the grand scheme of things... that was next to nothing.   

In any case, this part should sound familiar. Five absurdly photogenic college students, all well into their twenties, head off to a remote woodland cabin where it’s not long before the cellar door flings open of its own volition and their trip goes a bit Evil Dead. But here comes the fun part: while all this is going on, a team of morally perplexing office workers operating in a mysterious hi-tech facility are watching them, and are orchestrating the whole event, Truman Show style, right down to the last gory detail.

And that’s where I draw the line on story details. If you want more, go look it up on Wikipedia (but don’t because you’ll hate yourself for it). But needless to say, Cabin takes something very familiar, and then flips it on its head with neck-breaking force. For every moment where you think ‘Oh yeah, I know how this’ll turn out’, there’ll be at least two more shocking instances of the ‘Did NOT see that coming, Brotato!’ variety.

The characters are a great example of this genre-bending. As you’d expect, they fit all the necessary stereotypes (jock, stoner, prince charming, bookish girl, not... so bookish girl). But this isn’t clichéd writing. In fact, it’s crucial to the plot. What’s more, while they may resemble the same group from your least favourite Friday the 13th sequel, they’re likeable. With most potential horror victims, you can’t wait for the nail gun-wielding maniac to finish them off. Here, you should find yourself actually sympathising with them. Shocking, I know, and again I can’t go into why.

Although the quality of Goddard and Whedon’s script certainly helps. Dialogue never feels forced, and even when the obligatory horror lines are reeled off, it works in context of the story. The many scenes spent with the two lead omniscient technicians (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) might well be Cabin’s highlights. Rather than present them as power-hungry mad scientists, they just act like regular office co-workers. The completely businesslike approach they take to their gruesome “job” works brilliantly, and their free flowing banter not only entertains, but gradually reveals more of the sinister truth behind the sterile facility.
Tonally, Cabin succeeds in striking a fine balance between horror and comedy. The latter mostly derives from the aforementioned screenwriting, while there’s plenty of gooey practical effects fun to be found when things get nasty. Most of Cabin’s scares are of the jumpy type, however, and true to form, you’ll spot imminent jolts well ahead of schedule. But even these are handled efficiently, guaranteed to incur frustrated ‘Don’t stand there...’ groans (as is tradition), and a couple pay loving homage to similar moments from horror classics.  

Now, how am I supposed to discuss the climax without letting on any concrete info? Pretty hard, but I’ll give it a stab. Assuming you still haven’t seen Cabin, there’s a fair chance you’ve heard excited whispers concerning the magnitude of its final act... ‘cos it’s a biggie. Right up there with the climactic lawnmower massacre from Braindead. Goddard and Whedon simultaneously serve up everything a horror junkie could possibly hope for, along with nothing they’d ever realistically expect. Cabin’s final twenty or so minutes goes all-out in budget stretching style, with any enjoyment only being hampered by a smidgen of sadly ropey CGI. Quibbles and spoilers aside, it’s a real goregy.

The Cabin in the Woods was filmed in 2009, but due to the near-implosion of MGM, it ended up sitting on the back burner until just a couple of weeks ago. You could say it’s been worth the wait. Cabin has been described as equal parts love letter and hate mail to the horror genre, and its ability to revel in familiar genre clichés while simultaneously giving them a kick in the pants does give that assertion credence. However you want to look at Cabin, you’re unlikely to come away disappointed. It’s a bold new entry in horror cinema, and one that’s bound to stand the test of time.

And that's all I've got. Spoilers, etc.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Late Review: 'Wrath of the Titans'

A decade after he insta-killed the Kraken and twatted Hades (Ralph Fiennes) back down to the underworld in the mother of all underwhelming climaxes, the demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington) is peacefully living a fisherman’s life with his son. But then a weakened Zeus (Liam Neeson) arrives with news that the underworld prison of Tartarus is crumbling, and asks his son to help defend against the growing number of escaped nasties. In true Rambo III fashion, Perseus declines, while Zeus ends up double-crossed and captured by Hades and Ares (Edgar Ramirez), who plan to free the powerful Titan and ultimate father of the gods: Kronos. Together with Agenor (Tony Kebbell) – the son of Poseidon, Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and his new mullet, Perseus sets off on a journey to rescue Zeus from Tartarus, and assemble a weapon capable of halting the apocalyptic return of Kronos.  

Okay, so Clash of the Titans didn’t have too many fans; and hopes for Wrath weren’t the highest. I even had to pay for my friend’s ticket to drag him along. But at the risk of making you jump web pages, I quite enjoyed the 2010 remake. Yes, its script was a rushed mess; full of squandered potential and undeveloped plot points, but it at least moved at a snappy pace, featured some likeable characters and boasted plenty of impressive action sequences incorporating well-realised mythological creatures. I’d even go as far to say that it was better than the 1981 original, a childhood favourite of mine that’s only fondly remembered due to those classic Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects and yet another wonderful performance from Burgess Meredith.

A comparison piece on both Clash films probably deserves its own article, but how does this latest entry stack up a pretty low-set bar? Right from the start, you can tell Wrath isn’t messing around. We instantly learn that Io (Gemma Arterton’s character in Clash) has died during the intervening decade. How? We aren’t told. Will anyone care? Highly doubtful. Even Zeus didn’t seem to think she was worth resurrecting a second time. Io was little more than a designated ‘Exposition Lady’, and they were wise to quickly brush her under the carpet.

Also gone is the blindingly shiny CG-fest of Mt. Olympus, and along with it, that ridiculous twinkling armour worn by the gods. This is loosely explained by mankind’s increasing lack of belief in their once powerful deities, but the decision to dress these few returning bigwigs in simple clothing means you can take Neeson and Fiennes’ performances seriously this time.

These are actual performances too. Wrath has its fair share of cheese, but amidst all the creature carnage are a handful of great scenes between Zeus and Hades. I’m hesitant to call it Shakespearean, but they do a convincing job of portraying two brothers whose bitter sibling rivalry has lasted over potential millennia; and all without having to ham it up like they so hilariously did in Clash.

Oh, and Danny Huston doesn’t get completely shafted as Poseidon this time! Hurrah! But he’s still only in it for about... seven minutes... maybe.

For me, the best thing about Clash was its real sense of “We’re off to kill the Kraken!” camaraderie. What could have been a really boring set of allies for Perseus was enlivened by the presence of a deadpan Liam Cunningham (always good value), a terrifying Mads Mikkelsen (aka Michael Wincott 2.0) and those two Mexican guys (grasping at straws here). That friendly Djinn they picked up added some diversity too... albeit the awkwardly racist suicide bomber type. Well, ignoring that, they were a fun bunch and largely made up for Perseus’ blandness.

Team Perseus isn’t quite as much fun in Wrath, though. While Agenor is a welcome addition – on hand to deliver appropriate doses of comic relief – the rest is made up of Andromeda, who I swear somehow manages to contribute even less than Io, and a bunch of redshirts. So thank goodness for Bill Nighy, whose appearance about half way through as a batty Hephaestus reinvigorates the whole party.

I’ve barely mentioned Perseus because there’s really very little to say. Yes, the new mullet is fabulous, but he’s still a bland hero. Save for a handful of mumbled, barely intelligible lines, I don’t consider Sam Worthington a bad actor (and lord knows he emotes more than Harry Hamlin ever did), but he’s given nothing interesting to work with. I’d hoped that Perseus might now be bestowed with added fatherly wisdom, but his daddy duties barely factor in.

But you’re only seeing this for the monster mash, right? Just like before, Wrath sticks to a videogame structure, with its protagonists quickly progressing from one boss battle to another. And they are, once again, quite spectacular. The early Chimera battle is especially savage and lavishly shot; and there’s a fun Cyclops sequence that pays tree trunky homage to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.      

I’m still not sure why they bothered including a Minotaur. Obviously, the thinking behind it was “We have a labyrinth, and so ergo: Minotaur!” But the creature’s inclusion felt like a complete afterthought. It appears right of nowhere with zero build-up, there’s about a minute’s worth of shakey-cam scuffle – all shot in close-up – and that’s your lot. Boo.

Everything builds to a series of multiple climactic encounters. While Andromeda’s army takes on the demonic foot soldiers of Kronos, Perseus and Ares face each other in a hefty final confrontation that nearly played out like an Ancient Greek take on the Matrix vs. Bennett fight from Commando. As for Kronos himself, well, his return to glory is little more than a showcase for some impressive CGI... but mother of God, what a showcase it is.                          

While I feel Clash has the edge in a few areas (including its musical score), its sequel definitely sees a boost in the acting stakes, while the story no longer feels like an unfocused nightmare, and yet still manages to pack in a rapid succession of large scale action scenes. But if you hated Clash, then Wrath is unlikely to convert you. It’s a brisk hundred minutes of big, dumb, unpretentious fun. Sometimes that’s all you need.