Review- The Cabin in the Woods

Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison in The Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate)

My initial Twitter reaction to The Cabin in the Woods was to say that “it’s like every horror movie you’ve ever seen combined into the most awesome way imaginable.” After all the hullabaloo on the web about critics who had disliked the film and explained why by using spoilers I was afraid that even my exultation of glee was a bit too much. Having already seen the film I then proceeded to read Scott E. Weinberg’s review, which I’ll agree is spoiler-free so I feel better about myself and thus I can continue.

The more one watches films the more one becomes accustomed to genres and their tropes. Depending on how well or poorly said tropes are played, if they’re dealt with originally or lazily is usually what the quality of a genre-specific film hangs on. Typically, when a film breaks a mold, whether it works or it doesn’t, it’s applauded for the effort. What you get in this film is much more smart and far more daring in as much as it takes the set-up you’ve seen far too often: five teenage archetypes heading to a remote cabin in the woods, where you know they’ll meet their untimely demise (or come very close), and absolutely relishes every single horror staple it can lay its hands on. It packs them in at one point or another and this may all seem like too much of a good thing but it’s handled so cleverly it works. How you might ask? Ah, therein lie the spoilers and I won’t tell you that.

A great hint of what you might be in store for is to think on the films that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have written together. In both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz you have send-ups of very specific kinds of movies, namely zombie films and cop films. They are both funny and lampoon the genres they emulate but do it so brilliantly that they inherently evolve into a genre film. Now The Cabin in the Woods kind of reverse engineers this approach, in as much as you understand the basic horror premise and follow that and the mystery is really shrouded in the second part of the film, the comedy and commentary is coming from the B-plot, of which, the less you know about going in the better off you are.

Now as this film slowly unravels the layers of its mystery, and rewards the attentive viewer with every unfurling, essentially what you’re getting is a two-pronged prolonged set-up. Now, I recently wrote about how I like the set-up in films, but what’s amazing here is that there is some tension and mystery to it when there really shouldn’t be. Mainly because in one scenario you’re in on something the protagonists are not and in another you’re trying to figure out precisely what it is they’re doing. It makes the tropes work even better than they could hope to in a film that was playing it straight. It also makes the trope work in either functionality: horror or comedy.

The effects work in this film is absolutely fantastic and as the film progresses you will see why. Allow me to just say that it might single-handedly expunge all the bad horror CG you’ve seen from your mind with its sheer awesomeness.

As with any horror film the music is of paramount importance and believe me this film does not ignore that element of the equation, and is always playing up the genre. When there’s comedy it allows the visuals and the dialogue to deliver the jokes, it doesn’t try to deliver punchlines and that’s greatly appreciated.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that horror films do not typically hinge on performance, as a matter of fact, some films excel in spite of performance, however, ascendant horror feature great acting, and when it comes to this film that has to be playfully comedic and also an effective genre piece it is an essential piece of the equation, and all the players contribute tremendously to the success of this film.

Very recently I was complaining about how paltry running list of the best horror films of 2012 was looking, even as it stands it’s only half-populated with decent films, however, as long as enough decent titles trickle in later on it could be a banner year because it is incredibly strong at the top because this film will be very hard to beat. It will likely not only go down as one of the best horror films of the year but as one of the best films of the year, period.

10/10

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Review- Thor

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in Thor (Paramount/Marvel)

To make it very clear I have in the past set down a list of rules regarding adaptations of any materials wherein I try to divorce myself entirely from the source material when gauging a movie. Meaning that I will not comment on adaptation choices or omissions. With Thor that task was much easier as my knowledge of both the legend and the Marvel rendition thereof is severely limited so I came into the film with a fairly clean slate.

Perhaps what is the most surprising part of the story to me is the fact that the film struck a very good balance of locations. It started for an extended period of time in Asgard establishing the characters and setting up Thor’s predicament and then after he’s exiled to earth switches back frequently. The advertising did make it seem as if it’d be very heavy on Earth-based action but I guess they just didn’t want you seeing too much of Asgard.

I think this balance serves the narrative quite well indeed. As Thor struggles to repent and reclaim his hammer at home the stakes keep on rising and events continue to conspire against him unbeknown to him. The pace is tempered so as the tale isn’t rushed and more meaning can be added to the spectacle rather than there just being a spectacle to behold and the audience “Oohs” and “Aahs” and walks out bloated by candy and soda gas.

You film buffs/comics fans out there might be aware, especially through the intimations made in prior films, that Marvel has been gearing up for an Avengers films. They have been doing so very methodically with slight dovetails in previous films. For the uninitiated where S.H.I.E.L.D. gets involved in the story has been the prelude to The Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D. is more of a presence in this film as they cordon off his hammer in a makeshift compound and detain Thor for a while but they’re only as much of an obstruction as they have to be they never become an encumbrance to the plot as a whole.

Having said that if you should see Thor be sure to plan your bathroom trip carefully because you’ll want to sit through the end credits for a teaser and a cameo appearance.

What might perhaps be overlooked is that in a tale such as Thor where you’re dealing with gods in another realm, the Earthlings who find him and those trying to detain him is that acting is pivotal. It’s pivotal both in the casting and the direction of the film. Which is why Kenneth Branagh, as counter-intuitive as it likely sounded to you at first, is the perfect director for this vehicle. This is a man who made his name as an actor and a director by interpreting Shakespeare if anyone can infuse some comedy but also lend this kind of tale the kind of gravitas it needs to succeed it’s him. Yes, it’s strange to see his name attached to something CG-heavy but there umpteen thousand people involved in that aspect he’s just making sure the tale is communicated and it is.

Speaking of the effects they were absolutely fantastic. The most challenging thing for a film is to create a wholly new world and this clan did that with ease. There is some pretty effective creature-work in here too, chilling stuff. The effects, of course, can only do so much it’s merely an interpretation of the production design which is also great. The sets and locations, where they need to be, are grandiose and majestic and just marvelous.

And now for my token paragraph on the 3D. I did see it in 3D. I debated not seeing it in 3D. I don’t think I would’ve liked it one iota less if I had gone the conventional route. If you want to save some money go for it. The colors, scope and vistas will be just as impressive.

I will readily admit my expectations were not very high for Thor. I’ve given you the positives as there were many. It wasn’t perfect but it was darn good and enjoyable and left me wanting more no matter how I come about it (be it comics or a sequel).

8/10