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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It’s hard to draw comparisons to the major commitment to long-form storytelling that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has dabbled with over the course of ten record-shattering years of success. I can think of movie franchises that have been popular over long periods of time, like James Bond, but rarely do they keep to continuity. It’s been 18 movies and ten years since the caddish Robert Downey Jr. first stole our hearts in the original Iron Man, and its stable of heroes and villains has grown exponentially. Looking at the poster for Avengers: Infinity War, it’s hard to believe there’s even enough space just for all of the actors’ names. Infinity War feels like a massive, culminating years-in-the-making film event and it reminded me most of Peter Jackson’s concluding Lord of the Rings chapter, Return of the King. After so long, we’re privy to several separate story threads finally being braided as one and several dispirit characters finally coming together. This is a blockbuster a full decade in the making and it tends to feel overloaded and burdened with the responsibility of being everything to everyone. It’s an epic, entertaining, and enjoyable movie, but Infinity War can also leave you hanging.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) has finally come to collect the six infinity stones stashed around the universe. With their power, he will be able to achieve his ultimate goal of wiping out half of all life in the universe. Standing in his murderous way is a divided Avengers squad, with Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) still on the outs with a wanted-at-large Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). One of the in-demand infinity stones resides in the head of the Vision (Paul Bettany), who is in hiding with his romantic partner, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). They know Thanos will be coming for Vision eventually. On the other side are the Guardians of the Galaxy who have a few personal scores to settle with Thanos, the adopted father of Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) strikes out looking for the key to defeating the big purple menace. Thanos’ loyal lieutenants attack Earth to gather the remaining infinity stones, drawing the attention and push-back of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The various heroes of Earth and space unite to eliminate the greatest threat the universe has ever known.

Avengers: Infinity War serves not as much a series of payoffs as it is climaxes, with climactic event right after another, and this time it’s for keeps (more on that below). There are moments that feel like major payoffs and moments that feel like shrug-worthy Last Jedi-style payoffs. Infinity War is the longest MCU movie yet at 149 minutes but it has no downtime. That’s because it has to find room for dozens of heroes across the cosmos. With the exception of three super heroes, everyone is in this movie, and I mean everyone. This is an overstuffed buffet of comic book spectacle, and whether it feels like overindulgence will be determined by the viewer’s prior investment with this cinematic universe. If this is your first trip to the MCU, I’d advise holding off until later. Any newcomer will be very lost. I’ve deduced the seven MCU movies that are the most essential to see to successfully comprehend the totality of the Infinity War dramatics, and they are Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. Naturally, being intimately familiar with the previous 18 movies will be best, but if you don’t have thirty hours to spare then please follow my seven-film lineup and you’ll be solid.

As far as the stakes, the MCU has been notoriously reluctant about killing off its characters, but Infinity War is completely different. I won’t spoil circumstances or names, of course, but the march of death happens shockingly early and carries on throughout. There are significant losses that will make fans equally gasp and cry. This is a summer blockbuster that leaves behind an impressive body count across the known universe and ends in a downbeat manner that will naturally trigger reflexive Empire Strikes Back comparisons. It’s hard to feel the full impact of the drastic decisions, and the grief over their losses because I know there is a Part Two coming summer 2019, and with that comes the almost certainty that several important events will be diminished or straight-out reversed. After all, in comics, nobody is ever really dead, though with movies the heroes have the nagging habit of aging. With that said, you better believe I was holding my breath during some standoffs, tearing up at some sudden goodbyes, and reflecting upon journeys shared.

This is very much Thanos’ movie, which was one of the bigger surprises for me. Beforehand, our exposure to the big purple guy has been relatively minor, a brief moment here or a cameo there during a post-credit scene. Considering Thanos is supposed to be the universe’s biggest bad, it makes sense to finally give him his due, and that is what Infinity War does. Thanos gets the most screen time of any character and is given an honest-to-God character arc. He’s a villain who goes on an actual emotional journey as he follows a path that he feels compelled to even as it tests him personally. He finally opens up as a character rather than some malevolent force that is oft referred to in apocalyptic terms. We get his back-story and motivation, which is less a romantic appeal to Death like in the comics and more a prevention of the apocalypse reminiscent of the Reapers in the Mass Effect series. Thanos sees himself as a necessary corrective force and not as a villain. He’s never portrayed in a maniacal, gleeful sense of wickedness. Instead he seems to carry the heaviness of his mission and looks at the Avengers and other heroes sympathetically. He understands their struggle and defiance. Having an actor the caliber of Brolin (Deadpool 2) is a necessity to make this character work and effectively sell the emotions. Thanos is the most significant addition to the MCU appearing the latest, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do, and Infinity War fleshes him out as a worthy foe.

As an action spectacle, however, Infinity War is good but not great. The action sequences are interesting enough but there’s nothing special and little development. There’s nothing that rivals the delirious nerdgasm of the airport battle in Civil War pitting hero-against-hero to dizzying degree. The characters are separated into units with their own goals leading to a final confrontation that feels more climactic conceptually than in execution. That’s because this is an Avengers film that falls into some of the trappings of the glut of super hero cinema, namely the army of faceless foot soldiers for easy slaughtering, the over exaggerated sense of scale of battle, the apocalyptic stakes that can feel a bit like a bell rung too many times, and even minor things like the lackluster supporting villains. Thanos’ team of lieutenants are all the same kind of sneering heavy with the exception of one, a sort of alien cleric heralding the honor of death from Thanos. Carrie Coon (HBO’s The Leftovers) is generally wasted providing the mo-cap for the Lady Lieutenant That Sounds Like a Band Fronted by Jared Leto, a.k.a. Proxima Midnight. There are far too many scenes where characters reluctantly strike a deal to give up an infinity stone if Thanos will spare the life of a beloved comrade. The film’s greatest point of entertainment isn’t with its action but the character dynamics. The fun is watching years-in-the-making character interactions and seeing the sparks fly. There’s more joy in watching Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch try and out smarm one another than with any CGI collision of a faceless army of monsters. There are so many characters that few are given fully defined arcs. Most are given beginnings and stopping places. Though the eventual sequel will have fewer characters needing to share precious screen time.

The standouts on screen are Hemsworth (12 Strong) carrying a large portion of the movie and not missing a beat of his well-honed comic rhythms from Ragnarok, Bettany (Solo) brings a sad soulfulness to Vision as a man who knows fate is likely unavoidable, and Dave Bautista (Blade Runner 2049) is perfectly deadpan as Drax and has the funniest lines in the movie followed closely by the exuberant Holland (Lost City of Z). To even say which characters deal with more complex emotions might be a spoiler in itself but there are several actors showing an emotive level unseen so far in the bustling MCU.

Avengers: Infinity War marks a significant concluding chapter for one of cinema’s most popular series, until at least the next movie possibly makes it feel less conclusive. I pity Marvel because expectations are going to be astronomical for this climactic showdown. There are so many characters, so many crossovers, and so much to still establish, like Thanos as a character more than a spooky force of annihilation, that it feels rather breathless even at nearly two-and-a-half hours. You may be feeling a rush of exhilaration on your way out or an equally compelling sense of exhaustion. Infinity War doesn’t have the imaginative highs of a Dcotor Strange, the funky personality and style of a Guardians of the Galaxy, the wonderfully thought-out structure of a Spider-Man: Homecoming, the adroit weirdness of a Thor: Ragnarok, or even the hero-against-hero catharsis of a Civil War (still my favorite). What it does have is a sense of long-gestating finality, of real stakes and dire consequences. It’s not all pervading doom and gloom; this is still a fun movie, buoyed by crackling character team-ups and interactions. While, Infinity War won’t be all things to all people, myself included, it will please many fans, casual and diehard alike.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

With the continued runaway success of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it becomes more and more preposterous just how strange and unique it can be. You would think a mega franchise this valuable would be more prone to playing it safe, hiring established visual stylists who can produce product. Instead, the MCU finds interesting creative voices that can succeed within their very big sandbox. Enter New Zealand actor and quirky director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), one of the most surprising directorial hires in a decade of blockbusters. The Thor movies are generally considered some of the weakest films in the MCU, so there’s already plenty of room for improvement. With Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie and one of the funniest to date for the MCU. It’s finally a Thor movie that embraces its silly, campy, ridiculous world and finds space to cram in more eccentricity.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his home world of Asgard to find it in great peril. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling in their father’s stead, and that’s not even the worst part. Thor’s heretofore-unannounced older sister Hera (Cate Blanchett) has been unleashed from her prison and is seeking the throne she feels is rightfully hers. She is the goddess of death and chafes at Asgard’s revisionist history, trying to paint over its history as conquerors for something kinder and gentler. Thor is banished to an outlying planet, Sakaar, that’s essentially a junkyard for the universe. He’s captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and sold to fight in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. Thor is trained to fight in gladiatorial combat, and his opponent and reigning champion is none other than the Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) alter ego. Thor must break free, convince the Hulk for help, get off this planet, and save Asgard before it’s too late.

Waititi has acclimated himself extremely well in the large-scaled world of blockbuster filmmaking, and yet his signature quirky sense of style and humor are still evident throughout, making Ragnarok the best Thor film. Let’s face it, the Thor films are completely ridiculous and trying to treat them as anything but is wasted effort. These movies involve alien Norse gods traveling by rainbow bridges and even though they can traverse the cosmos in spaceships they still sling giant broad swords. The more the films embrace the inherent silliness of the series the better. Ragnarok is the Thor movie that gets all the serious stuff out of the way in the first act, tying up loose ends from 2013’s Dark World, checking in with Anthony Hopkins’ Odin and the requisite MCU cameo (a superfluous Doctor Strange), and then introducing Thor’s long-lost twisted sister. From Blanchett’s intro, the movie becomes what it was set out to be, a lavish and consistently funny buddy comedy. Gone are all the Earthly constraints from the prior two films. It’s all aliens from here on out. Thor has everything stripped from him, his hammer, his family, his hair, and becomes an underdog once again. It’s a surefire way to make a living god more relatable. Fighting from the ground up, Thor makes all sorts of new friends and enemies, and it’s this evolution into an ensemble comedy where Waititi’s film shines. There’s a jovial touch to the world building that extends from the visuals to the variety of odd characters. Thor has never been more entertaining as Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) is able to stop being so serious and embrace his underutilized comedic chops. The man has a stunning sense of comedic delivery and a dry wit that’s right at home for Waititi. Hemsworth and his daffy sense of humor have never been better in the MCU.

Even with the added comic refinery, Thor is still the most boring of the Avengers, so Ragnarok solves this by introducing a new bevy of side characters that steal the show. The wacky world of the Thor universe was always its best aspect, and each new film pushes the boundaries a little further out, revealing more weird and wild planets and creatures. It feels like a Star Wars where we spend our time with the weird, scuzzy part of the universe. Ragnarok pushes those boundaries the furthest yet and introduces an entire cadre of loveable supporting players that you want to spend more time with. Tessa Thompson has a wonderful and intimidating introduction as she swoops in on a spaceship, makes her badass claim of her prized bounty, and then trips and falls, as she is quite tipsy from drinking. She regains her literal footing and still seems a bit out of it, but the ensuring process she goes through to claim what is hers is thoroughly impressive. As a Valkyrie, this is one tough woman, and Thompson (Creed) has great fun playing bad. She really reminded me of a female Han Solo. Thompson has a wily screwball chemistry with Hemsworth, and both actors elevate the other with lively give-and-take. Thompson is a terrific new addition. She has an enticing, irascible appeal without overt sexualization that sometimes befalls the Marvel female sidekicks (Black Widow, Pepper Potts).

Another character you’ll fall in love with is Korg, a rock monster gladiator played in motion-capture and drolly voiced by director Waititi himself. My question: is it possible for a director to steal his own movie? This is a character that feels stripped from one of Waititi’s dry, absurdist comedies and placed into the MCU. Korg is a would-be revolutionary but really he’s a joke machine and just about every line is gold. By the end of the movie, I needed a Korg spin-off series to further explore this unusual character.

The requisite villains of the film definitely play their roles to full camp, enjoying every moment. Blanchett (Carol) is like a Gothic Joan Crawford, marching with a slinky step and a sneer. Her multi-antler helmet completes the operatic sweep of the character. You’ll forgive me for my above comment on recognizing female characters independent of their sexuality, but man oh man does Goth Blanchett make me happy (especially with her hair down). It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Hela though. Every time we cut back to her I found myself getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to return back to the weird and wild world Thor was on. Blanchett is entertaining but her character can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in (“Hey, you had a long-lost sister, and oh by the way, she’s basically Death itself, and she’s coming by to retake everything, so have fun with that and sorry for the short notice”). Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) is left to his Goldblum devices and it’s everything you would want. His signature stuttering deadpan is just as potent in the MCU, and the film finds strange little asides for him to make him even more entertaining. Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) has a plum role as Hela’s second-in-command who doesn’t really want the job. They actually gave this guy a character arc. It’s simple, sure, but it was more than I was expecting.

Ragnarok is a swan dive into a stylized, candy-colored explosion of 80s album covers come alive. The visuals and action feel inspired as much from the art of Jack Kirby as they do the pages of Heavy Metal. The overwhelming feel is one of irresistible fun, something you lean back, soak up, and smile from ear to ear in between handfuls of popcorn. The final battle feels suitably climactic and revisits Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Immigrant Song” once the action peaks, coalescing into a crescendo of cool. The trinkly 80s synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (The Lego Movie) is fantastic and helps to achieve an extra kitschy kick. This movie is just flat-out fun throughout. It finds fun things for the characters to do, like when Banner has to not Hulk out on an alien world filled with stressors to trigger such an occurrence. That sequence almost feels like the grown-up, polished version of Adam West desperately running around as TV’s Batman in need of trying to find a place to dispose of a lit bomb. There’s an archness to the action and character interactions that is playful without being obnoxiously glib. I also enjoyed a climax that involved more than just out-punching the villains. Some might even charitably read it as a commentary on the over reliance of apocalyptic grandeur.

Playing from behind because of its hero’s limitations, Thor: Ragnarok finally embraces the silliness of its franchise, opening up more comic channels and vastly improving its entertainment quotient. The weird word and its collection of odd and oddly compelling characters is the best feature, and though it takes Ragnarok a bit of time for house cleaning, it becomes a steadily amusing big-budget blockbuster that maintains a cracked and lively sense of humor. It’s allowed to be strange and silly and campy. Waititi’s imaginative voice is still very present throughout the film, pushing the movie into fun and funny directions while still delivering the sci-fi action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Ragnarok isn’t as deep as Civil War, as perfectly structured as Homecoming, or as subversive and different as Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a droll creative mind like Waititi, it becomes about the best possible Thor movie it can be.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Ghostbusters (2016)

ghostbusters-2016-posterGrowing up in the 80s, other kids had Transformers, or G.I. Joe, or He-Man, but I was a Ghostbusters kid. I fell in love with the 1984 original movie, slept below the poster for most of my childhood, and obsessively collected all of the action figures, watched with glee the animated TV series, and hold the world and its characters in a special personal place. The 1984 movie is such a perfect blend of buddy comedy, the supernatural, and action that nobody has really been able to fully replicate this special film alchemy as well since, including director Ivan Reitman (he tried in vain with Evolution). When the word broke that there was going to be a new Ghostbusters remake, some trepidation from fans could be expected. It’s sacred ground to many. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) insisted that he wanted to have an all-female team of Ghostbusters, and that’s when the Internet lost its collective mind. The movie and its stars have been beset with hateful misogynistic (and, in the case of Leslie Jones, racist) harassment. The Internet didn’t want smelly girls playing with its toys. It became part of a larger war between feminists and retrograde men’s rights activist crybabies. Some people wanted it to be succeed just because of he gender of its leads, and others wanted it to fail for the very reasons. I just wanted a good Ghostbusters movie regardless of what bathroom the busters utilize.

Erin (Kristen Wiig) is an esteemed science academic trying to turn the page on her past. Her friend and fringe scientist Abby (Melissa McCarthy) has republished the book about paranormal they wrote together, which ruins Erin’s chance at tenure from her colleagues. Her ire is short-lived as Erin, Abby and her wacky nuclear scientist associate Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) experience a real dead ghost. Their slime-filled encounter with the undead reawakens Erin’s love of the paranormal and the three of them join forces. Patti (Jones) is an MTA worker who leaves her job and joins the gals after her own experience with a ghost in the New York subway. Somebody is trying to open a portal between the living and the dead, and these Ghostbusters gotta bust some ghosts.

Ghostbusters-2016My initial apprehension melted away within the movie’s first twenty seconds when it already had me laugh out loud twice (“anti-Irish fence”). There’s a consistent genial absurdity that kept me engaged and entertained, and this is typified by the strong comic camaraderie of the four leads. I enjoyed spending time with these ladies and I enjoyed their interactions, so when scenes could creep up on overstaying their welcome from a pacing standpoint, something of a Feig staple, I gave them more leeway and felt my patience rewarded. I don’t know how to make it plainer than this: I am not a Leslie Jones fan and I liked Leslie Jones in this movie. I have found Jones to be all-too often on Saturday Night Live a one-note comic presence, always loud and brash and hitting the same joke again and again with little variation. With Ghostbusters, she actually plays a character, capable in her own right, and a straight man for the other characters. These women were goofy, gross (a queef joke within Holtzmann’s first appearance), but they also enjoyed one another’s company. There are internal conflicts, sure, but their enjoyment of working together, of displaying their know-how, of the joys of discovering the realm of the paranormal create a bond that helps seal the characters with the audience. Whatever the scenario, I was confident I would laugh from these characters, and I did.

There is a lightness to the movie that makes it all the more appealing, settling into pleasurable summer fare. This story is as much about the formation of the Ghostbusters as anything else. In the original film they just sort of have their ghost-busting gear all of a sudden. With the remake we watch the trial and error process of bringing all that tech to life. It’s a fun process to see their business from the ground floor, so to speak, and their fight for larger credibility. Murray himself even shows up as a paranormal debunker who scoffs at their claims. The ladies are the lovable underdogs in this world.

The real reason that Feig’s movies work is the interaction of his boisterous and often brilliant casts, and Ghostbusters is another example. Wiig and McCarthy have a natural chemistry together honed from Bridesmaids, and their back-and-forth banter will often find punch lines in odd places. McCarthy has always been her best under Feig’s direction (seriously go watch Spy if you haven’t). While Abby is a less outspoken character than we’re accustomed to from her, McCarthy still has a commanding presence and is the one who lassos the other funny characters back into a sustainable orbit (“You spell ‘science’ with a Y, and I don’t think you know that that’s wrong”). I’ve stated above my positive feelings on Jones. She brings a welcomed perspective to the team and often serves as the voice of the audience, like a moment where she looks inside a room filled with mannequins, calls it “nightmare stuff,” and wisely keeps walking. McKinnon is the true breakout star, going for broke in a deadpan, anarchic silliness that is Murray-esque. She also displays a funky, near pansexual sense of excitement with the world around her. She licks the radioactive barrels of her proton pack in jubilation. McKinnon is a constant source of mirth in the movie and has some of the best one-liners (“It’s 2040. Our president is a plant!”). Another breakout might be Chris Hemsworth in comedy. His dimwitted and inept receptionist is perhaps too dumb to even function. Hemsworth just commits to his character’s straight-faced stupidity and it produces big laughs.

Not everything in the movie works as well together as the ensemble. The movie’s tone takes a giant leap once the third act commences with its apocalyptic ghost showdowns. You can sense that Feig isn’t nearly as passionate about action heroics and CGI. Example: the movie sets up a large-scale dance sequence and we never see it until the scene appears during the end credits. That seems like a waste. The character arc between Abby and Erin isn’t quite as developed as the movie needs for the emotional re-connection at the very end to hit. As much as I loved McKinnon in the movie, her character is more a collection of quirks than a person. The cameos from the original cast are mostly awful and kill amusement. Watching Dan Akroyd as a cab driver say he “ain’t afraid of no ghosts” made me roll my eyes and wish I could delete this from my memory. The less obvious nods are better fan service, like a character referencing “mass hysteria” or Erin frantically pressing her body against a restaurant’s large glass window. The Stay Puft marshmallow man as a parade float is a nice touch, though. The main villain is feeble but I can see how a dude with a grievous sense of entitlement could itself be a feminist statement on the hostility that women face in today’s world. There are some logical consistency issues when the busters go from trapping ghosts to shooting them and blowing them up, but it wasn’t enough to derail my sense of fun. The worst thing about this Ghostbusters is the new theme song from Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliot.

160708_MOV_Ghostbusters_light.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeIs the new Ghostbusters a significant step in terms of feminism or is it overblown as some critics contend? The topic is unavoidable given the spirited furor over this remake; it has the most disliked trailer in YouTube history, though to be fair that was not a good trailer. First I’ll acknowledge that the world doesn’t need the opinion of a heterosexual white male on the topic of inclusion, but I’d like to say that there is something about positive representation. It’s the same reason I approve of Sulu being gay in the newest Star Trek. It’s not for me to say what is and is not empowering for a group of people who often lack positive representation in media. Nor am I arguing that every representation of a group needs to be positive; that swings in a direction where well intentioned “protection” becomes condescending. People can be good. People can be bad. People can be brilliant. People can be dumb. No one pool of DNA has ownership over these human traits. However, the reality of Hollywood is that it is often a poor representation of diversity. It is because of this that I say Ghostbusters deserves some praise for portraying a plot around four women that doesn’t involve boyfriends, weddings, marriages, pregnancies, any sort of romantic coupling, and doesn’t pit them against one another. This is an action movie with a female ensemble, three of whom are in their 40s, and all of whom don’t exactly fit with Hollywood’s standard conception of the attractive female lead. They don’t dress provocatively for the male gaze (the default setting for “strong heroine” in Hollywood is often “sexy deadly”). They don’t make fun of one another’s body types. They stand up for one another when people in power attack. They love what they do. I think there will be a swath of the public that recognizes themselves on screen, maybe for the first time, and I think there is genuine merit to this.

Somewhere amidst all the hype and hate, the new Ghostbusters emerges as a pleasant and enjoyably silly summer comedy. Feig’s movie pays homage to the original, including borrowing many of the general plot beats Force Awakens-style, but steps out onto its own territory. The 2016 Ghostbusters is not slavish to the original but recreates what made it work, a strong core group that meets the experimental and outlandish with droll irony. I think I laughed more with the 2016 Ghostbusters than the 1984 Ghostbusters. It has some flaws and some pacing issues but I was enjoying these characters so much to mind. As a lifelong Ghostbusters fan, I would gladly watch a sequel with these characters and this world once more. This won’t replace the fond feelings I have for the original, nor was it ever supposed to. This all-female Ghostbusters doesn’t take away what fans have loved. It simply adds another chapter with a new batch of entertaining characters, and if a part of the audience can better imagine themselves strapping on the proton packs and going along for the ride, then I don’t see what the harm lies with representation.

Nate’s Grade: B

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

InTheHeartOfTheSea-1In 1822, the men aboard the Essex, a whaling ship sailing from Nantucket, Massachusetts, encountered a beast unlike any they have ever seen. Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemworth), were at odds throughout the voyage, that is until they encountered a 100-foot long white whale. The creature destroyed the Essex, forcing the crew to drift at sea and hope to find land, but the whale follows them as well. Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland as a young man, Brendan Gleeson as the older version) recounts this traumatic survival tale to author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who is desperate to write this true story.

There’s an old-school throwback vibe to In the Heart of the Sea with its high seas adventure, but there’s just not enough attention to adventure, character, or even plot for this movie to really set sail properly. The first act feels so sluggishly long. It’s trying to set up life on a whaling vessel in the early 19th century but I didn’t feel like we got a coherent sense of life aboard the seas or how the various components worked. I didn’t know that whalers row out from the main ship, so there’s that. The opening act sets up the dull conflict between Chase and Pollard, which can be summarized as blunt upstart vs. unchecked privilege. The conflict doesn’t evolve from this dichotomy. Both men are boring in their unyielding simplicity. Hemsworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron) made a stronger impression in Rush, but a humorless movie role is not in his best interests as an actor. When the action does arrive, it can be genuinely thrilling. Director Ron Howard does a slick job of conveying the danger and destruction of the whale attack. Sadly, it’s over too soon and then the remainder of the movie is 45 minutes of a survival drama adrift in the ocean reminiscent of last year’s Unbroken. This period of isolation forces the characters to make some hard choices, yet we don’t feel the impact of those choices because the narrative, too, feels adrift. Implausibly, the giant whale has followed them for thousands of miles. Are whales really this vindictive? The documentary Blackfish makes me wonder but it still feels unbelievable. What was the whale waiting for? For the men’s spirits to be completely broken before it might attack again? We’re told this whale is a “demon” but who exactly are the bad guys in this story?

HOTS-20131003BO4V0392.dngI believe another stopping point for this story is that the culture has moved beyond the acceptance of whaling as an honorable profession, to the point that I, and I assume others, was on Team Whale after witnessing a bloody hunt. It’s pretty gross, especially when they’re harvesting the whale body for the precious oil. Perhaps modern audiences, so far removed from hunting as an essential component of life have become more squeamish, or perhaps modern audiences just recognize something as barbaric when they see it. As a result, it’s hard to root for these guys. When the giant whale attacked it felt like retribution. My sympathies were more for the large mammal than the bipeds on ship. At the end of the film (some spoilers), the white-haired moneyed men of Big Whale Oil are worried what the truth will do to their industry. They want the surviving crewmen of the Essex to deny the existence of this gargantuan whale. This makes little sense to me other than awkwardly forcing a Big Business cover-up for relevancy. First off, whaling seems like a pretty unsafe working environment to begin with, especially considering voyages could last up to three years. Would the reality of one big bad whale destroy an industry? I doubt it since there is such money to be had. If anything it might rejuvenate the timber industry to reinforce the ships to make them more durable against larger whale attacks.

At first I thought a framing device was entirely superfluous; why do we need to watch Melville elicit this tale rather than simply just watching the tale itself? It seemed like a distraction, but as the movie progressed I understood that this framing device was its own sub-story and had its own complexity, namely the older Tom coming clean to the decisions that still haunt his soul. It’s an unburdening for both gentlemen, as Melville admits his deep fear that he is a mediocre writer (he’s no Nathaniel Hawthorne) and that he will be unable to tell this story as well as it truly deserves.

As these two men are allowing themselves to become more vulnerable and sharing their demons and doubts and worst fears, I started to realize that this framing device was weirdly more compelling than all the whale action. That’s because older Tom and Melville are the best drawn characters in the movie, which seems like a screenwriting mistake of sizable proportions. Obviously the nautical survival stuff should be the most compelling, and yet I as more taken with two men sitting by an oil lamp discussing their lives. Older Tom is infinitely more interesting than younger Tom; part of this is because young Tom hasn’t experienced the full effect of the events that shape older Tom, but most of this is from the very clear fact that young Tom is kind of a mute witness in this movie. He rarely speaks and is just kind of there, taking up space. There’s one personal harrowing moment when he’s thrust inside a hollowed out whale carcass to extract more blubber, but that’s the only personal perspective offered through young Tom. A question concerning the framing device: how is older Tom retelling events he had no participation or witness to? Another issue is that the characters on board the Essex are bereft of anything that would allow us to feel for them beyond simple human survival. Chase and Pollard are given one note to play and their eventual understanding and cooperation is fine but it feels like fleeting details in a story, lost to memory or disinterest.

HEART OF THE SEAFrom a purely technical aspect, this is one of the better Howard films. The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) is rich and often breath taking, with plenty of stunning aerial and underwater images. The whale attack sequence is harrowing and thrilling. Howard finds ways to imply the harsher aspects of this life without going overboard, maintaining that PG-13 rating. While the look of the film has an enhanced color palate thanks to the extra boost of CGI filters, I still appreciated the vibrancy of the on screen images. As I said with the similarly boosted Mad Max: Fury Road, I’d rather have vibrant and bright colors than a drab and washed-out color palate. Even as the movie drifts and the characters fail to grab you, at least the visuals are pretty. While sitting through the second half, I started to rethink my own prejudices concerning Howard as a filmmaker, a man who lacks a distinctive style but has a definite feel for how to tell a story. I’m not going to excuse him for The Grinch and other misfires, or his tendency to settle for maudlin in place of subtlety, but the man is a born filmmaker.

In the Heart of the Sea is an old school movie that feels too sluggish, too underdeveloped, and too free of characters for the audience to invest in. When the framing device scores the biggest emotional pull, you better start rethinking your rip-roaring high-seas adventure. Master and Commander this is not. As the inspiration for Moby Dick, I wish I had just watched a remake of Melville’s actual novel (now with extra chapters about rope!). If you ever wanted a movie that ends on a blurb by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a payoff for Melville’s artistic neurosis, then your wait is over. In the Heart of the Sea feels like a whale of a tale that is hard to believe, which ends up inspiring a far greater story, which made me yearn for just watching that superior tale. Sometimes the “truth” behind famous stories is less interesting.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Snow White & the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White & the Huntsman is meant to be a darker, splashier, more action-packed retelling of the classic story, and when compared with the earlier 2012 Snow White venture, Mirror, Mirror, it certainly merits all those descriptions. With Twilight star Kristen Stewart at the helm, this movie seems tailored for teens looking for some girl power. I have no problem with reworking fairy tales to suit our modern-day cultural interest, but just giving a person a shield and a sword does not instantly make them a warrior. And just plopping Snow White into a medieval war does not instantly make this a movie worth watching.

The wicked Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) killed the king and installed herself on the throne. She sucks the youth directly from ingénues to keep those good Theron looks of hers. She is the fairest of them all but she is warned that one day the king’s daughter, Snow White (Stewart), will overtake her in fairness. Snow’s been living in a prison cell for about ten years since her evil step-mom took power. She escapes her imprisonment and flees to the Dark Forrest beyond the castle grounds. The Queen’s powers will not carry over into the Dark Forrest (for whatever unexplained reason), so she hires the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to retrieve Snow White. The Huntsman changes sides, allies himself with Snow, and some dwarves, and then everyone bands together to retake the kingdom under Snow’s stout leadership.

Snow White & the Huntsman falls victim to that age-old screenwriting curse of failing to show us its work. I get so sick of movies, or any narrative really, that heaps praise upon some person and then never shows us any convincing evidence. If somebody is said to be a great poet, I want to hear one of his or her great poems. If somebody is said to be a great leader, then I want to see him or her inspire. To make up for the plot shortcomings, the screenplay reminds us at every moment of downtime how special Snow White is, how glorious she is, how different she is, how she is the only one to bring down the tyrannical rule of Ravenna. At no point did I believe any of this. Just because I have characters tell me, ad naseum, that someone is special doesn’t make it so. I need to see the evidence, and from what Snow White has to show, it is not that impressive. She’s somewhat resourceful, escaping from captivity, but she’s not exactly a figure of compelling strength, magnetism, or inspiration. She gives one “rally the troops” speech that gets the townspeople all fired up to go to war; it’s no St. Crispin’s Day speech, but even if we’re grading on a curve, it’s a pretty weak motivational speech. There’s no reason these people would line up behind this displaced damsel other than the fact that the plot requires them to do so. This Snow lady has, much like the infamous Bella Swan, the personality of a dead plant, and all the proclamations to the contrary will not change that fact. Snow White is just not an interesting of compelling person, period. The only way Stewart could be most fair is if we’re talking about being pale.

There are two reasons why Stewart is completely wrong for this part. First off, when we’re objectively talking about one who is “fairest of them all,” and Charlize Theron is in your movie, you’re going to lose every time. I’m not saying Stewart is wretched looking; quite the contrary. Debut director Rupert Sanders finds ways to film her that make her look lush and vibrant, giving more life to his heroine than his actress is capable of. Some would argue “fairest of them all” is not in references to physical beauty, which it has always been, but to the fact that Snow’s heart is so pure and good. If that’s the case, that’s just stupid. Then why even make it Snow White if the nemesis to the evil queen is simply somebody who is morally just? You could have had a commoner play the role and that would have brought about more interesting class conflicts. Secondly, Stewart is such a modern era actress, someone who has so effectively channeled the rhythms of a blasé generation of young people, that dropping her into a medieval time period is jarring. She doesn’t fit. Everything about her aloof acting style screams modern times. Maybe that’s why her speaking is kept to a minimum. She can ride on horseback, dress in Joan of Arc armor, but she’ll never strike anyone as a fitting Epic Heroine. I feel that her acting has blended with the sullen nature of Bella Swan to the point that it’s hard to separate the two. I’m not a Stewart hater at all. I actually think she can be quite a capable actress (see: Speak, Adventureland, the upcoming adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road) when paired with the proper material. Snow White & the Huntsman is not the proper material.

Aside from casting errors, this dark fairy tale doesn’t find any time to settle down and develop anything that could approximate characterization. Case in point: all we know about Snow is that she is a princess, everyone tells us how beautiful she has always been, she runs away, and then leads a rebellion, then she become queen (don’t pester me about spoilers). What else do we know about her? She’s defined entirely by outside forces, especially the charitable words of others. Snow White is not a character but a symbol, the prophetic Chosen One. She’s really a placeholder for every lazy archetype needed for epic fantasy. Stewart cannot connect with the material, so she seems to wander around, mouth agape, almost like she’s stumbling drunk through the whole movie. It seems that Snow White & the Huntsman just provides us the familiar elements of the story (evil stepmother, huntsman, dwarves) and expects us to fill in the rest with our own wealth of knowledge over the famous fairy tale. The rote insertion of a long-lost childhood friend/eventual love interest (Sam Claffin) is made tolerable only by the fact that he does not eventually become a love interest. This Snow doesn’t need a man, and good for her.

Sanders’ background in commercials definitely shows in his superb visual palate. The man knows how to frame a beautiful shot, and the visual highpoint is Snow’s hallucinogenic shamble through the Dark Forrest. Without the narrative traction, though, the movie starts to resemble one very long, very excruciating perfume ad, particularly when Snow comes across a white horse just laying down in the surf. Some of Sanders’ “ain’t nature great” creations deeper into the forest reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, especially with the godly stag. Despite its considerable faults, Snow White & the Huntsman is a great looking movie. Sanders’ crisp visuals are further enhanced by wonderfully theatrical costumes from multiple Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood (expect another award on that mantle come 2013). Queen Ravenna has more eye-catching outfits than Cher in her heyday. They seem to be made out of interesting organic elements, like a gown accented with diminutive bird skulls. She may be a ruthless tyrant, but man does that lady know how to dress. The fashion choices became so exotic and intriguing that it provided another reason for me to hope we’d get more time with the queen. The production design by Dominic Watkins (United 93) is fittingly medieval. At least there’s always something nice to look at with this monotonous bore.

I don’t really get the geography of this kingdom. By all accounts, it looks like one poorly guarded castle, one poor mud town, and a deep expanse of forest. The fact that it’s labeled as the Dark Forrest seems shortsighted, since it takes a few hours continued walking to come across all sorts of other civilizations, including our scarred matriarchal society. And then there are dwarves too. It all feels so listless, lacking any sort of connective tissue to help round out this magical world. After a while, it just becomes an assortment of cool stuff just put into a movie because it’s cool. The fact that none of these magical creatures or assorted villagers ever pop back again, except for our coronation in the resolution, means they were meaningless to this story other than being a rest stop.

The screenplay is surprisingly rushed; rarely do we spend more than five minutes in any location. I was interested in a city of women with self-inflicted facial scars to protect themselves from Ravenna coming for them. Just as things start to get interesting, it’s like the movie gets antsy and has to keep moving, and we’re off again. It’s hard to work up any sort of emotional engagement for anyone when we just spend a few minutes with these characters. The brisk pacing also gives the impression that the characters really don’t matter in the end. If it weren’t for a scene where the Huntsman blatantly explains every feeling he has to a comatose Snow White, we’d know nothing about him. The Huntsman is grieving over the loss of his wife, and oh she just happens to have been killed by Ravenna’s creepy albino brother (Sam Spruell). The pigment-challenged dolt confesses this convenient bit of information at a strange time. Why confess to killing a man’s wife when you’re battling to the death? Confess afterwards. It’s another example of lame screenwriting and nascent characterization. Even the queen gets a bizarre throwaway bit of characterization. For whatever reason, we have a flashback to when she was a child and her mother forced her to drink the magic immortality elixir. Why did we see this? It’s too late to make her sympathetic. And yet, even this brief glimpse at Ravenna’s back-story makes her more interesting than our feckless Snow White.

The bleakly brilliant Young Adult renewed my fondness for Theron as an actress. For a while, she seems to really sink her teeth into the role, lapping up the villainy in a satisfyingly menacing manner. It’s at this lower level of burn, the quiet intensity, where Theron is most enjoyable. When the movie requires her to raise her voice is when things start to go bad. She shrieks in such a campy, over-the-top, weird overly enunciated style. Any hope of secretly enjoying this movie died with Theron’s stagy agitation. Hemsworth (The Avengers) adopts a thick Scottish brogue but does little else. At times I found that he looked remarkably like a cartoon tough guy; just something about his face lends itself to clean, burly definitions. The best actor in the movie is Bob Hoskins (Mrs. Henderson Presents) as a blind dwarf, and perhaps that sentence alone should say all that needs saying.

This film is more Lord of the Rings than fairy tale. It’s got some battles and some siege action to pacify the men folk, but this is obviously aimed at the ladies. It’s a feminist, Robin Hood-esque reworking of the Snow White tale, recasting the damsel as action heroine, and I’d have no problem with this revision if: 1) the film made her an actual character, 2) it had been played by anyone other than Kristen Stewart. It’s got all the familial elements but they have no context in this reworking; it lacks internal logic. If I did not have sufficient background knowledge about this tale, I’d be left wondering why any of this should make sense (apples are poisonous now?). At every turn, the movie has to tell us why things should matter rather than showing us. There’s no evidence onscreen why this Snow White lady deserves any fuss. Snow White & the Huntsman is a movie obsessed with appearance and precious little else. Snow White & the Huntsman is one boring, truculent, dreary chore of a movie that goes on far too long. Just because it’s darker doesn’t make it more mature or exciting. Fairest of them all, my ass.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Avengers (2012)

For the past four years, Marvel has been seeding its all-star super hero collective in the storylines of its summer blockbusters. And with six super heroes, The Avengers carries some super expectations. The creative mind behind the film is none other than Joss Whedon, best known for creating and shepherding cult TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. Not exactly the first name you’d think Marvel would assemble to front a $200 million movie. For geeks, Whedon has become a reliable standard of quality (the patchy TV show Dollhouse notwithstanding). Here is a man who can marry big ideas with sharp characterization and delightfully skewed dialogue. In Whedon, geek nation has a savior, and Marvel knew this. The Avengers is 142 minutes of geek arousal stretched to orgasmic heights.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the agency S.H.I.E.L.D., has a dire need for Earth’s mightiest heroes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has traveled through a portal and plans on conquering Earth thanks to an approaching alien army. Fury has tasked Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) a.k.a. Iron Man, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a.k.a. Captain America, and special agent Natasha “Black Widow” Romanof (Scarlett Johansson) with stopping Loki and rescuing one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own agents, the skilled marksman Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner), who is under Loki’s devious mind control. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), would like to cite jurisdiction and bring his wicked brother back to his home world. The only person who may be able to locate Loki’s path is Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a guy with his own anger issues. With this many egos, it’s bound to get dicey. As Banner puts it, “We’re not a team. We’re a time bomb.” Can they put aside their differences to unite to save the Earth? Does a Hulk smash?

Whedon, the king of clever genre deconstruction last seen in the excellent meta-horror film Cabin in the Woods, plays it relatively straight, giving his big, effects-driven film a straight-laced sense of sincerity. It’s not making fun of these sort of big-budget, effects-driven smash-em-ups, it just wants to deliver the biggest smash-em-up yet. To that end, The Avengers achieves maximum smashitude (trademark pending). By its rousing finish, the movie has become so massively entertaining that you forget the draggy first half. The scope of this thing is just massive. The last thirty minutes is solid action across miles of crumbling, just-asking-to-be-exploded city landscape. But the trick that Whedon pulls off is how to orchestrate action on a monumental scale without losing sight of scale, pacing, and character. You’d think with a full deck of superheroes that somebody would be shortchanged when it came time for the rough and tumble stuff. Not so. Instead of fighting one another, the prospective Avengers work together in all sorts of combinations. The characters are well integrated into the fracas, making particular use of their abilities, and finding new locations of focus every few minutes. This expert hero shuffling keeps things feeling fresh amidst the constant din of chaos.

In fact, the movie finds time to give every hero his or her due, finding a small moment to reveal some characterization. I thought Whedon’s biggest challenge was going to be the juggling act of balancing so many heroes and so much screen time, but the man found a way, like he regularly does, to squeeze in character with ensemble action. The Hulk fares the best. After two movies, it feels like Whedon has finally nailed the character; granted, this success may be credited to the fact that Bruce Banner (all hail Ruffalo) is kept as a supporting character. The struggle of the character being likened to a recovering addict is a smart way to present the character without getting too morose (I enjoyed the revelation that the “Hulk” half prevented Banner from killing himself). When he’s told his mission is to smash, you can feel the exuberant joy of an unleashed Hulk id. The Hulk had two great audience-applause moments that made my theater go berserk. I also really liked the attention given to Black Widow and her lonely back-story. Hawkeye was a complete badass, though he only gets to do fun stuff in the madcap finale. The trouble with the hero team-up franchises is that not everyone’s on the same level of power. Thor is a god for crying out loud, Iron Man has super weapons, Hulk is Hulk, Captain America at least has superhuman strength but what do Hawkeye and Black Widow bring to the team? When you’re competing with all that power, being good with guns or a bow seems pretty puny. And with Hawkeye, there’s going to be a limit to his effectiveness unless he has a magic bag of replenishing arrows. Still, Whedon finds ways to make the heroes badass and humane in equal measure, and surprisingly funny, which is welcomed.

It’s hard to believe that Whedon had only directed one feature film before (2005’s Serenity, based upon Whedon’s canceled Firefly show) being given the keys to the Marvel universe. He’s directed several TV episodes of his signature shows but the man has never produced anything on this scale before. Given a gigantic canvas, Whedon delivers the goods. His action sequences are rollicking and fun and, best of all, shot and edited in a fashion where you can understand what is happening (take some notes, Hunger Games franchise). The action is well choreographed and elevated with organic complications and particular attention paid to location, like the Nicky Fury airship. Whedon is a master of the plot payoff, setting up his elements and then piloting the narrative to satisfying conclusions and integrations (Cabin in the Woods is also a pristine example of this gift). If you’re going to introduce an airship, you better believe that sucker is going to threaten to crash. I’m glad that Loki was brought back as he was the best Marvel big screen baddie yet, though I’m disappointed they essentially put him on ice for an hour.

The technical elements are ably polished even for this kind of film. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) is terrific, utilizing bright color in a way that the visuals pop. The special effects are top-notch and you just feel immersed into the action. The destruction is cataclysmic but rarely does the movie feel phony. I was impressed by the Hulk designs and the sequences in inky space with our alien adversaries. For that matter, are these aliens robots? It’s unclear whether the giant flying centipede-like ships are creatures. The 3D conversion is one of the better outings due to the fact that it doesn’t keep throwing stuff in your face. Plus, viewing Johansson’s leather-clad assets in 3D certainly has its own appeal, as does Gwyneth Paltrow in jean shorts. Hey How I Met Your Mother fans, Cobie Smulders looks practically smoldering in her S.H.I.E.L.D. agent outfit too. Okay, I swear I’m done with the female objectification.

I hesitate calling The Avengers the greatest super hero/comic book movie of all time, as the teaming hordes of Internet fanboys foaming at the mouth are wont to do. If your definition of a comic book movie is a giant sandbox with all the coolest toys, then this is your film. This is a comic book turned flesh. The Hulk and Thor fight and prove who is the strongest Marvel man, that’s got to be a geek’s wish come true. Many of the infighting sequences felt like, servicing the tastes of the fanboys, and after a while the constant hero on hero action felt tiresome. I get that we have a clash of egos going on here, but the movie suffers from a lack of narrative cohesion, by which I mean that the first hour of the movie feels like a series of guest appearances by heroes on loan. The movie doesn’t fully come together until the point where the team comes together; I doubt Whedon intended that symbiotic relationship. The movie feels more like a patchwork of standout scenes and memorable moments that a fully formed and cohesive story. If you haven’t seen the previous four Marvel movies (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America), you’ll be pretty hard-pressed to follow the story. Loki’s motivation and plan seems rather sketchy other than causing discord amongst the heroic ranks. His powers seem inconsistent and vague. Also I found the musical score by Alan Silvestri to be bland and unworthy.

The Avengers is sure to be geek nirvana for many of the comic book faithful. It’s an audience pleaser of mass scale, and I’m sure that your theater will be cheering in abundance. Whedon has pulled off the near impossible. The movie is a thoroughly entertaining, exciting, and witty popcorn spectacle of the first order. But where the movie hits the ceiling, at least for me, is that it ONLY wants to be the best super hero movie and this seems like limited ambitions. It’s like making the very best possible women in prison movie (great, but is this really all you set your sights on?). I had a great time watching Whedon’s handiwork but I wish it mined the outsized territory for bigger themes, a little more than audience-satisfying pyrotechnics, something I feel that X-Men: First Class did a better job of handling. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed The Avengers and it’s a fantastic start to the summer movie season, but by no means is it The Dark Knight or even aspiring to be, and that’s okay. Enjoy the busy escapades of Marvel’s next smash franchise. Who knows when they’ll be able to wrangle everyone together for another adventure, but judging by the sounds of ringing cash registers, the answer is sooner than we think.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods has been building an avalanche of buzz in the time it’s been sitting on the shelf. Originally filmed in 2009, the horror comedy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creative heavyweights Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon has been patiently waiting to unleash its wicked Jack-in-the-box of surprises. Directed by Goddard, and written by Whedon and Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods is a brash enterprise, a blast of entertainment and a breath of fresh air in a genre that typically teeters into self-parody. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and have a strong, or even curious, desire to do so, then stop reading. Go in as blind and unspoiled as possible. Then you can come back and read my witty words. It’s okay. I won’t take offense. In the meantime, I’ll keep myself busy. Back? Good, let’s get started then.

You know the setup. A group of dumb teenagers spend a weekend at a friend’s cabin in the middle of nowhere. There’s the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slutty girl (Anna Hutchinson), the stoner (Fran Kranz), the bookish one (Jesse Williams), and the mousy girl-next-door virginal type (Kristen Connolly). There’s the scary old guy at the gas station, there’s the promise of debauchery and sweet oblivion. But we’re not the only ones watching the gang. A group of lab techs, led by Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), is watching their every move. They control the cabin and its surroundings and are manipulating events to lead to slaughter. But why are they going to all this trouble? That’s just the tip of the iceberg here.

The macabre sense of humor is what will immediately separate Cabin in the Woods from its blood-and-guts brethren. The sharp dialogue is routinely laugh-out-loud funny, absurd in the right parts. Whitford’s downbeat reaction during a joyous moment of celebration had me howling. The movie is so smart, sometimes too smart for its own good. If you’re going to level one major charge against the movie, it’s that it isn’t really ever scary. Oh sure it has some stuff that should be scary given the particulars, and its 31 flavors of horror should find something that tingles everyone’s spine on some level. But this is much more of a deconstruction of the horror genre and its audience than an actual horror movie. Whedon and Goddard undercut their horror almost at every turn, settling for the ironic laugh or satirical tweak and repeatedly cutting back to the lab guys to provide a few good laughs and commentary (Jenkins has a terrific foul-mouth rant aimed at children that left me doubled over in laughter). Do not be mistaken; the lab stuff is easily the best part of the movie. Upon my second viewing, I found myself growing weary with the teens-in-a-cabin stuff and anxiously waiting our next detour into the weird and wonderful lab. The duo of Whitford (TV’s The West Wing) and Jenkins (Friends with Benefits) makes for some terrific and biting middle management corporate satire, as well as satirizing the jaded, bloodthirsty audience of slasher movies. You can tell that Whedon and Goddard love horror movies and are frustrated with the nihilistic rut the genre has found itself mired in. And as a deconstructive exercise, Cabin in the Woods is first-class. Roger Ebert succinctly called the movie a “fanboy final exam.”

It can be a tad clinical at times, failing to give us any true attachment to the characters even in an ironic sense, but when a movie is this fun, this wild, and this clever with its deconstruction of genre, I concede the point of having to root for somebody. The characters break the stereotypical mold; the jock is on academic scholarship, the smart guy happens to also be a hunky jock, the slut isn’t really slutty, the virgin isn’t squeaky-clean, and the stoner is the smartest guy in the group, aided by his cannabis (As one character later reasons, “We work with what we got”). He’s the only one who seems to be able to notice the strange manipulations at work. Once you dig into it, the very nature of how and why we watch horror is analyzed by Cabin in the Woods (get ready for some voyeurism parallels). The nature of fear and sacrifice is given some thought, though this stuff gets a bit lost in the madhouse of a final act. The movie becomes a funhouse of horrors and the frenetic carnage and chaos elevates the energy level. I cannot think of a movie that ended in such a whirling dervish of excitement and deep, demented satisfaction. This is one movie that doesn’t just end with a bang; it ends with every bang you can think of. Horror fans are going to be hopping out of the theaters, foaming at the mouth, desperate to tell every one of their friends what they just witnessed. I wish several of my friends would hurry up and see Cabin in the Woods so I had somebody to talk about its many pleasures, thrills, and surprises with. The movie has several terrific payoffs. This is the most fun I’ve had with a horror movie since 2003’s Cabin Fever. Must be something about cabins that brings out the meta-ness.

Considering this was on the shelf for over two years while MGM worked out its bankruptcy dealings, it’s fun to see how fate has been to this lot of actors. The biggest name has got to be Hemsworth, better known as the flaxen, hammer-wielding God of Thunder Thor in the Marvel movies, and Whedon’s upcoming Avengers ensemble. He’s rather enjoyable onscreen and his hero moment is one that will definitely be a talking point. The two standouts from the cast, other than Jenkins and Whitford of course, are Connolly (“iGirl” on the Web series, iChannel) as the nubile Final Girl and Kranz (TV’s Dollhouse) as the clever pothead. Connolly has got a great face for movies, looking like the younger sister of Ellie Kemper (TV’s The Office) or Jayma Mays (The Smurfs), and I’m always a sucker for a redhead. Kranz is so good with the comedy that you may fail to notice all the work he’s actually putting into his role, which quickly becomes the audience’s voice of reason.

But the strangest quirk for a movie knotted with them comes to the casting of its resident  “slut” played by Hutchinson. The woman has a sultry side that comes through without going overboard into parody. Scanning through her resume, I see that Hutchinson portrayed the Yellow Power Ranger (Lilly) for 32 episodes in Power Rangers: Jungle Fury. Now here’s where things get interesting. Being the movie aficionado that I am, I recognize that Cabin Fever also had an actress, Cerina Vincent, who portrayed the Yellow Power Ranger (Maya) for 45 episodes in Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy. Here’s where it gets even weirder. Both Hutchinson and Vincent are the only cast members in their movies to go nude in their respective films. So two actresses, both different versions of the Yellow Power Ranger, both get naked and star in horror genre deconstructive movies with “cabin” in the title! Is this one of the Mayan signs? Should I contact Dan Brown? Does it say something that the yellow ranger appears to be the most comfortable with nudity? This may be the greatest and most obscure observation I’ve ever made.

Of course there are so many fun surprises that it puts me in a bit of a critical bind. I don’t want to go into too much detail because that would spoil the fun, though rest assured that The Cabin in the Woods does not live or die based upon unknown plot twists. You may think you know given what’s already been revealed via the trailers, but really you have no idea how deep this thing goes and to what ends. Unless you just happened to be me, which at last count there was only one of (my evil twin long since slain… or was he?). I say this not as some point of pretentious bragging, but it’s because I wrote a horror screenplay a year ago that also satirized the genre tropes (for those few interested, it was called Blood Wake). I won’t go into spoiler detail, but both of our bad guys were called into question as being bad, from a greater good standpoint, and the killers had more on their minds than simply punishing dumb, horny teenagers. Well, after watching Cabin in the Woods, I know that screenplay goes back in the shelf now where it will live in eternal slumber thanks to core similarities. But if somebody’s got to be wielding the knife, at least it’s my man crush Joss Whedon.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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