Like the seemingly generic location at the center of the movie The Cabin in the Woods has a purposefully familiar exterior. But it's a facade and in the film's first few minutes writer/director Drew Goddard draws back the curtain to unveil an innovative and unexpected world. The setup is simple: five twenty-somethings head for a vacation in a lone shack upstate but when they arrive things quickly take a turn for the worse. The run-of-the-mill supernatural antics aren't simply for our amusement — there's another force behind the scenes orchestrating the quintet's demise for a bigger purpose. The mystery behind those horror movie tropes is Cabin in the Woods's clever twist a riff that's wickedly funny and endlessly fulfilling.
The first people we meet in Cabin in the Woods aren't the soon-to-be-terrorized young folk but two technicians Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) who coordinate the Cabin's entertaining mischief. They're like employees pulled out of Office Space susceptible to the same droll ups and downs of any job —their gig just involves murdering co-eds. They sit in a control room orchestrating each piece of their plan with well-placed hurdles (cue the creaky door!) and rehearsed extras (enter: mysterious gas station owner). If that screams spoiler don't fret; the who the what the where and the why are all kept secret unraveling in parallel and commenting on the routine horror plotline.
Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon don't let the scary movie thread fall to the wayside painting their ensemble with colorful characters and great talent: despite being stunning creatures the perfect types for a serial killer to chase down with a a giant knife Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Jules (Anna Hutchison) are smart savvy and sharp (a tangible sign of Whedon's influence); Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and his buddy Holden (Jesse Williams) are big and brutish — but not without personality; and Marty (Fran Kranz)... loves weed. Only after they arrive at the cabin a whiff of pheromonal gas in the air do they transform into the archetypical horror characters. All according to plan.
Cabin in the Woods has its cake and eats it too simultaneously clicking as a terrifying horror film a cackle-worthy satire and a thought-provoking dissection of the genre. Alongside its send-up of the overplayed "cabin in the woods" mechanics are grander ideas. Why do we watch? Goddard evaluates every perspective but never in a didactic fashion. There's a fury of imagination in every scene every joke Goddard and Whedon's script taking every opportunity to push the concept to unanticipated places. Across the board all the actors are able to balance the unusual heightened realism with Hemsworth proving his knack for comedy and versatility as an up-and-comer.
Cabin in the Woods is non-stop fun from beginning to end concluding with a grand finale that no amount of spoilers could ever dilute. At SXSW I called Cabin "the most crowd-pleasing movie of all time" and while that may seem sensationalist I assure I'll be rewatching this one for a long time.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Pity there aren’t more stringent “truth in labeling” laws for movies like Love Happens. From the film’s title and its innumerable ads featuring stars Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart locked in a smiling embrace one might reasonably assume Love Happens to be a charming romantic comedy in which its two attractive leads bicker and flirt for a breezy 85 minutes before finally realizing that they’re meant for each other.
That assumption would be catastrophically incorrect for there isn’t much comedy to be found in Love Happens. Nor is there much romance for that matter. And come to think about it there really isn’t a whole lot of Jennifer Aniston exactly one half of the aforementioned misleading embrace to be found in the movie either. (Click here for Aniston's take on the matter.)
That leaves us with the obvious question: What then is Love Happens? It’s a drama centering on the emotional journey of Burke Ryan (Eckhart) a handsome widower who parlays the tragedy of his wife’s untimely death into a bestselling self-help book and a sold-out workshop tour becoming something like the Tony Robbins of grieving. (He's even aped the walking-on-hot-coals gimmick from the toothy motivational speaker.)
Though his adopted career is a smashing success not much else is well in Burke’s world. Truth be told he never truly reconciled himself with his wife’s tragic passing and has heretofore nursed his denial with a steady diet of alcohol and avoidance. That is until he runs into Eloise Chandler (Aniston) a refreshingly blunt free spirit whose own love life is marked by disappointment and heartbreak. Though just a humble florist with no apparent training in psychology Eloise immediately sees through the confident upbeat persona that Burke has carefully constructed. They can ease each other's pain but the healing won’t begin unless both of them are willing to let down their guard and let love -- wait for it -- happen.
WHO’S IN IT?
In addition to Aniston and Eckhart Love Happens’ cast includes Dan Fogler (Balls of Fury) as Burke’s smarmy agent and former college roommate Judy Greer (27 Dresses) as (what else?) Eloise’s quirky sidekick John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac) as one of Burke’s more skeptical workshop attendees and Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now) as his resentful father-in-law.
Misleading marketing aside Love Happens writer/director Brandon Camp does make an earnest attempt to explore the grieving process of a man who has experienced unspeakable tragedy. Which is better than a saccharine formulaic romantic comedy I guess.
For all its serious intentions Love Happens bears all the hallmarks of a slick studio rom-com including stereotypical supporting characters (his irreverent wing-man her goofy confidante) contrived comic relief devices (Sheen plays straight man to a crazy parrot!) and manipulative tugs on the heartstrings (too many to mention). The whole experience comes off as sort of a second-rate Cameron Crowe flick.
The climax of Love Happens includes a dramatic “slow clap ” in which the lead character finally breaks down in a cathartic release of pent-up emotion and is rewarded with a slow-building round of applause from onlookers. That’s pretty much all you need to know about this movie.
Before the main feature begins audiences are treated to an added bonus--The Flight of the Osiris a really cool $5 million computer-animated short film created by Matrix writer-director brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski that connects the story to the next installment The Matrix Reloaded. Taking place after The Matrix left off it's a wild ride showing one rebel ship trying to fight off the evil machines--and unfortunately losing the battle. Done in the animated futuristic style of last year's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within the film will certainly whet Matrix fans' appetites. Moving on....As with any good King tale Dreamcatcher begins with relationships. This time the action centers on four best friends--the agreeable Jonsey (Damian Lewis) the tortured Henry (Thomas Jane) the flippant Beaver (Jason Lee) and the lovelorn Pete (Timothy Olyphant)--who as kids 20 years ago saved a mentally challenged kid named Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg) from some bullies and somehow were bestowed with uncanny powers of telepathy by the eerie little kid that bonded them all beyond ordinary friendship. Now as adults they feel burdened by their powers but soon find out how glad they are they still have them. When the guys head to a hunting cabin in the woods for their annual blowing-off-steam session the happy reunion is cut short by a deadly alien force which has invaded their snowy surroundings. While the U.S. military lead by Colonel Abraham Curtis (Morgan Freeman) and Capt. Owen Underhill (Tom Sizemore) quarantines the area to get rid of the infectious alien presence known as the "Ripley" (named after the main character in Alien) the foursome are haplessly drawn into the aliens' evil plan finding themselves once again inexplicably linked to their old friend the now cancer-stricken Duddits. It's a race against time to stop the invasion but the four men use all their strength to stand together--one last time.
The natural rapport and strong bond between the four main characters needs to be believable to make Dreamcatcher palatable. Fortunately the actors playing them live up to the task and when they are all on screen at one time it works; unfortunately scenes featuring all of them are few and far between. The British Lewis who was so damn good in HBO's Band of Brothers as leader Richard Winters gets his first starring role in a feature film and brings the same level of quiet intensity to his Jonesy as he did to Brothers. Olyphant (Go) and Jane (The Sweetest Thing) play Pete and Henry like they've been lifelong pals offscreen while Wahlberg is almost unrecognizable as Duddits proving he can get rid of those good looks and put in a nice performance. And finally Jason Lee who's been suppressing his witty sarcastic self far too long in stinkers such as A Guy Thing steals the show as the curse-word lovin'--and incredibly brave--Beaver. The plot line revolving around Freeman's and Sizemore's characters is far less interesting with Freeman turning in his usual steady performance but somehow missing the mark as Curtis a military man who has seen way too much.
The talent behind Dreamcatcher is clearly evident. Director/co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and co-writer William Goldman do a wonderful job setting up the action with the quick back and forth dialogue between the four men. It gives you an immediate intimacy with the main characters something King likes to do in his writing as well. Kasdan also uses interesting imagery of a large and dusty library that represents the inside of Jonesy's mind where he hangs out and shuffles old boxes full of memories around to make room for new ones. When the alien takes over Jonesy's body Kasdan frames the action by showing Jonesy trapped inside this library watching what is happening to his friends and trying desperately to keep the invading menace at bay. Ultimately though just when it should jump on the horrific momentum it's built up the film begins to fall apart as we move away from the four main characters and start dealing with the military operation. Perhaps the main problem lies in the fact it is too derivative--of other alien movies (Independence Day meets Alien meets The Thing) and worse of other Stephen King movies (Stand By Me meets It meets The Tommyknockers). In other words it ends up being a highly anticlimactic rehash.