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.
I’ve always been an unabashed fan of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a magnetic screen presence whose charm and charisma more than make up for his shortcomings as an actor. That said even I’m finding it harder to defend his choices of roles over the past few years including his most recent turn in the family comedy The Tooth Fairy. Striving to produce quality family-friendly entertainment is certainly a commendable goal Rock but could you do us a favor and throw in the occasional R-rated (or at least PG-13) action flick every once in a while? Please?
The plot of The Tooth Fairy is standard kids-movie stuff: Johnson plays a gruff self-centered minor-league hockey player who after crushing the dreams of a few wide-eyed youngsters is sentenced to two weeks of community service as a tooth fairy. Handed wings a magic wand invisibility spray and other standard fairy accoutrements he’s sent to various children’s houses where he must brave all matter of domestic hazards to fulfill his tooth fairy obligations.
The Rock is usually the best part of otherwise underwhelming movies like this but he actually stumbles out of the gate in The Tooth Fairy overdosing on cheese and ham in an awkward first act. What ultimately makes the movie work is British comic Stephen Merchant recognizable to some as the hapless agent of Ricky Gervais’ chronically underemployed actor in HBO’s Extras who plays The Rock’s beleaguered fairy case worker. With his thin frame and his subtle sharp wit he provides the perfect foil for The Rock’s oversized personality creating just enough of a comedic spark to make The Tooth Fairy a relatively enjoyable if altogether unspectacular experience for both the kids and their babysitters.
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.