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.
In 2010’s Get Him to the Greek wiry British funnyman Russell Brand played a spoiled lush whose immature antics threatened his rock-star comeback. In the 2011’s Arthur Brand plays a spoiled lush whose immature antics threaten his billion-dollar inheritance. Greek turned out to be one of last year’s underrated comic gems; Arthur not so much. Why? The two films are wildly different to be sure but I submit that the biggest reason for the disparity in quality can be traced to one crucial distinction: Arthur is a remake and as such carries with it the acknowledged lack of creativity inherent in just about every remake not directed by the Coen Brothers.
And Arthur does what most bad remakes seem to do dropping what’s essential about the original film keeping what isn’t and wrapping it all up in a glossy generic heavily-promoted package. The storyline is essentially unchanged – to retain access to his family’s vast fortune perpetually inebriated playboy Arthur Bach (Brand) is arranged to marry a respectable woman he disdains (Jennifer Garner) but he jeopardizes his inheritance by falling for a girl of humble means (Greta Gerwig). Much of the soul and charm of the original film are gone however sacrificed for a succession of canned comic scenarios that probably seemed funny in brainstorming sessions (Russell Brand in a Batman costume? Hilarious!) but are considerably less so when rendered on-screen.
But hey – all the characters’ names are the same! And they’ve all been updated with contrived tweaks that these days passes for invention! Arthur’s acerbic English butler Hobson is now an acerbic English nanny (Helen Mirren); his African-American chauffer Bitterman is now a Puerto Rican-American (Luis Guzman); his betrothed Susan Johnson (Garner) formerly a dainty debutante is now a pugnacious high-powered executive; etc. Brand for his part has little hope of measuring up to Dudley Moore who scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the title character in the original. He does get a few choice lines and he manages to conjure a respectable romantic spark with the luminous Gerwig (trying her best with a character conceived as little more than an assortment of manufactured quirks) but his talents appear severely constrained by a script that can do little more than dress him up in zany outfits and hope for the best.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
Alpha Dog has been in the headlines quite a bit ever since last year’s Sundance Film Festival and not coincidentally the headlines actually spawned Alpha Dog. The true story concerns a drug dealer named Jesse James Hollywood who would become one of the youngest people ever on the FBI’s most-wanted list; Alpha Dog for the most part and rather glossily tells the rest of the story. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch)—the Jesse James Hollywood character—is a hothead drug dealer well respected in his suburbanite posse which includes sycophant Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) and burnout Frankie (Justin Timberlake). After speed freak Jake Marzursky (Ben Foster) shorts him in a pot deal and vandalizes his house Johnny exacts revenge by kidnapping Jake’s young brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). To Zack the kidnapping is a blessing an intro to the party lifestyle he’s always wondered about and Johnny and co. aren’t sweating what they think is a scare tactic. But when they learn they’re looking at (long) hard time for the kidnapping the guys realize that simply returning Zack to his house might not be an option. Even though the only real difference between Timberlake and his Frankie may lie in the number of tattoos his (for all intents and purposes) debut performance is a genuine eye-opener and further proof that when you’ve got “it ” the medium just doesn’t matter. Throughout much of the movie Timberlake’s best work is simply making you forget he’s the world’s biggest pop star but he shines most during the movie’s dramatic climax. Yelchin (TV’s Huff) also excels. He’s blessed—or perhaps in Hollywood cursed—with a face that will probably always look younger than it is and that along with his accompanying expressions makes you feel a number of things for his character. Rising star Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown) plays Truelove—in real life the central figure—with equal parts cool and A.J. Soprano hissy fits while Foster (Hostage) is his archenemy and antithesis simmering or exploding in every scene. Audiences will laugh at Foster’s over-the-top turn but it suits the absurdity of his character. Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone as parents thrown into the ordeal don’t add much beyond their names but Stone’s botched fat suit in one scene kills an otherwise raw moment. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes turned The Notebook into a surprise box office hit (with a little help from Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling of course) and unfortunately that’s what he tries for with Alpha Dog. It’s a movie that should be more along the lines of Larry Clark’s uncompromising Bully instead of a cross between that film and say Malibu's Most Wanted. Furthermore it seems the Timberlake Effect swayed the director into MTV territory as he apparently tries to reel in some of the pop star’s contingency when this is certainly no kids’ tale even though it’s about kids. But despite the movie’s often ambiguous tone and frequent testosterone injections Cassavetes manages to engage us and take us along for the roller coaster ride. He captures with great accuracy the reckless abandon and invincibility complex with which these specific people operate (and party)—it’s pure hedonism for them and the audience. Until he sets reality into place at which point it inches closer to the aforementioned Bully.