Thursday, April 19, 2012
A Frank Review of "The Cabin in the Woods" and "The Hunger Games" (2012)
The Short Version? Evil Dead 4: Buffy by Dawn
What Is It? Horror-Comedy
Who Is In It? Thor
Should I See It? Yes
I saw two movies last weekend, one on Friday, and the other Saturday. The Cabin in the Woods was filmed three years ago, and then shelved during the MGM bankruptcy. It's a thirty million dollar horror-comedy by the makers of Cloverfield and Buffy the Vampire Slayer that skewers slasher movies and the (now largely past) trend toward "torture porn." The Hunger Games is the hotly anticipated film adaptation of a teener science fiction book series that cost 2½ times as much while targeting the Harry Potter and Twilight audiences.
They're kind of the same movie. Both were ultimately released by Lionsgate, and feature a slew of trailers for the distributor (or in Cabin's case, every single trailer screened.) Both involve female protagonists left in a wooded battleground to kill or be killed by stalking antagonists with the help of weaker male counterparts. Both involve a conspiracy in which young adults are doomed to die for the greater good in order to satisfy the demands of a sinister power. Each includes a lottery system to determine who and in what ways the people will perish. Both involve jaded, almost inhuman facilitators in a high tech bunker manipulating the subjects and triggering automated attacks. Both films feature a healthy amount of cameos, a Hemsworth brother apiece, and involve massive stakes. Both involve impromptu murder/suicide pacts. Nobody wins these types of games-- they only survive, as long as they are able. Of course, the devil is in the details, and where their core premisses are surprisingly similar, the executions (pardon the pun) are anything but.
The Cabin in the Woods, despite being co-written and directed by Drew Goddard, is very much the fruit of co-writer/producer Joss Whedon's loins. It is cynical, satirical, and self-aware to a metatextual degree. It mashes up The Evil Dead with Scream, and stars the Scooby Gang without Scooby. It is a great deal of fun to watch, especially for horror flick aficionados who will appreciate the tweaking of tropes and the very many in-jokes. On the other hand, Goddard doesn't have Whedon's heart or eye for casting. There's a real TV quality to the performances. It's hard to divorce Chris Hemsworth's dubious American accent from his (later) star turn in Thor, or ignore Fran Kranz's perfect/painful Shaggy Rogers impersonation. Given that this is a Mutant Enemy Production, it's weird how flat Kristen Connolly's character is, as is her "nerdy" hardbody beau Jesse Williams. Sexpot Kristen Connolly steals her scenes, but I'm guessing everyone's favorites when the lights come up are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the chief engineers behind the madness.
Cabin has a brain and a wicked sense of humor, but it takes part of its glee from playing fair with the audience. All of its jokes are telegraphed, especially to a knowledgeable audience. I saw the film on opening day because I was afraid its twists would be spoiled for me secondhand, but the truth is that there are no twists. There is a central conceit that is laid out in the opening minutes of the flick that plays out throughout its running time in a natural progression. You won't know everything going in, but if you spare half a thought, you'll figure everything out well before the movie blatantly reveals it for the slower audience members. Further, while the characters are nice enough, I didn't find myself rooting for anyone specifically. I was excited and I got my kicks, but everyone in this movie was a disposable pieces in service to circumstances and the games the filmmakers are playing. The whole thing feels like a bit of a joke, and it pays off, but it doesn't really linger in the mind after its telling. Great horror movies challenge and haunt. Others are bizarre in their construction and choices, with the Tobe Hooper one-two punch of Lifeforce and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 coming to mind, and their genre aberration causes then to linger in your thoughts. They go where angels and common sense fear to tread, while this movie is comparatively conventional, even in its final act bids for the outré. The movie clearly wants to make a statement about the sadistic voyeurism inherent in watching horror movies, but despite its gore, the movie isn't remotely horrifying, and doesn't take itself seriously enough for anyone else to be bothered. Cabin is crooked like the Rubik's Cube its poster references, holding your attention fiercely for a time, but ultimately cast into the drunk drawer as an occasional novelty to revisit.
The Short Version? The Running Girl
What Is It? Action-Drama
Who Is In It? Mystique and an all-star cameo cast
Should I See It? Maybe
The Most Dangerous Game is probably the earliest incarnation of The Hunger Games formula of a relative innocent forced to fight for survival as game in a hunting contest, but the film adaptation of The Running Man is its most obvious influence. Totalitarian government, forced participation in a televised death match, commentary on class strife, a pervasive and increasingly immoral media "reality," blah blah blah. Nothing you haven't seen somewhere else better. Even the teen lit angle had been thoroughly played, from Koushun Takami's Battle Royale to elements of O. T. Nelson's The Girl Who Owned a City, or hell, even friggin' Lord of the Flies. The wheel is safely in its garage under the original schematics.
That having been said, and not to damn with faint praise, but I'd much rather watch The Hunger Games than its teen-and-like-minded-baiting contemporaries. For starters, it's an actual film. Gary Ross' direction is practically avant-garde when compared to the likes of Chris Columbus and Catherine Hardwicke. Lead heroine Katniss Everdeen has flashbacks that are full of emotion and imagery that convey enough of her experiences for audiences to understand without being fully, properly told. When Katniss is poisoned, you feel her disorientation without being nauseated or literally confused. When she walks on a stage and is surrounded by a grotesque menagerie of overly painted aristocrats, you comprehend her stage fright and the necessity of pleasing the lot. The movie is worth seeing for Ross' sure hand at telling a story intelligently and with the necessary affect. In direct opposition to Cabin, this is a movie that you feel first, then process intellectually.
The performances are also much more confident and potent. While a bit... maturely developed for an underfed adolescent, legal drinker Jennifer Lawrence possesses the conviction and earnestness to sell herself as Katniss. Josh Hutcherson manages to balance nobility and weaseling well as her partner, Peeta. Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, Paula Malcomson, and Donald Sutherland are all swell in supporting roles of various sizes and sides. Elizabeth Banks is completely unrecognizable as tool of the state Effie Trinket. The kids are all alright. The sets and costumes are well realized, and most of the special effects are solid. Getting to know these people and their environment is the best part of the movie.
Things devolve once the actual games begin. One problem I had with both movies was the effect of video games on the narrative. Each features an indefatigable array of deadly threats appearing from out of nowhere to plague our heroes, as though they were ascending levels to a big boss. It's especially true in Hunger Games, which following several hours in a relatively low tech future allowed designers to manifest critters from out of the electronic aether for the final (and very arbitrary) battle. You feel every bit of the movie's 142 minute running time, and while I didn't particularly want it extended nor saw anything that could be taken out without detriment, the finale was deeply unnatural and abrupt. Key characters come and go too quickly, and there's an inescapable feeling of having viewed an outline rather than a completed journey into this world. While I'm happy to see an action movie with a female lead performing well, with all the racial controversy surrounding this movie, I can't help but notice how white everybody ends up being in the end. I also can't help but notice how dependent Katniss is on help, in ways her male counterparts in similar roles would never be. Kind of queers any feminism in the message, and recalls some of Twilight's throwback sexual politics.
I suppose the movie is an excellent trailer for the novel, but when Katniss is forced to consider her love triangle with young David Boreanaz (Liam Hemsworth,) I realize my y-chromosome prevents me from exploring it any further. I won't whine too much when the girlfriend drags me to the sequel, but I still wouldn't get there of my own accord.
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