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The Cabin in the Woods : Beware of the Hype as well as the Spoilers


The Cabin in the Woods has set sections of the internet ablaze with excited chatter. It’s been dubbed by many as a ‘game changer’, which chews up the horror film genre and spits out a deformed, witty and mind blowing analysis. Whilst it is an undoubtedly clever deconstruction of a genre, it is also very vulnerable to being overhyped, like a lot of modern movies.

Friends and colleagues left me in a state of feverish excitement before I saw the film. Their ranting and raving catapulted my expectations into the stratosphere. I was already aware of the positive critical buzz but it’s ultimately the endorsement of those that you trust that tips the balance. I spent the entire runtime of The Cabin in the Woods waiting for great things, which never quite materialised.

Ideally you should see the film without reading or hearing anything about it. However, for most of us, that simply isn’t realistic in today’s world. Before you decide to see a film you have to be convinced, by a trailer, a poster or a good old fashioned review. The trailer for The Cabin in the Woods drops a few huge hints towards its ‘game changing’ premise. I was assured by those who had seen it that the twists and turns still had tremendous impact. For me, they simply didn’t.

The Cabin the Woods is still a good film, stuffed with quality and interesting ideas. It begins by introducing us to a set of characters, all archetypes in their own way; there’s a geek, a jock, a stoner, a hot chick and a good girl. All of these characters are then fleshed out deftly, with unusual skill and some cracking dialogue. In fact most of the dialogue, from a script co-written by director Drew Goddard and Avengers chief Joss Whedon, is top notch. It’s refreshing to see a horror film in which characterisation is given so much care and attention. The problem is that the clever premise of the film, which I’m trying not to spoil, leads to a rapid unravelling of the plot without any great sense of peril.

Indeed, most reviews have pointed out that the key flaw of The Cabin in the Woods is the lack of genuine scares. The reason for this is obvious now that I’ve seen it; it is primarily a comedy in tone, not a horror. I laughed loudly and uncontrollably at several points, no doubt irritating those around me in the cinema trying to be frightened. Its entire structure and plot exposes the ridiculousness of the horror genre. The jaw dropping twist turned out to be ludicrous, simply reinforcing the point.

Whedon and Goddard describe the film as a ‘loving hate letter’ to horror movies and it is ultimately hate dressed up as love. The force of the narrative is limited by the grand in-joke. Had the horror been better paced and more arresting, The Cabin in the Woods would have edged closer to being great and compelling, rather than good and interesting.

The Awakening


Originally published at X-Media Online

There’s an infant poltergeist on the loose in a boarding school. There’s been a death. And worst of all the posh parents are feeling disgruntled enough to contemplate complaining. Who you gonna call? If you’re the debut director of The Awakening Nick Murphy, it’s Rebecca Hall, for her first starring role as ghost buster Florence Cathcart.

A schoolboy’s death from what may or may not have been an unfortunate asthma attack is far too grave a matter for Dominic West’s battle scarred teacher Robert Mallory to convey via telephone, telegram or text however. Being a respectable 1920s gent he hotfoots it to London to beseech Miss Cathcart in person. Whilst reluctant to take the case, as these deductive geniuses always are, she of course accepts and accompanies Mr Mallory to mysteriously sinister rural Cumbria.

In many ways this is a traditional tale that plays out in typical surroundings. There’s a big house with a groaning staircase and rooms full of dusty echoes. There are a handful of characters that might be suspects or allies, each with a secret. There are also the standard back story elements which occasionally add emotional depth but mostly lose the film marks for being clunky, convoluted and cliché.

Indeed many critics have treated The Awakening firmly, claiming that it’s haunted by classics of the genre and ends up being an inexpert imitation, squandering its good points by succumbing to the modern trend of climactic twists. I’d argue these reviewers are looking at the film in the wrong way. There are far more positives than negatives on show from a production that cannot easily be categorised despite its familiar trappings.

Besides being a chiller about a haunted house, The Awakening is also a lovingly drawn period drama, complete with grandeur and detail and an
arresting atmosphere. It addresses serious themes with surprising depth,
touching on tough topics such as shell shock, scepticism of the supernatural,
love and loss. As a result there are passages of dialogue rich in emotional and
intellectual meat for the actors to devour. Perhaps the most pleasing strength
of The Awakening is the sight of Hall and West excelling on centre stage, just
as they have always done in supporting roles.

The Awakening begins as a unique superhero story, with Cathcart unmasking charlatans and battling demons, both society’s and her own, at breakneck speed. Its concluding twist, whilst a little disappointing, works far better than most critics have suggested and does not spoil a good film. Spooky, intelligent and gripping, The Awakening is fine storytelling, inspired, not haunted, by horror classics. And yes I was scared. Out of my seat at times.

My rating: 4 stars out of 5

Film review: The Devil’s Rock


On paper The Devil’s Rock has a refreshing and promising setting. I had high hopes of a different and thrilling horror. It is set in the Channel Islands, which is unusual in itself. Its story plays out on the eve of the D-Day landings, giving the film a period background and all the possibilities of Nazis, gloomy bunkers and heroic Commandos. Throw in generous portions of gore and the temptations of mysterious occult witchcraft, and there are enough ingredients in this film to satisfy your average viewer as well as fans of fright fests.

Unfortunately having the beginnings of a good beginning is not enough. The opening twenty minutes of this film are dull and frankly boring. Two Commandos land on a mined beach aiming to carry out a sabotage mission to distract the Germans from the Allied invasion of Normandy the following morning. One almost blows them both to smithereens by stepping on a mine and this moment could have been far more dramatic.

There are also plenty of attempts to establish characters the audience can care about through the dialogue; the lead figure is missing the love of his life and the reluctant/bumbling one just wants to hurry home for medals and the inevitable hordes of adoring women. He’s got a date with a nurse the next day. Yup that’s right, on D-Day. The characterisation is clumsy and tries too hard, feeling far too out of place to be believable. Yes soldiers like anything feminine with a pulse, no elite Commandos probably didn’t discuss tits when negotiating a beach stuffed with explosives.

I’m still not quite finished with the weaknesses of the beginning. It all gets very predictable very quickly. The pair hear noises and they split up, as is the tendency of daft victims in horror films. They stalk around the echoing corridors of a defensive bunker, presumably while the tension builds to gripping levels for the audience. Well what should be an incredibly suspenseful sequence in an atmospheric environment is actually plodding and uninteresting. Essentially you are watching two men with guns walk very slowly down identical, bare hallways, waving their weapons about needlessly. The score doesn’t affect your mood because the ominous music started ages ago, when they had just landed and there was no immediate supernatural danger.

Eventually, after what feels like an age but what was actually only about half an hour, The Devil’s Rock gets to the meat of its story, which turns out to be some disappointing and mass produced packet ham available from any cut price supermarket. There is nothing fresh or creative about the taste of this film once it shows its hand.

Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) has to deal with a Nazi Colonel who claims to need help to contain a dangerous creature he has summoned on Hitler’s orders. The Devil’s Rock is a production from New Zealand, so one of the key limits on your immersion in the story is Matthew Sunderland’s terrible German accent. Blood, intestines and guts are splattered around the walls. The fate of the world and the war is at stake, etc, etc. When the monster is shown in full view it looks ridiculous and laughable and any final hopes for the film fade away.

Having said all that The Devil’s Rock is still a film capable of satisfying some horror fans with some distinctive features. Its finale is intense and reasonably well executed, even if I was no longer invested in the story and everything seemed a bit silly by then. If the words “sexy devil with an appetite for human flesh” appeal to you, then this might be worth a watch.

Films that remind you of people – Amelie


Sometimes you really wish you could forget someone. Not because you want to but because you feel like you have to. People are forever telling you to “move on” from them, as if they were a shifty beggar in the street wasting your time. They have condemned you to the rubbish dump of their lives, so you should do the same. Whatever you manage to salvage from the wreckage of them will only remind you of the way things were before the crash, in a time you cannot travel back to. It’s time for a new stage of your life, minus them.

There are days when it feels like you might be able to do it. There are loads of things to live for, more pluses than minuses dotting the horizon of the future. But the thing is life has a knack of throwing reminders your way that jolt you back to her, to him, to them, to there. Oh look, memory sneers in a stage whisper from the shadows, it’s the bar you spent all night talking in, the river bank where you first kissed or the station she used to get off at. Even when you’ve succeeded in blanking them out from familiar places, their memories surprise you in other ways.

“This was our song” is a phrase you often hear from the devastated dumpee, just before their face melts in a cascade of noisy tears, possibly years after the breakup itself. Then there’s the novel that becomes ostracised on the book shelf because of a strange connection you are suddenly seeing these days within its pages. Even their favourite paper or magazine can give you a slap in the newsagents occasionally.

Some of the worst offenders are films. There will be the trashy romantic comedy given inexplicable significance because it happened to be your first date. There will be films that divided you and films you wished them to see. And there will be some favourites of theirs you never found the time to watch.

This was the case for me as I finally watched Amelie in its entirety. I had seen bits of it but never the whole thing. I knew that the music was fantastically whimsical and enchanting. I had watched an uplifting scene via YouTube in which Amelie spirits a blind man along a street, vividly describing everything in a whirlwind of sensuous movement. I knew it was French and starred Audrey Tautou. And I knew it was one of the favourite films of someone I wish I could forget.

In a way I was desperate to hate Amelie. I knew what it would be like because I knew the people that liked it. I was hoping that it would try too hard, alienate me with its quirkyness and annoy me with its arty farty simplifications. There were times I felt a little like that. But mostly I loved it.

Why did I hope that I wouldn’t? It was hard at points to be enjoying it so much because they enjoy it. How much easier it would have been to be repulsed and to have found another tiny reason to take another minute step forward and away from the past!

Amelie is about being alive, feeling alive and dreaming. It’s about the smaller things, so particular and peculiar that they must be real, containing a touch of magic that makes life worthwhile. It is extremely funny and eccentric, fresh and unique.

It’s the eccentricity that I thought might annoy me. I thought that Amelie might have been quirky for its own sake, as so many films of its ilk are. But Amelie’s comedy is crucial to its success. It is almost self mocking at times with the ridiculous and random nature of its details.

In the opening twenty minutes I fell in love with the narration. Normally voiceover is catastrophic and awful. Perhaps Amelie’s is so charming and intoxicating because it is French. Or perhaps it is that at once meaningful and light hearted tone, which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Amelie feels like a novel throughout its enjoyable beginning which explains her tragic yet amusing childhood. Characters are brought to life instantly because of their odd habits and Amelie herself has baffling, childlike musings about the world which add to her appeal.

I was disappointed when the narration became less frequent throughout the film, which is extraordinary given my usual distaste for voiceover. I loved the musicality of the voice, the specific details it would come out with and the telling but mysterious insights we’d instantly learn about characters. Most of all I loved the way it seemed to mock any work of art trying much too hard to stand out.

But the retreat of the narrator brings Amelie herself to the foreground. The wonderful lines from the narrator are replaced by some witty and surprising scenes of dialogue. The visuals and sounds of the film grow and grow until modern day Paris seems like a wondrous place, with deserving and interesting souls to be saved on every corner.

I expected Amelie to be preachy, perhaps patronising or too desperate to be different. I wanted to dislike it for my own good. But in the end I am glad to have seen it. I liked it because it’s good, not because of any associations it has with anyone. I thought it was unique and it made me feel alive and full of possibility, regardless of what others think. It’s a beautiful and beguiling film that reminds us how life can be so too, with dreams coming true, big or small, out of nowhere.

Film Review: Ghosted


Do you think you could hack it behind bars? If you’re a Daily Mail columnist you probably dispute the fact that prisons even have bars anymore. They’ve all been replaced you see, with tasty sticks of rock more in keeping with the dangerously liberal, comfortable satellite TV approach to treating filthy criminals. Being locked up is preferable to a five star hotel. Prisons are merely lavishly furnished warehouses for feral beasts that will be released back into the wilds of society unchanged. The fear factor has gone.

Bring back that shit yourself punishment and all of Britain’s ills will be cured. All this claptrap about human rights and civil liberties has been diluting the taste of our justice system since the 60s, so that it’s nothing more than a bitter sip of lemonade. Prisons should punish first and foremost, to act as a deterrent to the bad apples on the nation’s tree. When they fall they need to be crushed into a pulp and left to rot as an example to others; so the argument roughly goes.

Of course films are not the place to look for a frank and faithful look at the realities of prison life. Just because I’m put off a casual mugging by the possibility of gang rapes such as those in The Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t mean that actual perpetrators within the system encounter such things or that they are deterred by them. Cinema is a place for drama, tension and excitement. But a certain mould of gritty British drama always seems to capture something true about the cooped up existence of convicts, whatever the exaggerations.

In the case of Ghosted, the debut film of writer/director Craig Viveiros, the principal truth is that for many men, the haunting consequences of their crimes are punishment enough. There is also a heightened but believable look at the community of prison life, with its rival factions and dominating personalities pulling the strings. And much of the dialogue is insightful but understated, with main character Jack musing that, if nothing else, empty hours in a cell day after day give you plenty of time to think.

Jack (John Lynch) is a sensible prisoner, keeping his head down and away from trouble, serving his time. He is approaching the end of his sentence and desperate to get out to see his wife. But at the start of the film she fails to visit him and blanks him when he calls. Just as freedom is within sight his marriage collapses, destroying his hopes for a life on the outside. Gradually we find out more about Jack, eventually getting confirmation that his young son is dead. He burns most of his pictures of him because “sometimes the reminders are too hard in here”.

With just months until Jack is free, a new inmate arrives in the shape of young Paul, played by Martin Compston of The Disappearance of Alice Creed fame. Paul is immediately welcomed by the manipulative Clay, who is described on the marketing material as a “wing overlord”, which sounds like an all powerful evil super villain, but in reality just means a nicer cell, a mildly lucrative drugs racket and the odd fellow prisoner to bang. After the initial niceties Clay starts to use Paul, so Jack steps in and gets him moved to his cell.

This puts Jack in the firing line, resulting in some tense standoffs. The balance of the prison politics is disrupted and Clay is humiliated more than once, prompting him to get revenge. But despite the palpable sense of threat, the really interesting part of Ghosted is the relationship between Jack and Paul.

Jack is the heart of Ghosted and Lynch relished playing him, praising the creative talents of newcomer Viveiros: “It’s been a long, long time since I read a script that’s centred absolutely one hundred per cent on the characters”. In return the director praises his cast who “pumped blood into the story”. Both men are right.

Ghosted is well acted, with even the thugs coming across as something more than just two dimensional bad guys; they have their vulnerabilities too. But Ghosted is also well written and confidently directed so that it does not feel like a debut. Some of the scenes in which Jack and Paul open up to each other, often simply discussing old memories such as when Jack was in Brazil or when Paul was in care, are exemplary examples of characterisation rarely seen in today’s commercial world of cinema.

Ghosted is released in cinemas on the 24th of June and will be available on DVD from the 27th. See it to support a quality British drama with an all star cast, which simultaneously pays tribute to classic prison stories and approaches the issue from a new angle. Try to spot the emotional hammer blow of a twist at the end.

 

In the mood for a romantic comedy – a distracted review of True Grit on DVD


I always eagerly watch the trailers before a film. The best snippets of releases that are “coming soon” can be tremendously exciting. There is also an art to making good and great trailers, with the best of them standing apart from the movies they promote or making a crap film look irresistible. Many movie buffs appreciate this. But more often than not I’ll be watching something with someone urging me to skip to the film we’re actually watching. When I’m fortunate enough to be in control of the remote, I always insist on watching the trailers, even when I’ve seen them dozens of times before.

The first trailer of quite a few before the menu screen on the True Grit DVD, was for Morning Glory, starring Rachel McAdams. I’m mildly interested in seeing this at some point because of a rather different comic role for Harrison Ford, the strange appeal of the breakfast show subject matter and the feminine charms of McAdams. She is cultivating a line in cheeky but likeable performances, with a turn in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the news that she’s been cast as Lois Lane in the 2012 reboot of Superman. There’s also a shot of her rounded rear that does the film’s appeal no harm in my book.

Next up was the Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher rom-com No Strings Attached. I’ve read a lot about this movie, including some pretty hilarious but ultimately unflattering reviews. I’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s part of a trend of stories trying far too hard to be modern, about “friends with benefits”. In the 21st century what is wrong about a man and a woman, who know and trust each other, having casual but enjoyable sex on a regular basis? Well the rom-com likes to point out that love is the big stumbling block; it always gets in the way when you least expect it. I mean it’s frankly just an inconvenient and inconsiderate emotion. We all ought to hate its lies, its deceit and its inevitably devastating consequences.

And yet it always conquers all. Even those like Portman and Kutcher’s characters, avoiding love like the plague by making sex a satisfying physical transaction, get bitten eventually by that pesky love bug. Cinemagoers too are always infected because soppy idiots fall for the obvious, predictable, signposted, cliche and crappy happy ending.

Today I must’ve been after a happy ending. I wasn’t really in the mood for Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar nominated True Grit. I was inexplicably captured by the trailer to No Strings Attached, which as I’ve said I’ve seen several times before and I’d long ago concluded I wasn’t bothered about seeing. Perhaps its my persistent crush on Natalie Portman’s pretty and sexy features. Perhaps its simply my starved and hungry libido. Or perhaps it’s a longing for the perfect emotional satisfaction of the romantic comedy.

Whenever there was a lull in the action of True Grit and I was no doubt supposed to be reflecting on or contemplating the rugged wild west landscape or the moral terrain of the story, my mind drifted into daydreams prompted by No Strings Attached. I don’t think a trailer has ever disturbed my enjoyment or concentration of the following film in quite the same way.  

I pondered again and again what would happen to the relationships I had with people now, how friendships would shatter, grow or change beyond recognition. I planned imaginary grand gestures and pictured the romantic epiphany when I realised that yes, she was the one. I imagined myself living a busy, varied and satisfying life. The social groups that encircled it would be populated exclusively by young and attractive people, and some of them, perhaps just one or two, would care about me. And I’d have lots of sex. In short: I surrendered to fantasy.

What does it mean to be a romantic nowadays? At times I am happy to embrace the label and at others I am disgusted by it, depending on my mood or the particular definition. Is Mattie Ross, the heart of True Grit, a romantic? Some might say that’s nonsense given her realistic and often pessimistic outlook, with a tough maturity well beyond her 14 years. But she is also idealistic about bringing her father’s killer to justice, about the intentions of the law, and indeed her naive and childlike distinction between evil and good men, proven simplistic by her choice of hero.

Maybe it’s the peculiary romantic, noble and heroic ideas of Ross that helped my wandering mind off track. It could equally be of course that the isolation of True Grit prodded my loneliness into creating deluded distraction. The Coens have certainly crafted a film with darker and deeper depths than the 1960s typical John Wayne outing.

True Grit can also be surprisingly warm though. Mattie Ross is a character it’s impossible not to invest in and care for. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a cold and hardened gunslinger at times, and a hilarious layabout drunk at others. There’s some wonderfully teasing interplay and banter between him and Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf. And the dialogue at times evokes the homely West so vividly that you want to take a trip there away from the boring variety of British dialects by comparison.

True Grit is as not as “fast paced” as some of the quotes on the cover would have you believe. But it’s not a dreary, arty take on the Western, as many attempts at the genre are these days. Its runtime is agreeable and its characters playfully portrayed. There is a fairly snappy climax with some good action and shocks. And Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie is a truly remarkable breakthrough. The plaudits have mostly been lavished on Bridges but she is the real star and the glue holding True Grit together. Damon is good too.

It wasn’t a masterpiece of filmmaking. But then I was barely paying attention. I know should be talking in depth about a film that chose to adapt a novel’s true nature rather than remake a Hollywood classic badly. The Coens usually make great and intelligent cinema. So perhaps it was majestic; I was simply in the mood for a cruder and more direct, perhaps even a crap, tugging of my heart strings. Is that a crime?

I suspect it probably is.

 

DVD Review: Rabbit Hole


Nicole Kidman’s performances can simultaneously win her further legions of adoring fans and additional ranks of grumbling haters. She is wonderful to some, whiny to others, miserable to endure for many and majestic for millions. But it’s generally accepted, even by her diehard supporters, that she seemed to peak in the early years of the 21st century. Her last genuinely astounding performance in a really good film was some time ago. Stars like her that hit a critical rut have a way to clamber out though; after amassing enough power in mainstream blockbusters they can produce their own projects, perfectly tailored to their talents.

This is what Kidman does with Rabbit Hole, adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play. The character of grieving mother Becca is perfect for her, resembling past roles in Birth and The Others, and providing a bearable outlet for her notoriously divisive bouts of cold and complaining emotion. Even though this is the sort of portrayal we’ve come to expect from Australia’s most successful export to Hollywood, the raw subject matter somehow suits her trademark moody and restrained introspection. You couldn’t call this a bad performance; in fact you feel like you have to say it’s a good one.

In contrast to Kidman’s recent record, co-star Aaron Eckhart is someone on the up and he doesn’t do that progress any harm here. Howie is Becca’s nice, normal husband, doing his best in an impossible situation. In the opening act of Rabbit Hole Kidman’s character is being as irritating as we know she can be from some of her previous roles. Watching this with a friend she moaned that she didn’t like Kidman usually and that she was typically “wet” again in Rabbit Hole. As I’ve said though, you do sympathise with her behaviour because of the grief, even if you might find the efforts of Howie more appealing.

The acting in Rabbit Hole is hard to criticise, with the two leads ultimately convincing, even as we lurch from one dreary standoff to another, with the odd shouting match in between. The supporting cast are good too, with Dianne West as Becca’s mother doing a great job of articulating experienced grief, sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) authentically rebellious, Sandra Oh as a rounded fellow mourner at a support group and newcomer Miles Teller as the awkward young driver unlucky enough to bear the burden of responsibility and blame on his well meaning, naive shoulders.

Even the script is mostly hard to fault. The quality of the source material shines through, with the truth and wit of the dialogue rising above that of most films. Conversations about the most difficult of subjects are realistic and feel as though they are ripped from real everyday lives. The film is refreshing for approaching grief from an underused and understated angle; eight months on from the drama of the death, this is the story of the shift from the constant tears to keeping appearances of normality. Lindsay-Abaire is fond of metaphor, with mixed success. Some symbols, like that of grief changing in weight until it’s like a “brick in your pocket”, are poignant and moving. However the entire film is a metaphor and crucially this is the one that is less evidently a success.

 Rabbit Hole slowly unravels with not much happening and Becca literally getting on with the housework; reflecting the emptiness left behind after loss. The film as a whole is a grim trudge through nothingness. This may be an accurate picture of the reality of grief, a painful journey back to normality, with no big and sudden revelation to make things better, but it’s a story that doesn’t translate engagingly from stage to screen. There are glimpses here of why the play must have been so powerful and well received. It’s easy to see why Kidman saw in this the chance for her critical rebirth. But without the intimacy of theatre and very little happening in the plot, this is one of those films that leaves you exhausted and aching from concentrating on being respectful to the subject matter.

Sophie Ivan, reviewing Rabbit Hole for Film4, sums up the film perfectly: “Rabbit Hole is a film that’s easier to commend than it is to like”. No one will want to say anything bad against Rabbit Hole; but very few people will enjoy it.