Movie Review: Cabin in the Woods

Two nights ago I walked out of a hall with a lopsided grin on my face, in a cathartic state, oblivious to the dozens of cars screeching to a halt and honking as I crossed the road. I had lost all connect of sight and sound, and the only emotion I felt was of being completely overwhelmed. I mention these things not to meander pointlessly, but to let you know that I’d just seen a certified cult classic – Drew Goddard’s bizarre and terrific The Cabin in the Woods

Written by cult grandmaster Joss Whedon and Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods isn't just a traditional horror movie, but a thoroughly entertaining, visceral experience. And by visceral I mean truly twisted, unique and endlessly fascinating to sit through. What is most engaging about this film is the way in which Goddard deliberately mixes the horror movie clichés with the darkly absurd and the over the top unexpected punch. This is a movie that is terrifying, hilarious and smart at the same time, a modern masterpiece. 

Cabin in the Woods takes place in a creepily dank and isolated titular place, one that is freshly populated by five college kids (Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz and Jesse Williams) for a weekend getaway. Like in Evil Dead, they stumble upon some ancient book and are attacked by all kinds of horrific things. But don’t let that premise fool you – all I can give you is the tagline ‘you think you know the story, think again’. Suffice to say that a lot of mayhem ensues, and to say that you are prepared for what follows in the final half hour would be a huge flashing neon sign of an understatement. And the more you chip away the mystery through the film, the deeper your jaw sinks towards the floor. 

This isn’t just a movie about jump scares and gore (although there is plenty of it), but it's as smartly entertaining a black comedy as you're likely to come across. As the film progresses Goddard (who has also written Cloverfield) lovingly piles on the horror movie tropes like a crazed fanboy and grabs your mind and blows it. He pays homage to the horror genre, sneers at the genre’s various in-jokes and turns the whole thing into a parody at will. Fans of horror and pop culture junkies will in particular be giddy in delight at the tongue in cheek references here. This isn’t the Shaun of the Dead, but the Godfatherof Cabin terror, and Sam Raimi would be pleased.

The creepy setting maintains the nightmarish mode, which is buoyed by all the lead performances. Newbie Kristen Connolly and Chris Hemsworth deliver without being the least bit hackneyed but it's Fran Kranz as the bong-wielding goof that commands the most attention. Most stoners in Hollywood films have the stock set of established gimmicks, but this guy is actually a three-dimensional and entirely sympathetic. The special effects are few, but they contain enough meaty punches and sheer lunacy to spiral you into guilty pleasure. And the film’s final scene is brilliant enough to warrant a big fat Keanu Reeves-eque ‘whoa’.

The ultimate form of cinematic asskickery, The Cabin in the Woods is a devious and admirably fun mind-bender of a genre dissection. It will be referred to and revered by movie geeks in the decades to come. Heck, I don’t just appreciate this film, I swear by it.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

There are two reasons to watch Snow White and the Huntsman – if you are a fan of mediocrity, or a fan of Kristen Stewart. The film is a lumbering, occasionally good looking pseudo epic that walks a bizarre line between teen-centric tripe and wannabe dark war drama. 

Based on the famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale and starring Twilightstar Kristen Stewart, Snow White and the Huntsman is a cheesy and hammy cocktail, and seemingly proud of it. First time director Rupert Sanders has little in command outside of the lavishly detailed CGI and the intricate text of the end credits. The special effects are admittedly great, but the story of a kingdom’s rightful heir (Stewart) who overthrows an evil queen (Charlize Theron) feels quite outdated. Sanders attempts to darken the story with moody lighting and epic landscapes but despite the spectacle the film never really differentiates itself from other cheesy ancient-history fairytale failures like last year’s Red Riding Hood. 

The film doesn’t completely dip to Twilight levels of dreadfulness but it does seem like a big budget product catering exclusively to Twi-hards. Perhaps the Snow White story has simply run its course – we’ve already seen countless adaptations, including Tarsem’s Mirror Mirror. And perhaps we've all seen too many gloomy sweeping panoramas , or perhaps cinematographer Greig Fraser’s camerawork is pale by comparison to the skill found in Peter Jackson’s movies where the camera’s floating artistry achieves a kind of poetry. Perhaps Stewart lacks the modicum of skill and shred of likability that a lead actress is supposed to bring.  Whatever the case, Snow White and the Huntsman remains uninvolving. 

It doesn’t help that Stewart as usual looks constipated and bored and bestows that expression upon the audience as well. Chris Hemsworth, who plays the cover model for Medieval England’s Sassiest Bounty Hunter mag, is wasted in a dull thankless role. Charlize Theron, in her career worst as the evil queen Ravenna is hammy enough to fill large sized pepperoni sandwiches. She is as evil as the villains from Kanti Shah’s films and her shape-shifting is as threatening as the monsters from Gyanendra Chowdhary’s horror movies. It’s only a matter of time until clips of her performance arrive on YouTube and become Chris Klein-like viral sensations.

Some of the scenery involving trickling sunrays is truly beautiful; there's one particularly gorgeous enchanted forest scene with an antler and a couple of fairies. Another sequence where Snow White hallucinates the trees and brambles coming to life is haunting.  Sadly Snow White and the Huntsman rambles along from one overproduced scene to another and at the end we're told that the brave will be rewarded handsomely, a message that works as a lie for those who plan to see this film. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Men In Black 3

Let me begin by stating the obvious – Men In Black 3 is one hell of an unnecessary threequel. But there’s Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and that more than makes up for its stale formula and lukewarm welcome. They make this look good.

The third Men in Black movie is packed with enough jokes and cameos to delight fans of the series. Fortunately, this third film brings the franchise to exactly where it should be - at the heart of goofy, yet classy comedy, one which gives impulsive chuckles. This was a major issue with the overbudgeted and bloated Men In Black 2 where every joke and sight gag felt so forced and obvious that it was never really funny. Men In Black 3 brings back the good natured panache of the original film, and though it isn’t as fun, the result is pleasing enough for those who became fans of the series back in 1997. 

When we last left Agents J (Smith) and K (Jones), they had just fought off the scum of the universe, and unsurprisingly not much has changed. We’re introduced to Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), a villainous alien who breaks out of jail and vows revenge against Agent K who had locked him up forty years ago. As a result K disappears from the face of the earth, and Agent J is left to travel back in time and save his partner and the whole planet. 

If you find this crummy, don't worry, because the Men In Black series has never really been big on storytelling. It has always been about watching rubbery aliens and Smith delivering punch-lines while dealing with the equally rubbery Jones. The aliens are back in droves and they are deliciously bizarre thanks to the imaginative mind of the legendary artist Rick Baker. Smith is the most likable and funniest movie star and his charismatic work here further proves that there is no one who can pull off sheer screen presence so effortlessly. Jones is his usual deadpan self and his blank stares are as effective and amusing as ever. The costars have fun with their roles as well – Josh Brolin is hilarious as the younger K and does a perfect impression of Jones without coming off as a parody. Emma Thompson as Agent O (replacing Rip Torn) and Bill Hader as Andy Warhol are a lot of fun in their cameos. Equally impressive is the CGI that doesn’t seem very new but is incredibly detailed and epic. There is a lot of the series’ trademark cartoonish violence, sadly presented in jarring 3D. But beneath the big effects the film is just a series of skits, and the gags are funny enough to work.

Naturally, Men in Black 3 isn't without its faults. Despite the great performances and production design the film gets hokey at times, especially when it brings in an emotional twist in the second half. The villain is very ugly but isn’t very threatening to look at – a major blunder seeing as Vincent D’Onofrio in the original is one of the greatest screen villains of all time. Also, most of the action scenes don’t really add anything to the plot – they just exist for the popcorn mayhem. The time-travel storyline, despite clocking in at just 100 minutes is way too familiar and predictable. But it’s easy to get past these gaffes and Men in Black 3 works as an effective entertainer. The original is still the most interesting and sophisticated, but compared to the horrible sequel, part three is the next best thing. Watch it, in 2D only.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Grey

The Grey is a mediocre thriller that revolves around an outlandish scenario for the same reason that films like Snakes on a Plane  do - it's just entertainment. The plot of the film raises the important theme of the nature of the beast and whether men who lead ordinary lives would submit to ruthless means to survive in the wild, but the film fails to take such sensationalistic digressions to explore such a clichéd issue in a unique way. 

In The Grey Liam Neeson stars as a troubled man working in an Alaskan site, he escapes a suicide attempt when he spots and kills a wolf approaching his camp. The following day, the plane carrying his crew crash lands in a remote ice field packed with wolves, and the men are left panicked, freeing and desperate with little hope to find their way back to civilization. The thrills come as much from how these men face the constant threat of the wolves, a hackneyed plot for sure, and actors Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo and Dallas Roberts are miscast in Neeson’s showcase of baddasssery. At first this is simply distracting but soon it begins to grate.

Director Joe Carnahan who has earlier made The A-Team and Narc does a passable job in the action-suspense department, though he tends to show off most of the sequences. Despite the psychological distrust that Neeson’s character faces that adds a thick layer to the plot, and the occasionally terrifying frozen scenery, The Grey is still not smart enough to prevent people from giggling about what they would do if they were chased through a jungle by CGI dogs. The other problem is that the film isn’t a story about characters’ relationships with one another as they struggle to salvage their lives, but more of grown-ups thrust in a teen slasher film set in the wild where each one is bumped off at regular intervals. 

The film works best during the quiet moments like when the camera lingers in a single shot over one of the men who realizes that he hasn’t got the strength to live any longer. Neeson, although playing a troubled character for the hundredth time adds a big spark in his role perfectly complimenting the excellent hand-held style photography, but they're not enough to keep the movie afloat. And sadly the real stars of the film – the wolves are hardly given any screen time, and seem as though their shots were outtakes from a Discovery Channel special.

It’s easy to detect the theme of death that was done better in the mesmerizing Valhalla Rising but in The Grey the screenwriters treat this idea with their tongue in cheek by showing death as vapour rising from the mouth. An existential thriller with few thrills, The Grey no doubt has an interesting cinematic ruse but not one that would warrant a must watch. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Raven

In one of the final moments of The Raven, a perplexed character says to another ‘I am sorry sir, that doesn’t make any sense’. That is precisely what you would shout at the end of the film while massaging the throbbing temples of your head.   

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with mixing facts, fiction and stylized gore in pursuit of one’s own squandered thirst for the ludicrous or for the preteen demographic, but there is a problem in presenting such a film in a hall full of people above 12. The Raven is a twisted psychological horror thriller that combines the aesthetic focus of Se7en and the abhorrent mustiness of From Hell. But its only merit is that it is not quite as morally schizophrenic as the latter. 

The plot is as cheesy as it can get – and presents itself right in the opening scene in big yellow text. Back in 1849 Edgar Allen Poe was found dead on a park bench, and the reason for his demise has not yet been uncovered. The Raven attempts to crack this mystery by fictionally following the last days of Poe (here played by John Cusack) as he attempts to track down a serial killer on the loose and save his love interest (Alice Eve). The killer seems to be a nineteenth century version of Kevin Spacey from Se7en, as he indulges in gruesome killings and leaves a clue with each corpse. The killer plays around with Poe, by asking him to publish stories of his glorious murders and Poe’s failures in a newspaper – some of which are unintentionally hilarious enough to make the real Poe turn in his grave. 

Director James McTeigue, who last made the horrendous Ninja Assassin doesn’t much improve here – he just offers his camera a few tired faces to survey. Despite the great cast of Cusack and Brendan Gleeson, and the finely detailed makeup and sets, there is an uncomfortable horror-comedy tone that permeates through the seriousness. Cusack in particular looks completely embarrassed to be present on sets. The thrills inevitably turn into tiresome bloody frames as striking a tone between novelty and gore proves too difficult for McTeigue. Most of the runtime is paralyzed by schlocky silliness, including endless scenes of galloping horses and fog, and a clumsy rendition of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. And by the time you learn the identity of the killer you’re left looking at your watch and giving in to the seductive charms of the nearest exit door.

The Raven is neither superior to other serial killer potboilers, nor completely confounding or crazy enough to keep interest levels above the 15-minute mark. Poe himself would roll his eyes during the end credits and groan ‘Nevermore’.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Lorax

The Lorax is a sweet, likable movie that doesn't offer many surprises, but entertains in a placid, old-fashioned way. Beautifully rendered by Illumination Entertainment (the guys who made Despicable Me), the film has a lollypop visual style, vibrant enough to be savoured by those who lament the lack of variation found in today’s animated movies. 

Dr. Seuss’ stories have made hit and miss transitions to the big screen, ranging from the passable Horton Hears a Who, to the unlikable How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the horrible The Cat in the Hat. However The Lorax has been made by director Chris Renaud with the loving care of a dedicated fanboy, not once resorting to the clichéd pop culture references found in most animation films. Renaud has merged cues from the best Disney features and Pixar short films and come up with a wonderful mix of the partly zany, partly serious, partly slapstick sing-song, and fully entertaining film for both kids and the bigger kids. 

We’re introduced to the town of Thneedville where everything is adorned in the artificial plastic, and the people never venture to the strange wasteland beyond the city borders.  The 12-year-old Ted (Zac Efron) has a thing for his neighbor Audrey (Taylor Swift), and when she tells him that she’d fall for the guy who finds her a real tree, he sets off outside town determined to get one. Upon his grandma’s advice, he visits a hermit named Onceler (Ed Helms), who tells him why there aren’t any trees around Thneedsville, and how he was responsible for their disappearance. Ted learns that it would take only the good deeds of a single person to turn things around and summon the guardian of the forest known as the Lorax (Danny DeVito).

Naturally the Lorax is a metaphor for a tree hugger and the film at times drives home the message of conserving trees, but while that may seem a little too preachy it is difficult not to be won over by the cute earnestness of the film. It helps that most characters are lovable, although the conniving corporate giant O’Hare is reminiscent of the Mayor from Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. The voice cast is fun, and there are dozens of laughs. Moreover, director Renaud doesn’t move the camera around too much, and offers you long, uncut shots, letting you look at and admire the gorgeous artwork and absorb it in.

There is little that is revolutionary about The Lorax, but it’s pleasant, and hard to dislike. It will probably be a bit more enjoyable on DVD, but since it is out in theaters you should watch it. In bright colorful 2D.

(First published in MiD Day)