Monday, April 30, 2012

Arrested Development

Movies: Young Adult

Do you ever wonder what happened to that pretty, popular, really bitchy girl in high school whom you secretly worshiped (or hated) from afar? She's probably really successful these days, right? I mean, she was good looking--and good looks are scientifically proven to give people an advantage in work and romance. She was also super popular, so she's probably still a charismatic go-getter today, right?

Well, if the idea of the Queen Bee of your high school becoming the Queen Bee of adulthood gets you all riled up and jealous, take comfort in the fabulousness (and fabulously dark, nearly black comedy) of Young Adult. Written by Diablo Cody (writer of Juno, whose work here is much more mature and subtle than her previous films) and directed by Jason Reitman, Young Adult is a sad and funny look into the lives of the previous Queen Bees and Wannabees of high school 15 years down the road.

The wonderful Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a 37-year-old ghostwriter of a once popular but now floundering young adult series, Waverly Prep. The books are clearly modeled after real life young adult series like Private and Gossip Girl, and, as someone who's guiltily read her fair share of trashy teen prep school books, I loved the narration we hear as Mavis writes the final installment of Waverly Prep (e.g. "Kendall was the prettiest girl in her school. She was such a legend, that she was nominated for Homecoming a rival school.") Mavis is the perfect person to write these books because she totally gets the mindset of her characters: she is immature, narcissistic in the extreme, devoid of personality, and believes herself to be quite a catch despite her alcoholism and dirty apartment. Mavis hit her peak in high school and since then has avoided adulthood and growing up.

After receiving an email from her high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson--who excels at playing the handsome, nice, clueless dudes) celebrating the birth of his first child, Mavis decides that she and Buddy are meant to be together (never mind that Buddy is happily married and loves being a new dad). She hops in her car and drives from Minneapolis to her tiny hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to attempt to seduce Buddy and relive her glory days as Prom Queen and popular girl who made everyone else miserable.

It becomes apparent very quickly just how pathetic Mavis is. She gulps down shot after shot of Maker's Mark as she plots how to steal Buddy away from his wife. When she meets up with Buddy, he's oblivious to her overly eager flirtations. Buddy's wife, Beth (played by Elizabeth Reaser), is clearly so much cooler and comfortable in her own skin than Mavis is. There's no reason in the world why Buddy, doting dad and hubby, would leave Beth for Mavis. And everyone can see it except Mavis herself, who hurls headlong into the deep end of vile narcissism and foolishness in her attempts to win Buddy over.

Along the way, Mavis reconnects with her polar opposite: Matt Freehauf (played by Patton Oswalt in a hilarious and pitch-perfect role). Matt was a fat theatre kid in high school who was maimed in a hate crime. Some jocks thought he was gay and beat him up so badly that he still has to use a cane to walk. And it turned out that Matt wasn't even gay, so the "hate crime" was reclassified as just a boring old "fat guy gets beat up" crime. Matt still lives in Mercury with his sister and considers himself a crippled, fat geek. But he's a fair bit cooler than Mavis--he distills his own bourbon! Despite their differences, Mavis and Matt spend the majority of the movie hanging out together, while Matt tries to get her to lay off Buddy and go to therapy instead.


After a deliciously schadenfreude-y climax, in which Mavis goes on a screaming rant at Beth and Buddy's "baby-naming ceremony", the inevitable happens. If you're the kind of person who has always wanted to watch Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt have very sad, very passionless sex...well, have I got the movie for you! That scene alone is worth the price of admission. If you're a weirdo like me, that is.


Mavis is told by multiple people throughout the movie that she is "mentally ill". Indeed, I wondered if she was just very, very stupid in addition to being selfish. Sociopaths usually have charisma and a knowledge of how to fake legit, human emotions and manners. Mavis appears to experience no emotions whatsoever (except "I want that") and is too thick to understand the appalled reactions of other people while on her rampage of neediness and destruction. This is no redemption movie. No one--least of all Mavis--learns anything by the end. This really isn't a revenge fantasy movie either, because Mavis' life is so sad and she doesn't have the awareness to understand why she's sad and what needs to be done to change it. Young Adult really is a dark, cringe-inducing comedy about screwed up people. If you liked Election and Sideways, you'll probably enjoy Young Adult. It's not for everyone.

Charlize Theron really got fugly for her role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the 2003 film Monster, so she's no stranger to vanity-free roles. As the immature, alcoholic, manipulative Mavis, Theron gets incredibly ugly again: not on the surface, but in the soul. I'm amazed that she didn't get nominated for an Oscar for this movie. She is a standout in one of the best casts I've seen recently.

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Back to Titanic

Movies: Titanic 3D

Oh Titanic. You either loved it or hated it. You either mocked the young Leonardo's effeminacy, or worshiped his perfect visage. You either rolled your eyes at the horrendous dialogue or whispered it to yourself as you fell asleep at night.

You can probably guess which side I was on. Given that Titanic first came out when I was in the 6th grade and on what we might call the "cusp of womanhood", the epic film was huge for me (no pun intended). Titanic, along with Dave Matthews Band's CD "Crash" and Dawson's Creek, contributed heavily to my growing awareness of sexuality and romantic love. Titanic was perfect in this regard: an intelligent, feisty, curvy (I was a heavy kid, so I always liked curvier actresses) heroine and a protective, boyish, thoroughly safe hero. A forbidden love that lasts a lifetime. Steamy sex in a car. Let's face it: Titanic was catnip to moony pre-teen girls. It was the Twilight of my time (with better acting and a more feminist message, but I digress).

I've seen Titanic any number of times: three times in the theater when it first came out, probably half a dozen more times once the VHS tapes were released, and maybe about twice since then (I once watched it "just for the hell of it" while I was lounging around my parents' house during spring break of my freshman year of college). So seeing it again in the theater was not a big deal. I still remembered all the lines. But one difference struck me. When I was a kid, I was far more into the first half of the movie--you know, the love story half where Leo draws Kate naked and then they boff in the car below decks. After getting the VHS tapes, I usually stopped watching at this point. I really only cared about the sex. But watching it again as an adult I found myself fascinated with the actual destruction of the Titanic and, more so, the reactions of the passengers. My dad read an article recently about passenger behavior on the Titanic versus the Lusitania--a ship that sunk in 1915; a few years after Titanic met its fate. While people generally kept their cool on the Titanic--letting the women and children get on lifeboats first; the passengers on Lusitania reacted with panic, fighting their way to lifeboats while paying no regard to the conventions of society. Why? Because Lusitania sank in 18 minutes. There was no time for civility--only survival. Titanic sank in 2 hours and 20 minutes--plenty of time to reflect on and accept your fate, and realize that social conventions (whether altruistic or not) were more important than savagely fighting your way to a lifeboat. That's not to say that certain passengers on the Titanic found that they were not as brave as they thought in the face of imminent death. Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Lines, for example, did sneak his way onto a boat full of ladies and children. But other men--Captain Edward Smith, industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, and the ship's designer, Thomas Andrews--all went down with the ship. Their fear and courage--and the realization that their loads of money wouldn't save them from a terrible death--fascinated and touched me.

The 3D didn't add much to the movie, although a few scenes where the water filling the ships is filmed at eye level looked very cool, like the water was about to spill out into the movie theater. The real spectacle was seeing the movie on the big screen again. It's really the only way to watch it. Titanic is an epic of massive proportions and deserves a big screen to fit its big vision. Yes, the lines are still cheesy. But the movie still resonates with me today.


4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 23, 2012

Meta-Meta Horror: A Review of The Cabin in the Woods with *optional* spoilers

Movies: The Cabin in the Woods

Wow. First off, let me say that The Cabin in the Woods is awesome. I did not want this movie to end. At various points during the film, I would think, "I wonder how much longer the movie is...I hope a lot, lot longer". If that doesn't get your butt to the theater, then perhaps the over 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes will get you there.

Second, I want to say that it's best to go into The Cabin in the Woods with a blank or nearly-blank slate. There's not just a plot twist; there are several very complex plot twists that reveal themselves to the audience from very early on until the final minutes. And it's quite pleasurable to keep guessing throughout the film.

That said, this review will contain three levels of spoilers. The first will be the blank slate level: the very basic plot, without any twists. The second will reveal a twist that is pretty obvious from the get-go, and why this twist makes The Cabin in the Woods a unique take on horror movies. The third level will REVEAL ALL, and is only for people who already saw the movie or like to spoil things for themselves. How far you read is up to you.

Blank Slate review:

The Cabin in the Woods is a horror film from the minds Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. Based on those credentials alone, you know it's going to be a smarter-than-average film. The movie stars some Whedonverse regulars, such as Fran Kranz of Dollhouse and Amy Acker of Angel and Dollhouse, so Whedon fans are likely to enjoy this movie.

The movie follows five college kids who decide to spend the weekend at a rustic cabin owned by a cousin of one of the kids. Right off the bat, you can tell that these college students fall into the typical horror movie archetypes: there's sexy Jules, her jock boyfriend Curt, their prim and naive friend Dana, intelligent Holden, and funny pothead Marty. At a crumbling gas station on the way to the cabin, the kids run into a decrepit geezer who spits and insults them and makes cryptic remarks regarding the cabin. When they get to said cabin, it's super-creepy and only gets creepier as the night wears on. So, basically the most cliched horror set-up possible...

...But things are not as they seem. High-off-his-butt Marty is suspicious about certain aspects of the cabin and of his friends' behavior, but the others laugh off his worries as pot-induced paranoia. Needless to say, there is something very wrong and very strange about the cabin...and the truth is revealed slowly and methodically.

If you are scared of horror movies, I have good and bad news. The bad news is that, yes, there are many jump scenes and traditional Hollywood horror type scares. The good news is that this horror is tempered by both the film's sharp sense of humor and the unique premise of the film. But that's all I'll say.

Now stop reading unless you want to be partially spoiled!

Level Two review:

Ok, so 30 seconds into The Cabin in the Woods, you already know something's up because the first scene involves a couple guys (the glorious Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in lab coats walking around a giant science-y looking facility while teasing each other and cracking wise. Not long into the movie, you realize these guys and the facility have a direct connection to the kids going to the cabin and what will happen when they get there. Thus the first "twist" is revealed (some secret group of people is controlling these kids' fates!) and the guessing game as to why begins: is it a reality show? Government testing? Rich people paying to see a "real-life" horror movie? At this point, The Cabin in the Woods is like the bastard child of Evil Dead and The Hunger Games.

The reason this twist makes The Cabin in the Woods so interesting is because it messes with and upends your expectations of the movie right from the very get-go (and not in a Scary Movie I-IV spoof kinda way). You realize these kids are being manipulated to act out the roles we would normally assign to stock horror characters (one example: the "slutty" character may not be all that slutty, but pheromones are pumped into the air to make her act wilder than usual). These unusual behaviors are commented on by Marty, who everyone conveniently ignores. So you spend the movie wondering what's going to happen next. How else will this movie surprise me? And, on a more existential level, you may ask yourself: how am I being manipulated into a role in everyday life? Not in a being brainwashed by the government kind of way, but simply, how do my preconceived notions about other people and their "types" (slut, jock, virgin, egghead, etc) force me to act and respond in a certain way? Deep, man. Marty would approve.

At this point, you're probably thinking of The Cabin in the Woods as about 30% fantasy/horror and 70% science-fiction/dystopia. That is, until the final twists happen...


Level Three review:

An interesting thing about The Cabin in the Woods is how it plays with reality and fantasy. The group of men in the facility manipulate the kids into going into a creepy basement in the cabin. Each kid is drawn to an object and we find out later that each object represents a way that the kids will die. Dana is the first to pick up an old diary and begin to read from it; by doing so, she "chooses" the kids' fate: her reading of the diary awakens the souls of a family of zombies. For a while, I couldn't figure out if the zombies were actual zombies (which would make sense in a fantasy/horror film) or actors playing zombies (which would make sense of a science-y dystopia movie). But the zombies are real, and, as revealed later, just part of an entire vending machine of monsters the kids could have chosen from.

In the final third of the movie, the true nature of the facility is revealed and the shit *really* hits the fan when Marty and Dana--the only two survivors--fight back against the system. We find out that the kids who go to the cabin are selected for a ritual sacrifice to appease ancient gods. There is the Whore (Jules), who must die first. Then the Athlete (Curt), the Scholar (Holden), and the Fool (Marty) must also die. The Virgin's (Dana) death is optional, as long as she suffers. Thus, both the gods are appeased and the trope of the Final Girl that is so common in horror movies is realized.

As Marty and Dana make their way into the facility, the reality of the first twist hits them (they're being controlled by some government drones!), but they still don't know about the second twist: that they are part of a real horror story and if Marty doesn't die (remember, Dana is allowed to live as long as she's the final one left), the gods will destroy all of mankind. During their attempts to escape, Marty and Dana set loose all the possible creatures they could have chosen: werewolves, unicorns, "angry molesting trees", serial killers, and mermen, among others. This was a hilarious (and bloody) sequence which pokes fun of all types of horror movies while taking full advantage of their horror and gore. It's a comment on just how "fill in the number" horror movies can be (group of misbehaving, stereotypical teens + monster of the filmmaker's choice = gore!) and it's deliciously over the top.

But Cabin in the Woods keeps you guessing until the bitter end. After the whole sacrifice thing is explained to Marty and Dana, Dana has a moment of weakness where she nearly shoots Marty (only to be attacked by a stray werewolf at the last second!). Finally, Marty and Dana (bloody from the werewolf attack, but still alive) light up a joint and decide to let the angry gods destroy mankind. "It's time to let someone else have a chance" Marty remarks. But until that moment, I kept waiting for yet another twist. I thought that maybe the government people screwed up and that Marty was actually the Virgin, effectively bringing about the end of the world if Dana killed him first, thinking he was the Fool. I also thought that maybe in the absence of a sacrifice, nothing would happen. That it would be a commentary on violence in the name of blind religious belief or something. Or possibly that Dana would kill Marty and the cycle of sacrifice would continue. The movie had been so batshit crazy until that point, that I thought there would be some giant meta-meta-meta twist at the end. I was actually a little disappointed at the "angry gods kill everyone kthxbye!" ending. But the pleasure of guessing until the final minutes was so worth it.

Overall, The Cabin in the Woods was a fun and amazingly unique movie experience. It pokes fun at the horror genre while paying loving tribute to it as well. It is genuinely scary, but more often darkly funny. And it really gives new meaning to the saying, "Don't take life too seriously. None of us are going to make it out alive."

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Babe in the Woods

Movies: Hanna

Hanna is a slick, cool little action film that was failed (in my opinion) by its confusing plot and the never-explained motives of its villains and heroes.

*Spoilers ahead!*

Hanna opens with the titular character, a teenager played excellently by Saoirse Ronan (aka, the creepy little brat from Atonement), hunting down a deer in what appears to be either Siberia or the Arctic Circle. As she finishes killing the deer, a man comes up behind her with a gun and says, "You're dead". Hanna turns and begins fighting him with the skills of a trained assassin. Turns out, the man is Hanna's father and she is a trained assassin. She's a 16 year old killing machine who can also speak about 10 different languages. Her father, Erik (played by Eric Bana), has been preparing her for some eventual confrontation with some bad guys. But this is all the audience knows.

After Hanna and her father make their whereabouts known via a transmitter, Erik escapes and Hanna is captured and taken into holding. We find out that Erik is an ex-CIA operative who supposedly went rogue and is very dangerous--at least according to one Marissa Ziegler (played by Cate Blanchett). When Hanna asks to speak to Ziegler during her interrogation, they send in a lookalike, whom Hanna swiftly kills. She then escapes the underground lair where she's being held, only to find herself in the middle of the Moroccan desert with only the orange prison jumpsuit on her back.

Hanna hitches a ride with a Bohemian-to-the-point-of-parody British family on vacation and makes her way to Germany to meet her father in a fairy tale-themed amusement park. During her journey, we get a little of Hanna's back story. [Serious spoilers ahead] Apparently, Hanna was part of a medical experiment to alter babies' DNA to make them smarter, faster, and stronger: the perfect soldiers and assassins. Hanna's mother was going to abort her but was recruited at the last minute to participate in the experiment. Hanna's father fell in love with the woman (I think? It's never fully explained) and tried to help her flee to safety when they shut down the experiment. Ziegler chased down Hanna and her family, attempting to kill them all and succeeding only in killing Hanna's mother. Since that day, Hanna's dad lived in exile, raising and training Hanna for the day when Ziegler would hunt them down.

Do you feel a little confused? I sure did. Unless I missed multiple conversations or flashbacks, so many things are unexplained:
1) Who or what was behind the baby DNA experiment? What was the purpose of the experiment?
2) How was Ziegler involved?
3) What is the relationship between Erik and Hanna's birth mother? Were they in love? Was he just protective of her?
4) Why was Ziegler trying to kill Hanna and her family? Did the CIA plan to kill all the babies and families involved in the medical experiment? Why?
5) Why was Erik so intent on raising Hanna as his daughter?
6) Why didn't he plan to just hide forever--why did he and Hanna allow themselves to be found?
7) What happened to the British family in the end? What purpose do they serve other than giving Hanna a taste of friendship and love outside or her relationship with her dad?
8) What is Ziegler's back story? Why is she so evil?
and finally,
9) What is the purpose of this movie? Seriously. Is it just supposed to be a dumb action flick? Is it a commentary on medical experimentation? A modern-day fairy tale (Hanna has a book of Grimm's stories and Hanna and her father plan to meet at the fairy tale amusement park. I assume the integration of fairy tales into the plot wasn't an accident)? Is it a condemnation of the CIA? The American military-industrial complex? Foreign relations? America itself? Is it a feminist film? An anti-feminist film? A "feral child" film, like Nell?

As you can see, Hanna is one big sieve, with plot holes, unexplained motives, and characters with no back stories. Some action films have plots that are so convoluted, you can't follow them at all. Hanna wasn't remotely difficult to follow because there was so little too follow. I kept waiting for some big reveal, where Ziegler would explain herself to Hanna, but that moment never came.

Even though Hanna is a cool, slick action film, it was a major disappointment and tease. And I have no idea if the director intended for it to be that way.

3 out of 5 stars (mostly for cool action sequences and an awesome soundtrack)