Friday, April 13, 2012

Movie Review: “The Cabin in the Woods”

If you say you like horror movies and don't like “The Cabin in the Woods,” you don't like horror movies.

***** out of 5
95 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity

Article first published as Movie Review: The Cabin in the Woods on Blogcritics.

“The Cabin in the Woods” has been suffering in release date purgatory, getting bumped from one date to the next over the last three years, setting expectations pretty high. I have a huge split between friends who either absolutely cannot wait to finally see it this weekend, while the other half have no idea that the movie even exists. Originally put into production at MGM, threatened to be converted into 3D, and ultimately shelved when the studio went belly up, Lionsgate has finally stepped up to the plate to bring us the long overdue “The Cabin in the Woods.”

Co-written and directed by Drew Goddard (“Cloverfield”), with Joss Whedon in the co-writer/producer role, they are finally proving that sometimes the less you know about a movie, the better. Whedon and Goddard have delivered one of the best horror movies in years, one of the best films of the year thus far, and it could just wind up working as an endgame to the monotonous genre. We all know things have gotten rather stale lately, and the horror genre is beginning to smell about as bad as most of the dead teens left in its wake.

In “The Cabin in the Woods,” a group of college students are hopping into an RV to spend the weekend at the titular locale. We have the jock, Curt (Chris Hemsworth, “Thor”); the dumb blonde, Jules (Anna Hutchison); virginal bookworm, Dana (Kristen Connolly); abs of steel egghead, Holden (Jesse Williams); and paranoid pothead Marty, (Fran Kranz). They’re all on their way to a weekend off the grid at Curt’s cousin’s cabin. Things look pretty creepy and only get worse as they find their way amongst paintings of human sacrifice, two way mirrors, and a diary from 1903. Soon enough, all hell breaks loose for our five friends and things only keep getting worse as they try to fight for survival.

“The Cabin in the Woods” is a delirious masterpiece that’s been on the shelf far too long. With Lionsgate footing the bill, they can finally show the world that the film is far more than just “Sam Raimi’s ‘Lost.’” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Whedon and Goddard both seem to have a bone to pick with the genre, and sometimes the only way to express yourself is with a huge love letter. While the film may have been lensed way back in 2009 when Hemsworth was still mainly known as James Kirk’s heroic father in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, even then Hemsworth had the chops to carry a film of his own, even if he’s not quite as beefed up as he is now, wielding his almighty hammer.

If the look of the film seems reminiscent of Raimi’s own “Evil Dead 2,” it’s no coincidence as Peter Deming was director of photography on that one too. Deming knows how to stage a shot and never relies on the much maligned shaky cam so we always know what’s going on, which is essential for a film that takes place almost exclusively at night. And composer David Julyan also knows a thing or two about keeping the score good and creepy while ratcheting up the tension. Editor Lisa Lassek (another Whedon cronie) keeps every scene in tip top order, but the real star of the show here is Drew Goddard. Most of his offerings have been in the Abrams camp (“Alias” and “Lost”), but he certainly knows what makes a great genre flick tick. With “Cloverfield,” and now “The Cabin in the Woods” under his belt, I can’t wait to see what greatness Goddard delivers for us next, and I can’t wait to see this one again.

Photos courtesy Lionsgate

Movie Review: “American Reunion”

The returning cast makes it more likeable than it should be, but it still may be time for our last piece of “Pie.”

*** out of 5
113 minutes
Rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, language, brief drug use and teen drinking
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: American Reunion on Blogcritics.

Do you remember your first piece of the “Pie?” It’s been 13 years since the original “American Pie” burst into theaters back in 1999. It should come as no surprise that when the film was over this ragtag group of 19-year-old friends wound up dining at Hooter’s. I probably mostly remember this from my case of wing-based food poisoning, but I digress. After witnessing back then what would become somewhat of a cinematic institution in its own right, 13 years later, two sequels, and four direct-to-video spin-offs later, the original cast members finally return for “American Reunion.”

Have the years been kind since we last bore witness to the crew’s bodily function-filled shenanigans? A little bit yes, but sadly, mostly no. Universal’s decision to bring in the creator’s of “Harold and Kumar” (Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg) to write and direct, could make you think they were trying to breathe new life into the series after all these years. But all they’ve wound up doing is run things further into the ground. Packed to the gills with enough fart, dick, and tit jokes to make a sailor blush, it’s up to the cast to bring the goods. Some of them are thankfully up to the task, while others prove they were the weakest links to no one’s surprise.

So what has the East Great Falls High crew been up to since we last saw Jim and Michelle get hitched? Not much. But alas, that’s how life goes. Everyone has their own lives now of course. Jim and Michelle have a baby and a lackluster sex life. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is married and essentially has become a househusband (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Oz (Chris Klein) is a sportscaster making a fool out of himself in front of the likes of Chad Ochocinco, while dating Mia (Katrina Bowden). And Stifler (Seann William Scott) has an office temp job against his best interest because his mom (Jennifer Coolidge) demanded it. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is out to earn himself the title of “the most interesting man in the world,” and it turns out that Vicky (Tara Reid) is still single, while Heather (Mena Suvari) is dating cardiologist Dr. Ron (Jay Harrington).

The crew arrives back home with Jim and Michelle shacking up at Jim’s Dad’s house. Upon arrival, Jim runs into neighbor Kara (Ali Cobrin) whom he used to babysit and has now gone from a Teletubby watching little girl to full blown hottie. And just wouldn’t you know it; tomorrow is her eighteenth birthday and really really wants Jim to come. (Get it? Yes, double entendres still rule the day.) When the boys get together at a bar, Stifler rejoins as the force of nature he is and they also run into one of Michelle’s former band friends, Selena (Dania Ramirez), who also used to not be the looker she’s turned into now. So alas, the age old drama of one gross out gag to the next piles up as they all prep themselves for the big reunion, with their fair share of relationship “ups and downs” along the way as the film has moments that aim for the heart but usually wind up ending with a fart.

Why Hurwitz and Schlossberg think so much time needs to be spent on the likes of the film’s two lamest couples, Oz and Heather, and Kevin and Vicky, is beyond me. Not only are the couples the worst part of the film, the actors also showing that their acting abilities have far from improved. The film’s best parts, as usual, revolve around whatever is coming out of Stifler’s mouth and the now-widowed Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy, scene stealer at large). While Biggs slips right back into his renowned “pie fucker” role, Hannigan seems to be more in “How I Met Your Mother” mode than she is at being Michelle. While she used to be all perky and doe eyed, here she plays the sexually frustrated mother role too straight. Her “one time at band camp” days are long gone. Thankfully, Levy is par for the course and just about saves the movie. He also gets a great pay-off scene during the end credits.

When “Scream 4” came out last year, it was ridiculed with most people claiming it had no idea what it wanted to be. Was it a remake? A reboot? Another sequel? When the answer wound up being all of the above, it was strictly the fan base who got what Wes Craven and crew were up to, but that meant it wound up faring less than killer at the box office. While “American Reunion” is strictly another sequel to come down the franchise pipeline, its looking like the pie may be getting a bit stale. Things are strictly by-the-numbers here and the Rube Goldberg gross out set pieces never really go for broke the way they should when it’s been so long since the last installment.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg’s best films are the two they didn’t direct themselves (the first and third “Harold and Kumars”). The duo may know their way around a great one-liner, but they have a long way to go on catching up with their visual jokes. It doesn’t help that Daryn Okada’s cinematography has a hazy slightly soft look to it, probably to keep the cast’s years under wraps, but it just winds up giving the film its own direct-to-video look. And everything looks way more like soundstages now than ever before. At one point Michelle says to Jim, “We’re so out of sync. I don’t know how long we can go on like this,” and she may as well be talking about the film. So while it may be miles ahead of those dreadful spin-offs, hopefully “American Reunion” heeds its own advice to hit it and quit it.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Monday, April 9, 2012

Movie Review: “Wrath of the Titans”

Second verse way better than the first.

*** ½ out of 5
99 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy violence and action
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Wrath of the Titans on Blogcritics.

Not so long ago, in the year 2010, a big budget action extravaganza made use of its Hollywood dollars to try to one up (at least technologically) an old school Ray Harryhausen production. The new “Clash of the Titans” remake once again pitted man against gods while finding time to release the Kraken. The thing is, Warner Bros. managed to completely botch the one area they were striving for most and the film still stands as the worst post-converted 3-D film yet.

See, back then, things were different and studios were quickly trying to cash in on this new 3-D advancement taking place. While I am still in a huge minority that actually didn’t mind “Clash of the Titans,” now whether anyone asked for it or not, Sam Worthington returns as Perseus (while continuing to squeeze the most out of his turn in the limelight) in “Wrath of the Titans.”

This time around, Perseus is trying to live out a quiet existence amongst the humans (he is the Demigod son of Zeus after all), mourning his wife while spending as much time as he can teaching his own son Helius (John Bell) how to fish. It’s not long before Zeus (Liam Neeson) visits Perseus to tell him that a calamity is coming. Humans have stopped praying to the Gods and they are losing their powers. Soon enough, the plot kicks into gear as Zeus joins his brothers Poseidon (Danny Huston), Ares (Edgar Ramirez), and Hades (Ralph Fiennes) in Tartarus.

It turns out that Ares and Hades are plotting against the humans to unleash their father, Kronos, from Tartarus upon the humans after making them face the wrath of the likes of the chimeras just to start things off with the right bang. Now Perseus must find Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), who has custody of Poseidon’s own son, Agenor (the hilarious Toby Kebbell), to lead them all in search of The Fallen One, Hephaestus (the even more hilarious Bill Nighy), who gives them a map to get through his own labyrinth that is Tartarus (he built the thing after all), to try to save Zeus and put an end to Kronos once and for all. Phew!

While it may sound convoluted, it whisks by at a near breakneck pace. Pacing was another of many major faults of “Clash.” But the real question Warner Bros. is expected to answer with this film has nothing to do with plot or acting; what audiences are going to be wondering about is whether Warner Bros. has made a 3-D film worth spending the extra money on, or if once again, they figured out another way to botch their efforts. And the answer is thankfully that the film stands head and shoulders above its predecessor in almost every way.

Director Jonathan Liebesman and screenwriters, Dan Mazeau and David Johnson, finally deliver the epic battle that should have happened last time around. Special kudos go to writers Mazeau and Johnson for slipping in some much needed humor into the proceedings, something else “Clash” was sorely missing.

Worthington makes up a fine hero with his Perseus, it makes me wonder if he just needs to be allowed to use his accent more to help make him the star Hollywood so desperately wants him to be. While Neeson and Fiennes are always fun to watch, particularly towards the end when Neeson gets a moment to go Qui-Gon on some titans. And while I’ve never been a big fan of director Jonathan Liebesman, he’s come a long way from the likes of “Darkness Falls,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” and “Battle Los Angeles,” and has finally made an entire film I can get behind (I liked the first half of “Battle Los Angeles” before the boring and dumb second half showed up). I have to say, I fully enjoyed myself with “Wrath of the Titans.” It never takes itself as seriously as the first one did and even throws a few jabs at itself while making up for the lackluster 3-D that ruined the first.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: “Mirror Mirror”

Hopefully “Snow White and the Huntsman” can break the spell of bad live action renditions.

* out of 5
106 minutes
Rated PG for some fantasy action and mild rude humor
Relativity Media

Article first published as Movie Review: Mirror Mirror (2012) on Blogcritics.

Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s one of the most unfortunate directors of them all? Poor Tarsem Singh. The man may have a keen eye when it comes to arresting visuals; now if only he could get a decent script put in his hands. With only three films prior in the director's chair, even with this weekend’s “Mirror Mirror,” his first film is still his best (“The Cell,” back when a movie starring Jennifer Lopez didn’t mean it was going to suck). The years have been cruel in the script department for Singh, even if his eye for set design continues to impress. Here, Julia Roberts makes you wonder why she ever came back to Hollywood if this is the best they have to offer her. It may have looked good on paper, but apparently, she said "yes" before the script got to the part where it smears itself all over her face (you’ll see). The Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm) are surely rolling in their graves.

In this round of the oft told adventures of “Snow White” (with Walt Disney’s still the champion 75 whopping years later), we are lead to believe that this is the Queen’s (Julia Roberts) tale. She gives us a quick, LladrĂ³ porcelain figurine-filled backstory about Snow White (Lily Collins, son of Phil) and how she was raised a spoiled child by her rich father who later married a beautiful woman (herself). But then the King (Sean Bean) goes missing in the woods and now the Queen must raise Snow White whom she keeps locked up in the castle and the village people think she’s a grotesque shut-in. Snow White believes that the townspeople outside the castle are joyous and fancy free. But the Queen has of course drained them of all their money leaving the kingdom on the verge of destitution.

The Queen can’t help but spend the money on her luxurious parties consisting of live action chess games with out of town Kings at the castle, yet even on her 18th birthday, Snow White is told to never interrupt one of her parties when all Snow White wants is to spend her birthday at the Queen’s upcoming gala that night. It’s after Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) shows up shirtless, after a plight in the woods with those seven dwarves, that Snow White and the Prince have love at first sight. Much to the chagrin of the Queen, of course, who forces her right hand man Brighton (Nathan Lane) to lead Snow White into the woods and kill her. You all know what happens next as Snow White herself encounters her seven dwarves who take her in and eventually have a montage where they teach her to fight and they hatch a plan to take back the crown that is rightfully hers.

Alas, an onslaught of inappropriate-for-a-PG-rated-film sight gags (most literally) prevails. Featuring, but not limited to, an unintentional “That’s What She Said” moment when a sign outside the dwarves lair boasts, “No entry over 4 feet,” and there’s lots of talk about Snow White’s father’s dagger and the Queen’s balls while the set design continues to expand around everyone. Thankfully, the film has some belittled attempts at comedic relief in the likes of the seven dwarves consisting of Jordan Prentice, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, and Ronald Lee Clark. But it’s all undermined with the loopy score by Alan Menken and odd editing choices made by the team of Robert Duffy and Nick Moore.

Everything is all cobbled together thanks to the excruciating screenplay from Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller, and eventually tries to stray into “Enchanted” territory towards the end, but it’s a far cry from that unexpected pleasantry. Plus, the poison apple is thrown in as a literal afterthought and an already available online Bollywood dance number is tacked onto the end credits. Armie Hammer making off the cuff remarks about focus groups lead us into self-aware parody, but it is totally out of place with the rest of the film which only sort of works when it sticks to its “Snow White” roots instead of veering off into “Robin Hood” heroics. Collins may be a great Snow White (although she seriously needs some work on those eyebrows) and has at least some chemistry with Hammer, but not even the old “Mirror Mirror” on the wall can save this from being one of the worst films of the year.

Photos courtesy Relativity Media