Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cabin in the Woods

When it comes to scary movies, it’s hard to find gems. The fact of the matter is originality's not the genre’s strong suit, not to mention its “b-movie” reputation. With that said, I had high hopes for Cabin in the Woods, written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (also directed by the latter), though I could tell it was going to be a polarizing film, meaning it was one of those movies that the audience was either going to love or hate with no grey area in between.

In order to find out which it would be, I decided to check out Cabin in the Woods on opening night. For those who don’t know, IMDb states the premise of the horror/thriller: “Five friends go for a break at a remote cabin in the woods, where they get more than they bargained for. Together, they must discover the truth behind the cabin in the woods.”

Sounds simple, like your run-of-the-mill scary movie, but the unassuming premise was the only thing simple about the film. You must understand, both Whedon and Goddard are an eclectic duo. The former wrote and directed a laundry list of TV episodes including Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while also directing the upcoming The Avengers. Additionally, he has writing credits for Toy Story, Alien: Resurrection and Titan A.E. Likewise, Goddard has written for TV shows Lost, Alias, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while also having penned the feature film Cloverfield.

So the question is begged, why are these two experienced, well-versed and highly respected men making an ordinary horror movie? The answer is, they’re not. Instead, they opted to make a horror movie and inject it with what they knew best . . . sci-fi . . . comedy . . . super beings . . . and crazy twists. It’s a tall order, but they managed to pull it off.

I don’t want to give away too much, because that will ruin the twist and the fun, but I can confidently say, for better or worse, it’s not what you’re expecting. I’d really like to comment on specifics, like some of the monsters/creatures you’ll encounter in Cabin in the Woods (many of which pay homage to various horror movies), but I really don’t want to spoil anything. I’ll just say I enjoyed the twist and the turn the movie took. It wasn’t expected, and while it was a little absurd, it was highly entertaining.

As far as the performances go, Chris Hemsworth is your only headliners, which is ironic considering this movie was filmed before he became famous on Thor. You see, Cabin in the Woods was originally made by MGM, but when they dealt with bankruptcy, the film was shelved for approximately two years before Lionsgate gave it new life. Hemsworth’s performance isn’t noteworthy, but certainly satisfactory.

Likewise, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchinson, Franz Kranz and Jesse Williams decent job of rounding out the five main characters. Throw in Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as Sitterson and Hadley respectively, and you have a well-rounded cast. In fact, I think the latter two did a great job and added some great, albeit menacing, comic relief into the story.

Cabin in the Woods turned out to be anything but a typical slasher flick. Instead, it became a wild ride that captured the imagination. The film didn’t take itself too seriously, and neither did I . . . it was a horror movie after all. Put another way, if you go into this movie expecting seriousness and plausibility, you’re going to hate it; on the other hand, if  you’re going in with low expectations given it’s a scary movie, which tend to be implausible anyway, then I think you’re going to have a great time.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 69%

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

American Reunion

In 1999, I was a sophomore in high school. That’s the year American Pie hit the big screen and became an instant hit, grossing $235,483,004 worldwide. The sexual angst in characters Jim, Oz, Kevin, Finch and Stifler resonated with my generation, and it wasn’t too hard to liken them to real-life friends. It was one of the top party/high-school movies of my day, which was why I was so excited for American Reunion.

Now it’s not like it’s been 13 years since audiences got to catch up with the American Pie gang. In 2002 there was a sequel, AmericanPie 2, and a part three the following year in American Wedding. Both were decent sequels that helped drive the franchise, but it has since settled in the nine years between then and now. Sure, there were a few straight-to-DVD “American Pie” movies, but those were obviously made to squeeze a few more bucks out of the primary films’ success. They were easily forgettable, and as a fan of the core series, that’s exactly what I’ve chosen to do.

American Reunion, which I consider to be the fourth film in the series, is the first time the original cast has returned. You see, the two sequels had most of the cast, at least enough to make a successful movie, but not everyone returned. For example, in the third installment Chris Klein, who plays Oz, was absent. The fact that everyone was returning was very exciting and I couldn’t wait to reconnect with all the characters I remembered from high school.

That being said, nostalgia was the real appeal of this film. In American Reunion, the characters return to East Great Falls, Michigan for their 13-year high school reunion. As someone who just attended their 10-year high school get-together, I could definitely relate. As I said before, these were the characters I had grown up with in high school, and with this film it was almost as if they grew up alongside me.

This feeling was brought home by the character’s various realities. For example, Jim and Michelle (played by Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan) are now grown up with a child, doing their best to build a future while maintaining their marriage. I have a lot of friends in that position. Stifler, played by Seann William Scott, is still a womanizing bumbling idiot doing his best to make it in the workforce. I have a lot of friends in that position too. The same can be said for each and every character in this film, which made it very easy to make an emotional connection.

Don’t get me wrong, there were other things that I loved about this film. The sexual angst and unpredictable scenarios that made the first so popular, like making love to a pie, were present in this film. For instance, what would you do if the girl you used to baby sit turned 18 and threw herself at you? Jim gets to experience this, and given that he has a wife and kid, you can expect some comical antics.

Likewise, Eugene Levy comprised his role as Jim’s dad, and he was hilarious as ever. “The name’s Noah, mother f***er,” was very memorable. Throw in funny bit roles by John Cho as MILF Guy #3, ShannonElizabeth as Nadia (no bare chest this film L) and Chris Owen as the Shermanator, and the laughs kept coming.

I was also surprised to Katrina Bowden in the film as Mia, Oz’s girlfriend. It wasn’t a major role, but I’ve had the hots for her ever since seeing her in 30 Rock as Cerie. As always, she was absolutely stunning and it’s nice to see her expanding her portfolio. I expect we’ll see a lot more of her in the years to come.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack. I heard songs that really brought me back to my high-school days and it was great. Truth be told, it was the icing on the cake as far as the nostalgic factor is concerned.

My history and connection with the franchise is obviously the big reason I enjoyed this movie, but I think anyone who has seen the American Pie movies will enjoy American Reunion; in fact, I’d say it’s a must see. If you’ve never seen any of the films in the franchise, you might not catch all the subtleties that make it so good, but I think you’ll find enough laughs to make it worth you while.

I know I had a great movie experience.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 85%

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Wrath of the Titans

I’ve put off writing this movie review for over a week, mainly because I was so disappointed by Wrath of the Titans that I didn't want to waste any more time on thinking about it. Alas, I’d be remiss if I didn’t warn you to avoid this piece of crap.

I actually saw the movie on opening night and admit that I harbored high hopes. For whatever reason, I thought the filmmakers might have learned their lesson from Clash of the Titans, which I hated, and made the necessary corrections to make this a great action flick. The subject material is great (I love Greek mythology) and the cast is second to none; even so, they still found a way to botch this movie. How did they do it? Easy, they produced a cookie-cutter copy of the first.

For those who don’t know the premise, IMDb explains: “Perseus braves the treacherous underworld to rescue his father, Zeus, captured by his son, Ares, and brother Hades who unleash the ancient Titans upon the world.”

Now let’s compare that to IMDb’s premise for 2010’s Clashof the Titans: “Perseus, mortal son of Zeus, battles the minions of the underworld to stop them from conquering the Earth and the heavens.”

Slightly different I suppose, but the story for both is essentially the same: “Half man, half god battles crazy monsters, creatures and gods with the help of mortals to help stop a giant villain from destroying the earth. The villain ends up getting unleashed in both films, and then subsequently stopped by Perseus.” It didn’t work in the first film and it doesn’t work in the sequel.

If you told me a movie had Liam Neeson, Sam Worthington, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Nighy and Danny Huston, I would tell you it would be a guaranteed hit. Well, I’d be wrong because all of them were in this film and it still didn’t work. Huston was underutilized and quickly dismissed as Poseidon, while Nighy’s character, Hephaestus, was trivial. On the other hand, Worthington made a good action star, but it seemed like his heart wasn’t in it.

In my opinion, Fiennes’ performance as Hades was the best in the film, as it was in the first, while Neeson as Zeus came a close second. Even so, the performances weren’t that great. Like Worthington, it seemed like the cast had a laid-back approach to their performances, almost as if they expected the special effects and 3D graphics to carry the film.

Speaking of the special effects, they were great. The creatures were awesome, and there were some decent action sequences. The film even managed to pull off some realistic looking Cyclopes, which isn’t easy to do. Unfortunately, the special effects alone couldn't carry the film.

Wrath of the Titans was like looking forward to a delicious birthday cake. All of the ingredients have been combined, baked, and the finished product looks like a real pleasure to eat. Then, when it comes time to take a bit, you discover someone used salt instead of sugar. You’d no doubt be left with a bad taste in your mouth, just like you will if you see this film.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 15%

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Hunger Games

After Hunger Games, the first in Lionsgate’s adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy, earned $152.5 in its first weekend, making it the third-highest debut of all time behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($169.2 million) and The Dark Knight ($158.4 million), well, I caved to the pressure and went to see what all the hype was about.

The Huger Games also set the record for the highest-grossing film outside of summer and the biggest opening ever for a non-sequel. Combine that with the decent reviews I had read, and it became apparent there was something special about this movie based off a young-adult novel.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect as the movie reminded me of the Twilight Saga. I never saw any of those films, nor do I care to, but the whole tween craze surrounding it was baffling to me. It seemed as if the studio was more concerned about building a franchise and capitalizing on young consumers than making a quality film. Maybe the Twilight movies are good, but the point I’m trying to make is that I was worried Hunger Games would be propped up on a great marketing campaign rather than standing on its own two feet.

Now I usually go to the movies with my buddies, but this didn’t seem like a film for a bunch of late-20-year-old guys to be going into together. With that said, I deviated from the buddies format and actually went on a date, with a girl who had read the books I might add. It’s a trivial detail, but a good opportunity to give a shout out to Estrella.

For those who don’t know about the Hunger Games, and you must be living under a rock if you don’t, IMDb describes the premise: “Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place for the latest match.”

Jennifer Lawrence plays the lead role, and I must admit I wasn’t familiar with her before the Hunger Games. With that said, imagine how surprised I was to learn she played Mystique in X-Men: First Class. I’m a comic book geek, and I was surprised I didn’t connect those dots. I take it as a testament to Lawrence’s acting abilities, because obviously she was able to portray two very different characters in a way that I didn’t even realize it was the same actress.

Lawrence did an excellent job, and I was pleased with the acting throughout. I had never read Collins’ novels, so I was unfamiliar with the characters, but I felt the featured talent brought them to life and allowed me to make a connection. That’s especially true for Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark (I thought he was named Peter until I was informed otherwise after the movie), Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Donald Sutherland as President Snow and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket (though if you pay attention, Banks' character's name is never mentioned in the film). I was disappointed that Liam Hemsworth didn’t get more time as Gale Hawthorne, though my date said there will be more of him in the sequel.

Speaking of more Hawthorne, it’s obvious there is a love triangle being set up between him and Mellark in a battle for Katniss. I’m not a big fan and it is reminiscent of Twilight, but it’s obvious it works with the teenage crowd. Perhaps these love triangles should just consider a ménage à trois, but then I guess it’d be a whole different movie altogether, though I'd be more apt to watch it.

Anyway, back to the characters. While I was pleased with many of them, I was disappointed with the portrayal of others, especially all of the other tributes. With 24 in contention, only five or six are introduced in a meaningful way. That meant when the vast majority of them perish, it is a battle to the death after all, I felt nothing. In fact, I often had trouble determining who had just died. Cannon shots signified their deaths, but it really was cannon fire for fodder. What does it boil down to? There should have been more secondary character development.

I’d have also liked to see Director Gary Ross make the film a bit more violent and graphic. The film’s premise is a battle to the death, so cutting away before a deathblow or skimping on the blood seemed anticlimactic. Now keep in mind I am a male in my late 20s talking here. I understand the film wasn’t intended for my demographic and they certainly couldn’t have produced a movie with such violence and achieved the same success, especially if they wanted to keep the PG-13 rating. With that said, I didn’t hold it against the film as I knew what I was getting myself into. I’m just saying, a full-out bloodbath would have been entertaining.

Children slaughtering their peers, all of whom are between 12-18 years old I believe, is off putting, but also the film’s biggest draw. Collins developed a detailed and engaging story, while Ross successfully brought it to the big screen. All in all, I enjoyed Hunger Games and will certainly see the subsequent films in the franchise. Given I was the exception to the rule in that I didn’t know much about the Hunger Games franchise before seeing the film, I can confidently say whether you bask in naïvety, like I did, or are a hardcore fan, you’ll enjoy watching this movie.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 75%

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