The Cabin in the Woods

"You think you know the story."

“You think you know the story.”

Searching for a weekend retreat, five young men and women travel to an old cabin, far from the reaches of civilization.  Little do they know that a mysterious force is at work in the house, ready to threaten their lives.  Does that sound very familiar?  Just wait.  At the same time, two men who seem to have knowledge of the cabin arrive at a strange facility an unknown distance away.  Who are these men?  What is their job?  These questions and more are answered in the film The Cabin in the Woods.

The best advice I can give for people who want to watch The Cabin in the Woods is to know as little as possible before you see it, so I’m trying to avoid spoilers in this review.  I can say that, while the original premise of the film intentionally uses a cliche where the main characters are isolated from the outside world, the movie quickly moves beyond the concept and into richer territory.  The size of the story keeps growing until it has a scope far larger than any other horror film I’ve seen.  Although I did want to watch the movie again immediately after finishing it the first time, I do think a big part of the initial experience is the excitement of discovering the truth behind the cabin and that can be ruined if you know too much about the story before seeing the film.

The Cabin in the Woods was directed by Drew Goddard, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joss Whedon.  If you’ve read my review of the Avengers you know how much I love the works of Joss Whedon.  He knows how to tell a story like few other writers do, adding wit and humour to his shows and films without diffusing the weight and power of his dramatic moments.  Whedon’s talent is clearly at work in Cabin, but one cannot disregard the talent of Goddard as well.  Goddard not only worked on Whedon’s television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but also some great episodes for two of my other favourite shows, Alias and Lost.  With these two fantastic filmmakers collaborating on The Cabin in the Woods, it’s no wonder that the film turned out so good.

"Let's get this party started."

“Let’s get this party started.”

Whedon and Goddard designed The Cabin in the Woods to work both as a standard horror movie and as a satire of the genre, which was a challenge to accomplish, but they succeeded.  Some viewers of horror films are quickly exasperated by the illogical decisions made by the characters or the story elements that are overused within the genre.  Cabin finds humour in these tropes and offers explanations within the story.  If you’ve ever been frustrated by the weak storytelling of horror movies, you can find comfort in the film’s take on the genre.  On the other hand, if you simply enjoy horror movies as they are, The Cabin in the Woods is entertaining in this regard as well.

Of course, the fact that The Cabin in the Woods can act as a regular horror film does come with its own set of problems.  The film is tame compared to other recent horror movies, such as the Saw or Hostel films, but it does have enough violence and gore to turn away certain squeamish viewers.  In addition, some of the characters who act out the cliches of the genre are by necessity not developed as well as others.  The best and most complex characters of the film turn out to be the ones who satirize the horror genre the most: Fran Kranz, who also appeared in Whedon’s show Dollhouse and his upcoming film version of Much Ado About Nothing, plays a stoner named Marty who regularly points out the absurdity of the situation at the same time he tries to survive it; Kristen Connolly plays Dana, a girl who transcends her stereotypical role in the horror film; Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) appear as the mysterious men who control the fate of the young people in the cabin, bringing a dark humour to the film while referencing certain horror tropes.

The Cabin in the Woods is an well-designed and entertaining film that revives a stale premise.  The movie satisfies with a variety of humourous and surprising moments, but there is a deeper meaning to all of it.  The movie leaves you asking many questions:  What is the nature of humanity?  Why do we watch horror films?  Is it evil to find entertainment in the deaths of characters?  These philosophical questions combined with such an entertaining story make The Cabin in the Woods one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen and one of the best movies of 2012.  I give the film a 5 out of 5.  Watch the trailer for the film below:

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

"I am looking for someone to share in an adventure."

“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure.”

I have to apologize for the lack of updates in recent months.  I was busy with my final semester of college, which didn’t leave a lot of time for blog entries.  Now I’m done with school and I have plenty of time, so I should be posting more regularly for the foreseeable future.  I’m excited, not only because I have returned to the site, but also because my first entry in months is a review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

How can a journey be truly unexpected when one has been waiting years for it?  The Hobbit is easily the film I’ve anticipated most this year. I’m a huge fan of the book, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and Middle-earth in general.  Considering my enthusiasm for the material, there was no way I could approach An Unexpected Journey with an objective eye.  My review, then, should be seen for what it is: a fan who enjoyed every second of the film.The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey begins essentially in the same way as the novel.  The hobbit Bilbo Baggins is enjoying a peaceful life when he is approached by the wizard Gandalf and a company of Dwarves, who whisk him away on an adventure.  The Dwarves are on a journey to the Lonely Mountain, where they had a powerful kingdom until a dragon named Smaug conquered it, stealing their treasure.  The scenes taken from the book are mostly rendered faithfully, and they are the best scenes in the movie.

Where An Unexpected Journey might have been derailed is in Jackson’s decision to connect the movie to his Lord of the Rings film trilogy, making The Hobbit as a “prequel” rather than a story on its own.  He added cameos from Rings actors, created a subplot that foreshadows the trilogy, and even constructed certain Hobbit scenes to resemble sections from the Fellowship film.  I have some criticisms about these aspects of the movie, especially because they take time away from Bilbo’s story, but on the other hand, I like The Lord of the Rings and I’m interested to see how Jackson will develop the connections in the next two movies.  I wish I could have seen a version of The Hobbit without the additions, but ultimately, the new scenes are worth seeing.

Thorin Oakenshield is the leader of the Dwarves, and the driving force behind the journey.

Thorin Oakenshield is the leader of the Dwarves, and the driving force behind the journey.

An Unexpected Journey is inhabited by Hobbits, wizards, Dwarves, Elves, Goblins, and even hedgehogs, but the film is notable because it completely lacks human characters.  Considering the assortment of creatures could have alienated the audience, the actors should be commended for providing the characters with such human emotions and concerns.  Martin Freeman is a fantastic Bilbo, capturing both his humour and his doubt about his own heroism.  Not all of the Dwarves are developed yet, but those who are have been given distinct personalities:  Thorin is the bitter, driven leader who wishes to regain his homeland; Balin is both a warrior and an advisor, wise in his old age; Kili and Fili are the youngest Dwarves, providing youthful mischief and comic relief.  Those are just some examples that stood out in the first movie.  I’m interested to see how Jackson will continue to develop the company of Dwarves in the rest of the trilogy.

Other actors in the film besides Bilbo and the Dwarves give excellent performances.  Andy Serkis once again brings Gollum to life through motion capture, managing to portray both the dangerous and the sympathetic sides of the character successfully.  Ian McKellen is still the perfect choice for Gandalf.  McKellen didn’t originally want to play the wizard again, but I’m glad he changed his mind, because no other actor would have worked.  Sylvestor McCoy joins the cast as Radagast the Brown, a wizard connected to nature.  Some have criticized Jackson’s quirky additions to Radagast’s character, but the changes help to make him separate from the more serious wizards and he fits the light-hearted tone of the book.  The only weak acting I noticed came from Christopher Lee, who returned as Saruman.  I was happy that he could be in the film, but it almost seemed like he was just reading his lines.  Saruman was always a bit dry, I suppose.

One of Peter Jackson’s more controversial decisions when filming The Hobbit trilogy was his choice to shoot it at 48 frames per second, a frame rate twice as fast as most films.  Even before the movie came out, people were criticizing the technology.  However, I have been excited about the frame rate since it was announced and I definitely wanted to see the movie at that speed, especially since Jackson believes it to be the best way to watch the film.  Luckily, I was able to see the 48 frames per second version at the theatre nearby and I loved it.  The motion seemed a bit weird initially, but my eyes adjusted after a couple minutes and everything looked better.  Everything from the actors to the locations appears more real, as if Middle-earth exists in front of you.  The natural environment of New Zealand is especially amazing at the higher frame rate.  Some people have criticized the technology for making the special effects, costumes, and set look fake, but I was enjoying the experience too much to even think about that.  That said, the time it takes to adjust to the high frame rate seems to vary depending on the viewer, and it could be distracting when you first see the film.  I should also mention that I saw it in 3D, which was very good, even if it wasn’t necessary for every scene.

Despite Jackson's additions, Bilbo's journey is still at the heart of The Hobbit.

Despite Jackson’s additions, Bilbo’s journey is still at the heart of The Hobbit.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an immensely satisfying adventure that features great characters, an amazing atmosphere, and exciting visuals.  If you revel in stories of Hobbits and wizards, the first Hobbit film will be a welcome return to the land of Middle-earth.  For people unacquainted with Tolkien’s world, Peter Jackson’s artistic direction and the spectacle of the battle scenes should be enough to keep them entertained.  I give the film a 5 out of 5, because I enjoyed it far too much to give it anything less.

The Avengers

Perhaps you have heard of The Avengers.  This little film is breaking box office records all over the place and has reached a billion dollars in only 19 days.  The superhero film is also a critical success, with 93% of critics approving of the movie.

In The Avengers, the “Earth’s mightiest heroes” must gather together to fight a villain bent on world domination.  The group consists of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk, who have each had their own movie, but they are joined by Black Widow and Hawkeye, who made small appearances in Iron Man 2 and Thor.  Their antagonist is Loki, Thor’s brother, who wants to use an Asgardian device called the Tesseract to rule over Earth.  The Avengers was a risky experiment because no other superhero film has tried to balance such big characters in the same way, but luckily the film works.

The Avengers was written and directed by Joss Whedon, a fact that made me extremely excited right from the beginning.  Whedon has never been a huge name in Hollywood, but he has a dedicated fan base due to his under-appreciated television shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse.  I have been a fan of Whedon for the past ten years, which means that I have had the frustrating experience of enjoying his works while watching others ignore them.  That all changes with The Avengers, however.  With the popularity of the movie, mainstream audiences finally have the opportunity to see his talent.

I wouldn’t be wrong to say that Joss Whedon is responsible for everything that works about the Avengers.  Whedon has always been good when dealing with large ensemble casts, which is what the film needed.  Each superhero has his or her own unique personality and whoever makes the film needs to provide equal time for each character.  Whedon succeeds in this regard; each character has scenes where he or she can shine emotionally or in battle.  Also, the best scenes in the movie for me were when the superheroes gathered and we could see their personalities bounce off each other.

Another one of Whedon’s skills that he brings to The Avengers is his humour.  His shows and movies often make me laugh, but without reducing the serious tension that runs throughout the story.  That attribute fits well in the movie, because it allows the audience to chuckle at the ridiculous parts of the story, but still care about the heroes’ fight against evil.  He also inserts humour into very serious scenes, making you laugh one second but want to cry the next.  One thing is certain about Joss Whedon’s works: he will defy your expectations whenever he can.

While The Avengers was not filmed in 3D (it was converted into the format later), the final product uses the technology to its full potential.  The directing and cinematography complement the technology, providing visual depth to both emotional and fight scenes.  As I watched the movie, I thought about how the 3D enhanced the experience and made the more expensive ticket worth it.

I noticed other Whedon trademarks in The Avengers that worked really well, but his characters and humour are the primary reasons that the movie succeeds.  He makes you care about the heroic battle in which the characters find themselves, and he makes each scene so entertaining that you wish the film would never end.  I have spent most of this review talking more about the director than the movie, but I really believe that his strengths and the film’s strengths are mostly the same.

I give The Avengers 5 out of 5.  I recommend this to anyone who has ever enjoyed a film about superheroes, or has any interest in the genre.  This film is a strong contender for the best superhero movie so far.  Not only is it written very well, but it is also a spectacle with fantastic special effects.  This deserves to be seen on a theatre screen, where you can get the most out of the epic and engaging fight scenes.

The Hobbit at High Speed

The book's speed remains the same.

One of my most anticipated films of 2012 is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  I only read The Hobbit two years ago, but it quickly made me a dedicated fan of J.R.R. Tolkien.  While I appreciate his more dense narratives in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, the tale of Bilbo and the dwarves will always be my favourite work from him, for its humour and whimsy.  So, naturally, a cinematic adaptation of The Hobbit from the same director who brought Middle-earth to life in the The Lord of the Rings film trilogy would excite me like no other movie could.  However, in the past few days, some negativity online has dimmed my anticipation.

Last year, Peter Jackson announced that he would be filming both parts of The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again, at 48 frames per second.  For those who don’t know, most movies play at only 24 frames per second.  The slower speed looks less like real life, but plays a big role in making a movie feel cinematic.  Compare any big Hollywood film to a soap opera: the soap opera is shot at a higher frame rate, which gives it a look that people associate with cheaper quality.

Needless to say, Jackson’s decision was a gamble.  The higher frame rate could create a better sense of immersion into the world of the story, but only if the viewers were willing to give the new look a chance.  However, Jackson premiered ten minutes of Hobbit footage earlier this week at CinemaCon 2012, and if the response is any indication, audiences are not going to be kind to the new technique.

The complaints vary: some say that the frame rate makes the sets look fake, while others draw comparisons between the film and low-budget productions, such as soap operas, student films, and behind-the-scenes videos.  All of it seems to boil down to one problem:  association.  Audiences associate the higher frame rate with certain lower kinds of entertainment, so The Hobbit seems worse for it.  Perhaps the reason the sets look fake is because the frame rate invokes the memory of behind-the-scenes footage, which openly reveals the artifice of film sets.

Of course, I cannot completely disregard what the audience saw, because I wasn’t there myself, but humans do have a habit of resisting change.  At this point, I think Peter Jackson has earned our trust, especially when it comes to films set in Middle-earth.  Although, some theatres are sure to be showing a 24-frames-per-second version, so if it turns out I’m wrong, at least we can still see Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain in a watchable format.

What do you think?  Would you see the version with the higher frame rate, or do you believe the traditional film look should be maintained?

Katniss: The Girl Who Was On Sale

As a blogger with a site about books, I would be remiss if I ignored the growing phenomenon behind The Hunger Games series. With the film adaptation of the first book receiving critical and financial success, the books have experienced a new boost in sales, pushing The Hunger Games towards a Harry Potter level of popularity. As a result, I should warn you that I’m not reviewing the books, but addressing the effects of their recent fame.

The Hunger Games, of course, is the story of a Barbie doll who must fight to the death against other toys. Oh wait, that’s not it. The books are about a pillowcase trying to survive and overcome a dystopian government. Hmm, that’s not it either.

Before I start questioning the over-saturation of Hunger Games merchandise coinciding with the movie, let me say that I did enjoy the film and I don’t think all of the attention is necessarily bad. For many viewers, the film was inspiration enough to find the original books and read through them all. There’s a reason why every store I’ve been in the past two weeks has plenty of copies in stock (when last summer I had a hard time finding a single copy). People want to read the source material.

My main concern is that with the host of merchandise coming out – from the aforementioned Barbie doll and pillowcases to socks and cookbooks – the original intention of the series might become distorted. Katniss is such an accessible protagonist in the first novel of the series because she doesn’t care about the materialism and superficiality of the Capitol, but she is thrust into the situation against her will. The series contains a lot of commentary on the destructive nature of celebrity, so fans buying anything with Katniss or a Mockingjay on it seems like a contradiction. Will the original message of the books be lost underneath the weight of commercialism? Only time will tell.

Despite my apprehension over the abundance of Hunger Games merchandise, one positive has come from the attention to the series: the popularity of Katniss. In both the books and the film, she is a very positive role model for young women. She is a strong character, but still has human flaws. She is physically strong without being hypersexualized for a male audience. The fact that a female character can fit into a traditional hero role so naturally and receive wide acceptance from both men and women is an important step forward.

What do you think? Is the commercialization of The Hunger Games overwhelming the original story? Should we simply be happy that an entertaining series is receiving the attention it deserves?