Talking Movies

April 10, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Five American teenagers travel to a remote cabin in the woods in the South for a debauched weekend; terrible things ensue, and by gad sir is it hysterically funny…

Alpha male Curt (Chris Hemsworth) invites his loose girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison) and her sober friend Dana (Kristen Connolly) to join his bookish friend Holden (Jesse Williams) and their mutual stoner friend Marty (Fran Kranz) at his cousin’s vacant cabin in the woods. Once there they unwittingly unleash forces of evil that pick them off by one. The set-up and execution is the stuff of parodic cliché. But then, it is parodic cliché, because the script is by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard; with the great Goddard making his directorial debut. The sinister blood-stained opening credits are interrupted by coffee-making, and then the mundane office drones sequence that launched is interrupted by the inappropriately sound-tracked title card. This is by far the funniest film I’ve seen in quite some time…

Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins play the office drones in the control room of a giant military-industrial operation that Goddard uses to undercut all the horror clichés. They have tremendous comedic chemistry and make this move terrific fun as they organise office gambling pools, snarl at video monitors, indulge in an unbelievably funny speakerphone prank sequence, and humiliate Whedon regulars Amy Acker and Tom Lenk; a harassed chemist and intern respectively. It’s a privilege to see Studio 60’s Whitford again rampaging thru great comedic dialogue, his delivery of lines like “I think, mostly, that I just want this moment to end now” guaranteed to bring the house down. Great lines like “Yeah, I kind of dismembered that guy with a trowel” abound and Kranz, despite his irritating vocal delivery, grabs a lot of them. The true acting revelation though is just how likeable Hemsworth is when he’s not playing Thor.

This is not a scary movie. There’s gore aplenty at the end, but it’s so ridiculous that one setting in particular seems like it was a bet with Piranha 3-D auteur Alexandre Aja on who could use more fake blood. Having read Buffy season 8 I’m inclined to praise Goddard for everything that’s great, especially all the hilarious nonsense with Whitford, Jenkins & Co, and blame Whedon for everything that doesn’t work, namely the final act’s descent into VFX overload and lame mythology. The collision of military science and magic screams Whedon’s disastrous Initiative in Buffy season 4 and the increasingly silly mythic tone is pure Season 8. Goddard meanwhile has always specialised in joyous (and undercutting) comedy preceding incredibly bleak shocks. Here his comedy soars before unveiling the most fitting character death you could hope for.

Sure the ending is deeply unsatisfactory and the whole third act is increasingly preposterous, but this so damn funny that it must be judged an excellent film overall.

4/5

Advertisements

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

December 3, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part II

If you’ve read the previous piece then you’ll be aware that I was quite often watching the adventures of the young(ish) Clark Kent for laughs.

So, why did I stick with Smallville? Season 1 was fun. It wasn’t a great TV show, but it was consistently entertaining, promised great future developments (not least when Lex’s future was glimpsed and it showed a white-suited black-gloved President causing a nuclear apocalypse), and the central conceit of a good Lex and a young Superman being friends was irresistible. You also had a nice thwarted but plausible relationship with Lana, complemented by Chloe’s loveable cub-reporter in the making digging around for meteor freaks for her Wall of Weird oblivious to the fact that her best friend was the freakiest. Season 2 was where the wheels fell off the wagon. I stopped watching for a while, as the removal of the obstacle didn’t lead to Clark and Lana becoming a couple, but instead to Millar & Gough ratcheting up the badly-written teen angst to unbearable levels. It also began a trend of dotting poorly explained ‘important arc plot points’ randomly at the end of episodes, and then forgetting about them for weeks, something which over the years eventually made the show both incomprehensible and unintentionally hilarious. Still the idea that Lex was prophesied to go bad by Indian Caves intrigued… Season 3 was loudly rumoured to have Ian Somerhalder starring as Batman, and Drew Z Greenberg writing episodes inspired by The Dead Zone. Only one of those happened though. Somerhalder was terrific as a haunted bad boy who disappointingly turned out to be Lionel’s stooge, but there was a nice exit for him in a Frequency inspired episode, and Chloe became more complex as she dallied with Lionel’s patronage. The best moments of this season though couldn’t rescue the overall sense of portentous drift, exemplified by the awful finale which killed off half the cast to the strains of opera.

I dragged myself back for season 4 because Jensen Ackles had joined the cast, and was surprised by a belter of an opener which kick-started an excellent fourth season that I regard as the highpoint of the series. A badly needed sense of fun was restored along with a completely new skill at touching moments. Millar and Gough finally lightened up, letting Clark fly in the season premiere with accompanying dialogue of “What is that? Is that a bird?” “Maybe it’s a plane”, while that episode for the first time in years actually felt like this show was derived from Superman comics, rather than The Flash; which is what the stubbornly non-flying Clark had made it veer towards. Ackles’ villain enlivened an actually well-developed arc chasing crystals that would create the Fortress of Solitude. Erica Durance unexpectedly arrived as Chloe’s cousin Lois Lane (and made Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang look wish-washy) and developed a wonderful spiky relationship with Clark. Chloe finally got to know Clark’s secret and, in a beautiful touch, had to teach an amnesiac Clark how to use his powers – in the knowledge that she’d have to go back to pretending she didn’t know about them soon enough.

Season 5 started off with the construction of the Fortress of Solitude and Clark and Chloe becoming a super-team: she detects crime, he fights it. The T-1000 reinterpretation of the Kryptonian artificial intelligence Braniac was rather great, and the Buffy overtones of James Marsters appearing for the writing of his colleague Steven S DeKnight were complemented by the ‘Clark goes to College and has a hard time of it’ feel that echoed season 4 of Buffy. There was a priceless conversation in which Clark and Chloe attempted to discuss the ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue’ problem, but the quickly reversed proposal to Lana which led to Jonathan Kent’s death was a disastrous mis-step for the show that brought proceedings down to the level of season 2’s angst in its insistence on burdening Clark with farcical levels of guilt; because apparently that’s what real drama is all about. The decision to move Lana towards Lex romantically was nicely done, but the feeling that Clark should be further down the road towards being Superman was starting to nag. The finale which saw Lex taken over by Zod’s spirit and Clark trapped in the Phantom Zone burned down the house in style.

Season 6 saw Clark roar back from the Phantom Zone but in doing so unleash a horde of loose phantoms, the rounding up of which became his season arc mission. It was a step down from the previous two arcs but this season was characterised by let-downs as Lex possessed by Zod was dealt with far too easily, Green Arrow’s arrival promised a Batman like level of conflict that never really arrived, and Lana and Lex’s marriage bafflingly retreated from emotionally destroying Clark. However a finale in which Bizarro arrived and all the female leads died was a stunning episode. Season 7 saw the arrival of Supergirl, who was never really given a compelling reason to be on the show, while Bizzarro was dispatched too easily only to gleefully reappear undetected, but still arguably underused. The revelation that Chloe had become a meteor freak thru continued exposure was brilliant, not least her struggle to keep the secret from her boyfriend Jimmy. Lex finally killed Lionel, and also bafflingly his brother the Daily Planet editor, to become a supervillain rather than previous season’s St Lex being lied to by Clark. However Clark still not being Superman rather undermined their apocalyptic clash. Season 8 saw Lex replaced by his ret-conned protégé Tess Mercer while Sam Witwer starred as Clark’s ret-conned Kryptonian stowaway Doomsday. Chloe’s descent into darkness as she was taken over by Braniac was delicious, but her half-romance with Witwer’s heroic EMT was always unintentionally funny as she and Clark defended him against Jimmy’s charge that this man was obviously a serial killer, despite continual evidence supporting Jimmy. This left an extremely bitter aftertaste when Jimmy was unnecessarily killed in the finale to guilt-trip Chloe for trying to separate man and beast to save the man. Oh, then Clark abandoned her.

Season 9 saw General Zod, as a Kandorian clone, pop up in Tess’ mansion (it was never really satisfactorily explained how) thus beginning endless half-written political machinations between Clark and Zod over leadership of the Kandorians. Tess was revealed as a member of the shadowy organisation Checkmate run by Pam Grier, and hilariously Senator Martha Kent reappeared as their nemesis the Red Queen, who’d been acting sinisterly to keep Clark’s secret safe. Brian Austin Green as Metallo was absolutely thrown away, and it became all too noticeable for budget reasons that Metropolis only had one street – shot from different angles. Season 10 introduced Jack Kirby’s villain Darkseid as the final season nemesis but he never really showed up properly, but manipulated his minions in a number of poorly explained sub-plots, while The Suicide Squad were almost entirely squandered. Ultimately not just Lionel but then Lex returned for the finale where Clark finally just became Superman – after previous inane episodes had set a new record for ‘well that was easy’ moments, not least one of the minions of Darkseid destroying the Bow of Orion with contemptuous ease, having proclaimed loudly that it was the only weapon that Darkseid feared. The End…

Smallville ran for 10 seasons. Along the way there were heartbreaking episodes, such as Chloe’s reunion with her stricken mother who for a brief while was lucid again, adorable episodes, such as the first appearance of Krypto the Superdog, and brilliantly fun episodes, like the formation of the Justice League. But all too often episodes were entirely dependent on having a cute high concept or a good writer simply amusing themselves. So we got Steven S DeKnight writing Saw with Lionel Luthor, while someone else Fassbendered in rewriting The Game with Oliver Queen as Michael Douglas and Chloe as Sean Penn. What could be great on a micro level could never really break out of the shackles that kept the show from being great on a macro level. Hence the crippling levels of angst, endless body-swap episodes, Clark affected by shade of Kryptonite episodes, and parallel universe episodes. Watching the finale you realised that Erica Durance and Kristin Kreuk each starred in 7 seasons of Smallville but that Durance made Kreuk’s performance look anaemic from the moment she arrived, and the crushing weight of the mythology made you impatient for Lois and Clark from that point on. The show left Smallville itself in the rear-view mirror in season 5 but persisted in refusing to let Clark fly or don the cape for so long that it became increasingly infuriating/embarrasing. The handling of the major villains always disappointed – a synecdoche for the whole show. The implicit hook of the souring of Clark and Lex’s friendship was never paid off satisfactorily. Lex was in 7 seasons of Smallville, but at no point did you feel there was a clear endpoint planned where he and Clark would rise to their respective destinies. Its own continuously imperilled success condemned Smallville to continually deferred gratification.

Smallville never quite achieved its promise, but it handsomely saw off the challenge of Superman Returns, and kept live-action Superman viable despite all the nay-saying about the redundancy of the character in a Dark Knight world, and that’s not to be sneezed at. I just hope that Allison Mack and Erica Durance manage to walk into better written TV roles.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.