Movie Review: “The Cabin in the Woods” (Drew Goddard, USA 2012)

The tagline for this film was, “If you hear a strange sound outside, have sex.” Similar to Pauline Kael’s famous description of the basic appeal of movies as “kiss kiss, bang bang,” this tagline actually describes horror movies in a nutshell. However, like Kael’s statement and the later film named after it (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang [Shane Black, USA 2005]), it also conveys that this film, in spite of its immediate appearances, is a piece of self-referential comedy.

Self-referential comedy is of course very popular with solipsistic Hollywood: films like The Player (Robert Altman, USA 1992) and Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, USA 1980) are clearly and openly commentaries on the industry of which they are a part while others like Scream (Wes Craven, USA 1996) and the brilliant The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet, USA 1997) have taken the approach of wrapping the self-referential comedy inside a slightly-more-ridiculous-than-normal narrative that is itself much of the joke. This film follows the latter path, building a cleverly cliche plot about five college students who go to visit a cabin in the woods for a vacation, the type of story we’ve seen in approximately one million horror films before, but adding a second behind-the-scenes (so-to-speak) plot that explains all of the silliness.

For about an hour, this film is excellent. We are intercutting between the traditional horror sequence unfolding at the cabin and an unexplained office-type setup where a whole cadre of people are, for some reason, watching the action, manipulating it through a series of devices to force the cabin narrative to follow horror film norms. First-time director Drew Goddard shows a surprising visual sense, opening the film with a very ’70s-style sequence at the “office” that’s shot in a rather grainy stock with bright lighting and a color palate heavy on browns and whites. Then, as we are introduced to the cabin narrative, we see the visuals change completely. The lighting becomes more varied and dynamic, the dominant color becomes amber (following what was the industry norm for outdoor scenes until about a decade ago, when the orange-blue color scheme began to take over the entire industry). Unfortunately, these successes are rather made up (made down?) for when we get some really bad CGI mountain shots and both sequences move into nighttime, changing to a typical blue-heavy, low-key lighting, orange-blue-colored scheme. It’s especially unfortunate that Goddard stops differentiating the two worlds, because the setup of the film is so perfect for using such visual imagination. Even after this point, though, the film remains visually competent–it just becomes overly conventional for my taste.

The cabin sequence is a wonderful (and delightfully short–it really moves along at a good pace and stops itself from falling into being what it’s parodying) trip through all of the cliches of this type of horror film. The characters are so obvious as to be (appropriately) laughable: the (supposedly) sexy dumb blonde slut (It even follows the horror movie tradition of casting a “sexy” girl whom I don’t find even slightly attractive. I’m convinced that somehow they test these on me first.), the (supposedly) un-sexy nerdy goody-two-shoes girl who we all know will be our hero, the seemingly-stupid-but-strangely-wise comic relief nerd, the studly jerk guy, and the decent guy. It changes the norms a bit in a few ways to tell us it’s not going to be exactly what we’re used to: the sexy dumb blonde is a pre-med student, the studly guy appears to have a brain and not be such a jerk, and they’re college students instead of the usual high school students. It all works very well, playing on the targets of its satire with a perfectly light touch. It continues in the same vein, hitting every step on the typical horror narrative, paying homage to them as it pokes fun at them. It’s clever and fun, and never takes itself, even its own sense of humor, too seriously.

The office sequence, meanwhile, gives the filmmakers a way to comment on the silliness and make points about it as they wish. Meanwhile, they are dropping some rather obvious hints that in the end this is all a part of some religious ritual. The workers bet on which monsters will get called forth, and there are few things in film history much funnier than the betting board we see there, which shows just how formulaic horror films really are.

However, as great as the film is for an hour, when the two worlds merge for a formulaic climax, everything falls apart. It becomes a more traditional horror movie with just a few gags (Though at least it keeps the CGI levels much lower than most films seem to do now.), losing the clever touch that it had for the first hour and its entire mise-en-scene. While it may seem appropriate to end this setup with an overlong explanation scene and explain everything away as a sacrifice to “the old gods,” the fact is that at this point the film has become what it skewered. There isn’t that same light sense of humor at the end, and that failure is grating coming after so much success.

All told, it was definitely a fun film to watch and far more worth seeing than most films. Its run time comes in just over 90 minutes, and the first hour is as much fun as you can have watching a film, so a rather weak final act doesn’t kill everything. It’s the kind of fun horror movie that gets made too rarely, with Hollywood stuck on self-serious studies in hyper-conservatism dressed up with torture porn instead of letting horror films be the popcorn films they were once upon a time. It relies too much on CGI and much of it is more conventional than I would like, but those visual flaws are relatively minor considering the cleverness on display and the visual strength of the first act.

Notes

  • I didn’t say anything about the acting, because there are no characters of note for anyone to play. No one stands out in a good or a bad one, because no one really has anything to do. It was nice to see Bradley Whitford, who was so good on The West Wing but seems to have dropped completely out of sight since. Kristen Connolly had one really terrible scene (though it’s difficult to tell, given the setup, whether that was intentional). That’s really all I can say at all.
  • 2011 was really a pretty good year for Hollywood, in spite of naming one of the worst Best Picture winners in Oscar history: Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA), Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/USA), Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA), and Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA/United Arab Emirates) were all fantastic films, and Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA) and this film were also excellent. 2012, not so much.
  • If anyone wondered about more specifics as to the comment about the characters being in the wrong roles: Dana, the Virgin, was just having an affair with one of her professors, was not subtle about her interest in Holden, and of course spent the first ten minutes of the film without pants on. She is almost certainly the Whore. Curt, the Athlete, is at school on an academic scholarship and was providing advice to Dana about what to read for her courses. He is almost certainly the Scholar. Jules, the Whore, is a goofy, funny person who makes a joke out of everything possible. She is almost certainly the Fool. Marty, the Fool, is incredibly uncomfortable with sexuality and comments that he once made out with Jules but that the relationship went no further. He is almost certainly the virgin. Holden, the Scholar, “has the best hands on the team” and catches a football with seemingly no warning that it’s coming when we first see him. He is almost certainly the Athlete.
  • There are interesting little jokes throughout this film that are worth discussion, ranging from the characters’ relationships to what exactly is on the board in the office and to what each is a reference. It’s the kind of film one can spend a lot of time dissecting and find more humor with each time through.

Movie Review: “Knuckleball!” (Ricki Stern/Anne Sundberg, USA 2012)

I don’t really like reviewing documentaries, particularly when I don’t find them particularly compelling. The reason is that they’re very difficult to judge and really quite different from non-documentary films, because they also require some fidelity to truth–they have to be held to journalistic standards as well as artistic ones, and there are only so many subjects on which I have enough knowledge to be able to make journalistic determinations. So, I have to do at least a little bit of research before I feel comfortable saying anything at all about a documentary. I read plenty of what I could find about Rodriguez after watching Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK 2012), so that I could feel reasonably confident that the film was presenting reality. For this film, I luckily don’t have to do research, because I know plenty about baseball already.

More importantly, this documentary isn’t even sure what it’s about, so I would have no idea what to research if I wanted to. The title suggests that it’s a documentary about the knuckleball, a rare and rather bizarre pitch that has been in use in baseball since the early 20th century but never been the most popular pitch. Fascination with the knuckleball has grown in the last few years with the rise of R.A. Dickey, who is one of the most well-spoken and interesting players in Major League Baseball, as a Cy Young award winner while throwing the knuckleball. One could make a film about the knuckleball examining issues like what its movement actually is and why it has never been terribly popular despite quite a few very successful practitioners in history (Dickey, Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough, Joe and Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Eddie Cicotte, just to name a few), and it could be very interesting.

However, Stern and Sundberg seem to be using the knuckleball simply as an excuse to tie together two otherwise unconnected stories: the career of R.A. Dickey and the career of Tim Wakefield. They are two interesting and well-liked players (and Dickey is a pleasure to hear almost any time–he’s well-spoken and has lots of great stereotypical nerd interests) and Wakefield was leaving the game just as Dickey rose from relative obscurity to prominence throwing the same pitch that had been Wakefield’s bread and butter for so many years, but it seems odd to title the film Knuckleball! and then barely talk about the pitch itself.

Even within its narrative about the two pitchers, the film feels very uneven. It spends a lot of time talking about Wakefield’s search for his 200th career win, but Dickey instead is mostly seen attempting to find his way out of a terrible slump. We see Dickey talking to other knuckleball specialists (Hough, the Niekros, and Wakefield) and talking a ton about how traditional pitching coaches don’t know how to help, but his career is covered very briefly. Meanwhile, Wakefield gets a long tribute that focuses on his successes, built around his ultimately successful quest for 200 wins.

All of this unevenness makes the film end up feeling like Stern and Sundberg wanted to make a documentary just about Wakefield’s final season but realized they needed to fill more time and so added in some stuff with Dickey. It’s unfortunate, because a serious examination of the knuckleball would be fascinating, and many of the issues that would be worth exploring get mentioned but not explored because of the nature of this film.

Visually, Stern and Sundberg fall into the traditions of sports documentaries, using simple interview shots and lots of montages that include far too many extra images of things like schedules and statlines. It’s a style that I’ve frankly never favored anyway, and it’s now been so overused as to lose any interesting elements it may once have had. The biggest positive of ESPN’s now fairly long-running 30 for 30 series has been its willingness to look a bit different–to let its directors run with some different techniques than the interview-montage back-and-forth and overuse of dull graphics that characterizes most of the field, and this film frankly reminded me of what a breath of fresh air some of those films have been because of that distinction.

However, the film does seem to play fair with the facts. It doesn’t gloss over Wakefield’s failures in his quest or ignore that he was demoted to the bullpen at the start of his last season. It doesn’t pretend that the longtime decent pitcher was released from the Pirates for no apparent reason but rather admits that he had a terrible season that led to his release. It doesn’t ignore Dickey’s struggles after his breakout (in fact it arguably makes Dickey look worse than he actually is). The problems with this film are all artistic, not journalistic.

Overall, this isn’t a very interesting film. It starts with what should be an interesting subject, but goes in a very dull way with it and ends up being something only of interest to a major Tim Wakefield fan. It’s a missed opportunity, which is too bad for viewers. It won’t make you sorry you spent an hour and a half watching it if you’re interested in Wakefield, but it won’t draw you in otherwise.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Gliding over All” (05.08, 2012)

“Gliding Over All” (05.08, 2012)

Written by Moira Walley-Beckett (Previous Episodes: “Breakage,” “Over,” “Mas,” “Fly,” “Bullet Points,” “Bug,” and “End Times”)

Directed by Michelle McLaren (Previous Episodes: “4 Days Out,” “I.F.T.,” “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Shotgun,” “Salud,” and “Madrigal”)

 

We all knew this was how this half-season would end, didn’t we? It was obvious that it would be Hank discovering Walt’s identity, and as soon as the writers started playing Chekhov’s gun with the Leaves of Grass book, it was obvious what the method of discovery would be. Thankfully, rather than something ridiculous like Hank thinking that only Heisenberg would possibly read Leaves of Grass, the writers inserted an inscription from Gale that made Heisenberg’s identity clear (which does undoubtedly seem like something Gale would have done).

However, the episode went through some machinations before ending on Hank’s stunned face at the revelation.

First, Heisenberg and Todd clean up after Mike using the hydrofluoric acid again, which is treated even more matter-of-factly than the last time. The simplicity of the shooting and quickness of the description—just showing us the car, a body inside, and the same barrels that have housed bodies before—make it into a small, unimportant action, a sign of how commonplace killing has become in Heisenberg’s world. Skyler was upset about “shrugging off killing people as ‘shit happens,’” but Heisenberg has even taken it a step further: melting the dead bodies of his co-workers in hydrofluoric acid doesn’t even merit that much thought.

Then, Heisenberg makes a deal with Lydia for the names of Mike’s nine former Fring employees, and it’s the type of deal that Walter White would like but Heisenberg really doesn’t: in exchange for the names, he will allow Lydia to set up international distribution into the Czech Republic for him. She says that it will double Heisenberg’s profit and reduce his risk, but if there’s one thing we know about Heisenberg at this point, it’s that he doesn’t care about reducing risk and if there’s one thing we know about money on this show, it’s that drug sales never actually result in gaining it. This brilliant-sounding deal is one that is clearly doomed to fail just from that history, and then Lydia tells him that she was making this deal for Gus Fring when Heisenberg killed him. Suddenly, the safe-sounding-but-doomed venture becomes palatable for Heisenberg, as he now will be doing something that even the Chicken Man was never able to do, establishing an empire of a special, heretofore unknown nature.

Then, we get another patented Breaking Bad montage, though this time instead of meth cooking, it’s a balletic, carefully coordinated murder campaign that Heisenberg paid for, taking out Mike’s nine remaining guys as well as the lawyer who appeared ready to flip on him. It’s a beautiful sequence that continues Breaking Bad’s penchant for montages, but takes them in a different direction for the first time this season, and it wraps up the entire Mike storyline for the season.

The rarest of all events in Heisenberg’s life then happens, and it’s shown in Breaking Bad’s favorite method. We get a cooking montage with surely the show’s most appropriate song in history (“Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells), but it’s showing a three-month period of entirely successful operation. For three months, Heisenberg cooks and deals his meth with apparently no problems, assisted by Todd in the lab and Lydia and the other dealer (whose name I never caught) on the business end. There’s an odd tension to this montage, knowing how rare it is for Heisenberg/Walter White to receive good fortune, even temporarily, on this show, but it isn’t punctuated by explosions or gunfire.

Instead, it is followed by a short sequence in which Skyler shows Heisenberg the fortune he has amassed and explains that it is more than she can launder, more than any car wash could dream of laundering. Skyler tearfully pleads for her children back, never outright saying what it is that she is asking of Heisenberg: that he get out of the meth business. Then, in a shocking scene that is a dead ringer for the scene back in season one when Walt first agreed to get treatment for his lung cancer, Heisenberg tells her, “I’m out.” She accepts his statement and appears relieved at the news, showing the exact same reaction that she did to his acceptance of treatment so many years ago.

In between, he gives Jesse the money he was owed, and we see how terrified of Heisenberg even Jesse has become, as he essentially breaks down and reveals that he has been holding a gun throughout Heisenberg’s visit—it’s a great moment for Aaron Paul. It’s also the first time we’ve seen Jesse recognize what a dangerous man Heisenberg is.

Then, we get a scene of a Skyler/Walt/Hank/Marie/Junior dinner that seems cut straight out of the time before we ever met these people. Until now, a happy dinner among them was something we imagined had to have happened with regularity before the show began but that we had never seen, but here it is. Everyone is seemingly happy, for the first time in the show’s history. Walter White even seems to be back, with Heisenberg nowhere to be seen.

And then, Hank goes to the bathroom and sees the book.

Dean Norris deserves some credit for his reaction, which beautifully told us the shock that he felt, but also the confusion. And, really, what does Hank do now? If he leaves this piece of evidence, he may never see it again. If he takes it, Walt may know. If he calls Steve about it, he’s going to be kicked out of office just like his predecessor. If he tells anyone else, they aren’t going to believe him. It’s a mix of shock and confusion that he plays absolutely perfectly, and, as the least heralded member of the Breaking Bad regular cast, we should throw some kudos to him for it.

The conclusion of this season essentially leaves us back where we started, wondering why, in about nine months, Heisenberg will be Walter White, coughing in a Denny’s, needing a machine gun in his trunk. The truth is, in eight hours, what’s changed is that Hank knows. Yeah, Mike is out of the picture now, but he was also seemingly out of it until being dragged back in at the start of the season. Instead of the continuation of the story of Heisenberg, this season has provided us with a snapshot of the future and few clues as to what will happen. That’s all there is. It was still enjoyable and it was better made than most shows could dream of, but it was frankly a lot of wheel spinning for little reward.

 

Notes

  • There was an interesting and possibly telling shot just before Walt claimed to be “out” in this episode: we saw him getting an MRI and literally being turned 180 degrees. There are many, many possible meanings to this shot, but the most obvious is that it was a shot meaning that Walt’s cancer has returned, since it was after all a medical test and he was shown reversing course.
  • Michelle MacLaren is amazing.
  • I find it difficult to believe that Heisenberg is out. First of all, it would take him some work to get out—he couldn’t just say, “I’m out” and drop everything with the organization of people who depend on him. Secondly, Heisenberg would not leave his empire for anything, including the family that Walter White desperately wanted.
  • I always said that the finale would be first Walt vs. Hank and then Walt vs. Jesse, but I have to admit that at this point, I don’t see how the latter could be the end. He’s going to take on Jesse somehow and needs a machine gun? That seems pretty unbelievable. It also doesn’t sound right that it’s for a final confrontation with the DEA. More likely, either the cartel is finally coming for him or there is something bigger and scarier coming related to Madrigal. The latter is probably the more likely of the two.
  • It’s pretty clear that Walt is going to turn to the “disappearer” that Saul told him about last season, and with Hank’s revelation here, it seems that’s coming soon. How is he going to get to the disappearer and get out before Hank gets to him? It wouldn’t take long for Hank to put him away at this point, since (a) he’s got an incredibly strong circumstantial case already and (b) he’s Hank–he is a relentless, smart agent who will work his ass off until he has everything there is against Walter White.
  • Seriously, what does Hank do right now? It seems like any choice he makes is wrong. It seems like the best thing he can do is call Gomez, which risks ending his own career.
  • This half-season was still good, but it was easily the weakest Breaking Bad has ever been. Hopefully, much like the first half of the last season of The Sopranos, it’s setting up something special.