Monday, June 11, 2012

Lockout

Hoo boy. This movie hit me where I'm weak.

Sci-fi: check.

Wisecracks: check.

Tough guy hero with an enigmatic name: check.

A space prison: check!

Okay, it's low on the originality scale. The movie is essentially a remake of Escape From New York, with an orbital space prison standing in for New York, but who says there's anything wrong with that?  "Great idea, poor execution" movies are ideal candidates for remakes, and nothing was ever greater of idea, poorer of execution than Escape From New York.

Instead of Snake Plissken, Lockout gives us Snow, played by I-was-this-close-to-being-a-movie-star Guy Pearce.

And instead of the President, our hostage in need of rescue is the President's daughter, played by blande, blonde Maggie Grace. She underwhelms, but all that's required of her is an ability to transition quickly between fear and sarcasm.

Grace gets trapped on the prison during an uprising that's so successful the surviving staff is forced to flee. This leaves the inmates in charge of the asylum. Said inmates are freaks of the Road Warrior sort, real nutobs with tall mohawks and extreme piercings, none of which can seriously be thought to conform to prison regulations.

Anyway, the rioting convicts are led by Vincent Regan's Alex, who possesses just enough sanity to be credible as a nemesis. He's barely able to keep the most psychotic prisoner of the bunch, Joseph Gilgun's Hydell, on a leash. It's a nice revelation when it comes out that Alex is Hydell's older brother.

"Supporting" Snow's mission from the ground is a pair of government spymasters, one of whom is clearly Snow's friend and one of whom clearly has sinister ulterior motives. In a straightforward but often unperformed bit of basic screenwriting, the friendly spymaster turns out to be a bad guy and the total dick turns out to be Snow's ally.

Sometimes all we need to get through a movie is a little attention to the fundamentals!

The action is largely tactical, but it's spiced with that banter between Snow and Grace, who don't like each other, but who need each other to survive. Over the course of the story, their feelings toward each other soften, and even melt into an unacknowledged attraction.


Again, this is the most predictable thing in the world, but if you don't have that central relationship you don't have a movie.

It also helps to have the bad guys nipping at the good guys' heels all movie long, and Lockout delivers that in spades. It genuinely feels like it would be a very bad thing for Snow and Grace to get caught by our weirdo bad guys. Rape is only the first bad thing that would be on the agenda, probably for both of them.

To make matters worse -- and worse is always better -- the prison is rapidly falling out of orbit. It will burn up in the atmosphere in just a few hours, so there's no waiting for the cavalry.

I've seen everything that happens in Lockout a million times before.

I liked it then, and I like it now.

But then, I'm a real sucker for this kind of movie.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 63/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 83/100

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

What a year for Joss Whedon.

I'm catching up on several reviews all at once, so I've already seen The Avengers, which was released a month after Cabin and is currently sitting at #3 on the all-time box office list.

Cabin wasn't the success The Avengers is -- at $58 million worldwide, it's hard not to call it a box office disappointment -- but it's a such a canny deconstruction of the horror genre that it qualifies as a masterwork, a film that will be referenced and remembered by movie cognoscenti for years to come.

As a one-two punch, this makes Whedon's 2012 pretty exceptional. I hesitate to compare it to Spielberg's miracle year of 1993, which yielded Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, especially since Whedon didn't actually direct Cabin, he merely wrote and produced it, but still, it's hard to think of another comparable year from a filmmaker.

The guy is good.

And it's been fun watching him arrive at his appointment with destiny. Whedon's first big splash came fifteen years ago with the cult TV hit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it would have been clear then, if only we had the prescience to see it, that Whedon's slangy, self-referential wit and brassy young protagonists placed him on a collision course with the direction of the overall culture.

Whedon's characters don't take take their life-and-death situations too seriously. It's almost like they know they're in a story, and if you know you're in a story, you take mortal threats in stride.

It turns out, this jokey approach to danger is the perfect counterbalance for the increasingly special-effectsy and epic nature of Hollywood cinema. You can only furrow your brow about the end of the world so many times before you have to cut against the grain and make wisecracks about it. Whedon, having been making wisecracks about it for two decades, was perfectly positioned to make the exact Avengers movie the culture wanted to see.

He was also positioned to make the horror movie we wanted to see -- and by "we," I guess I mean "me." The movie was not a blockbuster. And yet...

...it feels as relevant a movie as The Avengers. Really those are the only two innovative, impactful movies released this year. The Avengers is the movie that fulfills the promise of the entire long-gestating superhero genre. It's also the movie that shows which direction superhero movies are headed -- get ready for team-ups, crossovers, cameos, and eventually a JLA versus The Avengers behemoth that will blow up even Avatar's box office supremacy.

The Cabin in the Woods, meanwhile, is the movie that puts a ribbon on every slasher movie that's ever been made.

It does so, first and foremost, by being a slasher movie itself. The first third of the flick sets up a very familiar scenario. Five college teens jump in a van and head to -- that's right! -- a cabin in the woods to get away for the weekend.



On the way, they encounter a weird old gas station attendant who warns them their death is imminent. Genre trope check and check.

They settle into their cabin and we get a look at them acting as the stereotypes -- let's be kinder and call them archetypes -- they are. The blond slut, the bookish virgin, the jock, the nice guy, and the pothead. Okay, it's weird to call "pothead" a quintessential archetype. Let's call him the joking trickster instead.

These five teens quickly stumble into the spooky basement of their cabin. There they find a nineteenth century diary detailing the hideous doings of the devil-worshipping psycho family that used to live there.

Faster than you can say zombie, the teens are terrorized by the undead remains of said psycho family.

But the movie's just kicking off. You see, everything that happens throughout the story is minutely controlled -- and when necessary, initiated -- by a sophisticated underground complex run by mundane bureaucrats. And they're not alone. Similar "horror movie" scenarios are being perpetrated on unsuspecting teenagers around the world.

The witheld secret of the movie is why anyone would go to so much trouble and expense to scare and then kill witless if nubile teens. But I'm a warm-hearted guy, so I'm not going to withold it. The reason is that said teens are sacrifices needed to appease unthinkably powerful and unimaginably evil deities sleeping far below the Earth. If x number of teens aren't slaughtered every so often according to the arcane rituals from which our slasher movie formulas have ostensibly derived, the Elder Gods will awaken to destroy all of humanity.

This is pretty much a genius idea.

It allows us to consider the horror movie as an utterly artificial construct, without tearing away the suspension of disbelief necessary to sustain a fictional enterprise. Unlike the Scream movies, horror movies are pulled apart and examined here without so much as scratching the fourth wall between audience and story.

This delicate maneuver keeps the central metaphor intact. When the doomed teenagers -- those that are still alive, anyway -- discover the tunnels leading from the underground complex to the cabin in the woods, they begin to realize the zombies are mere emissaries of a greater foe. When they crawl through the tunnels and reach the complex, they discover the bureaucrats there have every kind of monster locked up in a massive bestiary. Ghosts, vampires, killer eels, you name it, ready to be sprung on whoever happens to inhabit the cabin in the woods on a given weekend.

The fact that the bureaucrats themselves are not the principal devil either -- that they are serving the greater good by keeping the bulk of humanity safe -- adds a juicy layer of complexity to the story and the theme.

It also sets up our climax, wherein the surviving duo -- heck, I'm in a spoiler mood, it's the virgin and the pothead -- must decide whether to sacrifice themselves in order to keep the Elder Gods slumbering, or whether to say fuck it and bring all of humanity down with them.

Cool moral choice. Cool movie in general. And definitive.

I pity anyone working on a standard slasher movie right now. After The Cabin in the Woods, there's really no point anymore. The genre's been mined to its utmost bottom.

And isn't that where we were always hoping the genre would go?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 94/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 90/100