going long

2012’s Finest: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

THE CABIN IN THE WOODSPeople talk about The Cabin in the Woods as a post-modern horror film, and it sort of is, but the word I keep coming back to is ‘maximalist’. That makes it hard to write about. The film is essentially its own essay. Taking into account the fact that talking about anything, even its opening scene, could outright ruin the experience of watching The Cabin in the Woods, and it’s almost impossible to know where to start. So I’m just going to just spoil everything. Consider this fair warning. It’s a film worth seeing, and worth seeing with as few preconceptions as possible. A lot of the joy of Cabin in the Woods lies in discovering it. If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope the fact that I singled it out of a great year of movies is all the encouragement you’ll need to check it out. If you have… well, I hope you’re sitting comfortably. Drew Goddard (director, co-writer, of Cloverfield, Lost, Buffy fame) and Joss Whedon (co-writer, of being Joss Whedon fame) apparently wrote this film over a furiously creative weekend, locked in a rented bungalow until it was finished. That feeds noticeably into the film’s feel, its tone and density, but really I’m really just bringing it up as a historical sidenote. Going into the cinema, I was excited to see a new Whedon film, but that was quickly jettisoned in favour of just trying to keep up. Cabin in the Woods constantly delights in pulling out not just the rug but the entire floor out from under you. The film’s 90-minute running time is divided into rough thirds. It’s actually a pretty great American Pie-style teen comedy for its first half hour, mixing up gross-out humour with genuine wit: Five College Kids. One RV. The Holiday of a Lifetime. Then a hatch opens up in the floor of the cabin, and the five of them step into the basement, and accidentally raise the dead. The Buckners, to be precise, a “zombie redneck torture family”. The kids start to get picked off, one by one, in a variety of gruesome ways, as they try and escape the cabin. Then, just as it looks like they’re all dead and we can all go home, the film takes a left turn into sheer insanity. The two surviving kids find a hidden underground hatch, and step behind the curtain, and help bring about the end of the world. Each half-hour segment could almost be its own film. It’s standard slasher-film business, I believe, to set up the characters in a non-murderous status quo, but I really would pay to see that Goddard/Whedon teen comedy. And it’s impressive how close to the half-hour mark each act change comes. …Except it’s not that simple, even structurally. The whole film jumps between these kids and an entirely different set of characters. They’re actually the first characters on screen, as the film cuts from its credit sequence showing various historical depictions of human sacrifice to two guys discussing their wives over a coffee. Pull back: they’re in a lab of some variety. Pull back: they’re monitoring the kids. Over the course of the film, we pull back and pull back (it’s here that Goddard’s Lost pedigree shines clearest) until the full truth of the situation is apparent. They’re the guys who make the horror movies – manipulate the kids, prep the locations, and drop in the killer clowns/zombies/unicorns until all the kids are dead. They’re making them for the benefit of the Old Ones, world-destroying demons whose hunger for human sacrifices apparently got a whole lot funkier circa 1968. It’s easy to see where the post-modern thing comes from. We’re watching the film from over these guys’ shoulders – they’re the filmmakers, checking conditions are just right on their banks of monitors, and the audience, cracking a beer and whooping as the blonde pulls her top off. On its own, that could make for a reasonably interesting film, but nothing particularly new – a combination of Scream and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Trying to force the audience to question why they’re here watching these acts of unspeakable violence is a bit of a well-worn furrow for horror films. And I think that, for people who found the film a bit clever-clever or less original than it thought it was, this is where they stopped. But I think that misunderstands the film a little. Yes, it plays with horror tropes, to varied effect. The clichéd ‘creepy old guy at the gas station’ is played for laughs, but the way the kids are sorted into ‘whore/athlete/scholar/fool/virgin’ archetypes, while making it clear that none of them really fit that role, is a serious criticism. But Cabin in the Woods isn’t that interested in making a single argument, about horror or otherwise, as much as revelling in the joy of just arguing. It’s a film about pretty much everything. The catharsis of violence in movies, yes, as both a good and bad thing. How that ties into our need to see people punished. The way the older generation can view the youth in tabloid-simplistic terms. How young beautiful bodies are commoditised. Reality TV. The fact that the younger generation genuinely are arrogant and selfish. Whether it’s right to force people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Whether it’s right to say no. How quickly we can become desensitised to that question, and to graphic violence. The rise of ‘torture porn’. How we cope with a violent world. How we cope with our jobs, unethical as they might be. The banality of evil. How we cope with boredom. Pause for breath. It’s a film which tries turning on every switch, is what I’m saying. Even better, it’s on everyone’s side. There are, at least, ten characters in this film, and Cabin in the Woods is interested in all of their viewpoints. The guys behind the curtain aren’t depicted as straight-up bad guys – they’re sympathetic and, […]

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Three

Here we are at last, the final piece of the puzzle.  If you’ve made it through parts one and two of this overly in-depth look at Marvel’s record-breaking, block-busting summer team-up behemoth The Avengers, then I am genuinely grateful. If you haven’t … well, don’t you think you’d better catch up?  III. The Why “I don’t like to create something that doesn’t say anything.” –Joss Whedon The Avengers is, more or less, an almost-seamless machine for producing childlike joy. Given how fully it succeeds in this respect, it seems churlish to ask of it what I’m about to ask. But I’m a man who owns a 500-page book of essays on Whedon’s work and… well, see the above quote. Is it meant to make you feel anything, being awesome? Is it about anything except the maths of Iron Man + Hulk = AWESOME? Does it have anything to say? Yes. Maybe. No. Kind of. Emotionally speaking, all you’ve got is the trad. Whedon death. But here, it’s explicitly worked to fuel the plot. As well-worked into the public’s affections as Coulson is, his passing isn’t really worked for emotion the way any number of Whedon characters are (e.g. [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and, of course, [REDACTED]. Boy, that one was really something, wasn’t it?) The story, intermittently, is about a lot of the usual modern-superhero-film things – America as a superpower; the military-industrial complex; image and perception; all adding up to the question of how superheroes function in a realistic, modern world. It’s about a lot of the usual Joss Whedon things, too – outsiders vs. authority; the cost of victory; and, perhaps most of all, building a family out of what was previously just a disparate handful of people. It’s not especially about those things, though. So maybe it’s a character study? After my first viewing, I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more attention given over to each character. You know, just time chilling with the heroes, maybe a little peek at how Whedon reckons each of their minds work. It seems likely a lot of that may have ended up on the cutting room floor, but there is still plenty there – it’s just under the surface. It’s in Ruffalo’s fidgety faux-calm performance, and little throwaway lines, and how we meet each character. I was left craving their characters’ company (Which I reckon goes some way to explain the millions of people who apparently have come out of the theatre, bought a ticket and maybe some overpriced salty snacks, and just gone right back in. They’re not, I think, going back in to see the same dozen explosions.) Really – and this should come as no surprise – the characters are what The Avengers is all about. And what the character stuff wants to talk about, mostly, seems to be control. Look at Loki. Like all the best baddies, the threat he poses isn’t solely violent, though obviously with all the explosions and the alien invasion, there is that. It’s a philosophical threat. Loki doesn’t want to destroy the earth, he just wants to impose his worldview on it – that, as a god, he is superior, and as such they should relinquish their free will. Which is precisely what he does to Hawkeye and Dr Selvig at the start of the film. (Interestingly, though, they’re not quite empty-eyed drones. Rather than being fully stripped of their sense of self, they’re just reduced to their roles as scientist and soldier – and Selvig especially seems to be really enjoying himself.) But Loki, it turns out, is part of a larger chain of command – he’s bossed over by the slightly naff-looking alien, who himself turns out to be a lackey of Thanos. And that echoes the one on the Avengers’ side, of the World Security Council – who are trying to exert power over people because They Know What’s Best (rarely a good sign in Whedon’s work) – and Nick Fury – whose most heroic moment in the film is simply resisting the control of his shadowy superiors and letting the Avengers go free. It’s a chain of people trying to exercise control over one another – and mostly failing. Control over oneself, though? That’s quite different. It’s pretty much Black Widow’s superpower. Twice in the film she shows her ability to remove herself from her emotions, and weaponise them. That that self-control is only broken by her fear of the Hulk sets up a fascinating dynamic between the two and, in breaking her outer shell a little, provides a way in for any future filmmakers dealing with her. Tony Stark sits at a balanced midpoint, having had time in two solo feature films to run through most of his self-control issues. That’s great, because it stops Downey Jr from stealing the whole damn show like he threatened to in the trailers, and because it allows him to bond with the character around which the film naturally finds its fascinating centre. The Hulk. If ever there was a character about the questions of self-control, it’s the Hulk. It’s built into his verdant DNA. Whedon finds a fresh spin on it, something more nuanced and subtle than most interpretations of the Hulk, and Ruffalo sticks the landing effortlessly. He’s treated like a poorly-stored nuclear weapon by most of his teammates but, for the most part, Banner’s pretty damn chill about everything. It doesn’t fit with our basic perception of the Hulk, but then you start to notice Ruffalo’s ever-busy hands, and then he casually drops the littlest of big reveals: “I’m always angry”. The first time, it knit my brows. It’s such a throwaway line, but in its implications – embracing that life isn’t a clean break between calm and anger, that anger perhaps isn’t such a bad emotion – those three words manage to make the job of the next Hulk director a whole lot harder. All that control stuff is built into the structure, too. It’s a byproduct of the way The […]

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Two

Being the Second Parte of our examination of The Avengers motion picture (J. Whedon, esq.) The first is available for your perusal here. II. The How “And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!” –Folklore …And there’s your movie, more or less. That silver-age elevator pitch, turned into two and a half hours of cinema. There’s never any more plot than that, really – but why would you need any? That means it’s all about the execution. The whole thing hangs off a familiar skeleton of a story, and so – like everything in life, really – it’s all about the people you spend your time with. We’ve already met Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) in the opening. It’s one of those choices I mentioned finding fascinating. The order, pacing and details of each Avenger’s introduction is masterful. Such a mish-mash of down-to-earth army men, semi-plausible science heroes and alien gods requires no small amount of disbelief-suspension, and Hawkeye’s a great example of that. On one hand, he’s the easiest sell of the movie – no powers, just an extraordinarily talented commando. (File alongside Bourne, Rambo, and the now-thrice-invoked Daniel Craig Bond.) On the other… A man with a bow and arrow in a world of gods and robots? One who the general public have never heard of, except for the briefest of glimpses in Thor? Whose wardrobe oscillates between garish purple and leather fetishwear?  Frankly, his inclusion in the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a bit of a headscratcher. So the Great God Whedon (or, technically speaking, the Evil God Loki) takes Hawkeye and turns him. A touch of mind-control magic, et voila, you’ve got yourself Evil Hawkeye. It’s a brilliant way of setting up a character who is essentially Robin-Hood-in-a-wifebeater as a credible threat. Seeing how much he puts the fear up our super-powered heroes makes it clear he’s no joke, so that when he’s finally brought back and turned against the baddies, it feels like a powerful weapon is being drawn. Throw in some incredibly cool gadget moments, and Hawkeye becomes someone you could actually imagine the kids fighting over getting to be the next morning in the playground. The introduction of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) comes next for similar reasons – she had low-level powers, little brand awareness, no film of her own and, worst of all, is a girl. (Urghhhh!)  And so Whedon, rather predictably, luxuriates in her introduction, which subverts a damsel-in-distress cliché into a scene-controlling badass with all the ease of a chair to the face. When we meet her, Natasha is tied to a chair, being interrogated by three Russian men. It’s not hard to spot the sexual power balance there. It’s played for just long enough to be convincing then – bam – it turns out she’s not helpless after all, but was in control all along. Plus, suddenly she can move like the deadliest ballerina not featuring in Black Swan.  And we should have known, not just because it’s Whedon but because it’s so clearly coded as a performance – the spotlight falling so perfectly on her, the use of mirrors, the contrast between set (ruins of a Soviet car park) and costume (little black dress). It’s pure theatre, and peppered with enough jokes that it doesn’t seem like it has any agenda to preach. And, once we’ve gotten past the intro of a new Bruce “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – possibly the biggest brand in the whole cast, but with his face, behaviour and body having undergone an appropriately mysterious transformation, from a fairly one-note performance by Ed Norton to Ruffalo’s hand-wringing suppressed brilliance – and Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) – straightforward super-punchy leader, bit jingoistic, but brushed away with a quick “maybe we need a bit of the old fashioned” – we’re back on easy street, with the People’s Favourite, Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr).  But Whedon still takes care to set up each scene, borrowing just enough visual elements from the characters’ disparate movies to sell them as a cohesive unit – settings, camera work and, most noticeably, colour palettes. Banner in India is all muted oranges and dusty browns, with green lifted subtly out of the mix. Tony lives in a world of his own construction, all translucent screens and glaring chrome, light by neon. Cap, until he steps out into the world, inhabits a worn, slightly sepia-toned piece of film. As the characters are brought together, those palettes are mixed. The four-colour world of the more superheroey superheroes is tempered by the midnight blues of the military elements. It means the film ends up with something that doesn’t have all that much visual style of its own, except the house style. Whedon relinquishes control as director to help sell the idea of these characters co-existing in a way that’s logical. From there, it’s time to start showing how they work together – starting in Stuttgart, which we’ll come back to – but there’s still a piece missing. The film has still got to sell the audience on a Norse God of Thunder in a bright red cape. Thor “Thor” Odinson (Chris Hemsworth). For the duration, Thor is the one character that is kept lowest in the mix. He has his share of wonderful moments – Hemsworth is an incredibly charismatic and funny actor, who brings something to Thor that I’ve never really seen in the comics – but it’s often the case that they are his moments. Segments featuring Thor and Loki rewrite the script into, as Stark puts it, “Shakespeare in the park”. It couldn’t be truer – the complicated relationship, the family ties, the wordplay, the Iago-ness of Loki cast against the Othello-ness of Thor. And that’s great, but it doesn’t quite fit, and so Thor is […]

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part One

The first of a three-part analysis of Marvel’s The Avengers or Avengers Assemble or Los Vengadores, or whatever name it was released under where you live. I. The What “These people shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team. And that is the definition of family.”  –Joss Whedon Most people came to The Avengers as fans of Iron Man, and the glut of not-quite-as-good Marvel films that have followed it. A lot came as fans of Avengers comics, whether Stan Lee’s or Brian Bendis’. Me? I came to it as a fan of Joseph ‘Joss’ Whedon. For me, at least, it’s fascinating to observe all the choices made by Mr Whedon (even though it’s impossible to know what part each of the army of people – and it truly is an army, as anyone who has sat all the way through the credits will attest – is responsible for all the choices and elements that make The Avengers work, who really had control. So for the sake of ease, let’s refer to all the invisible people – not the actors, but the producers, cameramen, special effects people, best boys – all the people who exist only behind the camera, as “Joss Whedon”. It’s a handy amalgam). It’s through that lens we’ll be examining the film – starting at its opening which, having dived straight into the sci-fi-fantasy elements, brings them immediately to earth. To a top-secret SHIELD base in the US desert base, being more specific. And so, that spark of supernatural – which, let’s be honest, with its slightly naff alien baddie and questionable physics, is a bit of a hard sell – grounds itself in the familiar reality of this militaristic set-up. All the bases, helicopters, jeeps, tight-fitting leather uniforms and dark muted colours place us in a comfortingly recognisable genre – the post-9/11, post-24 military blockbuster. For the first ten minutes or so, The Avengers is essentially a Craig-era Bond film. The message is clear. This is the world that is going to be hanging in the balance – our own. (Or, at least, the modern cinematic version of it). But then there’s that pesky supernatural spark I mentioned, which earths in plot terms, too, in the form of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s Big Bad and Thor’s little brother. Being a magic-stick-of-deadly-blue-energy-wielding alien god, he’s the one element that’s out of place in this world, and genre. Accordingly, his arrival overturns it, literally and bombastically – as SHIELD’s highest-tech, most-prolifically-satellite-dished base collapses into sand in a matter of minutes. Again, there’s a clear message – not only is Loki a big threat, but his very existence disrupts the natural order of the world he’s in (reminder: our world). Even Daniel Craig couldn’t stop this one. We’re going to need something new. Read part two – The How(or skip to Part Three, if you’re that way inclined)