Apr 29, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

This review contains spoilers.

Typical of the work of Buffy's Joss Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods exhibits a slick flair for genre subverison and manages such with no shortage of pop culture aplomb. No doubt you are aware of the horror movie conventions that constantly strain the credibility of even the most dimwitted of slasher sequels in which teenagers are offed with relative ease: promiscuity ensures death, virginity repels it, and characters who'd likely survive in a group are all but guaranteed to split up like idiots when push comes to shove.

Turns out there's a reason for these ridiculous archetypes: ancient gods, residing deep within the earth, who require a yearly sacrifice -- one ensured by a Big Brother-like organization that ensnares the unwitting for a game of almost certain death (in an amusing touch, global branches of the program function through their respective horror movie trademarks). The agents who control the tightly regimented game (which doubles as a high-stakes reality TV program for the desensitized employees) have access to the monsters and spirits taken for granted by the rest of the world as fiction, as well as the means of manipulating even the most subtle elements of their doomed participants' environments.

At its best, this witty scenario suggests a Haneke-like (or Haneke-light) commentary on audience implication; in the film's reality, these literal snuff films are a required exercise lest nothing less than the end of the world come about. Pity that the film partakes in contrivances as egregious as the conventions it aims to deconstruct; the resulting double standard corrupts the initial appeal of the concept, and reveals The Cabin in the Woods as pretentiously self-serving lip service that assumes hateful mockery of the material it relies upon justifies its own one-note pandering. I'd like to forgive the have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too, excessively ironic self-awareness, but it's hard to overlook the transition from smart to smart-assed and the dispensation of credibility for a weightlessly nihilistic punchline. And that's including the always pleasant presence of Richard Jenkins. Bummer.

Apr 9, 2012

Titanic (1997): A-

(WARNING: This review is biased, angry, vulgur, and politically hostile. It's also really long, and kind of rambling, and not very professional. It's as honest as I can be right now. Regarding demographics: if you think Rick Santorum is what America needs, if you like Katy Perry, or if you walked out of The Descendants, you may want to stop reading now.)

It’s a given that I was generally clueless about what was circulated in “normal” culture for the majority of my gradeschooling. As in, I’m already a guy who is really into movies, and I manage to come back from the summer of 1996 bereft of any knowledge of Scream. At all. Another such vacancy was the initial backlash against Titanic. To my eyes, it was the new movie that was made by the same guy who made The Terminator (my adolescent angst pool of choice, along with Akira, Fight Club and some dozen others), and whose previous works were all etched in stone in my mind. Well, not Piranha 2, anyway. It wasn’t until the VHS edition that I could finally see Titanic, its financial and popular legacy already seemingly insurmountable in one’s consideration of it. Quite distinctly, I recall it being absolutely damn near perfect (minus, say, a small handful of lines of dialogue or music cues I found questionable, but mere specs easily overlooked on the greater fabric), and it pretty much took me by storm. It was an extremely fundamental experience and I just god damn love it that much. Ladies, I’m single. What in the hell?

Learning about the aforementioned backlash against the movie was eye-opening to say the least. How could someone not like it?, I thought. (A friend of mine used these same words this past Thursday night.) Some thought it was too long, at three hours and fourteen minutes, and even at twelve or thirteen, I already thought that was a lame cop out (my favorite movie of the moment was Gone With the Wind, and I still last longer to this day). No endurance in these losers. On the other hand, there were supposed Cameron fans who thought he’d gone soft on romance, which made me wonder if they were soft in the head (not just for their general ignorance, but for crying out loud, is there no love for the romantic streak uniting both of his Terminators, let alone what he accomplishes here in the spotlight?). And for those who are "appalled" by the historical liberties taken amongst the drama, I can only say in my infinite lack of insight: I think we're evolved enough to recognize fact from fiction and simply enjoy drama and recognize that in great fiction there lies truth, but maybe that's just me.

I, for example, am aware that even the history we're taught is inevitably subjective, even when it isn't downright and blatantly manipulated. Cherry trees? One shooter (in Dallas)? WMDs? Here, yes, Cameron embellishes moments of the evening amongst an overwhelming level of period detail and historical fact so as to make for a very tightly riveted emotional roller coaster, insofar as that, he humanely considers what people - most of whom are trying to do the right thing - might be capable of (or not) under the worst of circumstances. Joseph Ismay, the owner of the ship, gets the cowardice treatment, as the press and history have since painted him (only uncorroborated testimony has claimed this, but Ismay's insistence that the ship go faster so as to surprise the press has gone down on the theoretical record, and let's be frank, is quite likely true, given the trends of the insatiable profiteer: if you're so naive, download this pdf, and do a word search on "shitty"). The man, guilty of mass involuntary manslaughter or not, lived out most of the rest of his life a recluse, and probably had some very deep thoughts to dwell on. (And I think anyone who dwells at this point on the p.c. depiction of his fictional counterpart is missing the big picture, and by a lot.)

So while not intended to come down so judgmentally on many of those who disagree with me, my stance on this is pretty straightforward: some rain on Titanic for reasons that are valid, respectable, and articulated (Ed, I really wanted to read your take for this 3D release - more on that dimension later), but they are mostly, to these eyes, opportunistic (this piece by Lindy West is deserving of a punch in the face), if not downright imperceptive, if not deliberately contrarian. I'm sure that's not always the case, but let's be frank, most of us go with the flow more often than we want to or realize. It's hard work knowing your true inner self, free of unwanted stimuli. We tend towards mob mentalities. We can all be smarter. (This is way more important and meaningful than your opinion on Titanic, but I'm thinking of worldly things so I'm bringing it up.) Keep at it.

Freud’s theories on “the male preoccupation with size” are referenced as if they were a knife cutting open a fish belly, and it’s this same, borderline unforgiving tone that Cameron uses when sinking his beautiful CGI/model recreation. His Terminator duology outwardly manifested mankind’s technological war with itself; the Frankenstein complex, cast in a nuclear light. Titanic pitches this same general thesis (surpassing technology as inadvertent self-destruction) as great sweeping drama, because it was an utterly hyperbolic meta-event unto itself within the past century (and one that, by the looks of the current “debate” about regulations, we still haven’t really learned a goddamn thing from), and so the choice was made to center it around a love story and go for broke on the melodrama. Titanic isn’t just the name of the ship: it’s the kind of storytelling, and it’s the perfectionist ego that Cameron’s criticizing within himself. Altogether, it’s a difficult tone to catch and an even harder one to sustain, and it’s been roughly ten viewings over fifteen years and I’m still of the opinion he hardly misses a beat.

The 1996 framing device of an old Rose allows the proceedings to go even more meta, and Cameron swiftly deconstructs the pillaging nature of his historical exploitation and justifies it pretty thoroughly to these eyes. There’s a wordless unison between the historical accuracy of the 1912 production (and if you want to split hairs about something like a dime being wrong, bear in mind that this story is being rendered in context by a 100-year-old, and I am a numismatist, and that kind of minute criticism makes your life sound utterly meaningless and exhausting) and the reverence of its treatment, one contrasted sharply by the disrespect lobbed at the tragedy abomination by the film’s modern day jewel hunters ("pretty cool, huh?"), to say nothing of the film’s detractors who stoop to wishing quicker death on the 1,500 who likely believed the media that their voyage was unsinkable. This is where things get nasty.

The kind of mass death spectacle Michael Bay is frequently accused (and often guilty) of partaking in is, to these eyes, much better encapsulated in Titanic's final third. It’s an awful, cruel progression of events, like watching an ants nest being systematically exterminated, and as The Onion’s headline about the ship’s metaphorical nature devastatingly drives home, the same weaknesses hold true to many of our modern accomplishments. The gas we consume? The natural grounds we eradicate? The computers we're already installing into our bodies? (If you, oh listeners of Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, Savage, think I'm "brainwashed" or financially biased on those first two points, I think you're too dumb to be out in public.) Obviously, Cameron loves technology and technological history, but the streak of muted ludditism is undeniable, if only because his films seem pitched at a carefully calculated level of universality, almost clinically detached at times but not without their sappy narrative hooks (the "big buns" scene in The Terminator comes to mind) and broadly pitched storytelling. There's a reason Cameron's known as a box office king, and it's not merely holding the two highest unadjusted blockbusters of all time (five and fourteen, respectively chronological, adjusted for inflation stateside), but his ability to stretch his dollars so as to tell the exact stories he wants to. And The Terminator made back almost twelve times production costs - a scale bigger movies simply can't dream on (yet), but meaningful all the same.

There are people who think politics don’t belong here (as in, in this review), but they’re dumb and want everyone else to stop thinking so much, for reasons they only vaguely understand. Let's try to help them out. With stricter regulations (say, regulations that necessitate the equal consideration of everyone's lives and well-being), 1,500 people would have still been alive, and countless lives' worth of human suffering would have been avoided. Regulations are on the table now in the latest round of bullshit American corporate-backed “political” “debate,” and even though whole city blocks are blowing up (a timeline here, with February 9, 2011 taking place not fifteen minutes from my home and within blocks of where I was born, and due to overused pipes years overdue for expensive, profit-robbing replacements) and oceans being trashed, it’s astonishing how braindead, or simply apathetic, so many people are in conceding to greedy business interests at their own potentially personal short term and definitely collective long term expense, mostly in exchange for the vain promise that it might one day be them at the top of the hill, enjoying the highs from a quick burn of our resources (because that's what God intended), if they haven't been paid off with bread crumbs already. End of paragraph, yes, but my diatribe is far from finished. I did warn you.

We (by which I mean my general political affiliation, the truthful, displeased-with-Obama, non-materialistic left who want to do away with the two party system entirely) say Republicans "want dirtier air and water" because they have company money in their pockets (not that Democrats don't, which is a whole other issue I won't touch on but for saying I don't like Democrats but for relativity) and we don’t trust most of those companies because of dozens of instances of environmental, medical, and plain old common sense negligence that hurt or kill countless people, many of them in the general publci, every year. Do you follow? We don’t trust them, and only a fool would, or a priveledged asshole, and that’s why there are rules. If there weren’t rules, and means to enforce them, who knows, you might have a company audacious and cruel and stupid enough to put their image and sensation in the press above safety and in doing so send hundreds of unprotected people out into the ocean on a boat that doesn’t turn quickly and…oh, wait, that happened already. And that’s this kind of thing is even a question in the media right now shows you how dumb the media wants to keep you (if Iran gets nukes, just duck and cover), and how gutless so many of us are for letting it continue. We may as well all be slaves, just waiting to freeze to death or drown because we couldn’t even figure out how to keep the fucking water out. I'm just saying, common sense could go a long way in preventing the apocalypse.

Did that sound a bit like Daniel Plainview? I mean not to be cruel, but this world is such that I have to wonder about the good of bringing a child into it, which means I get to vent. I love humanity (so sayeth Charlie Brown, it’s the people I can’t stand), and there’s great humanity to the removed, special effects showcase extravaganza by which Cameron dispatches with hundreds of hapless souls (the masses are drowned, crushed, frozen, electrocuted, pulverized, shot, and there’s the propeller guy, to name a few). Eric Henderson draws some wonderful decontructive-of-Hollywood imagery out of the proceedings in his Slant Magazine review, and I can agree with him in other ways by saying that the sinking of the ship is as transfixing and strangely dignified as anything from D.W. Griffith (if you don’t know him, I envy you, because you still get to experience his movies for the first time). For the unfeeling bastards who scoff at the "boring" nature of a ship sinking as spectacle, what can I say: not even 9/11 desinsitization can redeem you for being such a prick. For how exciting the film's centerpiece is, and as such, borderline tasteless in its implicit voyeurism, the inevitability of the events - so mocked by many - is quickly undercut by the settling reality of life lost.

What ultimately brings it home for these tear ducts, then, are the small stories Cameron keeps on the sidelines, and how these magnify the spectacle with wrenching intimacy. (In other words, Jenette Goldstein kills me every time.) Jack and Rose have this great iconic romance, naturally a little cheesy but self-consciously and kind of brilliantly the stuff of modern myth. When the ship starts to go down, the movie goes all Aliens relentless, and I always find the leads most convincing - nay, stimulating - in survival mode. But the faces and situations we see in passing, juggled in unison with themes and motifs both obvious (as are all these archetypal tropes) yet deeply feeling and earnest, confirm the whole enterprise as a microcosmic, deeply mourning, deeply humanitiarian worldview. Screw the haters: the much-criticized romance-heavy first half is just as good, and just as necessary as the crescendo of destruction. On a final tangential note, it should be noted that, in dispatching humans (it's a fun word), Cameron was a lot more actively nasty towards the colonialists in Avatar, which rubbed me the wrong way at first, but now, not so much. I love people, but people who test mother nature deserve whatever’s coming to them, which isn't to say that the passengers aboard the RMS Titanic got what was coming to them, but that if we continue to assume superiority and priviledge (cartoonishly embodied by non-ironic Christian American nationalists, amongst others now and throughout all history) we all will.

Apr 8, 2012

Safe House (2012): C-

AKA Shit Smear, because that's what one takes away from the shapelessly herky-jerky visuals of this cops-n-crooks thriller that repackages post-9/11 corruption realities as a nihilistic happy meal posing as enlightenment. As for the accompanying toy, it's anyone's guess: this is about as sloppy, unimaginative and viscerally underwhelming as a big budget movie can appear without actively insulting the target audience. There was a moment when a door was blown off its hinges, which I guess was cool; at the least, it stood out from the murky mayhem. The majority of the action scenes are splintered to death via subpar Bourne-aping cinematography and editing, and the enterprise has the audacity to waste Vera Farminga's prismatic face and energy. Denzel Washington, milking his assuredly wise schtick within an inch of its life, is the criminal mastermind with lotsa stuff up his sleeves; Ryan Reynolds the mental tenderfoot assigned to protect and who has to learn quickly how to play by the top dog's rules. Cheap-looking and without sensation. You'll feel bad in the morning for having spent time with it.

American Reunion (2012): C-

AKA 35 Up, remade thematically, by idiots. I pounded out the first three American Pie films with a BFF on my last day of summer vacation before college, and I can hardly think of a better circumstance for that particular brand of horny teenage discovery. I enjoyed them all well enough (obvious reliance on conventions, juvenile comedy and narrative limitations all notwithstanding), and I have deliberately not revisited them since, lest I tarnish the memory. Turns out that, on a long enough timeline, that was pretty much out of my hands. Reunion is admittedly consistent with the preceding films, if a bit more autopilot bound, so it's likely more because of my changing tastes than the diminishing sequel syndrome that I had a fairly miserable time during this retread. Characters pop in and out in what amounts to a tossed off greatest hits package, contrived scenarios involving masturbation, horny young girls, Stifler's mom, whips and feces abound, and Eugene Levy is awkward (a high point, actually). Adages have rarely felt as dusty and hollow as they do here, and I find it vaguely offensive that a script reliant on characters behaving with magnified stupidity would have the balls to interject a spontaneous bit of Certified Copy role-playing into the proceedings. A few chuckles are to be had, if you're lucky, but they can't begin to outweigh the surrounding offenses and boredom.