Just Seen: The Cabin In The Woods / The Dictator / You’ve Been Trumped

The Cabin In The Woods

Everyone raved about this meta-horror earlier this year, and I have to admit, the ersatz clichéd marketing worked too well, all but convincing me it was just another run-of-the-mill scarefest featuring a bunch of implausibly attractive teens and accompanying tropes in the dependable old cabin. Of course, it’s anything but run-of-the-mill: everything from the title onwards takes the mill and positively twists it inside out, until you’re not quite sure what just happened. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon (who, with this and The Avengers, has had a terrific year) have by some means managed to both make a highly original genre pic, and vociferously skewered said genre at the same time – a bold, brazen feat.

As many commented at the time, it’s funnier and cleverer than it is scary, and if you go in hoping for a cathartic 90 minutes of horrific emotional trauma, you may be disappointed. But though the light touch and self-reflexivity dampens the scares, the hook is too intriguing, and the conclusion too satisfying, for any meaningful protest about the lack of shit in your pants. I found myself laughing at both carefully-timed visual gags, and with exhilarated surprise at the ingenius and increasingly improbable plot developments. This is undoubtedly a film that rewards ignorance of the ‘twist’ – the less you know about this film, the better. In a horribly overcrowded genre that splutters up the same old phlegm at a prolific rate, The Cabin In The Woods is less a breath of fresh air than it is a tank of pure, undiluted O2.

You’ve Been Trumped

Real-life billionaire tyrants are disappointingly detached from those depicted in our favourite fictions. Donald Trump may share Charles Foster Kane’s penchant for naming everything after himself, and Mr Burns’ aggressive hostile takeover tactics, but he possesses none of the wit or humility of Kane, nor the malevolent evil genius of Burns. Trump is just an asshole, as evidenced in Ant Baxter’s soaring documentary (which aired on BBC 2 last weekend, despite the best efforts of Donald Trump’s team of lawyers), exposing the property developer’s aggressive attempts to plonk a garish golf course and hotel resort on an area of outstanding natural beauty and scientific interest in Aberdeenshire.

Baxter is pretty unambiguous in his bias, but you excuse it – it’s fairly unambiguous who is in the right. Trump uses heavy-handed bullying, and his endless supply of cash, to ensure that politicians and police are bought and paid for, whilst residents helplessly watch their land torn up and destroyed. The film alludes throughout to Local Hero, another story of belligerent billionaires set against humble villagers; sadly, You’ve Been Trumped does not share that film’s happy ending.

The Dictator

Borat is one of the funniest, smartest, most original comedies to have been made in the last twenty years. The Dictator, on the other hand, is one of the worst. Sacha Baron Cohen makes the error of returning to scripted comedy, his first since the diabolical Ali G Indahouse, and it’s a serious misstep: immediately, we lose that manic, anarchic off-the-cuff comedy from tricking bigots and idiots and Americans (usually all three) into thinking his character is real.

Here, he cack-handedly casts his gaze on oppressive middle-eastern regimes, which, save for a half-hearted closing speech poking fun at American politics, mainly takes the form of sub-schoolboy humour about boobs and virgins and jews and such. Despite the weight of an inflamed budget and a prestigious cast (what in criminy is Lord Sir Ben “Ghandi” Kingsley, CBE, trading lame gags about blowjobs? Does he need the pay cheque?), it’s laboured, dull, and gratingly unfunny.

A selection of entirely measured YouTube comments about the Iron Man 3 trailer

Iron Man 3 is out in April 2013, if you can hold your “jehzz” in for that long.

Chernobyl Diaries (contains no actual diaries)

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the worst of its kind in history. 300,000 people were resettled following the explosion in reactor four. Thirty-one people died (that the Soviet authorities admitted to), and the fallout of radioactive contamination continues to have adverse effects on the health and wellbeing of the local people and surrounding environment, two decades on. So fair game, apparently, for some hackneyed horror movie schlock in the form of Chernobyl Diaries.

Regardless of whether you think it’s too soon to exploit the memory of a phenomenal human tragedy in service of B-movie jollies, director Bradley Parker distracts you from this ethical conundrum by making a below-average movie; if you’re not offended by the subject matter, you will at least be offended by the quality of filmmaking.

Chernobyl Diaries follows the lost-in-the-woods blueprint so obediently, so fervently, that you almost get the impression you’ve seen the film already. Four bright young things are backpacking around Europe, stopping off at the usual hotspots for foreign travellers: London, Rome, Paris, and, er, Pripyat. While in Kiev, a massive Russian stereotype invites our hapless heroes on a tour of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, but things are not as they seem – the radioactive fallout has created zombie-like creatures who only come out at night, etc.

In reality, the greatest villain here is the shoddy, half-baked script. Our four leads are blander than rice crackers – but at least you’d care about rice crackers. Some laboured early exposition drums up minimal empathy. Then two new characters show up out of nowhere, halfway through, without explanation. Bullseye targets might as well be tattooed to their foreheads. In fact, all of our luckless players are just cheap cannon fodder for the unseen monsters, and we merely place mental bets for who dies next.

There’s really very little deviation from the standard genre boilerplate. Those of you playing Horror Cliché Bingo at home will be able to cross off Creepy Child, Character Wanders Off Into The Dark Alone, Van Breaks Down Miles Away From Civilisation, Torch Runs Out Of Battery, “What Was That?”, “Let’s Split Up!”, and many, many others.

This bumbling cheesiness has its own stupid unintentional charm, and in horror terms, at least, it’s adequately directed. The middle third creates a decent sense of dread: abandoned towns are creepy, and my yellow-bellied viewing companion did spend much of the film cowering under a blanket. But Parker has a weak handle on summoning unpredictable suspense, and builds to a miserably unsatisfying payoff. An alternate ending on the DVD does nothing to save Chernobyl Diaries from itself. Avoid like a nuclear winter.

Tuesday Trailer: Carrie

Pity poor Chloë Grace Moretz. In her fleeting fifteen years she’s been a lonely teenage vampire, offered her shoulder on which Joseph Gordon-Levitt cried, and watched as her dad Nicolas Cage died of severe burns. And now the unfortunate Ms Moretz must suffer the indignity of not only of being drenched in fake blood, but of appearing in a pointless and unwelcome remake of a much loved classic.

The forthcoming Carrie, a remake of Brian DePalma’s Carrie, itself an adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, swells with pointlessless.  This being a teaser, we don’t have much to go on, and so arguments for the film’s non-pointlessness remain clouded, but we can apparently expect plenty of fire and blood and things, so, you know, a fresh new direction!

It’s pre-emptive to start appraising a film not out until March, of course, but the omens do not look good. Pros include Moretz herself, who has a ridiculously impressive CV considering most children her age have yet to write out a CV, and has spent plenty of time in her brief career outshining her legal-drinking-age co-stars. Cons include the fact that Lindsay Lohan was almost cast in the lead (no, seriously) which does not suggest toweringly good judgement from the filmmakers, and the fact that, like most of the remakes flung our way by a lazy Hollywood, it seems an exercise in extreme futility. Or, as Stephen King himself put it: “The real question is why, when the original was so good?”

Just Seen: Jackie Brown / Tyrannosaur / Mad Men

Jackie Brown

Tarantino’s third film was the only one of his I hadn’t yet seen. It’s a curious sidenote on his career, Tarantino at his most reserved and subtle. For some reason he Benjamin Buttoned his way back into homage-heavy gore-schlock – not necessarily a bad thing, but you wouldn’t predict a career trajectory like this. Jackie Brown is the kind of film a director might make towards the end of his career: a legacy piece. A measured, sprawling crime epic.

Sure, the pop cultural touchstones are there – the casting of Pam Grier, the blackspoitation soundtrack, Samuel L Jackson’s use of the word ‘motherfucker’ – but they’re definitively muzzled, in service to the meandrous plot. Elmore Leonard’s original story is so dense and meaty that Tarantino even has to eschew his trademark off-kilter narrative, playing it smooth and linear. The result is something quite unusual; you feel like you’re watching a David Fincher film from the 70s. Devoid of the expected tawdry bloody pleasures, I found a rather sweet middle-aged love story acted with lashings of heart and soul from Grier and Robert Forster. Here’s hoping Quentin’s got another one of these in him.

Tyrannosaur

Paddy Considine’s debut was unforgivably overlooked by nearly every major award ceremony, and plenty of critics. Who the hell knows why – Tyrannosaur knocked me for six. I sincerely can’t remember the last time a British drama has affected me as much.  Peter Mullan plays Joseph, a lonely, violent drunk who befriends Hannah (Colman), a troubled Christian charity shop manager, and together they forge an unlikely allegiance confronting their respective pains. It’s something of a cliché to call a performance a ‘revelation’, but Olivia Colman really did reveal a great deal more than she had let on in the myriad of lighthearted sitcom roles she’s thus far been known for. (Bucking her film’s trend, she did win a much-deserved Empire award, and her tear-sodden acceptance speech is just lovely.)

Within such a modest framework, Considine’s astonishingly assured scope spans class, alcoholism, religion, marriage, domestic abuse, death, and murder. And beneath the grim kitchen-sink exterior it bears all the traits of a dark, surprising thriller. Few ‘character studies’ are are as gripping as this. I mean, quite frankly, Considine can piss off – seriously, no one man deserves that amount of talent, the bastard. Not only is he one of our greatest working actors, but he has the potential to be one of our greatest exports behind the camera, too. What a dick.

Mad Men (season 5)

[HERE BE SPOILERS] After five seasons, I remain to be convinced that AMC’s awards-laden drama isn’t much more than a glossy, big-budget, high-production-value soap; the issues of 1960s America continue to be handled a little too heavily (it’s as if the word ISSUES flashes up on the screen sometimes), and precedence continues to be given to soapy relationship dramas and over-sensationalised storylines. Lane’s tragic exit from the series is yet another rather stagey incident to take place in the SCDP offices – remember this?.

But, Lord help me, soap or not, I’m hooked. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison. It is one of the slickest, sharpest things it’s possible to watch on telly, and every element – from costume to acting – is of premium quality. I just wonder whether Don Draper’s marital problems is the fleshiest plotline they can muster. I’ll still wait with baited breath for season 6, of course.

Shut Up And Play The Hits: Shut Up and Watch This Film, Immediately

Following the success of the Blur concert film No Distance Left To Run, British directing team Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace turn their attention to another historic rock gig with a legion of grateful fans and a setlist of modern classics. LCD Soundsystem’s final performance forms the backbone of Shut Up And Play The Hits, a Sundance sensation, which essentially sets the gold standard by which future gig documentarians ought to follow.

It helps to have an intriguing subject matter, of course. Not that there is necessarily a rockstar blueprint, but James Murphy does not fit it. He is portly, swathed in greying stubble and has a penchant for scruffy, poorly-fitted suits. He started the LCD Soundsystem project – originally just him and his array of tech – in his early thirties, and retired the band in his early forties; and this relative maturity and somewhat grizzled outlook on life clearly infects his work (LCD’s debut single, Losing my Edge, is a wry take on how old and out-of-touch Murphy felt, even at 31).

So, appropriately, LCD Soundsystem does not disband in the traditional manner – through ‘creative differences’ or amidst a drug-fuelled burnout, but rather with a carefully controlled explosion. Murphy decided the time was right, and put on one final epic farewell concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Southern and Lovelace follow him over a 48 hour period.

They flit between snippets of the three-hour gig and portions of an interview between Murphy and music journalist Chuck Klosterman. It’s an overwhelming, breathtaking ping-pong: from the hysteric euphoria of 18,000 screaming fans, to the quiet, introspective melancholy of Murphy, confronting the hangover of his life’s work. To wring such a spectrum of emotion from a mere pop concert is undeniably impressive.

And it is beautifully shot. Most films from this underloved genre follow utilitarian, television-style practicalities. Southern and Lovelace are more daring, experimenting aggressively with the proximity and angles of their cameras. The top-down bird’s-eye-views of the baying crowd provide an illuminating perspective of a moshpit; another lens acts as an audience surrogate, thrusting us into the sweaty pit itself with thrillingly visceral effect.

As with most concert films, the question will always be whether non-fans need apply, and LCD Soundsystem’s unique brand of hipsterish dance-punk might not be palatable to all. But even the most stoic of musical tastes cannot help to be moved by the sweep of sentiments adeptly captured on screen, from the tearful goodbyes of lifelong friends, to the feverish Beatlemania-esque reactions from the fans – astounding for a band that only ever existed on the fringes of the mainstream.

¡Dios mío! It’s Casa De Mi Padre

As they might say in Mexico, Casa De Mi Padre is something of an excentricidad.  Quite unlike the big budget, big star, cameo-filled, broad-appeal comedies Will Ferrell is known for, Casa... was made for just $6m, and barely scraped that back at the box office. Matt Piedmont’s oddball comedy is, if you will, the non-union Mexican equivalent of a Ferrell flick.

Almost entirely en Español, with English subtitles, this tongue-in-cheek pastiche seemed bound to confuse as much as amuse, straying so far from the tight boundaries of Ferrell’s ‘Frat Pack’ fellowship. If anything, it shares more in common with the knowing, continuity-be-damned spoofs of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s classic output, in the way it cheekily parodies the cheap’n’cheesy filming practices of Mexploitation B-movies and telenovelas so beloved of America’s neighbour to the south.

To his credit, Ferrell – not an actor known for subtle, nuanced performances – plays it largely straight, aware that spoofs require a deadpan rendition in order to amplify the all-round absurdity. And absurdity this film has in abundance.  Ferrell plays Armando Álvarez, a lowly rancher who lives a quiet life with his disapproving father. When his drug-dealing brother (Diego Luna) returns to seek refuge from a crime baron (Gael García Bernal), hot señorita in tow (Genésis Rodríguez), proceedings get appropriately loco.

Casa De Mi Padre’s deliberate naffness is entertaining to a point. Clunky dialogue (“stay back, or I’ll beat you with these hands!”), shoddy animal props and cheap fake sets intercut with real Mexican landscapes make for an enjoyably daft experience.  Where it falls are the oh-so-frequent intervals of dead air space.

Unforgivably long stretches of time pass where comedy seems all but disregarded. Plot usually plays second fiddle in these sorts of movies if the gags are strong enough, but the filmmakers neglect this notion, bizarrely attempting to give the hokey narrative some unwarranted dramatic weight. Thus the tone hops around like a Mexican jumping bean: we sit through puzzling grim-faced dialogue one minute, and observe a ludicrous sex scene of stubbly arse-groping the next.

Prior to movies, Piedmont and Ferrell wrote sketches together on Saturday Night Live, and that’s exactly what this appears to be: a five-minute sketch kneaded too far thinly into a 90-minute movie. The concept is strong. The tacky target is ripe for ridiculing. The jokes often land, and are funny. But the script and execution is underdeveloped. Or, as they say in Mexico, subdesarrollado.

Photoshopping Twilight’s crap running

Stephanie Meyer Presents The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 200 or whatever it’s called has just released a new poster. As you can see, it features some outstanding ‘running’ from its three young stars who are definitely not in front of a green screen.

Over on Twitter, peerless film blog The Shiznit smelled an ample opportunity for a new mini-meme and lay down the photoshop gauntlet; I answered the call. Here’s what I came up with whilst on company time:

Time well spent. For many more superior examples, head over to The Shiznit, why don’t you.

Tuesday Trailer: Identity Thief

INT: HOLLYWOOD AGENT OFFICE – DAY

Hollywood star Jason Bateman walks into an office.

AGENT: (a gold-plated bluetooth headset pointlessly on his head) Jason Bateman! Baby! How is my favourite client in the goddamned world?

JASON BATEMAN: Hey man…I’ve just been watching my Arrested Development DVDs and wondering why I haven’t made anything even fractionally as good since.

AGENT: Whaaaaat? Kiddo! I can’t believe what I’m hearing here. Hancock? Couples Retreat? These are classic movies, baby, American classics! The Change-Up? More like Don’t Change Upyour career path, that is! (This brown-nosing continues for some time.)

JASON BATEMAN: It’s just that, despite being a talented actor with impeccable comic timing, I have 16 films rated ‘Rotten’ on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to just 9 ‘Fresh’. I think I need to make some better choices.

AGENT: (snorts from his mound of coke) Well, chill man, I have just the thing. A new script’s just come through that’s perfect for you: Identity Thief. And unlike practically every film you’ve ever made, this is a big-budget high-concept studio comedy with plenty of wacky setpieces that will play well to the PG-13 audience.  It’s got some impressive credentials already attached…

AGENT: You’ll be playing a mild–

JASON BATEMAN: –mild-mannered but slightly uptight perma-suited businessman?

AGENT: Right! Have you read it?

JASON BATEMAN: No, it’s just, I always seem to play the same…forget it. Who’s attached to star?

AGENT: It’s got that fat skank from Bridesmaids in it – and before you ask, YES, there are plenty of jokes about her appearance at her expense!

JASON BATEMAN: I hope there’s no romantic subplot…

AGENT: Fuck no, are you kidding? This is Hollywood, baby! Fat men get the skinny women, not the other way round!

JASON BATEMAN: I don’t know…maybe I should aim for more challenging, interesting, unusual parts than the usual bland forgettable garbage.

AGENT: I hear what you’re saying, but allow me to counter-argue with this suitcase full of cash.

JASON BATEMAN: Sold! [They have a money fight]

Just Seen: God Bless America / Jackass 3D / Futurama

God Bless America

Frank Murdoch (Joel Murray) is a depressive middle-aged loner with Larry David-esque grievances. When he’s diagnosed with cancer, Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as Frank takes revenge on society’s ills, or as Chris Morris once put it: “they don’t deserve punishment…they deserve GUNISHMENT“.  Bobcat Goldthwaite’s self-indulgent wish-fulfilment fantasy is essentially a platform to air his misgivings with the state of 21st-century America, and through Frank imagines how he could right some of these perceived wrongs.

It’s capably made, but the script is overrun with stilted, preachy soapbox-style dialogue. And its central argument – that civillisation is uncivil – is flawed. Most of Frank’s irks are found on television. Can’t he just turn the telly off? I hate most of the stuff Frank hates too, but I try not to worry about such fripperies by actively avoiding reality TV. And he labours under the ever-enduring misconception that things used to better – “golden age thinking” as Michael Sheen put it in Midnight In Paris. Such wistful sentimentality of a better yesterday forgets the barbarism and bigotry of earlier civilisations – traits far more deplorable than the ‘annoying habits’ of Frank’s ire. (Is talking in a cinema really worthy of a death sentence?).

Jackass 3D

After an absurdly heavy Friday night (finishing up at around 7am), I found myself in the market for a specific grade of brainless hangover viewing, come Saturday afternoon. Well, they don’t make ’em more brainless than Jackass, that ragtag bunch of gleeful idiots who willingly fling their bodies (and their dignity) into the line of fire – be it paintballs, dildos or feces – all in the name of preposterous, grotesque, hilariously juvenile entertainment.

The Jackass formula remains largely unchanged since its MTV days, though the budget is a little more swollen and an extra dimension was added for the theatrical release of this third outing. Like the first two movies, this is essentially a feature-length episode of the TV show, without the spectre of censorship looming. And by God, it still ticks the boxes. It’s horrendously puerile, scraping below the lowest of all denominators, and about as cinematically lucid as a portaloo full of dogshit (such a toilet makes an appearance in the movie, incidentally), but barely a minute went by where I wasn’t guffawing like an idiot or screaming in disbelief. Unsophisticated gut-level gratification at its most distilled level.

Futurama (season 7)

Getting cancelled by Fox and reincarnated by Comedy Central was maybe the best thing to happen to Futurama. Whilst Matt Groening’s crankier, older creation languishes on into perpetual staleness, its younger cousin remains in rude health, shark definitively unjumped. There’s been some golden moments in this first half of season 7 (the second half airs next year).

Though I’d hesitate to call it a golden age, the writers have flexed some lofty ambition in their sci-fi storylines (Bender confronting his own lack of free will a particular highlight), along with some of the best puns and wordplay you’ll find on the small screen. (“There’s a damn!” “Damn!” “There’s a grate!” “Great!”) The season finale which re-imagines all the characters as animals in a nature documentary is perhaps a bold experiment too far, but it remains the only animated sitcom to fully utilise the limitless possibilities of its medium, to glorious effect.

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