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The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Will likely be one of the most influential horror films in a long time
"Five friends go for a break at a remote cabin in the woods, where they get more than they bargained for. Together, they must discover the truth behind the cabin in the woods."
Taken from the film's IMDb page, that synopsis is all that you should know before watching Cabin in the Woods. Without being facetious, I almost want to say "just go see the movie. Trust me on this," as it would be a crime to spoil any one of this film's surprises. That being said, it's time to rise up to the challenge and review this thing. Somehow.
One of the most endearing aspects of this film is its self-awareness, which primarily shines through the dialogue between these five friends. Each of the actors fit neatly into their respective archetypes, with Fran Kranz stealing the show as the gang's stoner. More than just another token, however, the character actually ends up being considerably deeper than I initially expected. The same holds true for both Richard Jenkins' and Bradley Whitford's characters, though I won't elaborate on those two any further for the sake of spoilers.
The bulk of Cabin serves as both a parody and an homage to classic horror movie tropes, with the sharp, witty writing of Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard carrying the day. It's the climax, though, wherein the horror film genre is turned completely upside down, that the movie elevates to a whole new level. Simply put, crap hits the fan.
While single-handedly destroying the genre, Cabin in the Woods provides for one chaotic ride. Not since last year's Hobo With a Shotgun have I had this much fun at the movies. I just about permeated this review with insufferable hyperbole, so I might as well end it with some more: nothing can prepare you for this movie.
Seriously, though, don't let anyone spoil it for you.
Continues the studio's trend of excellence set by 2008's Bolt
With John Lasseter having gained creative control over the studio several years ago now, it's more than fair to say that Walt Disney Animation has become a force to be reckoned with in the industry. While I felt that Meet the Robinsons was a fairly middling entry in the "classic" canon, it was 2008's Bolt that proved that it was still capable of creating films on par with those of its sister studio, Pixar. For me personally, it was the film that quickly found its way among Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski as one of my all-time favorites. So, when I heard that Tangled (or, as it was initially titled, Rapunzel) would also be under the helm of Byron Howard, along with Nathan Greno, Bolt's head of story, I naturally got pumped. Thankfully, Disney Animation's 50th feature continues the trend of excellence set by the duo's last project.
If there's one area where Tangled challenges Pixar, it's in the animation. Much like in the studio's previous computer-animated entry, all of the environments in the movie, while looking incredibly realistic, don't contradict the cartoon-esquire design of the characters. The film also provokes feelings of nostalgia, due in part by the painterly backgrounds that are reminiscent of films from Disney's first Golden Age.
As far as the plot is concerned, it's more or less what one would expect. That said, what Disney Animation tends to do best is have characters that are so relatable and different from one another that they make an otherwise traditional, borderline-formulaic tale feel virtually brand new. Definitely, that's pulled off here. The two leads, Rapunzel and Flynn (played with genuine sincerity by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi, respectively) make for one of the most likable Disney couples, and the two side characters that accompany them along their journey are just as endearing. Often, when going into an animated film in particular, I'm afraid of running into agonizingly annoying "sidekicks." However, Rapunzel's pet chameleon, Pascal, got quite a few laughs out of me, and Maximus, the horse of the Head of the Palace Guard, pretty much steals the show. The less said about him, out of fear of spoiling anything, the better.
You probably wouldn't know it based on the way that this film was marketed, but Tangled is a musical. While I don't see the soundtrack as a whole going down in history as one of the studio's greatest, there are a couple of truly memorable musical numbers, one of which coming from the film's villainess, Mother Gothel. Voiced excellently by Donna Murphy, she's a character who constantly kept me guessing. If Gothel isn't on par with Keith David's Dr. Facilier from last year's Princess and the Frog, she's close.
Despite a mildly slow beginning, Tangled is one of the most entertaining, as well as one of the most emotionally resonant, movies that I've seen this year. Directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno prove themselves to be more than just one-hit wonders by providing a film with mesmerizing visuals, catchy musical numbers, and a cast of characters that is almost entirely memorable. If nothing else, it's the first film since Inception that's reminded me why I go to films in the first place.
The Expendables (2010)
Provides just about everything that you could want out of a movie like this
For anyone growing up during the '80's and early '90's, the notion of having a film including all of Hollywood's most legendary action heroes seemed like little more than a pipe dream. So, when I initially heard that Sylvester Stallone was going to be putting together a movie titled The Expendables for just that purpose, I literally freaked out. But does this supposed "culmination of wishes" deliver the goods? Absolutely.
One thing that I was worried about going into Expendables was that, despite how exciting the idea of having all of these guys together sounded on paper, the filmmakers wouldn't be able to give each of them the amount of screen time that they deserved. Personally, very seldom did I find this to actually be the case. Perhaps one or two members of the crew could've received a bit more time in the limelight, but on the whole, I thought that they balanced the focus considerably well, without making the whole venture feel like a cluttered mess.
Say what you will about Stallone as a director, but the man knows how to handle action. Not only do these heroes of yesteryear provide the film with such a tremendous sense of nostalgia, but the action sequences, as well as the way in which they're shot, harken back to their time as well, before - and I know that I'm about to sound like a curmudgeon here - action scenes were plagued by the infamous shaky-cam. I won't go into describing how any of these sequences play out, but suffice it to say, it's some delightfully brutal stuff.
Now, as far as the plot is concerned, what you read in the synopsis is Well, that's pretty much it. Sure, there are a few twists and turns along the way, but if you've watched any action hero classic, you'll see them coming from about a mile away. On top of that, I found the main villain to be pretty silly, and a good portion of the dialogue is just hysterically awful. But, admittedly, that's kind of the fun of the whole experience, as I simply looked at it as a cartoon. A very gory, decapitation-heavy cartoon, but nonetheless!
Overall, I got just about everything that I could want out of a movie like The Expendables: sheer badassery. Sure, the plot is paper thin, and the scene involving a couple of cameo appearances felt just a little anticlimactic, but as far as mindless action films go, this one's tough to beat, at least compared to what else we've been given this summer.
The Other Guys (2010)
Starts off strong, but loses its steam in the latter half
From Anchorman to Talladega Nights, the duo of Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay has become one of my favorites comically in the industry as of late. And based on the trailer for The Other Guys, the quirky spirit of those two films in particular seemed to be relatively intact, but does it hold up over the course of the entire film? Unfortunately, no.
To start off with aspects of this film that I enjoyed, virtually every cast member involved does a solid job in their respective roles. Both Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play off of each other much better than you might expect as the titular characters, and Michael Keaton once again, this summer steals just about every scene that he's in as the Guys' more-calm-than-he-probably-should-be captain. Also, for what little screen time that they have, both Sam Jackson and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson shine as the two celebrity-status-garnered cops, being responsible for what could be the funniest movie moment of this year so far. Even Eva Mendes (who I'm typically not the biggest fan of) shares a couple of enjoyable moments with Ferrell as his purposely-out-of-his-league wife.
It's unfortunate, then, that the plot of The Other Guys is an absolute mess. After about the first forty-five minutes, the movie begins to shovel in unnecessary parts of the story, and by the time that the climax hit, there was simply too much going on for me to even care (despite some surprisingly well-shot action sequences). Also, don't confuse this with last month's Inception, whose complicated narrative was used to challenge the viewer.
Still, though, I'm a firm believer in that, no matter how much I may not like the plot of a comedy, if it makes me laugh, it's done its job. A similar rule goes for horror films in my book, where the primary goal should just be to frighten me. Even in this area, The Other Guys only succeeds during its initial half. Similarly to Knight and Day from earlier this summer, once the second half rolls around, most of the appeal is lost, and the movie becomes more of a financial thriller than a buddy-cop comedy.
The Other Guys, while still enjoyable to a degree, with the laughs being nearly consistent throughout the first forty-five minutes, is yet another film from this summer in which a significant chunk of its steam is lost within the latter half. Overall, my suggestion would be to pay half of the ticket price to see half of the film. Doesn't sound too unreasonable, does it?
A film that is, in and of itself, a puzzle
From Memento, to The Prestige, to The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan is quickly becoming one of the premiere directors of intellectual, yet crowd-pleasing entertainment. Now, just to jump right in, Inception continues this trend, while demonstrating more creativity than perhaps any of his other films.
If there's one complaint that I can imagine people having over this film, it's that the plot can be particularly difficult to follow. And while I feel that this is true to some extent, that's because Inception is, in and of itself, a puzzle. All of the pieces are presented to you, and solving it depends not so much on intelligence, but on whether or not you find that sort of element appealing in a movie. It's a film in which much of the dialogue is spent simply explaining the rules of this complex dream world, and therefore demands that you be wide awake.
Even so, there had still better be an endearing cast of characters to follow, especially with this being a two-and-a-half hour experience, and thankfully, Inception delivers. While none of them, outside of DiCaprio's character, have much back story to speak of, they all feature exceptionally likable personalities, so by the time that the stirring climax hit, I was concerned about the fate of each and every one of them. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance as DiCaprio's right-hand man, Arthur, blew me away in particular. The guy doesn't have a ton of screen time, but damn, does he leave an impression!
Ultimately, however, Inception is the story of DiCaprio's character, Cobb. Now, I won't say much, as giving any plot details outside of the synopsis would be a crime, but suffice it to say, it's some pretty engrossing stuff, and DiCaprio definitely brings his A-game here.
Also, as expected, Hans Zimmer proves once again that he is the boss when it comes to musical scores, as each scene is enhanced tremendously by his material. He's the sort of musician who can make even the simplest of actions seem more important than anything else that's happened in human history. If only you, sir, could score my life.
With its challenging narrative structure, likable characters (if somewhat lacking in depth), and sheer visual splendor, Inception is easily among my favorite movies of the year, second only to Pixar's latest classic. It's been a rough summer movie season, and while we've still got quite a few weeks left before it's officially over, Inception succeeded in reminding me why I dig this medium so much.
Finally, a return to form
This past decade hasn't been particularly kind to the Predator franchise. Keep in mind that this is coming from somebody who is the minority of people who actually enjoyed Predator 2 (despite the ridiculousness of having one of the mandible-faced freaks in Los Angeles in the first place), and feels that the series didn't begin its downward slope until the wasted opportunity of a film known as Alien vs. Predator. Thankfully, however, this latest entry proves to be a return to form, focusing much more on the hunt, while also providing this universe with a surprising amount of depth.
My favorite aspect of Predators is how it deftly returns to the roots of the series, placing a much bigger emphasis on the aforementioned hunt. In a jungle. There's just something naturally hostile about being in such an environment, as opposed to city streets, or the caves of Antarctica? And the unfortunate individuals who are trapped on this Predator home world aren't just standing around, waiting to be picked off like victims in a teen-slasher flick. No, these guys decide to fight back, and it becomes a ton of fun to watch! No, it's not particularly difficult to guess who will and who won't be ending this trip alive, but it's just refreshing to see these victims retaliating for a change.
To touch briefly on the audio front, Alan Silvestri's original theme, as well as the classic Predator battle cry, is still firmly intact here. These may not seem like much, but I was surprised by how much they added to the overall experience.
And speaking of returning elements, as you might've expected, this film pays homage to several moments from the original Predator, particularly in the third act, when the film simply goes nuts. They're all very much appreciated, but there is one specifically, a certain line taken out of the first film that just isn't the same as when it was delivered by Arnold.
Nitpicking aside, though, Predators breathes new life into this franchise, providing plenty of new elements that separates it from the pack, while maintaining what was so engaging about the first film. It's a quick distraction, but an entertaining one all the same.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)
A third installment that's ultimately just more of the same
While it's certainly been the popular thing to criticize the Twilight series, it's not without good reason. As much as I wanted to enjoy the first two installments, the constant intensity on the melodramatic meter, as well as the annoying-beyond-belief lead characters, make the films nothing more than a soap opera with just a higher production budget. But what about Eclipse , the third entry in the saga? Well, I enjoyed it a bit more than the first two
To start off with aspects of the film that I actually liked, the way that Eclipse is shot is done much more competently than in Twilight and New Moon . There are several particular images, in fact, that are still looming in my head. Also, the action sequences have a grander feel to them this time around, and on the whole end up being pretty fun to watch. This is due in part by the special effects, which I think are a significant step up from those found previously in the series. The wolves, especially, look much more convincing, despite the occasionally apparent green screen.
The film also pokes a little bit of fun at itself. It's as if director David Slade said "Okay, there's no way that we can take some of these scenes seriously." These types of moments don't occur all that often throughout the film, but the ones that are present go a long way.
It's unfortunate, then, that the rest of the film is just what you would come to expect from this series. Edward is still that controlling boyfriend who won't allow Bella to see her friends, Jacob is still that kid who, try as he might, will never exit the "friend zone," and Bella herself is still that two-timing slut who doesn't know what she wants.
To be honest, though, there are characters in this series who I genuinely like specifically, Bella's dad and Edward's family. They're each 100 times more likable and interesting than either of those three. The problem is, though, that neither of them are part of the main cast, and as a result, we're forced to sit through dialogue that's become so melodramatic to the point where I was laughing in my seat, as well as a love triangle that I don't find myself invested in in the slightest.
While the overall fun factor has been significantly enhanced this time around, I still can't find myself interested in this aforementioned love triangle that's been set up. It's amazing that, after two hours, it feels like so little happened in the way of this story. For those who are already fans of Twilight , I'm sure that they'll enjoy themselves. For the uninitiated, however, more of the same just isn't going to cut it.
Knight and Day (2010)
An initially entertaining film that takes a tremendous nose dive in the latter half
Based on the trailers for Knight and Day, I expected a fairly middle-of-the-road summer flick. If nothing else, I thought, having Tom Cruise back to doing what he does best in the action-hero role would warrant a viewing. Having just finished seeing it, though, I feel almost as though I should be reviewing two separate films.
The first half of this movie promises a solid, fun experience due primarily to the banter between Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz's characters. Initially, these two have terrific on-screen chemistry, with several scenes between the two of them being absolutely hilarious. It's the perfect marriage of action and comedy, and all seems to be going smoothly.
About mid-way through the film, however, it completely switches gears and becomes this lazy, meandering, worn out mess of an action film. The witty banter between Cruise and Diaz feels lost, and the movie almost seems to go out of its way to show as little action as possible. Specifically, there are several sequences in which the duo is in peril, and rather than showing us, the audience, how this conflict was resolved, we see one of the two characters get knocked out, followed by them awaking in a safe and secure location. It's these moments in particular that make the second half of this movie frustrating, and this is all on top of a story that ends up being not the least bit engaging.
Even the action that actually is present in Knight and Day, though, is hit-or-miss. The few action scenes found in the initial half are solid, with well-choreographed stunts, as well as the aforementioned dialogue between the two leads, which serve to enhance the fun factor of each sequence. However, as with every other aspect of the film, the action found in the second half isn't nearly as entertaining, and as often as John Powell's (the Bourne trilogy, Bolt) musical score attempts to liven the scene up, it all just feels like old hat.
Knight and Day is a film that, despite its initial promise of a simple, fun action flick, takes a tremendous nose dive about mid-way through the experience. Ultimately, it's just another addition to the list of mediocre action films in a summer that's, thus far, been virtually full of them.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
A worthy conclusion to a fantastic trilogy
I've said this before, but I'll say it again: Pixar has shown with their initial ten films that they haven't the faintest clue how to make a bad movie. And yet, somehow, I always find myself feeling doubtful whenever a trailer for one of their new films is released. With Toy Story 3, I got the impression that it would be just another adventure with Woody and the gang for the sake of having one. So, with this, and a movie year that has been relatively lacking so far, would Toy Story 3 disappoint? The answer: absolutely not.
Probably the most surprising aspect about this film is that, even after eleven years since the release of Toy Story 2, the material that has made this series so damn enjoyable hasn't been lost one bit here. All of the old characters are just endearing as ever, if not more so, and all of the new ones feel right at home here. Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton) is especially hilarious, to the point where even the mention of him got me laughing.
To touch briefly on the visual front, the characters themselves are just as expressive as they've always been. However, like Wall-E, the world that they inhabit looks much more photorealistic this time around. Also, this is one of the few instances when the 3D aspect actually enhances the film. It's by no means as crucial to the experience in the same way that it was for Avatar, but it gives the film a little extra something.
The action sequences, too, are spectacular. These are toys that we're talking about, and somehow, Pixar's managed to provide these scenes with one hell of a punch. Not much else to say about 'em other than that the climax in particular feels as epic as anything from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
What really puts Toy Story 3 above most films out there, though, is how it deals with the themes of loss and growing up. Even after getting to know these characters over the course of two films, I was still surprised by just how much I got sucked into their despair. Without giving anything away, there were two scenes that caused me to tear up, and even more that had me on the verge of doing so.
Toy Story 3 is not only a worthy conclusion to a fantastic trilogy, but also the one third installment (other than Return of the King) that I feel is better than its predecessors. For all of the reasons already mentioned and more, it's one of the studio's best entries. Sorry for doubting you, Pixar, even if it was just for a bit.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
A sequel that is on par with its predecessor
While not quite the pinnacle of its genre that some people make it out to be, the first Iron Man was a ton of fun. It was further proof that comic book movies could successfully be made for both fans and those unfamiliar with the source material. Iron Man 2, while not the surprise hit that the original was, is for the most part on par with its predecessor.
First off, one of the primary complaints that I've heard from many people is that there is too much of a focus on S.H.I.E.L.D. members Nick Fury and Black Widow, and that their mere inclusion in the film only bog the movie down. To that, I wholeheartedly disagree. I found that there were enough hints throughout that subplot to get the audience excited about The Avengers, but not so many that the film lost sight of what its goal was. The focus of this movie is indeed on Tony Stark, and while it's true that there are a few subplots that occur throughout the film, I never felt that they interfered with the coherence of the storytelling.
Even those who absolutely loved the first Iron Man will admit that the action was somewhat lacking, particularly the battle with Iron Monger at the end of the film, and this is where Iron Man 2 outdoes its predecessor the most. Not only is there quantitatively a bit more action to be found in this sequel, but also in terms of quality, I think it's a step up. The climax of this film, especially, is exhilarating from beginning to end.
The performances and characters in Iron Man 2 are also very solid. Robert Downey Jr. is as charming and witty as he was last time around, further solidifying himself as the most spot-on comic book movie hero. The banter between him and Gwyneth Paltrow is also just as endearing, and the scenes that do focus on their relationship is time well spent. Don Cheadle is also great as Rhodey, as I bought him more as a military man than I did Terrence Howard in the first film. That being said, there is one scene involving his character that's just baffling (and you'll know it when you see it).
Mickey Rourke, surprisingly, does a fine job as Whiplash, and while I think just a bit more time could've been spent developing his character, I'm starting to believe that the Iron Man villains aren't really important to the series in the same way that the ones from most other comic book movie franchises are. It's a pretty good thing, too, considering that I found the character of Justin Hammer to be, well, awful. To me, he just came across as a cartoon character, and I never once bought him as an intelligent multibillionaire.
Iron Man 2 is a worthy successor to a great comic book film, and an excellent start to the summer movie season. Despite a few too many moments that ask the audience to suspend their disbelief, as well as one pretty pitiful villain, the film succeeds with its endearing characters, solid action, and engaging story. Also, stay after the credits again.