Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods: The real ‘Hunger Games’

Horror, perhaps more than any other genre, is susceptible to the latest fashion.  Whenever something new comes along, or a fresh twist is put on a familiar theme that becomes a hit with the audience, a slew of copycats is bound to follow.  The popular mask-wearing psycho slasher movies of the '80's and ‘90s, the long-haired pasty-faced Asian ghost stories and brutal ‘torture porn’ of the 2000's, and the current flood of handheld camera-style‘ found footage’ films are all cases in point.  We can hardly blame Hollywood for this lack of originality.  After all, they’re just giving us more of what we wanted, right?  And we must want more because we keep paying money to see them.
“Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods.  Bad things happen.  If you think you know this story, think again,” so goes the tagline of 'The Cabin in the Woods,' Joss Whedon's first foray into the horror genre since ending seven seasons of one of the greatest TV series ever made.  Even before its release, the movie’s trailer and advance buzz made it clear that  ‘The Cabin in the Woods,’ notwithstanding its namesake, is anything but your typical lost-in-the-woods horror movie involving the grisly deaths of pretty young things that had been done to death many time over in such franchises as ‘Friday the 13th,’ ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ ‘The Hills have Eyes’ and ‘Wrong Turn.’  The trailer even gave away what many would consider a twist by showing you that it's all a set-up and that the pretty young things are purposely manipulated like so many puppets into an elaborate trap by some ‘Big Brother’ organization for unknown nefarious reasons.  With a hook like this, how can we resist?
And the fact that Joss Whedon is its co-writer and producer only made it that much more highly anticipated.  Whedon, for those of you who don’t know (and shame on you!), is the talented screenwriter/director behind such cult hits as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' its spin-off ‘Angel,’ the swashbuckling fun space-western ‘Firefly,’ and the soon-to-be-released big screen superhero  ensemble extravaganza ‘The Avengers.’   Whedon is regarded as nothing less than a demi-god by Comic-con geeks around the world, and even if not everything he does strikes gold, they promise to be at the very least devilishly delicious fun.
You would think that with such high expectations, 'The Cabin in the Woods' would be something of a letdown, and you could not be more wrong. ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ has everything that you’d expect from Joss Whedon’s fertile but twisted imagination, and yet you’d never know quite what to expect. Combining elements from his previous works such as ‘Buffy’ (supernatural demonic forces and monsters galore) and ‘Dollhouse’ (shadowy pseudo-governmental agency with a mysterious agenda manipulating others) and peppered throughout with a healthy dose of his trademark wry humor, Whedon deftly draws from various horror movies from the past to make ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ entertaining as hell (no pun intended) and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.  In many ways, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is a labor of love from Whedon and company, as he and director Drew Goddard called it their ‘love letter’ or homage to the horror movies they watched growing up (and it’s going to take multiple viewings to catch all the tongue-in-cheek references they made in this movie). Well, I for one hope that Joss never ‘grows up.’

Finally, a perfect 10!

Lockout: Popcorn Hollywood entertainment at its best, or worst, depending on your POV

As soon as I first saw the trailer for ‘Lockout,’ the latest Luc Besson-produced sci-fi actioner, I knew that regardless of how bad or cheesy it is, it’s one of those movies that I would see in the theaters ‘no matter what.’   Never mind that it is shamelessly derivative, another variation of ‘Die Hard’ (didn’t I just see an Indonesian version of it not long ago?), and is filled with clichés, plot holes and enough logic defying action sequences to make Stephen Hawking’s head spin.   Why?  Because, damn it, it’s ‘Die Hard’ in space, man.  I mean, how cool is that???!!!

I’m a sucker for movies like ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Under Siege,’ and placing it in a sci-fi context is just icing-on-the-cake.   Ever since Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien,’ I just love movies set in giant space ships or space stations because not only ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’ but you have no place to run.  ‘Lockout,’ set in the 2070’s, is about a state-of-the-art maximum security prison in space taken over by its highly dangerous convicts.  To make matters worse, the president’s superhot daughter is onboard!  Snarky CIA operative ‘Snow’ (Guy Pierce), recently framed by one of his superiors for a murder he did not commit (of course), is given the task to rescue the First Daughter (Maggie Grace) from the psychopathic inmates. 
In movies like ‘Lockout,’ I’ve learned long ago to take my ‘thinking cap’ off and just ‘enjoy the ride.’  And if you do that, you’ll find this movie to be very entertaining.  Guy Pierce, as the larger-than-life action hero, is fun to watch and fires his one-liners like his submachine guns faster than Bruce Willis’s John McClane can say "Yippie-Ki-Yay Motherfucker."  No matter how badly he’s beaten, or how dangerous a predicament he finds himself in, Snow’s snarky humor never flags.  It’s almost as if everything is a game to him, and he has lost any fear of pain or death long ago.  Now that's the quintessential indestructable Hollywood alpha male!  Maggie Grace, playing the 'damsel-in-distress' role seemingly typecast for her, turned out to be anything but the weakling you expected her to be and complemented Pierce’s superhero perfectly.

The sci-fi world portrayed in ‘Lockout’ is sleek and stylish, comparing favorably with the settings of other sci-fi movies like ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘The Fifth Element,’ ‘Total Recall’ and 'Minority Report.'  'Lockout' is as much science fiction as it is action thriller.  The action is fast-and-furious, but the futuristic setting of ‘Lockout’ is so vividly painted as to be breathtakingly beautiful.  ‘Lockout’ may not have offered anything new or original in either the sci-fi or action genre, but it managed to be more entertaining than it had any right to be.   This is what a Michael Bay movie might have looked like, if he had any imagination and a better sense of humor.

8 out of 10

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Raid: Die Hard, Indonesian-style

Sigh……  It’s only inevitable that Hong Kong would  eventually lose its place as the reigning champ of martial arts movies.  After over  three decades of domination by the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and then to a lesser degree Jet Li and Donnie Yen, its hold on the genre is being seriously threatened not by China, which seems more interested in big-budget historical spectacles replete with grand sweeping battle scenes and beautiful cinematography, but southeast Asia in the form of Thailand and Indonesia. 

Back in 2003, ‘Ong Bak’ took the world by storm when Thai Muay Thai superstar Tony Jaa dazzled us with his unbelievable gravity-defying moves reminiscent of a young Jackie Chan, circa 1980.  It was followed by two sequels (actually prequels given the timeline) which further cemented Jaa as the heir-apparent to Chan, although their styles are considerably different aside from that the laws of physics and gravity don’t apply to them as much as to us ordinary folks.  Now neighboring Indonesia has crashed the party with ‘The Raid,' which combined high-octane martial arts action (Indonesia’s own traditional brand of martial arts is called ‘Pencak Silat’) with the SWAT genre popular in Hong Kong as evidenced by such series as ‘Hit Team’ and ‘First Option.’
As another movie critic pointed out, ‘The Raid’ is like [insert your favorite chop-socky Bruce Lee classic here] on steroids, as if today’s XBOX-playing, spasm-ed out adrenaline junkies have ruined it for the rest of us.  But once that bar has been raised (or Pandora’s Box opened depending on your opinion), there is no turning back.  ‘Ong Bak’ and its two sequels have set a new standard for everything else that is to follow.

The plot of ‘The Raid’ IS simple.  A tactical SWAT unit enters the lair of a crime lord to capture him ‘dead or alive.’  However, the proverbial ‘stuff’ soon hits the fan and the team finds itself in a desperate struggle to survive and escape the death trap they’re in.  As you might expect, there are corrupt cops, characters with ambiguous motives, complications, an evil henchmen who’s totally badass in martial arts and of course, a protagonist whom you root for because all he wanted is to get back to his family.   While I admit all this does sound a bit clichéd, it is the execution where this movie truly shined and made it a thrill-ride worth buying an E-ticket to.

The actors are all unknown outside of southeast Asia, but Iko Uwais (who plays our hero Rama) is one to watch as Indonesia’s answer to Thailand’s Tony Jaa.  Kudos should also go to Yayan Ruhian as ‘Mad Dog,’ the diminutive but sadistic evil henchman who transforms into a supercharged dynamo when it comes to the art of ‘Pencak Silat.’
The well choreographed, hyperkinetic action sequences in this movie would please even the most demanding and jaded martial arts action movie fan.  Move over, Hong Kong.  Thailand and Indonesia have arrived.

8.5 out of 10


Sunday, April 1, 2012

May the odds be evah in your fayvah!

As Jane Austin would say, it is 'a truth universally acknowledged’ nowadays that bestselling teen novels must be given the big screen treatment.  After all, teens comprise the single largest movie-going demographic, which explains why PG-13 had been the most common rating in movies for decades. With the success of the maga-hit 'Harry Potter' and 'Twilight' franchises, it is hardly surprising that Suzanne Collins's hugely popular 'The Hunger Games' trilogy is the latest Hollywood bonanza.  This movie's 'reaping' (no pun intended) in more than $200 million over its first two weekends only served to further validate Hollywood's continuing infatuation with young adult fiction.  Ka-ching!!!  Take that to the bank!

The premise of 'The Hunger Games' certainly isn't new, which is fine because virtually nothing's been new in Hollywood for a long time and as time goes by fewer and fewer original ideas remain.  The important thing is to put a 'fresh twist' on a familiar theme, right?  And 'The Hunger Games' managed to do just that, putting a new spin on our age old fascination with the ever popular bloodsport.  While other similarly themed movies such as 'The Running Man,' 'The Tournament,' and its nearest sibling 'Battle Royale' have all 'been-there-done-that,' 'The Hunger Games' nonetheless portrayed a fascinating and vividly painted fascist dystopia of the future in which it poses the question: 'Are we any different than the "civilized" Roman citizens who cheered on at the Coliseum as their favorite gladiators hacked each other to pieces?' And the movie's references to ancient Rome are many.  When the 24 tributes from the 12 Districts enter Panem to the cheer and adulation of the masses for the first time, they ride triumphantly in chariots like victorious Roman generals returning from a long but successful military campaign through the gates of Rome.  The popular 'tributes' (the term itself sounds Roman doesn't it?) have backers (sponsors), much like the gladiators did in Rome, and they're wagered on just like gladiators used to be.  Many characters in 'The Hunger Games' have decidedly Roman names, including the 'career' tribute from District 2 and the villain in the movie named Cato. 

Typically movies based on books I've read seldom meet my higher expectations, but 'The Hunger Games' succeeded in this regard.  In fact, I enjoyed it even more than the Suzanne Collins novel, because it had nuances and great acting (mainly from the lovely Jennifer Lawrence) that the book lacked.  Surely, the book has more detail in many areas, especially background stuff which the movie could only gloss over in brief flashbacks, but the movie covered what it had to precisely in its two-and-a-half hour length and stands well on its own.  As I mentioned before, the strength of the movie derived from its strong and believable characterization.  After her star-turning role in the excellent 'Winter's Bone,' Jennifer Lawrence was perfectly cast as heroine Katniss Everdeen, the huntress from District 12 who gave herself to 'The Games' in order to save her beloved little sister's life.  Sighting down her tightly drawn bow with arrow notched--see pic below, Katniss looked like Artemis (or 'Diana' according to the Romans) incarnate, the Goddess of the Hunt in Greek mythology. Yet this shimmering beauty with the soft eyes and luscious lips projects a vulnerability that is near impossible to resist.  No wonder Peeta and Gale both harbored affections for her.  Woody Harrelson provided a degree of poignancy and humanity as her mentor Haymitch, and Elizabeth “May the odds be evah in your fayvah!” Banks was simply mahvelous as Effie Trinket, a kind of "Joker-meets-The Mad Hatter" in female guise.
The movie deviated in minor details from the book, mostly for the better.  One of the key changes (warning, spoiler ahead) is near the end, when the 'wolves' employed were the more traditional snarling quadrupeds, not the intelligent bipedal hybrid creatures genetically engineered from the 9 dead tributes as described in the book.  The love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta was given its due, but it's something that the movie could have done without.  What is it with these love triangles anyway?  First 'Twilight' and now 'Hunger Games'?  Women!

There are those who didn't like the fight scenes in the movie, which were shaky close-up cuts and rapid choppy edits, but I have no problem with it because: 1) I'm used to it, and 2) it properly conveyed the sense of urgency and chaos in hand-to-hand close quarters combat.  This well used method has been fairly common in movies since its introduction in 'Saving Private Ryan'and 'Gladiator'so many years ago.
9 out of 10 (an extra point just for looking so good while pulling that bow, Jennifer)


21 Jump Street gets a 21st Century Makeover

When I first heard that ’21 Jump Street’ was going to be made into a movie, I thought: “Oh great!  Just what we need, another ill-conceived movie in an industry with no more new ideas to ruin a TV show I used to watch.”  After all, I’m still trying to wipe the bad taste out of my mouth for the travesties committed to such classic TV shows as ‘Starsky  & Hutch,’ ‘The Dukes of Hazard,’ ‘Get Smart,’ ‘Miami Vice,’ 'Wild, Wild West' and ‘Bewitched,’ to name just a few.  And while ’21 Jump Street’ wasn’t exactly a great TV show, it did last for 5 seasons from 1987 to 1991 and gave a young struggling actor named Johnny Depp the break that he needed in the 'biz.'

Then the preview further turned me off.  I mean, come on, they made it into a buddy-cop comedy starring “pretty-boy-of-the-moment” Channing Tatum and that annoying-as-hell Jonah Hill for chrissakes!   Its trailer looked plain stupid and there was just no way, I mean no friggin’ way I was gonna go see this crap.  Well, guess what?  I did and, even though I expected it to be a piece of foul-smelling you-know-what, it wasn’t bad at all!   Maybe reinventing it as an R-rated sophomoric comedy wasn’t such a bad idea after all.  And God only knows why I still crack up whenever Ice Cube calls them ‘a bunch of Justin Beaver (that’s how he pronounced it),  Miley Cyrus looking motherfuckers,’ even though I saw the preview at least three times already.  I guess it’s just the way he said it and that look of disgust on his face when he addressed these Justin Bieber/Miley Cyrus lookalikes that made it so funny.
’21 Jump Street’ worked for me because it is an unapologetically offensive comedy set in high school, and I just love unapologetically offensive comedies set in high schools.  It is not a non-stop laugh riot, but it had enough moments to make it entertaining.   I still find Jonah Hill unbearably annoying most of the time but I gotta hand it to him, he has a knack for comedic timing and comic delivery.  As in all buddy-cop comedies, there is a chase scene or two in the movie.   The memorable one in this movie is when they’re going after a biker gang in a student-driver car and then a pink VW beetle.  Throughout the chase there were times when you were sure there's gonna be a big Michael Bay-inspired ‘Bad Boys’ type of over-the-top explosion, but then nothing happens.  And then when you least expected an explosion, it did on account of something seemingly innocuous.

As you might expect, there were cameos from '21 Jump Street' alums in this movie, notably Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise and Richard Grieco as DEA officers, as well as Holly Robinson-Peete as an LAPD officer in charge of the motor pool.  All in all, '21 Jump Street' is not without its faults, but I was mildly surprised that it far exceeded my admittedly low expectations.
7 out of 10