Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Misery (1990)

I can understand why some celebrities are hesitant to interact with their fans. I mean, some people are just plain crazy. There are so many famous people who've taken out restraining orders against stalkers that we'd be here all day if I tried listing them. One guy even shot Ronald Reagan because he thought it would make Jodie Foster fall in love with him, for crying out loud.

The topic of obsessive, psychotic fans could make for a great horror story, so of course Stephen King had to be the guy to write it. Thus, we ended up with the concept of King's 1987 novel Misery. The novel was a success, and like most of his successful books, it was translated into a movie not long after its publication. And just like the novel that inspired it, the movie was a smashing success and even won an Oscar. It's been over twenty years since the movie was released, and it still holds up as an intense, frightening entry into the horror genre.

Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is the author of a popular series of romance novels starring a character named Misery Chastain. He's grown tired of writing books about Misery, and has retreated to a getaway in the mountains of Colorado to finish the manuscript for his first novel without the character. But before he can deliver this manuscript to his publisher, Paul is caught in a blizzard that causes him to lose control of his car. He's severely injured in the resulting crash, dislocating his shoulder and badly fracturing both legs.

Rescue comes in the form of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a former nurse who lives in a nearby farmhouse. Introducing herself as Paul's "number-one fan," Annie is ecstatic to have the writer of the Misery novels she loves so much in her own home. He's glad to have someone nursing him back to health, and she's more than happy to do so. But Annie's happiness turns to rage when she buys her copy of the latest Misery book and discovers the character dies at the end. She angrily forces Paul to burn his newest manuscript and demands he resurrect Annie in a new novel written just for her. As Annie's mental instability becomes more and more frightening, Paul must find a way to survive her violent psychotic outbursts despite his physical inability to flee or even protect himself.

Watch a bunch of movies based on Stephen King's work, and it's a veritable rollercoaster ride in terms of quality. Some of them are really good, while some of them are really bad. And while I don't know if Misery can quite compare to classics like Carrie or The Shining, it's still an effective, downright scary movie that any fan of King (and really, fans of horror and thrillers in general) should see at least once. It boasts impressive direction and outstanding acting, and it's head and shoulders over other, similar fare. I honestly cannot recommend it enough.

The movie was directed by, of all people, Rob Reiner. Yeah, the same Rob Reiner that brought us movies like The Princess Bride and This Is Spinal Tap. He's no stranger to making movies based on Stephen King's work, though, having previously adapted King's short story The Body into the movie Stand By Me four years earlier. His direction on Misery is top-notch, making the movie feel like something Alfred Hitchcock would have done. One particular scene where Paul is investigating the house while Annie is away is intensely suspenseful, having a real Rear Window type of vibe to it. Actually, the whole movie is like that, making almost every scene harrowing in their own ways. It does help that Reiner has wonderful cinematography and music to work with, but still, the way he crafts Misery makes you feel like he'd been making movies like this his whole career.

The movie also boasts a very well-written screenplay penned by two-time Oscar winner William Goldman. He and Reiner had previously collaborated on The Princess Bride, and Goldman's script for this go-round is good stuff as well. I've only read bits and pieces of King's novel and that was so many years ago that I can barely remember any of it. But Goldman has masterfully put together a great script. The way he develops the characters is like something out of old pulp noir stories. It grips you and never lets go, keeping the viewer in rapt attention as we try to figure out just how Paul is going to get out of this mess.

The absolute best elements of the movie, though, are the two primary actors. James Caan and Kathy Bates take up 98% of the movie's running time, and they're completely up to the task given to them. But let's do this one at a time, starting with Caan. Caan is good, very good. It's an impressive, engaging performance that brings a lot to the character. You hate seeing him in this position and you want to see him break free and run away. But the fact that he can't, along with how sympathetically Caan plays the part, makes the movie more intense.

But as good as Caan is, he's outshined by Bates. She completely owns the whole movie with her performance. Bates is intimidating, frightening, yet oddly charming. She plays the part in such a way that you can almost see right from the beginning that her initially sweet demeanor is masking a powder keg full of disaster. Bates alternates between frightening frenzy and girlish glee, like if Charles Manson was in the audience when The Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show. This only makes her even scarier, because it feels like two completely opposite people inhabit the same body.

And then there's the "rain gives me the blues" scene. Oh God, that scene. It and other moments like it, where Bates is incredibly calm yet incredibly threatening, are so very tense that for me, they were the scariest parts of the movie. And the fact that these scenes are so rare made them even scarier. We get so used to Bates demonstrating either a sweet happiness or a crazed, violent anger that these scenes make it feel like you're stuck in the eye of a hurricane. You never know just which Annie Wilkes you'll get in any given scene, and Bates's performance is so good that I still say she absolutely earned the "Best Actress" Oscar she was awarded for this role.

As I said earlier, Misery might not be on the same level as Carrie or The Shining. But it's still a tremendous movie that really deserves every positive accolade it's ever gotten. It's one of those gems that I hardly ever see people talking about, but they should. If you haven't seen Misery, see it now! If you have seen it, watch it again! It's definitely worth your time. And you know, I think this is the only place I've ever heard anyone use the phrase "cock-a-doody." Why did that phrase never take off?

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I love horror movies. I've loved horror movies since I was a little kid. Though I grew up with slasher movies like the Friday the 13th franchise, I in time grew to love the genre in all its forms. And in recent years, I've also had a growing fascination with fiction that deconstructs and analyzes specific genres. I don't mean full-blown parody, but things that take a look, comedic or otherwise, at what makes these genres tick. As far as horror deconstructions go, I loved the self-awareness of movies like Scream and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. But then along came The Cabin in the Woods to blow them out of the water.

The setup is a time-honored horror classic. A group of five friends ― Dana (Kristen Connolly), the goody-goody; Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the jock; Jules (Anna Hutchinson), the slut; Marty (Fran Kranz), the pothead; and Holden (Jesse William), the nerd ― have all piled into an RV intending to spend a weekend at a lonely cabin far from civilization. But the group is unaware that something dangerous is waiting for them. Two engineers (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) are secretly watching their every move, observing and manipulating the night's events from a mysterious control room. To say anything more would completely ruin the surprises that lie within The Cabin in the Woods.

Wes Craven's Scream made huge waves in the horror genre when it was released in 1996. Its "seen it all" attitude helped to both deconstruct and rebuild the slasher movie style that was all the rage during the '80s. But The Cabin in the Woods takes the further step of breaking down not just slasher movies but the entire horror genre. All of horror is pulled apart and examined in some form or fashion here. The genre's collective tropes and clichés are played straight, played for laughs, and often outright subverted by this flick. And in the process, The Cabin in the Woods becomes a truly awesome love letter to a genre that has so many ups and downs in terms of quality.

But getting the movie actually released ended up being a real chore. Production was completed in 2009, but had its scheduled 2010 release date was delayed until 2011 so the movie could be converted into 3D. But before that conversion could happen, MGM announced that the movie would be shelved indefinitely due to the studio's financial troubles. The distribution rights were eventually sold off to Lions Gate Films, who finally released the film on this past Friday. It's a shame that it took so long to release the movie, because it's an immensely entertaining piece of work that any horror fan should really make a point of seeing right now.

The movie was directed by Cloverfield writer Drew Goddard, who makes his directorial debut with The Cabin in the Woods. You'd never know that Goddard had never directed a movie before, because it looks like it was made by someone with years of experience. Goddard fills the movie with a ton of visual shout-outs to many classic horror movies, showing a great level of affection and appreciation for the genre he's satirizing as well. That works to not only make the movie a better parody of horror, but a better straightforward horror movie in its own right.

Goddard's direction never lets the movie grow boring or dull, as it stays entertaining and exciting all the way through. For as good as the script and the acting are, the movie would have really been hurting had Goddard done a crappy job. But outside of a few incredibly rare instances of less-than-convincing CGI (which I'm sure was not Goddard's fault), everything is fantastic.

He also manages to get some great performances at of his cast. Everyone plays their parts with enthusiasm and are awesome at what they're doing, but there are a few standouts I want to highlight. One is Kristen Connolly, who plays the designated "final girl." Her performance is strong, smart, and quite likable. I also enjoyed Chris Hemsowrth, who is the "alpha male" among the victims. Hemsworth, perhaps the movie's biggest star thanks to his role in Thor and the upcoming Avengers, plays his character perfectly. He hits every note necessary to make his character really engaging.

And then there's Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, the actors playing the two guys engineering this whole thing. I can' go too in depth regarding Jenkins and Whitford without spoiling parts of the movie, but both of them are hilarious. Their scenes are some of the most fun parts of the whole movie, and I'm glad they were both hired to be in front of the camera. I can also say the same thing about Amy Acker, who appears as a scientist assisting Jenkins and Whitford's characters. I was excited to see Acker in the movie because of how much I enjoyed her work on the TV show Angel, and she didn't let me down here.

But the entire cast is overshadowed by Fran Kranz, who only needed a talking dog to become the movie's equivalent of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. The fact that the movie allowed the stoner character to be the one to figure it all out was awesome enough, but Kranz's performance made it even better. He plays the role as him being the only sane man in an insane setting, and he's very funny all the way through. Kranz puts forth what I'd call the best performance among the whole cast, though Jenkins and Whitford do come very close.

What makes the whole movie, however, is the screenplay written by Goddard and Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. The script is very much something what you'd expect from Whedon: witty dialogue combined with the toying with genre conventions and tropes. I know I compared the movie to Scream earlier, but while Wes Craven was satisfied just pointing out the "rules" of slasher movies, Goddard and Whedon choose to take their horror satire to the point of explaining why the genre's tropes and clichés are so often repeated. Without giving too much away, Goddard and Whedon have crafted what I've seen some critics and reviewers describe as a comedic blend of Scream and Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

Goddard and Whedon have no qualms taking every recurring element of the horror genre and twisting them around to defy our expectations. Things we think will probably happen actually don't, or either take a detour on the way there or happen in away that you weren't anticipating. And the way they play with these enough that it simultaneously shows how tired and overused some of these tropes are while reinforcing why horror movies are so much fun to begin with. And as someone who's loved the genre since his youth, I'm happy there's a movie out there to remind me why I enjoy them.

The Cabin in the Woods is not the only horror movie to satirize the genre with a meta-fictional slant. But I most certainly will call it one of the best. It's an amazingly entertaining movie all the way through, with great directing, a fine cast, and outstanding writing. It also boasts a very cool concept and a brave ending that you'd never see coming unless you had it spoiled for you before seeing the movie. If you're even remotely a fan of fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to see The Cabin in the Woods. I'd also advise seeing it with as little knowledge about the plot as possible. I've already said too much in this review. But go see it. It's a movie that is well worth the time and effort to see theatrically. I'm actually glad I'm a fan of horror movies, because if I weren't, I'd have missed out on something awesome.

Final Rating: ****

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

It's hard to ignore success when you see it. And only a week after its release, The Hunger Games has "success" written all over it. It made millions of dollars in advance ticket sales, and I've seen theaters in my neighborhood playing it on three or more screens to keep up with the demand. It's the first real blockbuster of 2012, but just where in the heck did it come from?

It came from the same place that every other movie with a massive tween audience comes from: a series of books marketed towards teens and young adults. I guess Hollywood figured that with the end of the Harry Potter franchise and only one more movie before the Twilight franchise concludes, they needed to hurry up and turn another series of books into movies. Though I'm dreadfully unfamiliar with the books, the movie's mind-blowing success combined with the rave reviews its gotten has made me curious to see just what the hubbub is all about.

A series of catastrophic events devastated North America decades ago, and from its ruins emerged a 13-district nation called Panem. Over time, the districts rebelled against Panem's totalitarian Capitol, a revolution that was quelled when District 13 was destroyed. The Capitol punished the twelve remaining districts by establishing an annual event known as "the Hunger Games." In the Hunger Games, a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are chosen via random lottery. These twenty-four "Tributes" are instructed to fight to the death until only one of them remains, with lavish prizes going to the winner.

The movie opens as the 74th iteration of the Hunger Games are about to begin. When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected as the female Tribute from District 12 despite the astronomical odds against it, her protective older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to participate in the Games in her stead. Katniss and her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are escorted by their flamboyant chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) to the Capitol, where they, along with their fellow Tributes, are to prepare for the Games.

Katniss and Peeta spend the next two weeks training, coached and mentored by past Games winner and current jaded alcoholic Heymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). They're also dressed to the nines by their stylist (Lenny Kravitz) and paraded onto a talk show with the other Tributes. When Peeta reveals on the talk show that he has an unrequited crush on Katniss, the powers that be spin the duo as star-crossed lovers to drive up ratings for the televised broadcast of the Games. Though she initially exploits this spin for her own gain, Katniss and Peeta end up actually legitimately bonding. This only makes things worse because they both know that in order to survive the Hunger Games, one of them has to die.

I didn't really know what to expect from The Hunger Games. Having never read any of the Hunger Games novels (nor even knowing they existed prior to the start of the movie's promotional campaign), all I knew was that the movie was supposed to be really good and that it supposedly owed something of a debt to Battle Royale. But having seen it, I can tell you that The Hunger Games is indeed a damn good flick. I'd actually go as far as to call it the best movie of 2012 so far. It's an engaging, gripping movie that keeps your attention for the entirety of its 150-minute running time.

Sitting in the director's chair is Gary Ross, who previously helmed the critically-acclaimed Tobey Maguire flicks Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. Ross's direction here is fantastic, as he effortlessly crafts a universe that sucks you in almost immediately. He really makes you feel there's more going on in the movie's world than what we see onscreen. It feels like Ross and his crew actually built the entire world of Panem from the ground up and captured it on film. That is how well I thought Ross established the movie's atmosphere.

Though Ross is a very capable filmmaker whose work here should be commended, there are a few things I want to nitpick. One is his use of shaky camerawork during some of the action scenes. For the most part, the cinematography is gorgeous. But those few instances where the camera starts bouncing around in what I presume is an attempt to build tension or establish a frantic feeling really just made me wish the camera was more stable. That's something that turns up in a lot of movies nowadays and it annoys me to no end. I mean, it's not going to hurt your movie to have a little stability during your action sequences.

The other thing that bugged me was how a lot of the violence felt watered down so the movie could get a PG-13 rating. Don't get me wrong, I don't think the movie needed to look like an Eli Roth movie or anything. But the fact that you can tell Ross (or the producers, or whomever) did some editing around the violence actually takes away some of its impact. The movie still has its fair share of bloody violence, but it still seems tame to a degree. Some movies use violence to achieve different goals, but The Hunger Games could have used a little bit extra to hammer home just how messed up it is that the Capitol has rounded up a bunch of children and forced them into gladiatorial combat for their own amusement. The movie still works fine and is no better or worse because of this, but that's just my take on the whole thing.

But let's continue along and talk a little about the screenplay, written by Ross, Billy Ray, and Hunger Games creator Susanne Collins. I'm sure I would have appreciated the little things more had I actually read Collins's book prior to the movie, but the script still manages to tell a fascinating story regardless of if you have any prior knowledge of the books. It assists Ross's direction in building a universe broader than what we see, yet still remains focused on telling the story of Katniss and the Hunger Games.

Not only do Ross, Ray, and Collins craft a story of rebellion, of the Capitol's decadent "haves" versus the "have nots" of the twelve Districts, they also give us a group of characters who are all very intriguing in their own ways. All of them have their own motivations, their own reasons for being. Even the characters with precious little development or screen time, like the Tributes from the other eleven Districts, all feel like there's more going on with them beneath the surface than we are shown. It's some great writing that actually makes me want to go check out the book too.

And last but not least is the cast, whom I felt all put forth their absolute best. Among the supporting cast, I thought Josh Hutcherson contributed a sympathetic performance in his role as Peeta. He brings exactly what the character needs to the table, which elevates the material even further. I also thought Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci were a hell of a lot of fun in their parts, while Donald Sutherland contributed an understated yet coolly calculating nuance to his role as Panem's president. The best of the supporting cast, though, is Woody Harrelson and his tremendously amusing performance as Katniss and Peeta's drunken coach. Harrelson is so entertaining that he actually makes you wish there were more moments with him.

But a review of The Hunger Games would be for naught without a mention of its star, Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence's performance is nothing short of stellar. She's very engaging, very charismatic and likable, effectively portraying Katniss as a brave, intelligent young woman who will do anything necessary to survive while flaunting her utter contempt for everything the Hunger Games represents. A ton of talented young actresses were up for the role of Katniss, but having seen what Lawrence does with it, I honestly could not imagine anyone else playing the character. Lawrence is simply amazing here, no doubt about it.

People have been drawing parallels between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale for years, ever since Collins wrote the first book in her trilogy. The similarities are certainly there, and it is possible to notice elements of movies like The Running Man and The Condemned as well. But The Hunger Games has its own uniqueness that separates it from those other movies. It stands on its own as a great flick that I personally felt is worth seeing. So I'll give the movie a well-deserved four stars. Now bring on the Hunger Games sequels, because I'm totally in.

Final Rating: ****