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Posts Tagged ‘Joss Whedon’

Many questions could reasonably be asked of the film we will shortly be considering, namely Justice League. Given the generally lousy track record of DC movies over the last few years, will it destroy all the precious momentum generated by Wonder Woman and torpedo that movie’s chance of a genuine Oscar run? Why is all the publicity material treating the presence of Superman in this movie as some kind of well-hidden surprise, considering that Henry Cavill (who plays the Kryptonian on the big screen these days) is second-billed in the cast list? Just how much influence did Joss Whedon exert over this film, given that Zach Snyder retains the sole directorial credit? Why, given Snyder’s take on the DC mythology strains so hard to be dark and edgy and ‘realistic’, have they gone with a title as corny-sounding as Justice League in the first place? And why, given it contains a whole bunch of popular and iconic characters, are so many people approaching this movie with a general feeling of ‘Please don’t let it be as bad as I’m afraid of’?

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Hey ho. With Superman still dead (I really don’t think this counts as a spoiler any more), planet Earth has been thrown into something of a state of trauma. Batman (Ben Affleck), however, fears that worse is yet to come, especially when he encounters an alien scout on the prowl in Gotham City, and this impels him to step up his attempts to find more gifted individuals to protect the planet. Chivvying him along in this, somewhat, is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). On their list of people to see are the Flash (Ezra Miller), who can run at close to the speed of light, Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who is, um, a cyborg, and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). (Just why, in the context of the film, Batman is so keen to recruit someone whose only powers appear to be the ability to swim really fast and an impressive skill at fishing is not really explained.)

Anyway, things get urgent with the ‘awakening’ of an otherworldly cube, immediately followed by the arrival of a dangerous alien warrior in unusual headgear. (At this point I was wondering if Joss Whedon had done any actual work on this movie to earn his writer’s credit, or whether it was just there to acknowledge how much of his script for The Avengers was being ripped off here.) The newcomer is Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who has come in search of a set of plot coupons that will allow him to recreate Earth in the image of his apocalyptic homeworld. Can our disparate bunch of heroes unite to stop him?

All right, so there are (as usual) some baffling creative decisions on display here – not the least of which is the decision to keep Superman’s presence in the film out of all the publicity. And there are some aspects of the plot which just plain don’t make any sense whatsoever. That said, I can only assume the decision not to give Whedon a full co-director’s credit must be down to some complicated technical criterion, for his influence on the movie is clear. Apparently one of his decisions was to cut the thing down from nearly three hours to only two; once, the temptation would have been to say he’d only gone a third of the way to fixing this movie, but no longer, for this is a big improvement on Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, even if it doesn’t match the standard of Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure time: I’m probably more a fan of the DC characters and mythology than Marvel’s universe (not that it wouldn’t be a close-run thing if I were forced to choose). So there’s a sense in which I’m absolutely the target audience for this movie, at least inasmuch as I know who all the characters are, not to mention the associated mythology. It does occur to me that anyone new to this might find all the casual talk of Atlantis and Parademons and the Speed Force and Mother Boxes to be utterly baffling; I don’t know how good a job they do of keeping the film accessible.

On the other hand, I’m also not the easiest person to please. This movie clearly owes a debt to the rebooting of the Justice League by Geoff Johns from a few years back, not least in the way it attempts to incorporate Cyborg as a core member of the team. I am of the generation for whom this guy is a member of the Titans, not the League, and the absence from the film’s version of the team of any Green Lantern, not to mention the Martian Manhunter, is inevitably a disappointment – although there is a tiny cameo by a Lantern at one point. (Shame they didn’t draw much more from the Morrison-Porter incarnation of the group, but then Johns is producing the movie.)

We’re still in a slightly odd world where Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and even the Justice League itself are barely referred to by those names at all (just not credible enough, I guess), but nevertheless the film works very hard to include lots of crowd-pleasing moments to satisfy both casual viewers and the die-hard faithful – from the Flash’s look of panic at the unprecedented realisation that a hostile, amnesiac Superman can actually see him coming, to the decision to incorporate classic elements of the soundtracks of the 1978 Superman and the 1989 Batman into this film’s score.

This is not to say this is a great film, simply one which has its moments. Again and again you realise that this is a film stuffed with charismatic performers who just aren’t being given the material they need to really shine. You never get that sense of the characters coming together as the iconic team they are; they just sort of bump into and hang around with each other. Going with an all-CGI villain like Steppenwolf is arguably a serious mistake. And there’s a point in the second act at which the plot goes off on a frankly bizarre and very wrong-feeling tangent, which the film really has to work hard to recover from.

Still – and bear in mind that, as I say, I’m inclined to be generous here – this is still quite watchable stuff, with all the various quips and one-liners (courtesy of Whedon, one presumes) making up for the tendency towards CGI-slathered heavy metal gloom (courtesy of Snyder, one is quite sure). I still think DC and Warner Brothers have a lot of work to do to turn this into a viable long-term franchise of the mighty Marvel kind, but – and in the context this really isn’t the faint praise it sounds like – on the whole, the thing to bear in mind is that Justice League could really have been much, much worse.

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What in the world is more likely to get a sequel than a movie with a $1.5 billion box office? A movie with a $1.5 billion box office that’s a keystone of a sequence of over a dozen movies which has already made $7 billion. Yes, it’s time for the unstoppable colossus that is Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. I tell you, folks, there’s something almost unsettling about the sheer aura of implacable self-confidence that this extraordinary film gives off: it’s almost as if it doesn’t care whether you like and enjoy it (or even understand it) or not, it’s still going to make more money than the GNP of most African countries. Resistance feels useless.

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As things get underway, the Avengers are in the process of sorting out a HYDRA base in the obscure Balkan nation of Fictionalakia, which they do with a reasonable degree of alacrity: this is more an excuse for the director to get all flashy with the camerawork than a source of genuine conflict, though HYDRA’s pet superhuman pawns the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) give it a good shot.

This looks like the final victory in the team’s current campaign, and it seems to offer the opportunity for a significant step forward in the cause of global security: for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) thinks he can use captured alien technology to create a sentient robotic security system encompassing the entire planet. He decides not to mention this side-project, codenamed Ultron, to the rest of the team, because what could possibly go wrong? To the surprise of nobody but Stark himself, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) turns out to be an indestructible genocidal maniac with a snarky line in repartee, and after delivering an admonitory spanking to the team flies off to set about his plan for global destruction, recruiting Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver along the way. But will they ultimately prove to be heroes or villains? One thing Marvel Studios’ lawyers are very clear on: they’re definitely not mutants.

While waiting for the film to start, I did find myself observing to a friend that it would be interesting to see how Joss Whedon coped with making a film with nine actual Avengers in it, and that’s before we even get to the villain or supporting cast. The answer, clearly, is to make a film which is almost ridiculously massive in every respect. It opens with a hugely lavish special effects action sequence and just gets bigger and bigger and (in true comic book style) sillier and sillier as it goes on. The crash-bang-wallop-zap-kapow is relentless, reaching an early peak in the long-awaited Iron Man-vs-Hulk fight, which brings new meaning to the word blockbuster, and proceeding all the way to a notably untrammelled climax. (One character even shouts ‘This is crazy!’ in the middle of the concluding chaos, which probably counts as an example of Whedon’s noted self-awareness.)

It does go on for a remarkably long time, but this is because in addition to the actual plot and his nine Avengers (in addition to the original cast and the two non-mutants, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany finally gets some proper screen-time as the Vision), Whedon also opts to include a coachload of other characters, either ones from previous movies, or ones destined for more signifcant roles in future projects: Don Cheadle has a surprisingly beefy role, and also present are the likes of Anthony Mackie, Stellan Skarsgard, and Andy Serkis. We even get to see what an Avengers works do looks like – needless to say, the world’s most famous nonagerian comic book writer puts in an appearance.

Also in true comic-book style, the lavish property damage is leavened by some slightly histrionic soap-opera style interactions between the principal cast, but I would honestly argue that finding a space in a film like this one for actors to genuinely find their characters and act is as impressive an achievement on Whedon’s part as any of the technical wizardry or plot-wrangling on display elsewhere. Whedon’s stated intention was to favour the characters who don’t appear in movies of their own, especially the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and he pretty much pulls this off – although his attempts to wrong-foot the audience are somewhat undermined by Marvel’s fondness for announcing the cast lists of future movies several years in advance. Personally I could have seen a bit more of the Vision, but there is a huge amount to squeeze in and on the whole the film does the best it can in the circumstances. Elsewhere, I found that Whedon’s brand of self-aware knowingness was getting a bit predictable – I was able to more-or-less guess what some of the jokes would be, so perhaps it’s just as well that this film marks the end of his association with the Avengers films, at least: I suspect the writer-director would agree, because to be honest the film sometimes feels like a monumental contractual obligation – it’s never less than competent, but (not inappropriately for a film largely about androids) it often has a curiously mechanical, joyless feeling to it.

At least the sense one sometimes gets watching Marvel movies, that of characters being laboriously shunted around in order to facilitate the launching of the next instalment, is less pronounced this time. But I do wonder how this film will play with some sections of the audience: if you know who Baron von Strucker and Ulysses Klaw are, get all the other references, and have been meticulously keeping track of the meta-plot about the Infinity Stones, you’ll be in some variety of heaven, while if you’re a non-discriminating partaker of overblown CGI action you will find nothing here that disappoints you either. However, if you’re a normal, mature person who expects a film with a bit of focus and a recognisable beginning, middle and end, this may not be your best choice of night out.

However, I get a strong sense that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t really care about that as it cruises merrily toward the various box-office records it will reduce to smithereens. This doesn’t feel quite like it’s raising the bar on the comic-book movie in the same way that the first film did, nor does it really seem to be intent on allowing the franchise as a whole to regroup: it just looks like another attempt by Marvel to see how crazy they can get before they lose the audience. I suspect they still haven’t reached that point. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a bloated carnival of absurd empty spectacle held together by ridiculous soap-opera plotting, or a grandiose monument to Marvel’s ambition and skill in growing their world-conquering franchise-of-franchises, but either way it’s going to be more or less unavoidable for some time to come.

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For a two-screen independent cinema dwarfed by the major chains around it and not exactly in a prime spot (off Leicester Square itself and well on the way to Chinatown), the Prince Charles has acquired a massive reputation as a place to watch and otherwise enjoy films. I think this is partly because the place is clearly run by people who understand why people still go to the cinema and what films they are prepared to pay and watch over and over again: on the schedule just this week are quotealong showings of Anchorman and Flash Gordon, a free-beer-and-pizza revival of Terminator 2, and a whole bunch of shrewdly-assembled double-bills – RoboCop and Dredd showing together, for example.

Despite the fact that one of the screens is really tiny and has hugely inadequate legroom for someone my size, I regret not being able to go to the Prince Charlie more often. I have very fond memories of watching The Wrath of Khan there two years ago, and had a fairly good time the other day watching the new version of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon.

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Low-budget black-and-white modern-dress Shakespeare adaptations not featuring anyone you could honestly call a star name do not usually get the kind of release, or indeed media attention, that this one has drawn. Then again, the average low-budget black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation not featuring anyone you could honestly call a star name is not adapted and directed by the creative brain responsible for the third highest-grossing film of all time. That sort of thing gets you noticed.

On the other hand, I suspect the new Much Ado would have been guaranteed at least cult hit status regardless of the existence of The Avengers, for such is the effect of being touched by the hand of Joss Whedon. Let’s be straight about this: Whedon is a brilliant writer, director, and producer, and his career is littered with deservedly-celebrated films and TV series from Toy Story to Cabin in the Woods, taking in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-offs and Firefly along the way. No argument there.

However, I’m a bit less comfortable with the cult of adoration that seems to have developed around Whedon himself as an individual: several people I know are wont to publish gushing blog posts about the formative influence Whedon has had on their lives, and in the same way members of the faith tend to refer to him simply as ‘Joss’, as though he really were the intimate personal friend they clearly wish he was. I am very wary of this sort of thing.

Nevertheless, a built-in cult following does help when it comes to getting films financed and released, and I can’t help but suspect this has aided Much Ado along its path to a theatrical release. Still, one gets the sense that simply making a film as simple and intimate as this one was its own reward for Whedon: it was shot in and around his own house and the cast is largely comprised of people he’s worked with in the past.

The plot of the film is… quite famous and widely available on-line. But go on, I’ll spoil you anyway (not that this is likely to stop members of the Cult of Whedon coming round the garret with axes). Hey ho. Members of the household of prosperous gentleman Leonato (played by Agent Coulson from The Avengers) rejoice when popular nobleman Don Pedro (Dominic from Dollhouse) comes to visit with his retinue of followers. Romance blossoms between the young count Claudio (Topher from Dollhouse) and Leonato’s daughter, which inspires everyone to bring about a rekindling of romance between Pedro’s associate Benedick (Wesley from Angel) and Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Fred from Angel). Doing his best to scupper these matrimonial machinations is Pedro’s wicked brother John (Simon from Firefly). Will true love win through? Not if they have to rely on moronic local policeman Dogberry (Mal from Firefly) for help, that’s for sure…

Now, it doesn’t seem that long since the last film of Much Ado About Nothing – the Ken and Em version which came out in 1993, which I remember quite well. On the other hand, I’m currently working alongside people who weren’t born back then, so possibly another new take on the play is justified. Whedon’s version is distinctly different from Branagh’s, anyway: Branagh’s was very jolly, colourful, and straightforward, while Whedon’s is much cooler and more ‘classic’ in its look and feel. The Branagh film was mocked at the time for its endless choruses of hey-nonny-nonny, but a few of these (in an appropriately jazzy arrangement) have crept into the new version, too: clearly they are integral to the text.

For a while it looks like the stylisation of the new film is going to get in the way of Whedon’s take on the story, with only his most obvious directorial choices making it through to the audience. First and foremost, where the potential for slapstick comedy in the tale is concerned, Whedon goes for this in a big way: people falling down stairs and so on. Nathan Fillion’s performance as Dogberry is pretty broadly comic, too – but then, as I recall, so was Michael Keaton’s in the 93 version, and Fillion is at least less manic.

However, on reflection, suggestions that this is a feminist take on the play do not seem to me to be entirely unfounded. There seems to me to be an implicit critique of the differing positions in society of Beatrice and Benedick – the two are well-matched, equals in every practical way, and yet Beatrice is forced to ask others for assistance simply because there are some things a woman is not permitted to do. The crushing effect on a woman of acquiring a ‘reputation’, whether deserved or not, is also explored. All in all this isn’t much, and given that Whedon leaves Shakespeare pretty much as he finds him, it’s mostly grace notes anyway. But it’s a valid take on the play.

The film looks good and is impeccably put together, and the performances are fine as well: Shakespeare’s verse comes to life, which is a good sign. But I laughed at it a lot less than most of the other people at the showing I attended, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was a clever and admirable film rather than a really good one. If I had started watching Much Ado About Nothing on TV I’m not sure I wouldn’t have bailed out before the end. In the end, it seems to be the case that left to his own devices, Joss Whedon makes remarkable, hugely enjoyable films about hot, wise-cracking chicks battling armies to a standstill – but in association with the greatest writer who has ever lived, he just comes up with something which is interesting and fairly clever. Much Ado About Nothing is a nice little film – but for sheer entertainment value, give me something with the Hulk in it any day.

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‘What, not another one? The one with Sean Connery and Uma Thurman was awful…’

My literary advisor’s response to the news of the then-impending release of the big-screen version of The Avengers was, it seems, typical. Sensitive to being tarred with that particular brush, the movie’s distributors have specially retitled it for its UK release, where it seems to be appearing under the monumentally inelegant title Marvel Avengers Assemble, which sounds more like a trade-magazine headline than a proper movie. They can take their new title and stick it; I’ve been referring to this movie as The Avengers for a number of years now and The Avengers it shall remain.

The last-minute decision to rename must have been a bit peeving for Marvel Studios, as this film is the culmination of possibly the longest and most expensive advertising campaign in cinema history. You may remember the first trailer, which appeared in theatres in 2008 under the title Iron Man… oh, all right, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the fact remains that the two Iron Man movies, Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk all had a definite sense of building towards this moment. This kind of coming together of separate characters and series happens all the time in comics, but it’s a new and bold departure as far as cinema is concerned. All credit to Marvel for giving it a whirl, and even moreso for giving the writer-director gig of a huge movie to someone whose last film didn’t even make its money back in theatres: Joss Whedon.

The story scores highly for its potential to baffle anyone who hasn’t seen all the previous films, but here goes anyway. SHIELD’s attempts to tap the potential of Asgardian power-source the Tesseract hit a snag when the widget opens up a dimensional gate allowing the malevolent Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) access to the Earthly plane. Pausing to suborn various helpers, he saunters off taking the Tesseract with him. He has struck a deal with belligerent aliens the Chitauri and the conquest of Earth is on the agenda.

This worries SHIELD boss Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who sets about assembling a team of specialists to sort the problem out. Already on his books are the crackshot Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and superspy Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen), and quick to sign up is chemically-enhanced super-soldier Captain America (Chris Evans – no, UK readers, the other one). Less immediately eager are playboy genius Iron Man (Robert Downey Junior) and brilliant-physicist-stroke-unstoppable-atomic-monster Bruce Banner (not content with doing his usual changing-from-pink-to-green trick, the Hulk has also transformed from Ed Norton to Mark Ruffalo for this outing). Matters are further complicated when Loki’s adoptive brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes an understandable interest in his activities…

Before we go any further, I know there’s one question probably burning at the front of your mind – something you feel you absolutely have to know. Okay, I shall tell you: The Avengers doesn’t have a post-credits sequence. You can clear off… well, not as soon as the closing titles start, for you’ll miss a bit revealing the villain of the sequel – or, as I like to think of him, The Hideous Antagonist Next On Screen – but don’t bother hanging around until the end unless you get off on reading the names of special-effects technicians.

Anyway, as a story pitch, it sounds completely insane. It probably is completely insane, but this kind of wild banging-together of different characters and tones is bread-and-butter stuff as far as comic books is concerned. As a film in its own right, The Avengers is probably deeply flawed and fundamentally misconceived: but it’s not a film in its own right, it’s an attempt to do a proper superhero team story, full-scale, on the big screen. And for me it delivers in spades: insane it may be, but it’s also insanely entertaining.

There’s a very particular structure to comics stories where superheroes meet for the first time, and The Avengers adheres to this with admirable fidelity, for the most part. First of all you get the sequences introducing everyone individually and demonstrating what their schtick is, and these are present (mostly). Then, before battle is joined with the actual villain, there is the inevitable misunderstanding and/or clash of egos resulting in the good guys knocking seven bells out of each other at great length. This sort of thing fuels the perpetual ‘Who would win in a fight between…’ debates comic fans love, and The Avengers goes for this with great enthusiasm. The initial barney between Thor and Iron Man is jolly enough, but I was particularly delighted later one when the story finds time for a proper scrap between Thor and the Hulk. Once this is out of the way it’s time for some regrouping and laying in of plot ahead of the final battle.

I was listening to a review of The Cabin in the Woods on the radio where Joss Whedon’s undoubted talents as a writer were under discussion. The point was made that, while it’s all very well to deconstruct genres and play with conventions, would it not be possible for Whedon to simply make a straightforwardly brilliant movie that operated solely in its own right and wasn’t constantly referencing or commenting on something else? Clearly someone hasn’t seen Serenity, but no matter: in many ways The Avengers is that movie. You don’t need to have seen any of the other Marvel Studios films to follow the story here (but, equally impressively, the film feels like it’s significantly moving on the story of all the main characters), and the way in which Whedon builds investment in the story and orchestrates changes of mood is impeccable. He stuffs the thing with quotable dialogue, too – Robert Downey Junior is probably the main beneficiary, as you might expect. As a director Whedon is also impressively ambitious – in the middle of the climax he finds time for a lengthy, ludicrously complex tracking shot that may well become a cliche of this kind of story in the future.

So far as I could tell, there are relatively few comics in-jokes in this movie, but as the whole thing seems designed to delight the fanbase I doubt anyone will be too upset. While this film doesn’t exactly feature a classic Avengers line-up – I suspect the nature of Marvel’s contract with the people who make the X-Men films means that none of the various mutant Avengers can appear, while absent founder-member Giant-Man is, basically, a bit rubbish – the ones who do appear all get their moments to shine, both in terms of action and characterisation.

Personally, after two ultimately unsatisfying solo movies I was particularly delighted with the treatment of the Hulk in this film. Mark Ruffalo is very good as the Banner incarnation of the character, and when he does lose his rag and go green it’s unmistakably and unashamedly the comics version of the Hulk that appears: he jumps around! He roars! He smashes things! He even gets some decent dialogue! I’m not surprised that this film has put the possibility of another Hulk movie back on Marvel’s agenda.

Despite all the good things about The Avengers, I feel compelled to point out a few problems. The action and characterisation and humour are all exemplary, but even given the movie’s lengthy duration they appear to have squeezed out most of the plot. The story is rather straightforward and looking back on it I’m not completely sure I’m sold on some of what happens, in terms of character’s motivations. And while the script does a commendable job of combining the plots of the original Avengers origin from 1964 (disparate heroes join forces to stop Loki) with a storyline from Mark Millar’s Ultimates reimagining of the team (covert agency assembles gang of freaks to combat alien invasion), the Chitauri themselves feel like a rather generic and undeveloped threat, just inserted to provide a gang of mooks for the team to clobber and to provide an appropriately epic threat for the final act.

Churlishness, though. At a time when the likes of Battleship are considered acceptable as a major summer release, the intelligence, humour, and evident love for both its source material and basic storytelling that The Avengers displays throughout is not much less than a tonic for the soul. Marvel Studios can look forward to massive box-office success, Joss Whedon can look forward to his new status as a bona fide major-league player, and we can look forward to the next wave of movies featuring these characters. There’s one other superhero movie coming out this summer that’s carrying a huge burden of expectation (and possibly pitching for a more mature audience, too) but that looks likely to be a rather more sombre and thoughtful affair. In terms of general crowd-pleasing spectacle and sheer entertainment value, The Avengers may be the most successful film of this genre to date.

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I’ve mentioned in the past the occasional phenomenon of the shelved film: a completed movie which hangs around in the studio vault for ages before finally getting any kind of theatrical release. More often than not this is simply because the studio belatedly realise they’ve funded a dog and are too embarrassed to tell anyone – at this point heavy re-editing and reshoots may occur, never, it seems to me, to much effect. Recently, films have started being held back so they can have the evils of 3Dification inflicted upon them. Sometimes there are other reasons.

Current case in point: Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, which was made by MGM in 2009 with the intention of a 2010 release. This was initially put back until 2011 so the movie could (boo hiss) be 3Dified, and then MGM went bust. Now the movie has been sold on to Lionsgate and has finally made it into cinemas (in 2D, thankfully). I say all this in the unlikely event you’re aware of this movie’s vintage, but not of the reasons for the delay in release – or indeed, the rave reviews it has been receiving. Fairly unlikely, I know, but still…

It also bulks out the review a bit, because I’m really not sure how much I can say about this film, which is much more vulnerable to being spoiled than most. It is the story of a group of American college students (the average age of the performers playing them is, according to my dubious maths and the available information, 28 and a bit, but I am being churlish) heading off for a fun-filled weekend at a remote cabin in some nearby woods. Amongst their number are fun-loving Jules (Anna Hutchison), alpha male Curt (Chris Hemsworth), nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams), serious and sensible Dana (Kristen Connolly), and pharmaceutically addled Marty (Fran Kranz). Off they set in their RV, ignoring the warnings of a creepy guy they meet on the way.

Once at the cabin, everything is lovely until the cellar door unexpectedly opens. Down below they discover all kinds of peculiar bric-a-brac, but most significantly a diary containing a Latin inscription – or is it more of an incantation, or curse? Suffice to say that bad-tempered zombies equipped with home-improvement devices are soon bearing down on the quintet with murder in their pustulent hearts…

And that’s literally all I can say about The Cabin in the Woods without risking spoiling one of the smartest and most absurdly enjoyable films I’ve seen in a very long time. If you haven’t seen a trailer, avoid them; don’t check this film out on Wikipedia; be very careful what other reviews you read, especially on t’internet. Well, this isn’t absolutely necessary, but if you’re at all a fan of horror movies – or the genre as a whole –  or even just intelligent entertainment, then for you this movie will be a bowl of ice cream smothered in fudge sauce, and it would be stupid to risk spoiling a terrific experience.

In the space of a zippy 95 minutes, The Cabin in the Woods tackles the following topics with wit and insight:

  • the established conventions of mainstream horror movies in general
  • why horror film characters act in such stupid and predictable ways
  • why the characters are such stereotypes anyway
  • the strange appeal of seeing attractive young people butchered
  • audience expectations of exploitation movies
  • the desensitising effect of watching violence
  • the banality of true evil
  • how weird a lot of J-Horror movies are

…and doubtless many more I’ve either forgotten or didn’t have the intelligence to spot in the first place.

How, you may be wondering, does what sounds like a very by-the-numbers teen splatter movie manage this? Well, if I’m honest, my capsule synopsis is somewhat more selective than usual, but have faith, you’ll thank me later. The familiarity of the whole set-up is crucial to the plot, as well as occasioning many of the film’s kisses to established horror lore. Most obviously, The Evil Dead is a major influence, but there are also… no, I honestly can’t bring myself to reveal any more.

Suffice to say that the final reel of this film is utterly impossible to predict from the way the movie opens. It has one of those vanishingly rare moments when the film shows you something and you think ‘It’d be cool if [something happened], but they’d never do that’ – and then they go and do it. I was slack-jawed with amazed delight when I wasn’t roaring with laughter for most of this film’s last fifteen minutes.

If you are thinking that it sounds like The Cabin in the Woods abandons its horror trappings to become something else entirely at the end, you’d be right, but it’s a brilliant switch. To be perfectly honest, I never found it that scary, but the smartness of the dialogue and the deftness of the performances are winning throughout. Chris Hemsworth is visibly much more comfortable here than in the role he’ll be rather more prominent in this summer, and Fran Kranz must have been kicking the wainscotting for the last two years: this film should give him a major career bump. But all of the young actors are good, and there are winning turns from Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as… heh, as if.

Given that Drew Goddard’s most prominent previous work was as scriptwriter for Cloverfield – yes, I am reliably informed that movie had a script – this is all a bit of a revelation and a lot of attention has, understandably, swung to the producer and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon. Whedon’s trademark intelligence and facility with dialogue is all over this film, and connoisseurs of his past work will find certain… resonances… in this one. Whedon’s reputation, of course, doesn’t need any (ahem) buffing, and it’s fascinating to wonder what might happen if he were to be given $220 million to make a major studio blockbuster, but of course that’s never going to happen.

The Cabin in the Woods is not quite perfect. Coming out of it I felt a tiny bit disappointed that after forensically dissecting and deconstructing a whole set of horror cliches, the film had simply fallen back on another set to make the climax function. But on further reflection, I’m not sure there isn’t a further level of metaphor going on here, with the very act of making and viewing horror fiction portrayed as a deal with the… I think I’m on the verge of going too far again. In any case, some more explication might have been ideal here, though I’m not sure how that would have been possible without clobbering the pace of the climactic scenes.

Never mind. I’m not sure if The Cabin in the Woods honestly qualifies as a true horror movie, despite the lavish quantities of Kensington Gore featured in the production. But I’m very certain it’s the sharpest and most thought-provoking genre movie I’ve seen in a very long time. This may not turn out to be the biggest Whedon-scripted film of the summer, but I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it isn’t the best.

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