Friday, April 13, 2012
Don't let anyone ruin this one for you. Not even the TV spots and trailers for "The Cabin in the Woods" can prepare you for what's coming. Written by Joss Whedon (creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and Drew Goddard (who penned "Cloverfield"), also serving as first-time director, these two long-time collaborators take the slasher flick genre and turn it absolutely on its head. They take every trope you can imagine, chop them up, throw them in a blender, mix them all around and serve them to us in what can only be described as maniacal and mischievous. Part "Evil Dead," part "Truman Show" and part "Scream," this experiment in mechanics and deconstruction is also one hundred percent nuts.
We begin with five archetypal characters heading out for a weekend of sleazy, carefree fun in some backwoods cabin. There's Curt the jock (Chris Hemsworth of "Thor"), Jules the slut (Anna Hutchison), Holden the nerd (Jesse Williams), Marty the pothead (Fran Kranz) and Dana the virgin (Kristen Connolly). The last stop before reaching the cabin is an abandoned gas station inhabited by a creepy old man warning them of the terrors that lies ahead. Of course, they ignore him and press on.
It turns out this old man is the first piece in a twisted test being conducted by a lab of scientists -- headed by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford with a demented sense of humor. These guys push levers and turn dials to manipulate the scenario adding different storytelling elements to see how their characters will react, witness what decisions they'll make.
Think I've spoiled something for you? Think again. This is just the beginning. From here things get out of control. Not to mention a little too cocky. Self-aware cleverness and self-reflexive humor are characteristics that can get too overbearing, and that is exactly the case with Whedon and Goddard here. They're toying with the audience, but toward the end something happens -- something crazy -- and when it clicks in, you have to decide how far you're willing to go down the rabbit hole. I won't go into more detail because any spoiler would completely botch the experience of seeing it for yourself.
What I will say is this: it makes a devilish transformation. Beneath the apparent ingenuity and originality lurks something cruel and uncomfortable. It gives off the air of being something more than it really is. The initial joke is defeated later by nonsensical chaos, which is grisly fun but not brilliant. "The Cabin in the Woods" is the movie equivalent of a one-night stand. It's fine for a quick and dirty mindfuck, but you don't really know how it leaves you feeling afterward.
Friday, April 6, 2012
From Brandon and Cameron Laventure, "Apocalypse Theory" is a student-made film shot entirely in East Lansing. It tells the story of the last two weeks before the end of the world focusing on two groups of friends at a university. While it's not overtly mentioned and the film could be taking place on any campus, the college experience the filmmakers wanted to recreate was that of Michigan State. Fitting then that the first scene opens on St. Paddy's Day, a notorious day of binge drinking on campus. Even more fitting that while the end of the world looms in the very near future, these students spend their days drinking without a care -- just as they would without the threat of impending death.
Both brothers wrote the screenplay while Cameron Laventure serves as director. At a robust running time of nearly two hours, the movie certainly could have spent more time in the editing room. Some scenes drag while others could be cut entirely, and an argument could be made for it being better off as a 60-minute short. The filmmakers ambition, bravery and high aspirations, however, cannot be ignored. Their goal was to capture life at MSU, and in that they succeeded.
Life as a freshman living in the dorms is presented through the eyes of Ethan (Alex Poling) while his older brother, Allen (Zack Sztanyo), represents college life as a senior living in a world of endless house parties. Also included is the bizarre sport of slacklining, the even more bizarre sport of humans vs. zombies, the Wells Hall preacher and even a doomsday version of Johnny Spirit -- all perfect aspects of MSU.
But the experiences conveyed in "Apocalypse Theory" aren't exclusive to just MSU's campus. They resonate in a universal way of college living with several truly inspired scenes that contain more sincerity than most Hollywood iterations of college life combined. Take for example a conversation in a library between the two brothers over what we're only to assume is Facebook chat, a group sitting in a dorm room playing the drinking game Kings or a hilarious teaching assistant who couldn't care less. Take any one of those scenes -- we've all been there. And cinematography from Maria Palmo photographs it all, most notable during a moment of drunk desperation which she shows us through appropriately blurred vision.
Among all this is the reason for the world's end. A conspiracy arises in the form of a missing professor, a physics book scrawled with ominous gibberish and a risky experiment. It's during the uncovering of this mystery when the midsection of the movie drags. It's more effective when the filmmakers are focusing on the parties and the drinking than when they actually delve into the conspiracy.
It creates for uneven tonal shifts that otherwise take away from the film's central point, which is these kids simply partying their lives away -- literally. And it makes for a compelling parallel to university students having to eventually face the real world as they wait for their carefree college years to end. Ethan says it best to his younger brother: "Life's just a party, and party's weren't meant to last."