10 May 2012

Where Would You Rather Vacation?

Recent theatrical experiences have shown me two places I would not like to visit with my next bit of time off. Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet is a muted travelogue full of the unpleasantries one might encounter in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods is about how everything that could go wrong will go wrong at a certain abandoned, rural cabin in, let's say for the sake of argument, Georgia (the one south of South Carolina).

The Loneliest Planet opens with a deceptively exciting frame around extreme ginger pixie Nica (Hani Furstenberg). She's taking what appears to be an unintentionally cold shower--strands of wet hair clump like the tentacles of a pacific octopus (I'm not speaking of her pubic hair here but that's also en vue). She's rescued by her boyfriend Alex and his pitcherfull of hot water. The gentleman is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who badly needs to find a good film and hasn't done it here. Though I see what Loktev was thinking when she cast him--he has a great face for bullshitting along and that's what he'll do for the next 90 minutes.

Alex and Nica successfully search a dusty town for a guide whose name is also a trochee. Dato (Bidzine Gujabidze) is dude who can be counted on to understand the little things: "goat is smart, sheep is stupid." He wears a worn camouflage jacket, he's seen some things, he's heard some jokes about the draconian manner in which the Chinese control their population. It's possible he's even read "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" or Jennifer Egan's "Safari".

The film is good in some small details, giving us lingering looks at a rock faces patterned like Cezanne or snakebacks. And, as Nica and Alex demonstrate in their lessons, the preterit tense is the toughest to conjugate in Spanish. But this is very much a short story lengthened. The director disguises her lack of ideas as subtlety. Is that crackling in the distance gunfire, a factory, a road? The most significant piece of dialogue in the film, where Dato discusses Nica with a peasant bearing an automatic weapon and malicious nose, is unsubtitled. There's a deliberate contextual opacity that, combined with a plot that features exactly noteworthy event, made me a little sleepy.

The only thing that might hold interest (the underlying reasons that would possess two people to go on this unnecessary trip (Bryce Canyon's nice!)) is not addressed at all. It's just people out walking.

You are unlikely to fall asleep watching The Cabin in the Woods. As a hilariously energetic California Theatre staffperson asked us before the screening, "Are there any Joss Whedon fans in the heezy?" There were several. And the first five minutes have more juice than all of The Loneliest Planet.

While the doomed kids are attractively archetypal lot (in contrast to some reviewers I would say the true categories represented are Whore, Jock, Virgin, Nerd (Stoner) and Nerd (Non-Stoner)), the catalysts are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as two quasi-governmental officials who serve as MCs for the chaos in the cabin. To keep the world safe from "a great evil" they help maintain a billion dollar black site where young blood is harvested. They have at their disposal more wonderful tricks than I imagine at Gitmo, like pheromone mist (which is little predictable) and brain leeching hair dye (which is not).

The brain leeched Whore figure, played by Anna Hutchison, really does some wonderful work in toplessness, taxidermy makeout and Stanwyck-in-Double-Indemnity anklet channeling before her soul departs. We were prepared for her hasty demise because the control center revealed that "Zombie Redneck Torture Family" was the winner of the human sacrifice lottery this time. I had a huge belly laugh when Whitford lamented "I'm never gonna see a Merman."

(I hope that my handful of readers are already aware that my reviews contain spoilers but I perhaps, since this film is so good and still in theaters, I should throw an alert in here.)

As you do, the group tries to escape the undead rednecks. Things follow the standard horror film escape scenario until the Jock (Chris Hemsworth, surely disappointed to have a varsity jacket covering those Asgardian pecs) decides to leave the group and bring back men with guns. Coincidentally, his leaving involves jumping a crevasse on a motorcycle. He gives what I believe to be the best ever film speech interrupted by disintegration against an invisible electric force field.

This is all good fun for the first two acts but it's the last 20 minutes that raise it to near classic status. The Virgin and the Nerd (Stoner) (played by new to me actors Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz) find their way past the last redneck zombie and descend in a mysteriously modern elevator under the cabin. At bottom is, of course, the bunker full of their tormentors, both the human and supernatural beasts...and as it turns out all of their cages can be opened at once. The giddy free-for-all that results reminded me of nothing so much as the climax of The Wild Bunch, even if Whedon's shade of blood and viscera is a darker red than Peckinpah's. With each new creature released (I was a big fan of the giant cobra) it's more apparent that The Cabin in the Woods is large and contains multitudes of other films in the horror genre.

I'm impressed enough to see Whedon's Avengers this weekend and absorb Hemsworth in more luxuriant coif.

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