The Avengers

The Avengers (2012), directed by Joss Whedon

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s six people in varying levels of skin-tight costume! It’s an introductory paragraph that makes no sense because this Superman reference has nothing to do with The Avengers! Nanananana Batman!

So this it, finally. The big show. The whole schbang. The big bopper. I don’t know, you get the idea. For those unfamiliar with what the heck I’m talking about, this movie has been a long time coming, with lots of build up. Five movies worth of build up.

You may not have realized it but we have been being primed for this film for a number of years. It started with The Incredible Hulk (the Edward Norton one) and Iron Man in 2008. In 2010 we had Iron Man 2 and then 2011 brought Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger (big hint there). Oh right, and like 70 odd years worth of comic books. And now? Now they are all together in one super movie. Hot diggity dog!

And I’m going to say it and declare that it’s better then at least 84 per cent of the movies leading up to it. Keep in mind though that I don’t understand math and that I made that number up. Regardless, barring Iron Man perhaps, The Avengers is the best superhero, Marvel comic book movie of them all and it lives up to the hype.

This has to be one of the best movie audience experiences I’ve had in a long time. People were stoked. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard an audience break into applause, not even for the end of the movie, but during the movie. Everyone was totally digging it. People, adults even, were leaving the theatre fired up about how “awesome” it was. I was in a rotten mood when I saw it, but it managed to even pick me up. Which is what good entertainment movies should do.

And my matinee crowd were not alone in our excitement. I’m not a numbers, box office guy really, but The Avengers pulled in $200 million this weekend in the United States alone. That is huge. In fact, it’s the biggest opening weekend for a film ever. Ever. More than Harry Potter. More than Twilight. More than Hunger Games. You get the picture. People like their superhero movies it seems.

And why not? They’re a hell of a lot of fun. And The Avengers is no exception. It’s completely over the top, ridiculous and insane, just the way it should be. There are a lot of personalities up on the screen and Whedon, super geek that he is, knows how to wield them just right. The most enjoyable part of the movie is easily watching these characters that we already know from the lead up films come together and make with the wisecracks and the tensions and all the rest of it.

That’s what makes the movie work so well. It’s not just about special effects. It isn’t just explosions and garbled action sequences and shiny things (Transformers anyone?). Really, what it’s about is characters that we actually care about. Sure it’s got all that other stuff, and it would be quite a different movie if it was just about these characters in a room together (Superhero Carnage?), but it has a solid base to build off of. It’s that fundamentals of good movie making stuff: characters, relatable situations, a sense of humour, love, etc.

I have mixed feels about Whedon, but he was the man for the job here. This is his baby really, as he wrote and directed it. I thought Cabin in the Woods, which he produced and wrote, was a little too geeky smart for its own good. And although it was an interesting spin on a genre, I still prefer the genre itself. In this movie Whedon is in full genre mode and embraces it like a 12-year-old with a new comic.

You can tell he is just loving making this movie and that’s what makes it so much fun. Whedon knows what it’s all about, he gets it, and that’s a joy to witness. This is a big movie, and as a big movie I want it to be over-the-top, exuberant and, mainly, fun. And that’s what we get. There are insane, weird villains, huge action sequences, big special effects and fantastic characters. It’s got it all. But it isn’t a mess, which it so easily could have been. Whedon gets the balance right and pulls it off.

Movies often don’t live up to their hype, but The Avengers does. It is pure summer movie blockbuster squealy fun. If Hollywood could pull off more films like this you would hear fewer complaints from me. Because I’m sure that really bugs all those producers down there. “CineFile called us out again! Drat!” Right.

The Avengers is in theatres now.

The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods (2012), directed by Drew Goddard

We all know the story right? Group of youth pile into a van for a weekend at a cabin in some ass-backwards country location. They have to stop for directions and a scary hick warns them to stay clear of wherever they are heading. The kids don’t listen, go anyway, somebody takes their shirt off and then they all get killed by someone or something. Think Friday the 13th. Or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or The Evil Dead. Your standard cabin in the woods story.

Well this film is that but at the same time not at all.

I’m sure there’s a lot of spoiler free reviews out there for you to read if you haven’t seen the film. This isn’t going to be one of them, so consider yourself warned.

Producer/writer Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer tv show) are playing with the genre here. The film has been described as a cross between horror and The Truman Show, which is apt. I’m not sure what the point in messing with the formula is. The film questions our enjoyment of violence but still feeds that enjoyment, so… There’s comment within the film about expectation and living to standard narratives. It tries to have a point and succeeds somewhat. But let’s be honest, this is mainly an exercise in nerd filmmaking.

Because some things just don’t make enough logical sense for the whole thing to work as a meaningful parable. I get that these guys control the situation and that it’s for a reason and that the ultimate choice comes down to the participants. Like life, see? That’s all very profound. But why is there a Merman? And zombies? And every other paranormal horror movie terror? Where did they come from and why do they exist? And how did they build an invisible forcefield? What reality does this story exist in?

The real subject of the film is the audience. We are the ones being tested. The victims need to die to appease the Gods, but not just die, they must suffer. The Gods must see young people suffer for their youth and their innocence. Whedon has Richard Jenkins say this explicitly and he’s talking about us. We love to watch young people suffer. Why? Maybe it’s because we’re vile, twisted folk. Maybe we are jealous of their innocence. Maybe we like to test ourselves to see how much horror we can take, knowing that we will all face that ultimate terror, death, at some point. Maybe watching horror films is a primer.

That The Cabin in the Woods gets its audience thinking on this level is a success. It’s an interesting, expectation crushing film. I don’t think that it achieves anything particularly brilliant in the end, but I did appreciate the joy the film takes in playing with genre and how unabashedly, unapologetically geeked out it is. To suggest it’s something more I think is off the mark, but to appreciate the movie as a passion project of Whedon, someone who obviously loves pop culture, is appropriate.

I’ve had violence on the mind a lot lately. I again found it hard to watch in The Cabin in the Woods and this made it hard for me to enjoy the film as a comedy, or even as a genre bender at times. This was surely  the intention. Much of the film is comical or playful, but the violence is not. It’s as sadistic as any “real” cabin in the woods film.

In a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (‘74), which I think is a great film, I can handle the level of violence because I know I’m supposed to be horrified by it. And I am. Maybe that’s worse, to enjoy being horrified, but those films at least feel honest. The Cabin in the Woods really wants me to like it and think it’s rather clever, but then the violence jars you out of that. It may be cute, but it bites.

And while that makes it interesting, it makes it hard to love. Films that I love are ones that draw me in and that I feel a deep connection to. Just like a challenging piece of music, I can respect and appreciate a film that sets out to disorient me, but I find them tough to love. Breaking down narratives is certainly interesting, but what does it leave you with? As the end of this movie would suggest, not much.

I find this is getting more pronounced as I get older. I probably would have been all about this movie when I was in university and I’m sure the online geek world will adore it. I have no problem with that, it’s a worthy film, but for me this is a film I’m glad I saw but that I have no desire to see again. I’m getting a little tired of breaking things down without suggesting an alternative. If the alternative is the film itself it is still too cold and violent for me to adopt.

The Cabin in the Woods is ultimately an exercise, even if well executed (pun intended). It is uneven at times, and a tad too long, but it certainly achieves what it sets out to accomplish. Just how worthwhile you think that accomplishment is will determine how much you like the movie. Any film as challenging and original as this one is a welcomed relief from the passionless dreck that most Hollywood blockbusters end up as. It falls short of achieving something truly great but I appreciated its trying.

The Cabin in the Woods is in theatres now.