85. The Cabin in the Woods
There were a lot of people who were dead set on concealing all the twists and turns of The Cabin in the Woods, but I personally think you could read a full summary and enjoy it as much as someone who goes in blind. The movie more or less announces itself as an atypical horror right up front. What’s happening is clear, only the why’s are kept hidden, and when those answers come they don’t fundamentally change the experience. The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t live or die on a Sixth Sense style twist. The joy in is in watching everything play out. For that reason it’s an incredibly fun movie to rewatch, even when you know what’s going to happen.
I don’t love everything. No spoilers, but I’ve never liked the ending. It has less to do with the tone and outcome of the last scene, I just don’t really buy a couple of the choices the characters make. And the zombies that menace the characters in the middle of the movie are pretty generic. Although that makes some amount of sense, given how complex the structure is, you almost don’t want to waste a creative monster on The Cabin in the Woods and distract from the real point of the story. And anyway these are minor complaints in the scheme of things, considering how ambitious the script is.
In addition to the fun of seeing the story play out, there’s some complicated morality, and the conventions of the horror genre are examined but not undermined. Plus, it’s funny. This movie is seriously funny. Especially the scenes featuring Fran Kranz, playing one of the most consistently hilarious characters I can remember, and Bradley Whitford, who’s such a natural fit for a Joss Whedon script you kind of lament that The West Wing and Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran concurrently. Why was Whitford wasting his time in the White House when he could have been in Sunnydale? Some of these Cabin in the Woods cast members shine so brightly, I always forget that Chris Hemsworth (in an early role) is even in this thing.
On top of that, a lot of mediocre slasher flicks are drastically improved when you imagine they’re all part of a Cabin in the Woods scenario. Go watch Friday the 13th Part 3 and convince me Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins aren’t just offscreen manipulating the whole thing.
Awe (Visual Impact): LOW. Well shot, nothing incredibly special.
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. Characters more feel like they’re part of an experiment by the screenwriters, we’re interested in seeing what happens to them but don’t really feel it when we lose them.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): LOW. The movie’s statement that the world needs to crumble is one I don’t agree with (yet).
Adrenaline (Excitement): LOW. Action scenes, but played for suspense more than excitement.
Anxiety (Suspense): MODERATE. Wouldn’t be bad just as a pure horror film, but far more funny than scary.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. Funny throughout, with Fran Kranz and Bradley Whitford being as the highlight.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. My dislike for the ending aside, you could learn a lot about how to structure a movie by studying this screenplay.
84. Where Eagles Dare
In several different ways, this is an odd experience. Where Eagles Dare is a mash-up between an old World War II movie and a sexy late 60s spy thriller. I mean, there’s a blond lady with eye shadow and a machine gun. You can’t tell me it’s not the 1960s. Aside from that, it’s a movie that pairs an aging Richard Burton with peak Clint Eastwood, and all the biggest action scenes and the romantic side story goes to… Richard Burton. What does Clint Eastwood do here? Not that much, to be honest. It’s weird to see him as a second banana.
But even so, Where Eagles Dare is a great old afternoon show. At two and a half hours it’s a long sit, but I can’t point out much that’s extraneous. Burton and Eastwood are leading a band of soldiers to rescue a prisoner of war before he can spill vital intelligence to the Germans. The mission is already underway by the time we tune in, spans the entire length of the movie, and when the story wraps up the credits roll.
Along the way there are bar brawls, mountaintop fortresses, Nazis with British accents, twists that fall apart under light scrutiny but are really fun in the moment, cable car scuffles, hidden agendas and double crosses, and ludicrous amounts of explosions and gunfire. If you like your war films with a lot of gravitas, Where Eagles Dare is NOT for you. But if you’re looking for a WWII themed action/spy thriller, you’ll have a wonderful time.
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A
Amusement (Humour/Elation): N/A
Applicability (Real World Resonance): LOW. It’s more a WWII themed spy movie than a real WWII movie.
Appreciation (Construction): MODERATE. Right into the mission, moving toward a goal, an escape, lots of twists and turns along the way.
Awe (Visual Impact): MODERATE. Beautiful snowy mountain scenery and great location/production design in the central fortress.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. Movie does a good job of making you worry that the mission is about to go off the rails at a number of points.
Adrenaline (Excitement): HIGH. You have to wait for the final hour but at that point the action doesn’t stop.
83. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakstan
Triggered lib that I may be, I leave everything at the door when it comes to comedy. Good thing, because despite being a dozen years old Borat is already an artifact of another time. If this movie played in front of today’s #Woke audiences, ushers would have to mop up exploded head chunks and horn rimmed glasses between every screening. Is there even a single moment in Borat that doesn’t cross the line of good taste in some way?
I’m not here to argue that anyone who takes genuine offense at what Borat says and does is wrong to feel that way. But for me, I’ve always believed that the best way to give a taboo less power is to laugh at it. And there’s no taboo left unmocked by Sacha Baron Cohen. What he does here is the comedy equivalent of juggling clubs of fire or wearing a strapless bikini top; huge risks, but deeply compelling if done successfully. There’s something so fun about betraying yourself by laughing at something that would offend your personal sensibilities if tackled by a less skilled comedian, and Borat accomplishes that for me. The first ten minutes alone (in Borat’s village) is the most laugh out loud section of any movie I’ve ever seen.
There’s social commentary, but a lot of critics got it wrong. If you’ve been wondering where me and the late Christopher Hitchens intersect (don’t act like you weren’t), we both thought Borat paints a surprisingly optimistic portrait of the US and A. The majority of Americans he encounters come across as amazingly tolerant folks who take Borat’s eccentricities in stride and try to gently correct some of his more appalling beliefs. And some of the subjects that come off worse to some extent look to be the victims of deceptive editing. For example, when Borat riles up the rodeo crowd with images of Middle Easterners being brutally murdered, the crowd cheers in a separate shot. Almost as though they were filmed cheering for something a lot more innocuous and spliced in…
Once you notice that you see it happening all the way through the movie, and that combined with how much patience Borat is shown by the average American makes me feel some hope for us as a species. Nice to watch a film that can transport us back to the gentler, more innocent time of…
…Bush and Cheney’s second term? Christ, I need to lie down.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Anxiety (Suspense): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A
Awe (Visual Impact): N/A
Appreciation (Construction): MODERATE. Again, it takes a lot of skill to cull hours of improvised comedy into something good.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. Arguably the social commentary redeems a lot of tasteless comedy.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): EXTRAORDINARY. “Even though my anus was broken, I knew the rest of our journey would be great success.”
82. The Handmaiden
Movies that are both visceral experiences and intellectually engaging should be celebrated. Have you been looking for a Memento or Gone Girl style thriller that’s also borderline pornographic and NOT lacking in onscreen finger chopping? You haven’t? You’re a fool.
But never mind, there’s also some of the most beautiful cinematography and film score you’ll ever come across. There’s a great plot, involving the love triangle and subsequent complicated alliances that develop between three deceptive lead characters, that doubles back and folds in on itself. There’s a nice helping of demented comedy. And there’s a surprisingly heartfelt same-sex romance along with some rah-rah fight-the-patriarchy imagery, both of which fascinatingly co-exist with multiple unapologetically erotic lesbian sex scenes. Is it pandering or is it empowering? I don’t even know, but it’s well worth seeing so you can decide for yourself.
If you were a teenager in the early 2000s, you had a way-too-intense classmate who was constantly asking everyone “Have you seen Oldboy yet? It’s so fucked up, you’ve got to see Oldboy.” And, scared at the possibility of getting sucked into a conversation who smelled so powerfully of Planters Cheez Balls, you never ever saw Oldboy. Well, The Handmaiden is from the same director, and although I’m prepared to recommend it with the same amount of fervor, I also don’t want to put anyone off. So simply… it’s there for you to see. If you want.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Anxiety (Suspense): LOW. Once you get the structure of the movie, you’re eager to have all your questions solved.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): MODERATE. Of the dark variety, including one of the funnier attempted suicides I’ve ever seen.
Affection (Emotional Impact): HIGH. The score is so beautiful and overpowering it makes you feel sympathy for characters you ought not to have sympathy for.
Awe (Visual Impact): HIGH. Especially when the movie goes outside, the shot compositions and colours are beautiful.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. Incredibly well constructed plot (though the movie drags in a couple of spots).
81. Dark City
We’re just now getting into maybe my favourite sub-genre, the futuristic noir thriller. If your movie has bizarre urban architecture, perpetual night, neon signs and smoke, or oppressive governments, then I can’t get enough of it. And Dark City feels like it was specifically created for weirdos like me, borrowing character designs, shots, and architecture from older movies alongside a creepy sci-fi conspiracy storyline. In fact, quicker to tell you why Dark City is down in the eighties instead of closer to the top of the list.
It falls victim to late 90s CGI. Practical effects and sets dominate the movie, but a big climactic showdown involving flying characters battling telekinetically as the city crumbles looked dated even just a few years later. The editing is a little too quick as well. I like it when my neo-noir dystopia thrillers are languid, I want to take in the sights. Even in its longer form, Dark City feels like a two and a half hour movie that got cut down to the bone, either by choice or by studio interference.
I regret that I didn’t watch that Director’s Cut of the movie the first time around, the theatrical version famously saddles Kiefer Sutherland with an expository voiceover explaining the whole plot. And it’s admittedly a densely plotted story with its own mythology, if you’re not willing to put in some intellectual participation up front you’re liable to be swept away by the current. But the hook is an amnesiac man waking up next to a dead body, setting out to unravel the mystery of the world he finds himself in. I would have liked a chance to piece together the story alongside him.
If it’s a review where it seems like I’m nitpicking, it’s because I am. I’m pre-disposed to like Dark City for its strengths, namely the set design, the horror, and the intrigue. I admire the movie’s ability to worldbuild figuratively as well as literally, an entire universe is established and thrown away in the space of one story, with nary a whiff of sequel baiting to be found. Though I wouldn’t say no to an open world Dark City video game…
Amusement (Humour/Elation): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. It’s a movie where the plot drives the characters, you’re interested in them and that’s all you need.
Adrenaline (Excitement): MODERATE. 90s CGI mars the action scenes somewhat.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. Intriguing questions about how much we’re defined by our memories.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. Villains are really spooky.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. A great detective/wrongfully accused script.
Awe (Visual Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. I want to take the look of Dark City as my new bride.