The Pitch: Meet The Parents.
The Review: It’s a luxurious position to be in, but when you’ve gone from being an organisation that could barely get one of its comic properties made less than twenty years ago to being a studio bankrolled by one of the biggest organisations in the world it’s also a double-edged sword. With each success comes a higher expectation: Iron Man Three proved that The Avengers wasn’t just a flash in the pan, but it could only take one failure to derail the Marvel Universe train which has stops mapped out for another three to five years already. It could also be a risk that familiarity might breed apathy rather than contentment, with dedicated Thor fans a lock for his adventures but fans of the other characters maybe needing more to tempt them back for subsequent adventures. Where Marvel appears to be attempting to strike a specific balance is in keeping familiar elements to reassure audiences, but also introducing new aspects to keep the series fresh and alive.
It’s the familiar elements of this instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that undoubtedly work best. The Avengers worked as a sequel to a number of the first phase Marvel movies, Thor included, and now the situation is reversed as a number of characters make their third film appearance. Chief among them are the demigod of thunder, the swagger still intact but Chris Hemsworth’s Thor now finally showing some maturity. That doesn’t save him from a slap or two from his Earth-bound sweetheart Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) when the two are reunited and Thor has to explain where he’s been and why he didn’t call. The two are brought together when a threat from before the dawn of the universe, lord of the Elves Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is revived and poses a threat so big, Thor’s only option is to turn to disgraced brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to find the answer to defeating this new threat. Meanwhile, Jane has to get to grips with the culture clash of meeting Thor’s disapproving parents, especially the All-Father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
Everyone from the original gets a moment here, with second tier players from last time of the likes of Kat Dennings, Idris Elba and Rene Russo all given more to do this time around. That does make proceedings a touch congested, especially when attempting to service the plot at the same time. Marvel’s willingness to keep shaking things up has seen a revolving door of directors across their franchises, and Alan Taylor has been imported from Game Of Thrones because presumably some Disney executive can’t distinguish between that literary fantasy and Norse legend. Game Of Thrones often relies on lots of short interplay between a large roster of characters, some getting very little screen time, and so that plays to Taylor’s strengths, but the big battle episodes of the HBO series are actually being picked up by British director Neil Marshall, and it’s not always clear what’s going on in some of Thor’s exceptionally brown battle sequences. His strengths do come to the fore at some of the darker, more poignant moments, but his Asgard never quite has the epic feel that Kenneth Branagh’s did in the original.
What there is a lot of is humour, with Joss Whedon contributing to the script, and this Thor sequel isn’t afraid to throw in some big laughs, playing up the backstory of the universe it’s set in and even mixing humour into the epic final battle, once again showcasing London’s easily destroyed monuments. Thor: The Dark World works well as spectacle and comedy, but you can’t help wishing for a little more threat, not only because Loki is sidelined for much of the film after his Avengers antics but also because Elvish dialogue and a heavy prosthetic smother Christopher Eccleston’s performance more effectively than a crowd rush at a Doctor Who convention. His performance could have also done with some of the ninth Doctor’s impish cheekiness and robust threat, but when the Thor / Loki double act is allowed into high gear, there’s just about enough moments to make up for the lack of a decent antagonist. Thor: The Dark World is a serviceable entry in the Marvel universe, but is more intriguing at times for the promise it holds for the future than what’s actually on screen.
Why see it at the cinema? It’s not short on spectacle, and it’s up there with The Avengers and Iron Man 3 in terms of zingers and general comedy. Plenty to enjoy on a large screen with a large audience.
Should I stay through the credits? Having its cake and eating it, there’s not only a sequence in the middle of the credits, but also one at the very end. For those just wanting to see where the story goes next, you can leave in the middle (probably to Google what you’ve just seen, as only comic book aficionados will make any sense of it first time round); for the true completist, stay to the end.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate fantasy violence. You have to love the BBFC’s Insight section, which includes the likes of the following:There are also mild sex references, such as a man saying he found out his ex-girlfriend was “sleeping with other dudes”.
My cinema experience: Took Mrs Evangelist to see this at the Cineworld in Bury St Edmunds. She didn’t thank me for having to sit through all the credits for the second time this year at a Marvel movie; I think I might have to catch the Captain America 2 credits on my own next year.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: Formula One. Outside of America and its Indycar obsession, it’s still regarded as the pinnacle of four wheel vehicular competition, commanding global audiences of around half a billion people a year and generating enough sponsorship and investment to make your eyes water. What it’s often lacking in is drama, especially as Sebastian Vettel’s dominance this season has left his rivals trailing in his wake. To someone like me who’s not a passionate fan, it feels a sport that’s become more about the machines than the men, and somehow the sense of drama that should exist when six of the last ten competitions haven’t been settled until the final race has been lost (and especially when in five of those six, the final winning margin was four points or less). Watching the 2011 documentary Senna now feels like a lost era with its fierce competitive rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost the stuff of half-forgotten legend. For those that can cast their minds back a few years further, they may remember a similarly close battle from 1976 between English playboy James Hunt and his Austrian rival Niki Lauda.
Chris Hemsworth portrays James Hunt with all the swagger of a man who’s made a career playing an over-confident demigod, but that in itself may be a just and true analogy for the perception racing drivers have of themselves. We see Hunt battered and bruised initially, not from racing injuries but from the attentions of a jealous husband, and Hunt even manages to get his end away before he’s left the hospital. Rush tracks his gradual rise from the petrolhead larks and raw ambition of Formula Three in the early seventies to his entry to Formula One and his battle to get a seat in a car worthy of his perception of his own talents. His story is told in parallel with that of Lauda (Daniel Brühl), who similarly rebels against his upbringing to fulfil his high octane dreams. Where Hunt is the loose cannon getting by on raw talent and rough-edged charm, Lauda is the technical genius who gets his edge from tuning the cars, but has a more clearly defined concept of acceptable risk in one of the world’s most dangerous sports. The film starts with a flash forward to the pivotal moment of their most heated battles, the 1976 Championship, and the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring where the debate over risk came to a potentially deadly head.
Hemsworth and Brühl dominate the screen and the film, Hunt’s golden locks and cheesy grin the perfect counterpoint to Lauda’s mousy overbite and personality deficiencies. Hunt sees the world and Formula One as much as a popularity contest and is in it for fortune and glory, Lauda sees the thrill of the chase and the challenge of competition but the similarities are clearly and obviously laid out. Hemsworth and Brühl are both excellent, and backed up by an eclectic supporting cast which seems to have been drawn from a mixture of the Green Wing casting director’s little black book (Stephen Mangan and Julian Rhind-Tutt being two of Hunt’s crews over the years). The other notable roles are the women in the lives of the two drivers: Alexandra Maria Lara provides a soft yet believable counterpoint to Lauda’s brusqueness, while Olivia Wilde is almost unrecognisable with a well-tuned English accent and blond hair as Hunt’s upper class marriage of convenience. As with director Ron Howard’s previous factual collaboration with writer Peter Morgan, Frost / Nixon, the performances steer the right side of caricature and serve to sell the drama.
The real strength of Rush lies, initially surprisingly, in Ron Howard’s depiction of motor racing, which captures the globe-trotting breadth and lavishness of the sport, even in the Seventies, but also puts tension and excitement into every overtaking manoeuvre and clash of wheels, and uses the internal mechanics of the cars and engines to create a throbbing pulse to help raise the heart rate. Howard has previously shown a gift for grand scale drama and nerve shredding tension with Apollo 13 and many of the key moments of Rush are no less effective. Having engaged your senses, when the real drama comes it it emotionally affecting, but that’s despite Peter Morgan’s script, not because of it, Morgan’s lumpy cliches feeling wrong coming from the mouths of drivers rather than politicians or journalists. Every good racing team is backed up by a good pit crew, and if Morgan lets the side down somewhat then it’s more than made up for by the cinematography of Danny Boyle regular Anthony Dod Mantle and composer Hans Zimmer who elevate even the most mundane moments of the pit lane. The unfortunate conclusion it’s tempting to draw from comparing this to modern Formula One is that a part of the thrill of earlier racing was that almost ghoulish thrill of the possibility that each driver’s race might be their last, which commendable standards of modern safety have somewhat compromised. Whether you subscribe to that view or not, Rush provides the same thrills of the best of real sport, safe in the knowledge that no actors were harmed in the making of this movie.
Why see it at the cinema: Ron Howard’s managed to take something which can be as dull as dishwater on TV, and create a sense of excitement not only from narrative twists but from the visceral thrill of delicate and overpowered machines careering round corners and jostling for position, and you couldn’t ask for a better depiction of the sport on the big screen. Find somewhere with a decent sound system as well, to get the most from the growl of the engines and Hans Zimmer’s typically bold score.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language, sex and bloody injury detail. A fair rating, but fans of casual nudity and / or Chris Hemsworth won’t be disappointed.
My cinema experience: The joys of screen 9 at my local Cineworld in Cambridge. Quite often I’m perched on the end of rows, for one of two reasons: either I’ve taken Mrs Evangelist, and she inevitably has to factor in a comfort break so being on the end is convenient, but even on my own I’m almost six foot three and I’m not easily accommodated for leg room. Screen 9, however, is the largest at that particular Cineworld and one of the few cinemas where I can sit in the middle of a row and still have ample legroom. A decent sized crowd on a Saturday lunchtime all seemed to come away having enjoyed themselves.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie. Did you know, though, that those rules apply to the audience as much as they do to the characters? We now live in a culture where it’s possible to watch pretty much anything seven days after it’s aired on TV, even if you didn’t record it; but only if you have no desire to watch it without knowing what happens. Likely Lads Terry and Bob thought they had it bad trying to avoid the footy score, but these days you can’t even watch an episode of anything from Masterchef to The Walking Dead unless you’re willing to cut yourself off from friends, the internet and social media as today, the tools that allow us to communicate feed instant discussion and analysis and leave no hope for spoilerphobes. So what chance have you got of watching a horror movie that depends on its surprise for gaining the most enjoyment, and that’s been sat on the shelf gathering dust for three years?
Be afraid. Be very afraid. But maybe that fear is what will get you to The Cabin In The Woods unspoiled. If you’re reading this review and you haven’t seen it, then curiosity is already probably getting the better of you, and that kind of recklessness wouldn’t see you last five minutes. But you already knew that – you’ve seen horror movies before, who hasn’t? – and it’s that very fact that means if you don’t go into a film written by creator of Buffy and Angel and directed by the writer of Cloverfield expecting that it knows its audience watch horror movies, then you’ve probably not seen enough popular culture in general. But in the post-Scream era, just being self-referential about your genre isn’t enough; to truly stand out you either need to innovate, or you need to be damn good at what you do.
Whether it’s April or whether it’s Hallowe’en, everyone’s entitled to one good scare. But those expecting a film delivering wall to wall scares may be in for a disappointment, for while Cabin has a decent set of scares and a reasonable dose of gore, it’s primary achievement is that it’s consistently hilarious from start to finish. Some of the subtler jokes will depend on both your deep knowledge of horror and also your ability to pick up details in the background, but by and large it’s the characters front and centre that will have you rolling in the aisles. Where the genius starts to become apparent is that Cabin can switch between humour and fright seemingly at will, without ever losing the impact of either. It also has the most bizarrely erotic moment seen in any film in living memory, which while relevant to nothing else in the film will probably live long in your memory.
But whatever you do, don’t fall asleep, for The Cabin In The Woods moves at a fair old lick. While much horror relies on the slow burn, Cabin expects you to come with it on the journey, and conceptually it’s a long way from where we start to where we end up. Taking that journey are the cast of relative unknowns venturing into the woods, although Chris Hemsworth has found global fame since this film was in front of the cameras. Of the others, the standout is Randy-from-Scream clone Fran Kranz who steals most of the scenes he’s in and grabs a fair chunk of the best lines. There are two other well known faces who have big roles and who help to elevate the film to what it is, but given that they’re not even in the trailer, even mentioning in their names is more of a spoiler than I’d like to give you.
We all go a little mad sometimes, and frankly attempting to review this without giving the game away has almost driven me crazy. But back to my point from earlier: The Cabin In The Woods is being touted as revolutionary, and on that I’m not convinced that it is, but it certainly doesn’t hold back, and at the various points where you find yourself thinking where the story could go next, and hoping against hope that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have the balls to deliver what you’d most like to see, they never, ever disappoint. So what The Cabin In The Woods does achieve is being entertainment on the grandest of scales, an absolute joy from the first moment to the last as you put the pieces together to see if you can get to the end game before the characters, and it will become endlessly quotable once everyone that’s interested has actually seen it. Others might have trodden the path before, but Whedon and Goddard have proven they have what it takes to be considered right at the top of the tree where big scares mixed with hard laughs are concerned. Hail to the kings, baby.
Why see it at the cinema: I’m not sure what I expected, but I know I didn’t expect this film to be quite so consistently funny in a way that doesn’t undercut the scares. Comedy and horror are the two best friends of audience reaction, and there’s reason enough to see it on the big screen, but there is undoubtedly some imagery that will also benefit, and even the sound design screams “See me in a cinema!” if you’ll pardon the pun. But the sooner you see it, ideally on opening day, the less chance you have of one of your less intelligent friends blowing the whole gaff.
The Score: 10/10
I saw this film at Ultra Culture Cinema #09: for my review of that, see here.