For whatever reason, Hollywood has largely ceded this weekend to low-budget independent movies, giving you a chance to see some sparkling talents make their debuts in various roles.
The best movie out this week is The Cabin in the Woods, which (due to an original distributor going broke) sat on the shelf for two years until it was finally unveiled to a rapturous reception at South by Southwest last month. The reception was well-deserved, because this isn’t just the funniest slasher movie I’ve ever seen. It’s probably the slasher movie to end all others. There’s no point in making another. Seriously, this film says everything there is to say about the genre.
The story is about five college kids who spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods, appropriately enough. The kids conform so squarely to the genre’s archetypes — virginal good girl (Kristen Connolly), slutty bad girl (Anna Hutchinson), dumb jock (Chris Hemsworth), studious black guy (Jesse Williams), and paranoid pothead (Fran Kranz) — that we wait for the whole premise to be revealed as a setup. And so it is, early on: The kids have no idea that they’re being watched remotely by three scientists (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, and Amy Acker) in a military-style bunker who are manipulating events at the cabin to ensure that the kids will be killed.
It’s hard to discuss the movie’s greatness further without giving away too much of the twisty plot. I will say that there are higher powers at work beyond the God-playing scientists, including a program director who’s portrayed by the star of an all-time great slasher flick. The film is co-written by fantasy giant Joss Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard, one of Whedon’s collaborators from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as a former writer on Alias and Lost. They give the piece all manner of snappy, quotable dialogue (“I kinda dismembered that guy with a trowel. What have you been up to?”) and hilarious set pieces such as the movie briefly turning into a Japanese horror flick. (Trust me, it makes sense.) I don’t mind admitting I was helpless with laughter on several occasions, including the berserk monster-madness climax.
Yet there’s more on the agenda than just jokes or spoofing the genre’s conventions. The characters — the ones who live, anyway — come to recognize that they are just that, characters in a slasher flick who exist only to be killed, and that knowledge is both a point of existential despair and a “Skynet gains self-awareness” moment that tears the world apart. There are even theological implications. It’s all downright Pirandellian, and it’s about nine different kinds of awesome. Ultimately paganistic in its world view, The Cabin in the Woods proposes an exceptionally bleak view of the universe and human nature, and somehow it’s the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater all year.
A more traditional religious point of view can be found in Blue Like Jazz, that rare movie pitched at Christian audiences that’s neither sleep-inducingly dull nor hectoring in its religiosity. (The current October Baby is both, by the way.)
Based on the memoir of author Donald Miller, the movie follows young Don (Marshall Allman), a high-school graduate from a small Texas town where everyone including him believes fervently in Jesus. He plans to attend a Bible college, even after his jazz-loving deadbeat dad (Eric Lange) gets him admitted into Reed College, a real-life liberal arts institution in Portland. “Improvise your own story,” says his dad. “Don’t go someplace where they hand you the script and tell you to copy it down.” Don’s still unswayed until he discovers that his churchgoing mom (Jenny Littleton) is having an affair with his youth pastor (Jason Marsden). Properly disillusioned, Don heads for the Pacific Northwest.
First-time director/co-writer Steve Taylor positions the film neatly in the tradition of gently satirical movies about college life. Both Don and the movie view the drinking, drug use, and sex at Reed with an air of bemused detachment rather than shock, and Don is completely unfazed when the first girl he meets (Tania Raymonde) announces herself as a lesbian within a few minutes of the introduction. The cheerful anarchy of the college and Portland in general are the subject of background gags. It’s not unusual for conversations to play out while a bike-riding girl dressed as a carrot gets chased by a guy on foot in a bunny costume.
Don goes to Reed determined to throw off his religious convictions, only to find that they aren’t so easily gotten rid of. I wish his journey toward enlightenment didn’t involve his relationship with The Pope (Justin Welborn), an appointed student lord of misrule whose bias against religion is too easily explained, even if the climactic scene between them in a confessional booth is quite well-acted. Still, Blue Like Jazz emphasizes the importance of finding your own way in life and addresses how complicated that process can get. That’s more than most Christian dramas are able to accomplish. This may not be a comic masterpiece, but its generous attitude and breezy tone are likable enough.
You won’t be surprised to discover that the tall, slender, androgynous-looking Krysten Ritter used to be a model. She has acted in some films, but her incandescent smile and flair for portraying comic weirdos have been better showcased on TV (Gilmore Girls, Breaking Bad, and the wonderfully titled Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, which debuts this week). To go with her television work, the 30-year-old Ritter has co-written the female-centric comedy L!fe Happens as well as co-starring in it, and — the annoying punctuation in the title notwithstanding — it deserves an audience.
She plays Kim, an L.A. single gal who has recently had a baby, the result of a condom-free one-night stand with an Australian pro surfer (Rhys Coiro) who promptly bails on her. After an overly frenetic prologue about the baby’s conception, the movie hits its stride in the slower early scenes that depict the rhythm of Kim’s new life, career plans stuck in neutral, a Gorgon-like boss (Kristen Johnston) trampling all over her, her friends going out and partying while she sits at home with her infant son.
First-time feature filmmaker Kat Coiro recognizes that even though the baby is even-tempered and relatively undemanding, his needs and his presence must always be accounted for. While Kim clearly loves her child, she just as clearly has no idea what she’s doing. When she meets a hot guy named Nicolas (Geoff Stults) who takes a liking to her, she lies and tells him that the baby belongs to Deena (Kate Bosworth), her underappreciated best friend and roommate.
The farce is perfunctory, even if Kim’s cover eventually gets blown in a genuinely surprising way. Other ends hang loose around here, too, like Deena’s flirtation with Nicolas’ pervy friend (Justin Kirk), which is somehow entirely predictable without making a lick of sense. Ritter and Stults have some chemistry going on, but the relationship doesn’t yield much besides a terrific scene when Nicolas gives a stinging appraisal of Deena’s parenting skills while Kim keeps a smile plastered on her face as she recognizes that his words really apply to herself.
The movie is stronger in dealing with the friendship between Kim and Deena, a writer whose career takes off and causes further complications. The emotional temperature of this relationship is carefully gauged, never more so than in a late scene when Kim ungratefully laces into Deena after a particularly bad patch. Bosworth hasn’t been given much to do in films besides look pretty since her breakout role in the 2002 surfing movie Blue Crush. The rapport she establishes with Ritter proves that she’s more than just a killer pair of legs.
You can see this in a scene when Kim and Deena gleefully trade off rapid-fire punchlines directed at their spacey roommate (Rachel Bilson), who’s going off to work dressed in a sexy French maid outfit. “Have you seen The Night Porter?” “Are you dating Marilyn Manson?” “Did you kill him in the study with a candlestick?” For all its flaws, L!fe Happens frequently rings true about female friendship (which unfortunately makes it a rarity), and it marks Krysten Ritter as a comic talent to watch out for, whether she devotes her future energies to TV or movies.
The Cabin in the Woods
Starring Kristen Connolly, Jesse Williams, and Chris Hemsworth. Directed by Drew Goddard. Written by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. Rated R.
Blue Like Jazz
Starring Marshall Allman and Justin Welborn. Directed by Steve Taylor. Written by Donald Miller, Ben Pearson, and Steve Taylor, based on Miller’s memoir. Rated PG-13.
Starring Krysten Ritter and Kate Bosworth. Directed by Kat Coiro. Written by Kat Coiro and Krysten Ritter. Rated R.