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THE GREY on Blu-Ray
Andy Reviews Liam Neeson's Latest
Plus: Shout! Factory's WALKING TALL, CABIN IN THE WOODS & More!

Comic book fans everywhere have been eagerly awaiting Joss Whedon’s Marvel super-hero team-up THE AVENGERS ever since the project was first announced years back, before a series of standalone adventures for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk were filmed. The big-budget result is an entertaining fantasy with occasional splashes of inspired humor, though it’s ultimately not the most spectacular film the genre has ever assembled.

Whedon’s script has SHIELD’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) bringing together the disparate group of heroes after Thor’s brother Loki (the terrific Tom Hiddleston) steals the same magic cube that was featured in a few of the earlier Marvel films. Hoping to use the “Tesseract” to open the portal to another galaxy so an invading army of aliens can conquer the Earth, Loki stirs up trouble and only Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, doing the best job yet of channeling Bill Bixby’s sensitive Doc), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., who unsurprisingly gets the best lines), Russian assassin “Black Widow” (Scarlett Johansson, much more effective here than she was in the second “Iron Man”) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) stand in the way...provided they can get along well enough to fight for the same cause. Oh, and there’s Hakweye (Jeremy Renner) too, but he’s been brainwashed – along with Thor’s scientist buddy Stellan Skarsgard – by Loki into carrying out his nefarious plans.

At nearly two-and-a-half hours, “The Avengers” naturally has to juggle a wide amount of characters and story arcs from the prior Marvel movies, and Whedon proves to be up to the task – to a certain extent. Though the script could’ve used even more humor, the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator balances the interplay of the characters and their assorted voices extremely well. Ruffalo – stepping into a role that Eric Bana and Edward Norton essayed to varying degrees of success in two prior, only moderately successful films – acquits himself nicely and his Hulk ends up stealing the show during the film’s raucous final third, where the Avengers hit New York City in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the destruction of the planet.

“The Avengers,” then, is as colorful as I expected, though the film came up just a bit short in terms of it matching the original “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “Captain America” standalone films in terms of overall effectiveness. The talky first hour seems to spend an eternity on Nick Fury giving speeches in a series of repetitive “introductory” scenes, while desperately crying out for a big, first-half action set-piece that wasn’t just a group of brawls between the different heroes. There should’ve been a more exciting way of handling those scenes than how Whedon structured them, yet I believe he's also a much better writer than a director, with too many scenes occurring here in dark, claustrophobic corridors -- so much that the wide open New York City backdrop of the finale proves to be more effective than anticipated.

Alan Silvestri’s score, regrettably, is also a missed opportunity of the highest order. Of all the movies that cried out for a big, thematic musical statement, “The Avengers” was it, and yet Silvestri fails to give us the type of score he did for “Captain America” (or the fine score Patrick Doyle composed for “Thor”), with most of his effort serving as little more than bland musical wallpaper.

I also confess it's disheartening that, no matter who the director is these days, every big special effects movie now has an almost incoherent, ADD level of editing where you can't focus on one scene for more than a second before – BAM! – a quick cut occurs to the next big moment. “The Avengers”’ wild finale sadly comes across in a similar fashion: another alien. Another explosion. Another building getting smacked around. There's just no craftsmanship in terms of letting a scene breathe or letting drama develop -- it's pure and simple bombast...well executed here in a dynamic last 20 minutes or so, but still on the level of other, similar types of modern blockbusters.

Still, “The Avengers” is great fun, even if I felt a bit let down at the end. Maybe Whedon was so preoccupied in giving every character their “moment” that he just missed connecting all the dramatic dots that the picture required – and I was hoping there would be more of an emotional resolution to the characters’ assorted relationships than there was. It’s still solid comic book entertainment, sure to please its intended audience (and already has, to the tune of a record-breaking $200+ mil opening weekend), but one that hopefully will be improved upon when “Avengers 2" hits theaters a few years down the line, long after the gang as churned out another round of their own sequels. (***, 143 mins., PG-13).

New on Blu-Ray

Liam Neeson’s determined performance – one of his best – anchors THE GREY (***½, 118 mins., 2012, R; Universal), one of this year’s more memorable cinematic excursions to date. Viewers who might’ve missed director Joe Carnahan’s film in theaters will get another chance when Universal releases the Open Road release on video this week.

Carnahan, who adapted a book by Ian McKenzie Jeffers with the author, has fashioned a gripping account of a disparate group of Alaskan oil drillers who crash in the frozen wilderness and are subsequently attacked by a pack of hungry wolves. It’s essentially a frigid “Deliverance” but with some poetic passages as Neeson and his fellow survivors dig themselves out and try to stay alive, occasionally stopping to deliberate on the meaning of life, the existence of God and why in the world these starving hunters won’t give them a break.

Atmospherically shot in British Columbia and filled with memorable set-pieces, “The Grey” is exciting and well-executed on nearly every front, save for some occasionally spotty uses of CGI. Still, Neeson’s gritty performance says it all: his John Ottway might have been dealt a few bad hands, but the character opts to go down fighting, and the film’s spirituality adds depth to a picture that, even on just a pure surface level, ranks as one of the more compelling outdoor-adventure yarns in recent memory.

Universal’s Blu-Ray looks terrific with its 1080p transfer and sounds even better with a marvelously mixed DTS MA soundtrack layered with surround activity. Extra features aren’t overwhelming – just some deleted scenes and a commentary by Carnahan – while a DVD and digital copy round out the release.

New From Shout!

A trio of films from Bing Crosby Productions, the WALKING TALL series were mostly-fictionalized accounts of the life and alternately tragic and triumphant times of Tennessee small-town police chief Bufford Pusser in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. All three films – newly available on both Blu-Ray and DVD from Shout! Factory –make for ideal drive-in fare, mixing fisticuffs, some social justice sermonizing and vigilantism that would likewise become a potent formula for the “Death Wish” series.       

The original “Walking Tall” is by far the best of the trio: a somewhat crudely made yet undeniably compelling B-movie with Joe Don Baker as Pusser, a former wrestler who returns to his small Tennessee town, only to find crime, corruption, moonshinin’ and prostitution having overrun the local residents. Pusser nearly dies, twice, as he tries to clean up the town – first as a frustrated, concerned citizen, then as the newly elected sheriff – forever running into opposition from crooked judges, lying politicians and local white trash.

Baker’s performance anchors the original WALKING TALL (***, 124 mins., 1973, R) which became a huge hit in 1973, leading to a series of wannabes and similar “redneck justice” pictures. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it has a certain charm about it, with the movie having been made on a workmanlike level across the board. Walter Scharf’s melodic, occasionally overwrought score includes a forgettable Johnny Mathis end credits tune, while the supporting cast features little Leif Garrett as Pusser’s son and a pair of young actresses who met with premature ends: Elizabeth Hartman, who plays Pusser’s wife, later committed suicide in the ‘80s (she also voiced Mrs. Brisby in “The Secret of NIMH”), as did Brenda Benet, Bill Bixby’s ex-wife, who killed herself in 1982 and makes an impression here as a hooker sympathetic to the sheriff’s crusade.

Baker didn’t return for WALKING TALL: PART II (*½, 109 mins., 1975, PG), a barely serviceable 1975 sequel with Pusser still taking on the local mob in a movie that feels more like a TV film recycling as opposed to a legitimate big-screen continuation. Bo Svenson, at least, does a decent job as Pusser with a few faces having returned from the original; Walter Scharf repeated his scoring chores in a film that was released shortly after the real-life Pusser’s mysterious death.

1977's FINAL CHAPTER: WALKING TALL (**½, 112 mins., 1977, R) is an appreciable step-up from its predecessor, offering an interesting account of Pusser’s continued attempts to dismantle local organized crime, to his work with a film crew documenting his life and sad demise. The Howard B. Kreitsek-Samuel A. Peeples script aims higher than the second film, picking up some loose plot threads from the original that the first sequel overlooked, with Pusser’s character being more developed as the lawman loses almost everything – though ultimately not his legacy.

Shout’s Blu-Ray set is a gem: the first film’s 1080p transfer (all films are 1.85) has been culled from a pre-existing HD master and looks pretty good, with just a hint of DNR, and a 2.0 DTS MA stereo remix. Judging from the credited telecine colorist who worked on Parts II and III, the sequels appear to have been freshly transferred for this release, boasting decent detail, less DNR and 2.0 DTS MA mono soundtracks, though the modest budgets and no-frills filming of each installment certainly don’t make for HD “eye candy” or demo material.

Extras are also on-hand, including a documentary offering new interviews with Baker (albeit off-camera), Garrett, his sister Dawn Lyn (who plays his sister in the film), and numerous members of Pusser’s own family, who discuss the real man whose story inspired the movies (and the later, lame remake with The Rock). TV spots for all films, trailers for the sequels, and a vintage look at the production of “Final Chapter: Walking Tall” make for an excellent package, which is also available on DVD with the same extras this May from Shout!

Also new from Shout! this month is the long-awaited second season of FANTASY ISLAND (19 hours, 1977), offering 25 more episodes from ABC’s hit Saturday night series with Ricardo Montalban as your distinguished host Mr. Roarke. A typically motley assortment of guest stars in Season 2 include Sonny Bono, John Astin, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Nielsen, Mamie Van Doren, Don Knotts, Cesar Romero, Roddy McDowall, Mary Ann Mobley, Annette Funicello, and a young Jonathan Frakes, plus future “Elvira” Cassandra Peterson and Michelle Pfeiffer among them. The full-screen DVD transfers all appear to be in good shape; here’s hoping Season 3 follows for fans in the near future (and how about more episodes from “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island”’s broadcast partner, while we’re at it?).

Season 4 of KOJAK (1976-77) once again finds the tough NYC cop (Telly Savalas in his signature role) fighting crime in the penultimate season of the iconic CBS series. Shout!’s fourth-season DVD box set includes the episodes Birthday Party; A Summer Madness; Law Dance; Out of the Shadows; A Need to Know; An Unfair Trade; A Hair-Trigger Away; By Silence Betrayed; the two-part A Shield For Murder; The Pride and the Princess; Black Thorn; Where Do You go When You Have Nowhere to Go?; Dead Again; The Godson; The Condemned; When You Hear the Beep, Drop Dead; I Was Happy Where I Was; the two-part Kojak’s Days; Monkey on a String; Kiss it All Goodbye; Lady in the Squad Room; Sister Maria and Another Gypsy Queen.

Season 6 of DESIGNING WOMEN (540 mins., 1991-92) was a departure for the high-rated CBS Monday sitcom: with stars Delta Burke and Jean Smart having left Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s ensemble cast (Burke doing so quite loudly in a squabble over her weight among other issues), the producers opted to replace them by casting SNL’s Jan Hooks and “Newhart”’s Julia Duffy (fresh off the end of that classic series’ run) as a Sugarbaker cousin. At first the series shot into the Top 10 with the much-discussed changes, but even though these 23 episodes are still funny on balance, Burke’s absence is sorely felt, with the dynamic between her and fellow cast mates Dixie Carter, Annie Potts and Smart simply not duplicated by the addition of Hooks and Duffy (whose often strident performance always made me believe she was trying too hard to offset viewer memories of Stephanie Vanderkellen). That said, series fans are sure to appreciate Shout!’s latest DVD release from the series’ latter days, with satisfying transfers on tap.

Last, but certainly not least for Golden Age TV fans, is the complete ROUTE 66 (aprx. 100 hours, 1960-64), the legendary series with Martin Milner and George Maharis (later Glenn Corbett, who stepped in after Maharis fell ill during Season 3 and completed the series run) traveling the country, running into a myriad of different people and places in the process.

Herbert Leonard and Stirling Silliphant’s series isn’t a show I grew up with – by the time I was watching syndicated TV as a youngster in the ‘80s, reruns of “Route 66" had disappeared from the airwaves – but it’s a quite interesting, and varied, show. It’s also much more of an anthology series (with self-contained stories focusing on guest stars as opposed to the main characters) than anything else, with the leads running into family dramas, tense situations, comedic beats and other story lines in equal measure. Meanwhile, guest stars that appeared over the course of the program’s 116 episodes read like a who’s who of veteran stars and aspiring newcomers: Lon Chaney, Jr., Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff appear as do then-unknowns like Robert Duvall, James Caan, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Lee Marvin, Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman among others.

Shout’s 24-disc DVD set is a whopper, containing every episode from the series run in transfers as good as can be expected given the age of the materials. Extras include a 1990 Paley Television Festival panel with Maharis, Leonard, directors Arthur Hiller and Elliot Silverstein and casting director Marion Doughtery discussing the show, plus vintage commercials and an in-depth look at the Corvette Milner, Maharis and Corbett memorably drove across our fruited plain.

Also New on Blu-Ray

THE WAR Blu-Ray (2007, aprx. 15 hours, PBS/Paramount): Ken Burns’ 2007 series is a moving, leisurely-told examination of WWII as seen primarily through the eyes of four American communities: Mobile, Alabama; Waterbury, Connecticut; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota.

Using interviews, vintage photographs, letters, newsreel footage, and original music by Wynton Marsalis, “The War” presents a historical account of the U.S.’ involvement in the conflict at the same time it enriches the personal perspective of the men and women who both fought and simply lived through it, from the battlegrounds of Europe and the Pacific to how the war impacted day-to-day life in America.

Though it starts somewhat slowly, “The War” is a typical Burns work, unfolding like you’re reading a good book and filled with unforgettable imagery and anecdotes. Keith David’s narration is eloquent while recognizable celebrity voices (including Tom Hanks) infrequently appear when reciting journals and letters -- yet it’s the interviews with real WWII veterans that will provide the most impact for the majority of viewers.

PBS’ Blu-Ray box-set offers crisp 1080i transfers (naturally dependent at times on the quality of the source material being utilized) and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks plus a good array of supplements as well. Commentary from Burns and co-director Lynn Novick sheds light on their efforts, while deleted scenes, biographies, additional interviews, and a Making Of segment showcase how this ambitious production was mounted.

Although it requires something of a commitment to watch all of its 15 hours, viewers (especially younger ones) ought to take the time to savor “The War”’s meaningful, emotionally wrenching passages and tribute to Americans who endured “The Great War.” Recommended!

DIRTY DANCING 2-Film Collection Blu-Ray - Dirty Dancing (***½, 1987, 105 mins., PG-13) and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (*½, 86 mins., 2004, PG-13; Lionsgate): Lionsgate’s third Blu-Ray release of the 1987 classic “Dirty Dancing” offers the superior BD presentation from its 2010 “Keepsake” Special Edition as well as the debut of the lame 2004 “prequel” “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.”

If you didn’t buy the 2010 Blu-Ray release, fans of the Patrick Swayze-Jennifer Grey box-office smash have good reason to upgrade for the disc’s remastered picture and sound alone. An appreciable improvement on the old, out-of-print 2007 Blu-Ray, Lionsgate’s recent AVC encode has been remastered and is freed from the heavy noise-reduction and “jaggies” that plagued its earlier release. All-new 7.1 DTS Master Audio sound, meanwhile, compliments the superior transfer, while an abundance of extras, both new and re-issued from prior editions, is on-hand in addition to a digital copy disc.

Among this release’s inclusions are a tribute to Swayze, a trip back to the Virginia locations used in the film, a never-before seen photo gallery and fan reel. Carried over from prior releases, meanwhile, are deleted, extended and alternate scenes; cast audition footage; a pop-up trivia track; two commentaries (one from writer Eleanor Bergstein, another with various crew members); vintage music videos; outtakes; the trailer in HD; plus the kitschy ‘Dirty Dancing in Concert” special, which was left off the first Blu-Ray disc.

Making its Blu-Ray debut in this release is the limp 2004 prequel “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” a mechanical, in-name-only (and just-for-the-money) ersatz-sequel that follows the exploits of a young American teenager (the appealing Romola Garai) in a pre-Castro Cuba, who finds love with a dancing local (Diego Luna) just in time to make the finals of a Christmas Eve ballroom competition.

British actress Garai, who starred in the underrated "I Capture the Castle," and Luna make for an attractive couple, but this poorly-scripted and indifferently-directed "sequel" barely constitutes as a "film." The plot follows the outline of the 1987 classic, but nothing in the movie is developed whatsoever: not Garai's family, not Luna's revolutionary brother, not their friends, not their relationship -- just a bunch of montage scenes with a strikingly anachronistic soundtrack (there are times you'll think the film is set in the present day, not the 1950's), which totally offsets any sense of time and place. Compare that to the original "Dirty Dancing," which offered a genuine setting and set of characters far more developed than the cardboard cut-outs of this film.

The movie -- specifically the leads -- will keep you watching for a while (Patrick Swayze shows up in a cameo that had to have been shot in one day), but just when the movie seems to be building a head of steam, it fizzles out with an anti-climax and rolls the credits at the 78 minute mark. Pretty "dirty" indeed!

Lion's Gate's Blu-Ray of “Havana Nights” includes an okay AVC encoded 1080p transfer that looks a bit too processed, and was probably derived from an older master. Commentary from the filmmakers, deleted scenes, audition footage, and a fluffy Making Of are included, making for a solid supplemental package. "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" could have been charming (especially considering the two leads), but ultimately comes across as a total waste of celluloid -- you'll be thinking, they waited 17 years to make this?
ROAD TRIP Blu-Ray (***, 93 mins., R/Unrated, 2000; Paramount): The highest-grossing raunchy teen comedy of 2000 is a great deal of fun, as it chronicles a group of college students who travel from Ithaca, NY to Texas to patch up a small misunderstanding between a sensitive guy (Breckin Meyer) and his girlfriend (Rachel Blanchard). Lots of low-brow gags are mixed with genuinely funny moments, most of which are provided by MTV comedian Tom Green. Though obviously inspired by “American Pie” and similar genre films of the time, "Road Trip" has a certain charm and energy, most of which is likely attributable to director Todd Phillips, whose career took off with this film’s success, leading to “The Hangover” several years later.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition of “Road Trip” is, for the moment, a Best Buy exclusive and is loaded with goodies from its prior DVD release, including deleted scenes, a documentary featurette, an Eels music video (don't ask me), and four minutes of cut footage restored to the movie (at least in the unrated version also on-hand here). Three trailers are also included in HD. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is satisfying and the DTS MA soundtrack effective for the type of film involved.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL Blu-Ray (115/118 mins., 1968, Not Rated; Blue Underground): Generally well-received spaghetti western stars Gian Maria Volonte (from “A Fistful of Dollars”) as a Mexican gang leader trying to aid La Revolucion by stealing guns for a powerful general. Unbeknownst to him, an American gringo (Lou Castel) has other plans after infiltrating his gang.

Martine Beswick and Klaus Kinski co-star in Damiano Damiani’s 1968 Italian western adventure, which genre fans have long acknowledged to be one of the better films of its era. Personally, I found “A Bullet For the General” to be slow-going, but fans of the film will love Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray treatment of the film.

The 1080p transfer is highlighted by crisp detail and nicely balanced colors, and is presented in two different versions: its 118 minute international edit as well as its 115 minute U.S. theatrical edit, in both English and Italian (subtitled). Extras include an interview with the director, trailers, a poster/stills gallery, and a bonus DVD documentary on the star.

FLICKA: COUNTRY PRIDE Blu-Ray (92 mins., 2012, G; Fox): Earnest family drama starring Kacey Rohl as a teen who wants to train Flicka, a wild horse owned by Clint Black, in a direct-to-video variation on Mary O’Hara’s original book. Lisa Hartman Black co-stars in this feel-good 2012 tele-pic which Fox has released on Blu-Ray as a Walmart exclusive for the time being. Extras include a music video and two featurettes, plus a lovely 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

BEYOND Blu-Ray (90 mins., 2011, PG-13; Anchor Bay): A good cast struggles through indifferent direction in this 2011 thriller. Jon Voight stars in “Beyond” as a veteran cop investigating the kidnapping of a young Alaskan girl who reluctantly takes the advice of a tabloid psychic (Julian Morris) in order to catch the killer; Dermot Mulroney and Teri Polo co-star in a film with a pedestrian script by Greg Gieras that seasoned viewers will be able to figure out from miles away. Josef Rusnak’s by the numbers direction likewise doesn’t help matters. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray does include a fine 1080p transfer and 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.

THE AGGRESSION SCALE Blu-Ray (85 mins., 2011, R; Anchor Bay): It’s a “Twin Peaks” reunion of sorts when mob boss Ray Wise sends Dana Ashbrook and three other hit men to retrieve $500,000 of missing money – only to run into a lethal “Home Alone” scenario when the disturbed young son of the family they attack turns the tables on the killers. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray of this 2011 film from director-writer Steven C. Miller includes a 1080p transfer, Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and one Making Of featurette.

SHOCK LABYRINTH 3-D Blu-Ray/BD/DVD (89 mins., 2009, Not Rated; Well Go USA): Here’s the good news – this 2009 Japanese horror import is in 3-D. The bad news? Pretty much everything else.

A tepid “horror” flick with 3-D effects that are only intermittently effective, “Shock Labyrinth” is your basic “haunted hospital” flick with several childhood friends lost in a labyrinth where all of their personal horrors come to life. Takashi Shimzu, who directed the American version of “The Grudge” as well as the original “Ju-On,” essentially recycles all the old Asian horror cliches you’d anticipate in a film that offers little novelty outside of its 3-D trappings and, ultimately, not even enough of those to make this misfire recommendable.

Well Go USA’s Blu-Ray includes a 3-D Blu-Ray along with a 2-D presentation of the film, both in AVC encoded 1080p transfers with DTS MA audio (in Japanese with English subtitles). In addition to a DVD copy, the set – packaged with a lenticular 3-D cover – includes interviews, trailers, and behind-the-scenes material.

New From History/A&E

THE UNIVERSE: Season 6 Blu-Ray (aprx. 10 hours, 2011; A&E): Sixth season of the popular A&E science/speculation series unfortunately adheres a bit closer to the “science speculation” angle, detailing the expected demise of our planet by comet armageddon or another horrific catastrophe. Episodes include Catastrophes that Changed the Planets; Nemesis: The Sun’s Evil Twin; How the Solar System was Made; Crash Landing on Mars; Worst Days on Planet Earth; UFO: The Real Deal; and God and the Universe. 1080i HD transfers and 2.0 uncompressed PCM soundtracks comprise A&E’s three-disc set.

HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN TWO HOURS 3-D Blu-Ray (88 mins, 2011) is actually an 88-minute History Channel special from writer-director Douglas J. Cohen, who amusingly tries to cram the creation of the earth and development of ancient civilizations into a package that also connects them with our daily lives. History’s 3-D Blu-Ray looks good with its 1080p transfer though the effects are mostly only so-so; a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack rounds out the single-disc release.

Also new from NewVideo this month are a pair of Lifetime Original Movies: the quite watchable GIRL FIGHT (88 mins., 2011) offers Anne Heche, Jodelle Ferland and James Tupper in a story “ripped from today’s headlines” about bullying among female high school students; while THE BLING RING (88 mins., 2011) looks at a pair of mismatched high school students who become friends and steal in order to remain popular.

Also In Theaters

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (**½, 103 mins., 2012, R; Lionsgate): Talk about a hard film to review. This cast-off from MGM (shot several years ago and first scheduled for a February 2010 theatrical release) offers some clever lines and undeniably funny moments, but somehow ends up less than the sum of its parts.

Producer/co-writer Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard try to send up the horror genre with “Cabin in the Woods” much in the same regard that Kevin Williamson with "Scream," though this picture veers more towards outright comedy and geek in-jokes as opposed to genuine terror. At times, that's not a bad thing (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as a pair of government agents who...well, I won’t spoil the much-hyped “surprise”...play off each other extremely well), and I think if you see the film with a receptive audience, genre fans are going to be amused (that said, I can't imagine the picture working as well without that element).

On the other hand, the end result feels like a lark Whedon and Goddard threw together over a weekend and managed to get produced through the insanity of MGM – who as it turns out, ironically ran out of money and had to sell the film to the schlockmeisters at Lionsgate.

After setting viewers up in trailers and advertising with a premise that shows a group of typical college kids (including a pre-“Thor” Chris Hemsworth) heading out to a remote cabin where they’re stalked and dismembered one by one, “Cabin” certainly does expand beyond its central premise quickly, turning the tables on the audience and serving as a commentary of sorts on the very viewers who paid admission to see it.

The last 20 minutes are particularly insane as well – disgustingly gory and also funny – but ultimately, the film doesn't amount to very much, kind of a one-joke premise taken to an extreme, marginally directed (visually the film is dark and unimpressive), and with a weak ending that sadly recalls the "we've got no other way to finish it" conclusion of "Drag Me to Hell." It's also never scary, for reasons that relate to its "don't tell anyone" premise, creating this sort of weird tonal netherworld between a total joke and a story you're supposed to take seriously enough to care about what happens. In the end, I almost wished Whedon pushed it further than he did, because there's really no dramatic investment in the characters anyway -- why not just trash the genre altogether instead of playing some of it straight?       

Ultimately, the talented Whedon is clearly capable of better than this film, which while throwing in some clever lines and amusing moments, wants to have it both ways: poking fun at obvious horror cliches while still wallowing in the excess blood and unpleasant violence that's become the norm. Even with this type of film you get the feeling an opportunity was missed here to make something truly special, instead of the minor cult film it's likely to become among devotees who will find it "cool" and hysterical that they're "in on" the joke. Ultimately it’s a picture with some clever touches, but as a dramatic piece, “Cabin in the Woods” didn’t register with me at all.

For fans of the film, Titan Books has released a trio of publications that are well worth checking out, staring with a typical movie tie-in novelization, as well as a lavishly illustrated VISUAL COMPANION featuring the original script. Packed with full-color concept art and photographs, this is a fun way for viewers to engage in Whedon and Goddard’s creative process, though – unsurprisingly – both admit how shocked they were that the studio gave them the greenlight for the story they turned in. That type of candor, along with a bevy of production artwork, makes for a glossy glimpse into the film’s creation and production, and another fine book from Titan.

Less satisfying – though far heavier in its weight – is JOSS WHEDON: THE COMPLETE COMPANION, a 400-page plus compendium of articles from internet magazine Popmatters, offering an essay on every Whedon project – including ones that, at its presstime, hadn’t opened yet, which means disposable information on “Cabin in the Woods” and “The Avengers.” Lengthier chapters on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” are more hit or miss, with some insightful individual essays clashing with other sections that come off like message board ranting. Whedon fans, regardless, might want to give it a read through.

NEXT TIME: Mill Creek's latest Buena Vista catalog Blu-Rays! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!

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