Saturday, April 30, 2011

Run for Your Life: SCRE4M

Now practically, rightfully, part of the horror canon, Scream hit theaters in 1996 bringing a sense of self-awareness to what otherwise would have been stock horror characters. It is a loving homage to slasher films that’s also a great slasher film in its own right. The follow up is a winking homage to sequelitis, while the third is such homage to bad sequels that it is one.

Scre4m is a back-to-basics slasher picture that also dives deep down the rabbit-hole of franchise metatextuality with all of the wit you’d want to expect from this series. It’s rare for horror fans to get a worthy sequel, rarer still to get one fifteen years after the original. With the same behind-the-camera talent, the film has Wes Craven bringing crisp, suspenseful direction and Kevin Williamson bringing a frighteningly fun script. Together, they approach the level of terrifying snark that makes Scream such a great entry in the horror genre, and the lack of which causes the other sequels (especially 2000’s Scream 3) to feel so discouragingly rote.

But Scre4m, recognizing and exploiting its own status as a cultural memory, pulls off the unexpected feat of feeling at once old and new. It’s old because the Scream veterans, perpetual final girl Neve Campbell, bumbling cop David Arquette, and reporter Courtney Cox, return to see a new bloodbath. It’s new, because they’re set up in tension with the changing times. Their tragedy, the Woodsboro murders that take up the first film, is now settling into the past, nothing more than a scary story. The films-within-the-films based off of the tragic events are now the source of cult appeal amongst the local teens, for which they feel like a quaint throwback. These kids are of the generation of Saw and Paranormal Activity, after all.

Rather than address the found-footage and torture horror head-on, this new film brushes them aside. This isn’t a Scream movie for our time; this is a Scream movie in our time. It cleverly works as a hybrid remake and sequel with a new mysterious Ghostface killer patterning a killing spree on the original film’s events. The new group of teens is centered on Emma Roberts, Julia’s niece playing the niece of the original film’s final girl. Her friends include a number of hot young starlets like Hayden Panetiere and Marielle Jaffe along with Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin, and Nico Tortorella. In fact, this slasher film has so many characters on hand to be both victims and suspects (with little comedic turns for the likes of the very charming Alison Brie, Adam Brody, and Anthony Anderson and roles for Mary McDonnell, Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin) that the cast sometimes seems to be lining up for a much more sprawling film.

What we get, however, is nicely focused, no matter how cluttered it seems to get along the way. The new cast of vulnerable horror-savvy high-schoolers mixes well with the old favorites and Craven and Williamson are smart enough to keep both parts of their two-pronged plot lively and complementary. They feed off of each other and comment upon each other, much like a sequel (or remake) feeds off of its original, which is part of the point.

The movie is, in the best Scream tradition, energetically entertaining with jump scares and laughs, some surprising kills and at least one truly unexpected (and also surprisingly thematically satisfying) twist. In fact, I would venture to say that Scre4m is the best of the sequels. It’s a devilish delight that I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing. I doubt anything in this series will ever get back to the shock of the original, especially its masterful rug-pulling opening scene, but this is about as close as we’re likely to get.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Quick Look: RIO

Rio is a solid B-level CG animation effort from Blue Sky, best known for its Ice Age from all the way back in 2002 and which was, for my money, its only satisfying feature. (Even those Ice Age sequels were mostly mediocre). But now with Rio, a musical, warm-hearted animated comedy, the company has finally bested its best-known feature. It only took them a decade of lesser efforts. (Robots, anyone?) This film is cute, colorful, toothless fun. It’s safe, but not without its charms. It’s about the last two blue macaws on Earth, one a neurotic flightless house pet from Minnesota (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) and the other a super-confident jungle bird from Brazil (voiced by Anne Hathaway). A scientist (Rodrigo Santoro) and a Minnesotan (Leslie Mann) agree to mate their birds and meet in Rio de Janeiro to do so. Luckily, this isn’t simply a story driven by the need for two birds to mate. That’s a bit on the creepy side for a decidedly kid-centric feature. Instead, the G-rated thrust of it all is a chase with an impressive sense of place, courtesy of director Carlos Saldanha, who has Rio as a hometown. Bird smugglers steal the birds and its up to the scientist and the American tourist to get them back. The birds, for their part, escape the smugglers (especially a nasty cockatoo with the voice of Jemaine Clement) and try to get help from a toucan (George Lopez), two hip-hop birds (Jamie Foxx and, and a very slobbery bulldog (Tracy Morgan). The various characters race through the streets of Rio and get into all kinds of vibrant, tuneful trouble. The film never feels wholly original – it feels at times like its been cobbled together from good ideas that have been used in countless other animated films – but its never dull. It has a nice sense of pacing and location and never wears out its welcome. Even the 3D is used to nice, if mostly unobtrusive, effect. I won’t deny that the movie put a smile on my face. I can’t say Rio is great, but it sure is swell.

The Most Dangerous Game: HANNA

Of all the directors I would have guessed capable of making a great action thriller, I would not have thought of Joe Wright, he of two good to great literary adaptations (Pride & Prejudice and Atonement) and one undercooked based-on-a-true-story prestige picture (The Soloist). And yet, with his latest film Hanna, Wright has not only made a great action film, he’s made one that thrilled me sometimes as much as any of the great action films of the last decade. Released into theaters after weeks upon weeks of cluttered cacophony, seeing this film is like stepping out of a desert into a deep cool pool.

This film is one of rapid-fire patience, taking its time to set up its killer action sequences and, when they appear, they play out in unexpected ways both artfully fractured and shockingly fluid. It’s a Grimm fairy tale for the modern age (and similarly dark and unsuitable for small children) in which a young teenaged girl is forced out of the woods into a noisy world of chaos and beauty, strange sights and squirmy menace. There’s even a wicked witch of a villain with devious henchman on the hunt for blood. For that’s what awaits Hanna (a fierce performance from Saoirse Ronan), the girl in question.

She’s been raised in isolation for her entire life, living somewhere below the arctic circle in a little cabin in the woods. Her father (Eric Bana) has trained her to be a survivor. She’s an incredible shot with a bow and arrow as we see in the patient, quiet opening scene in which she emerges from the snowy woods and kills off a large deer. She’s a quick, skillful hunter of beast, but she’s been trained to apply these skills more generally. She’s a warrior child. She knows many languages. She knows many practical skills. She may be ignorant of the outside world – she knows no electricity, nor music, nor any other people other than the ones in her well-read copy of Grimm’s fairy tales that she keeps under her pillow and reads by firelight – but she’s more than capable of handling herself when danger and menace is called into her world, forcing her into globetrotting action.

Her father digs up a box with a switch. This, he tells his daughter, will tell Marissa Viegler where they are. Marissa (the great Cate Blanchett), we are soon to find out, is a meticulous C.I.A. agent who knew the father (and his then infant daughter) before he became a “rogue asset.” Hanna decides she is ready and flips the switch. A plan for revenge has been set into motion. Her father flees. She knows where to meet him later. She’s taken by armed men who appear surrounding their cabin and then she wakes up miles and miles away from her home in a vaguely military complex in a small grey room surrounded by a surrealistic omnipresence of cameras. She waits. She plays Viegler’s game. Then, when the time is right, she escapes. Her goal? To make sure this “witch” is dead.

This is a coming-of-age action thriller that’s entirely enthralling from beginning to end with an incredible character in Hanna. It’s just as tense to watch her navigate the social world as it is to see her in hand-to-hand combat. She stumbles upon a vacationing British family (with a warm Olivia Williams playing matriarch) and is perplexed and intrigued by them, even making something like a friend with another teenaged girl (Jessica Barden). Hanna is amazed and frightened by things like television and even fluorescent lights. She doesn’t seem to understand all too quickly the ways in which so-called “normal” people behave. But she sees something valuable in this family, something in which she aspires to be included. But this fragile piece of normality is threatened by Viegler who is hunting down father and daughter with the help of a not-entirely-legal creep (Tom Hollander) who emerges fully formed as a great villainous figure, complete with the best whistled musical motif since Bernard Herrmann wrote the score for Twisted Nerve.

There’s a simple clarity of character here, as in a fairy tale, with exaggerated good and evil types that nonetheless proceed to dance in the grey areas of such easy definitions. There are fantastic, teeth-gnashing performances all around, but Ronan especially brings a fire and fragility to Hanna that helps to sell the emotion underneath the action. But what action it is! Set to a pounding, slippery score from The Chemical Brothers, Joe Wright stages action in unexpected places in unexpected ways with silky smooth swoops of the Steadicam. The film features confrontations in, among other places, a subway station, a desert, a shipyard and a foggy abandoned carnival. The imagery floats between the dream-like and the gritty, visualizing the coming-of-age themes with a fuzzy, conflicted intensity. There’s a feeling of the world as an incomprehensibly diverse place that fits Hanna’s disorientation.

She’s been prepared to survive but has she been prepared to live? It’s a question that many a young person, leaving home for the first time, finds echoing in the mind. Here’s a gripping action-thriller that dramatizes that question in a supremely entertaining fashion. By the end of the film, when the villainess emerges from a concrete wolf’s head (echoes upon echoes of fairy tales), the film has crystallized its central thematic conflict with two lines. One, spoken to Viegler as a weary declaration of parental sadness and pride: “Kids grow up.” The other, spoken by Viegler to Hanna: “Don’t you walk away from me young lady!” Here’s a film about the fact that children grow up, hopefully defeating the conflicts of their parents in order to move past them and have a better life, and how difficult a process that can be. I make it sound so solemn, but one of its greatest assets is how it can hint at larger themes while keeping them just under the surface of a larger-than-life film of seemingly unlimited eccentricity. It’s a hugely successful film of action and style that expects an audience capable of thought, not just mindless reaction to stimuli.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Not Mad, Just Disappointed: YOUR HIGHNESS

Despite the ample warnings provided by the deluge of negative reviews, Your Highness filled me with a deep, awful disappointment. It is a film of so many painful, unanswerable questions, but chief among them is simply “Why?” Why does this movie exist? Why did David Gordon Green, one of the most promising talents in Hollywood today, waste his time with this nonsense? I suppose he thought it would be funny, and maybe it is for some. I wasn’t laughing.

Green’s heart wrenching indie character piece George Washington is one of the greatest debut features in recent memory. He followed that up with a heartfelt romance, All the Real Girls; a gripping slice of Southern Gothic, Undertow; a deeply felt ache of a small-town portrait, Snow Angels; and a goofy stoner action comedy, Pineapple Express. I love all of those films to varying degrees, even Pineapple Express, which was a slight drop in quality from his string of masterpieces but has grown on me as time passes.

With Your Highness, Green creates a bumbling fantasy comedy about a chivalrous prince (James Franco) and his doofus brother (Danny McBride). They set out with a faithful servant (Rasmus Hardiker) on a quest to save a princess (Zooey Deschanel) from an evil wizard (Justin Theroux). Along the way they encounter Natalie Portman as a very earnest warrior who exists to look pretty, provide reaction shots, and move the plot along by simply being the most competent person in the room. The worst part of all this is that that’s a hugely promising set-up for a rollicking R-rated comedy. Even as I sit here typing this, knowing full well how much I don’t like the movie, I find myself intrigued. Add to that concept a collection of truly talented people and it starts to seem impossible that it could be that bad. I only have to remind myself how painfully low the supply of laughs actually is and I’m brought back down to the reality of just how bad the movie is.

I can think of no clearer way to review comedy than for a critic to honestly report the number of times he or she laughed. Your Highness made me laugh exactly zero times. (I did, however, smile once). Green follows unchecked impulses (and a script from McBride and co-writer Ben Best) into an unceasingly violent, vulgar, and sloppy comedy that seems to pound away at ideas for jokes instead of committing to the actual jokes themselves.

When the camera pulls back and swoops across the untamed wilderness the characters traipse through, there’s a feeling of a building fantasy epic that could be nicely undercut by the character’s deeply flawed personalities. Instead, the joke is that McBride likes to get high and is socially awkward and that Franco is too seemingly perfect to see just how imperfect he can be. That could also be funny, but what it ultimately boils down to is two characters stomping around using phony, vaguely British, accents and slipping into modern-day idioms and swearing. Tee-hee, we’re supposed to think, aren’t they naughty? But it’s not too long at all before it’s not funny, just wearing.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2010

Shutter Island
The Social Network
True Grit
Never Let Me Go
Let Me In
Inside Job
Blue Valentine

Honorable Mentions: Another Year, Black Swan, Easy A, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Ghost Writer, How to Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist, 127 Hours, A Prophet, Salt, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Step Up 3D, Tangled, The Tillman Story, Toy Story 3

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lost in Luxury: SOMEWHERE

Johnny Marco lives in a gilded cage, an alienating, distancing prison of wealth and acclaim that creates a glittering backdrop that makes it hard to tell just how big of a celebrity he is. Women throw themselves at him. He attends fawning, vacuous press junkets. He gets a trip to Italy to pick up an award of some kind. And yet there’s the sense that he’s not quite an A-lister. He has all the trappings of fame with all of the consequences but little of the pleasure. His life is a void of true feeling covered over by cheap exhibition. In his hotel room he is visited by strippers with portable poles that they assemble from out of duffle bags, but he falls asleep before they can even get their clothes off.

Like in the suburban nostalgia of The Virgin Suicides, the bewildering tourists’ Tokyo of Lost in Translation, and the walled-off royal baroqueness of Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola uses the Los Angeles of Somewhere to explore the world of the uncomfortably well-off. Some find her detailed patience and quiet poetics misplaced, as if the privileged posses some innate quality that makes them beneath serious contemplation. Are they not people? Their problems may seem trivial – after all, so many in this world would love to suffer from such shimmering ennui – but the emotions underneath are anything but.

Somewhere is a film of closed loops, empty patterns of behavior in enclosed spaces. Though located mostly in and around Los Angeles, specifically in the famous Chateau Marmont, its hotel suites could be located anywhere. During that trip to Italy, Marco essentially trades in one suite for another. The biggest difference is in the native language spoken by the staff. The interiors of the film are often stifling in their lack of specificity and in the sense that the walls are closing in. Luxurious hotel rooms, heated pools, chilly ice rinks, molds for masks, expensive cars. This is a film that is physically about being enclosed yet travelling in endless circles, a motif revealed in the opening shot with a luxury car driving in wide, repetitive circles. The end of the film parks a car on the side of a highway somewhere. At least we’ve made some kind progress.

The biggest shift in Marco’s life during this film is the arrival of his eleven-year-old daughter, Cleo. At first their relationship proves to be lovingly stilted, but after a phone call from her mother, his estranged ex, Cleo ends up staying much longer than he expected. This is no cheap emotional journey to be sketched out, though. The appearance of an innocent into a world of casual decadence doesn’t so much soften Marco or immediately cause him to rethink his life as it provides a healthy contrast to the women in his life. Grown women reveal themselves to him, proposition him, flirt with him, and leave him angry text messages after their flings have long turned out to be just that. His daughter is not grown. She bristles at some of her father’s ways, glowering across the breakfast table at him after an unexpected overnight guest has appeared. But Cleo also views him with some degree of admiration, wants to impress him. She performs her ice skating routine. She shows off her swimming skills. She orders raw ingredients from room service to cook for him. In many ways she is more mature than his casual partners, but despite being both motherly and enabling, she is still just a child, immature, questioning, judgmental.

The big story here is not how father and daughter change each other but rather how they grow to feel at ease with each other. They grow comfortable together. When they are forced, by film’s end, to part ways, returning for some undefined period to life as it was before, there is a feeling of a fragile, lovely stillness slid suddenly apart. We had watched them interact with greater ease. They had collapsed into the backseat of an Italian limousine wearing matching stylish sunglasses. She rested her head on his shoulder while an Angelino hotel employee serenaded them, easing into a beautifully ordinary moment of familial connection. They sat side-by-side poolside, basking in the warm sun as the camera pulled back, revealing the perfection of their own still little world. What is to become of them now? The future seems to be half agony, half hope.

Coppola trusts her actors to sell such subtle material, to fit smoothly and seamlessly into her tone, her methodical cinematic poetry, and her beautifully arranged, delicately composed shots from the great cinematographer Harris Savides. As Johnny Marco, Stephen Dorff, best known for his roles in schlock like the mid-90’s Wesley-Snipes-fights-vampires movie Blade, gives a career best performance, a wonderfully expressive state of emotional openness. As his daughter Cleo, Elle Fanning (Dakota’s little sister) is luminous in a finely wrought and deftly displayed portrait of pre-teen precariousness. These two performers act a duet, carrying the film more or less by themselves, a feat especially moving amidst Coppola’s confident minimalism. The film is about stasis but it’s never inert; it manages to be about the emptiness of going in circles without ever feeling empty. It’s spellbinding, as precise and bewitching as a gorgeous, hushed, richly textured poem or a powerfully, closely observed trance of splendid, musical melancholy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Things That Go Bump in the Night: INSIDIOUS

Insidious is like a rickety old carnival ride where half the fun is knowing exactly how the ride will try to startle you but then getting startled anyway. Here every jump-scare with a blast of sound is every bit as surprising and painful as getting your chest slammed into a rusty safety bar with a quick scrape of the ride’s gears. Director James Wan and his screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who made a big splash with the original Saw, have made a simply effective piece of horror. I didn’t much care for their debut and haven’t seen any of Wan’s other films, but this film works on a primal genre level.

As in most any haunted house movie, this one begins with a likable young family moving into a house with creaky floorboards and dark shadows. The husband (Patrick Wilson) heads off to work and the sons (Ty Simpkins and Andrew Astor) go to school, leaving the wife (Rose Byrne) and their infant to first encounter the strange goings-on. Things begin casually creepy. First, misplaced objects. Then, strange sounds, floorboards creak with no one stepping on them. Then, is that a voice I hear, whispering ever so softly? Then, what is that figure flashing through my peripheral vision?

So far, these are all standard elements for this type of film, but the real horror starts with a scene that’s chilling in its matter-of-fact normalcy, in an everyday event just enough wrong to feel hopelessly horrifying. One morning Wilson heads upstairs to wake up one son who is sleeping in particularly late. He does the usual fatherly calls to “Get up!” accompanied by turning on the light. Then he puts a hand on the corner of the mattress and shakes it, calling louder. Then he puts his hand on the boy’s arm and moves it. But this small, helpless child simply won’t wake up.

We quickly learn that he’s in a coma. This is an all too plausible occurrence that anchors the escalating horror to come. Wan builds the tension with expert freak-out jolts like when, in the middle of the night, the front door is mysteriously open. Or when a dark figure can be glimpsed in the corner of a bedroom. Or when a mother rounds the corner to see a ghostly man standing next to her baby’s crib. That moment in particular reveals the knowingness with which Wan deploys these shocks. I saw the ghost before the characters and beat the soundtrack’s blast, which occurs only after the characters have had a scare. By that point, my stomach had already twisted into a knot.

By the time the third act arrives, we find typical haunted house material (paranormal investigators, a psychic, and a séance) played with a bit of a twist. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that the investigators (Angus Sampson and the film’s writer Leigh Whannell) are nerdy guys who are trying to one-up each other with their unwieldy homemade paranormal sensors. The psychic (Lin Shaye) is ominously warm and grandmotherly, until she starts dictating dark visions and insists on wearing a gas mask during the séance, which punctuates the already creepy scene with thick raspy breaths.

Insidious is scary but not frightening, surprising but not scarring. It’s not a great movie but it’s great, rickety genre fun. It’s not as great as Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, my personal favorite of this subgenre, but it’s still an effective effort. Wan plays with tropes and clichés and finds new ways (and some old dependable ways) to make an audience, at least the one with which I saw this, flinch, gasp and squirm at all the right moments.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Strangers on a Train: SOURCE CODE

Duncan Jones’s directorial debut, 2009’s Moon, was a sci-fi study in loneliness and isolation anchored by a wonderful performance by Sam Rockwell as the one-man crew of a lunar mining platform coming to the end of his three-year shift. He slowly finds cracks in the corporate messages and, though he’s more than ready to go home, discovers that it might not be so simple. I didn’t see the film during its small release and didn’t catch up with it until it had been on Blu-ray for a few weeks. But when I had caught up, I found myself wishing I could have seen it on the big screen. It’s a strong effort, a quiet, grey film with which Jones manages to evoke an epic sense of endless emptiness on a relatively small budget.

Now here comes his sophomore effort, Source Code, another sci-fi effort focusing on a man stuck in a difficult job. Jake Gyllenhaal is that man, a soldier who wakes up on a Chicago-bound commuter train in the body of another man. The woman sitting across from him (Michelle Monaghan) seems to know him, or rather know that man that he sees when he spies his reflection. Before he can figure out what kind of displacement has befallen him, an explosion rips through the train.

But Gyllenhaal does not die. Instead, he wakes up in some kind of dark clammy capsule, receiving instructions from a mysterious military officer (Vera Farmiga) who has a suspicious-looking scientist (Jeffrey Wright) looking over her shoulder. They tell him that he is wired into a program they call Source Code. It is explained that he has become part of a baffling experiment that enables a person to relive the last eight minutes of a person’s life (making use of the brain’s post-mortem afterglow and some parabolic calculus, along with quantum mechanics, naturally).

It might not make a lot of sense but it enables the film to engage in narrative loops that send us spiraling back into the same time span with plenty of variation. The bomber must be found and identified since, Gyllenhaal is told, the explosion was only the first of a wave of attacks that have been threatened. The Source Code, however, is not time-travel. It merely creates an alternate space within reality for the participant to relive the past. What happened happened; there’s nothing that can be done to stop the explosion, to avert disaster. This is a prevention program, not a cure. This causes problems for Gyllenhaal, especially as he starts to fall for the woman on the train.

This is a swift, engaging film that’s a nice twisty puzzle that has a solid level of craftsmanship behind it, cleanly photographed, featuring some nice special effects and a using a likable score. I enjoyed its surface pleasures – it’s filled with pleasingly displayed technological gadgetry and, at times, a cool demeanor of confusion – but it’s hard to care too much about the situation. The ticking-clock is ill defined and the characters aboard the train were already dead (nothing can change that, we are often told) so every failure to stop the explosion was just like watching a friend fail a level on a videogame.

What imbue the situation with dramatic weight are the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Monaghan and the growing frustration he feels with the futility of his mission. There’s a sense of dismay to be found in the pattern of events that make up the action of this thriller. It’s brisk and energetic but also fundamentally sad. Jones, working from a script by Ben Ripley, may not have equaled his debut feature but he’s managed to make a film that works fairly well on its own terms.