Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I'm Feeling a Little Woozy Here: Thoughts on Scream 4

Eleven years after the release of Scream 3, the Scream franchise returns to the multiplex with Scream 4. Returning from the original trilogy are all three leads: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette. They’re joined by a gaggle of new high school characters, all of whom look alarmingly young. These intentionally nubile performers look much more youthful than the original cast did in the first film, which makes things all the more unsettling. Seeing how young the new characters looked forced me to confront that I was merely twelve years old when I saw the first Scream film. In retrospect, I’m a bit disconcerted that I was watching this type of film at that age. But oh how I loved the first film – and still do. Not only did the film excite me from a suspense standpoint it also presented teenage characters whose thoughts and desires felt entirely recognizable – well, not the psychopathic ones of course.

More persistently than the previous three films, Scream 4 poses the question of the damaging affects of viewing (or is it witnessing?) violent content. The Scream series has always been blatantly about the influential power of both viewing and making films. Even the much maligned Scream 3 offers some insightful scenes on studio back lots and soundstages. But Scream 4 takes it even further. Self-reflexive doesn’t begin to describe the film. In one of the best moments, Gail (Cox) refers to something as Meta and when Dewey (Arquette) is befuddled she responds with exasperation, “I don’t know, I heard the kids say it!”

But it’s difficult to draw the line between where Scream 4 indicts the youth of America for being too impressionable and where the film is encouraging the provocation. Take for example the extended death of an on-duty cop: an exquisitely framed single shot and a virtuosic feat of timing. That the shot runs without cutting is evidence of just how savvy director Wes Craven is to anticipating how an audience will react – and it’s all played out for laughs, culminating in a silly line about Bruce Willis. But let’s also not forget a line from one of the (many) opening scenes: “This isn't a comedy, it's a horror film.” Who exactly gets the last laugh has always been ambiguous in this series.

All three sequels have lacked the suspense of the original entry; the trade-off for all the hyper-aware pop culture references being the loss of investment in character and the genuine fear that corresponded. As
EW pointed out, the original film had a level of mystery that’s been neutered by all the genre-checking in the sequels.

Still, the opportunity to see Sydney Prescott, Ghost Face, and the town of Woodsboro on the big screen again was a treat. And I leapt at the opportunity to don my Scream 2 t-shirt again. But after the nostalgic delight had worn off, I couldn’t shake the unease and icky feeling that the film relished its depraved violence a bit too ardently. The film’s conclusion is a powerful bit of cynical ideology – if not suspense – but the steps in getting there are less surefooted.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shoot to Thrill: A review of Hanna

“I just missed your heart,” says the title character, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), in symmetrical shots that open and close the film. It’s a concise, somewhat heavy-handed, indication of filmmaker Joe Wright’s intentions with this lyrical, violent, beautifully photographed thriller. Wright wants us to be emotionally invested but in the end, able to walk away without too much attachment lest we be turned off by all the gruesome bloodletting and the psychological ramifications of the characters’ actions.

“The Devil is in the details,” states a different character around the film’s midpoint. Hanna is crammed with details. Some of which are arbitrary – Tom Hollander’s bottle-blond, short short sporting, whistlin’ killer is a hoot to watch, but his quirks ultimately don’t add up to much. More effectively drawn are Sophie (Jessica Barden), the tabloid-obsessed teenage tourist who befriends Hanna in Morocco and Cate Blanchett’s Clarise Starling-esque villainess whose ruthless, tactical precision is visualized in her dental care and whose pig-headed determination is expressed through her vanity and footwear. Without this level of specificity, Hanna would be just a Bourne knockoff (the cinematic impact of that spy trilogy continues to engulf the action genre) but instead, it is a thriller with a personality and an artistic sensibility.

I’ve made it no secret that Joe Wright is one of my favorite directors working today due to his cinematic eye and his drive to make mainstream cinema both entertaining and thought-provoking. He directs Hanna with a mixture of hyperactive cutting and calm restraint, lingering on vistas and background characters, as well as a steadicam shot that rivals the complexity of the Dunkirk scene in Atonement.

The tone here is a change of pace from Wright’s three previous films (literary adaptations Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist), but his adeptness at the thriller genre furthers his credit as one of cinema’s more versatile craftsmen. There are a lot of chase scenes in Hanna, all of which are scored to the pulse-pounding beats of The Chemical Brothers’ new music which keeps the movie zipping along enough to entertain the Saturday evening audience. The film is also very violent, too violent for the PG-13 rating it received and should be withheld from younger teens as its stylized brutality is issued without ample ethical consideration. But for those who can handle it, Hanna is an exciting, peculiar thriller that will impress you viscerally and also exercise your analytical skills, if not win your heart.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Keep the Car Running: Thoughts on Take Me Home Tonight

Take Me Home Tonight features ‘80s pop music and multiple shots of the lead character staring wistfully into the distance and lamenting lost opportunities and mistakes made. Usually, those two characteristics alone are enough for me to enjoy a movie. But to my dismay, Take Me Home Tonight is such a sloppy, overlong, morally uncertain misfire that there’s little to appreciate here. The novelty of witnessing Topher Grace’s last performance where he’s still youthful enough to believably play an awkward, insecure post-grad (the film was shot in 2007), is one bright spot, but even that wears thin quickly.

I’m usually willing to overlook questionable behavior whitewashed for the sake of narrative convenience but this film features rampant cocaine use, larceny and driving under the influence without anything approaching real consequence. It features not one but two scenes where it approaches consequence before shying away both times into what is virtually a ‘just kidding, everything’s fine’ timidity. Which is a shame, as one scene – a confrontation between Matt (Grace) and his father, is surprisingly powerful and an example of a degree of intelligence not present throughout the rest of the film. The subsequence scene is so dissonant in terms of tone and integrity, the most generous conclusion is to suggest it’s a product of test audience-induced reshoots.

Another strong scene between Matt and his high school crush (Teresa Palmer) is bracingly honest and suggests a provocative justification of Matt’s initial apprehension and subsequent deceit that the film introduces but later rescinds, less believably.

More damning than its questionable morality and its schizophrenic tonality is how downright sloppy the direction and editing are. The film jumps from shot to shot, lingering on minor characters doing completely inconsequential actions, with such jarring discord that the film borders on the incomprehensible; a bewildering ‘getting ready’ near-montage is particularly painful. Late in the film, after a pivotal scene, we cut back to a pair of characters without any provocation other than having not seen them for the past 20 minutes.

The final insult is when the end credits roll and Atomic Tom’s cover of “Don’t You Want Me Baby” hits. A fine cover and the lyrics actually relate to the film’s themes obliquely, but it also signals the complete absence of the Eddie Money pop classic from which the film derives its title. It would be one thing if the title had an explicit connection to the narrative beyond the evocation of ‘80s nostalgia – but it doesn’t. The absence of the song (a surefire way to alienate its audience) is indicative of the film as a whole and inadvertently sums up the lead character’s plight: the inability to capitalize on potential.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Top 10 of 2010

1. Toy Story 3

2. The American

3. The Ghost Writer

4. The Social Network

5. Exit Through the Gift Shop

6. Winter's Bone

7. Catfish

8. Black Swan

9. Fish Tank

10. Paranormal Activity 2

Honorable Mentions: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Inception, Please Give, Tiny Furniture, Unstoppable