Sunday 24 April 2011

Review: Scream 4

Year: 2011
Director: Wes Craven
Screenplay: Kevin Williamson
Starring: David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere

Synopsis is here

The problem with Scream 4 was always going to be relevance.  Scream's popularity brought forth a slew of similar, self-aware, teeny-bopper slashers all with their own little "thing" to make them feel a little different. Do you remember Cherry Falls? I know what you did last summer? Urban Legends? I doubt those films or other would have seen the light of day if it weren't for Craven and Williamson. By the time the third instalment came around, the series felt more than a little stale. Scream 3 (2000) limped out in the same year as Scary Movie, which in itself was a spoof of a set of films that were of course, send ups themselves. Still it goes further. Scream defined horror films in such a way that even now nearly every mainstream horror film has a post-modern slant; be it retro chic or a remake, there is nearly always a wink or a nod to something else. In essence Scream not only borrowed from the genre, it became assimilated into the DNA itself, even Saw's "game playing" and torture sequences seem to be extended aspects of the deaths of Casey and her boyfriend Steve from that first (brilliant) opening moment.

With the horror film once again feeling like it may have to fall into a transition stage (when doesn't it) what can this forth film bring to the table? Unfortunately not as much as one would hope in this bloggers opinion. Scream 4 opens strongly with an opening ten minutes that once again placed me in the mood for slash happy fun and nearly finishes on a interestingly nihilistic note that reminds one of Craven's Last House days. However what we have in-between is a talkie middle that has none of the zing that made Scream what it was in the first place. Characters mention rules and hint about the state of horror films but the film doesn't bother to incorporate such aspects as well as it could. In an age of reboots and remakes, found footage and so called torture porn, Craven and Williamson refuse to let loose. In fact Scream 4 has such a by the book feel at times that I began to wonder if that was the largest irony.

Much of this is to do with the characters, the actors who played them and the story itself. The likes of Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Illard and Jamie Kennedy aren't the best thespians in the world, but their approach to the material was enough to keep you ticking over; as was Williamson's screenplay, which was crafty in its creation, wrapping a sad melodrama around a knowing wit and a tightly structured horror whodunit. Scream 4's hack, slash, next approach and overload of characters doesn't leave time to make these characters worth watching this time round. this leaves us stuck with a bunch of pretty uninteresting mix of red herrings and victims that really do feel like they're waiting for Ghostface than anything else.

An attempt to cover such cracks are covered with some genuinely brutal set pieces which do hit home as does some of the more meta moments. Meanwhile the films climax isn't perfect in it's execution, but the motive behind the murders is quite revealing in its cynicism and provide the most interesting commentary within the film.

The acting is a mixed bag with David Arquette and Hayden Panettiere being the most noteworthy. Arquette in particular feels more in sync with proceedings with a more understated performance than his earlier, goofier entries. Neve Campbell and Courney Cox have a pretty thankless task (the script also doesn't know what to do fully with the Gail Weathers character) while everyone else are pretty brutal to be honest (although the younger actors at least look high school age).

Craven's direction comes across as uneven and the material in that we get interesting plays on duality, unexpected daytime scares and a warmer look visually to proceedings. However, the lack of full on anger and energy within the films conversational middle is very noticeable. There's a world weary bagginess that is felt around certain aspects and Craven; a man who tries his best to only go back to the well when he has something to say, is let down by a script which feels pieced together from two different films.

Scream 4 does enough work for the hardcore fans to love it unbiasly, however it may come across as too pedestrian to those who think that Saw is the way forward and new fans may wonder what the fuss would be about. Scream 4 has more than enough kills for gore hounds, however, one may find self aware solace in dusting off the original feature.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Review: Your Highness

Year: 2011
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenplay: Danny McBride, Ben Best
Starring: Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel

Synopsis is here:

Your Highness is a frustrating piece of work as under different circumstances, it might have worked. I mean a spoof of 80's style fantasy features? Why the hell not? In a cinematic world where most spoofs nowadays usually end in the word "movie" and are terrible, it would be nice to sink ones teeth into a comedy that's a tad more substantial than cheap shots at pop culture. Unfortunately, as opposed to crappy celebrity references, the filmmakers have decided that shoehorning unneeded swearwords into the dialogue is the only way to go. So often are the fucks, shits and pisses; that the overall effect is ruined. There's nothing wrong with juvenile humour (see The Farrleys best work) but there's a distinct lack of imagination that ruins proceedings.

This isn't to say I didn't laugh at any point. Other reviewers have commented on the wasted talents of a very strong cast (Charles Dance, Toby Jones, Damien Lewis all show up), however, I had no problem with this as they are all cast well enough considering, and everyone involved is game for a laugh, the issue is of course the script misses constant opportunities. Think of all the possibilities that one could send up of the genre. There's so many absurdities that could have been touched upon that are frequently ignored. Shades of amusement rear their head in the shape of Franco's naive hero character being attractive to not only the princess' of the land, while some of the throw away lines bring the odd grin. However in observing the film's strong effects you suddenly become aware of how unaware the material is. It resorts to easy dick jokes but misses the chance to lampoon the dated effects of old? Shame that.

There's isn't too much to state about Your Highness other than it's a limited comedy that runs in similar circles to the likes of all the Seth Rogan/Will Farrell features that have reared their head. However, Your Highness lacks the wacky abstractness that made films like Anchorman so appealing. Part of this falls on the head of former indie arthouse darling David Gordon Green whose direction is very focused on McBride doling out F-bombs but not in bringing out decent sight gags or any real comedic energy. This lacklustre approach of proceedings makes Your Highness sporadically amusing but mostly anaemic. 

Sunday 3 April 2011

Review: Sucker Punch

Year: 2011
Director: Zack Synder
Screenplay: Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn

Synopsis is here

Sucker Punch wishes to be a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma; full of dream within dream logic and ambiguous moments. To all critics bitching about sexism and female empowerment well Zack has flipped the script on you people! Babydoll maybe dressed in a school girl uniform but it's no way exploitative. This film is clearly is a full indictment of such easy to go to thoughts so say the Synder himself.  One of the most insightful commentaries on the movie I read was by Scott Mendelson who asked in his second article on the film: "Is is possible to make a female-driven action fantasy without falling prey to certain misogynistic messaging?" This is one of the most observant questions asked about the movie I've seen. The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes but Sucker Punch is not a good example of one.

I like the point that is trying to be put across by certain supporters of the film. We should be able take in women in action films in many other ways than what we usually expect. The problem is that the characters within Sucker Punch are completely formless. They are simply mannequins dressed up in fishnets and school uniforms. What have these women have to say other than the fact that they're attractive and shoot guns? That's my problem. I don't feel bad for these girls being abused; it's not that I'm aroused by these girls and their outfits, but because for the most point I was bored. Clear and simple. It's great to have all these arguments about female empowerment and what the films all about, my issue is Snyder doesn't give me the characters or the story to make the talk that important.

Here is a film that isn't as clever as it wishes to be. The first problem is I knew exactly where this film was going the moment we enter the asylum. We have a plot that's not only on rails but with the only "surprise" being that we have a gang of girls kicking ass other anything else. It's all very well stating that it's us the audience who have dressed the girls up in these cliched fetish gear, however, if you have five girls that have no character then of course people are going to pick on the fantasy costumes. Especially if everyone in the movie are all talking about the feminine aspect.

What Synder places all his effort in his is action sequences that may feel derivative if your a video gamer but they have a sense of place that has been missing from action films for so long it's unreal. If one thing Synder doesn't get credit for is that, while he overuses slow motion and speedramping, at least I know what I'm watching. The set pieces are impressive on their own, they are unfortunately draped around generic "lets get to here to go here" screenplay, full of stilted dialogue and performed very flatly by it's young cast.

There's also the problem of consistency. While speaking to a colleague on facebook, he stated that he felt that Snyder is only as good as his source material. Sucker Punch helps give such a statement an element of truth. Watchmen and 300 were films that had Snyder bound by the source. The wonderful (now defunct) Creative Screenwriting had a great episode with writer David Hayter detailing Snyder's fight to keep almost everything in Watchman to the spec of the comic. Here in Sucker Punch Snyder has carte blanche and it shows. We have fire breathing dragons, Steampunk Nazi zombies, Ninjas armed with machine guns and fights involving a bomb heading towards a futuristic city. All this is placed with a 1950's setting with rock songs of various eras, all averagely covered and shoehorned into the background. The whole thing is overkill with the action sequences feel at odds with this girl that we know nothing about. So everything this girl dreams about doesn't stem from anything based within the character herself or what she sees (take away the items she needs to obtain), but because "fuck it. that's why".

If I have to say something the film's deeper meaning (if there is one, some fans have just liked it as a film where chicks kick ass..) then it appears that Snyder's film wants to have his cake and eat it. The women dress up in sexy garments but if you dare think it's titillating then your in the wrong. Your a fanboy that can't "deal" with the heavy subtexts that the film is bringing. "There’s no close-ups of cleavage, or stuff like that" states Synder. But the crotch shot of Babydoll as she slowly picks up the phallic Katana doesn't count (among other shots). Every man is lecherous within the film, as the film wishes to portray women within it as abused upon, but the film is put together in a way that makes it's point debatable. Sure Synder cuts out all the sexy dancing that leaves us dudes mesmerized, but by the end of the film the final choice made by a certain character troubles us in a way that feels cheap. I've read about the interference by the MPAA but still, there's still a feeling that what could be placed back in could still leave us at odds, mostly because all the "cool stuff" is pushed to the forefront.

It's great to have a interesting subtext. In a world of commerce, it's great to have something that one can mull over as well as enjoy. Snyder's film however is overloaded, misguided, flatly acted and when things aren't exploding (at times even when they are) the film isn't actually that interesting. Films like Fish Tank and Winter's Bone have said much more insightful things about women and their places/relationships within their respective worlds. Mainstream films such as Kill Bill and Whip It are also stronger with their portrayals of strong female protagonists. Snyder's film is slight, pop feminism pushed though video game lens. The intent is good the executon is beyond weak. Think of it when the Spice Girls were yelling girl power.

Review: Source Code

Year: 2011
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenplay: Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffery Wright

Synopsis is here

Roger Ebert's review on Source Code states that the science within the film is preposterous. I don't disagree in the slightest. I dare all the budding Brian Cox's to try and get their head around it. Like Indiana Jones taking more liberties than time team would like to acknowledge, Source Code plays fast and loose with quantum physics with the clear knowledge that most of the audience will not be experts. This provides issues with the film particularly near the end which could leave people scratching their head and not in that musing, good way. However, the key to the film is conviction. There's something about Chris Bacon's lively and Hitchcockain score, Jeffery Wright's amusingly crotchety but forceful scientist and the whole explanation of the situation  at hand that makes the unbelievable viable.

Checked the synopsis? Well yes the film does give illusion to Groundhog Day, however it's obvious from the films science and sly voice cameo that Jones is more interested in Quantum Leap than Bill Murray. The film also touches on themes that were nicely established in Jones' first feature Moon. The cyclical nature of the hero's journey and the wish to break from it, that the sacrifice of one benefits the many and the difficult relationship between employers and employees when one has found a way to take advantage of the other. Jones complies these themes well and tells it in a story that feels remarkably fresh. There's enough in the film to entertain throughout.

But we shouldn't give Jones all the credit. The direction of the pace of the material as well as the flow of information is well handled. However, much has to be said about Ben Ripley's screenplay which is constantly involving from many angles. We're not only interested in the idea of Source Code, but also the plight of the solider. How the hell did he get into such a position? Now that he's there; will he ever escape it? There's a love story forming within the film, with the knowledge that we now, how can it survive? The combination of Ripley's questions and Jones' energy put the stakes right into the forefront. Once we get more information on the situation (the twists drop in at just the right moments) there is the question on if it feeling slightly futile. However, the drive of the character and their right to be allowed to do what they wish (sorry if this sounds vague, trying to not lay the plot bare) is what keeps the risk alive and the film entertaining as a whole.

The acting here is solid. Nothing groundbreaking by any accounts but all good turns from likable actors. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan have a cute chemistry and bounce well off each other. Vera Farmiga's performance is a little bland. However, considering the part is merely a holding one, she does what is expected.

Source Code is a film which is full of fridge logic, however, like Limitless and the Adjustment Bureau before it, there's more than enough humanity and conviction in it's execution to enjoy what's on screen. I liked these people, was genuinely surprised with how they dealt with their situation at times and felt thoroughly satisfied (although a tad perplexed) with the outcome. Like a few recent films, the films final codec feels a little tacked on try and keep everyone sweet. However, when it's all said and done; Source Code is a enjoyable, sometimes thoughtful companion piece to Jones' first feature.