Some critics have dismissed Scream 4 as being unnecessary, for covering ground that the series has already exhausted. There is some truth in this but they miss the larger point and how Scream 4 relates to the horror genre as a whole. Wes Craven has managed to take this familiar material great fun and reclaimed the horror genre, which has been co-opted by no-talent torture porn hacks. Scream 4 reminds us that horror can do more than turn our stomachs or make us cover our eyes. For the past ten years we’ve seen offerings like Hostel, The Human Centipede, Turistas, Wolf Creek, The Devil’s Rejects, those interminable Saw movies, and distasteful remakes of Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (in 3D no less!), Black Christmas, and I Spit on Your Grave (which distastefully remade an already distasteful movie). We left these movies feeling vaguely unclean but, more importantly, cheated. There’s nothing remotely entertaining or suspenseful about a movie where we have to watch graphic depictions of skin peeled away and teeth being pulled from a screaming girl’s mouth (and they are most always girls – don’t these filmmaker’s have daughters or mothers that might make them second guess producing how-to films for sadists?) We’re left with the sinking feeling that we’ve been suckered into handing over our money for trash – and not even fun trash.
Craven reminds us that horror can – and often should – be fun. We should leap out of our seats, clutch the guy or girl next to us, and giggle with relief, embarrassment, or both. This was the atmosphere in the theater in which I saw Scream 4 and I was heartened to see audiences haven’t been so numbed by gory crap. There was an upbeat buzz as we streamed out of the audience, lots of laughing and a general feeling of goodwill; we hadn’t been cheated. We had all been on an enjoyable ride, something rare from contemporary horror movies.
Craven does miss an opportunity to really reboot and redirect the franchise by copping out from an almost ingenious direction at the end – by killing off a major character and making the actual killer the new star of the series (unbeknownst to everyone else) – in favor of the standard ending we’ve seen three times before. Though I wish he had had the courage parody our culture of true crime celebrity, we can’t really blame him too much; we’ve been through a lot with these characters and it would be a shame to see them discarded in favor of young hotties with little screen presence. Plus the first two acts are strong enough to erase any regrets from this solid, if not fantastic, horror reboot. (Rating ****)
Water for Elephants
I should warn you that I read Water for Elephants a couple of years ago and really hated it. It’s a sappy, sentimental drag that, like the worst of Victorian novels, relies on convenient episodes of coincidence to push along stock characters that have been populating these dopey romances gussied up as high literature for nearly a hundred years. So, if you can’t tell, I walked into the theater a little biased.
Imagine my surprise when I found I didn’t hate the movie. I only disliked it; it was tedious without being frustrating like the book. The story of Jacob Jankowski, a depression era veterinary school drop out who falls in with a circus and falls in love with the troubled wife of the shows sadistic owner, is equally simple-minded in the movie, but it sheds some of the excess silliness, like Jacob’s clichéd relationship with his belligerent roommate Kinko the Clown. (Unfortunate choice naming him Kinko. It just makes me think of that song…) But even with these welcome changes, there isn’t much anyone could have done with this mess of a book. The quirkily handsome Robert Pattinson is fine as Jacob, but he isn’t really asked to show much range. Christoph Waltz reprises the same character he’s been playing since Inglorious Basterds. The real shame is the waste of Reese Witherspoon who’s asked to do even less than Pattinson and she’s a better actor. All she has to do is stand around and look tragic.
Director Francis Lawrence misplaced the movie’s ambitions. The romance is built up but it’s tepid, uninspired, unemotional. The circus stuff is more interesting, but Lawrence subsumes that material under an insipid, standard romance. Even the promised climatic circus disaster is a mess of bad CGI, looking more like an audience running away at the direction of an assistant director, rather than any true disaster. I would say I had a similar reaction – wanting to run away – but I liked Rosie the elephant; she was enough to keep me mildly interested. It is, however, shameful that an elephant upstages Reese Witherspoon. Francis Lawrence should be ashamed of himself. (Rating **)
Rio is a competent movie for kids, but it’s nothing special for those of us who’ve ever seen a movie or read a book before. It’s sweet and inoffensive, but it’s precisely these qualities that made me so bitter. When talents like Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Carlos Ponce, and Tracey Morgan are wasted on routine material with no edge I get angry. I wish director Carlos Saldanha and his team at Twentieth Century Fox Animation would have crafted a story that could have challenged children’s assumptions about life and growing up the way classic movies like Bambi and Old Yeller and books like The Adventures of Huck Finn and Little Women did. The story of Rio could have lent itself to this more edifying track: Blu, a domesticated macaw, raised as a pampered pet in Minnesota, has never learned to fly or take care of himself. When he is taken to Brazil as part of a mating program he and the only other living blue macaw are stolen by smugglers. They escape and Blu must make his way back to his beloved pet parent despite being woefully unprepared for life in the wild. But instead of grappling with Blu’s push into maturity, something every child will one day face, we’re treated to a typical animated adventure replete with chases, narrow escapes, and sneering villains without a hint of any practical lessons about life. Kids will probably enjoy it; the rest of us, over the age of say 8, will feel a strange sense of déjà-vu. (Rating **1/2)
Kill the Irishman
It’s hard to know what we’re supposed to make of this rambling love letter to Danny Greene, a Cleveland hood who sparked a mafia war in the mid-1970s. Greene survived several murder attempts and this, it appears, is the only reason the movie was made, hardly enough to sustain a feature length biography. The war and Greene’s pesky resilience garnered national attention and, much of the first two acts work fairly well, it is telling that the most interesting sequences are the actual newscasts that Jonathan Hensleigh intercuts with the narrative. And this takes into account a fine cast with Ray Stevenson at the helm as Greene, supported a stellar supporting cast that includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino, and Christopher Walken who, thankfully, tunes down his self-parodying shtick and gives a pretty good performance as a Jewish mobster. As compelling as much of the first part and the cast are, the last act shuffles around gently nudging us towards a conclusion we know is coming. A more nuanced, thoughtful director’s hand was needed here. We’re left wondering what it is we’re supposed to take away, what we’re supposed to think of Greene, and why the Hensleigh wanted to tell this story. Is he really the almost folkloric hero Hensleigh makes him out to be? He was a crook and a killer; is surviving so many attempted mob hits really enough to earn admiration? Apparently for Hensleigh it is, but we’re left with the nagging suspicion that Greene was no hero, just a cheap thug with good luck. (Rating ***)