Friday, April 15, 2011

Blade of Glory: “Scream 4” Triumphantly Conjures Up ‘90s Slasher Flick Nostalgia

“Who are you, Michael f*cking Myers?”

Oh boy, where do I even begin? I know the Scream films like the back of my hand. They are one of my personal all-time favorite series of movies ever. They exist on an entirely different plane. If you need an actual stuffy critical review please feel free to read Roger Ebert or Peter Travers’ reviews. As a huge horror buff “Scream 4” is everything you could hope and want in a “Scream” movie. It has the characters you’ve loved since the beginnings, new ones who fit into the Scream world, lots of witty humor and enough blood to make a Red Cross blood mobile jealous. Wes Craven who again steps into the director’s chair quickly makes us forget that “My Soul to Take” even happened and resurrects Ghostface in a way that fits easily along the other films and takes this story into the 21st century with glee and terror.

“Scream 4” is probably most like the original Scream. It takes us back to the small town of Woodsboro where it is the 15th anniversary of the original “Woodsboro Murders.” Our loving and tough heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to town with her publicist for a book tour to promote her new book “Out of Darkness.” Of course she probably wouldn’t have returned if she knew that two young girls had just been brutally murdered the night before by someone dressed up as our old friend “Ghostface.” Now a new murder spree has begun and we’re all left wondering: first, why would anyone still want to live in Woodsboro and who is doing these new killings? Also, since it’s been ten years since the events of the third outing, there have been several other Stab sequels released. As you know the Stab films are the films within the film that are based on the murders we have seen in the Scream films. It seems as though the new killer, or killers, are Stab fans and insist on copycatting the murders from the films.

A couple other well loved characters make return appearances. Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) who is now married to Dewey (David Arquette), who is no longer deputy but Sheriff, has sort of retired from journalism. She’s sacrificed her career to be Dewey’s stay at home wife, but she wants to reinvent herself. And solving these new murders just might give her the inspiration she needs. She’s as bitchy and biting as ever and at one point exclaims, “I’ve still got it!” Sidney is staying with her Aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell) and her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) but Sidney’s sheer presence might put her family and their friends in great jeopardy. Soon Emma and her high school friends are targeted by Ghostface who is the sickest killer since the first film. He quickly stabs to death and guts Jill’s friend and neighbor Oliva (Marielle Jaffe) while Jill and her fiend horror savvy friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) watch helpless from a window. Jill is also feuding with her suspicious ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella) who we sort of can’t really believe is the killer because that was so 15 years ago. Then there are the other two resident film geeks Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen) who both share the Randy role from the first film. They explain to us and Gale and Sidney the new rules in horror films that have been established since in the past decade.

There are lots of new characters and most of them, not surprisingly don’t quite make it. But this is a Scream film after all and there are plenty of scary death sequences that Ghostface fans have been waiting years for. Craven does a good job of creating decent tension. This isn’t a film that is as scary as some recent scare fests like The Strangers or Paranormal Activity but it’s definitely the scariest Scream film since the original. And it’s definitely on the of funniest and it the nostalgia factor plays a great role here. The are so many great references to other movies and the conventions we can’t help but get a kick out of the nonstop nods to the other horror flicks we fans are obsessed with. Kevin Williamson’s writing is as sharp (pun intended) as ever, skewering (pun indended) everything from torture porn to remakes. The entire opening sequence, which is almost epic, stuffs so many great in jokes and sly meta humor you almost expect Anna Faris to jump out. And yet with all the laughing you’ll have plenty of time to be scared as well. And such a great job is done with updating the film for the modern age without ever being corny. I wonder if Ghostface would accept my friend request?

“Scream 4” is just hands down enjoyable. If you’re a fan of the series or just a horror fan in general there is a lot to love here. You’ll constantly be guessing about the killer’s identity and if you can actually predict what’s going to happen then you should probably become a psychic because Williamson and Craven still have plenty of great tricks up their sleeves even eleven years later. I certainly left the theater completely satisfied and smiling. GRADE: A

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lame of Thrones: “Your Highness” Offers Scattershot Laughs and Not Much More

“What a coincidence. I was just about to finish thinking of you.”

“Pineapple Express” was good. I can’t image it would be very good if the setting was changed to a fantastical medieval world. And I’d never image that movie would exist. And it does as “Your Highness” a very bizarre hybrid of stoner comedy and swashbuckling medieval adventure. It’s basically a glorified nerd geek fest without any of the real charm or wit these movies tend to have (see “Paul” instead). The movie isn’t really a spoof, even though I think it thinks it wants to be Robin Hood: Men in Tights, because there aren’t any direct references to other movies that I noticed, not does it really offer much skewering of medieval tales, although that’s not really my area of expertise. It’s basically just a bunch of profanity, nudity and sexual references shoehorned into a fantastical plot about two prince brothers and a kidnapped princess. If you wanna see a spoof with a princess see “Enchanted” if you wanna hear dirty jokes see a Judd Apatow movie. This my dear friends is a film that looked much better on paper I’m sure.

If you find Danny McBride to be one of the most hilarious people on this planet then you will probably like “Your Highness” more than me. McBride is sort of like Russell Brand – he works better in smaller roles. I’m not sure either should really carry a film. Luckily here we get the always reliable (except when it comes to hosting duties) James Franco who took time off from Yale to play McBride’s brother Fabious. He’s the elder brother and the heir to the throne. Thadeous (McBride) is the schlubby younger brother who only seems to exist in the shadow of his older, adventure-seeking heroic brother. In Fabious’ latest conquest he has beheaded a Cyclops and had fallen in love with a fair maiden Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). The two are wed, but then an evil sorcerer played by Justin Therox kidnaps her (she’s a virgin!) so he can have his dastardly way with her.

Of course the two brothers team up to with the rest of their knights, who turn out to be traitors, to find Belladonna. There they find all sorts of weird characters along the way including the Great Wize Wizard, a purple puppet character, who may or may not have molested Fabious when he was younger. (They used to take their shirts off and bounce on his bed together. Where’s Chris Hansen when you need him?) They receive a magical compass which will help them in their quest. They also meet up with loner Isabel (Natalie Portman) whose entire bloodline has been killed. Thadeous quickly falls in love with her, but will she love him back? They also get attacked by a race of pale nudists in one of the film’s many ridiculously strange sequences. The only explanation is that the filmmakers were high when they made this thing.

I honestly did laugh during “Your Highness.” There are some solid moments here and there, but all in all I think this film is a novelty that sort of outwears its welcome before the halfway mark. There are only so many time a word like “f*ck” is funny when in a medieval setting. The film is rather bloody too which I didn’t really mind so be weary not to bring the little ones for sure. I would categorize “Your Highness” as a misfire. It wasn’t offensive or incompetent – there is a level of talent that pervades the production, but it just doesn’t click. GRADE: C

Friday, April 08, 2011

Hanna’s Got a Gun: Saoirse Ronan Kicks Some Serious Butt in “Hanna”

“Sometimes children are bad people too.”

It’s difficult to imagine a teenage girl who has never watched TV or listened to music let alone watching Jersey Shore or listening to Justine Bieber. But Hanna (played ferociously by Saoirse Ronan) has never done either. It’s because she was home schooled. Oh and by home schooled I mean she lived in the middle of the wilderness with her father who taught her how to hunt, defend herself and fight like an action superhero. She’s sort of like Hit Girl from “Kick-Ass” without the disturbing sociopathic behavior. What happens when this young teen, only about sixteen years old, is let out on the world she knows nothing much about? Oh and people want her dead. See the action-packed “Hanna” to find out.

Hanna was raised by father Erik who is played by Eric Bana. We see that they’re in some sort of snowy, woodsy environment. Come to find out that they’re in the wilds of Finland. Erik trains Hanna to have all the skills of an assassin. Erik himself is an ex-CIA agent who we learn had gone rogue. Everything else we don’t know we learn as the film progresses. Erik finally releases her and sends her throughout Europe with a mission to kill a scary operative named Marissa (played ever-so-wonderfully by Cate Blanchett). Hanna is captured an actually kills a Marissa stand-in, who she mistakes for the real person. Now on the run, she’s trying to meet up with her father, while actually being pursued by the very alive Marissa and the henchmen she has dispatched to stop the girl.

“From the director of ‘Atonement’” isn’t exactly what you expect to hear when watching an action thriller about a teenage girl who kicks serious ass. But Joe Wright, surprisingly enough, is the perfect choice to tell this story because he tells his stories with such strong visual elements. There many striking visuals here, which he certainly displayed a knack for in the beautiful “Atonement.” He even borrows his trademark long take tracking shot and employs it here as Erik is pursued by bad guys who he then must fight off. And it’s all done in one glorious, well choreographed take. Sure it may not win a cinematography Oscar or anything, but you so rarely find such great camerawork in an action film, you almost forget that it’s possible to have beautiful and striking images blended so well with all the shooting and arrow flinging. Another major plus here is the terrifically catchy and punchy electronic score by The Chemical Brothers. This one is download worthy.

Of course, “Hanna” isn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen and it probably isn’t for everyone. I did find some parts that didn’t quite seem to gel for me. I though it sort of took a while for the film to get going and so much of the film’s questions remain unanswered for so long it almost makes things confusing. Why is Hanna being training in the woods in the middle of nowhere? Why does she want to kill Marissa and why does Marissa want to kill her? And Hanna meets up with a family traveling through Morocco. She befriends the family’s teenage daughter and the bad guys begin trailing them. Hanna gets away and then we never see these people again. In fact, I’m not even sure why the film actually exists in the first place, but that’s generally the case with action flicks. They exist for entertainment purposes and it’s certainly done its job.

“Hanna” is fun action movie; even if it has a fault or two it features a great soundtrack, great cinematography and beautiful locations and some really great performances. Ronan is certainly a talented young thing. She’s already been nominated for an Oscar and she hasn’t even turned seventeen yet. I love that she plays Hanna as a girl who doesn’t know much about the outside world (she’s mesmerized by a blinking florescent light as she’s never actually seen electricity) except how to survive and kill people. I guess sisters really are doin’ it for themselves. GRADE: B

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Boy Meets Otherworld: “Insidious” is a Truly Scary Ghost Flick

“It's not the house that's haunted. It's your son.”

I don’t scare too easily so let it be known that I jumped and screamed a lot while watching “Insidious.” If that’s all that’s required of a scary movie than this movie wins hands down. But besides the terrific spook factor, “Insidious” is an intelligent, wonderful little movie ironically from the writer and director of the first “Saw” film which wasn’t very intelligent nor very wonderful. But here director James Wan and writer/actor Leigh Whannell have crafted a wonderfully creepy story about a family and the things that go bump in the night. It amazingly never feels clichéd; maybe we should also credit “Paranormal Activity” director Oren Peli whose credited here as producer.

With a title like “Insidious” you know this movie is not going to be a happy experience. They could have easily called the film “Sinister,” “Menacing” or “Dangerous” or whatever words a thesaurus could have spit out. The menace starts when a nice family of five move into a suburban home. Dad is Josh (Patrick Wilson) a teacher, mom is Renai (Rose Byrne) who stays home and writes music, and their young sons Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astor) and their infant daughter. The house is old and creepy and it offers plenty of creaking sounds. Renai notices that sometimes things movie about seemingly on their own. Then young Dalton falls off a ladder in the attic and somehow ends up in a coma the next morning. The doctors say he’s medically fine, but he just won’t wake up. We, the audience, know better. Soon full on figures make themselves known, mostly to Renai; Josh is given the “you’re seeing things” role but does quickly begin to realize something sinister might be lurking. So this wise young couple actually does what everyone in haunted house movies should always do – move out.

Josh and Renai move their family to a new home, hoping to get some peace from ghostly figures who scarily appear in windows and who open their front door in the middle of the night. Of course with only half the film’s runtime gone, we know they’re still in for something way worse. Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) recommends they invite her friend Elise (Lin Shaye) who is a medium to their home and her two goofy ghostbuster sidekicks played by Angus Sampson and Whannell. It turns out that the house isn’t what’s haunted; it’s their son Dalton. Now that’s all I’m going to say story-wise. Sure it sounds sort of like “Poltergeist” meets “The Exorcist” and in a way it is, but it feels like a movie that could sit along side them; this is not just a rip-off. To say much more would ruin what some see as a shaky final act but I found ultimately rewarding. Some may dismiss it and I was tempted to at first, but I have to give credit to the filmmakers for going as far as they do and showing us things we haven’t really seen before.

Let’s go back to what makes this film actually pretty original and so downright scary. I have to say a good amount is paid to developing the character so we at least care about them – and they don’t do anything stupid that makes you dislike or distrust them. The scares themselves are genuine; there are shock moments that make you jump, but there’s never a true release. You jump and you’re still in dire suspense. There are no false scares – no cats jumping out or hands grabbing shoulders or silly CGI faces in the bathroom mirror. This is a film that builds the suspense throughout its duration and hardly lets go. The shots are perfectly framed for maximum fright. And let’s credit the “lipstick-face demon” as one of the most disturbingly terrifying images in a movie in some time. And Joseph Bishara’s score is spine-tingling and matches perfectly with every creak of the house.

If you don’t want to be scared, then don’t see “Insidious” - it’s that simple. It’s a competently made spook-fest with enough shocks and suspense to scare even the toughest horror fans. Wan who we’re used to showing us blood and guts does none of that here and takes us back to the simple things that scare the heck out of us. There are no sawed off limbs here; just good old fashioned haunted house thrills. It’s insidiously entertaining. GRADE: A-

Friday, April 01, 2011

Jake’s on a Train: “Source Code” is a Highly Inventive Sci-Fi Thriller

“What would you do if you knew you only had eight minutes to live?”

It’s hard to imagine a movie being released that is as original as “Source Code.” It’s not based on any previously published material and it’s not a remake or reimagining. It’s a wholly original piece of mind-bending science fiction; and it’s pretty darn clever. It hardly takes a wrong step in it’s 94 minute runtime although I imagine some being slightly irked by the film’s final moments, which, to me, I could take or leave. Those out there who have been seeking something original and fresh since last summer’s imaginative blockbuster “Inception” should get their fill here. As long as you don’t mind watching a movie that’s sort of strange mix of “The Matrix,” “Twelve Monkeys,” and “Groundhog Day.”

“Source Code” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier who is able to relive the final eight minutes of another man’s life, over and over again. This man was on a Chicago-bound commuter train that happened to be blown up by a terrorist’s bomb killing everyone onboard. This film exists in a present day world where scientists have actually invented a way for someone to relive the last moments of a person’s life. Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) is given the task to relive the passenger’s final moments over and over again in hopes of finding the person responsible for nuking the train, as the government is aware that this person is about to blow up the entire city of Chicago next. The less said about the rest of the plot the better; it benefit anyone who plans on actually seeing the film.

It’s a wildly unbelievable premise and yet you totally buy into it. There are many questions the audience is faced with that slowly make themselves known. Like how does this technology actually work? And why was Stevens the person chosen for this assignment? And what the heck is a Source Code anyways? Stevens is located in some kind of enclosed pod, which sort of reminded me of the device Jodie Foster gets strapped into in the end of “Contact.” Don’t worry; there are no aliens to be found in “Source Code.” What is great about movies like this that are done right, is even though we must watch the same event over and over again, you’re never bored and each time something unique happens. Stevens gets closer and closer to solving the film’s curious mysteries. The film works as a thriller, and even though we know the train will explode every eight minutes, the suspense is built up for maximum effect.

I haven’t seen director Duncan Jones’ previous directorial effort “Moon” although I’ve heard some rave reviews. It seems as though Jones is fully intrigued by the introspective sci-fi genre and is great at building great character development. We learn so much about Stevens as the film progresses and that is due to Gyllenhaal’s terrific acting abilities and a very strong script from Ben Ripley, whose previous efforts strangely include two direct to video “Species” sequels. Ripley’s script is extremely taut and it brings up so many fascinating issues you’ll most likely be thinking about the film long after it’s ended. The film is filled with great supporting performances from Michelle Monaghan as a fellow train passenger, Vera Farmiga as a military woman giving instructions to Stevens, and Jeffrey Wright as the source code’s creator.

“Source Code” is a twisty, thrilling action flick. It has suspense and it’ll make you think. It’s smartly written, acted and directed and is certainly one of the better films to be released this year. It’ll constantly keep you guessing right up until the end… oh that ending. GRADE: B+