Could Easter be the new Halloween? Judging from most of the movies opening this weekend, next Sunday’s egg hunts should come with trick-or-treat bags instead of baskets. Take your pick from nineties-nostalgia slasher hijinks, South Korean extreme gore, or black-and-blue Amerindie satire. Even the middlebrow historical drama opening on Friday starts off with multiple acts of (fairly explicit) violence. Unless you’re taking the kids to see those cute blue parrots do Carnaval, the screens run red at the multiplex.
Which depiction of antisocial behavior is most worth your while? With one (very) marginal exception, I say stay home and catch up with your DVR. Take, for instance, the botched opportunity that is Wes Craven’s Scream 4, or as the studio would like the press to refer to it, Scre4m. That’s not Dimension Films’ only demand. They have also asked us to refrain from divulging any pertinent plot developments, which makes it rather tricky to discuss the film at length, considering the problems I had with Scre4m stem mostly from the turns the story takes. I’ll give it the old college try.
It’s been 15 years since the town of Woodsboro was beset by the murders depicted in the series’ first – and still the strongest – entry. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell, back for more punishment) has written a book about her ordeal at the hands of all those masked killers, and her promotional tour finally reaches her hometown. She has no hard feelings towards former TV reporter Gale Weathers-Riley (a game Courteney Cox) over the exploitative bestsellers she wrote about her troubles. She even understands the lucrative allure of the Stab films, which are themselves adapted from Weathers’s work.
Craven and returning screenwriter Kevin Williamson start things off with an ingenious sequence in which they (MILD SPOILER ALERT) insert the viewer into the latest entry in the Stab franchise. (Cult TV fans will be very pleased with some of the famous faces they will see.) The filmmakers revel in toying with the audience’s expectations, then pulling the rug from underneath them. Sidney’s arrival, you see, coincides with a resurgence in copycat killings. Ghostface has returned to this quaint suburban town (Ann Arbor stands in for Woodsboro), and for its first hour, Scre4m delivers the goods as if it were still 1996. This film, I thought to myself, is going to be almost as good as the original. A scene in particular featuring Prescott and her cousin Jill (Emma “Don’t Call Me a Child Star” Stone) at their neighbor’s house, completely unaware that the killer is hiding right under their noses, elicited some unexpected gasps from this reviewer.
Williamson uses every other scene to remind us that we are now in the 21st Century, and that if you’re going to be digital-age slasher, you have to become familiar with new media such as streaming and, OMG, texting! This spells trouble for the characters…and the movie. For this premise to actually work, Scre4m needed to be conceived and executed by filmmakers fluent in social-network culture. (Afterschool director Antonio Campos springs to mind.) Instead, Craven and Williamson use the trappings of the Facebook generation – represented by the geeky duo of Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin) as leaders of the local high school’s movie club – as a gimmick to graft onto a reworking of their trilogy’s formula. The results make the film feel even more obsolete.
Granted, some eleventh-hour plot twists, one of which is particularly effective, threaten to take the film in a darker direction, but Craven and Williamson lack the conviction to explore the story’s nihilistic implications. Who makes it to the final reel? By the end of this preachy, pseudo-edgy misfire, you won’t much care. The first Scream derived its resonance, not from its smart-alecky pop culture references, but from the way Campbell’s gravity rooted the film in recognizable human behavior. Scre4m, by contrast, is a stale mass media sermon delivered by artists totally disconnected from the digital revolution. Stick with what you know, guys.
Just look at what writer-director James Gunn is able to accomplish by refusing to compromise. In the brutal pitch-black comedy Super, the Slither director pokes sadistic fun at those zeroes who yearn to be heroes. Pity hapless Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson). (His home has wood paneled interiors. Ewwww. But I digress.) Working as a short order cook, he meets and marries Sarah (Liv Tyler), a kind-hearted waitress – and recovering addict – who’s way too much for him to handle. Soon she starts hanging out with sleazy drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon, hamming it up), and falls off the wagon.
One morning Frank wakes up to a cold bed and an empty closet. In a moment of despair, he falls to his knees. “Let Sarah be my Sarah again,” he prays to the Almighty. One gleefully disgusting vision later, Frank hightails it to the local comic book shop. Libby (Ellen Page, channeling her inner geek), the store’s cashier, takes an interest in his odd request for back issues of the adventures of Christian superhero The Holy Avenger (a barely recognizable Nathan Fillion). And thus, The Crimson Bolt is born, soon followed by faithful sidekick Boltie (Libby’s alter ego).
Selling illegal substances on the street? Not on The Crimson Bolt’s watch. Pedophiles zeroing in on their underage prey? Behold the power of the wrench! And don’t you dare cut in line in front of a movie theater. For a movie geek – and Troma veteran – like Gunn, there is no bigger offense.
If the plot seems vaguely familiar, you’re probably thinking of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, last year’s masked vigilante tale, but whereas that film starred perpetual blank slate Aaron Johnson in the title role, Super has Wilson, and he’s a far more arresting screen figure. Gunn chronicles his main character’s self-righteous journey from DIY crimefighter to sociopath without wimping out for a second. The violence in Super starts out fun – think The Last American Hero by way of Taxi Driver – until it becomes unbearably ugly. Kudos to Gunn for his integrity, but did his no-holds-barred approach have to be peppered with homophobic slurs? The other “f” word is used to such an extent that it became hard for me to tell the characters’ prejudice apart from their creator’s own worldview.
Super ends in a bloodbath that left me feeling hollow, but the audacity of what precedes it more than compensates for the film’s mean-spirited excesses. And Wilson (NBC’s The Office), whose career I’ve been following since his stint in HBO’s Six Feet Under, finally gets the leading role he so richly deserves. The film joins Paul and Your Highness as yet another satire geared at fanboys, but I will take Gunn’s rough-around-the-edges genre-bending over his lame, studio-approved counterparts.
Vigilante justice knows no international borders. The bloodthirsty revenge epic I Saw the Devil continues the onslaught of South Korean titles arriving in South Florida. but for me the winning streak that includes such recent releases as The Housemaid and Secret Sunshine stops here. The new film from Kim Jee-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) begins, intriguingly enough, with the abduction and murder of a pregnant woman in her twenties. How do we know she’s about to become a victim of a senseless killing? She has angel wings that light up attached to her rearview mirror. What makes the act so disturbing is that serial killer Kyung-chul (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik) treats it like a menial task, as if he were taking out the garbage. “Your skin’s so soft, looks like it will be easy,” he tells her right before disemboweling her. All in a day’s work.
I Saw the Devil then turns into an extended cat-and-mouse game between Kyung-chul and Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) the woman’s fiancé and, as it happens, a secret agent who knows a thing or two about inflicting bodily harm. Kim lends the heavy subject matter the weight it warrants, but part of me hungered for the social satire a filmmaker like fellow countryman Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) would have added to the narrative. It’s well crafted exploitation, but the director’s flourishes, which include a sensational car chase, can’t conceal the fact that Soo-hyeon is a bit of a stiff, and that the film only comes to life when it focuses on Kyung-chul. (He even plays the guitar in between killings.)
Soo-hyeon’s would-be in-laws know what he’s up to, and tell him he has to end his relentless quest for retribution. Much like his protagonist, Kim doesn’t know when to stop, and the heavy-handed ironies start piling up with the bodies. Kyung-chul might be the intended target of Soo-hyeon’s increasingly vicious attacks, but, over the course of nearly two and a half hours, it’s the audience that gets pummeled into submission.
At the very least, I Saw the Devil serves up some choice moments of mayhem involving viscera, fingernails and teeth. The best Robert Redford can muster in the terminally earnest Civil War courtroom thriller The Conspirator is a surprisingly raw scene in which a Southerner barges into the Secretary of State’s bedroom and starts stabbing the ailing statesman. Over and over. Naturally, the film breezed through the ratings board with a PG-13.
That’s because The Conspirator, which follows idealistic Yankee attorney – and war hero – Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, engaging as usual) as he mounts a defense for innkeeper Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, tells a story that every American citizen must know. It’s your civic duty to partake of this prestige production, and if one has the temerity to fault the film for its empty-headed pageantry, well, that just makes you an unpatriotic contrarian. Surratt stands accused of allowing the young men responsible for Lincoln’s death, including her son, of having secret meetings at her District of Columbia bed-and-breakfast. For a country demanding swift justice, argues Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (a magnetic Kevin Kline), a public execution would bring a divided country closer together. Aiken, who initially can’t wait to see Surratt hanged, begins to believe his client’s claims of innocence, and then he must race against the clock to save her. The Conspirator appears to have the necessary ingredients for a compelling drama, but somebody forgot to tell that to the man behind the camera.
What the hell happened to Redford? This is the man who brought us Ordinary People, A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show. With the bleeding-heart war diatribe Lions for Lambs and now this spruced-up U.S. history class study aid, he seems to have lost his way. I could say that subjecting yourself to The Conspirator is the moviegoing equivalent of taking your medicine, but that would be an insult to castor oil.
I wish I could tell you that Rio, the latest animated feature from Blue Sky Studios (the Ice Age movies), is the ideal antidote to the Sundance Kid’s self-important grandstanding, but the darn thing is so formulaic it doesn’t seem tell a story so much as follow a cookbook recipe. That is not to say there aren’t any pleasures in story of a neurotic blue macaw (capably voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) whose benevolent Minnesota owner (Funny People‘s Leslie Mann) agrees to take him to the Brazilian capital to mate with a female of his breed (Anne Hathaway) after a bumbling animal preservationist (Carioca hunk Rodrigo Santoro) informs her that her pet might just be the last of his species.
A talented voice cast rounded out by Jamie Foxx, will.i.am, George Lopez and Carlos Ponce does what it can with such toothless material, but it’s an uphill battle. Rio‘s bright colors and enveloping 3-D visuals often lend the film the lowest-common-denominator charm of a theme park ride, but I still can’t get over how director Carlos Saldanha (Robots) has singlehandedly managed to turn his motherland, such an exotic setting, into bland family fare. Sic Ghostface on these generic plush figures.
Rio, Scre4m and The Conspirator open Friday in wide release. That same day I Saw the Devil begins a limited engagement at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com). Super plays this weekend only at the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com).