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Friday, December 15

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Column Fri Apr 15 2011

Scream 4, Rio, In A Better World & The Conspirator

Scream 4

In many ways, Scream 4 (or Scre4m, which I refuse to call it) feels like an act of wild desperation, which is not necessarily the same thing as being a terrible movie, but it's certainly not a great movie either. And while it's mildly fun to see the primaries from the original three films return to play victim and sleuth, the movie spends so much time winking at its audience and tossing what feels like dozens of new characters at us that I found myself exhausted by the end and really not giving a shit who the killer was or even who was dead or alive when the final body count was tallied.

Yes, Scream 4 has much of the same clever commentary (courtesy of returning screenwriter Kevin Williamson) on the current, flailing state of horror, which seems obsessed with remakes and reboots. But it's really tough to tell if Williamson's film is deliberately mirroring these trends or falling victim to them. Based on my boredom, I'm going with the latter. I've never found any of the Scream films scary, and they're hardly meant to be. They serve as satire, but more often than not, their observations on horror films seem obvious and uninspired.

At least filmmaker Wes Craven had the sense to keep the focus of Scream 4 (unlike with the third installment) on Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who is returning to Woodsboro on the last leg of her self-help book tour. And almost as soon as she drives her rented car into town, the killings start happening again. Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and his wife (Courtney Cox) immediately come out of the woodwork and get knee deep in the new blood being spilled all over town. And yes, it's weird and distracting watching the recently split couple Arquette and Cox play a married couple whose relationship is on the rocks. The leads have nothing to be ashamed of. I especially like Cox's feisty performance as the now-retired reporter trying to get back in the game (more so she can collect material for her new book than any altruistic reasons).

When the film really falls apart is with its interchangeable supporting cast of teens and other characters, who dip in and out of the story seemingly at random. Actors like Emma Roberts (as Sidney's younger cousin Jill), Hayden Panettiere, Rory Culkin, Adam Brody, Anthony Anderson, Mary McDonnell, Marley Shelton, Kristen Bell, Anna Paquin and easily 10 more speaking roles all clutter Scream 4 with no real purpose. The extended pre-credits sequence is actually fairly funny, and it's a shame the rest of the film never rises above it. This film might also mark the one in which the killer's identity is most easily figured out. The reason the killer is who it is is downright stupid, but it felt very easy to guess, even though almost no clues are given in the name of deductive reasoning.

There's a certain energy to Scream 4 that I appreciated and responded to, but in the end, it seemed like someone thought, "If we just keep throwing pretty people at the camera and then stabbing them to death, that'll be the movie." Nope, not quite. In the end, I left disappointed, with the sense that if the town counsel of Woodboro had any sense, they would get a restraining order against Sidney Prescott and never allow her in the town limits ever again. Problem solved; franchise dead. Here's an idea, horror filmmakers. Rather than continuing these self-referential, ultra-meta workshops disguised as films, how about just making a well-crafted, original scary movie? Just a thought...

Rio

Colorful? Yes. Full of catchy tunes? OK, sure. Unique vocal actors? Right. But in the end, Rio didn't come together for me, and I hate it when people make such vague statements like that, but that's really what it boils down to for this animated story that sits on par with films like Happy Feet or Ice Age. The idea behind this story of a flightless blue Macaw who is kidnapped from its owner in Minnesota and taken down to Rio de Janeiro seems to be that if they throw enough chaos and texture at us, something is bound to stick and be entertaining, and that's partially true. But everything here feels so safe and run of the mill that I didn't spend a minute of time thinking about the film after I sat down to watch it.

Jesse Eisenberg voices the Macaw Blu, while Leslie Mann plays the owner who has kept him so domesticated that he never learned to fly. When Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), a bird specialist from Brazil, tells Linda that her one-of-a-kind bird actually has a female equivalent in Rio, she ships him down there to mate and make them a little less of an endangered species. But Linda begins to miss her Blu, she heads down there herself right in the middle of Carnival.

The female Macaw is Jewel (Anne Hathaway), who lives the life of a bird in the wild. The pair are chained together, but eventually escape with the guidance of Rafael (George Lopez). Other random voices are supplied by Wanda Sykes and Jane Lynch as a pair of geese, Jaime Foxx and will.i.am as a pair of funky-fresh-dope birds, Jermaine Clement as the villainous cockatoo Nigel, and Tracy Morgan as the bulldog Luiz. There's a fair amount of singing and dancing in Rio, and I believe Clement gets the best number.

What else do you want to know? The Macaws escape, get caught, escape, etc. Shockingly enough, Linda and Tulio start to develop feelings for each other. In other words, there are zero surprises in Rio, which has the added bonus of featuring as its backdrop a rather toned-down version of the city in which it's set. And guess what Blu learns to do before the movie is done. That's right, he learns to do needlepoint. OK, but you get my point. Everything is predictable and standard-issue cartoon stuff. The 3-D is remarkably underused and unimpressive. I think I remember laughing at a great deal of what Clement and Morgan say, but beyond that, this is utterly skippable.

In A Better World

As you may have guessed if you've been reading me awhile, I have a slight obsession with films that come from Denmark, so few were happier than I was to see one of that country's finest filmmakers, Susanne Bier, take home the Oscar earlier this year for her magnificent latest work, In A Better World. The movies that Bier and her constant writer Anders Thomas Jensen have made together include such emotionally devastating works as Open Hearts, Brothers and After the Wedding (Bier also made the American film Things We Lost in the Fire without Jensen), and each features families in disarray that must learn to patch themselves together or risk losing everything. And with In A Better World, the stakes have never seemed higher.

Ten-year-old Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) has just moved back to Denmark from London, where he lived with his father (Ulrich Thomsen) and mother, who recently died of cancer. He befriends an often-bullied Elias (Markus Rygaard), whose mother (Trine Dyrholm) is an emotional wreck because her doctor husband Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is frequently absent when he takes extended trips to Africa to provide medical aide at refugee camps. The film deals with several issues related to human beings' capacity for violence and their sometimes frustrating capacity for compassion.

Anton is called upon to make impossible decisions in Africa, many of which go against his duty as a doctor. Should he help a man, who will likely go on to maim or kill many innocent people when he's healthier? When he's home, he instructs his son to remain passive in the face of bullies, much as Anton does when another child's father slaps him repeatedly in an effort to humiliate him. Christian's father is a lot less restrictive, and as a result, the boy adapts rather ruthless means of revenge against all manner of villains in his life, including building pipe bombs. In A Better World is at times tense and terrifying, since we're never quite sure how far Christian will go or push Elias to go.

I don't think the film is in any way trying to draw parallels between the atrocities in Africa and the kids' dilemmas in Denmark. It's simply trying to show that circumstances can drive even the most moderately tempered among us to do something we didn't believe we were capable of. The results are an emotionally complex and hard-hitting work that deserves your full attention, and I'm glad it has finally made its way to a wider release two months after its well-deserved Oscar win. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with In A Better World director Susanne Bier, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Conspirator

So let me see if I've got this straight. There's this new film production company called The American Film Company, owned in some part by the dude who also owns the Chicago Cubs. The idea behind this company is to produce historically accurate films that only use the facts as they are written in history. And with the company's first production, The Conspirator, they've picked a rather incendiary story to tell as accurately as possible, and I applaud their gumption, even if I can't fully endorse the final product.

The film concerns itself with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, or more specifically, the conspiracy to kill him and several other members of the government in order to leave the recently reunified United States headless, perhaps sparking the South to rise once again. While John Wilkes Booth (played here by Toby Kebbell) certainly killed Lincoln, there were other members of the conspiracy who set out to assassinate several others, including John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), who used his mother's boarding house as the setting for their meetings. As a result of her proximity to these meetings, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) was tried as a co-conspirator in a proceeding that was clearly stacked against her, aside from the fact that civilians were being tried in a military courtroom.

But rather than focus on Mary Surratt's plight, screenwriter James Solomon and director Robert Redford shift their gaze to rookie lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), appointed by U.S. Attorney General Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to defend her. It's clear early on that the government merely wants Surratt to give up the location of her long-fled son, but are willing to carry out the farce to the death if need be. Not surprisingly, defending this woman so soon after the Civil War has ended does not make Aiken a popular man among his friends (including one played by Justin Long) or best girl (Alexis Bledel). But his tactics and sound arguments also earn him enemies in higher ranks, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline).

The great Danny Houston plays the prosecuting attorney, Colm Meaney is the biased judge, and Evan Rachel Wood pops in for a couple of scenes as Surratt's much-anguished daughter. There's no doubt that The Conspirator features a fully-loaded all-star cast, but somehow the films feels very small, or maybe "narrow" is the right word. There are absolutely a handful of harrowing moments when we see how the government actively worked against Aiken to wreck his case. In fact, it becomes clear that the film's title isn't necessarily referring to Surratt but rather the system that worked against her during this farcical trial. Some of the film's better moments involve Aiken uncovering a vital piece of evidence that can do nothing but help his client, only to come to the crashing realization that the truth will likely not set her free.

Although Redford is no stranger to period films, who the hell told Justin Long it was OK for him to be in one? OK, so that isn't exactly the film's biggest problem, but it just ain't right. I can see Redford being interested in this material because it has modern-day parallels, but I don't think he goes far enough in connecting those dots. As a result, The Conspirator is as dry as a history book without pictures. You need something to spice up the truth, and this film needs it bad. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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