SCREAM 4

By R. David

Published April 15, 2011

The first “Scream”, way back in 1996, was the only one worth a damn. I remember seeing it on opening weekend (upon which it made a measly 6 million bucks), before word of mouth spread and it became a pop culture phenomenon, and was so tickled by the way it turned the horror genre and all its conventions on its ear. It was a winking nod to horror film fans who were bored by horror movies. Then came two sequels that tried to play the same game and in the process fell victim to the very tired conventions they were trying to satirize.

Released after a probably-wise eleven-year hiatus, “Scream 4″ is the first “Scream” sequel that feels like a true extension of the original, rather than one that constantly tries to one-up it and loses all of its wit and originality in the bargain. After over a decade of peace and quite, the Ghostface killings begin again in the sleepy town of Woodsboro, just as Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is returning home for the last stop on her tour for her hit self-help book.  She reconnects with Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette), now-retired reporter Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), as well as her high-schooler niece (Emma Roberts) who, along with her close-knit group of friends, becomes Ghostface’s latest potential victim.  Like its predecessors, “Scream 4″ is an exercise in irony and “meta”.  I will admit the movie’s constant self-referencing is overdone, and the film adheres so closely to lineage of the original that if it weren’t for bringing back many of the original characters, “Scream 4″ would be described more as a reboot than a sequel. But then again, that fine line of distinction is something the characters in “Scream 4″ also reference, so perhaps the definitional duality is intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Occasionally the film overplays its hand with some too-jokey lines and kills (at least two moments would be more at home in “Scary Movie” – another franchise where the first film was the only fearless and original one of the bunch – than in any horror film, even one that straddles comedy lines as the “Scream” films always have), but for the most part, “Scream 4″ is refreshingly back-to-basics.

Maybe its just because its been eleven years and I’m not as “Scream”-ed out as I was back in 2000 after the third film left such a bad taste in my mouth that it still hasn’t gone away (I was going to watch it again before seeing this new one, but couldn’t muster any interest in doing so). Everything here is scaled back to where it all began, and the only place it was ever any good.

3 stars out of 4

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES

By R. David

Published March 11, 2011

It’s admirable, I suppose, anytime a filmmaker tries to put a new spin on something old, especially an entire genre. The alien-invasion thriller is a  well-worn Hollywood staple, and in recent years Hollywood has tried (with varying degrees of success) to keep things interesting by mashing-up genres, using nontraditional filming techniques, or disguising political allegories as rock ‘em, sock ‘em sci-fi extravaganzas. For it’s part, “Battle: Los Angeles” tries to do all these things. It melds the visceral, in your face war movie battle sequences (“Black Hawk Down,” “Saving Private Ryan”) with the low-fi, shaky-cam, you-are-there, “found footage” thing that has been creeping its way into more and more horror flicks. This film is closest in concept and tone to “Black Hawk Down” combined with something like last year’s already forgotten “Skyline” (with which this film shares writers and producers) or 2008’s “Cloverfield”. The problem with a movie that slams-up scenes and cliches from two movie genres is, rather than feeling like new experience, it feels like you are watching two movies you’ve already seen.

There really is no story to speak of here.  Aliens invade without warning, and because the film takes the you-are-there approach, we learn as much as the characters living through the mayhem learn; which is to say, very little.  We never know where the aliens come from, why they are here, or anything about them as a race.  This is all fine, actually, considering that when most movies like this feel the need to explain their aliens, we usually end up getting a a bunch of familiar-sounding exposition found in a dozen other similar films.  “Battle L.A.” is, indeed, all about the battle.  We meet a military unit, headed by Arron Eckhart, doing his best impression of the seen-it-all, tough-on-the-outside, tortured-on-the-inside military grunt.  There is Michelle Rodriguez playing Michelle Rodriguez (lucky thing she was available).  For the most part the characters might as well be named Soldiers 1 through 10 (I’m not sure that’s how many soldiers there are, but it sounds about right).  There are some personality conflicts within the group.  One of the soldiers blames Eckhart’s character for getting his brother killed.  If it seems like I mention that as an afterthought, that’s because that’s how the film treats that plot thread.  I’d argue the film could use better character development, but then again, the last thing I wanted was to learn more about these archetypes and their cliched backstories.  Rather than coming off as a breath of fresh air for the tried and true alien invasion flick, it feels like the filmmakers are trying to distract audiences from their film’s budget limitations by focusing more on characters than effects. This would be fine, preferred even, if all the characters weren’t wooden, poorly written cliches (“Skyline” had the exact same problem).

There’s nothing particularly bad about “Battle: Los Angeles.”  (Except it’s another one of these movies that seems to think the shaky-cam thing is something audiences enjoy; they do not, I have never once heard anyone walk out of one of those movies unable to stop praising the shaky-cam; in fact, I always hear the opposite, so why does Hollywood keep insisting on shooting action films this way?)  It’s fast-paced, has some exciting sequences and would probably be good one to pop in if you want to test your new sound system. But beyond that, there’s not much here to hang your hat (or your ten bucks) on.

2.5 stars out of 4

INSIDIOUS

By R. David

Published April 1, 2011

“Insidious” is half of a terrific movie and half of a cliched, boring and predictable one which makes it one frustrating film. Taking off from the admittedly tired premise of a young couple who finds their house is haunted, and throwing in a possessed child, an exorcist and a trip into the dream world for good measure, “Insidious” manages to make the viewer think for about 45 minutes that it is going to bring something new to the genre, despite seemingly throwing every horror film cliche at the wall and seeing what sticks. The story feels old hat, but the creepy visuals, nicely over-the-top soundtrack, and breathless editing are all striking and effective. But right around the midpoint, when the movie (feels it) has to start explaining itself, things start to fall apart and the movie devolves from a mysterious, nightmarish thrill ride into a standard issue, SFX-driven horror film that’s as old and creaky as the doors and floorboards in the couples’ house. The movies seems to know this to a degree; as it begins to represent a winking, campy, Sam Raimiesque twist on the genre. This would be fine, except it was working just swimmingly as a spooky, old school horror flick that knows exactly how to freak out its intended audience. Why every horror film these days feels the need to pile on all kinds of exposition and explanation, almost always at the expense of the film’s effectiveness (the mysterious and unexplained is usually more terrifying than the explained), is beyond me. Still, even though it devolves into predictable cliches and seems to suffer from an identity crisis, “Insidious” manages enough scares, haunting visuals and fun to rate as acceptable horror fare.

2.5 stars out of 4