The Scream movies have always been about writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven wanting to have their cake and eat it too; on one hand, these are “smart” horror parodies where the characters know that they´re in a slasher film and all the rules of the game, and on the other, the filmmakers abide by said rules in an attempt to get away with delivering the cheap thrills of a traditional slasher film. You can´t have it both ways, sez me; it´s amusing when a character points out the cliché of a car not starting, and then her car won´t start. But it ain´t scary.
Regardless, the original Scream is a landmark of the genre, and here´s part 4, which comes a belated eleven years after the previous installment. In that time, the horror genre has seen everything from Saw to Saw 7; plenty of fodder to work with. Onscreen title: Scre4m, which is also (at least) a decade out of fashion. Short version of review: this is more of the same, and equals or betters the last two installments. Fans should dig it.
A decade after the events of the previous film, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to her hometown of Woodsboro (on the fifteenth anniversary of the events that occurred in the first Scream) to promote her new book. Immediately, bodies start dropping. Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) is on the case, while author & wife Gale (Courtney Cox), struggling to come up with some fictional material, starts her own side investigation.
The Ghostface killer seems to be stalking a set of highschoolers that eerily mimics the main characters from the first film: Sidney´s young niece Jill (Emma Roberts) and her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe); Jill´s ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella); and film geeks Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin).
Scream 4, like the previous films, simultaneously sends up and pays homage to the horror genre; like those films, however, it isn´t really a horror film, save for the killer-in-a-mask conceit. It plays out like an Old Dark House (or Scooby-Doo) mystery, keeping us guessing at who the killer is as bodies fall and suspects are eliminated. As one of the characters says during the film, “the unexpected is now the expected;” to really surprise us, Scream 4 would have to play things straight. But it´s far too late for that. Instead, the film successfully obscures who the killer is, but by revelation time, we´ve been guessing so long we no longer care.
The first Scream film gained some notoriety for its opening scene, which unexpectedly killed off a major star in particularly gruesome fashion. Scream 4´s opening sequence is the best part of the movie – it´s a real gas, cleverly layering Stab (the movie-series-within-a-series, based on the events of the Scream films) into the proceedings and featuring cameos by Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell.
The movie that follows it, however, is bloated and tiresome: we´ve seen all this before, in the earlier Scream films, the films that they parodied, and the films that have since parodied them. There´s nothing new here. To differentiate from the previous outings, there´s a greater emphasis on comedy, which only sometimes comes off – a scene with the killer, right after all is revealed, is (accidental?) comic genius. But it´s at the expense of the horror/thriller elements; Scream 4 is in no way scary (outside of a few boo! moments, there´s nary an effort to scare us) and the suspense is dialed down a few notches, too.
Williamson crams a lot of ideas into his script, including thoughts on horror sequels and remakes and throwaway references to classics like Peeping Tom and Suspiria. After four films, they only provide fleeting amusement for the horror aficionado. Scream 4 makes for an interesting comparison to Craven´s last film, My Soul to Take, which was basically the same movie played straight; that film was better directed and more atmospheric, but lacked Williamson´s self-referential creativity. The end result, however, is the same.
Just Go with It was originally a French play, adapted into English by Abe Burrows and then into a screenplay for a 1969 film by I.A.L. Diamond. The title through all these incarnations was Cactus Flower (Fleur de cactus in French), which was a metaphor for one of the lead characters: a lovely blossom on a prickly plant. I only mention this because even if you are unaware of the significance, Cactus Flower is an interesting title, while Just Go with It is one of the blandest imaginable, and a sign of the creativity at work here.
Now, we don´t expect too much from Adam Sandler comedies (especially ones directed by Dennis Dugan, whose last three were Grown Ups, You Don´t Mess with the Zohan, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry). And we don´t expect much from Jennifer Aniston rom-coms. But even the lowest of expectations won´t prepare you for this.
Sandler plays Danny, a plastic surgeon who finds that wearing a wedding band greatly increases his luck with the ladies. His assistant is a Katherine (Aniston), a spinsterish mother of two. They treat patients with one permanently-raised eyebrow or one giant breast, and Danny attends a party featuring a man with an expressionless plastic face (Kevin Nealon), a woman who looks like Mick Jagger, and a man with a giant ass. If you don´t find these freaks of plastic surgery funny, I warn you: they are the high point of Just Go with It´s humor.
At the party, Danny meets the girl of his dreams, Palmer (Brooklyn Decker, who, no coincidence, walks out of the ocean here like Bo Derek did in 10). Only problem: she finds the fake wedding ring he uses to score chicks among his belongings and storms off. All right, he´s got time to think: tell her the truth and look like a creep? Tell a small fib (after all, he isn´t married) – it was just a prop, it´s a friend´s ring, I found it on the beach, that´s not my bag?
How about a large fib? He is married (with kids!) – but he´s getting divorced. He hires Katherine to play his soon-to-be ex, and her two kids to be his kids. And his cousin Eddie (Nick Swardson) is Katharine´s lover. And they´re all going on a Hawaiian vacation. What is his plan, exactly? To marry Palmer, and live the rest of his life pretending he has those two kids? And who would go along with it? Who would fall for it? These people are all idiots.
The presence of Aniston and the two kids might indicate that this is a lighter, sweeter Sandler rom-com, a la The Wedding Singer or 50 First Dates. Nope. This one has more juvenile, un-P.C. humor than most Sandler films, which might be welcome if any of it were funny. Nor does the presence of all that indicate this is a zany Zohan-like comedy; no, plotwise, this is formula rom-com junk all the way.
There are some good moments here. The scenery (including Decker) is great. The kids (Bailee Madison and Eric West) are cute. Incredibly, Nicole Kidman and Dave Matthews show up in a cameo as Katharine´s old school rival and her new hubby. They contribute to Just Go with It´s best sequence, a hula-off between Aniston and Kidman that goes pretty well (after the prerequisite fat jokes) until Matthews picks up a coconut with his ass.
What is Kidman doing here? I don´t even know what Aniston is doing here. At least they got a trip to Hawaii out of it. Allow me to make a sweeping statement: excluding Going Overboard, this is Adam Sandler´s worst movie.
Unknown starts things off with an intriguing premise and ends with a preposterous but half-satisfying conclusion, which cleanly wraps up the events of the preceding film but also introduces a whole new set of questions that go unanswered. It´s an efficient thriller, and it´s fun to see Liam Neeson in Taken tough guy mode, but we ultimately feel cheated when the we realize 80% of movie involves little more than jerking us around along with its protagonist.
That protagonist is Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) a man who wakes up in a Berlin hospital with some vague form of amnesia, and he´s not who he thinks he is, or maybe he is and others don´t want him to be. Surely, someone knows what´s going on and can come along and explain the situation to him, and us, and that´s precisely what happens at the end. Till then, the filmmakers string us along, carefully obscuring the facts before arbitrarily revealing them. It´d be a lot more fun if we weren´t so aware of the craft.
Let me backtrack. As the film opens, Harris and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a biotech conference. When they get to the hotel, Harris realizes he left his briefcase behind, and rushes back to the airport. Before he gets there, an accident sends his taxi plunging into the Spree River. The driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), pulls him out, but he´s suffered a nasty knock on the head and spends four days in a coma.
When he wakes up, Harris has little long-term memory beyond arriving in Berlin. His wife – she must be worried! But he´s in for a shock when he gets back to the hotel: his wife doesn´t seem to recognize him. In fact, she´s with a man claiming to be the “real” Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). Without identification, or a reliable memory, Harris must prove his existence.
Unknown belongs to a very particular genre of thriller, which might have started with Hitchcock´s The Lady Vanishes, where the protagonist has to think themselves out of an impossible situation while everyone is telling them they´re wrong. The hook is in the premise: in Polanski´s Frantic, Harrison Ford´s character has to account for the disappearance of his wife in Paris, while authorities question the existence of the wife; in Breakdown, Kurt Russell faces a similar task; in Bunny Lake is Missing and more recently The Forgotten and Flightplan, a mother searches for her child while others tell her the child never existed.
Few of these films are great cinema, but they are compulsively watchable: like a good episode of The Twilight Zone, the premise captures our imagination and we need to know how things are resolved. Is the protagonist crazy? Is it all a dream? Government conspiracy? Alien abduction? Unfortunately, the revelation always seems to tarnish the mystery; once the puzzle has been solved, the film feels far less interesting.
And unlike an episode of The Twilight Zone, a two-hour film needs a little more than just a premise. Unknown doesn´t really have that; there´s the pretense of an actual film here, with Harris running around searching for clues, and exposition provided by Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella, but it´s ultimately much ado about nothing. Had Harris remembered something, or gotten someone to talk earlier, he´d have saved the film a lot of extraneous running time.
Like most of director Sofia Coppola´s work (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette), Somewhere is slow and pretentious and ultimately worthwhile. It´s a film easier to appreciate than actively enjoy – a read-between-the-scenes kind of experience – filled with little dialogue and long, long takes with little action, lots of time for meditation and soul searching in the dark confines of a cinema. Antonioni-lite.
It´s all about the tough, tough life of a womanizing, hard-partying, international movie star. You know, how all the sex, drugs, and rock´n´roll really take their toll on those poor Hollywood superstars. Yeah, this won´t appeal to all tastes, but in an era where the media is waiting with bated breath for the inevitable Charlie Sheen meltdown, I think Somewhere is especially relevant.
The Hollywood superstar is Johnny Marco, played, ironically, by Stephen Dorff. I say ironically because the last two Dorff performances I took note of were in Cecil B. Demented and Space Truckers. Here, he´s a Cruise-level star living at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. (where John Belushi overdosed in 1982) who attends a festival in Rome to pick up an award. That is, in-between the drinking, drugs, and women.
More important is the 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who comes into his life (we presume) unexpectedly. More or less abandoned by her mother, Cleo spends passes the time with Johnny by playing Guitar Hero, cooking him breakfast, and going ice skating. It´s important to note that there´s no attempt at a traditional storytelling here; we just observe the mundane day-to-day life of these characters.
It´s certainly not for everyone. It´s difficult to describe the experience of watching Somewhere. The film begins with a minutes-long shot of a Ferrari racing around a track, and progresses to a minutes-long shot of twin strippers dancing around a portable pole in Marco´s hotel room (hint: these scenes are equally boring). These shots might be compared to watching paint dry, but then we´d at least get a sense of progression. Here, Marco feels like he´s nothing, and going nowhere, and Coppola effectively conveys that to her audience through the endless monotony and repetition.
The weight of the film rests upon the shoulders of Dorff and Fanning; if they´re not right, this thing collapses under all the pretentiousness. But they´re both excellent, effortlessly conveying the kind of disarmingly “normal” people that we see so little of in cinema. The cinematography plays a big role here too, making sure to capture every last minute detail; it´s by Harris Savides, who also shot a trio of Gus Van Sant films that would make a good comparison here – Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days.
This review might sound a little dismissive. Somewhere is extremely pretentious, it isn´t exactly profound, and it tests the limits of our patience more than any of the director´s previous films. But ultimately, it´s a worthwhile and memorable experience, a film that isn´t so much about what it shows us but about how it makes us feel; what we´re thinking during all those extended takes. It´s an art film. When did that become a bad thing?