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2 Stars Movies

Scream 4 makes a few half-hearted stabs… at relevance

By the time Scream 4 appeared, over a decade after the original trilogy began, the horror genre had moved on from the ironic, winking mode the series popularized. A character in Scream 4 complains that most horror movies traffic more in outright gore (“I hate that torture porn shit”). On television, The Walking Dead characters are so divorced from pop culture that they don’t even know the word “zombie”. How does the usual tone of the Scream movies play to today’s audiences?

In this context, Scream 4 would seem old fashioned throwback to the ironic 90s, were it not significantly more cynical than its predecessors. Scream 2 overtly critiqued sequels, Scream 3 deconstructed trilogies, and now Scream 4 openly uses the word “franchise”. Movies are more the product of big business than ever before, and now that’s the subject of the movies themselves.

Scream 4 does make a few half-hearted stabs (sorry) at relevance by roping in social media (one kid liveblogs the whole thing), and celebrity culture. The murderers’ motivation has moved on from sex and revenge to desire to the kind of instant celebrity enjoyed today by the likes of teenage murderers and socialite drunks.

Amusingly, Scream 4 self-mythologizes itself with the movie-within-the-movie Stab, amusingly credited to Robert Rodriguez. Actually, I think I’d rather see that movie.

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2 Stars Movies

Batman: Year One copies the comics but doesn’t capture what made the them classics

The film buffs at Criterion Cast recently took a break from their usual discussion of the likes of Ozu, Godard, and Cox for in their year-end podcast review of the 2012 year in movies. Rather surprisingly to me, they talked up Batman: Year One and Dredd as two underrated 2012 releases. I had been happily ignoring both, but checked them out on Netflix and was soundly disappointed by both.

I used to be a big comics fan, but haven’t followed them in years. It seems both Marvel and DC Comics have since started animation factories cranking out adaptations of some of their more famous stories.

I’m sorry to say that Batman: Year One is inferior in every way to the original comics from the 1980s (which I believe I still have copies of somewhere). It takes a number of liberties from the source material, about which I’m ambivalent. Movies are movies, and comics are comics, and any adaptation from one to the other ought to make as many changes as the artists/writers/filmmakers/whatever wish. But a necessary question that immediately follows is: what was it about the source material that made it worthwhile in the first place, and how can it be preserved? Or at least translated or transformed to be equally exciting in another medium?

The Batman: Year One movie failed to capture much about the comics that has made them classics. At one point in the movie, a character tosses a photograph onto a table, rendered in David Mazzucchelli’s art style from the original comics. Intended as an homage, it merely emphasizes the unimaginative and bland animation style.

Without the timelessly stylized artwork, all you have left is Frank Miller’s hardboiled writing and plotting, which looks a little thin in the cold light of day.

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2 Stars Movies

Sad Dinosaurs: Calling Bullshit on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

As a public service, I will now summarize all 2 hours and 19 minutes of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for you:

My mommy was pretty, my daddy was mean, sometimes kids die, I inhaled too much DDT, and it makes me so sad. Sad like the lonely birth of the lifeless universe. Sad like an anachronistic demonstration of animal altruism in the cruel dinosaur-eat-dinosaur prehistoric biosphere. Sad like the decay of all matter and energy as the universe inevitably collapses.

I call bullshit.

The degree of enjoyment I took from The Tree of Life was in inverse proportion to the sense of obligation I felt to see it, which is to say: very little vs. a whole lot. The very private auteur Malick had fallen silent for a number of years after he burst out of the gate in the 70s with Badlands and Days of Heaven, but has been on something of an uncharacteristic tear lately, producing three films in 10 years, with more in the pipeline. Since he chooses to not participate in publicity for his films, we may have to wait years until we find out what motivated him to return from this mysterious interregnum.

The Tree of Life
No one was there to watch as the planets form from stardust… except Terrence Malick’s computers

Anticipation high, The Tree of Life was hotly discussed as his most beautiful, philosophical, and autobiographical film yet (the last point being especially tantalizing to film buffs looking for entry points into analyzing the man and his ouvre from a distance). The hook was further baited by the all-star cast (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and it-girl-who’s-in-everything-these-days Jessica Chastain) and an awards campaign branding it as one of the key prestige pictures of 2011. The willingness of top-drawer talent to work with Malick, even if they may very well wind up on the cutting room floor (as happened to George Clooney in The Thin Red Line), suggests he is revered as a director of actors. The perennially prickly Sean Penn, however, had none of this. He publicly derided the completed film:

While [Penn] considered the script “the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read,” he believes that “a clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.” Noting that Malick himself was little help when it came to explaining what he was going for, Penn adds, “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context.”

Sean Penn, to The A.V. Club

All of Malick’s films are inarguably staggeringly beautiful, but their flimsy substance would get laughed out of a high school creative writing class. The Thin Red Line provided a much-needed meditative counterpoint at the time to the comparatively sentimental Saving Private Ryan, but too much of the film was taken up with the private thoughts of inarticulate grunts struggling to understand why they were killing each other when they’d all be much happier as cinematographers filming wildlife and sunlight filtering prettily through treetops. The New World approached outright silliness in its portrayal of Pocahontas as a pimply teenager in leather lingerie, caught in a love triangle over two of her European oppressors, and became truly absurd as the film contorted itself to avoid speaking her name.

Jessica Chastain and an unnamed dinosaur extra in Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life
I want to equate these two shots to the famous jump cut from prehistoric man to a spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I just don’t respect The Tree of Life enough.

There’s something to be said about Malick deconstructing two of the most overused subjects in Hollywood history (the World War II picture and the Pocahontas myth) for his own personal statements, but critics must really strain for these to hold up to discussion in serious philosophical terms. The Niles Files makes a valiant attempt to tackle The Tree of Life, looping in Blake, Proust, Joyce, and many other big guns to extract some meaning from Malick’s pretty pictures.

The Tree of Life was part of a miniature trendlet in movies this past year, in which the painfully intimate was equated with the distantly cosmic. Sadly, two better films with similar concerns were unjustly crowded out of the award season — curiously, both featuring young women.

In Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, a girl whose carelessness ruined several lives finds hope for redemption when an exact duplicate of the entire planet inexplicably appears in the sky. Like everyone that has ever lived, she wonders if maybe there’s a better world where things turned out differently. For Cahill, it would have superfluous to concoct a pseudoscientific explanation for the phenomena, but another filmmaker that same year turned to physicists to properly substantiate his cosmic visions.

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is exactly that — a painful but stunningly beautiful examination of crippling depression. One young woman’s mental illness all but splinters her extended family, a destruction so cataclysmic it is reflected in the eradication of the world. Von Trier harnesses computer animation for images of profoundly moving beauty, rendering Malick’s mopey CGI dinos silly in comparison.

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