Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Movie Review: Scream 4

‘New Decade, New Rules’ the poster for Scream 4 claims. But then again, the poster for Scream 3 claimed: ‘Rules of a trilogy: Chapter one sets the rules. Chapter two bends the rules. But in the finale...forget the rules.’ This did not prevent the ‘final’ chapter in the trilogy from rehashing rules all over the place and being the least fresh. Scream 4 promises a reassessment of the current state of horror-movies and there are indeed references to recent humorless, gory horror-porn franchises, like the Saw series. However, in between an impressively ‘meta’ opening (commenting on horror that comments on itself) and a pretty inventive – if not totally satisfying – ending, the viewer gets more of the same ol’, same ol’. Sidney returns to Woodsboro to promote a book about how she got over the traumatic experience of the first three (!) killing sprees she lived through. Cue a killer (or killers) wearing the infamous Ghostface mask, who run(s) around after hysterical teenagers with a sharp knife, slaughtering them if at all possible, occasionally pausing to make menacing phone-calls in a gravelly voice.

The main ‘new rule’ is said to be that ‘the unexpected is now expected’. Which doesn’t really mean much, when you think about it, since it’s circular. Tension is created here as it is in most horror movies: by toying with expectations. There are some set-ups that don’t pay off, some that do and there are some surprise shocks thrown in, all to keep the viewer a little off-balance and enjoying their ride on the rollercoaster. It’s skillfully executed, but it doesn’t feel like the Scream franchise is treading new ground, mixing somewhat predictable pop culture references, with self-referential laughs and violence. Much like in Scream 3, the humor and scares tend to step on each other’s toes, causing some jokes to fall flat and the violence to lack impact. It doesn’t help that the movie fails to make you care about the new characters - who make some amazingly dumb decisions - and makes the returning trio of Sidney (Neve Campbell), Dewey (David Arquette) and Gale (Courteney Cox) less relatable than they were in the original movies. It’s hard to get invested in a horror movie if you don’t actually care who lives and who dies. To its credit however, you do keep playing the ‘who is the killer’ guessing game throughout and don’t feel cheated by the answer.

Considering that the movie seems to be treading water, it’s surprising that screenwriter Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, The Vampire Diaries) pitched this movie as the first of a new trilogy. It seems to indicate that he still has some new tricks up his sleeve. If so, he’d better start pulling them out in greater amounts for the next chapter or risk the audience getting too bored. The movie had a so-so opening and it’s not clear if he will get the opportunity to spread out the plot in the way he intended to do. What does seem clear, is that the franchise lives or dies with the writer in this case: Williamson was barely involved in Scream 3 and only partly in Scream 4, resulting in a noticeably less tight script, the balance between funny and scary being off in ways that did not seem intended and in the dialogue being less sharp.

The movie is getting relatively good scores on the IMDB from ‘regular’ viewers, who I imagine must mostly be new to the series (so it feels fresh to them) or dedicated fans, sticking by their franchise. In any case, this could indicate there’s more life in the Scream saga yet, as long as it manages to make money.

NITPICKS (very mild spoilers): We have had four killing sprees now, perpetrated by quite a few separate killers, if you add them up. Where did all these people get the training to sneak around without a sound and the ability to disappear into thin air when someone looks away for a second? Is there a Ghostface School of Murder somewhere, teaching these tricks? Why would you go out on the town and get drunk, knowing there’s a killer after you? Why – in gun-happy America – doesn’t any of the victims-to-be grab a gun and just shoot that Ghostface motherf*cker already? Wouldn’t at least Sidney be carrying one around at all time, just in case? And speaking of guns: giving someone who has his/her finger on the trigger of a gun an electric shock, would result in the finger cramping up and pulling said trigger. You’ll see why this is problematic if you go see the movie.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Television Review: Fringe (Seasons 1-3(ish))

As seems to happen with a lot of series, Fringe didn’t find its footing straight away. It appeared to be a half-hearted X-Files rip-off, with science that stretched believability to the breaking point and with a less charismatic cast. The first episodes focus on the formation of the Fringe team. Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) gets drafted into the Fringe division of the FBI, looking into events that seemingly defy explanation. Borderline crazy scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) is picked to aid her, who is looked after by his son Peter (Joshua Jackson) and assisted in the lab by agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole). Olivia’s boss, her FBI partner and a shady lady who runs the Massive Dynamic science corporation complete the main cast.

Initially the series jumps from strange event to strange event without quite making connections between them, while awkwardly handling its leads. Tradition seems to demand romantic tension between Olivia and Peter but it’s barely there. Peter and Astrid aren’t given much to do, Walter seems a collection of tics and oddness in need of a personality, Olivia is a little flat and her FBI colleagues don’t register much either. The pseudo-science occasionally leads to prolonged bouts of eye-rolling. Example: in one episode Peter succeeds in playing back sound waves supposedly caught in a slightly melted window, forming grooves like those on a record. He is able to recover an actual conversation this way, while the weary viewer just shakes his (or her) head in utter disbelief.

Just as I was about to bail on Fringe, it hooked me and reeled me back in. An overarching plot, which had previously only had been hinted at, comes to the fore near the end of season one and saves the day. As it turns out, there is an alternate reality that has dubious intentions with our version, for reasons too spoiler-filled to get into. This new revelation is spun in such a way that Peter becomes a pivotal part of the plot and Walter becomes a more complex and sympathetic – if very flawed – character. Olivia’s personality gets fleshed out as well, as she discovers a unique aspect of herself. Alas, Astrid still remains a bit one-dimensional until well into season two; no wonder Walter always has trouble getting her name right. Because of the extra layers that the alternate reality story arc brings to the interpersonal relationships all around, the crew starts to feel more cohesive, almost like a family, which allows viewers to emotionally invest in the series.

I am currently watching the first half of the third season and the set-up is creative and interesting: each week the show jumps from one of the two warring realities to the other. So one week will tell a story in ‘our’ universe, the next in the other, then ours again, then the alternate and so on… It is without a doubt the best string of episodes so far. To the relief of fans, Fringe was recently picked up for a fourth season. It was touch-and-go for a while, as the series is struggling in the ratings; the amount of back-story and the playing around with alternate versions of the main characters is the best part of the series, but may also baffle someone who is tuning in for the first time. It will be interesting to see if the show drops some of the more complicated plotlines in order to survive or will continue along the road it is on, focusing on the dedicated fans. The second route would have my preference, as long as the story ultimately gets finished and is not suddenly cut off, as happens all too often with endangered television series. Fingers crossed that Fringe gets to tell the full story it was created to tell.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Television Review: Supernatural (Seasons 1-5)

By all rights, Supernatural shouldn't have made it past a first season. It started off wobbly, without most of the mythology that became such a big part of the series later on. Initial episodes were primarily stand-alone, with the promise of a more overarching story. Each week Supernatural would shamelessly rip off the plot of a classic scary movie, cheerfully including various horror cliché’s. Some of these episodes were good, but a lot of them were decidedly 'blah', not hitting any home-runs in the plotting, writing or acting departments.

The set-up: Sam and Dean Winchester (played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) are brothers. As kids - Sam was a mere baby - their mother died mysteriously, or to be more precise: burst into flames while floating against the ceiling above Sam's crib. The brothers were dragged around by their father for years, who - looking for an explanation for the impromptu barbecue - turned into a hunter of demons and other infernal beasties. Sam opted out in his teens and enrolled in college, trying to build a normal life for himself, but at the beginning of the series he is dragged back into the family business. Cue the brothers hitting the road in their soon-to-be iconic Chevrolet Impala, looking for their dad and fighting the good fight as they go.

It's not until season two that things start to heat up - the mythology builds on itself and the cast of recurring characters grows a bit. Though the brothers always firmly remain the focus - the 'tough' wise-ass Dean a little more than his sensitive-but-with-a-major-dark-side brother - they also pick up a surrogate father in the shape of fellow ‘hunter’ Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver), giving the series more heart. By season four they even 'adopt' an Angel - yes, an actual Angel - called Castiel (Misha Collins) who starts off intimidating and ends up frequently hilarious, as he tries to interact with humanity.

Though Supernatural started out generic, it gained a distinct personality as it went (somewhere in-between The X-Files and Buffy - The Vampire Slayer), making it a pleasure to watch. The chemistry between the main cast didn't gel straight away, but grew solid over time. And the series became great at poking fun at its own silliness, mostly by way of Dean's sarcastic one-liners, but also through self-aware and occasionally postmodern scripting. At one point a writer turns up who is writing about the brothers’ adventures in the form of a series of pulp novels called Supernatural. (There is a complicated explanation for this, of course.) Consequently, Sam and Dean end up walking among fans of the book-series, during a convention where everyone is impersonating them. The Winchester brothers also come across online fan-fiction based on the books, labeled ‘Wincest’ - which is a phenomenon that, somewhat disturbingly, actually exists. Use your imagination to guess what it entails. To quote Sam: “These people are sick!” To be fair, the writers of the television series are partially to blame for the erotica, as a recurring joke throughout the series is that the brothers are mistaken for a gay couple. Further postmodernism ensues when the brothers leap into the bodies of two actors (called Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, of course), the stars of a television series called Supernatural. At one point during that episode, actual series creator Eric Kripke makes an on-screen appearance, only to get gunned down in slow-motion.

Over the seasons, the stakes have been raised higher and higher; by the end of season five the Winchesters have both already died at least once, but dying only slowed them down for a couple of episodes on each occasion. Things culminated in a battle between Heaven and Hell, the brothers getting caught at the center of things. It's not surprising to learn that this was supposed to be the ending for the series initially, but Supernatural still did so well it was renewed. Creator Kripke left the show, leaving executive producer Sera Gamble to figure out where to go next. Time will tell if the series has peaked, as it will be hard to beat the dramatic high of seasons four and five. For the moment though, the tongue-in-cheek-yet-serious adventures of the brothers, their substitute dad and the loopy Angel still make for compulsive viewing.