Neve Campbell in Scream 4SCREAM 4

Directed, as all of the franchise's outings have been, by Wes Craven, and written by Kevin Williamson, Scream 4 is a sequel, a reboot, and a big middle finger to reboots, all in one bloody, meta, mostly tedious package. It opens beautifully and features a bunch of (mostly verbal) horror-comedy pleasures, yet its overall effect is wearying; Craven and Williamson are so focused on deconstructing the genre - the Scream series in particular - for a media-soaked, hipper-than-thou young audience that even its "surprises" are in quotation marks. Watching Scream 4 is like watching a movie with its commentary track running before you've had a chance to experience the film without it.

Returning original Scream survivor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) to her hometown of Woodsboro, and reuniting her with former deputy, now-sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and former TV journalist, now-struggling-author Gale (Courteney Cox), the movie finds the infamous Ghostface Killer(s) stalking a new generation of irony-saturated victims-to-be, including Sidney's teen cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts). And in random sequences, none better than the tongue-in-cheek prelude with Anna Paquin and Kristin Bell, some of the old Scream magic appears to have survived this third sequel. The film isn't particularly frightening, but Craven still pulls off occasionally ingenious moments of dread; the scene that finds Gale watching, helpless, as the masked murderer shuts off the surveillance cameras she positioned mere minutes beforehand inspires a giggly twist in the gut. Much of Williamson's dialogue, meanwhile, is on the cornball side (he's overly fond of having characters talk to themselves and finish their recitations with sitcom-ready punchlines), but at least the writing is wittier than it is in other films of its type, where you're sometimes not even sure a writer was involved. (My favorite bit: Ghostface, after hitting re-dial, offering a threatening, "Who is this?", and receiving the blasé reply, "The more impatient version of the person you just spoke to.")

Still, your responses to Scream 4 are less likely to be shrieks (or laughs) than shrugs; for all of the grisly bloodletting and scare-flick in-jokes and relentless self-referencing, the movie is criminally lacking in personality. Early on, a teen girl - an obvious stand-in for Craven and Williamson - derides the Saw franchise, and the entire torture-porn genre, by saying that these films don't work because you don't care about the people in them. Yet with the exception of Hayden Panettiere (looking fantastically chic) as a horror-wise high-schooler, I didn't care about the people here, either, and that includes the likable adult trio returning for their fourth go-around with Ghostface; Campbell, Arquette, and Cox serve little beyond nostalgic purposes. Alison Brie adds a burst of quirkiness as Gale's publicist, and Anthony Anderson and Adam Brody, as a pair of nervy cops, are good for some chuckles, but the rest of the cast brings little to the party, and neither Craven's blandly competent staging nor the predictability of the "unpredictable" shocks does much to help matters.

And while I won't give away the ending, the movie saves its most bothersome tactical error for its finale, in which the finally unmasked killer goes off on a lengthy, astonishingly misconceived screed against sequels, reboots, and the digitally anesthetized youths who demand these ever-more in-your-face entertainments. After 90 minutes of sucking up to their teen clientele with lines such as "Modern horror audiences get savvy to the rules of the originals" (as if we older audiences didn't), it seems dishearteningly churlish for Scream 4's director and writer to close their film by insulting the same viewers who they're hoping will make the film a hit. For as much as their talents appear to have waned since the original Scream, Craven and Williamson, as that closing monologue indicates, are apparently limber as hell; it can't be easy to pat yourself on the back while simultaneously slapping someone in the face.


Robin Wright and James McAvoy in The ConspiratorTHE CONSPIRATOR

Detailing the trial of boarding-house proprietor Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), accused of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, director Robert Redford's courtroom drama The Conspirator, as a movie experience, is everything but interesting. This handsomely mounted, deeply well-meaning endeavor boasts exquisite 19th Century design and an unusually eclectic cast - European thesps (and period-film mainstays) such as James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, and Colm Meany interact with the likes of Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, and Jonathan Groff - and the tale itself is a fascinating one, suffused with wickedly hostile, North-versus-South resentment. If only the presentation itself weren't so square! Redford's stately images and fastidiously arranged tableaux fit all too snugly with the prosaic blandness of James D. Solomon's script, and too many elements - Alexis Bledel's fretful wife, Danny Huston's reptilian prosecutor, McAvoy's defense attorney distrusting his client before his eventual 180-degree turnaround - feel distractingly by-the-book, as in a "classy" biographical TV movie for the History Channel. (I was, however, momentarily thrown off-guard at the end, when the blackout that usually leads to a "six months later" title card actually led to a title card reading "16 months later.") Still, there are fine, subtly forceful performances by McAvoy, Wright, and Wilkinson, and a few wonderfully tense courtroom cameos, especially the gravelly drunkard played, with expected awesomeness, by Stephen Root, whose mere presence somehow makes every film he's in a little bit better. Plus, near the end, there's a haunting, plaintive scene involving Wright that just might be The Conspirator's finest, and which brings to mind nothing so much as a similar sequence enacted by Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. I guess that, as they age, even formerly married people start to look alike.


Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, and AnnaSophia Robb in Soul SurferSOUL SURFER

A real-life drama about Bethany Hamilton, the Hawaiian teen who became a champion surfer after losing her left arm to a shark, Soul Surfer is as sentimental and generically "inspirational" as you'd imagine it would be, yet it boasts an unexpected toughness of spirit. To be sure, this outing by director/co-writer Sean McNamara and six (!) others who receive screenplay and/or screen-story credits doesn't deviate much from the traditional triumph-of-the-underdog formula, and the clichés and only-in-the-movies contrivances tend to arrive fast and thick; I really could've done without the moment when a kindly surgeon (the wonderfully welcome Craig T. Nelson) is informed of Bethany's tragedy at the exact moment that he's about to make an incision on the leg of Bethany's father. ("Based on a true story" or not, does anyone, anywhere, believe that this actually happened in real life?) This gorgeously photographed film, however, is filled with lovely fringe touches - there's a true heartbreaker of one when Bethany's brother, at the dinner table, instinctively reaches for her left hand as the family prepares to say grace - and features a legitimately heroic lead in AnnaSophia Robb's Bethany, who's practical and determined, if frequently frustrated, without being at all cloying. Best of all, perhaps, Soul Surfer offers a pair of exceptionally thoughtful and believable portrayals by Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid as Bethany's folks, who are blessedly not required to deliver any melodramatic speeches of the "You can't surf anymore!" variety. Instead, these two are level-headed and good-natured even at the characters' most anguished - during their rare arguments, you're wholly unable to side with one parent over the other - and make for incredibly appealing role models. Don't even get me started, by the way, on what kind of role models these two are when seen hanging 10 on their surfboards; the 47-year-old Hunt and the 57-year-old Quaid could not possibly look more healthy or more fit. I'll likely never be invited to Hunt's and Quaid's houses, but if I ever am, I'm hitting their attics first, to see if they really do contain Dorian Gray-like paintings of the stars while the owners themselves remain happily ageless.


Natalie Portman, Danny McBride, James Franco, and Zooey Deschanel in Your HighnessYOUR HIGHNESS

It's still relatively early in the year, but I find it hard to believe that I'll see a more thoroughly charmless film performance in 2011 than Danny McBride's turn in the medieval stoner farce Your Highness; its leading man ambles through the entire film exuding a blend of pomposity and petulance that suggests, "I'm better than this role, and this movie, and my co-stars, and you." (McBride's I'd-rather-be-anywhere-else surliness here is especially confounding because, with Ben Best, he co-wrote the damned thing.) Directed by David Gordon Green, the movie, as comedies go, is mostly unfunny and frequently embarrassing; only Justin Theroux's committed turn as a 19-year-old virgin warlock and James Franco's big grin offer a modicum of amusement. (The less said about Natalie Portman's and Zooey Deschanel's contributions, the better.) As action comedies go, the movie is almost unbelievably inept, with staging and editing so poor you can't believe that Green - whose camera seems forever in the wrong place at the wrong time - was once responsible for those impressive indies George Washington and All the Real Girls. (For all of its flaky wit, Green's Pineapple Express also fell apart during the frenetic, incoherent action set pieces.) Yet it's McBride who, for my money, is Your Highness' true deal-breaker. The meager crowd at my screening roared at nearly every noxious thing the man said and did, but I found his unamusing, more-than-half-baked blitheness nearly unendurable, and hope that his future film work (as Tropic Thunder and Up in the Air did) restricts him solely to the background. Just being blunt.

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