October 2011

Meek's Cutoff  •  Maniac Cop  •  Scream 4  •  The Trip

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger

Meek’s Cutoff

For years, westerns have portrayed the pioneer journey as one of constant thrills and adventure. The reality was probably much closer to Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, a loosely fact-based account of settlers making their way through the desolate Oregon wilderness in 1845.

Reichardt re-teams here with her Wendy & Lucy star, Michelle Williams, who plays Emily, one of three women traveling with their families in search of a passage across the Cascade Mountains. The group is led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a self-proclaimed guide who has almost certainly gotten them lost (although he’ll never admit it). As rations run low, tensions run high, especially when the local native tribes begin to make themselves known. Despite the presence of her rugged husband (Will Patton) and the other men, Emily gradually realizes that she may be the only person with the courage to challenge Meek’s decisions.

Meek’s Cutoff is as slow as the covered wagons that inch across the landscape. This will undoubtedly make it boring for many viewers, but Reichardt has a terrific mastery of detail and atmosphere. The audience makes this trek with the characters, and it becomes surprisingly affecting. Every sound seems amplified by the movie’s stillness, and so does every emotion. It may not be the most exciting experience, but it is a rewarding one, right down to the ambiguous, thought-provoking final shot.

Extras: A minimalistic making-of feature and the theatrical trailer are the only things included. (PG) Rating: 4 —LL

Maniac Cop

After he had starred in the early movies of Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers but before he landed his plum role on Burn Notice, Bruce Campbell earned a reputation as a sort of Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks of the B-movie set. While Campbell might not be a household name or a ticket draw, he’s proven himself to be an A-list talent, and some of his movies like the cult classic Bubba Ho-Tep are an entertaining alternative to mainstream fare.

Sadly, his 1987 effort Maniac Cop, which is finally out on Blu-Ray, deserves its obscurity. A New York police lieutenant (Tom Atkins) is on the trail of a serial killer who’s wearing a police uniform. Unlike a rogue cop, this fellow isn’t going vigilante. He’s simply killing innocent people who stumble into his path.

Better genre films like the Evil Dead series and Bubba Ho-Tep work because they’re as creative as they are cheap. Director William Lustig (Maniac) approaches the script by Larry Cohen (It’s Alive!, Phone Booth) in a workmanlike, pedestrian manner. Despite the gore, the story isn’t as scary as it should be.

Raimi can be spotted playing a reporter. This sort of material begs for his over-the-top directing sensibilities.

Lustig is a poor substitute.

Worse, Campbell, who would have been a lot of fun as the villain, is stuck playing an innocent cop framed for the murders. While he is the nominal lead and is convincing playing an ordinary person, Campbell was born to mug. While he can show restraint, it’s so much more fun to watch him embrace his inner two-year-old.

Extras: There’s an astonishing number for such a marginal film. A commentary track with Lustig, Campbell and others, some sequences added for Japanese television and an ad for Spanish language radio stations. (R) Rating: 2 —DL

Scream 4 (a.k.a. Scre4m)

Once upon a time, directors like John Carpenter, George Romero and Wes Craven broke provocative new ground in horror filmmaking. They were the bold young mavericks, shocking audiences and inspiring imitators for years.

Now, they’re becoming old men who yell, “Get off my lawn!” at the neighbor kids.  Carpenter hasn’t made a watchable movie in 15 years, and Romero has turned the astute social commentary of his zombie films into worn-out rants.

Craven has floundered recently, too, and tries to fix the problem by going back to his most recent success – the Scream franchise. When he teamed with writer Kevin Williamson for the 1996 original, the result was a fresh take on the slasher genre, with snarky self-awareness punctuating the genuine scares. The latest installment is less self-aware than self-conscious, trying way too hard to say something important, and saying it badly.

Emma Roberts plays Jill, the niece of original heroine Sidney Prescott, who has joined most of her peers in trivializing the Woodsboro murders via campy movies and smart-phone apps. When Sidney (Neve Campbell) returns to town to promote her survivor/self-help book, the infamous ghost-masked killer starts slicing up victims again — including the oblivious teenagers, who apparently don't understand that they're in real danger.

By now, there isn't much more to add to the meta-commentary on horror clichés so Craven decides to do the same thing Romero did with Diary of the Dead. He makes clever use of the technology that permeates the characters' lives, then lectures everybody on how amoral and narcissistic it's making us. Never mind that every generation levels those accusations at younger people, usually because its members feel left behind by a culture they can't control anymore.

Craven "proves" his point by making Jill and her friends so wrapped up in their little YouTube cocoon, they barely respond when the murders start happening. It's not real if it's not happening online, right?

Something like that, anyway.

Scream 4 is so absorbed in its reality-within-a-movie-within-reality conceit, it practically devours itself. Even the humor gets lost since the characters don't seem to be in on the joke this time. They're just dumber than rocks, which erases any connection viewers might have with them. This time, the joke's on us.

Extras: Commentary by Craven, Roberts, Campbell and co-star Hayden Panettiere; a making-of doc; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; a video game promo.  (R) Rating: 2 —LL

The Trip

Thanks to YouTube, this terrific British comedy has found a new lease on life here in the States. It’s tricky to describe Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, but it’s certainly easy to enjoy it. The film was presented as a six-part series on the BBC, but the theatrical version manages to play astonishingly well even with half of its original content.

The Trip stars Steve Cogan (Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, Tropic Thunder) and Rob Brydon (Little Britain) as an Englishman and a Welshman not unlike themselves. When Coogan’s American girlfriend dumps him before he can take her on a tour of first-rate eateries in rural England, he begs his pal Brydon to come along.

Because the two are comics and thespians, the journey winds up being about who can outdo the other. Although they are close friends, they can’t sit for two seconds without debating the poems of Coleridge or trying to see who does a better impersonation of Sir Michael Caine. The latter clip became a sensation online and is thankfully reflective of the rest of the movie. Watching these guys argue is more fun than just about any special effect imaginable.

There’s no credited screenwriter (much of the dialogue was improvised), but Winterbottom manages to make the simple tale flow nicely. Coogan also manages the tricky feat of making viewers sympathize with his characters ambivalence toward fame. He gets a sense that his career has faded and that he may have wasted his life chasing women and insubstantial goals.

The scenery is just gorgeous, so Winterbottom has managed to find an inexpensive but ingenious way to make a movie about two guys talking both fun and breathtaking.

Extras: It might have been nice for us Yanks to see how the complete series unfolded. There is nearly an hour and 45 minutes of outtakes, some of which come from the TV version. They’re funny out of context, but it would have been fun to compare the two versions. There’s also some behind the scenes footage the reveals that Coogan and Brydon aren’t that close in real life, but thankfully they aren’t that combative, either. (R) Rating: 4.5 — DL



Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.