In Review: 'Scream VI,' 'Champions'
A horror franchise about sending up formulas turns formulaic while an underdog sports comedy simply plays by the rules.
Dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
The Scream series is now 27-years-old—old enough to drive, old enough to vote, old enough to drink, and old enough to know better. Much of what I feel about Scream VI could be cut-and-paste from my review of the fifth Scream last year: “Yet another body that a zombified industry has bitten in the neck, and now it’s roaming the earth.” “The main takeaway [is] the wish that its directors were making an original film, rather than recycling an old one to the best of their abilities.” As I noted at the time, Wes Craven’s original Scream was exciting not only as a witty deconstruction of the slasher genre, but a subtle critique of solipsistic teenagers who are processing the actual deaths of their peers with such detachment that they might as well be characters in a movie. That’s meta-cinema with bite.
Save for one utterly chilling sequence in a car in Scream 2, Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson couldn’t figure out how to keep the series going creatively, but Ghostface was too much of a cash machine to kill. Now that he’s back, stronger and more prolific than ever, the franchise has been financially revitalized, to the point where the now-requisite scene laying out “the rules” in Scream VI talks about “franchise” expectations like the last one did sequels, reboots, and “requels.” Anything goes in a franchise! Not even legacy characters are safe! (Unless you don’t see them actually die, in which case they’re miraculously fine.)
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But here’s the thing about franchises, and the intensive world-building and mythology that goes into them: You have to give a shit. You the filmmakers and you the audience. Because the expectation heading into Scream VI is not only that you’ve just rewatched the last Scream movie the day before, but you’ve also mapped a complete history of its characters, which now spans multiple generations’ worth of slayings and other entanglements. Now, it’s reasonable to expect people to remember legacy performers like Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, who isn’t in this film, or Courteney Cox, who is, but recall is harder on the Carpenter sisters, Tara (Jenna Ortega) and Samantha (Melissa Barrera), despite them being the prominent new additions to the series last time. There’s a tenth Fast and the Furious movie coming out. How much bandwidth for this stuff are we expected to have?
The big hook with Scream VI also has its roots in a horror franchise, though Friday the 13th waited two sequels longer to get there: Jason took Manhattan (via Vancouver) in Friday the 13th: Part VIII, and now Ghostface takes Manhattan (via Montreal) in Scream VI. The opening sequence, which has taken on James Bond-level importance in these films, turns out to be the high point, with Samara Weaving, the star of Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s superior Ready or Not, meeting a Tinder date that doesn’t go as planned. There’s an ingenious piece of misdirection in the sequence that I won’t spoil here, but it all links up elegantly to Samantha and Tara, who have moved to New York to get away from the horrors visited upon them in Woodsboro. Sam is still ultra-cautious about how she manages her affairs, but Tara doesn’t want to live her life in fear, which means she’s willing to take greater risks to behave like a normal college student.
Of course, Ghostface emerges in the city regardless, with a new set of suspects, including Sam’s therapist (Henry Czerny) and roommate (Liana Liberato), Tara’s extensive college friend group, 2011 Woodsboro Murders survivor Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), the detective (Dermot Mulroney) assigned to the case, and maybe the Carpenters themselves, who may be turning trauma into traumatunity. But who cares? And when the reveal actually happens, it couldn’t be more of a shrug? The Scream series has been cheating on the whodunit aspect for a long time now, with multiple Ghostfaces making it convoluted and impossible to guess, and a tension-draining, convoluted Talking Killer speech at the end to explain it all.
One thing the Scream franchise is not calling out—at least not yet—is its addiction to its own formula, and how it’s become the same tired thing the original film was exposing. That knowing sense of superiority that once separated Scream from the slasher chaff falls away when you’re following Jason to Manhattan, no matter how far the tongue is buried in the cheek. The opening sequence, the “rules” speech, the Scooby-Doo reveal: Those are now expected elements of every Scream movie, shaken not stirred. The best these films can do now is flash a little cleverness or style on the margins. That’s a grim fate. — Scott Tobias
Scream VI opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.
Dir. Bobby Farrelly
Champions understands you already know the formula for underdog sports movies and it doesn’t care. The first solo feature from Bobby Farrelly—with Peter, one half of the directing team responsible for comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary—is happy to play the sports comedy hits with a twist: the team of underdogs is made up of intellectually disabled adults training to compete in the Special Olympics and played by an intellectually disabled cast. It’s an amiable, big-hearted ramble of a film filled with endearing performances from charismatic non-professional actors. Champions makes it hard not to like it at least a little. But it is hard to like it a lot. An adaptation of the 2018 Spanish comedy Campeones scripted by Mark Rizzo, Champions sends viewers into a two-hour tour of a laugh desert with the occasional oasis only reinforcing the aridness of the surrounding landscape.
Woody Harrelson (star of Kingpin, the Farrellys' best movie) plays Marcus, a basketball coach for a minor league team in Des Moines whose on-the-court meltdown, and subsequent firing, turns him into a public disgrace. (It also attracts a lot of ESPN attention on what must have been a slow day in sports news.) One DUI later, Marcus finds himself doing 90 days of community service working with the Friends, a team of intellectually disabled athletes who have a lot of heart and an equal amount of quirks. These include Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), a shelter employee who loves animals as much as he hates showers. Johnny’s also the younger brother of Alex (Kaitlin Olson), a tart-tongued, no-nonsense woman who already knows Marcus from a one-night-stand, but gets to know him even better over the course of the season.
There’s not a lot of suspense as to where the story is heading and Farrelly, whose movies have a long history of featuring the disabled in supporting roles, provides some welcome space that allows the members of the team to be at least a little more than just tools for Marcus’ redemption. But Marcus’ heart melts so early in his tenure as the Friends’ coach that most scenes are little more than Marcus and the team hanging out and goofing around, with one or two gross-out gags thrown in for old times’ sake. (And training montages. So many training montages.) It’s more nice than good but it is undeniably nice. —Keith Phipps
Champions opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.
Um where's the review for Adam Driver and Dinosaurs. Don't let us down, guys
Review of Scream tie into larger discussion about how creatively bankrupt meta commentary is. Just to pick one example, first Austin Powers was terrific sendup/homage to Bond movies, but that trick only work once, so third Austin Powers was flailing sendup/homage to Austin Powers movies.
Legacyquels only work if A) original has enough depth to keep us invested, and B) sequel break new ground and push story forward. But one could argue Scream 2 was already legacyquel, as you not can start franchise based as self-aware commentary on slasher movies and then un-ring that bell in future installments. You can only just ring same bell over and over, and it very hard to find interesting ways to do that.