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Saturday
Apr162011

Scream (1996)

It's Hip to Be Scared

Yeah, yeah, yeah: The 90s were a horror wasteland overrun with shitty Stephen King adaptations and shitty sequels to decent Stephen King adaptations--until Scream came along.  I'm sure you've heard the story a thousand times before.  If you haven't, I've just summarized it for you.

What's interesting about Scream, and what people tend to forget, is that even though it spawned a bloated industry of pop-referencing slasher films starring attractive television stars, the fact remains that the reason it gave birth to so much garbage is because it was a huge hit.  Its success can be directly attributed to word of mouth, which often stems from a quality experience.  'Tis true: Wes Craven's Scream is a great movie whose low-rent genre doesn't prevent it from being a modern classic.

Two things set it apart from the movies that came before and after it.  Its first, most obvious and well-covered attribute is writer Kevin Williamson's self-aware screenplay.  His characters don't know they're in a horror movie, but they've seen enough of them to know when someone is re-enacting one.  High schooler Sidney (Neve Campbell), her boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and all their friends quote classic film lines and bring up obscure movies in everyday conversation.  While it's a bit hard to swallow at times (these kids' only frame of reference seems to be horror movies), the dialogue serve to paint a world in which teenagers are aware of the idiocy of exploring scary noises in the dark--precisely because they grew up watching movies where such idiots get killed.

The second key to Scream's success is that it's a scary movie.  While the sequels mistakenly capitalize on the hipness and humor factors to a greater and eventually unsustainable degree, the original is a straight-up suspense thriller with some gore and light humor thrown in.  Like The Usual Suspects before it, the fun of Scream is trying to figure out which of the large cast of characters is targeting Sidney and her classmates while dressed as a cartoon-faced grim reaper.  As video store clerk Randy (Jamie Kennedy) exclaims, everybody's a suspect; everyone gets one or two ominous close-ups and spooky music cues.  The coolest thing about the screenplay is that none of these tricks matters; significant clues to the Ghostface Killer's identity are all over the place, and Craven and Williamson cleverly pepper their misdirection with actual finger pointing--all in the service of unnerving the audience from frame one.

Ah, yes, frame one.  How about that iconic opening scene!  Another teen named Casey (Drew Barrymore), alone in her parents' house, makes popcorn before settling in to watch a movie.  The phone rings.  She answers, and begins a reluctantly flirty convesation with the soothing, older-sounding voice (Roger Jackson) on the other end. Before long, the voice reveals himself to be a stalker who's bound Casey's boyfriend to a chair on the patio and promises to kill him if she can't answer some basic movie trivia questions.

This scene is famous for Barrymore's surprising, gruesome death.  At the time of release, critics and fans praised the filmmakers for hearkening back to Janet Leigh's first-act demise in Psycho.  Moviegoers assumed Barrymore was the star of Scream because she appeared on the poster (twice), but after the first ten minutes, the audience was left with a previously unfelt unease that everyone in the movie was expendable.

Having just watched the film again for the first time in a few years, I'd also like to say that part of the reason this scene is so iconic is that it's really well done.  Aside from Barrymore's awful thirty-seconds of over-acting during her transition from curious to terrified, the actress gives a fine, sympathetic performance.  It's also a tragic one, as Casey's parents arrive home mere minutes before she's from a tree and gutted in her front yard.

To the two readers who haven't seen Scream, I apologize for the spoiler.  I won't discuss the killers' identity, though, except to say that--much like the Big Reveal in Scream 2--a moment of wonderful surprise is quickly undone by an exaggerated performance that I still can't wrap my head around. I know Jim Carrey ruled the multiplex in the mid-90s, but throwing an Ace Ventura clone into one's film is not a wise move in any decade.

As many of you know, I've been watching the Scream trilogy in reverse order this week in anticipation of seeing Scream 4 tonight.  Something I haven't touched on yet--something that began in part one and was never really topped in the sequels--is the relationship between tabloid reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and sheriff's deputy Dewey (David Arquette).  Weathers is determined to get the scoop on the teen murders as a follow-up to a book she's writing on another killing that happened a year ago--in which Sidney's mother was raped and murdered.  She charms Dewey into giving her leads and access, and eventually comes to like the guy.  Dewey is smitten instantly, and though he's a pretty broadly drawn doofus character, Arquette imbues him with an awkward nobility.  Most people know that Cox and Arquette met and fell in love on the set of Scream, and would later marry, and Craven captures the weird chemistry of a burgeoning relationship perfectly.  How much of that was due to directing skill, solid writing, or Cupid's arrow, we may never know.

Scream ushered in an era of cheap and mid-grade imitators, none of which got what their forefather was all about.  Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven targeted his film to the smartest people in the audience--but he also knew to walk the line between aloof and accessible.  If you're a dumb kid who just wants to see other kids get cut to pieces, you'll find a disposable Friday Night Fright Feature here.  But if you like some mystery to your mayhem; if you know who Henry Winkler is and are interested in seeing him act instead of just sleep through a "Hey-it's-Henry-Winkler" cameo; and if you prefer your horror movie victims to be uniformly intelligent and gutsy (if not always successful), then there's a lot to enjoy in this film.

I can't defend much of Craven's post-Scream oeuvre, but he and Williamson woke up audiences to the possibility that cinema's red-headed step-child (the horror movie) didn't have to be cheap and mindless wastes of time.  With a handful of films, including this one, he earned his title as a "Master of Horror". And there are few things in life as fun or as satisfying as watching a master do what he does best.

Friday
Apr152011

Scream 2 (1997) Home Video Review

A Stab at Greatness

The cool thing about Scream 2 is that it's a horror sequel about shitty horror sequels that itself manages to be pretty good.  Though it came out within a year of the smash-hit original, there's nothing about the movie that says "rushed cash-in".

The story picks up two years after the Woodsboro murders, in which teen Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her friends were terrorized by two classmates posing as a single maniac called The Ghostface Killer.  Sidney's got a great new boyfriend named Derek (Jerry O'Connell); a fun, sorority-pledging roommate named Hallie (Elise Neal); and a new series of murders to deal with.  It seems someone has taken to slicing up co-eds whose names are similar to the Woodsboro victims, and as Sid's returning dimwitted hero/friend Dewey (David Arquette) says, the killer is probably someone she already knows.

Writer Kevin Williamson doesn't break new ground with his plot.  But in the same way he used a slasher movie to critique and transcend the genre with Scream, he uses Scream 2 to analyze and overcome the pitfalls of horror follow-ups.  He overstates his thesis early on in a Film Studies class scene where the students talk sequels, but for the most part he shows rather than tells.  Scream 2 has a bigger body count, main character deaths, and new information about the original film's mythology--all sequel staples laid out by film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy).  But it doesn't get so wrapped up in its own cleverness that it forgets to be scary.

The opening scene is the best example:  A young couple attends a sneak preview of Stab, the big-screen adaptation of reporter Gale Weathers' (Courteney Cox) book about Woodsboro.  The theatre is overrun with idiots running up and down the aisles in Ghostface costumes, stabbing each other with fake knives and yelling, "Kill! Kill! Kill!" It's the perfect cover for a little mayhem, and when the real murderer breaks up the date, we're treated to a chilling spectacle of evisceration as performance art.

We get a few funny glimpses of Stab, the movie-within-a-movie, as Heather Graham, Luke Wilson and Tori Spelling recreate iconic scenes from Scream with the faux intensity of slick Hollywood product, but it's a credit to Williamson that he didn't let this cheekiness drive the main story (as his Scream 3 successor Ehren Kruger would a few years later).

Let's give some props to Wes Craven, shall we?  This is the last frightening thing he directed, and it's great to see him go out with a bang (sadly, he made seven movies after this one).  Aside from the theatre-massacre opening, there's a terrifically weird scene where Sidney, a drama major, must dodge Ghostface during a dress rehearsal for Cassandra.  The stage shakes with fake thunder and eerie lightning, and her entire supporting cast are dressed like ghoulish druids in distorted white masks and robes. Never for a second did I believe that Sidney was in danger of being killed, and it's to Craven's credit that I was still on the edge of my seat.

Nearly all of the stalk-and-slash scenes are gripping as hell, and a lot of that has to do with their unconventional locations.  From the stage, to a recording studio, to a crashed cop car, we're stuck with the characters in places that we ourselves wouldn't necessarily know how to escape.  These are, for the most part, alien environments with their own challenges that make evading a killer nearly impossible (or, in Dewey's case, fully impossible...sort of).  Craven and Williamson get the standard sorority-house-kill out of the way early and spend their suspense chips wisely on separating characters in soundproof rooms or trapping them in a squad car with the one way out blocked by an unconscious psychopath (This sorority-house-kill always bothered me, since the victim is played by Sarah Michelle Gellar--a.k.a. TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer--and I couldn't wrap my brain around her going out like such a punk).  Granted, it may be hard for newer audiences to appreciate these scenes because they've been done to death in the fourteen years since Scream 2's release; but even I, an old, jaded cynic, was caught up in many of these moments--and am not ashamed to admit it.

If you haven't seen this movie yet, you're probably wondering who the killer is this time.  Once again, there are two, and I won't spoil their identities.  I will say that one of them is not Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber); though I'm glad the filmmakers took the time to paint him as a suspect because it gave the actor a lot of room to play up his wrongly-accused man pathos--which alternates between sympathetically charming and anger-management-scary.  Scream 2's killers are inspired choices whose Big Reveal is slightly undone by acting that starts off credibly creepy but ends--in both cases--as a greasy, honey-ham special.

This brings me my one big problem with the film: The characterization of a few key players.  The killers' performances are not Jim-Carrey-Riddler over-the-top, but there's a theatricality that zooms right past believable pathos and into musical theatre territory.  Everything gets really Big for a few minutes, and I wondered what the actors had done with the solid characters they'd just spent an hour and forty-five minutes creating.

That's nothing compared to the young couple in the opening scene.  As played by Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps, they are the most offensive black stereotypes I've seen since before the passing of the Civil Rights act.  Worse yet, I can't figure out if Williamson wrote the characters this way, or if the actors played up these parts to make them more authentic.  Whatever the case, I was embarrassed to watch these kids yelling at the movie and talking to each other in the most put-on, Will-Smith-jive.  I didn't want to see them die so much as get an education (ironic, 'cause they're college students).  I was reminded of the franchise parody Scary Movie, which re-creates Scream 2's opening; what's so great about The Wayans' Brothers take on the material is that they only had to tweak the source a little bit in order to show how offensive and silly it is.

There's also the matter of Gale Weathers' new cameraman, Joel (Duane Martin), another graduate of the Hell Naw School of Social Interaction.  Lest you think I'm piling on, I concede that there are white stereotypes in Scream 2, but the numeric inequality is staggering.  We have two dim-bulb sorority girls to about twenty major-to-medium players; whereas, of the movie's five black characters, three are cartoons; one comes off as an intelligent human being; and the other is a featured extra with one line of dialogue.  It's a horror movie cliche to kill off the black characters; but does an entire culture need to be assassinated before its representatives' on-screen deaths?

These are potholes in an otherwise smooth and entertaining ride.  Craven and Williamson have delivered a fine follow-up to their Movie That Changed All The Rules--indeed, a horror movie that future film students may discuss in a two-minute lecture about good sequels.

Note: I'd like to address a big Scream 2 controversy surrounding Randy's death.  Some--including me--decry his ridiculous decision to stand right in front of a news van while talking to the killer on his cell phone (he gets pulled into the vehicle and stabbed to death).  Watching the movie again, I noticed how focused Randy was on his conversation, which involved not only horror movies but also his unrequited affection for Sidney.  Anyone who's ever gotten caught up in a phone call while walking down the street or driving in a car (Shame on you!) knows that it's very easy to get distracted and lose sense of your surroundings.  I can thus proclaim Randy's death unfortunate, but not entirely stupid.

Wednesday
Apr132011

Hanna (2011)

Father/Daughter Dance

Joe Wright has directed some of my favorite movies of the last six years, none of which I'd had any interest in seeing before I watched them.  At first glance, Atonement and Pride and Prejudice look like stuffy Merchant/Ivory productions, but beneath their Proper Affairs of Society lay tragedies of love, class, and war that transcend time, place, and genre.  His latest film, Hanna, examines the trials of parenthood through an art-house version of the kid-assassin thriller.

Wright's Atonement prodigy Saoirse Ronan stars as Hanna, a fifteen-year-old girl raised by her father, Erik (Eric Bana) in a secluded German forest.  Under his tutelage, she learns to hunt and field dress deer, defend herself in hand-to-hand combat, and memorize whole volumes of encyclopedia just as easily as her elaborate alternate-identity cover story.  You see, dad is an ex-CIA spook with a secret whose survivalist lifestyle is meant to prepare Hanna for the day when his former handler, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), comes after them.

Hanna has been trained specifically to kill Wiegler and, following some events I won't spoil, winds up in a black site cell in Morocco that's overseen by Wiegler herself.  Despite the best efforts of the facility's well-armed staff, Hanna escapes into the desert.  She befriends a bratty English teen named Sophie (Jessica Barden) and her infatuated younger brother, Miles (Aldo Maland); their hippie parents (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemying) are dragging them across the country in an RV, and Hanna comes along for the ride.

Wiegler, meanwhile, recruits a short, creepy European assassin named Isaacs (Tom Hollander) and his two creepier skinhead goons to kill Hanna--and anyone she comes into contact with.  As you might imagine, the rest of the film plays out as a cat-and-mouse game full of daring escapes, twisted revelations, and an ultimate, brutal showdown between good and evil.  This genre, though sparse, has its own clichés that have been tested and refined in movies like The Professional and Kick-Ass.

What sets Hanna apart is the sheer artistry of Wright's execution.  It's as if he knew that the top-notch performances of his cast and The Chemical Brothers' beautiful techno-organic score would be crowd-pleasers on their own, but he wanted to push for indie credibility through the use of bizarre staging, dizzyingly obtuse camerawork by Alwin H. Kuchler, and a wardrobe and set design aesthetic that can best be described as Eurotrash Hansel and Gretel.  The mind-blowingly strange choices the director makes here render Hanna a must-see, and casts even the more predictable elements in a wonderful, often terrifying new light.

Take, for example, the vacationing family.  We've seen Isaacs and his men murder everyone in sight, so it's inevitable that Hanna's newfound friends are dead meat, too.  We don't get to see them die, but we are treated to their last moments ways that will make you squirm.  The backdrop of their demise is a shipyard, and Isaacs' flunkies have separated each victim into a different container for interrogation. Mom is tied up, with floodlights blinding her; the kids sit crying and answering questions as best they can; it's when we see what's been done to Dad--or what may be done to him--that the scene gets really claustrophobic and strange: He's sitting at the back of a container that's filled with lawn-mowers, and his shaking nervous body is framed with their handles. Wright uses weird angles to convey the puzzlement and fear of the victim; he doesn't know what's going on, and it takes us a moment to figure out just what the hell we're looking at.

The film is also paced differently than what you might expect.  Wright and screenwriters Seth Lockhead and David Farr explore some dark territory here, a lot of it unstated.  It's just as thrilling to watch Hanna, a girl so sheltered she's never seen a light switch or heard music, freak out during her first stay in a cheap hotel room as it is to watch her break peoples' necks.  By taking the time to invest in their characters, to force us to feel their anxiety in the quieter moments (as well as some fleeting joy), the filmmakers give us rich, distinct points of view instead of a false black-and-white dichotomy. These moments are so exciting and rewarding that they can only be balanced out by action scenes of an equally challenging nature--which Wright makes gorgeous if not original.

Of course, a movie like this is only as good as its star, and Ronan is quite amazing as Hanna.  With her practically albino complexion and perpetually curious (sometimes dazed) expression, she plays a cipher in search of a soul.  Hers is the role of the alien visiting Earth for the first time, even though she's a native; she has no filter for polite conversation, and sees everything in the world as puzzle pieces to be treasured and matched up.  This charming naivete turns off like a switch, though, when she goes into hunting and survival mode, and it's to Ronan's credit that these dueling aspects of her malleable personality never seem contrived.  I bought Hanna as a robot, as a killer Pinnochio who wants only to understand what she is and then to figure out what that means.

My one complaint about the film is its rating.  It's clear that some of the fight scenes and darker material were trimmed to, I guess, maximize audience attendance.  I understand the logic, but the decision speaks to the ignorance of whoever made it.  Okay, maybe "ignorance" isn't the right word; but chopping out the gore and violence cheapens the point of certain scenes.  The film spends so much time selling its unique, adult qualities that to undermine those qualities in the name of appeasing children seems hypocritical (I had the same problem with the Liam Neeson actioner, Taken, which was diced all to hell in the name of making a cuddly revenge picture).  I just hope the home-video version comes out uncut.

It's still really early in the year, and already I've filled two of my Best of the Year slots.  I hope that the other eight will be as daring and imaginative as Hanna.   But I won't hold my breath.

Note:  The reason I didn't mention Joe Wright's The Soloist is because I still can't imagine a world in which the film advertised in that trailer is anything but atrocious.  Hey, I've been wrong before; but I'm not going to take the plunge until someone tells me the water's safe.

Tuesday
Apr122011

Scream 3 (2000) Home Video Review

Not with a Scream, But a Whimper

Before this morning, I hadn't seen Scream 3 since it came out in 2000; unlike its predecessors, I only watched it once.  At the time, I remember being underwhelmed by the film, whose formula had been perfected in the first outing and run into the ground by a dozen copycats in the intervening four years. Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson revitalized the horror genre with a hip, scary slasher movie that gave birth to a slew of shadowy-stalker teen thrillers whose posters looked more like TV Guide ads for the WB's Fall lineup than chilling promises of unimaginable frights.

Williamson didn't return to the franchise after part two, ceding the writerly reins to Ehren Kruger.  I don't know if Williamson simply felt he'd done as much as he could with the characters, or if his hit TV show Dawson's Creek kept him too busy to revisit the Ghostface Killer--but his absence left a huge pit in the center of Scream 3, which Kruger was ill-equipped to fill.

At the beginning of the film, series heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is living a life of seclusion in the woods. Her house is protected by a state-of-the-art security system, and she spends her days as an anonymous phone counselor of abused women.  Meanwhile, in Hollywood, production is under way for Stab 3, the second sequel in a highly successful horror franchise based on Sidney's encounters with the brutal killer of the first two movies.  Someone has begun murdering the actors in the order that they die in the script, and leaving black-and-white photos of Sydney's dead mother at the crime scenes.

This draws the attention of bumbling-cop-turned-technical-advisor Dewey (David Arquette), and his ex-girlfriend, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), a former tabloid journalist now doing the lecture circuit.  They team up with Detective Kincaid (Patrick Dempsey) of the LAPD to figure out why the killer is trying to lure Sidney out into the open.  With the road map unfolded, Kruger sends his characters on yet another Scooby-Doo adventure that yields few surprises for anyone paying attention.

Which brings me to my Three Big Problems with Scream 3:

1.  Old Meets Not-Quite-as-Old.  While it's nice to see Campbell, Cox, and Arquette back together again (as well as a touching cameo by Jamie Kennedy as deceased classmate/film nerd Randy), Scream 3 wrestles with the same problem as any teen-centric television drama after the high-school graduation episode: The characters are adults now, and the best slashers are about kids.  Scream 2 sent the gang to college, which is a passable substitute, but in the third film, there's only one cast member who looks to be under 25.  Most of the rest, aside from the principals, are older actors playing kids--which makes for a fine meta-joke about youth-oriented entertainment, but is a drag to sit through.

Sidney, Dewey, and Gale wear a tired look of resignation through most of the movie, as they realize their bloody pasts will never die.  Sadly, that translates to the audience's experience of watching them jump through windows and run screaming for what seems like the fiftieth time.  The screenplay also toys with us, teasing that because this is the third movie in a trilogy, main cast members are in real danger of dying.  No such luck.  The end of Scream 3 is the same as the end of Scream and Scream 2, with the same people wiping the same caked blood from their faces and staggering off into the proverbial sunset--the only difference is that some of the stab wounds may now, in fact, be crow's feet.

2.  Bumbling Killer Syndrome.  The original Ghostface Killer(s) was a clumsy murderer, which helped set the first Scream apart from lesser genre films.  He was just as likely to take a boot in the face or trip over a bookshelf than to jump out at a victim with perfect timing.  To have this same m.o. show up two movies later is a sign that the filmmakers would rather maintain consistent branding than have the thrust of their picture make sense.

In each movie, the killers are completely different people who wear identical reaper-type costumes and wield the same knives.  While it's true that the killer in part three helped the perpetrators of the original devise their whole wicked scheme, I seriously doubt he encouraged them to be as sloppy and uncoordinated as possible in chasing prey (I also don't recall the Ghostface Killer from either of the first two movies sounding like Maury Povich on Red Bull; but that's a minor quibble).

3.  Parker Posey.  What better example of the failure of this film's "comedic" tone than the acting decisions of Parker Posey?  There are a ton of cameos and has-been/will-be star appearances in Scream 3, and Posey is emblematic of the collective cheese that renders the movie less like a classic Wes Craven horror film and more like a milder version of Scary Movie.  She plays Jennifer, the actress who plays Gale in Stab 3; and when I say "plays", I mean she over-acts the fuck out of every line and nearly throws out her back with constantly jutting limbs and sass-neck.

We're supposed to take her seriously towards the middle of the film, and there's just no chance of it. She's a cartoon character, as are Patrick Warburton, Jenny McCarthy, Carrie Fisher, Kevin Smith, and Jason Mewes (in 2001, Smith included a Scream parody in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that said more about the franchise and the business of running one into the ground than Scream 3).  I did more head-scratching than nail-biting during this movie, so focused was I on marvelling at the next celebrity appearance than the next ho-hum, knife-to-the-gut death scene.

Even more puzzling is the fact that Kruger wrote the script for the smash-hit remake of The Ring, which debuted a couple years later.  Regardless of what you think of it now (it, too, was responsible for a crop of decent-to-shitty PG-13 updates of Japanese horror films), there were genuinely creepy story elements that trump anything in Scream 3.  So I don't know if I should blame Kruger, Craven, or Dimension Films. All I can say is that the third movie is a polished, pop-savvy, and utterly boring nail in the late-90s-slasher-glut coffin.  I suppose there's poetry in the fact that Scream opened the door and shut it just as definitively--except that poetry tends to be enjoyable.

Monday
Apr112011

Arn: The Knight Templar (2007)

Letting My Gard Down

I've not read the Jan Guillou trilogy on which Arn: The Knight Templar is based.  But I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it's a young-adult historical fantasy.  I've not seen anything like the film adaptation, which mixes the epic scale of Braveheart with the corny lessons about friendship, faith and romance that one might expect from the first movie they ever watched.  That sounds like a slam, but the truth is that I love Arn for its alternating excitement and silliness.  I also love that it was able to boil several books down to their most entertaining, film-worthy parts--unlike another series about a boy's lifelong quest to vanquish evil that I could mention.

The movie begins with Arn (Joaquim Natterqvist) and a small contingent of Crusaders preventing a robbery in the desert.  Among the men they rescue is the Muslim leader Saladin (Milind Soman), who begrudgingly pledges gratitude to his Arn.  Over a campfire, Arn tells Saladin the story of how he came to be in the desert and speak the native tongue.

We flash back twenty years to Arn's apprenticeship in the monastery he was raised.  Under the guidance of Brother Guilbert (Vincent Perez), he learns archery, swordsmanship, and spirituality.  When he reaches adulthood, he's ordered to return home to reconnect with his family, who is embroiled in a bitter rivalry with the Sverkersson clan. Arn also becomes infatuated with a girl named Cecilia (Sofia Helin), who lives in a neighboring convent.  The two fall in love, and when Cecilia tells her sister Katarina (Lina Englund) that they plan to elope, Katarina falsely accuses Arn of bedding both she and Cecilia--a big no-no in a devout society.

Arn is banished from his homeland and conscripted to join the Crusades as a Knight Templar.  Cecilia is sent to an ultra-strict convent, where she must adhere to a vow of silence.  She also has to give up the baby that she and Arn conceived in the woods following their first kiss.

If you're having flashbacks to Atonement, you're not alone.  Much of Arn is a period romance about lies tearing true love apart, and the lengths that soul mates will go to to find each other again.  The key difference is that there's more bloodshed and treachery here, with several sub-plots involving the warring families, warring nuns, warring holy warriors, and warring religious ideologies.  It's a testament to Hans Gunnarsson's light touch as a screenwriter that Arn doesn't get bogged down in either too much romance or too much politics.

The story is broken into chapters that sometimes overlap, sometimes wrap around, and sometimes play straight on through.  At the center is Natterqvist, whose Arn has the sullen pretty-boy face of Neil Patrick Harris and Shawn Ashmore's love-child and the sincere, world-weary demeanor that people mistakenly ascribed to Russell Crow's Oscar-winning Gladiator performance.  Though his mind is focused on defeating the Lord's enemies and half of his heart belongs to Jesus, Arn wears the constant thousand-yard stare of someone who just wants to make sweet, sweet love in the nearest orchard.  So even when he's chopping off hands or bickering with his crazy superiors who believe the knights' golden True Cross can protect them on a three-day trek through the hottest part of the desert without water, you can tell by Natterqvist's wonderfully half-engaged face that his brain is writing bad poetry to his beloved.

Speaking of poetry, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better looking modern epic than Arn.  Director Peter Flinth and cinematographer Erik Kress do some amazing things making dreary skies, woods, and stone look more full of life than waning legend Ridley Scott did in last year's ill-conceived Robin Hood update. Flinth and Kress never fail to evoke their ever-changing tones, switching up tender romance to the quiet menace of jealousy and betrayal to the dread of citizen soldiers squaring off against a seasoned army for the first (and last) time.  They even do something here that I thought was impossible: They caught me by surprise with the low-hanging-branch-knocking-a-guy-off-his-horse bit.  I re-watched the few seconds leading up to the moment of impact and marveled at the subtlety and mis-direction of the moment.  Best yet, the accident is followed by humor and then tenderness that didn't seem at all forced.

I don't mean to sell Arn as a masterpiece.  It's pretty damned good, but there are goofy little moments that keep it out of the "classic" category.  First, we have the Jaws: The Revenge moment, where a bunch of characters have a collective flashback to a scene none of them were present to witness.  When Cecilia is brought before the church on charges of fornication, the congregation somehow flashes on her and Arn getting down in the woods.  Next, we have the introduction of Magnus, Arn and Cecilia's grown-up son, whose Big Reveal is completely undone by the fact that he looks like Kristen Wiig with a Prince Valiant hairdo.

There's also some fantastic dialogue here, and I can't be sure if it's a translation issue, or if Gunnarsson is just a comedic savant.  In an early scene, one of the Sverkerssons challenges Arn's father (Michael Nyqvist) to a sword fight and mocks his low-class family (all men, by the way) as being "nothing but puny girls, a nun, and a beer keg."  I nearly spit coffee all over my monitor when I heard that.

Another slight hitch in my enjoyment of Arn is the filmmakers' decision to use multiple languages to tell their story.  Now, I'm a big fan of subtitled films, but I'm also a big fan of consistency.  It's cute that Flinth and company wanted to showcase Arn's international adventures by switching up English, Swedish, Arabic and others, but after awhile the appearance and disappearance of subtitles just becomes confusing.  It was unclear after awhile who could speak what to whom, and I just wished they would've either gone fully subtitled or fully English with different accents.  Sure, it's a nitpick.  What of it?

None of these minor issues detract from Arn being a surprisingly great little movie.  I think its lack of flashiness and gratuitous violence make it a solid action-epic primer for older kids.  As I mentioned before, there are plenty of One to Grow On lessons as well, and even if you've learned (or ignored) all of them, sometimes it's nice to be reminded of things like honor, the value of friends and family, and the commitment to an idea greater than oneself (hey, one man's simplicity is another's profundity).  I was moved by Arn in ways I didn't expect to be, and have found a new standard by which to judge epic adventure movies.