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Friday
Oct312008

Saw V (2008)

Cornered

Unlike most mainstream critics, I'm reviewing Saw V from a fan's perspective. Yes, it's fun to eviscerate horror movies as cheap, poorly constructed genre fare, but the Saw franchise has been consistently interesting and smart. Part of the genius of this series is that each subsequent film answers questions (read: covers up the plot holes) of the previous pictures. For example, one of the biggest criticisms lobbed at the first film was the villain's ability to devise elaborate traps and kidnap people when part of his motivation stemmed from his being in the late stages of cancer; the solution: reveal, in Saw II, that he had an apprentice helping him the whole time...

The first three films created a tidy loop, a completed puzzle--until the last moments of Saw III when the series' famous twist ending came into play. The movie ended with the death of Jigsaw, the evil mastermind whose horrific games were meant to offer redemption to the corrupt (think Se7en's John Doe with an engineering degree); the catch was that his passing had set another game in motion, leading into the next installment...

Saw IV answered more questions about parts one through three, and set up additional mysteries for parts five and six, but the brilliance of the movie itself is that it contained only ten or fifteen minutes of actual sequel material. At the end of the movie, it becomes apparent that Saw IV is, in fact, a paraquel (a groovy little term I learned this week) of Saw III; this made for a mind-bending walk out of the theatre, but did very little to satisfy my desire to see the story move forward...

Wake up, everybody! It's time to discuss Saw V!

{Note: Much of this review has been spent covering old ground, I know, and that's partially because this "Critic(isms)" page is so new--most of the people I know have already heard these theories in person, and have answered back with glassy-eyed stares. It's also due to the fact that I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone who may want to see it in the theatre. And I do recommend the big-screen experience for this one. Just be prepared for a less-than-dazzling evening...}

Saw V is two-thirds of a pretty terrific picture. But, like Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, it is a frustrating endeavor for anyone paying close attention. With Jigsaw dead, the movie centers on Detective Hoffman, the one surviving cop from the previous movies, who was recently revealed as having been Jigsaw's second apprentice. He has devised a new game involving five seemingly random strangers who, in fact, share a Deep, Dark Secret; this device worked very well in Saw II, when it came out that the strangers were actually all criminals who had been busted by the cop who was on Jigsaw's trail; the cop's son had been thrown in with the low-lives and made to fend for himself while the audience waited to see when, exactly, his identity would be discovered. The randoms in Saw V, however, share a really lame connection, one that I would go so far as to call sloppy; but I'll withhold absolute judgment until Saw VI...

Hoffman is pursued by the FBI's Agent Strahm, a holdover from part three, who spends most of the picture snooping around Jigsaw's old crime scenes, muttering revelations to himself the way that NOBODY DOES (thanks, Patton Oswalt). The best parts of Saw V are the flashbacks with Hoffman and Jigsaw; Tobin Bell is sorely missed as the series' heavy, but at least he's able to contribute his smoky voice and bemused, calculating eyes to the proceedings. In fact, whenever Costas Mandylor's Hoffman is on-screen with Bell, I wished that the movie would shatter the "realism" of its universe and have Jigsaw come back from the dead as an evil-genius-zombie...

Ultimately, the movie falls apart in the last twenty minutes. Like The Prestige, I spent an inordinate amount of the run-time hoping, praying, that the filmmakers had not been so careless as to leave such obvious clues to the movie's "twist" ending; that I'd be rewarded by having these clues reverse back on themselves for a real surprise. Unfortunately, the only surprise at the end of Saw V is how poorly it compares to those of the previous pictures. My friend, Marshall, with whom I saw the movie, said that he didn't see the end coming because he'd "turned off his brain"; I died a bit inside, but realized, sadly, that he'd figured out the secret to fully enjoying the Saw V...

Monday
Oct202008

W. (2008)

Dead Meat

Goddammit. I've gotta stop getting excited about films. Between Oliver Stone's W. and this summer's The Dark Knight, this has been a rough couple of months--marked, sadly, by torpedoed expectations and bad times at the movies...

Both films, coincidentally enough, share two commonalities. They both sport great trailers that have absolutely nothing to do with the actual movies, and they both feature Oscar-caliber performances completely undeserving of the surrounding material. In the case of The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger delivered the goods in a way that surpassed the hype (until his final thirty minutes, when he was undermined by the terrible script). In W., Josh Brolin creates a fascinating George W. Bush creature that is both the genuine article and a weird caricature that is impossible not to admire--in terms of performance if not conduct...

The starring role aside, W. is an utter mess, a complete waste of time, and a film wholly lacking in Oliver Stone's finger prints. Its Tarantino-style flashback/flash-forward structure serves only to mask the fact that there are significant holes in the narative and leaps of logic that would not stand up to a linear treatment; more on that in a minute...

From the previews, I'd expected a surreal, Dr. Strangelove-style film that mixes black humor with real-world drama. Stone, apparently, lacks humor in general, and fails to evoke even a chuckle--outside of audience members who have either not been paying attention for eight years, or who love hearing the same joke repeated over and over again (and not particularly well). Yes, Condoleeza Rice is a bizarre political animal with a grating Mickey Mouse voice. What she is not is a scrunched-faced personal assistant who twitters and snorts her way through her professional life; I know this because I've seen her interviewed and, though I can't stand her politics, I understand that she's definitely a person who commands respect. Thandie Newton's unforgivable portrayal of Condi belongs in a farce, or better yet, in an episode of Li'l Bush; that goes for Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Drefuss as Dick Cheney. Colin Powell, played by Geoffrey Wright, pulls the over-serious card as the lone voice of reason standing between Bush 43 and a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq; Stone can't resist underlying this point with fucking piano music during a crucial scene, which was irritating--but not as irritating as Powell's utter capitulation two minutes later, in the same scene. I understand that the Secretary of State rolled over, eventually, but as presented in this movie, there is not motivation or sense...

Which is the hallmark of the picture, honestly. Though Oliver Stone likely believes he has crafted a striking portrait of a son who so wants the approval of his distant father that he would sacrifice the lives and reputations of Americans, all he really does is paint a picture of a spoiled rich kid with a drinking problem who rebels against a father who expects better from his child of privilege. This is not at all a sympathetic take on Dubya...

It's also not a fair portrayal of history. As I mentioned earlier, W. leaves out a number of crucial elements in the historical narrative, such as Bush's cocaine use, his National Guard "service", and, most strikingly, the 2000 election and 9/11. By the time the flashbacks catch up with present day, we've jumped from 1999 ("Hey, I think I'll run for President!") to 2003 ("We've gotta do something about Iraq!"). This is the equivalent of telling the story of Jesus without mentioning the incident in the temple, the Sermon on the Mount, or that boring crucifixion-thing. Many of the excised elements are discussed cursorily in conversation, but I paid to see a movie, not listen to C-Span...

In the end, Brolin comes out on top, followed closely by James Cromwell as Bush 41 (though he avoids imitation--thankfully--he manages to convey the frustrated wimpiness of the man) and Elizabeth Banks. Her Laura Bush is smart and sexy, and completely, unconvincingly attracted to George W. Bush. I buy their meet-cute, but not the marriage, the kids, and the silent acceptance of his demons--real and imagined...

Oddly enough, I think W. should have been an hour-and-a-half longer. But only if told in a straightforward fashion and with a mind to exploring what allowed the current president to become the man he became. This movie feels much longer than its two-hours-ten-minutes run-time because it is pure re-enactment and no drama. And the material that is chosen to be re-enacted is flat and uninteresting. Michael Moore made this movie four years ago, using news footage and editorial wit. Someone should've told Oliver Stone to save his time and our money...

Monday
Oct062008

Religulous (2008)

Run, All Ye Faithful!

This movie is not what I expected. I'm a huge fan of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, but Maher himself tends to rub me the wrong way. His sharp wit and ability to absorb and share knowledge with his audience is often upstaged by a condescension that makes me wonder if he actually cares about convincing people of his points, or if he's content with being a millionaire contrarian. Especially when he goes off on anti-religion diatribes, my eyes glaze over, and I find myself wondering what trauma had compelled him to launch a (pardon the term) crusade against the devout...

So you can see why I was not looking forward to "Religulous". Two hours of Maher bashing rubes and mugging for the camera? No thanks. After all, I'd just finished watching "An American Carol", and was plenty full of polemic cinema. Fortunately, Maher's film (which cannot be classified as a documentary; more on that in a minute) is consistently funny, sometimes insightful, and often surprising. The premise: our intrepid comedian travels the world in search of the reason as to why billions of people subscribe to sets of beliefs that can reasonably be ascribed to those with a neurological disorder. He interviews pastors, rabbis, scientists, a member of Congress, and even an ex-Jew-for-Jesus...

Bill Maher and directory Larry Charles ("Borat") have obviously learned a great deal from Michael Moore, whose documentaries "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Bowling for Columbine" smudged the line between the straight display of events-as-they-happened and entertainment. In "Fahrenheit", for example, Moore re-tooled the opening of "Bonanza" with members of the Bush cabinet standing in for the show's heroes; this was an effort to exaggerate the administration's macho posturing in regards to capturing Osama Bin Laden ("We're gonna smoke 'im out!). In Religulous, the filmmakers punctuate the film with similar effects: cut-aways to "Scarface" and "The Ten Commandments"; but they also cross a line by adding unnecessary fluff that adds nothing to the proceedings and pulls the viewer straight out of the picture. For example, during one interview, the shot holds on the interviewee, while a woman scurries across the screen in the background. Appropos of nothing, a shrieking sound effect is added in, implying that the woman was fleeing from something. I didn't get it; There was no visible danger in the scene, and the person being interviewed wasn't saying anything particularly frightening. It's as if Larry Charles wanted to make sure everyone was still alert...

Aside from a few of those moments, "Religulous" presents a gripping look at religious fanaticism. And Bill Maher manages to garner, if not sympathy, understanding as to his frustrations with seemingly intelligent people who believe, literally, in "the talking snake in the tree". We get insights into his spiritual upbringing (half Catholic, half Jewish), and come to see him as someone who would like to believe in something greater but who cannot, based on the corrupt world around him; a world whose problems stem--in large part--from religious conflicts. His closing thesis is a bit much to handle--on first viewing, anyway--as he walks along the rocks of Megiddo, the Biblical site of Armageddon. It is here that the humor of the film is swapped out for a fire-and-brimstone montage of nuclear bombs exploding and a religion-will-kill-everyone-if-left-unchecked sermon that is a perfect representation of the Hollywood Atheist against which "values voters" constantly rail (Maher even looks like a devil, dressed to the nines in a black suit and blood-red dress shirt)...

For all its bombast, "Religulous" refreshingly stops short of condemnation of all religious people, and never pretends to have all the answers. It is a great jumping-off point for healthy discussion, and a balanced enough look at the myriad laughable costumes and traditions in every religion to warrant chuckles from even the staunchest dogma adherents.

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