Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cut and Waste: The Jigsaw Saga Finally Comes to a Close with “Saw 3D”

To see or not to see “Saw 3D.” That is the question. This one is easy. If you enjoy seeing intestines and other various internal organs being thrown at you, see “Saw 3D.” If you enjoy watching someone’s jaw being ripped open by a reverse bear trap see “Saw 3D.” If you enjoy seeing someone’s arms being swiftly ripped off see “Saw 3D.” If you enjoy seeing someone’s eyeballs being gouged out by something pointy see “Saw 3D.” You see where I’m going with this right? Ok, if you’re still with me and not above the toilet bowl ready to puke, I’d like to say that while I admire the Saw films, I’ve never really been a hardcore fan. I like blood and guts as much as the next horror geek, but something about the way these films are usually shoddily shot, edited and sewn together just never really quite sat right with me. Their plots were always a bit too convoluted and you’d have to wear rubber boots just to wade through all the backstory the writers would throw at you. Having said that I didn’t really hate “Saw 3D,” if anything it nicely wraps up this surprisingly popular horror franchise (hopefully) and offers plenty of gore for us sickos. I mean seriously, how’d this film get an R rating anyways?

The most disappointing aspect of Saw 3D is not the writing or acting or editing, but rather has much more to do with the 3D part of its title. Was this movie really shot in 3D? because to me, the filmmakers didn’t really have many cool 3D shots. Horror and 3D really go together and I was slightly disappointed to realize that I could have been watching this movie in 2D and my experience wouldn’t have changed one bit. I mean it’s nice to have an internal organ thrown at you, but it didn’t nearly happen enough. Horror 3D is supposed to be gimmicky, you’re supposed to watch the movie months later at home and roll your eyes at all scenes that would have looked cool in 3D but will just look dumb now that you’re watching it on TV. The filmmakers are supposed to throw stuff in your face and that just didn’t happen here. Lame!

Now I know you’re just on pins and needles waiting to find out what happens in “Saw 3D” (the series’ seventh chapter in case you’re keeping track). The film opens up with a familiar face… hey that’s Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) from the oringal Saw. We see him crawling away, one footed, presumably minutes after cutting off his own foot. We see him burn his bloody stump on a hot pipe to cauterize the wound. It’s a nice, and comforting, flashback to a time when Saw was just its own thing and the term “torture porn” wasn’t even on the horizon. Then we cut to a completely pointless scene of two guys in a glass box, trapped with saws near their chests and a woman hanging above them with a saw below her midriff. It turns out they’re in the middle of a crowded city, not the usual grungy basement Jigsaw’s victims usually find themselves in. The girl ends up getting sawed in half (cue the aforementioned intestines) while the onlooker continue to snap pictures on their cellphones (one lady tries breaking the glass with her briefcase to no success) and look mildly entertained. Could it be that all those sick onlookers are actually representing the sick audience that continue to ingest these “Saw” movies? Who knows. Only director Kevin Greuter knows that for sure and we’ll have to wait for his DVD commentary on that one. The rest of the flick involves the cops trying to find Jigsaw’s evil successor Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), but don’t worry Jigsaw himself makes a couple brief appearances. The movie doesn’t spend too much time in boring backstory but spends most of its time killing off its cast members. Seriously does anyone actually survive this movie? The main character who must learn an important lesson is Bobby (Sean Patrick Flannery) who pretends to be a Jigsaw victim and is too busy promoting his new book to realize that he’s about to actually become a Jigsaw victim.

The acting is bad in this movie (Betsy Russell who plays Jigsaw’s wife really sucks at life in this one) and the movie really looks cheap. It also has the standard obligatory Saw Twist Ending which is equally cool and stupid. Did I mention the acting is horrible? But on the brightside (for gorehounds anyways) are there are some pretty sick and twisted kills in this flick. You’ll probably flinch more than once. Is it really scary? Not at all; but you’ll certainly get your money’s worth in blood, intestines and severed limbs. That kind of stuff counts for something, at least when you’re watching a movie called “Saw 3D.” GRADE: C+

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Fear Hunter: You’ll be Scared like a Baby If You See “Paranormal Activity 2”

“Paranormal Activity 2” is not “Blair Witch 2.” Thank God for that. Sure it cost more money ($3 million versus $15,000 for the first one) but it’s still grounded in that made-on-the-cheap look of the original. It still employs shaky, handheld cameras shot by the actors themselves, but this time we also get to see action through stagnant security cams. There are more characters and more scary “stuff” going on here, and this time, the intensity is turned up to an 11. “Paranormal Activity” was an ingenious little film. It was made for cheap, but it was well-made. And it had a savvy marketing campaign. It seemed real and the filmmakers wanted you to think it was real (there weren’t even any titles or end credits!) and the same goes for Part 2. Is it better than the first one? I don’t know, it’s definitely as good. If you were scared of the first, you’re bound to be scared of this. That’s good enough for most people.

The first film shook me up, as it did to many other people. We were introduced to a young woman named Katie who started feeling a strange presence in her home that she shared with her boyfriend Micah. The fist film had scenes of Katie literally being dragged out of bed and eventually becoming possessed, or something like that. Micah was killed, perhaps by Katie’s own hands. There was a demon that was after her. It was never really explained why, if you want to know more you’d better see this new film. What many viewers probably don’t know is that this second movie is actually a prequel. We see Katie, unpossessed and we see Micah not dead. This time however it appears a demon is after Katie’s sister and her husband, stepdaughter and new born Hunter (none of these actors are listed on imdb). A serious “break-in” rattles the family; more so because nothing was actually stolen. The house was just torn up. They install security cameras and so then we get to see each night, in eerie blue night vision. Everything seems normal but as every night progresses more and more creepy things happen. Sure this is practically the same premise as the first film, but this film has enough differences to make it stand out.

Since most of the footage is seen through the security cameras we don’t really get that nauseating shaky camera feeling like we usually get in movies like this. It doesn’t really bother me too much, but I know some people need to take a Dramamine . Since not much really happens during most of the first half of the film, we get a really good layout of the house, so when something moves even an inch, we know it. Our eyes are drawn to it. Of course no one really thinks the house is haunted except for the family’s Hispanic housekeeper. Minorities, and usually animals, are pretty susceptible to knowing of supernatural beings and after the housekeeper begins blessing the house with incense she is promptly let go by the Caucasian and naïve family. The dad is the most naïve and refuses to listen to his daughter’s plead that something weird is going on. She then uses a Ouiji board. Hasn’t she ever seen “Witchboard” or “The Exorcist” even? It seems this time the demon, or whatever, is after poor little Hunter. He even drags the poor baby out of his crib. But don’t worry, Hunter is left unharmed.

I refuse to say anything more about the other spooky goings on in the film. There are scary things that happen during the night which will probably either make you bite your nails or make you yawn, and if you think the daytime scenes won’t be scary think again. There are plenty of fun BOO! Scares and you’ll definitely jump more than once. The film is extremely suspenseful and some images will certainly cause a shiver up your spine.

Is “Paranormal Activity 2” just a rehash of the first film? Some will say yes. It is similar in style and structure. But is it still scary? You bet. I’m glad they didn’t do something radically different like they did with “Blair Witch 2.” They even go more into the mythology about why a demon is after this particular family. There’s definitely enough disturbing things going on here to easily recommend this flick to anyone who wants to be scared. And for God’s sake won’t anyone save poor little Hunter?? GRADE: B+

Friday, October 15, 2010

Old Dogs: “RED” is a Wonderful Action Comedy for the Older Set

Helen Mirren is a great actress. She won an Academy Award for her simply divine portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen.” She’s British. She’s regal. And in the movie RED she is simply bad-ass. In fact, they should have called this movie, “Kick-Ass.” “RED” which stands for “retired, extremely dangerous” is a great story, based on a graphic novel for anyone keeping track, and it features lots of action and humor with a more adult audience in mind. Sure it stars Bruce Willis which will get the fan boys in the seats, but it also features the likes of Morgan Freeman and Mirren who have not been this fun and exiciting in a long time. They certainly let loose and seem to be having a wonderful time. And the audience does as well.

Like all good action comedies there is a romantic element. We begin by being introduced to Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) who’s living in suburbia. He’s constantly making calls to the pension department where he chats with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker). He’s been getting his checks, but he’d rather rip them up and have a reason to call Sarah. Sarah just so happens to want more excitement in her life. And as luck would have it Frank is a retired CIA agent and Sarah’s life is about to get just a little more…exciting. It turns out that when you’re a retired CIA agent, sometimes there are people who want you dead. So he drives out to meet Sarah, ends up practically kidnapping her and taking her on a wild adventure, trying to evade the bad guys. He meets up with his former team members including Joe Matheson (Freeman), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Mirren).

Why these former agents are being killed off is what drives the story forward. It’s sort of complicated, but not so much where we aren’t having a good time. In fact, were much like Sarah, who doesn’t really know what’s going on. Slowly we learn what these agents deals are. Much of the film reminds me other buddy type comedies like this past summer’s “Knight and Day.” Those who refused to see that film since it featured the borderline crazy Tom Cruise will probably enjoy “RED” since they are similar stories. The scripts from writers John and Erich Hoeber is definitely competent and whatever clichés or tired trappings we’ve become accustomed to in movies like these are instantly forgiven due to the great performances from a top-notch cast.

RED doesn’t reinvent the genre, and it’s not trying to, but what it does do is offer a familiar premise with actors you usually don’t see in these types of movies. See this movie because Bruce Willis is back kicking ass, but stay because Helen Mirren fires a bad-ass gun. And she does it with such class you almost imagine the real queen practically giggling in delight. GRADE: B

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Invitation to Hell: Wes Craven’s “My Soul to Take” is a Nightmare of the Worst Kind

Oh dear lord. Where do I even begin? Bad Wes Craven! Bad bad bad Wes Craven! I’m almost offended by the fact that the man who has directed some of my favorite movies (ie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the Scream series) has made the complete mess of a film called “My Soul to Take.” About half way through I begged someone to take my soul as long as it meant I didn’t have to keep watching. I know it’s my own fault, I didn’t listen to the naysayers. I had to see this train wreck for myself. It was 107 minutes of pure rubbernecking. A movie like “My Soul to Take” shouldn’t require the amount of concentration that it takes to watch something like “Inception” or “Mulholland Drive.” At least those movies actually make sense once you piece everything together. “My Soul to Take” makes no sense whatsoever and will make you leave the theater with a sidesplitting headache. It could be all forgiven if the thing was at least semi-scary or even remotely suspenseful, which it’s not.

I honestly believe “My Soul to Take” is a horrendous movie because Wes Craven is a good filmmaker. Let me explain. I had read that Craven was tired of the recent “torture porn” horror trend and sick of all these retreads and sequels and remakes and reboots. I honestly respect him for attempting to do something original. And it was great to see him back in the writer and director’s chair since he hasn’t fulfilled both duties since “New Nightmare” (If anyone is keeping track, he did co-write the horrible movie “Pulse” and the borderline horrible “The Hills Have Eyes 2”). And instead of just making a simple movie that anyone could follow, he attempted to make a complex story with an attempt at social commentary. It didn’t work. His complicated storyline, which involves a serial killer possible coming back from the dead, is too convoluted to make much sense and any attempt at suspense is wasted because the audience is trying to think so hard there’s not time to be scared.

The story revolves around the town of Riverton. We’re supposed to assume this takes place somewhere in New England (it was filmed entirely on location in Connecticut). The Riverton Ripper is a killer who murdered seven people. He’s a father and family man, but he has several other personalities, one of which is the killer. It’s explained to us by a conveniently placed Haitian paramedic that this man in fact has multiple souls, not just personalities, which I guess means if he dies he’s still got like six more souls to use to keep on living. I think? Anyway, he’s taken away in an ambulance and it crashes and we’re supposed to assume he dies or the body gets lost in the river or something. The film skips ahead sixteen years where we learn that seven children were born the night the Ripper died. The kids known as the Rirverton Seven hold a special séance to help prevent the Ripper from showing himself again. Meanwhile, the Ripper does in fact return to kill off the kids born that night, but it’s possible he may not be back at all and it’s one of the teenagers who’s soul is possessed by the Ripper. Yawn.

Wes Craven attempts to create a “Nightmare on Elm Street” type of back story and it really just backfires. There’s way too much happening, and none of it interesting enough, for anyone to care about what’s going on. Freddy Krueger’s story was so fascinating and it’s not a coincidence that he became a pop culture phenomenon. The Riverton Ripper is definitely destined to do the same thing. Craven’s attempt at creating interesting teenage characters also fails miserably. He introduces us to Bug (a decent Max Thieirot) a good kid who’s shy and might have a seriously close connection to the killer. His classmates are all annoying and/or not appealing. His friend Alex is just obnoxious and has to deal with his abusive stepfather (and the two of them are obsessed with the California Condor for some reason). There’s a jock who picks on these two, a pretty popular girl who is the object of Bug’s affection, a religious girl, and a blind boy who I never realized was blind until he whipped out a white cane half way through the movie.

Ugh I can’t believe how frustratingly bad “My Soul to Take” is. It’s a pretty ugly looking movie that feels cheap. Craven’s films, at least the recent ones anyways, have a nice sheen to theme, this one just looks ugly. It feels poorly slapped together. There aren’t even any memorable death scenes! Wes, what is wrong with you! You created Freddy Krueger for God’s sake! Luckily I avoided seeing the film in 3D which I heard is atrocious and pointless. It’s really a shame, because even some of Craven’s lesser known movies like “The People Under the Stairs “or “The Serpent and the Rainbow” can be entertaining even if they’re a little silly. And heck, I’m even a fan of Horace Pinker. I still love Wes Craven, but I’m hoping that his upcoming “Scream 4” will erase all bad memories of this truly dreadful flick. GRADE: D-

Note: I know someone who worked as an extra in the film. He's in the background in one scene and he's a very good extra. The only thing saving this thing from getting an F.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Lady is a Vamp: You’d Be Wise to Let “Let Me In” Into Your Life

“Let Me In” if you want to compare it to it’s Swedish counterpart, is every bit as good as “Let the Right One In.” It maintains the same feel without ever feeling like a rip-off. Maybe this movie doesn’t have a reason to exist except that even if it makes people want to see out the original film, it’s at least accomplished something. It’s basically just another version of the book on which it’s based (“Låt den rätte komma in”) and how many times have there been multiple versions of novels brought to the screen? Too many to count. This is just one and it’s a particularly harmless and extremely entertaining take on the recent vampire craze.

“Let Me In,” like the original film, is the anti-“Twilight.” It’s a film that takes itself seriously in a way that is impossible to make fun of. It treats the vampire mythology seriously and is much more akin to films like “Interview with the Vampire” than the recent slate of Stephanie Myers’ wildly popular pop cultural phenomenon. It’s a different take on the “teenager as vampire” in which a young girl, who’s actually most likely hundreds of years old, who must forever blend into a society as a human being even though she is a vampire. Her name is Abby and she’s played marvelously by Chloe Grace Moretz. She moves to a cold, snowy town in New Mexico and befriends a lonely boy named Owen (an equally good Kodi Smith-Mcphee). See this movie because it has vampires in it, but stay because of these terrific young performances.

Owen is a sad little boy. He lives with his mom because his parents are divorced. And director really gets into how detached he is from his mother because we never really get to see her face. He shots these scenes at home from a low level and gets right in there, similar to “Where the Wild Things Are.” Both films are from a child’s point-of-view. Owen is constantly bullied at school and sometimes its pretty disturbing. The film at first makes the bullies seem just like the “bad guys” who we want to see punished until we realize that, like in real life, most bullies only bully others because they themselves are bullied. And once a horrible act is committed against them, it’s not a feeling of retribution or justification we feel, but of sadness and hopelessness. It’s a well-done scene that equally rivals the original film’s stark and powerful images.

Abby, as a vampire, must drink human blood to live. She leaves this up to a man who’s known as her “Father” to go out find her human blood to drink. Father, played here by Richard Jenkins, has probably the most disturbing and horrible tasks to accomplish in the movie. He must go out and commit murders so his “daughter” can survive. These scenes have an eerily spooky feeling, and one shot in particular is jaw dropping and will make you wonder how it’s accomplished. You can tell from this shot alone that that man behind “Cloverfield” (director Matt Reeves) was responsible. Reeves gives us some pretty daring and interesting shots throughout the film, although I think the overall look of the original film looked more “pretty.”

“Let Me In” is that rare film that is as good, if not better than the original source material. It refuses to “Hollywoodize” the story of “Let the Right One In” (unless you wanna count a few instances of cheesey CGI) and instead makes its own unique mark on the film world. If anything, like all remakes, it’s fun just comparing the two and figuring out why certain changes were made and how two different visions could be accomplished from the same source. It’s all pretty fascinating stuff. GRADE: A-

Friday, October 01, 2010

Site Club: I Want to Friend “The Social Network” But I’m Still Awaiting a Reply

As a college graduate myself, and someone who spends more time on Facebook than I probably should, why do I find it nearly impossible to relate to the college-set movie “The Social Network?” Is it because I didn’t go to an Ivy League school and I’m not a genius? Is it because I relied too much on my parents while in school and no intentions of starting my own business while still being too young to even purchase alcohol? Did I just not understand the rapid fire dialogue writer Aaron Sorkin laid out in his Citizen Kane-aspiring script about a seemingly autistic real life college student who sort of unknowingly creates one of the most popular websites on the entire planet? And all from the comfort of his Harvard dormitory. “The Social Network” feels like a movie that doesn’t need to exist and yet here it is the so-called “Facebook movie” about the creation of the popular social networking website that at this point society almost depends on. Maybe it’s supposed to be a slap in the face to all of us to stop spending so much time on the computer and instead interact with our friends in real life rather than in the virtual world of “poking” and “friending” and “status updates.” I for one am guilty as charged.

David Fincher is an awesome director. Take a look at anyone one of his films, from the gritty style of his cult hit “Fight Club” to the creepiness of “Seven” and the technically wizardry of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” Fincher has provided plenty of wonderful cinematic stories that showcase first rate directorial craftsmanship. He knows how to tell a story visually and is always prepared to show you a world you haven’t quite seen before. Which is why I have to classify “The Social Network” overall as a mild disappointment. It has a lot of great things going for it. It has great performances and an interesting visual look and a clever story structure. But as a movie about college students I didn’t find myself relating to any characters and I felt like an outsider looking in. The college life in this film doesn’t seem real to me. Everything is lit so darkly, that it feels like Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his poor roommates are living in a dungeon. And who the heck becomes part of a lawsuit and never makes one phone call to their mom and dad for advice? Who becomes an accidental billionaire without bragging to their relatives about it? And if I got arrested for cocaine possession, I wouldn’t be calling the creator of Facebook from jail.

Supposedly how Facebook was created started when Zuckerberg broke up with his girlfriend. He ran back to his dorm room and blogged about what a bitch she is. Then he created a “hot or not” type of website where Harvard students could choose between two student photos and pick which girl was hotter. That spawned an idea that a website should be made with the intentions of connecting all Harvard students. Each person could create a profile and post information about themselves all the while being able to stalk those who probably don’t want to be stalked. Zuckerberg and his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) started developing the idea after these two twin brothers the Winklevosses (played with a little help of seamless movie magic by one Armie Hammer and stand-in Josh Pence) who say Zuckerberg stole their idea after he had agreed to work with them to build a similar site. Soon Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) gets involved and begins coaching Zuckerberg until the idea of dollar signs begin corrupting all these brilliant young minds. I really enjoyed Timberlake’s performance and I really feel the film came alive when he was on screen.

I guess I’m not too surprised by anything that happens in “The Social Network” because it’s a similar story of a young brilliant mind looking for greater power. It just so happens to be a story about the creation of Facebook, which to this day has about 500 million users around the world. Facebook, as ridiculous as it sounds, is a major deal in the world because it’s so popular, but I’m still not convinced that that movie really needs to exist. Of course you could argue the same thing about, say, “Piranha 3D” but at least that movie doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Look there are plenty of things to love about “The Social Network.” It’s a well-made film . It’s slick and entertaining. Maybe it just caught me on a bad day. I enjoyed many of Fincher’s choices and his use of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ music is a wonderful choice that fits the film’s gloomy tone. Like one of Fincher’s other recent films “Zodiac,” it may take me a while to warm up to the film, but no one can deny that David Fincher, like many out there in Hollywood, is certainly a force to be reckoned with. GRADE: B-