Friday, October 31, 2008

Saw V

Director: David Hackl
Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Julie Benz, Meagan Good

Running Time: 89 min.

Rating: R


*** (out of ****)


No, I didn’t accidentally hit an extra asterisk on my keyboard. The rating you see above is not a typo. But what may be more interesting than my actual thoughts on Saw V is how my attitude going into it had shifted within the past week. I thought the fourth film, which really just amounted to a confusing police procedural was bad, but I wasn’t aware that everyone else thought it was THAT bad. So bad, in fact, that many seem to be personally offended they’ve made another one.

It’s time to put things in perspective. Saw IV was a near miss, which in the case of a fourth installment of a horror series is actually a small miracle. It should have been terrible. All of the Halloween, Friday The 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels were. There was hardly a redeeming quality about them with the best only being enjoyable on a guilty pleasure level. But try telling anyone you’re a fan of the Saw series and it’s a capital offense. Forget that this franchise actually contains a protagonist with complex motivation and a psychologically driven back story. Or the fact that he isn’t just some guy in a mask hacking people up because he had an unhappy childhood or a messed up family.

The more I think about it the more unfair this series’ reputation seems. All of the sudden I found myself really excited to see Saw V and rooting really hard for it to succeed. But I still expected it to be awful. Jigsaw likes to play games but now I’m going to play one and challenge you to see Saw V… then try naming a fifth film in a horror series better than it. I bet you can’t. By telling a more focused, cohesive story and shifting the central focus back to Jigsaw’s legacy this film is a marked improvement over the last one. A lot of that credit should go to a new director who proves he knows this material inside out. Did we really need another Saw? Do we really need sequels for ANY films? That’s beside the point and you could argue all day about it. This works for what it is and fans of the series won’t be disappointed.
After the death of John Kramer A.K.A. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), forensics expert Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), was revealed at the end of the last film as his successor and the one chosen to continue his "work" and legacy. But before he can he has to tie up some loose ends. Now promoted to Lieutenant Commissioner after his falsely perceived heroics he has to somehow eliminate Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), the only officer to survive the last trap and who’s now determined to gather evidence that proves Hoffman is the crooked disciple of Jigsaw.

Meanwhile, five strangers wake up in a sewer connected to guillotine blades. A trust fund brat (Greg Bryk), an arrogant reporter (Carlo Rota), a fire inspector (Laura Gordon), a city housing planner (Meagan Good) and a snooty real estate agent (Julie Benz) are the targets of Jigsaw’s latest game, eerily recalling Saw II in that a group of people linked by their immoral life choices must work cooperatively to make it to the end alive. Whereas the last film interspersed flashbacks of John Kramer’s relationship with ex-wife Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) with the central storyline all the flashbacks here explore the history behind Kramer’s alliance with Hoffman. Jill has a much smaller role this time around but her limited presence introduces an intriguing mystery into the equation that's destined be explored in future films.

Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunston’s script tells three stories and each of them are told in a compelling, straight forward, and intelligible manner, a big step up from their scatterbrained work on the last installment. My biggest worry going into this was that they'd attempt to have Hoffman replace Jigsaw as the focal point of the series. Instead the screenplay did an excellent job of not only giving Hoffman a credible back story but coming up with a very reasonable explanation why he’d be carrying out his dying wishes. Not only that, but without giving too much away this explanation fits perfectly with the theme of the series and what Jigsaw represents as a character.

For the first time since his untimely demise in the third film I actually believed that John Kramer had bigger plans extending far beyond his death that could be carried out despite his passing. His presence was actually felt this time, unlike the last film where we only felt the presence of cops, lawyers, investigators, detectives and a bunch of other people we had no interest in. Jigsaw and his ideology was relegated to an afterthought amidst the mass confusion. Make no mistake about it: We know whose still pulling the strings in this one and it isn’t Hoffman.

The flashbacks are clever in the way they incorporate Hoffman into past events and develop the character. Is it a little silly and are they grasping at straws? Sure, but it makes sense and progresses the story. When I offered suggestions on how to improve the franchise I said that the writers better give Hoffman a hell of a back story if they want to keep him around and Mandylor should be prepared to really deliver. They did and he was. By the end of the film I actually cared what would happen to the guy.

Hoffman has fitting opposition in Scott Patterson’s Agent Strahm. Merely nondescript wallpaper in the previous film, Patterson steps up to the plate in a big way and shows the most fight of any of the cops since Detective Tapp in the original. There’s a moment in the film when Strahm pulls out all the files of the previous Jigsaw victims as we’re taken for a trip down memory lane and it was just the kind of acknowledgment the series needed at this point. The film effectively stages a battle of good vs. evil between the two lawmen on a collision course that can only lead to disaster. If I had to pick it’s probably the weakest of the three stories in the film, but I was shocked how interested I was in it.

The current game involving the five strangers bonded by their moral indiscretions recall the earlier, strongest installments and a few of the actors’ performances really carry the day, especially Dexter’s Julie Benz (nearly unrecognizable in a black wig) and the memorably high-strung Greg Byrk. The traps are back to being simple but brutal, reestablishing the idea of Jigsaw believing himself to be a tester or a therapist rather than a murderer. He creates the illusion of choice for those he knows lack the moral fiber necessary to make one at all. A few of the traps in this film I’d rank alongside the best in the series as far as cleverness and pure entertainment value. And unlike the last film, this is a game you could actually believe Jigsaw was behind.

Fans have long come to expect a huge twist of some sort at the end of every Saw film as the familiar music swells up, although that practice has gone out of style with the past few. I won’t even touch on what happens other than to say it’s more of a clever reversal completely appropriate for this story. I LOVED the last scene, which is just about the best closer since the infamous bathroom in the original. But more impressive is how Hackl films it, creating an indelible final image that isn’t easy to shake.

As surprisingly good as this is it isn’t without problems. There was still a little too much police business for my taste and while the script far more comprehensible this time around it still could have been even tighter and more focused. A lot is going on here, although Hackl does balance it well. I’m also convinced that had John Kramer not had terminal cancer or have his throat slashed by a chainsaw he would have died anyway from the stress of having to set up all those traps, anticipate their outcomes and train all his apprentices. That guy must have had a lot of time on his hands. Nothing more can possibly be said about Tobin Bell’s performance other than this series wouldn’t exist without it. His role has been slightly reduced, but strangely in this film it seemed more important than ever.

I sympathize with those who feel the Saw series has become a parody of itself and agree that in a perfect world it would have ended with the third film. But it didn’t so here we are and this is what we have. Considering we're on the fourth sequel it’s in amazing shape and given that they've chosen to go past what should have been its expiration date the ongoing narrative holds together pretty well. I have no idea why everyone has gone so hard on this but I’m curious what the reaction would have been if it didn’t have “V” in its title. Just because all horror sequels suck is no reason to punish this one. While many complain the films have grown predictable and clich├ęd I’d argue there’s something to be said for consistently executing a successful formula well. Still, I'm with those who feel the series would benefit from trying some different things and stepping out of its comfort zone a little more.
With this installment Saw becomes the highest grossing horror franchise of all-time and no matter how you feel about the films that’s a huge accomplishment. People like watching them, talking about the traps and plot twists and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next in this one. Even those who hate it find themselves oddly compelled to check it out every year like some kind of unhealthy addiction. And when Saw VI comes around next October you know they’ll be first in line. Why? Because this franchise works. It's time to just let go and admit it. At its worst it still runs circles around anything the genre has had because the underlying concept is so strong. It’s tough imagining Halloween without Saw and I’ve finally come to the realization that I don’t want to. I don’t want this series to ever end and it’s looking like I’ll get my wish. So while everyone else compares notes on which film they officially lost interest at, I prefer to look at the glass as being half full…with blood.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Strangers

Director: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton

Running Time: 88 min.

Rating: R

** (out of ****)

“Why are you doing this to us?”

“Because you were home.”


That great exchange, which you’ve probably seen in trailers and commercials, is the only frightening moment in Bryan Bertino’s directorial debut, The Strangers. It hints at the horror film this could have been and frustrates us with a promise it couldn’t keep. Had the film actually explored the idea suggested in those few lines of dialogue this could have really been something. Instead the movie does exactly two things right, thinking that affords it the luxury to do everything else wrong. In not showing us the faces of the killers and focusing more on suspense than gore the inspiration are obviously the slasher films of the ‘70’s. Join the club Bryan. We’ve seen this “homage” a few hundred times already, or at least it feels like it. And I don’t remember it ever being this boring or uninteresting. Scenes are thrown together hastily, the pacing is poor and outside of one engaging performance, there’s nothing to keep our attention. You can actually tell this was made by a first-timer.

It’s tempting to compare this to another home invasion thriller from this year, Michael Haneke’s polarizing Funny Games. Those who despised that movie can blame Bertino because this is the exact kind of film Haneke was attempting to satirize. Except Haneke was up front and honest with his pretentiousness. This actually thinks it’s scary. And it also has the single dumbest ending of any movie I’ve seen this year, as if it needed it. If someone paid me to come up with a worse ending I couldn’t. I’m tempted to give this lower than two stars but can’t since it’s nothing if not technically proficient. Strangely though, that just makes it more insulting. This may have been easier to take if someone with less talent made it because maybe they wouldn’t attempt to fool us into thinking we were watching something of substance. In reality, it’s no better than what you’d find on the $2.99 shelf at your local gas station.
The film opens with what’s become a repetitive and ridiculous device used in horror movies these days. Taking a page out of the book of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a John Larroquette-like narrator informs us that what we’re about to see is “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS.” This may be one of those rare cases where the true event (if there was one) had to have been more exciting than what ended up on screen. The narrator continues:

“On the night of February 11, 2005 Kristen McKay and James Hoyt went to a friend’s wedding reception and then returned to the Hoyt family’s summer home. The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known.”


Sorry, but that’s just laughable. It’s derivative and unoriginal, but I probably wouldn’t have had a problem with it had what followed not been so lackluster. There’s no other way to put it: The first 45 minutes to an hour of this picture are a total bore. When Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) arrive out the house we immediately sense there’s a tension between them. Through a flashback we find out that she had earlier turned down his marriage proposal. Now they must awkwardly spend the night together. And that right there is the most interesting thing that happens in the film. How often does a woman turn down a marriage proposal in a movie? Bertino at least earns points for originality on that.

From there, Kristen is left alone while James runs out to get something and then…NOTHING happens. Other than seeing the luminous Tyler in varying stages of semi-undress there’s nothing to hold your interest. Yes, there is the “Man In The Mask,” and his accomplices, known in the credits simply as “Doll Face” and “Pin-Up Girl”, knocking at the door and threatening to kill her but it’s impossible to care the way it’s presented.

The film does something very annoying and continues to do it over and over again just so we get the message. The intruders make loud noises, we see them, Kristen doesn’t. When James re-enters the picture the cycle starts all over again. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. I’m all for not showing anything to build tension but that’s not what this is. Bertino doesn’t engage us in these scenes and there’s no sense of threat or dread at all. They lack forward momentum and just don’t flow. It’s okay, even advisable, to wait on pulling the terror trigger, but not just for the sake of saying you did. Everything just spins around in circles and these masked killers, who should be horrifying (they certainly look it), come off as a joke. I know I’m supposed to praise horror movies for emphasizing suspense over gore but what if there’s no suspense either?

When the movie does finally pull that trigger I could just picture critics running out of the theater screaming “Torture Porn!” at the top of their lungs. I wouldn’t go that far, mainly because the film is too goofy to inspire that kind of a reaction. One moment sums up just how pretentious it all is. The killers remove their masks and place them on the floor…but we’re not shown their faces. How daring. Random and senseless violence. What an original concept. And then there’s the final moment of the film. Ugh. I don’t know how much Liv Tyler was paid to do this but it wasn’t nearly enough. I actually felt bad for her having to work so hard physically and emotionally to sell this nonsense and carry Speedman through it. A piece of cardboard could have replaced him and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. He’s that bland.

In a misplaced vote of confidence, this was the rare horror movie that was actually screened for critics. Maybe the studio thought that because it presented the illusion of being high brow the press would go easy on it. They were right. And because the film managed to recoup the $9.00 it cost to make it now there’s going to be a sequel. Executives are so happy when a horror film makes anything these days that they immediately greenlight five sequels, four of which will probably head straight to DVD. I’ve seen interviews with Bertino and he seems like an enthusiastic guy who went in with the best intentions. I don’t think he set out to make a pretentious film. It’s a misguided effort, not a lazy one. He does have a gift for atmosphere and I do think he’ll eventually turn into something as a director. When he does maybe he’ll be able to look back on this film and have a good laugh.
I should have known there were serious problems with The Strangers when everyone I spoke to who saw it said how disappointed they were but had trouble expressing exactly why. I know how they feel, but let me give it a shot: It’s a bore. Sometimes the simplest explanation makes the most sense. Hardcore fans of really old school horror may appreciate its minimalistic, stripped-down approach but everyone else will fall asleep. I guess this is great news for Saw V, which now sits in the comfy position of following one of the dumbest horror movies I've seen in a while. It can’t possibly be worse than this…can it?

Friday, October 24, 2008

W.

Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Jams Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn

Running Time: 129 min.

Rating: PG-13

***1/2 (out of ****)

In a lot of ways I fit the profile of the type of moviegoer Oliver Stone is reaching out to with W. Someone who definitely agrees George W. Bush didn’t do a good job as President yet doesn't necessarily have a burning desire to see him dragged through the mud. He was bad at his job and that’s it. A lot of people are bad at their jobs, but unfortunately it just so happens his job description reads: “Leader of the Free World.”

It’s possible for someone to enter a situation with the best possible intentions, only to find themselves in way over their head. Recently, I was talking to someone about the upcoming election and mentioned that Bush must be counting down the days until he’s a free man so he can go home to Texas to get some rest. That didn’t go over so well. Just that I even implied Bush was trying to do his job to the best of his abilities was blasphemous. As if he’s been sitting in the Oval Office for 8 years thinking of ways to wreck our country.

People can say what they want about Bush (and likely have) but I never thought there was a phony bone in his body. This isn’t Nixon. He’s not a crook or a liar. Instead, this is someone who shoots straight and will go to whatever lengths necessary to carry out what he believes in, even if it’s wrong. But in his mind he’s never wrong, especially when surrounded by people whose primary job it is to agree with everything he says. W. may be a fair portrayal of the man but despite what you’ve heard it isn’t necessarily a sympathetic one. That it’s actually been considered such should tell you all you need to know about how poorly the public perceives him. But it is just about as flattering a portrait as he could have possibly received and you could argue he’s just lucky to have a film based on his life with this much depth at all.
Stone paints him as an underachiever, full of self-doubt and burdened by expectations. In doing that he sets the stage for the film’s most frightening realization: He’s just like us. And whether we want to admit it or not, there’s no guarantee we could have done a better job in the White House under the circumstances. But more importantly, in being the first biopic centered around a current sitting President’s legacy, we’re robbed of time, distance and historical context in examining the film, making for some fascinating results. Not having that context may affect how we view the film right now, but strangely it doesn’t seem to have any impact on how Stone made it. Is it too soon? Probably, but that doesn’t make it any less memorable.

Stone presents Bush (Josh Brolin) as living a life defined by a failure to earn his father George Senior’s (James Cromwell’s) love and respect, something that was always exclusively reserved for his younger brother Jeb. The film follows a non-linear structure, flashing back to Bush’s younger days at Yale as a drunk womanizer who couldn’t hold a job and occasionally had to be bailed out of jail. He meets his future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), runs for Governor of Texas and helps dad with his 1988 Presidential campaign. There’s little shown of Bush’s days as owner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise, though that’s more than made up for with a very inventive framing device. He never really got his act together until the age of 40 when he quit drinking and found God. That faith would beckon him to seek the country’s highest office and guide much of his future decision-making. The flashbacks are interspersed with scenes of the Bush Presidency post-9/11. This is the portion that will have everyone talking.

Of course the real thrill here is seeing a diverse and talented group of actors flesh out current political figures whose personalities have just only been touched upon in the media. Each of them plays a pivotal role in Bush’s life and career and, as expected, some performances work better than others. Toby Jones’ Karl Rove is a coach to Bush with Stone insinuating that as clueless as Bush is with Rove's guidance he’d be even more clueless without it. Jones’ take on the character is interesting as he plays him as a know-it-all creepily lurking in the shadows waiting to impress everyone with his answers.

Richard Dreyfuss wisely doesn’t go for a full-on impersonation of Dick Cheney and instead inhabits him. But if we were giving points for how well he gets the mannerisms down he’d score high marks there also. It’s scary, but not as scary as Thandie Newton’s transformation into Condoleezza Rice, which is either brilliant or terrible depending on your perspective.You could argue all day and night whether Newton’s dead-on mimicry is even appropriate for this kind of film but there’s no denying she nailed it to the point where the real Condi wouldn't be able to tell the difference. She’s basically portrayed as a suck-up to the President.

Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell is the sole “the voice of reason” clashing often and memorably with Dreyfuss’ Cheney, particularly in one electrifying “War Room” scene. Bruce McGill, Rob Corrdry, and Noah Wyle have much smaller roles as George Tenet, Ari Fleischer and Don Evans respectively, popping in and out when the picture requires. What’s interesting is that the film presents those working for Bush as being just as underwhelming as he is, if not moreso (that’s particularly true of Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfeld). With all the clashing personalities, egos and agendas, Bush never really stood a chance.

The worst thing that could have happened to the younger Bush was his father being elected President because that set the bar even higher for him. He carried that resentment all the way to The White House and Stone surmises that he went into Iraq at least partially to prove that he could finish the job his father couldn’t. Cromwell’s performance is miraculous in that he never attempts to capture George Senior’s mannerisms or any of his physical characteristics, but instead focuses his efforts on conveying the elder President’s deep disappointment as honest and reasonably as possible.

We see how the elder Bush would feel let down by his screw-up son, but at the same time we see that he unintentionally helped cause the whole mess. His inability to communicate with him on the most basic level plagued them both, right up to and throughout his term in office. When the going got too tough in his son’s administration he couldn’t even bring himself to offer any advice, much to his wife Barbara’s (Ellen Burstyn) dismay. Ironically, W. always had something his dad lacked. Not ambition, but a fire in his belly and an obsessive desire to prove everyone wrong. It ended up taking him further than anyone expected, but also helped destroy him.

What shocked me most and I didn’t expect going in was how in control of the material Stone was. I expected the tone to be all over the map and if you’ve seen any of the trailers and commercials you wouldn’t be wrong to expect the film to be a political satire. While it definitely has its subtle moments of humor, Stone plays it remarkably straight. That these were the people making decisions of that magnitude and that’s what they said while making them is scary not funny. Cheney embodies it as Dreyfuss is given the best line of the film, laying out the timetable for when U.S. troops should get out of Iraq. What he says will send chills down your spine. There’s a scene of Bush choking on a pretzel at Camp David that on paper should be hilarious, but Stone makes terrifying. No giggles. You could hear a pin drop. It’ll be a while before you can eat pretzels again.

Last year I may have had some issues with the overpraised No Country For Old Men, but Josh Brolin definitely wasn't one of them. Here he delivers a career high performance that starts as great imitation but evolves into much more as the film slowly evolves with it. The more notes he’s asked to hit the more he starts to resemble Bush in both appearance and in spirit, to the point where midway through you realize it’s a full immersion. His work never comes off as parody, a huge feat considering the subject he was asked to portray.

I didn’t think the present-day scenes worked as well as the flashbacks to his early life mainly because they’re almost too uncomfortably “of the moment,” but I could be bias since I enjoyed watching the dynamics of Bush’s younger days so much. The last hour drags its feet a little bit and spins its wheels in hammering home the message that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. Dumb mistakes were made. That goes without saying. Like most of Stone’s film’s, its also messy but not to the point where I feel we were seriously shortchanged on anything so he could rush it into release before the election.

With all the jumping back and forth we're missing a full-fledged emotional connection with the man, although that’s almost fitting. Nor do we really form a full one with Laura, just about the only aspect to Bush everyone agrees they like. In just a few early scenes Banks shows us why, encapsulating everything we suspected she was. What she saw in him we'll never know. The term “Better Half” couldn't be more applicable. It’s a bit of a let down she doesn’t play a bigger role, but inevitable she’d have to take a backseat given the direction of the story. This isn’t Walk The Line.
W. is a return to form of sorts for Oliver Stone who took the easy way out with 2006’s World Trade Center. It wasn’t a bad film, but played with the resonance of a Hallmark greeting card next to something as powerful as Paul Greengrass' United 93, which was released the same year. There are elements in this that characterize Stone's best work like JFK and Nixon where he’s focusing on doing what he does best: pushing our buttons. This film isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about George W. Bush and I don’t think Stone intended it to. Whether you like the man or not you can't deny it's far better to attempt to understand him than angrily make ridiculous films like Rendition, Redacted, Lions For Lambs, In The Valley of Ellah, Stop-Loss or whatever other political garbage Hollywood feels like feeding us this week. That doesn’t accomplish anything. This does.

In the long run I don’t think it matters whether this was released now or 10 years from now because this almost feels like it was made in the future and time will likely treat it well. Those who went in expecting a train wreck won’t exactly be disappointed and neither will those who expected a serious examination of Bush’s psyche. On one level it’s a standard biopic, yet on another it isn’t at all. Everyone wins. But more importantly it gets us to feel something for him. I’m not sure if it can be categorized as pity, sympathy, understanding or even any of those but it at least it’s something other than hatred.

History will judge the 43rd President, not Stone. It would be nice to think that Bush now has time to contemplate the mistakes he’s made but if there’s only one thing to take out of this film it’s that he doesn’t think he made any. In his mind he did what he felt was right for the country, acting with unwavering, stubborn consistency the entire time. Whether we needed W. to be released right now is debatable but what isn’t is that you’ll have plenty to think about when it’s over.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Shia LeBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent

Running Time: 122 min

Rating: PG-13


**1/2 (out of ****)

There comes a point where anticipation turns to dread. For many this year that point was called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I have to tread carefully here because while there’s no denying expectations always play a role in how you view a film, it shouldn’t determine it. Had this movie not been burdened with the “Indiana Jones” tag and reputation it could just be written off as a poorly made goofy throwback to B-movies of the ‘50’s. Judged strictly on those terms (which I think George Lucas and Steven Spielberg naively intended) it’s a near miss that doesn’t really work. However, as an actual Indiana Jones film it can’t be called anything other than a massive disappointment. It’s unreasonable to expect this to live up to the standard set by the first three films, but it isn’t unreasonable to expect a great film. Or even just a good one.

Calling Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the ten or twenty greatest motion pictures of all-time may not be an overstatement and for good reason it’s made many appearances on such lists. The Temple of Doom is still to this day a massively underrated sequel while The Last Crusade works as the perfect closing chapter to the series. Like many, I grew up with the character, but wouldn’t be so happy to see him on the screen again that any junk Spielberg and Lucas threw up there would have been satisfying. I can’t say that for any character or any movie series. We’re kidding ourselves if we think any big studio movie is made for any reason other than money. But that doesn’t mean it has to FEEL like it. All two hours of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull could have easily been replaced with footage of Spielberg and Lucas bathing themselves in piles of cash and it would have had the same effect.
It’s easy and probably a lot more fun to just point the finger at Lucas since he proudly takes credit for thinking it would be a great idea to center the fourth Indy film around a story about Area 51 and aliens. But Spielberg, being only the most powerful producer and director alive could have just said “NO.” Instead, he not only caved into Lucas’ insane idea, but directed the mess himself and made what’s easily his worst film in years. But more frightening is the possibility that maybe Spielberg really did think he was doing it right and this is how he views Indiana Jones. Or at least this is how he thinks we view him.

One thing that’s perfectly clear is that this Indy is not the same man from the other three films and not because he’s older. He’s a different person…a cartoon. Largely, because he’s surrounded by cartoonish elements. And while the movie works better as a stand-alone effort than as part of the series, for the uninitiated it doesn’t serve as an effective introduction to the character. The saving grace is that in the exciting last hour Spielberg seems to get his act together a little bit and something I didn’t expect to strike a chord ends up working better than expected. By then it’s too late though. The film has to settle for being just unintentionally hilarious and entertaining, nothing more than a mildly fun diversion. We waited 19 years for THIS?

The nostalgia rush of seeing Harrison Ford in the brown leather jacket and fedora again, brandishing the bullwhip, lasts approximately five to ten minutes. At least it did for me. It’s great to hear John Williams score at first but then it’s all downhill from there when you realize he uses it gratingly to punctuate every emotion in the film. I remember it beign used more sparingly and not being nearly as annoying. The best way to sum the movie up is as an extended mediocre episode of The X-Files, but way less smart and with cheesier looking visual effects. Explaining the details of the moronic script, penned by Spielberg’s go-to screenwriter David Koepp (The Lost World), could result in the death of brain cells.

Koepp can sometimes be a good writer, but most of the time he's not. His script wouldn't be completely awful for another kind of movie (likely a sci-fi comedy) but for this one it’s a disaster. The film opens with Ford being kidnapped by Russian baddie Irena Spalko (a dominatrix looking Cate Blanchett) who drags him to Area 51 to help locate a mysterious artifact. And so begins the hunt for the Crystal Skull which supposedly has psychic alien powers. Along the way Indy encounters young greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) who has some valuable information about the artifact’s whereabouts and ends up joining him on the quest. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year you know he’s also there for another very important reason.

The supporting cast, which also includes Ray Winstone as Indy’s new sidekick and Jim Broadbent as the University Dean, are fine and and LeBeouf’s Mutt is far from the Jar Jar Binks of the series, as was initially feared by many. At worst, LeBeouf’s character is merely goofy but he does what he can with it and shares good chemistry and timing with Ford. Spalko is nothing if not a wildly memorable villain, although I’m not sure she’s an appropriate villain for an Indiana Jones film. Or maybe she’s too appropriate a villain for this one. It takes a special kind of great actress to be able to play a villainess this severe and cartoonish to full tilt and Blanchett brings the goods. But the performance can’t be enjoyed as anything beyond pure camp. I know the other films in the series never claimed to be anything but mindless entertainment, but were they ever this mindless? I don’t know about you, but while I always thought the Indy movies were fun, I never viewed them as a joke. Spielberg and Lucas obviously disagree.

At age 65, Ford has no problems slipping back into the role but the character is made to look dumb by being surrounded with a story this ridiculous. It doesn’t even feel like a situation Indy would get himself involved in. But perhaps even worse than that are the computer generated special effects, which are the fakest looking I’ve seen in any movie in years. The sets look like something you’d see on a tour of the Universal Studios backlot and at certain points I could swear I was watching actors just standing in front of cardboard backgrounds. And don’t even get me started on the monkeys and groundhogs.

Lucas and Spielberg have always been in love with CGI but I think it’s about time someone tell them that the “improved” special effects have made their movies worse. They were supposedly aiming to give this the same look and feel as the previous Indy films but it looks nothing like them at all. Bigger doesn’t necessarily equal better. Lucas made the same mistake with the Star Wars prequels and that’s a big reason they failed. So much time and effort is put into making the visual effects look good that no consideration is given the story. Then, in a cruel irony, the effects look terrible also. I’m sure this will be nominated for a bunch of technical Oscars just because it’s a Spielberg film, but LEGOS probably would have looked better.

The film does one thing exceptionally well: The re-introduction of Marion Ravenwood. The second she shows up it feels like old times again and Karen Allen’s performance is terrific. I wish she were in the movie more because she hasn’t lost a step. If the film went out of its way to make Indy a shell of his former self in the first hour he starts roaring back with a vengeance in the second. The interplay between them is classic and her presence was the shot of adrenaline the story needed. That combined with an exciting tank chase and the welcome appearance of John Hurt as a crazed former colleague of Indy’s gives the film some bite as it heads toward the finish line. Unfortunately, the closer we get to it the more we’re reminded of just how dumb the story is and in a development that had me rolling on the floor laughing, the actual ending bears more than just a slight resemblance to that of National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. But even funnier is that the National Treasure films actually do a better job capturing the spirit of the Indiana Jones franchise than this does.

How could Spielberg and Lucas possibly think this script was suitable? What planet are they on? It was more interesting watching the special features to get some insight on that, although I’m beginning to regret doing that after hearing that Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day was Spielberg’s inspiration for doing the film and George Lucas originally wanted to title it Indiana Jones and The Saucer Men. I thought he was joking so I laughed. Until I realized he was completely serious... then I REALLY laughed. That title may actually be more truthful advertising. In fact, this film’s silly title (which perfectly conveys the picture’s tone) should have been the first clue that something was amiss right from the beginning. Supposedly, Frank Darabont had written a script for a fourth film years ago that Lucas rejected. Considering Darabont hasn’t misstepped once in his career I’d say the odds of it being stronger than Koepp’s are pretty high.

While it may read like it, I didn’t hate the film. It’s mildly entertaining and fun if taken on its own terms. I just hate the fact that these two decided to make another Indy film and this is what they had the nerve to give us. It also feels too late. The fact that everyone couldn’t get their act together and arrive on the same page to do this for this long is pathetic and we should have taken the hint. Sean Connery was wise to sit it out. Lucas and Spielberg claim they did this for the fans but then when the fans don’t like it, with many offering reasonable, constructive criticisms, they start badmouthing them. “BUT LOOK HOW MUCH $$ IT MADE!” Well, The Phantom Menace made truckloads of money also. That doesn’t speak on its quality, although I’d argue it was better than this. Then, as usual, Lucas throws his hands up in the air and complains that the die-hards would have hated anything he came up with. What a cop-out.
The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, along with The Dark Knight, were the two mega-hyped event movies of 2008. I took some heat for giving the latter “only” three and a half stars and saying it didn’t meet expectations. But no film could have met those incredible expectations and in trying it came closer than it had any right to. It’s funny how every movie I've seen since seems inferior in comparison, which makes me wonder if I may have been too hard on it. Despite its minor issues, that film was bursting with ambition and originality. This was just phoned in long-distance to make a quick buck.

Paramount recently got all bent out of shape when an episode of South Park depicted Lucas and Spielberg raping Indiana Jones. If they’re so happy with how the movie did financially and there’s no doubt it will continue to do gangbusters on DVD, what are they so upset about? Unless it hit a nerve. They know how lazy this is and were called out on it. Saying George Lucas raped Indiana Jones is one thing but implying he raped our childhoods is giving him too much credit. All he did was embarrass himself…yet again. And he suckered Spielberg into coming along for the ride. Just like the original Star Wars trilogy the Indiana Jones movies will always be there on the shelves for us to go back to. Unfortunately, this one will be joining them.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Visitor

Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass

Running Time: 103 min.

Rating: PG-13

***1/2 (out of ****)


“Hey, it’s THAT guy.”

How many times have we said that when watching a movie and an actor we recognize appears on screen? We could have seen them in tons of different films but still don’t have a clue of their name. Character actors are among the hardest working, most underappreciated people in Hollywood. They’re journeymen and women moving from role to role, yet also chameleons in the way they can slip into each of them and make it their own. Most of them will never get top billing in a major film once in their careers, yet sometimes it’s their performance that audiences remember most.

Some of them break through to the mainstream. Most don't, but a few do. Kevin Spacey was one. So was William H. Macy. At one point we didn’t have a clue who they were, but we definitely knew the face. All it takes is one role. For Richard Jenkins that role has come with The Visitor as his years of hard work are rewarded with the role of his life. It’s a victory for character actors everywhere and makes you wonder how many other lesser-known names just need to be afforded the opportunity Jenkins was here. Probably more than we think. And here's hoping the Academy doesn't snub it like they did Peter Dinklage's equally textured work in The Station Agent. This is one of the very best performances so far this year.
Often small films are released and hyped up by the media as “indie darlings” or “small gems.” Most of them aren’t, and as a result, the few that really are, suffer. 2003’s The Station Agent was a special kind of film that was actually the real deal. And now it’s director Tom McCarthy has made another one, just further proving the strong, but sensitive control he has in dealing with real-life issues. This should be screened back to back with Gavin Hood’s clumsy Rendition so everyone can see how one movie can treat a difficult subject with dignity and intelligence while another trips over a similar topic with complete stupidity. This film is timely and political but its greatest asset is that it doesn’t feel like that at all. It’s really about a lonely man spinning his wheels until something comes along that gives his life renewed meaning and purpose. And when it does, a certain pain even accompanies that.

Sometimes you see people who are just going through the motions, disengaged from everything that’s happening around them and a spectator to their own life. 62 year-old Connecticut economics professor Walter Vale (Jenkins) is literally going through the motions after the death of his wife. We know his wife passed away before its even revealed. Not because the script is obvious, but because you can read it on Jenkins’ face. He hates his job and takes up classical piano as a hobby, not because he enjoys it, but because his wife was a classical pianist. He’s terrible at it but doesn’t care. He’s also not a very good professor and could care even less. His excuse for teaching only one class (the same one he’s been teaching for 20 years) is that working on a book. He’s not. The truth is he isn’t doing anything…at all. He hasn’t been for a while now.

The ultimate slap in the face comes when he’s asked (or rather told) to fly to New York City to present a paper he didn’t even write at a stuffy academic conference. While there he discovers two illegal immigrants staying in his long vacated apartment. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian drummer and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira in her film debut) a jewelry maker from Senegal, apologize for the intrusion and attempt to leave. But Walter, knowing they have no place to go, invites them to stay with him. Tarek begins giving drum lessons to Walter and he begins to find the emotional release and connection the piano never supplied for him. Through this new friendship we start to see glimpses of the man he was before his wife’s death. Until Tarek is suddenly and unjustifiably arrested in the subway and taken to a detention center where he faces the threat of deportation. Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) is also in the country illegally and forms a bond with Walter to help her son escape this horrific predicament.

Don’t be fooled by the topic this explores. It isn’t the usual liberal garbage that Hollywood has been feeding us over the past couple of years. While it probably won’t end up on Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’ Reilly’s list of favorite films and it does take a hard stance on the illegal immigration issue it does so with fairness and with intelligence. It doesn’t paint this as a human issue, not a political one. It pulls no punches in invoking 9/11 and it’s a testament to how relevant it is to the story that it would have been more offensive had McCarthy not mentioned it. But I hesitate even saying it has any political undercurrents at all because it’ll be the last thing on your mind when the film ends. The story is about the gradual lifting of Walter’s isolation and re-entry into the world. When his wife passed away so did he. Not physically, but emotionally. He’s dead to the world, but more importantly, to himself.

What makes Jenkins’ performance so brilliant is how, underneath the melancholy exterior, he gives us small, subtle clues that he was once a vibrant man who loved life. It’s a tightrope walk going through an entire film in a shroud of depression but giving us just enough of a hint that there’s still something left in there. So many others actors would have attempted to do too much and succumb to grand displays of emotion when they’re not called for, but not Jenkins. He knows better. Because of this we’re treated to a man slowly re-discovering his life and what resonates deepest is how important it is to have something that you love no matter how insignificant it seems to anyone else, whether it be a job or a hobby or anything. Music becomes that for Walter and for the first time in a while he starts to actually feel.

I’m always amazed that when meeting someone the first question asked is always “What do you do?” Of course, the implication of that is what someone does for a living defines who they are as a person. That’s always the LAST question I ask because the other stuff is always a lot more interesting. This movie actually understands that. It also understands, in depicting the relationship that develops between Walter and Tarek’s mother, that it is possible for a man and woman to care deeply for one another with no romantic strings attached. A dumb mainstream Hollywood film would have had them jumping into the sack over their grief. This story and its characters exist on a deeper level.

Much like McCarthy's previous film, The Station Agent, this is fairly straightforward and contains little in the way of surprises. The joy is in how he gets there. What surprises there are come in recognizing all the mistakes that are somehow avoided in dealing with material this tricky. The final scene is perfect on every level. It’s rare you see a closing moment that reaches for the truth. It isn’t one of those “Hollywood endings” where everyone’s okay and goes skipping off into the sunset. It’s a real life ending where someone goes through an eye-opening experience and comes out on the other end a little stronger. Not even much, but a little. And it’s just enough to keep them going.
The film will primarily be remembered for Jenkins performance, but a strong argument could be made that his three co-stars add an important ingredient to him giving it. Had any of them, especially Sleiman as Tarek, been replaced by different actors this wouldn’t have been the same story. With The Visitor Tom McCarthy is two for two in effectively making the toughest kind of film, the human drama. And for Richard Jenkins, audiences now have a name to go with the face.

Monday, October 13, 2008

You Don't Mess With The Zohan

Director: Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emmanuelle Chriqui, John Turturro, Rob Schneider, Lainie Kazan, Nick Swardson, Ido Mosseri, Michael Buffer

Running Time: 118 min.

Rating: Unrated

*** (out of ****)

You Don’t Mess With The Zohan is the kind of comedy where your mind is made up that you’ll hate it even before the opening credits roll. I know mine was. Adam Sandler’s track record hasn’t exactly been stellar of late and the film’s posters, starring his crotch, didn't implore me to change my prediction. Combine that with the fact that this film’s director, Dennis Dugan, made one of Sandler’s worst comedies, last year’s dreadful I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, there was virtually no chance this could be any good. Thankfully, it was the Dennis Dugan that directed Happy Gilmore who decided to show up for work instead and he brought THAT Sandler with him.

This doesn’t recapture the hilarious highs of Sandler’s mid-90’s output, but it’s his first comedy in a while that knows its goal and accomplishes it. It’s a just a stupid, mindless fun that’s laugh-out loud funny and actually a lot less stupider than you’d imagine. It’s almost a relief to see a movie revel in absurdity like this after watching a downer like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a “comedy” that should have screened in couples therapy sessions instead of theaters. Coincidentally, producer of that film, Judd Apatow, co-wrote this, which just further proves he’s at his strongest when handling stupid material. It’s also a reminder that comedies only have one job: To make us laugh. There are different ways to get there and this one’s route is pretty standard, but it works.

When Sandler brings his “A” game (or at least B+) you start to notice the difference between him and someone like Will Ferrell, who always looks like he’s working hard to get laughs (recently harder than ever). Sandler’s just got it and this movie introduces us to one of his most bizarre, over-the-top characters, which is saying a lot. All of this would be enough to recommend the picture, but when you also thrown in a bunch of inspired cameos that are hilarious not only because of who they are and what they do, but the enormity of their roles, you have one of Sandler’s better recent comedies.
The Zohan (Sandler) is an Israeli counter-terrorist with a love for hair styling, disco dancing and hummus. When he’s not fighting baddies like The Phantom (John Turturro), he dreams of escaping the violence in his own country to come to America and work under his idol, hairstylist Paul Mitchell (who unsurprisingly appears as himself at one point). He sees his opening after a battle with The Phantom and fakes his own death, fleeing to New York City to embark on his new career path. Now going under the moniker “Scrappy Coco” he goes to work for feisty Palestinian hairstylist Dalia (Entourage’s Emmanuelle Chriqui) and soon graduates from janitorial duty to actually cutting hair. But the more popular Scrappy becomes (especially with the elderly women) the more at risk he is of having his secret identity exposed, specifically by a terrorist taxi driver (Rob Schneider) with a grudge. He must also save the neighborhood from a greedy Trump-like real estate developer played by Michael Buffer (yes, the ring announcer!)

I’ll be the first to admit that on paper few movies would probably look as awful as this: A slapstick comedy about terrorism set in New York City starring Adam Sandler. Somehow though, against all odds, Dugan and Sandler make it work. I couldn’t believe I was actually laughing at stuff this stupid but I was. With its foreign fish out of water plot the movie almost aims to be a scripted, fictionalized version of Borat, throwing the clueless protagonist in a foreign land and just watching everyone react to him. The result is supposed to bring ethnic stereotypes (or at least perceptions of them) to the forefront. This isn’t as subtle or clever as that film and it doesn’t for a second pretend to be. The sole purpose of this movie is to watch Sandler act like an idiot, and honestly, few do it better. He really lets himself go loose like a wild man here, which he hasn’t done in some of his other recent efforts.

The jokes come a mile a minute, they’re cheap and easy, but most of them hit thanks to him. The early fight scenes are hilariously choreographed, establishing The Zohan’s goofiness and ineptitude, yet seemingly superhuman physical prowess. When he gets to New York the story kicks into high gear, especially the scenes at the hair salon. Yes, sure it’s stupid, but there’s a montage of The Zohan cutting old ladies’ hair and then having his way with them in the back room when he’s done that had me cracking up. And I’m sorry, when one of those women happens to be Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life, its funny. And that just scratches the surface as far as some of the bizarre cameos that occur throughout the film, some I can’t spoil. But a few I can.

Mariah Carey has a role late in the film that’s ridiculously large, as if the producers were so impressed with her work in Glitter that they expanded the third act to showcase her. She’s hilariously awful, but that’s the point. Rob Schneider is surprisingly not awful in his role as a terrorist cabbie which comes as a relief after his unfunny, bordering on offensive, turn as an Asian stereotype in Chuck and Larry. This was the first movie in years I can recall where Schneider actually got some laughs from me, specifically a scene where we witness his characters’ lack of negotiating skills.

The casting of non-actor Michael Buffer as an arrogant tycoon is so random and insane that it’s actually kind of brilliant. I won’t try to convince anyone he’s worthy of an AFI tribute for his performance but boy was it hilarious seeing him in the role and he gets off some great lines. Even funnier is the casting of his right-hand man, a well- known musician in mustachioed disguise as a racist, xenophobic, homophobic redneck stereotype.

The big mistake Chuck and Larry made was attempting to be politically correct and tell a real story. In doing that it unintentionally came off more offensive than it could have ever been otherwise. Here, the goofy script (co-written with Apatow by Sandler and Saturday Night Live’s Robert Smigel) frees them up to lampoon foreign stereotypes and the laughs come much smoother because of it. Considering relations between Jews and Palestinians in a post-9/11 world isn’t exactly the most promising subject for parody, that this is consistently funny most of the way through is somewhat of a miracle.

Also, watch for Nick Swardson’s priceless facial expressions as the put-upon loser who gets roped into inviting Zohan to stay with him and his overweight mother (played by Lainie Kazan). Strangely, this is actually one of Sandler’s more likable characters, missing that mean streak that has become a trademark of his worst outings. His antics thankfully this time result from stupidity rather than nastiness. The romance between him and Chriqui’s character works fine and accomplishes what it needs to while not feeling forced or tacked on.

There’s a trend that been occurring lately with these comedies, where hour and a half versions of them are released in theaters, then they hit DVD with longer, unrated special editions. I hope it stops, but given how much money the studios make on them, we know that’s not happening anytime soon. There’s just no need for a slapstick comedy like this to ever be 118 minutes.

With dramas I see where there could be a need for an unrated, extended cut (and a few of them have been superior to the theatrical one) but for comedies like this it’s pointless. Their stories are thinner, things need less fleshing out and usually the tighter the running time the better. That said, I didn’t feel this dragged during its nearly 2-hour running time and was thoroughly entertained, which only makes me imagine how much better and tighter the 90-minute theatrical version is. A scary thought. That’s the one I probably should have watched. I also don't really care about watching outtakes and hearing about how much fun they had on the set on the SUPER DUPER UNRATED OVEREXTENDED UNCUT UNCIRMCUMCISED UNPROTECTED SHAKE AND SHIMMY 15-DISC EDITION, only to be replaced next year with a better edition when its sequel is released and you can get a free movie ticket inside. This isn’t There Will Be Blood or The Dark Knight. There are no benefits to hearing in excruciating detail how it was made.
After his bids for dramatic respectability in films like Punch-Drunk Love and last years’ Reign Over Me were met with commercial indifference, Sandler (a lot like Ferrell and Jim Carrey) has returned to the slapstick comedy he knows best. That regressive career trajectory is only a problem if the movies aren’t funny. But this is. Anyone who can’t stand Sandler will hate it but devotees who appreciate when his humor is channeled in the right direction will find a lot to like in You Don’t Mess With The Zohan. Is he above this type of thing already? Absolutely. Should he move on? No doubt. But he’s entitled to have some fun every once in a while… and so are we.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

5 Ways To Fix The Saw Franchise

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS MAJOR PLOT POINTS AND SPOILERS FROM THE FIRST FOUR SAW FILMS

It’s no secret that I didn’t really care much for Saw IV. A series that I always enjoyed went off the deep end creatively with a confusing, overplotted mess of a film. The only good news is that considering it was the fourth installment in a horror franchise it could have been a lot worse and all the problems could easily be fixed in Saw V, which opens October 24th.

Still, it was a huge drop-off in writing quality from the previous three and appeared to be a shark jump if there ever was one. It’s a promising sign that the upcoming film features a couple of solid actresses in Julie Benz and Meagan Goode, but without a stronger script this time around it would be a relatively easy to make a film worse than Saw IV. In fact, from what I read about the direction they’ve taken this, that seems likely.

According to imbd.com, here’s the synopsis:

“Forensics expert Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) goes on the hunt in order to protect the secret that he is the newest person to carry on Jigsaw's legacy.”

In case you've forgotten (which would be easy to given the 75,000 characters who were in the previous film), Hoffman was the man revealed as Jigsaw’s apprentice in Saw IV’s head-scratchingly stupid final twist. That the film will focus on him is bad enough (more on that below) but the synopsis continues to tell us that we’ll also finally find out what happened to Lynn and Jeff’s daughter, who was left in danger at the end of Saw III. Um…a little late for that don’t you think? I’m betting most viewers won’t remember or care. It may have been only hours in the film’s timeline but it was two years ago for the rest of us.

Saw V will also be the first film since the original not directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who b bowed out to make his Paris Hilton horror musical. It probably doesn’t bode well for this series that Bousman’s project sounds more intriguing than this. Taking over the reins is series production designer David Hackl, but considering the problems with the previous film were completely script-related it remains to be seen what if any impact this change will have. But this is the first time in years I'm not excited for an upcoming Saw film and unsure whether to even see it. But, really, who am I kidding? Of course, I will. I have to see whether the filmmakers can dig themselves out of this hole.

Maybe the problem is that it really has turned into a horror franchise and has strayed from its original roots as a mystery/thriller. I don’t envy writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, who are saddled with the near-impossible task of continuing the story after their main villain has been killed off, especially one as complex and interesting as Jigsaw. While that aspect may set it apart from other horror films it hurts the central premise of the series, which was that this sick, dying man believed he was teaching people the meaning of life with his twisted, sadistic games and traps. It seems with his death and the addition of pointless characters we’ve moved further away from that premise and even further away from the first film, which was truly great. Below are my suggestions for getting it back on track. While it isn’t often a horror series enjoys a creative resurgence in its fifth installment, it isn't impossible. If they take even just a couple of these suggestions:

1. KEEP IT SIMPLE
What was great about Saws II and III as sequels were that they worked as stand-alone efforts that didn’t depend on specific plot points from the previous film to enjoy them. I actually thought Saw III was the strongest of the three sequels because of its simplicity and laser-like focus on the main victim’s plight. I’m willing to bet Saw IV’s plot confused the hell out even the film’s most hardcore fans with too many characters (c’mon, Jigsaw’s attorney?) non-linear storytelling and overly complicated traps.

I don’t think it’s helping that all of these films now take place in a timeline that’s days or hours apart, relying on intricate knowledge of every detail to be able to follow it. In a perfect world, Saw V would be set further down the line while still incorporating the aspects necessary from the other films, but Unfortunately, the plot description implies that won’t be happening so I guess I’ll just have to live with it. But that doesn’t mean it still can’t be more focused and simple. Even he writers themselves have admitted in interviews that Saw IV was too confusing, which at least gives me some hope this will be an improvement.

2. BRING BACK THE BATHROOM
It was the setting for shocking final twist in the original film. It was also the setting for another clever one in Saw II and in Saw III we were treated to details of how Jigsaw set up his most famous trap. It needs to come back…somehow. It's simple: bathroom= awesomeness. Just its very presence in the film alerts us that something big is going down.

3. MORE JIGSAW FLASHBACKS

Sometimes it can hurt to know too much about your horror villain. This isn’t one of those cases. It seems the more we learn about John Kramer the more it enhances his mystique and the more appreciation we have for the choices Tobin Bell makes with the role. We wouldn’t even be be talking about a fifth movie if not for him and learning about that character’s origins and history was one of the few things I enjoyed in the last film. We learned about Billy The Puppet, the instigating incident that pushed Kramer over the edge and saw his very first trap. To the writers’ credit, this was very well done and I hope they expand on it in Saw V. They need to squeeze all the screen time out of Bell that they have left, but at the same time figure out a way to make his deceased presence mean just as much in the current storyline.


4. GET RID OF THIS MAN
Boy, they really have to come up with a hell of a backstory to fix this aren’t they? If not, I have no problem with Hoffman’s tape recorder exploding and blowing him to bits within the film’s first few minutes. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who couldn’t even tell what was going on or couldn’t remember who this character even was in Saw IV’s clumsy final minutes. It seemed to be just an example of the writers throwing something out there that was completely random just for the sake of a twist. Whoever carries on Jigsaw’s legacy should be be inexorably tied to his work (see below) rather than just some nobody forensics guy.

I’ve never heard of Costas Mandylor as an actor before Saw IV but I hope he’s ready to give the performance of his life and has some really strong writing to back him up. He’s gonna need it. The easier solution would be for the producers to just cut their loss and move on. He could easily be written him off as just the latest pawn in Jigsaw’s game. Unfortunately, since Mandylor is already signed to Saw VI I better brace myself. This guy's role looks like it's is going to be HUGE. Possibly as large as Tobin Bell's in the second and third films. He better be ready to go the distance because it's gonna take a lot to win me over. It just seems like a bad idea.

5. BRING ONE OF THESE CHARACTERS BACK

And when I say bring one of them back I mean bring them back with meaning and purpose, not to just do nothing like Donnie Wahlberg’s Detective Matthews in the last film. The role doesn’t even have to be large, it just has to be important and make sense.

Dr. Lawrence Gordon-This is what everyone wants, so do it. The franchise needs him back now more than ever and rumors have been swirling about his re-appearance for nearly every installment. Of all the series’ major characters, his return would be the most welcome and fit the best. The writers have tried to top it but no Jigsaw victim suffered more physically or emotionally. Imagine what a moment it would be to see Gordon hobbling onto the screen in the film's final minutes. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the lack of discussion on the topic lately is because producers have been able to keep a potential Cary Elwes appearance under wraps rather than that they’ve abandoned the idea altogether.

Detective David Tapp-Who knows Jigsaw better than the first detective assigned to the case? It would be easy to work him back into the story somehow since for all we know he could have survived that gunshot wound. If not, flashbacks are feasible and could probably add a lot to the current storyline, given the character’s unhealthily detailed obsession with the case. And it’s not like Danny Glover would have had to clear his busy schedule.

Zepp Hindle-“Those are the rules Dr. Gordon!” Alright, I know. Michael Emerson’s creepy hospital orderly ingested a lethal poison and was beaten to death with a toilet seat at the conclusion of the original film. But you can’t tell me the producers aren’t kicking themselves for that after seeing the great work Emerson has gone on to do on Lost. I’m much more willing to believe Zepp somehow survived the traumatic events of the first film than any of the crap the writers tried to sell in the last installment. I’ll even settle for a flashback, I don’t care. By the way, he and Elwes are the only two actors from the series capable of portraying Jigsaw's successor.

The Saw franchise is hurting but things could be much worse, especially considering we’re on the fifth film. At its weakest, its still in much better shape than other horror franchises have been at this point. Better still, none of the sequels have been bad enough to negate the impact of the original film...yet. That’s largely because the central, underlying concept that powers the series is so strong. Here’s hoping on October 24th the filmmakers remembered that.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Iron Man

Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub

Running Time: 125 min.

Rating: PG-13


*** (out of ****)

We’ve come a long way. The days when superhero films were perceived as nothing more than a goofy joke have come to an end. It took a while, but studio executives have finally seen the light, realizing comic book stories can still be fun even if they're intelligent. There’s nothing wrong with taking the material seriously. Better yet, they realized if the material is up to a certain standard it will attract accomplished actors whose work will make the film even better. Especially if that actor happens to be Robert Downey Jr., who previously wouldn’t have topped anyone’s list as a top candidate to play the title role in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Not because we didn’t think he could do it, but because we didn’t have faith that the powers that be would be smart enough to consider him for the role.

The story is that Favreau pushed hard for Downey to get this and it’s a good thing he did because Iron Man would be a far inferior film without him, perhaps even barely recommendable. Sometimes it hurts your viewing experience to come to a movie late after everyone has already seen it and other times it doesn’t make a difference. This is one of those cases where it really has an impact. This is a big spectacle movie that’s meant to be seen and experienced on the big screen. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film a great deal, but rather that I got exactly what I expected from it. Nothing more, nothing less.

As far as mainstream recognizabilty and acceptance, Iron Man would probably fall somewhere toward the middle of the superhero food chain, well below Batman and Superman and closer to Daredevil, The Flash and Captain America. But Favreau and Downey do the character a great service by getting us to really get to know and care about the man behind the suit before puling the trigger on all the action. In a huge risk, nearly three quarters of this film is build-up, weaving a story that not only digs slightly deeper than your average superhero film but is also very timely. It’s almost disappointing that by the end you realize it is just a superhero story because there were so many other interesting issues going on. Still, as far as superhero movies go, Iron Man is one of the better ones. More importantly, it’s smart AND fun.
Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, head of billion-dollar weapons manufacturer, Stark Industries, of which he shares controlling interest with his ruthless business partner, Obidiah Stane (a bearded, chrome-domed Jeff Bridges). But Tony is also a freewheeling, arrogant playboy who likes his cars fast and his women even faster. Struggling to keep his ego in check is his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and best friend, military man Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard). The film opens as Tony is seriously injured and taken captive by terrorists in Afghanistan while he’s on his way to show off his latest weapons of mass destruction.

With irremovable shrapnel lodged in his chest he’s fitted with an electromagnetic device by a doctor (Shaun Toub) to keep him alive and together they build an armor-plated bulletproof suit that enables his escape. After returning to the States following his ordeal, Tony’s priorities shift dramatically when faced with realization that his work has been aiding terrorists and taking innocent lives. Much to the displeasure of shareholders and the company’s board of directors, he controversially terminates the company’s weapons division, instead donating all his time to perfecting the design of the armor-plated suit. Tony's decision ends up causing much more than just a public relations problem.

I found a lot of the stuff involving the suit to be a little silly. I was just confused as to why this guy who has enough money and power to do whatever he wants to help the world would indulge his new found social awareness by building an indestructible, flying costume. I know I’m supposed to just go with the flow because this is a superhero movie, but because the film introduces such serious story elements like nuclear proliferation and terrorism the other elements can’t help but feel slightly off. Luckily, it’s a minor problem because Favreau, his screenwriters and Downey get us to care so much about the guy inside the costume.

Unlike the Spider-Man films, which only talk about the idea of personal responsibility, this movie's actually about it. He given maybe just a couple of notes to play, but Downey plays them better than anyone else could have. It may not be the actor’s most challenging role but he realistically pulls off Tony’s transformation from ignorant playboy tycoon into peaceful crusader with subtle ease. He’s so talented he probably still could have pulled this off just fine had he just phoned it in, but I’m glad he chose not to. If I wasn’t blown away it’s just because I’ve come to expect work like this from him. Without Downey there would be no film, or at least not one this good.

All the fancy cars and homes are nice but if I were Tony Stark all I'd want is Pepper Potts as my assistant. And as for that actress playing her, I had to stop and wonder who she was, and what she did with Gwyneth Paltrow. Besides looking unrecognizably amazing, Paltrow shows off a sexy, spunky side we never suspected she had. Who would have thought that she actually knows how to have fun? Her chemistry and interplay with Downey is priceless and the script wisely doesn’t push things too far between them. It doesn’t have to. Supposedly, Downey convinced her to take this by asking her if she ever gets tired of starring in great movies that no one sees. There's a lot of truth in that. Potts should be just the typical throwaway love interest but Paltrow makes it more. Here may be the first time she’s come off as both an actress and a movie star. The latter has always seemed to be missing. It took this role to bring it out.

In addition to Downey, the always-reliable Jeff Bridges has to sell a tough, multi-layered transformation as well when his intentions are revealed to be a bit different than we thought at the beginning. And as usual, Terrence Howard is wasted with a throwaway role but gives his all. Through no fault of his own, audiences may have a tough time remembering he was even in the film

It’s somewhat disappointing that the last half hour of the film plays like a standard issue comic book movie with a final battle scene reminiscent of Transformers. But I can’t say the movie in any way deteriorates or Favreau doesn’t have a strong grip on the visual effects, which are impressive without being overwhelming. I’m in the unique position of being one of the few to view this film after The Dark Knight and it says a lot that this still doesn’t suffer greatly in comparison. That film was an epic crime drama, but this is very much a popcorn summer action movie and a completely different animal altogether. The Dark Knight wasn’t without its flaws also but the big difference is that they were so interesting you could analyze them for years. The flaws here are more of what you’d typically expect to see in a movie like this.

I think the reason the movie has been slightly overpraised is because we’ve gotten so used to junk in this genre for years and are thrilled that an actor of Downey's abilities is there to elevate the material. For what its worth, I'd rank Downey’s work in this ahead of both Toby Maguire’s in Spider-Man and Christian Bale’s in The Dark Knight. I’ll be interesting for me to see how Ed Norton’s performance in The Incredible Hulk holds up against those.
As much as I enjoyed this I’m not interested in a sequel, or if there is a sequel, there should be a limit of one. The last thing we need is for Downey to be tied up in a series of Iron Man films and turn into another Tobey Maguire, who’s once promising career has now been obliterate because no one can ever think of him as anyone other than Peter Parker. Doing this once or twice is fine but we can’t afford to lose an actor like Downey to big-budget action movies. Having said that, it’s great to see him enjoying the success and acclaim he is right now. It’s been a long time coming. Critics and film buffs always knew how good an actor Robert Downey Jr. is, and now thanks to Ironman, everyone else finally does too.