Monday, October 27, 2008

Saw V - Movie Review

SAW V (**1/4) - Starring Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Julie Benz, Meagan Good and Betsy Russell.
Directed by David Hackl.

If you've seen the first four, you will feel about this one about the same way you felt about the three previous sequels.

The Saw franchise is my guilty pleasure. The first one was a shot in the arm to horror. The acting was all over the place, but I couldn't help but relish Cary Elwes going way out there as Dr. Gordon, the man who has to cut off his own foot if he wants to live. It also had Michael Emerson doing his bug-eyed bad-guy thing. Saw also had one of my favorite twist(ed) endings of any horror film the past six or seven years.

The sequels have had varying success with their twist endings, and I would say if you ranked them, this one had the weakest.

Unlike other horror franchises, this one requires you to see them all for it to make sense, even though if you think about it, there is a giant abandoned warehouse somewhere full of booby traps, and every time the cops sweep the area in the aftermath of a Saw movie, they miss that one secret door that leads to five or six more rooms of torture devices.

This movie relies on flashbacks to all the other movies, and it creates new ones as we get the back story on Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), revealed as the twist ending in Saw IV as the new water-carrier for Jigsaw, who died at the end of Saw III. Turns out that hey, Hoffman was behind the scenes all along, helping Jigsaw and Amanda with their elaborate traps. Mandylor, who looks like Brenda Fraser's less successful alcoholic brother, does fine as Hoffman, a cop who wanted revenge but saw the "light", at least the light Jigsaw offers.

Saw V blatantly introduces items and details with no explanation, setting groundwork for Saw VI. So while you could see any of the Friday the 13ths and they stand alone, Saw is not that way. And if I had to choose between seeing another Saw sequel or seeing Hostel III, Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, or Hills Have Eyes 3, it'd be no contest.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Appaloosa - Movie Review

APPALOOSA (***1/2) - Starring Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, Lance Henriksen, Tom Bower and James Gammon.
Directed by Ed Harris.

The classic Western is back, even if we only get one a year. It deserves to stand alongside 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James, and Open Range as a good movie on its own, and then bonus points for being a good ol'-fashioned cowboy movie. It wasn't that long ago American Outlaws and Texas Rangers about killed the genre.

Ed Harris stars, directs, co-writes, and co-produces in this thing. He even sings a song over the closing credits. He and Viggo plays Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch respectively, gunmen who roam from town to town takin' the law jobs, cleanin' up the place, then movin' on. Seems the town of Appaloosa is a might run over by Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), your typical rich landowning bad guy.

I enjoyed the deepened relationship between Cole and Hitch the most. The looks that say everything, the spare, laconic dialogue. It's hilariously understated. I could see Gary Cooper and Robert Mitchum having just such conversations. I also loved the emphasis on honesty in the old West. If you gave your word, you gave your word.

My one quibble - Renee Zellweger. She was the weak link in Leatherheads and the weak link here. I don't enjoy her as a performer anymore. I would've much rather seen Kate Beckinsale or Molly Parker or Emily Watson or Francis O'Connor or any number of different actresses in this role. Maybe it's the Academy curse. Maybe she hasn't been able to lose the weight from her face since the Bridget Jones sequel, so now when she smiles, her cheeks squish her eyes shut. I don't know what it is.

Chicago 10 - DVD Review

CHICAGO 10 (**1/2) - Starring the voices of Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Dylan Baker, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider and Jeffrey Wright.
Written & directed by Brett Morgen.

This stylized documentary outstylized the Errol Morris doc I just saw, although I really appreciated what Morgen was going for here. My main problem was that he couldn't shape it in a way where a story was told, where a series of events are strung together where we can follow cause and effect, this lead to that. To understand what actually happened, it's good to already have your own familiarity with the 1968 DNC riots and subsequent Chicago 7 trial, or do your own reading before or after viewing, as the movie is full of cool images and powerful scenes, but it's missing the crucial element of narrative.

It cuts back and forth between 1968, leading up to the riots, and 1969, during the farce of a trial. In 1968, we have all real footage, and where we don't have the actual footage, we have actors covered with rotoscope animation (like in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and those soulless Charles Schwab commercials). In 1969, we have the trial, and all dialogue is taken from the transcipts, but we have actors doing the parts. Hank Azaria is Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsburg, for instance. This allows for editorializing. The judge, as voiced by Roy Scheider, might as well be Strother Martin ("what we've got here is failure to communicate") but when you look at what the judge said and did during the trial, it seems pretty fair.

For me, the 1968 footage is much more effective. We see the players - Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, et al - saying their words and doing what they'll do. We see the perfect storm brewing at the DNC. History's been kinder to LBJ; it's easy to forget just how hated he was in 1968. There seems to be an effort to tie the fervor of 1968 to anti-war sentiments of 2008, but it was a much different time. Most importantly, there was a draft back then. But the most chilling moment was when one of the protestors, talking to the crowd, said they will march to the convention and enter "by whatever means necessary." Oo, that's not going to end well.

Jumping back and forth between the two time periods might have worked if each followed a natural linear progression, but the 1968 order of things is jumbled. The 1969 line is better at this, but it lacks the impact. I thought both storylines had built to climaxes that were coming in the next scene, but suddenly the credits are rolling and we get a bunch of epilogue cards. How extensive were the injuries at the riots? Why did the lawyers for Hoffman and crew wind up serving more jail time than the accused? I don't know. I guess I can do more of my own reading.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure - DVD Review

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (**) - Directed by Errol Morris.
Music by Danny Elfman.

Most Iraq/Abu Ghraib documentaries connect the dots up the chain of command and blame Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, etc., for what happened. Not this one. I'm not sure what this one is aiming for. To exonerate the soldiers of Abu Ghraib? Not exactly. To condemn them? Not really that either. It takes a close, uncomfortable look at the photos from Abu Ghraib and pieces together a timeline of events, and it has interviews with most of the soldiers involved. It came down to a modern-day example of The Experiment with no one there to stop it.

The Experiment took place a few decades ago, and it took normal people and put them in a prison setting. It was to last 30 days but it was stopped prematurely because the "guards" were getting violent with the "prisoners." These soldiers were to watch the prisoners and interrogate them, but with no rules and no oversight, things got out of control. Well, there were some rules. Rules like it was okay to sexually humiliate the prisoners.

My problem with this documentary is that Errol Morris is too in love with his own filmmaking skills to bother focussing the narrative. It's like a 113 minute opening credit sequence. It's littered with recreations, ghostly images, animation, re-enactments, so that sometimes we don't know what's real. At one point I thought I was watching real video of the human pyramid set-up, only to realize it was actors recreating it, filmed in a grainy Zapruder-like fashion. At one point a soldier talks about Saddam Hussein, on the run, bursting into someone's house to make an egg. We then see soft-light on a hairy hand, cracking the egg in slo-mo, the egg falling into the pan and splattering, the slow sizzle, with added CGI sparkles around it.

The natural villain to the proceedings here would seem to be Gen. Janis Karpinski, in charge of Abu Ghraib. But she's one of the interviewees, so it wasn't her fault. Lynndie England, she of the infamous double-point to a prisoner's exposed privates, is made human, telling her story of a 20-year-old soldier who fell in love with her married 34-year-old superior, Sgt. Charles Graner. Most of the interviewees talk about this pose or that picture as Graner's idea, Graner's plan, Graner's doing. Graner is not interviewed. But his wife is, and Graner is humanized too. Soldiers refer to their superiors, to unnamed bigwigs who gave Graner orders, superiors who said to interrogators "we did this at Gitmo; try it here."

One sad result of Abu Ghraib is that the military didn't get much helpful information out of these prisoners. They were basically tortured and humiliated for nothing. A couple of them were murdered, but that was easier to cover up because there were no photos.

As uncomfortably compelling as some of this could be, it would be sabotaged by ominous cords from Danny Elfman's score. I love Danny Elfman, but the soundtrack felt more suitable for the upcoming Da Vinci Code prequel. And then we'd closeups of a soldier beating on a prisoner. Not actual footage, just actors, with quick editing of different film stocks so it looks like very third minute is directed by Oliver Stone.

It concludes by telling us that no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant went to prison for Abu Ghraib, and that Charles Graner is still serving his ten-year sentence and the US Military will not let him be interviewed. I'll wager when he gets out, he'll name some names. But if Errol Morris interviews him, he'll probably have the letters fly out of his mouth as he talks.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

This Week on NBC's Heroes

I like how Mohinder is turning into The Fly, complete with that rattlesnake shaking in the soundtrack during his scenes. (Actually he's more like the Spiderthing Gary Oldman turned into in Lost in Space). I like how the overarching theme is clear, even if all the subplots are all over the place. I love Robert Forster joining the cast, and that they found a way to bring back Malcolm MacDowell. I think all the time-travel stuff is too messy, and I think they made a mistake not killing off Sylar at the end of the first season. They're now doing what they always do on TV shows: taking a cool villain and turning him into an anti-hero. The more air-time they give Nathan and HRG, the better off the show is. And Parkman, once they get him out of Africa.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Savage Grace - DVD Review

SAVAGE GRACE (**) - Starring Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane and Eddie Redmayne.
Directed by Tom Kalin.

This movies proves that Moore and Dillane are great actors, and that it's all for naught if they can't use those talents in a story worth telling. It's the true story of a dysfunctional family of the icky kind, showing rich people in their decadent glory. Money can't buy happiness, but families like these are good arguments for wealth redistribution.

It's the true story of Brooks, Barbara and Antony Baekeland. Brooks is heir to the billions left by his grandfather, who invented plastic. Brooks is a cold, ambivalent father; Barbara is a clingy, unstable mother; and Antony never really had a chance, but he grows up to be a cross between Augusten Burroughs and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.

This isn't so much a story as a series of events in the family's lives that spans across the decades. Picture Michael Apted with his 7 Up series, but he stops in on this family at the worst possible times. "Oh dear, the father is sleeping with his teenage son's girlfriend; let's try again in seven years." Seven years later. "Oh, my, what's the mother doing in bed with her son and his boyfriend?"

Moore gives a ferocious, devastating performance as Barbara, who'd rather have her son be oedipal than gay. It's one of those roles where I hope now she can do some rom-com's or adventures or something less soul-crushing.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Kath & Kim - TV Review

Wow, this show was bad. They can make Kim stupid, but she spells it o-v-u-r? Really? And it has dueling voice-over narrations from both characters. It's based on an Australian TV show, but something is seriously lost in translation. Even Chris Guest vet John Michael Higgins can't save it.

Bigger Stronger Faster - DVD Review

BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER (***1/2) - Directed by Christopher Bell.

This was a very interesting documentary, in that you could summarize it in one word - "steroids" - but it goes in many unexpected directions and provides a lot of food for thought. It's also a very personal one. Chris Bell is the middle brother of three, all of whom were into bodybuilding, and his two brothers still are, and they're very open about their steroid use. He starts out talking about his heroes - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan - and the disillusionment he felt when he learned they do steroids.

But he eventually gets around to a question: Why are steroids so bad?

The doc winds up being a meditation on winning at all costs, on why some drugs are demonized when the deadliest one (alcohol, tobacco) are still legal, and why Congress spent more time on baseball than health care, energy and Iraq combined.

Bell is interested in the facts, in actual studies. He does a good job demonstrating what a bad job the media has done on the truth about drugs and steroids in particular, how "experts" go on shows and testify before Congress without any actual evidence. He also asks questions about Pres. Bush, who owned the Texas Rangers when steroid use was rampant there, but who later condemns it in a State of the Union address.

It shows a lot of guys working out. "Training." Training for what? If they get bigger, then they... do what? Keep getting bigger? We meet one sad guy early on, a guy had a part in Sly Stallone's arm-wrestling pic Over the Top, who works out at Gold's Gym and sleeps in his van. What is he working toward?

Bell's older brother is a pro-wrestling wannabe. We see footage of him being a jobber for a while, one of those no-names that Mr. Perfect or the Undertaker would beat up 15-20 years ago, but he blames drugs on why he never made it. Today he still sadly clings to the hope he can make something happen. (I just realized Bell missed an opportunity here; he doesn't go into how many pro-wrestlers die prematurely. Mr. Perfect, Rick Rude, Yokozuna, Davey Boy Smith, Eddie Guerrero, etc. He mentions Chris Benoit to illustrate how paranoid the media got, but... I'm off-track here.)

His younger brother set the record for weightlifting. 705 pounds. On steroids. Everyone there knows it. The movie ended with me believing the majority of everyone in sports is on drugs somehow.

If Tiger Woods got laser-eye surgery to make his vision 20-15, isn't that performance enhancement? This movie gives a lot to the viewer to chew on.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Run Fatboy Run - DVD Review

RUN FATBOY RUN (**1/2) - Starring Simon Pegg, Thandie Newton, Hank Azaria, Dylan Moran and Harish Patel.
Directed by David Schwimmer.

The formula vehicle comedy is a Hollywood staple. Put comedian in situation, unfold it in three acts, and voila, a movie. Not all vehicles are created equal, nor are all comedians. Ben Stiller tends to stick with the two-man buddy formula. When he goes solo it can be successful (Night at the Museum) or stinky (The Heartbreak Kid). Low-end vehicles are always kicking around Hollywood (see: Dane Cook, Rob Schneider, Larry the Cable Guy).

This is one such formula, but you have a screenplay from Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz) and Michael Ian Black (The State), and a directorial debut from David Schwimmer, and a good lead man (Pegg). if there is a weakness of the three, it's Schwimmer. There are plenty of times the comedy flows naturally, but then bizarre slapstick and pratfalls come out of nowhere.

Pegg plays Dennis, who ran out on his pregnant fiancee (Thandie Newton) on their wedding day. So, he starts off as a jerk. Five years later, we see his situation, where he's been regretting it ever since, playing single dad on the weekends, but now he feels intimidated when she gets a successful, handsome boyfriend Whit (Hank Azaria). Somewhere in there it comes up that Whit's going to run a marathon, so Dennis says he's going to run too. Of course, Dennis is out of shape.

It's also another movie where at the end, either Dennis accepts the new guy, or the movie will throw in a quick, contrived way to expose the guy as a jerk a la Tin Cup. And Dennis is such a petulant whiner through most of the movie, I credit Simon Pegg for preventing me from actively rooting for him to lose at the end.

I come back to the direction. When Dennis bumps his head on a mirror, it's not a bump and an "Ow", he quickly falls to the ground from it. When he's about to go down some stairs, and Whit sayd "Watch out for that first step," Dennis trips and goes thud-bang-tumbling down the stairs. At least Whit doesn't say, "It's a dooozy!"

So overall it's average; not bad for a rental, glad I didn't pay big-screen prices to see it.

(Gaffe watch: at one point Dennis and his friend Gordon get in a fight. In the scene the garbage can nearby is upright, then on its side, then upright again.)

Taxi to the Dark Side - DVD Review

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (***) - Directed by Alex Gibney.

This won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary. It's another example of a movie where its technique is standard (talking-head interviews mixed with photos of the events and ominous music), but it's paced in an ideal way for the filmmakers to get their point across.

This movie focusses on one man, a taxi driver picked up in Afghanistan, held and tortured for months and eventually killed, but innocent of doing anything wrong. The movie then explores everything from the top down as to what led to the US military to reject habeas corpus and the Geneva convention to create a perfect storm of torture and murder.

It's powerful when at the end, the soldiers who've been interviewed are the ones who went on trial for abuse and assault, when it's clear that there's blood on the hands of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and a few generals.

When this movie originally came out, John McCain was losing the GOP primaries, so it's interesting he pops up here as a hero until they get a jab in at the end with no evidence.

The final scene is like a twist ending, when it's revealed director Alex Gibney's dad was a WWII interrogator, and we see a brief interview with him right before his death on how disgusted he is with what the Bush Administration has done.

Speed Racer - DVD Review

SPEED RACER (**1/2) - Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Benno Furmann, Paulie Litt, Roger Allam, Rain and Richard Roundtree.
Directed by Andy & Larry Wachowski.

I think the movie Twins, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, is based on the true story of the Wachowski brothers. I don't know which one's which, but they seem to be the offspring of George Lucas, Michael Bay, Tarsem, McG, Sam Raimi, Robert Rodriguez and JJ Abrams via mama Kathryn Bigelow, with all the good and bad that implies.

Sometimes it's visually amazing. It's anime brought to life in a way no one has done before. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it's also a good half-hour too long to subject its audience to such sensory overload. Everything is moving and swirling and spinning by, but my main problem with this is the racing.

Think of the podrace in The Phantom Menace. At least you had a sense of speed and distance and how far away the finish line was. Never anywhere in this movie do you get the sense of where they are in the race. It might as well be the teacups at Disneyland going very very fast. The cars spin and fly and move back and forth, but it never moved me beyond seeing actors in front of a green screen. The camera's spinning all over the place for the angles, but I felt the rush more in Pixar's Cars.

It's colorful and pretty. The actors keep it moving for the most part. I enjoyed the silky yet gravelly tone of Roger Allam as the Shakespearean villain Royalton who tempts Speed with the big sponsorships. I liked Matthew Fox as Racer X. Paulie Litt was as annoying as an anime kid should be. The Wachowskis were going for something new and I give them a lot of credit.

But somewhere in there, the actual race should matter.