Category Archives: Reviews

Saw VI (2009)


Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russel
Director: Kevin Greutert
Screenwriter: Marcus Dunstan, Patrick Melton
Rating:
R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, and language.

This year, the torture-friendly franchise will come to its conclusion, and in eye-gouging 3D no less. Not that they would mind milking it for more money until the end of times, but it’s obvious that the box-office response of the sixth entry was cold enough to put the producers on guard regarding the future of further Saw sequels. Which is actually ironic, since “Saw 6” is probably the best of the sequels, and, yes, that isn’t saying very much.

This time, Jigsaw is big on politics. He single-handedly (or, several-handedly, if you count the expanding number of apprentices) takes on the US’ troublesome healthcare issue. And yes, there will be blood (understatement). The grizzly game focuses on insurance executive William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), the typical corporate tool, who will have to pass a series of the late Jigsaw’s world-renowned-wicked-arm-or-leg-choice tests. Since William’s job was all about finding ways for the insurance company to NOT pay for people’s ultra-expensive and risky medical treatments, thus holding the choice of life or death in the flick of his pen, this time he will be faced with the ultimate moral judgement as he must make the same choices while dealing with the victims face-to-face as they are about to meet a horrible, gruesome death. There are still plenty of tie-ins with the rest of the franchise, complete with confusing flashbacks that will make no sense if you’ve missed all of the previous films, and of course the obligatory twist finale. If indeed you have missed all of the previous films and are trying to start with no. 6, then don’t. It’s the worst thing to do. Either start from the beginning, or thoroughly read the Wikipedia entries for all the films in the series and take notes.

Seemingly, not much has changed since the Saw-frenzy first started, so, you might wonder, why did I expand my score from the one-potato “Saw V” received to a full-blown, passing-grade, five potatoes ? “Saw V” was a self-indulgent mess, riddled with flashback sequences and terrible pacing. The series has forgotten all about cleverness after the first two-three films, so the only thing going for it is the entertainment provided by suspensful scenes where characters attempt to survive horrible traps by making equally horrible choices. Whilst “Saw V” dropped the ball in that regard, this one, while still sillly and low on credibility, amps up the tension. This time, the choices are harsh and the life-or-death situations are suspensful enough to make the film a pleasant affair (if you’re into this kind of sadistic stuff). Plus, having just one character facing the tests (William) puts us, the voyeurs, in the position to sympathize with him and be a part of the ride. Throw in Detective Hoffman’s attempts to keep his identity hidden while William runs the maze of horrors, the often surprisingly satirical social commentary, and the short running time and you have the makings of a fun thriller. The film is directed by the man who edited all the other Saws, which means someone else was assigned to handle the editing, and it feels like the editing on this one is less of a jumbled mess. Less prone to induce headaches anyway.

The acting is still rough around the edges, though it’s really not that big of an issue anymore. Everybody overacts or underacts, with the surprising exception of Peter Outerbridge’s simple, balanced performance, neither over nor under the top. Tobin Bell is still pitch-perfect as Jigsaw, even though he’s just there for flashbacks.

So, it’s better than II, III, IV, V and probably better than 3D will be. But it’s too little, too late. Even if they’re planning some sort of reboot or spin-off for next year, or the year after that, they’ve pretty much tortured this franchise to death.

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The Crazies (2010)


Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson
Director: Breck Eisner
Screenwriter: Scott Kosar, Ray Wright
Rating: R for bloody violence and language

“The Crazies” is a remake of the George A. Romero horror classic of the same name. Wait, let me rephrase that to better suit the situation. “The Crazies” is yet another one of those remakes based on an already famous horror film. I can’t imagine how these remakes keep getting green-lit. I mean, the fanbase can’t be that tempting for producers to drool over the posibility of huge profits. And if it’s not the money, what is it about these ideas that drive them towards unoriginal rehashes ? Remake hate aside though, “The Crazies” isn’t all that bad aside from genre familiarity.

The overall story can be immediately and shortly summed up as follows: a small american town is plagued by an epidemic of madness, the army places the town and its inhabitants under lockdown, but a handful of survivors try to make their way out of the city after they realise the army has no intention to allow them to leave, since the virus causing all the mayhem is their doing. This adventure from hell is focused on the local sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) who is separated by the army from his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell), and sneaks back into town to rescue her, picking up other survivors on the way and fighting their way out of town.

There’s a good side and a bad side to this movie. The good side is that it’s an effectivily chilling horror flick, well directed, decently written, tense and paranoid, violent to satisfy gore-hounds, but not enough to turn off casual audiences. The bad side is that there isn’t a single thing that hasn’t been done before, both better and worse. This is your tipical survival horror. I was surprised to find that the “crazies” don’t even make much of an impression. They’re basically zombies. They don’t eat flesh, but they kill in brutal, insane ways. The make-up is a little overdone and distracting. Something a little more subtle would have helped fuel a deeper sense of paranoia. The soldiers become the real villains of the story about half-way through. They are under orders to kill everyone, infected or not, so the survivors have to hide from both the infected and the soldiers, which is a nice touch (credit to the original film).

Much of the movie’s appeal comes from the paranoid vibe. Who is crazy and who isn’t. Are the infected any different from the “crazies” we already have among us. How can you tell if the person standing next to you carries the virus or is simply crazy. That, I guess, is part of the ‘70s paranoid thriller vibe that translates pretty well today, but somehow, it’s pretty clear the movie is more interested in the potential for carnage, allowing breaths of subliminal messages to appear only briefly. You simply go through the motions of a ride, nothing more.

In the end, it’s just another remake. It’s slightly more clever than the average remake (especially the Michael Bay-produced ones), but it won’t make any more memorable. It looks and feels polished, and I can’t imagine a director doing a better job with this story. I think they could have done better by finding a different story than the original’s. I mean the foundation is there, why not build something different, instead of the same story with different props. And this is only one of the countless remakes still to come.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)


Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriter: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Rating : PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking.

Terry Gilliam is an artist. And like any artist, he stays true to his vision, no matter how extravagant or bizzare. And, as is the case with any artist’s work, we the audience, reserve the right to love it, or hate it, just as the artist reserves the right to not really care what we think. That’s how I’ve always pictured Terry Gilliam’s affair with cinema. Some might call it arrogance or self-sufficiency, but I wouldn’t go that far. His vision is sometimes so outrageous, that a second viewing would be out of the question for almost any viewer. I particularly felt this way when I saw his “Tideland” (2005), a movie that to this day I can’t be sure if I hated or loved, just that despite its originality, before the rising of Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”, I don’t think I’ll be seeing it again. On the other hand, he can only submit his will to his vision, so what I, or anyone else, thought of that particular movie, whether loved or despise, is completely irrelevant.

So, I was more than a little suspicious as I started watching “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”. I was, of course, aware this was Heath Ledger’s very last (incomplete even) movie, and that Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law accepted to complete Ledger’s part, with the help of some very clever rewrites, so the first time Ledger appears on-screen, it felt extremely eerie. A feeling that could only serve a film like this.

Though bizzare in a very Gilliam kind of way, the story is actually surprisingly straight-forward. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an immortal monk, who travels in a horse-driven sideshow caravan along with his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) and his two aides, sharing the beauty of imagination to the world. He carries a terrible burden though, that of having gambled with the Devil (Tom Waits) and lost. The price is the soul of his daughter, which he must surrender to the prince of darkness on her 16th birthday. His luck seems to change when they encounter Tony (Heath Ledger), a charismatic swindler, just in time for a new wager with the Devil, which Parnassus hopes will save his daughter.

The gimmick of the story is the Imaginarium, a world which Parnassus can conjure, a world of dreams and imagination (with lots of help from a modern director’s best friend, CGI) tailored around the fabric of the person who enters it. The visual effects are a lot of fun, particularly because there’s a smart concept behind them. As a way to work around the fact that Ledger never finished his scenes, the script was altered so that whenever Tony enters the imaginarium, he appears as a different person each time (Depp, Farrell, Law), him being a swindler, thus a man of a thousand faces, none of them real. I would dare say the script works even better this way, though it is unfortunate that Ledger did not complete his work.

As far as Gilliam’s overall vision is concerned, I was expecting something wildly excentric, but as I mentioned before, the story, underneath the usual visual extravaganza and Oscar-nominated art direction, is quite pleasant and easy to sit through. It has the feel of a modern fairy tale and is a lot of fun to let yourelf carried away by it. The acting is top-notch, with Ledger apparently still bearing echoes of the Joker (little gestures and some line delivery). Plummer is particularly impressive, and after such a long carreer, it’s nice to see he’s still got it (he also nabbed an Oscar nom this year for The Last Station).

“The Imaginarium…” is great imaginative fun, full of everything that makes a movie a great thrilling ride. If from seeing the trailers you feel the movie is just too bizzare or just for kids, fear not, for this is Terry Gilliam’s most fun and easy movie, yet still creepy in a way that I don’t think children might enjoy.



Edge of Darkness (2010)


Starring: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenwriter: William Monahan, Andrew Bovell
Rated: R for strong bloody violence and language.

Remaking his own 6 episode BBC mini-series, director Martin Campbell attempts his reboot skills, this time not for a fictional character, as was the case with James Bond (twice even, in 1995 with Goldeneye and 2006 with Casino Royale), but rather one made of flesh and blood, Mel Gibson. “Edge of Darkness” is an attempt at a comeback for the 80’s violent conspiracy/revenge/Mel flicks. And it sort of works that way too.

Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) is a Boston homicide detective. When his daughter is killed right in front of him, he begins an investigation which leads him into the murky corporate underworld, complete with nefarious government cover-ups, silenced witnesses and henchmen driving around in black SUVs. His daughter was working for Northmoor, a company she discovered was secretely manufacturing nuclear weapons. Now, it’s up to Mel to avenge his daughter, plow through the bad guys and bring down Northmoor executive Jack Bennet (Danny Huston). What a great set-up for a trailer. You can even imagine that deep trailer voice announcing all this stuff.

The most important thing to keep in mind when deciding to watch this movie, is the fact that it’s throwback to the 80s conspiracy thrillers. It doesn’t always make sense, and the fact that a 6 episode plot was condensed to a two hour movie leaves a lot of the story feel rushed. While the mini-series was supposed to be a dark mistery with a slow pace, this one is supposed to be just as dark, but more action oriented, and tailored to Mel Gibson’s brand of intense performance. Indeed, Mel is back into his “Lethal Weapon” game, chewing scenery whenever he can, but, as you can imagine, in a way more appropriate for his age. I was afraid they would have him do James Bond stunts, but, thank God, there’s none of that.

Besides Mel, there’s another interesting character, Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), who describes himself as “the man who stops you from connecting A to B”. His job was to take out Craven before he would become a nuisance for the government, but something about Craven intrigues him. They share a couple of lengthy conversations, and in a separate scene, we find out Jedburgh is terminally ill. All these will lead to a puzzling final scene I will not spoil. His motivations are a mistery, much like the character himself. There’s a certain depth to him that doesn’t feel fully developed. Just, intriguing.

The whole film is full of little contradictions. It has a deliberately slow pace, that ends up conflicting with the condensed and rushed plot. It throws in shocking, unexpected scenes of graphic violence that fit the revenge plot, but remain nothing more than shock tactics in an otherwise tame movie. It shows us the promise of a psychological thriller, but by the end it’s nothing more than a shoot’em up. Everything shifts and turns. The only constant and dependable things are Mel Gibson’s overacting and Danny Huston’s weasely villain. It’s the kind of movie that can be enjoyed especially if you aknowledge and accept these facts and savour them for what they are. If this is your kind of fare, then you’re going to love “Edge of Darkness”, like I did.

Couples Retreat (2009)


Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kristen Bell, Jason Bateman, Malin Akerman, Jon Favreau, Kristin Davis
Director: Peter Billingsley
Screenwriter: Jon Favreau

Ok, I knew I would not like this one. There was no way in hell that a
comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau would interest me in the
slightest. I also am not a heterosexual man so that the hotness of Malin
Ackerman or Kristen Bell or Kristin Davies would blind my rational
judgment. I saw the trailer and I thought it was a nice way for some A
listers to earn some money while getting a natural tan in an exotic location.
I knew well ahead what was coming and my masochist side was pleased to
see I was all I hoped it would be.

The plot revolves around four couples: Malin Ackerman and Vince Vaughn, Kristin Bell and Jason Bateman, Kristin Davis and Jon Favreau, Faison Love and a 20 year old post divorce rebound girlfriend. Every one of these couples
has ONE problem and everything they do is connected to that one problem
and/or is totally out of character but serves an one line unfunny joke. They
try to solve their problems by going on a vacation that includes, among
scuba diving and massages, couples therapy. I KNOW, this is so original
and so not cliché at all!

The trailer lies like a well oiled marketing device: it presents this movie as a
raunchy comedy with a stelar cast, great panoramic views and a love
centered story. If you actually buy tickets, you will be met by some bored
individuals who are trying to sell you some figments of candy wrapped
Hollywood “love” that should make you believe that these are good people
who deserve to be happy. I’ll give them this: they deserve each other. The
stories are one dimensional, predictable and quickly resolved, and there are
not enough helicopter shots of crystal blue sea water in this flick to make
anyone forget what impossibly contrived situations they try to pass as real
couple problems.

When I read some reviews about this movie, I realized that many people said that it was a shame that “such a talented cast” was “dragged into this horror fest”. I disagree. These people have not one, but several people watching every move they make, every contract they sign, every role they pick. They read the script, compare it to the check and decide if it’s worth it. So my conclusion was that Vince Vaughn deserves all the bad press he can get, because he wanted to become this mediocre romantic comedy lead with zero appeal. He is almost Kutcher level for me, only worse especially because he had things going for him that the ladder did not, mainly talent. Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell are basically two sides of the same character but at about half way through the movie, she becomes another person so they can fight and “communicate their issues”. It’s all bland and pointless, not to mention unintentionally funny. They are likable actors, but somehow this movie makes them annoying and I’m very happy because maybe that will make Bell stop with the “cute as a button” type roles. Malin Ackerman is underappreciated by her husband and remains that way even after the credits roll, although the script tries to tell you otherwise. And Faison Love is embarrassing, but luckily the bar can go lower to poor Jon Favreau (who also co-wrote this wreck) and Kristen Davis where there.are.no.words.

While watching this movie, the painfully true line uttered by Roeper when trying to explain using words the awfulness that is “What Happens in Vegas” was floating through my head: “The cast said they had so much fun during the making of this movie, THEY should have to sit through it”.

The Blind Side (2009)


Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenplay: John Lee Hancock (based on a book by Michael Lewis)
Rating: PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references

For Sandra Bullock 2009 was the best year of her career. The summer comedy “The Proposal” was a pretty big box-office hit and “The Blind Side” was not only a huge dollar-maker and it seems will guarantee her an Oscar. Quite a big leap from comedian to dramatic lead (much like Mo’Nique in “Precious”). Of course there was also the God-awfull “All About Steve”, but I’ll let that one slide.

“The Blind Side” is esentially the true story sports drama we’ve all seen before, featuring the underdog and the people who support him along the way to fullfiling his dreams and/or ambitions of becoming a hero on the field (or whatever arena the sport in question takes place in). However, director John Lee Hancock surprisingly moves freely past some boundaries while keeping the film safe at home in all the familiar sports movie cliches. The story follows a homeless african-american kid Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), who one day happens to cross paths with the Touhys, a tipical southern republican family in love with sports and family values. Mama Touhy, Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock), strong-willed and compassionate, takes Michael in and makes it her personal crusade to help him realise his full potential, which coincidentally is, since this IS a sports drama after all, to become offensive left tackle in the college footbal program, and later on being recruited by the NFL. The saving grace of this movie is that it concerns a little bit less with the sports and more with the dynamics betwenn the Touhys and Michael, which, in a nutshell, is like a kids-friendly version of “Precious”.

Michael has locked himself away from everything and everyone. He’s a defeated young man, with no hopes or prospects, who does not have the means to save himself. Until Leigh Anne Touhy reached out to him. A touching story that gets translated to the big screen with plenty of emotionality, sometimes pushing into blatant melodrama. Seemingly aware of the requirements of underdog stories, Hancock shifts some of the focus away from the result of Oher escaping his impoverished past and becoming an NFL football player. It’s not just the story of a football player, but the story of a human being, pulled away from the streets and given a chance to fully grow. Thus, Michael’s story is not one of success and fame, but one of salvation. The director pulls it off, even while conducting the sports drama elements in a by-the-numbers fashion and all the comic relief elements, such as the Touhy’s plucky young son S.J. (who provides some of the funniest moments on-screen). The story has strength and Hancock knows exactly how to mix it with all the rest of the things a crowd-pleasing Hollywood movie needs, in a manner that makes us forgive some of its superficial interpretations of real life (and there certainly are plenty of those too).

The cast is great, especially newcomer Quinton Aaron, who pulls off a superbly subtle and touching performance. He can express so much with just his eyes, that there’s practicaly no need for him to say any lines. We can sense his turmoil, but cannot fully understand it at first. He maintains a safe distance from everyone, slowly revealing his true self just as soon as he feels it is safe to. Bullock is also riveting, and safe to say that this is her career-defining moment, years in the making. Here she puts all her experience to work, delivering a dynamic, candid, surprisingly balanced performance. Clearly one of the best the year has to offer for leading actresses. I’m not sure I actually think she fully deserves the Oscar this year, though, but I’m sure she will be bestowed the honor, considering the awards she’s earned so far (Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild award, Broadcast Film Critics Association award). I guess, if she’s ever going to win an Oscar, it might as well be now.

Overall “The Blind Side” is essentially family entertainment, cleverly blending the inspirational true story sports genre with bits of social commentary, garnished with some laughs and sprinkled with healthy doses of melodrama and a solid cast, making it watchable for anyone seeking a fun and involving treat. It’s crafty cinema at its best, just don’t expect any profound experiences.

Precious (2009)


Starring : Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey
Director : Lee Daniels
Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher (based on a novel by Sapphire)
Rating: R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language

Anyone who follows the award season closely has probably already heard about, learned about, even seen “Precious”, or as it’s officialy titled by the distributor, “Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire”. Why such a painfully long title ? Marketing strategies so that everyone knows it’s based on THAT novel, and to avoid confusion with that awfull sci-fi thriller “Push”, though I personally like to be given more credit as a moviegoer.

The movie centers on familiar themes like abuse and dysfunctional family environment, but gives us a memorable and unique story that refreshes these themes, just in case we’ve forgotten what they’re about (and I’m not being ironic). In fact, I can safely say that cinema is in need of more stories like Precious’ sad one. Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a broken soul. An obese, illiterate 16-year-old black girl living in Harlem with her oppresive mother Mary (Mo’Nique), abused by her father, twice impregnated by him, living her daily life split between dark reality and glamorous fantasies. Her only escape from the nightmare of reality is through her imagination which transforms her into anything other than who she really is. In her imagination, she becomes a singer, model, actress, even an ordinary pretty white blonde girl. She fantasises about love and dreams of having a loving family. She’s suspended from high-school when the principal finds out she’s pregnant for the second time, but is offered the chance to continue her studies in an alternative school program led by Ms. Raine (Paula Patton). Here she will find the suitable environment to learn not just to read and write, but also to sustain hope, dare to achieve more and eventually free herself from the suffering she’s endured. That is not to say everything will be all right, far from it, as life still has plenty of punches to pull, but Precious will find friendship and love she never thought actually existed, little things that will open up a whole new world for her.

Now, down to specifics. You have probably learned by now that “Precious” is a solid contender for Best Picture, Leading and Supporting Actress, and you’re probably wondering, is it really that good, or is it just that the critics are suckers for social awareness underdog stories. Well, it’s really that good, actually, although it has its own problems which make it fall short of perfection. Director Lee Daniels has great instinct when it comes to his cast. Even Mariah Carey is unrecognisable in this film, and fairly efficient. The cast is perfect in unexpected ways. In fact, that is probably the prevailing aspect of this film.

Sidibe, a first timer, through her balanced performance inspires not pity for Precious, but respect and compassion. The girl is damaged beyond hope, but she finds a way to get by, hiding her frailty under a layer of anger and stubborness. She hopes to save her children from ever going through what she did, and so she fights to escape her broken home. The scene in which she tearfully confesses to Ms Rain that the only thing love has done for her is hurt her, is an emotional powerhouse because Sidilbe’s performance is heartfelt, so we witness a real person’s confession, not an actress emoting.

Mo’Nique is particularly effective. She portrays nothing less than a monster, yet allows some streams of humanity pour through her at a crucial moment towards the end. We can’t possibly relate to her or even fully understand her in terms of humanity, but at that moment we get to see more of her inner-workings. Mo’Nique could have easily gone the other way and portray her as simply “evil”, but this way we deal with something a lot more complicated, another damaged human being, broken and hateful. This is even more of a triumph for her as an actress, considering her acting experience is concentrated in the comedy genre. There is nothing comical about Mary. She has tolerated the raping of her own daughter in her home, and continued to abuse Precious, blaming her for “stealing her man”, beating and degrading her because of the life she herself never had.

What Daniels handles badly are the fantasy scenes. The scenes where Precious imagines an alternate glittery life are intrusive and break the emotional connection with the character rather than help establish it. The contrast with the gritty style is necessary and serves to remind us how different the two versions of her life are, I understand that, but they feel like we’re being slapped over the head with that particular message. I don’t even think they were absolutely necessary, since the story is already strong enough to keep us engaged. It’s as if the director felt we could not understand what Precious feels and thinks, unless he employed some CGI and stylish cinematography. I personally couldn’t wait for the fantasy scenes to end and allow the film to move on. The voice-over narration was sufficient to help us create a mental image of her fantasies. I was dissapointed that the director doesn’t credit us with a little more imagination.

So, bottom-line, the film benefits greatly from an excellent cast and powerfull story but is somewhat hindered by the director’s heavy-handed use of pointless storytelling artifices. Even so, it’s still a relevant, brutally honest cinematic achievement and will definetly garner plenty of attention during this award season for its Sidibe and Mo’Nique.