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Month: January 2018

Is ‘Jigsaw’ the Same Puzzle Again?

jigsaw posterJigsaw is the 8th film in the Saw series. Although the concept has grown a bit stale, the quality is on par with other entries in the horror franchise. Production values are good, but the acting leaves something to be desired. If you’re into gory kills and sadism then this is your bag. If you aren’t, then there’s nothing here to convert or entertain you. As in previous installments a mysterious madman has captured bad people and locked them up in Rube Goldberg machines of evisceration. They are forced to play sadistic games in order to free themselves while risking death and dismemberment. The vital change this outing, is that the original Jigsaw Killer, John Kramer, may have returned. I’m kidding about it being vital. It’s the same movie again, but for fans of the franchise – therein lies the twist.

It’s About the Kills.

Shortly after the terrible main title music we’re introduced to our players/victims. They wear steel buckets over their heads while chains slowly pull them toward a wall of spinning saw blades. Who will make it past the first trap? I thought it was tense, horrifying and disgusting. The film is powered by anticipation and dismemberment. Jigsaw’s killing machines are clever enough when they’re in action, but I craved some humor in between the deaths. The dialogue is campy, but the actors range from terrible to flat in their delivery. It’s too serious for its own good. What else do you do after you disgust people? You defuse them with a laugh. Not Jigsaw. It wears a self-involved cleverness on it’s sleeve.

This One’s Strictly for Saw Junkies.

The plot makes convoluted twists and turns to explain the identity of our mystery killer near the end. They hit me like a feather. Perhaps this is because I hardly remember the other films, but for those invested in the series’ canon, I suppose it’ll please. It’s mildly clever. If you’re one of those viewers who already want to watch Jigsaw, it’s a decent enough entry. However, if you’ve never seen one, and you’re interested, I say start with the first – Saw (2004). That one was directed by James Wan and starred The Dread Pirate Roberts. It’s still the best one.

Year – 2017  | TRT – 1:32 | Directed by  – Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig  | Written by – Pete Goldfinger, Josh Stolberg  | Cast – Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Hannah Emily Anderson

‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a Motion Painting

Blade Runner 2049 PosterConsider me underwhelmed by Blade Runner 2049. I suspected a cash grab by aging Harrison Ford, so I waited to see it on home video. It’s certainly not trash, but it’s tedious. The focus is on Ryan Gosling as a synthetic man-cop. It’s a perfect fit for him as an actor, but his performance is so calm that it sucks the drama out of every obstacle. The visuals are subtle as well. Dialogue is needed to clarify what is being shown to us in most scenes. The director, Denis Villenueve, has trouble getting plot details into the images and instead retreats to expositional monologues. It might as well be a book for all it’s visual might.

The Think of It.

I expected more from Gosling, but I believe he’s delivering what was requested of him – “Don’t react to anything.” It get’s old. I had to wait for Harrison Ford’s arrival to see a performance resembling human emotion. Unfortunately, his share of the story is small by comparison. The rest of the cast is serviceable. Robin Wright manages to elevate her exposition heavy dialogue and Jared Leto is magnetic as usual. He gets the cerebral monologues. His speeches made me think, but they didn’t make me feel. I had to focus on this film. Villenueve stretches the dramatic beats to lend weight, but it creates a monotonous tone and pace.

While the plot is tied to the original film in a reasonable fashion, it’s a more intellectual sequel. It’s less about whether replicants are really alive and more about whether replicants are really slaves. In the original, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty wanted “…more life, fucker.” In the sequel, the replicant wants to have real memories. Hauer’s performance had more passion than this whole movie. The original film felt grounded. That was the strength of Blade Runner. It was the future we knew was coming. This one imagines a further extrapolation of that world, but perhaps travels too far. It reminded me of THX-1138 or 2001: A Space Odyssey for it’s unforgiving desire to focus on emotionally cryptic characters.

Pretty as a Picture?

It’s nominated for Oscars in production design and cinematography. The work is skilled, but I found the aesthetic to be at odds with itself. It mixes minimalist Ikea interiors with the original’s dark neo-noir cityscapes. The smoke and light reflections that wow are inspired by the 1982 film. The new design elements are stark, barren and digital. It’s a strange mesh of used machinery and crisp, tidy photoshop graphics. The film favors slow moving wide shots with everything reduced in scale. The actors are photographed as though they’re part of the set. The movie felt designed rather than photographed. It’s cold.

It’s also nominated for sound mixing & sound editing. I think it’ll win those. The sound design is excellent. It’s rare to hear truly original effects. Think of Star Wars’ lightsabers and the Millenium Falcon’s hyperdrive. These are unique auditory queues that make the world believable. Blade Runner 2049 has that going for it. Even the gunshots sound cool and different. It helps make the film immersive despite the subdued mood and performances.

It’s For Super-Dorks.

Blade Runner 2049 is strictly for curious cinephiles and science-fiction fans. Villenueve made the same kind of understated intellectual film with Arrival (review). This guy likes to slowly put it all together. I’m OK with that if the final result is stunning. I can’t say I felt that way here. The movie is like a high quality cinemagraph with really good sound design. I’ve embedded one below for reference. Click play and watch it for two hours and forty minutes and you’ll understand the experience.

‘Happy Death Day’ Is Deja Vu All over Again

Happy-Death-Day-PosterHappy Death Day is quite simply Groundhog Day as a horror film. It’s smart and well written with satisfactory performances, but no scares or gore. This is YA horror. It’s rated PG-13 and the target audience is clearly teenage girls. Gore hounds should go elsewhere, fans of Twilight or Twilight Zone material may enjoy it.

It Plays with Your Expectations.

It begins with a Universal Pictures title card going through a time loop and restarting. A cool touch. The story starts the morning after a college hook-up. Our protagonist, Tree (Played by Jessica Rothe) wakes up in a strange dorm room after a night of debauchery she doesn’t remember. She extricates herself from the room, careful not to get along with anyone, then takes her walk of shame. She’s a sorority sister, a hard partier who sleeps around and a total bitch. The film runs through every single horror trope about the bad girl who won’t survive the killer because she’s not virginal. Then a dude in a baby mask kills her. Queue the groundhog day loop and the walk of shame commences again. It’s a clever introduction that evolves each time we see it.

We learn what makes Tree tick, we get some plot surprises and she grows as a person. Every time I thought the film was getting staid it managed to bounce back with a twist to the day’s events. I found it a hard movie to dislike, but hard to love either. There are moments where the tone veers from horror to young adult fiction to a zany energy that would fit better in a Nickelodeon movie. The pop songs are upbeat and the performances merely competent. The material explores sexual themes and profane language, but it lacks intensity. The violence is anemic. I longed for some male energy to make the thing dangerous. It’s too safe.

It’s Written by a Comic Book Writer.

Personally, I found the most interesting thing about the film to be its writer – Scott Lobdell. He’s best known for writing X-Men comics in the 90s. He worked on Uncanny X-Men and Generation X and had a large hand in “The Age of Apocalypse” and “Onslaught” cross-over events. He is also responsible for the first gay super-hero, Northstar, of Marvel’s Alpha Flight. I’m glad he’s having some success. The film is clever, but it apes Harold Ramis’ work a bit too much for my taste. It’s a young person’s film. Somebody, somewhere saw this movie first and fell in love.

IT, IT, IT – Part 2: The Mini-Series

IT Mini-Series PosterWelcome to Part 2 of a three part analysis of the various versions of Stephen King’s IT. Click here for Part 1.

1990 saw the release of the first adaptation of King’s famous book as a TV mini-series. I saw it during its original airing, but had little memory of it. I’ve watched it again after seeing the 2017 film adaptation and it is with good reason that I remember none of it. It’s completely forgettable. Let’s compare.

IT Begins Different.

The mini-series does not begin the same as the movie. We are introduced to the characters as adults with sequences that flash back to childhood. The first character we meet is Mike played by Tim Reed. Mike hardly spoke in the film adaptation and yet here he seems to be the ringleader of the group. He’s also researching their home town to understand where IT began. In the movie, another character, Ben, is the one looking into town history.

After about 10 minutes, we reach the scene that begins the novel and the movie. Little Georgie follows his paper sailboat along the gutter until he meets Pennywise. It’s filmed much more naturally. Tim Curry actually puts on a performance. Skarsgård didn’t do half as much in the movie. It’s a battle between acting chops and make-up/fx. I love Tim Curry, but I’m giving this scene to the movie. It’s much scarier and it puts you on edge from the very first scene.

IT’s Focus is Different

This mini-series frames Pennywise as a childhood trauma revisited. The movie viewed him as a current problem. I think the thematics are stronger when seeing the kids through the lens of their adult selves. As best as I can tell, reflection on a horrific past seems to be the point of King’s story. I’m giving this point to the mini-series for providing a meaningful context for the horror.

IT’s Kids are Older.

The characters are better developed in this adaptation. I knew them all before the first hour was up. Unfortunately, the kid actors cast in the mini-series are older and prettier. The performers in the film looked more like misfits who embodied innocence. Their bullies seemed more maladjusted and dangerous too. The time period has changed from the Eighties to the Fifties here, but I don’t think that accounts for it. It’s more about the medium. This was network TV after all. The realistic treatment of the children was the films’s strongest point. I expect that will also be true of the book. I enjoyed the movie more for making me believe those kids were vulnerable.

IT’s a Lot Longer.

The mini-series runs for a little over 3hrs. I watched it in HD. It looks better now than when it aired in 1990. The cinematography and production values are quite good for a 20th century television program. Occasionally, it feels like a movie, but most of the camera moves are simple and the visual compositions are designed for the 1.33:1 frame. The show also spends far too much time in daylight and high key interiors for a horrific tone to develop.

The narrative continued to bounce back and forth between the characters’ present day and their past as children. After 2hrs, the plot switched to the adult storyline permanently. I found myself being reminded far too often of Freddy Krueger. There are shower scenes and boiler rooms where people are being terrorized by a gruff voiced boogieman who causes waking nightmares. They are isolated and singled out by this monster and discuss having seen him in visions. The first A Nightmare on Elm Street film preceded the release of King’s book by two years, though I assume he must’ve begun writing it far earlier. I’ll be interested to see if reading the novel recalls the same associations. I didn’t notice it nearly as much in the 2017 film. It’s a bad comparison as Freddy Krueger had a raison d’etre. I still don’t understand what Pennywise wants after two adaptations.

IT’s No Classic.

I’m giving the first round to the 2017 movie. It was terrifying and creepy with realistic performances. The film’s story omissions made me want to read the book for the full experience. The mini-series was lame by comparison. It was overstuffed with characters and it lacked any real sense of menace. Tim Curry gives a nice performance, but the show is just not frightening. It may have had better drawn characters, but it never put them in jeopardy in the way the movie did. I didn’t care about them. The only tension I felt during the three hours was in my bladder.

Please check back for Part 3 of this series for a review of Stephen King’s novel IT.

‘The Foreigner’ is a Bore for Chan Fans

The Foreigner PosterThe Foreigner is Jackie Chan’s first return to U.S. theaters since 2010’s remake of The Karate Kid. I’ve been a fan of the clown prince of kung-fu since the mid-90’s when I saw Drunken Master 2 for the first time. That film opened my eyes to a level of martial arts choreography that I didn’t know was possible. I’ve been watching his action-comedies ever since. I was even a founding member of his USA fan club. (Enjoy this time capsule.) So this movie came out of left field for me.

Old sad Jackie? Was he taking up the broken hero in search of vengeance routine? Yep. Pretty much. The only twist here is that the film is so solidly put together that it’s hard to critique. Director Martin Campbell, manages to take a rather mediocre script and film the hell out of it. He plays the beats in ways that defy our expectations. It’s all things, small and large – like which weapon will Jackie use? Who’s really bad and who’s really in control? It’s really quite a professional job, but it’s not enough to save the uninspired story.

Who’s the star of this film?

After sitting through enough title cards to ask, “just how many production companies does it take to make a Jackie Chan film?” I got my answer. None. This isn’t a Jackie Chan film. It plays like a pseudo-political, action-thriller. The Foreigner featured an attention getting opening and then proceeded to bore me with conversation. After about 35mins, Jackie finally took action and the film picked up in pace. Surprisingly, it morphed into a Pierce Brosnan picture co-staring Jackie. Brosnan is quite good as a UK Government representative with ties to the Irish Republican Army. In fact, he seems to be from another film entirely. Clearly, he was hired because of his working relationship with this director on the Bond films. He adds class to a movie in which none was expected.

Chan as character actor.

As we progress, Jackie becomes a Rambo/Macgyver boogieman rather than the usual action hero. He even plays it sorta crazy. It’s a different kind of performance for him. He’s covered in soot and riding the line between righteous hero and deranged stalker. His acting is on point, but is that what we want from him? He manages to mix it up in a few fights with acrobatics and kung-fu, but it’s dialed back in this Western feeling production. The realism is such that people who get punched fall down. They don’t spring back up for five minutes of fight choreography. That can be refreshing to see, but I wanted the man’s specialty – humorous fight scenes.

Why so serious?

Ultimately, the ending is unsatisfying because we haven’t spent enough time with Jackie’s character. Meanwhile, Brosnan gets a fully developed arc. The film is a competent affair. However, there’s nothing new being tried and the movie wastes the world’s most talented physical comedian in a role better suited to Bruce Willis. That’s the cardinal sin here. There’s no humor at all in the film. Jackie is never funny. Neither is anybody or anything else. That absence coupled with the general predictability of the outcome makes it a dud. While the film is far better made than one would asume, it’s not going to make anyone’s top ten list.

IT, IT, IT – Part 1: The Movie

it_movie_posterIT is the 2017 theatrical adaptation of Stephen King’s infamous horror novel about a group of children who face down a scary clown named Pennywise. It’s done gangbusters business at the box office largely due to two things. First, clowns have become real life objects of terror with cosplaying creeps scaring people in public. Second, the movie does what a horror film should –  make you jump out of your seat. It’s beautiful to look at, but it feels hollow for much of the journey. I’ve never read the book and I haven’t seen the mini-series since it aired, but this felt like a cliff notes version of the story. Nonetheless, as a horror fan it was worth a watch.

IT’s good – this movie plays rough.

It took me an hour to really get into IT (so many chances for puns). There are traces of a meaningful story, but King’s novel has been abridged in this adaptation. Also, the characters are so numerous that it takes time to understand each of them. That being said, the cast of newcomers is excellent. The film has age appropriate casting and dialogue. That realism is one of the pluses. This story is rough with the innocent in a way I’ve rarely seen. We identify with them because they are vulnerable, not because they have well defined personalities. All of their parents are absent or abusive. They’re on their own. The filmmaker’s willingness to terrorize and isolate young children is what makes the film engaging.

IT is chock full of cringy gross outs and jump scares. It’s reminiscent of recent fare like The ConjuringSinister and the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. There’s lots of darkness interupted by music stings and digital monsters that go “boo!” It’s formulaic, but it works. This is a high priced version of an internet scare video. (Put your headphones on for this car commercial.) That’s all this film really aims to do. It does it pretty well.

IT’s bad – inexperienced filmmakers.

Now, on to two things that irritated me. Director, Andy Muschietti, uses too many wide angle tracking shots. Instead of creating interesting static compositions, handholding or cutting to close-ups, the camera rolls into every scene. This creates a dreamy quality that works well for the fantasy scares, but it’s an overused visual tick. It looks nice, but it started to grate on me. His scenes play like a cinematographer’s demo reel rather than a piece of storytelling. This is partly why the characters feel so distant. We’re frequently in a master shot, watching everybody at once in a sweeping movement.

My second beef is with the music. Benjamin Wallfisch is an orchestrator and conductor who stepped up to composing recently. He’s able to create effective music stings for the scares, but when it comes to smaller dramatic moments the music swells to a meaningless crescendo and/or cuts to an inappropriate pop song. I think this is another cause for my lack of empathy in the first half of the film. There are no character thematics in the score and no clues to what anyone is thinking or feeling.

IT’s ugly truth – lazy episodic filmmaking has arrived.

By film’s end, my care for these kids had been established and they were finally on their way to an objective – then the film ended with a card that read “Chapter One.” What is this – TV? Who pays to see half the story? Apparently, a lot of people. This is becoming acceptable now that studios are obsessed with franchises.

IT is visually terrifying, but it felt like the monster bits were finished and the rest of the film was just an outline. I’m not sure the Stephen King pedigree really adds to the experience. The one impact this picture makes is with mood and digital character effects. Those jumpy monster scares and designs are really top notch. Pennywise is scary as hell, but half the time he’s animated. It takes outstanding make-up and VFX to make Bill Skarsgård into the clown.

The film is definitely worth a watch for horror fans as it does the essentials of the job, but I don’t think it warrants the hype. It’s a curious bit of zeitgeist – clowns, kids on bikes and the always dependable King of horror. Still, I was intrigued by the remnants of story tucked in between those scares, so maybe everyone else was too. I’m going to take on a little three part project and review all the versions of IT. Next up will be the 1990 mini-series and then I’ll tackle the novel itself. Check back for part 2.

‘Black Lightning’ connects, but can it strike twice?

The CW’s new super-hero TV series Black Lightning is off to a good start. The first episode, “The Resurrection” was standout fare for the network. The show features the same affection for the source material as the other DC shows, but this one manages a unique tone and message that elevates it. The neon lighting bolts emblazoned across this hero’s chest may look like a gas station sign, but all that super-heroic cheese is balanced with mature themes.

A different flavor of super-hero wish fulfillment.

Black Lightning is an evolution of the super-hero on TV. The tropes of the genre are now familiar to the general public. It’s nice to see that utilized to push the storytelling into new territory. We meet Jefferson Pierce many years after he’s hung up his costume. He’s a school principal and father. He worries about his kids. He’s got grey hair. This isn’t an origin story, it’s more of a coming out of retirement story. That alone was refreshing. It made it easier to cheer when the heroics started.

Talking heads and social commentary.

The CW/DC shows are hybrid adaptations. They’re part loving tribute to the comics, part network house-style. Their scripts feature too many scenes of ladies-talking-in-rooms for my taste. That is not a part of DC comic books, unless the ladies in question are wearing masks and discussing battle plans. Black Lightning avoids this in favor of a better hang-up.

The show is laden with the dread and anger of the contemporary African-American experience. The first episode features altercations with police, local drug dealers and youngsters being seduced to crime. The melodrama is actually relevant to the hero’s experience instead of being a distraction. Comparisons to Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix are unavoidable, but judging by first episodes, this show has more potential to deliver both on the heroics and the drama. While some of the dialogue was mundane, the performances were believable and the action and FX solid. I am eager to see where the story goes.

Gray Matter Factoids

Black Lightning was created in 1977 by Tony Isabella for DC Comics. He was DC’s first African-American super-hero and the first to star in his own title. He Black-Lightning-DC-Comicshas been a reserve member of the Justice League and one of Batman’s Outsiders.

Sinbad as Black Lightning on SNL

Sinbad was the first to play the character in live action on SNL. Jimmy Olsen turned him away from Superman’s funeral because he’d never heard of him.

‘Baby Driver’ is Edgar Wright’s iPod commercial

Baby Driver, the latest film from writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is a caper movie set to punchy music. The humor is subdued by comparison to the director’s previous works. He’s created something more dramatic, though it maintains a heavy style and a dependence on over-the-top characters. Like Pulp Fiction, this film makes nods to pop-culture, but the references are mostly musical. The eponymous Baby, as played by Ansel Elgort is a getaway driver who can’t perform without his earbuds. His tunes create a musical backdrop for the film. Ansel’s performance is relaxed and compelling. I wish he’d been given more chance to emote. Instead he’s often a passive participant despite his character’s gift behind the wheel. This forces the story to depend largely on its antagonists to drive the plot forward.

It’s slow on the straightways, fast on the curves.

Despite an energizing opening, the action drags in spots. There’s a quirky love interest for our lead and a subplot about a deaf man who needs tending. These scenes were the least gratifying. Baby doesn’t seem to want much and so the pace can wander. The momentum depends largely on his reactions to the other characters. This is so pronounced that the middle of the film almost ran out of gas. Eventually the obstacles return when Jamie Foxx shows up to insert some tension back into the film. He’s helped by Jon Hamm (who’s talent is wearing a suit) and the always engaging Kevin Spacey.

It devolves into 80’s action tropes.

The last third of the film maintains a dependence on rotating music tracks, but otherwise starts to lose its charm and take on the feel of an action genre film. The goals of the protagonist finally manifest. Ironically, I found Baby more interesting when we first met him, before he’d decided he wanted to take charge. The film was on point during the chases, but no entertainment bars were raised. Your mileage may vary. If you’re in your early 20’s there’s a good chance you’ll identify with the main character. He’s a mid-2000’s time capsule. Similarly, if you’re a music geek who likes car chases and cheesy crime films then this one’s for you.

‘Killing Gunther’ Assassinated 90 Minutes of My Life

Killing Gunther is a mockumentary send-up of assassin films. It plays more like an SNL skit than a movie. A camera crew follows around a team of hitmen who seek to kill another hitman. The humor mostly falls flat although these actors have been funny in other things. Better luck to Taran Killiam on his second directorial outing. It’s on Amazon Prime now so you can fast forward to Arnold Schwarzenegger or wait it out like I did. He only shows up in the last half hour. The film tries to make his appearance a surprise, but the whole marketing campaign was built on his involvement. In fact, the trailer makes him look like he’s the star of the film. Mostly he’s discussed but not seen. If you have a penchant for killers being followed by camera crews, absurd violence and Arnold you will definitely be disappointed by this film. If none of those things interest you you will claw your eyes out.

A better mockumentary.


Now onto something awesome – Man Bites Dog (1992). Equivalent schtick, this time a camera crew follows around a serial killer. If you want to watch a great mockumentary this 90’s Belgian film is the way to go. Unlike with Killing Gunther the filmmakers are in command of the medium – nothing falls flat. It feels like a film, rather than an expanded skit with a lack of characterization. Here’s the catch – can you get along with subtitles? Do you enjoy black & white photography? If you can handle those two things and you have a morbid sense of humor you’ll love it.

‘Mother!’ is an Engaging Head-Trip

Mother! PosterMother! is one wild ride. It’s unlike any film I’ve ever seen. Be warned – your expectations of the viewing experience could kill your enjoyment. It centers on Jennifer Lawrence’s character and her emotional journey through a one-sided romantic relationship. The film filled me with tension as I tried to understand the emotional turns the characters made. It’s structured as a surrealist mystery. Supposedly, its an allegory for some mother earth hoo-haw, but I didn’t catch any of that on the first go through.

A skillful surrealist nightmare.

Aronfsky’s film has the intellect of an arthouse picture, but it’s made with the skill of one of the majors. The acting is outstanding. Lawrence carries the picture through every scene. She’s joined by Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris. All are excellent. The sets, camera work and FX are also standouts. The film appears to have been rigorously rehearsed in order to hit the specific emotional beats that drive the plot. It begins rather mundane, but develops through small character choices that push the narrative further and further from reality. Each choice strains realism, but keeps to an emotional truth that is relatable. The film evolves like a dream turned nightmare.

Do you like to be challenged?

Mother! is beautifully made. It’s a must watch for films fan who enjoy experimentation with the form. Ask yourself – do you want to go on an emotional roller coaster that breaks with realism? Buy the ticket, take the ride. However, if you’d prefer a straightforward plot this might be too wacky for you. The structure and setting made me work to discover the film’s meaning. This was not a relaxed viewing. It made my girlfriend shout at the screen, but it was an excellent picture.


© 2024 by Maximilian Gray