Monday, October 30, 2006


SAW III (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2006)

Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), the twisted mastermind of the SAW films, likes to test damaged people's limits to see how much they want to keep on living, no matter how bad they feel their lives are. That's a fair description for the experience of the challenge posed in watching SAW III, a more-of-the-same second sequel that licks its chops at the harm inflicted on the characters. I know I've just about reached my breaking point in enduring yet another so-called horror movie that wallows in the ugliest human impulses for "fun".

For this third go-round, the bedridden Jigsaw has his protégé Amanda (Shawnee Smith) abduct Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), a surgeon in a broken marriage, to tend to his medical needs. Lynn's job is to keep him alive while Amanda monitors another of his games. To keep Lynn motivated, a contraption with cocked triggers and shotgun shells is placed around her neck. If Jigsaw's heart stops or she tries to go too far away, kablam.

Elsewhere in the same decrepit building, a grieving father is marched through one of Jigsaw's shock therapy games. Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) cannot let go of his anger over the accidental death of his son and wishes to exact revenge upon the lightly sentenced perpetrator. Jigsaw may grant him his wish, although viewers of the first two SAW films know that Jeff won't want to follow through on the opportunity.

With films such as HOSTEL raising the stakes for on-screen depictions of cruelty and torture, the makers of SAW III must feel obligated to give the franchise a little more gore for the greenbacks. It's not the most violent and stomach-turning film to come out this year, but believe it or not, there's a more sadistic streak than was found in the original or SAW II. Two horrific deaths are shown before the main story begins. Neither move along SAW III'S plot, so the inclusion of these scenes is truly gratuitous.

The same applies to the distasteful use of female nudity in a torture setting and a single utterance of a still generally taboo word for female genitalia. What other choice is there if the competition is pushing the envelope? Three SAW films have exhausted the concept. This box office golden goose has a future of going more extreme and making "the beginning" movies about Jigsaw, a direction suggested a few times here.

SAW III is essentially a grim schoolyard game of "would you rather...?" rendered in nasty vignettes. Yes, it's only a movie, but there's enough pain and suffering in the world that consuming this as entertainment seems obscene.

Grade: D

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

My second submission to Nights and is now online. It's a humor piece--think funny in scare quotes--called The Disclaimer.

In a sense, it's a return to what I used to write. In high school I tried my hand at David Letterman-esque top ten lists. I saw some of the lists several years ago when my parents were moving and thus giving me some of the things I had at home. It was pretty cringe-worthy stuff, but friends seemed to like them at the time.

I'll make no guarantees of The Disclaimer causing side-splitting laughter. Check that. It won't cause a busted gut. It's merely a dry take on the absurdity of disclaimers, especially those that come on DVD cases. I hope you find it moderately clever. If not, at least it's short.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Marie Antoinette

MARIE ANTOINETTE (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

Sofia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE takes a sympathetic view of the future French queen, a teenager who had to abandon everything she brought with her from Austria—even the clothes on her back—to wed dauphin Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman). The marriage is a political arrangement, one intended to strengthen relations between Marie’s Austria and France.

Marie (Kirsten Dunst) finds life at Versailles to be a bureaucratic comedy. Getting dressed each morning is a group affair dictated by social standing of those present. The reigning king (Rip Torn) openly indulges his affair with the whore Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), whose purchased title is . Of greater concern is Marie’s unconsummated marriage with her disinterested husband. Louis Auguste expends his energy hunting and making keys while resisting Marie’s attempts to conceive an heir. Pressure to produce a boy builds as Louis’ sexual preference becomes gossip fodder and the young couple ascends to the throne.

Rather than a critical portrait of the infamous French queen, MARIE ANTOINETTE sees her as a bird in a gilded cage. Essentially traded like property to the French royal family for political capital, Marie lives the high life but one dominated by ennui and loneliness. Coppola’s Versailles insulates Marie from the outside world, all the better to understand why she fritters away her time on fashion and sweets while opposition to the crown builds in the streets of Paris.

As in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and LOST IN TRANSLATION, Coppola again proves that a dazzling visual sense is her strength as a director. MARIE ANTOINETTE is a gorgeous film with sumptuous production and costume design. Cinematographer Lance Acord’s natural lighting creates a fantasy world inside the royal home and highlights the beauty of the countryside with sun-kissed shots. Every frame of MARIE ANTOINETTE is like a painting, be it the stunning images of reflected light on the palace or the teeming party scenes.

Coppola’s talent with imagery and atmosphere make her narrative weaknesses all the more glaring. The fashion-conscious MARIE ANTOINETTE looks great. Imagine what this attractive but empty shell of a movie might have been with something inside it. Coppola has borrowed a thing or two from Wong Kar-wai when it comes to depicting wistful alienation, but unlike her previous efforts, here she struggles to give audiences any reason to care. There’s little psychological depth to the characters, and often they’re undercut by stilted dialogue, perhaps none more than Schwartzman.

Schwartzman came to attention as Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s RUSHMORE. Whether fair or not, it’s hard to separate the actor from his breakthrough role, especially when playing another awkward, sullen character with an odd hobby. Magnifying the problem, Coppola’s screenplay leads many of the performers to act as though this period piece is a contemporary production staged by the Max Fischer Players. Some of MARIE ANTOINETTE is intended to play as comedy, but it's not always clear when that's the case and when it's accidentally funny.

Dunst fares better as a ray of light among the dour royal court, but the writing lets her down too. MARIE ANTOINETTE feels for the queen, but the emotion is held at a distance. The slight plot, which meanders a great deal once an heir is born, exists as a series of events. Such an approach misses the opportunity to explore Marie’s feelings and instead favors the filmmaker’s reading of the historical figure without getting to know the person.

Grade: C

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Grudge 2

THE GRUDGE 2 (Takashi Shimizu, 2006)

If dying in a powerful rage can cause a curse to be born, as THE GRUDGE 2 insists, then surely feeling severe dissatisfaction from watching this awful sequel will produce minor disturbances in movie theaters across the nation. Subsequent moviegoers will suffer nothing as serious as death from raven-haired spirits, mind you, but popcorn will mysteriously become stale and fellow viewers will forget to turn off their cell phones. Actually, that last one will probably happen, lesser curse or not.

THE GRUDGE 2 consists of three storylines, one of which picks up the thread from the conclusion of its 2004 predecessor. Upon receiving news that her sister Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has been hospitalized, Aubrey Davis (Amber Tamblyn) goes to Tokyo to find out what’s wrong with her. (Although Gellar is in the film, she has the good sense to make little more than an extended cameo.) Aubrey disregards all warnings about the supernatural forces at play and investigates the circumstances that brought about Karen’s incapacitated state.

A second Tokyo-based storyline has unpopular schoolgirl Allison (Arielle Kebbel) giving in to peer pressure and entering the cursed house from THE GRUDGE on a dare. She too begins seeing all manner of creepy things, like the ghostly little boy who shrieks like a cat.

There’s also a sequence set in Chicago in which Jennifer Beals’ character moves in with her lover and his two children. It’s safe to say that the new living arrangement is probably doomed because of all sorts of bad vibes emanating from the neighbor girl shrouded in her hooded sweatshirt.

Apparently writer-director Takashi Shimizu has made a career out of redoing the same two films over and over, which seems like a curse in its own right. His Internet Movie Database filmography lists entries for JU-ON and JU-ON 2, both made in 2000; 2003’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2, theatrical versions of the earlier films; and THE GRUDGE and THE GRUDGE 2, his English-language remakes. (If the IMDb listing is correct, there’s more to come. The Japanese-language JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 3 is supposedly due next year.)

It comes as no surprise that this material doesn’t seem fresh, even if one hasn’t seen the other versions. Shimizu’s direction is on auto-pilot. He reuses scenarios, images, and beats that drain THE GRUDGE 2 of suspense. The repetition is numbing, and it leads to inadvertent laughter. For all intents and purposes, THE GRUDGE 2 is a parody of itself and the most recent wave of Japanese horror. I couldn’t stop from laughing when a girl guzzles a half gallon of milk and regurgitates it back into the jug.

Although short on plot, THE GRUDGE succeeded as a stylish exercise in mood. The tension was built slowly with long silences and punctuated by chilling images. THE GRUDGE 2 isn’t frightening at all, save for the stingers on the soundtrack that function as reflex tests rather than actual scares. Since it doesn’t cause any anxiety, the film can be seen for the poorly written rehash that it is.

Studios are milking their back catalogs by cranking out cheap direct-to-video sequels without the original stars—THE PRINCE & ME 2 and LIKE MIKE 2, anyone? Although it received a theatrical run, THE GRUDGE 2 is just reconstituted product, a watered down version of a decent original.

Grade: D-

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Protector (Tom yum goong)

THE PROTECTOR (TOM YUM GOONG) (Prachya Pinkaew, 2005)

Muay Thai martial artist Tony Jaa leaves his homeland to rescue two elephants entrusted to his care in THE PROTECTOR. Jaa’s character Kham comes from a family which has upheld the ancient tradition of raising and protecting the king’s elephants. When his father is murdered and their animals stolen, Kham travels to Australia to track down the gangster responsible.

Tony Jaa’s first starring vehicle, ONG-BAK: THAI WARRIOR, was a bracing kick of physical stunts and ingenious action scenes. Jaa looked poised to become the next big thing in Asian martial arts cinema, but THE PROTECTOR is a step backwards for the star and his director Prachya Pinkaew.

THE PROTECTOR’S plot is as sturdy as a piece of balsa wood, which wouldn’t have mattered so much if the film had showcased Jaa’s talents better. What made ONG-BAK so exhilarating was seeing him running up walls and doing other crazy moves. Although THE PROTECTOR is essentially an 80-minute fight scene, it’s largely lacking in the eye-popping stunt department.

The only notable sequence in this ordinary film is when Pinkaew uses an unbroken take to follow Jaa as he dispatches dozens of bad guys and makes his way up several floors of the gangster’s restaurant. The camerawork and Jaa’s punching and kicking efficiency mimic a video game, but in shooting the scene wide and in a long take, the director gives an appreciation of the star’s abilities.

At this point Jaa doesn’t display the charisma of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, in part because THE PROTECTOR doesn’t require him to do more than look distressed or angry. His last film was quite funny, but aside from the occasional amusing oddity—the villain signals his X Games assassins by triggering a siren that apparently can be heard through all of Sydney—THE PROTECTOR doesn’t elicit many laughs.

The Weinstein Company is releasing THE PROTECTOR. When he was at Miramax Harvey Weinstein was notorious for reediting and dubbing Asian films for American release. It looks like he’s been at it again. THE PROTECTOR is an inconsistent mix of original language with subtitles and bad dubbing. The film has been rescored by The RZA, and I’d wager there are scenes that have been removed from the original cut. While I prefer that the director’s vision be imported than a studio execs, I don’t think the alterations have done mortal damage to the film. THE PROTECTOR is flawed enough on its own.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Employee of the Month

EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH (Greg Coolidge, 2006)

In EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH rumor has it that the new buxom, blonde cashier at bulk retailer Super Club has a thing for the staff member honored every thirty days. Zack (Dane Cook), a lackadaisical box boy, takes the information to heart and strives to unseat Vince (Dax Shepard), a flashy checkout worker who has won the award seventeen months in a row. As if hooking up with Amy (Jessica Simpson) isn’t ample motivation, Vince can win a “new-ish” car by extending his streak another month.

Cook is the stand-up comic of the moment, although there’s little in EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH to explain why he’s currently one of the hottest names in comedy. He exhibits some scruffy appeal as Zack, who’s a mix of a calmer, less pathetic Adam Sandler character and a less obnoxious version of Ryan Reynolds’ WAITING… troublemaker, but mostly he plays the straight man to the wacky supporting cast. Surrounded by a who’s who of scene-stealing comic actors (Andy Dick, Harland Williams, Efren Ramirez a.k.a. Pedro in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE), Cook stands in the middle of the zaniness rather than participate in it.

He receives no assistance from Simpson, who’s good at spilling out of her low-cut clothing and nothing more. Aside from her prominently framed physical attributes, she’s a blank on screen. It’s telling that EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH tends to cut to reaction shots during her lines.

EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH shares more than a passing resemblance with WAITING…, that odious comedy about casual dining servers, and wants to recall OFFICE SPACE, the king of modern workplace comedies. Those films established a good sense of the daily slog and indignities in the jobs whereas EMPLOYEE fails to take full advantage of its megamart setting. The film could have used more scenes like the big bagging competition and an after hours date a la CAREER OPPORTUNITIES. This Noah’s ark of merchandise gets ignored for jokes about a pneumatic tube messaging system and a plush cashier’s-only lounge.

Messages are an afterthought in films like EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH, yet it’s mildly distressing that here the underlying theme is that it’s better to eliminate all ambition and stick with one’s friends than try to improve one’s station. Rising through the chain of command and keeping old relationships aren’t mutually exclusive, but the film would have us believe that bettering one’s self means abandoning buddies. Talk about keeping the working man down.

Grade: C-

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Gridiron Gang

GRIDIRON GANG (Phil Joanou, 2006)

In GRIDIRON GANG juvenile detention center counselor Sean Porter (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) notices that many of the boys he and his co-workers are supposed to be rehabilitating return with fresh sentences or end up killed. The teenagers are full of anger but have no productive way of releasing their energy. A former college pigskin star whose career was cut short by injury, Sean decides that football might be a positive way to channel their pent-up aggression, build teamwork, and cross the gang lines that extend into the center.

The philosophy espoused in GRIDIRON GANG places the team above the individual, but the film is carried on the broad shoulders of the charismatic Johnson. The actor, best known from his days as a pro wrestler, has almost always been the best thing about his films, even the lousy ones. His imposing figure and megawatt smile allow him to be at home doing action and comedy, and on screen he comes across as eminently likable.

GRIDIRON GANG is a transitional movie for the star. Johnson exercises traditional dramatic chops as the inspirational coach who has the best interests of the wayward kids at heart. He’s completely convincing as someone smooth enough to finesse the administrators who initially balk at the idea and tough enough to make the juvenile delinquents listen and respect him. The end credits show snippets of a documentary about the coach on whom Johnson’s character is based. It’s astonishing how much Johnson resembles him in personality and physical presence. If there was still any doubt, Johnson should no longer have to fight his wrestling past to be taken seriously as an actor.

As for the football action and motivational storyline, GRIDIRON GANG hits the standard beats with a light touch. The outcome-driven sports movie requirements are balanced with the emotional arcs of the counselors and the players. The gridiron play is fast and hard-hitting but not so overblown that it seems like a miracle anyone can walk away unharmed. The players’ troubled backgrounds aren’t soft sold or overdramatized. A minor fault is the impression that Sean works at the center 24 hours a day except when he’s visiting his sick mother. He’s not made out to be a saint, but with his work load it wouldn’t hurt to be one.

GRIDIRON GANG is a hybrid of familiar football movies and teacher-as-savior films. The conventions don’t limit the film but pave the way for a highly satisfying view.

Grade: B