Sunday, October 30, 2005


Saw (2/5)

Now that the sequel is hitting theaters I figured I'd put up my thoughts on the original. Judging by the rule of sequels and the above score I can't say that I'll drop ten dollars on Saw II. We'll see how it does opening weekend.

The original Saw opens up with an interesting premise. Two guys wake up in a room, it's not that kind of movie! They're both chained to the wall and given a...wait for it, wait for it...SAW! Through the course of the film they have to follow various clues in order to find a way out of the room. There is also a countdown they have to worry about.

The writers aren't able to make this premise fully work, and are forced to resort to flashbacks and a side story involving Danny Glover. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. First, because the flashback allows us to see Jigsaw's, the mysterious villain, more elaborate traps. Second, because you just can't complain when Murtaugh is on screen.

The Jigsaw traps are clever, and involve barbed wire, someone getting burned to death, and a contraption that could potentially tear off someone's jaw. I won't get into too much detail for those of you who haven't seen this movie. I'll save the spoilers for later.

There's a lot of nitpicking you could do on the first two-thirds of the film. For example, the flashback are supposed to be told by one character but include things he never would have seen or known about, the camera effects are annoying, and the surviving victim has a really dumb line. I was able to ignore these because it was an interesting premise and had potential. However, I was unable to ignore the last third of the film which had some of the laziest screenwriting I've seen in a while.

**Spoiler Alert** **Spoiler Alert** **Spoiler Alert** **Spoiler...oh, you get the idea.

Cary Elwes gets out of character at the end of the film. For most of the movie he's a calm and collected, but turns on the overacting button at the very end. This isn't all of his fault because he has to sell certain actions that make no sense. Early in the film Elwes' character Dr. Gordon tells Adam, the other man in the room, to use his shirt to get an object out of reach. At the end of the film Dr. Gordon has to reach a cell phone in order to find out if his family is all right. Instead of following his own advice, he decides to cut off his own leg. I know everybody's been waiting for this the entire film, but does it have to be so contrived. The worst part is that he does take off his shirt, but only to use it as a tourniquet!

One of the big surprises of the film is that the man who we've been lead to believe is Jigsaw is in fact merely being used by Jigsaw. It turns out that Jigsaw has given him a poison and won't give him the antidote unless he follows his instructions. We've seen this character before as an orderly at a hospital. Let me repeat that:, he works at a hospital. So, instead of telling one of his coworkers that he's been poisoned, he decides to get involved with an elaborate scheme of kidnapping, and even goes so far as to try and kill someone. I know that if I was presented with those two choices I would definitely go for the latter.

The single big surprise the filmmakers graciously leave for the end is the identity of Jigsaw. Jigsaw is actually a cancer patient we see for a total of three seconds during the movie. It also turns out that the dead body is not actually dead, but this same cancer patient who has been sitting there perfectly still for the entire movie. Whoa! You mean to tell me that extra number 37 was Jigsaw this entire time? No way! I should have guessed, it was right in front of me the whole time.

I've seen better twist endings from a Scooby-Doo episode. That's not hyperbole either. If you want to see how it should be done check out The Usual Suspects or the original Scream. Those are surprise endings where you don't feel cheated.

It's a real shame that the writers came up with such an original idea, but chose to get incredibly lazy for the last third of the movie. If you really want to see a well done horror film that actually uses one set, go check out Cube. The acting isn't better, but the execution is far more interesting.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Nirvana - Nirvana

Nirvana - Nirvana (2/5)

I figured that since a new post-humous Nirvana album is coming out in less than a week, I might as well throw up an old review I had written about their "best of." Enjoy.

I'm sure the first thing that's going through your mind is, "Where is 'Aneurysm?'" My thoughts exactly. This collection makes it easy to complain about what songs were included and what songs were left out. Why do they give us "Been a Son" and not Negative Creep? Why do we have to buy an import for "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" I could go on and on about what was included ant what wasn't, but the point of the matter is that there are only fourteen songs. I know we've entered the twenty-first century, and our attention spans are almost non-existent, but please give us something for our money.

The track listing makes things awkward as well. Nirvana's three studio albums have very distinct characteristics, and it would have been difficult for anyone to come up with a best of that had a good flow to it, but sometimes it feels like they didn't even try to make it sound cohesive. Putting "You Know You're Right" as the first song feels counter intuitive to say the least.

I know the purpose of the album is to reel in the uninitiated, but it would have been nice for them to add another new song or two for the die-hards. Nirvana has such a small catalogue, much of it essential, that any Nirvana fan will likely have these songs. The only exception is "You Know You're Right" and a new sound mix of "Pennyroyal Tea."

If you're already a fan, my suggestion is to make your own Nirvana: Best Of and give it to someone who is thinking about making a purchase. Here is my suggestion for a track listings:
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
2. Son of a Gun
3. Heart Shaped Box
4. Drain You
5. Negative Creep (live)
6. Come As You Are
7. About a Girl
8. Rape Me
9. Sliver
10. Lithium
11. Verse Chorus Verse
12. Polly
13. Lake of Fire (live, acoustic)
14. In Bloom
15. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
16. Aneurysm
17. Dumb
18. White Lace and Strange (live)
19. Do Re Mi (acoustic)
20. You Know You're Right
21. All Apologies
22. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (live, acoustic)

You have to admit that mine easily trumps the Geffen best of. Of course that's not saying much, and I'm sure there's some guy out there that has an even better track listing. I do have a slight advantage because I'm using box-set songs (one from each disc) which was released after Nirvana, but Geffen should have had access to just about everything Cobain put to eight track (and that they could wrestle from Courtney Love).

If you are interested in the band, but have yet to make a purchase, just go out and get Nevermind, In Utero, and Live In New York. They're all essential for serious music fans. The other Nirvana albums are good, but mostly just for the die-hards.

If you really feel like buying the album be my guest. You can think of it as padding Fracis Bean's college fund.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Depeche Mode - Playing the Angel

Depeche Mode – Playing the Angel (4/5)

“I don't wanna sound like a queer or nothin', but I think Depeche Mode is a sweet band!”
- Orgazmo!

I must first confess that I don’t have much of a history with Depeche Mode. Next I have to confess that I actually saw Orgazmo. I know, I know, the movie sucks, but that was a funny running gag. Back to Depeche Mode: sure, I remember getting tired of “Personal Jesus” and thinking that “Enjoy the Silence” was a much better single, but I don’t own any of their CDs and have never seen them in concert. About four years ago I finally heard Violator in its entirety and have been exposed to a good deal of Exciter. Oh, and I have also tried the delicious Jones© drink Depeach Mode. If you never end up listening to this album, you should at least pick up that drink if you can find it.

I was surprised at the opening of the album, which greets you with a wall of white noise. This is one of several moments that recall industrial music from a decade or so back. There are several other times where Depeche Mode employ caustic sounds in the middle of a pop glean. In any event, “A Pain That I’m Used To” is an effective and aggressive opener.

This segues into the dancier John the Revelator. At this point some of you may be having flashbacks to that “Personal Jesus” dance from back and the day, but I promise this is much better. In fact it’s probably my favorite song off the album.

Well, maybe my second favorite, because “Precious” is eightiestastic! This song recalls that famed decade the most – and I mean that in a good way.

Much of the rest of the album falls into more atmospherics. I know what you’re thinking, “It’s one of those albums that ‘reveals itself,’” but that’s a good thing, really it is! Playing the Angel is actually far better than it needs or should be. These guys have been around longer than I’ve been alive (and I’m not that young anymore). Depeche Mode does a fine job of sounding relevant without falling into the trap of trying to “modernize” their sound. It all comes off rather well.

The only problem I really have with the album, is the fact that the lyrics get a little heavy handed at times. This is to be expected, and probably will only bother those completely unfamiliar with the band.

Perhaps one of the things that bodes well for the band are all of those eighties bands that started popping up several years back: The Killers, Hot Hot Heat, Interpol, Stellastarr*, and plenty others. There’s seems to be place for Depeche Mode now. Depeche Mode doesn’t sound like they’re competing with these bands, but rather that they influenced these bands, which is how it should be. After hearing most of Exciter I wouldn’t necessarily say this album is a return to form as I would say the world has shifted so people can see a new angle to Depeche Mode, and appreciate them once again


Unleashed (3.5/5)

Unleashed was written by Luc Besson, the man responsible for some unique action films (La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and The Fifth Element) as well as a few train wrecks (The Transporter and The Messenger painfully spring to mind). This time Besson falls back on the basic outline he created in La Femme Nikita and The Professional: emotionally dead action hero(ine) finds his/her humanity. It's kind of like The Professional, but with a feral Jet Li and not quite as much pedophilia.

In my opinion, this is the first successful American Jet Li movie. It is about time someone wrote an actual character for him. Supposedly Besson wrote the script with Jet Li in mind, and I kind of wish Besson had directed the movie as well. At times the director at the helm doesn't know what to do when the action slows down, and assuming no one has an attention span, he reverts to quick cuts and wacky camera techniques. I must admit, though, that when the action begins he seems to know what he's doing.

This films has great choreography, and if anyone is actually bored with the attempts at characterization, they should be pleased when the music starts to pick up. These fight scenes are brutal. The director seems to relish the cringe inducing sounds accompanied by people getting bitten, hit in the crotch, and (my personal favorite) getting head-butted.

The music is provided by Massive Attack, and while it probably won't be a great soundtrack on its own it's interesting enough without being distracting. It also is a unique use of electronic music in an action film that doesn't just turn the base up when the action starts.

Oh, yeah, and it turns out that Jet Li is actually an actor! I would never have guessed because not a single American film has treated him like one. Here he does a good job that could easily have been laughable. Bob Hoskin kicks ass in just about everything he does, and this is no exception. Of course a movie like this it dips into sentimentality once or twice, but thanks to Morgan Freeman it doesn't get out of hand.

I have been starving for a good action movie for a while, and it's nice to finally find sustenance. The movie has its share of flaws (don't even ask about all the stuff that's unexplained), but that's a small complaint when there's a unique premise and some great action.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Spiderman 2

Spiderman 2 (5/5)

Better than the original. I'm sure plenty of people will hear that when they hear people talk about this movie, and what can I say except that it's true. Yes, that's right expect numbers to be divisible by zero, mass to exceed the speed of light, objects to fall faster than 9.8 m/s^2, and Wile E. Coyote to remain in the air even after he has looked down, because a sequel has bested the original. Spiderman 2 has joined that rare pantheon of films that are actually better than the original: Terminator 2, The Empire Strikes Back, and Dawn of the Dead to name a few (and the last one's stretching it).

At the heart of this movie is an actor who has really grown into his own and taken America's heart by storm. He's always been talented, but this is the movie that has really catapulted him to superstardom. That's right, Alfred Molina, you had me at "Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip." Seriously though, Alfred Molina has been in every movie ever, and I didn't even know it until I saw this movie last year. He must have a bet going with Jude Law to see who can be in more films. Of course, he does a fine job in this film, and must be a really good actor because I didn't recognize I had seen him previously in about fifty movies, he just blends into the character.

Everyone does an excellent job in this film (except for Kirstin Dunst. Now that we know Topher Grace is going to be in the next film can't he bring over the redhaired chick from That 70's Show to play Mary Jane). Actors are often reiterating that comedy is the hardest thing to do (although it doesn't seem like the Academy is ever listening to them), and in Spiderman 2 they not only need to master comedy but make believable drama in the midst of complete fantasy. This change of gears isn't an easy thing to do I'm sure. At one pivotal point in the film Peter Parker has to confess to his aunt that he was responsible for her husband's death, and later in the film there is a montage that can only be described as an homage to sixties television. Tobe Maguire is able to play these extremes confidently and sells us the character in both scenes.
The biggest strength of this film is that Sam Raimi is able to mesh together so many genres without it seeming jarring. During the course of the film it takes on the characteristics of a drama, comedy, romance, horror, action-adventure, cartoon, monster movie, and none feels forced or out of place. Most of these genres aren't subservient to the others either. It could just as easily be argued that this film is a comedy as it could be argued that it is it is a drama or action-adventure. I have rarely seen this even a mixture of genre without the film itself feeling uneven.

Speaking of comedy, that is the single biggest advance between this film and the last. In the original Spiderman they just expected us to accept the cheesy lines as camp. This was fine for those who had read old comics before, but those who didn't just thought it was cheesy. The aforementioned montage to Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head is perhaps the biggest risk the film takes, but the film makers are so confident that it works perfectly. It is easily the funniest part of the film.

What makes the Spiderman films in general so great is that Sam Raimi really believes that these characters have depth. In fact, I don't think I've seen two films since this movie came out, coming from a major Hollywood studio, with characters as developed as these are. Sam Raimi is not afraid to put real people in the middle of what can be essentially a big cartoon. This is only fitting because that was the exact characteristic that made Stan Lee such a genius. In Raimi, Stan Lee has someone who truly understands his creation.

There are some wonderful scenes in here (besides the montage, which I decided I might as well mention a third time), but if you haven't seen the movie I'll just let you discover them for yourself. It really is the kind of movie you hope they make every summer, but are usually disappointed by. It kicks ass for two hours, and when you thought it couldn't get better Willem Dafoe shows up to call James Franco a pussy. Great movie.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


Serenity (4/5)

I'll preface this review with the fact that I was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and over the summer a friend of mine introduced me to the boxed set of Firefly, so I wasn't going into this movie with a blank slate. I will also divulge that I'm a big Joss Whedon fan (except for Alien Resurrection, what the fuck?). This review will of course be biased.

I'll get through the problems with this film first (there aren't that many). The biggest hurdle that Whedon had in transferring his show into a movie was characterization, and he doesn't quite clear it. There are nine main characters in the show, and how the hell are you going to juggle nine characters in a two hour span when you're used to having years of examining each of their intriguing facet? I have no clue, and apparently neither did Whedon. Whedon's able to differentiate everyone because he's a master of dialogue, but for the uninitiated I don't think the major points of drama in the film will resonate like it will with those who watched the TV show. For those who are familiar with the television show it's really a treat to find out how everything ends(?) (*dun-dunn-dunnn*).

As for the rest of the was great! (I was having trouble holding in the inner fanboy). Having a larger budget really allowed Whedon to show what he could do with a bigger brush. I must admit that I was worried Whedon might be too acclimated to television to handle the Big Screen. These worries were thankfully unfounded. Whedon knows how to use action without supplanting the story. There's some good choreography, and he's smart enough of a director to allow the viewers to follow the action instead of substituting quick cuts thinking the audience will think they're excited. Towards the end the kind of action expands but I never felt I was lost in the spectacle of special effects.

This was also a great film for Whedon to showcase his visual talents. With a relatively small budget (I think it was 40 million) he is able to immerse us into a believable and unique world. He is also smart enough to vary the landscape. The viewer is treated to a Hong Kong style city, the familiar border towns, and a place that looks like it came out of Frank Lloyd Wright's imagination.

There is a very Whedon feel to this movie. As anyone who has watched Firefly or Buffy knows, when you're watching those shows you feel that not only are you getting to know the characters on screen but the creator behind those characters as well. One of Whedon's great abilities is to make sure the audience is never complacent. For example, the opening consists of a scene where River is being taught at school, but soon we find out that this is going on inside her head and we're really being treated to a scene where her brother Simon is breaking her out of a secret government facility, but wait, this turns out to be merely surveillance video (hologram?) the villain is watching of their escape. It sounds very clumsy in print, but is used to great effect as the movie's opener. There are plenty of other surprises in the film, but I don't want to spoil anything more.

Well, I'd better stop praising Joss Whedon lest people think I'm gay. Lets just say that people should be pleased with this movie (probably Firefly fans more than novices). Oh, and there's an allusion to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and I can't tell you how long I've been waiting to hear that in a science fiction western originating on television.