Tag


Jeremy Renner knows he’s better than you.

(2018) Comedy (New LineEd Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Isla fisher, Lil Rel Howley, Hannibal Burress, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Nora Dunn, Leslie Bibb, Rashida Jones, Steve Berg, Indiana Sifuentes, Trayce Malachi, Jock McKissic, Thomas Middleditch, Al Mitchell, Sebastian Maniscalco, Vince Pisani, Kurt Yue, Kate Kneeland.  Directed by Jeff Tomsic

 

There’s a line in the movie that really rings true; “We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing.” Keeping that child-like part of ourselves alive means we’re ever changing, ever growing. Play can be a part of that; it teaches us about ourselves, if nothing else.

Hoagie (Helms), Jerry (Renner), Bob (Hamm), Chili (Johnson) and Sable (Burress) have been playing the same game of tag for thirty years. They’ve grown up a little bit since then; they’ve relocated all over the country from their native Spokane and have gone on to their own lives and their own families. But for one month every year – May, as it turns out – they are fair game to a no-holds-barred take-no-prisoners form of the children’s game.

It has helped keep their bonds strong even though they lead separate lives but for four of them, there’s a unifying factor – Jerry has never ever been tagged “it,” not even once, in thirty years. This will be the year, even though financier Bob has a reporter (Wallis) trailing him, even though Hoagie’s wife (Fisher) is about to lose her mind with competitive fire and even though Chili will be back in the territory where his ex-wife (Jones) dwells. For this will be the last year; Jerry is taking himself a bride (Bibb) and this will be his last year playing the game.

The filmmakers could have gone a few different routes with this and they elected to try and go down two different paths at once; the raunchy one and the heartwarming one. As fellow critic Roger Moore observed, they may have missed an opportunity by going the PG-13 route and thus attracting a larger audience pool but as it was, they didn’t do so badly.

The raunchy stuff isn’t as raunchy as other comedies that go there but it is enough to warn home viewers from letting their tweens and youngsters get hold of it. The element that gives the viewer some good warm fuzzies is well-earned without being too treacly, although there is a bit of a twist that was a little over-the-top.

As far as the comedy bits (mostly having to do with the lengths the players will go to tag Jerry and the lengths he’ll go to keep from getting tagged) while they were generally well-executed, some bent the boundaries of suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. That aside, this was a little bit better than I expected it to be although not quite as good as Game Night.

REASONS TO SEE: Occasionally heart-warming comedy about the bonds of friendship.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the comedy is a bit far-fetched.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief nudity, some crude sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is loosely based on an ongoing game of tag played by four friends in Spokane, Washington.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hangover Part II
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel

Devil’s Gate (2017)


Bridget Regan is having a bad hair day.

(2017) Horror (IFC) Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Schull, Shawn Ashmore, Bridget Regan, Jonathan Frakes, Javier Botet, Spencer Drever, Adam Hurtig, Will Woytowich, Scott Johnson, Sarah Constible, Beverly Ndukwu, Jean-François Ferland, Jan Skene. Directed by Clay Staub

 

There’s something about creepy old farms that just seem to lend themselves to horror movies Old time farm implements like pitchforks, scythes and rakes become all the more sinister hanging in a barn when someone is being stalked by a creature or a serial killer. American Gothic has more than one subtext, after all.

A local farmer’s wife, Maria Pritchard (Regan) and her son Jonah (Drever) have disappeared and suspect number one is the husband, abusive but devout Jackson Pritchard (Ventimiglia). They’ve owned their piece of land in Devil’s Gate, North Dakota for generations and while Jackson awaits the arrival of angels to make his barren soil fertile the FBI in the person of Special Agent Daria Francis (Schull) to investigate the disappearance.

One wonders who called her in; it certainly wasn’t good ol’ boy Sheriff Gruenwell (Frakes) who not-so-subtly warns her to stay away from Pritchard; reluctantly, he allows Deputy Colt Salter (Ashmore) to accompany her. The Deputy warns the Special Agent that Jackson, whom he went to high school with, is a little bit twitchy and is known for his explosive temper. Still, nobody is prepared for the police cruiser they arrive on the farm in to be struck by numerous bolts of lightning. I mean, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, right?

Well, it does in Devil’s Lake and more to the point on the Pritchard place. Soon it becomes apparent that Jackson may not be as crazy as everyone thinks he is; there are most definitely some things lurking in his basement. There are also beings coming from the sky but they might not be the angels Jackson thinks they are.

The cast is pretty strong with some TV veterans as well as Ashmore who cut his teeth on the X-Men movies. Surprisingly, Ventimiglia chews the scenery more than I’ve ever seen him do before. He was such a compelling figure in Heroes but here he truly embraces the crazy. A fairly high percentage of his dialogue is shrieked rather than stated and when he’s quiet, it’s because he’s giving a menacing mumble. Beyond that, it’s great to see Frakes in a role that isn’t named Will Riker although it is a bit disturbing to realize that 31 years has passed since he originated that role in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the years are definitely taking their toll.

The actors for the most part do their jobs well but they aren’t given a whole lot to work with; the characters really aren’t developed much as writer-director Staub and his co-writer Peter Aperlo don’t give them much in the way of character development to hang their hats on. There are other compensations however; the creature effects are pretty damn good and reminiscent of the work of Guillermo del Toro. There’s also some nifty storm effects although they don’t really break any new ground there.

It’s not an entirely well-filmed movie though. The cinematography ranges from outdoor shots that are so overlit that they look like the sun’s exploding, or indoor shots that look like they were lit by candlelight. Less extremes on both ends would have been sincerely appreciated.

For the most part this is a fairly entertaining sci-fi/horror creature feature, set on a desolate farm in the middle of nowhere a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre loaded with traps a la Saw and some slimy monsters a la Pan’s Labyrinth. This isn’t a rocket science kind of movie but it is a decent enough thrill ride nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are pretty impressive. It is good to see Jonathan Frakes in a non-Star Trek role.
REASONS TO STAY: Ventimiglia is more than a little bit over-the-top. The cinematography is either virtually washed out or just  about too dark to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The town itself is fictional but there is a town in North Dakota called Devil’s Lake.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
For the Love of George

Gods of Egypt


Choke like an Egyptian.

Choke like an Egyptian.

(2016) Swords and Sandals Fantasy (Summit) Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Koster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites, Courtney Eaton, Elodie Yung, Bryan Brown, Rachel Blake, Emma Booth, Chadwick Boseman, Rufus Sewell, Alexander England, Goran D. Kleut, Yaya Deng, Geoffrey Rush, Abbey Lee, Kenneth Ransom, Bruce Spence, Robyn Nevin. Directed by Alex Proyas

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What power, dare I say, is more absolute than that of a god? And if that’s the case, does that not make gods the most corrupt of all creatures?

Ancient Egypt had it’s share of Gods and at one time, they not only walked among men but they ruled as well. Osiris (Brown) who rules the Valley of the Nile is getting ready to pass the crown on to his son, Horus (Koster-Waldau). Attending the festivities are Bek (Thwaites), a thief and a bit of a con artist and his girlfriend Zaya (Eaton), a beautiful young lady with an eye for beautiful things.

Also attending is Set (Butler), the brother of Osiris who rules the desert. Having a kingdom of scorpions and sand to rule hasn’t exactly put him in the best of moods and being a treacherous sort, he takes the opportunity to seize power from his brother, murdering him in the process. He also fights Horus and defeats him, plucking out his eyes in the process.

This sets up a despotic rule in which Set enslaves most of the population of Egypt to build obelisks, towers and temples – to Set including one tower that rises higher than any in tribute to Ra (Rush), the sun god more powerful than any other and the father to Set and the late Osiris. Oh, and did I mention that the gods bleed molten gold? Not so much an important plot point as an interesting factoid, that.

In any case, with the architect Urshu (Sewell) designing these monuments to human misery and enslaving Zaya as his personal assistant, Zaya convinces Bek that the only way to alleviate the suffering is to get Horus back in the game and she happens to know where his eyes – well, one of them anyway – is being kept. Bek being the master thief that he is retrieves it but at a terrible cost.

Now with an emotional stake in the game, Bek delivers the eye to Horus in a temple way out in the middle of the desert. At first Horus is none to keen on involving himself in the affairs of humans but he does have a strong streak of vengeance. With the aid of Hathor (Yung), the goddess of love who happens to be Horus’ lover and Thoth (Boseman), the arrogant god of intelligence, Horus and Bek must divine a way to defeat the evil Set and set things right in Egypt but Set has some allies and monsters to throw against the small band of rebels.

This CGI-laden effects fest is directed by Proyas, who has in the past done some memorable work (The Crow, Dark City). He has shown himself to have an imaginative visual sense and that comes out in spades here. What he didn’t have was an adequate budget or a satisfactory script.

The CGI here is for the most part lame and there is nothing that can kill a movie more easily than bad CGI. It mostly looks shoddy and unrealistic, from the elephants hauling stone to the building sites that look like they came from a videogame twenty years ago, to vistas of cities that look like they came from websites ten years ago. I don’t know if the sheer amount of computer images overwhelmed the effects houses that the filmmakers contracted, or if they gave them unrealistic deadlines – or if they simply contracted cheaper effects houses that didn’t have the capabilities to pull off the work (most likely explanation). Whatever the cause, I was constantly pulled out of the movie because the effects were noticeably bad.

The script also has a lot of lapses of logic and is riddled with cliches. If you’re going to do an epic like this, the least you can do is at least try not to cobble together a story that steals elements from other movies, including some that aren’t very good. At times, it seemed like the story existed to show off the visual effects – and we all know how those turned out. And what’s the deal with making the gods slightly taller than the humans (by two to three feet)? It’s distracting and unnecessary. Horus looks like Plastic Man upon occasion; all he needed was the goggles.

At least Butler and Koster-Waldau acquit themselves as well as can be expected; both are dynamic actors who can at least command the attention of the audience. Rush provides some needed gravitas, although quite frankly one gets the sense that he also found the script ridiculous and made an effort to get this over with as quickly as possible. I imagine he won’t be including his work here on any audition tapes.

I will give credit where credit is due; as much bashing of the visuals as I’ve done, some of the visuals have some imagination to them which I can only assume come from Proyas as he has a history of such things. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of that to overcome the fact that this movie looks bad and tells its story badly. Only the charisma of the antagonists really saves this movie from being completely unwatchable which hopefully will translate to better movies for the both of them.

REASONS TO GO: Butler and Koster-Waldau make fine antagonists. Some imaginative visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: El Crappo CGI. Incoherent script lacks imagination.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of sexuality and plenty of fantasy violence and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proyas himself is Egyptian, born of Greek parents in the city of Alexandria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 23/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Boom Bust Boom

Cub (Welp)


I am NOT Groot!

I am NOT Groot!

(2014) Horror (Artsploitation) Maurice Luijten, Evelien Bosmans, Titus de Voogdt, Stef Aerts, Jan Hammenecker, Gil Eeckelaert, Noa Tambwe Kabati, Ricko Otto, Louis Lemmens, Thomas de Smet, Pieter De Brabandere, Jessie Tweepenninckx, Isah de Zutter, Hauke Geimaert, Ebe Meynckens, Ymanol Perset, Nabil Missoumi, Jean-Michel Balthazar. Directed by Jonas Govaerts

What could be more natural than a bunch of young boys, scouts in fact, camping in the woods? It’s one of the rites of boyhood throughout the world. Of course, the boys are supervised by a pair of scout leaders and a den mother, but still, there’s something liberating about ghost stories of werewolves and monsters in the woods in the dead of night. But what if the monsters are real?

Kris (de Voogdt) and Peter (Aerts) – the later of which goes by the name of Baloo – are the said scout leaders. Jasmijn (Bosmans) is the den mother/camp cook/Peter’s girlfriend. Among the boys are David (Kabati), the troop leader and Dries (Lemmens), the timid bespectacled boy who is bullied by the bigger ones. And then there’s Sam (Luijten).

Sam, who has had a difficult childhood, has been bullied by all the others all his life. He has seized upon the camp leaders’ tale of Kai, the werewolf and is looking high and low for the feral boy, even though the tale is just a legend. Then Sam finds Kai (Eeckelaert). Of course, nobody believes him; Sam has been known to tell a tall tale or two throughout his life. This time, though, he’s not fibbing. He runs into a feral boy who wears a wooden mask, giving him a kind of primeval feel. He looks awfully scary at least.

It turns out that when the local school bus factory was shut down, there was a rash of deaths in the woods. Most of the local townsfolk like the go-kart riding delinquents Vincent (Perset) and Marc (Missoumi) are uncomfortable going into those woods. There are traps set all over the woods, some of them lethal. Someone is watching them…all of them and what they don’t know is that they’ve blundered into the territory of a madman who will see all of them dead – no matter how young.

This indie horror opus hails from Belgium and gives us a little bit of insight into  Belgian life. I was unaware that there was that much antipathy between the French and Flemish communities, but I suppose that ill feelings for those not belonging to the same group as you is pretty much universal.

It is also pretty much universal that the woods are a beautiful place and the cinematography here is nice and lush. It really is a pretty looking film, despite the fairly significant amount of gore. One doesn’t always find decent camera work in an indie horror film, so when there is a movie that has some you can’t help but be grateful for it.

I also liked the score, which is organ heavy and reminded me of the Goblin-scored giallo films of the 70s, which for a horror buff like myself brought back some pleasant memories; less experienced horror buffs may feel less nostalgic about it.

Most of the attention here centers on the three adults – or teens, which would probably be more accurate, and on Sam. The rest of the kids get little screen time, which is probably wise; good child actors are hard to find. However, Luijten is a find. He plays the timid, put-upon bullying victim, but he’s also stone cold at times. He shows some impressive acting range and I wouldn’t mind seeing him in more films someday.

In many ways, this is a bit of a throwback sort of horror piece; while there are a few too many camping-in-the-woods horror cliches here, for the most part this compares favorably with movies of the 70s and 80s that could be called the golden age of slasher films. There are some clever traps here, including one involving a beehive and a bow and arrow, that make the death scenes less rote than other, less imaginative films have given us.

While there are some hints of sexuality here, there really isn’t a lot that is overt; I think the movie would have benefited from less subtlety in that department. Also, we don’t really get a good deal of background about Sam and why he is the way he is and I think a little bit more explanation would have been helpful as well. Still, these are quibbles and this is quite impressive, not just for a first-time director on a micro-budget but for anybody. This has made some appearances on the festival circuit here on the states and is fixing to get released on DVD and Blu-Ray here on August 18. This isn’t a game-changer but it is a well-made horror movie in a sub-genre that is fairly crowded, but it acquits itself pretty well by comparison. Definitely recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Nicely executed. Some clever traps.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many kids in the woods horror tropes. Some character background might have been nice.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gore and images of terror, children in peril, foul language and a smidgen of sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scouts camp near a village called Casselroque, a sly reference to Castle Rock where Stephen King set many of his stories.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a music video and a short film; both editions feature an SFX reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Friday the 13th
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Brighton Rock

Saw 3D


Saw 3D
Betsy Russell goes on the Saw workout with remarkable results.

(2010) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Cary Elwes, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Sean Patrick Flanery, Chad Donella, Gina Holden, Laurence Anthony, Dean Armstrong, Naomi Snieckus, Rebecca Marshall, James van Patten, Anne Greene. Directed by Kevin Greutert

This is a film that visibly demonstrates the virtues of leaving while you’re on top. But the question is, is this franchise doing that or going out with a whimper?

Again, because of the possibility of spoilers for previous films in the series that you may not have seen and might want to (trust me, the series goes down a bit better if you know the mythology front to back). The apprentice of Jigsaw (Bell) has escaped the trap of Jigsaw’s wife (Russell) who now goes to the police in the person of Detective Matt Gibson (Donella).

In the meantime the apprentice is setting his sights on Bobby Dagen (Flanery), a survivor from a previous Jigsaw trap who has written a self-help book on the subject and has become the flavor of the week more or less. In the meantime, the police once again think they’re closing in – but when the fur flies, the body count will rise and the end comes thanks to a surprise character from the first movie who turns out to be the most surprising twist of all.

Greutert, who had hoped to direct Paranormal Activity 2 but was forced to direct this due to a contractual obligation, continues the formula that has sustained this series through seven films and the wear and tear is beginning to show. There is nothing here that really differentiates it from the other films in the series.

Part of my issue with the film is that there was never much doubt about what the outcome was going to be with each individual trap. Greutert would ratchet up the suspense but then well, you get the picture. This happens with each and every trap without fail. It would have been nice if there had been at least a smidgeon of a possibility that someone would get away but by the last few traps it was just a matter of waiting for the damn thing to go off.

The cast here is solid as always, although as with all the Saw films after the third one, it sorely misses Jigsaw as a contemporary force. Like the last three movies, the seventh movie only shows Jigsaw in flashback and thus the movie is robbed of its most interesting character. Elwes, the best-known of the cast, reprises his role from the first film in what is essentially an extended cameo. He looks a little embarrassed to be there, to be honest. Hope the paycheck was good.

Props must be given to the producers for not going the cheap route and doing this in 3D conversion; it’s actually filmed in 3D and the effects for such are pretty amazing. However be aware that those 3D home video sets that use the darker glasses, the movie is pretty dimly lit to begin with and you might have trouble seeing some of the things going on.

I admit there is a vicarious thrill in watching people get offed in such fiendishly clever ways, and usually the victims deserve their fates although the two-timing wench from the movie’s prologue might have received a somewhat extreme punishment for her crime. Still, the franchise has undoubtedly run out of steam and while seeing the surviving victims from past movies come together in a support group session was one of the movie’s highlights, this is definitely a series that is ready to at the very least take a long break and regroup, if not sail off into the sunset altogether.

WHY RENT THIS: Lots of blasts from the past. This is supposed to conclude the franchise so if you followed it this far…

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a very satisfying conclusion and a bit of a letdown. The traps lack any kind of suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and blood and torture and bad language but no sexuality to speak of.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was the second straight film in the series to feature a winner of the “Scream Queens” reality television series in a featured role; Gabby West here, Tanedra Howard (who also appears here) in Saw VI.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has a featurette on every trap from every film in the series – all 52 of them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $136.2M on a $20M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Saw VI


Saw VI

Tanedra Howard tries a new cure for migraines.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Mark Rolston, Peter Outerbridge, Shawnee Smith, Samantha Lemole, Caroline Cave, George Newbern, Devon Bostick, Darius McCrary, Shauna McDonald, Tanedra Howard. Directed by Kevin Greutert

It is nearly impossible to give you a plot summary of Saw VI without giving you spoilers on the previous films, so therefore my description of the action is going to be necessarily vague in the odd chance that you might be thinking of seeing any of the previous films in the series first.

Saw VI picks up directly after the events of Saw V. The police continue to search for Jigsaw’s (Bell) remaining apprentice who is disturbingly close to home. A health insurance executive (Outerbridge) who has denied treatment to individuals who died for its lack (including Jigsaw himself) is forced to play out four twisted traps. We see in flashbacks more detail on the relationship between Jigsaw and Amanda (Smith) and how Jigsaw’s wife Jill (Russell) is dealing with the contents of the mysterious box left to her in Jigsaw’s will. As the traps begin to unfold, the noose begins to tighten around the apprentice, including from an unexpected direction. Is the game over finally?

Well, no not yet. There is one film yet to go in the series and after the disappointment that was the fifth film in the series, the franchise seems to have regained a bit of momentum heading for its conclusion. Greutert, an editor in the series, makes his feature film directing debut and does a nice job, keeping the tension and action running at high levels.

The secondary story line with the insurance executive keeps the interest up. One of the big complaints about the series and the last couple of movies in particular is that the portion of the movie that deals with Jigsaw and his apprentices seems to have shrunk, leaving the backstory (and side story if you will) to take up less than half of the movie – and the portion with the traps to be the far more interesting portion of the movie than that which explains how the principles got there. That’s not really a good sign, but the traps are so fiendishly clever here that it does make up for that lack somewhat.

I’ve said it before, but relegating Jigsaw to flashbacks was a tactical error. Mandylor is a decent actor but his character has none of the charisma of Jigsaw; consequently his sequences seem to be the ones most likely that you’ll want to fast forward through, although there’s a terrific scene at a crime lab that involves him that is actually worth waiting for.

Perhaps the most important accomplishment the movie is going to have is to make viewers want to watch the final installment; certainly this is a flawed movie and by no means the best in the series but at least it doesn’t make you turn off the DVD player in disgust with a cry of “Never again!” Two trilogies down the road and the series has at least kept our interest and displayed a certain amount of cleverness and invention throughout. That’s something worth respecting.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever traps and a decent secondary story line.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mandylor’s Hoffman is still not nearly as interesting as Bell’s Jigsaw..

FAMILY VALUES: Violence and torture and gore, oh my!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tanedra Howard was the winner of the SyFy reality show “Scream Queens” and won a role in Saw VI.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an unrated DVD edition which contains both the theatrical release and an unrated version of the film. This edition also includes four music videos and a featurette on the building of a Saw-themed haunted house attraction at the Universal Studios theme park. The Blu-Ray edition has these features and the first Saw film as an extra added attraction.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.2M on an $11M production budget; the movie was a modest blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Whistleblower

Saw IV


Saw IV

Betsy Russell finds out she's been cast in a Saw film.

(2007) Horror/Torture Porn (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Lyriq Bent, Athena Karkanis, Justin Louis, Simon Reynolds, Donnie Wahlberg, Angus Macfadyen, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Bahar Soomekh. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

There are storms in life that are particularly vicious, doing damage to property, life and limb. We can only hope to ride out those storms and hope to escape if not unscathed, at least mostly unscathed. There are storms however that when we think they’re over, we come to the sick realization that they may only be beginning.

John Kramer a.k.a. Jigsaw (Bell), the notorious serial killer, is dead. His reign of terror is at an end. At least, that’s what everybody thinks. During his autopsy, a micro-cassette player is found in his stomach, the contents of which are heard by Det. Mark Hoffman (Mandylor). You just know what’s on the tape isn’t going to be Perry Como. It’s just not going to be a very good thing at all.

When a missing detective (Meyer) is located, Hoffman cautions Lt. Rigg (Bent) from entering an unsecured door but he does anyway and the girl is killed. Rigg is hoping that he’d find information about his missing partner, Matthews (Wahlberg) whom Rigg is convinced is still alive. The murder brings FBI agents Strahm (Patterson) and Perez (Karkanis) into the picture. They quickly discover that the late Jigsaw and his apprentice (Smith) couldn’t have been responsible for the death of the detective since neither one of them was strong enough to load her into the machine she’d been left in. It becomes increasingly likely that Jigsaw has another apprentice.

It isn’t until Rigg is attacked at home that he discovers that Matthews is still alive, but held by the new apprentice of Jigsaw. Rigg has 90 minutes to find Matthews or he will die horribly. Rigg must make terrible decisions that will cost people their lives in order to save the innocent Matthews…but can he negotiate the tricky moral currents of a Jigsaw puzzle?

Bousman, who helmed the second and third installment of the series, was reportedly ready to turn down directing this film but the end twist really grabbed his attention. He brings to the table a solid understanding of who Jigsaw is and what the man is all about.

Which makes this movie all the more mystifying. Throughout the series to date, Jigsaw was about having people confront their own sins but there is much less of that here. We do get much more of Jigsaw’s backstory – what drove him to psychosis (the death of his unborn son at the hands of a junkie, leading to his wife divorcing him) and what kept him there.

Still, the series is written into a corner. With its most iconic and compelling character dead and available only in flashbacks, what we are left with are the lethal traps and while they are fun and interesting, they aren’t enough to carry a movie. For the most part, you know that nobody is going to escape – why would any competent Hollywood horror director give you that kind of building only to have nothing happen – and after awhile it becomes just torture porn. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but I’m finding myself getting more and more jaded when it comes to the genre.

That isn’t to say the movie is without its merits. The traps are clever and Jigsaw’s backstory does help fill in the blanks. The next movie in the cycle is set up nicely and while we know the series ended with a total of seven films in it (although I wouldn’t be surprised if the series got resurrected in a few years), the fourth one gave the series enough impetus to continue on course for awhile, both creatively and at the box office. This isn’t the best film in the series, but it isn’t the worst either – it’s just a solid horror movie to liven up your next Halloween.

WHY RENT THIS: If you like the first three films, you’re gonna adore this – much the same as the other three with a nice twist here and there.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There really isn’t much here you won’t find in the first three movies. There’s only so many ways to be shocking. The plot is a bit convoluted and you’re going to have a hard time if you haven’t seen the first three films, particularly Saw III.

FAMILY VALUES: Ummm, its Saw IV…just what kind of family values are you expecting exactly?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film in the series not to be written or co-written by franchise creator Leigh Whannell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video and a video diary from director Bousman that’s pretty amusing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $139.4M on a $10M production budget (unconfirmed); the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Letters to Juliet

13 Assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku)


13 Assassins

I don't know if I could fight with a straight face against a bunch of guys with dinner plates on their heads.

(2010) Samurai (Magnet) Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuki Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masataka Kubota, Sosuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku. Directed by Takashi Miike

When you are trained to a life of service and honor is your most prized possession, justice is an important and necessary function of what you do. When justice is replaced by cruelty and barbarism, what is an honorable man to do?

In feudal Japan, the tradition of the samurai is on the wane as the Land of the Rising Sun slowly but definitely approaches the Meiji era, kicking and screaming in some places. The Shogun is still the de facto political power, deriving his power from the Emperor but in many ways wreathed in more temporal power than he.

The one currently in power has appointed his half-brother (and son of the previous Shogun) Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) as his heir and the head of the country. Naritsugu, however, is corrupt and amoral, raping and killing without fear of reprisal because of his standing. Even other feudal lords aren’t immune as he attacks members of other clans without conscience. The country is on the verge of being plunged into civil war and even the Shogun knows it. He cannot openly oppose his half-brother or demote him from his position; to do so would lose tremendous face for him. However, through back channels he approaches one of the few samurai left who are honorable but without master – Shinzaemon (Yakusho).

Shinzaemon is shown the proof of Naritsugu’s depravity; a limbless woman whose tongue has been torn out, the wife of a peasant who dared speak out against Naritsugu’s depravations. She has been repeatedly raped and when asked what became of her family, she took a brush in her mouth and wrote out the words “TOTAL MASSACRE” before letting loose a wordless animal scream that is as compelling a moment as you’ll see on the screen this year – and also much more indicative of Miike’s usual style.

Shinzaemon knows that Naritsugu will be nearly impregnable in his palace in Edo (Tokyo) but awaits him to leave for the long journey to his home castle. He knows that even the well-protected Naritsugu will be vulnerable on the road. He can’t have a very large army like Naritsugu does; a pitched conflict would probably not end well for Shinzaemon and quite frankly would further destabilize the situation.

No, this is meant to be an assassination and to make it happen, he enlists the help of twelve like-minded samurai, including his nephew Shinrouko (Yamada). The task is made doubly difficult because Shinzaemon’s protégé Hanbei (Ichimura) is Naritsugu’s bodyguard and while Hanbei doesn’t approve of what Naritsugu does, he is loyal to his master as a samurai should be and will protect him to the best of his abilities, which are considerable.

Shinzaemon’s plan is to divide Naritsugu’s forces and send him through a specific town. In order to do that, he has to bar his travel across a single bridge. Fortunately, the clan that owns that bridge is more than happy to send Naritsugu on his way. The stage is set but Shinzaemon has to get ahead of Naritsugu by traversing a mountain. Unfortunately he gets lost but he comes upon a hunter named Koyata (Iseya) who while descended of samurai stock actually finds the samurai quite boring and unexciting.

Once they get to the village they turn it into a death trap with hidden fortifications, explosives and burning bulls (CGI flames animal lovers – don’t get your panties in a twist). However when Naritsugu arrives later than anticipated, Shinzaemon’s plan is thrown into disarray when it is discovered that rather than the 70 soldiers that they estimated he had with him, he has more than 200, a ploy used by the clever Hanbei to buy time to get reinforcements.

This leads to an epic battle in which much blood will be spilled, heads will roll, heroes will fall and Hanbei and Shinzaemon will cross swords at last. Will justice be served?

Miike is best known for his twisted and sometimes graphic horror films, but there are some who find his sensibilities a bit of an acquired taste. Fortunately, it’s a taste I’ve acquired. Miike has a reputation for deconstructing different genres when he attempts them (slasher horror, superhero and so on). He is incredibly prolific although this one seems to have taken more time than he usually does.

In fact, in a somewhat surprising move, Miike has opted to play this one more or less straight (other than a few occasional images including the limbless lady) which considering the depravity of Naritsugu probably brought up a few of Miike’s admirers up short. Samurai movies are a staple of Japanese cinema, and pretty much reached their nadir with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s epic (which inspired, among other things, The Magnificent Seven. This is based on a movie from the same era from a different director and perhaps more in need of a remake but Miike does surprisingly well.

The cinematography is beautiful and ugly at once, with lush Japanese countrysides and bucolic villages combined with horrifying images of brutal violence. The final battle sequence takes up nearly half the movie and is the reason you’re going to either love this movie or hate it; some will find the sequence too overwhelming and over-the-top, some too long and others might even find it not long enough. In any case, how you feel about battle sequences is largely going to determine how you feel about 13 Assassins.

The acting is pretty decent here. Of note is Japanese rock star Inagaki who plays the powerful Lord as almost childish in his petulance crossed with an amoral serial killer and rapist. He is completely corrupt and without any sort of morals – sort of like a Wall Street CEO who suddenly realizes he can get away with anything.

Yakusho is a big star in Japan and he shows why here. He is charismatic and powerful, a man used to being obeyed (at least Shinzaemon is) and certainly confident in his talents. Shinzaemon is a man worthy of respect (and if you don’t show him the respect he deserves, he’s liable to lop off your head) and is a worthy leader of these disparate samurai. Iseya provides much-needed comic relief. He is agile and monkey-nimble, but surprisingly strong using rocks and sticks to kill his armed and armored opponents.

Part of the movie’s problem is that 13 are really too many samurai for us to get to know properly. Most are little more than a single personality trait that quickly gets lost in the carnage. Remembering their names? Forget about it. I couldn’t always keep them straight and I’m usually pretty adept at that sort of thing.

What this boils down to is an epic struggle, one in which honor takes center stage. The honor of a man avenging injustice against the honor of a man defending his master until the bitter end. It is truly a morality play, Japanese-style and the swordplay and buckets of blood are merely window dressing on it. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like samurai films you’ll like this one. If you like extensive battle sequences showcasing the sword skills of samurai you’ll love this one. If you like character development, you might want to give this a pass.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of awesome battle sequences, lots of blood violence and a truly hiss-able villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little on the too long side, and it is difficult for Western audiences to really get too involved with the individuals who, except for the top three or four leads, aren’t developed as characters very much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bloody violence, some disturbing images, a rape and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was based on an actual incident in feudal Japan, and was previously made into a black and white movie in 1963.

HOME OR THEATER: The epic scope of the film virtually screams theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stuff

The Collector (2009)


The Collector

Masked people with big red boxes are not to be trusted.

(2009) Horror (Freestyle Releasing) Josh Stewart, Karley Scott Collins, Andrea Roth, Juan Fernandez, Daniella Roberson, Jabari Thomas, Colvin Roberson, Michael Reilly Burke, Haley Alexis Pullo, Madeline Zima, Alex Feldman. Directed by Marcus Dunstan

It takes a thief to catch a thief. But when a thief encounters a fiendishly sadistic and clever serial killer, is it a fair fight?

Arkin (Stewart) is a handyman who is working at the home of Michael Chase (Burke), a decent man with a sweet daughter named Hannah (Collins), a spoiled teenage daughter named Jill (Zima) and a spoiled wife named Victoria (Roth). Arkin is working for an exterminator (Fernandez) but what he’s really doing is casing the residence. Arkin is a paroled thief and he knows that Michael has a large gemstone in his safe.

When he discovers his girlfriend Lisa (Roberson) is in deep to a loan shark and needs money that evening or she’ll face excruciating injury or even death, Arkin moves up the timetable and decides to do the job that very night.

When he gets to the Chase home he discovers a big red box in the center of the bedroom where the safe is in. Inside the big box is a man who informs Arkin that the man who put him there is a Collector, who traps families, keeps whoever survives his traps but murders everyone else. He also finds out that the Chase family has been taken hostage and the house riddled with booby traps, ranging from a sticky but heavily corrosive acid on the floor to razors dropping from the ceiling. Arkin feels guilty about leaving the daughter who reminds him of his own daughter (Pullo) and means to get her out, but it means going head to head with a sadistic, homicidal maniac.

I have to admit that Stewart makes a fairly solid lead. He is certainly an anti-hero – his character is motivated purely by self-interest for the most part. Still, Stewart gives the character enough depth that we end up pulling for him. Roth also makes an excellent victim.

The traps are really clever in some places but for the most part you can only see so many sharp thingies penetrate so much flesh. I like how the set up is very brief and we get into the meat of the movie quickly. That’s clearly what horror fans want and they get what they want, in spades, here.

Director Marcus Dunstan is better known as a writer for horror flicks, including entries in the Saw series and the upcoming sequel to Piranha. This might be some of his best writing yet – certainly it feels more clever than some of his Saw movies.

Still, you’ll get a feeling that you’ve seen this all before. Torture porn is, after all, fairly rote once you get past the initial shock and gore. It doesn’t take long to get desensitized to it. What you are left with then is the characters, and the ability to identify with them. You get that here more than in other examples of the genre, but not enough to really overcome the sameness of the gore.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the traps are fiendishly clever. Stewart makes a solid anti-hero. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While better than the Saw series of late, it seems to be pretty much the same old torture porn.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence is fairly sadistic and brutal; there’s some sexuality and nudity as well and as you might expect, the language is pretty rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original script was written to be a prequel to the Saw movies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video by Nico as well as a preview of the soundtrack album.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.3M on an unreported production budget; the film made money, almost for certain.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: She’s Out of My League

Law Abiding Citizen


Law Abiding Citizen

Gerard Butler's career is on fire.

(Overture) Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Michael Irby, Viola Davis, Regina Hall, Annie Corley, Roger Bart. Directed by F. Gary Gray

Justice is something of an abstract concept in our modern civilization, but when you get right down to it, justice is about wrongdoers paying for their wrongdoing. Most of us are well aware that justice isn’t guaranteed simply because the rights of all, even those who commit heinous crimes, must be respected. We are required to prove guilt rather than innocence, as most legal systems worked before ours. It can be tricky to prove what you know.

Engineer Clyde Shelton (Butler) has a good life, a beautiful family and a good deal of wealth. In one horrible evening, it’s all taken away from him when a pair of brutal home invaders murders his daughter, rape and murder his wife and leave him for dead. The Philadelphia police capture the two thugs who committed the crime, but the ambitious prosecutor Nick Rice (Foxx) trying the case decides to make a deal with the killer in exchange for sending his partner to death row. Shelton is outraged, but is helpless to do anything about it.

Ten years later, the convicted thug is finally getting his just desserts. The execution by lethal injection, however, goes horribly awry, leading to a particularly gruesome and agonizing end. Shortly thereafter, his partner who testified against him is kidnapped and cut into many, many pieces on camera while the horrified city watches. The killer is revealed to be Clyde who is subsequently arrested. That’s when the circus really begins.

All those who had something to do with the trial – from the defense attorney to the judge who tried the case to the assistant who worked with Nick on the case – meet a grisly fate, ostensibly at the hands of Shelton who is, incredibly, locked away securely in a prison cell at first, then a solitary confinement cell eventually. Even this doesn’t stop Clyde from exacting his revenge from prison. Does he have an accomplice, or is he the second coming of Houdini? How is he accomplishing all this mayhem from a prison cell?

Director F. Gary Gray has done some interesting movies in his time (The Italian Job and Be Cool among them) and this one is no less so. Here he takes a script that really forces us to examine the justice system and its priorities and turns it into an action thriller. The action sequences work to varying degrees, but the movie is truly at its best when Butler and Foxx are allowed to do their things. Yes, it can be said to be a direct descendent of Death Wish but it’s not a rip-off so much as it is a logical extension; the Charles Bronson character was not nearly so clever as the Gerard Butler character is here.

Foxx is a gifted actor who makes a basically unlikable character likable. Most of us will cringe when he takes the low road to get a conviction, but this is certainly not uncommon among prosecutors. He’s also a family man, and when that family is threatened he turns into a cornered grizzly, all the more dangerous.

Butler is one of the most likable screen presences going right now; that saves him quite a bit here. He has to rely on audience sympathy to keep them aboard as most of his actions are pretty sick and twisted. If there’s a problem with the character, we don’t get enough of him as a sane family man at first in order to see his descent into amoral vengeance taker by the movie’s end. Plus, often he seems to be omniscient, which makes it harder to relate to him. Keeping him human makes the character more relatable to audiences and that is better for the movie.

The support cast is mainly solid character actors who fill their roles admirably. Meaney, of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame is particularly memorable as the dogged detective who assists Nick in his investigation, but McGill is solid as the DA that Foxx replaces.

This took a critical lambasting when it was released, but I really can’t say why. This is actually a good movie, not just a decent one but a good one. It kept my attention and had a few interesting twists in it; you can’t ask for much more from a suspense movie than that. While it doesn’t claim to have a fix for the justice system which will always be imperfect as long as humans are involved, it at least initiates the conversation which puts it a step up of most suspense movies to begin with.

WHY RENT THIS: This is a taut, suspenseful thriller that is surprisingly well-acted. Raises some compelling questions about the justice system.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Makes Clyde out to be nearly superhuman; a little more realism might have been more effective there.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of brutal violence, some of it rather sadistic. There is a fairly graphic rape scene, as well as a whole lot of bad language. This is definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man holding the Bible as Nick is being sworn in as the new District Attorney is the actual Mayor of Philadelphia at the time the film was shot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interesting featurette entitled “The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen” has a couple of legal experts debating the plausibility of the script which has to be a first for Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Cove