Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saw V’s Biggest Trap is Itself

The tagline for Saw V is “You won't believe how it ends”. Halfway through the latest installment of the already abysmal series I didn’t care how it ended, just that it did in fact end and that I wasn’t part of some sick real life Jigsaw trap set in the theater.

This fifth installment of the series of intertwining films follows the continuing endeavors of Agent Strahm and Detective Hoffman. Because the film contains characters, references and flashbacks to the previous films newcomers will feel extremely lost in the twisting plot.

Saw V doesn’t insult your intelligence simply for the fact that it assumes everyone in the theater has no intelligence. While that may be true of some of the people who love this poorly made series of torture/gore-porn, not everyone needs flashback after flashback to understand what is happening with the convoluted and poorly thought out structure. The film has no sense of timing and is oddly paced. Thanks to a lazy script flashbacks intertwine too much with current events and we are shifted back and forth between the newest victims and a mundane detective case. The film has no clear focus on any of the events at hand.

The Saw series has very few redeeming qualities as it is. Many people seem to enjoy seeing the films for the gore and traps. Saw V, which is the first film in the series not directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, features nothing interesting in terms of gore and traps. In comparison to previous Saw films this one is simply weak. The traps, which at one point in the series were at least somewhat cringe-inducing, are rather generically plotted and seem to only be there because they are expected to be. What’s the reason for this? Saw V returns to the ways of the original Saw with a more story driven plot that puts the gore and torture in the backseat. Unfortunately for everyone involved the plot pales in comparison to the original Saw and ends up leading us on an uninteresting, dopey and ultimately meaningless detective plot that leaves you feeling bored and stupid for watching it.

As with all bad films I try to pick at least one thing out of the sloppy mess that I at least somewhat liked. In the Saw series it has always been Tobin Bell’s performance as Jigsaw. He delivers his lines in such a way that it screams cult classic. Unfortunately for Bell he’s constantly surrounded by a bunch of nitwits that can’t utilize what very little they had going for them.

I love blood, guts, and gore as much as the next horror freak does. I just prefer my faux gore to take place in a situation with at least a few drops of creativity behind it. When Saw V tries to be an exploitation film it fails. When Saw V tries to be a moral driven detective thriller like Se7en it fails. Following Agent Strahm location to location is like riding on those retro car rides at amusement parks. You’re destined to reach a certain point and nothing will derail that vehicle. Saw films have always been about suspension of disbelief and right place at the right time but like everything else there’s a limit for the amount of pure chance you jam into your plot.

If there is a god, Saw V would be the nail in the coffin for the overdone series that as this point seems determined to ruin the horror genre for everyone. Considering the fact that the previous four films have grossed $555 million worldwide on a $25 million budget I don’t see Lions Gate slowing down anytime soon. If seeing these films in theaters with your friends has become a yearly October tradition for you don’t let my negative review stop you from doing so this year. Otherwise I recommend staying far away from this absurd, lacking, and forgettable film. Saw V is not a pretty creation. I’m just thankful that it did eventually end.

10/29/08 Issue of the CCSU Recorder

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bava's Style Endlessly Influential

If there was one name that should get more respect among today’s mainstream movie going masses it should be versatile Italian director Mario Bava.

Bava is remembered by many as one of the premier names of Italy’s golden age of horror films. Bava is thought of as the godfather of Italian horror films and in general is one of the most influential figures in the history of films.

Bava’s directorial debut was the dark 1960 film Black Sunday. This gothic horror masterpiece, which centers on a vengeful witch returning from the grave, is a prime example of Bava’s directing characteristics. Bava utilized imagery like no other did. Black Sunday, which was slightly ahead of its time with its graphic nature and stark portrayal of events, gives viewers a glimpse of the kind of immersive artistry Bava would introduce with his signature lighting style in his later color films.

In terms of influence, Black Sunday kicked off the series of gothic films that would soon follow. Bava’s next significant film, the 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, helped create a new genre. Giallo, which indicates mystery and crime fiction in Italy’s culture, literally translates to “yellow” in Italian. This unique genre stemmed from cheap paperback books with yellow covers that were typically mystery/crime pulp novels that included elements of eroticism and horror. Bava was the first to translate this material to the screen with The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Giallo films have many distinctive qualities. The plots in giallo films were typically of a whodunit nature and featured many twists and turns along the way. Giallo never ended simple or as expected. Strong visual elements of giallo are drawn out murder sequences and stylish camerawork of said killings. For example, many murder scenes would only show a part of the killer, such as his or her hands. With this synecdoche approach introduced by Bava giallo films became a style of its own.

A key visual image of giallo films would be introduced in Bava’s next film, the colorful Blood and Black Lace. This 1964 film introduced the symbolic image of the identity concealed killer wearing black leather gloves while holding his or her weapon of choice. This became emblematic throughout the frenzy of giallo films that would be released in the 1960s and 1970s. Bava biographer Tim Lucas notes Blood and Black Lace as “one of the most influential thrillers ever made” and as “the first authentic body count movie”. Lucas also noted that the film inspired such directors as future giallo master Dario Argento to Martin Scorsese.

Bava’s wickedly morbid 1971 giallo Bay of Blood remains to be one of the most important and influential horror films ever created. While Blood and Black Lace certainly was a stepping stone for the slasher genre that America would soon start to adore, Bay of Blood is what really started the phase of “body count” films in the 1980s. Iconic horror franchises like Friday the 13th drew a lot from this early slasher. Friday the 13th: Part 2 lifted two kill scenes directly from Bava’s film. Bava’s Bay of Blood, which is a film bent on money, greed and murder, was one of the first films to set up murders the way slashers do today and perfected the giallo genre Bava helped create

Bava’s unprecedented style of lighting and using color effectively in films was unmatched at the time and has been used as inspiration by many. To explain Bava’s use of color in words would be difficult. The gleaming fluorescent lights strategically placed around the set differentiate location from location. A dark, gloomy alley may be shot with a tone of blue while a room in a fancy Italian villa may be bright red. While not every Bava film had perfect narrative, every messy plot Bava presented was more than made up for with his brilliant and influential visuals. Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver has hints of this visual style. Argento would nearly perfect the technique in what I consider to be one of the best horror films ever in Suspiria.

Bava was not limited to horror. The versatile director dipped his toes into the comic book genre with his 1968 film Danger: Diabolik. This film brought adult tones to comic book films as it featured on the suave and skilled thief Diabolik. Bava was also no stranger to the vikings. In 1961 he directed the epic Erik the Conqueror. While the subject matter differs from the likes of his horror films, he applied his signature lighting style to them all the same giving Diabolik that pure 60s feeling and Conqueror a fantasy, dream like feeling.

Whether Bava was creating scares in the horror genre, stylishly murdering people in his giallo films or stepping into the crime, viking, western, or sci-fi genres he always brought his own unique sense of style and supreme creativity to the table. A friend of mine who doesn’t look too favorably upon horror films once asked me to name a few horror films that are artistically well done. My immediate reply was any horror film by the godfather of Italian horror, Mario Bava. They don’t make them like he did anymore.

Essential viewings: Black Sunday, Bay of Blood, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Black Sabbath, Kill, Baby…Kill!, Danger: Diabolik, Blood and Black Lace, Rabid Dogs

Dassin Overcame All Obstacles (for The Recorder)

When communism was a threat to the United States in the 1950’s one of the outcomes was the Hollywood blacklist. The list consisted of actors, directors, producers, screenwriters, and other U.S. entertainers that were barred from work in the U.S. due to their suspected associations to the American Communist Party.

One name that stands out to me among the accused is film director Jules Dassin. Dassin, born in Middletown, CT, was forced to leave the U.S. in 1950 when he was accused of being tied to communism. Dassin was only briefly associated with the communist party in America but left in 1939.

Before Dassin was forced out of America he made his early mark on film. I consider Dassin’s stretch of four films in four years to be one of the most impressive bodies of work in the film noir genre. From 1947 to 1950 Dassin created four pictures worthy of extreme critical acclaim. “Brute Force”, the 1947 prison film noir drama set the bar for prison films. This tense, shocking and suffocated drama that starred Burt Lancaster plays heavy on emotion. Films like “The Shawshank Redemption” that our modern society celebrates undoubtedly learned a lot from Dassin’s landmark film.

In 1948 Dassin brought film noir right to the streets of New York City with “The Naked City”. It was one of the first police dramas or film noirs shot on location in New York City leading to its extreme authenticity and lending to the film’s almost documentary-like style. The film also features one of the most clever film noir voiceovers. Dassin employs a unique third person voiceover that acts like the king of the city, talking to all characters involved. “City” is truly a testament to New York and an absolutely stunning time capsule of the era.

The final two American films made by Dassin were “Thieves’ Highway” and the film noir “Night and the City”. This may sound strange but “Highway” is the most intense film about apple hauling and dealing you’ll ever see. On the inside of “Highway” is a dark and grim world, far darker than one might imagine considering the subject matter. “Night and the City”, on the other hand, is a film noir set in London. Much like “Naked City”, Dassin filmed this one on location as well. The film follows around an ambitious small time gangster trying to rise to the top of the crime syndicate. The lead is played by Richard Widmark and is one of the greatest performances in his heralded career as he perfectly plays the clever and scheming gangster.

When Dassin was forced to flee to France following “Night and the City” he didn’t stop creating gems. Five years after “Night and the City”, Dassin made what many agree to be his masterpiece, the heist film noir “Rififi”. “Rififi” is best remembered for its legendary heist scene. It is a 32 minute scene without a single line of dialogue. To this day it still holds up among the tensest of all heist scenes. Dassin’s technique was highly influential and has been mimicked many times.

Jules Dassin is a truly remarkable figure who overcame everything that was thrown at him. When America forced him out he went to France and created a masterpiece. When he left Italy as an “undesirable” he went to Greece and became an icon. While I express the most interest in the five films of his I mentioned, his later works such as “Never on Sunday” and “Topkapi” are not to be ignored. Dassin’s life is an admirable one and his hard work should be seen and appreciated by all.

Bergman: The Best Ever (for The Recorder)

Take the following statement only as the humble opinion of this writer – Ingmar Bergman is the greatest director in the history of film.

Bergman, who directed a total of 62 films, primarily focused his efforts on exploring the human condition. In other words his films are simply about human nature. Bergman often delved deep into the sensitive themes of mortality, loneliness, love, faith and other humanity driven subjects.

While many of Bergman’s films depicted dark subject matter in bleak fashion, Bergman was never afraid of adding a little comedy to the mix. My personal favorite film from the Swedish born director, his 1957 masterpiece “The Seventh Seal”, is a perfect example of this technique. “The Seventh Seal” is set during medieval times and follows Knight Antonius Block on a journey home from the Crusades across plague ridden land. Block comes face to face with death, who takes on a form of its own as a ghastly man in a black hooded robe. Block, going head on with his fate, challenges Death to a game of chess that spans the entire film and puts his life up as the stake of the game.

Depressing, no? While the film is a look at the existential fear of death and how humans confront it, you’ll find yourself laughing at it far more than you might expect. Bergman’s intentionally well-placed light humor alternates brilliantly with his darkest and soberest of scenes. The film, which is brought to life by realistic imagery and setting, leans away from the humor as it reaches its legendary conclusion. Nonetheless, it’s a perfect example of Bergman’s unique and distinctive style that places him amongst the greatest of auteurs.

Ingmar Bergman was once quoted saying that it is far more important to him that viewers feel his films rather than understand them. While Bergman’s films are packed full of meaning that can be discussed and theorized about endlessly , it’s the emotion that he packs into his films that hooks me in. Bergman’s 1972 film “Cries and Whispers”, a film about two sisters watching over their other sister on her deathbed, is still to this day one of the most intense and startling films I’ve ever seen. As much as I love horror films I’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful that have startled me the way Bergman’s impactful films do.

The influence of Ingmar Bergman is relatively endless. Whether it’s the direct inspiration for Wes Craven’s famous exploitation film “The Last House on the Left” or Woody Allen deeming him as one of the greatest artists ever, Bergman is seen worldwide as one of the most important figures in the development of the medium of film. Those patient enough to watch one of his films will find gold at the end of Bergman’s very bleak rainbows.

Essential viewings: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers, Fanny & Alexander, Through a Glass Darkly

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Body of Lies" More Conventional Than Remarkable

Anytime acclaimed director Ridley Scott teams up with A-list actors it’s worth keeping on eye on. Such is the case with Scott’s new film, “Body of Lies”, which has Scott working with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio to tackle the modern espionage and terrorism genre.

Based on David Ignatius’ 2007 novel of the same name, “Lies” follows covert CIA operative Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) and his work in Jordan trying to track down known terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem. With the help of stay-at-home boss Ed Hoffman (Crowe), Ferris devises a plan to locate Al-Saleem. Ferris is also assisted by Chief of Jordanian Intelligence Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) who’s cultural differences with Ferris and Hoffman threatens the operation.

While the concept behind “Lies” is rather fresh, this spy-game thriller turns up more conventional than remarkable. Don’t get me wrong though, “Lies” is a very interesting, convincing and engaging film with an at least mostly plausible story. Scott’s veteran presence shows off in the film as everything is very polished and technically well done. Being the landmark reaching director Scott has been in the past sets the expectations bar that much higher. “Lies” is not a masterpiece and groundbreaking reworking of the espionage genre much like the films “Blade Runner” and “Alien” revolutionized the science fiction genre more than 25 years ago, but it’s still a solid film.

What kept the film a notch above average for me were the great performances by DiCaprio and Crowe. DiCaprio, the true lead in the film, plays the on the rise CIA agent very well. This performance is another sign of his maturation as an actor that has been shown over the past few years. Crowe gives life to what otherwise would be a prototypical military executive slouch of a character. Although the two mostly interact via cell phone I felt their relationship was a strong point for an otherwise average script. It’s not a relationship of stark nature that will make you ponder for days, but it’s an enjoyable one to follow as plans unravel and everything gets laid out on the table.

As I mentioned before, “Lies” places more into the conventional field. The main problem for me was that the film never got gritty or deep enough. Sure, there’s violence in the form of explosions, torture, and weapon play in addition to a whole lot of tension filled danger, but not enough for the subject matter. In the end the screenplay by William Monahan doesn’t dig far enough into terrorist activity and only gives a partial look at the behind the scenes of both the CIA and the terrorist groups. The lens seemed primarily focused on DiCaprio and Crowe, which is no problem at all considering their excellent performances, but more might have been achieved by expanding a bit with the rest of the characters. For example, DiCaprio’s love interest Aisha was a cookie cutter version of what she should have been. The character simply comes off as something placed into the film to serve as a plot device.

Outside of a few flaws, the film simply works as a whole. “Lies” consistently looks great as Scott’s experience took over and helped the steady shot nature of the film. The inevitable shaky cam syndrome shown in a lot of modern war and action films is kept to the extreme minimum which works wonders for this thriller. In addition to the technical merits, “Lies” is decently paced. Scott provides a good combination of excellent drama, smooth dialogue and intense action scenes.

While “Lies” won’t be mentioned much come Oscar season, it’s still a solid entry into the espionage genre. The on-the-ground spy play is very fun to watch and could serve as a good basis for future espionage films. If Monahan’s script had scratched a little deeper more could have been achieved considering the films superb presentation. Regardless, “Body of Lies” is worth your time if you find the genre interesting or simply enjoy watching two actors put forth terrific performances.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

“Quarantine” Simply a Solid Copycat

If you walk into “Quarantine” and have no clue that it’s a remake of the 2007 Spanish horror film “Rec” I would excuse your shortcomings just this once. “Rec” has never officially been released in America theatrically or on DVD. It’s a shame, too, since “Rec” is one of the best and scariest horror films of the last 20 years.

When I first heard that “Rec” was already being remade (the film was released on Nov. 23 of 2007 in Spain) I almost couldn’t believe it. Do these quick buck making film producers really think Americans are that stupid? Are we that stupid? Are we unable to coherently watch a film and read subtitles at the same time? I’ll speak only for myself in saying that I have no trouble doing two things with my brain at once. Instead of simply bringing the masterpiece that “Rec” is overseas to American audiences, director John Erick Dowdle decided to Americanize the film by shifting location to Los Angeles and wiping the subtitles clean off the bottom of the screen.
“Quarantine” follows news reporter Angela Vidal and her cameraman Scott on their overnight coverage of the local fire department. A routine medical call finds them trapped inside an apartment building where a deadly and vicious infection is spreading.

As a whole, “Quarantine” is largely identical to “Rec”. Many scenes and lines of dialogue were indeed lifted straight from the Spanish film. Nonetheless, Dowdle adds enough of his own moments to give the film his own touch and its own identity. The question is, is it a good identity?

The first immediate comparison between “Quarantine” and “Rec” is in the acting. Jennifer Carpenter’s performance as reporter Angela Vidal pales in comparison to Manuela Velasco’s convincing performance in the original. Instead of coming off as a true reporter, Carpenter’s giggly character just reminds me that I’m watching a film with a few bad actors. It doesn’t help the viewer get captured in the intended realism of the film. This holds steady when the terror and intensity get turned up a few notches. Carpenter’s overacting is among the worst I’ve seen in a long time. I understand she is supposed to be freaked out, a damsel in distress of sorts, but she’s so incredibly bad at it. She single handedly tries to kill all the suspense the film has.

Luckily for Dowdle, he is able to overcome Carpenter’s plague of bad acting. Much like the original, “Quarantine” is intense, frantic, claustrophobic and filled with creepy atmospheric tone. In particular, the film’s final act is an all out visceral assault of non stop action. One problem for Dowdle that spawns from said intensity is his poor handling of shaky cam. As with any first person film, when things get crazy things get shaky. The duo of directors behind “Rec” were able to absolutely perfect the technique. Dowdle on the other hand seemed to be all over the place with unstable camerawork.

With these complaints and my “remakes are bad” sentiments you might think I’m saying “Quarantine” is a poor film. It’s not. As a piece of art, it lacks some creativity due to its carbon copy style. As entertainment, it’s a very enjoyable ride of terror. If your thing is gore, they’ve got it. If your thing is jumpy scares, they’ve got it. What they don’t have is an improvement over the masterful “Rec”.

That said, I highly recommend to anyone looking to see a horror film in theaters this Halloween that isn’t the fifth installment of “Saw” to see “Quarantine” as you would be hard pressed to find something better. Fans of “Rec” should still be able to enjoy the remake but won’t find it as great as they’ll be able to foresee almost every shock moment and will easily be able to nitpick the film to death. Dowdle avoids reaching the level of complete American stupidity like most directors of horror remakes do and is able to craft a tense and satisfying copycat of a brilliant foreign masterpiece that is better than most modern American horror films.