★★★ / ★★★★
A couple, one a writer (David Duchovny) and the other a photographer (Michelle Forbes), decided to travel across country to California while visiting infamous murder sites. But since they didn’t have enough funds for gas, they decided to put up an advertisement and another couple, one a killer (Brad Pitt) and the other a girl (Juliette Lewis) unaware that her boyfriend was a murderer, answered. I was fascinated with the way the movie was shot. While it was very violent and gory, it was obvious that the picture’s goal was not to glorify such things but to look into the darkness in hoping that a monster would leer back at us. And it did. There were shots that featured the vast landscape and it allowed us to ponder about what was happening and create ideas about what might happen next. It was an intense experience because for more than half the film, Duchovny, Forbes, and Lewis weren’t aware that they’ve been spending their time with someone who they’ve talked about in person, on tape, and captured in photographs. The three obviously felt fear toward Pitt’s character but they couldn’t quite place what was wrong with him. They felt as though jumping to a conclusion was just as dangerous as not doing so the characters felt trapped despite the open spaces that surrounded them. The film constantly tried to break away from the obvious and it became an increasingly challenging experience as it went on. For instance, the material had constructed an argument that there was a big difference between visiting a place where a grizzly crime had occurred and actually being a victim of someone who didn’t feel remorse and guilt. The characters talked about crimes as if directly taken from the news and books but eventually, once they’ve experienced it first-hand, they realized that no amount of explanation in books could even begin to describe the harrowing experience. Their dark adventure was intensified by Duchovny’s narration (à la “The X-Files” delivery of lines), asking questions like what was the difference between a regular person compared to a killer, or even if there is a difference. Do regular people have an extra something or are they missing something in comparison to someone who kills? “Kalifornia,” directed by Dominic Sena, was an effective thriller not only because it had intelligent characters who knew how to survive but also because the director had control of his material and he always worked toward a goal. It may not be for everyone because it sometimes didn’t offer easy answers. But for those who enjoyed crime thrillers such as David Fincher’s “Se7en” (a more commercial work in comparison to “Kalifornia”) should be able to enjoy this chilling road trip. Along with movies like John Dahl’s “Joy Ride,” this is the kind of film I think about when I stop at gas stations during a long drive.
Saw 3D (2010)
★ / ★★★★
In “Saw 3D,” written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, the supposed final installment of the commercially (although not artistically) successful “Saw” franchise had three strands. First, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), Jigsaw’s wife, was on the run from Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) so she took refuge at a police station. In return for protection, she was willing to divulge information about the infamous murders. Meanwhile, Detective Matt Gibson (Chad Donella) was in charge of solving a new crop of grizzly murders. Unlike the ones before him, would he be lucky enough to survive? Lastly, Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery) claimed to have been been kidnapped by Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and was successful at escaping his famous traps designed to teach a macabre lesson through painful irony. He and his entourage benefited from his fame based on untrue information. When he was kidnapped, was he capable of living up to his promise? “Saw 3D” was an excellent example why the series should simply end. I found no redeeming quality in it because every other scene was a flashback to the other six “Saw” pictures. Flashbacks are normally used to enlighten its audiences, not drive us into further confusion (and frustration). When I read reviews from fans of the franchise, they claim that they love the movies because “everything is connected.” No, it’s not. Just because a flashback makes a reference to a one minute scene from another movie, it does not necessarily mean there is a strong connection between the two. Aside from the first “Saw” movie, the rest lacked logic. Somewhere in the middle the central theme was lost. The victims were led to believe that they could get out of the traps. In reality, the possibility of escape was zero. How can we root for the character if we know she’s doomed? But I digress. “Saw 3D,” directed by Kevin Greutert, was plagued with clichés. From the cops’ arrival three seconds prior to the gruesome kill to a foggy night when something bad would eventually happen, it was one disappointing scene after another. The only comfort I found was to laugh at the ridiculous situations the characters found themselves in. I particularly enjoyed the scene of the woman, equipped with a shrill voice and in charge of public relations, who had a fish hook (along with a key necessary for her escape) stuck in her stomach and Bobby, using a string, had to pull it out of her mouth. It was bloody, flinch-inducing, grimly ironic, and fun to watch. Throughout the years, the franchise earned the label of “torture porn.” I thought it was appropriate. The acting was as bad as the ones seen in the very best pornographic films. I had to wonder where the casting directors found the actors. Maybe the actors knew the material was egregious but they just needed a big break. Who could blame them?
Don’t Look Up (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I can withstand a lot of bad movies but the really memorable ones are the movies that make me angry during and after I watch them. “Don’t Look Up,” directed by Fruit Chan, is a prime example. Marcus (Reshad Strik) was an aspiring filmmaker with psychic abilities. When he visited places with bad histories, which often involved a grizzly murder, he would receive visions and he would incorporate what he saw onto his script. While shooting a movie in Transylvania, his crew discovered an old footage of a prior film shot in their set. Soon “accidents” started to happen which led to a series of deaths until the film crew finally called it quits and left Marcus to deal with his demons. Everything about this picture was exaggerated. The acting was shockingly bad, the gore was gratuitous and unconvincing and the CGI was completely unnecessary. It was so bad, the movie tried to scare us with CGI flies. The last time I checked, CGI flies are not scary. It might have worked in Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” because that particular film had a nice balance of cheekiness and horror but “Don’t Look Up” desperately wanted to be taken seriously. Its desperate attempt to be liked left a bitter taste in my mouth. I did not appreciate its references to movies like the Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on” and Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu;” instead of paying homage, I felt like the movie was parasite and was an extremely unsatisfactory leftover. The horror did not work because it acted like it was above trying to tell a story that was interesting, involving and, most importantly, a story that made sense. I didn’t understand the connection between Marcus and his ill ex-girlfriend other than to serve as a stupid twist in the end (something along the lines of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” only lightyears less elegant). Eli Roth playing a director in the 1920s left me scratching my head. And there was no explanation why the girl was murdered back in the day and what the apparitions wanted to accomplish. A “seed” was involved which I thought was metaphorical at first but it turned out to be literal. It was just a mess and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to burn the DVD so the next person interested in watching it can use his or her precious time doing something else (perhaps read a book or volunteer at a homeless shelter). “Don’t Look Up” is a smogasboard of everything bad about modern independent horror movies that heavily rely on special and visual effects. I just don’t believe anyone in the world can actually enjoy it. I am at a loss with why it was released in the first place but I suppose connections can go pretty far. If I can prevent at least one person from watching this, I consider it a triumph.
Halloween II (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Rob Zombie, “Halloween II” is a complete waste of time. What I really liked with Zombie’s 2007 interpretation of the 1978 classic was that it really tried to tell a story. The 2007 film spent a third of its time explaining Michael Myers’ psychology as a child–something that other “Halloween” movies that came before did not do. With this 2009 sequel, we’re back again on the level of wait-and-kill without any sort of plot to drive the story forward. Basically, Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) wanted to hunt down Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) a year after they had a showdown in Haddonfield. Meanwhile, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), Michael’s ex-psychiatrist, wrote a book about the killings and tried to wrestle with the media’s barrage of questions and his conscience (or lack thereof). In my opinion, Dr. Loomis’ storyline should totally not have gone in that direction. Instead, we should have followed Dr. Loomis’ mission (or downright obsession) to hunt down Michael and protect Laurie from him. That’s much more interesting (and relevant) than scenes of him signing books and being interviewed on some television shows. As for Michael’s rampage, although I still thought that the stalking and violent scenes were very gruesome, none of it was particularly scary. Well, except for that scene in the hospital which occured during the first twenty minutes (the only effective scene in the whole movie). I also hated the fact that Zombie decided to inject Deborah Myers’ ghost (Sheri Moon Zombie as Michael’s mother) into the storyline. Not only was such a decision poorly executed, the scenes were downright laughable. If I wanted to see a ghost story with a psychological aspect to it, I’d watch “The Others” because that one was actually chilling to the bone (not to mention clever). Slasher fans simply do not pay ten bucks or so to watch a slasher flick with ghosts roaming about and supposedly instigating the broken mind of a killer. I went into this movie with an above average expectations because the 2007 version was very enjoyable. But after watching this movie, I think Zombie should just stop. He doesn’t quite grasp the idea of the brilliance that comes with simplicity and a truly terrifying soundtrack, which defined John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween” classic.
Saw V (2008)
★ / ★★★★
I don’t know why I keep watching this series. Even though I have a feeling that it’s going to be disappointing, I still feel some sort of excitement whenever they release a sequel. I guess it has something to do with human nature and violence. Everything about this film is recycled. People claim that each sequel adds to the storyline because it provides information that the audiences did not have prior to a specific installment. I cannot disagree more. I think the writers have dug themselves so deep into the “mythology” of the series to the point where there’s five plotholes to each so-called twist. Each sequel then tries to solve those plotholes by trying to tell a story and providing more twists to keep the viewers engaged. It’s an interminable cycle that I think will not end any time soon as long as people are actually willing to pay for a ticket in the cinema. Even though I did enjoy this sequel more than “Saw IV” because it’s more comprehensible, we get too many flashbacks (it’s literally more than half of the film) that practically say, “Look over here! You missed this! Aren’t we brilliant and you’re not because you didn’t figure it out before?” It’s an insult but a laughable one so it becomes somewhat harmless. What worked for me was the rivalry between Costas Mandylor and Scott Patterson. I’ve been wanting these two to collide ever since the first few sequels. (I actually do not remember when each of the character appeared because all of them have the same “story.” Only the torture scenes are different.) Here, they get to battle it out a bit. Another actor that worked for me was Julie Benz even though I strongly believe that they could’ve used her more. She’s a strong actress (I’m still a big fan for her role in of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Dexter”) and it shows in pretty much each scene she was in. What didn’t work for me was the return of Tobin Bell as Jigsaw. No, that is not a spoiler and you will see why. He talks in the same pitch and tone in pretty much every line and I can fall asleep listening to him. If they are going to make a “Saw VI” (which I bet they will), I want to see less of him. As for the infamous traps, I only have one favorite which has got to be the opening scene involving a pendulum. I also liked the part where Benz finally figured out what they were supposed to do right from the beginning. I cannot recommend this picture because everything is like a rerun of the first four movies.
Saw III (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
This is slightly better than “Saw II” but nowhere as great as the original. In my opinion, in order for a sequel to be successful, it should be able to stand on its own. There’s a difference between making connections with its predecessors and relying on its predecessors to make a functional story. “Saw III” is the latter example, which is unfortunate because the traps are interesting and the deaths are gruesome (as what a “Saw” fan would expect). Tobin Bell as Jigsaw is creepy and cryptic as usual, but this time we get to truly see the dynamics between him and his partner Amanda (played by Shawnee Smith). However, what didn’t work for me was Angus Macfadyen’s character because his character is one-dimensional–a father who is grieving over the death of his only son. Whenever he is given the chance to “forgive”/save a life, he moves ever so slowly every single time. One time would be understandable, but if lives are at stake there should be a feeling of urgency despite one’s anger toward the person that he or she is supposed to save. In a nutshell, I found it difficult to identify with his plight. Another thing that started to bug me throughout watching the “Saw” franchise is Jigsaw’s philosophy of “teaching” his victims lessons by putting them through torture. If those victims happen to fail the challenges, Jigsaw doesn’t consider himself a murderer even though he’s the one who kidnapped those people and put their bodies in terrifying killing machines. In my opinion, he is the agent of harm because he leaves people worse off than they otherwise wouldn’t have experienced if it weren’t for Jigsaw’s actions despite the positive effects such actions might entail (if the victims were to survive). If one has taken a philosophy class, this idea is pretty basic and it really makes a dent on the film’s premise. Still, I thought this was one of the more coherent sequels of the franchise and I was quite entertained so I’m not going to persuade people to not see this movie.