A short review of “Jigsaw” (2017)

I’m going along with the crowd today where “Jigsaw” (2017) is concerned; I concur entirely with the other reviews I’ve read.  It’s a story fraught with logical problems, but it’s entertaining enough to please fans of the franchise (of whom I am one).  Based on my own enjoyment of the movie, I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

Yes, some of it doesn’t makes sense.  And the twists and coincidences seem pretty forced.  There was another problem for me, as well — at this point, the writers seem to have run out of ideas for the film series’ trademark moralizing booby traps.  (The one involving a grain silo is particularly uninspired, and seems like something out a Bugs Bunny cartoon.)

But what the hell.  I’d be lying if I said that this was a movie that didn’t distract and scare me.  I think what attracts me to the “Saw” films is not the blood and gore.  (Gory horror movies are a dime a dozen.)  It’s the character concept behind their brilliant, merciless killer — he’s like a combination of James Moriarty, Rube Goldberg and one of the Inquisitors of old.

Besides, I still like the twists.  They may be forced, but they always take me by surprise despite my best efforts to predict them.

And I think every movie is made better by the addition of Callum Keith Rennie.  (He’s a shady, grizzled police detective here, though he’s far better than so cliched a role.)  I’ve always thought Rennie was terrific — he deserves the lead role in some sort of extremely dark anti-hero film.  (Are they remaking 2005’s “Constantine” anytime soon?)

 

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Throwback Thursday: The Allman Brothers Band

Rest in peace, Gregg Allman.

I first got acquainted with music of The Allman Brothers Band as a first-semester freshman at Mary Washington College in 1990.  My cultural illiteracy as an 18-year-old was embarrassing — especially where music was concerned.  I’d arrived at the small, fairly conservative Virginia state school listening to … well, very little other than what I’d heard on the MTV countdown.  (I started loving Richard Wagner as a high school senior — but that niche interest was rare for someone my age, so far as I was aware.)  It was an ongoing issue when I was a college freshman that upperclassmen would roll their eyes or even occasionally hiss when I told them what music I was into.

Alumnus Steve Miller and his friends were the exception.  They showed me far more patience at their parties in “The Tunnel” between Mason and Randolph Halls — they exposed me to tons of The Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, The Steve Miller Band, and The Beatles.  (No, the irony of a guy named Steve Miller coincidentally loving The Steve Miller Band was not lost on us.)  Steve and his friends were each, in varying degrees, an amalgam of Obi-Wan and a far mellower version one of the guys from “Animal House” (1978).

The Allman Brothers were really my first extended exposure to Southern rock.  (And, hey, you can’t get much more Southern than a band made up of guys named Berry Oakley or Butch Trucks.)  I listened to them whenever there was a party at Steve’s, even after he started hosting his soirees out of his apartment on Sunken Road. Everyone there loved The Allman Brothers.  I think “Ramblin’ Man” was probably the group’s favorite.

Today, “Midnight Rider” is by far and away my favorite Allman Brothers song.  Curiously enough, though, for the life of me, I do not remember hearing that one in college.  I actually started jamming to it after I heard Rob Zombie include it in the score for the opening montage of “The Devil’s Rejects” horror film in 2005.

Anyway … “The Tunnel” at “Mary Washington College” has apparently now been remodeled into the above-ground “The Link” at “The University of Mary Washington.”

Well la-dee-DA.

 

A short review of Season 1 of the “Wolf Creek” TV series (2016)

“Wolf Creek” (2005) and “Wolf Creek 2” (2013) are among the most chilling and effective horror films out there.  (They can be difficult for even seasoned fans of the genre to watch.)  And last year’s follow-up television series faithfully channeled so much of their mood, tone and atmosphere that it should have been just as effective.  What a shame that its first season falls short due to tremendous problems with pacing and story structure.  I’d rate it a 6 out of 10.

The six-episode arc has the feel of the films.  It was written, directed and produced by Greg McLean, as they were.  Once again, the forbidding Australian outback is itself a central character, gorgeously captured and lovingly presented by the show’s cinematography.   I think it’s been a long time since I saw a horror film or series so successfully project a mood.  Also returning, of course, is John Jarrett in his perfect and perfectly frightening portrayal of the serial killer Mick Taylor.

Lucy Fry’s young American antihero, Eve, is the latest to face off against him, but there’s a twist — after surviving the slaughter of her family, she resolves to find and kill him.  Fry is just great in the role; Dustin Clare is well cast as the nice-guy cop who alternately pursues and tries to rescue her from danger.  The rest of the cast is also roundly terrific.  The soundtrack and scoring are beautifully atmospheric.

Unfortunately, though, all of these elements appear within a plot that moves at a snail’s pace.  We actually don’t see much of Mick for many episodes — the story focuses on Eve’s haphazard, calamitous odyssey through rural Australia, encountering criminals, good Samaritans and just plain lunatics.  McLean scripts a protagonist that is compelling and cool, and Fry is a good actress.  But many of the events of her journey are only tangentially related to the story’s central conflict, which is her duel with Mick.  I get the sense that fans might tune in to see a horror film, but might be disappointed by a moody, loosely plotted travelogue through McLean’s brutal fictional interpretation of the Australian outback.

I wondered how the screenwriter here could make such a major miscalculation.  Then I remembered that the “Wolf Creek” films, despite their brilliance, were also quite slow.  They contained what seem like lots of supporting or ancillary material connected with Mick’s victims, which were ultimately interspersed with the intense violence that made them terrifying movies (not to mention Jarratt’s flawless portrayal of a violent sociopath).

But those movies both had an hour-and-forty-minutes running time.  These six episodes add up to four full hours.  The slow pace of films was a forgivable flaw — it even came across as deliberate pacing.  It’s frustrating, though, for any onscreen story lasting more time than that.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed Season 1  much more if it had been edited down to half its length — into maybe three episodes or one feature film.

Oh, well.  This series is still remarkably well made, and I do think it will please many fans of the films.  If you enjoyed those, I would recommend giving this series a shot.

 

A very short review of “Thinner” (1996)

“Thinner” (1996) was a fun enough outing; I’d give it an 8 out of 10.  You can easily tell that this story originated with Stephen King.  Only he can take an antiquated plot device like a gypsy curse and actually make it frightening.

I do get the sense that screenwriters Michael McDowell and Tom Holland stuck closely to the original novel (which I have not read).  It seems like a character-focused story; I’ll bet the original prose really explored the incongruous friendship between Robert John Burke’s mild-mannered attorney and Joe Mantegna’s apparently psychotic mobster.  I’ll bet that King’s unique style would have perfectly rendered certain plot points in the movie, such as one key conversation being overheard early on.

I feel like an idiot … For the life of me, I thought that actress Kari Wuhrer was Marissa Tomei.  Her resemblance in this movie is striking.  I can’t be the only one who made that mistake, can I?  Anyway, I really panned Wuhrer’s performance in 2005’s disappointing “Hellraiser: Deader.”  But she is damn terrific here in her role as the beautiful banshee adversary — she damn near steals the movie.  Also outstanding is Michael Constantine as her haggard, curse-casting gypsy father.

 

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A quick review of “Wolf Creek 2” (2013)

Is “Wolf  Creek 2” (2013) a well made film?  Yes.  It’s exceptionally well made.  Would  I recommend it?  I’m not sure.

I’d rate it a perfect 10.  Its technical expertise in undeniable.  The cast is roundly excellent.  John Jarratt is absolutely perfect in the role he seems born for.  He’s so effectively menacing as this film’s serial killer that I think I’d find it unnerving even meeting the actor in real life.  The only other actor I think I can say that about is Ted Levine, who so indelibly portrayed Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

Ryan Corr is damn perfect, as are the actors in smaller roles.  I think Shannon Ashlyn portrays terror better than any other actress I’ve seen.  She isn’t just a horror movie “scream queen;” her performance was so skilled that she rises above such a trite label.  (And I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, people.)

It’s extremely well directed.  The conclusion of an action sequence involving a truck must have looked downright stupid on the page, but damn if Greg McLean doesn’t make it plausible and shocking.

The entire movie is gorgeously shot.  It was enough to make me want to visit Australia … if the story didn’t make want to stay the hell away from Australia.

I just get the impression that some movie studio planned to produce a generic, derivative slasher movie … but just inexplicably employed the best creative talent available for all aspects of its creation.

Now, about my reluctance to recommend this …  Please understand that this film is incredibly dark, even by horror movie standards.  At times it was just too much for me.  I actually stopped playing this on Netflix several times to “take a break with something lighter” by watching “The Walking Dead.”  Yes, you read that right.

The story depicted is just brutal.  There are very few movies that are too dark for me … I think I could count them on one hand.  (And one was 2005’s original “Wolf Creek.”)  And this film is just so masterfully made that its victims seem like real people suffering — something at which the “Saw” films and various other slasher movies rarely succeeded.

I honestly think it might have been so “good” that it went past the point of entertaining me.  Can I honestly recommend a movie that I felt the need to switch off?

You make your own call.  Again — this is exceedingly dark material, even by horror movie standards.  But if you think you’re up to it, watch it.

 

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A review of “Fear the Walking Dead,” Season 1 (2015)

I know that love for “Fear the Walking Dead” (2015) is not universal, but I needed to pipe in at least once to say that I thought that “Season 1” was terrific.  (I feel funny calling six episodes a “season,” but I’ve heard that de facto miniseries like this are a new trend in television.)  I’d give this apocalypse story a 9 out of 10.

For me, “Fear the Walking Dead” satisfied a longstanding itch.  If you grow up a fan of post-apocalyptic horror, you are constantly exposed to the aftermath of the end of the world.  In the vast majority of films and fiction, horror fans are treated to flashbacks, at best, of how it all went down.  Here we (partly, at least) get to see it all go down.

I’ll bet that stories so expansive in scope are a little harder to conceive and write convincingly.  Very few writers of prose or screenplays have expertise in disaster management, disease control, mass psychology or homeland security.  How much easier is it to have protagonists roam a landscape of burned out buildings, with only graffiti, snippets of conversation, and occasionally a blown newspaper offering hints of exactly how the end came about?

“Fear” deserves a hell of a lot of credit just for trying (as does “The Strain” over at FX).  It’s also why the globally plotted “Contagion” (2011) was such a frighteningly interesting thriller, and why Max Brooks’ stage-by-stage zombie pandemic easily made “World War Z” the greatest zombie novel ever written.  Through the eyes of an average family, “Fear” at least tries to show us meaningful glimpses into how police, emergency and military authorities would react.  The result is some interesting stories.  A nerdy high school student is the first to prepare, for example, due to his attention to the Internet’s alternative media.  And a doomed compact between a civilian neighborhood and their putative military protectors concludes in a particularly horrifying way.

Soooooo many viewers complained that there were “no zombies.”  Well, there were always a couple, at least — we got a great one in the first episode’s earliest minutes.  But that wasn’t the point.  The creators of “Fear” told us that this would be a different type of show, with a “slow burn” -type horror.  For me, that worked.  Look at it this way — we routinely see “zombie swarms” over at that other show (what was its name again?).  We’ve been seeing them for five whole seasons — the first repelled Rick Grimes’ ill advised solitary horseback exploration of Atlanta.  That’s fun for a zombie horror fan, but it’s nothing new.

“Fear” offers us something much different — a kind of “creeping horror.”  This seemed like the “Psycho” (1960) of onscreen zombie tales.  No, we don’t see zombies everywhere, but watching even one episode of “The Walking Dead” (2010) lets us know that these lackadaisical everyday people are in for a hell of a ride.  We, the viewers, know what they do not.  That’s what our high school English teachers taught us was “dramatic irony,” and it makes this a nice little companion show to “The Walking Dead.”  In fact, ALL the characters we see are probably doomed to die, given what we know of the statistics established by “The Walking Dead.”  That’s pretty dark stuff.

Other viewers complained about the characters being boring or unlikable.  I do get that.  Nobody here, I think, will ever gain the same viewer loyalty as Rick, Michonne or Daryl Dixon.  (If it were put to a vote among the women of the world, I’m pretty sure they’d rename “The Walking Dead” as “The Norman Reedus Show.”)  But “Fear’s” average (and, yes, sometimes boring) people seemed far more “real” to me — I think they functioned better as viewer surrogates, and better allowed me to imagine how I might react in a world like this.  I almost started viewing this as an end-of-the-world docudrama in the same manner as the BBC’s little known “End Day” (2005).

Besides, two characters in particular do show great promise.  I just can’t say who or why without spoiling that they survived.  Yet another character who appears suicidal in the final episode is one that I thought was pretty interesting, and we do not actually see this person’s death.

Sure, I had my own quibbles.  Los Angeles is remarkably empty for a city of nearly 4 million people.  I’m inclined to think that, even after an unlikely evacuation attempt, it would still be swamped either with people who still needed help, or with zombies.

Also … the sparse information we’re given about the zombie phenomenon here seems disappointingly contradictory.  We’ve established that a universal, invisible illness means people will return into undeath, regardless of how they died.  But we also see a flu-like illness affect some people (who are doomed to die shortly thereafter), but not all people.  Are these two different manifestations of the same disease?  Is it even technically a contagion, or is it an environmental illness?  (I know my questions here are absurdly silly, but this is precisely the sort of thing that horror nerds argue about over at the Internet Movie Database.)

Oh, well.  My recommendation here is to give this a chance, with the caveat that it definitely isn’t “The Walking Dead.”  It’s damn good.

Oh!  One more thing!  Keep an eye out for occasional homages to “28 Days Later” (2002).  And watch closely — one such plot arc is devilishly turned on its head in a subtle thematic twist.

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