Monday, November 03, 2008

Film Review - SAW V: The Game Remains The Same.

Make no bones about it; there's no film sub-genre more critically reviled than the Mad Slasher film. Beginning in the mid-seventies with Tobe Hooper’s revolutionary Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and popularized by John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, movies featuring depraved boogeymen butchers flooded the marketplace like blood from a freshly carved artery. Yet, despite equal amounts of scorn and resentment, critics, like many, many on-screen victims, have failed to snuff out the likes of Jason, Michael Myers, Freddy or Leatherface for good. What’s the old maxim? Ah yes, there’s no rest for the wicked.

Truthfully, I can understand their detestation. The Mad Slasher genre produces cinematic “experiences” that are typically mean-spirited, ham fistedly directed, stuffed with nauseating footage best suited to the surgery channel and acting which bears all the skill of an ITT Tech recruitment ad. Worse yet, their bleak amorality seems designed specifically to inspire pitiless blood-lust within the hearts of jaded youthful audiences.

...And yet time and time again, I’ve found grudging pleasure in watching these junky spectacles send squeamish audience members bolting anxiously for the exits. Blame it on the irreparable mental damage caused by my ten tours of duty at Camp Crystal Lake, but I was even able to find moments of perverse amusement within the gloomy confines of Saw V, the latest ridiculous entry in the now highest-grossing horror series of all time.

After a grisly opening, which features much-needed flashbacks to Saw IV’s complicated finale (Seriously, does anyone recall, or even understand, what occurred in that lousy instalment???), newly minted director David Hackl wastes no time in making with the ghastliness. We see a man, strapped spread eagle on a cold steel slab, with a pendulum blade swinging closer and closer to his exposed torso. The catch is, to stop his own vivisection he must place his hands in a pair of vice-like apparatus’ which will then mash them into oozing paste. To say it doesn’t end well is a given.

Following this initial jolt, Saw V fractures its story into umpteen different directions. Most important, I suppose, is that we are reconnected with grim-faced detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), an apprentice of recently deceased serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell – kept alive through a grab-bag of flashbacks), who continues to honour his mentor’s own brand of moral justice through disfiguring torture contraptions. His psychopathic plans, however, are threatened by dogged FBI Agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson), who’s desperate to expose the Jigsaw’s last surviving posse member. In the meantime, five new seemingly unconnected victims awaken in a grungy underground chamber where they must contend with a plethora of deadly booby traps, as well as their own ethical shortcomings.

Half of the joy in watching any given Saw film lies in the creativity behind the individual torture devices. (Yes, I realize I have issues) While there’s nothing to match that bizarre contraption in Saw III which drowned its victims in putrid liquefied pig parts, Saw V still manages to achieve a nice number of squirms and grimaces. The aforementioned lethal pendulum is a keeper, as is a mechanism featuring retracting chains and a large decapitating blade. But the real winner is a brutal instrument which requires users to draw ten gallons of human blood by running their hands through a table saw blade. Yeeks.

I have to give the series’ writers credit for producing plots so overly-complicated, that they must have smoke pouring out of their ears by the end of their first drafts. Saw V continues the tradition, featuring a dizzying hotchpotch of ludicrously complicated developments - with mucho shameless foreshadowing for Saw VI - and hair-pulling ret-cons of everything we’ve witnessed thus far. The Saw films have many problems, but listless writing ain’t one of them.

The acting, as expected, is pretty awful with the exception of Tobin Bell, who is still a lot of fun as Jigsaw. With his gravelly voice and beady eyes, he is more compelling than the majority of his Mad Slasher predecessors. Unfortunately, new padawan Mandylor can best be described as greasy. And smug. It’s hard to build up enthusiasm for a dude who looks destined to be interviewed by Chris Hansen on To Catch a Predator. As well, poor Scott Patterson earns many bad laughs, spending the entire movie alone, in empty torture rooms, irritably sputtering lines like “How’d they get you?” and “Did you help Jigsaw get them all???”

Saw V, like most Mad Slasher flicks, is impossible to recommend as anything other than a guilty pleasure. It’s poorly made, shallow, and lacks the narrative logic of the clever original film. Still, as evidenced by the audible shudders throughout my theatre, Saw V is sometimes sharply effective, and will probably draw many ticket-buyers back for part VI. I’m almost sorry to admit that I’ll perhaps be among them. Almost.

2.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 3rd, 2008.

Film Review - PRIDE AND GLORY: Cop-Bland.

I’m not sure that it is humanly possible to come up with a more bland film title than Pride And Glory. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear it was a soppy made-for-Hallmark World War II drama... Or maybe a Zakk Wylde biopic, which would actually be pretty badass. But unfortunately no, Pride and Glory is, in reality, one half gritty crime saga and one half monotonous working-class family drama. Throw the two in the ol’ movie blender and what do you get? Over two hours of unremarkable, snail-paced clich├ęs that will manage, no matter how hard you fight it, to evaporate from your cerebral cortex within an hour of viewing.

Surprising, considering the involvement of the uber-talented Edward Norton who, Death to Smoochy aside, usually shows impeccable taste in his projects. He plays detective Ray Tierney, an emotionally and physically scarred NYPD officer who, after a disastrous on-the-job event, has buried himself within the safe confines of the missing persons department. But, as we in the peanut gallery have seen innumerable times before, Ray is destined to become embroiled in a “Big Case”, which of course threatens to Bring. Down. The. Entire. Department.

I should mention of course, that Ray is coaxed into taking on the job, which involves a bust-gone-bad that led to the snuffing-out of four fellow officers, by his frequently sloshed father Francis Sr. (Jon Voight – doing a pretty nifty Brooklyn accent), who fears for the reputation of older brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich), the department’s chief inspector. While Ray follows leads, interrogating standard ethnic witnesses and suspects, we are speedily informed that it is actually his shifty brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell) who is behind all the madness. Unfortunately for us in the audience, it takes Ray and the family most of Pride and Glory’s running time to catch up.

Watching Pride and Glory you become acutely aware that director/screenwriter Gavin O’Connor (who previously made the Disney hockey flick Miracle) was obviously far too inspired by episodic TV cop shows ala NYPD Blue and The Shield. There are countless sub-plots, which, after developing, go absolutely nowhere. For example: Francis Jr.’s wife (Jennifer Ehle) suffers from cancer. We are repeatedly shown and informed of this fact, and are even treated to a scene in which she breaks down in tears, practically smashing her tiny fists against the ground in impotent frustration. It’s never discussed or referenced afterwards. Why?

Why, at the halfway point, is a reporter introduced to the story and made to witness the murder of an important character? Will his ensuing expose act as a catalyst for the dismantling of the department’s web of corruption? Nope, after asking for Ray’s input he is dismissed and vanishes inexplicably from the film.

In a televised drama, these threads would likely have been explored, and a broader fictional world would have resulted, but here they're just pointless throw-away details. In fact, I don’t think I’d be wildly off-base in suggesting that O’Connor could have cut about half an hour out of the film (including the dreadful fist-fight climax, please) with no negative effect. The resulting edit would probably be a more enjoyable film, for at least it would be over quicker.

Strangely enough, the actors are all quite fine, if completely unmemorable. I’ve long suspected that Norton is so gifted that he could give a brilliant performance in his sleep. On the basis of Pride and Glory, consider this theory officially verified. In addition, Noah Emmerich, playing the family’s most conflicted member, has the most challenging role and delivers swimmingly, while Jon Voight, an actor infamous for basically playing himself, is really on the ball. Possibly due to the challenge in keeping up with his phenomenally talented co-stars, Voight seems alive in a way I haven’t witnessed since his last memorable turn in, um, Anaconda. In a better film, he would likely have raised at least a glimmer of awards season buzz.

Colin Farrell is downright batty. Seemingly exhausted, bloated and haggard, with his Irish brogue frequently slipping out, one has to wonder if the film was shot right before his recent stint in rehab. Still, he does have the film’s only memorable scene: busting up an immigrant family’s Christmas dinner and attempting to scald their baby’s head with a hot iron. Though, to be fair, that would likely be the most memorable scene in any movie.

But please, if you are truly desperate for a gritty cop thriller filled to the brim with tense racial situations, corruption and profanity, check out the unfairly ignored 2002 Kurt Russell film Dark Blue. It’s an appropriate alternative to Pride and Glory, which is almost staggeringly generic, a film destined for a DVD bargain bin near you very, very soon.

Perhaps a more suitable title would have been Cut and Paste...

2 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 3rd, 2008.