“Saw 3D” review

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When did violence become entertaining?

For better or for worse, action and adventure have always been a part of cinema. But my question is not when did that arise, it is when did the pain and suffering of people in the most violent, vicious ways imaginable become a source of enjoyment, of fun? When did seeing people drilled, exploded, stabbed, shot, crushed, needled, decapitated, dissolved, frozen, gouged, and harpooned become a legitimate, viable source of entertainment? Who okayed this? Why is this R, yet any sort of frontal nudity instantly an NC-17?

“Saw 3D” may be the most thought-provoking movie in recent times, but not so much because of its hopeless inadequacy as a piece of work (which believe me, I’ll delve into later) but because the movie is essentially a huge representation of the place that Hollywood has arrived at: Mass-producing incomprehensible gibberish, adding in gore to appease the fans, slapping ’3-D’ on a title and shipping it to theaters to make a huge profit.

“Saw 3D” is everything that is or that can be wrong with film, with Hollywood, and with us, the audience: Always happily consuming this garbage, not thinking about what our enjoyment of this says about us, being blind to just how truly evil and sickening a product this is.

It once again revolves around the legacy of Jigsaw, a man who constructs elaborate death-traps for those he deems unappreciative of what they have. (Funny that he’s been dead since “Saw III”, yet still appears in every installment) Sean Patrick Flanery plays Bobby, a self-help guru whose claim to fame is surviving one of Jigsaw’s traps. The problem with that being he’s a conman and a liar, and Jigsaw’s apprentice Hoffman will whatever it takes to ensure Bobby pays for his lies.

It’s often humorous just how completely incapable this movie is, in every imaginable way. Acting? Laughable. Cary Elwes returns to the series for the first time since the first installment, and is absolutely horrible. I don’t know where his talent as an actor has gone over the last few years. Tobin Bell (who is often times the best part of these movies) is reduced to a 2-minute cameo appearance.

There are many moments in this movie where I sat in the theater, thinking to myself, who thought this was a good idea? One character doesn’t refer to another by her actual name, only by the word “crazy”. Random dream sequences make absolutely no sense. The dialogue is some of the worst of the year, some dramatic lines cracking up the entire theater. Some characterizations are shifted entirely in the course of a scene. Bottom line, taken at any imaginable level, this movie makes zero sense.

Will this review change anyone’s minds who wants to see it? No. The fan-base is too devoted, too hooked. Do I blame them? Not really. But it makes me sad, both as a film critic and as a person, to see such garbage given such attention. “Saw 3D” is not just a failure on a filmmaking level, but a mean-spirited, brutal, vicious attack on our senses, our minds, and our wallets. What in 2004 began as an effective exercise in suspense has since devolved into total, barbaric garbage. This may the be worst film of the year, this may be one of the worst of any year. The first film I’ve reviewed to receive a 0 star rating.

“Hereafter” review

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Clint Eastwood is a famously economical director. He shoots most of his movies in less than 30 days and has made more movies in the last 2 years than most directors in the last decade. If there’s a way to make a camera shot simple and a way to make cutting easier, he does it. So why exactly is his latest film, “Hereafter”, an aimless, middling mess of a movie? It’s a multi-storyline epic in the vein of “Babel” or “Syriana”, where all three main characters have a connection to the afterlife and whose paths converge by the film’s end.

The main storyline concerns Matt Damon as George, a man who apparently has the power to communicate with the dead. He was once famed for this ability, but has retired to a quiet life working a San Francisco factory job. He finds himself in a romance with a woman he’s met at a cooking class, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, but is impaired by the fact that he constantly receives visions from the dead.

The other plots concern a French journalist, Marie, who comes close to dying in a tsunami and whose life is haunted afterward, and a young British boy named Marcus who is trying to come to terms with the death of his twin brother.

Eastwood is a very restrained director who lacks any signature style. This is not a bad thing, it’s just that he doesn’t bring much directorial pizzazz to whatever he’s helming. Basically, he’s only as good as his scripts and the people who act them out. It’s unfortunate, then, that the script to “Hereafter” is heavily flawed.

The biggest problem of the film is that it never decides on what exactly it wants to be, to explore. It knows its about the afterlife, but yet never knows what it wants to explore about it. It simply doesn’t know where it’s going and what it wants to say about its topic. Bringing up the afterlife is not the same as posing a deep question about the afterlife, and “Hereafter” never realizes this.

It doesn’t help that the entire film is built on a contradiction: The film makes the point that there may not be an afterlife, yet in some CGI shots, visually conceptualizes and depicts it. These two conflicting viewpoints bog the film down a huge degree. This brings up another point: The visual effects in this movie are horrendous. Both in these visions of the afterlife and in the opening tsunami sequence, their sheer cartoonishness takes me out of the movie every time.

Putting all these flaws aside: “Hereafter” has some things going for it. The entire cast injects as much nuance and depth into their characters as the script will allow, Matt Damon in particular delivering a brilliant performance as the psychic/protagonist, George. Virtually every scene he is in is a highlight, and it’s a testament to his versatility that his action-hero past as Jason Bourne never once entered my mind during the film.

Cecilie de Marie brings a tortured yet willful performance as the journalist Marie, and the McClaren twins (Frankie and George) play Marcus and his brother Jason in what are some of the stronger performances of the film. Both of them actually alternate playing characters in some scenes, which makes their bond as brothers seem all the more real.

In some scenes, “Hereafter” achieves a quiet empathy and humanity that makes for some of the most compelling cinema this year. One moment where Matt Damon serves as a medium between a young boy and his dead brother is a tender, poignant moment that serves as both the pinnacle of the movie and a representation of how much better it could have been.

“Hereafter” is a mixed bag in every sense of the term. Although some aspects of the film are outstanding, such as Matt Damon and some individual scenes, it simply never decides on what to do, what to say, what feelings to stir. It’s a pity that such talent converged to make such an underwhelming film.

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“Paranormal Activity 2″ review

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In 2006, a filmmaker named Oren Peli wrote, shot, and directed a $15,000 horror movie called “Paranormal Activity”. It lacked any sort of distributor, but when in 2009 Steven Spielberg viewed it, he personally championed it to obtain a theatrical release, to the tune of $195 million in box office receipts and the title of the most profitable film ever made. It’s been a year, and Hollywood being what it is, we now have a sequel.

“Paranormal Activity 2″ has very similar plot structure to the first: Through the perspective of hand-held cameras (and new to this one: security cameras), we see a family beginning to suspect paranormal goings-on in their home, and we gradually realize they are very correct in their assumptions. Basically put: Things get wild, and we as an audience see them from the perspective of whatever camera is there to record the moment.

The first “Paranormal Activity” was a truly terrifying film, for both the unrelenting sense of dread it gradually built, and for the sense of realism that made you invested in the events and characters. It had a sense of pace, it knew when to ramp up the intensity. “Paranormal Activity 2″ captures none of these qualities, which is both baffling and frustrating. I can count on one hand the times in the movie where I felt any sense of danger, of fear, of terror. It’s basically a bland, straight-faced remake of the original that has more elements to it yet none of the fright.

There are a few positives to be said for it, though. The performances in this movie are fairly solid in that they seem realistic enough, and the actors do a good job fleshing out their characters’ various personalities. The best part of the film is the clever ways in which it ties into the events and chronology of the first. The events of both films run parallel to each other, and their plots intersect in some really cool ways.

I don’t know quite why “Paranormal Activity 2″ failed. All the ingredients were in place. The introduction of security cameras to the mix should have made for a heightened sense of terror. The fact that the amount of people being haunted has doubled from the first should have made the emotional stakes even higher. I don’t know why these elements don’t click together. Maybe it boils down to a factor as simple as the audience I saw it with. As opposed to the noisy, rowdy college kids that populated the theater in which I saw the first, I caught the sequel with some friends, a woman and her grandson, who were decidedly more reserved. Maybe it was the mood I was in when I saw both. But what I do know is that where “Paranormal Activity” had me paralyzed in my seat with fear, “Paranormal Activity 2″ leaves me cold, squirmy, and quite often, bored.

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“Jackass 3D” review

Johnny Knoxville, always good for a laugh, in "Jackass 3D".

I’m not going to lie to you and say that “Jackass 3D” is a good movie. Nor will I lie and say that it is a bad movie. Come to think of it, it isn’t really a movie at all.

I mean, think about all of the ways in which one can critique a film. Script, performances, direction (technical/aesthetic craft), themes….none of them apply to “Jackass”. It’s basically just a bunch of skits crudely spliced together to create a profane, offensive, relentlessly disgusting, and ridiculously entertaining whole.

The purpose of “Jackass” is to push humanity’s threshold for pain (and for that matter, laughing at pain) to whole new levels, by way of stunts and pranks performed by a troupe of amicable idiots. I can’t describe what goes on in these skits without losing my job.

As I said, there is no real way to review “Jackass 3D”. There is merely a stark divide between people who are repulsed by the very idea of it, and people who find pure, simple enjoyment out of the stupidity of others. Evidently, I fall into the latter category. “Jackass” taps into a part of me that movies almost never tap into, this sort of pure idiotic enjoyment of purely idiotic acts.

Jackass doesn’t receive a star rating. Does it really need one?

“Catfish” review

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(Note: Minor spoilers that don’t directly reference the plot are in this review.)

When done right, documentaries can be more gripping, complex, and fascinating than any narrative film, any great novel. The new film “Catfish” abandons the traditionally passive style of documentaries for a very active approach; in that the documentarians actually impact and have a role in the events that are depicted.

The film is filmed and directed by two guys named Henry Joost and Ariel Schullman and follows Ariel’s brother Nev as he begins to date a girl, Megan, via Facebook. In the interest of keeping the film as unspoiled as I can, I shan’t say any more, but just know that Nev goes on a road trip to visit Megan, that some seriously crazy stuff happens and that the film strays in directions you would pretty much never suspect.

“Catfish” is, as so many films tend to be these days, the victim of false advertising. Universal would have you believe this is the second-coming of Hitchcock and Clouzout, which is more bizarre than it is unfortunate. “Catfish” is a very creepy, often disturbing film, but it’s because of the circumstances under which these people interact, rather than the actual situations they face under the circumstances.

A thing worth noting is how cinematic this film feels. The makers of it claim it is 100% factual, and so I will take the events presented here at face value, but even if the film were fictional it would still be a compelling, perhaps even fantastic narrative. Its actuality makes it all the more gripping, and by the film’s end, heartbreaking.

“Catfish” is often a humorous film, mostly stemming from Schullman’s reactions to the crazy events unfolding around him. But it’s worth noting how it progresses from something of an amateur detective story to, by the end, a deeply saddening if hopeful portrait of a person whose life has passed them by. Depending on one’s view of its factual merit, “Catfish” is either a damn good hoax or one of the happiest accidents in the history of documenting events on film. Either way, I was riveted during every minute of it.

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“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” review

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Oliver Stone isn’t a director known for nuance.

Mind you, he is a very skillful, proficient director. He just happens to make very straightforward films to prove his point (Greed is bad! War is bad! Murder is bad!), which is perfectly fine in some instances. There’s no denying the guy has brought us great stuff. But there is a certain point when the line is crossed and message becomes preachiness. Enter “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, Mr. Stone’s latest product.

It’s been 23 years since Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko last graced movie screens in “Wall Street”, playing the cinematic embodiment of all the excesses of the ’80s-era yuppie. By the end of that film he went to prison for insider trading, and “Money Never Sleeps” picks up when Gekko gets out of prison in 2008. Gekko’s main agenda is seemingly to re-establish his relationship with his estranged daughter Winnie (“An Education”s Carey Mulligan). But it’s Winnie’s boyfriend, young Wall Street trader Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) who reaches out to Gekko, searching for advice on how to get back at a head (Josh Brolin) of a firm that caused the death of his mentor.

Mind you, I’ve barely scraped the surface of all the various subplots going on in this film. Stone crams about six main characters into this film but never decides who he wants the emphasis to be on. He adds in subplots about clean energy and the housing market to take stabs at political relevance. But instead of resonating with current issues, it simply makes the movie feel like a big, hulking Frankenstein of little bits and pieces and messages that never come together into an compelling, cohesive, or really even interesting whole.

Come to think of it, most of the subplots in the film don’t resonate emotionally either. A perfect example is Susan Sarandon, playing Shia LaBeouf’s mother. Her character works in the housing market, and literally all Sarandon does is show up in two scenes, asking for money. Why is she here? Oliver Stone didn’t care about making an interesting, compelling character, but about making one that gives the film an excuse to give a shout-out to the housing crisis.

I cannot remember the last movie that took such a grand stab at ambition and meaning and just…well, failed.

Not to say the film doesn’t have some value. After all, even though the material is weak we still have many great actors working in great form here. Michael Douglas’s return to the his most famous character is a pleasure to see, and he truly livens up all the scenes he’s in. However, (and this is not the fault of Douglas) the problem is that he’s simply not in the film enough. And when he is, (with the exception of the last 20 minutes) he doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot or themes of the movie. The film is about LaBeouf’s character, who is very good but not as compelling and certainly not as interesting as Douglas’s.

Josh Brolin turns in a strong effort as Bretton James, a high-end, smarmy executive who is the film’s antagonist. Carey Mulligan, who is a fantastic actress, unfortunately has a thankless role as Gekko’s daughter, and Frank Langella deserves a mention as Jacob’s mentor whose suicide is the instigator for most of the film’s events. The script, as messy as it is, has some very witty dialogue, although virtually all of it goes to Michael Douglas. Best scene of the film though: Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox returning for the best cameo of the year.

One more mention: The ending. I cannot remember such a sappy, contrived, and just completely implausible ending to a film in a long while. Not only is it completely out-of-character for all involved, but it misses the emotional beat that it was obviously aiming for.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” was obviously aiming for the balance its predecessor held between relevance and snappy entertainment. But it never has any real sense of vision, of scope, of emotion. Although strong performances bolster it, “Money Never Sleeps” is everything the first wasn’t: Messy, bland, preachy, implausible, and worst of all? Soulless.

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