Monthly Archives: October 2006

Saw III (2006)

Horror works in cycles and seems to ebb and flow every three years or so. The popular horror cycle right now is all about torture and realism. I guess people have had it with masked men with large pointy things. Pasty Asian children don’t seem as gloomy as they once did; in fact, in today’s world-on-the-go, who wouldn’t want an extra hand in the shower? In a world bombarded with carnage leading the six o’clock news, I guess American audiences desire something more universal than ghosts and boogeymen. The Saw franchise has exploded and seems destined to place a new entry every Halloween until the public looks to a new en vogue horror cycle. After seeing the loss of luster that is Saw III, I am already looking.

Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is back with a fresh new batch of his twisted games. Unfortunately, he’s bedridden and dying. His serial killer apprentice, Amanda (Shawnee Smith), has to do the grunt work. She kidnaps a depressed doctor, Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), and orders her to keep Jigsaw alive as long as she can. Around Lynn’s neck is a crude explosive device that will detonate if Jigsaw’s heart flatlines. He has to stay alive just long enough to witness one final game. Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) is trapped in a typical Jigsaw-engineered series of traps. He has to pass through three tests of resolve and forgiveness, each involving someone related to his young son’s unexpected death.

The Saw franchise seems to be losing momentum with each additional thrown-together sequel. I found the first film to be mostly entertaining and very inventive, but this was because of a smart narrative device: we wake up in the same dingy bathroom as our figures and must learn with them about what is happening. It plied some neat tricks and twists and was an altogether enjoyable horror movie that didn’t mind mucking around. But with all invention, if it sells then it becomes repeated in mass-market form, dulling the edges and losing the bite it once had. What once startled and amused is now the expectation. Just like the collapse of the Final Destination franchise, these movies started big but then bottomed out when their audiences had the rules memorized. At that point the only thing left is curiosity in what fiendishly outlandish ways people will get horribly killed. The Saw films still have more smarts to them than your typical man-chases-teens-with-axe slasher flick, but the franchise definitely seems, like Jigsaw, to be dying a slow death.

Saw III spends far too much of its time and energy trying to be a compendium to the franchise, filling in the blanks and the resolutions for Saw and Saw II. The film bends over backwards trying to tie up loose ends that didn’t really need tying up (Finally, now I know what happened to that foot that was cut off!). I don’t need to know how the incidents of the previous movies were set up, or who kidnapped who; the minute details are pointless in a horror film, especially one with such flights of frightful fancy. This movie spends too much time feeding the audience needless back-story. The film’s two major storylines are uneven in interest. There’s a real lack of danger and development for Lynn playing nursemaid to Jigsaw. We know the only time he may die is late in the movie, so her storyline becomes prime thumb-twirling time. We see some nifty medical procedures but I?d rather get back to Jeff’s descent into the funhouse of doom.

Saw III seems too concerned with how it fits within the framework of a trilogy when it should be worrying how it works as a movie. Saw III, for stretches, feels like it was cobbled together from the dull deleted scenes of previous films. And true to form, this Saw sequel ends with a familiar rush of twists, deaths, and a very nihilistic close. Let’s just say the inevitable Halloween 2007-bound Saw IV is going to have to go back to the ridiculous plot device drawing board. I truly wonder how many little tape recorders Jigsaw has stashed around and for what occasion (“Note to self: clean gutters.”).

Some of the ingenuity is downright admirable; Jigsaw sure puts a lot of thought and care into his skin-crawling craft. Some notably gruesome torture tests include a naked woman being frozen to death by routine sprays of water, a man having his limbs twisted all the way around, and a man drowning in the slimy goo of ground up pig carcasses. Now that takes discipline just to plan, let alone fully stage. I’d like to see Michael Myers or Freddy Kruger try something like that. Part of the macabre fun of the Saw franchise was playing along, wondering what you would do in the situation and how far you?d go to save your own life. But in Saw III the deck is stacked for about half of the twisted games. There’s no way to win. A character goes through great lengths to free herself from a death trap but, alas, there is no escape and she gets her rib cage ripped out for the bloody hell of it. This … lack of sportsmanship, let?s say, does play a crucial part to the Saw III storyline, but it still knocks the film’s fun level down when you’re just waiting for the moment the person becomes a corpse instead of waiting to see what they do next.

It seems like the Saw movies become less engaging the gorier they get, and Saw III may be the goriest yet. These films have never been afraid to get messy, and Saw III has some squirmy moments, particularly a very protracted scene that involves the peeling, drilling, and scraping of the human skull. Horror fans should be happy with the results but there’s nothing that will make the squeamish cover their eyes (a bone snapping through a leg comes closest). Worst yet, despite the yucky credentials I’ve mentioned above, there really isn’t anything too memorable about the death traps this go-round, though the pureed pig entrails is certainly praise-worthy.

After three movies in three years, it feels time for a breather. The Saw movies are losing their sheen as their audiences become hungrier for blood and harder to fool. 2004’s Saw was clever and different, but like the demise of the Final Destination franchise, the sequels are victims of expectation. When the unexpected becomes the expected, then you may need to rework your scare formula. For whatever reason, Saw III feels compelled to be a refresher on the other films, devoting serious chunks of wasted time to clarifying loose ends that never mattered. I’d rather get to more sticky, icky death traps than examine the father-daughter-mentor relationship between Jigsaw and Amanda. Yawn. Saw III feels uneven, distracted, less fun, and a middling close to a franchise that began with wicked promise. This kind of movie just isn’t cutting it like before.

Nate’s Grade: C

Marie Antoinette (2006)

From its opening 80s New Wave soundtrack, you know Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a period piece like none other. The famous daughter of Francis Ford Coppola has long been planning a movie around the famous queen that lost her head during the French Revolution. She premiered it at the Cannes film festival where it was booed by the homeland critics. This cast a shadow of doubt over Coppola’s dreamy pop confection of a biopic. Maybe the French don’t like having one of their most iconic historical individuals turned into a bouncing, troubled teenager. Too bad because this is the most interesting and, later, the most frustrating accomplishment Coppola achieves.

Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is a young Austrian girl married away by her family with the hopes of strengthening an alliance between France and Austria. She’s intended to wed Louie August (Jason Schwatzman, Coppola’s cousin), a rather goofy young man more comfortable with hunting than women. Their marriage is arranged by Louis XV (Rip Torn) with the intent on keeping the family line with a male heir. Trouble is, Marie’s husband is more interested in locks than her in a nightie. She’s warned in letters by her family at home, and by a caring ambassador (Steve Coogan), that her only leverage is a child. Without a child her marriage could be annulled. Life at the Versailles palace is a vortex of gossip and attention, and the idea that the queen cannot interest the king is most stressing.

Marie Antoinette is a feast for the eyes, and that’s saying nothing about Dunst. The costumes are gorgeous, the multitudes of food look delectable, and the sets are the real deal, filmed at the actual Versailles palace for that extra oomph. I’d let them eat cake too if I got the stuff she had. Expect Marie Antoinette to at least get several Oscar nominations for its lavish technical merits; it very well might win too. There’s a really neat sequence that informs the audience through a series of family portraits about a death in the family.

Anyone looking for a strict biography on the famous queen will be left scratching their head. Coppola has thrown historical accuracy to the wind and produced a movie less about plot and character and more about an impression. She really nails the insular palace life, from its ridiculous and rigid traditions to the importance placed on blind formality. There’s a very amusing scene where Marie has to be dressed by handlers, and her clothes must keep getting swapped to the current highest-ranking person in the room. Coppola also smoothly handles this extravagant, opulent world from the point of view of her young teenage girl, betrothed by the age of 14. The world of royals and Versailles was one of constant gossip where everyone’s eyes were glued to the new girl. In many ways, Coppola’s world mirrors high school existence, just with far better clothes. When Marie is ignored yet again by her clammy husband, she goes on a wild shopping spree with fabulous shoes and fabrics in bright, sticky colors. She stays up late with a close circle of friends to watch the sun rise over the palace. Coppola firmly reminds us that Marie Antoinette was still a teenage girl and perhaps was still fighting to be one. The movie is good at stripping away the context of history and showing us the awkward lives of two kids selected to be leaders of their country. Better yet, the film is good at exploring what it?s like for teenagers to have the world at their fingertips and have no clue what to do with it. Besides shoe shopping, that is. The film is an excellent mosaic that reiterates the breezy sensation of being young and trapped in the world that never seemed big enough.

But, alas, the trouble with establishing an impression is that we get the idea pretty quickly, and yet the movie keeps going on and on without anything else to interest us. You can watch Marie lay in the field, host a tea party in her garden, marvel at sumptuous food, try on different clothes, play with her puppies, and, hell, the woman even sings an opera in one moment. I don’t know if Coppola intended to establish the tedium of life in Versailles but the audience will definitely start to feel suffocated by it. At least she never steers into a Terrence Mallick danger zone (the man would have sat in a forest with a camera in his lap and called the results a “movie”). That’s the issue with the movie. Like her 2003 Oscar-winner Lost in Translation, Coppola is more interested in mood and silence than character and plot. This approach worked splendidly in the sparely beautiful and moving Translation, but it cannot fully save this film. After a while it just all gets too repetitious and feels slight, like Lizzie McGuire’s Fabulous Versailles Vacation.

The figure of Marie Antoinette is too big to just be dressed up and put in a room. Coppola doesn’t seem to care about the politics or historical anxieties of the time. That’s a shame since France was going through one of the most amazing turnarounds in all of history. There’s no social commentary and the last quarter of the film seems to go off track. When the peasant mob does appear at the very end it feels like a misplaced subplot instead of a world-changing event. Likewise, the affair Marie Antoinette embarks on feels all too shrift and meaningless, like a high school crush of the week (might she doodle his name on her diamond-encrusted notebook?). Marie Antoinette is an interesting, ambitious period drama trying to be a youthful fantasy turned nightmare. It just doesn’t have enough going on to justify a prolonged experience.

Dunst is an actress I’ve been really hot and cold with. Sometimes she dazzles me but more often she bores me. As the title monarch, Dunst totally comes across like a vibrant teen girl still feeling out the world. She seems impetuous, sensual, and naive, all hallmarks of a growing girl that just so happens to be the queen of France. She does a lot of communication with her face. Sometimes she comes across like a silly, vapid little girl playing dress-up, but then that seems within the scope of Coppola’s aim.

Schwartzman’s portrayal makes the king look like an aloof adolescent, but he make me laugh very easily at his pained awkwardness. Judy Davis is a hoot as the palace’s liaison of policy and manners, tsk-tsk-ing whenever etiquette is broken. The rest of the cast mostly have moments but it’s surprising to me that I’d see Marianne Faithfull, Rip Torn, Molly Shannon (!), and Asia Argento in a period piece movie. Like I said, Marie Antoinette is a costume drama like none other.

Much was made about the anachronistic soundtrack of 1980s tunes set amongst the pomp and circumstance of 18th century France. I like it because it works in engineering the breezy, bubbly youthful impression Coppola wants. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal because the music is not incorporated into the story unlike 2001’s tandem Moulin Rouge and A Knight’s Tale. It provides some of the more fun moments in the movie, though at times the lyrics become all too transparent; “I Want Candy” during a spending spree, “Fools Rush In” when Marie goes to her affair, The Strokes screaming “I want to be forgotten,” as Marie runs off.

Coppola’s luscious period piece feels more like a dreamscape in a daze. Her focus relies less on linear storytelling and character than on creating an impression of youthful decadence and emptiness. Marie Antoinette manages to simultaneously be fluffy and vague. After a while it all just gets repetitious and a bit dull watching scene after scene of Marie being indulged and bored. Perhaps some of that boredom will translate over to the audience. Coppola reminds us that Marie Antoinette was still a teenage girl beneath her powdered wig and bustle, but after two hours you might wish Coppola had more on her agenda.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)

A somewhat shallow biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page is kept afloat by an incandescent performance from Gretchen Mol, at one time the appointed future Hollywood It Girl. Mol imbues the same transcendent mix of girl-next-door sweetness and sex-kitten-in-training vivaciousness that Page was famous for; she was, in the same moment, both angel and temptress, and yet never understood the impact. We get your standard assembly of biopic moments but some intriguing past elements barely get touched on, like the potential sexual abuse Page may have experienced from her father. There’s a ripe conflict of sex vs. sin waiting to be explored that also seems to get the most cursory of exposure. Director Mary Haron (American Psycho) cleverly stages the movie as if it was a product of Page’s own time, but it also places the film in an artistic limbo because of its strident, possibly anachronistic forward thinking. Bettie Page is such an interesting person and had such a lasting impact, not just on the debate over what constitutes pornography, but the movies fails to tell us why she should still even be relevant. It feels somewhat of a shame that such a person, simultaneously a devout Christian and bondage pin-up queen, doesn’t get a better character showcase. Still, the movie is well made and Mol is luminous, imitating Page’s cheesecake poses and faces to perfection. The Notorious Bettie Page would have worked better looking harder at what made its title heroine notorious and memorable still to this day.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Departed (2006)

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment,” growls Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in the opening seconds of The Departed. “I want my environment to be a product of me.” Without question, the filmmaker that has shaped the environment of movies more than any other in the last 30 years is Martin Scorsese. No one does the cops-and-robbers territory better than Scorsese, and it’s great to have him back on familiar turf. It’s not that Gangs of New York and The Aviator were lacking in directorial skill, it’s just that they felt so labored and reeking of classy awards envy. With The Departed, it all feels so artistically effortless, like Scorsese settled in a zone of brilliant filmmaking. I just hope Marty bangs out more of these excellent gangster flicks before trying again to woo Oscar. In fact, his return to his violent stomping grounds might finally be his long-overdue ticket to the winner’s circle.

The premise is appealingly simple. The Boston State Police Department is desperate to nail local crime lord Costello. They pluck a young recruit, William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has a shady family history of small-time crooks. He agrees to infiltrate Costello’s mob and report back to the Boston PD. To make is situation credible, Costigan is expelled from the force and sent to prison to earn a rep. Only two other people know Cosigan’s real identity, the police chief (Martin Sheen) and the head of undercover work (Mark Wahlberg). On the other side of the law, Costello has a mole all his own working inside the Boston State police force. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has quickly risen through the ranks and has a prime position working with the state?s FBI crack force. He’s also an acolyte of Costello’s ever since he was a young Southie kid seeing the draw of power. Now full grown, Sullivan tips Costello and tries to redirect the ongoing investigation to bring the man to justice.

The real sparks come when both moles try to discover the identity of the other, without compromising their own precarious identities.

The Departed is a bruising, bristling return to form for Martin Scorsese and his most entertaining film since his last Great Movie, 1990’s gangster-rific Goodfellas. This is a movie that crams multiple characters, storylines, and histories into one tight, focused setting, but then the flick glides smoothly on electric storytelling and intense performances. The movie’s twists and turns are, at times, of a knockout variety, and there’s a stretch of late surprises that each feels like a shot to the gut. I was possibly winded from gasping so hard. This is a film so fantastically alive with feeling and vigor that you cannot help but get ensnared. It sets up all the players and back-story before we even get the opening titles set to the blaring wails of the Dropkick Murphies. The thrills are real because we feel the danger, and the onslaught of brutal violence is another rhythmic piece in Scorsese’s masterful conduction. Adding to the feeling is the sure-handed, quick-fire editing of longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker and the ominous cinematography of Michael Ballhaus. Even though this film is based on a 2002 Hong Kong film, Scorsese has firmly made The Departed a movie all its own in spirit and personality. No one so easily brings us into the sordid lives of criminals better than this man, who, when in that creative zone of his, brings such palpable energy to his melding of image, song, and consequence, that the results are simply intoxicating. The Departed reminds you why Scorsese is still our greatest living director, no matter what Oscar thinks.

What elevates The Departed from the clutter of other macho men-with-guns crime capers is its studious attention to character. This is a film that works beyond a concept. The movie’s central moral theme is the price of identity. Frank opens the film asking what does it matter who’s holding the gun to your head, cop or crook. Costigan is tormented from wearing too many faces. He’s having trouble justifying his deeds and actions and is scared he may lose his own soul at the price of his lost identity. Sullivan, on the other hand, has gladly sold his own soul for a pittance. He’s a class conscience yuppie that craves power and will cut any throat if it gets him ahead. The movie steamrolls ahead with intrigue but it’s our connections to these characters that elevate the life-and-death stakes. You have a real emotional investment in this story, therefore when things get murky you really feel the danger. My heart was racing with excitement and dread. There may still be impressions from where I was squeezing the movie chair.

Complimenting these complex characters are brilliant performances. DiCaprio may have been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his second Scorsese collaboration, The Aviator, but he turns in his strongest work here. DiCaprio expertly bares a gnawing moral conflict with equal parts desperation and the hunger to do good. He’s trying to finally do right and step out of his family’s criminal past, and DiCaprio brings sharp intensity to this plight. You really feel every stomach churn this guy goes through to do what he does and stay alive. I knocked the boy for being too boyish a gangster in Gangs of New York, and let me say I take back my words. On the flip side, Damon utilizes his angelic, choirboy good looks and masterfully downplays his character’s pragmatic villainy. The character has to hide so much from the outside world, be it the police, his true bosses, his girlfriend, and even himself. Damon goes about his deceitful business with slickly sick ease, tapping a killer’s instinct for self-preservation. You may shudder from how methodically cold and manipulative he comes across. He’s a mesmerizing rat bastard of a human being and yet Damon presents an almost seductive portrait of evil.

Nicholson is equally good though at times can be a distraction to the storytelling. There are a handful of moments where Nicholson seems to go too far off the page, indulging his crazier tendencies. Costello is supposed to be a scary, unpredictable, potentially unhinged man, and Scorsese has plenty of moments that bring home this point. It just feels inappropriate then for Nicholson to, in a few small moments, transform into a goofy cartoon. With that said, it’s great to see Nicholson cracking some heads for Scorsese. He has devilish fun and is insanely watchable while definitely going for broke. After some nice guy roles it’s nice to have back an unrestrained Nicholson to play the film’s abyss of evil.

The collected supporting players all leave some mark. Baldwin and Wahlerg are perfectly profane hardass characters that you warm up to. Sheen, free from the Oval Office, displays nice touches of weariness and, in one moment, practically breaks my heart with his brave resignation. Breaking up this boy’s club is Vera Farmiga (Running Scared) as a somewhat contrived plot point to connect Costigan and Sullivan as the police shrink to one and the girlfriend to the other. There’s a perceived sadness to her willowy eyes and slender face that she plays to great effect. She?s a captivating new face and gives an extra ladling of emotion to the tale.

It’s been over a week since I’ve seen the movie and I still can’t get it out of my head. There are only a handful of flaws that separates The Departed from Scorsese’s rich pantheon of mythically Great Movies. This is a complex, gritty, amazing crime thriller stuffed to the gills with entertainment. Making the bloody body count resonate are the incredibly intense performances, particularly Damon and DiCaprio. This is a gripping gangster thriller pumping with the blood of a sterling character piece. The unexpected twists and turns will shake you, and the movie goes well beyond a snappy premise. The Departed is a moviegoing experience that will thrill you, stir you, sadden you, exhilarate you, and firmly plant itself in your memory banks. Welcome back Marty.

Nate’s Grade: A

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