Category Archives: 2000s

Black Hawk Down (2001)

*. There’s a scene near the beginning of Black Hawk Down where one of the vets (played by Eric Bana) has to explain to the idealistic Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) how war (and, incidentally, war movies) work. “Y’know what I think?” he says when Eversmann tries to draw him out on the U.S. mission in Somalia. “Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.”
*. This is an important, and telling, act of elision. The swerve it indicates is typical of how Hollywood handled the War on Terror and America’s adventures abroad during this period. And by “handled” I’m referring to their attempts to avoid being political. Black Hawk Down is not an anti-war movie, or even a movie that is critical of war. Once the bullets start to fly that shit just goes right out the window. The reasons for this are obvious but may be worth going over.
*. To begin with there is the line, usually attributed to François Truffaut, that there is no such thing as an anti-war film because war is by its very nature an exciting experience highlighted by individual moments of heroism and comradeship. Actually, I think a lot of military service is very dull, but movies cut those parts out. Politics is dull too, and complicated. In cases like Somalia or Yugoslavia or Libya or Syria I doubt any movie could hope to sort the various American missions out.
*. Hollywood is in the business of putting bums in seats, and you don’t fill theatres by making people think too much about where these soldiers are or what they’re doing there. Indeed, aside from Eversmann the characters in the film don’t seem that interested in such matters themselves.
*. Then there is the business of actually making the movie. At least since Top Gun (1986) the U.S. military has played a major role in such productions, and you don’t get the kind of logistical support they can deliver without surrendering some editorial control. These have to be stories the military wants told, in the way they want them told. For Top Gun the U.S. Navy played a crucial role in producing the film and had input on the script throughout. They later claimed it had been an extremely effective recruiting tool. For Black Hawk Down all the materiel was supplied by the U.S. Army, which also provided helicopter pilots and helped with the training of the actors. You couldn’t imagine a movie like this being made today without such assistance. So there was no way this was going to be an anti-war movie.
*. And finally there was the whole shift in the media after the Gulf War of 1991, which was seen as kicking what had been dubbed the Vietnam Syndrome. Part of the Vietnam Syndrome was the representation of that conflict in the media, so it was a Vietnam War Movie Syndrome too. Hollywood was expected to get in line, and in order to do this without compromising themselves too much they avoided politics like the plague. Instead they went with the tide, which meant creating action films drawing heavily on the look of comic books and video games.
*. Ten years after the Gulf War there was 9/11, which made things even simpler. American involvement abroad, anywhere, was seen through the lens of a response to Islamic terrorism. It didn’t matter that the events of Black Hawk Down didn’t have anything to do with 9/11, but then neither did the invasion of Iraq (despite the efforts of American Sniper to draw a direct link), and even less Libya in 13 Hours. Each of these films could be absorbed into the narrative of “America fighting back.”

*. All of this is just setting the scene, and isn’t meant as a fierce criticism of these films (which can be criticized on other grounds). Over the last hundred years most war movies, indeed the vast majority, have been openly propagandistic if not downright war-porn. The Vietnam-era war films (which would include movies like Patton) were the exception, and they tended to peter out around the time Top Gun took off (Platoon came out in 1986, and the anti-imperialist biopic Walker in 1987). I just want to underline that these were very political movies, and very effectively political, despite on their surface eschewing politics altogether.
*. Now on to the film itself.

*. I had a curious and telling experience watching it recently on DVD. I couldn’t watch it all at once and so I made a note of the chapter I was on and came back and watched the rest of it the next day. It seemed I had written the wrong chapter number down as I was a bit lost as to what was going on. But then I scanned around and figured I probably had it right. The thing is, I couldn’t be completely sure. The reason I couldn’t be sure is because “once that first bullet goes past your head” this movie is all the same. We see men running through streets or driving through streets being shot at by faceless natives from rooftops or doorways. After a while I even started to wonder if the streets themselves were different or if they were just being filmed from different directions or with different lighting. And it goes on for two-and-half hours!
*. Still, given how much of it is all the same I was surprised at how lively it all played. The action is chaotic and lots of times I had no idea where we were or what was going on, but such is the fog of war. You do feel caught up in the excitement of the events. None of the terror or pain, mind you, but plenty of excitement.
*. It’s also very beautiful to look at. The helicopters flying over the beach are lovingly photographed in a way that recalls the ride of the air cavalry in Apocalypse Now, albeit without any of that film’s operatic sense of parody. War never looked so good.

*. As for the enemy, I’ve referred to them as faceless. There are a couple of actors who get lines but for the most part they may as well be the Zulu hoards launching themselves in human waves against the frontier outposts of Western Civ. Despite the fact that the actual event being portrayed was a raid, it quickly turns into the familiar siege paradigm. That is to say, the Americans are on the defensive against the barbarians. If only the natives would leave them alone! This is another motif that is returned to time and again in the films of this period, presumably representing the idea of America being surrounded by enemies. I don’t think this is an accurate reflection of reality, but it obviously expresses some kind of widely-held perception.
*. The enemy also seem to be very poor shots. Given that they’re firing down on the grunts from the rooftops shouldn’t that be like shooting fish in a barrel? Instead everybody just seems to be ripping off rounds without even aiming.
*. The battle scenes are done in such a way that we’re meant to cheer when the bad guys get shot or blown up. This is cathartic if nothing else but it also made me think more of a narrative that was following a certain entertainment paradigm rather than attempting to do anything new.
*. Given that this is a movie that doesn’t really want to say anything I had a hard time relating to it or extracting any kind of a point. Eversmann ends up a sadder but I don’t think a wiser man. Poor Sam Shepard is left to suffer vicariously watching the events on TV but there is no sense of his character traveling any kind of arc or coming to a fuller understanding about what has happened. Perhaps no such understanding is possible. Perhaps he’s never quite sure whether he is an actor in the film or part of the audience. Or is there a difference? In this world we’re either shooters or targets. Once it gets going nearly every “shot” in the movie is composed in this way. But the roles are finally interchangeable. That may be the most apolitical thing about Black Hawk Down: its reduction of everything to a line of sight that goes both ways. Who needs politics in such a world? It’s all very simple.

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Colour from the Dark (2008)

*. Colour from the Dark is another kick at the classic H. P. Lovecraft story “The Colour Out of Space,” and in my estimation it’s the worst of them all.
*. Why this particular story has been adapted so many times, when (as in this film) it is so loosely adhered to, is a mystery to me. Leaving that mystery aside, what we have here is the story of a small rural Italian homestead during the Second World War that awakens an evil force from the bottom of a well.
*. Two significant changes to the source story will have been noticed in just this brief description. In the first place there is no meteorite bringing the “colour” to Earth from “out of space.” Second: this is an evil force. Not just unhealthy, like the apparently radioactive glow in Lovecraft, but corrupt in a spiritual sense. The force doesn’t make humans sick, it possesses them and makes them spit on crucifixes and attack priests.
*. Just to expand a bit on this second point, I’ve written before about the almost comical inefficacy of religious officers in the battle against evil in recent films concerned with demonic possession. But the priest who comes to peform an exorcism in Colour from the Dark really outdoes himself, turning tail and running away as soon as he determines that “the devil is here.” Not a good showing for the Church, padre. Unfortunately, for him, he comes back and, despite being better prepared for his battle with the devil, gets stabbed in the head with his own crucifix. So much for God! In Italy even!
*. I can’t say much good about this one. It had no budget and tries too hard. I’ve read some people praising the photography but to me it looked like a telenovela. The script is a mess, full of people behaving in incredibly stupid ways and cluttered with extraneous plot elements that just distract us from the main story. The acting, espcecially by the male lead, is terrible. There’s far too heavy a reliance on dream sequences, to the point where you give up trying to figure out if something is “really” happening until you’re absolutely sure they’re not going to cut to the character involved jumping up in bed covered in sweat.
*. But I think the real problem is the one I mentioned about trying too hard. Director Ivan Zuccon is firing in too many different directions at once. Why make Alice a mental case? Why bother with the doll? Why have so many dream sequences? Why include all that stuff about the corpse in the forest? Indeed, why set this story during wartime at all?
*. Well, it’s not totally without interest. Not totally. The transformation of the farm into a dessicated wasteland looks OK, and the ending, though a downer, isn’t bad. But honestly, I think you really need to have some time to kill to want to waste any of it on this one.

Evil — In a Time of Heroes (2009)

*. There was some potential here. Not much, but some.
*. A zombie movie set in Athens (Greece, not Georgia) in the wake of the global financial crisis, with echoes of the classical past playing in the background. It might have worked.
*. Well, it sure doesn’t. This is one of the worst zombie movies ever made, and that’s not a very high bar being set.
*. It seems to have no story at all. There’s a countdown to a bombardment that inter-titles pop up to remind us of, but we don’t know what that’s referring to and nobody in the film seems aware of or at least concerned about it until near the end. What’s even more annoying, however, is the fact that none of the characters has anything to do, or anything they want to do. Nothing happens for a reason. This makes the action (a word I’ll use instead of story) completely incoherent.
*. Unforunately, the only way to really appreciate how scattered and confused a film this is, is to watch the whole thing, which is something I strongly advise against. It starts off bad and doesn’t get any better.
*. Actually, it starts off where Evil (2005) left off. Yes, this terrible movie is a sequel! But don’t think that having seen Evil will help you out very much with this one.
*. Apparently all the actors were unpaid volunteers, and in this case the filmmakers got what they paid for. None of the characters are memorable, or even distinguishable aside from their different uniforms (the well-dressed cook, the hero in the soccer jersey, the soldiers, Billy Zane as a Jedi cowboy). They also have an annoying habit of dying and coming back to life, and I don’t mean as zombies. This is all part of the incoherence I mentioned earlier, the sense that from one scene to the next there is no dramatic continuity, or really connection of any kind.
*. There’s a lot of blood splashed on faces and walls. This seems to be the film’s only purpose, or justification. I wouldn’t call the gore anything special though, as it’s mainly delivered by way of rapid editing with some CGI assists. In other words, the usual fare.
*. Maybe if they’d climbed up the Acropolis and had a battle royale among the ruins it might have been more interesting . . . but not by much. Really, you don’t want to waste your time with this.

High Maintenance (2006)

*. Everyone knows the famous montage in Citizen Kane as the table keeps lengthening between Kane and his wife, signaling the breakdown of their marriage. Dining at a distance, especially when it seems wildly impractical, has become a visual cliché for describing marital dysfunction, but I wonder if Welles was the first to make the connection.
*. In any event, it’s a motif that’s again being used in this short film, as a couple supposedly celebrating their anniversary are separated by a long candlelit table. We know right away that things aren’t working out. What we don’t know right away is that this dinner is even more of an empty, formal ritual than it seems. I mean, if Nicolette Krebitz is going to come on to you with that line about an aphrodisiac, how can you be so cold?
*. Part of the reason is that her partner is a robot lover, and one who isn’t even delivering on the “short, mechanical sex” part. Time to order up a new model online. A hunkier type who’s in to rock climbing and massage.
*. If that’s all there were going on here it would be a one joke quickie, even with the twist we get at the end. But I think there’s a more interesting point being made.
*. I don’t think the issue is how we relate to technology, at least directly. High Maintenance isn’t a nine-minute version of Her. Instead, the lovers one orders are more like pets. They have basic personality programming, but can’t be counted on to behave in the way you would like all the time.
*. And, just as with our relationships with our pets, they change us as much as we change them. We may even start to look like them.
*. So I guess in the end it is a story about how we relate to technology, and how in making it better at serving us we co-evolve so that we are better at serving it. Note, however, that evolution is not synonymous with progress. We may lock ourselves into a downward spiral. Our real anniversary may not end with even short, mechanical sex but rather in watching TV alone while drinking a beer.

The Ring Two (2005)

*. Wow. What a way to (almost?) kill a franchise. I liked The Ring and even thought it in some ways the equal to Ringu. To go from that to this . . .
*. What the hell were they thinking? This is one of those sequels that’s so bad it made me reconsider my feelings toward the first film. Was it really as good as I remembered it?
*. Is there any point even getting into a deeper discussion of a movie that fails at absolutely everything? Probably not, but here we go.
*. The story makes no sense at all, and just follows the same basic structure as the first movie. In their defence, they seem to have been hamstrung by the character of Samara. Exactly who or what she is has never been all that clear. She’s a demon in the first film, an abused child with mommy issues here, and a dark avenger in the subsequent Rings. But what do we really know about her? What are the limits of her powers and what does she want?
*. We start off with one of those terrible intro kills that are meant to set the tone. Some asshole wants to trick his girlfriend — who, by the way, looks way out of his league — into watching the haunted videotape. The usual mayhem ensues. This has been a fairly standard opening line in horror films for the last ten or twenty years now, and indeed it’s how The Ring starts as well. But they could have at least had some fun with it here, as they would in Rings.
*. The CGI is terrible. That deer attack? You have to laugh.
*. I don’t like calling out actors, but Naomi Watts clearly isn’t feeling this awful script and David Dorfman (who plays Aidan) doesn’t up his game to what is a leading role.
*. I didn’t even recognize Sissy Spacek. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her in anything. I wonder whatever . . . well. I guess stuff like this is what happened.
*. How and why does Max (a woefully underused Simon Baker) die? What does it have to do with his wanting to take Aidan’s picture? And most of all, why is his body sitting out in his truck?
*. There’s another point about this sequence: It isn’t scary. Nothing in it, from Max’s arrival at the house to Rachel’s discovery of his body, even attempts to be scary. There is no building of suspense. There aren’t even any jump scares. And this sequence follows on the heels of the earlier scene in the hospital when Aidan/Samara gets the psychologist to kill herself. What was scary about that? What did anyone think might have been scary about it? Was anyone involved with this project aware that they were making a horror movie?
*. There’s no point saying much more. There are no scares, and there’s no suspense, no atmosphere, no point to any of it. It’s actually one of the worst horror movies I’ve seen in a long time. Things could only get better. Right?

Oldboy (2003)

*. I’ll start off with a confession. The first time I saw Oldboy I didn’t like it much. In fact, I disliked it. I think this was mainly due to my not understanding what was going on, especially at the end. I’m not referring to Dae-su Oh’s enigmatic or ambiguous facial expression, but a more general sense that I must have missed something.
*. After getting the plot straight I still found it preposterous. Not only has the villain infinite resources and a long memory, he has a scheme for revenge so ridiculously elaborate and contrived it is hard to credit. Other questions also popped up. Do facilities like the prison hotel exist? Can we credit Dae-su’s mastery of the martial arts through fifteen years of shadow boxing and watching infomercials? And what of the use of hypnosis as a rather strained plot device? They might as well have made it a love potion, borrowed from some medieval fairy tale.

*. But after living with Oldboy for several years, and giving it some second chances, I’ve come around. I still think it’s a fantasy, but I’m more sympathetic toward where it’s coming from.
*. Like most fantasies, it’s meant to point a simple moral. As I see it, the moral here, and I think it’s a profound and important one, is that things that we personally experience as trivial and inconsequential may in fact have enormous impact on the lives of others. It takes Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) so long to figure out what he did to Woo-jin Lee precisely because it didn’t mean anything to him at the time. As Woo-jin tells him at the end, he didn’t have to be hypnotized to forget. “You just forgot because it wasn’t important to you.” For Dae-su, it was only Tuesday.
*. If you keep that moral in mind then I think a lot of the rest of the film’s highly questionable morality can be got around, leaving it to provide a garish backdrop that matches the horrific wallpaper. Speaking of which, is Korea the land of ugly wallpaper and even uglier bathrooms? I’m not talking about the prison hotel here but also Mi-do’s apartment, which is even worse in both regards. This was clearly a deliberate style choice (Oldboy is a very designed film) but I wonder why they wanted the sets to look so bad. Perhaps just to add to the sense of a hellish, dystopic world.

*. Returning to my main point, when I refer to the film’s “highly questionable morality” what I’m talking about are things like (1) how Dae-su is punished far beyond the nature of his crime (though this fits with the disproportionality between cause and effect that is the movie’s theme); (2) how Woo-jin basically gets away with his entire scheme, despite being a wicked man; and (3) how Dae-su’s friend is, if anything, even more culpable than he is, since he is the one who apparently starts the ball of gossip rolling. But Woo-jin only kills him in a momentary pique of anger.
*. To an audience raised on Hollywood fare, which is nothing if not conventional in its morality, I think all of this must come across as very strange. At least that’s how it struck me. But shouldn’t movies from other countries be different? I think they should. The puzzling question is why so many people in Hollywood wanted to remake Oldboy. Couldn’t they see that there was something here that was never going to translate? And before Spike Lee finally signed on Spielberg was going to take it on. I can’t think of two directors less naturally inclined to handle such material.
*. I won’t say anything more about the remake here aside from noting that it was ill-advised and turned out badly. In addition to flubbing the basic moral message, it had none of the artistry of what is a remarkably well made film.

*. What impresses me the most is the way the look and design of the film is used to evoke the variety of psychological and emotional states we travel through, and how this is done in such a way as to be both obvious and subtle. On the DVD commentary director Chan-wook Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung spent almost all their time talking about technical matters, and mention how they used a lot of different techniques but that they didn’t want them to show. They wanted to hide the art of the film as much as possible. How did they manage to do this, in such an almost flamboyantly artistic film?
*. I think they did it by ramping up the extremity of the psychological and emotional states I mentioned, to the point where the audience is more interested in what is happening to the characters than in how they are being presented.

*. I’ll give one example, which is the brilliant bit of filmmaking that has Dae-su remembering what he saw at his private school. The first part of this is wonderful, using the various staircases with characters running in and out of frame to mirror the mental work that Dae-su is doing in trying to get back to the moment in the classroom. The Piranesi-like setting makes us feel like we’re inside the architecture of his brain, and while it’s very flashy, because we’re caught up in the same mental process, hot on the trail of the answer the puzzle the movie has set us right from the beginning, it’s not a flashiness that seems obtrusive.
*. This is followed by the scene where Dae-su sees the tryst in the classroom, which involves a complete change in style. Now we’re stuck with a long take shot from a single fixed camera position. It’s a real change of gear, but again you don’t notice the style so much (at least on a first viewing) because we’re stuck in the same position as Dae-su, as a voyeur to something that’s revealing on a couple of different levels. We’re just as obsessed as he is.
*. Now this is what I call filmmaking: when you can change up styles so smoothly, be so inventive, and yet perfectly match the direction to the exigencies of plot and character. And I think it’s something I didn’t appreciate enough the first time I saw the movie.

*. There are a lot of other great moments along the way. There’s some of the best use of a split screen I’ve ever seen, for one thing. Then there’s some great set design (I love the stained carpets in the prison hotel). But I think what I liked the most was the physicality of how Min-sik Choi plays Dae-su. The way he feels and tastes the rain outside his prison. The way he rubs himself over the suicidal man on the roof and tries to smell him. And perhaps best of all I like how tired he gets in the long fight scene. He’s not a superhero. He goes down a few times, gets hurt, and has to rest for a bit to get his breath back. Josh Brolin doesn’t do any of these things in the remake. He is a superman.

*. But even while coming around to Oldboy I have to say that I still find it a little too weird to fully get on board with. A really great movie shouldn’t have this crazy a plot. That is, however, the same problem I have with Vertigo. It’s just a matter of taste.

Saw VI (2009)

*. The sixth time round and it should have been the last. For two reasons: (1) they were obviously running out of ideas (or had run out a while ago); and (2) this is actually one of the best films in the series and they could have ended on a high note. Alas, the “final chapter” was still to be written, and may not be written yet.
*. What makes it better than the franchise average? Well, for starters the traps (or “gags” are they are affectionately known in the industry) are better. From the Merchant of Venice opening, through the jaws-of-breath chest vice, shotgun carousel, acid rack, and final return to the reverse bear trap (which we actually see work), I would rate them all pretty high. Not because I think they’re great, but because I’ve always felt that the traps in the other films were overrated by fans. Most of them are just some variation on a victim in chains having to beat the clock or be torn apart.

*. I also liked that the plot, though complicated (or incomprehensible to anyone who missed the first five instalments), does a respectable job tying up as many loose threads as possible without trying to be gratuitously tricky. There’s a twist at the end, but it really doesn’t have much to do with the main story. They could have wrapped the series up here in a way that at least made sense.
*. It’s a more sedate film. They only break out the crazy editing a few times, and the colour scheme, especially the green torture chambers, is muted somewhat. This is a movie that has a job to do.
*. Another thing going for it is the political angle. None of the other Saw films even suggested a political subtext, preferring to hang their hat on a really dubious philosophical proposition about proving the value of your life by making a choice to live. Here, however, we’re punishing the number-crunchers who screwed people out of their health insurance or who primed the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. I was actually looking forward to seeing these guys get theirs more than the druggies and criminals of the earlier films. White-collar crime is crime too! Jigsaw has his own justice system, and who’s to say it isn’t more equitable?

*. That said, there are a number of victims who appear to be nothing more than meat in some of the gags. What did the poor custodian do to deserve his place on the rack? Smoke?
*. It’s also weird how the police have been targeted by the series. This is something you don’t really notice in the first film, though Danny Glover and Ken Leung both get killed trying to hunt Jigsaw down. It’s just that in their case they were playing their own game of cops and robbers and they lost. It happens. But in Saw IV I was troubled by what crime Rigg was being punished for. Caring too much? Doing his job? And why did Strahm have to suffer such a horrible fate in Saw V?
*. In this film Erickson and Perez are slaughtered almost as an afterthought. Of course, like all the police in the Saw films they were working totally alone. That certainly helps clear up any loose ends, but how realistic is it?
*. Looking at all of this together, you get the feeling that somebody just doesn’t like cops very much. That may be making a political point as well, but I’m not sure what it is. Is Jigsaw trying to show them how they should be doing their jobs?
*. No, I don’t think this is a good movie except in a relative sense. But since this franchise is really a serial that’s the way you have to judge them. If I were to do a ranking I might put this second on my list of favourites. It should have been the last. However, even though the box office was starting to tail off the title was still making money. The carousel would continue to spin.

Exam (2009)

*. Not what I was expecting.
*. Here’s what I thought I was getting: the Game of Death premise (contestants locked in a room and kept under surveillance while they try to escape or eliminate the competition before the clock runs out) given a political edge, made over into an allegory of the dog-eat-dog world of business. The basic premise of the Spanish film The Method, but given an extra tightening of the screw. It’s a J. G. Ballard sort of set-up, which would have made for some interesting commentary.
*. That’s not how Exam plays, at all. But, you may well ask, so what? So it’s not the movie I thought it would be or wanted it to be. That’s not the movie’s fault.
*. Unfortunately, it’s not a good movie even judged on its own terms.
*. In the first place, there’s nothing remotely realistic about it. Indeed, the premise is made even more bizarre and artificial than usual — and these locked-room stories are nothing if not artificial, mimicking the anti-reality of reality TV. The plot is given a bizarre SF overlay having to do with some new wonder drug. It seems the company isn’t a ruthless conglomerate but is instead involved in developing biotechnology that’s going to save the human race. So these contestants are going to kill each other for the opportunity to . . . do some good! Huh?

*. Then there is the challenge itself. The job applicants are given a sheet of paper and told there is one question to answer and they have a limited time to answer it. But the papers appear to be blank. So one would assume there is some sort of trick involved. There is, but since this group of corporate climbers consists of the most literal-minded types imaginable they try to solve the problem by such expedients as smashing light sources to fill the room with different frequencies of light, or setting off the sprinkler system to see if soaking the paper reveals any invisible ink.
*. This might be funny, with the applicants all being too smart for their own good, but I don’t think that’s how it’s meant to be taken. Nor is there any political allegory or message involved. In the end, the test is revealed to have been both cruel and pointless, which seems particularly odd given the CEO and his corporation’s humanistic mission.
*. To give you some idea of how jarring and out of synch the ending is, there’s a montage of flashbacks at the end that recalls the similar montage at the end of Saw. The difference is that the montage at the end of Saw explains the rest of the movie perfectly. Here it’s just a recap of what’s happened, none of which there is any point in recapping since it doesn’t give us any information that lets us reinterpret the events of the previous ninety minutes.

*. The one thing I did like was the opening credit sequence, which had the applicants appearing to be getting ready to go into battle by fixing their hair, straightening their ties, putting on make-up, and stepping into high heels. Those heels will actually come in handy later on too. I only wish there was more of that sort of thing.
*. In brief, I didn’t get the ending and I didn’t think it was any fun getting there. Surprisingly, Exam did receive some good reviews, complimenting the direction, script and cast. People seemed impressed at what was done on such a limited set. I could name some very, very bad movies made with similar limitations. As for the acting, I think the accents might have helped sell what are some pretty dull performances. I mean, another thing about the incongruity of the ending is that the winner is a character who does and says almost nothing the entire film, and about whom we know the least. So how are we to even care?
*. It was a simple enough idea, meaning the movie really only had to do a few things right. I didn’t think it did any of them well enough. That’s my final grade.

Kill Theory (2009)

*. I suppose it looked good on paper. Basically a cabin-in-the-woods, slasher flick crossbred with the Game of Death genre (the children of Saw). The psycho killer here wants a bunch of college buddies to play a game, to test the limits of their friendship in the most absolute way possible. Last man or woman standing wins. Come on people, you know the drill.
*. I’ll give the script some credit. The killer’s back story and motivation is actually pretty interesting (as far as these things go, mind you), and the obligatory twist at the end rounds things off nicely. But when all is said and done, there just wasn’t enough here to keep me interested.
*. Kills? Not very impressive. One guy gets a poker (or something) shoved through his eye. Someone else gets bludgeoned with a shovel. That’s about it. Everybody else just gets shot or stabbed. Ho-hum. Jigsaw at least kept things interesting with his Meccano-set death machines.
*. There were a couple of other problems I’d flag. In the first place, the action is all quite predictable. By now we can all be pretty damn sure that anyone who we don’t see being really killed, isn’t dead yet. If there’s any plausible way they can be brought back, they will be. So gut shots aren’t going to do it. Once you know that, a lot of the plot basically takes care of itself.
*. The other drag on the film is the acting. It’s really not very good. The players aren’t helped out by the script because they have to travel character arcs in a real hurry, but even so I had a hard time buying any of them.
*. For example Freddy, the token fat guy, loses his shit too quickly (and completely). Meanwhile, Brent makes too quick (and complete) a jump over to the dark side. In short, it just seems like the gang falls apart a little too easily. There were a number of options on the table if they wanted to try and survive together, but . . .
*. But maybe they didn’t like each other very much anyway. That, at least, is my reading of what’s going on. None of us has friends, we only have interests. In setting up the game the killer is pushing at an open door. Hell, they might have all killed each other anyway. Just taking away the fat guy’s videogames and the hot chick’s pills might have done it.
*. A decent idea, but not very well executed in any department. A footnote to a sub-genre, and one which you can easily skip.

Saw V (2008)

*. With the fifth kick at the can it’s pretty obvious that the franchise is running out of juice. Of course by now a lot of the ingredients have already become familiar. The industrial traps, usually involving a lot of metal collars, chains, and locked doors. The greenish lighting. The twitchy editing. The converging cops who don’t seem to know what the word “back-up” means (I was amazed when the FBI guy waits right up until he starts discovering bodies before he calls for help . . . and then not for back-up but for an ambulance!). All topped off with the climactic montage. That’s the formula, and they’re repeating it here.
*. But this time it feels different. We’re back to the group Game of Death premise from Saw II, bracketed with a whole bunch of backfill that retells the story of the first three movies with the character of Hoffman now injected into the proceedings. I don’t know for sure but I suspect this may have struck Sawmaniacs as an unwelcome exercise in revisionist history. It certainly seems to diminish Jigsaw to know he had a partner even before Amanda. Or at least I think Hoffman was on board before Amanda. With all the jumping around I kind of lost track.
*. The only positive to all this is that I found the plot slightly easier to follow than previous outings. The downside was that none of it seemed very interesting, especially as I didn’t care much about the Hoffman character or his nemesis Strahm (who, despite being the hero, is impossible to like). It’s also very curious how this series is progressing. Which is to say, it doesn’t advance so much as it keeps picking away at itself like a scab. It’s all two steps forward and two steps back.
*. The traps? A little better than in Saw IV but nothing that struck me as very inspired. Fans seem to like the one where they slice open their hands with a table saw but I wasn’t feeling it. I like how they start off with the pendulum gag though. You can’t go wrong with the classics (something very similar was used in the Dario Argento “Black Cat” story in Two Evil Eyes). The electrical circuit puzzle lost me. I’ll confess I’m not that smart when it comes to such things, but I think if I’d been stuck in that situation I would have demanded better instructions. Like, a whole booklet of them.
*. Not much better or worse than the rest of the series, at least to my disinterested eye. Yes, it’s all seeming old by this point, but the charm (is that the right word?) of the franchise is that curious sense of running in place, as though we’re looping for all eternity in this scum-coloured limbo of the damned. Our visions of hell define us, and are perhaps what we deserve.