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Saw III (2006)


According to the Scream series, horror movie installments follow certain conventions. The third movie, for example, tends to be bigger, more shocking, and more over the top than its predecessors, winding up to a climax that will leave you gasping for breath. Saw III is no exception, as torture masterminds Wan and Whannell wanted to wind up the series and end it with a bang. (It didn’t work, incidentally, but the thought was there.)

Saw III is the third movie in the Saw series, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman and written by James Wan and Leigh Wannell. It stars Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus MacFayden, Bahar Soomekh, and Donnie Wahlberg.

Three interweaving storylines unfold during the course of this movie. In one, the police investigate the latest string of Jigsaw-style traps, discovering that these have been rigged in various ways to be inescapable. In another, Jeff Denlon, eaten up by grief over the death of his son, who was hit and killed by a drunk driver, is kidnapped by Jigsaw and forced to perform a series of tests to face his feelings of vengeance against those he sees as responsible for the driver escaping justice with a slap on the wrist. In a third, Dr. Lynn Denlon has also been kidnapped by Jigsaw – actually, his apprentice Amanda. Denlon’s task is to keep Jigsaw, now bedridden from advanced brain cancer, alive until Jeff completes his gauntlet of tests. If Jigsaw dies before then, a trapped collar around her neck will fire shotgun shells into her head, effectively erasing same. However, Amanda has become increasingly unstable since becoming Jiggy’s apprentice, believing that people cannot be redeemed and thus setting up in escapable traps. As Jeff is forced to confront his own demons and Jigsaw’s condition deteriorates, the question of who will survive this twisted game becomes less and less clear with every passing minute…

When I went to see this movie in the theaters, I already know what sort of movie I was getting into. You can imagine my surprise when, while I was waiting for the movie to start, I saw two theoretically responsible adults enter the theater with an eleven-year-old girl. WTF? Thinking that maybe they’d wandered into the wrong theater, I warned them that this movie wasn’t really for kids, but they said they were fine. Okay, I think, your therapy bill. And I was right – this movie is brutal. I’ve seen my share of gory slashers and other horror movies before, but Saw III went for the guts in a way few horror movies have before. Not only are the traps gut-wrenching and physically traumatic, but the story that unfolds with Jeff’s journey makes the audience understand him and sympathize with him, even if they don’t agree with him. He is forced to choose between his vengeful grief, which he has been holding onto for so long that he’s forgotten how to live otherwise, and forgiving those he believes has wronged them. The choices that each room gives him kick him repeatedly in the nuts – he wants vengeance at all costs, but you get the idea that he’s a good man underneath, warts and all. Lynn’s subplot is also hard to watch – kidnapped by a pair of psychopaths, forced to keep one alive even as he’s dying from cancer, while the other one seems to be growing more unstable by the minute. And the climax where everything crashes together in a giant pileup to rival the opening sequence of Final Destination 2, based on the fateful decisions of two of the players in this game, nearly had me on my feet screaming at the screen.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Saw without the deathtraps, and they are accordingly efficient and diabolical. The simplest one would have to be the Meat Locker, in which a witness to the hit and run is chained up naked in a giant freezer and periodically sprayed with water, while the most nauseating is the one where the judge is locked to the floor of a collection vat, slowly filling as rotting pig carcasses are liquefied and the soup poured in. This is obviously not a movie for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The torture happens to so many levels – physical, psychological, and emotional, and would have made an effective ending for the series had the studio execs not decided keep the franchise going for the sake of profits.

Saw III is a brutal film that will leave you feeling queasy and wrung out, and emotional roller-coaster that goes for the guts in ways few modern horror movies have. If you think you can handle it, though, check it out, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Shrek (2001)


He is not your typical fairy tale hero. She is not your typical fairy tale princess. These are not your typical fairy tale characters. And this is not your typical fairy tale.

This is a fairy tale, tilted two degrees off-center.

Shrek is a computer animated fantasy-comedy directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, loosely based on William Steig’s picture book Shrek! and produced by Dreamworks Animation. It features the voices of Cameron Diaz, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and John Lithgow.

Shrek (Myers) is a grouchy ogre who wants nothing more than to live in peaceful solitude in his swamp. His secluded bacherhood is interrupted, however, by a sudden influx of exiled fairy tale characters, including Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, a Wolf in Granny’s nightdress, and a talking Donkey (Murphy), forced into the swamp by order of Lord Farquaad (Lithgow). Shrek travels to Disneyland Duloc to confront Farquaad and bargain for the return of his swamp, with the chatty Donkey tagging along. Farquaad offers him a deal: rescue the fair Princess Fiona (Diaz) from a tower guarded by a ferocious dragon, and Shrek’s swamp will be returned. Sounds simple, right? Of course it does. Will there be problems? Of course there will. Shrek and Fiona turn out to have a lot in common, and the crusty ogre finds himself falling for her. Second, Farquaad plans to marry Fiona in order to become king and rule over all of Duloc (this would be a bad thing). Third, Fiona seems to have a little bit of a curse…

I enjoyed the hell out of Shrek when I first saw it. I’d become bitter and jaded from Disney’s habit of churning out and retreading the same tired stories and running them into the ground with sequel after sequel (… after sequel!), but Dreamworks has managed to take the tired fairy tale conventions and give them a well-needed kick in the head. For starters, the hero is a smelly, ugly, grouchy ogre. For another, the fair princess to be rescued isn’t exactly made of rainbows and unicorn farts herself. Many side gags poke indirect fun at the usual fairy tale conventions, even as the main plot beats the Hero’s Journey over the head with a tire iron. The result is absolutely hilarious.

The voice acting was also excellent, with Mike Myer’s vaguely Scottish accent inspired by the voice that his mother had used when reading him bedtime stories, and Cameron Diaz is spot on as Not Your Mother’s Damsel in Distress. Eddie Murphy was delightfully obnoxious as the talking Donkey, and John Lithgow was enjoyably evil in a role that might or might not have been a direct jab at the CEO of Disney at the time. The only real snag came in character design. This was one of Dreamworks’ early films, created before they’d settled on the cartoonier character designs that would mark later films. While the characters here were wonderfully detailed, with subtle colors and shading, this attention also made Fiona’s animators feel like they were animating a corpse. Whoops.

If you like your fairy tales fractured, your heroes unconventional, and your princesses spirited, check out Shrek. It will satisfy adults and kids alike.

The Matrix (1999)

02/12/2011 1 comment

The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world´╗┐ that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

The Matrix is a sci fi action film written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. I stars Keanu “Whoa” Reeves, Laurence “Event Horizon” Fishburne, Carrie-Anne “Memento” Moss, Joe “The Goonies” Pantoliano, and Hugo “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” Weaving.

Computer programmer Thomas A. Anderon (Reeves), a.k.a. “Neo”, leads a double life, using his hacking skills to try to learn the answer to the question “What is the Matrix?” Strange messages popping up on his computer screen lead him first to a run-in with mysterious MIB-like figures called Agents, led by Agent Smith (Weaving), and then to a group led by the enigmatic underground hacker Morpheus (Fishburne), who offers him the opportunity to learn about the Matrix. After locating and removing a tracking device inserted during what Neo had thought was a horrible nightmare, several members of Morpheus’ inner circle take Neo to meet their leader in secret. Neo is offered two pills: a blue one that would send him back to his old life, and a red one that would allow him to finish his quest. He chooses the red pill, and his perception of reality turns completely upside-down.

He finds himself in a liquid-filled pod – one of countless thousands – attached with tubes and cables to a massive mechanical structure. He is rescued by Morpheus’ team in the hovership Nebuchadnezzar and nursed into physical functionality, whereupon he learns the sickening truth: The year is closer to 2199 than 1999, and humanity has been enslaved by intelligent machines created in the early 21st century, locked away to be used as living batteries; the Matrix is a Lotus Eater program designed by the machines to keep their batteries docile. Morpheus is a member of a group whose mission it is to “unplug” people from the Matrix, freeing them from this dream world and recuiting them to fight the machines. Fortunately, his awareness of the Matrix allows him to learn how to hack the simulated reality, bending the accepted laws of physics and using the jack in the back of his head to instantly download the information he needs to take down the Matrix from within. His mission is not without hazards, however, not least of which are the Agents, sentient security programs who hunt down and eliminate redpills like Neo, and of these, the most dangerous seems to be one Agent Smith…

I admit – I was impressed by this movie, from the concept of OMG NOTHING’S REAL to HOLY SHIT I CAN HACK REALITY. The bullet time effects were effective in showing events that in real time would go by too quickly to really perceive, and the CGI helped to enhance the pseudoreality effect rather than detract from it. All the “Matrix” scenes have a slight greenish tinge to subconsciously let the viewer know that something is Ever So Slightly Not Right, but in a way that you can’t specifically put your finger on it. And the homogenous, identical Agents were effectively menacing in their anonymity and their little talent of taking over “human” programs pretty much at will, as demonstrated by the “woman in the red dress” simulation. It tries to be philosophical at times about the perception of reality, the nature of reality, and transcending mental limits, but really, you watch a movie like this to see reality stretched to its logical limits.

However, the acting at times was… meh. I’m not just talking about Keanu’s performance (though everybody does), but most of the main cast. There just didn’t seem to be enough there to make me sympathize with Morpheus’ team of reality hackers, not even “digital pimp” Mouse. Only Fishburne seemed to realize that emoting = good, and that was mainly in the scenes where he was having his brain hacked by Agents. That said, the particular brand of non-acting utilized by the Agents did help to highlight their inhumanity, and made Smith’s first steps into glitchiness subtly discernible. Weaving’s drawling American accent was menacingly artificial, and reminded me of the G-Man in the Half-Life games (probably the exact same character archetype, but anyway). In fact, it was not for a long time that I learned that Weaving was actually Australian. Props to you, Hugo.

As a philosophical discussion of the nature of reality and fate, The Matrix falls eversoslightly short, but as a flashy action movie with reality-bending and innovative (for the day) effects and stunts, this movie wins. Switch off your brain and enjoy the ride.

Saw II (2005)


This is the story of eight strangers… picked to be trapped in a house that is slowly filling with nerve gas… forced to work with each other to escape and have their experience taped… to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start freaking the hell out.

Sounds like the premise for a new reality TV show, right? Wrong.

Saw II is a horror film and (obviously) the first sequel to Saw. It was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman and written by Bousman and Leigh Whannell (writer of the first movie). It starts Tobin “I want to play a game” Bell, Shawnee “Didn’t you already escape one of his traps?” Smith, Donnie “The Sixth Sense” Wahlberg, Frankie “The Italian Job” G, Glenn E. “Speed” Plummer, Beverley “7th Heaven” Mitchell, Dina “Starship Troopers” Meyer, Emmanuelle “Secondhand Lions” Vaugier, and Erik “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” Knudsen.

A police informant wakes with an iron maiden-like device around his head; a videotape informs him that the key to unlock the trap has been surgically implanted behind his left eye, and he is given a scalpel with which he must retrieve the key before time runs out. Naturally, he can’t, and his head gets crunched when the traps springs shut. Detective Eric Matthews (Wahlberg) is called to the scene after police find a message addressed to him. He follows a SWAT team to an abandoned steel factory, where they find John Kramer (Bell), a.k.a. Jigsaw, waiting for them, weakened by cancer. Nearby, monitors show a group of eight people trapped in a large house – and among them is Daniel (Knudsen), Eric’s son, and Amanda (Smith), the only known survivor of a Jigsaw trap. The victims have two hours to figure out how to escape the house before the nerve gas slowly filling the structure kills them, but Jigsaw assures Eric that he will see his son “in a safe, secure state” if Eric just talks to Jigsaw for a while. Eric reluctantly agrees, hoping to buy time for the tech guys to trace where the video signal is coming from.

Inside the house, the prisoners are told that there are antidotes scattered throughout the place to save them from the nerve gas, but each one is in a deadly puzzle-trap that must be solved to retrieve the prize within. As the people in the house race to find and unlock these precious antidotes, we learn that they have a connection: they are all people that Detective Matthews has had jailed, meaning Daniel could be in real danger if this detail were uncovered. Meanwhile, Jigsaw engages the detective in apparently meaningless small-talk, during the course of which we learn about his backstory and how he came to test people’s will to survive. And all the while, traps and betrayals are whittling down the number of players in his sadistic game…

I found Saw II to be a worthy follow-up to the original Saw, and Jigsaw’s brief biography was engaging as a study of the making of a madman. The main story within the trapped house also had me on the edge of my seat, knowing from the first movie that not everyone would get out alive, despite Jigsaw’s reassurances. Rather than keeping Jigsaw as a faceless entity, here he is established as a real person, with real motivations beyond being a sadistic bastard, and while I don’t agree with his methods, I could see how he can to settle on them. The ending gave me whiplash, as it had in the first movie, and only provides further proof of Jigsaw’s status as the ultimate chessmaster – he plans for every eventuality.

The traps were as diabolical as those in the first, but some of the house victims seemed mainly to get snared by their own stupidity, like in the razorblade trap. A few of them could be chalked up to desperation and a keep knowledge of human nature, though, like the peephole trap, but many of them appeared to be pure sadism, knowing that people wouldn’t be thinking straight with the threat of death by nerve gas hanging over their heads. One trap that is definitely worth noting for the sheer cringe factor, though – the needle pit. I don’t like needles anyway, even in a safe, sterile environment at the doctor’s office – and here Amanda gets shoved into a pit FILLED with used syringes! ARGHHHHHJJHYMNQMBDTRD…

In total, Saw II continues in the tradition of its predecessor, with a decently engaging story coupled with diabolical traps. Fans of the first will not be disappointed.

Audition (1999)


She is the woman of your dreams. She is a beautiful and demure woman, the flower of grace and beauty, but with a dark and tragic past. You listen sympathetically, commiserate with her pain (being a widower yourself) and when she asks you to love only her, you agree, because who wouldn’t want to love such a beautiful and delicate flower for the rest of your life?

She’s going to hold you to your word… no matter what.

Audition is a horror film by Takashi Miike, based on the Ryu Murakami novel of the same title. It stars Ryo “Suicide Club” Ishibashi, Tetsu “Border Line” Sawaki , and Eihi “Tokyo Gore Police” Shiina. It ranked at #11 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, which is probably the main reason most people in the West have heard of it. A number of Western horror directors found it too disturbing to watch, including Eli “Cabin Fever” Roth and Rob “House of 1000 Corpses” Zombie. But if you’re feeling brave, read on.

Seven years ago, Shigeharu Aoyama’s wife died of an illness. Now, as a middle-aged widow, he is unsure of his dating prospects, despite the encouragement of his son Shigehiko (Sawaki), who intends to move out when he finishes school and does not want his father to be alone. Aoyama’s friend Yasuhisa Yoshikawa, a film producer, proposes holding a mock audition, encouraging young, beautiful women to audition for the “role” of Aoyama’s wife, but actually being vetted as actual marriage material; the plan is for Aoyama to marry one of the finalists. During the auditions, Aoyama’s eye is drawn to one Asami Yamazaki (Shiina), age 24, a quiet, demure, soft-spoken former ballerina who was forced to stop dancing after an injury. Aoyama is enthralled, but Yoshikawa isn’t so sure: her job history is shaky and none of the references on her resume can be found. Aoyama is blinded by his own infatuation and calls her back, and we see her sitting in an apartment on the floor next to the only two things in the apartment besides her: the ringing telephone, and a lumpy burlap sack that lurches across the room as the phone rings. When she finally answers, Asami confesses that she didn’t expect him to call back. They begin dating, and he learns of her tragic past: she was physically and sexually abused by her stepfather, leaving scars that remain to this day, as she shows him. She asks him if he will love only her, and the infatuated Aoyama tells her he will, and they make love.

The next day she vanishes without a trace. Aoyama, using her resume, tries to track her down. He visits the ballet studio where she supposedly trained for 12 years, finding only a disabled old manin a wheel chair (who caused the scars on Asami’s legs). He visits the bar where Asami worked, only to find it had been closed for a year because the manager, the wife of a record producer, was found dismembered there. Amid the mess police found three extra fingers, an extra ear, and an extra tongue. Meanwhile, Asami is doing her own research, and she doesn’t like what she finds at all: an old photo of Aoyama’s dead wife prominently displayed on his desk. Aoyama is going to learn the dark side of an abusive childhood, and it isn’t going to involve rescuing her from her demons…

Not being familiar with Miike’s work when I first heard about this movie, I didn’t know what to expect when I rented Audition from Netflix, except for the infamous ending sequence. It starts off deceptively tame, as a very sweet and heartwarming romantic comedy, but even knowing how badly it would go didn’t prepare me for how gleefully psychotic Asami would turn. Fatal Attraction? Please. Alex Forrest is an amateur. Asami was giggling as she tortured Aoyama. Giggling. The Joker doesn’t even giggle like that. And if earlier scenes are any indication, she intended Aoyama to remain alive afterward, helpless and mutilated, totally dependent on her for everything. I bet none of you had exes quite that far around the bend. The violence is completely unflinching and unmerciful, involving muscle relaxant, acupuncture needles, and razor wire used in combinations that are likely to make you clench in sympathy.

I would call this a stealth horror movie. If you knew nothing about the movie going in, you would see nothing in the first two thirds to indicate what the last third would be like. I had never even heard of Takashi Miike before 100 Scariest, so afterwards I looked up some of his other stuff (which I haven’t seen yet). Apparently this guy has been compared to Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, as well as over the top violence and gorn. In other words, not an ideal date movie unless your SO is similarly minded and, you know, not secretly a psycho.

Saw (2004)


Hello. I want to play a game.

What would you do to survive? If you had to kill a complete stranger or mutilate yourself to save yourself or a loved one from a horrible fate, would you? How much do you value your life? How willing are you to survive?

Jigsaw wants to know. And he’s willing to put you to the ultimate test.

Saw is an Australian-American horror movie directed by James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell, based on an idea by Wan. It stars Cary “Dread Pirate Roberts” Elwes, Danny “I’m getting too old for this shit” Glover, Tobin “Mississippi Burning” Bell, Shawnee “The Desperate Hours” Smith, and Leigh “The Matrix Reloaded” Whannell.

The primary plot revolves around two men, photographer Adam Stanheight (Whannell) and oncologist Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes), who wake up in a dilapidated bathroom, each man chained by the ankle to a pipe at opposite ends of the bathroom. Lying between them is a corpse in a pool of blood, with a revolver in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. Adam and Dr. Gordon each have a cassette tape in their pocket; using the tape recorder, they learn that Adam has been tasked with escaping the bathroom, while Dr. Gordon must kill Adam before six o’clock or his wife and daughter will be killed. Congratulations, guys, you’ve been taken by the Jigsaw Killer… you’re both screwed.

As the movie progresses, we learn more about the mysterious Jigsaw Killer. Believing that people don’t truly appreciate their lives, Jigsaw places them in elaborate, poetic deathtraps and challenges them to escape. The only known survivor of one of these traps is Amanda Young (Smith), a heroin addict who had to cut open her dealer’s stomach to retrieve the key to a device locked onto her head, designed to tear her lower jaw off when time ran out; in her statement to police she asserted that the experience “helped” her. Jigsaw would frequently observe these games, directly or otherwise, apparently enjoying having a front row seat. Dr. Gordon’s heard of him, having briefly been accused of being him when his penlight was found at the scene of one of the traps.

Meanwhile, Gordon’s family is being guarded in their home by a man who is watching the prisoners’ plight through a camera behind one of the bathroom mirrors. The Gordon house in turn is being watched by Detective Tapp (Glover), who became obsessed with finding Jigsaw after viewing Amanda’s testimony, but an illegal raid on one of Jigsaw’s hideouts left his partner dead from a shotgun trap and Tapp himself discharged from the force. As Adam and Gordon learn what their connection is to each other and to the mysterious Jigsaw, they are forced to come to a dire conclusion: Play Jigsaw’s game, or suffer the consequences.

While Saw has been credited with inspiring the “torture porn” subgenre of movies that subsequently became popular, this first movie actually contains very little gore, and most of the violence is offscreen. Others have compared Saw to other psychological thrillers like Se7en, both favorably and unfavorably. I found Saw to be a tight little suspense movie that gave you every reason to sympathize with the subjects of Jigsaw’s experiments. They are real, flawed people who may have made a single mistake that landed them in this mess, but none of them seemed unrealistically whiny about it.

The traps themselves are cruel and efficient, and the traps were often “real” devices: the reverse beartrap of Amanda’s test, for example, was made of metal and fully functional. The gritty, rusted appearance of all the traps, as well as the used, “abandoned” look of the rooms made them look inherently more dangerous than a sterile setting with clean, polished traps might have been.

Saw holds a special place in my dark little heart. While the rest of the franchise has become largely hit-and-miss, the original introduced me to a truly demented villain in Jigsaw, and I enjoyed putting the pieces together as the ending came from a surprising direction. By all means, see this movie. You won’t be sorry.