Film Roundup XXII

Saw – 85%

Two strangers wake up in a room together. They are chained to pipes by their ankles and there is a dead body and a handgun on the floor in-between them. A tape recording instructs one of them that, unless he kills the other by a certain time, his wife and daughter will be murdered. The two also discover a pair of hacksaws, but are unable to cut through their chains. Eventually, one of them realizes that the hacksaws will have to be used on their legs if they wish to escape. Various flashbacks reveal that this is the work of a twisted serial murderer known as the Jigsaw Killer, a man who takes pleasure in putting his victims in situations where they will have to make drastic moral choices or inflict extreme pain on themselves in order to survive.

Although I’ve never quite felt up to any of the Saw sequels (there are currently four), the first one was a decent thriller. Despite rather obvious budget constraints, the proceedings held my interest with a smart combination of plot twists and a succession of blood-curdling thought experiments. I had the distinct feeling that I would need to see it again to completely understand the game that had been played, which is unfortunate, as it’s not the sort of thing I would necessarily want to see a second time. Still, it was nowhere near as gruesome as I understand other entries in the series (and the genre) to be. Any given person will know best whether this sort of thing is their cup of tea or not without needing to see it and find out.

The Da Vinci Code – 80%

“Symbologist” Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is drawn into a centuries-old mystery protected by a global conspiracy when he is called in to assist police at the scene of a murder committed in the Louvre museum in Paris. Soon, Langdon’s knowledge of art and history lead him and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), the murdered man’s granddaughter, on a quest for the Holy Grail. Their search is complicated, both by the devilish clues which guard the Grail, and by the interference of Opus Dei, a shadowy, sinister Catholic organization that will stop at nothing to prevent the secret of the Grail from being revealed.

The movie is based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, which concocts an infallible recipe for success: a Grail Quest, secret societies, a “double chase,” intriguing clues, and a sloppily-researched alternate history stolen from Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Brown is fortunate indeed to have been gifted with such a flair for “borrowing” other peoples’ interesting and controversial ideas, because he certainly can’t write. His characters are flat and wooden, his dialogue is jarring and painful, and his plot development is predictable and patently absurd.

Happily, the worst of these defects can be ironed out by a competent screenwriter and a large production budget. The movie version can’t help but retain some of the silliness of its source, but is otherwise such a vast improvement over the excruciating experience of reading the book that I had rather a good time. Tom Hanks is usually worth watching, Ian McKellen pops in to lend gravitas to the inevitable exposition, and Paul Bettany is delightfully campy as Silas, an albino monk-slash-assassin. Still, if it’s excitement and a modern Grail quest you’re craving, I’d recommend revisiting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade instead.

CSA: Confederate States of America – 88%

This irreverent mockumentary explores the history of America after the Confederacy won the American Civil War and proceeded to conquer the northern states. The movie combines doctored photos, fake historical footage, interviews, and hilarious commercials and film clips to create a portrait of a nation where slavery didn’t end 150 years ago. Ultimately, it uses this conceit to question whether America today would look much different, particularly with respect to racial issues, if the South had won the war, and comes to the disturbing conclusion that it would not.

I thought this was a very interesting and original idea, even if the execution can’t quite live up to the premise. I found it to be quite entertaining and funny, albeit not for the easily-offended. I especially enjoyed the various made-up film clips representing various periods of Hollywood film-making. What the minds behind this movie lack in production values they almost make up in sheer creativity. This is a must-see for anyone interested in the South or cultural history.

¡Three Amigos! – 79%

Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase), Lucky Day (Steve Martin), and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short) are the Three Amigos, a trio of actors who play the intrepid heroes of a series of popular silent Westerns. After they get themselves fired and kicked off the studio lot, they decide to accept what they think is a performance gig in a small Mexican village. The confused villagers, however, have taken their on-screen exploits literally and want the men to stand up to El Guapo, a cruel bandit leader. Although their first impulse is to run straight back to Hollywood, the three are eventually inspired to step up and bungle their way through the most important roles they will ever play.

This plot is almost as old as the movies themselves, but Chase, Martin, and Short are funny guys and they do it credit. The movie staggers drunkenly between genuinely amusing and just silly, but it doesn’t fail to deliver anything that it promises before eventually succumbing to the tropes of the genre it is parodying. Good for a laugh or three, but hardly a classic.

Déjà Vu – 34%

ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) investigates the explosion of a ferry that killed hundreds of people and the death of a mysterious woman found shortly before the incident. Before he can get far, he is invited to join the efforts of a secret surveillance team who possess technology allowing them to look back exactly four days (give or take) in time. As they search the past for clues, Carlin grows more interested in, and concerned for, the dead woman. With the time of the explosion drawing near for the observers, Carlin impulsively adapts the technology to allow him to travel back to the day before so he can try to prevent the events from ever happening.

There’s no denying that Washington is a talented actor who brings a lot of presence to any project, but even he can’t save this stinker. An intriguing set-up with an interesting premise (the limited surveillance of the past) takes a turn for the incredibly stupid when Washington’s character decides that he can just hop inside the gizmo and launch himself back in time. The story never really recovers from that idiotic leap, but it’s all paint-by-numbers anyway, as any halfway-conscious viewer will have no trouble anticipating that Carlin is doomed to become part of the events leading up to everything turning out exactly as it did before. The only question is whether Washington wished he had access to a time machine when he saw how poorly the whole thing played out.

~ by Jared on April 11, 2009.

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