Movie Review – Saw VI (2009)

Director: Kevin Greutart

Stars: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Mark Rolston, Betsy Russell, Shawnee Smith etc

As Hoffman has escaped Strahm he thinks he’s free and clear, but as another game gets set in motion Jigsaw’s ultimate plan is revealed, and the net of the FBI tightens around Hoffman.

Okay, so Saw V was pretty lame but this one was much better. The trap involves an insurance salesman who created a policy that evaluates whether people are eligible for cover or not. The traps and the twists are gruesome, and the acting is really good and made me root for the guy, even though he isn’t the nicest person. The film has a good look to it and it’s pretty gruesome. The twists were unexpected and kept me on my feet. I felt engaged throughout the whole thing, and although I’m not a fan of Mandylor (he feels like he’s doing a Sylvestor Stallone impression most of the time), the actor does suffer because he’s never able to be a villain in his own right; for Jigsaw overshadows him.

While the violence is gory it still serves the plot, and some of the traps are incredible tense. The tension is ratcheted up towards the end as the two plots come to their conclusion, and I thoroughly enjoyed this one.


Movie Review – Saw V (2008)

Director: David Hackl

Stars: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Julie Benz, Meagan Good, Mark Rolston, Carlo Rota

Strahm (Patterson) tracks Jigsaw’s apprentice, Hoffman (Mandylor) while another group of people undergo one a deadly game.

I don’t think I’ve reviewed any of the Saw movies on this blog. I actually used to hate any kind of horror movie, but I’ve come to enjoy them and I do enjoy this franchise, although it’s not without its missteps. I find the twists entertaining and the games are usually inventive, in a very grisly way. I watched the first four films a few years ago and I’ve only now gotten around to finishing off the franchise, so my memory of the details was a bit hazy, and it took a little while to get things straight in my head. Saw V is pretty dense with its flashbacks, and at times it was unclear whether things were happening in the present or the past. That may not have been a problem had I watched them all close together, but after the long break I took it was a little jarring.

As for the film itself there’s two main plots and they don’t intersect. The cat and mouse game between Strahm and Hoffman is interesting but given how disjointed it feels because of the flashbacks I couldn’t get fully involved in it, although the ending is gruesome and great. The main game features a favourite of mine – Julie Benz, but the twist is predictable and it doesn’t really go anywhere. It almost feels like it’s there just to fill up time, so it wasn’t exactly a triumphant return to the series. But it did feel less gratuitous and it felt like it wanted to have more of a plot than mere scenes of torture, it just so happened that the plot was a bit rubbish.

Returning to Church for a 50th Anniversary

I’m an atheist and have been for a long time now, but in my youth I spent a lot of time at church. My mother has been going to the same church for 45 of its 50 years, and is integral to its wellbeing and progress. She puts a lot of hard work into the church and is beloved by its congregation (when I went I was introduced as ‘that’s Kim’s son’, and that was followed be an awed whisper, as though I was the child of a celebrity). Over the weekend this church celebrated its 50th anniversary and although I feel uncomfortable going to church I went because I wanted to support my mother because she was leading the service and I knew it was a big deal to her. So I wanted to talk in this post a bit about what it was like going back after all these years and how I felt about being an atheist in amongst a sea of believers.

First of all it was nice to see so many people turn out because I know the church has been through a lot over the years but there were a lot of people, past and present, that came to celebrate. The Sheriff of Southampton even turned up as well, so I think that qualifies me as a member of high society.

It’s been a big part of my mum’s life, she even got married there, and I can’t imagine how many hours she’s put in, and I’m glad she got some appreciation and recognition. It was quite moving to see a slideshow of the history of the church, and many people had positive things to say about the role it played in their lives. It even made me nostalgic because I spent a lot of time there as a boy, and although I feel disconnected from my childhood it made me realize how much time I had spent there and what an impact it had on my life. It also made me feel a little…guilty isn’t the right word…but I know how much her faith means to my mother, and I hope that she’s not too hurt by the fact that neither I or my sister carried it on, even though she shared it with us from a young age. I’m more overt in my atheism and I know sometimes I can take flippant jabs at religion, but I hope that my mother doesn’t think I’m being too disrespectful.

Honestly though, I envied the Christians. They shared a connection and to have that community on hand is something that I admire about them, and I wish I had something like that in my own life because I find that I am getting increasingly lonely, and as they were caught in the throes of a raucous song that roused their passionate faith I almost wished that I still believed so I could be a part of it. It was a strange feeling to stand there and watch these people share their faith in Jesus. I felt like an intruder, especially when they started praying and said the Grace (made doubly awkward by the fact that they look around at each other, and I had to make eye contact with them while I remained silent). I enjoyed the songs, but I couldn’t sing them with as much passion as the rest, and while I in no way doubt my atheism I do miss the community aspect of the church, but if anything as they were praying to God it re-affirmed my atheistic belief.

One amusing thing happened though. I write erotica for a living, and while I don’t tell everyone I meet I don’t deny if they ask. The conversation usually goes like this –

“What are you doing now?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Oh really? What do you write?”

“I just work freelance so I do a lot of different things, but mostly erotica.”

And then people have different reactions. The best was yesterday. He’s a former pastor of the church and one of my parents’ friends, but when I told him he had that look of utter panic and dread, like he wasn’t sure what to think or say, and he ended up spilling some food he was trying to pick up.

Sometimes I like what I do just for the reactions I get from people.

But I’d like to know if anyone else has had a similar experience, or if anyone else has found that same community spirit in other areas of their lives?

Movie Review – Superman vs. The Elite (2012)

Director: Michael Chang

Stars: George Newbern, Pauley Perrette, Robin Atkin Downes, Dee Bradley Baker, Ogie Banks, Melissa Disney, Catero Colbert

Superman finds himself confronted by a world that is doubting his methods. With the rise of terrorist organizations and supervillains causing a lot of destruction, people are trying to urge Superman to use his power and rid the world of the evil-doers for good. When he refuses people begin to lose faith in him, especially as a new team, who call themselves The Elite, defeat the bad guys using extreme measures.

I always enjoy stories that put Superman’s philosophy to the test as it’s an interesting subject in morality. Is the moral value of not killing worth seeing repeat offenders cause more and more destruction? It’s been brought up in a number of stories but in Superman vs. The Elite it’s the focus of the entire movie, and as Superman explains his reasoning to Manchester Black it only reinforces my negative opinion of Man of Steel. The style of the intro immediately sets it apart from the other DC movies, and it does feel like it’s removed from the wider universe (although some lip service is paid to the other heroes).

The Elite are interesting characters, although we’re only given backstory on one of them. It would have been preferable to see what made all of them tick, but I understand why they chose to focus on Manchester Black. The final fight is terrifying and enrapturing as Superman unleashes his full power, and it’s a moment of triumph when people realize he was right. It may be idealistic but it’s the reason why I love Superman, and as he explains his philosophy I feel inspired.

Movie Review – Joe (2013)

Director: David Gordon Green

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Sue Rock

Gary is a 15 year old boy who searches for work in order to support his family. He comes across a burned-out man, Joe, who gives him work. Joe seeks to rein in his temper but as he notices the boy getting abused by his father humanity is aroused within, and although he tries to fight his on volatile temper, it eventually wins out.

Joe is a strange film. I’m not sure whether I enjoyed it or not. It’s very slow-paced, and the acting is certainly good, especially from Cage who has become something of a punchline (although he’s still one of my favourite actors and I will defend some of his recent films). But there are many things that took me by surprise. Firstly I never would have thought that this is the same director who took the helm of Pineapple Express, The Sitter, and Your Highness. It has an entirely different sensibility but the mood and tone of the film is handled in such a way that is completely different from those three films. Secondly, I did not expect that Gary’s father was plucked from the streets and thrust into the film. It’s shocking to read that he died only two months after filming because his performance was menacing and dangerous.

I liked the relationship between Gary and Joe, and there seemed to be equal time given to both characters. Joe was a violent man who seemed to be lost in a certain way of life, going about his empty routine without purpose, yet with Gary he’s offered a chance of a ‘normal’ life. Some scenes are brutal and difficult to watch, and although it’s slow pace will turn some people off I did find it involving. I also liked the glimpses given of Joe’s past, and it gives a sense that we’re only getting part of the story. Some people may not like this but it worked for me.

But it’s very much a character drama, with an ending that was fitting for the characters but felt a little anti-climactic. It does feel like the film is only giving us part of the story, and that’s where my issues with the film come from. I appreciate that it’s well-made and well-acted, but there’s something that just feels like it’s not gripping me as much as it should have, and I don’t think I had the emotional reaction at the end that the film seemed to be working towards. Having said all that I do feel it’s worth watching and even though it had a dark tone it doesn’t veer completely into misery porn territory.

Movie Review – Short Term 12 (2013)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Stars: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Keith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever

Short Term 12 takes place in a short-term care facility for at-risk foster children. Grace (Larson) works with her long-term boyfriend Mason (Gallagher) as they welcome a new addition to their staff (Malek). They also welcome a new addition to the facility, Jayden (Dever), whose problems reflect Grace’s past, and Grace is forced to confront her trauma just as she’s preparing for some important life decisions.

This films is almost hard to review because while watching Short Term 12 I was struck by how raw it is, and there were many times when I forget that I was watching a work of fiction. At times it felt like a documentary. It obviously brings up a lot of emotions and I’m sure will bring out different reactions depending on your background, but the film sheds light on a number of different conditions and traumas, and shows victims in different stages. Larson is the anchor to the film and it mostly revolves around her, but we also get show a young man who is turning 18 and forced to leave the sanctuary of the facility, there’s a young boy who is traumatised after the loss of his sister, and alongside the children there are the adults who have decided to dedicate their time to take care of the children and try to provide them with a safe place, yet are also frustrated because they’re not therapists or guardians so they don’t have any legal say in the wellbeing of the children.

I found a lot of the scenes moving, but I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s a depressing and grim film because there are moments of light-heartedness too. There’s a lot of heart in this film and it left me thinking about the world and how I interact with people. I actually know someone who is a foster parent and I’m going to recommend this to her, but I feel that pretty much everyone should watch this movie. It’s highly impressive, and deserves more recognition.

Movie Review – Justice League: Doom (2012)

Director: Lauren Montgomery

Stars: Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly, Susan Eisenberg, Claudia Black, Nathan Fillion, Carl Lumbly, Michael Rosenbaum, Bumper Robinson, Carlos Alazraqui, Paul Blackthorne, Olivia D’Abo, Alexis Denisof, Phil Morris

After Vandal Savage gets his hands on Batman’s contingency plans against the Justice League, he sets about taking down each member, with his end goal being to create a new world. After the JLA find out, their relationship is fractured can they overcome their mistrust to defeat their villains and Savage?

Justice League: Doom is based on a famous comic that I have never read. I don’t know if it’s the origin of the ‘Batman is always prepared’ joke, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where it started. The idea of Batman having pinpointed weaknesses against his allies is intriguing, and it’s heartbreaking to see heroes being torn down and defeated. Each member had some painful sequences, and the only one that didn’t quite work for me was the Green Lantern one, because I was unaware of the history between him and Star Sapphire.

Vandal Savage is a strong villain too, and his scheme is frightening, if a little clichéd. All the voice actors did good work and the action sequences looked great. If this was a little longer I think there was an opportunity for them to talk more about why Batman felt he had to make plans, but there was a nice conversation between him and Superman at the end that pretty much encapsulated their different philosophies. I also liked the addition of Cyborg and enjoyed his role in the story.

Movie Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Director: Joss Whedon

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Bettany, James Spader, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smoulders

After the Avengers disbanded at the end of Avengers Assemble they swore to reunite if ever the Earth needed its mightiest heroes. Iron Man still struggles with the aftermath of the battle of New York, and has created an Iron Legion of drones to help the Avengers. In an effort to create an artificial intelligence to ensure peace in our times, Ultron is born, and starts to dismantle the Avengers.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a juggernaut. At first the films were all building towards Avengers Assemble but in the films between that and Age of Ultron there has been more crossover, and it’s arguable that The Winter Soldier was a more important pillar in the overarching universe than Age of Ultron is. It’s an enjoyable film, and a great spectacle with relentless action set-pieces. It moves at a brisk pace, and there’s enough here to satisfy people but ultimately I can’t help but feel that it wasn’t as great as it could have been. I read an interview with Joss Whedon after Avengers Assemble came out and he talked about how sequels usually go bigger, but the idea is to go deeper. It’s a good idea, and there are moments in Age of Ultron where this is true, but the film retreads some of the ground of the previous film, and the pattern is eerily similar. The Avengers are good, then something happens to make them doubt themselves and they have to rally, and the climax involves them fighting an army of faceless drones, while Iron Man again has to try and prevent something from falling to Earth.

It left me feeling that the novelty factor of seeing the heroes together isn’t enough anymore, especially after we’ve seen Black Widow, Falcon, and Nick Fury work together in The Winter Soldier, so the solo movies aren’t necessarily solo anymore, especially when Civil War is shaping up to involve even more heroes.

But perhaps that’s underselling Age of Ultron because it does a lot right. After Hulk stole the show in Avengers Assemble a lot of people were clamouring for another solo movie, but Marvel have wisely used the Avengers movies as they only place you can see the Hulk, and really it touches on the major points of Bruce’s story, so a solo movie isn’t needed. Bruce gets the main emotional story, and has the deepest arc, along with Black Widow. Hawkeye gets used far more in this film too, and Renner shows that he’s worthy to stand alongside the other heroes.

The new additions are cool as well. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver add some new powers, and although this version of the speedster doesn’t have the same impact as the same hero in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the twins bring something different to the film and an added pathos.

The one area in which the MCU has been lacking has been the villains, but in Ultron they can boast one of the most entertaining. Alongside Loki and Kingpin he’s a good character. Infused with a shadow of Stark’s personality, Ultron comes of as deranged and dangerous, and Spader’s delivery is perfect. Vision is cool too, and opens up some new possibilities.

The characters get moments to shine, and although this time Iron Man and Captain America take a back seat, they have moments that plant seeds for their eventual disagreement. Yet even then I felt things would be left on a more sour note between them (and this is another little quibble I have with Marvel – it’s all well and good releasing the titles of films for the next ten years but it does mean people are constantly looking forward rather than taking this film for what it is).

I did think the creation of Ultron was rushed, and the first part of the film dropped us straight into the action. I feel this was a mistake because at the end of the first film we were told that the Avengers would come back when Earth needed them, yet at the start we see that they’ve actually been working together for a while, and it undercut the drama of the initial promise. I mentioned the retreading the same ground before, and while this is a criticism I will defend, my friend also pointed out that it could be argued the real villain in these two films has been the mind gem (perhaps villain is the wrong term, antagonist perhaps), and again things are seeded here for the cosmic battle that will come in the future.

Age of Ultron develops the universe in a broader way and introduces new characters in a way that feels organic and natural. Ultron is a compelling presence and makes a good villain. It’s a fun movie and I enjoyed it a lot, but I do find myself looking forward more to the solo adventures.

I’ll also mention the credits scene here. I wasn’t a fan of this one. I was hoping for something about a character we hadn’t previously seen, as this one didn’t tell us anything new and it felt a little redundant. I’m also disappointed that there wasn’t anything hinting at Spider-Man. They managed to film the shawarma scene a week before the last one premiered, and I thought they could have had a little tease. I would even have taken a strand of web hanging from the edge of the screen at the end of the credits!

Movie Review – Frances Ha (2012)

Director: Noah Baumbach

Stars: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Patrick Heusinger

Frances (Gerwig) is a young woman whose passion is dance, but she’s stuck being an understudy in the company she works for. But she lives with her best friend, and constantly refers to them as being the same person but with different hairstyles. However, when Sophie tells Frances that she’s moving out a schism occurs in their friendship, and Frances has to re-evaluate her place in the world and her purpose.

Frances Ha is a charming film that will resonate with people who have gone through their twenties. It shows a creative person’s struggles to make a career out of their passion, and the pain of seeing people you love grow up. In Frances’ world she obviously wanted to live with Sophie for an indefinite amount of time, but Sophie wanted to get married and move on with her boyfriend, while Frances was stuck in a certain arrested development mindset, where she didn’t want things to change too dramatically.

But, to be fair to her, she does change it up a lot and tries new things. Gerwig is completely endearing in the role, and while I think the character is a little too quirky to be real, Gerwig imbues her with sympathy and I found myself genuinely invested in the character. The supporting cast is equally as good, and it encapsulates the transient nature of growing up as people move in and out of your life.

The film is American but has a European feel for it is shot in black and white, and is offbeat and quirky. It’s very much a slice of life story without a strong narrative thread running through it, but thanks to Gerwig’s performance and the strong script I was involved the whole way through. It’s paced well and there are moments where I was laughing out loud. It’s an excellent film, and one I highly recommend.

Movie Review – The Frozen Ground (2013)

Director: Scott Walker

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Vanessa Hudgens, John Cusack

An Alaska State Trooper tries to protect a young prostitute as she holds the key to catching a serial killer.

The Frozen Ground is based on actual events, and this lends the film some extra gravitas. Cage and Cusack are the veterans here, and the film builds to when they finally meet, and that scene is explosive. The killer is disturbing, although this comes through more from what is told rather than what is shown, but I can understand why they didn’t want to go into too much detail as it may have been disrespectful to the victims. The main star of this film is Hudgens, who captures the screen and immerses herself in the role. She’s vulnerable, hard-headed, sympathetic, and infuriating. The film needed her to be the anchor upon which the plot spun, and she is superb here.

The investigation is slow-paced in some parts, and only in a few places does the film reach the creepiness levels of films like Zodiac. I wouldn’t say it’s the best in the genre but it’s certainly watchable.

The most haunting moment comes at the end though, as pictures of all the victims (at least the ones that are known) are shown on the screen. The music that accompanies them is strangely offbeat, but there’s something grisly and unsettling about seeing the pictures, and then reading how long it took for their bodies to be discovered. The killer in this movie is, well, words don’t do him justice, and the gloomy setting of Alaska sets the right kind of mood.