Jigsaw (**) – Disposable Morality

JigsawJigsaw – 2017

Directors The Spierig Brothers
Screenplay by Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger
Starring Tobin Bell, Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson

It takes a good riff to hook one on a franchise, bad or good. The first Halloween is one of the greatest films of all time, making me a willing sucker for each subsequently horrible entry. I keep thinking it will get better. SAW was a film I didn’t think all that great the first time. The ending was clever, and the depictions of gruesome death tied to hollow morality goes back to Scrooge. That term “torture porn” was berthed with this franchise should tell you everything you need to know about this series. But there’s so much less.

The thing that hamstrings the franchise past episode one is the characters are as entirely disposable as the plot makes them to be. We find vignettes of mostly bland people in distress, in a prime position to die horribly. There is some sort of device that elicits a message from the master of their current position telling them what it is they need to do in order to stay living. It doesn’t promise them that they’ll be comfortable in their possible future existence.

Outside of their prison is even worse in terms of acting. We bounce between flashbacks of those prisoners affecting the life of John “Jigsaw” Kramer in a negative fashion and some extremely bland investigators.  Following both plot lines and their obvious tells is almost always more painful than watching the torturous deaths to which we are chained.

Almost every one of these actors are people you’ll never remember, but for how much they annoy. There are exceptions to these rules. Danny Glover, Shawnee Smith, Ken Leung and especially Donnie Wahlberg added something to the series. Cary Elwes was at least an even trade.

One of the weak points for the series is Bell’s divergent character who is suffering on one side and applying the pain on the other. He’s always played as a reluctant benefactor. It worked to begin with, but by the time they had him on the operating table it was more funny than anything.

This time, ten years gone, we’re supposed to buy the idea that he’s somehow escaped the grave and put one of his fresh victims in the box. Seeing him mope around, viewing and judging from a distance is a threadbare concept now. It’s to the point where its a wonder if he ever saw any simple kindness in his life.

If I never mention any of the acting talent in this film, I would say it ranks right up there along side, say anything produced for Lifetime or SyFy. The toughest part working through these films is fighting the thought that you literally hope most of these characters will die at least as horribly as their acting ability.

For those who like this series, this one will rank somewhere near the middle when it comes to what they want. There are some Fangoria-worthy moments. Most others that are somewhat less inspired. The logic and moral authority is thinner than ever. You really have to reach to find the reasoning even partly valid. The twist at the end has been done a few times by now and it will not resonate at all when compared to even SAW 3D.

It’s understandable that this franchise could go on forever and for no real reason other than people like to see mishaps with painful contraptions. If they really wanted to work as hard at scaring you, they’d work on your mind as much as the eyes.

Which brings us back to the first film. Do more stuff like that. Which is to say, tell unique stories.

(** out of *****)

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Fifty Shades of Grey (***) attempts to level the playing field

Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-Movie-Poster

Fifty Shades of Grey – 2015

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Rita Ora, Max Martini, Callum Keith Rennie, Andrew Airlie, Dylan Neal, Marcia Gay Harden
Screenplay Kelly Marcel based on the book by E.L. James

After so many words stated both pro and con about the worthiness and value of this romance story disguised as a sex movie, the first thing that occurs to me when going over the credits is how many people were in this movie? Did they give casting credit to everyone who walked by as an extra in the streets of Vancouver / Seattle? To my recollection, there are about 16 people who have lines in the film. This could be underselling a bit, due to certain distractions.

These distractions are pleasant, soft and cushioned with the comfort of knowing there are safe words: red, yellow and, I think…Popsicle. Can’t be too sure about that last one. It could have been ice, for all I know. The important thing to know is writers James, Marcel and director Johnson have approximated, apparently correctly, that most women want someone who is on the ledge of dangerous, but not tipping too far over that edge.

Dakota Johnson, as Ana, steps in for her friend, Kate to interview Christian Grey (Dornan) for the college newspaper. This is, at best, a clumsy meet cute, but it ends on a good note at the elevator. From there, Grey goes to Ana’s job at the local hardware store and agrees to a photo shoot for the article. Although she turns down Grey’s offer for work at his prestigious company, that’s pretty much the last we hear about her working at the hardware store. He asks her what her favorite author is and she says Thomas Hardy. She wins points from this author for that answer. She asks him what he’s after. He says he wants to bite her bottom lip. She says she’d like that too.

The talk goes back and forth, and she thinks she might have a boyfriend. He tells her he never sleeps with anyone. He does do other things, he says, as he opens the door to the den of his pleasure.

At this point, it looks like Grey is a pretty straightforward dominant male. Is she going top succumb to his will? Is he going to violate her and make her his plaything? Was this fantasy created by a man?

The ensuing hour or so answers this question with a pretty solid “no.”

It begins with a call from a bar in which a drunk Ana teases Grey about her intentions. He rushes to be by her side and even gets rough with one of her other male friends. The process resumes with the “not” couple going through the rules for their pending engagement with S&M. As she knocks item after item from the list and he agrees, it becomes abundantly clear whose fantasy this is. He even volunteers to take her on a date one night a week. Here’s where Christian outstretches every straight man in America. Anyone thinking he is in control after this is just wishful thinking.

Ana: Why are you trying to change me?

Christian: I’m not. It’s you that’s changing me.

Change indeed. Before long, Ana can’t take a little trip to visit Mom (Ehle) without him flying across country to be by her side. Once there, they take a dreamy airplane ride before he is taken away by some crisis at work. This is not really an issue for them. Instead we come across a more intense session. Afterword, she is puzzled by his enduring unwillingness to break the bed sharing rule. This leads to a faux crisis that concludes the story.

Most people (read: wives – including mine) who have read the book say that the film does not live up to expectations. Since I am unburdened by that, I can say it was a good movie, but not nearly a great one. There is a nice bookend of scenes that take place with closing elevator doors. What they do in the dungeon (and a few other places) is done as tastefully as one could expect outside of the Calvinist world. If sex on-screen ain’t your thing, don’t watch. If you linger on the cover of a Harlequin romance novel, I am sure this will not injure your sensibilities.

Taylor-Johnson is a competent director who landed on a goldmine which she managed to keep from exploding like a land mine. Johnson’s depiction is a minx worthy of Austin Powers, but presented like Adrian from the Rocky movies at first. The transition is not all that believable, but she looks great biting her bottom lip. Dornan seems a little too milquetoast, but the script doesn’t do him any favors there. Still, over all, the chemistry works at its own level.

This is not the end, nor is it all that bad. It’s a fantasy, to be sure, somewhere north of a Lifetime mini-series but well below, say…Citizen Kane. People who presented this as some sort of nadir of society will have to wait for parts 2 and 3. Better yet, go back to The Wolf of Wall Street, like my friend, Sarah, said. Nothing says “This is the End” like Scorsese getting tired of his crook biopic formula. I won’t watch this film again. I will watch parts 2 and 3.

(*** out of *****)