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 *****)


The Conjuring 2 (****) secures Wan’s spot at the top of Horror


The Conjuring 2 – 2016

Director James Wan
Screenplay by Wan, Chad and Carey Hayes, David Leslie Johnson
Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente, Bonnie Aarons

So difficult is it to pull off a movie about a haunting or even more, a possession, that it makes one want to shout from the hills and declare a movie better than it otherwise might be conceived in other genres. James Wan has had a few tries at the concept himself: 5 by my unofficial count if you include Dead Silence. One would think he’s figured out the formula by this point. Actually, he has redefined in the midst of the limelight.

The thing that he does differently in The Conjuring series is that he makes Ed and Lorraine Warren active participants in what might normally be thought of as a passive existence. A key to the success in the series, now through two films and one spinoff, is that we see Ed and Lorraine as collectors of artifacts in each of their cases. These artifacts is that they have a life of their own, carrying an aura that makes their home dangerous and part of the developing story.

Often the gist of a possession story is to make the object of the haunting the focal point to the action. Giving the viewer some time away from the object(s) of the haunting is what allows us time to contemplate what we’ve seen and, ostensibly, do some research with the people offsite. Most people prepare to see some sort of old news print article about an ancient murder on the premises. This is not what we see in with Wan’s series.

Instead, we see side story progression, even more danger and stress. This makes the viewing experience much more tense in it’s unpredictability. What is used sparingly in the first film is expanded upon here, with much more effective results.

After starting out in the Amityville Horror house, we see Lorraine (Farmiga) come face to face with a demon nun (Aarons). This nun would be merely a prologue in another film, but here it plays a pivotal and portentous role.

Meanwhile in England, we have the Hodgson family lead by single mother (O’Connor in a performance better than one would expect for this genre) that is awakening to a horrific existence thanks to the haunting by an old man who previously lived in the house. Most of these events center around young Janet (Wolfe). Wan moves the action forward in a variety of intriguing and genuinely effective ways. There is banging walls and doors, toys that move on their own and an intriguing zoetrope. What Wan does more effectively this time, though, is present 4 kids with mostly different personalities. Wolfe’s Janet is quite believable, while one of them makes me think he’s going to pronounce “God Bless us, Everyone!” at any time.

Back in the states, Lorraine and Ed are twiddling their thumbs. At one point, Ed has trouble sleeping and creates a drawing of the nun that Lorraine saw earlier. He doesn’t know what to make of it, but she knows it’s bad news, that is about to get worse. The next scene featuring this painting stands out as one of the scariest sequences I have seen in a long time.

How the story shapes up versus the “true” version of events is not a one for one equation, but in this case, the story on screen wins the day in a big way. There are many cliches strewn throughout, but it is more than made up for with Wilson, Farmiga, O’Connor and Wolfe’s reaction to the well paced and excellently framed direction. Even when you know what you should be seeing, you still don’t want to see it. Yet you can’t look away.

Wan has found himself in a great spot here. Ghost stories are not often done and even less likely to be memorable in the last 20 years. It would be a source of complaint if he was wallowing in the same territory and going through the motions, like Singer is doing with the X-Men.

What becomes more apparent in Wan’s exercise is that he very obviously loves the genre. PG-13 is normally a death sentence for horror. Not here. This film exceeds the grasp of the first installment and it cements the formula that one established.

One more thing should be observed that occurs to me now that I look back on these two, the Insidious films and Dead Silence. Wan and his co-creators seem to have a reliance on images of tall women with incredibly scary mouth movements. I am not sure the Freudian significance of these images, but they certainly do resonate. Maybe this is the irony of a woman being the womb of the world turned into a horrific source of pain. Then again, it could just be a version of the whore of Babylon. Either way, it works and it keeps us coming back.

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

Furious 7 (***1/2): Meatball Hallmark Card

Furious 7 – 2015

Director James Wan
Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham
Screenplay Chris Morgan

If one could sum up the entire Furious franchise in 3 phrases, it would be:

I don’t have friends. I got family.

I live life a quarter-mile at a time.

One last ride.

At this point, the gang is on their 3rd consecutive last ride. This time it was made especially poignant in the untimely death of co-lead Paul Walker. The filmmakers made the wise choice to re-shoot parts of the film as an impromptu tribute to a person who had become a key figure in the lives of the cast and crew of this most uniquely enduring franchise. To think it all started as Point Break in fast cars…

In a strange twist often mentioned in the past, the movies went to the edge of American Pie Presents Band Camp status, backed up and headed right into Italian Job and then James Bond. To say this was planned would be disingenuous. Most of the actors, including Diesel, have tried and failed to come up with outside franchises. Fast and Furious, though, is like the really big fuel injected engine that could. The success of the franchise has made many fans that were casual into looky loos. And even if each film produces as many cringe-inducing moments as awe-inspiring ones, it is a tribute to the people involved that they have made it into the Juggernaut we see today.

This time around finds the group looking down the barrel of Deckard Shaw. Deckard is the brother of Owen, the antagonist from the last film who now is resting comfortably under maximum guard at the hospital. That is until Deckard obliterates the guard and most of the hospital just to tell the staff to take good care of Owen. This is ridiculous of course, because by destroying the facility, he has negatively affected the chance of his brother getting said good care. As if that is not enough of a reminder, we then see more of what we ended the last film with; the death of Han (featured in 3 films now), the explosion of a package that has arrived from Deckard (seen in two) and the maiming of Hobbs (Johnson). Apparently, the creative staff think the viewers have short memories.

Dom goes to visit Hobbs in the hospital, then goes to pick up Han and gathers the team together for Han’s funeral. If you can’t guess what will happen at the funeral, you get no Parmesan for your meatball. Dom gets acquainted with the new antagonist, and then gets to meet the new covert ops guy, Petty (Russell). That this meeting prevented the conclusion of the movie from happening 30 minutes in is not lost on either Dom or Petty, but that’s okay, we have another 1.5 hours to fill. Petty tells Dom he and his team need to get a MacGuffin called God’s Eye from some bad guys, capture the person of interest that has something MacGuffinish to do with God’s Eye and get them both back to Petty. Then, Petty says, Dom can use the God’s Eye to track down Deckard, who was just in front of him minutes ago, until Petty interfered. That’s okay, though, because Petty is a professional who was smart enough to hire an amateur for…one last ride.

Or three last rides.

Now the real jet setting begins. Dom and company go from the Los Angeles Caucasus Mountains to Abu Dhabi and then back to Los Angeles. They drop in cars from a military cargo plane, crash down a mountainside multiple times, dress up and sneak into a party, crash, jump, crash, jump and crash again through the Etihad Towers, fight it out in an old abandoned warehouse, and then tear the hell out of downtown L.A. before they approach a conclusion. There is literally more damage in this film than the last Godzilla movie. If you think I have ruined any part of this for you, you have not seen the rest of these movies. Literally the only surprise they’ve ever had was dragging the safes through town in Fast Five.

It’s completely taken for granted that whenever they arrive in a new country, they will immediately arrive in a row of expensive cars. What is also a given is no matter how much damage they cause, no one will ever question them and they will never have a problem walking out of that scene and driving into the next in another bunch of expensive cars.

All of this ridiculous action is augmented by the fact that they have collected a group of characters that we have learned to care about through sheer force of the will of all involved in making the film. They each have a few moments to shine in each episode, along with many requisite scenes that hammer the limitations of their characters into the story. This would normally be for the uninitiated. Until I brought my friend Binage, I had not met someone who hadn’t seen at least one of the films who started with in the middle somewhere. He enjoyed it though.

I enjoyed it too, despite all the belly laughs of incredulity. Through all the explosions, all the crashes, the litany of bullets, and the absolute defiance of the concept of gravity, this film really works. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film is how all of the characters (and the people who play them outside of Bridges, Russell and Johnson) completely lack any sort of self-awareness. It’s almost like a joyful, loving Bronson film. Were it not for Walker’s tragedy, perhaps the defining point of the series would have been when Diesel stomps on a parking garage roof as it is cracking…and a large part (perhaps a quarter-mile) of the concrete  actually breaks away! We should never think of Vin as a short guy again.

The glory in lacking an understanding of who you are results in other great moments, like when, in a flash back scene, we see two characters get married. My friend Binage, until now caught up in the action, leans over and says:

“What kind of guy wears a wife-beater to his own wedding?”

Through it all, the acting is consistent, if not Shakespearean. Walker gets a fitting tribute for the simple fact that they did not take the easy way out. It’s a beautiful statement that choose to alter the formula of the surprise mid-credits scene to set up the next film to give the character the kind of closure he did not get in life.

Throughout the story, however, one gets the sense of déjà vu. Brian is in the midst of fatherhood, now driving a mini-van. He’s frustrated, saying he misses the bullets more than he misses the cars. His woman, Mia (Brewster), hems and haws much like she did last time and tells him over the phone that they are expecting another kid, this time a girl. So if one kid didn’t make him want to retire, the second should do the trick. What would they have done if he’d been around for the next few films? I get the feeling that 5 kids would not be enough to prevent him from taking yet another last ride.

Despite it’s flaws, or maybe because of them, Vin Diesel and company have created a memorable franchise out of ashes. And I am sure this “family” will be around for a while more. In the haze of bad dialogue and forced dramatic tension, there is a brilliant line delivered by Dom that steals the show and demonstrates the draw that the little lug has on the heartstrings of ‘Murica. In a tender moment shared with Letty, she asks him why he had not revealed more of their past together before she recovered from her 3 movie amnesia spell. With complete sincerity, he looks at her an says:

You can’t tell someone that they love you.

Right about now, I think everyone involved with this unlikely saga knows that they are loved.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Insidious, Chapter 2: I’m a boy…


Insidious Chapter 2 – 2013

Director James Wan
Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Steve Coulter, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Danielle Bisutti, Tom Fitzpatrick
Screenplay Whannell

Insidious Chapter 2 is one of the rare sequels that makes the original better.  The thing about the first chapter is that there were so many questions at the end of the film, no one really knew what had happened or why.  We only knew that there was an entity (or a few) that followed Josh Lambert and now his son Dalton.  The ending gave the impression that Josh made the ultimate sacrifice to free his son, and in doing so, allowed renewed access to life for the horrible entity that took over his body.  This entity kills Elise, the paranormal investigator who knew what was happening and now presumably walks free.

The new story starts off before the last one starts.  We see Josh as a little boy, near the time when he started encountering the ghastly entities.  We see and hear a younger version of Elise, Josh’s mom and a new guy named Carl.  The experiences they encounter are spooky, but leave even more questions.  Don’t worry though, we get answers to those questions and a bunch more.

Many of the best parts of the new story recall seemingly unanswered events earlier, whether the second story or the first.  Along the way, we discover more seemingly disconnected events that tell the more aware among us to be aware.  So much information passes through the scenes, it’s harder to discern what to keep and what to discard.  Don’t worry, though.  If it’s not covered right away, they will make it clear later.

Cross dimensional sight
Cross dimensional sight

The story moves from place to place, ratcheting the tension.  Lorraine (Hershey) is seeking an answer to what is happening to her son.  She calls on the paranormal team of Specs and Tucker (writer Whannell and Sampson), who lead her to Carl.  Renai (Byrne)  encamped in the midst of the mystery, trying to protect her children and making a further effort to communicate with her increasingly detached husband.  Unlike the first story, Josh is physically there much of the time. Something off, that she can sense, but lacks the conviction to do anything about.  Her boy Dalton is still able to communicate with other dimensions, and he makes good use of it at some point.

In their research, Lorraine, Carl, Specs and Tucker discover the connection to the past for young Josh.  The revelations dovetail nicely with other events.  It’s easy to appreciate the amount of imagination piecing together the parts of the puzzle.  Storylines that would have flailed on their own add up to something more in the hands of Whannell and Wan.  The scare tactics are nothing new, usually someone walking past the camera out of the protagonist’s view or someone in another dimension noticing another protagonist out of the blue.

When these methods are combined with the developing plot, the effect is somewhat mesmerizing.  The characters are nicely moved forward in the plot, too, giving the viewer more to be invested in.  As a sequel, this is more developed than most, with little wasted opportunity.

Carl, played with a remarkable frailty by Coulter,  is a damaged and sensitive middle-aged man.  His is the rare character portrayal in a scary film.  He is filled with fear but is brave.  I appreciated his vantage point more than anything else in the film.  He moves the story forward, even with our fears on his back.

Carl's big surprise
Carl’s big surprise

If you haven’t jumped in yet, this would be a fine place to start.  The ending is a pretty good jump off point for a new story.  It’s unclear whether they can successfully weave another story into the mix here, but I would like to see them try.

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

The Conjuring: Because we’re running out of horror titles


The Conjuring – 2013

Director James Wan
Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
Screenplay Chad and Carey Hayes

The path has been taken so many times by now it’s a wonder it ever works at all.  It’s about technique and its more than a little about feigning surprise.  I think that might be why Patrick Wilson can do it so well.  The best films about haunting do as little as possible.  George C. Scott’s The Changeling has always been a standard from my point of view.  Poltergeist was scary as hell, too.  The first two Paranormal Activity films work as a significant change-up to the formula.

For those familiar with the name, The Conjuring is another case of the Ed and Lorraine Warren.  They’ve been featured in such work as The Amityville Horror, A Haunting in Connecticut and countless television specials.  It is their formula that we see in the paranormal investigator shows.  Heat sensing cameras, skeptical security guys, college interns.  The movie versions often have a very happy family.  Almost spookily happy.

The Conjuring is a very loud film.  The beast that is wreaking havoc has a lot of anger.  We find out early what’s going on.  The rest of the film then becomes a procedural of how it is going to happen.  How successful it is will be a matter of taste and how much your ears can handle.  One interesting twist on the film, underused, but still effective, is the idea that the Warrens keep a museum of possessed artifacts in their home.  The thing about it is these items aren’t trophies.  They are things that contain demons, spirits and other malevolent forces.  They tell their daughter to stay out of that room.  I’ll give you one guess what happens when Grandma stays over to babysit.

The family is headed by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor.  Livingston will always stand out to me as the guy who spent most of Office Space in a delightful trance.  Seeing him as a concerned parent just makes me want to chuckle.  Taylor, though, is the very essence of imbalance.  Her face constantly evokes the wacked out Nell from The Haunting.  The rest of the family is no more than faces without personalities.  There is a girl who is torqued about moving into the house, but within the next couple of scenes, I can’t differentiate her from her siblings.  Different kids have different hair, but her hair is matched by one other kid.  That’s how hard it is to tell these characters apart.  If I don’t know who they are, how can I care about them?

As Ed and Lorraine, Wilson and Farmiga have an eerie presence that is forced to carry much of the film.  If the rest of the characters are fleshed out a bit more, it might feel organic.  As it is, it is alright, though not nearly scary enough for the possibilities.  When given so little to work with, the film comes across as one of the re-enactment episodes on Paranormal State.

This is not a bad film.  Wan has requisite skill to match the film-goers demands of his time.  If you want R-rated gore, like in the Saw movies, he gives it.  If you want PG-13 thrills, you have them here.  Nothing much that will linger with you, like that ball thrown off of the bridge in The Changeling.  I am sure someone will remember the doll that knocks on the door.   Just not me.