Sunday, February 27, 2005

Saw (2004)

Many people take their lives for granted. They just go through the motions, never thinking twice about their mundane existences. They develop unhealthy addictions to drugs and alcohol, abuse their loved ones and ignore others, and go as far as committing suicide. Why? Simply because deep down, they're unhappy with life and are hollow and empty inside. Someone like that could be anyone from a strung-out junkie that is only happy when she's injecting different poisons into her veins, or a twenty-something slacker apathetically coasting through life on auto-pilot, or even an affluent doctor that is highly respected by his peers and colleagues. The darker parts of humanity became inspiration for writer/director James Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell, who took this idea and used it to ask the question, "How much blood would you shed to stay alive?" The answer resulted in their very unique movie Saw.

The film opens as two men awaken in a dank, filthy restroom. The place looks more like a dungeon than a latrine, which becomes even worse as the two strangers find themselves chained to pipes on opposite ends of the room. Not helping things is the bloody corpse between them, the apparent victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face.

Introducing themselves as Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell), neither have a clear idea of why or how they arrived in their depressing predicament. Through clues left for them by their captor, Dr. Gordon deduces that he and his roommate are pawns in a game set up by Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), a serial murderer who goes to extreme and disturbing lengths to teach his victims the value of their own life and the lives of those around them.

The clues also give them the rules for their game: Dr. Gordon must find a way to kill Adam within a set time limit, or his wife (Monica Potter) and daughter (Makenzie Vega) will die. Jigsaw has given Dr. Gordon a single bullet for the dead man's gun, along with a pair of hacksaws that aren't sharp enough to cut through their chains, but can cut through their ankles.

Since they obviously don't want to cause themselves or each other any bodily harm, Adam and Dr. Gordon must search for a way to outwit their captor before they die a slow death in their makeshift tomb. While Jigsaw stalks his trapped prey, he is in turn being tracked by David Tapp (Danny Glover), a suspended detective obsessed with catching Jigsaw and avenging the death of his partner.

Saw is one of those movies that you'll probably either really like or really hate. It has an intriguing premise, great atmosphere, and lots of potential, but there's just something about it that brings it down to less than what it could be. Let's go with the bad news first. The acting is very hit or miss at times. I usually enjoy the work of Cary Elwes, but he seemed inconsistent here. He was on his A-game throughout the majority of the movie, but in quite a few scenes, he overacts to the point of being laughably lame. Though to his credit, I did like what he was doing through most of the movie.

Leigh Whannell was no great shakes, either. He has a few good moments, but his lack of any major acting experience is sadly obvious. One could make the argument that he used his stroke as co-writer to stick himself in one of the lead roles, merely so he could say, "I starred in a movie! I rule!"

I did, however, enjoy Shawnee Smith as a Jigsaw survivor and Danny Glover as the disturbed Detective Tapp, but my favorite member of the cast is Tobin Bell. Because of Jigsaw's shadiness, he does ninety percent of his acting with his voice, and I felt that he did a tremendous job. He comes off as a holier-than-thou psychopath with just his vocal tone, which not only makes for a great character and effective antagonist, but immensely boosts the quality of the movie.

Visually, the movie looks wonderfully disgusting. Director James Wan and cinematographer David Armstrong give us a movie that by looks alone is both horrific and intriguing. Through their use of green and blue color filters, slow motion and fast motion, and wicked camera angles and scene transitions, I have nothing but compliments over how the movie looks, especially Nanet Harty's astounding set design. After watching the bathroom set for an hour and a half, I felt like I needed a shower and a tetanus shot. Great work, that is. The film's creativity can also be seen in the grisly traps Jigsaw subjects his victims to, whether it be the backwards bear trap, the candle in a room full of napalm, or the maze of barbed wire.

I also absolutely loved the heavy industrial score, composed by Charlie Clouser (formerly of the band Nine Inch Nails). It sounds like it's a Trent Reznor appearance away from being a Nine Inch Nails album, and I definitely can't complain. The script, co-written by Wan and Whannell, has its ups and downs thanks to the occasional bit of clich├ęd dialogue, but I loved how layered the movie is.

The non-linear timeline and "flashback within a flashback" moments can be disorienting if you aren't expecting it, and the ending might not make sense to the casual viewer, but that's part of the movie's charm. The odd storytelling allows to truly grasp how vicious the film's villain is. Similar to Kevin Spacey's "John Doe" in Seven, Jigsaw is intelligent and meticulous, not someone who is easily defeated because he just couldn't stop detailing his plan to the hero when he could just kill him instead.

Jigsaw is also a very unique type of horror villain, in that he does not directly kill his victims. He instead opts to place them in his elaborate traps, giving them the choice to act and live, or do nothing and die. Through this, Jigsaw sees himself not as a killer, but as a teacher. It is his master plan to instill a respect for life into the ones he chooses to play his games, to show them that life is a treasure to be highly valued. And while the rare survivor will quite possibly bear some extreme emotional and physical scarring afterwards, they will most likely appreciate being alive and do what they can to avoid another of Jigsaw's lessons.

This sort of thing is what sets Jigsaw apart from other villains. He doesn't hack and slash his way through a dozen victims, but instead uses his intellect to create far more elaborate methods of execution. What also sets him apart is that, despite his apparent sadism, he seems to draw some satisfaction from the survival of his victims. Survivors will most likely take Jigsaw's lesson to heart. Those that don't survive end up reinforcing Herbert Spencer's theory of "survival of the fittest."

If you ask me, I thought Saw was a well-crafted piece of nihilism. When I first saw it, I thought it was trying too hard to be a Seven for the twenty-first century, but it grew on me after repeated viewings. The movie never fails to take a chance and try something the viewer wouldn't expect. The premise drew me in (who would think to combine Cube and Seven?), and the execution, though flawed in places, paid off. The movie's suspense builds and builds, and though you may or may not like the ending, the buildup to it is as intense as it gets. Like I said, you'll either like it or hate it, but its originality makes it worth a watch. I'll give Saw three and a half stars and a hearty thumbs-up.

Final Rating: ***½

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Batman Returns (1992)

Okay, readers, it's time for a pop quiz. You've directed a blockbuster movie based on one of the most popular characters in comic book history, and you have a reputation of making dark, macabre movies. When the studio presents you with the chance to do a sequel to said blockbuster superhero movie, what do you do? If you're Tim Burton, you'd have said, "By golly, I'm gonna do this sequel and I'm gonna demote the title character from second fiddle to third."

And that's exactly what happened. Following the huge box office grosses of Batman (pulling in just over $400,000,000 worldwide), Burton resurrected the Caped Crusader three years later in Batman Returns. But instead of having Batman be the lead character like he should be, he's once again relegated to the role of supporting character to the villains.

The story opens around Christmas, where the affluent Tucker Cobblepot (Paul Reubens) waits as his wife Esther (Diane Salinger) gives birth to a baby. Unfortunately, something isn't quite right with this particular baby, as he's both hideously disfigured and violent to boot (as evidenced a brief scene where he lashes out at the family pet). The Cobblepots keep baby Oswald locked in a cage, eventually dumping him and his carriage into the sewer. Thirty-three years later, Oswald Cobblepot is now an adult, known as "The Penguin" (Danny DeVito) thanks to his deformities. Living in the sewers beneath an abandoned zoo, Penguin heads a gang of former circus performers. He kidnaps megalomaniacal department store owner Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), and the two set into motion a plan to take over the city via a mayoral recall.

Their plan soon crosses paths with Shreck's secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), a klutzy woman that strives to please everyone, despite a complete lack of any discernible social skills. You know how Sandra Bullock keeps playing the same characters over and over again? Selina Kyle's like all of those characters rolled into one, only dorkier. But anyway, she accidentally discovers the true (and very illegal) nature of Schrek's idea for a Gotham City power plant, and he finds out. So what does he do? Pay her to stay quiet about it? No. Fire her? No. Give her a stern talking to? No. Throw her out a skyscraper window? Yes!

This doesn't work too well for Schrek in the long run, because Selina inexplicably survives. However, the Selina we knew is long gone. She heads back to her apartment and flips out, trashing the place and covering every bit of color with black spraypaint. She discovers a vinyl coat in her closet, and fashions for herself a skin-tight bodysuit and mask. Dubbing herself Catwoman, she prowls the streets as a vivid definition of the phrase "girl power." Filled with a newly found confidence and viewing herself as a feminist version of Batman, she soon rationalizes that someone needs to bring that cocky Batman down a peg. And how better to do that? Form a partnership with the other villain in town, The Penguin. Duh. Anyway, despite all her wheelings and dealings with Penguin, Selina soon falls for millionaire industrialist by day/Batman by night Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton).

While Bruce and Selina have a budding romance, Penguin and Catwoman kill a local beauty queen with a stolen Batarang, leaving Batman as the sole suspect. As they bond to bring down Batman, the duo has their own solo agendas, both involving revenge and Max Shreck. Penguin is inspired to kidnap and murder the first-born children of Gotham's wealthy elite, including Shreck's adult son Chip (Andrew Brynarski), after Shreck leaves him high and dry following the failed recall; Catwoman plans on getting retribution against Shreck himself for her own near-death. While the gruesome twosome works to bring their plans to fruition, Batman must find a way to not only prove his innocence, but contend with Penguin and Catwoman as well.

Batman Returns is a quite a mixed bag. While the performances, direction, and score are all respectable, the film itself is a big letdown. The screenplay by Daniel Walters is hollow, and like Tim Burton's prior movie, the title character was pushed into the background while the villains took center stage. Many of the one-liners were just plain stupid, and a lot of scenes were just style over substance. And since when does Batman kill people? He sets one goon on fire with the flames from the Batmobile's afterburner, then smiles as he straps a ticking time bomb to another goon. While the scenes are fun to watch, they're just not Batman. If the Punisher drove the Batmobile, I could see it, but if Batman's anything, a killer he ain't. Way to go, Batman Returns. The whole "Batman gets framed for murder" thing never seemed resolved, either. If it was, I sure don't remember it. It just seemed like an excuse to throw a scantily clad ditz off the roof of a building. If I can't even remember the resolution of a subplot like that, either that's poor storytelling or I just have a bad memory.

However, I did enjoy the chemistry between the cast and the characters they play. All of them were connected somehow, even if it wasn't directly obvious. I was impressed with how well Selina's transformation into Catwoman was handled, and the appearance of her apartment is very indicative of the changes inside her head. Selina begins with a cheery pink apartment with a hot pink neon sign reading "HELLO THERE." But the walls are soon stained with black spraypaint and the sign becomes "HELL HERE." Catwoman also becomes a distorted mirror image of Batman. Selina tries to keep her identity hidden (as does Bruce Wayne with Batman), but unlike Bruce, her Catwoman identity serves only herself. Like the last movie, the cast makes the whole movie, the highlight being Michelle Pfeiffer. Halle Berry only wishes she were half as cool as the Catwoman in Batman Returns, who actually utilized a real bullwhip for the role. No CGI whip here, unlike that other Catwoman.

Meanwhile, the Penguin has his own vague similarity to Batman. Both went through life without their parents, yet had different paths to where they are. Batman lived an affluent lifestyle after having his parents taken from him; Penguin was a circus freak living in the sewer after his parents purposely left him to rot. And while Penguin has his customary tuxedo, top hat, and umbrellas, he's far different from any prior depiction. While he fancies himself as a "gentleman of crime" in the comics and '60s TV show, DeVito's Penguin is a sexually frustrated sociopath with an inferiority complex, abandonment issues, and penchants for biting people on the nose and eating raw fish. Even Christopher Walken's character is a polar opposite of Bruce Wayne. While Bruce is a multimillionaire that's active in charities and other goodwill ventures; Max Shreck is a vile, greedy multimillionaire who has no qualms with killing anyone who opposes him.

Pfeiffer, DeVito, and Walken are all on their A-games here, while Michael Keaton is respectable as Batman. His performance in Returns is a letdown when compared to his prior turn as the Dark Knight, but he still does a fine job with what he's given and cements his spot as my favorite cinematic Batman. Burton once again does a good job as director, though a few notches down from his previous Batman adventure. With cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, he creates a very odd, gloomy atmosphere for the movie. If Batman is "Batman meets Blade Runner," then Batman Returns is "Batman meets The Nightmare Before Christmas." The winter atmosphere and bizarre nature of the Penguin's gang of circus performers are very much Burton's style, and I wouldn't expect anything else.

Also great was the penguin effects by Stan Winston's effects crew, which covers not only DeVito's makeup, but the penguins seen throughout the movie. Winston's work has always been superb, and it is here as well. Danny Elfman's score is great as usual (along with his reprisal of the epic theme from the previous movie), but sounds like it's merely ripping off his score from Batman. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but if it was, I don't blame him. I'd have probably done the same thing.

I loved Batman, but Batman Returns is lacking the charm that the first one had. It still has several fun moments and redeeming qualities, but it's just a mediocre sequel. It's barely even subpar. While it's well-made from a technical standpoint and an acting standpoint, it's not so good from a creative standpoint. What's sad is that I actually liked the villains more than the hero. When it comes right down to it, I'm left wondering just where the movie went wrong. Until I can figure that out, I'm giving Batman Returns three stars. No more, no less.

Final Rating: ***

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Batman (1989)

Way back in 1989, I was a seven-year-old boy that didn't have much interest in comics. Even if I didn't really care about them, I knew a phenomenon when I saw one. And in the summer of '89, one particular movie was all the rage. As much as I'd like to say it was Ghostbusters 2 (since I was a huge Ghostbusters fan at the time), it wasn't. This movie was everywhere. T-shirts, action figures, lunchboxes, music videos, everything was somehow tied-in to the movie.

The phenomenon was inspired by a popular DC Comics superhero, created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Akin to other masked figures like Zorro, he protects the innocent from the criminals staining the streets he calls his home. But this is a little bit different form of hero. He's a dark and brooding hero that operates without any superpowers, a shadowy vigilante fueled simply by vengeance and the desire to protect the innocent from the evil that claimed the lives of his family.

Gotham City is a dark, depressing town to live in. Organized crime runs the show, and some high-ranking officers within Gotham's police force are on the local mob's payroll. Despite the best efforts of the mayor (Lee Wallace), police commissioner Jim Gordon (Pat Hingle), and new district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), the drastically rising crime rate is choking the life out of Gotham City as it prepares to celebrate its 200th anniversary.

Gotham's citizens live in fear until a dark knight known as "The Bat Man" arises. An urban legend among the city's criminals, Batman's attracted not only the attention of the police, but reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) as well. Often ridiculed by his co-workers for believing the Batman stories, Knox attracts the attention of prize-winning photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). The pair team up to uncover the secret of Batman, while Vicki becomes drawn to billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton).

Emotionally scarred as a child after watching the murder of his parents, the only person Bruce has allowed to get close to him is his butler and closest confidante, Alfred (Michael Gough). So how does a billionaire cope with watching the murder of his parents? He becomes a mask-wearing vigilante with a wide assortment of gadgets hidden in a cave full of bats beneath his house, that's what he does.

Now that that's out of the way, let's set up our villain du jour, shall we? Near the beginning of the movie, we're introduced to mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). With the help of a connection within the Gotham police department, boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) sends Jack to oversee a robbery at the Axis chemical factory outside of town. Unfortunately for Jack, it was all a setup, and the place is soon swarming with cops. Batman arrives as well, and an ensuing firefight sees our caped crusader take out all of Jack's thugs.

It quickly comes down to Jack and Batman dueling on a catwalk. Jack accidentally catches a ricocheting bullet with his face and falls off the catwalk, but Batman catches him by the wrist. But when the caped crusader loses his grip, he drops Jack into a giant vat of chemicals that end up washing him out into the sewer. Thanks to a combination of the gunshot to the face, the chemicals, and some botched reconstructive surgery, Jack is left with snow-white skin, green hair, and a permanent Cheshire Cat smile. Rechristening himself "The Joker," he kills Grissom and claims leadership of Gotham's mob family. The Joker declares war on Batman while preparing to kill everyone in Gotham City with an industrial toxin called Smylex.

Tim Burton redefined what people thought about Batman and superhero movies in general with this movie. Before Batman '89, casual fans had images of Adam West's campy television show stuck in their heads. With this movie, new fans were made (such as myself) and old fans were brought back into the fold. The movie is a little rough around the edges, sure, but it's definitely a fun ride. Visually, the movie looks astounding. Combined with the cinematography of Roger Pratt and set design of Anton Furst (who deliberately mixed clashing architectural styles to make Gotham City the ugliest and bleakest metropolis possible), Burton's knack for gloomy storytelling shines. The movie looks like what would happen if Blade Runner had been about Batman.

The script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren provides several classic lines and moments, but outside of those (of which there are quite a few), everything between the great moments and visuals are forgettable. However, I did enjoy how Hamm and Skaaren tied cards into the Joker character. We learn that the pre-Joker Jack Napier keeps a deck of poker cards with him for good luck, and after his first encounter with Batman, he changes from a Jack to a Joker. I never caught that before writing this review, but I thought it was neat.

The orchestral score by Danny Elfman is beyond wonderful, very befitting of a superhero movie and the theme created for the movie reprising itself at all the right moments. On the other side of the soundtrack, the songs performed by Prince work well within the movie, but with the exception of one, none of them are very good. Prince is usually great, but you'd be better off just downloading an MP3 of "Partyman" from your favorite file-sharing program and forgetting the rest of the soundtrack exists. I actually own a copy of Prince's soundtrack, so you can trust me on this one.

The acting is give or take, depending on who we're talking about. He got a lot of crap from the diehard Batman fans before the movie was released, but I think Michael Keaton did a great job. You wouldn't think the star of Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom would make a good Batman, but he's aces here. Jack Nicholson is the highlight of the cast, with his wonderfully fun portrayal of the most famous member of Batman's rogues gallery. He crosses Cesar Romero's Joker from the TV show with a touch of the psychopathic Joker from the comic books, and I couldn't ask for better. And with as much time as they spent on Joker, I guess it makes sense that Jack Nicholson would receive top billing in the credits. Honestly, it seems like Joker is the focus of almost more scenes than the title character himself.

Kim Basinger is forgettable and empty as the perpetual damsel in distress and would-be Bat-girlfriend, and I absolutely hated everything about the Alexander Knox character. It's no fault of Robert Wuhl's, but Knox was such an annoying character that I just wanted Joker to kill him and be done with it. Perhaps the most underrated members of the cast are Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Pat Hingle. All three turn in great performances, making their minor characters seem that much more important. If only Billy Dee Williams was brought back for Batman Forever...

In all honesty, I don't read comics, so I can't compare this Batman to the source material. However, Burton's Batman is definitely more serious than Adam West's. And no matter what any critic says, it stands as one of the definitive superhero movies and introduced Batman to people that might never have given him a second thought. Batman is one of the most recognized superheroes ever (arguably number two on the list, behind Superman), and it's my opinion that this movie reinforced that status.

Final Rating: ****½