Monday, September 26, 2011

Saw 3D (2010)

Everything must come to an end, be they good or bad. And eventually, even the longest-running horror movie franchises will end as well. Some even proclaim the latest sequel is "the final chapter" yet still have enough steam to keep on chugging along. You'll even see the rare instance of a horror franchise with multiple final chapters (I'm looking at you, Friday the 13th). While this mostly applied to the horror juggernauts of the '80s, it also goes for those of the new millennium, as evidenced by the recent conclusion of the Saw franchise.

It had a good run, with a new installment being released the weekend before Halloween every year since Lions Gate released James Wan and Leigh Whannell's original Saw in 2004. But if Jigsaw's bloody tale had to come to a close, the crew at Twisted Pictures chose to end it with a little style. So that's why instead of plain ol' Saw VII, the franchise was brought into the third dimension with Saw 3D. And oddly enough, the franchise comes to an end with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a "huh?"

Saw 3D picks up mere seconds after the end of Saw VI, as rogue cop Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) swears revenge after managing to survive the trap left for him by Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell). But having that revenge will not be easy, because she has already pointed him out to the police. With internal affairs detective Matt Gibson (Chad Donella) leading the manhunt and Jill in protective custody, Hoffman has a hell of a lot of hurdles to jump if he wishes to remain the heir to the Jigsaw mantle.

But like each of the Saw sequels, there's a secondary storyline. This one follows Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery), who has shot to fame with a best-selling memoir about how he survived one of Jigsaw's traps. But the truth is that his book is a work of fiction; Bobby was never targeted by Jigsaw, and he fabricated the whole thing as a get-rich-quick scheme. His deception will not go unpunished, as he finds himself placed in a labyrinth of traps. Stuck in these traps are members of his entourage who helped to propagate the lies in his book. And to give Bobby sufficient motivation to participate, his wife has been kidnapped and will be burned alive if he fails.

Saw 3D is an awkward movie, because it isn't quite the conclusion I was expecting. Instead of laying everything out on the table and wrapping it all up, the movie only answers the franchise's biggest unanswered question — whatever happened to Dr. Gordon after the first Saw? — while at the same time raising a few more. It's like they were fully expecting to leave something for Saw VIII in the event that they change their minds about this being the final chapter. (And you just know that they will eventually.) For a movie that's supposed to be the last installment in a franchise, it felt a little too open-ended. But outside of that, I honestly didn't think it was a tremendously bad note for the Saw series to end on.

At the helm is Kevin Greutert, directing his second consecutive entry in the franchise. The movie was originally supposed to be directed by Saw V director David Hackl, but Lions Gate exorcised some kind of contractual clause at the very last minute to bring Greutert back to the franchise. It makes me wonder how things would have turned out if he hadn't returned, because Greutert had been lined up to direct Paranormal Activity 2 before Lions Gate yanked him back into the fold.

Greutert's had a long history with the Saw franchise, having served as the editor of the first five movies before directing Saw VI. And while Saw 3D is only his second feature-length directorial effort, it really feels like he knows what he's doing. Maybe it helps that he was an editor for so long before moving into the director's chair, because I got the impression that he knew exactly how he wanted things to play out. The way shots are composed and scenes are paced gave me the impression that not only was he aiming to improve upon what he'd done in the previous movie, but try to make the best horror movie he could. Greutert's direction is tight, focused. It helps that he has some assistance in the form of Brian Gedge's well-done cinematography and the fabulous score from Charlie Clouser, but Greutert shows that he's a perfectly capable director and Saw 3D is a fine movie in part because of his work.

And then there's the whole 3D aspect of the production. The bad thing about reviewing a 3D movie after it's already been released on home video is that, since studios don't include those red/blue glasses with the DVDs anymore, 2D is your only option. You can't see Saw 3D in actual 3D anymore unless you've spent a thousand dollars on a 3DTV, another hundred on a 3D Blu-ray player, and thirty or forty bucks on the 3D Blu-ray disc. (Which makes it weird, since although the DVD covers have renamed the movie "Saw: The Final Chapter," the movie's opening and closing credits still bear the title "Saw 3D.")

I haven't seen the 3D Blu-ray, so I can't judge how well the effect is pulled off on home video. But in the theatrical release, it looked really good. It was immersive, and all the blood and guts and sharp objects that came flying at the screen really popped. The fact that the movie was shot naturally with 3D cameras as opposed to doing one of those cheap post-production transfers helps a lot. But to its credit, the movie still looks good in 2D. All the shots intended to play with the 3D effects are a little awkward without the added depth, but it's nothing that can't be overlooked.

But let's move along to the script, once again written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to call their script flawed. The fact that Jigsaw is limited to only two or three very short scenes is bad enough. But I really didn't like that Melton and Dunstan felt that that they had to do the whole "victim runs a gauntlet of traps" story again. I'll confess that I thought it was better executed here than in some of the other Saw movies, since Bobby Dagen is a pretty likable character. But I think that the movie would have worked a lot better had it focused solely on Hoffman's story alone.

The first trap we see in the movie had me scratching my head too. The trap is a fairly ordinary setup for the Saw franchise, but it's in broad daylight, out in the open with a huge crowd of people watching. The kicker is the whole thing is never once mentioned again. If it was, I never caught it. If you aren't going to follow up on it in some fashion, why even do it at all? You'd think one of Jigsaw's traps happening out in public with an audience would be something you'd want to build upon. But Melton and Dunstan do nothing with it beyond the one scene. The surviving characters don't even reappear anywhere else in the movie, despite at least one scene where they could have. It all just screams "wasted opportunity."

And the ending had me a bit flummoxed too. It explains just where Dr. Gordon has been since the first Saw's ending, but there's one element (which I won't spoil) that is done in such a way that it makes you wonder where Melton and Dunstan were going with it. The biggest problem is that if Saw 3D truly is the franchise's final chapter, we'll never find out. It's as if they knew that somebody would rope them into writing an eighth Saw movie sooner or later, so they had to leave at least one question unanswered so there would be something to follow up on.

Let's wrap this up with the only thing left for me to talk about, the cast. Returning to the role of Jigsaw's would-be successor is Costas Mandylor, who I thought did a great job. I've really dug his work over the last few sequels, and Saw 3D is no exception. Mandylor is intense in the role, really making the character's desperation and psychosis believable. The guy's a great villain, and he provides a nice contrast to the calm, cool, collected nature of Tobin Bell's Jigsaw.

And speaking of Tobin Bell, his absence here is sorely felt. Bell has always been the strongest part of every entry in the franchise, but the fact that he only has two or three scenes in all of Saw 3D really hurts the movie. The guy is stuck in what is essentially a glorified cameo, a real downgrade for someone who was once the defining figure of the franchise. I'm not expecting him to be the star (though that would have been a hell of a twist), but I'd have been happier if Bell had been given more screen time.

The same can be said for Cary Elwes, who finally makes his return to the franchise after being absent from all the other sequels. I won't give away the details of his return, but Elwes is great in his sadly limited appearance. Pretty much everyone I know who considers themselves a Saw fan has been waiting for the return of Elwes as Dr. Gordon, and while I'm happy to see him back, I wish he could have stayed longer.

And I also thought Sean Patrick Flanery, who plays our gauntlet-running victim du jour, was really good. When his character is doing the whole shtick to sell his book and preening for the news cameras, Flanery is really convincing as a guy who just wanted to get rich quick but is pushed farther by his deceitful, douchebag friends and PR people who just want to ride a gravy train to greater heights. You get the impression through Flanery's performance that Bobby knows he's in over his head on this press tour, and as he progresses through the series of traps, you can see that he's one of those few Jigsaw victims who seems to have genuinely learned his lesson. Bobby's actually a pretty likable character by the end, thanks mostly to Flanery's sympathetic performance.

Unfortunately, I didn't quite care for Chad Donella. I didn't buy him for a second. The character is rather blandly written, with no substance to it whatsoever. Donella's performance didn't help things at all, making the character come off as shallow as the script has written him. And I was actually kinda bummed that the writers didn't really seem to know what to do with poor Betsy Russell until the climax. All that's required of her is to sit around waiting for Mandylor to come and get her, which doesn't give her much of a chance to do anything. And this lack of anything to do doesn't really give Russell a lot of reason to try all that hard. It's a shame, really.

I've been a fan of the Saw franchise since the beginning. But with the recent sequels and this so-called conclusion, the franchise could give one the impression of being a marathon runner who starts off strong but ends the race limping across the finish line. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think Saw 3D in particular was a bad movie nor a wholly awful way to end the Saw story. It's just that I hate seeing a series of movies I like not ending on a high note, but instead after it has long run out of steam. If Saw 3D does indeed close the book on the saga of Jigsaw for good, at least it ended with a respectable effort from those who made it. It's a very flawed movie, but it's not a very bad one either. So on my typical scale of five, I'm going to give Saw 3D three stars. And as the franchise's villains are wont to say, "Game over."

Final Rating: ***

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Apollo 18 (2011)

Okay, I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for "found footage" movies. Maybe it's the added sense of realism the style provides. Maybe it's the fact that, with the right tools and enough imagination, I could probably make one myself. I don't know what it is, but I've always found myself intrigued by them. But most of them don't really differ too much from one another. There've been some that featured giant monsters rampaging through major metropolitan areas, or the beginnings of a zombie apocalypse. Most of the ones I've seen, though, have been about ghosts or demons. Supernatural beings striking suburban homes or rural areas have been a popular way to approach the whole "found footage" thing.

But if you want to shake things up a little, why not take it to an extreme? That's how I'd explain Apollo 18, a found footage movie unlike any of the others I've reviewed. What makes it so different? All the action takes place on the moon. The whole idea of a found footage movie set in outer space was enough to get my attention from the second I first heard about it back in January. And after having its release date changed five times, Apollo 18 has finally arrived in theaters. So how was it? It was kind of a mess.

It's no secret that Apollo 17 was the last manned mission to the moon. But in 1974, the Department of Defense revived the previously-cancelled Apollo 18 mission for a top-secret mission. Of the three astronauts sent to the moon for this mission, it's Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen) and Ben Anderson (Warren Christie) who take the lunar module down to the surface.

Their mission was to install a defense system that would alert the United States of any impending Soviet missile strikes. But when Nathan and Ben discover a Soviet lander and a cosmonaut's mangled corpse, they begin to think there's more to this than what the Department of Defense has told them. And that's when things get worse. Pieces of their equipment turn up wrecked and Nathan develops a bizarre wound on his chest. As they add it all up, they realize that extraterrestrial life not only exists, but it doesn't like humans.

You know what I hate? When a movie's advertisements get my hopes up, and the movie itself turns out to be a huge disappointment. And that's exactly what Apollo 18 is: a huge disappointment. It's the worst kind too, because it has so many good elements and so much potential, yet it totally falls apart. I don't like saying that. A negative review is the last thing I wanted to write about Apollo 18. I wanted to sit down at my desk and write a review that was full of nothing but glowing praise for the movie. But I can't.

I think a lot of the problem is how director Gonzalo López-Gallego approached the movie. López-Gallego's direction is all over the place, seemingly unsure of itself. He tries to make the movie more atmospheric than scary, yet still tries for jump scares in more than a few moments. But it's barely scary at all, to tell you the truth. While going for a feeling of dread have worked for many horror movies in the past and present, but neither dread nor suspense are to be had. There are a few really good scares, but they're sadly few and far between.

The majority of the movie is simply dead air, the astronauts standing around waiting for something to happen. And in a movie that clocks in at 88 minutes, that's unbearable. That's not to say López-Gallego doesn't succeed in a few areas, though. The scene where the astronauts find the cosmonaut's body is very suspenseful, and the climax is an exciting piece of work. It's just unfortunate that the rest of the movie can't compare.

And if anything, I thought it was one of the more believable uses of the "found footage" style. While a lot of found footage movies feel artificial, like they're not even trying to hide that it's being shot by a Steadicam operator on a studio backlot. But while I wasn't 100% convinced they were actually on the moon (it looked like there was a wee bit too much gravity), I at least bought that it was shot by a bunch of astronauts in the '70s. Visually, the movie is grainy, choppy, and looks like the film stock was rubbed with steel wool. It looks like it could have been real footage from any of our trips to the moon.

The only problem is that the use of the "found footage" style causes something of a plot hole. I say this because of how the movie ends. I can believe that NASA and the Department of Defense acquired the footage from inside the lunar lander, since that's broadcasted back to Earth. But the two astronauts on the moon have portable 16mm cameras attached to their suits, and how the hell did the footage shot with those cameras make it off the moon? I guess it'll just have to be one of those things that fall under the umbrella of "suspension of disbelief."

And then there's the screenplay, penned by Brian Miller. Most horror movies, especially "found footage" horror movies, don't really need a very strong script because they primarily rely on the visuals and performances. But I thought Miller's script was particularly weak, as it had absolutely no character development at all. There's nothing to these characters; they're just there to have things happen to them. There's tiny little references to their families and their lives outside the space programs, but that's all there is.

I did get the feeling, though, that some things might have been left on the cutting room floor. That could justify the unexpectedly short running time, the lack of character development, and why the movie's climax feels rushed. It could also explain why the movie's release date kept getting shuffled around. I have no way of knowing this, so I could be pointing fingers at things that aren't there. But maybe if the DVD were to include an extended cut of the movie, that might help patch up some of the movie's flaws. We'll just have to wait and see if that happens, though.

At least the cast, as miniscule as it is, is good. It's basically a two-man show, and both actors definitely do their best. Warren Christie is convincing in his role, playing his character as increasingly worried, paranoid, and desperate. But he is outshined by Lloyd Owen, who I thought was awesome. Owen is really intense, really spooky. In a better movie, his performance would have been absolutely perfect. I wish that Apollo 18 as a whole was as good as Owen is, because then the movie would have been as awesome as I'm convinced it could have been.

And that's the thing. I'm absolutely convinced that Apollo 18 could have been an awesome movie. It's one of the most original premises I've seen for a found footage movie, and there are times that it shows a lot of promise. There's a great movie just beneath the surface. But unfortunately, I felt like it let me down. As much as I wanted to like it, I can't say that I really did. Maybe upon a second viewing, I'll change my mind. I don't know. But as for now, I'm giving Apollo 18 two and a half stars on the scale. And is it wrong that I kept hearing Jim Carrey's "we landed on the moon!" line from Dumb & Dumber in my head through the whole movie?

Final Rating: **½

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)

I've started noticing a slowly-burgeoning trend in Hollywood where moderately successful movies will get sequels (often in name only) that go direct-to-video. It doesn't even matter if the movies are twenty years old, as Tom Hanks's Bachelor Party and Matthew Broderick's WarGames both got sequels in 2008. But it's usually more recent movies that get the direct-to-video treatment. There's a ton of them, but we're here today to discuss one in particular.

The movie in question is Quarantine 2: Terminal. When the first Quarantine was released in 2008, I was less than impressed with it. It was a mediocre effort from start to finish, and it left me particularly disappointed because I absolutely love [∙REC], the Spanish movie it was remaking. But I figured I'd give Quarantine 2 a shot anyway. I have to admit that I was curious about it, since I'd heard that it would be going its own way, neither remaking [∙REC] 2 nor using the "found footage" style that Quarantine and the [∙REC] movies utilized. So let's check it out and see how it goes.

It all began as a simple night at work for Jenny (Mercedes Masöhn), a flight attendant working on a late-night flight from LAX to Nashville. With only four crew members and a dozen passengers, Jenny isn't expecting any trouble. But trouble is what she gets when one of the passengers becomes stricken with an unidentified illness, puking all over Jenny before going absolutely ballistic. He makes a run for the cockpit, in such a berserk rage that it takes practically everyone on the plane to restrain him.

His violent outbursts are enough to warrant the pilots make an emergency landing in Las Vegas. But when the passengers and crew get off the plane and into the terminal, they're horrified to learn that they've been locked inside due to a military quarantine. The virus that struck the apartment building in Quarantine is now loose among this new group of people, and Jenny and her fellow survivors are forced to deal with the ever-growing number of bloodthirsty infected.

A direct-to-video sequel to a movie that was mediocre to begin with doesn't sound like the most promising of movies. You tend to approach movies like this with a "this is probably gonna suck" mentality. But Quarantine 2 isn't that bad. I can't call it a good movie, but it works. It's the best movie it could have been. And really, that's all you need sometimes.

The movie was written and directed by John Pogue, a screenwriter whose Hollywood career has thus far been unremarkable. Quarantine 2 is his directorial debut, and I can't say I thought he did that bad a job. As I said in the introduction, Pogue made the brave decision to not only avoid remaking [∙REC] 2 but to scrap the "found footage" style altogether. His inexperience as a director is obvious, as the movie is mostly a by-the-numbers affair. But I did find that he managed to retain Quarantine's atmosphere despite the stylistic change.

Pogue manages to generate some legitimate tension, particularly in the scene where the first infected person tries getting into the plane's cockpit. But he sadly can't maintain that tension all the way to the end. The movie doesn't really have any sort of climax; it peters out until the movie just sort of stops. Part of that is due to the script, which I'll get into in a second. But it's also because Pogue burns himself out too quickly and can't sustain the pace for the entire movie.

At least Pogue's direction is better than his writing. His screenplay actually hurts the movie more than hit helps. Not only does it boast some inexcusable plot holes (how the hell was a character able to get a handgun onto an airplane with his luggage?!), but the characters are underdeveloped as well. They go beyond one-dimensional and become caricatures. There's also the banal dialogue, a plot that's way too similar to the first half of Resident Evil: Degeneration for my taste, and some really dumb moments. Seriously, I didn't understand why almost all of the characters treat Jenny with hostility after the plane lands, as if everything bad that's happening is her fault. Yeah, like some poor stewardess that's as freaked out as everybody else was the cause of all of it.

And like I said before, the climax isn't really all that climactic. Yeah, Pogue could have fixed that from the director's chair. But he should have at least come up with an ending that was more of a bang than a whimper. It makes the movie feel like you were running a race at 90 miles an hour before slowing down and finally crawling a foot from the finish line. It makes me pine for the first Quarantine, where the only real problem with the ending was that they put it on the poster.

I'll give the cast credit for trying to overcome some of the script's deficiencies. Though not all of the actors stand out, there were a few that I thought were worth talking about. Noree Victoria is likable as a friendly Army medic and Josh Cooke is great as the sleazy, manipulative prick du jour. The best among them is Mercedes Masöhn, who I thought was engaging and enjoyable. Unfortunately, I can't say I particularly cared for Mattie Liptak. Not only did his Justin Bieber haircut and wardrobe really rub me the wrong way (a superficial thing to be upset about, I know), but Liptak's performance was really lacking in something that would make me want to watch him.

So how would I go about summarizing exactly how I felt about Quarantine 2? I guess I'd call it a promising movie that needed a slightly better execution. I honestly didn't think it was that bad a movie, just one that needed some improvement. I'll even concede that it made me want to see a third Quarantine movie. But the truth is that all I can give Quarantine 2: Terminal two and a half stars. You know, in retrospect, maybe they should have just remade [∙REC] 2 instead. That could have been sweet.

Final Rating: **½