Film Review: Saw (2004)

Also known as: Jigsaw (working title)
Release Date: January 19th, 2004 (Sundance)
Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Leigh Whannell, James Wan
Based on: Saw by James Wan, Leigh Whannell
Music by: Charlie Clouser
Cast: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Tobin Bell, Leigh Whannell, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Makenzie Vega

Evolution Entertainment, Saw Productions Inc., Twisted Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“Congratulations. You are still alive. Most people are so ungrateful to be alive. But not you. Not anymore.” – Jigsaw

I’ve said for nearly two decades that if they had left Saw alone and not pumped out sequels annually to capitalize off of this movie’s success, that it could’ve very easily been perceived as one of the greatest horror films ever made. I still stand by that statement.

Now I haven’t seen this in at least fifteen years. I gave up on the franchise after seeing the third film in theaters. At that point, I definitely felt like the film series had exhausted itself and run out of gas. But silly me, they made like half a dozen more! And shockingly, none of the sequels were straight-to-video. They all had theatrical releases.

Looking at this movie, as a single body of work, it’s really damn good. The concept was great and the story was well-crafted and made for one hell of a cinematic experience. I’d consider this James Wan’s magnum opus, even though the dude probably still has a lot of time to top it.

The best part about seeing this for the first time is that you didn’t know much about the plot or why these guys were locked in a room together. Everything slowly reveals itself and the movie knows how to build suspense and keep the viewer on the edge of their seat until the shocking end, which no one saw coming. Frankly, it’s an incredible reveal.

This is also the best acted film out of the three I’ve seen. In fact, the other movies don’t hold a candle to this one in the acting department, except for the scenes where Tobin Bell is front and center. Without Bell, this series probably couldn’t have lasted as long as it did. Even after his character was dead, his presence was still very much felt and a driving force behind the stories. Crazily enough, he’s barely in this movie, even though he’s the big bad.

Anyway, this movie is superb and it’s still effective, even though I know the ending and all the surprises. But since this is so well-crafted, it makes repeat viewings kind of cool, as you pick up on more of the clues that were planted throughout the movie.

The later films would get more gory. This one has some pretty good gross out moments but a lot of the gore is more implied and relies on your imagination to see things that aren’t actually onscreen. In a lot of ways it reminds me of how effective that approach was in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Saw has held up tremendously well in spite of it being the first chapter in a very long franchise. It’s definitely worth watching but once you’re finished you might want to stop and not let the sequels ruin it for you.

That being said, I’m going to work my way through all of the sequels and review them.

Rating: 8.75/10

Documentary Review: Hoop Dreams (1994)

Release Date: January, 1994 (Sundance)
Directed by: Steve James
Written by: Steve James, Frederick Marx
Music by: Ben Sidran
Cast: William Gates, Arthur Agee, various

KTCA Minneapolis, Kartemquin Films, Fine Line Features, 170 Minutes

Review:

“That’s why when somebody say, “when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me”, and that stuff. Well, I should’ve said to them, “if I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.”” – William Gates

Hoop Dreams was filmed over years, following two Chicago area high school basketball players that were trying to achieve their dream of someday playing in the NBA.

This was also pretty influential on how sports documentaries were made and presented going forward. This had a very direct, intimate approach and the time that it took to film these boys’ lives is pretty remarkable and impressive. If anything, the filmmakers deserved an award just for their dedication on this story.

It’s a very long documentary, however, and with that, it drags in some points. Although, they had to take hundreds of hours of footage over four years and edit it down to just under three hours. Had this been made today, it probably would’ve been released as a documentary miniseries with multiple episodes.

I like the film quite a bit, though, even if I hadn’t seen it since the ’90s. It’s a passionate human story that has its fair share of heartbreak, success and perseverance.

Rating: 8/10

Documentary Review: Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (2020)

Also known as: Mucho mucho amor: La leyenda de Walter Mercado (Spanish title)
Release Date: January 24th, 2020 (Sundance)
Directed by: Cristina Costantini, Kareem Tabsch
Music by: Jeff Morrow
Cast: Walter Mercado, various

Muck Media, Key Rat, Topic Studios, Netflix, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Walter Mercado is a force of nature without beginnings and endings. He used to be a star, but now, Walter is a constellation.” – Walter Mercado

This was a pleasant surprise and a much more interesting and fun documentary than I had anticipated.

Full disclosure, I’ve always loved the hell out of Walter Mercado. While I don’t believe in astrology and am an atheist, he always seemed well-meaning and he also meant a lot to millions of people that felt uplifted by his woo woo messages of positivity.

As a teenager, I discovered him on television at one of my best friends’ houses. This Honduran family that I’d often times eat dinner with always had Walter on in the evening and even if I didn’t understand Spanish enough to know what he was saying in full detail, it was impossible not to be captivated by him.

What I never knew was his actual story between his early life, the genesis of his public persona and all the hardships he faced over the years. Watching this, I felt like I got to know Walter on a genuine level and I’ve got to say, all razzle dazzle aside, I really like the guy.

The best thing about this documentary is that it wasn’t made about Walter, it was made with his involvement and he stars in it, giving you a peek into his life now. He also tells his own stories, giving great first-person accounts of the key events in his life.

This also features interviews with people that have worked with Walter over the years and one guy that pretty much screwed him over and preyed on Walter’s good, trusting nature to steal the famous man’s name and “brand”.

For those who don’t know who Walter Mercado is, I still think that this would be a worthwhile documentary to check out, as he’s just an interesting person that lived an incredibly unique life and still has a lot to say to the world.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other recent pop culture biographical documentaries.

Documentary Review: Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007)

Release Date: January 22nd, 2007 (Sundance)
Directed by: Lincoln Ruchti
Cast: various

Men At Work Pictures LLC, 90 Minutes

Review:

After revisiting The King of Kong for the first time in years, I wanted to also revisit this, as it’s a very similar documentary that came out just before that more famous one.

While this isn’t the near masterpiece that The King of Kong is, it ties directly to it and its story and frankly, this plays like a prelude or a setup to that movie.

This goes through the history of arcade gaming and also covers the legends that rose up in the early days, their records, their effect on pop culture, as well as the creation of Twin Galaxies, the organization that records and maintains world records in arcade gaming. I believe they also keep records for console and PC gaming but it’s the arcade side of things that inspired them to exist in the first place.

There is a lot in this documentary about Billy Mitchell, who was pretty much the villain in The King of Kong story. It also features nearly all of the key people and legends that played a part in that film.

While this isn’t as good as The King of Kong it does feel like a necessary companion piece to it, allowing the viewer to have a deeper, richer experience in getting to know these people and their interesting, competitive and sometimes cutthroat subculture.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: The King of Kong, which this truly plays as a preface to.

Film Review: American Psycho (2000)

Release Date: January 21st, 2000 (Sundance)
Directed by: Mary Harron
Written by: Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner
Based on: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Music by: John Cale
Cast: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Josh Lucas, Samantha Mathis, Matt Ross, Bill Sage, Chloe Sevigny, Cara Seymour, Justin Theroux, Guinevere Turner, Reg E. Cathey, Reese Witherspoon, Krista Sutton

Am Psycho Productions, Edward R. Pressman Film, Lions Gate Films, 101 Minutes

Review:

“I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” – Patrick Bateman

I used to dig the hell out of this movie back when it was still fairly new. But I was also in my early twenties and just coming out of the edgy boi ’90s. Also, I hadn’t read the book before I saw the film.

Having now read the book, this motion picture adaptation is a real disappointment. I guess the book was so edgy and gruesome that a lot of it had to be left out but honestly, why make the movie at all then?

Now I am a fan of the acting in this, which is really solid from top-to-bottom, and this helped solidify Christian Bale as one of my favorite actors of the ’00s. I especially liked Willem Dafoe in this, as he worked well being only one of two characters grounded in any sort of reality.

While this movie is bizarre and I imagine still entertaining on a first viewing, for me, it doesn’t hold up tremendously well. It kind of reminds me of David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, in that it’s a collection of scenes from bigger, richer source material. Source material that needs to be read and understood to actually get the full effect of the story.

However, I guess, if one hasn’t read the book, they don’t really know what they’re missing, as was the case with myself back in 2000. And at least this is less complex than Dune.

The overall narrative of the film seems like it’s spotty and full of holes, though. You never really get to know anyone in the film but since they’re all superficial and inauthentic, seen through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, I guess it doesn’t break the picture. This really just feels like random scenes strung together and since it’s not clear what’s reality and what’s not, it works in its own weird way. The problem I have with it, though, is that it could’ve worked much better, as it did in the original novel.

It’s been years since I’ve seen this and it sucks that it didn’t live up to my memories of it but the bits I really like are still great when you cut them out of the larger body of work and just see them as scenes.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other movies based on Bret Easton Ellis novels: The Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero.

Film Review: Boiler Room (2000)

Release Date: January 30th, 2000 (Sundance)
Directed by: Ben Younger
Written by: Ben Younger
Music by: The Angel
Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Nia Long, Nicky Katt, Scott Caan, Ben Affleck, Ron Rifkin, Jamie Kennedy, Taylor Nichols, Bill Sage, Tom Everett Scott, Anson Mount, Kirk Acevado, Desmond Harrington (uncredited)

Team Todd, New Line Cinema, 120 Minutes

Review:

“[to the new recruits] And there is no such thing as a no sale call. A sale is made on every call you make. Either you sell the client some stock or he sells you a reason he can’t. Either way a sale is made, the only question is who is gonna close? You or him? Now be relentless, that’s it, I’m done.” – Jim Young

For years, until there was actually a second Wall Street movie, I saw this as that film’s spiritual successor. Which is also sort of fitting as the characters in this movie worship the Gordon Gekko character from Wall Street.

I actually still view this as a spiritual sequel, however, as it’s very apparent that it was strongly influenced by Wall Street and also because it is a motion picture of quality. While it might not live up to Wall Street or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, it’s still damn good and at least in the same orbit as those movies.

The plot of the film is intriguing and it sucks you in from the get go. It’s about a smart, savvy college dropout who goes from running an illegal casino in his house to being one of the top brokers at a really young, lucrative and questionable brokerage firm.

Over the course of the movie, we see Giovanni Ribisi’s Seth Davis go from being a slightly timid rookie to a confident and smart salesman to being swarmed with immense guilt when he realizes that he has completely fucking people out of their life savings to reluctant antihero that tried to fix some of the damage he caused while taking the firm down.

I can’t quite call Seth Davis a hero, as it took his father disowning him and the FBI pinching him to get him to actually change his tune. It’s hard to tell if he would’ve arrived to a better place on his own but, at least he tried to undo some of his wreckage.

Beyond Ribisi, this is a film that is loaded with a lot of the up and coming male talent of the day. Vin Diesel and Nicky Katt really stick out and Ben Affleck’s performance is great, even if his scenes are few and his role feels more like a beefed up cameo.

I really loved the music in this film, as it’s full of east coast hip-hop of the early to mid-’90s, which has always been my favorite kind of hip-hop. It may be slightly dated for this 2000 film but it worked for me, as I started to ignore more mainstream rap music around 1998.

Anyway, this is a superb finance thriller. It has stood up to the test of time in the same way that Wall Street has. If you like these sort of movies but have slept on Boiler Room the last two decades, you should check it out.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other finance industry thrillers like Wall Street, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Big Short, Rogue Trader, etc.

Documentary Review: Spaceship Earth (2020)

Release Date: January 26th, 2020 (Sundance)
Directed by: Matt Wolf
Music by: Owen Pallett
Cast: various

Stacey Reiss Productions, Impact Partners, RadicalMedia, Neon, 113 Minutes

Review:

I was pretty stoked to see this documentary when the trailer came out but honestly, it was really disappointing.

This seemed like such a wasted opportunity to tell a great story about the people and all the shenanigans around Biosphere2, including the people behind the project, its genesis and how everything panned out.

This was a story that was a big part of my life around middle school age, as I had a science teacher that was obsessed with it and gave us constant updates while also having her curriculum kind of tie to the Biosphere2 experiment.

I actually had no idea how interesting the story actually was until seeing this and learning about the group and how they came together, a quarter of a century before being locked up together in the world’s first biodome.

Sadly, the documentary doesn’t seem to dig deep enough in its nearly two-hour running time. It just scratches the surface and gives you some insight. It even has the real people in the film giving their accounts of events. However, this really needed more meat and because of that, should have probably been expanded into a multipart series.

I left this feeling like I knew the story but the real details were glossed over and I didn’t get to feel like I really knew these people, as much as I should.

Still, this was interesting enough to justify its existence and it was a decent way to spend two hours but I know that there is a lot more to the story that we didn’t get and that left me unfulfilled and underwhelmed.

Rating: 6/10

Film Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Release Date: January 19th, 2001 (Sundance)
Directed by: Richard Kelly
Written by: Richard Kelly
Music by: Michael Andrews
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Daveigh Chase, Arthur Taxier, David St. James, Jazzie Mahannah, Jolene Purdy, Stuart Stone, Gary Lundy, Alex Greenwald, Seth Rogen, Beth Grant, David Moreland, Ashley Tisdale, Jerry Trainor

Adam Fields Productions, Flower Films, Pandora Cinema, 113 Minutes, 134 Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Review:

“I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.” – Donnie

This movie had a profound effect on me when I saw it in a movie theater, alone, in 2001. Once it was released on VHS and DVD, I had a copy of both. In fact, I had a version of the VHS that was released in blue plastic, as opposed to the traditional black.

Once I owned the movie, I watched it a lot. Mainly because it was so damn good and I was so damn intrigued by the vague concepts and ideas in it. There was this whole deep, mystical yet science-y mystery, which captivated my psyche.

Beyond that, the film connected with me in a way no other film has. I think that has a lot to do with my age, at the time, and because the title character and myself had similar issues. I liked seeing this character and how he was portrayed, as it felt genuine as hell and like it came from a real place from someone with similar experiences. I’m not saying that Richard Kelly is as “fucked up” as Donnie Darko but it’s clear that he knew what he was writing quite well.

I also liked how this sort of critiqued the Americana lifestyle and was set in the late ’80s, a time where American ideals seemed like they were winning and the middle class were relishing in a time of affordable opulence. Not that any of that is specifically negative, I just thought that this film looked at and examined it in an interesting way.

This is the first time I have watched the movie in probably a decade. I used to watch it so much, it was pretty much burned into my brain. Having that much time away from it, though, allowed me to see it with somewhat fresh eyes and in fact, I was a bit apprehensive about it, as I thought it might not stand up to the test of time and play as well.

Luckily, that apprehension was quickly absolved because this was just as good as I remembered it. Also, in some way, it was like rediscovering it because there were some neat details and nuance that I had forgotten about. I mean, I am starting to get old.

The film is pretty close to perfect and it is so well acted that you get ensnared by it. It’s beautiful visually and narratively and it certainly deserves more recognition than it gets, even if it did establish cult status and a slew of fans over time.

In recent years, though, it feels like it’s being forgotten, as new generations come along and prefer movies with less heart and simplistic, rapid storytelling that deliver constant gratification while moving so fast that nothing in a film older than fifteen minutes seems to matter. Look at the ninth Star Wars saga film and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s sad that Donnie Darko sort of feels like a relic now. At the time, I had hoped it was a bright beacon at the beginning of a new millennium that would help inspire smarter, more original movies but the Michael Bays and J. J. Abramses won out.

And sadly, Richard Kelly tried but was never able to capture the magic he had here with his feature length debut.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: this is pretty unusual but I’d say Richard Kelly’s other films: Southland Tales and The Box.

Documentary Review: The Social Dilemma (2020)

Release Date: January 26th, 2020 (Sundance)
Directed by: Jeff Orlowski
Written by: Davis Coombe, Vickie Curtis, Jeff Orlowski
Music by: Mark A. Crawford
Cast: Interviewees: Tristan Harris, Aza Raskin, Justin Rosenstein, Shoshana Zuboff, Jaron Lanier, Tim Kendall, Rashida Richardson, Renee DiResta, Anna Lembke, Roger McNamee, Guillaume Chaslot; Performances: Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, Vincent Kartheiser, Sophia Hammons, Catalina Garayoa, Barbara Gehring, Chris Grundy

Exposure Labs, Argent Pictures, The Space Program, Netflix, 94 Minutes

Review:

“How do you wake up from the Matrix when you don’t know you’re in the Matrix?” – Self – Google, Former Design Ethicist

I watched this based off of a recommendation and honestly, I probably wouldn’t have, otherwise. I’m glad I did though, as it was really refreshing seeing some of the people who were instrumental in developing social media, kind of condemning certain parts of it, as it’s now being used in a way to create an addiction to it and to further divide the people using it.

Initially, it was created to bring people together, where they could interact with one another, all over the world. Where they could share ideas and more or less, come together in a positive, constructive way in an effort to shape a better planet.

In the last decade or so, all of that has started to take a turn for the worse.

This film breaks down how this happened and how it all works. Frankly, it’s kind of scary but it’s also not like most of us sane, rational people aren’t aware of it. There’s a reason why I stopped using Facebook, only occasionally touch Instagram and pretty much just use Twitter to promote this site and then shitpost.

This also has some bits in it where actors play characters being affected by all of this. It’s used to illustrate in an interesting way how social media can destroy relationships and human interaction. It also shows how these apps work and why they hone in on our different triggers to sell products and to keep us engaging with the app.

I can’t say that anything here was new information but it’s refreshing seeing the architects of the problem try to combat it and bring more awareness to it.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other recent tech documentaries.

Film Review: Cuties (2020)

Also known as: Mignonnes (original French title)
Release Date: January 23rd, 2020 (Sundance)
Directed by: Maïmouna Doucouré
Written by: Maïmouna Doucouré
Music by: Niko Noki
Cast: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Maïmouna Gueye

Bien Ou Bien Productions, France 3 Cinéma, BAC Films, Canal+, 96 Minutes

Review:

I normally wouldn’t have watched this or even cared about it. But since it’s the most controversial film of the fucking year, I couldn’t not watch it, review it and give my two cents.

That being said, I’ll probably piss off both sides of the debate because I’m not going to bash it as “pedo candy”, I’ll explain why, and I’m not going to pass it off like some sort of amazing motion picture that the world has been begging for and has desperately needed.

To start, this is controversial because the film is about a group of young girls who are trying to be a dance team; these girls are all about eleven years-old. They’re influenced by the provocative and highly sexual dance moves that they see all over the Internet from rap videos and other sources.

This, of course, makes people uncomfortable and it’s supposed to. However, these moments don’t make up the bulk of the movie and the film itself is really focused on one girl primarily.

This girl, Amy, comes from an immigrant family who have moved to France from Senegal. Her family is very religious and her actions in the film are a rebellion against the traditions of that strict religion and an exploration of the new things she’s found, culturally, in her new home. All the while, she’s also broken up by how changes in her family dynamic are emotionally effecting her mother and the structure of the family unit she’s used to.

Watching this as an American, I don’t know much about the culture of Senegal and how immigrants from that country would be effected by the socially liberal French that they would find themselves surrounded by. Honestly, I was kind of intrigued by this and would’ve liked to have seen it explored in a broader sense and not specifically from the viewpoint of one character. But maybe for those in France, where this film was made, it’s not as interesting, as other French films may have touched on it already.

But I feel like this film is pretty disjointed and it’s not all that coherent from a narrative standpoint. It plays more like a series of sequences with some connectivity but a lot of the film seems really random. Its like the director/writer is recalling actual moments from her own experience growing up and doesn’t realize that the audience might need some deeper context.

For instance, there’s a scene where Amy takes a picture of her private parts and uploads it to the Internet. It’s random as hell, really uncomfortable and isn’t really followed up on in any meaningful way, other than having some kid at school slap her ass. Did it need to be in the film? Was it just there for shock value?

Additionally, this is a coming-of-age story and it’s not really clear what the main character has learned or how she’s grown. Sure, she has an emotional breakdown and what appears to be a scary moment of clarity when she’s achieved her goal but the movie sort of ends and you’re sort of just left going, “Um… okay?”

What’s even worse is that this film is really well acted from top-to-bottom but the performances feel wasted.

This had the makings of something that could’ve been interesting but it’s honestly a really boring and drab movie. Even though there’s a plot progression, it feels like not much happens apart from the uncomfortable finale and a few weird moments dropped in.

The thing that has people in an uproar are the scenes that have leaked out that feature these young girls dancing in an over-sexualized way. The thing is, if you know kids or remember when you were that age, kids didn’t know a damn thing about sex but they all talked about it. I remember girls in my middle school days emulating the dances they saw in 2 Live Crew videos. This is nothing knew but maybe I also grew up in a more urban area and I was exposed to things that middle America wasn’t. I can only speak from my own experiences and memories but I’m pretty sure kids this age, everywhere, weren’t too dissimilar.

What is bizarre and sort of counterproductive to the director’s stated intent, is how the dancing scenes are filmed. The movie is made to critique and expose the over-sexualization of kids, especially young girls, but in trying to speak out against that, the film does exactly that. So I have to conclude that the director is either lying to cover her ass or a moron.

You could’ve made your point without closeup shots of eleven year-olds crotches and booties. Once or twice, I might roll my eyes but it did feel gratuitous. And frankly, I think it would’ve been a lot more effective having them dance but having the camera looking out to the crowd, getting their reactions to seeing young girls dance in such a way. But I’m not the artist, here.

I can’t say that I’m offended by it, I just sort of got through these moments like, “Really, you had to go there?” And maybe this was deliberate and the director knew that it’d get attention and that the media and film industry being the way they are, would show support. I’m leaning more towards her being an idiot, though.

Additionally, what tune would Hollywood and the media be singing if this was made by a white dude? And since it’s not made by a white dude, is the director getting a free pass? Why do we have to even ask these questions in 2020?

While I think this isn’t “pedo candy” (or why it isn’t intended to be) is due to the fact that these moments don’t happen often in the overall running time of the picture. I highly doubt that the director had that intention. I think she wanted to make something personal but didn’t realize that she was doing the same thing she wanted to expose as a problem. You don’t clear a flood by hosing it down and someone else working on the picture or producing it should’ve stepped in.

It also doesn’t help how Netflix initially marketed this film. They’ve since apologized and removed their pedo-tastic poster but the damage was done and it makes you wonder about the suits at Netflix making these decisions. As you can see above, the film’s original poster wasn’t offensive or provocative.

So yeah, I get the pushback but I’ve never been a fan of puritans of any kind. While I’ve gone on Twitter to chime in on the film’s marketing in the US market, I didn’t feel like I had a right to comment on a film I hadn’t seen. But we live in a time where everyone is outraged about everything without actually having the full context. That’s the main reason I felt like I needed to watch the movie when I’m surrounded by those trashing it or talking it up without actually watching it.

Any critic that tells you that this is anything more than “meh” is a shill, however. While that’s my opinion, from my point-of-view, my opinion is fact.

In the end, without the controversy, this is a completely forgettable film. While I would’ve liked to have learned more about the Senegalese experience in France, I was left with a mostly boring movie that felt aimless and didn’t effectively make its point or develop its main character in any sort of meaningful way. In fact, this film does the opposite of what it set out to do.

Rating: 5/10
Pairs well with: other coming of age movies from Europe, I guess. I don’t watch a lot of those.