Month: January 2015

Saw IV (2007)

***Warning: Spoilers throughout***

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The Saw series as we know it is changing. Jigsaw? Dead. His apprentice Amanda? Dead. Detective Kerry? Dead.

The series’ fourth installmen, therefore, is running on spare parts — although you wouldn’t guess it at all. Director Darren Lynn Bousman returns in order to maintain the frenetic pace after Saw III broke box office records for Halloween weekend in the previous year.

Apparently, Jigsaw planned far in advance of his death, organizing more twisted games to be played before and after his death. Jigsaw’s presence is still being felt, and Saw IV focuses on him manipulating people into continuing his own work and further establishing his dark legacy.

The plot of Saw IV revolves around two men: SWAT Lt. Rigg (Lyriq Bent) and Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) who are the last two officers untouched by Jigsaw. Rigg has become obsessed with saving everyone due to Kerry’s brutal death in Saw III and the disappearance of Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), who has been gone for six months. Rigg buries himself in his work, to the displeasure of Hoffman.

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Enter two FBI agents: Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Lindsey Perez (Athena Karkanis), who have been brought in to accelerate the pace of the stagnant Jigsaw investigation. Strahm, in particular, is convinced that there was an additional apprentice besides Amanda, and he’s determined to find whoever it is. Both agents have also received a tip that there are two detectives in the precinct who are in danger, but have no other information.

Soon enough, Rigg is kidnapped and forced into a game. Hoffman has gone missing, too. Essentially, Rigg has to overcome his “addiction” of saving people. As it stands, Hoffman and Detective Matthews are both still alive, but have 90 minutes to live. With Agents Perez and Strahm close behind Rigg, they piece together the puzzle and discover that Rigg is being used as a pawn in Jigsaw’s game. Jigsaw, from beyond the grave, wants Rigg to “feel as I feel,” “see what I see,” and “save as I save.”

“He’s being recruited,” muses Agent Strahm.

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Along the way, we meet Jigsaw’s former lawyer, Art Blank (Justin Louis) and his ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell). Both appear to know more than they’re letting on. Time is wasting. Bodies are piling up. And Rigg is getting one step closer to becoming the new apprentice…or is he?

As far as sequels go, this isn’t exactly Friday the 13th: Part 7. Bousman is a meticulous director and pays serious attention to continuity in the Saw trilogy. Now, with practically everyone dead, no one misses a beat. For the first time, Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell does not return to write the script, but the film doesn’t really suffer much. The film’s storyline is focused more on the Jigsaw investigation, and there’s less torture than there was in Saw III. While the plot can be convoluted at times, the famous traps are still ticking (literally), the adrenaline continues to flow, and the suspense mounts. The characters aren’t as interesting as they were in the Saw trilogy, but there’s still enough here to please fans of the series. The acting was solid as well; the best of the newcomers are definitely Scott Patterson as Agent Strahm and Betsy Russell as Jill Tuck.

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The real highlight here is the Jigsaw backstory. The nefarious serial kidnapper is dead — that much is certain. But Tobin Bell’s ice-cold voice and creepy physique are on full display in the flashbacks, in which we discover more about his life before he became a criminal. He was a fairly normal engineer who had a happy life, before everything went wrong for him. It’s fascinating to see John Kramer in his pre-Jigsaw phase.

Saw IV is remarkably solid at this late date in the series, but it’s still a step down from II and III. Still, it’s worth a shot if you don’t mind the intricate plot, the blood/gore, and the occasional f-bomb.

Rating: 7/10

Released 2007

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

Produced by Oren Koules and Mark Burg

Screenplay by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan

Story by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, and Thomas Fenton

Starring Tobin Bell, Lyriq Bent, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Justin Louis, Athena Karkanis, Donnie Wahlberg, Billy Otis

Rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture throughout, and language.

The Book of Eli (2010)

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Eli walks alone in a barren landscape that was once the American Southwest. In the aftermath of an all-out nuclear war, he has an important task that could revive humanity. Armed with multiple weapons, as well as a book — a very important Book — Eli is on a mission to the West Coast to help salvage what is left of society.

The Book is, above all else, a tool. In the right hands, it could be used to revitalize society and help people rebuild their lives and their families. In the wrong hands, it could be used as a tyrannical weapon. Eli knows this, and will stop at nothing to make sure the Book is given to the right people.

Making a stop in the desert, Eli finds a small, Western-style town run by the nefarious Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who desires to build his own nation with the help of the Book. Carnegie’s mistress Claudia (Jennifer Beals) and her daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) offer Eli food, water, and a bed for the night. Solara discovers the Book in Eli’s backpack, and is intrigued by it. Carnegie overhears Solara reading it, and by manipulating her, he discovers that the Book is what he has been looking for.

The Book of Eli movie image Denzel Washington and Mila Kunis

After narrowly escaping Carnegie and his men, Eli and Solara travel west. Eli explains that the Book is the last of its kind, and that he was led to the Book by a voice or a guiding light of some sort. He insists that the voice told him to carry out the mission, and that he would be protected along the way. Solara doesn’t understand, and quite frankly, neither does Eli — he just knows he must complete that task. “We walk by faith, not by sight,” he says, quoting the Book.

Traps await both Eli and Solara, and Carnegie’s men are never far behind them. It soon becomes apparent that Eli must bring the book to the West Coast, or die trying.

BOOK OF ELI

We’ve seen a lot of post-apocalyptic films lately, but this one is both stylish and unique in its subject matter and execution. The real highlight here is Denzel Washington, who even into his 50s, can pull off the action star role. Washington is outstanding as always in this film, and he has a co-producer credit as well.

Filmed mostly in New Mexico and directed by the Hughes Brothers, The Book of Eli is more than just your typical action-thriller. The bleak landscapes of southern New Mexico provide a neo-Western aesthetic, and the themes are very relevant today. Written by Gary Whitta, a self-described atheist from the UK, The Book of Eli is very good when it explores the themes of goodness, humanity, and religion. In a clever twist, it is not revealed until about halfway through the film that the Book is actually the last surviving copy of the King James Bible.

Eli wants to protect the Book from harm and use it to help other people, giving hope to the remainder of society; Carnegie wants to use religion as a weapon and become surveyor of his own empire. The film’s subtext, therefore, is that in the right hands, religion can be used for good, or it can be used for bad.

History books are full of examples like this. In medieval times, many people wanted to use Scripture as a means of controlling the populace, while others wanted to use Biblical teachings as a personal means of self-improvement. The Book of Eli shows not just how power corrupts, but how religion influences behavior. While Eli is not afraid to hack off limbs and shoot his enemies, he is mostly portrayed as a humble servant who wants to complete his very important mission at all costs, even if he dies in the process. Solana notices Eli’s dedication, even though she does not understand why the Book or the mission is so vital. Carnegie is shown to be an arrogant man who is not just power-hungry, but self-deluded.

While The Book of Eli occasionally falls victim to action movie cliches, the performances of Washington and Gary Oldman keep this movie afloat and focused. This could honestly be a fine example of a Christian movie, because it’s both authentic and engaging. Unlike many Hollywood blockbusters, Christians are not universally portrayed negatively, nor are they universally praised, as in most Christian indie films.

Regardless of your views on faith and religion, I promise you’ll find something to love in this thrilling Western.

Released 2010

Directed by the Hughes Brothers

Written by Gary Whitta

Produced by Joel Silver, Denzel Washington, Broderick Johnson, Susan Downey, and Andrew Kosove

Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson, and Malcolm McDowell

Rated R for some brutal violence and language.

The new(ish) kid on the block

I’m pretty sure we know this guy by now.

Following a monster 2014 in which he starred in two of the biggest box-office hits of the year (The LEGO Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy), Chris Pratt has truly become an A-lister. He’s been featured in Men’s FitnessGQEsquire, and Entertainment Weekly, among others.

When he’s not spending time with his family or filming movies, Pratt can be found doing the profound (http://www.eonline.com/news/571490/chris-pratt-visits-children-s-hospital-los-angeles-in-costume-as-star-lord-from-guardians-of-the-galaxy) or the goofy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdqfR0wRTbI). He’s had a major role for several years on NBC’s Parks and Recreation and is starring in the eagerly anticipated reboot of the Jurassic Park franchise, to be released this summer.

Hollywood is no stranger to rags-to-riches stories. But Pratt, age 35, truly started from the bottom. Born in June 1979 in Virginia, Minnesota, Pratt lived in Lake Stevens, Washington for most of his childhood. He was an athletic kid, as his father Dan was an assistant football coach in addition to working his day job remodeling houses. Young Chris played football and was also a state champion in wrestling. He explains, “I can take a fall. I actually wanted to be a stuntman when I was a kid, so I would practice falling down the stairs. It’s just something I like to do.”

After high school, he spent an uneventful semester at a nearby community college before moving to Maui. There, he lived with a few friends — living out of a van. He worked thankless jobs as a coupon salesman and a waiter/server, smoking pot with his buddies on the weekends, surfing, fishing, and barely having enough money for food and gas.

“I’d done nothing proactive,” Pratt recalls. “It was as dumb as someone saying, ‘I’ll probably be an astronaut. I’m sure I’ll stumble into an astronaut suit and end up in space one day.'”

Soon enough, the 19-year-old Pratt was working at Bubba Gump Shrimp, and was spotted by actress Rae Dawn Chong (daughter of famous stoner comedian Tommy Chong) and she flew him to L.A. to do small acting jobs. At first, Pratt got small roles in shows like The O.C. and Everwood, still waiting for his big break.

That came when he was cast as the dumb-but-lovable Andy Dwyer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation in 2009. Fans of that show know how hilarious and charming Pratt is in that role, and everyone else in L.A. started taking note.

Still, Pratt felt discouraged after auditioning and not getting two huge roles — in Star Trek and Avatar — which turned out to be massive hits. He sums up his resilient attitude: “I figured, I’ll find a way to make money and if that means I’m playing character roles, that’s terrific. People have to work.”

Soon enough, Pratt played memorable characters in two Oscar-nominated films, Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty, earning acclaim for both. Despite his laid-back attitude towards being typecast as Andy Dwyer-type characters, Pratt set himself apart in these films and showed audiences and critics alike that he was ready to be a leading man.

In 2012, Pratt became a father — and faster than expected. He and his wife, actress Anna Faris, welcomed baby Jack several weeks premature. Things didn’t look good at first, but Jack fought hard and is now happy and healthy. “I married way out of my pay grade. I have no idea how that happened,” Pratt jokes. In all seriousness, Pratt, Faris, and baby Jack are about as lovable as you can get, often posting family photos on Twitter and Instagram.

And that might be what sets Pratt apart from other newcomers in show business: he’s a genuinely likable guy. He’s a family man who makes fun movies and TV shows. He’s not a self-absorbed guy, and he seems to seriously like what he does. Fortunately for Pratt, the fun is just beginning.

And it sure beats living in a van and waiting tables in Maui, huh?

FBS coaching changes

The New Year is upon us, which means that college football coaches nationwide are getting settled in to various new gigs. There were several high-profile coaching changes in the offseason, so without further ado, let’s look at all of them.

Buffalo Bulls

OUT: Jeff Quinn

IN: Lance Leipold

Quinn could never have consistent, sustained success with the Bulls, and he was fired midway through 2014 after a bad start to the season. The 50-year-old Leipold was the fastest coach in NCAA history to reach 100 wins, in eight seasons. Sure, that was at a Division III school (Wisconsin-Whitewater), but Leipold seems up to the task at Buffalo, a place where it’s historically difficult to win.

Colorado State Rams

OUT: Jim McElwain

IN: Mike Bobo

Colorado State had elevated to a legitimate Mountain West contender under McElwain, and Bobo will look to keep the magic going in his first head coaching gig. Bobo, Mark Richt’s longtime offensive coordinator at Georgia, has some pieces in place to be successful, and he’s considered an outstanding recruiter. The Rams will fall a bit at first, but they’ll stay competitive.

Florida Gators

OUT: Will Muschamp

IN: Jim McElwain

Muschamp’s Gators were characterized by lackluster offenses, and that wasn’t going to cut it in the Swamp. McElwain is a superstar, having performed an instant turnaround job during his three years at Colorado State, and he brings SEC experience after working in Tuscaloosa under Nick Saban for four years (2008-2011).

Houston Cougars

OUT: Tony Levine

IN: Tom Herman

Levine was well-liked and respected in Houston, but his teams were never quite good enough to fill brand-new TDECU Stadium. The hiring of Herman has brought new buzz to the program, and why shouldn’t it? Herman’s offenses at Ohio State were statistically eye-popping, and there’s no reason he can’t bring that magic to the Cougars, who are in one of the best recruiting regions in the country.

Kansas Jayhawks

OUT: Charlie Weis

IN: David Beaty

After Weis went 6-22, something needed to change. Enter Beaty, a former KU assistant who spent 2011-2013 as the wide receivers coach at Texas A&M. Beaty also brings a sterling reputation as a recruiter, and while no one in Lawrence expects an instant turnaround, there seems to be more hype surrounding the program than in any time during Weis’s tenure.

Michigan Wolverines

OUT: Brady Hoke

IN: Jim Harbaugh

After the 49ers parted ways with Harbaugh in late December, all signs pointed to the Michigan man returning to his alma mater. Still, Harbaugh will have to deal with an impatient fan base that quickly grew tired of Hoke after his 11-win debut season in 2011. There’s no denying Harbaugh’s resume though, so he’ll get UM there soon enough.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

OUT: Bo Pelini

IN: Mike Riley

Call it the classic “polar-opposite” hire. Riley, who spent 14 seasons at Oregon State, is warm, friendly, and a good motivator—a far cry from the mercurial Pelini. Riley saw consistent success at OSU, and looks to have the same kind of success in Lincoln. The real question is can Riley get Nebraska over the 10-win hump, which was eventually the anchor around Pelini’s neck.

Oregon State Beavers

OUT: Mike Riley

IN: Gary Andersen

Riley’s departure was somewhat expected, but no one predicted Andersen’s return to the West Coast after only two seasons with Wisconsin. Andersen’s smash-mouth style could be an interesting fit in the high-powered Pac-12, but he’ll need a few recruiting classes before the Beavers really start rocking and rolling.

Pittsburgh Panthers

OUT: Paul Chryst

IN: Pat Narduzzi

Pitt fans are used to turnover by now, following Chryst’s return to Wisconsin after three seasons with the Panthers. But forget that this is considered a stepping-stone job. Narduzzi ran some of the saltiest defenses in Big Ten history while at Michigan State, and he’s going to make sure that these Panther teams are hard-nosed.

SMU Mustangs

OUT: June Jones

IN: Chad Morris

Morris, one of the highest-paid assistants in the nation, finally left Clemson and is jumping into the middle of a disaster at SMU. The Ponies were truly awful on both sides of the ball in 2014, starting four different quarterbacks. But Morris’s offensive scheme will at least make things interesting this year, and the Dallas native seems ready to make the Mustangs relevant again.

Troy Trojans

OUT: Larry Blakeney

IN: Neal Brown

Blakeney was the heart and soul of Troy for almost 25 years, but his retirement was expected: the Trojans haven’t had a winning record since 2010. Brown, a former Troy assistant, returns following his success with the Air Raid offense under Mark Stoops at Kentucky. He’s lucky to inherit an experienced roster in a weak Sun Belt Conference, but this rebuild will take time.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

OUT: Bill Blankenship

IN: Philip Montgomery

Montgomery comes from Baylor, and he’ll look to instill up-tempo excitement into a Tulsa offense that has been spinning its wheels in recent years. The Golden Hurricane weren’t equipped to play with American Athletic Conference teams last year, but Montgomery will make sure that changes.

UNLV Rebels

OUT: Bobby Hauck

IN: Tony Sanchez

And now for something completely different. Hauck could never get the Rebels over the hump, and his resignation left AD Tina Kunzer-Murphy scrambling for a replacement. Sanchez, who was arguably the best high school coach in the country at nearby Bishop Gorman HS, has never been a college coach. But then again, Hauck and several other predecessors had loads of collegiate experience, and that didn’t work out so well either.

Wisconsin Badgers

OUT: Gary Andersen

IN: Paul Chryst

Chryst, a former Wisconsin player and coach, is the perfect hire after Andersen’s sudden departure. He’s a great recruiter, knows the program well, and is generally a better fit than Andersen was. It remains to be seen if Chryst’s new staff will continue the pro-style, run-first offense that the Badgers are so well-known for, or if he’ll lean towards a more balanced attack.

Saw III (2006)

Jigsaw has vanished.

The brilliant, disturbed mastermind of the sickly intricate games that have made him a notorious figure has once again eluded the grasp of the authorities and gone into hiding.

As local detectives desperately try to locate Jigsaw and his apprentice Amanda, Jigsaw’s cancer takes a turn for the worse, and he braces for his certain death by grooming Amanda as his replacement. Meanwhile, two victims are about to be thrust into what could be Jigsaw’s final test.

Dr. Lynn Denlon is struggling with her life and marriage, dealing with depression and anxiety.

Jeff is a rage-obsessed father who wants nothing more than to bring his son’s killer to justice. His son Dylan was killed in a hit-and-run months ago, and the accident’s lone witness fled the scene, leaving Dylan’s killer free after an abbreviated six-month sentence. Jeff has developed an alcohol problem and is hell-bent on his own revenge, while neglecting his wife and daughter.

Both Lynn and Jeff are kidnapped by Jigsaw, who is bed-ridden by now and growing increasingly weak. Lynn is brought in to perform brain surgery on Jigsaw under threat of death by Amanda. A trap constructed by Amanda is placed around Lynn’s neck; armed with sensors that trigger shotgun bullets, it will detonate if Lynn tries to escape or if Jigsaw dies during surgery.

Jeff, meanwhile, awakens inside an industrial meat-processing factory. He has two hours to go through a series of gruesome tests that will show his ability (or lack thereof) to either enact vengeance or forgive those responsible for his son’s demise. These include Tim, the drunk driver involved in the hit-and-run, Danica, the lone witness, and Judge Halden, who let Timothy off on a brief jail sentence. Jigsaw entices Jeff by promising him an opportunity for vengeance, but warns of unintended consequences, should Jeff choose not to forgive.

It’s almost over for Jigsaw. He seems less than confident in Amanda as his replacement, and time is running out for them both. As Lynn and Jeff struggle to complete their tests on time, the bodies begin to pile up. It’s all happening now, and it’s been building up to what will surely be a gory, epic conclusion.

This is my favorite of the Saw series. Unflinchingly brutal yet surprisingly emotional in its storytelling, Saw III more than delivers on its tagline: “Suffering? You haven’t seen anything yet.” Tobin Bell reprises his role as Jigsaw, while Shawnee Smith steps to the forefront as Amanda; both deliver great performances.

The notion of forgiveness in Jeff’s tests serves as a greater working of Jigsaw’s moral code. In the first two Saw films, Jigsaw insisted that his twisted games were designed to give his unfortunate victims a greater sense of purpose, essentially forcing them to appreciate their blessings. Now, the crazed mastermind goes one step further, telling Jeff that he has the opportunity to “send (their) souls straight to hell” — or forgive them.

In an interesting twist, Jigsaw admits to Lynn that he is worried about his legacy. He seems to disapprove of Amanda’s grisly, brutal methods. He even tells Lynn that while he is concerned about Amanda’s mental state, that when it’s all said and done, “she will be the closest thing I’ve had to a connection.”

This script is definitely a notch above the first two films, and it helps that there are some talented actors involved. While screenwriter Leigh Whannell continues his use of red-herring plot devices and flashbacks, his dialogue has improved and the situations feel much more authentic and better-executed.

On to the traps. There’s plenty to like about this film in terms of its ability to entertain, gross out, and make people cringe. The gore is there, and there’s more psychological/physical torture than in previous Saw films. Jigsaw may be winding down physically, but his engineering prowess is on full display with the elaborate machines he’s created. Saw III is undoubtedly the most ambitious yet, and David Armstrong’s grimy cinematography continues to be a suitable touch. Charlie Clouser’s industrial music score also remains a highlight.

The main thing for me when watching Saw III was how good the characters were. You genuinely want Jeff to make better choices, you rightfully despise Amanda for her homicidal tendencies, and you cheer for Lynn to make it out of her ordeal in one piece. The storyline is more human-centered, empathetic, and sincere than you’d expect from a blood-soaked horror film, and Jigsaw is still one of the best horror villains in a long time. However twisted his morals are, you’re always intrigued when Jigsaw is onscreen.

Plenty of bloodshed and torture is on display, and there’s a decent amount of profanity as well. I’d say the language was roughly average compared to other R-rated films. There’s a brief scene of female nudity, but the scene is non-sexual in nature.

I give Saw III a 7.5 out of 10. Well worth watching if you have enjoyed the previous two. I actually do suggest watching Saw and Saw II beforehand, otherwise the plot of III could be quite confusing.

Released 2006

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

Produced by Oren Koules, Gregg Hoffman and Mark Burg

Screenplay by Leigh Whannell

Story by Leigh Whannell & James Wan

Starring Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Bahar Soomekh, Angus Macfadyen, Dina Meyer, Mpho Koaho, Barry Flatman, Donnie Wahlberg, Lyriq Bent, Costas Mandylor, Debra Lynne McCabe

Rated R for strong grisly violence and gore, sequences of terror and torture, nudity and language.