POSTED ON NOVEMBER 3, 2010:
Horrific Horrors and Angelic Visions
Saw 3D marks the end of a dreadful franchise, while Vision is a lovely view
Mercifully Done. The Saw franchise meets its supposed end with Saw 3D, the seventh film in the series. Costas Mandylor stars as Det. Mark Hoffman, who has taken over Jigsaw’s role as creator of the most gruesome traps imaginable.
Thank Christ, it's over.
You wouldn't think I'd feel that way about a film series like Saw. Being a horror fan (though not to the degree of some that I know) I've always had a deep appreciation for the creepy, weird and against-the-grain nature of most cinema violent and macabre. On paper, Saw fits right in.
But after seeing the first film in 2004 I was underwhelmed. I was initially taken by the low budget aesthetic and high concept premise, reworked from Se7en though it was, but the lack of overall brutality (yeah, I know but at the time I was mainlining some of the more over-the-top work of Takashi Miike -- check out Ichi the Killer sometime -- so Saw's relative restraint was a bit of a letdown) and really inventive kills coupled with the ridiculous sight of a talking murder-puppet on a tricycle sapped my interest quickly; so quickly, in fact, that I never bothered to see another one.
But the series went on. They killed off Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), who suffered from cancer -- he posthumously avenges himself against his insurance company in Saw VI, which gave that 90 minutes of lame a topical underpinning, at least -- and the story brought in followers that Jigsaw had earned to carry on his work of torturing various ethically compromised fleshbags into seeing the errors of their ways by utilizing Grand Guignol traps that more often than not end their lives with bone-cracking, skin shredding finality.
But it seems that no matter what overly implausible narrative the filmmakers wove the formula remained the same and the act of trying to top itself met with diminishing returns at the box office. Sure, the icons of the genre, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th all spawned many sequels of mostly diminishing creative and financial returns, as well, but at least they felt like they were trying even when they sucked like a nuclear-powered Hoover. Saw has just seemed to coast on unanswered questions and red herrings to create a semblance of depth. Sure they took the risk of killing their namesake villain in Saw III, but back pedaled by keeping him in the films with flashbacks (which is fine by me because Tobin Bell is invariably the most watchable actor in any of these films).
So as expected, Saw 3D sticks to the formula, so much so that its structure is nearly identical to that of Saw VI. It opens on a wicked trap involving some nameless characters who suck as people for whatever reason (in this case two guys and their disloyal mutual girlfriend who have to choose who amongst themselves who will get sawed in half) to establish that Jigsaw is still up to his old tricks. Actually, as I mentioned, Jigsaw is dead and his place has been taken by Det. Mark Hoffmann (Costas Mandylor) who carries on his work because he lost his daughter to Jigsaw in a previous film and desires revenge on Jigsaw's still living wife, Jill (Betsy Russell), not that you would know any of that if you are just jumping in on this, the supposedly last film in the series.
That established, we move onto the subject of Jigsaw's/Hoffman's next lesson, Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flannery) a self-help guru who apparently survived one of Jigsaw's gruesome series of traps and has written about the experience, parlaying it into big money. Of course he's kidnapped and wakes up in a cage to a familiar voice from a familiar puppet on a television monitor saying the familiar line, "I'd like to play a game."
Turns out, Dagen was never captured by Jigsaw and since all of Jigsaw's marathons of death are predicated on a moral flaw the one this time around is "bearing false witness". And just like in Saw VI, Dagen has to navigate a series of traps in which his friends and loved ones are caught and must make painful, sometimes bloody, choices in order to save them in a the allotted amount of time.
They've been promoting the fact that this Saw has more "traps" than any previous Saw film, and the flick has upped the gore quotient noticeably from the last two I've seen (though unleashing these traps on such uniformly unlikeable characters saps any dramatic weight). But they still seem woefully repetitive, not just in terms of the films formulaic nature but in their limited inventiveness -- with the notable exception of the "garage trap" which was not only creative but genuinely goddamn painful to watch (in the right way). The added 3D allows some of the viscera to fly right at you. Neat. It's still not doing anything as blatantly crazy as having a pre-historic killer fish burp up a dismembered penis in your face. I love Piranha 3D even more, now.
But quantity and quality are rarely synonymous, a metaphor for this entire franchise. Directed by Kevin Greutert from a script by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (indeed the same team behind Saw VI), the attempts to up the ante for this last installment still feel like going through the motions. Saw 3D is a wrap up film that aims to answer all the "unanswered" questions -- that as far as I can tell weren't being asked by anyone -- but it only pays lip service to that by bringing back some of the survivors for a cameo scene that re-introduces Dr. Gordon (Carey Elwes, sadly tucking his tail and returning for the check) to the proceedings, whose fate from the first Saw film wasn't exactly keeping me up nights. These movies always took their mythology more seriously than it ever deserved to be taken and the implausibility-riddled script is par for the course, too. These films would work far better as video games, which is mostly what they feel like. The original Saw was masterfully executed by comparison.
To Elwes credit, he dials back the Shatner-esque overacting (during his brief screen time) and seems to be having fun with this. And Tobin Bell's all-too-brief cameo was like a splash of water on the face when compared with all the other stilted performances on display.
Costas Madylor is about as engaging as wallpaper and he comes off as annoyed to still be in these films, while Chad Donella, as investigating cop Matt Gibson delivers a painfully bad performance. I'm willing to forgive actors that can't make dialogue as atrocious and hackneyed as this work but Donella's attempts here were groan inspiring. Actually they were like laughing groans. That goes without mentioning all the supporting players though Betsy Russell seemed to have her head in the game, despite having so little to do. Bell and Elwes are really the most interesting characters in this, so of course they are relegated to about five minutes of screen time. The rest are empty vessels.
I'm just glad they're done. If Saw 3D is the last of the series than that is probably the best thing I can say about it. I don't have to watch another one.
A Lovely View
No matter the genre, and often despite the subject, when a film takes me to an unknown time and place, I find myself lured by it. When it does so with a strong story, fine performances and adept production values, that allure can morph into outright fascination, even when the subject is the mystical story of a 12th century German nun and I, the uninitiated, am about as agnostic as it gets.
So it is with Vision, the richly made and palpably enigmatic film from German writer/director Margarethe von Trotta, which takes us back to the end of the first millennium when life was defined by the church. It's an era of sometimes-painful piety, when self-flagellation was looked at as a fun way to cap off the evening and society itself pivoted on the clergy's patriarchal dogma.
Vision tells the life story of Hildegard von Bingen (Barbra Sukowa), a Benedictine nun who is selected to be the magistra of her order of nuns. They all share a cloister with an order of priests in a sort of co-ed communal arrangement where the nuns have vowed to spend the rest of their lives.
Von Bingen's mastery of the arts and medicine begin to gain her notoriety but it isn't until she confesses to a priest, and friend, Volmar (Heino Ferch) that she's been having visions that she believes are revealed to her directly by God, and is allowed by the Abbot to write about them, that her fame becomes influential enough to extricate herself and her order from the patriarchy of the cloister and start their own convent.
Based on true events, von Bingen was the women's libber of her age, a precarious distinction given their station in the church and in society. Some of her ideas are downright pagan such as her belief in man's symbiosis with nature and her environmental activism. Her thirst for knowledge led her to become a philosopher and composer, truly a Renaissance woman before the Renaissance ever came to pass.
Von Trotta brings a smooth clarity in her direction while capturing the tangible atmosphere from the wonderful production design, which is dense with period details. The attention paid to bringing the 12th century world to life recalls the excellent design work done on 1986's The Name of the Rose, from the ancient abbey setting to the meticulous art work in the books the nuns transcribe. It all goes a long way to enveloping you in the story and its place in history.
Sukowa is fittingly regal in the role of von Bingen while imbuing the character with a wide emotional range. We feel her love of the world around her and for her nuns, particularly Richardis von Stade (Hannah Herzsprung), a noble girl who von Bingen believes God has ordained to carry on as magistra after her death. Was von Bingen possessed of a direct line to the Almighty or was she just a strong-willed woman with delusions of grandeur? Whichever the case von Bingen's importance in history remains unchanged, though thanks to Margaretha von Trotta's lovingly crafted ode to this early trailblazer, it won't go unheralded.
As a window into a mysterious and compelling time and a fascinating life, Vision is lovely view.
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