saw posterHere’s some useless information you may not know about me – I’ve never seen any of the “Saw” movies. At least not in their entirety. I’ve seen bits and pieces here and there but not enough to tell them apart or to even care. Frankly it’s a brand of horror that doesn’t appeal to me and what I’ve seen has given me no reason to spend my time on them. Yet that’s exactly what I did.

I decided to watch 2004’s “Saw” for several reasons. 1) It’s the Halloween season and what better time to catch up on some horror movies. 2) I discovered that the original “Saw” marked the feature film directorial debut for James Wan, the man behind the two “Conjuring” films which I happen to really like. 3) “Jigsaw”, the eighth film in the franchise (yes I said eighth), came out over the weekend. 4) It just happened to be on television.

Despite my general apathy for this franchise it has been incredibly successful. Starting in 2004 one “Saw” movie came out every year for seven years. Each film was made with a tiny budget yet each cleared $100 million at the box office with the exception of one. But it all sprang from Wan’s film which turned out to be a tad smarter and craftier than I expected.

The “Saw” franchise is synonymous with the term “torture porn” and deservedly so. But that’s a title earned by the sequels. Wan’s film is an exception. It’s unquestionably a horror film, but it’s just as a much a suspenseful mystery told with a surprising Hitchcockian flavor. Now don’t get me wrong, “Saw” doesn’t break new ground nor is it particularly good. But it is a far cry from what the franchise would become.


A huge part of the movie takes place in one space – a filthy rundown bathroom. Inside two men wake up with no prior knowledge of how they ended up there. They are chained to walls opposite of each other and between them lies a body in a pool of blood. We learn the first man is Lawrence (Carl Elwes), a successful oncologist, husband, and father. The younger man is Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), a streetwise photographer.

With seemingly no connections, the two try and piece together who put them in the room and why they are there. This is the basis for the mystery aspect of the story.  The horror side comes from Lawrence and Adam’s efforts to escape. There are some pretty graphic scenes but more of the focus is on the psychological. None of it is particularly scary but it’s just engaging enough to keep your attention. Danny Glover pops up as a police detective whose own case intersects with this one. Monica Porter is good playing Lawrence’s wife Alison.


While a chunk of the film takes place in the bathroom, we spend a lot of time with Glover as well. Unfortunately his hunt for truth is fairly generic. There is also a lot of narrative backtracking through flashbacks that Wan leans heavily on. For the most part it works but it also feels like a necessary device. And while all the story pieces do eventually fit together, there is still a lot that we are expected to simply accept.

“Saw” is an interesting debut from James Wan. It should be commended for attempting to tell a compelling story and for extending itself beyond its tiny budget. But despite its good efforts “Saw” never fully clicks. It’s a far cry from the ridiculous gore-soaked torturefest the franchise has since become, but it still isn’t particularly good horror. At the same time it is a bit better than I expected.




 REVIEW: “Spider-Man: Homecoming”


The film rights history for Spider-Man could best be described as complicated and a bit messy. Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s production woes, bankruptcies, and lawsuits all factored into the rights being shuffled from one studio to another. In 1999 Spider-Man was licensed to Columbia Pictures and parent company Sony and their first film landed in 2002. There was no sign of a Marvel Cinematic Universe in the works but surely the deals for Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic 4 helped make it happen.

But then you get to the bad side of the deal. The MCU took off and has become a gold mine for Marvel Studios/Disney. The problem is those old deals are still in place meaning some of Marvel’s biggest properties couldn’t be a part of their shared world. But it’s amazing how a few missteps can change perpsectives. After their original series ran out of steam and they misfired on an attempted reboot, Sony has now partnered with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man into the MCU while Sony maintains their rights to the character.


That brings us to “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, the webslinger’s first solo foray into the MCU. Well, sort of. It’s a solo Spider-Man movie in that Spidey is the main focus. At the same time “Homecoming” goes to great lengths to show off and stress its connection to the MCU. Watching it juggle these two ambitions is often exhilerating while at other times simply frustrating. In one sequence it feels like a Spider-Man story. Then the next scene has them telling us “Hey, remember this an MCU movie!”

The brightest spot in the entire film is Tom Holland who offers up the best Spider-Man to date. Writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Dale ask him to navigate through a lot of material, but they wisely skip putting us through yet another origin story. Instead we join Holland’s Peter Parker fresh off of his sample size of Avengers fame (as seen in “Captain America: Civil War”). He impatiently awaits another call to action from Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Tony doesn’t feel Peter is ready for the big stage but that doesn’t stop Peter’s incessant youthful badgering.


So in the meantime he spends his nights fighting neighborhood crime and his days making his way through his sophmore year of high school. Getting back to a younger Peter Parker is a welcome change and Holland is a fun fit. His best moments are inside the suit. He’s no highly polished professional superhero. He sometimes flubs up and makes a mess of things which feeds some of the film’s funniest moments. There are genuine emotions of fear and uncertainty as well. But there is also the boyish wisecracking which Holland and the screenwriters handle better than anyone from the past films.

Outside of the suit things get a little murkier but at no fault of Holland. Instead it’s the hit-or-miss mishmash of expanded characters particularly his schoolmates. Take Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), a one-dimensional character with some funny lines but who is never allowed outside of his role as nonstop comic relief. Then there is Liz, a senior and Peter’s love interest. She’s played by 27 year-old Laura Harrier who not only looks older than the other students but barely musters a spark of chemistry with Peter. There are also re-imagining choices that are sure to drive some Spidey fans nuts – Tony Revolori as an utterly unconvincing Flash Thompson and Marisa Tomei plays a more modern, sexier May Parker. Not certain why we needed that.

But those aren’t the only areas “Homecoming” attempts to rewrite. Gone is the simple Spider-Man suit of the past secretly made by a smart, innovative kid from Queens. This is the MCU therefore Tony Stark has a hand in everything. That means a Spidey suit with an advanced holographic interface, drone technology, and the most jarring addition, a built-in AI companion (voiced by Jennifer Connelly). Another example of the film stripping the character from the intimacy of his world for the sake of the franchise.


But it doesn’t stop there. There is yet another story thread featuring the film’s antagonist Adrian Toomes. He’s played by the always entertaining Michael Keaton. Toomes is no psychopath intent on taking over New York. He has a down-to-earth complexity which Keaton handles with ease. He disappears for chunks at a time which is a shame. Keaton is really good and I would have loved to have spent more time with him than with some of the mandatory franchise stuff.

“Homecoming” has been met with some high praise but I’m still unsure where I land on it. It gets a lot right most importantly Tom Holland and a perfect tone for a young budding Spider-Man. Keaton is fantastic, Downey, Jr. is as quick-witted as ever, the humor often lands, and many of the franchise connections work. But those same franchise connections constantly yank the film away from its more intimate story. A handful of creative choices do the same. Pulling a movie away from its roots for the sake of modernization and in service to a franchise isn’t always a good thing. Thankfully the strengths of “Homecoming” outweigh the weaknesses, but just barely. 




REVIEW: “The Salesman”


Asghar Farhadi deserves to be a household name for anyone who claims to love movies. Despite a relatively small filmography, Farhadi has created some of the most magnificently plotted stories consistently grounded in truthful human experience. Add to it a keen technical eye for visual composition that quite frankly is unmatched by most.

Sadly Farhadi still remains an unknown name to too many. His latest picture “The Salesman” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film yet his accomplishment was somewhat drowned out by political posturing and wrangling. I actually heard him casually referred to as “that Iranian director who skipped the Oscars”. That’s a shame.


In reality Farhadi is a modern day cinematic master of his craft. “The Salesman” is yet another superbly made film that may not be considered his best, but must every work be compared to another?

“The Salesman” is laced with Farhadi signatures – thorough yet carefully developed characters, strong human and cultural sensibilities, a deeply buried truth boiling under the surface. It’s a template that fits flawlessly with Farhadi’s writing and directing. Here again we see him methodically peeling back layers that reveals faults and arouses suspicions and not only from the characters. We the audience find ourselves being influenced by our impulses to judge.

The film focuses on a married couple, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini). After an earth-shaking mishap threatens the stability of their apartment building, Rana and Emad are forced to find a new place to stay. The two are helped by a friend and fellow stage performer who shows them a place recently vacated. Problem is the previous tenant has left behind a room full of personal belongings.

As with most films the less you know the better, but suffice it to say the story is jolted by a particular event than splinters the narrative in several different directions. Some are diversions, some are unexpected revelations. Regardless Farhadi never loses his focus of navigating through the dense human elements revealed through the testy circumstances.


Farhadi doesn’t work in caricatures or stereotypes. He creates living, breathing people which make his stories all the more compelling. He allows his characters the space to think, mull, and wrestle internally. Hossein Jafarian’s stellar cinematography is equally vital in relaying the subtle ferocity of emotions that intensify as the story plays out. It also helps to have Alidoosti and Hosseini, two Farhadi regulars in sync with the director’s vision.

There is an fabulous running parallel between the main story and Rana and Emad’s work at a small theater production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. Farhadi’s skillful treatment is anything but pointless and helps to prod our minds to think more about the film’s meaning. The same could be said for the bulk of his films. They don’t follow any conventional norm or standard. Instead they dwell in realities we all can recognize and demand their audiences to engage them on those levels. “The Salesman” is another example of how engrossing that can be.



REVIEW: “Sing Street”


Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” wasn’t the only delightful, endearing musical of 2016. John Carney’s “Sing Street” also celebrates the wonder of music but not in the star-studded dreamland of Los Angeles. Instead Carney plants us in inner-city Dublin circa 1985. There isn’t an ounce of glitz or pageantry in “Sing Street” yet its music, just like in “La La Land”, is packed with spirit and meaning.

Following the blueprint of his 2007 film “Once”, Carney cast musicians ahead of actors for “Sing Street”. The premise is as simple as they come – a boy forms a rock band to impress a girl. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that. But the film comes alive as Carney fills in the gaps around that simple premise. His characters brim with personality. And of course there is the music.


Leading Carney’s group of acting unknowns is Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who plays Conor, the youngest of three siblings. His family’s financial woes lead his parents (nicely played by Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) to make the decision to remove Conor from his expensive private school to a free but significantly rowdier state school. As the new kid, Connor quickly finds himself the outsider among the school’s many ruffians. Constant run-ins with the class bully and the abusive principal only make things worse.

At home things aren’t much better. His parents’ marriage is falling apart and their disconnect effects the entire family. Conor’s sister Ann (Kelly Thorton) is an aspiring architect drowning in melancholy. Jack Reynor is a scene-stealer playing Conor’s older brother Brendan, a disillusioned college dropout who spends the bulk of his time listening to his records and waxing eloquently on the virtues of rock-and-roll. You could say he is Conor’s music and life professor.

Life brightens up a bit when Conor meets and instantly falls for Raphina (Lucy Boynton with a surprisingly layered performance). She’s an aspiring model who Conor convinces to star in his band’s  music video. But there’s one problem – he doesn’t have a band. So he puts together a misfit group of musicians and calls their band Sing Street. As they begin to create music it not only draws him closer to Raphina but it offers him a form of expression and an escape from the cruddy life surrounding him.


“Sing Street” is Carney’s semi-autobiographical reflection on his teen years in Dublin. He pulls a lot from personal experience which is a key reason the story and the characters feel so authentic. I would also challenge anyone who grew up on 80s music to watch this and not be giddy with excitement. There is so much eye-lined, hair-sprayed, acid-washed nostalgia. Duran Duran, A-Ha, Hall and Oates, Joe Jackson – just some of the artists we get to hear. And wait till you see Conor’s fashion choices which change with each new band he discovers.

I’m still wrestling with its ending, but for the most part “Sing Street” hits all the right notes (horrible music pun absolutely intended). Carney juggles well timed humor with deep-seated realism and surrounds both with a head-bobbing collection of classic tunes and original songs. There are good performances throughout, particularly from Boynton and Reynor, but the real surprises may be Carney’s collection of acting unknowns who make up the band. Their camaraderie is infectious and watching them create music and find fulfillment gets to the true heart of “Sing Street”. And what a big heart it is.



REVIEW: “Split”


It’s probably a bit of an understatement to call M. Night Shyamalan’s career one big roller coaster ride. I’m actually far more fascinating by the mass reactions from moviegoers who treat him like a true auteur who has fallen from cinematic grace. I think that’s giving Shyamalan a tad too much credit. “The Sixth Sense” is really good. “Unbreakable” is superb. I’m a big fan of “Signs”. These are three solid movies with a certain cultural standing, but they are hardly great enough to make his subsequent decline so fiercely noteworthy.

Still there is no denying that the quality of Shyamalan’s movies fell like a ton of bricks. And I will freely admit that getting the taste of “Lady in the Water”, “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” out of your mouth is next to impossible. For many people hope returned with 2015’s “The Visit”, a movie I had a lot of fun with. But for those unwilling to entertain the idea that Shyamalan’s career was back on the upswing, let’s just say “Split”  just might change your mind.


For the most part the trailer sets up the entire premise. Three teenaged girls are kidnapped while leaving a birthday party. There abductor is Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. We learn through his sessions with his psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley) that Kevin possesses 23 unique personalities. Collectively they refer to themselves as The Horde.

While held captive the three girls encounter several of Kevin’s identities including the creepy  “Dennis” and the creepier “Patricia”. But they also meet gentler personalities from within Kevin’s mind, a sign of the intense internal conflict going on inside of him. McAvoy dives into his role head-first and shows off how crafty he can be when let off his leash. He is one of the film’s biggest strengths and it’s mind-boggling watching him bring out personality in each of the identities. It may be through accents, mannerisms, or even the slightest facial expression. Incredibly he makes each of them easily recognizable without any blatantly obvious markers.


Of the three girls, Casey proves to be the more resilient. She’s cool-headed and observant – qualities learned from her deeply troubled past which Shyamalan feeds to us through a smattering of flashbacks. Casey is wonderfully played by Anya Taylor-Joy who gave an equally strong performance in last year’s “The Witch”. Performance-wise her fellow captives don’t fair as well. In their defense Shyamalan hands them some of the movie’s worst dialogue before leaving them locked up and in their underwear for the entire second half of the movie. Aren’t we tired of that yet?

Shyamalan leans heavily on scenes between Dr. Fletcher and one of Kevin’s more amiable personalities “Barry”. There is a psychological cat-and-mouse element to their sessions which is compelling. Shyamalan may lean on them a tad too much, but that’s not to say the scenes are without meaning. Also they allow for some of McAvoy’s best work. Through these scenes (and for that matter the entire film) Shyamalan maintains his sharp instincts for suspense and his skills with the camera are as good as ever.


Then you have the finale. You’ll find no spoilers here and do yourself a favor – avoid them at all costs. Shyamalan has an impressive knack for causing you to immediately reevaluate his film after seeing its ending. It has never been more true than with “Split”. Shyamalan twists are a signature of his movies but prior to “The Visit” you could say he had become a parody of himself. “Split” proves he can still completely broadside any audience.

Shyamalan once again shows he is still a filmmaker worth paying attention to. “Split” is a movie with a few problems, some of which were easily avoidable. At the same time James McAvoy gives a stand-out performance and Anya Taylor-Joy continues to show she is the real deal. But most importantly Shyamalan sticks his ending with an insanely clever twist I never saw coming and that immediately compelled me to see the film again. Rarely has a conclusion surprised or impressed me quite like this. See it for yourself.


REVIEW: “Silence”


For Martin Scorsese bringing “Silence” to the screen has been a fascinating journey. It started as an inspiration in 1989. Over the next 25 years it grew and evolved into something deeply personal for the filmmaker. In several interviews Scorsese has intimated that the film’s conceptual evolution mirrored his very own spiritual maturation. This intimate connection seeps from every pore of “Silence” making it a profoundly affecting labor of love.

It was in 1989 that Scorsese first read “Silence”, Shūsaku Endō’s historical fiction novel published in 1966. Scorsese immediately knew he wanted to make a film adaptation but he didn’t know how. Early attempts lead to an unfinished script in 1991. Plans to begin production in 1997 were postponed. More delays came in 2004 and 2011. But these postponements weren’t without purpose. During that time Scorsese gained a better sense of what “Silence” was saying. In his words he finally figured out “the heart of the book”.


Endō’s novel is a deep exploration of the depths of faith. It drills below the surface-level perceptions of faith, down to its most bare and intimate state. Scorsese’s cinematic study of this central spiritual theme is absorbing but also challenging. The story he and co-writer Jay Cocks tells is powerful and rooted in historical significance. At the same time the film is a bruising meditation that is calling its audience to self-reflection.

To get us to that point we follow two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (James Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver). The two receive word that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has vanished after renouncing his faith amid intense persecution in the mission fields of Japan. Unconvinced of Ferreira’s apostasy, the two priests set out to find their mentor’s whereabouts despite the cloud of danger awaiting them.

The Japan of the 17th century was controlled by the Tokugawa shogunate. Christianity was deemed a threat and subsequently outlawed. Anyone breaking these laws faced torture and/or execution. It’s here that Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe sneak ashore with the aid of a boozing local vagrant named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). There the “padres” connect with a small village of Christians who secretly practice their faith in the dark of night.


It’s worth noting Scorsese’s use of his camera to portray the arduous, uncompromising world these two priests enter into. It feels just as foreign to us as it does them. Even the sound design contributes to the sense of uncertainty and isolation. The heightened sounds of nature routinely take the place of a your standard musical score and sometimes the silence itself speaks volumes.

Rodrigues and Garupe establish a semblance of ministerial and sacramental normalcy for the village believers and as a result see their own faith strengthened. But the region’s ruling shogunate led by the freakishly blithe and casually brutal Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) is intent on rooting out and purging the land of Christianity. His dogged persistence paves the way to the film’s central conflict – something much deeper than a faithful Christian versus his relentless persecutor.

The further you get into “Silence” the better you understand the challenge Scorsese lays before us. The obvious storyline is compelling, but to truly understand the heart of the story requires a willingness to internalize the theme of faith and reckon with what is revealed to you. Yes, it’s a deeply spiritual film but not a preachy one. In fact it could be said it asks more questions than it answers. Still Scorsese ponders these ideas with the sincerest curiosity and unflinching patience – the essence of faith, the pain of betrayal, our human frailty. And what do we make of God’s silence in the midst of tremendous suffering?


As you would expect the performances are sublime. Neeson’s portrait of anguish and conflict helps make his handful of scenes some of the film’s finest. Driver is as tense as he is gaunt which is strikingly in-tune with his type of character. That gets to Garfield, a guy who has steadily gotten better with each role he has taken. In “Silence” he literally transforms before our eyes both in character and performance. He plays it a bit safe early on but quickly tosses aside all restraints and commits every ounce of himself. Portraying spiritual struggle is tough and Garfield impressively carries the bulk of that load.

It has taken me two viewings and a lot of wrestling to truly figure out how I feel about this film and what it means to me. It’s that type of movie – one that can’t be appreciated with a mere surface reading. Despite its incredible artistry and beautifully sculpted scenes (cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto deserves an Oscar nomination), “Silence” seeks to be something more – a spiritual epic that not only reflects where Scorsese is in his personal journey but challenges us in ours.

“Silence” is a film that may not sit well with Scorsese die-hards looking for his normal cinematic swagger and it certainly doesn’t aim to be a 2 hour and 40 minute crowd-pleaser. But after a second look it clicked for me in every meaningful way. I still have questions the movie stirred up within me and I love the its unwillingness to give me every answer. In fact Scorsese isn’t saying he has every answer. But he is saying the questions are worth asking, and the answers you get just might change your life.