There’s a part in Spiral, the new attempt to resuscitate the Saw franchise, where Samuel L. Jackson’s tough guy police captain bellows out something to the killer like “You wanna play games mothafucka, alright, I’ll play!” I was immediately reminded of the part in Scary Movie 4 that parodies Saw with Shaquille O’Neill and Dr. Phil trapped in one of Jigsaw’s dungeons, played for utmost comedic effect. Now, if I make that kind of association to a Saw film that’s supposed to be taken seriously it’s really not a good sign and is a dead indicator of just how inexcusably, punishingly bad this film is, a true spiral of the downward variety. If you’re going to take property like Saw, which has an incredibly detailed and specific lineage and one of the most die-hard franchise fandoms out there, if you’re going to rework that and fashion it into something that’s supposed to nostalgic yet fresh, something that must hold the connective tissue to the lore steadfast yet also open up new neural pathways in the mythology you better make sure you’re on your A-game and come up with something special and…. this is what they fucking did? Really? First of all, Chris Rock and Sam Jackson just don’t fit the bill, I’ll say it. As a father son duo of detectives who work in a precinct packed with morally shady cops (them included) they just seem to stand out in the worst way. Rock is alternatively manic and withdrawn, every note he chooses is off-key, while Jackson just seems bored and confused. Everyone else is miscast, from Hungarian-American bombshell Marisol Nichols as their worried lieutenant to MacMurray from freaking Letterkennny as an ill fated cop from their team who looks like he just walked out from a high stakes poker game aboard a Mississippi paddle-wheeler boat. And as for the identity of the killer? It’s fairly obvious who it is in the first ten minutes of the film, which was a massive letdown. Also the thing is just so bizarrely over-lit, like every scene is just weirdly bright, and even the underground or dungeon scenes that should feel murky and shadowy still have this odd fluorescent sheen, it’s like their gaffer was packing every illuminating device from an aircraft carrier in his gear trailer. As far as ties to the John Kramer jigsaw murders go and any respects paid to the franchise overall, it’s just lazy coincidental conjecture and bad, half assed writing. Like, why did this even need to be a Saw related film? Why did they need to shoehorn the trademark vicious booby trap aesthetic into their dumb, overcooked, predictable cop killer whodunit? And furthermore who thought it was a remotely good idea to add a bunch of silly rap songs to the soundtrack and smother any atmosphere they hoped to generate almost as badly as the lighting does? I suppose they knew they needed some kind of brand name to juice up their lifeless script and try to distract viewers from how much they didn’t even try. Pure shit.
Robert Zemeckis is a perfect director to tackle one of Roald Dahl’s books; he’s got an inspired mastery over cutting edge CGI, a talent for dynamic visual storytelling and a genuine sense of the macabre, this willingness to be honest about the darker aspects of real life and include them in a story geared towards children, which is an attribute that he directly shares with Dahl himself. His crack at The Witches is an admirable, mostly successful, visually stunning and opulently stylish bit of devilish fun and although obvious comparison will be made not only to Dahl’s book (which simply cannot be topped) but also to Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant 1990 take on it. Zemeckis definitely takes the more playful route and while still injecting palpable dread and menace into the proceedings, his version isn’t quite the prosthetic soaked nightmare Roeg offered. The setting here is switched up from the UK to Deep South Alabama where a young boy and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) encounter a coven of nasty real life witches holding a convention at a swanky bayou hotel. Anyone who has read the book knows that these witches are all about murdering children in frighteningly inventive ways and are led by the preening, aristocratic and supremely evil Grand High Witch, here played by Anne Hathaway in a performance that has to be seen to be believed. In the book the character is mean enough, in the 90’s version Anjelica Huston gave her a kind of.. ‘dark empress socialite’ vibe but Hathaway just grabs the script in her jaws like a dog and runs off with it. Sporting snowy blonde hair, a jittery Norwegian accent and mandible modifications that would make the vampires in Blade 2 shudder, she devours scenery, steals every scene and annunciates every syllable with the force of a snake sinking its fangs into someone. She truly makes this character hers, it’s the most impressive work I’ve ever seen from her as an actress and is by and far the best thing about the film. Even Stanley Tucci, who is usually the life of the party in any film, stands back in restraint as the hotel’s fussy manager and gives Anne a wide berth for her typhoon of a performance to unfold. The special effects are wondrous creations and I can’t figure out why anyone would bitch about the CGI on display here (it’s always inevitable I suppose) because it looks and feels incredibly tactile and terrifying. Zemeckis takes liberties with the witch anatomy that Dahl never dreamed of but they are righteous departures in style that make sense and add to the mythology nicely. Chris Rock narrates the film vivaciously as an older version of the young boy, and I never thought I’d say it but he has an uncannily perfect way with Dahl’s passages that had me wishing for a ‘The Witches audiobook as read by Chris Rock.’ My only one complaint is that it feels too slight in the latter half and I would have appreciated more of a runtime, but what they do give us really is a treat. Solid, comprehensive storytelling from Zemeckis, audaciously beautiful costume design, a gem of a score from Alan Silvestri and one unbelievable banshee howl encore performance from Hathaway who is truly having a blast.
No one has ever skewered the Catholic Church quite like Kevin Smith did with Dogma, a wholly original, densely verbose, punishingly funny stage play of monologues, satirical jabs, cynical skits and cheeky lampoons that showcase the kind of idiosyncratic, acid tipped penmanship that only The Smith can bring us. It’s my favourite of his films, mainly because of how original the humour is, based in reality but blasted off into a stylized fantasy realm that gives a galaxy of perky acting talent room to pontificate and sink their teeth into immense passages of rich dialogue that are any actor’s dream. Also, it’s just such a unique, surreal experience in terms of casting and characterization; where else can you see beloved thespian Alan Rickman get his sillies out as the sarcastic Metatron, an asexual being who serves as the voice of god and the spiritual tour guide to adorable protagonist Linda Fiorentino (whatever happened to her?), who’s the chosen one in a holy not so holy crusade of angels, demons and religious figures all given the Royal Smith twist. There’s Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as Loki and Bartleby, two hedonistic fallen angels who squabble at each other and rebel against heavenly management, causing quite the cosmic ruckus. Salma Hayek does a transfixing go-go dance to rival her slinky number in From Dusk Till Dawn as The Muse, a shapeshifter who helps them battle an excremental (that’s a demon made of poo, before you ask). It goes on with sterling work from everyone including Chris Rock, Jason Lee, Bud Cort, George Carlin, Janeane Garofalo, Gwyneth Paltrow and those two adorable slackers Jay & Silent Bob, who wouldn’t miss a Smith outing for the world. Oh, anyone who casts the already angelic Alanis Morisette as God should be given a hefty raise. It’s a tough film to summarize or even capture the spirit of with a written passage, as it defies description, shirks standards and makes no apologies. Anyone from the Clergy who took any offence clearly missed the point though, this is satire and lighthearted at that, with only a dash of the kind of jaded ill will a film like this could have had. This is Smith’s world, and the characters who populate it are larger than life yet still feel real, never boring and always have something to say, be it thoughtful rumination or effervescent silliness.
ScienceWorld once did a colourful exhibition called Grossology, in which various parts of human anatomy are presented in garish, cartoony displays. The Farrelly Brother’s Osmosis Jones reminds me quite a bit of that, an inspired, juvenile little creation that seems to have slipped through the cracks. Focusing on the human body, or rather one human body in the form of out of shape, sloppy schmuck Bill Murray, it’s one of those rare half live action, half animated flicks, a concept which I love but one that only works out if you do it right. It worked magic in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it train-wrecked in Rocky & Bullwinkle, and went more middle of the road in stuff like Cool World and The Pagemaster. Here it works pretty damn well, if a little better on the animated side, where most of the focus is put anyways. Murray is Frank, a walking disaster whose lifestyle reflects the culmination of the Farrelly’s career in terms of utmost vulgarity. Zooming inside his body, a sassy technicolor world emerges, sentient forces living in infrastructure not unlike our own, albeit peppered with so many delightful jokes, gags (some which will kick the reflex into action) and word-plays it’s hard to keep up. Chris Rock plays a lively white blood cell cop who responds when Frank eats a hard boiled egg that’s home to a deadly virus, and runs all about the City Of Frank chasing it down, joined by a robotic cherry flavoured Cold Pill (David Hyde Pierce). City Hall is Cerebellum Hall in the Brain, the bowels resemble skid row, Mafia bacteria thugs reside in the armpit, and you get the idea. The imagination runs wild here, if a little grotesque in areas. The live action bits suffer in terms of writing and realism, they just feel like a queasy SNL skit and never have enough weight. It’s non stop fun when the animation kicks in though, a slightly off-Disney style that stimulates the screen visually and pops with every colour combination you can imagine. My favourite has to be Laurence Fishburne as Thrax, the deadly virus attacking Frank’s nervous system, a gangly, evil eyed freak who sports purple dreadlocks, a contagious Freddy Krueger style index finger and enjoys his job a bit too much. William Shatner is great as sleazy Mayor Phlemming too. It’s not as much fun as stuff like InnerSpace, and the live action clashes with the animated world in places where it should seamlessly mesh, but it has one admirable quality in spades: imagination. The jokes and ideas within Frank’s body are hurled at you a mile a minute, and you’d need to watch it at least twice to catch every little barb and dad-joke worthy pun. Good times.
The Immortals is one of those brilliant little action crime flicks that seemed to slip through the cracks and disappear soon after it aired on TV. That wouldn’t be a problem if it was one of the many intolerable embarrassments that speckle Eric Robert’s career like goose shit on a manicured lawn. But it’s actually a really great time, with a bunch of actors who are super into what the script has them do, and geniunly fascinating story to tell us, which it does so at a breakneck pace. Roberts plays Jack, a silver tongued nightclub owner with ties to some dangerous underworld players. One night he calls a meeting with eight different petty thieves from all walks of life, announcing that he’s planning to orchestrate a heist against criminal kingpin Dominic (screen legend Tony Curtis in one of his final roles), and proceeds to send them off to perform risky jobs all over town, rapidly gaining Dominics attention and hostility. During an extended face off between his forces and Jack’s merry band of miscreants, they discover that Jack has a very specific and secretive reason for selecting them all for this venture, and nothing is what it seems. William Forsythe is a kicker as Tim, the loose cannon of the bunch, a rowdy psycho who smartens up during the finale, which gives him terrific dialogue to chow on. Chris Rock is the fast talking dude among them, Tia Carrere is sexy and stunt savvy as always, Clarence Williams III does his bug eyed weirdo shtick to the hilt, and Joe Pantoliano never misses a beat either. Roberts is the ringmaster of this chaotic little circus though, failing up that southern prince charm and flashing the mile wide million dollar grin whenever he gets the chance. There’s a lived in, easy breezy feel to this, like these characters are really getting to know each other, bonds are formed and tested amidst a haughty atmosphere and a lethal situation. Twists, turns and somersaults punctuate the narrative, and they’re super fun to try and sniff out as you watch the fireworks blow up the screen. A B movie, yes, but an extremely well made one that gives it it’s all and comes out a grinning winner.