Thursday, November 25, 2010

Flashy, diverting "Burlesque" needn't be so long and cliched

Burlesque (2010) 
118 min., rated PG-13.

"Burlesque" might be a splashy showcase for pop star Christina Aguilera, as she makes her acting debut. She's about nine years late in doing what Mariah Carey tried doing with 2001's "Glitter," which was more of a crashing bore than a guilty pleasure. That aside, the film tells the oldest story in the book and completely misses the boat on being an all-out campfest like 1995's hilarious trash classic "Showgirls." The feature debut of writing-director Steve Antin (an actor from the '80s and '90s), "Burlesque" has energy in its staging of the musical numbers, enough anyway to make up for shopworn, clichéd scripting. "Burlesque" is adequately entertaining, but it should have either been campier or just less insipid if it wanted any replay value. 

Aguilera plays Small Town Girl (or, an ex-waitress from Iowa named Ali) who gets off the bus to the Big City with Big Dreams (or, Los Angeles with dreams the size of her cleavage) when the bump-and-grind sights at a neo-burlesque joint on Sunset Boulevard catch her eye. She gets lucky starting off as a waitress there, and then when she gets gutsy enough, Ali auditions for the bar manager, Tess (Cher). When she uses the vocals that her long-deceased mama probably gave her, the whole lip-sync-showgirl stage is shocked like an earthquake. Whoa Nelly, soul sista's got “mutant lungs” and a star is born. Other plot threads include besotted lead dancer Nikki (Kristen Bell, all bitchy sneers) and her machinations; Tess having to deal with losing the club; and Ali having to decide between a straight bartender (Cam Gigandet) in eye-liner with a six-pack and bedroom eyes or a shady real estate developer (Eric Dane, TV's "Grey's Anatomy"). 

For those wondering, how is Aguilera as an actress? At best, she's an earnest performer, and we already know she can hold a note, but her performance as Ali is one-note. That she's not much of an actress can't be hidden with glitter or a feather boa. Cher is…Cher, and she gets to sing, of course, and still has the power with her solo ballad, "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" (comeback, anyone?). She also has a bright chemistry with Stanley Tucci, who's essentially recycling his shtick from "The Devil Wears Prada" but still lights up every scene he's in as gay, zinger-ready stage-and-costume manager Sean. For some reason, Alan Cumming has more or less a cameo as doorman Alexis; it's a throwaway role, but whenever he pops into frame, Cumming makes every line pop with saucy gusto. 

Yes, "Burlesque" is far from perfect. From the script level and up, the film doesn't leave a stage-drama trope unused and has no business taking two hours. Not even Cher can always rescue some of the howlingly stilted dialogue (“You threw up everything but your memories!” and “I have more to worry about than you pouring Vodka on your Cheerios!” are two of Tess' argumentative points to hot mess Nikki). The cinematography is unappealingly soft-focused and the choreography often gets cut into chop-suey stances. Also, if anyone could turn back time, it would've been nice to have a real showstopper, like, a duet between Cher and Christina. It could have been a dream sequence, too! Other than that, the song-and-dance numbers are sexy and electric, almost in the style of "Moulin Rouge!," "Chicago," and "Nine." All of them are Bob Fosse-esque moves in a Pussycat Dolls music video, and Aguilera performs the best hootchy-kootchy number in nothing but strands of pearls and feather fans. It might not be much, but without deserving so much emphatic hatred, "Burlesque" is flashy, diverting, and utterly indefensible.

Grade: C +

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Tangled" a winning Disney treat

Tangled (2010) 
100 min., rated PG.
Grade: A

Within the dependable oeuvre of Walt Disney that can do no wrong, "Tangled" proves Happily Ever After never goes out of style. It seems like an animated Disney feature of Rapunzel is way past due, but at long last here we are. And more than just a tolerable sit, "Tangled" is a winning, jubliant, consistently enjoyable surprise. 

Sassily voiced by Mandy Moore, Rapunzel is a princess stolen from her palace nursery by a vain witch, Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), who imprisons her like a hummingbird in a cage of a tower with her long, golden tresses to restore Gothel's youth. Hmm, what kind of shampoo does Goldie use to achieve such luster? By her 18th birthday, Rapunzel dreams of being free and seeing the floating lights in the yonder sky that she believes are meant for her. But "Mother" says the world is too dangerous and cruel for her. Then she gets the chance to escape (with her skeptical pet chameleon Pascal in tow) when rogue, dashing Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) climbs into her tower to escape from ruffian pursuers. Knocking him out with a frying pan, she then offers Flynn a bargain: if he acts as her guide in the new world below, she'll return to him his satchel that contains a crown. 

Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard bring a timeless quality to "Tangled," as does screenwriter Dan Fogelman who has all of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm's fairy tale pieces in place and gives them a fresh, hip sensibility. Moving fast out of the gate, with a witty voice-over narration, the film is brisk and never even a hair pushy as the "Shrek" sequels have been getting with their flash-in-the-pan pop culture references. Moore makes Rapunzel an irresistible Disney princess; Zachary Levi (of TV's "Chuck") is handsome and even a bit cocky, amusingly floored by the way his nose is drawn in his picture on Wanted! posters and trying to win Rapunzel over with smoldering looks. As Gothel, Murphy is a firecracker, hilariously condescending, egotistical, and truly malicious, and turning her into one of the more complex and scary Disney villains. The biggest laughs are thanks to Maximus, a royal, no-nonsense police horse; he doesn't talk but it's all in his deadpan facial expressions. 

The hand-drawn animated aesthetics are bright and beautiful, the core romance is actually romantic and has our full emotional investment, and the sporadic action is more exciting than some live-action films (and later on in the film, a little violent). Alan Menken's songs aren't quite up to his "Part of Your World" and "A Whole New World" but they work. Gothel's elaborately staged "Mother Knows Best" is a show-stopper, and "I"ve Got a Dream" performed in a pub full of thugs is a delight. Capturing real enchantment is the Oscar-nominated duet, "I See The Light," performed by Moore and Levi, as Rapunzel and Flynn watch the lanterns lift into the sky around the Cinderella-like castle. 

Following "The Princess and the Frog" and "Toy Story 3," with the precedence of memorable characters and voice performances based on character rather than celebrity, "Tangled" marks magical proof that Disney can still make 'em like they used to. What a happy beginning for a new classic. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Stylishly creepy "Heartless" has horror and heart

Heartless (2010)
114 min., not rated.
Grade: B +

In director Philip Ridley's stylishly creepy and bizarre horror-art effort "Heartless," timid London photographer Jamie (Jim Sturgess) leads a withdrawn life due to a heart-shaped birthmark that covers half his face and the decade-ago death of his biggest supporter, his father (Timothy Spall). Just as extreme gang violence is escalating in his neighborhood, he starts seeing demons behind the black hoods and ultimately he's led to a Satanic figure named Papa B (Joseph Mawle), who tells him chaos is needed to create man. Papa B offers to rid Jamie of his facial stain if he commits a few illegal (and immoral) acts. Pretty soon, Jamie is falling in love with a lovely model named Tia (Clemence Poesy) and Papa B's deal goes too far. 

A take on the Faustian legend, "Heartless" is ambitiously crafted without being pretentious and with some of the most indelibly disturbing images, including hallucinations and a murder involving Saran Wrap. The film also incorporates standard but effective "boo!" jolts that'll make you jump and a sense of humanity and feeling from Sturgess's empathetic performance. Towards the end, Spall's father character shares a touching flashback moment with his son. Ridley stages Jamie's rough neighborhood as a hidden inferno with shadowy, melancholy tones. Though only given one scene, Eddie Marsan is hilariously menacing as Papa B's evil minion known as the "Weapons Man." Though outlandish often in the extreme, "Heartless" is a consistently intriguing cautionary horror tale that, for once, actually has heart. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Next Three Days" too loosely paced but well-crafted

The Next Three Days (2010) 
122 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

A prison-break drama-cum-thriller like Paul Haggis's "The Next Three Days" should be tight and fast, but it's loosely paced and takes too long. Remade from a 2008 French thriller, "Anything For Her" (or "Pour Elle"), "The Next Three Days" won't ace a plausibility exam, but the moral issues are compelling and it all becomes an entertaining-enough ride. 

Russell Crowe plays John Brennan, an average, mild-mannered Pittsburgh college professor, and his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested on murder charges for the death of her boss. John knows Lara did not commit the crime, but there's interesting evidence that points to her (she was there, her fingerprints on the murder weapon, and the blood on her coat matches the victim's). Not about to live without his wife behind bars and his son, Luke (Ty Simpkins), to grow up without a mother, he becomes obsessed with getting Lara out of jail. 

Writer-director Haggis always has a socio-political stance in his work, but "The Next Three Days" doesn't lay on its themes of female power, broken justice system, and moral conundrums, too thickly. Getting better as it goes along, Haggis's script turns John into Charles Bronson: you don't really buy into the turn he makes and things he does when looking desperately for cash and forged passports. Lara's trial is completely bypassed in the film's choppy first half, and the movie doesn't know what to do with the son, who's more of a prop dropped off from house to house and doesn't really show emotion towards his mom when he does see her. 

Crowe is fine as this silent-type Everyman who will stop at nothing and becomes an unlikely man of action. Banks is effective as the wife and mother serving time in the clink, initially bringing an ambiguity to the role (is she really innocent?) and makes the anxiety of never seeing her son again convincing. Liam Neeson is juicy in his one scene as a jail expert. And it's nice to see Brian Dennehy who speaks volumes without words as John's father. 

Though filled with more coincidences than it needs, the movie's final third is an exciting and well-crafted chase that goes from a hospital to a car chase to a suicide attempt to the zoo and to the airport. 

"Buried" grips, drains, and frustrates

Buried (2010)
94 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Ryan Reynolds is buried alive underground in a box for 90 minutes and no one can hear him scream. Now there's a high-concept idea for a movie. In "Buried," Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a contract truck driver in Iraq. Waking up and realizing he's been buried, he only has a cell phone, a Zippo, a couple glow sticks, and a flask of water. All the necessary tools to escape, right? It's harder than it looks. His captor calls him, telling him that he needs to cough up a $5 million ransom or it's game over. Paul's phone battery is gradually draining but contacting someone is his only chance to get out. He struggles to calm down but he's losing oxygen. And he's in a frickin' box. In the ground. Can you just feel the claustrophobia? 

The neat opening titles sequence owes its next born to Hitchcock, classic in style and music. Then we get thirty seconds of darkness and silence, soon interrupted by gasping. Being set entirely within the confines of a box, "Buried" is a nerve-racking, tightly crafted “stunt” exercise. Props goes to Reynolds for carrying the load, and of course Spanish director/editor Rodrigo Cortés and cinematographer Eduard Grau for keeping it visually interesting. Lighting and camera placement are stylishly varied to make “buried alive” feel cinematic without losing its confinement, even from above the coffin (while actually still being underground). Aiding Cortés's appropriate pacing, screenwriter Chris Sparling's script denies repetition by always adding another plausible conflict inside the coffin, whether it be via a phone conversation or an unwanted guest that joins Paul. 

Reynolds is at his most raw, with stubble, sweat, dried blood, and grime against his perfectly whitened choppers. He expertly conveys the fear, anger, and frustration of the situation. We're buried and suffocating too, right there with Reynolds. Given the conclusion that'll leave you breathless nonetheless, the emotionally grueling experience adds up to less than you'd hope. "Buried" still grips and drains you, which is no small feat for such a hermetically sealed film. 

"Morning Glory" gets by with great cast

Morning Glory (2010)
102 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

The promos remind us that "Morning Glory" is from the screenwriter of "The Devil Wears Prada" (Aline Brosh McKenna), but it also reminds us, though doesn't quite live up to the leads, of "Broadcast News" and "Working Girl." And unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the Oasis song. 

After being downsized out of a job on Good Morning, New Jersey, go-getting, overeager, slightly neurotic 28-year-old Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) gets hired as the new producer for a Today Show-like morning TV program called Daybreak. The show is in fourth place on the IBS Network. She has to work with her lead anchor, a prima donna (Diane Keaton), and a new host, the once-respected Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), and although it's hard keeping Pomeroy on the ball, Becky becomes very persistent in trying to boost ratings. It's pretty obvious that a romance develops for Becky, single and not committed to a relationship, with a dreamboat (Patrick Wilson), but who could blame the chick? 

McAdams is a joy to watch in a sunny, caffeinated performance with enough can-do spunk but she never exhausts us like Katherine Heigl would. Ford gives one of his most entertaining turns in a while as the peevish, perpetually soused Pomeroy (though not exactly the most energetic voice for TV news with his monotone grumbling). As former Miss Arizona Colleen Peck, Keaton is funnier here than she's been in years and always game. Ty Burrell, hilarious in TV's Modern Family, has an early bit role as a smarmy ex-anchor and Jeff Goldblum is underused as Becky's boss. 

"Morning Glory" could've used more of the off-camera bitter banter between Colleen and Mike, and less of the go-nowhere McAdams-Wilson romance, but for once, it does get the network news culture right and the people seem real or only slightly exaggerated. This likable, tartly written comedy gets all of its good will from such an excellent cast. "Morning Glory" may end all too patly, but at least it's more about a platonic friendship than the guy getting the girl. 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Unstoppable" moves like a fast-moving runaway train

Unstoppable (2010)
98 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +

For a bare premise about a runaway choo-choo, "Unstoppable" sure is an unstoppably entertaining pulse-pounder, kind of like "Speed." And kinetic filmmaker Tony Scott is the right man to conduct it. Denzel Washington is back with Scott for the fifth time playing Pennsylvania engineer Frank Barnes, who's been on the railway for 28 years and is about to be forced into retirement. Alongside him is Will Colson (Chris Pine), a green conductor. Now our working-class heroes have to chase down and derail an unmanned 47-car train. Loaded with toxic chemicals. Traveling at 70 miles per hour and gaining speed. Toward the populated Stanton, PA. News choppers circle the hurtling train overhead. Mark Bomback's script gives us just a little backstory to these characters (Frank is a widower and has trouble connecting with his two college-age daughters, Will is estranged from his wife for rashly suspecting her of cheating). 

But enough with plot . . . from there, it's all about the train (no bad-guy terrorists here), and the anxious tension stays thick and the plot moves relentless like, well, a fast-moving train. Scott finally finds a movie where he can let his shaky camera swoop and zoom endlessly, with his dermatologist close-ups, and boy does he shoot the hell out of this. The director's trademark style actually makes sense here when it's about a train that won't stop. Low-angle shots of the big locomotive loudly hissing by and nearly sideswiping (or actually demolishing) a train filled with school kids or a horse trailer on the railroad are intense and threatening. The sound is also put to effective use with jarring noises of train on track and metal on metal. 

Washington and Pine make a confident, appealing team, convincingly providing humor and feeling. Rosario Dawson is fierce and aggressive as the traffic supervisor making calls and serving as the voice of reason in a male-dominated world/movie. Lew Temple is used as the comic relief playing the welder leading the charge of police to keep the public safe. But Kevin Dunn's corporate honcho is a frustrating cliché and Kevin Corrigan seems out of place as a railroad investigator with sage advice. Simplicity is "Unstoppable's" strength when plausibility isn't, although it's inspired by a real-life incident in 2001, Ohio. With its generally stupid premise, it comes out head-on as a tight, skillful escapist ride. A summer popcorn movie with a winter release, "Unstoppable" is the little thriller that could and will keep your adrenaline pumping. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Lame "Skyline" at least has some nifty aliens

Skyline (2010) 
94 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

The technically slick, gooey, but lame "Skyline" is an alien-invasion B-movie made on an epic scale but mysteriously didn't just air on the Sci-Fi Channel or receive a direct-to-video release. East Coast dude Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his preggers girlfriend (Scottie Thompson) come to visit his long-time music-biz buddy (Donald Faison) in Los Angeles. But that night, blue light starts streaming from the sky and it turns out tentacled, brain-eating aliens are sucking people up into their motherships. Can't you just feel the doom? 

Harnessed by independent producers/directors Colin and Greg Strause, cool visual effects are clearly the bread and butter of these bros (A Brothers Strause Film!) because everything else surrounding the indomitable, niftily designed aliens in "Skyline" is mediocre. The actors are good-looking blanks, the characters are ninnies we don't care about, their dialogue just plain dumb (a favorite being “They're not dead...just really pissed off”), and the plot is a thirtysomething soap opera thrown into a humdrum, dollar-store casserole of "Independence Day," "Virus," "War of the Worlds," "Transformers," and "Cloverfield." 

The virgin screenwriters (Joshua Cordes, Liam O'Donnell) must've seen a lot of sci-fi movies because every line and plot point feels derivative. There's no claustrophobic suspense at stake, but even once the action gets going, "Skyline" just stops. Colin, Greg, ask your brotherly selves one question: was it really worth it?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Laughs come rarely in "The Love Guru"

The Love Guru (2008) 
87 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: D 

In this lame, smug comeback vehicle, Mike Myers is Guru Pitka, a Hindu self-help instructor whose aid is sought by the desperate Toronto Maple Leafs team owner (Jessica Alba) to help a star hockey player get back on his feet after being dumped by his wife and living his life in shambles on and off the ice. This lazy comic stinker is a monumentally silly and inscrutably unfunny collection of mugging, fart jokes, kick-to-the-groin jokes, penis jokes, and midget jokes (courtesy of Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer). About 77 minutes past its prime, "The Love Guru" is like a skit with too much goofy shtick and not enough groovy-baby-yeah material. 

Star/co-writer/producer Myers is the movie's worst offender, as his irksome, one-note character of Pitka is Austin Powers or Wayne Campbell with a lispy, sing-song accent, that's not as funny as he had probably hoped. In an early flashback scene, Myers apes Martin Short from "Clifford" with his head creepily and digitally added onto a smaller body. Bollywood opening and closing musical numbers of "9 to 5" and "The Joker," respectively, are upbeat and fun, but everything else hits a brick wall with a splat. Same goes for the jokes where Pitka has a book for every problem and an acronym, a humping-elephant sight gag, and a surprise cameo of...Myers himself? And the laughs just keep on coming! But really, they never start. 

As for the supporting cast, Alba is more relaxed on screen here than usual, and Justin Timberlake with a '70s porn-star mustache gets a few laughs as a well-endowed hockey player, Jacques "Le Coq" Grande. But seeing Ben "Ghandi" Kingsley seriously slumming it as the cross-eyed Guru Tugginmypudha is as funny as it sounds, which isn't saying much at all. Debuting director Marco Schnabel's direction is even slapdash: there's no handle on comic momentum and some scenes/jokes go on long past the punchline. 

But if it's any consolation Mr. Myers, your movie is a notch better than Garth's (Dana Carvey) "The Master of Disguise," but that's like saying a knee to the groin is better than a fist to the jaw. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Beth Cooper" fun at first, then blows it

I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009) 
102 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C 

Blatantly in the same vein as the John Hughes movies of the 1980s, particularly "Sixteen Candles," "I Love You, Beth Cooper" starts out as an amusing, biting high school movie. The key word here is "starts."

Paul Rust (member of the Patrick Dempsey and Sean Penn Schnoz Club, back in their Ronald Miller and Spicoli days) plays socially awkward valedictorian Denis Cooverman who proclaims the title declaration to the object of his affection in front of the whole school at Buffalo Glenn High School's graduation ceremony. Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere), a wildly irresponsible but hot honey-blonde cheerleader, tells Denis he embarrassed her but will spare him, unlike her coke-addicted Army-brat boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts). So “The Trinity”—Beth and her two loopy, promiscuous but nameless girlfriends (Lauren Storm, Lauren London)—show up at Denis' house, expecting a wild party and booze galore, and give Denis and his best friend (Jack Carpenter) a night-to-remember crash course in what they've missing out on in their teen years. 

There's illegal attainment of booze, beyond-reckless driving, cow-tipping, breaking into school for a little hanky-panky in the showers, and more where that came from. Known for slapstick and schmaltz, Chris Columbus directs with less heavy-handedness than usually typified in his films, but his tone is wildly uncertain. Gags involving erections, wine corks, and Denis' numerous bully beatings (including being hit by Beth's car) fall as flat as a skunked case of beer, and just a thought, but are frenzied raccoons really that funny anymore (first "Harold & Kumar," then "RV," now this)? 

Although author Larry Doyle adapted the script from his own book, some of the snappy writing, as well as emotion and character insight at the end, feel like throwaways. For instance, as Denis' 24-hour getaway with Beth nears its end, we learn that Beth can't really afford community college and that her brother died. Or, when one of the class bullies that Denis mentions in his grad speech was actually unloved/sexually abused as a child. Rust is perfectly fine and even endearing as nebbish Denis, considering he's 28 years old; Panettiere's initially vapid Beth Cooper shows that her character has more on her mind than sex; and their relationship turns into something kind of sweet. Carpenter is the film's standout as Denis' film-crazy best friend Rich Munsch, who can name the director, release date, and memorable quote of any film but holds doubts with his own sexuality. 

Other than that, no one in the film behaves much like a real person, even by the standards of John Hughesdom, especially Roberts' wound-up, microwave-throwing Kevin who's less preferable than Bill Paxton's macho Army brother from "Weird Science." Speaking of Hughes, Alan Ruck (Cameron from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") has a nice throwback role as Denis' dad, who actually encourages his son to lose his virginity by telling him where he keeps the condoms. We've seen a lot of dumb, disposable teen comedies before, but "I Love You, Beth Cooper" is one that actually had potential and blew it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

"Saw" series started out sharp but is getting a little rusty

Saw (2004) 
100 min., rated R. 
Grade: B -

Overthought but grippingly nasty, "Saw" holds us in a viselike grip like a decent B horror-thriller should. At least for those who can stand the tautness on their heart and the leaving nothing to the sickest imagination. 

In a terrificially unsettling mise-en-scene, a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a photographer (co-writer Leigh Whannell) wake up shackled on opposite sides of a really decrepit bathroom. Their captor has left them with a saw and instructions on a tape recorder that order the doc to kill his fellow prisoner in eight hours, with his family's lives on the line if he fails the task. It turns out that the nihilistic sicko has been devising hideously intricate scenarios for his victims to test their morality. The sadistic twist here on this serial killer fodder is that the captor, known as Jigsaw, actually isn't doing the killing but says he's teaching his “victims” a lesson. A morality tale cut to the bone? 

As visceral and effectively claustrophobic as Saw is, this "Se7en"-ish Grand Guignol is also messy, unpleasant, and pornographically blood-drenched to no end. Overdirected by wet-behind-the-ears director James Wan, the chopped-up, Nine Inch Nails music-video visual style calls attention to itself. (No wonder, considering the heavy-metal band's producer Charlie Clouser was involved with the music score.) Wan surely doesn't play it safe in showing the grisly (if twistedly ingenious) strategems of torture that'll get you squirming. One disturbing, unbearably tense sequence involves the sole survivor of Jigsaw's game (Shawnee Smith) with a fast, snuff-video camera circling around her head, stuck in a bear-trap-like device. Also, there's a genuinely creepy moment when Elwes' young daughter is spooked by a man in her bedroom. 

Then after flashback upon flashback, even sometimes upon flashback, some narrative corners are sliced and diced (Danny Glover as an obsessed detective easily stumbles upon Jigsaw's lair) and the whole jigsaw-puzzle plot spirals out of control. We get the rug pulled out from under us out of mind-blowing sneakiness, but a stupid, arbitrary twist may be too cleverly contrived even for its own grand design. 

By that time, when limbs start to get sawed off, a ghost-faced Elwes screams and sobs in desperate hysteria; then again isn't hammy overacting part of the genre's appeal? Still, "Saw" will tickle the fancy of most horror geeks, if they can stomach it. 

Saw II (2005) 
93 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

In "Saw II," the pre-credit death-trap du jour opens with a tense, visceral bang—a man stuck in a venus flytrap contraption that will smash his skull if he does not remove his own eyeball with a scalpel to get a surgically placed key. Tick tick tick, time is a-wastin'. Then a gruff homicide detective (Donnie Wahlberg) manages to track down the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), now a cancer patient, who's back to his nasty machinations: he's trapped eight strangers, including the cop's troubled teen son, inside an old house full of a toxic nerve gas and Rube Goldberg death traps. The victims' only hope is to play by the psychotic's lethal games that force them to extremities of human sacrifice in exchange for hidden antidotes. 

This unpleasant but intense rebound to "Saw" is still plenty far-fetched once it reveals the surprising tricks up its sleeve. But to its favor, "Saw II" is more linear, has a lean and meaner pace and focus, and actually makes a lick of sense with fewer holes. Now revealed as Jigsaw, Bell gets a lot of screen time, admirably underplaying to creepy effect with his memorably parched voice. 

Tyro director Darren Lynn Bousman has a tighter screenplay to work with (co-written by Bousman and the original's Leigh Whannell) and delivers more stomach-churning stylings of death. Those who are scared of needles won't be able to stand the “needle pit” trap. But not only are the characters damaged goods and none of them worth caring about, since when has torture became an alternative for entertainment? Why carp, but "Saw II" is more clever and revolting than scary. 

Saw III (2006) 
107 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

The Jigsaw killer, real name John Kramer (Tobin Bell), is now bedridden with a brain tumor but has his loyal apprentice Amanda (Shawnee Smith), a former victim, carrying out another game in which she kidnaps a doctor (Bahar Soomekh), forcing to keep her “life coach” alive. Meanwhile, a man in mourning (Angus Macfadyen) is presented a series of challenges involving people connected to his son's death, and must choose between seeking revenge or saving them. Can we just say, doesn't Jigsaw have anything better to do with his time, or how can he afford all these warehouses, or have the superintelligence to build all these devices? 

Written by the original's Leigh Whannell and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman ("Saw II"), this grisly third installment is as good a "Saw" sequel as the filmmakers could've done, self-contained and for the dedicated mostly. A helter-skelter order of flashbacks overcrowd the dense plotting a bit, the skittish camera refuses to stand still, and the editor still seems to take a hacksaw to the film. But Jigsaw's cackling clown puppet makes a welcome return, and there's still some squirm-inducing gore and suspense during the torture inventions, including a cranium operation with a power drill on Jigsaw himself that'll have you looking away. 

"Saw III" is smartly crafted up to a point, until yet another twist capper not only spells it all out but even sets up a 'Saw IV,' when this might've been a cutting stopping point for a trilogy. 

Saw IV (2007) 
95 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

You thought it was over? Nope. The "Saw" has grown long in the tooth, this being the fourth installment in a franchise now primarily made to bring in the green. But Jigsaw is now officially dead, and we're made sure of that from his autopsy, which is presented in gratuitously gruesome detail. 

Unfortunately for us, thanks to a wax-coated tape found inside his stomach, Jigsaw's torturama games are only just beginning, again. Workaholic Officer Rigg (Lyriq Bent) from Saw II and III is forced to go on a chase with each destination leading to guilty people whose survival happens to be in his hands. There are a lot of meanwhiles here, spinning the film's wheels and grinding and crunching them as well, but one involves Jigsaw's widow Jill (Betsy Russell) being called in for questioning for the suspicion of her hubby's devious games. We're supposed to now sympathize with John Kramer/Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) as we get to see how this tortured soul became such a sick mutha with a God complex. Bring on the backstory! 

Take away the gory spills and cringe-inducing, occasionally inventive torture kills, and there's nothing left, except a mess of too much cluttered "plot" that exhausts story credibility, chronology, and logic (screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan taking over for Leigh Whannell). Even after all the tricky new reveals, you'll just grow tired of playing Jigsaw's interminable game. And acting is typically sub-par in this type of schlock, but even the overacting is amateurish during both the torture and talking scenes, and there's more seizure-inducing editing and swooshing sound effects more at home in a masochistic music video. 

Whereas the first three "Saw" movies make a decently effective trilogy, "Saw IV" is more of a pointless rush job. The franchise better quit while it's ahead.

Saw V (2008) 
92 min., rated R.
Grade: D +

Another year and another Halloween season means another "Saw" movie (cue the “I wanna play a game” tagline). Surprise, surprise, it's time for the fifth and hopefully last chapter in the inscrutably popular mutilate-yourself-to-live franchise. 

Picking up where "Saw IV" left off but chronologically taking place beforehand, the now-deceased Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) hands over his morality-torture business to Detective Hoffman (pensive Costas Mandylor). While Hoffman is pursued by Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), five dicey, nameless strangers, somehow connected, are forced to escape through a series of booby-trapped rooms but have to stop being selfish and work together. 

Rather than just focusing on this auto-pilot storyline, we're bombarded by flashbacks that establish Hoffman's relationship with the late mastermind. David Hackl, the production designer of the last three "Saws," directs this one with the usual dingy greens and more choppy, tornado editing, and the script (by "Saw IV's" Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan) assumes you care and have been keeping close attention to all the plot convolutions, which by now are running on fumes and, let's be frank, running out of inventive methods to eviscerate people. 

The opening “pit-and-the-pendulum” kill ratchets up the tension, not without some squeamish gore, of course. But the rest is a dull and been-there-done-that cash-grab, with terrible dialogue and a weaker story, despite being profitable for fans that get their jollies off on elaborate traps and graphic mutilation. 

If the folks behind these reprehensible torture-pornos even think about grinding out one more installment, this critic will gladly take over for Jigsaw, but hey, if you liked the first four . . . 

Saw VI (2009) 
90 min., rated R. 
Grade: C

The progressively rusty "Saw" series should've been dead and buried three entries ago, especially after the worthless "IV" and "V." But it's Halloween six years later, so you know what that means. At this point, if you've seen "Saw" thru "Saw V," then you have a jones for torture and “deserving” people screaming their heads off and you'll probably go see "Saw VI." 

Feeling more like homework, the convoluted corkscrew of what you could generously call a story is hard to keep track of. So say you are in "the know," Agent Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), protege of now-dead Jigsaw/John Kramer, killed Agent Strahm at the end of the last movie and framed him for the crimes. The hacking begins right off the bat, as a fierce black woman (Tanedra Howard, winner of TV's Scream Queens) and a hefty man must race to see who can dismember a weightier limb than the other to stay alive—and not have their head gear drill holes into their skull. The Jigsaw puppeteer, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), died a few installments ago but from pre-taped instructions, his torture play carries on. He's a busier bee dead than alive and is now out to punish a crooked health-insurance CEO (Peter Outerbridge) that deny people health care. Michael Moore just might be Jigsaw's biggest fan. 'Sicko: Saw Edition' anybody? 

Kevin Greutert, editor on all of the previous movies, makes his directorial debut with "Saw VI," keeping the dreary aesthetics the same, but the writers of the last two (Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan) try something new and topical, and it's for the better. Still gruesomely gory as ever, this endurance-test torturama has enough projectile blood and guts for the fans' sick “fun.” It's a good thing you don't give a saw about many of these suffering people because they die a hundred deaths. Everyone screams loud like a brutal Week 1 training workout on The Biggest Loser, but the release of them dying is less effective. 

Admittedly, there is tension in a boiler-room obstacle course, as well as in a diabolic merry-go-round of the CEO's six lying minions (only two can get off). No doubt, somebody will crank out a seventh "Saw," but fresh ideas and ways to kill people are becoming mighty bare since all of the series' entries keep making appearances in flashback. 

"Saw VI" is a more intriguing installment, with plot threads coming together as usual (we get to see the contents of Jigsaw's box to wife Jill), but lay Jigsaw to rest, please. 

Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (2010) 
90 min., rated R.
Grade: C

When a franchise of horror films based on filling a quota of pain, human blood (and limbs), and box-office fandom is on its 7th lap and now plugs the expensive and rather underused 3-D gimmick, the fuel tank is officially running on empty and it's game over for us. Seven years, seven Halloweens, seven movies, so as the “tradition” goes, here we are on "Saw VII," only now titled "Saw 3D: The Final Chapter." 

To get us back in the mood for pain, two dudes and an unfaithful mutual girlfriend of theirs wake up, bound with electrical buzz saws in front of them, in a glass enclosure beside a busy outdoor mall on display for onlookers. A love-triangle twist that says love is more than skin-deep (or saws out your intestines apparently), it's a giddy, unapologetic appetizer that has nothing to do with the proceedings. 

Last time we checked, psychotic protege Detective Hoffman (constipated-looking Costas Mandylor) lost to Jigsaw's wife Jill (Betsy Russell) in a trap, but the filmmakers ("Saw VI" director Kevin Greutert and the fourth, fifth, and sixth movie's writers) want to make more money and the fans crave more, so Hoffman apparently still has all this free time to carry on Jigsaw's God complex torture games. When Jill tells a young detective (Chad Donella) what she knows, Hoffman goes after her. One of the focuses is on a sleazy self-help guru (an aging-fast Sean Patrick Flanery), who has built a career on lying that he was a survivor of a Jigsaw trap, so he's the new pawn that has to rescue his trophy wife, publicist, lawyer, and best friend. 

There's no story left, but of all the movies, this one probably has the most torture-device games, all of them queasy and wince-inducing as ever. That said, a few of these eye sores will really make you tense and cringe: A tattooed man is glued to the front seat of a car, with his racist friends attached under, behind, and in front of the car, and a woman is straight-jacketed to a chair with a key in her stomach that can only be retrieved by an attached string and if she screams too loud for a sound monitor, she'll be impaled. 

One of the kills that uses 3-D to its advantage actually turns out to be, what do ya know, only a dream. Previous movie survivors make token appearances at a group therapy session, including Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) from the first "Saw," on hand to close out the series. 

Gone is most of the clotted backstory and some of the clinical self-seriousness, "Saw 3D" is strictly for completists only (you know who you are) who get their kicks out of this stuff. And as much of a sicko-exploitative joke these movies are, there's finally a pretty satisfying timeframe-cheating twist for this alleged final chapter, until 'Saw VIII: A New Beginning' or 'Saw 8! The Rock Opera' of course.