Decent healthcare and a modicum of compassion: Isn’t that what any trap-devising torture master wants? So it seems in “Saw X,” a movie that has more fun not being a “Saw” sequel before becoming a better-than-passable one. As we dive in, gaunt John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell, his voice freshly regraveled) winces through his brain cancer scans.
“That was a long one,” he tells the technician. (Boo-hoo.) Unfortunately, Kramer’s case is terminal. And as he smirks through the bromides of his support group and gets his last will and testament in order, you can almost believe — barring one eyeball-sucking dream sequence — that Bell has stumbled into a different franchise altogether. (Call it “Sob.”)
This somber cello-scored intro becomes a passage, then an entire first act, and it’s impossible not to smile at how veteran “Saw” editor-turned-director Kevin Greutert commits to the long game. As it happens, Kramer hears about an experimental treatment: a cocktail-surgery combo unapproved by the FDA. Though weak, he flies to a secret clinic in Mexico City, where a saintly team of doctors and helpers eases him back toward hope.
And what should happen when the still-bandaged, post-operative Kramer returns to the clinic with a nice bottle of something to thank his caretakers? That’s, of course, when “Saw X” becomes the movie you do think it will be. His vengeance burns clean and hot, and not wholly persuasively: Wasn’t John almost too weak to stand up a few scenes ago? Now he’s strapping people to chairs and recording “Play me” mixtapes.
Never the sharpest objects in the post-9/11 horror toolbox, the “Saw” films were mainly valuable as training for artists that went on to tighter, bolder work: original director James Wan (“The Conjuring,” “Malignant”) and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (2020’s terrific gaslighter “The Invisible Man”). “Torture porn” was too fancy a term for these movies; other horror franchises captured the free-floating fear of the era better. (I’ll take a “Final Destination” any day.)
But there remains something trashy and fun about the “Saw” entries, even in their bad-TV police procedural stretches and ponderous obeisance to David Fincher’s “Seven,” the granddaddy of faux-moralistic violence. “Saw X” doesn’t have the drooling-dog irony of the series’ best kills: no pit of dirty hypodermic needles for a drug dealer, sadly (that’s in “Saw II,” if you’re curious). One unlucky victim goes rooting around his own skull for gray matter, which is as close as this movie gets to an indictment of the medical profession.
Still, that creepy puppet with the bow tie (Billy, to those in the know) does wheel into view like an old buddy with bad news. So does Amanda (Shawnee Smith), survivor of the iconic “reverse bear trap” from the first film and now Kramer’s assistant. The supporting players aren’t quite pulling off the screams — cutting off one’s own leg shouldn’t seem this achievable — but Bell compensates. His half-cracked grandeur, boosted by Smith’s skewed stares of adoration, sends the movie into a loopy giddiness. “Saw X” may not be the best one to start off with, but it’s hard to imagine a better one to end with.
Rating: R, for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, language and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In wide release
‘HWJN’ Review: A Colorful Application of Traditional Arab Mythology to the Modern World
We’ve had genies of the playful, wish-granting “Thief of Baghdad” type, and more recently quite a number of evil djinn in horror movies. But it’s hard to recall a prior screen portrait of the same malleable Arabic mythological creatures quite like “HWJN,” which takes the cuddlesome, anthropomorphic “They’re just like us, only magical!” view of Pixar animations and such in depicting modern-day jinn (the term’s more accurate translation) who invisibly live alongside humans.
Yasir Alyasiri’s visually appealing fantasy, which kicked off the Red Sea Film Fest, is at times too innocuous in tone and pedestrian in story ideas. But it’s nonetheless a slick, pleasant diversion that should attract viewers eager for an approximation of CGI-heavy western family entertainments, albeit with up-front Arabic cultural and Muslim religious emphases. The Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates coproduction opens commercially in S.A. on Jan. 4.
Drawn from sci-fi author Ibraheem Abbas’ popular (if sporadically banned) series of novels, which began publishing a decade ago, this amiable whimsy starts off its world-building immediately in the most straightforward terms. Our narrating protagonist Hawjan (Baraa Alem) is introduced watching a traditional “evil genie” film in a cinema. He protests such stereotypes, insisting that real jinn “have jobs, families and family drama,” just like the humans they co-exist with. Only the humans don’t know it, because “God separated our worlds for a reason of which He knows best,” rendering jinn capable of seeing humans but not vice versa. Interaction between the two is difficult, and forbidden by the “jinn creed,” anyway.
Nonetheless, it becomes hard to maintain that detachment once the abandoned home that young doctor Hawjan (at 92, he looks 20) shares with his mother and grandfather on Jeddah’s outskirts is refurbished, then inhabited by the well-off Abdulraheems. Only daughter Sawsan (Nour Alkhadra), a med school student herself, senses the presence of the preexisting supernatural residents even faintly. Our hero is quickly smitten, so he works assiduously to create a communication bridge with her — which takes the form of a shameless plug for iPads. But their inter-dimensional relationship is problematic, to say the least. For one thing, she’s already got a nice, safely human beau in classmate Eyad (Mohsen Mansour). For another, she has a brain tumor that may render any romantic or marital prospects moot.
But worse still is that fatheress Hawjan, whose paternal background (and reasons for being “trapped” living alongside people) have been kept from him, is in fact jinn royalty sought for nefarious purposes by minions of the wicked King Hayaf. Chief among them is chrome-domed Master Xanaam (Naif Al Daferi), a cousin who to save his own neck must persuade our hero to marry his sister, the beauteous Jumara (Alanoud Saud). In order to do so, he and his flunkies cast a spell on Sawsan, using her already vulnerable health as an instrument of blackmail. To save her life, and fulfill his own destiny, Hawjan must journey to the fantastical lands of two warring jinn tribes.
Even if these desert realms recall the various versions of “Dune” in their tawny look, it is in sequences set there that “HWJN” is most enjoyable. Indeed, these flights of visual fancy — handsomely realized by production designer Khaled Amin, costumer Hassan Mustafa and DP Nemanja Veselinovic’s frequently amber-hued cinematography — prevent the rather banal Earth-bound conflicts from dragging “HWJN” into tearjerking melodrama.
The pacing sometimes plods a bit, but likewise is juiced enough by regular infusions of eye candy to maintain interest. Even human interiors are granted a colorfully inviting warmth, and some spectacular desert exteriors were shot in Egypt. Less distinctive is Khaled Alkamaar’s original score, which is a little too squarely faithful to the John Williams school of triumphal, fully orchestrated western mall-flick soundtrack themes.
Well-cast performers ably fulfill the demands of their fairly one-note roles, from our puppyish protagonist to various concerned parental figures and an assortment of comical or sinister grotesques. Unsurprisingly, the door is left wide open for sequels, with supervillain Hayaf — his ghoulish countenance glimpsed only at the fadeout — not about to take everybody else’s happy endings like a good sport.
Sylvester Stallone celebrates Philly’s first-ever Rocky Day: ‘Keep punching!’
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, but on Sunday, Philly was celebrating.
Nearly 50 years after the 1976 Oscar-winning sports film “Rocky” introduced audiences to small-time boxer Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone returned to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Balboa famously sprinted up the steps as he trained for his big fight. The occasion? Philly’s first-ever Rocky Day, a new annual city holiday that falls on the same day “Rocky” was released to U.S. audiences.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart — and Rocky’s too because we’re very close — and to all of you who, believe it or not, are Real Life Rockys,” Stallone said to the crowd of thousands who had gathered in the rain to celebrate the film, many of them dressed like Rocky.
“Because you live your life on your own terms. You try to do the best you can, and you keep punching. I appreciate that, Dec. 3 … Rocky Day. Remarkable.
“Who would have believed that? Certainly none of the 13 schools I went to woulda,” he joked. “Remarkable, you know, whoever would have thought that a 12-year-old loner that used to go up and down these steps would come back to see this day and be lucky enough, alive, to have seen it.”
Stallone continued that he’d traveled the world and seen amazing sights like the pyramids, and a Colosseum, but for some reason those 72 steps that lead up to the museum inspire and excite him. “It’s like you get to the top, you feel inspired, you feel special, hopeful, happy and most of all proud of yourself. … You look out and you go, ‘I did it. I feel good at this moment,’” the 77-year-old actor said. “You feel like you can be perhaps the champion of your dreams. It’s a possibility. It’s a sliver of hope.”
The Times’ original 1976 review referred to Stallone as “a sturdy young actor” and said his film was the story of a “lumbering nice-guy loner who lives in a really crummy apartment with a goldfish, a pair of turtles named Cuff and Link and a poster of Marciano.” Stallone has said that, when he wrote the movie, he identified with his underdog character.
He echoed Rocky in Sunday’s speech, saying, “To me, life is a fight. It’s a tough fight, and get ready, you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose a lot. But the real victory is in never giving up. And going the distance for yourself. Standing at the top of these steps, you’re reminded that all things are possible.”
He ended his speech by addressing fans who’d gathered in his hometown, “Keep punching!”
The Prince of Egypt: The Musical
Many movies and shows have, of course, depicted and embellished the biblical story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt. And now we can add The Prince of Egypt: The Musical to that catalog.
This enjoyable stage production bases its view of Moses’ tale on Dreamwork’s acclaimed 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt. And it features five of composer Stephen Schwartz’s songs from that movie (“Deliver Us,” “All I Ever Wanted,” “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” “The Plagues” and “When You Believe”) along with 10 other brand-new tunes.
It’s easy to suggest that if you loved the 1998 movie, you’ll likely enjoy this live production with its talented cast, lively staging, state-of-the-art stage projections and soaring musical themes. The show is well constructed and worthy of all the praise that its London cast and orchestra has received.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t at least touch on that story “embellishment” I mentioned above. This version takes the tale’s conclusion even further than its Dreamworks inspiration.
The Prince of Egypt: The Musical isn’t so much a story about God using a reluctant man to powerfully lead His people out of slavery anymore. In fact, it’s not really focused on God and His people at all.
Instead, this is more a tale of two men, two brothers, who clash and find a way—through the use of godly power—to move their respective people toward a better future. The musical ends with Moses leading his people off into the wilderness and having a vision of Ramses becoming “a great ruler who stretches the reign of Egypt.”
That’s a distinctly humanistic difference worth noting. It definitely fits our contemporary desire for mankind to find a way to get along in a world full of strife. God’s power is a part of the equation here, but His hand, His biblical purpose, is less evident. And some may find that story turn disappointing.
That said, the production itself is very good. And if it leads fans to seek out the whole biblical truth, all the better.
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