Saw (2004)

saw
It’s mostly nonsense, but it’s an admirable piece of nonsense.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I still meet some people who are impressed by the ‘ideas’ in this film. Jigsaw’s ideas are retarded. Not only do they sound bullshit to anyone a little familiar with antinatalism or right-to-die (This is what happens when people are unfamiliar with pessimistic philosophy), but it doesn’t make sense. Jigsaw rambles about appreciating life, yet he clearly doesn’t. His games are cruel and impossible to win. Plenty of times other people have to die. A person who appreciates life wouldn’t put them in such dangerous situations. Moreover, these horrifying experiences leave people with PTSD. People with PTSD hardly end up appreciating life. They have a high suicide risk.

But Saw is nonsensical from the start, but it’s nonsense with spirit. Somewhere around here is a brilliant, slightly silly and slightly deep psychological thriller. This could’ve easily been Se7en‘s and Cube‘s weirder brother. Jigsaw barely has a presence here, anyway.

vlcsnap-2016-06-08-14h08m27s130

What went wrong? This was before the series became pure Torture Porn. That didn’t happen until the third installment. Rather, it’s an expansion on the claustrophobic thriller. The genre has a built-in emotional appeal. We’re immediately thrown into the psychology of the characters. Human beings love puzzles by nature since, well, the world is a puzzle. Birth throws you into life and you have to figure out what to do with it. Life also happens to be as terminal as Jigsaw’s game (Oh! the Irony!).

For a while, this goes really well. The film moves like a point-and-click game. Writing characters with unique reactions to their surroundings how you avoid directing an actual video game and it works. Lawrence and Adam, even if they aren’t the deepest characters, react differently from the very beginning.

vlcsnap-2016-06-08-14h08m20s47

The art direction is also important, and that’s something the franchise never lost. If you’re telling your story using visuals, make those visuals count. Saw has a rusty, industrial aesthetic. Very few scenes depart from this. Jigsaw’s concept may be moronic, but at least he has a style of his own. The ‘games’ often consist of rusty, broken-down machinery and the rooms always look decrepit and falling apart. It’s the visual equivalent of Industrial Music and I mean that in the best way possible.

Another important aspect – and Saw’s biggest contribution to the world of cinema – is the soundtrack. It’s almost sad how one of the best scores in film history is wasted on this. The ending theme isn’t the only highlight although it’s so epic it should appear in every film. Clouser did a brilliant score consisting of creepy ambiance, metallic drums and buzz-saw guitar riffs. The last 30 minutes owe half their intensity to the soundtrack. A rusty world consisting of broken machinary demands the sound of these machines in the soundtrack.

Clouser is a versatile composer, so it’s not just those noises that are effective. Throughout the films there are some melodies and rhythms. They’re just as important at adding tension. What makes Clouser’s score so different is the fact he chose a specific sound that fits the film’s visual style. Most composers just stick an orchestra that gets louder in the climax. Clouser uses a few strings, but “Hello Zepp” has those rusty electronics, too. Listening to the soundtrack alone, it’s easy to forget how the film doesn’t live up to its promise.

vlcsnap-2016-06-08-14h09m47s149

The film has various flaws, but it’s hard to pinpoint the big problem. Something those hold the film back from being Very Good, but what is it? It’s not the ridiculousness of the premise. Jigsaw’s presence isn’t felt too much and the twist in the end is just too bizarre to hate. Unlike other claustrophobic thrillers there are plenty of scenes in the outside world, but that’s a better option than info dumps. The direction feels amature-ish, but the unique aesthetic and odd premise points to an undeveloped but unique mind.

Perhaps it’s the needless sadism. The film isn’t as cruel as later installments, but these moments still feel wrong. The fact we’re meant to somewhat agree with Jigsaw is plain sick. He’s a psychopathic torturer who disregards human life and basic rights. The camera often lingers on people screaming in pain, which is uncomfortable. These characters are just pawns in the game anyway. Seeing them being tortured and crying in pain isn’t easy because of that. It’s their lack of humanity that makes their suffering so hard to watch, but also unpleasant and pointless. Fictional characters don’t exist, but they’re meant to portray living human beings. The disregard the creators show for them is unsettling.

Other small flaws are easy to forgive. The characters may lack a deep psychology, but Gordon and Adam react to the world in their ways. The actors aren’t great but they do put effort. Even little utterances and phrases are spoken differently. The best example is Michael Emerson as Zep. Although the script gives him no unique lines, he imbues his character with the instability that a person in such a position would suffer from.

It’s a shame the film’s legacy was ruined. At first it was called a Se7en clone and now it’s considered the bomb that kickstarted the Torture Porn genre. What it really is, is a bizarre, deeply flawed but fascinating claustrophobic thriller. It’s worth a single watch or two, just to absorb its ideas.

3 Industrial guitar riffs out of 5

BTOOOM!

btoom

It’s like Future Diary, only with all the good stuff ripped out.

Using characters as plot device is hard. Do it once or twice and it’s okay. When everyone becomes a plot device, your story becomes hard to believe. A world where everyone is a plot device is less believable than a notebook that kills people.

It doesn’t seem so bad at first. It’s dark and cruel, but this is a game where people are forced to kill each other. The first to die is boring as hell, but Future Diary‘s Third didn’t have a personality. He at least had an idea behind him. He was supposed to be a simple Unknown Danger. He has given a design that looks scary to make that convincing. His role was small and was the only plot device character.

No such things happen in BTOOOM!. Everyone exists for two reasons. Their purpose is first to be terrible human beings, and the second is to die. It’s hilarious how everyone is terrible, but no one has a personality flaw. One guy is a rapist. Another is a cold-hearted killer. Another one is a con artist. They’re unpleasant, but not interesting.vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h25m51s139

Such a dull edge

The cruelty is so monochrome. These are not the crazies of Future Diary. No one in that anime was sadistic for sadism’s sake. When they had a cruel streak, they had reasons for it. It was also specific. Third just wanted to kill everyone. Reisuke cared about having a mother figure. Yomotsu had a retarded sense of justice.

There was almost something comic about it. None of that exists in BTOOOM!. No one has an alternative moral system. No one’s sadism is understandable. A fat guy attempts rape and we get to see it graphically, yet we don’t know what’s behind him. The creators try to shock us with Himiko’s pain, but it’s only unpleasant to watch. More shocking would be if they made understand the rapist and his point of view. This way the viewer might find he shares some thoughts with him, which is both horrifying and meaningful.

Some get a half-assed explanation, like abusive parents or a military past. These are just placeholders. The characters aren’t very different besides one being more sadistic. Both Tsubaki and Reisuke have a sad past, but it’s a different kind that transformed them differently.

The creators miss the best part of the Death Game scenarios. The Death Game throws a bunch of characters in a situation that forces them to confront each other. It needs different personalities. The clash between them is what creates tension. Some explosions will never be as exciting as a blind crazy, a yandere and a misanthrope meeting in the same place.

These personalities make us view these characters as human. We’ll care about them, understand them and have empathy for them. The deaths will be sadder because we’ll see a human who is like us fail, perhaps of his own undoing. That’s how tragedy works. Tragedy isn’t just making characters suffer but have them (and us) understand it. Characters just explode here.

vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h26m38s74

Random unimportant asshole

If BTOOOM! chose the way of Saw it would’ve been better. It’s not a show of aestheticized violence. Such violence is overblown and disconnected from reality. It can be fun to see limbs being torn and people explode, but there’s no sense of fun here. The action scenes are tedious, consisting mainly of pointless inner monologues. The fact characters suffer is emphasized more than how fun it is to throw a bomb.

Any momentum that a scene generates is immidiately smashed. There are a lot of inner monologues. It’s a wonder the series didn’t pull an Evangelion. They had enough for 3 episodes. Action scenes are about movement and set-pieces. Some dialogue can also help if the interaction is meaningful enough. Thoughts are static. No one has room for introspection during such scenes. You don’t have them running in your head in a video game, so in real life?

It’s the stereotypical edgy anime that thinks violence, gore and suffering makes for something profound. It tries to something about how humans are cruel, but when everyone is cruel for no reason we it’s hard to believe that message. How can be believe humans are as cruel as the players when the strings behind them are so obvious?

The symbol for caring and companionship is your typical harem protagonist, without the harem. Sakamoto has no personality whatsoever. He kind of cares about others, but why? He’s the main character because it’s easier to sympathize with him, rather than the rest of the meanies. More correctly, it’s safer to make him the main character. Following one of the bad guys would mean they’d have to to do more than be cruel for a while than die.

Himiko isn’t much better. She’s an insutling portrait of the Clinging Woman. Everything Yuno satirized is in her. The parallels are so obvious, you have to wonder whether it’s a response. Both girls rely on their men, but differently. Yuno relies for psychological stability. She acts less to please the guy than to fulfill her own desire for love. Himiko exists for Sakamoto and no other reason. Her love isn’t related to personality. She’s a reward Sakamoto wins twice, first for being a great player and second because he’s saving her.vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h28m47s108

For the glory of Satan

She’s also an object of sexual gartification, both for characters and the viewer. She gets near-raped a few times, and these scenes are filled with nice shots that give you a clear picture of Himiko’s body. These are not the expressive flashbacks of Tsubaki. You might be able to catch a nice shot there, but they’re too expressive and short. The don’t emphasize just the sexual part of it but the pain.

It made Tsubaki hateful of the world and everyone in it. It was her undoing, but she was portrayed as a tragic character. Himiko is turned into a silly tsundere who slowly learns to ‘trust men’, as if she should just get over it.

The ending is also insutling. It’s the definition of ‘inconclusive’. This criticism has been brought up a lot, but many short shows have some arc that concludes. The grand story of Freezing isn’t over, but there is an arc that concludes which defines the two seasons. BTOOOM! just ends. It makes it all feel like an advertisement for the source material.

There are tiny worldbuilding things that come off as moronic. There’s no sensible explanation why the game exists. Hints point toward the good old cliche of human experiments or evil corporations. The bombs also somehow can tell whether their owner is dead or not. Then again, I keep praising a show about diaries that predict the future. If the world doesn’t make too much sense but serves the purpose, it’s okay. If your story is full of holes, it’s a magnifying glass to how stupid your world is.

At least the art style is nice. Since this is supposed to be deep, we get a realistic art style with no crazy ideas. The designers still managed to give everyone a distinct look. At least in that department, BTOOOM! has something to teach others. Even characters that appear for a few minutes get their own unique look. It’s too bad these designs weren’t used in a different, better anime.

The OP ends with all the characters standing and looking towards the horizon. It reminded me of the first shot of Future Diary‘s ED. It summed up what made that one so good – a cast of crazies, which with flawed personalities that make them understandable even at their worst. BTOOOM! has no such empathy. It treats its characters like they’re from a video game. They exist to kill and die. The protagonist has as much character as a silent protagnsit. It’s amazing how bad it is. ┬áhas almost everything I want in an anime, and wrecks it.

1.5 bombs out of 5

Mudvayne – L.D. 50

mudvayne-ld-50-atoms
Nu Metal always had its weird side, and Mudvayne are trying to take it to the extreme. “Dig” was an obvious single, but Mudvayne’s quirks are there. The hook is a catchy chant, but behind the chanting the band just beats the sound to the ground. There’s a messiness and intensity to the riffs that doesn’t match other Nu Metal bands. More is going on besides noise or groovey riffs.

The bounce of “Internal Primates Forever” only confirms Mudvayne are on to something special. The “jump!” screaming adds some fun to song that tries so hard to be complex. For all of its shifting part and Patton-esque vocals, it’s a fun rocker. Both of these songs are brilliant because the band sounds like they can do anything and still make it accessible and intense and moshpit-friendly. It’s a more complex but organized version of Slipknot’s early output.

The next two tracks are okay, but it’s hard to find the difference between them. The band had a great sound, but all of their ideas were done in the first two songs and “Under My Skin” which only arrives at the end.

What went wrong? There are interesting moments. The tempo shifts in “Death Blooms” are effective and the band sounds good in a more funky setting. The melodic beginning of “-1” isn’t catchy, but it’s an addition that still contributes and adds contrast. The band never sounds tired.

It’s so boring, though. It’s hard to make a loud album that wants to literally break ground with its anger. Some did it, but not like Mudvayne. Glassjaw had heartbreak that made every song stick out. My Ticket Home’s album was short and catchy. Nine Inch Nails made it an EP. Even Slipknot couldn’t drag this for a whole album. Melody made their music heavier, but they still ran out of steam at the end of Vol. 3.

It’s somewhere around “Cradle” that the album loses all potential of a masterpiece. The song doesn’t end where it should but literally restarts. It exhausts all of its ideas and restarts anyway. Worse, it’s not very different than what came before.

It turns out Mudvayne don’t do much with their intense sound. Most of the songs consist of the vocalist screaming while the band pummels in the back and being loud. Catchy hooks and funky breaks are rare, and they’re always too short and too late to save the song.

The attempt at rapping in “Under My Skin” is a blessing. It doesn’t matter whether the label ‘forced’ them to make it or not. You can actually find traces of Hip-Hop in previous songs, anyway. It’s a lighter, catchier and more organized songs than everything around it. The band finally sounds experimental as they want to be. Being experimental isn’t just removing hooks. It also offers the guitarist to play other riffs besides slow sledgehammers.

L.D. 50 deserves some credit for making interludes sound like a good idea. The interludes scattered around the album (which also steal all the best song titles) connect to the songs, and the weird electronics offers a nice respite from the chaos. “Dig” sounds more effective if you have the build-up of “Monolith”. If only Mudvayne used these electronics to create actual songs. Maybe we could have had a nice contrast of cold electronica and chaothic Nu Metal. There’s some fun to be had here, but it’s a band being ambitious without any idea what to do.

2 doses out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Foundation

Isaac Asimov_1951_Foundation
Foundation is another novel where two styles clash. Unlike others, though, Asimov manages to make them merge. It’s especially impressive because these are two styles which shouldn’t work together. Asimov is a much better writer than people give him credit. He may not understand human beings, but few authors are so bullshit-free. Despite not even trying to create characters, there’s nothing that hides what works.

You can dub it ‘Space Opera’ all you want, but if you read a Robot book then you’ll settle into the format just fine. Asimov’s style consists of creating a puzzle and have the characters solve it. This is a pure intellectual exercise. There is no emotional weight there. There’s not even Saw’s cheap, either solve it die cliche. It’s as humane as a Rubik’s Cube.

The puzzles have pieces that sound profound, sure. Asimov just doesn’t try to explain why they’re profound. Among the pieces Asimov plays with include whole civilizations. There are video games that also deal with whole civilizations. Chess seems to tell the story of one kingdom conquering another. If you were an individual in those kingdoms or civilizations, you would care. Yet how much do players care about a single soldier in Warcraft III?

That’s Asimov’s weakness. He puts different names on the pieces, but they’re just pieces to play around with. Since there is no real character depth, not even one-note characters it’s hard to get to the bottom of Asimov’s ideas. Asimov has a lot to say about big things, like history and religion. Such a profilic author should have a lot to say, but the novel isn’t a good form for him to deliver his ideas.

They show you Asimov is smart and knows a lot, but that’s it. His treatment of religion is especially interesting. He confronts the claim that a lot of people believe scientists like they believe religious figures. A scientific theory, after all, is supposed to predict results. Doesn’t that sound close to being a prophet? The idea of a man seeing into the future, and then guiding humans how to cope with it is found in the Tanakh.

What is he trying to say by showing this common ground between religion and science? Science works, but the only people who are aware it’s science and not superstition are the scientists. Should scientists be a majority rather than a minority to prevent this? He doesn’t say. The Foundation survives because it’s a minority and keeps important knowledge to itself. It is the future of humanity. There doesn’t seem to be much criticism of it in the novel.

The novel doesn’t fail, again, thanks to Asimov’s bullshit-free writing. For a man who’s known to be important in ‘hard Sci-Fi’, he’s a great storyteller. He lays his interesting puzzles and finds interesting solutions to them. Even if they are shallow, Asimov’s puzzles are unique enough. Even when it’s clear there’s no depth and he’s just writing ‘civilization’ on a game piece, the illusion its important is entertaining enough, in and of itself. He doesn’t put anything else there but the bare bones, and so he lives to the promise of any good pulpy novel. It does weaken a little in the end, where Asimov gets more ambitious and the stories get bigger. They also get less coherent.

Foundation isn’t much of a great novel in terms of depth, but it’s a very entertaining story. It’s odd how the attempts at being profound neither elevate nor ruin the novel, which they often tend to do. It’s not the brilliant classic people say it is, but good, bullshit-free storytellers are rare. Asimov deserves some fame just because of that.