Rocknrolla, Saw V, And What Just Happened

Short Reviews Of Current Releases 

Rocknrolla, Saw V, And What Just Happened

A Motley Crew

Colorful criminal lowlifes animate Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla

Maybe the career obits written for British bad boy - and former Madonna hubby - Guy Ritchie were a tad premature. After the twin debacles of Revolver and Swept Away, it was easy to dismiss the writer-director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch as a two-trick pony. But the convulsively entertaining RocknRolla is Ritchie's strongest outing to date, even if it is just another of his trademark boys-with-guns gangster flicks.

Narrative cohesion has never been Ritchie's strong suit, and it takes about a half-hour to realize the film's shaggy dog story doesn't make a lick of sense. What truly matters are the rogue's gallery of colorful criminal lowlifes, Ritchie's undiminished flair for writing gleefully profane, uber-stylized dialogue and some strikingly original action set pieces.

Small-time hood One Two (Gerard Butler) gets a loan from crime lord Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson in a better performance than his Oscar-nominated turn in Michael Clayton) to help finance his dream of becoming a London real-estate entrepreneur. Figuring into the Byzantine equation are a seductively shady accountant (Thandie Newton), her art-loving Russian mobster boss (Karel Roden), Lenny's MIA junkie rocker son (Toby Kebbell), two highly unethical American music promoters (Jeremy Piven and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and a closeted tough guy (Tom Hardy) who has the hots for One Two.

It's the sort of movie where the hired muscle (Nonso Anozie's aptly named Tank) turns out to be a connoisseur of Merchant-Ivory's cinematic oeuvre and Whistler paintings.

David Higgs' eye-popping high-def cinematography is the best advertisement for Blu-ray since Speed Racer, and the polyglot soundtrack (heavy on vintage Clash) kicks ass like nobody's business. Ritchie may never become a major artist - he's still too beholden to the Tarantino playbook of postmodern hooliganism - but he has the instincts of a first-rate entertainer. And in a dispiriting fall movie season where fun has been in conspicuously short supply, RocknRolla delivers the goods. - Milan Paurich RocknRolla Opens Friday areawide

Saw V

It's significant that the Saw movies started coming out around the same time as the U.S. invasion-occupation of Iraq. Now seemingly endless, both are now looking like losing propositions the more time goes by. But it wasn't always that way. The initial Saw, a locus classicus of torture-porn horror, was a fiendishly compact thriller, principally with a two-person cast, about the depredations of a serial killer dubbed Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), in some nameless grunge-noir city. Jigsaw strove to impart some constructive moral lesson to his victims (always people guilty of something or other) via bone-crushing, flesh-rending ordeals in diabolical mechanized death traps. In each successive Saw sequel, the recursive narrative leapt backward a bit, retrofitting previous features with ever-more elaborate plot points for the Halloween-time audience to savor, plus delivering all-new torture machines, like some Abu Ghraib version of the Sears catalogue, for the viscera-spilling money shots.

With Saw V, even the sadists will have to admit that the blades are looking pretty dull. Jigsaw actually died a few movies back; here we find that all along he had a hidden accomplice (the same cliche used to generate endless direct-to-video sequels to The Swan Princess and The Lion King, I hate to tell you gorehounds). It's a vigilante-leaning police detective named Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who finds that a fellow officer, Strahm (Scott Patterson), managed to emerge alive-but-wounded from the ensemble massacre at the climax of Saw IV. With Strahm suspecting the worst of Hoffman from the outset, the two go after each other. In a parallel plotline, five further Jigsaw captives wake up in one of the killer's customized dungeons. Each had some role in a shady Building Department crime (kind of fun to wonder what Jigsaw would do with a handful of Cuyahoga County commissioners), and they face an obstacle course of pretty painful pitfalls.

The previous movie also introduced actress Betsy Russell as Mrs. Jigsaw. Anyone remember Betsy Russell? Back in the 1980s, she had a well-received ingenue role as the title character in the teensploitation comedy Tomboy. Those Reagan years were a cinematic era in which any slasher splatter flick featuring more than a maniac wearing a pillowcase carving up cheerleaders was considered an overachiever. Hence, compared to the retarded Friday the 13th imitations of two decades ago, the Saw concept is practically John Updike. But enough is enough already. The series is worn out, the shocks are shopworn and the grisly engines of death aren't even all that imaginative anymore. We're also left with abundant loose ends and foreshadowing to be picked up in Saw 6. Like Iraq, this profiteering exercise in sickening violence and death sorely lacks a viable exit strategy. - Charles Cassady Jr.

I.O.U.S.A.

This documentary, which commences with footage of presidents from the past several decades talking about impending economic crises, takes a long, hard look at the current state of turmoil. Former Controller General David Walker likens the growing $8.7 trillion national debt (as of February 2007) to "fiscal cancer," and the film systematically shows just how we got into this jam, outlining four serious deficits (budget, savings, balance of payments and leadership) along the way. The movie has a rather pedantic method of presenting information, using a series of graphs and charts to make its point, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This stuff is so complicated, you almost need to take that approach to make sense of it all.

The movie takes us through the country's history of spending and saving, pointing out that 1835 was the only time there was no national debt and, after rising during the Civil War, it again became manageable in the early 1900s. But thanks to "supply side economics," it started to skyrocket in the 1980s, and for the first time a huge amount of debt was created during a time of "relative peace and prosperity." To his credit, director Patrick Creadon doesn't blame any one person for the problem. Rather, he suggests it's an affliction caused by an irresponsible federal government that spends more than it makes. With a potential Social Security crisis looming, the problem is only going to get worse. Featuring interviews with billionaire Warren Buffett, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the film provides a balanced point of view and makes a compelling argument about a situation that's becoming yet another inconvenient truth. - Jeff Niesel Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 3:45 p.m. Saturday, November 1 and 2:15 p.m. Sunday, November 2

What Just Happened

Barry Levinson directed this breezy satirical comedy about Hollywood, based on veteran movie producer Art Linson's memoir, What Just Happened: Bitter Tales From the Hollywood Front Line. Linson, who wrote the screenplay, produced the well-regarded The Untouchables and Fight Club, as well as the not-so-well-regarded Pushing Tin and Great Expectations remake. Robert De Niro stars as Ben, an aging producer struggling to hold onto his A-list ranking while dealing with multiple personal and professional headaches.

Ben's newest movie, a violent action picture starring Sean Penn, has evoked hostility and revulsion among test audiences because of a shocking scene involving the hero's dog. The tough studio chief, Lou (Catherine Keener), insists that the offending frames be removed, and the temperamental, pill-popping director (Michael Wincott) rebels. (The story seems to be based on the studio's negative reaction to Fight Club.) Ben's next film is jeopardized when egomaniacal star Bruce Willis shows up overweight and with a Rutherford B. Hayes-style beard that he violently refuses to shave - a story based on a similar incident involving Alec Baldwin.

Ben must persuade Willis' nervous agent, Dick (John Turturro), to get Willis to shave before shooting starts, a drama that builds to improbably huge proportions. Ben's personal life is also complicated. Twice divorced, he still pines for his most recent ex, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), a passion further inflamed when he discovers she's sleeping with his married screenwriter pal, Scott (Stanley Tucci). With splendidly fast-paced editing by Hank Corwin, Levinson creates an entertaining landscape of phone calls, lunch meetings, tantrums, opportunistic sex, Ecstasy and ego-stroking. As Hollywood satires go, however, this one is pretty mild - none of the dark sardonicism of The Day of the Locust or Robert Altman's The Player. And, this being Linson's story, Ben, the character based on him, is rather vanilla: a basically nice guy to whom crazy things happen. The movie is nonetheless amusing and enjoyable, with a great celebrity cast, many playing themselves and clearly having a fine time. - Pamela Zoslov Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.

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