“Jigsaw” fails to live up to franchise standards

A version of this was previously published with District

It’s been seven years since the supposed death of the classic “Saw” franchise. But in typical Hollywood fashion, the series rose from the dead last week with the eighth installment, “Jigsaw.” The film, which is part of one of the highest-grossing horror film franchises of all time, fails to stay true to the original films, feeling like a desperate attempt to revive the iconic “torture-porn” series.

The franchise is notorious for it’s poorly lit settings and that strange green filter that adds to the overall gross-factor. But not “Jigsaw.” The film begins with an energetic police chase in broad daylight, exerting more energy and showing more bright lights than any of the other films combined. This is most likely due to the replacement of David A. Armstrong—the cinematographer of the series’ first six films—with Benn Nott. While Nott’s clean and crisp style can be appreciated, it pales in comparison to the depth of Armstrong’s, who used tantalizing and eerie color and filter choices as metaphors for the gore and bloodshed throughout the prior films. Without that creative representation, “Jigsaw” becomes just one more notch in the horror movie genre’s bedframe.

The characters in the film are no better. Most of them—Logan Nelson, the film’s protagonist, not included—are dull, thin, and are only made interesting by a handful of reveals. Take Anna—played by the convincing Laura Vandervoot—for example. When she awakens in one of Jigsaw’s traps, she is quick to prove her intelligence by being the first to discover the solution to the trap. But her intelligence isn’t enough to convince viewers that she should be cared about. As the movie continues, her storyline develops only enough to reveal that she was placed in Jigsaw’s trap because she killed her baby and blamed it on her husband. Shocking? Sure. Shocking enough for a “Saw” movie? Hardly. Anna’s character develops only slightly at the end when she shows some remorse for what she’s done, but then quickly reverts when she professes her innocence and accidentally kills herself. 

© Lionsgate Films

Perhaps the film does have one redeeming quality, however. Through a bout of nostalgia, dedicated fans are given a taste of the original films, which keeps them from completely disregarding “Jigsaw.” When Eleanor, Nelson’s assistant, takes him to her workshop, she reveals to him that she is a dedicated Jigsaw fan and shows him a collection of original Jigsaw traps seen in the previous films. The directors leave the heavy lifting to the viewers though, having the camera pan slowly across each trap, leaving the viewers to remember the glory of each of the prior movies.

But when Nelson brutally murders Detective Halloran, “Jigsaw” is distanced from the series the most. John Kramer, the original Jigsaw, was always labeled as a killer, but he, in fact, never killed anyone. Rather, he gave all of his victims the option to live or die, a major theme throughout the series. Yet, Nelson, Kramer’s successor, gave Halloran no possible option to live. He killed him in cold blood. True, Kramer’s protégés have gone rogue before, but always on their own terms, never in the name of Jigsaw, which is exactly what Nelson did. 

Despite being slightly entertaining and crisp with nostalgia, “Jigsaw” fails to acknowledge the details that made previous “Saw” films so successful. It has minimal payoff and proves to be a film only for die-hard “Saw” fans. 


Mariska Hargitay’s “I Am Evidence” sheds light on rape kit backlog crisis

A version of this was previously published with District and can be found here.

Thousands of untested rape kits sit in police evidence storage rooms and crime labs across the country. These rape kits contain DNA evidence that could potentially locate and prosecute perpetrators who have committed sexual assaults.

But behind each rape kit is a person, a story, a survivor of rape waiting for justice. Through intimate cinematography, Mariska Hargitay’s revelatory documentary, “I Am Evidence,” sheds light on these survivors and this shameful miscarriage of justice the United States Criminal Justice System is responsible for. And it’s about time.

“I Am Evidence” wastes no time getting to the intimacy and intensity of the subject matter, beginning with interwoven tight shots of four women, all of whom are rape survivors, all of whom have had their rape kits forgotten by the system. As they begin to tell the stories of their rapes, most of them to tear up. Their voices shake. They take brief pauses in their stories, not only to compose themselves, but to let the viewer in, to let the viewer know that they are welcome to share in their stories.

Woven between their stories is the tireless story of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and her combined efforts with Hargitay to end the backlog of rape kits in Worthy’s county after her office discovered 11,341 untested rape kits in a Detroit Police Department storage facility in 2009. Although Detroit is first used as a microcosm, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the city’s and Worthy’s story should be used as a paragon for other cities with even larger backlogs.

The cause of backlogs, Worthy and Hargitay determine, lies in police departments across the country where investigators often times deem rape cases as “high complexity” and “low priority” crimes, effectively telling victims that their abuse would be too hard to prove, and isn’t as important as, say, a theft. This sort of neglect leads to the perpetrators being able to commit another, perhaps even more violent crimes.

Take, for example, Charles Courtney Jr., who violently raped Helena, the film’s second survivor, in southern California. As Helena tells her story, it is revealed that, because her rape kit was never tested, Courtney had continued on to rape at least one other victim in Ohio: Amberly, the film’s third survivor.

And just as the viewer is immersed in this tragic reveal, a map appears that follows the truck route Courtney traveled from California to Ohio. The choice to show this map forces the viewer to imagine just how many more women he may have raped, and how many more women were effectively forgotten because their rape kits, too, were never tested. It’s chilling and heartbreaking.

By having the four survivors tell their stories, while showing Worthy’s and Hargitay’s continuing story in between, it becomes clear that the shame shouldn’t be placed on the victims, rather it should be placed on the perpetrators, and, more importantly, on the justice system that has disgracefully failed the survivors when they needed help the most.

The film ends on an inspirational note, though, with interwoven tight shots of each of the film’s four survivors. Most of them cry again, but this time they seemingly are tears of closure, of hope. Once again, these shots are used to not only provide a silver lining for these women, but to also show that there can and will be a silver lining for other victims of this heinous injustice.

“I am evidence,” Ericka, the film’s fourth survivor says, “That there’s more to that box. There’s a human being there. This is not just a kit. This is a person. I’ll be free.”


Alternative Perceptions: A Review of Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait”

When I was twelve, I stole my first record from my grandma’s vast record collection: Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait. I was familiar with his popular works–Like a Rolling Stone, Blowin’ in the Wind, Knocking on Heaven’s Door–but I had never heard of Self Portrait. On the cover was a poorly painted, seemingly half-finished portrait of a man with a vacant expression. I asked grandma about it later and she said it was a beautiful painting by Dylan himself and that it was considered a masterpiece by many. I couldn’t see it. Why would anyone consider this a masterpiece? If this is what the cover looks like, I thought, god knows what the music must sound like. 

The album was released in 1970 to generally negative reviews, with Greil Marcus asking in his Rolling Stone review, “What is this shit?” Dylan was a stranger to the fine arts at the time; his only fine art work known to the public was his infantile painting for the Band’s Music from Big Pink album cover. 

The reproduced album cover for Self Portrait is a mere twelve by twelve inches. Sloppily applied, the colors are bland and muted neutrals. Underlying steel and cadet blues mixed with light greys create a depressive mood and give a base for the patchy, overlying skin tones: a mix of cameo tan and dark goldens. Within certain brushstrokes, it seems as if Dylan did not clean his brush before adding a new color, causing it to look lazily completed. The radical and abstract facial features, outlined with thick grey, seem almost a nod to the French Expressionist Georges Rouault. Yet, because of these frenzied brushstrokes and abstract features, I can’t help but feel Dylan gathered his inspiration from German Expressionism–distorted colors and scales, exacerbation, harsh outlines–to the point where it seems clichéd. 

The self portrait’s resemblance to Dylan is arguably the most problematic aspect of the painting. At surface value, from images of Dylan at the time, it does a poor job of accurately representing him. His hair, thick, long, and brown. His nose, slender. The only similar feature is his slightly rotund jaw. But do we pay millions of dollars for Van Gogh’s olive trees because they really look like olive trees, or because they look more realistic than anyone else’s olive trees? No. We do so because we want to experience Van Gogh’s alternative perception of the world. 

All of this—the lack of representation, the stale similarities to German Expressionism—leads me to wonder why anyone even cares about the Self Portrait portrait. Would it be as popular as it is if its creator weren’t Bob Dylan? Would the Museum of Modern Art have it on display if its creator hadn’t sold more than 100 million albums? By creating what appears to be a half-finished, amateurish painting, Dylan has tapped into our obsession with the perception of art. 

When I play the record, I like to prop the album cover up so I can look at it. I can’t help but feel that the portrait is a visual representation of the music on the album: poorly arranged, chaotic, unsophisticated. I look into the brushstrokes and feel discontentment. I look at the asymmetrical facial figures and remember grandma’s assessment, and can only wonder if she projected her love for Dylan onto a face that doesn’t even look like his. It’s dull, apprehensive, and rudimentary. Yet both grandma and the Museum of Modern Art would argue that it is a masterpiece, perhaps because they want to see a little bit of Dylan’s alternative perception in those brushstrokes. In a way, grandma was right: It is a masterpiece, but only because it was painted by Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan. Self Portrait. 1969. Oil on canvas. 12 in. by 12 in.