Movie Review ~ Spiral: From the Book of Saw

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Working in the shadow of an esteemed police veteran, brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks and his rookie partner take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past.

Stars: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Morgan David Jones, Frank Licari, Zoie Palmer

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Sure, I’ve seen all of the films in the Saw series but with that particular franchise, it truly is a case where the old saying is true: when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  Though I enjoyed the original film from 2004 for its brazen methods of going all-out in its gory violence and clever narrative construction, the subsequent sequels were each like a new dub of the previous copy taken from an existing VHS master.  Each new entry got more and more distorted, the plots more convoluted, the acting less convincing, and the overall threads that tied the series together started to grow threadbare and snap.  By the time Saw: The Final Chapter sliced through theaters in 2010 (in 3D, natch), the viscous well had long since dried up.  When Jigsaw, a feeble attempt to shock the series back to life in 2017 during the swell of reboots failed to wake the dead, it seemed as if the plug had officially been pulled on the Saw franchise.

What happened next was a surprise to many.  Shortly after Jigsaw’s disappointing debut, Lionsgate found out they had a Saw fan in comedian Chris Rock and it just so happened the star was looking to get into the horror business.  Accepting Rock’s offer to provide a treatment to take the franchise on a new path, the studio lined up Saw II, III, and IV’s Darren Lynn Bousman (Mother’s Day) to direct and hired Piranha 3DD writers Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger to flesh out Rock’s original storyline into the full feature length version that became known as Sprial.  Tacking From the Book of Saw onto the title to fully tie the new film to the existing world confirmed Spiral would be related to the original eight films and not a reboot, and suddenly the internet was abuzz wondering how Rock and newly announced co-star Samuel L. Jackson would work their way into the Saw universe.

Delayed from it’s October 2020 release due to the pandemic, Lionsgate opted to hold off on letting their twisted game out of the bag until now and it’s good they did because the Saw films are always something of an event to see on the big screen. (Note: I say that with full acknowledgement of the hypocrisy of my watching it via a screening link at home.)  Now, audiences would be forced to witness some of the series most gruesome death devices going full bore and wouldn’t be able to simply leave the room like they could if they viewed it from the safety of their living room.  Spiral was promised to be a film that was more of a mystery than the ghastly Grand Guignol torture nastiness the previous eight films had begun to wallow in.  What a bummer to report that it’s more than a little disappointing to see before the title card is even shown a man forced to choose between ripping out his own tongue or death by subway train.

Labeled a rat by his colleagues after testifying against his crooked partner, Detective Zeke Banks (Rock, The Witches) is going through a divorce and has a strained relationship with his father (Jackson, Shaft), a former police captain of his division.  Assigned by his ball-busting captain (Marisol Nichols, Scream 2) to mentor rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella, The Internship) their first case is a doozy: identifying a homeless man run over by a train using only the bloody pieces that were salvageable.  Having seen the prologue, we know these fleshy bits used to be someone quite different and the two detectives will soon receive their first clue from a creepy killer in a pig mask that will point them in the right direction. 

Once Banks and Schenk discover the man was a cop that Banks knew well, the dominos start to fall rapidly as other members from their precinct start to die in all sorts of terrible manners.  Could this be the workings of another disciple of the long-dead killer Jigsaw or is there a copycat using the murderers methods as a cover to enact their deadly game of revenge?  With clues pointing to suspects that wind up mincemeat, Banks is left to read between the lines and remember the past if he’s to save himself and his loved ones from a killer’s deadly plans for the future. 

Had Stolberg and Goldfinger’s script stuck to the mystery angle, Spiral could have been an interesting film that benefitted from its ham-fisted bit of social commentary it clumsily thumbtacks on at the end. (Oh, it’s so stagnant you’ll groan.)  I get the feeling Rock’s original idea was far less grandiose than what Spiral turned out to be and it took the extra attention of the writers (and maybe Bousman) to make this new film fit more into the lore of the Saw films.  How else could you explain some of the random shifts in tone from detective story to the grisly reveling in brutalization?  With the previous movies, this was expected because past the second sequel they truly had no central story that made them a mystery worth solving.  Bringing in Bousman also accounts for the movie having the look of a Saw film as well, with the jittery camera angles and overall grimy feel that permeated the vibe of earlier entries…there’s little to set this one apart from the others.  Bringing someone new in, like Universal did with the 2018 Halloween, would have been an inspired choice, though Bousman is no slough as a filmmaker.

It also just has to be said that for as brilliant a comedian as Rock is and as gifted a performer he is onstage, an actor he is most definitely not.  Rock’s performance is possibly the biggest problem with the film, aside from its profound reliance on useless profanity (and this is coming from someone with a sailor’s vocabulary), and in scene after scene he drags every other actor down just as they are trying to bring him up.  Not even Jackson can rescue Rock from himself, mostly because for all the attention his casting received, Jackson is barely in the movie.   The character is just unpleasant.  In the process of creating a new direction for the series, did no one remember to think up a leading man that audiences would enjoy as well? 

Even the solution to Spiral is met with sort of a indifference and the typical zip-zap-here-are-the-closing-credits wrap-up.  As much as the star, filmmakers, and studio touted Spiral as being different than what has come before, it is shockingly stuck in the past and falls into the same trap as the later sequels when the franchise was already on tenuous ground.  I expected a great deal more from all involved and if it’s true like one character says everything is in a spiral and comes back around, I’m hoping the next film really does return to what captured our attention back in 2004 when the game being played required more brains than…well, literal brains.

The Silver Bullet ~ The 9th Life of Louis Drax

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Synopsis: A psychologist begins working with a young boy who has suffered a near-fatal fall and finds himself drawn into a mystery that tests the boundaries of fantasy and reality.

Release Date: September 2, 2016

Thoughts: French director Alexandre Aja is known for his more, ahem, extreme work (High Tension, Mirrors, Piranha 3D, Horns), so I was more than a little surprised his name was attached to this big-screen adaptation of Liz Jensen’s 2005 novel.  I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any opportunity for characters to be dispatched of in a most grisly fashion but perhaps The 9th Life of Louis Drax is an attempt to show Aja’s softer side.  Focused on a comatose boy and the secret as to why he’s in his current state, this September release might be a nice return for the carefully constructed mystery genre that’s been dormant for far too long in my book.  Starring Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey), Sarah Gadon (Dracula Untold), Aaron Paul (Need for Speed), Barbara Hershey (Insidious: Chapter 2), and Oliver Platt (Flatliners), if Aja can withhold the bloodletting and let the story take center stage he may just have a winner on his hands.

The Silver Bullet ~ Horns

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Synopsis: In the aftermath of his girlfriend’s mysterious death, a young man awakens to strange horns sprouting from his temples.

Release Date: October 31, 2014

Thoughts: I’ve said it before in my reviews of his recent work but I find it quite admirable at how out of his Harry Potter comfort zone Daniel Radcliffe is willing to go to prove that he’s more than the boy wizard. Though he reaches for the stars, too often I find him lacking but when he fails it’s never a total wash as the work itself has more interest that what his performance brings to the project. With Horns, Radcliffe (What If) is under the direction of Alexandre Aja (Piranha 3D) a director known for pushing some American boundaries when it comes to the horror genre. Much of this comes down to graphic violence but there’s a sliver of social commentary in even the gravest of Aja’s works. Co-starring Juno Temple (Cracks), this horror-comedy might not make Radcliffe more lovable but could work in favor of the actor shedding his wizard cloaks for good.

Movie Review ~ The Internship

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internship

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two salesmen whose careers have been torpedoed by the digital age find their way into a coveted internship at Google, where they must compete with a group of young, tech-savvy geniuses for a shot at employment.

Stars: Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Max Minghella, Rose Byrne, John Goodman, Dylan O’Brien, JoAnna Garcia, Eric Andre, Josh Brener, Tiya Sircar, Tobit Raphael, Will Ferrell

Director: Shawn Levy

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Though summer is traditionally the time of big budget franchise pictures that boast state of the art special effects and gigantic action sequences, it’s nice to remember that there are also high profile studio pictures that provide nice counter programming to more bombastic films.  Now along comes The Internship, a comedy that takes a big gamble that pays off for the most part and proves that you don’t need superheroes and alien effects to entertain.

It’s hard to imagine everything that was on the line with the pitch that screenwriter Vince Vaughn and Jared Stern made to the studio in hopes of getting this movie made.  A comedy about two washed up salesmen that worm their way into a summer internship at Google, the entire film really depended on the participation of the massive internet company.  Without them, the movie simply couldn’t have been made.

Thankfully, after reading the script the company agreed to lend their name and blessing to the genial comedy and even if it could be argued that the movie is just one big ad for Google there’ s no denying that there’s a fun movie at the center of all the product placement.  Giving viewers an inside look at the Google campus (though little to none of it was actually filmed there), we see the atmosphere that the company has created with free food, nap pods (I’d like to order one of those, please), slides that take you from one floor to another, and a collegiate atmosphere that stimulates creativity while pushing the boundaries of imagination.

I get the impression that this was originally targeted as an R-Rated feature but it’s relatively tame considering that the film stars the men from 2005’s raunchy Wedding Crashers.  More than a few times I could tell some more explicit words and images were removed to get the film to more audience friendly PG-13 but it really doesn’t matter because the comedy comes from a more genuine place and its largely thanks to its stars.

While Vaughn struck gold early with Swingers he only manages a good film every fourth movie released.  He’s in his comfort zone here as a fast-talking dyed in the wool salesman that suddenly is up against people half his age that have double the tech knowledge he so sorely lacks.  Wilson (who seems to look more like a young old man with each film) is a nicely centered counter to Vaughn’s more hyperactive character.  The two work well together and even if a few of their likely ad-libbed scenes go on a little too long you can tell that there’s a real respect there.

As part of their internship, Vaughn and Wilson must team up with a group of misfits to complete challenges that will get them one step closer to a full time job at the end of the summer.  The plot actually reminded me of the recent Monsters University where two goofballs are forced to work with a team of outcasts to gain admission to a highly competitive college program.  Instead of monster related shenanigans, The Internship puts Vaughn, Wilson, and their outliers up against a set of Google related challenges and asks them to square off opposite a perfectly smarmy Max Minghella.

Normally I bristle at a romance that feels shoe-horned in but the playful banter exchanged between Wilson and Rose Byrne (The Place Beyond the Pines) is genuinely surprising and makes good use of the refreshing appeal of both actors.  Byrne’s role could easily have been a one-note ice queen that gets melted by Wilson’s aw-shucks charm but she gives some extra gravitas to her take on her character that somehow makes a familiar romantic sparring situation feel new.

Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) keeps things moving at a nice pace and for a comedy that almost tips the scales at two hours the result is a breezy laugher that’s as harmless as a low-level virus that has infected your G-Mail account.  Even a cameo by the sometimes unrestrained Will Ferrell lands squarely on the funny bone and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  While The Internship is most likely a film with little re-watch value, there’s a lot of fun to be had if you’re up for something that doesn’t involve star treks with iron men of steel on the pacific rim.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Internship

internship

Synopsis: Two salesmen whose careers have been torpedoed by the digital age find their way into a coveted internship at Google, where they must compete with a group of young, tech-savvy geniuses for a shot at employment.

Release Date: June 7, 2013

Thoughts: Watching the trailer for The Internship reminds me of the kind of movies we saw in the mid to late nineties – big studio comedies with a box office stars that were bright, fun, and harmless.  Though I’m not the biggest fan of either Vaughn or Wilson (and their current status as A-list box office stars is debatable) I have to say this looks like a welcome return to form for both comic actors.  While it does come off like a feature length ad for Google, I’d still bet good money that there are plenty of laughs to be had in this summer internship.