REVIEW: “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” (2021)

Before getting into the new film “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” I have a confession: I’ve never really connected with the “Saw” series. I haven’t seen all of the movies. I don’t fully understand the allure. The franchise’s success is a puzzle I just can’t solve. I say all of that to stress that I’m not well versed in the Saw-verse (is that a term?) and that I don’t come to this ninth installment (yes…nine!) with any sense of attachment. Does that help or hurt my thoughts on “Spiral”? Considering the sometimes hard to read pulse of fandom, I’ll let you determine for yourself.

I will say the trailers for “Spiral” caught my attention in a way “Saw” movies never have before. They teased a new direction for the franchise – going the route of a gritty and grisly crime thriller in the vein of Fincher’s “Se7en”. Despite hesitations over casting Chris Rock as the film’s lead, I was still interested to see if “Spiral” could pull the series away from its tortuous central conceit and onto something fresh and inspired. To the film’s credit it does try something (kinda) new, but suffice it to say “Spiral” is certainly no “Se7en”.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

In case die-hard franchise fans were worried, the movie kicks off with a gruesome Saw-like opening, assuring the audience that there would be no shortage of blood and viscera. From there it shifts to Rock’s character, Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks. He’s a homicide detective living in the shadow of his father and former police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson). Zeke is generally hated by the other officers in his precinct who have labeled him a rat for turning in a dirty cop. Unable to trust the other detectives, he often goes at it alone much to the chagrin of his shouty and perpetually angry Captain (Marisol Nichols).

As punishment for failing to report his undercover work, Zeke is assigned a rookie partner Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella). You’ve seen it before – the sour and cynical veteran paired with the young enthusiastic family man who carries around a picture of his wife and newborn baby and can’t wait to get out on the streets. He doesn’t have to wait long. Soon the two are neck-deep in a murder case that has all the markings of a Jigsaw copycat. But this is a psychopath with a social conscious and on a not-so-subtle crusade for police reform.

“Saw” alum Darren Lynn Bousman directs from a script written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger. In one sense their movie does precisely what it intends to do – it manages to differentiate itself from its predecessors by offering a new spin on the series. But on the other hand, “Spiral” does little to distinguish itself from countless other better made police thrillers. The film is overflowing with hard-boiled cop movie tropes and head-scratching details and oversights that you can’t help but laugh at. It does maintain a grim and nasty tone, so much so that its few vain attempts at humor land with a thud. But tone alone can’t immerse you into a world. You can see “Spiral” working hard to pull in its audience much like Fincher did with “Se7en”. Sadly it never happens.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

And then you have Chris Rock . The 56-year-old comedian goes for it and gives it his all, yet I was never convinced I was seeing his character. Instead I was always seeing Chris Rock playing Zeke. From his confused squinty expressions to his constant yelling, comedic traits he’s always been known for end up seeping into his performance. And he’s not helped by the relentless f-bomb saturated dialogue which calls back to so many of his earlier stand-up routines. In his defense, there are a handful of welcomed moments where he dials down the volume and we see flashes of the dramatic turn he’s going for. But the character and the story need considerably more than he can ultimately give.

At times “Spiral” can be gnarly, brutal, and borderline sadistic which is exactly what the “Saw” movies have always promised. Yet it barely feels like a “Saw” film. If not for the three or four signature torture contraptions scattered throughout you could easily dismiss this as just another bland and uninspired police procedural. It makes an effort to add some weight, but the ham-fisted social commentary and the not-so-big twist does little to help. So we’re left with something that feels kinda new for the long-running franchise, but deep down is nothing we haven’t seen before. “Spiral” opens in theaters tomorrow (May 14th).

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Superintelligence” (2020)

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There’s an undeniable sweetness to comedian Melissa McCarthy making movies with her frequent collaborator and real-life husband Ben Falcone. Not to be a wet blanket, but they may need to rethink their filmmaking strategy. Prior to this one, Falcone had directed McCarthy in three previous films: “Tammy”, “The Boss”, and “Life of the Party”. At the risk of sounding sour, they are three pretty dreadful movies that I have no interest in ever seeing again.

“Superintelligence” came out last November on HBO Max after a nixed big screen release. First off, it isn’t as glaringly bad as something like “Tammy”. At the same time, it doesn’t exactly set McCarthy and Falcone team-ups on a fresh and exciting course (just look at their latest “Thunder Force” as evidence). Instead “Superintelligence” languishes somewhere in the middle. I guess you can call it an inoffensive but unimaginative comedy that feels right at home on a streaming platform.

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Photo Courtesy of HBO Max

Set in Seattle, Melissa McCarthy plays Carol, an unemployed former tech company executive who left a lucrative job at Yahoo so she could “make a difference in the world“. Now she spends her time as a west coast activist and social worker, scraping by while working for various non-profit organizations. She tries re-entering the work force with the help of her best friend Dennis (Brian Tyree Henry), a computer techie working for Microsoft. It leads to Carol going for an interview with an old college “friend” (Jessica St. Clair) who runs a trashy but popular online dating service. That scene comes in the first few minutes and it’s the film’s funniest. From there the humor dries up pretty quick.

In a nutshell Carol is the most ordinary person on planet Earth (the movie’s description, not mine). That catches the attention of a powerful artificial intelligence who has unlimited access to the world’s entire digital network and speaks in the voice of talk show host James Corden (and is of course voiced by Corden). You’re probably wondering why a super-intelligent A.I. would be interested in someone like Carol. Well, it’s because the A.I. needs someone aggressively average for its weird social experiment. For three days the superintelligence will observe our plain Jane and then determine whether to save, enslave, or destroy humanity. Why? I guess A.I.’s just do that sort of thing.

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Photo Courtesy of HBO Max

The majority of the film follows Carol as she is empowered by the A.I. with several million dollars in her bank account, a fancy makeover, a state-of-the-art Tesla, and a swanky downtown penthouse. There’s also a pretty hamfisted reunion with her old flame named George (Bobby Cannavale), a creative writing professor and the proverbial ‘one that got away’. Meanwhile the A.I. sits back and takes notes, inexplicably using all of that stuff as a means of understanding (and ultimately judging) the whole of humanity. So much for A.I.’s being smart.

All of this silliness would work if “Superintelligence” infused it with anything interesting or insightful. But the film is content with just being as average as its protagonist. There’s a touch of sweetness in the reconnection between Carol and George and the 100 minutes zips by fast enough. Also kudos to McCarthy, an actress I’ve always been hesitant to embrace. Here you can see a performer who is much better than her material working hard to make the movie work. Sadly it doesn’t, but it’s not because of her. “Superintelligence” is streaming now on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “The Seventh Day” (2021)

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Throughout my many years of covering and reviewing movies I’ve been pretty vocal about my belief that Guy Pearce is (and for a long time has been) one of the most underrated and undervalued actors in the business today. He’s charismatic, incredibly diverse, and easily one of the industry’s busiest workers (he has FOUR films coming out in 2021). Sure, occasionally he will lay an egg and attach himself to a really bad movie (look no further than last year’s “Disturbing the Peace”). But far more often than not, Pearce delivers the goods and he deserves bigger and more prestigious roles.

Unfortunately (and it pains me to say it) his latest film “The Seventh Day” is closer to a rotten egg than a tasty omelette. The supernatural buddy-exorcist flick from writer-director Justin P. Lange teases us with some cool albeit wacky potential. But that’s not where his interests lie. Instead Lange shoots for a more serious horror movie – one that borrows too much from other films and struggles to muster any energy much less genuine chills.

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Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Pearce plays Father Peter, a renowned exorcist known for his “unconventional” methods. He’s both scarred and driven by the loss of his mentor (Keith David) who was slain during a harrowing exorcism that also saw a child burn alive in their bed. That was 25 years ago. Now Father Peter is one of the few exorcists remaining after the Vatican stepped away from the ritual following some bad headlines. So he works underground for the New Orleans Arch Bishop (Stephen Lang), training new recruits to help fight the growing number of demonic possessions.

Next under his wing is a young rookie priest named Father Daniel (played by a dry and ever dour Vadhir Derbez). With a pinch of “Training Day” and a tiny dash of “Se7en”, the two head out into the field where the seasoned but offish Peter tosses Daniel headfirst into a demon encounter (‘baptized by fire’ for those itching for a bad pun). Soon they’re investigating a particularly gruesome murder where a young boy named Charlie (Brady Jenness) butchered his parents and sister with an ax. The state says the boy is mentally incompetent to stand trial and belongs in an institution. But Peter suspects something far more sinister at work and sees this as the perfect case for Daniel to cut his teeth on.

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Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Pretty simple plot but enough for a reasonably entertaining diversion. The problem is “The Seventh Day” keeps everything on a surface level – no depth to the characters, no depth to the story. It also doesn’t help that the two lead actors are so terribly mismatched on screen. Pearce at least looks comfortable and you can buy him in his role. Although watching him maneuver through the erratic dialogue is pretty funny and his ability to utter lines like “the epitome of darkness” with a straight face is a testament to his commitment. Derbez on the other hand goes through the entire movie with the same stunned, deer-in-the-headlights expression. It’s not entirely his fault, but at times he seems lost and unsure especially when next to Pearce.

Aside from an occasionally unnerving image from DP Nick Remy Matthews or a creepy chord from composer Gavin Brivik, “The Seventh Day” doesn’t do enough to get under our skin. Material like this should be unsettling and make us squirm. But it all comes across as pretty generic despite having an enticing general premise and at least one capable lead. And as for Pearce, this probably won’t be included in his end-of-career highlight reel. “The Seventh Day” is now available to stream on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Stowaway” (2021)

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Last year Netflix ventured into space with the George Clooney directed “The Midnight Sky”. It was a low-key, yet soulful and penetrating slice of science-fiction that deserved more buzz than it received. The streaming giant is back among the stars with their new film “Stowaway”, a similarly understated sci-fi drama that probes the human experience as much as it does the vast wonder of deep space. It may not dive as deep into its central premise as it could have, but it’s both thoughtful and immersive which is exactly what I was hoping for.

“Stowaway” is the sophomore effort from director Joe Penna. His previous film was 2018’s “Arctic”, a terrific Mads Mikkelsen survival thriller that introduced Penna as a filmmaker of remarkable restraint and focus. “Stowaway” sees him pulling out those same traits in telling yet another survival story although one with a few more characters and more moving parts.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

The story (written by Penna and Ryan Morrison) begins with a space capsule launching from earth, its three-person crew set for a two year research mission to Mars. Space junkies should love the exhilarating opening sequence which gives a cockpit view of the craft as it leaves the atmosphere and then docks with their main ship high above the planet. Once connected, Dr. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), team biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and ship commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) begin settling in for their long journey.

While it may not play well with everyone, one of my favorite things about “Stowaway” is the way it shows the crew’s meticulous operation of the ship. Penna’s observant camera allows us to watch the crew members work rather than listen to long drawn-out scientific explanations for everything they do. Of course we do get conversations about magnetic radiation proofing and the CDRA, but they’re very organic. We don’t always understand what they’re doing or saying, but the characters know and we believe them. And don’t worry, it’s never monotonous, just authentic.

A few hours into the mission while running a routine systems check, Marina makes an alarming discovery. She finds a man (Shamier Anderson), wounded and unconscious in a large overhead compartment. He wakes up in a panic, realizing he’s in space and with no recollection of how he ended up onboard. Once the crew settles him down they learn his name is Michael, a launch support engineer with the ground team. As Marina works to confirm his identity with Mission Control, Zoe and David show Michael around the ship and try to help him feel like a part of the crew.

And then things start to get hairy. Marina discovers that the ship’s life support system was critically damaged during Michael’s incident. Even worse, calculations show there’s only enough oxygen for three people to make the trip to Mars. So the original trio are faced with a unenviable dilemma. Do they remove the new and virtually untrained Michael from the ship in order to save themselves and the mission? And if they do, could the guilt-burdened crew ever safely complete their mission? The moral conundrum infuses the story with a psychological tension that could have been explored deeper but that is fascinating nonetheless.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

The cast of four turn in solid performances and serve up some interesting characters even though they aren’t given much in terms of backstory. Zoe is an energetic young doctor who sees the mission as a chance to give her life meaning. David is a dedicated scientist with a wife back home who loves Harvard and experimental jazz. Marina is a seasoned space traveler with two missions under her belt and this one set to be her last. And of course Michael is a bit of a mystery by design but we do learn he has a sister back on earth who he looks after. Those handful of facts are pretty much all we get. It’s not a huge issue but it softens our emotional attachment to the crew.

“Stowaway” doesn’t break any new ground nor does it move the genre into any new directions. But it is an entertaining and assured science-fiction effort from a talented and tightly-focused filmmaker. It also looks great, from its terrific set design full of cool and highly-detailed ship interiors to the obligatory yet harrowing spacewalk sequence. And while they may lack some depth, Penna doesn’t allow his characters to turn into stale predictable types. They’re just four people using their know-how to navigate a hopeless situation while fighting to keep their moral integrity in tact. “Stowaway” premieres today (April 22nd) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Slalom” (2021)

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I think it’s safe to say that youth sports has never been as popular as it is right now. At the same time, it has become as addictive and consuming for grown-ups as crack cocaine. Where ‘win at all costs’ and ‘forsake all else’ mentalities are increasingly prevalent and drive many adults in charge and in the stands. We also live in a world where horror stories such as the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal are painful realities and monsters like Larry Nassar are able to prey on child athletes for 15 years.

We see these two issues converge in director Charlène Favier stinging feature debut “Slalom”. With a bracing and unflinching honesty, Favier details the vile, calculated sexual exploitation and abuse of a teen skiing prodigy by her much older adult trainer. The snow-covered French Alps make for a beautiful backdrop and setting, but don’t let it fool you. Favier never hides her movie’s intention so we know exactly where the story is heading. Incredibly, she’s able to turn predictability into a strength as she forces her audience to not only watch in discomfort, but to understand how our failures as adults have such devastating effects on our children.

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Image Courtesy of Kino Lorber

A fiercely committed Noée Abita plays 15-year-old Lyz Lopez, a talented and ambitious downhill skier recently accepted into a prestigious skiing academy known for churning out champions. As the movie begins we see her already a part of an intense training regimen led by the school’s tenured ski coach Fred (played by Belgian star Jérémie Renier). He’s a product of a familiar mold – a coach who is hard, abrasive and insulting especially to his new trainees. “He crushes you, you listen and you get better.” Over time he has them starving for any scrap of approval he throws their way.

For Lyz, skiing is her passion and she wants to be the best. But when asked why, all she can muster is “I just want to.” It’s a telling moment that speaks a heartbreaking truth. Lyz is essentially alone. She has an absent father and a self-absorbed mother (Muriel Combeau) who is more interested in her new boyfriend and nice-paying job in Marseille. So she skis. Perhaps for validation. Maybe to prove herself. Either way, it leaves Lyz vulnerable to Fred who the movie slowly reveals to be monstrously skillful at manipulating his young prey. His slithery psychology is chilling to watch.

Soon Fred is crossing boundaries that make us squirm in our seats yet is so deceptively persuasive to Lyz, leading her to comply despite her discomfort. It has to be okay. After all he’s her coach. He’s an adult. He’s on her side. Of course he’s looking out for her. All are reasonable thoughts for any young girl to have. But the gross reality is that these vile predators exist and Favier uses her film to remind us of that harsh truth. Meanwhile Favier is subtly yet constantly emphasizing Lyz’s innocence. Her camera will often cut in close to show Lyz’s wide-eyed youthful gaze. Or we get scenes showing her catching snowflakes on her tongue or letting out a childlike giggle when she’s given a new pair of skis. It makes what we eventually see all the more repulsive.

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Image Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Make no mistake, there are moments in “Slalom” that are extremely difficult to watch. At times you’ll want to turn your head and look away. Renier, a veteran of several Dardennes brothers films, has a knack for giving very natural and unvarnished performances which proves to be a real asset in fleshing out a character who by necessity is deeply rooted in reality. Renier’s grounded authenticity reveals the devious layers his character – his facade of respectability, his ability to veil his motives, the way he uses Lyz’s improvement on the slopes as a means of controlling her. It’s made more unnerving when put together with the earnestness and vulnerability Abita brings to Lyz.

“Slalom” is a gut-wrenching dose of realism that should leave any adult with a working moral compass uncomfortable, appalled, and enraged. There are a couple of short and needless angles that add more to the ‘mature’ rating than to the actual story. But those aside, the movie maintains a razor-sharp focus and a deep sense of conviction. It takes its subject seriously and forces its audience to do the same. It’s the kind of treatment this material needs and it speaks to an issue that can’t be allowed to continue. “Slalom” is now showing in select theaters and virtual cinemas.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “SAS: Red Notice” (2021)

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I’ve always been able to make time for a good action flick. Norwegian filmmaker Magnus Martens directs “SAS: Red Notice”, the new British action-thriller based on the novel of the same name by Andy McNab. Hardly original but reasonably entertaining, “SAS: Red Notice” squeezes everything it can out of its “Die Hard on a Train” premise. But it turns out to be a classic case of a movie that simply runs out of ideas. And while it does throw in a handful of original twists, most of them land with a thud.

The film stars Sam Heughan from television’s “Outlander” giving us his best ‘James Bond meets John McClain’ impression (sadly he doesn’t seem comfortable filling either’s shoes). Heughan plays cold-as-ice SAS Special Agent Tom Buckingham III (how’s that for a British name). His ability to shut off his emotions makes him one of the British government’s most lethal and effective agents. It has a much different affect on his relationship with his loving girlfriend Sophie (Hannah John-Kamen). He plans on asking her to marry him, but she’s concerned about his frosty demeanor.

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Image Courtesy of Sky Cinema

The film opens with a beautifully shot prologue that quickly turns gritty and violent. In the beautiful mountains of Georgia near the Black Sea we’re introduced to the Black Swans, a mercenary group led by by William Lewis (Tom Wilkinson) and his family – his hardcore daughter Grace (Ruby Rose) and his dimmer but loyal son Olly (Owain Yeoman). The Swans secretly meet with a crooked military liaison named Clements (Andy Serkis) working for the Prime Minister (Ray Panthaki) who hires them to clear out a local village who refuses to relocate so that a gas pipeline can be ran through the area.

The Swans carry out the blood-soaked contract but are tagged by British SAS who issue red notices (essentially high-priority arrest warrants) for William, Grace, and Olly. This leads to the story’s labyrinthine political sub-plot involving the SAS attempting to take down the Swans, the Prime Minister trying to cover his tracks, and the Swans threatening terroristic attacks for being hung out to dry by the Prime Minister. All of it adds some okay twists and a few interesting layers to the story. But it also bogs things down and leaves you thirsty for the bigger action bits.

During all of this Tom schedules a romantic trip to Paris with Sophie where he plans on popping the question. But their train ride is interrupted by none other than a ruthless Grace and her mercs who hijack the Paris-bound Eurostar and bring it to a stop in the tunnel that runs under the English Channel. But little does she know Tom Buckingham III is onboard and he’s going to use his particular set of skills (I know, different guy) to make sure Grace and her goons have a fight on their hands.

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Image Courtesy of Sky Cinema

The inevitable action in the tunnel starts strong and even though it’s familiar and formulaic, there’s enough energy to keep things upbeat and entertaining. Ruby Rose is a big reason why, gelling charisma and psychopathy to create a fun and engaging villain. Unfortunately the story does start to run out of gas both narratively and in the action scenes. Things pep up when Tom’s friends with the SAS and Clement and his team all converge on the tunnel. But even then the movie doesn’t seem confident in what it wants to do with all of its moving parts. It ends with an inevitable but really satisfying showdown that would have ended things on a high note. But regrettably there’s a laughably bad epilogue that even my far more forgiving wife couldn’t help but chuckle at.

Despite being a little too long and all over the place, “SAS: Red Notice” is still a pretty easy watch. There’s not much here that will stick with you or that will encourage a revisit. I understand there are two more books in Andy McNab’s Tom Buckingham series. It’s hard to say this movie warrants a trilogy, but I’ve seen franchises built on a lot worse. As usual, time (and more importantly money) will ultimately tell. “SAS: Red Notice” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT- 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars