Review of “Spiral: From the Book of Saw”

The slow return to normalcy continues. The CDC announced fully vaccinated people could go without masks while numerous communities lifted their mask requirements. Some privately owned businesses continue to require masks in order to receive service. Former child star, now proudly conservative adult, actor Rick Schroder filmed an encounter with a Costco employee, complaining about having to wear a mask inside the store. I don’t like wearing masks any more than Mr. Schroder does. They are hot and cause my face under the mask to sweat. They also fog up my glasses with each exhale. I can’t wait to put all mine in a drawer and never think of them again. However, we are nowhere near a fully vaccinated population with many questioning the safety, efficacy and even need for it. The likelihood of a variant form of COVID-19 developing that’s vaccine resistant grows with each day a big chunk of the public doesn’t vaccinate. And Mr. Schroder ignores the fact there are other rules he must follow to be allowed to do business with a Costco. For instance, they likely have a “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” rule. Does he believe he can walk around the big box store with his now likely saggy body on full display? Doesn’t that trample his freedoms? A privately held business can make rules about customer conduct and choose not to do business with anyone that violates or ignores those rules. For instance, the theater I went to this week to see “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” required I wear a mask unless I was eating and drinking. Considering the quality of this film, they maybe should have required a blindfold as well.

Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) turned in a dirty cop several years ago and ever since, his fellow officers have considered him an untrustworthy rat. They ignored his calls for backup leading to his being shot. His father was at the time also the Chief of Police, Captain Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson). His father is now retired, but Zeke is still in a squad room surrounded by coworkers that don’t trust him, hence he can’t trust them. Det. Marv Boswick (Dan Petronijevic) is chasing a purse snatching suspect in the sewers when he’s abducted. He wakes up with a device clamped to his tongue as he hangs over a subway train track. A television plays a recording telling Boswick he has a choice to make: He can either be hit by the train due to arrive in two minutes, or he can jump from the small platform on which he is standing and rip out his lying tongue and probably survive. Making the choice too late, both options occur. Zeke is called to the scene along with his new partner, rookie Det. William Schenk (Max Minghella). When they return to the precinct, a box is delivered to Zeke with a zip drive featuring the same voice as the recording played for Boswick, featuring the image of a spiral painted on the side of the courthouse. When officers arrive, there’s another box containing Boswick’s tongue and his badge. The theory that it’s a Jigsaw copycat is quickly developed and this time the killer is going for dirty cops, many of whom have a direct connection to Zeke.

“Spiral: From the Book of Saw” is the ninth film in the horror series. Original “Saw” star Tobin Bell only appears in a photograph and is otherwise not in the movie. Anytime a film series reaches nine installments, it is likely to have dropped off in quality, however many were excited when this sequel was announced with Chris Rock as the lead actor and heavily involved in its development. While most of the original creators of the franchise were not involved in this film, it was viewed as a legitimate effort to reinvigorate the series that began in 2004 and put out a new installment every year through 2010 before taking a seven year break. 2017’s “Jigsaw” was a big commercial success and “Spiral…” seemed to be a sure fire hit when it was announced. And yet, it struck me as amateurish, jumbled, poorly structured and oddly shot.

Chris Rock gives it his all to make “Spiral…” something special and entertaining, but his performance is one of the big failures of the film for me. Rock is either low key to the point of asleep or hyper like he’s on stage performing for a standup audience. There’s very little in the middle. The script Rock is given doesn’t help as he’s either hurling insults at the cops he doesn’t trust or yelling at Capt. Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols) about not being able to trust the other cops in his squad. Rock appears to be “winging it” with his performance for returning director Darren Lynn Bousman who helmed “Saw II-IV.”

The traps in “Spiral…” seem uninspired. Dangling by your tongue and having your fingers pulled off, to name just two, sound awful and probably would be horrific to experience, but Jigsaw in the first film constructed much more elaborate torture devices that required less hardware. In “Saw,” the traps and “games” were mostly psychological. The victim had to make a choice that was both physically and emotionally devastating. And even if they survived, there was a price to pay. As the traps became more elaborate and the damage more gory, they lost their emotional punch. And one of the torture traps in “Spiral…” seems both silly and non lethal. It involves glass recycling. Good for the Earth but apparently bad for your health. Perhaps I prefer my serial killers to be more hands-on and not require a mechanical engineering degree.

“Spiral: From the Book of Saw” is rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, pervasive language, some sexual references and brief drug use. The aftermath of the traps is gory and seeing them in action might sicken an easily turned stomach. Horror veterans will be unaffected. With both Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in the cast, the F-bombs fly at a high frequency. Both the drug use and sexual references are brief. There are some shootings shown.

“Spiral: From the Book of Saw” is hoped to revive one of the most profitable movie franchises in history. None of the films cost more than $20 million to produce and all have returned a minimum of six times their production budget at the box office. That means this installment needs to gross $120 million in ticket sales, VOD rentals/purchases and DVD/Blu Ray sales. I’m kind of doubting that’s possible given the pandemic and the glut of streaming options available to keep us entertained in our homes. While I’m not a huge “Saw” franchise fan, I always hope I’m putting my money down on an entertaining film. Hardcore fans might find much to love in this latest entry. For me, it was not quite torture, but not much fun either.

“Spiral: From the Book of Saw” gets two stars out of five.

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Reviews of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Top Five”

From a Biblical hero to a legend of comedy, this week’s movies run the gamut. In one, God is a central character while the other features no references to God at all. Each has their merits and one is far more uplifting than the other.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Moses (Christian Bale) grows up in the palace of Seti (John Turturro), Egypt’s Pharaoh, along with Seti’s son Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Moses and Ramses are cousins but have grown up together as close as brothers. Seti’s seer reads the entrails of a goat and sees a new leader emerging as one hero saves the life of another hero. This concerns Ramses as he and Moses are about to go to war with the Hittite army camped at their boarder. During the fight, Moses saves Ramses life. Seti wants Rameses to go to the slave labor camp and investigate conditions there. Moses offers to go in his place as inspecting a slave camp is beneath the future leader of Egypt. During his visit, Moses notices the overseer of the camp, Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), is living in luxury fit for a king and warns Hegep he may be arrested for stealing from the Pharaoh. During his inspection of the camp, he meets with the leadership of the enslaved Hebrews. One of them, Nun (Ben Kingsley), pushes Moses to the point of anger. He later gets a note to Moses to meet him at his home. Curious, Moses shows up and Nun tells him the true story of his birth, his being put in the basket and set adrift in the river and the sister of the Pharaoh finding him and raising him as her own. Two spies also hear the story and pass it along to Hegep. Sometime later, Seti dies and Rameses becomes Pharaoh. Hegep then approaches Ramses and tells him the story. Ramses threatens to cut the arm off of Moses’s nanny who is actually his sister and Moses admits the story is true. Moses is then sent into exile in the wilderness where he stumbles upon a village and meets Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and her father. Moses becomes a member of the community and marries Zipporah. The couple has a child and Moses settles into the life of a husband, father and sheepherder. One night, three sheep begin running up the nearby mountain. Moses chases after them despite being told God forbids anyone from climbing the mountain. A storm breaks out and causes a mud and rockslide, burying Moses up to his face. While buried, he sees a young boy named Malak (Isaac Andrews) standing in front of a bush burning with a blue flame but not being consumed by the fire. Malak is wise beyond his years and Moses realizes it is God. Malak tells Moses he needs to go back and free the Hebrews. Telling Zipporah of this, she thinks he was hallucinating due to his injuries. Moses heads back to the city despite Zipporah and his son’s objections and begins an insurrection, training the Hebrews how to fight, with the goal of setting his people free.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” takes some liberties with the biblical tale on which it is based. Some events are truncated, others are excised all together and still more are created out of whole cloth. If you approach the film as a reverent retelling of the Bible story or a modernization of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic “The Ten Commandments” you’ll be sorely disappointed. Much of the approximately 140 minute running time is spent looking at the scenery of Spain where much of the film was shot and Joel Edgerton wearing too much eyeliner. The film only really comes alive during the opening battle scene, the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Much of this is thanks to the talented computer artists who made the crocodiles that attack every boat on the Nile and each other to turn the water to blood, who created the hordes of lice, flies, frogs and locusts, and who caused the massive hail storm that batters the ancient city. Otherwise, the movie is a bit of a dull slog with the power struggle between Moses and Ramses about as interesting as watching a modern political debate.

The combination of overly stretched story and dull dialog makes “Exodus: Gods and Kings” rather emotionless. While the production hits many of the expected story points and takes an interesting look at God’s and Moses’ conversations, it does so with such a detached point of view that it makes the film feel more like an uninteresting documentary. Forgive my personal injection of opinion but these films should engender wonder and awe in the audience. While the movie is visually stunning much of the time it never actually stuns the heart. Filmmaker Ridley Scott seems to be satisfied to let the audience create their own warm feelings about the characters and the story and doesn’t sense a requirement to crank up the wonder factor. The parting of the Red Sea is impressive, especially when it comes crashing back on the Egyptian army, but everything before and after that does nothing to excite our souls. I’m not looking for a film that causes a revival to break out in the theatre. I’m just looking for something that stirs the soul and takes advantage of what should have been an uplifting story. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” doesn’t do that.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images. The opening battle scene shows people and horses being shot with arrows. There are also numerous stabbings with swords but none of it is gory. There are many dead animals in various states or decay in the film. We see numerous lambs slaughtered but again, it isn’t gory. We get a look at a piece of goat entrails but it looks more like a chicken liver. One of the plagues is boils and that is somewhat gross. There are no language issues.

The recent crop of Biblical or faith-based movies has been a mixed bag of quality. “Son of God,” while reverent, looked cheap and smacked of an effort to cash in on the success of the History Channel special from which it was edited. “Noah” turned the reluctant shipbuilder into something of a psychopath. “Heaven is For Real” was a sweet story that still managed to upset some religious groups. “Left Behind” is possibly the worst movie I’ve ever seen. While “Exodus: Gods and Kings” isn’t as bad as “Left Behind” it also isn’t as good as “Heaven is For Real.” It should have been much better.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” gets three stars out of five.

Top Five

Andre Allen (Chris Rock) started his career as a standup comedian. Becoming hugely successful, he starred in a series of comedy films where he was dressed in a bear costume and was playing a police officer named Hammy. The Hammy films were huge successes and made Allen very rich. His life became a whirlwind of TV appearances, commercial endorsements, family and friends asking for money, drugs and alcohol. He was dating reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who helped him get clean. Allen and Long are about to be married in a wedding that will be filmed as part of her reality show on Bravo. Wanting to branch out from comedy, Allen is out promoting a drama he stars in about the Haitian slave uprising. Despite his desire to move on to something more serious, people constantly ask him when he will make the next Hammy movie. Tagging along is New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) who is doing a profile of Allen. At first closed off and protective, Allen eventually warms up to Brown as she refuses to put up with his obfuscations and sound bite answers and asks why he isn’t funny anymore. He begins to tell her about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, his efforts to get sober and his daily struggle with substance abuse. She tells him she is also in recovery. Brown follows Allen all day as he picks up his wedding tux, finds out the wedding rings have been changed without his knowledge due to the reality show people, does numerous interviews about the new film with satellite radio hosts and begins to worry the film will be a flop. Along the way, secrets are shared and discovered, old friends remind Allen of his roots and lists of top five hip-hop artists are shared.

If “Top Five” has a weakness, it is that it lacks any real story. The film follows the characters as they go through a series of ups and downs over the course of a day. We see some resolutions to the various issues and problems that are brought up along the way and are introduced to the concept of fame and the price one must pay to acquire it. It is about as close as a fictional film can get to being a documentary about celebrity and what that now means in a world where being a housewife in New Jersey can make you famous. It is at times hilarious, depressing, honest, painful and joyous. Despite its lack of story, it is worth your time.

Chris Rock is essentially playing himself. While he does continue to perform standup, Rock has appeared in some movies that he admits were done just for the paycheck. “Top Five” is his attempt to make something he can be proud of and that isn’t just comedy. Rock not only stars but wrote and directed the movie. His directing style is a bit jumpy with frequent camera angle changes for scenes that might have been more effective if they had been shot from only one perspective. Still, “Top Five” is a very moving, funny and serious film. The main character is going through a crisis involving his self-worth. He thinks he can’t be funny since he isn’t drinking anymore and worries he will be forgotten if he attempts a comedy comeback and fails. He’s marrying the reality TV star because he feels he owes it to her, not because he truly loves her. He feels guilty because he’s leaving his old friends behind him when they helped him get his start. Andre Allen is a man being pulled in a thousand different directions and he’s close to breaking apart. While he puts up a veneer of confidence with a healthy dose of arrogance, Allen is concerned his career might be over. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson’s Chelsea Brown is going through a certain bit of crisis herself. Brown is the single mother of a 10-year old girl and also lives with her mom. She hasn’t had the best luck with men and during her evening with Andre makes a discovery about her current boyfriend that ends their relationship. Brown uses fake names to write puff pieces but uses her own name for the stories she is proud of. Her pen names, she has a couple, come back to bite her late in the film. Brown is just trying to make her way in the world and would like a companion to join her on the journey. Both characters are finding the things they thought would make them happy come up a bit short. It’s a story most of us can relate to even if we aren’t famous comedians.

While “Top Five” isn’t funny throughout, it does manage to cause some serious laughs. Rock is primarily the straight man for most of the film and lets his numerous comedy friends carry most of the humor load. The number of comedians or comic actors in the film is staggering. Some may only be on screen for a few seconds while others play major roles. Still others provide a laugh or two then are gone for the rest of the picture. Some of the comedians who appear include Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, J.B. Smoove, Michael Che, Jay Pharaoh, Anders Holm, Kevin Hart, Sherri Shephard, Adam Sandler, Doug Stanhope, Bruce Bruce, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld makes a particularly strong impression as he “makes it rain” during Andre Allen’s bachelor party. The sheer number of comedians, both up and coming and legendary, must have made it a fun set to work on. While I’m sure the film was shot on a tight schedule (and on a budget of just $10-million), there are probably a couple of hours of funny material plus outtakes that ended up on the cutting room floor. When the DVD comes out, I’ll be looking for that edited material as a bonus feature. The presence of so many of Rock’s friends and colleagues must have made the often chaotic experience of making a movie just a little bit better. The comradery shows in the finished product.

“Top Five” is rated R for language throughout, crude humor, nudity, some drug use and strong sexual content. There are a couple of sex scenes in the film. One is used mostly for comedic effect. We see several women topless and the naked behind of man. There is some talk of sex outside of these scenes. There is a scene where pot is showed being rolled up and smoked. There is also discussion of using cocaine. Foul language is prevalent throughout the film.

While it certainly could have been funnier “Top Five” works as a comedy and a drama, following a man as he discovers what it is he truly wants in life. The editing is a bit jumpy and the acting is occasionally amateurish, but overall the film works to make us laugh and think a bit. It is a rare feat that those two goals are achieved in one film. “Top Five” is well worth your time.

“Top Five” gets four stars out of five.

This week, a musical orphan, a half-ling and a museum full of magic would love to entertain you during the holidays.  I’ll review one or more of these films next week.

“Annie”

“The Hobbit:  The Battle of the Five Armies”

“Night at the Museum:  Secret of the Tomb”

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