Review of “The Suicide Squad”

Sometimes bad guys are bad for good reasons. They may have had horrible upbringings and know of no other way to live. They may be forced by circumstances to protect someone they love by carrying out the orders of someone threatening to hurt or kill family members. The bad they are doing may lead to a greater good only they can see. Then there are people that are just bad and what they do is bad. It may be for personal gain. It may be to exert power and control over others. It may be for the sheer joy of causing pain and suffering. Whatever the reason, people who do bad can choose to do good. Or, as in the case of “The Suicide Squad,” they are forced to do good with small bombs planted in their necks that will blow their heads off if they don’t follow orders.

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a team of supervillains to carry out a mission for the US Government. If they succeed, each member will get 10 years off their sentence. If they try to run away, a micro bomb implanted in each villains’ neck will explode, killing them instantly. The group is heading to the island nation of Corto Maltese where the ruling family has been overthrown and killed in a military junta. The new military government is antagonistic toward the US, so Waller is tasked with sending her team to destroy a Nazi Germany-built tower called Jötunheim where experiments are being carried out on a possible alien life form. Leading the team is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). With him is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), Savant (Michael Rooker) TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Weasel (Sean Gunn) and Mongal (Mayling Ng). They attack one beach location while Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Cleo Cazo), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and Nanaue, aka King Shark (motion capture by Steve Agee, voiced by Sylvester Stallone) hit another. Eventually, the remainders of the two teams come together to face a threat like no other…from what’s in the tower and amongst themselves.

James Gunn is a unique film maker. He can produce giant blockbusters that have the look and feel of subversive underground cinema. He makes choices that go against the grain of standard moviemaking and those films frequently make money. He took a second-tier group of comic book characters and squeezed them into the overall narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films are unlike anything in the MCU with his choice of music, influx of humor and willingness to insert a dose of heart and emotion into what could have been a couple of standard outer space comic book shoot-‘em-ups. He has now crossed the street to work on DC’s “The Suicide Squad” and brought his unique touches, and a few of his favorite actors, with him. The result is a gory, violent, fun spectacle.

One of the posters says to not get too attached to any of the characters, and that proves to be correct. Early on, several members of the team die in violent and gory ways. A couple of those I was hoping to see more of and learn more about. However, my disappointment quickly faded as the story progresses and the remaining team members get down to business. This movie takes all your ideas about superhero films and chucks them into the woodchipper. It then makes you stand in front of the woodchipper and be bathed in the remains of your expectations. After that, the movie dares you to complain about the mess or cry over your situation. It would appear I’m in an abusive relationship with “The Suicide Squad,” but what other kind could there be when I’m faced with rooting for a group of villains led by a man that put Superman in the hospital after shooting him with a Kryptonite bullet and an anthropomorphic weasel that killed a couple dozen children. Despite the psychological implications of hoping this team of villains succeeds, it’s hard not to find lots to like about most of them.

The performances are amazing in “The Suicide Squad” with the stand outs being John Cena as Peacemaker and Cleo Cazo as Ratcatcher 2. Cena makes his sociopathic character almost sympathetic at times. Peacemaker has a singular, but twisted, focus on the objectives of the mission. He says anything that comes into his head, will kill anyone that gets in his way, and doesn’t mind showing off his many unique kill styles trying to impress Elba’s Bloodsport. Cena is funny. He’s more than willing to use his impressive body to get a laugh, appearing in one scene in a pair of jockey shorts and nothing else. His response to their mission, codenamed Operation Starfish, is to ask if it has anything to do with buttholes and tells Bloodsport he’d eat a beach covered in penises if it meant the successful completion of his mission. Cena is building an impressive early resume of films as he kicks off his movie career following a successful stint in pro wrestling. John Cena is following closely in the footsteps of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Cleo Cazo is the sympathetic heart of “The Suicide Squad.” Cazo’s Ratcatcher 2 comes from a difficult childhood with a drug abusing father (Taika Waititi). Her father developed the technology to control rats and taught her how to use it. After he died, she used the tech to control rodents and help her rob a bank. After she was caught, she was sent to Belle Reve penitentiary and was recruited by Waller. Ratchcatcher 2 isn’t a bad person. She’s sweet and kind, loves her rats and forms an attachment to everyone on the team, especially Bloodsport. She convinces King Shark everyone on the team is his friend, so he won’t eat them. Her decency and kindness belie a strength and fierce loyalty the group needs when they least expect it. Cazo exudes warmth and joy in the role. I hope we get to see this character again if there are future films featuring Task Force X, assuming she lives to the end of this one.

“The Suicide Squad” is rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity. There aren’t enough pixels in the world for me to list all the gory, graphic violence in this film. Arms, legs and heads are cut off, shot off and blown off. King Shark rips one guy in two, eats another whole and chomps on the head of a third. There are bloody shootings, stabbings and more. Harley uses a metal javelin as a pole vault, planting in one guy’s foot. In other words, there’s a great deal of bloody violence. There is brief nudity of men and women. Foul language is common.

I was one of the very few people that will admit to liking 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” While it was far from perfect, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the team, the humor and the constantly shifting loyalties of Harley Quinn. I would have liked to seen director David Ayer’s original edit of his film, as he has posted on Twitter, it is a much better version than what we got. It looks like that film was doomed by studio interference with the director’s vision, despite it making a huge amount of money. I don’t think James Gunn allows much BS from the studio on his films. He’s been quoted as saying, if he chose to kill off Robbie’s Harley Quinn, the bosses at WB would have let him do it. I would prefer the suits in the suites didn’t get their manicured fingers into the making of movies as most of them haven’t done it. The few that have may posses a unique knowledge of film making, but don’t have the same vision as those producing new releases. Let film makers succeed and fail on their own terms. It certainly appears Gunn has succeeded in her version of “The Suicide Squad”.

“The Suicide Squad” gets five gore- and blood-soaked stars out of five.

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Review of “The Green Knight”

The King’s nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) lives a life of excess and debauchery, spending most of his nights sleeping at the brothel with his favorite sex worker Essel (Alicia Vikander) and drinking. His mother (Sarita Choudhury) wants more for her son and hatches a plan. On Christmas Day, Gawain is enjoying the feast at the King’s celebration while his mother and three other women cast a spell to conjure a challenge to her son’s bravery. Bursting through the doors of the yuletide feast, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) rides into the hall and offers up a game: Whoever can land a blow against him will be given the Green Knight’s mighty axe to use for a year. But next Christmas, the challenger will meet him at the green chapel and receive an equal blow in return. At first there is silence, then Gawain agrees to accept the challenge. Asking for a sword, the King (Sean Harris) provides his. The Green Knight stands still, confusing Gawain. Gawain then attacks, cutting off the Green Knight’s head. Thinking that is the end of it, Gawain and all in attendance are shocked when the topless body stands and retrieves the still living head. The Green Knight reminds Gawain to meet him in one year at the green chapel and rides off laughing. Dreading his likely approaching doom, Gawain continues his aimless life until a week before he is to meet the Green Knight. He then begins a perilous journey over the countryside, encountering bandits, spirits, giants, a friendly fox, and a strange couple living in a castle in the middle of nowhere, as he prepares to face his fate at the green chapel.

I was really looking forward to “The Green Knight.” It had a terrific trailer featuring a floating crown lowering onto Dev Patel’s head, then he bursts into flame. The design of the Green Knight looked amazing. The booming baritone of Ralph Ineson is a plus in every movie. The cinematography of the barren, cold Irish landscape appeared to be as much of a character as anyone in the film. I’d been aware of the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” since high school but remembered little of it. So, this movie had been at the top of my want to see list since the first trailer back in earlier 2020. Naturally, with COVID shutting down most film releases, the world had to wait until now to get a peak at this epic Arthurian legend on the big screen. Despite all my eagerness to see the film, I walked out wondering what I’d watched.

“The Green Knight” is a glorious looking film. The landscapes of Ireland where most of the exteriors were shot, is gorgeous. Filters were likely used to darken the surroundings, giving the film an ominous look, suggesting doom would pop up at any moment. Enormous care was taken to recreate the medieval period during which King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were supposed to live. The interiors of castles, homes, brothels and inns is appropriately dark and dank. The buildings are composed of either stone or wood with very little metal visible. No one looks especially healthy with even Gawain often appearing on the verge of collapse and the King frequently wheezing when he expends even the slightest effort. You can almost smell the B.O. from the population’s unwashed bodies as you follow Gawain walking down the damp streets or sitting down to enjoy an ale in the local pub or brothel.

The Green Knight is a glorious villain (if that’s what he really is) with a body appearing to be composed entirely of carved wood. He creaks and cracks as he walks and with the voice of Ralph Ineson, he sounds appropriately menacing. We only get two scenes featuring the Green Knight and I wanted more of him. To me he was the most interesting person in the film.

While many fascinating things happen in “The Green Knight,” they pose questions that are rarely answered. In the opening scene, we see a gate leading into a walled city. The thatch roof of a building is on fire, a woman gets on a horse and a man pulls a sword from the horse’s saddle preparing to defend against an enemy. We then pull back to see that’s the view from Gawain’s bed in the brothel and a completely different scene plays out with no explanation of what happened to the man and woman, and why that building was on fire. Did the couple start the fire? Is it a diversion so they can escape from her abusive husband and be a couple? Did they just kill rob and kill someone and set the fire to hide their crime? In the end, it doesn’t matter as we never see that couple again. While this is the most non sequitur scene in the film, it certainly isn’t the only one.

It makes me wonder if the film’s narrative is merely a parable within a parable. Gawain’s journey is the story of a man waiting to be provided with meaning and purpose for his life when he’s the one responsible for providing that meaning. Perhaps writer/director David Lowery is telling the audience we are meant to find our own meaning in the film and not depend on it being spelled out for us. Normally, I’d be on board for that interpretation, but I can’t find enough clues or enough depth to work out what I’m supposed to learn as a viewer.

“The Green Knight” is rated R for violence, some sexuality and graphic nudity. There is the beheading that starts the adventure. It is somewhat bloody. We see some animals killed in various hunts. A skeleton is shown hanging from a suspended cage. There are scenes of post-battle fields filled with dead bodies. There are some sex scenes that are brief and contain little nudity. An odd scene appears to involve sex as the evidence is shown on Gawain’s hands at the end. A group of naked giants are shown walking with brief views are bare breasts and buttocks. A scene late in the film shows a head falling off a body. A ghost’s head is shown rolling on the floor and speaking. There is a scene of vomit. A scene of a woman giving birth and that baby being taken away from the mother may cause some distress.

I wanted to love “The Green Knight,” I really did. It has a great cast, is based on a thrilling tale of knights and sorcery and romance and adventure and looks like a well-crafted fantasy. Despite all that’s going for it, I wondered what the point was as the credits rolled (and there is a brief scene late in the credits if you’re interested, but it didn’t help the film make sense) and I considered what I’d seen. While most of the real critics love the movie and it is a beautiful looking piece of work, I just don’t get it. It’s above my head. I lack the depth to fully grasp its meaning and I never have to see it again.

“The Green Knight” gets two stars out of five.

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Review of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions”

I have never been to an escape room. I’m not the best at figuring out puzzles in videogames so I doubt I’m any better in a live action setting. Things other players pick up quickly seem to evade me. When I’m told the solution, it makes sense and is obvious, but I can’t put the pieces together in the moment. In other words, I wouldn’t live long in the world of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” and I doubt anyone else would either as this world requires too much coincidence and good luck to be survivable. But for a sequel to a low-budget thriller, it’s not half bad…but just barely.

Zoey and Ben (Taylor Russell and Logan Miller) are trying to go on with their lives since surviving the Minos Corporation’s escape rooms. Zoey is seeing a therapist both to deal with her PTSD and to cure her fear of flying. The therapist doesn’t believe there is a Minos Corporation or their deadly escape rooms and tells Zoey she needs to put the past behind her. Zoey and Ben discovered the coordinates to the Minos Corporation in their logo and drive across the country to try and gather evidence that will bring them down and end the games. The location is what looks like an abandoned warehouse. The pair are accosted by a vagrant that steals Zoey’s necklace, a keepsake from her dead mother. Chasing the vagrant onto a subway train, he escapes, and the train begins to move. Planning to get off at the next stop, the subway car separates from the other and changes tracks. The other four people on the train are also survivors from Minos’ escape rooms and they all realize they were brought together for a tournament of champions. The subway car slams to a stop and is electrified. If they touch the polls, handles or doors, they’ll be shocked to death. They figure out the puzzle and escape, but one of the contestants is electrocuted. The remaining survivors must navigate out the next sets of escape rooms if they want to survive and so Zoey can continue her mission to stop Minos.

I liked 2019’s “Escape Room.” It had a winning cast, engaging characters and an interesting story. While the all-powerful, faceless corporation as the bad guy was old, everything else about the film was well done and entertaining. “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” sticks closely to the formula and delivers a decent sequel with a decent cast and a nearly identical story. There are fewer rooms, but they are more deadly with lasers, quicksand and raining acid. That and the introduction of a character thought to have died in the first film are about the only differences between the two films.

One would have thought the stakes in the sequel would have been amped up, and yet they are actually lowered. With a run time 10 minutes shorter than the original, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” feels like the group of four writers ran out of ideas and gave up on the story. Wringing everything they could out of the original concept, the writing team hit a wall and stopped. Will Honley, Maria Melnik (who wrote on the original film), Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel pull a switcheroo for the last room, making you think they have escaped when the players just found an alternate path to the next puzzle. When that plays out, the quartet decides to give the audience and Zoey a big reveal. And that leads to what appears to be a happy ending that is actually the set up for a likely third installment. Whoever writes the next film may want to consider saving the escape rooms for later in the movie and give the audience either pre-escape room flashbacks for our main characters or a time jump showing us a survivor’s post-escape room life. The ending of “…Champions” makes this unlikely, but I can dream.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is rated PG-13 for violence, terror/peril and strong language. The violence is mostly seen in flashbacks to the first film. There are moments when people are burned by lasers and acid and disappear in quicksand. One character burns her hand on a stove element but doesn’t feel it. Once character is shown being electrocuted. The subway car sequence features flashing electrical currents that may cause issues for those with light sensitive seizure disorders. Foul language is common but there is only one instance of the F-bomb.

I like “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions,” but I don’t like it as much as the first film. Catching lightning in a bottle is difficult to do a second time. The first film grossed almost $156 million worldwide on a $9 million budget. The combination of a weaker entry and a worldwide pandemic makes a similar return on the sequel’s $15 million budget seem unlikely. I also am still not a fan of the faceless conglomerate being the villain. Show us a roundtable of suits making decisions about who will be brought into the next escape rooms. Give one of them a suitable backstory to explain why this is being done. The original film’s explanation of rich people betting on the outcome is a decent start, but I think the story is helped by filling in the details of what has warped the minds that run Minos to watch young people be tortured. Since logic was one of the first losers in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (it appears all six players got on the same subway car by chance), why not give the audience some history that makes the cruelty make some sense.

Nobody asked me and they likely won’t. Of course, I could be kidnapped, locked in a room, and forced to write the next “Escape Room” installment. I would have to write myself into corners and boxes then write my way out of them, otherwise I would be burned, shocked, poisoned and more. I can guarantee I would write a very bad movie, but it would also have more intelligence and less coincidence than this sequel.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” gets three stars out of five.

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Review of “Black Widow”

Please note: There will be some “Avengers: Endgame” spoilers in this review. If you haven’t seen that film yet, it’s available on Disney+, for rental on several platforms and for purchase in stores that sell DVD’s/Blu Rays.

Nothing says “SUMMER” like sitting in a movie theater with overpriced popcorn and soda and a superhero movie on the screen. There hasn’t been a Marvel movie in theaters since “Spider-Man: Far from Home” in July 2019. Now, with the pandemic beginning to ebb (get your vaccination) and the world is reopening, we are treated to a long overdue solo movie for the only women to be included in the early MCU: “Black Widow.”

Natasha Romonoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) following her actions in violation of the Sokovia Accords. She slips away to Norway with the help of Mason (O-T Fagbenle) who sets her up in a trailer isolated in the wilderness. Going into town to buy fuel for the generator supplying power to her housing, Natasha is attacked by a warrior who mimics her fighting style called Taskmaster. Taskmaster isn’t interested in her, but a case in her car. Natasha escapes with the contents of the case, several vials of a red gas. Since the items containing the case came from a safehouse in Budapest, Natasha returns to the city from which she and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) just barely escaped. At the safehouse, Natasha runs into Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), the young woman Natasha has known since they were children in the Black Widow training program called the Red Room. Yelena tells Natasha the red vials are a gas that severs the mind control the Red Room has over the female assassins. The training program was run by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the target Natasha thought she killed to prove her loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. Yelena says he survived and is still running the Red Room in a secret location that no one knows. Natasha and Yelena decide to reunite Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) who pretended to be the girls’ father in an espionage mission in 1995. Alexei is Russia’s only superhero, the Red Guardian, who was given a super-soldier serum similar to Captain America and worked for Dreykov. Dreykov has put Alexei in a prison in a frozen wasteland. Getting a helicopter from Mason, Natasha and Yelena break out Alexei and travel to meet up with Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), who pretended to be the girls’ mother in 1995. Melina is the scientist that developed the mind control used on the Widows from the Red Room. The reunited faux family goes on a mission to end Dreykov’s control over the Widows and end his plans for world domination.

While “Black Widow” is more focused on the espionage angle, the story from Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, and the script from Eric Pearson, includes a great deal of family moments as well. Unlike “F9,” there are some actual expressions of love and tenderness shown to provide some evidence that the four unrelated people are the closest thing to family any of them has known. Despite them not seeing each other for 25 years, and after some initial discomfort from long simmering resentments, the four main characters slip easily into the roles of parents and children and all the friction that can cause for the youngsters that are now adults. To put it more bluntly, the family dynamic of “Black Widow” actually works, unlike “F9.”

While the rest of the movie is mostly car chases, fist fights and things blowing up, the scenes between Natasha and Yelena are the most fun in the film. They snipe at each other and complain about the choices each makes but in a way that feels sisterly than out of any real anger. The pair are reconnecting and dealing with their actions and the choices they’ve made, some beyond their control, that have cost lives. While the Red Room made them deadly Black Widows, it couldn’t completely eliminate their feelings of guilt.

Diving into this aspect of being an assassin for the State is a concept that was lightly touched on by the “Bourne” films when they weren’t fighting and blowing things up. In “Black Widow,” the notion of being a terminator for a government that will eliminate you when you’ve outlived your usefulness is central to the story. Between Red Guardian being shipped off to prison and the Widows being forced to kill themselves when they might be captured, “Black Widow” shows the unglamorous side of being a spy, even if all the Widows are beautiful.

“Black Widow” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material. There are numerous fights featuring acrobatic flips, knife play and shootings. There is very little blood, although we see a tracking device cut out of a Widow’s arm or leg, I don’t remember which. There is a graphic, but comedic, description of the forced hysterectomies Black Widows must have. We see a wrist broken during an arm-wrestling match and a leg broken in a fall. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Some have argued the last third of the movie falls into the superhero trope of being all action and very little story or character moments. That isn’t wrong. The big action set piece that concludes the movie is very “Marvel,” with the heroes saving the day and the bad guys vanquished (sorry if you consider that a spoiler, but come on, it’s a Marvel movie). There is a bit of peacemaking with Taskmaster as its identity is revealed. There’s also a very nice moment, wrapped up in action, involving Yelena and Natasha that cements their affection for one another. And the post-credits scene sets up the future of Black Widow that we’ll probably see in the Disney+ “Hawkeye” TV show. It’s not the best Marvel movie, but it isn’t “Iron Man 2” or “Thor: The Dark World” and this one is certainly overdue.

“Black Widow” gets four stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “F9: The Fast Saga”

Ah, summer! That time of year when thoughts turn to enjoying bright, hot sunny days by the pool, at the lakeshore and on the beach. That’s what most people look forward to, anyway. On the other hand, I see summer as the time when movie studios bring out their big guns, their heavy hitters, the releases that are guaranteed (they hope) to bring audiences out en masse to watch the latest action, comedy, sci-fi blockbuster. Of course, last summer was a washout with a deadly virus ripping through the population and spread via airborne transmission. Being closed up in a large room with recirculated air was a perfect contamination storm, leading all the major movies to be delayed or receiving simultaneous limited theatrical releases and streaming platform premieres. Despite the vaccines and lessening of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, Warner Brothers is still doing both theaters and their HBO Max streaming service through the end of the year. Assuming more people become fully vaccinated (get you shot/shots if you can) and a variant doesn’t become immune to the vaccine, maybe next summer will be more normal than this one. However, the one thing many people were counting on has finally occurred: The latest “Fast and Furious” movie has opened. Is “F9: The Fast Sage” worth heading out in the hot summer sun for?

Dom and Letty (Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez) and Dom’s son Brian are living a quiet life on a farm when they received an unannounced visit from Tej, Roman and Ramsey (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson and Nathalie Emmanuel). The trio is going on a mission to Montecito to recover their covert boss, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) whose plane was downed in the jungle by rogue agents as he transported a captured Cipher (Charlize Theron) to prison. Also, on board the plane is part of a gadget named Ares that could put any device that runs on code under a hacker’s control. During the operation, the team is attacked by a paramilitary outfit led by Dom’s younger brother Jakob (John Cena). Jakob and Dom have bad blood going back decades to the death of their father Jack (J.D. Pardo) during a stock car racing crash. Jakob is working for Otto (Ersted Rasmussen), the son of a European leader and billionaire, and Cipher is helping them against her will. Cipher finds the location of the other half of Ares, but it still needs a key to unlock and use it. That key is under the protection of Han Lue (Sung Kang) who was thought to have died in a car crash and explosion years earlier caused by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Dom and the crew must stop Jakob from getting his hands on the other half of Ares and the key and stop him from using the device to take over every nuclear arsenal in the world.

That is one fully packed plot recap, and it doesn’t cover half of it. There’s lots more family intrigue, spy shenanigans and electromagnetic-augmented car chases (yeah, I said “electromagnetic-augmented”) I didn’t have room for. It’s a jammed full action movie that’s in a big hurry to get somewhere but doesn’t. It’s a two-hour, 25-minute preview for “F10, Part 1” and “F10, Part 2.” It wants the audience to buy in fully with the idea of Dom’s extended family working together as a team and how they are all willing to sacrifice the individual to save the whole. In “Star Trek” terms, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.” While there are a few examples of that sacrifice, it doesn’t have the emotional punch director Justin Lin was probably going for. The attempts to make us feel fear and pity for the crew are always short-circuited by the knowledge that none of the central team is in any real danger of dying. No matter how bad the car crash, plane crash, explosion, fight, building collapse, fist fight or whatever, no one is in real peril. Their contracts won’t allow it.

Listening to Vin Diesel growl out his dialog is becoming a chore. While Diesel says very little, letting his driving and fighting do most of the talking, when he does speak, it’s barely understandable. What he’s given to say may be as much to blame with hollow sentiments about family and loyalty. His emotional range isn’t much better. Running the gamut of mildly bemused to mildly annoyed with occasional peaks of rage, Diesel has about as much acting chops as, well, a lamb chop. However, one must give Diesel credit for stumbling into a role that matches his abilities. Much like the Kardashians are famous for being famous (and the occasional “leaked” porn tape), Diesel has made a fortune from the “Fast” franchise and become a producer on many of his own films, as well as the voice of the Marvel character Groot. We should all be so lucky as to find what we are marginally average at and from it make a fortune.

The biggest thing holding back the “Fast” franchise (aside from logic) is a character that can’t be there but is always hovering in the background: the late Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner. Walker’s death in 2013 during a break in the filming of “Furious 7” led to a delay in the that film, rewrites and using old footage and Walker’s two brothers with digital effects to finish his shots. Walker’s Brian is mentioned several times in “F9” with a hint he might show up at a family gathering. It might be best for this franchise if Brian is allowed to die, as the frequent mentions and fake outs he’s going to appear is only a cheap ploy to play on the sympathy of the audience and remind everyone that Walker is gone. Enough is enough. Fold the character’s death into the plot (Cipher tracked him down and had him killed or something like that) and let the audience and the franchise say goodbye in a way that’s meaningful.

There’s plenty more I could complain about: The way the magnet weapon attracts and repels items after the vehicle in which it’s mounted has already passed, the explosions of mines and missiles that cause no damage to the vehicles they explode under, the sheer luck of a rope or wire from an old bridge catching a car’s wheel just right, not ripping out the suspension and the rope not breaking, and don’t get me started on a car in space. Since “Fast 5,” logic and physics hasn’t been very important to the makers of the franchise. Normally, I wouldn’t care as much, but there’s something about the shallowness and cynical feeling of this film that makes its logical flaws stick out that much more. This may be one of the “Fast” franchises most ambitious films, but it’s also one of its most bland.

“F9: The Fast Saga” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language. There are numerous scenes of shooting where no one gets hit except the bad guys. Crowds of bystanders are often in the line of fire during these shootouts, but we never see if anyone is injured or killed. There are numerous fist fights, some occurring on or in moving vehicles. Some characters are hit by cars, but we never see the aftermath. There is a race car crash that results in a fire and presumed death. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Despite my criticisms of “F9,” I don’t hate the film. It lacks the fire and excitement of previous episodes that all the car stunts in the universe can’t generate. While it is doing big business at the box office, both in its opening weekend in North America and at theaters around the world, audiences may be flocking to see it out of a desire for normalcy and a return to the simple pleasures of life taken away by coronavirus. I cannot blame them, and I feel the same way, but I believe “F9” is a lesser chapter in “The Fast Saga,” and I hope the final two films in the main franchise can return the magic that’s missing.

“F9: The Fast Saga” gets 2.5 stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard”

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is having nightmares about hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) following their adventures a few years earlier. Micheal has had his AAA bodyguard license suspended until it’s reviewed by the governing board. His therapist suggests he leave his future self messages on his phone and take a much-needed vacation. Michael’s relaxing trip to the Italian coast is violently interrupted by Darius’ wife Sonia (Salma Hayek). She’s involved in a shootout with henchmen of the mafioso that kidnapped Darius and needs Michael to help her save him. Michael complains that he’s taking a sabbatical from guns and being a bodyguard, but Sonia won’t take no for an answer. They find the warehouse where Darius is being held and free him, killing every thug there. That complicates the case of Interpol agent Bobby O’Neill (Frank Grillo) as the mafioso was a confidential informant about a potential threat to Europe’s digital infrastructure from Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Papadopoulos (Antonio Banderas). Papadopoulos is angry over European Union sanctions against Greece, and he plans on taking his revenge by planting a computer virus in Europe’s biggest internet junction and destroying anything connected to the web, including banking, power generation and distribution and more. Bryce and the Kincaids can avoid long prison terms if they work with Agent O’Neill and stop Papadopoulos from enacting his plan. It would help if they could not kill each other in the process.

If you’re looking for a deep, complex examination of life and existence in the modern world, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” ain’t it. This is mindless summer movie entertainment. It’s the junk food of cinema. It makes a billboard for a personal injury lawyer look like high art. “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” is empty calories for your brain…and that’s just fine by me.

While it’s as equally predictable as “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” the story is not really why we’re sitting in a dark theater watching Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Selma Hayek screaming at each other and trotting around Europe. The purpose of this kind of goofy film is to allow the audience to escape the outside world and go to a place that’s uncomplicated and requires nothing from us. We want to take a brief mental vacation from work issues, family problems, political strife and coronavirus fears.

Ryan Reynolds is his usual charming self. He plays a more broken version of Michael than before. Without his AAA bodyguard license suspended, he doesn’t know who he is or what he should do with the rest of his life. This is played for laughs as he annoys everyone around him (including his therapist) and tries a non-violent form of personal protection, arming himself with pepper spray and unloading all the guns he gets his hands on. Reynolds plays roughly the same character in most of his films: Sweet but edgy, kind but selfish, easily tricked into whatever scheme Sonia and Darius have cooked up but always one step ahead. It’s Reynolds’ gift to be able to perform the same character so effortlessly and still be entertaining.

The same can be said for Samuel L. Jackson. Darius is very similar to his brief role in “Sprial: From the Book of Saw” as former Police Chief Marcus Banks. It’s also a great deal like most of his film roles from the last 30 years, from Jules in “Pulp Fiction” to the “Shaft” reboots to “XXX” to “Snakes on a Plane” to “Django Unchained” to pretty much every other film, with the exception of the “Star Wars” prequels where he is much more toned down. Finding your groove and getting people to pay for you to play the same person repeatedly, isn’t a criticism. Jackson is 72 years old and one of the most bankable actors working in films today. According to his Wikipedia page, a tallying of the total grosses of his film appearance that aren’t cameos, Jackson’s movies have made $27 billion at the worldwide box office. As the saying goes” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And Jackson ain’t broke in any sense of the word. It may not set the world on fire, but Jackson’s performance in “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” is the kind his fans have come to expect and love. In that regard, he doesn’t disappoint.

What can you say about Selma Hayek’s performance that doesn’t involve her beauty? She is a constant source of energy in the film. You can feel the heat radiating from her as she either rails at Darius and Michael for not getting along or smolders when she expresses her passion for her husband and her desire to have his baby (a running joke and minor subplot in the film). The several times she strings together a mixture of English and Spanish curses at whomever throughout the movie is a hoot, and her motherly feelings for Michael pay off in a joke at the end of the film. Hayek is part of why this film is worth seeing.

Poor Antonio Banderas. He’s rarely given anything interesting to do in these popcorn movies when he’s the villain. Papadopoulos is a very generic bad guy. He’s angry at the world and has the money and power to exact his revenge. His target is the leaders of the EU, but his real victims will be the small businesses and workers that will lose their jobs, their savings and their homes if he succeeds. It’s a bad part written with little consideration for the talented actor playing him. He gets to wear a lovely grey wig and some gaudy costumes, but that’s small consolation considering the how underutilized he is. Someone please, write a good part for Banderas in an action comedy! I’m begging you!

The humor and action in “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” is also more of the same from the first film, but I enjoyed it all again. The fights, the chases, the wanton destruction of property and infrastructure is a bit more messy in this go round. Splitting up the final confrontations into three didn’t work for me as I’d rather watch the trio fight together to defeat numerous foes than have them scattered and their heroics cut up into multiple scenes. Michaels’ final showdown with his ultimate enemy was a bit of a stretch to believe as he’s fighting someone who, in real life, is 40 years older. Still, the way that struggle is set up made its conclusion a bit more satisfying. The humor is of the juvenile level we got in the first film. I’m a teenager in an old man’s body, so I found the film funny, if slightly less funny than last time.

“The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” is rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language, and some sexual content. There are numerous shootings with lots of blood spatter, a few corpses are shown with their eyes stabbed out, there are lots of fights, stabbings, car crashes and people hit by cars. The sexual content is more on the humorous side as Hayek and Jackson are shown and heard having sex a few times while Reynolds responds with disgust. Foul language is common with Samuel L. Jackson delivering his trademark MF’s and the rest of the cast joins in.

I really enjoyed “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” from 2017. I loved the humor and action. While the story was predictable, the rest of it worked for me in a big way. It would have been easy to just repeat the formula from the first film in “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” and the filmmakers mostly do. There’s a tiny bit of stunt casting that was a huge surprise that also leads to a double cross late in the story. There are more scenic locations to look at during shootouts and car chases, and the massively complicated and unlikely scheme of the bad guy is pretty standard. All in all, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” is more of the same and for me, that works.

“The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” gets four stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”

I usually go to the theater closest to my house. There used to be two, each from a different chain, but when the mall closed the theater there closed as well. I like the remaining theater (I’m a member of their loyalty club and subscription service) although it could use some updating and maybe add their version of IMAX. They are continuing their reduced times for certain films. For instance, if it’s R-rated or an adult drama, the first show won’t be until 4 pm. Kids films and big-budget blockbusters get showings starting at 1 pm. Unless it was in the “Star Wars” or “Avengers” universe, most pre-pandemic matinees were usually not very crowded but still had showings starting at noon or one. Since my choice for this week’s viewing was not until 4 pm at my closer location, I decided to drive across town (probably in the 15-to-20-mile range) and see a 2:15 pm showing of “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” Was it worth the time, travel and gas to see the latest installment in the questionable history of ghost hunters and demon fighters Ed and Lorraine Warren?

The Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) are assisting a Catholic priest in the exorcism of 8-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). Also on hand are the boys’ parents, his sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook) and Debbie’s boyfriend Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor). Things become far more dangerous when the possessed boy jumps on Ed Warren and causes him to have a heart attack. Arne grabs the boy and tells the demon to leave David alone and take him. The demon accepts the offer and invades Arne. Ed witnesses this but his heart attack leaves him unconscious. A few days later, Arne and Debbie, who live in an apartment over a dog kennel owned by Bruno Sauls (Ronnie Gene Blevins), are discussing running away and getting married when the demon fully possesses Arne and he kills Bruno, stabbing him 22 times. Ed Warren has had heart surgery and is well enough to tell Lorraine what his saw. They go to Arne’s lawyer and try to convince her to plead diminished capacity due to demon possession. Under the Glatzel’s house, Lorraine finds a witch’s totem made from an animal skull used to pass on curses. The skull is like ones used by a satanic cult called the Disciples of the Ram, a cult that has committed murders in the area. A former Catholic priest, Father Kastner (John Noble) helped the police investigate the cult and the Warrens visit him for his advice. Arne is looking at the death penalty if he’s convicted so the Warren’s are hoping to find a connection between the cult murders and Arne’s crime to convince the court of his possession.

I’ve seen several, but not all of the “Conjuring” franchise. Oddly, the last film I watch from the series was the original “The Conjuring.” It was a well-crafted, tightly constructed haunted house horror flick that hit most of the right notes. It’s no wonder it kicked off an entire franchise with numerous spinoffs and sizable box office success. But as usually happens with high-performance machines, things break down over time. Perhaps people get complacent and expect the dollars to roll in and the audiences to buy tickets no matter what kind of product gets released. Maybe the creators are tired and hand off their duties to others of lesser skill. It could be viewers have grown weary of the hocus pocus and paranormal adventures of the Warrens. I think it is perhaps more of the first two than the latter as “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is still the winner of its opening weekend at the box office despite being the weakest entry in the “Conjuring” trilogy.

The film is far more scattered than the first two entries. Ed and Lorraine travel from location to location, eating up a great deal of time with shots of the car travelling down various roads. There are incidents that occur in different places, from the possession/exorcism to the murder committed by Arne, to an investigation of a similar murder in another town, etc., etc. This spreading around of the action never lets the film build any real tension. While it certainly tries to convince the audience of terrible things to come when those terrible things happen, they aren’t that bad. Certainly, the murder of Bruno is a horrific thing, but it isn’t shown as it happens. Another murder is shown as Lorraine sees it in a vision, hence again indirectly. Moving from a haunted house to a traveling curse does this film and the franchise no favors.

Another thing I found troubling about the film is the story doesn’t follow its own rules. Without giving too much away, to complete the curse at the center of the plot, there must be three deaths: The murder of a child, a death by suicide and the killing of a man of God…at least, I think. The story doesn’t make these rules completely clear, so I suppose it makes sense that it doesn’t follow it closely. There are four deaths that are shown, directly and indirectly, on screen and that should be more than enough to satisfy the curse, yet it doesn’t, and I don’t know why. That troubles me, and it troubles me that it troubles me as it’s a dumb horror film trying too hard to make us believe the Warrens were legitimate.

The film begins with the ubiquitous “Based on a True Story” panel as the movie kicks off. In the least restrictive use of the term, it is, but there are numerous and substantial changes and additions to the story far too numerous to get into here. The books and TV shows inspired by these “true” events have generated a few lawsuits between the participants and the Warrens. The real David Glatzel claimed in one such lawsuit the Warrens had concocted the possession to exploit the family and his mental illness. I could not find how that lawsuit turned out. And the Warrens were accused of making up possessions and hauntings in the past, such as the famous Amityville case. For what it’s worth, the real Arne and Debbie, who got married after Arne served five years of a 10 to 20 years sentence for manslaughter, both claim everything the Warrens said was the truth. All these films must be taken not just with a grain of salt, but an entire salt mine.

The only bright spot in this film are the leads, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. They have a comfortable chemistry befitting a long-married couple that have been through some strange things. The movie adds a bit of flashback to their first date that becomes an important plot point later. Farmiga and Wilson treat all the paranormal silliness with the gravitas that makes the good installments of these movies better than they should be and the lesser chapters bearable.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is rated R for terror, violence and some disturbing images. I’m not sure why it got an R rating as the film has very little gore and only one truly disturbing image, that of the reanimated corpse of a post-autopsy fat man. We also see a throat slashed, an attempted suicide by wrist cutting, the sounds of bones cracking as a possessed person contorts and the first stab of a murder. There is no foul language I recall.

The entire “Conjuring” universe of films has grossed close to $2 billion and this eighth film in the franchise is likely to push it over the top with more installments on the way. What I fear may happen to this franchise is what appears to be going in this film. The storytelling is getting messy. There are very few good scares. And the biggest sin of all, this movie is dull. I love a good horror movie. I like to be scared and squirm in my seat, feeling my heartbeat race as I fear the next bump in the darkened theater. I got none of that with this film. Pay Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson whatever it takes to keep them coming back as they are the only things good in this installment.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” gets two stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “A Quiet Place Part II”

There aren’t many things back to absolute normal yet. The theater chain closest to my home just announced customers that are fully vaxxed can go maskless to see a movie. They ask unvaxxed people to continue wearing a mask. They aren’t requiring proof of vaccination to go without a mask, so anyone could come in without a mask whether they have been vaccinated or not. As I sat in a theater, fully vaccinated since mid-April, with maybe half a dozen people watching “A Quiet Place Part II,” I wore my mask when I wasn’t enjoying my overpriced popcorn and soft drink. I’m fully trained to protect others despite my vaccination status and until this damnable plague is completely over, I will continue to wear a mask. I’m not being brave like the characters in “A Quiet Place Part II,” I’m actually trying to avoid catching a summer cold which is almost as bad as being attacked by the alien creatures in this movie.

After a flashback to the first day of the alien invasion, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) and her children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe) and her infant son, set off toward the smoke from a signal fire near where they live after the death of her husband Lee (John Krasinski). Approaching an industrial area, Evelyn trips a homemade alarm made from cans and bottles. The family runs to avoid the approaching aliens that hunt their prey by sound. Marcus steps in a bear trap and the pain causes him to scream. Evelyn pries open the jaws, freeing Marcus, and they continue running as the alien’s approach. Entering a building, they are grabbed by Emmett (Cillian Murphy) and guided to a disused boiler where they can hide, and their voices will be hidden. Emmett tells the Abbotts they cannot stay as there isn’t enough food or water. Regan puts a set of headphones plugged in to a radio on Marcus and scans the dial using the white noise of static to calm him. She crosses a station that is playing music, something that hasn’t happened since the invasion, and Marcus stops her. Regan tracks the signal to a small station set on an island just offshore. Regan gets the idea to take her cochlear implant to the station and create the feedback she discovered could disorient the aliens and broadcast it across the area. She tells Marcus of her plan, but he says Evelyn wouldn’t allow it. Leaving in the middle of the night, Regan sets out on her own. Evelyn begs Emmett to go look for Regan and bring her back.

Writer/director John Krasinski has delivered a quality follow up to his 2017 “A Quiet Place.” The alien invasion/family drama/post-apocalyptic thriller was the kind of film that kept audiences silent which is a rare feat in this age where people feel comfortable talking back to the screen. “A Quiet Place Part II” doesn’t have quite the same silencing effect on the audience and it doesn’t need to. While there are similarities between the two stories, there’s more of a feel of adventure, a road trip quality that makes this a different experience.

This time, the family is split up with Regan on a journey to find the radio station, Evelyn making a trip into town to find antibiotics and oxygen bottles at the drugstore, and Marcus left at the factory to rest his injured leg and keep an eye on the baby. All three experience different adventures and emotional journeys. The most fulfilling is Regan and Emmett.

Fulfilling in the way all the characters grow and learn. Emmett is broken by the experience of the invasion and the losses he suffered in its aftermath. He is satisfied to hunker down in the abandoned factory, hiding in the boiler when aliens approach and living is relative safety. He wants the Abbott family gone as quickly as possible to return to his solitary existence and not be faced with losing anyone else. Chasing down Regan at the pleading behest of Evelyn, Emmett begins to realize how much of his humanity he’s abandoned for the illusion of safety. He has become selfish in his isolation and is challenged by Regan’s stubborn determination to reach the coast, find a boat and broadcast feedback, giving the survivors a chance to fight back.

Millicent Simmonds delivers another standout performance as Regan. Her expressiveness and fierceness burst from her hands and eyes as she delivers stinging opinions about Emmett cowardice and how he doesn’t measure up to her late father. While Emmett doesn’t understand sign language, we see her words via subtitles, something Emmett is lucky he lacks access to. This young actress deserves more roles as her presence is magnetic in every scene.

The movie is exciting and tense throughout, but I do have one nit to pick. Whenever an encounter with an alien is shown, the action slows to a crawl as the characters approach either an escape or a kill. They move extremely slowly, cautiously, as if trying to drag out the interaction. I don’t want to give anything away, but during the final showdown, the humans move as if in slow motion. There would seem to be an urgency to ending the confrontation and reducing the chance of more aliens using their echolocation to track down their prey. Instead, we get drawn out movements, lingering looks and lots of opportunities for something to go wrong. I’d like to believe it’s the characters being in some degree of shock due to the unbelievable circumstances they are in, but in reality, it’s Krasinski trying to build up the tension. If there’s anything I dislike about “A Quiet Place Part II,” it’s that.

“A Quiet Place Part II” is rated PG-13 for terror, violence and bloody/disturbing images. We see the beginnings of the invasion with people be swept aside by the aliens as if they were small toys. The injury sustained by Marcus and one inflicted on Evelyn late in the film are a bit gruesome, but not too bloody. We see various corpses that are in different states of decay. When the aliens are killed, their heads tend to explode in bloody messes.

Aside from dragging out the endings, “A Quiet Place Part II” does a great job of continuing the story of the Abbott family and adding Cillian Murphy’s Emmett. The small-town folks confronted by a seemingly unstoppable alien invasion is full of possibilities for more spinoff stories and at least one more film. If done correctly, we could get a tense but rousing finale to Krasinski’s trilogy.

“A Quiet Place Part II” gets four stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

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.

Subscribe, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

I’m Back with a Review of “The Courier”

Is it just me or is it weird doing normal-ish things? I add the “ish” due to wearing a mask when I’m inside a building or with a group (I have received both doses of Pfizer’s vaccine but I’m still wearing a mask), but I did something I hadn’t done since last September: I went to a movie at a theater. We are still in the time of the novel coronavirus as the theater I was in had a ground total of four people in it and the lobby was virtually deserted when I entered aside from a few workers and a couple of patrons. It felt both odd and good to be back in a theater again and I’m thankful I didn’t risk my health for a bad film.

It’s 1960, the Cold War is heating up and Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a British businessman always looking for the possibility of new contacts leading to new business. He connects parts suppliers with factories and is pretty good at his job, even working in Eastern Bloc countries in the recent past. He enjoys glad-handing and drinking with this fellow businessmen at various bars and clubs. His wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) is a stay-at-home mother, taking care of their young son Andrew (Keir Hills), but she doesn’t give Greville too long a leash as he has strayed in the past. In Moscow, after hearing a speech from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, promising the nuclear destruction of the West, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), the head of the Soviet Committee for Scientific Research, gets an American student to deliver a message to the US embassy. That message gets to CIA officer Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) who sets up a meeting with her MI6 counterpart Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) looking for a way to tap into Penkovsky’s access to Soviet nuclear secrets. Sending an agent is deemed too risky, but a civilian with business ties to Eastern Bloc countries wouldn’t raise as much suspicion amongst the Soviet secret police, the KGB. Franks and Donovan set up a lunch meeting with Wynne and broach the subject without being too obvious they’re asking him to work undercover behind the Iron Curtain. Despite their subtlety, Wynne quickly figures out they’re asking him to spy. Initially hesitant and fearing for his safety as well as that of his family, Wynne agrees. Franks and Donovan assure Wynne the danger is minimal as he will be acting not as a spy, but as a courier for whatever secrets Penkovsky gives him.

“The Courier” is a tour de force acting performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. His work alone makes the film worth your time and money. Cumberbatch is both subtle and electric as the reluctant spy. The scene where he is asked to become an operative without directly being asked plays out entirely on his face. You can practically hear the gears in his brain grinding as he figures out he’s being approached to risk his life for his country and the world and how incredulous he considers the idea. Cumberbatch is always good but this performance should be considered for awards season next year. Likely it will be forgotten among all the films to come as the virus becomes less of a concern (get vaccinated everyone and don’t take medical advice from Joe Rogan) but I hope the studio makes a push to get him in consideration when the time comes.

The movie overall is pretty good but is mired in Cold War espionage conventions. The secret passing of small packages containing government secrets is done again and again. There’s not much discussion about the history of tensions between East and West, just that there are tensions. While someone my age is familiar with the Cold War, younger viewers will likely be befuddled about what’s going on.

All the supporting characters aren’t given much to do other than deliver exposition. Jessie Buckley is severely under utilized as Wynne’s wife. Her character is only properly used in a scene late in the film. Brosnahan and Wright don’t get much better treatment as they are used merely to drop in the “spy speak” along with their cohorts. Only Merab Ninidze as the provider of Soviet state secrets is given a meaty role as one might expect. Ninidze’s Penkovsky is a dreamer, hoping for a better life for his family when they eventually defect to America. Penkovsky is taking the bigger risk of two as he has seen first hand how traitors to the Soviet Union are dealt with.

That makes his and Wynne’s ultimate fates all the more crushing as the pair develop a friendship that goes beyond their mutual need of each other. The two men on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain find they are far more alike than their governments would like you to believe. Both are married with a small child (Penkovsky and his wife have a young girl), both hope for a world for their children better than the one in which they currently live, both men smoke and drink too much and enjoy the benefits of their work. They are practically the same person but for the governments under which they live.

“The Courier” is rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout. The violence is limited to a scene of a person being shot in the head in front of a crowd (there’s no blood or gore) and scenes inside a Russian gulag. It’s the early 1960’s so smoking is as common as vodka. The nudity is of a male character who is stripped after being arrested. There is no frontal nudity. Foul language is scattered and mild.

“The Courier” is based on the true story of Greville Wynne and his work for MI6 and the CIA in providing early warning for Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba. Wynne spent 18 months in a Soviet prison before being released in exchange for a Russian spy held in the west. Documentary footage at the end of the film shows the real Wynne after he returned home. In this film he seemed chipper and happy, almost unfazed by his ordeal at the hands of the KGB. Perhaps is was the adrenaline of being reunited with his family that lifted his spirits. As shown in “The Courier,” Wynne had little hope of seeing freedom ever again. I hope we all get free from this virus and the damper it has put on our lives since early 2020. I think seeing someone who made a true sacrifice in an effort to save his family, his country and the world should put having to wear a mask and get a couple of vaccine injections into perspective.

“The Courier” get four stars out of five.

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