So I was watching the new horror flick Spiral, a continuation of the lucrative/ludicrous Saw franchise, and after the first 15 minutes had passed, I realized that the strangest thing was happening: I was laughing. Out loud. Frequently. And not derisively.
Chris Rock doesn't play a comedian in the film; instead, he's detective Zeke Banks, an embittered warrior for justice with a new partner (Max Minghella's William Schenk), a history of testifying against dirty cops, and, Rock being Rock, a penchant for dropping F-bombs into every other sentence. But just because Banks isn't touring the comedy circuit doesn't mean Rock can't practice his standup. Our introduction to the detective finds him in the middle of a hilarious rant on how Forrest Gump couldn't be made today, given that no studio would green-light a release with a “special needs” character as its hero. (Banks also has harsh words for Jenny, correctly noting that she doesn't agree to be Forrest's girlfriend until after she's contracted AIDS.) In his first conversation with Schenk, Banks goes on a tirade against his unfaithful ex-wife, and talks about how married women restrict their affairs to daytime. (“Did you know Pilates doesn't exist?”) By the time Banks was riotously admonishing a fellow officer for not washing his hands after using the restroom, I was smiling and chuckling so consistently at Rock's unbridled improv energy that I was already enjoying Spiral more than any other entry in the Saw series, and it wasn't even a half-hour old. I'd all but forgotten that the movie actually began with a guy voluntarily ripping out his own tongue right before getting splattered by a subway car.
It's a shame that this latest torture-porn spectacle by Darren Lynn Bousman (director of Saws II, III, and IV) doesn't live up to the promise of Rock's involvement, especially considering how genuinely promising the film seemed even without him. As Tobin Bell's deceased serial killer John “Jigsaw” Kramer appears only as a photo on a wall, Spiral's debuting maniac is a dude in a pig mask with an electronically enhanced voice, and although he sounds a bit like Kermit the Frog, his M.O. is specific and frighteningly timely, using Jigsaw-style deathtraps to execute corrupt and murderous members of law enforcement. When not riffing, Rock is an extremely credible dramatic presence here. Minghella is a solid actor, and Marisol Nichols is strong as the police captain who looks like a supermodel, and the movie gives Samuel L. Jackson a couple of decent scenes as Banks' father, the police force's former chief who clearly had some influence on his son's vocabulary. Plus, despite the killer's mutilate-yourself-or-die contraptions being as ridiculous (and prohibitively expensive) as ever, the plot at least holds together more convincingly than usual, and delivers one of the rare finales in this franchise that's actually worth mulling over on the drive home.
All that being said, Saw's gonna Saw, and Spiral's gonna Spiral. So depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing, and mine is dangerously low, you'll either dig the über-gory torture scenes or be bored by their virtual sameness, with at least a couple of Pig Man's victims choosing to horrifically disfigure themselves right before getting killed anyway. You'll either be taken by the series' continual employment of flashback “clues” or bothered that a 90-minute movie so routinely returns to lines and images from mere minutes prior. You'll either be thrilled by the father-son casting of Jackson and Rock or irritated that we really only get one extended sequence of Dueling Profanities. And you'll either choose to ignore the movie's many, many loopy coincidences and contrivances and “shocking” revelations that aren't shocking at all, or, ya know … not. But hey – at least we get Chris Rock. And because of him, and despite Spiral's other failings, I've finally landed on my favorite Saw-series offering of all nine that we've gotten since 2004. At this rate, 2038 might provide a work in this cycle that I actually like.
THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD
As you probably know, due to pandemic-fueled financial concerns, Warner Bros. arranged a deal with HBO Max through which the studio's most recent releases would appear on the streaming service the same day they debuted in theaters, giving audiences the option of watching designed-for-the-big-screen blockbusters such as Wonder Woman 1984, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Mortal Kombat from the less-grandiose perspectives of TVs, PCs, and phones. But with director Taylor Sheridan's Those Who Wish Me Dead, we may finally have a new Warner Bros. outing that fits the same regardless of whether you catch it at the theater or at home, because this thing would no doubt be perfectly mediocre no matter how it's viewed.
An action thriller-slash-survival drama that starts out complicated only to become very simple, this adaptation of Michael Koryta's novel (with Koryta, Sheridan, and Kevin Turen serving as co-screenwriters) casts Angelina Jolie as Hannah Faber, a Montana smokejumper hired to help extinguish rampaging forest fires. While a tragedy from Hannah's past has left the woman borderline-suicidal, her heroic instincts kick in when she's forced to protect the orphaned Connor Casserly (Finn Little), a Florida youth who, for reasons not worth explaining, is on the run from a pair of merciless assassins (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult). Hoping to smoke Connor out of hiding, or preferably just end his life, the killers start a forest fire of their own, leaving Hannah and Connor to evade just not their wrath, but the speedily encroaching flames. It should go without saying that the movie is preposterous. What perhaps does need to be said is that it's also largely boring, because after the bad guys initiate their environmental sabotage halfway through the film, Those Who Wish Me Dead merely becomes a repetitive, feature-length game of hide-and-seek, albeit one occasionally augmented by CGI conflagrations and Jolie's imperious cheekbones.
Nutty plotting aside (though I do love that the evildoers' cruelty is underlined by them killing trees, who weren't complicit in any of this), nothing about Sheridan's latest is altogether bad. The effects are serviceable, and the lovely outdoor vistas add mood and texture the way they did in the director's underrated 2017 thriller Wind River. Jon Bernthal is in terrific form as the local sheriff's deputy who's Hannah's ex; Madina Senghore is sensational as his wife, a six-months-pregnant firecracker handy with a motorcycle and a shotgun. And Finn Little is an amazing find, the young Australian actor playing the drama and trauma of the situation when most everyone else seems content to stick with its surfaces. (The 14-year-old Little also navigates an American accent more believably than the Irish Gillen and the British Hoult.)
Yet the narrative unfolds with so little electricity, and the competent genre scenes have so little variety, that at one point, while catching the film on HBO Max, I realized I had been exchanging texts for 10 minutes and had completely forgotten the movie was even on. While I dutifully rewatched what I had missed, I don't think my accidental tuning out had much to do with venue; had I been at the cineplex, those 10 minutes likely would've been lost anyway while I mentally composed a shopping list or glared at someone for his glowing iPhone. A moderately engaging experience that still left me feeling indifferent, Those Who Wish Me Dead really only captured my attention when Jolie, who's in commendable form, was nearly struck by lightning in Hannah's lookout tower – and then later, running from her nemeses in an open field, nearly struck by lightning again. As a kid, I was taught to avoid standing under trees in the advent of a storm. Now, if it's raining, I'll just run in the opposite direction of Angelina Jolie.
THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW
Like Those Who Wish Me Dead, Joe Wright's The Woman in the Window was a new release I viewed in my living room, this long-shelved psychological thriller (originally scheduled for 2019) having finally found a home on Netflix. Unlike the Taylor Sheridan outing, however, this one didn't cause my attention to wander, mostly because it was so hypnotically awful that I couldn't believe my eyes.
Paying homage to Hitchcock's Rear Window, and actually opening with Rear Window playing on its heroine's TV, the movie would seem ideal for inspiring pandemic-era paranoia, telling of an agoraphobic child psychologist (Amy Adams) who's convinced that her across-the-street Brooklyn neighbor has been murdered, only to discover that the woman may not have been killed, and may not even have been real. While that's a simplistic synopsis of a progressively Byzantine storyline (the adaptation of A.J. Finn's novel is by August: Osage County playwright and character-actor great Tracy Letts), the early scenes are rather encouraging, with Julianne Moore a ravishingly cool yet delightfully down-to-earth Hitchcock blonde and Fred Hechinger initially outstanding as the murdered (or was she?) woman's 15-year-old son. But working in a deliberately theatrical, maximalist style familiar from his 2012 period drama Anna Karenina – a style that doesn't at all suit the pulpy material here – Wright goes on to direct his performers toward presentational, proscenium-arch fraudulence, leaving Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeanine Serralles, and Letts himself to look strikingly amateurish when they don't appear deeply confused. (Gary Oldman, whom Wright directed to an Oscar win for Darkest Hour, is back in ultra-hammy mode, but not the fun kind.) The artificiality of Adams' five-story brownstone – an expansive set that, á la Rear Window, houses nearly all of the action – would be more enjoyable if it had been employed for much beyond a convenient basement and a really convenient skylight.
And even though Adams, portraying another alcoholic drug abuser, is leagues better than she was in last fall's Hillbilly Elegy, seeing her again in incessant red-eyed misery is exhausting, with the performer unable to salvage the lamentable plot twists, the surprisingly (for Letts) inert dialogue, or the truly inane climax, which is like Hitchcock stripped of all thematic resonance and common sense. The Woman in the Window might be Wright's worst film. It definitely boasts his worst direction. So both he and we should be relieved, I suppose, that this thing landed on Netflix, where it can be mocked for a little while before vanishing into the boundless streaming stockpile, hopefully never to be thought of again.
A prototypical romantic comedy/drama with an aggressive amount of plot, writer/director Brian Baugh's Finding You was, I thought, unfailingly pleasant and oftentimes charming. Try telling that, however, to my fellow patrons (an assemblage of about a half-dozen socially distanced couples) at a recent matinée screening, because they went nuts for it, roaring at the gentle jokes and the male lead's weird smile that resembled a sneer, and sniffling at the obvious melodrama like it was opening day for Love Story. Even at films I don't personally care for, I'm always happy to hear cineplex attendees enjoying themselves. But this was ridiculous; the mini-crowd's boisterous reactions were so incongruous with the featherweight geniality on-screen that I began wondering if we were even watching the same movie. I kind of wish I had seen the one they did. The one I got, though, wasn't bad.
After botching her audition for a prestigious New York conservatory, violinist Taylor Risdale (Rose Reid) embarks on a decompression-minded trip to Ireland, meeting obnoxious Hollywood heartthrob Beckett Rush (Jedidiah Goodacre) on the plane and eventually falling for the guy while they stay – wouldn't you know it? – at the same rural B&B. Adding the lush, rolling hills and the endearing Irish stereotypes on hand to complicate matters, we're deeply in rom-com(-dram) domain even though Reid and Goodacre don't share heated chemistry so much as best-pal chemistry, and even though neither of the sweetly sincere performers are terribly magnetic screen presences. (Goodacre resembles a love child of Matthew McConaughey and Heath Ledger who didn't inherit the charisma of either parent.) Still: Two cute leads and wacky support and eye-wateringly beautiful green landscapes would've been enough. Baugh gives us more than enough.
Beyond the expected genre highs and lows, we have Taylor's impending final audition to consider, as well as the young woman learning to loosen up her playing through the coaching of the town-drunk fiddler (Patrick Bergin), plus a mystery involving a cemetery cross sketched by her late older brother. Beckett has arcs of his own, trying to juggle his former-child-star insecurities, his tabloid romance with a co-star (Katherine McNamara), his unscrupulous manager/father (a sufficiently hateful Tom Everett Scott), and the filming of a swords-and-sorcery adventure with marauding dragons. (Amusingly, we get to see what the green-screened effects for the film will inevitably look like, and they're only half-bad.) There's time spent with the friendly B&B proprietors (Fiona Bell and Claran McMahon), and their fan-girl daughter (the wonderful Saoirse-Monica Jackson, who's like a feistier Florence Pugh), and various locals either fawning over or oblivious to Beckett's self-adoration.
Most of those detours are enjoyable distractions. The only one that truly moved me, however, involved Taylor's school-mandated visits to an elderly nursing-home shut-in, a character played by someone who looked uncannily like Vanessa Redgrave but spoke in a seemingly legit Irish brogue, and in a vocal register at least a full octave higher than the stage and screen legend's. Ashamedly, I arrived to my Finding You screening too late to catch the opening credits, and because she was so funny and touching and refreshingly unsentimental, I couldn't wait to learn the name of this incredible Redgrave doppelgänger. Holy crap: It was Redgrave, who was physically recognizable but in no way vocally recognizable, and who treated the act of slumming in agreeably forgettable entertainment like it was the most worthy performance assignment on earth. Because to Redgrave, I'd imagine, it isn't slumming. It's an opportunity. Aspiring actors, take note: Redgrave's isn't just the career to aspire to. It's the attitude to aspire to.
Based on Anna Erelle's nonfiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist, Timur Bekmambetov's cyber-thriller Profile follows a British journalist (Valene Kane) who goes online to convince a terrorist recruiter (Shazad Latif) that she's an Islam convert considering a Syrian life with ISIS, and it's a pretty decent, modestly scary piece of work. Wanted director Bekmambetov proves effective at knowing how and where to position our gaze; the narrative has a fair amount of drive, if also a lot of unfortunate repetition; and while Kane is good, Latif is superb, demonstrating precisely how scores of desperate Westerners could conceivably become seduced, virtually, by a smooth-talking charmer with apparent romantic intentions, gobs of cash, and an impressive way with a soccer ball.
But while the pandemic screwed up release strategies for loads of movies, you have to feel particularly bad for Profile, because just like Unfriended, Searching, and other thrillers from the last six years, the whole thing unfurls on a makeshift computer screen, and we only get to see what our intrepid/foolish journalist does. Images occasionally freeze. Skype calls are accidentally dropped. Messages are sent on the wrong social-media platforms. It all transpires like a particularly edgy and uncomfortable Zoom meeting. Bekmambetov's offering is clever and sometimes stirring. But after the 15 months we've just endured, who wants to trek to the cineplex to see that?!