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Non-Review Review: Spiral – From the Book of Saw

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is an interesting, if dysfunctional, franchise extension.

The obvious point of contrast is something like Jigsaw, the last attempt to restart the Saw franchise. Jigsaw was released in 2017, two years after Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, and it bet big on a particular kind of nostalgia. It was a film that consciously aspired to evoke the memory of the Saw franchise among an audience that had probably seen an entry or two in the franchise a decade earlier and had vague memories of the experience.

Rocking the boat.

Jigsaw offered a much more polished take on the Saw template, eschewing the grimy green and grey aesthetic of the previous seven films in favour of a crisp sheen. Still, the film worked very hard to demonstrate its affection and veneration for the source material, even while offering superficial updates like moving the action into the countryside and swapping blades for lasers. The company logos at the start of Jigsaw appeared over a remix of Hello Zepp. Billy the Puppet got a makeover. Tobin Bell got considerable screentime as John Kramer, and the film tied itself to his back story and history.

Spiral takes a very different approach to its nostalgia. The film is the first in the series not to feature the character of John Kramer. Billy the Puppet has also been retired. While a variation on Hello Zepp does eventually play, Spiral holds it back and makes the audience wait for the pay-off. Spiral is very much part of the larger Saw franchise, and contains the requisite death traps and even brings back director Darren Lynn Bousman, but it feels like a consciously pared down and “back to basics” approach to the franchise that strips out a lot of the clutter that has accrued over the franchise’s long life span.

Bloody horrific.

This is most notable with the film’s sharp genre shift. While all of the earlier Saw movies had some procedural element that followed law enforcement’s efforts to track down and stop the serial killer, Spiral centres this thread. Spiral is arguably a forensic thriller with gory elements, rather than a gory horror with a dash of forensic thriller for flavour. It’s a clear attempt at a fresh start, with Spiral even relegating the Saw brand to the subtitle while leaning more heavily on the spiral and pig imagery that was largely secondary in the original franchise.

The result is fascinating, even if it doesn’t quite work. Spiral is arguably a “back to basics” take on the Saw franchise, going so back to basics that it draws more heavily from the serial killer thrillers that originally inspired Saw than it does from the Saw movies themselves.

 

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Non-Review Review: Army of the Dead

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead arrives with relatively few expectations.

There’s something very refreshing and very appealing in this, particularly given the way that Snyder has become a cultural flashpoint due to his work on films like Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, not to mention everything involving the production and release (and subsequent restoration) of Justice League. With all of that in the rear view mirror, it is exciting to sit down and watch as Zack Snyder movie that is… just a Zack Snyder movie.

Warding off evil.

Indeed, Army of the Dead is arguably something of a throwback for the director, marking a return to his earliest work. As a hyper-violent zombie action movie with a satirical edge, Army of the Dead invites comparisons to his first feature-length film, his remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. However, Army of the Dead is not a belated sequel or continuation. It is that rare modern big-budget genre film that stands as much on its own as it is possible for a high-concept zombie movie.

Army of the Dead is not a masterpiece by any stretch. It’s a little indulgent and overlong, suffering from the familiar pacing and tonal issues that affect many movies produced by Netflix. However, Army of the Dead is a fun and interesting genre if approached on its own terms. More than anything, freed from the constraints of established properties and shared universes and the ensuing scrutiny, Army of the Dead feels like Snyder is actually having fun. It is hard to begrudge it that.

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Non-Review Review: Thunder Force

There is a recurring joke in Thunder Force about how one character cannot tell a joke. It feels like a metaphor for the film itself.

To be fair, it’s more than just the premise of that joke itself, it is also the execution. The opening section of Thunder Force offers something of an origin story for its two lead characters, Lydia and Emily. The two meet at school. At school, their only other friend is a geeky kid named Clyde. In these flashbacks, Clyde is introduced with an obvious crush on Lydia, and an inability to tell a joke properly. When the film rejoins Lydia in adulthood, Clyde is quickly reintroduced and still unable to tell a joke properly.

A thundering disappointment.

The basic law of comedy – or storytelling – would suggest that this is a plot point being set up so that it might pay off. It is the standard “rule of three.” A concept is introduced to the audience. It is then repeated to establish it. Then, finally, it is subverted. It is that third iteration of the concept that serves as a punchline. It’s the heart of the joke. Instead, Clyde just disappears from the film. His inability to tell a joke is ultimately just an inability to tell a joke. It eats up screentime in building this world, and doesn’t go anywhere.

There’s something almost fourth-wall-breaking in this. It’s a joke about how a character in this movie cannot tell a joke, told in such a way that it isn’t really a joke either. It’s a moment that captures so much of Thunder Force, albeit in an unflattering light. It is also, much like the rest of Thunder Force, painfully unfunny.

The script could use a punch-up.

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Non-Review Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla vs. Kong is in some ways an anticlimax, and not just because it’s arriving on HBO Max rather than as a cinematic blockbuster.

Clocking in at under two hours, Godzilla vs. Kong is technically the shortest entry in the Warner Brothers “Monsterverse” series. It comes in a few minutes shy of Kong: Skull Island and well short of both Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This is strange, given that Godzilla vs. Kong is nominally supposed to be the triumphant climax of this shared universe, the event towards which everything has been building. It’s strange that this clash of titans should up feeling so small.

That sinking feeling.

To be fair, there is a strong sense of an attempted course correction about Godzilla vs. Kong, especially in response to the overcrowded cacophony of King of the Monsters. In many ways, Godzilla vs. Kong is a smaller and more contained movie than King of the Monsters, notably hinging on three core monsters rather than an entire menagerie. It’s also to the credit of director Adam Wingard that Godzilla vs. Kong is a tighter, more contained and more focused film with a greater sense of internal coherence.

Unfortunately, though, there’s very littler surprise or wonder to be found in this titanic throwdown.

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Non-Review Review: The Mauritanian

The Mauritanian is an odd film in a number of ways.

In some ways, The Mauritanian feels like it has arrived late to the party. Obviously, the War on Terror is still a major defining event of the twenty-first century. Guantánamo Bay is still open and housing forty inmates. It’s possible to trace the xenophobia that defines so much of contemporary American politics back to the War on Terror, most obviously by looking at the countries affected by President Donald Trump’s infamous “travel ban.” So the War on Terror is very much an ongoing concern that merits discussion and exploration.

Maur, Maur, Maur…

However, it is also a period of American history that has been very thoroughly explored in film and television, particularly in the context of prestige awards-season releases. The Hurt Locker won Best Picture a decade ago. Zero Dark Thirty was a major awards contender a few years after that. The War on Terror has been dissected through the lens of forensic introspection in movies like The Report and through broad satire in movies like Vice. As such, any movie hoping to explore the War on Terror exists in the shadow of larger culture.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with The Mauritanian. Director Kevin Macdonald’s earnest exploration of the incarceration and torture of Mohamedou Ould Salahi feels like a movie that should have been released during the early wave of this cinematic excavation. Even allowing for the fact that Salahi was only released five years ago, those five years feel like a very long time. The result of all this is that The Mauritanian feels like a movie displaced in time, feeling like a retread of the earliest films grappling with the topic, like Lions for Lambs.

Interrogating the War on Terror.

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Non-Review Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon offers a reminder of just how quietly and efficiently Disney have managed their animated properties.

For a while at the turn of the millennium, the company seemed to struggle to defines its place among younger and hungrier animation studios like Pixar or Dreamworks. The company responded with a push away from the princess-centric movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and Mulan that had anchored their renaissance-era output, pivoting sharply: first to animated movies aimed at boys like Atlantis and Treasure Planet, and then to computer-animated adventures like Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and Bolt.

Raya hope?

However, towards the end of the decade, the company arguably found its feet again, with a wave of somewhat traditionalist stories. The Princess and the Frog is often treated as the end of an era of hand-drawn animation, but it also marked a rejuvenation of the classic “princess” movie. It was followed by Tangled, Frozen, Moana and Frozen II, all of which were computer-animated takes on a familiar Disney archetype.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a reminder of just how sturdy that old “princess” movie template is, demonstrating the hard work that the company has put in to keep its oldest archetype both resonant and recognisable.

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Non-Review Review: The Little Things

The Little Things was reportedly written by John Lee Hancock in the mid-nineties, and it shows.

The film is largely set against the backdrop of October 1990. There frequent reminders that this is effectively a period piece. During the opening sequence, one potential serial killer victim sings along with Roam from the B-52s on her car stereo. Another victim has a pink flyer for No Doubt pinned up on her fridge and a poster for The Lost Boys hanging in her living area. There are repeated references to how Richard Ramirez, “the Night Stalker”, still lingers in the living memory of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A new release window.

However, The Little Things feels like a period piece in some more fundamental ways. Most obviously, there’s the fact that The Little Things exists as a star vehicle, its cast including Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Jared Leto, along with Oscar nominee Rami Malek. The film is not based on any existing intellectual property, even if it is highly derivative in other ways. More than that, it harks back to the serial killer boom of mid-nineties cinema, when big studio films were dominated by procedural thrillers and forensic meditation.

The Little Things is neither an exemplar nor a deconstruction of the genre, but instead a straightforward reminder of its tropes and conventions seemingly cobbled together to construct something close to the statistical mean. The common refrain with a film like The Little Things is to suggest that this is the kind of film that they don’t make any more. The more worrying thought is that The Little Things seems to illustrate why.

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Non-Review Review: Malcolm and Marie

The reactions to Malcolm and Marie have been divided, to the say the least.

On one extreme, some critics have been quick to laud Sam Levinson’s black-and-white character study as a surprise late addition to the awards race, a bracing old-fashioned character drama anchored in two compelling performances that interrogates a relationship that never seems certain whether it will implode or explode. It is the kind of film that invites comparisons to works like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band or even something like Autumn Sonata: characters trapped in a confined space, with the drama ready to boil over.

On the other extreme, critics have been quick to argue that Malcolm and Marie is an indulgent mess anchored in a grossly unlikeable and shallow protagonist that never digs beneath the skin of its central characters. More than that, Levinson seems to use the film as an opportunity to work through his own issues as a promising (and privileged) young filmmaker who feels like he has not necessarily been given the critical respect that he deserves. Malcolm and Marie is a series of self-serious monologues delivered in the aesthetic of a (very pretty) Calvin Klein commercial.

As ever, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

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Non-Review Review: Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire often feels like Netflix resurrected Cannon Films, and tasked them with remaking Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Training Day, without any constraints in terms of logic or internal consistency.

Outside the Wire is a bad film, but it is a bad film in somewhat interesting ways. This is not the dull lifeless quality of Wild Mountain Thyme. It is instead the gonzo “throw everything at the wall, regardless of how it fits together” energy of a film like Serenity or Book of Henry. It is a film that makes a number of bizarre choices that often seem to confusingly double back on one another, to the point that any review of the film inevitably comes across as a deranged play-by-play rather than coherent criticism.

“You’re a droid, and I’m a ‘noid.”

Outside the Wire is set in Eastern Europe in the distant future of 2037, as a new Cold War brews between Russia and the United States, raging as a proxy war in the Ukraine. (It perhaps says something about the state of current politics that this reference feels very dated.) Lieutenant Thomas Harp is a drone pilot. During a routine assignment, he breaks the chain of command and fires a missile that kills two servicemen. As a penalty, Harp is assigned to active duty on the frontier.

This is a fairly standard set-up. It recalls movies that meditate on the morality of drone warfare, like Good Kill or Eye in the Sky. Indeed, as Harp arrives on site, the commanding officer outlines the brutal cynicism of this punishment. “You’re here because somebody deemed the dollar value of your training to be higher than the lives of those two men. If you survive, air force keeps a pilot. If you die, you’re a cautionary tale to all the other fly-by-wire assholes.” The stakes are grounded, logical. The moral at play is clear. Harp is going to learn what war is really like.

Robot Wars.

Then, in the space of three minutes, Harp is assigned to work with an officer named “Leo.” Leo is an oddity. “He’s not like us,” the commanding officer warns. Leo works alone in a large office, filled with records. He listens to vinyl music. He types on an analogue keyboard. Within minutes of arriving, Leo has already conscripted Harp on a covert mission behind enemy lines. It initially seems like Leo is planning to deliver a set of vaccines to a local children’s hospital. “So you’re hearts and minds, sir?” Harp asks. Leo replies, “Yes, I’m hearts and minds. Ostensibly.”

It turns out that the vaccine run that Harp has been assigned moments after arriving to his first active deployment is actually a clandestine strike mission to take out local war lord Victor Koval. Koval is plotting to take control of the Ukrainian nuclear arsenal, and Leo is committed to stopping that from happening. Leo walks Harp through an elaborate exposition machine, involving photo plays and interactive maps. There’s a lot of elaborate detail, but the mission is clear. This is a “save the world” buddy movie.

And then Leo takes off his shirt, and reveals that he is android. All of this is twenty minutes into the film.

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Non-Review Review: Pieces of a Woman

If only Pieces of a Woman were interested in allocating more space to its central female character.

Pieces of a Woman is notable as Vanessa Kirby’s first cinematic lead role. The actor has a long career in theatre and on television, and has made an impression with a couple of strong supporting turns in blockbusters like Mission: Impossible – Fallout or Hobbs and Shaw. However, Pieces of a Woman marks the first time that Kirby takes centre stage, and the film gives her the juicy role of a young woman trying to come to terms with a home birth that ended in tragedy, as her life falls to pieces around her.

Where’s LaBeouf?

Kirby is great in Pieces of a Woman, offering a central performance that is layered and nuanced, one that often opts for interiority instead of extroversion. It’s a quiet performance, but a rich one. Kirby deserves a lot of credit for her work. However, Pieces of a Woman refuses to give Kirby’s performance the credit that it deserves, instead drowning out that powerhouse dramatic in a sea of prestige drama clichés and larger-than-life supporting turns from actors like Shia LeBeouf. Kirby winds up somewhat lost in a film that should be centred on her, through no fault of her own.

If Pieces of a Woman is a story of a fractured response to grief, it often feels like some of the pieces get lost because the film has no real interest in looking.

Pregnant pause.

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