The Girl in the Spider’s Web


Lisabeth is not someone you want to cross.

(2018) Suspense (MGM/ColumbiaClaire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, LaKeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Beau Gadsdon, Carlotta van Falkenhayn, Stephen Merchant, Christopher Convery, Claes Bang, Synnøve Macody Lund, Cameron Britton, Vicky Krieps, Andreja Pejic, Mikael Persbrandt, Thomas Wingrich, Andreas Tietz, Paula Schramm. Directed by Fede Alvarez

One of the most intriguing literary characters to come along in the last fifteen years is Lisbeth Salander, the avenging angel/hacker/righter of wrongs/badass from Stieg Larson’s Millennium trilogy and the David Lagerkrantz novels that succeeded it after Larson’s death. While the Swedish Millennium films ended up being massive art house hits, the two big budget attempts from MGM/Columbia both flopped. It wasn’t because of the lead actresses.

Lisbeth Salander (Foy) is living off the grid, using her uncanny computer skills to help out a security firm. In her spare time, she punishes the abusers of women, as she herself was a victim of sexual abuse from both her father and her guardian. It’s enough to make you hate men – and I’m a man!

She get involved with a remorseful computer programmer (Merchant) who wants her to steal his program from the American military, which will gain too much power from it. She is assisted by an NSA agent (Stanfield), crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Gudnason) and fellow hacker Plague (Britton). Opposing her are the Spiders, a global criminal gang and one of their finest operatives (Hoeks) – who happens to be Lisbeth’s sister.

There is definitely some post-feminist anger deep in the DNA of this series and Alvarez manages to capture it without blunting its impact too much. The veteran horror director also proves he’s no slouch with action sequences, including a thrilling motorcycle chase. Alvarez has a very strong visual style – the white and grey of a Swedish winter is juxtaposed with the bright red attire of the Spider Queen.

Sadly, neither this film – a “soft reboot” of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – nor its predecessor measure up to the Swedish trilogy. Maybe Hollywood just doesn’t get the subtleties that make the Swedish versions superior; sometimes, a big budget is actually detrimental to a film. That isn’t to say that this is a bad movie – it’s certainly entertaining, and Foy does a magnificent job. It’s just not as high-quality by comparison.

REASONS TO SEE: Well-staged action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Neither American film holds a candle to the Swedish film series and Noomi Rapace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stieg Larson, who created the Millennium series of novels, originally planned for ten books in the series but passed away in 2004 after writing only three. His partner Eva Gabrielson has possession of his notes outlining the remaining books, but because they were never married the literary rights passed to his father and brother. With both sides unable to agree on what direction the series was to take, the family commissioned writer David Lagerkrantz to continue the series. This book is based on his first effort, the fourth official book in the series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Gelateria

Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant


Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

John C. Reilly can't really explain why the film bombed.

(Universal) John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Orlando Jones, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Michael Cerveris. Directed by Paul Weitz

After the success of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, the studios are searching for the next young adult cash cow that will fill their coffers and up their bonuses. The results have been a mixed bag, mostly of failures – some of them spectacularly so. The Saga of Darren Shan, a 12-book teen vampire series, gets it’s turn at the plate.

Darren Shan (Massoglia) is a good kid; he loves spiders, gets good grades and never gets in trouble. That is, unless he’s in the company of Steve (Hutcherson) who’s the poster boy for “bad influence.” Steve has a cruel streak in him, prone to fits of vandalism and rage and pushes Darren to do things he would never ordinarily do.

One of those things is to attend a freak show that has taken up residence in a decrepit old theater in town (which appears to be New Orleans, where the movie was filmed – transplanted from the UK where the books are set). They pay their money, get bitten by a small furry creature in the ticket booth (now that spells enticement) and are met by gigantic doorman Mr. Tall (Watanabe) who ushers them inside in a sort of teenage fantasy sequence (no ID needed).

The show is hosted by Larten Crepsley (Reilly), with flaming red hair and a wardrobe that he got at the estate sale of the Strawberry Alarm Clock. The show has some fairly freaky characters, including the truly deformed Alexander Ribs (Jones) and a snake boy (Fugit). However, when Steve convinces Darren to steal a fist-sized spider that looks like a bad LSD trip, complete with garish colors, they discover that Crepsley is actually a vampire. Steve wants very badly to become one, but Crepsley doesn’t think he qualifies; he’s a bit too cruel and vampires, contrary to common belief, are actually quite gentle.

Through a series of misadventures, Steve is driven to death’s door largely due to Darren, who feels much guilt over this. Enough guilt in fact that it leads Darren to Mr. Crepsley’s door, who in exchange for saving Steve’s life turns Darren into a half-vampire, someone who can run Crepsley’s errands during the day (while sunlight doesn’t turn vampires into a plume of smoke, fire and ash , extended exposure can be fatal) as his assistant.

Unfortunately, this isn’t particularly a good time to be a vampire because they are at war with the Vampaneze who are led by the creepy but jovial Mr. Tiny (Cerveris) and the creepy but creepy Murlaugh (Stevenson). Darren is caught in the middle between the two as is the Cirque, much to the dismay of Mr. Tall. Perhaps Darren’s extended lifespan will be a lot briefer than he anticipated.

The movie is based on the first three books of the 12-book saga, which in my opinion is never a good idea. There is so much going on that sometimes you get a feeling of disorientation, like you’ve been on a runaway roller coaster in the dark. The filmmakers might have been better served to take one book and embellish it some, or even combine the first two books. The three-book thing is like trying to cram a 52” waist into 30” jeans.

Director Paul Weitz has some very good films on his resume (including About a Boy and In Good Company) and this one isn’t as bad as I was led to believe it was. Sure, the plot is a bit of a mess and Dafoe’s Gavner Purl character serves to drop in from time to time, snarl out some exposition, and then disappear until further exposition is needed. That’s a criminal waste of talent as far as I’m concerned.

There’s plenty of talent in front of the camera though, starting with Reilly who gives Crepsley a kind of monotonic vocal intonation that seems nearly like a stoner until he goes into kick-ass mode. It’s an outstanding performance, worth a full point all by itself. There is also a good deal of special effects, most of which are pretty fun. I found that the whole movie had a Tim Burton-esque air to it that pays homage to such things as Beetle Juice and The Nightmare Before Christmas and especially The Corpse Bride without seeming derivative.

Unfortunately, the good-hearted Darren is just way too bland to sustain any interest, which I think is more a function of the way the character was written than an indictment of young Chris Massoglia’s acting skills. For my money, most lead characters need a hint of something a little bit dark in order to hold the audience’s interest. Characters that are too good are also not believable, and the audience begins to actually resent them. That may be just me talking, now.

So it’s another swing and a miss for a potential film franchise. It’s a shame too – I’m all for big franchises like Harry Potter. This might have made a good one too if they didn’t try so hard to turn it into a franchise, even giving it a bit of a cliffhanger ending that obviously sets up the next film which, judging on the anemic box office receipts and DVD sales, is never going to be made. It will be relegated to the Island of Failed Franchises where it will be greeted by The Golden Compass which was coincidentally directed by Paul’s brother Chris, and other films like Eragon, The Dark is Rising: The Seeker, The Spiderwick Chronicles and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief among many, many others. There is a lesson to be learned here; if you want to establish a profitable franchise, start by making an extraordinary movie that will excite the imagination of not just the target audience but of every audience. That’s what makes Harry Potter so commercially viable. On the other hand the Twilight series taps into a large predominantly female audience that is absolutely rabid; but that’s the exception, not the rule.

WHY RENT THIS: Reilly is a hoot as Crepsley. The effects are pretty nifty. A good deal of Tim Burton-like quirkiness.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Yet another attempt at young adult fantasy fiction franchise that falls flat. While not an epic fail, is still a fail – the filmmakers should have stuck to one or maybe two books for source material instead of taking on three; they tried to cram too much in.

FAMILY VALUES: Due to the violence and thematic issues, I’d think twice before letting younger children see this. Otherwise, it should be okay for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The score was composed by Stephen Trask, better known as the composer/lyricist behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39M in total box office on a $40M production budget; the film flopped.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Planet 51

Salt


Salt

Do you get the feeling Angelina Jolie is watching an entirely different movie?

(Columbia) Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Andre Braugher, Hunt Block, Olek Krupa, Daniel Pearce, Cassidy Hinkle, Yara Shahidi, Jordan Lage, Vladislav Koulikov, Olya Zueva. Directed by Phillip Noyce

It is somewhat emblematic of the flaccid crop of movies this summer that this movie is one of the best reviewed of the season, with some critics heaping critical praises on it that it scarcely deserves. Let’s get to the salient facts.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a spy; let’s get that straight first off. It’s not much of a spoiler, since the trailer tells you she is. She is evidently not a very good spy, because when we first meet her she’s been captured and is being tortured by the North Koreans.

She is eventually released and returns back to the CIA – or at least the petrochemical company that fronts for the CIA – and is preparing for an anniversary dinner for her arachnologist husband (Diehl), complete with intricately folded napkins. Nothing says romance more than linen folded into origami after all. However, dinner is going to have to wait; a Russian defector has walked into the CIA front building – apparently the CIA isn’t very good at hiding in plain sight either – and it is up to Evelyn to interrogate the guy since, well, nobody else in the CIA can do it, right?

Her boss Ted Winter (Schreiber) is eager to catch a plane, she wants to get to her anniversary dinner and the by-the-book agent Peabody (Ejiofor) just wants to take over because he apparently is the special agent in charge of Russian defections. Unfortunately, their plans are all thrown for a loop when Orlov (Olbrychski), the defector in question, informs them that a sleeper agent is planning to murder the Russian president on U.S. soil at the funeral of the Vice President the very next day. The name of the sleeper agent? Evelyn Salt.

All Jason Bourne breaks out right about then. Salt, knowing that her husband is going to be targeted – apparently this has happened before – decides she doesn’t have time to wait around to be interrogated and escapes. Orlov, channeling Rosa Klebb of From Russia with Love, boots himself out of an elevator. This would be the perfect time for a car chase, don’t you think?

There is certainly plenty of action here, some of it pretty nifty. Noyce, who directed the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, has a steady hand when it comes to action sequences, and while he doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, the action comes at you thick and fast, with Jolie leaping out of moving vehicles, out of helicopters and onto moving trucks and vans. She beats up everybody she can get her hands on, and a few that she can’t.

My problem with the movie isn’t so much the action but what lies between. I was never able to connect to Salt and there’s a reason for it. The whole is-she-or-isn’t-she theme of the movie only works if you aren’t sure if she is or she isn’t, and so she has to be enigmatic by definition, which makes it difficult for us to relate to her. Quite frankly, it should be fairly obvious early on whether she is or isn’t, and those who aren’t sure, look to the extraneous characters to help you figure it out. You know the ones; they only exist for a specific plot point that will become critical later in the film. These are the kinds of characters that are usually found in bad movies.

I know I’m being a bit harsh on Salt and I should temper it by saying that there are a lot of things in the positive column. Jolie, for one thing, is a terrific action hero, maybe the best female action hero not named Sigourney Weaver. Reportedly, she did a lot of her own stunts, which would make her one kickass broad, based on what I saw here. Certainly some of her parkour-like fighting moves were spectacular.

I never really was able to fall in love with the movie, and I was kind of hoping to. I am fond of action movies in general, but I felt like this was Jason Bourne with boobs channeling James Bond, only without being able to capture my rooting interest. It’s really not an awful movie, but it isn’t a great one either.

Sometimes, you can distill your feelings for a movie down to a single word. Concerning my feelings for Salt, that word would be meh.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the action sequences are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: You never get a reason to care about any of this; they’re so busy making Salt a cipher that she never connects with the audience.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a smattering of bad language and some implied sexuality, but nothing the average videogame wouldn’t pack in.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead role was originally written for a male; when Tom Cruise was attached to the movie, it was titled The Mystery of Edwin Salt but when Cruised bowed out to do Knight and Day, Jolie stepped in and the part was substantially rewritten.

HOME OR THEATER: I will have to admit some of the action sequences would be enhanced by the theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Kids Are All Right