The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 

→Theater

Written by: Jay Basu, Fede Álvarez; Steven Knight

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

2018 has been a productive year for Claire Foy, star of Fede Álvarez’s gritty, Scandinavian-set crime thriller The Girl in the Spider’s Web. In the span of nine months the British actress, perhaps most recognized as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s critically-acclaimed drama series The Crown, has not only appeared but starred in three films, two of which were major studio productions. In March we saw her come undone at the seams in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot, psychological thriller Unsane, and just last month embody resilience as Janet Armstrong, wife of astronaut Neil Armstrong, in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. With Spider’s Web she proves she can take a life as ruthlessly as anyone. (Or, you know, spare it too. But we know better, this Girl isn’t big on compassion.)

Seven years after David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment in Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s so-called Millennium Series, and it’s out with Rooney Mara and in with Claire Foy as Lisbeth (that’s a silent ‘h’) Salander, a steely-nerved spy/computer hacker and brutal dispatcher of men “who hurt women,” a vigilante who bears the scars of her own abusive history. It’s also out with Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomkvist and in with someone else, but I’ll get to that later . . . maybe.

Even more confusingly, unless you’ve done your homework and actually seen the Swedish films adapted from each of the original three books, this belated follow-up pursues a narrative that technically kicks off a second “trilogy,” one authored not by Larsson but by David Lagercrantz, who was granted rights for continuity after the original author passed away suddenly in 2004. Lagercrantz’s first contribution to the series details Salander’s bloody dealings with cyber-terrorists and corrupt government officials alike as she attempts to recover and destroy a doomsday program created by a man named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant). Along the way, Lisbeth must also deal with a past that comes back to bite her. Like a . . . like a spider.

First things first. Foy is enough to get you caught up in Spider’s Web. She takes a pedestrian thriller and punches it up with a physically bruising performance. Even if Foy is inheriting a lot of the character simply by sitting in a make-up chair — that jet-black hair and shoulder/back tat are definite and transformative trademarks — she plays emotionally detached quite well, her line delivery clipped in a manner that’s brittle and harsh, almost robotic. She perpetuates the tragic, enigmatic aura surrounding the character while delivering a number of harsh blows to her big-bodied opponents.

The story itself isn’t quite as distinguished. Spider’s Web is a pretty formal action flick that hinges upon a macguffin and its being kept out of the wrong hands. Who are the wrong hands exactly? Well, they call themselves The Spiders, which isn’t a very interesting name even if it is conceptually appropriate. Led by Claes Bang’s intimidating Holtser, they’re a shady organization to whom Lisbeth may or may not have a personal connection. Meanwhile, a child savant (Christopher Convery) proves just as crucial to the mission objective as a certain femme fatale (Silvia Hoeks, good but a plain Jane villain compared to her Luv in the Blade Runner sequel). The boy’s affinity for numbers and patterns just might help forward The Spiders’ nefarious agenda. Further complicating matters is corrupt deputy director of Swedish security Gabrielle Grane (Norwegian actress Synnøve Macody Lund).

Lisbeth may be a capable heroine, but she will also need more help than her computer hacking skills to combat her foes this time. Aiding in the quest is the return of the aforementioned and new-look Michael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), and hacking friend Plague (Cameron Britton). And for contrast’s sake, we even get an American in on the action in the form of Lakeith Stanfield‘s NSA security agent Edwin Needham. His motives may be guided more by plot than professional objectivity but Stanfield is a good actor and watching him round out the numbers for Team Salander is undeniably fun.

Álvarez, whose previous film (the mainstream-unfriendly Don’t Breathe) is distinguished for his directorial creativity, certainly isn’t as inspired here even with $43 million to throw around. But Spider’s Web‘s lack of chutzpah might not be entirely on his shoulders, considering the material he’s adapting isn’t quite as politically and intellectually charged as what came before. With the passing of the baton from Larsson to Lagercrantz came a (so I’m told, fairly radical) change of style, the latter doubling down on pulpier action. As has already been proven, Álvarez is adept at spiking the adrenaline, whether that’s an early scene where the girl with a black Ducati vroom-vrooms away in the nick of time across a sliver of ice or a big set piece involving a movable bridge helps her evade capture for just another minute.

Spider’s Web is a classic case of style over substance, Foy’s uniquely restrained performance defiant in the face of all that generic cybercrime stuff. In the end it proves to be a competent action flick but it lacks the depth, both in terms of world-building and what we come to learn about the character itself, to truly qualify as a so-called “new Dragon Tattoo story.”

“Ugh. Get a room you two. . .”

Recommendation: Your fairly standard action romp elevated by a strong central performance and an appropriately icy setting. Fans of the actress are encouraged to apply while fans of Larsson’s original books might want to take a rain check. Dragon Tattoo 2.0 this ain’t.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Are you not Lisbeth Salander, the righter of wrongs? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? The girl who hurts men who hurt women?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Widows

Release: Friday, November 16, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Gillian Flynn; Steve McQueen

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, master of the discomforting drama, is back at it again with Widows, an uncommonly menacing heist thriller that makes room for trenchant social commentary in between fits of short-lived but significant action. Given his past films, I guess I understand the sentiment but I still think it’s disingenuous to describe his brand of crime drama as purely popcorn-spilling entertainment. That’s what The Italian Job and Ocean’s Whatever Number We’re On Now are good at. Realized through some of the year’s most intense performances, Widows is SERIOUS (and seriously good).

The fun begins when a multi-million-dollar robbery goes awry leading to the deaths of professional criminals Harry (Liam Neeson), Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss). As it usually goes, the amount stolen isn’t really the story, it’s from whom they’ve stolen and how badly the aggrieved party wants it back. That isn’t so much a problem for the men anymore, but it is for the wives they’ve abruptly left behind. It’s especially problematic for Veronica (Oscar winner Viola Davis), whose beloved Harry was the one who decided it would be a good idea to thieve $2 million in campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss gunning, quite literally, for county alderman in Chicago’s South Side — a seat seemingly forever occupied by the notoriously racist Mulligan clan. Oscar winner Robert Duvall plays the incumbent Tom Mulligan.

With a disgruntled Manning breathing down her neck (also quite literally), Veronica finds herself with no choice but to attempt to carry on the work of her late husband, whose scent still clings to the pillows and bedsheets. When she comes across Harry’s notebook, in which lay detailed plans and building schemata for a future job worth $5 million, she rounds up two of the other four widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), with the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon), keeping her distance. In two hectic weeks this crew, bound only by circumstance, will have to bring themselves to not only face the realities of what their husbands did to provide, but they must also make their tricks their own. They’ll also need a getaway driver (Cynthia Erivo).

On paper, that seems like the groundwork for your traditional heist plot. But McQueen’s films have always been complex works, the material rooted in the concept of freedom, whether that’s political (as in Hunger, wherein IRA member Bobby Sands led his fellow inmates on a hunger strike in an effort to be recognized as British POWs), sexual (such as we witnessed in Brandon Sullivan’s self-destruction in Shame), or civil (see Solomon Northup trying to untangle himself from the antebellum south in 12 Years a Slave). They’ve consistently been challenging viewing experiences as we’ve seen the things the suppressed and oppressed have had to sacrifice in order to gain said freedoms.

The kind of freedom Widows is concerned with is maybe less obvious. This is about what having money — a lot of it! — can provide (a new life maybe, but also political influence, the tools needed to change a current and possibly loathsome paradigm — precisely what the Mannings are aiming for here, albeit via morally bankrupt methods), and, conversely, the desperation that arises in its absence. By extension, having money means having the freedom of choice and McQueen (who wrote the screenplay with best-selling author Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame) seamlessly dovetails the economic with the societal, making the crux of the action — indeed, the execution of the heist itself — about more than a matter of financial necessity. This is an emotional gauntlet that sees the quartet evolve from prized possessions to steely-nerved agents of their own liberation. They’ll use this robbery to simultaneously pay back a debt, make a little profit and break free from a past where not everything is as sunny as it once seemed.

Some trajectories are more compelling than others. Debicki’s Alice is a truly heartbreaking character, a pretty girl held hostage to abusive relationships and whose own mother (Jacki Weaver) compounds her low self-esteem by encouraging her to sell her skin as a way to support herself. See also the extraordinarily confident Veronica, whose arc is responsible for some of Widows‘ biggest moments. Davis is a dominant force, but what else is new? Sadly we don’t get quite as close to Rodriguez’s clothing store owner, which is a shame because this is a more mature role for an actress I will forever link (ironically) to the heist-driven Fast & Furious franchise.

Beyond its thematic textures, what makes Widows a cut above your standard procedural — get-in, get-out and get-away-for-good — is how large the threat of physical violence looms; how grave the situation is. The men in the film are almost universally antagonistic, imposing figures, whether that’s Brian Tyree Henry’s physical size or the omnipresence of his character’s younger, psychotic brother Jatemme (a nightmarish Daniel Kaluuya), or Robert Duvall leaning upon decades of dramatic clout to justify his slightly more histrionic outbursts. The complex political landscape of inner-city Chicago is brought to life by these excellent performances, a number of which are destined for awards consideration.

Ultimately Widows is grittily entertaining, but more importantly it sends a powerful message of what it can look like and how it can feel to be female and empowered in an era where the leader of the free world is boasting about grabbing his fellow Americans by the crotch.

Recommendation: Elegant in style, bleak in tone and often uncomfortable to watch, Widows is absolutely a product of British director Steve McQueen. That might be all the endorsement I need to give. This movie kicked my ass, and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Avery

Release: Thursday, November 15, 2018

→Starbucks/my house

Written by: fate, apparently

Directed by: meteorological patterns, a.k.a. Winter Storm Avery

Avery is a little independent drama that showed up in northeastern New Jersey/Pennsylvania, seemingly out of nowhere. With the potential to drop anything from 4 to 7 inches of early-season crud as well as freezing rain/ice accumulations of up to another quarter-inch, it’s perhaps too early a reminder of what we all went through last season, when back-to-back storms that dumped at least a foot each hit the northeastern US and rendered millions without power and heating for up to a week. Avery may well be a quality storm, but man is it ill-timed. I’ve only now exhausted the last of my Halloween candy.

In a common refrain heard all over town today, this is indeed, bullshit.

At least this isn’t 2011, when “Snowtober” brought an unexpected early Christmas present — and by early I mean, a winter storm predating Halloween that year. I wasn’t living in the Garden State at the time, but I’ve heard the stories — of the juxtaposition of orange pumpkins against pillows of snow, of tree branches snapping all the way down the line on Cobblestone Lane, resulting from the unique, combined weight of snow and leaves that still had yet to fall. Sagas of multi-day power-outages and of dedicated parents driving their kids to neighborhoods that still had power to keep the spirit of trick-or-treating alive. I heard that a town called Peru, in Massachusetts, received a whopping 32 inches in that one storm.

Crazy, right? But what does any of this have to do with movies, you ask? I guess nothing, at least not directly. This snow does, however, mean I will not be risking my safety to drive to the theater to see Steve McQueen’s Widows tonight. That’s assuming Cinépolis stays open through the weather, too. So unfortunately I will have to delay on that review, and a couple others as well (like Beautiful Boy, Boy Erased, and Overlord — yikes!).

Despite all the inconvenience (woe as me, I can’t see the movies that I want to!) I would like to thank Avery for forcing me to stay put tonight and actually, for once, watch a movie at home. Maybe even in front of a fire. With hot chocolate. (Marshmallows?) So in anticipation of the bullshit that is to come I went to a Red Box kiosk last night and, would ya know, they have that crazy-looking, Nic Cage-starring Mandy in their collection! (And that got me to thinking, too; what was the last movie that I watched via Red Box and then also reviewed? It has been some time, I think since last September when I checked out British war drama Their Finest.) So with any luck I will have my reaction to another bat-shit Nic Cage flick in the coming days. I am pretty hungry to get to that, seeing as the reviews on it have largely been raves. There have been some savage rips of it as well, and that only further intrigues me.

But first, time to shovel the driveway. Damn it.


Have you seen Mandy? What about any of the other aforementioned movies? Any suggestions on what I should see first? 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Release: Friday, October 19, 2018 (limited) 

→Theater

Written by:  Nicole Holofcener; Jeff Whitty

Directed by: Marielle Heller

Can You Ever Forgive Me? reflects on the life and crimes of Leonore Carol Israel, a Brooklyn-based journalist who, despite making an honest living in the 1970s and ’80s writing biographies of high-profile women, one time even landing on the New York Times Bestseller list, is remembered today for her misguided — indeed, criminal — attempts at career resurrection by way of embellishing and forging literary items on behalf of deceased authors and other famous people. SNL alumna Melissa McCarthy takes on the challenge of portraying the curmudgeonly woman, and the results simply beg the question: where has this Melissa McCarthy been all this time?

In her sophomore feature, director Marielle Heller returns with a familiarly but still surprisingly sympathetic treatment of a subject who might have otherwise come out looking a lot worse in the hands of another filmmaker. Her 2015 début, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was rightfully praised for how it approached its taboo material (premature sex with an incestuous twist; drug-addled, laissez-faire parenting styles) with maturity and blunt honesty. In the process it introduced audiences to the talents of young British actress Bel Powley, who demonstrated confidence beyond her years with the way she handled such seedy material. With her follow-up feature it almost feels like Heller is giving us another formal introduction, this time to Melissa McCarthy the thespian, not the physical punchline she has become typecast as.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based upon and named after the memoir Israel published in 2008, an unapologetic and humorously self-deprecating tell-all about the mischief she got into after the ’90s arrived and brought with them the winds of change, an evolving market rendering her celebrity bios a thing of the past. Interestingly, the publishing of that very memoir as well as the publisher itself, Simon & Schuster, faced criticism as many viewed it to be merely another cash grabbing opportunity by a recognized poseur.

The film picks up right as Israel is falling on hard times, getting the boot from a late-night copy editing job, one in a string of failed attempts to secure a more reliable source of income. She shuffles back to an apartment apropos of a recluse, a poorly lit cavern smelling to high heaven as a result of long-sitting cat poop that has also drawn flies like a biblical plague. That cat, her best friend, is in desperate need of medical attention, but that’s a luxury for someone like Israel, whose abrasive personality turns off just about everyone she comes across — including the vet, with whom she unsuccessfully attempts to haggle. Rare exceptions are an old friend in Jack Hock (a wonderful Richard E. Grant) and Anna, a cheery bookstore owner (Dolly Wells).

Of the few (and strained) relationships she has, arguably the rockiest is with Marjorie (Jane Curtain), her agent. She takes the brunt of the hostility largely due to the writer believing she isn’t doing all that she can to get her Fanny Brice book off the ground. As Marjorie reminds her, it’s the 1990s and no one’s pining for biographies of 1920s vaudeville starlets. Exasperated, Israel turns to selling off what few personal possessions she has, including a letter written to her by actress Katherine Hepburn, an apparent acquaintance. However, it isn’t until she discovers another letter, this one by the very subject of her new project tucked inside a relevant book, that a lightbulb appears above Israel’s head.

What if I jazz these letters up, add more of a personal touch to them? I wouldn’t pass them off as my own creations, but rather as original insights of long since passed playwrights and authors. And I’ll use a variety of typewriters to create the desired effects. Genius, no? You know what, save your opinions. I know it’s genius. If you never forgive me, c’est la vie. 

Heller, working from a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, has created an intimate character study that foregrounds a minimal, lonely existence against the hustle and bustle of New York. There’s less than a handful of significant characters involved, but their interactions are meaningful and tinged with a profound sadness, an emptiness, a longing for something more. Everyone in the movie brings their A-game, but McCarthy is simply a revelation as the caustically witted writer.

So good is she, in fact, that you tend to overlook what Grant brings to the scene as Jack Hock, an aging rapscallion who has suffered his own fair share of heartbreak in the past and faces a great deal of hardship in the present. A gay man about town, he lives day to day for new adventures, scrounging for happiness in an era where people avoided celebrities like basketball star Magic Johnson because they didn’t want their sickness to literally rub off on them. When he conspires with a miscreant, now selling “her work” to every literary dealer in town, he finds a new lease on life. Together, the two form a kindred spirit that gives what could have been a cold movie a surprisingly warm, beating heart.

Israel’s fate may be obvious, even before the killjoys from the FBI show up, but it is a testament to the performances and the steady, confident direction supplied by Heller that we get swept up in the misadventure and actually enjoy the ride, in spite of all the misery.

Who you gonna call?

Recommendation: Reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, this is a deeply human drama about personal and professional dignity, of failure and success. It’s one of my favorite movies of 2018, by far. Can You Ever Forgive Me? will win you over with performances that are both heartbreaking and mischievously entertaining.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “This next song goes out to all the agoraphobic junkies who couldn’t be here tonight.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Month in Review: October ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

October is a tough month to survive if you aren’t as into horror as others are, and if you don’t necessarily make your blogging bread-and-butter out of talking about scary movies. As long time readers of this award-winning blog (I’m not bullshitting you — I got a Liebster Award, ya’ll!) are aware, I have slowly but surely been gaining an appreciation for the genre over these years, in part thanks to a number of great sources whose awareness of what’s actually out there has inspired me to do some digging myself. In the years since doing this, my definition of horror and what’s “scary” has evolved, and I really like that.

With that said, I don’t think I produced one single horror review this past month. It wasn’t like I planned this, or that I had no options (the resurrection of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in David Gordon Green’s Halloween: The Great Retcon, or can I interest you in a new Jeremy Saulnier picture in Hold the Dark?) Man, I really messed this thing up this month, didn’t I? I think the scariest thing that happened was the backlash following Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a movie about astronaut Neil Armstrong and his successful Moon landing. The number of ignorant comments I read regarding that movie was truly frightening. It’s one thing to not like the way the film was made — in fact that’s understandable — but it’s quite another to dismiss First Man as a work of fiction or the omission of the flag planting symbolic of “typically Hollywood revisionist history.”

With that off my chest, it’s time now to take a look back on what films I did review this month on Thomas J (plus two bonus blurbs on things I ran out of time on). Let’s do it!

Beer of the Month: 21st Amendment’s Back in Black IPA


New Posts

New Releases: A Star is Born (2018); First Man; mid90s


Another Double-Header 

Bad Times at the El Royale · October 12, 2018 · Directed by Drew Goddard · Boasting a talented and inspired ensemble cast and an atmosphere rich in foreboding, Drew Goddard’s Agatha Christie throwback mystery-thriller, set at the titular El Royale — a once-happenin’ travel destination set on the California/Nevada border now falling to the wayside — follows multiple perspectives as a group of guests become caught up in a fight for survival as slowly but surely each one’s true identity becomes revealed. A film packed with fun performances, including Jeff Bridges as Father Flynn, Jon Hamm as a “vacuum cleaner salesman” and Chris Hemsworth as a cult leader with a Thor-like physique (but far less in the way of David Koresh-like credibility), Bad Times‘ true gem lies in Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet. I flat-out loved that character. One of my favorites of the year, in fact. The central mystery keeps you engaged, even if you might sniff out who the survivors will be sooner than Goddard might have intended. (3.5/5)

The Sisters Brothers · October 19, 2018 · Directed by Jacques Audiard · A modern western that fails to draw you in in the way it really could have, the star-driven The Sisters Brothers is still worthy of your time. But with great star power comes great responsibility. With characters brought to life by the likes of John C. Reilly (as the elder Eli Sister), Joaquin Phoenix (as gin-soaked Charlie Sister), Jake Gyllenhaal (as John Morris) and Riz Ahmed (as gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm — what a freakin’ name!), it’s a frustration that the film never builds enough energy and intrigue around the obviously committed performances. The story emphasizes character over traditional western shoot-’em-up action. Over the course of two REALLY LONG hours, the ideological divide between its leads takes center stage, with one Sister wanting out while the other brother is resolutely all about this life. Survival is dealt with in a more grisly manner than what many might expect, particularly of a movie that also bills itself as a comedy. Aside from a compellingly subversive ending, I think my biggest takeaway from The Sisters Brothers is that there is no substitute for good, honest, hard labor when it comes to looking for gold during the height of the Gold Rush. Chemistry has never seemed so . . . gross. (3/5) 


ANYWAY. How was your Halloween?