The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

I was rather surprised how successful this was, and how much I enjoyed it. Something of a sequel and reboot for the franchise, following the original three films starring Noomi Rapace and the Western remake of the first of that trilogy,  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by David Fincher that starred Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. Phew, that’s seems a little complicated looking back on it- and rather symptomatic of the state of the film industry these days. Its enough to make this latest film seem rather cynical.

Which does hang over the whole enterprise. Based on a book by David Lagercrantz, in turn based on characters in the original book series by the late Stieg Larsson, the whole thing is an attempt to extend the original book series and films beyond it- a little like James Bond books and films running far beyond the passing of Bond creator Ian Fleming. Characters can so easily gain an immortality of their own far beyond that of original creators, and while it may have noble intentions there is always a sniff of opportunism and money-making in things like this. Its also rather true that in this film, and possibly the original book, there seems a concious intention to shift away from the dark character-based intensity of the Larsson originals and towards a larger espionage/James Bond thriller vibe- perhaps a little like the Jason Bourne franchise. It does feel a little incongruous for Lisbeth here to be drawn into a thriller about a program that can seize control of the world’s nuclear arsenals and leave the world ransom to armageddon- it really does feel more like the plot of a Bond movie.

Which might be a good thing, I don’t know. I certainly quite enjoyed it, because it did seem to be stretching the character a little  and pushing the boundaries- but does it do that too much? I guess that’s more a question for die-hard fans of the Larsson originals to ponder.

Taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander here is Claire Foy, which really seemed a bit of a stretch to me when I became aware of the casting but I have to say it works quite well. There’s a few peculiar moments where Foy seems to suddenly channel the Queen from Netflix’s The Crown (an occasional inflection of her voice, or flash of her eyes, sometimes) but on the whole she’s really intense and surprisingly successful, She manages the physical moments very well too- certainly a far cry from Little Dorrit.

Less successful, and very surprisingly so really, is Sylvia Hoeks as Camilla Salander, the main villain of the film and sister of our heroine. Hoeks was simply brilliant as Luv in BR2049, a really quite complex and nuanced character/performance but here she does seem to simply be a blonde Luv, reprising that role alarmingly in what feels a one-note performance. In Hoeks defence, I suspect it’s more the limitations of the part as written, leaving her little else to really do with it, but its similarity to her character in BR2049 is really disappointing. When I saw her name in the credits my interest in the film was raised considerably as I’ve not seen her in anything else other than BR2049 and I was really curious to see her possibly surprise me, but alas, no, this really is just more of the same.

I gather the box-office returns from this film were quite poor so we are unlikely to see Foy reprise the role in future installments. Perhaps the intent to reboot the series into another film franchise with yet another cast was perceived as cynical and ill-judged, and  got the rewards it deserved.  For myself, the quality of the film (it’s a pretty successful, albeit routine, old-fashioned thriller, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that in a cinema swamped by superhero caped crusaders etc) seemed pretty decent and I found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected. It does make me wonder if sometimes films such as this might be budgeted too highly – I suppose the purported budget of $43 million might seem fairly low in the great scheme of $150 million blockbusters but its returns of just $35 million (with marketing costs etc the film must have been a bit of a bomb financially) would suggest the market simply isn’t strong enough to support films budgeted like this.  If this is indeed the case then its an unfortunate state of affairs, and possibly suggests this kind of thriller might in future be relegated to Netflix/Amazon productions- which is a little sad, to consider that traditional cinema is no longer the place for thrillers like this.

Advertisements

Suspiria (2018)

I’d been looking forward to this since I first saw the trailer; I’ve not seen the 1977 original, and know very little of it, so it’s impossible for me to judge this film in comparison to the original but that first glimpse back in July last year really had me intrigued. Part Twin Peaks, part Kubrick’s The Shining, it looked strange and creepy and wonderful.

Well, it’s certainly strange. Finally turning up on Amazon Prime at last, I looked a little harder and found the 4K stream in particular (Amazon loves to hide the 4K stuff away). This new Suspiria is beautiful to look at; both the cinematography and the art direction (dim lighting, lots of browns and beiges with a muted palette all over really) evokes a real sense of 1970s Germany, of coldness and lack of warmth, the setting having a sense of a marked absence of Nature. Considering the presumed pagan origins of this hidden coven of witches, that void of greens and natural light and warmth is rather telling us something, I suspect. This is like a Wicker Man in concrete.

My main issue with this  Suspiria is that, well, it’s not really scary, which you’ll have to excuse me, but it’s how I judge horror films. Like a number of recent films (Velvet Buzzsaw one of them) it really seems to be an arthouse film posing as a horror film. Failing that, its a film by a director mindfully too sophisticated to resort to usual horror film tropes, resulting in it failing to succeed as one. Sure, there’s a few sequences with some gore etc that may be of distaste to some viewers but as a horror film, it’s really something of a failure. Sure its moody but it has no real scares, or, most damning of all, any tension really.

Its clearly more an intellectual exercise than an emotional or nervy one. I can imagine the film having a tagline ‘for discerning audiences only’. This notion is only reinforced by the peculiar casting of Tilda Swinton as two characters- one the lead tutor of the dance school and the other an old man haunted by the loss of his great love decades before during the war. The make-up for this latter character is either impressive or plain peculiar and other than a technical exercise adds nothing to the film itself- if anything it just proves distracting. I had the feeling that the director Luca Guadagnino is trying to prove something, but I don’t know what. I kept expecting some twist revealing the that the witch and the therapist were either the same person or related somehow like brother and sister thus excusing or explaining the physical similarity between the two, but I was barking up the wrong tree. To me, it added nothing to the film, just left me wondering why they bothered. Perhaps the arthouse crowd think its ingenious.

Likewise there are multiple sub-plots that seem fairly pointless.  There’s a prologue in which a dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has fled the school in fear for her life and soul and tensely warns her therapist (yep, Swinton in male guise), before running off into the night never to be seen again. It promised a threat of almost Lovecraftian hidden horrors but never delivered. There is a vague background noise of terrorist atrocities in the divided city that somehow Patricia is swept up by, but its all off-handed suggestion and not clear. We see a rural religious community in Ohio, America in which a woman (mother of our lead character Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson)) lies on her deathbed. Susie will be cast out or leave from her own choice (it’s not really clear, unless I missed something) and finds herself in Germany auditioning to join the dance school. I suspect she was banished based on revelations at the end of the film.

Suspiria is interesting. Again, its an arthouse movie posing as a horror film and a director perhaps positioning it as an intellectual exercise rather than a deeply involving, tense or scary one. Sure, it has some unnerving moments but it also has long sections that don’t really do or say much of anything. Indeed, for a film that is so intellectual, it seems to have very little to say, or else its message is lost or passed me by. So much of it -the casting of Swinton in two roles, the period setting, the coven politics- didn’t really seem to amount to much of anything other than the director making some obtuse point. Something of a dissapointment really. Or perhaps I need a repeat viewing sometime if the curiosity ever impels me.

 

Creed II (2018)

creed2There’s a really engaging story in this film, and the trouble is, its not whats happening with Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan)- instead I was really interested in the silent giant Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), living a tough existence in Eastern Europe under the rough guidance of his father,  former Russian champion boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, reprising his role from Rocky IV). Their relationship is one of silences and some considerable tensions and was, to me, far more interesting. Munteanu, who I believe is a professional boxer, does a lot with his stares and frowns and while he’s built like a frightening man mountain he exhibits considerable warmth and fragility in his silences, no mean feat for a guy who’s not, I suspect, a professional actor. Had the studio behind this series had the nerve and boldness to follow the first Creed by a film titled Drago which dwelt on Viktor’s rise to success in Eastern Europe thanks to, or in spite of, his father and his father’s own ghosts, and perhaps that led to the inevitable Creed II that we have here, I would have been very happy.  But the cynic in me thinks that likely smells too much like franchise building, so hey ho maybe it’s a good thing after all.

Nonetheless, the biggest weakness of Creed II is that it feels like a by-the-numbers Rocky franchise movie, lacking any of the depth, sensitivity, emotion or sense of meta-reality that the original film did. We know that Adonis Creed will have a crisis of faith, will have personal problems and doubts, and that he’ll somehow turn defeat into victory thanks to Rocky guiding him and a really cool training montage. There’s really not enough surprises here, and Viktor’s story remains the more interesting.

There is, though,  a really great drinking game here- have a shot everytime you see Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) with a new hairstyle. You’ll be under the table before you reach the climactic fight (and consequently might be more surprised by the outcome). I usually like Tessa Thompson but something here just irritated me- likely its really the writing of her character; here she’s no longer a ‘real’ or normal person, she’s too perfect, too beautiful, a singing celebrity in her own right and far too comfortable with the millionaire lifestyle. When she’s singing some maddeningly bombastic song as she leads Adonis down to the ring for the final bout I suddenly realised that this is the one thing the ‘legend’ that is Beckham never dared- imagine Posh serenading him down the tunnel out to the wembley faithful for his last England game there. Would have brought the house down (or emptied the stadium, I’m not sure).

So anyway, Creed II was definitely a disappointment having enjoyed the first film when I finally caught up with it a little while ago. Here’s hoping any eventual Creed III turns its back on the Rocky tropes/mythology and strikes out for something new. Or failing that, lets see that Drago film.

Halloween (2018)

hall1.jpgHalloween 2018 starts out really well. Its central conceit is that none of the myriad Halloween sequels/remakes/spin-offs or reboots ever happened, and that, 40 years later, this is the Part Two to the 1978 original’s Part One. A little like how the aborted Alien 5 would have pretended that Alien 3 & Alien: Resurrection never existed. In a similar way to films like Creed and BR2049, it treats the original material and mythology with some reverence and sincerity. It also allows, as the other films did, for the intervening years in the real world to be reflected by the passage of time in the movie world, adding some weight of pathos to the proceedings, allowing that sense of the weight of time for the characters to be shared by viewers. Maybe it just makes the nostalgia and recollection of the original feel more intense, and maybe it transfers those feelings to the new incarnation.

Of course, the central issue for Halloween 2018 is that its taking something that’s inherently very simple (the 1978 film is basically just a b-movie slasher/exploitation horror flick that has been endlessly copied ever since) and treating it very, very seriously. I’m a big fan of the original- John Carpenter was (is?) a consummate horror director with a keen eye for composition and skill in the editing room at maintaining tension and jumps and scares, but really, Halloween 1978 is not High Art, although it’s surely a classic of a genre not particularly renowned for high quality. Its simplicity is likely the key to its effectiveness and how well it has stood the test of time- and of course there is the brooding, relentless electronic score.

That score returns (and John Carpenter, on scoring duties here, with it), and it really helps Halloween 2018 feel authentic, in just the same way as BR2049 felt like a Blade Runner movie.  Something’s a little off though, with Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) not quite ringing true as she goes all Sarah Connor from T2, ready and waiting for Michael Myers to inevitably escape from his incarceration and run amok on another killing spree. This time she’s spent decades survivalist training and building Fortress Strode out in the woods into a safehouse for when Myers comes knocking. And of course, he does, complete with his iconic Captain Kirk mask, conveniently brought along by dim-witted journalists looking for a great story and getting undone by it, the mask apparently the trigger for The Shape to do what he does best on another Halloween night. There’s lots of graphic deaths and grisly gore here, a marked difference to the surprising restraint and suggestion which Carpenter crafted in the original- perhaps the most disturbing sign of just how much times have changed.

It seems churlish of me, really, to criticise this film as it was surprisingly sincere and effective in approach and how it was made, and the cast are great, the jumps are pretty great and the violence certainly made me wince- it works so well in so many ways. But I just didn’t buy Laurie going all Sarah Connor. It just makes it feel like a different, ‘wrong’ movie, like when James Cameron spun his Rambo-in-space yarn from Alien‘s ‘ten little indians’ horror film. Suddenly the tables are turned and the hunter becomes the hunted, and a crazy woman having an arsenal in her basement something to be applauded. Infact, thank God for that, because the doctors are crazier than Myers (I so sorely missed the great Donald Pleasence, whose presence seems to haunt the film like a vacant void) and the cops are more stupid and ineffective than ever. I suppose there’s a kind of movie myth that the world needs heroes like Sarah Connor rather than the original 1978 films nice girl next door; gun-toting heroines rather than terrified babysitters just trying to survive. I quite liked the post-traumatic, dysfunctional and rather unhinged Laurie that we first see in the film, but got rather bored by the killing machine survivalist she turns out to really be. Maybe the film is some kind of commentary on violence breeding violence and Myer’s bloody violence transforming 1978s nice girl next door babysitter into, well, another killer.  Maybe I’m just missing something.

Venom (2018)

venom1I liked it. I think. Well, it was that old chestnut of ‘reduced expectations’ again- I gather from when the film originally came out at the cinema that the critics were not at all impressed, nor some of the comic book fans, really. Regards the fans, I can’t really comment, as I know nothing of the original comics, so I’m likely not best suited to comment on the film anyway. Although I’m a huge Spider Man fan, having grown up in the 1970s reading the weekly UK reprints of all the 1960s/1970s American comic books (from the Steve Ditko era through John Romita and to the Ross Andru years- I guess that’ll only mean anything to older comics readers, so hey ho) I’m not familiar with anything of the 1980s onwards. Venom, I gather, is a huge fan-favourite Spider Man spin-off but I have no idea how faithful this film is or how many liberties it has taken.

I gather it got some flack from fans for not being an R-rated picture, as the original comic book would apparently lean more towards more of a Deadpool-type adaptation- seriously violent and graphic and foul-mouthed. This is clearly not that kind of movie, and while it’s not a PG Deadpool kind of situation, I think that it strangely disturbs even more. This film is surprisingly violent and even drops at least one F-bomb, but to manage the more kiddie-friendly certificate (it landed with a 15 rating) it seems to show the violent acts but not the results. Venom is seen throwing a SWAT team through walls and in the air etc which likely leaves the guys crippled and dying painful deaths but we don’t see those consequences of Venoms actions- I think he bites heads off at times but without hardly any gore etc. I don’t know why, but that actually makes the film seem worse than Deadpool in some ways, as if its unintentionally showing the action in some kind of painless videogame kind of context which does more harm than good.  Which makes me wonder, are comic book films such as this more of a danger to kids watching them (lets face it, now it’s in the home domain this film will be watched by 8-year olds or younger still) precisely because its showing violence as entertainment and even as something funny but without showing the outcome of that violence?

I’m likely just ignoring/misremembering how violent most comic-book films are in general, but something just feels off about Venom.

Maybe that’s another discussion. I just mention it because I had to look at the certificate of the film as I was watching it. The violence doesn’t feel as intense as, say, it did back in Blade Runner even back in 1982 but I can imagine an extended, rawer cut being released showing all that gore and battered twisted body parts and the film being a different beast entirely, but also maybe that would be more honest? At any rate, the film made a fortune at the box-office in spite of critics panning it so the film-makers succeeded in what they were attempting, financially anyway.

To me, the film was some strange, daft comic book flick possibly leaning more towards the campiness of 1960s Batman than the usual Marvel film does – I suspect that was a way to dilute the darkness of the character but it does make the whole feel odd, really. I did enjoy Tom Hardy, he brought an awful lot to the character he played and is a huge part of the film’s success- I certainly doubt I would have enjoyed the film at all with someone else starring in it. I wonder what the film might have been like with a big brash pop score like Queen’s Flash Gordon, for instance (“Venom! Ahhh-ahhh! He’s come to devour us!”) – that would have been wild.

Oh well. I kind of enjoyed Venom– certainly well worth a £1.99 rental. Which is likely deservedly damning it with faint praise, but there you go…

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

bad1How I loved this. You know how, sometimes, just right from the very start you know that a film is just right for you, right from the very first shot you simply know it’s going to be great, right up your street? That’s how it was for me watching this- there’s a static shot, a long single scene shot from one fixed camera, of a hotel room. A figure walks past the window outside and opens the door, hurriedly steps inside, furtively carrying two bags of luggage. The room is sparsely furnished and has period decor, 1950s. Plays period music om the radio. moves bed and furniture, rolls up the carpet, lifts up a section of floorboards, hides one of the bags in the gap underneath, nails the boards back down, rolls back the carpet, restores the bed and furniture. Camera hasn’t moved. Its dark, stylish, there’s something noir about everything. Its raining hard outside. The man changes clothes, waits. There’s a knock at the door, he opens the door, recognises who stands there, turns his back on them and walks into the room, letting them in, relaxes. I won’t write what happens next- indeed, this is one of those posts where I really can’t say much of anything about the film. Its full of twists and turns and surprises and overlapping timelines and flashbacks and it’s all part of the fun of watching the film.

Now, I won’t attempt to suggest that this film is perfect. There’s certainly plenty of detractors online: its overlong, there’s too many twists, the last third doesn’t live up to the promise of the first, the film sags in the middle, Chris Hemsworth is terrible. Well, I’d have been happy with another half-hour, I can’t understand how the attention-span of some gets worn thin these days by anything north of two hours (I’d love to be able to soak in an extended cut, even). I thought the ending was fine, if the film kept on piling up the twists and turns it could have become a farce, really- it’s a fine line as any Tarantino film will suggest. Hemsworth does seem a particular item of contention but actually I think he has the charisma to pull it off, he’s an OTT nod to the nightmarish magnetism of a Charles Manson. The whole thing is bizarre-noir, it’s all part of the pulp-noir flavour of it all, but sure, I can understand how it doesn’t click with some. Its just that kind of divisive movie. But I love movies like that, marmite movies I guess you could call them.

bad2The cast- it’s a great cast. I don’t think Jeff Bridges has been quite this good in years (and Bridges in great form is a joy to behold), Jon Hamm is great (its funny how he just seems to physically ‘click’ in anything set in the 1960s, which reminds me, I really have to finish Mad Men), while Cynthia Erivo is just extraordinary, frankly, and no doubt destined for Great Things.  The film features a brilliant soundtrack of period songs complimented by a fine Michael Giacchino score (someone else who seems to thrive with 1960s-set movies). Its got some really jaw-dropping art direction… I fell so in love with the whole setting and the design work involved in bringing it all to life, the hotel is simply a wonder to behold, and the widescreen compositions really bring the best out of it.

I watched this on something of a whim as a £1.99 rental on Prime, and I’m really fighting the urge to just go out and buy the 4K UHD (the common-sense voice in my head is just reminding me to wait for a sale to drop). Yeah, I really, really liked this movie. I just can’t really go into the details about why, all the individual moments, the clever sleight of hand of the director or the surprises in the script or just the great turns by the cast, because it would possibly spoil the experience of watching it for the first time. So maybe I’ll come back to those details when I buy the disc and rewatch the film. I’m certain it will reward repeat viewing: I liked the gaps; there’s an awful lot alluded to or suggested that the film really doesn’t elaborate upon and it’ll be interesting to rewatch and ponder/examine them. Maybe people are irritated by those gaps- the film doesn’t explain everything and sections of the narrative are deliberately vague, and I know some hate that kind of thing. I think films can really benefit from being vague – afterall, the whole ‘is he/isn’t he a Replicant’ never hurt Blade Runner.

bad3.jpgIt isn’t for everyone, evidently (I was actually surprised, after watching the film, when I then went to see some reviews and saw just how negative many are). Its funny, really, as I wasn’t as impressed by director Drew Goddard’s previous film, The Cabin in the Woods, which did get all the critical/popular acclaim but to me didn’t really work, it seemed a bit too clever for its own good. But this one certainly did; maybe it was the style, the setting, the mood. Contender for one of the best films I’ll see this year, I think.

Cold War (2018)

cold1Here’s a love story like few others I’ve seen in film- in the grandest tradition of Romeo and Juliet, or perhaps Casablanca (a film Cold War always seems to nod to with its 4:3 Academy-ratio, beautiful black and white photography) these two characters -Wiktor and Zula, star-crossed lovers caught in postwar Europe- are deeply in love but destined to repeatedly fall apart, the same chemistry that brings them together always pushing against them. In just the same way as La la Land told us that not even the greatest of love affairs always end well, so Cold War also casts a cautionary spell, and reminds movie lovers that maybe it’s the saddest love stories that are the best.

Its 1949, and musicologists Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) roam the countryside of Poland recording folk songs as if trying to preserve a way of life before it is lost forever, but their efforts to maintain the music and culture of the common people through a showcase troupe of dancers and singers is increasingly pressed upon by the authorities to also sing the praises of Stalin and communist reforms. Wiktor is smitten by one of the ensemble- Zula (Joanna Kulig), a mysterious young woman who killed her own father  (“He mistook me for my mother”, she tells Wiktor, “so I used a knife to show him the difference”). While their secret affair continues the troupe becomes increasingly popular, culminating in an engagement in Berlin in 1952 that offers Wiktor a chance to defect to the West. He urges Zula to join him, but ultimately has to go alone. But of course, that’s not the end of the story, as the years pass and the two lovers inevitably meet again, and part again, and meet and part…

Kulig is pretty astonishing here- I’ve never seen her before and she is simply remarkable in this, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She has this magnetic charisma with the camera, its like watching a movie star of old. Her character is beautiful and talented, but restless and conflicted, a fascinating creation. You just don’t see performances/roles like this very often,

Of course part of the beauty of the film is its gorgeous photography and evocation of a postwar Europe increasingly fracturing between East and West, and the relentless sense that wherever the two lovers are, they never seem to be home, as if ‘home’, that old Poland and its folk songs of impossible loves doesn’t really exist anymore. Forever out of place, their solace together is always temporary.

The frustrations of this film is in this sense of truth- in its unattainable peace, thwarted desires, aching passions there is a feeling of reality and disaster. Its episodic format across the years leaves many questions unanswered, glimpses of the years between hinting at things we can only wonder about. The shades of grey in the exquisite photography is mirrored in the editing and the story, and it is distinctly European, failing to contain any of the platitudes and fairytales a Hollywood love story might have tried to fool us with.  Instead, it feels real, and is all the more painful because of it.