Love or hate Freddie Mercury, I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t deserve such a tepid and perfunctory slapdash bore as Bohemian Rhapsody. Come to think of it we don’t deserve it either. Both Freddie, and we the audience deserve better; so much better.
Bryan Singer’s name is on the credits, even though he left the project midway through. Different reports have him leaving at different times. Either way, Singer left before the filming was done and Dexter Fletcher took over. Much like with Justice League, the name on the credits is the one who gets the praise—or in this case blame.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a narrow sighted biography of one of the most popular and infamous rock bands in modern history. Actually, it’s more than that, it’s also unimaginative and staid. A tragedy considering it’s subject matter is Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) one of the most extravagant and flamboyant front men of living memory.
Imagine if you will, you are given the seemingly impossible task to film Freddie Mercury writing the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody? How would you film it? Would you film it? In the case of Singer, he chose to have Mercury sitting in a chair madly scribbling away. Every once and a while pausing to look up with a faraway look in his eyes. He mutters “Brilliant,” then goes back to writing. I recognize this is a difficult scene to write and direct. But it’s moments like these where we get a distinct impression that Singer isn’t even trying.
For starters, for a movie called Bohemian Rhapsody, surprisingly little of it is dedicated to the creation of the song itself. Understandable, since it is a biopic of a man after all, not a song. Except if we’ve learned anything from the likes of Selma and Lincoln, is that biopics are at their best, usually, when they focus on a specific point in the subject’s life.
Bohemian Rhapsody, however, has chosen the classic method, which is to cover the whole of Mercury’s life. It does this while somehow telling us nothing we didn’t already know or couldn’t learn just from listening to a Queen album. We see his family at the beginning of the first act. But after the band becomes a success they are never even talked about until the end.
You could argue that this is intentional; Anthony McCarten’s script is illustrating how Mercury has alienated everyone from his life. When we first meet Mercury’s father Bomi (Ace Bhatti), he comes home only to find Freddie leaving. The two argue over Freddie’s youthful listlessness. Bomi lectures him about what it takes to be a man, “Good thoughts. Good words. Good deeds.” Poor Bhatti is made to utter these words in such a way we cringe as we realize these words will come back in the third act.
Freddie returns home on the day of the Live Aid concert to reconcile with his family. He’s not alone; he’s brought his new boyfriend Jim (Aaron McCusker). As soon as he arrives he’s off, he has a historic concert to attend too after all. Before he leaves he turns to his father and tells him of the Live Aid concert. “It’s like you always said, father: Good thoughts. Good words. Good deeds.” Bomi looks on as his son walks out the door and whispers, “Wheel out the telly.”
I couldn’t get over the fact that Mercury never invited his family. They are never included in his life whatsoever after Queen becomes a success. Did he not give them any money? Were they never invited to a concert? The house they are in at the end of Bohemian Rhapsody is the same as it was in the beginning.
Mercury’s heritage, religion, and family barely get two lines of dialogue. His sexuality, however, while never really discussed, is heavily and painfully alluded to. In one scene Freddie confesses to his wife, Mary (Lucy Boynton), “I’m a bisexual.” Mary sighs. “No, you’re gay Freddie.” It is the first and last time, outside of Mercury slapping a woman on the butt as he passes, that his bisexuality is even mentioned.
His gayness, however, is played to the level of camp. Granted Mercury himself was a camp icon, but Malek and Singer never quite pull it off convincingly. A couple of kiss scenes aside, most of Mercury’s sexuality is reduced to longing stares and heavy-lidded leering. It’s as if a Jacqueline Susann novel came to life and happened to be the front man for one of the greatest rock bands in history. Granted, to some extent that’s true, but Bohemian Rhapsody never has any fun with it.
I haven’t even mentioned the band itself. Queen consisted of Brian May (Gwilym Lee), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and Rex Taylor (Ben Hardy). If Bohemian Rhapsody is to be believed they were a very nice bunch of understanding people who looked on helplessly as Freddie fell into a pit of drugs, sex, and despair. I won’t say anything about them because throughout the entire runtime they never do or say anything remotely interesting.
During the inevitable and obligatory reconciliation scene between Mercury and the band, Freddie says he needs them. “I hired a group of guys who did everything I said,” Mercury tells them he missed them. They pushed back, that their ideas helped. Except we’re never shown any of that. Impressive, considering the number of scenes we’re shown of the band recording.
Malek as Freddie Mercury struggles to overcome a prosthetic overbite. Eventually, Malek grows more comfortable with the role by the end. But Malek never embodies Freddie Mercury because he’s only ever tasked with playing the idea of a shadow of Freddie Mercury. He doesn’t give a performance so much as an impersonation.
Singer has strewn together a series of scenes with absolutely zero context. Often times when we watch movies we will see a character sitting in an office. Then the director will cut to a scene where said character is driving. Our brain fills in the gaps. The director has cut out the character leaving the office, finding his car, starting it, and pulling into traffic. But Singer has cut out whole swaths of Mercury’s life while focusing on moments that mean nothing but for a cheap laugh later on.
One scene, in particular, goes on at great lengths with the band arguing in favor of Bohemian Rhapsody to be their next single to the EMI executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers). The band threatens Foster with leaving if he doesn’t make Bohemian Rhapsody their next single. Every character tells Foster that he will be sorry. “You’ll be known as the producer who lost Queen.”
On the one hand yes, the scene is necessary. It helps put into context the length of the song as well as it’s bizarre structure and content. Except the only real payoff is during the Live Aid concert we cut back to his office to see a distraught, drunken Foster.
Not to mention, why is Mike Myers playing Foster? He’s fine but it’s essentially Myers doing his Scottish accent from So I Married An Axe Murderer. Watching Bohemian Rhapsody, we start to realize a sort of existential dread. None of this makes any sense, dramatically, emotionally, or even logistically. Bohemian Rhapsody is the type of biopic that tells you the band is going on tour across America then cuts to farmland, with the subtitle “Midwest America.”
It’s a crying shame because Newton Thomas Sigel has gone above and beyond the call of duty to try and make Queen at the very least visually as operatic as their music. Every frame has an air of theatricality and visual pizazz to it. Unfortunately, Sigel is left to drift on his own with no help from Singer. Sigel’s camerawork can only save so much, and even he is forced to truncate his style. During the tour through America, Singer pushes us through a montage of Freddie posturing, saying the name of the city, and then freeze framing while lights and the name of the city float out from behind his silhouette.
Bohemian Rhapsody looks polished and slick and along with the songs, it’s impossible not to tap our toes along with the music. But that’s the problem. Queen is a band that when you listen to their song you feel as if you are at a Queen concert. Yet, when these same songs are played in the movie, the most I was moved to was-toe tapping.
Miraculously, Bohemian Rhapsody trundles along the life of Freddie Mercury and conveys almost nothing about the man. To some degree, you have to be impressed with a movie that spends so much time with a person and yet be, to some extent, even more in the dark about them than when you went in. Bohemian Rhapsody is about Freddie Mercury in the same way Them! is about the lives of ants. The only difference is the latter is more honest about its subject matter.
Image Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ Is a Post Mortem for J.K. Rowling
A side note before we get started, this review will contain spoilers. If finding out that so and so might be such and such, or that a great all-powerful whatchamacallit is actually a McGuffin, might ruin the whole thing for you, then please wait until after you’ve seen the movie.
Fair? Okay then.
Part of my job as a critic is to try and figure out who might be the intended audience for the movie I’m watching. If it is for die-hard fans than I can judge it appropriately and vice versa; if it seems intended for a wider audience. For the life of me, I can’t figure out who in the hell Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is for.
The Crimes of Grindelwald, not only has no audience, but it also has no clue either. I wasn’t a fan of the first Fantastic Beasts either, and normally that would give me some kind of guideline in which to proceed. “If you liked the first one then you’ll love this one…” But I’m not so sure that’s the case. J.K. Rowling wrote the script, and she seems hell-bent on ignoring the last decade or so worth of writing that she’s done just to perpetuate the forward march of this cynical cash grab of a cinematic eyesore.
For the uninitiated, and thus explaining why you heedlessly jump past the spoiler warning, The Crimes of Grindelwald takes place a scant three months after the first Fantastic Beasts. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the author of the titular text so beloved by Potter fans, is asked by the Ministry of Magic to help fight the evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). The actual crimes of The Crimes of Grindelwald buggers the mind as to where to begin.
Midway through the second movie in the franchise and I’m still at a loss as to why I’m supposed to care about Newt. He’s hardly a character and as played by Redmayne, more a mess of jitters and jumps. It’s not entirely Redmayne’s fault; Newt only feels half-formed. It’s as if Rowling is making it up as she goes along.
Grindelwald is essentially wizard-Hitler who views non-magic beings as beneath the master– I mean rightful power, wizards. A timely idea, to be sure, but Rowling seems hesitant to really do anything with it. Grindelwald has his assistant kill a baby, off-screen, as he walks away. He sweet talks people into joining his crusade without actually convincing anybody either through magic or basic rhetoric.
David Yates, who directed the last Fantastic Beasts, as well as the last four Harry Potter films, seems more at a loss at Rowling’s patchwork script than we are. Characters behave and say things that make sense but then they do things that should make sense but don’t actually make any kind of sense. Watching The Crimes of Grindelwald, I found myself understanding what the intent was but also noticing they had skipped all the steps to get there.
The best part of the last movie was far and away the characters of Jacob Kolwalski (Dan Folger) and Queenie (Alison Sudol). Queenie is the sister of Tina (Katherine Waterhouse), Newt’s crush from the last movie. Queenie and Jacob had a bizarre but quirky chemistry. The two were the only charm in an otherwise charmless movie.
Rowling and Yates have Jacob and Queenie come to London to visit Newt. Upon seeing them, Newt discovers that Jacob is under a love spell that Queenie put on him. Good thing Newt figured it out because the two were engaged to be married. Pity poor Jacob only found about the engagement after Newt lifted the spell. Jacob and Queenie both want to get married but Jacob understands the Ministry would forbid it, while Queenie seems baffled by Jacob’s reluctance.
All of this is fine, although odd. You would think the wizard would be the one who would have to fight off the No-Maj but we’re looking over that quibble. We’ll also overlook the incredibly creepy implications of Queenie’s total disregard for consent as well. But what we will look at is Queenie’s defection to the Aryan metaphor that is Grindelwald’s army.
It doesn’t make any sense. Well, it does, but it doesn’t really. You see, Queenie comes to believe that Grindelwald doesn’t want to hurt the No-Maj. He just sees them as beasts of burden. Since he wants to do away with the old ways, which forbid Jacob and her getting married, she ‘s all aboard the allegorical genocide train. But I had to infer that because it’s never really discussed. Switching from “No” on a fascist regime that believes in separate but equal to an “eh, maybe” requires more than a, “But he’ll let us get hitched, baby!” (Not an actual quote.)
We can see what Yates and Rowling are trying to do. But there’s never any real moment where we go, “Ah. I see why she’s doing this.” Instead, we’re left scratching our heads wondering if being the sweetest woman in the franchise means you’re destined to become an acolyte of some dapper, hipster wannabe, slurring Hitler.
Queenie’s “decision” is only a subplot. A large portion of The Crimes of Grindelwald concerns itself with a mystery that isn’t really a mystery. A mystery has clues and is about plodding toward a reveal of some sort. The mystery here is who is Creedence’s (Ezra Miller), real parents? I’m just kidding the real mystery is what happened to Leta Lestrange’s (Zoe Kravitz) little brother? I see you fell for my funny little joke, the real mystery is what is Grindelwald’s master plan for Creedence?
The beauty of Rowling’s script is that of none of those mysteries are remotely tied to one another. And oh yes, Creedence is Aurealis Dumbledore. Lost? I regret to inform you that seeing The Crimes of Grindelwald will only make you more lost.
Creedence looking for his parents is the drive but has no payoff until the last line of the movie. Except it’s not a revelation so much as a moment of bad fan fiction by someone who didn’t read the books. But since it’s written by the author of the original books it becomes all the more confusing. It would be one thing if The Crimes of Grindelwald had offered its own explanation, either explaining how this is possible or at the very least re-write its own backstory. None of that happens. Grindelwald just grabs Creedence by the shoulder and tells him his name, even though the movie itself never backs up this claim.
Leta’s tortured past and guilt over murdering her little brother somehow makes even less sense. We spend half the movie being intentionally and obviously kept in the dark about Leta’s “tragic backstory.” At the climactic moment, Leta reveals all in a baffling denouement. A denouement that includes kidnapping, familial revenge, hypnotism, baby switching, possible rape, spousal slavery, and the Titanic. Suffice to say it raises more questions than it answers. However, Kravitz’s breathless delivery of Rowling’s blindfolded style of plot structure is a gem of a performance in a movie filled with fool’s gold.
But what about Leta’s past with Newt? Why is she marrying Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner) when in the flashbacks she seems taken with Newt? Why do Newt and Theseus have such an antagonistic relationship? If you want answers to these questions, I can’t help you and neither can Rowling or Yates.
Which brings us to Depp. I have no problem believing that Depp is capable of allegedly committing heinous acts and then convincing his large and dedicated fanbase that he did nothing wrong. I dare say, Depp is better at this than Grindelwald is. If only because Depp doesn’t walk around advertising with every fashion choice, every mannerism, and every syllable, “I’m evil!”
Grindelwald convinces his followers to come to his cause by showing them images from the future, the second World War. He conveniently leaves out the six million murdered, and in their place shows aerial assaults, tanks, gunfire, armies marching, and the atom bomb exploding. Now, in the historical context, this is a nightmarish vision. Jacob even yells out, “Not another war!” The first World War is still fresh in their minds, images of another even greater war would be shocking.
It makes sense. But no one ever mentions the last world war so it seems out of left field, nazi allegory aside. It further demonstrates how superficially committed to the metaphor Yates and Rowlings are. They want the bad wizards to be a stand-in for nazis. Except they don’t want to do the legwork to put them in the fake historical context. For a spin-off of a franchise infamous for its world building the world seems hardly even thought of.
Yates is a perfectly fine director but he has no imagination and no personality. Even Dumbledore (Jude Law) a character outed for being gay after the fact, becomes tiresome and boring in his hands. I wouldn’t say that Yates and Rowling straightwash him, but they never say he’s gay either. Yates supplements actually uttering the word “gay” by showing us CGI images of young Grindelwald and young Dumbledore looking into each other’s eyes longingly as they make a pact.
“You two were like brothers.” One character says. “We were more than brothers.” (Actual quote.) More than brothers! Wowza!
The special effects are as good as you would expect from a multibillion-dollar franchise. But good special effects in a movie with no real direction is meaningless. The effects have no real impact because the story and characters have no real impact. The battle at the end as Grindelwald flees victoriously, his grand army now assembled, is a dazzling light show, but nothing more.
Phillip Rousselot is shackled by Fantastic Beasts misguided marriage to drab and dreary color schemes. Rousselot, who when working with Tim Burton, fills his frame with vibrant colors. A cinematographer who’s been working since the 70’s, Rousselot has shot such exquisite movies as A River Runs Through It, Dangerous Liaisons, and Interview With a Vampire. I mention his resume to show you just how woefully underused his camera work is. Imagine the possibilities of a Fantastic Beasts movie where the camera does more than just merely record whatever the special effects team can dream up based on Rowling’s say so?
The Crimes of Grindelwald is a bad movie. It is incompetently made by people who know better. They have decided to try and pawn off a knowingly inferior product on us for a few extra dollars that none of them need. This isn’t a movie, it’s a pyramid scheme. See this and the next one will be better, we swear.
It would be a pity to end this franchise with wizard-Hitler getting away and basically winning. But, I have zero desire to sit through another one of these. I don’t care to see him defeated, nor do I care how he is beaten. If it means having to sit through J.K. Rowling carve up her own world, changing things as she goes because the times have changed and so have the trends, then count me out. I don’t care anymore.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios
The Five Under Discussed Holiday Movies
It’s that time of year again. The time of year where people with ordinary jobs find themselves swamped with hours and little to no respite for their own sanity’s sake. It’s also time for a return to that age-old tradition we have here at BENEATH THE SCREEN OF THE ULTRA-CRITICS, the listicle.
Since we’re only mere days away from being positively bombarded with the stuff, we figured, why not beat everybody to the punch. Enjoying the leftover Halloween candy, we compiled a list of five under-discussed Christmas movies. These are movies that are more likely to be seen in something like Alonso Duralde’s Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas than the average Buzzfeed article.
So, without further ado, here are five Holiday movies that somehow always fly under the radar come this time of the year. As usual, the numbers mean nothing, except to state how many they are.
1. GREMLINS (1984) Dir. Joe Dante
Somehow or other people always forget Gremlins. I’m not saying it’s a forgotten classic. YouTube film buffs are too prevalent, to allow such a thing like that to happen. But Joe Dante’s cult classic doesn’t get the love of say Die Hard when it comes to the holidays.
The special effects still hold up but more than that, Gremlins has a wonderful sense of playfulness and good cheer about it. The problematic ancient Chinese wise man aside, Gremlins holds up remarkably well. Horror movies are usually aimed at adults but Gremlins aims at the whole family. Through all the blood and screams it somehow captures the feel of a small town at Christmas.
But the creme de la creme comes in the form of what is now viewed as one of the great monologues of the eighties. Phoebe Cate’s Kate tells a dark tragic Christmas story that haunted children years after seeing the film. Dante’s tongue in cheek direction and a script by a young Christopher Columbus that’s a sly subversion of the holidays elevates Gremlins from a goofy cult film to a holiday classic.
2. A Diva’s Christmas Carol (2000) Dir. Richard Schenkman
Look. Someone needs to acknowledge that Vanessa Williams is our Christmas Lord and Savior, and guess what? It’s sure as shit gonna be me! Williams has been criminally underrated for years, and as much as I’ve held my peace about it, I cannot allow her being perpetually overlooked for A Diva’s Christmas Carol anymore. This movie is from the height of VH1’s (are they even around anymore?) media career, and it’s the perfect lady Christmas film to kick back, grab some hot chocolate, and enjoy. Camp? Check. The best melodrama crafted biopic prior to Walk Hard? Check. It gleefully embraces every biopic trope and rolls it up in a familiar Christmas package.
Keep your Bill Murray and Scrooged, I’ll take the Beyonce of Christmas movies any day.
3. Christmas Again (2014) Dir. Charles Pokel
Charles Pokel’s Christmas Again is possibly the least cheerful of all the films on this list. Less a reminder of the reason for the season and more a dour melancholy look at a man looking for love whilst selling Christmas trees. But underneath it all, it has a great big heart.
Noel (Kentucky Audley) is broken-hearted and adrift. Like any person, he soothes his soul by running a Christmas tree lot. He meets Lydia (Hannah Gross) and soon the two find themselves falling for each other. Complications and revelations arise but ultimately Pokel’s nuanced and sweet exploration of working-class people during the holiday season is warm and deeply moving.
Pokel gives us a peek into the ins and outs of running a Christmas tree lot, the differences of sales technique, understanding the varying types of firs, inventory, and of course, the people. Nothing much happens and, if you’re looking for Christmas magic, you’ll be disappointed. But it’s a sweet little movie that normally glides under the radar of the average Christmas aficionado.
Bonus: The song that plays over the closing credits, a cover of Christmas Everywhere sung by Fran Alexandre, will instantly become one of your favorite carols of the year.
4. Edward’s Scissorhands (2005) Dir. Tim Burton
Most people would cite Burton’s other movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is a Burton produced movie, not a Burton-directed one. We disagree, though the visual design of Nightmare is classic and loving crafted. But Burton’s Edward Scissorhands has a haunting, loving way about it that leaves one breathless from the depth of empathy and imagination from which it sprang.
On its face the story of Edward (Johnny Depp), a Frankensteinesque creation with scissors for hands is preposterous. Yet, Burton and Caroline Wilson, the screenwriter, have us buy the entire premise hook, line, and sinker within seconds. Burton has always been attracted to stories about outsiders, but few have been as lonely and misunderstood quite like Depp’s Edward. Winona Ryder’s Kim, Edward’s love interest, is no less an outsider, and the two find solace in each other.
It’s the tender ache at the center of Edward Scissorhands which sets it apart from the rest of Burton’s filmography. Oh sure, all his films have a tenderness and a loneliness, but none of them have had Deep and Ryder. Ryder for her part is the reason why Edward Scissorhands works. If we don’t buy Kim’s feelings for Edward, then the whole thing falls apart. Burton and Wilson don’t use Christmas as a backdrop to clash with the goth aesthetic Burton fetishizes. They use it as a way to explore family dynamics and more importantly, the idea of loving a stranger and giving him a home.
5. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) Dir. John R. Cherry III
Jim Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell has never gotten the credit he deserves as a singular American comedic creation. A cross between Jerry Lewis and a southern Mr. Bean, Ernest is a man so eager to please he can never see how insufferable he is. Ernest Saves Christmas is both a satire of how corporatist and consumer-driven Christmas is while magically somehow finding heart and warmth in the cold harsh cynical decade known as the eighties.
Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) comes to L.A. to find a children’s show host Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark) so he can pass on the mantle of Santa. Unfortunately for Santa, Ernest is his taxi driver. An old man Santa leaves his bag of magic in Ernest’s cab and Ernest must try to return it so Santa can pas the bag onto Joe and Christmas can continue. Along the way, Ernest and Santa meet a young runaway grifter Harmony Starr (Noelle Parker). The three have to get Santa’s bag to Joe so they can make him believe. The plot sounds thin but, believe us, the last scene where Ernest is flying Santa’s sleigh as he careens out of control is like mother’s milk to a child.
With jokes like Joe taking a new job as an actor in a horror film Santa’s Slay, Ernest Saves Christmas shows itself to have a sardonic eye. Miraculously, it never veers into made for Hallmark Christmas territory, though it is corny at times. But that’s to be expected with any Christmas movie, much less an Ernest one. Imaginative while at times surreal, such as when the reindeer get stuck in customs, Ernest Saves Christmas is a classic that’s never been embraced by cult fans or Christmas fans. The film has a gonzo humor most Christmas films avoid; making it kind of prickly in places. If not for Varney’s rubber-faced exuberance somehow winning us over, the film might have collapsed under its own weight.
A Christmas movie in L.A.? And it’s not a Shane Black movie? It’s a Christmas miracle.
Images Courtesy of Warner Bros., VH1, Factory 25, 20th Century Fox, and Buena Vista Pictures
‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ Is a Defanged by the Numbers Thriller
One of the worst things any movie can do or be is boring. Which brings us to The Girl in the Spider’s Web, an excruciatingly ill-paced and dull-witted action thriller. A remarkable movie in that it somehow sidesteps anything even remotely interesting or fun.
Spider’s Web is an adaptation of the fourth in a series of books by Stieg Larsson. At least the first three were, the book this movie is based on is by another author David Lagercrantz. I haven’t read the books, but I have seen the movies. So I can say with some conviction that Spider’s Web is the most pedantic and shallow of the cinematic series.
Fede Alvarez has directed what is possibly the most empty-headed and conceited thriller of the year. He somehow makes government conspiracies and the threat of nuclear annihilation rote and predictable. Spider’s Web is the type of movie that opens with a shot of a spider crawling across a chess board.
The character of Lisbeth Salamander (Claire Foy) is a modern noir creation. A bisexual loner with exceptional hacking skills, fierce self-reliance, and a deeply wounded soul. The latter being almost a requirement for being the hero of a conspiracy techno-thriller.
Her counterpart in these stories, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) is the near opposite of Lisbeth in all things. A suave, handsome magazine journalist who is suffering a bit of a mid-life crisis. Where Lisbeth lives on the fringes, Mikael lives the high society life. Together the two solve murders and uncover dark byzantine government conspiracies.
It is a premise that sounds more interesting than either Alvarez or his screenwriters Jay Basu, Steven Knight, and Alvarez himself, have cared to make it. For example, the computer program, Firefall, that exists as the McGuffin for Spider’s Web is a program that grants complete and utter control of the nuclear stockpiles to a single user.
Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) created the program because the NSA asked him to. An ex-NSA employee, Balder confesses to Lisbeth that he was promised he would be in control of it. Shocking a government intelligence agency would somehow go back on its word.
Balder hires Lisbeth to steal it for him. She does, rather easily. NSA Security expert Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) catches Lisbeth hacking into the NSA system to download the file. His keystrokes prove to be futile. So with just precious seconds to spare Edwin runs across the office and shuts off the power to the entire network. A brilliant idea, pity it was too little too late.
After shutting off the power Edwin apologizes to the room and then turns it back on. Aside from a few murmurs no one really does anything. No one comes up to him to ask what just happened. No superior comes barreling in to shout about the massive breach of security. It is a moment used for dramatic purposes only. Much like all the other dramatic moments in Spider’s Web, it lacks any heft or tether to the real world.
Alvarez can’t help but sprinkle in entertaining bits only to undercut them with an action cliche or pompous dramaturgy. After Lisbeth successfully steals Firefall her apartment is broken into. She barely escapes before her home is blown up. As she flees the police arrive and the mandatory chase scene occurs. I understand this is an action thriller and therefore chase scenes, shootouts, and explosions are par for the course. But these scenes feel listless; like an afterthought.
The aforementioned chase scene concludes after Lisbeth rides her motorcycle across a frozen river to the other side. Instead of just driving on, she swerves to a stop, removes her helmet, and gazes ruefully across at the police.
I’m sure it’s meant to be a nod to the machismo posturing action films like these are riddled with. But I couldn’t help but wonder why a woman as smart and resourceful as Lisbeth wouldn’t just keep on going after she got to land. After all wouldn’t the police just send some more cars around after they see her just sitting there looking at them?
Anyway, Firefall isn’t the point of Spider’s Web. Unlike the other movies, this one is almost entirely about Lisbeth. Which is why it’s so sad to report back how utterly idiotic and empty it is. Mikael has no real point or purpose other to be an extra body to kidnap or call for backup when the plot calls for it.
It turns out Lisbeth’s father was one of the most violent psychopathic crime lords in Sweden’s history. She escaped as a child but her sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks) did not. She stayed behind to be sexually molested and tortured by her father. Camilla grew up to be a vicious psychopath in her own right. She takes over for her father as the head of her father’s gang, the Spiders. The Spiders are hired by the Swedish Secret Service Office, SAPO. Led by Gabriella Grane (Synnove Macody Lund) she hires Camilla to steal Firefall.
Funny thing about violent criminals; they have a tendency to be violent and criminalistic. A point that the training school for SAPO Officers must have skipped due to budget cuts. Gabriella is unprepared when Camilla decides to not give her Firewall after she steals it. She is doubly shocked when Carmilla murders her and her agents.
Everything with Firewall is just dressing. The real meat is Lisbeth and Camilla. Maybe meat isn’t the right phrase—lunch meat would be better. Alvarez and his writers never seem to figure out how to make this inherently dramatically interesting development, interesting. Camilla has a monologue at the end, another requirement, and like everything else, it rings hollow and emotionless.
Alvarez and his cameraman Pedro Luque have draped the story in dark cold emotionless shadows. A fitting decision considering the Swedish backdrop. Luque has a few inventive set pieces such as the conversation between Lisbeth and Mikael in opposing glass elevators. But these are mostly flashes in a dreary pan. Yes, the henchmen wearing gas masks with red LED lights in them seem ominous as they emerge from the white plume of poisonous gas. But since the henchmen have no names and are indistinguishable from any other henchmen it merely highlights the blandness of Alvarez’s direction. and script
I will say, at one point Mikael is interviewing someone who has crossed Camilla’s gang. He removes his plastic mask to show what Camilla and her men did to him. This one single moment is one of the most visceral and squirm-inducing moments of the entire film. It is a stunning piece of special effects makeup and it is wasted on Spider’s Web.
Stanfield and Foy have each turned in two of the year’s best performances. Stanfield’s was Sorry To Bother You and Foy’s was Unsane. Both struggle to lift their character to a level to something slightly more fleshed out than a cartoon short. The script gives them nothing to do, and Hoeks even less. Her character is the driving force for Lisbeth and yet their scenes together drag on interminably. They say the same things over and over without any revelation subtextual or otherwise ever happening.
Spider’s Web doesn’t have the brains to be an entertaining techno-neo-noir thriller. It doesn’t have the guts to even broach the nature of nationalism. Worse, it doesn’t even have the heart to give us characters who we can relate, root, or even care about.
Alvarez has somehow made a movie about a woman on a vengeance spree against wife beaters and rapists drawn into a series of events ultimately of her own making and forced to confront her past into a predictable cliche yawn fest. What he has done, however, is craft a masterful waste of time.