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Creator Corner: Interview with Producer and Filmmaker Alex Peace

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Earlier this year, a lovely little independent film came out by the name of Wild Nights With EmilyStarring Molly Shannon as famous 19th century reclusive and queer poet Emily Dickinson. The story is a comedy that challenges how history gets told, especially about queer folks, which, as you might know, is a soapbox of mine given my podcast History is Gay deals with precisely that topic. When I got the opportunity to talk with line producer of Wild Nights With Emily Creator Corner Alex Peace, an independent filmmaker herself, I jumped at the chance. With a queer horror short film under her belt as well, I knew she was just the person to have on to talk about queer media.

Gretchen: Let’s start at the beginning, what got you into film production? Did you always know you wanted to make movies?

Alex Peace: I actually didn’t. I’m from Northern England originally, from Manchester, and growing up my family all had really traditional jobs like construction going back generations. I didn’t even think you could do a job like film, that didn’t occur to me. I just thought I was a person who really liked movies and that that was just a hobby. I actually did law work experience; I shadowed a family lawyer for a couple weeks, and I hated it. So I was about to apply to university to do law, and I had to sit back down and be like, “what.” You know, I had a crisis at 17 and went, “What am I going to do?” I remember telling my parents I wanted to do film, and they had absolutely no idea what that meant. They were very confused, but they have thankfully come around to it now. So it was just this crisis of wondering, “What do I actually like?”

G: What is the most challenging aspect to working behind the scenes on independent films? Most exciting?

AP: You could say that the most exciting and the most challenging thing is how resourceful you have to be because the budgets are so small. Some of these budgets are well over a million, like, between one and two million, but that disappears so quickly. I basically just have to constantly come up with new ways to problem-solve some of the strangest things. I’ve literally had the most odd problems to solve on a daily basis. I remember once I got radio over the walkie on a particular movie that we had a period horse carriage running away with one of our actors even though the person driving it was the licensed owner of the carriage. So some of the strangest things happen because of the smaller amounts of money but that creativity and problem-solving make it more exciting than some of the bigger budgets.

G: Tell me more about Wild Nights with Emily; how did you get involved in that project andwhat drew you to participating in it?

AP: I remember I was in Spain for the summer and I got a phone call from my friend Max who I went to grad school with at Colombia. So he called me and said, “I’m producing this movie for the filmmaker Madeleine Olnek.” I’d actually heard of her because her previous two features had premiered at Sundance, one of which I’d seen—The Foxy Merkins—and loved. So when he said he was producing this queer movie about Emily Dickinson and they had just landed Molly Shannon I was like, “Where can I sign up?” He asked if I could fly to California the next week. I’d never done anything in California before, so I said yes. So I bought the ticket the day after and went straight out there. I had no knowledge of the project prior to that, but I trusted him in producing it. I knew I’d love to be involved if for nothing else than for the subject matter.

G: Speaking of the subject matter, were you aware of Emily Dickinson’s queerness before you started working on the film?

AP: No. I had no idea. It was all a revelation for me and then after reading her films I thought, “Wait, why don’t more people know about this?” It’s not subtle. None of it is that subtle, at all. Now I’ve read pretty much —I won’t say all because she has thousands of poems—but definitely a good portion of her work, and she is definitely hiding in plain sight with some of her phrasing.

G: That’s exactly how I felt when I first heard that. And then, being a queer woman myself, I was like, “Oh, no wonder I’ve liked Emily Dickinson so much since I was young.”

AP: Right! I was like, “No wonder she was always my favorite poet as a child. That’s so interesting.” Something must have struck a chord.

G: Exactly! Something resonated.

AP: You know, the movie jokes so much about that, which is cool. It’s a joke I always have with my family that unless someone has the most stereotypical markers in the world or is literally screaming, “I’m queer!” in your face, then most straight people, especially those who didn’t grow up exposed to meeting other queer people, have no idea. When I told my mother about the film, she was a huge fan of Emily Dickinson. I had to reread some of the poems to her and she was like, “Oh. Oh, well that makes sense.” But yeah, the movie jokes about that as well, about how obvious she was, about how everyone knew but how easy it was to hide it back then.

G: So, did being involved in the film change your view about the way we tell history?

AP: It did, yeah. I’ve always been very interested in how history is shaped by the way people want it to be read and how political that is. So, it was very interesting to me to find out more about this woman and how people had erased her entire history. Now, I take a little bit more of a second look at things, and I think that’s very important in today’s climate. So it’s been a very interesting journey to look at that and think about the steps that went into changing her narrative, basically.

G: Wow, I hadn’t thought about the resonance for today’s media culture until you just said that.

AP: Madeleine puts it more eloquently than I do, but I think the movie is timely for that purpose. Especially with the way things are across the world with women’s rights being still under so much contention in so many ways in so many different places. Thinking about how her story and how other women’s stories have been shaped is relevant. You know, I used to think of history as fact, but it’s not at all. It’s far from that. It’s always a story written by a particular person or several people. So it’s interesting to have that rediscovered and reclaimed for her.

G: You recently wrote and directed your own film. What was your inspiration for Held Down by a Shadow?

AP: I knew I wanted to tell horror stories, horror is my favorite genre. Growing up I used to suffer from a lot of sleep paralysis and night terrors, where basically you wake up unable to move and you often see something in the room with you. The movie is a lot more dramatized than I ever experienced, but that was the original idea. I wanted to tell something about sleep paralysis. And then I had this idea of a younger version of me who was queer and not really sure what to do with it or what was going on with that, so I married the two. Queer horror is so underrepresented that I wanted to incorporate that story into it.

G: That was my next question, why do you think it’s important that we have lesbian characters in horror movies, especially with much focus in media criticism recently being about telling happy stories for queer women?

AP: I always think about that because, spoiler alert, my short is not a happy story. When I was writing it I went back and forth with a queer professor of mine about the responsibility to tell a happy story. I had a lot of people tell me to make the ending a happy one because obviously we’re all so used to seeing queer characters die or be written off or ‘become straight’ miraculously. But I ended up making the decision I did because I believe the final step in this has to be telling more queer stories and representing things. That doesn’t have to represent these perfect savior characters or these happy narratives. At the same time, I do believe there is a responsibility to portray happy stories of queer couples because we don’t really get to see that. Horror historically as well hasn’t had the greatest track record in portraying women in general. It’s not even gotten so far as portraying straight women well, nevermind anyone else. Every time I rewatch some of my old favorite horror movies I think, “Oh wow, I didn’t realize or I forgot that this is exactly what this is saying about women.” Have you seen the new Netflix show Haunting of Hill House?

G: No, I haven’t. Tell me about it.

AP: It’s actually brilliant. It was based on a book by Shirley Jackson; it’s my favorite horror story, actually, and it’s really, really queer. The Netflix show is a spin-off of that and it has this fantastic story line. One of the siblings is a queer woman, and I thought it was done so well because it doesn’t really make a point of her queerness. She’s just a character who exists and is queer. When I was watching I remember thinking this was why I liked it so much, because it felt like representation, but it didn’t feel like fanservice just for the sake of it.

G: It sounds like she’s a character who happens to be queer but the story is more about her as person rather than being defined by her identity.

AP: Exactly. And obviously those stories need to exist too about what it means to be queer. I think there have been some fantastic examples of that recently, and we also just need more stories where people happen to be queer and that’s not the entire point of the film.

G: Which goes along with what you were saying about horror. That’s a genre of storytelling that we deserve to also have queer people represented in.

AP: Yeah. And, queer people can also be shitty people. They don’t all have to be fantastic human beings in films.

G: What would you like to see more of when it comes to the representation of queer female characters and stories?

AP: Honestly just more of them. I don’t know how else to put that more eloquently! I think if more people are telling more stories, that in itself is worthwhile. Honestly, I watch any movie or tv show that comes up with a queer character because I feel like I’ve been so starved for content. Even if it’s terrible. Hopefully the more content gets put out there in the world, the more discerning we can be in terms of what content we’re watching. Basically, I’d just like to see more people telling their own stories.

G: A real quick and dirty one before we wrap up. If you were stuck in a bunker with a DVD player and a TV, what three movies would you want with you and why?

AP: That’s a tough one! First off, I’d say The Witch. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s a couple years old now, but it’s a fantastic horror film. I think I went to the cinema 4 or 5 times to see it with my old roommate. So that would be one because apparently I can watch it over and over. Two, The Shining. I saw it for the first time when I was fourteen and it’s been a favorite of mine ever since. Plus, it’s long, so it will help pass time. And then I’d say Mean Girls just for fun.

G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?

AP: I worked on a few features this summer that haven’t been announced yet. And earlier this year I did a pilot episode for a web series earlier this year that’s just been completed. It’s called Inpatient and it follows a group of people who are stuck inside of a mental health facility in New York City. Each episode follows a different character within that system. That was really interesting for me because it examines a lot of queer stories. It’s a sort of, well, I’d say dark comedy even though I’m not a huge fan of that term. Coming up next I have a horror film that’s going to be really, really fun. It’s a feature based on a Jewish folklore story. I’m really excited about it. You see so many Catholic/ Christian inspired monsters and stories, but I’ve never really seen horror rooted in Jewish lore.

G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?

AP: I can’t think of anything.

G: Thanks again for talking with me, Alex!

AP: Of course! You’re so welcome.

About Alex Peace

Alex is a filmmaker originally from Manchester, England. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA Directing program. She has worked as a Producer and Production Manager on features, commercials, and other platforms. Recently she Line Produced Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily starring Molly Shannon, Amy Seimetz, and Brett Gelman which premiered at the 2018 SXSW festival.

You can find her body of work here.


Images Courtesy of Alex Peace

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ Is a Post Mortem for J.K. Rowling

Jeremiah

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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

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The Five Under Discussed Holiday Movies

Jeremiah

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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 SlayErnest 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

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‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ Is a Defanged by the Numbers Thriller

Jeremiah

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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.


Image courtesy of  Sony Pictures

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