IR Film Review: THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB [Sony/Columbia]

The essence of Lisbeth Salander is in her ability to be almost detached from her emotional state. Her effectiveness is based on her coldness. “The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo” operated in this world in an almost uncomfortable way, as is the nature of David Fincher’s approach in many of his films to human behavior. “The Girl In The Spider’s Web” is a much more mainstream approach and, while not as starkly original as the previous entry, is nevertheless very effective in its point. Claire Foy, mostly known recently for her work on “The Crown”, obviously does a 180 pivot but her Salander never feels as lived in as Rooney Mara’s version. She is nonetheless again very specific and effective in the role but in a more mainstream way. The triggers of the script especially in the logistics of certain sequences are quite good. Even though this film was made for a price versus “Dragon Tattoo” including lesser known actors, the script doesn’t betray that. Like the vastly inferior “Snowman”, “Web” does capture Stockholm & Scandinavia quite well. The only idea that has a little bit to move on is the assumption that most of the audience knows some of the story with Mikael Blomquist (played by Daniel Craig in the previous version) which came before.

The focus here is family and a NSA defense mechanism that offers a good amount of power to whoever possesses it. The mechanics of how that is revealed and tested is both sloppy and oddly consistent at the same time. Director Fede Alvarez, who directed the “Evil Dead” remake and “Don’t Breathe” has a steady hand and doesn’t move away from the grotesque but also plays for the most part within the lines which should provide some response from audiences. The stand out simply because she can disappear so well is Sylvia Hoeks who was undeniably luminous in her darkness within “Blade Runner 2049”. Here she plays the sister of Lisbeth: Camilla through which there is undeniable pain and darkness which makes itself known as the story progresses (while also being its framing mechanism). Hoeks will eventually be given her own platform in the next couple years because her character work can be stunning. “The Girl In The Spider’s Web” is effective and offers a more accessible vision into the Lisbeth Salander universe with a paced and detailed story and some good character turns despite some lapses in progression.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

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IR Film Review: THE PREDATOR [20th Century Fox]

The essence of “The Predator” is edified within the sense of its relevance to pop culture tendencies versus creating a sense of fear and elation. While this inclination does improve and rank itself as the best in the past decades, it still pales to the original “Predator” and, in some senses, “Predator II”. The one aspect that definitely gives it the best structure since the original is the poppy dialogue which is obviously a Shane Black trademark. The irony is that those quips that were great in the 80s almost ride the line too much today causing readings at times to be more awkward than funny. In a way, this outing becomes more of a sardonic reflection of itself. The characters are big and the misfit dream team led by Boyd Holbrook does have its moments but there is never a sense of stake at all. There is some loss with some of the members but nothing as edgy as Carl Weathers or Bill Duke in the original.

Writer/Director Shane Black was in the original so he understands that texture of balance but John McTiernan had a sense of the real within the gallows. “The Hunt For Red October” ran in a similar vibe. This is not those films. The tone here is all over the place with certain moments playing better than others. Sequences like the initial one inside a medical lab or a face off on top of an RV have a playful sense to them but feel, almost in effect, like a TV movie version of “Predator” with the profanity setting turned on. In all shapes and sizes despite respect for trying to give a new audience a “Predator” for its time, this outing, while definitely fun at times, still feels remarkably flat. Even the resolution requires a plot suspension that doesn’t connect. While ending up creating a concept in essence that gives the story an interesting dilemma to behold for a continuation yet no reason for its actual intention, “The Predator”, despite its best attempt, does not fit the bill.

D

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE MEG [Warner Brothers]

“The MEG” is a monster movie in perception of what it might be. The book it is based on, by local South Florida writer Steve Alten, works in many structures as a quick read with a pulpy sort of feel. The tricky aspect is finding the tone. Like “Sahara” and its protagonist before, it is taking larger-than-life situations and making them both fun and with stakes. “The MEG” was originally labeled to be an R-rated romp probably playing more to its cousin: “Deep Blue Sea”. Granted it would be a different movie but the ideal is the story is about a huge shark. The tone rings closer to a movie like “The Core” which is superior in many ways simply because the stakes feel higher. The characterizations here are not bad but played way up on the cheesiness factor, specifically with the Chinese characters. Granted the sentimentality is more akin to the tone of Chinese cinema. That is the interesting perception here of the film. Since it was financed heavily by Chinese investment, it needs to reflect that ideal. This is the changing economics of the movie business. The movie is also set on the cusp of Asia and its main female protagonist and center of what is the film’s heart is Chinese.  This is not originally how the book was conceived. It was set near San Diego even though the money of the big investor was Chinese (even though the big money here is shown by an American billionaire). While an interesting experiment, the film definitely loses a lot of what edge it could have had but then it would be a different monster.

The interesting business question, just to make the point, is that the film could have been made for less and thereby not have to make as much to break even. This is an interesting quandary. Star Jason Stathan has stated in the press that the script they made was completely different than the movie he originally signed on for. Some of the scenes are really thrilling to be honest but never scary. It almost feels like a lower budget serial of old. Acting is fairly broad but soft in many ways since the dialogue is so matter-of-fact. It tries to be witty but most times falls flat. Granted many in the audience seemed to enjoy this aspect. It is always a tricky thing between criticism of what a movie can be and what an audience actually responds to. The situations in the movie are mostly implausible but that can be suspended from the early scenes. An interesting comparison comes in when looking “The Abyss” (1989, dir. James Cameron) since some of the scene points in “The MEG” have parallels. Even though something similar happens here, nothing can compare to the resuscitation scene in that former movie. Some of the best acting in a would-be summer blockbuster ever was in that scene. Here, in the beginning (post opening credits), there is a sacrifice that works well (but on a smaller scale) but then goes by the wayside. Greater mythology is sacrificed and the movie, while a fun romp at times, feels emptier of a bigger world. Maybe that is an alright resolution and expectation though.

C-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME [Lionsgate]

The balance of a buddy movie and a spy thriller can work in tandem if the tone and the script are right on point. The pitch of “The Spy Who Dumped Me” has potential and the pairing of Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon definitely has resonance depending on the improvisational nature given but also the reigning in of specific gags depending on the possibilities. That is where unfortunately this would-be romp falters. Despite some good set ups and action pieces, the delivery falters in much the same way but, distinctly, in more ways, than the similarly affected “Spy” movie did starring Melissa McCarthy. This interrelates to the tone. It is both dark and light at the same time. McKinnon seems to be having fun but her improvs seem not directed at all. An entire sequence near the end of the film featuring her solo seems completely unscripted but not reigned in or directed, and thereby off rails. Kunis seems to be in one movie and McKinnon in another. The film distinctly was made for a price which is understandable but the pace and structure for the most part doesn’t gel. It is only in the final moments when it truly pays tribute to some of the spy structure in almost tongue-in-cheek form does it start to have potential and move. Alas it is the last 3 minutes.

“Lethal Weapon” worked, as a comparison, because you understood how dangerous Martin Riggs (as played by Mel Gibson) was so his humor worked and thereby the tone when his character did more unhinged and unsavory things.. McKinnon’s character needed that edge instead of trying to mug for the camera as much. Her performance in “Ghostbusters” was great simply because it was wild, but honed in its improv. Kunis can play bad ass but the little balances in between are a little more difficult it seems for her. Film acting requires a different kind of structure than television (ditto for McKinnon) but it is scaling up or back. In all specificity, it has to do with direction and tight script. Adding to this point is the almost nihilistic vicious violence which if done right is thrilling but in many ways comes off as brutal.

The movie, as a result, seems stuck in a netherworld where it is neither funny nor inventive, action packed or droll. As far as other characters, the two male co-stars (Sam Hueghan & Justin Theroux) are simply plot devices, which is fine but their inclusion (because neither of them are comedians) makes them invisible at best, grating at worst. Gillian Anderson (again wasted in many considerations within the film) has so much possibility as well. “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is the movie that could have been and, in the final moments, realizes what it needed to be. Too late unfortunately.

F

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE DARKEST MINDS [20th Century Fox]

The search of identity or the strength within it plays to the crux of most YA novels, especially those set in an almost apocalyptic world. “The Darkest Minds” in its marketing seemed to play to more of an “X-Men” vibe but it is quite the opposite. It is more a romance mixed with a coming-of-age drama. That is not to say it isn’t sure of itself. It owes more to elements of “Hunger Games” and “Maze Runner” than to “X-Men”. The storyline and, by extent, the acting, considering it is all young actors, comes from more of a place of maturity than one would expect. This obviously comes from the grounding of Alexandra Bracken’s novel. Having spoke to her for this interview earlier in the week, the idea of “The Darkest Minds”, she explained, came after 9/11 when she was in high school, that idea of what is the right path to take, what action is possible. Amandla Stenberg plays Ruby, the reluctant hero of “Minds” and, like Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, finds her power through sacrifice. Stenberg achieves in a way what “A Wrinkle In Time” could not. “The Darkest Minds” is about the power of youth but not, by pretending, they are the true leads. Certain actors like Mandy Moore here as a doctor with a fringe outfit called “The League” has just enough presence to make it work as does Gwendolyn Christie as a bounty hunter. They provide moral and psychological choices for the protagonist which allow her to grow as a character.

What the film itself owes to more than anything, without spoiling anything, is to “Superman”, specifically “II” simply in Clark Kent/Superman understanding the need for a greater good within elements of pain. Two scenes, including one in foreshadowing, give Ruby’s journey a weight that many of the other YA adaptations have lacked. Now granted, this can go awry as the series (should this one be successful) goes on. The smart idea, like the first “Maze Runner”, is that this movie was made for a price which allows it to breathe a bit while not sacrificing its pacing. It is not a perfect movie by any means. The villain quotient pays more than an interesting parallel in certain ways to “The Hunger Games”. However the elegant, if that word can be used, aspect of this kind of storytelling is that it takes into case bigger themes and archetypes at play. While mind control plays a part, there are no cell phones anywhere in this movie which is an interesting observation overall as well. The only red herring of the film is inherent in its set up which is the “why” aspect in terms of what causes the children to change. This suspension of disbelief is necessary and inherent to make the movie work but its structure and basis is nonetheless elusive creating a slight hole is what is otherwise a solidly made film.

C+

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: INCREDIBLES 2 [Pixar/Disney]

The aspect of superheroes, even those within the animated world, have to change…in spite of themselves. The interesting permeation of Pixar in many ways is that it was around before. The texture of its life always resides in heart. Which is why in certain parts of “Incredibles 2”, there is the perception of paying homage to the superheroes and real life heroes it emulates. The aspect of loss at one point in the film is straight out of Batman mythology. Another line a direct homage to the original “Ghostbusters”. But while the film moves with inherent pace and rhythm, there isn’t that sense of wonder in even one sequence that rivals the loss or elation in “Inside Out” or “Up”. Granted there are some great comedic moments and even utterly subtle moments…most involving Jack Jack, the baby. The kid steals the show including a specific face off with an unnamed rodent. The aim too is different.

This installment plays a little more to adults although kids will get a kick out of it. Even the color pallette is slightly different. There is even a Tomorrowland kitsche to the design which no doubt is director Brad Bird’s influence considering that he made both “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” and “Tomorrowland” in terms of live action since his last “Incredibles” film. That influence is understood since it shows his growth as a filmmaker but also maybe a loss of wonder in certain ways. The seeming ode to 60s James Bond films has its angle but nevertheless almost feels banal in certain ways. The inspiration comes into play at certain point especially when Aunt Edna (played by Bird himself) comes into play. Ultimately “Incredibles 2” is a more than steadily and effectively made sequel that hits all the right notes. There simply wasn’t that epiphany or longing moment.

However interestingly enough, that does find its way into “Bao”, the Pixar short film that precedes it which plays on a metaphor for an Asian mother who fashions the perception of her raising her son through the vision of a dumpling. Like previous Pixar shorts, it crosses borders because it is basic sans dialogue. However, unlike some others, there is an almost weirdly contextual end to the short which is unclear. So even though it hits the notes correctly, its ultimate resolution is slightly skewed which leaves it slightly confused in an overarching way. So the two films themselves are indeed an interesting mirror paradox of each other with “Incredibles 2” being an indeniably effective sequel missing a little something and “Bao” having its something but losing it in the final moment because of a lack of story clarity. Pixar has always valued story above everything so the takeaway is intriguing.

B

By Tim Wassberg

Fest Track Film Review: GETTING NAK*D – A BURLESQUE STORY [LIFF 2018]

Burlesque and the ideals and motivations behind it have become more of an interesting discussion point, especially in the recent memory. There is sometimes debate of what is considered sexually repressive, sexually free or simply fun and a statement of self confidence and self esteem. Every person is different and every person has a reason to do burlesque. It is certainly not relegated to simply female although that for the most part makes up the majority of the performers of burlesque. It is about performance art but also titillation. It is also a way to examine sexual fantasy in a controlled environment. Previously, Fest Track did a piece on “Play Me Burlesque” out of the Coney Island Film Festival, which covered much of the same ground as “Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story” [Documentaries].

However the inherent emotional connection explored in the latter film definitely plays to the core of what burlesque is about. It examines a similar arena in New York but takes an even more interesting element within the tiers of competition and reasoning. This is done by showing a diverse cross section of performers. “Play Me Burlesque” did similar but different performers have different stories. Here Hazel Honeysuckle in real life is more of a homebody, a slightly more geeky girl that has started to play dress up and found an outlet for a willing audience (so much so that she got a residency at the Borgata in Atlantic City). She is young and vivacious with a talent for costumes. But there is also the Schlep Sisters who are a bit older and playing smaller clubs in New Jersey. It is not as glamorous but they enjoy it. But like all human beings, each person has obstacles to overcome. James Lester, as a director does not shy away from that reality and, as a result, gives a intrinsic sense of the performers personalities and both their strengths and shortcomings.

B

By Tim Wassberg