This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ is a Textbook Example of How Not to Reboot

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CREDIT: Reiner Bajo/Sony Pictures Entertainment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Sylvia Hoeks, LaKeith Stanfield, Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps, Claes Bang

Director: Fede Álvarez

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Violence and Sexual Content, But Relatively Mild by This Series’ Standards

Release Date: November 9, 2018

Where do you go if you’re an iconic character whose creator isn’t around anymore? For the supernaturally proficient hacker Lisbeth Salander, that worry applies twofold. Stieg Larsson, the original author of the Millennium book series, passed away in 2004, with all three of his Salander-starring novels published posthumously. With the books proving immensely popular, the series was eventually continued about a decade later by David Lagercrantz with The Girl in the Spider’s Web and The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. I haven’t read Lagercrantz’ entries, so I don’t know how they compare to Larsson’s work, but I do know that they haven’t been the sensations that the originals were.

Similarly, the film edition of Spider’s Web is arriving with much less fanfare than David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation (or even the Noomi Rapace-starring Swedish-language version). Dragon Tattoo got mostly strong reviews and cracked $100 million at the box office, but it proved to be too expensive and brutal to immediately continue on as a franchise. Still, it does director Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe, 2013’s Evil Dead remake) no favors to be working with a version of Salander that is so far removed from Larsson and Fincher’s conceptions. To be fair, in order to truly succeed, it would have to succeed, so the problem is really that Spider’s Web is ultimately too generic. Dragon Tattoo featured brutal, hard-to-watch moments of abuse, but they made for striking, unforgettable characters. Spider’s Web, alas, reduces Salander to a standard-issue avenging angel caught up in inscrutable international intrigue.

Don’t blame Claire Foy, who is certainly willing to be as unapologetic and deeply committed as is necessary to embody Salander. And don’t blame Sylvia Hoeks as Lisbeth’s long-lost sister or LaKeith Stanfield as an enterprising agent. (Sverrir Gudnason, however, is not a particularly inspiring Mikael Blomkvist.) But do blame the not-particularly-deep story they are caught up in. Ghosts from the past and not-so-legitimate government authorities have caused problems for Salander in the past, but this time, they do not offer much unique to say about the human condition.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is Recommended If You Like: Cookie-cutter sprawling mystery thrillers

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Hacks

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Young Karl Marx’ Gives Communism Its Very Own Cookie-Cutter Biopic

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CREDIT: The Orchard

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps, Olivier Gourmet, Hannah Steele

Director: Raoul Peck

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Probably Be PG-13 for Philosophically Fueled Arguments

Release Date: February 23, 2018 (Limited Theatrically)/March 6, 2018 (Digital and On Demand)

Among history’s most influential philosophers, Karl Marx deserves a lot of credit for clearly keeping in mind that his ideas exist for people. It is not particularly useful to get bogged down in theory when you could actually improve the way people live. The human element is baked right into his writing, especially his most famous quote: “Workers of the world, unite!” That spirit is clearly present in The Young Karl Marx, which is less about how the socialist pioneer wrote The Communist Manifesto and changed the course of history and more about how he had a wife and kids and friends and acquaintances. This focus offers an appropriately fraternal approach, but it also makes for a rather run-of-the-mill biopic.

The Young Karl Marx has a notably multicultural background, as it features two German actors (August Diehl and Stefan Konarske, respectively) as Marx and Friedrich Engels, a Luxembourgian (Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps) as Marx’s wife Jenny, and a supporting cast of Belgians, French, and Brits. Plus, its director is the Haitian Raoul Peck (probably best known for the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro), and its dialogue weaves seamlessly between German, French, and English. This diversity may have some thematic connection to worldwide proletariat unity, but in practice it feels haphazard. Besides, it is simply a fact that Marx and Engels were multilingual. The polyglot nature feels meaningful and important, but it never goes much beyond the surface.

And that total straightforwardness is really the trouble with The Young Karl Marx. This is a major case of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened, the end.” Marx and Engels meet uneasily at first, and then they become great friends. They have disagreements with other philosophers who are too theory-centric, but then they all more or less come to an understanding with each other. Workers are suspicious of Engels’ motives, as he comes from a more privileged background, but then he proves his bona fides. Marx and Jenny struggle to get by on his writing income, and then they continue their lives together. It is all more or less acted with spirit, vigor, and dignity, and then The Communist Manifesto goes on to be one of the most influential texts of all time. If you’ve ever been exposed to Marxim, The Young Karl Marx won’t tell you anything new. It’s only worth seeking out if you’re a completist when it comes to historical figures’ domesticity.

The Young Karl Marx is Recommended If You Like: The home lives of philosophers, Debates about materialism and Hegelianism

Grade: 2 out of 5 Bourgeois Notions

This Is a Movie Review: In ‘Phantom Thread,’ Daniel Day-Lewis is a Master Dressmaker in Love with Routine

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CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: R for More F Bombs Than Expected

Release Date: December 25, 2017 (Limited)

In the beginning of Phantom Thread, Reynolds Woodcock’s muse and lover Alma (Vicky Krieps) describes him as “the most difficult man.” Such a definitive claim could potentially set us up for disappointment, but if anything, it turns out to be a bit of an understatement. So then the issue could bethat the dialogue is too on-the-nose, but that is not a problem with a lead actor and a director as precise as Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson are. And that precision is really what this film is about. The story of a dressmaker, no matter how legendary, strikes me as a rather niche attraction, but it should be known that Phantom Thread is primarily the (love?) story of two stubborn people butting up against each other.

If you are a fan of P.T. Anderson, or cinema in general, but do not have strong feelings towards fashion, you might be comforted to know that the focus is on the relationships. But you may soon find yourself discomforted by how discordant those relationships are. Or you might find all that hilarious. This is definitely an example of the rarely seen prestige cringe comedy, and I cringed more than I guffawed, though I appreciated the craft and the crack comic timing.

The setting is 1950s London, but due to the lack of electric devices in Reynolds Woodcock’s house, it feels like it could be decades earlier. Reynolds and the waitress Alma are quite smitten with each other, so he takes her into his home as his muse, in-house model, and soon enough, lover. Cyril (Lesley Manville), his sister and assistant, is on hand to make sure everything remains in tip-top shape in the wake of this new arrival. While at first there appears to be a genuine spark between Reynolds and Alma, it does not take long for there to be troubling signs. He casually drops some remarks about her imperfections, while she surprisingly enough has the gumption to give as good as she gets. But instead of maintaining her dignity, this results in the two of them butting up against each other with their shared obstinacy. Yet she manipulates him towards marriage, while I quietly scream that they need to cut their losses and run away from each other.

This definitely falls into the category of films I admire but do not particularly enjoy. The characters are marvelously realized, but too bullheaded to be pleasant for any extended period. I think that intimate exposure of imperfections is the point, and there is certainly a lot of room to appreciate that, but preferably from a safe distance.

Phantom Thread is Recommended If You Like: The Devil Wears Prada, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Witnessing the painstaking creative process

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Measurements