The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

2019 #90
Fede Alvarez | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English | 15 / R

The Girl in the Spider's Web

I love a bit of context to frame a review, but crikey, I can’t be arsed to recap the turbulent history of this particular franchise. Heck, it doesn’t even have a proper name! Officially it was the Millennium Trilogy, but that didn’t seem to stick (especially when it went past three books). The original Swedish films have been bundled as “The Girl” trilogy, owing to the formula of their English language titles. For this latest incarnation, they chose to label it “A New Dragon Tattoo Story”, I guess reasoning that “Dragon Tattoo” was a more unique identifier than “The Girl” (not wrongly).

The status of this film itself is equally confused. Is it a reboot? A sequel? If so, to what? I mean, it’s adapted from the fourth book, but only the first has been filmed in English (as is this movie), so is this now meant to be the second story? But as there doesn’t seem to be a Swedish language adaptation forthcoming, maybe this is intended to be a fourth one after all? Frankly, I suspect the filmmakers would rather we didn’t ask. The film makes little or no acknowledgement of any specific predecessors (aside from the fact that the recurring characters already know each other), instead diving headlong into a new, standalone story. Well, standalone-ish, because a lot of what occurs comes out of the past of Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl; and the events of her past were a key feature of some of the other stories as well, so…! Well, that you can’t escape your past, however much you might try, is sort of a theme here, I guess, so maybe we can kindly say it’s only appropriate.

Whichever films or books you take in before this one, I don’t think Spider’s Web is a good jumping-on point. It assumes we have familiarity with the lead characters — hacker Lisbeth Salander (now played by Claire Foy) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (now played by Sverrir Gudnason), and their relationship, or lack thereof — which is a barrier to it being newcomer friendly. Anyway, the actual storyline sees Lisbeth being hired to steal a dangerous computer program from the CIA, which leads to all sorts of trouble with crime gangs and spies and whatnot.

l33t h4x0r skillz

Where the first three Millennium / Girl / Dragon Tattoo stories were all fundamentally crime thrillers, Spider’s Web opens up the storytelling world into much more fanciful realms. It’s a bit like they’ve tried to make Salander a kind of freelance female James Bond, using her l33t h4x0r skillz to stop evil cyber-terrorists. It also helps that she’s pretty handy on a motorbike and with a gun. How? Just because. Unfortunately, an element of ‘just because’ powers too much of the film, with fundamental flaws in even its basic setup: the computer program she has to steal is uncopyable, hence the reason she has to steal it, but that’s (apparently) not even possible. I guess the writers just thought “eh, it sounds plausible”, but, well, it didn’t sound plausible to me, and apparently it is indeed not possible to create a program that can’t be copied, so there we go.

And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief, Spider’s Web is mostly enjoyable while it’s on. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot — few, if any, are genuinely surprising, but it keeps it ticking over; as do the running about and shooting at things. It’s nothing special as action-thrillers go, but I’ve seen a lot worse. They’ve plumped for an R rating, in keeping with the darker adult themes the series is known for, but it’s a funny one: some of it feels tamed down as if they were aiming for a PG-13 (it’s scrupulous about never showing Lisbeth naked, even when she is), but there are some swears and the odd burst of violence that would never have got past at the lower certificate. Arguably that kind of half-heartedness extends to the whole experience.

Yas Queen!

Consequently, I feel kinda bad for Claire Foy in the lead role. After her acclaim in The Crown I can see she must’ve had big opportunities calling, but I imagine was also keen to show her range after becoming famous for such a particular kind of role. Lisbeth Salander is about as big a 180 from Queen Elizabeth II as you can get, right? However, she has big shoes to fill. Lisbeth is a potentially complex role, much desired by actresses keen for some meaty material (well, there was tough competition when they were casting the US remake of Dragon Tattoo, anyway), but both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara have put a firm stamp on it already (the latter even secured an Oscar nomination). I’d wager Foy is up to the task, although the screenplay doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with. Giving Lisbeth some (more) familial conflicts sounds potentially weighty, but the actual material doesn’t dig into it a whole lot.

As for the rest of the cast, the fact they’ve cast someone you’ve probably never heard of as Blomkvist, the role previously played by a hot-off-Bond Daniel Craig, shows how he has a downgraded part to play here. The rest of the supporting cast includes a few somewhat more familiar faces, like Stephen Merchant, LaKeith Stanfield, and Sylvia Hoeks, all of whom are fine with what they’re given, but, as I say, it’s not exactly something to write home about.

Burning down the franchise

Once upon a time Dragon Tattoo was a darling of the pop culture world, the books attracting a tonne of attention, the Swedish films going down very well, and the star-studded US remake suitably hyped up. Its shine has waned since then (possibly as a result of said US remake underperforming at the box office, which is a whole other can of worms), and now Spider’s Web is probably too little too late to revive it — certainly, it fared poorly with both critics (40% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (a paltry $35 million worldwide). To say it deserved better might be overselling it, but there is value here, at least for any undemanding fans of the action-thriller genre.

3 out of 5

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Force Majeure (2014)

aka Turist

2015 #174
Ruben Östlund | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Sweden, France, Norway & Denmark / Swedish, English, French & Norwegian | 15 / R

During a near-miss on a skiing holiday, a dad abandons his wife and kids. Cue days of passive-aggressive familial angst.

At its best, writer-director Ruben Östlund’s YouTube-inspired film (seriously — look at IMDb’s trivia) is a droll dark comedy. Told in wisely-deployed long takes that benefit the cast, there’s also gorgeous photography and a dramatic score courtesy of Vivaldi’s Summer.

Other times, it’s too languorous and arthouse-y for my taste. Compare Rotten Tomatoes to viewer opinions elsewhere and you see a fissure in opinion Maybe removing some longueurs would’ve made it something regular viewers could enjoy as much as critics.

4 out of 5

Force Majeure is available on Netflix UK as of last Sunday.

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

2015 #35
David Fincher | 158 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Sweden & Norway / English | 18 / R

Stieg Larsson’s much-hyped novel comes to the screen for the second time in David Fincher’s much-hyped English-language re-adaptation. Somewhere between the pre-release build-up (do you remember the fuss over the trailer’s release? And all those magazine covers and articles?) and now, something clearly went awry: its UK TV premiere back in March was buried mid-week on ITV2.

If you’ve read or seen a previous version then you know the story, which hasn’t succumbed to a massive reworking for the American remake — it’s still set in Sweden, even. If you don’t, it sees disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) being invited by the patriarch of the rich Vanger family (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the murder of his beloved niece, which happened 40 years earlier. At the same time, we follow the trials and tribulations of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a troubled twenty-something hacker who must contend with abusive guardians, before eventually teaming up with Mikael to close his investigation. The novel’s original title translates as Men Who Hate Women, and that’s a pretty succinct summary of the grim, violent, nasty places the stories take us.

After an aside into magical character drama and big-business thriller, Fincher has moved back towards more familiar stomping ground here: a boundary-pushing thriller with themes so dark many wouldn’t want to touch it. It also followed hot on the heels of the well-received Swedish screen adaptations of the novels, another reason to stay hands-off; doubly so given that this sticks equally closely to the source novel. The merits of the various versions can be debated ad infinitum, naturally. I’ve not read the novel so can’t compare, but reportedly the Swedish film’s characters are more like those in the book and the plot is even more closely adapted. That said, to a casual viewer, the two films feel very similar in terms of story and character. There are certainly changes, but nothing especially major. For example, the ending has been tweaked — not “completely changed”, as some reports had it, but just streamlined slightly. Some will struggle to even remember the difference if their experience of a previous version was long enough ago. Die hard fans, however, seem to regard it as a massive re-visioning of events. It isn’t.

I could go on with this comparison, but there are plenty enough articles to do that already, and I don’t really want to. Yet it’s quite a hard thing to avoid, purely because the two films materialised so close together. Even distant remakes invite comparison, but when they come out virtually back-to-back it just emphasises the point. So too the fact that the Swedish films were widely and readily available, and that they were acclaimed by both critics and audiences, not cheapo idiomatic versions before the big-budget American one came along. Indeed, though I called it boundary-pushing earlier, few boundaries feel pushed because it’s so close to the Swedish version. Of course, in and of itself — and if you’ve not seen the foreign-language film — there’s a lot of shocking, extreme stuff here. Even for the director who gave us Se7en, this is at times pitch-black material.

And that there is another comparison that dogs the film: Fincher’s previous work. However much of his own touch the director brings to proceedings — and he has produced an incredibly well-made film; in particular, it’s beautifully shot, and there’s a vein of interest to be mined in discussing the fact it was consciously made using a five-act (as opposed to the usual three-act) structure (but not here today, sorry) — it feels unable to innovate or hone the genre in quite the way Se7en or Zodiac did. This is not a movie that will be remembered among the very top-level of his work.

Well, I say that — who knows? Enough films have been reevaluated with time in the history of film that you can’t ever quite be certain. At the moment, the context of comparing it to the Swedish film holds it back, but where that has Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth in its favour, this has the skill of David Fincher, not to mention a not-half-bad (indeed, Oscar nominated) Lisbeth from Rooney Mara, as well as a quality supporting cast. And the best use of Enya since at least Fellowship of the Ring. Then, from a personal perspective, Se7en and Zodiac are among my most-favourite films, so in that comparison battle Dragon Tattoo almost has a hand tied behind its back. Historical context hasn’t improved since, either, with Fincher’s follow-up being another morally-dark bestselling thriller adaptation, pigeonholing them (for some commentators) as a pair of Fincher-by-numbers placeholders until he comes up with something original again — if he ever does (as naysayers would proclaim).

So my rating may come as a bit of a surprise given the focus of this review, which is primarily my fault for finding it so tough to shrug off all those contexts and comparisons. But hey, that’s something the film itself struggles with in many people’s eyes, too. If the viewer can divorce it from those ties, however, I think it’s still an exceptionally good thriller.

5 out of 5

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is on ITV2 tonight at 11:10pm.

Persona (1966)

2015 #7
Ingmar Bergman | 79 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | 15

Since that debate [between New York critics Susan Sontag and Andrew Sarris when the film was first released], writing about Persona has been for film critics and scholars what climbing Everest is for mountaineers: the ultimate professional challenge.

Oh dear.

PersonaThat quote comes from Thomas Elsaesser in the introduction to his Criterion essay “The Persistence of Persona”. He goes on to add that, “Besides Citizen Kane, it is probably the most written-about film in the canon. [Every major critic has] written with gravity and great insight about Persona, not counting several books and collections entirely devoted to the film.” Well, I can’t promise gravity or insight. In fact, practically the opposite, because I think that Persona is almost wilfully obtuse.

That’s not because the film is stupid, but because it’s “slow to understand” in the sense that the viewer can’t understand it — people have been debating its meaning for almost 50 years now, and it seems that still no one really knows what it’s about or what it’s trying to say. Obviously that’s some people’s bag, but it leaves me slightly baffled how it can gain such acclaim as to be well-regarded outside of the circles that decide Sight & Sound’s decennial list — I mean, it’s on the IMDb Top 250! There are some great bits, in particular some gorgeous cinematography, but the artistic indulgences (shall we say) and the complete lack of any clarity of meaning by the end make it an unlikely populist choice.

Summer holidayThe plot, such as it is, concerns an actress (Liv Ullmann) who has decided to become mute and her nurse (Bibi Andersson), who travel to a seaside summerhouse to attempt recuperation. After we’re told how they grew closer, events concern the breakdown of the relationship between the two women… or is there only one woman? We might end up inside one of their heads… but whose? Or is it both of their heads? Or…

In his Amazon.co.uk review (which can be found on this page only), David Stubbs reckons that the film is “an occasionally cryptic but overwhelmingly powerful meditation on the parasitic interaction between Art and Life… about the helpless incapacity of art to ‘say’ anything in the face of grim reality.” He may well be right. What the women’s odd relationship/symbiosis has to do with that, I have no idea.

On the bright side, as I mentioned, it is beautifully shot. Some of it is on the surface unexceptional, but carries a simple beauty; other images, however, are strikingly composed and lit. There’s a particular shot that merges the faces of the two actresses together. Even though the similarity of their features is supposedly what gave Bergman the entire idea for the film, he didn’t come up with that shot until the edit. I personally didn’t think Ullmann and Andersson looked that alike, but, nonetheless, the merged shot could not be achieved any better with today’s photo-editing technology — it looks like one, wholly different, person. I’m sure there’s a deep philosophical meaning there, but I was just impressed by the technological wizardry.

Lesbian vampires?The film’s other most famous bit is a monologue Andersson delivers one night about a foursome she found herself in. As with most of the film its exact meaning is debatable, but it’s another unusual behind-the-scenes story: it was nearly cut, apparently, even though it’s in many respects the pivotal scene. It’s where the nurse opens up the most, leading to the actress’ ‘betrayal’ by repeating the story in a letter, which is what leads to the disintegration of their relationship and all the confusion/weirdness/’deep psychological filmmaking’ that follows. Later, Bergman lets a monologue (yes, another one) play in full twice. The meaning? He had intended to cut back and forth between the two actresses, but couldn’t decide which shots to discard, so just let it all run twice. At least that’s some confusion cleared up, then.

Clearly some people get a lot out of Persona. That’s nice for them. For me, it has moments of brilliance, but the stunted attempt to artistically portray the futility of portraying an idea through art is unenlighteningly ironic.

3 out of 5

Persona was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

Wallander 2 (or 6) and 3 (or 13)

If you read my review of the first episode/film of the Swedish Wallander, Before the Frost, back in November, you may have some idea what that title’s on about. For the rest, I’ll try to explain it succinctly:

There are multiple TV/movie series based on Henning Mankell’s detective Kurt Wallander. This particular one, begun in 2005, features an adaptation of one novel (Before the Frost) followed by twelve original stories. Of these thirteen feature-length episodes, three were released theatrically — episodes one, six and thirteen (the rest went direct to DVD, and later TV) — and, because of their initial cinema release, I’ve reviewed those three as part of my objective. Having published the first last November, this pair of reviews covers the second film (or sixth episode) and the third film (or thirteenth episode).

I hope that makes some kind of sense…

2009 #88
Wallander: Mastermind

Mastermind works to earn its status as a theatrical release, everyone upping their game to provide something more filmic than the other direct-to-DVD entries in the series.” Read more…

2010 #12
Wallander: The Secret

The Secret‘s not quite as filmic as Mastermind. Making it personal for one of the team is always a good way to make A Bigger Story, and there are some particularly large revelations and twists involved here.” Read more…


A second series of the Swedish Wallander comes to BBC Four soon. This time, only the first episode — The Revenge (Hämnden) — has received a theatrical release, though to date only nine (of thirteen) episodes have been released at all (according to IMDb, the remainder are due for release in Sweden in March, April, June and July; I don’t know if BBC Four are screening all thirteen in one go regardless). I will, of course, continue to cover the series’ cinema-released episodes as I see them.