Monday 26 November 2018

The Girl in the Spider's Web (Fede Álvarez, 2018)

Brabant native Sylvia Hoeks stole more than a few scenes in last year's excellent Blade Runner 2049, and she portrays a similarly villainous character in The Girl in the Spider's Web, which is also a sequel - or is it?  While it follows the 2011 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this latest film skips the next two books and jumps ahead to the fourth instalment in the Millenium series, which was the first in the saga to be written by David Lagercrantz following the death of Stieg Larsson.  And while David Fincher, director of the 2011 movie, here returns in the form of executive producer, this latest film features an all-new cast.  Confused yet?  If not, consider also the Swedish trilogy of movies based on Larsson's books, which were combined and augmented to create TV miniseries Millennium, with the resulting show subsequently cut in three to form new, extended versions of the trilogy.  Great material for a Venn diagram.

So, where does The Girl in the Spider's Web fit in to this chaotic canon?  Is it part two?  Part five?  Or even part four, if we simply go with the order of the books?  I have no real idea, but as this new film appears to be a reboot it could quite reasonably be seen as the first in a planned new series, one which probably won't go any further if the box office takings thus far are anything to go by.  The expensive 2011 film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did eventually drag itself past the $100 million mark in its domestic market (thanks in no small part to the casting of Daniel Craig), but was largely met with indifference, and few clamoured for a sequel; The Girl in the Spider's Web, while made on less than half the budget of Fincher's film, will probably meet with similarly modest success.  It appears that English-language movies of the Millennium series have proved something of a tough sell to audiences long saturated in Scandi-noir; the books, on the other hand, continue to sell by the boatload.

In any case, The Girl in the Spider's Web works as a standalone film, so you'll be just fine if this marks your first experience of any of the Millennium stories.  Lisbeth Salander, the girl who hurts men who hurt women, is played this time around by Claire Foy, and the British actress acquits herself very well.  The film is still in its early stages when we witness the cheering sight of her stringing up some woman-beating lowlife, but Lisbeth's bread and butter is soon abandoned in favour of a plot revolving around Firefall, a computer program which can access nuclear codes around the globe (and which sounds, in both name and purpose, much like an unused Bond idea).  If this wasn't based on a book, you'd swear that the entire plot was written on the back of an empty Ahlgrens bilar packet.

Salander is tasked with retrieving the program from the Americans after its author (a miscast Stephen Merchant) has misgivings about his creation, and a job which may have taken an entire film to complete is dealt with most swiftly by our heroine.  Of course, there's much more to come, as Lisbeth isn't able to hold on to the program for long as it's plucked from her hands by an international crime syndicate known as, yep, The Spiders; cue numerous frantic chases around a Stockholm where apparently no-one speaks Swedish.  The syndicate has more than one link to Lisbeth's murky past, and their identities emerge following some digging by Salander's journalist ex Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason).

Hoeks enters the film fairly late on, although her part is the important one of Camilla, the sister who was left behind when Lisbeth escaped their abusive father (a pre-credits scene fills us in on the girls' traumatic childhood).  As you may expect, Camilla is resentful of the fact that she was left to face her father's depravity alone, and she turns up as a grown woman in no mood to forgive.  Although you can sort of understand where she's coming from - Lisbeth's departure presumably doubled Camilla's torment - her father is infinitely more deserving of her ire than her sister.  Despite Camilla's harrowing backstory, Hoeks' role here is another unsympathetic one following her turn in the Blade Runner sequel, and she should perhaps be wary of becoming typecast in such parts.  Foy, on the other hand, is inhabiting a role very different from her one in TV show The Crown, and she should consider herself rather unlucky to have starred in two films this year which have performed well below expectations; Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, in which Foy played the astronaut's wife, also never really got off the ground in terms of box office.

While this reboot certainly has a slick, streamlined and uncomplicated feel to it, it lacks real urgency or tension, with Lisbeth's near-invincibility telegraphing her survival in even the tightest of corners.  It also largely dispenses with Blomkvist, arguably as big a part of the Millennium series as Salander, and reduces him to an inconsequential supporting character (despite Gudnason's prominent billing).  Director Álvarez, as the man behind Don't Breathe and the Evil Dead remake, is someone who might have been expected to bring much more of an edge to the story, but the end result is as unmemorable as it is ordinary, with only a couple of flourishes reminiscent of his inventive prior work in evidence here.  While it's always a serviceable film, and far worse movies will fare much better in terms of revenue, The Girl in the Spider's Web's inevitable hasty retreat from multiplexes will almost certainly spell the end for Lisbeth's big-screen adventures.  Perhaps we should all just stick to the books?

Darren Arnold

Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Holiday (Isabella Eklöf, 2018)

Dutch actor Thijs Römer gives a strong performance in Holiday, a film in which title and content are completely at odds with one another; while it may be set in a seemingly cheerful sun-kissed location (see the above picture for an example), Isabella Eklöf's debut makes for a horribly uncomfortable watch.  Well-acted and impeccably shot in an icy style which conspicuously recalls the work of severe Austrian auteurs Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, Holiday is, quite predictably, a film much easier to admire than it is to like.  For something set exclusively in a balmy climate, it's probably the most chilling film of the year, and the warmth of its depicted beaches and marinas evaporates long before it can reach the viewer.  At the screening I attended, the director introduced the film and said she'd experienced many extreme reactions - some have embraced the film, others have detested it; regardless of where you stand on Holiday at its bleak conclusion, chances are that the film will stay with you for some time after the end credits roll.

While enjoying a holiday on the Turkish Riviera, Römer's Thomas gets chatting to fellow tourist Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne).  During their initial, mildly flirtatious encounter in an ice cream shop, you'd think that these two were just ordinary people living normal lives, but while Thomas is certainly a regular guy - and a bit of a dreamer, having packed in his job to buy a yacht - Sascha is part of a vicious criminal gang headed by the noxious Michael (Lai Yde).  An early marker for who we're dealing with here comes in the form of an incident on the beach, in which a Francophone tourist is humiliated and ridiculed simply for asking Michael and Sascha's group to turn their music down.  This is one of the more innocuous events in the film; Michael's objectification of everyone is spelled out in an unnerving scene in which he repositions the limbs of the seemingly sleeping Sascha, thus quite literally treating her like a doll.  As Sascha spends a bit more time with Thomas, it appears as if this affable character might just be Sascha's route out of the life she's trapped in; indeed, in most other films, the romance would blossom and Sascha would escape the vile crime boss - but Eklöf has other ideas and no intention of delivering anything so feelgood.  The outcome provokes feelings not dissimilar to those stirred up by Michael Haneke's Funny Games (either version), and you do sense that Haneke would approve of Eklöf's confrontational film.

It's very hard to review Holiday and ignore the elephant in the room - but that's precisely what I'll try to do here (even though I'm aware I've just alerted you to said elephant).  But suffice to say that I didn't appreciate someone taking the stage, pre-film, to issue a warning about some of Holiday's content - if Isabelle Eklöf wanted such a notice, wouldn't she have incorporated one into her film, à la William Castle/Gaspar Noé? (Irréversible, still that most shocking of Noé's works, is clearly another influence on Holiday).  Such an announcement, while no doubt borne of sound intentions, was a terrible distraction from Eklöf's immaculately-assembled work, and the effect was most reductive.  But while Holiday has many impressive aspects, it's ultimately a tough film to recommend, and a strong nerve is required to get through its 90 minutes or so.  If you are interested in seeing the film, you may want to do a little more reading up on it to see if it's for you; furthermore, the content raises real questions regarding acting boundaries.  With its ironic title and rather misleading publicity stills, Holiday is certainly one to approach with caution, but it will be interesting to see what Isabella Eklöf comes up with next.

Darren Arnold


Thursday 1 November 2018

Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (Bruno Dumont, 2018)

Police captain Van der Weyden is one of the more memorable characters in recent television history (OK, I must admit I don't watch much TV), and since this character - played by the untutored Bernard Pruvost - first appeared in Bruno Dumont's Li'l Quinquin, I've been itching to see more of him; that show, which ran to four episodes (and also played in cinemas as one long film), was always ripe for another series.  A sequel is now finally here in the form of Coincoin and the Extra-Humans and, happily, second time around proves no obstacle for the director and his fine cast of non-pros who, four years on, effortlessly slip back into this surreal and occasionally very troubling world.  Bruno Dumont has been no slouch between these two series, pumping out both Slack Bay and Jeannette, the latter of which, like Quinquin, enjoyed near-simultaneous big and small screen releases.

As with Li'l Quinquin, this latest endeavour consists of four episodes of around 50 minutes each.  Pretty much everyone from the first show is back for this caper - even Lisa Hartmann's Aurélie, and if you saw the first series and are wondering how this can be possible, just watch and you'll see - oh, you'll see.  Whereas Van der Weyden's bizarre investigation last time around was at least rooted in reality with its hunt for a murderer (who, predictably enough, was never revealed nor apprehended), this series jumps off the deep end from the start as a strange black magma is splatting down from the skies.  This substance proves mystifying enough to both police and civilians, but its true menace is only revealed each dusk as it releases a floating light which proceeds to invade an unfortunate, seemingly random local resident, who then spawns a doppelgänger; rinse and repeat.

In addition to the antics of Van der Weyden and his sidekick Carpentier (Philippe Jore) - who spends much of his time stunt driving their Citroën C4 police car - there is of course plenty of screen time for the title character, played by Alane Delhaye.  As you may have noticed, he now goes by the name Coincoin - presumably as he's no longer a quinquin, or small child.  While many of the returning cast members look pretty much the same as they did before, the biggest change, predictably, comes in the appearances of the child actors, who in the space of four years have gone from kids just out of primary school to teens on the cusp of adulthood.  In these intervening years, Coincoin has separated from Eve (Lucy Caron) and over the course of the new series gets romantically involved with the flighty Jenny (Alexia Depret), daughter of the regional leader of sinister political party the Bloc.  Like Coincoin, Eve has also moved on to another partner, but it's clear that these childhood sweethearts still harbour some feelings for one another.

Although Coincoin and the Extra-Humans has one foot planted in slapstick, it does take the time to touch upon some serious concerns, such as the European migrant crisis and the rise of the far right - the Bloc clearly a proxy for Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement national, much like the fictional RNP were in last year's Chez nous (when Le Pen's party were still known as the Front national).  A disconcerting development occurs when some of the Bloc's foot soldiers talk about travelling to Calais for a "bonfire"; thankfully, this appears to be little more than bravado, although the group's walk through a tunnel which plays home to some migrants makes for a tense couple of minutes.  But these darker aspects are largely kept in the background, never getting in the way of an investigation which, if you know this director, is never likely to lead to much of consequence.  Rather, Dumont is fixed on his characters and their interactions, and the forensics of police work - just as in Slack Bay, Humanity or indeed Li'l Quinquin - prove to be of no real interest to the director.  As is usual for Dumont, the landscape of his own back yard here proves to be a character in its own right, and DP Guillaume Deffontaines - in his fifth collaboration with the director - serves up some wonderfully evocative widescreen cinematography.

While the vast majority of the actors seen here were in the first series, there are a couple of additions to the cast which will arouse interest among Dumont scholars: Nicolas Leclaire, whose performance in Jeannette was a comic highlight, turns up here as Jenny's uncle, but the real shock comes in the form of an appearance by Humanity's Emmanuel Schotté who plays, er, another of Jenny's uncles (or should that be "uncles"?)  Schotté's only screen role prior to Coincoin was in Humanity, for which he won the best actor prize at Cannes; you can't help but feel that he went into exile on account of the backlash afforded to the controversial Humanity, on which Cannes' David Cronenberg-led jury bestowed two other prestigious awards.  There's something quite touching about his reappearance here after nearly 20 years away from acting, and it seems only fitting that his second (final?) role is in something directed by Dumont.

Needless to say, Coincoin and the Extra-Humans comes highly recommended, and it's amazing how it follows Li'l Quinquin so seamlessly.  It's hard to pick which of the two series is better, but that all eight episodes could play as a single, fluid work is testament to the remarkable consistency on display here.  While the cast will all, presumably, go back to doing whatever it is they normally do (Pruvost is a gardener at a centre for disabled people), a third adventure with these characters would be extremely welcome, so let's hope it eventually materialises.  With much of the dialogue presented in undiluted ch'timi, Dumont proves to be as intransigent as ever; that said, who would have thought that the director and star of the bleak, severe and austere Humanity would one day reunite for a knockabout TV comedy?

Darren Arnold

Images: 3B Productions