The Girl in the Spider’s Web


The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Yes, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is a cold and impersonal action-thriller. Given that four films have been released prior, it assumes that the audience already has a basic idea of who the protagonist is and what she is capable of. This gives a chance for director Fede Álvarez, who co-adapted the screenplay with Jay Basu and Steven Knight from David Lagercrantz’ novel of the same name, to present a story in a way that breezes through the usual character introductions and quickly get to the conflict that is specific to this installment. On this level, it works.

This time, vigilante hacker Lisbeth Salander, punisher of men who mistreat women, is played by Claire Foy. Her portrayal is a welcome change from Rooney Mara’s nearly impenetrable enigma. Foy may not be as tough physically as Mara and Noomi Rapace, but I found her interpretation of the character to be strong by comparison given that she has more range when it comes to delivering the necessary and appropriate emotions under certain turn of events. And because the plot is tethered to Salander’s painful and traumatic childhood, a performer with a more believable and relatable emotional range is preferred. The paradox is interesting: there is a softness to Foy that shines through the masculine look of sporting a mohawk, wearing a leather jacket, piercings, tattoos, heavy cosmetics, and stealing a Lamborghini.

Rising action and climaxes are slick and suspenseful. Five groups wish to have their hands on Firewall, a program developed for Americans that is capable of breaching and taking control of nuclear codes—including those of other nations. Each faction’s motivation is presented in a clear and precise manner; so although the pacing is unapologetically swift, those willing to pay attention and focus on the chess pieces moving across the board will likely be able to follow the sudden and occasionally violent left turns. Notice that each explosion or shootout is preceded by patient build-up such as observing from afar or masked trigger-happy henchmen being captured on digital cameras.

An area of improvement is Salander’s relationship with Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason). While I appreciated that the script does not rehash their past, the material fails to move their professional relationship in a forward direction. Attempts are made, like Salander trusting Blomkvist with a child prodigy’s life (whose father, played by Stephen Merchant, is the creator of Firewall), but they barely say more than five lines of dialogue to one another. Perhaps we are supposed to extract information from the heavy silence between them, but this technique only works when the work is largely character-driven and there is an evolving trajectory in the characters’ connection.

I found “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” to be captivating because it is unlike so many generic American action-thrillers where action comes first and thrills are secondary. Here, we get the impression that chase, the tease, is more important than extracting entertainment from violence. And when it does lean toward the latter, particularly in the third act, the change is welcome.

Final Destination 5


Final Destination 5 (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Although now in the hands of filmmakers who have not helmed a “Final Destination” feature, director Steve Quale and screenwriter Eric Heisserer fail to inject freshness to the fourth sequel of the franchise. Instead, it follows the same stagnant formula: a shallow introduction of the characters, a premonition sequence involving gory deaths due to calamity, a funeral scene, one of the survivors from said tragedy dying in a bizarre way, second and third deaths immediately following, and the remaining survivors figuring out that Death is coming after them in the order that they die in the premonition—boring; we’ve seen it all before. A strong argument can be made that this movie is essentially the first “Final Destination” only with different actors.

It is given one twist so pedestrian, it digests like a bad joke. A returning character, the portentous William Bludworth (Tony Todd), claims that in order to defeat Death, a survivor must kill another person who is not meant to die—to balance Death’s books and all that. Now, I have seen the previous four movies and there is not one hint that this course of action could potentially work. The material runs with this idiotic idea and so the final act is reduced to a person wielding a gun and chasing other survivors—as if the picture were an action-thriller. It shows that Heisserer possesses no understanding of what makes the premise of the series stand out from other horror movies. Clearly, this is a work without purpose or inspiration.

Overall, it is an improvement from the awful “The Final Destination” (the fourth installment in the series)—but not significantly better. The opening tragedy involving a bridge collapse actually takes its time to unfold even though in some of the more ostentatious deaths look like too much CGI was used. Nicholas D’Agosto as the seer Sam is tolerable, but his character is not given much to work with. Sam is the standard nice guy who wishes to settle down with his girlfriend and so he is willing to put his dreams on hold just so they could be together. (Yawn.) Compared to the other survivors with more pronounced personalities (cardboard cutouts played by Miles Fisher, Jacqueline MacInnes Wood, and P.J. Byrne), Sam is a bore. Halfway through, I felt D’Agosto wanting to do more, but the writing has already proven to be painfully unimaginative.

There is one inspired death sequence that takes place in a medical facility. One of the survivors wishes to get laser eye surgery because she deems that life is too short for her to miss anything. Irony begins from the moment she steps into that building and, well, whatever happens afterwards. I cringed—and I think most people do, too—at the idea of being stuck in a chair, eyelids being forced open by a metallic apparatus, as the laser activates without a trained professional in the room. This scene is executed with so much energy and dark humor, it made me wish the entire movie functioned on this level. But it is a steep downhill trajectory after this brilliant scene.

As of this writing, there has not been a follow-up to “Final Destination 5” which I think supports claims that the series has grown so stale. It is an embarrassing entry not because it follows a formula but precisely because it has failed to move the formula in any interesting direction while remaining loyal to brand. Perhaps if the writer and director actually revisited “Final Destination 2,” they might have stood a chance at making a solid movie because that first sequel successfully expanded upon what worked in the original and made Death a more sinister figure.

The Final Destination


The Final Destination (2009)
★ / ★★★★

It is apparent that “The Final Destination” is a product of its time, when it was considered “cool” or “hip” to have objects thrown at you in 3D. The fourth entry in the series is the most exhausted and uninspired—surprising because Eric Bress, the screenwriter, and David R. Ellis, the director, also helmed the far superior “Final Destination 2” which is filled to brim with memorable deaths and joyous twists. What is left here is scraps, eighty minutes of laughably bad dialogue, boring death scenes with minimal setup, and characters that are either dull or offensively cliché.

This movie has the nerve to flaunt an opening credits that references previous death scenes in the series. It is almost like a dare for us to compare them to what this picture has to offer—and the competition is not even close. Here, it is obvious that far too much CGI is utilized to the point where, for example, when someone gets impaled by a metal rod through his chest, it does not feel horrifying or shocking, just fake. This approach persists throughout the work, and it is amazing that nobody spoke up and claimed that none of the images on screen are effective. Instead of offering an experience, it becomes a vehicle for special and visual effects.

Here is a first in the series: a completely forgettable premonition sequence. The previous movies really take the time to introduce every element that must come together in order to deliver a jaw-dropping accident (or “accident”—depending on how you see it). There is a sense of timing, patience, a feeling of eeriness and certain doom. We get terrific terrorized reaction shots from those experiencing visions of the future. But in this film, all of these positive qualities are thrown out the window. Why?

We witness multiple crashes in a racetrack, but we don’t feel invested in the pandemonium because it all happens so quickly. Showing a crowd running away, screaming, and causing a stampede is not right in a movie like this. In the predecessors, there is a reason why we are stuck in one place with the characters—a plane, a freeway, a roller coaster—it is meant to create a sense of claustrophobia. These are places we often find ourselves in. The message is made literal: There is no escape from death. Who goes to a racetrack?

Furthermore, it does not help that Bobby Campo, who plays our protagonist Nick, is not a highly expressive performer. Compare his wooden performance to Devon Sawa, A.J. Cook, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead from the first three “Final Destination” films, respectively, and the difference is night and day. I felt as though Campo was half-asleep while filming his scenes. Maybe it is not entirely his fault. It is the director’s job to review a scene, note what does or doesn’t work, and execute the necessary changes. Many scenes here require reshoots due to flat performances, main and supporting alike. At one point, I wondered whether the cast and crew were on an extremely tight schedule. One cannot help but get the impression that something—anything—simply needed to be shot and submitted, to get it over with.

It goes without saying that “The Final Destination” offers a depressing, disposable experience. A part of me is glad it isn’t officially named “Final Destination 4” because the work overall is an embarrassment.

Final Destination 3


Final Destination 3 (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

James Wong is back to direct the third entry of the “Final Destination” series, and although it reaches some highs, the picture is let down by an overly simplistic screenplay. It is a shame because “Final Destination 2” is a step in the right direction: It increases the ante by taking the original idea that those who manage to escape what should be certain deaths will in fact die sooner or later and expanding upon the idea in twisty and thrilling ways. There is not one, not two, but three interesting twists. In this second sequel, there is a neat idea: Photographs provide hints at at how the survivors will die after they escape the horrific roller coaster crash. But the ingenuity stops there. The rest of the time is a waiting game, simply going down the list of who will die next. We already know the “how,” so it is a mistake to go on autopilot.

This picture aims for deaths scenes that are more savage and brutal than its predecessors. The signature dark humor remains, especially when someone drops dead, but I noticed I felt quite badly for the characters we never get a chance to know. The scene in the tanning salon with the cliché narcissistic dumb blondes quickly comes to mind. (Although the transition between tanning beds and coffins made me chuckle.) I think it is because nearly every other scene serves to remind the audience that the teens are about to graduate high school and so what should be a hopeful time is marred by Death’s grip.

Like the first two movies, the third installment’s highlight is its opening scene involving a premonition at an amusement park. This time, we follow nice girl Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a self-proclaimed control freak, as she warns her friends—while undergoing a panic attack herself—that something is about to go horribly wrong with the roller coaster they’re on. There is strong attention to detail: the excitement of the riders, the normal (and abnormal) shaking of the tracks, obstructions that will trigger a Domino Effect, the sheer terror on the teens’ faces as shoulder restraints come off suddenly and the threat of being thrown off their seats becomes a very real possibility, faces smashed in, guts thrown all over the place. It is ugly, horrific, and you cannot look away—even though you want to.

But as the work goes on, especially toward the halfway point, a sense of familiarity starts to take hold. The aforementioned photograph plot device is curious, but it is not enough to create a compelling experience. It is like a joke without a punchline. Instead, the screenplay appears stuck wrestling with bad dialogue. For example, just when we are beginning to think that obnoxious jock Kevin (Ryan Merriman) is not the idiot he passes himself to be in public (he exhibits moments of sensitivity in private), the character claims, “I’m not the total idiot you think I am.” Could it be any more on the nose? Are we meant to laugh?

Unlike the second film that doesn’t try so hard to surpass the original, “Final Destination 3” does. The subtle wind that signals that Death is in the vicinity is turned into all-out hurricane, for example. At one point I wondered if the wind machine was malfunctioning. Surely everyone else around the area is able to notice the sudden gust, not just the tormented girl with the premonitions? It goes to show that in horror films, turning down the dial—this time literal—goes a long way. There are nifty deaths here and there, but the work as a whole does not offer an enveloping, unsettling experience.

Final Destination 2


Final Destination 2 (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

It doesn’t try so much to outdo the original in superficial ways. Instead, David R. Ellis’ worthy sequel to “Final Destination” respects its predecessor by taking ideas from the source, expanding upon them, and then—this is key—introducing new wrinkles for us to examine. Most of the time sequels attempt to outdo the original in this way: increasing the body count, amping up the violence, and intensifying the gore. While this installment does exactly these things, I counted three twists (which I will not reveal) that play upon what we already know: Death will be coming after the survivors of a freak accident, this time involving a pileup on the freeway.

Viewers will remember this film for the logs falling off a truck which then triggers a chain reaction of sheer, unadulterated mayhem. It is a wonderfully brutal opening scene, almost the exact opposite of the impressive first scene of the film that came before. In the original, our characters are in an enclosed space and we watch the order in which they die following an explosion. The approach feels rather clinical. This time, however, characters sit in their own vehicles while in motion. The method is entirely different. Editing is more pronounced, more purposeful, more confident. It functions on a higher kinetic energy. Blink for a spit-second longer and one is likely to miss a bone-crunching, skin-melting death. It is a wreck one cannot—should not—look away from. Because in this movie, the order of death still matters.

A.J. Cook is Kimberly, a high school student on a road trip with her friends. She is the seer, capable of experiencing premonitions that could cheat Death’s plans… at least for a while. Cook plays the character with utmost conviction, but I never felt as though there is much fight in her. Thus, it is the correct decision to bring back Ali Larter as Clear, one of the survivors of Flight 180 in the former picture. Larter chooses not to play her character as the mousey type this time around. And so we believe Clear has endured hardships that took place after the first movie. It is an interesting decision by screenwriters J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress to divide likability and strength between two characters. In horror films, especially splatterfests, one main character, usually female, possesses these two attributes. I appreciated the difference.

Here is a movie in which the violence paralyzes you. Twice or thrice I caught my jaw drop following a spine-chilling death scene, whether it is someone bring crushed by glass or a person bring sliced clean by barbed wires. I think it is because these death scenes almost always possess a dramatic parabola: the set-up, the false alarm, the climax, the resolution, the irony. Although we do not get to know any character in a meaningful way, the grim sense of humor is so sharp, the material is constantly pushed forward. In modern horror movies, it is uncommon for me to feel like I’m constantly trying to catch up to the screenplay.

“Final Destination 2” offers a good time. The script may be a weak point, but the sheep to be slaughtered are not meant to be articulate. It is all about the craft from behind the camera, the complex but clear choreography in showing the cause and effect of actions (or inaction) of doomed characters, and the breathless pace of a horror picture with numerous surprising ideas. It doesn’t always have to be about the blood. So it holds up upon repeated viewings.

Final Destination


Final Destination (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

James Wong’s “Final Destination” takes the idea of Death coming for souls whose times are up and commits to it all the way. It is not just another Dead Teenager Movie because the concept is explored quite seriously but at the same time the manner in which the victims die is so elaborate and so creative, entertainment is created from a rather grim premise. The material does not need to wink at the audience in hopes that viewers might recognize references from other works that came before. Nor does it need to poke fun of teen stereotypes. The filmmakers are confident that their work is strong enough to forge a path of its own.

Instead of barraging us with gruesome deaths, the screenplay by Glen Morgan, James Wong (who also directs), and Jeffrey Reddick takes its time to establish a sense of foreboding. Where better to start than with Alex (Devon Sawa), a superstitious high school senior who, while still at home, already senses that something might go awry during their flight to Paris. Something about keeping the stickers on the bags. We look at this character and recognize he’s just a tad ridiculous. But Sawa plays him with a straight face throughout and eventually we grow to like the kid even though Alex always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The killer opening sequence aboard the soon-to-be doomed Flight 180 is executed with a certain eerie energy and excitement. One could tell immediately that plenty of thought is put into where the camera is placed when the mood is calm and how the camera moves up and down the aisles when panic begins to take hold. The approach is almost clinical—and it must be because remembering where people sit, for instance, proves to be important during the latter events of the story. From minor turbulence to the terrifying final explosion, this plane sequence is a wonderful exercise in suspense and horror. Viewers tend to remember this movie because of this scene alone; it shows how the entire experience will be like.

But because the bar is set so high early on, a few of the deaths that befall the remaining seven “lucky” survivors fall short by comparison (Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith, Kristen Cloke, Seann William Scott, Amanda Detmer, Chad Donella). I enjoyed, however, that there is variety in the approach: some meet blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ends while others experience extremely painful and slow passing like being choked to death in the bathtub. Most haunting are those in which we hear a character’s final breath. The camera lingers for a beat or two and it works.

“Final Destination” introduces a formidable villain: one that cannot be rendered incapacitated by hitting it with a bat or a wrench, one that cannot be stabbed or shot dead. Nor can one run over it with a truck or speedboat. It can be outsmarted… but only for a while it seems. The premise captures the imagination. Notice there is no subplot to distract. Supporting characters are kept at a bare minimum. It simply takes one concept and plays with it enough in order to earn and maintain our attention from start to finish.

Waves


Waves (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film for teenagers that does not make the mistake of condescending to its target audience. Put this right alongside commercialized coming-of-age films meant to capture how it is like to be a high school student in modern America and it shines—so brightly in fact that most of its contemporaries would fade into the background. The reason is because writer-director Trey Edward Shults is not afraid to show real consequences. In this movie, conflict is never solved by delivering rousing speeches or grand gestures in front or a crowd with an upbeat soundtrack playing in the background. It requires its subjects to stop, to be silent, to go deep into contemplation, and to really push themselves to make a change. It’s not easy.

The story takes a magnifying glass on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a senior wrestler with an excellent chance of earning a full college scholarship. He has one more season before graduation. In the opening minutes, we observe his daily routine, how he pushes his mind and body to their absolute limit. His father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), ensures that he does. And should Tyler ever strays from that path, even for a second, Ronald is there to correct the mistake of his son taking his eyes off the prize.

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the father domineering, but the beauty of the screenplay is that it plays fair with all of its main characters—even the stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) who is less in control when it comes to discipline and the sister (Taylor Russell) who is present but has more of an observant role. There is no one-dimensional character here and all of the actors deliver layered and textured performances.

What I loved most about the picture is its willingness to show its subjects in real pain. I am not referring to characters simply responding to superficial conflicts required by the plot. The writer-director allows his characters to express how they feel on their own time with little regard to pacing. Most of the time, words are utilized to communicate. Notice how the dialogue flows, how words employed sound natural. But when an emotion is so painful, so frustrating, so unimaginable, still, Shults is there to capture his subjects’ misery. At times one finds himself or herself so helpless, there is little left to do other than to let out a wail or a whimper.

I think people whose families have undergone great crises will relate to this film—not because of the plot but because of its emotional and psychological landmarks, specifically traumas that stem from staring at crises in the face and enduring. One of the themes involves an action having a significant ripple effect, how one action is able to excavate issues laying just underneath the topsoil. Clearly, the story is not just about an African-American high school student who feels extreme pressure to perform and achieve success. It is about family dynamics and how each member influences one another. The work is not interested in blame, simply observation.

The structure of storytelling when it comes to coming-of-age movies rarely surprise me because most tend to follow a similar formula. “Waves” surprised me, but I will not detail why. I will leave it to you to experience and I hope it will also take your breath away, just as it did mine.