Possibly Impossible

When Mary Poppins was released 55 years ago, it was both a cultural and a box office phenomenon. Blessed with a score filled with memorable songs – “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Supercalifragiliousexpialidotious,” “Once in Love with Mary,” and more – and a delightfully whimsical story, it won five Oscars, including a satisfying Best Actress win for Julie Andrews over Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, the role Andrews originated on Broadway. At the box office, it made over a hundred million dollars at a time when tickets were less than a dollar each. Given the number of tickets sold – over 110 million – it would have made nearly a billion dollars with the average cost of a ticket today. (My Fair Lady lagged $30 million behind Poppins in its box office that year.) Poppins was by far the most successful movie of Walt Disney’s career.

Mary’s creator, P.L. Travers, wrote several books in the series, so the idea of a sequel on the screen isn’t outlandish, but given the beloved status of the original, it’s an assignment fraught with pitfalls from the outset. It’s as likely to succeed as adding an extension onto the Taj Mahal or a 5th movement to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. That said, Mary Poppins Returns comes decently close.

It helps that Rob Marshall is the rare director active these days who has successfully pulled off a Hollywood musical, with his production of Chicago. His other venture into the genre, Into The Woods, was less successful, but then the source material was essentially a poison apple aimed at deconstructing the genre. The downside with Mary Poppins Returns is that he appears constrained by the structure of the original, though he manages to push its walls out a bit.

Part of the push comes from his lead actress. Emily Blunt was a brilliant choice to play Mary, and it likely helped that she and Marshall had already worked together on Woods. Rather than go to the original movie for the character, Blunt went back to the books. The Mary in the books is a sharper, edgier character, and Blunt carries off the role with an imperiousness that infuses energy into the movie.

She’s ably assisted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the biggest Broadway star at this moment thanks to his mega-hit “Hamilton.” Miranda plays Jack, a lamplighter in Depression-era London who’d been a boy when Mary Poppins first appeared at the Banks house decades earlier. He’s retained his child-like sense of wonder and optimism, which makes him a perfect accomplice tor Mary.

The children from the original movie, Michael and Jane Banks (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer) are now grown. Michael lives in the original Banks house with his three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) and the housekeeper, Ellen (Julie Waters). They’ve had a hard time since Michael’s wife passed away the previous year, and he’d taken out a loan from the bank where his father worked (and where he works part-time) to manage. Now the loan’s due for repayment in full, and unless they can find a way to pay it off, they’ll lose the house. Into the chaos of their lives comes Mary Poppins once again, this time riding on the tail of a kite out of the clouds.

For the animated sequences, Marshall kept the 2D style of the first movie, and even has the penguins make a cameo appearance. Technology has progressed so much in the past five decades that the animation is far beyond the original with the incorporation of live-action characters, and these sequences are where Mary Poppins Returns truly outshines the original. Also, the dance choreography is far more involved that the original, especially a lamp lighter sequence – the spirit child of the chimney sweep dance – that utilizes bicycles and ladders.

Overall the cast is stellar. Colin Firth plays the bank manager Wilkins, a wolf in sheepish clothing, and David Warner takes over the role of the admiral next door. Chris O’Dowd lends his voice to a character while Angela Lansbury shows up near the end. Meryl Streep’s appearance as Mary’s Cousin Topsy feels strained and awkward, like they got her for the movie but then had to figure out some way to use her. Better is Dick Van Dyke’s return in a role he (sort of) did in the original, the elderly head of the bank. Less makeup was needed this time, but he can still cut the rug even in his 90s. There’s also a cameo (as an Elegant Woman) by Karen Dotrice, who originated the role of Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. Sadly, Matthew Garber, who played Michael, died from pancreatitis at age 22 in 1977.

The biggest hamstring to the production, though, is the music, and for a musical that’s a critical problem. Veteran composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman have created a score and songs that could be outtakes from the original film, and in the context of the scenes they’re okay. But you won’t be singing any of them when you leave the theater. They’re not memorable, or even catchy.

Another challenge with revisiting Mary Poppins is Saving Mr. Banks, the 2013 Emma Thompson/Tom Hanks flick that looked both at the creation of the original movie as well as the family tragedy that led P.L. Travers to create Mary Poppins in the first place. If I may be permitted to mix in another childhood classic, once you’ve looked behind the curtain, it’s hare to believe in wizardry anymore.

Overall Mary Poppins Returns is an enjoyable movie, but the possibility of recapturing the wonder of the original is in the end impossible.

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Well Versed

Along with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man helped Marvel Comics overtake DC in the superhero genre and begin their Silver Age of comics. Where DC emphasized the super, Marvel took a more classic Greek spin on hero – flawed, acquainted with tragedy, bound by duty. Rather than being aliens (Superman) or fabulously wealthy (Batman), Spider-Man was a teenager from Queens who had to sell photos to J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle to pay his bills. And yet, thanks to a bite from a radioactive (or later, genetically-altered) spider, he becomes a superhero. The spider could have bit anyone and imbued them with superpowers, allowing the comic book reader to imagine themselves as Peter. For the last couple of decades, Marvel writers have also played with different versions of Spider-Man, creating a multi-verse of different worlds and different times, and different Spider-people for each. It’s that multi-verse that Marvel and Sony had mined to create the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

The central character is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), who’s also multicultural with a black father and a Hispanic mother. Because of his intelligence, the teenaged Miles has been uprooted from his neighborhood high school and transferred to a boarding school for gifted students. His father, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), an NYPD officer, just sees the great opportunity for his son and doesn’t recognize the qualms Miles is having over the change. Miles sneaks out of his dorm to visit his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), the polar opposite of his straight-arrow father, and Aaron lets Miles indulge in his love, graffiti art, in an abandoned building’s basement. While there, Miles is bit by a “special” spider.

There already is a Spider-Man in the city, of whom Jefferson doesn’t approve. When he starts to exhibit special gifts, Miles returns to the cellar to look for the spider, which he had naturally swatted when it bit him. While there, sounds draw him deeper underground to a different area, and Miles meets the original Spider-Man (Jake Johnson). Spidey realizes Miles is like him and offers to tutor the teen, but first Spidey must stop a plan by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) to open a bridge between different realities. Things go horribly wrong, leading to Spider-Man’s death at Kingpin’s hands as Miles watches. In death, Spidey’s revealed to be Peter Parker, and the city mourns his loss. Later at Parker’s gravesite, Miles is interrupted by – Peter Parker (Chris Pine). This is an older, worn-down Peter who’s been pulled from his own reality to this different New York. Before long, Miles is joined by Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfield), who in her reality was Gwen Stacey, Peter’s girlfriend, who got bit instead of Peter. There’s also Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), who fights crime in with her robot powered by an atomic spider, and Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (John Mulaney). The crowd of Spider-people is needed, since Kingpin has plenty of henchmen of his own.

The script was written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team who did Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie, and they bring a view to the story that’s both slightly off-kilter and right on target. The story hums along with high energy and surprising twists, yet it also doesn’t take itself completely seriously and pokes fun at the previous Spider-Man movies, most notably the dreaded disco scene from Tobey McGuire’s final turn in the role. (Lord and Miller are also producers for the film.) Direction was handled by the triumvirate of Bob Presichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, who’ve mostly worked in other aspects of film – respectively, animation, art department, and writing. Their collaboration creates a stunning piece of animation that incorporates realistic cityscapes with the color dots of classic comic books and even dialog boxes.

The vocal casting is exceptional. Along with those already noted, there’s Zoe Kravitz as Mary Jane, Kathryn Hahn as a scientist, and a delightful turn by Lily Tomlin as a very energetic Aunt May. The film features a cameo by an animated Stan Lee, possibly the last one unless he’d filmed them for Captain Marvel and Avengers: End Game before his death this past November. (The film is also dedicated to Lee.)

Spider-Man has already gone through so many versions as live action films (Tobey McGuire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland), that even for the casual fan who’s never read the multi-verse comics the different versions aren’t jarring. Spider-Man: Homecoming even lifted the character of Ned, Peter’s nerdy best friend, out of the Miles Morales version. But in Spider-Verse, everything comes together to create a thoroughly enjoyable story for both aficionados of the character(s) and those who may have caught one of the movies on TV once.

Not only can everyone be Spider-Man, with this film everyone can enjoy him.

Real News, Real Casualties

With a certain occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue constantly claiming that the news is fake – especially anything disputing his view of the world – it’s important to remember that news is often written in the blood of those doing the reporting. In 2017, 48 journalists were killed worldwide, and 262 were imprisoned (73 in Turkey alone). This gives an immediacy to the new movie A Private War, which tells the story of Marie Colvin, the celebrated war correspondent for the London Sunday Times who died during the siege of Homs in Syria in 2012.

The movie begins – and ends – with a view of battle-torn Homs and a voice over provided by the real Colvin. In between the camera follows her from Sri Lanka, covering the Tamil rebellion, through Iraq, Libya, and finally to Syria. Wherever there was a hotspot, Colvin would be there. In her life she also covered Kosovo, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast, though the Middle East was her specialty. The screenplay by Arash Amel is based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” and it both looks at the conflicts and their affect on Colvin herself. Physically she lost an eye, leading to her wearing an eye patch through much of her career, but the psychological costs were even higher. You can’t cover the discovery of a mass tomb of Saddam Hussein’s victims or a hospital purposefully targeted for attack without wearing out a bit of your soul.

The film does an excellent job of recreating the conflicts Colvin covered, though it misses what led her from her birth in Queens, New York, and her childhood in Oyster Bay on Long Island to her working for the Sunday Times. She’d been an exchange student in Brazil during her junior year of high school and attended Yale to get an anthropology degree. However, while there she took a class from John Hersey, one of the first practitioners of “New Journalism” which combined storytelling with non-fiction reporting to bring an emotional element to the story. A war correspondent during WWII, Hersey won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Colvin did graduate with her anthropology degree but following the course with Hersey she was set on a course to be a globe-trotting reporter, first for United Press International, and then for Sunday Times.

Director Matthew Heineman is known for his documentaries – he received an Oscar nomination for Cartel Land in 2015 – and he brings a straightforward realism to the filming of Colvin’s story. But what gives the film its fire is a riveting performance by Rosamund Pike. Her voice tells the story of cigarettes and booze, all consumed in extreme quantities. While on assignment, she’s a juggernaut, doing everything she can to get the story. (One scene has her talking her way past a roadblock in Iraq by telling the guards she’s a nurse, using her gym membership card as her documentation.) Back in England, without the tension of war, the cracks kept together under pressure break open, leaving her vulnerable, even as she hides behind a prickly exterior.

Pike’s ably supported by Jamie Dornan as Paul Conroy, Colvin’s long-time photographer. A former soldier, Conroy knew the danger of war zones but still went back, this time armed only with a camera. There’s also an interlude in the piece where Colvin become romantically involved with a man played by Stanley Tucci.

When Colvin was killed, the Syrian government put out the story that she died from an IED explosion, to blame anti-government rebels in Homs for her death. However, that was disputed by Conroy, who survived and testified it was an artillery attack from the government forces that likely used the signal from the broadcast Colvin had just finished in order to target her location. Colvin had had to sneak into Syria via off-road motorcycle as the government tried to cut off any independent reports of what was happening. They wanted the story to be that they were fighting violent rebels, not blasting away at citizens who didn’t support Assad’s repressive regime. For the government, Marie Colvin was dangerous, for she was an independent witness to the war crimes they wanted to hide from the world. It cost Colvin her life.

Whether they’re throwing bombs or throwing insults, tyrants and would-be dictators know that an independent press is a threat to them, and they’ll do whatever they can to keep reporters from doing their job. Thank God for people like Marie Colvin, who speak the truth to power.

Necessity is a Mother

The new movie Widows is based on a BBC series from the early 1980s. It was one of the first writing projects of Lynda La Plante, who would later write (and produce) “Prime Suspect,” which was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The six-part “Widows” TV series captured the imagination of a 12-year-old boy named Steve McQueen. Almost four decades later, the boy is now a writer/director/producer himself, and an Oscar-winner for his last film, 12 Years A Slave. The win gave him the chance to do any project he’d like, and he decided to return to the story that mesmerized him as a child. Sometimes the loves of our childhood are best left in the past, but thankfully that’s not the case here.

McQueen and his co-screenwriter, Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame, have set the updated story in Flynn’s hometown of Chicago. In many ways, the rough and tumble gangster heritage of the Second City is a good mirror for London in the early days of the Thatcher administration, with its balkanized neighborhoods, underworld of crime, and urban rot. It predated the gentrified version of London that was created in the mid-1980s thanks to an infusion of market money.

We’re introduced to the women of the title and their husbands with short, illuminative scenes interspersed with a robbery that ends very, very badly. Veronica (Viola Davis) is married to Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), someone for whom crime has definitely paid well. They have a high-end apartment, a chauffeur to drive their SUV, and a passionate marriage. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is an entrepreneur selling fashionable women’s clothes, but her husband is a drag on her dream as well as her pocketbook through his gambling. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a willowy beauty, but she’s been a punching bag for both her husband (Jon Bernthal) and her mother (Jacki Weaver).

Worse than their men dying, the caper Rawlings and his men pulled was the theft of two million dollars of campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s locked in a special election for a city council seat caused by the failing health of its long-time occupant Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Instead, Mulligan’s son Jack (Colin Farrell) is trying to continue the family dynasty, which has paid off handsomely through the dispersal of patronage and kickbacks from those blessed. While Jamal, a gang leader from his youth, is threatening, his brother and lieutenant Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) is a pure sociopath,

Jamal wants his money back, even though the cash was destroyed in the fiery explosion that kill the men. The only item of value that might cover that high a bill is the detailed plans left by Harry for his next caper. Rather than try to sell it, Veronica brings Linda and Alice into the plan to carry out the robbery. The final member of the team is Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who starts out as Linda’s babysitter but joins the conspiracy to help a friend.

McQueen and Flynn have essentially squeezed a full novel with all of its subplots and ancillary characters into a two-and-a-quarter hour movie. The plot twists and turns as the woman figure out how to implement Harry’s plan, and even the actual caper doesn’t end the twists. But it is also a story of empowerment, of the women playing against the assumptions of the men who think they’re in charge. In one brilliant scene, Debicki’s Alice uses the reality of what her life was like to enlist help getting a supply of guns. Just before the heist, Rodriguez’s Linda sums up why she’s doing it – she wants her children to know that she stood tall against those who thought they could smack her down.

If you like mysteries and crime dramas, and you don’t mind focusing on a densely plotted story, Widows will reward you with a satisfying tale well told.

Catch Up Time

I’ve joined the AMC Stubs program, which allows me to see three movies a week for a monthly charge. Considering the charge is about what I paid to see three movies in a month, it’s a great deal for me. But the volume makes it hard to keep up with reviews for them all, and, frankly, some of the movies aren’t worth a full review. So from time to time I’ll do short reviews to share my thoughts and cover all I’ve seen. Here are four.

The House with a Clock in its Walls

For the adaptation of a children’s story to the big screen, Eli Roth isn’t the first director you’d think of for the project. Roth’s first feature was the horror film Cabin Fever, and he followed it with Hostel (the original & Part II) and The Green Inferno, none of them even close to family fare. But the best children’s stories have an element of fear within them, and The House with a Clock in Its Walls certainly has that. It’s based on a book written in 1973 by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey, known for his macabre works. Roth brings a sense of danger to the production, but he also seems to be having an immensely fun time as well.

The story was adapted by Eric Kripke, who created the long-running “Supernatural” TV show as well as “Timeless.” Set in 1955, Clock tells the story of Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) who comes to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) following his parents’ death in a car accident. He soon discovers his uncle is a warlock and Jonathan’s friend and neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), is a powerful witch who doesn’t like to do magic anymore. The house where Jonathan lives was owned by a dark wizard who hid a clock in the walls. Jonathan isn’t sure why, but he knows it’s a harbinger of nothing good.

Vaccaro is quite good in the role of Lewis. He’d been in the two Daddy’s Home comedies in a supporting role, but here he carries the movie as the central character. Pairing Black and Blanchett seems like mixing beer with Dom Perignon, but they have surprisingly good chemistry. The story suffers in comparison to the Potterverse, but Roth captures both a sense of wonder and menace so it keeps your attention.

Hunter Killer
Gerard Butler has settled into the action/adventure genre, not just starring in films but also producing them. The results have been uneven. Olympus Has Fallen and its sequel London Has Fallen were decent and diverting, but his venture into science fiction, Geostorm, was drivel. Hunter Killer is more former than later.

Butler plays the new skipper of an attack submarine who’s sent into Russian waters when the Navy loses contact with another of their subs. He discovers the sinking of the US boat, along with a Russian sub, is the first move in a coup against the Russian President by the Minister of Defense. With the help of a Seal team, Butler must thwart the Defense Minister’s plans while walking a fine line so he doesn’t start World War Three.

This doesn’t rise to the level of The Hunt For Red October, Das Boat, or the older classic, Run Silent Run Deep. Hunter Killer has more in common with the sub movies popular during World War II, though the special effects are a hundred times better. The film also stars Common as the rear admiral in charge of the sub fleet, and he does a decent job, but Gary Oldman is wasted as a shrill, two-dimensional Navy Chief of Staff.

It’s a fast-paced two hours that tells a pedestrian story in an exciting way, but once the lights come up it quickly fades from your memory.

To see the trailer, please click here.

Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

I was looking forward to a movie version of Tchaikovsky’s marvelous ballet. I’m still looking forward to that, since Four Realms is not a dance movie despite the presence of Misty Copeland. Two directors whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past share the directing credit. Lassa Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) did the principle photography, but was unavailable for a month of reshoots. Instead, Joe Johnston (October Sky, Captain America: The First Avenger) finished the film. But you need something to work from, and the script by first-time screenwriter Ashleigh Powell is more like a retread of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

There are some good parts. Mackenzie Foy (no relation to First Man’s Claire Foy), is exceptionally watchable. (She’d also played the child Murph in Interstellar) Foy has just turned 18, and I look forward to her transitioning into adult roles. The extended ballet/modern dance hybrid by Copeland fills in the backstory of the four realms. It’s incredibly beautiful and the high point of the film, but it ends too soon. And then there’s the Rat King, which is the stuff of nightmares.

But the rest of the film suffers in comparison to those parts. There are cameo-size roles for Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren that add little. Kiera Knightley is fun at first as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but the performance becomes wearing as it goes on. Worse for me, though, was the relegation of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music to mood music. The main themes keep coming up, but there’s no rhyme or reason to their use. Frankly, you’d get much more enjoyment out of listening to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite than watching this mishmash.

To see the trailer, please click here.

Nobody’s Fool

There’s been a trend recently to R-rated comedy, with Girl’s Trip and Bridesmaids among others. The R doesn’t always mean really funny, though. Nobody’s Fool is another entry in that trend, with Tiffany Hadish as a woman recently released from prison who moves in with her successful career woman sister, played by Tika Sumpter. Hadish’s character, Tanya, discovers her sister is being catfished by an on-line suitor, to the point that she ignores the owner of a coffee shop who’s sweet on her.

The movie is directed and written by Tyler Perry, who usually stays in the PG realm. Nobody’s Fool doesn’t wear its R comfortably, as it veers from farce to sex comedy to woman empowerment story to syrupy love story over and over again. The wide fluctuations of tone has been an aspect of his Madea comedies, but here is seems mechanical.

Some may enjoy it more, but I found I didn’t care for the characters, and there were few real laughs in the picture.

To see the trailer, please click here. 

Overperforming

Occasionally, a film fan finds themselves in a theater without great hopes for the movie they’re about to see, only to be pleasantly surprised that it’s much better than they expected. Usually it’s the other way around, with your hopes shattered when a highly-anticipated movie underwhelms. Last Saturday I experienced both feelings. I’d gone out to see The Girl in the Spider’s Web, only to be disappointed by it. But I decided, since I was there, I’d give Overlord a look see. I’m glad I did.

The trailer tacks more toward the horror genre, perhaps wanting to build on last year’s Get Out, but it’s more of a sci-fi thriller blended with a war flick, two genres I’ve enjoyed all my life. For those knowledgeable about history, the movie throws a major mistake and an anachronism in your face right at the start. Set during the Normandy Invasion on June 6th, 1944, the movie opens with an air armada of C-47 troop transports (the military version of the DC-3) flying above the naval armada headed for the beaches, traveling in evening light. It lets the paratroopers look down on the massed force, which makes a great shot, but it never happened. The short flight from England to Normandy took place in darkness. The anachronism is that the troops are integrated, even having a black sergeant leading them. In fact, the American Armed Forces were completely segregated, a condition that lasted until three years after the war’s end.

But then the planes (now in darkness – that was a fast sunset!) take fire from the German anti-aircraft batteries so intense it cuts many of the planes apart and throws all plans into confusion, which is pretty accurate. The central character in the piece, Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is a black soldier recently drafted, seeing his first combat. His squad has been assigned to destroy a radar installation in a French village before the main attack begins at 6 a.m., but only a few soldiers make it out of the plane alive, and a handful survive the drop to head toward the objective under the leadership of battle-weary Ford (Wyatt Russell).  On their way they encounter Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a resident of the village who reluctantly (at first) agrees to help them. It turns out the radar tower is inside a German compound that houses a much greater danger to the Allies.

Overlord is being marketed that it’s from J.J. Abrams. That make sense since the cast, director, and screenwriters are pretty much unknowns. Director Julius Avery had done one feature in Australia, along with a half-dozen shorts, before making Overlord. Screenwriter Billy Ray has the longest list of credits, including the screenplays for Shattered Glass, Flight Plan, The Hunger Games, Captain Philips, and The Secret in Their Eyes, along with a guilty pleasure of mine, 1997’s Volcano (with the classic tag line, “The Coast is Toast”). Also working on the screenplay was Mark L. Smith, who did The Revenant. Adepo’s done a few TV series, including “Jack Ryan” and “The Leftovers”, while Ollivier done one other feature. Russell has several supporting credits, including Ingrid Goes West and Table 19, though he might be best known for a truly mind-blowing episode of Black Mirror called “Playtest.” But they and the rest of the cast gel into an effective ensemble.

Ray and Smith take some of the classic tropes of the war film and rip them apart. One of the soldiers is planning to write a book, but that idea is soon blown away. They also keep the story racing along throughout its two-hour run time with twists, turns, and scares that keep the adrenalin pumping throughout. With the few hours from the parachuting into France to the deadline to blow the radar tower, it comes close to being told in real time.

Overlord managed a respectable third-place opening at the box office, behind the kid-friendly The Grinch and the previous week’s winner Bohemian Rhapsody. Hopefully it will have time to build up a following, for this film has the potential to be the sleeper hit of the season.

When It Doesn’t Stick Together

The Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson was a publishing phenomenon, with the first three books (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) selling over 80 million copies in ten years. Sadly, Larsson died shortly after delivering the first three books to the Swedish publisher, so he never knew the sensation he created. All three books were adapted for Swedish TV in 2009, each as two 90-minute episodes, with Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist in the central roles of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Originally only the first was to be released outside of Sweden in theaters, but the interest in the series led to theatrical releases for all three. Both actors ended up working in Hollywood, with Rapace doing Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Alien: Covenant, and the lead in the upcoming biopic, Callas, while Nyqvist played the villain in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the Russian mob boss Tarasov in John Wick before his death last year. Dragon Tattoo got a Hollywood redo with David Fincher directing and Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig as the leads. It was hoped the other two original books would be filmed, but the productions never came together.

Meanwhile, the Swedish publisher of the series hired another author to continue Larsson’s work, publishing “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” in 2015, followed by “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye” last year. While they’ve been released around the world, they haven’t matched the success of the original three. A review of “Spider’s Web” found it to be a “standard crime” book. I had hope, though, when the movie version of “Spider’s Web” was announced, that it might come close to the earlier films, especially with Claire Foy in the Salander role. Her performance as Elizabeth in the first two seasons of “The Crown” was spectacular, and she was brilliant in First Man. She does do a decent job as Salander, given what she has to work with, though most everything else about the production is a disappointment. The movie is titled The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, as if they’re afraid people have forgotten the earlier books and movies. Frankly, it would be better if they had, since Spider’s Web suffers greatly in comparison.

Director and co-screenwriter Fede Alvarez made the effective thriller Don’t Breathe two years ago. He teamed with Jay Basu on the script for Spider’s Web, and Steven Knight (an Oscar nominee for Dirty Pretty Things) also worked on the adaptation. But somewhere in the process they forgot half the story. While Lisbeth Salander is the more memorable character, Mikael Blomkvist is the anchor and safety net for the audience, creating an effective team. Spider’s Web  relegates Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) to an afterthought while blunting Lisbeth’s prickly antisocial behavior. She was memorable because she was a loose cannon, but Alvarez, Basu, and Knight tie her down in a standard hero role.

The basic plot, about a program that can unlock every weapons system for the person who controls it, was done better in Sneakers. The movie also rewrites Lisbeth’s story to give her a sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), who stayed with Lisbeth’s abusive spy father while Lisbeth broke free – completely eliminating the central scene of The Girl Who Played With Fire when Lisbeth set her abusive father alight. Hoeks’ portrayal is as frozen as the gray winter landscapes that fill the screen; she had more emotion as the replicant antagonist Luv in Blade Runner 2049.

There are some sequences when the story takes flight, such as a cat-and-mouse tour through the airport as Lisbeth seeks to connect with Ed Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), an NSA agent. Stanfield’s performance creates a worthy adversary/ally for Lisbeth, but he doesn’t have enough scenes to save the movie. On the other hand, Lisbeth is thrust into the role of protector of a young math prodigy, but the maternalism inherent in the plot is far out of character for her.

“Standard crime” is a fitting summation for this endeavor, and a sad comedown for an extraordinary character like Lisbeth Salander.