Madame Web (PG-13)

screenshot from Madame Webb

A paramedic briefly dies, which somehow kickstarts her ability to see into the future, in Madame Web, one of those Sony Marvel joints.

As you may have heard, Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé) was researching spiders in the Amazon in 1973 when she gave birth to a daughter and then immediately died.

Years later (2003), Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) is an EMT in Queens. She is a loner who doesn’t know how to deal with people in general and maybe men and children specifically. When her EMT partner Ben (Adam Scott) tells her he’s met someone, there’s maybe an undercurrent that there was something between them once? Between Ben, excuse me, BEN and Cassie? What’s BEN’s new girlfriend’s name? We don’t learn that, nor do we learn the name of BEN’s brother (Richard) and sister-in-law’s (Mary) soon-to-be-born child, one who would make BEN an UNCLE who lives in QUEENS. The movie nudge-nudge-wink-winks at this whole storyline so hard and says BEN so many times you think the Spidey of it all is going to matter but it doesn’t.

Anyway, it is BEN who pulls Cassie from the water when she accidentally falls into the river while making a rescue. He resuscitates her and strongly suggests she see a doctor but she doesn’t take this suggestion until after she experiences some very strong premonitions. Premonitions that include seeing a friend killed in a car crash moments before it happens for real.

There’s nothing medically wrong with her — maybe it’s a combination of a response to the trauma of dying and the grief over her friend? She boards the train to head to his funeral and finds herself in a train car with Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), three teen girls who don’t know each other and just randomly happen to be on that train.

To Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), these three girls aren’t just random passengers but members of the superpower-having trio that will one day murder him. You see, he was also “in the Amazon with my mom” and secretly a bad guy looking for the same spider with powerful healing properties that Constance was. Yada yada (the movie glosses over the how and why here) and now he has super strength and can walk on walls, not unlike Las Arañas, a Peruvian-Amazon-based group of vigilantes who found and attempted to save Constance after Ezekiel shot her and helped bring baby Cassie into the world.

Anyway, Ezekiel shows up at the train, ready to kill the teens before they can become superpowered women. But Cassie sees his attack from a few angles before it happens, enough that she is able to get the girls off the train. They understandably have questions: who is this crazy lady, why is she dragging them off the train, who is that guy in a head-to-toe latex suit, and why can he crawl upside down along the ceiling?

Cassie also has questions, like why she can see the future and why she is suddenly the one to help these girls. Maybe it has to do with learning to take this RESPONSIBILITY, which could give her access to a GREAT POWER she’s had all along.

Madame Web isn’t a terrible concept on its face. I don’t have any background with this character but who she is and who she becomes by the end of the movie is fine story material to work with — even if she feels like a variant on other Marvel and DC characters. But the movie is goopy, goopy like children’s play slime, goopyness that has somehow been taped together into the shape of a movie, and is just not good — not smart, not fun, not even “ha that’s something” the way parts of the Venom movies can be. I recently attempted making a dessert that was clearly going sideways about halfway through the baking process. “I don’t know, maybe more sugar here? Maybe some jam there?” The result wasn’t inedible but it was definitely not what I intended. And thus with Madame Web, a movie that needed different ingredients (or ingredients in different amounts) and a different method.

Dakota Johnson is OK — not great but nearly adequate and I think with better dialogue she could have bumped it up to good. Johnson’s style of emotionally closed off roboticism kind of works with who her character is. The three teen girls are also fine, though the movie could have used more of them and I think would have been better if it had let their characters develop beyond the basics of their exposition and let their relationship with each other develop as well.

Rahim as Ezekiel didn’t work for me at all — he is a flat, uninteresting villain whose whole persona and motivation feels extremely underwritten.

Unlike the “there are things here to work with” story and characters, the visual effects and overall look of this movie are quite bad. There is not an action scene, a chase or a fight that doesn’t look cheap and unfinished, like we’re seeing the storyboard sketch of what should be happening instead of a finished product. I found myself wondering how this movie would be different if it had kept its effects practical instead of computer-generated and confined itself to Queens-ish locales.

Madame Web does give the appearance of being a self-contained thing — there is no post-credits sequence here, even though all of us in the theater stayed waiting for one. But I wish the movie had really gone for broke with how it told its story and not left ends flapping like it was hoping for a sequel. C-

Rated PG-13 for violence/action and language, according to the MPA on Directed by S.J. Clarkson with a screenplay by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker & S.J. Clarkson, Madame Web is an hour and 57 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Columbia Pictures.

The Zone of Interest (PG-13)

A husband, a wife and their five children enjoy an idyllic-seeming life in a house with a large garden, situated by a scenic forest and also jammed up next to the horrors of Auschwitz, in The Zone of Interest, a fascinating movie rightly nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

We first see Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), Nazi SS officer and Auschwitz concentration camp commandant, and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, turning in one of two great Best Picture performances for this year — the other is in Anatomy of a Fall, for which she also has an acting nod) and their kids swimming in a river and generally enjoying the outdoors. They return to their house and we see Höss checking doors and turning off lights as his family goes to bed, but the walls in the garden on the side of his house have barbed wire on top and behind them we can hear gunshots, screams and barking dogs.

This hellishness is all around them all the time, literally in the air that they breathe, as we constantly see smoke from crematoriums filling the sky. When Höss arrives home, he takes his boots off outside and one of the prisoners working at his house washes them, letting us briefly see the blood running off them. Neither Höss nor Hedwig seems blind to the vast human misery or compartmentalizing it away from their daily thoughts. (Being more efficient with murder is literally Höss’ job.) They are perfectly fine with what’s happening — proud of themselves, even, for building such a life.

Hedwig seems pretty happy to swan around this house with a pool and a well-tended garden, full of what she seems to think of as domestic help — if not people held captive at the camps then people from the countryside who seem to have little say in their presence there or what they do. Hedwig knows full well about the constant murder surrounding her and seems mostly just delighted with its perks. She happily receives a bag of silky lingerie that she and the women who work in her house pick through as well as an elegant fur coat brought just for her, complete with its rightful owner’s lipstick still in a pocket. She brags about being called the queen of Auschwitz, and when her mother comes to visit they have an indifferent chat about a Jewish woman her mother once knew who might be held there. The mother had tried but failed to buy the woman’s curtains when they were auctioned off after her family was deported; losing the curtains clearly troubles her more than what might have happened to the woman. Meanwhile, Hedwig’s oldest son plays with teeth and gold fillings as casually as his younger brother plays with toy soldiers.

It’s not particularly original to say that the monstrousness of everything we see is underlined by how banal the day-to-day lives of these family members are — Höss’ meetings with other SS officers, the department politics that have him sent to another camp for a while, the marital politics that have Hedwig demanding to stay at Auschwitz so their children can continue having this “good life.” The skill of the movie is that it never lets us forget what we’re experiencing — nearly every scene has smoke, distant screams, gunshots, prisoners, ashes — but it doesn’t need to dramatize it in some big way. The bare facts and tiny details of what’s happening are horrible enough without any embellishment and the Höss family’s “shrug, but of course” attitude really drives home how easily they don’t just accept but embrace every atrocious thing happening around them.

There is one moment when the movie pulls back and suggests that Rudolf Höss is fully aware of how enormous the evil he is a part of is. But that stretch, rather brilliantly, sets itself against matter-of-fact domestic work — women in the present day at the Auschwitz museum diligently clean the glass behind which sit massive piles of shoes and luggage representing the million-plus people murdered there. The scene feels as much like a warning for how easily such a horror can be put behind glass as it is an indictment of the people who committed these crimes.

The Zone of Interest isn’t fun movie times, obviously, but it isn’t homework either. It’s a fascinating character study that smartly sets the ordinary against the horrific. A

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, some suggestive material and smoking, according to the MPA at Directed by Jonathan Glazer with a screenplay by Glazer (based loosely on the book by Martin Amis),The Zone of Interest is an hour and 45 minutes long and distributed in theaters by A24. It is slated to be released on VOD on Feb. 20.

Featured photo: Lisa Frankenstein.

Author: Amy Diaz

Amy Diaz is the executive editor and writes about movies and compiles the Kiddie Pool column. Reach her at

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