Friday, July 05, 2019

Here Comes the Sun: The Disturbing and Gorgeous “Midsommar” is a Cult Above the Rest

Halfway through Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” I thought I’d never be able to watch it again. I found it that disturbing, troubling, and creepy. As it turns out, it’s a hell of a horror film and has tremendous replay value once you know its secrets. Featuring an Oscar-worthy Toni Collette, it marked one of the most auspicious horror film debuts in quite some time. And now we have “Midsommar,” Aster’s incredible followup. Folks, he’s two for two. This sun-drenched ode to folk horror films like “The Wicker Man” is a distressing piece of art that, even at a runtime of 147 minutes, flies by because it gets its hooks in you in the film’s shocking opening sequence and never lets go. Essentially a drama about the dissolution of a relationship, “Midsommar” offers gorgeous, colorful cinematography, strong performances, and a story that is creepy and gross because you know exactly where it’s going and it’s one scary trip.

The film begins with a terrible tragedy during the cold winter months which easily establishes director Ari Aster as a grief horror master. Our heroine Dani (Florence Pugh) is the one dealing with shocking events that involve some immediate family members which is not helping her already strained relationship with her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). To help get her mind off things, he reluctantly invites her along with his male friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) to visit Sweden. They have plans to do one of worst-sounding things in horror movie history. They’re going with their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to visit the Swedish commune his grew up on to witness a nine day long summer festival that only occurs every 90 days. If that doesn’t scream murderous cult I don’t know what does.

The rest of the film is a downward spiral of drug hallucinations (oh college kids!) and more and more disturbing behavior as these young people realize that the nice pale people even with their flowing white frocks and sunny, friendly dispositions are actually pretty darn insane. None of this is actually surprising, as the walls of the building in which our American heroes are bunking actually depict a lot of the crazy activities the audience will witness from these Swedish meatballs. Of course the less you know about the film going into it the more “fun” it’ll all be. But prepare yourself from some really shocking imagery whether it be graphic violence or graphic sexuality.

To be fair, “Midsommar” is certainly not a film for everyone. If you could handle “Hereditary” you could easily handle this. Think of “Midsommar” as brighter-looking version of “Hereditary” but without all the supernatural stuff. All great horror films have a centered piece of drama in which to hang the horror elements on and both of these brilliant films are the epitome of that. Aster has created yet another beautiful, trippy film set in a place where it never gets dark which means there’s never anywhere to hid. The film will not shock you with jump scares, but will slowly try to make you go insane, and what is scarier or more fun than that?  GRADE: A

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Marvel’s European Vacation: “Spider-Man Far From Home” is a Humorous, Emotional Joy

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” is two movies in one. It's a sequel to “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which was Spider-Man's first solo outing within the MCU. But it also functions as a sequel to “Avengers: Endgame.” And this is where it really shines. The film must deal with the borderline traumatic events that unfolded in the biggest and most consequential film in the MCU universe so far. Sure, coming off the heels of “Endgame” is a lot of heavy lifting, but the film and its makers are up for the challenge and they succeed admirably. "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is a funny and action-packed spectacle that also happens to be a fun trip around Europe. Offering a really fantastic sense of humor, a lot of heart, and charismatic performances from its stars, “Far From Home” is easily one of the best Spider-Man films of all time.

Perfectly timed for Independence Day in the United States, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” spends its time abroad and I can’t think of anything more opportune then getting out of this place. We learn a little more about life after the reverse snap, now referred to as “The Blip,” and how those who were erased from existence have not aged while five years has passed for everyone else. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is still reeling from the death of Tony Stark but it’s time for a school trip to Europe. And what could possibly go wrong? While there, these monsters that take the shape of the elements (ie, water, fire) begin wrecking havoc and a mysterious caped crusader shows up to stop the terror. This guy is dubbed by the Italian press as “Mysterio.” Oh look it’s Jake Gyllanhaal! Welcome to the MCU Jake. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) want to welcome this new hero to the world – as he’s actually from another of many multiverses, of which his version of Earth was destroyed. Though there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, we’ll soon find out (and it's not their cheese).

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” continues the teen flick fun of “Homecoming” by focusing on a small group of Parker’s classmates thanks to Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ witty script. This includes his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his new girlfriend Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) who spend their entire European vacation being that annoying couple with matching outfits and terms of endearment. And then there’s MJ (Zendaya) who Peter longs for and she may even have some feelings in return. All of the teen drama is set against this increasing global threat and has Peter in a pickle… I mean where’s Iron Man when you need him. Luckily, Tony Stark’s loyal assistant Happy (Jon Faverau) is there as a sort of reluctant mentor to Peter and their scenes are extremely touching and effective. Not to mention a possible romance with Peter’s Aunt May (Maris Tomei).

This latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another pop art comic masterpiece. It’s truly amazing how much sheer fun the film is and how emotional invested one can get in a film series that has been going strong for over ten years. Jon Watts’ film is a visual treat with fantastic action set pieces, a great score from Michael Giacchino, and solid performances from everyone involved. No one really knows where the MCU is going from this point, but it’ll be hard to top everything up to this point. I can’t wait.  GRADE: A

Monday, July 01, 2019

Hello, Dolly! The Jump Scares are in Full Force in “Annabelle Comes Home”

Talking and/or killer toys are having a bumper crop at American theaters this summer huh? “Toy Story 4” and “Child’s Play” both opened on the same day (major props to the “Child’s Play” marketing people by the way) and now we get the third installment of the Annabelle series which itself is a spinoff of the far superior fright flick “The Conjuring.” I greatly admire Warner Brothers’ Conjuring universe not only because it’s arguably better handled than their DC universe but there hasn’t been such a fun group of shared horror films since the days of the Universal Studios monsters. That being said, the “Annabelle” films pale in comparison to the main Conjuring films but this third entry is certainly a noble effort (as was the superior second installment “Annabelle: Creation”). What is essentially a single setting haunted house flick with things that go bump in the night, the film is fine entertainment for those seeking fun jump scares, but hardened horror fans with iron constitutions will find most of “Annabelle Comes Home” to be little more than silly smoke and mirrors that add very little to the genre; except for a handful of other fun possible Conjuring universe spin-offs. At the end of the day, I’m okay with that because there’s nothing particularly horrible about this entry, it’s just not overly outstanding.

The Warrens show up in “Annabelle Comes Home” and is set mostly in their home and that is certainly a bold and wise choice from the filmmakers. The presence of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson easily elevates this otherwise generic haunted house movie. This is literally the fourth time that we’ve been made aware of the evil doll Annabelle and we finally get to see what happens when the Warrens place her in her permanent home in their creepy artifact room IN THEIR HOME. Of course during one weekend away from home, the Warrens’ hire a teenager to babysitt their young daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace). The sweet teen left in charge, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) hesitantly lets her friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) over and before they know it they’ve awoken Annabelle and all the other evil spirits locked away in the room in what is essentially a cabin in the woods storyline.

So basically what we have here is “The Conjuring” meets “The Evil Dead.” Which sounds fine on paper except that in this film I never really felt that these girls were in any real danger. I was pretty certain they would all end up fine. If you watch the first “Conjuring,” which is better written and features more fleshed out characterizations, film you never feel like that family is going to make it out alive. “Annabelle Comes Home” has a lot of boo/gotcha moments which is fine, but that’s really all it has. It has not real unique visual identity and I don’t even remember the music score. The young actors are fine but it was hard to get invested or care about them, especially Daniela who is the one who unwittingly unleashes the demons when all she could of done is just as Lorraine to contact her recently deceased close family member.

As a horror fan, and lifetime resident of Connecticut, I’m so thrilled that these films exist. These Conjuring universe films are fine – they’re all starting to feel and look the same – but I’m glad these films are around to scare the pants off of kids whose parents probably shouldn’t be bringing them to see them. Though these films aren’t loaded with profanity, violence, or sex which is extremely rare for an R rated horror film. It means the films care a stricter rating because they are just scary; of course your mileage may vary. As far as I’m concerned these films only exists to cleans the palate between the main Conjuring films and my appetite is certainly whetted. GRADE: B-