Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Far From Home

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Peter Parker and his friends go on summer vacation to Europe and there Peter finds himself trying to save his friends against a villain known as Mysterio.

Stars: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, J.B. Smoove,

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In some ways, Spider-Man: Far From Home was always bound to be disappointing.  Being the follow-up to the biggest movie on the planet and arriving barely two months after it’s release is an unenviable position.  Here’s the kicker, though.  If you believe the trade papers then it seems Sony, which still owns the rights to Spider-Man and has loaned him out to Marvel Studios for his work in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame, actually pushed to have this particular release date so close to the final Avengers film.  It’s a strange strategy because everyone is bound to compare this to the juggernaut last chapter of Iron Man and his team which is still playing in many theaters and is even being re-released with new footage around the same time Spider-Man is swinging into cinemas.

Yet here we are, with another comic book superhero movie and, if you count the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, our fourth big-screen appearance of Spider-Man in a year.  Sony is playing chicken with audiences and betting they aren’t suffering from Spidey fatigue yet and based on the genial but oddly underwhelming Spider-Man: Far From Home I’m guessing they made the right call at express shipping this next chapter into theaters right in time for the July 4th holiday.  Though flawed in the action department and failing to provide a showcase for an A-list actor trying his hand at playing an evil genius villain, the film succeeds best when it focuses on the people and not the effects.

As this site is spoiler-free as much as possible, a caveat that while the plot secrets of Spider-Man: Far From Home will remain hidden there are elements from Avengers: Endgame I’ll have to discuss.

So, if you don’t want the end of Avengers: Endgame spoiled for you then it’s best to turn back now.

You ready?

You sure?

OK.

Seriously.  This is your last chance.

I’m going to spoil something, don’t be mad.

OK…here we go.

Picking up where Avengers: Endgame left off, Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Impossible) is still mourning the deaths of Captain America, Black Widow, Vision, and his mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man.  With the rest of the Avengers dispersed on their own missions around the world and in other galaxies, Peter is getting back to a routine in school and making the occasional appearance as Spider-Man to help raise funds with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, The Paper) to support the population vaporized in The Snap that were returned in what came to be known as The Blip.  As the school year winds to a close, Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) prepare for their science trip abroad which will take them across Europe.  Ned is looking forward to spending time with his friend as bachelors overseas while Peter is more interested in getting closer to MJ (Zendaya, The Greatest Showman).

The group has barely arrived in Venice when the floating city is attacked by one of four elementals, a creature made of water that goes about destroying everything in its path.  Before Peter can jump into action and save the day, Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) appears and helps vanquish the threat with some marginal assistance from your friendly traveling neighborhood Spider-Man.  Recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Shaft), Beck teams up with Peter to take on the final elemental who is due to show up in Prague, where Fury reroutes Peter’s class trip (though what his school is doing in Europe is a mystery, it’s never clear why they’ve traveled overseas) so he can believably stay part of the action.  Dubbed Mysterio by the press, Beck quickly (too quickly) becomes a new Stark-ish figure to Peter, establishing a trust that hides a darker agenda.  When Beck’s true nature is revealed it’s up to Peter and his friends (including Jon Favreau, The Wolf of Wall Street, as Tony Stark’s former bodyguard) to eventually save London and its key landmarks from danger.

What may surprise viewers is how long director Jon Watts takes to get to the first round of action in the film.  Aside from a very brief prologue there’s not another major action scene for nearly a half hour and, truthfully, I didn’t mind at all.  The characters established so well in Spider-Man: Homecoming have been brought back fully realized and we’re dropped right back into their mix without much adjustment needed.  When the action does start, in that first battle in Venice, the film gets less interesting almost immediately and it’s because we’re focused less on the people and more on the sturm und drang of it all.  It doesn’t help the action sequences are curiously flat and rarely edge-of-your-seat exciting like previous Marvel (and Sony Spider-Man) films have been.  Even the effects seem off and uneven, like the film wasn’t quite ready by time it had to go to theaters.

Another stumbling block is, surprisingly, Gyllenhaal as Beck/Mysterio.  I had high hopes for the actor entering this universe and lending some of his trademark intensity to a character.  Usually, Gyllenhaal has an interesting way into inhabiting whatever role he’s taking on but he was either stymied by the studio heads or just opted for the wrong approach because he’s dramatically inert here.  Watch the movie and see if you can spot how many times Gyllenhaal moves throughout – you rarely seem him walking or making any kind of actionable movement, the majority of his performance he’s sitting or standing still.  It’s like he was performing injured or filming his scenes in one soundstage over the course of two days.  What should have been a nice match of actor and fan favorite villain was a whiff and a miss for me, extra disappointing because I am a big fan of the actor.

The movie is saved in no small part due to the performances given by Holland and Zendaya, both of whom were appealing in their first film paired together but now have honest to goodness chemistry that is entirely palpable.  In Holland, we finally have a Spider-Man/Peter Parker that feels like he’s the right age and the actor plays him as more than an angsty teen longing to be more than the sum of his Spidey parts.  He knows the great responsibility he has and understands why Tony chose him, but doesn’t want to continue to miss out on the life that doesn’t include inter-galactic wars and infinity stones.  Zendaya isn’t your cookie-cutter MJ and mores the better.  I like her awkwardness and affinity for the darker side of history.  Like she did with Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman, she plays well off her costar and helps them to shine.

Based on the reactions of the audience at my screening, maybe I’m the one that’s fatigued at the present moment with these films.  Perhaps my attraction to the pieces of Spider-Man: Far From Home that had nothing to do with action or effects say something about were my attention is at this point and time.  I still don’t think Gyllenhaal is doing anywhere near his best work and the previous Spider-Man film was, in my opinion, more focused, unexpected, and heads and tails more entertaining from start to finish.  We’re all trained by this point to stay through the credits but the mid-credit stinger and post-credit scene are absolutely essential.  The final scene actually changes something about the movie entirely – don’t miss it or you’ve missed a huge piece of the story.

Movie Review ~ Midsommar


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Stars: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Vilhem Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe

Director: Ari Aster

Rated: R

Running Length: 140 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: For all the unfettered glee I feel every time a new horror movie comes out, such as the recently released Annabelle Comes Home, and as much as I love a gooey creature feature like the upcoming Crawl, I must admit to experiencing an overwhelming bout of anxiety when staring down a screening like Midsommar. It’s not just because I knew it clocked in at nearly two and a half hours, either, but it’s something about films of this particular genre of horror that I find deeply unsettling. Watching what should be idyllic slowly turn into a nightmare with no escape is what I imagine it must feel like to be in a pot of water slowly brought to a roiling boil.

Though it feels like it’s been out longer, it’s only been a year since writer/director Ari Aster dealt his first major blow to my nerves with Hereditary. The 2018 jaw-dropper came out of the festival circuit with a great deal of buzz and mostly delivered on its promise of classy scares wrapped up in a family drama. Lead by an astoundingly terrific performance by Toni Collette, the movie only stumbled in its final moments. The first time I saw the film that final misstep was enough for me to dismiss it almost completely but revisiting it later and watching it with a more holistic view of the characters I found more to appreciate in Aster’s vision. I still really hated that ending, though.

My hope is that you haven’t been inundated with trailers for Midsommar yet and my advice is to avoid any additional previews or clips for the film before seeing it. That way, you can let the tension build at Aster’s pace and not be waiting for particular images or sequences you already know are coming. This is a deliberate movie that takes it’s time toying with the audience and I’m guessing that’s going to alienate the shifty moviegoer that expects a scare every ten minutes. Like Hereditary, Midsommar isn’t in any rush to reveal its secrets or play by a standard set of rules.   Also similar to Aster’s previous work, his sophomore film makes some strangely calculated missteps that have the completely wrong effect on the audience at the worst possible time.

Before the title card pops up, Aster has already given the audience a taste of the kind of emotional toll the movie will take. Still reeling from a recent trauma, Dani (Florence Pugh, The Commuter) is invited by her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, On the Basis of Sex) to tag along on a summer trip to Sweden with his three friends. All are attending a midsummer festival in the remote village where Pelle (Vilhem Blomgren) grew up. Anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper, All Good Things) feels this is the perfect subject for his ongoing thesis while Mark (Will Poulter, We’re the Millers) is there for the girls and life experience. Already on the fringe for being seen as Christian’s emotionally troubled girlfriend, Dani’s presence adds a layer of fraught tension into what was to be a freewheeling trip of a lifetime.

Arriving in the commune as the nine day celebration is about to begin, the group is welcomed with open arms by the friendly folk and are eventually introduced to the culture and rules of the land. Right off the bat, the weirdness of the place is palpable but Aster wisely tempers that by having Dani and her friends not turn into crass, ugly Americans. Instead, they are presented as identifying the customs as strange but recognizing a cultural specificity they just might not understand immediately. This helps the audience, too, in accepting why the visitors don’t pack it up and hit the road the moment the first ominous event occurs.

I’ll stop with giving away more of the plot at this point because once the festival truly begins all bets are off and nothing can really prepare you for what happens. Yes, some of the events are probably what you think they are but there are more turns that you won’t be able to see coming. I wasn’t able to watch several parts of the film, the visuals were just too upsetting and not simply because of any violence or gore but because of some emotional sadness that is attached to what occurs. Like Hereditary, there’s little pleasure to be derived at what befalls the characters (good or bad) and by the time the film ended I was appropriately rattled.  Make no doubt about it, as extreme as Hereditary was in parts, Midsommar aims for a higher squirm factor and achieves it with fairly little effort.

Without a strong lead, the film wouldn’t have been as effective as it was and Aster lucked out again with a perfect star. Pugh is still gaining momentum in Hollywood and no matter how well this does at the box office I expect the movie to help increase her cache for future projects. While it doesn’t afford her quite the satisfactory journey as Collette was given in Hereditary, there’s plenty of meat on the bone for Pugh to chew on. Reynor’s character is trickier and without giving too much away you have to get to a certain place with him for the climax to work and I didn’t quite make it. Still…major kudos to him for participating in a scene that will likely be the most talked about and shared on the internet. The rest of the cast is strong as well, with particularly good attention paid to the casting of the villagers. Down to the smallest walk-on role Aster has chosen people that I completely believed were a part of this tribe.  Extra special notice to Gunnel Fred as Siv, the materfamilias of the commune that welcomes the outsiders in and then expects their full participation as the festival reaches its most pivotal ceremony.

Do I feel the movie could have been shorter? Sure, I mean two hours and twenty minutes is a long time to spend with these themes and this type of extreme experience. It’s an unsettling film and while it takes an unfortunate turn near the end that elicited mood-shattering laughs from the audience, it manages to get back into its lane by the time the credits roll. With Hereditary, I was willing to give it another go because the family dynamics were something I was interested in exploring a bit more. While I enjoyed Midsommar and understood its themes, I’m not certain it’s one I could see again…there’s just too much sadness involved.  Still, if you can stomach it and have a hunger for elevated horror this is one to seek out and sink down into.

Movie Review ~ Yesterday

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A struggling musician realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed.

Stars: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Joel Fry

Director: Danny Boyle

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It’s not like we haven’t had a movie featuring the music of The Beatles before. Starting with A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 starring the quartet from Liverpool themselves followed by 1965’s Help! and 1968’s Yellow Submarine, the songs lived on in more films. There was the infamous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in 1978, the same year future Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis made the underrated comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Along with the various biopics and documentaries, I can’t forget 2007’s powerhouse but eternally divisive Across the Universe which found director Julie Taymor incorporating the music of The Beatles into an original story within a full blown movie musical.

What would happen, though, if The Beatles never became famous and their music never heard? What if only one person remembered their songs and claimed them as his own, riding their timeless sincerity and undeniable musicality to potential fame and fortune? That’s the set-up promised by the supposed romantic comedy Yesterday and judging from the trailers and promos I was expecting a light musical fantasy positing an intriguing question to a summer audience. Halfway through the summer, a movie free of exploding planets and avenging superheroes was a tune I was interested in hearing.

How strange, then, to find Yesterday one of the more heavy-handed films so far this summer. There are many elements of the movie that work fairly well independently of each other but put them all together and there is a perplexing discord no one can overcome. Looking at the pedigree of those involved, including an Oscar winning director, a much-lauded screenwriter known for making his comedic romances float without being fluff, and two appealing leads, this should have been a slam dunk sleeper summer hit. Instead, it just becomes a snooze.

Struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is getting ready to hang up his guitar for good. Living with his parents after quitting job as a teacher, he’s been trying to make it as a singer-songwriter while working a part time job at a local superstore. The gigs organized by his childhood friend and manager Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) aren’t leading to anything of substance and though his friends are loyal supporters, the work he’s putting out into the world isn’t catching fire. The night of his last gig, after telling Ellie he’s quitting, he’s struck by a bus during a worldwide blackout, losing two teeth in the process. It’s not the only thing lost when the lights go out.

Shortly after he recovers, he’s plucking out the notes to ‘Yesterday’ for Ellie and his friends and discovers not only do they not know the song, they’ve never heard of the men that wrote it or the famous band they were a part of. Searching the internet for John Paul George Ringo only brings back the page for Pope John Paul II and looking for The Beatles keeps directing him to the Wikipedia page for insect. Could it be that the entire world had forgotten…or that they never existed at all? At first, Jack is reluctant to use the music to his advantage but the more positive responses he gets the more emboldened he becomes to “write” more and more of the back catalog for The Fab Five. The only trouble he faces is remembering the lyrics to several key songs…after all, if the songs only exist in his head the lyrics aren’t scribbled down anywhere for him to reference.  That’s why he struggles mightily with the complex ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and mixes up the order of ‘For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.’

As Jack starts to skyrocket to fame, his relationship with Ellie changes from chums to maybe something more. All these years they have been best friends…but were both hoping for love to blossom and waiting for the other to make the first move? With Jack’s path taking him away from home and keeping the two apart, the movie unfortunately tries to shoehorn in a romance that doesn’t feel like it wants to be there. Part of that problem is that, for as likable as Patel and Collins are individually, they generate absolutely no romantic chemistry at all. In the friends department, they are believable as pals but every time they are supposed to be pining for each other there are no sparks created.  I get that Yesterday is first and foremost supposed to wear its romance on its sleeve but that the movie keeps returning to this plot that utterly halts any and all forward progress is a major failure.  Without any true pull for the audience to root for Jack and Ellie to be together, I was left wondering if they were meant to be a couple at all.  Why?  Because the movie laws say they should be?  It’s not like either make any huge sacrifice (save for a hammy grand gesture near the climax) for the other…I just couldn’t understand why we should care.

Some of that is the fault of the script from Curtis (About Time) which is uncharacteristically free of heart. What I’ve always appreciated about the way Curtis fashions a screenplay is the way he is able to bring not only the two leads together in a witty way but in the method he involves the supporting players as well. Think about the ensemble casts of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Yes, the stars stick in your mind but so do the nicely drawn people surrounding them. That’s another problem here. Aside from Patel and Collins, the supporting cast in Yesterday are completely forgettable. The ones that stick out do so for the wrong reasons. As Jack’s annoying friend and roadie Rocky, Joel Fry (Paddington 2) is basically the exact same character Rhys Ifans played much better (and to 100% more laughs) in Notting Hill. Treating her performance like an extended SNL sketch, Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters) squares herself as Jack’s Los Angeles manager to be so nasty that what is supposed to be funny just comes off as mean-spirited and, ultimately, exasperating. McKinnon started as such a breath of fresh air but her act is stale.  Playing himself in an extended cameo, Ed Sheeran shouldn’t quit his day job.

The biggest issue with the movie is the director. At the end of the day Danny Boyle (Trance) was just, I think, not the right director for this film. Though he’s shown an agility with movies that have a bit of a fantastical edge to them (go watch Millions if you don’t believe me), he seems totally lost at how to keep Yesterday from dragging almost from the beginning. The movie should have a snap to it, especially considering the numerous up-tempo numbers sung by Patel who has quite a lovely singing voice. Instead, these musical moments feel cold and unwelcoming. For a movie with so many magical points of interest there is little whimsy to be had. Curtis introduces an extra twist to the circumstances where we find out that it’s not just The Beatles that were erased from existence and Jack isn’t the only one that remembers how things once were…but Boyle never takes those ideas further so they become footnotes to the unexplained phenomena instead of additional clues.

In some ways I wonder if this wouldn’t have worked better as part of some sort of Black Mirror-ish type of show. Pushing up against the two-hour mark, the film struggles to justify that length and stretches on longer than it has to. One thing I will say that it has going for it (aside from the soundtrack which I secured fairly quickly) was that I didn’t quite know what to expect from the ending and what I thought would happen didn’t. There was an easy way to end the movie and a more complicated resolution and the film took the road less traveled.  I don’t think it will satisfy the average movie-goer, though the woman next to me was bouncing around in her seat throughout and practically dancing during the hummable closing credits.  Under the watchful eye of a director less interested in reality and the recasting of McKinnon’s character, Yesterday would be an improvement.  Right now, it’s helter skelter.