SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME: 3 ½ STARS
“Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the 23 installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is so expansive it’s not only a sequel to “Spider-Man: Homecoming” but to the year’s biggest blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame.”
Set shortly after the events of “Endgame” the new movie sees Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) on a school trip to Europe with his classmates. Still keenly feeling the loss of his mentor Tony Stark he is recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., to assist Quentin Beck, also known as Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), in a war against a global threat called the Elementals. They are creatures formed from the primary elements, air, water, fire and earth, myths turned real and deadly. Mysterio is an expert on the extradimensional humanoids but can Peter really trust his new cohort? “Mr. Fury this all seems like big time, huge superhero kind of stuff,” says Peter, “and I’m just the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, sir.” “Bitch please,” Fury snarls, “you’ve been to space.” And so the adventure to (once again) save the world begins.
“Spider-Man: Far From Home” has the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am moments we expect from bigtime superhero action films but it is at its best when it zeroes in on the small stuff, an awkward glance between Peter and his crush MJ (Zendaya), or the comic rapport of Peter and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), or assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) watching wistfully as Spider-Man steps into Tony Stark’s shoes. These moments come amid the cataclysmic fireworks, grounding the movie in some much-needed humanity. Peter Parker may have gone to outer space but he’s still a gawky teen who says things like, “It’s really nice to have someone to talk to about superhero stuff,” to Mysterio. If this movie had been made in 1957 it might have been called, “I Was a Teenage Superhero.”
It’s these interactions, the character drama, that make the “Spider-Man” movies the most likable of the superhero genre; they feel authentic even though they’re set in an unreal world where the name Mysterio isn’t just reserved for nightclub magicians.
(VERY MILD SPOILER) But this isn’t a high school drama, it’s a superhero flick so it plays around with ideas of perception in very flamboyant ways. “People want to believe,” says Mysterio, “and nowadays they’ll believe anything.” It fits in nicely with the on-going Avengers storyline but also feels like a sly and timely commentary on manipulation of the masses.
Add to that an eye-popping, up-close-and-personal look at Mysterio’s surreal powers, big dollops of humor and Gyllenhaal having fun hamming it up and you’re left with a movie that feels like part of the bigger Marvel universe but, somehow, retains its own character.
MIDSOMMAR: 4 ½ STARS
“Midsommar,” the creepy new film from “Heredity” director Ari Aster, is proof positive that not all scary stuff happens under the cover of darkness. Sometimes daylight can illuminate the true horror of a situation in even more terrifying ways.
In the wake of a family tragedy American grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) finds out about her aloof boyfriend’s Christian (Jack Reynor) secret holiday, a trip to Sweden. Christian has one foot outside the relationship but half-heartedly asks her along. “I invited Dani to come to Sweden,” he tells his friends, “just to not make it weird. She’s not actually coming.”
But she does go with Jack and fellow anthropology students Josh (William Jackson Harper), a PhD student gathering info for his thesis, and wannabe-playboy Mark (Will Poulter) to a midnight sun celebration in the remote hometown of school mate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). “It’s sort of a crazy festival,” Pelle says. “It only happens every ninety years. Lots of pageantry, special ceremonies and dressing up.”
The festival is a Scandinavian Coachella, complete with dancing, pan-flute music and hallucinogenic drugs, all under a blazing sun that never sets. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I wanted to share it with my friends,” Pelle says. “People I know would appreciate it.”
At first it’s hospitable — "Welcome and happy Midsommar,” says the Ceremony Leader. “Skal!” — but after the fun and games — and psychotropic mushrooms — start to wear off a gradual air of menace settles over the proceedings as the tone shifts from Burning Man to “The Wicker Man” as a secret pagan agenda is revealed.
“Midsommar” is a tough movie to categorize. It’s not exactly a horror film although there are some horrifying moments. It’s more the story of Dani, a woman trapped in a loveless relationship, (SPOILER ALERT) who lost one family only to find another under very strange circumstances. Elements of high school rom coms and revenge films echo throughout.
Aster, a master of mood, slowly unveils how the unusual customs of the villagers unsettle their American guests. His film asks questions about the relationship the Swedes have with their surroundings and traditions. The circle of life brings joy for them, not terror and the pious, matter-of-fact way they deal with death as a sacrament suggests the North Americans fear the situation simply because they don’t understand the customs. Are they the ultimate Ugly Americans or are they actually in danger? That’s the push and pull that builds the tension leading up to the explosive climax.
“Midsommar” may be the definition of ‘not for everyone.’ A colleague, who has sat through more movies with me than either of us could possibly remember, declared it one of the worst films she’s ever seen. But that is the subjectivity of art, the polarizing nature of a film that doesn’t easily fit into any definable category.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO: 4 STARS
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a captivating new drama starring Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors, wonders aloud if Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote, “You can’t go home again.”
Jimmie Fails (Fails) has a dream. He wants to live in the ornate Victorian house with red and gold trim his grandfather built after the Second World War in San Fran’s Filmore district. His father (Rob Morgan) lost the house when Jimmie was just a child and now the home’s contents are stored in a relative’s basement. When he isn’t working at the old folk’s home he spends time at the house, even though another older couple own it. Uninvited and much to the consternation of the residents, he does odd jobs like yard work and painting the windowsills. “This house,” he says. “This is what I do.”
When the old couple moves, leaving the home empty, Jimmie moves in. After an unsuccessful attempt to buy the place from a realtor (Finn Wittrock) who needs 20 per cent down on the $4 million price he claims squatter’s rights and has the bills put in his name. His friend, budding playwright Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), moves in with him and they attempt to recreate the home as Jimmie remembers it from his youth.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is about many things. Nostalgia. Love of friends and city. It’s about how gentrification in San Francisco has marginalized people of colour creating housing inequality. Mostly, though, it’s about the bittersweet romanticizing of the past with a healthy dose of reality. Perhaps Wolfe was right, but simply because the home in question is four walls and a roof, not a panacea to Jimmie’s feelings of emotional displacement. Jimmie’s expectations linked to the idea of home, in this case his feelings of family unity, are likely never to be met. It’s melancholic and beautifully rendered in a film that feels like a tone poem of love and loss.