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The Danger of International Travel: This Week at the Movies

George Wolf George Wolf The Danger of International Travel: This Week at the MoviesPhoto still from "Midsommar," via IMDb.
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It’s a big holiday mid-week “we need air conditioning” bash, and there are two excellent choices. They are very different. Very different — although, honestly, neither makes international travel seem as safe and fun as you might hope.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Spider-Man: Far From Home has more than a webshooter up its sleeve.

One part reflection on the state of MCU, one part statement on our cartoonishly ridiculous world today, one part charming coming-of-age tale, the latest Spidey episode almost takes on more than it can carry. But return writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers embrace franchise strengths while betting director Jon Watts, also back from Homecoming, can maneuver slick surprises.

The wager pays off, and Far From Home winds up being a film that feels a bit campy for a while, but in retrospect succeeds precisely because of those early over-the-top moments.

Peter Parker (the immeasurably charming Tom Holland), having returned from oblivion (Infinity War), then universal salvation and personal loss (Endgame), would like a vacation. The poor kid just wants to take a trip abroad with his class and get a little closer to his crush MJ (Zendaya).

But that is not to be, is it?

Not with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) following him across the globe, or the surprise appearance of Quentin Beck aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a new monster-slayer from another Earthly dimension.

“You mean there really is a multi-verse?”

That’s a nice nod to the stellar animated Spidey adventure from last year, and a big clue about how self-aware this chapter is determined to be. The front and center ponderings about what Peter (and by extension, Marvel) is going to do now threaten to collapse the film from self-absorbtion.

To the rescue: a jarring and unexpected pivot, and that wonderfully youthful vibe that now has one eye on growing up.

Interestingly, Tony Stark fills in for the guilt-inducing father figure that’s always been missing from this iteration of Peter Parker’s tale. Without Uncle Ben, Stark becomes that hallowed hero whose shadow threatens to obliterate the fledgling Avenger.

Peter’s still a teenager, after all, and Homecoming soared from embracing that fact, and from Holland’s ability to sell it in all its wide-eyed and awkward glory.

He still does, but now our hero’s naiveté is shaken by some mighty timely lessons. Number one: “It’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves.”

Not exactly subtle, but fitting for the world of a distracted teen. And for kids of all ages, there’s no denying how cathartic it is to see world leaders, their media lapdogs and widespread buffoonery on blast and blasted across the largest screens, where good will inevitably conquer.

As fun and funny as this keep-you-guessing Eurotrip is, its core is driven by a simple search for truth. And don’t leave early, because that search doesn’t stop until Far From Home plays its second post-credits hand, and you walk out re-thinking everything you just saw.

Tangled webs, indeed.

Grade: B+

Midsommar

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Just two features into filmmaker Ari Aster’s genre takeover and already you can detect a pattern. First, he introduces a near-unfathomable amount of grief.

Then, he drags you so far inside it you won’t fully emerge for days.

In Midsommar, we are as desperate to claw our way out of this soul-crushing grief as Dani (Florence Pugh). Mainly to avoid being alone, Dani insinuates herself into her anthropology student boyfriend Christian’s (Jack Reynor) trip to rural Sweden with his buds.

Little does she know they are all headed straight for a modern riff on The Wicker Man.

From the trip planning onward, Dani and the crew don’t make a lot of natural decisions. The abundance of drugs and the isolation of their Swedish destination make their choices more believable than they might otherwise be, but in the end, individual characters are not carved deeply or clearly enough to make their arcs resonate as terrifyingly as they might.

There are definite strengths, though — chief among them, Florence Pugh. The way she articulates Dani’s neediness and strength creates a glue that holds the story in place, allowing Aster to add spectacular visual and mythological flourishes.

Will Poulter, as Christian’s friend Mark, is another standout. Equal parts funny and loathsome, Poulter (The Revenant, Detroit) breaks tensions with needed levity but never stoops to becoming the film’s outright comic relief.

Like Hereditary, Midsommar will be polarizing among horror fans — perhaps even more so — for Aster’s confidence in his own long game. Like a Bergman inspired homage to bad breakups, this terror is deeply-rooted in the psyche, always taking less care to scare you than to keep you unsettled and on edge.

Slow, unbroken pans and gruesome detail add bleak depth to the film’s tragic prologue, leaving you open for the constant barrage of unease and disorientation to come. Carefully placed pictures and artwork leave trails of foreshadowing while the casual nature of more overt nods (“there’s a bear”) only add to the mind-fuckery.

And while Aster is hardly shy about this motives — multiple shots through open windows and doors reinforce that — it doesn’t mean they’re any less effective.

The contrast of nurturing sunlight with the darkest of intentions recalls not only Wicker Man but Texas Chainsaw Massacrefor its subliminal takeover of the sacred by the profane. Pair this with the way Aster manipulates depth of field, both visual and aural, and scene after scene boasts hallucinatory masterstrokes.

Midsommar is a bold vision and wholly unnerving experience (emphasis on experience) — the kind of filmmaking the genre is lucky to have in its arsenal.

Grade: A-

Also opening in Columbus:

Funan (NR)
Oh! Baby… (NR)

Read more from George and Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, SCREENING ROOM.

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