Schultz reviews: "Midsommar,” "Spider-Man: Far From Home,” "Anna," "Annabelle Comes Home" and "Yesterday"
“Midsommar” Distributed by A24 Pictures, 147 Minutes, Rated R, Released July 3:
The late Wes Craven, the innovative American filmmaker who reinvented the horror movie genre in the 1980s and 90s with the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” series, was once asked his opinion of the epochal 1973 movie “The Exorcist.” Craven replied, “The most frightening part (of the picture) to me was the knowledge that the filmmakers were willing to inflict psychological damage on the audience to produce a successful movie.”
It’s interesting to speculate what Craven would’ve made of “Midsommar,” the co-production of the United States and Sweden released on July 3 by independent entertainment company A24 Pictures, and now playing in 2,707 theaters across the United States and Canada.
Movie theaters should probably offer prizes for patrons who make it to the end of “Midsommar” without walking out, complaining to management or becoming nauseous during screenings. This is not an easy picture to watch — no matter a viewer’s film preferences or moral sensibilities, “Midsommar” has something to outrage, sicken, infuriate or horrify virtually everyone.
In “Midsommar,” Dani and Christian are a young couple on the brink of a breakup — Christian is just waiting for a convenient time to deliver the news to Dani that he’s leaving. But when Dani loses virtually her entire family in a shocking act of murder/suicide committed by her psychologically troubled sister, Christian chooses to postpone the breakup until Dani begins to recover from the trauma.
A few weeks later, Dani inadvertently learns that Christian and a few friends, graduate students studying for advanced degrees in anthropology, are planning to travel to one’s remote ancestral commune in northern Sweden. The friends hope to attend a nine-day midsummer festival — a fertility ritual which occurs only in a 90-year cycle, literally a once-in-a-lifetime sociological event. In an attempt to bond with her increasingly remote mate, Dani leverages Christian into inviting her to come along on the trip.
Arriving at the idyllic foreign settlement, the group of Americans are at first welcomed cordially and accepted into the company of the locals. But as the days pass and the foreigners become assimilated into the commune’s customs, it becomes increasingly apparent that they’ve delivered themselves into the hands of a pagan cult, and are about to become indoctrinated into a prolonged religious ceremony embracing elements of ritual suicide, regulated incest, corporal mutilation and human sacrifice. And that the troubled Dani is beginning to feel a curious sense of belonging.
With scenes which exceed the impact of such controversial pictures as Ken Russell’s “The Devils” from 1971, Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” in 1973, and even Wes Craven’s own “The Last House of the Left” from 1972, “Midsommar” becomes an extremely well-made and well-produced picture which relies on the viewer’s natural curiosity and respect for unfamiliar religious practices, along with a sympathy for the discomfort of strangers in a foreign land and the revulsion we feel for foreign customs outrageous to the sensibilities of western civilization.
Set in the land of the midnight sun, in contrast to other films in the horror genre, each scene in “Midsommar” is beautifully photographed in broad daylight — save for the opening American sequences and one brief nightmare segment, “Midsommar” contains no substantial nighttime scenes. There are few actual scares in the picture per se, but the sense of dread is palpable, and at times nearly overwhelming. And despite the graphic nature of the picture’s content, the images the filmmaker conjures in the viewer’s mind are infinitely worse. This is a movie which will haunt the viewer’s dreams for days.
Written and directed by Ari Aster, the journeyman American filmmaker responsible for last year’s surprise hit “Hereditary” — an unconventional and innovative horror film which itself earned more than its share of controversy — ”Midsommar” is decidedly not for everyone. With echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s later pictures “The Shining” in 1980 and “Eyes Wide Shut” in 1999, this is a difficult, challenging picture, brilliant but often sickening, with scenes of shocking brutality, graphic carnage and explicit nudity.
Along with another impressive performance from Florence Pugh, the critically-acclaimed British actress who appeared earlier this year as WWE professional wrestler Paige in “Fighting with My Family,” “Midsommar” features supporting performances from an ensemble cast which includes standout turns from Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter and Hampus Hallberg.
“Midsommar” is earning impressive scores from the critics, including an approval rating of 81% from Rotten Tomatoes and 73% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore conversely assign “Midsommar”a grade of C-plus. Distributor A24 Pictures expected to earn up to $10 million in revenues from the picture during the long July 4 opening weekend, and actually counted some $3 million in ticket sales by the end of the film’s opening day.
Actually filmed on locations near Budapest, Hungary, “Midsommar” is rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and objectionable language. Proceed with extreme caution — this picture should probably have earned an NC-17 rating. Needless to say, “Midsommar” is not for the kiddies.
“Spider-Man: Far From Home” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing and Columbia Pictures, 129 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released July 2:
Peter Parker has his hands full.
Still working through the process of grieving the death of his friend and mentor Tony Stark, also known as the superhero Iron Man, the nerdish 16-year-old student at New York City’s Midtown School of Science and Technology is not only trying to find exactly the right words to confess his love to his crush Michele during their two-week class trip to Europe … he also finds that the school trip is going to be something of a working vacation.
Already dodging persistent phone calls from Nick Fury, the coordinator of the Avengers team of superhero superstars, Peter finds while visiting Venice that he needs to suit up as the web-slinging superhero Spider-Man to battle a hostile oversized monster called a Water Elemental, in unexpected coordination with a caped and costumed interdimensional visitor named Mysterio.
Whew! Got all that so far? There’s more:
Young Peter needs to manage all of the above while also carrying the weight of the first picture in the money-minting Marvel Cinematic Universe since the April release of the superhero extravaganza “Avengers: Endgame,” which already has the distinction of earning box office dollars faster than any other movie in motion picture history.
Currently occupying the second place spot on the list of the most profitable movies of all time, “Avengers: Endgame,” with spanking-new footage, has also just been re-released to the world’s theaters in a bid to overtake 2009’s “Avatar” as the single most profitable motion picture in history.
In other words, among Spider-Man’s main competitors at the box office is ... well, Spider-Man.
The 23rd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the direct sequel to both “Avengers: Endgame” and 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the new “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is also one of Marvel’s weakest and most unfocused entries, and certainly among the busiest. With enough plot for five movies, the new picture’s almost non-stop action is nearly enough to conceal plot holes and inconsistencies which seem to negate much of what we’ve learned before from other pictures in the Marvel series.
Directed by Jon Watts from a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” veterans all, “Far From Home” manages to successfully juggle a handful of plotlines, but provides resolution to only a few of them. The picture occupies the audience’s imagination and senses for over two hours, but never satisfies the viewer’s curiosity ... especially with two post-credit sequences which feel more gratuitous and tacked-on than ever. The second post-credit scene even manages to compel alert viewers to re-think much of the movie.
In the dual role as Peter Parker and Spider-Man, actor Tom Holland tries hard but never quite manages to overcome the deficiencies of the script. The character’s primary shortcoming is his indecisive behavior: After spending much of 2017’s “Homecoming” pestering mentor Tony Stark to promote him to full Avengers membership, Parker in “Far From Home” spends much of his time resisting the job’s responsibilities. In a characterization which ultimately requires at least a little bit of backbone and emotional strength, Holland mostly comes across as whiny, childish and indifferent.
Among the supporting cast of Marvel veterans, Marisa Tomei and Jon Favreau earn the highest scores as Peter’s foxy Aunt May and her new beau, former Tony Stark assistant Harold “Happy” Hogan. The budding romance between May and Hap is much more involving than the picture’s main romantic plot between Holland’s lovesick Peter Parker and the wisecracking, unsympathetic, borderline-unpleasant Michelle, played by part-time pop star Zendaya. “Far From Home” could benefit from more of Favreau and Tomei.
Fans of the comics are already aware of the dynamic between multiverse superman Mysterio, the movie’s only new character, and his alter ego Quentin Beck. For comic book rookies, suffice to say that actor Jake Gyllenhall occupies a dual role ... and like Tom Holland is persuasive in only one of them. And while Samuel L. Jackson enjoys the distinction of being possibly the only working actor in the world who’s never contributed a bad performance to a movie, he isn’t given a lot to do as Nick Fury. Watch closely — one of the post-credit scenes involves Jackson’s characterization.
Viewers who enjoyed the charming 2018 fantasy picture “Every Day” will appreciate the unlikely romance between Jacob Batalon and Angourie Rice, playing classmates of Peter and Michelle. Favreau is also the gifted filmmaker behind the first two “Iron Man” pictures, Disney’s 2016 live-action remake of “The Jungle Book,” and next week’s “The Lion King.”
As expected, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is cleaning up at the box office, earning over $185 million during its six-day Fourth of July opening weekend, and easily taking the first-place spot on the Box Office Mojo Top Ten. By contrast, the second-place spot is occupied by Disney’s “Toy Story 4,” which earned $34.3 million during its third week of release. The re-released “Avengers: Endgame,” incidentally, earned an additional $3.1 million, placing ninth.
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some rough language, and brief suggestive comments, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is as entertaining as all get out. But with its unresolved issues and dangling plot threads, the movie is likely to leave even devoted Marvel fans asking a number of questions. And with no new Spider-Man or Avengers pictures currently on the company’s extended release schedule, it might be quite a while before we learn the answers.
“Anna” Distributed by Summit Entertainment, 119 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 21:
Writer and director Luc Besson sometimes seems to be a modern incarnation of the legendary 1950s and ‘60s French filmmaker Roger Vadim.
Besson, like Vadim, often writes lurid and often titillating stories, hires stunningly attractive women — not necessarily actresses — to populate the central roles, photographs his movies in the style of a haute couture photography session, and edits the results with the fast-moving intensity of comic book adventures.
While Vadim was famous for films such as 1957’s “And God Created Woman” and 1968’s “Barbarella,” Besson is responsible for 1990’s “La Femme Nikita,” 2005’s “Angel-A,” and “2014’s “Lucy.” “La Femme Nikita” was actually popular enough with audiences to spawn a long-running syndicated television series.
Besson’s new picture “Anna” at first seems to be such a typical entry in the Luc Besson filmography that it’s puzzling that the filmmaker even bothered to make the movie. The picture is divided into short segments, each designated with subtitled explanations such as “two months before” and “six months later.” And with its complex and confusing timeline and frequent cross-cutting, “Anna” also seems for a while to be Besson’s equivalent of Fellini’s surrealist “8 1⁄2,” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”
But as other similarities to “La Femme Nikita” in particular are revealed and become too profound to ignore, another possibility becomes apparent: “Anna” is primarily a practical joke played by the filmmaker on his audience — a broad, semi-parody of the filmmaker’s own previous work. Which is surprising, because a lot of us never realized until now that Luc Besson is not only repetitive, but actually owns his own cinematic genre.
“Anna” tells the story of Anna Poliatova, a beautiful young Russian woman trapped in a bleak marriage to an abusive narcotics addict. After becoming an unwitting accomplice in a failed ATM heist, Anna accepts an offer from a government operative to complete a rigorous training period and become an assassin for the KGB. Desperate for a new beginning, the young woman is motivated by a promise that after five years of service she can retire to any location in the world she desires. Anna’s cover identity is as a model in the Parisian world of high fashion.
Despite its confusing structure and uneven style, “Anna” paradoxically becomes the most entertaining picture Luc Besson has released since 2005’s charming “Angel-A.” And the picture’s entertainment value is augmented by a good natured cast of seasoned veterans, who seem to be having fun playing a sort of Russian Roulette with accents.
The Welsh Luke Evans adopts a Russian inflection and contributes one his most warm and accessible performances as the KGB operative who recruits, trains and supervises Anna, and then falls for her. As an actor, Evans was most recently seen speaking in broad American tones in the horror picture “Ma,” but is probably best known for singing with French inflections as the villain Gaston in Disney’s live-action 2017 version of “Beauty and the Beast.”
The Irish Cillian Murphy contributes an American accent as a CIA agent similarly smitten with the rookie Russian. And a heavily-disguised and all-but-unrecognizable Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren, who seemingly can comfortably inhabit any nationality on Earth, speaks with Russian inflections in roughly the same role German actress Lotte Lenya invented for the 1962 James Bond picture “From Russia With Love.”
Holding it all together as the Russian Anna is supermodel Sasha Luss, who happens to actually be Russian. Happily, much of Luss’ characterization is supplied by a succession of wigs, outfits and cosmetics. In other words, to phrase it charitably, in a role which requires little acting, Sasha Luss is perfectly cast.
Opening on June 21 in 2,114 theaters across North America, “Anna” is earning mixed reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 29% from Rotten Tomatoes and 40% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes that “fans of stylized action have seen it done before — and better.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore have assigned “Anna” an average grade of B-plus.
Besson’s picture was expected to earn up to $4 million over its opening weekend across the United States and Canada, and finished its debut weekend with $3.5 million, taking an unimpressive eleventh place in the Box Office Mojo list of top films in a field which includes “Toy Story 4,” the “Child’s Play” remake, and Disney’s live action version of “Aladdin.”
“Anna” is rated R for strong violence, language concerns, and some sexual content.
“Annabelle Comes Home” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 106 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 26:
In the new horror picture “Annabelle Comes Homes,” following an especially harrowing assignment, ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren bring the possessed Annabelle doll home with them. To protect the neighborhood, the couple lock the doll into a glass case specially constructed from sacred glass reclaimed from a deserted cathedral, have the display case blessed by a local priest, and place it into a corner of their Black Museum basement.
Several months later, the Warrens need to leave town for a weekend to investigate a haunting in another town, and leave their 10-year-old daughter Judy in the care of attractive and responsible teenage babysitter Mary Ellen.
That evening, the babysitter is visited by a nosy classmate, who’s additionally experiencing emotional trauma connected with the recent death of her father. And when the classmate surreptitiously gains access to the Warrens’ House of Horrors basement and manages to unlock Annabelle’s display case, all hell breaks loose — literally.
Set during the early 1970s, a few years after the events depicted in the original 2014 “Annabelle,” the new “Annabelle Comes Home” is the seventh installment in the series of horror films which began with “The Conjuring” in 2013, and the third film in the “Annabelle” series, which began in 2014.
Written and directed by Gary Dauberman, a “Conjuring” veteran who wrote the previous two entries in the “Annabelle” series as well as 2018’s “The Nun,” “Annabelle Comes Home” surprisingly becomes a swift-moving, absorbing, and unusually likable little joyride of a movie. In his filmmaking debut, Dauberman wisely sticks to what he’s learned from previous pictures — jump scares, moving shadows, mirror reflections — and combines the picture’s ample shocks with a solid plot and a swift-moving story.
But despite the presence of “The Conjuring” veterans Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren in appearances confined to wraparound segments at the beginning and end of the picture, “Annabelle Comes Home” is anchored by a persuasive and eminently sympathetic performance from the young McKenna Grace as the Warrens’ seasoned and extraordinarily mature 10-year-old daughter Judy.
With an impressive resume which includes the central role of 2016’s “Gifted” as well as a characterization as the young Tonya Harding in 2017’s “I, Tonya” and a brief appearance in last year’s “Captain Marvel,” Grace is plainly an actress who’s going places. As little Judy in “Annabelle Comes Home,” the young thespian adds another impressive entry to her filmography ... and at age 13 can already wield a crucifix with the authority of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in Hammer’s old “Dracula” movies from the 1950s and ‘60s.
Released to 3,587 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Annabelle Comes Home” is earning fairly enthusiastic reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 70% from Rotten Tomatoes against an average of 53% from Metacritic. Projected by distributor Warner Bros. Pictures to gross up to $35 million over its first five days, the picture earned $3.5 million during Tuesday night previews and $7.2 million by the end of its first day of release.
The picture bears a dedication to the actual Lorraine Warren, who passed away peacefully in April at age 92 — no spoiler intended.
“Annabelle Comes Home” is rated R for horror violence and sequences of terror.
“Yesterday” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 116 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released June 28:
It’s probably not a good idea to put too much thought into “Yesterday” while you’re watching it, although you’ll probably find it impossible to not think about it afterwards.
The violations of the space-time continuum in the picture are difficult to accommodate, especially for those audience members who follow the “Star Wars” and Marvel Comics-based pictures, and are notoriously picky about such details. And although “Yesterday” is filled with amusing scenes, charming set pieces, and some of the best music ever composed and performed, the whole is decidedly not a sum of its parts. And that’s a real shame.
In “Yesterday,” Jack Malik, a struggling British musician on the worn edge of youth, is tempted by his lack of success to quit the music business and return to his primary profession of school teaching. But after he’s knocked unconscious in a traffic accident caused by a cosmic anomaly and momentary global power outage, the young musician awakens to find a substantial change in culture. Specifically, the world has no memory, or historical account, of Coca-Cola, cigarettes ... or The Beatles.
Now the failing musician is faced with a dilemma ... and an opportunity. With a head filled with Beatles songs in a world that’s never heard them, his path to global superstardom is open — all he needs to do is to claim the Beatles music catalog as his own. But first he needs to decide whether unprecedented fame and wealth is worth the burden of having to live with a lie ... and possibly losing the affection of the only girl who ever truly loved him.
Despite an original premise and a musical score filled with a dozen or so of the best songs ever written, “Yesterday” ultimately becomes a fairly standard rags-to-riches entertainment story, a variation of the Faust legend, with British actor Himesh Patel’s Jack in the Faust role, Lily James as Marguerite, the girlfriend, here called Ellie Appleton and Kate McKinnon as Mephistopheles, in the guise of the venal and soulless talent manager Debra Hammer, who promises young Jack riches beyond comprehension in exchange for his talent.
Part of the joy of the Beatles experience was in witnessing their growth and maturation. When heard today, their early music — songs such as 1962’s “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You” in 1963 — seem primitive and primordial, little more complex than prehistoric cavern-dwellers chanting and pounding on hollow logs. That the group in a few years’ time was able to gain the musicianship and sophistication to produce works like “A Day in the Life,” “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” is nearly astonishing.
There’s no sense of that wonder in “Yesterday,” and even less of the joy. Jack, the movie’s central character, possesses the knowledge of the Beatles catalog, but not the discipline the band’s members required to produce it. Despite his presumptive skill and experience as a musician, during Jack’s first solo appearance with his own band to perform one of “his” new compositions before an audience, the opening song (the 1965 hit “Help”) is almost laughably inept, hardly even worthy of a suburban teenage garage band.
Additionally, despite the movie’s premise there’s never any real sense of the band’s eventually modifying world culture. The impact of The Beatles extended beyond popular music, and eventually affected world culture. To begin with, without The Beatles there likely would’ve been no Rolling Stones, Woodstock, Michael Jackson, or long hair on men — all details mentioned in the film as having occurred anyway.
Worse, in a movie which turns on the audience’s liking the central character, Himesh Patel’s Jack Malik becomes almost painfully unsympathetic, and even unlikable. To be successful as a persuasive dramatic narrative, the movie has to show us plainly why the lovable Lily James as Ellie follows her musician crush, or encourages him to persist in his pursuit of success. Instead, the audience falls in love with Lily James as Ellie, and vaguely wishes she’d come to her senses and dump Jack, maybe find a guy who’s a little more attentive and caring.
Of Jack’s musical work without the spirit of The Beatles on his shoulder, Kate McKinnon as the Mephistophelean manager Debra delivers the picture’s best line: “I hate it ... but I’m not interested enough to listen to it again to find out why.” It’s a great line, but she might also be describing the picture’s plot development, or even the movie’s central character.
In the end, Jack’s decision, and the path of his soul, is made easy by a piece of advice he receives from a familiar countenance indeed. Led by an address slipped to him by a fan, Jack arrives at the door of an aging, reclusive artist living in a remote seaside cottage on the periphery of society. The old artist shares with the conflicted young man the culmination of his long years of experience: “Tell the girl you love you love her,” the old man advises Jack, “and tell the truth whenever you can.” Come to think of it, that’s what those four guys were telling us all along.
Directed by the talented and eclectic Danny Boyle, the filmmaker behind 1996’s “Trainspotting” and 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” from a screenplay by the equally-talented Richard Curtis, the writer behind 1999’s “Notting Hill” and 2003’s “Love Actually,” “Yesterday” is entertaining enough, but richly unsatisfying. The picture ultimately presents viewers with more questions than answers. For fans of the Beatles — and honestly, if there weren’t millions of us, there’d be no movie — ”Yesterday” might inspire a sense of disquiet, and possibly a feeling of blasphemy.
One character is exactly correct when she observes toward the end of the picture, “A world without The Beatles is a world that’s infinitely worse.” But at the same time, the picture’s premise and structure begs a question: If a single musician were really able to compose the whole of The Beatles’ catalog of songs before even releasing his first record album, what in the world would he do for an encore?
“Yesterday” is rated PG-13 for suggestive content and language concerns.