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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 5, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 27
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Agreeably quirky Spider-Man: Far from Home a superheroic home run
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME
Now playing


Spider-Man: Far from Home picks things up fairly soon after the events of Avengers: Endgame. Peter Parker (Tom Holland), a.k.a. everyone's friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, returns to school with the rest of his classmates who were also snapped back into existence after Tony Stark took the Infinity Stones away from Thanos (an event now known as 'The Blip'). His mentor's sacrifice has weighed heavily on Peter, and he can't help but feel that if he had done more maybe Tony would still be here protecting the world right this very second. All of which makes him reticent to take any of Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) phone calls, using his upcoming class science trip to Venice, Italy as an excuse to avoid him.

Not that the man who runs S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to be thwarted by a teenager who keeps hanging up on him. Fury wants Spider-Man's help, and Peter is going to give it to him one way or another. Turns out, The Blip also put a small hole in the dimensional plane, unleashing creatures known as Elementals, each of them able to utilize earth, air, fire and water to cause mass amounts of destruction. This rip in the multiverse also brought Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), otherwise known as Mysterio, to this realm as well, the powerful hero needing Spider-Man's assistance in order to stop the Elementals from doing to this version of Earth what they did to his, which was leave it a smoldering ruin unable to sustain life.

So that's the action-heavy part of the plot as it pertains to this Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel and the 23rd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, much like its 2017 predecessor, returning director John Watts (Cop Car) and screenwriters Chris McKenna (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Erik Sommers (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) have channeled their collective inner John Hughes and crafted more of a teen-friendly coming of age comedy than they have a major studio superhero extravaganza. They put the emphasis on Peter's interactions with his friends and classmates, most notably with best bud Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and unknowing object of his affections Michelle 'MJ' Jones (Zendaya). These relationships are what prove to be most important. They are also the reason this sequel is as enjoyable as it is, the touching, funny and genuinely heartwarming conversations that pass between all of the teenagers as this increasingly wild and crazy, not to mention dangerous, European adventure spins more and more out of control an undeniable delight.

Good thing, too, because the actual mystery and action-oriented part of the plot isn't that awesome. Other than dealing somewhat plausibly with Peter's overwhelming grief at the loss of his father figure mentor Tony Stark, as well as the pressure being put on his own alter ego Spider-Man to become the next Iron Man, there's not a lot in the way of doubt as it pertains to the fight against the Elementals or whether or not a greater evil is somewhere on the sidelines pulling all of the strings. McKenna and Sommers have essentially copied the template of an early aughts Pixar favorite and repurposed it for this film, gussying things up with a few wisecracks, a little teenage romance and massive Marvel Studios budget that allows them to create all sorts of earth, wind, water and fire-related carnage.

Yet that part of the film feels increasingly half-baked, the London-set climax a gigantic cacophony of CG-enabled visual effects that aren't exciting and end up having no emotional stakes whatsoever. Much like some of Marvel's lesser entries in the MCU, things sort of devolve to the point where it felt like I was watching someone play an overly frenetic video game, something that grew increasingly tiresome as events progressed. I was never worried if Spider-Man was going to save the day, and there wasn't a second where I had the sensation any of his classmates might meet with anything unexpected. There just wasn't any suspense, and for a superhero movie this is something of a major problem.

But not a terminal one. Gyllenhaal is insanely good, the flamboyant energetic whimsy of his performance catching me by surprise. Even better are the serious scenes between him and Holland, the intimacy of their conversations dealing with concepts of loss, family, grief and responsibility hitting home with affecting clarity. I also loved just how playful Watts allowed the film to be, and even when the stakes grew to be nothing less than deathly serious for Peter's friends there is still a quirkily comedic joviality to it all that couldn't help but make me smile.

More importantly, Holland continues to be nothing less than terrific in this role. His chemistry with an equally luminous Zendaya is off the charts, while his back-and-forth banter with Batalon has an effortless naturalism that's continually sublime. Watts and company also save their best trick for last, the sequel's mid-credit stinger changing everything about the character and this series in such a profound way I'm honestly kind of excited to see where the filmmakers take things next.

All of which makes me wish I wasn't so blasé about the part of the story that deals with Nick Fury, the Elementals, Mysterio and whatever other menace might be out there orchestrating things from behind the scenes. The fun of Spider-Man: Far from Home is watching the younger members of its cast agreeably interact with one another, and if the actual heroic parts of the tale could have generated maybe a third of that same intoxicating ebullience maybe I'd have found this latest MCU effort to be a bit more memorable.


Pugh's magnificence helps keep Midsommar from being a complete pagan bore
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MIDSOMMAR
Now playing


After a catastrophic family tragedy leaves her drowning in grief, Dani (Florence Pugh) decides to go on a summer trip to Sweden with her longtime boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and their fellow graduate school classmates Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). It is actually Pelle's small hometown village to which they will be journeying, the group having been invited to attend this community's nine-day 'Midsommar' celebration. Josh is particularly excited, mainly because he's writing his master's thesis on pagan Midsommar rituals, so the fact he'll be able to document this one up close will only strengthen any arguments and insights he brings to the finished paper.

They are joined by two other outsiders, British students Connie (Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe), and initially Dani and the rest of the group are captivated by the idyllic countryside strangeness that colorfully envelops them. But it soon becomes clear that Pelle wasn't entirely forthcoming when he explained about all that they would see and experience. Additionally, the cracks that were concealed in the foundation of Dani and Christian's relationship start to magnify to the point they are no longer invisible, the young woman's psychological state a whirligig of seismic shifts as she tries to deal with all she's suddenly being forced to deal with.

Ari Aster, the man behind last year's spellbindingly bleak Hereditary which featured a titanic performance from star Toni Collette, returns with another motion picture that also walks an exceedingly fine emotional tightrope while at the same time again gifts another stellar actress a signature role many will be waxing poetic about for years to come. Pugh, already having delivered a marvelous turn in Fighting with My Family just a few months ago, and with Lady Macbeth already sitting at the top of her resume, lights up the screen as Dani. Her wounds are deep, passionate and visceral, but there is also a hopeful gregariousness to her demeanor that lights up almost any room she walks into. Pugh balances her character's growing shock and despair as she realizes this pagan ritual isn't as innocent as she assumed it was going to be with an emotional disrepair born from her family tragedy and the understanding that Christian might not be the man she thought, or maybe even tricked herself into believing, he was. It is a tour de force turn that burns right through the screen, the young actress stripping herself nakedly raw with a naturalistic exactitude that's stunning.

As for the movie itself? I have trouble saying I liked it all that much. It all felt too pompously overblown and lazily obvious to me, Aster channeling films like Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and Ben Wheatley's Kill List (just to name three) as he attempts to bring his character-driven plunge into pagan ritual to life. But the smartest characters disappear the quickest and do so in ways that are so unbelievable I couldn't fathom how even the dumbest of the remaining visitors didn't fathom something ominous was going on and immediately hightail it out of there whether Pelle wanted to give them an assist or not. Additionally, other than Dani, the remaining members of her friend group, including Christian, are so obscenely unlikable their respective fates, no matter what they might be, were inconsequential as far I was concerned.

Don't get me wrong. I think all of the actors are good, especially Poulter, Mark's gleefully arrogant smarm dripping off the screen in ways that are consistently amusing; and I also continue to think Aster is a meticulous cinematic craftsman with a visual ingenuity that's oftentimes incredible. Even though I knew it was coming, the first act of violence during the Midsommar rituals that occurred still got me to audibly yelp when this bit of gruesome sensationalism finally occurred, the filmmaker focusing on the reactions from Dani and the rest of the newcomers instead of spending a ton of time allowing cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski's (Tragedy Girls) camera to linger too long on all the gorily splattered remains. Aster also unleashes a spellbinding sequence chronicling the selection of the ritual's May Queen, shifting back and forth between Pugh's and Reynor's differing points of view with energetically inventive confidence.

None of which ended mattering as much as I thought it was going to. As malevolent as the climactic moments are, I can't say I felt anything other than moderately bemused indifference as they finally played themselves out to conclusion. While not every plot beat and narrative trick was preordained, I equally cannot claim that Aster's script went anywhere even slightly surprising. There were only so many ways this story was going to play itself out, and because of this there just wasn't a heck of a lot in the way of suspense or tension during the last third. As far as major problems are concerned that one hit me as being frustratingly significant, and for a motion picture running just ten minutes shy of two-and-a-half-hours it is unlikely bored indifference was the state of being the director was likely hoping I'd be stranded in as things came to an end.

Listen, there is a lot to unpack where it comes to Midsommar, and a lot of it is definitely, and defiantly, worthy of additional dissection and debate. More importantly, Pugh cements herself as a volcanic talent destined for greatness, her performance as Dani almost worth the price of a matinee ticket by itself. But as wonderful as all of that might be, the movie still left me a little cold, and as dynamically shot, precisely edited by Lucian Johnston (Hereditary) and creepily scored by Bobby Krlic as it all was, this thriller was one descent into sunshine-filled pagan madness I could have done without.


Tragically heartfelt Euphoria a journey of sisterly reconciliation
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

EUPHORIA
Now playing


Estranged sisters Ines (Alicia Vikander) and Emilie (Eva Green) reunite after years apart for a mysterious European adventure. After a night in a swanky hotel the pair go on a road trip, their driver leaving them in the middle of nowhere where they are met by the enigmatic Marina (Charlotte Rampling). She proceeds to walk them through the woods to their final destination. Turns out, Emilie is not getting ready to return to college and this trip isn't meant to be a fun sojourn before classes begin. Instead, she's brought Ines to an expensive estate where residents, all suffering from a terminal disease, can end their lives within six days of arrival if they choose to do so.

That's right. Emilie is dying from cancer. She hopes that by bringing her sister with her the two of them can reconcile before there's no longer a chance for them to do so. While Ines is initially furious at her older sibling, after walking around the estate and speaking with a few of the current residents she decides to stay. As the days progress the two women begin to rehash events from their past including being abandoned by their father and the death of their mother. They also get to take stock of their own damaged relationship, both Ines and Emilie learning things about one another neither knew until now.

With that premise, it's safe to say that Swedish filmmaker Lisa Langseth's first English-language drama isn't exactly a light, frothy excursion into sibling dysfunction. Reteaming with Vikander for the third time, the pair previously joining forces on the dramas Hotel and Pure, it doesn't take long for this movie to hit the viewer right in the face. Even early on during a brief prologue-like sequence showing Ines and Emilie reuniting, checking into their hotel and then sharing a gourmet meal, it's still obvious something more ominous is going on. The former doesn't appear to believe her sister when she states she's gotten all this money after selling her home. The latter is trying so hard to put on a happy face it's readily apparent she's not doing a great a job concealing what must be a pretty major secret.

It's still a rather major gut-punch when Ines and Emilie meet up with Marina and get checked in at their secluded destination and the truth of why they are on this trip together is coldly, almost clinically revealed by the establishment's otherwise friendly and composed concierge Aron (Adrian Lester). The younger sister's reaction to learning the truth is brutally understandable, Langseth giving Vikander the freedom to angrily explode over being left in the dark for so long about her older sibling's medical condition. But the director also allows cinematographer Rob Hardy's (Annihilation) camera to linger on Green as her character takes everything in. More is said about the sisters and their relationship by the subtle emotional maneuverings of the actress' face than almost anything the two say to one another out loud, the inherent power of this pivotal moment augmented considerably because of this.

While the focus tends to be on Ines and her reactions and responses to all she sees, hears and experiences while at the euthanasia clinic, it is those moments where Emilie is spotlighted and her interactions with some of the other residents are emphasized that prove to be the most indelible. There is a lovely, touchingly poignant subplot involving her and a paraplegic guest (Mark Stanley) that brought me to quietly eloquent tears, the hopeful, unrushed tenderness of their time together as honest an assessment of these various characters and their hauntingly personal choices as anything I could have hoped for.

For Ines, her primary interactions are with Marina, who resolutely refuses to give clear direction as to how the younger sister should handle this situation other than to insist she put forth an effort to understand what it is her sibling is asking of her, and the mysterious Mr. Daren (Charles Dance), a wealthy older gentleman who is coming to grips with the fact that his pursuit of money and power over lasting relationships hasn't done him particularly well now that he's on the verge of facing his final hours. A successful artist recently stung by the first bad reviews of her career, Ines also begins to fastidiously document her time at the clinic thinking she might utilize her observations and photographs in her future work.

I like that Langseth refuses to answer a lot of questions. I also respected how she declined to apologize for any of her characters or their actions, specifically Ines. Doing this helps magnify the impact of the film's closing act. While I'm not entirely sure either sister gets the answers from the other they claim to be longing for, they do achieve a level of meditative, resolute understanding that's potentially more significant. It allows them to be able to sit in familial kinship in a way they have not been able to since they were children, the ties binding them together even at this tragic hour mournfully long-lasting.

Euphoria isn't without its missteps and stumbles (as good as Dance is, the entire Mr. Daren subplot is kind of disastrous), but its emotional purity is undeniable, while the superlative performances from Vikander and Green anchor the proceedings in intimately naturalistic substance that's achingly authentic. Langseth lays her story out with a caring specificity that kept me wanting to learn where things would go next, and for my part I found the character-driven honesty of her drama difficult to resist.






Oregon Shakespeare Festival advances social justice
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July theater openings
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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Agreeably quirky Spider-Man: Far from Home a superheroic home run
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Pugh's magnificence helps keep Midsommar from being a complete pagan bore
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Tragically heartfelt Euphoria a journey of sisterly reconciliation
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