‘Furious’ Wholly Unbelievable, ‘Midsommar’ Haunting, ‘Kitchen’ Empty

By BILL GEIGER | Aug 21, 2019

Surf City — I like to think of summer movies as the big, expensive, star-studded, explosive, theater-shaking films starring the big guns. Since the mid-1970s, directors and producers have targeted the summer for such films, hoping to cash in on the available demographic – young males of high-school age who populate theaters. With the dawn of the comic book film made profitable by Marvel and D.C., many such movies began their lives during the summer, propelled by the willing throngs and the ringing of cash registers.

But the real summer flicks, for my money, are the ones starring the “Transformers.” Always have been. These huge robotic moneymakers come along every few years, fight an opposing set of robots just as big, destroy whole cities in their wakes and rake in the dough.

However, we do have a “Fast and Furious” film, called, believe it or not, “Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw.” I don’t even know what to say about this title other than it bears all the earmarks of a summer flick.

Big, boisterous, well-traveled and wholly unbelievable, “H&S” stars two heavyweights – well, actually one heavyweight and one welterweight, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, as Hobbs and Shaw, respectively, the former an agent, probably of the CIA, and the latter a hardcore thief from a family of thieves. Both had been in previous “Fast and Furious” flicks and, absent Vin Diesel, both were promoted to leads.

Hobbs has found living with his precocious daughter Sam (Eliana Sua) mentally taxing, especially as it involves “Game of Thrones.” He’s alerted to a new virus that is so deadly it could kill off most of the human population. As such it needs to be kept out of the hands of Brixton (Idris Elba), a super-soldier whose DNA is altered, his spine rewired to enhance his fighting, thinking and living abilities. He is, as he says in the film, literally a “superman.” He’s also a bad dude.

He was wired and enhanced by a shadowy corporation called ETEON, and he’s ultimately controlled by this corporation. Both entities want the virus, mainly to kill off the weak and sick within the population and create a new order of super-humans.

But Brixton’s goal to get the virus is thwarted by another soldier who gets there first: Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), Shaw’s sister and a fellow thief. Brixton is hot on the trail, and so Hobbs and Shaw must team up, along with Hattie, to keep the virus from Brixton.

The “Fast and Furious” franchise must work hard to set up some ambushes for the super-soldier and his minions of not-so-super-soldiers. The theme of “family” is important here, and so is the idea of working together, so we can’t be too hard on “H&S” since it has its heart in the right place.

But these types of films, especially if they star Dwayne Johnson, are not to be taken too seriously. The Rock still looks ridiculous in a T-shirt, with his bulging biceps and the tee’s sleeves pushed way up because of them, but he had some serious problems fighting Brixton. I guess the lesson here is if you want to give Big Dwayne some trouble, you have to have him “wrassel” a genetically enhanced fighter – or a 10-year-old daughter who has been binging “Game of Thrones” and has some plot questions for the big guy. Either way, Dwayne, you’re done.

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I had been seeing this next film advertised all summer, and I finally got around to seeing it, locating a venue not too far from home. It’s an indie called “Midsommar,” and it was written and directed by Ari Aster, whose freshman debut was a little horror story called “Hereditary.”

Midsommar is the time of year that celebrates the first day of summer, in June, and has been part of pagan worship for centuries. Stonehenge in England was probably built with the summer solstice in mind, and in Europe and Scandinavia, Midsommar is an important feast, a national holiday in some places. I’ve always sort of had an interest in the festival and the pagan ritual that goes along with it, but not anymore.

Aster, the writer/director, has a track record of building the tension slowly but inexorably in his films, and he hits the bullseye completely in “Midsommar.” It’s the story of Dani (Florence Pugh), a young woman who has experienced a tragedy in her life so upending that it would stop most people in their tracks. She’s devastated by it.

She hears her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Raynor), discussing a trip to a Swedish village to observe a pagan cult celebrating Midsummer Day (the summer solstice), invited there by their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up in that village. Dani invites herself along. It should be noted Christian’s circle of friends has been trying to get him to break off his relationship with Dani, with one friend in particular, Mark (Will Poulter), expressing his feeling that Dani is extremely needy and takes too much of Christian’s time.

This ritual takes place every 90 years, and tapestries that hang around the village clearly show what will happen, but the circle of four pays no attention to this. Aster cleverly gives the viewer a glimpse of what will happen by showing the various drawings, done in a medieval-type style, so if you watch that, you see the future before the other characters do. Nevertheless, the film is still very disturbing.

Toward the end it’s Christian vs. pagans, and even though I thought Raynor to be a poor man’s Chris Pratt, he could not summon his Starlord buddies for help. The villagers re-enacting the 90-year ritual might have solved the Dani/Christian relationship problem. Whatever, the film, which takes place in about 90 percent sunlight, is still very dark. Florence Pugh is outstanding. She’s called on to do a lot, and her fragile psyche has to react to the horror of what she sees. As it progresses, it becomes really hard to watch.

“Midsommar” will stay with you all summer and beyond.

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After the unnerving experience of “Midsommar,” it’s good to find a flick that will take your mind off the terror and give you a good, meaty story to watch and enjoy. “The Kitchen,” unfortunately, is not that flick. In fact, if you can, avoid “The Kitchen” entirely. It gives you characters you don’t care a lick about, and a story that is dull and vapid.

“The Kitchen” is shorthand for Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood of New York City just to the west of Midtown Manhattan, and during the 1970s, a notorious hangout for mobsters looking to profit from the businesses located from 34th to 57th streets. This is pretty petty stuff, mostly charging the stores protection money, and giving them some nominal protection in return.

Director Andrea Berloff helms a story about a housewife, Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), a trophy wife, Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), and an abused wife, Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss), all three of whom are left without money when their husbands botch a robbery and are sent off to prison for several years.

So the ladies decide to take matters into their own hands. But then, along comes greed, and that changes everything.

McCarthy, usually a pretty good actress, has one expression for nervous and one for angry, her two main looks in the film – and that is a pained, nearly lachrymose visage. Haddish comports herself well in her sassy role; be sure to look for the twist involving her near the end. Moss is inscrutable, but can certainly handle a .38, or a .45, when she needs to. It’s pretty clear McCarthy is the go-to talent here, but there is no humor as in a lot of her other films. Had there been that, where she could have cracked wise, this would have been a blast of a role. Instead it’s just a tiny little “pop.”

Berloff steers “The Kitchen” to its enigmatic ending. The film plods along, but there are bursts of violence that sometimes startle.

Would that those bursts came a little more frequently.

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