Black Widow

Release: Friday, July 9, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Starring: Scarlett Johansson; Florence Pugh; David Harbour; Rachel Weisz

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Timing is everything. This applies, painfully so, to Black Widow, a film that feels compromised in a way few Marvel movies have.

In her first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Machine director Cate Shortland finds herself in an incredibly difficult position. Twenty-four films deep into a shared universe that has now spun off multiple streaming shows, she is tasked with compressing both origins story and swan song into one entertaining package. Black Widow‘s out-of-sequence placement burdens the filmmaker with a number of difficult creative choices, most notably how much nuance she can bring to a story that ostensibly dives into the emotional interior of one of the foundational members of the Avengers.

Hey, at least they finally got the damn thing made. Scarlett Johansson* may have had to wait 11 years, 20 films and her own character’s killing off to earn what Robert Downey Jr. got three times in five years, Chris Hemsworth three in six and Chris Evans twice in three,** but the only resentment you sense from Natasha Romanoff in her eighth and likely final MCU appearance is reserved for Dreykov (Ray Winstone — Noah; The Departed), the Russian psycho who brainwashed and tortured her and her ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (a scene-stealing Florence Pugh) as young girls, along with countless others from all over the world, into becoming an army of perfect assassins.

A bittersweet prologue sets us all up for a rude awakening: a seemingly normal American family in 1995 Ohio is suddenly compelled to make a break for Cuba after being discovered as the Russian sleeper agents they actually are. ‘Father’ Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) have been keeping their ‘children’ Natasha (here played by Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) sheltered for as long as they can but a sad twist of fate shatters the illusion, the daughters separated and handed over to Dreykov and eventually sent to a nebulous place called the Red Room, a hovering fortress in the sky that could have been cribbed from a Pink Floyd concept album.

Cut to the present (which is still the past) and Natasha’s on the run from U.S. Secretary Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after giving him and his Sokovia Accords the one-finger salute. Her nomadic lifestyle in Norway is short-lived with the arrival of the mysterious mercenary Taskmaster, drawn to an item our hunkering-down hero is unwittingly in possession of. After a violent showdown on a bridge, Natasha escapes to Budapest, where another David Leitch-like round of punishingly awesome fight choreography awaits. Here, reunited with her former sis, Natasha discovers the true extent of Dreykov’s control and power, along with a possible solution to the problem.

Post-Budapest and the spy thriller dynamic evolves into more of a dysfunctional family team-up as the pair resolve to get the old gang back together in order to take down the brute who irrevocably changed them and free the other Black Widows from the same violent servitude. The process of course mandates that mom and dad also confront their own separate, lived-in realities and their culpability in this whole mess, leading to the film’s signature scene (awkward family reunion, anyone?) — an emotional catharsis for all involved. Turns out, reliving the “good old days” is tricky to do when the good old days are your own Tahiti (what a magical place).

Black Widow is a Phase 4 debutante that is much better when grounded instead of going for literally atmospheric, generic spectacle, with some of the quieter moments packing as much of a punch as the intense fight sequences. However, the timing of the whole thing magnifies certain issues. Eric Pearson’s screenplay is not compelling enough for a film this late in the game. And considering the hefty themes in which it traffics and the cast of characters at its disposal there is enough content here to make two films. Instead the exploration of trauma and disillusionment feels rushed and harried by the “Make it count!” business mentality governing its singular existence.

Ultimately the performances save this from total mediocrity. Johansson has kicked ass from her Bechdel Test-failing introduction in Iron Man 2 (2010) through to this bitterly short-lived end, saving her most somber performance for last. Yet even in her own movie she is to some degree playing second fiddle. That’s less of a problem when the reason is Florence Pugh, who might well be stretching her legs for her own MCU run. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take quite as long — in real time or otherwise — to get that going. 

* I am considering reviving the Scarlett Johansson Project. I feel bad leaving that one incomplete. Would anyone be interested in seeing more of those kinds of posts? Show of hands in the comments below, please!

** I do not include Captain America: Civil War in that list considering that is more of an ensemble film than a true stand-alone entry. But, sure, go ahead and add it. Even more to my point.

Comrades in harms.

Moral of the Story: An uncharacteristic end-zone fumble for MCU President and ball-cap enthusiast Kevin Feige, Black Widow feels rather shortchanged by the finite space into which it has been forced to exist. On one hand, you might look at the movie multitasking as both origins and send-off as a unique thing. I don’t know any other MCU installment that has had to do that. On the other, you can’t help but feel Natasha Romanoff deserved more than what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a hit single. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me, how did you keep your heart?” 

Check out the Final Trailer for Black Widow here!

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.forbes.com

Denial

denial-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 30, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: David Hare

Directed by: Mick Jackson

There’s no denying the spectrum of emotions Deborah E. Lipstadt experienced during her days in the Royal Court of Justice, recounted in her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (upon which this film is based), deserves the silver screen treatment. Hers is a story that’s at once infuriating and inspiring, one that addresses the unfathomable but of course very real possibility of people denying that the Holocaust ever happened. Or, at the very least, that the aftermath was ever as devastating as it has been reported.

Denial represents director Mick Jackson (Volcano; L.A. Story)’s first theatrical release in almost 15 years. He has returned to craft a dignified if at times clunky dramatization that takes audiences through the harrowing Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. court case, a trial that lasted for over a month as it painstakingly poured over details like the existence of Zyklon-B insertion points and the significance of Prussian blue — all things that confirm gas chambers were used to kill. You know, the sort of stuff that can’t possibly be denied but is anyway because it is a fundamental human liberty to express opinions in a free society.

Rachel Weisz digs deep and creates a brash but deeply sympathetic character as the embattled Deborah Lipstadt. The plaintiff in this case is notable historian David Irving (bravely portrayed by Timothy Spall). An English author who had written extensively on the military and political history of World War II with a particular emphasis on Nazi Germany, Irving began marginalizing himself in 1988 with his perpetuation of the notion that the Holocaust was a propagandistic tool designed and used by the Jews to gain financial benefits and public notoriety. In 1996 he sued Lipstadt for remarks she made in her recent publication Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory — remarks he believed to be damaging to both his personal and professional reputation.

As a defendant in the English legal system, where it’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent, Lipstadt carries the burden of proof; that is to say, yes, her legal team (chiefly comprised of litigator Anthony Julius and libel lawyer Richard Rampton QC, here portrayed by Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson respectively) has to prove that Irving’s rhetoric is reliant upon omission of facts and details, and that such omission of facts and details was deliberate. One cannot hope for victory over their opponent simply because he or she happens to be a Nazi sympathizer. Adding to her difficulties, Lipstadt is expressly told not to speak during court, that she cannot appear on the witness stand. Nor can any London-dwelling survivor of those camps. Including their testimonies would only aid the enemy. It would invite the possibility of public humiliation and unwanted complications.

Naturally, cameras linger close to Weisz as her composure informs the tone and attitude of the film. Her face becomes tight and twisted in disgust and frustration as the implications of her challenging Irving rather than choosing to settle out of court begin to overwhelm. Evidence of an emotionally hefty if not ultimately rewarding shoot is written all over the actor’s face especially as she goes out on her nightly runs — Weisz of course being born of Jewish immigrants. Denial is riddled with tension and fraught with emotional crevasses down which we journey. The film is at its most sobering when we visit Auschwitz. Her attorneys must gather evidence that gas chambers were used for mass murder rather than protection from incoming bombs. For some time her character isn’t even trusting of her own defense, who must frequently remind their client that becoming emotional in court will not help anything.

Despite some hiccups the case itself is intelligently and thoughtfully presented, and though a lot of legalese is included even in the few scenes that do not take place in court it’s not alienating. Rather than condescend, the meticulous attention to detail creates the cold and clinical air of detachment lawyers are meant to exude, no matter what cause they are rallying behind. Though in this case, a quiet righteous anger in Scott and Wilkinson simmers just below the surface.

It’s a competently shot and well-acted courtroom procedural even if the story that develops outside the walls of this hallowed institution stumbles over itself, a little too excited to arrive at its logical conclusion; to rightfully bathe in the glory of a just resolution to an ugly legal battle. Ultimately Denial is a straightforward presentation of a complex and seminal case in English law, one that is supposed to have revolved around libel and libel alone but which ends up delving into matters of historical accuracy, a directorial decision that will no doubt become a major point of contention for historians and viewers who fancy themselves history buffs. In a sense we should be thankful these creative liberties ultimately pave the way to predictability. To think that this saga would end any other way would be, in a word, unbearable.

timothy-spall-in-denial

Recommendation: Performances allow the film to rise above its narrative flaws. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to Rachel Weisz these days. She is an intense performer and her Deborah Lipstadt is a great example of her skill set. What a resilient individual this person was (and is). This is a film to watch for great contributions from the supporting cast as well, namely Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott. A heavy film, but surprisingly not as confronting as you might expect.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “This case is happening to you, but it’s not about you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Lobster

'The Lobster'

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos; Efthymis Filippou

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

Outré black comedy The Lobster might be likened to a religious experience for those looking for their fix of anti-Valentine’s Day sentiments. If you look hard enough you  could even find enough evidence to validate its romance label as well, but it’s so weird and so brutally dispassionate, even the most bitterly spurned, those who firmly believe they’re forever damned to loneliness, may become exhausted in their effort to keep up with its madness. And really, this dystopia is quite mad:

Single people are being persecuted; they’re getting abducted from The City — somewhere in England or Ireland if accents are anything to go by — and brought to an isolated hotel miles away where the staff insist they find a suitable romantic partner within 45 days, otherwise they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and cast out into the woods beyond. Turns out, it’s neither a joke nor a mind game. There’s a room actually called The Transformation Room where, apparently, it all goes down. Should the unlucky sod find him or herself still single on day 45, Olivia Colman’s hotel manager advises them to partake in some activity that they won’t be able to once transformed. A one-night stand, for example, would be a waste of precious time given that animals still have the ability to fornicate.

Our best chance for understanding how the world operates in The Lobster lies in David (Colin Farrell) and his journey from being recently dumped to finding companionship in the most unlikely of places. And I know that’s a cliché, but I’m talking the epitome of unlikely places; so much so that the symmetry is almost cloying when he runs into Rachel Weisz’ Short-Sighted Woman after his ordeal at the hotel. He escapes and finds a group of stragglers abiding to their own equally radical but opposing ideals: The Loners, led somewhat ironically by Léa Seydoux and constituted by fellow hotel escapees, are vehemently against the pursuit of romance and intimacy.

Dress codes and segregative practices — you can extrapolate the latter to the two major factions we come across, as well as to the way single people and couples are treated differently in The Hotel — lay the groundwork for brutal revelations: in this world, the sum total of who we are is measured by our ability to attract a mate. Single people are lower down in the social hierarchy than couples. Sex isn’t much more than a survival strategy; it’s procreation, not love, that conquers all. The steel-blues and grays of Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography reinforce an achingly melancholic mood.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, in his fifth feature presentation, tackles the loneliness and despair of single-hood, an approach that dovetails nicely with the sacrifice of being in a relationship and he does so with a conviction as forceful as an avalanche against a lone pine tree. Strange, stilted dialogue castrates the piece of humanity, while the frankness of conversations recalls Wes Anderson . . . really, really pessimistic Wes Anderson.

One might naturally assume Lanthimos has it out for those who can’t help but remain stubbornly (or maybe just hopelessly) single, but he’s actually more critical of the societal pressure that falls upon everyone to couple up. While there are few rules governing how “loners” should meet others, The Hotel encourages bonding over physical traits, even ailments and/or disabilities, no matter how superficial those connections may seem. Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man goes to some extreme lengths to get with this girl he likes who happens to suffer from frequent nose bleeds. John C. Reilly is convinced once he meets a woman with a speech impediment like his he’s set for life. Suicide entices some to escape in a different way. All of this becomes a driving force for David to make the decisions he makes.

There’s not a lot of happiness in The Lobster. I think that much is obvious. But it bears mentioning again. The warning sirens must be heard clearly before too many enter the film with certain expectations. It’s one of the most brutal black comedies I’ve seen, capped off by one of the most memorable endings 2016 has yet produced. Presently I struggle to reconcile my enjoyment of Lanthimos’ work, when only two years ago, I was babbling incessantly about my distaste for John Michael McDonagh’s similarly pessimistic Calvary. The two share more in common than I really would like to admit.

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Recommendation: The mileage one gets out of this cynical view on modern relationships I think will depend on one’s own propensity for being cynical themselves. Performances are universally strong, although this is very much a ‘message’ film. However, that message is unlikely to make an impact upon those who can’t latch on to the absurd tone, dialogue/speech patterns and occasionally shocking developments. This is quite a heavy watch but it’s also one of the most unique releases 2016 currently has on tap.

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Why a lobster?” / “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Decades Blogathon – The Fountain (2006)

 

In day two of the Decades Blogathon ’16 we have a review of Darren Aronofsky’s simply unique The Fountain (2006). Head on over to Three Rows Back to find that review! Thanks everyone!

three rows back

Featured Image -- 57792006 2It’s day two of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and the one and only Tom from Digital Shortbread (check out his site by the way – that boy can write). The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I will run a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post); and this excellent review of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain comes from Jenna and Allie’s site Flick Chicks.

I was a spectator for last year’s Decades Blogathon, so I am absolutely delighted to make the cut to take part this year! As someone with a worryingly long ‘must watch’ list, this was the perfect chance to tick off a movie that I’ve been putting off for a while. The Fountain (2006) has been on my list for a while now. I can’t remember exactly…

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