Black Widow

Black Widow and Yelena on a bike

“Three’s a trend,” as the saying goes, and with the success of Black Widow, after Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, it looks like the jinx on female superhero movies (Supergirl, Elektra, Catwoman) can finally be declared broken.

It was about time that Black Widow got her own standalone movie in any case, the character having been a bit neglected by the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one Avengers film after another, to the point where it was looking like there was a sexism/patriarchy thing going on.

Smartly heading that sort of criticism off at the pass, that’s the plot too, pretty much, with Black Widow swinging into action to neutralise a drug that turns feisty women into docile automata, a dastardly cocktail dreamt up by Russian mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone), boss of the same Red Room where Black Widow years before learned her tricks.

The action takes place while the Avengers are on one of their periodic “breaks” – between the Civil War and Infinity War movies in terms of timeline – allowing Natasha Romanofff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to track down her wayward sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), before the pair of them team up to locate Russians Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), the agents who raised Natasha and Yelena and who they’d assumed were their parents… but weren’t.

In keeping with Marvel’s “female directors for female superheroes” rule, Cate Shortland takes the helm. She knows a thing or two about female-centred drama, having directed Lore (starring Saskia Rosendahl), Berlin Syndrome (Teresa Palmer) and Somersault (Abbie Cornish). If you’ve seen any of those decidely non-superhero, non-CGI movies, you’ll know that Shortland is no action director but even so she gets things off to an urgent start with a frantic chase opener. Between her, and with Marvel old hand Gabriel Beristain as her DP and the gigantic Marvel technical team behind her, the frequent action sequences are solid enough. That said, notably the biggest dramatic payloads in this film are emotional rather than physical and the best action sequence of the lot – on the Budapest underground – is rooted in actual footage rather than CG trickery.

Rachel Weisz with a high powered rifle
Mother knows best: Rachel Weisz



After the slick opener demonstrating how well oiled that Marvel machine is, the action cuts back to the present day and then proceeds knowingly along the lines of a James Bond movie (look out for a clip of Moonraker on a TV at one point). This means action with quippy interludes to allow everyone to catch their breath. The first one gives Pugh and Johansson a chance to display their funny man/straight man double-act skills as the two sisters get re-acquainted and Yelena rips the piss out of her older sister for one thing or another, like Natasha’s love of the superhero landing pose and the fact that Black Widow is not one of the “big ones” of the Avengers, unlike, as Yelena puts it, “the god from space”.

True, Black Widow doesn’t really have a superpower, just super skills, unless hotness is a superpower.

Later, the second quippy interlude allows the “family” to get re-acquainted, before everyone heads into a showdown with despicable villain Dreykov, the world’s first Cockney Russian. So, a bit origin story, a bit family drama, some fun, some action, all very much standard Marvel fare all in all.

If it sounds rote it never feels it, and that’s probably down to the Yelena/Natasha relationship, with the fierce Florence Pugh particularly well cast as the fearless and caustic little sister. Rachel Weisz is slightly underused as the superspy mother, David Harbour, Russian accent wandering as badly as Winstone’s, is largely a comic character, the big tough superannuated Iron Curtain superhero Red Guardian, who can just about get back into his old costume if he sucks his gut in.

It’s nice to see the Cold War back firmly centre stage as an arena where big dramas can be played out, just as it was in Moonraker’s day, though in Black Widow’s eventual showdown with Dreykov there’s also a critique of the shadowy megarich oligarchs who aim to control the world through fair means or foul. Insert your own Bezos/Gates/Koch narrative here.

Black Widow isn’t alone among superheroes in having family issues (Superman, Spider Man, Tony Stark), but it does look like nervousness on Marvel’s part that Scarlett Johansson’s first “solo” outing for the MCU sees her bolstered by mum, dad and little sis. But then if you’re a widow you’re already defined by a relationship to another person. Next time out, Black Widow’s Dead Husband?



Black Widow – The Official Marvel Movie Special Book at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Page Eight

Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy


From the instant Page Eight starts we know where we are. The camera focuses on Bill Nighy’s face. He lights a cigarette and, as jazz music sulks away on the soundtrack, he strides out into the night. Johnny Worricker (Nighy) is another of Raymond Chandler’s white knights tilting at baddies out on the mean streets and we’re in a noirish thriller set in a world of duplicity.

Personally, I’ll watch anything with Nighy in it, his gangling deadpan generally improving everything it’s inserted into. But there are two other “watch anything they’re in” presences in Page Eight. Michael Gambon (not in it nearly long enough), “the Great Gambon” as Ralph Richardson called him, and Judy Davis, both of whom play Worricker’s superiors at whatever branch of the British intelligence services he works at. If Nighy is Michael Caine in The Ipcress File, think of Gambon and Davis in the Nigel Green and Guy Doleman roles, if that isn’t too oblique.

It is a great cast all the way through in fact. Rachel Weisz, Felicity Jones, Tom Hughes, Ralph Fiennes, Ewen Bremner.

Judy Davis
Judy Davis as Worricker’s boss



Corruption in high places is its motor, the telltale evidence first spotted by the eagle-eyed Johnny – far smarter than he ever lets on – on page eight of a top-secret document about the British government’s knowledge of the US’s use of extraordinary rendition and torture on black sites.

Writer/director David Hare’s abiding concern with the workings (or failings) of public institutions is to the fore, and this being shot in 2011, the financial meltdown of 2008 and the threat of homegrown terrorism are part of the socio-cultural tapestry. Johnny, though one of the “elite”, is one of the good guys. How quaint 2011 now seems.

Hare feeds other stories into this main one detailing how Johnny winkles out the truth about the British government’s enabling compliance in the rendition, and they’re all “Johnny’s relationship with X” in nature – Johnny’s relationship with his estranged artist daughter (Felicity Jones), with the Prime Minister (Fiennes), an alum of the same Oxbridge college, with his mysterious activist neighbour (Weisz), with his ex wife (Alice Krige), who is now married to his oldest chum and boss (Gambon). “We share a wife,” Johnny says drily at one point à propos a plot detail which suggests more than it delivers.

Worricker is the classic spy who cares too much and is so engrossed in his work that he can’t switch off. This leads to him constantly being accused by anyone he’s close to of being duplicitous when in fact it’s everyone else in his crazy mixed-up world who’s dealing from the bottom of the pack.

Some aspects of Hare’s plot now seem a touch politically naive, but in any case it’s not altogether clear what Hare thinks he’s making here – an angry political thriller or one of those cosy TV detective dramas like Inspector Morse, with Oxbridge locations, little antique shops set in picturesque towns with crooked streets, and featuring droves of top-notch character actors.

It’s not going to shock, in other words, and its final reveals, as the bad guy is revealed, are all too depressingly familiar. Some things flat-out don’t work, in particular Johnny’s relationship with his too-keen neighbour, which hits all sorts of bum notes, in spite of Rachel Weisz as the mysterious Nancy Pierpan, the 20 year age gap now looking a bit of a stretch in a post #MeToo world. But as an opener to two more Worricker films (Turks & Caicos and Salting the Battlefield, both from 2014), it’s an enjoyable and even relaxing whodunit. And who doesn’t want to watch Nighy in action?




Page Eight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Eragon

Edward Speelers in Eragon

 

 

Here be dragons. Dungeons and Dragons, to be more specific. Because that’s what this British Lord of the Rings knock-off most resembles. The 2000 film also heavily featured Jeremy Irons, who moved heaven and earth to save it but could not ultimately fight the sheer dead weight of the script and its deadly fantasy game holdovers. Something similar is going on here, with Irons once again mustering all his considerable charisma to try and float a sodden barque, a tale of a fine-limbed young farm lad (Edward Speelers) who has somehow sprung noble from the poor lumpen volk, his nice-boy accent setting him off against the ooh-aarghs of fellow proles and a token of his specialness. He finds a dragon’s egg – for what is “Eragon” if not “dragon” with a typo? – a discovery that sets him off on a journey. For he has been chosen to save his land etc and rid it of evil etc etc. Every Skywalkerish figure needs his Ben Kenobi. Enter Irons, working like a man might to save a drowning child. Enter also Rachel Weisz as the voice of the dragon (cajoling, caring, a tough-love mother). And enter John Malkovich in a have-cape-will-swish turn that’s also worth five of your minutes.

Based on the trilogy (yes, there are more – shudder) of fantasy novels by Christopher Paolini, Eragon feels like what it is – the regurgitated fantasy reading of a lively 15-year-old (which Paolini was when he started on the series) brought to life by a mercenary production that’s determined to cut any corner, and directed by a visual effects man (Stefen Fangmeier – a not inappropriate name) who seems better versed in the looks of TV than the big-budget movie. The singer Joss Stone turns up as a fortune teller, briefly. Not because she brings anything to the role, but because she brings another demographic to the film. And having done her job, she is dispensed with. If art is all about hiding the artifice, Eragon has a long and mythic quest in front of it. Not only can you see the actors acting and hear the script changing gears, you can see the marketing levers being pulled – and that’s really bad. But ultimately it’s the gulf between the film’s ambitions and its execution, its unwillingness to cut its jerkin according to its cloth that marks Eragon out as a dud. You can make a sword-and-sorcery film for nothing, but not like this one has been made. And with that, incanting up his wizard’s sleeve, your humble reviewer was gone.

 

 

Eragon – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Enemy at the Gates

Jude Law takes aim in Enemy at the Gates

 

 

Here’s a mixed bag of European war movie that is trying to be Saving Private Ryan in its impressive opening scenes, but looks as if it realises it doesn’t have the budget and so scales back the action to concentrate on two lone snipers. One German, one Russian. It’s set during the battle of Stalingrad, in which more than two million people died – yes, two million – and so the decision makes some logistical sense, even if it shortchanges the Russians and their epic level of sacrifice. The fact that it does that is what got the goat of a lot of historians masquerading as film critics, who suggested that the film mocks the memory of the fallen. But wars are won by many individual acts of selflessness, which is where Jude Law, playing a Russian peasant, and Ed Harris, as a German aristocrat called König, come in. Both are expert marksmen, the former learnt to shoot to protect his flocks from wolves, the latter hunting deer on his estate. So as each tries to get the other guy in his sights in the burnt out and bombed out buildings of a once great city, we have a good-guy-versus-bad-guy story (the Russians being, unusually for an English-speaking war film, the goodies), a story where the antagonism is class-based, and a further one, if we’re looking really hard, that’s survival versus fun, perhaps even nature versus nurture.

Do we need a love story too? Because on top of this fascinating mano a mano struggle director Annaud (who is producer, director and co-writer) straps a romance, presumably in the hope of turning Enemy at the Gates into a date movie. Enter Rachel Weisz as a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s madness who becomes the apex of a love triangle between our Vassili (Law) and Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) a party apparatchik who is turning reports on Vassili’s marksmanship into mood-bolstering propaganda. The answer to the “do we need a love story” question is no, of course, and it is to an extent the undoing of a film that is absolutely at its best when concentrating on the cat and mouse between slightly feral Vassili and König, his lordly nemesis.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Enemy at the Gates – at Amazon