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







Sexy Beast

Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast

 

 

 

A simple story from first-time feature director Jonathan Glazer – an advertising hotshot who directed the famous Guinness “surfing horses” advert . It’s all about a retired tealeaf (make sure your dictionary of rhyming slang is beside you) being forced into one last job back in Blighty (as Brits of a certain vintage mock-affectionately call the UK). And right from its opening moments, featuring a glistening Ray Winstone in ludicrous yellow trunks flat out beside a Spanish swimming pool, Sexy Beast feels like a slice of your actual quality. The film is deliciously short but the pacing is so luxuriously slow and self-confident that initial groans – Oh God, not more Brit gangsters – just die unvented. And as for the performances… well, Winstone is, as always, the daddy. But wait till you see Ben Kingsley as the psychotic henchman sent to frighten Winstone off the Costa Del Crime and back to London. Is it Kingsley’s character that’s off the scale, or just his performance? – no one can quite decide. Sexy Beast did well in the UK but even better in the US. Quite simply it makes other Britcrim contenders of the time look like boys sent to do a man’s job.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Sexy Beast – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

28 January 2013-01-28

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Holy Motors (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

From Leos Carax, who only seems to manage one feature film a decade, a unique and remarkable French film that only starts to make sense towards the end, after Kylie Minogue has sung us a song. Like Pola X, his last (in 1999), it’s a highly gothic, amphetamine rave of a movie, a mad mix of situationist vignettes following Denis Lavant (who surely should get some award for sheer physicality) as he works his way through a series of disguises, one of which involves being dressed as a mad tramp and kidnapping a model from a photo shoot (played by Eva Mendes). To explain what the plot is about is to ruin it. Just watch it.

Holy Motors – at Amazon

The Queen of Versailles (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

What luck. When a documentary maker starts out making Documentary A, only to find that they’re sitting on top of a much bigger story. Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (nice Jewish family turns out unexpectedly to be anything but) being a prime example. Something similar has happened to Lauren Greenfield. On the way to making a film about “the biggest house in America” – said building being a self-confident, unashamed avowal of success or a nouveau riche monstrosity, depending on your class loyalties – her subjects, timeshare magnate David Siegel and his blonde trophy wife Jaqueline run smack dang into the financial crisis that’s now enveloped us all. Greenfield keeps the camera rolling and, as private jets are swapped for trips on commercial airlines, and Jaqueline’s jaw hits the floor when the Hertz guy tells her the rental car doesn’t come with a driver, we’re fed a fresh portrait of these recessionary times that asks us to feel billionaire pain. Why this works is because it’s the whole financial mess the western world is in boiled down to one fascinating, frequently boggling story.

The Queen of Versailles – at Amazon

Looper (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Brick was high-school noir, now director Rian Johnson and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt bring us future noir, a walk through Philip K Dick territory in which Gordon-Levitt plays a heartless hitman offing guys from the future. Until his own future self (played by a soulful Bruce Willis) arrives on the scene. Seen in some quarters as “the 21st century’s The Matrix” – wasn’t that Inception? – Looper efficiently does what sci-fi movies about the future do. It seemingly explores the paradoxes of time travel but mostly it just fucks with our heads. Initially cool, increasingly chaotic, ultimately slightly disappointing, this is nevertheless a worthwhile dystopian sci-fi. The 21st century’s Blade Runner. How’s that?

Looper – at Amazon

 

Ashes (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Ray Winstone as a hardman with Alzheimer’s – that’s the USP of this unusual gangster thriller also starring Jim Sturgess as Winstone’s son, who busts him out of the clinic and takes him on a road trip for one last hurrah. The whole thing plays like a cross between Rain Man (the trip) and Unforgiven (is Winstone going to recover his mojo and strap the guns back on?). But Ashes has a few twists up its sleeve that certainly got me leaning forwards. Sure, Alzheimer’s as a subject isn’t exactly going to revive the fortunes of Blockbuster but it does allow Winstone to stretch a bit and co-star Jim Sturgess, so out of place as Anne Hathaway’s beau in One Day, is right on the money here too.

Ashes – at Amazon

 

5 Broken Cameras (New Wave, cert E, DVD)

The cameras of the title belong to a Palestinian peasant whose land was cut in two by the Israeli security barrier. We get to see just how they got broken – a bullet is lodged in one, which gives you some idea. A nifty hook on which to hang a documentary and surprisingly the picture it paints of the Israeli army isn’t such a bad one. It’s the Jewish guys in hats and ringlets settling the Palestinian territory who don’t come out of this so well.

5 Broken Cameras – at Amazon

 

Paranorman (Universal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Not to be confused with Frankenweenie, though there’s definitely some Tim Burton in Paranorman somewhere, here’s an animated kiddie-flick in the new Aardman style (CGI pretending to be claymation) about a boy who can see dead people. It takes a hell of a time to get going but then manages a good 40 minutes of fast Roald Dahl-style ghostly fun before heading for the icky ending someone in a suit decreed. If you’re really young, you’ll probably like it.

Paranorman – at Amazon

 

Keep the Lights On (Peccadillo, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

A decade in the relationship of a New York gay couple – from frenzied early coupling, through crack pipes and promiscuity to… well let’s not ruin the ending. It’s a part-autobiography by writer/director Ira Sachs, and like his Forty Shades of Blue it’s got a distinctive tone of voice, is fresh, non-clichéd and very real. Apparently Sachs is doing a film about elderly gay guys next, starring Michael Gambon and Alfred Molina. Should be interesting.

Keep the Lights On – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013