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







The Prestige

Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige

 

 

After Insomnia and Batman Begins, big Hollywood numbers taken on to show studio willing – or so it seemed – Christopher Nolan is back to being master of his own destiny, writing with his brother Jonathan and also producing this lavish smoke and mirrors cat-and-mouser. Clearly an attempt to “do another Memento”, it’s about a pair of Victorian magicians in a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” London, who once were bosom buddies but fell out after a trick went wrong and the wife of one of them died. And since that day they have gone on to different sorts of glory, but as deadly rivals, each trying to out-trick the other.

The title is explained early on, by Michael Caine, playing the Ingenieur, the backstage guy who devises and builds the magical apparatus for Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), the Prestige being the ta-daa bit of the trick when the lady is revealed as not being sawn in half at all. This has followed the Pledge (the lady is a lady) and the Turn (she is two halves of a lady), and, tricksy buggers that they are, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have a prestige of their own up their sleeves. But if you haven’t worked it out by about halfway through the film, a long, long, long way before the Nolans pull the rabbit out of the hat, then my name’s not Harry Houdini.

My gosh there are a lot of stars in this film. As well as Jackman as the more successful of the two magicians, there’s Christian Bale as his rival Alfred Borden, a more spit and sawdust character than the refined Angier, though with one devastating trick, The Transported Man, in his repertoire that baffles audiences and confounds Angier. There’s also Piper Perabo as the doomed wife, Scarlett Johansson, underused as the new lovely assistant. There’s Michael Caine, of course, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla – proving again that he simply can’t and shouldn’t act, though Bowie’s is just one of many terrible performances that populate this weary trudge of a film. In fact Caine is the only one to hold the attention, in a bit part so well played that you yearn for the film to be, in fact, about him.

That’s also because Caine gets to do the interesting stuff – explain how the tricks work. The backstage secrets. In front of the curtain, magic is about misdirection and wit, two missing ingredients in this film. Instead there’s plot, lots and lots of it. And baffling digression – for instance, Jackman’s visit to the scientist Tesla, considered to be a modern magician thanks to his myriad revolutionary patents and experiments with AC electricity. The Nolans also bang the narrative chronologically back and forth Memento-style, which muddies things even more, the suspicion creeping in about halfway through that what something this laden with “developments” should be is a TV mini-series. Not enough prestige, perhaps.

Most of all this murky-looking film lacks lightness of touch, legerdemain, as the French say. Magic, in other words.

 

The Prestige – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Her

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

22 August

 

Storm botnet maximum, 2007

Today marks the day when, in 2007, activity by the Storm Worm Trojan horse reached its maximum. Having been identified in January 2007, the worm spread via emails with catchy subject lines such as “230 dead as storm batters Europe”. Once the recipient had clicked on it, the Trojan horse would go to work, replicating itself and emailing itself out to others as spam. No one is really sure where the Trojan horse came from – some suggest the US, others Russia – but it was designed to work on Microsoft Windows systems, turning each infected one into a bot. The network of bots, once established, takes orders from servers whose domain names change frequently. These servers also frequently re-encode the worm, making detection difficult. This makes the botnet efficient at both attack and defence; it can “know” when it is being attacked by anti-virus investigators and can even deny them access to the internet, taking them out of the game. It is estimated that on 22 August 2007 this activity reached a maximum, with 57 million infected messages being sent out in a single day. The Storm botnet went into decline in late 2008, though it probably wasn’t as a result of Microsoft’s efforts to flush out the virus with security updates, more likely it was the result of tools like Stormfucker (a “white” or “ethical” worm), which effectively uses the Storm Worm’s own protocols to make it disinfect itself.

 

 

 

Her (2013, dir: Spike Jonze)

Having read an article about a web application called Cleverbot, which uses algorithms to have conversations with humans, Spike Jonze decided the idea would be ideal for a film. Her is that film, the story of a guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. And it with him, or so it seems. The guy is played by Joaquin Phoenix and the OS’s voice is provided by Scarlett Johansson. And it all starts so easily, Phoenix’s Theodore deciding to buy the “world’s first artificial intelligence operating system”, and at first being amazed as it/she starts sorting out his life, decluttering, adding entries to his diary, getting his life back on track. To make his life more efficient the OS starts asking questions about Theodore’s likes and dislikes, wishes and desires. The recently divorced single man (day job: writing emotional messages for other people’s significant “together” moments) and the OS start to get to know each other. Gradually, this turns into something more personal. In as much as he can, Jonze makes Her a traditional romance – the meet cute, the walks in the park, the mad sex, the first argument, the flaming row, the break-up. Some of this he has to finesse slightly and force into a box it doesn’t quite want to go into (it’s the walk in the walk in the park rather than the sex which sat ill with me) but you can’t deny that Jonze is doing it absolutely straight. This is no comedy, no freak show, but an exploration of a human relationship with a thing which isn’t human – though the extent to which it isn’t human (or is) is definitely territory that writer/director Jonze is all over.
What sort of a world would it be where such a relationship was possible? Jonze builds it convincingly – it looks hi-tech (much of it is Shanghai), the fashions are different (high waisted trousers seem to be in), realistic 3D video games are the sort of recreation a man comes home to after a day at the office. But for the most part it’s a world of recognisable humans and recognisable relationships – we have already seen Theodore having phone sex with someone called SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig, whose “choke me with a cat”, shouted in the throes of a well simulated orgasm, is worth a snort).
Talking of orgasms, the fact that Johansson replaced Samantha Morton as the voice of the OS – in post-production, Morton having done the whole film from inside a padded plywood box – might have something to do with ScarJo’s sexy rasp. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past Morton to be able to purr with the best of them – she can do most things – but Johansson is the perfect choice and the film marks out the beginning of her sudden moment as the go-to woman for sci-fi oddness – Under the Skin and Lucy were both just a moment away.
It’s a simple film, a romance, with a conceit that Jonze follows right through to the end, and there’s no point detailing all the plot – though there is even an attractive, real human girl next door (Amy Adams) who Theodore doesn’t take any notice of because he’s so infatuated with this unattainable woman/machine/thing. Watching Jonze play through these film clichés is actually the point of Her. Does an extended joke need to be two hours long? Absolutely not. There’s a better, punchier 90 minute film in here somewhere. But Jonze didn’t make that film, so let’s enjoy the one he did make.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another great everyman performance by Joaquin Phoenix
  • The peripheral casting (Kristen Wiig, Amy Adam, Olivia Wilde)
  • Scarlett Johansson’s note perfect performance
  • The cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Her – Watch it now at Amazon