Scarlett Johansson

Black Widow

23/07/21

Cineworld

After the apocalyptic smorgasbord of the Avengers trilogy, Marvel Studios seem to be struggling to find their proper niche in the cinema.

Black Widow has been a conspicuous victim of the lockdown, its release delayed by almost two years. Finally, here it is, gamely attempting to make its presence felt under the restrictions of a 12A certificate, where the excessive violence feels somehow at odds with what the filmmakers are actually allowed to show. This seems an ill-advised move. Cartoon violence is one thing, but Black Widow appears to have all the smashing, bashing and limb-breaking of a more realistic depiction without any of the consequences. Director Cate Shortland has to employ a lot of shakey-cam, so we don’t linger on injury detail. Protagonists emerge from bruising combat with a discreet smear of blood at the corner of the mouth. It’s unconvincing to say the least.

Maybe a 15 certificate would have been a better option?

The film is, by necessity, a prequel. It begins in 1995 in Ohio, where Russian super-soldier Alexie Shostakov (David Harbour) and his ‘wife,’ Melina (Rachel Weisz), are posing as a happy family, with their two ‘daughters,’ Natasha and Yelena in tow. But when evil forces close in on them, they are forced into running for their lives. Yelena winds up being a ‘widow,’ a genetically engineered soldier, for the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), while Natasha defects to the West. She grows up to be an Avenger and, of course, in time, Scarlett Johansson.

In 2016, Natasha finds herself on the run once again, this time from her American employers, and it isn’t long before she reconnects with her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh). After first attempting to beat the crap out of each other – as you do – they team up and go in search of their ‘parents.’ Alexie’s in a penitentiary and first needs to be sprung, while Melina is hard at work in a remote outpost teaching pigs to stop breathing (that’s not a misprint BTW). Subsequently, the family decide to team up in order to take down Dreykov and what has now become a massive army of widows, all of them turned into mindless servants by the liberal application of er… pheromones.

Much bloodless punching and kicking dutifully ensues – at times, this feels decidedly like Marvel’s take on the Jason Bourne movies, only with added Spandex – before everything culminates in one of those big action set-pieces which takes place aboard Draykov’s sky-station.

The screenwriters make a valiant effort to establish a feminist statement amongst all this Sturm und Drang, but the effect is horribly overdone, the proverbial sledgehammer/nut scenario played out at maximum volume with minimal coherence. While we should definitely be pleased that a mainstream superhero franchise is finally trying to get in step with female empowerment, it needs to be done in a less ham-fisted manner than this. Once again, here’s a clear case of what is essentially an animated comic strip getting ideas above its station.

Johansson and Pugh are both good in their roles – indeed the film’s best moments are rooted in their bickering, competitive sisterhood – while Harbour is assigned the role of comic relief, a blundering Russian oaf addicted to shots of vodka. Overweight and out of practice, he can still put up a decent fight when he needs to. Weisz seems criminally short-changed in her thankless role as mother/scientist/all-round ass-kicker.

Marvel aficionados will know to hang around for the inevitable post-credits sequence, but I feel so underwhelmed by Black Widow, I really can’t be bothered to wait. Another helping? No thanks, I’ll pass.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Jojo Rabbit

16/12/19

After the massive success of Thor Ragnarok, Taika Waititi could probably have directed any film he fancied. But he decided to stick with Jojo Rabbit, a long-cherished project, based on a novel by Christine Leunens and written for the screen by Waititi himself. Before Thor, no studio wanted to touch ‘a coming of age comedy featuring the Hitler youth,’ and it’s really not difficult to understand why. On paper, it sounds batshit crazy and on the screen, it looks… well, pretty deranged. But mostly in a good way.

Ten-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffith Davis) is doing his best to fit in with the other kids in the local Hitler youth, and he’s helped along by his imaginary friend, Adolf (Taika Waititi), for whom Johannes has an unquestioning adoration. But a bullying incident soon earns Johannes the titular nickname of Jojo Rabbit. Meanwhile, he tries to figure out what’s going on with his secretive mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who clearly tolerates her son belonging to an organisation she detests, while taking every opportunity to instill in him the kind of worldview that the Nazis would certainly not approve of. And then, a chance discovery up in the attic leads Johannes to Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl, whom Rosie has given refuge to. Should he inform his sympathetic troop leader, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell)? Or should he try to learn as much as he can about this mysterious creature whom he had been taught to believe is some kind of evil monster?

The film lurches audaciously between moments of slapstick humour and scenes of outright horror. Of course, this is all seen from a ten year old’s perspective, which accounts for the cartoonish feel of the film, but there’s sometimes the impression that characters are being brought on as added comic relief – Stephen Merchant’s chilling turn as a member of the Gestapo is a good case in point, great while he’s on, but then we barely see him again. Rebel Wilson, an actor whose popularity I struggle to understand, has a cameo role as Fräulein Rahm, occasionally dropping in to shout obscenities and burn books. Johanssen is delightful as Rosie, while Johannes’ interraction with his doleful best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) is one of the film’s strongest suits. I love too that Elsa is depicted not as a victim, but as a strong, resourceful survivor.

It’s also true that, in a world that is increasingly drifting to the right, Jojo Rabbit has an added prescience. Here, the antics of fascists are held up for ridicule. If only what’s happening in the real world right now were anything like as funny.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Marriage Story

09/12/19

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a tale of unravelling, of thwarted hope and bitter frustration. Here, divorce rewrites the past, reframing a loving relationship as a decade-long battle, impoverishing its players while enriching their lawyers. For the latter, the higher the stakes, the brighter the rewards; any sense of peace or perspective is lost to their big-dollar game.

Based on Baumbach’s own experiences during his 2013 split from actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, this semi-autobiographical movie is told mainly from theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver)’s point of view. His wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), has had enough. He’s cheated on her, and it’s the final straw. She gave up a promising LA film career and relocated to New York to be with him; her fame ensured publicity for his then-fledgling theatre company. Now he’s successful, fêted as the toast of the avant-garde, and he’s stopped paying attention to what she wants.

And what she wants now is a divorce.

Not only that, she’s also moving back to LA, where she’s been offered a part in a TV pilot. Charlie doesn’t rate TV, and he doesn’t think the project will go anywhere, so he doesn’t object when she takes their eight-year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), with her. But Nicole has no intention of returning – why would she? – and, when the pilot is given the green light, she employs a lawyer to help her wrangle the details.

Laura Dern plays Nora Fanshaw, a fancy LA divorce lawyer with a tendency to kick off her heels and over-sympathise, a vulture feigning friendship. She’s terrific in the role, all hard-as-nails faux-comforter and, along with the other lawyers in the piece (Ray Liotta and Alan Alda), provides much light relief in what is, at times, a harrowing story. Young Azhy Robertson is a delight too: his Henry is wonderfully truculent, never saying quite what his parents want him to, refusing to perform for either one of them, turning his deadpan eyes away.

But this is Adam Driver’s movie, really. Johansson performs well too, but we see more of Charlie, understand his grief better, and his failings too. He despises LA, and we share his sense of helplessness as he’s forced to semi-relocate there in order to be a dad, while his New York directing career begins to suffer his absence. Despite their privilege, he and Nicole are nearly broken by the process, their plain apartments in clear contrast with their lawyers’ glitzy offices and designer clothes.

It’s genuinely heartbreaking, but rather funny and lovely too. Catch it on Netflix now.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield