Black Widow

Here is my take on this long delayed film, I will try to explain why but I am not sure I can articulate it as clearly as I would want. Black Widow is an entertaining, mid-level MCU film. It left me unmoved by the events but I can live the action scenes and over all story. There is very little connecting it to the Avengers, except the presence of Natasha, Scarlett Johansson, and the fact that she is an Avenger. All of the other characters are new to us and although there is an attempt to develop character for all of them, some of it is a bit rushed.

For those of you dying to know, this takes place between “Civil War” and “Infinity War”. While hiding out after thwarting Secretary Ross’s attempt to arrest her, the Black Widow is lead by to her origins by a mysterious package that shows up in her effects. Several chase scenes and hand to hand combat sequences later, we get a clearer explanation of what is going on. The totality of the Budapest story that she and Clint made reference to back in “The Avengers”, is not revealed, but there is enough detail to understand why she has regrets and feels that there is so much “red” on her ledger. 

Maybe the reason I had difficulty connecting to this emotionally is that the secondary characters are all new. There is one, a fixer that Agent Romanoff has used before, who is treated as a longtime ally and associate. This is the first time in any of the films he has been referred to. He is not really given a backstory but the character is represented to us as one we should appreciate without knowing anything more, and that does not quite work for me. The movie starts with a flashback story to 1995 and we see a family coming together for dinner and suddenly taking flight from pursuing dark forces. Maybe the fact that we are being asked to sympathize with a Soviet Sleeper Cell, operating in Ohio, which is killing pursuing FBI agents, just does not sit well with me. This is a Post Cold War world, but those of us who lived through that war may have a hard time deleting the suspicions that we have. The character of the Red Guardian is slipped into this segment only vaguely, and when he returns to the story, we have to build another relationship.

The one new relationship that works well is that of Natasha to her supposed sister Yelena, played by Florence Pugh. The combat ready reunion was a bit much but it does establish the creds for this character as well as the other Black Widow zombies that the villain is creating. Pugh does great with her action sequences and is a believable female badass who can get the job done and stand toe to toe with Natasha. I enjoyed their banter a great deal, and they need more time together to make this the key relationship of the story. Unfortunately, there is a Mother Figure, Father Figure and villain who also need time with the main hero and that makes the plot points feel a little repetitive and it sucks up a lot of time. 

Look, I know this is a comic book movie, and maybe I’m overthinking it a bit, but it needs some explanation. How did this Soviet Era Program continue, go private, and remain hidden? How was it funded? There is technology here that the Avengers would be envious of, but there is no Tony Stark or Russian version of S.H.I.E.L.D. visible. It feels like a 1970s Bond film with a secret lair that would be impossible to keep a secret. Maybe that’s why the movie that gets interrupted on Natasha’s TV is “Moonraker”. It’s a subtle attempt to nudge us more toward the fantasy world that exists outside of the MCU and use that to justify some shortcuts.

Hawkeye and Black Widow are master assassins, and they took on a job twenty years prior to this story. How is it that they could botch up their mission so much as to leave their actual target alive, much less the collateral damage that goes along with it. There is no explanation of why that happened, even after we have witnessed an explosion that is immense and would have killed any other character in this universe, except for those from space. It feels like lazy writing. There are three screenwriters credited, one was at least partially responsible for Thor Ragnarok, but also episodes of WandaVision and Agent Carter. Maybe the styles just don’t mesh well or the fertilizer is showing and too much of what we are getting is set up for future projects. 

David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are able to play both young and older versions of themselves with only slight assistance from CGI. Harbour is doing comic riffs with a Russian accent and that is funny. The Prison escape is fun to look at but it does little to advance the plot, it was merely an obstacle that gives the two women a chance to run an elaborate action sequence and have some comic relief along the way. I like Ray Winstone as an actor but his part in this is underwritten and it consists almost entirely of monologuing with the heroine. 

I was happy to see the film finally open. I was thrilled to see that the theater was sold out and that people are going out to the movies. I was surprised by the number of people who have already forgotten that MCU films tend to have stingers at the end of the credits and lot of folks left before the last scene. I was just not blown away by the film. I will certainly see it again, but if you are looking for a ranking in the MCU, put this at the top of the bottom quarter of the films. I liked them all but let’s keep some perspective, they can’t all be the greatest thing since Ironman. 

Little Women (2019)

For forty years, I have gone to a movie on Christmas day with my family. Some of those choices were terrific ways to spend a family holiday, including “Galaxy Quest”, “Dream Girls”, and “The Greatest Showman”. Other choices were dismal failures that we had hoped would be good but were in fact sad failures; “Toys” and “First Family” being the biggest let downs. Occasionally we made a left field choice, a film we wanted to see but was not exactly holiday fare, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Hateful Eight” come to mind, not exactly heartwarming.

In 1994, our first year in the new house, I took my seven and five year old daughters to see “Little Women” starring Winnona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. It was a very fond memory and it stood as a pretty definitive version of the film as far as I was concerned. I was not particularly excited about this new version, even when I knew that it would feature Saoise Ronan and be directed by Greta Gerwig. Although I admired their previous collaboration, “Lady Bird”, I was not blown away by it the way so many others were. I saw a few flaws and it probably did not quite resonate with me because of my age and gender. Well none of that effected me with this adaption of the Louisa May Alcott novel, this is a luminous telling of the story that is flawlessly performed, very well written, and may be the most beautiful film you see this year.

I must shamefully acknowledge that I have never read the original novel, in spite of the fact that my wife identified it as her favorite book when she was younger.  As a consequence of this oversight I can’t say for certain how faithful to the book the story is, but it certainly feels authentic. The one minor criticism I have of the screenplay and direction is the non-linear approach to the material. It is structured as a series of scenes, some of which flash back seven years and some which are contemporary to the setting after the Civil War. The ages of the actresses in the main roles are such that they can pass for teens or twenties , but we don’t always know which period we are in. A haircut helps in a couple of places, but a few times it took several moments for me to be able to contextualize what was happening on the screen at that moment.

The strongest addition to the film as told by Gerwig, the screenwriter as well as director, is the detail in the lives of two of the sisters who were often overlooked in earlier versions. Actress Florence Pugh infuses Amy March with more personality than any of the other versions, and the script shows her at both her worst and best. She is loathsome as a vindictive little sister who takes revenge on her sisters creative efforts but she is noble when it comes to choosing a husband and redeeming a character she has herself condemned. Emma Watson as Meg March also makes what is often a cardboard role into an important part of the narrative. Eliza Scanlen is heartbreaking as the sister with the darkest story resolution, but regardless of those characters, it is still a story about Jo. Saoise Ronan is front and center even when she is not on screen. Her frustrating petulance is matched by the frustrating limitations placed on a young woman of the time. You can choose to see this as a feminist screed but that is a mistake, this is a pretty accurate portrayal of a woman’s life in the mid 19th century of the U.S. Ronan manages to be fierce so often that it is a shock when she is so effective as pitiful and desperate in a confessional moment with her on-screen mother played by Laura Dern.

Some attention to the technical production should also be made. The set design is realistic and detailed. The selection of locations feels authentic and the world that the women occupy, even in a place that is hard to replicate like New York in 1865, is convincing. The number of extras in a scene, the mix of roads that are paved and unpaved and the signage on the stores will pass very critical inspection.

There are a variety of supporting players, such as Chris Cooper (my second film of his within a week) and Meryl Streep. Timothée Chalamet as Laurie was presented in the least sympathetic way I have seen in the four screen adaptions I will have on the podcast, but he does have a nicely executed scene of personal despair when he is rejected by Jo as husband material.

Maybe the one other criticism I have of the screenplay is the way the resolution is presented as a hypothetical writer’s plot device rather than an authentic romantic climax. It plays out on the screen nicely, but it does seem to be tampering with the story for modern reasons rather than fidelity to the work. (Again, that may be inaccurate since I have not read the book).

“Little Women comes at the end of the year for the usual reason, it is a prestige picture that is hoping fpr awards attention to enhance it’s potential box office and audience response. This is a strategy that should work. The theater was packed, there was a smattering of applause at the end, but more than that, I think I will be with the majority of critics who see this as one of the best films of 2019.