Movie Review ~ Black Widow

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha Romanoff must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O.T. Fagbenle, Rachel Weisz, William Hurt, Ray Winstone

Director: Cate Shortland

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  In the year we’ve had to wait since Black Widow was supposed to debut, I’ve occasionally caught wind of a think piece or two (oh, how I love a think piece by another wise Marvel fan or general fuddy duddy) that has blasted the movie for being “too little, too late”.  Too little, too late for what?  We live in a world where we make full billion-dollar trilogies that later serve as prequels to sequels that are themselves sequels to their own prequels.  I think we can allow a superhero or two to come back from the dead so they can tell their origin story.  If I have to sit through countless tales of how Batman got his cowl and Superman got his cape, I believe I’ve earned the right to know how Black Widow developed her love of changing up her hairstyles.

At times, over the years that Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story) has played Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, I will find myself wondering what the character and even the whole Avengers make-up would have been like had Emily Blunt stayed with the role as originally cast.  Hilariously, it was Blunt’s commitment to the far over-schedule 2009 Jack Black ‘classic’ Gulliver’s Travels which led to her stepping down from the part when it was introduced in Iron Man 2, paving the way for Johansson to take it on. The rest is history and now Johansson is set for life with all the residuals she’ll receive for her efforts.  Part of that deal was, I’m sure, this stand-alone film that was never quite the priority until now and I’m actually glad it came out when it did.  Now, Black Widow isn’t just seen as a filler film while audiences wait for the next Avengers adventure, and it doesn’t have to be a connector (at least a major one) to anything currently cooking in the Marvel Universe.

Right off the bat audiences are going to be able to tell that director Cate Shortland and screenwriters Jac Schaeffer, Eric Pearson, & Ned Benson don’t have a traditional Marvel movie in mind.  Far more along the lines of a James Bond-ian espionage thriller for the majority of its running length, the Marvel-ness of it all doesn’t truly come into play until the final act when we get a major dose of the heroism that has come to define this franchise up through today.  That accomplishes two things in my book.  There’s a little something thrown in for those fans who miss their Marvel friends and have been waiting for more high stakes action (though The Falcon and The Winter Soldier on Disney+ had a fair amount of it) and it gives Johansson a stand-alone film that has a style all its own.  A superlative plus is the addition of two (or two and a half possibly) new characters that amp up the fun.

An opening prologue introduces us to young Natasha and her “sister” Yelena as well as her “parents” Alexei (David Harbour, Hellboy) and Melina (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) while they are posing as an American family in the mid ‘90s.  After their mission goes south, the group is separated and it’s only after the events of Captain America: Civil War twenty years later when Natasha is a fugitive from the government that she is put on a collision course with her past.  Reuniting with the now-grown Yelena (an fantastic and energetic Florence Pugh, Little Women), another in a long line of Black Widows, the two have some old business to work through first and their physical and verbal sparring is one of the first highlights Shortland capitalizes on.  Showing Natasha and Yelena as immovable forces pursuing each other, the interplay between the two is captured with a fresh style and played to the hilt by both actresses. 

Eventually breaking out Alexei from a maximum-security prison (another gigantic and impressive sequence), the two Black Widows now have an aging former father figure to deal with, one that served as Russia’s version of Captain America: the Red Guardian.  Though offing mugging to the extreme back of the theater, Harbour has a good time with this role and when he’s not trying to fit into his old suit, he’s finding some nice ways to connect with Pugh to quash a few fake-father/fake-daughter issues.  This all leads to finding mom who may just have the key to how a vengeful assassin (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace) has been tracking them down and also how to save numerous Black Widows out in the field from a maniacal villain (Ray Winstone, Cats) that is controlling their every move.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to watch the film and not have that one scene in the Avengers: Endgame (you know the scene) in the forefront your mind. Yet it doesn’t render this movie pointless nor even gives it a feeling of remoteness in relation to the action that’s taking place in front of you.  Black Widow is exactly what it sets out to be, a summer blockbuster stand-alone utilizing an existing character from a proven franchise.  The popular character has been given a breakneck outing that has its own style that separates it from others, but still has enough of the Avengers DNA (and that welcome final credit scene…stay for it) to link it to what has come before.

The Silver Bullet ~ Black Widow (2020)

Synopsis: A prequel featuring Natasha Romanoff set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.

Release Date:  May 1, 2020

Thoughts: If you have yet to see Avengers: Endgame, I’m going to drop a spoiler so you may want to just watch the new trailer for Black Widow after reading my thoughts in a nutshell: this looks fun, it’s about time, what took so long?

If you’re still with me, you’re aware that Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit) sacrificed herself for the lives of her friends in Avengers: Endgame and could be wondering why she’s starring in her own movie.  Well, this long overdue movie focusing on her popular character is taken from an earlier adventure during less dire circumstances.  Fans have been wanting this movie for a while and it’s too bad we had to wait until Natasha was snuffed out to get a stand-alone film but perhaps the wait could be worth it.  Boasting fun names like Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), David Harbour (Hellboy), and rising star Florence Pugh (Midsommar), I’m hoping this is more than a tired superhero one-off.

Movie Review ~ The Hustle

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two female scam artists, one low rent and the other high class, team up to take down the dirty rotten men who have wronged them.

Stars: Rebel Wilson, Anne Hathaway, Alex Sharp, Ingrid Oliver

Director: Chris Addison

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Just a few short months ago I was praising actress Rebel Wilson for her starring role in the February rom-com Isn’t it Romantic, remarking that I was glad she seemed to be less reliant on her usual fallback shtick to get laughs. The respite from this broad comedy was brief, though, because The Hustle has arrived on the scene as a stealth counter-programming move to the unstoppable blockbuster Avengers: Endgame and it finds Wilson back in well-worn territory that doesn’t do anything to convince her naysayers she’s capable of surprising viewers.

That’s too bad, too, because there was real potential for The Hustle to be more than it winds up being. A more faithful remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which itself was a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story) than I originally thought it was going to be, it gives Wilson her best co-star to date in Oscar winner Anne Hathaway but doesn’t seem to really know what to do with either lady. Therefore, it winds up being a modestly entertaining time waster providing some gentle chuckles (and one riotously funny sequence) but it’s mostly content to sneak away with your summer money…much like the two female thieves at its center.

After a frothy animated title scene (side note: boy, do I miss a nice credit sequence in movies) we meet up with Penny (Wilson, Pitch Perfect 3) as she’s sidling up to catfish a man (Timothy Simons, The Boss) in a bar. Penny wants people to like her for who she is on the inside not the outside…but she’s going about it in all the wrong ways. Luring the man to the bar using a picture of a different girl, she waits until he proves himself to only care about looks before justifying swindling him out of cash.  This scene is totally unnecessary to the overall plot of the film and seems to only be in there for a visual gag that’s already been selfishly spoiled (as many, many, many of the jokes have) in the trailer.

The movie starts to show some life when Penny meets Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises) on a train to Beaumont-Sur-Mer on the French Riviera. Amused after observing Penny’s efforts in conning an easy mark, Josephine comes to realize Penny might be more competition than she original thought and decides to take her under her wing. After some brief training passages involving physical comedy at the expense of Wilson’s nether-regions and a nice reimagining of a memorable scene from the 1988 film, Penny has graduated and is ready for the big time cons.  Together, the two women grift rich unsuspecting men until one guy (Alex Sharp, How to Talk to Girls at Parties) comes between them and the stakes are raised even higher when love comes into the mix.

By far, the funniest sequence in the film has Wilson posing as a blind innocent hoping to get money for an experimental therapy…only to have Hathaway show up as the German therapist Wilson created as part of her scheme. Watching Hathaway “test” the extent of Wilson’s blindness and try to cure her had me absolutely crying with laughter. Perhaps it was just the mood I was in or the fact that the rest of the film was so weary in its doling out of genuinely funny moments, but this section of the movie alone is enough for me to give it a recommendation.

With Oceans 8 and now this, Hathaway seems to be trying to politely shed the twee persona that became so aggravating around her Les Misérables days, anxiously sinking her teeth into another unapologetic man-eater role. She takes on a befuddling basso profundo Brit accent as Josephine and I couldn’t quite tell if she was actively trying to be bad or if director Chris Addison didn’t have the heart to tell her it stunk.  Thankfully, she gets into her groove right around the time she takes on the German therapist persona and rides that nicely for the rest of the feature. As I mentioned before, she’s matched nicely with Wilson and they seem to get along swimmingly – you get the impression the scenes were cut off right before the actresses burst into laughter.

When the film sticks to the skeleton of its predecessor it really hums and that’s a testament to how well Dale Launer’s script has held up over the last three decades. There’s a few amusing references to the earlier film that fans will likely catch and I liked that there were times I couldn’t tell if this was a remake or a sequel – I half expected original stars Steven Martin or Michael Caine to make an appearance at some point. Yet with too much reliance on Wilson’s same-old comedic foibles and despite the best attempt by Hathaway to drag her co-star away from the obvious jokes, it can’t make an assertive enough play to be remembered as a lesser-than remake of a more joyous film. Still – I’d be totally lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself more than I thought I would for the majority of the 90 or so odd minutes the film occupied my consciousness.

Oh…and stay until the very end of the film. There’s a post-credit scene that’s decently long with one very good joke in it.