Movie reviews: 'Black Widow' succumbs to overkill, noise and frenetic action scenes
BLACK WIDOW: 3 STARS
If you were to make a Venn diagram of “Black Widow,” now on Disney+ with premium access, and the recent animated film “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” you’d be surprised by the overlap. Both movies are about estranged families coming together and siblings finding a path forward after years of bitter feelings. One is much louder than the other, but underneath it all they are both all about family.
“I chose to go west and become an Avenger,” Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) says. “They treated me like family.”
The story begins with a flashback.
It’s 1995 and sisters Natasha (played as a child by Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) are separated from their Soviet sleeper cell family in Ohio. Removed from their undercover agent parents, scientist mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) and super-soldier father Alexei (David Harbour), they are placed under the supervision of evil Soviet General Dreykov (Ray Winston) in a training camp called the Red Room where they are brainwashed and taught the deadly ways of the Widows.
Jump forward 21 years to the gap between the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and “Infinity War.” Natasha (Johansson) is cut loose from her Avengers pals after breaking the Sokovia Accords. The superhero clan have gotten "divorced," and Natasha is hiding out in Norway. When she is attacked by Dreykov’s bodyguard, the mysterious Taskmaster, she reunites with her estranged “family” to take on the Russian general.
“Black Widow,” the first Marvel Cinematic Universe solo outing for Johansson’s character, has spent a year bouncing around the pandemic release schedule and brings with it high expectations from fans.
Directed by Cate Shortland, Romanoff’s convoluted backstory is handled in a fairly straightforward way, part Marvel, part “The Americans.” The movie does offer up a fair amount of fan service but still provides eye-scorching action and basic, relatable themes of the importance of family and responsibility for the casual viewer.
Despite the wild CGI action and Jason Bourne style one-on-one combat, the film feels more grounded than most other Marvel movies. Perhaps it’s because Natasha and Yelena (Florence Pugh) don’t have super powers (although they are VERY resilient) or perhaps it’s because the story details the dysfunctional, tragic past that put Natasha on the road to becoming an assassin or maybe it’s because the villain Dreykov barely makes an impression, but the usual stakes—saving the world—take a backseat to more personal concerns.
“Black Widow” is a swansong for Natasha. The character jumped off a cliff in “Avengers: Endgame,” sacrificing herself so her superhero buddies could acquire the Soul Stone and help defeat genocidal warlord Thanos. Johansson sends her off with a suitably steely yet vulnerable performance, and when she isn’t running, jumping, punching or shooting, she brings some real humanity to the quieter scenes.
Pugh and Harbour bring some much-welcomed levity, the former as the eye-rolling sarcastic younger sister, the latter as the insecure wannabe super soldier who is just a bit too concerned about his legacy. Their bickering and subtle character touches help add life to the family vibe so important to the story the movie is trying to tell.
Like so many of the Marvel films, near the end “Black Widow” succumbs to overkill, noise and frenetic CGI action scenes. The family is united, à la “The Boss Baby,” but the onscreen fireworks overwhelm the compelling family story that lies at the heart of Natasha’s journey.
NO SUDDEN MOVE: 3 ½ STARS
“No Sudden Move,” a new Steven Soderbergh film starring Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro and now playing on Crave, is a film noir that gets lost in its knotty plot, but is kept on track by a top-notch cast.
Set in 1954 Detroit, the action begins with Jones, a shady character played by Brendan Fraser, recruiting three low level criminals, Curt (Cheadle), Ronald (del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin), for a job that pays too much to be as easy as he says it will be. They all agree, just so long as someone named Frank (Ray Liotta) won’t be involved.
Their job is to invade General Motors accountant Matt Wertz’s (David Harbour) home, keep his family quiet for an hour while he retrieves a document from his boss’s safe.
Sounds simple, but this is Detroit in 1954. Industrial espionage between the Big Three car companies is a dangerous game, and, of course, Frank is involved. “Everybody has a problem with Frank these days.”
As things spin out of control, greed kicks in and the fast cash the small-time criminals hoped to make causes big time problems.
Soderbergh immerses his characters and the viewer in a world that where secrets propel the action. No one is who they seem and motives are even murkier. It makes for a twisty-turny story that is part crime story, part social history of the spark that ignited the slow decline of Detroit.
To add to the disorientation, Soderbergh shoots the action through a fish eye lens that blurs the edges of the screen, mimicking the script’s moral fog.
“No Sudden Move” almost bites off more than it can chew. It’s occasionally clunky, with too many double-crosses and characters vying for screen time, but the star-studded cast cuts through the script’s noise with ease. The result is a caper that flier by, buoyed by surprises (including a big-name uncredited cameo), snappy dialogue and a great debt to Elmore Leonard.
FEAR STREET PART 2: 1978: 3 ½ STARS
“The Summer of Fear” continues on Netflix with the release of “Fear Street Part 2: 1978,” the second part of their R.L. “Goosebumps” Stine trilogy about the cursed town of Shadyside, where terrible things have been happening for three hundred years.
Moving backwards in time sixteen years from the first installment, this movie takes place in 1978. Against a classic slasher movie backdrop, a local sleep-away on a lake called Camp Nightwing, a group of teens, half from the Richie-rich town of Sunnyvale, the others from the possibly possessed Shadyside, get ready for a summer of swimming, campfires, secret hook-ups and… murder. As Ziggy Berman (“Stranger Things” Sadie Sink) says, “bad things always happen to Shadysiders.”
Cue the gallons of blood, masked killer, a pentagram and more clues as to why some Shadysiders just can’t stop killing people. With axes.
In real life, 1978 was a pretty good year for horror movies. “Halloween,” “Stranger in Our House” and “Dawn of the Dead” all dropped that year, and all feel like they are paid homage to by director Leigh Janiak. “Friday the 13th” also looms large over “Part 2,” both in vibe and look.
Janiak is faithful to the tropes of vintage slasher films, and despite the young adult label that comes with Stine’s work, it doesn’t spare the blood, allusions to sex, the language or the scares. Characters we care about are offed with mighty swings of an axe, blood squirts and the teens react how teens would react, by using language that may make mom and dad blush.
“Fear Street Part 2: 1978” may look in the rear view mirror for inspiration but what is innovative is the way it links with the other two movies, connecting the narrative over the course of the trilogy. They aren’t sequels to one another, but one Shady-verse, bound by a certain set of rules, some of the same characters and lots and lots of gore.
“Fear Street Part 2: 1978” is rated R for obvious reasons, but the rating feels necessary and authentic to the genre. What feels less necessary are scenes of exposition and a drawn-out storyline between Ziggy and sister Cindy (Emily Rudd), but when the rest works so well, these are quibbles.
LIFT LIKE A GIRL: 4 STARS
“Pumping Iron,” the film that helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name, probably has more scenes of weightlifting than the new sports documentary “Lift Like a Girl,” now streaming as part of the Impact Series, but it doesn’t have the heart.
Director Mayye Zayed spent four years shooting this fly-on-the-wall documentary. It’s about weightlifting, but like all good sports movies, the sport isn’t the entire point. This is the story of the complex relationship between a coach and an athlete.
Captain Ramadan is the coach. A legend in Alexandria, Egypt he’s trained the country’s most famous weightlifters, his daughter Nahla Ramadan and Abeer Abdel Rahman, the first Arab woman to win two Olympic medals. We meet his latest protégé, Zebiba, when she is a determined fourteen-year-old, hoping to one day add her name to the list of Captain’s famous students. The film follows years of their relationship, as Captain pushes Zebiba to be the best and strongest, physically and mentally, she can be.
"Prioritizing boys is outdated," the Captain says. “Girls need to be as strong as a bull.”
“Lift Like a Girl” places the bond between athlete and trainer front and center. It is a push-and-pull relationship, intricate, often volatile, but always rooted in encouragement and tough love.
This is real life, not a Hollywood version of events, so Zebiba’s journey isn’t always an easy one. Wins and losses, physical and mental issues are present in equal measures to the against-all-odds inspiration provided by the story.
“Lift Like a Girl” is a sports documentary but Zayed deepens the story by weaving numerous threads throughout. Competition is there, but it happens against the backdrop of a changing Egypt and messages about the importance of mentors. Like the people it documents, it is dynamic and scrappy, but still wears its heart on its pumped-up sleeve.