Amsterdam(10/10/2022)

On December 3rd 2013 it was announced that the New York Film Critic’s Circle has selected as their best movie of that year the new David O. Russell film American Hustle.  That film had skipped the festival circuit and its review embargo had not lifted at the time of the Circle’s vote, so that award win was something of an announcement of what was going to be a major award contender that year.  It then proceeded to get a great deal of praise, earned over $150 million at the box office, and garnered ten Academy Award nominations.  But then something seemed to just “snap” in the culture.  Something of a backlash seemed to emerge around the movie, not over any particular element or controversy, but some people just really didn’t like it or at least didn’t like it as much as they expected from a ten time Oscar nominee that some people were holding up as the year’s best in a fairly stacked year.  It ended up losing every single one of those Oscars and, seemingly embarrassed for having over praised American Hustle, critics seems almost unreasonably hard on his flawed follow-up Joy as almost a make-up call.  And now, seven years later, that distaste of Russell seems to have curdled if anything as they have been similarly ruthless toward his belated next film Amsterdam, which is appearing to be on track to be a fairly substantial box office failure as well.  Does it deserve such infamy, I don’t think so, but it does have definite issues which need to be parsed.

The film is set in New York in 1933 and follows three rather unique people: a doctor named Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) who works at a clinic for the poor, a lawyer named Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) who does a lot of work with Berendsen to similar ends, and a wealthy artist named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) who because of some ailment lives with her brother Tom Voze (Rami Malek) and his rather hostile wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy).  These three people met during the First World War, after the three remained in Europe and lived a Design for Living-esque life in Amsterdam for a couple of years before eventually parting ways.  Berendsen and Woodsman are working together again in New York and are hired by a woman named Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift) to investigate the mysterious death of her father Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), a general that the two had known and respected during their military service.  They do find evidence of foul play but Elizabeth is then murdered by what appears to be a hired thug (Timothy Olyphant) and the two become suspects in said murder.  To clear their names they have to follow down the mystery, which will lead them to reunite with Voze and uncover a conspiracy that targeted Meekins and may also come to target another general and veterans rights activist named Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro).

You can probably tell from that summery that this movie has a lot of characters, almost all of them played by pretty major celebrities.  I didn’t even get around to bringing up the characters played by Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Zoe Saldaña, Andrea Riseborough, or Matthias Schoenaerts.  The film needs to take time to introduce all these people and give them their “thing” and in general some of them are more distracting than others.  Very late in the movie it suggests that all these characters are important because they represent some sort of tapestry of life but functionally it kind of just makes the whole movie feel very, very, busy.  Structurally American Hustle is the movie Russell seems to be trying to recapture as both films take these not very well known footnotes in history and try to turn them into shaggy dog stories that border on screwball comedy.  Both movies start with non-committal tag “Some of this actually happened” but I feel like even more liberties were taken with this one.

The real even at play here is the so called “Business Plot” of 1933, an alleged coup plot against Roosevelt plotted by wealthy industrialists that was exposed by Marines General Smedley Butler (the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character) at a congressional hearing.  Congress took this seriously, but the media largely viewed it as a hoax and it was much too tangled to lead to criminal charges for anyone.  Today historians are not quite sure what to make of the whole thing, some think it was a very serious threat, others suspect it was just some cocktail chatter that got way out of hand.  Of course all of this seems to be of much more serious relevance given the January 6th coup attempt that we all witnessed less than two years ago, and while that relevance could have been a boon for this movie I think it may have actually been more of a liability as it may have reduced people’s appetites to see all of this play out as a background element to three wholly fictional weirdos bumbling around and slipping on banana peels for two hours.

The movie’s appeal or lack thereof is a little hard to sum up.  It’s certainly not a completely unenjoyable movie; I was basically never bored watching it.  The thing is the movie is just a very odd stew with far too many ingredients.  They seem to have financed this thing by getting as many celebrities on board as possible, each working for only a week or two, meaning they need to invent a character for each of them and also give each of them a big weird personality.  Some of these characters are enjoyable to be around.  I certainly liked most scenes featuring Robert De Niro and Margot Robbie is pretty strong throughout.  But then there are other people here like Rami Malek who are capital-A annoying, and the movie kind of goes off the rails whenever they show up.  Christian Bale is also going way too big and overall the movie is pretty much never as funny as it seems to think it is or as it should be.  Right up until the end I was still kind of on the movie’s side but then at a certain point I needed this thing to get to the point and it pretty much never gets there.  Russell clearly thinks the true story that inspired this is interesting, but he buries it in so many fictional characters that it’s hard to really learn much about it from the movie with any certainty and the film’s interest in the racism of the time is not terribly insightful and at times seems downright flippant.  Maybe this is how American Hustle felt to that movie’s detractors.  Despite all that, and acknowledging that the movie doesn’t entirely work I do still find myself defending it on some level.  There are much worse movies than this which get much easier passes than this one has gotten.  That said, David O. Russell is way overdue for a re-invention and I hope he comes with fresher ideas for the next one.
**1/2 out of Five

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Thor: Love and Thunder(7/7/2022)

As sequel-crazed as Marvel has been, one thing you have to hand to them is that until now they’ve been pretty steadfast about limiting any one superhero to having no more than three solo movies.  Iron Man was super-popular but his trilogy ended way back in 2013 and while Robert Downey Jr. still showed up in all sorts of other MCU movies that was indeed the last dedicated Iron Man film.  But their stance about that clearly seems to have changed because Thor has, surprisingly, become the first of these characters to land a fourth installment, which is likely the result of a lot of factors.  For one, Thor is sort of the last of the original Avengers left standing.  I suppose The Incredible Hulk and Hawkeye are still around, but both were determined to be side characters unworthy of their own movies a long time ago.  Secondly, Chris Hemsworth has only had sporadic success outside of the world of Marvel and may be more willing to keep the checks coming than some of his former co-stars.  But I think the biggest factor is that director Taika Waititi kind of reinvented the Thor series with the character’s third film, the well-received Thor: Ragnarok, and Marvel likely felt that cutting off this new creative golden goose after one movie for arbitrary reasons would be foolish.  So Thor has returned for a Waititi helmed fourth installment: Thor: Love and Thunder.

The film picks up some weeks or months after the events of Avengers: Endgame and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been traveling the universe going on adventures with The Guardians of the Galaxy (who, despite their heavy presence in the film’s advertising, are only in it for all of five minutes).  For mostly arbitrary reasons it’s decided by his companions that it’s time for them to part ways and Thor goes following a distress beacon sent by his friend Sif (Jaimie Alexander), who warns him that a malevolent being called Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) has been murdering “Gods” with a magic sword called the Necrosword and may be coming for Asgard next.  As such, Thor teleports back to New Asgard where he finds that his former flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has somehow picked up his newly repaired Hammer and has herself become a thunder god.  Unbeknownst to him, this is because she has been afflicted with cancer and hoped the hammer would heal this and it’s not entirely clear if it is.  This reunion is less than peaceful, however, as he bumps into her in the middle of an attack by Gorr in which he kidnaps several Asgardian children and teleports him to a distant realm.  To deal with this Thor, Foster, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Korg (Taika Waititi) must devise a plan to save them.

I should say upfront that I was not expecting greatness from Thor: Love and Thunder.  Unlike the last couple of MCU movies (Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), which seemed to promise some new revelation or development in the whole MCU experiment to be revealed, this one really just advertised itself as providing something of a romp in the style of Thor: Ragnarok.  That, to me, is not a good thing.  I generally found Thor: Ragnarok’s comedic tone obnoxious, a little bit of Taika Waititi goes a long way.  Ultimately that movie was able to strike a decent enough balance between that and more conventional MCU drama and ended up just on the right side of annoying and I liked the movie overall, but it wasn’t an approach I wanted much more of out of the MCU.  Sure enough this sequel takes that style and turns the irreverence up even more, which is not what I want but even if it was I don’t think I would be satisfied by what the movie is doing because the movie is shockingly unfunny.  Don’t get me wrong there is some stuff here I’d legitimately consider clever and witty in that Taika Waititi way but it didn’t make me laugh much and surprisingly I wasn’t alone in that.  The nearly sold out opening day Marvel audience I saw the movie with, who would normally be happy to lap this stuff up, was not really audibly laughing much in the screening even at pretty obvious attempts at humor.

Oddly enough the film’s strongest element is the thing in it that’s not very comedic at all: its villain Gorr the God Butcher.  Christian Bale plays Gorr as this lanky gray man covered in strange scars and sharp teeth like a sort of cross between “God of War’s” Kratos and Gollum from Lord of the Rings.  Bale feels pretty dedicated to the role but the character also kind of feels like something out of a different movie and the movie rather botches the stakes of his evil plan.  We’re told that he’s on a quest to kill off the various Marvel versions of the mythological gods but outside of the Asgardians the MCU has not really set up what role these “gods” play in the universe.  My understanding had previously been that the Asgardians were not true gods and were in fact just advanced aliens who early humans mistook for gods, but this movie really seems to think every culture’s deities are like that and what makes them distinct from regular powerful aliens and how they continue to interact with “their people.”  Beyond that the movie’s just too busy horsing around to really explore the extent to which Gorr’s vengeance quest may be justified, and if the film really had balls it might have tried to tie that in with the Jane Foster character’s situation and whether or not “the” god was failing her in her time of need.

Really the movie has tonal inconsistencies throughout.  It feels like it was written to be a much more straightforward MCU movie and then Waititi came in after the fact feeling obligated to wedge his comedy into it whether that was appropriate for the story of not and there are pretty big swings between irreverence and themes that are actually quite dark.  When handled with care this sort of “laughing so that you don’t cry” sort of thing can work but I don’t think that’s really done correctly here at all.  Even beyond that the movie has plenty of problems unto itself.  The Guardians of the Galaxy are totally wasted in their brief appearance at the beginning of the film for example.  I also don’t think that the film’s trip to the land of the gods, complete with an extended bit with Russell Crowe playing a Marvel version of Zeus with a ludicrous Greek accent, kind of went nowhere.  There are some striking moments that stand out like an extended fight scene in black and white but whatever stakes would have been in place for that scene have been so undercut by the film’s general goofiness by that point that it feels like a waste.  The whole movie kind of feels like a waste really.  If it had managed to capture that balance that Thor: Ragnarok managed it could have been pretty fun but I think Waititi got a little high on his own supply and got it into his head that he could just wisecrack his way into everyone’s good graces but maybe he should have put more thought into it.  There is enough here to keep it from being a disaster and there have certainly been worse Marvel films but this isn’t the revitalization they needed.
**1/2 out of Five

Elvis(6/25/2022)

Accounts of musicians often barter in rather exaggerated claims that whatever band or artist they’re covering “changed the world” with their music and usually that’s just hype but I think there could be an argument to be made that Elvis Presley really did shift the culture in a pretty big way and that his life really “means something” about his era and his country.  He’s also someone who’s become something of a lightning rod for controversy as the poster boy for the appropriation of black music by white musicians.  It’s been over thirty years since Chuck D said “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me” in his song “Fight the Power.”  Between that and memories of him as an overweight drug addict in his later years meant that in the eyes of my generation he was hardly “the king” of anything and in many ways he was kind of a joke.  But to the old people he seemed to still matter a whole lot.  Personally, I always thought a lot of the cultural appropriation accusations had some truth to them but were also kind of hating the player instead of the game.  On the other other hand, Elvis’ actual music never really did a whole lot for me.  He had some good tunes, but I certainly never went through an “Elvis phase” like I went through a “Beatles phase” and a “Dylan phase” I don’t think I’m alone in that.  By and large he mostly struck me as a historical curiosity.  But his power as an icon does still matter and that’s why you really can’t make a movie about him even today without taking on a lot of baggage, so Baz Luhrmann certainly had his work cut out for him when he embarked on doing just that with his new movie, simply titled Elvis.

This can fairly be described as a “birth to death” biopic of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), but is told via voiceover by his infamously shady manager, who goes by the name Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).  The two meet when Parker, who is looking for a new musical draw for his traveling carnival, sees him at a radio performance in Louisiana.  Presley has already cut some records for Sun but is only known regionally.  Parker sees the effect he has on the young female concertgoers and instantly sees dollar signs and gets Presley to sign on.  From there we see his controversial early career, his odd psychodramas with his mother (Helen Thomson) and father (Richard Roxburgh), his military stint when he met Pricilla (Olivia DeJonge), his time making bad movies in the 60s, the making of his comeback special, and his final drug addled and paranoid years in Las Vegas residency.

This is certainly not the first movie to tell Elvis’ story and it’s not likely to be the last.  The novelty here is supposed to be that the film is told from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker, and I must say that strikes me as kind of an odd and inconsistent choice for the film.  The film certainly isn’t shy about depicting events that Parker was not a witness to and one can imagine that if the voiceover were dropped and a couple of other bits were edited out this perspective wouldn’t be apparent at all.  So why was this chosen for the film?  Honestly I’m not exactly sure, I think they saw “Hamilton” and thought they would do something similar to what that musical did with Aaron Burr, but they don’t really do a lot of work to meaningfully explore Parker’s point of view in any interesting way.  They guy basically admits upfront to being a conman from the beginning and doesn’t seem to try to justify himself or view himself as a hero in his own story.  Maybe that could have worked if the film just leaned into Parker as a knowing bad guy whose voiceover is framed as some kind of confession like Salieri in Amadeus but the film doesn’t really do that either.

It also of course doesn’t help that Tom Hanks’ performance in this role is kind of ridiculous.  To play the role Hanks has donned a fatsuit and put on a lot of makeup and in both his voiceover and dialogue he speaks in near broken English through a thick and highly affected Dutch accent.  It is true that the real Parker (real name Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) was a originally from Holland but he’d already been living in the United States for nearly thirty years when he met Elvis and had nearly erased all trace of his former accent.  There aren’t a lot of recordings of his voice, but if you look them up there are only small trace hints of his secret identity when he speaks that most would have assumed were from some obscure southern dialect.  In his performance Hanks ignores that completely and talks like Goldmember through the whole movie and it’s freaking weird.  And I don’t just bring this up because the accent is inaccurate or because it makes it seem very strange when the movie treats the reveal of his nationality like it’s a shocking twist in the third act.  Rather, it’s because it’s indicative of a lot of mistakes the film makes in its construction of this character.  This is a man that Elvis spent a lot of his career unquestionably trusting in pretty much all matters of business for years and years and watching this movie you haven’t the slightest clue why.  The man seems like a bizarre snake of a human being the second he comes on screen and Elvis’ trust in him doesn’t make a bit of sense.  The film should have given us a few more scenes of Parker actually establishing him as an actual canny promoter early on in Presley’s eyes, but more importantly the film should have depicted him as someone with some of that signature Tom Hanks charm early on rather than treating him like a bizarre over the top lothario.

Looked at a certain way hanks’ performance sort of fits in with director Baz Luhrmann’s usual maximalist approach.  This is, after all, the guy who has been defined by the MTV aesthetic for his entire career from the hyper-kinetic period musical Moulin Rouge to his hip-hop inflected adaptation of The Great Gatsby.  And he does bring the same kind of bombast to parts of this movie but sort of never really picks a single gimmick and sticks with it.  At one point it adopts the visual language of comic books to make the rather strange argument that Elvis was a kind of superhero whose power was music, which feels like either an odd play for Shazam! synergy on the part of Warner Brothers or like a misguided attempt by Lurmann to connect with “the youth” but either way it just kind of oddly enters the film and then leaves it without really completing the argument.  The film also tries incorporating some of the hip-hop songs it commissioned for a “music inspired by” soundtrack into the background, not unlike what Luhrmann tried to do with his The Great Gatsby adaptation, but again he doesn’t really commit to this and the two or three brief moments this is tried just kind of come out of nowhere and feel pretty out of place.  Luhrmann’s tricks certainly aren’t always unwelcome: he handles a montage of Elvis’ time in Hollywood quite well and he also uses a number of unconventional tricks to depict Elvis’ downward spiral towards the end, but when one of his ideas falls flat it really just kind of dies on the screen.

A big part of why all this Luhrmann-ian tomfoolery feels out of place is that there are pretty long stretches of the movie that do play out like a much more conventional Elvis biopic.  In particular, Austin Butler is playing things very straight in the title role and does an exceptional job for the most part.  By all accounts Butler only does some of his own singing in the movie but beyond that he does pretty much everything else that would be expected from an Elvis biopic performance and probably does eclipse Kurt Russell’s work in the 1979 TV film of the musician’s life.  He looks like the real guy and also captures his moves, accent, and mannerism.  It’s like a performance out of a completely different movie than the one Tom Hanks is in.  So, I’m in something of an awkward position in that I’m kind of asking for this to have been a more routine and straightforward biopic of the kind I’m usually opposed to.  Look, ideally I’d like this to do something different and have that something different succeed, like what Dexter Fletcher was able to do with the recent Elton John biopic Rocketman.  But if the “new ideas” you’re bringing in don’t flow naturally they become a problem and playing it safe starts to feel like the preferable option.  But I don’t necessarily want to make this film out to be a complete trainwreck because it really isn’t.  In fact it does a decent amount right.  Some of the film’s best sequences work really really well and they will make the experience worth it to some.  I’m certainly not rooting against the film and on balance would rather see Hollywood make more movies like it, but for me the things that are messy and unwieldy about the film just kind of bring it down and disappoint me.

**1/2 out of Five

Annette(8/7/2021)

Who is Leos Carax?  It’s not the easiest question to answer.  The man is clearly one of the most important and beloved French filmmakers of our time and yet his movies are few and far between and aren’t always the easiest to catch up with.  The first of his movies I ever saw was his 2012 film Holy Motors, which I had to watch with very little context as to his earlier works in no small part because that was his first film in thirteen years, and his previous film (Pola X) was his first film in nine years and the film before that (The Lovers on the Bridge) is probably the earliest of his films anyone talks about.  So even though he’s been working since 1984 the guy has as of now only made six films, and a lot of those earlier ones are not tremendously easy to find in this country.  Hell, it’s been nine years since I saw Holy Motors and I still haven’t seen any of his other movies, which is weird because I found Holy Motors to have been quite the experience.  That film, which is kind of like a series of almost performance art vignettes set across the city and forming a very abstract story that has been interpreted as an elegy for the cinema as a form, is certainly a rather singular vision, the kind of thing that could almost be a final statement on the art form from an aged filmmaker.  But Carax was actually only 52 when he made that so he certainly wasn’t retiring but had given himself quite the strange film to have to have to follow up, but follow it up he has and with a project I certainly wouldn’t have expected: an English language musical (of sorts) produced by Amazon and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard… which is every bit as uncompromising and weird as anything else he’s ever made.

Annette is ostensibly a musical though I hesitate to even call it that because I fear some unsuspecting boomers who have never heard the name “Leos Carax” are going to hear “musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard,” show up to the theater expecting something along the lines of La La Land, and then angrily walk out.  Thing is, with a simple plot synopsis this actually doesn’t sound dissimilar from something like La La Land.  The film concerns a stand-up comedian named Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) who begins the film in a relationship with Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), the two marry, have a daughter named Annette, tensions and jealousy get the better of them, and tragedy is on the horizon.  Sounds like A Star is Born, right?  Well, what if I told you that most of this courtship is off-screen, the film spends large portions of its runtime in theatrical quasi-real half sung stand-up routines… and that the daughter Annette is played by a what is clearly a Pinocchio-like wood puppet.  That’s kind of the level of expressionistic anti-realism we’re dealing with here.  Most Hollywood musicals barter in a certain kind of unreality: do the people know they’re stopping to sing?  Is the singing just how the audience witnesses what are normal conversations in the “real” story?  It’s all ambiguous but we accept it because of certain conventions we’re used to.  Here that same ambiguity exists for pretty much everything that happens in the movie whether people are singing or not.

The actual music here was composed by the synth-pop band Sparks, who also have a “story by” credit and appear to have originated the project before Carax came on board.  I must confess I’m not particularly familiar with Sparks’ music.  Edgar Wright released a documentary about them this year, I’ll probably catch up with it, but while watching this movie they were pretty unknown to me and while I wouldn’t call the music here “bad” I can’t say this left me wildly curious about their other work.  It should be noted upfront that this is not a musical that operates in the tradition of Broadway or classic Hollywood.  In fact it reminded me a lot more of movies based on “rock opera” albums like Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall in that it’s largely from the perspective of one central (and rather difficult) figure, it doesn’t have much spoken dialogue between the songs, and has a rather loopy and archetypal story.  That said the tunes here do not necessarily feel like music by a pop band, a lot of it simple recitative in which characters sing dialogue to one another instead of speaking it, which is sometimes framed interestingly (like an interrogation scene where a cop and a “perp” are singing at each other or a childbirth scene where doctors are singing instructions to the woman in labor) but there are other moments where this gets a bit tedious and by and large most of the songs here by design would not work very well out of context at all and little that will get caught in your head.

As a story this is essentially a story about the price of fame, but it’s not terribly sympathetic towards the famous people paying that price.  The Adam Driver character starts the movie seeming like a bit of an asshole and spends the rest of the movie proving himself to be more and more of an asshole than you think he is, then hits the point of the unforgivable before finding other new and innovative ways to be even more of an asshole.  It’s not a terribly sympathetic portrait is what I’m trying to say and it’s never terribly clear what the Marion Cotillard character saw in him in the first place.  We rarely see either of them interacting like regular humans; their relationship is mostly just introduced through a song called “We Love Each Other So Much” in which they establish that they love each other so much by repeatedly saying “we love each other so much,” also we get some relatively graphic sex scenes.  There is a certain satire of the way the public likes to build people up to tear them down but most of the building up is off screen and the tearing down seems largely deserved here so I’m not sure how profound that is as an observation and the film goes off in a new direction in its third act that is rather absurdist in nature and will likely alienate a lot of audiences who were still with it up to that point.  Really the whole movie is alienating.  It feels odd to say this is, in its own way even less accessible than Holy Motors (an essentially plotless movie involving sentient limousines) but in its own way it is because it occasionally fools you into thinking it will behave like a proper love story or musical before pulling the rug out from under you, which can be a harder pill to swallow than a movie that’s just full tilt boogie into the abstract from moment one.

So far this has read like a pretty negative review… and maybe it is one but I’m not quite ready to declare this a naked emperor as it’s a little too interesting to be dismissed.  For one thing I think there are individual sequences here that are worth seeing.  Carax managed to con Amazon into giving him fifteen million dollars to make this thing despite it being a movie that will actively piss off 95% of audiences and you can definitely see that relatively large budget on the screen.  Certain sequences like Driver and Cotillard ill-fated boat trip midway through the film are shot in very interesting ways and there are bits like an onstage breakdown by the Driver character that do start to display some of the film’s messages about fame in ways that are intriguing.  This is the ultimate “it’s not for everybody” movie and I don’t think it’s for me either, but I don’t regret seeing it.  Carax is clearly a major talent and this was a good reminder that I need to catch up with some of his older films and I hope he doesn’t wait another decade before making a new one, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a place to start.

**1/2 out of Five

Black Widow(7/11/2021)

On July 2nd 2019 the movie Spider-Man: Homecoming came out in U.S. theaters.  It was the third Marvel Cinematic Universe movie of that year and was supposed to be the last one before a relatively lengthy break in the run up to the May 2020 release of the next film: a long awaited solo venture for the popular Black Widow character.  Little did we know at the time that a worldwide pandemic would make that break even longer but after a 738 day wait (slightly over two years) the MCU is finally back in action.  Of course one has to wonder if that delay was to the franchise’s benefit, since it gave audiences a break and built up demand, or was it to their detriment since it kind of slowed the momentum?  I know that when F9: The Fast Saga opened a couple of weeks ago the former was true: a bit of extra time away broke up the monotony and made things feel fresher.  That might not necessarily be the case there, in part because Marvel/Disney did spend some of the pandemic releasing Marvel themed TV shows like “Wandavision” and “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” so we haven’t ha d a break from Marvel so much as we’ve had a break from Marvel opening weekends and also the MCU left us in kind of a weird place where we’d just had a finale with Avengers: Endgame and a partial new beginning with Spider-Man: Homecoming.  So this return was a little awkward, but even if it isn’t ideal I was more than a little ready to show up during the opening weekend of Black Widow.

Black Widow opens with a fairly lengthy prologue to when Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was eleven or so and was apparently living in Ohio with her younger sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) and her parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), who are all apparently in the kind of deep cover situation made famous by the show “The Americans.”  That mission ends pretty suddenly and the four of them go their separate ways within the world or Russian espionage with Natasha eventually becoming the agent who would be a fixture of the MCU’s first three phases.  The bulk of this movie is set in 2016 and covers what Black Widow was up to while she was on the run for violating the Sokovia Accords after the events of Captain America: Civil War.  During that period her attempts to lay low were apparently cut short because of her sister, who was still part of the Black Widow program and has come into contact with vials of a substance that cures a form of mind control that many of those agents have come under and tries to get this to Natasha, an action that puts both of them in the crosshairs of a ruthless and methodical assassin called The Taskmaster.

Getting Black Widow a solo movie was something of a cause célèbre around phases one and two of the MCU, in part because the whole enterprise was being criticized for its lack of female superheroes being given solo films.  Personally I sympathized with the frustrations that caused that uproar more than I agreed with the proposed solution.  Black Widow to me was not a terribly interesting character: essentially a super-spy rather than a true hero, her solo film was inevitably just going to be a more explosion filled version of a Bourne movie or a James Bond movie, which obviously isn’t an inherently bad thing but wasn’t necessarily what this franchise needed and in general I didn’t see any more of a need such a film than I did for a Nick Fury or Hawkeye solo effort (though we now essentially got the former through Captain Marvel and are getting the latter via a Disney+ show).  That said, if they were going to make a Black Widow movie that probably would have been the time to do it and making one now, after the character already supposedly died in Avengers: Endgame (we’ll see if that lasts) is particularly head-scratching.  Still there were some spots of lore to fill in and the movie does a reasonably good job of doing that by explaining some of Romanoff’s backstory and however this fits in there’s obviously could simply be an opportunity for some solid action thrills.

I will say I found the first half of this movie rather disappointing.  The prologue was kind of neat (though I hated a musical choice used to transition out of it) and thought there was some promise in the setup, but something felt off about the whole thing.  There was comedy, but it wasn’t as sharp and I didn’t like the film’s look, which was drab and gray even by Marvel standards.  I would also say that Taskmaster was a very lame villain, a total retread of The Winder Soldier who brings nothing new to the table and had they not revealed themselves to be more of a henchman than a villain in the second half it would have been a pretty big problem.  Fortunately things do improve at a certain point.  Eventually the family from the prologue come together as adults and we get a sort of fun take on the dysfunctional family comedy by being given a dysfunctional family of super-spies and the comedy starts working better when David Harbour shows up as the bumbling patriarch.  The second half also introduces a better villain who provides some interesting moments in the finale.  Still I’m not sure I ever quite felt that Marvel magic at work.  A lot of the action here felt a bit perfunctory; it had the scope of destruction from the other MCU films but the absence of actual superpowers did detract from them and the comedy never quite clicked with me.

It is of course not lost on the filmmakers that this film is trying to bring depth to a character that was rather heavily sexualized during her first couple of outings in the MCU and director Cate Shortland throws some jabs in that direction and the film’s ultimate villain is pretty clearly supposed to represent the patriarchy at its most extreme.  Still these themes don’t run terribly deep and don’t feel overly unprecedented; Captain Marvel operated at a similar level but generally had more fun with it.  Beyond that the whole thing just felt rather inessential both as a Marvel movie and as an action movie.  It’s not a disaster or anything, go see it and you will be amused at the very least, but Marvel has raised the bar quite a bit in the last four years or so and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold them to their own high standards and this doesn’t really stack up.  Then again, maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day I watched it?  This is only really the second major blockbuster we got in theaters post pandemic and I must say I think F9: The Fast Saga delivered for its fans more than this one did.  That movie was all kinds of stupid but it was at least interested in topping its predecessors, this one on the other hand almost felt like a contractual obligation that was fulfilled with minimal enthusiasm.

**1/2 out of Five

Zola(7/3/2021)

In 2015 a woman named Aziah “Zola” Wells King started what would become a 148 tweet thread by saying “y’all want to hear a story about why me & this here bitch fell out????????,” a sentence that would become the “Call me Ishmael” of long form social media storytelling.  The ensuing story, a gonzo account of a wacky road trip a pair of strippers took to Tampa, went viral and quickly became a fixture of internet lore.  Personally, I wasn’t in the loop on this alleged phenomenon and first heard about when news broke that someone was making a movie about it, and yeah, it’s pretty compelling.  The way the story sort of escalates from moment to moment made it especially suited to the unconventional medium of a tweet storm and Zola’s writing style and unapologetic use of slang and stripper lingo is funny and keeps you reading and kind of makes you feel like you’re getting a window into a world of ratchet-ness that one would often want to avoid.  Would it make a good movie?  Wasn’t sure but I wanted to check it out.

The film begins with Zola (Taylour Paige) meeting Stefani (Riley Keough), the aforementioned “bitch” she would eventually have a falling out with, while waitressing at a Hooters-like restaurant and as they two begin talking they come to realize that both have experience working as exotic dancers.  A day or two later Stefani invites Zola along on a road trip she’s taking to dance at Tampa clubs known for high tipping and the next thing you know the two are taking a “ho trip” down to Florida along with Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun) and also the guy who “takes care of her,” which is to say he’s her pimp, who is described as “Z” in the tweet storm but is credited as “X” (Colman Domingo) here.  Things more or less go as planned at first, but it becomes increasingly apparent that Stefani and “X” are into some deeper illegality than Zola is expecting and things on this trip start to spiral out of control.

I went into the movie expecting it to be this wild propulsive ride through the Florida underworld along the lines of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, but the final movie is perhaps a bit more relaxed than that, possibly to its detriment.  The film is not particularly shy about the fact that it’s based on a tweet storm; it announces it with a title card at the beginning and more annoyingly it frequently makes Twitter bird noises after quotes from the original tweet storm come up and other social media sound effects.  Could have done without that and I generally wasn’t a huge fan of the sound design here in general, particularly Mica Levi’s minimalist score.  I’ve liked Levi’s work in other movies but this movie really needed an energy injection more than anything and Levi’s bloopy music didn’t really do it.  I did quite like the cast though.  Taylour Paige delivers Zola’s vocal patter with aplomb and while Riley Keough doesn’t quite manage to adopt to her characters vocal patterns as effectively she does eventually settle into her character.  Colman Domingo is effectively scary as the violent pimp who causes the bulk of the film’s problem and Nicholas Braun gives a nicely comedic performance even if he is essentially recycling his naïve dope routine from the show “Succession.”

So as a stylistic exercise Zola didn’t really give me what I was hoping for but does it make up for this with substance?  Almost, or at the very least it gave me a bit to chew on.  The events of the original Tweet Storm are in many ways still somewhat mired in mystery.  Zola’s account was the most popular but in its wake the Stefani and Derrek equivalents both put out their own accounts on different social media platforms.  Stefani’s account is acknowledged by the movie and is mostly notable for how transparently untruthful it is.  Derrek’s account isn’t mentioned in the film specifically but the film does draw from it in certain spots where Zola is not a point of view character.  That account is mostly notable for how poorly written it is and there’s a reason it never went viral.  I don’t know that I find Zola to be an inherently more trustworthy person than either of the others but there were definitely parts of her account that are contradicted by police reports of the situation (and I don’t necessarily see a specific motivation for them to lie about this particular situation, but who knows).  Interestingly the film, while clearly siding with Zola on the events, does divert from all three accounts in certain places, especially in the last twenty minutes.  Buried in this project there’s a bit of a Rashomon-like lesson to be learned about how one’s ability to tell a story affects who gets believed about what and how the platform you use (twitter, reddit, facebook, or independent film) affects what people think… but I kind of feel like I’m pulling that out myself rather than having it really surfaced by the film.  If you’re not looking for that this mostly just feels like a cheeky re-enactment of an internet meme that is a bit past its expiration date, and if that’s what this is going to be I feel like the aforementioned lack of energy becomes a problem.  I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of potential in this concept that just got left on the table and the final movie mostly disappointed me.

**1/2 out of Five