REVIEW: “Black Widow” (2021)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has legions of die-hard fans and for a long time I considered myself among them. To be clear I’m still very interested in the sprawling universe and the direction it goes. I grew up with so many of these characters and I’m anxious to see what the creative heads have in store for them (and us). But I’d be lying if I said this new batch of upcoming films had me as excited as I used to be. One of the few exceptions is “Black Widow”, a movie that I expected to have implications for the future of the MCU, but one that felt firmly linked to the previous phase(s).

For years many of us have been clamoring for a Scarlett Johansson led Black Widow movie. She’s a character who has had a prominent place in the MCU yet still was more of a supporting player. We were all set to get “Black Widow” last year but COVID-19 ended up obliterating the movie release schedule. Now her movie has hit theaters and fans finally get that deeper glimpse into the character’s backstory we’ve been hungry for.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

While most of the more recent (and upcoming) MCU films have been leaning towards the magical and cosmic, my favorite remains 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. It was certainly spectacular, but it was also more grounded than most of what we’re getting today. That’s the vibe I got from the “Black Widow” trailers and it’s exactly what I hoped director Cate Shortland would deliver. In a nutshell she does. In many ways her film has a very old school MCU feel and fits in much better with the older movies than the new stuff. In fact, outside of a its intriguing end-credits scene, it doesn’t progress any of the current MCU storylines forward. I’m sure some will see that as weakness, but for me its tighter focus was a strength.

“Black Widow” bounces all around the globe giving us big action at every stop. There’s a daring escape in Ohio, a killer fight scene in Norway, an exhilarating chase sequence in Morocco, and a crazy jailbreak in Siberia. And that just scratches the surface. The story (from screenwriter Eric Pearson) follows the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and sees Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) on the run from the US government for violating the controversial Sokovia Accords. She ends up settling off the grid in the mountains of Norway.

But before we get into all of that Shortland treats us to a compelling prologue set in 1995 Ohio. It’s here that we get a taste of Natasha’s childhood, especially her relationship with her kid sister Yelena. Don’t let their normal looking suburban American life fool you. Their parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) are embedded Russian agents and their “family” is actually an elaborate cover for their spy work. With the feds bearing down on him, Alexei and Melina take the girls and barely escape to Cuba. Once there, Alexei reports to his superiors while his “daughters” are put to sleep and taken away. This opening gives us a good first taste of Natasha’s tumultuous life.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Back to 2016, Natasha narrowly escapes a thrilling encounter with Taskmaster, a deadly assassin sent by Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov to retrieve a case full of vials that Natasha doesn’t even know she has. Turns out the vials were sent to her by her estranged sister Yelena (now played by Florence Pugh), who is holed up in a Budapest safe house after escaping Dreykov’s sinister Red Room program. It’s where young women are brainwashed and turned into “Widows” – killing machines under Dreykov’s control. The chemicals in the vials breaks his mind-controlling hold on the Widows which understandably poses a major threat to his nefarious operation. So Natasha heads to Budapest and has an unceremonious reunion with Yelena. Soon Taskmaster and a team of Dreykov’s Widows are hot on their tail. And later Alexei and Melina reenter the picture.

Sound like a lot? Honestly it’s a surprisingly dense story with lots of moving parts and more layers than I ever expected. Shortland’s ability to bring it all together amid so many action scenes isn’t just impressive, it’s miraculous. She also never loses sight of her central characters, routinely giving them breathers and allowing their relationships to unfold. Of course it starts with Johansson who at this point has made Natasha her own. She’s such a good character and one of her great allures is that she has no superpowers. She’s one of us although cooler and tougher. One the best lines in the movie jokingly speaks to her humanity, “I doubt the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight.”

But it’s Pugh who’s sure to turn the most heads. As the tough-as-nails Yelena she has no trouble bringing out the character’s immeasurable grit and swagger. But through Pugh’s absorbing performance we also get to see Yelena’s tightly guarded vulnerability and her poorly veiled pain. And together with Johansson, she helps bring an emotional heft to their complicated sisterhood that grows more intense with each scene. I also have to give a nod to a terrific David Harbour who brings a light comic touch to his out of shape faux patriarch and former super-soldier who’s still yearning for his glory days as Captain America’s Russian rival. As for Rachel Weisz, at times she seems a bit cold and detached. She’s such a great actress and this is far from a bad performance. But compared to Johansson, Pugh, and Harbour she feels a little shortchanged.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

While the vast majority of the action, the storytelling, and the character work is done well, not every decision Shortland and Pearson makes works out. A reoccurring struggle for many superhero movies has been nailing down a good villain. “Black Widow” has some serviceable baddies but they could have been so much more. Winstone’s gravelly snarl brings a certain level of menace to Dreykov but otherwise he’s pretty generic. Taskmaster is the much bigger misfire. Everything about the character’s look is great and the action scenes crackle with an extra burst of energy whenever TM shows up. But without spoiling anything, the filmmakers make an unfortunate choice that feels cheap and completely out of left field. I never bought it for a second and was left thinking about all the better things they could’ve done with the character.

Still, “Black Widow” is exactly the kind of movie to help energize the struggling theater business. Sure it’s available to stream on Disney’s Premier Access, but it shines on the big screen especially during its eye-popping final sequence that can’t possibly be appreciated as much on a television. Part family drama, part Bourne thriller, this is a fun action-fueled blockbuster loaded with kinetic fight scenes and rousing set pieces. At the same time the mostly self-contained story packs a surprising amount of heart and finally gives this long-running MCU character a proper send off. And then there’s Pugh, a great new face in the MCU and one sure to impact things moving forward. “Black Widow” opens today in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Blue Miracle” (2021)

Netflix’s new film “Blue Miracle” is one those ‘based on a true story’ family dramas that never strays from its well-worn formula. Nothing catches you by surprise and from its earliest moments you know exactly how things are going to turn out. Yet, the movie works because it succeeds where it counts the most – it makes us care and from its opening scene we are given characters we can root for.

“Blue Miracle” is directed by Julio Quintana who also co-wrote the script with Chris Dowling. The story is set seven years ago in Cabo San Lucas. Jimmy Gonzales stars as Omar, a former street kid who now runs a orphanage with his wife Becca (Fernanda Urrejola). The affectionately named Casa Hogar houses a dozen or so boys rescued from the streets and is ran on private donations. But times are hard and Omar has recently lost several of his donors putting him behind on his payments to the bank. If he doesn’t come up with $117,000 in thirty days he’ll lose the building and the kids will end up back on the street.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Down at the docks, Dennis Quaid plays a salty gringo fisherman named Wade Malloy. He’s a two-time winner of the renowned Black & Blue Fishing Tournament which kicks off in a few days. The problem is Wade has hit a rough patch of his own and he can’t afford the entry fee. The tourney’s promoter Wayne Bisbee (Bruce McGill) has a soft spot for Omar so he makes a deal with Wade – he’ll waive the entry fee if Wade partners with Omar and some of his boys. It’s a desperate move for Omar, but if they somehow manage to win their share of the prize money should be enough to pay off the bank.

So the crusty captain and his inexperienced crew head out on Wade’s beat-up tub for three days of fishing. Predictably the story plays out to a series of close-calls, conflicts, and the inevitable relationship building. The seasoned gravelly-voiced Quaid is a lot of fun playing a crusty curmudgeon with a lot of personal baggage. But it’s Gonzales who really owns the movie, portraying Omar with heart and integrity. And even with the occasional hokey pep talk his performance remains grounded and honest. The kids offer fresh and energetic young faces but unfortunately play more as types than fleshed out characters.

As you make your way through “Blue Miracle” you can’t help but notice its glaring predictability, the smattering of cheesy dialogue, and the clear-cut formula it borrows from countless other movies of its kind. Yet through it all the feel-good vibe is strong enough and the characters are likable enough to leave you rooting for this ragtag motley crew. It makes for a warm and wholesome underdog story that effectively tugs at your heartstrings even as you see it doing the yanking. “Blue Miracle” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Boss Level” (2021)

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Joe Carnahan first shared his “if Groundhog Day was an action movie” vision back in 2012, but in no time the project seemed dead in the water. Yet only a few short years later it was revived as “Boss Level”. Casting began in 2017, filming started in 2018. Since then Hulu dropped eight-figures to acquire distribution rights and now it is finally set for its proper release. Anchored by a strong cast but constricted by its relentless silliness, “Boss Level” turns out to be a bombastic and self-aware romp that marinates in hyper-violent absurdity. There is the occasional quiet interlude, but this is mostly wall-to-wall action excess.

It seems like just a few days ago that I was reviewing another time-loop movie yet here we are again. To Carnahan’s credit, with “Boss Level” he’s going for something a little different. In it Frank Grillo plays Roy, a potty-mouthed former Delta Force Captain with a penchant for heavy narration. He spends a lot of time explaining to us his weird predicament. In a nutshell Roy relives the same day over and over again, dying each time in a variety of gruesome ways – shot with a mini-gun, ran over by an 18-wheeler, blown up with a grenade launcher, beheaded by katana blade, and so on. After being killed he wakes up and repeats.

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Image Courtesy of Hulu

But Roy fights back, learning more details with each reset and then putting that knowledge to use against the eclectic gaggle of assassins out to kill him. He still ends up gruesomely killed each time, but he slowly finds a way to not only live longer but to begin piecing together clues to discover who wants him dead and why. One of the players is Naomi Watts as Roy’s ex-wife Jemma. I’d love to hear what drew her to this movie considering she’s handed a thankless role that sees her as more of a plot device to move Roy’s story forward than a layered character. Jemma is a scientist working for a shady businessman named Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson). Again not much depth to him either, but he’s made fun by the devilishly good Gibson.

I won’t say much more about the story because frankly there really isn’t a lot more to tell. We do get a side venture where Roy tries to reconnect with his 11-year-old son Joe (played by Grillo’s real-life son Rio). Otherwise it’s all about Roy putting enough pieces together to find who’s trying to knock him off while shooting, chopping, burning, and impaling anyone who gets in his way. And since this is a time-loop movie, we see most of these action scenes over and over and over again. So much so that the repetition gets a little grating. But it helps fill out the 100-minute runtime which would be a heckuva lot shorter without it.

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Image Courtesy of Hulu

There are some fun and well-shot action sequences (at least for the first couple of times you see them) and the movie has a pretty good sense of humor. I particularly liked Selina Lo who plays a sword-wielding assassin enamored with her own goofy post-kill catchphrase “I am Guan-Yin, and Guan-Yin has done this!” And Grillo makes for a great action movie lead. Aside from the incessant narration and the steady stream of juvenile profanity (the script’s fault, not his), the chiseled 55-year-old has both the physicality and the snarky humor that nicely fits his character and the film’s wacky tone. And the cigar-chomping, mustache-twirling Gibson makes a paper-thin antagonist entertaining.

With “Boss Level”, Joe Carnahan takes an idea of what video games are, slaps on a hard R-rating, and stomps the accelerator, rarely taking his foot off the gas. But much like a frustrating video game, he forces us to constantly replay the movie’s levels (aka scenes), sometimes to the point of tedium. There is good talent involved, some high-energy action, and a few giggles mashed in with the nagging storytelling issues, ludicrous premise, and half-baked ‘science’ (even the filmmakers give up on making sense out of it). Ultimately your endurance level will probably define your experience. If you can turn off the annoyances and hone in on the strengths, you just might have a good time. But it’s kinda hard in a time-loop movie when those same annoyances continually reset just like Roy’s day. “Boss Level” premieres March 5th on Hulu.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Blithe Spirit” (2021)

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The new period British comedy “Blithe Spirit” has both the concept and the cast for a fun and hearty romp. The film stars Dan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Isla Fisher, and Judy Dench. It’s built on a delightfully wacky premise that would fit right in with the screwball comedies of old. Director Edward Hall along with the writing trio of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth deliver bursts of farcical mayhem and maintain a subtly deranged comic energy. Yet throughout I kept thinking something was missing.

“Blithe Spirit” is based on Noël Coward’s 1941 play of the same name. It was first adapted for the big screen in a 1945 film starring Rex Harrison. This brisk and lightly entertaining version rides on the backs of its charismatic cast who bring out the best in material that isn’t always certain of the kind of movie it wants to be. It leaves us with a film that has its funny moments and is easy to digest, but lacks the flavor to stick with you once the end credits have rolled.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The story is set in 1937 England and opens with an exasperated Charles Condomine (Stevens) staring at a blank page in his typewriter. Charles is an acclaimed crime novelist who has been hired to write the screenplay for an upcoming adaptation of one of his books. But a severe case of writer’s block has set in, something that his supportive yet quietly frustrated wife Ruth (Fisher) patiently puts up with. She gives him plenty of space in their lavish Art Deco estate to hammer out his words. She even tolerates him gazing at an old photo of his late wife Elvira in hopes that it might provide some kind of inspiration.

Finally Charles is struck with a new idea for a story, one inspired by a disastrous stage show he attends (and probably the amphetamines he’s been popping). He hires a medium and clairvoyant named Madame Arcati (Dench) to come to his home and conduct a private séance for the purpose of gathering material for his new story. Charles and Ruth along with their snobby upper-class chums George (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and Violet (Emilia Fox) snicker their way through Madame Arcati’s conjuring, brushing off the flickering lights and blown-open doors to a passing storm.

But once everyone is gone Charles finds out Madame Arcati has inadvertently summoned the spirit of Elvira (Leslie Mann) who we learn died seven years earlier in an equestrian accident. It turns out that only Charles can see and hear Elvira and she doesn’t take kindly to Ruth being in their house. It sets up a series of comic mischief and slapstick gags as two women on opposite sides of the astral plane battle for their husband’s affections. As for Charles, he wants to find a way to send Elvira back to wherever she came from. But he has second thoughts once his screenplay starts coming together with her help. The complications go without saying.

Hall keeps things pretty light, only teasing us with the devious black comedy that this could have been. There’s definitely the material for something equally wacky but more darkly funny. But those things are left for the what-could-have-been. Instead “Blithe Spirit” is content with a more playful approach, sneaking in some occasional innuendo and leaving the darker potential buried under the surface. It’s a shame really because even though what we get is breezy and easy to watch, the movie lacks an edge that it hints at but doesn’t embrace.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

It’s the performances that end up carrying the audience through. Stevens has a real knack for playing offbeat and slightly neurotic men. Here he once again shows off his comic chops, skittishly fluttering about in various states of distress. Some of the film’s funniest moments lean on his wild-eyed physicality. Fisher brings a needed charm to an otherwise constrained character. Mann is entertaining and does the best she can with Elvira who is in desperate need of more depth. Together the trio have a fun chemistry and play off each other well. Dench ends up being the odd person out. She gives a terrific performance but unfortunately her character seems disconnected at times and operating at a completely different temperature. It’s not Dench’s fault. It’s simply how the Madame Arcati is written. It’s as if she belongs in a much different movie.

“Blithe Spirit” isn’t without its charms and their are some laugh-out-loud moments of sly dialogue and slapstick humor that really work. But there’s still the feeling that the movie misses an opportunity to be more. The characters need more work which leaves the story in a weird place. On one hand it’s a knowingly silly and diverting comedy. On the other it lacks the vigor and go-for-it spirit to make it something memorable. “Blithe Spirit” opens today in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT- 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Bliss” (2021)

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Talk about an unexpected yet intriguing pairing. In the new film “Bliss” Owen Wilson and Selma Hayek are two people traveling back and forth between vastly different realities. But soon perceptions of what’s real and what’s a simulation begin to blur. This catchy concept comes from the mind of writer-director Mike Cahill whose indie sci-fi credentials include 2011’s “Another Earth” and 2014’s “I Origins”. He’s been doing television since but returns to features with “Bliss”, a sci-fi drama with a splash of old-fashioned mystery.

It seems 2021 will see a bit of a resurgence for Wilson who is also set to star in the upcoming MCU streaming series “Loki” and has been shooting a new romantic comedy with Jennifer Lopez. Here he plays Greg Wittle, recently divorced and trapped in a go-nowhere white-collar job with an agency called Technical Difficulties (I kinda love that name). He lives in a broken world full of poverty and pollution and bathed in a depressing blue-gray hue. Disconnected from his daily duties of working the phones, Greg sits in his office sketching images that seem pulled from his memories – images of a much better world and of a beautiful woman indelibly linked to it.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Greg’s spacey lackadaisical efforts cost him his job and soon he’s in a bar – lost, depressed and knocking back a double whiskey. That’s when he notices a mysterious woman (Hayek) sitting in a booth and paying him an unusual amount of attention. Her name is Isabel, a vagabond with some rather peculiar powers that can manipulate physical objects, even people. When her powers fail to work on Greg she realizes that he too must be ‘real’. So she tells him a wild story of how the damaged world they’re living in is actually a computer simulation and that he too has powers of his own.

Early on Cahill keep things pretty close to the chest, dropping a few breadcrumbs to make sure we’re going in the right direction. Before long he’s hitting us with oddities such as yellow and blue crystals, FGP’s (Fake Generated Persons), Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a strange contraption called the Brain Box. Even Isabel proves to be a riddle, throwing out ambiguous lines like “You’re my guy” and “Let’s just say it’s kind of my fault this world exists.” And she seems to have a vested interest in convincing Greg to leave behind every attachment he has to this murky troubled world, namely his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper).

When Greg and Isabel enter the second of the two realities, a lavish and vibrantly colored upper-class world, she reveals herself to be a renowned yet slightly controversial scientist. She contends that she created the simulation as a means to make people appreciate ‘the good life’. Greg realizes this is ‘the better world’ from his earlier sketches – the world of wealth and comfort he has dreamed of. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t shake the emotional connections from the other reality, especially Emily who makes figuring out what’s real even more challenging.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Right out of the gate we get some good table-setting and it quickly becomes clear that this is movie with big ideas and plenty that it wants to say. Sadly not all of the puzzle pieces come together to fit as tightly as they should. So we inevitably get some exposition-heavy scenes that attempt to fill in the gaps. Much of the explaining ends up on the shoulders of Hayek who ranges from fascinating and enigmatic to frustratingly flighty. And though not her fault, some of her musings simply aren’t that engaging which ends up hurting the film’s bigger themes. Meanwhile Wilson gives a solid performance but is hitched to a character who spends far more time confused and pondering than actually revealing anything significant.

“Bliss” feels like something that sounds really good as a concept but that doesn’t quite pan out on screen. It’s telling that some of the film’s visual touches such as occasional blips on the screen and the neat but slightly overused lens flares are more alluring than the story itself. And it’s unfortunate that the quirky but compelling pairing of Owen Wilson and Selma Hayek can’t quite breathe enough life into this ambitious but wobbly futuristic story. “Bliss” premieres February 5th on Amazon Prime streaming.

VERDICT- 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” (2020)

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I would never qualify myself as a fan of 1970’s disco music, but I’ve always had an appreciation for The Bee Gees. I was just a young kid when the British-Australian trio of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb were topping the charts and earning their unwanted tag as the “Kings of Disco”. But I knew their music thanks to my parents and the 8-track tape player in their white Chevrolet Malibu. My parents listened almost exclusively to 1960’s “oldies”, so I knew The Bee Gees were a thing well before the disco era. But like everyone else, even my folks were drawn to the group’s infectious 70’s sound.

The Bee Gees became global sensations and sold well over $120 million records throughout their career. But there was a sad side to their largely successful story. The new documentary “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” chronicles their first taste of fame during the 60’s British Invasion, their breakup, and their eventual reunion which brought not only a brand new sound but also their rise to superstardom. They unwittingly became synonymous with the 70’s disco scene and despite their best efforts to keep themselves and their music from being pigeonholed, the label eventually became too much for them to shake.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

Director Frank Marshall doesn’t break the mold with his new film. It very much plays like a traditional documentary, nothing flashy or innovative. But man is it a compelling and eye-opening biography of the talented Gibbs brothers and their inspired careers. Marshall puts together segments of a recent conversation with Barry Gibb with archived interview footage of his late brothers to give the film its smoothly edited personal touch. Old managers, studio engineers, and bandmates add some insider perspective while celebrities from the music world like Justin Timberlake, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and Noel Gallagher of Oasis testify to the trio’s influence and talent.

Marshall immediately pushes back on the reductive notion that The Bee Gees were nothing more than a simple “disco band”, a label they never embraced. He starts with their inseparable childhood days with older brother Barry and twins Maurice and Robin aspiring to be musicians. He documents their success in the 1960’s including two #1 hits and an early sound that drew comparisons to The Beatles. Marshall also explores their unexpected breakup brought on due to the burden of fame.

During their split all three got married and matured leading to their eventual reunion. The vocal harmony was instantaneous as if they had never been apart, but the world had changed and the interest in The Bee Gees had dried up. That was 1974, two straight albums had tanked and the group had to start playing clubs to make ends meet. It all led to Miami, 1975 where their new sound was born with the release of “Jive Talkin”. Marshall highlights the process behind the group’s musical evolution – the brothers’ desire to be a band rather than a trio, the influence of soul and R&B on their new sound, and the surprise discovery of what would become Barry’s signature falsetto.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

The movie spends a lot of time on the group’s highs including the pinnacle of their popularity following their work on the chart-topping “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. But it also hits on the lows, including the sudden and sometimes threatening backlash the group faced after disco was put in the crosshairs of a few rabid haters with platforms. This is best realized in 1979’s infamous Disco Demolition Night riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Due to their popularity The Bee Gees, who resented being branded a ‘disco band’, became easy targets. Soon radio stations quit playing their songs and they found themselves on the outs.

While the brothers would go on to write hit songs for major stars such as Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Pardon, their singing careers were never the same. It’s a sad reality especially considering there was nothing the trio could do to avoid it. Much more sobering is how the deaths of Maurice in 2003, Robin in 2012 and their younger brother Andy in 1988 looms over the entire film. Marshall doesn’t dwell on their passings, only mentioning it briefly. Still it’s knowledge that adds an emotional layer to their stories. “I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact that they’re not here anymore,” Barry laments in the movie’s closing moments. It’s a heartfelt reminder that Marshall’s movie is about a lot more than great careers and great music. “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” is now streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars