One Thing I Love About Black Widow

I mean, it’s Florence Pugh, 100%. But also, the tone.

I admit I was skeptical about Black Widow, and I’d been assuming that it’d be the first MCU entry (apart from The Incredible Hulk, which has never seemed like it really counted) that I didn’t see in its theatrical release. But the combination of mostly positive reviews, and the chance to see a movie in a theater for the first time in over a year and a half, made me change my mind.

Good call on my part, as it turns out, since the movie is fantastic. I might still be in a post-action-movie high, and I’ll change my mind as time passes, but right now it’s one of my favorite entries in the entire series.

The reason I was skeptical was probably common to anyone who’d pre-judged it based on the trailers: Marvel spectacle inflation. This looked like a spy-themed, entirely Earth-based action movie. The MCU is pretty good at those, but it’s hard to get super-enthused after they’ve had super-powers, aliens, Norse gods, space travel, and wiped out half the population of the universe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been a favorite of mine for the way it integrated a Marvel super-hero movie with the feel of a paranoid 1970s spy thriller, but I still have to admit that it only really picked up for me when they had super-villains embedded in old computers. Natasha is allowed to be an absolute bad-ass in that one, but it still feels as if she’s supporting the super-heroes.

That’s one of the things Black Widow makes fun of, the idea that Natasha is one of the “lesser” Avengers. The character who’s keeping her in her place — which includes mocking her well-known three-point landing as “posing” — is Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh in a performance that threatens to steal the whole movie.

She’s sardonic without ever completely giving in to bitterness, tough without seeming invulnerable, irreverent without seeming glib. All with an accent that is probably accurate but still feels like it’s from a cornier spy movie, but still somehow true to the character. She makes it an outstanding hero origin story, because she so thoroughly inhabits a comic book character without letting it veer too far into realism or too far into camp.

That perfect balance of tone is carried throughout the movie. This has some of the darkest material of any of the MCU installments I’ve seen, with ever-present reminders that this is a story about betrayal, paranoia, abandonment, abuse, and human trafficking. But it treats everything with what I think is an appropriate level of gravity, without letting it become completely bleak and somber.

From the trailers, I’d been worried that it would be just another wise-cracking action movie. The scene of Natasha’s family getting back together was highlighted in the trailers as a bit of comic relief at Alexi’s (David Harbour) expense. That turns out to have been a bit of a bait-and-switch, since in the movie, it’s an extremely sinister moment with an extremely sad undertone.

The Breakfast All Day review mentioned one moment that I think illustrates the balance in tone perfectly: in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Natasha explains that she was sterilized as part of the Widow program, in a scene that’s played for maximum emotional impact. In Black Widow, Yelena describes her hysterectomy a lot more bluntly and matter-of-factly. As Alonso Duralde points out, not only is it less about equating a woman’s worth with her capacity to bear children, it’s truer to the characters and the way they would think about what’s been done to them.

It’s also truer to the tone of the movie overall: this is a movie about characters surviving and fighting against the trauma they’ve gone through, not using it to manufacture pathos. It’s tempting to join the dogpile on Joss Whedon for setting up powerful women characters just to put them through torture, especially since WandaVision showed how her character could’ve been handled so much less clumsily. But really, it’s a problem throughout a series that has never been quite sure how to handle characters who aren’t super-powered.

The trailer including that scene at the dinner table, with Alexi stuffing himself into his Red Guardian suit, is also a bait-and-switch because it implies a break in the action. But the action in Black Widow never completely lets up. It’s relentless without being exhausting. People complain about the dominance of the MCU, but one of the advantages is that it can include one of the most exciting car chases I’ve ever seen — which would’ve used up the entire budget of a normal movie — and it’s still just getting started. “I could do this all day.”

Again, that car chase isn’t a shift in tone into action mode. It’s establishing Yelena’s character and her relationship with Natasha. Black Widow manages to do what few action movies can pull off, which is combine character development and plot momentum with action scenes, never at the expense of either. There’s a sense that chase scenes, daring heists, shoot-outs, and exposition-filled mission debriefs are the only way these characters can really communicate with each other.

Early in the movie, Natasha is shown watching Moonraker on a laptop, in a scene that foreshadows the level of spectacle that’s yet to come. It’s a neat inclusion because it establishes Moonraker as fantasy; this movie will soon be hitting (and then exceeding) the scale of that spy adventure, but without all of its camp.

By the time Black Widow reaches its climax, piling spectacle on top of spectacle and stunt on top of stunt, I was a little taken aback. Up to that point, the movie had been smart and thrilling, but relatively grounded compared to the rest of the MCU. But then I remembered: not only is this still the MCU, it’s Natasha’s long-overdue showcase as one of the Avengers. Not just a supporting character. Earlier, Yelena had called her a “super-hero,” but in context, it seemed mocking. By the end, it’s clear that there was no mockery at all. Natasha may not have had super powers, but she was still every bit a super-hero.

Even before the pandemic delayed it over a year, I had been thinking that Black Widow was coming far too late to have any relevance. No matter how much I liked the character, her story was over. While the rest of the universe was mourning Tony Stark and speculating on the fate of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff had simply closed out her story as a self-sacrificing hero. A prequel would add nothing.

I was mistaken. I said that Florence Pugh “threatens to” steal the movie (along with Rachel Weisz, who was perfectly creepy, and who incidentally seems to also be stealing Paul Rudd’s anti-aging serum), because as much as Black Widow sets up her character to be a great addition to the next phase of the MCU, it’s also a fantastic conclusion for Natasha’s character. It takes near-throwaway bits of her backstory and makes them not just trauma she has to overcome, but a cause to fight for. It calls back to her most standout moments in The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, and Civil War, and shows why she wasn’t just Captain America’s or Nick Fury’s assistant, but a key member of the Avengers, and more than just a poser.

I’m sure future installments will be full of action, drama, intrigue, comedy, magic, spectacle, science fiction, lasers, robots, mad scientists, and anything else that can fit into a comic book movie. But they’ll have a hard time keeping all of it in as perfect balance as Black Widow does.

One Thing I Like About Werewolves Within

Werewolves Within is based on a social deduction game and wins on its casting and its ambition

The promotions for Werewolves Within keep comparing it to Knives Out, and let’s be honest, that’s an extremely generous comparison. It’s absolutely not a bad movie, and it’s got a lot of clever ideas. Plus it has an assertiveness that’s nice to see — it clearly knows what messages it wants to deliver — and is especially rare in any adaptation, video game or otherwise. But I spent most of it with the feeling that its reach exceeded its grasp, and it was ultimately carried by some great casting.

I really like Milana Vayntrub (I’m mostly a fan from @midnight), which isn’t all that surprising, since being intensely charming and like-able is kind of her whole thing. That like-ability is used perfectly in a movie like this.

I’m also a fan of Michaela Watkins, who’s appropriately over-the-top; and Harvey Guillén, who’s disappointingly over-the-top. I appreciate his not just repeating the understated Guillermo from What We Do In The Shadows (which is the only other thing I’ve seen him in), but he and Cheyenne Jackson play a shrieking, stereotypically bitchy and self-obsessed gay couple that’s not really offensive so much as completely uninspired. The rest of the cast seems like they’re doing everything they can with the material they’ve been given. Sometimes it works.

But the standout is Sam Richardson as Finn Wheeler. This is the first thing I’ve seen him in — and remembered, anyway; apparently he was in Drunk History and the 2016 Ghostbusters — and he’s great in it. He starts the movie as a guy who’s just too nice for his own good, which is a character flaw that goes off in a direction I didn’t expect. His character is the core of the movie not just because he’s the protagonist, but because his character development is key to what the movie’s trying to say.

Considering that this was a movie loosely based on a VR social deduction game loosely based on a party card game, the fact that it was trying to say anything at all was appreciated. From what little I know of the game, the movie isn’t a direct adaptation, because that would’ve been a mistake. Instead, it goes for the fun suspicion and paranoia that makes a social deduction game.

I’d been hoping that this might capture the feel of The Beast Must Die, which is in retrospect a social deduction movie and which I love beyond any rational measure. Werewolves Within didn’t manage that, and it didn’t even seem that that was what it was going for. It was more than anything going for comedy, and so much of what makes mystery stories, horror stories, or werewolf stories was only obliquely hinted at if mentioned at all. (For horror cowards like myself: it’s really not scary or gory, and I think all of the R rating was for language).

Instead, you just get to spend an hour and a half with some good actors and a frequently clever script. You could do a lot worse!

Jungle Cruise, or, The Wonderful World of Corny

The Jungle Cruise movie has already won me over before I’ve even seen it.

To be clear: I’m fully prepared for Jungle Cruise to be more the disappointment of The Haunted Mansion than the thoroughly pleasant surprise of Pirates of the Caribbean. Obviously, I hope it’s as much the goofy spectacle that the trailers promise; we are long overdue for another The Mummy. But I’m not going to be shocked or crushed if it turns out to be empty nonsense.

But as far as I’m concerned, they’ve already won just by virtue of the marketing campaign. The ongoing gag is Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson bickering with each other for attention, most brilliantly illustrated by the teaser posters, with the Rock peeking over Blunt’s shoulder, or her face mostly obscured by a torch.

Two new trailers continue the gag, and they’re a little bit more corny and obvious than the posters, but I mean, this is a movie based on the Jungle Cruise. Corny and obvious should be the go-to. This is still obviously a Disney take on The African Queen, but I was happy to see so many references to the ride in the Rock’s trailer.

I was even happier to see Paul Giamatti chewing up the scenery. One thing Giamatti and Johnson have in common is that they always understand exactly what they’re making. It’s definitely not always good, but when it’s bad, it’s never because they didn’t get the tone right.

This isn’t an easy tone to get right. The combination of corniness, self-awareness, and CGI-heavy spectacle can be completely insufferable — or worse, forgettable — if any of it’s out of balance. But no matter how the movie’s turned out, I’ve already enjoyed the hell out of the version that’s playing out in my imagination, based on the promotional material.

One Thing I Like About Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is better than Blade Runner at doing the things that Blade Runner does best.

It feels like a scandalous confession to say that I never really liked Blade Runner that much. Obviously, it’s an absolute masterpiece of production design, it’s forever changed our collective idea of the future, and it’s got some images — in particular, any scene with Joanna Cassidy or Daryl Hannah — that are unforgettable.

But as a movie, it’s always left me cold. It’s dour, literally humorless, and for having such a straightforward plot, still seemed to favor style over substance. Its ambiguity is its greatest strength; I think it implies a depth and complexity that’s not actually there. Or at least, a complexity that’s delivered entirely via Roy Batty’s final monologue — and in some versions, Deckard’s final voice-over — without being supported by the rest of the movie to that point.

So I was curious but not exactly eager to see Blade Runner 2049, which is why I’m only seeing it now, 4 years after its release. The high point is certainly the astounding cinematography, but it’s kind of repeating the obvious to say that Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in history. It’s also got great, understated performances from Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, and Dave Bautista, each giving a different take on the movie’s core idea of what it means to be human. Almost all of the CG1I hate those tiny flying probe devices in Wallace’s headquarters seems to have been used not to bypass practical effects, but for maximum impact: the scene in which Joi is trying to “sync” with a prostitute is especially fascinating.

And I think it’s better structured. It’s still dour, humorless, and far far too long, with way too many ponderous, drawn-out conversations, especially after Deckard shows up. But at least up until the final act, it’s plotted more like an actual mystery than the first film, which felt more like a series of mini-boss battles leading up to a final boss fight. Overall, it seems like a more focused, more conventional Hollywood movie that’s been over-inflated to twice as long as it needs to be. And I think most of the scenes at least supported its main idea, instead of simply feeling like tangential world-building.

So the best detail that I want to call out is how the character of Luv involuntarily cries when she kills someone.

Or is it involuntary? There’s an ambiguity there. It doesn’t seem like ambiguity is in short supply in either Blade Runner movies, with their lengthy silences, and characters staring off into the middle distance while talking across each other. But this is an ambiguity I don’t have a good answer for, and I actually care about the answer in terms of character development.

As opposed to, say, Is Deckard a replicant or what? which I still don’t think has been answered definitively, but which has no real impact on either movie’s story. In fact, I think K is a more interesting protagonist because it’s established from the start that he is a replicant. His entire personality — or because it’s a Blade Runner movie, lack of personality — is built around the acceptance that he doesn’t believe he has a soul, instead of being a somewhat generic sci-fi take on the grizzled, disillusioned film noir detective.

Luv, on the other hand, spends the bulk of the movie as a fairly two-dimensional villain, before shedding that extra dimension and going completely over the top by the movie’s final act. So why is she crying? She doesn’t cry when she kills other character, human or replicant. She shows a flinch of sympathy/discomfort during the (unnecessary) scene in which Wallace inspects a new replicant model, but otherwise, she’d seem to have all the depth and complexity of fellow evil henchmen like Odd Job or Jaws. Is she acting against her will? Is there something innate that her “programming” is betraying? Is she expressing guilt for her role in keeping replicants oppressed? It’s never made explicit.

The movie makes it explicit, multiple times, that the replicants are slaves, but also shows K, Luv, and Joi having different takes on being subservient. Especially with Joi, she sees her choice to make K happy as the thing that gives her agency, which brings her closer to being alive.

K is shown to be at some kind of peace — if not happiness — with the discrimination and his role as even more of a machine than a slave. He’s comfortably at “baseline” until he starts to suspect that he’s special, which throws him into tumult. There’s the suggestion that he didn’t see his existence as oppression, but as giving him a purpose in life.

And then there’s Luv’s final declaration, “I’m the best one!” It’s not just that she does whatever her boss/master commands; she takes pride in it, and she’s even made it a part of her identity. The question of “what does it mean to be alive?” is obviously at the core to these movies, but I think Blade Runner 2049 is better at illustrating why the question is relevant to us in the audience: it suggests that the things that make us alive aren’t assigned to us, but the ways we choose to find meaning.

Most of the movie makes these ideas explicit. There’s just the one scene that’s left ambiguous, and that’s where the intrigue is.

My Dragons Are More Sophisticated Than Your Super-Heroes

Responding to dumb ideas that refuse to die, and how it all relates to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

I’ve only seen one complete episode of Game of Thrones, but that was enough. Seeing a beautiful young woman pushed into an arranged marriage that was essentially slavery and then violently raped, and then an incestuous couple pushing a child to his death for witnessing them having sex, convinced me that this wasn’t the HBO prestige series for me.

Even if it wasn’t for me, though, I’m not interested in trying to put it down or anything. It had a lot of talent behind it, and I know a lot of smart people who got really into it. Plus, it inspired a lot of creative people to try their own hand at fantasy world-building themselves.

For instance: in an opinion column in The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg constructed a fantastic, elaborate, alternate reality in which Game of Thrones was a dramatized extrapolation of the War of the Roses designed to engender thoughtful, mature discussions about trauma, parentage, the foundations of a just government… and which also, occasionally, happened to show titties and people being beheaded or getting their eyes gouged out.

I’m not suggesting that the depth and nuance Rosenberg describes wasn’t actually present in the series, but I am absolutely 100% saying it’s comically disingenuous for her to act as if Game of Thrones‘s popularity was due to its mature and thought-provoking ideas, and that its TV-MA content and promise of dragons and zombies was just a happy accident. I have to call foul when TV critics claim not to understand how prestige TV works.

As Rosenberg describes the state of popular media as toothless and “flaccid,” while lamenting that Watchmen and Promising Young Woman weren’t more popular, it’s clear that this just boils down to the familiar refrain: the stuff I like is complex and sophisticated; this other stuff that’s popular is trite and simplistic. The part that I can’t get over is how weird this version is.

Continue reading “My Dragons Are More Sophisticated Than Your Super-Heroes”

One Thing I Like About Godzilla vs Kong

Godzilla vs Kong seems perfectly happy to be spectacular, beautiful nonsense

Title Image: Kong vs Godzilla in Hong Kong in Godzilla vs Kong

I liked Kong: Skull Island quite a bit, although apparently that didn’t come through clearly enough in my post about it. A few years ago, I was applying for a job on a licensed video game that I would’ve hated working on, so I’m very fortunate I wasn’t offered the job. At the interview, though, the interviewer mentioned reading that post and seemed skeptical I’d be happy working on a project that was part of a major franchise subject to scrutiny from tons of invested parties.

I was reminded of that while watching Godzilla vs Kong, because it’s very much the culmination of a movie franchise. But it also doesn’t betray a hint of pretense that it’s anything else, or that there’s anything wrong with being the culmination of a movie franchise.

And I really enjoyed the hell out of it. It was big, gleefully dumb fun, on a scale that I don’t think I’ve seen since The Mummy. The aspect of it I love the most is that it knows exactly what it wants to do, and exactly what people want to see when they watch a movie titled Godzilla vs Kong. Which is perfectly illustrated by this scene:

(The rest of this post has spoilers, which I really suggest you avoid reading because there are some fun surprises in the movie, even if you, as I did, go in thinking you’d already been spoiled for all of it).

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Godzilla vs Kong”

Is… THIS your identity? (One Thing I Like About In And Of Itself)

Doing my part to add to the hype around Derek DelGaudio’s emotional magic show

I was hyped for the Hulu broadcast of Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself before it premiered, because people on Twitter — not just “people,” but artists I really respect — were breathlessly describing it as a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The consensus was that it was breathtaking, and that you should watch it knowing nothing about it going in.

I’d agree with the first part, but I’d actually recommend knowing at least enough about it to keep expectations in check. My take is that it’s very good; I was openly sobbing through much of it, and that’s only about 25% because I’m extremely prone to sympathetic crying. The rest is because it’s a genuinely impressive production.

Still, I feel like it would’ve resonated with me even more if my expectations hadn’t been raised so impossibly high by the buzz around it. So I’d actually recommend going in with a reductionist idea of what it is: an ingenious combination of one-man play and stage magic show.

The one aspect I’m most impressed with is how it’s presented, so that it’s practically impossible to be too cynical to appreciate it. It’s a series of feats of stage magic that are telling you, in every moment of the show, including the title of the show, that the “tricks” aren’t the point.

To explain why would definitely be a spoiler, though, so please don’t read the rest of this post until after you’ve seen it.

Continue reading “Is… THIS your identity? (One Thing I Like About In And Of Itself)”

He vas… my boyfriend!

Celebrating Cloris Leachman’s amazing career

It seems odd to try and write a celebrity obituary as some random person on the internet with a blog, but how phenomenal was Cloris Leachman in everything?

That obituary from The Washington Post highlights her work in The Last Picture Show and Young Frankenstein, which is undoubtedly one of the best comedies ever made and in my top 10 of best movies ever made. Comedic performances never get the same respect that dramatic ones do, but it says a lot that she stands out even in a movie filled with pitch-perfect performances from several of the best comic actors of the 20th century.

The obituary also makes a point of how much she was not just willing, but eager to take risks. I wasn’t aware of the true scope of it, but even as a casual fan, I could tell that she took thankless parts and made something great of them. Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show could’ve been just the irritating neighbor lost in an ensemble of great performances, but she managed to nail the comedy so perfectly — making sure that she was always more funny than obnoxious — that even as a little kid, I thought naturally she should have her own show.

Two more quotes from that Washington Post obituary: “‘My intention,’ she told the Los Angeles Times, ‘is not to do something I’ve done before.'” and “…for the most part, she embraced unorthodox, aggressively undignified parts.” That seems like the best legacy for anyone, not just actors. We may not have her talent, but we could all aspire to her fearlessness.

True Believers

(Over-)Thinking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it’s “cinema,” or if it’s something even more relevant to the 21st century

Hey, did everybody catch the latest episode of WandaVision. It was pretty rad. The feeling of a TV-series-long homage to “It’s a Good Life” was stronger than ever, with the added depth of being invested in the characters to make it super sinister. My favorite gag in the whole episode was how they called back to the various ways TV series have tried to hide an actor’s pregnancy over the years: putting them in big coats, standing behind counters, holding a bowl of fruit.

While I was reading back over my gushing about WandaVision, a few things stood out: first was that I seriously need an editor.

Second is that I referred to Paul Bettany as “Jennifer Connelly’s husband,” which could come across as a weird dig against him out of nowhere, but I really intended it as a dig against his agent. Or probably more accurately, the byzantine union rules that resulted in his getting top billing over Elizabeth Olsen. Because that doesn’t seem fair at all. Bettany himself, on the other hand, seems pretty cool.

But third was how I put in a dig against Martin Scorsese for saying that “Marvel movies aren’t ‘cinema.'” This was a quote that I’d heard a while ago, back when the internet was trying to gin it up into a controversy, but at the time I just rolled my eyes and moved on. Last week I realized that if I’m going to keep referencing it, I should probably look it up and see what he actually said.

And I was disappointed. I’d expected it disagree entirely, but I figured that coming from a filmmaker with Scorsese’s stature, it would be a well-thought-out and multi-layered argument. Instead, it’s just the same old “high art vs low art” gate-keeping that fans of “genre fiction” have been used to seeing for decades. It uses a narrow definition of “cinema” that is just flexible enough to include the stuff that Scorsese likes, it conflates subject matter with artistic merit, and it goes on to conflate artistic merit with financing, production, distribution, and exhibition. And it should come as little surprise that it frames the predominance of “franchise pictures” as the death of the auteur-driven film model in which he became world-famous and widely respected.

Continue reading “True Believers”

MustyTV, and a scaredy-cat’s guide to horror

Recommendations for spooky movies that I probably can’t watch!

We’re getting closer to Halloween, and all month my friend Rain has been doing her annual lineup of recommended horror movies and how to stream them on her Musty TV blog.

This year the twist is that she’s choosing movies she hasn’t seen before. Which means there are several interesting suggestions that I’d never even heard of; you’re likely to find some good recommendations on there so check it out!

I’m not sure how many I’ll check out, since I’ve always had a very low tolerance for horror movies, and that tolerance just keeps going down the older I get. It really sucks, because intellectually, I love horror, but it’s as if I physically can’t enjoy it.

In movies, horror is the genre with the most potential for being multi-layered: there can be a horror/suspense story that’s being experienced viscerally, while any social commentary or over-arching theme can be going on in a “separate channel.” It’s also got the most potential to be high-brow or low-brow, and you never know what you’re going to get. And filmmakers who really understand the genre, like Sam Raimi, can blur the line between low-brow and high-brow and combine them into one movie. Drag Me to Hell is still underrated.

I still think that’s why Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies work so well. He approached them as a horror movie maker doing an epic fantasy, instead of someone trying to make an epic fantasy story with a few scary moments. It’s most apparent in the scenes with the Nazgul and with Shelob, which feel as if they’re not holding anything back. See also: the transformation of Doctor Octopus in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

But that seems to be as close as I can get. Several times over the years, I’ve pledged to go to a Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, or Knott’s Scary Farm, and the pandemic isn’t the only reason I’m not going this year. I know from time in hospitals earlier in the year that I can’t just intellectually turn off my reaction to seeing blood; it makes me feel light-headed and just on the verge of throwing up or passing out (or both).

I’ve tried playing Phasmaphobia, and I haven’t made it past the tutorial. I want to love it, since it’s about ghost hunters and solving puzzles in typical horror movie environments, and it seems really clever. But it’s too good at setting a mood and being extremely creepy. I wasn’t able to distance myself from it at all, and it was just like walking around my own house with voices whispering and hissing, and doors opening and closing — not like being in a fun haunted house, but that feeling when you’re woken up in a dark house in the middle of the night. Even if I do play this again, there’s no way that I’d play it in VR.

But back to the horror movie recommendations: I may see Chopping Mall, since it looks silly, and I’ve always wanted to see it. I could also probably handle Host and Lake Mungo, since video adds a layer of detachment that I can always handle. I’ve already seen Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night 2, and that just made me a little sad, because it feels like they were going for a self-aware tone and just not pulling it off.