Thursday, July 15, 2021

Black Widow/Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson) in Marvel Studios' BLACK WIDOW. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Marvel has all but gotten its formula down to a science at this point, turning into a well-oiled machine that churns out easily digestible content multiple times a year. Due to the effects of COVID-19, Black Widow is the first new Marvel film to hit theaters in nearly two years, since Spider-Man: Far From Home was released in July of 2019. 

Originally slated for release in 2020, Black Widow is a prequel of sorts, that follows the adventures of the titular heroine, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) left her exiled from the Avengers. Here, we see her reunited with her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who was also a victim of Soviet-era mind control experiments designed to create an unstoppable force of "widows," female super soldiers under the control of Dreykov, aka Taskmaster (Ray Winston). Together, they must reunite with Yelena (Rachel Weiss) and Boris (David Harbour), two Soviet operatives who once posed as their parents in a Cold War-era spy mission in the United States, to take down Dreykov before he can unleash his widows, infiltrate world governments, and impose his will upon international affairs.

Black Widow is a slick entertainment in the standard Marvel style, hewing more closely to the paranoid spy thriller vibe of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, right down to its typically over-the-top climactic superhero smackdown taking place on an enemy vessel in the sky. Pugh and Harbour make especially entertaining additions to the MCU, and director Cate Shortland (Somersault) peppers the film with some engaging set pieces that alternate between action and comedy. The problem with Black Widow is how, perhaps moreso than any other film in the MCU, it typifies the kind of uncomfortable relationship between Marvel and the interests of American imperialism that as been a through-line in the series.

Of course, some films in the MCU certainly pay lip service to questioning institutions, as SHIELD agents actually being secret HYDRA agents have made up major plot points in the film, but the belief in the American ideal, no matter how flawed its institutions may be, remains a cornerstone of the MCU as embodied by contrasting heroism of WWII era patriot, Captain America, and billionaire entrepreneur, Iron Man. Black Widow s plot revolves around a Cold War era mind control plot being carried out by Soviet agents who embed communist spies right into American neighborhoods. These mind control tactics come to represent a hegemony of thought, a lack of personal freedom, and Natasha's escape to the United States represents an achievement of liberty, a shedding of the chains of communism. Nowhere is this clearer than in the portrayal of Harbour's Red Guardian, a kind of Soviet foil to Captain America, as a total buffoon. Drunken and overweight, with the words "Karl" and "Marx" tattooed across his knuckles like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, Red Guardian comes off like a store brand Captain America, a Soviet-era knockoff who's rivalry with Cap is completely one-sided and quixotic. 

Whether out of a sense of comedy or something more insidious, Black Widow's anti-communist subtext almost feels Randian at times, taking potshots at Soviet inferiority at every turn, reinforcing the idea of America's (and therefore capitalism's) inherent superiority. It should come as no surprise that a film churned out by the biggest entertainment conglomerate on earth, is in fact a de facto apologia for American exceptionalism, but it's certainly indicative of the way capitalism is treated as the inevitable default, and communism becomes a punchline served up for cheap yuks. Its consistent and sometimes subtle digs feel almost propagandistic, working to undermine socialism by relying on hoary Cold War cliches that would have felt old hat even 30 years ago. 

Black Widow is certainly a slick entertainment, but that's what makes its underlying themes so troubling. By turning its human trafficking plot into a Cold War farce, it loses any potential teeth it could have had by shrugging it off as a problem of communism, trapping its adherents in a prison of conformity. There's certainly a lot to like here, but don't be fooled by its shiny veneer, because what makes this film tick is ultimately a tired bit of imperialist corporate propaganda designed to make capitalism seem like a moral default rather than a destructive aberration. 

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

BLACK WIDOW | Directed by Cate Shortland | Stars Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, Olga Kurylenko | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material | Now playing in theaters nationwide, and on Disney+ with Premiere Access.

Monday, July 05, 2021

The first part of a planned trilogy being released over a period of a few weeks on Netflix, Fear Street Part 1: 1994, is based on R.L. Stine's popular series of horror novels for teens that were kind of like the older, meaner cousin of Goosebumps during the 1990s. 

This first entry in the trilogy introduces us to a group of teenagers from the seemingly cursed town of Shadyside, where seemingly normal people have been turning into murderers for generations. After an encounter with a group of bullies from a wealthier rival town, the teens soon find themselves under siege by a gang of killers from the town's haunted past - and must band together to break the centuries-old curse or die trying. 

Fear Street 1994 plays a bit like Scream meets Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, taking elements from various Fear Street novels and using them as both a winking nod to horror films from decades past and a terrifying thriller in its own right. And yet, despite its use of a nostalgic property from the 1990s, never feels like its leaning too hard into dewy-eyed recreations of childhood properties. This is, first and foremost, a horror film, and director Leigh Janiak wastes no time in letting us know that we are far, far away from Goosebumps kiddie horror, even though its aesthetic is very grounded in the kind of teen horror films that populated the cinematic landscape in the 1990s. It also distinguishes itself by putting a queer romance front and center rather than on the periphery, with its two "final girl" protagonists former girlfriends whose relationship has been on the rocks ever since one of them chose status over love by moving to the rival town, Sunnyvale. 

It it going to reinvent the horror genre the way some have claimed in rapturous social media notices? Most likely not, it's all a bit too rooted in elements of the past to really pave the way for horror's future, but that doesn't stop Fear Street 1994 from being one hell of a good time. It's been a long time since we've seen a horror film that's this much fun, a purely enjoyable chiller that beautifully captures the feeling of its pulpy teen novel roots. I can't wait to see where this series goes next.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

FEAR STREET PART 1:  1994 | Directed by Leigh Janiak | Stars Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Julia Rehwald, Benjamin Flores Jr., Fred Hechinger, Ashley Zukerman | Rated R for strong bloody violence, drug content, language and some sexual content | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix 

Setting out to recreate the grand, star-studded variety show feel of Ziegfeld's Follies, Ziegfeld Follies is a series of impressively mounted acts, from dance numbers to songs to comedy routines to Vaudeville acts, featuring the likes of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Lena Horne, Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, Red Skelton, and more. 

The film is framed as a heavenly reverie, as the great Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell, briefly reprising his role from The Great Ziegfeld) looks down from above and imagines the thrill of throwing one last Follies. What follows is a veritable who's who of Hollywood stars of the 1940s, in which must have felt like a refreshingly carefree spectacle to weary audiences as World War II neared its end. There are certainly highlights here - Judy Garland's delightfully tongue-in-cheek satire of stardom, "A Great Lady has an Interview," Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dancing "The Babbit and the Bromide" (in their first of only two on-screen pairings), the disastrous but beautiful "bubble dance" in the final number, "Beauty," Victor Moore as a harrowed client facing a fine begging his brash lawyer, Edward Arnold, to "just pay the $2!" But the sheer amount of material in the two hour film almost feels oppressive. What would have been stunning on the stage becomes tedious on film, as the novelty of the variety show structure begins to wear thin long before the back-loaded succession of heavy-hitting acts gives us what we've wanted to see all along.

There's something charmingly sincere about its nostalgic recreation of what is now essentially a lost artform, bringing some of Hollywood's most glittering stars together for a dazzling, carefree variety show right at the end of WWII. But its lack of overarching theme or cohesion makes it an often tough sit, and the Ziegfeld looking down from heaven framing device is just way too cutesy for its own good. There are certainly individual elements to enjoy here, and it looks gorgeous in its new Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Archive, but the scattershot nature of Ziegfeld Follies may test the patience of even the most ardent fan of classic Hollywood musicals.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

ZIEGFELD FOLLIES | Directed by Vincente Minelli | Lucille Ball, Fred Astaire, Lucille Bremer, Fanny Brice, Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, James Melton, Victor Moore, Red Skelton, William Powell, Edward Arnold, Marion Bell, Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams | Now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.