Review of “Black Widow”

Please note: There will be some “Avengers: Endgame” spoilers in this review. If you haven’t seen that film yet, it’s available on Disney+, for rental on several platforms and for purchase in stores that sell DVD’s/Blu Rays.

Nothing says “SUMMER” like sitting in a movie theater with overpriced popcorn and soda and a superhero movie on the screen. There hasn’t been a Marvel movie in theaters since “Spider-Man: Far from Home” in July 2019. Now, with the pandemic beginning to ebb (get your vaccination) and the world is reopening, we are treated to a long overdue solo movie for the only women to be included in the early MCU: “Black Widow.”

Natasha Romonoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) following her actions in violation of the Sokovia Accords. She slips away to Norway with the help of Mason (O-T Fagbenle) who sets her up in a trailer isolated in the wilderness. Going into town to buy fuel for the generator supplying power to her housing, Natasha is attacked by a warrior who mimics her fighting style called Taskmaster. Taskmaster isn’t interested in her, but a case in her car. Natasha escapes with the contents of the case, several vials of a red gas. Since the items containing the case came from a safehouse in Budapest, Natasha returns to the city from which she and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) just barely escaped. At the safehouse, Natasha runs into Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), the young woman Natasha has known since they were children in the Black Widow training program called the Red Room. Yelena tells Natasha the red vials are a gas that severs the mind control the Red Room has over the female assassins. The training program was run by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the target Natasha thought she killed to prove her loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. Yelena says he survived and is still running the Red Room in a secret location that no one knows. Natasha and Yelena decide to reunite Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) who pretended to be the girls’ father in an espionage mission in 1995. Alexei is Russia’s only superhero, the Red Guardian, who was given a super-soldier serum similar to Captain America and worked for Dreykov. Dreykov has put Alexei in a prison in a frozen wasteland. Getting a helicopter from Mason, Natasha and Yelena break out Alexei and travel to meet up with Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), who pretended to be the girls’ mother in 1995. Melina is the scientist that developed the mind control used on the Widows from the Red Room. The reunited faux family goes on a mission to end Dreykov’s control over the Widows and end his plans for world domination.

While “Black Widow” is more focused on the espionage angle, the story from Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, and the script from Eric Pearson, includes a great deal of family moments as well. Unlike “F9,” there are some actual expressions of love and tenderness shown to provide some evidence that the four unrelated people are the closest thing to family any of them has known. Despite them not seeing each other for 25 years, and after some initial discomfort from long simmering resentments, the four main characters slip easily into the roles of parents and children and all the friction that can cause for the youngsters that are now adults. To put it more bluntly, the family dynamic of “Black Widow” actually works, unlike “F9.”

While the rest of the movie is mostly car chases, fist fights and things blowing up, the scenes between Natasha and Yelena are the most fun in the film. They snipe at each other and complain about the choices each makes but in a way that feels sisterly than out of any real anger. The pair are reconnecting and dealing with their actions and the choices they’ve made, some beyond their control, that have cost lives. While the Red Room made them deadly Black Widows, it couldn’t completely eliminate their feelings of guilt.

Diving into this aspect of being an assassin for the State is a concept that was lightly touched on by the “Bourne” films when they weren’t fighting and blowing things up. In “Black Widow,” the notion of being a terminator for a government that will eliminate you when you’ve outlived your usefulness is central to the story. Between Red Guardian being shipped off to prison and the Widows being forced to kill themselves when they might be captured, “Black Widow” shows the unglamorous side of being a spy, even if all the Widows are beautiful.

“Black Widow” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material. There are numerous fights featuring acrobatic flips, knife play and shootings. There is very little blood, although we see a tracking device cut out of a Widow’s arm or leg, I don’t remember which. There is a graphic, but comedic, description of the forced hysterectomies Black Widows must have. We see a wrist broken during an arm-wrestling match and a leg broken in a fall. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Some have argued the last third of the movie falls into the superhero trope of being all action and very little story or character moments. That isn’t wrong. The big action set piece that concludes the movie is very “Marvel,” with the heroes saving the day and the bad guys vanquished (sorry if you consider that a spoiler, but come on, it’s a Marvel movie). There is a bit of peacemaking with Taskmaster as its identity is revealed. There’s also a very nice moment, wrapped up in action, involving Yelena and Natasha that cements their affection for one another. And the post-credits scene sets up the future of Black Widow that we’ll probably see in the Disney+ “Hawkeye” TV show. It’s not the best Marvel movie, but it isn’t “Iron Man 2” or “Thor: The Dark World” and this one is certainly overdue.

“Black Widow” gets four stars out of five.

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Review of “Midsommar”

Dani (Florence Pugh) has suffered an unimaginable loss when her mentally ill sister kills her parents and herself. Her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) has been considering breaking up with Dani for a year but lacks the courage to do it. Six months after the tragedy, Dani accompanies Christian on a trip to Sweden with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Swedish native Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). The Americans are with Pelle as he returns to his small village deep in the Swedish wilderness called Harga. They are his guests for a festival in the village that is only held every 90 years. Harga is a close-knit community where everyone dresses in white, there’s a ritual for everything and nature is worshipped and revered. Josh, like Christian, is a graduate student working on his doctoral thesis. Josh is studying the summer solstice rituals of various cultures, including the version practiced in Harga. Everyone in Harga is warm and welcoming, happy to see the newcomers and looking forward to sharing their bounty and the festival with them. As the Americans see more of the festival, they are horrified by what is considered normal by the Hargans. Soon, the summer solstice festival will become a moment of truth and decision for Dani, Christian and the other visitors.

“Midsommar” is an acid trip of a movie. There are moments when fantasy and reality are indistinguishable, and images of beauty are splattered by levels of gore that I’ve rarely seen. It is a film that is both gorgeous and ugly, sweet and sour, and filled with warmth and frigidness. It is also a movie I could not take my eyes from and wanted more when it ended.

“Midsommar” is a film that is sold as a horror film but that is not true. It is a mix of genres while not being any one of them. I suppose “thriller” might be the most accurate slot in which to file the film, but that still isn’t quite right. “Midsommar” is a slow burn, presenting as a domestic drama at first before gradually oozing its way into a nightmare. It’s a film that requires patience and a willingness to allow the story to play out in its own time.

One of the most distinct things about the film is the cinematography. Vast landscapes are filmed with the love of a parent for a child. There is a shot that moves from right side up to upside down and stays inverted for a very long time. Drugs are consumed on a couple of occasions, both voluntarily and involuntarily, and that affects the way scenes are shot. There’s nothing flashy about these scenes and that’s what makes them so amazing. If you see the film you might not notice what I’m talking about, but there are moments when solid objects flow, oscillate and warp. It is done subtly but adds so much to the hallucinatory nature of these moments and the film in general.

It is also a movie that takes a close look at toxic relationships. There’s the obvious one between Dani and Christian, but there’s also the ones that surround them. Christian and Josh go from friends to enemies when Christian decides his doctoral thesis will focus on Harga, piggybacking on Josh’s research. Mark doesn’t like Dani and encourages Christian to dump her. Mark is passive-aggressive towards Dani and she feels his enmity towards her. The residents of Harga notice these cracks in their friendship and subtly use them to split the visitors apart. This could be an allegory for politics as those in power, and hoping to stay there, find the fracture lines of those that disagree with them and apply pressure to cause a fissure.

Maybe I’m looking for a meaning behind everything in this movie since I have to believe writer and director Ari Aster has that in mind. There is so much going on in both the foreground and the background, from the movements of the extras to the designs on the walls of the barn where everyone sleeps, that is clearly designed to tell the story without actually telling the story. We are given clues of what’s to come, but it just appears to be set dressing or random visuals to support how quirky the village is. All these clues of the madness to come are delivered in bright colors, mostly in daylight, and with a smile. Aster’s genius is showing you what’s going to happen without giving away any of the surprise. Even after having told you this, should you see the movie, you won’t see what’s coming. It’s a brilliant bit of film making.

The gore in the film is shocking in its suddenness and its extremeness. Usually, gore in horror movies is so over the top and expected (it’s a horror movie after all), its appearance loses some of the impact. In “Midsommar,” the gore is unexpected and is so visceral, so…gory, it is shocking while also being almost welcome. Much of what passes in movies of all genres for violence is so stylized that it loses the ability to move us. In “Midsommar,” the gore that happens early on, that tells us this isn’t your dad’s horror movie, will move you. You know something bad is about to happen, you expect what you’ve seen before, but you get something soooooooo much worse. It’s a shocking scene that works within the context of the movie despite having what’s come before being so idyllic. If you have a weak stomach, you will be tested by a couple of scenes in “Midsommar.”

“Midsommar” is rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language. I won’t go into a lengthy description of the violence and gore on display other than to say there are rocks, giant mallets and fire involved. There is a bizarre and unsexy sex scene near the end of the film. There are a couple of scenes featuring full frontal male and female nudity. Drugs are ingested both voluntarily (psychedelic mushrooms) and involuntarily. Foul language is scattered.

The reactions to some events of the film may leave you wondering why anyone would stay in the village after seeing them. I wondered that as well. There isn’t really a satisfactory answer to that question other than the characters didn’t feel like they could leave. They were guests in a friend’s home village, witnessing another culture’s ways, and some of the characters believed they should stay to absorb all the events in context before making any judgements. It doesn’t really work in my brain as a reason, but it’s the best I can come up with.

Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is a weird experience, but one I’m glad I had. It’s a film that demands your attention but in the politest way. It lulls you into thinking this is going to be almost a travelogue then collects your passport and won’t give them back. You’re stuck with the rest of the audience as you take a journey into a Swedish “Twilight Zone” that would make creator Rod Serling say, “That’s too much!” It is visually stunning in every conceivable way and will have those willing to go for the ride with an open mind wanting more by the end. I loved “Midsommar” and need to go back and watch Aster’s “Hereditary” to see if I missed out on his madness early on.

“Midsommar” gets 5 stars.

Disney’s remake of “The Lion King” is the only new film opening this week. I’m not interested in seeing it and may either take the weekend off or see something else that I find more intriguing. Anyway, here’s the trailer:

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