Marvel, Docs, Mock Docs & More in Theaters
Sure, maybe we’ve all glutted ourselves on whatever series the MCU has shoveled our way over the last year and a half, but its first proper cinematic experience hits screens this weekend. Worth the wait? Yes! Here you will find our spoiler-free review of Black Widow, as well as thoughts on hits and misses across the cinematic universe (for those of you who have not missed superheroes).
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
Avenger Natasha Romanoff had to wait awhile to get the green light on her own standalone origin story, and then even longer for the big screens to carry it. Now Black Widow is finally here, and Natasha’s not even the most interesting character in her own show.
And the film is better for it.
Director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson surround Natasha with uniquely compelling personalities that become important parts of a whole, while surrounding star Scarlett Johansson with a supporting ensemble skilled enough to make this one of the MCU’s most character-driven successes.
Oh, there’s action, too, but we start with a prologue set in 1995 Ohio, when Natasha’s family is trying to flee the country at a moment’s notice. Father Alexei (David Harbour), and mother Melina (Rachel Weiss) were prepared for this day, so they scoop up young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) and put the escape plan into action.
An overlong, Watchmen-style montage mixing music and news headlines brings us up to 2006, when the family is long estranged. Natasha is on the run since the Avengers “divorce” (between Civil War and Infinity War), Yelena (Florence Pugh) is taking names in Norway, Alexei is in prison and Melina’s loyalties seem tied to some talented pigs. Meanwhile the villainous Dreykov (Ray Winstone – nice! His accent – not so much) has plans to build an army of mind-controlled “Black Widow” assassins.
That means females only, but while the reveal lands as a clear metaphor for sex trafficking, Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, the underseen gem Lore) and Pearson (Godzilla vs. Kong, Thor: Ragnarok) never belabor any well-taken points. Even better, they fill the entire adventure with enough organic, self-aware humor about posing, too tight supersuits and the need for pockets that very few of the 133 minutes seem laborious at all.
The core foursome is uniformly terrific, as you would expect from actors of this caliber. Performances blossom and surprise, their chemistry buoying the familial longing required of every superhero backstory while anchoring action in characters you can care about.
Pugh—sympathetic, comedic and badass—is the standout, but Johansson shines, especially in a climactic bout with Winstone that lands satisfying jabs about weak men.
Shortland never forgets the point of a superhero film, though. The breathless action in Black Widow impresses as much as it entertains, whether hand-to-hand or aerial.
And it is a Marvel film, so be sure to stick around post-credits for an intriguing stinger and a welcome addition to the universe.
The Loneliest Whale
At Gateway Film Center
by George Wolf
Ask any rando what their favorite Star Trek movie is, and you’ll get plenty of the same response.
“The one with the whales!”
To save the universe, Kirk and the gang have to make sure a whale’s song gets answered. It was touching, right?
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 finds a similar nerve, chasing a legendary animal seemingly alone in the vastness of the ocean.
The U.S. Navy first heard the whale in 1992, calling out at 52 Hz, a unique frequency no other whale could understand. And so the songs of this lonely whale – dubbed “52” – went unanswered, until the Navy stopped listening ten years ago.
A New York Times article about 52’s plight ignited a global community of souls who seemingly related to feeling alone in a sea of noise. One of those was director Joshua Zemen, and his film attempts to separate the facts from the legend while documenting a weeklong expedition to actually track down 52 in the open ocean.
52’s story is certainly a compelling one, and Zemen gives it more context through background info on the history of whaling and how 1970s “Songs of the Humpback Whale” began to change the way we thought about these majestic creatures.
Zemen’s approach may be far from stylish, but it is earnest, ambitious and respectful, which seems fitting for a story anchored in a love of science and nature. And while the correlations between a friendless whale and a sea of people increasingly detached through technology are hard to miss, Zemen finds the restraint to avoid going boldly there once too often.
The Loneliest Whale captures its most effective feels in the epilogue, when we catch up with Zemen and members of his team getting some surprising news two months after their expedition came to an end. It’s a surprise that not only brings hope for 52, but for anyone warmed by nature’s little victories.
Rock, Paper and Scissors
Three characters, and one big house. That’s all that directors/writers Martin Blousson and Macarena Garcia Lenzi need to conjur up a good bit of creepy in Rock, Paper and Scissors (Piedra, papel y tijera).
Jesus (Pablo Sigal) and Maria Jose (Augustina Cervino) are isolated siblings living alone in the family home after the recent death of their father. When their paternal half-sister Magdalena (Valeria Giorcelli) arrives from Spain to discuss the inheritance and plans for the house, Jesus and Maria offer to put her up for the length of her stay.
Magdalena doesn’t want to trouble them for any more than one night, but a nasty fall down the stairs the next morning means little sister isn’t going anywhere.
Suddenly, Magdalena is a captive, and at the mercy of her siblings’ eyebrow-raising eccentricities. Jesus is an aspiring filmmaker filled with questionable inspirations, and Maria is a Wizard Of Oz-obsessed nursemaid who hopes to co-star with a guinea pig named Toto in Jesus’ upcoming film.
Magdalena’s only hope for escape seems to be separating her brother and sister, and probing for ways to work one against the other. Could Maria have pushed Magdalena down the stairs, or is Jesus the real danger in this house? And how did their father really die, anyway?
Blousson and Lenzi move past the Misery-like premise in short order, piling on some surrealistic Lynch-meets-Lanthimos weirdness and bathing it all in a stylistic visual pastiche of earth tone Goth.
The trio of actors reveals their characters’ true motivations at a languid pace that keeps us guessing, right up to the gorgeous closing shot that will leave you looking twice. Maybe three times.
by Hope Madden
“Runners are a stupid breed.”
That is a direct quote from my doctor after I re-injured myself for the 11th or 12th time from running. He may have consulted on Anthony Guidubaldi and Keith Strausbaugh’s screenplay for their new mockumentary, Marathon.
Amateur documentarians follow five runners as they train for an off-brand marathon organized by Ed Clap (Jimmy Slonina), the owner of a shoe store, equally off-brand.
In much the way the master of the genre Christopher Guest used dog shows and community theater to explore particular personality types, so do Guidubaldi and Straugsbaugh set a group of oddballs loose inside the idiocy of marathon training.
For Shareef Washington (Tavius Cortez), this is about sibling rivalry. Unfortunately, he has to do all his training on a treadmill because whenever he runs outside, he gets arrested by white cops. Jenna (Natalie Sullivan), on the other hand, wants to break the world record for marathon runners dressed as fruit.
Crews also tail a woman (Anais Thomassian) trying to remember life before motherhood and an insecure man (Andrew Hansen) hoping to prove himself to his ex-wife by qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
So, the runners range from desperate to lunatic, sometimes in insightful and often in amusing ways. Hansen’s quickly deteriorating relationship with Jeff, the cameraman we never see, delivers the film’s funniest moments.
The keenest insights may come by way of Emilou (Kimia Behpoornia), who drops out the moment she realizes marathons are 26 miles long. Her crew stays with her through race day, though, just to prove how much better life is when you’re not training for a marathon.
Though Hansen is clearly the film’s brightest spot, the filmmakers pieced together an entirely solid ensemble. Droll performances suit the script and keep your attention, but the story itself lacks much real punch. Worse, the police oppression subplot feels tone-deaf at best.
Still, Guidubaldi and Strausbaugh understand something my doctor saw perhaps too well, and that’s why their affectionate ribbing rings so true.
by Hope Madden
Back in 2014, Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh wondered what to do about a dad who may be his son’s only salvation, or may be his one true danger. Canal had a lot going for it—it looked creepy, performances were solid, and it wasn’t afraid to bang up its cast.
It just couldn’t quite make the leap from good to great.
Same goes for the filmmaker’s latest, Son.
We open on a filthy, barefoot, rain-soaked young pregnant woman (Andi Matichak, Halloween) hoping to warm up with a coffee in a roadside diner. Two men walk in, she exits in a hurry.
Cut to eight years later. Same woman, clean and wholesome now, buckles in precocious little David (Luke David Blumm) to drop him off at school. They’re adorable. They’re happy, hard-working, loving, and about to face some ugly stuff once Kavanagh establishes the paradise to be lost.
An awful lot of movies want to know how far a mother is willing to go to protect the son who may or may not be the real villain. This has been especially true in the last five years. (See The Hole, The Prodigy, Brahms: The Boy 2, Z, Brightburn — it’s a long list.) Does anything set Son apart?
Kavanaugh roots the story in hysteria and conspiracy, sketchy memories of a cult versus police reports of sex trafficking. All of it feels mildly of-the-moment, but the real purpose is to throw skepticism toward the seemingly lucid mother and her claims.
Which is another common horror trope (is she crazy or is she right?), especially in the subgenre where a mother is trying to figure something out that may or may not be supernatural.
So, no, Kavanaugh does not bring much that’s new to the table.
Son does boast solid performances, and the filmmaker once again flexes his strong instincts for unsettling locations and atmospheres. The writing, pacing, and imagery all work together as they should to generate anxiety and dread. Son gets gory now and again, too.
It just doesn’t do anything you don’t expect it to do.
Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.