Find Me At Screen Rant

Sunday, October 10, 2021

No Time To Die



You Have All The Time In The World

The final act is often the hardest to get right but director Cary Joji Fukunaga's urgent and stunning No Time To Die gets it so right. No Time To Die is the fifth and final movie starring Daniel Craig as James Bond and while I have an overwhelming love for and devotion to Skyfall, No Time To Die outdoes it by delivering something 007 has never truly had: a definitive ending. But en route to that end - Bond's end - is one more globe-hopping adventure - Matera, Italy, Jamaica, Santiago, Cuba, London, Norway, and a mysterious island between Japan and Russia - where Bond saves the world from the 21st-century threat of deadly nanobots. More importantly, James Bond faces the scope of his dangerous life as a Double-0 agent and finally confronts both his own mortality and the chance to leave something (and someone) behind.

Daniel Craig has never been better as James Bond. Well-aware that his and the audience's hearts weren't in Spectre, Craig does not waste this opportunity to go out with a kiss-kiss bang-bang. In No Time To Die, Bond is the happiest he's ever been on holiday with Dr. Madeleine Swann (a fantastic Lea Seydoux) when he's ambushed by Spectre agents sent by his old enemy (and ex-brother, adoptive), Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). Bond believes Madeleine betrayed him and he's heartbroken. (Although as Blofeld later taunts James, "You were always so sensitive!") Using his indomitable Aston Martin DB5, Bond annihilates the Spectre agents, puts Madeleine on a train, and tells her she'll never see him again. And he meant it. For at least the third time in Daniel Craig's quintology, Bond quits MI6 and he means it.

Retired in Jamaica five years later, Bond is now a man with unlimited time to kill but at least no one is trying to kill him, for once. Until James' old spy buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) comes calling. Felix temps Bond back into action but James meeting M's (Ralph Feinnes) efficient new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch) also had something to do with it. From there, No Time To Die puts its foot on the accelerator and takes us on a two-hour thrill ride. Bond walks into a trap in Cuba alongside Paloma (Ana de Armas), the most cheerfully gorgeous Bond Girl of Craig's 007 era. Ana de Armas is so good at drinking, quipping, and fighting alongside James, we wish she stayed for the whole movie. But the mystery of who's working against both James Bond and Spectre, which led to a trap for Bond turning into the massacre of every Spectre agent, leads right back to Ernst Stavro Blofeld. But the real key to this mystery is Madeleine Swann.

In the film's brilliant opening flashback, young Madeleine was attacked by No Time To Die's new twisted villain, Safin (Rami Malek). Safin's family was wiped out by Madeleine's father, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), on Blofeld's orders and Safin came to White's Norway home looking for revenge. After killing Madeleine's mother, Safin becomes infatuated by the young girl and he saves her from drowning in ice (an echo of Bond nearly drowning in ice during Skyfall's climax). Decades later, Safin is back to finish the job he started and use Madeleine to kill Blofeld with his bioweapon that only works on a specific target's DNA. But Madeleine has another secret Bond discovers: they have a four-year-old daughter named Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet). At first, Madeleine lies that James isn't the father of the blue-eyed girl, but he is and he knows it. Mathilde, James Bond's first offspring in any movie, is a bombshell that sets No Time To Die apart from every Bond movie and enables the movie's incredible ending.

No Time To Die's finale, like everything that builds up to it, is absolutely spectacular. Bond and Nomi team up to assault Safin's secret island base, where the madman plans to wipe out entire demographics of people with nanobots, and to save the kidnapped Madeleine and Mathilde. The action is visceral and first-rate as 007 fights his way through scores of soldiers in order to open the blast doors so that missiles can wipe out the island. But Bond is injured by Safin and, worse, he's infected with nanobots targeted to Mathilde and Madeleine's DNA. Even if he got off the island, touching either the woman he loves or his daughter would kill them both. And thus, James Bond makes the ultimate sacrifice, one that feels unthinkable from any of his predecessors from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan - Bond willingly dies so that Madeleine and Mathilde can live. Daniel Craig's storied and incredibly successful run as James Bond explosively ends as 007 gives up his life to ensure his daughter can have hers.

A courageous and majestic James Bond story like no other, No Time To Die not only wraps up the serialized story about Daniel Craig's 007 that began with Casino Royale, it also gracefully genuflects to the greater franchise, with special reverence paid to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Bond repeats the ominous promise, "We have all the time in the world" to Madeleine as Hans Zimmer's score evokes John Barry's booming On Her Majesty's Secret Service theme and weaves in Louis Armstrong's "We Have All The Time In The World." As missiles are about to rain down upon him, James Bond promises Madeleine that "You have all the time in the world." This is Bond's most important promise of all and one he means to keep. With this incredible final chapter where everything feels earned and definitive, Cary Joji Fukunaga and Daniel Craig give 007 a legacy he never had before and close out the Craig Era of James Bond with an unforgettably poignant and emotional ending.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Venom: Let There Be Carnage



Venom: Let There Be Carnage is what everyone dreaded the first Venom movie would be. Director Ruben Fleischer's Venom was an oddball entertainment with the bizarre relationship between Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and Venom (Tom Hardy) at its center. In contrast, Andy Serkis directs Venom: Let There Be Carnage and strips away the connective tissue that made the original Venom a movie, leaving only the guts (but no blood, because Let There Be Carnage is PG-13). Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the equivalent of three Saturday morning cartoons smashed together with a threadbare plot (credited to Tom Hardy and Kelly Marcell) that was probably scribbled on a cocktail napkin during an all-night bender. And yet, despite my loathing this cacophonous misery, Carnage literally says, "Let there be Carnage!" in the movie, and saying the title of the movie in spoken dialogue nets the film an automatic four stars from me.

As set up by Venom's ending, Let There Be Carnage is about a serial killer named Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, who has nothing to play and plays that nothing right off a cliff). Cletus is holed up on death row in San Quentin but he bites reporter Eddie Brock and swallows some of the Venom symbiote. The result is Cletus is transformed into his own, even grosser, more prehensile tail-y, space monster named Carnage. Cletus/Carnage murder their way out of the clink and head straight for San Francisco to reunite with Cletus' childhood love, Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris). Barrison is also a superpowered freak who can emit sonic screams and she's been locked up her whole life. However, Carnage, Venom, and all of these goopy symbiotes only have two fatal vulnerabilities: fire and really loud noises. So naturally, Carnage isn't too happy that Cletus' missus can kill him if she opens her yap. Three's definitely a crowd there. But the bottom line is Carnage sucks; he's a hideous, terrible, eyesore who's somehow both barely in the movie yet in too much of the movie.

Meanwhile, Eddie, who was a loser in the first movie, is having a career renaissance where he's now the most important and respected reporter in San Francisco, despite still being a swarthy, twitchy weirdo who is clearly hiding a psychotic pile of murderous ooze beneath his skin. Venom is bored of being with Eddie and how controlling his human host is. Eddie won't let Venom eat human brains and he keeps shooting down Venom wanting to call their dynamic duo the "Lethal Protectors." It's not easy being in a symbiotic/romantic relationship with a symbiote and, just like in any rom com, Eddie and Venom break up and go their separate ways for a while. Unfortunately, Eddie has no heterosexual outlet with a human female to turn to because his ex-fiancee, Ann Weying (Michelle Williams), is now engaged to Doctor Dan Lewis (Reid Scott), who, strangely, turns out to be the most heroic person in the movie. For his part, Venom has a scene where he hits a rave and has a fantabulous emancipation of Venom - or he tries to, anyway, but Venom soon realizes he literally can't live without Eddie.

What passes for a plot in Venom: Let There Be Carnage is summed up thusly: Cletus wants to kill Eddie/Venom, marry Frances (who also got a codename, Shriek), and then kill Ann, Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham), the cop who shot Frances years ago but didn't know she survived, Dan, and the priest who was going to marry him and Frances, not necessarily in that order. The movie culminates in a church, not unlike Spider-Man 3, where the ringing of a giant bell helps kill Carnage, just like how Venom (Topher Grace) was defeated in Sam Raimi's unloved threequel. To get to the church on time (record time, almost, since the movie is only 90 minutes long), Venom: Let There Be Carnage packs a lot of nonsense into its short runtime, and it rockets through scenes that barely even qualify as scenes. But that's okay, I guess, since this thing barely qualifies as a movie. Every scene with Michelle Williams, who is barely in the movie, mind you, is made more baffling when one remembers she's been Academy Award-nominated four times.

So why sit through and endure Venom: Let There Be Carnage at all? Well, the Sony Spider-Man Universe is in a symbiotic relationship of its own with Marvel Studios and they finally pulled the trigger on bringing the universes together. In Venom: Let There Be Carnage's headscratcher of a mid-credits scene, Eddie and Venom are in bed together on a beach vacation when Venom randomly starts waxing philosophical of all of the crazy things he's seen traveling through 80,000 lightyears of space. Venom decides to show Eddie some of what he's seen but somehow, they end up transported into a hotel room in the Marvel Cinematic Universe right at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home. Specifically, the moment when the MCU's J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) publicly reveals Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man. How did that happen? How does any of this work? Who cares. At least the mid-credits scene clocks in as the only memorable thing in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, though it's not as standout a moment as when Tom Hardy crawls into a lobster tank and starts eating crustaceans in the first Venom.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings



Instantly upon meeting Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina), it's clear that they are the best platonic friends in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a title previously held by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Steve and Nat are both gone now but nature abhors a vacuum and so Shang-Chi and Katy seamlessly slide into their spot. They even top Rogers and Romanoff because Shang-Chi and Katy know how to have fun, whether it's jacking luxury rides in their day jobs as hotel valets or refusing to go to bed at a sensible hour and staying up all night getting drunk and singing karaoke. With these two as the focus of director Destin Daniel Cretton's entertaining adventure yarn, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, we're in good hands even when things get really weird, really fast.

Before Shang-Chi goes viral by fighting off assassins from the Ten Rings, including the hulking Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), on a speeding San Francisco bus, Katy only knew him as "Shaun." (Katy rightfully gives Shang-Chi shit for his unimaginative choice of alias). Shaun has been in America for ten years and, like Katy, he's content to go nowhere while enjoying his life as it comes. But Shaun has a secret: He's really a master of kung fu and a super-assassin trained by his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the Ten Rings, China's most powerful criminal organization. The Ten Rings was the Middle Eastern terrorist outfit Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) fought in Iron Man and Iron Man 3, but faster than you can say "retcon," Shang-Chi reveals their true origins as the network led by Wenwu, who is a thousand years old and the master of the mysterious Ten Rings, which are ten powerful bracelets of alien origin. Wenwu always knew Shang-Chi was in San Fran but he decided it's time to summon his son home.

Shang-Chi and Katy, who is also caught up in this mess, travel to Macau to find Shang-Chi's sister, Xu Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), who runs an underground fight club like she's the Chinese Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Only instead of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), one of Xialing's prizefighters is the Abomination (Tim Roth), who makes his return to the MCU after his lone appearance in The Incredible Hulk 13 years ago. Shang-Chi and Katy also meet Wong (Benedict Wong), one of the Masters of the Mystic Arts, who has basically become the new Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) since Wong seems to know everybody in the Avengers now. These are Shang-Chi and Katy's first steps into the larger, crazy world of the MCU, but it turns out Shang-Chi's China is pretty goddamn crazy itself. 

The forward movement of Shang-Chi's plot is interrupted by numerous flashbacks showing how Wenwu met his beloved late wife Ying Li (Fala Chen), their happy early years of marriage, and Shang-Chi's childhood before and after Ying Li is murdered. Lots of family secrets are spilled, including Shang-Chi's shame that he let his father turn him into a killer. Meanwhile, Xialing harbors her own resentments at being her father's forgotten and ignored child, but she turned herself into a self-made crime lord all her own, so she's a chip off the old Ten Rings. Shang-Chi also makes a big deal of both of Wenwu's kids having jade pendants given to them by their mother. Wenwu goes to a lot of trouble to take the jade pendants from his children but there's no real payoff for it. But at its core, Shang-Chi is about family, the one you're born into and the ones you make your family, and living up to your potential while staying true to yourself.

There's also a lot of exposition in Shang-Chi's bonkers third act, which takes place in the magical Chinese village of Ta Lo, an enchanted land that has all manner of exotic mythological beasts, including a dragon called the Great Protector. In Ta Lo, Shang-Chi learns how to use his mother's powers to enhance his martial arts abilities thanks to his aunt, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh). Katy also turns out to be an incredibly quick study with a bow and arrow and basically becomes another Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in a day. Weirdest of all, Shang-Chi learns that thousands of years ago, a great evil soul-sucking dragon attacked Ta Lo from another universe and all that's keeping it back is a door in a mountain that the lovesick Wenwu wants to bust down because he thinks his dead wife is on the other side. It's a lot of bizarre data to absorb and there's no time because there's kung fu fighting and CGI flying monsters the movie has to get to. Shang-Chi's third act is a scaled-down version of the Battle of Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity War mixed with Mulan with as much dragon-riding as the final season of Game of Thrones.

In the comics, Shang-Chi is known as "The Master of Kung Fu," but the MCU's Shang-Chi isn't necessarily the greatest hand-to-hand combatant in the world (although he probably will be the best eventually), and it's a little disappointing when he uses the Ten Rings to explode the soul-sucking evil dragon but he doesn't deliver a cool kung fu blow to the beast as a coup-de-grace. Then again, in the comics, the Ten Rings are actually rings worn by a Chinese supervillain called the Mandarin, but Iron Man 3 changed the Mandarin into a blundering actor named Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) who posed as a terrorist and almost dismantled the U.S. government. Trevor returns in Shang-Chi, which has to do MCU continuity clean-up for Iron Man 3, but Kingsley's guest spot is just wacky comedy from an otherwise unnecessary character. Overall, Shang-Chi's terrific martial arts action scenes compensate for its paint-by-numbers origin story and plot, and the movie becomes a bewildering CGI spectacle in its third act. However, the charming camaraderie of Liu and Awkwafina as Shang-Chi and Katy holds the whole thing together, while Leung's Wenwu is an emotionally-driven villain who's more interesting than a lot of Marvel bad guys.

The title Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings seems like a bit of a misnomer since we learn very little about the Ten Rings themselves. The bracelets are weapons of immense power, we're told, but mostly, Wenwu just uses them to leap long distances, throw super punches, and make energy whips. Despite a thousand years of wielding the Ten Rings, they jump from Wenwu to Shang-Chi pretty easily, and the latter figures out how to use them maybe too quickly. The Ten Rings don't actually get interesting until Shang-Chi's first end-credits scene, which is one of the best MCU stingers: Wong summons Shang-Chi and Katy to analyze the bracelets' alien design and the best friends meet Bruce Banner and Carol Danvers (Brie Larson). It's an obvious set-up for Shang-Chi to join the Avengers and it's pretty awesome. Hopefully, Shang-Chi and Katy bring karaoke nights to the Avengers' get-togethers. We know Wong is down for it.

Friday, August 20, 2021




You're going on a journey...

Remember Chinatown? Remember Casablanca? Remember Wolverine? Remember Westworld? Well, that last one was co-created by Lisa Joy, the writer and director of Reminiscence, so she definitely remembers it. In the stunningly photographed Reminiscence, Joy paints a visually sumptuous post-apocalyptic Miami in the not-too-distant future and plunges Hugh Jackman into a boilerplate detective plot with a couple of intriguing time-tossed twists that don't quite land with a SNIKT. Reminiscence is about memory, and love, and lust, and Hugh Jackman's search for the truth about his lost romance with Rebecca Ferguson, but Reminiscence's wrapping paper ends up being more interesting to look at and think about than the actual gift inside.

Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine Nick Bannister, a mutant "detective of the mind." His business with his partner Maeve Watts (Thandiwe Newton) allows his clients to pay by the hour to use his Reminiscence machine to relive their favorite memories. This involves stripping down and sliding into a sensory deprivation tank as if you're Logan submitting to the Weapon X program replacing your bones with Adamantium. When you're deep in Reminiscence, your memories are projected into 3D holograms Nick and Watts can watch. Considering how intimate many people's memories are, they sure put a lot of trust into Nick and Watts' discretion. Like Wolverine, Hugh Jackman once again falls for the wrong redhead, Jean Grey Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a slinky nightclub singer who's obviously hiding quite a lot, but the detective doesn't care about that (at first). Nick is hot for Mae and they begin a torrid romance they mostly conduct on rooftops looking over the flooded streets of Miami. Then one day, Mae vanishes and Reminiscence drops its first time-loopy twist that the whole first act of the film was Nick's memories of Mae after spending months in the Reminiscence machine.

For Wolverine Nick Bannister, love means never having to let go of your girlfriend you didn't know anything about. Driven by his desire to find out "Who is she when she's not with me?", Nick plunges into the watery underworld of both Miami and New Orleans, meeting skeevy criminals like Saint Joe (Daniel Wu), a dirty ex-cop named Cyrus Booth (Cliff Curtis), and Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen), the most powerful land baron in Miami. Nick gets into fistfights, nearly drowns, and throws away his partnership with Watts in order to find out who Mae is and how she came to be. The revelations about Mae aren't exactly Earth-shattering (she's an ex-junkie running from bad guys she stole drugs from) and, beautiful as Ferguson is, Mae doesn't seem like the type of dame a private dick should toss his whole life (such as it is) away for, but the heart wants what the heart wants. More interesting than Mae is the sordid conspiracy she was caught up in as a pawn, involving Sylan's mistress Elsa (Angela Sarafyan), their bastard son, and Sylvan's firstborn son who doesn't want anyone to mess with his inheritance of owning all of the dry land that's left in Miami. Reminiscence's final twist that the entire film is merely the memories of Nick Bannister, who is now an old man cared for by Grandma Watts after spending decades in the Reminiscence machine reliving his romance with Mae and investigation into her disappearance, is intended as a Christopher Nolan-esque bombshell but, unfortunately, it goes off with a sputter.

Every character who meets another character in Reminiscence starts reminiscing about things that happened in the past that sound way more interesting than what's going on in the present. Reminiscence's backstory and post-apocalyptic setting are simply far more intriguing than Nick's Adamantium-like hard-on for Mae. Joy sprinkles in tasty dollops about Reminiscence's future universe, where climate change not only sank Miami but sparked a bloody war with climate change deniers. Nick was a Navy seaman who was 'drafted' to border patrol, which involved Bannister using the Reminiscence machine to interrogate enemy soldiers and poor people fleeing the tides. When the war ended, Nick somehow finagled the Reminiscence machine to start his sinking business. The way society and culture evolved because of the war and climate change, like Miami becoming a nocturnal city of boats and canals, aren't just a grim forecasting of our probable future in the real world, but it's a backdrop that begs Joy to delve further into. Compared to the impressive future world Joy envisioned, unfortunately, the problems of Nick Bannister and Mae don't amount to a hill of beans in Reminiscence's evocative, sci-fi noir world. 

Friday, August 6, 2021

The Suicide Squad



Writer-director James Gunn's The Suicide Squad understands the old adage that if you introduce a javelin in Act 1, you must have Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) plunge that javelin into the eye of a giant, telepathic alien starfish in Act 3. That's Chekhov's javelin. Look, I grew up reading 1980s DC Comics and poring over Who's Who character encyclopedias and DC Heroes role-playing game sourcebooks, and apparently, so did James Gunn. The Suicide Squad was made for me. Well, not me, exactly, but 14-year-old me, who probably appreciated the obscure DC references even more than adult me dug the overall film. The Suicide Squad is a far better and more enjoyable movie than the 2016 Suicide Squad. It's unapologetically bloody and ruthless as a movie about a cruel bureaucrat, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), sending superpowered convicts to their deaths ought to be. The bottom line is Gunn understands that it sucks to be in the Suicide Squad but, unlike with the prior film, he also made sure it doesn't suck watching The Suicide Squad.

The Suicide Squad has a massive cast that the marketing correctly urges you not to get too attached to. Waller assembles a group to go to a South American country named Corto Maltese, which is the same country Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) took war photos of that got on the cover of Time in Batman 1989, for some sort of black op. Back leading the group is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) while Harley Quinn and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), old pals who survived the first Suicide Squad, are also volunteered for the mission. But this version of the Squad has weirdos like Blackguard (Pete Davidson), Savant (Michael Rooker), Javelin (Flula Borg), and a guy named T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion), whose superpower is he can detach his arms. Great. There's also some kind of weasel-like man-thing named Weasel (Sean Gunn). This Squad is useless and they're supposed to be; Blackguard sold them out to the Corto Maltese army (and maybe Waller arranged it so he would, it's not clear), and they get massacred on the beach. But that was the point because there was a second Suicide Squad sent by Waller who is really supposed to accomplish the mission.

The other Suicide Squad is led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a mercenary and expert marksman with any weapon. Bloodsport also has a teenage daughter and he's a reluctant leader who doesn't believe he's a good person. If that sounds exactly like Deadshot (Will Smith) in the first movie it's because it's the same character, only Bloodsport's kid is also a criminal. There's also Peacemaker (John Cena), an extremist soldier who loves peace so much he'll murder anyone to keep it, and he wears a toilet bowl-looking helmet on his head. The other oddballs are Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a sweet narcoleptic who controls rats and has her own Ratatoullie and, naturally, is the daughter of Ratcatcher 1 (Taika Waititi), Nanaue aka King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), an innocent shark monster man, and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who was infested with an alien virus and sees his abusive mother in everyone he kills. Waller sends this Squad into Corto Maltese to stop a supervillain named The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), who has spent 30 years experimenting on the aforementioned alien starfish, Starro the Conqueror, who can control people's minds with little starfish face huggers like in Alien. Most of the movie is spent following these numbnuts traipsing through the jungle and bumbling throughout their mission.

And then there's Harley Quinn, who survived the massacre at the beach and finds herself courted by Corto Maltese's new President, Sylvio Luna (Julio Diego Botto). In her third outing as Harley, Robbie has perfected the endearingly hot psychopath, who's basically a female Bugs Bunny with a murderous streak. In a movie filled with unexpected twists, Harley has the best one when she turns the tables on Luna, who she did consider marrying, and she has the best fight sequence in the film that tops the ones she had in Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Perhaps not so strangely, Harley also introduces The Suicide Squad's moral center: she may be a homicidal girl clown but Harley draws the line at killing kids. Apparently, so does Bloodsport, which we learn when Harley joins up with his Squad. It's interesting to see where supervillains draw the line but letting Amanda Waller get away with allowing an alien starfish to take over Corto Maltese was a bridge too far, and the Suicide Squad turn into heroes by necessity,

As a movie about supervillains abused by the system, The Suicide Squad squarely points the finger at the real bad guys: Waller and by extension, the United States that she 'defends'. The Suicide Squad is an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, the way immigrants like Ratcatcher 2 are persecuted, and it was the United States that brought Starro to Corto Maltese, cutting a secret deal to experiment on the alien far from American soil and without the knowledge of the American people. Even Waller's own staff turn on her, which is pretty ballsy considering Waller shot and killed her prior staff point-blank in the first Suicide Squad. Gunn peppers in a lot of character development for the Suicide Squad members he cares about and he makes the audience care for them too. 

However, The Suicide Squad sacrifices forward momentum and a clear throughline for blood-splattered set pieces, narrative time-twisting, and a bunch of strange asides, though getting to know Ratcatcher 2, Peacemaker, Bloodsport, and Nanaue is worth the time spent. Gunn also sets up Peacemaker's solo series on HBO Max even though the guy is a gigantic jerk, but Cena still makes Peacemaker a jerk we want to see more of. The Suicide Squad is infused with pop music like the prior film and Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy but weirdly, the tunes aren't quite as memorable this time around. Overall, The Suicide Squad is a joyously indulgent auteur superhero movie where James Gunn lets us into his very specific comic book mindset as if Gunn himself slapped a Starro on our faces and whispered "have a good time". And you know what? We do.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Black Widow at Screen Rant


Natasha Romanoff is my favorite Avenger and Black Widow, her long-awaited solo film, was worth the wait. Along with giving Scarlett Johansson the spotlight, Black Widow also introduces amazing new characters like Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), and told a spectacular James Bond-like spy movie fused with Marvel Studios' trademark action. I'm covering Black Widow from numerous angles and here are my collected Screen Rant Features.












Thursday, July 8, 2021

Black Widow



It took 24 films for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to deliver a Bond movie and director Cate Shortland's Black Widow is both a great Bond movie and a top-tier Marvel movie. At last, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) takes center stage in a film that delves into her origins and her complicated feelings about the family she had before she became an Avenger. Black Widow also details what makes Natasha special and unique, even among the scores of other young girls who were taken into Russia's mysterious Red Room and trained to be relentless female assassins codenamed Black Widow. We know Natasha died saving the universe in Avengers: Endgame, but in Black Widow, she is, appropriately, never more present, more capable, more alive, more human, and more glorious.

Not that Natasha doesn't have competition from her own sister. Florence Pugh makes a spectacular debut in the MCU as Yelena Belova, who is 5 years younger and was part of a spy family planted in Ohio for three years in the 1990s. Natasha and Yelena's origin is a page out of The Americans; their 'parents' were Russian agents Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokov (Rachel Weisz). Alexei is Russia's first and only Super Soldier codenamed Red Guardian and his career is made up of war stories against Captain America (Chris Evans) that he never fought because Steve Rogers was still frozen in ice when Alexei was Red Guardian. Melina was a loving mother figure to young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and young Yelena (Violet McGraw) but when their mission is compromised in 1995, they had to violently flee from S.H.I.E.L.D. before they were betrayed in Cuba by their handler, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Their fake family is separated and the two girls are handed over to Drekov's Red Room to be turned into Black Widows. This not only includes weapons and spy training to make them deadly assassins but they were also subjected to hysterectomies, although the adult Yelena and Natasha joke about it now.

Natasha's story is obviously world-famous: she defected and joined S.H.I.E.L.D. before becoming a superhero and an Avenger. When they're reunited, Yelena taunts her sister that little girls look at Natasha on magazine covers and made an assassin their hero. But when Black Widow picks up Nat's story, it's 2016 in the MCU's timeline, and Captain America: Civil War has just happened, meaning Romanoff is a fugitive being hunted by Secretary Ross (William Hurt) for violating the newly-minted Sokovia Accords and the Avengers have just fallen apart. Black Widow is set before Natasha reunited with her fellow ex-Avenger on the lam, Steve Rogers, and the film happens two years before Avengers: Infinity War. Of course, as a superspy, Natasha has resources of her own, including Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenle), a fixer who set her up with a hideout in Norway and acquires her supplies and gear, including her Black Widow costumes and even an Avengers Quinjet. It's amusing that Natasha hid in Norway years before the Asgardians arrived to set up New Asgard after Thor: Ragnarok.

Yelena and Natasha reunite when the younger Black Widow is freed from her mind control thanks to a special red gas. Natasha is stunned to learn that not only is the Red Room still active but Dreykov is still alive when assassinating the Russian master spy was her ticket to joining S.H.I.E.L.D. That was the Budapest mission that Natasha and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) joked about in The Avengers, but it was a tragic job Natasha had to do which led to Dreykov's daughter Antonia (Olga Kurylenko) ending up in the line of fire. But unbeknownst to Natasha, both of the Dreykovs lived. The father reestablished the Red Room and perfected his mind control of the Black Widows, planting a legion of brainwashed lady assassins all over the world. Meanwhile, Dreykov's greatest mind-controlled creation is his own daughter, who he turned into a silent assassin called Taskmaster, who can instantly learn anyone's fighting style and use it against them. Amusingly, Super Soldiers who can topple governments was the basis of the failed Winter Soldier program in Captain America: Civil War, but Dreykov achieved the same plot with Black Widows. He even turned the Red Room into his version of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarrier, which was foreshadowed early in the film when Natasha watches the Roger Moore Bond movie, Moonraker.

Natasha and Yelena are electric together; both are equally skilled and dangerous but they fall into a sisterly dynamic where Yelena goofs on Natasha for her superhero landing pose and for hanging around with Avengers like the 'god from space' who she considers her family. But to get to Dreykov, the Black Widows bust Alexei out of a Siberian gulag and they reunite with Melina, who has been working for Dreykov as his architect all along. What transpires are years of pain spilling out at the dinner table from a family that was thrown together and cruelly torn apart by their own government. Still, as Natasha learned with the Avengers, the only people you can trust are your family, and Black Widow delivers thrilling spy double-crosses as Natasha masterminds a face-to-face confrontation with Dreykov in the Red Room. The Bond-style spy games give way to Marvel-style mega-action (which also the modern Bond style led by Rachel Weisz's real-life husband, Daniel Craig, in his 007 movies) where Natasha takes on dozens of Black Widows solo and repeatedly hurls herself from the plummeting space station to perform impossible rescues. Daredevil is called the Man Without Fear but Natasha Romanoff can see but does what she does anyway, so she one-ups Matt Murdock there.

As a swan song for Natasha Romanoff, the original and best Black Widow, her long-awaited solo movie delivers in spades. Johansson, who is also executive producer, knows Natasha inside out, and she's a calm, wise, uber confident, effortlessly cool, but appropriately emotional and suitably awesome center who is every inch a superhero. Black Widow is also a rollicking passing of the baton to Yelena and Pugh has a bright future in the MCU, as evidenced by the post-credits scene setting up her next appearance in Disney+'s Hawkeye. With the MCU already introducing the Multiverse and Loki setting up the concepts of Variants, Johannson could return someday but the Natasha Romanoff who fans have watched for a decade since she debuted in Iron Man 2 is sadly gone. But Black Widow was worth the wait and it's gritty and globetrotting Marvel superheroics at its finest. Even the opening credits sequence (rare for a Marvel film) is spectacular: a disturbing montage of Natasha and Helena's indoctrination into the Red Room set to a moody cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that plays like the brainwashing scene in A Clockwork OrangeBlack Widow is Johansson and Natasha's equivalent to Captain America: The Winter Soldier and there's no higher compliment.