Tag Archives: scarlett johansson

Review: ‘Black Widow,’ Dysfunctional Family Member Extraordinaire

More than ten years ago, Scarlett Johansson appeared as Natalie Rushman in Iron Man 2. Hired as a personal assistant to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), she is eventually revealed as Natasha Romanoff, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. 

Johansson returned to embody the character in seven more Marvel films, always fully capable of fighting her way out  of any perilous situation, but always in a supporting role, with little light shed on her personal history. Now she returns once again to play the character in yet another Marvel action extravaganza, this time under the direction of a woman. 

Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland broke out big with Somersault (2004), her directorial debut, which she also wrote, featuring a stunning performance by Abbie Cornish. Since then, she has been limited in her opportunities to make feature films: Lore (2012), starring Saskia Rosendahl, was an intensely empathetic period drama, while Berlin Syndrome (2017), starring Teresa Palmer, was an intensely unsettling film. Each film was designed around and depended upon a woman in the lead role, and Shortland showed her clear talent at framing scenes, building claustrophobic tension, and working with talented actresses to deliver sobering performances.

Stepping onto the Marvel franchise with Black Widow feels like she has been asked to jump onto a merry-go-round that is already spinning out of control. As with any Marvel film, it’s difficult to distinguish any differences in the trademark, extended, fantastical, illogical, ridiculous action sequences, which have been designed to impress casual bystanders, rather than satisfy narrative needs. 

On that score, Black Widow certainly holds up its end, launching one amazing, elaborate, completely unbelievable action sequence after another. My usual personal reaction is to wait patiently until the sequence is concluded, and then see who, if anyone, is left alive, other than the characters who are needed for a followup installment. In that sense, the Marvel Cinematic Universe resembles the Marvel Comic Book Universe, in that any character may be resurrected at any time, if the creator deems it necessary, and so the fleeting possibility never holds much dramatic weight. 

Where the film completely succeeds, though, is in the casting and chemistry displayed by and between the lead characters, starting with Scarlett Johansson herself as Black Widow. She exudes an exhausted weariness with the world and her role in it so far, yet this is different from resignation; she has not yet stopped fighting, or come close to giving up. 

She is well matched with Rachel Weisz and David Harbour as older figures in her life, and with Florence Pugh as a younger version of herself, so to speak. As dramatic actors, they are all highly capable of hitting the high notes, and making their low points quite empathetic and relatable. Their personal battle scenes, carried on through their witty line deliveries and winning body language, wrings the full comic potential out of every piece of dialogue, credited to screenwriter Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok), based on a story by Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson. 

The action sequences will undoubtedly impress those who choose to experience the film in a movie theater, where it will undoubtedly play best. The more intimate dramatic scenes, which in my opinion are much more effective, will undoubtedly play just as well at home.  

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 9, via Disney. It will also be available to Disney+ streaming service subscribers for an additional, one-time cost. For more information about the film, visit the official site. 

Review: ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ Your Personal Hitler Is Calling

Taika Waititi presents a child’s eye view of wartime atrocities in the ambitious comedy / drama.

Do you remember being 10 years old and falling in love for the first time? Or, if you’ve just made a blockbuster superhero movie, what is the logical next step in your career?

Filmmaker Taika Waititi goes back to what he knows, namely, wry comedies sprinkled with dramatic turning points for young characters. In Eagle vs. Shark (2007), he followed the courtship between two young adults (Loren Horsley and Jemaine Clement) who often engaged in juvenile behavior. In Boy (2010), he followed the titular kid who attempts to bond with his long-absent father. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), he followed a runaway youngster who has not bonded with his foster father.

In Jojo Rabbit, adapted by Waititi from Caging Skies, a novel by Christine Leunens, the filmmaker follows Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy whose family has been torn apart by the rise of Hitler. Jojo’s loving mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) remains with him in Germany. She is devoted and loving, and will not hold back from defending her precious child against all enemies, even if he has become a lover of Hitler.

As the opening scene demonstrates, young Jojo has fallen in love for the first time. He questions his mother and is starting to rebel, so his sole object of affection is Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi), or, rather, his perception of what Hitler must be like, in the absence of his own father (or any other influential adult male) from the scene.

Of course, Waititi also has a sense of dry humor that has been best showcased in his collaborations with Jemaine Clement (especially in What We Do in the Shadows), and so it’s no wonder that his movie begins with a cracked scene between Jojo and how he wishes his idol might behave in private. This, along with other early scenes, where Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson at a training camp for Hitler Youth, set up Jojo Rabbit to be an absurdist comedy.

It is that, but Waititi’s humor is more apt to make one smile at its clever take on life and the people who wander through it without ever realizing how ridiculous they behave, rather than laugh out loud at a basic pratfall or stupid gesture. I often smiled and sometimes laughed out loud at the things people say and/or do in the film, though its occasional earnestness can become overwrought.

After the opening set-up concludes, Jojo soon discovers a Jewish girl (portrayed, very finely, by Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the attic. That in itself draws quick mental comparisons to The Diary of Anne Frank, and weighs upon the new film with dramatic ripples that are impossible to dismiss entirely. Still, the story moves forward with alacrity to explore the relationships that develop between people who live in a constant state of fear.

The setting and the characters make Jojo Rabbit the most ambitious and challenging film yet from Taikaka Waititi. Much pleasure can be derived therefrom, and I will readily admit that the selection of a certain song at a certain point, after much has happened, brought me to tears.

As much as anything, this is a story and a film that will remind viewers of other horrible tragedies that have struck huge swathes of mankind, while also offering the perhaps overly-optimistic thought that things will get better. Maybe so, Jojo, maybe so.

The film enjoyed its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. It opens in select Dallas theaters on Friday, November 1.

Review: ‘We Bought a Zoo’

'We Bought a Zoo'
'We Bought a Zoo'

Matt Damon stands head and shoulders above ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ giving a wonderfully-layered performance in a movie that insists on spelling everything out. It’s a bracing reminder that as a filmmaker, Cameron Crowe is a heckuva magazine writer.

Nonetheless, with its warm-hearted gaze into the complexities involved in achieving domestic bliss, ‘We Bought a Zoo’ is fine family fare for the holiday season, tapping directly (and often) into the wellspring of emotion that gushes forth after the death of a loved one. Six months after his wife died, Benjamin Mee (Damon) is plagued by memories of her everywhere he turns, and is beginning to resent all the sympathy extended to him by friends, workmates, and neighbors. His 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is moody and withdrawn; he draws morbid pictures of death and decapitation, and, as a result of his anti-social behavior, has been expelled from school. On the other hand, 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), a bright and bubbly girl, seems to be doing OK.

Still and all, Benjamin decides the family needs a new start. He quits his full-time job as a newspaper journalist and resolves to move the family to a new neighborhood. An exhaustive search for a new home proves fruitless until he stumbles upon a large property with a (comparatively) low asking price. The property is beautifully situated, with gorgeous landscaping, though the ramshackle house is badly in need of repairs. Oh, and then there’s the zoo in the back yard.

Yes, a zoo.

The prospect of owning a zoo would appear to be a deal breaker for Benjamin, but, as he prepares to leave the property, he loses track of Rosie. Following her voice, he walks up a small hill and at the top he sees Rosie below, happily playing with peacocks. He hunkers down, smiling at his bundle of walking joy, as the sun begins to set beautifully behind him, and inspirational music swells, and his smile grows … and the tension grows unbearable: What, oh what, will he do?!

There, then, is the final dividing point of ‘We Bought a Zoo.’ The remainder of the film plays out in predictable fashion, with occasional pauses to make sure everyone knows a certain moment is indeed, “Important and Significant” in the life of the characters involved. The dialogue is always to the point and over-explanatory, leaving no thought unspoken out loud. And, though the film places an emphasis on emotional honesty, it is an adulteration of the true story that served as inspiration, reflecting Crowe’s own interests and concerns.

(‘We Bought a Zoo’ is the title of a memoir by Benjamin Mee; his wife tragically died within days after they moved to the private zoo they had purchased after months of negotiations, in part to help Benjamin’s mother deal with the loss of her husband; Benjamin has two young children, both pre-teens; Benjamin’s mother lives with the family; Benjamin’s brother has been entirely supportive of the project.)

On the flip side, ‘We Bought a Zoo’ is relentlessly positive, seeking to portray a family dealing with huge, life-changing challenges, and is likely to pull the heart strings of parents of any age. If you can ignore the constant nudge-nudging in the dialogue, Damon’s performance is a subtle wonder to behold, accompanied by solid supporting work by Scarlett Johansson as the head zookeeper, Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s cynical brother, Angus Macfadyen as a feisty zookeeper, Elle Fanning as a very forward love interest for Dylan, and Patrick Fugit (‘Almost Famous’) as a zookeeper with a monkey on his shoulder.

Like a proud papa, Crowe relies too much on reaction shots from little Maggie Elizabeth Jones to enliven routine scenes with an overdose of cute. The same could be said for the movie as a whole: the intentions are good; there are just too many of them.

‘We Bought a Zoo’ opens wide across the Metroplex tomorrow.