Detective in the Dark

I recently discovered a favorite movie from the 1970s was available on TCM online. There were a number of decent mysteries made in that decade. Some were quite successful, like Chinatown, Three Days of the Condor, and the Albert Finney version of Murder on the Orient Express. Others flew lower on the radar, like The Last of Sheila, The Late Show, and my rediscovery, Night Moves.

Night Moves stars Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby, a former star football player who now has a one-chair detective agency, Moseby Confidential. A large agency has been after him to join them, and Moseby’s wife, Ellen (Susan Clark), wants him to take the position since being on his own means days and nights when he’s away. She’ll regularly go to foreign films with her assistant Nick (Kenneth Mars) from the antiques store she owns, with Harry’s blessing. (There’s the briefest suggestion the assistant is gay, though nothing overt since this was the ‘70s.) The agency calls Harry for a job they don’t want, tracking down Delly, the 16-year-old daughter of a faded Hollywood actress, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward). Harry starts in on the case, but is sidetracked when he discovers his wife has been having an affair.

With a lead from Quentin, a mechanic that Delly had taken up with, Harry heads to a movie location and meets up with stunt coordinator Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns) and hotshot stunt pilot Marv (Anthony Costello). It seems Delly has decided to have affairs with anyone who was with her mother, and the stuntmen point Harry to Arlene’s second husband, Tom Iverson (John Crawford), who runs a boat and seaplane charter service in the Florida Keys. At Iverson’s office, he meets Paula (Jennifer Warren), who leads Harry to Iverson’s rambling beachfront home where Delly is staying. At first Delly refuses to go home with Harry, until a shocking discovery changes her mind. Harry brings Delly home and, thinking the case is over, he starts to put things back together with Ellen. Then a tragedy makes him realize he’d been played and there was a whole different scenario happening that he missed.

Rather than an adaptation of a book, Night Moves was an original script written by a long-time screenwriter originally from Scotland, Alan Sharp. Most of the work at the beginning and end of his career (he passed away in 2013) was in television, but he did several decent screenplays in between, including Ulzana’s Raid (directed by Robert Aldrich), The Osterman Weekend (an adaption of a Robert Ludlum novel, directed by Sam Peckinpah), and his final movie script was the adaptation of Rob Roy starring Liam Neeson. Night Moves is a different sort of detective mystery, soft boiled rather than hard, interested more in character at first until it reveals a plot that has a killer of a surprise at the end.

Guiding the film to the screen was Arthur Penn, one of the iconic directors of the 1960s. After starting in television in the 1950s, like many others of that era he moved to movies. His first film was The Left-Handed Gun, a retelling of the story of Billy the Kid, starring Paul Newman. He followed that with an incredible string of movies: The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, among others. Following Night Moves, the magic left Penn’s career. His next movie was the major box office bomb of a western, The Missouri Breaks. After that he made some minor films in the 1980s and was back in television in the ‘90s before retiring. He passed away in 2010. But he was still on top of his game in 1975, and Night Moves is a taut hour and three-quarters that shifts into a higher gear in its last 20 minutes.

At the time of Night Move’s release, Hackman was at the height of his leading man career. He’d first come to prominence working with Penn on Bonnie and Clyde, then took off in the 1970s starting with his Oscar-winning portrayal of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, then started the all-star disaster genre with Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure, along with what’s generally considered to be Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, The Conversation. Night Moves was a bit overshadowed in 1975, as that was also the year French Connection II came out, considered by some to be better than the original.

While she’s not well remembered today, Susan Clark was a major actress in the 1960s and ‘70s. Originally from Canada, she started in TV there and in Britain, even doing “The Benny Hill Show” for a season. She made her way to Hollywood, landing a contract with Universal, where she did TV and movies, including Coogan’s Bluff and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. The same year as Night Moves, Clark won a Primetime Emmy for lead actress in a drama special, playing the title role in a biographic picture about athlete Babe Didrickson Zaharias. She was paired in that TV film with actor and former football player Alex Karras, and life imitated art a few years later when they married in 1980. She and Karras did the TV comedy “Webster” together which ran for six seasons in the 1980s. Clark and Karras remained married for 32 years until his death in 2012.

One thing that marks Night Moves is the number of supporting character actors who went on to well-known careers. A couple were already well-established. Edward Binns is one of those faces and voices you immediately know, who’d had roles in 12 Angry Men, Patton, The Verdict, North by Northwest and 177 other projects recorded by IMDb. He’s beat in volume by Kenneth Mars, who among his 230 credits are The Producers and Young Frankenstein. But what stands out are those beginning their careers. Quentin the mechanic is played by James Woods, and in a small scene with a near fight in a bar you have Max Gail who’d go on to a long career as a supporting actor, best know as the slightly dim Sgt. Wojo on “Barney Miller.” Clark’s love interest is played by Harris Yulin, who had a gift for heavies in films like Clear and Present Danger and series like “Le Femme Nikita” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In a role credited as “Boy” was Dennis Duggan who’s had decent career as a comedic actor. But the standout is an 18-year-old Melanie Griffith playing Delly. She’d only had two essentially extra roles before she did Night Moves, and while she’s still a raw talent in the movie, she holds her own with Hackman.

If you like a good mystery and have access to TCM online (it’s a part of HBO Max), you may want to check out Night Moves.

But I Don’t Remember Where or When

Although he didn’t live to see it, Philip K. Dick has become one of the strongest voices in science fiction movies and TV in the last 40 years. He’d been a prolific writer of novels and short stories starting in the 1950s, but by the 1970s he’d gone down a deep path of drug use, followed by a religious experience that occupied him until he passed away of a heart attack in 1982 at age 54. That year saw the release of the first movie adaptation of his work: Blade Runner, based on his story “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?” Many movie adaptations followed, including Total Recall, Imposter, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and The Adjustment Bureau, while on TV we’ve had The Man in the High Castle plus the anthology Electric Dreams which adapted his short stories. He has 41 credits now listed on IMDb, but beyond that his style has impacted others. When I watched Reminiscence this past weekend, my first reaction was that it was the best Philip K. Dick story that Dick didn’t write.

The film is a classic Noir mystery blended effectively with science fiction, set in Miami after global warming has melted the polar icecaps flooding much of the city. Some live in the flooded areas on the top floors of buildings, while others have some protection from massive seawalls. What’s left of the dry ground was snatched up by the rich as the seas rose. After the major dislocations caused by the ocean rise, wars broke out followed by civil strife until they ended mostly out of exhaustion. With the excessive rise in temperatures, humans have become nocturnal to escape the oppressive heat during the day. And with the bleakness of the future, many have turned to living in the past.

Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) runs a “reminiscence” business in an old bank building with another former soldier from the wars, Emily “Watts” Sanders (Thandiwe Newton). The machine they use allows sedated people to relive memories while Nick and Emily watch a life-sized hologram of the memory. It could be Elsa Carine (Angela Sarafyan) reliving time with her former lover, or it could be working with the police or lawyers to unlock the truth in cases such as a lawsuit involving Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen), a mega-wealthy real estate magnate.

Then Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks into Nick’s life, looking for help finding a missing key. While Nick locates the key, he’s taken with Mae and watches her memories longer, seeing her singing the Rogers and Hart 1930s standard “Where or When” in a bar, a song that has a special place in Nick’s life. He falls hard for her, and she seems to reciprocate. Then in a sharp shift the audience realizes we’ve been watching Nick’s own reminiscence. Mae has disappeared, and he’s obsessed with finding her. While doing a job for the DA, probing the memories of a suspect, he finds a memory of Mae from years earlier when she was in New Orleans, addicted to a designer drug. Nick pursues the memory and the mystery of Mae, running afoul of a corrupt New Orleans cop (Cliff Curtis) and other powerful people while taking lethal chances.

Mae fits the classic femme fatale of hard-boiled noir while remaining a mystery throughout the picture. Why did she take up with Nick? Why did she disappear? Is she a devil in disguise, a tarnished angel, or something in between? Writer/Director/Producer Lisa Joy tells the story with a sure hand, dolling out clues and slowly revealing Mae’s story to Nick, and through him to the audience. Joy had co-created (with Jonathan Nolan – Christopher’s brother and collaborator) the HBO sci-fi series “Westworld,” which also starred Newton, and had written for the idiosyncratic series “Pushing Daisies” along with the spy mystery “Burn Notice.” Reminiscence, though, is a quantum leap forward for her.

The casting is spot on, particularly with the leads. The haunted nature of Nick is emblazoned on every handsome crease of Jackman’s face, while Newton provides a Greek chorus of caution as Nick’s dragged deeper into Mae’s riddle. As Mae, Ferguson is like a magician, managing to keep us guessing until the final moment what the truth is in her story. The setting is the future, but the mystery echoes the work of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, with Ferguson following in the noir footsteps of Barbara Stanwick, Joan Crawford, and Gene Tierney.

But in the end the best comparison is with Philip K. Dick, whose stories often incorporated noir elements while they focused on the plight of humans, with the futuristic touches to enhance a timeless story. The obsession of Decker in Blade Runner is a spiritual stepfather for Nick, though rather than have the constant rain in Ridley Scott’s film, the world has already been swamped. For the first movie that Joy has directed, she’s shown a remarkably sure hand, and I look forward to seeing what new worlds she’ll explore.

Life – With a Twist

When Suicide Squad came out in 2016, I was disappointed. They’d taken a bunch of quirky characters from the DC stable and put them into a boilerplate thriller. Writer/Director David Ayer has done some exemplary work in the crime genre, including the script for The Fast and the Furious and Training Day, as well as writing and directing End of Watch. But Suicide Squad was an overstuffed yet pedestrian story that wasted the characters. Worse, two years earlier Marvel had shown how to handle a caper story with secondary, little-known characters. Guardians of the Galaxy won the domestic box office that year and took in nearly $800 million worldwide. Guardians was bubbly champagne that left you intoxicated; Suicide was flat beer at room temperature. While it did well as the box office, it was panned by critics and moviegoers alike. Apart from spinning Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn off on her own, it appeared doubtful Warner Brothers and DC would do anything more with the squad.

Then James Gunn, the writer/director behind the two incredibly successful Guardians movies, became available. (I won’t bother recapping why; google it if you don’t know.) The head of Warners essentially gave him carte blanche in his choice of projects, and Gunn expressed a desire to try his hand with the Squad. And so now we have a new movie, this time entitled The Suicide Squad. There’s no 2 or II at the end, just the The at the front, but in a way it’s enough. It says, forget about that earlier flick; this is THE movie. The great thing is Gunn delivers on that promise.

There are a couple of holdovers from the earlier movie: Harley Quinn is an essential ingredient, and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang, and Joel Kinnamon as Colonel Rick Flagg all return. New to the line-up are Idris Elba (Bloodsport), John Cena (Peacemaker), Nathan Fillion (T.D.K.), Daniella Melichor (Ratcatcher 2), David Dastmalchian (Polka Dot Man), and the CGI King Shark, voiced by Sylvester Stallone. Gunn brought along two lucky charms from Guardians: Michael Rooker as Savant and Gunn’s brother Sean (who does the on-set motion capture work for Rocket) as Weasel.

Waller tasks the Squad with a mission on the Caribbean Island of Corto Maltese, sending them to destroy a Nazi-era laboratory located in a massive building that looks like a castle’s turret. The U.S. sympathizing president has been removed by a military coup, jeopardizing Project Starfish, a super-secret experiment under the guidance of Thinker (Peter Capaldi). In short order, we come to see why they’re called the Suicide Squad. Waller has planned for such an outcome, sending Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Ratcatcher 2, Polka Dot Man, and King Shark in by a different way. Harley and Flagg eventually join them, and they’re aided by rebels under the command of Sol Soria (Alice Braga). But none of them are prepared for what they find in the lab.

While the 2016 movie received a PG-13, the 2021 offering revels in the freedom of an R rating. The violence of the story is way over the top but played in such a tongue-in-cheek way it’s hilarious at the same time. Yet Gunn also finds a sympathetic heart in the story, embodied by Melichor’s Ratcatcher 2. Her melancholic story is fleshed out by wistful flashbacks to her life with her loving father, the first Ratcatcher (played with sympathy and restraint by Taika Waititi). Elba excels in playing powerful yet flawed characters, as he did with his signature series “Luther.” When I heard that Polka Dot Man, an extremely obscure DC character, would be in the movie, I worried it might be embarrassingly bad, but Dastmalchian makes him a compelling character with one of the worst mama complexes ever. While the violence factor has been pushed up to 11 in comparison to the 2016 film, it has also increased its emotional resonance by an equal amount.

The Suicide Squad isn’t The Dark Knight or Captain America: The Winter Soldier (in my estimation, the two best super-hero movies in the 21st Century), but it carves out a niche for itself. If you’re put off by violence I wouldn’t recommend seeing it, and if you have a phobia about rats don’t even come near a theater where it’s playing. But if those qualifications don’t apply, then The Suicide Squad is definitely worth a viewing, either in the theater or during its month-long run on HBO Max.

Dull, Gray Knight

One of my favorite movies from the 1980s is Excalibur, John Boorman’s re-telling of the Arthurian legend. Before that movie, tales of Medieval knights had pretty much died out after the 1950s, other than in animated movies (The Sword in the Stone) or a musical (Camelot). Boorman infused his film with an organic sensuality and magical energy that blew every cobweb out of the genre, making it fresh and compelling. When it was released, the best-known cast member was Nicol Williamson, but it featured actors who would later become famous: Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, and Ciaran Hinds. Excalibur paved the way for sword and sorcery tales like Ladyhawke and Conan the Barbarian, and it’s questionable that we’d have the Lord of the Rings films or “Game of Thrones” without it.

For that reason, I was eager to see The Green Knight. Based on an anonymous 14th Century chivalric romance set during King Arthur’s reign, it features the youngest of Arthur’s knights, Gawain, who is also Arthur’s nephew. (Gawain showed up in Excalibur, played by Neeson.) The story has Arthur and his knights interrupted on New Year’s Eve by a gigantic knight all in green, wearing no armor but carrying a huge axe in one hand and a holly bough in the other, riding a green horse. He’s not interested in combat but rather suggests a friendly game – he’ll bear his neck and accept a blow from a knight, if that knight swears to meet him in the Green Chapel a year and a day later to receive a blow in return. Gawain brashly volunteers. The Green Knight bears his neck and Gawain slices the knight’s head off in a clean blow. But rather than die, the knight picks up his head and rides away laughing, after reminding Gawain of his vow.

True to his word, as the anniversary approaches Gawain sets off for the Green Chapel. After having adventures (alluded to but not described) on his way, Gawain comes to a splendid castle. When he explains his mission, the lord of the castle says the Green Chapel is only a few miles away. He invites Gawain to stay with him and his beautiful wife for the three days left before his appointment. After Gawain accepts, the lord suggests a wager: each day the lord will go hunting, leaving Gawain with his wife in the castle. When he returns from the hunt, the lord will exchange whatever he’s caught with whatever Gawain has gained that day. The wife tries to seduce Gawain each day, without success, and all Gawain gains each day is a chaste kiss. Then on the third day, the wife offers him a magical sash of green and gold silk that will protect him from harm. Knowing he must face the knight, Gawain accepts the gift and keeps it secret from the lord. When he faces the Green Knight, he flinches the first time the knight raises the axe, and the second time the knight again withholds the blow. The third time, the knight’s blow lands on Gawain’s neck, but leaves only a small mark. The Green Knight is then revealed to be his erstwhile host, the lord of the castle. The whole test was constructed by Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s witch of a half-sister, designed to test Arthur’s knights. Gawain is ashamed of his deceit, and when he returns to Camelot, he confesses his failure to be honorable to Arthur and his knights. The knights forgive him and following that they take turns wearing the sash as a reminder to always be honest.

That’s briefly the original story, which I can explain without any spoiler warning because any resemblance between the original story and the movie is purely coincidental. Screenwriter and director David Lowery has completely reimagined the story, but in a self-indulgent way that leaves it a confusing muddle. Lowery had made A Ghost Story in 2017, an atmospheric tale of love and loss where the specter looks like the simplest Halloween costume, and recently he did The Old Man & The Gun with Robert Redford. With The Green Knight, he shows an apparent belief that the dark ages were dark because it was cloudy and gray every day. The titular character looks like a whittled-down version of the monster in A Monster Calls, a black walking tree, while Gawain is portrayed as a callow, feckless youth.

Between playing Gawain in this movie and The Personal History of David Copperfield, Dev Patel has made admirable strides for race-blind casting. On the other hand, he must work extra hard to seem callow and feckless, which goes against his natural manner. Lowery has added a tomboyish love interest for Gawain, played by Alicia Vikander who then later plays the wife of the lord of the castle. That could have set up an interesting dynamic, but Lowery mostly ignores it. He adds in events to fill the time between Gawain setting out for the Green Chapel and his arrival at the lord’s castle, but they do little to enhance the story.

Rather than try anything like the original ending, Lowery steals the format of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but the scene is so drawn out and painful not only Gawain would choose a quick blow from an axe, but so would the audience watching this mess. While it’s been garnering some good critical response, don’t believe it. Let The Green Knight be lost in the mist of history – it more than deserves that fate.

Cruise Up, Cruise Down, Cruise All Around…

Disney has long had an incestuous relation with its intellectual properties, taking what they already owned and repurposing it for a new generation. As a kid I was moved to tears by the live-action animal story, The Incredible Journey. In the 1990s they redid the story adding snarky dialog for the animals and released Homeward Bound, ruining my childhood. Recently their canon of animate films became fodder for CGI-heavy live action versions that have made a mint in profits – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, etc. And then there’s the theme park. From the day Disneyland opened they’ve had rides based on their movies, like the Nautilus submarine, the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and it’s a successful pattern that other theme parks follow. Disney, though, also reversed the flow, using rides as the basis for movies like The Haunted Mansion and the billion-dollar franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean. (I’m just grateful they never inflicted “It’s A Small World” on movie patrons.)

One ride that appeared immune to a big screen adaptation is “Jungle Cruise.” It’s always been the lamest ride at Disneyland, but it was fun because it celebrated its lameness with guides whose patter was more suitable for borsch-belt comedians of the 1950s. But as Sean Connery’s Bond once advised us, never say never again. Disney has taken their kitschy ride, grafted it onto an adventure story suitable for Indiana Jones, and released it in theaters and on their streaming service. The crazy thing is, it works.

In 1916, in the middle of the Great War, MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) addresses a scientific society in London about research his sister Lily (Emily Blunt) has done on a legendary tree hidden in the Amazon rainforest called the Tears of the Moon. The blossoms of the tree are said to have amazing healing powers, which could make a difference in the war effort. The address is a diversion, allowing Lily to sneak into the archives of the society in search of an arrowhead found by an earlier explorer that may hold the secret to finding the tree. The arrowhead had been stolen from an indigenous tribe by a 16th Century conquistador, Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), and his soldiers. Legend has it that they were cursed by the tribe so they would never die but could never leave the environs of the river. Lily manages to get the arrowhead just before the society’s archivist is to give it to Count Joachim (Jessie Plemons), who wants the Tears of the Moon for the same reason as Lily, only for the other side.

Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) runs an independent tour boat for short trips into the jungle, enlivened by fake dangers and a running dialog filled with horrible jokes, such as “I had a girlfriend who was cross-eyed, but we broke up – we couldn’t see eye to eye – and I think she was seeing someone on the side.” Frank is in debt to Nilo (Paul Giamatti), who owns all the other tour boats in the town. When Lily and MacGregor arrive, mounting an expedition to find the tree, it looks to Frank like Lily’s deep pockets will be the answer to his money problems. Then Count Joachim arrives, traveling in his personal U-boat. Frank and the Houghtons barely get out of town, heading into the jungle. Joachim finds an ally in his quest for the tree: Aguirre, who’s been trapped with his men in a cave, unable to reach the river, unable to die.

As is common with movies like this, five different writers worked on the base screen story and then turned it into a screenplay, including Michael Green (Logan, Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express) and the team of Glen Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa, Smallfoot). They manage to string together a series of set pieces that run at breakneck speed, keeping the plot flowing. Yet they also manage some twists that do take you by surprise.

One bone to pick, though. The story is about heading upriver to the depths of the jungle, but they have to shoot rapids and almost go over a waterfall. You would only face those going downstream, not up. Granted, scenes of portaging to get around those obstacles would have been deathly boring, but I notice things like that. (The most flagrant example is in an old Geena Davis/Samuel L. Jackson flick, The Long Kiss Goodnight, where the climax happens on an international bridge between Canada and the US near Niagara Falls, and the filmmakers get the countries reversed.)

But that’s a minor quibble. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has shown a sure hand with action and building tension in the past, having done the tense Blake Lively killer-shark movie, The Shallows, and four (!) of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken thrillers (The Commuter, Non-Stop, Run All Night and Unknown). He’s also the director of Johnson’s entrance into the DC Universe, Black Adam. Collet-Serra knows to play the action straight, but push it up just a notch so it’s just enough over the top to be fun.

This isn’t art, and you probably won’t think of it much after you leave the theater or log off Disney+, but while you’re watching it, you’ll be laughing even as you feel a rush of adrenalin. Not a bad way to spend a smidge over two hours.

A Marvelous Widow

Eleven years is a long time to wait for a character finally to be given its due in a stand-alone movie. While Ironman, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk all had their own starring vehicles before The Avengers, Black Widow only appeared in a supporting role in Iron Man 2 before that team-up, which truly secured the Marvel Universe’s box office power. True, she had more screen time than Hawkeye’s cameo in Thor, but the downside was the sexist nature of the role. Captain America: The Winter Soldier solidified Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as an integral part of the Universe, while her sacrifice during Endgame was devastating, even as it fulfilled the character’s arc. But through these past eleven years fans have continued to clamor for a stand-alone movie.

Now after that long wait, extended by over a year because of COVID, Black Widow finally gets her due. It’s not so much that the film’s time has come as the field was plowed in preparation for this seed to grow. When Marvel began its own conquest of the theaters, after having its most popular characters (Spider Man, the X-Men) make millions for Sony and Fox respectively, there was resistance to the idea of a female superhero. One of the emails released in the Sony hack years ago was a mucky-much at Marvel saying a female superhero would never work. Then came Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, which blew that prejudice to dust. Captain Marvel did a similar service for the Marvel Universe and marked the first time a woman helmed a Marvel film with Anna Boden co-directed and co-writing the script with her partner Ryan Fleck. That opened the way for Black Widow, and for it to be directed by Australian director Cate Shortland.

The film begins by expanding on Natasha’s backstory. We meet the pre-teen Natasha sporting blue-dyed hair and living in Ohio in the early 1990s with her “family”: blond younger sister Yelena, mother Melina (Rachel Weisz), and father Alexi (David Harbour). We soon learn it’s all a front, a KGB created family to give Alexi cover while he steals research from SHIELD and deliver it to Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the head of the Red Room where female agents are trained to be Widows. They barely make it out of the US to Cuba, with Natasha having to step in to save them all when Melina is injured. The reward for Natasha and Yelena’s service is to be put into the Widow program.

Twenty-one years later, Natasha (Johansson) is laying low in Europe after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt) is gunning for her, but she stays several steps ahead of him. At the same time, Yelena (Florence Pugh) is part of a team of Widows going after one of their own who’s gone rogue. Yelena mortally wounds the woman, only to have her release Red Dust from a vial. It’s the antidote for the Widows, releasing them from the mind control drug that forced them to obey Dreykov’s orders. Yelena gathers the other vials and flees.

Mason (O-T Fagbenle), a longtime contact of Natasha’s, sets her up with a safehouse in Scandinavia. He also delivers a box filled with mail from the safe house in Budapest that Natasha had used. Natasha and Hawkeye mentioned Budapest a couple of times in previous films, and we learn that the operation they worked there was the assassination of Dreykov. Mixed in with the mail is a box containing the Red Dust vials. Natasha is ambushed by the Taskmaster, a relentless assassin who’s after the chemical, but the Black Widow manages to escape with the vials. She heads for the Budapest safe house where she finds Yelena in residence. Yelena lets Natasha know that Dreykov is still alive and running the Red Room from a secret location. To find it, they will need the help of Melina and Alexi. All the while the Taskmaster hunts them all.

Black Widow is one of the most grounded of the Marvel Universe movies, since its main characters aren’t so much superheroes as people with preternatural skills. Rather than massive amounts of computer graphic special effects, much of the movie is good ol’ stunt work. One of the best set pieces is a car and motorcycle chase through the streets of Budapest with camerawork that puts you in the middle of the action.
Shortland, though, isn’t just interested in action. The movie focuses on character development, particularly of Natasha, Melina, and Yelena, and mines a good amount of humor as well. Yelena kids Natasha for being a “poser” for doing her classic landing crouch. They also bond over a vest that Yelena has because it has a tremendous number of pockets. This is a movie that not only passes the Bechdel test (whether a movie can have two women characters who talk about something other than the male lead), but it may be the first superhero movie to win that test with its female-centered cast. The good news is, while Shortland is the first woman to solo direct a Marvel film, she won’t be the last; Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao is putting the finishing touches on The Eternals, due out later this year.

The movie owes much to the spy films of the ‘60s and ‘70s with double-crosses and triple-crosses galore, but that keeps the story moving at a breakneck speed throughout its 2¼ hour running time. Black Widow easily slips in near the top of the Marvel Universe, on the same level as The Winter Soldier and Black Panther. It was a long time coming, but it is a joy that it has finally arrived.    

The Way The World Ends

I’ve always had a soft spot for disaster movies. I remember being fascinated by When Worlds Collide as a kid, and then Irwin Allen switched from TV to films with The Poseidon Adventure, ushering in the all-star cast disaster flicks of the 1970s with films like The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and the Airport sequels. Those devolved into the parody of the Airplane movies, and the title of Allen’s last theatrical film in 1980, When Time Runs Out, pretty much summed up the state of the disaster film. It came back in the 1990s, with Independence Day in 1996, then two years of seeing double in 1997 (Volcano & Dante’s Peak) and 1998 (Armageddon & Deep Impact). Roland Emmerich, who did Independence Day, would continue the genre in the new century with The Day After Tomorrow, and then go way over the top with 2012. But mixed in there you have some more realistic disaster films like Twister, the exceptional Norwegian film The Wave, an Australian film called These Final Hours, the variation on found footage films, Into The Storm, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s thrill ride San Andreas. They counted more on the story than on the cast to get people into the theatres. The film Greenland, now available on HBO & HBO Max, follows in that mold.

Atlanta-based structural engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler) has been estranged from his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) following an affair, but he’s trying to reconcile. He’s invited back home to join with his son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) and the family’s neighbors for a watch party as a comet called Clark is passing close by the Earth and it’s expected some shards may enter the atmosphere. When John and Nathan run to the store for some supplies before the party, they notice the sky filled with transport jets flying north. While in the store, John gets a robocall from Homeland Security telling him he and his family have been preselected and to stand by.

They return to the house to find it full of their neighbors, gathered to watch the expected impact of a piece of the comet in the Atlantic. There’s a countdown, but no impact appears on the TV. Then John hears something strange outside. He goes out and sees a mass migration of birds – and then he’s knocked to the ground and windows are shattered when a shockwave hits. Running inside, he learns that a miles-wide piece has struck near Tampa, wiping out most of central Florida. With the impact, the truth is finally release – Clark is on a direct path to hit the earth. It had broken into many pieces over the eons it orbited, so there are many smaller impacts expected. In two days though, the main piece of the comet will hit, causing an extinction level event. Another call comes from Homeland Security, telling John to take Allison and Nathan and get to Warner Robbins AFB by nine that night. At the base, the evacuation goes FUBAR in the most spectacular way and the family is separated. But John manages to learn where the evacuees were being taken – Cold War-era nuclear bunkers in Greenland.

This is like a realistic mashup of Armageddon and Deep Impact without the fiction of a space mission that could offer any hope. People act like people – some surprise you while others confirm a person’s worse fears about humanity. As John makes his way from the base to where he hopes he’ll find Allison and Nathan, he sees looters in stores, people praying on the streets, and a party happening on top of a parking garage as people watch shards slice through the atmosphere and impact nearby. There are good people and bad, and some of the bad convince themselves that they are good.

Butler has one other disaster film to his credit, 2017’s Geostorm, which I have tried very hard to forget. As contrived and awful that film was, Greenland is the opposite, a meditation on the human spirit fighting to survive against overwhelming odds. While the comet may be coming from outer space, the story remains grounded and realistic. The three main actors do well to react in a relatable way. It would have been easy for Floyd, as the youngest member of the cast, to slip into an annoying tone, but that doesn’t happen. There’s also an effective turn by Scott Glenn as Allison’s father, facing the end with a rugged stoicism.

Director Ric Roman Waugh started as a stuntman, and he knows how to put together action sequences so they are thrilling. Working from an original script by Chris Sparling, the story is a fight for survival told as a hell of a road trip. It doesn’t try to tell a big story like Armageddon or Deep Impact, but instead focuses on three humans that you care about, and it tells that story effectively.

Wished For More

Taylor Sheridan had a decent career as an actor, including recurring roles in both “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.” Then in 2015 he switched to behind the camera, writing the excellent and intricate thriller Sicario. He followed that up with the modern western outlaw flick Hell or High Water, then both wrote and directed Wind River with Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. Wind River was more contemplative than the propulsive action of the previous two films. Sheridan had written the movie about a murder on a Wyoming reservation, only to discover when they started filming that it mirrored actual unsolved cases. He incorporated details of those crimes into the film. Sheridan also created the series “Yellowstone” and wrote most of its episodes. The sequel to Sicario, Day of the Soldado, was a misfire, and his recent participation in Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse made me no longer consider his name on a production to be a positive, but I did want to see how he would do both co-writing and directing another outdoor crime thriller, Those Who Wish Me Dead. What is on the screen has its moments, but it’s not much more than an extended TV episode.

In a return to action flicks eleven years after the decent Salt and the abysmal The Tourist, Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, an experienced smokejumper who’s now grounded, working for the Forest Service in a fire lookout tower in Montana. She’s haunted by a fire her crew tackled that went very bad, leading to several deaths. Reunited with several of her firefighting team, she tries recreating a stunt she’d done before – parachuting off the back of a speeding truck – but it doesn’t go well and only raises the ire of Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a deputy sheriff married to Allison (Medina Senghore), who runs a wilderness survival training camp.

In Florida, Jack (Aiden Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), a two-man hit team, take out a prosecutor and then sets their sights on Owen (Jake Weber), an accountant who’s the main witness against crime boss Arthur (Tyler Perry). Owen learns of the prosecutor’s death and goes on the run with his son, Connor (Finn Little), heading to Montana and Ethan, whom Owen trusts as they are related. The killers, though, discover where the father and son are headed and race ahead of them, setting a trap. While Jack and Patrick get Owen, Connor escapes into the woods, where he’s found by Hannah. She must use all her skills to evade the killers.

The camera still loves Jolie, and she can still handle an action scene convincingly. However, she’s not served by the weak script. The movie’s based on a novel by Michael Koryta, who collaborated on the script with Sheridan and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond, In The Heart of the Sea) At a run time of 1:40, including the credits, not much thought is given to developing the characters beyond stereotypes. Tyler Perry is completely wasted as Arthur, with one short scene that might as well have been a phone conversation with its lack of tension. Owen’s predicament is only developed in the briefest way, and how the killers decide where he’s headed strains credulity. With Jolie’s Hannah, it feels like we’re being fed more filler than meat.

An exception is Medina Senghore’s Allison, who is believable at the pregnant survival expert who becomes the worst nightmare for Jack and Patrick. Bernthal, though, is essentially neutered by the script. He’s still interesting to watch, but you long for him to have more to do, especially if you’ve seen his work in The Accountant, Baby Driver, Ford vs. Ferrari, or “The Punisher” series on Netflix. Hoult is a bland generic bad guy as Patrick, though Aiden Gillen is a bit more interesting. Still, in comparison to his Game of Thrones role, Littlefinger, Aiden’s Jack is a marshmallow.

The story and the poster promise a forest fire sequence, which creates the climax of the film. What you get is okay, but nowhere near the intensity or full realization that was done in Only The Brave. If Those Who Wish Me Dead were made 60 years ago, it would have been the B film of a double feature – something for the audience to enjoy, but not the main draw. With this cast though, you expect much more, and Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t deliver it. 

Promise Kept

One reason I hated the COVID-19 pandemic was it kept me from seeing Promising Young Woman in the theater. The movie generated remarkable buzz, and it was rewarded with 5 Oscar nominations, including Best Actress for Carey Mulligan, Best Picture, and Best Director for Emerald Fennell, setting up a first in Oscar history where two women were nominated in the same year in that category, with Chloe Zaou eventually taking the trophy. While it got shut out in those awards, it did pick up a Best Original Screenplay award for Fennell, which was richly deserved.

By day, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works a mind-numbing job at a coffee shop. Her manager, Gail (Laverne Cox from “Orange is the New Black”), recognizes her intelligence and wants her to apply for a better position in the company, but Cassie isn’t interested. She’s living at home with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) who aren’t quite sure what to do about their daughter as she reaches her 30th birthday. At night, though, Cassie goes out to bars in the city and acts like she’s drunk out of her skull, waiting for a man to pick her up, take her back to his apartment, and start to rape her. They’re then freaked out when Cassie reveals she’s completely sober and challenges them on what they’re doing. She keeps a notebook of their names and color-coded tally marks on whether they made their move while she seemed to be asleep or whether they woke her up. As Cassie tells a later victim, every time she goes out, there’s always a man ready to take advantage of her. Always.

We learn Cassie was deeply damaged while in medical school when Nina, her best friend since she was four, was repeatedly raped by another student while others watched. Because Nina was drunk when the attack happened, she was faced with victim shaming and doubting of her testimony. She tried to pursue the case in court, only to be destroyed by the student’s lawyer. Cassie dropped out to take care of her friend, but Nina couldn’t recover and committed suicide. It leads Cassie to go after predators who would take advantage of women like Nina, filling those men with enough fear that they’d never approach another woman in the same way again. 

Then a chance encounter with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former med school classmate who is now a pediatric surgeon, seems to give Cassie a chance at happiness. His sense of humor and decency manages to crack open her protective shell. But then Ryan casually reveals that the man who raped Nina and then moved to England following the case was now back in town, working as an anesthesiologist at one of the hospitals and engaged to be married to a woman described as a swimsuit model. Cassie pursues a decidedly personal form of vengeance against not only the doctor who assaulted Nina but also their former best friend in school who wouldn’t support Nina, the dean of students who did nothing when the assault was reported, and the lawyer who murdered Nina’s character in the court case.

Carey Mulligan communicates Cassie’s intimidating intelligence and her obsession to turn the tables on those who exploit women, even when that person is another woman. There’s a strong physicality in her performance. Early on, Cassie is walking home when a couple of construction workers start harassing her verbally from across the street. Cassie doesn’t run or respond verbally; she simply stares them down as if she were looking at bugs, then when they retreat, she continues walking.

While a revenge story is usually heavy and serious, Fennell’s witty and sharply-observed script leavens the story with unexpected humor. Yet it also packs a wallop. When she faces Nina’s rapist, he whines, “It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that,” to which Cassie responds, “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” The story twists in surprising directions, taking the usual tropes of a revenge story and creating something new and fresh.

The supporting cast is exceptional, with Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as two of Cassie’s encounters, Alison Brie and Connie Britton as people who betrayed Nina and find themselves targeted by Cassie, and Molly Shannon as Nina’s mother. There’s also an exceptional scene with an uncredited Alfred Molina as the lawyer who had destroyed Nina in court only to suffer a breakdown from all his work enabling predators.

As Promising Young Woman builds to an unexpected and powerful climax, it strips away all the rationales and justifications to reveal predators who would never under normal circumstances ever think they fit that profile. In this way, it is a near perfect film to capture the age of #MeToo.

The Realism of the Absurd

COVID-19 essentially destroyed the box office for films last year. Four of the top 10 grossing movies were hold-overs from December 2019 (1917, Star Wars IX, Jumanji – the Next Level, and Little Women) and the other six (Bad Boys for Life, Sonic the Hedgehog, Birds of Prey, Doolittle, The Invisible Man and The Call of the Wild) were all released in January or February. After that, limited release became the rule, if a film could be released at all. Movies that were tied in with streaming services like Nomadland (Hulu) and Mank (Netflix) were seen but didn’t have traditional box office business. Warner Brothers’ deal with HBO Max let their movies get out, even though it meant Wonder Woman ’84 grossed 1/35th of the box office of the original. One movie that isn’t even on the top 200 box office list for 2020 is now available for rent on Amazon or to stream free with Amazon Prime. It may be the perfect comedy to sum up the past pandemic year.

Spontaneous is a blend of teen comedy and absurdist theater – John Hughes meets Eugene Ionescu, with a bit of Quentin Tarantino thrown in for good measure. Mara (Katherine Langford) is a high school senior who doesn’t have many plans for post-graduation, except maybe to live on a beach with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). Then one day in a class, the girl who sits in front of Mara explodes. “Like a bomb?” Tess asks when Mara tells her what happened. “No, like…a balloon?” Mara responds.

At first it seems like a bizarre, isolated event that is processed by other students in different ways. While Mara and Tess are at a coffee shop, classmate Dylan (Charlie Plummer) joins them. He’s liked Mara from a distance for a while, but the possibility of death spurs him to ask her out. Dylan is a sweet slacker with an ironic sense of humor that matches Mara’s, and they become close. But then another of the class explodes, leading the authorities to send in FBI agent Rosetti (Yvonne Orji) to investigate. When a brother/sister pair blow while driving, with Mara in the car with them, medical teams descend to isolate the class while the doctors seek a way to stop more of them from turning into puddles of blood.

It should be noted the explosions are usually not shown. You hear a loud pop and see a spray of blood, but it’s actually fairly restrained in comparison to some movies. Mara and Dylan handle what’s happening by playing off the absurdity of the situation. When hazmat suited doctors put them into isolation, separated by plastic walls, they re-enact the similar scene in E.T. – The Extraterrestrial between Elliot and E.T. Eventually the deaths hit too close for Mara, and she spirals into a dark place before finally managing to climb back out.

Spontaneous is the first directing gig for screenwriter Brian Duffield (Underwater, The Babysitter), which he adapted from a novel by Aaron Starmer. Duffield uses Mara as the narrator as well as main character, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to have her address the audience directly within a scene. It’s done sparingly, and actually works quite well.

Langford looks completely different from her turn as Toni Collette’s daughter in Knives Out last year, and she carries the picture with panache. Hayley Law’s mostly been on TV with recurring roles in “Riverdale” and “Altered Carbon.” She projects more depth than you usually get in the “best friend” role. Plummer’s role could have easily slipped over the top into parody, but he keeps it grounded and you believe his relationship with Mara. There’s also a nice turn by Piper Perabo and Ron Huebel as Mara’s worried but supportive parents.

In light of COVID-19, Spontaneous takes on a bit more resonance than it would have in a normal year. (An unexplainable condition striking people without any rhyme or reason, while the medical team struggles to find answers? Yeah, sounds familiar.) Yet in a way it leads to a triumphant moment by the end of the film. In a normal year, Spontaneous might have been a sleeper hit with its cockeyed humor. If you’re looking for something different than what you usually find to watch, Spontaneous will fit the bill.