CineWomen: Cate Shortland gives ‘Black Widow’ the Bond movie she deserves
Plus “Lore” by Cate Shortland, “Enemies of the State” by Sonia Kennebeck, and the films of Akosua Adoma Owusu
Kindly indulge one more count.
That’s how long it had been since I’d seen a film in a theater during the coronavirus crisis with my favorite movie buddy — i.e., my husband, Jeff.
The last movie we saw together was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on December 19, 2019, at Regal Atlantic Station in Atlanta.
The first one we saw was F9: The Fast Saga on July 5, 2021, at AMC Parkway Pointe in Atlanta.
We’d actually gone to a movie theater together right before cinemas closed during the pandemic but, not knowing it’d be our last chance for more than a year, went to different movies. I saw Emma. on March 11, 2020, at the Regal Edwards Santa Maria. He chose My Hero Academia.
Not all of this is COVID-19’s fault. Jeff works half the year in Atlanta, which is why our significant movie experiences around the pandemic have taken place there.
And this isn’t to say that we don’t watch movies together, even when we’re apart.
Early on during social distancing, we started watching the James Bond movies. All twenty-four-plus of them. (We skipped the 1967 spoof Casino Royale but did watch the non-canon Never Say Never Again.) Every Sunday we’d put on a 007 adventure — who would have guessed we’d still have to wait more than a year to finish the project with No Time to Die (and when we do, it will once again be on the East Coast).
When we started our #JamesBondMarathon, Jeff was still here in Los Angeles. When he headed back to Hotlanta in July, we still watched an installment every Sunday, just on our own. Then, when we got to the one with Javier Bardem (they all started to blur together; Wikipedia tells me it’s Skyfall), Jeff started live-texting me quips and emojis as he watched. Being three hours behind him, I started watching about an hour later, and started live-texting him quips and emojis back. By the time Javier Bardem showed up on my TV, Jeff was in bed, but a new tradition is born.
Now, every Sunday at four p.m. Pacific/seven p.m. Eastern, we watch a movie together with our phones handy. After James Bond, we watched all of the Fast and Furious movies — including shorts (did you know there were F&F shorts?!) — in chronological order, so that the third firm, Tokyo Drift, fell after Fast & Furious 6).
Then we started the Zatoichi series, which comprises twenty-six movies about a blind samurai. That got old fast, so we switched to Godzilla and watched about eight of those (out of thirty-six) before the new Godzilla vs. Kong came out.
Now we’re rewatching all the Marvel movies.
The marathon works best with movies we’ve seen already, or don’t care that much about, so we don’t miss much while hunting for the perfect shorthands for Iron Man (🤖), Hulk (🐸), Thor (🔨), and Captain America (🇺🇸).
The habit has continued when we happen to be together, with our phones occasionally buzzing with a particularly apt emoji even when we’re sitting right next to each other. It’s more fun that way.
‘Black Widow’ (🕷️)
After eleven years, seven movies, and one very dramatic death, one of the core Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is finally getting her own film — one that strikes at the heart of her history, attempts to correct slights gross and amusing, and sets up a next-gen Black Widow to carry on her legacy.
Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow kicks off in idyllic 1995 suburban Ohio, where young Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson), sporting a mop of blue hair, and her adored younger “sister” Yelena (Violet McGraw) realize they’re living a comic-book version of the television show The Americans when their “mom” Melina (Rachel Weisz) and “dad” Alexei (David Harbour) stage a thrilling escape to Cuba by prop plane.
The action picks up 21 years later, after the events of Captain America: Civil War, when Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and the rest of the Avengers have violated the Sokovia Accords and scattered across the globe. Nat plans to lay low in Norway, but a package from her safehouse in much-alluded-to Budapest draws her back out into the open and reunites her with Yelena (Florence Pugh) who until recently has remained in the Black Widow program that trained them to be assassins and thus hung onto her Russian accent.
Although they’re not actually related, Yelena blames Nat for leaving her behind, and their first encounter is knock-down, drag-out hand-to-hand combat shot up close, tight, and fast, until they’re interrupted by the Widows they spend the rest of the movie trying to save. Yelena goes toe-to-toe with her would-be sister, as does Pugh and Johansson, bringing the same physicality and even more charisma to the role than the headliner.
Along the way, they track down their undercover parents as well for a faux family reunion. Alexei, it turns out, is a super soldier like Steve Rogers called Red Guardian, though he remains unknown — and no, he’s not bitter at all about that. Harbour chews the scenery as a guy who’s aged and gained some weight whiling away in prison, dramatic and emotional among a crew of steely badass women. Weisz could easily have been overshadowed but brings her own geeky quirkiness to an old-guard Black Widow who’s cycled through the program four times.
Black Widow smashes the Bechdel test, keeping Nat and Yelena at the center of the action and keeping Hawkeye, who spared Nat’s life and recruited her for S.H.I.E.L.D., and the other Avengers out of it. This enables the pair to both poke fun at the character and her signature pose and revisit some of her low moments — repositioning the fact that she was sterilized by the Black Widow program not as the source of self-loathing (which got a whole cringey scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron) but as a matter-of-fact reality of life that she can make light of when confronted with a bad period joke.
With a Russian villain mastermind and his enhanced henchman (here a twist on the Marvel character Taskmaster), exhilarating action set pieces staged in exotic locales all around the world, and even a clip of Moonraker, Black Widow is the MCU’s James Bond movie, hopefully with Pugh picking up the mantle where Johansson left off.
Black Widow (2021), directed by Cate Shortland (theaters and Disney+ with Premier Access)
In the waning days of World War II, an SS officer and his wife disappear from the country house to which they’ve fled, leaving their five children to make their way hundreds of miles north to their grandmother’s. Led by the titular eldest sister (Saskia Rosendahl), the Dresslers, including an infant, negotiate an idyllic countryside now crawling with refugees like themselves, Allied borders dividing up the Motherland, and their own prejudices in Cate Shortland’s German-language Lore.
Personifying the latter is Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), a loner who stalks fourteen-year-old Lore and her siblings until he becomes useful, extracting them from a run-in with American troops. He appears to be a Jew, however, so Lore is loathe to accept his help — even as she is drawn to him — thanks to the bigoted beliefs instilled in her by her parents.
Shortland and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw get up close and personal with intimate, handheld camerawork as Lore confronts what she’s been taught and her family’s legacy of fascism and genocide, blue eyes popping with judgment, hate, fear, confusion, and, finally, resolve. The journey wreaks havoc on her physically, emotionally, and spiritually as she finds herself navigating profound desperation and trauma. There’s no happy ending after what she’s been through.
‘Enemies of the State’
Like the true-crime podcasts and television series that have exploded in popularity over the past several years, Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary thriller Enemies of the State parcels out her discoveries in a manner that manipulates viewers’ sentiments about the situation. In this case, what’s initially presented as a freedom-of-speech crusade a la whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning is gradually revealed to be a tangled web of likely clinical paranoia, child pornography allegations, and extreme helicopter parenting.
The subject is Matt DeHart, an Indiana computer geek who hangs out on the dark web and allegedly comes into possession of information about a CIA operation that the FBI is interested in. Why this fact launches what he and his parents claim are years of investigation, interrogation, and even torture is unclear since the info never comes out and an integral thumb drive disappears.
Meanwhile, the DeHarts dismiss the child-porn investigation going on down in Tennessee as a ruse to get at him for his hacker activities. Given the victims in that case are underage, the investigators are understandably reticent to lay out their case for the filmmakers, but eventually they do to enough of an extent to confront the talking-head reporters and academic experts who heretofore had hailed DeHart — as well as viewers.
DeHart’s parents Paul and Leann serve as our unreliable entrées into this mess, and though Kennebeck borrows from The Thin Blue Line by employing reenactments — some even with original audio — ultimately this approach puts up a wall between the subject and the viewer, and we don’t get a good sense of DeHart himself. Coupled with what feels like willful misdirection, this makes for a frustrating experience.
Enemies of the State (2020), directed by Sonia Kennebeck (theaters)
Short films by Akosua Adoma Owusu
Part critical theory, part performance art, the films of Ghanian-American filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu straddle geography and culture, exploring what she describes as “triple consciousness” — expanding on the notion of “double consciousness” originated by W.E.B. Du Bois to explore what it means to be a Black woman negotiating the countries of both her birth (the United States) and her heritage (Ghana) and where those myriad identities collide.
She does this in a diverse collection of short films that span documentary, experimental, and narrative filmmaking that draw from — and sometimes mash up — daily life, African myth (the spider/man trickster in her semi-autobiographical Kwaku Ananse), and American pop culture (including Michaels Jordan and Jackson).
Among the themes she returns to again and again is hair — specifically Black women’s hair. It’s deconstructed in her under-two-minute avant-garde student film Tea 4 Two. It’s celebrated in her kaleidoscope collage Split Ends, I Feel Wonderful. And it’s examined in one of her signature works, Me Broni Ba (My White Baby), which details the culture of Ghanian hair salons, their work, their hand-painted posters, and the women who practice braiding on discarded white baby dolls. As with all her subjects, Owusu approaches the topic with intellectual rigor, a visual and aural aesthetic, and a respectful regard.
Included in a collection of her work on The Criterion Collection is a much-recommended intro to Owusu and her work, as well as text descriptions of each film that in some cases fill in otherwise not-obvious context.
Short films by Akosua Adoma Owusu (2011), directed by Akosua Adoma Owusu (Criterion)