Our Pandemic Movie Theater.
As I already mentioned in a previous column I did last year (“At-home projection: How I learned to love my movie collection all over again…“), the COVID pandemic put the kibosh on movie attendance for me—and going to the movies was once a favorite pastime of mine. However, a safely-masked visit to a friend’s ‘back patio movie night’ in May of 2020 changed the way I looked at movie presentation. Our friend had bought a small digital projector ($120) and she has a large, uncluttered back patio wall to use as a screen. Facing that wall, a few of us sat under the stars on comfy lawn chairs and watched “Knives Out” that evening. The movie was enjoyable enough, but the way it was shown inspired me. Just as I finally learned to cook in my 40s, I decided to make our own backyard movie theater by purchasing a digital projector and a 7 ft. collapsible screen for my wife and I as well (we don’t have our friend’s wall space, I’m afraid…).
With our new, relatively inexpensive home movie night gear, we’re no longer subject to the whims and schedules of the multiplexes. Now we could do dinner and a movie at home, with bathroom and popcorn breaks whenever we wanted. The movie would stop for us and resume for us at the press of a pause button. A small, but very powerful JBL Bluetooth speaker provided sound—not booming surround sound, of course, but dialogue is audible and clear, and explosions don’t rattle the fillings in our teeth anymore. For most of our movies, my wife and I usually pick one from our huge selection of DVDs and Blu-Rays. Our portable Blu-Ray player hooks into the projector via a simple HDMI cable, and our AppleTV streaming device allows us to view content directly from YouTube, Netflix, and DisneyPlus, as well as other streaming services we’ve subscribed to over the past few years.
During the pandemic, new first-run movies were becoming available to stream with ‘premium access’ codes which typically ran about the cost of a pair of tickets at a deluxe movie theater—but unlike going to a one-time presentation at a theater, you get to keep the movie on your devices afterward (you can even use your smartphone as a remote!). My wife and I first tried this with our own back patio screening of “Bill & Ted Face the Music” to be followed by another outdoor screening of the live-action remake of Disney’s “Mulan”. Unfortunately, mosquitoes quickly became an issue (even with bug lights & sprays), so we moved the ‘theater’ indoors to our garage, where we screened a few of the Star Wars movies for our friends and their young son, who’s a serious Star Wars fan. However, when it’s a movie night for just my wife and I? We huddle together in our home office, which makes for a cozy little ad-hoc theater.
Overall, I find it a lot less stressful to ‘attend’ our (at-home) theater than drive out to the movies and risk cellphone jerks, talkers, seat-kickers, sticky floors or some other random element to ruin the increasingly expensive presentation. With our 7 ft (2-meter) screen opened up in a darkened room surrounded by comfy chairs? Let’s just say the experience of seeing movies has undergone a fundamental change in our household, and we love it.
So even though movie theaters and multiplexes are reopening, my wife and I decided to watch the long-delayed “Black Widow” at home. We bought the access pass code from DisneyPlus. I then set up the projector, powered up the speaker, hooked up the AppleTV streamer and unfurled the screen to maximum width. We were all set. Like setting up a barbecue.
Note: I remember seeing trailers for “Black Widow” in February of 2020 during the last, pre-pandemic movie I attended theatrically; 2020’s “The Invisible Man”. That’s how long this movie has been on Disney’s shelf…
******MARVEL-OUS SPOILERS AHEAD!******
“Black Widow” (2021).
Written by Eric Pearson, Jac Schaffer, Ned Benson and directed by Cate Shortland, the movie played very well at home. With the collapsible screen pulled open and the blinds closed, the 2.35:1 projected image was bright and clear. Not 4K sharp, of course, but more than clear enough to enjoy on a giant screen without much resolution loss. The sound pumped out from our little JBL speaker was quite strong as well. All in all, our home viewing of “Black Widow” felt very theatrical.
Anyway, on with the movie itself…
The movie opens in 1995, when Marvel’s “Black Widow” Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson) was a young girl living in Ohio with her phony “family” of former Russian spies, including father Alexei (David Harbour, of Netflix’s “Stranger Things”), mother Melina (Rachel Weisz), and kid sister, Yelena (Violet McGraw). Alexei comes home and whispers to his wife that they have to go; the Feds are hot on their trail. That night, the ‘family’ takes a small private plane and escapes to Cuba…where they are forever separated. The girls are anguished at being forced to leave their beloved (if fictional) family life in Ohio…
Note: Ever Anderson, the young girl playing 1995 Natasha, is a dead ringer for her mother, actress Milla Jovovich (“Resident Evil,” “The Fifth Element”).
The girls are taken away to the Red Room, a training camp for female Russian spies who are trained to seduce Westerns before assassinating them; their bodies and minds forever altered both in training and more artificial means. The adult Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) eventually joined the ‘good guys’, aka the “Avengers”, who fight for both western interests and the world at large. Kid sister Yelena stayed behind, to become a programmed assassin under chemical and electronic means of control. On on assassination mission in Budapest, the now adult Yelena (Florence Pugh) escapes.
Note: The notion of Russian female operatives manipulating western persons and/or political groups isn’t fiction. Most recently, there was the case of a young Russian ‘journalist’ named Maria Butina, who courted the NRA, flattered former president Donald Trump at a press conference, and posed for many pictures with Republican lawmakers before she was eventually exposed as a spy and sent home to Russia. She was one of many such operatives, many of whom are no doubt working hard at continuing to sow discord and push disinformation in US and UK politics as I write this column.
Meanwhile, Natasha, who is temporarily on the outs with the Avengers, is living in a trailer in a remote section of Norway, where she is met by her friend and ally, Mason (O-T Fagbenle). Mason does his best to keep Natasha stocked in fake IDs, passports, weapons, places to hide, etc. Natasha is also given a mysterious set of chemical vials which were shipped from Natasha’s ex “kid sister” Yelena from Budapest. As her trailer’s generator runs down, Natasha goes into town for fuel where is nearly killed by a “The Taskmaster”; a mysterious, helmeted, cybernetically-enhanced super-soldier who looks like a cross between Robocop and the Grim Reaper. Barely escaping with her life, Natasha decides to follow her sister’s trail to Budapest, reliving her own painful memories in the process, such as an assassination attempt she carried out on Black Widow Project mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone)—an operation which saw Dreykov’s young daughter Antonia being blown up as “collateral damage.” Natasha is haunted by the memory of what she did.
Note: Mason is Natasha’s equivalent of James Bond’s “Q”, the quartermaster who supplies Bond with whatever he needs for a given assignment; cars, hidden weapons, etc. We also see during the movie that Natasha herself is an aficionado of Bond movies, watching “Moonraker” on her laptop before her trailer’s generator runs out of gas. “Moonraker” is referenced several other times in the movie; for starters, the villain’s name of Dreykov is similar to Bond’s “Moonraker” nemesis Hugo “Drax.” There’s also a skydiving stunt Natasha mimics from the film to save her falling sister, as well the design of the airborne “Red Room” complex–which looks very much like Drax’s “Moonraker” space station. Yes, I see what you did there, movie…
Not sure whether she can trust Yelena, the two have a violent ‘reunion’ at Yelena’s apartment before they both find themselves on the run from the unstoppable Taskmaster. The Taskmaster seems to adapt to any fighting technique–matching move for move, strategy for strategy, improvisation for improvisation, but with almost inhuman strength and endurance. Natasha and Yelena barely manage to escape before they meet once again with Mason, who manages to furnish them with a plane. Natasha’s plan is for her and Yelena to rescue their phony ‘father,’ Alexei, who used to be a Soviet superhero named “Red Guardian” (think: Soviet Captain America) before he was stuck in a shit assignment pretending to be an American dad in Ohio with his “wife” and “two daughters.” When the Ohio assignment went south, Alexei was exiled to a frozen gulag for his trouble. Natasha hopes Alexei will lead them to the secret “Red Room”, where see will see if her old nemesis Dreykov is still alive…
Note: Natasha and Yelena going off to confront their ex-mentor/enslaver Dreykov has echoes of Dickens’ character of “Oliver Twist” with Dreykov acting as a Bond villain version of Fagin, taking in orphaned, unwanted girls from all over the world to use as his controlled assassins; there is an implicit metaphor for sexually abused women confronting their earlier abusers. I loved the dialogue between Natasha and Yelena when they are reunited on the run. Their temporary downtime allows them to talk about trivial things, such as Natasha’s subconscious ‘action pose,’ and Yelena’s cool multi-pocketed flack vest. It’s very natural and quite humorous, in fact. Florence Pugh has a great ‘sisterly’ chemistry with Johansson, and often steals a few scenes herself.
Suited up in their ‘action wear’ (so help me, Johansson looks like an un-helmeted stormtrooper from Star Wars), Yelena pilots the chopper to fly in low over the prison, while Natasha goes to break her ex-‘father’ out. This snowy jailbreak is a big, James Bond-style action sequence that reminds me of something from “Goldeneye” or “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and much of the footage is featured in the trailers for the movie. In short, they break the boorish, egotistical, overweight Alexei out of prison and flee towards the temporary safety of their exiled ‘mother’ Melina’s rural farmhouse in rural St. Petersburg…
Note: The movie’s action set pieces, while well done, are the least interesting parts of the movie for me. With human bodies enduring far greater punishment than any biological being could endure, my brain kind of checks out during these sequences. I much prefer the more interesting character moments between the dull, CGI-augmented fisticuffs. Fortunately, there is a healthy amount of downtime during the pursuits for the characters to become fully-realized human beings again. I found that “Black Widow” had even more character moments than I imagined it would, to my pleasant surprise…
Their out-of-fuel chopper crashes just short of their destination (as a cynical Yelena tried to warn them), but the trio manages to walk the rest of the way to Melina’s farm, where the ex-spy has refined mind control on her subject pigs—even directing the hapless animals when to breathe or not. As the four ex-‘family members’ sit down for a well-earned dinner, they alternately recoil and reconnect with each other, as Yelena and Natasha are unsure just how far they can trust their seemingly cool and detached ‘mother,’ Melina. Natasha wants them to stick to their mission; find the Red Room, determine if Dreykov is still alive and stop him, if possible. Meanwhile, the egotistical ex-hero Alexei wants to regain his former glory as “Red Guardian,” even hilariously squeezing back into his old uniform and regaling his ‘daughters’ with talk of his exaggerated exploits. He fails to connect with the bitter Yelena, until he gently (and badly) sings a favorite song of hers from her childhood in Ohio; “American Pie,” by Don McLean. Unfortunately, the ambiguously-intentioned Melina tells Natasha that she has quietly alerted the authorities, who are already closing on their position…
Note: The scenes at Melina’s St. Petersburg farmhouse are my favorites in the film. Once again, I appreciated the precious moments where the movie lets the characters breathe for a bit. The actors are so solid in their roles, that it’s great fun watching them simply interact with each other. Although the characters are not a ‘real’ family, they have a dysfunctional familial bond–almost like watching some Bizarro, Soviet version of “The Incredibles” done in live-action.
The captured faux-family, including Melina and Natasha, are transported to a large hovering station high up in the atmosphere…this is the Red Room, which never had a ground location. Thus, it kept its assets mobile. This is Dreykov’s base of operations, where he controls unwanted girls from all over the world as his army of “Black Widows.” Melina reports to Dreykov, and is scrutinized by the evil spymaster—who quickly deduces she is actually Natasha, wearing an electronic mask used to make her look like Melina. The mask is deactivated, and Natasha is facing her abuser eye-to-eye once again. Every attempt Natasha makes to strike or otherwise injure Dreykov fails. Dreykov is using a specially developed pheromone that prevents his ‘subjects’ from fighting back. Meanwhile, Melina deactivates her “Natasha” disguise, and decides to help her faux family to escape. Yelena is about to be lobotomized, but the operation is halted when she pulls out a concealed knife in her uniform (good thing they didn’t put her in a hospital gown…). It turns out that Melina and Natasha had secretly planned their abduction beforehand, with Melina warning Natasha about Dreykov’s controlling pheromones. Natasha realizes she has to anger Dreykov enough for him to break her nose, thus eliminating her sense of smell.
Note: I’ve broken my nose before, but I don’t recall if it completely deactivated my sense of smell. I dunno, maybe…?
As Dreykov tires of striking Natasha, she decides to smash her own nose into his desk, thus breaking his hold over her. The ass-whooping begins, but before she can kill the wily old bastard, he manages to escape, but not before calling a gaggle of his controlled Black Widows for backup, and they soon arrive in Dreykov’s office. After a needlessly protracted fight sequence, a now-freed Yelena saves the day by exploding a vial of the antidote compound she’d smuggled out from the lab, and it breaks Dreykov’s control over the girls. With that debacle ended, Natasha faces another—the Taskmaster has tracked her down as well. Natasha now realizes the Taskmaster is, in fact, Dreykov’s horribly mutilated daughter, Antonia (Olga Kurylenko), who was not killed in the explosive assassination attempt for which Natasha was responsible. Antonia was instead condemned to a worse fate—she became her father’s pet science project, as she was transformed into the freakish, bionic Taskmaster. Once Natasha breaks her father’s hold on her, Antonia is reawakened as a frightened woman–a victim, rather than a killing machine.
Note: Antonia reinforces the notion that all the women under Dreykov’s control, including his own daughter, are victims—not sexy fighting machines. I like this take on the Black Widows, and I’d be very curious to see if Yelena’s antidote and Natasha’s copied records served ensured their liberation after all. One assumes the plan worked, but we don’t actually see this happen in the film.
A ticking clock is set when Melina cripples one of the giant hovering jets keeping the station airborne, and it’s beginning a slow but uncontrolled crash down to Earth. With time running out, Natasha goes to stop Dreykov, and he is ultimately killed when his escape craft is destroyed. Natasha has a parachute, but she swoops in (arms and legs tucked) to save her free falling ‘sister’ Yelena (in a stunt straight from “Moonraker”–Natasha’s favorite movie). The giant station crashes. Alexei and Melina escaped the impact, as did many of the freed Black Widows, including a shaken, traumatized Antonia, who is grateful that the evil, abusive man who was her father is finally dead. Before leaving Dreykov’s office, Natasha made copied his files with all the names of the Black Widows in the world; she gives Yelena the disc, along with the last surviving vial of the antidote. Secretary Ross (William Hurt) of the Avengers arrives to apprehend the still-wanted Natasha…
Weeks later, Natasha is freed, and her friend Mason has got her a new jet!
Note: There is a post-credits scene taking place two years later, post “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), at Natasha’s grave site, where Yelena is confronted by the enigmatic Vanessa Allegra de la Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of “Seinfeld”) who gives Yelena a photo of Avenger “Hawkeye” (Jeremy Renner), telling Yelena that he is the man responsible for the death of her ‘sister’…
Summing It Up.
“Black Widow” was better than I expected. Overall, there was much more emphasis on character over mindless action, making it a pleasant surprise. Not a great movie, but a solidly good movie. “Black Widow” didn’t feel like the empty calories I get from the glut of Marvel movies and TV shows these days. This is a spy thriller with enough human drama to keep oldsters like myself glued to their seats, but enough action for younger audiences. Florence Pugh as “Yelena” and David Harbour as “Red Guardian” steal many a scene between them. In fact, the post-credits coda suggests that this movie might, in fact, serve as a Yelena Belova franchise launch.
It was also nice to have an option to watch “Black Widow” on its opening weekend at home. Yes, I realize there are plenty of folks who still enjoy going out to see movies, and I certainly understand the impulse to do so, but for my wife and I? I think we’ve pretty much nailed the whole ‘watching-movies-on-a-big-screen-in-the-dark’ thing. There may be exceptions down the road, but for now, we’re comfortable with our home setup. I hope that purchasing same-price access codes to enjoy movies at home is a trend that will survive in post-pandemic days; it’s a great option for disabled persons (physically or mentally) who can’t easily get themselves to a theater, or for those who suffer from crippling social anxieties. Ultimately, the studios still make money, no matter which option is chosen by the viewer. I realize it may be a blow to theater owners (as if COVID wasn’t, right?), but businesses evolve, and I’m sure they can think of some new enticements to get fresh butts into movie seats.
Safe Viewing Options.
“Black Widow” is available to see theatrically, or you can stream it with on DisneyPlus with the aforementioned Premiere Access pass, which is around $30—the price of two high-end movie tickets–and you still have the stream rental for months before it goes to regular DisneyPlus programming or DVD/Blu-Ray. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 605,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines are available and inoculations are finally widespread (whew!), which is greatly slowing the US mortality rate (though the new Delta variant is cause for concern). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy, it may take a while longer for eventual herd immunity. Even vaccinated, it may still be possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none. So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible and let us immunize our way out of the COVID pandemic.