Review: ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,’ starring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Olivia Colman, Harvey Guillén, Samson Kayo, Wagner Moura, John Mulaney, Florence Pugh and Ray Winstone

November 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”

Directed by Joel Crawford; co-directed by Januel Mercado 

Some language in Spanish with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional world populated by classic fairy-tale characters and original DreamWorks Animation characters, the animated film “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” features a racially diverse voice cast (Latino, white and black) portraying humans and talking animals.

Culture Clash: Outlaw pirate cat Puss in Boots goes on a quest with friends and competes with enemies to find a magical Wishing Star that can grant one last wish to whomever gets to the star first.

Culture Audience: “Puss in Boots” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s voice cast members; the “Puss in Boots” and “Shrek” franchises; and movies that are family-friendly, thrilling stories with a lot of heart.

Pictured clockwise, from far left: Baby Bear (voiced by Samson Kayo), Papa Bear (voiced by Ray Winstone), Mama Bear (voiced by Olivia Colman) and Goldilocks (voiced by Florence Pugh) in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is a fun-filled adventure packed with comedic moments, poignant life lessons and some wacky surprises. This sequel is an instant classic that charms with a talented voice cast, stunning visuals and a very entertaining story. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is more than a worthy follow-up to 2011’s “Puss in Boots.” “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” could easily be considered one of the best movies from DreamWorks Animation.

Directed by Joel Crawford and co-directed by Januel Mercado, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is the type of sequel where it’s not necessary to see the original movie to understand the story. Most viewers will probably know already that the swashbuckling, outlaw pirate cat known as Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) first made an appearance in 2004’s “Shrek 2” and subsequently appeared in 2007’s “Shrek the Third” and 2010’s “Shrek Forever After.” The first “Puss in Boots” movie was his origin story. Also part of the “Puss in Boots” franchise are the 2012 short film “Puss in Boots: The Three Diablos,” the 2015-2018 Netflix series “The Adventures of Puss in Boots” and the 2017 Netflix interactive special “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale.”

In “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” Puss goes on a quest to the Black Forest to find a magical Wishing Star that can grant one last wish to anyone who finds the star first. He’s got some help from friends and some competition from enemies. Before he gets to the Black Forest, the movie has a meaningful subplot about Puss facing his own mortality. This character development shows a vulnerable side to Puss, whose swaggering confidence and bravery are tested throughout the story.

In the beginning of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” Puss is his usually lovably arrogant self, and he’s still a fugitive from the law who’s wanted for a bank robbery that he was tricked into committing. (The first “Puss in Boots” movie goes into more details about this robbery.) Puss barrels his way into a foreign land, where he ends up in a palace, and slides down the portrait painting of the ruling governor (voiced by Bernardo De Paula), who watches in horror as Puss’s claws drag through the painting and ruin it. Puss then fights and defeats a tree monster, but Puss is soon knocked unconscious by a giant bell that falls on him.

Puss wakes up in the office a man who describe himself as the local medical doctor (voiced by Anthony Mendez), who explains that he also works as a barber, a veterinarian and a witch doctor. The doctor tells Puss that Puss actually died but was able to be revived. The doctor knows that cats have nine lives, so he asks Puss how many lives Puss has used up already. Puss has never really thought about it before, but after some reflection, Puss realizes that he has used eight of his nine lives. After Puss dies in his ninth life, Puss will be dead forever.

The doctor gives Puss this advice that Puss doesn’t want to hear: “You need to retire.” The doctor recommends that Puss go to a home of an animal rescuer named Mama Luna (voiced by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who operates a cat sanctuary out of her house called Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue. Puss refuses to take that advice and quickly leaves the office. The doctor says these parting words to Puss: “Death comes for us all.”

While Puss contemplates his next move, he says to himself while he looks in a mirror: “You’re too good-looking to retire.” Puss goes to a saloon to drink some of his sorrows away. And it’s there that he meets a bounty hunter called the Big Bad Wolf, also known as Wolf (voiced by Wagner Moura), who has been looking to capture Puss. And you know what happens next.

During their fight, Puss is armed with his trusty fencing sword, while Wolf has two scythes that he uses in each hand. Puss’ life flashes before his eyes during this battle. And for the first time in his life, Puss experiences true fear that makes him temporarily freeze. Puss runs into a room, where Wolf traps him by locking Puss inside the room. However, Puss finds a way to escape.

The panic attack that Puss experienced unnerves him so much, he decides to take the doctor’s advice. Puss doesn’t really want to retire, but he’s more afraid of dying in his next fight. Before Puss goes to Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue, he buries his pirate clothes in a shallow grave and gives a mournful retirement speech out loud that no one can hear except Puss.

Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue is crowded with dozens of cats that Mama Luna knows is a violation of health code laws. A running joke in Mama Luna’s dialogue is that she’s constantly paranoid about getting in trouble with animal care officials for all the cats that she keeps indoors. Mama Luna is a bachelorette with a big personality, and she seems to run the sanctuary all by herself. She loves her cats and takes good care of them, but she appears dangerously close to being a cat hoarder.

Puss, who is naturally a loner, is miserable at this cat sanctuary. He’s bored in his new home and dislikes the communal meals that he is forced to have with the other cats. During Puss’ forlorn “retirement,” the Doors song “This Is the End” (sung by Dan Navarro, a co-writer of the movie’s original songs) plays to comedic effect.

Puss soon meets an unlikely friend at this sanctuary: a small, talkative dog disguised as a cat. His name is Perro (voiced by Harvey Guillén), but Puss eventually gives him the nickname Perrito. (In Spanish, the word “perro” means “dog,” and the word “perrito” means “little dog.”) Perrito is humble, very optimistic, and eager to make friends. In other words, he’s almost the complete opposite of Puss.

There would be no “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” if Puss stayed at the cat sanctuary for the rest of the movie. His time at Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue comes to an end with the arrival of four home invaders: Goldilocks (voiced by Florence Pugh) and the three Bears: Mama Bear (voiced by Olivia Colman), Papa Bear (voiced by Ray Winstone) and Baby Bear (voiced by Samson Kayo), who has some rivalry going on with Goldilocks, whose nickname is Goldi.

Just like in the fairy tale, Goldilocks is a human orphan who has been adopted into this bear family. But unlike the fairy tale, Goldi is now a tough young woman who is in the bounty-hunting business with her bear family. All four of them have tracked Puss to Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue with the intent to capture Puss.

During this attempted capture, Puss and Perrito also find out that Goldi and the Three Bears are also looking for the map to the Wishing Star. It’s how Puss and Perrito find out that this Wishing Star will grant one last wish to the first person who finds the star. It doesn’t take a genius to know that Puss now wants to find the Wishing Star too, because his wish is to live forever.

Puss and Perrito manage to escape outside from Goldi and the Three Bears. Puss decides he’s coming out of retirement to find the Wishing Star. He gathers his clothes, his sword, and brings Perrito (a willing sidekick) along for this new adventure. Perrito doesn’t have a wish. He’s just happy he’s found a new friend.

Along the way, Puss and Perrito find out that another outlaw is in search of the Wishing Star: Jack Horner (voiced by John Mulaney), a wealthy underworld boss who operates in the back of a bakery. Jack hasn’t lost his bratty ways since he was a child known as Little Jack Horner, who famously ruined a pie by sticking his thumb in it. Jack is now a ruthless villain who has several minions helping him find the map to the Wishing Star. Jack’s wish is to become the most powerful person in this fairtyale universe.

During the journey that Puss and Perrito take to the Black Forest to find the Wishing Star, Puss unexpectedly reunites with his on-again/off-again love Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek), who reveals that she was hiding in a trunk. Puss and Kitty haven’t seen each other in years. And let’s just say that they have “unfinished business.” Kitty, who is very cynical about many things, prides herself for being just as brave and stubborn as Puss, so naturally this on-again/off-again couple will clash.

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” doesn’t overstuff the movie with too many characters, thereby giving room for the movie to develop all the principal characters in ways that are better than the average animated adventure film. Puss is now prone to having a few panic attacks, which can throw him off his usually fearless game. Kitty struggles with learning to know the difference between being independent and being mistrustful. The relationship between Kitty and Puss goes through a realistic evolution during this adventure.

Perrito is a mixture of being innocent and wise about life, but not in a contrived and cloying way. He is by far the most adorable and sincere character in the movie, so expect kids (and quite a few adults) to want Perrito toys and other Perrito merchandise after seeing this movie. When Perrito tells his tragic backstory about his human family making numerous attempts to abandon him, Perrito chooses to remember it with so much optimism, he describes these abandonment attempts as the family playing pranks on him.

Goldi has her own family issues: Even though the bears raised her as one of their own, she still feels like a misfit because she’s a human in a family of bears. Jack is an unfortunate example of someone who was bullied as a child but then grew up to be a bully. As for Wolf, he might not be what he first appears to be, and his actions in the movie might not be as easy to predict as some people might think.

All of the cast members give very good performances, with Banderas, Hayek, Guillén and Pugh as the standouts. They all make their characters sound like they have fully formed personalities instead of being two-dimensional cartoon characters reciting lines. The movie’s snappy dialogue can be enjoyed by people of all ages (open-minded adults will appreciate the cheeky almost-cursing in the movie), while the plot has some predictability but also some innovation that’s unexpected.

“Puss in Boots” might disappoint some people expecting to hear more original songs in the movie. However, the centerpiece original song (“Fearless Hero”), which is heard at different times in the movie, is catchy and memorable. Navarro, Heitor Pereira and Paul Fisher co-wrote “Fearless Hero,” which at one point is performed by Banderas and Pereira in the movie. Navarro and Daniel Oviedo co-wrote “La Vida Es Una,” performed by Karol G during the movie’s end credits.

Everything in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish: is well-paced, with the action scenes particularly fun to watch. When Puss in Boots first made an appearance in “Shrek 2,” he was a true scene-stealer. With “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” the Puss in Boots franchise is now stealing some of the thunder from the better-known “Shrek” movies. And the high quality and engaging story of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” make it the type of movie that can be considered a beloved treasure by fans of animated films.

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation will release “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” in U.S. cinemas on December 21, 2022. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in U.S. cinemas on November 26, 2022.

Review: ‘The Wonder’ (2022), starring Florence Pugh

November 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tom Burke, Florence Pugh and Kíla Lord Cassidy in “The Wonder” (Photo by Christopher Barr/Netflix)

“The Wonder” (2022)

Directed by Sebastián Lelio

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1862 in the Midlands of Ireland, the dramatic film “The Wonder” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Nightingale nurse from England is hired to go to Ireland to find out the reason why an 11-year-old girl has reportedly been able to survive for four months without eating and without any signs of starvation.

Culture Audience: “The Wonder” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Florence Pugh and movies that make pointed observations about how religion can control and influence people’s lives.

Josie Walker, Toby Jones, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Niamh Algar and Florence Pugh in “The Wonder” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

“The Wonder” will test the patience of viewers with short attention spans, but the movie’s subtlety, nuances and Florence Pugh’s standout performance are great rewards for people who want to see a drama about religion and moral hypocrisy. This is the type of movie where some of the biggest revelations don’t happen in loud, bombastic moments but occur in hushed tones and whispers that are sometimes engulfed in shame.

Directed by Sebastián Lelio, “The Wonder” is based on Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel of the same name. Lelio, Donoghue and Alice Birch co-wrote the adapted screenplay for “The Wonder.” Although the movie is set in a rural Irish community in 1862, many of the themes in “The Wonder” transcend time and location and can apply to the past, present and future of any community where religion is the driving force of how people live. “The Wonder” had its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival, and then had its Canadian premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

The beginning of “The Wonder” has an unusual location of a movie set of props where no one is present, but viewers can hear this voiceover saying: “This is the beginning of a film called ‘The Wonder.’ The people you are about to meet, the characters believe in their stories with complete devotion.” The camera then moves from the prop-filled set to a movie-set replication of the inside of train, as the story begins and transports viewers back to the year 1862.

On the train is the central protagonist of “The Wonder”: Lib Wright (played by Pugh), a Nightingale nurse from England, who is traveling by herself to the Midlands of Ireland. A devoutly Catholic community (which is unnamed in the movie) has hired Lib to watch over an 11-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell (played by Kíla Lord Cassidy), who has been in the news for being a “miracle girl.” Anna has reportedly not eaten for the past four months and has no signs of starvation or any weight loss.

Lib is a compassionate and strong-willed nurse who is very skeptical that Anna hasn’t eaten any food for the past four months. When she arrives at the boarding house where she’ll be staying, she finds out that she has to share a room with a nun named Sister Michael (played by Josie Walker), who will be sharing the work shift duties of watching over Anna. When Lib expresses some disappointment that she will have to share a room with a nun, instead of having her own room, the boarding house’s matriarch Mrs. Maggie Ryan (played by Ruth Bradley) quips, “Welcome to Ireland.”

In her first meal at the Ryan family home, Lib is polite, observant and somewhat guarded about herself. The Ryan family consists of Maggie; her husband, Sean Ryan (played by David Wilmot), who works as a publican; and their five daughters (played by Darcey Campion, Abigail Coburn, Carla Hurley O’Dwyer, Juliette Hurley O’Dwyer and Carly Kane). Maggie tells Anna that the eldest four daughters are Sean’s daughters from his marriage to his first wife, who is now deceased. The youngest daughter is the biological child of Sean and Maggie.

Sean is on a five-man committee overseeing Lib and Sister Michael in the women’s job of observing Anna. The other men on the committee are Dr. McBrearty (played by Toby Jones), Father Thaddeus (played by Ciarán Hinds), landowner John Flynn (played by Brian F. O’Byrne), and Baronet Sir Ottway (played by Dermot Crowley). Dr. McBrearty is the most outspoken of the five men and is the one who’s most likely to give orders. It should come as no surprise that independent-minded Lib will clash with Dr. McBrearty the most.

In Lib’s first meeting in front of the committee, she is adamantly told that her job is to observe and talk to Anna and do nothing else. Lib is not allowed to give Anna any food, water or medical attention. Lib is concerned and uncomfortable with this command, but Dr. McBrearty reminds Lib that she’s being paid a considerable amount of money to do whatever the committee tells her to do. Lib is told that after 15 days, Lib and Sister Michael will be required to give separate testimonial reports about what they each believe is the cause of Anna’s seemingly miraculous condition.

When Lib meets the O’Donnell family, she finds a deeply religious clan who’s emotionally haunted by the death of Anna’s older brother Pat, who passed away nine months earlier. A recent photo of Pat in the family home shows that he was about 15 years old. Pat’s cause of death is never fully explained, but it’s described in the movie as being a sudden death.

Anna’s parents Rosaleen O’Donnell (played by Elaine Cassidy) and Malachy O’Donnell (played by Caolán Byrne) appear to be humble and unassuming. Rosaleen is very devoted and nurturing to Anna, whom Rosaleen calls “a jewel, a wonder.” However, Lib can’t help but notice that Anna’s parents accept money from people who want to see this “miracle girl” up close. Lib thinks this practice is distasteful, and she sometimes sends these visitors away because Lib is more concerened about Anna’s health.

The O’Donnells have a housekeeper named Kitty (played by Niamh Algar), who is in her 20s, and who has recently started learning how to read. Kitty might not have a lot of formal education, but she is very knowledgeable about her surroundings and the people in the community. Kitty is usually the one to tell Lib some of the personal backgrounds of the people in the community. In other words, Kitty knows a lot more than people think she does.

As for Anna, she’s a mostly quiet child who will answer any questions about her condition by saying that it’s all coming from God. When Lib asks Anna how she’s been able to not have any physical effects of not eating, Anna insists that she’s getting “manna from heaven.” Lib asks, “How does it feel?” Anna replies, “Full.” That’s not a good-enough answer for Lib, who is very doubtful that Anna has not eaten anything for the past four months. Lib is determined to find out why.

Someone else who wants to get to the bottom of this mystery is Will Byrne (played by Tom Burke), a reporter for the Daily Telegraph in England. Will is visiting this community to investigate, so it’s inevitable that Lib meets Will. Kitty tells Lib that Will grew up in the community but moved to England for his university education and to pursue a career in journalism. According to Kitty, Will’s parents were so heartbroken that he left Ireland and didn’t keep in touch with them, so his parents locked themselves in their home and starved themselves to death during the Great Famine.

The Great Famine, which devastated Ireland from 1845 to 1849, resulted in about 100,000 people dying from starvation and disease, stemming from blighted potato crops that also caused an economic crisis. The village where the O’Donnells live was hit hard by the Great Famine, which is why Anna’s seemingly miraculous starvation survival has a particularly emotional resonance in this religious community. The voiceover in the beginning of the movie comments: “The Great Famine casts a long shadow, and the Irish hold the English responsible for all that devastation.”

It doesn’t take long for Lib to become frustrated by her employers’ orders not to help Anna in any way. One night, when she’s off-duty and hanging out at Sean’s pub, she angrily asks him: “What kind of backwards village imports a professional nurse for something like this?” Sean responds with equal ire and says to Lib, “Prove it’s nonsense, and then fuck off [and go] home.”

There’s some underlying tension between the Irish villagers and anyone they consider to be an “outsider,” especially those from England. Will, who has now made England his home, experiences a certain amount of mistrust from the villagers too, because Will is considered somewhat of a “traitor” to abandon his Irish home to move to England. At first, Will and Lib seem to be in hostile competition to find out what’s going on with Anna, but Lib and Will eventually discover that they actually like each other, and they bond over their “outsider” status in this village.

And who exactly is Lib? She slowly reveals information about herself to certain people. Viewers find out that she served in the Crimean War. After the war, she was married to a man who disappeared and is presumed dead. And she is in deep emotional pain over the death of her baby daughter, who passed away at three weeks old. Lib later confides in Anna that Lib’s husband left Lib shortly after the death of their child.

When Lib is alone in her room, she takes out a towel that has a pair of baby booties and some liquid opium. She has a secret self-harming ritual of getting high by drinking the opium and pricking an index finger until she sees blood. She then sucks the blood so that no stains appear anywhere. When Anna shows Lib a bloody tooth that has fallen out of Anna’s mouth, Lib wonders if Anna is also engaging in self-harm.

Observant viewers will notice that it’s mentioned early on in the movie that Anna has stopped eating since her 11th birthday. “The Wonder” has recurring themes and references to being reborn and people going through different transitions of life and death. Certain people in the story are obsessed with who is going to heaven or hell and who might be stuck in purgatory.

Lib, whose birth name is Elizabeth, is asked by Anna if she likes to call herself by any other names, such as Elizabeth, Beth or Liz. Later, after Lib reveals something about herself, Lib will ask Anna if she could be another person, what her name would be. Anna says she would choose the name Nan.

“The Wonder” often reflects the slow pace of a rural village, so this movie might be too sluggish for some viewers. However, the performances of the cast members are admirable, while the mystery of Anna’s condition can keep viewers curious enough to find out what will happen next and how the movie will end. Pugh is a solid anchor for “The Wonder,” which is not a movie that has her flashiest, awards-bait role, but it’s testament to how talented she is that her portrayals of various characters seem so natural.

Even though Pugh performs the role of Lib in an authentic way, others part of the “The Wonder” have a few authenticity flaws and disappointments. For example, this community is ruled by the teachings of the Catholic Church, but “The Wonder” inexplicably does not show enough of Father Thaddeus’ influence on this community. Father Thaddeus is a mostly silent member of the committee that is supervising Lib and Sister Michael. It’s an unfortunate waste of the talent of Oscar-nominated actor Hinds.

Lib also does something very dangerous toward the end of “The Wonder.” And how it’s staged in the movie looks rushed and somewhat hard to believe. The movie doesn’t deviate from the book in what happens, but the cinematic version of this conclusion seems crammed quickly into a movie that took its time to linger on other less meaningful parts of the story. These flaws are minor and don’t ruin “The Wonder,” which is a distinctive psychological drama that effectively portrays the conflicts that can occur between comforts of religious faith and the discomforts of harsh reality.

Netflix released “The Wonder” in select U.S. cinemas on November 2, 2022. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 16, 2022.

Review: ‘Don’t Worry Darling,’ starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll and Chris Pine

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured in center: Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in “Don’t Worry Darling” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Don’t Worry Darling”

Directed by Olivia Wilde

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional California community named Victory, the sci-fi/drama film “Don’t Worry Darling” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A homemaker wife with a seemingly perfect life finds her life unraveling when she witnesses things that are too disturbing to ignore, but other people try to convince her that she’s paranoid and mentally ill.

Culture Audience: “Don’t Worry Darling” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of stars Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, but this disappointing dud of a movie serves up an over-used concept that becomes tedious and repetitive with a bungled ending.

Pictured in front, from left to right: Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll and Chris Pine in “Don’t Worry Darling” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Take a little bit of “The Stepford Wives,” add a lot of “The Twilight Zone,” and remove any real ingenuity. What’s left is a mishandled mush called “Don’t Worry Darling.” The central mystery of the story is too easy to solve, because a similar concept has been used in much better movies. Even without that problem and even with Florence Pugh’s talent, “Don’t Worry Darling” comes undone by a sloppily constructed conclusion.

Directed by Olivia Wilde and written by Katie Silberman, “Don’t Worry Darling” is one of those movies where the off-screen drama is more interesting than the movie itself. This review won’t rehash all the tabloid stories (including all the brouhaha at the movie’s world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival), but what most people will remember about “Don’t Worry Darling” is that it’s the movie that led to Wilde and co-star Harry Styles becoming romantically involved in real life. “Don’t Worry Darling” isn’t a complete train wreck, but it spins its wheels too many times to the point of monotony, and everything goes completely off the rails in the movie’s last 15 minutes.

We’ve seen this scenario many times before: A movie starts out with a picture-perfect couple who seems to have a picture-perfect life. They seem to be passionately in love. They live in a well-kept house with a perfectly manicured lawn, and the neighboring houses have an eerily similar aesthetic. And all the neighbors lead seemingly idyllic lives too. But, of course, it’s later revealed that the community is far from perfect and is actually quite hellish.

In “Don’t Worry Darling,” the central “perfect” couple are spouses Alice Chambers (played by Pugh) and Jack Chambers (played by Styles), who live in a planned California community named Victory, which is filled with palm trees and is near a desert. (“Don’t Worry Darling” was actually filmed in Palm Springs, California.) Based on the fashion, hairstyles and cars, Alice and Jack seem to be living in the 1950s. Alice is a homemaker, while Jack (and the other men in the community) all work for the Victory Project, a mysterious technological business venture led by a charismatically creepy CEO named Frank (played by Chris Pine). Jack’s job title is technical engineer.

Alice and Jack, who are both in their 20s, have no children. Jack and Alice tell people that they haven’t started a family yet because they want to enjoy life for a while in a child-free marriage. The movie’s opening scene shows Alice and Jack having a house party, where everyone is drunk or tipsy. Alice and some of the other people are playing a game to see who can balance a tray and drinking glass the longest on the top of their heads.

Two of the party guests are a married couple in their late 30s named Bunny (played by Wilde) and Dean (played by Nick Kroll), who like to think of themselves as the “alpha couple” of the Victory community because they’re older than everyone else. Dean is especially eager to be perceived as Frank’s favorite employee at Victory. Bunny (who is sassy and sarcastic) and Dean (who is high-strung and neurotic) have a son and a daughter who are about 5 to 7 years old. Bunny half-jokingly tells Alice that the kids like Alice more than they like Bunny.

Another couple in the Victory community are spouses Peg (played by Kate Berlant) and Peter (played by Asif Ali), who are little quirky but ultimately underwritten and underdeveloped. If Peg and Peter weren’t in the movie, it would have no real impact on the plot at all. Also underdeveloped is a scowling scientist character named Dr. Collins (played by Timothy Simons), who shows up later in the movie and is described as one of the founders of the Victory community.

Frank’s wife is an emotionally aloof diva named Shelley (played by Gemma Chan), who leads the Victory women in group ballet classes. All of the women seem to be a little bit afraid of Shelley. She gives the impression that she can be ruthless if anyone betrays her or the Victory Project.

One day, at one of the ballet classes, Shelley tells the assembled women that a new couple is moving into the neighborhood because the husband will be starting a new job at Victory. The spouses’ names are Bill Johnson (played by Douglas Smith) and Violet Johnson (played by Sydney Chandler), who are both anxious to fit in with this tight-knit Victory community. Bill is a little bit wimpy and socially awkward, while Violet is very demure and introverted.

To welcome Bill and Violet to the Victory community, Frank assembles the community members outdoors on the streets and gives a rousing speech. Bill and Violet look a little overwhelmed. Dean tries to assert himself by chastising Bill for not thinking of Frank with enough reverence. Later, Alice privately tells Bunny that Violet reminds Alice of a “beautiful, terrified baby deer.”

When talking to Bunny, Alice notices a neighbor named Margaret (played by KiKi Layne) standing outside on the front lawn of the house that Margaret shares with her husband Ted (played by Ari’el Stachel). Margaret, whose eyes are closed, seems to be in a daze as she clutches a red toy plane in her hand. It’s enough to say that Alice sees some other disturbing things pertaining to Margaret, including an apparent suicide attempt where Margaret is up on her house roof and looks like she’s ready to jump. (The trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” already revealed this plot development.)

At the outdoor gathering, Margaret asks people, “Why are we here?” Ted doesn’t like the way that Margaret is asking is question, so he tells Margaret to keep quiet and whisks her away into their house. Margaret is rarely seen out of the house after that, while Alice sees indications that Ted is keeping tight control over Margaret and trying to prevent Margaret from interacting with other people.

Margaret has also been speaking out against Frank and questioning his intentions. It isn’t long before gossip spreads in the neighborhood that Margaret is a mentally ill troublemaker who must be shunned. If this Victory community sounds like a cult, a party scene at Frank’s mansion removes all doubt.

This party scene (like most of the movie’s plot) is already partially revealed in the “Don’t Worry Darling” trailer. At this party, Frank asks Dean in front of the assembled Victory people: “Dean, what’s the enemy of progress?” Dean dutifully replies, “Chaos.” Frank then says, “I see greatness in every single one of you. What are we here for?” The crowd chants, “We’re changing the world!”

Victory has a trolley that is the main form of public transportation in the community. One day, Alice is the only passenger in the trolley when she sees in the distance that a red plane has crashed into a cliff area near the desert. When Alice asks the trolley driver (played by Steve Berg) if he saw the plane crash, he says he didn’t see anything.

Alice begs the trolley driver to go to the plane crash site to get help, but the driver is too afraid and says that it’s a restricted area. Alice decides to walk to the area by herself. What happens after that sets her on a path where she and other people start to question her sanity.

Unfortunately, the trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” already gives away the fact that this movie has men in red jumpsuits chasing after people, so it’s easy to figure out that these men are sent to oppress people who “disobey” the Victory rules. Guess who becomes one of those targets? It’s all so predictable.

Pugh does a skillful job of portraying Alice’s psychological torment, but ultimately, Alice (like all of the characters in this movie) are very hollow. Styles is adequate as Alice’s increasingly estranged husband Jack, who is torn between his loyalty to Alice and his loyalty to Victory. But after a while, the obvious and over-used plot development of “the woman who is not believed and labeled as mentally ill” gets run into the ground early and often in “Don’t Worry Darling,” At a certain point in the movie, you just know the men in the red jumpsuits will be part of a big chase scene, because it’s already revealed in the movie’s trailer.

“Don’t Worry Darling” tries to have some visual flair, with repetitive images of the people of Victory moving in sync with each other, as if they’re pre-programmed robots. This visual styling is shown in the scenes with the ballet classes, as well as the Victory community’s morning ritual of the wives going on their front lawns to wave goodbye to their husbands, who drive off to go to work in perfect sync in their flashy cars. The movie also repeats images (many of them psychedelic) of things in the shape of a circle, whether they are close-ups of eye pupils or women dancing like they’re in a Busby Berkeley musical.

All of this eye-catching cinematography comes off as shallow and a bit pretentious after a while, because the story falls so flat toward the end. “Don’t Worry Darling” hastily throws in some heavy-handed feminist messages but doesn’t have anything clever or new to say that 1975’s “The Stepford Wives” didn’t already cover decades ago. The half-baked ending of “Don’t Worry Darling” just brings up questions that are never answered.

Wilde and Silberman previously collaborated on the 2019 teen comedy “Booksmart,” which was Wilde’s feature-film directorial debut. And although the critically acclaimed “Booksmart” uses a lot of familiar teen comedy plot devices, “Booksmart” has dialogue, acting and character development that are appealing. The same can’t be said for “Don’t Worry Darling,” which has talented cast members, who look all dressed up but have nowhere artistically to go in this boring sci-fi tripe posing as an intriguing psychological thriller.

Warner Bros Pictures released “Don’t Worry Darling” in U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Black Widow’ (2021), starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and Ray Winstone

June 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour and Florence Pugh in “Black Widow” (Photo by Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios)

“Black Widow” (2021)

Directed by Cate Shortland

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway and Russia and briefly in Ohio, Hungary and Morocco, the superhero action film “Black Widow” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asians) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: Russian American superhero Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, battles an evil nemesis from her past named Dreykov, who has sent an assassin named Taskmaster to kill anyone who gets in the way of Dreykov’s goal of world domination through mind control.

Culture Audience: “Black Widow” will appeal primarily to people who already know a lot about what’s going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Scarlett Johansson (pictured at right) in “Black Widow” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

If you’re not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), then “Black Widow” might be too confusing for long stretches of the movie. For everyone else, “Black Widow” offers a satisfactory but not particularly outstanding chapter to the MCU. The best parts of the movie are the scenes showing the interpersonal dynamics between an estranged foster family that reunites, because the movie’s visual effects and villains aren’t as compelling as other MCU movies with the Black Widow character.

Directed by Cate Shortland and written by Eric Pearson, “Black Widow” takes place primarily in 2016, in the period of time between 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” Viewers who haven’t seen or don’t know anything about “Captain America: Civil War” before seeing “Black Widow” will feel like they’ve stepped into a world that has passed them by, because there are several key plot developments in “Captain America: Civil War” that are necessary to know in order to fully appreciate “Black Widow.”

“Black Widow” is strictly a movie for MCU fans, because it assumes that people watching this movie know about have or have seen “Captain America: Civil War” and the other MCU movies leading up to it. “Black Widow” is not the movie for you if you don’t know the answers to these questions before watching the movie: “What is S.H.I.E.L.D.?” “What is Hydra?” “Who else is in the Avengers?”

Likewise, if you don’t know that Avengers superhero Black Widow, also known as Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlett Johansson), died at the end of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” (it’s really not spoiler information at this point), then the end-credits scene in “Black Widow” won’t make much sense. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is in the “Black Widow” end-credits scene, which makes a direct reference to Black Widow’s death and who Black Widow was with when she died, because it’s a likely revenge plot for a Marvel series on Disney+ or a MCU sequel. The “Black Widow” end-credits scene takes place at the gravestone of Natasha Romanoff, so anyone who sees “Black Widow” who didn’t know that she died will have that part of “Avengers: Endgame” spoiled for them.

If you know absolutely nothing about the MCU and Black Widow (whose first MCU appearance was in 2010’s “Iron Man 2”), then here’s what “Black Widow” does fairly well: It shows more of her backstory, in terms of how she was raised at a certain point in her childhood and why she got separated from her biological family and her foster family. The highlights of “Black Widow” are what happens when she reunites with the foster family she had for three years when she was a child.

Each of these family members has gone on to be involved in shady dealings of the Russian government. It’s an often-contentious, sometimes poignant and occasionally humorous reunion. Their up-and-down interactions speak to the love/hate feelings that people have for past or present loved ones. And that’s the humanity that makes “Black Widow” more than just a bunch of action scenes in a big-budget superhero movie.

“Black Widow” opens with a scene taking place in Ohio in 1995. Alexei Shostakov (played by David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (played by Rachel Weisz) are a Russian immigrant couple raising two girls on a rural farm. The older girl, who’s 11 years old, is a young Natasha Romanoff (played by Ever Anderson), while the younger girl is Yelena Belova (played by Violet McGraw), who’s 6 years old. Why do they all have different last names? Because they’re not biologically related to each other, but they have been living together as a family for three years.

Life seems to be “normal” for this makeshift family when a day comes that the Alexei and Melina have been dreading: The family will be separated by the Russian government. Some military-looking operatives invade the home one night, but Alexei and Melina have already planned their escape. Melina pilots a small plane with Natasha and Yelena as the passengers, while Alexei tries to keep the home invaders away from the plane, by shooting at the invaders with a rifle.

The plan to escape ultimately fails. Melina is shot but not gravely wounded. A terrified but quick-thinking Natasha takes over in piloting the plane. However, this family of four eventually couldn’t evade caputure, even though Natasha pulls a gun on the military men tasked with separating the family. Alexei hands over a mysterious computer disc to a man named General Dreykov (played by Ray Winstone), who is the one in charge of this home invasion. Meanwhile, the girls are drugged and taken away from the only parents they’ve known up to this point.

The movie then fast forwards to 2016. Natasha is in Norway, and is now a fugitive running from U.S. general Thaddeus Ross (played by William Hurt), because she’s has been accused of assaulting the king of Wakanda. (That’s a reference to the African nation of “Black Panther,” in case you didn’t know.) Natasha is also in violation of the Sokovia Accords, a set of regulations for people with superpowers, especially people working for government agencies. Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America, is also a fugitive, although he does not make an appearance in this “Black Widow” movie.

Natasha has been hiding out in a trailer somewhere in rural Norway. Several times in the movie, Natasha will make a reference to the falling out that the superhero group the Avengers had in “Captain America: Civil War.” As her trusted friend Mason (played by O-T Fagbenle) tells her as he hands her a stack of fake IDs to use, “I hear the Avengers are getting divorced.” Any viewers expecting any of the other Avengers to make a surprise appearance in “Black Widow” will be disappointed. Mason also gives Natasha a box of unopened mail that he says came from the Budapest safe house where she previously stayed.

“Black Widow” follows the typical superhero movie trope of a villain wanting to gain possession of an object that will help the villain take over the world. In this movie, it’s explained in a somewhat convoluted way that Dreykov and his cronies have been capturing female orphans and other vulnerable girls. The captured girls are held in a Red Room torture facility in Russia, where the girls are forced to be in a spy program.

In the Red Room, the victims undergo chemical treatments that alter their brain and allow Dreykov to have mind control over them. All of the victims’ reproduction organs are removed, and they grow up to become trained assassins called Widows, who do Dreykov’s bidding. Depending on how much their brains have been manipulated, the Widows have varying degress of memories of their lives before the Red Room.

Natasha and Yelena both spent time in the Red Room, but the movie has no flashbacks to this painful period of time in their lives. However, it’s revealed in conversations that Natasha was brainwashed but able to escape from the Red Room and never underwent the chemical treatments to the brain. Natasha’s spy life in America eventually led her to join the Avengers. Yelena wasn’t so lucky: She got the Red Room’s brain altering chemical treatment, which leaves her vulnerable to Dreykov’s mind control.

It’s why Yelena is seen in Morocco fighting an operative named Oksana (played by Michelle Lee), who is stabbed by Yelena in an outdoor street battle. Before Oksana dies, she takes a capsule and sprays Yelena with a mysterious red gas. Yelena seems to come out of a trance, and Yelena is soon reported as a deserter. It’s later revealed that this red gas is an antidote to Dreykov’s mind control. And that’s why he wants to get all of this antidote that exists in the world.

Somehow, Natasha has a stash of this antidote, so Dreykov sends a mysterious assassin named the Taskmaster after her to get this stash. The Taskmaster is completely covered in armor and doesn’t speak. Therefore, viewers will be guessing who’s really inside the armor. Is it a human being? A robot? Something else? The identity of the Taskmaster is eventually revealed in the last third of the movie.

Because Natasha currently feels all alone in the world, her emotions are raw when she has a tension-filled reunion with an adult Yelena (played Florence Pugh) when they see each other at that safehouse in Budapest. They have a big brawl that leads to an uneasy truce when they find out that they both want to get revenge on Dreykov because he separated their family. Natasha and Yelena also want to defeat Dreykov because they want to stop what’s going on in the Red Room.

Up until Natasha and Yelena reunited, Natasha assumed that Natasha had killed Dreykov in a building explosion that Natasha caused shortly before she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. (S.H.I.E.L.D. is an acronym for the spy/counter-intelligence/superhero-affiliated agency Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.) But when Yelena asks Natasha if she actually saw Dreykov’s dead body, Natasha replies, “There was no body left to check.”

Dreykov’s daughter Antonia (played by Ryan Kiera), who was about 9 or 10 years old at the time, was also in the building when it exploded. And that’s why Dreykov has an extra-personal grudge against Natasha. A flashback scene shows that Natasha knew that Antonia was in the building when Natasha gave the go-ahead for the building to be detonated. The way Natasha describes it to Yelena, Antonia was “collateral damage.”

This cold and calculating side to Natasha is frequently displayed in the story to contrast with Yelena being hotheaded and impulsive. If Yelena is like fire, then Natasha is like ice. The personality differences between these two women can result in their frequent conflicts with each other. But other times, the contrasts between Yelena and Natasha can work to their benefit when they have to team up for a shared goal.

And even though these two women haven’t lived as sisters in 16 years, there’s still some leftover sibling rivalry. Yelena calls Natasha a “poser” because of the crouching stance that Black Widow is known for before she goes in on an attack. Yelena also mocks the way that Natasha whips her hair around during a fight, as if she’s doing a photo shoot. This “poser” insult becomes a recurring joke in the movie.

There’s also a tinge of jealousy in Yelena’s teasing of Natasha. At one point in the movie, Yelena says in an envious tone to Natasha: “We are both trained killers, except I’m not the one on the cover of a magazine. I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.”

In another part of the conversation, Yelena explains the differences between what she experienced in the Red Room and what Natasha experienced: “What you experienced was psychological conditioning. [With what I experienced], I’m talking about chemically altering brain functions—they’re two completely different things.” Yelena says what it feels like to have the chemical alterations to the brain: “You’re fully conscious but you don’t know which part is you.”

Natasha is the one who brings up the idea of going to the Red Room and killing Dreykov once and for all. Yelena replies, “That sounds like a shitload of work.” Natasha says with a smirk, “It could be fun though.”

And where have Alexei and Melina been since they last saw Natasha and Yelena? Alexei has been in a Russian gulag, where he has been fuming over all the glory and notoriety that Captain America has gotten all over the world. That’s because Alexei has a superhero alter ego named Red Guardian, whose superhero career was cut short when Dreykov betrayed Alexei and made sure that Alexei was sent to prison. Needless to say, Alexei is very bitter about it.

Melina has being working as a scientist, so those skills come in handy when Melina, Alexei, Natasha and Yelena eventually reunite. This “family reunion” is not a surprise, since it’s been in “Black Widow” trailers and is a big selling point for the movie. The initial awkwardness of the reunion—and some of the sarcastic wisecracks that ensue—bring much of the movie’s comic relief.

“Black Widow” has the expected high-energy chase and fight scenes, including a far-fetched sequence of Natasha and Yelena helping Alexei escape from prison. The movie’s visual effects are hit and miss. There’s a big action sequence that takes place in the snow that is one of the standouts. But there are a few scenes that involve explosions where the fire looks too fake.

Even though Black Widow is a superhero, she’s not immune to getting fire burns. And yet, there are too many moments where she’s right in the thick of explosions, and she doesn’t get the serious fire burns that someone would get in real life. Some of the movie’s more dramatic scenes have cinematography that’s drenched in psychedelic red, which viewers will either think looks great or annoying.

Alexei and Melina are kind of like the MCU version of “The Honeymooners” couple Ralph Kramden and Alice Kramden. Alexei is a lot of bluster and ego, while Melina is his “been there, done that” calmer counterpart. There’s a comedic scene where Alexei tries to impress his reunited family, by putting on his old Red Guardian costume, but due to his weight gain since he last wore it, he has a hard time fitting into the costume.

On a more serious note, there’s a scene with Alexei, Natasha and Yelena in a heliocopter where Alexei makes a crude comment to Yelena by asking her if she’s being so uptight because she’s menstruating. Yelena reminds Alexei that she doesn’t menstruate because her reproductive organs were removed in the Red Room. Yelena then gives a detailed description of what reproductive organs were removed, until a very uncomfortable Alexei tells them to stop talking about it. Yelena then says impishly that she was just about to talk about fallopian tubes.

Although this scene has a sarcastic tone to it, it’s a not-so-subtle commentary on the gender politics that are part of this movie’s storyline. The Red Room is an obvious metaphor for a toxic patriarchy where a male villain is responsible for literally ripping away reproductive rights. And throughout “Black Widow,” the women are the ones who make the best and bravest decisions. Alexei has his heroic moments too, but he’s often outsmarted and outshined by the women in his life.

And if weren’t obvious enough in the movie’s trailers, there’s no doubt when watching all of “Black Widow” that this movie is a launching pad for Yelena, who’s clearly going to be a big part of the MCU. Pugh tends to be a scene stealer in all of her movies, and “Black Widow” is no exception, since Yelena brings a lot of relatable strengths and flaws to this character. Johansson’s Natasha/Black Widow is the ice queen in charge, but some of her emotional ice is melted in effective scenes where she finds out the truth about her biological family and how she ended up in the Red Room.

Most of the actors depicting the characters who are supposed to have Russian accents aren’t actually Russian in real life. Johansson and Harbour are American, while Pugh, Weisz and Winstone are British. Ukrainian French actress Olga Kurylenko is in the movie, but she’s in a role that is supposed to be among the plot twists. Out of all the non-Russian actors who have Russian accents in the movie, most are good but not excellent at sounding Russian, except for Winstone who definitely needed more Russian dialect training.

Shortland’s direction of “Black Widow” strikes a mostly well-paced balance between action, drama and touches of comedy. The movie’s biggest flaws are in how little regard it has for viewers who might be new to the MCU and who will have no idea what the characters are talking about for a great deal of “Black Widow.” In other words, “Black Widow” is definitely not a stand-alone MCU movie. Just like a web that a black widow spider can weave, the movie’s a little too tangled up in other MCU storylines and is best enjoyed by people who’ve already seen most if not all the other MCU movies that have Black Widow.

Disney’s Marvel Studios will release “Black Widow” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on July 9, 2021.

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