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.

Review: ‘Separation’ (2021), starring Rupert Friend, Brian Cox, Madeline Brewer, Mamie Gummer and Violet McGraw

April 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Violet McGraw and Rupert Friend in “Separation” (Photo by Blair Todd/Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Separation” (2021) 

Directed by William Brent Bell

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “Separation” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A recent widower and his 8-year-old daughter experience unexplained and spooky things in their home.

Culture Audience: “Separation” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching empty-headed horror movies that are dreadfully boring and don’t even bother to explain why the horror is happening in the story.

Violet McGraw in “Separation” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

Anyone who watches the horror flick “Separation” will be left with lots of questions that start with the word “why.” Why was the family in this movie being haunted? Why bother introducing scary characters in the story and not explain their origins? Why was this movie even made? Don’t expect any answers to these questions if you decide to waste your time watching this garbage.

Yes, it’s a stupid haunted house movie. And yes, there’s absolutely nothing original or clever about it. But what makes “Separation” so hard to take is that it drags with such repetitious monotony with no plot development to explain why this haunting is taking place. Any moments that are meant to be scary are few and far in between and end up repeating themselves with the same scenarios. This movie’s idea of making a scene terrifying is changing the cinematography to crimson red.

Directed by William Brent Bell, “Separation” has a cast of talented actors whose skills are squandered in this odiously bad movie, which was sloppily written by Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun. The movie’s opening scene takes place in a New York City brownstone townhome, where 8-year-old Jenny Vahn (played by Violet McGraw) is doing what a lot of 8-year-old girls do: play with dolls. However, Jenny’s dolls are creepy-looking horror dolls and she’s sitting in the middle of a circle of lighted candles. Is she some type of child witch?

While Jenny is playing with the dolls, she speaks to a witch doll that she has named Scarlet. Jenny says, “We must be quiet, or else we’ll scare her away.” Who is this female that shouldn’t be scared away? Later in the movie, Jenny refers to someone named Baby, which sounds like an imaginary friend. Don’t expect the movie to explain that either.

While Jenny is playing with her dolls in the attic that looks more like a witch’s lair than an innocent child’s playroom, her father Jeff Vahn (played by Rupert Friend) is downstairs in a study room, hanging out with the family babysitter Samantha Nally (played by Madeline Brewer), who is in her 20s. Jeff is a comic book illustrator who’s showing Samantha his main claim to fame: a horror comic book series called “The Grisly Kin,” featuring a group of characters that look like they’re from a twisted fairy tale. Samantha is also a comic book enthusiast, and she gushes to Jeff about how talented she thinks he is.

“The Grisly Kin” was such a hit that the main characters were made into stuffed doll toys, which are on display in the Vahn home. Jenny is seen playing with these dolls throughout the movie. At one point in his career, Jeff was in talks to make “The Grisly Kin” into a TV pilot, but the deal never happened because he and the TV executives had “creative differences.”

For the past two years, Jeff has been unemployed, while his prickly wife Maggie (played by Mamie Gummer) has been the family’s breadwinner. Maggie works for the law firm of her domineering and stern father Paul Rivers (played by Brian Cox), and she tells Jeff in an argument that she hates it because she wouldn’t have to work there if Jeff had a job. Jeff’s long unemployment has caused a lot of tension in Jeff and Maggie’s marriage, which viewers find out is deteriorating to the point of no return, much like this movie’s plot.

While Samantha is in awe of Jeff, Maggie has contempt for Jeff. At one point, Maggie snarls at Jeff: “You’re not special. You’re just unemployed.” Maggie is also seen arriving home, looking at the mail and becoming irritated when she sees that the couple’s electricity bill hasn’t been paid and they’ve received a final notice. Apparently, Jeff has shirked his responsibility for paying the bill, so Maggie has another reason to be annoyed with him.

Meanwhile, in the attic, Jenny is startled by a bird at the window. She falls down and hits her head and gets an injury on her forehead that causes bleeding. When Maggie comes home and finds out, she’s furious with Samantha and Jeff for leaving Jenny alone in the attic. Maggie is so angry that she won’t let Jeff go with her when she takes Jenny to the hospital.

And then, the next thing you know, Maggie has filed for divorce. Maggie wants full custody of Jenny, while Jeff is contesting it and wants joint custody. In a divorce mediation, Maggie’s father Rivers (Jeff is the only one in the story who calls him Paul) has taken it upon himself to be Maggie’s attorney. (Can you say conflict of interest?) In the mediation meeting, Rivers immediately belittles Jeff as an unfit parent.

Maggie seems to have the upper hand because she makes more money than Jeff, and she’s using Jenny’s accident as proof that Jeff can be a flaky father. Maggie and her father offer Jeff a large settlement in exchange for Maggie getting full custody of Jenny, but Jeff hesitates to sign the agreement. Jeff’s lawyer Janet Marion (played by Linda Powell) advises him to take the settlement because if the custody battle goes to trial, Jeff will most likely lose.

While they are embroiled in this custody battle, Jeff and Maggie are still living together (because he has no other place to live) but they take care of Jenny separately. One day, Jeff and Jenny are at a coffee shop, where Jeff has agreed to meet Maggie so that she can pick up Jenny to spend some mother-daughter time with Jenny. While waiting for Maggie at the coffee shop, Jeff is seen and happily greeted by one of his former classmates from college.

The former classmate’s name is Connor Gibbons (played by Eric T. Miller), who tells Jeff that he started his own comic book company, which was sold to a larger company that let Connor stay as the leader. Jeff tells Connor about his impending divorce and custody battle, and Connor offers Jeff possible employment at his company.

Jeff asks if Connor would be interested in reviving “The Grisly Kin,” but Connor adamantly says no. The best he can offer Jeff is a lowly entry-level job as an inker. Jeff doesn’t get too far in the conversation with Connor when Maggie calls Jeff. There was some miscommunication and Maggie went to the wrong coffee shop. Naturally, she blames Jeff for the mixup.

During this phone conversation, Maggie tells Jeff that her father has assigned her to oversee a project in Seattle, so she plans to move there with Jenny. Jeff is naturally upset by this news. He tells Maggie that he was ready to agree to the divorce settlement and agree to give Maggie full custody of Jenny, but now that Maggie plans to move to Seattle, he tells Maggie that he might fight for custody after all.

Is this a divorce drama or a horror movie? While they’re in the middle of this heated phone conversation, Maggie has been walking on some city streets. And then, she suddenly gets hit and killed by a SUV, which speeds off without stopping. The hit-and-run is so sudden, that it’s probably the only thing that comes close to being a jump scare in the movie.

The next scene is of Maggie’s wake at Jeff’s home, where Rivers bitterly snipes to Jeff that Jeff is lucky that Maggie didn’t have time to change her will during the divorce proceedings. Rivers then informs Jeff that he’s going to file for custody of Jenny. Jeff doesn’t want to argue about it during the wake, but he makes it clear that he’s going to put up a fight in this custody battle with Rivers.

At the wake, Jenny exhibits some strange behavior, when she takes ketchup-covered French fries and starts flinging the ketchup on a wall. Then, she smears her hands all over the ketchup. It’s obviously meant to look like blood smears.

Jenny then says, “Baby is painting like Daddy.” Jeff tells Jenny to stop what she’s doing. Jenny then yells at Jeff: “I hate you! I want my mommy back!” And then, she runs off into another room.

Meanwhile, a family portrait of Jeff, Maggie and Jenny, which is on display on a mantlepiece in the living room, catches on fire from some lighted candles. But the fire is quickly put out by Samantha, who suddenly appears with a fire extinguisher, as if it’s an everyday item around the house. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Separation” continues its downward slide into nonsense from there. Jeff ends up taking a job at Connor’s company and agrees to be an inker, even though Jeff is over-qualified for it. At the company, Jeff meets an eccentric British writer named Alan Ross (played by Simon Quarterman), who’s working on a horror comic book and likes to utter things such as, “This is darkness … Draw me the stuff of nightmares.”

Meanwhile, Jeff and Jenny start having nightmares where they see either a giant witch come to life or a ghoulish clown dressed in a black-and-white striped prisoner’s outfit. The witch doesn’t do much except crook her gnarly fingers. The clown can do crazy contortions and do things like run backwards on all fours. It’s very reminiscent of the Backwards Man character in the 2020 horror film “Black Box.” Whenever “Separation” can’t think of a creative way to resolve some issues, it just has a character pass out or wake up in a scene, as if that person just had a nightmare.

Jeff starts to have random hallucinations that you know are coming because everything on screen suddenly turns crimson red. He has these hallucinations in his home, on the subway and at work. Jenny has a sketch book that’s filling up with horror illustrations that she swears she didn’t draw. The movie tries to make it look like the ghost of Maggie could be haunting this family, but it’s an absurd red herring because the beginning of the movie already showed that something spooky was going on in the house before Maggie died.

Jeff’s co-worker Alan is a big believer in the supernatural, so Jeff confides in him one day about all the nightmarish things that he’s been experiencing. Alan thinks that the ghost of Maggie is behind these unexplainable nightmares and hallucinations. And so, Alan gives Jeff the psychedelic drug ayahuasca to take home with him so that Jeff can “punch a hole in reality and make peace with Maggie.”

Does Jeff take the ayahuasca? Of course he does. Because in a silly movie like this, the first thing you want to do to figure out what you’re hallucinating is take a drug that makes you hallucinate even more. There are parts of this movie that are so bad, they’re really laughable. “Separation” is also the type of dreck where there’s a scene of people falling out of the townhome’s attic through a glass window, and they end up on the sidewalk with no injuries.

“Separation” director Bell also directed the 2016 horror flick “The Boy” and its 2020 sequel “Brahms: The Boy II,” which were both awful and boring movies about a family haunted by evil spirits, with a creepy doll as part of the story. At least with “The Boy” and “Brahms: The Boy II,” there was an origin story that clearly explained why this doll was the root of the horror happening in the movie. In “Separation,” the dolls and any horror entities that appear in the movie have no explanation for why they’re haunting this family.

Most of the cast members try to do their best to be credible in their poorly written roles, but it’s all for nothing because “Separation” is such an empty and pointless film in almost every way. Most of Friend’s acting in “Separation” consists of looking confused or awkward. Brewer is the only cast member who hams it up during certain scenes in such an over-the-top way that it’s unintentionally comedic.

Just when viewers might think “Separation” can’t get any worse, the movie’s last 15 minutes prove that this rubbish was incapable of being salvaged. The mid-credits scene is also completely useless. “Separation” sinks further into a quagmire of idiocy until there’s nothing left but the stench of fried brain cells that had to endure the 107 minutes it takes to watch this time-wasting trash until the bitter end.

Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment will release “Separation” in U.S. cinemas on April 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Our Friend,’ starring Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson and Jason Segel

January 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck in “Our Friend” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Gravitas Ventures)

“Our Friend”

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2000 to 2014 in Fairhope, Alabama; New Orleans; and briefly in Pakistan, the dramatic film “Our Friend” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A married couple and their male best friend go through ups and downs in their relationship, especially after the wife gets ovarian cancer and the best friend temporarily moves in the family home to help the spouses take care of their two young daughters.

Culture Audience: “Our Friend” will appeal primarily to people interested in emotionally authentic, dramatic movies about loyal friendships and how cancer affects relationships.

Isabella Kai, Jason Segel and Violet McGraw in “Our Friend” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Gravitas Ventures)

The tearjerker drama “Our Friend,” which is inspired by a true story, departs from the usual formula of a family coping with cancer. When someone in a family has this disease, cancer dramas usually focus on how a spouse, parent or child is dealing with it. Those aspects are definitely in “Our Friend,” but there’s also the unusual component of a male best friend moving into the family household to be a nurturing supporter. Thanks to heartfelt performances from the main cast members, “Our Friend” is a genuine and relatable film, despite being the type of drama where it’s easy to predict exactly how it’s going to end.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Brad Ingelsby, “Our Friend” is based on a 2015 Esquire magazine essay titled “The Friend,” written by journalist Matt Teague. (“The Friend” was the original title for this movie.) In this deeply personal article, he described the generosity of Dane Faucheux, the longtime best friend of Matt and his wife Nicole Teague. After Nicole was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Dane (who was a bachelor at the time) put his life on hold in New Orleans to temporarily move in with the couple in Fairhope, Alabama, to help them take care of their household and the couple’s two young daughters Molly and Evangeline, nicknamed Evie.

The movie “Our Friend” expands on that essay by jumping back and forth in time to show how the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane evolved over 14 years, including the highs, lows and everything in between. The movie’s story spans from the year 2000 (when the three of them met) to the year 2014, when Nicole’s cancer was at its worst. The cinematic version of the story avoids a lot of nauseating details that are in the Esquire essay about bodily functions of a cancer patient. Instead, the movie focuses on showing this intense friendship from the individual perspectives of Matt, Nicole and Dane.

Nicole and Dane met each other while living in New Orleans in their early 20s, when she was one of the stars of a local musical theater production and he was a lighting operator in the crew. Nicole is open-hearted, compassionate and the type of person whom a lot of people feel like could be their best friend. Dane is socially awkward and somewhat introverted but an overall good guy who has some immaturity issues.

In the movie, Nicole was already married to Matt when she met Dane, who didn’t know that Nicole was married when he asked Nicole out on a date. Dane’s courtship mistake is never shown in the movie, but it’s mentioned in conversations. Once Nicole told Dane about her marital status, they were able to overcome this minor embarrassment and became good friends. Dane and Nicole are comfortable enough with each other that talk about their love lives with each other.

Dane is thoughtful and generous (he gives homemade mix CDs to Nicole), and he and Nicole love to talk about music, even when they agree to disagree. She thinks Led Zeppelin is “the greatest band ever,” while he doesn’t really care for Led Zeppelin. The Led Zeppelin reference in the movie is significant because two of Led Zeppelin’s original songs—”Ramble On” and “Going to California”—are used in emotional montage scenes in “Our Friend.”

By making Nicole an actress who loves musical theater, “Our Friend” gives Johnson a chance to showcase her singing skills, which are very good but not outstanding. Johnson sings two songs in the movie: “Hands All Hands Around” (from the musical “Quilters”) and a cover version of the Grateful Dead’s “If I Had the World to Give.” Johnson also did some singing in her 2020 movie “The High Note,” so maybe this is her way of demonstrating that she wants to be a professional singer too.

One day, Dane asks for Nicole’s advice about how to approach a theater co-worker named Charlotte (played by Denée Benton) whom he wants to ask out on a date. Unbeknownst to him, Charlotte isn’t attracted to Dane and has already been dating the theater’s stage manager named Aaron (played by Jake Owen). Minutes after Dane confides in Nicole that he’s going to ask Charlotte on a date, Charlotte tells Nicole in a private conversation that she suspects that Dane has a crush on her but Charlotte isn’t interested in dating Dane. It’s one of many examples in the movie that show how Nicole is a trusted confidante to many people in her life and she knows how to make people feel special.

Of course, Dane eventually finds out that Charlotte and Aaron are dating. Dane mopes about it for a little bit when he sees Charlotte and Aaron showing some heavy public displays of affection at a bar on the night that Nicole introduces Matt to Dane. The first time Matt and Dane meet, it’s at this bar, and Dane makes an apology to Matt for asking Nicole out on a date. Matt tells Dane not to worry about it and says that he has no hard feelings.

While Dane watches Charlotte and Aaron from a distance at the bar, Dane seem to takes their coupling way more personally than he should. He grumbles to Nicole and Matt that Charlotte seems to be rubbing her feelings for Aaron in Dane’s face. It’s a sign (one of many) that one of Dane’s flaws is that he can be emotionally insecure and overly needy.

As the movie skips back and forth in time, it’s eventually shown that Charlotte and Aaron have gotten married and have two children together. Charlotte and Nicole remain very close friends, even after Matt and Nicole move to Fairhope. Matt and Nicole relocated to Fairhope so that Nicole could be close to her parents. The parents of Matt and Nicole parents are never seen in the movie. After Nicole finds out that she has cancer in 2012, Matt tells Dane that Nicole has been afraid to tell her parents about the cancer diagnosis.

By the time that Nicole and Matt are living in Fairhope during her cancer ordeal, it’s shown in the movie that their daughter Molly (played by Isabella Kai) is about 11 or 12 years old, while their daughter Evie played by Violet McGraw) is about 5 or 6 years old. Molly is sometimes moody and quick-tempered, while Evie is generally a happy-go-lucky kid. Molly’s personality is more like Matt’s, while Evie is more like Nicole.

Over the years, it’s apparent that Aaron likes to make snide, condescending comments about Dane to other people whenever Dane isn’t around to defend himself. Aaron always makes digs about Dane working in dead-end jobs (such as a sales clerk at an athletic clothing store) and Dane not seeming to have an career goals or any real direction in life. Dane (who has a goofy sense of humor) has tried to be a stand-up comedian, but these dreams never really go anywhere, mainly because he just isn’t that talented. However, when Dane practices his stand-up routine for Nicole, she politely laughs at his corny jokes, and it makes him feel good.

Dave has financial problems, to the point where he’s sometimes temporarily homeless and has to stay at friends’ places or has to move back home with his parents, and he seems unsure of his purpose in life. B y contrast, Matt’s career as a journalist is flourishing. One of Matt’s first jobs was as a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he felt stifled and bored with covering fluffy local news. Matt’s real goal is to be a globetrotting journalist, where he gets to cover what he calls “important” news, such as wars and politics, that can make a big difference in people’s lives.

Matt gets his wish and his career is thriving as a freelancer covering war news for publications such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. But all that traveling has taken a toll on his marriage to Nicole. In 2008, while Matt is on assignment in Pakistan, he and Nicole have an argument on the phone because he took an assignment to go to Libya without discussing it with Nicole first.

Matt doesn’t think that he did anything wrong, because he says that the family needs the money. Nicole, who’s now a homemaker, tells Matt that she feels like she’s a “single parent” and complains to him: “I feel like I married a war correspondent, not a journalist.”

Matt goes home for a few days before he has to go to Libya. And he gets unsolicited advice from Dane to not take the assignment in Libya and stay with the family. This leads to an argument between Matt and Dane where Dane points out Matt’s personality flaws, while Matt insults Dane for having a directionless life with no real career.

Because the movie’s timeline is not in chronological order, viewers have to piece together the ebbs and flows of the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane. There are hints that Dane struggles with his mental health, especially in an extended scene taking place in 2010 that shows Dane abruptly packing up and leaving his parents’ house so he can go camping by himself in remote Southwest canyons. Before he leaves, Dane’s older brother Davey (played by Richard Speight Jr.) asks Dane if Dane is having one of his “episodes.”

During this solitary excursion, Dane meets a friendly German camper named Teresa (played by Gwendoline Christie), who’s also traveling by herself. Teresa asks Dane to join her on her hikes. Dane is standoffish at first, but Teresa insists on hanging out with Dane, and he eventually warms up to her a little bit. Teresa senses that Dane is deeply troubled and unhappy with his life, so she shares with him a very personal experience that changes his perspective. It’s one of the better scenes in the movie, proving that not all of the emotional gravitas in “Our Friend” has to do with Nicole’s cancer diagnosis.

However, “Our Friend” is still very much a cancer movie. There’s the heart-wrenching scene showing Matt and Nicole deciding how they are going to break the news to their children that Nicole is going to die from cancer. There’s the predictable scene where Nicole makes a “bucket list” of things she wants to do before she dies, with Matt and Dane frantically trying to make some of the more difficult things on the list (such as being grand marshal of the next Mardi Gras parade) come true for Nicole. And then there are the expected scenes of Nicole having medication-related meltdowns.

The Teague family members also have the misfortune of their beloved pet pug Gracie being diagnosed with cancer around the same time that Nicole gets sick with cancer. While Matt spends time with Nicole in the hospital, Dane has the task of taking Gracie to the veterinarian, who tells Dane that it’s best if the terminally ill dog undergoes euthanasia. Dane, who is not the owner of the dog, is put in the awkward position of having to represent the Teague family when the dog is permanently put to sleep. Dane also has to tell Molly and Evie the bad news about Gracie’s death, because Matt and Nicole are too preoccupied in the hospital.

During all of this cancer drama, Dane gets some pushback and criticism for deciding to move in with Matt and Nicole. At the time of Nicole’s cancer diagnosis, Dane was living in New Orleans and had been dating a baker named Kat (played by Marielle Scott) for about a year. Dane and Kat’s relationship has progressed to the point where Kat has given him spare keys to her home.

At first, Kat was fine with Dane going to visit the Teagues in Fairhope (which is about 160 miles away from New Orleans), as a show of support for the family. But the visits became longer and longer, until Dane eventually moved in with the Teagues. And Kat wasn’t so okay with that decision. Aaron also makes snarky comments to the Teagues’ circle of friends about Dane being a freeloader, until Matt eventually puts Aaron in his place for being such an unrelenting jerk about Dane.

The movie also shows that Matt and Nicole have other challenges in their lives besides her cancer. Before she was diagnosed with cancer, their marriage hit a rough patch due to issues over jealousy and infidelity. And before and during Nicole’s cancer crisis, Molly was feeling resentment toward Matt because of his long absences from home. Molly sometimes lashes out at Matt and makes it clear that she thinks Nicole is a much better parent than Matt is.

The biggest noticeable flaw about “Our Friend” is there seems to be a gender double standard in how the three main characters physically age in the movie. Nicole looks like she’s barely aged throughout the entire movie, even though the story takes place over the course of 14 years. It’s a contrast to how Matt and Dane age over the years, particularly with their hair. In the early years of the friendship, Segel wears a wig to make Dane look younger, while in the later years, he sports his natural receding hairline. Likewise, Affleck’s natural gray hair is seen in the later years of the friendship.

This discrepancy has a lot to do with the fact that in real life, Johnson is 14 years younger than Affleck, and she’s nine years younger than Segel. The real Nicole, Matt and Dane were much closer to each other in age. This movie’s unwillingness to show a woman aging over 14 years and casting a much-younger female co-star as the love interest of the leading male actor are part of bigger age discrimination issues that make it harder for actresses over the age of 35 to be cast as a love interest to someone who’s close to their age.

And when Nicole has cancer, the physical damages from cancer are barely shown. There’s the typical “dark circles under the eyes” look with makeup, as well as mentions of Nicole’s hair falling out because of chemotherapy. (At various times, she wears a headband or a wig.)

But the movie could have used a little more realism in showing the devastating physical toll that cancer can take. More often than not in the cancer scenes, the movie makes Nicole just look like she’s hung over from a wild night of partying, instead of looking like a real cancer patient who’s deep in chemotherapy. It’s not as if Johnson had to lose a scary amount of weight to look like a convincing cancer patient, but more could have been done with makeup and/or visual effects to make it look more realistic that her character was dying of cancer.

However, the filmmakers (including film editor Colin Patton) should get a lot of credit for taking the non-chronological scenes and making everything into a cohesive story that’s easy to understand. “Our Friend” is not the type of movie that can be watched while distracted by something else, because the year that a sequence takes place is shown on the screen to guide viewers. People watching this movie have to pay attention to these milestone year indicators to get the full scope of the story.

“Our Friend” is a well-cast movie where all the actors do convincing portrayals of the emotions expressed in the movie. (Cherry Jones has a small but important role as a hospice nurse named Faith Pruett.) As much as the movie is about Matt and Nicole’s marriage, it’s also very much about the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane.

Even though Nicole and Dane were friends before Dane and Matt knew each other, Nicole and Dane’s friendship starts to wane a little bit, the more debilitated with cancer she becomes. There’s a noticeable brotherly bond that develops between Matt and Dane, especially when they have to face the reality of life without Nicole. It doesn’t diminish Nicole’s role in the film, but it realistically shows how relationships can change when people have to prepare for the end of a loved one’s life. “Our Friend” is not an easy film to watch for anyone who hates to think about dying from cancer, but the sadness in the movie is balanced out by the joy of having true love from family and friends.

Roadside Attractions and Gravitas Ventures released “Our Friend” in U.S. cinemas, on January 22, 2021, the same date that Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released the movie on digital and VOD.