STREAMING REVIEWS: Fast forward to beginnings

Published July 13, 2021, 11:29 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

The two films today come at a curious time. One is an MCU Origin film that comes after the demise of our super heroine, and the second is a music documentary about a band that trail-blazed since the 1970s, and is the precursor for so many bands that followed.

The Black Widow (Marvel Disney+) – This film may be considered one that comes too late in the game, given that we know what happened to the Black Widow in Avengers: End Game. The events covered in this trip to the MCU timeline past would best be described as coming after Captain America: Winter Soldier. And given that the likes of the Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, etc have all been given their standalone films, it’s only fitting that even if on a ‘better late than never’, we finally get the story of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). And to be fair to director Cate Shortland and the writers, they’ve managed to turn this spy thriller into an exciting adventure that deftly mixes action with comedy, while taking on Mom & Dad issues, sibling rivalry, mind control, and world domination.

Johansson is firmly the star of this film outing, but what is impressive to note, is how she cedes the spotlight time and again within the film, to set the stage properly for what’s to follow in the MCU. In fact if Natasha is the title character, the MVP award of the film would be handed to Florence Pugh playing Yelena, Natasha’s sister. She’s a gritty, yet soft-centered character, and we fully invest in her. Providing much of the comedy and scene-stealing would be David Harbour as Alexei/the Red Guardian. After playing it straight in the tense opening sequence, he loosens up upon his return in the film, and he’s obviously having fun playing the hilarious, hurt father of the two girls. Rachel Weisz is also on board as the mother. What I felt the film lacked was a strong villain; but that’s a minor issue given the complexity of the four members of our Romanoff nuclear family.

The Sparks Brothers (Video on Demand) – Charlie Chaplin or Adolf Hitler? I remember watching the band Sparks for the first time back in the 1970’s and thinking that their mock opera Pop/Rock music was out of this world. And yet, bands such as Queen followed, creating music of this type. The funny thing was that while a big hit in Europe, and in London where they first broke; the two lead members, Russell and Ron Mael, were in fact American. As this film documentary shows, while championed in the West Coast by such rock luminaries of the time as Todd Rundgren, it was only their move to Europe which helped cement their fame and lasting position in Pop music history. And now we have this comprehensive music documentary, directed by no less than Edgar Wright.

Wright goes all out in assembling this Sundance-feted music documentary. There are archival footage, their music videos from the late 70s onwards, interview of today with music personalities from several decades past, clay figurines, stop motion and regular animation, newsreel footage, and current performances. They all add up to a documentary that showcases the band as one that never compromised, continue to be creative, and have evolved and reinvented themselves more times than we can even count. That they’re still a contemporary musical force that may have never gained that much popularity but still respected is proven with how their story and music are behind Annette, the Cannes 2021 opener, that’s directed by Leos Carax, and stars Adam Driver & Marion Cotillard. You don’t need to love the music of Sparks to appreciate how this docu has been put together.