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Films: the latest new releases to watch in cinemas...

Damon Smith reviews the latest new releases to watch in cinemas. This week: Scarlett Johansson faces her troubled past in director Cate Shortland's action-packed adventure Black Widow...

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow
By Damon Smith

BLACK WIDOW (12A, 133 mins) Action/Fantasy/Adventure/Comedy/Romance. Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt. Director: Cate Shortland

THE opening theatrical salvo of phase four of Marvel's cinematic universe unveils a mechanised mercenary called Taskmaster, which perfectly mimics the fighting style of any adversary.

Imitation doesn't end with this armoured antagonist.

Director Cate Shortland's hugely entertaining spy thriller nods reverentially to Mission: Impossible, the Bourne franchise and James Bond (an excerpt from Moonraker plays on a TV screen) as well as earlier chapters in the Avengers saga that jive sweetly between explosive action set pieces and heart-tugging emotion.

Admittedly, Shortland's vertiginous denouement falls victim to the same CGI overload as other MCU strands but there's a clear focus on characters in peril in the eye of a digitally rendered storm that breaks the film's fall.

Set in the tumultuous period between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow is a fitting send-off for Scarlett Johansson's former KGB spy with satisfying dramatic reveals and multiple (ab)uses of the word ‘family' in Eric Pearson's script.

The darkest elements of the character's past – child trafficking, mind control, an involuntary hysterectomy – warrant lip service rather than deep discourse to avoid a certificate 15 classification that would impact box office takings.

Bone-crunching, balletic fight sequences are beautifully choreographed as a pas de deux with slick special effects that push Johansson and Oxford-born co-star Florence Pugh to their physical limits.

Frenetic early fisticuffs between the two actors establish the brisk tempo of Shortland's propulsive direction and pass the baton to the next generation of self-assured, courageous and morally complex female heroes, who can wise-crack as confidently as they bruise knuckles.

A pulse-quickening prelude in 1995 Ohio distils Natasha's formative years as one quarter of a Russian sleeper cell with fake parents (David Harbour, Rachel Weisz) and a younger sister.

They flee the suburban Midwest under the cover of darkness to the haunting melody of Think Up Anger's cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Twenty-one years later, Natasha is an enemy of the state.

She has violated the newly ratified Sokovia Accords, which controversially surrenders command of the Avengers to the United Nations, and is on the run from US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt).

Hawkeye, Falcon, Ant-Man and Wanda Maximoff have been captured and are imprisoned in the maximum-security Raft.

Captain America and Natasha remain at large.

She goes off-grid and resurfaces in Norway, aided by smitten private contractor Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenle).

Natasha's past gate-crashes the Scandinavian serenity and she reunites with ‘sister' Yelena (Pugh) at a Budapest safehouse to learn the shocking truth about chemically subjugated Black Widows controlled by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone).

To assassinate the sadistic puppet master and destroy his secret facility, the Red Room, Natasha and Yelena must orchestrate an awkward family reunion with Alexei Shostakov aka Red Guardian (Harbour), the Soviet Union's super soldier equivalent of Captain America, and scientist Melina Vostokoff (Weisz).

Black Widow returns the MCU to the big screen with several ground-shaking bangs and thunderous blasts of Scottish composer Lorne Balfe's score.

Johansson, also an executive producer, is given space and time to rub salt into her character's psychological wounds and add gravitas to Natasha's sacrifices later in the franchise.

Pearson's script mines a rich vein of humour.

Yelena mercilessly pokes fun at Natasha's attention-seeking crouch pose and Alexei's choices of words are hilariously inappropriate like when he congratulates his ‘daughters' on their impressive kill lists.

“Your ledgers must be gushing, dripping wet!” he whoops.

An elegiac post-end credits sequence teases conflict with a “cutie” Avenger and lays the groundwork for a Disney+ TV series later in the year.

Rating: ***

ALSO RELEASED

THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS (12A, 84 mins)

In 2017, a bidder from Hong Kong at the annual Alba White Truffle World Auction paid an eye-watering 75,000 euros for one tuberous specimen weighing 850 grams.

The prized delicacy grows deep in the forests of Piedmont, Italy, for a few months of the year and has stubbornly resisted modern science's efforts at cultivation.

Demand for white truffles increases year on year but supply decreases, impacted in part by climate change and deforestation.

Documentary filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw meet a group of men, 70 to 80 years young, who call upon training passed down through generations to hunt the rare white Alba truffle with their dogs.

They jealously guard the secrets of this practice, shunning the trappings of modern life to exist in harmony with the land and their vibrant local community.

1921 (15, 138 mins)

To coincide with the 100th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, Huang Jianxin and Zheng Dasheng co-direct a state-sanctioned historical drama, which proudly recreates key incidents leading to the creation of the CCP and the party's early years.

This fiercely patriotic and exhaustive history lesson includes the May Fourth Movement, led by CCP co-founder Li Dazhao (Chen Li), and the contributions of co-founder Chen Duxiu (Kun Chen) and party chairman Mao Zedong (Renjun Wang).

OCCUPATION RAINFALL (128 mins)

VISUAL effects artists who worked on Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and Blade Runner 2049 flex their digital muscles in a sci-fi action adventure directed by Luke Sparke, which is a sequel to his 2018 film Occupation.

Otherworldly beings orchestrate a devastating intergalactic invasion of Earth, determined to make the third rock from the sun their new home.

Two years after the invasion, human survivors in Australia have formed a fragile resistance with renegade aliens to fight back against the extra-terrestrial threat in a desperate and bloodthirsty ground war.

These brave soldiers from all walks of life uncover a terrifying plot that could signal the end of mankind forever.

TOVE (12A, 103 mins)

FRESH from its screening at this year's BFI Flare festival, director Zaida Bergroth's acclaimed biographical drama about one of Europe's most beloved artists arrives in selected cinemas this week.

In 1945 Helsinki, the end of the Second World War heralds a period of artistic and social freedom in the Finnish capital.

Painter Tove Jansson (Alma Poysti) is focussed on realising her stories of ‘Moomin' creatures, which she imparted to scared children in the bomb shelters.

These enchanting tales bring international fame and financial security.

As she rides the crest of a wave, Tove meets theatre director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen) and an all-consuming desire takes hold.

While these powerful feelings aren't reciprocated, Tove channels her emotions into her work and defiantly forges her own path through Moominvalley and the real world.

THE SURROGATE (15, 93 mins)

THREE friends are faced with an agonising moral dilemma in writer-director Jeremy Hersh's provocative character study.

Jess Harris (Jasmine Batchelor) is a 29-year-old web designer in perfect health, who excitedly agrees to be a surrogate and egg donor for best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones).

Her act of generosity will allow the couple to start the family they have always wanted.

Twelve weeks into the pregnancy, a prenatal test comes back with unexpected results: the child she is carrying has Down's syndrome.

As the news sinks in, Jess, Josh and Aaron have different reactions and they disagree on the best course of action.

Tempers fray and emotions boil over as the friends' relationship is tested to breaking point.

MOSLEY: IT'S COMPLICATED (15, 92 mins)

BORN and raised in London, Max Mosley swerved the potential roadblocks of his parents' personal and political associations to become a racing driver and establish his own successful Formula One team, March Engineering.

Together with Bernie Ecclestone, he challenged the sport's governing body on behalf of constructors and as president of the FIA, he helped to transform Formula One into one of the most lucrative and glamorous sports in the world.

Made with the cooperation of Mosley, director Michael Shevloff's unauthorised documentary looks back over the British motor racing executive's rise and fall including his legal battle against the News Of The World.

On-screen contributions come from Hugh Grant, discussing the right to privacy, Bernie Ecclestone, Gerhard Berger, Flavio Briatore, Jean Todt, Charlie Whiting, Robin Herd, Adam Parr and John Watson.

TO BE SOMEONE (15, 84 mins)

STARS of the cult 1979 film Quadrophenia including Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Gary Shail and Toyah Willcox reunite more than 40 years later for director Ray Burdis' comedy drama.

Young entrepreneur Danny (Sam Gittins) is co-owner of a popular nightclub dedicated to mods and he has a scooter shop business as a lucrative sideline.

That glittering future is threatened when Danny learns the club's secret financier is unhinged gangster Mad Mike (Scott Peden).

The thug promises to sign over his shares in the club if Danny agrees to travel to the Isle of Wight as part of an illegal drugs run.

Backed into a corner, Danny seeks help from his mates and they conceive a madcap plan.

They will use the annual mod festival, which woos thousands of enthusiasts to the island, as the perfect cover to grab the illicit stash and evade the police.

MARTIN EDEN (15, 129 mins)

LOVE across the class divide is fraught with difficulty in an Italian-French drama directed by Pietro Marcello, based very loosely on Jack London's semi-autobiographical novel.

The script, co-written by Marcello and Maurizio Braucci, transplants the action from early 20th-century Oakland to the port city of Naples, where aspiring writer Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) hopes to better himself in the image of Baudelaire.

At the docks one evening, Martin uses his fists rather than his words to save Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi) from a severe beating.

He returns the lad to his home and wanders into the rarefied world of the privileged Orsini clan.

Martin becomes smitten with Arturo's older sister Elena (Jessica Cressy) and promises to enrich his literary knowledge to be worthy of her adoration.

FILM CHART

1. Fast & Furious 9

2. Peter Rabbit 2

3. A Quiet Place Part II

4. Cruella

5. In The Heights

6. The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard

7. Freaky

8. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

9. Dogtanian And The Three Muskehounds

10. Supernova

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