Early in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film from writer-director Taika Waititi, a world-weary Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is meditating when his trance is broken by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy. “Thor, we need your help to win this battle,” Quill says. The god of thunder rises, flies to the battlefield and proceeds to decimate an army of aliens to the tune of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” Watching Thor answer his friends’ call to save them from defeat and then deliver on their request with rockstar swagger, it’s difficult not to imagine Waititi jamming to Led Zeppelin in his office only to be interrupted by MCU president Kevin Feige with an urgent plea: “Taika, we need your help to save the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
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“Top Gun” is not a great movie. It’s certainly good — it launched Tom Cruise into superstardom and boasts one of the most iconic soundtracks in Hollywood history — but the juvenile dialogue and stilted action will always bar director Tony Scott’s 1986 classic from greatness. The same cannot be said for its sequel 36 years in the making. Propelled by thrilling aerial sequences and an endearing story that pivots seamlessly from one emotional tone to the next, “Top Gun: Maverick” soars beyond its predecessor to remind us of the joys of experiencing not just a well-executed sequel but an original blockbuster film.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a screening in Dana Auditorium of “The Price of Safety,” a documentary feature about racially biased policing in the nearby Vermont city of Vergennes. The film presents an account of how an otherwise tranquil community was thrust into upheaval by the question of whether to reduce police funding and claims of racial prejudice among the city’s law enforcement personnel. Among those in the audience were the film’s director and former Middlebury College media producer, Chris Spencer, and his wife and producing partner, Assistant Professor of Economics Erin Wolcott. Joining them was Assistant Professor of International and Global Studies Amit Prakash, who is featured heavily in the film as an interviewee.
In the history of American cinema, there are few absolutes. Critics still can’t decide whether “Citizen Kane” or “The Godfather” deserves the title of “Greatest American Film,” and audiences continue to debate whether “A New Hope” or “The Empire Strikes Back” is the definitive entry in the “Star Wars” saga. Some things, however, are certain. There will never be a better shark movie than “Jaws.” No biographical epic will ever surpass “Lawrence of Arabia.” And in turn, there will never be a stronger cinematic incarnation of Batman than what director Christopher Nolan achieved in “The Dark Knight” trilogy. Ten years on from “The Dark Knight Rises,” the stirring finale to the series that humanized Bruce Wayne and established a Batman for the modern world, director Matt Reeves and star Robert Pattinson have tried their hand at a new iteration of the tortured hero for the big screen. To put it plainly, it comes as close to Nolan’s benchmark as another movie about the comic book icon likely ever will. “The Batman” is a captivating showcase for its protagonist. It’s a story of corruption, vengeance and ultimately hope that imbues the character with a mythological air as palpable as the rain-soaked alleyways of Gotham City.
After the string of videogame movie misfires that included “Assassin’s Creed” (2016), “Tomb Raider” (2018) and “Mortal Kombat” (2021), fans of the popular PlayStation exclusive “Uncharted” had their doubts upon hearing that director Ruben Fleischer would be bringing the iconic series about an adventurous treasure hunter to the big screen. As one of those fans, I can now say that those doubts have been laid to rest. With quippy dialogue, physics-defying action and a sense of swashbuckling enthusiasm pervading its every moment, “Uncharted” succeeds as an exciting adventure film that perfectly captures the spirit of its gaming inspiration.
Oscar nominations were announced on Feb. 8, making public the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s choices for the most artistically and technically significant films of 2021. It’s a tradition for journalists covering the Academy Awards to quickly zero in on the major categories like Best Picture and Best Actor/Actress in a Leading Role. This year, however, the most remarkable achievements in film belonged to three of the less celebrated elements of filmmaking: music scoring, cinematography and screenwriting. The creators who carry out these functions never get the press that is levied upon the actors and directors they collaborate with, but in an artistic medium of stories told with moving images and sound, their music, photography and writing arguably play the most vital role of all. This was never more true than in 2021, and to prove that, here are my breakdowns, hopes and predictions for Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Screenplay. And yes, my hopes and predictions are the same; “Dune” and “The Power of the Dog” are that good.
Audiences tend to walk away from Guillermo del Toro movies with two reactions: that it was weird, and that it was amazing. Each of del Toro’s works draws on the fantastical and the grotesque to deliver absorbing, visually distinctive narrative experiences. For example, his film “Pan’s Labyrinth” follows a girl in WWII-era Spain who embarks on a supernatural odyssey after meeting the titular creature, and 2017 Best Picture winner “The Shape of Water” tells the story of a mute woman who falls in love with a humanoid sea monster. “Nightmare Alley,” del Toro’s latest film, is no different. This noir updates the acclaimed 1947 original by offering a richly textured immersion into the dangerous, and often frightening, world of mentalism.
Editor's Note: This article contains spoilers.
In Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog,” the first film from Academy Award winning director Jane Campion in twelve years, Benedict Cumberbatch transforms into cattle rancher Phil Burbank with a brilliance that is matched only by the quality of the film itself. He is raw, startling and ultimately tragic as he leads us through an intimate Western that often conveys its meaning through powerful imagery and strong acting rather than pointed dialogue.
“No Time to Die” is a big movie — big in budget, big in story and big in spectacle. But for the 25th film in the 007 series, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and featuring the last of five turns as James Bond for star Daniel Craig, nothing plays a larger role than the beating heart at its center: Craig. Amidst the epic sweep of this 163-minute blockbuster, there are moments of intimacy as we get to experience the humor, love and heartbreak layered beneath Bond’s steely outer shell. Being a 007 movie, there is always another shootout or high-speed chase to disrupt the serenity of these quieter moments, but the intensity of the action sequences is elevated by a deepened sympathy for the man at the center of it all. This emphasis on the humanity of the iconic protagonist sets the film apart from its predecessors, solidifying its status as a resounding cinematic success and one of the best films of the year.
“Cry Macho” opens on a truck driving down a country road. Inside, we see squinted eyes under a beaten cowboy hat glance into the rearview mirror. The truck pulls to a stop, and the camera drops to the ground to watch as two leather boots step out onto the pavement. It then cuts to the driver-side door shutting, and then we see him: Clint Eastwood, the sun at his back, still the archetypical American Western hero at 91 years of age that he was 60 years ago. It is clear in just the first two minutes of the film that director and star Clint Eastwood understands the baggage that he carries with him into this role. Making his first appearance in a Western since his 1993 Best Picture Winner “Unforgiven,” he knows that his donning of a cowboy hat is all that audiences need to feel the years of rich cinematic history packed into this film. Eastwood plays with this connection between the audience and the icon, as silhouettes of his character Mike Milo against the sun setting over the desert erase his age. He could just as easily be the Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Herein lies one of the joys of “Cry Macho.” Though it is a film held back by a screenplay that is uneven in its storytelling and blunt in its dialogue, it is redeemed by an endearing Eastwood performance, the beautiful desert scenery and some of the sweetest moments in the director’s filmography. Mike Milo is a former rodeo star living out the last years of his life alone following the death of his wife and son in a car accident. In return for the financial support he lent Mike following the loss of his family, Mike’s boss Howard (Dwight Yoakam) comes to him asking for a favor: travel from Texas to Mexico to retrieve Howard’s son from his affluent, alcoholic mother. Mike accepts, and after finding the boy in Mexico City, sets off on the road back to Texas. He is all too quickly pursued by Mexican federal police and private enforcers, both sent by the mother to take back her son. Despite what its plot may imply, “Cry Macho” is anything but a thriller. Much like its white-haired star, the film is gentle, methodical and earnest, which works brilliantly in some regards but fails in others. This earnestness shows up as a problem in the dialogue, much of the issue stemming from Eduardo Minett’s Rafo. The character’s lines are devoid of any subtlety and delivered with binary emotions. Rafo is either one hundred percent happy or one hundred percent sad, never a realistic, complex mix. His spoken words — he at one point says to Mike, “I don’t trust you anymore” — are borderline cringeworthy. It is a great relief that Eastwood is not tainted by this problem. His portrayal of Mike is natural, filled with moments of sly humor, wisdom and a warm sensitivity that is miles away from the steely intensity of his William Munny in “Unforgiven.” Mike chokes up, recalling his deceased family, and as he lies down in the dark, his hat pulled down over his eyes, all we can see is a single tear rolling down his cheek. These quiet, human moments are what make “Cry Macho” tick, and they are never more bountiful than when Mike and Rafo spend time with a widow named Marta (Natalia Traven) and her family. Mostly set in the restaurant Marta runs in a small Mexican town, this extended sequence finds the film forgetting about its plot momentarily to settle down and simply breathe with the characters. They eat meals together, they dance, they tend to sick animals and they laugh. It plays like a dream, and the rest of the narrative fades into the periphery. Not only is watching Mike and Rafo form a familial bond with Marta and her granddaughters the highlight of the film, but it is also possibly the most heartwarming sequence that Eastwood has ever shot. The flimsiness of the screenplay doesn’t allow the film to maintain this emotional power once Mike and Rafo are forced to leave their new home behind. What is supposed to be the final confrontation between Mike and one of the men hunting him lasts no more than two minutes and is extremely anticlimactic. Then, in the most disappointing part of the film, the plot runs its course to reach an expected conclusion without the characters pushing the drama into new territory. Is this an intentional effort by screenwriter Nick Schenk to subvert audience expectations by ending the film and giving them an ending that is almost too obvious? Or is it simply a boring ending? Thinking back, it doesn’t matter either way. The film was genuinely moving, and audiences got to see one of their favorite Hollywood stars step gracefully back into the role that he defined. You can’t ask for anything more than that.
Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is without question one of the most narratively and visually complex films that I’ve ever seen. One might guess this given the nature of the plot, which follows a CIA agent, known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington), on his mission to save the world from ruin at the hands of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch who is working with an entity in the future to destroy civilization in the present. Sator communicates with this entity by means of inversion, a technology that reverses the entropy of an object or person and sends it backwards through time. Add to this dizzying concept a screenplay that moves through complicated expositional dialogue at a breakneck pace and images of characters moving through time in opposite directions, and what you’re left with is an unapologetically confusing film. Unapologetic is the key word, of course, because Nolan is aware of the complexity of the cinematic yarn he is spinning, and he knows how to keep us engaged until the cloth is spun. Nolan’s expertise is apparent in the skillfulness of the screenplay. The movie is two and a half hours long, but it runs with incredible briskness, a feat that is the result of its pacing. He knows that the inversion technology is the most fascinating aspect of the story, so he plants its full reveal in the middle of the film and gradually lifts the curtain on it throughout the opening half. There is palpable narrative tension as we walk step by step with the Protagonist, dodging inverted bullets and fighting a man moving in reverse, all while trying to piece together the mystery unfolding around him. When the Protagonist finally witnesses inversion in the open for the first time during a car chase halfway through the film, the staging is brilliant. Composer Ludwig Göransson’s score reverberates from the screen, Neil’s (Robert Pattison) panicked questioning increases anxiety as he hears voices speaking over the radio in reverse and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s deliberate tracking of an inverted car barreling toward the Protagonist’s vehicle work together harmoniously to unsettle the viewer and confront them with the menacing technology at the center of the story. Beyond its structural prowess, Nolan’s screenplay also excels on a human level. The director’s treatment of a desperate mother (Elizabeth Debicki) fighting to save her son from her crazed husband is intensely realistic and often hard to watch. Simultaneously, the Protagonist’s repeated willingness to sacrifice his mission to save those around him creates a strong moral bond between him and the audience. In one particularly moving scene, Washington and Pattinson’s characters share a moment that shifts the film’s focus from technical sci-fi devices to a simple theme of friendship. “Tenet” also benefits from a second key feature that defines any Christopher Nolan film: spectacle. Scenes like a packed opera house coming under siege by terrorists, a pair of agents rappelling up a Mumbai skyscraper and a 747 airliner crashing into a warehouse all occur within the first 45 minutes of the film. The amount of action that Nolan packs into this movie is remarkable, especially given that almost all of it was accomplished using practical sets and effects. This action was captured on 65mm IMAX film cameras, providing sweeping scale and clarity to match the film’s ambitious story. The picture is supplemented by a truly powerful soundscape that will literally shake the viewers’ seats. It is a visceral experience, best exemplified by the opening opera sequence’s unnerving mix of an orchestra tuning and Göransson’s rumbling blasts laid over shattering gun shots. The moment when story, sight and sound all blend to create an overpowering cinematic experience always sticks with me at the end of a Christopher Nolan film. “Tenet” isn’t his best work. It never reaches the dramatic heights of “The Dark Knight” trilogy, it doesn’t possess the narrative mastery of his earlier, smaller projects and it never touches the pathos achieved by his work in “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk.” But “Tenet,” in all of its complexity and grandeur, aims high and hits its mark, all because its filmmaker had confidence in his vision. That conviction rubs off on us as we watch, and before we know it, we are right there with Nolan, committed to a world where reverse entropy and temporal pincer movements reign supreme.
David Ayer’s 2016 film “Suicide Squad” was a failure of cinematic creativity. Awkwardly-written, sloppily-paced and with scenes stitched together as if at random, the comic book film attempted to capture the playfulness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the dark gravitas of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. Instead, it ended up with neither, and the movie was quickly derided by critics for its futile reach for both comedy and drama. Five years later, director James Gunn has delivered a new film adaptation of the DC comics brand, brazenly titled “The Suicide Squad,” that sidesteps the identity crisis suffered by its predecessor for an unabashedly fun take on a franchise that is a perfect match for the singularly outrageous vision of the filmmaker. “The Suicide Squad” follows a group of imprisoned supervillains who are recruited by government official Amanda Waller (played by a ruthless Viola Davis) to complete a so-called suicide mission in exchange for a 10-year reduction of their prison sentences. Their goal is to infiltrate Corto Maltese Island and destroy all evidence of what is known only as Project Starfish. The roster of mostly second-rate characters from the comics is led off by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), the world’s most lethal marksman; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a murderous sociopath who has become the star of the franchise; and Peacemaker (John Cena), an extremist willing to commit acts of brutal violence in the name of peace. Other featured characters, such as a walking-and-talking great white shark and a man who can dispel lethal polka dots from his body, are just as obscure. Gunn is once again at work making stars out of unknowns in the same way he did for Marvel’s hit “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Gunn wastes no time in establishing his film as a much more spontaneous experience than the painfully self-serious 2016 version. A comically violent red herring opens the film, completely disorientating the audience in preparation for the gleeful chaos that unfolds once the surviving members of the Suicide Squad land on Corto Maltese. It is here that King Shark has to be talked out of eating his friends, Bloodsport and Peacemaker compete to kill enemies as creatively as possible and Harley Quinn escapes from and then massacres her captors as CGI flowers explode from their bloodied bodies. These moments are played for dark laughs, but the real surprise of “The Suicide Squad” — and what truly elevates it above the 2016 film — is how it manages to layer real emotional stakes into the playful mayhem. In one instance, Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) begins to cry while telling the team about the love she shared with her lost father. It is then genuinely moving to see her discover a sense of purpose in the film’s climax, which was something her father promised that she would find. Even something as seemingly ridiculous as an undisguisable King Shark waiting alone in a van as his friends try to blend in at a club earns the character compassion from the audience. These moments of pathos amidst the outrageous action prove the film’s ability to actualize the dual tonality that the original strove for in vain. The film owes its success to the creative license that Gunn held over the project. Working from his own original screenplay with a $185 million budget and having been granted complete creative control by Warner Bros., he was able to inject all of his signature filmmaking tendencies into this film. It has his edgy but likeable characters, his hyper-stylized action and colorful visual effects, his unexpectedly emotional storytelling and, to top it all off, a healthy dose of gratuitous violence and profanity. Together, these features produce a newest Suicide Squad movie that is completely and appropriately over-the-top. Within this efficient execution of the Suicide Squad mythos, there are a few features that deserve individual recognition. For one, Idris Elba is excellent as Bloodsport. An early scene, in which Elba gets into a fervent shouting match with his on-screen daughter, showcases the actor’s intense dramatic talents. He displays his comedic prowess when Bloodsport is forced to reveal his rat phobia while surrounded by Ratcatcher 2’s army of rodents, and in the concluding battle, Elba shows off his leading-man persona when he rallies his team against an extraterrestrial enemy. This last moment provides the film with its most moving sequence. Bloodsport finds the good in himself that he denied existed, and the Suicide Squad, a team of villains, takes a triumphant hero’s stand to save Corto Maltese. It is enhanced by John Murphy’s propulsive score, which never sounds better than when Bloodsport constructs his rifle to the beat of a pulsating electric guitar. A bright, colorful mix of digital and practical effects displayed on a large 1.90:1 aspect ratio makes “The Suicide Squad” a visual delight. In fact, everything about this film is a delight. It won’t win Best Picture; it is not the seminal superhero masterpiece that was “The Dark Knight,” but it sure is a blast to watch. To steal a line from that other DC Comics film, this was the Suicide Squad movie that we needed and deserved.