“THE POWER OF THE DOG” Review (✫✫)

SOURCE: Netflix

Putting the dog down.

There’s a metaphor hiding behind the mountains of The Power Of The Dog. Some people can see a dog hiding within the curves, crevices, and shadows of the canyonside. Others can only see the mountain. Regardless of whether or not you can see the dog, it doesn’t change the fact that two people are just staring aimlessly at a mountain like madmen, searching for something that might not even be there.

Ironically enough, this plot point is the perfect metaphor for The Power Of The Dog itself. Like the old west, The Power Of The Dog possesses a lot of beauty, a lot of darkness, and a lot of danger burrowing beneath the sands of Montana. Just like the countryside, there’s a lot to appreciate with the sheer scale and scenery that we witness here. But stick around for too long, and it’ll eventually swallow you whole. That’s pretty much what happens with The Power Of The Dog: the main characters stare at the mountains for far too long, looking for deeper meaning in a place where there is none.

Based on a 1967 western novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog follows two rancher brothers as they toil day and night taking care of their cattle and farm. The elder brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is still mourning the loss of his mentor, Henry Bronco. His brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and adopts her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil is a sordid, distrusting person who thinks Rose is only after George’s money. Rose is still grieving her former husband’s demise while battling an alcohol addiction. Things simmer like a soft boil until the tensions rise to the point of no return for the Burbank household.

Well, “tension” may not be the right word to use here. More like melodramatically prolonged stares and pauses that are so drawn out and overbearing that it makes after-school detention seem more interesting. When The Power Of The Dog opens up, it promises a dark, complex narrative filled with depth and deception — one where long-hidden secrets remained buried until one curious teenager brings them to light. This film… is not that. What we get instead is a long, dull, boring, flavorless experience that’s so bland and uninteresting that it makes unsalted crackers look exciting.

Oh sure, the film is perfectly functional. From a purely technical standpoint, I have no grievances with the film whatsoever. The costuming and production design is accurate and on-point to the era the film is portraying. The cinematography by Ari Wegner is lush and vivid and evokes a sense of loneliness and isolation. And while it is simple and bare-bones, the acoustic score by Jonny Greenwood carries on with an uneasy progression, with its strings plucking in an agitated manner as if Phil Burbank were playing them himself.

The actors also do a really good job with the roles they are given and are convincing in their portrayals of an unnerved family losing its sense of tranquility. Kirsten Dunst has a mesmerizing return to form after leaving the film industry for four years, playing a tortured, anguished character who is torn by her motherhood, her alcoholism, and her trauma she’s experienced since moving in with the Burbanks. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays an equally layered character with several shades, feeling warm and inviting in one beat and cold and calculating in another. And Benedict Cumberbatch masterfully plays the meanest bastard you’ve ever met, a man who will inflict great suffering on a family without hesitation but whose actions are contextualized through a great tragedy he experienced. Individually these characters are very interesting, and the cast realizes all of these roles to the best of their abilities.

The problem is the story they’re in is just not there. On paper, there’s an intricate and layered narrative hiding deep beneath The Power of the Dog’s muddy surface. But in execution, there’s no story at all — only characters that meander aimlessly from one point to another without any rhyme or reason, without any point or purpose, really without any sense of direction or destination. It isn’t merely the fact that The Power of the Dog is difficult to read. Quite the contrary — it is impossible to read. There is so much sleight of hand, so much implication, and so much interpretation that is required to understand this film that you would need to read the script while watching just to be able to follow what is even going on.

I say all this knowing that interpretation in and of itself is not a bad thing. Several films released from the past few years have required audiences to do the heavy lifting and were uniquely rewarding in their own way, whether it was Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman and The Revenant. Even David Lowery’s recent The Green Knight, which I still profess was an extremely polarizing film, at least had an intriguing point and a purpose that the film was driving toward. The Power of the Dog doesn’t even have that. It drops its 304-page novel right onto audiences’ backs, shrugs its shoulders, says “make of that whatever you will” and then leaves. That’s not good filmmaking. That isn’t even storytelling. That’s a cinematic Rorschach test it’s forcing audiences to take without even doing the decency of providing them with a clear picture.

This is why the mountains are the perfect metaphor for the public’s reaction to The Power of the Dog. Some will see the point that The Power of the Dog is trying to make and fall in love with it. Others won’t see anything at all and will be flabbergasted as to how so many people can be drooling all over it. So, which is it? Is there a dog or isn’t there? I have a better question: who cares?

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The Power Of The Nominations

I’m starting to think that the Oscars are no longer meant for me. Every year, the Academy Awards makes one confounding decision after another that shocks audiences and makes them flare up at their nostrils. Bohemian Rhapsody winning Best Film Editing. Green Book winning Best Picture. Even during last year’s ceremony, the late Chadwick Boseman lost Best Actor for his amazing performance as an overzealous jazz musician in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to Anthony Hopkins’ heart-wrenching performance in The Father. Don’t get me wrong, both performances were amazing, but come on guys. 

Even the nominations get stranger with each passing year. Last year, the overbearingly long black-and-white drama Mank received 10 nominations despite how dull, boring, and lifeless that film was. This year is keeping with the trend by awarding The Power Of The Dog with 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and a whole slew of technical nominations and way too many acting nominations. Out of all 12 nominations, The Power Of The Dog deserves maybe four: Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Acting nominations for Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi-Smit McPhee. It definitely does not deserve Best Sound. Its Hollywood couple Jesse Plemons and Kristen Dunst definitely do not deserve Best Supporting Actor nominations. And there is no way in HELL that the movie deserves Best Film Editing for refusing to shave even 15 minutes off of its exasperating 2-hour runtime. But sure, let’s just give it as many nominations as Lincoln and The Revenant because the studio paid enough money to Academy board voters. Whatever. 

Now the second most-nominated Best Picture nominee, Dune, is a vastly better picture and actually earns the majority of its nominations. From visual effects to cinematography to film editing to music to costume, makeup, sound, and set design, Dune is an audio-visual odyssey unmatched not only by any other film the past year, but by several films from the past several years. To say it is a science-fiction masterpiece is a massive, massive understatement. It has earned every nomination it has amassed and deserved to sweep away the competition on Oscar night. 

The biggest frustration behind Dune isn’t what it is nominated for, but rather what it isn’t nominated for. Despite how many nominations it has racked up, Dune’s director Denis Villeneuve is noticeably absent in the Best Director category, which is especially bewildering given how many recent blockbuster movie directors were recognized for their outstanding technical achievement in previous years (see Sam Mendes for 1917, George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road, Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity). What on Earth was the Academy thinking? Here is one of the most unique, creative, and immersive cinematic experiences of the last decade, and instead of giving director Denis Villeneuve his due, they instead decided that it was more important to give Steven Spielberg his 19th nomination despite already winning Best Director twice. Give me a break. 

Speaking of Steven Spielberg, his remake of the classic musical West Side Story earned seven nominations right alongside Kenneth Branaugh’s Belfast, including Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song, and a slew of Best Acting nominations, including one for supporting actress Ariana DeBose. I have no problems with these individual nominations themselves, and it is nice to see Kenneth Branagh get a Best Directing nomination after not receiving one for over 30 years since his director debut Henry V. I just really, really, REALLY hate that Spielberg is nominated in the same category. Even if you gave West Side Story one less nomination, it still would have tied for the fourth most nominations out of all the Best Picture nominees. Did Spielberg really have to take the Best Director nom away from Denis Villeneuve? Really?  

At six nominations, King Richard is the second Best Picture nominee to miss out on a Best Director nomination, but it more than makes up for it in other categories. Besides Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song, and Best Film Editing, co-stars Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis both locked in nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Both actors gave some of the best performances of the year and are more than deserving of their respective nominations, though I can’t help but feel Will Smith has a better chance of winning due to his sheer star power.

The next three surprises come in Nightmare Alley, Drive My Car, and Don’t Look Up. The big surprise with these isn’t just the fact that they secured four nominations a piece: it’s the fact that all three secured Best Picture nominations despite the fact that they were all considered dark horses before even entering the Oscar race. I wouldn’t expect too many wins though. With most of its nominations stacking up in the technical categories, that inevitably means Nightmare Alley and Don’t Look Up will be going head to head against Dune, and I just don’t see them winning that matchup (although Drive My Car does have solid chances winning in the Best Foreign Language film category). 

SOURCE:

The last two Best Picture nominees are underdogs that stand really good chances at winning in either of their categories. With Licorice Pizza and CODA securing Best Original Screenplay nominations and respective Best Director and Supporting Actor nominations, these two films’ windows are limited, but they’re hard-hitting contenders in their categories. It would not be much of a stretch to imagine Licorice Pizza winning in all three of its categories next month, especially when you remember Spotlight’s Best Picture win from 2015. 

And in other ways, there were actually many small wins in this years Oscar nominations. For one thing, all 10 of its Best Picture slots were filled up this year, and that hasn’t happened at the Academy Awards since a full decade ago. Tick, Tick… BOOM! was nominated twice for film editing and Best Actor for Andrew Garfield, and that’s two more nominations that I wasn’t even expecting, so I was pleased about that. And of course, the biggest movie of the year Spider-Man: No Way Home earned a much-deserved visual effects nomination, which is more than you can say about other movies like Captain America: Civil War, The Dark Knight Rises, Thor: Ragnarok, etc.

SOURCE: 20th Century Studios

But don’t get it twisted: there were still way more snubs this year than there were supposed to be. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights got a resounding zero nominations, which is especially surprising given all of its incredible costumes and set design. House of Gucci got snubbed in the acting categories, even Lady Gaga for her amazing turn as one of the most coldly calculated villains in recent memory. But the most maddening snub comes with Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which got a resounding zero nominations across all the categories. That includes best adapted writing, cinematography, set design, costume design, editing, music: even its star Jody Comer got completely overlooked in both of the acting categories. The fact that The Last Duel and House of Gucci received Razzie nominations for Ben Affleck and Jared Leto’s performances only add insult to injury. 

We’ll see how everything pans out on Oscar night, but at the moment I am feeling very unenthused about this year’s ceremony. As I say year after year, the Oscars should be about recognizing the biggest achievements in film: about honoring the best movies of the year and how they moved and changed us. This year’s ceremony seems to be about taking those nominations away from those deserving films and giving them to The Power Of The Dog instead. 

– David Dunn

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Top 21 Films Of 2021

It’s funny how differently people can experience the same thing. When 2021 ended, thousands of people swarmed the internet as they celebrated the end to yet another quote-unquote “horrible year.” “Good riddance 2021!” some online commentators quipped. “Thank God that’s over with,” others remarked. My favorite comment had to be one person saying that 2021 was “2020 Part 2.” Geez, tell me you hated a year without telling me you hated a year.

And you know, as bad as 2021 was, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was as awful as everybody was saying it was. Don’t get me wrong: it was still insufferable, with various morons still pushing conspiracy theories about masks, COVID-19, the vaccine, the 2020 election, and everything else in between. But when you compare it alongside how arduous, painful, and mind-boggingly stupid the past five years have been, 2021 felt relatively… normal? At least when compared to the likes of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and of course, the accursed year of 2020.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that compared to the last decade, 2021 felt like a step in the right direction, if ever so slightly. And the biggest step of improvement we’ve seen this past year was easily with the movies. While 2020 saw many movie releases get canceled, rescheduled, or removed from theaters left and right, 2021 saw a steady release of fantastic movies throughout the whole year, including many that were originally supposed to come out in 2020.

That’s why for the first time on this website, I won’t be doing a top 10, a top 15, or even a top 20 list for the year. For one time and one time only, I will be ranking my Top 21 Movies of 2021.

I’m expanding my best-of list this year from 10 movies to 21 for a few reasons. One is because, as you might remember, I obviously didn’t do a top 10 list last year, so doubling my list this year only seemed fair given how many more movies came out in 2021. Another reason is that as I started building out my list, I noticed that a lot of my favorite movies were getting knocked out of my top 10, and I still wanted to recognize them in some way.

But more to the point, I just feel like 2021 deserved the extra love. It had the difficult task of rebounding from the trash year we got in 2020, and even with big box-office successes in No Time To Die and F9, the film industry still hasn’t quite recovered financially from 2020. Nevertheless, these filmmakers, actors, and artists have given us great films to admire over the past year, and I want to give them their fair due despite the challenging time we’re living through.

Few disclaimers to go through as per usual. First of all, this list is obviously my opinion, and some of the opinions I have will frustrate you. I know critics have said The Power Of The Dog and The Green Knight were mesmerizing cinematic masterpieces that deserve to be lavishly praised until the end of time, but I’m sorry to say that both of those movies sucked and neither one will be appearing on my list.

Simultaneously, despite how many more movies I’ve seen this past year, many still slipped past my radar. You won’t find Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story here, especially since it had the gall to come out during the same month as Spider-Man: No Way Home. You will also not find Belfast on this list either despite the amazing things I’ve heard about it. Perhaps most disappointingly is the fact that I didn’t get to see Licorice Pizza before the year ended, and that’s especially ironic given how many Paul Thomas Anderson films I’ve brushed up on this year, including Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood.

And lastly, this will also be the first of my best-of list that will not have any honorable mentions, mostly because it’s 21 FREAKING MOVIES. There doesn’t need to be any honorable mentions this year. All of these movies were amazing.

Okay, enough with the intro. Time to hop into my favorite 21 films of 2021, starting with…

21. House Of Gucci

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

A sleek, sexy, and stylish account of the Gucci family and the wealth and power that drives them to do horrible things. Ridley Scott directs a stunning all-star cast in this thrilling crime-drama including Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, and who my girlfriend calls Adam “Daddy” Driver himself. The standout performances belong to Jared Leto, who disappears into the biggest Italian idiot alive in Paulo Gucci, and Lady Gaga, whose ice-cold demeanor gives her an edge so chilling that she could be mistaken for a mob boss. As someone who couldn’t give two rips about the Gucci brand name and family, House Of Gucci kept me engaged and interested in a way that few films have this year. That alone is an accomplishment in of itself. Three and a half stars. 

20. Encanto

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios

A lively and joyous celebration of family, love, and Latin America. This Walt Disney fantasy tells the story of the Madrigals, an incredible family endowed with supernatural abilities and a sentient home they affectionately refer to as their “Encanto.” But when their abilities and their home begin to collapse, the Madrigals need to rely on their powerless granddaughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) to save them. This endearing little delight warms both heart and soul, bursting with personality and a deep appreciation of Colombian culture. Disney’s animation is as lush and beautiful as ever, and Mirabel is an endearing little underdog that’s easy to love and root for. Like its main hero, Encanto shows how powerful we can be, even in the moments where we feel powerless. Three and a half stars.

19. Respect

SOURCE: United Artists

A stunning, spectacular showstopper of a film that leaves just as much an impact as its real-life singer did. Jennifer Hudson commands the screen as Aretha Franklin in this rousing biopic about her life. First-time director Liesl Tommy tells a provocative story about Aretha and how she changed the course of the music industry forever. But the movie isn’t just about her hit singles and chart-breaking records: Respect also shows the darker, more grim sides of Aretha’s life that she had to persevere through. And Hudson gives one of the best performances of her career, shining with as much life and vibrancy as she did in her Oscar-winning role in Dreamgirls. A powerful testament to the Queen of Soul and the millions that she inspired. Three and a half stars.

18. Zack Snyder’s Justice League

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

There’s absolutely no reason why Zack Snyder’s Justice League should work as well as it does, let alone even exist in the first place. Yet despite studio interference from Warner Bros. and the general stigma surrounding remakes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a comprehensive and fully realized vision of these characters that comic book fans have come to love. This four-hour epic brings weight to these character’s arcs and decisions, and every moment the film builds up to feels earned and intentional. Yeah the movie does feel a little bloated, but I’d rather a longer, denser narrative that fully believes in itself rather than a shorter, more diminished experience for everybody. If Warner Bros. has any sense, they’ll announce a sequel as soon as possible. Three and a half stars. 

17. Luca

SOURCE: Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar knocks it out of the park yet again with this sweet and sincere little gem of a movie that shows people to not be afraid of what makes them different. Director Enrico Casarosa pulls from his childhood experiences to tell a literal fish-out-of-water story about a pair of sea monsters trying to fit in to a small town on the edge of the Riviera. The animation is colorful, vibrant, and beautiful, feeing like a luscious blend of Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid’s art styles. Dan Romer’s blissful soundtrack shines with serenity, with its melodies moving you to the tunes of its sweet strings and accordions. A beautiful and simple little story that serves as a heartfelt love letter to Italian culture and childhood. Three and a half stars. 

16. Don’t Look Up

SOURCE: Netflix

A biting satire on the current state of politics and how all of the division can do nothing but harm us. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as a pair of astronomers that sound the alarm on a comet hurdling toward the Earth. But instead of unifying the public to divert the comet’s trajectory, America’s leaders instead trivialize the threat and pretend it doesn’t even exist. Writer-director Adam McKay uses the comet as an allegory for climate change, but the metaphor is so flexible that it can apply to several issues, including COVID-19. The all-star cast is equally impressive, with Leonardo DiCaprio in particular shining during a rant akin to Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell” speech in Network. A highly critical look at our nation’s political discourse that feels less and less like fiction the more it goes on. Three and a half stars.

15. Nightmare Alley

SOURCE: Searchlight Pictures

An eerie, captivating, and unsettling psychological thriller that dives deeply into the lust and greed that drives men to commit heinous, sinful acts. Bradley Cooper stars as an ambitious carnie who wants to take his act across the world. But as he gets involved more and more with the wrong people, his life turns into a downward spiral that spins out of control. Guillermo Del Toro crafts a brilliant and ingenious world fueled by tricks, deceptions, and theatricality. The production design by Tamara Deverell is mesmerizing, and Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is straight-up hypnotic with its expansive, wide photography. But it’s Del Toro’s vision that makes Nightmare Alley sizzle with its own intrigue and implication. An atmospheric neo-noir drama that reveals the monsters that live in men. Three and a half stars. 

14. The Suicide Squad

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

A wicked, wacky, and wildly entertaining redemption for both The Suicide Squad and James Gunn. In this standalone sequel to the 2016 supervillain film, The Suicide Squad follows Amanda Waller as she assembles a new crew of misfit villains for a dangerous mission, including Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). This violent, over-the-top action flick subverts your expectations at every imaginable turn, with unique, funny, and endearing characters stealing your heart in between all of the hot-blooded action. Newcomer Daniela Melchior in particular shines as the pure-hearted thief Ratcatcher, and casting Sylvester Stallone as the talking King Shark was a stroke of pure genius. The Suicide Squad is James Gunn and DC at their best. Four stars.

13. Raya And The Last Dragon

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios

An imaginative and awe-inspiring animated fantasy that moves and flows with the feel of a live-action epic. Chronicling the legend of five clans from the ancient land of Kumandra, the film follows a warrior princess named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and the water dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) on their quest to banish the evil Druun spirits and save their home. The animation is Disney at its best, with characters’ lightning-quick action and reflexes driving the plot forward with vigor and enthusiasm. The caliber of the voice cast is equally talented, with Kelly Marie Tran shining the most as a young adventurer torn between her grief, guilt, and her desire to trust others. An exciting, funny, and heartfelt adventure that shows that it’s never too late to do the right thing. Four stars.

12. No Time To Die

SOURCE: United Artists Releasing

A bold deconstruction of the James Bond mythos that portrays him not as a generic action hero, but as a tragic character trapped in a cycle of violence and self-ruinous choices. Daniel Craig plays Bond one last time in his rawest and most human portrayal yet, showing who the man behind the license to kill is when he isn’t 007. Director Cary Joji Fukanaga makes every action sequence feel fast-paced and impactful, raising the stakes and the tension every minute that passes. Yet the most incredible thing about No Time To Die is how it shows Bond reacting to a world shifting and changing all around him. It’s funny how the movie is called No Time To Die, because by the time the end credits rolled, all we can think about is how James Bond lived. Four stars.

11. Summer Of Soul

SOURCE: Searchlight Pictures

An electrifying musical experience that breathes with its own heartbeat and life. In his feature-length directorial debut, Questlove assembles never-before-seen archival footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and masterfully restores it with a crisp and clear picture quality that makes you feel like you were really there, with featured artists including Sly Stone, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder. But it isn’t just a simple concert film: Questlove contextualizes a lot of the concert-going experiences through the lens of racial unrest in the late ’60s. For many, the Harlem Cultural Festival wasn’t just a musical event: it was a powerful statement for freedom, civil rights, and equality, one that The Summer Of Soul embodies proudly. Four stars.

10. In The Heights

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

A vibrant, colorful, and beautiful love letter to immigrants, Puerto Rico, and America itself. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu team up to bring Lin-Manuel’s musical debut to the big screen, and it’s bursting with so much soul and energy that at times it makes your heart stop. The music is infectious upon first listen, with the actors singing and rapping with such articulation that it rivals the intricate lyricism of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s very own Hamilton. The film is lined with an impressive all-star cast, with Anthony Ramos in particular shining in the lead as Usnavi. But the cultural statement the film makes is the most powerful, telling audiences to not be ashamed of where you come from, who you are, and what dreams you are pursuing. You’ll fall in love with In The Heights so much that you’ll never want to leave. Four stars.

9. The Mitchells V.S. The Machines

SOURCE: Netflix

One of the most inventive, funny, charismatic, and heartfelt animated films of the year, and it isn’t even by Disney or Pixar. Sony Pictures knocks it out of the park yet again with this witty and wacky science-fiction comedy about a dysfunctional family fighting a robotic takeover. Developed by the same creative team behind Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, The Mitchells V.S. The Machines’ animation style is razor-sharp with stunning watercolor quality, flawlessly replicating a visual aesthetic similar to a children’s storybook. But the animation is only half of the puzzle. The other half lies in writer-director duo Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, who craft an incredibly sweet and sincere story about family, fatherhood, and following your dreams. The Mitchells V.S. The Machines is an animated smash hit that pops with its own style, pizzazz and personality. Four stars.

8. King Richard

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

A wonderful and moving tribute to the biggest legends in tennis history and the family that rooted for them all the way there. Will Smith stars as Venus and Serena Williams’ father in this dramatic retelling of their journey to becoming tennis champions. I initially thought it was weird that a movie about Venus and Serena would focus on their father rather than themselves. But to my surprise, the movie isn’t about Venus, Serena, or Richard — it’s about the Williams family and how their love and dedication to each other propelled their daughters to unimaginable success. Everyone was amazing in this picture, from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena to Aunjanue Ellis as their mother. But Will Smith steals the show in one of his most passionate performances to date — maybe even his best ever. The best family drama of the year that hits you right in the feels and in the heart. Four stars.

7. The Last Duel

SOURCE: 20th Century Studios

A gritty, bleak, and violent recount of a rivalry between two knights and the woman caught up in the middle of it all. In one of his best historical epics since Gladiator, Ridley Scott directs an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Ben Affleck as he tells a true story about two men’s cold-blooded conflict that eventually leads into one of the last duels in human history. Ridley Scott guides his viewers through the plot’s many perspectives, masterfully building up the stakes so you understand where every character is coming from. But the real surprise is newcomer Jodie Comer, who delivers a performance so firm and immovable that she steals the spotlight from the film’s bigger stars. A layered and intricate narrative that keeps its viewers engaged until it arrives at its pulse-pounding, heart-racing conclusion. Four stars.

6. Judas And The Black Messiah

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

A hard, harrowing, and haunting portrayal of black America and the man who tried to lead his people to liberation. Daniel Kaluuya plays Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton in his final years leading up to his eventual betrayal by FBI informant Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who infiltrated the Black Panthers to gain Fred Hampton’s trust. Director Shaka King crafts a compelling, mesmerizing thriller from the pages of the Lucas Brothers’ intricate screenplay, eerily recounting the events of late 1960s Chicago and the racial and political divisions that laid deep within. But it’s Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield who steal the show, with Stanfield playing a tortured, conflicted character torn between two different worlds while Kaluyya embodies the fierce revolutionary fighting for his future. An intense and layered narrative that leaves you feeling hollow, yet hopeful by the end. Four stars.

5. Spider-Man: No Way Home

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

Yeah, the marketing was horrible, the trailers were released way too late into the year, and this film was plagued with more leaks than the R.M.S. Titanic. Still, despite all of its promotional pitfalls, Spider-Man: No Way Home lives up to every single impossible expectation fans had for it. Tom Holland is the best that he’s ever been as Spider-Man, offering a gripping, mature, and emotional performance in a role filled with depth and complexion. Spider-Man’s all-star villains also make a triumphant return, with Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin being the most chilling and unnerving out of all of them. Trading the jokes and the quippy one-liners for compelling human drama, No Way Home is the most realized version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man to date. A beautiful and heartfelt celebration of Spider-Man’s cinematic legacy. Four stars.

4. Tick, Tick… BOOM!

SOURCE: Netflix

A heartfelt love letter to Jonathan Larson and the amazing legacy that he left behind. Andrew Garfield plays the Tony Award-winning playwright long before “Rent” became the Broadway hit that it is known as today. In his feature directorial debut, Lin-Manuel Miranda make an impact as he flawlessly replicates Larson’s style in this emotional and hard-hitting rock musical about the life of a struggling artist aspiring to be more. All of the songs in this smash hit were posthumously written by Larson himself, giving the movie a layer of authenticity that few films possess. Garfield especially shines in arguably one of his best performances ever, portraying a musician filled with love and passion even as everything crumbles all around him. In a world full of derivative, soulless musicals, Tick, Tick… BOOM! explodes with its own personality and life. The last melody will leave you in tears. Four stars.

3. Dune

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

The grandest, rawest, most epic cinematic event of the year. Based on Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction saga, Dune tells a galactic story about warring factions fighting over the desert planet of Arrakis, which carries the most valuable asset in the universe: the spice. Director Denis Villenueve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) creates an engrossing and absorbing experience that immerses you in a way no other film has to date. This is a film that makes you feel the harsh sun beating down on you, the dry desert air as it parches your mouth, the heat from explosions radiating off of your body. The cinematography, the editing, the music, the visual effects: even the sound design helps create a flawless experience unmatched in its presentation. But the characters and the setting are just as fleshed out as the rest of the production is, weaving a dense and complex narrative that guides you through every twist and turn. The best blockbuster we’ve seen this decade, and we haven’t even gotten to the sequel yet. Four stars.

2. Val

A deeply personal and profound dedication to cinema and the powerful emotions that they make us feel. Using camcorder footage recorded by Val Kilmer and stored away in his personal achives for several years, Val stunningly captures Val Kilmer’s entire life from his early childhood to his later years long after his blockbuster career. The film feels surprisingly vulnerable, showing sensitive and intimate moments from Val’s life that are very hard to show on camera. But that’s the life that Val and directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo wanted to show — not the celebrity in front of the movie cameras and red carpets, but rather the father, husband, and son resting at home watching as his life passes him by. On the surface level, Val is a simple film about the life and career of the star behind Top Gun, The Doors, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, The Heat, Tombstone, and many more. But on a much deeper level, Val is about loving unconditionally, sharing our stories passionately, and expressing our truths fearlessly. A brilliant, brilliant little gem of a picture that you owe yourself to experience at least once. Four stars.

And finally, my number one movie of the year. A lot of people are not going to understand my favorite film of 2021. A lot of people are going to be shocked. A lot of people are going to be surprised. A lot of people are going to be very, very confused. Quite honestly, there will be many people who will strongly disagree not just with this title placing at the top of my list, but this title placing on my list at all. All I can say is that this is hands-down the best experience I had at the movies this year and it isn’t even particularly close. And that is…

1. Inside

Where do I even begin with this one? After taking a five-year hiatus, Bo Burnham returns to comedy in this feature-length project that he wrote, shot, directed, performed, and edited while we were in the middle of one of the most unprecedented events in human history. The film is brilliant in Bo Burnham’s traditionally dark comedic style, breaking down complex issues into clever and witty lyrics that remain poignant and thoughtful, yet equally self-deprecating and entertaining. My favorite of his songs are “How The World Works” where he debunks social misconceptions with the help of a sock puppet, “All Eyes On Me” where he portrays mental illness in a heart-wrenching symphony of sorrow, and “Welcome To The Internet” which portrays the internet like a millennial supervillain that aims to take over every intimate, personal, and chaotic moment out of your whole life. The visuals are equally striking, with Bo playing with color and lighting in a unique way that makes each sequence pop with its own stylistic appeal. I especially liked the visual sequences of “FaceTime With My Mom” and “White Woman’s Instagram,” both of which mimic the shapes of a smartphone and Instagram posts.

But these elements alone make Inside merely an amusing experience. What makes it special is its emotional complexity, looking at deeper issues such as anxiety, depression, and suicide and how the pandemic worsened the symptoms that were already there. More than any other film released last year, Bo Burnham’s Inside made me feel seen, heard, and validated for the emotions that I experienced in 2020. Fear. Frustration. Loss. Loneliness. Regret. The soft-spoken sympathy that Bo Burnham provides here is quietly empowering — a sort of silent solidarity that reminds us all that it is okay to not feel okay.

Inside moved me and changed me in ways no other film has — not just from this past year, but from the past several years. It broke through my writer’s block, inspired me to stay creative, and encouraged me to keep doing what I love just because it makes me happy. I really can’t understate how significant of an accomplishment that is. I’ve never experienced something as deep and powerful as Inside before, and I doubt I will experience anything like it ever again. Thank you, Bo Burnham, for bringing us this mesmerizing masterpiece. You’ve given us all something to believe in. Four stars.

Thank you to all of the amazing filmmakers, actors, and studios that brought us these amazing movies in 2021. Here’s to 2022 and hoping that we continue to look toward the future.

– David Dunn

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The 10 Worst Films Of 2021

It’s always easier to focus on the negatives, especially during a decade as dismal and pathetic as the 2020s. While 2021 generally feels like an improvement over the previous year, that’s only because it didn’t have as many unprecedented events as 2020 did. But don’t get it twisted — most of the things that were wrong in 2020 continued into 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage on, misinformation kept spreading on the internet like wildfire, and millions of Americans still refuse to admit that the 2020 election was not stolen. That doesn’t even include all of the celebrities that we have been losing left and right, including Betty White, Sidney Poitier, and Bob Saget. I thought this was 2021, not 2016.

Even the movies suffered. While there were generally more movies released this year compared to 2020, that by extension does also means that we have seen more bad movies come out than usual. That’s why for the first time on this website, I will be covering my 10 least favorite films of 2021.

I’ve never published a worst-of list before for several reasons. One reason is because I usually don’t see that many bad movies in a given year, and definitely not enough to make a bottom 10. Another reason is because I generally don’t like spending more energy on a film that has already wasted enough of my time. But perhaps more simply, I just like focusing on the positive more. Even during a year as catastrophic as 2020, I love looking back and reflecting on the movies that made me feel the most throughout the year. After all, year-end lists should be about celebrating the year’s biggest accomplishments — not beating down its biggest failures one last time.

But I’m doing a worst-of list this year for many different reasons. One reason is that, unlike most other years, I actually have seen a lot of bad movies, which made filling out a bottom 10 list much easier. But more importantly, these abysmal films should serve as a call of action to all filmmakers out there — a general guideline on what not to do when making a movie. After all, the pandemic is still going strong, and the box office still hasn’t fully recovered from 2020. If there is ever a time for movies to justify their existence, it’s now. The movies on this list just simply didn’t do that.

So without further adieu, here are my 10 least favorite films of 2021, starting with…

10. Mortal Kombat

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

Just as soon as the quality of video game movies was beginning to pick up with the likes of Detective Pikachu and Sonic The Hedgehog, here comes the newest reboot of Mortal Kombat to remind us all that at the end of the day, video game movies just suck. Mortal Kombat is lined with a massive all-star cast, with Hiroyuki Sanada’s Scorpion, Joe Taslim’s Sub-Zero, and Josh Lawson’s Kano being among the most memorable characters. And when the action is fast and free-flowing, the movie is at its most fun and exciting. Unfortunately, its script is straight-up nonsense, with one character after another dropping into the plot to offer their trademark fatalities before being violently removed from the story. It also doesn’t help that the film rests squarely on Lewis Tan’s shoulders, because he’s so bland and unappealing in the lead that he makes Jean Claude-Van Damme look like a good actor. Hopefully the sequel will be better, because until then, Mortal Kombat’s mediocrity is its biggest fatality. Two stars.

9. The Harder They Fall

SOURCE: Netflix

A failed fusion of genres if I’ve ever seen one. The Harder They Fall starts with a disclaimer saying that while all of the characters are real, the story that they’re in is fictional. Glad they clarified that, because the story is absolutely unbelievable in every sense of the word. This revisionist hip-hop western blatantly rips off Quentin Tarantino in a desperate bid to mimic the success of Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. But what those movies had in wickedly clever dialogue, humor, and character is everything that The Harder They Fall lacks. The characters are dumber than a sack of potatoes, throwing themselves into needlessly dangerous situations just because the screenplay calls for it. At two hours and 19 minutes, the movie drags on at a glacial pace and does not pick up until the third act. And the movie predictably leads exactly where you thought it was going to go: into a larger-than-life shootout that they could have just jumped into an hour earlier. The Harder They Fall could be considered a misfire if the gun was ever loaded in the first place. One and a half stars.

8. Without Remorse

SOURCE: Amazon Studios

A dull, boring, and lifeless film that thinks filling a movie with an overabundance of gunfights and sharp snapshots of the hero’s jawline can replace a clear and coherent story. In this prequel to Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Michael B. Jordan plays John Kelly, a Navy SEAL who seeks vengeance after his pregnant wife is murdered by Russian mercenaries. Michael B. Jordan is as intense as always, but the premise is so shamelessly generic that you could copy and paste the screenplay from other and better movies. It doesn’t help that the editing is so choppy that it leaves you dizzy while watching it, with characters coming into and out of the narrative so frequently that you forget who’s who by the time you arrive at the film’s confused and incomprehensible ending. Without Remorse is the third time Hollywood has tried to reboot Tom Clancy’s characters for the big screen, and it’s such a disappointment that I’m okay with never seeing another Tom Clancy production ever again. That includes the Splinter Cell movie that’s currently stuck in development hell. One and a half stars.

7. The Little Things

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

Contrived, convoluted, and unbearably cliche, The Little Things commits the most cardinal sin the movies should never do: it wasted our time. Denzel Washington and Rami Malek star as a pair of detectives tracking down a serial killer that’s rampaging through Las Vegas, and they uncover secrets that will haunt the rest of their lives forever. Washington and Malek are fine in the movie, and Jared Leto offers a chilling portrayal as one of the movie’s bigger suspects. But by and large, this is a movie that collapses under the weight of its own ambitions, with the plot having absolutely zero idea where it wants to go or how it wants to get there. The final straw comes with the movie’s conclusion, which ends on a note so flat and disappointing that it renders the whole film completely pointless. The Little Things just reinforces that you can make a bad movie from a good script, but you can’t make a good movie from a bad script. One and a half stars.

6. The Tomorrow War

SOURCE: Amazon Studios

An unbelievably moronic and insipid film that throws logic right out the window in exchange for mindless action sequences and poorly-rendered CGI. Chris Pratt plays a high school biology teacher who gets wrapped up into a futuristic war between aliens and mankind as he becomes humanity’s last hope to yadda yadda yadda, blabitty, blabitty, blah. This time travel plotline is so cliche and has been done and redone several times over to the point where it just feels stale. Chris Pratt is likable enough, but when the action kicks in, all of his charisma is forgotten as the messy visual effects take over. This could have been an interesting movie about family, fate, and the inevitability of time. Instead we get yet another silly action movie that ends with the hero literally punching aliens that could eat him in two seconds. One and a half stars.

5. Venom: Let There Be Carnage

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

The worst superhero movie of the year by a long, long mile. Tom Hardy and Woody Harrelson go head-to-head in this symbiotic matchup between two of Spider-Man’s biggest supervillains, Venom and Carnage. But what could have been a dark and exciting exploration into both of these characters’ psyches just turns into yet another generic actionfest. Tom Hardy is great as both Eddie Brock and Venom, but the movie throws its strongest asset right out the window by splitting them up for most of its runtime. Woody Harrelson doesn’t fare much better, pathetically whining about how not being loved enough as a child drove him to become a mass murderer. The action is fine and the post-credit scene was exciting at the time, but after it led to nothing in Spider-Man: No Way Home, the post-credit scene became just like the movie itself: utterly pointless. One and a half stars. 

4. Outside The Wire

SOURCE: Netflix

A film that thinks it is way, way, WAY smarter than it actually is. Anthony Mackie produces and stars in this film about an android lieutenant leading his new pupil through the front lines of war, but in the process, they both get wrapped up in this nuclear conspiracy that could destroy the world. Mackie is fine in this film, but unfortunately, he is not playing the lead. That role is fulfilled by “Snowfall” actor Damson Idris, and he’s so sickeningly flat and generic that I would rather Steven Seagal play his part. The movie flip-flops between themes relating to violence, drone warfare, and technology, but it’s way too distracted and doesn’t know how to focus up and make an impact with one central message. A spastic, haphazard, brainless mess that blew up in its own face. One star. 

3. Annette

SOURCE: Amazon Studios

A bizarre, off-putting, and deranged experience that has no point, no identity, and no sense of self. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard co-star in this musical about a comedian and opera singer starting a family together when they have a daughter who is made entirely out of… wood? Driver and Cotillard’s talents are completely wasted as their characters dance aimlessly from one scene to the other. The music, meanwhile, is just straight-up garbage. I’ve watched multiple musicals this past year, and I could not recall a single note or lyric from this picture. The plot is straight-up nonsense as director Leos Carax drags you through one pointless scene after another. And by the time you reach its strange and confusing ending, I wanted nothing more but to wipe this film from my memory as soon as possible. A wasteful, mindless picture that I wish I never heard of. Half a star. 

2. Space Jam: A New Legacy

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

Yet another sequel/reboot that nobody asked for nor wanted. Space Jam: A New Cashgrab comes 25 years after Michael Jordan teamed up with the Looney Tunes in the original movie. LeBron James is taking the lead this time around, and man oh man is he going for the Razzie on this one. This is an awful, soulless, lifeless husk of a film that has not one original thought or idea in it. LeBron has zero heart in his performance beyond the paycheck and it shows in his delivery that feels like he’s line reading. The Looney Tunes have no point or reason for being in this story beyond the fact that this is supposed to be a Space Jam sequel. The cameos and Easter eggs are obviously manipulative and the costuming and production design is worse than a YouTube video. There were two scenes that were funny. The rest of the movie deserves to be blown up by Acme dynamite. Half a star. 

And finally, my most hated film of the year. This film was so awful that I quite literally could not watch it all in a single sitting. I had to divide it up into 15-minute increments, and it was still the least pleasurable experience I had at the movies this year. This movie was cringey. This movie was torturous. This movie was… 

1. Home Sweet Home Alone

SOURCE: Disney+

Never again. Don’t ever let this sh*t happen again. Even when Home Alone stopped releasing movies in 1997, none of its sequels ever measured up to the original, with each new installment becoming sequentially worse one after the other. Now here comes Home Sweet Home Alone, and it’s so rotten to the core that it makes the rest of the franchise look enjoyable by comparison. Archie Yates, who previously played the lovable Yorki in Jojo Rabbit, is straight-up unbearable as this spoiled little brat whose biggest hangup is that his family isn’t paying him enough attention. Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney play the couple trying to break into his home, and these two are so stupid they could mistake dog poop for chocolate fudge. Not a single character in this movie is either remotely appealing or intelligent, and they all get caught up in slip-ups so silly and slapstick that even Adam Sandler would think it’s too much. Home Sweet Home Alone embodies everything wrong and exploitative with modern-day Hollywood, and for that reason it is the worst film of 2021. This film deserves its zero stars, and I would give it less if I could. 

And that’s it for my first (and hopefully last) worst movies list of the year, folks. Tune in next week as I break down my favorite films of 2021, my first yearly best-of list in… two years? God, 2020 sucked.

– David Dunn

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The Spectacular Spoiler-Man

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

It’s amazing to look back on how much Spider-Man has grown over the past couple of decades. In 2002, it was hard to imagine Spider-Man making his leap to the big screen while retaining the same sense of awe, wonder, and inspiration that he did in the comics. Yet not only did Spider-Man become one of the biggest blockbuster smashes of all time: it also spawned multiple sequels, two distinct reboots, an epic cinematic crossover with the Avengers, and even an Academy Award-winning animated film

To say that Spider-Man was an important part of the foundation of superhero cinema is a severe understatement. In many ways, he paved the way for many superhero films to come after, including Daredevil, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: even The Avengers.

Today Spider-Man continues to pave new paths forward, whether its Andrew Garfield and his quick-witted, off-brand sense of humor in the Amazing Spider-Man movies or Miles Morales crashing into other multiverses in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. Now Tom Holland is doing his own multiverse-crashing in Spider-Man: No Way Home, a movie that is bigger and bolder than anything we’ve ever seen from Spider-Man in the movies yet.

WARNING: This will be a very spoiler-filled analysis of Spider-Man: No Way Home. If you have not seen Spider-Man: No Way Home yet, don’t read this article. I have a shorter, spoiler-free review you can read here. You have been warned. 

When Spider-Man: No Way Home begins, we think the premise speaks for itself. The whole world now knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, his family and friends’ lives are ruined just because they know him, Peter enlists in the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to try and make the world forget his secret identity only for it to go horribly, horribly wrong in every way that it can. Now all of these villains from other Spider-Man movies are pouring into Peter’s universe trying to kill him. The whole plot seems pretty straightforward… until it isn’t. 

One of the most brilliant aspects of this movie is easily its villains. For years, Sony has struggled to reboot Spider-Man’s villains as successfully as they did with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. After all, Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina already gave us the definitive versions of Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. Even in the unpopular Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man films, Thomas Hayden Church, Rhys Ifans, and Jamie Foxx also delivered excellent portrayals of Sandman, Lizard, and Electro respectively. How could the MCU possibly hope to reboot these characters and make them feel more realized than their previous iterations? 

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

Well, they don’t. The genius move that No Way Home pulls is bringing all of these villains into the MCU while retaining the original essence that made them excellent characters in the first place. When Doc Ock reappears on the bridge after Peter’s spell goes haywire, he remains driven by madness and tragedy like he was in Spider-Man 2. Lizard is more animalistic and savage in his reappearance and has reverted to an even more reptilian state since The Amazing Spider-Man. And when Electro and Sandman surface at the power plant, their respective themes blossom into nostalgic bliss as they lash out in confusion at this new world they stumbled onto. When these villains are reintroduced, we not only don’t have to waste time with their backstories since we already know them: we’re able to quickly cut to the chase and get to the heart of this story. 

And what exactly is this movie about? Mercy. When these villains are brought into the fold, Doctor Strange tells Peter that they all die fighting their respective versions of Spider-Man. So by sending them back to their world, they would essentially be dooming them to their deaths. By imposing this moral dilemma, the movie is introducing a conflict much more interesting than the usual punching and acrobatics you’re using to watching in most superhero movies. Instead it asks if you could save the life of a total stranger, would you? 

Now if it were me or any other cinematic cynic out there, my response would be to hit the button, say “adios” to these loonies, and then sleep like a baby afterwards. But Peter is better than most people and believes in second chances, even for people that don’t deserve them. That’s why he’s committed to helping these people, even if they are quote-unquote “bad guys.”

This fundamental difference leads Peter to one of the most interesting fights in the movie — not against another villain, but against Doctor Strange himself, who sees this issue more like a cosmic inevitability rather than a moral question that has to be answered. Pitting their ideals against each other was one of the more interesting moments of the movie, and seeing them fight against each other in the upside-down physics of the the Mirror dimension made excellent use of each other’s abilities.

And the way Spider-Man beats Strange is just so darn clever, using his geometry smarts to spin a web and trap Doctor Strange inside his own spell. To see this kid who used to need a hand from Iron Man now overcome the Sorcerer Supreme himself shows just how much the character has grown over the years and how much he can stand on his own without needing help from another Avenger.

Peter and his friends resolve that the only way to send these villains back home without killing them is by curing them of their abilities so they’re less of a threat to their own Spider-Men. He starts by replacing Doc Ock’s inhibitor chip, placing him in control of his arms rather than the other way around. Then he puts a power dampener on Electro that will revert him back to normal.

Peter begins to move on to curing the other villains when a sinister persona emerges from the deep recesses of Norman Osborn’s mind: the Green Goblin. Willem Dafoe’s return to this character was one I was most looking forward to, not just because this is his first time playing the role in 20 years, but also because his costume design looks starkly different from his last big-screen appearance. I knew from the trailers that he wasn’t going to have his iconic mask from the original Spider-Man movie. The question I was left with was how well that would work for the film overall? Would he be as terrifying, as loathsome, as unsettling a presence as he was in the first movie, or would he just be stuck feeling like wimpy old Norman Osborn?

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

Well surprisingly, the omission of his mask actually added to his portrayal. When the Goblin reveals himself, Willem Dafoe’s twisted, sinister expression emerges from Norman’s warm and friendly face, his sick and disturbing laugh echoing from behind his throat. It reminded me of that scene from the original Spider-Man where Norman was talking to himself in the mirror. It also reminds the audience that the thing to fear most about the Green Goblin isn’t his suit, his glider, his pumpkin bombs or even his mask: it’s his bloodlust and his vicious capacity for violence.

Peter and the Goblin fight, and man this fight is hard to watch: easily the grittiest and most brutal fight out of the entire Homecoming trilogy. Goblin is throwing Peter through walls, Peter is frantically punching him in the face, only for the Goblin to maniacally laugh at his feeble attempts to stop him.

Then at the very end of the fight, Goblin does the most shocking thing of all: he kills Aunt May. He summons his glider, stabs May in the back, and even chunks a pumpkin bomb at her for extra measure. And before May collapses in Peter’s arms, she passes on that iconic line “with great power comes great responsibility” before she dies.

This scene is so great for so many reasons. One is because Willem Dafoe’s performance as the Goblin is just so frightening and sadistic. He genuinely feels like the Green Goblin from the comics, the one that hates Peter so much and desires nothing more than to hurt him in the deepest and most personal ways possible. The fact that he specifically targets May just to hurt Peter makes him feel that more nefarious as a villain. In many ways, Dafoe’s performance as the Goblin here outdoes previous adaptations of the character. That does, by the way, include his appearance in the original Spider-Man.

But on a deeper level, this is a much more significant character-defining moment for Peter. By uttering that iconic line moments before she dies from a villain born from Peter’s mistakes, she becomes the catalyst for his growth as Spider-Man. She’s essentially become the MCU’s Uncle Ben, which is why I’m okay if he’s never referenced again in future Spider-Man movies: because Aunt May’s death has now become Peter’s main motivation for continuing his crusade as Spider-Man, not Uncle Ben.

But right at Peter’s lowest moment, two new contenders enter the fray: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man. You see, Strange’s spell also summoned them into this universe alongside their respective villains, and it’s their words that push Peter to keep going. After all, they’ve been at the same hopeless place Tom Holland’s Peter is at right now. If anybody understands what he’s feeling, it’s them.

SOURCE: Marvel Studios

Long rumored to appear in No Way Home, I can’t tell you how exciting it was to finally see Tobey and Andrew suit up as Spider-Man again after hanging up the mask for over seven years. We learn a lot about both Peters after their stories concluded in Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2. Tobey Maguire’s Peter married MJ and grew a life with her while juggling his double-life as Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield’s vigilantism took a darker, more violent turn after he failed to save Gwen Stacey in his last movie.

But the important thing to take away from both of these Peter’s monologues is their wealth of experience. It isn’t just their fates that we’re interested in: we’re invested in their words of wisdom and what they can pass on to Tom Holland’s Peter during his time of need. I love the fact that some of my favorite moments in this movie aren’t high-stakes action of fight sequences: they’re character-building moments between the three different Spider-Men. Their dialogue and chemistry with each other just feels so natural, like three brothers meeting up together after a long time apart.

It really demonstrates that each of these actors brought something unique and distinct to their respective portrayals of Spider-Man, and none of them have deserved the animosity they’ve received from Spider-Man fans over the years. They’re all special in their own ways, and I hope No Way Home finally helps fans realize that.

I also really like that despite each of these actors having their own moment in the film, neither Tobey or Andrew steal the spotlight from Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. This is, after all, still his movie, and it is his arc that we’re invested in. Tobey and Andrew are more like mentors to Tom Holland, and they fit perfectly as the most important supporting cast members in the movie.

The three Spider-Men collaborate to cure the remaining villains as they set a trap on the Statue of Liberty. Electro, Sandman, and Lizard appear as the three Spider-Men duke it out against their respective villains. Sandman and Lizard are both turned back into their normal human selves, Doc Ock shows up and helps the remaining Spider-Men cure Electro, and the two Peters share a heart-to-heart with the villains, telling them that they never wanted them to die and only ever wanted to help them. Andrew Garfield even experienced a full-circle moment saving MJ from a fatal fall, redeeming himself from his failures in Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Then Green Goblin shows up again and nearly ruins everything. He blows up the box that Strange used to contain the spell, allowing the multiverse to break open and have an infinite number of Spider-villains pour into their universe. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Goblin fight again at the base of the statue, brutally trading punches as they’re committed to killing each other. Tom’s Spider-Man ends up webbing Goblin in place as he lands one blow after another, then in a fit of rage, picks up the Goblin’s glider, ready to end his life.

Only he doesn’t kill him. As he brings down the glider, Tobey’s Peter jumps in the way and stops Tom’s Peter from landing the killing blow. As they struggle against each other for a moment, Tom slowly eases himself and sets the glider down, only for Goblin to stab Tobey in the back at the last second.

This is yet another great full-circle moment that speaks to the hearts of these characters. Tom’s Peter is still in a state of grieving, and in a moment of weakness, gives in to his hate to try and kill his greatest foe. Tobey’s Peter steps in to stop him, giving him this piercing, firm gaze that tells Tom’s Peter that he has to be better than this. And in a throwback moment to the very first Spider-Man, Goblin stabs Tobey’s Peter in the back, something he tried to do the last time they faced off. It shows in a very powerful moment that not only is doing the right thing sometimes hard to do: in many ways, it can also backfire on you in very personal ways. But taking the right path is often not the same thing as taking the easiest path: that’s what makes taking it so virtuous and noble.

Andrew throws Tom the anti-Goblin serum and they succeed in injecting it, effectively killing the Goblin while still saving Norman’s life. But the Goblin’s damage has already been done, and the villains are beginning to pour into their universe. So Peter does the only thing he can do: he asks Doctor Strange to make everybody forget Peter Parker ever existed. By doing this, he sends both of the Spider-Men home, the villains go back to their respective universes, and the multiverse is saved from collapsing.

But in the same stroke, both MJ and Ned forget everything they ever experienced with Peter, and the following montage is probably the most tragic moment out of the whole picture. Because you see Peter approaching the coffee shop MJ is working at, rehearsing his lines, ready to reconnect with them after they’ve lost all memory of him. But when he sees that she has a cut on her forehead from his battle on the Statue of Liberty, he forgets the whole plan and walks away. Loving her has only put MJ in harms way every time he suits up as Spider-Man. If keeping her out of his life means she’s safe, that’s a small price to pay for Peter: even if it means he ends up all alone.

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

This is what I love most about this movie, and really what most of these Spider-Man movies have been missing since the original Sam Raimi films. More than any other movie in the Homecoming trilogy, more than most other movies in the MCU, Spider-Man: No Way Home shows the sacrifice that comes with being a hero. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man was having fun web-zipping around the city as an excitable teenager, while in Spider-Man: Far From Home he needed to step up and stand on his own as the world wrestled with its mightiest heroes being gone. No Way Home is the first movie in Tom Holland’s trilogy where it shows the true cost of being Spider-Man. Aunt May said it best in Spider-Man 2 where she says that sometimes being a hero means giving up the thing we want the most: even our dreams.

There are some things that don’t work quite as well in the movie. For instance, Sandman and Electro’s costume designs aren’t as interesting alongside their supervillain counterparts, with Thomas Hayden Church looking like a literal CGI sand man while Electro looks as generic as an electrical worker. Some of the movie’s multiversal logic also doesn’t hold up that well, especially when you begin to question when these villains specifically got pulled from their universes. Because if they got pulled moments before their deaths, then Peter’s actions in this movie could end up meaning nothing anyway.

There was also a post-credits scene involving Tom Hardy’s Venom that was just straight up DUMB, and I do mean it with the all caps. Here was Venom: Let There Be Carnage, teasing Venom’s appearance in No Way Home and what it could mean for Venom in the MCU. Then not only does the movie decide not to use him at any capacity: they decide to send him back without any further interaction. If you weren’t going to use him in the movie, then what on Earth was the point to teasing him in Venom: Let There Be Carnage? Couldn’t you have just cut both credit scenes from those movies, shave down the run time, and save the audience the frustration?

Aside from those irritations, Spider-Man: No Way Home shows Peter at his most human: his most flawed, fallible, and vulnerable. By the end of the movie, Peter gives up everything he cares about most: his Aunt May, his best friend, his true love, even his literal identity. Yet he gives it all up anyway just to do the right thing. Because at the end of the day, that’s what being Spider-Man is all about. It’s not about the webs, the cool Stark suits, the wall-crawling or the amazing adventures. It’s about wielding great power, and bearing the responsibility and the sacrifice that comes with it.

– David Dunn

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“SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Into the Spider-verse.

About halfway through Spider-Man: No Way Home’s runtime, one of the movie’s newest multiversal villains looks out at the new world he’s stumbled onto and says “Look at all the possibilities.” I feel like right now we’re on the cusp of a whole new universe of our own, imagining all of the possibilities for our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler as he plunges ahead into new and unexpected adventures. No matter what your expectations are, Spider-Man: No Way Home absolutely lives up to every bit of the hype surrounding it. The fact that you can say that even when our expectations were insanely high to begin with is more impressive than anything I can share in this review.

After that shocking twist ending in Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) secret identity has been revealed thanks to Mysterio’s manipulation. Now the whole world knows he’s Spider-Man, and Peter isn’t the only one facing the consequences. So too is his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and his Aunt May (Marissa Tomei).

Feeling guilty for how he caused ripple effects throughout the lives of the people he loves most, Peter turns to the sorcerer supreme Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) asking him if he can use his magic to make it so the whole world forgets that he’s Spider-Man. He does, but it comes at a cost: now villains have poured in from other Spider-universes looking to kill Peter Parker. There’s the sinister Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). There’s the menacing Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). There’s the rage-filled Electro (Jamie Foxx), the elusive Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and the slithering Lizard (Rhys Ifans). Now Peter has to team up with his friends to round up these villains and send them back to their universes before they destroy his.

I’m going to start by saying this review will be very brief and very spoiler-free, because this film is best experienced knowing as little as possible about it, and I don’t want to compromise the surprises for my fellow spider-fans out there. Because of this, my review will seem very vague and very nondescript. Don’t worry, I’ll be publishing a spoiler-filled review later on.

For now, all you need to know about Spider-Man: No Way Home is that it is a masterpiece. You absolutely should go and watch it. Not only does Spider-Man: No Way Home do justice to Peter Parker’s arc that has been building up ever since his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War — it’s also a beautiful and heartfelt love letter to Spider-Man’s cinematic legacy. One of the things that makes Spider-Man such an endearing character is the fact that his greatest superpower isn’t his webs, his wall-crawling or his spider-sense: it’s his heart and his unwavering will to do the right thing even when it’s the hardest road you can take.

A lot of that is in large part thanks to Tom Holland, who gives his most passionate and emotional performance as Spider-Man to date. A lot of fans (myself included) questioned at the beginning how much Tom Holland stacked up against fellow Spider-Man veterans Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, especially when his earlier movies traded out a lot of the dramatic moments for jokes and quippy one-liners. No Way Home shows him at his most challenged and vulnerable, and Tom Holland naysayers are very quickly proven wrong with his acting chops here. Not only is this Tom’s most dramatic, daring, and darkest portrayal of Spider-Man yet: it is also his rawest and most human. Not since Spider-Man 2 has a Spider-Man performance felt so natural and real, and that’s the best compliment I can give to Tom Holland regarding No Way Home.

But it isn’t just Tom Holland who is at his best: director Jon Watts also delivers the best Spider-Man story in the MCU yet with this sprawling cinematic crossover. It isn’t just the fact that he’s bringing in the villains from pre-existing Spider-Man properties: it’s that he’s using them in interesting and engaging ways while staying true to their original characters. In a recent panel, Alfred Molina mentions that what makes these villains so interesting is that they aren’t just some mustache-twirling charlatans, but they carry a depth and complexion as real people who have been changed by unspeakable tragedies and accidents in their lives. That made them so interesting in their initial cinematic appearances, and that makes them just as interesting here because Jon Watts paid them the attention they deserved. They aren’t just dropped into the plot here for cheap fan service: their appearance in this story feels earned and they have a point and a purpose for this crossover with the MCU’s Spider-Man.

Look, I can only go so far without talking about spoilers, so I am going to end the review here. All I can say is this: if you are a Spider-Man fan, Spider-Man: No Way Home will not disappoint you. Not only is the action fresh, fast-paced, and exciting, but the characters’ presence in this sprawling story makes it feel gripping and engaging at the same time. To think that five years ago, we questioned how Tom Holland would not only fit into the MCU, but into the constantly expanding Spider-Man mythos overall. No Way Home gives us our answer, and the payoff is so, so satisfying. What else can I say? The possibilities are quite literally endless.

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“DUNE” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Fear is the mind-killer.

There are a few movies that come once in a generation where they don’t feel just like cinema, but rather as raw, immersive experiences that feel equally epic in their scope of storytelling as they do in their visceral visual presentation. Star Wars in the 1980s is one such example. Jurassic Park in the 90s is another. Lord Of The Rings in the 2000s. The Avengers movies in the 2010s. Now here comes the newest science-fiction epic in Dune, and if it isn’t destined to become the next decade-defining blockbuster, it definitely feels like it should be.

Based on Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction saga, Dune takes place in the far distant future where different houses fight for control over different planets in the galaxy. One of the most sought-after planets is the desert world of Arrakis, which carries an element known as spice that allows for interstellar travel, making it the most valuable asset in the universe. The House of Atreides is gifted the planet of Arrakis to harvest the spice for the good of all the houses, but in the process, they get caught up in a violent conflict between the Fremen, the native dwellers of Arrakis, and the Harkonnen, a vicious race of savages that seek the power of the spice only for themselves. Now trapped on the world of Arrakis, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) needs to find a way to adapt to the harsh environment surrounding him and harness the desert power of Arrakis.

When I heard that Denis Villeneuve was remaking Frank Herbert’s classic tale of “Dune,” I nearly fell out of my seat. For those of you that are unaware of it, “Dune” has been hailed as one of the most important science-fiction novels of all time, right alongside the likes of “Anthem”, “Ender’s Game,” and “1984.” To see a large-scale adaptation of one of the most essential books ever written would have any reader giggling in their seats, where I admittedly found myself not too long ago.

Yet despite Denis’s cinematic prowess, I found myself a little hesitant to accept a live-action “Dune” remake. For one thing, “Dune” had been visually adapted twice before, once in David Lynch’s 1984 film and once in Frank Herbert’s TV show in 2000. Neither one really reached the fascination or intrigue that the book inspired and were really kind of silly and gimmicky in retrospect, although I do find their amateurish quality slightly endearing. For another thing, “Dune” had been largely considered an unadaptable story, with its dense lore amounting to a massive 412 pages.

Granted, it wasn’t the first book to be considered “unadaptable.” Yann Martel’s “Life Of Pi” was largely considered unadaptable, as was Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.” Yet, both were made into magnificent movies by Ang Lee and Zack Snyder. Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s a sure thing. Indeed, it means that whoever does end up tackling the project has a massive, massive challenge ahead of them, one that may mean breaking up the book’s plot into multiple movies.

Thank God that Denis Villeneuve was a brave and competent enough filmmaker to take it on, because he fulfills every bit of the book’s lofty expectations and then some. The first thing you notice with Dune is how immersive it is: visually striking, audibly haunting, and emotionally stirring. The very first line of dialogue you hear in the movie isn’t even human: it’s Harkonnen, and its rich, deep voice eerily echoes the words “Dreams are messages from the deep.”

Immediately after that, we’re swept into an engrossing display of Arrakis: its beauty, its danger, its dry, devastating heat, the invaluable spice, and the people willing to fight and kill and die over it. What follows from there is an engrossing and absorbing experience that completely and fully immerses you in its characters, lore, and setting in a rare display of intrigue, excitement, and fascination.

I’m not just talking about merely watching the movie play out on screen. Sure, you see the vast landscape, the colossal spaceships, the endless void of space and its planets, the massive explosions that blow up on battlefields and mining sites. But the film is so much more than merely seeing the images on screen: you experience them. You feel the sun rays beating down on you, the dryness in the air as the desert sands of Arakkis parch your mouth, the wind from the space thrusters blowing against you, and the heat from explosions radiating off of your body as the shockwave blows you off of your feet.

See, in a rare marriage of visual and audio mastery, Dune drops you in the middle of Arakkis and forces you to feel the loneliness and isolation of its characters. Movies have a bad habit of superficially showing you what characters are going through instead of engrossing you in the moment of what they’re experiencing. Dune places you right alongside House Atreides and forces you to try and survive the dangers of the desert alongside them. Not since Avatar has a movie immersed you so vividly into its lore and setting.

The production of the film is a technical marvel, from Greg Fraser’s vast and expansive cinematography to Joe Walker’s expert editing to the eerie and striking visuals to the mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer. Even the all-star cast is masterful in their roles, with Timothee Chalamet shining the most as a fallen prince torn between two different destinies.

Dune is a rare example of a perfect picture. Yes, a perfect picture. I literally would not change a single thing about it. Some viewers may not appreciate Denis Villeneuve’s trademark slow-burn style of storytelling, but that’s because of their personal preferences as movie watchers, not Denis’ craft or ability as a filmmaker. To think that years ago, we questioned how he would handle his first science-fiction picture with Arrival, then how he would revive Ridley Scott’s long-cherished franchise with Blade Runner 2049. Now he has made Dune, and its legacy will surpass both of those pictures. I can’t wait for the sequel.

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“NO TIME TO DIE” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Nicola Dove | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

Goodbye, James Bond.

We live in an age where closure is beginning to become the norm in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. The Dark Knight Rises. Logan. War For The Planet Of The Apes. The Rise of Skywalker. Avengers: Endgame. These movies prove that you can have a definitive end to our heroes’ journeys, and not only will audiences be fine with it, but they quite possibly might love it. That’s because when you take away the lights, the cameras, and the special effects, these larger-than-life heroes are not the immortal cinematic icons they’re portrayed as on-screen. They’re people, and their story deserves an appropriate ending just like anybody else does.

In No Time To Die, Daniel Craig experiences his own ending in his final portrayal of James Bond, a role he’s inhabited so seamlessly ever since his debut in Casino Royale in 2006. In No Time To Die, Bond goes into retirement after defeating Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and saving his lover Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) in Spectre. But like any other 007 movie, James Bond is once again pulled into the spy world when his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) asks him for a favor. Now facing yet another potentially world-ending threat, James Bond needs to suit up one last time to defeat a nefarious new foe named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek).

Watching No Time To Die was a particularly meaningful experience for me, not just because it signifies the end to an amazing era of James Bond, but also because this was one of the first movies on the chopping block when the COVID-19 pandemic came to our doorstep last year. After delay after delay after delay, it almost seemed like this movie was never going to get released. To finally watch it now after all this time feels like the world is finally turning a corner on this blasted pandemic, though I do kind of find it funny that the big threat in No Time To Die is, ironically enough, a virus.

To say that No Time To Die is a bold undertaking of the James Bond mythos is a severe understatement. It isn’t merely another entry in the James Bond franchise. Like Casino Royale and Skyfall, No Time To Die introduces the character to new and unusual circumstances, circumstances Bond would never have been caught dead in the original Ian Fleming novels. What makes Daniel Craig’s version of James Bond so interesting is that he’s less of a caricature and more of a character. He isn’t a generic movie spy that is used to channel toxic male fantasies of drinking vodka martinis, hooking up with beautiful women and killing bad guys. In many ways, he is an incredibly pained and tragic character, one whose endless cycle of violence and espionage almost seemed predestined to him.

It’s rare for James Bond to be vulnerable, or indeed, even to appear weak in front of not just the movie’s villains and supporting characters, but also in front of the audience. But all of the best movies feature vulnerable moments for the character. In Casino Royale, it was when Bond was getting tortured by Le Chiffre or when he failed to save his first love. In Skyfall, it was when Bond was struggling with post-traumatic stress or when he failed to save M. In No Time To Die, he once again finds himself in a place of vulnerability and weakness in an arc that has been set up ever since the first movie. And like all of the great Craig Bond movies that came before, he fails to save a life that’s very important to him, though I won’t spoil by saying who.

Of course, all of the quintessential Bond elements are prevalent in No Time To Die. The high-stakes and adrenaline-pumping action. The tight and quick editing and the over-the-top and insane shootout and chase scenes. The amazing and mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer. The haunting yet angelic single by Billie Eilish. And of course, Daniel Craig’s amazing performance, brilliantly contrasted with Rami Malek’s ice-chilling presence as the movie’s villain. All of the elements that made previous Bond movies thrive are just as evident here as they’ve ever been before.

Yet the incredible thing about No Time To Die is how it shows Bond reacting to a changing world. Indeed, how he reacts to MI6 keeping up its operations despite his retirement, how new double-Os enter the picture and accomplish the same things that he does, really how people in his life move on without him when he’s no longer in the picture. It all makes him feel so, so obsolete, and that’s what I love so much about this movie: it forces James Bond to evaluate who he is when he isn’t 007. Is he more man than mercenary? Or is he just another number?

Director Cary Joji Fukanaga (“True Detective,” Beasts of No Nation) has accomplished a rare feat with No Time To Die — he made James Bond fallible and brought him down to our level, a man haunted by his own demons and whose insecurities drive him to make ruinous, self-destructive choices. While some people may be frustrated how the movie deconstructs the larger-than-life myth of James Bond, I for one love that we’re taking away the license to kill and looking at how the man behind it tries to live his life without it. It’s funny how the movie is called No Time To Die, yet by the time the end credits rolled, all I could think about was how James Bond lived.

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“CASINO ROYALE” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

A new Bond for a new age.

With over 40 years of cinema behind him, James Bond is one of the oldest — and most timeless — action heroes to persevere throughout film history. Why don’t we know more about him? We know all about Dr. Jones and his early crusades that led to him becoming Indiana Jones. We all know the rags-to-riches story of Rocky Balboa, the tragic beginnings of Batman, and Luke Skywalker’s parentage that literally spans the galaxy. But for some reason despite 20 films dedicated to his name, James Bond is a character whose history has always eluded us. Why is that?

I think it’s for several reasons. One may be because it adds to his mystery and intrigue, and keeping his backstory in the dark maybe contributes to the elusiveness of his character. Another may be to allow for multiple interpretations of James Bond. Since we’ve had six actors play the part now, it makes sense to keep his story loose and flexible to allow for overlapping storylines and not convolute different films’ timelines. But the most rational explanation may be that his backstory simply doesn’t matter. James Bond exists in the here and now: in the mission, the objective, the target, the drink, the beautiful women, the pleasures of the instant because tomorrow is never guaranteed.

Whatever the case may be, Casino Royale is the newest reboot of MI6’s favorite secret agent. It is also arguably the most raw and personal James Bond film to date, something I never expected to say about any James Bond movie ever.

In this modern retelling of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale introduces a younger, less robust Bond in Daniel Craig, shortly before he even achieves his double-0 status. All of the usual James Bond elements are here. The fast-paced and exciting action. The high-stakes shoot-em-outs and intensive fight choreography. The sleek vehicles, weapons, and spy gadgets. The over-the-top chase sequences that take you over streets, bridges, buildings, hallways, and skyscrapers. The drop-dead gorgeous Bond girl in Eva Green. The chilling and unsettling villain in Mads Mikkelsen. The twists, the turns, the conspiracies that drive the plot forward. Everything that makes James Bond James Bond is in here and dialed up to pristine shaken-not-stirred detail.

But it’s not the usual Bond elements that impress me: what really impresses me with Casino Royale is the ruggedness, the roughness, the gritty realism that makes this film move and breathe with the authenticity of a top-secret SIS mission report. There are so many nuances to the film that you learn to appreciate and value that I don’t even know where to begin.

I’ll start with the film’s star Daniel Craig, who carries his part with the confidence and collectiveness of a Sean Connery and with the dispassion and coldness of Timothy Dalton. In previous films, James Bond has been portrayed with the suave coolness of a master infiltrator — a man who knows how to get out of every slippery situation, regardless of whether they’re in a secret base or a woman’s chambers. Here, the younger, more inexperienced James Bond is prone to more mistakes and is a lot less calm under pressure. That makes him surprisingly more vulnerable and the action feel a lot more immediate and real.

When he finishes making his first kill, his hand quivers and he breathes sporadically as he processes what he has done. When he makes a startling realization, his eyes pop and he spurs into action, knowing that something horrible will happen if he does not stop a particular outcome from happening. When someone close to him feels a particular pain that he’s familiar with, you feel his empathy as he consoles them and processes their grief with them. When he’s captured and being tortured, he doesn’t experience it like a hardened agent who fears nothing, but as a rookie experiencing this for the first time and is very, very afraid, even if he refuses to break. That level of emotion is a rare quality in a James Bond performance, and it will easily be Craig’s greatest asset the more he establishes his own 007 identity going forward.

But Craig is only half the puzzle. The other half comes in the film’s clever and crafty screenplay, which combines the typical Bond troupes delivered by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with the style and swagger of a real-world espionage thriller from Academy Award-winning writer Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash). In previous Bond movies, the screenplay may have been given second focus to over-the-top gizmos, gadgets, and camp so silly and obnoxious that it would have made Adam West blush. Not here. In Casino Royale, the larger-than-life spy movie spectacle is traded out for a dense and layered plot that perfectly establishes James Bond and his beginnings as a double-0. Oh, and the dialogue is so sweet and snappy and so perfectly understands James Bond. One of my favorite lines is where Bond comments how the love interest isn’t his type. “Smart?” she asks. He responds “Single.”

Side note: The subversion of the classic “shaken, not stirred” line is also worthy runner-up.

All of these elements are masterfully brought together by director Martin Campbell, who returns to the director’s chair after bringing us Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal of the character in GoldenEye 10 years ago. Whatever your opinions of the previous entries in the James Bond franchise, Casino Royale breathes new life and fresh blood into this everlasting series. The action choreography is so fast, brutal, and impactful that it leaves you dizzy while watching it. David Arnold’s mesmerizing score is so exciting and enthralling, with the snazzy horns and emotional orchestra throwing you back to the classic days of James Bond. And the editing by Stuart Baird is so smart, gradual, and all-encompassing that it allows you to follow all of the threads that are unraveling while never losing track of everything that’s going on. I find it fascinating that one of the most engaging scenes in the entire movie isn’t a fight or a chase scene, but rather a card game between Bond and the movie’s villain. That’s because the film’s astronomically high stakes are set up very well, and you know what will happen if Bond pulls a bad hand.

It’s hard to say which is the best Bond movie, or even who is the best Bond actor, because of how many stories, movies, and portrayals are out there of the double-0 agent. But even amongst the sea of James Bond retellings and reinterpretations, Casino Royale stands out, as does its star. That’s because they both understand that James Bond is more than a gun, a bullet, a bow tie, a license to kill. James Bond is an action. He’s a statement. He’s a man that will do what needs to be done even when the world is collapsing all around him. That’s why when he says his name is James Bond at the end of the movie, we believe him.

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“VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE” Review (✫1/2)

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

One dysfunctional symbiotic family.

The best part of Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the mid-credits scene. That’s not a good sign for a movie when the best part of it literally happens after the movie is over. Venom: Let There Be Carnage promised to be a revival of the symbiotic superhero: a darker, grittier, edgier telling that got to the roots of what makes the lethal protector tick. Oh, will comic book fans be so, so disappointed. 

In this sequel to the 2018 Spider-Man spinoff, Venom: Let There Be Carnage follows Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) as he adjusts to his double life as a carnivorous superhero and a journalist trying to revive his career. The key to reigniting his career is Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), a serial killer who has left behind a trail of bodies, and thankfully with a wig much more convincing than in his post-credits scene in the first movie. Eventually through a convoluted sequence of events, Cletus ends up with his own red-blooded symbiote he nicknames “Carnage.” Now Eddie and Venom have to once again unite to defeat this symbiotic serial killer and save the Earth… again. 

Venom: Let There Be Carnage shares the same strengths as its predecessor, specifically Venom himself. Scripting, directing, and storytelling aside, Eddie and Venom were among the best characters in the first movie, and their odd, offbeat chemistry still works perfectly in tandem with each other. That makes sense considering they’re both portrayed by Hardy himself. Still, it isn’t easy to create a connection with, well, yourself, and Hardy embodies both roles masterfully here. Whether he’s Eddie Brock investigating a story or Venom is starving for human brains, he captures the essence of both characters very, very well. When they are together, Eddie and Venom are easily the funniest, craziest, most entertaining parts of the movie. 

I say “when they’re together,” because for some reason, Hardy and screenwriter Kelly Marcel thought it would be a good idea to split Eddie and Venom up for half the movie. I have no idea why they thought this. After all, Eddie and Venom are perfect as a chaotically dysfunctional pair, not as two different entities going through their own separate melodramatic identity crises by themselves. In the limited time they are together, Eddie and Venom perfectly play off of each other’s manic, wild energy, snapping at each other like two alpha wolves fighting for control. When they are apart, they couldn’t be more pathetic, with Eddie whining about his failed marriage and Venom… dancing at Rave parties? What? 

Side Note: As an alien who is very sensitive to sound, it is very weird that 1) Venom doesn’t feel threatened by attending a concert where stereo speakers are blaring all around him, and 2) That neither did director Andy Serkis, who lets Venom carry on with his monologuing despite the fact that he should be a pile of goo thanks to all of the loud sounds surrounding him. 

What about Venom’s antagonist, Carnage? How was he done in the movie? Well, he’s a mixed bag. On one hand, when the Carnage symbiote is out, Carnage is a vicious force to be reckoned with, tearing up prison gates, destroying cars and helicopters, and biting the heads off of police officers like they’re Tootsie Pops. All of this makes Carnage a fierce, formidable character, and eons more intimidating than Riot was in the previous movie. 

But when he’s just Cletus, he has these winey, mopey monologues about how he wasn’t loved enough as a kid and that’s why he kills people today. Wah-freaking-wah. Other Marvel characters like the Hulk, Black Widow, and Shang-Chi have also had similarly traumatic childhoods and didn’t use it as an excuse to eat people. The fact that the script attempts to connect Eddie and Cletus together and treat them like they’re the same person is actually the most gross and manipulative part of it all. Sorry, but Venom is nothing at all like Carnage. Venom eats criminals only to survive. Carnage would kill a kid just because he thought it was funny. They’re not at all the same, and the fact that the script tries to paint it like they are shows how little it understands both characters. 

The rest of the movie plays out pretty much like the first one did. Eddie gets down on his luck, gets possessed (or repossessed) by Venom, learns to accept himself (again), and then gets into another gooey fight with the monstrous villain that’s too incomprehensible to follow at the end of the movie. Whatever you think of these movies, Venom: Let There Be Carnage embodies the same strengths and most of the weaknesses as its predecessor. When Eddie and Venom are the focus, the movie is at its strongest. When the focus is shifted to the supporting characters, we care nothing about their half-hearted performances or the weak sauce writing they’re provided with. 

But somehow it’s only getting worse. While the first movie was a passable, if not mildly disappointing, introduction to Venom, its mishaps can at least be forgiven because it was trying to re-establish his identity after a very underwhelming appearance in Spider-Man 3. Now here comes Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a movie which has now had at least two opportunities to learn from its mistakes and just doubles down on them harder. Pray that Venom’s next big-screen appearance does more justice to the character than his previous two outings have. And for whatever it’s worth, I’m not referring to Venom 3

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