Tag Archives: Emily Blunt

An Action-Adventure Classic — “Jungle Cruise”

My new favorite action hero is The Woman in Pants. Everywhere Emily Blunt’s Dr. Lily Houghton goes in 1916, friends and enemies alike remark that she’s drawing attention to herself by daring to wear trousers instead of a dress. It’s one of a dozen running gags that fuel “Jungle Cruise”, which also happens to be one of the best adventure movies of the last 10 years.

Houghton journeys to the Amazon during World War I with her brother in tow. They’re searching for a flower that could revolutionize medicine. There she find’s Dwayne Johnson’s Frank Wolff. More than their boat captain, he’s a quick-witted con man whose motives are impossible to pin down. German soldiers want the flower for themselves, raising undead conquistadors in a tricky alliance. Soon, everyone is chasing The Woman in Pants down the winding rivers of the Amazon.

Before the superhero boom, action-adventures like “The Mummy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” dominated the event movie landscape. “Jungle Cruise” absolutely belongs in that conversation, though it leans more heavily on its leads to carry it than those films did.

You might make the mistake of thinking this is a Dwayne Johnson movie, but the ubiquitous actor plays the 1b character here. No, this is an Emily Blunt action-adventure, and it frees up both actors to play to their strengths.

Blunt carries movies, period. She’s usually both the best dramatic and comic actor in her films. She has that special knack for looking the exact same in every movie yet being unrecognizable between roles. I refuse to believe this is the same actress who led “Sicario”. It’s just not possible, but in film after film she’s simply expanded her range with ease.

The extent to which Blunt claims her spot as one of our greatest action heroes here can’t be overstated. If you look at “The Mummy” as a prototypical action-adventure blueprint, Blunt is playing Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz at the same time. That she pulls it off so smoothly frees everyone else up to be John Hannah.

Don’t get me wrong, Dwayne Johnson can be a lead, and he gets fight scenes against a jaguar, undead conquistadors, evil Germans, the whole action-adventure bingo card. Yet he’s primarily here to be the comedic change-of-pace and potential romantic interest. Johnson plays off Blunt beautifully, and they put on a clinic when it comes to charm and timing.

It’s great to see Johnson in a role that stretches his comedy muscles more than his action ones. Frank runs cons on the wide-eyed European tourists who pour into the Amazon, faking adventurous boat rides and squeezing every cent out of his passengers. While Frank doesn’t know when to stop running cons on someone like the smart and self-aware Lily, he’s also empathetic. He’s constantly deceitful, but also kind in a way that suggests there’s more to be understood before judging him. That’s dangerous territory, but it’s conveyed with reason here.

Jack Whitehall plays Lily’s brother MacGregor. He’s superb, and as close to the archetype of John Hannah in “The Mummy” as anyone’s going to get. Jesse Plemons is Joachim, the Germany prince who’s stalking them. His comedy is much broader, and I’m still undecided how much it works.

“Jungle Cruise” is based on a Disney theme park ride, just as “Pirates of the Caribbean” was. It similarly utilizes elements of the ride in meta comedy moments, especially early as part of Frank’s cons. The movie smartly ditches the “savage natives” trope that Disney loved back then, and inverts and comments on it a few times.

That doesn’t change the fact that this is a movie taking place in the Amazon with barely any Latine or indigenous characters in it. Mexican legend Veronica Falcon plays an indigenous leader. The lead undead conquistador (a Spanish character) is the underrated Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez (my choice to play Geralt in “The Witcher” before Henry Cavill was cast). There are a lot of Latine actors filling out the backgrounds of settlements, but they’re never front and center. There’s certainly a missed opportunity here.

I went and saw this at the drive-in. I’m vaccinated against COVID-19, but with the Delta variant spreading, I still don’t want to encourage people (including myself) to go to theaters. A drive-in allowed me to stay in my car, outside, distanced from everyone else. I mention this to encourage it as an alternative to theaters until we better know how the Delta variant’s spread will look.

I also mention it – on a less important note – to talk about CGI. The drive-in I went to is a temporary installation put together during COVID. The picture quality is fine, but just a bit dark. I’ve heard some people have an issue with the CGI. I didn’t and I thought it was creative – especially with how the undead creatures are choreographed in action scenes. That said, a hint of light or darkness in the picture can do a lot for how CGI translates. I might have liked it more because I was seeing it slightly darker than I would have on my TV at home. That can make the eye fuse the CGI to its surroundings better, whereas a lighter picture highlights color choices and tone differences that can introduce uncanny valley qualities. I may have come away liking the CGI better than most because of that.

For me, “Jungle Cruise” is in the same conversation as classic action-adventures “The Mummy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” (and I’d argue “John Carter”). I think I was locked in when, after the joke was strung across the movie, one undead conquistador commands another to “follow the woman in pants”. There’s a particular glee when a movie decides it’s going to live or die on a joke it thinks is really funny, and “Jungle Cruise” constantly decides to do this. It does help the movie feel more personal.

I did say at the start that it leans more heavily on its leads, though. “The Mummy” and “Pirates” were movies with tight foundations and successful storytelling that were then elevated into rare territory by fantastic ensemble casts. “Jungle Cruise” is successful because of Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, and Jack Whitehall, which means it’s already leaning on them quite heavily by the time it needs them to elevate the film as well.

In its bones, I don’t think it’s as well-structured or ambitious as “The Mummy” or “Pirates”. It still gets to that elevated territory, but by repeating the same strengths. Those other films kept finding new strengths, which made them feel more universal and added to tension in their final acts. “Jungle Cruise” doesn’t have those additional strengths to find – but if you’re going to get trapped in that position, it turns out the best initial strengths to keep repeating are Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, and Jack Whitehall.

You can watch “Jungle Cruise” on Disney+.

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“Sicario” — The Best Film of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

“Sicario” is a masterpiece of the inevitable, of the unavoidable, of the moment you know you’re leading to your entire life and dread facing, because you know you’ll be less coming away from it. And yet everyone involved must, because they are who they are.

The architecture of this is brilliant:

The visuals frame the dust hanging in the midday sun, the evening clouds, the ground underneath your feet, all as unfeeling and silent witnesses to what takes place before them. The textures of these interstitial moments are felt and given room to breathe even as the action takes place before them. It makes the story smaller, and in feeling smaller it becomes more personal. This is no epic. This is the ruination of a week in front of our eyes.

Lives are cast asunder. The music sometimes hunts you. You can hear it lurking around the bend. Voices yearn at something beautiful. The strings plunge deeper than you thought they could. The horns fret and cackle amongst themselves. The music is a vulture. The music is the sand, shifting yet immutable. The music is your thirst, some nostalgia for an ideal of a world that requires your willing ignorance to believe in. There’s a string you can cling to, high and disappearing.

We live our lives discovering who we are and why we are that way, of learning ourselves better than we did the day or week or month before. Of putting one foot in front of the other. Our hearts will break and heal, and break and heal, but they are rarely stolen out from our chests in ways that force us to relinquish our Who and our Why. “Sicario” takes that away. “Sicario” plunges a hand into one woman’s chest over the course of a film and takes away who she is, why she is.

“Sicario” is the husking of people, in a broad sense through the political games of the Drug War, and in a specific sense in the decimation of how one woman’s shaped herself over the course of her lifetime.

“Sicario” is conscious of this, and so it gives you breaks to breathe. Yet the horror is in the breathing, in those moments in between. It is a film of anticipations, of hearing the hunt around the bend. You look around and you see the dust in the air, the clouds in the sky, the ground beneath your feet. It makes your story smaller, it makes it more personal. It makes you wish you didn’t have that chance to breathe and recognize these things.

“Sicario” is a vulture. It picks the bones of people clean. It takes the best of us and shows her to be useless in the face of an unfeeling system that has its own agenda. It is a masterpiece of meeting your fate, and having no self left into which you can recede.

Sicario poster

Images are from Space and Jo Blo.

The Mid-Budget Film Awards of 2015

Emily Blunt in Sicario tunnels

Mid-budget films are an interesting breed these days. There’s been a great deal made about their extinction, though much of these claims exist in pretty selective territory. While it’s true that David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, and John Waters have more trouble getting films funded these days, Clint Eastwood, Todd Haynes, and Denis Villeneuve don’t.

Google a couple of articles about the death of mid-budget film. Try this one, for instance. They lament that “L.A. Confidential” could never be made today, but wasn’t “Sicario” made just this year?

“The Insider” would never find a budget today! Except “Spotlight” found a budget without the benefit of Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

“Zodiac” could never be made! Except “Gone Girl” was made just last year.

“In the Line of Fire?” If only lead actor Clint Eastwood had built an entire career of directing successful mid-budget films.

And certainly “Apocalypse Now” couldn’t be made for $32 million today! Well, considering that $32 million in 1979 is $104 million today, no it couldn’t.

Critics also lament that Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Murray are essentially retired. Well, yeah, but funding for mid-budget comedy didn’t go with them. You may not like Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Anna Kendrick, Melissa McCarthy, or Seth Rogen, but their films are getting funded and make money.

These arguments also ignore the rise in what the industry rather derisively refers to as “urban” films. If you ignore the rise of Black and Hispanic filmmaking, then yes, the mid-budget film industry is struggling because you’re cutting half of it out. Yet Black filmmaking, and especially African-American comedy, is based almost entirely within the mid-budget realm. The spate of Mexican and Spanish directors Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have brought up through the industry operate across that same mid-budget range.

When we talk about the death of the mid-budget film, we’re being incredibly selective with our choices.

For our purposes, we are defining a mid-budget film for 2015 as any film that cost between $15 million and $50 million to produce, and was either shown in at least 100 theaters for the first time in 2015, or (failing the theater requirement) became widely available to audiences through rental or streaming during 2015. The following was voted on and written by: S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez:

Best Supporting Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

We liked Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs” quite a bit, as well as Mark Ruffalo’s role in “Spotlight.” Both earned Oscar nominations. What didn’t were Benicio Del Toro’s and Josh Brolin’s roles in “Sicario,” which also got a great deal of support from us. In the end, it was a close vote (that required a second ballot), but we decided on a role from a film that tried to play last year’s Oscar race, failed, and subsequently fell between the 2015-2016 gap.

Behind every great man is a great woman. That’s how the saying goes, isn’t it? In “A Most Violent Year,” the reality is a bit different. Behind Oscar Isaac’s upstanding businessman Abel Morales is a terrifying power player in Jessica Chastain’s Anna.

Abel handles their business legally, even as competing suppliers start hijacking their trucks, kidnapping their salesmen, and beating their drivers at gunpoint. It’s Anna who threatens to start doing things her way. As the daughter (and perhaps even heir apparent) to a mob empire, she’s largely given up those responsibilities in order to build a life with Abel on his more honest path.

Yet she’s constantly keeping her finger on the pulse of the film. In fact, as the company’s accountant, she often knows more than anyone else. She makes all involved aware that if and when she’s needed, she will involve herself in ways that others will not like. It may be Isaac who’s embodying an Al Pacino-style role here, but it’s Chastain who brings to life the lurking indignance, the quiet rage, and the unspoken threat of what happens when you make her angry.

And yes, this is the second supporting actor award we’ve given Chastain this year (the other being in big budget films for her role in “Crimson Peak.”)

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Jessica Chastain, “A Most Violent Year”
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”
Benicio Del Toro, “Sicario”
Josh Brolin, “Sicario”
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Yo-landi Visser, “Chappie”
Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”
Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”
Elyes Gabel, “A Most Violent Year”
Olga Kurylenko, “The Water Diviner”

Best Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
TIE: Rooney Mara, Carol
& Emily Blunt, Sicario

When we did a check-in last September, Oscar Isaac handily led this race because of his performance in “A Most Violent Year.” Nobody even came close. Then Gabe saw “Sicario” and insisted we all needed to see it in the theaters. Then Eden saw “Carol” and insisted we all needed to see that in the theaters.

Now, all seven of us have either Emily Blunt or Rooney Mara at the top of our shortlists. Although their order varies, five of the seven of us have them going 1-2 on our shortlists. Blunt got a few more points in our system, but we unanimously decided to call it a tie. Sorry, Oscar Isaac. Both Blunt and Mara dominated their films, albeit in tremendously different ways.

Mara has been doing remarkable work for years. Her run from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Side Effects” is one of the more impressive and rangy stretches of acting in the last decade. Mara’s performance in “Carol” is as vulnerable as acting gets. As the shopgirl and photographer swept up in the charms of a glamorous woman, Mara’s performance is made of utterly human reactions. From helplessness to confidence, from confusion to realization, it’s a performance to break hearts. Yet first it demands the actor break her own so that the rest of us can be let in.

Blunt is the polar opposite as Kate Macer in “Sicario.” The leader of an FBI SWAT team, she is tasked to an anti-cartel operation that doesn’t seem to be telling her the entire truth. Tough, commanding, sure of herself but distrusting of others, Blunt makes Kate one of the strongest heroes in recent thrillers.

Despite playing a very different sort of character, the unspoken treatment of Kate by the men around her most recalls Jodie Foster’s role in “Silence of the Lambs.” “Sicario” puts Kate’s life at stake a few times, but what it’s really doing is putting her entire reason for being at stake. It puts all of who she is and why she is on the table, and when Kate is finally confronted with making a choice between that and survival, Blunt makes you inhabit the impossible choice of that moment like few actors can.

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Emily Blunt, “Sicario”
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Oscar Isaac, “A Most Violent Year”
Michael B. Jordan, “Creed”
Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”
Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”

Best Screenplay in a Mid-Budget Film
Spotlight

We had to do three ballots to finally figure this one out. See, we liked “Carol” for its lack of frills – for its ability to get at the story, yet it’s a film that puts a little more on its performances, direction, and design. We adored “A Most Violent Year” because it depicts a gangster film from the perspective of the one honest person in the entire plot. It also depicts that determination for honesty as something that can be wielded very powerfully.

Ultimately, we chose “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that revealed systemic sexual abuse of children in the Boston area by Catholic priests. Making a film about a procedural investigation is difficult, not least because we’re inundated with procedural TV series that increasingly make procedure up as they go. “Spotlight” manages to find the drama in the process of uncovering research. It also boils down the essence of editor-reporter relationships: when you pursue a story and when you don’t, how you keep a story churning when it gets put on the backburner, when you have to break the rules that protect yourself in pursuit of a breakthrough.

“Spotlight” is a special film in how it gives its entire cast a process to work through as their characters. It also presents the investigatory process to audiences as a living mechanism to reveal truth and affect change.

All writers receiving a vote (descending order):
Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Phyllis Nagy, “Carol”
Charles Randolph & Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Taylor Sheridan, “Sicario”
Aaron Sorkin, “Steve Jobs”
Matt Charman, Ethan & Joel Coen, “Bridge of Spies”
Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington, “Creed”
Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff, “Straight Outta Compton”
John McNamara, “Trumbo”

Best Director of a Mid-Budget Film
Sicario

We liked “A Most Violent Year” and “Carol,” but this was a runaway vote. “Sicario” is just too perfect of a beast. There’s a sense that every speck of dust in the film has been consciously placed where it needs to be, yet the film doesn’t feel passionless because of this. If anything, the film is yearning yet melancholy, dissatisfied yet resigned. Those are rare descriptions for a thriller about the Drug War.

Despite its sense of control, however, the actors seem to have been given free reign. They’re taking chances routinely, which is something that’s come to define Denis Villeneuve’s films. There’s a sense of history, of lives lived, of both small and large sacrifices made in each of their lives that bring them to this point. “Sicario” is less of a story, and more of a culmination of lives thrown together.

It’s this mix of organic, loose performances in a tightly controlled world that makes “Sicario” feel most real. Sometimes we feel like the universe is against us, as if we’re responding too organically to something that’s consciously leading us down a path without our knowledge. “Sicario” is drenched in that feeling because it’s more or less the truth of this film. Villeneuve has made this feeling, this sense of inevitability, his calling card on film. It is rare and powerful, and it makes his films feel truly unique and purposeful.

All directors receiving a vote (in descending order):
Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario”
Todd Haynes, “Carol”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
Ryan Coogler, “Creed”
Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies”
F. Gary Gray, “Straight Outta Compton”

Best Mid-Budget Film of 2015
Carol

If you’re guessing this came down to a four-horse race, you’re right. Even on our final vote, the difference between “Spotlight” (4th) and “Carol” (1st) was a difference between 2 points out of a possible 21. “A Most Violent Year” and “Sicario” were stuck in between.

Ultimately, “Carol” carried it, and for good reason. The love story at its core is exquisitely realized. Few films are able to carry their emotions on the surface while also hiding them from view. There’s a sense of privacy to the film, as if we’re looking in on someone else’s life from the outside. It makes us feel both invited and intrusive. “Carol” occupies a beautiful middle space that runs counter to the world continuously buzzing around its characters. That helps us feel the impossible space a lesbian relationship had to occupy in 1952, and in many ways in our society, still does.

It’s a beautiful film and one that travels in ways you don’t expect. Its snub for Best Picture at the Oscars is inexplicable.

All films receiving a vote (in descending order):
Carol
Sicario
A Most Violent Year
Spotlight
Creed
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Straight Outta Compton

Also check out our awards for Big Budget Films in 2015.

 

Where did we get our images? The featured image from “Carol” comes from Roger Ebert’s site, still maintained by a host of other reviewers even after the great critic’s passing. The image from “Sicario” is from Fox Force Five’s review.

“Sicario” is a Beautiful, Vicious, Primal Slow Burn

Emily Blunt in Sicario tunnels

A pulsing, foreboding sense of threat. A festering thought you can’t quite pin down, that you know will come back to bite you. Realizations of something sickening and bad you’ve gotten yourself into. “Sicario” is all these things and more. It’s a rare thriller of powerful patience and primal rhythm. It will hook you and keep you strung out so far along its line that you’ll never see where you’re being taken until it’s too late.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a SWAT team for the FBI. After her team suffers losses due to an IED planted in an Arizona home, she’s recruited by an adviser to the Department of Justice. They’re going after the leader of one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels. It becomes quickly apparent that she can’t trust this adviser, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Is he CIA? Something else? How legal is their operation? Why is she along when her only purpose seems to be getting babysat? Incursions into Mexico, highway firefights, desperate struggles, and hidden politics throw Kate back and forth as she grows increasingly suspicious of the mission for which she’s volunteered.

You will feel terrible for Kate. She’s risking her life for something idealistic and she’s pulled from that into doing something that only contributes to elongating the cycle of violence she’s trying to stop. She’s a warrior fighting for her ideals in a war that never had any to start. She becomes a victim of what’s expedient, what pushes the problem down the line for someone else.

“Sicario” is a vicious movie. It’s not overly gritty. It’s very distanced and removed at points, making you care for Kate by holding you back from her. This only adds to the film’s viciousness. There’s little release, and yet there’s a primal energy pulsing through it all. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) is a master of the slow burn, of waiting for the other shoe to drop. He utilizes exacting yet heartfelt detail in every scene. How light plays off Kate’s face, the rhythms of editing, when to cut to an actor’s tic all contribute to shaping for us the worlds of other people’s lives.

Here, he’s created something ugly and threatening, yet there’s so much attention to the details and texture of each moment. There’s the contrast of the looming clouds. There’s the sand as colored by the light of the morning. Even different forms of night vision are used at one point to evoke something otherworldly, as if descending into Hell itself. There are beautiful moments even amid such viciousness. The characters don’t notice, but it’s impossible as a viewer to avoid them. Minor details embrace the feeling of the moment in contrast to the over-arching, cold, dispassionate reality of it.

Emily Blunt in Sicario highway

Then there’s Emily Blunt. She is remarkable. This is performance-of-the-year territory. She will break your heart not because she tries, but because she tries so hard not to.

The entire ensemble follows suit. Brolin is grimy, hard to pin down, some evolved form of the most easygoing yet manipulative characters he’s played. Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, who – well, you’re not really meant to be sure who he is. Daniel Kaluuya is Kate’s SWAT partner Reggie, loyal to a fault. Theirs is a compelling and very real friendship.

The musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes incredible tension. It plays its most intense moments as muted, far off. It’s like hearing a hunting party beyond a hill, or relentless drums around the bend, their reverberation growing louder than the sound itself, sudden silences creating more anticipation than relief.

This is a film that plants itself in your head and simmers there. It gives you consequences and then lurks. “No Country for Old Men.” “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Traffic.” The list of films that resemble “Sicario” is a list of tonal high points in cinema, and yet none of them fully captures quite what “Sicario” is. If there’s a movie it reminds me of most, it’s “Silence of the Lambs.” It’s patient in closing its trap. It presents the treatment of a sole woman amid a group of men in particular and subtle ways. Nothing’s ever said out loud, but a moment of derision, being made to feel extraneous to the moment, and certain visual cues all combine to make a point of her treatment.

In its own way, “Sicario” would fit right into gothic horror. It’s trappings are as far away from the genre as you could get – sand, cigarettes, and assault rifles. Yet at the same time, the madness of how our drug war has evolved, fighting the very monsters we propagate – there’s nothing more gothic in theme.

That’s where “Sicario” gets you. It’s not the threat to Kate’s life that is most compelling. It’s the threat to the idea that Kate’s life matters. The notion that it doesn’t, that what she does with it, that what truth she chooses to hold is inconsequential…that’s why “Sicario” is such a vicious thing. These are ideas that can be vicious without ever making themselves apparent. They just wear you down. And “Sicario” presents this masterfully. It is easily in the conversation for Film of the Year.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Sicario” have more than one woman in it?

Not really. Kate is played by Emily Blunt. There are two other women who feature in moments, but neither speaks a line.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Not applicable.

3. About something other than a man?

Not applicable.

My own read on “Sicario” is that this is very purposeful, but mine is not the only read, so take it with a grain of salt. I compare it to “Silence of the Lambs” in the way that the film purposefully isolates a woman amid men, yet even “Silence of the Lambs” manages to pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test.

Emily Blunt easily owns more screen time than any other character. She is, essentially, the only main character. “Sicario” feels like a Greek hero myth gone terribly wrong. Her being one of a kind, an outsider in another world, is the entire point. In some of the same ways “Silence of the Lambs” visually laid into the treatment of a professional woman in a field of men, “Sicario” uses specific actions to isolate Kate amid the men with whom she works. It’s not always comfortable. In fact, “Silence of the Lambs” is a bit of an upper compared to “Sicario.” Kate’s partner, Reggie, is the only black character. That’s no mistake either.

Normally, I’d criticize a film for making decisions to isolate women or black characters in such a way without stating a clear message as to why, yet “Sicario” is undeniably aware of these two characters, making a point of their treatment without ever saying it aloud. The isolation itself is a commentary. The violence other characters are willing to let Kate suffer is a commentary. “Sicario” reveals itself to be angry about very specific things later on, but to describe them would enter spoiler territory.

Kate and Reggie are, essentially, our only two good characters, the only ones who stay true and heroic. Kate dominates the story. Sometimes she is tough. Sometimes she comes out on the losing end anyway. This is the story of a hero meeting something that can’t be beaten, not because of her shortcomings but because of everyone else’s. If she can’t beat it, no one can. She’s a role model and a hero, but she’s also alone.

Again, take this with a grain of salt. I am a man. It would not be the first time I let a film off more lightly in this section than I should. With certain films, it can be difficult to balance my reading of it against its feminist qualities. If I always knew which films those were, then it wouldn’t be so difficult. I come with my own subjective limitations, though I do my best. This section is never meant to present me as an expert in feminism. It’s meant to do something that critics should be doing more often, but aren’t. It’s meant to provide a place to discuss these things, not decide them altogether.

I feel “Sicario” uses Kate’s isolation and the visual language inherent to certain moments of violence directed against her to consciously acknowledge and portray an aspect of the difficulty she faces: as a woman in a field where the men around her dismiss her usefulness. I could be wrong on that point. It could instead use those elements as shortcuts. I may let the bias of how good I feel “Sicario” is influence my reading of those elements.

I left the film considering Kate the kind of hero who would make it far as the protagonist in 1970s cinema, as a beset outsider trying to ferret out a truth. Others may feel differently about her treatment and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

That may or may not be helpful, but something that critics need to do more often and something that men in particular need to be open to doing is admitting when we just don’t know something, even in our field. When some aspect of a particular film lies outside my realm of knowledge or expertise, I will tell you how I feel, what my inclinations are, but the most honest thing I can couch that in is, “I don’t know.”

“Sicario” is challenging. It will be a film I think about and pick apart for a long time. I may write about more realizations down the road. As of this moment, whether it’s feminist or not – the best answer I can give is: I think so, but in such particular, subtle, and experiential ways that I might be misreading it. If those ways translate through the experiences of a woman, then as a man, I’m not the best qualified to assess them. Sometimes that happens. As a critic, it’s not my job to give you my best guess when an aspect of a film reaches outside my realm. It’s my job to recognize what’s in and out of my realm, to give you my best guess knowing that, and to be clear to you about what qualifications I both possess and lack in making that assessment. “Sicario” reaches outside my realm in certain ways, and it drives me to understand those ways better.

Where did we get our amazing images? The last shot of Emily Blunt, in the car, is from The Film Stage’s article 8 Films to Watch Before Sicario. They have some very good recommendations. The feature and top images are from Fox Force Five News’ review of “Sicario.”

Coward in the Crucible of Battle — “Edge of Tomorrow”

Edge of Tomorrow lead

I kept trying to come up with what movie Edge of Tomorrow feels like. Its beach-landing scenes evoke the D-Day of Saving Private Ryan. Its aliens remind you of the squidlike robots in The Matrix, though they hunt more like the evolving machines in Screamers. Its version of mechanized infantry keeps the banter of Aliens but trades in the oversized guns for mechanical suits that seem like a redux of the clunky, earliest version of Iron Man.

It’s not a knock on Edge of Tomorrow to say it’s reminiscent of so many other movies. The more familiar we are with the basics, the more Edge can get on with the story. Aliens have crash-landed on Earth, as they are often wont to do. Tom Cruise plays William Cage, an advertising exec who’s commissioned into the army because he’s so gosh darn charming in front of cameras and the Army needs to sell a war. He’s never seen a real fight, though. In the very first scene, he’s told that he’ll be embedded with the troops in a major assault. Cage’s response? To beg, cajole, and eventually blackmail his way out of seeing combat. This is not your typical Cruise character – Cage is a coward when we meet him.

Edge of Tomorrow begging

He finds himself shipped to the front anyway. It’s a disaster – the army is crushed and Cage knows so little about his mechanized armor that he spends most of the battle figuring out how to take the safety off his weapons. He is killed, and wakes up at the beginning of the previous day. He’s hijacked the alien’s ability to rewind time – key to their predicting humanity’s every move. Now, every time Cage dies, he restarts the day before the battle.

Cage tries to convince others of this, and the extent to which his commanding officers (especially an off-kilter Sergeant played by Bill Paxton) find ways to shut him up is one of the movie’s many sources of humor. So is Cruise’s trial-and-error approach to escaping his unit and tracking down Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a legendary soldier who once endured a time loop similar to Cage’s. No one else will believe the two of them, so she takes it upon herself to brutally train Cage. If she breaks him, she shoots him and resets the day, Cage taking his accumulated knowledge into every next attempt. That beach invasion stops looking like an invasion and becomes an elegant choreography – Cage learns every step and move Rita and he must take to survive.

Director Doug Liman has made some solid films, The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith chief among them. He’s always been great at beginnings, and he knows how to tell an ending, but he’s never had any idea what to do with a movie’s middle, when the characters have to talk to each other. It’s a perfect fit here. Edge has no middle, just countless beginnings. Cage makes attempts to get to know Rita – after hundreds of the same day relived, he’s desperate for a human connection – but for her, it’s always the first time they’ve met, and there just isn’t the time for chit-chat. It’s refreshing to see Cruise as a needy coward who must become more out of desperation, while Blunt gets to play the calculated, relentless warrior.

Edge of Tomorrow Blunt

As an action movie, Edge is neck-and-neck with the Captain America sequel as this year’s best. It doesn’t hold as much meaning as the superhero film, but it has an old-fashioned mentality for adventure storytelling – it puts enough puzzles and meaningful obstacles in our heroes’ way that the action isn’t just our reward, but theirs, too.

This is also the best use of 3-D this year. 3-D has been killing movie experiences lately. Maleficent was blurry and motion sick. The 300 sequel was hazy and blearily lit. Good as the movie was, the shallow focus cinematography of the latest X-Men strained eyes. Directors are still learning how to implement 3-D well. Not all movies are worth the extra price of admission for it, which is why I always highlight its use.

It’s clear Liman made the commitment to pre-plan and choreograph his 3-D ahead of time. It’s striking how crisp and natural the 3-D in Edge of Tomorrow is. When shrapnel and dirt flew toward the camera, I blinked as if expecting to find something in my eye. Even dialogue scenes make you feel as if you’re a fly on the wall. It’s one of the few movies this year that absolutely demands to be seen in the theater.

Edge of Tomorrow beach

Edge of Tomorrow is rated PG-13 for violence and language.