Dune (2021)

Alright, I’ve waited a long time for this film. The expectations were high, the talent is there, the source is impeccable but the task is daunting. So the question is, did Denis Villeneuve manage to overcome the obstacles to making “Dune” into a cogent film that will be embraced by the public. The short answer is “yes, sort of”. but the more accurate answer is that there continues to be a density to the story that anyone would have difficulty cutting through without having to change elements of the story in some way. All movies made from books will reflect the sensibilities of the writers, the producers and ultimately the director. That means that this can correctly be described as Villeneuve’s Dune. It certainly contains enough of the Frank Herbert source material to keep fans of the landmark book and serial novels happy. 

The movie is two and a half hours long, and I have seen it twice. The podcast today spent more than an hour dissecting it. I have had multiple conversations with my daughter about the film, and I reread the novel a week ago. I also spent two and a half hours with the 1984 version form David Lynch. This commentary then comes from the perspective of someone who deeply cares about the source material and the films made from them. Denis Villeneuve has crafted a handsome, completely credible and mostly entertaining version of this story. Because the film is only the first part of the original Dune Book, I will have to withhold some judgements about the story elements that deal with the antagonists in the saga. Although the Harkonnen are represented on screen, their presence is minimal at the moment, and that is a bit of a letdown.

One advantage that the new film takes advantage of is the character development. Paul and Duke Leto are given more time to show their relationship in this film. The extra time on Caladan, the Atreides’ home planet will help put in contrast the stark environment on Arrakis. Caladan is lush with forests, meadows and lakes and oceans that indicate a thriving ecosphere. The Atreides have had it easy and they will be going into an environment dramatically at odds with their previous existence. The Duke tries to explain to Paul what desert power will be, but we can’t know until we are steeped in it, what all it will include. The relationship between Paul and his mother, the Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson, is also deeper here, providing a glimpse at how she is attempting to immerse him in the Bene Gesserit traditions and skills. At times, Timothée Chalamet as Paul looks like a lost emo kid, wandering across the hillsides in his black priests jacket. The few times he comes out of the dark introspection are when he meets with his mentor/stand-in older brother figure Duncan Idaho, played by Jason Momoa. The actor has a charismatic persona that helps us shortcut our way into his relationship with Paul. There is an added sequence with Momoa and Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Keynes, that improves the story and does these two characters a bit more justice than they receive in the book or earlier film. 

One of the problems with adapting the book to film is that there are so many competing interests and political entanglements, that it would be easy to miss important components. David Lynch tried to cram this information into narration, internal thoughts and the equivalent of early Google searches. The script by Villeneuve and cowriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, doesn’t bother to worry about most of that. The story flows pretty smoothly as a result, but a lot of the rich detail that makes the book so intriguing is lost. There is just enough of the Bene Gesserit story to explain why Paul is unique and potentially the most significant result of their breeding program. The complex connection between the Harkonnen and Atreides clans is not detailed. Paul’s visions are inserted regularly but they are inconsistent and the reasons for that inconsistency are not really explained by the film, although readers of the book will understand. Thufir Hawat is treated as a cuddly teddy bear rather than the master of assassins, Dr. Yueh’s imperial conditioning is not explained, nor is the manner of that conditioning being broken. The importance of his role as the traitor is minimized as a result, making the conspiracy a lot less interesting. I did think there were some good hints at the poet in the warrior Gurney Halleck, played by Josh Brolin. Some of these characters disappear from this film, but they should be a part of the second film when it arrives. It does make it hard to evaluate this as a stand alone film because of those threads that are dangling.

The greatest improvement from the 84 film, is the use of the Fremen culure, especially in the sequence where Paul and Jessica are discovered in the deep desert after their escape from Arrakeen. This is basically the climax of the film, although we did just have a complete invasion of the planet by hostile forces. Paul’s acceptance into the sietch led by Stilgar is an important step on his ascension to power. If you know the book, you know how Paul hesitates not merely because killing is new to him, but he foresees each act of violence on his part as cementing the path to a bloody jihad that he is trying to avoid. I was not sure that the film clarifies this as much as might be needed by audiences unfamiliar with the book. 

I’ve already made some passing comparisons to the David Lynch film, so inevitably there are more. On the favorable side of the ledger, the ornithopters in this version are more interesting and certainly more dynamic. They also more closely resemble the craft described by Herbert’s prose. While CGI can often ruin our engagement with a film, when it is used correctly, it enhances the visions we see. The sandworms of Arrakis are much more believable in this new edition of the story than the mechanical miniatures used back in 84. There was only one brief image of a sandworm being ridden in the film, but it looks like this will far outpace to somewhat clunky techniques that were requires thirty-seven years ago.  Even though it looks less realistic, I still prefer the animated shield work of the 84 film to the digital distortion of the new version. It just looks more interesting, even if it seems less realistic. The costumes and production design from the older film, also seem stronger to me, maybe because the colors pop and the detail is rich. Villeneuve has created utilitarian props and sets to present the characters in, Lynch’s vision is soaked in the mythology of each of the settings. Giedi Prime, the Harkonnen home planet is dark and fuzzy in Villeneuve’s film, Lynch’s industrial sensibility was so well matched with this location in his film that it is indelible and far superior. Little things like the box the Reverend Mother uses to test Paul, are more ornate and interesting in the 84 film.  

It is certainly a matter of style and taste so with the minimalist leanings of contemporary design, Villeneuve’s choices are probably fine. I simply like a broader color palate to look at. While the design of the Bene Gesserit gowns was not stupendous in 84, the 2021 outfits look like they come from dead nurses in a hospital from 1883. 

We have lots of things to look at that are superior in the new film, but let’s not dismiss the unusual and intriguing from the Lynch Film. Of course the two movies are great ways to see the difference a director can make in a film. The aesthetics in particular matter with these two directors. The action sequences in the current version of the film are more coherent and visually spectacular so that is another selling point to the new version. 

To complete the current review, I will update this post with a link to the podcast when it is completed. For now let me say I am happy with the new version of Dune. I don’t think it cracks the nut entirely on the intricate internal thoughts from the book, but it does streamline the story and make it very accessible to the audience. Every time one of the IMAX shots arrived, I was reminded of the work that David Lean did in “Lawrence of Arabia”. The film looks amazing in the macro sense but loses a little in the intimate scenes. We will be getting more of some of the characters in the second part so I will wait until then to expand on Stilgar and Chani. 

By all means, see this on the big screen. Save an HBO Max viewing for your fourth or fith time seeing the film. You will be glad you paid to go to a theater. 

Silence of the Lambs 30th Anniversary Fathom/TCM

Just finishing up one of the screenings I did this last week with a very brief recap of “The Silence of the Lambs”. This was a 30th Anniversary screening of one of the most widely acclaimed films to ever win the Academy Award. The movie is virtually perfect in every respect. The story is set up dramatically, introducing us to all the characters in an interesting way. The horror aspect of Buffalo Bill is awful but when you layer on the sense of dread that comes with the introduction of Hannibal Lecter, the tension is almost unbearable.


Director Johnathan Demme managed to make the flashbacks to Clarice’s childhood relevant, and the screenplay allows her to tell the story that accounts for the title instead of trying to put it on screen. The dynamic between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in their scenes is mesmerizing. Even though that is where the meat of the drama is, there are so many other scenes and characters that keep us in the story when those two are not front and center. Lecter and Dr. Chilton are opposites in personality, and the actors manage to make a loathsome killer fell less awful than the unctuous “turnkey” that Chilton doesn’t want to be labeled as. 


Someday I will do a post on the career performances of one of the great actors who has never been celebrated for his craft in the manner that he deserves. Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford makes the academic, older mentor fell real, when just a year before he was a dynamic, take charge sub commander in the”Hunt for Red October”. He was always a strong third leg on a tripod of performances, but he seems to be outshined by the other posts that make up the tripods of his films. Ted Levine will forever be remembered for the brave performance that he gave which made us fear the transformation that Buffalo Bill was attempting.
I did a post on the music from this movie a few years ago and I just need to add that it keeps all the moments in the film engaging. The escape sequence in particular but the very quiet ending of the film works so much more effectively because of the subdued tones of Howard Shore. 

Simply trying to acknowledge that I saw the film for probably the thirtieth time, but once again on the big screen. Thank you TCM and Fathom.

No Time to Die

Any of you who have visited this site in the past probably have a pretty good idea of how I feel about the James Bond Franchise. If you are new let me summarize, 007 is my favorite fictional character and I have a passion for these movies. The break between “Spectre” and “No Time to Die” was supposed to be five years, much too long in my opinion for we addicts. Then along came the pandemic, MGM and Eon pulled the film off the schedule, wisely seeing that the venues for films were being closed in many places. The movie got pushed back to October, then to the following April again, and then to a second October. It has now been 18 months since the originally scheduled opening of the film. I have been impatient and frustrated with each delay and now that it is finally available, I have issues.


I will preface my comments with an acknowledgement that there is not a 007 film I would not watch again in a heartbeat (except the 1967 parody Casino Royale), and that includes this new entry, the 25th in the official canon of Bond films (excluding “Never Say Never Again”), so take what I say to you now with that perspective in mind. I am disappointed. 


When the decision was made to follow up Daniel Craig’s first outing with a direct sequel, I was Ok with that. “Quantum of Solace” has flaws, and my reaction was muted. “Skyfall” on the other hand changed all that into a bundle of enthusiasm that I still feel nine years and two more films later. Although there were references to earlier Craig films, “Skyfall” felt like a stand alone 007 film and it worked incredibly well, providing a fresh story but also providing a good deal of fan service. In 2015, “Spectre” stepped back into making the Craig films into an extended narrative, and that was one of my initial reservations about the film. As time went by and I saw it more often, my attitude changed and I think it got right what “Quantum” was trying to do in keeping a story line in place. “No Time to Die” is an attempt to wrap all of this up but it trips over some of the traditional tropes of the Bond series. I much prefer the closeout that “Spectre” presented to us than the package we got this week. 


Looking at just this movie now, instead of worrying about the five film story arc of Craig’s run as Bond, the first strength that it presents is the mash up of two pre-title sequences. The callback to Madeleine Swann as a child, ties in nicely with a story she told in an earlier film. It is visualized very effectively and uses an overhead perspective in an interesting way that accentuates that what we are seeing is a memory. When Bond and Madeleine travel together on a pilgrimage to a grave, we get a nice travelogue, followed by a terrific action sequence and then the titles. So far so good. The Billie Eilish performed song is substantially improved with the title sequence behind it. That said, it is still not a dynamic song for the film to build it’s themes around. The best music cues in the rest of the film come from earlier Bond films, including “Casino Royale” but most noticeably, “On Her Majesties Secret Service”.  The title sequence begins some of the fan service call backs that we can expect from Craig’s swan song. Polka dots and silhouettes appear in the background, bringing the spirt of Saul Bass for a visit to a James Bond film. 


Now we get to the first main issue that weakens the film for me, the recruitment  of 007 for this mission by Felix Leiter in an off the books C.I.A. plot, that somehow runs afoul of MI-6. I will try to explain this without spoilers, but the mess that Bond is going to try to clean up, is a result of his own former service’s mistakes. In another tip to older Bond films, one group is playing another group against two other groups. In “From Russia with Love” the Soviet agency SMERSH is being played by SPECTRE against the British. Here, the Brits are being played against SPECTRE, who are being shined by a new unidentified group, and the C.I.A. is an accidental tool for pulling it off. How can this be? Well simple, “M” suddenly loses the moral convictions that guided him in the last film and the intelligence he had shown since “Skyfall”. Ralph Fiennes was one of the strengths of the two previous Bond films and now his character Mallory, is a liability. This shortcut to plot development also requires that Felix Leiter, as played by Jeffrey Wright, loses about twenty percent of his IQ.  Maybe the idea here was to tear everything down and start anew, but it feels like a fast way to get another plot going without developing the villain any more than you did in the first five minutes of the film. 


Second major flaw in the film is, as is way too true in all sorts of films, the Villain. Rami Malek is fine for what he is asked to do, the failure is not in the performance it is in the writing. Safin appears as a character in the first scenes of the film. His performance there is wordless and we get right up to a key moment when there is a jump cut to a point many years later. We never learn how he got from point A to point B, to become a nemesis of Spectre and a threat to the whole population of the world. When we get to the monologuing in the third act,  there is a lot of yammering in low key soft voiced menace, but there is no motivation whatsoever. There is no plan, or financial gain or philosophy behind his actions. The idea that the weapon can be isolated to killing only particular people was undermined by the fact that if they have DNA alleles in common, which would be a family connection, then the nanobot virus jumps. Six degrees of separation people, the world is connected genetically and there will be leaping. No explanation is offered as to who is supposed to be spared or why or how. This is a completely random plan, that is supposed to be targeted, but no targeting explanation is offered and they undermine their plan with this flaw in the DNA process that they are using for only an emotional plot point. 


The third thread of problems is the relationship between Madeleine and James. I can believe in their love, and that James has overcome his emotional complications with Vesper, but it gets wiped out by an inference that while reasonable, could also be dispelled with some investigation. His willingness to severe a commitment like this on his conclusion without looking into it further is out of character. Her acceptance of it and then inclusion into MI-6’s interrogation of Blofeld is after the fact odd (although it was a leap I was willing to take for the purpose of suspending disbelief). That she is being manipulated as a tool of Safin is shown, but not really explained. There is a good scene between her and Safin in her office, they interact in an interesting way, but it does not make her motivation clear. The incident between them a quarter of a century earlier is supposed to be the explanation, but it really does not explain anything. Bond and Madeleine rekindle their romance after he discovers a secret she has, and that makes a little sense, but this same plot device was widely criticized in a 2006 comic book movie, and I can see a similar response here. I don’t have an issue with it, except that it is being used as a manipulation of the characters to justify the conclusion of the film. 


Final acts are difficult, and the final act of this film, and the fact that this film itself is a final act in the story arc, makes it even more so. The resolution that they chose, undermines the emotional set up that was created to make a dramatic point. Safin has manipulated the DNA of the characters so that they can never be together physically again. That would also preclude a relationship with the secret character that has changed Bond’s perspective. Fine, that is a emotional gut punch that would make Bond have to suffer, but the solution that the writers came up with was to eliminate that immediately through a much more certain outcome. It was unnecessary, and if you are looking to finish with an emotional slap to the face, the DNA imposed separation would have stronger resonance. 


There are other points that are bothersome as well, but little things can be overlooked when everything else is working. Obviously, things were not working for me so a couple of things I might have let slide by, jumped out at me instead. How the greatest asset that British Intelligence has, manages to get the most sophisticated bionic technology in history, planted in his eye socket while he is under their control is beyond me. I guess “Q” had the weekend off when that surgery was arranged. As much as I like what they have done with Ben Whishaw’s version of “Q”, he seems to miss some opportunities to stop problems or to explain how a problem could be stopped. Case in point, the EMP watch that 007 uses in going after the island fortress of Safin. If it can blow out an electronic eye, would it not do the same to the electronic ear that Bond is wearing? Story consistency is an issue in a lot of places. 


There are a lot of things I liked in the film, I just wanted to get my reservations out of the way first. Ana de Armas and Lashanna Lynch are welcome to any future Bond films, although with the rebooting that will be required, I’m not sure how they will manage to do this. Paloma, the CIA?, contractor was a hoot in the Cuban sequence, and her action creds were established in a definitive and funny way. Nomi, the new designate for the prime number, was bad ass although she needed to do a little more as part of the insertion team at the end. M will need agents like her to cover for his future mistakes if they plan on keeping that character in his current mode. The chase scene though the Norwegian forest was very effective, I liked the subtle way Bond adjusts his choices given his passengers. I also thought the by play between Bond and Christoph Waltz as Blofeld worked well, that was a solid scene even if in the end it had little to do with what is happening in the story.


Okay. I am off to see it a second time right now. When I get back, if I have more thoughts I will add them here. 
Addendum/Second Screening


Well it was a good decision to go back for a second time, because my opinion of the film substantially improved. I’m not sure if my attitude was different because expectations were altered, or if some of the choices they made were clearer in hindsight. 


For instance, it is a lot clearer now why Madeleine cooperates with Safin’s plan for Blofeld when she and James meet up at the prison. Blofeld’s dialogue also makes more sense in hindsight, although how he obtained his information is still unclear.  


M’s motivations are a bit more focused when you see what is going on, although it is still very clear that his character’s ethical standards have shifted entirely away from the point of view that he had in the previous film. 


There are several characters I did not mention earlier that ought to get a quick note here. Logan Ash, the State Department CIA wannabe, is such a trope in the Bond Universe, it would have been more fun to go the opposite direction with him. As it is, the part contains no surprises and the only creative element to him, his fanboy admiration for Bond, doesn’t get as much use as it should. 


Speaking of not getting much use, Naomi Harris returns as Moneypenny, but she mostly sits in the office like in the old days. It would have made sense to give her some of the tasks that Q got shoved his way, and then her contribution would be more meaningful. 


Primo, who Bond dubs Cyclops, is your standard henchmen with a quirk. In line with Odd Job and Jaws, he has a physical distinction that is a minor part of the plot. I do think that the electronic eye gets used for comic relief more than anything else, and that also feels like a slightly missed opportunity. The link between him and Blofeld could have made it a stronger place to provide exposition, instead of making us try to figure out what is going on. Oh, there is another plothole here as well since he escapes the attack on Spectre in Cuba for no clear reason at all. As a member of Spectre and Blofeld’s prime surrogate as a walking Zoom call, you would think that Safin and Obruchev’s hijacking of the plan to eliminate Bond would have targeted him especially.  Speaking of comic relief and exposition, the ping pong acquisition of scientist Valdo Obruchev, worked for the most part. His secondary villain status reminded me substantially of Boris Grishenko from “Goldeneye”. The Russian accent probably accounts for that because the Frank Oz look alike they have in the part certainly appears different. 


These insights are a little random right now. I continue to try to avoid spoilers, so I will discuss some of the plot elements that will make this film controversial among 007 fans, in a post down the road. I at first thought the pacing seemed flat and that the direction by Cary Joji Fukunaga was off. There is probably too much quick point and shoot in the finale, James Bond should not be John Wick. On the other hand, the locations are beautifully shown, and it seems like they went a long way to allow Safin to get Bond’s toothbrush. Let me leave off by saying after my first viewing, I felt let down. Going a second time, probably for the reasons I mentioned, resulted in an encouraging shift in perspective. I still have reservations but …


“Never Enough to Say No”


So go see it now that it is here. 

Titane

Winner of the “Palme d’or” at this years Cannes Film Festival, “Titane” arrives with a lot of notoriety and high expectations. From director/writer Julia Ducournau, in her sophomore effort, the film attempts to subvert genres, transcend expectations and shock audiences. As those are the intentions, you could say the film largely succeeds. Where it fails is in keeping us engaged. The stitching holding this Frankenstein’s monster of a film together is evident in most places, and the degree of willingness of the audience to allow themselves to be subdued by the director is in direct proportion to the degree that you will like the film. 


The two ways you can commit to the film are either as an exploitation film,  or as a piece of social polemic that targets gender, tradition, logic, and horror conventions. Since I had problems accepting either path, the movie does not do much for me, but why are those two trails unproductive? Let’s start first with the exploitation angle. We are not given any reason to care about characters in the story, so when something happens to them, our fears, hopes wishes don’t really matter. In a revenge film, we need to see why the offense was egregious, in a sex movie we want to be turned on by the characters, and in a horror film we need to be able to identify with the characters. This movie is not interested in those feelings. The closest we get to any of the traditional tropes of exploitation is a feeling of revulsion. 


The movie is probably aiming at that social introspection approach, and in some ways it is successful in getting us to look at the situations from a different perspective. The idea that people are forced to adjust their expectations by switching gender roles is hinted at early on in the film, when we discover that the main character, a woman, is a serial killer. Although there are exceptions, the vast majority of these sorts of murders are committed by men. The motivations of female killers in this classification are usually monetary, and Ducournau hints that a sexual fetish is connected to the actions of our lead character, Alexia, but that connection is distant at best. There may be some underlying trust issue that fuels her rage at the victims, but it does not seem consistent and it is certainly not clear. When Alexia takes on the persona of a man, she ceases to murder, and we are asked to question whether the gender switch is cosmetic or emotional in it’s impact on her behavior. 

About halfway through the film, our second major character arrives and he presents similar conundrums about sexuality. As an alpha male in a masculine dominated work culture, we would anticipate his use of power would come easily to him, it is instead a trial for him to impose his will on his “son”. Vincent is aging and his weaknesses are being masked by his use of steroids, so in a way he is modifying his appearance just as Alexia is doing, but using different means. None of the circumstances that take place when these two come together are meant to be believable, they are only moving the characters into positions from which the sly transgressive nature of the story can be played out. Every time one of those moments happened, it drew attention to the notion that “here is something we should be looking at.”  I suppose one of the reasons that it doesn’t work for me is that I have rejected that sort of deconstruction since I was in college. It always feels like an affectation to me. Sometimes they can be intellectually valid, but often they seem like mental onanism. 

The strengths of the film are not in the narrative, or the themes, or in the stupefaction of the things we see on screen. What merits the film has are in the visuals, the movie does have a hypnotic effect. The stylized camera movement in the introduction of the adult Alexia is a nice starting point to illustrate this. In one sequence of violence we see desperation, fury and humor and that all works. The moments between Vincent and Alexia, when they come together in the training bits or in dancing in his living room, are magnetic. The way the camera is used to display her body as it is morphing both under her control and out of her control, is the work of someone who knows what they want their film to look like, even if you can’t say why that is the choice being made. This is definitely a confident film maker.  


I will come clean, I can’t recommend this film because it mostly irritated me in spite of the strong techniques. If you like being lectured at for your blindness to sexual stereotypes, then this could be something you would appreciate. I was hypnotized, but in a sense of somnolence rather that fascination. 

Skyfall Revisit

I am particularly piqued with Great Britain today, they get “No Time To Die” now, and we have to wait a week. I suppose it is acceptable since Bond is a UK export, but since we have added 18 months from the originally scheduled release, I feel like I have been more than patient. Anyway, as it turns out, AMC noticed that we were being tortured so in an effort to put balm on the sore, they are running “Skyfall” for a week at a discount price. This is good news since “Skyfall” is the best Bond film since the early 60s.
There is so much to love about this film, regardless of what you might think of the story (which I think works great). The addition of Eve Moneypenny as an active part of the story may have been easy for most to spot, but I still liked the fact that they wait for the reveal until the end of the film. 

The fact that she nearly killed 007 makes for an interesting dynamic for future stories, and her active status makes her involvement down the road more believable.

 
When John Cleese was introduced as the new Q back in the Pierce Brosnan era, it was clear his persona would mimic that of Desmond Llewelyn, that of a prickly bureaucrat with technical know how. Ben Whishaw is still a bit officious as “Q”, but the humor is more a part of the story and less punchline delivery. His youth in contrast to Bond also makes some sense and adds some more places for natural repartee to exist. 

I also thought it was a clever move to show us how “M” could have gotten the job in the first place. Gareth Mallory starts off as the political hatchet man for the administration in moving the previous head of MI-6 out of her role. When he picks up the gun and starts shooting back at the attackers in the Parliamentary hearing room, it is clear he is not simply a political animal. Ralph Fiennes could have easily been the choice for 007 a decade earlier, at this point he was much more appropriately cast.

The real treasure of the film however is the redoubtable Judi Dench, who made Eight appearances in the role, including one after having vacated the position. This is the meatiest storyline for the character in any of the 24 films from EON. I liked that she never lost her sardonic tone, even when the character is besieged by politicians and the antagonist of this film.  

This film came out nine years ago, on the 50th Anniversary of James Bond on the Big Screen. Much was made of the fact that the gun barrel sequence did not appear until the end of the movie, but that was really just the exclamation point for the anniversary. There were so many things that were special about the film, it was nice to be reminded of them today. It may be a bit of fan service, but calling the Aston Martin DB5 back into action was a thrilling moment. The final act confrontation was very well staged and technically looked terrific. We also got a great 007 Theme song from Adele. 
For me, the final thrill is in the new office for “M”, when Moneypenny takes her place and Bond enters through the padded door that felt so familiar, and he addressed Mallory as “M”. I was ready for the next film that minute. It happened again today when my screening was finished. 

Somehow, I have to get through the next six days.