[#2022oscardeathrace] Dune (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley-Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem

Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth

155 mins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures {Original Score)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Sound
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Production Design
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Costume Design
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Film Editing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Visual Effects

IMDb Top 250: #196 (as of 2/6/2022)

It felt like Dune would never come. After a failed adaptation by Alejandro Jodorowsky and mixed reception to both David Lynch’s 1984 film and a television miniseries from the early 2000s, Denis Villeneuve’s two-part take on the dense and believed-to-be-unfilmable novel finally arrived in 2020, or at least that was the plan before COVID caused it to be shelved for a year and finally unleashed in October 2021, when theaters were still quite wavery. Even with the impressive trailers and Villeneuve at the helm, it seemed like a box-office bomb waiting to happen, but critical reception and box office receipts were positive indeed. I read the Dune novel last year in anticipation for the film, and I would argue that we were right to trust Villeneuve all along.

Thousands of years in the future, the planet of Arrakis, also known as Dune, has its control shifted to the House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina). The Atreides family shift their residence to Arrakis, a planet full of heat, sand, and the most valuable commodity in the known universe, Spice, and they begin to put together the pieces left by the brutal House Harkonnen, who previously held leadership over Arrakis. As the Duke settles into his role on Arrakis, he comes to suspect that he is playing into a trap, where danger lurks from any angle, and the Harkonnens are perhaps not willing to give up Dune so easily.

There was a social media joke a few years back as Dune began its lengthy casting process. So-and-so has been added to the cast of Dune. The joke was funny, and I took part, but it also wasn’t wrong to say that this movie was assembling one of the largest and most extensive group of performers in recent memory. It becomes more interesting when you see the finished film and that realization that even bit part players in the narrative, like Zendaya (Malcolm & Marie) as the Fremen Chani or Dave Bautista (Riddick) as the towering Glossu Rabban Harkonnen, are cast as if they were the lead character of the film. Now, many of these smaller roles will be filled out in the upcoming sequel where they play a much more substantial role, but that just shows the dedication to the source material and to Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) in the director’s chair. The performances are all excellent, there isn’t a bad apple in the bunch, but I was primarily taken with Josh Brolin (Avengers: Endgame) as Gurney Halleck, the weapons master for House Atreides, and Jason Momoa (Aquaman) as Duncan Idaho, Swordmaster and soldier to House Atreides. Brolin gets one great interaction with Leto’s son Paul (Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name) where he acts as Paul’s trainer for the day and explains the very danger that he and House Atreides is wandering into on Arrakis. It’s an excellent sequence that builds mythology, outlines stakes and delivers complex ideas from the novel in a matter of minutes, and Momoa’s Idaho almost acts as the heart and soul of the film through his older-brother-type relationship to Paul, and it’s obvious that Momoa is having the time of his life here, able to balance the more playful aspects of Duncan’s character with the emotional beats of his friendship to the Duke’s son.

We’re this far in and I’ve barely mentioned our protagonist, Paul. That’s because there is so much plot around all the other characters and Paul is more our viewfinder into the narrative. He’s there, being tugged through the narrative and mostly reacting to the situation he finds himself in rather than driving the narrative forward much. Chalamet’s performance is subdued, much like Paul in the novel, but when he does burst forth, he is memorable and excellent as the Duke’s son, who has no interest in leadership, as he expresses early on in an exchange with his father on the Atreides homeworld of Caladan. On the other side of things, Paul also has to deal with his mother’s lineage as a Bene Gesserit, a religious and political sisterhood gifted with superhuman abilities. Paul’s mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman) broke a code of her people to only sire girls when she gave the Duke a son, and now Paul has to contend with an ancient prophecy laid forth by the Bene Gesserit that speaks of a male born more powerful than any other Bene Gesserit. It’s safe to say that Paul is pulled in multiple directions throughout the narrative and his contention with that leaves him a little lost looking for a path as his family is tested all around him, and Chalamet never strays from that teenage confusion as life tugs one along the path.

The other notable performance is our primary antagonist, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard, Good Will Hunting), who combines excellent, awards-worthy makeup effects to a truly diabolical performance. Given the three previous interpretations of the character and the version in the pages of Herbert’s book, I didn’t really know how Skarsgard was going to go about playing the Baron, and he once again surprised with his subdued, methodical voicework and the way his simple gestures like wiping the sweat from his head seemed to work in tandem with his gluttonous physical makeup. His is a character who has never been denied his most basic urges, to the point where he needs gravity support to move his body around. The Baron is a menacing villain who oozes with flair in a very understated way, allowing for the physicality of a character who moves little, says little, and still gives a lot.

Denis Villeneuve referred to Dune many times as his Star Wars. It was the tale he always wanted to tell, and the translation from the book is rather incredible. Herbert’s novel has frequently been discussed as an unfilmable book (even though it has been adapted multiple times, many have looked to those adaptations as further proof). Villeneuve tackles it in a different way, using the script (which he co-wrote with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) to maneuver heavy chunks of exposition into dialogue without feeling exposition-heavy. Explanations for the Fremen, the Spice, and Sandworms, the Bene Gesserit, all of it comes out through simple interactions that rarely, if at all, felt clunky.

Sound and music also aid the film immensely and add to the flavor of the words at play on this cosmic chessboard. Hans Zimmer opted out of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet to score Dune, and his scoring has a grainy, gritty coldness that fits the planetary obstacles of Arrakis excellently. Then you have the expert sound work that feels reminiscent of the kind of sound creation and utilization that the original Star Wars crafted. Along with that comes some terrific language-creation by linguistics expert David J. Peterson, who previously crafted Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones. Peterson worked on the Fremen language, furthering that expansive world flavor.

The film’s faults are minimal, but they are there. Villeneuve’s epic has an equally epic run time, but I’m not so sure it needed it. I’m still fairly certain that Dune could’ve been a very long single film. Having read the novel, this first half is really closer to a first 75%. The pacing at times is felt throughout this first half as well. In addition to that, this first film ends in an unusual place in the narrative, and that ending feels abrupt when an ending earlier in the narrative might have worked a bit better. That being said, we won’t have those answers until we see Dune: Part Two, which has been greenlit and will likely drop in 2023.

That’s another element, and again, this is more movie politics than actual movie discussion, but the fact that I first saw Dune without that confirmation of a second film left me uncertain leaving the theater. Now, we have confirmation of a follow-up film, but the way Villeneuve chooses to end the film meant that, had we not gotten a sequel confirmation, the first film’s ending would have left it very difficult to revisit. Now, this is all nitpicking, but let me make a comparison. We knew this film was not going to be filmed back-to-back with the sequel, so I would look at it alongside another recent lengthy adaptation, Andy Muschietti’s It films. The first It was shot as a standalone movie because there was no greenlit sequel. Had It: Chapter Two not been released, the first film ended in a place where it could be left alone. Dune: Part One does not have that luxury. I felt way more compelled to revisit this first movie knowing that the story will see a conclusion. That being said, Part One’s ending feels like an odd place to end, and it also feels like the editing did nothing to give this first film any slight closure that could have held the narrative over for the possible sequel to pick up.

Dune is an excellent and epic new world to explore for sci-fi fans and moviegoers alike. This first film was masterfully directed by Denis Villeneuve, and the finished film feels reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, a passion project this filmmaker has waited his life to create and bestow with a vision. While Villeneuve’s film is indeed finished, the story’s temporary finish is a little clunky, but every single element in control leading to that “conclusion” is incredible, and shockingly more and more watchable every time I revisit it. Dune is one of the best films of the year, a visual and intellectual achievement that deserves to be seen. See it however you can.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, click here.

[#2016oscardeathrace] Cinderella (2015)

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Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgard, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter

Screenplay: Chris Weitz

105 mins. Rated PG for mild thematic elements.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Costume Design

 

Disney has always been hit-or-miss on their live-action adaptations of their animated classics. I was less-than-enthused about 2014’s Maleficent, but with Cinderella, and a solid director in Shakespearian artist Kenneth Branagh (Frankenstein, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), it seemed like they had a real chance.

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The new iteration of the classic tale presents more backstory on Ella (Lily James, Wrath of the Titans, Burnt), her wicked Stepmother (Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Carol), and the Prince (Richard Madden, TV’s Game of Thrones, A Promise) she falls for. With the help of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club, Suffragette), Ella becomes a beautiful princess for a night of magic and dancing with the Prince in his kingdom. When the night ends, the Prince must do anything to find the mysterious beauty he has fallen for.

From a storytelling perspective, the film reminded me a lot of the Halloween remake from some years back (I know, strange comparison), which chose to flesh out backstory to bulk up the characters and story. Both films do succeed in this dangerous endeavor, though Cinderella definitely doesn’t need all the build-up. Screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass) elected to grab from other versions of the tale to add new layers to the film, and it works.

Lily James and Cate Blanchett absolutely own their performances here, fitting right into the narrative nicely, and they are aided by Madden and thespians like Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Derek Jacobi (Gladiator, Anonymous).

Often, Branagh uses his superior storytelling tactics from his time studying the plays of William Shakespeare to influence his filmmaking style. It worked well in Thor, and it continues to elevate his craft here.

I must point out the masterful costume design, though likely not to win the Oscar this year, still looks astounding, especially in the ball sequence. The set design aids it well.

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Cinderella is one of the better Disney live-action adaptations, and while the film’s pacing comes into question more than once (too much exposition boggs down the film quite a bit), it succeeds in a lot of other ways and is worthy of a viewing.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

For my review of Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, click here.

For my review of Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, click here.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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Director: Joss Whedon

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Screenplay: Joss Whedon

141 mins. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive content.  

2012’s The Avengers was something of an anomaly. A film which combined several superhero franchises into one mega-franchise shared universe successfully…that doesn’t happen. But with writer/director Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Much Ado About Nothing) at the helm, it did. And it was good. Billion-dollars good. It jumpstarted Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and continued a winning franchise for years to come. Now, we see if the official sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, can continue that tradition.

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The Avengers have been looking for an end to the villains before they start. When billionaire genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., The Judge, Chef) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, Shutter Island, The Normal Heart) create Ultron (James Spader, TV’s Boston Legal, Lincoln), an artificially intelligent being created to be Earth’s mightiest defense system, but Ultron quickly realizes that the biggest threats to the world are humans and decides to do away with them. Now, the Avengers must assemble to defeat Ultron, who has allied himself with two very special twins: Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass, Godzilla) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen, Martha May Marcy Marlene, Oldboy).

Avengers: Age of Ultron had a bunch of set-ups. The biggest flaw comes from realizing that it has very little payoff. The entire film felt like its function was to tie up the loose ends of Phase 2 and start unpacking the storylines to Phase 3. Was it entertaining? Mostly, yes. But was it good? I really don’t know. I liked a lot of this film but I was scratching my head at times wondering why certain events were kept in the film while so many other moments were kept out. The film has Whedon’s classic dialogue, and its characters are further fleshed out, but the film felt like too many puzzles pieces from too many different puzzles that just won’t fit together.

As far as performances go, the films newcomers are pretty great additions to the shared universe, specifically James Spader’s menacing Ultron and the Vision, played by Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Mortdecai) in a new role. The film also features a plethora of previously introduced characters back in the fray, like James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, TV’s House of Lies, Crash) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, Million Dollar Baby, Black or White). The returning Avengers cast have all grown closer and you can feel the comradery when needed. The Hulk and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation, Lucy) in particular have grown much closer since we last saw them together.

There are some particularly great sequences here, such as the moment when we are introduced to mind control due to Wanda’s abilities. We get a chance to dive into these characters’ psyches a bit further Joss Whedon even plays with our expectations that this film is going to be exactly like the previous film, opting to give more important screen time to Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker, Kill the Messenger). We also get our first look at Hulkbuster (named Project Veronica, as a play on Betty & Veronica, the Betty being Bruce’s previous love interest from The Incredible Hulk).

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Avengers: Age of Utron is the first Marvel film that absolutely cries out for an extended cut. There is just too much missing here, and its noticeable. There are numerous plot threads that don’t get the resolution they need. The film is explosively entertaining, but perhaps the most noticeably flawed Marvel film yet.  

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe  

So what did you think of Avengers: Age of Ultron? Did it assemble a perfect viewing experience or leave you wanting a different Vision of the superhero team? Let me know!  

For my review of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, click here.

For my review of Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, click here.

For my review of Anthony & Joe Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, click here.

For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, click here.

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