“Dune” Review — A Breathtaking Epic That Leaves Me Wanting More

In this year’s “Dune”, Denis Villeneuve takes Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, and adapts it into one of the most epic films of the year in terms of it’s scale and impact that it will have on 2021’s cinematic offerings. The cinematography is just absolutely stunning, the characters are deeply storied, and the tensions are vast. Everything you could come to expect from the film, is hand delivered to you. But when it’s done, you’re just left wanting more.

“Dune,” follows suit with many now-established science fiction tropes, although it is to be said that they were inspired/created by the original source material. There is a vast power struggle brewing, a power-hungry villain, and what science fiction/fantasy world would be complete without a Savior. Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Atreides, Oscar Issac, and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). On one side, he is being raised as the future of House Atreides; and on the other he is being raised as Lisan al-Gaib, or simply the Messiah. His mother Jessica does this as an acolyte of the “Bene Gesserit,” a female group whose mission is to breed together different bloodlines until they create “The One.”

Now one of the best movies to do this kind of world building and show that there is one person made for this divine purpose and is set to save everybody and defeat evil, and what you think of the entire time, is “Star Wars”. It’s nearly impossibly to see the resemblance and think of while watching this movie. And what Star Wars did well, so does “Dune.” It gives some truly incredible world-building paired with incredible visuals to back it up. Especially when compared to David Lynch’s 1984 attempt, this film does everything better. The story is more compelling the visuals are a tool rather than a distraction.

Now, getting into the movie itself. And be warned, this will get into some spoilers for the movie. So for the faint of heart, beware.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

We start with voiceover narration from Chani (Zendaya), who gives us the first backdrop for the movie. For 80 years, Arrakis has been governed and ruled by the Harkonnen. They rule with absolute authority, and work to produce a valuable resource known as spice, an obvious metaphor for oil and drugs. It produces superhuman abilities such as extended life, and achieving higher levels of thought. Spice also gives the ability for faster-than-light travel, making it incredibly valuable. From the occupation of Arrakis, the Harkonnen have grown incredibly rich, even mores than the Emperor that assigned them to the planet.

But after 80 years, the Emperor makes a change. He assigns House Atreides to Arrakis. A move known to Duke Atreides as a setup. He knows that a power change like this will cause chaos and war. So it is his intention to befriend the natural occupants of the planet, the Fremen, to fill the space their dominance has lacked: desert.

There are some remarkable moments in the first 30 minutes of the movie that set up what’s to come. We find the first inklings of Paul’s abilities, he dreams of events that will happen (the Sight) and his mother helps him to hone his ability to command others (the Voice). These again start to show the influence this novel had on science fiction, taken right off the page and dropped into “Star Wars.” And we see some truly haunting scenes with Baron Harkonnen (an incredibly transformed Stellan Skarsgård), who is constantly setting the plot into motion: kill off the Atreides to take back Arrakis.

Where some movies might choose to see a bit more of a struggle, the Baron is pretty successful. Just about everybody the movie throws at you that you care about is killed, but not without a fight. Duke Atreides gets poisoned by the house doctor, but is given a cyanide-pill like tooth that expels poison in the area around him. Duncan Idaho (a great friend to Paul, played by Jason Momoa), dies in an incredible fight scene stalling the attacking army so Paul and Jessica can escape. And this all leads to the third act, Paul and Jessica attempting to go further into the desert to get the help of the Fremen led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem) Paul has an intense ritual duel with Jamis where he is doubted to win, but ends up coming on top and taking his first life to survive.

Now let’s talk about all of this. The film opens up with the title “Dune: Part I” and that really already hooks you in. For the next 2 hours and 35 minutes, you know there’s going to be another one, a promise that something as epic as this movie is something that will be continued, and has too much for just one movie. I think where this fails the movie though, is that you know there’s going to be a next one. While we do lose a bit of the characters, we know the story isn’t over at the end. This is where some franchises greatly fail. Where others like “Star Wars” succeed is that it sort of ends as a closed story. The other movies are just in addition, and to build upon the story in better and more intense ways.

Now the ending does leave you wanting more, we see the Fremen and Paul walking further into the desert, even seeing somebody in the distance riding a sandworm, but that’s about it. Nothing is really resolved, and no real satisfaction aside from Paul’s victory. But the second movie hasn’t been made yet. I’m sure tons of planning and pre-production thought has been put into what we will see and how it will be tackled producing the film in even more of a pandemic. But the possibility of a second film will largely depend on the success of this movie. With it being a highly anticipated film with incredible talent drawing audiences, I’m sure it will not be hard. But with it already leaking online, releasing same-day on HBO Max, and further surges of COVID-19, it definitely has an uphill climb to make.

That may sound really negative, but I don’t see it that way. This movie was incredibly engrossing, and has some of the best cinematography (Greig Fraser) this year has offered thus far. The score by Hans Zimmer is addictive and has been playing the entire time this review has been written. And the performances all around left nothing to be desired. Everybody is incredible, whether how much or little screen time they had (cough cough, David Dastmalchian.) It lived up to the hype for me, and whether or not Part II comes, I’m glad to have been able to experience it.

My Rating:

“The Suicide Squad” — A Blend of Heart, Gore… and American Intervention?

There have been two sides to filmmaker James Gunn and his mainstream career: there is Gunn the director, who works with oddball ensembles of outcasts trying to resolve their trauma through family surrogate (both Guardians of the Galaxy entries being the obvious examples); then there is the writer-producer Gunn who rides the wave of blood and gore to the heart of the audience (The Belko Experiment, Slither, and Dawn of the Dead). His latest work The Suicide Squad – not to be confused with 2016’s Suicide Squad – is a blend of both worlds. The film is at its best when it embraces this fusion instead of stretching too far out of its element with its performative investigation of American imperialism.

The rules of the game are the same as last time. Incarcerated supervillains are volun-told by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to partake in seemingly impossible missions in exchange for 10 years removed from their prison sentences. The mission? Destroy any and all data relating to a Project Starfish on the South American island of Corto Maltese after a coup leads to the establishment of an anti-American government. There are two teams on the island, unbeknownst to the players and the audience. Colonel Rick Flag and Harley Quinn (Joel Kinnaman and Margot Robbie) are the only survivors of the first team, and the progression of the film volleys back and forth between the main objective and uniting the two characters with the second team, led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba).

Unlike its predecessor, the cast buzzes with chemistry. It may not lean as heavily into the surrogate family model that’s been part of Gunn’s filmography, but there are compelling dynamics between all of the actors. Elba’s Bloodsport shines brightest when he shares the screen with Ratcatcher 2 and Peacemaker (Daniela Melchior and John Cena). Melchior’s kindness and the friendship between Flag and Quinn is almost enough to counteract the callousness of the film’s violence, but it’s difficult for this writer to forget the ease it took to mass murder a coalition of freedom fighters on the island fighting the new regime. The point was already made in the film’s first 10 minutes it was going to be a bloody ride. Was it necessary to display American assets, particularly someone named Peacemaker, rampage through a camp of defenseless non-white people? Never mind the fun the movie seemed to be having with it.

Of course, that isn’t to say things like that don’t happen. There are countless examples of American-sponsored genocide and intervention. It feels like Gunn wants to be genuine with his critique of America’s influence abroad, but the film disrespects the very people it aims to save. Very American if one thinks about it. The people of Corto Maltese are props. Even the leader of the coalition, Sol Soria (Alice Braga), is more-or-less unbothered upon discovering her entire camp being murdered. This is easier for her to do at the behest of Flag, who insists the mission is the same and they’re on the same side. There’s a huge Spongebob “we saved the city” vibe in the end when, literally seconds after the climactic battle, amongst the rubble of her home, Soria conducts an interview saying the country will have free democratic elections. The whole angle doesn’t feel completely thought out, thus it doesn’t feel genuine.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Bad politics aside, the film’s writing and editing leave one wanting less. Robbie is a natural as Quinn, but if she were to be removed from the story, it’s mostly the same film. We love to see the acrobatic Quinn break dudes necks with her thighs or to see her explode in a flowery storm of bullets and blood, yet her role is distant from the others and disconnected from the overall narrative. The film’s editing also can’t seem to get out of its own way, cutting away just before certain line deliveries that went in perfect harmony with its corresponding image. It does it again as the final battle reaches a head when the film opts for a brief flashback. These editing decisions were enough to take this viewer out of the moment.

The film does deserve points for its creature design. A giant, all-consuming starfish from space? It’s more memorable than most generic final boss battles in this genre. Gunn’s true love for the misunderstood can be seen through Starro the Conqueror, who was captured by astronauts and experimented on ever since. Seemingly capable of infinite growth, to the point where it could go full face-hugger on the entire Earth, it does come across a little odd that it would be satisfied with simply taking the island of Corto Maltese. Regardless, the decision to possess the citizens of the island and use them as a mouthpiece for Starro gives the creature a hint of a personality, capped off with its final line, reminiscing its time floating through space while in the throes of death.

Thus concludes this mixed review for this mixed movie. While Gunn’s work shouldn’t be labeled as subversive, it does usually have its own voice that balances between brutishness and empathy. Suicide Squad veers more into the former than the latter. It certainly isn’t boring and most people will vibe with the hectic energy. Some jokes land better than others. For the love of God, COVID or no COVID, cover your mouth when you cough.

RATING:

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” Is A Pain to Look At

If there is one saving grace for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and the universe it dwells in, it’s love.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) yet again find themselves at the center of a paranormal event that begins with the exorcism of eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). David’s entire family, including his sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook) and her boyfriend Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor). The evening erupts into chaos when the entity possessing David wreaks havoc on the family. Pretty much ripped right out of The Exorcist, the scene lacks originality or any depth beyond attempting to shock the viewer with how outlandish the boy’s body contorts itself into knots coupled with a superficial sound design. This is not the only time it does something in this nature either. The scene comes to a head when Arne pleads for the entity to take him instead of the boy. Once the transfer happens, everything calms and the battle is over for now since apparently no one saw this happen other than Ed, who is incapacitated after suffering a heart injury. Arne, now harboring what the Warrens will find out to be a witch’s curse, murders his girlfriend’s boss, thus leading to the first known court case in which the defense argued for their client’s innocence based on the grounds of demonic possession.  

While the real-life famous couple’s authenticity is debatable, the care portrayed by Wilson and Farmiga between their characters has always been the strength of this franchise. Director Michael Chaves and writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick put the Warrens in a dilemma by limiting what Ed does throughout the film due to his injury – although it picks and chooses when this limitation can be seen. Chaves and crew are wishy-washy with this strategy and eventually just forgo it, so the story still ends up being Ed saving Lorraine from the clutches of witchcraft. Their tenderness towards one another also has included an intimate family setting. Interfering with this foundation puts the film in an odd place that fluctuates in tone. A chunk of it takes a stab at being an investigative thriller; some of it courtroom drama; too little of it scary. Whatever sequences that try to be scary are run of the mill. Lots of staring into dark spaces, waiting for something to charge in an overused crab-walk, no dread behind it.

The movie is also ugly. Its drab color palette is muted with the woes of MCU-like greys. Apart from a handful of well-composed shots, the cinematography creates a forgettable experience. There’s nothing stress-invoking about the CGI-constructed demonic face morphs and body mutilations that haven’t been done dozens of times now. Even its “twist” is one that can be seen from a mile away, but the same can be pretty much said about everything else in this.

Even though we’re now three movies into this franchise, not counting the number of spinoffs its inspired, it’s still no more interested in filling out the world the Warrens inhabit beyond reaping the rewards of dramatizing another one of their cases. The lore never goes beyond the cases. There’s no love shown towards their daughter this time around, a key figure in the previous sequel. Their loyal partner Drew (Shannon Kook) is no more than a yes man with no depth beyond pitching the occasional good idea. And while the romance between Ed and Lorraine resembles authenticity, the same cannot be said about the one between Arne and Debbie. Whatever focus is given to their relationship is superficial, even while Debbie remains unquestionably loyal to her future husband whom she would marry while he served his five-year prison sentence for his murder.

The decision to play real recordings of the exorcism of David and an interviewer asking the Warrens what they think the ramifications will be in the legal system if anyone can claim demonic possession is… an interesting one. Whether it was intended by Chaves or not, the move feels like pulling the rug from under our feet. The Conjuring films have held the Warrens to this fairy tale pedestal yet chooses to undermine that by including the audio. In a stronger version of this film, their actions and the ripple effect that comes from them would be the central theme – one that is introspective and thought-provoking. Instead, one has to surrender to the idea that the audio was simply included just for the sake of scares. It’s thoughtless, effortless, and unoriginal as a whole.

RATING:

“After Hours” Review — A Fever Dream Masterpiece

“I’ll probably get blamed for that.”

After Hours (1985), is such an insane, fever dream of a movie. It tests its characters to their absolute limits, seeing how much you can really put somebody through.But what the movie really asks of Paul, and of the audience, is why is this happening?

It starts off with Paul (Griffin Dunne) at work as a word processor, training a new kid how to run the computer file systems. The kid tells him how this isn’t how he wants to spend his life, how it’s boring, and that he has bigger plans for himself than just being a word processor. This scene is so important to Paul’s character, since it most likely is why he went out in the first place. Feeling the need for spontaneity in his life and wanting to be more than just a word processor. In Paul’s words, he wants to just go out, have fun, and meet a girl.

“What do you want from me? I’m just a word processor!”

But Paul does go out, reading his favorite book in a nearby coffee shop where he meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). They hit it off, and he gets her number after being intrigued by some Plaster of Paris paperweights her friend makes. She leaves and he heads home, calling the number as soon as he does. She invites him over to where she’s staying so they can talk more. It made me think of the same thing that happens in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when Jim Carrey calls Kate Winslet, saying that oddly enough he missed her, which holds two possible references to this movie with that exchange being shared with another character.

This is where the movie starts drifting away from any sort of normal narrative and we take a trip into the fever dream. From the incessant cab ride on, Paul gets blamed for a string of burglaries in the area, sought after by a violent mob, and mummified. Things that you see, and you really do start to sympathize for Paul. Many times, he is so close, but not quite there to being able to just… get… home.

A lot of this movie is insanely frustrating like that, but in a very funny way. Maybe due to just how ridden with anxiety the film makes the viewer. Two immediate scenes that stick out in this regard, when Paul is at the subway station trying to buy a ticket home and the attendant (Murray Moston) just isn’t having it. As well as the scene in the bar where Tom the bartender (John Heard) is trying to get change out of the register so he can take the subway home… that’s cinema right there. There’s also just a hilarious moment in the diner where Victor Argo’s character has ready the cheeseburger and coffee that Paul had ordered before dashing away. What this leads to, is that this movie, on top of being just very insane, is very funny. Something that is always appreciated, because we know Martin Scorsese can mix humor well in his movies. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street’ and Goodfellas for examples of movies that aren’t exactly comedies but have so many moments where you just cannot help but start laughing.

And what is this movie if not for its supporting cast, who do just as good a job as Dunne in this movie. We also have the unusual sculptress friend Kiki played by Linda Fiorentino. June (Verna Bloom), Neil and Pepe (Cheech and Chong), Julie (Teri Garr), and there’s even more where that came from. But those are the ones that really shine and help fill out the rest of this ensemble. I won’t lie either, the scenes with John Heard were some of my favorite in the movie.

What really makes this movie work is that is no real message or lesson to be learned. It really is, as they say, ‘No Plot Just Vibes: The Movie’. There are some existential moments, and you start to look for answers seeing how this could be happening to somebody like Paul, but there are no answers. Paul is just having a really, really bad night. But of course, the movie wants you to think about what’s happening and why, because that’s what Paul is asking himself. Look at all the closeups on Paul during these things, look at the confused look. He never really asks himself, why is this happening? Not out loud anyways.

My Rating: 5/5

Overall, I think it’s one of Scorsese’s best films, and one of his most undervalued. I mean, if you look on IMDb it’s ranked 17thin his filmography, and 14th on Letterboxd in terms of popularity. I also find it just very hard to find things wrong with this movie. I don’t think wondering what’s going on is a fault to this film but is the point and helps the movie in its existence.

If you do want to watch the movie, it was streaming, making it very accessible, but is only available for rent or purchase at the time of writing. In this writer’s opinion though, it is easily worth a few dollars and cents to watch.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” Sundance 2021 Review

Nicolas Cage is on an insanely weird streak of movies with MANDY, COLOR OUT OF SPACE, and the latest PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND
And I absolutely love it. I feel like he’s in a position where he can just do whatever he wants and it works. Who else has that kind of acting force? I’m not even kidding at all when I say Nicolas Cage is one of the most legendary performers of our time.

The film takes place in Japan but is an English language film. A first for Sion Sono. The premise is simple, Nicolas Cage is a criminal who was recruited to find and return The Governor’s adopted granddaughter. Simple enough, right? WRONG. The twist is the Nicolas Cage is forced to wear a suit rigged with explosives that will self destruct in 3 days (5 really, but watch the damn movie). What follows is absolutely insane and I won’t say much more, as I think you should go into this as unknowingly as you can.

This is definitely one of the most original films I’ve seen in a while, and from what I’ve heard is one of Sion Sono’s tamer films which makes me think of how weird and unhinged his other films are.
If you’re a Nicolas Cage fan or a fan of just weird-ass movies, this is a must-watch.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” Sundance 2021 Review

Wow. Shaka King has given us something that is so powerful. I can’t even begin to talk about how much this film is going to affect people.

Every. Single. Performance. Is. Incredible.

They joke that Lakeith’s character should get an Academy Award in this movie, and I would be shocked if he, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, or anybody else in this movie isn’t part of next year’s nomination list. This year, 1969, has been covered so much in the past couple of years and while that was.. man 52 years ago, everything going on back that is as relevant then as it is now. Racial inequality and police brutality (to put it lightly) are constantly at the forefront of discussion at both points in time. I wish we could look back and say.. wow what crazy times folks like that lived in. But the reality is, it’s not much better now.

It is.. a haunting film in that regard and in others. But I honestly do not have much else to say right now. This is something that needs to be seen. Luckily, you won’t have to wait much longer as it is being released in theaters and HBO Max on February 12th. Please, seek this out.

My Rating: 4/5

“On the Count of Three” Sundance 2021 Review

Alright I love this so much. I loved the performances, the writing, the suspense being felt the entire time.

And it makes sense that Jerrod Carmichael is a comedian, because as dark as this movie seems based on the premise, it’s a dark comedy and I love that a lot. Sometimes the one-off jokes made seem a bit much, but overall; I don’t know it was just really entertaining and interesting and I liked it a lot. The overall mixture between comedy and seriousness is a line that is walked very confidently in this film.

Christopher Abbott man.. he’s really been doing it for me lately. With Possessor and Black Bear from last year alone, he’s been in so much that I absolutely love. And everything I see him in I start to love him even more. Interesting that the cast members from GIRLS that are out there doing really interesting stuff are the boys from girls.

I honestly don’t have a lot to say about this film, but I feel like I should. I responded to this a lot. I think I just have to mellow around with this in my mind for a while, and I 100% need to watch it again. This will not be for everybody, and there are parts of it that are a bit.. much if you’ve been in this world. For me, the ending (while expected) was that for me, a bit much.

Seek this out, if you think you can. I’m sure this will make its way around and A24 I’m looking at you to take care of it.

My Rating: 4/5

“John and the Hole” Sundance 2021 Review

I’m gonna be repetitive as hell and say how much this feels like a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. With the out there plot, as well as a dark and sinister feel.

I honestly didn’t expect much from this, mostly just joking: “What if there was a hole”. And I probably still will. But I liked this more than I thought that I would! It has a hole! And John! What more could you ask for?

I do think this film would have been bumped up for me had the ending changed. It does feel a bit weird to have a.. happy ending for lack of a better term. It just doesn’t feel right for this movie. I think that last pool scene should have been it.

But alas, it was not. Charlie Shottwell was pretty good in this. A bit stiff at times with dialogue but overall I liked the performance. Everybody else was pretty good too. I bet this is gonna be picked up by Blumhouse. I don’t think it has the appeal of A24 like people are saying it does. But I bet Blumhouse could market this pretty well!

My Rating: 2.5/5

“I Was a Simple Man” Sundance 2021 Review

Maybe we don’t deserve to go so easily

This film is so beautifully acted.

I honestly was bored at first and couldn’t see where this was going. Then we see Masao start to get sick. And as time goes, not only does Masao come to terms with his eventual death, but the viewer does as well.

Personally, I’ve never died. But damn if the process doesn’t scare the fuck out of me. It looks like it hurts. It hurts to watch Masao as he knows what’s coming and rejects most assistance, refusing to explain what’s going on to the doctors. Even though he knows what’s coming, he still puts himself through it.

The jumps in time, fleeting memories really, are so beautiful. They tell of the time of Hawaii becoming a state, Masao running away in his youth, all things that would fundamentally change him as a person. Before.. he was so simple. But when he ran away, his parents and siblings would die. And he would become angry. Then his love would die, and he would become a sad shell of the simple man he used to be.

This is a bit of a slow burn, but if that’s your thing (I know it is for me) it’s definitely worth your time. Seek this out, I can’t recommend it enough.

My Rating: 3.5/5

“Cryptozoo” Sundance 2021 Review

I had no idea what to expect going into this.

I knew that the voice cast was pretty cool, the animation was gonna be interesting, and that a bunch of mythological creatures would be present.

And I think I’ll start with the animation, which was pretty awesome. Hand drawn animation is always really cool to me, and I’ll always appreciate it so much. I think it was really neat, and had so many interesting quirks and cool little things.

As for the voice cast, there were some cool names but I don’t think it was very.. good? Seemed very stiff to me. But otherwise, I thought it was fine.

I think this film is just not for me. There wasn’t anything for me to latch on to with the story. While being amazed with the different animations and creatures, that’s all there was for me.

My Rating: 2.5/5