Dune

Written by Taylor Baker

50/100

Unless you’ve been under a rock the last two and a half years you surely know that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is finally being released to both theatrical and home audiences via HBO Max on October 22nd. Like me you may have had some of your most blissful cinematic moments with Villeneuve. From his enthralling detective drama Prisoners to his otherworldly narrating fish in Maelström Denis has constantly shirked convention and brought to life a visual story that feels fresh or an improvisation on the previous tools of cinema. Which is a long way of saying that walking into a Villeneuve film feels very much like walking into a Spielberg. You have expectations, how could you not. And unfortunately those expectations were unmet.

Anyone familiar with Dune knows the moments that are cinematic and has personal moments that are cinematic to them, the ones that played like a filmbook in their heads, whether it’s the thopter rescue sequence on Arrakis, Paul reaching into the box, the hunter seeker sequence, or the siege by the Harkonnen. You will have personally had these sprawling crystal clear visions of cinematic splendor or stark pieces of affecting drama in your head. And that’s precisely where Dune begins to fall apart; nothing feels personal. Intimacy is missing between the audience and the vistas of Arrakis, the characters of Dune, and it’s storyline. From the lack of world building to the poorly framed miniatures on screen meant to erupt as yawning behemoths, even the worlds of Calladan and Arrakis are small. They lack character, their meaning to the audience is clouded and we’re nearly always briskly trotting somewhere new with Paul which keeps us from ever becoming invested in the characters around him, which are the true magic of the world.

Despite the scaling issues, the drop off from Villeneuve’s recent SciFi film collaborators is noticeable. The step down from Roger Deakins in Blade Runner 2049 with some of the best cinematography in the last decade and Bradford Young in Arrival with a intimacy and love sickness that somehow feels woven into the imagery to recent Adam McKay collaborator Greig Fraser is severe. The layered compositions are absent, instead stark cold images hang like laundry on screen, uninteresting and rigid. Obscured by nothing and harshly naked. The images aren’t zhuzhed up, they don’t seem to have been made with an effort to make them more appealing, or framed in a way to exemplify the scale we should feel we’re witnessing. Not just the cinematography but the whole film seems like more than this team was capable of taking on. But I must commend the splendor and effectiveness of Hans Zimmer’s score. Using an assortment of wind instruments to make the sands and billowing winds of Arrakis come to life aurally. With Bagpipes, wind chimes, and what seems to be the sounds of wind itself used in tandem with other musical components. Zimmer schemed out and achieved something big through small choices to conjure the atmosphere of an otherwise meaningless place.

Huge performers like Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin scarcely have a moment of solitude or development. Everything is reactionary, and what brief exposition is achieved is typically narrowly focused on Paul in ways that don’t inform the feeling of the further picture at large. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s portrayal of the Mentat Thufir Hawat is one particularly effective bit of casting that allows one of our era’s great character actors to use his miniscule moments to humanize and embolden the sentimentality of what we’re witnessing. Chalamet is restrained, perhaps those not looking for a 14 year old boy will be more moved by his performance, but with all the other poorly stacked bricks underneath him Chalamet’s Paul fell apart. Over acting in moments and seeming like stone in others. Charlotte Rampling’s Reverend Mother Mohaim thankfully does lots of heavy lifting unquestionably in mere moments. As does Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Oscar Isaac is sturdy, believable and as you might expect from my previous words underused. In Dune’s case I think it’s safe to say the volume of talent has nothing to do with it’s issues. But rather the strategy at play to employ the available resources.

If I were an audience member inexperienced with the narrative I think I would be lost. Failing to grasp the script or grandeur of the beginning of this otherworldly tale. Unsure of it’s religious names and their meanings, unclear on the topography of Arrakis, the distance of Calladan to Arrakis, where exactly the Empire is located(not to mention what they are), what the guilds are, or how interstellar travel is achieved from the spice. In essence this is nothing more than a proof of concept standard comic book hero origin story. The fact that at the end of the film we’re unclear not only all the things I mentioned but the very reason why Paul appears to be some sort of a religious figure to this planet is presumably an enormous reason why it fails. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a novel built on meaning, stakes, loss, hope, gains, and language itself. The fact that none of those strength are transitory into this representation of the narrative by Villeneuve despite the two additional writers that worked with him raises questions not only about the draft of this film. But the drafts of part 2 and further should they be allowed the chance to make further entries. You can’t remove the heart of Dune and still succeed in telling it’s story.

Perhaps my most biting piece of criticism would be to look at the exposition of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace of Star Wars. How clearly and how effectively it sets up the entire arc of what’s going on with the empire and in comparison how entirely unclear and incidental that understanding is conveyed to the audience, especially those unfamiliar with the sprawling tales of Frank Herbert on which it’s based. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t focus some attention on the bungled enterprise that was bringing Lady Jessica to life on screen. She not only lacks character but seems to be a constantly crying and cold woman. Nearly all we see is her crying, being silent, or harshly instructing Paul. A far cry from the intimacy and confrontations she shares with Duke Leto, Thufir Hawat, and Paul in the first novel. The very moments of the plot where her intimacy and character and complexity come to life have been erased, rushed passed completely without being compensated for. Leaving one to wonder how much is on the cutting room floor and why they would favor a shot of palm trees rather than a sequence under their new citadel on Arrakis that if you’re familiar with you’ll know is one of the most transitory moments of the novel in conveying the character of this mother and son to the reader. Dune isn’t a bad film, but it’s so cold, distant, and unsplendorous that it could be easily mistaken for the next high budget Amazon project that has no staying power. The excruciating wait for Dune did no favors for what was already a middling exercise in adaptation of a storied novel. If anything, maybe now we’ll all have a renewed appreciation for the undertaking of Lynch in his adaptation to tell the whole story (roughly) and establish the Empire and its politics and factions all in one feature. Any way you slice it Dune fails to live up to its expectations, fair or unfair as they may be. We’ll see if Denis gets to make Part Two but for now I’m not counting on it.

Dune Trailer

Dune releases in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22nd.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

No Time to Die (007)

Written by Taylor Baker

50/100

It’s been about a year and a half since No Time to Die was originally intended to bow into theaters. Cary Joji Fukanaga of True Detective fame, publicly picked up the fallen pieces of Boyle’s failed attempt to make Bond 25 back in 2018. Leading to what was described as rushed production. After viewing the finished product it’s hard to believe those reports were wrong. Fukanaga is mostly known for his HBO critical hit season 1 of the aforementioned True Detective, alongside later entries in his filmography with the likes of Netflix Limited Series Maniac, and a handful of films that have garnered critical acclaim. Most notable among then and also a Netflix Original Beasts of No Nation(which he also served as cinematographer for) from 2015. Fukanaga has been quietly accumulating one of the strongest and most singular voices in cinema since the late aughts. With excitement building around budding Global Starlet Ana de Armas coming off Blade Runner 2049 and the critical and audience success Knives Out alongside Craig as a heavily marketed new type of “Bond Girl”. And of course the fact that this is to serve as Craig’s last turn as Bond, James Bond. It seemed like everything was lining up for a brilliant rendition of everyone’s favorite British spy with a license to kill.

All this preamble serves not just as a historical assessment of how the film is hitting us now a year and a half after it was intended, but to frame the very real tangible expectations that it fails to live up to. No Time to Die is tasked with juggling multiple things, the end of Craig as Bond, storyline continuity (which Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been charged with 1999’s The World is Not Enough), a continuing romance, 4 writers(excluding Flemming’s “characters by” credit.), and a rushed production. Four writers as a rule of thumb is two to three too many. And on a ballooning franchise with so many interests, Nokia product placement deals and various other things to keep in order this finished product feels distinctly like multiple disjointed voices and parts Frankensteined together with so much production money that you can almost overlook perhaps the most underwhelming part of it, Rami Malek’s villain Safin.

Fukanaga’s best known for his visual cinematic prowess, which continues here, with exceptional extended sequences, meticulously crafted motion shots, effortless focus pulling… I could go on and on. But all that prowess in service of what? Some witty eyerolling jokes? Stakes that don’t ever become personal? A score of Indiana Jones references? It’s at once a self serious and self critical screenplay that fails to hone in on an actual narrative voice that lets us get a sense of what this Bond “wants”. Instead it shows what all Bond films always have, what he’s willing to die for. With more self reflexivity then we’ve seen recently, but not the interesting or good kind.

Overwrought with nonsensical symbolism, those big cinematic moments from the trailers play as well as you’d expect. The hallway and stairwell fight scenes are fun. de Armas despite her very very very brief time in the film is as charming as she is memorable. Once her sequence in Cuba ends I the rest of the runtime trying to drum up a reason in the plot for her to reappear. She doesn’t. She contrasts heavily against Seydoux’s generally eyerolling, uninteresting, and unfun Swann. I hate repeating myself within a review, but occasionally it’s necessary. The lack of emotionality to the various plot devices at work on screen is without question No Time to Die’s most glaring issue and likely what the film will be known for. Instead of a celebration Craig leaves Bond in an overlong stylized whimper.

No Time to Die Trailer

No Time to Die will be available via wide theatrical release on October 8th.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

First Man

Written by Taylor Baker

96/100

Visual Jazz

Chazelle assembles a first-rate series of high high’s, high low’s, low high’s, and low low’s. I couldn’t agree more with everyone heaping praise upon the technical proficiency found aboundingly in this film. If one were to put it in a class of technical mastery based off of recent films you would lump it amongst Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, and just ever so slightly beneath Mad Max: Fury Road. During this film I experienced shock, awe, jubilation, grief, anger, and solace. Chazelle tosses narrative norms to the side and brings you into an emotional ride loosely tied together by it’s handful of main characters and main goal.

Reach the Moon.

I’ve been trying to think about it’s narrative depths so as to express it’s wrinkles and omages and it keeps slipping through my fingers like that fine grain silt on the Moon’s surface. What I am absolutely certain of is that beauty and love are the two most apt words to describe what Chazelle packs into First Man’s omages to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lights reflected to us off of Gosling’s helmet near the end, the docking sequence, the brief AI concern, the Moon as a monolith, and that last shot of Foy reflected off the glass within Gosling’s head. The love while not easy to see on the surface was always there, it was behind everything. Behind the sacrifices.

Gosling’s performance is amazing, and of the Fall fare as of yet Foy’s supporting role is peerless. The entire ensemble is almost sure to grab the best ensemble cast this year unless Vice or Widows really floor audiences. This is a bonafide blockbuster and a wonder to behold. See it in a premium format if you can, whether it’s IMAX or Dolby you won’t be let down.

Highly Recommended.

Taylor Baker originally posted this review on Letterboxd 10/12/18