Monday 18 October 2021

Dune (Movie Review)

Rolling into 2021, one of my most anticipated movies for the year was the latest Hollywood adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. This was a book I had loved as a kid, captivated as I was by its descriptions of its desert world and the politics that governed that specific slice of the universe. And when word had initially come out that the movie was to be helmed by Denis Villeneuve, I couldn't think of a better director for the job. Now that the film is finally here, I am more than happy to share my thoughts on its grand ambitions and the overall quality of its execution.

The movie centers upon a young man named Paul Atredies (Timothy Chalamet), whose father is the leader of one of the great houses that make up the Galactic Empire. Despite being haunted by visions of a blue-eyed girl (Zendaya), he must instead grapple with the reality of his training to become leader of their house one day. But when his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), is appointed as steward of Arrakis, their entire family is forced to leave the comforts of their homeworld behind and forge a new path on the harsh desert planet.

It was always going to be a difficult task, adapting one of the most beloved sci-fi novels of the past century. And Denis Villeneuve steps up to that challenge with more than capable hands. Coming off the critical success he'd gotten with both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, the visionary director puts his skills to good use on a property that is often compared to the likes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. And while we can definitely see its source material's influence on the former, I think the only real connection with the latter is in its scale.

Everything about Dune feels grand and epic, with some of the best production design I've seen in a sci-fi movie. The world of Arrakis is brought to glorious life, matching much of what I'd conjured up in my mind while reading the book. Except the film even goes one step further with its wildly unique interpretations. Everything from the insect-like ornithopters to the completely massive sandworms speaks to that distinct vision, and it is all captured with some truly gorgeous cinematography.

Aside from looking great though, Dune still has a story to tell, and for the most part, it faithfully adapts the one we got in the novel. The movie is well-paced, moving the plot forward in a gradual flow that should keep most viewers engaged. It does a decent job of establishing all the key characters and background lore, without getting too bogged down in boring exposition or information dumps. That said, the film is kind of light on action, at least compared to the average blockbuster, and when that action does happen, it is played for emotions as much as it is spectacle, so anyone going in expecting your typical popcorn fare would be best off tapering those expectations.

On the acting side, the performances were uniformly great, with Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd in particular managing to chew some scenery as the villainous Baron Harkonnen. The music was also appropriately rousing, conjuring feelings of dread and wonder to go along with the onscreen visuals. But all that is not to say that the movie is without its flaws, the biggest of which stems from the nature of the adaptation itself. Adapting just the first half of the book means there is still half a book worth of story to tell, making the film as it is feel less satisfying as a result. 
I am also concerned about how none readers and science-fiction casuals might take to its sprawling worlds and jargon-heavy lore, without the benefit of all the background details Frank Herbert was able to cram into the novel. The ultimate test would be how the film performs when it releases in US and UK theaters. But if its success in international territories is any kind of indication, then those concerns could very much turn out to be unfounded.

Dune is one of the more faithful book-to-film adaptations I have seen in years. But even more than that, it is a movie that serves as another showcase for Denis Villeneuve's talents, cementing his position as one of the best sci-fi directors working today. And while it remains to be seen if his current saga will be able to rise to the level of pop culture relevance we saw with The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones (most likely not), it is still off to a great start and I am more than eager to see what comes next.

Friday 15 October 2021

Halloween Kills (Movie Review)

Following a year-long delay that was brought about by the ongoing pandemic, Michael Myers returns this Halloween to do what he does best. And with a title as on the nose as Halloween Kills, it is anybody's guess what that is. The film marks the second entry in the current trilogy, after the first one pretty much retconned everything that happened beyond the 1978 classic. But does the new film move the franchise forward in any meaningful way, or is it just another case of more of the same?

Set immediately after the events of the previous movie, we once again find masked killer Michael Myers defying the odds. He somehow manages to escape the carefully-laid-out trap he'd been left in at the end of the 2018 film, as he goes on to continue his killing spree through the small town. Except the townsfolk have had enough. So in a classic case of the hunter becoming the hunted, they form an angry mob in a bid to put an end to his reign of terror. But it quickly becomes clear that they are in over their heads when he proves quite resilient and almost impossible to kill.

Halloween Kills is yet another trudge through an all-too-familiar path. The movie pulls all of the same punches we've seen in previous entries, and it does so without bringing anything new to the table. The result is that the entire thing starts to feel like filler before long, or a stopgap before the inevitable final film in the new trilogy. But even taken into consideration within its own limited playground, the film simply doesn't offer nearly enough thrills or reasons for its existence.

I'd even go one step further and say that it simply lacked any true sense of dread or quality scares, which is what one primarily goes into these movies for. Michael Myers was the same old Michael Myers we've been getting since 1978, with no added depth or dimension to his character. Jamie Lee Curtis was easily the best part of the previous movie, and even she was pretty much underutilized and out of commission for the better part of this one. And none of the other supporting characters were anywhere near as compelling, making it hard to really care when they start to get killed off one by one.

Speaking of which, this is the one area where the movie attempts to raise the bar, the actual kills themselves. And it certainly had its fair share, so gorehounds should be pleased in that regard. Some of those kills border on the edge of comedy though, requiring a level of suspension of disbelief I wasn't expecting to find in a modern-day slasher film. It is hard to take the film seriously, not when it has some of the most cartoonish deaths I've seen outside of the Final Destination series.

Halloween Kills feels like extended setup for Halloween Ends, the third and hopefully final installment of what is clearly an aging franchise. And much like the masked killer at the center of its plot, the whole thing feels rote and stuck in its ways. Anyone hoping for the kind of revitalization we saw in the previous film would be better off tapering those expectations. But for anyone just looking for a half decent slasher film to watch this Halloween, then there is some rudimentary fun to be had with this one.

Saturday 2 October 2021

No Time to Die (Movie Review)

The 25th entry in the James Bond series is finally here, following its much publicized delays in the wake of COVID-19 concerns last year. The landmark film marks Daniel Craig's final outing as its eponymous secret agent, a role he has played since Casino Royale in 2006. And in all that time, the actor has come to define that role, so watching him say goodbye to the character was always going to be a bittersweet affair. But does his fifth and final appearance as Bond do justice to his tenure?

In No Time to Die, everyone's favorite MI6 agent is forced out of retirement when the world is once again threatened by the terrorist organization, Spectre. And things have changed somewhat since the last time he was on her Royal Majesty's secret service. Not only has MI6 been caught dabbling in some shady dealings, he must also contend with his replacement, a new hotshot agent. But the two must learn to work together to bring down the terrorist organization once and for all.

Let me start by confessing that I wasn't all that keen on Spectre when I saw it in 2015. It was a movie I'd found to be quite forgettable amongst other things. So watching No Time to Die, which is effectively a direct sequel, it almost felt like I was missing a big chunk of the narrative. The film does its best to fill in those blanks, but I guess what I'm saying is your enjoyment of No Time to Die could very well hinge on how much you'd enjoyed the previous movie.
All that said, No Time to Die is definitely an improvement over Spectre. The film finds Bond doing what he does best, except he is even more world weary this time around, having suffered some crushing emotional blows in his time as a double O. It also subverts expectations by throwing away some of the well-worn tropes the franchise has come to be known for, like the action packed cold opens that has defined the last couple of entries. 
But the whole thing ultimately feels the same, with yet another global threat that must be stopped before it is too late. And speaking of that threat, Rami Malek plays the film's villain, Safin, in a performance I found to be quite on the nose. He was certainly as villainous as they come, but came too close to mustache-twirling territory for my liking. The movie is also overlong, stretching towards the three-hour mark without really justifying why it needed to do so.

I guess my biggest gripe with No Time to Die is the fact that it doesn't really give any indication of what to expect with the James Bond franchise going forward. Most likely we'll be getting another reboot sometime down the line, so anyone going into the movie expecting some kind of passing of the torch might come out sorely disappointed. But negatives aside, the film still manages to shine due to its focus on its central hero and his storied history.

No Time to Die is a fitting end to the Daniel Craig era of Bond movies. It builds upon everything that came before it to give the actor one of the more emotional sendoffs in the franchise's 25-film history. And while it doesn't reach the same heights as a Casino Royale or Skyfall, it still manages to satisfy as it caps off what is surely one of the best runs we've had since we were first introduced to Bond.