Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Dune (2021)

DUNE (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve  Runtime: 2 hr 35 min  Rated: PG-13

Studio: Legendary Pictures  Based on: Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’

Screenwriter: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve

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

Dune is a science fiction saga layered with all the typical trappings of humanity. Rife with greed and civil unrest as a set of noble houses control planets for resources, wealth, and power. Often to the detriment of the locals. 

Not too far into the film, and I’m having a flashback to 2015’s Jupiter Ascending, which was marginally more exciting than this film. 

In Dune, the house of Atreides is given stewardship of planet Arrakis by the overlord of all the houses-the Emperor. House Atreides, people of a water planet, go to Arrakis, a desert world, to mine spice. It’s the only thing of value to the houses because though spice is a drug; they also use it to navigate space. Okay. Spice is only on Arrakis, with two other things: the locals, known as the Freemen, and massive sandworms. 

The Freemen walk in a certain way to not cause unnatural vibrations in the sand that would otherwise attract the worms. They also wear special garb to help them endure the intense heat of the surface. Freemen characters are Chani (Zendaya), Stilgar (Bardem), and Dr. Kynes (Duncan-Brewster). Dr. Kynes has the most screen time out of these three, and the trailers for this movie imply the other two have more significant roles than they do. So if you see Dune just because they are in it, you’ll have to wait for most of the film and will be vastly disappointed. 

Javier Bardem’s Stilgar in ‘Dune’ Image: Legendary Pictures via IGN.com

The previous stewards of Arrakis, House Harkonnen, mined the spice for 80 years and left abruptly. Houses Harkonnen and Atreides are sworn enemies but obey the Emperor’s decree of change. Still with me?

Paul Atreides (Chalamet) is the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac), next in line to rule his homeworld. Paul follows his father and mother, Lady Jessica (Ferguson), to Arrakis to learn how to lead more. Dune is billed as a sci-fi hero’s journey of a young boy born for a destiny he can’t grasp. A journey to provide safety for his people and family, all while not giving into fear. 

Frank Herbert originally published Dune in 1965. 

‘Dune’ Spice harvester Image: Legendary Pictures via WSJ.com

To get to my following observation, let me highlight some key phrases and notions about Dune. 1. An Emperor (really) 2. Mine spice (Kessel) 3. Planet of sand (Tatooine) 4. Massive worms (Sarlacc pit, or Jabba) 5. Walking a certain way (Sand people) 6. Wear special garb (Sand people) 7. Hero’s journey (Luke) 8. A Young boy(Luke/Anakin) 9. Destiny (Luke/Anakin) 10. Not giving in to fear (Jedi) 11. High council (Jedi)12. Superpowers (the Force) 13. Imperium (Empire). I could go on. Before seeing this version of Dune, I knew nothing about it. I had never read the books or seen the previous movies, so I walked into the theater with no pre-knowledge or conceptions. However, after only a few minutes into the film, I was beyond irritated. 

This irritation was because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much George Lucas poached from Frank Herbert. Not drew on as inspiration, full-on stole. George Lucas released the first of his Star Wars films, A New Hope, twelve years after Dune was published. Yes, the troupes of a young hero’s journey, saving one’s family, and the notion of destiny are all well used throughout cinema and literary works; but this is something else. 

Sandworm of Arrakis in ‘Dune’ Image: Legendary Pictures via Looper.com

My urge to slap George Lucas aside, Villeneuve’s Dune isn’t worth the hype. It’s dull, cold, and wastes its runtime with lackluster performances. This film should have had gravitas and more substance, considering the vast source material available. I saw the trailer like millions of others, but I was unimpressed. The movie, like the trailer, left me with no investment in the plot or the characters. Dune’s filmmaker expects the audience to care and follow along with this story, though there’s no satisfaction at the end. 

Why is there no satisfaction or excitement to find out what happens next? Imagine the following: you wake to strangers in your home, there’s shooting, fire, and death. Therefore you flee for your life through dangerous parts of town to seek shelter and help from people you barely know. All while not disturbing the gigantic sandworms and daydreaming about a girl. These people agree to help you- end film. Without actual spoilers, I just summed up Dune

Zendaya in ‘Dune.’ Image: Legendary Pictures via nerdist.com

Villeneuve cuts Dune off after two-and-a-half hours with no actual climax/resolution. Walking through worm-infested dunes isn’t a proper climax. It’s a bloody boring letdown. As an avid reader and fan of films, I know that movies rarely do their sourcebooks justice. Even though I haven’t read Dune, I don’t believe the first novel ended the way the film did. Please correct me if I’m wrong because Dune is one of the top 100 books of all time. 

How does such a popular novel make it to the silver screen with lackluster cast performance, pace, and lack of details? The most energy any character provides is Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, discounting Brolin and Bautista’s roles as gruff, angry soldiers. That’s not a stretch for them, so I hardly call it acting. 

Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen in ‘Dune.’ Image: Legendary Pictures via latimes.com

Stellan Skarsgård’s depiction of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen was said to be terrifying. I’m a big fan of Mr. Skarsgård’s work, and terrifying isn’t the word I would use to describe him in this film. Authoritative, vengeful, physically imposing (he’s a tall man in real life) who flies, which I find to be a weird ability, but not terrifying. Again I haven’t read the books; maybe he’s amazingly terrific as his literary counterpart description. 

The Lady Jessica is credited as Atreides but is referred to as the Dukes’ concubine in the film. If she’s his concubine, she’s not his wife. Either way, she is the mother of the Dukes’ son, Paul. The Lady Jessica is part of the Bene Gesserit, a political shadow group of sorceress with a breeding program. Again, I have that Star Wars connection in my mind. Breeding, cloning. Female sorceress’s, the Nightsisters of Dathomir. By and large, Ferguson’s emotional range is that of a brick wall. 

Chalamet, Ferguson, and Isaac in ‘Dune’ Image: Legendary Pictures via Screenrant.com

Ferguson is a brick wall, and Timothée Chalamet is a wet mop. Why is there hype around this kid? Harry Potter had more emotional responses about his dead parents, whom he’d never met than Paul does about any of the stuff happening around him. And Paul is a lot older than an eleven-year-old. For that matter, Harry’s dead parents in memory form or in moving magical photos conveyed more emotion for their son than Lady Jessica. 

It’s not fair that all I can think about is Star Wars when watching this; Frank Herbert really should have sued George Lucas at some point. Star Wars has plenty of other things that separate it from Dune. Still, so many of the broad strokes are not original, leaving me with a bitter taste in my mouth about the franchise. Herbert crafted a sci-fi series in novel form, and had George Lucas never come along with Star Wars, who knows how popular the Dune series cinematically could have been long term. All it needed was a studio, cast, and director, along with an excellent screenplay to bring it all to life- a few decades too late. Instead, now, Dune is left seeming like recycled content. 

Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in ‘Dune.’ Image: Legendary Pictures via Vanityfair.com

The script and direction should be solid when watching a big-budget film with a solid cast based on a classic novel. The passage of too much time and George Lucas robbed Dune of its full potential. Try as Denis Villeneuve did to make a better version of the 1984 attempt of Dune; it still falls flat. The devil is in the details, and there were not enough of them for Dune to resonate as the larger-than-life story it’s branded to be. 

Hopefully, the next attempt at Dune on the big screen will better incorporate details about the Houses in general, the interpersonal connections, and the mystical components that were played up but meant nothing. The story isn’t compelling enough without energetic performances and more complete pictures of characters and story arcs. 

When plot mechanics are the backbone of a film with little emotional resonance (story), it shouldn’t be on anyone’s watchlist. That’s not a film worth anyone’s time.

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

127 Hours (2010)

127 Hours (2010)

Director: Danny Boyle   Runtime: 1hr 34 mins   Rated: R

Studio: Pathé/Searchlight Pictures   Screenwriter: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy 

Inspired by: Aron Ralston’s novel “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”

Cast: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clémence Poésy

127 Hours is a short film that aims to draw in audiences based on the appeal of its leading man and that it’s based on real-life events. In 2003 real-life Aron Ralston set out on a day trip in Utah’s Blue John Canyon and suffered an accident that pins his arm in-between the rock face and a boulder. Ralston records what he believes to be his last days explaining how he ended up in the state he was, for whoever finds him one day. 

Since this film is based on Ralston’s book about the incident, he lives. That’s not a spoiler. It would be if someone else wrote a book about Ralston’s accident. 

It isn’t easy to create a film where you have, essentially, one character. This character has what amounts to an exterior monologue the entire time. This dialogue conundrum is layered with the setting. The majority of the film centers around Aron (Franco), who’s stuck in a highly isolated canyon crack. From a cinematography perspective, Danny Boyle did an excellent job showing the landscape and how it related to Aron during the day and while he was trapped. It helped to cement the seriousness of his predicament for the audience. The director also recreates the real Ralston’s actual camera log. In doing so, we have a performance by Franco that is a one-man show. He has to physically work in a minimal space, on a rope, where he mentally and emotionally swings like a pendulum as time progresses. 

James Franco as Aron Ralston in ‘127 Hours’ Image: Pathé via IMDb.com

While Franco brings much-needed energy to this story and its underlying messages and themes, it would have been better as a TV movie. Today this type of film is more likely to be picked up by a company like Netflix, which didn’t start original content till 2013. 127 Hours isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s the kind of film you only watch once, in school on substitute day, or as an airplane film. Sadly, the trailer for the film gives too much away, leaving little to be surprised by.

While the messages and lessons of the film to the audience are important, so no one has a Ralston-like “oops” moment, 127 Hours is forgettable as a movie. Forgettable isn’t worth a watchlist spot. 

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

KON-TIKI (2012)

KON-TIKI (2012)

Directed by: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg   Runtime: 1 hr 58 min   

Studio: Nordisk Film Production (released in the U.S. via the Weinstein Company)

Screenwriter: Petter Skavlan   Rating: PG-13

Cast: Pål Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgård, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Jakob Oftebro  

*Released domestically in November 2012 and as an international release in the United States in April 2013. (The U.S. version is about twenty-minutes shorter). An interesting fact about this movie’s production. Its scenes were shot first in Norwegian and then in English. So the actors did everything twice! 

Movies like KON-TIKI are not action-packed blockbusters full of CGI and stunts to enthrall you. Its attraction lies in the story, the journey, and the wanderlust of times long gone, when things were still left in the world to be discovered. 

An explorer and adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Hagen) spend the 1930s in Polynesia immersed in research on the natives and their origins. The world had taught, up till then, that the Polynesian islands were settled by travelers from Asia who traveled from West to East, and it couldn’t be any other way. Thor tries to sell other explorers and scientific publications on his theory that this isn’t true, but they all wave him off. 

Kon-Tiki Offical Trailer (English version) via YouTube/Movieclips Trailers

Not to be discouraged, Thor believes that if he proves his theory, he will change history. So he decides to travel across the Pacific and do just that.

Thor attracts Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), a refrigerator salesman who offers to join him. Later, after hearing of his quest, Thor is approached by Bengt Danielsson, an Ethnographer (Gustaf Skarsgård), to go along and film the journey. The six-man crew is rounded out by Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro) as the radio guys, and Erik Hesselberg (Odd-Magnus Williamson). Erik is a lifelong friend of Thor’s. He’s also the only one to ever have been out to sea.

The film dramatizes the real-life Thor Heyerdahl’s attempt to cross the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft. So it is based on a true story. 

Watching KON-TIKI, the audience must remember that the story isn’t about character development (except perhaps Thor’s) or drama. There isn’t anything discernible that is learned about the crew. I have not read the book myself, so I’m assessing this just from a cinematic perspective. Usually, lack of character anything would bother me. However, it’s the relatively calm nature that is depicted that is so refreshing. No one acts like the sun has baked their brains for too long. It’s about the journey. How it will end, as all journeys do. Will they all make it? Will the raft hold up? The crew takes each day as it comes. As if they tossed a coin into the ocean of fate and left fear behind at the docks. I don’t know anyone who would be that insouciance about their lives. 

Kon-Tiki route. Image: The UK Times

Despite that, there is suspense in the film. They are in the middle of the ocean! With storms and wildlife to contend with, those external factors create natural obstacles and incidents which every story has. These factors enable smooth pacing to the days at sea and for the actors to actually do things. It’s done so well that the film never comes across as slow or uneventful. While watching, I never get the impression that something is overly done because it’s a movie, fictionalized though it may be. That’s important because it keeps with the fact that this journey really did happen once. 

This movie reminds me of something I might have watched in school after being assigned to read the book. Please, don’t let that put you off! This isn’t a typical movie or family movie night choice in America anyway. I was looking for other projects that Gustaf Skarsgård had done that I could watch here and came across this. It’s a good film to watch for movie night, a day off pick, or for a relaxing weekend stay indoors. Any well-crafted movie that enlightens me about something else in the world finds its way onto my watchlist. KON-TIKI is a perfect balance of entertaining, action, and real-life events that should grace your watchlist too. 

—a pen lady