Thursday, October 28, 2021

Dune ***1/2

Frank Herbert's classic 1965 novel Dune changed the landscape of science fiction with its deeply embedded themes of history, politics, religion, and ecology. Many filmmakers took inspiration from the novel, it screamed for a cinematic visionary to put it on celluloid. Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky began pre-production on an adaptation during the mid-1970s but funding for the project fell through. The story is told in the fascinating 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune. The first adaptation arrived in 1984, directed by David Lynch who was coming off his underground hit Eraserhead and a brilliant adaptation of The Elephant Man, critics were unkind to the film, but it's gained a loyal following.

The newest version directed Denis Villeneuve who is coming off two strong Sci-Fi movies Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The ambition and scope of Dune is a natural progression from those two films. Delayed by the 2020 pandemic, Warner Bros waited until the time was right for a theatrical release. Unlike the Lynch version, the 2021 Dune has mostly met with a positive reception. Is this Dune a better film than the Lynch version? It's hard to compare the two since both are from different eras and sensibilities but played back-to-back they complement each other nicely.

I'm a fan of Villeneuve's previous two films and Dune is visually and stylistically much in line with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 (specifically the yellowish-gray sheen). While there's a coldness and seriousness to his films, they're also immersive and unique in their approach. They don't look or feel like a DC or Marvel movie, nor any of the other franchises currently in vogue. Although he's often compared to Christopher Nolan, I see Ridley Scott as more of an influence. Villeneuve's films are insular contained worlds not unlike Alien or Blade Runner (no coincidence he made the sequel).

Dune is known for its complexity and dense approach to genre, so plot synopsis is limited. Set in the year 10,191, the plot involves galactic intrigue between the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen centered on the desert planet of Arrakis. The planet is home to "spice", the most valuable natural resource, making intergalactic travel possible and contains hallucinogenic properties, a combination of oil and LSD? 

The protagonist Paul is played by Timothee Chalamet, heir to the Atreides dynasty ruled by his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) a member of the mystical sisterhood. Their dynasty is presented as noble as opposed to the militaristic Harkonnens. Many notables appear in the cast including Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and many more. While every actor gets a moment, they all feel a bit too brief. 

The first half of the film is especially strong, world building and character introductions are well done. There's a grim tone evoking the darkest days of the Second World War when the Nazis were on the cusp of mystery, things are stark and intense. There's also a sense of mystery and even wonder - a rare thing in movies these days. In the second half things get muddled, but does build to a meaningful climax to set up the second film.

Will Dune have the momentum to become a phenomenon along the lines of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. The ecological themes in the story are part of the zeitgeist, Herbert was certainly ahead of the curve by focusing on environmental themes.  A main drawback will be the lack of likable characters, the protagonist Paul is built as the hero, but his character is complex and off putting at times. Neither am I sure if the movie will leave audiences with the same resonance from a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dune is about power, politics, and ambiguous morality. It keeps the audience at a distance.

Hans Zimmer's score is atmospheric and bombastic. The production and costume designs are impressive. But Dune is a vision, a bold one drawing based upon rich source material, providing an experience. A cultural phenomenon? I'm not so sure.


Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Based on the classic George V. Higgins novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a pristine example of an adaptation that's both loyal and manages to build upon the source material. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum as the title character, some of the best character actors from the era are featured including Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, and Alex Rocco. The story follows low level criminal Eddie Doyle as he faces multiple pressure from the Feds and his associates from within the criminal underworld of Boston. The hip score by Dave Grusin and and a documentary like feel for 1970s Boston creates an unmistakable vibe.

Eddie is low level player who often acts as a middle-man, the film begins with him arranging gun transactions for a gang of bank robbers led by Alex Rocco. Eddie's also facing jail time after getting arrested for transporting alcohol out of state. As a result, he's in frequent communication with a treasury agent Foley (Jordan) who wants to flip Eddie and use him as an informant. Coyle hopes to get out of his impending jail sentence if he can become an informant, yet at the same time recoils against the idea of becoming a full-time fink.

Although the story itself is rather simple, the underlying themes of desperation and existential angst that drives the film. The criminal life is depicted with a raw melancholy, Eddie simply wants to be able to pay the plumber. It's also a dishonest world where loyalty is finite, and danger always lurks. In a striking scene early in the film Eddie recounts to young gun dealer Jackie Brown (Keats) the time his hands were broken repeatedly after guns he sold were traced - resulting in high level players going to prison.

At the same time there's a sense of professionalism epitomized by the bank robbers who have an effective method of pulling off bank heists. The invade the bank manager's house in the morning, hold the family hostage, and then take the manager to the bank who then lets them into the safe. Treasury agent Foley (Jordan) wishes he were higher in the ranks of law enforcement, but does what he must do to get intelligence from low level criminals. 

Perhaps it's the Boston setting, but there's a theology of sorts rolling through the film. A Catholic conscience lurks through the story (one character mentions performing acts of contrition), scenes at the diners, especially between Mitchum and Jordan, feel like confessions with their quiet tones in a classic noir setting. It's a world where the idea of God exists in a lip service sort of way, the only mode is survival. Justice starts to sound like a dopey utopian idea in the face of stark reality, one must make their decisions and live with them. 

Peter Yates's direction provides a guiding hand throughout, his filmography reveals a strong ability to use settings to full effect whether it's the American Midwest in Breaking Away or a futuristic San Francisco in Bullitt. Inner suburban Boston is all row houses and parking lots. The autumnal feeling is evoked with great skill, you can feel the chill in the air. Solace comes in the form of a cup of coffee and a glass of beer on tap or watching Bobby Orr at the Boston Garden with a rowdy crowd.

The noir poetry of Eddie Coyle evokes a vivid portrait that's rooted in realism. The "little guy" hardly stands a chance in the face of the powerful and indifferent forces surrounding him. While the tropes are formulaic, there's nothing formulaic in the telling of the story. Mitchum is at his best as the aging criminal, while the direction and acting from the entire cast make Coyle a classic of '70s cinema. 

Friday, October 15, 2021

No Time to Die (****)


No Time to Die is the grand finale to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond movies, it's the Abbey Road of the 007 series, with a "one last adventure" vibe running through the entire film. It's nostalgic, but also looking into the future of what the next phase of franchise might look like. While the filmmaking of Paul Greengrass and Christopher Nolan have informed the Craig era, Cary Fukunaga's surefooted direction provides a cinematic quality rooted in the past films of the series, but also more seamless and kinetic than its predecessors. Fukunaga brings an organic quality to the action sequences and allows the characters to breathe, allowing the almost 3+ running time to run smoothly. Scenes never feel rushed or routine, all the characters are nicely integrated into the story.

The extended opening sequence sets up the story with Bond tying up some loose ends from a previous storyline only to his life put on a new trajectory by what he discovers. Lea Seydoux is back as Dr. Madeline Swann, Bond's love interest from Spectre who's also given a meaningful arc here. There's an echo of The Dark Knight Rises in the first section of the movie, as five years pass with Bond going off the grid and becoming something of a legend. He's inevitably called back to the Secret Service over a deadly threat presented by SPECTRE.

Familiar players also return with Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Ralph Fiennes as M (really channeling Bernard Lee this time around). Jeffrey Wright, absent since Quantum of Solace, reprises his role as Felix Leiter. Newcomers to the cast include Ana De Armas as Paloma, a fellow agent who helps Bond and Lashana Lynch as "00" operative who will also become a partner of sorts to Bond, representing the new generation of MI6. Rami Malek plays the villain "Safin" providing an emo quality to the villains that's common in the Craig era, at the same time draws upon traditional supervillain tropes from the 1960s.

No Time to Die surprisingly takes a lot from the Connery era of films and the one entry with George Lazenby On Her Majesty's Secret Service. John Barry's music is present throughout and there's a villain's lair reminiscent of the Ken Adams sets from You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. Many may quaff at the tendency of these Bond films to serialize and mimic the Marvel approach to movies. But the series has always been influenced by what's going in cinema at the time. While the Connery movie reinvented the espionage genre, by the fourth entry Thunderball the series began to be influenced by other films. 

That's why the Abbey Road comparison to No Time to Die feels right. Like The Beatles (who Bond famously dissed in Goldfinger) the series remains rooted in the 1960s milieu. The final album by the Beatles was hardly earth shaking when it was released in 1969, the world was moving on without them and they would soon cease to exist as a living entity. But it's always great to revisit that last record! No Time to Die will feel like that in the extensive Bond canon, a pleasing finale to a hectic era in world history, further pronounced by the number of delays in its release due to the 2020-21 pandemic. James Bond Will Return - we're counting on it!