Film

Film Review: DUNE – Part One (2021)

Fear that Dune might not meet expectations was, for a long time, the mind killer. Thankfully, that slow death has not come to pass.

Much has been written, on an anxious level, suggesting that the much-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel should not have been divided into two-parts, a la the recent take on Stephen King’s It, for fear that Dune’s first half might underperform and thereby leave this magisterial tale unfinished. Regardless of box office, one wonders as to the logic of this thought process. Dune has quite clearly been devised, soup to nuts, as a two-part project, and Denis Villeneuve here takes the time he needs to both construct the world around the desert planet Arrakis and the central story of young Paul Atredies with two films in mind. This is not the complete Dune. This is, to quote Zendaya’s Chani, “only the beginning”.

In that sense, we have to approach Dune as such, and judge Part One on the merits of being an incomplete story. Perhaps the greatest strength of this first half is that it contains a beginning, middle and end that satisfies, even while concluding with everything but a ‘to be continued’ legend. Villeneuve successfully manages to introduce Herbert’s vast, complicated futuristic universe, and establish the broader narrative concepts and themes, while providing a rounded cinematic experience. For the first of a two-part story, this is no mean feat, and his achievement lies as deeply in a visual and auditory as it does a structural sense. Dune is a frequently breathtaking, often arresting feast for the eyes which warrants the format it was designed to embrace – IMAX.

It is rare to find filmmaking so assured, so cohesive and so faithful to deeply beloved and classical source material while at the same time providing such a cinematic experience. Dune is a stunning piece of work in that context, one that could well be for the ages.

The Spectre of Death in NO TIME TO DIE

Death is everywhere in the James Bond franchise.

This has always been true, from the existential nihilism and accidie of Ian Fleming’s original novelised character through to the carefree deadliness of how Cubby Broccoli & Harry Saltzman translated him to the big screen. “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six” voiced Sean Connery’s 007 as far back as Dr. No in 1962. Bond’s license to kill remains one of the core tenets of the character, a chilling aspect that can be forgotten in our hero worship of the man. He is, ultimately, a killer.

In No Time to Die, we find a paradox. Bond has given up his life in the British Secret Service, his life as an assassin, and yet the spectre of death pervades his world in a deeper manner than ever before. Even the title references death, for the first time since 2002’s Die Another Day, and here suggests the fateful understanding that there is no good time to die. It comes for us all, and in this film it even comes for Bond himself, but we almost never anticipate or even sometimes expect it. Death is a constant now in a way it never was for 007 before.

Previously he would die ‘another day’, tomorrow ‘never dies’, or he could ‘live and let’ die. Bond made his peace with death as something that happened to others, not to him. No Time to Die changes that forever.

Film Review: NO TIME TO DIE (2021)

For the very first time, the story of James Bond has an ending thanks to No Time to Die.

This turns out to be true of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film on multiple levels. The much-delayed 25th 007 movie is, famously, the last outing for Daniel Craig’s take on Ian Fleming’s legendary spy and Craig has not only become the longest serving Bond in history (even if the official record holder of most Bond films remains Roger Moore), he has also played the role during the longest period of existential change both for the character and, more broadly, the nature of cinema. Pierce Brosnan might have last played Bond in 2002 but Craig is the first true James Bond of the 21st century and No Time to Die assures his place as the 007 who helped transform the franchise. The ending is a key part of that.

No Time to Die is a brawny, swaggering confluence of the two styles of Bond movie Craig’s era has often struggled to bring together. On the one hand, it has Skyfall’s sense of steely modern grandeur but also Spectre’s level of throwback adoration for perkier, flimsier and more colourful decades in the franchise’s history. Though it lacks the striking panache of Casino Royale or Skyfall’s emotional catharsis, No Time to Die is, in a sense, the perfect James Bond movie for the modern era for what it brings together, and one senses it could become a significant fan favourite. It frequently looks incredible, boasts the requisite stunt work and effects to (pun very much intended) die for, not to mention one of the strongest casts in Bond history, and it provides fans with many of the traditional ‘Bondian’ aspects they look for in these films.

On a creative level, No Time to Die serves as a capstone on five pictures over the last fifteen years which have elevated the James Bond franchise into something they rarely were before: fine examples of artistic, dramatic craft, as well as action, suspense, style and cool.

Film Retrospective: HANNIBAL (2001)

20 years on from the year 2001, I’m looking back at some of the films across the year which stood out as among the more interesting, and year-defining, pictures…

This week, released on the weekend of February 9th, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal

One of the more telling aspects about Hannibal’s occasionally troublesome production is the fact that almost nobody, outside of director Ridley Scott and producer Dino de Laurentiis, truly believed in the story.

Released in 1999, Thomas Harris’ sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, which took him over a decade, was more than highly anticipated, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation released that same year, 1988. Due to whip smart, suspenseful direction from Demme and memorable turns from Jodie Foster and especially Anthony Hopkins as the eponymous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs swiftly established itself in popular culture as a tense piece of modern, procedural, psychological horror, inspiring future cultural phenomenon’s such as The X-Files and establishing its main female lead as a feminist heroine.

The moment Harris elected to devise a trilogy around Lecter, which became eventually a ‘quadrilogy’, the film adaptation was a foregone conclusion. Hopkins had won an Oscar for his deliciously unnerving, playful performance, revitalising his career in a stroke. The film launched Demme into the big leagues and even boosted the already successful Foster’s career. Lambs became one of the signature, iconic pictures of the 1980s, which meant any follow up would be overcome by a weight of expectation, as befits any sequel to a beloved movie or property long after the fact.

What surprised everyone involved, however, was Harris’ story for Hannibal.

Partisan Cinema: THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER (2015) – A Genesis of Fascism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinating piece of cinema, especially given it’s not only a debut piece of work, but the debut piece of work from an actor best known for playing Alan Tracy in the execrable Jonathan Frakes’ Thunderbirds movie.
Brady Corbet’s film is about the birth of fascism. Not in a political sense of being a historical depiction of the rise of Adolf Hitler, but rather the human genesis of a fascist mind. It plays out in the form of a strange psychodrama, one with almost verite touches in its final moments, strange not just thanks to it’s unusual post-World War One setting but in how it pivots around the key developmental moments of a young boy.

Trying to describe the very premise of The Childhood of a Leader would be extraordinarily difficult, something Corbet was acutely aware of when he started writing the script; he at first pulled back on it, convinced thematically it was “too big” for a debut feature, but his wife Mona Fastvold encouraged him to continue and together they developed the screenplay.

Partisan Cinema: THE FIRST PURGE (2018) – Ultraconservative Horror to fear?

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
Given The First Purge is first and foremost a horror movie, this may seem like a redundant question. Blumhouse Productions naturally want us to be afraid of a picture designed to make audiences jump and scream, but The Purge franchise has never been simply a series of jump-scare horror films. The most recent prequel, depicting how the concept of the Purge came to be, presents a deeper, more existential question which, by the day, seems to grow in power.

Should we be scared that The First Purge could actually, in some form, one day happen?
The deeper sociological and political quandaries posed by Blumhouse and writer-director James DeMonaco’s franchise have always been more intriguing than the storytelling itself in these movies. Don’t get me wrong, after the somewhat listless 2013 entry that opened the franchise—which presented itself more in the vein of a home invasion horror in the wake of successes such as The Strangers or Funny Games, no doubt to accentuate The Purge along more of an axis horror fans had responded to in the past—the franchise has steadily with sequels Anarchy and Election Year evolved into more of a grotesque action-thriller/horror spectacle, and benefited from that direction.

Film Retrospective: SAVE THE LAST DANCE (2001)

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s understands the power MTV had on their lives in these formative years. Before the dawn of YouTube, hours could be spent immersed in the cable channels around MTV watching endless music videos from across the decades. This, for many of us, is where our knowledge and appreciation of the music we grew to embrace, in part, came from.

The success of MTV—which had forged the careers of numerous future cinematic auteurs including among others Michel Gondry and David Fincher—logically extended into the cinematic realm with the formation of MTV Productions in 1996 – their movie studio arm. While their reach has today declined, at the end of the ’90s, MTV Productions would develop pictures as diverse as Mike Judge’s juvenile Beavis & Butthead Do America, teen college drama Varsity Blues and Alexander Payne’s erudite, caustic Election, the latter both in the cinematic boom year of 1999. It is hard to square such a wildly different set of pictures from the same production house aside from one common denominator: they were all about, for or aimed at the teenage movie market.

Save the Last Dance is an example of how MTV Productions worked to bridge the gap between the independent movie which had emerged during the ‘90s as an antidote to the dominance of the tentpole blockbuster that came to bear from the late 1970s onwards, and the burgeoning concept of the cinematic franchise that by the end of the 2000s would bear fruit and burst into existence as the 2010s arrived.

It feels like a picture born of both worlds simultaneously.

Partisan Cinema: THE BIG SHORT (2015) – Broken Economics

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
America very much feels like a country which has powerfully lost sight of its own morals, ideals and values. This has become apparent over the last two years since the rise of Donald Trump to the Presidency, and there’s an argument it has been escalating and building since the death of John F. Kennedy ushered in a darker era of sociological tragedy for the American experience, as discussed when I talked about 1993’s In the Line of Fire.
If there has been a modern trigger, an encapsulating moment for the loss of American belief in idealism, then it’s arguably the 2008 global recession explored in The Big Short. Though presented as a jet black, if not indeed cold-hearted, satire, Adam McKay’s movie is concerned with reminding American audiences in particular just how close they came to economic Armageddon, and how a group of quite remarkable money men almost got away with the ultimate long con against their own people.

The whole project stemmed from a book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, which blew open the biographical tale of the stock brokers and Wall Street financial number crunchers who saw the writing on the proverbial wall when it came to the American, nay global economic market. From a narrative perspective, it’s a goldmine of a story; the ultimate heist tale, in its own way, about a group of somewhat amoral individuals working out a crippling deficiency in the housing market and planning a way to exploit it to make billions–yes, billions–of dollars off the backs of homelessness and unemployment.
McKay’s adaptation, written alongside Charles Randolph, doesn’t shy away from that moral conundrum, but equally doesn’t quite want you to take what is a very serious matter all that seriously while doing so.

Partisan Cinema: DARKEST HOUR (2018) – Mythologised Heroism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
Of all the major historical figures of the 20th century, the British have arguably mythologised Sir Winston Churchill above all others. He was the epitome of fighting, British ‘bulldog’ spirit – a powerful, legendary orator whose speeches have cascaded across the last seventy years of history as a nationalist rally against the forces of darkness. Darkest Hour, therefore, marries the mythological Churchill alongside the romantic fantasy of a righteous war.
Joe Wright’s picture focuses on a very tight three-four week period in the early summer of 1940, in which milquetoast appeasement-favouring Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is ousted on the back of the German push into Western Europe and up steps Churchill to fill the void, and take on what is considered by most of Westminster an impossible task. Darkest Hour’s entire raison d’etre is to take Churchill from the bullish, anti-fascist old war horse without the backing of his government and King—if not the people—to the proud war *hero* giving the “we will fight them on the beaches” speech in Parliament, his single most remembered delivery in a career filled with verbose oracy. It’s designed as an inspiring call to arms which makes a man, essentially, into a legend.

What this does, almost immediately, is characterise Darkest Hour as much less a historical movie and far more of a dazzling piece of spin driven by an admittedly magnificent central performance by Gary Oldman, who loses himself in his unrecognisable makeup as Churchill, only occasionally letting his native cockney betray the actor within. Wright uses historical truth to construct a fantasy which, while less theatrical than Anna Karenina or less emotional than Atonement, feels no less in keeping with his cinematic style. Wright’s pictures are often confections of sound, colour and lighting, with elegant production design, and Darkest Hour is no exception.
You may just be surprised at the tone it takes, not to mention its relationship with personal and historical truth.

Partisan Cinema: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) – Better Dead Than Red!

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
Politics and Indiana Jones have always gone hand in hand, despite the series being the epitome of adventure serial derring do extrapolated for a modern blockbuster audience.
Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade both featured Nazi villains in advance of the Second World War, seeking supernatural arcanum to help win a conflict they had yet to start. In the latter, Harrison Ford’s hero Indy even comes face to face with Adolf Hitler himself, amidst a terrifying Nazi rally in the burning cauldron of 1938 Berlin. While the films avoided any significant political commentary, opting instead for action, spectacle and mystery, the ideological differences between the Allied and Axis worlds were clear. The Nazis were grave robbing parasites determined to pillage history for their own pure blood gain, while Dr. Jones represented a noble America, a land of heroic saviours of antiquity.
“It belongs in a museum!” Indy would bark at corrupt inversions of himself. “So do you!” they would bark back, perhaps presaging his own irrelevance.

Steven Spielberg is not a creative who ignores history, or whitewashes truth. He has given us some of the more pointed political tracts about WW2 and the echoes of that conflict of the last fifty years. His Indiana Jones pictures are nevertheless simpler, designed first and foremost to entertain rather than convey polemic. Temple of Doom, the middle child film between two masterpieces, paints a picture of the British as colonial saviours in pre-partition India, saving poor locals from the murderous Thuggee cult. This is a pleasant fiction and one many audiences can accept, particularly American ones. Yet the most recent film in the series, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wears its politics more clearly, befitting perhaps its arrival in a more polarised era, in the shadow of a Great Recession, as opposed to the bombast of blockbuster Reaganite excess the original trilogy embodied in the 1980s.
Here, set toward the end of the ‘50s, Indy is painted as a suspected Communist as, for the first time in the series, the existential threat comes home.