DUNE (2021)

Extraordinary and epic, this new adaption of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel doesn’t just demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible, it questions whether there exists a screen large enough to do justice to this Lawrence of Arabia meets Apocalypse Now space opera.

Directed with a relentless majesty by Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian takes the tremendous sense of scale he essayed in Blade Runner 2049 and beats it mercilessly into a cocked hat as he crafts a tale of cosmic proportions.

Assembling the considerable weapons of the Hollywood arsenal such as a huge budget, state of the art special effects, a pantheon of big name stars and a well known intellectual property, Villeneuve allies them to his astonishing vision and outstanding technical ability to deliver thumping action and spectacle on an out-of-this-world scale.

Starring as Paul, a young man is stripped of his wealth and status, and outcast on a dessert planet where he begins to develop his mystical mind control powers, Timothee Chalamet further cements his heartthrob-with-talent status with a nuanced performance geared to character development.

If this setting all sounds familiar then you won’t be surprised to find there’s also an evil all-powerful empire and a brutal lord as the villain who commands an army of faceless stormtroopers.

Dune was one of the key texts influencing Star Wars supremo George Lucas, but where he leant into the comedy, Villeneuve’s broadly faithful and respectful version embraces the slowly unfolding tragedy.

With its litany of betrayals and battles Dune is at times extraordinarily exciting, yet the script has time to explore contemporary concerns such as resource scarcity and colonialism. It’s a film rich with its own internal history and yet also is remarkably intimate, exploding with charisma as humanity blooms across the desert with romance, loyalty and love to spare.

Paul’s dreams are filled with visions of a beautiful woman of the desert planet Arrakis, as she’s played by Zendaya this seems perfectly reasonable for a person of his age. And the accomplished actress brings much needed humour as she casts her lines with a delivery even more dry than Arrakis. Fans may feel short changed by her screen time, but her charisma allows her to make an impression even among this most manly of company.

Paul’s troop of macho role models are played by Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Jason ‘Aquaman’ Momoa, and it’s the latter who’s swagger is closest the film has to a Han Solo character. Opposing them is the considerable muscle of Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgard.

This remorseless machismo is partially offset the icy presence of Charlotte Rampling, and a ferociously commanding Rebecca Ferguson, who’s quite astonishing at conveying the complex layers of emotions and pain involved in being Paul’s mother as she guides him to his destiny.

Meanwhile Sharon Duncan-Brewster is given the gender-flipped role of Dr. Liet-Kynes, and makes it her own with a subtly powerful performance of openly guarded wit and grace.

Villeneuve treats his audience as adults by throwing in Herbert’s vocabulary of ‘Fremen’, ‘Mentat’, ‘Bene Gesserit’ and so on, but this is no more puzzling than Sith, Jedi, and so on. Besides, the storytelling is so well rendered you could follow the story without the dialogue. Puny humans being terrorised by giant sand worms looks the same whatever language the characters are screaming in.

Plus with the outrageous phallic symbolism of the hero having to master an enormous worm as proof of his manhood, it’s difficult not to imagine Herbert smuttily giggling to himself as he conceived the idea, and laughing out loud as he dared himself to write it.

In a film of wondrous design, it’s the rotating winged aircraft resemble mechanical insects, called ‘thopters, which make you gasp, and stand alongside the Eagle craft of TV’s Space 1999 as a classic of sci-fi iconography.

Complementing the monumental cinematography of Greig Fraser, who’s work can next be seen in next year’s superhero neo-noir, The Batman, Hans Zimmer’s score is a teeth-rattling achievement, even for this noted composer of titanic-sized themes, and Zimmer seems to have invented a new language of noise, which blends seamlessly into the equally unique and thunderous soundscape.

David Lynch’s disowned 1984 film version has been not ungenerously described as ‘a glorious mess’. But I’ve respect for its imaginative leaps of hideous design, and it scores over this version in that it manages to complete the book in one sitting, whereas Villeneuve only delivers the first half or thereabouts of the book.

However the sheer Everest-like enormity of Villeneuve’s Dune ensures it never feels like half a film, instead it feels more like a myth fashioned in primordial clay and brought to life by the lightning of the gods. This is a planet-stomping titan of a movie, and for us not be presented with part two would be a crime against cinema.

5/5

Hail, Caesar!

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen (2016)

The knives are out for golden age Hollywood in this sly satire from the mercurial talent of the Coen brothers.

In typical fashion they combine the writer/director/producer roles. After the run of more serious fare of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) True Grit (2010) and A Serious Man (2009) they’re back in the enjoyably goofy form of their early career.

The off screen sensibilities of tinseltown are merrily mocked as singing cowboys, dancing sailors and whip happy Romans collide in a series of films within a film ranging from film noir and musicals to costume drama.

In his fourth film for the Coens, George Clooney plays kidnapped star Baird Whitlock.

Capitol Pictures sends a ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix to find the dim actor so their prestige big budget biblical epic can be completed.

For Brolin it’s his third Coens’ feature after the two westerns No Country For Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010).

Perfectly cast in the role of Mannix, Josh Brolin carries the film on his broad, pin striped suited shoulders, stomping about town and wrestling with his conscience over a career decision he’s being pressured to make.

Mannix has no specific job title but does possess a large office, an attentive PA and a direct line to Mr. Skank, the never seen mogul of Capitol Pictures. Directors and actors queue in Mannix’s office to petition for his services.

Mannix is that most pejorative Hollywood term, a suit.

They are the most maligned creatures in Hollywood, commonly regarded as mammon obsessed philistines and monstrous butchers of creative endeavour.

It’s an extraordinarily daring in joke to present Mannix as a squared jawed and gimlet eyed hero in the style of Raymond Chandler’s fictional private detective Phillip Marlowe, and it’s played always with a straight face.

For the devout and humble family man Mannix, film making is a religious vocation, a secret cigarette is his only vice.

Brolin has played a spin on the character before in the overblown and undercooked Gangster Squad (2013). The Coens have riffed on Marlowe before in the joyous The Big Lebowski (1998).

There’s an attache case of cash, mistaken identities, romance, religious discussion and foul mouthed bathing beauties. The fishy tale even features a fabulous water sequence in the style of Esther Williams featuring Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid.

With a gang of disaffected revolutionary screenwriters powering the plot, it’s a mashed up antidote to the po faced sanctimony of Trumbo (2016).

Clooney is entertaining when aping the heavy acting style of classic Hollywood hero such as Charlton Heston, but lacks the light comic touch of his co-stars.

Michael Gambon raises a droll smile as the narrator, Jonah Hill makes a fleeting appearance and Channing Tatum performs a tremendous song and dance routine.

However everyone is outdone by Ralph Fiennes who in a late screwball career move is fast becoming the funniest man in film.

The many films within a film are rendered through brilliant technical skill, captured in customary consummate grace by perennial Oscar bridesmaid, Brit Roger Deakins.

Shot with loving panache, Deakins’ 12th collaboration with the Coens is suitably visually pristine and rich. His lens steps smoothly from genre to genre with immaculate grace and accuracy.

In this arch and sometimes affectionate comedy, the sharp stabs of humour are all the more effective for  being delivered at close range from under a cloak of friendship.

Et tu Brute indeed.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Director: James Gunn (2014)

The strangest group of heroes Marvel comics ever created blast off into space in this visually sensational sci-fi action adventure.

They’re a mismatched motley alien crew consisting of an Earthling called Peter (Chris Pratt), a beautiful green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a genetically-engineered raccoon called Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel).

It is a fun-filled knockabout romp with stellar design, tremendous special effects and CGI characters blending seamlessly with the real actors.

But it’s gratingly pleased with itself but nowhere near as funny or as smart as it believes itself to be.

It takes far too much juvenile pleasure in rude words and drowning scenes with 1970’s pop tunes quickly wears thin – an unusually needy and heavy-handed attempt at cross-audience, all quadrant appeal by the mighty Marvel studio.

The self styled Star-lord and deluded scoundrel Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was abducted from Earth as a kid and raised by intergalactic thieves known as the Ravagers.

He hasn’t a lot of experience fighting or leading or coming up with plans. Or having ideas in general. In fact, he’s not all that smart. Plus, generally unskilled.

Nevertheless he manages to steal an orb of mysterious power which is also wanted by the psychotic Ronan (Lee Pace) who secretly works for the powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin). who wants the orb to wage war on his enemies.

Quill is thrown into a space-prison called The Kyln where he meets a warrior called Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has sworn vengeance on Ronan.

In a fantastic action sequence they break out alongside Gamora, Rocket, Groot and a spare leg but the script shoots itself in the foot in a space-walk sequence which drains the rest of the film of tension.

When Quill discovers the true danger of the orb he discovers the hero inside himself and cajoles the squabbling misfits to fight a desperate and spectacular battle to guard the galaxy against destruction.

Much like the Hulk in Avengers Assemble, Groot steals every scene he’s in, despite only being able to say the words ‘I am Groot’ – which to be fair, is as much as the Hulk ever managed.

British actress and former Dr Who star Karen Gillan is impressively agile and deliciously villainous and shares a history and a terrific fight scene with Gamora.

Pratt is less endearing than the film supposes and his reprising of a peril-inspired song and dance routine similar to which he performed in The Lego Movie wears thin here.

Guardians of the Galaxy is entertaining enough though not Marvel’s finest hour; after The Winter Soldier it’s not even Marvel’s best film of 2014.

And the joke at the end of the film’s credits isn’t worth hanging around for.

☆☆