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

X-Men: Apocalypse

Director: Bryan Singer (2016)

Yawn your way to the end of the world in this inert episode of the increasingly under powered superhero franchise.

Bloated and boring, an exasperting multitude of characters are poorly served by laboured direction, haphazard editing and dialogue empty of any lyricism, humour or subtlety.

Lines of exposition are expanded to scene length and decorated with close ups of actors indifferent to the weightless CGI events occurring behind them. Presented with a lacklustre script, the top drawer cast offer up correspondent performances.

James McAvoy returns as Professor X, the wheelchair bound and telepathic leader of supergroup the X-Men who believes in peaceful co-existence with non-mutants. As his one time friend Magneto, Michael Fassbender wants the world to feel his pain.

Minor characters pose in heroic silence as the pair once again rehash their world views. In a film adverse to brevity, their relationship is underlined by the inclusion of footage of earlier films.

Oscar Isaac is barely recognisable and mostly immobile as the eponymous Apocalypse, a mutant from ancient Egypt who is resurrected by devout yet curiously security lax followers.

With the  ability to turn people to earth and metal, Apocalypse wants to build a better world from the ashes of the present one and starts recruiting mutants to serve him in his nefarious plan.

Jennifer Lawrence looks bored as the shapeshifting Mystique who seems to have mutated into a thin copy of her character Katnis Everdeen from The Hunger Games series (2012-15).

Now a reluctant global poster girl for mutants in hiding, Mystique needs convincing to take arms against Apocalypse.

Hugh Jackman cameos as Wolverine while Rose Byrne is beginning to rival Fassbender for being the best actor making the weakest career choices.

Evan Peters and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Quicksilver and Nightcrawler are the best of the B team. Olivia Munn, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp and Sophie Turner are eager but forgettable.

The setting of 1983 allows for pop culture references to be scattered around but there’s a lack of the wit to exploit their comic potential.

Though the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are a major subplot, a nuclear launch occurs and is promptly forgotten about while our focus hurries away elsewhere.

Director Singer kickstarted with his career with the masterful The Usual Suspects (1995) and launched this series with the energetic X-Men (2000) but this is closer in muddled mediocrity to his Jack The Giant Slayer (2013).

The end of the world can’t come soon enough for this flatlining franchise.

 

A Most Violent Year

Director: J.C. Chandor (2015)

Visually and morally murky, this brooding New York crime thriller throws insubstantial punches from behind interesting shadows.

Shy on story this is a sombre exploration of the compromises necessary in perpetuating the myth of the American Dream.

In 1981 Oscar Isaac‘s immigrant self-made businessman, Abel, has put down a huge cash deposit to buy a derelict dockside property to expand his oil interests.

When David Oyelowo‘s District Attorney charges Abel for fraud and tax evasion, the bank refuse to loan Abel the money to complete his deal.

With seven days to raise the cash or lose everything he’s worked, Abel runs around the decaying, filthy and graffitied streets for meetings in back-rooms and barbershops.

Meanwhile his truckers and salespeople are being beaten up by rivals and his family are being threatened in their new home.

Jessica Chastain captivates as Abel’s beautiful and mob-connected wife, Anna, but she’s mostly there to spur him on and cook the books on his behalf.

Abel is naively unaware of his own inconsistencies with corruption and violence taking him by surprise, despite being mobbed up to the eyeballs and knowingly guilty as charged.

Everything is captured in a low key register: the lighting, the performances, the mood. It’s carefully calculated but struggles under its weighty self importance.

Brian De Palma’s gaudy masterpiece Scarface is deliberately referenced in Chastain’s icy style and the synthesised score, but this has none of the energy, bling, coke, violence or fun.

Only occasionally violent and taking place over a mere thirty three days, A Most Violent Year is a mis-named disappointment.

★★☆☆☆

Ex Machina

Director. Alex Garland (2015)

Sexy, sharp and stylish, this brilliant British sci-fi thriller explores man’s relationship to machines with verve, wit and polish.

Precision-tooled to perfection with sumptuously seductive design, it combines the brains of Blade Runner, the gloss of James Bond, and the sly satire of cult comic 2000AD.

This makes it an astonishingly assured directorial debut by Alex Garland, the novelist turned scriptwriter of Dredd, and 28 Days Later.

Domhnall Gleeson’s expert computer programmer, Caleb, wins an in-house company competition to spend a week with his boss, Oscar Isaac’s reclusive genius.

Nathan lives in an isolated underground home and research facility reached only by helicopter, where the only other occupant is Sonoya Mizuno’s beautiful but mute Japanese servant, Kyoko.

The engagingly geeky Gleeson is cunningly cast while the bearded Isaac is solicitous, funny and quietly menacing as the heavy-drinking megalomaniac Nathan.

Caleb is introduced to Alicia Vikander’s AVA, a semi-transparent chrome and plastic robot with the face and figure of a beautiful woman, designed for the movie by awesome concept artist Jock.

Under surveillance Caleb has to test Ava to establish whether she has achieved a state of artificial intelligence and therefore not a machine.

This would represent a scientific breakthrough of huge significance to Nathan and of great consequence to the world.

Though interrupted by mysterious power cuts, a rapport develops and Ava warns Caleb that Nathan can’t be trusted leading to tension between the men.

Garland provides cracking dialogue but crucially understands when to shut his characters up and let the images tell the story.

Unerringly paced and with an inventive soundscape and bold use of colour it’s very much in the mould of mentor Danny Boyle, at his best.

If Garland is the future of sci-fi then it’s in very safe hands. Unlike Caleb.

★★★★★